This week I gave a seminar at TeachMeet Clevedon. I am going to post more fully on my topic of teachers getting better by undertaking ‘deliberate practice‘ sometime soon. One smaller aspect of my presentation was how teachers can improve written feedback, both to improve learning and to marginally reduce the time taken to give written feedback. With the gift of more time we can free ourselves to pursue becoming a better teacher more deliberately: with reflection, planning and deliberate practice. Of course, written feedback is so crucial that it can improve teaching and learning significantly, therefore it deserves our attention in its own right.
The following list of tips is a synthesis of my experience and that of my English department (see our policy for feedback here). It also draws upon many excellent teachers and their cumulative experience of effective written feedback.
- Create a ‘marking rota’. There is little more disheartening than seeing a pile of marking that you know looms large like on on rushing tidal wave! Our instinct to procrastinate in such a situation and delay is human, all too human. One of the more simple but demanding solutions is to plan our marking more effectively. Aim to allocate a time and a place on a rota basis. Like many good things, the mantra should be ‘little and often‘. The wisdom-filled Kenny Pieper wrote this post on how he manages his marking workload with such a steady chipping away at the immovable rock here. We need to create positive cues to develop this habit and execute it daily. One nice little trick is to actually give students a date for when they will receive their feedback as part of your rota. This small commitment can help you stick to your rota and keeps you honest!
- Give feedback in lesson time. One real focus for our English department this year was to improve the quality of formative feedback. By using ‘oral feedback stamps’, with students writing down own comments, it was an excellent way of crystalline those marginal but often crucial conversations we have with students. In ‘one-to-one feedback’ weeks we have endeavoured to interview every student. Such oral and written feedback combined in this way can have a very positive impact. We also use ‘two stars and a wish’ stamps, once more gaining marginally in terms of time taken for feedback. We are currently undertaking an RCT with year 9 students in an attempt to measure the impact of is strategy on attainment, but the gains in terms of term and given synchronous feedback is already evidence.
- Don’t mark everything. Marking everything a student has written is obviously time-consuming, but more importantly it is ineffective. If we are to constantly correct all issues, always target improvements for our students, then students will become wholly dependent on the feedback we issue. We must make students independent in the long term, but along that path we should guide, no doubt, but we need to take the training wheels off, targeting our time where it will have most impact. With grammatical inaccuracies we could use literacy symbols, such as sp, to identify patterns that the students themselves can identify and remedy. We need not repeat these endlessly – but identify a pattern in a portion of the writing.
- Refuse sub-standard work. This is a seemingly simple strategy, but it is powerful in its implications and ultimate impact. I always have deadlines for significant pieces of written work. Of course, some students miss the deadline, or just as bad, make a hash of it to meet the deadline. It can cause logistical issues in reality, but refusing sub-standard work and setting individualised redraft deadlines sends a potent message to students. By mid-year, students become trained in not handing it sloppy work. The time taken in marking as an exercise in correction and rewriting lessens and lessens. Students need to have internal standards for themselves and their work that is higher than they thought possible. Establishing this sense of pride takes time and effort, but the consequences can transform the quality of the written work your students hand in over the course of the year and beyond. In the words of Ron Berger, the assessment within the head of our students is really what we should focus upon transforming.
- DIRT time. ‘Dedicated Improvement and Reflection Time‘ was devised by the brilliant Jackie Beere. It is a reminder that we can spend every hour god sends slavishly marking, but if we do not give students an equally significant amount of time to reflect and respond to such feedback then our time becomes rather pointless! In the long term, students will understand the purpose of our written feedback if they understand how they can and why they should respond to it. If students see and feel the improvements to be gained from drafting and responding to feedback then your marking time will have a transformative value. Of course, they need training and time to do so.
- Laminate assessment criteria and annotate. This strategy works particularly well with older students in my experience. By training students to understand the often jargon-laden language in the assessment objectives, you can then use the criteria in feedback. By laminating the criteria you can simply circle areas of the criteria (with an appropriate pen!), reducing the time taken on marginal or summative commentary. This can be used for multiple pieces of work.
- Use codes instead of comments. Joe Kirby has written this excellent post explaining his methods – see here. We have all been in that position where we are marking each book and like Groundhog Day we are repeating ourselves ad nauseum! If you recognise the pattern across a group then condense the commentary down to a symbol. Discuss and feedback the meaning of that symbol in class. You can develop your own little hieroglyphic code for groups based on regular patterns! With literacy codes near universal in schools now students are well trained to recognise and act upon such shorthand information.
- Self-assessment then teacher assessment. This is another powerful tweak to marginally improve our practice and better manage our time. Train students to rigorously self-assess (again, particularly older students can be trained to do this quite straight-forwardly with some targeted modelling) their written work. With training students can self-report feedback with unerring accuracy. By following such self-assessment with your usual teacher assessment you can typically reduce the depth required if summative comments and simply feedback on their self-assessment.
- Investing time in peer and self-assessment. There has always been debate attending the value of peer and self-assessment. I have questioned my students systematically in the past and they prefer teacher assessment, but most value the feedback of their peers. Of course, some peer assessment is done badly and students smell a rat when this is the case. Like most valuable skills, students need close guidance, scaffolding and modelling of good quality feedback before they are able to do it well themselves. If you have consistent parameters and high expectations you can make it a powerful lever to improve learning. Ultimately, we want students to have the independence to sit in an exam hall and regulate their own responses based on intuitive self-assessment. This takes time and energy, but it is worthwhile. It has the attendant benefit of balancing the workload of the teacher in a practical and pragmatic fashion.
Unfortunately, I can’t magic away the hours required for high quality written feedback, but I remind myself of the impact it has and this makes it worthwhile. By executing some of these marginal gains in marking you can at least rest assured you have an effective and honed routine. Do note – the patterns that develop in my tips is that students need training to reflect and respond effectively to feedback in order to make it effective. I would add that we need to train ourselves more habitually in feedback habits if we are to sustain the highest quality of feedback.
Here are some useful links to feedback and marking blog posts:
- Tom Sherrington has this very popular post on marking and ‘closing the gap’, with a particularly useful handout resource:
- David Didau writes here about why written feedback is crucial and some useful tips, like ‘triple impact marking’:
- Mark Miller has produced this really useful set of tips to help get on top of marking:
. mark also produced is post on marking written feedback more effective:
I’m sure there are many more great posts on written feedback I have failed to mention. Do comment
with a link for a veritable one-stop-shop of marking tips!
“There is no pleasure to me without communication: there is not so much as a sprightly thought comes into my mind that it does not grieve me to have produced alone, and that I have no one to tell it to.”
Michel de Montaigne quotes (French Philosopher and Writer. 1533-1592)
Very recently I responded to a question about great teaching by Joe Kirby (read this excellent blog post) with the answer that explanations, questioning and feedback were the holy trinity of teaching. I have written about questioning and feedback at length, but I have never written about teacher explanations. I thought about why and I considered that part of the problem is that explanations are so integral to everything that we do that we quickly learn our style and then explain away on autopilot pretty much for the rest of our career. I would argue that we need to reflect upon whether we are maximising the effectiveness of our explanations.
Too often we can be distracted in our planning by the tools of learning without giving the required time to the integral act of communicating our subject. When I was an NQT I went as far as scripting my explanations! I am not advocating scripting explanations by any means, it was an act borne of pure fear, but I think it important to maximise the quality of our explanations and give them our time and effort. Looking back, some of those explanations were thoughtful and successful, perhaps more so than some of my current autopilot efforts. We are privileged because we can draw upon a wealth of knowledge gained from cognitive science, as well as our memory of great speakers and great teachers who act as role models for our practice.
These are my top tips try to address different aspects of effective explanations – the what and the how of explanations – the content and the delivery. What is reassuring is that really effective explanations can be deconstructed and be based upon evidence of how memory works, rather than being simply attributed to the power of personality. Great explanations, like all aspects of great teaching, can be repeatedly honed and improved.
Top Ten Tips:
1. ‘Know what the students know’ when planning your explanation: All great teachers have an excellent knowledge of their students. This knowledge is paramount in pitching the explanation just right. Vygotsky’s ‘zone of proximal development’ is key here – the explanation should be matched to the audience: not too complex as to be unintelligible to the students, but not too simple or unchallenging so as to bore the students and prove uninteresting. By knowing your students you can adapt your language to draw upon their prior knowledge before activating links to the new knowledge that you wish them to learn.
2. Use patterns of challenging subject specific language repeatedly:
In most explanations there are one or two key words that you want to stick in the minds of students. In my year 10 English class I am currently comparing Shakespeare’s ‘Sonnets’ with ‘Romeo and Juliet’. Subject specific words that litter my explanations repeatedly include rhetorical terms like ‘hyperbole‘ and ‘oxymorons‘. We have explored the etymology of those words, explored examples and repeatedly modelled them in our writing. With regular repetition such key words become the touchstones of effective explanations and we stress these words in our delivery for explicit emphasis.
3. Make explanations simple, but not simpler. Convey a core message: I do not wish to denounce students as attention-deficit weaklings – human nature is inherently programmed to be forgetful – both adults and teenagers. Effective explanations therefore do need to have the power of compressed language. A good proverb, like “people who live in glass houses should not throw stones” has an enduring power. It generates ideas, sparks connections and combines both easily digestible language and memorable imagery – see tip 5. I would argue that most extended explanations can be compressed into such a memorable statement – what acts as the core message of our explanation. Most often this core knowledge is linked inextricably to the language of the lesson objective. A great explanation may use the ‘inverted pyramid‘, used by journalists to prioritise key information by beginning with this core message, or conversely you could use more traditional argument structures to ensure they remember what you want them to remember:
4. Engage their hearts and minds: Daniel Willingham, in his excellent neuroscience book, ‘Why Don’t Students Like School?’, outlines that emotional reactions to explanations will make them more memorable, but there are disclaimers too. We should be wary of a ‘style over substance’ performance. I like to use humour and often make jokes, but with explanations if you give a comedy routine they will likely only remember the style and the jokes, forgetting the substance of what you are saying. Getting the balance right between ensuring engagement and imparting knowledge is a delicate process: making students enjoy their learning doesn’t always translate to remembering what you want them to learn.
As most charity advertisements will attest, individual stories that spark empathy and interest prove much more memorable than mass scale problems or abstract concepts. Emotional and personal stories are memorable: I remember very little about GCSE Chemistry except the emotive story of Marie Curie. We need to use examples that hook in their hearts and mind onto the knowledge we want them to remember in the long term. To summarise: use humour carefully; use interesting stories about individuals to engage their empathy (something proven to be a natural physical and emotional response when reading stories); link to their personal interests but ensure you return relentlessly to the core message.
5. ‘Paint the picture’ – use analogies, metaphors and images: Cognitive science has proven that analogies and metaphors are crucial to language, thinking and memorising knowledge (see here). Our minds naturally draw upon ‘schemas‘ – a psychology term to define the existing patterns of knowledge we have to help us learn new knowledge. A key way of making new knowledge memorable to to hook it into existing ‘schemas‘. For example, if we were given something to eat we have never eaten before then we would draw upon our prior knowledge – ‘this tastes like chicken!’. They give students helpful templates to build on their prior knowledge and allow them to make educated guesses. When exploring the term ‘oxymoron’ with my English class we drew upon our knowledge of the term ‘moron’, then compared and contrasted this label with the character of Romeo. In Maths, teachers consistently draw upon real world ‘schemas’ to make concepts memorable. By using imagery and metaphors that evoke mental images, students can make mental hooks into what they already know and better organise their new knowledge. In this video Dan Meyer shows how you can use images and known everyday ‘schemas’ such as sport and the act of shooting a basketball to spark questioning, engage students and explain challenging mathematical concepts:
6. Tell compelling stories: Daniel Wllingham describes stories as being “psychologically privileged” in the human mind and memory. As an English teacher this strikes at the heart of what I believe about emotion, memory and learning. Memorable personal stories brings History and facts alive; dry statistics become enlivened when in the context of a story. 64% of students achieving A grades in exams is interesting, but not nearly as memorable as stories of individual students toiling and overcomes tough circumstances to gain an A grade. Our minds make meaning by creating stories. With History we imagine and empathise with particular ‘characters’. Our hearts and minds are captured when a ‘conflict‘ is posed involving characters. Our explanations therefore need to be built like narratives: with characters, conflicts and resolutions. We must avoid meaningless anecdotes of course, as stories should serve to illuminate the core message and not prove a distraction.
7. Make abstract concepts concrete and real: Akin to story making and using effective imagery and analogies to illuminate information, we better remember concrete knowledge rather than abstractions. We are hardwired to do this. From birth, our first words are invariably concrete nouns and verbs to articulate our most basic of needs. Hopefully you have remembered the proverb used in tip 3: “people who live in glass houses should not throw stones“! This is a great example of an abstract idea being made concrete and memorable. We must also avoid using too much abstract language and jargon beyond the patterns of key subject specific language we want students explicitly to remember – see tip 2 – otherwise we risk losing the core message we want students to remember.
Brian Cox, the scientist and television personality (yes – I have noticed he isn’t a teacher and some television personalities have proven to be notoriously bad teachers!) is a great example of someone who makes abstract scientific concepts concrete to good explanatory effect. His explanations illuminates a topic for someone like me who has little sophisticated knowledge of science (the typical student!) in a concrete and memorable way. This short video is a great example of a successful explanation that ticks off many points from my tips with aplomb:
8. Hone your tone: Of course, the delivery of explanations carry a great deal of weight if we are to make them truly memorable. Charisma without content is vacuous, but content without clarity and confidence is less likely to stick in the memory. We need not be performing monkeys, but stressing key words explicitly and using discourse markers with clear emphasis and a tone that conveys enthusiasm will help engage students so they may then listen with intent. We must have undivided attention if students are to process complex new knowledge, therefore our tone must also convey authority. We may have physical positions of authority in the room where students expect you to speak from; we may move about the room to ensure students are actively listening, which requires often a clear and no-nonsense approach. A simple and obvious truth is that a great explanation is worthless if students are not listening to it!
9. Check understanding with targeted questions: One way to secure attention and to make any crucial modifications to our explanations is to ask targeted questions. By having a ‘no hands up’ approach on selected occasions can secure a higher degree of attention. By habitually getting students to comment on what one another has said can better keep all students listening actively (I prefer the ‘ABC Feedback model‘: Agree with; Build upon; Challenge). Questions can close in on the core message, but also open up to interesting analogies and ideas that deepen understanding. When considering an effective explanation a teacher should automatically have questions embedded in that explanation and be ready to flexibly respond to the answers, recasting and redirecting, even repeating the explanation if required.
10. …and repeat: Knowledge stored in the long term memory is most typically information that is revisited, therefore a great explanation must be followed up if we are to maximise its value. The ‘Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve‘ is a nice visual way to remind us that we must give effective explanations, but then revisit the core message with spaced repetition, otherwise there is danger that it will be forgotten:
Great explanations are a foundation stone upon which great teaching is based. There is a complex interplay between our explanations, asking questions and eliciting feedback that if we master we will teach successfully. We should reflect and spend less time on jobs that are extraneous to the core of great teaching, such as creating limited use resources, or focusing upon the tools students use in our planning and get back to the our core practice of explaining, asking questions and giving feedback.
My core message: clear and effective explanations matter!
- Daniel Willingham’s book ‘Why Don’t Students Like School?‘ is an outstanding book that grounds effective explanations in scientific evidence.
- Dan and Chip Heath’s book ‘Made To Stick: Why some ideas take hold and other come unstuck’ presents a really helpful bank of examples and a easy method to make your messages memorable.
- Tom Sherrington’s blog post on ‘explanations‘ crosses very similar aspects to my post in with great success (read his brilliant series), complete with great images and examples.
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 –
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.
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‘
“A teacher who is attempting to teach without inspiring the pupil with a desire to learn is hammering on a cold iron.” Horace Mann
Recently I came across a beautifully written ode to creativity written by @RealDavidCameron – see here. Please read it in all of its resplendent glory. The article, appropriate for our austere times, and rather bankrupt political leadership, is not all sweetness and light. Birth weight and poverty are recognized as near intractable factors that inhibit learning, but the driving force of the article resides in the transformative power of education. This was connected to another article by an inspiring school leader, Tom Sherrington – the @headguruteacher – with this article on creativity here: Teaching for Creativity and Innovation. Now, let me admit, when I sometimes hear the term ‘creativity’ used regarding education I wince slightly. ‘Passion’ and ‘creativity’ have become easy labels used across public and private sectors, becoming appropriated by advertisers, regardless of whether those qualities are exhibited or not, like some empty corporate mantra. When people laud Sir Ken Robinson I cannot but agree with his inspired speeches, but without action those words ring hollow. What leaders like Tom Sherrington and people like David Cameron do is put meat onto the bones of the creativity mantra in a real and valuable. They shine a light on creativity in practice and thereby encourage us to bask in the glow and feed the flame.
What is being proposed in the Ebacc is a reactionary and regressive response to the dynamic needs of our students, our communities and our wider economy. A ‘traditional’ curriculum, with a finishing post solely marked by a terminal three hour exam, is being lauded at a time when we must shape our society into a dynamo of creativity. I am not proposing we shun Modern Foreign Languages, Mathematics, Science and English for a playful curriculum of Dance, Drama and computer play (valuable though each can be in their own right); but if we are to once again devalue the Arts and the vocational aspects of our curriculum we are immediately performing a creativity and innovation lobotomy! As identified by the aforementioned David Cameron, much innovation and creativity derives from the dynamic conflation of different disciplines – such as a fruitful combination of science and literature for example – see here. To deliberately laud one discipline over another simply shows a lack of understanding about how creativity comes to life. We are not all a budding Leonardo da Vinci, but our curriculum should provide a breeding ground for such genius to exist and flourish – why aim for less? Gove lauds the supposed ‘freedoms’ of his systematic shift of our state school system from LEAs to Academies and Free Schools; yet, at the same time, by retaining reductive league tables with narrow measures of success, he distorts those freedoms of curriculum and school structures by narrowing the goal posts for what is deemed acceptable success. The current league table measures of success are widely deemed as insufficient, even by Gove himself (sagely expressed in this article by Chris Husbands) so we must make a thorough job of changing accountability systems for the better. What we have at present is a centralized system that serves the needs of absolutely no-one, perhaps except those Academy chains who stand to benefit from the ‘saving’ of schools being stuffed below floor standards. Creativity becomes dulled by expediency, central diktats and a repressive inspection regime. Innovative curriculum models will be circumscribed, particularly for the students in our society most in need of skills that will help them rise from their limited social circumstances. Many schools under pressure will regress into a conservative safe zone of exam driven teaching that is demotivating for students and teachers alike.
Where courageous leadership starts is a turning away from the threatening drum pounding of the DfE and turning towards our own students. We need a shining of a light upon what many of our schools are doing brilliantly and we need to spread that light. For me, our curriculum is the kindle for that flame. The very best teachers will be dulled and stunted by a limiting curriculum, no matter who we attract into our profession. We must scale up our creative endeavors if we are to inspire our students with a desire to learn. Our creativity will be found when we shine a light existing in our own schools (we will find the feeling needed for change all around us if we look properly), but we should also seek inspiration from elsewhere. Therefore I have compiled the following list of inspiring websites and blog posts that shine a light on the great creativity existing in schools all around us (in no particular order):
A movement to stimulate enquiry based learning over our content driven exam fuelled culture. Examples include schools schools taking leave of six hours per week of English, Humanities, Science and Technology lessons at KS3 to undertake enquiry based learning. A clear manifesto for the approach can be found in this document: Learning Futures
A national campaign by SSAT to coral leading thinkers and practitioners to define the core purpose of education and to synthesise the needs of our learners, now and in the future, with a curriculum which is fit for purpose. Hopefully this programme can synthesise and define many of the projects and thinking I go on to identify.
An excellent idea for project based learning from an English curricular perspective that draws in the Arts and the Humanities, transforming the whole school to energise interest and bring the war to life for students.
An outstanding use of Web 2.0 resources. Edutronic is brilliant platform to share communication and resources between teachers and students; for students to blog themselves and to record learning with a global audience. This open source approach is clearly going to supplant VLEs as the future method for communicating and learning online.
More project based learning, this time originating in Science, inspiring learners with a range of real word problems and projects and including blogged learning to help ongoing progress and reflection.
A project based learning approach with an Art focus – with a great example of a public critique involving the local community.
An inspired approach to expeditionary learning and a student centred approach to learning. Tait’s ‘Punk Learning Manifesto’ is a brilliant synthesis of ideas to convey an original and exciting approach to Science teaching and learning.
A brilliant national collective of expert teachers sharing pedagogy to keep getting better. A brilliantly simple alternative to national initiatives like the long-since defunct National Strategies approach in England. Now reading beyond its Scottish origins, I can see this collective and cooperative approach being the future for innovation in pedagogy, alongside Teachmeets and other such ground-swell approach.
A brilliant school that embraces project based learning at the core of its entire curriculum. Using the principals of Ron Berger’s inspired vision of excellence in education, this school is a gold one of highly skilled and engaging pedagogy.
This brilliant Physical Education project based learning approach brings together inspiration from British cycling together with sessions with local journalists to make literacy and the project real. The prospective public critique looks like another fantastic opportunity for students to share their brilliant learning with a real audience.
Surely these engaging and innovative approaches to pedagogy can be combined with a traditional focus upon core literacy and numeracy, and Gove’s beloved rigour, that would be more fitting for our complex and inter-connected futures. The selections I have made combine project based learning; a turning away from an obsession with terminal assessments; a skilled use of technology to leverage pedagogy; real audiences and so much more. We would do well to synthesise these principals of great learning. We must stick to our task – as the ‘real‘ David Cameron stated in his article:
“That reminded me that our task is to give our young people 1000 futures regardless of their past or their present.” David Cameron
It is clear that the SSAT organisation are corralling some of the best teaching and learning academics, school leaders and teachers to lead the charge to take student learning in our education system forward into our twenty first century, not harking back to a nineteenth century ‘golden age’. The SSAT conference this week was a veritable smorgasbord of reflection, evidence based knowledge and innovation, shared by luminaries such as Dylan Wiliam, Guy Claxton and Bill Lucas etc. Like any good meeting of minds, the less well known speakers and practitioners left the most lasting impression on many. My high points were the sessions by Emily Cummins, Ewan McIntosh and Tom Sherrington (although I was inspired by those ours mentioned in this post). Now, any good review or summary would attempt to summarise the multitude of ideas in a pithy, wise thesis statement, as fallible, reductive and no doubt biased as that may be, so I will give it a go. For me – note the glaring subjectivity – the conference laid the foundations for a reinvigorated pedagogy and curriculum the puts learning and students at the heart of education – not beginning with measurable, replicable and ultimately sellable end assessments as our politicians propose.
I told you my attempt wouldn’t quite do the job – but we learn from failure and risk taking regardless! The SSAT mission statement clearly does the job equally as concisely and more successfully:
Inquire – what class-based action research and teacher-led inquiry has raised standards?
Innovate – how have schools done things differently in order to do them better?
Inspire – how have schools influenced each other’s work through our network?
Impact – what changes have been proven to make a difference to student outcomes?
How does these worthy statements translate into real action and evidence. Well, the real evidence of an education system is the learners and their success, and the two most impressive people were young people who exhibited that they had flourished as outstanding learners. Firstly, Emily Cummins (see -@emilycummins), a young woman who broke free of curriculum constraints to exhibit true independent learning – ultimately becoming a woman achieving spectacular success, from inventing the ‘Sustainable Refrigerator’ and becoming ‘Woman of the Year’. She challenged teachers and leaders to question whether their curriculum was indeed fit for purpose. Secondly, James Anderson (see @iamjsanderson), an extraordinarily talented student, who, still a teen, co-founding the app making tech company: PixelBit Apps Ltd. What was common about these brilliant leaners was that they succeeded despite the limits of a stultifying exam system – they had undertaken learning beyond the boundaries of the classroom space, they had been encouraged by key individuals, grandparents and teachers. Dr Eric Mazur, a spectacular speaker and teacher, who originated the principal of ‘flipped learning’ (see here: Full lecture or for a bitesize explanation of flipped learning here) exemplified how and why learning must reach beyond the exam, beyond the classroom and beyond the pathway being proposed currently by the DfE. If we don’t innovate the learning to reach our students and challenge the current ideology being proposed by Gove, then we will have less chance of seeing people like Emily and James flourish. The approach of SSAT in the coming year is to put forward proposals on their ‘Redesigning Schools’ project in the coming year.
Common patterns of ideas were criss-crossing across the various speeches and sessions. What was central was learners and learning. Learning as an emotional and cognitive process kept on being reiterated – indeed, we need evidence and great skill to further process and adapt our pedagogy given our ever-growing greater knowledge of this science. Gove may wish to make teaching a trade, but it is so much more than that – we must be the skilled professionals and researchers we seek, in spite of divisive politics. I expected some more focus upon learning environments and innovative technology, and there were appropriate exemplars of technology being used to enhance the learning; however, the key focus was on the students themselves as the key ‘resource’. Co-construction was a definitive message for taking our curriculum and pedagogy forward. From Tom Sherrington’s brilliant school projects that put the student at the heart of real learning (see his great blog here), to Bill Lucas’s evaluation of how well we have formed the balance within our curriculum and pedagogy:
In my session with Ewan McIntosh (see his website), an ex-teacher, who brought that crucial viewpoint from the world outside of education that we very much need if we are to avoid naval gazing, I reflected very much about an idea/problem that Ewan proposed we look into and attempt to solve. My problem/idea was student motivation. For me, it is at the root of much of the talk from every expert speaker. Are we preparing our students for a world we cannot even imagine; in the words of Piaget, are we imbuing them with that key life skill:“Knowing what to do when you you don’t know what to do”? A few years ago I wrote passionately about a GCSE student named Craig (before I knew blogging was invented!) and how he had developed a learned helplessness and how I felt culpable as his teacher. A few years on, I feel we are far more canny with our students and we are teaching them better in my school, but the insoluble problem is still the lack of intrinsic student motivation for many – the hard reality that we are still working harder than they are in many ways! It is working for us in terms of league tables and external judgements, but I don’t think it is working for all of our students. If will not make our nation of children ready for tomorrow and the complex world in which they will live.
Student motivation is such a gargantuan problem that it may seem foolish to even broach it, but I will do so anyway! I am conscious the problems and potential solutions would encompass a book and not a couple of paragraphs, but permit me to summarise. The problems are legion: from our high stakes testing model and our punitive external school judgements; to the politicisation of education that ignores evidence, the profession and the students; to our habits as teachers in repeating the paradigms of how we were taught in a connected world which bears no relation to our youth; to a culture that promotes consumer values of instant gratification, an aversion to boredom and effort, with an attendant ideology that the end justifies the means in terms of educating students for schools and DfE statistics, and not for the intrinsic love of learning, or providing the authentic learning skills for a future we cannot quite imagine. The solutions – well, I humbly admit that I am wholly foxed by the issue! I would like to think that the people and sessions in this conference have advanced my thinking so that I may make practical advancements for developing the curriculum for my students and our faculty.
The answers of course start with the students and their learning. We must stop putting the cart before the horse, as Brian Lightman articulated. We must workWITH the students: co-constructing learning; adapting and personalising the curriculum to meet the changing needs of our students (the ‘flipped learning’ model is one of the many methods) in reaching them by building real learning, with real audiences – not some atomised task by proxy. We must use a language that encourages a growth mindset and promotes good habits of thinking. We must build resilience by encouraging risk taking and accepting failure on the pathway to ultimate success – helping students learn how to learn – not as a bolt on quick-fix, but as a way of thinking and learning. We must connect with technology in a real, flexible and frequent way. Even more importantly, we must connect the chain of people: the golden triangle of students, parents and teachers.
The devil is of course in the detail, and this blog is simply about quick reflections, so I don’t offer detailed examples or answers – but of course, schools are innovating and, quite frankly, ignoring national directives and making the learning real and are making the students better motivated – which leads to the desired outcomes even hardened, cynical politicians desire. Of course, there are no silver bullet solutions here, the answers will be rooted in the school contexts and the people in unique school scenarios; but, crucially, a commitment to searching out those answers is the
thing. In the coming year, SSAT is clearly committed to synthesising these ideas with great experts and brilliant practical teachers and leaders at the chalkface – collaborating and connecting to create what Bill Lucas described the “great pedagogical shift”. The buffering stresses of the daily jobs and the criticisms by politicians etc. cannot shift us from keeping the learning the main thing, from working hard to imbue students with the crucial intrinsic motivation and helping them ‘know what to do when they do not know what to do’.
My favourite quote of the conference was made by the sage Dylan Wiliam and it is about teachers, but fundamentally, it gets to the root of improving learning for students, thereby improving the motivation of students – which is crucial in sowing the very seeds of future success:
“Every teacher needs to improve, not because they are not good enough, but because they can be even better.” Dylan Wiliam
My favourite image of the conference was from Tom Sherrington’s brilliant talk about co-construction and being bold enough to inspire students to own their learning, provoke their own leadership and questioning and to learn with real motivation:
The problem is complex – great minds in this conference are busy tackling it, teachers and leaders are working with them too. I feel simply privileged to be there listening in! We all can and must join them, or be left at the behest of ignorant politicians without having challenged them. We must show our passion for students and for helping them learn by undertaking deliberate practice. I must stop reflecting – I need to get planning – I have students to motivate!
P.S. Thank you to all the kind people who said hello and talked to me during the conference – very much inspiring for me to share my time with you!