Chris Thomson

Here’s a couple of questions for you:

  1. Would you rather your college was mediocre or excellent?
  2. Should staff training be about bringing people together or improving performance?

If you withheld your answers suspecting a trick - quite right.

But it’s only this, that in many colleges which profess to aim for outstanding performance, staff training is often thought of as “sharing good practice”.

Like any of the clichés that loiter with intent in Further Education this one is well worth taking into custody for a bit of gentle questioning. Why is sharing the key thing? And why should we let good be the enemy of the excellent?

These questions are not quite as rhetorical as I make them sound. Suppose professional relationships are actually hostile and attitudes to quality improvement are overtly antagonistic. It happens, believe me. In this case it might be a great first step just to get staff talking to one another about their professional practice. Sharing sounds comforting and good frightens no one in the way that excellence sometimes does.

Or suppose, at the other extreme, that the college culture is optimal. In this case it may not matter how people speak about training and development. They can be relied on not only to share highly effective educational practice but also to seek in it elements that will lead to improved quality. And then they’ll come back and want to experiment with what they’ve learnt.

But the majority of college cultures are neither disastrous nor outstanding and if your college lies somewhere between the two, how does it help to have staff talking in a way that runs counter to what the college needs? For the risk is that in return for the resource of time and money the college is putting into training it will get back not much more than hot air.

Whoever’s in charge of quality needs to get people talking about whether sharing good practice is what’s needed.

Three bits of this need testing

  1. First, how do we know good practice is good? And good for whom – because it suits the teacher or because the students learn better as a result?
  2. Secondly, sharing. Is that adequate? And sharing what? Things that have worked for the sharer on the off-chance they could be relevant to the sharee? Should it be like shopping in a sale where you go in the hope of coming across an unexpected bargain or a food shop where you go with a list of what you need?
  3. Lastly, how transferable or adaptable is the practice on offer? Would it work for any teacher in any classroom or what would need to be done to make it work for you and your students?

What might emerge from the discussion is that what the college needs isn’t so much good practice as effective, practical solutions to specific problems it’s identified in teaching or learning. And the more specific you can be in defining the problems the easier it will be to recognise solutions.

Don’t stop there. Find a better phrase to describe effective training and use it everywhere, repeatedly. If you want to keep the emphasis on achieving useful outcomes, ‘teaching and learning solutions’ or ‘improving outcomes’ might do. If the collaborative aspect is also important, something along the lines of ‘joint improvement workshops’ might work or if it’s important to have a handy, positive-sounding acronym, ‘Team-Enhanced Approaches’.

Far better than any of these examples would be the term you come up with. It would be discussed and debated. The pros and cons of words would be proposed, questioned and countered. The liveliness of debate would awaken everyone from clichéd patterns of thought into thinking about what the college is trying to achieve.

And a reminder of that is always inspiring. It’s about securing better outcomes for students, isn’t it? Better Outcomes for Students……that might just do it.

Chris Thomson, Education Consultant and former sixth form college principal

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