Surely doing good things is something we should do more of? Especially at school. I have seldom met a teacher who is not interested in doing the best for their students and therefore pretty keen to do good things. Good things are, well… good. Aren’t they?

Having just watched Dylan Wiliam’s keynote speech at the SSAT conference in 2010, I’m not so sure. The speech was provocatively titled, “Stopping people doing good things: the essence of effective leadership”. Needless to say, this is not a leadership style I have encountered before and until watching, probably wouldn’t have been interested in trying.

After demolishing the fashionable straw men of school improvement (class sizes, better qualified teachers etc.) he concludes that schools don’t make much of a different when demographics are taken out of the equation but teachers make an enormous difference. See below:

Slide 13 from Dylan

This leave us with a stark choice: replace existing teachers with better ones, or improve the effectiveness of existing teachers. He says that “If we could replace the least effective 15,000 teachers with average teachers, the net impact on student achievement at GCSE would be an increase of one-fortieth of a grade in each subject.” and that “Raising the bar for entry into the profession so that we no longer recruit the lowest performing 30% of teachers would increase achievement at GCSE by one grade—by 2030.” Which is, as he says, not soon enough.

So, by a process of elimination, what’s left is improving existing teachers as the best (and most cost effective) strategy for raising standards. OK, so doesn’t that mean getting bad teachers to do good things? Apparently not.

He restates what every thinking teacher knows, that the highest impact intervention we can use is formative assessment. No arguments there. At this point I’m thinking formative assessment is a “good thing”. He can’t mean we shouldn’t do it. And he doesn’t. What he says, in a nut shell, is that change is difficult. As teachers, we are ‘experts’ in our own practice: we are highly skilled at teaching the way we teach. I have some personal experience of this; it has been a long a painful battle to stop relying on ‘charisma teaching’ and to step back and try to take a constructivist approach. At times it has been distinctly uncomfortable and has prompted much hand wringing and soul searching. But it’s definitely been worth it. (More detail here.)

Asking teachers to change will, in the short term at least, make them worse at teaching. He makes the point that we do most of what we do without thinking aboutit; it’s become instinctive and “That’s why telling teachers what to do doesn’t work”. We don’t need extra knowledge, we just need to change our habits. Well, I’m not totally sure about this because without the knowledge that I should changing my practice and some ideas about how to do it I’d have found it impossible to shift my teaching habits. DW says, “the hardest bit is not getting new ideas into people’s heads, it’s getting the old ones out. That’s why it takes time.”

He quotes some interesting research from Vilfredo Pareto who advocated what has come to called Pareto improvement which is, “a change that can make at least one person (e.g., a student) better off without making anyone else (e.g., a teacher) worse off.” Yes, I thought, that’s right. That’s why differentiation is so hard. There’s little point asking a teacher to enact change which will have a significantly negative effect on their work/life balance. They just won’t do it and rightly so.

Wiliam talks about the fact that Weight Watchers is effective despite the fact that everyone already knows their core message: “eat less, exercise more”. What they do is reinforce this knowledge on a regular basis and provide support to ensure that it is acted upon.

Should CPD be the same? Wiliam argues that we already know what works. We don’t need any new ideas. What we need, perhaps, is to be refocussed on the essentials and supported in embedding them in our practice. He describes sharing good practice as “a very dangerous idea” and as “a fundamental distraction”. He makes the point that teachers are already working like buggery and that, “it is incredibly hard to stop people doing valuable things in order to give them time to do even more valuable things”. Teachers are pretty much all engaged in going their absolute best for the students in their care. That’s why we’re teachers. But, there is, quite literally no time to waste on psuedo-science like brain gym and learning styles. If we’re going to be asking all these dedicated, hardworking teachers to improve, we have to focus on what works. And at the top of the list of what works is formative assessment. No argument. It just is. But what if I really like brain gym and want to introduce to my staff? Tough: don’t.

The message is that leaders must insist that teachers commit to continuously improving their teaching practice and must work on strategies supported by evidence that shows they are likely to result in improvements for our students. In return, it needs to be acknowledged that teachers are best placed to decide what they need to work on to improve their practice. This will, he says, lead to “unprecedented improvements in student achievement”. Well, we all want that.

I think my favourite part of the speech is his conclusion that as teachers we shouldn’t compare ourselves (or be compared) to the ‘outstanding’ colleague down the corridor. This sort of comparison is an absolute no no in AfL and so it should be in teacher assessment (this is something on which I have strong feelings and have written about here). Instead, we should all strive for a “personal best”. To my mind this is a clarion call for a growth mindset approach to teaching and learning where we are prepared to take risks and , as Samuel Beckett said, “fail better”.

You can get a copy of the slides used in the presentation here.