Archive | July 2012

A Passion for State Education (Inspired by the Olympic Opening Ceremony)

Watching the Olympic ceremony yesterday evening was one of those rare moments when people in Britain could collectively, and shamelessly, flaunt their national pride and passions without fear of social unease and our famed British reserve. What was so inspirational, and emotional, was how the ceremony combined the passions of a nation – national pride, a fierce love of sport and sporting competition, a pride in our great literature, with a timely celebration of perhaps our greatest invention – the National Health Service – all presented with charm, humour and a peculiarly British originality and genius. The tweets and hash tags heralding the NHS were particularly poignant given it is in a precarious position at this time, as the core universal freedom of access is under threat from privatisation and market forces, masked by the ConDem government under the chimera of ‘choice’. My thoughts turned appropriately to our state education system – under similar threats to the NHS – on the very day when the status of teachers, and our very professionalism, was undermined with the announcement that QTS status is no longer required in Academy schools.

The very concept of passion is something we all recognise as a crucial quality that we understand is central to our vocation. Yet, I think that many of us would struggle to articulate exactly what this essential passion is when asked. I know it is the first description I would want my students or colleagues to use to describe me as a teacher. I know it is the first quality I look for in a colleague. I know that in my own previous job interviews I have tried to articulate my best qualities, with passion being first and foremost in my mind – but I am pretty sure my descriptions and definitions have met with mixed reviews! I then read what I consider to be the most important and best book about education, and teaching and learning – ‘Visible Learning: Maximising Impact Upon Learning‘, by John Hattie, and I was enlightened. Hattie brilliantly articulates the concept of passion better than I could. Not only that, he explains how passion has a huge impact upon learning by linking it to a vast wealth of evidence. Passion for Hattie wasn’t some amorphous quality, but a more deliberate act. It was actually a deliberate act that could be subject to mastery through skilled and informed practice. The description was so powerful I have decided to quote it in full:

“As I noted in Visible Learning, we rarely talk about passion in education, as if doing so makes the work of teachers seem less serious, more emotional than cognitive, somewhat biased or of lesser import. When we do consider passion, we typically constrain such expressions of joy and involvement to secluded settings not in the public space of being a teacher (Neuman, 2006). The key components of passion for the teacher and for the learner appear to be the sheer thrill of being a learner or a teacher, the absorption that accompanies the process of teaching and learning, the sensations of being involved in the activity of teaching and learning, and the willingness to be involved in deliberate practice to attain understanding. Passion reflects the thrill, as well as the frustrations, of learning; it can be infectious, it can be taught, it can be modelled, and it can be learnt. It is among the most prized outcomes of schooling and, while rarely covered in any of the studies reviewed in this book, it infuses many of the influences that make the difference to the outcomes. It requires more than content knowledge, acts of skilled teaching, or engaged students to make the difference (although these help). It requires a love of the content, an ethical, caring stance deriving from the desire to instil in others a liking, or even love, of the discipline being taught, and a demonstration that the teacher is not only teaching, but also learning (typically about the students’ processes and outcomes of learning). In the current economic climate of many countries, property values have plummeted, leading to fewer resources available for the education budget. As Doug Reeves pointed out to me, passion may be the only natural renewable resource that we have.”

Another great mind, Ken Robinson, is rightly famed for his brilliant treatise on passion in ‘The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything‘. The title is self-explanatory and very true. If you haven’t read it already, I would recommend you read it. I would also strongly recommend you then read Hattie’s ‘Invisible Learning: Maximising Impact upon Learning‘ to understand how passion can be channelled in education. Then use your passion to continue to master your craft, to hone your skills as a highly trained teacher and ceaseless learner, and with slightly less grandeur than the Olympic Opening Ceremony, to celebrate being a teacher in our marvellous state school system! Ignore that seemingly ceaseless torrent of negativity surrounding our schools as best you can (remember, politicians are ephemeral and most appear only to pursue individual vanities of little intrinsic value, being quickly forgotten and little mourned when they depart their stage). We in state schools have a much more important and valued job than career politicians – we are passing the flame onto the next generation. We will endure and succeed through a collective spirit that outlasts any political career. We will succeed because of our driving and transformative passion for the education of the next generation.

Here’s to passionate public sector workers across our great islands – keep flying the flag high!

The iPad as a Tool for Collaboration – Great Pedagogy and Cost Effective!

Imagine the very typical scene of a class in an ICT suite. I am sure you would simply visualise each individual student working away at their own computer – such is the basic paradigm of ICT use that we have all internalised. What is typical is snapshot of the near catatonic bliss of individual students disappearing into a virtual world of ICT – their terrain, their world! In my experience as an English teacher, students would often use an ICT room to be researching on the web, perhaps some aspect of the social context of a given text, like researching Great Depression America when we study ‘Of Mice and Men’. Each ICT room is built to encourage purposeful individual learning; group work is a concept left for our usual classroom spaces. When working with ICT simply putting students in pairs can have a radical impact upon their learning. A good teacher knows that group work is key – collaboration can lead to greater creativity – students can better enhance their knowledge base and understanding by working together. When working in pairs on the same task as mentioned above students can synthesis their ideas and judgements, debating and evaluating their evidence. Why can’t the new technology of tablet devices, like the iPad, and mobile learning more generally embrace the same principals of effective group work and collaboration?

With any education technology it is important to put great thought into implementation and how it will shape effective pedagogy. The iPad is clearly leading the charge for mobile technology in the classroom. Now, issues of price and effective usage are abound with the iPad and other similar devices. By making the iPad a tool primarily for group work and collaboration it can greatly enhance learning in a myriad of ways – not only that, it is highly cost effective. In a time of fiscal austerity good pedagogy may well be a way of preserving dwindling budgets.

Here’s an example I made earlier:

Now, there are many ways in which students can use the iPad as a collaborative tool to enhance learning. Take a single task in my subject area of English – related to the aforementioned ‘Of Mice and Men’ – the filming of dramatic monologues created through purposeful group work. As a group, students can formulate effective open and closed questions for a range of the key characters in the text. Students can then hone their questions to a top four or five, thereby evaluating their understanding together, synthesising the best of their ideas. These can then be streamed and shaped by the teacher or other students through critical formative assessment of their ideas.  Also, if needs be, they can use the iPad to search the text or the web for useful supporting information as they learn. Each of the group can then take a role as one of the characters being hot seated and answer their formulated questions. They can then use the iPad as a tool to film and record their performances using iMovie. These films can be streamed instantly to the class projector, with other groups peer assessing the quality of the questions and the appropriateness of the answers relative to their understanding of the novella. Their film can be saved and stored in Dropbox to be used again, recycling the learning easily where necessary (repetition is the one of the keys to mastery). Now, this task could be done with a video-camera, but the iPad does it with ease and is brilliantly multifunctional. It is a camera, a Visualiser, an Interactive Whiteboard and a PC all in one! The film can be made simply and quickly, edited by students as they film.

The iPad is simply a great tool to record, store and share, annotate, assess etc. It functions brilliantly for group tasks – allowing for group annotation, shared reading, shared writing and a tool for oral presentations (ExplainEverything is my favourite app which can record oral commentaries over presentations – you may never need PPT again!). Coupled with the ability to stream work instantly to the projector using Airplay, it is a great way to formatively assess their group learning with immediacy, whilst heightening the sense of purpose for almost all students.

Almost all of the research into mobile devices centres upon the one-to-one approach. This is coupled with the less popular, but emerging, ‘bring your own device’ approach. Both have obvious benefits. Each individual students having a device opens up a host of options that the collaborative approach cannot. However, there are also prohibitive costs related to this approach and the emphasis on individual work can inhibit the deeper learning as shown above. Having seven iPads as a ‘class set’ also allows many more classes to use the devices at any given time, multiplying the potential benefits. By approaching the new technology as tools for collaborative learning schools can make significant savings in a time of fiscal austerity – not only that, the benefits to pedagogy are still clear. It may take a paradigm shift in how we envision the use of technology and mobile devices, but the collaborative approach could be the way forward for many schools looking to implement iPads and new technology more generally in our era of slashing cuts – making a virtue out of necessity.

Great questions are the answer!

“Judge a person by their questions, rather than their answers.”

Voltaire

“Successful people ask better questions, and as a result, they get better answers.”

Tony Robbins

Substitute ‘person’ and ‘people’ for teacher and you come to the crux of my post – the crucial importance of questioning for outstanding teaching and learning. Right, that is pretty much a given I hear you say – nothing new here, move along…and you would be absolutely correct. Questioning is the oldest teaching strategy known to humankind – Plato and Socrates could have told us that a long, long time ago. Core pedagogy doesn’t come more core than asking questions of students. Agreed – it is the age old principle of logic, thought and good teaching. All that being said, questioning does often go unmentioned; lazy assumptions are made and new, glossier teaching strategies with fancy acronyms become the vogue. Questioning doesn’t get the time and care devoted to it that it deserves. The one thing I have learned above all about teaching in my role as a subject leader this school year is the paramount importance of good questioning. In every lesson observation, or ‘drop ins’, I have undertaken it has crept up on the rails as a central factor in my judgement of the teaching and learning (I am not here looking to obsess about OFSTED or value judgements, but simply to recognise good teaching and help teachers I lead do their job even better!)

So many things shift in teaching that we are often dazzled by the pace of change. New labels for teaching and learning are created from the powers that be (most often for the purpose of simply changing the label of the previous government and little more!), or the dizzying myriad of training providers, booksellers and educationalists. External judgements upon said teaching changes too – ‘satisfactory’ defies it’s dictionary definition and becomes ‘requires improvement’ overnight. I like to stay on the ball, and with the likes of Twitter and through blogs you can share a wealth of great ideas, both new and old. Something about questioning being so, well, obvious, makes it a bit unexciting and underwhelming. However, when I hone in on focusing on the core principals of what I humbly think is outstanding teaching and learning, questioning would be at the very heart of the matter.

In my last school year (which seems like an age ago!) our school embarked upon OLCs – Outstanding Learning Communities. These were undertaken every month. Underpinning all the training was the work of Dylan William (http://www.dylanwiliam.net/ ). He was undergoing a moment of wider fame on a television show at the time, ‘The Classroom Experiment’, where he was busy exposing some of the core habits of teaching, such as ‘hands up’ for answering questions etc.

Initially I was surprised by the actual simplicity of the OLC training. I felt like I had done it when I trained to be a teacher – things like questioning, or setting effective learning objectives, appeared too simplistic – I wanted more challenging strategies to develop. I wanted newness, to learn that magic panacea that actually inspires interest in teenage boys; the golden strategy which has every student standing on their desks shouting ‘O Captain! My Captain!’ because of the sheer joy of learning! What I didn’t realise immediately that it was the grooving of the most basic habits of my teaching that would make me become a significantly better teacher and enable me to pursue outstanding status and help coach others to attain that hallowed gold standard.

As a school we too adopted the ‘no hands up approach’ propounded by Dylan William well over a year ago. Initially there was the expected scepticism and determined obstinacy. I do believe that teachers, including myself, are easily hardened into habits, sometimes habits we learned from our own teachers. What I grew to recognise was how it made a significant difference to my teaching and the learning with my classes. I became more conscious of whom I was going to ask a question, and therefore exactly how I would word that question. My questions became better – the answers became better too. I am sure I differentiated in this manner regularly (at least I hope I did) before, but this systematic approach had me shift entire habits for the better more consistently. It seems very small a change, but it made the biggest difference to my teaching since I trained to teach a hazy eight years ago!

This year I have also been crystallising the quality of my questioning, making myself more systematic and habitual about the strategies I employ to harness questioning to promote and enhance learning. Many of these strategies were actually not new for me at all, but were central to my new focus on good questioning. Firstly, I wanted to reinvigorate my own approach to ‘key questions’ (a departmental policy). We use ‘key questions’ instead of learning objectives, as we feel it promotes an atmosphere of enquiry and gets students engaging in where the learning is going, rather than a fixed objective. I therefore aimed to target rich, open questions related to the ‘key question’. My lesson planning focused not just on the resources or the ‘task’, but on the types of question and who they would be targeted at with greater rigour. I revisited another staple of educational theory – Bloom’s taxonomy – to frame my questions with real precision.

The following website is really useful on that topic: http://www.teachers.ash.org.au/researchskills/dalton.htm )

I then wanted to ensure that my questioning was well distributed amongst the class and, crucially, had the students respond critically and independently amongst one another – not simply relying on my questions and answers. I used the TSSSTSSS model of questioning (teacher, student, student…). Again, nothing new, but strategic and targeted. Dylan William again came up trumps with his example of what one teacher calls “Pose, Pause, Pounce, Bounce”: The teacher poses a question, pauses to allow pupils time to think, pounces on any pupil (keeps them on their toes) and then bounces the pupil’s response onto another pupil.

The ‘bounce’ was the crucial bit. I have been doing this for a few years now, but it became a more consistent habit. Students became better trained and better focused because they expected to feedback and question one another. Students were able to constructively critique one another, feedback became consistently stronger, and students therefore became progressively more independent with their learning. Only a week or so ago, on Twitter, I was introduced to a brilliantly simple acronym (sorry, had to use at least a couple of these – I am a teacher!): A, B and C feedback. Offer the students the chance to ‘Agree’, ‘Build upon’ or ‘challenge’. Thank you to @davidfawcett27 for this little gem. By using this approach students are soon asking questions of one another that would make Bloom proud! So simple, but so effective.

I have learnt lots of new things about teaching and learning this year, but definitely one of the most important things I have learnt is that great questioning is always at the heart of outstanding teaching and learning. I admit, nothing much new there…it always has been and most likely always will be.

Can I make an honourable mention for the fantastic blog post on questioning:

http://www.fromgoodtooutstanding.com/2012/05/ofsted-2012-questioning-to-promote-learning