Three women and a camera

Developing a coaching partnership that crosses professional boundaries

Education conference season in September 2015 seemed more frenzied than even as ECER and BERA took many of us away from our desks for two subsequent weeks.  Researchers from CfLaT gave many papers and workshops in both Budapest and Belfast, this blog is about just one of them and its back story.

Picture three women; Jo, Bib and Rachel.  If you saw us in a coffee shop or pub you would see us in animated conversation.  We might even be old school friends.  You might overhear us talking about our children and husbands or our holidays.  We would probably look like we had been chatting all day as we popped in and out of shops and impersonated ‘ladies who lunch’.  But this impression would ignore the real reasons for our conversations, and the shared passions that have brought us together.

What has this got to do with conference season?  Well we three women shared a conference presentation, the very last paper of the very last session, in the most distant seminar room of BERA 2015 in Belfast.  Our paper was entitled ‘Sustaining change through inter-professional coaching; developing communication-rich pedagogies’ and through it we explained how and why we had come to work together and what outcomes we are now able to identify.

So – a little background.  Jo and Bib are independent Speech and Language Therapists (SLTs), working in Derby. Their aim is to develop an evidence based model of support that enables the workforce in nurseries and primary schools to maximise the skills of all children who experience communication difficulties.  They have written about this work on the BERA blog  I (Rachel) am a teacher educator and researcher at Newcastle University. My research and teaching expertise is in teacher coaching and mentoring, including the use of video.  I have also written about this for the BERA blog   We have been working together for about two years (in part funded by a Newcastle University business development voucher) to develop a model of video-based specialist coaching for workplace learning through which Jo and Bib (as SLTs). We have worked with teachers and teaching assistants in a primary school (3-11 yrs) and a pre-school nursery (3-4 yrs) located in multi-cultural and multi-lingual communities in the East Midlands, UK.  In these settings 85% of the children are learning English as an additional language to their home language.  The coaching is designed to support the teachers’ and teaching assistants’ professional development to create communication-rich pedagogies, drawing on the research and practice evidence offered to them through the coaching.

The coaching approach was informed by models of teacher coaching (Lofthouse et. al., 2010) and video interaction guidance (Kennedy et al., 2009), and was rooted in learning which made deliberate and explicit work processes, learning activities and learning processes Eraut (2007).  It made deliberate use of video to allow the speech and language therapists to engage teachers and teaching assistants in conversation about their own classroom practices. Video is proving to be a great tool for professional development. Its value is described here We developed the coaching approach through collaborative action research as our combined motivations and work drove us to improve the practice through adopting an inquiry stance with a ‘continual process of making current arrangements problematic’ and assumed ‘that part of the work of practitioners individually and collectively is to participate in educational and social change’ (Cochran-Smith and Lytle 2009, 121).

At the same time we wanted to make sense of the role of the inter-professional coaching in shaping practices in the school and its impact on professional development.  We used a Theory of Change approach as a structure of two interview cycles, enabling multiple voices to inform both the development and evaluation of the intervention.  This ‘Mental model’ of Theory of Change privileges the knowledge & experience of stakeholders (school leaders and practitioners) who have their own ideas about how things will work. This approach is outlined as a case study in this CFLAT guide

So what have we learned?  Well at this point I hand over to those we interviewed. Amongst their comments we discovered that the coaching helped to build professional confidence,

“The discussion with the SLTs about my video clips was very reassuring. They found things I do well which I see as natural.  They asked me questions about my practice, they focused my attention on things I had noticed and gave me advice. This worked because the video coaching came at the end of the audit and training process, so I had got to know them and felt comfortable with them. I trusted them and accepted their feedback.  I feel more confident and reflective.” Nursery teaching assistant

We also found that video was significant in enhancing the coaching conversations,

“Although video was initially an uncomfortable experience through watching myself I noticed many of my own teaching and learning communication behaviours. I realised I needed to stop answering for children and also to give more thinking time.  I questioned the concept of ‘pace’. The coaching raised my awareness of the significance of the elements of the SLC training in my classroom.” Primary teacher

In terms of the development of the schools as learning organisations engagement of staff in coaching helped to change the culture in the settings,  

“There has been a definite shift from individual specialist coaching to staff coaching culture.  The setting is open plan and I now notice teachers and teaching assistants commenting to each other while they are working with the children, referring to commonly understood concepts which support SLC.  Because they are more informed their conversations with parents about SLC are more meaningful.”  Nursery headteacher

It also supported strategic capacity building

“While some impacts have been diluted by staff maternity and promotions to other schools the teachers who have been coached and remain in post are being given strategic roles in school to support NQTs or lead key stages, with an explicit intention to focus on communication-rich pedagogies with new colleagues.  This is being deliberately linked to a renewed whole-school focus on literary.” Primary headteacher

So, what can we conclude from this small scale development and research?  There is evidence here that specialist coaching can play a significant part in creating bespoke professional training. Coaching can create a neutral, non-judgmental space in which teachers’ own interactional practices can be exposed and made open to co-construction based on the relationship between pedagogic and communication knowledge and skills. The coaching approach formed a key component of an ecology for focused professional development, providing participants with common understandings, a shared language, a willingness to share ideas, and to be more open to self-evaluation and critique.   It also provided some of the ‘triggers’ and ‘glue’ which supported access to, and learning from, other CPD and the development of new leadership and support roles.

What next?  Well, that depends on spreading the good news, and also on developing strategies and structures that can fund the co-operation through coaching between speech and language specialists and the teachers and teaching assistants that can learn so much by working with them.

Blog by Dr Rachel Lofthouse

Is research-based classroom practice realistic and is it desirable?

Blog by Dr Rachel Lofthouse

In August 2015 I was invited to make a short presentation at a discussion organised by Optimus Education.  The question was Is research-based classroom practice realistic and is it desirable?

 This blog is the essence of my contribution.  

To consider the question I am going to draw on the work of Martin Hammersley, Jack Whitehead and Gary Thomas, with a little bit of Aristotle and my own thinking thrown in.

Of course the question is actually really complicated. We have to unpack it in order to develop a critical response.

  • What do we mean by research?
  • What kind of research is relevant – which academic disciplines are we drawing from?
  • What does it mean for something to be research-based?
  • Who conducts the research, is it somebody else’s research that I learn from and apply, or is it my research that I conduct in my classroom?
  • What does it mean for something to be realistic – is it to do with funding, opportunity, or priorities? What does it suggest about the teachers’ role, skills and knowledge for them to realistically base their practice on research?
  • And who is to judge what is desirable? What are the outcomes we are aiming for? Do we all share the same goals?

Wikipedia defines research as ‘creative work undertaken on a systematic basis in order to increase the stock of knowledge’. So it’s about knowledge. Are we therefore simply proposing that teachers base their classroom practice on ‘knowledge’? This seems to make sense.

But of course research takes many forms and the type of knowledge generated depends on these forms. Hammersley sees a distinction between scientific research and practical research. Scientific research aims to contribute to a body of knowledge, is judged in terms of evidential validity and is the pursuit of ideas that do not have immediate practical value. Practical research has an immediate audience of practitioners and policy makers, aims to provide knowledge of immediate practical use, and is judged in terms of its relevance and timeliness. Surely we would be most interested in practical research – related to the issues we face in the classroom, providing answers that would be of immediate use. Although it is scientific research that has given us the much hailed insight into cognition and the brain (for example), so we do use both.

Whitehead recognises education research as a formal academic discipline. However, he makes the case that educational researchers generate explanations of their educational influences in their own learning and in the learning of others. He calls these explanations living-educational-theories. Perhaps teachers need living-educational-theories (not research) on which to base their classroom practice?

So – what is my take on whether research-based classroom practice is realistic and desirable?

On a simple level it is not classroom practice we should consider but classroom practices (plural). I propose that we should not worry so much about research-based classroom practice (which could be relatively singular and static), but that we should be concerned about the ongoing development of diverse classroom practices. If we are concerned about the role of research it should be about how it supports each individual teachers’ practice development – something which happens over a career and supports professional changes that ripple beyond their own classroom. How, for example, can research be used to support coaching, mentoring, curriculum design, lesson study or practitioner enquiry as means to develop classroom practices?

We should have an ambition that teachers develop phronesis – practical wisdom wisely used in context, or as Thomas suggests ‘the ability to see the right thing to do in the circumstances’. Imagine an education system in which professionals had the disposition to act truly and justly according to their values and moral stance. It might help us to counter the influences of policy-makers and quangos who determine so much of the daily experience of learners, teachers and school leaders.

So – my question is – how might research contribute to the development of teachers’ phronesis, and as such help them develop practices which are based on their ability to see the right thing to do in the circumstances? This ambition should be both realistic and desirable.

Hammersley, M. (2003) Can and Should Educational Research be Educative? Oxford Review of Education, Vol. 29 (1), pp. 3-25

Thomas, G. (2011) The case: generalisation, theory and phronesis in case study, Oxford Review of Education, Vol. 37 (1), pp. 21-35

Whitehead, J. 2015. Educational researchers and their living-educational-theories. BERA. Accessed August 20, 2015,

Applying Intelligence to Teacher Education

I was motivated to write this blog after Michael Wilshaw, Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector, gave a speech about teacher recruitment and training at the Festival of Education, at Wellington College on the 18th June 2015  News reports focused on his attribution of blame to the media for putting off prospective teachers (hard on the tail of Nicky Morgan who has reached the same conclusion), while the assembled twitterati were evidently underwhelmed by his self-professed trumpet blowing about his own remarkable teaching. His speech was actually about was the crisis in teacher recruitment. Of particular significance was the worry that some schools are now out of the loop and no longer deemed appropriate for teaching placements, and that those same schools find recruiting teachers a challenge. As Wilshaw said ‘The prospect of the most successful schools cherry-picking the brightest and best for themselves, creating a polarised system between the strongest and weakest schools, has become a reality.’ Dr Mary Bousted (general secretary of the ATL) tweeted that Wilshaw was ‘spot on about teacher training crisis’ which really was an interesting moment of convergence.

structural changes at this scale can prevent us from looking hard at the details of practice

So, in the spirit of seeking out alternatives for a better future I returned to my blog written as part of a series published by the Newcastle University Institute for Social Renewal, written in the form of research-informed messages for the new government. My blog was a plea – a call to arms, a challenge to plan initial teacher education differently. Policy developments have sent schools and universities along journeys of structural change from HEI / school partnerships for teacher education to school-led provision for teacher training. But structural changes at this scale can prevent us from looking hard at the details of practice, as we become so busy re-organising (rather than reconceptualising) existing programmes, budgets and roles. In prioritising schools as providers of workplace learning we have affected the experiences of, and infrastructure for, teacher training. In the current system new teachers are immediately exposed to the performative culture of schools, having their individual successes and failures measured and graded from the moment they arrive, and becoming acutely aware of the relentless ‘standards agenda’. Prioritising teaching placements in the most successful schools reinforces this agenda, and convinces some prospective teachers that some places are much safer career destinations than others. As Wilshaw said in his speech ‘Unsurprisingly, the majority opt for a well-performing school in a nice area.’

We can rake over the irony of this statement, or we can look ahead. Wilshaw suggests ‘national service teachers, contracted directly with government and then deployed to a disadvantaged area’ and ‘more flexibility when deciding which schools can lead teacher training’. I suggest we need to focus on reducing the significant anxiety that many prospective and qualified teachers feel about training and working in more challenging contexts. I fear that student teachers are rarely encouraged to innovate and many simply learn how to survive. Instead of new teachers being a source of inspiration and innovation they adopt normative practices, and their potential and energy is not garnered for their individual benefit or that of the schools. In the worst cases, instead of building the necessary professional capacity to work flexibly to meet ever changing demands of the job, they become less resilient to the stresses of the job.

So, looking for a solution, my NISR blog was called ‘ProjectTeach – applying intelligence to teacher education’. It was a flight of fancy, but not fanciful, painting a picture of a different approach, with new pedagogic models of teacher education that have the capacity to change the professional outcomes. Through PROJECT-TEACH intelligent thinking would be applied to teacher training, drawing on the principles of successful learning organisations, coaching and project-based learning. I suggest that student teachers should be educated not only individually but also in teams which tackle real-life workplace challenges through projects based on research, development and practice. The teams would be supported by co-coaches who enable their team to develop collaborative, empowering and supportive relationships, as well as the knowledge and skills required for them to tackle the genuine challenges of teaching. The responsibility for the professional learning of all student teachers in a team becomes a collective one; each team is aiming for the best possible outcomes in terms of professional learning, pupil outcomes, and school development.

If we are to crack the recruitment crisis we need to make initial teacher education irresistible

Much successful adult learning is social and contextualised, and PROJECT-TEACH would enable new teachers to develop skills and knowledge through collaboration on authentic and rich learning tasks set in the realities of the full range of schools. The project briefs would be planned by drawing on the combined expertise of the professional and academic co-coaches who would design them to meet the ambitions of the host schools as well as to take account of the development stage of the new teachers. The Teacher Standards would develop significance in terms of long-term occupational capacity, rather than simply as a checklist of time and context limited competencies. If we are to crack the recruitment crisis we need to make initial teacher education irresistible – the best learning experience one can imagine, one which reinforces aspirant teachers sense of vocation rather than diminishes their sense of efficacy. We need new ideas – for now ProjectTeach is mine.

RACHEL LOFTHOUSE is the Head of Teacher Learning and Development for the Education section of the School of Education, Communication and Language Sciences at Newcastle University. She is also partnership development director for the Research Centre for Learning and Teaching (CfLaT). She has a specific interest in professional learning for teachers and educators, based on innovative pedagogies and curriculum design and practices for coaching and mentoring. These support her learners in building their workplace expertise while developing critical reflection and their ability to contribute to, and draw productively on, the evidence base for teaching and learning. She works with student teachers and their school-based mentors, fulltime teachers as part-time Master’s students, international postgraduate students and school leaders. Rachel has published in peer-reviewed journals on the subjects of coaching and mentoring, the innovative use of video to support practice development, practitioner enquiry and professional learning. She has co-authored a successful book, published by Optimus, called Developing Outstanding Teaching and Learning (now in its second edition), which supports teachers and school leaders in improving pedagogy. She also writes regularly for professional publications and websites. Rachel is currently working with a range of educational practitioners, including those interested in community curriculum development and professional coaching for speech and language support in multicultural early years and primary settings. Through these diverse roles she supports individuals to make a positive impact on the educational outcomes for their own learners and communities.

Taken from BERA

Written by Rachel Lofthouse, Head of Teacher Learning and Development (Education Section)