Professor Dylan Wiliam at Wesley’s Leadership Forum
Guest Blogger, Dr Deborah Netolicky, Dean of Research and Pedagogy
On Thursday 25 May 2017, Wesley College was thrilled to welcome Dylan Wiliam to our Term 2 Leadership Forum. The Leadership Forums are a new initiative, conceptualised and organised by myself and Director of Strategy, Mat Irving. They are wine and cheese evening events attended by Wesley College leaders, including Coaches, Middle School PLC Facilitators, middle leaders, senior leaders, and the College Executive. The Forums bring Wesley leaders together for professional development, conversation, and collaboration around leadership.
This term we were fortunate to be joined by a world expert in education. Originally a Maths and Physics teacher in London, Dylan Wiliam has, across his career thus far, been Dean of the School of Education at King’s College London, Senior Research Director at the Educational Testing Service in Princeton, and Deputy Director of the Institute of Education at the University of London. He is currently Emeritus Professor of Educational Assessment at University College London. Dylan is most renowned for his work, over almost 20 years, on formative assessment: using evidence of achievement to adapt what happens in classrooms to meet learner needs. He works with groups of teachers and school leaders all over the world on developing those practices most likely to have a positive impact on student learning.
Dylan’s presentation to Wesley College leaders focused on leading teacher learning and the role of feedback in student learning and in professional culture. He outlined the importance of quality teaching in improving student achievement. In his 2016 book Leadership for Teacher Learning, he presents the Danielson Framework for Teaching (which we use at Wesley in our teacher review processes, alongside the AITSL Professional Standards for Teachers) as a valid, rigorously-researched instrument, and currently ‘the best we can do in relating student progress to classroom observations.’ He points out that students taught by teachers who are rated highly on the Danielson Framework make significantly more progress in their learning than those who are rated poorly. Dylan warns, however, that little of the variation in teacher quality is captured by any observation scheme.
Referencing John Sweller’s theory of cognitive load, Dylan noted in his presentation that our working memory cannot process many new elements at any one time and that building knowledge in long term memory is the key to a more powerful short term memory. Experts have a bank of knowledge that they draw from with automaticity, helping them to do sophisticated thinking. Much of our job as teachers is to help students learn and remember knowledge so that they can use their working memory to solve problems and think in increasingly complex ways.
As one of the founders of formative assessment, Dylan was emphatic about the potential of the right kinds of feedback to have a positive impact on student learning, affirming the work we are currently doing at Wesley around feedback. Feedback is process of interactive dialogue between teacher and students so that learners become more expert and empowered self-activating as agents of their own learning. Feedback should serve the learner, be acted upon, and be transferable to future tasks; it should move learning and learner forward.
As an academic who works with practitioners, Dylan challenged us to be critical consumers of research. He showed us some limitations of research and reminded us that, while research can show us what was or what has been done, it cannot show us what might still be done. While educational research can point us in profitable directions, each school is an idiosyncratic place with a unique community. Teachers, as Dylan notes in this paper, are likely to know their classroom and their students better than anyone else. He reminded us that, in education, “What works?” is not the right question, because everything works somewhere and nothing works everywhere. We are better off asking “Under what conditions does this work?”
My Dean of Research and Pedagogy role is part of Wesley’s commitment to a school-wide culture of research-based and data-informed decision making, from the classroom to the boardroom. My role is dedicated, in part, to raising the profile and practice of research in our community and helping Wesley to remain agile and systematic in our response to and engagement with current educational research. The ‘pedagogy’ part of my role is also key. While Dylan noted the importance of curriculum as a focus of teaching and learning, he writes in Embedded Formative Assessment: ‘Pedagogy trumps curriculum. Or more precisely, pedagogy is curriculum, because what matters is how things are taught, rather than what is taught.’ Looking to research, and beyond research, needs to be grounded in improving what happens in our classrooms: what we teach and especially how we teach it.
Teachers are busy people working in complex contexts. Teachers, Dylan says, aren’t doing anything with their time that isn’t worthwhile, but we need to stop teachers doing good things, to give them time to do even better things. We need to be deliberate about how we use our time and resources in the best possible ways for our core business of teaching students to be knowledgeable, critical thinkers and powerful self-activators of their own learning. Dylan challenged us at Wesley to consider how we might harness what research can tell us and our collaborative wisdom as practitioners, to improve, not because we aren’t good enough, but because we can be even better.
It was an absolute pleasure and a privilege to welcome Dylan Wiliam to Wesley College. His bespoke presentation to our leadership team has provoked our thinking and continues to stimulate discussion.