“There is no pleasure to me without communication: there is not so much as a sprightly thought comes into my mind that it does not grieve me to have produced alone, and that I have no one to tell it to.”
Michel de Montaigne quotes (French Philosopher and Writer. 1533-1592)
Very recently I responded to a question about great teaching by Joe Kirby (read this excellent blog post) with the answer that explanations, questioning and feedback were the holy trinity of teaching. I have written about questioning and feedback at length, but I have never written about teacher explanations. I thought about why and I considered that part of the problem is that explanations are so integral to everything that we do that we quickly learn our style and then explain away on autopilot pretty much for the rest of our career. I would argue that we need to reflect upon whether we are maximising the effectiveness of our explanations.
Too often we can be distracted in our planning by the tools of learning without giving the required time to the integral act of communicating our subject. When I was an NQT I went as far as scripting my explanations! I am not advocating scripting explanations by any means, it was an act borne of pure fear, but I think it important to maximise the quality of our explanations and give them our time and effort. Looking back, some of those explanations were thoughtful and successful, perhaps more so than some of my current autopilot efforts. We are privileged because we can draw upon a wealth of knowledge gained from cognitive science, as well as our memory of great speakers and great teachers who act as role models for our practice.
These are my top tips try to address different aspects of effective explanations – the what and the how of explanations – the content and the delivery. What is reassuring is that really effective explanations can be deconstructed and be based upon evidence of how memory works, rather than being simply attributed to the power of personality. Great explanations, like all aspects of great teaching, can be repeatedly honed and improved.
Top Ten Tips:
1. ‘Know what the students know’ when planning your explanation: All great teachers have an excellent knowledge of their students. This knowledge is paramount in pitching the explanation just right. Vygotsky’s ‘zone of proximal development’ is key here – the explanation should be matched to the audience: not too complex as to be unintelligible to the students, but not too simple or unchallenging so as to bore the students and prove uninteresting. By knowing your students you can adapt your language to draw upon their prior knowledge before activating links to the new knowledge that you wish them to learn.
2. Use patterns of challenging subject specific language repeatedly:
In most explanations there are one or two key words that you want to stick in the minds of students. In my year 10 English class I am currently comparing Shakespeare’s ‘Sonnets’ with ‘Romeo and Juliet’. Subject specific words that litter my explanations repeatedly include rhetorical terms like ‘hyperbole‘ and ‘oxymorons‘. We have explored the etymology of those words, explored examples and repeatedly modelled them in our writing. With regular repetition such key words become the touchstones of effective explanations and we stress these words in our delivery for explicit emphasis.
3. Make explanations simple, but not simpler. Convey a core message: I do not wish to denounce students as attention-deficit weaklings – human nature is inherently programmed to be forgetful – both adults and teenagers. Effective explanations therefore do need to have the power of compressed language. A good proverb, like “people who live in glass houses should not throw stones” has an enduring power. It generates ideas, sparks connections and combines both easily digestible language and memorable imagery – see tip 5. I would argue that most extended explanations can be compressed into such a memorable statement – what acts as the core message of our explanation. Most often this core knowledge is linked inextricably to the language of the lesson objective. A great explanation may use the ‘inverted pyramid‘, used by journalists to prioritise key information by beginning with this core message, or conversely you could use more traditional argument structures to ensure they remember what you want them to remember:
4. Engage their hearts and minds: Daniel Willingham, in his excellent neuroscience book, ‘Why Don’t Students Like School?’, outlines that emotional reactions to explanations will make them more memorable, but there are disclaimers too. We should be wary of a ‘style over substance’ performance. I like to use humour and often make jokes, but with explanations if you give a comedy routine they will likely only remember the style and the jokes, forgetting the substance of what you are saying. Getting the balance right between ensuring engagement and imparting knowledge is a delicate process: making students enjoy their learning doesn’t always translate to remembering what you want them to learn.
As most charity advertisements will attest, individual stories that spark empathy and interest prove much more memorable than mass scale problems or abstract concepts. Emotional and personal stories are memorable: I remember very little about GCSE Chemistry except the emotive story of Marie Curie. We need to use examples that hook in their hearts and mind onto the knowledge we want them to remember in the long term. To summarise: use humour carefully; use interesting stories about individuals to engage their empathy (something proven to be a natural physical and emotional response when reading stories); link to their personal interests but ensure you return relentlessly to the core message.
5. ‘Paint the picture’ – use analogies, metaphors and images: Cognitive science has proven that analogies and metaphors are crucial to language, thinking and memorising knowledge (see here). Our minds naturally draw upon ‘schemas‘ – a psychology term to define the existing patterns of knowledge we have to help us learn new knowledge. A key way of making new knowledge memorable to to hook it into existing ‘schemas‘. For example, if we were given something to eat we have never eaten before then we would draw upon our prior knowledge – ‘this tastes like chicken!’. They give students helpful templates to build on their prior knowledge and allow them to make educated guesses. When exploring the term ‘oxymoron’ with my English class we drew upon our knowledge of the term ‘moron’, then compared and contrasted this label with the character of Romeo. In Maths, teachers consistently draw upon real world ‘schemas’ to make concepts memorable. By using imagery and metaphors that evoke mental images, students can make mental hooks into what they already know and better organise their new knowledge. In this video Dan Meyer shows how you can use images and known everyday ‘schemas’ such as sport and the act of shooting a basketball to spark questioning, engage students and explain challenging mathematical concepts:
6. Tell compelling stories: Daniel Wllingham describes stories as being “psychologically privileged” in the human mind and memory. As an English teacher this strikes at the heart of what I believe about emotion, memory and learning. Memorable personal stories brings History and facts alive; dry statistics become enlivened when in the context of a story. 64% of students achieving A grades in exams is interesting, but not nearly as memorable as stories of individual students toiling and overcomes tough circumstances to gain an A grade. Our minds make meaning by creating stories. With History we imagine and empathise with particular ‘characters’. Our hearts and minds are captured when a ‘conflict‘ is posed involving characters. Our explanations therefore need to be built like narratives: with characters, conflicts and resolutions. We must avoid meaningless anecdotes of course, as stories should serve to illuminate the core message and not prove a distraction.
7. Make abstract concepts concrete and real: Akin to story making and using effective imagery and analogies to illuminate information, we better remember concrete knowledge rather than abstractions. We are hardwired to do this. From birth, our first words are invariably concrete nouns and verbs to articulate our most basic of needs. Hopefully you have remembered the proverb used in tip 3: “people who live in glass houses should not throw stones“! This is a great example of an abstract idea being made concrete and memorable. We must also avoid using too much abstract language and jargon beyond the patterns of key subject specific language we want students explicitly to remember – see tip 2 – otherwise we risk losing the core message we want students to remember.
Brian Cox, the scientist and television personality (yes – I have noticed he isn’t a teacher and some television personalities have proven to be notoriously bad teachers!) is a great example of someone who makes abstract scientific concepts concrete to good explanatory effect. His explanations illuminates a topic for someone like me who has little sophisticated knowledge of science (the typical student!) in a concrete and memorable way. This short video is a great example of a successful explanation that ticks off many points from my tips with aplomb:
8. Hone your tone: Of course, the delivery of explanations carry a great deal of weight if we are to make them truly memorable. Charisma without content is vacuous, but content without clarity and confidence is less likely to stick in the memory. We need not be performing monkeys, but stressing key words explicitly and using discourse markers with clear emphasis and a tone that conveys enthusiasm will help engage students so they may then listen with intent. We must have undivided attention if students are to process complex new knowledge, therefore our tone must also convey authority. We may have physical positions of authority in the room where students expect you to speak from; we may move about the room to ensure students are actively listening, which requires often a clear and no-nonsense approach. A simple and obvious truth is that a great explanation is worthless if students are not listening to it!
9. Check understanding with targeted questions: One way to secure attention and to make any crucial modifications to our explanations is to ask targeted questions. By having a ‘no hands up’ approach on selected occasions can secure a higher degree of attention. By habitually getting students to comment on what one another has said can better keep all students listening actively (I prefer the ‘ABC Feedback model‘: Agree with; Build upon; Challenge). Questions can close in on the core message, but also open up to interesting analogies and ideas that deepen understanding. When considering an effective explanation a teacher should automatically have questions embedded in that explanation and be ready to flexibly respond to the answers, recasting and redirecting, even repeating the explanation if required.
10. …and repeat: Knowledge stored in the long term memory is most typically information that is revisited, therefore a great explanation must be followed up if we are to maximise its value. The ‘Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve‘ is a nice visual way to remind us that we must give effective explanations, but then revisit the core message with spaced repetition, otherwise there is danger that it will be forgotten:
Great explanations are a foundation stone upon which great teaching is based. There is a complex interplay between our explanations, asking questions and eliciting feedback that if we master we will teach successfully. We should reflect and spend less time on jobs that are extraneous to the core of great teaching, such as creating limited use resources, or focusing upon the tools students use in our planning and get back to the our core practice of explaining, asking questions and giving feedback.
My core message: clear and effective explanations matter!
- Daniel Willingham’s book ‘Why Don’t Students Like School?‘ is an outstanding book that grounds effective explanations in scientific evidence.
- Dan and Chip Heath’s book ‘Made To Stick: Why some ideas take hold and other come unstuck’ presents a really helpful bank of examples and a easy method to make your messages memorable.
- Tom Sherrington’s blog post on ‘explanations‘ crosses very similar aspects to my post in with great success (read his brilliant series), complete with great images and examples.
In the last week Michael Gove has challenged teachers about the setting of the highest standards in our schools. Beyond the Mr Men debate, there is a truth that we should all be seeking the highest standards of teaching and learning possible. In my experience there have been very few teachers who don’t agree with Gove on this, or who do not attempt to challenge students and inspire curiosity with the highest of expectations on a daily basis. Rather than focus upon pointless political point scoring I want focus upon some practical solutions to help raise standards and I would hope Gove lessens his point scoring politicking to do the same. This post aims to explore how we can improve Continuous Professional Development in our schools, thereby improving teacher quality – the singularly most important factor impacting upon standards in our schools.
My starting point is a quotation from Dylan Wiliam, made at last year’s SSAT conference in Liverpool, which has made a deep and lasting impression upon me as a teacher:
“Every teacher needs to improve, not because they are not good enough, but because they can be even better.” Dylan Wiliam
There are different considerations to account for when addressing teacher improvement. Firstly, it is crucial to make the case for changing and improving upon our current CPD provision. Research by the Teacher Development Trust – see here – has proven that CPD informs practice, but it is still yet to be proven to embed practice and it patently does not transform practice. Perhaps the notion of transformative continuous professional development is too ambitious. We would hope that our new staff is already good enough to not require ‘transformation’, but instead require marginal improvements to have a strong positive impact upon student outcomes. Clearly; however, we need to ensure that we at least ‘embed’ improvements in practice. This is paramount because we know that despite the complex array of factors that influence student attainment, teacher quality trumps everything else. We also know that teacher impact plateaus after a couple of years (see my article here on reaching the ‘OK Plateau‘) and that we must make professional development genuinely continuous and continuously effective.
Currently, the DfE are presenting solutions to improving teacher quality, such as ‘performance related pay’. I am not wholly against all the reforms put forward by Gove, but this proposal to use market forces to attempt to improve teachers is wrongheaded and will fail. There is no international evidence that PRP impacts positively upon teacher quality and the process fundamentally misunderstands the largely intrinsic nature of teacher motivation. The vast majority of our teachers couldn’t work harder if they tried (although I would argue many could work smarter – myself included) and no pay incentive system can further improve pedagogy in the classroom without a catalogue of damaging effects. The market force of pay differentiation will do nothing except drive down average pay and it will not see teachers improve in a sustained and systematic way that benefits our children.
The current financial plight in schools does mean that as teacher improvement becomes paramount, the means to drive this improvement becomes still more difficult. High quality training costs time and money. The days of expensive external one day training being the sum total of ‘continuous development’ are clearly on the wane – if they have not died out already. Dylan Wiliam has shared research that proves the efficacy of ‘professional learning communities’ in schools and many models are currently being implemented with success – within schools and in broder partnerships. David Weston (from the ‘Teacher Development Trust’) has outlined the following ‘rules’ of truly effective professional development:
- It must begin by identifying teacher development needs based on the learning needs of the students being taught, and it must build on teachers’ existing skill.
- The coaching or training must maintain a balance of focusing on ways for the teacher to help these students while providing skills that transfer to the rest of the teacher’s work.
- The development process must be collaborative, with teachers of similar skill and confidence supporting, observing and coaching each other.
- The development process must be actively sustained for at least two terms for a large number of hours (i.e. more than 40). And it must follow cycles of trying, reflecting, and adjusting, while maintaining the focus on improved student learning – and not teacher behaviour.
-External expertise is vital to keep the improvement on track, avoid false glass-ceilings and disrupt ‘group-think’ that can develop in departments and schools. This could be an expert teacher from a nearby school, or an external consultant.
Various successful models are being shared across families of schools, but more needs to be done to share what effective CPD looks like in schools in a systematic fashion across the country. The impact of such provision needs to be evaluated and measured as closely as possible. The ‘coaching’ model fits the bill for schools in many ways. It meets the criteria outlined by David Weston and, pragmatically, it is relatively cheap considering the budgetary pressures schools are currently under…oh, and it works.
‘The Coaching Model’: Embedding a Culture of Coaching
One leadership guru who commands universal respect is the Great Britain cycling and Team Sky coach, David Brailsford. He made a simple but prescient statement that best sums up the power of coaching:
“You’ll get more from a £900,000 rider with a coach than you would from a £1m rider without one.” Dave Brailsford
I wrote a blog about how the elements of the Brailsford model can translate to school improvement here. The above quotation is rightly simple, but its message is a perceptive answer to false idols such as PRP. What we must do is create an engine room of high quality teacher coaching within our schools to drive improvements in pedagogy and teacher quality.
Why invest in a team of ‘Teacher Coaches’? The psychology of change and actually changing the habits of adult professionals is very complex. What is widely known is that externally imposed change rarely sticks and changes the culture within schools, or indeed any organization. Hierarchical, top-down change also suffers from the same inadequacies and unsustainability. It can make for an imposed temporary change, but it doesn’t engineer sustained habit changes in the classroom. Teachers must be emotionally invested in any development of their practice in the school community. Involvement and choice are powerful drivers of habit change. Local knowledge form within the school is powerful and develops a greater degree of trust in what is an emotional and often messy process! Teacher coaches have a better knowledge of the school community; they will invariably gain greater respect than any external figures and they will certainly benefit from higher levels of trust.
‘Teacher Coaches’ are in a great position to shine a light on existing successes and spread that light across the school. School leaders can do this of course, but staff are more open to their colleagues suggesting and driving improvement. The coaches can become roles models of the best kind: undertaking research; tweaking the school environment; providing evidence of successful pedagogy; supporting underperforming colleagues; embodying a growth mindset and being open to adapting their practice to improve – in effect, becoming leading lights to drive change. The investment can be relatively small – the impact significant. By selecting outstanding practitioners, and finding them the precious commodity of time, they can be trained to lead CPD; to work with underperforming colleagues, colleagues looking to become truly great, and to undertake the practical and theoretical research which will give their methods credibility with colleagues.
No matter how effective the team of ‘Teacher Coaches’ are, of course, they will not transform teacher quality alone. The ethos of coaching to improve, with the attendant ‘growth mindset’, needs to permeate the organization – from students upward. What coaching promotes is an institution committed to learning to improve through every level. Senior leaders must lead the way. How many Head teachers share their educational reading or talk about their teaching with colleagues throughout the organization? There are few more powerful influential factors than this wholly free tone setting from the top.
Subject Leaders are also a pivotal group if a coaching culture is to be established and thrive. Subject Leaders need to be coached to be coaches – the language and practice of coaching is nuanced and subtle, requiring deliberate practice. Every department can create their own tailored microcosm of the coaching model if they are steered intelligently by school leaders and given time to do so (most often, Subject Leaders need to be guided to better utilize they time they already possess – for example, how many department meetings are wasted on administrative tasks, when time to improve pedagogy and share best practice is already tight?).
Schools can help work together collaboratively to unify models of best coaching practice. There are already many success stories, from the ‘coaching triads’ implemented during the ‘London Challenge’ program – see page 16 of this OFSTED report here. International models, such as the ‘jugyou kenkyuu’ lesson study’ model in Japan (see here for an explanation) have proved a sustained success and we should look outwardly to such working models. There is evidently a thirst for research and development to provide an evidence basis for change in education and teachers and schools must ensure that they lead that area, or we shall be beholden to changes we feel do not represent our expertise and experience.
I wrote this post to articulate some ideas for the SSAT #VISION2040 action group. Organisations like SSAT can help connect schools and teachers to better share successful coaching models on schools. Every school, as previously stated, should develop change from within, and ideally from the bottom up, but we must also connect more outwardly. Cooperation, and not competition, will see our education system improve. In my school we are initiating change to include a coaching model, supporting and constructed with staff – see here. In the #VISION2040 group, Stephen Tierney is initiating a development model in his school that hones in on formative observations, research and reflection and ‘innovation fellows’ – all aspects of a whole school approach that ideally suits the coaching approach – see here. If we are to improve teachers and teaching and learning, our raison d’être, we can do many things, but systematizing and sharing models of coaching best practice can provide a great way to embed improvements in pedagogy.
Useful further reading:
‘Improving Coaching: Evolution not Revolution’ by the National College: http://www.ncl.ac.uk/cflat/news/documents/CoachingSkillsTWFinalwebPDFv3.pdf
‘Creating a Coaching Culture’ by the ‘Institute of Leadership and Management’: http://www.i-l-m.com/downloads/publications/G443_ILM_COACH_REP.pdf
‘Creating a Culture of Coaching’ by the National College: http://dera.ioe.ac.uk/2980/1/download%3Fid%3D147562%26filename%3Dcreating-a-culture-of-coaching-full-report.pdf
The ‘Teacher Development Trust’ Website and newsletters: http://www.teacherdevelopmenttrust.org/
Coaching in Schools – Top Five Reads:
“I learnt this little performance trick in only twenty minutes!” “Outstanding!”
My school is awaiting the imminent visit of OFSTED. No matter how sensible everyone wants to be regarding the matter, and I would like to think our school is definitely not responding with the hysteria I have heard attending other schools, there is always a sense of palpable unease. This springs from many matters, but primarily from a culture of uncertainty created by OFSTED, with subsequent uncertain and ill-judged decisions made by schools in response to OFSTED, and with some educational consultants exploiting the confusion. In the research of Shafir and Tapersky (1993) they showed that when faced with uncertainty people fail to make logical decisions and often defer decision making altogether. Whatever the reasons for the uncertainty created by OFSTED, misnomers and fears abound, leading to a pervasive skewing of good learning and an erosion of trust in schools that we must fight against. We are left with the ‘OFSTED Uncertainty Principle’: which is that given the irrational fear of OFSTED, and the lack of clarity in their communication, schools make bad decisions and a climate of fear erodes the required conditions to actually improve teaching.
A major part of the problem is the mixed messages that emerge from OFSTED (as well as the ill-judged response from some schools). @oldandrewuk has presented the many contradictions that exist between what Sir Michael Wilshaw says about good teachers and teaching (much of which is highly laudable, despite his pantomime villain status) and then the evidence of what good practice videos OFSTED present – see his blogpost here: http://teachingbattleground.wordpress.com/2013/02/26/does-sir-michael-wilshaw-know-what-ofsted-good-practice-looks-like/. With the uncertainty regarding ‘what OFSTED wants’, it only opens the door for fearful, rushed decisions that help no-one, least of all our students. Anyone in education over the last couple of years will have heard horror stories of excessive new marking policies devised to present a new focus upon learning over time, but really created to respond to OFSTED inspectors looking through student books. Or the new hoop jumping craze that is teaching in bitesize twenty minutes slots, reducing teaching and learning to a circus of ‘progress’ exhibitionism! The coloured lolly sticks and cups of branded AfL materials abound because they ‘exhibit progress’, therefore the circus of ‘progress products’ emerges and teachers are diverted away from the sound basics of great teaching, such as questioning, oral feedback and clear explanations. All less brandable, less saleable and packageable of course, despite the fact that they patently work and always have done! I believe whole-heartedly in the impact of real AfL – I am less enamoured by the gimmick industry that surrounds it. Faced with uncertainty, like some addiction to self-help books, we try to buy in the solution, forgetting that the solution is already there – a shared knowledge between committed, knowledgeable professionals.
Clearly, the ‘OFSTED uncertainty principle’ leads to a detrimental ‘industry’ for the supposed OFSTED model, which is too often divorced from what schools actually need to improve teaching and learning in their unique context. Take for example this advert for CPD I sourced from @hgaldinoshea only is morning which actually inspired this post:
I’m sure there are many useful elements of this course, but the overt obsession with the ‘twenty minute’ teaching approach has become the latest ‘brand’ of teaching for the OFSTED industry that is wrong-headed and actually inhibits deep and truly ‘outstanding’ learning. I admit, this is not necessarily the fault of OFSTED, but they must communicate their aims across their organisation better, or school experiences shared between teachers by word of mouth threaten to waste any positives shared by Wilshaw himself. When coupled with the OFSTED good practice videos, schools build a picture of good learning that appears more about performing than learning. I know teachers who can perform brilliantly, but many other teachers who don’t sing and dance in twenty minute spells but help their students learn better and deeper and become disheartened and dissuaded from holding steady to their style that works brilliantly and is sustained and valuable. This short-termism of the ‘twenty minute make-over‘ (like the naff home improvement television show, it looks good, but when you scratch beneath the surface of the decoration nothing works properly!) is clearly insufficient for sustained, deep learning. It exhibits ‘engagement‘ but not learning. Teachers need to get the attention of their students, they need to engage them in the knowledge of their particular subject, but we must be wary that it does not necessarily translate into the deeper learning that produces actual knowledge and success for our students.
In contrast to the course outlined above, feeding off the ‘OFSTED uncertainty principle’, OFSTED have released some excellent information about good teaching. As an English teacher, I refer to the excellent ‘Moving English Forward‘ document regularly. I started off the school year with it in my department as a timely reminder. It makes clear that ‘excessive pace’ and an ‘excessive number of activities’ is one of the attributes that actually inhibits great learning. I expect the message of the report contradicts many messages currently being circulated around schools when presented with the message of twenty minute progress performances. @oldandrewuk, once again, shared this speech from Wilshaw that makes many salient points all teachers and school leaders would know to help them hold steady. If schools demand three page lesson plans then Wilshaw’s point that planning “shouldn’t be too detailed” and should be flexible is a stark assertion. If schools are advocating a common lesson structure formula, particularly one that includes twenty minute ‘progress points’, then Wilshaw’s statement that a “formulaic approach” that becomes a “stultifying mould” bears serious reflection. My Head teacher, @johntomsett, chose to share that speech with the whole staff to quell misapprehensions, misnomers and fears. I think it created some sense of relief and eased fears. I was asked a question by a colleague, when I was delivering training on questioning and feedback, about whether every student had to answer a question to exhibit the required progress. Expected by OFSTED – in a class of thirty…in twenty minutes! This may seem an absurd and unrealistic requirement, but committed teachers are clearly uncertain if they are even asking that question. Sir Michael would do well to exploit his media machine and considerable influence to repeat his message over and over until it sticks with teachers and leaders…and inspectors… in every school.
The blame doesn’t lay solely with OFSTED, although they exhibit contradictions in their messages to schools and inconsistencies in their approach which are damaging. We, as teachers, must respond by rejecting the false idols of teaching and learning supposedly labelled the ‘OFSTED way‘, particularly any shallow notion of progress – especially in its latest twenty minute gimmickry guise. We must retain trust in our colleagues and hold steady to our shared understanding of great teaching and learning. We must present compelling arguments for what great teaching is in our specific context: to OFSTED, to the DfE, to parents, to governors and to anybody else who is listening. Finally, we must collaborate and trust one another to eliminate the ‘OFSTED uncertainty principle’, resisting temporary, knee-jerk changes in favour of sustained and shared shifts in our practice that make a real difference.
(This post is a copy of my article for the Guardian Teacher network)
I’m a huge football fan and I always have been since my father took me to watch Everton with the promise of dour football and a lukewarm pie. Such inspiration led me to play football almost continuously throughout my childhood to the present day. If I was to total my hours of practice it would surely be in the thousands. In fact, it would near the 10,000 hours total which has been associated with becoming an expert by people in the know. Only I am not an expert. I am little better than I was when I was a spotty teenager. A long time ago I stopped improving at football. I had reached my ‘ok plateau’. I was no Wayne Rooney and I had accepted that I was going to be ok as a happy amateur. So how does my football practice explain the problem of teacher improvement?
The author, Joshua Foer, originated the term ‘ok plateau’ in his popular science book, Moonwalking with Einstein, on the subject of improving memory. He used it to describe that common autopilot state when you have habitually mastered the basics of a task, but despite being skilled you stop really improving to reach expert status; you simply plateau in performance.
Teachers are as prone as any other profession to this state. After our time as a trainee and NQT, when we are grasping new knowledge and making successful connections, our improvement slows, sometimes to a stop. This, unsurprisingly correlates with a decline in regular coaching.
The evidence, from Rivkin, Hanushek and Kain (2005), is that after the first couple of years teacher quality reaches a plateau and teacher experience beyond this point has a negligible impact upon student attainment. This clashes with our basic presumptions about experience in teaching and it should certainly give us thought.
I believe I experienced a similar ‘ok plateau’ for at least five or six years. After mastering the craft of behaviour management and getting to know the nuts of bolts of teaching English I was simply happy to be doing a good job. With the storm of demands created by workload, any improvement beyond this point seemed fanciful. I stopped reading about teaching and learning and I stopped being coached with genuine regularity.
Part of the problem is our system of continuous performance development (CPD). This system is tied to targets and professional standards that actually inhibit conscientious teachers taking risks and experimenting with new teaching strategies. We set targets, either consciously or subconsciously, so that we may meet them, regardless whether they genuinely improve our practice or not. Gone is the regular critical feedback of our first couple of years. We move into autopilot, often even entering a state of professional inertia.
There are no quick fixes to the issue of genuine continuous teacher improvement. One method is to undertake consistent coaching systems that better imitate our earlier state as training teachers. We need to separate the judgemental CPD targets from genuinely developmental strategies, like coaching in departments. In my school we are employing a team of expert coaches to drive research and personal coaching across the school. In departments, we are also moving to a more personalised coaching model where feedback is constructively critical and consistent, with time allocated to do this.
A key issue is that experienced teachers are not undertaking the most effective method to continuously improve; deliberate practice (see my blog post on the subject here. Deliberate practice involves chunking smaller aspects of pedagogy and repeating that practice with lots of immediate coaching feedback. When I play football I get no specific feedback, it is trial and error, with lots of uncorrected errors. Deliberate practice is about a self-critical process of reflection and gradually, but consistently, raising the level of challenge. It is the responsibility of the teacher to be committed to such time consuming and challenging practice, but it is also the responsibility of school leaders to support teachers and to create fertile conditions for such development.
There are many books that delineate effective deliberate practice and support successful teacher coaching, such as Practice Perfect, by Doug Lemov, or Talent is Overrated, by Geoff Golvin, so teachers can take some control of their own development if their school conditions prove barren.
Many teachers are now writing blogs to reflect on their practice; undertaking action research, attending TeachMeets, or connecting with other teachers in professional networks, such as Twitter, to develop their pedagogy. There is such a passion and commitment to our vocation that I see every day in our profession that is heartening.
I may be a bit past my dream of playing for Everton, but with the right type of practice and support I can improve to eventually become an expert teacher. When Dylan Wiliam popularises research that proves that students with the best teachers learn twice as fast as average then our pursuit of excellence, with effective coaching and deliberate practice, could just make a transformative difference for our students.
So often this year I have encountered students crippled with a fear of failure. At this time of year, with exams looming, that crisis of confidence can erupt – flattening a student with terrific force. In schools we can use the resilient language of the ‘growth mindset’, but for many students it never comes close to penetrating the hardened layers of protective shell that students have formed from an early age. I also sense that despite our willing use of the language of the ‘growth mindset’ as teachers, we too often doubt that willing resilience will see us tackle failure confidently and that success will follow. With these thoughts in mind I came across this speech by J K Rowling, given as a Harvard commencement address back in 2008, that eloquently articulates the benefits of failure:
“Ultimately, we all have to decide for ourselves what constitutes failure, but the world is quite eager to give you a set of criteria if you let it. So I think it fair to say that by any conventional measure, a mere seven years after my graduation day, I had failed on an epic scale. An exceptionally short-lived marriage had imploded, and I was jobless, a lone parent, and as poor as it is possible to be in modern Britain, without being homeless. The fears that my parents had had for me, and that I had had for myself, had both come to pass, and by every usual standard, I was the biggest failure I knew.
Now, I am not going to stand here and tell you that failure is fun. That period of my life was a dark one, and I had no idea that there was going to be what the press has since represented as a kind of fairy tale resolution. I had no idea then how far the tunnel extended, and for a long time, any light at the end of it was a hope rather than a reality.
So why do I talk about the benefits of failure? Simply because failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me. Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena I believed I truly belonged. I was set free, because my greatest fear had been realised, and I was still alive, and I still had a daughter whom I adored, and I had an old typewriter and a big idea. And so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.
You might never fail on the scale I did, but some failure in life is inevitable. It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default.
Failure gave me an inner security that I had never attained by passing examinations. Failure taught me things about myself that I could have learned no other way. I discovered that I had a strong will, and more discipline than I had suspected; I also found out that I had friends whose value was truly above the price of rubies.
The knowledge that you have emerged wiser and stronger from setbacks means that you are, ever after, secure in your ability to survive. You will never truly know yourself, or the strength of your relationships, until both have been tested by adversity. Such knowledge is a true gift, for all that it is painfully won, and it has been worth more than any qualification I ever earned.”
J. K. Rowling See full transcript here.
In a testing fortnight personally, when I too had experienced failure, the speech resonated deeply. Also, if I were to look back on my teenage self I would see a boy terrified of failure. Now, the more I fail the more I manage to succeed. The adversity and strength gained by overcoming failure has meant I am happy to tackle challenges I wouldn’t have thought possible as a student. Job interviews, public talks, public writing – all frighteningly public opportunities for failure, but all tackled with something like excitement and a healthy dose of fear. I need to keep communicating that to students. Don’t be afraid to fail. Aim to fail with confidence.
Coincidentally, J K Rowling gave this speech in Boston, not far away from Walden Pond, where Henry David Thoreau had written about living “deliberately” over a century and a half before. The parallels between the words of each famed writer about how we need to live are clear:
“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary.”
Henry David Thoreau, ‘Walden or ‘Life in the Woods”
Over the coming weeks I am going to aim to remember to continue to attempt to fail with confidence and draw confidence from failure. I am going to try to communicate that message to my students. I have a suspicion it may lead to some success and that “inner security” described by J K Rowling.
There is a lot of cognitive science research that proves what revision strategies work best for embedding information into the long term memory – which is our goal in relation to exam success. Some of it is common sense, but other aspects may surprise you or challenge your thinking.
There are many time-consuming revision strategies that actually fool us into thinking we have embedded the knowledge into our long term memory. For example, simply re-reading texts or notes has been seen to have a low impact with regard to memory retention, especially considering how much time this can take, but students are happy because this is a relatively undemanding task that takes little mental effort and it feels like effective revision. Re-reading ‘Of Mice and Men’ for an English Literature exam doesn’t have the impact we need, especially given how time consuming it is as a revision activity, therefore other, better, strategies should be undertaken. Other edu-myths also cloud effective planning for exam revision. There is an old adage abound in education that: “We learn: 10 percent of what we read; 20 percent of what we hear; 30 percent of what we both see and hear; 50 percent of what we discussed with others; 80 percent of what we experience personally; 95 percent of what we teach to someone else.” This is a myth based on no evidence. It has become perpetuated because it is an easily reductive formula, but it is unfounded. David Didau lances this particularly boil to good effect here. We must go beyond these simplifications and seek answers from more reputable research to judge against our experience.
The following strategies are underpinned by more reputable scientific research and evidence:
- Information retrieval over re-reading: It may prove more challenging in the short term, but getting students to try to remember the content of a given topic is more effective than making revision notes based on their original content, textbooks etc. ‘Concept mapping’ is an ideal teaching tool for this (think of its popular branding, image and colour laden brother ‘mind-mapping’!). At the end of each week for example, have students attempt to retrieve the information, without their notes or books. They create a hierarchy of connections that they can attempt to organise conceptually.
Research: http://learninglab.psych.purdue.edu/downloads/2012_Karpicke_CDPS.pdf. Thank you to @websofsubstance whose excellent blog post of retrieval helped me source this research: http://websofsubstance.wordpress.com/2013/04/06/golden-retrievers/
- Collaborative retrieval: Typically we associate revision activities and memory as requiring individual focus. Indeed, there is some evidence that group work can inhibit some learning, but there is evidence that students working in groups can have a positive effect, where students work together ‘cross cueing’ the information they are recalling. Put simply, they help one another remember and retrieve aspects of key information they would not have remembered individually. Also, the social nature of working together can create memory cues that help individuals recall well over time. Of course, any errors in retrieval, either individually or collaboratively, need teacher correction.
- ‘Spacing’ versus ‘massed’ practice: This finding is common sense really. ‘Spacing‘ is when revising the same information two or three times across a few days improves the likelihood of retaining information in the long term memory (Nuttall, 1999). This may include revising a poem and making connections with another poem, then revisiting the key aspects of that poem in the subsequent lesson, before finally doing a ‘concept map’ at the end of the week to revise the learning from the lessons that week. ‘Massed‘ practice, or ‘cramming‘, can have a good short term effect on memory recall, but it fails in the long term in comparison to ‘spacing’ out revision. There is no exact time or number of days concerning how much ‘spaced’ time should be allocated; however, the research indicted the number of days ‘spacing’ is shorter the nearer the exam. In practical terms, over a half-term, we could revisit a concept after a couple of weeks, but nearer they exam we would cluster a couple more ‘revisions’ of the concept/information.
David Didau has written an excellent blog explaining spacing etc. and the implications for curriculum planning, and what ‘progress’ in learning may look like here.
Research: http://psi.sagepub.com/content/14/1/4.full.pdf?ijkey=Z10jaVH/60XQM&keytype=ref&siteid=sppsi and for an in-depth focus on ‘spacing’: http://uweb.cas.usf.edu/~drohrer/pdfs/Carpenter_et_al_2012EPR.pdf
- Using ‘worked examples’: This is the common method of using past exemplars or creating your own through ‘shared writing‘ strategies. It gives students a working template for their revision and reduces obstacles that stops them learning more knowledge. Ideally, teachers should lead model worked examples of exam questions, thereby giving students a clear idea of an excellent answer, before fading back and letting students tackle exam questions independently. Of course, once more, quality feedback is key in this process.
A great blog by Joe Kirby goes into great depth about the ‘why’ of using ‘worked examples’ here.
- Regular in-class testing: Drilling answers to tests, under test conditions, can improve both short term and long term memory to boost revision (Roediger et al 2011). Like the retrieval practice of ‘concept mapping’, the very act of retrieval without resources to support proves more memorable than any ‘re-study’ activity. Taking a test can lead to students becoming less confident, therefore quick and accurate feedback is key to making testing highly effective and building confidence. There is research to say that teachers often drastically overestimate what they believe their students to know (Kelly, 1999) so repeated testing is a practical necessity. In terms of learning, there is much research that testing revision material has a positive impact on long term memory in comparison with simply revisiting material.
Another important consideration is that students naturally revise in a ‘massed’ learning style i.e. last minute cramming! It is labelled the ‘procrastination scallop‘ by Jack Michael here. This led to a recommended ‘exam a day’ approach, which forces students to distribute their revision more evenly, rather than just cramming. It may seem excessive, but getting students to do challenging retrieval that informs the teacher what they know and don’t know (and invariably if they have revised or not) regularly, like quizzes etc. could do the job.
Research: http://people.duke.edu/~ab259/pubs/Roediger&Butler(2010).pdf and the ‘exam a day’ research: http://www.teachpsych.com/ebooks/tips2011/I-07-01Leeming2002.pdf
A lot less scientific, but a fun revision strategy that works for many:
- Building a ‘palace of memory’ is a much less scientific way of improving memory recall, but it is apparently thousands of years old, originating with the Greek poet, Simonides of Ceos, in the fifth century BC. See this Guardian article for an excellent example of the method in action: http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2012/jan/15/memory-palaces-lists
How does this equate to a revision programme?
I am now avoiding revision activities or homework revision tasks that recommend simply revisiting information. I will plan to interleave different topics each week, to create the necessary ‘spacing’ between topics (in my English GCSE class this will mean studying poetry for English Literature at the start of the week, the novel and short stories in the middle of the week, ending the week with English Language revision). I will give regular mini-tests, drilling individual answers, with ‘worked examples’ in the first instance to model a good answer. The feedback on their answers will be timely and regular. I want to undertake weekly retrieval activities that reflect upon what they have learnt that week (combining ‘spacing’ and ‘retrieval’)
It is clear that the process of revision happens inside and outside the classroom. Students who possess the grit and resilience to persist with the humdrum nature of revision tasks will have a greater chance at success, but teachers must also identify and plan revision strategies that work. Of course, our experience and intuition about what will work best for our students is important, but we should challenge our assumptions with the wider research that is easily accessible on the web.
There appears to be a significant rise in coaching in schools at the moment that provides hope for a more coherent approach to teacher improvement. The whole topic of Performance Development is schools is a contentious topic. Clearly, performance related pay and other ideas are being mooted with justified scepticism from teachers. Of course, the lines between coaching and Performance Development can, and will, be blurred and obscured, but if we can develop a system of coaching free of the inhibiting spectres of annual targets, or even OFSTED, then there is hope for a developmental system of teacher improvement that might well make a difference to teachers and therefore to the ultimate success of students.
Over the last year I’ve sourced evidence through Dylan Wiliam and beyond about the plateau in development experienced by teachers (indeed most professionals) after a couple of years. In American research, by Rivkin, Hanushek and Kain (2005), it has stated that after three years there is little improvement in teacher quality. It would stand to reason that teachers reach a level of competency when they can then effectively switch on the autopilot and teach very well…or not of course. This plateau in performance also correlates with a lessening of direct coaching. On a PGCE course, in the NQT year, and sometimes in the third year, teachers are regularly engaging in coaching conversations – many intentionally, or some as a by-product of early performance development. After that the ‘continuous‘ aspect of ‘Continuing Professional/Performance Development’ too often gets lost. Coaching is the potential antidote. It can provide the vehicle for ‘deliberate practice’. ‘Deliberate practice’ isn’t a process of vague trial and error – it is a process of specific chunking of teaching skills, repeated practice, with regular and precise feedback. It is this crucial mode of feedback which requires continued coaching. There are many models and methods of coaching which I will likely explore in further posts, but I wanted to share what i thought was some useful reading on the topic. There are many books in the field, both specific and some not specific to the profession. I have selected what I have found most useful in my attempt to be a better Subject Leader and coach:
1. ‘Practice Perfect: 42 Rules for Getting Better at Getting Better’, by Lemov, Woolway and Yezzi.
This is my favourite coaching book as it is packed with a host of practical approaches to coaching in the school context and methods to improve the all-important ‘deliberate practice’ so key to becoming a better teacher (see my post on ‘deliberate practice’ here). It gives lots of specific examples with everything from the right phrasing to encouraging a coaching mindset, to detailed accounts of where to practice and how.
2. ‘Mindset: How You Can Fulfil Your Potential‘ by Carole Dweck.
In many ways this book has become seminal in the field and education and beyond to articulate the psychology of success. The dichotomy of the positive ‘growth mindset’ and the more limiting ‘fixed mindset’ underpins the language and practical process of coaching. It isn’t the most practical of coaching books, as it focuses on illuminating the concept with examples, but it does provide some crucial advice about using language effectively in coaching. Also, it provides a clear narrative that any coach can communicate with ease to make the process more effective and, hopefully, more likely to succeed.
3. ‘Talent is Overrated: What Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else‘ by Geoff Golvin.
There are many excellent books now on the market that focus on the development of expertise and even genius. From Daniel Coyle to Matthew Syed, there are books well worth your time, but if I had to choose one book about performance and practice, which combines the theory of Dweck with the practical focus of Lemov, it would be Golvin’s book. He presents a compelling argument for ‘deliberate practice’ with lots of specific approaches, from becoming better at golf to being great in business, he priorities the importance of feedback, central to effective coaching, and outlines the grit and perseverance in evidence when analysing expert performers.
4. ‘Switch: How to Change Things when Change is Hard‘, by Dan and Chip Heath.
This book is not about coaching or teaching in any specific way. It is, however, essential reading for any professional looking to help make changes in an organisation and with individuals. It is so good I couldn’t help but write a blog post all about it here. The book brilliantly articulates how you can change habits, even the most hardened, which is essential knowledge for a coach. It also clarified the emotional factors underpinning performance and how you can positively help an individual makes changes to their practice. It presents an intriguing range of case studies that will get any would be teacher, coach or school leader reflecting deeply.
5. ‘Visible Learning for Teacher: Maximising Impact on Learning’ by John Hattie.
You would be forgiven for asking why I haven’t chosen more books specifically about coaching itself. I think there are some laudable subject specific books, but I would argue it is paramount that any teacher coach needs to be themselves great learners, readers and researchers on education in order to coach colleagues towards improving practice. What is key is that coaches in schools have a broad knowledge of pedagogy and that any coaching actually focuses in upon teaching and learning that has the greatest impact. School leaders and coaches are duty bound to synthesise the best research in the field, followed by research that approaches such research with practical applications. Books like Zoe Elder’s brilliant ‘Full On Learning‘ or Jim Smith’s ‘The Lazy Teacher’s Handbook’ are essential in developing an expert range of pedagogy. Hattie’s research is so fundamental in that it slays some sacred cows and actually guides teachers towards pedagogy that is proven to work, with the evidence that underpins the practice. Of course, context is crucial, so even huge meta-analyses of evidence needs to be equated with individual school contexts, but the book is a must read for a well informed coach.
I have had the difficult task of narrowing the number of books to only five, but I expect Jackie Breere’s prospective ‘The Perfect Coach‘ will be another gem that synthesises many practical approaches to coaching in schools if the rest of the ‘Perfect’ series in anything to go on. If you have any great suggestions for other books specifically on coaching in schools, or other books related to coaching then please do comment. If we are to be a good coach, we must pursue knowledge and good practice deliberately and reading and researching is a great start.
If the path of repeated deliberate practice makes something like perfect, then imitating good models of writing provides solid foundations for the pursuit of writing excellence. ‘Shared writing‘ is one specific strategy that models writing in a highly effective way and is one of my favourite and most effective teaching strategies. ‘Shared writing’ begins with the sharing of the key information or language related to the written task, before the teacher then leads the students in co-constructing the writing, scribing the writing with targeted questioning and feedback. In my experience there are few better ways to illuminate each step of the complex writing process for students and it can work across the curriculum.
In many of my blog posts I keep returning back to a quotation from the brilliant Ron Berger about excellence:
“I believe that work of excellence is transformational. Once a student sees that he or she is capable of excellence, that student is never quite the same. There is a new self-image, a new notion of possibility. There is an appetite for excellence.”
(page 8, ‘An Ethic of Excellence’ by Ron Berger)
This brilliant insight into the transformative power of excellence chimes beautifully with the importance of modelling and the potential power of ‘shared writing’ when it produces writing of real excellence. We can co-construct with students a piece of writing – helping them tread the path to mastery, but we, as teachers, take the primary role as expert guides. It is much more than just a demonstration – it is an active process which can engage the entire grouping in effective questioning and feedback. With the writing process students have internalised their own models over a span of years. When students approach something like expertise they develop an internal ‘mastery model‘. That is to say a model that has instinctively broken down a complex process into effective steps that can be reproduced over and over. In English, it is the internalising of a pattern of sentence structures and the use of a range of vocabulary and rhetorical devices, until those patterns become automatic. Here is a video example of Pie Corbett modelling the process with teachers: http://youtu.be/LGMv6Tf-Lm4.
The problem that we know keenly is that many students simply don’t have a ‘mastery model’ in mind when they are writing, due to a potential array of complex factors (such as a lack of wider reading) so they revert to a ‘default model’. Such a ‘default model‘ is taken on either consciously or subconsciously, where they revert back to the their faulty habits of writing. The problem with this model is that students slip into an automatic state which can simply reassert all their flaws, inaccuracies and misunderstandings. With repeated modelling and ‘shared writing’ students can over time internalise the ‘mastery model’ of a given genre of writing. They can then free up their working memory to develop the requisite creativity to diverge from a model of imitation to one of greater independence and originality.
I have usually enjoyed undertaking guided writing, but I am not unaware of its pitfalls, or why people can shy away from it as a teaching strategy. Providing a ready made model is easier in the sense that it is quicker and it gives the teacher a chance to craft and perfect their writing. I have undertaken guided writing and invariably it is very quick paced and it is not error free. Some teachers lack the confidence to write free-form, in case of errors, but, of course, this is good for the students to learn. In fact, it may be the most important thing that they learn. We must make students recognise that errors and self-correction are a wholly natural part of the writing process. Indeed, they are integral if any student is to make sustained improvement towards their own ‘mastery model’. Another reason that can inhibit using the strategy is behavioural control. Shared writing can mean writing with your back turned to the class, which, of course, is manna from heaven for some cheeky students! Through lots of deliberate practice and failing I have developed a few tricks to hopefully smooth out those issues and help shared writing sing:
Shared Writing: The Top Ten Tips
1. Have a clear idea of your desired ‘mastery model’, to the point of having large elements of it already pre-prepared (like some ‘here’s one I made earlier’ Blue Peter special!), from specific vocabulary you wish to model, to specific discourse markers or sentence structures
2. If you are unconfident that students will stay on task throughout the writing, select a student to scribe the writing, either on the computer or on the whiteboard. This allows you up to manage the room and place yourself according (such as hanging around like an ‘Angel of Death’ behind your more troublesome students!)
3. Be crystal clear about your expectations. Will you allow students to simply contribute orally when they so choose, or is there a simple protocol, like putting their hands up. I don’t think there is a foolproof method, but build a simple habit and have quick and easily cues to make the task run smoother
4. Questioning: pre-plan who you will question in readiness. This can be highly specific, pitching questions that are appropriately differentiated so that students can co-construct the model with you with confidence
5. Pre-plan your questions, thinking how ‘open‘ or ‘closed‘ you want each question to be, for example: ‘How do we best start an essay paragraph?’ and ‘What discourse marker would be most appropriate at this stage of your paragraph?‘ or ‘What term we learnt earlier in the lesson should we use here?’
6. ‘Pose, Pause, Pounce and Bounce‘ your questions around the room. The ‘bouncing‘ of your questions are particularly key. It keeps the class focused on the task because they know they may be questioned at any point. Make clear to students that the best writing is often a sort of mental dialogue, whereat you question what is appropriate. By undertaking ‘guided writing’ you are making that thinking visible, drawing upon the knowledge of the group
7. A crucial point for me is to ensure everyone is writing simultaneously. It works as a control mechanism, but it has learning value, as students have to commit to the ‘mastery model’, even simply through their motor memory of writing the piece. I have often had complaints from students about being ‘tired’ by writing so fast, or writing such a detailed response. My answer is simple: ‘Good!’ Feel the pain, no-one said becoming an expert was easy or effortless
8. Circulate the room and praise their effort (with specific feedback like “Good use of a discourse marker for clarity Claire – thank you” – rather than a vague “Excellent!“) if they are making thoughtful contributions. Get as many students involved as possible; invite critical challenges and revisions. Don’t feel the need for everyone to necessarily contribute, some students will need to concentrate wholly on the act of writing. Silence does not always confer disengagement with task, some students will be thinking deeply about the writing process
9. Get ongoing feedback on the model. You could use the ABC Feedback model, whereat students can either ‘Add to‘ the writing, ‘Build upon‘ what has already been written, or ‘Challenge‘ what has been written
10. Get students to review the writing. It may be masterful but it certainly won’t be perfect! Get them to discuss and feedback what are the key elements of this genre of writing and exploring evidence from the model that has just been co-created. Also, you can get students to compare with their ‘default model’, too often in evidence in their work, highlighting the salient differences. Finally, ask them what they have learnt about writing so that they explicitly reflect on the process.
When shared writing works well it can be a brilliant symphony of ideas. It can also at times be flawed and not produce a shining gem of mastery! Embrace this fact – writing can be messy and disorganised – the process can be just as valuable as the product. The greatest pieces of writing are often a brilliant chaos of revision and rewriting (show students a draft of Orwell’s ’1984′). In reality students will gain confidence in this knowledge that writing may not be fluent or easy. They can, and will, still learn much even from a flawed ‘mastery model’. I would heartily recommend ‘shared writing’. It is one of the best ways of modelling, which we can all agree is important, because it doesn’t just model the end product, it also models the process of writing. Done repeatedly and habitually it can also, I would hope, engender Ron Berger’s ‘appetite for excellence‘.
On Friday the 15th of March I had the great pleasure to watch my mother, Rita, finally become a graduate, a couple of years short of sixty. It was a moment of sublime pride to stand with my father, my brother and my two sisters and watch my mother hobble across the stage (thanks to a recent knee replacement!) and receive that little envelope that means so much. I don’t normally write about my personal life, but I know my parents are a key reason why I am a teacher, why I value education so much. I also wanted to publicly celebrate my main role models for grit, perseverance and wisdom: my parents. Of course, they made me teacher I am and the person I am. My mother completing her degree, whilst working full time, confirmed every cherished belief I have about the value of having a great education.
I came across this quotation recently and I thought it very wise:
“You don’t really understand human nature unless you know why a child on a merry-go-round will wave at his parents every time around – and why his parents will always wave back.” William D. Tammeus
I knew that I didn’t really understand fully the love of a parent, so crucial to human nature, until I became a parent myself. That incredible and irreducible tug of love that keeps you perennially in its wake became so real, so quickly. Now that I am a parent of two beautiful children I am more thankful than ever to my parents for the values they have instilled in me and the love that have given unreservedly. I began to reflect more closely upon the ‘education’ my parents had given me.
My parents are both from proud but humble roots. Education was very much a privilege in our house – without doubt. It was, however, a privilege we were free to spurn or cherish. My parents didn’t look to the best Primary around, or a Secondary schools with stratospheric results. OFSTED reports were an alien document back then. My parents believed simply in going to the local school with your friends and doing your best. My parents, both hard working, expected us to be the same. In the main, we did work hard, but not always and I experienced failure more times than if I were mollycoddled . I cannot once remember being chastised about homework or pushed regarding exams – I failed in those areas more often than I would have liked. My parents had little knowledge about the actualities of getting into universities that so crucify many parents with anxiety today. The whole attitude of my parents was rather laissez faire – if you worked hard enough you would be what you wanted to be. If you didn’t, well, you would get what you deserved – nothing!
For years, into my mid-twenties, I had thought my parents hadn’t known enough about education, hadn’t pushed me. I hadn’t gone to a great school like the one I teach at myself. I compared the situation to many of the forthright parents I see today, supporting their child with specific resources, guiding them into learning instruments, moving post codes to secure the best school – that sort of thing. I had thought my parents rather naive about education on the whole. It had turned out that I was the naive one all along. My arrogance stopped me seeing it for too long. I had received an exemplar education from my parents – I only hadn’t been wise enough to see it.
My father’s boldness of character, wit and warmth have always been qualities I have wanted to emulate (if I ever get there I will be a happy man!). My mother’s loving generosity and sheer grit and determination were always qualities I had secretly wished I could possess. I hadn’t realised that an education of character from my parents was the best education possible – more than any school prop (be it tutor or computer), or even wisdom regarding the machinations the school system. Both my parents have worked as carers for the elderly for the majority of their lives (including their infirm parents as a more natural obligation) in different capacities. Once more, their utter dedication and emotional intelligence stood me in better stead to deal with the complexities of my job than my teaching training ever did. My father was, and is, a home carer for the elderly; my mother arranges care packages for the elderly. I couldn’t be prouder that they do the jobs they do. They both work with dignity and integrity that I will always strive to imitate in my fashion. That is an education to be proud of indeed.
Most recently, my mother’s pursuit of her degree (whilst working full time) has been something of a culmination of my understanding – my education of character. It is also a very appropriate circle of experience, as my young daughter will start school for the very first time this year. My mother’s four year degree has never been a sure thing. Working full time, and being a grandmother to a legion of grandchildren, whilst researching, writing essays and sitting exams, created a gruelling schedule that would stretch the capacity of anybody. A few times she contemplated quitting, but she simply refused to give in. Holiday suitcases were filled with books and essay materials. She would have you believe it was other people around her who kept her going, and yes, our family were supportive, particularly my father of course, but it was her inner-drive – this personification of grit and resilience – which meant she hobbled proudly across the stage to receive her degree. In some ways, professionally, the degree will make little difference. But, once more, to me and my family, it means more than we can express.
It is another step in my brilliant education. It makes me want to be better. A better parent, a better partner and a better teacher. In my role ‘in loco parentis’, I hope I can be a proxy role model for my students. More so, I hope they receive an education from their parents the like I did from mine. They will be lucky, loved and well educated if they do. The motto of the Open University is ‘Live and Learn’. I most certainly am learning. Thanks Mum – thanks Dad.