4. Teacher Ladders

Brief – This is the most robust method I have ever developed for getting ALL staff involved.  It is a step by step way to do this that is set out below. It assumes you have agreed on at least one core aim that has been checked.

Ladders for Teachers

The school agrees on a core aim.  For example, improving learners ability to work in teams.  Teachers are then divided into teams to agree the minimum and maximum they could personally do to help achieve this core aim. 

Level 1 = the minimum any teacher could do over the next ten weeks with one group that would help improve the learners ability in the chosen core aim.

Level 9 = the maximum that any teacher could do over the next ten weeks to improve learners ability in the chosen core aim

 Teachers construct the levels between 1 and 9 by debating together.  Every teacher then chooses one of these levels as their personal goal for the next ten weeks.

This process has proved to be highly effective in helping schools define clear progression within their aims for the year.  It also allows teachers to chart their own personal progression in this area and, as we shall see later, helps to put teachers in touch with others all over the world who may be working in similar areas.

Teacher ladders in greater detail

Teachers do need to set goals in terms of subject content and examination targets.  This role of the teacher is likely to remain the same in any new system of education because regardless of what the ‘content’ is or who decided it was necessary and regardless of how it is examined, it is appropriate that the subject expertise of the teacher continues to be used.

Good teachers, however, deliver much more than subject content and examination success.  There is a second role, that of progressing the competencies of the learners.  Here also there should be clear goals that the teacher is pursuing such as attempting to improve the learner’s self confidence or ability to work in a team for example.

In this sense the teacher’s role is still seen as “maximising the chances of a learner achieving their goals” but the goals include higher order thinking and competencies as well as the subject specific skills and content.

South Korea is the latest high performing country to announce a national shift in the balance of what they want teachers to emphasise on whilst Finland is seen as a world leader in having transformed its education system to enable teachers to change their focus towards these underlying competencies and less on the content.  Both elements are still present but the shift in emphasis from subject content to underpinning competencies will, in my view, continue to accelerate.

If the competencies listed in the first section (see SECRET) are those that are critical to all learners then the goal of the teacher in this context is to provide opportunities that will improve these competencies in their learners.

At this point I would like to define a ‘project’ as a piece of action research conducted by a teacher in which they introduce one or more opportunities for their learners to improve their competencies.

In order to make the model easier to explain I would like to, for the moment, define this very specifically. Lets say that when a teacher plans such a project they should;

  • Consider at least one group they work with
  • Consider the next ten weeks
  • Consider which of the SECRET competencies they wish to concentrate on
  • Consider the support that they will have available to them
  • Consider something they could do that they believe would provide one extra opportunity for this group to improve in the area chosen

Teachers can arrive at much more appropriate ‘projects’ when they work together.  The following task has been extremely effective in creating such opportunities.

Imagine the whole school decides to improve teamwork for all learners, how do you change this core aim into collective action?  One way is to construct a ladder. 

Every teacher is asked to identify at least one group that they teach.  Then to identify one core aim that the school is working on.  Then they are asked to do something over the next ten weeks that they believe will improve this core aim for the group.

Imagine the core aim is to improve collaboration skills for learners.

Teachers are given 40 minutes in groups of 4 to 8 to discuss the minimum that they think they could do with one of their groups in the next ten weeks that they believe will have a positive impact on that group’s collaboration ability (in this case).

Whatever the group of teachers agree becomes level 1.

The next discussion is to identify what the teachers believe is the thing they could do within the next ten weeks that would have the biggest impact on improving collaborative skills in the school.  It will probably be the case that no teacher will be planning to do this project themselves but it is good to set the level 9 marker as something ambitious yet just about achievable.

We now have levels 1 and 9 defined.  Next debate level 2 as being something slightly more demanding or having slightly more impact than level 1 and so on until all 9 levels have been agreed.

It typically takes about 40 minutes of debate to arrive at a set of goals for teachers ranging from level 1 to 9.  Here is an example of one produced by staff in a school in the UK

L Opportunities to improve outcomes for learners in collaboration skills.  (Goals for teachers)


The ten week team project my group does will involve learners from different countries and cultures and will be presented as an example of international collaboration in all schools involved.  A quality outcome will result.


The ten week team project my group does will include learners from different schools and states.  It will result in a public outcome that will be presented to parents.  Learners will create the networks of learners themselves through web tools.


The ten week team project my group does will include input from people in different classes and the community.  This will be arranged by the teams themselves and will involve a public presentation.


During the next ten weeks the group will work in teams on a project.  The teams will manage their own time and organise their own groups.  Their classmates will assess them when they present their report.


Once in the next ten weeks I will set my class a problem that they need to work on in teams for at least an hour and present their findings back to the whole group.  They will need to organise the teams themselves


For each of the next ten weeks I will set my class a problem that they need to work on in teams.


Once every two weeks I will give one of my classes a problem to solve.  They must decide on their roles and how they will solve the problem.


Once each week I will include an activity in which learners have roles in their team.  Leader, Manager, Coach, Reporter.  Teams will rotate roles for the tasks.


Once each week I will include an activity which allows learners to work in teams of 4.  For example “Take 5 minutes in your teams to decide the answer to this question”

The final stage is for every teacher in the group to commit to carrying out one of these goals in the next ten weeks with at least one of their groups.

Some teachers in the group will choose level 1 as their contribution so it is important that however minimal it is, teachers do believe that it will have an impact.  It is vital that no value judgement is placed on teachers choosing different levels.  The most important thing is that ALL teachers set themselves a goal from this ladder they have agreed together.

If a teacher chooses a level 1 this time, then it may be because they are not confident in this area, or have considerable other commitments.  Over time they can be encouraged to take on progressively harder challenges.

Agreeing common goals in this way has exactly the same advantages as the common goals agreed by learners in the previous section in that it opens up the scope for collaboration and professional sharing.

Perhaps it is not surprising but the ladders that teachers arrive at through this process correlate well with each other such that even if the wording is very different, the level of change of a level 3 for example is pretty consistent across schools.

In the PbyP online tools we have used this fact to instantly connect teachers together from different parts of the world.  Once they have decided on their ladder, the teachers enter it into PbyP then each teacher clicks on the group they will be working with, the level on the ladder that they have chosen and the start and end date for their ‘project’.  Finally they give a brief description of what they plan to do.

If they choose to make their email address visible, they are provided instantly with the email address and brief descriptions from any other teacher in the system who is also focussing on improving collaborative skills for their group and has set themselves a challenge at the same level, together with details of past projects and ideas that were successful.


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