Our Flexible Friend
The idea of students sitting in front of PCs learning how to use Word is as dead as the proverbial dead parrot. It is already an antiquated model of learning – like chalk or fountain pens with ink-wells; it has a whiff of the twentieth century about it, rather than preparing our students for the future. Whilst the DfE dithers about what they should do with technology (Mr Gove clearly wants to reboot the chalk and talk bygone age), schools are left with a rapidly changing world, where budgets are at a premium and ICT often stretches what budgets now allow. All the while, students are learning on their iPads, Android tablets and smart phones, writing more in texts and tweets daily than in their collective writing experience during the school week. We aren’t harnessing this expertise, never mind guiding it to a place of higher learning!
Clearly, the Microsoft model of a straight-jacketed suite of programmes, with little synchronicity between devices, is a thing of the past. Students want to instantly access information and media (whilst editing, adapting and creating their own) and we need to harness and shape this creativity. Whatever subject we teach, we also need to guide students towards a digital literacy that helps them source the best information, filtering out the European food mountain style piles of rubbish that litters the web. Sitting in front of an ageing fleet of PCs isn’t going to do the job. The flexibility of students working in groups filming with an iPad, or making a presentation with ExplainEverything, for example, then seamlessly showing their films through Apple TV or AirPlay, is an instantaneous way of making the learning visible. It also has the added bonus of making the learning feel more ‘real’ and more familiar to students.
No longer should Geography teachers, or Maths teachers, or Art teachers, or indeed teachers of any subject, have to traipse across the school to find a computer room – losing fifteen minutes of the lesson in the process, gaining a moist folder and a raucous group of excitedly damp students. We shouldn’t have to struggle to make advanced room bookings that then become superfluous because we didn’t follow the gold plated plan! The byword for new technology must be flexibility – flexibility in how and where students can learn.
Familiarity breeding contentment, not contempt
Educational luminaries such as John Hattie and Dylan William have found little concrete evidence to support the view that technology has a transformative effect on learning. Indeed, what we know is that key is the teacher – they are the nexus for learning, technology is just a tool. But what if the tools teachers use actually has leverage into a wealth of expertise and learning already possessed by students? The research on these mobile and flexible devices is still in its infancy which makes finding an evidential ‘answer’ problematic, but if we know that students understand new things in the context of things they already know, then it stands to reason that we should make the unfamiliar familiar by using familiar tools. Hattie and William have inevitably been looking to research from the past – where the older fixed model of technology has never truly enriched learning in any transformative way. We have all been guilty of looking backwards: whole class ICT, perched impassively in front of some poor imitation of a game, or a clunkingly slow VLE is a weak version of what is truly familiar to students – therefore it is dismissed as phony by students. With some degree of teacher expertise (I don’t think the teacher has to be an outstanding technological expert – have you seen a five year old navigate a mobile phone or an iPad quicker than their grandparents ever could?) we can tap into a world of familiar knowledge and skill possessed our students – not only that – we must do if we are to help shape their crucial digital literacy.
For good or ill, students live with technology as an integral part of their lives; how they communicate and socialise, and of course, how they learn. If we could harness the impassioned determination to master the latest incarnation of Fifa or COD in Maths or Science lessons, or even ICT itself, we would most definitely be onto something. Now, I’m not suggesting the ‘gamification’ of our curriculum – but on the iPad for instance, there are a wealth of apps, such as: ExplainEverything, iMovie, ComicLife, Notability etc. which can take the written word and transform it into something more real and make it multi-modal like the texts with which they engage with every day and will do so in future.
If you making using ICT tools something special, a treat, then students are in danger of not learning the knowledge you are seeking. Instead they may only remember the novelty of the change in their learning, they may remember playing with the tool, not learning the knowledge being leveraged by the tool. Students learn and remember more effectively when their emotions are stimulated – it they are even momentarily elated by using iPads, then that has the potential to override their long term memory – and the tool becomes obstructive to the learning. Put simply, using flexible, mobile ICT devices must be done frequently and as an integral part in how we teach and students learn, otherwise they will become another novelty or gimmick. Using iPads may have an initial prestige, but when that wears off the real learning will begin, and with the right pedagogy, the learning can be amplified by the skilful applications available. In short, if we use the tools a lot they will lose their gimmick factor and become very valuable tools that can stretch and enhance learning.
I would like to note that our faculty is undertaking an iPad pilot, which began this year. We have already seen some outstanding learning in evidence, with student motivation raised by using the tools, because of their prestige, but also because of the teacher using the tools to make student learning instantaneously visible on a regular basis. We have honed in on teachers becoming expert with a smaller range of apps, whilst using the devices as a collaborative tool for group work, with some capacity for a one-to-one technology model (this is inessential, however, as we have planned to use the tool in groups). It hasn’t all been plain sailing – there have been issues with saving student work; with failures with Apple TV etc., but our use of ICT as a tool for learning has multiplied nearly exponentially – frequency and familiarity matter. We are moving beyond the ‘distraction stage’ of the new technology, where students may be at risk of remembering only the use of the new tool, rather than committing the knowledge and learning to long term memory. We are moving into a stage of greater familiarity, and with sound pedagogy, we will continue to make marginal gains in our teaching and learning using these powerful tools for learning.
My most recent post on #marginalgains was an attempt to move my thinking forward and explore what I view as the most important marginal gains for my teaching, as well as exploring what I see as the essentials of teaching pedagogy. The two key areas I see as being the key ‘hinge point marginal gains’ (marginal in terms of shaping often lengthier learning activities, as well as being usually only one of two minute spells in the overall lesson time, but crucial in terms of making progress) are questioning and oral formative feedback.
I see these two areas of pedagogy as essential in oiling the wheels of learning and making progress visible. I want to continue to make marginal gains with a laser-like focus upon these two areas of pedagogy. With this in mind, I am making these explicit in my planning for the coming half-term.
The following teaching strategies were partially inspired by Harvard’s ‘Project Zero’ thinking skills approach to learning. I am planning to trial them all over the course of the next half-term:
1. Oral Formative Feedback and the CSI routine
Now, apologies for my false advertising, there is no criminal investigation, no Who music dramatically emerging from the speakers to herald the activity (although that may actually be a good idea!). It is simply an acronym for the thinking routine – ‘Colour, Symbol, Image’. With any given idea or topic, students can show their understanding by making simple, but potentially sophisticated relational links to the idea/topic. I see it as a simple oral feedback approach, perhaps conducted through a ‘think-pair-share’ approach to oil the wheels still further, undertaken quite swiftly. It is a simple but precise approach that may work better with certain topics and ideas, but is eminently flexible and a great hinge point to identify progress.
2. Oral Formative Feedback and the 3-2-1 Routine
This strategy is similar to the ‘CSI routine’ in that it provides a quick and precise language, and a routine for feedback (students love a good sign-posted routine!). The 3-2-1 routine stands for ‘3 thoughts or ideas; 2 questions; and 1 analogy‘. I like this step by step approach as it can provide effective differentiation in their level of response – with the the questions and the analogy clearly stretching student understanding. Once again, the quality of response clearly demonstrates how much, or how little, progress students have made with a given topic or idea. It can therefore provides a real hinge point to the lesson.
3. Questioning and ‘Creative Questioning’
A very simple idea in many ways, but I think it is an effective strategy for generating creative questions and getting students to generate their own questions that can be imaginatively transformative. For any given object or topic students can work in pairs to create an imaginative list of questions, using the following prompts:
– How would it be different if…
– How might it be used differently…
– What would change if…
– How would it be different if it was used by…
– Suppose that…
– How would it look differently if…
In the past I have had students make brilliant Dragon’s Den style persuasive sales pitches to sell a plastic bag or a left shoe to great effect! Given the new possibilities, students can select a question to magi natively explore, thinking around the new possibilities. It could provide a stimulus for writing a narrative, creating a piece of art, devising a drama piece, or a new design technology creation. The question prompts exemplify students the imaginative and transformative impact simple questions can have upon their learning.
4. Questioning and the ‘Great Question Continuum’
This involves reflecting upon questions deeply in a very visible way. A few weeks ago I noted some great questions related to the English Literature staple, ‘Of Mice and Men’, on Twitter (from the sage David Doherty aka @dockers_hoops). It involved asking which character would and should be the next American President; followed by which character would you least like to sit next to in class. These ideas were brilliant gems that got me thinking how far an original question can take the learning. The continuum involves the students first devising questions, in pairs or groups, on any given topic or idea. Then the continuum is created very visibly, either on the whiteboard, or more semi-permanently on a display board (great to resume the strategy in future lessons) – with student questions being on post it notes for added flexibility. The horizontal axis would represent the ‘Interest Level’ generated by each question – that is how likely the question is to inspire new thinking and new possibilities, and simply the interest level it generates from the group. Then the vertical axis could be flexible in a variety of ways, should you wish to include a vertical axis. The vertical axis could represent ‘Complexity‘ – that is how far the question would deepen their understanding and generate complex thinking. Students could feedback their opinions, shaped by the teacher, to identify the best questions – which then could be the subject of further exploration. By reflecting deeply upon question quality and the breadth of thinking inspired by the question the students could better independently consider different responses and interpretations – a definite marginal gain, and potentially definitive one, for their continued learning.
This mornings I awoke to dark skies and the end of a very long half-term. My gloom was further compounded by reading this Guardian article in which David Laws liberally criticises teachers:
“Teachers, colleges, careers advisers have a role and a responsibility to aim for the stars and to encourage people to believe they can reach the top in education and employment. That’s not happening as much as it should do at the moment.”
The full article can be perused here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2012/oct/26/david-laws-teachers-failing-pupils. The article was all the more galling because it was from a man whose moral authority to speak about the future aspirations of our children has been completely discredited. His position lurking in the dark shadows of the DfE towers should be questioned and scrutinised at every step – which is what inspired this blog post!
A little contextual information about David Laws is needed I think before we start analysing his statements and his lazy, duplicitous criticisms about the entire teaching profession. He directly criticised teachers for letting “investment banking” be seen as a “different world” for our students. Now, Mr Laws grew up in Surrey, was educated at the fee paying Wolburn Hill School, the son of a banker, before successfully moving to Cambridge – then onto a career as a Vice President at JP Morgan, followed by a role at Barclays de Zoete Wedd. I will admit to being no expert about investment banking (I would go as far as to say I see it as a ‘different world‘ – a world obsessed by a selfish accumulation of wealth with little intrinsic good it appears), but isn’t that the JP Morgan that only recently were heavily criticised for massive losses stemming from derivatives and credit default swap losses – the very same futures derivatives that helped get us into our unregulated global banking crisis. The Barclays bank famous for its controversial involvement with South Africa during Apartheid; gave financial support to Robert Mugabe’s regime; faced money laundering investigations, tax avoidance issues and numerous conflicts of interest…you get the picture. Laws mentions banking, with journalism and a career in law, as being beyond the aspirations of many of our students. When in reality, the moral repugnance towards the banking sector for their ill-deeds may well account for the youth of today rejecting that particular career. Good on them I say. perhaps they have higher moral standards than Laws and his friends. Yet, this lazy accusation doesn’t tell a fraction of the real story about social aspiration about Britain today.
Laws directs his malicious attacks about low aspirations in the full knowledge that it is social inequality, perpetuated by the weasle-word complicity of his political party, which are at the root of the under-representation of state school students within the careers he mentions. He represents a particular brand of liberalism which is more Liberal ‘Plutocrat’ than Democrat; which is more interested in the freedoms of the markets than the aspirations and freedoms of our youngsters. His party most famously lied about university fees (with a pathetic apology being little solace for students terminally indebted by this shadow tax); agreed with the abolition of EMA; executed swinging cuts to 6th forms, colleges and universities, to oversee a shrinkage in opportunity for the very children he purports to defend. His cowardice and deceptiveness is staggering. By raising the fees and creating a pervasive culture where ‘work experience’ and internships becomes the privilege of the well off, he has created a closed shop, where the opportunities for those without patronage are narrowed to near non-existence. Is it any coincidence that Laws was able to move so comfortably through an education and banking sector that oils the wheels of a select elite? To blame teachers and careers advisors (whose sector has been savaged by cuts to the point of becoming near obsolete) is political manoeuvring of the most transparent kind. The idea we live in a meritocratic society is being eroded daily – the opportunities for the next generation of working and lower middle class children are being narrowed year on year. Whilst Laws and his banker friends carry on in blissful ignorance. How about this exemption for Laws and his banker buddies:
Or this continuation of the casino banking that has left the government without the money to support edcuation:
This article based on Laws cheap shots was released on a day where the beginning of the de-professionalisation of teachers, and the inevitable erosion of their status and working conditions, was ratified and academies were legally allowed to have untrained teachers. A fitting book-end to the relentless criticism and demonisation of our profession. It wasn’t long ago that our nation was up in arms at the criminal negligence and downright greed of politicians. Laws himself was at the front of the trough, dipping in, with his righteous sense of privilege, to the taxpayers pot, like his banker chums. He now skulks in the DfE, under-going his political rehabilitation. Lazarus-like he reemerges, criticising hard working professionals who undertake their very career, not for fabulous wealth or status, but to serve their community, to help children live better lives. To receive an accusation from this man about caring for the aspirations of children, from his sullied and hypocritical podium of pomposity, is offensive to the very bone.
If he thinks his phony ‘pupil premium‘ gives him and his fellow ministers of parliament the right to spout forth about education from a place of moral certitude he is sadly mistaken. Any professional who works with, and for, children knows that the premium papers over the cracks of massive budgetary cuts. They know that the cuts to capital budgets mean that rain may fall in tired, decrepit classrooms, but a small cluster of students may have some ring-fenced money to buy an umbrella! He is a joke and his words are to be summarily ignored. His credibility, and that of his colleagues is shot.
When you break the rules to the sum of £40,000 (to pay for his lobbyist partner’s rent), break six rules of expenses, when already a multi-millionaire, you forsake your right to preach about aspiration. Instead, you become a poster boy for the greedy cronyism that is rotting the heart of our parliamentary system, making aspiration for ordinary working people a near impossibility, as well as your friends in their morally bankrupt boardrooms. So Mr Laws, don’t come back from getting caught reaching into our till and telling us about not helping students ‘reach for the stars’.
Over the last few weeks I have been considering how to apply David Brailsford’s ‘aggregation of marginal gains‘ approach to help teachers, myself, and our English and Media Faculty included, move from ‘good’ to ‘outstanding’ in their daily practice. I think the whole concept of ‘marginal gains’ is so useful because it is simply about the pursuit of excellence, with precise language and rigour, and there is also a very engaging story of real success underpinning the idea. I think the pursuit of improving ‘marginal gains’ is something we all do, and have done in many areas of our life. It is not new. It is not advanced Astrophysics even! It is a direct and effective language for our best practice – it is a concept that can give clarity to our pursuit of excellence – or ‘outstandingness‘!
Now, I am interested in those crucial margins that make for outstanding teaching and learning. That is where we all wish to be as teachers. I am most interested in the tipping point between ‘good’ and ‘outstanding’, because I think improving in that area could be transformative for our students and their experience of school – exam results etc. positively would follow. The most recent evidence across all the key stages, undertaken by OFSTED, states that 70% of lessons in English were rated ‘good’ or more in both phases of education, with only 15% being judged as ‘outstanding’ – source: ‘Moving English Forward’ (OFSTED, 2012). In the equivalent Maths report: ‘Mathematics – Made to Measure’ (OFSTED 2012) – 11% of lessons were deemed ‘outstanding’; 43% were ‘good’; with 42% being judged ‘satisfactory’. By extrapolating these findings across the span of the curriculum it could be judged that the vast majority of teaching is bumping around the ‘good’ judgement area – which is a very positive starting point for developing teaching and learning. That is not to say the third of lessons that are not deemed ‘good’ in English, with more so in Maths, are not crucial. Indeed, they require explicit attention from teachers and schools to address the matter. Yet, the vast majority of teaching is ‘good’, and despite what Daily Mail editorials tell us, we are striving to be even better. In such a context we are all aiming for outstanding, therefore collaborating to the best of our ability to share our best pedagogy should be a priority. We should be looking to achieve every ‘marginal gain’ possible – not only that, we should have a rigorous focus upon the marginal gains that have the greatest impact upon student attainment.
Last week, the peerless teacher-blogger, David Didau (his Twitter guise being @Learningspy for those people who have not discovered his epic blog back-catalogue of pedagogical goodness!), had been in pursuit of those crucial gains that help teachers strive from ‘good’ to ‘outstanding’. He quickly combed the expertise of Tweachers by crowd sourcing #marginalgains for teaching and learning from an array of experts – coming up with an intriguing list in the following blog post: http://learningspy.co.uk/2012/10/14/outstanding-teaching-learning-missed-opportunities-and-marginal-gains/.
Like most teachers, I looked at the list and thought long and hard about each point. I considered why I agreed with some more than others – before doing what most males thought about doing – putting the list into an order, even creating a top five! It isn’t just Nick Hornby who loves lists, he is speaking for many of us mildly obsessive male types!
I thought for days about those key marginal gains in lessons. I got thinking about what I viewed were the ‘hinge point marginal gains‘ – those gains which I believe have the most significant impact upon progress in learning – which ultimately makes the difference from a ‘good’ lesson to an ‘outstanding’ one. What most teachers know is that there isn’t a huge difference between the two judgements – it is, of course, marginal. It often exists in those seconds when a task is being outlined; feedback on student answers is being given or one crucial key question is being answered…or not being answered as the case may be!
We often miss those key ‘hinge point marginal gains‘ in our planning. In our preparation we may spend twice as long preparing a photoshopped image, for example, than we spend on forming the crucial question for which the progress of the lesson hinges. For instance, why is it that a department could all use the exact same scheme of learning with any given ‘outstanding lesson plan’; one that the resources should “make a marked contributions to the quality of learning” (OFSTED Criteria); “expert subject knowledge is applied consistently” (OFSTED) in the plan; where student behaviour and attitude is such that they “are aspirational and…are determined to succeed” (OFSTED) – but yet for one teacher the lesson is deemed ‘outstanding’ and for another it isn’t? I would expect that for many observers the key differences are far from obvious. What we must do it eradicate the mystery of those marginal differences. We must pull back the veil and share the findings.
I don’t think that the marginal difference between ‘good’ and ‘outstanding’ is to be found in the varying quality of resources, or the varying technological tools, or even the choice of task necessarily. Each and every element of a lesson has a degree of importance obviously, but I think the more flexible elements of a lesson, not always explicit in the plan, are the most essential. Those essential elements are questioning and formative oral feedback. These, I believe, are the key ‘hinge marginal gains’ that are the drivers of outstanding teaching and learning – they are the most significant difference in that hazy margin between ‘good’ and ‘outstanding’. They are the grease that the oils the progress of learning. This may be why Wilshaw sagely stated in his speech to the NCSL that:
“Ofsted inspectors will not arrive with a preferred teaching style or model lesson.
Lessons, of course, should be planned, but not in an overcomplicated or formulaic way. A crowded lesson plan is as bad as a crowded curriculum. We don’t want to see a wide variety of teaching strategies unless they have coherence or purpose.”
Yes, I am quoting Wilshaw! He does have moments of clarity and good sense! We may be implementing every innovation under the sun, we might have technology invading every fibre of our lesson – but “rapid” progress in learning and students acquiring knowledge and developing understanding “exceptionally well” comes down to asking great questions, receiving answers, acting upon that information and shaping the next steps in the learning. They give ‘coherence’ to learning that engenders the rapid knowledge and understanding required for students. Reflecting upon this further it is clear that questioning and formative oral feedback are inextricably linked. We must define and unpick those links carefully.
As Dylan William stated, perhaps we should stop doing so many ‘good things’ in our daily practice! See his speech: http://m.youtube.com/#/watch?v=wKLo15A80lI&desktop_uri=%2Fwatch%3Fv%3DwKLo15A80lI.
Perhaps we should instead hone in upon improving the ‘hinge marginal gains‘ as our priority for developing our pedagogy and our lesson planning. With planning, departmental coaching, whole school teaching and learning development, we could focus with absolute rigour on this pairing – then those marginal gains we experience could make that marginal, but highly significant aggregated gain for our students, and we may well be judged as ‘outstanding’.
In following posts are what I see as a good starting point in addressing the crucial ‘hinge point marginal gains‘ :
Reading Ron Berger’s ‘An Ethic of Excellence’ should not be undertaken in the hubbub of morning buses or busy trains, nor it the middle of a lively office – it should be enjoyed in the privacy of a quiet room at home – preferably in a New England home, designed by Ron himself, with a roaring log-fire burning…well, we can all dream! Seriously, his book is rather an extended essay reflecting upon his patent wealth of experience, his humanity and his clear generosity of spirit as an educationalist. He is quite obviously both an outstanding teacher and a master craftsman – a character Robert Frost would have written a great poem about! Indeed, there is something poetic and heart warming about his many anecdotes that he shares. His book does not simply offer comfort to an assailed group of teachers however; he also offers practical tool kits for creating building ‘an ethic of excellence’ within schools.
The ‘Ethic of Excellence’ is a great book for teachers, and most definitely leaders, at all levels, who are passionately interested in their craft. Clearly, the best way for you to get a taste of the book is to read it, so I have selected some choice quotations from the book to think about and hopefully encourage you to read this great book.
Firstly, this quotation, from the introduction, is a timely reminder for Gove and his ilk about the great work that already exists in our schools:
“I’m concerned when I pick up a newspaper these days and so often find an article about the “crisis” in education and how a new quick fix will remedy things. More tests, teacher-proof curriculum, merit pay, state standards.
It reminds me of the advertisements for diet products. Fast Weight Loss! Dramatic weight loss! No Work! Lots of money is spent on diet products and a lot is spent on new educational tests. But it seems that almost everyone who loses weight quickly with the aid of a quick fix product ends up gaining it all back. Weighing yourself constantly doesn’t make you lighter and testing children constantly doesn’t make them smarter. The only way to really lose weight and keep it off, it seems, is to establish a new ethic – exercise more and eat more sensibly. It’s not a quick fix. It’s a long-term commitment. It’s a way of life.
I have had a hard time thinking about a quick fix in education because I don’t think education is broken. Some schools are very good; some are not. Those that are good have an ethic, a culture, which supports and compels students to try and to succeed. Those schools that are not need a lot more than new tests and new mandates. They need to build a new culture and a new ethic. I don’t believe there’s a shortcut to building a new culture. It’s a long-term commitment. It’s a way of life.” (P4, ‘An Ethic of Excellence’)
This extract reflects brilliantly upon the transformative power of an individual piece of learning:
“I believe that work of excellence is transformational. Once a student sees that he or she is capable of excellence, that student is never quite the same. There is a new self-image, a new notion of possibility. There is an appetite for excellence. After students have had a taste of excellence, they’re never quite satisfied with less; they’re always hungry. When the teachers at the Austine School for the Deaf pointed out to Sonia that many students wouldn’t obsess over their work as she does, her reply was quick: This school has ruined me for life, she said. I’m never satisfied with anything until it’s almost perfect. I have to be proud of it.” (p8, ‘An Ethic of Excellence’)
This extract reflects upon the power of ‘Critique’ in shaping good practice and it provides simple but effective guidelines for peer assessment:
“We try to begin with the author/designer of the work explaining her ideas and gaols, and explaining what particular aspects of the work he or she is seeking help with.
We critique the work and not the person.
We try to begin our critique comments wi something positive about the work, and then move on to constructive criticism.
We try to use I statements when possible: ‘I’m curious why you chose to begin with this…?’ Or ‘Have you considered including…?'” (P94, ‘An Ethic of Excellence’)
This concept of the ‘assessment inside the student’ really struck me:
“Most discussions of assessment start in the wrong place. The most important assessment that goes on in a school isn’t done to students but goes on inside students. Every student walks around with a picture of what is acceptable, what is good enough. Each time he works on something he looks at it and assesses it. Is this good enough? Do I feel comfortable handing this in? Does it meet my standards? Changing assessment at this level should be the most important assessment goal of every school. How do we get inside students’ heads and turn up the knob that regulates quality and effort” (P103, ‘An Ethic of Excellence’)
If I were to have the temerity to suggest improvements to the book, I would suggest Berger explores how technological developments can brilliantly enhance the public critique of student learning. Readers of the book can explore how blogs, YouTube and other Internet platforms can display the work of students with the significant power of a ‘real audience’.
Finally, what I find most powerful about this short little book is the tremendous warmth towards his students, and young people more widely, that emanates from his words. There is no dispassionate irony, his style is graceful but wholly focused on improving education for students for the sake of students. Mr Gove could well do with having this is his in-tray. Creating systems of school competition and running schools for profit are exposed as brittle and fraudulent in contrast to the values of cooperation and excellence at the heart of Berger’s brilliant book.
Try it, buy it – trust me, you won’t regret it: http://www.amazon.co.uk/An-Ethic-Excellence-Building-Craftsmanship/dp/0325005966
Firstly, may I say that this post is directly inspired by Ron Berger’s book, ‘An Ethic of Excellence: Building A Craftsmanship with Students’ and ideas related to the concept of #marginalgains.
My starting point is my current work with my Year 11 GCSE English group. We are undertaking mock exam preparation, but not in the conventional way. We are not drilling away at endless past questions, tweaking tricks of timing and poring of examiner feedback. We are writing an extended letter for a real audience over a period of hours, with drafts and revisions aplenty. What I want students to develop is an ‘ethic of excellence’ in their writing. Early on in Berger’s book he states the power of ‘transformational work’ and how being motivated by the highest expectations is essential to success:
“I believe that work of excellence is transformational. Once a student sees that he or she is capable of excellence, that student is never quite the same. There is a new self-image, a new notion of possibility. There is an appetite for excellence. After students have had a taste of excellence, they’re never quite satisfied with less; they’re always hungry. When the teachers at the Austine School for the Deaf pointed out to Sonia that many students wouldn’t obsess over their work as she does, her reply was quick: This school has ruined me for life, she said. I’m never satisfied with anything until it’s almost perfect. I have to be proud of it.” (Berger, ‘Ethic of Excellence’ – p8)
I’m not attempting to assert my students have undergone such a life-long transformation, but I am certainly going to groove their habits for writing to be marginally better than they have ever been before. I stated to the group that their writing will not be finished until it is at an A or an A* grade. Many of the students have a target grade significantly lower, so they are naturally daunted by the prospect. Now, I reassure them that it may take five drafts, with students carefully supporting and critiquing one another, with some precise support form me, to improve still further to that final point. They are still surprised by the expectation level being significantly higher for their work than what they are used to producing. Indeed, the gap between a C grade and an A grade can often appear insurmountable. That is where the ‘marginal gains’ approach proves so useful. We breakdown and define successful writing, and therefore A* writing unsurprisingly, using the wheels of marginal gains – where each spoke of the wheel becomes a small element of their writing that they can improve – to reach a successful whole piece of writing – the completed wheel (see my previous blogs on #marginalgains for examples of such wheels). The small steps make success more manageable for students and therefore they become more motivated and far less likely to give up.
So many students suffer from what Carole Dweck terms the ‘fixed mindset’ – a deep rooted sense that they will inevitably fail; therefore, to preserve their sense of self, they avoid trying their to do their best in their learning in case they confirm their deep rooted fears about their lack of ‘ability’ – which they view as fixed. By using the narrative of ‘marginal gains’, used so successfully by David Brailsford for the British Olympic cycling team and the Team Sky cycling juggernaut, students are assailed by a ‘growth mindset’ approach to their learning. The small improvements and targets are achievable for students and they can see the steps to success that preserves their often delicate sense of self-confidence. As Berger states:
“We can’t first build students’ self-esteem and then focus on their work. It is through their own work that their self-esteem will grow.” (Berger, ‘Ethic of Excellence’, p65)
In the process of setting up the task I showed the students a piece of writing I had recently composed. I showed students the email I was sent asking for a “chatty style” with “student anecdotes” in the piece. This perfectly linked to their task, as they too were writing for a real audience with a real purpose (so important in enhancing student motivation). They were given the task of writing either one of the following letters:
‘‘Write a letter to the York Press (email@example.com) arguing for or against the view that the media promotes the wrong role models for teenagers’
‘Write a letter to the Guardian newspaper (firstname.lastname@example.org.) arguing for or against ‘Reality’ television.’ (full school address / telephone number required for submissions)
My piece of writing was not too dissimilar, so students were able to critique my work and I discussed openly how I had drafted my writing multiple times. This was similar, but not nearly as impressive, to Berger’s example, where he worked on architectural prints for designing his house for over a year…ok, my example is nowhere near, but the principal is the same! I was open about my initial failures and struggles and I articulated that I expected them to suffer the same…and that that was a very fine thing – failure was the very path to success! What they need to be able to do on this path is to self-assess and judge their successes and failures as they draft. Berger, again, brilliantly articulates this as the “assessment inside students”, which in many ways is infinitely more important than the external assessments we are obsessed with. If they know what outstanding work looks and feels like they can replicate it. Doing one great piece of work goes a long way.
The students have only completed their first draft – we have a fair few lessons, and drafts, to go I estimate. They will hopefully make many marginal gains as they go through their drafting process – each the reflecting upon details like writing techniques, their paragraph structure, proof reading etc. We will not send those emails (and we will eventually send those emails – just like my Year 11s last year sent their letters of complaint to David Cameron about his erroneous claims about ‘broken Britain’!) until we have crafted our writing – until it can be the best they can possibly produce. I will also display the work on the school website and the English and Media Faculty blog – as any learning or project work on display for a real audience immediately heightens the quality of the learning, and the end product, for students. Exam preparation can wait – we have real writing to craft first!
In honour of Ron Berger, I used a craft analogy with my group as we discussed the task. I spoke to them about crafting a fine antique piece of furniture. That they would first need to source their wood (research & plan ideas); cut and plane down the wood and sand it into shape (write the sentences and adding the appropriate rhetorical devices); nail the pieces together with care (paragraph their writing); then varnish their piece (draft it to improve); let it dry and varnish it see more (more drafting!); before finally adding some finishing touches (those final key tweaks and rhetorical tricks). I know the analogy needs a little refining – doesn’t everything – but I think the message was received! Each stage of the process has multiple opportunities for marginal gains – so we will make timely peer and self-assessment stops on the way to make those gains.
I am looking forward to those finished crafted letters. I expect they will be excellent!
Many thanks to @Fullonlearning and @Pekabelo for their ideas today in shaping much of this post. Of course, thanks to Ron Berger too – I would highly recommend you buy and read his great book that I have taken the liberty to quote repeatedly!
Caption: “I sat Gove’s EBacc and look where it got me!”
I am not necessarily angry at the demise of the GCSE; however, I am annoyed that Gove appears to be spurning his undeserved privilege to create a truly world class qualification in the place of GCSEs that can make us all proud. Gove’s EBacc isn’t finalised by any means – but surely the misguided proposal of a sole final three hour exam for a national English qualification could not possibly be the totality of any qualification to ready students for a complex and rapidly changing modern world. Expecting a qualification with a concluding three hour examination as its only method of assessment to ready students for their diverse and highly technological future is like asking a giraffe to climb a tree to ready it for survival on the barren plains of the Serengeti! Gove appears to avidly ignore a wealth of educational evidence, and the myopic prejudices of Gove and Gibb look set to squander any hope of a modern qualification for English, the Humanities and beyond, that is truly fit for purpose.
There are a range of examinations, both nationally and internationally, to draw upon to create the best qualifications for our 11-16 year olds that is fit to prepare them for their complex future. Gove appears to eschew such research, evidence and expertise, and he appears to stubbornly rely upon his conservative prejudices – he may praise certain qualifications, but he refuses to learn lessons from them. So what current options do we have for which to build an ideals set of qualifications? We have the GCSEs (labelled as wholly discredited, mostly by people whose knowledge is slim and their prejudice fat); the iGCSE (a favoured preserve of Private schools); the International Baccalaureate – at both Middle Years and Diploma (praised repeatedly by Gove), as well as a host of internationally renowned qualifications. I would ask a series of questions about how our assessment for this curriculum stage, and our curriculum more broadly, would be composed to best suit the skills and knowledge required for the future:
Where is the place for Project Based Learning?
The PISA report, one of Gove’s sacred tracts, revealed how assessment models that embed project based learning are the way forward for successful assessment models. I have quoted this in my diatribe against Gove’s Ebacc before (https://huntingenglish.wordpress.com/2012/09/16/an-angry-response-to-gove-levels/), but it bears repeating. PISA found in the ‘framework for assessment’ aspect of the report that:
” “problem-solving competency” can be developed through “progressive teaching methods, like problem-based learning, inquiry-based learning” and project work. “The Pisa 2012 computer-based assessment of problem-solving aims to examine how students are prepared to meet unknown future challenges for which direct teaching of today’s knowledge is not sufficient,””
This approach is not a new phenomenon, but it is a manner of assessment that is rich in a diverse manner of skills: from independent research; to reading a complex range of sources (from the Internet to ancient literature) and synthesising ideas in a logical structure; to extended writing with a real purpose and a real audience; to a final oral presentation which is ‘testing’ in the most rigorous and rewarding manner. In IB schools, 11-16 year olds already undertake such projects, like in the Southbank international school in London: http://www.southbank.org/personal-project.html. Should we not seek out the assessment celebrated by the very international body Gove so clearly heralds?
Where is the place for Speaking and Listening?
A three hour exam is all well and good as a simple measuring stick, but our children will need to exist in a social world where they will also need to communicate successfully in a myriad of ways still unimaginable to us now. They need to be highly flexible in their capacity to communicate with different audiences and in different contexts – in a truly globally connected world. The current GCSE model of three oral assessments in English, includes a drama performance, a group discussion and an individual presentation. It is imperfect, but it is wholly appropriate to lending credence to the central place of oral communication in any and every assessment model. Gove could warmly remember his days as President of the Oxford Union if he were to come to a state school like mine (he would dread this I’m sure!) and listen to some highly enlightened current debate. Only this week my Year 11 English group have been arguing about the nature of fame, Warhol’s ‘fifteen minutes’ and the importance of role models in our contemporary world. Yes, a final examination does not exclude the central position of discussion in our pedagogy, yet every student and teacher in the land will be under pressure to teach to the test – keep your dogmatic league tables Mr Gove and you will continue to see teaching through the eye of a narrow test.
In the International Baccalaureate Diploma there is an oral presentation and an oral commentary (recorded for and moderated by the IB) in the A1 English aspect of the course. These form nearly a third of the overall assessment for A1 English for one of the most renowned and rigorous qualifications across the world. The oral commentary is a developed response to literary texts and it is highly challenging. Is such an assessment model not fit and proper for our students? Would it not hone a whole host of skills and inject a much needed diversity into our proposed Ebacc assessment model?
Where is the place for multi-modal writing and technology?
Gove is a self-professed traditionalist, and as an English teacher, I would debate heatedly the importance and relevance of Shakespeare in any modern English curriculum. I may draw the line at Gove’s liking for Dryden, but I have a keen preference for the classical canon. That being said, we live in a rapidly changing world where media literacy and multi-modal texts must be combined with the best of the traditional canon of knowledge. This isn’t pandering to create a curriculum for ‘enjoyment’; the reading of film, a critical analysis of the web and a skilful knowledge of texts that combine all of the above, are crucial skills for a future when the written word will continue to synchronise with technology in ways we cannot fully comprehend.
Once again, project based learning can encourage the use of tools of modern technology in a real and innovative fashion. Seeing students be creative with iPads, smart phones or computers to create films, applications or presentations, truly celebrates a multitude of skills appropriate for the future when technology will surely be integral to learning and living.
Where is the place for extended writing not completed in exam conditions?
Now, let me set the record straight, neither old fashioned coursework, nor the new controlled assessment system is ideal as a mode for assessment. Crucially; however, the role of extended writing produced in a series of drafts, and honed and crafted, is just as valid as any examination approach to extended writing. If the issue is the ‘gaming’ of the system that occurs with coursework, as so famously exposed through examples like the honourable Prince Harry and his Private school art teacher; or the limiting of curriculum time created by the stultifying controlled assessments, then learn from those errors and make the assessment better! Create an independent piece of extended writing that is offered in a portfolio approach, where proposals are recorded, drafts are retained etc. We may even come to recognise the value of crafting writing with research, deep thought and revisions, rather than celebrating the reductive time constraints of the exam model. Again, the IB Diploma has this enshrined in the Extended Essay aspect of the qualification. It allows for an independence of thinking and exploration we would surely seek to foster in all our students – whilst honing a range of skills simply not possible in an exam-only model.
How do we get our students to ask and answer questions that can’t be tested?
The exam-only model is clearly reductive. It is easily measurable, quantifiable and scalable (and sellable to bloated exam boards!) – therefore it is the default model for education systems around the world. Crucially, however, continental systems still manage to embed philosophy and critical thinking at the heart of their curriculum. In the IB Diploma, for example, TOK (Theory of Knowledge) explores knowledge and thinking in rich and diverse ways. Time is found to explore and critique knowledge in a way comprehensively ignored in our national curriculum at 11-16. It is this deep learning and thinking that helps foster citizens who can think flexibly and be able to apply their thinking skills in innovative and creative ways.
Finally, I would ask a broader question: why are independent schools, and their students, given the privilege of choice, when our state schools are hampered by that behemoth that crushes all breadth and richness of curriculum provision – school league tables? I will admit it is my very personal bête noire – but whilst schools are forced to supposedly raise standards in a system which fosters a heightened narrowing of the curriculum to achieve ‘success’, how will we ever see the required diversity of curriculum provision needed for the future of our children? How can a system that actively promotes competition over collaboration, in a survival of the fittest to scramble up the league table to relative safety from the attack dogs of OFSTED, ever work in raising standards for all? With such a pervasive culture of distrust and narrow judgements, how will schools enjoy the freedoms to innovate and enrich? With such crushing judgements awaiting schools, it is no surprise when cheating ensues, when good practice is ditched at the alter of expediency. I am not condoning such corrosive behaviour that impacts negatively upon students, but I understand why it is going on when the conditions for growth and development for state schools are as fruitless as Osbourne’s scorched earth economic policy.
When will we corral the experts in the field of education to create an English qualification fit for purpose in preparing students for a changing world? When will we be led with courage and the foresight to let schools collaborate in local unison to create assessments fitting for our children and their futures? To bastardise a political phrase: we must be the change we seek. We must forge a vision of a future proof curriculum that we can be proud to teach and make Gove and his colleagues stand up and take notice. Parents, teachers, school leaders and unions must unite in this cause. It is crucial to the very future of our nation in a globalised world where economies of scale mean that Britain must create a highly innovative and creative knowledge economy. It begins with education. It begins with an evidence based curriculum fit for purpose. It begins with us.