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‘.
“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. After students have had a taste of excellence, they’re never quite satisfied with less; they’re always hungry.” (page 8, ‘An Ethic of Excellence’ by Ron Berger)
One feedback strategy I have found helped enhance the writing of my students so far this year was the use of ‘gallery critique‘. The initial inspiration came from Ron Berger, whose ‘Ethic of Excellence‘ provided inspiration in the pursuit of motivating students. Like any teaching and learning strategy, it is far from flawless, but I think that having trialled it extensively with different groups, from students to teachers themselves, in staff training, it was well worth nominating.
After having selected the ‘gallery critique‘ strategy to meet the #blogsync brief of identifying a strategy that elicits motivation, it transpired that David Didau then wrote a peerless summary of the strategy here. This synthesis of research, expressed so skilfully, did make me think that my post had become rather redundant, but I wanted to explore some of the evidence base for the effectiveness of the strategy – particularly my specific use with my GCSE class.
More broadly, the evidence base for the effectiveness of feedback and assessment for learning is sound and thorough. Feedback has the greatest impact in John Hattie’s seminal synthesis of research, ‘Visible Learning‘; although, of course, feedback itself is a broad term. Dylan Wiliam is lauded as a guru in this particular area. He defined the five key areas of effective assessment for learning as follows:
- clarifying and understanding learning intentions and criteria for success
- engineering effective classroom discussions, questions and tasks that elicit evidence of learning
- providing feedback that moves learners forward
- activating students as instructional resources for each other, and
- activating students as owners of their own learning
The “big idea” that ties these together is that we use evidence of student learning to adapt teaching and learning, or instruction, to meet student needs.
(From ‘Excellence in Assessment‘ by Dylan Wiliam)
The strategy of ‘gallery critique‘ is so appealing because, done well, it addresses each of the five areas of effective assessment for learning. I have learnt, through experience of trailing the strategy, that clarifying the success criteria is essential if students are going to create work worthy of a gallery. Each time I now use the ‘gallery critique‘ method I make sure I have used multiple models of high quality work matching their task as a precursor. Also, equally crucial, is having the highest expectations of behaviour when undertaking the gallery reflection and feedback. It can be an off putting strategy if you have a challenging group, given you expect students to walk around the classroom, but, like anything in the classroom, they need training until this strategy just becomes a ‘new normal’ for how they would learn on a regular basis. Of course, it is about being explicit about exactly how students should move about the room. I demand silence during the gallery reflection stage, verbally celebrating students who are undertaking the task with particular focus. I ensure students have a scaffold for their responses using the ‘ABC’ feedback model (they write on their large post it notes – either A for ‘Agree with…’, B for ‘Build upon…’ and C for ‘Challenge…’). I also articulate tight time-frames to ensure students are focused on the job. I then select exemplars that have multiple examples of feedback and talk through them with the class, huddled around in an arc facing the work, questioning students appropriately. Students follow up the ‘gallery critique’ with some sustained ‘dedicated improvement and reflection time‘, whilst I attempt to remedy any misapprehensions with individual students.
In terms of evidence, I focused upon using the strategy with my Y10 group preparing for an ‘Of Mice and Men’ controlled assessment. I regularly identified distinct improvements to drafted paragraphs based on using the ‘gallery critique‘ method; however, I am suspect about my own instincts here, because as Hattie states, almost every teaching intervention makes some form of improvement. That being said, we repeated this method of formative assessment, with the second batch of model paragraphs being distinctively better than the first (I included more exemplar models the second time around). I couldn’t grade this improvement, as it was part of the controlled assessment process, so any marking of drafts isn’t allowed (much to the annoyance of students who are used to this being the case), but the paragraphs were clearly better. I did want the ‘soft data’ of student voice evidence, so I undertook a student voice activity with my trial group. I did undertake the questionnaire just before their controlled assessment so they were nervous and lacking in confidence somewhat (by the end of the lesson I had a different response to their ‘confidence level’ question – with more than half of the group feeling more confident).
The evidence from the questionaries from my Y10 GCSE group is certainly not a ringing endorsement of the strategy! What clearly came through the questionnaire was that 82% of students in my GCSE group preferred teacher assessment over peer or self assessment. Only 18% favoured peer assessment. Of course, students are always dependent and reassured by teacher assessment, for good or ill, but it does draw into question whether this strategy enhances motivation, or whether it is simply defers the true gratification for students that is teacher assessment. One complication is that students know I will not, and cannot, mark a draft of their work, as the controlled assessment process prohibits this, so their annoyance may translate to their views on the questionnaire. 27% of students evaluating that the ‘gallery critique’ method was “not useful at all”; 32% thought it was useful at times; 18% deemed it useful and 18% thought it was very useful. Their reflective opinion did appear to clash with the quality of their written outcomes, but it is an interesting piece of evidence (arguably, watching videos would receive a high percentsge for its usefulness but I would be rightly sceptical of their judgement!). Interestingly, 64% of the group thought that reading the work of others was “useful at times”. Clearly, the desire for teacher led assessment predominates and is indeed the dominant model for education – why wouldn’t students be conditioned to be reliant upon it? Does the strategy motivate students undertaken in this specific manner in the English classroom? Clearly not as much as I thought.
The next crucial question: does it work? The proof will inevitably be in the summative pudding of the controlled assessment mark. I will be able to equate it with their previous reading assessment, not ideally as there are differences. I will also be able to compare their performance with other groups (again, recognising that a host of variables are at play) to ensure there is some hard data to supplement the student voice and my teacher observations of progress.
It is the case with assessment for learning, like most teaching strategies, a balanced variety of well honed approaches will work best to help students make progress. Peer assessment that is well scaffolded and modelled, and conducted with well chosen groupings, can be highly effective formative assessment, as the evidence suggests, but striking a delicate balance of assessment for learning is key. Students often dislike self-assessment, but that self-regulating skill is key to success, therefore we must persevere, ensuring our pedagogy scaffolds the assessment to make it purposeful and have impact.
It is only appropriate to end with the inspirational words of Ron Berger when thinking about the value of the ‘gallery critique’ strategy:
“Most discussions of assessment start in the wrong place. The most important assessment that goes on in a school isn’t done to students but goes on inside students. Every student walks around with a picture of what is acceptable, what is good enough. Each time he works on something he looks at it and assesses it. Is this good enough? Do I feel comfortable handing this in? Does it meet my standards? Changing assessment at this level should be the most important assessment goal of every school. How do we get inside students’ heads and turn up the knob that regulates quality and effort.” (P103, ‘An Ethic of Excellence’)
In summary, ‘Gallery critique’ is one very useful formative assessment strategy for getting students to better ‘turn up the knob that regulates quality and effort’, making their work worthy of a gallery.
Does public speaking matter?
What do the Houses of Parliament, the Oxford Union, big business board rooms, assembly halls and court chambers have in common? They are the seats of power for people who lead our nation, the great…and the not-so-great and good. What other common factor is at work in such settings? Each respective setting requires expert speaking and listening skills. Indeed, power in society equates with the power of knowledge and to speak and to listen in such social settings. We must empower every student with the tools to speak in such settings if we seek real social mobility. Now, my argument is that when Gove suggests that we should move towards an ‘all eggs in one basket‘ summative exam, we should reject that proposition. We should instead look to a richer, much more varied assessment model that has speaking and listening rooted at its core.
“We value what we measure, rather than measuring what we value” is a common refrain in education. Michael Gove has recently declared that if we are to return to an education system of rigour we must have a fitting assessment model. Now, few professionals could argue with this ambition for rigour, but Gove has indicated that high standards will only be upheld by the narrowest of assessments – an ‘all eggs in one basket’ summative exam approach. Such a narrow model (although it does signal the positive jettisoning of endless resits and time-consuming controlled assessments) fails to prepare our students of today for a complex tomorrow. One shift we must make is to place challenging oral assessments at the heart of our curriculum model, across curriculum subjects, if we are to move towards a curriculum fit for the twenty first century. We need to show we value those key skills for success: speaking and listening skills. They should be rooted in our daily practice – not be seen as burdensome or extraneous high-stakes assessments.
I can remember with vivid immediacy my experience of speaking and listening presentations in my English lessons. Notably, I remember no such challenge outside of English, except a couple of Spanish orals, which were rather less than memorable. I loved many of my English lessons, as you would likely expect, but the prospect of presenting to my peers filled me with dread. At KS3 I gave a dire talk on earthworms; at KS4 I lowered the bar still further with a bleak explanation of cancer. Each time I had to present to the group my fear was nearly insurmountable, resulting in my feigning illness on more than one occasion. Now I am confident speaking to a hall of over one hundred fellow professionals. How has this transformation occurred? Repeated deliberate practice. Was it solely down to those assessments – of course not – but they made a difference. I was made to undertake that challenge, whereas if the assessment was not an external requirement I may not have had to complete such a task. If those assessments didn’t exist on a more formal basis would we have undertaken them given factors like student recalcitrance or merely absence? Ultimately, one lingering impact of those tentative presentations and group discussions is that am able to become successful at my job and so much more.
Oracy has always been the poor sibling to reading and writing and once more we are failing to exploit a realigned curriculum to raise the status of speaking and listening. Despite its lowly status, educationalists across the globe recognise its primacy in the very act of learning. Even a rudimentary understanding of child language acquisition will spell out that oracy is the very foundation for successful reading and writing. I know, for example, that my young daughter’s oral proficiency will correlate strongly with her future ability to read and write successfully. Indeed, reading itself is a form of listening – described here by E. D. Hirsch:
“Reading—even skimming—is indeed accompanied by “subvocalization.” Although some teachers use this term to refer to children whispering to themselves as they make the transition from reading out loud to silent reading, researchers use this term to refer to the internal voice we all hear while we read silently. We use an inner voice and an inner ear. Reading IS listening.”
To say that listening complements reading also highlights its crucial role in the writing process. ‘Subvocalization’ is also inherent in the writing process, so much so that we commonly use the phrase ‘the writer’s voice’ without a second thought. You are likely voicing this blog this very moment! Extended talk and oral rehearsal can aid the writing process as much as it can prepare for a speaking performance. Put simply, speaking and listening are integral to reading and writing. If we foreground the assessment of speaking and listening, we enrich reading and writing.
I teach English and we have three speaking and listening assessments at GCSE for English Language (none for English Literature) which accounts for 20% of the overall grade for English Language – not far off from an appropriate percentage for how I see speaking listening could being assessed in all subjects. Of course, Modern Foreign Languages has oral assessment at the heart of its curriculum, but in my opinion, there is a paucity of high quality oral assessments inter-connected across our curriculum (which would bolster the learning of foreign languages, a particular need for British students). To use an aural metaphor, we need each teacher in the school to be a player in a orchestra, each contributing to the music that is speaking and listening skills. We fail to exploit the many rich opportunities for rigorous assessment in the form of debate and individual presentations. We expect students to undertake university interviews, to give seminar presentations, to perform a ‘viva voce’ in further education – not even getting starting on the world of work; yet we only tinker at the margins with preparatory assessments that would further nudge teachers and schools to raise the standards of speaking and listening assessment. The opportunities are legion, but too often forsaken.
An approach to public speaking could be rigorous and systematic – a balancing point to end of course exams. We can record assessments with ease and relatively cheaply – it is already a requirement for parts of the iGCSE and the International Baccalaureate. This may create somewhat of a burden, but that does add greater rigour and consistency to the process – a price well worth paying. We can also balance internal and external assessment judgements too to add greater consistency. One interesting comparison between AQA GCSE English and the International Baccalaureate, for example, is that with the IB all written coursework is assessed externally and half of the speaking and listening is assessed externally too. It would cost exam boards some money, but it would be roundly welcomed by teachers and it would take away accusations of ‘cheating’ or grade creep levelled at teachers.
A rather unhidden truth is that our assessment models are largely dictated by the exam boards, of which we pay handsome sums of money for the privilege of the undertaking. I am not shocked when a company driven by a profit motive selects an assessment model which prioritises cost over quality. When I consider controlled assessments: the bastard child of coursework and examinations, the reality is that exam boards have a vested interest in an assessment model that are cheap, easily digitalised, easily replicable and mass produced tasks. Reductive written exams are the epitome of an easily outsourced and replicable model – but such exams alone do not provide a rich, holistic model of accurate assessment. Speaking and listening assessments, rigorously assessed, ideally with a balance of internal and external judgements, but at the very least recorded for standardising purposes, cost time and money. But we must ask, what is the best education worth? According to official accounts released by Companies House, Edexcel made profits of more than £60 million in 2010 – compared with just more than £10 million in 2004. AQA and OCR are actually charities, with a mission to “do good in education” – a better, more comprehensive assessment model would go some way to doing that ‘good‘. We must lobby fiercely for a system of assessment fit for the future.
If we truly measure what we value, rather than value what we measure, and we want to leverage as much social mobility as is possible in a system distorted by social inequality, then we must broaden our assessment model. We must encompass speaking and listening skills, with as many opportunities for public speaking as possible, into our assessment model if we want to develop students who can thrive and succeed.
This last week I had the pleasure to read some excellent blogs on outstanding practice. It was fascinating to see what fellow practitioners think about great teaching, with exemplary practice outlined in a very helpful way. In this post by David Didau here there is a hugely useful model of what a great lesson looks like. In this post by Tom Sherrington here there is a breakdown about the qualities of great teaching more generally: with a particular focus upon ‘rigour’ (reclaiming it from Govean parody!). I was interested in the overlap and interplay between those two posts. I happened to be teaching ‘Of Mice and Men’ with my Year 10 group at the moment, like David, and I too was being observed. What I wanted to do was not aim to exhibit a ‘showpiece’ one-off lesson (although these can be rattled out the bag by many experienced practitioners to mask a dull daily reality). I was intent on representing the real routines my group exemplify in any given lesson – to display the rigour articulated by Tom Sherrington, combined (hopefully!) with some of the outstanding strategies employed by David Didau.
Although we all feel pressure to perform when observed, we must aim for consistency in our practice before a pursuit of an outstanding lesson judgement, and we must trust in ourselves that this consistency will be rewarded. I have heard from a few wise leaders who have said that if every lesson saw our students display good progress then we would cumulatively see good to outstanding progress in student attainment. Of course, there are a host of important contextual factors to consider, but on a simple level, sticking to the ‘three Rs‘ of relentless and rigorous routines would see students flourish. I do not think it is having low standards to be happy with a consistent sequence of very good lessons, rather than haul ourselves over the coals in an obsessive pursuit of outstanding; it is effective pragmatism and a realisation that rapid progress does not happen every lesson. I have found that some cast iron ‘outstanding’ plans just don’t spark on the day, whilst seemingly simple lessons can smash through the ceiling of mediocrity and see students reach new heights. We must then reflect with care, but without despondency if the lesson doesn’t turn out exactly as we planned or wanted. What is crucial is that we learn from the experience of the lessons that didn’t go well and then tweak our pedagogy to improve still further.
With this in mind I tried to aim for a great sequence of lessons, where hopefully the observation lesson would show an accumulation of skills, rather than a one off showpiece. The following sequence of lessons outlines the planning for most of the week, with the lesson plans for before and after the observation lesson being just as crucial:
- Key question: How does the theme of power link to the theme of loneliness?
- Starter: Who would make the better American president? See PPT. Student feedback: ‘Pose-pause-pounce-bounce’.
- In pairs, create a ‘power map’ using the ‘Character Cards’ resource. The pairing then needs to select three of the characters who have distinctive power relations. – They should co-construct a top grade paragraph that answers the key question. This should be done with students writing alternate sentences (with each partner orally critiquing the sentence of one another) and it should be completed on paper (for the gallery critique).
- Any questions should be posted on the ‘Question wall’.
- Recap the four steps of effective evidence analysis – their group target.
- Recap their proof reading target – each pairing is given two minutes DIRT time on their paragraph (Dedicated Improvement and Reflection Time).
- Complete a gallery critique. Remind students about the criteria for their feedback and how many paragraphs they should read ideally. The critique notes will be made on a post it note – using the ABC feedback model (Agree with; Build Upon and Challenge). Conduct oral feedback.
Tuesday’s Lesson (Observation lesson)
- Key question: How is the theme of friendship presented in relation to the theme of loneliness?Obscure the two themes from the KQ and probe some ideas.
- Starter: Who would you most like to sit next to in class? See PPT. ‘Think-pair-share’ responses using the ABC feedback model.
- Revisit the key question and elicit oral feedback using the ‘Pose-pause-bounce-pounce’ model.
- ‘Just a minute’ recap of last lesson from selected student – link to current KQ (articulate end goal of controlled assessment essay).
- In pairs, use character cards to create a friendship map (this is intentionally an open concept). Ask observer to select a map that is interesting. Get that pairing to rearrange the characters on the PPT slide – (See PPT) – whilst orally articulating their ‘map’. Get other pairings to conduct ABC feedback.
In pairs, write a model paragraph that answers the key question (akin to last lesson). Remind students that they need to write alternate sentences. Show a model PEEL high grade paragraph response – see PPT – with ‘four steps to a successful explanation’ model – see images slide on PPT. Question students about why the paragraph is so successful.
- Have two minutes DIRT time (use highlighters).
- Conduct a gallery critique (teacher model first oral response).
- Key question: How does social prejudice exacerbate loneliness?
- A student is made the ‘Secret Teacher‘ to privately note the best oral responses.
- Individuals note a list of the prejudices present in the novella. In groups, discuss those prejudices. Conduct ABC feedback
- ‘Prejudice Continuum’: the students have to individually select where they think each prejudice resides on the line, from ‘Most individually damaging’ to ‘least individually damaging’. Teacher orchestrates feedback and the ‘Secret teacher‘ orders the answers along the continuum.
- Individual writing of a top grade paragraph addressing the key question. Show two model examples from last lesson and unpick and reiterate key points. Use the question wall for any student questions, with post it notes, and allow a one minute question session midway through their writing. Otherwise, work in silence.
- Have two minutes DIRT time for their writing – with peer proof reading, then individual proof reading. Conduct oral feedback. Select students to read their paragraph, with another student having to give constructive feedback based on our writing targets from the previous week (a four step model to explain evidence).
- The ‘Secret teacher‘ gives feedback on their observations.
(There was a fourth lesson in the week but I wanted to keep the post to a reasonable size!)
Useful resources referred to in lesson plans:
Of Mice and Men 'Character Cards': OM&M Character cards
Review of the week and the ‘Three Rs’
What I hope is evident is that much of the pedagogy in the lesson plans above is repeated to develop and deepen the habits required to produce great learning. Consistency, good habits and routine are king. The first two lessons of the week, in particular, clearly mirror one another to develop the required writing skills. Repetition is often frowned upon in education, with the misguided notion we should be endlessly creative and different to maintain the interest of students. Students derive comfort and increasing expertise through incrementally increasing the level of challenge through the repetition of the most effective teaching and learning strategies, not from an endless array of activities.
The reality of the lessons outlined above is that I also learnt a great deal about where they stumbled on Monday, when student progress that was definitely not outstanding, to actually inform my planning for Tuesday. For example, they failed to analyse the quotations as successfully as I would have liked on Monday, which was rather unexpected, so I added in an A grade model on Tuesday and spent more time modelling the paragraph structure to enhance their quality of analysis in the subsequent lesson. Not every lesson sees rapid progress – to think this is the case is to have a fundamental misunderstanding of human nature…never mind hormonal teenagers! By working at the core habits relentlessly; however, I was able to make ‘marginal gains’ lesson upon lesson – only nuanced, slight improvements, but essential differences (this recognition often becomes easier with experience). Good became better.
Another clear factor about my pedagogy I hope is in evidence is my focus upon questioning see here and oral feedback see here. I couldn’t write those blog posts without practising what I preach! What is clear is that OFSTED are interested in progress- (it is the latest buzz word careering around schools). Some people are therefore quick to mystify this term, complicating what can be the best, and sometimes the most traditional, of teaching and learning strategies: simply asking great questions and eliciting thoughtful, intelligent feedback. When I hear we people explaining ‘mini-plenaries’ every fifteen minutes, or have our students spinning plates in different ‘learning stations’, with no real deep understanding or knowledge, just for when the OFSTED inspectors are in the room, I despair. Stop the showpiece; don’t invite the circus to town – just follow habits of excellent routine pedagogy!
If we develop real rigour in our habits then it will be obvious that students are learning and making good, or sometimes even rapid, progress: clearly in their attitude and demeanour; in the quality of their questions and feedback; in their written work and in their books or folders. Each one of my lessons above allocated time to make improvements (DIRT). It is trained behaviour, that may appear uninspired or lacking the necessary rapidity, but the rigour of proof reading may well be the two most important minutes of those lessons. Any observer should note that rapid progress is often the product of slow reflection! Not only that, it is this regular habit which may well transfer to becoming more settled habits for students when writing at any time in any subject – the learning trumps the chase for a great observation once more. It is a rigorous routine of real note (thank you Jackie Breere for the inspiration for DIRT) – whether a lesson is graded outstanding or not, students will reap the rewards of such sound learning.
When I speak to many colleagues they simply want to be shown what an outstanding lesson is, what it looks like, and how they can replicate it. This is problematic: as outstanding looks, sounds and feels different in different subjects. That being said, some definitive patterns of learning arise in great lessons. For me, those are seeing students highly engaged in responding to challenging questions, posed by a teacher with the highest of standards; it is feedback being artfully weaved around the group, lifting understanding; it is students reflecting with due care attention to their thinking and their work; and it is the palpable sense of motivation and commitment to the task at hand. These patterns are honed by routine, not derived from any off the peg lesson plan or formula for success.
Postscript: I am thankful to David Didau, Jackie Breere and David Docherty for their ideas that have informed my lesson plans outlined in this post.
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.
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:
Any teacher worth their salt should always ask ‘why’ and know what impact their teaching has upon the learning of their students. Why then do we continue to revere the sacred cow that is homework? Is it parental pressure, force of habit, the notion that all that extra work must do something positive?
All the evidence challenges the view that homework is working. John Hattie, whose ‘Visible Learning’ brought a weight of evidence and research to bear on education that is unsurpassed and that is required reading. In his meta-analysis of many thousands of educational studies undertaken he created an evidential judgement of worthwhile impact upon student achievement – this average bar of impact being 0.40 in effect size. Contextually, classroom discussion has an effect size of 0.82 – teacher-student relationships has an effect size of 0.72. All very positive – good stuff with proven impact. Homework has an impact size of 0.29. Any longer studies over time reduced the effect size nearer to zero – it just isn’t working. It is a dead parrot! Now, this simply doesn’t stack up with our instinctive prejudices – can you imagine Gove and Cameron accepting this evidence? Their notion of competitive sport and even more competitive working hours simply wouldn’t align with the evidence – better ignore it! Now, I am not some lily-livered leftie who doesn’t believe in the merits of hard work, but the evidence tells us homework as it stands isn’t working. Why are we stealing family time, play time, time for reading for pleasure, to plough on with a rather painful pursuit that isn’t working?
Why isn’t it working? I have focused on the evidence so far. I want to stick to the evidence as it is crucial – but there isn’t evidence to explain why homework isn’t having a significant impact upon achievement, so I will surmise some conclusions of my own. Students rely on the expert instruction of teachers, and importantly, the instruction and support of their peers (this should never be under-estimated – think how much they learn from others and not directly from you). Homework takes away that scaffold for successful learning and many students flounder without support. Homework may actually further exacerbate the divide between the most able and least able in any given group – causing a loss of crucial time in class to bridge that gap. Younger students, of Primary age, have the positive impact size reduced to nothing which may indeed support my supposition that not having the expertise and support provided in the classroom may have a troubling counter-productive effect.
Secondly, too many homeworks still remain as ‘finish the class work’ tasks. They provide little or no engagement or motivation to be completed with an investment of time that would impinge on the personal time of students in the comforts of their home spaces. Homework can therefore have the detrimental effect of turning off students from learning altogether. This often occurs because schools follow homework timetables that impose arbitrary slots for homework that must be filled, regardless of the real value for learning. teachers are then pressured to set lots of homework regardless of merit or value to the learning process.
Thirdly, so much homework now includes using the web and filtering information. The problem with this is that most students struggle to make the required filtering choices independently that makes that research process truly worthwhile – or make those key selections, beyond simply cutting and pasting a Wikipedia entry!
Baby and Bath Water
Now, I am deliberately being blunt about the problem to provoke thoughts on the subject – but I don’t think the solution is to abandon homework altogether, nor do I think we should rebrand it with educational speak – even though ‘home learning’ has a better ring to it. I think we need to rethink homework completely – ask why, ask when and ask how.
With no learning at home the vacuum may well be filled with hours of COD or whatever TV programme is being repeated endless on MTV. Parents would be rightly concerned with this state of affairs. Therefore we must communicate with parents, educate them about the evidence and support them to provide alternatives. My biggest recommendation is promoting reading for pleasure. Perhaps the single most underrated activity a child can undertake that impacts upon their school success, and indeed, their happiness and their life. Get parents involved, share reading lists, create book clubs, find time in the school day to share reading – review, discuss, even rant! Anything to promote reading to provide time for reading. All the evidence says reading for pleasure has a positive impact, but it is in inexorable decline – but that need not be the case.
We also must create engaging challenges that reach far beyond simply finishing off a piece of class work that there wasn’t quite time to complete. Extended challenges that involve parents, collaboration with their peers, that demand a variety of skills – like good old- school Blue Peter challenges! In our school reception recently we had a fleet of amazing motte and bailey castles on display. They were sensational – a testament to students going far beyond an allocated thirty minute homework slot. These challenges provide intrinsic motivation and deepen learning and bring a pleasure to learning that should not be readily dismissed. I also suspect a few parents were involved – this is brilliant – and exactly what we should support and encourage. Students need time to develop these projects – support and advice, from teachers, peers and parents. We must avoid the temptation to avoid their electronic world and create gimmicks, like mock Facebook pages – these are cheesy and students see through these strategies with contempt! There are tools out there that can work – websites like http://www.wallwisher.com/ provide a useful space for students to collaborate, whilst using a platform which they invariably enjoy. But not every challenge need be on the web!
Importantly, we must find time and a physical space for students to be supported with their homework, like lunchtime or after school clubs. This is particularly crucial for weaker students who are more dependent upon expert instruction and who can painfully flounder without some knowledgeable support. There is the added bonus of keeping the attendant stresses of homework out of the home altogether. How many parental arguments are triggered by the fight over homework? This emotional stress has exactly the opposite effect than what we want to create.
Whatever we do we regarding learning outside of school we must ask why, know how and carefully decide when – not simply do more of the same.
Every morning my eldest child, Freya, eats her breakfast, entertains her brother, plays a bit and then she gets down to business…choosing her clothes! I’m not exactly sure when this begun, but it seems a long while ago – her obsession with what clothes she is wearing – predominately her desire to wear a dress regardless of the weather! She has mastered some skilful techniques – from explaining how the sun is shining, to how it is “the one thing in the world she wants”. Since this obsession began there have been a fair few tears, but the fact remains – she doesn’t know what’s best for her – I do, I’m the adult! Yet, without pandering to her or falling for her sophistry, I have found the answer – give her a choice. Only a very controlled choice – which involves offering her two items of clothing from which to choose – both of which I am more than happy for her to wear. Given a choice she is happy – her emotions soothed – my peace of mind soothed we can move on and enjoy the day ahead! What is true of my daughter is true of any student – choice can have a tremendous power psychologically and emotionally – we therefore need to bear this in mind when we plan our teaching and their learning.
The Chinese proverb: “Tell me and I’ll forget; show me and I may remember; involve me and I’ll understand”, may be ancient, but in our digital age, with an immense and complex mass of information, it is immensely pertinent. Students must be actively and emotionally involved in their learning and we need to ensure planning and schemes of learning contain the flexibility of choice. Making good choices will be paramount in their future lives.
I have a mixed experience of implementing choice in departmental schemes of learning. When I was a Key Stage Three Coordinator (with luscious dark hair, free of grey!), I worked with the department to co-plan thematic schemes of work where each scheme had three optional outcomes – or pathways. The schemes were interesting, but the degree of choice didn’t work. On top of the newly introduced APP frameworks, teacher were muddled by the many options and we couldn’t learn together as we had all gone down divergent paths because of the sheer degree of choice. Teachers felt inhibited from offering students choices and fell back into a default control position. Effectively, what I had learnt is that the conditions need to be right to embed good choices in lessons – choices can be narrowed but they must be real for students. Also, teachers need to establish good learning habits, whilst ensuring students know how to independently tackle problems or barriers once they have undertaken their choice. This year we have planned choice by outcome in our Y11 revision schemes, with confidence that teachers are now wholly familiar with the demands of the course, the requirements of the examination and skills required for success. Within the activities we have begun to embed a skilful degree of choice – for example, students are asked to create presentations on aspects of the exam, but they can choose the platform from which they present – from PPT to an iMovie, an ExplainEverything presentation or a Prezi, to an artistic design of their choice. The variety we hope will prove memorable, and the motivation engendered by making their choice will be heightened.
There are many other ways to create more choice and raise levels of intrinsic motivation. Choice of student grouping can be powerful. With the learning of a new skill it can be particularly effective, as students who have chosen to work with friends may feel more emotionally secure and willing to try a new challenge. Students being given the choice of how long to complete a task, although not always appropriate, can really give confidence to students (whilst giving implicit feedback to teachers about how much they may know). Giving an element of choice for students when defining success criteria for a given task is also a useful way in eliciting understanding about a task and also, again, inspiring a greater level of commitment in the undertaking on the part of the student. In our school, teachers can decide if students are allowed to listen to iPods during independent tasks (typically extended writing tasks). This choice can have a really positive impact on students – giving them extra motivation to work and also allowing them to learn as they would at home – raising their motivation levels and helping with that elusive ‘flow’ where they learn most smoothly and effectively.
Barry Schwartz pointed out in his book, ‘The Paradox of Choice’, that too much choice can be negative. Students can become confused and paralysed by the gallery of choice if not guided. I would agree with this assertion. It is therefore clear that the teacher needs to careful select appropriate choices – skilfully and with a guiding hand (like my fashion selections for Freya!) – but with a level of trust that their students will be better motivated and more emotionally engaged to complete the task to the best of their ability when given a choice.
How to offer choice:
- Choice of outcome, including how they present that outcome
- Choice of grouping
- Choice of learning style/approach
- Choice of timing for given task
- Choice of roles in collaborative group work
Why offer choice?
- It enhances intrinsic motivation
- It empowers learners and fosters their sense of independence
- It provides variety, particularly when students collaborate with one another
- Co-constructing learning has a proven positive impact upon student achievement
- It encourages greater emotional investment and comfort- making it easier for students to settle into a ‘flow’ conducive to the best learning
It’s a new school year – be flexible – be pro-choice!
I emailed the following letter to Stephen Twigg this morning at firstname.lastname@example.org and I will post it to his office: 229 Eaton Road, Liverpool, L12 2AG early next week. I encourage every school teacher and parent to make their views known.
Dear Mr Twigg,
I am writing to you as an English teacher highly disillusioned with the direction of the corrosive educational policy being conducted by the Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove. I am not writing to Mr Gove – he is a myopic ideologue who is simply undertaking his openly stated goal of bringing market forces to bear in education. I am writing to you because you are the primary cause for my current state of disenchantment. Unfortunately, as a life-long Labour supporter, born down the road from your West Derby constituency, your complete failure to challenge the systematic dismantling of state education has left me saddened and angry. I feel like there is little political choice to exercise in our defence, little protection for our profession and our state schools and, most importantly, the children we represent.
I understand that many a pragmatic politician in opposition disappears into the shadows, becoming non-committal on any detail of future policy so as not to compromise future votes. As a young star of New Labour I am sure you are subtlety aware of the nuances of reelection politics. The spectacular flaw in your current plan is that the education system that grew under the last Labour government is being dismantled at an alarming rate – the school system will be so fragmented as to be beyond repair for any prospective Labour government or future Education Secretary. Teachers across the country are crying out for a representative and advocate that challenges Gove openly, skilfully and in a sustained manner. My perception of your challenge is that it is simply non-existent. I for one am completely unclear what your vision for education is beyond what appear to be irregular and ineffectual statements.
In the past week we have seen the futures of thousands of children compromised at the hands of incompetent and corrupt exam boards looking to appease Mr Gove in order to secure lucrative future contracts. This was the time for you to stand up for state education, and more importantly, the children suffering at the hands of a busted right-wing ideology – yet you have failed to present any narrative or vision that challenges Gove’s duplicitous argument about educational ‘standards’. His less than covert plan to drive schools towards Academy status and the profiteers of the private sector is continuing apace and you are completely failing to challenge this state of affairs. The myth of ‘choice’, the chimera of Free schools, and the falsehood of school ‘freedoms’ in a centralising power grab for Gove is going on unchallenged. His ‘shock doctrine’ approach appears to leave you trailing in his wake. You are being trounced in the media battle for hearts and minds – you need to inspire the legions of teachers and leaders behind the cause – you are meant to be the face of a skilled and value driven opposition.
The Labour party is supposed to stand for cooperative values, collective equality and the protection of universal rights for every citizen. Why are you not challenging the existence of league tables, the false idol of transparency and parental ‘choice’, that serve only to promote a narrow ‘gaming’ of the system and negative competition between schools? We have exam boards manipulating results and a powerful business lobby that demeans any of the achievements of our young people. When are you going to challenge the conduct of exam boards? When are you going to defend schools against the attacks by the CBI? We have teachers, committed public servants, who are having their profession regularly demeaned. Do you have a view on the matter? What is your view on the abolition of Qualified Teacher Status and do you have a policy to reestablish true professional status to the teaching profession? Do you have a view on teachers pensions? How about a call for transparency in valuing the teachers’ pension pot – rather than letting Gove do his dirty work of driving down working conditions of public servants. You have said you wouldn’t abolish successful Free schools – I understand your unwillingness to appear dogmatic, but you must know you appear as limp and dissembling if you fail to condemn the inequalities that these drivers of ‘competition’ and ‘choice’ represent. These are winnable battles you appear to be avoiding. You have a staunch ally in teaching unions and thousands of teachers, yet you appear to be ignoring us all (I assume the Unions do not fit a politically centrist obsession), even though these teaching Unions represent labouring workers – the founding value of the Labour party no less.
The Academy system initiated by New Labour, although imperfect, is wholly different to the Academy system propounded by Mr Gove. When are you going to make this clear to the electorate? The PFI funding of new school buildings was flawed, but the state of crumbling schools needed to be addressed and was, but we are now back on the path of decaying conditions for our children, with budgets dwindling whilst the wealthiest in our society flourish. When are you going to challenge this state of affairs? The school fields bandwagon drew you out of the shadows briefly, but the momentum is already waning. Our contemporary politics is fought in the media – you need to engage in that battle with a sustained campaign – enlist the army of willing combatants through social media and by travelling the length and breadths of the land. When are you going to spark the campaign for a positive vision of education which is unequivocally opposed to the systematic break up of our state school system? You will find you will re-engage a massive base of disillusioned voters that dwarfs the small battleground of undecided centrist voters if you were to do so.
Mr Twigg – if this letter appears full of questions it is because I am completely at a loss to articulate what you believe in, what you are defending and what you think should happen in education – even whether you truly oppose the plans of Mr Gove. I am an undecided voter and public servant who wants to know what you stand for and I want to hear it as loud as a drum – from a committed politician who serves their people, not their own career. I am a supporter of labouring workers and I want to know how you will represent us all in the face of this bankrupt coalition.
I would welcome you to articulate your views at my brilliant state school in York, Huntington Secondary School. We have outstanding results and we are a model for how a cooperative and successful state school can flourish with the right values, even in the face of a legion of morally bankrupt educational policies.
Alex Quigley, English teacher