The potential of the Teacher Research Group to improve teaching and learning
Professional development in Shanghai is largely centred around the Teacher Research Group (TRG). Groups of teachers design a lesson together and then observe one member of the group teaching. The meeting which follows, allows the teacher to reflect on the lesson and for colleagues to provide feedback. All then contribute ideas to improve the design and delivery of the lesson. Key principles can be incorporated into teachers’ practice beyond the lesson itself. This is the structure of professional development that the NCETM’s primary Mastery Specialists are now using to work with groups of schools in England.
Jonathan Leeming, a primary Mastery Specialist from Lancaster, working with the North North West Maths Hub was part of the latest group of teachers to take part in the China England Teacher Exchange in September 2017. As part of the visit, he had the chance to design and deliver a lesson which formed the focus of a TRG meeting. In this article, he reflects on his experience and on what the model can offer for teacher professional development.
“The lesson didn’t quite work, but I am not entirely sure why,” was the feedback from an English colleague, after I had taught a problem solving lesson to a grade 3 (year 4) class in Shanghai. Bam!!! The next teacher to give feedback, a Shanghai teacher, seemed to nail what had gone wrong with the lesson. The feedback focused on the mathematics and was supportive, frank and thorough.
The lesson focus had been for children to work systematically or “in an ordered way” through a problem. The problem involved English money. Children were introduced to 1p, 2p and 5p coins and asked how they would pay for a sweet that cost 5p. Children’s responses were shared using a visualiser and then they were asked if they could find all the different ways that they could pay. Again, children’s responses were shown to the class and then I explained how the problem could be solved in a systematic way. I gave one example of what non-systematic looked like and one example of what systematic looked like.
The children then excitedly set about finding all the ways that a Chinese sweet costing 6p could be paid for. From monitoring the room, it was clear that about 50% were using various systematic approaches but some were not. The result raised two interesting consequences of not following a systematic approach. Firstly, that we may not find all the possibilities and, perhaps more importantly, that it makes it hard to know if we have found them all. Examples of children’s work demonstrating systematic approaches were shown and then the children were asked to discuss their predictions for how many ways we could pay if a sweet cost 7p. They then proved their predictions, found the rule and learning was summarised. The lesson ended with me introducing the 10p and asking the children to find all the ways that they could pay for a sweet that cost 13p. They completed this problem as a homework task.
The excitement throughout the lesson had been palpable, no doubt in part due to the novelty of being taught by an Englishman. Many of the children had thrived; their work demonstrated a clear systematic approach and the ability to quickly apply a general rule to a mathematical pattern…BUT… approximately 50% seemed not to have worked systematically and a few had struggled to work through the problem. So… How had I failed these children? I was not entirely sure but was hopeful to find answers in the post lesson analysis (TRG).
The TRG included nine teachers and started, as seems to be common practice in Shanghai, with the teacher of the lesson giving feedback. I explained my rationale for the approach that I had taken and that I had been happy with student engagement but was aware that many children had not fully grasped the idea of working systematically. I also explained that, in England, I would have used plastic money so that the children had the practical apparatus to help. I invited the other teachers to give advice on how I could have met the needs of the children that failed to grasp what “systematic” meant in this context. As already mentioned my English colleague gave feedback next. Then it was the turn of the Shanghai teachers…
“You needed to explore more fully what you mean by systematic and non-systematic, giving more than two examples” advised the next teacher. The children needed to “feel” what “systematic” and “non-systematic” are like. Then it would have been beneficial for the children to review their previous work and correct it using a systematic approach. Other advice included using paper copies of the coins so that the children had concrete resources to work with.
Finally, the head of the maths department shared her wisdom. She explained that when some children have not understood, we need to identify when in the lesson this lack of understanding occurred. It was clear that when I was explaining and eliciting how many ways we could pay for the 5p sweets, I did not use enough examples and I did not spend enough time comparing the examples and allowing children to experience how “systematic” compared to “non-systematic”. Thus, many of the children floundered with the next problem. The advice was frank but supportive and gave very clear examples of how the lesson could be improved.
The following week I was to deliver the same lesson again but in a different school, so I redesigned it applying what I had learned from the TRG.
This time children had paper coins available to use and I gave several examples of “systematic” and “non-systematic”. I also explicitly showed, with one example, what a systematic approach looked like. The outcomes, in terms of student attainment, were much improved. It seemed that all the children had used a systematic approach. It was also interesting to observe some children working with the paper coins as an aid. The lesson had improved dramatically because all children had grasped the learning intention.
This was an incredibly powerful CPD experience on many levels. It highlighted some apparent differences between the English and Shanghai approach to lesson observation and feedback. In 20 years of class teaching in five different schools, I can only remember being observed three times by peers, yet I have been observed countless times by senior leaders. While the feedback from these leaders has been kind and constructive, it has, at times, felt judgmental and has often been linked to appraisal. The feedback in Shanghai, however, felt more supportive and less threatening (even though it involved eight professionals). It also seemed to be more frank at times. For instance, the Shanghai maths lead said that she wouldn’t discuss the positive aspects of the lesson because they had already been mentioned and went straight in with how it could be improved. No “positive sandwich” here!
Crucially, because Shanghai teachers are used to analysing lessons in detail, they seem better equipped to identify areas of weakness and to know how to resolve them. My English colleague and I, with collectively over 40 years of teaching experience, struggled to identify how to resolve the weakness of the lesson yet, to our amazement, the Shanghai teachers “nailed” it. Having the opportunity to teach the lesson again and seeing the improved outcomes demonstrated the validity of their feedback.
Returning to England, I not only feel better equipped to lead TRGs, but I am also acutely aware of their potential for improving Teaching and Learning.