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How Can Subject Leads Use Lesson Drop-ins to Design Great PD?
Case study • 30 Mar '23
Bridie McPherson
Rachel Sewell

If you're reading this, you’ve perhaps explored our thinking on lesson drop-ins before: they're a powerful tool for building the positive culture and confidence around peer feedback that's needed to launch instructional coaching across a school and they provide a useful overview of what's going on in lessons.

But what if lesson drop-ins could also serve another purpose? What if they could be used to deepen teachers' understanding of how students learn; what if they could allow subject leads to build a clear picture of their team’s evolving mental models, motivations, and response to departmental professional development?

We spoke to Bridie, Head of English at Oasis Southbank, about the multi-faceted role that drop-ins play in developing her team's practice.

A quick note on terminology: on Steplab, teachers can observe each other and provide feedback in two ways:

  1. A weekly or fortnightly observation, ending with a full instructional coaching feedback session, including modelling, planning and rehearsal
  2. A drop-in of any other teacher in the school (not just their coachee) to learn from or offer feedback on their practice, with brief written feedback and positive shout-outs.

The purpose of departmental lesson drop-ins

Bridie’s English team drop-in on each other’s lessons 2-3 times a week for around 5-10 minutes and log this on Steplab. For Bridie, this has multiple purposes:

Teachers receive regular and personalised feedback which is written using the same vocabulary that’s used in their instructional coaching feedback. This supports the teacher to “really drive their progress forward, because they're constantly getting little tweaks suggested to them that they could try and work on.”

Bridie gains insight into teachers’ mental models and motivations: reading the drop-ins that her team members write is much-like, “walking around the classroom and reading over the kids shoulders to see what they’re writing.” They enable her to get inside her colleagues’ brains and explore their ideas about how students learn best in English. For example, if Jamie drops in on a colleague and leaves feedback about their use of cold call, Bridie can read his feedback and build a picture of Jamie’s interests and beliefs about how cold call questioning increases cognitive accountability.

This insight facilitates responsive leadership of the department: it means that during line management, Bridie can talk to Jamie and be responsive to his personal areas of interest, but beyond that, it also helps her to explore the impact of departmental professional development: “If I've talked about cold calling to drive up accountability for thinking, and then I look at the drop-ins and see whether people are talking about cold calling to drive up accountability, I can see if my teaching has worked.”

Bridie gains “a level of omniscience because even if she’s unable to get out into lessons during a full teaching day, Bridie can read about both what’s been going on in lessons from colleagues’ drop-ins and, crucially, explore what teachers think about what makes great teaching in English.

Writing and discussing drop-ins builds a strong sense of team and a clear set of shared beliefs. At the start of department meetings, the English team reflect on what they’ve seen in each other’s lessons. This builds a collective understanding of how students learn in English; it means they’re constantly answering the questions, “What do we do as the English team at Southbank? What do we really believe in? What are we working hard at?” Bridie wants her team’s responses to be similar and reflective of a shared vision, but also very "personally held." Regularly writing and reflecting on drop-ins acts as a powerful lever for building a strong team with a collective understanding of effective pedagogy.

What makes an effective drop-in?

Bridie explained that the English team at Southbank write drop-ins which are:

Concise and positive: they are completed in 5-10 minutes and as such are short and focused. The team use them as an opportunity to acknowledge the fact that they are *“in really difficult jobs and really challenging situations…it's exciting to use a drop-in as an opportunity to say, ‘You're awesome’.” *

Snapshots of learning: *“A drop-in is not trying to assert anything about pupil progress or a teacher’s curriculum knowledge.” *It captures a moment in a particular lesson.

Focused on specific lesson evidence: feedback centres on, “what the teacher is doing and what students are doing, and students’ work…they might say something like, ‘I loved the moment when you explained that Lady Macbeth is Machiavellian, using the word malevolence, which they were talking about last week’… so it highlights or spotlights the exact thing that you saw. We often find it useful to actually quote each other.”

Focused on learning: the English team are preoccupied with exploring how students learn best in English and as such avoid feeding back on only lesson routines: “You might say, ‘all your children are tracking the board.’ That's brilliant, but I think you need to also consider what the children are tracking, rather than just the performance of compliance.” Through writing about why active vocabulary practice is working in a colleague’s lesson, the team deepen their insight into how students learn; they have to think hard about why an approach is working in different classroom settings.

Clear about next steps: feedback provides one or two precise and actionable targets or steps, “I wouldn't put on my drop in ‘How could you boost think participation ratio?’ Or a huge question such as, ‘Could you teach more responsively?’ What I might say is, ‘As you circulated, you only listened to the answers of the first row of children; could you circulate and get to the back row and all the way through the classroom so that you're collecting more data about children?’ I know that that's about teaching responsively and gathering data, but I'm giving a precise and actionable step.”

What happens after a drop-in?

When a member of her team receives a peer drop-in, three key things happen:

  1. Bridie plans her next departmental professional development responsively: *“The things that people are setting each other as targets have at some point come from some kind of conversation and department time.” *The next departmental professional development is the next stage in this cycle: Bridie can use the clear picture she’s building of teachers’ evolving mental models and classroom practice to decide what to explore in the next meeting – what to correct, clarify or dig deeper into. Reading the drop-ins acts like two-pronged formative assessment which informs the next professional development session. Bridie can explore how her colleagues are using teaching strategies in their own classroom, whilst also finding out if they have gained enough insight to explain the impact specific approaches have on learning in their colleagues’ classrooms.
  2. In line management, Bridie and the teacher often reflect on their drop-ins together: “There’s no obligation for them to act on the feedback until it’s been discussed.” This is because they know that sometimes that feedback doesn’t represent a larger pattern. They discuss the suggested targets first and decide on the right thing to work on, ensuring there is a clear “sense of their own journey towards being even better.” That said, because the team have a shared language for describing how they teach in English, Bridie never sees targets which are, “completely left field and just based on individual bias.”
  3. Together, they might complete deliberate practice and rehearsal: when they’ve decided on the right target and tweak to their teaching, they sometimes “practise it together,” and select someone else from the team to go and observe modelling that step.

How to use Bridie’s approach:

If, like us, you’re inspired by Bridie and her team’s approach to professional development and drop-ins, Bridie suggests these steps to make it work with your own team:

  1. Select a departmental professional development focus: identify an achievable and high-leverage goal for the whole team to work on for around 6 weeks. Start simple, for example ‘establishing routines’ would be a focus long before more complex goals such as ‘increasing think-participation ratio’ are introduced. Plan professional development sessions and message constantly on this: “I don't really speak about very much else to people. I convey a lot of enthusiasm for the thing that we're doing. Then I talk to people about it in line management, and then I go into their lessons with a kind of limited gaze; I only want to see and talk about whether they're establishing great routines.”
  2. Launch drop-ins with transparency: “Be really clear with the team about the steps you’re going to take and why you’re going to do this”. This might involve telling staff that:
    • Reading their drop-ins helps you to explore their motivations, growing mental models and response to departmental professional development, and that you find this fascinating
    • You’ll use the information from drop-ins in 1:1 line management to discuss and agree targets, and to plan the next professional development session
    • Teaching is really hard and celebrating one another is key to building a supportive team where everyone can thrive
    • This is not linked to performance management
  3. Launch with positive-only drop-ins: Starting with positive-only drop-ins can build confidence in the idea that this is a supportive approach to professional development. Focus first on, “really making everybody feel great.”
  4. Post-publicly: Bridie first launched drop-ins by asking staff to post shout-outs publicly. This creates peer to peer accountability and a buzz in the team, with people celebrating each other’s practice by writing things like, “It was amazing to see the smiles in Jamie's year 7 class when they all chanted ‘tyrannical’.”
  5. Go slowly and build habits gradually: “If you have teachers who are really not used to being observed, you have to recognise that your observations and your drop-ins might be a bit intimidating.” Start by asking people to complete one a week and ask people in different ways: introduce the idea in department meetings and follow-up one to one. Praise and celebrate those people who take to it quickly, and chat to people who are reluctant, saying things like, “it's been so great to see you doing X in lessons this week, do you think you could go and drop into other people's lessons and support them to do the same?"
  6. Offer specific guidance: After a departmental professional development session, ask people to visit each other’s lessons and look at something very specific. For example, if a professional development session explored questioning to increase cognitive accountability, ask people to visit each other’s lessons and answer the questions, “How many children are thinking? How hard are they thinking? How does the teacher know?” If staff feel nervous about what to write to each other, they can think to themselves, “Well, my Head of Department asked me to ask these questions.”
  7. Monitor how many drop-ins staff receive and respond to how they feel: receiving such regular drop-ins and feedback could "feel like surveillance or as if they’re back in ‘the world of graded lesson observations.’" Bridie acknowledges this danger and uses the Lead page on Steplab to monitor how many drop-ins different staff are receiving, keeping this balanced and responsive to staff well-being.

Our take: what makes Bridie’s approach so impactful?

Bridie’s responsive and cyclical approach to departmental professional development has built a high performing team with great culture and results. But what is it that makes this approach so effective? We think it’s powerful because it harnesses this thinking about how teachers learn and improve:

Teacher motivation to improve is a vital lever in driving developments in their practice. Bridie reads her team’s drop-ins and uses this to gain insight into what interests them most –she can plan her professional development to speak to these interests.

Codifying what makes great teaching in a school or subject is an important foundation for a professional development programme. If, like Bridie’s team, teachers have a shared language for discussing pedagogy, feedback and professional development becomes efficient and impactful.

Teachers need to gain insight into how and why routines, techniques or goals lead to learning. Without a deep understanding of what makes an approach work, teachers struggle to apply this technique in different contexts. Teaching becomes a ‘bunch of techniques’ which are often badly applied. Through writing and discussing drop-in feedback, Bridie’s team think hard about what makes specific techniques work.

Want to find out more about lesson drop-ins?

Watch our webinar: ‘Using drop-ins to build a positive staff culture’

Get in touch on [email protected] for bespoke support with launching drop-ins in your school or team


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