Good practice is good theory

Too often, educators fall into the theory-practice trap. How many times have you heard a teacher say, ‘All that theory’s fine, but it doesn’t work in my classroom,’ or the theoretician say, ‘It’s a shame teachers don’t use the theory to inform their work.’ So it was refreshing to meet with a school leader who understands that good teaching involves both sides of the coin – you can’t have good practice without good theory.

Greg Whitby with Michael Fullan, Lyn Sharratt and James Bond
Michael Fullan, Lyn Sharratt, James Bond with myself.

Yesterday we met with Michael Fullan and Lyn Sharratt from the University of Toronto and James Bond, who is the principal of Park Manor Public School. The work James and his staff are doing to improve the learning outcomes of students is one of the case studies profiled in Fullan and Sharratt’s new book, Putting faces on the data.

I have written about this in an earlier post, but it was great to meet with James and discuss his approach in detail.

James has an interesting background. He originally trained as a teacher but when he couldn’t find a position, spent several years working in industry where he gained an insight into cultural change, particularly the application of both good theory and practical strategies to deliver sustained change.

What was really fascinating in listening to James describe his school’s approach, was the space he created to do the work – the staff learning centre – where, regardless of what teaching area they work in, teachers come together to share the data, analyse it and collaborate.

James didn’t start this work by leading a discussion on educational theory, rather he focused at the very centre of the teaching process, asking his teachers how they could improve their students’ learning.

He clearly values his staff and knew they had the answers. It was his role as the leader to help them find the answers by ‘putting faces on the data’; starting with the practice and ensuring it reflects good theory is what good leaders need to know how to do.

So what does the data look like?

There is a data panel for every student which is personalised and displayed on the data wall according to their levels of achievement in such a way that staff can see and take collective responsibility for each and every child (see below).

A personalised data panel for each student.

The data wall records:

  1. Student achievement at varying intervals
  2. Hypotheses for student performance
  3. Suggestions for change in teacher practice
  4. Verification process for effectiveness of change

Michael Fullan describes this as a powerful ‘pull and nudge’ model.

We can’t ignore the evidence of James’ student achievement data. For us it is a great example of how theory and practice come together to the direct benefit of each student at Park Manor Public School. It is also evident that his theory-practice model is changing the whole culture of the school.

Of course this approach is deeply rooted in good theory. Interestingly though, James never once referred to it.


14 thoughts on “Good practice is good theory

  1. Greg,
    Once again your “right on” as our young people would say.

    I was drawn to the book (Faces on the Data) as part of my work on implementing the Data Wise Inquiry Process at Elsternwick. All too often data is presented in ways that doesn’t personal each child’s story and create that sense of urgency to act for teachers.

    I liked your clips – and I would add that one reason for people not quoting the research behind their actions is that they know it, thus freeing them or enabling them to focus on the actions and effects of that work.

    As always this work is intertwined with strong caring mutually respectful trusting relationships between student and teacher.

    Thanks Mark

    1. One of the key things about James’ work is understanding data through the process of teacher collaboration. When teachers come together to work on improving students’ learning it is a collective responsibility. Mark, your point about mutually respectful trusting relationships applies to the relationships between teacher-teacher and teacher-leader as well. Teachers can’t do this successfully without confidence and trust in their colleagues.

  2. In fact, theory is a plan, blueprint or scaffolding on which the structure (practice) is built. As mentioned in the article, theory and practice are “both sides of the coin” and these are indispensable and inseparable in teaching and learning. The more we practise the theory, the more we attain perfectness. By the way, is it “good practise” or “good practice” as mentioned in the title?

    1. Thanks for that pick up – typo now corrected. However, you make a good point, it is when we continually apply (or practise) good theory in our practice that we refine and improve teaching.

      1. I regularly, carefully and eagerly read every article in this blog. It (BLUYONDER) is really “Bringing Learning Unto Your Own Didactic Educational Resources”.

      2. This blog brings the well-acclaimed learning theories not only from the world class educationists but also from the educationalists and stimulate the practitioners to rethink about their own theories to impart the right education to the younger generation because today’s children are the natural resources of any country. If the children of a country are inculcated in the right direction undeniably that the country can stand aloof in the arena of education like Finland. This is what this blog (Bringing Learning Unto Your Own Didactic Educational Resources) is convincingly doing. It transforms an “idle mind” into an “idea(l) mind. If “an idle mind is a devil’s work”, “ideal mind is a divine’s workshop” which can be a logical understanding by any common man. Hope, Greg, you are convinced by my explanation.

      3. It’s good to hear where you’re coming from, Nidy. What I hope to do on this blog is inform and inspire anyone with an interest/experience in education to develop a contemporary understanding of learning and teaching in order to provide relevant schooling for the young people in our care. Using today’s tools to collaborate, converse and work through the change that’s happening around us is critical to ensure we deliver an effective and meaningful experience of schooling.

      4. Education is a character-building and man-making process and this can be possible mainly through the practitioners when they apply the exact theories in practice for which I strongly believe that this blog is striving for. The present leaders and responsible people like practitioners of any nation need to understand that “today’s children are the future pillars of their nation”. Hence, I am proud of the acronym that I coined for this blog.

  3. Thanks again Greg for sharing these clips and thoughts. Like the real “James Bond” James knows his stuff. The work of “school based learning communities”, where teachers, students and parents learn together is very much on my agenda as the leader of my school community. In Victoria we are entering an interesting time in department directions- with the focus on empowering schools and local communities and the buzzword “Autonomy”. As James alluded to, it is vital as schools we build learning communities focused on students in our care. The key ingredient is in finding creative ways where teachers can work together to solve problems and engage in “localized/school based” professional learning. I would be interested to hear of different ways schools are doing this? The blog post might read- “The creative HOW of professional learning in the 8-5 day”

    Cheers Simon

    1. Great idea for some future posts, Simon. I’ll get onto some of our school communities for possible contributions. I’d be interested in sharing some examples from your own system as well.

  4. The leader is in the mix working with the teachers, knowing the kids and their names, putting a face on the data and more importantly working with the teachers in a collaborative way to plan a personal learning plan for each student. This collaborative approach affirms that the answer to improving individual student outcomes, resides within the expertise of the teachers within the school when they collaborate. The solution lies within, the clue is working together.

    1. Couldn’t agree more Sue. The leader is pivotal in creating the right environment and conditions and asking the right questions for the teachers to do the work – not apart from the teachers but ‘in the mix’ as you have said. This was a key focus for James in his work at Park Manor.

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