A few weeks ago I had the great pleasure to present to the staff of my school for just over an hour on teaching and learning. What had preceded this session for teachers was time to evaluate teaching exemplar lessons and grading them using the OFSTED grade criteria. Subject Leaders were concurrently working with the fantastic Zoe Elder on helping develop an outstanding department. My session, in the main hall, was a chance to get staff focusing in on pedagogy, reviewing some good practice, sharing ideas and departmental approaches to oral feedback and questioning.
Why questioning and feedback? Well, they are simply the ‘bread and butter of great teaching’. Whenever I think or write about pedagogy I cannot go too far without thinking about them both. Too often, many teachers are spooked by the likes of OFSTED and attempt to become teachers they are not; using a variety of whizz-bang bells and whistles in an attempt to display rapid progress – often only succeeding in creating rapid chaos! Hopefully my slot was a reminder that good and great teaching is often as traditional as Socrates himself asking challenging questions, all the way back before we had a concept of an education. We should not turn away from a wealth of innovative teaching strategies and approaches, but we should hone in on our bread and butter and make it as good as it can possibly be.
My PPT introduction (see here:Training Day 30.1.13) aimed to be long enough to clarity my point, but not too long as to inspire the proverbial PPT ‘death’! I made it clear I was not trying to teach teachers to suck eggs!
Many of these strategies were nothing new and many teachers in the room could surely teach the socks off students! What I wanted to help do was to connect that existing expertise; to take people back to the basics, the bread and butter, and remember, revalue and refine their core practice. I was little more than a compere for the great teachers in the room who just needed some time to connect ideas and practice.
Teachers were handed these simplified versions of my online blog posts, many ideas were common- place – but hopefully it was useful to revisit and reflect:
After discussion, aiming to exemplify the oral feedback strategies, departments created a gallery of current practice and prospective areas to develop. As a way of exemplifying one of the feedback strategies, the staff conducted a ‘gallery critique‘.
Below are some examples from the departmental gallery critique from the session:
The gallery findings were collated, typed up and then circulated to all staff to allow for departments to follow up appropriately. This document summarised all the good practice already existing in our school, as well as identifying where we could continue to improve. It really was a great culmination to the session and made sure the gallery technique was more than a gimmick and ensured we made the activity into a useful working document. See it here: Questioning and Feedback follow-up 31-01-13
Feedback was positive, although I have realised it is near impossible to differentiate to satisfy an audience of over one hundred! Based on the feedback I would factor in some time for more exemplar questioning, contracting the early discussion time somewhat (although people conversely commented that the discussion time was crucial). I was conscious of giving people time to talk and simply reflect on their practice with colleagues. For me, blogging about my practice, and reading those blogs of others, really helps that reflective thinking process. In the hurly burly of the day job it is important to find some stillness to reflect upon our pedagogy – especially those strategies we sometimes take for granted: such as the bread and butter of questioning and oral feedback.
Marking workload getting on top of you?
Many schools, and departments, have been reflecting about their marking policies ever since OFSTED declared more than a healthy interest in scrutinising books. Progress over time has rightly been identified as more important than single lesson snap shots – of course, that evidence if best found in ongoing student work and the attendant formative assessments. This has combined with greater scrutiny of standards of literacy, particularly writing. I have no problem with this; as you would expect from an English teacher. I think it is of paramount importance to have the highest standards for writing across the curriculum. Unfortunately, it appears that in many schools OFSTED fear has fuelled a misguided obsessed with marking, resulting in draconian whole-school marking policies that are less about learning and more about monitoring teachers. Marking and assessment must be the servant, and not the master, of our pedagogy and our profession.
Firstly, I think it is important to understand the OFSTED context, so I can then move beyond it to the more important context: the pedagogy and the learning. In the recent guidance to OFSTED inspectors for judging literacy standards in schools – see here – it relates some specific guidance:
“A basic way of reviewing pupils’ work is to select an extended piece of writing from near the beginning of a pupil’s book (or folder of work). This can then be compared with a piece from the middle and one nearer the end. Is there a discernible difference in length, presentation, sophistication (e.g. paragraphing or length of paragraphs), common errors, use of vocabulary and variation in style? Look at the teacher’s marking. Are the same issues highlighted in the later pieces as in the earlier ones? Has the teacher identified any developing strengths or commented on improvement?
When looking at books from other subjects, it is important to form a view of what it is reasonable to expect. If pupils are writing in a form that would be taught in English, it is reasonable to expect that they would draw on what they have learnt already. This is often the case in primary schools. In secondary schools, there is considerably more variety. Do teachers identify important errors (such as some of those contained in questions about literacy in lessons above). Key subject terms should be spelt correctly. Basic sentence punctuation should be accurate. If it is not and is not identified, how will pupils improve?”
This extract outlines that OFSTED inspectors are guided towards a scrutiny that is selective and one that recognises “variety“, whilst maintaining high expectations of formative feedback. Ultimately, the goal is to successfully recognise written feedback that combines high expectations of literacy and guides students towards making progressive improvement in their writing (reflecting their knowledge and understanding). It is therefore key that we do not overreact with a marking policy that has teachers poring over every written word by students, but instead we need one that recognises the importance of formative written and spoken feedback with a “view to what is reasonable to expect“. We can still maintain the highest of standards, whilst marking reasonably and not to excess. We will maintain the highest of standards not by doing more and more writing assessments, but by slowing down the whole process and getting students actively engaging in drafting and proof reading their writing. We must avoid the tyranny of content coverage at the expense of in depth, quality learning.
A wealth of great research and evidence has lauded the impact of feedback and of assessment for learning strategies for decades. Luminaries such as Dylan Wiliam have guided the way. We must use this valid focus on literacy and high standards of formative assessment as positive leverage to improve our pedagogy and refine our use of assessment for learning strategies. Yes, teachers should give written feedback to a high standard, but we must be reasonable regarding what we can expect is realistic and sustainable for teachers. The answer is a balance of quality, selective formative feedback with well trained peer and self-assessment. If we want great lessons planned and executed consistently then marking must be selective; with a process that builds in reflection time for students – not a roller coaster of internal assessment points, arbitrarily set to give the impression of high standards.
This national context has informed, but not misdirected or narrowed, our redesign of the policy for assessment and marking in our English and Media faculty. We have consciously renamed it our ‘feedback policy’. The relabelling of our policy from ‘marking’ to the broader term ‘feedback’ is more than just window dressing. It is a realignment of priorities currently skewed by a fear of OFSTED. Marking quite obviously presupposes a ‘mark’ on the page; whereas much of our daily pedagogy consists of oral formative feedback. Oral feedback has the unassailable strength of being instantaneous in comparison to the delay of written feedback. Regardless of what teaching and learning activity are being undertaken, oral feedback is integral to learning and progression. We have therefore foregrounded its importance in our feedback policy – placing it on par with written feedback (personally, I think it actually has greater impact on learning). Indeed, our policy is an attempt to unite the two and to enhance our pedagogy, rather than arbitrarily tighten our accountability measures.
Our feedback policy can be found here: 2013 English and Media Faculty Feedback policy
We mark students’ summative work using a separate portfolio approach, with five major end assessments, each supported by a formative mini-task:
Crucially, we have adapted our feedback policy to serve our students and to help them improve, not to tick the OFSTED box; however, by creating a system that records oral feedback more systematically in the students’ books we have managed to meet both requirements. Our approach to feedback is precisely selective and measured. We are also aiming to use assessment and feedback as the servant, not master of our pedagogy. We are using ‘Dedicated Improvement and Reflection Time’ (the label borrowed from the outstanding Jackie Breere), as a continuous formative process within lesson time to raise standards of literacy through a targeted and smart use of peer and self-assessment, combined with skilled oral feedback:
Teachers take the opportunities during lesson to monitor and formatively guide their writing, using our stamp system and getting students to record our comments to identify issues and to set targets. We are not carting home bags of books on a weekly basis, on top of our already thorough and rigorous marking regime, that see students take a little more than cursory glance at, or struggle to find value in even when given time. The oral feedback becomes the written feedback and students are engaged actively in the process. Students also undertake the standard proof reading exercises, of their own writing and of their peers, using highlighters, but in a systematic and highly consistent way. We are building good habits for students, whilst maximising lesson time. When students are writing, or undertaking other activities, teachers can be constantly having dialogues about their work and how they can best improve.
Here are some examples of using our stamp system simply and effectively during classwork, whilst the students are completing their writing so they can improve instantaneously (well, we hope they improve!):
We view that dialogue as so important that we now have ‘one-to-one weeks’ in each term when we undertake ‘dedicated improvement and reflection time‘ (we must remember that students often struggle with written feedback alone, therefore finding time to discuss their progress is typically more effective – as well as being more effective in terms of teacher workload). They are once more guided through peer proof reading and self-regulating strategies (with some valuable extended reading time), whilst the teacher has a crucial conversation about their progress. In those often five minute conversations we can identify issues and/or targets, as well as reviewing their preparatory book work and their portfolio of finished work. The most important part of ‘dedicated improvement and reflection time’ (DIRT) is the time given to students. They need time to reflect on feedback; to analyse and grasp their targets and to ask questions to illuminate how they can progress further. By doing less writing in this manner we will work slower, but ultimately standards will likely be higher.
I would reiterate that OFSTED’s focus upon the evidence of written marking has made us reflect upon the efficacy of our practice and attempt to improve it, but we have not forgotten that assessment and marking – rebranded more holistically as feedback – should be the servant of the classroom teacher, not our master. Its very function is to support students – it should not be used as a stick to beat teachers. My key messages about the current ‘marking’ focus for me are as follows:
- We should remember that oral feedback is as valuable as written feedback and we should shape our pedagogy with that in mind – closing the gap between the two. The gap should also be closed between the teacher giving feedback, both orally and in the written form, and students self-assessing their own writing and peers giving effective feedback;
- We should remember that peer and self-assessment done well takes careful training and scaffolding, but we must not ignore decades of research about the impact of AFL, taking the retrograde step of relying solely on written teacher feedback;
- We should undertake written feedback that is selective, targeted and uses precise language;
- We should dedicate more than adequate time for students to act upon feedback;
- We should devote time to engage in dialogue with students to ensure they understand what they need to do to improve.
A great post by Tom Sherrington, with useful strategies to ‘close the marking gap’:
Useful OFSTED case study:
The original research about AFL that is still required reading for teachers: Inside the Black Box’, by Black and Wiliam –
Today there is a great article on the BBC website about the inexorable progress of the Sky cycling team under the expert stewardship of Dave Brailsford – see here. The ‘aggregation of marginal gains approach‘ is now well known and can be easily summarised as identifying those small performance factors that, when aggregated together, can have a significant cumulative impact. This can apply to teachers tweaking their pedagogy to transform their practice; students breaking down their tasks to focus on the constituent parts to improve; or school leaders aligning their school priorities. The article takes the process a step forward by focusing on the key developments for moving from good to outstanding as a team.
The first quote from the article that immediately stood out was the following:
“You’ll get more from a £900,000 rider with a coach than you would from a £1m rider without one.”
This seamlessly applies to a school context. Rather than investing in yet more teachers; or seeking the expensive intervention strategy of paying more for ‘top’ teachers, or even paying for extra teachers to make class sizes smaller, we should invest in quality coaching. We should aim to find more of that most crucial, but expensive, commodity for teachers: time. We should help our existing teachers become better, rather than looking to import in super-teachers, or other imported quick fixes. Coaching is a cheap and crucial method in improving our core business, helping teachers improve their pedagogy. We should question how can we develop better coaching?
So how did Brailsford lead team Sky to become “the most admired sports team in the world“? Being well funded helps, and it helps schools. Team Sky stay in the best hotels, with the best pillows etc. – we benefit from having the best school buildings and the best equipment – it is common sense really; however, less expensive marginal gains are also at work.
Hone in on the important data:
“Every turn of the pedal a Team Sky rider makes is recorded by a power meter, analysed using performance software and then benchmarked against Kerrison’s “power curve” models.
Last year, for example, Wiggins’s training was assessed against a template for a Tour/Olympic double. The gaps between these two lines on a graph – where Wiggins was and where he needed to be – were where Team Sky directed what Kerrison describes as “coaching interventions”.
Measuring power and using it as a training tool is not unique to Team Sky – and neither is it new. But what sets them apart is their total faith in it.”
Yes, obviously we are not teaching machines, although our assessment outcomes sometimes make us feel like we do! The lesson here is concentrating on the right data. There are swathes of data models for schools to the point where teachers become swamped. We should simplify our data collection and recording. This post exemplifies using data as a school leader brilliantly, but the rule applies more broadly. We should question what is the best data and how do we use it?
Slow the teaching and learning down, aiming for high quality mastery over quantity:
“But even with squads that large, most teams race all season, go on holiday in the autumn and then start training again in the winter. There is not much room for coaching.
Not at Team Sky, though. Their top riders race fewer days than their rivals and they structure their seasons to accommodate mid-season “training blocks”. For Wiggins, Chris Froome, the rest of the Grand Tour group and even the 10 riders targeting the Cobbled Classics in the spring, that means time off to train at altitude on Tenerife’s Mount Teide.”
Under pressure from OFSTED, curriculum specifications etc. we often try to cover every minute detail of every subject – we often become overly content driven in the fear of missing the minutiae of a potential exam question. What we must do is slow down the learning. There is a movement for this very ideas – see here. Excellent practitioners, such as David Didau have advocated ‘Slow Writing’. In our department, we are moving towards rooting DIRT (Dedicated Improvement and Reflection Time) into our daily pedagogy. Much better to do 80% of a job brilliantly than 100% of it badly! We should reflect on what should we not do – like Dylan Wiliam implores – we should stop doing too many good things! We should question what can we drop out of our curriculum to allow for real depth and quality to occur?
You get what you pay for:
“All teams have costs they cannot avoid – hotels, petrol and so on – but given the correlation between wages and winning, most keep their “operational spend” down to a minimum, typically allocating 90% of their resources to salaries. It is the cycling equivalent of putting the best possible XI on the pitch at the expense of everything else.
At Team Sky, however, that split is 80/20, with greater investment in non-riding staff, research and training camps. “You’ll get more from a £900,000 rider with a coach than you would from a £1m rider without one,” is Brailsford’s rationale.”
Rightly or wrongly (I say wrongly whole-heartedly!), budgets are tight. We should ask the question of every spend in our school: what impact does it have on teaching and learning? This should drive our choices, whether as a subject leader or school leader. People may question the relative wealth of the Sky Team – comparing it to some Wellington or Eton School equivalent. That is true to some degree, but at the head of the innovation team (the ‘Secret Squirrel Club’) is Chris Boardman – a man who devised the world’s fastest bike with the tools in his garage! Great things can still be done on tight budgets, they may just require greater ingenuity! We should question deeply what we spend our money on and we should challenge the government to invest further in top quality education.
“We’ve got good at conference calls,” said Brailsford, adding these are not just any conference calls. These are mandatory Monday morning conference calls, with standardised minutes.
But as good as these virtual meetings are, you cannot beat an old-fashioned, face-to-face chinwag, which is why one of this year’s innovations will be the establishment of a permanent performance base in Nice, staffed by Kerrison and Shaun Stephens, until recently the head coach of the Australian triathlon team.”
The question should be how do we best communicate? How do we best make use of technology to drive improvement in our practice: such as using blogs, email communication, meeting and training time? Again, what should we not do? Are we wasting our time and that of our teachers with excessive meetings? Or, should we adapt our currently meetings to ensure the hone in relentlessly on teaching, learning and pedagogy?
The “elephant in the room” for cycling may well be the spectre of drug cheats that casts a lengthy shadow over achievement. Our ghostly apparitions may be OFSTED, exam boards (and the tricky shenanigans of grade boundaries!) or our curriculum model; but they are things we cannot control – mere apparitions and even media driven crises blown out of true proportion. We need to follow Brailsford’s model and keep the main thing the main thing – refusing such distractions from our core business of teaching and learning.
Firstly, let me dismiss the notion that there is any one universal panacea which will have a transformative impact upon education. Sadly, we cannot uproot the Finnish education system and replant it in our green and pleasant land; its roots are bound in a rich local context. That being said, I am interested in the root of the word panacea and its relevance to our current predicament. The word panacea derives from the Greek: ‘panákeia‘, equivalent to ‘panake-‘, with the stem of ‘panakḗs‘, meaning ‘all-healing‘. I am particularly interested in the healing aspect. Our education system is fractured and in need of healing; our policy is driven by polarising ideology and each tier of our system is at destructive logger-heads. As a profession we are in dire need of some restorative healing. My palliative, alas, not an ‘all-healing’ panacea, is to our Department FOR Education, and indeed the current, and subsequent, British governments, to realign what it values and to work in cooperation with the teaching profession. I see cooperation and interdependence as the core values which will help improve our education system and begin the healing.
The idea of ‘investment‘ I am interested in spans broader borders than just monetary value. As Warren Buffett said, ‘price is what you pay, value is what you get’. What would have an enduring impact upon schools in the coming years is that each Department FOR Education begins to truly value state education, school leaders and teachers; not pay mere lip service to valuing education either, but displaying this conviction through policy and investment. This policy needs to be depoliticised like never before and professionalised like never before. We can better professionalise our education system through a concerted commitment to research and development. What we need is a relentless focus upon what works in education, not a rigorous defence of ideology at all costs.
As the media and the government will tell you, we are in dire need of cuts. Cut fast, cut deep…cut pretty much anything. Of course, there is an attempt to hold onto what is valued. Much was made by our current coalition government about education budgets being retained, but the reality is one of harsh cuts, with capital expenditure particularly slashed:
“Over the period covered by the 2010 Spending Review, the state-funded school population in England is expected to grow from 6.95 million in 2010–11 to 7.14 million children by 2014–15.4 Furthermore, the education leaving age will be gradually increased from 16 to 18 starting in 2013. Once phased in, this will eventually require students to stay in some form of full-time or part-time education or training until the age of 18 (instead of 16 as currently). As a result, the declines in education spending over the next few years will be spread over an increasing population, so that resources per head will probably decline by even more than total spending.
In summary, education spending experienced relatively robust growth during the 2000s. By the end of the decade, education spending as a share of national income stood close to its highest level for at least fifty years. However, over the next four years, almost all of this growth will be reversed. Having grown historically quickly during the 2000s, it is now set to fall historically fast during the early 2010s.”
Institute for Fiscal Studies report:
Of course, in austere times we must spend near aligned with our means, but by devaluing education we will inevitably stifle the very innovation that will drive our small nation back towards success, especially when faced with the rise of vast Brick nations in our changing global economy. It may not be short term enough to fit political cycles (a key issue with the politicisation of policy), but it will be enduring and transformative. Many arguments are made to sustain spending in different government sectors, such as defence spending, but evidence leads to the fact that it is a high quality education system which generates jobs, innovation and wealth creation. This American research gives some intriguing evidence to compare state spending and job creation: US education spending creating jobs – University of Massachusetts research.
I am particularly intrigued by the global comparisons of state spending on education and defence. Perhaps it is a universal example of the endemic of governments spending on the ‘cure’ (defence spending) and not the ‘prevention’ (education spending). In Britain, we have spent an estimated £83.5 billion on an outdated Cold War Defence system in Trident, when the annual education budget is an estimated £99 billion. We must get our values right – which will take a significant realignment. One other facet of the education and defence spending comparison is that of ‘research and development‘. Defence RandD spend stands at £2 billion annually. There is no real equivalent budget for RandD for schools! Higher education funding is being slashed and no ‘Big Society’ substitute will do this significant undertaking. This is at a time when Gove and Clegg seek such a valuable evidence base from the likes of the Education Endowment Foundation, showing they are aware of the impact of such rigorous research evidence, but they are tinkling with the issue. Not only that, there is significant current research being wholly ignored by the DfE.
What would be the scope if we invested £2 billion in evidence based research in Education? Higher Education funding stands at a fraction of current military RandD spending and currently the link between Universities and schools is being severed, due to the change in the teacher training model, so such quality research is becoming ever more difficult. What we must do is connect not fracture: universities and particularly Teaching School Alliances can work like a solar system, drawing together schools and practitioners in rich collaboration, rather than work in corrosive competition. The OECD have explored the striking disconnect that sees government ignoring research and development for education, preferring to base policy upon baseless ideology:
“It is striking that there is generally little public funding for educational research. Private businesses do not seem to invest heavily in knowledge that can be applied to the formal education sector, and policy makers do not seem to have a clear strategy for stimulating business investment in education R&D. On average, OECD countries allocated 15.5 times more of their public budgets to Health research than to Education research, but only 1.2 times more of their public expenditure to education than to health.”
Preparing Teachers and Developing School Leaders for the 21st Century LESSONS FROM AROUND THE WORLD, Edited by Andreas Schleicher, OECD 2012
Value Driven Solutions
- Coordinate a substantial, world-renowned R&D programme
- Establish a Royal College of Teachers
- Make teaching a Masters level study profession
- Retain national pay agreements and attract the best candidates
- Systematically link Teaching School Alliances
- Go further than ever before with planning, preparation and research time
It is about time we explored the palliative investments required to heal our fractured Education system. We need our current Coalition, and future governments, to end the cycle of botched and rehashed top-down initiatives, and instead root reform bottom up, through the profession, and focused upon evidence that always accounts for the central importance of teaching and learning. How do we source the best evidence that can create policy without a political criteria? We need to create a Royal College of Teachers that coordinates a substantial RandD budget with schools and universities (John Hattie should be employed immediately as a key leader!). With the recent merging of the Teaching Agency and the National College of School Leadership there is an overt recognition that there needs to be a powerful, respected and well resourced body that hones in on the key factor which improves any education system – the quality of teachers and teaching and learning. The core purpose of the college would be to drive the engine of evidenced based policy, independent of politicians and the short-termism of the political cycle. The real problem is that mergers come and go, new bodies and quangos fly by night, strangled by Whitehall mandarins and politicians hungry to put their name onto the latest set of changes. Any such Royal College must have a truly independent mandate, substantial funding and a strong media voice.
In tandem with that body, teaching would be raised back to the status of true professionalism, with a high bar of entry requirements and a requirement for Masters level study. In Finland, new teachers are expected to be fully versed with a knowledge base of educational development, but they also are required to write a research based thesis as a final requirement for their Masters degree. The rationale is clear: teachers should be classroom practitioners and undertake disciplined inquiry into the impact of pedagogy etc.
The research that outlines that teacher impact trumps every other factor in education is now incontrovertible, and frankly little more than common sense. With that in mind, the palliatives outlined above will help raise the status of teachers and teaching, exhibiting that the government values Education and is investing in the people that will drive its improvement. Teacher pay, particularly performance related pay (all the evidence stacks up against it!), isn’t my priority, as I happen to believe the vast majority of teachers are driven by public service and not the profit motive; however, if we are to professionalise and raise the standard of the profession to be the highest it can be, creating the rigour so celebrated by politicians, then national pay agreements will help retain those high standards. A North/South pay divide in teaching would only provide a further fracturing and enfeebling of the entire school system, leaving school leaders to pillage their budgets still further.
A further investment in people is providing teaching professionals with the greatest of commodities: time. In successful Asian nations, like Japan, South Korea and Singapore (all lauded by Michael Gove), teachers are given substantial time to plan lessons, respond to assessment and to develop their pedagogy. It is that time, and not class size, which is invariably large, which is the most significant shift from our approach. What would be obvious would be to make that time synchronised with the aforementioned programme for RandD: focusing upon teacher quality and great pedagogy. Networks of teaching schools would be synchronised with Universities well versed in research, but with a concerted focus upon practice in the classroom. Also, in Japan, ‘jugyou kenkyuu‘, translated as research lessons, are a crucial part of the developmental learning culture. Every teacher periodically prepares a best possible lesson that demonstrates strategies to achieve a specific goal in collaboration with their fellow colleagues. Rooted in their culture is that highly professional skill of reflection and a research based methodology.
The cooperative model of ‘jugyou kenkyuu‘ brings me back to my central point about a shift in values from our Department FOR Education towards working with the professionals on the front line. Like ‘jugyou kenkyuu’, we learn and improve through dialogue, not by dictat. We need to move towards a cooperative model, where schools and teachers are encouraged to collaborate and school interdependence is engendered, rather than a culture of fearful and corrosive competition. Autonomy can still flourish in a climate of embedded and systematic collaboration: indeed, a remodelled OFSTED could have a core purpose of supporting schools to raise standards of pedagogy, rather than being simple a punitive measure. We need to move towards a revalued model of education that places autonomy and authority back into the hands of teachers, with the highest expectations of research driven pedagogy.
In his ‘Precepts’ Hippocrates (a Greek physician: 460 BC – 377 BC) states: “Healing is a matter of time, but it is sometimes also a matter of opportunity.” Let’s collaborate to seize to opportunity to demand better values from our politicians and to demand the best from ourselves as professionals.
If I am continually vexed by any one question in education it is ‘how can we enhance student motivation?‘ Of course, I do not have the answer, and if there is one it is multi-faceted, complex and, frankly, not going to be solved in this blog post! From my position as a classroom teacher, I am always on the look out for those strategies that create a state when students are motivated and in their element, where they work furiously without even realising they are doing so, without realising the clock is ticking down to the end of the lesson. There is no better compliment than when students question how long there is left and express genuine surprise at how fast time has passed, and that they have actually enjoyed that lesson!
My, admittedly non-scientific, observations are that many of the times students are in ‘flow‘, or their element, in my lessons is when they are collaborating in group work. Why is this then? I believe that we are obviously social beings and we naturally learn in such groups (not always effectively it must be said), but that, more importantly, when working in a group we are able to correct, support, encourage, question and develop ideas much more effectively. The power of the group, guided by the expertise of the teacher, accelerates learning, makes it richer and demands a learning consensus that can push people beyond their habitual assumptions.
Don’t get me wrong, there are pitfalls and obstacles to group work. This constructivist approach should build upon expert teacher led pedagogy – ensuring that students have a good grounding in the relevant knowledge before undertaking in-depth group work. Group work can also be beset by issues in many nuanced forms: whether it is subtle intellectual bullying, where the student who shouts loudest prevails; or the encouragement of mediocrity and laziness, as students let others do all the work; or simply by poor, distracting behaviour. Another issue is ‘group think’ miscomprehension – indeed, how does prejudice flourish if not in social groups? Yet, this failure is often great for learning as long as the teacher can illuminate the error of their ways. Of course, no teaching strategy is foolproof and plain good teaching should remedy many of the potential ills of group work, just as good teaching can make more traditional teacher-led ‘direct instruction’ wholly engaging and effective.
I am intrigued by the idea of ‘social scaffolding‘ (Vygotsky) – the concept that most of our learning is undertaken in group situations, where we learn through dialogue and debate with others, not simply by listening to that voice in our head! That being said, I am not talking teachers out of a classroom here. The role of the teacher in devising and planning a successful group task takes skill, rigour and utter clarity and precision. Students need to be clear about a whole host of things: from their role, to the purpose of the task and the parameters of expected outcomes to name but a few. Teachers need to keep groups on track, intervene appropriately to improve learning and regularly regain student focus. Teachers have a pivotal role in guiding the group work at every stage. Group work certainly isn’t the lazy option: it takes skill in the planning and the execution, and sometimes, despite our best laid plans, it still fails. That shouldn’t put us off – aren’t all teaching and learning strategies subject to such risks?
If I was to define a simple and straight-forward basis for the rules for group work it would be:
- Have clearly defined tasks, with sharp timings and with the appropriate tools organised
- Have clearly defined group roles
- Have clear ground rules for talk, listening and fair allocation of workload etc.
- Target your support and interventions throughout the task, but make them interdependent of one another, not dependent upon you
- Always be prepared to curtail group work if students don’t follow your high expectations.
So here it is, my entirely subjective top ten strategies for group work that I believe to be effective (ideas for which I must thank a multitude of sources):
1. ‘Think-pair-share’ and ‘Think-pair-square’.
Well, no-one said this top ten had to be original! This strategy is one of those techniques that we employ so readily that we can almost forget about it, it is simply so automatic for most teachers; yet, because of that we can easily forget it in our planning. We need to use it regularly because it is the very best of scaffolded learning; it almost always facilitates better quality feedback by allowing proper thinking time and for students to sound out their ideas and receive instantaneous feedback from peers. ‘Think-pair-square’ adds a touch of added flavour, involving linking two pairs together (to form the ‘square’ to share their ideas before whole class feedback). Once more, it is about adding depth to ideas, stimulating debate and collaborative thinking. I defer to this blog post by @headguruteacher for the skinny on ‘Think-pair-share’ here.
2. Snowballing or the Jigsaw method
Similar to the ‘square’ approach mentioned in ‘Think-Pair-Square’, the ‘snowballing’ activity is another simple but very effective way of building upon ideas by starting with small groups and expanding the groups in a structured way. As the metaphor of the snowball suggests, you can begin with an individual response to a question; followed by then pairing up students up; then creating a four and so on. It does allow for quick, flexible group work that doesn’t necessarily require much planning, but does keep shaping viewpoints and challenging ‘answers’ is a constructive fashion.
The ‘jigsaw method’ is slightly more intricate. David Didau describes here how it is the “ultimate teaching method”, but that it benefits greatly from careful planning. Put simply, when researching a topic, like the causes of the Second World War, each member of a group is allocated an area for which they need to become the ‘expert‘, such as ‘the impact of the Treaty of Versailles’, or ‘issues with the dissolution of Austria-Hungary’ for example. With five or six ‘Home‘ groups identified, the ‘experts‘ then leave that group to come together to pool their expertise on the one topic; they question one another and combine research, ideas and their knowledge. Then each ‘expert‘ returns to their ‘home‘ group to share their findings. It is a skilful way of varying group dynamics as well as scaffolding learning.
3. Debating (using clear rules)
As you probably know, our own inspiring leader, Michael Gove, was the President of the Oxford Union. Clearly, these ancient skills of rhetoric and debate have seen him rise to dizzying heights. Perhaps we need to teach debating with great skill if we are to produce citizens who can debate with the best of them…and with Michael Gove! The premise of a debate, and its value in enriching the learning of logic, developing understanding and the simultaneous sharpening and opening our minds, is quite obvious so I will not elaborate. If you are ever stuck for a debate topic then this website will be of great use:
. The Oxford rules model is an essential model for the classroom in my view. It provides a clear structure and even a level of formality which is important, provide coherence and greater clarity to the debate. The rules, familiar steps though they are for many, are as follows:
Four speakers in each team (for and against the motion)
First speaker introduces all the ideas that team has generated
Second speaker outlines two or three more ideas in some depth
Third speaker outlines two or three ideas in some depth
Fourth speaker criticises the points made by the other team
Each individual speaker has two minutes to speak (or more of course), with protected time of thirty seconds at the beginning or the end
The rest of the team is the ‘Floor‘ and can interject at any time by calling out ‘Point of Information‘ and standing. The speaker can accept or reject an interjection.
You may wish to have the other groups work as feedback observers on the debate being undertaking (a little like Socratic circles – number 8). This has the benefit of keeping the whole class engaged and actively listening to the debate.
4. Project Based Learning/Problem Based Learning
I have to admit I have only ever undertaken project style work on a small scale, but in the last year I have been startled by the quality of work I have observed in project based learning across the world. The principals of Project Based Learning are key: such as identifying real audiences and purposes for student work (a key factor in enhancing motivation); promoting interdependent student work, often subtly guided by the teacher at most stages; letting students undertake roles and manage the attendant challenges that arise; learning is most often integrated and spans subject areas; and students constructing their own questions and knowledge. Truly the best guide is to survey these great examples:
The curriculum here is founded upon the PBL model.
A brilliant PE based PBL.
A great Art centred project.
The Innovation Unit has also produced this brilliant must-read guide to PBL in great depth here.
‘Problem based learning’ is clearly related to the project model, but it explicitly starts with a problem to be solved. It is based primarily upon the model from medicine – think Dr House (although he is hardly a team player!). David Didau sagely recommends that the teacher, or students in collaboration, find a specifically local problem – this raises the stakes of the task. Clearly, in Mathematics, real problem based learning can be a central way to approach mathematical challenges in a collaborative way; in Science or Philosophy, the options to tackle ethical and scientific problems are endless. There is criticism of this approach – that students struggle with the ‘cognitive load’ without more of a working memory. Ideally, this learning approach follows some high quality direct instruction, and teacher led worked examples, to ensure that students have effective models to work from and some of the aforementioned working memory.
5. Group Presentations
I would ideally label this strategy: ‘questions, questions, questions‘ as it is all about creating, and modelling, a culture of enquiry by asking students questions about a given topic, rather than didactically telling them the answer – then helping shape their research. The teacher leads with a ‘big question‘; then it is taken on by groups who (given materials, such as books, magazines, essays, iPads, laptops, or access to the library or an ICT suite etc.) have to interrogate the question, forming their own sub-set of questions about the question/ topic. They then source and research the key information, before finally agreeing to the answers to the questions they had themselves formed. The crucial aspect about presentations is giving students enough time to make the presentation worthwhile, as well as allocating clear roles. High quality presentations take time to plan, research and execute. Personally, I find the timekeeper role a waste of time (I can do that for free!), but other roles, such as leader, designer and scribe etc. have value. Also, the teaching needs to be carefully planned so the entire presentation is not reliant solely upon any one person or piece of technology. Developing a shared understanding of the outcome and the different parameters of the presentation is key: including features like banning text on PowerPoints; or making it an expectation that there is some element of audience participation; to agreeing what subject specific language should be included. The devil is in the detail!
6. ‘Devise the Display’
I have a troubled relationship with displays! I very rarely devise my own display as I think displays become wallpaper far too soon considering the effort taken to provide them – like newspapers, they become unused within days. I much prefer a ‘working wall‘, that can be constantly changed or updated (or a ‘learning continuum’ for an entire topic when can be periodically added to each lesson). That being said, I do think there is real high quality learning potential in the process of students devising and creating wall displays. It is great formative feedback to devise a wall display once you are well under way a topic. It makes the students identify and prioritise the key elements of their knowledge and the skills they are honing.
I find the most valuable learning is actually during the design ideas stage.You can ‘snowball’ design ideas with the students; beginning individually, before getting groups to decide collaboratively on their design; then having a whole class vote. I do include stipulations for what they must include, such as always including worked examples. Then, the sometimes chaotic, but enjoyable activity it to create the display. I always aim for the ‘60 Minute Makeover‘ approach – quick and less painful (it also makes you less precious about the finer details)! I think they also learn a whole host of valuable skills involving team work, empathy and not to annoy me by breaking our wall staplers! I think it is then important to not let any display fester and waste, but to pull it down and start afresh with a new topic. I know this strategy does put some people off, because it can be like organised chaos, but if everyone has a clear role and responsibility the results can be amazing. [Warning - some designs can look like they have been produced by Keith Richards on a spectacular acid trip!]
7. Gallery Critique
This stems from the outstanding work of on Berger. Both a teacher and a craftsman himself, Berger explains the value of critique as rich feedback in his brilliant book ‘The Ethic of Excellence‘. It can be used during the draft/main process or as a summative task. This strategy does have some specific protocols students should follow. The work of the whole group should be displayed in a gallery style for a short time. Students are expected to first undertake a short silent viewing (making notes to reflect is also useful here). The students make comments on the work – post it notes being ideal for this stage. Then the next step is a group discussion of ‘what they noticed‘ in particular, with debate and discussion encouraged – of course, the feedback should be both kind and constructive. The next step for discussion is talking about ‘what they liked‘, evaluating the work. The final stage has the teacher synthesise viewpoints and express their own; before ensuring students make notes and reflect upon useful observations for making improvements.
8. Socratic Talk
I have spoken about this strategy before here. What is key is that like the debating rules above, a clear and defined structure is in place, particularly with ‘Socratic circles‘ which embeds feedback and debate in a seamless way. It takes some skill in teaching students how to talk in this fashion, but once taught, it can become a crucial tool in the repertoire. In my experience, some of the most sensitive insights have emerged from this strategy and the listening skills encouraged are paramount and have an ongoing positive impact. It also allows for every student to have a role and quality feedback becomes an expectation.
9. Talking Triads
Another simple, but highly effective strategy. It is a strategy that gets people to explore a chosen topic, but with a really rigorous analysis of ideas and views. The triad comprises of a speaker, a questioner and a recorder/analyst. You can prepare questions, or you can get the questioner and the analyst to prepare questions whilst the speaker prepares or reflects upon potential answers. This can be done in front of the class as a gallery of sorts, or you can have all triads working simultaneously. If they do work simultaneously, then a nice addition is to raise your hand next to a particular triad, which signals for other groups to stop and listen whilst that specific triad continues, allowing for some quality listening opportunities.
10. Mastery Modelling
This involves a form of formative assessment from students, whereat the teacher gives a group a series of models, both exemplar models and lesser models, including some with common errors that students would likely identify. The students need to do a critical appraisal of the these models as a group and identify their summary assessment of the models first, before then devising and presenting a ‘mastery model’ that is a composite exemplar model of work. This strategy works in pretty much every subject, with the subject being either an essay, a piece of art, or a mathematical problem. This presentation should include an explicit focus upon the steps taken leading to create the ‘mastery model‘ during the feedback – this unveils the process required for mastery for the whole class.
A great research paper that analyses group work and its importance:
‘Toward a social pedagogy of classroom group work’
By Peter Blatchford, Peter Kutnick, Ed Baines, and Maurice Galton
An excellent National Strategies booklet from back in the day when the DfE was interested in pedagogy. I particularly like the ‘different grouping criteria’/'size of grouping’ tables:
Pedagogy and Practice: Teaching and Learning in Secondary Schools Unit 10: Group work
Nice step by step guide to the implementation and the delivery of group work
‘Implementing Group Work in the Classroom‘
As a teacher I am always looking to take on the Sisyphean task of changing the habits of my students to make them better learners. What I have also realised as a subject leader, and as a reflective teacher, is that I am also looking to improve and change my own habits, my practice, and to support my colleagues to improve their practice still further too. Better teaching requires sustained changes in our habits – a very difficult process! Now, I am a great believer in deliberate practice as a path to mastery. I also whole-heartedly prescribe to Carole Dweck’s ‘growth mindset’ approach – and the view that grit and effort, and not some divine talent or inspiration, is where most creativity and innovation is to be found. All that being said, I also think that our core habits are rooted deeply within our egos and our motivations are predominantly emotional rather than logical. I was therefore struck by the outstanding book which articulated many of these issues, ‘Switch: How To Change Things When Change Is Hard’, about how to make changes to habitual patterns, for individuals, or groups and organisations through connecting with our emotions and tweaking the environment. Although not a book about school organisations as such, the book speaks directly to schools, and leaders at all levels of schools and education; and teachers, looking to make those habitual positive changes with their classes.
What the book does so successfully is to give a simple pattern to initiating change and sustaining change – particularly changing the habits of individuals and organisations (with lots of excellent examples). I have always thought that teachers are a particularly habitual bunch! Dismiss it as cod psychology, but we have returned to settings which replicate much of our childhood, so there must be a psychological pleasure we get from the school environment, something that runs deep within us emotionally (I won’t even mention the emotion invested in coffee cups or seats in the staff room, or our class room spaces!). Perhaps this is why we can be so resistant to change? Or maybe we just like to be in ultimate control – we are commanders of our classroom ship so often that perhaps we just fail to allow anyone else to steer and guide our ship to fresh waters!
The pattern for change derived from Chip and Dan Heath (yes, they are American, how did you guess?) is described below. Obviously, I am most interesting in the applicability of this pattern to educational contexts. Forgive some of the jargon, I can’t explain it all; however, a simple explanation of the ‘Rider‘ and ‘Elephant‘ analogy is required. They actually borrowed the analogy from Jonathan Haidt’s book, ‘The Happiness Hypothesis‘. Put simply, the ‘Rider‘ is our logical, organised and rational self – steering us appropriately; whereas the ‘Elephant‘ is our powerful emotional self, ready to unleash terrific power at any moment! The tensions between the two are obvious. As the Heath brothers describe, the two both need to be influenced for sustained, habitual change to occur.
1. ‘Direct the Rider’:
- Find the Bright Spots: investigate what is working and clone it;
- Script the Critical Moves: think in terms of specific goals, not a big picture (too vague);
- Point to the Destination: change is easier when you know where you are going.
2. ‘Motivate the Elephant’:
- Find the Feeling: knowing/thinking something isn’t enough to change it, make people feel something;
- Shrink the Change: break down the change so it isn’t too daunting;
- Grow Your People: cultivate a strong sense of identity and instil a growth mindset.
3. ‘Shape the Path’:
- Tweak the Environment: when the situation & the environment changes, so does the behaviour;
- Build Habits: when behaviour is habitual it doesn’t tax the ‘rider’ as much – encourage new habits;
- Rally the Herd: behaviour is contagious – help spread it.
For me, starting with ‘finding the bright spots‘ is key. Too often we aim to get people to change by focusing on what is ‘broken’, or bringing in the ‘expert’, having a whirlwind training session and then expecting long-held habits to simply fall away. It just doesn’t work. Change needs to emerge from the ground up, otherwise we just don’t have the emotional investment required to really change our habits. As a subject leader, I have realised that when people have tried something themselves and seen it work it has many more times the impact than watching some ‘outstanding’ lesson by another teacher in another part of the school, no matter how good and illuminating that lesson may be. Such is the power of the ‘elephant‘ our emotional selves simply switch off to such external stimuli is presented to us – no matter how valid or persuasive. I see so many teachers readily dismiss success from another school with a cynical jibe at the catchment area or the selective nature of another school, rightly or wrongly. People need to feel the change and see it working around them to believe it (sometimes people need to know and feel the problems with not changing). Colleagues in a department observing one another and coaching one another, with close specific focus on a manageable area of pedagogy, can be so powerful because the ‘elephant‘ essentially feels safer and more receptive to new information and advice; more so than being given expert advice by any external party, be it the subject leader, or leaders from the SLT. A learning walk is looked on with cynicism by many, we must provide the conditions for genuine sharing of new habits, such as new pedagogy. There is definitely a place for external experts too – I am a firm believer that we should all undertake educational research, as we would expect of our best students, but we must put them into practice in our context, with our colleagues, in a habitual, supportive fashion. Put simply, imported solutions most typically fail – change is organic and must be cultivated from the soil up.
‘Scripting the Critical Moves‘ is a key early step to initiating change. Leaders need to lead and people will follow when the goals are explicit and ambiguity is removed. Given a great deal of choice we simply become paralysed! When we have an excess of choice that paralysis leads us to simply fall back into our own habits. It is why students in class love explicit parameters of timings, behaviour and methodology. It gives us comfort too and we safely fall in line and ‘follow the herd’. Given common sense advice, like asking teachers to ‘work towards outstanding teaching and learning’, simply fails because it is simply too ambiguous and frightening (and hard work!) – our ‘elephants’ have too much wiggle room, so we never make the difficult move towards forming a new habit – we avoid the challenge in an act of self-preservation. Too often people fail to change, not out of resistance, but out of sheer miscomprehension. If we want teachers to become outstanding practitioners, and sustain it, we must provide marginal gains on the path towards that mastery – these need to be scripted with utter clarity – right down the the steps of core pedagogy. Then the marginal pedagogy needs to be practised and honed. The critical moves must also involve a clear destination. If you are wanting yourself or your department to move towards becoming outstanding, define the goal with absolute clarity. Make the outcome something like: ‘by the Summer of 2014, 70% of all lessons will be observed as outstanding and 30% as good’. Put like that, the idea doesn’t seem so outlandish! If you begin to ‘shrink the change‘ down to coaching targets for the department and a focus upon ‘marginal gains’ regarding key pedagogy, like questioning and oral feedback, then the change becomes emotionally accessible and even less frightening for the ‘elephant‘ – even to teachers with the most pronounced ‘elephant syndrome’! Once the pathway is established strip away everything that is extraneous to the desired outcome, make the time, hone in on the ‘marginal gains’ with utter clarity. Celebrate each step of the way – every success and even every failure – if we learn from failure we can get further down our desired path.
Emotional motivation is perhaps the most essential aspect of making and sustaining change. I have written before about habits and about confidence. The more I lead my brilliant team of teachers the more I realise that the key part of my job is emotional support (forgive me if I am stating the obvious!). ‘Finding the feeling‘ is the key to all change. Now, you could put the fear of god into teachers to motivate them to change – OFSTED inspections are often the stick with which to beat – however, to really sustain change, positive emotion must be instigated and this positive emotion sustains and helps build persistence in the face of challenges (take note Mr Gove!). Perhaps, instead, you insulate your team and support them with every confidence, encourage their risks and guide them with as much capacity building as you can muster to attempt to achieve your collective goal. What people like Gove ignore is that real change, that makes for real greatness, is powered by positive emotions: by confidence, trust, respect and self-belief. It may sound mawkish but it is true. Change founded on fear and coercion is brittle and short-lived.
At the recent SSAT conference I listened to the brilliant Emily Cummins – a young woman appealing for more real world challenges and projects in our school curriculum to really motivate students. Seeing her impassioned story of working with her grandfather as a child, to becoming an inventor of global repute, often despite her schooling, struck a chord. Working with my Y11 students writing a real letter for local and national newspapers (which was drafted over and over), I saw a new spark in some students, provoked by the potential of the real audience. Seeing the pride some students had in their work reminded me of Emily Cummins. I began to feel the need for curriculum change to something that had more real world applications, to a project based learning approach that involved choice and creativity, that involved technology and a global audience. I encountered a feeling with more purpose than I had felt before. It is something I have kept burning and it will inform the changes I lead as a subject leader and in any future educational pursuits. Too easily we can simply fall back into our habits in education – genuine creativity, really open briefs, co-construction with students – are all laudable pursuits we agree, but we pay them lip service and then return to our default position of our safe habits. Often teaching as we were taught in our turn – an emotional withdrawal to our past. Ultimately, we must experience a real emotional shift if we are to undertake a habitual shift. People need help and sustained emotional, and sometimes physical, support to change. For my mother to quit smoking she aimed to wean herself off the habit by using nicotine patches, although ultimately, it was her love for my father, and making sure he quit too, which is what made the habit stick – she certainly ‘found the feeling‘.
We can help by ‘shrinking the change‘, making those crucial ‘marginal gains’ which are much easier to tackle than hulking great challenges; supported by ‘tweaking the environment‘. Since I have been subject leader we have made little but significant tweaks to our classroom environment with pedagogical intent. A couple of years ago, we moved from an array of seating arrangements, most typically rows, to a common arrangement of group tables in every room. That one small shift initiated a sequence of changes to our pedagogy that made us all ensure that our group work and peer interaction was more thought through. Our seating plans became more nuanced to suit the group dynamics. In short, we shared ideas to deal with the tweak and we subsequently planned better lessons. Buoyed by that change to the environment, we added further tweaks, such as multiple whiteboards on the walls, to create more flexibility in the room and more opportunities for ‘visible learning‘. We initiated an iPad pilot for more enriched, multi-modal group collaborative work. Such technological innovation was quite frankly alien to some of our department, but the tweak to the environment meant people were trying new innovations in their pedagogy, and they were being forced to shift to new patterns of pedagogy the quickly became a new normal. The ‘herd mentality‘ was also a powerful force. We shared training time to build confidence and becalmed the ‘elephant’. Some colleagues unexpectedly attempted the changes with gusto and the positive response carried people along for the ride – habits were changing, not by force, but incrementally and by choice, from the soil up. Tweaking the environment works!
By following these steps and planning with precision, we can make positive changes to teaching groups, to our practice, to leading departments and indeed schools – making our job as teachers in the heady future of 2013 a little less Sisyphean a task!
Just over half a year ago I decided to begin a blog, in unison with a new Twitter account, with both very much representing my professional self. I have been surprised and delighted by the breadth and scale of the audience for some of my posts and the blog has provided me with a place to reflect upon my practice and record my reading and ideas – put simply, it has made me a better teacher. Many of them are my attempt to record my teaching strategies, and the many I have sourced from others, so that I remember them…and remember to use them! I am very grateful for all the other teachers, bloggers and authors whose great ideas are effectively responsible for my blog (I am intent on creating a list of the inspirational blogs of others others in 2012 very soon too). Here is my list based on the number number of views:
Perhaps my personal favourite. I love literature and I love teaching and seeing students learn and develop – this post articulates what I see as the most important aspect of my job as an English teacher: communicating the greatest of what has been written and spoken and helping students develop emotionally. It is not something measured, but something valued beyond measure: how tragedy and literature can provide strength and resilience in the face of tragedy and loss.
In the last year we have been undertaking an iPad project, with real success. I have have seen so many motivated students working collaboratively with iPads, whilst seeing my colleagues pushing the boundaries of their practice and knowledge in a powerfully positive way. This article articulates some of my research into why the iPad was the right tool to leverage better pedagogy in our faculty.
The article is about the simple tweaking of core pedagogy and practice to make that all important shift to better teaching. The best part of the blog is the end set of links – a clear indication of how my blogs are most often simply a synthesis of other great blogs and the ideas of superb practitioners. Standing on the shoulders of giants indeed!
This post, once more, is reliant upon the great ideas of others. The marginal gains wheel, devised by @liplash_mason, was incredibly popular. I used it with my Y10 GCSE class with pleasing success twice in preparation for controlled assessments. Student feedback was vey positive. This post led to a more general introduction in the Guardian Teacher Network, which was a real pleasure to write, giving me a chance to celebrate the genesis of the idea with @fullonlearning and @macn_1.
Does what it says on the tin really. At some point in 2013 I will produce a ‘Top Ten Reads’ to encompass some great books I have read since collating this list. This list would easily stand the test of time, as I would still have these five featuring in any future list. Gems one and all.
This post was my attempt to combine some of my key thoughts and ideas about being a great teacher – particularly having had the pleasure to watch quite a few in action. In my biased view, there is still no more important vocation, so this post is my humble attempt at contributing to a long standing discourse.
My first top ten post and an attempt to collate many ideas and strategies that I believe to have had the greatest positive impact upon my teaching. I happen to believe that clear explanations, great questioning and effective formative feedback is the holy trinity of outstanding teaching, so this post is very important to me in that regard.
This letter was a real trigger for my blog developing and extending to a wider audience. It was also the first time I had a post reach four figures in one day. I think my frustration and anger at the shape of Gove’s educational proposals and the feckless opposition to his deconstruction of state education touched a nerve with many. I didn’t receive any reply to my many emails and communication, but I felt my response served some purpose, however insignificant. Secretly, I hope Twigg read this letter, but I doubt it very much. I hope he is reading much about education, from those with more experience and wisdom than I, because he needs to get a hold of his brief and make a positive alternative to Gove’s corrosive marketisation of education. I remain sceptical.
One of my most recent posts and very popular (particularly in America it seems!). I have become a huge cheerleader for post it notes in the last year. It chimes with my belief in ‘making the learning visible’ and they provide the most simple and cost effective tool for teaching and learning. I think you sense my enthusiasm running thought the post! And no, I don’t possess shares in post it note companies!
My most popular post by a country mile and happily so. I am not quite sure why this post was so popular above all others, but perhaps it is because the strategies are so universal and cross curricular in nature. I think all teachers know that questioning is at the fulcrum of good teaching and learning and it was ever thus. In my decade of experience I think I am just becoming an much better in asking great questioning and I think I am getting better with creating a culture of enquiry. I’m definitely still learning and asking questions!
Much more work to do next year, with many more attendant posts I am sure. I would heartily recommend any teacher to start a blog in 2013. It would be a resolution to fire new resolution into your teaching!
Very few videos on the web can engage me enough to make me persevere in watching them for nearly twenty minutes, even less so inspire me to write about the video and encourage others to watch it! This video by Alfie Kohn does just that and I heartily commend it for your holiday viewing:
Christmas is a time for wishful thinking. My wish would be that Michael Gove would view this video. As I am being wishful, I would imagine he would reflect and revise his obsession with ‘rigour’ and ‘standards’ after the same bankrupt language and ideology is so brilliantly skewered here by Alfie Kohn. I would imagine and wish he would question the continued regime of league tables and his own proposals for a system that is obsessed with terminal assessments. I would wish and imagine that he would question whether his method of the pursuit of ‘intellectual rigour’ is so fundamentally flawed as to have the exact opposite effect!
Perhaps short of that wish, I would want teachers, and school leaders, to watch this video and reflect upon the language you use in the classroom with your students; your habits of feedback and your focus on ‘learning’ and ‘achievement’. Are we guilty of perpetuating the flaws in our current system? What can we do to mitigate our situation and that of our students? Do we have solutions we can pose within our sphere of influence and power? In light of upcoming English exams, I am certainly guilty of using highly competitive language that promotes the commodification of learning at the expense of learning for its intrinsic value. Is there a better way than our obsession with a succession of terminal assessments? Can we pursue a curriculum that does not quash curiosity, challenge and an intrinsic love of learning, whilst still functioning as a respected, skilled and creative system? There are no easy answers, but Kohn certainly poses questions that strike at the heart of the flawed thinking and leadership currently residing in the Department for Education.
If you watch one educational video before Christmas then make it this one!
Many people hear the term ‘flipped learning’ and their hackles rise, expecting some evangelical heralding of technology unceremoniously replacing the humble teacher. I have written before about the concept of ‘flipped learning’ before in this blog post and I am still fascinated by its potential and a firm believer in its importance, both here and now, but crucially in our future and for the future of our students and our schools. Now, once you get past the glossy veneer and the potential technological wizardry, ‘flipped learning’ starts to sound suspiciously like mainstays in education – homework, or revision, or even reading for pleasure outside of school! Perhaps the original flipped learning experiment didn’t begin with ‘Project Gutenberg‘ but with Johannes Gutenberg, whose printing presses revolution changed the western world and brought reading to the masses. I am an English teacher and we are currently guiding our students through their crucial final steps of revision for their January English exam. What is crucial is that those students in my school, and around the country, who will be flipping their learning over the course of Christmas and the New Year have a much better chance of excelling in January the those who do not. Revision…flipped learning – same difference!
On many days as a teacher I have faith that my daily dose of teaching can make the ultimate difference for my students, that the time and effort has a transformative purpose. That may be true – I certainly need that belief to nourish me through difficult times; however, my rational self tells me that all the other factors impacting upon our students are just as important, if not more so. As an English teacher, I have a good deal of knowledge about the impact of early years literacy and the impact of reading and oracy in the first years of the growth of a child. I know the powerful impact of parents and the impact simply having a bookshelf in the home can have. Then the importance of reading for pleasure rears up in sight (this Literacy Trust report, although slightly dated now, is illuminating: report). Other factors, like social deprivation, genetic and emotional predispositions expand the list further. Suddenly, making the key difference with our students feels a bit like King Cnut holding back tempestuous waves! Still, of course, we must try. We must try to help them learn better, for us to learn better, inside the classroom and out.
I am deeply interested in the motivation to learn (teachers as well as students!). I think that intrinsic motivation should be the ultimate aim for all learning and an end goal for educators, but I also have the realistic understanding that this is not our natural state for thinking and learning. That boredom and a deep rooted neurological desire to save mental energy, as well as a plain dislike of certain subjects, can put pay to idylls of intrinsically motivated students! What is clear is that to really enhance student motivation in a transformative way we must simply communicate as effectively as we can – despite any factors that we challenge us. This often requires good old-fashioned direct instruction, but what increasingly strikes me is that in our changing world we must harness technology to communicate with our students and with their parents. We must communicate with students using the tools where their expertise resides. I am not advocating the gamification of education, but a digital literacy that harnesses good old fashioned literacy and builds learning power.
Students only spend a relatively small amount of their time in the classroom, so the learning that is undertaken outside of the classroom obviously has a crucial importance. John Hattie’s research about homework has questioned the validity of its impact, but the data is different for older students – the older the student, the greater the impact. The link between spending time on homework, learning beyond the classroom and enjoyment is being researched with interest – see here. What is common sense is that if students enjoy learning and school, and they have developed a capacity to learn with resilience and a strong sense of motivation, then they will undertake more productive homework and revision – or simply read more for pleasure for its own sake. What we can do is harness their love for technology, gaming, social media and the web, to enhance this enjoyment, to spark more reading for pleasure. What I see as key is that technology can smooth the pathway for students, it can provide key support mechanisms outside the classroom and it promotes interdependence we simply haven’t had in the past.
Independence is rightly celebrated as a valid goal for learners at all levels. Perhaps though we are making an error, perhaps simply a semantic error. For me, interdependence is the true condition of effective learning in our modern world, not independent learning. We almost never learn in splendid isolation and for our students, and their generation and for future generations, this is particularly so because of technology. How many careers will see our students work individually and not in teams? Of those jobs, how many jobs will be essentially connected through technology? How many careers will require a flexible digital literacy to source answers and support learning? Therefore, perhaps the answer to revision is fostering that interdependence – connecting students, teachers and the knowledge we seek to impart.
In the past week we have begun shaping revision support over the crucial Christmas holiday to be shared on our faculty blog:
. It is only in its infancy, and our ‘advent‘ of revision resources, tips and ideas, will really kick off at the start of the holiday, but the principal of ‘flipping the learning’ for revision is clearly key. We are able to share knowledge, direct students through the minefield of the web, answer questions and connect peers to one another through technology. Should they simply switch off their computer and hit the books? Perhaps? Would it work better than the ‘flipped technological model’? Perhaps. Will it promote digital literacy? No. It is a realistic state of affairs over the Christmas holiday? No.
What am I trying to argue? Well, ‘flipped learning’, or what ever you want to label it, or relabel it, is here to stay. We should harness technology and harness the expertise of our students, not switch it off and hope it will go away (Perhaps if we embraced the mobile phone as a tool for learning, putting it on the desk and not under it, then students wouldn’t feel the need to seemingly stare at their crotch so much. Even better, perhaps we could replace the mobile with a better, flexible learning tool, like a tablet, that we can mediate for great multi-modal learning?…I digress!). We should promote interdependence and connectedness for homework and revision…sorry, flipped learning!
Please watch this outstanding lecture by Dr Eric Mazur, arguing more articulately about ‘flipped learning’ than I ever could. Please take the time to watch it, it will make you think about learning, it is funny, wise and perceptive, and it will make you think:
This blog is a short reply to the brilliant English teacher Tim Boulter and his excellent blog post on passion in teaching to be found here:
. Unfortunately, Blogspot websites appear to disagree vehemently with my iPad! So is my reply to Tom’s thought-provoking post:
I agree that the word ‘passion’ is typically overused and easily abused. It has become commercialised and corporatised to a degree that we become cynical by the mere mention of the word. For this reason we should reclaim it – we are English teachers so it is our mystical right to do so! As you mention Hattie, I would argue he gives the best definition, particularly for educators – one that equates to your ‘evidence-based’ passion (it is so good I typed it up and included it in one of my old posts!):
“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.”
Some sort of emotional all-encompassing love of teaching isn’t what Hattie advocates here I don’t think. Rather, he advocates almost exactly what you express as your passion for teaching – appropriately ‘evidence based’. For me, the most important bit is ‘deliberate practice’. I think that any teacher, inexperienced or expert, needs to have this type of passion or they will not become a great teacher. You are right that in the early days simply getting a handle on the craft of teacher makes it s challenge that can be far from enjoyable at times. I also agree that your passion can grow as your expertise grows – I am living that experience. Yet, I don’t think passion is the preserve of experienced teachers alone – the early foal-like tripping and falling of our NQT year, our training, our tricky third year…our ropey last Tuesday can still inspire a different shade of passion – a desire and passion to be better, to bounce back up and fail that bit better.
We can all love a snow day (frankly, I can’t wait to chuck snowballs with my kids on the next one!) , we can all feel like we want to chuck all of our marking into the river once in a while, BUT we do need an overriding enjoyment for working with kids; in seeing the learning spark ignited; in being challenged daily in a multitude of ways (often in ways we never expected – which is the fun but frightening bit!).
Call it passion – I do. Expect it of colleagues – I do. Struggle with it at times – I do. Treasure having it – I do!