Classroom Practice - 10 commandments of successful innovation
Teachers love to experiment, but too many interventions spoil a lesson. Follow our tips to make the most of your bright ideas
Teachers experiment every day. Whether it is an idea they’ve come across on the internet (or in this very magazine), one they’ve thought up themselves or one that has been given to them by a colleague or trainer, teachers are usually willing to give everything a try at least once.
This can be a positive attribute. But often, by indulging their inner magpie and hurling as many shiny ideas into the mix as possible, teachers guarantee that none of them will be successful. They will end up juggling multiple and often competing schemes, their ideas will not be well considered nor given enough time to take effect, and their students will be left confused.
Teachers should be more selective, and the ideas that they do choose to pursue should be evaluated and put into action properly. So follow these 10 commandments to help you do just that.
Thou shalt focus on learner needs
The most effective ideas respond directly to the needs of students. This means that the stated aim of every intervention should be to improve learning or behaviour, not to simply change your teaching.
For example, the aim of “improving reading fluency” is spot on, but “better questioning” is a means and not an end. “Every lesson rated outstanding”, meanwhile, is not a worthwhile target; it is second-guessing someone else’s judgement and losing faith in your own professionalism. Never start with an exciting sounding aim - for example, “use iPads” - and then hunt around for a need to justify it.
Thou shalt base thine ideas on evidence
Don’t reinvent the wheel. Your idea is much more likely to go with a bang rather than a whimper if it has already had a positive impact elsewhere. If you’re trying something new, do your research and find out which similar ideas worked well in similar contexts and which did not. John Hattie’s book Visible Learning and the Education Endowment Foundation’s Teaching and Learning Toolkit are two excellent places to start.
Remember, simply showing that something works isn’t enough: it has to be more efficient than other approaches at sparking great learning, because time is precious in the classroom.
Thou shalt engage with underlying theory
Every teacher needs to know why something works. Less effective schools allow someone with a bright idea to dictate teaching approaches to others without encouraging engagement with the research. But this merely deprives teachers of the ability to adapt or abandon ideas at suitable moments, weakens the approach and demotivates at the same time. School leaders must put debate and discussion of research at the heart of school culture and insist that teachers question everything until understanding has been reached.
Thou shalt enquire
Nobody reads something (or hears it) and immediately gains a deep understanding. I have a horror of the “TED talk effect”, where an enthusiast watches a video and then thinks they have all the answers. Every idea needs to be tested, refined, discussed and adapted over an extended period of time. Don’t just throw an idea into the classroom and expect incredible results straight away.
Thou shalt strategically lead and resource thine ideas
If school leaders want teachers to take risks with new ideas, they have to lead by example and put their money where their mouths are. Senior leaders should be the first in the line of fire: the first to try out a lesson planning tool; the first to test a new behaviour approach. This builds trust among the staff.
Once they have gained that trust, leaders should make time and space for teachers to explore new ideas - and that means stepping in to cover lessons for them.
Thou shalt sustain and focus
If you really believe in an idea, you need to prioritise. Whittle down your list of ideas to a tiny handful and give plenty of time to each. Research suggests that teachers need at least 30 hours of discussing, reading, planning, observing, reflecting, learning and thinking in order to change their practice in a way that will last. Therefore, it’s simply impossible for teachers to focus on and take on board more than two or three changes a year. When it comes to interventions, less is most definitely more.
Thou shalt evaluate
“Eighty-seven per cent of teachers involved felt the intervention improved their practice.” How lovely for them, but I wouldn’t bet on any intervention that has been this weakly evaluated working for you.
When you’re changing something, it feels exciting and you want it to be effective, so you’re not the best person to impartially judge the impact. Find some objective measures and construct a decent methodology. This is challenging, yet absolutely vital.
Prioritising what you do is key. Remember that most ideas feel positive and most improve learning. You need to be disciplined and tough, choosing only those that do the most good rather than those that feel best.
Thou shalt contribute to whole-school improvement
At the other end of the spectrum to the centralist dictator is the “let a thousand flowers bloom” encourager. The biggest issue in schools is within-school variation in teaching quality, so unless there is a strategic focus on everyone moving forward together on interventions with the same ethos, leaders risk keeping teachers busy without achieving any whole-school effect.
I like to suggest that a school is rather like a shoal of fish: everyone can swim around vigorously and exhaust themselves without actually moving anywhere. It requires a bit of direction and agreement to really make things happen.
Thou shalt engage thy colleagues
Things change when lots of people care about them. You need to show how your idea helps everyone, and gain your colleagues’ trust and respect if you want to engage them. This is an ongoing debate, because hundreds of views are in the mix at any one time.
Thou shalt work with a trusted expert
Every effective intervention needs input from a knowledgeable outsider. This person needs to challenge you when you could go further, support you when things get tough and connect you with others who are working on similar ideas. Keeping it all in-house sounds attractive, but it could be fatal.
The external expert could be a consultant, a researcher or perhaps a trainer on a course. Make sure they are clear about their evidence base and experience; question them on how they will help you to evaluate impact. Ask for independent reviews or testimonials where possible.
Interventions are difficult to make and to evaluate, and they require a huge amount of discipline to make them fly. But follow these 10 commandments and you will give yourself a fighting chance.
David Weston is chief executive of the Teacher Development Trust, the UK national charity for effective professional development. He is a visiting fellow at the University of London’s Institute of Education and a former secondary school teacher
How to evaluate your ideas
- Evaluation begins with a proper research question, ideally of the form “How effective is intervention X at improving learning or behaviour Y for cohort of learners Z?”
- Now you need to think about how you will measure the idea that you’re trying out. Choose a mixture of objective measures (usually externally validated) and subjective measures (based on judgement). Before you begin the intervention, you need to take a baseline (a set of assessments that show what you’re starting with), and you should repeat these right at the end to get your impact measures.
- A great starting point is the Education Endowment Foundation’s DIY Evaluation Guide, and the National Teacher Enquiry Network can also support your work. Some universities may have the capacity to help you design your evaluation and find the right measures. Make sure they have strong experience, with qualitative and quantitative evaluation techniques.