Ladders for Teachers

The concept of improving step by step, like climbing the rungs of a ladder, works just as well for the professional learning of teachers as it does for students.  We can define such ladders of teaching excellence, but the weight of research evidence (such as the 2010 McKinsay report) suggests that the most effective way for teachers to improve their practice is for teachers to work together to define their own ladders of improvement.  These groups of teachers are often called ‘Professional Learning Communities’ or PLCs.  The following page is written assuming the reader is one teacher wishing to improve their practice by creating a PLC from scratch.  If the reader is a school leader then some further information is given at the end to help you scale this process up to the whole school by making it easier for teachers to get involved.

How to start a professional learning community (a PLC).

You need to get together with one or more other teachers and agree to meet up regularly (say once a week or once a fortnight).  Groups larger than 6 or 7 become difficult to manage.  The optimum is probably 4 or 5 members in your PLC.

Next step is to agree some ground rules for what you will do when you meet up.  Lots of research has been carried out to find out which ground rules are most effective and I have provided a summary below, but really you need to find a set that works for your team, especially if your professional learning community is voluntary and not a whole school requirement.

  • The whole team works towards a common purpose (core aim).
  • The team meet regularly.
  • The meetings remain focused on improving learner outcomes.
  • Problems are not raised unless there are suggested solutions.
  • Learners are frequently invited in to meetings, either as experts or as permanent members.
  • The level of trust in the group is sufficient for them to provide honest feedback, reflection and supportive criticism.
  • The team has a communication link to a senior member of staff.
  • Successes of the team are recognized by colleagues.

How to decide on a core purpose for your Professional Learning Community

Your PLC will be spending about the next ten weeks making a real impact in their classrooms so you need to find something you all would like to improve and which you all feel passionately about.  An easy way to find a core purpose is to get everyone in your PLC (or in your whole school) to write down the three most important outcomes for students.  You can then decide on which one you will focus on.  I have carried out this activity in over 20 countries and in hundreds of schools.  The following is a list of the most common responses in order of how often they appear.

  1. Enjoys learning, un-learning and reflecting  (See Reflective Learner in the SECRET skill set)
  2. Is able to work collaboratively in a team  (See Team Worker in the SECRET skill set)
  3. Contributes positively to society  (See Effective/Engaged Participator in the SECRET skill set)
  4. Is healthy and able to stay healthy
  5. Is a confident, resilient person (See Self Manager in the SECRET skill set)
  6. Achieves progress every year (See the concept of the Learning Ladder)
  7. Is creative and entrepreneurial  (See Creative Thinker in the SECRET skill set)
  8. Is aware of bias and can question assumptions (See the skill of balanced Enquiry in the SECRET skill set)
  9. Is Literate and Numerate
  10. Achieves Standardised qualifications
  11. Is prepared for today’s job market
  12. Learns the subject knowledge in our curriculum


How to immediately turn talk into action

Imagine your PLC decided that its core aim will be Collaboration.  Next thing to do is to use this core aim in a clear statement so that the PLC has a target they are all working on.  In this case the statement could be…

In ten weeks from today, most children in class ____ will be better at collaborating

Every teacher in the PLC will have their own project, their own class to focus on and their own solution for how to achieve this target.  It is important you don’t all try the same thing because the PLC will learn a great deal more if everyone has tried something different.  Inevitably your projects will be similar because you are all working on achieving the same core aim but the differences in approach are often the most important aspect.

Some teams focus the target on themselves and not the students. For example they may set the target that they will be better at asking open ended questions or better at differentiating their lessons etc.  Ideally the target should be based in outcomes for students.  For example you may want students to engage in more depth and you could then have open ended questioning as one of your strategies rather than it being the target as such.


How to construct a Teacher Ladder

Let’s continue with the example of improving collaboration as our core aim.  You need a large piece of paper with a ladder of 9 rungs drawn on it.  Ask the question in your PLC

“What is the absolute minimum I could do in the next ten weeks, that will help my class learn about collaboration?”

You may think that just letting them work in teams once a week with no guidance may be enough or you may run one lesson in which everyone has a specific role.  Whatever it is, be clear it is the minimum effective thing you could do.  Call this level 1 of your ladder and write it on your large piece of paper.  Next, ask the following question of your PLC

“What could we do that required a bit more work and/or would have just a bit more of an impact?”

When you have agreed on this then call this level 2 and write it into your ladder.

Some groups prefer to work from the other end.  For example you may start by discussing what is the most amazing thing that could be done to improve the collaboration skills of your class.  Something that would take you so much effort and time you would never dream of actually doing it and if you did it would make national television!!  This is then written in to level 9 of your ladder.  You then decide on something just a little easier than this and write that into level 8 until you have completed the levels.

How to use your Teacher Ladder

The most important aspect of the teacher ladder is the discussion and professional debate you have in your PLC when you create it.  After you have finished, everyone in the group can decide how challenging they want their project to be. For example, one of your PLC members may decide to do a project based on level 1 of your ladder and another member may be really ambitious and want to challenge themselves by doing a project based on level 6 of your ladder for example.  It is important to value every contribution and so if a teacher is doing a level 1 it is important not to challenge them too much to try a level 2.  The ladder makes it easier for teachers to share their work without feeling intimidated by the work of others in the team.

After the 10 week period has ended, ask all the members of the PLC to present what they achieved.  By now the members of the PLC should know each other well enough to share some good advice and challenge each other for evidence.

Vote on the project that had most impact and then invite students to talk about it to the PLC and describe the impact it had.  Also make sure the project gains recognition outside of your group, perhaps at a whole staff meeting or training event.

After the 10 week project either start with a new PLC and/or a new core aim.  It is important to invite new staff in and make sure the PLCs are based on passion to improve.

How school leaders can use PLCs to improve their school

The easiest way to set up PLCs is to provide incentives for teams that set up.  Some schools provide a free lunch service for teachers involved in PLCs, others build the meetings into the formal directed time instead of business meetings, others provide MA or other training courses attached to successful completion of PLC work.  Sometimes it is as simple as ensuring that the best project from each group has a formal opportunity to present to the whole staff.

The teacher ladders that are created during the projects can be shared by all staff.  There is lots of guidance available in how to set up such ladders in the workshops I wrote for Microsoft which are available on the Innovative Schools website

Communities are most powerful which each individual is able to both retain ownership to contribute their own ideas and at the same time is linked into a wider collaborative set of goals.

Further reading and ideas for what to do

There is a great deal of Literature and Research aimed at answering the question of how to improve teaching and improve outcomes for learners.  The following link provides a very (possibly too detailed) description of what excellent teaching is.

The definition of a professional is someone who aims to continuously improve thier practice, remain up to date and informed regarding research and modify practice accordingly.  For example if I went to my Doctor and he said that he didn’t believe in antibiotics because they just didn’t seem right then tried to use leaches on me instead I would quite rightly change my doctor.

Given that most teachers wish to improve, we can define where they are now in respect of any particular skill (call this level 1) and the ideal position they would like to be (call this 9) then support them in progressing one rung up in their next professional development cycle.

Prioritising Improvement

The 70:30 rule used by many schools is a shorthand way of saying that learning needs to be 70% active. In excellent lessons these activities have been designed to not only reinforce content but to practice and develop essential competencies.

There is a great deal of support to help teachers teach the content but very little guidance and support in how to teach competencies.  Outstanding schools ALWAYS work to address this problem by helping teachers develop their ability to teach competencies.

How do you teach competencies?

You can’t teach them directly like you can teach content, you teach them by providing guidance followed by opportunities for learners to practice the competencies.  As learners develop the essential competencies, outstanding teachers provide them with greater challenges so that they can develop further.

Look at the competencies we have called the SECRET skills on this site to see what the competecies are and what kinds of activities are needed to allow learners to practice them.  Here are the links for your convenience.  Click here for guidance in how to provide activities to improve teamwork competencies, or Creativity, or Enquiry, or Self Management, or Effective Participation

Engaging learners in the process too

The evidence for the impact of engaging learners in owning their own learning is considerable.  I will begin to add such pieces below.  To kick this off one below is one of my favourite pieces.  It is produced by NESTA and the students and staff from the Harris foundation working together.


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