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What We've Learned About Codifying Teaching
Essay • 23 Mar '23
Peps Mccrea

For the last 7 years, over at Steplab we've been working on a project to codify effective teaching. This essay explores what we've done and what we've learned.

First up, one of the essential ingredients of effective professional development is the provision of concrete, granular teaching 'strategies'. These can be used as examples of 'what good looks like', which teachers can translate for their context, and practise in a productive way.

However, it's also critical to help teachers see how such granular strategies fit into their broader teaching repertoire. Context is as important as content. For example: how Cold Call fits into the wider goal of maximising pupil thinking, alongside Wait Time and other strategies.

Now, developing a suite of such strategies, and organising them in a meaningful hierarchy is no small task. It's effectively an effort to codify effective teaching, one of the most complex and challenging jobs ever devised 🤯

For nearly a decade, we've been working with schools on exactly this—a gargantuan project to build out a library of concrete, granular teaching strategies. We call them 'steps'. Hence 'Steplab' 🪜

For more on Steplab and instructional coaching more generally, check out our Beginner's Guide. So far, we have over 600 steps, covering a wide range of teaching areas. Each with success criteria, practice tasks, a model video, and an overview of related evidence/theory.

(and yes, we're gradually building out subject/phase specific versions)

Steplab provides a load of tools to help schools improve teaching. But steps sit at the heart of everything. Last year alone, schools set over 250,000 steps 🤯

The better our steps are, the easier and quicker schools can help their teachers improve. Over the last couple of years, we've begun to realise that our steps could be articulated better. And so, about 9 months ago, we started the process of redesigning them. Here's what we did and why...

First up, a little detour into how our steps are organised. With over 600 steps, and the need to provide context for all of them, we settled on a 'tree' structure. Which basically breaks teaching down into successively smaller pieces, so they can be easily practised.

FYI here are the 5 'top-level' areas (in their original semantic structure):

So, what did we think was unclear? There were three main things:

  1. The articulation of steps lacked concision
  2. The semantic structure between levels was inconsistent
  3. We lacked 'sticky shorthands' to help folks talk about things

Let's look at each.

1/ Step concision

Here's an old step. It contains a lot of words. Every word incurs a cost in terms of time and cognitive processing. If we could make these more concise, we would make coaching more efficient.

Here's the new version. It contains fewer words. AND we've added a sticky 'shorthand' name for the step, so teachers can talk about it without having to describe the whole step.

*Ritual pause to honour Doug Lemov, the grandfather of the sticky shorthand.

2/ Consistent semantic structure

Here's the old structure. As you can see, the framing of each of these levels is highly inconsistent. This makes it hard to mentally 'nest' the context.

And here's the new version. You can see that each level is now framed in a similar 'directive' manner. Which enables coaches to have conversations about the context— relationship between levels.

For example, teachers can talk about:

→ Making learning happen by managing pupil behaviour and motivation → Managing behaviour and motivation by establishing classroom routines → Establish classroom routines by creating an entry routine → Etc.

Or we can work back up the hierarchy:

→ Create an entry routine to establish classroom routines → Establish classroom routines to manage behaviour and motivation → Manage pupil behaviour and motivation to make learning happen → Etc.

Aside: Adam Boxer has a great post on using connectives to help teachers build better mental models.

3/ Sticky shorthands

We've talked already about how we've adopted this for our steps. But we also decided to use it for all our success criteria for each step. Before and after here:

Note: Steplab content helps teachers get better at the non-performative aspects of teaching, such as planning and assessment design, as well as the kind of performative content exemplified in this essay. For example:

And so there you have it. A deep dive into our continued efforts to codify effective teaching at Steplab. Here's a quick video to show you what the whole thing looks like in action:

If you're interested in learning more about the evidence underpinning our approach to instructional coaching, check out our white paper.

And if you want to see all this stuff in action, just book in a chat/visit with one of our super coaching hubs.

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