Archive | August 2012

What’s the Point of Homework?

Any teacher worth their salt should always ask ‘why’ and know what impact their teaching has upon the learning of their students. Why then do we continue to revere the sacred cow that is homework? Is it parental pressure, force of habit, the notion that all that extra work must do something positive?

All the evidence challenges the view that homework is working. John Hattie, whose ‘Visible Learning’ brought a weight of evidence and research to bear on education that is unsurpassed and that is required reading. In his meta-analysis of many thousands of educational studies undertaken he created an evidential judgement of worthwhile impact upon student achievement – this average bar of impact being 0.40 in effect size. Contextually, classroom discussion has an effect size of 0.82 – teacher-student relationships has an effect size of 0.72. All very positive – good stuff with proven impact. Homework has an impact size of 0.29. Any longer studies over time reduced the effect size nearer to zero – it just isn’t working. It is a dead parrot! Now, this simply doesn’t stack up with our instinctive prejudices – can you imagine Gove and Cameron accepting this evidence? Their notion of competitive sport and even more competitive working hours simply wouldn’t align with the evidence – better ignore it! Now, I am not some lily-livered leftie who doesn’t believe in the merits of hard work, but the evidence tells us homework as it stands isn’t working. Why are we stealing family time, play time, time for reading for pleasure, to plough on with a rather painful pursuit that isn’t working?

Why isn’t it working? I have focused on the evidence so far. I want to stick to the evidence as it is crucial – but there isn’t evidence to explain why homework isn’t having a significant impact upon achievement, so I will surmise some conclusions of my own. Students rely on the expert instruction of teachers, and importantly, the instruction and support of their peers (this should never be under-estimated – think how much they learn from others and not directly from you). Homework takes away that scaffold for successful learning and many students flounder without support. Homework may actually further exacerbate the divide between the most able and least able in any given group – causing a loss of crucial time in class to bridge that gap. Younger students, of Primary age, have the positive impact size reduced to nothing which may indeed support my supposition that not having the expertise and support provided in the classroom may have a troubling counter-productive effect.

Secondly, too many homeworks still remain as ‘finish the class work’ tasks. They provide little or no engagement or motivation to be completed with an investment of time that would impinge on the personal time of students in the comforts of their home spaces. Homework can therefore have the detrimental effect of turning off students from learning altogether. This often occurs because schools follow homework timetables that impose arbitrary slots for homework that must be filled, regardless of the real value for learning. teachers are then pressured to set lots of homework regardless of merit or value to the learning process.

Thirdly, so much homework now includes using the web and filtering information. The problem with this is that most students struggle to make the required filtering choices independently that makes that research process truly worthwhile – or make those key selections, beyond simply cutting and pasting a Wikipedia entry!

Baby and Bath Water

Now, I am deliberately being blunt about the problem to provoke thoughts on the subject – but I don’t think the solution is to abandon homework altogether, nor do I think we should rebrand it with educational speak – even though ‘home learning’ has a better ring to it. I think we need to rethink homework completely – ask why, ask when and ask how.

With no learning at home the vacuum may well be filled with hours of COD or whatever TV programme is being repeated endless on MTV. Parents would be rightly concerned with this state of affairs. Therefore we must communicate with parents, educate them about the evidence and support them to provide alternatives. My biggest recommendation is promoting reading for pleasure. Perhaps the single most underrated activity a child can undertake that impacts upon their school success, and indeed, their happiness and their life. Get parents involved, share reading lists, create book clubs, find time in the school day to share reading – review, discuss, even rant! Anything to promote reading to provide time for reading. All the evidence says reading for pleasure has a positive impact, but it is in inexorable decline – but that need not be the case.

We also must create engaging challenges that reach far beyond simply finishing off a piece of class work that there wasn’t quite time to complete. Extended challenges that involve parents, collaboration with their peers, that demand a variety of skills – like good old- school Blue Peter challenges! In our school reception recently we had a fleet of amazing motte and bailey castles on display. They were sensational – a testament to students going far beyond an allocated thirty minute homework slot. These challenges provide intrinsic motivation and deepen learning and bring a pleasure to learning that should not be readily dismissed. I also suspect a few parents were involved – this is brilliant – and exactly what we should support and encourage. Students need time to develop these projects – support and advice, from teachers, peers and parents. We must avoid the temptation to avoid their electronic world and create gimmicks, like mock Facebook pages – these are cheesy and students see through these strategies with contempt! There are tools out there that can work – websites like http://www.wallwisher.com/ provide a useful space for students to collaborate, whilst using a platform which they invariably enjoy. But not every challenge need be on the web!

Importantly, we must find time and a physical space for students to be supported with their homework, like lunchtime or after school clubs. This is particularly crucial for weaker students who are more dependent upon expert instruction and who can painfully flounder without some knowledgeable support. There is the added bonus of keeping the attendant stresses of homework out of the home altogether. How many parental arguments are triggered by the fight over homework? This emotional stress has exactly the opposite effect than what we want to create.

Whatever we do we regarding learning outside of school we must ask why, know how and carefully decide when – not simply do more of the same.

The Power of Choice: Involving Students in their Learning

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Every morning my eldest child, Freya, eats her breakfast, entertains her brother, plays a bit and then she gets down to business…choosing her clothes! I’m not exactly sure when this begun, but it seems a long while ago – her obsession with what clothes she is wearing – predominately her desire to wear a dress regardless of the weather! She has mastered some skilful techniques – from explaining how the sun is shining, to how it is “the one thing in the world she wants”. Since this obsession began there have been a fair few tears, but the fact remains – she doesn’t know what’s best for her – I do, I’m the adult! Yet, without pandering to her or falling for her sophistry, I have found the answer – give her a choice. Only a very controlled choice – which involves offering her two items of clothing from which to choose – both of which I am more than happy for her to wear. Given a choice she is happy – her emotions soothed – my peace of mind soothed we can move on and enjoy the day ahead! What is true of my daughter is true of any student – choice can have a tremendous power psychologically and emotionally – we therefore need to bear this in mind when we plan our teaching and their learning.

The Chinese proverb: “Tell me and I’ll forget; show me and I may remember; involve me and I’ll understand”, may be ancient, but in our digital age, with an immense and complex mass of information, it is immensely pertinent. Students must be actively and emotionally involved in their learning and we need to ensure planning and schemes of learning contain the flexibility of choice. Making good choices will be paramount in their future lives.

I have a mixed experience of implementing choice in departmental schemes of learning. When I was a Key Stage Three Coordinator (with luscious dark hair, free of grey!), I worked with the department to co-plan thematic schemes of work where each scheme had three optional outcomes – or pathways. The schemes were interesting, but the degree of choice didn’t work. On top of the newly introduced APP frameworks, teacher were muddled by the many options and we couldn’t learn together as we had all gone down divergent paths because of the sheer degree of choice. Teachers felt inhibited from offering students choices and fell back into a default control position. Effectively, what I had learnt is that the conditions need to be right to embed good choices in lessons – choices can be narrowed but they must be real for students. Also, teachers need to establish good learning habits, whilst ensuring students know how to independently tackle problems or barriers once they have undertaken their choice. This year we have planned choice by outcome in our Y11 revision schemes, with confidence that teachers are now wholly familiar with the demands of the course, the requirements of the examination and skills required for success. Within the activities we have begun to embed a skilful degree of choice – for example, students are asked to create presentations on aspects of the exam, but they can choose the platform from which they present – from PPT to an iMovie, an ExplainEverything presentation or a Prezi, to an artistic design of their choice. The variety we hope will prove memorable, and the motivation engendered by making their choice will be heightened.

There are many other ways to create more choice and raise levels of intrinsic motivation. Choice of student grouping can be powerful. With the learning of a new skill it can be particularly effective, as students who have chosen to work with friends may feel more emotionally secure and willing to try a new challenge. Students being given the choice of how long to complete a task, although not always appropriate, can really give confidence to students (whilst giving implicit feedback to teachers about how much they may know). Giving an element of choice for students when defining success criteria for a given task is also a useful way in eliciting understanding about a task and also, again, inspiring a greater level of commitment in the undertaking on the part of the student. In our school, teachers can decide if students are allowed to listen to iPods during independent tasks (typically extended writing tasks). This choice can have a really positive impact on students – giving them extra motivation to work and also allowing them to learn as they would at home – raising their motivation levels and helping with that elusive ‘flow’ where they learn most smoothly and effectively.

Barry Schwartz pointed out in his book, ‘The Paradox of Choice’, that too much choice can be negative. Students can become confused and paralysed by the gallery of choice if not guided. I would agree with this assertion. It is therefore clear that the teacher needs to careful select appropriate choices – skilfully and with a guiding hand (like my fashion selections for Freya!) – but with a level of trust that their students will be better motivated and more emotionally engaged to complete the task to the best of their ability when given a choice.

How to offer choice:

  1. Choice of outcome, including how they present that outcome
  2. Choice of grouping
  3. Choice of learning style/approach
  4. Choice of timing for given task
  5. Choice of roles in collaborative group work

Why offer choice?

  1. It enhances intrinsic motivation
  2. It empowers learners and fosters their sense of independence
  3. It provides variety, particularly when students collaborate with one another
  4. Co-constructing learning has a proven positive impact upon student achievement
  5. It encourages greater emotional investment and comfort- making it easier for students to settle into a ‘flow’ conducive to the best learning

It’s a new school year – be flexible – be pro-choice!

A Letter to Stephen Twigg by a Disillusioned Teacher

I emailed the following letter to Stephen Twigg this morning at stephen.twigg.mo@parliament.uk and I will post it to his office: 229 Eaton Road, Liverpool, L12 2AG early next week. I encourage every school teacher and parent to make their views known.

Dear Mr Twigg,

I am writing to you as an English teacher highly disillusioned with the direction of the corrosive educational policy being conducted by the Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove. I am not writing to Mr Gove – he is a myopic ideologue who is simply undertaking his openly stated goal of bringing market forces to bear in education. I am writing to you because you are the primary cause for my current state of disenchantment. Unfortunately, as a life-long Labour supporter, born down the road from your West Derby constituency, your complete failure to challenge the systematic dismantling of state education has left me saddened and angry. I feel like there is little political choice to exercise in our defence, little protection for our profession and our state schools and, most importantly, the children we represent.

I understand that many a pragmatic politician in opposition disappears into the shadows, becoming non-committal on any detail of future policy so as not to compromise future votes. As a young star of New Labour I am sure you are subtlety aware of the nuances of reelection politics. The spectacular flaw in your current plan is that the education system that grew under the last Labour government is being dismantled at an alarming rate – the school system will be so fragmented as to be beyond repair for any prospective Labour government or future Education Secretary. Teachers across the country are crying out for a representative and advocate that challenges Gove openly, skilfully and in a sustained manner. My perception of your challenge is that it is simply non-existent. I for one am completely unclear what your vision for education is beyond what appear to be irregular and ineffectual statements.

In the past week we have seen the futures of thousands of children compromised at the hands of incompetent and corrupt exam boards looking to appease Mr Gove in order to secure lucrative future contracts. This was the time for you to stand up for state education, and more importantly, the children suffering at the hands of a busted right-wing ideology – yet you have failed to present any narrative or vision that challenges Gove’s duplicitous argument about educational ‘standards’. His less than covert plan to drive schools towards Academy status and the profiteers of the private sector is continuing apace and you are completely failing to challenge this state of affairs. The myth of ‘choice’, the chimera of Free schools, and the falsehood of school ‘freedoms’ in a centralising power grab for Gove is going on unchallenged. His ‘shock doctrine’ approach appears to leave you trailing in his wake. You are being trounced in the media battle for hearts and minds – you need to inspire the legions of teachers and leaders behind the cause – you are meant to be the face of a skilled and value driven opposition.

The Labour party is supposed to stand for cooperative values, collective equality and the protection of universal rights for every citizen. Why are you not challenging the existence of league tables, the false idol of transparency and parental ‘choice’, that serve only to promote a narrow ‘gaming’ of the system and negative competition between schools? We have exam boards manipulating results and a powerful business lobby that demeans any of the achievements of our young people. When are you going to challenge the conduct of exam boards? When are you going to defend schools against the attacks by the CBI? We have teachers, committed public servants, who are having their profession regularly demeaned. Do you have a view on the matter? What is your view on the abolition of Qualified Teacher Status and do you have a policy to reestablish true professional status to the teaching profession? Do you have a view on teachers pensions? How about a call for transparency in valuing the teachers’ pension pot – rather than letting Gove do his dirty work of driving down working conditions of public servants. You have said you wouldn’t abolish successful Free schools – I understand your unwillingness to appear dogmatic, but you must know you appear as limp and dissembling if you fail to condemn the inequalities that these drivers of ‘competition’ and ‘choice’ represent. These are winnable battles you appear to be avoiding. You have a staunch ally in teaching unions and thousands of teachers, yet you appear to be ignoring us all (I assume the Unions do not fit a politically centrist obsession), even though these teaching Unions represent labouring workers – the founding value of the Labour party no less.

The Academy system initiated by New Labour, although imperfect, is wholly different to the Academy system propounded by Mr Gove. When are you going to make this clear to the electorate? The PFI funding of new school buildings was flawed, but the state of crumbling schools needed to be addressed and was, but we are now back on the path of decaying conditions for our children, with budgets dwindling whilst the wealthiest in our society flourish. When are you going to challenge this state of affairs? The school fields bandwagon drew you out of the shadows briefly, but the momentum is already waning. Our contemporary politics is fought in the media – you need to engage in that battle with a sustained campaign – enlist the army of willing combatants through social media and by travelling the length and breadths of the land. When are you going to spark the campaign for a positive vision of education which is unequivocally opposed to the systematic break up of our state school system? You will find you will re-engage a massive base of disillusioned voters that dwarfs the small battleground of undecided centrist voters if you were to do so.

Mr Twigg – if this letter appears full of questions it is because I am completely at a loss to articulate what you believe in, what you are defending and what you think should happen in education – even whether you truly oppose the plans of Mr Gove. I am an undecided voter and public servant who wants to know what you stand for and I want to hear it as loud as a drum – from a committed politician who serves their people, not their own career. I am a supporter of labouring workers and I want to know how you will represent us all in the face of this bankrupt coalition.

I would welcome you to articulate your views at my brilliant state school in York, Huntington Secondary School. We have outstanding results and we are a model for how a cooperative and successful state school can flourish with the right values, even in the face of a legion of morally bankrupt educational policies.

Yours Sincerely,

Alex Quigley, English teacher

The Top Five Essential Reads for Teachers

My last post focused on becoming a better teacher and how we can undertake our own professional development by dipping into the wealth of great books at hand for teachers. I wanted to create a simple list of what I view in my humble opinion as the best books for teachers out there in the market. I thought of two key factors – ‘philosophy’ and ‘practicality’. By ‘philosophy’ I mean those books that get us thinking deeply about our role and our pedagogy – books that reinvigorate our passions and spark new thinking. ‘Practicality’ is self-explanatory but essential for the best educational books for teachers. If a book gets you scribbling notes furiously or splashing each page with post-it notes then its usefulness is clear. The selection is in order numerically, but that doesn’t indicate any order of priority of quality:

1. Visible Learning for Teachers: John Hattie

John Hattie has developed a global wealth of research in order to provide evidence for what works in education. The findings are fascinating and thought-provoking: strategies like homework are exposed, whereas strategies like formative feedback are heralded. The motto of the book is ‘know thy impact’ and it explains there is no ‘silver bullet’ answer, but that we must approach our teaching with passion and ‘deliberate practice’, focusing in upon the evidence of what works for our students. Don’t be put off by the statistical analysis or the science of a ‘meta-analysis’ – even this English teacher got a hang of the numbers! ‘Visible Learning’ – the original Hattie text, for which he has based this sequel – was rather grandly labelled “the Bible” in one review, but it really is a seminal work. A must read!

Give this a look: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sng4p3Vsu7Y

2. Embedded Formative Assessment: Dylan William

Dylan William is the undoubted king of AFL. The opening chapters present a precise and near perfect explanation of why teacher pedagogy is absolutely crucial. This is followed by chapters simply bursting with practical strategies for formative assessment, with well chosen research and examples. It ties in neatly with the evidence provided by Hattie, in Williams’ own eminently readable style. Put simply, it does what it says on the tin!

Give this a look: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wKLo15A80lI

3. The ‘Perfect’ series – ‘The Perfect OFSTED Lesson’ by Jackie Breere and ‘The Perfect English OFSTED Lesson’ by David Didau

These two books come from the same excellent series and they both provide a great range of practical strategies to attain the much vaunted ‘outstanding’ in OFSTED observations. Both texts don’t obsess about OFSTED, rather they are focused about sharing great pedagogy. Clearly there are common parallels between the two books, but they each provide different ideas and approaches, with the English specific book (Didau) exploring SOLO, for example, in a clear and driven way. Don’t be put off by the ‘English’ focus either – Didau’s book presents strategies that are easily applicable across the curriculum and would potentially provide some new angles of pedagogy that prove fruitful for different subject areas.

4. Full On Learning: Zoe Elder

This simply brilliant book is comprehensive and packed full of the philosophy of ‘why’ and the practicalities of ‘how’ for teachers. It presents a great range of research and a thoughtful exploration of pedagogy with lots of practical ideas and tips for further research and classroom applications. The book also happens to be aesthetically quite beautiful, which is an appropriate match to the artful thought processes of the book itself. This really is required reading for teachers at every stage of their career.

5. What’s the Point of School?: Guy Claxton

This book is very much a philosophical exploration of education, packed with interesting research and questions to stimulate every teacher. It should be required reading for every PGCE student or NQT, but it is appropriate for even the most seasoned of veterans too! It stands up well to a re-read to refresh our sense of purpose and direction. It also does what good educational books should do – it reminds us of the crucial value of our vocation and the transformative positive effect we can have in our complex and rapidly changing world.

Give this a look: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BqRu74M_1Gw&feature=relmfu

Note – Any such list clearly has to make difficult omissions (it is very much an imperfect science!) – please comment if you have any other recommendations.

Doing it all again in September…only better than ever!

In the coming week A level results will come out, followed swiftly by GCSE results. The usual pressures and sleepless nights of the conscientious teacher re-emerge after the well deserved holiday relaxation. Rightly or wrongly, our efforts will be judged by these narrow measures. Talk about falling standards and grade inflation will unfailingly surface and student and teachers alike will largely have their tremendous hard work drowned out by inanities from the CBI, or worse still, Toby Young! Regardless of these annual rites, we should enjoy the moment of our students’ success coming to fruition. We should pat one another on the back and enjoy the new beginnings for our students. We should enjoy what is left of the holiday, then turn our thoughts to doing it all again come September! We should also resolve to do it better than ever before, not for league tables or other such distractions, but for our students and their future success. More than any other factor we, as teachers, can make the difference and we should embrace this fact.

A lot of research has clearly proven that individual teachers can and do make a difference upon student attainment. Students who are taught by the most effective teachers will learn in six months what those taught by the average teacher will take a year to learn. Therefore improving teacher quality is essential and it is reflected by the imperfect measure that is exam results. In my opinion this should not create a climate of fear for teachers (it is important for Senior leadership Teams to foster the right climate which engenders confidence, encourages innovation and worthwhile risk taking), but instead it should empower us with the confidence that we can make the difference for the ultimate success of our students. In the words of Marianne Williamson: “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.” We should embrace this positive mindset that we can overcome any challenging circumstances and help our students to believe this as well.

What we must do as teachers is commit to getting better – to embrace coaching and to undertake deliberate practice toimprove and not settle for more of the same. Experience helps, but too often I have seen experienced teachers ossify and become hardened to any source of innovation or improvement to the nuts and bolts of their pedagogy, as if they were the finished article. Cynicism about new labels for old concepts may well have some validity, but too often that is an excuse not to put the effort in to make positive changes of any kind. If we were to expect our own students to improve we would rightly expect them to widen their knowledge base outside of the lessons we teach – we would encourage them to research independently – yet teachers, in the hectic swim of the job, can often fail to engage in the same manner of learning. I think every teacher should also be reading widely to expand their knowledge and to build upon their own learning – why wait for in-school training programmes or see these as the only channel for bettering ourselves? There are a wealth of outstanding texts, like John Hattie’s ‘Visible Learning for Teachers’ or Dylan William’s ‘Embedded Formative Assessment’, that are both rooted in evidence and elicit clear thinking; of course, Twitter has also opened doors to new ideas, stimulated powerful debates about teaching and learning and has brought together a network of skilled teachers.

All that being said, it is important to filter down the wealth of outstanding resources and hone down what you want and need to improve upon as an individual teacher (often in the context of a department working on collaborative goals). Any leader looking to coach needs to be conscious that any teacher needs to focus upon two or three strategies with rigour and deliberate practice, rather than attempting an alphabet soup of strategies. As a Subject Leader myself I am also acutely conscious that it is crucial that I am a model coach, as well being someone who is wholly open to being coached. I didn’t become the perfect teacher upon being appointed a Subject Leader, in fact, with the complexity and strains of the job I am sure my teaching has suffered. I want this year to be different and better than the last, both as an individual teacher and for the other members of the department. Having read Hattie, William, Didau and Elder this summer I have so many good ideas swirling about; however, I don’t want to be swept away by trying everything and ultimately not really embedding anything properly. I know what areas that I need to improve upon – I just need to narrow the seven or eight issues down to three! Once this is done I need to rigorously measure and test those strategies – using a range of evidence, like summative assessments (compared against a control group ideally), student voice and peer observations etc. Having read Hattie and Williams I felt it was important to not simply go for a gut feeling or reaction, which may well be a confirmation of my established habits, but rather to rely on evidence – objective evidence.

When we meet again as a department in September I want my team to reflect upon themselves and their practice, considering their individual practice and the collective needs of the department. We can then identify where we can combine our strengths and share our expertise – rather than simply assuming a hierarchical model of coaching. To start the ball rolling each member of my department will have a copy of David Didau’s ‘The Perfect English OFSTED lesson’ waiting for them on their desk on the first day back to read and digest (we will also use it in our departmental training through the year – brilliantly cheap on Amazon!) – hopefully sparking that crucial reflective state that is essential for us to begin to improve and get better…better than ever!

Luke Donald, the number one golfer in the world, tweets with a great hashtag we could all live by as teachers – put simply: #keepgettingbetter