Thinking beyond the toolkit; Using video for professional learning and development
Recently I overheard an animated conversation about the functions of a power tool used for a DIY task. Talking about the job or even the tool itself was insufficient; the item was removed from its box, the attachments scrutinised and the prospect of more DIY projects discussed with enthusiasm. A power tool in more than one sense it seems; highly functional, well understood and even motivational – not a bad ambition for a learning tool. There is a popular approach of developing and delivering ‘teaching toolkits’ to enable teachers to change or tweak their classroom practice. While new ideas and strategies can no doubt be helpful to extending repertoires of practice, there remains an anxiety that the imports are adopted because they are ‘on trend’, fail to be fully integrated, and that any impact might have a short half-life. I wonder whether the same could now be said of approaches for CPD and if so how helpful this is? Just think for a minute about the CPD ‘brands’ and models that are out there, the lexicon of ‘train the trainers’, the use of Twitter and blogs as a means to disseminate and pick up new ideas and the plethora of new digital platforms and kit that are on offer. We have an extended CPD toolkit to select from. I am a fan of tools, but I think we may need to ask ourselves what we use them for, how we understand them and how we as practitioners contribute to their development and modification. I ask myself “how do we have a toolkit of power tools?”
Over the last decade I have (at first inadvertently and then more deliberately) built new practices and created new tools to support my own professional learning alongside that of my ITE and Masters students and others in the wider profession. This has been underpinned by processes of practitioner research, and represents an attempt to determine how professional learning with transformative purposes can be supported. One of the outcomes has been that I have refined my understanding of tools within contexts of professional and workplace learning and practices located in that workplace. I accept Dewey’s (1938) and Vygotsky’s (1978) concepts of tools forged through social and cultural influences, able to perform epistemic functions (Knorr-Cetina, 2001) and having catalytic qualities (Baumfield et al., 2009). I have considered how tools can function as boundary objects supporting boundary crossing such as that between schools and university (Lofthouse & Wright, 2012), and through which learning can occur as a result of reflection and transformation, which often involves aspects of confrontation (Akkerman and Bakker, 2011). I have also considered Engeström’s (1987) Cultural Historical Activity Theory (CHAT), which proposes contradictions as inherent tensions in the activity system which if addressed can transform the object of the system, its rules or division of labour. I have developed the innovative use of tools as artefacts within an activity system to support this transformation.
To illustrate this I will use an example, one which (as Gok Wan would say) ‘is bang on trend’. Video-recording of one’s own or colleagues’ teaching practice to promote reflection, professional discussion and self-evaluation may still strike fear into some teachers’ souls, but with do-it-yourself iPads and Apps and sophisticated hardware and software on the market it has become relatively widespread and technologically straightforward. Gone are my early days of lending student teachers a cumbersome VHS camera and metre-high tripod in which they inserted their VHS cassette to replay at home through their TV. Although the original kit now seems antiquarian it did produce direct evidence of the value of video-recording teaching. As my student teachers analysed their own teaching experiences I started to make sense of the role of video through related artefacts (such as assignments) and primary data collection (from questionnaires and focus groups). For many student teachers the experience seemed transformative (Lofthouse & Birmingham, 2010). As a practitioner researcher I was keen to extend the evidence base and interpret new findings. Therefore developing an understanding of the value of video became a mainstay of my work with teachers in develop coaching practice (Lofthouse et al., 2010). As the research evidence accumulated I began to more thoughtfully explore the concept of ‘tools’ with video as my first example.
Video-recording teaching practice for self or shared review has the characteristics of what Baumfield et al. (2009) define as a catalytic tool. Such tools have the ability to ‘make a particular activity different: faster, slower, richer, more focused, more efficient, more sustained’ (ibid. p.424). Video creates this effect not just conceptually but in reality, supporting a feedback loop in practice development, and the opportunity for teachers to become more metacognitive in practice. So, if video is a useful tool, what could be problematic about having it in our CPD toolkit? The having it may not be the problem, but its simple addition to a toolkit might be. Using video is not a quick fix, it can too easily be adopted, clumsily used or purloined for performance management purposes. Professional development and learning is unlikely to be best supported by browsing and randomly selecting from products, lined up on the CPD shelf (however carefully labelled, technologically glamorous and well-priced they might be).
Video-recording provides teachers with access to their own practice in a way previously not possible, and this has the power to re-frame a teacher’s view of students, of learning and of themselves. If used to its potential it will provide insights, stimulate debate and support reviews of current practice. Video can create mechanisms for informed and collaborative experimentation and thus opportunities for practice development. The use of video can change how a teacher sees themselves, their self-efficacy and their relationships with learners. Tools, like video, have the potential to activate change over which the practitioner has control if their use is underpinned by, and supports, the development of sophisticated professional understanding. They have the potential to become power tools when practitioners don’t simply adopt their use, but also understand their range, recognise their leverage and design professional learning opportunities that have the learning goal rather than the tool at the forefront of decisions.
Article written by Rachel Lofthouse, Head of Teacher Learning and Development at Newcastle University.
Baumfield, V., Hall, E., Higgins, S. & Wall K. (2009) Catalytic tools: understanding the interaction of enquiry and feedback in teachers’ learning. European Journal of Teacher Education, Vol. 32 (4), pp. 423-435.
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Knorr-Cetina, K. (2001) Objectual practice. In: Schatzi, T.R., Knorr-Cetina, K. and von Savigny, E. (Eds.) The Practice Turn in Contemporary Theory. Abingdon: Routledge.
Lofthouse, R. & Birmingham, P. (2010) The camera in the classroom: video-recording as a tool for professional development of student teachers. Teacher Education Advancement Network Journal Vol. 1. (2),
Lofthouse, R., Leat, D & Towler, C. (2010) Improving Teacher Coaching in Schools; A Practical Guide, CfBT Education Trust
Lofthouse, R. & Wright, D.G. (2012) Teacher education lesson observation as boundary crossing. International Journal of Mentoring and Coaching in Education 2012, Vol. 1. (3), pp. 89-103.
Vygotsky, L. (1978) Mind in Society – the development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press