Tag Archives: collaborative

Teacher development: looking for solutions outside the teaching world

 Part 1: Don’t let graded observations get you down! 

‘’Why do managers in education fall back on graded observations as their main default management tool?’’

‘‘Are there better approaches to supporting frontline teachers?’’

‘’Can a manager nurture and develop a teacher’s classroom resilience skills, or does it have to come from hard-earned experience?’’


These questions are different ways of looking at the same root challenge: can managers in education and academia truly inspire teachers? Or does the traditional ‘command and control’ approach get results?

 From the supervision of staff through to the problematic aspects of classroom management, both teachers and middle managers in education are often left to develop coping skills as they go.


Who develops you?

In the teaching world we have become more and more focused on a learner-centred approach, and while this is no bad thing, I sense that we are often left with a gap:  we develop our method through numerous INSETS, but do we develop ourselves as teachers? Terms such as ‘good teacher’ or ‘outstanding teacher’ have been hi-jacked (certainly in the UK) by regulation and inspectors. And the whole debate appears to have shifted into measuring the process over the impact.

 If you’ve ever stayed up late writing long lesson plans for an observation that you feel is simply a process-driven exercise, then you might well agree.

 Taking the lead: 3 approaches

 In this series of posts I look outside the sector for ideas and inspiration. If you’re currently struggling – either in the staffroom or the classroom – then, first of all, it is good to know you are not alone. In a survey of just under 4,000 adult education tutors three quarters disagreed that graded observations had helped them to improve as classroom practioners’[1]. Matt O’Leary[2], Educational Researcher and Principal Lecturer at the University of Wolverhampton, says there is an increasing consensus among those working in further education (post-16) ‘that graded lessons are no longer fit for purpose’[3].

 In this first post I look at how not to let graded observations de-motivate you, especially if you are looking for genuine solutions or practical ways to improve.

 In posts 2 and 3, I look at completely different approaches to developing yourself: systems thinking, positive enquiry and solution focused approach in leadership, tried and tested by business leaders. Can we adapt these models for teachers, in their role as ‘leaders’ of their classroom?

Developing ourselves

 I want to propose ideas that don’t necessarily originate from educational research but from business management theories. They have proved invaluable in my own personal survival guide to teaching and stem from my pre-teaching management career.

 The weakness of the current observation approach in improving teachers as leaders

One of the most surprising things about my career change into teaching was the lack of investment in me as a teacher, in effect as ‘leader of my classroom’. Where corporate managers and leaders can often go on expensive training, in-house coaching or mentoring throughout their career, teachers seem to learn this critical aspect ad hoc. Even worse, someone then comes and ‘’observes’’ you as the leader of your classroom. Somewhere along the way, observations have become the main management tool. If time was prioritised for supervision, one-to-ones, mentoring and peer observations, I am convinced that teachers, especially those new to the profession, would flourish far more than they would under current practices.

 Measuring quality

Of course, all teachers need to be observed. We need to know that bad things aren’t happening in the classroom. But I’m convinced that observations should be just one method of many that we use to develop teachers. Matt O’Leary, author of ‘Classroom Observations’ (Routledge, 2014), has come up with a range of more sophisticated approaches to assessing teaching[4].


Why the current observation culture is not a replacement for real management and coaching

 Process V impact

Observation culture has become the default practice, replacing real management and mentoring


  • Have you ever had an observation that left you feeling unclear, despondent or demotivated?
  • Have you ever had an observation where the final piece of work produced by your students in follow up lessons was requested by an observer?


You may be surprised to know that feeling demotivated after an observation is not ‘your fault’. Something has gone wrong with the feedback process. Even where real improvement is required, the feedback process should leave you feeling ready to take steps to change, or should inspire to try something new. It certainly should not leave you with sleepless nights.


But I know that observation stress is a common feeling among teachers. It has led me to question two things:

  1. Are observers trained to genuinely look for impact? Many seem trained only to look for process. I know observers look at student work during the observation. But to my mind, that’s really just a snapshot of impact. What about student work produced subsequently, maybe as homework or in the follow up lessons, when the cognitive learning has really embedded itself? Now that really would be impact over process.


  1. What can be done to improve observation feedback? In many non-teaching professions, learning how to give inspiring or difficult feedback is something that is core to any management training. Even when giving bad messages, management feedback training focuses on leaving the recipient positive and clear about the next steps. My management training embedded in me the rule that no serious feedback must come as a total surprise to a recipient. I reeled when I got my first observation feedback as a newly qualified teacher in FE. I hadn’t realised that the deficit model was still alive and well!

 The lost potential of the observation culture

Of course, it’s probably because academic managers/teacher trainers in turn often don’t know how to really enable staff development (back to a management style that values process over impact again). It’s such a missed opportunity to create trust or to inspire change. On a personal note, the most beneficial observations I have had are from managers who came in to the classroom to support me; to be an ‘extra pair of eyes’ and help me figure out a particular problem. I learnt so much from their years of experience.

I’m convinced that process over impact predominantly creates a tick-box approach. In response, the teacher creates excessively long lesson plans to meet the criteria of those boxes. And that chance to truly learn or benefit from a senior practioner is lost. Jim Scrivener, author of ‘Learning Teaching’[5], believes that ‘the act of teaching is essentially a constant processing of options. At every point in each lesson, a teacher has a number of options available; he or she can decide to do something, or to do something else, or not to do anything at all.’ Lesson plans are important but they are a guide. If a short-planned activity turns into a learning point that the students want to expand, should we go with it if we are being observed?

Side-stepping the victim teacher trap

There is so much excellent leadership training and strategies out there – all being used in other sectors. In my follow up posts, I look at how you can stop feeling like a victim teacher or a victim manager, and instead teach yourself these leadership techniques.

 The teacher as a leader

Because, what is a teacher, if not a leader of the classroom? We direct, we plan, we prepare the strategy of each lesson and the wider scheme of work. We aim to motivate, to improve results, deal with performance problems……..perhaps even inspire. You don’t need to be an NLP expert to see how much the language of leadership overlaps with the language of teaching.

 Borrowing ideas from outside the sector

This series of posts looks at why personal development and supportive management skills are currently under-valued in education.

 Does a solution lie outside the teaching world? I believe it does.

40% of new teachers are leaving within 5 years

Last year, OFSTED (the UK education regulator) released statistics showing that 40% of new teachers in the UK are leaving the profession within five years of training[6].

 Ofsted Chief Michael Wilmshaw rightly calls this a ‘national scandal’ and says new recruits ‘are left to flounder without support from more senior staff’. He lists the reasons why the numbers are so high: poor teacher training, inadequate support once in the classroom, a lack of on-going mentoring from leaders within the school and an ‘infantilising’ of the profession, where teachers are encouraged to think like ‘victims’.

We could go round and round looking for the causes: government targets create downward pressure on regulators, Ofsted create a command and control approach………That in turn creates the backdrop to graded lessons being adopted by colleges and schools as a draconian tool. But the result is that it has left the teaching world far behind other professions when it comes to genuine coaching and nurturing of new entrants into the profession.

 While some teachers in the world of private education may not have quite the same rigorous approach to being performance managed, there can still be a sense that a wider knowledge and implementation of educational coaching and management could pay real dividends (two years of my own teaching experience has been in private education).

Are we long overdue a change?

 I would very much appreciate hearing from any teacher, student or educational manager who would like to respond, particularly teachers and lecturers who have experienced a positive type of assessment, professional coaching and collaboration. 

In the next posts I want to share tips on how business leadership training can be applied in the classroom and to your own development. I’ve tried them myself. I’m going to look at three recognised theories: systems thinking, positive enquiry and solution focused leadership.


[3] http://www.niace.org.uk/sites/default/files/documents/adults-learning/2014-spring/AL-Spring-2014-Vol25-pg38-41.pdf

[4] Author of ‘Classroom Observation’, Routledge 2014

[5] Macmillan Books for Teachers

[6] http://www.theguardian.com/education/2014/jan/15/ofsted-chief-teachers-quitting-scandal

Process Approach to Writing IELTS Task 2 Essays

By Emma Claydon

This post is about improving your students’ writing by considering:

  • attitudes to writing in class
  • two approaches – Process vs. Product
  • the concept of audience
  • collaborative writing
  • structuring
  • proof-reading and editing
  • giving feedback
  • classroom routines

Attitudes to writing in the ‘communicative’ classroom


Is writing often neglected in the EFL classroom?  Perhaps some teachers don’t consider it to be a ‘communicative’ activity or a priority for their students, while others don’t enjoy teaching or marking it.

Having asked my colleagues about their attitudes towards teaching writing, it is clearly a priority for exam classes but not so in General English, as some feel it takes up too much class time so it can be set for homework.  Consequently, they don’t see much of an improvement and it’s demotivating for everyone involved.

When students move into exam classes you may notice that their writing needs considerable work.  I’ve always seen it as an important skill to work on, not only because it is used for assessment and consolidation purposes, but  also involves different kinds of mental processes.  So, I embrace writing and make sure that my students get the chance to do lots of it.

Students are required to think about a question and then they need time to formulate a response.  However, I do not see it as a solitary activity just to get some peace and quiet in class.  Indeed, it can be used to change the pace of a class, but for it to be effective it needs to be collaborative, creative and broken down into manageable stages.

My beliefs probably come from my own difficulties in writing.  It can be a daunting task and I prefer to break the task down into pieces.  In a three hour lesson devoted to writing, only half an hour is taken up with students actually writing in a solitary fashion or in pairs.  The rest is used to prepare and review the writing which is usually conducted through speaking and reading activities with a variety of interaction.

Approaches:  Product vs. Process

Until I started reading about teaching writing, I was unaware that I had been using a mix of both approaches.  The ‘process approach’ considers writing to be a creative process which requires time and positive feedback at various stages and ultimately ends up with improved writing skills.  Whereas the traditional ‘product approach’ analyses model texts and sees writing as a solitary act.  For a comparison of the two approaches you can read more here: http://www.teachingenglish.org.uk/article/product-process-writing-a-comparison


Writing for IELTS:  Essays

In the IELTS exam students have to produce two pieces of writing totalling 400 words on their own in sixty minutes.  For part 2 they have to write a 250 word essay in under 40 minutes.

The process of analysing the question, brainstorming ideas, planning paragraphs and putting them together logically is something that students can train together so that they have the skills to go into the exam and perform on their own.  But they need to be explicitly aware of this so that you can get them on board.

To ensure my IELTS students become better writers I actively help and encourage them through a series of prepared stages before I can expect them to produce a final text.

When they are more aware of this preparation process they become more autonomous and create good habits which hopefully they will use in the exam.   The majority of my students are going onto university where they will need to develop an academic style of writing but essentially they are expected to convey ideas clearly.

Pre-writing and Audience


Not only do students struggle with writing in English because of their language skills, it is often a problem that they lack the ideas and content, so we see brainstorming and planning as essential part of the writing process.

We facilitate the generation of ideas through discussion or we use an interesting article related to the essay question as a starting point to get them thinking about the topic or question, but do we all introduce the concept of audience?

With a genre approach for FCE or CAE, this fits naturally into the writing process as, for example, you need to know  to whom you are writing the letter and why.  In IELTS task two students know they are writing for the examiner and they understand the assessment criteria but a sense of audience can be developed further by writing for each other or a student blog.

Writing Collaboratively

I have used group compositions with some success, but as students know they won’t have people to ‘help’ them in the exam they can at first be reluctant to do this.  I have approached group compositions another way where students write two main body paragraphs and then swap so that they have to focus on meaning by reading and understanding someone else’s writing and then write their introduction and conclusion to see if they have understood the opinions and the flow of their partner’s writing.  They then sit together and discuss what was clear or confusing about each other’s writing.  Then they rewrite their main body and write their own introduction and conclusion.


Once they have produced a paragraph plan the students write their essay.  I set a time limit of 30 minutes, which is the time they have in the exam after they have analysed the question and spent time planning.  My rationale for this is that I want them to finish a piece of writing in class and to get used to writing under pressure.


As we’ve done so much ground work in preparing to write they cope reasonably well and I have seen my students produce more words and a better quality of writing within that time frame over a few months.  However, to add variation to my writing lesson, I get students to write out ideas with supporting evidence and examples on pieces of paper or large post-it notes and work out an order rather than committing their ideas to A4 paper which can still be limiting at this stage.

Proof-reading and Editing

Having finished their first draft, they proof-read it and look for their typical mistakes.   I often organise peer reviews, but they aren’t always effective because some students feel unable to find any errors in a classmate’s work or are unwilling to give feedback through lack of training and confidence, so again this takes time and training for students to be able to do this well.  Others embrace it and enjoy reading their peers’ work.  I find it most effective when they work in pairs looking at one piece of writing at a time. I encourage them to use a pencil and first we focus on meaning buy putting prompts on the board e.g.

  • Is there a clear main idea in each paragraph?
  • What is the supporting information?
  • Have they included examples?
  • Are the examples clear?
  • What is the writer’s opinion?
  • Is it well structured and easy to follow?

They write some comments at the bottom giving the writer some advice. Then they read it a second time and focus on the language and I put the correction code on the board.  After peer-correction, the students then rewrite their essay on the IELTS exam paper and hand it in.

Giving Feedback

Giving feedback is an essential part of writing and many of us use correction codes to encourage students to notice their problem areas, fix them and perhaps log them in a learner diary so they build up a log of their typical mistakes.

It is important to work on the grammar and vocabulary that distort meaning, but in IELTS students can gain so many marks for answering the question in a well organised and coherent way that this is an area that needs so much more attention.  White and Arntd (1991) state that writing will improve by focusing on the message the students are trying to convey instead of concentrating on the language errors.

If I find it very difficult to follow a student’s essay, I feel the correction code is somewhat redundant; instead I respond with a brief letter asking for clarification of their points and requesting a rewrite. I don’t give any feedback about language at this point and usually the rewrite is clearer so I can then give feedback on the language too.  I also find it helpful to reformulate sections of their writing to make it clearer for them.

Classroom Routines


I do fortnightly writing workshops like this which follow on from the biweekly mock test.  Under exam conditions I use the IELTS assessment criteria; giving them marks for Task Response, Coherence and Cohesion, Lexical Resource and Grammar.  The following week after the workshop and I mark the rewrite using the 4 criteria above so we will all see which areas have benefited from the rewrite and help students see the value in the workshops.

I find it helpful to integrate the product approach into writing lessons where we analyse other students work or model answers, but prefer to do this after they have written their own response to the task.  I make it clear that it is just one way to answer the question.  We use it to see what makes it a good answer, why it is easy to follow and we examine the kinds of cohesive devices used. Together we use the assessment criteria and grade it together.  This helps the students to think like the examiner.

By setting up writing workshops and training students to use a process approach, they are more capable of expressing their ideas in writing and I have become more of a reader and less of a marker so that the critical stage of focusing on the message is not lost.


White, R. & Arndt, V.  (1991) Process Writing. Longman

Vanessa Steele. (2004). Product and process writing: A comparison. Available: http://www.teachingenglish.org.uk/article/product-process-writing-a-comparison. Last accessed 23rd May 2014.

Recommended Reading:

Badger, R. & White, G.  (2000).  A process genre approach to teaching writing.  ELT Journal, 54(2), 153-160.

Burgess, S. & Head, K.  (2005).  How to Teach for Exams. Harlow:  Pearson Education Ltd.

Hedge, T.  (2005).  Writing (2nd ed.).  Oxford:  Oxford University Press.

Hess, N.  (2001) Teaching Large Multi-level Classes. Cambridge CUP.

Nunan, D.  (1995)  Language Teaching Methodology.  Phoenix

Rao, Z.  (2007) Training in brainstorming and writing skills.  ELT Journal 61 (2): 100-106

Scharle, A. & Szabo, A .  (2000) Learner Autonomy : A guide to developing learner responsibility.  Cambridge CUP.

Scrivener, J.  (2005) Learning Teaching.  Oxford: MacMillan Heinemann.

Ur, P.  (1996) A Course in Language Teaching.  Cambridge CUP.