School leaders are always thinking about improvement but the ‘doing’ part is the hard bit. Improvement doesn’t just happen.
Improvement has to be a research and development led process that is balanced and measured.
In their book The Teaching Gap, Stigler and Hibert (1999) propose six principles for gradual, measurable improvement. They say these must be taken seriously by anyone attempting to improve teaching.
1. Expect Improvement to Be Continual, Gradual, and Incremental
Rather than dramatic leaps, any changes will come in small steps. They say, “teaching has always evolved like other complex culturally embedded activities – slowly and incrementally.”
Accumulating small changes over time is key to school improvement.
Stigler and Hibert say that we need to take a long-term view when we design and plan our initiatives and reset our expectations.
2. Maintain a Constant Focus on Student Learning Goals
What are we in teaching for? The goal is students’ learning. This ‘basic’ can often actually get forgotten in the detail of planning improvement. Our focus should therefore be – what impact will this have on students’ learning?
Improving complex systems, such as teaching, requires a relentless focus on the bottom-line goals and a commitment to evaluate changes with respect to these goals.
If we can keep our students’ interests central to what we are doing throughout then we will make improvements. If we start getting distracted by data and accountability then we have lost focus.
3. Focus on Teaching, Not Teachers
We are always looking at teachers and what a great one is supposed to look like. But what we should really be looking at instead is the teaching.
A long-term improvement in teaching depends more on the development of effective methods for teaching than getting great teachers into the system.
Teachers come and go but teaching methods persist if they are effective.
It is the scripts or methods that must be improved.
3. Make Improvements in Context
Improvements aren’t made in the university campuses and ivory towers detached from reality. Teaching will be more successful when improvements are developed in the classroom where teachers and students learn together.
What works in one context doesn’t work in another. Teaching is especially sensitive to context and new approaches have to be tried and tested.
Teaching is a system built from all the elements of the local context. If it works in Japan fine, but that doesn’t mean it will work here. Ask: what works here? what works for us?
4. Make Improvement the Work of Teachers
Teachers are the primary driving force behind any changes.
All successful attempts to improve teaching have come about through the collaboration of teachers working together to improve students’ learning.
Marshalling the efforts, experiences and expertise of teachers makes improvement happen.
Teachers are the gatekeepers of the classrooms in which teaching and learning take place.
6. Build a System That Can Learn from Its Own Experience
Teachers the world over problem solve, they try new strategies and new approaches and they develop their own understanding of what works and what doesn’t.
And that is a huge waste because we have no way to harvest this. Twitter helps spread some ideas but this is as close as we get to sharing what we know.
So much of what we know isn’t shared and is lost and new teachers are often starting from scratch.
We must build a system with a memory so we can accumulate the rich experiences and incredible insights of teachers.