Trust, vulnerability and interdependence in schools – reflections on ResearchED ’17

Trust, vulnerability and interdependence in schools – Kev Bartle

Bartle1It’s always a pleasure to listen to Kev Bartle speak about school leadership. In yesterday’s ResearchED presentation, the likeable Wearsider and Headteacher at Canons High School, explored Mintzberg’s organisational configurations, arguing for schools to be structured as professional organisations where power and decision making are decentralised.

Accepting the professionalism of teaching colleagues – as a given – is at the heart of this ideology, as is a culture of positive relational trust.

So, what is relational trust? Megan Tschannen-Moran’s definition is usefully shared: “Trust is one’s willingness to be vulnerable to another based on the confidence that the other is benevolent, honest, open, reliable and competent.” (Tschannen-Moran, 2004) Exploring some keywords in this quote, Kev focuses us on the significance (for him) of the word ‘other’ highlighting, for me, the relational aspect of trust. In the famous trust exercise, I’m thinking that there are few people that I would prefer to be standing behind me as I fall backwards, with my eyes closed than Kev.

High levels of trust, he proposes, is fundamental for organisations to be successful. The Head Teacher in schools structured in this way, he suggests, are at their most vulnerable and therefore will need to have high degrees of trust in their colleagues.

Of course, trust shouldn’t only exist between school leadership and ‘faculty’ – described as collegial leadership in the literature. Three other trust ‘attributes’ are presented, distinguishing the following relationships: faculty with faculty (Staff professionalism); faculty with students (academic press); the school with community (environmental press).

Byrk and Schneider’s ‘Trust in Schools’ is the focus of our attention for the next few moments and I am drawn to the facilitating factors for trust that are highlighted. I am surprised that small school size is described as a facilitating factor and my mind wonders a little about what size constitutes a small school. I work in a huge secondary school (NOR: 2,200+) does this mean that trust will be more difficult to engender?

I’m also drawn to the way that Kev distinguishes between contractual trust and relational trust. The former, he suggests is typical of some organisation’s attitudes toward members of its workforce where individual accountability is high and low levels of relational trust exist. Contractual trust is a reliance on the agreed contract to mediate the relationship between services provided and the payment or otherwise for those services. To not provide the service to the agreed level is to break the contractual trust. Where teachers are concerned, withheld PRP or capability procedures could be the consequence of a break in contractual trust. Relational trust, on the other hand, assumes positive intentions. The outcomes are likely to be increased task support, honesty, openness and integrity – leading to improved task performance or at the very least a compassionate response to underperformance.

Next, we are presented with evidence of the impact of improving relational trust on a range of outcomes. Afterwards, I contend that the evidence presented could be interpreted in another way: do improved outcomes facilitate improving relational trust, or is it the other way around? Kev is ready for the question and accepts the bi-directional causality.

As I digest Kev’s presentation on the long drive south, I can’t help but admire his approach. Teachers should be trusted to be professional, never more than when they are finding the job difficult. They are at their most vulnerable then. This is our opportunity to build trust.  Today, after a good night’s sleep, I will revisit my leadership model and consider a redesign.

Thanks, Kev.

Responsive Teacher Learning

Facilitating professional development for teachers with a range of experience and expertise has the potential to be very challenging. A responsive approach is required if CPD is to be meaningful and effective for colleagues who, like me, have a few miles on the clock.

Ask anybody who has been driving for more than a few years how they feel about being told that they are in the wrong gear or that they are too close to the car in front and gauge their reaction! David Weston of the Teacher Development Trust attributes much of this response to a range of protective biases that experts hold about themselves. This could be true for experienced teachers. In many respects, these biases are useful. They protect the expert teacher from the distraction of new ideas that may well be inferior to their current way of teaching. Less usefully, these biases may serve only to protect the ego of the expert teacher who believes themselves to be the finished article. This, of course, is nonsense.

Dylan Wiliam, illustrates the point in his keynote speech at the SSAT Conference in 2012. ‘Every teacher needs to improve, not because they are not good enough, but because they can be even better.’ At the Northwest Evaluation Association Conference, in 2013, and in more typical fashion, Wiliam argues that teaching is a job ‘too difficult to master in a single lifetime’ before challenging the audience to ‘accept the commitment to carry on improving our practice until we retire or die. That is the deal.’

Availability Bias

Experts, suggests Weston, have five sets of bias. The first of these is availability bias. Those with high degrees of availability bias believe that their current models explain ‘everything’. They refuse to accept new perspectives which cannot possibly add anything to their current frame of reference or viewpoint on teaching. Whether a teacher believes in a growth mindset, self-directed learning or learning by rote is not the issue. Availability bias describes the expert who perceives that their preferred model can explain the benefits of another. A teacher with availability bias could be heard saying something like, I’ve always given my pupils difficult tasks that they can make mistakes on; so there’s nothing new about growth mindset.’ Here is a teacher who has taken a sticking plaster and slapped it across the tiny wound being opened up by the blade of a concept that challenges her current thinking.

Sunk costs Bias

Sunk costs bias describes the teacher who has spent a great deal of time, money and effort honing a particular method of teaching, only to be told that it doesn’t actually have any impact on student learning. Something like brain-gym or VAK. We’re far less likely to give up on the things that we worked hard to build; a phenomenon that Weston describes as the IKEA effect.

Dunning-Kruger effect Bias

The Dunning-Kruger effect bias is one that I fall victim of myself on a regular basis. I’m probably doing it right now! It’s that arrogance that a little knowledge affords us. It is a cognitive bias wherein persons of low ability suffer from illusory superiority, mistakenly believing their ability to be greater than it is (Kruger et al., 1999). Imagine the sense of superiority once expressed by those who claimed that the earth was flat. Simply mentioning meta-cognition, synapses, cognitive overload or regression analysis whilst presenting on INSET, or showing an image of the brain whilst reciting the statistical significance of wearing a JoJo Bow in your hair on Key Stage 2 SATs results, at a teacher conference, does not necessarily make one an expert.

Interestingly, and importantly in this context, highly skilled teachers tend to underestimate their relative competence, presuming that what comes easily to them is easy for less-skilled teachers and novices to learn.

Not my tribe Bias

Not my tribe bias describes the refusal to take advice, support or criticism from an ‘outsider’. It’s the difficulty that I face when I’m coaching out of my preferred subject area and there is a certain degree of substance to this response. Not my tribe bias may explain our response to lessons observed by Ofsted. ‘Who the heck do they think they are, telling me how to do my job? He’s probably a crap teacher anyway; why else would he become an inspector?’ Other examples that I have seen are when teachers work across phases or in schools with very different contexts.

Fundamental attribution error

Fundamental attribution error is a tendency to explain someone’s behaviour based on internal factors, such as personality or disposition. For those of you who are old enough to remember, it’s exactly the type of bias demonstrated by the tennis player, John McEnroe, who often attributed his own mistakes not to external factors (practice, luck, the wind, a poor shot, a difficult return) but to the personality or disposition of the umpire. In our educational context, this could be illustrated by a teacher who attributes his own poor questioning to the pupils not being able to answer well because ‘their previous teacher didn’t care about them enough.’

To overcome these biases, we should embrace strategies that differentiate our experienced and sometimes expert colleagues from the novice teacher. They have developed their knowledge and honed their skills over a substantial period and they aren’t going to make any changes to their practice without good reason.

Here is a short list of strategies to try with experienced colleagues who are resistant to professional development initiatives.

  1. Treat them like the experts that they are and invite them to articulate their existing thinking by asking genuine questions – e.g. why did you do it that way?
  2. Set up activities that assist the expert to gain new perspectives on existing thinking – e.g. shadowing a pupil or colleague;
  3. Build a rapport with your colleague or use social connection to overcome resistance to new perspectives;
  4. Sustain development over time to suppress and replace incorrect schema;
  5. Provide opportunities for teacher experimentation and agency – e.g. lesson study/teacher enquiry;
  6. Challenge experienced and expert colleagues to respond to the children that they teach using new perspectives and examples from other settings.

Teaching experience is positively associated with student achievement gains throughout a teacher’s career (Kini & Podolsky, 2016), despite recent claims made to the contrary (fig. 1). The impression that the impact of teachers on student outcomes declines with experience is falsely presented in a cross-sectional analysis. Teacher fixed effects analysis provides more accurate analysis about the effects of teaching experience, comparing the effectiveness of a teacher with themselves over time as they gain experience.


Fig. 1


However, Dylan Wiliam’s words continue to resonate deeply: ‘accept the commitment to carry on improving our practice until we retire or die. That is the deal.’


Kini, T. and Podolsky, A. (2016). Does Teaching Experience Increase Teacher Effectiveness? A Review of the Research. [online] Learning Policy Institute. Available at: http://learningpolicyinstitute.org/product/brief-does-teaching-experience-increase-teacher-effectiveness-review-research [Accessed 2 Jul. 2017]. Continue reading “Responsive Teacher Learning”

The Conductor’s Baton

bourbonI’m in one of those moods right now. Part reflective, part distracted and part creative. These are the best times. It’s Saturday afternoon and I’m having a sneaky bourbon biscuit – well three! I dunk them in my tea – even though I’ve been scolded once as a child – ‘bourbons are not dunking biscuits!’ This sends me into reflection and as I begin to look back, I wonder how far will I go.

My mind rests on a moment. A grey morning and, as I remember it, a grey junior school classroom when I was nine years old. I don’t have to think hard to remember my teacher’s name: Mrs Shaw, and I hope that she reads this one day. This was the morning that I learned to write. Not literally, of course – you understand.

The details are sketchy – I’m 44 now – but the way I felt that day…that couldn’t be any clearer.

Mrs Shaw had played us Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata and we were told to write a poem whilst she played it through a second and then a third time on an old 70’s record player. I’d closed my eyes and imagined when we listened the first time round, just like I had been told to do. It felt like I was alone with the music.

I had been transported to another place: the concrete steps leading down into ‘the warren’ at midnight.

I should explain. The ‘Warren’ is a place close to where I grew up in Southampton. It’s basically an overgrown valley between two districts on the outskirts of the town. And you didn’t go down there at night! We’d sometimes dare each other to go down the concrete steps that wound their way through the trees to the small concrete bridge below. Under the moonlight, you could just about see the bony hands of the monsters that reached out for your throat as you descended into the pit of hell that we called ‘the warren’. You never got very far before fear got the better of you. This was what I chose to write about.

My hard-earned blue handwriting pen soon became the conductor’s baton. Every cadence and every note played was in response to my craft. A colourless scene arrived on a damp little writing book and a poem was drafted, edited and written up ‘in best’ on ‘best’ A4 lined paper.

I experienced the way writing could make me feel in Mrs Shaw’s class that grey morning. I didn’t care that it might not be considered good or a Level 5 or a B grade or whatever. I just wanted to write.

The poem that I wrote was rubbish. I’m kidding, of course.

The poem was read out to the class by Mrs Shaw, the next day. She shared it with the head teacher, Mr Golding, and he read it out in assembly. It even got framed and hung on the wall outside his office where the small square of carpet was. You know.

I never looked at it again not even when it was hanging on that wall. When it was read out in class and in assembly, I didn’t recognise it as mine. If you showed it to me now, I wouldn’t know that those were my words – written on the fading A4 lined paper that was reserved for our best work. I don’t remember that verse and I wouldn’t care to read it now.

Today, the conductor’s baton is a keyboard and the music is an orchestra of light traffic and afternoon birdsong. It’s a grey day.

The front door opens and I thud back into the here and now. My family are back from their long walk with a now filthy dog and my tea has gone cold.

Thank you, Mrs Shaw. I hope that you read this. One day.

Now, where are those bourbon biscuits?

What I have learned about the recruitment crisis

Ros McMullen: Things I've learned and things I'm learning

If you believe, as I do, that there is no better job than that of being a teacher then we should have all been surprised, horrified and baffled when listening to the news this morning that there is a crisis in teacher recruitment. But we weren’t, were we? I think the only surprise was that it was finally making headlines – this has been a long time coming.

Just how did teaching become so unattractive when for so many of us there is absolutely nothing more satisfying than ‘touching and shaping tomorrow’, than seeing young faces light up with the discovery of learning something new, than passing on our passions to the next generation and watching children arrive to us, and adults leave our care and go on to be successful?

There are plenty of people lining up to talk about the various factors that have contributed to the current…

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Grit – Why trying harder is not enough

What is Grit?


A while has passed since I heard Angela Duckworth present her now infamous research about ‘grit’ at the 2015 Times Education Festival. I rarely make an effort to wait, like a child at a pop concert for an autograph, but this time was different. I was as excited as anybody about this new psychological construct.

Her research identified a positive correlation between passion and perseverance for long-term goals (Grit) with success. In her most well-known research, Duckworth tested her hypothesis on cadets at West Point Military Academy. The most gritty cadets, she concluded, were the ones who made it through the Summer training camp. In self-evaluations taken prior to the summer training, the successful cadets had demonstrated that they had greater passion and perseverance than the cadets who dropped out.

One of the most surprising findings, Duckworth muses, is the lack of correlation between talent and grit. She argues that there is perhaps even an inverse correlation. Since then, many in education have saluted this as an indisputable silver bullet for disadvantaged and talentless children. Grit, it seems can get anybody (even those with little talent) anywhere.

One of the most surprising findings, Duckworth muses, is the lack of correlation between talent and grit.

This is hugely misleading but not complete nonsense. We know from Dweck’s work on mindsets that the brain is ‘plastic’ and most things, within reason, are achievable with considerable effort. Grit, it seems, does contribute to long-term success but is this so surprising?

How does grit contribute to long-term success?

Grit_Web1Within Duckworth’s construct of grit are concealed a host of virtues and traits that are ‘far more robust psychological constructs with a longstanding history of academic conceptualisations and research’ than grit, (Kristjánsson et al., No Date).

Of these ‘hidden gems’ the big five trait: conscientiousness, is certainly a more significant determinant of success than grit. Willingham points out that conscientious people: ‘tend to be orderly in their habits, are industrious and like to get things done, take responsibilities seriously, and are dependable’, (Willingham, 2016). This already sounds quite a lot like grit to me. Willingham goes on to review the virtue of self-control, or temperance, which is the ability to regulate actions. Another word used here is phronesis which Ian Morris describes as practical wisdom: the ability to make judgements and balance virtues for good.

Is ‘grit’ always a desirable virtue?

west-point-front.jpgSo if self-control and conscientiousness are reliable psychological constructs, what do passion and perseverance add? To answer this question, I asked Howard. J Curzer of the Texas University Philosophy Department for his views.

I learned from Howard that if either passion or perseverance are not reasonably tempered they can be counter productive or vice-like. Let’s return to Duckworth’s cadets to illustrate Howard’s point. Consider for a moment the cadet whose passion is so strong that he pushes his body harder than most would deem reasonable and perseveres for much longer than many would believe is necessary. Is this grit, or plain foolishness?

The cadets who decide that success at West Point is just not worth the considerable effort, for them, may be making wise choices. It doesn’t mean that they aren’t resilient, passionate or perseverant.

Although the self-control and determination of the successful cadets are hugely admirable and joining the forces is considered a courageous and noble decision, are we right to describe the drop-outs as failures? Personally, I don’t think so.

Traits and Virtues

For most of us, traits and virtues are indistinguishable from each other. However, virtues differ from traits mostly because virtues are simply describing good traits: traits that are morally and ethically good for society or the individual. It’s considerably more complicated than this but for the purpose of this post, it should serve as a useful distinction.

Traits are ‘U’ shaped and the best place to be is at the bottom of the ‘U’ bend – most of the time! Too little of a trait is a weakness (honesty for example) and too much of another can be considered to be a vice (passion being an obvious example).

Should we teach grit?

For the teaching of grit to be desirable it has to significantly add to the predictive validity of conscientiousness and self-control. At present, this is not the case. Whilst we hope to encourage our pupils to be passionate about learning and to build resilience, we need to do so alongside other virtues: empathy, compassion, courage, respect, resoluteness, creativity, benevolence, curiosity, devotion, cooperation, forgiveness, gratitude, humility, patience, kindness, loyalty, reliability, resourcefulness, openness, responsibility, selflessness, reverence, tact, trust, toughness, zeal to name quite a few.

Ian Morris, in his 2016 presentation at the Telegraph Education Festival, distinguishes between four distinct areas of virtue: moral, civic, intellectual and performance. This is a useful distinction within The Jubilee Centre’s framework for character education and helps us to know what to do next with grit.

First, we need to stop telling pupils that they can achieve anything through just grit (passion and perseverance). It is difficult to flourish without the necessary resources, teaching or when hardship falls upon us.

Aristotle described the latter as being ‘broken at the wheel’. Grit is important but our disadvantaged children, especially, need far more besides.

Grit is not their magic bullet to a fruitful and successful life – although it may well play a significant part.

How can we teach grit?

jubilee1The Jubilee Centre is quite clear about teaching the virtues within character education. Virtues, they say, are both taught and caught. In other words, we can teach students the features of virtues and we can model virtuous behaviour for them.

An excellent example of teaching ‘grit’ in action is in the work of Andrew Carter and the ‘tougher minds‘ programme which has long-term goals, grit and self-control(temperance) at its centre. Students have abstained from mobile phones, computer games and television in prioritising hard work and study. The results have been impressive.


Passion and perseverance (grit) are clearly desirable virtues so long as they are reasonably tempered. Neither construct has a particularly long history in psychology or philosophy but to deny them their seat at the table may be premature. Grit is an important virtue to develop in our children, but taken too far could be at the detriment of their well-being and happiness.

In conclusion, Angela Duckworth’s research on grit is significant and it is a virtue worth teaching. We are well placed to teach ‘grit’ within the broader context of character education.

Grit is not a silver bullet (a direct and effortless solution to a problem) for disadvantaged children in education. If taken to be so, we might just as well be saying “just try harder.” We know that’s not right.



Effective Professional Learning Communities: Part 2

Structuring your Professional Learning Community(PLC) meetings

White-board-Maskot-Getty-Images-485211701In Part 1 we examined the prerequisites for effective professional learning communities. We emphasised the importance of communicating a vision with a view to communicating effectively, building trust and changing cultures.

In this post, I will suggest a standard meeting structure for PLC meetings based on Wiliam & Leahy (2014) who argued that participants were arriving at meetings unsure of what they were learning and how they would be organising their learning. The recommendation that each meeting follows the same structure is a way of overcoming both problems.

Pre-programme Schedule

  1. Communicate the vision as described in Part 1 emphasising the need to shift from ‘fixing the teacher’ to collaborative expertise (Hattie, 2015).
  2. Explain the expected outcomes for each of the three PLCs and illustrate what a year’s progress will look like.
  3. Issue a choice of PLC’s to the staff body. Include Teaching Assistants, Learning Support Assistants and other support staff where possible in this circular. Your SEND professionals are a vital asset when it comes to joint planning, so my advice is to make every effort to include them from the beginning.
  4. Invite your staff to select their preferred PLC topic and their second preference.
  5. Allocate teachers and support staff into groups of 8-12 people. Multiples of 3 work well: two teachers and a teaching assistant (where possible).
  6. Issue a calendar of meeting dates and times. The advice from Wiliam is to meet every six weeks but I would insist on fortnightly meetings in the first instance to generate some momentum.
  7. Issue a small amount of pre-reading in preparation for meeting 1 which will be led by a nominated person. I prefer not to nominate a member of the SLT for this role as meetings can become hierarchical and limiting.
  8. Meet and train PLC leaders in how to organise their meetings.
  9. Issue the agenda for Meeting 1.

    Meeting Structure

The suggested structure is based on a 80-90 minute session and differs from Wiliam and Leahy’s arrangement in that it provides extended time for planning.

Introduction (5 minutes)

The agenda and learning intentions for the meeting are shared.

Feedback (20 minutes)

Each member of the group gives a brief report on what he or she has achieved, tested, learned since the previous session. The rest of the group listen appreciatively and then offer support to the individual in taking the plan forward. Precise information is shared in relation to the direct (observed) impact of participants’ planning on pupil outcomes.

New Learning about the Focus Topic (20 minutes)

To stimulate learning, discussion and action, one member of the group will prepare and lead a learning activity each meeting. The activities should introduce new ideas or develop those discussed previously. These activities might include a task, a video to watch and discuss, or a book study.

Joint Planning (30-40 minutes)

Using the new learning and suggestions from the feedback section of the meeting, participants work in triads to jointly plan learning episodes (lessons, schemes of learning, activities, starters, plenaries, assessments) and schedule peer observations which are an integral facet of this strategy. Each participant should be peer observed on a ration of once to every three meetings.

Summary of Learning (5 minutes)

A short opportunity to discuss whether the learning intentions for the meeting have been met. If not, there is time for the group to decide what they will do about it.

Based on Wiliam & Leahy (2014) Sustained Formative Assessment with Teacher Learning Communities


In the concluding section of this series (Part 3) we will focus on evaluating the impact of each PLC on student outcomes and how best to present this information to school leaders, inspectors and governors/boards/trustees. Furthermore, the implications for performance management of collaborative groups (Poocharoen& Wong, 2016) will be explored.


Hattie, J., (2015) ‘What works best in education: The Politics of Collaborative Expertise’, Open ideas at Pearson, Pearson, London.

Muijs, D., & A. Harris., (2007) ‘Teacher Leadership in (In)action: Three Case Studies of Contrasting Schools’, Educational Management Administration & Leadership, 35 (1) pp. 111-134 

Poocharoen, O, & Wong, N., (2016) ‘Performance Management of Collaborative Projects: The Stronger the Collaboration, the Less Is Measured’, Public Performance & Management Review, 39, 3, pp. 607-629 

Wiliam, D., (2014) ‘Sustaining Formative Assessment with Teacher Learning Communities’. Available at: http://www.dylanwiliamcenter.com/whitepapers/ (Accessed: 17/06/2016) 




Confidently Wrong!

Confident-error Feedback

chaseHow many times have you confidently called out an answer, when watching a television quiz show, only to discover that you were in-fact wrong? As you stare aghast at the screen while the green light flashes upon the right answer (usually B), and the “Chaser” gets one step closer, something rather interesting is happening from a feedback and learning perspective.

Butterfield & Metcalfe (2001) discovered that participants who were confident when giving an incorrect response in a quiz were most likely to correct their response in a subsequent quiz. Fazio & Marsh (2009) suggest that this ‘surprise’ phenomenon could be attributed to the “learners devoting more attention to feedback when they discover their confident answer was wrong.”

Therefore, knowing our pupils’ confidence levels in relation to their responses could help us to identify their confident-errors and target our feedback right there: where they are most likely to respond.

As we are not in the business of smashing our pupils’ confidence to pieces, the timing and frequency of confident-error feedback may need to be carefully considered. Whilst I agree that it is important to encode success through frequent feedback in the early stages of a unit of learning (Didau, 2016) perhaps opportunities will arise as pupils’ confidence develops during the latter stages of a unit?

A further alternative could be to use confident-error feedback to determine the accuracy of prior knowledge at the outset of a unit of learning through pre-testing, quizzing or hypothesising.

I’ve observed a variation of this in science teaching where pupils are asked to predict the outcome of an experiment. They do this with unnerving confidence at times and, once they discover that they are wrong, their indignation is palpable. Nevertheless, this confident-error feedback or activation of prior-knowledge (only to challenge it), sets up the subsequent learning nicely and they are less likely to make the same mistake again (Butterfield & Metcalfe, 2001).

In ‘The Feedback Continuum’ Didau (2016) explains the merit of delaying, reducing and summarising feedback to promote memorisation. As feedback is reduced and delayed, learning requires greater effort with a ‘new, higher level of learning’ the result (Clark & Bjork, 2014).

It is once this new, higher level of learning has taken place that I envisage a more pertinent use for confident-error feedback. Once the pupils are confident in their understanding of the material, this approach to feedback may prove both timely and effective in increasing storage strength (learning) and retrieval strength (accessibility).


Butterfield, B., & Metcalfe, J. (2001). Errors committed with high confidence are hypercorrected. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning Memory and Cognition, 27(6), 14-91.

Clark, C. M., & Bjork, R. A., (2014). When and Why introducing Difficulties and Errors Can Enhance Instruction. In V. A. Benassi, C. E. Overson, & C. M. Hakala (Eds.). Applying science of learning in education: Infusing psychological science into the curriculum. Retrieved from the Society for the teaching of Psychology web site: http://teachpsych.org/ebooks/asle2014/index.php

Didau, D. (2014). The Feedback Continuum. Available at: http://www.learningspy.co.uk/learning/the-feedback-continuum/ (Accessed: 18/10/2016)

Fazio, L. K., & Marsh, E. J. (2009) Surprising feedback improves later memory. Psychonomic Bulletin and Review, 16(1), 88-92.