This much I know about…finding out what really works when it comes to educational research in schools
Do you want to find out what really works? Can research evidence lead to school improvement? Come and find out.
I have been a teacher for 25 years, a Headteacher for 10 years and, at the age of 49, this much I know about finding out what really works when it comes to educational research in schools.
Do you want to find out what really works?
At a time of shifting tectonic plates in the educational landscape, the evidence provided by high quality research could prove to be a defining factor for school improvement and student success. Our research focus is to train outstanding internally-appointed Research-leads in schools to support the improvement of students’ attainment in English and mathematics GCSE.
Can research provide us with the crucial golden thread that connects school leadership decisions through to successful student outcomes? We think it can and this trial can help prove it.
Do you want to be part of a hugely exciting, and nationally prestigious Randomised Controlled Trial that…
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Love this blog post. I’m biased, as I work with those two teachers, but so what!
Last weekend I attended the Sunday Times Education Festival at Wellington. It was brilliant. Sunshine, nice grounds, hundreds of people chatting about edu-nerdy things. It’s basically my nirvana.
Busy enjoying myself I didn’t take many notes or feel particularly moved to write a blog about it all. HOWEVER, one event stayed with me all week for what it encapsulated about the true spirit of teaching. So I thought I’d share that part.
At lunch-time on Saturday I was lucky enough to be in the ‘street’ – a part of the festival including street-y food vendors and a soundstage. In total, about twenty people were milling around, with the majority of attendees still tucked away watching talks.
Out of apparently nowhere I hear two booming voices: “HELLO!”
It was two men stood on the stage. They were in England shirts. The night before, England had crashed out of the cup.
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Please read this clear account, by Huntington School Head teacher, John Tomsett, of an exciting opportunity to engage with our Education Endowment Fund project on using research evidence in education.
I have been a teacher for 25 years, a Headteacher for 10 years and, at the age of 49, this much I know about how you can be involved in our EEF Research Project.
Research-leads working through a structured school improvement process, involving external research and evaluation.
Political consensus is notoriously difficult to achieve. Consensus in the world of education is nigh on impossible. Tentatively, I would say that the use of research evidence in education has united many warring factions in something that resembles agreement. There appears to be a rare sprig of hope emerging, namely that using evidence to improve our students’ education is a priority for the school system, and a priority which could become a reality.
Is research evidence a universal panacea for education? No, of course not. Should we be circumspect about the what, how and who
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My last post of the school year is a resolution for the school year ahead. There is no special philosophy, research or expensive equipment required. It is a simple focus on ‘opening the door’ more in the coming year. It is about sharing. Not just in the sense of sharing knowledge through blogs, Teachmeets or Twitter, or through great books on education, although all of these have their value. The commitment to sharing and ‘opening the door’ is primarily about being in the classrooms of my colleagues more and them being in mine more too. Not as a lesson judgement, a snooping check or some OFSTED preparation, but to simply share better what we do well.
I am excited at the prospect of becoming a ‘Teacher Coach‘ in the coming year. I will have the pleasure of working with a whole host of teachers across the school. Part of that coaching is utilising video technology to share best practice. As part of the whole-school process we will aim to share our successes, ideas and good practice. I hope to use that technology, alongside good old fashioned human appearances (!) to see, share and support more teachers and their learning. In my capacity as a Subject Leader of English and as a Teacher Coach, this will pretty much be my core business. I need to get better at doing it with consistency. We should look to any levers, like video technology, that help us share our good practice and see other teachers teach and talk about it more often. Sharing good practice matters. It has a significant impact upon student outcomes:
Thank you to David Weston for guiding me to this chart, and for greatly influencing this post.
This ‘opening of the door’ has the attendant benefit of being great for my teaching and learning because I most acutely learn about my craft when I observe other teachers, whether it be interview lessons, student teachers, or my experienced colleagues. What I hope to do is help create more of this ‘open door attitude’ writ large. We mustn’t be afraid to share. We must resist labelling people as arrogant because they are happy to share. We mustn’t inhibit others from being inclined to share their practice, simply because we don’t want to open our door and we are inhibited ourselves.
Teaching is a very emotional business and it is often quite an isolated one. More experienced teachers can go months without an adult in the room, other than a teaching assistant. Opportunities like ‘lesson study‘, where teachers observe practice, like medical rounds in a hospital, is very rare. Just as rare is the basic practice of watching our colleagues teach (outside of more formal PD observations) with anything like regularity. After our NQT year planned approaches to doing this usually grind to a halt. Therefore, often unintentionally, we develop deep-seated emotional barriers to such experiences, becoming defensive about our teaching. Of course, the torturous process attending OFSTED exacerbates these issues and accentuates personal inhibitions. These barriers, over time, ossify into our teacher self. It can sometimes become negative without our ever having intended it to be so. Roland Barth expressed this problem sagely here:
“More often, we educators become one another’s adversaries in a more subtle way—by withholding. School people carry around extraordinary insights about their practice—about discipline, parental involvement, staff development, child development, leadership, and curriculum. I call these insights craft knowledge. Acquired over the years in the school of hard knocks, these insights offer every bit as much value to improving schools as do elegant research studies and national reports. If one day we educators could only disclose our rich craft knowledge to one another, we could transform our schools overnight.”
When a teacher does place value on what she knows and musters up the courage and generosity of spirit to share an important learning—“I’ve got this great idea about how to teach math without ability-grouping the kids”—a common response from fellow teachers is, “Big deal. What’s she after, a promotion?” Regrettably, as a profession, we do not place much value on our craft knowledge or on those who share it.”
Roland Barth, ‘Improving Relationships Within the Schoolhouse‘
I spent time this week talking to my Head teacher, John Tomsett, about him speaking to an experienced teacher in our school who has honed their craft expertly over time with little fanfare (see his excellent post here). So much so, this teacher humbly simply couldn’t understand the attention being given over to his teaching, or the consistently outstanding results his students attain year after year. Not to mention his reputation as being the wisest of colleagues. My abiding feeling after having that chat about this member of staff, and reading John’s blogpost, was being desperate to get in and observe him at his craft! I want to drain the marrow of his ‘craft knowledge’ while I can, use it myself, and look to pass it on. It left me craving a culture of consistently ‘opening the door’.
In the current climate of ‘payment related performance’ there is the corrosive potential for competition trumping collaboration between teachers. Once more, Barth anticipated this notion in 2006:
“We also become one another’s adversaries through competition. In the cruel world of schools, we become competitors for scarce resources and recognition. One teacher put it this way: “I teach in a culture of competition in which teaching is seen as an arcane mystery and teachers guard their tricks like great magicians.”
The guiding principles of competition are, “The better you look, the worse I look,” and “The worse you look, the better I look.” No wonder so many educators root for the failure of their peers rather than assist with their success.
Our guiding principles, as Barth suggests, need to be a determined by a deep-rooted sense of collegiality. By sharing and making sure we share better and more often than we thought possible. Despite all the external factors that inhibit us from ‘opening the door’ we must do so with determination. That is my resolution. I now need to work on the ideas to make it happen. Roland Barth eloquently summarises the challenge and the value of ‘opening the door on our craft knowledge:
“Making our practice mutually visible will never be easy, because we will never be fully confident that we know what we’re supposed to be doing and that we’re doing it well. And we’re never quite sure just how students will behave. None of us wants to risk being exposed as incompetent. Yet there is no more powerful way of learning and improving on the job than by observing others and having others observe us.”
Americans love a ‘Spelling Bee‘. They are unique competitions where precocious children battle it out in a linguistic street-fight, whilst anxious parents look on with a mix of pride and anguish. It is a big deal in the USA. Arvind, the latest winner, won $30.000 for his efforts! If you have seen the compelling documentary, Spellbound, then you will know the intensity and drama of the competition. Recently, I came across some research attempting to diagnose the practice methods that accounted for the victors of these ‘Spelling Bee’ competitions – ‘Deliberate Practice Spells Success : Why Grittier Competitors Triumph at the National Spelling Bee‘, by Angela Duckworth et al. Clearly, Arvind Mahankali is a gritty individual! I am interested how we can create more Arvind’s in our classroom – students who are willing to apply the long-term effort and practice to succeed.
The research outlines two driving reasons for the success of the students, like Arvind, taking part in the ‘National Spelling Bee’: ‘grit‘ and ‘deliberate practice‘. Here is a helpful definition of ‘grit‘:
“We define grit as perseverance and passion for long-term goals. Grit entails working strenuously toward challenges, maintaining effort and interest over years despite failure, adversity, and plateaus in progress. The gritty individual approaches achievement as a marathon; his or her advantage is stamina. Whereas disappointment or boredom signals to others that it is time to change trajectory and cut losses, the gritty individual stays the course.”
From ‘Grit: Perseverance and Passion for Long-Term Goals’ by Angela L. Duckworth and Christopher Peterson
I have written a whole post defining ‘deliberate practice’ and its transformative power – see here. It can simply be defined as a mode of practice that is repeated consistently, but crucially supported by timely, precise feedback. It narrows the complexity of a task into specific components that can be drilled, honed and ultimately made automatic.
It is hard to extrapolate ‘answers‘ from the unique circumstances of the National Spelling Bee, or individuals like Arvind, to classroom learning more generally, but it does spark interesting questions about how we approach teaching and learning to promote ‘grit‘. I began to think of students in my own school whom I teach who share the same ‘grittiness’ as students like Arvind – the spelling superstar.
I teach one young man in one of my A Level classes. It is rather surprising he is sitting A levels at all. Based on his prior attainment, level 3 in his KS2 SATs, he is an unlikely candidate for further academic study; yet, he makes a mockery of national comparable outcomes. His GCSE results smashed his targets relative to equivalent students nationally and his success will no doubt continue. In my current year 10 GCSE class I have two students, one boy and one girl, who share all the ‘gritty’ traits of successful students like Arvind. At the start of the year, when I discussed their English targets with them, they both agreed to raise their personal target grades. Indeed, they pushed for this to be the case. Ever since they have approached lesson and every homework with a concerted effort that has outdone all their peers. It has seen them rise above expectations and achieve as well as, if not better, than other supposedly ‘brighter’ students with higher target grades.
I am fascinated by what processes and circumstances that create and develop students like those aforementioned. I would observe, from good knowledge of their siblings, that there is certainly an aspect of familial traits which account for their gritty character. Having role model parents exhibiting character traits that embody a true ‘grit’ goes a hell of a long way. According to John Hattie: “The effect of parental engagement over a student’s school career is equivalent to adding an extra two to three years to that student’s education”. As teachers and school leaders we do need to so a better job of sharing a dialogue with all parents about how to develop ‘grittiness’. Carole Dweck, in her work on the ‘growth mindset’, has very useful advice for parents on ‘praising effort and not ability’, ’embracing failure on the path to success’ and so on.
Of course, we need to go beyond talking the talk. we must teach with an aim to foster confident, knowledgeable and ‘gritty’ students. The following is my advice to teachers on how you can encode ‘gritty practice‘ in your pedagogy on a daily basis:
No teacher would challenge the impact of good quality feedback on student outcomes. Undertaken well, and couched in the right language, feedback can set goals that inspires the effort required to undertake the long slog of ‘deliberate practice’. Researchers have proven that setting challenging goals makes a positive difference to students – see here and it surely chimes with our innate common sense too! There is widespread knowledge of research, initiated by Paul Black and Dylan Wiliam, that proves that removing levels can have a positive impact upon students. If they focus upon formative feedback then they get better. If they possess the ‘grit‘ to persevere with responding to such feedback then they will become better learners.
Arvind and his fellow spelling spelling stars all receive plenty of expert coaching, but such feedback can also be replicated in the classroom with consistency. The students I teach that I used as exemplars absolutely thrive on feedback. They ask for it despite often being quiet individuals in the classroom setting. They produce extra work to get even more feedback. They willingly raise their targets to receive more challenging feedback and more challenging goals. I have realised that if I focus on precise and regular formative feedback, students can become ‘grittier’ and be more inclined to undertake the typically difficult process of ‘deliberate practice’.
Public critique and student feedback
Teacher feedback is crucial, but as Graham Nutthall’s research indicated (read ‘The Hidden Lives of Learners‘), students receive most of their feedback from their peers, either formally or informally. We must therefore train students and scaffold their language to ensure the feedback they give is laced with ‘grittiness‘! Ron Berger’s strategy for ‘Public Critique’ is a very useful way of ensuring that student feedback hones in on the right kind of feedback – particularly with a ‘specific‘ focus upon making improvements. I have written about the gallery-style approach to ‘Public Critique’ here. If we ensure that students give one another better feedback we can engender more opportunities for ‘deliberate practice’, enhancing their ‘grittiness‘.
A Culture of ‘Practice Perfect’
Doug Lemov’s brilliant book, ‘Practice Perfect‘, is about how the effective practice can encode success. We can ensure students are better prepared to undertake genuine independent study by drilling them with strong patterns of practice. For example, by repeatedly getting students to tackle ‘worked examples‘ or working to group, classify or improve models of writing we can help them to automate the knowledge needed to become genuinely independent writers. Scaffolding students strongly in the first instance, then moving towards more independent work (with specific feedback again) is nothing new, but honing this process over and over can give students the habits for independent ‘deliberate practice’ which can see students make successful transformations in their learning.
A second key aspect of encoding success is by having a culture of crafting and drafting (read the gems of wisdom from Ron Berger on this aspect here). I was only yesterday speaking to a colleague who worked with a really weak SEN group. She worked on rewriting one piece of work at least four times. I had done exactly the same with my more able GCSE group this year. Students are often asked to complete one draft and then we praise them regardless of whether it is the very best they can do. We need to pursue the often ugly, difficult process of ‘deliberate practice’ in this instance and once more embed the highest standards of challenge into the work we expect from our students – encoding in their minds an innate sense of what excellence looks like and feels like so that they can replicate it.
Better Questioning Strategies
We often forget that our core pedagogy – simply the construction of our questioning – can have a significant impact upon the standards and expectations our students form. For example, if they are allowed the get-out clause of simply saying ‘I don’t know‘ to questions in class then they will avoid the challenge of answering questions in class. If we only proffer closed questions with an easy ‘guessing the answer the teacher wants‘ game for students we will sell students short. We need to ask students more challenging ‘why’ questions (see my post on ‘why’ questions here and my post on asking open and inclusive questions here). The simple truth is that by keeping the level of challenge high in all oral communication in our classroom we will foster a culture that engenders ‘grittier‘ students.
There is much debate about the value of homework, with evidence from John Hattie’s ‘Visible Learning’ proving it is more effective for older students. Of course, the evidence is problematic – see this post from Tom Sherrington about the homework debate, complete with a reply from John Hattie: ‘Homework: What does the Hattie research tell us?. My experience of homework is that the students who apply themselves to homework most consistently are those students who make the most progress in my lessons. Unsurprising really! I’m sure Arvind differentiated himself from the thousands of competitors in the ‘National Spelling Bee’ by undertaking such ‘homework’.This also applies with unerring accuracy with the students I have exemplified.
Only this last week in my GCSE English class students were given a homework task to further research and make final notes in preparation for a Shakespeare controlled assessment. The aforementioned boy in the group, the epitome of a gritty and determined individual, went far beyond most of the other students. What he may lack in innate ability in comparison to some other students in the group, he makes up for and exceeds with effort. Given an open brief and some links and multiple resources, he went to town on the homework. Subsequently, he was far better prepared than most other students, making those marginal gains that will see him excel. My answer is simple. We must set purposeful and challenging homework regularly, with related feedback on that homework. We should embed into our lesson plans a celebration of students who go the extra mile with homework.
We must recognise that a singular inspirational assembly will not embed the attitude, knowledge and skills required to make any difference to the ‘grittiness‘ of our students in the long term. We do need to embed the attitudes and ideas associated with ‘grit‘ in the daily language of a school, with all teachers authentically sharing the belief that concerted effort and ‘grit‘ can make a definitive difference for our students. I do think that simply using the language is not enough and that we need to think about applying the concepts to our pedagogy with routine consistency. We must root ‘grittiness‘ into the culture, language, pedagogy and daily practice of our schools.
– An excellent US Dept of Education report on ‘Promoting Grit, Tenacity and Perseverance‘.
– An interesting article from the New York Times: ‘What if the Secret to Success is Failure?’
– An extensive report by the Young Foundation: ‘Grit – The Skills for Success and how they are Grown’. Via Zoe Elder (thank you Zoe).
No, this post isn’t a dissection of David Dimbleby’s negotiation of a bent table full of politicking talking heads. I’m sorry if you came looking for political debates! My post is an exploration of one of the simplest, but most fundamental, aspects of how students learn and how students display their learning in lessons: higher order questioning. It is simply about getting students to ask ‘why‘ and an exploration of the crucial value of such deep questioning.
‘Daddy, why is the sky blue? Daddy, why are poppies red?’ Learning about the world by asking ‘why‘ questions is just about one of the most natural states for children. Here my daughter is sitting in the back seat of the car making sense of the chaotic world flying by the window. This scene conveys a basic truth that we must always harness in the classroom: children have an instinctive curiosity about the world. My daughter doesn’t yet comprehend why she should ask ‘why‘ questions (a later metacognitive state so crucial to learning), she just instinctively attempts to make sense with ‘why‘. It is the open nature of ‘why‘ questions which make them so powerful and essential to learning.
Despite being naturally inclined to ask such questions, students ask relatively few questions in the classroom setting. In fact, it takes six to seven hours for a typical student to ask a single question in class (Graesser and Person, 1994). Perhaps it is less surprising when we consider in a class full of anything from twenty to thirty inquisitive students that there is relatively little direct questioning of the teacher in class. Some students hog the attention of the teacher, skewing the balance of such questioning still further. Compare this to over twenty six questions from the same archetypal student in a one-to-one tutoring session. The numbers are striking. With this data is makes it even more essential to ensure that we make sure that students ask the right questions. Most questions in the classroom are closed questions that don’t elicit the deeper comprehension provoked by open questions such as ‘why…‘, ‘how…‘ and ”what if…‘. Questions like Isaac Newton asking ‘why did the apple fall from the tree?‘ or Copernicus asking ‘what if the earth orbits the sun?‘
Asking such deeper questions are important because, put simply, they make you more intelligent! By asking ‘why‘ questions – rather grandly described as ‘elaborate interrogation‘ (this document outlines the strategy, with others, really effectively: ) by cognitive scientists – students can actually make new knowledge stick and become more memorable. By asking questions about their new knowledge they become more active learners, which, again, aids recall. The questions elaborate upon what they are learning, hooking the knowledge more deeply in their long term memory, as such questions connect new ideas and concepts to their prior knowledge. Searching ‘why‘ questions are the mental pathways that connects their prior knowledge with what they are attempting to learn. Research on questioning – see here – shows it contributes to reading comprehension, getting students to hypothesise and focus their attention on the key aspects of the text, whilst crucially helping students identify what they know and don’t know. The metacognitive basis of questioning is crucial: that essential ability for students to think about their own thinking, working out what they need to know next and articulating their knowledge.
As teachers we should monitor our questions to ensure we are asking many more of these open questions which generate deeper thinking. We can use students themselves as ‘question monitors‘ to note and evaluate such questions. In some video technology, like IRIS Connect, you can tally your question types to reflect on your own questioning. Not only that, by monitoring the questions of students we can better judge their level of understanding – see the research here. Knowing what the students know, and what they don’t know, is crucial for a teacher in accurately identifying what students are learning and understanding. We can ask ourselves the question: Are students asking enough ‘why’ questions in my classroom? This connects intimately with the question: ‘are my students making progress?’
Furthermore, with the reality of the lack of questions being answered by teachers, we must better scaffold questions shared between students. The research on ‘guided reciprocal peer questioning‘ – see here – provides further evidence why we should actively focus on students asking ‘why‘ questions of one another. This table, from Alison King’s, ‘Structuring Peer Interaction to Promote High-Level Cognitive Processing: From Theory Into Practice’ (2002), provides a really useful framework to share with students to ensure that they are asking deeper questions:
Guided reciprocal peer questioning: question bank
What is a new example of…?
How would you use…to…?
What would happen if…?
What are the strengths and weaknesses of…? How does…tie in with what we learned before?
Explain why… Explain how…
How does… What is the… Why is… How are…different?
Compare…and…with regard to…
What do you think causes…?
What conclusions can you draw about…?
Do you agree or disagree with this statement:…? Support your answer.
How are… and…best…and why?
By scaffolding these questions you can better structure the quality of group discussion whilst also honing their metacognitive understanding, allowing them to actively make their next step in their learning. If we can calibrate students to ask better questions we will make them better learners. Once more, this process of metacognition is proven by a vast amount of cognitive science research to be a key component in successful learning.
Few teachers would ever seriously say they didn’t encourage questioning in their classroom, but perhaps we need to better monitor the quality of our questioning and that of the students. Deeper questioning doesn’t just happen: it is modelled and scaffolded by the class teacher. We could undertake some very simple action research and see if the research that states students ask on average one question over the course of six or seven hours is true of our classroom. My most popular post from my blog is all about questioning and creating a ‘culture of enquiry‘. Find it here: ‘Top Ten Tips – Questioning’ and see if some of the strategies can help you enrich the quality of questioning in your classroom. Many of the ‘top ten tip’ focus in upon generating more questions: such as the ‘Question Wall‘, and the ‘Just One More Question‘ strategies. Whereas other strategies, such as ‘The Question Continuum‘, the ‘Question Monitor‘ and ‘Socratic Questioning’, focus upon the quality of the questions students ask.
Building a thoughtful ‘culture of enquiry‘ in our classrooms should be a priority if we want to improve how students learn. By monitoring the quality of their questions we can identify their progress and what they know. By enhancing and scaffolding their questions we can deepen their knowledge.
Why, given the evidence, would we not focus our energies upon improving the quality and quantity of our students’ questions?
Useful questioning resources:
– A NSTA document with a good explanation of different question types and an exploration of ‘wait time’: http://www.nsta.org/pdfs/201108BookBeatHowToAskTheRightQuestions.pdf
– A good essay collating questioning research: http://rsd.schoolwires.com/145410515152938173/lib/145410515152938173/Classroom_Questioning_by_Cotton.pdf
– A great guide to asking better questions: http://cet.usc.edu/resources/teaching_learning/docs/Asking_Better_Questions.pdf
– A popular blog on questioning: http://www.fromgoodtooutstanding.com/2012/05/ofsted-2012-questioning-to-promote-learning
This blog post captures so many important messages about how to become a better teacher. I feel wholly privileged to be mentioned. How do you roll as a teacher?
Last weekend I had the pleasure of reading some fabulous blog posts but 2 of them really struck a cord with me. The first was from Alex Quigley and the second was from Kenny Pieper both talked about self improvement and plateauing as a teacher and you can read both of their excellent blogs here. I had a short twitter conversation with Alex after having read his post and it prompted me to write this one.
As many of you know, I am a sea kayaker. I paddle every Sunday come rain or shine. I have to paddle, it’s my release from the stresses of work and family life. When you are on the water, you simply cannot think about anything else either because the landscape is so jaw dropping or because the sea may teach you a lesson that you won’t forget in a hurry!
I have only…
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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: http://headguruteacher.com/2012/11/10/mak-feedback-count-close-the-gap/
– David Didau writes here about why written feedback is crucial and some useful tips, like ‘triple impact marking’: http://learningspy.co.uk/2013/01/26/work-scrutiny-whats-the-point-of-marking-books/
– Mark Miller has produced this really useful set of tips to help get on top of marking: http://thegoldfishbowl.edublogs.org/2013/02/19/getting-on-top-of-marking/. mark also produced is post on marking written feedback more effective: http://thegoldfishbowl.edublogs.org/2012/09/23/more-effective-written-feedback/
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!
“Every teacher needs to improve, not because they are not good enough, but because they can be even better.”
Every teacher wants to get better. I use Dylan Wiliam’s quotation over and over unashamedly because I think it strikes a truth that all teachers and school leaders must embrace. I used it to begin my #TMClevedon seminar on ‘becoming a better teacher‘. We all know and understand the pivotal impact of teacher quality for our students and surely we all want to be better. There really is no bigger prize: better teachers improve the life chances of students. It should be our personal focus as committed professionals. It should be the core purpose of school leaders to develop great teachers. The government should relentlessly focus its resources and efforts into improving our current stock of teachers, supporting them to be better.
Of course, many teachers are not improving. The reality is that the impact of teacher experience on student outcomes actually plateaus after a couple of years – see the evidence here. Therefore waiting to get better simply from the benefit of experience throughout your career won’t happen. We may want to get better, but are we actually going about it in the right way? We must ask ourselves an awkward and challenging question. Perhaps a pretty uncomfortable ‘elephant in the room’ question: Have we plateaued as a teacher?
After the whirlwind of feedback and the perilously steep learning curves of our first two years as teachers the impact of experience dulls. Is the comfort derived from developing good habits of behaviour management and easing our attendant stresses a bad thing? No. Should we be flagellating ourselves with the birch over our failure to become an expert in only a couple of years? Of course not! Should we be looking in the mirror and looking for new answers how to better improve? I would argue yes.
The Problem with Continuous Professional Development
As the line goes, no man is an island. No teacher can improve in splendid isolation. The problem with continuous professional development is that the continuous bit is too often missing. The most commonly booked courses focus on external threats like OFSTED. They are not systematic and most often are not even about learning. David Weston’s (on Twitter as @informed_edu) Teacher Development Trust has outlined the research that has identified that only 1% of CPD has a transformative impact on classroom practice. Even the best CPD will struggle to have a definitive impact upon classroom practice. Time and money are scarce resources in our current climate. This may all sound bleak, but the heartening truth is that teachers can lead a transformation themselves. Let’s not fool ourselves, it will take effort and a boatload of ‘deliberate practice’…but teachers can get better and do it for themselves.
Like waiting for some course that will deliver pedagogical manna from heaven, we too often look in the wrong place for answers. We can too easily waste time focusing upon the latest tools and new resources and not on our core practice that makes the difference. It is perhaps only natural. Shiny new tools promise us so much, yet their promise too often translates into a crumby reality. Spending time making resources, like cards sorts or making lovely new displays, feels very much like hard work, and often is time-consuming, but the actual impact on learning can finite, and arguably negligible, but certainly not worth the time. We need to focus upon the 80/20 rule (otherwise known as the ‘Pareto principal ‘).
We must identify the vital core aspects of our pedagogy that will have the greatest impact for our learners. We must narrow our focus and deliberately practice those 20% of teaching strategies that have 80% of the impact on learning. What are your strategies? Note them down on this diagram and focus in your ‘deliberate practice’ on these and these alone.
I have written at length about the ‘holy trinity’ of teacher practice as I see it: effective explanations, questioning and feedback (both oral feedback and written feedback). I am fully aware my choices may seem rather lacking in glamour and sparkle! There is no branded, bespoke package for teacher explanations. We do them habitually, intuitively and daily, often without even thinking, so automatic are they to our practice. But, like all habits, we need to unpick and analyse if we are to really make sustained improvements. We need to heed Dylan Wiliam’s advice and stop doing so many good things. Instead we must hone, craft and perfect our core practice. Here is my law of the vital few, but remember, these are my strategies – look for yours.
The Answer: ‘Deliberate Practice’
A rather gritty and sobering truth about being an expert teacher, or an expert at anything for matter, is that it takes a tremendous amount of hard work. Thousands of hours of hard work, probably unsurprisingly, is the answer. Yet, what happens with teachers who have taught for many years and who have stubbornly plateaued regardless of the time invested? The issue is that we often undertake the wrong sort of practice and our ‘hard work’ lacks direction. Every teacher undertakes repeated practice, but simply doing something over does not confer expertise – in fact, simply repeating practice can harden bad habits. Teachers need to undertake a specific type of practice: ‘deliberate practice‘.
So what is it? I have written about it in detail here. To use a simple analogy, if you think about a top golfer, they practice specific shots, with a coach giving immediate feedback, typically including a series of corrective tweaks. The feedback is king. The reflection and tweaks are essential. In many ways, we need to revert to our state as an NQT – constantly reflecting upon our practice with the alert mindset of the novice. Perhaps we cannot source a top golf coach, but we can find a ‘critical friend’ in a colleague; we can blog and find an audience there; we can work with our subject leaders, a teacher coach etc. To improve we must undertake what can be a frustrating process with grit and resilience. Here is a simple step by step guide to the ‘deliberate practice‘ method:
What are the Barriers to Improvement?
Of course, such a process that demands monotony and discipline is hard to sustain. Like a new year diet, many of us are likely to slip. Our hands caught in the biscuit tin by mid-January at best! Such barriers are represented in the above image. Firstly, there is the emotional barriers. Exposing ourselves to failure can be a chastening business. Failing regularly seems like plain stupidity – a raw, public affair! We need to focus on the goal and be committed to getting better and being prepared to fail. Often, we will need support: inspiring school leaders, appreciative students, a strong department team – not too much to ask! Secondly, we instinctively view success falsely as a linear process, the fixed idea of the genius not encountering failure is rooted in our psyche. We must be prepared for the messy process of concerted practice in a classroom – the advice to never work with children and animals exists for a reason! Of course,time is a crucial barrier. We must be committed to giving over extra time to hone our practice. We should look to find marginal gains in terms of time with aspects of our practice, like written feedback (see my partner post about my #TMClevedon seminar here). Finally, we must recognise our bad habits – like the smoking granny! Then we need to work on improving our habits.
We can all improve upon our habits. We can allocate weekly times and places to share, research and reward ourselves. We are programmed to follow little cues when forming new habits. We need to find time by reducing our workload in other ways, such as honing our written feedback. Find pockets of time that you can practice and plan. Ideally, this is done with a ‘critical friend’. Perhaps a like-minded colleague? A school teacher coach? A subject leader? By committing ourselves to others and publicly announcing our plans we are much likely to see it through. Too often the new habit, such as executing a new teaching strategy, will simply not pay off quickly or easily. This is where our mettle is tested. We must ride through this hump in the road and focus on the small bright spots of success that can lead the way to being a consistently better teacher.
Reflect to Improve
It is crucial to focus upon being a reflective practitioner to sustain professional improvement. This takes habit forming and an allocation of our time. Good schools will factor this into CPD time. This can involve filming ourselves working on our core practice; writing a blog; speaking with your colleagues, your critical friend or coach, and people on the like of Twitter about pedagogy etc. We should be prepared to read and research like we did when we were at university. If we are serious about being an expert we must undertake the research habits which we would demand of our best students for example. In the past I have been guilty of hypocrisy – expecting to get better as a teacher without the extra commitment. Yes, we have the issue of time, but in the long run the rewards could be transformative for your professional practice.
One final strategy is to practice perfect. The following diagram can help by giving you a simple record of the thirty or so attempts at practice reputed to help root new habits in our teaching routine. It was originally shared by the brilliant Daniel Coyle on his really useful website: http://thetalentcode.com/. Simply take the diagram and select the first letter of the focus of your ‘deliberate practice’. Once you have you ‘E’ for explanations that use thirsty or so bubbles (the full one hundred if you are brave…or foolhardy!) for your letter ‘E’ and check them off as your undertake your classroom practice.
Perhaps make little reflective notes to bank that crucial feedback, both from yourself or your ‘critical friend’. This segmenting of what is of course complex information is important to help us learn new habits and strategies more effectively. You could make two or three bubbles on the diagram milestones for videoing yourself to get that extra layer of feedback into your reflective practice. Using this diagram is only a small reflective strategy, but perhaps it could be the cue you need to form a new habit. Perhaps you could become a brilliant teacher by undertaking such ‘deliberate practice‘ and doing it for yourself. In the words of William Faulkner:
“Don’t bother just to be better than your contemporaries or predecessors. Try to be better than yourself.”
The video link for my TeachMeet Clevedon seminar is here: http://youtu.be/G2liBBzcAlw. Thank you to everyone at Clevedon school for their brilliant hospitality. It was a fantastic few days full of inspiring people who certainly made me want to be better.