The importance of a shared understanding

I was fortunate enough to spend the day at Reach Feltham last week and have been mulling it over in my head ever since.

Jon Hutchinson (@jon_hutchinson_) started the day by talking about the science of learning, asking a question about the level of shared understanding in school for your definition of learning. As a leadership team, it is not enough to say that ‘we are happy with our definition’ if you don’t know how strong your staff understanding is. He also talked about having an explicit, shared canon of learning as a means of ensuring staff have a strong mental model of that which underpins the curricular and pedagogical decisions that take place.

So, in his slides, he was able to point to four core texts which could be perceived as the shared canon of Reach, including Willingham’s ‘Why don’t students like school’ and ‘The Science of Learning‘ paper from Deans for impact. As a school, they had worked on ensuring that staff had the same mental model of learning in order that they could engage in conversations around curriculum and how to structure and design the learning in order to allow for both retention and transfer.

At our school, when we set out to transform what we do, we wanted to be evidence informed. So, at the time, we shared key pieces of reading with staff. In fact, we provided them with links to research papers and a selection of books they could borrow. But we also summarised these, each on a side of A4 so that staff understood what we were taking from them.

This was in Summer of 2017 and, as time has gone on, we’ve probably made the assumption that these papers have been read and the learning has been embedded. But, just to be sure, we created a document entitled ‘Why we do what we do.’ It contains our explanation of the key decisions we have made and the evidence that underpins each of them. We cover the reasons behind decisions we’ve made about: culture; curriculum; memory; explicit instruction; our learning model (based on retrieval practice, exemplars, live modelling, independent practice, questioning); revision and vocabulary; routines; feedback and assessment; knowledge booklets and family lunch. However, although we’ve given this to staff, I now wonder whether we should do more with it. Is it enough? Do we need to refine/ simplify/ clarify? As an SLT, if we talked it through, would we still choose the same books or the same papers? Does it matter?

I would suggest that it does – and it is one of my key takeaways from the fantastic Reachout curriculum conference. I love the idea of a shared canon and hope to put some serious though into how we get to that point – where all staff would point to the same core texts that underpin what we do.

But, as with many things in education, it would be worse to rush at it blindly and do it quickly for the sake of speed rather than as part of a well thought out developmental process. For now, it may need to simply be enough that our staff know we are evidence informed because, if they trust us as leaders enough to want to follow us, it may need to be ok that they trust us with this. At ResearchED Durrington last year, Daniel Muijs talked about the fact that being evidence informed is a moral duty. If we have evidence about what works, we need to use it. Our staff know that we read and research and implement because of our commitment to social justice, understanding that an excellent education will have a disproportionally positive impact on the most disadvantaged of our students. There are some people in education who may question how clear the evidence is, citing Dylan Wiliam saying that ‘everything works somewhere but nothing works everywhere’. But, as a school, leadership and staff, we agree with Muijs who stated that, without doubt, some things work better than others; some things work in more places than others; some things work more easily than others; some things almost always work and, in contrast, some things almost never work. So, as a school, we know that the decisions we have taken are based on the idea of ‘best bets’. Students have one education and we intend to ensure they have the best possible chance of success. 

So, where does that leave us? As a leadership team we know that decisions are being taken with the evidence in mind, and that staff have access to the evidence as and when they want to engage with it. For the rest of the time, perhaps our shared understanding is that we are collectively doing the right things for the right reasons. And maybe that’s enough.


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