Learning from theory, research and each other

The bolt on inspection, observation or appraisal, undertaken in clip-board mode by an expert, “to improve performance” is usually mistrusted, often resented and even refused. This is because there is nothing more frustrating, for a competent professional, than an outsider telling them what to do, especially when the professional already knows. A bolt-on appraisal by a senior colleague implies that colleagues are operatives who need to be judged, then praised or corrected. And yet this bolt on approach to evaluation persists despite our profession knowing that self evaluation and self correction has become the natural process of our best learners.

Teacher self-evaluation

The most successful teachers and leaders are professionals not operatives – we are learners too. This is not opinion, it is now established wisdom. Years of experience and acres of theory and research show that sustainable school improvement thrives in a culture of self-evaluation. Just two significant sources from many:

Michael Fullan noted in The Challenge of Change, Corwin Press. (2009) “At best, schools, as professional learning communities should be ‘cultures for learning’ where professionals learn together”. Only a year later John Hattie wrote his 6th and final conclusion to Visible Learning – Routledge, “School leaders and teachers need to create school, staffroom, and classroom environments where error is welcomed as a learning opportunity, where discarding incorrect knowledge and understandings is welcomed, and where participants can feel safe to learn, re-learn, and explore knowledge and understanding”.

I have a simple mantra, to capture this spirit of interdependent learning. “Looking at what we do with a view to doing it better next time, is part of what we do.” Imagine a school, where all working there – students, teachers, senior staff, teaching assistants, governors and non teaching staff can say that. How do we embed such a culture?

Keep it simple it will get complicated anyway start complicated and you don’t stand a chance

A quick trip down memory lane and then 5 solid suggestions ensuring self-evaluation, and therefore appraisal, becomes a natural part of what we do.

As a young adviser/inspector for Nottinghamshire in the 1980s, I saw schools overcomplicating their improvement planning processes. School Improvement, if it existed, was a set of bewildering separate cycles, each with its own language… (targets, objectives, success criteria, aims, goals, blah, blah, blah..) each in a separate box. Even the most organised of schools seemed to view teaching and learning as one cycle of development, curriculum development as another and professional development as a third. Very few had overall School Improvement Plans. Indeed when the Inspection and Advisory Service required them, it was viewed by some as an irrelevant imposition. Remember this was pre-Ofsted.

I noticed that the more senior the colleagues writing the plans the more complicated they became. I used to compare and contrast a simple lesson plan with a school improvement plan. Ignoring the fact that (usually) the former is vertical and the latter horizontal, it is obvious their essentials were identical – plan what you are going to do, do it, review its effectiveness. I began a career long advocacy of PLAN-DO-REVIEW as the simplest virtuous cycle for development.

Work in schools of all phases, from Special Measures to Outstanding, led me to look for and, when I had the authority, encourage 5 key ingredients to set a culture for learning:

1. Have a simple, universal cycle and common language for all development activities.

REVIEW-PLAN-DO and back to REVIEW remains my favourite.

Plan Do Review

2. Create a vision of all improvement activities as ONE set of integrated cycles

Cycles of self-evaluation


3. Encourage interdependent discussion about improvement cycles and how we can improve

Where we are now? (REVIEW) – Where we need to be? (REVIEW-PLAN) – How will we get there (PLAN) – How are we doing? (REVIEW)”

4. Involve all who work in the school in self-evaluation as part of their normal routine

Students: Assessment for Learning – Teacher and teaching assistants: Professional Development – Senior staff and head/principal: Appraisal and Performance Related Pay – Governors: Effective Governance.

5. Find the simplest systems and procedures to streamline the improvement processes above.

This led me to design the Abacus approach and more recently the iAbacus – the only flexible, equal opportunity, inclusive and collaborative self-evaluation tool. Of course, there are other systems out there. Find one to suit but beware there are some ludicrously complicated ones and remember, keep it simple it will get complicated anyway….


The business of looking at what we do with a view to doing it better – as part of our work – is not a leap of faith. It is becoming a science as the evidence builds up for an emotionally intelligent, capacity building approach to improvement. So, a final reference from Lyn Sharrat and Michael Fullen from “Realization: The Change Imperative for Deepening Reform”, CA Corwin Press 2009.

“”Interdependent practice it is about ‘moving from ‘doer to enabler’……. Whatever else the research indicates, it is now absolutely clear that professionals working together collaboratively, with an absolute focus on improving learning outcomes, is what matters most, if system reform is to be ‘realizable’”

To which I would add, “The quicker we develop a (simple) common language for improvement activities the better our understanding of progress and the more likely it becomes a natural part of what we do”

In my third and final BLOG on implementing appraisal I’ll be answering the toughest and most cynical questions about appraisal, performance related pay and capability procedures. So, keep those questions coming.