Skills Doctor

Our skills doctor this month is Afshan Baksh, Education Specialist at Evolve Global Solutions. She provides answers to your questions related to professional development.

How can busy teachers find time to keep their sector/industry knowledge up to date when technology is changing so fast?

As teachers and trainers of vocational subjects the need to make sure that what we deliver in the classroom is up to date and relevant in industry is crucial. I remember a story from my early days in education that illustrates this point. A construction teaching team invited representatives from the construction industry to visit their college. The learners were learning to make wooden steps for a staircase. One of the industry representatives pointed out that it was not necessary to teach learners how to make steps as current industry practice was that staircases came ready made and so it was more important for learners to know how to install the ready made steps! This teaching team went on to ask the industry visitors to take a look through their whole curriculum and suggest changes. I have also visited colleges where due to a lack of funding the equipment in the college is out of date but even with resources it is difficult to keep up-to-date with fast moving industry. However you look at it, making sure that we keep our sector or industry knowledge current is imperative. 

One way of keeping your knowledge current is by building visits and projects into the course you are teaching, that way you will be able to bring your course to life as well as keep up to date with new innovations in your industry.


Take your learners on a visit to an industry partner as part of their course. This way you and your learners will get to see current technology or approaches being used and it will make the course come to life.

If you are not able to visit them:

  • invite your industry partner to your college and perhaps they can either demonstrate an approach or maybe they can bring some equipment with them to show learners
  • get some video footage that shows the technology or approaches being used in your industry. If you cant find video footage contact an industry partner or industry association and see if they have some or ask permission to go and video some footage yourself.
  • Read blogs and join networks related to your industry or sector. You will see articles and latest thinking as well as options, challenges and changes occurring within your sector simply by browsing through.
  • Follow relevant industry companies or key figures on Twitter, Facebook pages, LinkedIn or any other social media platform. You will, very quickly get a feel for what is happening within your sector.
  • Set your learners some research tasks or projects based on latest changes within your sector. Ask learners to present their findings to you and to the rest of the class. 
  • It's absolutely essential to stay current in any field, and especially a technology-related field - new trends, best practices, tools, and more. While it's important to stay up to date in order to stay relevant in an ever-changing field for our learners, it can also help us to keep interested in our practice as well as inspired.

I’m sure there are countless more ways to keep up to date. If you are reading this now and want to contribute please do write to us  to tell us how do you learn new things in the field? Do you actively go out and research, buy a new book, or use a technique already suggested above?

How can teams be motivated to prioritise professional development when they are reluctant to try new approaches in case they don’t work?

The key words here are motivation and support!

Firstly let us consider this - The most effective way to develop people is to move away from conventional training and instead to enable learning and personal development for people as individuals. Of course teams will participate in training but usually training is seen to be boring and teams resent giving up time for it! But flip this around and instead of making training about work make it about the team as individuals. This adjustment takes training beyond traditional work skills and knowledge, and creates far more interesting, beneficial and motivational opportunities - for you and your team.

We all like to stay close to our comfort zones, we fear venturing out will cause us to look bad or be ridiculed. However, if I feel safe and supported then I will be encouraged to try out new approaches. I will also be encouraged to ask for help and to speak up if I don’t understand. Creating a supportive environment is key to getting your team to prioritise professional development. Lets think about the classroom, we go out of our way to create supportive, warm environments for our learners. We encourage learners to try out new things and we tell them that we will be there to support and guide. Education mangers and leaders will benefit hugely by creating similar environments for their teams. Transferring and adapting techniques we use in the classroom to get the best from learners have an equally valuable place in getting teams of staff to engage better.

This question brings to mind a particular approach that I had a part in implementing. The approach is called Supported Experiments and was developed by Geoff Petty who is one of the UK’s leading experts on teaching methods. In this approach teams are encouraged to form small ‘buddy’ or peer mentoring groups. Groups meet on a regular basis and select an aspect of their work that they want to improve. Personally I found that, it was better to group teams who all wish to work on the same aspect. For example: I want to use a wider range of teaching approaches therefore it might be better than I work with a small group who are also interested in the same aspect. Alternatively, the group helps each member to come up with a plan and could even help to carry out research. Each member of the group conducts their ‘experiment’ and observes the results. The results and conclusion are reported back to the group at the next meeting. The group should act as critical friends. If the results of the experiment were not positive then the group can work together to refine the experiment and so you conduct a second or even third experiment. If by the third time the experiment is still showing negative results then the guidance is to cease and look for another way.

I would say that Supported Experiments could be adapted to a number of teaching and non-teaching scenarios.

Read more about the described approach.

Coaching and mentoring sounds like a good idea for  teachers but how can it be introduced successfully?

I would go as far as to say that developing a culture rooted in coaching and mentoring approaches is invaluable. We all have one or more colleagues in our circle who are great at helping us to come to a decision or work out a problem. The key here is to make sure that the person seeking support (mentee) owns their problem and the person offering help (mentor) doesn’t end up with their mentee’s problems! So as a first step I would consider training or raising awareness of what mentoring and coaching should be and how it should work as well as emphasise the benefits. 

New teachers will have had some form of mentoring, as part of the course and so would likely welcome a continuation of that support. They will already have experienced the benefits and would make good champions for the cause – capturing their thoughts on how mentoring benefitted them will provide some inspirational stories and quotes to put up around the building as posters or to have as part of other marketing and social media communications.

The more experienced teacher may not feel they need mentoring, for these groups I would suggest that they:

  • are encouraged to form peer-mentoring relationships among a group with similar length of service
  • could be a good base to select mentors from. When done well and with skill mentor or coach should get as much benefit as their mentee. As a mentor works with their mentee the process applied should also present eureka moments for the mentor! This is why skill and training is a must.

Another approach could be to have mentors for specific specialities i.e. a group who act as mentors for teachers who want to use more technology in their teaching and learning. Mentors who are skilled at using differentiation well etc.

In order to sustain this way of working make sure that achievements are acknowledged and celebrated throughout the year and make sure that there is regular training for mentors and mentees. Perhaps having a whole organisation approach will instil this deep into the culture of the organisation.

Some years ago I delivered training of a technique called Professional Dialogue as a way of supporting peers to review their development. You can read more about this approach.

The simplicity of this approach is that by learning how to have a more structured discussion (the professional dialogue) we can work with each other in a mentoring capacity to support development, build capacity and form solutions to many different problems. I’ve used professional dialogue not only with my peers (teachers, trainers, managers and leaders) but have also used it successfully to work with students. Give it a go!

How can I make my sessions interesting in order to prevent my learners from getting bored?

The best way to keep the pace and interest levels up is by using different approaches and activities. However, don’t go over the top, as your priority is to ensure that learners are learning! Too many switches of activity can be confusing.

Observe your group as you use different activities and make a note of those that worked best – i.e. where learners remained engaged, challenged and where learning outcomes were achieved. Or simply ask your group what activities they like the best and why. Try to have a mixture of: input from yourself, group work, presentations, paired work, discussions, practical tasks etc. 

Some teacher input could be information that students can research for themselves. This approach will help students with their research and independent learning skills and will allow you to use valuable classroom time to see if they can apply their newly acquired knowledge.

Don’t be afraid to try something different (as long as it’s safe) and check that learning is taking place by regularly asking questions, using quizzes, practical tasks and observing what is happening.

Other reasons that learners can switch off is that they are not challenged enough or because they feel they are getting left behind. Have harder and easier tasks available. This becomes easier as you get to know your learners. Often you may have learners of different levels within the same group; therefore you need to differentiate (individualise) the learning process. Learners also get bored if they are asked to do something, which they feel is not relevant. Try to bring your subject to life or make sure learners understand the learning outcomes and how these related to the industry, sector or course.

If you have questions for a skills doctor on any subject, please email us.

About Afshan Baksh, Education Specialist at Evolve Global Solutions

Afshan has over 20 years of leadership experience in the vocational education and training (TVET) sector both within the UK and globally. Her specialisms include: coaching; quality improvement; inspection; change management; teaching and learning; leadership; learner support services; community and employer engagement; business development, enterprise and entrepreneurship.

In September 2015 Afshan founded Evolve Global Solutions Ltd and now leads on a number projects providing specialist technical assistance to organisations such as the British Council, UK and international colleges and national and government agencies.

Afshan is also a trained coach and has supported managers and teachers within the education sector to overcome challenging situations, to implement change and to develop either their own skills or the skills of their teams. 

Afshan has led successful education projects in: UK, Italy, Ireland, Spain, Netherlands, India, South Africa, Tunisia, Tanzania, Jordan, Oman, Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Kenya, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Morocco.

Read more about Evolve Global Solutions and Afshan Baksh.