The importance of Kennedy’s ‘Persistent Problems’ in teacher development

At Oasis Academy John Williams in Bristol, our T&L framework focusses on the implementation of Rosenshine’s principles and Teach Like A Champion techniques. However, at its most fundamental layer, our teacher development approach is anchored in Mary Kennedy’s research paper Parsing the Practice of Teaching [2016].

Persistent problems of teaching. Kennedy argues that all teachers face four persistent problems in the classroom. We have to portray the curriculum to students; planning, sequencing and resourcing lessons to make each subject’s domain knowledge accessible and memorable over the long-term. We have to contain student behaviour; running the room to ensure that everyone is safe and free from distractions. We have to enlist student participation; ensuring the highest possible ratio of students taking part and thinking hard. Finally, we have to expose student thinking; designing formative and summative assessment methods that inform us what students do and don’t remember.

Persistent problems may require the removal of negative connotations. The perception of the word “problem” can be an issue. Sometimes we can personalise the concept of having persistent problems within teaching. We need to try and break this cycle to see the pursuit of balancing the persistent problems of teaching as a meaningful endeavour, not a criticism.

Persistent problems mean we all have to keep getting better. Kat Howard [@SaysMiss] blogs that we must keep “the notion of continual improvement as our focus“. With this in mind, at OAJW we have borrowed Ambition Institute’s keep getting better motto and include it as part of our staff T&L messaging. The persistent problems provide us with a clear justification why this mindset is so important. This is because no matter what our career stage, these persistent problems remain the same. By continuing to build the widest range of effective teaching habits, by mastering high-leverage techniques, we are then being able to apply the correct strategy at the correct time.

Persistent problems must be at the forefront of teacher development. The key intent for our teacher development is to enable all staff to have the expertise to consistently address the persistent problems that we all face. One way that we do is starting each of our OAJW T&L deliberate practice sessions by stating the persistent problem we are exploring. This is so that during a deliberate practice session our staff can consciously add to their teaching mental model. We also need to curate a teacher development curriculum where all of the persistent problems are explored. An example of this would be widening our array of questioning strategies to enlist student participation. We recognise that being able to Cold Call is an important technique to do this. Sometimes Cold Call will be the highest-leverage questioning method but on other occasions Show Me or Pepper will better serve the purpose of our questioning. Understanding multiple techniques allow us to make the most informed choice to enlist student participation for each lesson or class.

Persistent problems do not have a silver bullet. Kennedy’s paper states “specific activities that solve one challenge can also exacerbate another”. Therefore, we need to be able to balance the four persistent problems by being aware of the strengths and limitations of different teaching techniques. Over time we aim to build a mental model where we are able to select the right technique at the right time to have the biggest impact on student learning. Harry Fletcher-Wood [@HFletcherWood] has highlighted Kennedy’s argument “that organising teacher education around techniques is wrong and leads to their misapplication – we should organise around persistent problems teachers face.” No single teaching technique is going to be a catch-all solution for every teacher. Additionally, focussing on a single solution to one persistent challenge may make another problem even more prevalent. As Matthew Evans [@head_teach] writes in his blog Kicking the solution habit, we must consider “how nested the problem is in the complexity of the [school] system.” A T&L example could be moving from a culture of ‘hands up’ questioning to Cold Call so that our ratio of enlisting student participation increases. However, if we have not clearly defined the Means of Participation to students before beginning this classroom change, we may get more instances of shouting out and find it harder to contain student behaviour. Considering how a change in teacher behaviour to positively affect one persistent problem may alter the balance of the others must therefore always be a key CPD consideration.

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