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Gary Handforth: "For teachers to make intelligent and informed improvements, there needs to be a supportive, non-judgemental environment for development"

The reflective practitioner

Gary Handforth discusses improving appraisal practice through constructive dialogue

Posted by Stephanie Broad | November 13, 2015 | People, policy, politics

As schools strive towards improving the quality of teaching and learning at every level, practices need to be constantly reviewed to ensure that systems remain both relevant and able to inspire the best learning for all students. While teacher appraisal often follows an established and critical format, it does not always achieve the desired and most meaningful outcomes – namely teacher’s professional understanding and, ultimately, pupil progress. So how can this be achieved? Arguably the most effective form of development is critical self-reflection through meaningful collaboration. After all, the education system should be a place where new ideas are shared and cultivated, and where established systems can be challenged in a supportive, professional manner. 

With collaboration as its goal, Reflective Inquiry is a new model for improving teaching practice that has been developed within Bright Futures Educational Trust, a trust of nine academies across the North West. The model focuses on developing teachers’ pedagogical understanding and subject knowledge, as well as building strong supportive networks that will improve reflective practice for the long term. Through Reflective Inquiry every teaching professional will become a reflective practitioner and, as a result, learning and pupil progress will be significantly enhanced.

What is the typical system of teacher appraisal?

Most schools currently have an appraisal system intended to improve teaching and learning. These systems typically rely on direct lesson observations, after which individual targets are set with a reviewer. Though designed to improve the quality of teaching, there are some problems that can arise from this system. The first being that these lessons are often over-planned, prepared well in advance of the observation (designed to be observed) and, as such, not a true reflection of the on going, everyday classroom practice.

For teachers to make intelligent and informed improvements, there needs to be a supportive, non-judgemental environment for development. This can be achieved through the Reflective Inquiry model; a collaborative development system with meaningful colleague dialogue and support at its core.

How can Reflective Inquiry improve teacher appraisal?

The model for Reflective Inquiry pairs each classroom teacher with a partner teacher to observe each other’s practice in a more informal manner, and as an on-going process rather than a planned one-off event. The actual, real time classroom observation is known as ‘reflection in action’. The teachers will regularly meet with a coach, who oversees the progress of both, and these three teaching professionals work together to reflect on each teaching performance, known as ‘reflection on action’. Additionally, each phase has a coach who works across all the classes in that particular year group. The model then extends to include a senior level coach that oversees reflective practice within the whole school. This form of peer coaching creates a non-judgemental environment of mutual development, which is a lot less daunting for teachers than more formal observations yet provides a deeper professional dialogue.

Through the pattern of pre-session dialogue, classroom observation (reflection in action) and post-session dialogue (reflection on action), teachers are able to generate new thinking and feel professionally supported. It enables teachers to understand their tacit habits and to uncover any particular ‘blind spots’ e.g. poor subject knowledge, and then take informed action to improve. Observing alone makes no real difference to the quality of lessons, but reflecting on actions creates a dialogue and gives teachers the encouragement and support needed to improve, empowering them to become their own forces for positive change.

What are the outcomes?


Initial findings at schools running the programme have supported the tremendous benefits of Reflective Inquiry in practice, no more so than at Stanley Grove Primary Academy where the programme has been running for two years. The school has seen significant improvements in teaching quality. From September 2013 to July 2015 the percentage of teaching found to be ‘Good’ or better has increased from 53% to 100%, while the percentage of teaching deemed to be ‘Outstanding’ has, impressively, jumped from four per cent to 71%.

It goes without saying that the real aim of teacher development has to be the pupil progression. Of the data collected, there are marked improvements in pupil performances across reading, writing and maths when comparing the figures (using Average Points Scores) before implementation in 2013, and after. Jumping 1.66 points in reading, 1.54 points in writing, and 1.85 points in maths in 2014, similar improved levels have been so far recorded for 2015.

A school of Reflective Practitioners develops not only the individuals, but the school too, into a ‘Community of Practice’ and an authentic ‘Thinking School’. The whole culture changes, teachers talk about their work, and research becomes part of the DNA of the school. The very best schools are places that continually strive for excellence. They question, challenge and improve their practice to improve the provision for all children. Reflective Inquiry creates a system that allows this to happen.

Gary Handforth is Director of Primary Education at Bright Futures Educational Trust.    

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