The award-winning teacher, author of the High Impact Teaching series and dean of learning design at Ambition Institute in the UK, speaks to EducationHQ about the messy complexity of improving one’s practice and how effective PD can cut through the noise. 

Hi Peps, you’ve said that teaching is one of the most difficult undertakings ever attempted, how so?

I think there's multiple aspects that make it really hard. The first is that a lot of work goes on in the classroom that is really quite invisible. We're trying to change the cognitive architecture of other people’s minds without even seeing [that process]. So first of all, that's really hard.

And secondly, the only tools that we've kind of got to do this is language and visual communication, and we're trying to do this this with like 30 people, it could be even more...

And the stuff we're trying to teach is not easy – if you take a maths classroom, the ideas we're trying to communicate, some of them took our species tens of thousands of years to figure out; Pythagoras is not something that everyone figures out naturally.

The ideas within the academic curriculum have been developed through centuries of accumulated endeavour, so what we're trying to do is pretty challenging.

The flipside to this is that it doesn't necessarily look that hard, which I think is an interesting paradox. I think this is because nearly everyone has been in the classroom for quite a big part of their life and it's kind of felt because you're in a classroom when you're young, and you don't necessarily feel the complex decision making and information processing that the teacher has to do, you can build up this naive impression that it's easy to teach.

And often people have an experience of being able to teach a friend or colleague or maybe their kids, and they find that to be quite natural and easy. But that's definitely not the same as trying to teach a class of 30 kids, [run] through a curriculum...

And then there’s ascertaining what students have actually understood and remembered…

In my experience, what I find is that it's just harder for teachers to be really confident about what their pupils know and don’t know over a longer period of time. Sometimes we can be surprised as teachers. We might spend a bit of time teaching [students] new stuff, multiplication of fractions, whatever it is, and you even do some end-of-lesson checking in on their understanding. And you’re really confident that ‘oh, these guys get it!’

But a couple of weeks later, or a few months later when you return to that, they might not remember [anything]. That can sometimes be a surprise.

The more experience you get as a teacher, the more you understand some of the mechanics there around forgetting, for example, and you understand that you just have to be careful about some inferences you make about learning from immediate pupil performance.

You've talked about the relationship between teaching and learning being ‘invisible, noisy and delayed’. Can you outline this concept of the ‘low fidelity feedback loop’ and how it complicates things for teachers?

So if I’m a teacher in a classroom and I try to make a change to my practice, to see whether it improves things or not … trying to figure out whether that change is a better way to do things and has positive impact longer-term is really hard to do.

Firstly, it's really hard to measure – learning is really hard to measure robustly. I might be able to get at the end of the lesson a sense of if pupils got it or not, and a few weeks later whether they remember, but it's really hard for me to compare whether it’s any better than previously.

Because the size of the error in my assessment is bigger than the change that I most expect to see. Secondly, because learning is subject to forgetting … our brains are pretty aggressive in filtering and getting rid of the stuff that they don't think is important to our survival success.

What this means is we [can] only really figure out or say when pupils have learnt something if we test them on it, maybe six weeks later. Checking at the end of the lesson isn’t enough for us to be able to be confident that they really learned it and whether it's going to last a long time.

The third reason it’s tricky, is that there are just so many other factors in play in the classroom ... it might be that for whatever reason, that class was up late last night watching an American football match and they didn't get to sleep as well. We know that quality of sleep affects [students’] ability to learn and remember.

So, there's thousands of other things that could impact the learning outcomes that they have, and it’s really hard to tease apart if a change in teaching has had any effect or if it’s something else.

You point out that effective PD could be one solution here, can you explain how?

Effective PD really ... cuts some of these limitations in the feedback loop. As an example, if we look at some of the research that's done in cognitive science, researchers have done studies that control a lot of the variables that you can't control in classrooms to isolate causes and other factors.

Lots of people repeat the experiment multiple times and they can find out, for example, the more times that [students] encounter something … the less chance there is that they forget it over time. We've uncovered that our working memory can only think about a very few number of things at once … so these insights from research can provide teachers with more reliable principles to guide their practice than perhaps the stuff they discover by themselves in the classroom.

What does ‘effective’ PD actually entail?

I'm writing a book on this at the moment! Effective PD, in a nutshell, is PD that provides teachers with an understanding of the mechanics of teaching and learning – a little bit like what we're talking about today, but also provides them with really clear, concrete strategies that they can use in the classroom, and an understanding of what those strategies look like.

However, just providing that theory and practical insight isn't enough, good PD also has to provide teachers with an opportunity to practise these things because we know that without practise we end up with this knowing-doing gap where nothing changes in their teacher practice.  We have to go further than that, we have to help teachers to make that practise a habit … so helping them to embed that change.

And then finally, the PD has to be motivating. It has to help teachers take ownership over their [development], because without that kind of motivation, we tend to see much lower effects of professional development.