Professional learning during the pandemic: lessons from Wales

Written by Richard Lashley, Education Adviser, Camarthenshire County Council and Helen Lewis, Senior Lecturer in Education, Swansea University

This blog explores our experiences of providing Let’s Think professional development to a group of primary and secondary teachers in South Wales. This project originally arose in the light of significant developments within the education system in Wales. In 2022 a new curriculum will be launched. Overarching this curriculum is a vision that has four core purposes for learners:

There is clear alignment between these purposes and the philosophy and principles of Let’s Think. For Richard Lashley, (Education Support Adviser for Carmarthenshire Local Authority) there has never been a greater need for the Let’s Think programme to become embedded in practice. There is a legacy of using Let’s Think within the region, but for many teachers having time to reconnect with the materials, or to meet them for the first time has not been a priority. Seeing the potential value in re-launching Let’s Think across the region, Richard wanted to work to address this. Together with the education department at Swansea University and Let’s Think, Richard and his team developed a project to explore the impact of a programme of professional learning in Let’s Think, with a focus on mathematics, across the region. However, as the saying goes, the best laid plans do not always go as expected, and shortly after the initial meeting with teachers to outline the project, the pandemic hit. Schools across the region rapidly moved to a range of models of blended learning.

Engaging in professional learning opportunities during such a global pandemic has not always been simple. Moving from the more usual face-to-face delivery of sessions to approaches based in an online environment has taken some adjustment. Nonetheless, a group of teachers in Wales are benefitting from exploring the Let’s Think materials in this way, devising creative ways in which to become familiar with them in a rapidly changing and online world. This blog outlines some of their experiences.

Richard explains: ‘Planning for this project started in late September 2019 in response to the overwhelming need to develop aspects of thinking relating to numerical reasoning in schools across Carmarthenshire. After some discussion about avenues of professional learning, the team’s experience of the Cognitive Acceleration in Science Education (CASE) and the maths equivalent CAME to light (pardon the pun). A survey of our schools revealed that a number of teachers had previous experience in the Let’s Think and CAME programmes yet many were no longer using the materials. It was time for action!

We identified eight schools (including three federations). The schools represented both English and Welsh medium contexts and included primary and secondary teachers. The objectives identified at the start of the planning process were to:

  • Improve questioning, thinking and numeracy for pupils and staff through the Let’s Think programme.
  • Improve the action research skills of staff using a lesson study approach.
  • Develop high impact approaches for teaching, learning and networking in line with the ‘Schools as Learning Organisations’ (SLO)

Although the project was designed pre-Covid19, most of the objectives were kept in place.  However, given the additional pressures on the teachers and the need to remain socially distant, the action research element has been relaxed for now. Nonetheless, the aim remains to create expertise in Let’s Think amongst the group of teachers working within ‘hub’ schools, who in time will be used to support a roll-out into numerous ‘spoke’ schools throughout Carmarthenshire.

The input from Sarah Seleznyov from Let’s Think started in January 2021 . One of the immediate challenges related to the range of familiarity and experience with the materials. Some teachers had undertaken CAME training in the past and were familiar with many of the lessons, whilst some came with no experience at all.

The learning approach takes the form of a flipped approach whereby the team complete some reading related to key principles of the programme prior to sessions, for example, around metacognition and social construction. In addition, the teachers access high quality recordings of tutor simulations of model lessons to help explore key themes, and to get ready to plan and implement the episodes with groups of their own learners. The direct input, using video calling, largely emulates the approach used in Let’s Think lessons – introducing key terms (concrete construction), challenging the team to think and discuss ideas (social construction) and unpacking the thought processes and thinking (metacognition). Session one was challenging due to the context we were working in: online professional learning feels very different to the norm, and for many the materials were completely new. We were worried that this was too much for the teachers, who were already working under considerable challenge, and after the first session some did say that:

‘As newbies to the programme, we know lots of other people on the group are familiar with CAME but we have no experience in either and felt quite overwhelmed and because of this we felt we didn’t engage as much as we should have (lack of knowledge).’

However, drawing on large reserves of grit and resilience, and with individual, tailored support from the project team, most of the teachers went on to successfully deliver a Let’s Think lesson after the first session. This involved some creative thinking, with lesson taking place in a wide range of contexts – at home with their own children, on screen to a small group or face-to-face in the on-site provision at school with colleagues joining in on video or as a socially distant observer. After each completed the teaching, they sent a transcript of part of the lesson to Sarah for evaluation.  These excerpts are used to help reflect on key aspects of pedagogy as individuals and also within the group as a basis for professional dialogue.

Once the initial session and subsequent lesson was complete the process repeated. Session two was transformative, with teachers reflecting on the benefits:

‘The lesson simulations, in my opinion are invaluable. The front sheets and resources supplied make preparation and delivery very easy. Also, having the opportunity to discuss ideas and perspectives with the other practitioners really helps my confidence and sparks lot of enthusiasm for me!’

‘Enjoy discussion with colleagues about lessons learned.’

At the time of writing, we await the opportunity to discuss the second Let’s Think maths lessons that the teachers have now taught, and are eagerly anticipating the chance to build on the enthusiasm ignited in session two and nurture the connections being made with the ‘Bounce Back’ curriculum and other Cognitive Acceleration programmes.’