Dylan Wiliam on Leadership for Learning

Dylan Wiliam was speaking recently in London about Leadership for Learning. He spoke widely about the role of research in schools, the conditions necessary for teacher and, in turn, pupil learning and the importance of every teacher having a desire and ambition to continuously improve.

Some highlights from his presentation include the following observations:

The role of research in education

Research suggests that current systems of ability grouping have a low and potentially negative impact on attainment. Typically, when comparing mixed ability systems with set-based systems, lower ability pupils are disadvantaged whilst higher ability pupils gain. However, the net impact is typically negative, as the lower ability pupils fall further than the higher ability pupils rise. However, he also argued that if you put the strongest teachers with the lower sets, then heir is evidence to suggest that the net impact would be positive, with lower ability pupils typically receiving greater benefit than higher ability pupils when taught by the ‘best’ teachers.

Wiliam offered words of caution about the use of research in education; when using research we must be careful to understand fully the practice that was investigated and then interpret, apply or dismiss the findings according to our own context. Wiliam argued that everything works somewhere and nothing works everywhere, and that context, individual pupils, personal relationships and teachers’ professional knowledge of how these inter-relate and affect learning must be used when filtering and learning from research.

He further warned about the limitations of “effect size” as a measure of the strength of research findings, warning that, because pupils typically make more rapid progress at younger ages, the apparent effectiveness of strategies can be distorted by whether they were tested at a younger or older age. He also offered advice about assuming that “statistically significant” impacts indicated a very effective teaching strategy, as large scale studies which show very small gains but for a very large number of pupils result in “statistically significant” findings. In reality, as schools we might not want to invest precious resources into strategies that actually only generate minor gains for individual pupils; in this context he cited early BECTA research on the impact of ICT on pupil learning.

Wiliam advised, too, about how to interpret the work of the Sutton Trust. He pointed out that research can only ever tell us what was the case and can’t tell us what might be, if things were done differently. So, for example, whilst the Sutton Trust found that on average the use of teaching assistants had a limited impact on attainment, this does not mean that, through excellent practice, professional training, and creative deployment, TAs could not add significant value.

The role of a teacher

Teachers should not do the learning for the learner. However, teachers should also not not merely facilitate the learning. Teachers need to focus on the nature and quality of what pupils are learning (activity by pupils is not of itself a sign of good learning). Wiliam suggests that Teachers need to be engineers of effective learning environments, by doing the following:

1. Creating student engagement (eg no hands up questioning)

2. Anticipating what pupils will learn and what they will misunderstand and the difficulties they will face.  This is learned from teaching – it is more than just knowing the content of your subject.

3. Developing pupils’ habits of mind and training them in the kinds of ideas, thoughts, principles and processes that inform how we think and make sense of the world. Dylan argues that subjects are not arbitrary – they are different ways of thinking.

Formative assessment

To be effective, formative feedback must be done consistently and routinely, across the school and by teachers themselvesWhere do schools want to be?

It is essential that we give pupils time to respond.  There is no point giving comments if pupils do not have time to respond to it.  By providing feedback in the form of questions, this steers pupils and prompts new thoughts.

Peer assessment and self assessment

Peer assessment is less emotionally charged than self assessment. Assessing anonymous peers is even less emotionally charged.  Wiliam therefore recommends that first pupils peer assess anonymous work from outside of the group.  Then pupils peer assess a known pupil’s work.  Then, finally, they self assess.  This enables pupils to build confidence and reduces the emotional impact of self-assessment.

The role of consistency in schools

Wiliam argues that not all teachers need to follow certain policies (eg seating plans) to achieve great outcomes for pupils. But some do need such strategies. For some teachers not to follow such policies undermines those who do need it; it is the responsibility of more established teachers to follow such policies in order to support the development of their less established peers.

What makes effective teacher learning?

Wiliam referred to the ‘knowing-doing gap’ (Pfeffer 2000): typically, teachers know what they should be doing but they still don’t do it.  So, the issue in improving teaching is not typically a knowing gap but a doing problem.

Wiliam also referred to Haidt (2005) & Heath & Heath (2010), arguing that habit change is crucial to improving quality of teaching.

When developing coaching and other CPD opportunities and systems, Wiliam argues that the first priority is not to focus on the process – first, we need to get the content and knowledge right to ensure that the conversations taking place are meaningful and substantive and focus on the right things.  The nitty gritty matters – it’s not just about the process and systems but the substance.

To change habits, Wiliam advises:

1. follow the successes

2. script the critical moves to take away the complexity and tiring nature of decision making.  E.g. the 5 a day campaign

3. point to the destination: raise expectations extremely high.  A big audacious goal that might not appear attainable but of you get close is a massive improvement

4. shrinking the change – break down the processes of reaching the destination into small, incredential targets and steps.  e.g. don’t say “tidy your room” but instead say “spend 5 mins tidying”

5. change staff mindsets – this is more important than student mindsets.  Teachers must believe that they can become better.

6. change the environment – make it easy for teachers to do what works.
throug our past experience.  This makes it very hard to change our practice.

How can teachers improve?

Wiliam suggests that it is generally better to get people to act their way into a new way of thinking rather than to think their way into a new way of acting.  Practice is the key: to be good practise what you can do; to be great, practise what you can’t do.

The only thing that matters is practice (NB deliberate practice is not the same as mere experience). Talent is important but is over-rated; talent matters more in sport than in intellectual activities.  Talent is the starting point and helps but elite performance results from talent PLUS 10 years of maximal efforts to improve performance.  NB practice is hard work, not very motivating and needs extrinsic rewards – e.g. practising scales on violin is tedious but essential.  Wiliam recommends reading Gladwell “Outliers”, Syed “Bounce” and Colvin “Talent is Overrated”.


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