It is over a month in, the start of term vigour and optimism has waned for almost all involved, and everything begins to feel more like hard work. The ‘October blues’ phenomenon is something I have noted in my last few years teaching. As a subject leader, I have witnessed the spike in behaviour issues which appears as consistent as the coming of winter at the beginning of each October – the grace period afforded by September soon ends for most. Perhaps it is the seasonal shift, the cold winds and the interminable rain, compounded by tiredness from students and teachers alike; perhaps it is the students exercising that old adage that ‘familiarity breeds contempt’ when it comes to their new teachers for the school year.
Now, we certainly cannot change the weather, amongst a whole host of other factors beyond our control. But we can dig in, reiterate core habits in our pedagogy and master our behaviour management techniques with the greater understanding of our groups granted to us by our graceful September (I would hope!). I have always taken a positive view of behaviour management. I have never believed in an ‘unteachable’ student (though that hypothesis has been sorely tested!), nor have I ever believed in the unteachable group. It is an incredibly powerful belief, one that can test the pride and self-image of a teacher, but can also liberate them, and their groups, from the fixed mindset of failure. I’m not arguing here for the grand transformations seen in films like ‘Dangerous Minds’, but instead for a much more quotidian, gritty and unheralded challenge to master the disaffected Year 11 groups; the chatty Year 7 students; the hormonal and erratic Year 9 groups, and every other archetypal group that tests our patience on a daily basis – some spectacularly so – especially when the ‘October blues’ descend.
The solutions – like the issues – are nuanced and multi-faceted, but if I were attempt to simplify them, my list would be comprised of the following:
Keep the main thing the main thing. The tiredness has set in, the meetings are clashing and the Open evenings are here already… The relentless pace of teaching today makes a mockery of Wilshaw’s home by three o’ clock assertion. With all the demands upon our time we must put the teaching and learning first – make those tricky decisions to prioritise, say no to opportunities and distractions. Focus upon planning your lessons and marking their work. Students very quickly size up a teacher and their standards. If you mark thoroughly, clearly and with consistency at the start of the year most students will commit themselves to working for you. If you give the feedback that involves them and shows the path to small, but crucial, steps to success, again, they will be much more inclined to follow you, to behave and to do some learning! Ultimately, great pedagogy is the best behaviour management tool there is – that is why planning is essential to progress.
Only accept the best work and create a drafting culture in your classroom. I think the key factor that underpins student behaviour is motivation. With high levels of motivation comes pride – with pride comes effort. By refusing sub-standard work you are explicitly sending a message that pride and effort is paramount. This week I had one of my groups complete a detailed written answer three times. The first effort wasn’t good enough – everyone did it again – some a third time. We then all completed a model version for what was the fourth draft for many. The reality is that if I don’t set the tone now, in the first half-term, it will be irrecoverable. In Ron Berger’s brilliant, ‘Ethic of Excellence’, he explains how peer and teacher led ‘critique’ can enhance motivation. It makes clear how students can be motivated by praise and positive relationships with purpose and the highest of standards. He also explains how a drafting culture it essential for real life and for success. In October particularly, you must make your students accountable to these highest of standards.
Help students to learn how to learn. I believe one of the most common failures that we have as teachers is to make assumptions about student learning based on our own personal experience. If you have become a teacher then the obvious reality is that you knew how to learn effectively on the whole; you probably had parental support in giving you the many subtle messages about the very literacy of learning that supported your success along the way. Many of our students simply fail at the first hurdle by not having this internal understanding of how to learn.
If a group is having difficulty with collaboration and group work ask yourself: have you made explicit what outstanding group work looks like; feels like and sounds like? This should be a task you can undertake with students to share these expectations – no doubt reiterating the messages about effort and behaviour with which you began the school year. Many students simply do not know what being a good learner feels like or how to become any better. We confidently talk to them about becoming ‘independent learners‘, but have you had students collaborate to try to unpick what we mean by an ‘independent learner’? If you have, is it memorable or visible in the classroom? A good task to undertake is to have students work in groups to create ‘the ideal [insert appropriate subject] student‘. They can have fun creating a name – you can give them prompt questions as a starting point. At the heart of the task is getting students to unpick how to learn effectively. You can select the best character – with a composite of the best skills, attitude and qualities required – and have that character visible and on display in the classroom. This can be referred to on a regular basis to reiterate the key messages about learning, whilst simultaneously providing a template for good behaviour in a very positive way.
Follow the school systems with the utmost rigour and complete relentlessness. Sometimes, despite the best pedagogy, eye-poppingly intriguing resources and a positive attitude toward every student, some students are still reluctant to get on board (perhaps it is SAD!). We know who they are – their names and reputation often precedes them, in September and in October! This is where you show them you care by having the highest of standards and being firm with the school behaviour systems. Try not to palm them off at the first opportunity – try to establish your authority with your detentions, your call to parents – before asking from support from your school hierarchy. Even if it fails with one student, the rest will surely take note. Be so relentless with your expectations and standards that one word can be shorthand for a host of things – ‘Active Listening‘ is very precise instruction to my classes (stop talking, pens down, eye contact to speaker etc.). This direct simplicity can be highly effective, even after a windy lunchtime with some epic fight on the school field! Keep it to the three ‘R’s’ – rigorous and relentless routines!
Don’t suffer in silence. I am writing this blog as a teacher and a subject leader. I know that the best of teachers still have tricky classes, they can still struggle; that inexperienced teachers will have nightmare lessons and groups and struggle even more. Any subject leader worth their salt has been there and knows that it is the core of their job to help in these situations – not judge staff, or throw their staff to the wolves. I have decidedly struggled with a fair few classes and I got through it because I shared it in my department and I wasn’t frightened of asking for help. My most important work is coaching teachers through those situations, imparting my experience, care and help them improve. All I ask for is that effort and care reciprocated – with that, no monthly dip or worse is insurmountable. I am not naive to think that every school has an entirely supportive approach – so if you are stuck in such a scenario, speak to colleagues you trust, make supportive connections beyond your school (like building a support network through Twitter for example). Finally, if you are suffering, know that across the country many are suffering with you, that your subject leader or head teacher have struggled in their time, and that the ‘October blues’ will inevitably pass like the seasons.
Next blog: ‘Nightmare November – The Annual Nose-Dive’…only joking!
Today I got to properly embed the concept of #marginalgains into my practice as an effective self-assessment tool. After the fantastic spectacle of the London Olympics I was determined to utilise the powerful narrative of effort and commitment with my students. I began using Olympic anecdotes almost straight away to try to foster a growth mindset with my new students. Beyond my ringing repetition of ‘effort’ being key to success, I felt that the Olympics was simply a passing idea that would gradually fade. After watching ‘Team Sky – Road To Glory’, about the brilliantly successful SKY cycling team, led by their great leader, David Brailsford, I had a Twitter conversation with @fullonlearning and @macn_1, which inspired us all to take the idea further. Suddenly, the narrative of cycling golds and Brailsford’s successful approach to being meticulous about every piece of the puzzle to achieve ‘marginal gains’ became something that could become useful to learning in class. Today I got to apply it beyond simply using the language of #marginalgains, where it became an effective tool for self-assessment.
Twitter once more triggered the next stage of my thinking. I saw last week some great wheel resources, created and used by @liplash_mason, that were applied with real skill as a self-assessment tool: http://bit.ly/yEdi9v
I wanted to use the wheels for my Y12 English Language group, as there are so many margins to improve, with the many linguistic terms and nuanced skills, that it seemed the ideal way to trail the concept. I then thought that I had used the concept of #marginalgains with my Y10 English group in anecdotal form, so it would prove useful to continue using that language as a way for them to reflect upon the skills and knowledge they had gained during the work towards their ‘Moving Image’ English Language GCSE writing assessment. I therefore prepared the followed PowerPoint resource to explicitly introduce the concept – linked to the process of writing (again – the great wheels from @liplah_mason):
Interestingly, the students considered the image ordering task on the PPT with even clearer thinking than I had! They considered having the coach first, then the ‘bum pads’, then the cyclist (Chris Hoy) – as that sequence followed the plan orchestrated by the coach. It was one of those nice moments when the learning takes an unexpected turn.
Students were then asked to note their writing #marginalgains on their photocopied wheel. They were asked to review their class work and their writing from the last three weeks – noting their targets from my marking of their work, to noting the skills we had honed and their knowledge of writing techniques required for the specific task:
Example 3: Colour coded
The students were well focused and really enjoyed completing the wheels, which was a simple but powerful method for them to both review their progress and self- assess their skills and knowledge. They were then asked to colour code their wheel to make relational links between the skills, techniques and their targets. We showed examples of these wheels through Apple TV, using my iPad, and through the ExplainEverything application. The ExplainEverything app allowed me to visually ‘cycle’ their wheels around on the whiteboard to review their targets and give individuals feedback.
The next step, now they have reflected upon their skills and their progress so far with their wheels, is to transfer that knowledge to their GCSE planning sheets later in the week. I think the wheels were highly successful, as they provided a simple but creative method of getting students to reflect and actively self-assess their progress. I want to refine this process further. I will still look to transfer the concept to my AS Language class, creating a #marginalgains display, to give a language to their learning. But, after today’s lesson, I am very positive about the impact of the #marginalgains concept and I’m looking forward to take it further across a span of my classes. Give it a try – it works!
This blog post is directly inspired by reading a blog post by @headguruteacher on ‘creating the conditions for great teachers to thrive’, which links back to the post which has given rise to my attempt: http://headguruteacher.com/2012/08/21/what-makes-a-great-teacher/
In a weekend where many teachers have risen to the Daily Mail sound-bite bait about lazy teachers going home at three o’ clock, we would be mindful to not be distracted by the inanities of tabloid spin. We must ‘keep the main thing the main thing’ – if we have an army of teachers doing the job brilliantly and collectively then no machiavellian Education Secretary, or OFSTED attack dog, can sway us from our task; they may fiddle with our exams, they may cheat the statistics, cut budgets and worse, but many of us teachers will support our leaders in this fight whilst we pursue the main thing – becoming great teachers.
Here is my list of what I see as the key qualities and attributes of great teachers (without the wealth of experience of many of my blogging betters I may add):
1) Great teachers are ‘reflective practitioners’: Being a ‘reflective practitioner’ was a buzzword on my PGCE course nine years ago. It became quickly scorned and parodied as empty ‘teacher speak’ jargon. ‘Of course we do that’ we mocked – someone is yet again being paid to state the bloomin’ obvious! Yet, in my first few weeks of teaching I quickly realised a few things: being reflective was essential…and I wasn’t very good at teaching! Now, this was a shock to the system, as I had been very proud of being successful at University. I soon realised my capacity to accept failure had greatly diminished, and I was near ‘get your coat and find the sanctuary of a further degree’ state, or even a ‘disappear into a vacuous career in human resources’ position. It was only a dogged determination to not give up and ‘lose’ that saw me persevere. I had to accept, with humility, that I would have to grind away through a succession of failures before I could be half the teacher I wanted to be. I observed great teachers, tried some quick fixes, but received very few quick victories. What I resolved to do was to reflect upon what I had failed at – not label students unteachable, or go along with the tags of ‘awful groups’ and such – but to reflect upon my practice and to get better – one lesson at a time. About three years later, I realised that resistance from students had largely fell away, that I was planning and teaching good lessons, marking good work and seeing mostly good results. Now, I wouldn’t label myself a great teacher, nor am I displaying false modesty, when I say that most great teachers don’t think they are great (sometimes they are neurotic about being a failure!) – but they are wholly focused on getting better. Great teachers have a ‘growth mindset’ that they can get better – and they also project this onto their students – creating the conditions for great learning.
2) Great teachers are always learning: Now, I am aware that this may sound trite and downright cheesy, but it is unequivocably true and therefore needs stating. In ‘Glenngary, Glenn Ross’, by David Mamet, a play scathing about the injustices of consumer capitalism, the predatory boss states that salesman should follow the basics of salesmanship: “ABC – Always Be Closing”. The basics for teachers who want to be great are not too dissimilar in their simplicity: ‘ABL: Always Be Learning’. Luckily for us, school leaders now undertake better CPD within schools, whereat teachers learn in communities, learning from colleagues, and basing that learning rooted in their pedagogy. We also have the awesome CPD tool that is Twitter, connecting us with fellow teachers, sharing resources and ideas. In the last year I have sourced a wealth of great research through Twitter. In my English and Media Faculty I have looked to harness the collective knowledge of this wider research. I have a simple notion that the best students undertake great wider research, reading around the subject to enrich their understanding – therefore teachers should be no different. After reading ‘Visible Learning for Teachers’, by John Hattie, in the last year, I have reconsidered many of the prejudices of what I thought I knew about teaching and I have been determined to root my pedagogy in the evidence of the best of educational research and practice. This new learning is helping me on the path towards aiming to be a great teacher.
3) Great teachers are passionate: Again, some people may dismiss the idea of ‘passion’ as a simplistic and often misdirected notion, but I mean a very specific concept of passion which I wrote about in a previous blog- defined best by John Hattie (see, point 2 is important!) and worthy of quoting in full:
“As I noted in Visible Learning, we rarely talk about passion in education, as if doing so makes the work of teachers seem less serious, more emotional than cognitive, somewhat biased or of lesser import. When we do consider passion, we typically constrain such expressions of joy and involvement to secluded settings not in the public space of being a teacher (Neuman, 2006). The key components of passion for the teacher and for the learner appear to be the sheer thrill of being a learner or a teacher, the absorption that accompanies the process of teaching and learning, the sensations of being involved in the activity of teaching and learning, and the willingness to be involved in deliberate practice to attain understanding. Passion reflects the thrill, as well as the frustrations, of learning; it can be infectious, it can be taught, it can be modelled, and it can be learnt. It is among the most prized outcomes of schooling and, while rarely covered in any of the studies reviewed in this book, it infuses many of the influences that make the difference to the outcomes. It requires more than content knowledge, acts of skilled teaching, or engaged students to make the difference (although these help). It requires a love of the content, an ethical, caring stance deriving from the desire to instil in others a liking, or even love, of the discipline being taught, and a demonstration that the teacher is not only teaching, but also learning (typically about the students’ processes and outcomes of learning). In the current economic climate of many countries, property values have plummeted, leading to fewer resources available for the education budget. As Doug Reeves pointed out to me, passion may be the only natural renewable resource that we have.”
4) Great teachers have the highest of standards for all their students: Michael Wilshaw, that machiavellian caricature and rent-a-quote teacher basher, has one thing absolutely right – high standards are essential. Difficult circumstances may contextualise and explain the many difficulties and privations faced by our students, but that should not mean we compromise on standards. Indeed, we must over-compensate for the absence of boundaries and high expectations at home, with the highest of standards in school. Standards of behaviour, manners, effort and quality of work all mould a pattern of excellence which our students learn from. We must be relentless and rigorous with those standards. At my school this year, one of the key strategies is to not accept substandard work – to return it to students unmarked for redrafting. Now, put simply, we would all sign up to that, and many of us already do. But to really stick to this credo takes a lot of effort and work on behalf of the teacher. The great teacher does this because they are passionate about standards, they are passionate about the transformative capacity of their subject – this attitude is infectious. It comes back to Wilshaw’s quickly infamous ‘three o’clock’ criticism. Those teachers in the pursuit of greatness work far beyond school hours, in work and at home, and this commitment to the highest of standards is becoming the norm. There are those who let the side down, as in every profession, but in my experience there are fewer and fewer. Long may these high standards reign – praised or not by our political leaders.
5) Great teachers ask great questions: These principals of great teaching are deceptively simple. Socrates could have told you great questions were essential to great teaching and it will remain an eternal verity. How great practitioners go about it varies, but there are common principals. Great questioning knows the students in front of you: their skills, levels of understanding etc. Questions are targeted with precision. They are not bounced back with tennis balls, but passed around the classroom like basketballs; students build on the answers of others, challenge them where appropriate (ABC questioning – Agree…; Build Upon…; Challenge…), creating learning that is richly shared and developed in nuanced ways. Students have time to digest those questions, but are not allowed to be excused of the responsibility to answer (however limited that answer may in fact be). Great teachers have useful frameworks for questioning, like Bloom’s Taxonomy, but they are not beholden to them. Finally, a great teacher creates an atmosphere that is ‘questioning’, sometimes even of the knowledge of the teacher, but within safe boundaries where debate flourishes but arguments are controlled. Note – my previous blog on questioning fleshes out these ideas: http://huntingenglish.wordpress.com/2012/07/12/great-questions-are-the-answer/
6) Great teachers use assessment FOR learning: well, most of us have read Dylan William, or John Hattie. AFL works – there is lots of evidence to prove it – inside and outside the ‘black box’! It promotes efficacy and independence in our students; it helps them meet realisable goals; it helps give variety to pedagogy and some semblance of a life for teachers not overwhelmed by marking! Great teachers obviously provide rigorous frameworks and models for self and peer assessment, they don’t simply chuck students a marks scheme and hope for the best. Students need training away from the dependency of summative judgements made by teachers, towards the richer world of AFL techniques – it takes time and careful planning – it doesn’t appear effortlessly – although some great teachers may appear to make it look effortless (they are the swans kicking furiously under water!).
7) Great teachers focus on relationships: I have come across a few bad teachers in my time and the one defining common factor is that they don’t actually care much for children! Great teachers are the exact opposite – they put a huge amount of work in establishing and maintaining relationships. That isn’t some wooly softly, softly approach – experienced teachers know all students love firm boundaries – but it is about warmth and caring. You need to care enough about the students to prepare the resources, make the ingenious plans and master the challenges. When you walk into the classroom of a great teacher the ‘buzz’ of the class is palpable, and it may appear unique and special, but it can be replicated. By speaking to every student in every lesson, where humanly possible, you can better know your student and show you care about your relationship; by marking their work rigorously and in a timely fashion you show them you care about your relationship; by reprimanding them when they are out of line with complete consistency and fairness, you are showing you care about your relationship. This is where Wilshaw’s message may be lost in translation (I am stretching to find common ground!) – he shows he cares for his students by implementing a rigorous regimen – great teachers create that rigour, but with less confrontational approaches.
What has gone unsaid is how school leaders foster and nurture these qualities. Well, I hope those are implicit in the qualities stated above. From school leaders having a core purpose and vision that evokes passion from teachers and promotes positive relationships; to creating a culture of learning for staff that is democratic and dynamic; to finding the time and coaching for reflective practitioners to hone their pedagogy. School leaders can create the conditions, but ultimately teachers do the work to get there.
Yesterday, when I responded angrily to the pernicious leaks through Gove’s mouth-piece, The Daily Mail, some Tweeters warned it was wise to wait for the details. Knowing Gove employs a ‘shock doctrine’ style of announcing policy at high speed, represented through the gross simplifications of the tabloid press, I made my objections known without delay. By using such scurrilous tabloids, Gove often waves away criticisms of his plans with statements that it wasn’t actually his idea at all, but a newspaper simplification. This is before moving onto the next policy undaunted, unsupported by educational experts or most professionals in the field, devoid of any actual evidence about 21st century teaching and learning. We are careering towards a curriculum unfit for 1995, never mind 2015. In a rapidly changing world, Gove is determined to haul our students back into a nostalgic idyll circa 1950, regardless of the fact that it will ill equip students for their futures, whilst Gove is propping up the House of Lords.
What is so galling about Gove’s supercilious attitude is his wilful ignorance of educational expertise – his shunning of consultation with experts, and his tremendous arrogance to undermine the qualifications of hundreds of thousands of students still yet to sit their GCSEs, and who are condemned to sit examinations already deemed worthless.
He has labelled his new qualifications the ‘EBaccs’. In intentionally aping the widely respected International Baccalaureate he invites comparisons. Here he is exposed when proposing his simplistic plans for a terminal three hour examination as the be all and end all. The IB, particularly in the Middle Years Programme – equivalent to GCSE – the assessment programme is predominantly set by teachers – teachers who are trusted to teach and formatively assess students they know best. The IB itself states:
“Teachers are responsible for structuring varied and valid assessment tasks (including tests and examinations) that will allow students to demonstrate achievement according to the objectives for that subject group. These include:
- Open ended, problem solving activities
- Organised Debates
- Hands-on experimentation
- Analysis and reflection.”
Gove bangs on endlessly about standards. The standards of the IB have been lauded for decades. Gove himself has repeatedly praised the IB. Yet, for state schools in Britain, we are being denied these standards, this level of trust befitting professionals – instead, we are being given a terminal 3 hour exam – poetry recitation and archaic lists of royalty. Gove has indicated exam boards ‘may’ recommend other forms of assessment. Yes, I’m sure they will – tempered by the knowledge that Gove is their paymaster and that they want to appease his every whim and educational prejudice. Put simply, what is proposed are qualifications with ill conceived and backward looking assessment procedures.
Gove and Gibb today talked about forward looking textbooks that encourage broad and deep learning. Do either of them have an iota of knowledge of what goes on in classrooms? It smacks of Gibb encouraging teachers to ‘laminate’ good lesson plans. Even their strorm trooper inspectors at OFSTED at least recognise that inflexible planning is bad pedagogy. I haven’t used English textbooks for the vast majority of my career and teaching from a textbook is often at the root of the most stultifying and unsatisfactory teaching – but neither Gove nor Gibb know this because they blithely ignore any expertise with reckless abandon. There are laudable examples of effective textbooks already in existence, but I’m sure Gove and Gibb have no clue about this – it is too near actual teaching pedagogy – too near professional expertise. They would be in danger of debating about pedagogy and teaching and learning – god forbid!
I am a teaching professional who recognises that the current GCSEs require improvement. I see controlled assessment as a torturous cycle of in-class testing. The forerunner, coursework, was inevitably gamed and abused – even famously, by our royal Prince Harry. Yet, Gove’s opprobrium for alternative assessment is missing the real problem completely. The problem isn’t the format of assessment, but the punitive and destructive impact wrought by league tables. Today he announced that “competition” between multiple exam boards had initiated a ‘race to the bottom’ regarding standards – and I cannot but agree with some of this viewpoint (exam boards are bloated money-making regimes, often not fit for purpose); however, crucially, this race is driven by not by the qualification, but by the system of league tables. Again, lest I bore people with evidence, school systems that Gove himself praises most, such as the Finnish schools system, do not have league tables at all. Accountability is directed at a local level, but SUPPORTED by COOPERATION, not corroded by competition. Gove may do well to learn from his own lessons.
My previous blog finished with the hope that these proposals would be thrown out with the Coalition government. This still remains true; however, I fear that Gove will leave the system in such a ruinous state that Whitehall will not be able to rectify the state school system. We will all surely be set for another round of debilitating change – the one perpetual truth of education! The worst factor of all of this political posturing being that hundreds of thousands more will suffer at the wilfully ignorant ideology of Gove – stuck in the past – unwilling to listen to experts in their field.
Teachers will tomorrow go back to school in the knowledge that our Year 7 students that we teach will be forced to sit that ill judged three hour examination in English. It is another deeply sad thought that they will be unfortunate guinea pigs in Gove’s ideological games. I would call upon all teachers to stand up and challenge Gove, and his inept colleagues, in the year/s ahead and ensure that his blinkered vision of a backward looking future does not appear.
Michael Gove travels to Taiwan to recite Dryden to an eager audience intrigued by ‘Gove Levels’
Another Sunday morning, another unofficial missive from the Department for Education through their odious, reactionary mouth-piece – The Daily Mail. Just for once, it would be nice if our political representatives released official policy proposals through parliament, so that our opposition political heavyweights – like Stephen Twigg – can challenge and shape policy for the betterment of us all…sorry, I’m being deliberately facetious – the only political heavyweights of the present day are Eric Pickles and Ken Clarke! Now, the real argument is what mandate does Gove have to implement his ideological uprooting of the entire qualifications system in schools, weeks after he oversaw – albeit in the shadows – the disgraceful GCSE fiasco.
No school teacher or school leader will fail to detect Gove’s shift in argument away from the duplicitous betrayal of thousands of students, who had their qualifications arbitrarily snatched away from them because of quotas, to maintain the chimera of ‘standards’. Letters from OFQUAL, in the weasel words of Glenys Stacey, telling exam boards to change grades without any fair justification have unaccountably been ignored in the media – or, at best, misunderstood. Gove must be laughing in his lair – from which he rarely surfaces these days. The entire exam system has been undermined, schools have been unfairly driven below floor targets (Gove’s sell off to Murdoch and his other friends continues apace), and, most importantly of all, thousands of young people have had their future prospects compromised by Gove’s devious politicising of education.
Any fair minded teacher would question the validity, accuracy and usefulness of the GCSE qualification. We should do that for any and every qualification. No qualification should be set in stone – especially not a system of exams meant to judge skills in a rapidly changing world. Despite what Gove may imply – we too are determined to have the highest of standards. With this fair minded approach I would question some exams which appear reductive in their question types (but isn’t that the very limitation inherent in exams of any kind?). But in undermining GCSEs, there is a deliberate and wilful ignorance of what they contain. The Daily Mail fails to recognise many details of fact, like there already being essays in the English Literature GCSE, and many others. Yet, these don’t fit into the ‘GCSE exams are easy’ narrative propounded by Gove, so they are ignored.
Shouldn’t we instead be debating a system that is fit for purpose because it integrates real world skills alongside knowledge? Couldn’t we successfully adapt the current GCSEs to include project based learning; the ability to process information through modern technologies; a system with a range of assessment outcomes. In summary, couldn’t we cooperate with experts in the field to create an assessment system that develops knowledge and skills readying our youngsters for the world of tomorrow, not harking back to a halcyon past that never really existed.
The question of evidence must be posed to Gove when challenging his ‘shock doctrine’ tactics for qualification and assessment change. He repeatedly cites evidence from PISA and TIMMS to beat the state school system with; however, there are many flaws in the comparable aspects of PISA that Gove repeats ad nauseum. Whilst using PISA as his primary slipper to beat us with, he has the bare-faced check to ignore the fact that our state classrooms are among the most crowded and segregated classrooms in these international comparisons – see http://gu.com/p/3ab42/em. Not only that, Gove’s obsession with reciting lists of royalty grossly misrepresents PISA’s findings about successful learning. PISA found in the ‘framework for assessment’ aspect of the report that:
” “problem-solving competency” can be developed through “progressive teaching methods, like problem-based learning, inquiry-based learning” and project work. “The Pisa 2012 computer-based assessment of problem-solving aims to examine how students are prepared to meet unknown future challenges for which direct teaching of today’s knowledge is not sufficient,””
I don’t recall Gove enquiring about “progressive teaching methods”. It is symptomatic of his wilful ignorance of pretty much every educational expert, or evidence, at the alter of his systematic drive to privatise the state school system. Any qualification change (which handily appeals to the prejudices of the Daily Mail audience critical of ‘Lefty’ teachers) Gove proposes is not for the betterment of students, nor is it devised to give our students skills they will need for a future of rapid and complex change. It is to satisfy Gove’s narrow ideological perception of education. In seeking to return us all to the ‘good old days’ of O levels, ‘Gove Levels’ will simply be another stick to beat schools with, another political vanity project to secure a promotion – leaving carnage and perpetual upheaval in their murky wake.
Thank you Mr Gove – we eagerly await another exam system, as flawed as the last. Another hundred million lashed on the bonfire to satisfy your vanity. More fatuous league table targets that skew everything and are ruinous to education, but that are left unquestioned. Three more years of churning indecision and internecine battling at Coalition headquarters. Three more years of change, leaving teachers bewildered and students disheartened. Three more years of the underhand devaluing of our schools which you label falsely as maintaining standards. Oh, and what of the reputation of the qualifications obtained by hardworking students in the next three years? Who cares, right?
I will purge my frustrations with one sole hope – that hope being that you and your motley crew will be turfed out of the Department for Education in 2015. That we will get a new Secretary of State FOR Education who works WITH schools and school leaders to raise standards FOR STUDENTS. Not too much to ask for!
After watching ‘Road to Glory’, about the inexorable progress of the Sky Pro Cycling team, it foregrounded the mantra of “The Aggregation of Marginal Gains” that is at the core of David Brailsford’s philosophy. In essence, it is the drive to perfect every controllable detail in the process of performance – the ‘marginal gains’ – with the result being a cumulative significant gain. Watching Bradley Wiggins in the Tour de France, as well as the Great Britain cycling team in the 2012 Olympics was nothing short of inspirational – like most teachers it was considering how to harness the idea to make it useful in my teaching.
The other evening, after – ‘Road To Glory’ – I had a fruitful Twitter conversation with @fullonlearning (author of the brilliant ‘Full On Learning’) and a fellow teacher @macn_1. We discussed ideas related to the ‘marginal gains’ concept; how it related to learning and how it may be useful for grouping students etc. One idea I was struck by from @fullonlearning was how it could be used to promote “learner effectiveness”. Throughout the summer I have been thinking about how ‘learning’ should actually given as much focus, if not more, than ‘teaching’ – a subtle semantic shift. The ‘marginal gains’ model therefore become not simply another teacher motivational mantra (which, sadly, too often become verbal wallpaper for students), but how it could become a model for nuanced and revealing self-assessment and potent reflective learning.
My idea is to share the concept with my group (I am trailing it with an English Language AS group – because the skills and knowledge of the terms are so naturally small and incremental to fit the model of ‘marginal gains’), and then I want them to record the ‘marginal gains’ on a regular basis. I actually want to use it as a lesson by lesson plenary. Students could design a wheel based diagram (I am thinking one wheel for skills, another for specific knowledge, like English Language terms), or something simpler, that records those small, but important, learning steps. Hopefully it would promote a higher value on their efforts too – with the skills being honed in homework or group work, for example, being given consideration and reflection. We can too easily dismiss metacognition in the hurly burly of our everyday teaching, but we must give time over to reflection of what they have learned, so they understand deeply what they know and the skills they have developed. At the end of the taught components of the course it could be a great time to reflect on their learning by creating an ‘Aggregation of Marginal Gains’ display – sharing our progress – perhaps we mock up some cycling images of us all! This idea could work with any class in any subject area really.
The ideas are still in an embryonic stage, and I’m sure they’ll be subject to revision, but I think the reflective progress, the simple concept, and the inspirational narrative of the cycling method of Brailsford and his team could prove very useful. Plus, I need to get the ‘pre-race bum warmer’ example into my teaching to inspire motivation! I can see how the model can translate easily across subject areas, from PE (obvious links there!) to Maths or Science. I don’t think you need to be a cycling expert, or even a lover of cycling, to appreciate the simple power of the ‘marginal gains’ method. Plus, who doesn’t appreciate having a better understanding about how to become successful?
I have related ideas of how the cycling ‘peloton’ can be applied to a model for group learning – again, devised in collaboration withthe perceptive insights of @fullonlearning and @macn_1. I’m interested in how the cooperation and collaboration can work hand in hand with competition in the cycling peloton; how the roles of ‘team leader’, ‘sprinter’ and ‘domestique’ etc. could be related to group roles in PBL or extended group tasks. The cogs are whirring and I will blog more on this.
Hopefully my AS Language students will be sitting pretty like this come next August:
I am just momentarily emerging from the deep waters of the first week back – the frantic planning, data crunching and the usual torrent of jobs. Amongst the maelstrom it is so easy to forget what happened five minutes ago – never mind what happened in the opening day training session (our SOLC – Subject Outstanding Learning Community). What I am determined to do this year is to relentlessly focus on the main thing – the main thing will be our coaching programme – with a complete focus on teaching & learning.
The starting point was to reflect on the evidence before we then considered our specific coaching requirements. The place to start was therefore John Hattie and his brilliant ‘Visible Learning’ – with his vast armoury of research (with a little bit of OFSTED):
After discussion of this wider evidence, we then honed in on our specific Faculty targets. Each teacher then got the chance to talk and reflect upon what they needed to develop individually to improve their pedagogy. We have a range of great teachers with diverse skills and experience – so am I exciting about coaching and, crucially, being coached. I shared my personal coaching goals as a model – fully aware that I am really intent on not losing sight of my teaching because of my Subject Leader role:
Now, the real business of graft and craft starts – trialling, failing, failing better and succeeding! We need to make sure we don’t lose the main thing – share what works, share what doesn’t – embrace the failures as steps to success. I love what Hattie simply calls ‘deliberate practice’ – being passionate and rigorous about pedagogy – reflecting upon what worked and what didn’t – going again and improving still further. I’m already pretty tired and it is only week one, but I feel quietly confident that we will have another positive year ahead, and that will keep me going!
As we return to school we should resolve that we, as English teachers and Subject Leaders, put the nefarious political interference to one side and focus on what Cottrell and Harvey call “keeping the main thing the main thing.” That main thing is providing great learning opportunities for the children in our care. The main thing is the relationships we have with our students.
Fiona Millar (@schooltruth) today questioned “How will OFSTED deal with school measures?” Effectively, how will schools explain a drop in predicted English results. For those impacted so disastrously by the overt goalpost shifting (I am completely ignoring Ofqual’s dissembling report) – meticulous monitoring and evidence, bolstered by rigorous arguments presented by school leaders, means we should not fear the spectre of OFSTED any more than we would have before. Great schools and great English departments follow the needs of their students, they do not follow slavishly the requirements of OFSTED – with the happy truth being that if we stick to this approach we will invariably see students succeed and see the external judgements follow. In the absence of trust for the Department (that should be) for Education, for Gove and the exam boards, we must trust ourselves. We should not forget what has gone before, but more importantly, we should not lose focus on what is ahead. We should be rightly cynical about the intentions of those who determine our boundaries of success; however, we should guard students from the fears of interference and make them feel that anything is possible if they have the right mindset and work ethic. Yes, we face moving targets, but we can only but aim more resolutely. I believe a determination to do even better than ever for our students, and to support our neighboring schools to do the same, can be one positive we can wrest from this whole debacle. Ultimately we must trust our values, although everyone above us may be appearing to be losing theirs!
Tomorrow our departments will sit together and no doubt discuss the unfair treatment, how we have become a political football, very much at our expense. Yet, we should not be too dispirited – we should actively remember the many successes of the last school year, take pride in our huge effort under challenging conditions, and resolve move forward and keep getting better. I am blatantly biased, but English teachers are a special breed – we get to share the very best of what has been thought and written with typically fertile young minds (there are exceptions to this I admit!). These words bolster us in times of difficulty – these words reassure us that the political leaders of today will be gone tomorrow. Here are some words to inspire for the year ahead:
“Satisfaction lies in the effort, not in the attainment.” Mahatma Ghand
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing which ever has.” Margaret Mead
“The best moments in reading are when you come across something – a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things – that you’d thought special, particular to you. And here it is, set down by someone else, a person you’ve never met, maybe even someone long dead. And it’s as if a hand has come out and taken yours.” Alan Bennett, ‘The History Boys’
“[of Literature] Pass the parcel. That’s sometimes all you can do. Take it, feel it, and pass it on. Not for me, not for you, but for someone, somewhere, one day. Pass it on, boys. That’s the game I want you to learn. Pass it on.” Alan Bennett, ‘ The History Boys’
“We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.” Martin Luther King