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Educational improvement is a shared endeavour - Martin Hoskin

04 April 2024

By Martin Hoskin, Teaching Fellow at the School of Education, Languages & Linguistics, University of Portsmouth, and Research Further Scholar

“By starting with the ‘why’ and understanding the purpose behind their actions, leaders inspire their teams and create a strong foundation for success.” (Sinek, 2009).

Without a culture which reflects educational improvement as a mutual or shared endeavour, college priorities and teacher priorities are unlikely to be the same. Culture is key to managing change and providing the conditions through which professional learning might be effective. Biesta (2009, p. 2) states “The rise of the measurement culture in education has had a profound impact on educational practice”, but the findings of my research would suggest that it doesn’t have to be this way.

Despite external influences, college leaders do have the agency to make the right decisions in how they wish to lead and must finely balance these decisions if they wish to meet the needs of their teachers and the priorities of the organisation. Sinek (2009) states “By starting with the ‘why’ and understanding the purpose behind their actions, leaders inspire their teams and create a strong foundation for success”. It is, therefore, essential for leaders to consider whether their college culture is primed to support, rather than hinder, educational improvement.

The recognition that teaching and learning is not any one person’s responsibility and practice only improves through collaboration, providing the essential conditions for a “shared endeavour”. Contextualisation and the acceptance that as educators, we are all equally responsible for wanting to get better are also key to initiating a culture shift. My research has shown there to be 6 key characteristics for educational improvement as a shared endeavour: recognition, collaboration, focus, context, agency, and reflection.

The first characteristic of “recognition” is rooted within the understanding that 21st-century teaching is a dynamic, ever-evolving ball of complexity and it is very easy for teachers to feel detached from anything other than getting their job done. This often leads teachers to fall into a position of pedagogical solitude (Shulman, 2000), where innovation and curiosity are dampened by the mechanical grind of the day to day. Shulman, (2000, p. 24) suggests “...if we wish to see greater recognition and reward attached to teaching, we must change the status of teaching from private to community property". Through recognising teachers as agents of change rather than tools to be used as a means to an end, we can accomplish a far greater degree of “good” for education.

The second characteristic “collaboration” promotes the usefulness of “communities of practice” (Wenger, 2011), which might be formed under the right conditions within a college. As a collaborative community, teachers and managers are presented with the opportunity to obtain a wider range of perspectives from a trusted group of peers in order to change and develop their own practice, and in turn influence the evolution of policies and processes within their organisation. In this instance, the addressing of enduring educational issues, emerging problems, or even the desire to just get better, then becomes a shared endeavour owned by more than one member of the community. It must be recognised that these communities cannot be forced, and there is no formula or algorithm for their existence. They are born naturally from “...groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do.”, who might imagine an alternative way of doing things (Wenger, 2011, p. 1). Collaboration supports a transition into vertical discourse, which helps to ensure that educational conversations are not “...dis-embedded, but strongly embedded in a particular social and institutional context” (Bourne, 2003 p. 509). This gives both teachers and managers the opportunity to be heard, sharing their own analysis of the world (classroom) and putting teachers into a position where they were able to confront their own self-limiting behaviours and in which they may develop far greater awareness of their teaching practice including their existing knowledge, expertise, and know-how.

The third characteristic is “focus’. As Clarke (2001) suggests, when carrying out teacher assessment, it is important that the criteria for observation are clear for the person being observed, so that both observer and teacher are aware of the aspects being judged. Refining the focus of a lesson observation, for example, to a particular theme or problem, empowers teachers to try something new or get better at something already integral to their practice. It also helps the observer to understand and appreciate the context in which the observation takes place, adding credibility to the judgments being made. Under the traditional “tick list” approach of graded observations, with its many criteria causing observers to spend the entire observation trying to keep track of what has and hasn’t been seen, the teacher is “...cast in the role of the child who does not know the learning intention of a task” (Clarke, 2001, p. 108). Alternatively, giving teachers’ a choice of a focus for observation elicits more immediate impact on pedagogy and practice, with “good practice'' celebrated and shared with others across the “community” of practitioners.

The fourth characteristic, “context” supports the understanding that an assessment of teaching practice requires more than just a superficial list of objective criticisms. As Biesta (2015) argues, education involves more than just “qualification” and as such an objective assessment of practice lacks credibility. Teaching practice is grounded in context and therefore cannot simply be guided by pre-determined principles or rules (Carr, 1995). An understanding of context supports teachers and observers to enter into a shared endeavour of educational improvement with a greater degree of openness and honesty. Trust relationships between teachers and observers also improve as a result of higher levels of interaction and interest, before, during and after the Lesson Visit.

The fifth characteristic is “agency”. The confidence required to work with agency is embedded with Bernstein’s three pedagogical rights of enhancement, inclusion and participation. The conditions for the first pedagogical right of enhancement are the creation of new possibilities or “tension points condensing the past and opening possible futures” Bernstein (2000, p. XX). If teachers can see educational improvement models such as observation and CPD as a positive experience then their confidence in and out of the classroom grows, and the pedagogical right of enhancement is met. The second pedagogic right of inclusion relates to the feeling that you belong and have a say. To be “...included socially, intellectually, culturally and personally.” (Frandji and Vitale, 2015 p. 15). Through a collaborative process in which the development of teaching and learning becomes a shared endeavour teachers become part of a community (developing the capability of communitas) and as a result the second pedagogic right is met. The third pedagogic right of participation refers to the right to participate in discourse and reflection as well as the level of practice, “procedures whereby order is constructed, maintained and changed” (Bernstein, 2000 p. XXI). The option to choose a focus for lesson observation or CPD, as well as the opportunity to engage in professional dialogue, supports the freedom to demonstrate the “reality” of day to day teaching practice before engaging in open and honest discourse (the capability of civic discussion) with the observer. Through teachers exercising their own individual judgement, with agency, the third pedagogic right of participation is met.

Agency is vitally important factor in the acquiescence of practitioners who might otherwise be dismissive about their role in educational improvement, but we must recognise that although agency may be promised, it doesn’t mean it will actually be achieved. Agency is less about letting staff loose and more about providing conditions through which teachers have an element of choice in how they learn and develop their knowledge and skills in relation to good educational practice. We must consider that many teachers have been conditioned to work in a certain way, the top-down, expert led approach to professional development, which has dominated the educational landscape for so long and still does in some cases. Therefore some guidance or scaffolding may be necessary for teachers to know how to work with agency.

Indeed, agency is dependent upon the individual capacity of teachers as well as the culture of the organisation. Full agency over actions, with regards to the development of teaching practice, would appear to be difficult to achieve through any singular process, and needs to be encouraged and supported over a period of time. However, as a shared endeavour the opportunity for robust conversations around teaching, learning and pedagogy, as well as other emerging and enduring educational issues gives teachers a voice. This voice allows them to play an active role in their own professional development and in the advancement of teaching and learning within the organisation. This approach develops a confidence amongst teachers to release themselves from the shackles of pre-existing assumptions, in order to challenge the status quo and reclaim control over their own practice from the ground-up!

The sixth characteristic “reflection” is supported by a democratic and pragmatic approach to educational improvement that considers the practical elements within teaching practice, instead of chasing the outstanding lesson. Without the opportunity for reflection, pedagogical discourse becomes stuck within the confines of what is right and wrong rather than what works and why. Through accepting that there are different ways of knowing, we can accept that there are different ways of assessing a situation. We do not want to create “knowledge prisons” in education, we want teachers to feel able to explore the boundaries and tension points through which learning can take place in order to develop a far greater understanding of what could be, rather than what is. If we can create conditions under which all educators might reflect on making the unthinkable, thinkable, we might begin to influence real change within educational systems and the wider education sector.

Currently, it feels like we are at the precipice of inevitable, yet unknown change within the FE sector, whether this be further curriculum reform, another instalment of the Ofsted EIF, or maybe even a complete reimagining of how we approach educational improvement. One thing more certain, though, is that if we continue to employ models which label teachers as the problem rather than supporting them to develop their practice within the classroom, we will continue to see the unprecedented rates of poor teacher retention and recruitment within an already ailing workforce, making educational improvement every bit harder than it already is.


Bernstein, B. (2000). Pedagogy, symbolic control, and identity: Theory, research, critique (Vol. 5). Rowman & Littlefield.

Biesta, G. (2009). Good education in an age of measurement: On the need to reconnect with the question of purpose in education. Educational Assessment, Evaluation and Accountability (formerly: Journal of Personnel Evaluation in Education), 21(1), 33-46.

Biesta, G. J. (2015). Beautiful risk of education. Routledge.

Bourne, J. (2003). Vertical discourse: The role of the teacher in the transmission and acquisition of decontextualized language. European Educational Research Journal, 2(4), 496-521.

Carr, W. (1995). For education: Towards critical educational inquiry. McGraw-Hill Education (UK).

Clarke, S. (2001). Unlocking formative assessment: Practical strategies for enhancing pupils’ learning in the primary classroom. Hodder & Stoughton Educational.

Frandji, D., & Vitale, P. (2015). The enigma of Bernstein's ‘pedagogic rights'. In Pedagogic rights and democratic education. Routledge.

Sinek, S. (2009). Start with why - how great leaders inspire action [Video]. TED Conferences.

Shulman, L. S. (2000). Teaching as community property. Learning from change, 24-26

Wenger, E. (2011). Communities of practice: A brief introduction.

The views expressed in Think Further publications do not necessarily reflect those of AoC or NCFE.