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Daniel Willingham's five step approach to self-improvement

For teachers in England and Wales, as you drive on to GCSEs and AS-levels, and exam leave and gained time beckon, it will soon be time to come up with performance management targets (slight groan?). I used to manage this in my department and, of course, had to come up with my own for my line manager. Teachers outside the UK might be able to make use of the ideas below.

I recently read psychologist Daniel Willingham's best-selling book Why Don't Students Like School? which I recommend. In Chapter 9 he lays out a five step approach for getting and giving feedback which I thought could be used or adapted as a genuinely useful (as opposed to tick-box) performance management (PM) target. I know this because I saw colleagues adopt similar, if less structured, approaches to self-improvement. See what you think. I'll summarise Willingham's steps and suggest briefly how they might be adapted for MFL teachers.

Step 1

Identify another teacher you would like to work with. (This could make for a shared PM target.) Make sure they are committed to the project. Ideally they would teach languages, but if there is no one who fits the bill for you, look beyond your subject area.

Step 2

Record yourself and watch the recordings alone. You could simply set up your smartphone on a tripod or a shelf so you can be clearly seen in action. Make sure this is acceptable in terms of school policy. It might be wise to film a lesson or bits of lessons where there is a mix of teacher-led and pair/group work. When you review the recording(s) take some notes. Try not to be too self-critical; just note objectively what you see and hear.

Step 3

Assuming your partner teacher has done the same, get ready to watch each other's classrooms. Willingham suggests starting by looking at tapes of other teachers not at your school, but online. For MFL I would suggest thew archived videos from Teachers' TV or the TPRS hangout videos from YouTube, e.g. this one for Spanish. Alternatively, skip this part and go straight to watching each other's videos.

It's important when comparing notes to maintain a constructive tone, of course, looking at very specific actions which lead to specific outcomes. You could, in MFL, consider how you do the following, for example:

  • Use gesture
  • Use pictures
  • Ask questions
  • Assure clarity
  • Correct
  • Use other drilling forms apart from questioning
  • Explain grammar
  • Use the target language
  • Model pronunciation and get students to be accurate
  • Use humour
  • Keep the least confident on board
  • Use eye contact and body movement
  • Manage distractions

It's interesting that Willingham focuses on using tapes, not personal classroom observation. This may be because the presence of an observer may change behaviours or make the teacher uncomfortable. I'm not so sure about this. Observation in UK schools is so routine these days, that you could choose to work this way rather than use videos. In any case, you could agree this with your partner.

Step 4

Now work with your partner, observing each other's videos. If you have done live observation meet together to discuss any notes you took and consider possible improvements or adjustments to your practice. If particular points arise (e.g. "You tend to move around a lot, which may be distracting and be a sign of insecurity" or "You ask a lot of closed questions, can you vary your questioning technique more"?) You could then plan in a follow-up observation or video to work on a specific area, using the idea of "deliberate practice" to improve your craft.

Step 5

PM targets require specific outcomes, of course, so you need to be able to demonstrate some change you have made. So follow-up videos or observations need to be done. A written review from your partner would do the job from a paperwork point of view.


This need not be a hugely time-consuming task and, if you do it with an admired colleague, it should be an enjoyable friendship-building activity. I know this is true - I have seen it at work. Everyone benefits, mutual observation becomes routine and the habit can spread. Keep paperwork to a minimum, beware of "formal meetings", do the discussion over coffee in free periods or build it into departmental meeting time if this can be accommodated. I think it's better if the process is "organic" rather than formal, always positive, but you do need to set aside a some time for it. The "gained time" period is a good one to choose.


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