Time to Reflect

Sue Lownsbrough

Strand Lead for projects 7, 8 and 9, ccConsultancy Associate

As a Strand Lead I am writing this final report as a reflection on what others and I have learned from the experience of taking part in the OTLA English programme, while working with the team (comprising Strand Leads, mentors and the management team), and with the practitioners and organisations involved in the project.

As part of this writing process I have sat and pondered, while gathering ideas and trying to sort them into a cohesive and coherent message. It was during this process of reflection and planning that a common theme emerged: that of time – time to reflect, time to try things out, time to discuss with colleagues.

  • This report will focus on what has been learned about:
    supporting practitioners and their managers, both by their organisation, and by us, over the course of the project and
  • what can be achieved when the right environment is created.

The Condition of Funding initiative was introduced in a very tight timeframe, in a period of funding cuts. There has also been an increasing pressure to judge quality in terms of data. Consequently, a tutor’s caseload of responsibilities, beyond their time in the classroom, has significantly increased. Time to take part in practitioner action research and have professional conversations with colleagues is at a premium in many organisations. This has had an impact on:

  • time to build professional subject expertise;
  • time to think carefully about subject content and pedagogy;
  • time to develop a deeper understanding of student learning and the impact of different approaches.

My own research

The project prompted me to conduct some research (outside of the project) that I had been considering for some time about the effectiveness of the traditional model of one or two training days to develop practitioners’ skills and knowledge in teaching, learning and assessment to improve learners’ progress and achievement.

Taking part in the OTLA programme gave me the time to consider and reflect on challenges faced by managers and practitioners in the sector, how to overcome them, and how to ensure how those funded to support professional development, including our OTLA English programme, can create support and space to maximise the benefit of professional development opportunities.

Time for collaboration

Parts of the OTLA programme were focused on professional conversations and the sharing of best practice: these included induction meetings, monthly meetings to share progress, discussions about issues and successes and two dissemination events, as well as CPD opportunities to develop academic writing skills.

Though organisations already knew that these were the requirements of taking part in the project it was often challenging to arrange mutually agreed times and dates for meetings, and it was sometimes impossible to avoid last minute issues such as covering for sickness. Further, although the project used digital approaches to overcome some of these issues, such as using Zoom for online meetings, the limited amount of time available in any one day remained an intractable issue for many.

The issues outlined above remain a constant in the sector. and support for managers to overcome them in professional development plans and opportunities would help to ensure maximum benefit but could also open up a conversation about a “Rhythm of CPD” (as also noted by Claire Collins in a speech during a dissemination event). If professional development is to be successful, training events need to be part of a continuum, not a one off.

Despite these issues, practitioners come away from training and sharing best practice events buzzing with ideas and motivation. This was especially notable at the final OTLA dissemination event, as shown by all the comments I have since received from participants such as “I have thoroughly enjoyed being a part of this” (BB); “Thanks everyone for your superb ideas” (BCC); “I have loved taking part in the project” (MC); “It has been an honour to take part in such a project” (SDC).

My research, separate from but spurred on by taking part in this project, sought to gain views from the sector about how training can be arranged most effectively to create an environment in which practitioners can develop professional expertise, develop a better understanding of student learning and the impact of different approaches, and ultimately support learners to master the skills they need to achieve in study, work and life.

Time to reflect and implement

So far, the findings of my research indicate that practitioners need time to reflect on what they have learned, consider how to try it out in the classroom and to build on it. Most who responded to my research questionnaire reported that they disseminate what they have learned to colleagues, but most stated that time constraints frequently hamper their intentions to try some of what they have learned. Based on experience mentors were suggested as a positive intervention to maintain the impetus and implement changes.
These two points: plans from managers to support training commitments and post training support have also emerged from taking part in the project:

  • having a mentor has been reported as invaluable by the participants to help to keep them on track and motivated when things in their organisation have been challenging;
  • as a strand lead and a mentor, I have witnessed the challenges of both managers and tutors to create time to take part in some of the collaborative activities.

To summarise: planning professional development opportunities for the sector needs to take account of the time and resource constraints of organisations and individuals if we are to present the greatest opportunities for tutors to do what they do best – teaching, learning and assessment to support learner progress and achievement.

OTLA successes

So why is an OTLA model better than more traditional, one- or two-day training courses? Normally, the traditional model of learning from an ‘expert’ would be seen as better, especially when it includes time and support for the participant(s) to embed the new learning in their practice as discussed above.

This however was not what I experienced and learned from working on the OTLA programme. Often practitioners have felt that recognition of their professionalism has declined over recent years; and changes in approaches and policy have been without reference to the professional expertise of the sector. On the other hand, this OTLA English programme was able to demonstrate that expertise and professionalism is still strong in the sector. And it is the tutors who have the expertise; they have the knowledge and understanding of approaches which work for learners, and they are brimming with ideas to trial and develop them, though they have felt constrained for a range of reasons.

However, given time and a supportive mentor, and an encouraging culture, tutors can pinpoint areas of teaching and learning that they need to address and want to research, trial in the classroom and then refine, based on their experiences and the insights they have acquired from those experiences.

The project has given practitioners the safe space to realise their professional aspirations and this has re-ignited their optimism and motivation. Below is a small sample of some of the excellent work that has come out of the project

Examples demonstrating the scope and innovation emerging from taking part in the project

Example 1
One such example came from an organisation which, because of unforeseen circumstances, were unable to complete the project. However, in the short time they did take part, they trialled using an Assessment for Learning approach to develop apprentices’ English in the workplace.

The trainer and one apprentice who did take part found the approach empowering, with the apprentice taking charge of what they needed to learn and the capacity to explain what progress they were making. On the flip side they found that the project needed a much longer timescale, given that apprentices in the workplace do not have the same face-to-face contact hours as those who attend college or a work-based learning provider each week.

Example 2
Another project looked at engaging learners who had already achieved their GCSE at grade 4 with English topics which the learners felt they needed to develop for their courses. The English tutor worked collaboratively with level IT tutors to develop a series of diagnostic assessment activities and subsequent teaching and learning sessions which the learners themselves identified.

One learner I interviewed said that she had never realised that English extended beyond the English lessons. She cited one example of an activity (planning writing) which she now used much more widely than in planning writing. This included working out the steps needed to ensure that an IT programme she was creating worked effectively.

Example 3
At one college the librarian worked collaboratively with the ESOL tutors to set up a reading challenge for level 1 ESOL learners with the aim of engaging the learners in reading with the intention that this would help them with their forthcoming reading examination. Learners were encouraged to engage with choosing and selecting items they wanted to explore which promoted learner autonomy.

The project enjoyed several unexpected outcomes which included:

  • development of vocabulary
  • reading articles in magazines about topics relating to their lives and work
  • learners engaging more fully with other college activities: for example, one learner now had the confidence to join the college gym.

These examples demonstrate the range of participants’ ideas, the collaboration developed across organisations and most importantly the positive impact on the learners involved. I suggest that none of these projects would have emerged from attending a traditional CPD event.

A role for traditional CPD

However, traditional models of CPD do have a place in the “Rhythm of CPD”. Tutors new to the profession no longer have a subject specialist qualification to study for. Similarly, they may find that they need traditional forms of CPD to generate ideas about what they might like to try in the classroom.

A further consideration is that, in relation to the theme of time, a training course will be grounded in best practice research which often requires a lot of background reading which the trainer does when planning the course. Busy tutors simply may not have the time to do this.

Other outcomes from the project

Support for a new approach is needed by all taking part
At the outset of the project I witnessed some nervousness among practitioners about what was expected of them, how to approach the research and what it involved. In the best examples the practitioners had been involved from the outset, bringing their professional knowledge and expertise to the proposal, and so were full of energy and enthusiasm.
For others the enthusiasm grew as they developed confidence in their approaches and made necessary adjustments to the project, and they were clear about the steps they needed to take to get buy in from stakeholders including the learners, cross institution colleagues and managers. Confidence also grew as they established a relationship with their mentor and professional conversations developed.

At this point in the project participants benefitted from time spent with their mentors clarifying what was needed, how they would move forward and what kinds of evidence needed to be collected to ensure their findings were robust and would influence professional practice across the sector. Most practitioners had not been involved in research projects of this nature before and needed time to develop the skills and knowledge needed to move forward with confidence.

Similarly, some of the participants’ managers would have benefited at this point from support to create an environment which gave the participants time to fully engage with the project. Their priorities, and the demands made on them, can easily be overlooked and many busy managers would welcome support in managing how best to support their tutors in appreciating and implementing what they will need.

Practitioners’ innovation and enthusiasm unleashed
The project unleashed a huge wave of innovation and enthusiasm from practitioners as they gained in confidence while moving through the project. This has largely giving them the motivation to overcome the challenges faced by all tutors in the post-16 sector, including an ever-increasing caseload of responsibility and the associated constraints on their time.

Findings from the project

Several findings stand out for me and warrant further research and development:

  1. Learners’ active involvement in their learning such as by choosing their own texts can make a huge difference to their engagement and motivation
  2. Working collaboratively with vocational tutors helps the learners to see that English runs throughout all courses, work and life.
  3. Basing learning on skills development rather than Assessment Outcomes or examination questions is often more effective for learning and makes learning more relevant for learners.

In conclusion I have to say that participants found the experience of engaging in an OTLA project enlightening and uplifting. Their enthusiasm was reignited and they acquired a new energy in tackling some of the intractable problems that face them on a daily basis. It has been a worthwhile and valuable experience throughout. My research, spurred on by my involvement with the OTLA programme, has been especially valuable for myself and will lead me to continue my research journey with renewed energy and enthusiasm.