From education to employment

Improving teaching and learning: Are we asking the wrong question?

Deborah McVey, Managing Director, Deborah McVey Ltd

How do we improve teaching and learning? It’s a big question isn’t it? Some times though, it’s a question that perhaps we shouldn’t ask. This might sound a little odd. Of course we all want improved learning experiences for our learners, but sometimes, it’s the way we tackle it and the questions that we ask that need reconsidering.

There are a couple of questions we can consider first. One is about why teaching and learning is not yet good enough. That can perhaps give us some insight. I’m not one for looking backwards, preferring to focus on how we want the future to look. But, the thing to explore is, if we know we want to improve teaching and learning, why has it not improved already? Do we know the root cause? It’s important we at least consult about this so we don’t just keep doing the same thing and then of course, get the same result.

We won’t dwell there though, instead we could focus on what great learning might look like, but again, we have to ask, if (and it is an if) you all know what it might look like (and it can look like many different things) what’s holding you back? This is the time to consider that perhaps, in order to achieve great teaching and learning and improved outcomes for learners we have to focus on something else.

Rather than focusing on what teachers and learners need to do differently in lessons, we need a big step back. We need to consider the conditions in which improvement can happen. Before we try and improve individual aspects of learning, we need to build the type of team that is likely to be able to do that. We have to stop asking about how we improve learning and instead focus on how we improve our teams. We have to help our teams get to a place where they can find their own answers.

Imagine trying to achieve greatness with a team that have recently received lots of criticism. Imagine trying to secure improvement with a team that’s tired, frustrated, confused and perhaps a little fearful for their jobs. Doesn’t sound like much of a good start does it? It’s not too difficult to see that, in order to achieve great things, we need teams to be happy, healthy, and functioning well.

So let’s think about that a little more and imagine our high performing teaching and learning teams. Are they empowered, excited, motivated, supported? Are they inquisitive, enthusiastic, creative and energetic? Do they feel part of something? Do they like and respect their teammates, trust them and feel trusted? When we start to visualise, it is simple to see that a team that is positive can thrive. And that’s what we’re after. Quite simply, if we create a positive improvement culture our teams can thrive. If our teams are thriving, they can, with right guidance, achieve great teaching and learning.

The principle of achieving improved teaching and learning is much like that of fat loss. For fat loss my advice is always this: Forget weight. Forget about fighting fat. Forget the aesthetics. Forget your size. Nourish yourself. Eat what you really want that supplies your body with what it needs. Do the exercise you love. Basically, focus on enjoying and valuing your body. Train it and nourish it to excel, and love the way you feel. When you do this, the fat begins to take care of itself, without you having to count, measure, critique, beat yourself up, and feel like it’s all so unsustainable.

My advice for teaching and learning improvement is much the same. So, instead of asking how can we improve outcomes for learners (success rates) and specific aspects of learning; first, make your intention the enjoyment of exploring learning practice together. Focus on making a teaching career at your provider a fabulous job to have. Create an environment that everyone loves to come to. Stimulate the team so that they enjoy immersing themselves in the challenges they face. Nourish and nurture your teachers. Gently, help them fall in love with teaching and learning.

So, to help build that positive improvement culture, here are my top ten tips for education leaders and managers: 

  1. Become a ‘student‘ of learning to create a learning culture. Strip back the ego, realise there will always be more to learn and become inquisitive. There is so much we do not know! Besides, no one likes a ‘know it all’.  
  1. Notice good things. Talk about them. Ask what led to them.  Create a dialogue that teachers want to join in with.  Take every opportunity to reinforce and raise awareness of all the good stuff.   
  1. Become a ‘wonderer’.Often we think we see negative things in the classroom, but are they really? And are you sure you aren’t making assumptions? Often, these things can become questions, things we can wonder about.  Be more like Stephen Covey and ‘Seek first to understand. Then to be understood.’  
  1. Be open-minded.That’s harder than you might think. Our brains are wired to help us believe what it suits us to believe. Recognise that and check yourself.  
  1. Be excited, passionate, and enthusiastic about learning. That stuff’s infectious. Be genuinely interested in teaching and learning and learners, their experiences, and their growth. Infect others and ignite the love and wonder of learning.  
  1. Send love. This always works as a guiding principle. It’s about treating everyone with kindness and compassion and coming from a position of faith rather than fear.  
  1. Do good. When you find out about aspects of learners’ experiences, ask yourself ‘what good can I do with this? We all seem to be time poor in FE, so if you only have time to do one thing, do whatever will bring the most good.  
  2. Enjoy the never-ending journey. Keep in mind that the quality of learners’ experience is not a static state. It’s dynamic, and ever changing. Avoid aiming for an end point and instead create excitement about the forever journey of learning.   
  1. Trust and be trusted. This takes time. It’s about actions; walking your talk; consistency; being authentic; having integrity; caring about why; showing support; being transparent and practicing humility.   
  1. Establish a team. Teaching is a joy, an art, and a dynamic process. It’s too important and too interesting to keep quiet about. It’s not something to be kept in isolation.  Effective teams work together, formally, informally and regularly to consider how to do best for their learners. Work on creating and facilitating this team. With your support, trust, and guidance, this team can make it happen. 

Deborah McVey, Managing Director, Deborah McVey Ltd

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