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Leadership: The rewards of reflective practice

When the teachers at Putaruru Primary School started using 'spirals of inquiry' to reflect on their own practice, something truly exciting happened. They started to see real shifts and change for their students that they hadn't seen before - particularly in literacy. So what was the catalyst for change?

The leadership and assessment project aims to strengthen the capability of schools, school leadership and teachers to achieve continuous improvement that accelerates progress for all students and in particular for target groups of students. Leaders and teachers are supported to use inquiry frameworks and assessment for learning in ways that inform and develop high quality teaching and learning programmes. For more information and impact in Leadership and Assessment see the 2014 infographic data.

Putaruru Primary - one school's story

Back in March 2014, Putaruru Primary School opted into PLD with the intention of raising student achievement, especially in literacy. Their main focus was to raise achievement in reading across the school. With more than 50% of the school students identified as priority learners, there was an urgency to lift literacy achievement for all students. When students were asked about their learning, they didn't have the confidence or the understanding to offer a student voice. In the sound recording on the left, Ruth talks about the reading strategies that the school data identified as needing deeper investigation.

When teachers did reflect on learning, it was often around the capabilities or behaviours of the students. Some, but not all teachers were aware of 'Teaching as Inquiry' as a process to raise teacher capability and student achievement, but no-one had formally adopted this process as a part of their reflective practice. Student data showed low levels of achievement against the National Standards. Previously, "We always looked at our data but it didn’t change and we didn’t know what else to do as we hadn't opened it up to investigation for the teachers individually."

What happened?

Ruth Pepper (Leadership and Assessment facilitator) initially met with the school leaders to collate a strengths and needs analysis as well as to co-construct target goals for teacher PLD. This was based on data trends collected from the 6yr net. The school leaders were passionate about effecting change for their teachers and learners. Through a series of staff meetings and one-to-one interventions, Ruth coached the staff members to engage in learning conversations that used 'spirals of inquiry' to reflect on teacher practice - rather than student behaviour. By using valuable resources (see references at the end of this article) teachers were able to understand the pedagogy behind effective teaching of reading. Ruth also introduced the resource, Ki te Aoturoa.pdf with the video of Case Note 4, which enabled teachers to observe first-hand, effective teacher reflection. With this example, Ruth helped to create a safe culture, where there was an expectation that the PLD was to critique practice, not criticize it. Teachers were forthcoming about reflecting on their own practice.

Ruth says...Ruth was also able to illustrate to leaders and teachers the importance of data gathering and analysis from a systems level to the junior school. She coached teachers to identify focused, targeted and timely goals in a cycle of inquiry to inform next steps in teaching. Target goals included deliberate acts of teaching in reading. Now, as a result, teachers analyse a variety of literacy data to identify learning needs and next steps for teaching.

Teachers were encouraged to ask the hard questions and refine their focus on reflective practice as practitioners, rather than focusing on the programmes of delivery. This meant staff being open to reflecting together as peers and critical buddies, in syndicate meetings, staff meetings, during formal observations and appraisal meetings. Sometimes in syndicate meetings, data (reading wedge graphs) was shared to prompt learning conversations, including moderation and Overall Teacher Judgements. Google docs were used to share teacher inquires with mentors, and while all inquiries are linked to literacy, they are personalised to meet individual needs and linked to the school's appraisal system.

The results

Shifts for teachers

Teachers at Putaruru Primary School are dedicated and focused on their students' learning and believe every student can learn. Teachers have become more aware of their own teaching practice and how students respond to this. They now believe they can make a difference for all their students. Teachers are able to use data to inform them about students' strengths and needs, as well as confirm and question how they are working in the classroom. In this sound recording on the left, Ruth talks about some ways she helps to guide this thinking further.  

Snapshot: One teacher who started to collect and analyse student data, wondered why her students could write several words but then didn't use them in their writing. She addressed certain strategies in literacy, changed her practice and six weeks later commented, “Wow look at this child – he is on the special needs register – he could only write one word now he can write 12 words. He really isn’t special needs is he? It’s just so exciting seeing these improvements”. This teacher is now focusing on a deeper level of inquiry to encompass other students who can write known words, but are not transferring these into their writing. 

Overall, the students at Putaruru Primary School are now tracked more closely. "A strength for us this year is taking that in-depth look at data; far more focus is given to this area this year than in the past." The teachers continue to provide a balanced programme that targets numeracy and literacy in a daily routine and this is documented in teacher planning notes. There is a huge improvement in school (reading) data and teachers are rewarded with evidence of positive shifts and change. One teacher notes,“teaching as Inquiry makes you want to analyse the data and this takes much longer, but makes the teaching easier”.

Letter identification progress

Shifts for students

The students at Putaruru Primary School are motivated by knowing what they are learning and why. This is exemplified in learning conversations and student learning journals. Data collected from 6 year net diagnostic testing (alphabet, word recognition, words in 10 mins, hearing/re-coding letter sounds, running record) shows shifts in stanine levels after one year at school. For example the graph on the right indicates shifts and progress in letter identification. Students now demonstrate improved reading strategies such as re-reading, reading on, picture clues and phonic strategies. 


National Standards reporting data between 2013 and 2014 showed significant shifts for all students (in particular junior students), due to targeted PLD and improved teacher practice. Stanine data also shows significant shifts in the following areas of literacy over two years.

                          Putaruru results 

Shifts for leaders

The principal is excited about the improvements in student data and consequently knows where every child is - in terms of achievement data across the school. She better understands junior school data more and appreciates the need to track and move students along quickly, when they first start school. The rewards for leaders is that they now see the benefits for both students and teachers. "We have moved considerably, we've totally changed how we look at our data, more effective use of STAR; result of this – junior teachers can’t wait to see the progress their students have made. They are standing over my shoulder waiting. There is a real urgency about this now. It leads them into really looking at what the child can do and what they are doing when they make a mistake." Teacher now ask, "how am I teaching this strategy?"

The focus of meetings has shifted from discussing management systems and student behaviour, to an agenda focus on Teacher Inquiry learning-related conversations.There is now a rigorous, formalised appraisal system, where there is an expectation of regular reflection in every staff meeting. Performance Management systems specifically support teachers to sustain data-driven practices.

Shifts for wider community

Putaruru Primary School is also part of the Mutu karoa programme; designed to engage and create educationally powerful connections with the wider community. Together with a group of schools, they were able to specifically look at ways to share learning data with whānau and between schools. 

Where to from here?

Putaruru Primary School is committed to ensuring all systems (especially how data is used) are kept in place to maintain a focus on student learning. They will continue to sharpen teacher reflections in the inquiry process and link this to Registered Teacher Criteria. A focus for the future is increased student agency, where student voice will become the focus for learning. The hope is that students will become more self-directed, understand the process and purpose for what they are learning, and know their next learning steps. In the sound recording on the left, Ruth talks about sustainable practices at Putaruru Primary School.

Resources used: Taking up the leadership challenge at Cobham School, Dufour and Mattos reading, Activating Teaching: Using Running and Records to Inform Teaching Decisions (Mary D. Fried) 


Article contributed by Ruth Pepper, Te Toi Tupu Leadership and Assessment facilitator. Further information about the Leadership and Assessment PLD Programme, see what is available on our website or contact Beth Dungey.