Green shoots of Teacher Research Groups (TRGs) are slowly spreading their fronds of mastery exploration across the country. A TRG is a group of teachers working collaboratively to improve their practice. An important principle of the Primary Mastery Specialist training programme, part of the Maths Hubs Programme, is the idea that participants should share and work with other interested schools to improve classroom practice through a mastery approach to teaching mathematics. Each of the 140 Mastery Specialists (four in each Maths Hub area) has set up a TRG, with teachers from their own school and schools in the surrounding area, and started to explore, share and refine some teaching for mastery approaches.
A TRG meeting
One such teacher is Angela Linford, maths lead at Barnby Road Academy in Newark, Nottinghamshire. On a spring morning in late April, Angela hosts and facilitates a vibrant group of ten teachers from five local schools, plus two from Barnby Road. Angela has many years’ experience in a teacher CPD role and as a maths consultant, but she says of the TRG model:
“The label ‘Teacher Research Group’ was hard for me as I am used to providing CPD but I think I am finding my way into the idea of a research group…This model of CPD is much more effective than going on a course”
And so it seems for the other participants, who first met as a group in February this year and have been trying new ideas in preparation for the second meeting. There is a buzz of excitement in the room, about the new methods the teachers are trying, and about the effect this is having on their pupils. There is a proactive response to the tasks that Angela suggests, and a keen interest in how colleagues from other schools are implementing the concept of teaching for mastery. Teachers discuss the things that are going well and the things that are still concerning them. They observe Angela’s lesson and are able to share what they learned from it and what they would like to take back to their own schools.
When Angela asks for suggestions for the next meeting, throwing in her own – that someone else might be observed – there is a profusion of really constructive suggestions. The teachers are hungry for more development in this area of their teaching, but also clear about what direction that development could usefully take. This seems a million miles from CPD that involves participants being ‘delivered’ to by an ‘expert’. The experts are the participants and they recognise this in one another and can therefore maximise what they are learning collaboratively. This has not come about incidentally. Angela describes how there was much more of a sense in the first meeting that there might be a magic wand of mastery to be discovered, with requests for her to run CPD in participants’ schools and questions about resources/textbooks that might be purchased to deliver mastery in the schools.
Away from the ‘magic wand’ approach
She has worked consciously to steer the group away from this approach, with teachers recognising that the introduction of a teaching for mastery approach is not a top-down strategy but one that they can participate in. She encourages the teachers to approach the TRG with the mindset: “I’m here as part of a research group to explore and trial things. What’s the concept behind this ‘mastery’? What are these principles, and how can I help my staff with these principles?” Rather than “Here’s a magic wand and here’s your lesson.”
Angela and her school are clearly more established on the mastery path than other schools but her skilful facilitation recognises the importance of everybody’s experience. “Everybody is trialling something new, and everybody is reflecting on that and sharing it” she says.
Structure of the TRG meeting
Angela’s facilitation of the group’s meetings is characterised by a clear structure and very specific objectives. The second meeting of the Barnby Road TRG ran to this programme:
|8.45||Feedback from the gap task
As a gap task, members of the group had tried out the aspects of mastery teaching identified on their action plans, written following the previous TRG lesson observation and meeting. Feedback was conducted in ‘triads’ – each teacher taking one of three roles: speaker, questioner, or writer of a written record, then swapping so all had a chance to feed back. Angela had prepared a list of questions to prompt the speaker but the atmosphere achieved was one of informal to-and-fro discussion and sharing of experiences.
|9.15||Context and background for the lesson
Angela briefed participants on the lesson she was teaching that morning – a Year 3 fractions lesson focused on the importance of identifying the ‘whole’ in a fraction. She gave an explanation of the lesson focus, which had been generated by collaborative discussion amongst Barnby Road teachers, and on difficult points that were holding back children’s understanding of fractions following the first few weeks on the topic. Angela distributed a lesson plan (annotated copies of her Smartboard slides) and a medium term topic plan, including slides, to give a context to the lesson.
|9.30||Year 3 lesson on fractions
Lesson observation of Angela’s lesson – ten teachers positioned around the back of the classroom with the lesson conducted with children on the carpet in front of the whiteboard.
|10.30||Feedback from the lesson
Each teacher fed back one thing that most struck them as significant about the lesson. The idea is that these observations should try to avoid judgements but instead open up discussion.
Individually, teachers then reflected on the lesson and wrote two short action points for their own teaching/school.
|11.00||Joint planning a gap task lesson
In pairs with a teacher from a different school, participants joint-planned a Year 3 lesson on division. (Angela chose this topic as, she explained, she feels that it is one that children struggle with and one that can often, like fractions, get ‘swept under the carpet’. After this meeting, participants returned to their own schools, committed to teaching their lesson. This will provide useful discussion around a common understanding for the beginning of the next meeting of the TRG.)
|11.40||Discussion of the format that the next (third) meeting should take
Working together, the four Primary Mastery Specialists in the East Midlands East Maths Hub have proposed that their TRGs should be combined for their fourth and final meetings of the year.
A participant’s experience
Hannah Robinson, maths lead for Staniland Academy and participant in the Barnby Road TRG, talks of using the experience she is gaining in the meetings to support teachers in her own school: “The discussions with other professionals have been really useful and having an incredibly knowledgeable and experienced lead on the TRG has helped me to develop my own understanding of mastery and in turn gain confidence in implementing it back in my own school.”
This is the story of the operation of one TRG meeting on one day, in one school in Nottinghamshire. In many other corners of the country, similar meetings are occurring, similar groups are sharing their mastery journeys and developing best practice collaboratively. It is likely that all groups operate slightly differently, responding to the varying needs and skills of their members.