The General Teaching Council for Scotland

Enquiry and collaboration in times of Covid-19

A big part of teacher professional learning is that of practitioner enquiry which looks at ways to improve our practice and the learning experiences of our children and young people. Those enquiries embrace critical reflections of research and literature; they should challenge the evidence of impact; they can foster strong collaborations across school communities; and, they can often lead to whole school changes in practice.

With the impact of the pandemic, it may feel like enquiry and collaboration have been put on hold. We spoke to three headteachers about their plans and thoughts for continuing professional learning and what this means for any upcoming Professional Review and Development (PRD) conversations and if applicable, Professional Update (PU) sign-off. 

Assessing the situation

prd 1For those who had been undertaking a practitioner enquiry and have not yet completed the data collection, it may feel like time and energy lost. But learning has still happened and if it is possible to be continued, this should be encouraged and celebrated. “Be realistic!” said Paul Manley, headteacher at Gartconner Primary School in East Dunbartonshire, “It may not be possible to move forward with the enquiry so you should summarise where you are, identify key conclusions and potential next steps and add this to your professional learning record, including reflections on what you have learned from the process. Record and share any learning you have done so far, your reflections, and mention the impact the pandemic has had on it. You can also use a SWOT analysis to determine how relevant the enquiry still is and will be in the future, if you hope to continue it later.”

For some schools, like Kelso High School, the current circumstances have presented a great opportunity for their current practitioner enquiry focus: “We have continued with our ‘enquiry and collaboration’ approach and we are using this to drive forward whole school improvement,” explained headteacher, Jill Lothian, “we are currently looking at the introduction of 1:1 hand-held devices, which has been very useful due to our present situation.”

Going forward

While your practitioner enquiry may have been put on hold or has had to be adapted, you can continue to develop your enquiring stance approach to professional learning by continuing to ask questions of your practice. Perhaps the last few weeks have presented a new “itch”, or however you wish to describe your curiosity, for you in terms of remote learning and increasing your digital pedagogies. Or you are interested in some professional learning opportunities you think will have an impact for you and your learners going forward. But, is it too early to decide? If you are undertaking your PRD meetings this term, how can you make decisions about what your areas of development will be if you are still unsure what learning and teaching will look like at the start of next session?

There are still opportunities to be had, even if your initial ideas may have to be adapted when we understand better what schools will look like. Hannah Young, headteacher at Oxgang Primary School in East Dunbartonshire, explained “I think it will be a case of identifying new and key priorities for staff, looking at the educational picture when we do return and seeing what the focus needs to be. There is still very much a place for enquiry, and some people are already undertaking practitioner enquiries which can simply be taken forward or extended. Education will be different in August and going forward, so enquiry will be more important than ever.” Jill believes “that the importance of enquiry will still be paramount but that there will be an inevitable emphasis on digital technology and health and wellbeing issues raised by the current situation.” prd 3

At a time when school recovery plans are in the process of being written, it can be difficult to identify how your enquiries can contribute to wider whole school development. However, as Paul states, “Now, more than ever, Scotland needs enquiring professionals. Taking an enquiring stance enables all parts of the system to be empowered and have confidence to take risks and test our pedagogy, ensuring the best experience and outcomes for our learners.” Jill agrees she says, “Above all be a critical thinker. The opportunities for identifying and improving outcomes for learners will be great in the months ahead and the way that professionals will approach this most effectively is through taking an enquiring stance, applying the principles of the formal practitioner enquiry to all aspects of learning and teaching. It’s a powerful way to allow staff to be responsive to changing circumstances.”

Collaborating differently

Teachers across Scotland have been embracing online systems, through the likes of Glow and Microsoft Teams, to keep in touch with each other as well as their pupils. Collaboration is key to many teachers’ own professional learning and will look slightly different for some time to come. 

All three of the headteachers we spoke with agreed that making use of the technology available is essential to keep colleagues talking and sharing ideas and learning. Our usual ways of meeting, learning together and sharing practice will not happen again for some time, so embracing online environments to communicate and share practice will be central to future professional learning. Teachers in lockdown have shown resilience and determination as they have navigated their learning and teaching online. We have proven it works, with numerous practitioner enquiries being shared with colleagues across the country using online platforms.  As Hannah rightly states: “Collaboration is still possible, just not face to face!”  

What does this all mean for PRD and PU?

We could not have forecast these circumstances this time last year when we were undertaking our PRD conversations. “Acknowledgement that the rug was pulled from under many people at a critical time will be important,” says Jill. The Covid curve ball has taken our focus to different areas of professional learning, and that is okay. Paul helpfully suggests we should “Take time to reflect on the real learning that has been done in responding to current circumstances. It is not expected that ‘normal’ learning and teaching will take place within the next year and professional learning needs to adapt to ensure that we are meeting learners’ needs. Leave more space for innovation and focus on building resilience in staff to have confidence to take risks.”

prd 2Hannah said: “It is important that teaching staff still get the opportunity to develop skills and engage in CLPL. Even just the switch from face to face to remote/ home learning has provided a lot of professional learning opportunities for staff over the past few months.” 

We should not worry about any negative impact these circumstances have had on our ‘planned’ professional learning. In fact, we should embrace the opportunity to think of ourselves as teaching professionals and what these changes mean to us, our practice, and our knowledge. All of the changes we have undergone recently will all contribute to rich professional dialogue and begin to shape our thinking about our next steps.

Final thoughts

What is agreed by all three headteachers is that our PRD discussions should continue during these times, online where possible. Monday’s blog and yesterday’s Sway all contain useful suggestions to reassure you about your PRD discussions. On Thursday, in our Coffee and Catch-Up, GTCS’ Sharon Smith and David Graham, along with two teacher colleagues, will discuss PRD and PU within these unusual times, and the extended PU sign-off deadline to the end of October for the 2019/20 academic year. For those of you who are reviewers, please take the opportunity to also read today’s piece on Reviewing with Heart for suggestions to support you in your role in these unusual times.

About the headteachers

 jill lothian

paul mannley

hannah young

Jill Lothian has been headteacher at Kelso High School, Scottish Borders for four and a half years, with eight years as a deputy headteacher, leading professional learning. She has led extensive whole school approaches to practitioner enquiry. Kelso High School received a GTCS Excellence in Professional Learning Award for Schools in 2018. Paul Manley in headteacher at Gartconner Primary School and Early Learning Centre in Kirkintilloch, East Dunbartonshire. In a previous role, Paul was BEd tutor for Glasgow University, specialising in Teachers as Enquiring Professionals. Gartconner PS, as part of Kirkintilloch Learning Community, received the GTCS Excellence in Professional Learning Award in 2019.   Hannah Young is the newly appointed headteacher at Oxgang Primary School in Kirkintilloch, East Dunbartonshire. Oxgang PS has a strong cluster approach which provides rich opportunities for collaboration. She supports the professional learning of her team through self-evaluation, quality assurance and school improvement planning. Oxgangs PS, as part of Kirkintilloch Learning Community, received the GTCS Excellence in Professional Learning Award in 2019.