Does public speaking matter?
What do the Houses of Parliament, the Oxford Union, big business board rooms, assembly halls and court chambers have in common? They are the seats of power for people who lead our nation, the great…and the not-so-great and good. What other common factor is at work in such settings? Each respective setting requires expert speaking and listening skills. Indeed, power in society equates with the power of knowledge and to speak and to listen in such social settings. We must empower every student with the tools to speak in such settings if we seek real social mobility. Now, my argument is that when Gove suggests that we should move towards an ‘all eggs in one basket‘ summative exam, we should reject that proposition. We should instead look to a richer, much more varied assessment model that has speaking and listening rooted at its core.
“We value what we measure, rather than measuring what we value” is a common refrain in education. Michael Gove has recently declared that if we are to return to an education system of rigour we must have a fitting assessment model. Now, few professionals could argue with this ambition for rigour, but Gove has indicated that high standards will only be upheld by the narrowest of assessments – an ‘all eggs in one basket’ summative exam approach. Such a narrow model (although it does signal the positive jettisoning of endless resits and time-consuming controlled assessments) fails to prepare our students of today for a complex tomorrow. One shift we must make is to place challenging oral assessments at the heart of our curriculum model, across curriculum subjects, if we are to move towards a curriculum fit for the twenty first century. We need to show we value those key skills for success: speaking and listening skills. They should be rooted in our daily practice – not be seen as burdensome or extraneous high-stakes assessments.
I can remember with vivid immediacy my experience of speaking and listening presentations in my English lessons. Notably, I remember no such challenge outside of English, except a couple of Spanish orals, which were rather less than memorable. I loved many of my English lessons, as you would likely expect, but the prospect of presenting to my peers filled me with dread. At KS3 I gave a dire talk on earthworms; at KS4 I lowered the bar still further with a bleak explanation of cancer. Each time I had to present to the group my fear was nearly insurmountable, resulting in my feigning illness on more than one occasion. Now I am confident speaking to a hall of over one hundred fellow professionals. How has this transformation occurred? Repeated deliberate practice. Was it solely down to those assessments – of course not – but they made a difference. I was made to undertake that challenge, whereas if the assessment was not an external requirement I may not have had to complete such a task. If those assessments didn’t exist on a more formal basis would we have undertaken them given factors like student recalcitrance or merely absence? Ultimately, one lingering impact of those tentative presentations and group discussions is that am able to become successful at my job and so much more.
Oracy has always been the poor sibling to reading and writing and once more we are failing to exploit a realigned curriculum to raise the status of speaking and listening. Despite its lowly status, educationalists across the globe recognise its primacy in the very act of learning. Even a rudimentary understanding of child language acquisition will spell out that oracy is the very foundation for successful reading and writing. I know, for example, that my young daughter’s oral proficiency will correlate strongly with her future ability to read and write successfully. Indeed, reading itself is a form of listening – described here by E. D. Hirsch:
“Reading—even skimming—is indeed accompanied by “subvocalization.” Although some teachers use this term to refer to children whispering to themselves as they make the transition from reading out loud to silent reading, researchers use this term to refer to the internal voice we all hear while we read silently. We use an inner voice and an inner ear. Reading IS listening.”
To say that listening complements reading also highlights its crucial role in the writing process. ‘Subvocalization’ is also inherent in the writing process, so much so that we commonly use the phrase ‘the writer’s voice’ without a second thought. You are likely voicing this blog this very moment! Extended talk and oral rehearsal can aid the writing process as much as it can prepare for a speaking performance. Put simply, speaking and listening are integral to reading and writing. If we foreground the assessment of speaking and listening, we enrich reading and writing.
I teach English and we have three speaking and listening assessments at GCSE for English Language (none for English Literature) which accounts for 20% of the overall grade for English Language – not far off from an appropriate percentage for how I see speaking listening could being assessed in all subjects. Of course, Modern Foreign Languages has oral assessment at the heart of its curriculum, but in my opinion, there is a paucity of high quality oral assessments inter-connected across our curriculum (which would bolster the learning of foreign languages, a particular need for British students). To use an aural metaphor, we need each teacher in the school to be a player in a orchestra, each contributing to the music that is speaking and listening skills. We fail to exploit the many rich opportunities for rigorous assessment in the form of debate and individual presentations. We expect students to undertake university interviews, to give seminar presentations, to perform a ‘viva voce’ in further education – not even getting starting on the world of work; yet we only tinker at the margins with preparatory assessments that would further nudge teachers and schools to raise the standards of speaking and listening assessment. The opportunities are legion, but too often forsaken.
An approach to public speaking could be rigorous and systematic – a balancing point to end of course exams. We can record assessments with ease and relatively cheaply – it is already a requirement for parts of the iGCSE and the International Baccalaureate. This may create somewhat of a burden, but that does add greater rigour and consistency to the process – a price well worth paying. We can also balance internal and external assessment judgements too to add greater consistency. One interesting comparison between AQA GCSE English and the International Baccalaureate, for example, is that with the IB all written coursework is assessed externally and half of the speaking and listening is assessed externally too. It would cost exam boards some money, but it would be roundly welcomed by teachers and it would take away accusations of ‘cheating’ or grade creep levelled at teachers.
A rather unhidden truth is that our assessment models are largely dictated by the exam boards, of which we pay handsome sums of money for the privilege of the undertaking. I am not shocked when a company driven by a profit motive selects an assessment model which prioritises cost over quality. When I consider controlled assessments: the bastard child of coursework and examinations, the reality is that exam boards have a vested interest in an assessment model that are cheap, easily digitalised, easily replicable and mass produced tasks. Reductive written exams are the epitome of an easily outsourced and replicable model – but such exams alone do not provide a rich, holistic model of accurate assessment. Speaking and listening assessments, rigorously assessed, ideally with a balance of internal and external judgements, but at the very least recorded for standardising purposes, cost time and money. But we must ask, what is the best education worth? According to official accounts released by Companies House, Edexcel made profits of more than £60 million in 2010 – compared with just more than £10 million in 2004. AQA and OCR are actually charities, with a mission to “do good in education” – a better, more comprehensive assessment model would go some way to doing that ‘good‘. We must lobby fiercely for a system of assessment fit for the future.
If we truly measure what we value, rather than value what we measure, and we want to leverage as much social mobility as is possible in a system distorted by social inequality, then we must broaden our assessment model. We must encompass speaking and listening skills, with as many opportunities for public speaking as possible, into our assessment model if we want to develop students who can thrive and succeed.
I recently wrote a post about how a singular ‘all eggs in one basket‘ three hour examination would have a negative and narrowing effect upon our curriculum and, of course, our students. After thinking about what prospective assessments we can look forward to, or not, I thought about our purpose beyond helping students make the right moves along the conveyor belt of passing exams. Before I came to thinking about what assessment model would be more appropriate, I thought about starting with what type of students we are aiming to develop. We often focus upon the quantifiable outcomes in school: league tables, international measures and evidence based outcomes of cognitive ability, but we too often neglect those non-cognitive learning dispositions which will see our students flourish in a rapidly changing world. We ignore the less easily quantifiable aspects of an education – such as developing character: dispositions like resilience, perseverance and self-discipline. How do we value those aspects in a system so bent on measurement and examined assessments? How do we go some way to balancing cognitive development with character development?
As we teach the International Baccalaureate at my school, alongside A Levels, it occurred to me that their ‘learner profile’ was a good place to start to investigate a fitting school curriculum, with a functional assessment model, which purport to have that aim of engendering confident, flexible and resilient learners who will thrive in a future abound with complexity and challenge at their core.
International Baccalaureate Learner profile: http://www.ibo.org/programmes/profile/documents/Learnerprofileguide.pdf
The aim of all IB programmes is to develop internationally minded people who, recognizing their common humanity and shared guardianship of the planet, help to create a better and more peaceful world.
IB learners strive to be:
They develop their natural curiosity. They acquire the skills necessary to conduct inquiry and research and show independence in learning. They actively enjoy learning and this love of learning will be sustained throughout their lives.
They explore concepts, ideas and issues that have local and global significance. In so doing, they acquire in-depth knowledge and develop understanding across a broad and balanced range of disciplines.
They exercise initiative in applying thinking skills critically and creatively to recognize and approach complex problems, and make reasoned, ethical decisions.
They understand and express ideas and information confidently and creatively in more than one language and in a variety of modes of communication. They work effectively and willingly in collaboration with others.
They act with integrity and honesty, with a strong sense of fairness, justice and respect for the dignity of the individual, groups and communities. They take responsibility for their own actions and the consequences that accompany them.
They understand and appreciate their own cultures and personal histories, and are open to the perspectives, values and traditions of other individuals and communities. They are accustomed to seeking and evaluating a range of points of view, and are willing to grow from the experience.
They show empathy, compassion and respect towards the needs and feelings of others. They have a personal commitment to service, and act to make a positive difference to the lives of others and to the environment.
They approach unfamiliar situations and uncertainty with courage and forethought, and have the independence of spirit to explore new roles, ideas and strategies. They are brave and articulate in defending their beliefs.
They understand the importance of intellectual, physical and emotional balance to achieve personal well-being for themselves and others.
They give thoughtful consideration to their own learning and experience. They are able to assess and understand their strengths and limitations in order to support their learning and personal development.
The IB ‘Learner Profile‘ is emblazoned about my school, and although in reality we have a relatively small cohort in the context of the whole school, the learner profile sparks my interest each time I walk past it. It makes me think how the IB constructs its aims and shapes it curriculum around its students. The IB is rightly lauded by Gove and he is critical of our qualifications not stacking up against such international models, but I am yet to be convinced that he is leading an authentic shift towards our core purpose being centred around our students and their future. With the IB Diploma foregrounds qualities, such as ‘open mindedness’, they are fostered in real terms by having the ‘Theory of Knowledge‘, at the core of the diploma, a philosophical exploration of knowing, with a rigorous focus upon the domains of knowledge in each other subject area of the IB Diploma. It is placed alongside the ‘Extended Essay‘ – a genuinely independent piece of assessment that requires students to devise their own thinking and undertake real inquiry, supported by expert teachers. Not only that, with the ‘Creativity, Action and Service (CAS)‘ assessed element of the qualification, active citizenship is made real. The ‘Learner Profile‘ isn’t just window dressing – it underpins the philosophy and aims of the qualification – shaping the assessment model to fit those aims.
Another school school system celebrated by Gove is that of Singapore. I am interested in the ‘Desired Outcomes of Education‘ in Singapore. Once more, a core focus is centred upon what type of learner their system is looking to develop:
1. The Desired Outcomes of Education (DOE)1 are attributes that educators aspire for every Singaporean to have by the completion of his formal education. These outcomes establish a common purpose for educators, drive our policies and programmes, and allow us to determine how well our education system is doing.
2. The person who is schooled in the Singapore Education system embodies the Desired Outcomes of Education. He has a good sense of self-awareness, a sound moral compass, and the necessary skills and knowledge to take on challenges of the future. He is responsible to his family, community and nation. He appreciates the beauty of the world around him, possesses a healthy mind and body, and has a zest for life.
In sum, he is:
• a confident person who has a strong sense of right and wrong, is adaptable and resilient, knows himself, is discerning in judgment, thinks independently and critically, and communicates effectively;
• a self-directed learner who takes responsibility for his own learning, who questions, reflects and perseveres in the pursuit of learning;
• an active contributor who is able to work effectively in teams, exercises initiative, takes calculated risks, is innovative and strives for excellence; and, a concerned citizen who is rooted to Singapore, has a strong civic consciousness, is informed, and takes an active role in bettering the lives of others around him
Lastly, I was interested in another programme praised by Gove, that once more places character development, and a more holistic view of the student, at the heart of its core purpose – of course, alongside exam success etc. – the KIPP programme in America. The debate about KIPP schools fills column inches in America, so a quick Google search will do the job of beginning further research into their system, but I wanted to focus upon their ‘Character Growth Card’. Students are graded on their ‘character’. This may seem anathema to some, but at least it is a recognition that some things are valued in education beyond examination scores.
KIPP Character Growth Card: http://www.kipp.org/files/dmfile/KIPPCharacterGrowthCardandSupportingMaterials.pdf
These qualities best embody what type of students the KIPP programme aims to develop:
OPTIMISM: expecting the best in the future and working to achieve it;
Gets over frustrations and setbacks quickly;
Believes that effort will improve his or her future
ZEST: approaching life with excitement and energy, feeling alive and activated;
GRIT: finishing what one starts, completing something despite obstacles; a combination of persistence and resilience;
Finishes whatever he or she begins;
Tries very hard even after experiencing failure;
Works independently with focus
CURIOSITY: taking an interest in experience and learning new things for its own sake; finding things fascinating Is eager to explore new things;
Asks and answers questions to deepen understanding;
Actively listens to others
SOCIAL INTELLIGENCE: being aware of motives and feelings of other people and oneself; including the ability to reason within large and small groups;
Able to find solutions during conflicts with others;
Demonstrates respect for feelings of others;
Knows when and how to include others
GRATITUDE: being aware of and thankful for opportunities that one has and for good things that happen;
Recognises and shows appreciation for others;
Recognises and shows appreciation for his/her opportunities
SELF-CONTROL: regulating what one feels and does; being self-disciplined
SELF-CONTROL – SCHOOL WORK:
Comes to class prepared;
Pays attention and resists distractions;
Remembers and follows directions;
Gets to work right away rather than procrastinating
SELF-CONTROL – INTERPERSONAL
Remains calm even when criticized or otherwise provoked;
Allows others to speak without interruption;
Is polite to adults and peers;
Keeps temper in check.
The formation of ‘character’ being explicitly linked to an education is nothing new – Plato advocated the telling of stories to help “fashion” the minds of the impressionable young; John Locke had the revolutionary idea that women were equally deserving of an education that developed character. Today, educationalists, such as Guy Claxton, have proffered their own version of such skills; creating a sort of ‘character taxonomy’. I do get slightly suspicious when ‘solutions’ are bandied about easily; particularly if such ‘experts‘ start selling their particular ‘brand‘ of character building. Each school should look at their own context and needs for their students – not buy in some quick fix. I happen to think the whole programme of PSHCE is a rather elaborate sham that doesn’t help create character, as much as reading ‘If’ by Rudyard Kipling over and over can do so! Covering topics such as ‘open mindedness’ in splendid isolation from domains of subject knowledge is foolhardy, but having a curriculum where we reinforce and foreground learning dispositions and character traits throughout the curriculum, in a coherent way, with assessment models constructed for that aim, is entirely valid. Perhaps we could use the time freed up from PSHCE in a more productive way?
I do not doubt that development of domains of core knowledge are essential (this article by Daniel Willingham brilliantly sums up the importance of knowledge here), but whilst I agree that our choice of what knowledge is important (which is currently up for debate), it should be balanced with what dispositions of character we are seeking to develop in our students – such as the resilience to tackle challenging new domains of knowledge. Of course, assessment matters. What we assess skews how we teach, whether intentionally or more indirectly. If we create a narrowed curriculum of summative three hour exams alone we risk losing the opportunity to promote a rich range of skills integral to learning new knowledge. With robust and reliable speaking and listening assessments, for example, such as recorded public debates, presentations or a viva voce based upon their research, we can harness and hone communication skills so crucial in the formation of self-confidence and resilience. If we were to raise the profile of guided research and inquiry skills, bound to specific domains of knowledge, in our assessment, such as the IB style ‘Extended Essay’, or portfolio based projects, we could better foster resilience and perseverance, whilst honing skills appropriate for a future where information will only proliferate still further.
In our obsession for easily measurable outcomes (easily packaged, replicable and cheap to administer and judge of course!) we are forgetting that assessment can work in our favour, if we work backwards from the point of what we want students to know and how we want students to approach their pursuit of knowledge. Jean Piaget’s view of intelligence is appropriate: “Intelligence is what you use when you don’t know what to do.” The US Department for Education are looking to address this balance between cognitive and non-cognitive dispositions, focusing upon dispositions such as resilience (indeed, resilience is included in the ‘Common Core Curriculum’ for mathematics). It is summarised in this very useful report: http://www.ed.gov/edblogs/technology/files/2013/02/OET-Draft-Grit-Report-2-17-13.pdf. I think the report is outstanding and the recommendations it poses should frame our curriculum development. Two such recommendations stood out:
“Educators and administrators interested in promoting grit, tenacity, and perseverance should draw on key research-based best practices, for example, (1) provide students with opportunities to take on higher-order or long-term goals that are “worthy” to the student—goals that are “optimally challenging” and aligned with the students’ own interests, and (2) provide a rigorous and supportive environment for accomplishing their goals.” (Page xii of report)
“Administrators and educators need professional development, curriculum materials, and technological supports. Other potentially high-leverage strategies may be restructuring school days to have longer periods and increasing school staffing so that teachers can give individual students more thoughtful feedback and attention.” (Page xiii of report)
Is there a whiff of jargon about the whole business? Yes – and we should be wary of creating a new pseudo-subject akin to PSHCE. Are schools solely responsible for character building? Absolutely not – parental role models trump teachers every time – as John Hattie’s states: “The effect of parental engagement over a student’s school career is equivalent to adding an extra two to three years to that student’s education”. Should we do our best to reinforce dispositions that help (both students and parents) with learning and foster the qualities of character that make our students happy and more healthy citizens? Yes. Should we place character development at the heart of our model for a future curriculum, including, crucially, how we shape our assessment model – I think we should. That does not mean ramming our sense of morality in the faces of our students in the vain hope they will make significant changes to their character, but it is a positive belief that if we enhance our curriculum (keeping it richly broad) and tweak our assessment models towards a holistic and a more authentic range of outcomes that we can do a better job of developing rounded young adults ready for the future.
Finally, I would like to end with this quote from Novel Laureate Professor of Economics from Chicago University, Dr James Heckman, from a Boston Review article – see here:
“First, life success depends on more than cognitive skills. Non-cognitive characteristics—including physical and mental health, as well as perseverance, attentiveness, motivation, self-confidence, and other socio-emotional qualities—are also essential. While public attention tends to focus on cognitive skills—as measured by IQ tests, achievement tests, and tests administered by the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA)—non-cognitive characteristics also contribute to social success and in fact help to determine scores on the tests that we use to evaluate cognitive achievement.”
See here for an excellent research piece by Heckman on ‘soft skills’.
Note: I am aware there are debates about the selectivity of KIPP schools and the ultimate success of their graduates. Singaporean education has also been criticised for being highly conformist and hot-housing students to succeed. I do not believe simple education tourism works, but that we should consider carefully our new curriculum aims and our assessment model – reviewing international models as a point of reference, not as a quick fix.
A few weeks ago I had the great pleasure to present to the staff of my school for just over an hour on teaching and learning. What had preceded this session for teachers was time to evaluate teaching exemplar lessons and grading them using the OFSTED grade criteria. Subject Leaders were concurrently working with the fantastic Zoe Elder on helping develop an outstanding department. My session, in the main hall, was a chance to get staff focusing in on pedagogy, reviewing some good practice, sharing ideas and departmental approaches to oral feedback and questioning.
Why questioning and feedback? Well, they are simply the ‘bread and butter of great teaching’. Whenever I think or write about pedagogy I cannot go too far without thinking about them both. Too often, many teachers are spooked by the likes of OFSTED and attempt to become teachers they are not; using a variety of whizz-bang bells and whistles in an attempt to display rapid progress – often only succeeding in creating rapid chaos! Hopefully my slot was a reminder that good and great teaching is often as traditional as Socrates himself asking challenging questions, all the way back before we had a concept of an education. We should not turn away from a wealth of innovative teaching strategies and approaches, but we should hone in on our bread and butter and make it as good as it can possibly be.
My PPT introduction (see here:Training Day 30.1.13) aimed to be long enough to clarity my point, but not too long as to inspire the proverbial PPT ‘death’! I made it clear I was not trying to teach teachers to suck eggs!
Many of these strategies were nothing new and many teachers in the room could surely teach the socks off students! What I wanted to help do was to connect that existing expertise; to take people back to the basics, the bread and butter, and remember, revalue and refine their core practice. I was little more than a compere for the great teachers in the room who just needed some time to connect ideas and practice.
Teachers were handed these simplified versions of my online blog posts, many ideas were common- place – but hopefully it was useful to revisit and reflect:
After discussion, aiming to exemplify the oral feedback strategies, departments created a gallery of current practice and prospective areas to develop. As a way of exemplifying one of the feedback strategies, the staff conducted a ‘gallery critique‘.
Below are some examples from the departmental gallery critique from the session:
The gallery findings were collated, typed up and then circulated to all staff to allow for departments to follow up appropriately. This document summarised all the good practice already existing in our school, as well as identifying where we could continue to improve. It really was a great culmination to the session and made sure the gallery technique was more than a gimmick and ensured we made the activity into a useful working document. See it here: Questioning and Feedback follow-up 31-01-13
Feedback was positive, although I have realised it is near impossible to differentiate to satisfy an audience of over one hundred! Based on the feedback I would factor in some time for more exemplar questioning, contracting the early discussion time somewhat (although people conversely commented that the discussion time was crucial). I was conscious of giving people time to talk and simply reflect on their practice with colleagues. For me, blogging about my practice, and reading those blogs of others, really helps that reflective thinking process. In the hurly burly of the day job it is important to find some stillness to reflect upon our pedagogy – especially those strategies we sometimes take for granted: such as the bread and butter of questioning and oral feedback.
(This post is a development upon my post yesterday, Reading with Michael Gove; with a more practical consideration of the approach to teaching reading.)
The movement towards a ‘slow education‘, encompassing deeper, richer learning experiences, is surely the antidote to our assessment driven, checkpoint laden curriculum. In my previous post I explained that we should slim down our content-filled curriculum to maximise the opportunities for reading. More reading is surely a rallying call every teacher, not just English teachers, would happily herald. I do, however, have reservations about how we go about teaching reading, both in English lessons and beyond.
Few things in my professional life give me more pleasure than the special experience of reading to, and with, my English groups. When I think about my time at school I can start to piece together fragments of those rapt moments of whole class reading which no doubt kindled a love for school that resulted in me becoming a teacher. When I now teach the class reader I enjoy it immensely and I love it when students groan when we have to stop reading and they have to do some ‘real work’! I do, however, have a sense of conflict with the nature of reading and studying the ‘class reader’. I think about how we naturally read at pace and at our own volition; how the process is slowed down by ‘study‘. Then I wonder about the paucity of reading many of our students experience (boys are in particular danger of falling significantly behind in terms of reading for pleasure and reading attainment – see here) beyond the annual ‘class reader’, and whether we are killing a potential spark for reading. I then come to thinking about how we can balance the slow study of reading with the pleasure of natural fast reading .
I teach in a fantastic English and Media faculty where we value reading and in a school that tries hard to foster a reading culture. The library does some great business, with a good proportion of our students; students read regularly in form time; last year we undertook our own ‘Big Read’ fundraising, whereat we raised thousands of pounds. Our strategies are not an OFSTED tick-box, but a value system, supported whole-heartedly by our school leaders who understand the real value of reading. We clearly value reading. we want our students to be ‘word rich’ – with all the attendant benefits that brings. Still it never feels like we are doing enough. It feels like a truly Sisyphean task at times. In our department we ensure that least one novel is read a year at KS3, with much poetry and shorter reading besides. We are aiming to slim down our content, deepening and slowing down the assessment process to enhance the learning – and we are looking to cram as much reading into the curriculum as possible. We know the importance of reading for pleasure and being word rich. What becomes crucially important is how we can boost ‘real reading‘ for many of our students who only read that one ‘class reader’ a year.
For the legion of students who don’t read habitually (and evidence from the National Literacy Trust indicates a perennial decline), the reading we facilitate is paramount. Yet, reading a novel over the course of six weeks, and studying it within an inch of its life, can drain the pleasure away from reading for many students. E.D Hirsch even argues that this provides little boost to long term learning and knowledge building (I debate Hirsch’s views at length in my previous post). Don’t get me wrong, most English teachers work brilliantly to stave off boredom and to enrich the understanding of our students, with strategies that also strengthen their reading skills and their worldly knowledge. I would like to think I do a half-decent job myself! Fundamentally; however, we still face the scenario where many students are desperate to read on, but we stifle this natural curiosity to stick to the plan and to teach reading skills
What we need to do is to think of different ways to facilitate reading with students that better imitates the natural state of reading a great novel – that of reading it fast – not pausing for breath, never mind a four day break between chapters! Perhaps, if we unburden our curriculum we can find more space to read in a more rapid way – such a way that encourages the natural pace of reading, a high degree of challenge and more independent and interdependent teaching and learning. We could have ‘reading weeks’ like at university. In my university experience, I learnt more in reading weeks than any other time.
Over a month ago I talked casually to a colleague in our faculty about what she was doing with her Year 9 group at that moment. She was working with visually stunning images (see PPT below) when I dropped into the lesson and I was curious as to what the pictures were and how they were being used. It turned out that she was teaching ‘Animal Farm’ by George Orwell. This wasn’t on the ‘official‘ Year 9 plan so I was intrigued. She had simply taken a two week slot, having found time from our slimmed down content approach (we had dropped a scheme of learning from Years 7, and 9. Believe me – no-one noticed!), and decided to challenge them with the great Orwell novella. She actually taught it to two classes of varying ability ranges. There was no grand outcome – with attendant assessment measures. Simply some initial debate, discussion and reading…lots of reading. By way of celebrating that reading they created this lovely display. All in a couple of weeks. Fast reading that satisfied the pleasure principle of reading much more than our typical approach.
Class display on ‘Animal Farm’
Here is the great PowerPoint resource she used in conjunction with the novella: Animal Farm PPT
It struck me how simple but effective this approach was and how we didn’t have to be burdened by the demands of a content driven curriculum – that we could read – dare I say it – for the sake of it! Michael Gove, as I described in my previous reading post, has lauded the power of reading. He has heralded the educational philosophy of E.D. Hirsch, who, as stated in the accompanying post, sees reading challenging literature as the crux of successful English study. I have heard numerous stories of OFSTED being very positive about extended reading programmes, Library lessons etc., which similarly foregrounded extended reading. As the saying goes, therefore, ‘we have nothing to fear but fear itself‘.
I therefore want to work with my department to construc a KS3 curriculum that not only embraces ‘dedicated improvement and reflection time‘, but one that dedicates ample time to reading – more than we thought possible perhaps. Many of our students don’t have a love for reading, yet that passion that can be so transformative for success in educational settings, so we need to find time to nurture a liking at the very least; help it grow into a passion. It takes whole-school support (not just financial, but a good book stock doesn’t come for free) from leadership, from a great school library and support from parents if this pleasure is to be grown and sustained. If we could read at least a book a term, a classic a year, in addition to the ‘class reader’, then maybe we could help turn the tide towards reading for pleasure? I am conscious that doesn’t seem overly ambitious – but we would hope it would be the tip of the iceberg for more and more reading for pleasure.
As English teachers we must reflect on our KS3 curriculum. We must reflect upon our priorities. Yes, there are a multitude of factors outside of our control which inhibit reading for pleasure, but we can only control what we control. The precious curriculum time we possess must be used to engender a pleasure for reading wherever possible. I, for one, want to review how we can read more than ever, without waiting for the official sanction from Michael Gove. In fact, I could end with his very words which echo my sentiments exactly:
“There is one must-have accessory that no one should be seen without: a book.
Books complement any outfit and suit any season. But far too few of us make sure we’re carrying one. And we certainly don’t follow the first rule of fashion – to work the racks. We’re not picking up enough new books, not getting through the classics, not widening our horizons. In short, we’re just not reading enough.”
Some questions I am asking at the moment about reading (particularly at KS3) include:
– How do we best balance ‘fast‘ and ‘slow‘ reading?
– What is the best approach for the pedagogy of fast reading?
– How do we space out reading throughout our curriculum to ensure students develop their reading skills in the optimal way?
– How do we ensure students read at least three extended books a year within curriculum time at KS3? Hopefully encouraging many, many more.
– How do we create a broad and engaging book stock to satisfy our ambition? How do we personalise a range of challenging reading material that is in the ‘zone of proximal development’ for our students?
– How do we get parents to support and engage with the process of reading?
– How do we bridge the knowledge gap between their reading at KS2 and KS3?
– How do we maximise our whole school approach to literacy to complement the drive for more reading? How do we get students to read more books that complement other curriculum subjects?
Any responses are of course welcome.
My usual attitude closely resembles a ‘less is more’ approach with regards to the curriculum: less bureaucracy, less outcomes and data, less focus on testing – the list goes on. So I agree when Gove and others recommend the abolition of our endless succession of tests, from controlled assessments to a catalogue of resits, in favour of deeper learning. The more I teach English and lead an English department the more powerfully I believe that the ‘less is more’ approach must be completely reversed when it comes to one aspect of the curriculum: reading.
When Michael Gove, early in 2011, announced that students in Britain should read fifty books in a year (he had visited the Kipp Infinity School, in Harlem, that had undertaken that very challenge) I can remember being surprised at the suggestion of such a seemingly Herculean task, given my knowledge of the actual reading habits of children in my school and beyond. Despite my surprise, I could not but applaud the ambition. I still think his view is laudable, but that it is flawed regarding how Gove believes it should be approached. I had forgotten this challenge until hearing Gove speak recently about it once more in his ‘Social Market Foundation’ speech – see here. One part of the speech came back to his Kipp school inspired challenge:
“Jonathan Rose’s wonderful book “The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes” is revelatory about the appetite for intellectual improvement that existed among working people. It provides both powerful statistical evidence and moving personal testimony which underlines just how hungry working people were for culture. In 1940, on average, boys from every background were reading six books a month and girls over seven.
When I suggested recently that school students here emulate school students in some American charter schools and read 50 books a year it was regarded as either hopelessly utopian or dangerously Gradgrindian. Amongst working class boys in 1940 it would have been regarded as slacking. A 1944 survey of unskilled workers showed that almost half had grown up in homes with substantial libraries. And these working class readers were not only reading widely – they were reading deeply. As Rose points out in his work, housemaids read Dickens and Conrad and kitchen maids saved up money to attend classical music concerts.
Now, I will credit Gove with his ambition (how could more reading be a bad thing), but I would identify that his views fail to recognise the seismic shift in society since the 1940s, which means our approach must be more nuanced than he argues. What Gove fails to do on a consistent basis, when he discusses the benefits of ‘cultural capital‘, is to recognise that society has changed. What we cannot do is simply wish our society to hark back to a bygone Industrial Age. Literacy and reading in the traditional sense have waned, but other literacies have emerged in our digital age and we must realign our curriculum accordingly.
In his speech, Gove presents knowledge of the literary canon as the primary driver of ‘cultural currency‘. Then he propounds his baseless theory that a traditional pedagogy is the only fitting way to impart such a cherished collection of the best of what has been thought and written. He proposes that ‘progressives‘ have given naive working class boys false hope with the fake democracy of ‘co-construction’ and other such dangerously ‘progressive‘ methods, and that we must simply accumulate a broad knowledge of the canon to pass through the higher echelons of society. I would ask Gove to proffer definitive evidence to prove there is any serious causation, or even correlation, between progressive teaching methods and social mobility.
To suggest that there are not a legion of social factors at work to militate against such ‘working class boys’ entering the higher rungs of society is absurd and disingenuous. To argue that ‘progressive‘ teaching methods have been a major factor in harming social mobility is also nonsense and a false cause. The success of KIPP schools in getting students into American universities is much-lauded, but the drop out rate is huge – only a fifth of the original KIPP university cohort completed their degree. The causation goes far beyond tests scores and reading ability: there is a whole host of challenging social factors which inhibit the success of the working class students Gove talks about (see this Economist article for an interesting exploration of the issue).
What is glaringly obvious is that books were not only high cultural currency for boys and girls in the 1940s, they were also one of the few outlets, as a pastime, for those many hours spent inside the home. Children now have a world of imaginative outlets, such as: television, computer games, the Internet and film…the list that begets our modern cultural capital is seemingly endless and militates against the reading of the classics. Of course, Dickens was the low brow family soap opera of his day; Conrad your niche ‘Homeland’ or ‘The Killing’ television series. What we must do is end the canonisation of dead authors at the expense of a rich contemporary landscape of fiction and non-fiction reading, as well as the complex wealth of media and digital literacy. Gove builds a false dichotomy when he speaks of reading – it is a ‘classic is best, to hell with the rest’ approach. Or so it appears through the refracted lens of the media (I hope I am wrong). What we should do is enlarge the reading at the heart of our curriculum, but do so in a way that in a way that celebrates the rich diversity of contemporary literature and media, as well as the best of the canon. We will not be able to communicate this to students of the 2010s without so-called progressive methods, or the digital media that pervades every aspect of their young lives.
Gove cites E. D. Hirsch repeatedly – again, turning to America for his model for his inspiration. Granted, I have a lot of time for Gove citing Hirsch. Hirsch has related some excellent analysis of the power of vocabulary as a knowledge base which is simply fundamental for success in life. He has repeated the striking metaphor of ‘the Matthew effect‘ (an allusion to Matthew 25:29: “For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath.”), whereat the word poor become poorer, the word rich become richer. Here is a driven article by Hirsch on the power of literacy in helping transform life chances: http://www.city-journal.org/2013/23_1_vocabulary.html. There is sound neuroscience to suggest that the brain requires such a deep knowledge base and vocabulary recognition to free up the working memory to tackle the daily complexities of life and to succeed in the classroom, exam hall and ultimately the workplace. Yet, Hirsch also relays the same vague argument about ‘progressive methods‘ being to blame for a supposed dearth of knowledge: “under the influence of progressive educational theories, had begun to use simplified language and smaller vocabularies”. I would say I was one such Machiavellian ‘progressive‘, but I pride myself on reading challenging literature; I pride myself on an approach that is rooted with rigour and a liberal dousing of classic literature, alongside contemporary texts that span the multi-media landscape.
As Hirsch would surely agree, knowledge begets more knowledge – the ‘word rich become richer’. This is because so much conceptual understanding is based upon the foundations of prior knowledge. It is these solid cognitive foundations which provide the structure required to become an expert reader, one who can then derive pleasure from reading. The issue is that I see on a daily basis students without anywhere near the foundations of language they need to grasp fifty books from the canon or elsewhere. The prior knowledge we need to activate is typically then the supposedly ‘low culture’ stories from the multi-media that pervades students lives. If this is connection making is progressive dumbing down then we are stuck in a cul-de-sac. From Piaget to Vygotsky, to Hirsch and Willingham (both celebrated by Gove), there is widespread agreement about the requirement for activating prior knowledge – the truth is we need to look for that knowledge beyond the narrow, conservative parameters suggested by Michael Gove. Of course, if Gove was serious about a foundational reading knowledge he would fight tooth and nail against the widespread closing and funding decimation of our national library system. Not just that, he would bring children into libraries with a balance of multi-media reading and research, alongside more traditional reading. I await the fight with eagerness!
If Gove’s diatribe against progressive methods is an attack upon constructivism then he will give little attention to the crucial peer culture that works crucially alongside the teacher led discourse, whether we want it to do so or not. As expert teachers we cannot afford to ignore the crucial social interactions and we must harness the power of student discussions and debate; we must get students to problem solve and undertake interdependent inquiry – all crucial skills required of a twenty-first century citizen who needs apply their knowledge in real contexts. I don’t want to play top trumps with Hirsch or Vygotsky, unlike Gove, I want to see diversity in reading and diversity in pedagogy. In evidence, provided by Hattie, progressive methods peer tutoring and peer influence can be harnessed positively alongside reciprocal teaching and direct instruction.
Unlike Gove and Hirsch, I am very much a child of the digital age. My reading primarily takes place on my iPad rather than traditional books; my reading is a post-modern mash-up of the modern and the classic; I span blogs, educational research, fiction, tweets, FB links, Youtube videos, websites…often in the space of fifteen minutes! My interleaved reading, spanning digital texts – both fiction and non-fiction – is much nearer the experience of our students. My vocabulary recognition is based upon reading a host of traditional classic texts, but my passion for reading as a teenager was sparked by books I chose outside of the school curriculum, modern authors like Bret Eastern Ellis and Chuck Palahniuk. Most of my early independent reading was inspired by school reading AND television. I therefore feel I am appropriately educated to foster greater reading for pleasure that many who purport to be experts; better placed to leverage classic reading with modern cultural references. When I imagine children reading in 2040 it bears little relation to Gove’s traditional mode. I think reading for children may be more like an immersive game experience than an analogue approach (think of the constructive power of astronaut or flight simulators). We shouldn’t ignore Shakespeare for game based learning, but we should also not pretend popular culture does not exist, or that the very notion of reading is not adapting rapidly.
Is not a comparative study of great literature with contemporary media not enriching in its exploration of meaning? Hirsch himself talks about existing knowledge being “mental Velcro”. Is not drawing upon existing media narratives from popular culture a way of channeling understanding – hooking into the interests and passions of our students? I am not suggesting we hand out iPads and let them loose on Wikipedia as a proxy for reading; or advocating playing Assassin’s Creed over the artistic and cultural study of Renaissance Florence – but I am arguing that we should not exclude popular culture (Dickens was the popular culture of his day, frowned upon by the literary establishment) when creating this ‘common core‘ of knowledge as propounded by Hirsch.
We should leverage popular culture as a way to understand better the classics of the literary canon. Gove himself reviewed the book: ‘The Seven Basic Plots’ by Christopher Booker. He labelled the book a “Masterpiece”. The premise of the book is that there are seven archetypal stories that span the history of storytelling. The book relates literacy as classic as ‘Beowulf’, linked to modern ‘low culture’ films such as ‘Jaws’. This comparative meaning finding, between high and supposedly low culture, much better reflects our modern cultural experience (the post-modern) and it activates that crucial knowledge base so crucial for learning. Does the media ‘reading’ of film not have value in a media saturated society?
Hirsch goes onto argue about the methods used to teach reading in English classes: “In English class, young children are now practicing soul-deadening how-to exercises like “finding the main idea” in a passage and “questioning the author”. These exercises usurp students’ mental capacity for understanding what is written by forcing them to think self-consciously about the reading process itself. The exercises also waste time that ought to be spent gaining knowledge and vocabulary.” Once more, I agree in part. We can deaden the love of reading by slowing down the reading process (part 2 of my reading blog focus, to accompany this post, is about ‘Reading Fast and Slow‘ and how we must simply find more time for students to read in that natural state, sans analysis). I would argue; however, that a metacognitive understanding of reading skills is no bad thing – it foregrounds the ‘how’ of the reading process, allowing for the working memory to tackle challenges like understanding new vocabulary or analysing the narrative method.
Hirsch also criticises a ‘thematic‘ approach to reading. Once more, I can see the potential for a reductive slicing of great texts into bitesize chunks, which is something examiners are inclined to do; however, a thematic understanding to reading can also deepen the crucial knowledge base. Is not Booker’s ‘The Seven Basic Plots’, lauded by Gove, an exercise in pattern recognition? Do we not order the world by ‘chunking’ such information successfully? In our English department we study Dystopian fiction. As part of that learning we do read extracts from classic literature, such as ‘1984’, ‘Lord of the Flies’ ‘When the Machine Stops’ and ‘Brave New World’. We also study great contemporary literature, such as ‘The Road’ and ‘The Hunger Games’. Not only that, we engage in flagrantly ‘progressive methods’, such as watching Dystopian films trailers, creating their own dystopian desert island, and, shock horror, we do close analysis of language and style – killing their soul by locating the main idea! We also have a class reader, where we read a novel, typically dystopian but not always, in Year 9. The library uptake for books such as ‘1984’ is brilliantly healthy. I find our progressive methods can actually inspire a love of reading, where before a love of film or television existed alone; whilst connecting to their prior knowledge, thereby heightening their ability to make positive connections in their learning.
Gove has issued his social mobility busting canon. I shall engage with it and shape it appropriately. I will teach it the best way I know how. I will teach it with a wide array of progressive methods, alongside more traditional methods. I will endeavour to inspire students to read with a passion, reading a whole host of varied literature….maybe even inspiring something approaching fifty books a year if we are lucky with some students! Am I criticising Gove’s ambition – no. Do I applaud his celebration of the classics – absolutely. Am I a child of the digital generation that sees the rich compatibility between the classic and the modern – most definitely.
I am reminded of another American educationalist and his words:
“If we teach today as we taught yesterday, we rob our children of tomorrow.” John Dewey
Timothy Salthouse is a University of Virginia psychologist. He has conducted extensive research into testing, from intelligence to aptitude tests (from the age of eighteen to over eighty) in the snappily titled: ‘Implications of Within-Person Variability in Cognitive and Neuropsychological Functioning for the Interpretation of Change‘ (Neuropsychology 21, no.6 (2007). Now, why is this relevant to our current British education system and Michael Gove’s proposed changes to our curriculum and assessment at KS4 and beyond? Please let me explain. The research prompts serious reservations about something most teaching professionals know instinctively – putting all our eggs into one exam basket is both reductive and destructive.
Michael Gove has proposed that we should do away with coursework or other internal assessment procedures, except for specific subjects, such as Geography fieldwork or Drama practicals. That leaves subjects like mine, English, looking likely to end up with a summative judgement of a three hour examination. We all have our reservations about the exam system. Like the Heisenberg principle in quantum physics, we know that to precisely test one thing, we must inevitably be less precise with testing others. Therefore our testing system becomes narrower and narrower, to make a judgement on a narrow definition of the ‘progress’ of our students. In our results driven system, the curriculum gets ever condensed to meet the progress measures. All the while, the complexity and wealth of information our students have to deal with in our digital age is not narrowing at all, but growing exponentially! Surely our reservations about an ‘all eggs in one basket’ assessment aren’t just unfounded fears from educators seeking to survive in a judgement laden, punitive system?
Salthouse’s research presents us with really unsettling answers about the accuracy and efficacy of such a crucial and singular ‘all eggs in one basket’ assessment. His research has uncovered that there is a wide degree of variability ‘within the same individual’! That, on different days, people could sit the same test and perform in a vastly different fashion. This clearly raises the issue that any one single measurement provides an insufficient evaluation of a young person. His data showed that ‘the within-person deviation’ in test scores averaged about 50 percent of the between-person deviation for a variety of cognitive tasks. With such a bell curve of performance for individuals, sitting the same test, without specialist revision or preparation, simply on different days, how can we justify an ‘all eggs in one basket’ exam to culminate years of study? How fair is it for students that examinations on a Friday afternoon, for example, may suffer a degree of variability which may make students worse off than other students sitting a different exam board on a different day, with some bad weather? The variables are huge and the stakes are sky-rocket high. Of course, we see punitive attacks on entire schools for deficient performance.
This issue does not take further issues into account, such as the quality of examiners, or lack thereof. There is no professionalisation of examiners and the consistency of exam grading is annually brought into question, particularly for subjects such as English, which have a significant degree of extended interpretation. I could show you some exam papers of my past students which have been marked shockingly badly. Coupled with within-individual variation, such summative judgements become even more questionable. To ignore the breadth of quality internal assessment for such a high-stakes test smacks of ignorance.
In other curriculum and assessment models lauded by Michael Gove, such as the International Baccalaureate Diploma, there is a significant proportion of internal assessments; from portfolio work, to oral recordings and to extended coursework essays, externally moderated. The iGCSE assesses oral recordings for the speaking and listening component. If our politicians are scared of cheating in the system then provide a better model that deals with the gaming (or better still, remove the corrosive competition inherent in league tables with course comparison indicators!), such as using oral recordings; live moderation; draft evidence in essay work, or a portfolio approach. These assessment models may be more expensive, but they will mitigate the risk of the high stakes end of course exam model. Perhaps Gove has these in mind, he is just keeping his curriculum cards close to his chest – I hope so!
As Salthouse puts it: “…the existence of within-person variability complicates the assessment of cognitive and neuropsychological functioning and raises the possibility that single measurements may not be sufficient for precise evaluations of individuals, or for sensitive detection of change.” A bit of a mouthful, but the idea is simple: we simply cannot have a system where one bad day can scupper the life chances of any given young person. That is no model for a system looking to enhance deeper learning and militate against teaching to the test.
The culture of resits is ultimately corrosive to deeper learning. I do not advocate a resit culture, the perverse multiplication of exams, it gains nothing, except perhaps the ample profits for the exam boards! Yet, surely we have advanced beyond the antique paradigm of the ‘all eggs in one basket’ exam. Portfolios, speaking and listening assessments, well structured coursework all have their place in a more holistic approach to assessment. Let it be rigorous – I have no argument with that – but let’s not play roulette with the future of our students.
As Michael Gove concedes on the issue of the EBC qualifications replacing the GCSEs he is still intent on measures such as eliminating internal assessments for academic subjects, and other such narrowing effects upon educational outcomes. He clearly lauds the certain judgements of examinations, when evidence put forward by the likes of Timothy Salthouse calls their consistency and accuracy into question. We must therefore challenge the narrow and reductive proposals and put forward better curriculum and assessment models. We have a moral imperative to ensure that our students have a fit for purpose assessment model that is rounded and fit for the twenty first century.
Marking workload getting on top of you?
Many schools, and departments, have been reflecting about their marking policies ever since OFSTED declared more than a healthy interest in scrutinising books. Progress over time has rightly been identified as more important than single lesson snap shots – of course, that evidence if best found in ongoing student work and the attendant formative assessments. This has combined with greater scrutiny of standards of literacy, particularly writing. I have no problem with this; as you would expect from an English teacher. I think it is of paramount importance to have the highest standards for writing across the curriculum. Unfortunately, it appears that in many schools OFSTED fear has fuelled a misguided obsessed with marking, resulting in draconian whole-school marking policies that are less about learning and more about monitoring teachers. Marking and assessment must be the servant, and not the master, of our pedagogy and our profession.
Firstly, I think it is important to understand the OFSTED context, so I can then move beyond it to the more important context: the pedagogy and the learning. In the recent guidance to OFSTED inspectors for judging literacy standards in schools – see here – it relates some specific guidance:
“A basic way of reviewing pupils’ work is to select an extended piece of writing from near the beginning of a pupil’s book (or folder of work). This can then be compared with a piece from the middle and one nearer the end. Is there a discernible difference in length, presentation, sophistication (e.g. paragraphing or length of paragraphs), common errors, use of vocabulary and variation in style? Look at the teacher’s marking. Are the same issues highlighted in the later pieces as in the earlier ones? Has the teacher identified any developing strengths or commented on improvement?
When looking at books from other subjects, it is important to form a view of what it is reasonable to expect. If pupils are writing in a form that would be taught in English, it is reasonable to expect that they would draw on what they have learnt already. This is often the case in primary schools. In secondary schools, there is considerably more variety. Do teachers identify important errors (such as some of those contained in questions about literacy in lessons above). Key subject terms should be spelt correctly. Basic sentence punctuation should be accurate. If it is not and is not identified, how will pupils improve?”
This extract outlines that OFSTED inspectors are guided towards a scrutiny that is selective and one that recognises “variety“, whilst maintaining high expectations of formative feedback. Ultimately, the goal is to successfully recognise written feedback that combines high expectations of literacy and guides students towards making progressive improvement in their writing (reflecting their knowledge and understanding). It is therefore key that we do not overreact with a marking policy that has teachers poring over every written word by students, but instead we need one that recognises the importance of formative written and spoken feedback with a “view to what is reasonable to expect“. We can still maintain the highest of standards, whilst marking reasonably and not to excess. We will maintain the highest of standards not by doing more and more writing assessments, but by slowing down the whole process and getting students actively engaging in drafting and proof reading their writing. We must avoid the tyranny of content coverage at the expense of in depth, quality learning.
A wealth of great research and evidence has lauded the impact of feedback and of assessment for learning strategies for decades. Luminaries such as Dylan Wiliam have guided the way. We must use this valid focus on literacy and high standards of formative assessment as positive leverage to improve our pedagogy and refine our use of assessment for learning strategies. Yes, teachers should give written feedback to a high standard, but we must be reasonable regarding what we can expect is realistic and sustainable for teachers. The answer is a balance of quality, selective formative feedback with well trained peer and self-assessment. If we want great lessons planned and executed consistently then marking must be selective; with a process that builds in reflection time for students – not a roller coaster of internal assessment points, arbitrarily set to give the impression of high standards.
This national context has informed, but not misdirected or narrowed, our redesign of the policy for assessment and marking in our English and Media faculty. We have consciously renamed it our ‘feedback policy’. The relabelling of our policy from ‘marking’ to the broader term ‘feedback’ is more than just window dressing. It is a realignment of priorities currently skewed by a fear of OFSTED. Marking quite obviously presupposes a ‘mark’ on the page; whereas much of our daily pedagogy consists of oral formative feedback. Oral feedback has the unassailable strength of being instantaneous in comparison to the delay of written feedback. Regardless of what teaching and learning activity are being undertaken, oral feedback is integral to learning and progression. We have therefore foregrounded its importance in our feedback policy – placing it on par with written feedback (personally, I think it actually has greater impact on learning). Indeed, our policy is an attempt to unite the two and to enhance our pedagogy, rather than arbitrarily tighten our accountability measures.
Our feedback policy can be found here: 2013 English and Media Faculty Feedback policy
We mark students’ summative work using a separate portfolio approach, with five major end assessments, each supported by a formative mini-task:
Crucially, we have adapted our feedback policy to serve our students and to help them improve, not to tick the OFSTED box; however, by creating a system that records oral feedback more systematically in the students’ books we have managed to meet both requirements. Our approach to feedback is precisely selective and measured. We are also aiming to use assessment and feedback as the servant, not master of our pedagogy. We are using ‘Dedicated Improvement and Reflection Time’ (the label borrowed from the outstanding Jackie Breere), as a continuous formative process within lesson time to raise standards of literacy through a targeted and smart use of peer and self-assessment, combined with skilled oral feedback:
Teachers take the opportunities during lesson to monitor and formatively guide their writing, using our stamp system and getting students to record our comments to identify issues and to set targets. We are not carting home bags of books on a weekly basis, on top of our already thorough and rigorous marking regime, that see students take a little more than cursory glance at, or struggle to find value in even when given time. The oral feedback becomes the written feedback and students are engaged actively in the process. Students also undertake the standard proof reading exercises, of their own writing and of their peers, using highlighters, but in a systematic and highly consistent way. We are building good habits for students, whilst maximising lesson time. When students are writing, or undertaking other activities, teachers can be constantly having dialogues about their work and how they can best improve.
Here are some examples of using our stamp system simply and effectively during classwork, whilst the students are completing their writing so they can improve instantaneously (well, we hope they improve!):
We view that dialogue as so important that we now have ‘one-to-one weeks’ in each term when we undertake ‘dedicated improvement and reflection time‘ (we must remember that students often struggle with written feedback alone, therefore finding time to discuss their progress is typically more effective – as well as being more effective in terms of teacher workload). They are once more guided through peer proof reading and self-regulating strategies (with some valuable extended reading time), whilst the teacher has a crucial conversation about their progress. In those often five minute conversations we can identify issues and/or targets, as well as reviewing their preparatory book work and their portfolio of finished work. The most important part of ‘dedicated improvement and reflection time’ (DIRT) is the time given to students. They need time to reflect on feedback; to analyse and grasp their targets and to ask questions to illuminate how they can progress further. By doing less writing in this manner we will work slower, but ultimately standards will likely be higher.
I would reiterate that OFSTED’s focus upon the evidence of written marking has made us reflect upon the efficacy of our practice and attempt to improve it, but we have not forgotten that assessment and marking – rebranded more holistically as feedback – should be the servant of the classroom teacher, not our master. Its very function is to support students – it should not be used as a stick to beat teachers. My key messages about the current ‘marking’ focus for me are as follows:
– We should remember that oral feedback is as valuable as written feedback and we should shape our pedagogy with that in mind – closing the gap between the two. The gap should also be closed between the teacher giving feedback, both orally and in the written form, and students self-assessing their own writing and peers giving effective feedback;
– We should remember that peer and self-assessment done well takes careful training and scaffolding, but we must not ignore decades of research about the impact of AFL, taking the retrograde step of relying solely on written teacher feedback;
– We should undertake written feedback that is selective, targeted and uses precise language;
– We should dedicate more than adequate time for students to act upon feedback;
– We should devote time to engage in dialogue with students to ensure they understand what they need to do to improve.
A great post by Tom Sherrington, with useful strategies to ‘close the marking gap’: http://headguruteacher.com/2012/06/17/264/
Useful OFSTED case study: http://www.ofsted.gov.uk/resources/good-practice-resource-making-marking-matter
The original research about AFL that is still required reading for teachers: Inside the Black Box’, by Black and Wiliam – https://www.measuredprogress.org/documents/10157/15653/InsideBlackBox.pdf
Today there is a great article on the BBC website about the inexorable progress of the Sky cycling team under the expert stewardship of Dave Brailsford – see here. The ‘aggregation of marginal gains approach‘ is now well known and can be easily summarised as identifying those small performance factors that, when aggregated together, can have a significant cumulative impact. This can apply to teachers tweaking their pedagogy to transform their practice; students breaking down their tasks to focus on the constituent parts to improve; or school leaders aligning their school priorities. The article takes the process a step forward by focusing on the key developments for moving from good to outstanding as a team.
The first quote from the article that immediately stood out was the following:
“You’ll get more from a £900,000 rider with a coach than you would from a £1m rider without one.”
This seamlessly applies to a school context. Rather than investing in yet more teachers; or seeking the expensive intervention strategy of paying more for ‘top’ teachers, or even paying for extra teachers to make class sizes smaller, we should invest in quality coaching. We should aim to find more of that most crucial, but expensive, commodity for teachers: time. We should help our existing teachers become better, rather than looking to import in super-teachers, or other imported quick fixes. Coaching is a cheap and crucial method in improving our core business, helping teachers improve their pedagogy. We should question how can we develop better coaching?
So how did Brailsford lead team Sky to become “the most admired sports team in the world“? Being well funded helps, and it helps schools. Team Sky stay in the best hotels, with the best pillows etc. – we benefit from having the best school buildings and the best equipment – it is common sense really; however, less expensive marginal gains are also at work.
Hone in on the important data:
“Every turn of the pedal a Team Sky rider makes is recorded by a power meter, analysed using performance software and then benchmarked against Kerrison’s “power curve” models.
Last year, for example, Wiggins’s training was assessed against a template for a Tour/Olympic double. The gaps between these two lines on a graph – where Wiggins was and where he needed to be – were where Team Sky directed what Kerrison describes as “coaching interventions”.
Measuring power and using it as a training tool is not unique to Team Sky – and neither is it new. But what sets them apart is their total faith in it.”
Yes, obviously we are not teaching machines, although our assessment outcomes sometimes make us feel like we do! The lesson here is concentrating on the right data. There are swathes of data models for schools to the point where teachers become swamped. We should simplify our data collection and recording. This post exemplifies using data as a school leader brilliantly, but the rule applies more broadly. We should question what is the best data and how do we use it?
Slow the teaching and learning down, aiming for high quality mastery over quantity:
“But even with squads that large, most teams race all season, go on holiday in the autumn and then start training again in the winter. There is not much room for coaching.
Not at Team Sky, though. Their top riders race fewer days than their rivals and they structure their seasons to accommodate mid-season “training blocks”. For Wiggins, Chris Froome, the rest of the Grand Tour group and even the 10 riders targeting the Cobbled Classics in the spring, that means time off to train at altitude on Tenerife’s Mount Teide.”
Under pressure from OFSTED, curriculum specifications etc. we often try to cover every minute detail of every subject – we often become overly content driven in the fear of missing the minutiae of a potential exam question. What we must do is slow down the learning. There is a movement for this very ideas – see here. Excellent practitioners, such as David Didau have advocated ‘Slow Writing’. In our department, we are moving towards rooting DIRT (Dedicated Improvement and Reflection Time) into our daily pedagogy. Much better to do 80% of a job brilliantly than 100% of it badly! We should reflect on what should we not do – like Dylan Wiliam implores – we should stop doing too many good things! We should question what can we drop out of our curriculum to allow for real depth and quality to occur?
You get what you pay for:
“All teams have costs they cannot avoid – hotels, petrol and so on – but given the correlation between wages and winning, most keep their “operational spend” down to a minimum, typically allocating 90% of their resources to salaries. It is the cycling equivalent of putting the best possible XI on the pitch at the expense of everything else.
At Team Sky, however, that split is 80/20, with greater investment in non-riding staff, research and training camps. “You’ll get more from a £900,000 rider with a coach than you would from a £1m rider without one,” is Brailsford’s rationale.”
Rightly or wrongly (I say wrongly whole-heartedly!), budgets are tight. We should ask the question of every spend in our school: what impact does it have on teaching and learning? This should drive our choices, whether as a subject leader or school leader. People may question the relative wealth of the Sky Team – comparing it to some Wellington or Eton School equivalent. That is true to some degree, but at the head of the innovation team (the ‘Secret Squirrel Club’) is Chris Boardman – a man who devised the world’s fastest bike with the tools in his garage! Great things can still be done on tight budgets, they may just require greater ingenuity! We should question deeply what we spend our money on and we should challenge the government to invest further in top quality education.
“We’ve got good at conference calls,” said Brailsford, adding these are not just any conference calls. These are mandatory Monday morning conference calls, with standardised minutes.
But as good as these virtual meetings are, you cannot beat an old-fashioned, face-to-face chinwag, which is why one of this year’s innovations will be the establishment of a permanent performance base in Nice, staffed by Kerrison and Shaun Stephens, until recently the head coach of the Australian triathlon team.”
The question should be how do we best communicate? How do we best make use of technology to drive improvement in our practice: such as using blogs, email communication, meeting and training time? Again, what should we not do? Are we wasting our time and that of our teachers with excessive meetings? Or, should we adapt our currently meetings to ensure the hone in relentlessly on teaching, learning and pedagogy?
The “elephant in the room” for cycling may well be the spectre of drug cheats that casts a lengthy shadow over achievement. Our ghostly apparitions may be OFSTED, exam boards (and the tricky shenanigans of grade boundaries!) or our curriculum model; but they are things we cannot control – mere apparitions and even media driven crises blown out of true proportion. We need to follow Brailsford’s model and keep the main thing the main thing – refusing such distractions from our core business of teaching and learning.
I today read an excellent blog by @headguruteacher on differentiation, which defined it as a key aspect of great lessons – see here. I was most interested in the role of inclusive questioning in continuous differentiation. The first, and most crucial, aspect of differentiation is knowing your students. Of course, I don’t mean knowing your students just by their name, although this is important (I once spent a month in a sulk because one of my teachers kept getting my name wrong!), but having a thorough understanding of their skills and knowledge level, beyond just prior attainment and their target level or grade. Just as important is the intimate, expert knowledge of the soft skills of our students: their confidence level; their willingness to speak in group activities, or to contribute in front of the whole class; their attitude, or mindset to learning, and your subject in particular. When we know our students, and particularly their soft skills, we can undertake excellent inclusive questioning which will help progress their learning.
This brings me around to the specifics of questioning: our bread and butter – the stuff that connects and binds our pedagogy. Whether we are undertaking Direct Instruction (see link) or Cooperative learning, the learning and progress hinges on effective questioning. Skilful differentiation is also dependent upon skilful inclusive questioning.
So what are the key aspects of inclusive questioning:
1. Ask Good Questions – open AND closed:
Now, the vast majority of in-class questions are closed questions which elicit immediate, but limited responses; whereas, an estimated twenty per cent are open questions, where students are encouraged to broaden their horizons. A simple assumption is ‘closed questions bad, open questions good‘. This isn’t the whole truth: closed questions are often essential in taking a litmus test response to knowledge. It can have a beneficial on behaviour: ensuring that a lot of students have to respond and show their knowledge in a sort space of time. Many teachers use hinge questions (a closed multiple choice style) to make a judgement as to whether students are ready to proceed to a new topic or aspect of a topic. Open questions obviously confer the benefit of eliciting higher order understanding. Each question type needs to be directed to students based on our knowledge and understanding of the students, and indeed the situation at hand – this is effective differentiation.
Teacher question: What is foreboding?
Student answer: It is when the writer hints at negative events to come.
Closed ‘hinge’ questioning
Teacher question: Which character suffers from the negative effects of racial segregation?
A) Crooks B) Curley C) Candy D) Carlson
Student answer: A) Crooks
Teacher question: Which characters suffer the greatest degree of loneliness in ‘Of Mice and Men’ and why?
Student answer: I think that Crooks is the loneliest character because he is physically, mentally and emotional separated from the other men. There is only one other African American family in Soledad, therefore he can never really establish a range of lasting friendships. I also think that Curley’s wife….
Open ‘hinge’ questions:
Teacher question: Which character suffers from the greatest degree of loneliness? Be prepared to justify your assertion and comparing characters A to D: A) Crooks B) Curley’s wife C) Candy D) George
Student answer: I would choose D) George because once he kills Lennie he will forever be living with his guilt and will no longer be able to develop friendships without thinking of Lennie. This loneliness will be worse than Crooks because….
2. Provide Adequate Thinking Time:
This may not appear to relate to differentiation, but there is a great deal of evidence outlining how the quality and depth of feedback can depend on quality waiting time. Even waiting seven seconds can have a positive impact on the quality of feedback – which therefore increases the degree of inclusivity. Varying the degree of waiting time before eliciting a response can be a type of differentiation, but ultimately it removes a justification not to respond to the question, as everyone has been given an adequate amount of time to form a response.
3. Provide Peer Support:
Whether it is ‘think-pair-share‘, ‘jig-sawing‘ or another cooperative learning activity, giving students the chance to talk with their peers to test their hypothesis, or to challenge others, provides a supportive scaffold that means that students can give answers that they have practised orally. This ensures everyone can be included in the feedback – real inclusivity and differentiation.
Provide peer solutions by offering models like the ‘Who Wants To Be A Millionaire’ style approach, like ‘phone a friend’ (not a fan really, but I can see the benefits); provide a 50:50 option etc. for me, if you are using these models, it is important that on other occasions all students are expected to give an answer to questions without support – I think it is important to set this high levels challenge to ensure students can work independently when required.
4. Ask Targeted Questions:
This is a crucial aspect of inclusive questioning and it can lift the quality of feedback and provide a visible model of real progress. A good model would be to start with an open question which can elicit a range of responses e.g.
Teacher question: Which characters have the most/least power in ‘Of Mice and Men’?
Then, based on our knowledge of students, scaffold the feedback by identifying an expected quality of answer. Firstly, select a student who may struggle with the concept and find it hard to response with an original response – by going first, they can pick the more straightforward answer. Secondly, choose a student who is more able, so that they can develop a more in-depth answer, which you can add a degree of challenge to by getting them to respond to the first answer, by way of comparison. Finally, select a gifted and talented student, asking for their response, with an attendant synthesis and comparison with the two previous responses. The depth and quality of these questions and answers should gradually increase by the degree of challenge.
5. Use The ABC Feedback Model:
This simple strategy has probably had the biggest impact upon my practice over the last year or so. It is incredibly easy, but it adds a sophisticated degree of differentiation into the questioning process. By asking students to Agree with; Build upon; or Challenge the answers of other students allows students to build upon the responses of others, thereby giving a helpful scaffold to their ideas. By selecting the right students based on an escalating degree of challenge, we can give them options – the Agree with often being the ‘easiest‘ response, but not always; whereas some students can Build upon and Challenge previous responses. By bouncing these questions around the room you can exemplify differentiated progress of the highest order.
Teacher question: Which character would you most like to sit next to?
Student A answer: I would most like to sit next to Crooks. As he can read well, because he owns books, he could help me with answers and we could discuss our ideas.
Teacher question: Student B, give some ABC feedback based on A’s answer
Student B answer: I would build upon that idea: Crooks would be good to get answers from, but he might make me excluded from my friends just because I was speaking to a black man. Therefore I would probably challenge A’s answer, choosing Slim instead. slim is also intelligent, but he is popular, and you have to think about having friends as well as giving good answers in class.
By bouncing the questions around the class, it increases the level of inclusivity, whilst also potentially increasing engagement and listening skills, as students know they may be asked to response to the answers given by other students. I think this has an attendant benefit for student behaviour too.
This last week I had the pleasure to read some excellent blogs on outstanding practice. It was fascinating to see what fellow practitioners think about great teaching, with exemplary practice outlined in a very helpful way. In this post by David Didau here there is a hugely useful model of what a great lesson looks like. In this post by Tom Sherrington here there is a breakdown about the qualities of great teaching more generally: with a particular focus upon ‘rigour’ (reclaiming it from Govean parody!). I was interested in the overlap and interplay between those two posts. I happened to be teaching ‘Of Mice and Men’ with my Year 10 group at the moment, like David, and I too was being observed. What I wanted to do was not aim to exhibit a ‘showpiece’ one-off lesson (although these can be rattled out the bag by many experienced practitioners to mask a dull daily reality). I was intent on representing the real routines my group exemplify in any given lesson – to display the rigour articulated by Tom Sherrington, combined (hopefully!) with some of the outstanding strategies employed by David Didau.
Although we all feel pressure to perform when observed, we must aim for consistency in our practice before a pursuit of an outstanding lesson judgement, and we must trust in ourselves that this consistency will be rewarded. I have heard from a few wise leaders who have said that if every lesson saw our students display good progress then we would cumulatively see good to outstanding progress in student attainment. Of course, there are a host of important contextual factors to consider, but on a simple level, sticking to the ‘three Rs‘ of relentless and rigorous routines would see students flourish. I do not think it is having low standards to be happy with a consistent sequence of very good lessons, rather than haul ourselves over the coals in an obsessive pursuit of outstanding; it is effective pragmatism and a realisation that rapid progress does not happen every lesson. I have found that some cast iron ‘outstanding’ plans just don’t spark on the day, whilst seemingly simple lessons can smash through the ceiling of mediocrity and see students reach new heights. We must then reflect with care, but without despondency if the lesson doesn’t turn out exactly as we planned or wanted. What is crucial is that we learn from the experience of the lessons that didn’t go well and then tweak our pedagogy to improve still further.
With this in mind I tried to aim for a great sequence of lessons, where hopefully the observation lesson would show an accumulation of skills, rather than a one off showpiece. The following sequence of lessons outlines the planning for most of the week, with the lesson plans for before and after the observation lesson being just as crucial:
– Key question: How does the theme of power link to the theme of loneliness?
– Starter: Who would make the better American president? See PPT. Student feedback: ‘Pose-pause-pounce-bounce’.
– In pairs, create a ‘power map’ using the ‘Character Cards’ resource. The pairing then needs to select three of the characters who have distinctive power relations. – They should co-construct a top grade paragraph that answers the key question. This should be done with students writing alternate sentences (with each partner orally critiquing the sentence of one another) and it should be completed on paper (for the gallery critique).
– Any questions should be posted on the ‘Question wall’.
– Recap the four steps of effective evidence analysis – their group target.
– Recap their proof reading target – each pairing is given two minutes DIRT time on their paragraph (Dedicated Improvement and Reflection Time).
– Complete a gallery critique. Remind students about the criteria for their feedback and how many paragraphs they should read ideally. The critique notes will be made on a post it note – using the ABC feedback model (Agree with; Build Upon and Challenge). Conduct oral feedback.
Tuesday’s Lesson (Observation lesson)
– Key question: How is the theme of friendship presented in relation to the theme of loneliness?Obscure the two themes from the KQ and probe some ideas.
– Starter: Who would you most like to sit next to in class? See PPT. ‘Think-pair-share’ responses using the ABC feedback model.
– Revisit the key question and elicit oral feedback using the ‘Pose-pause-bounce-pounce’ model.
– ‘Just a minute’ recap of last lesson from selected student – link to current KQ (articulate end goal of controlled assessment essay).
– In pairs, use character cards to create a friendship map (this is intentionally an open concept). Ask observer to select a map that is interesting. Get that pairing to rearrange the characters on the PPT slide – (See PPT) – whilst orally articulating their ‘map’. Get other pairings to conduct ABC feedback.
In pairs, write a model paragraph that answers the key question (akin to last lesson). Remind students that they need to write alternate sentences. Show a model PEEL high grade paragraph response – see PPT – with ‘four steps to a successful explanation’ model – see images slide on PPT. Question students about why the paragraph is so successful.
– Have two minutes DIRT time (use highlighters).
– Conduct a gallery critique (teacher model first oral response).
– Key question: How does social prejudice exacerbate loneliness?
– A student is made the ‘Secret Teacher‘ to privately note the best oral responses.
– Individuals note a list of the prejudices present in the novella. In groups, discuss those prejudices. Conduct ABC feedback
– ‘Prejudice Continuum’: the students have to individually select where they think each prejudice resides on the line, from ‘Most individually damaging’ to ‘least individually damaging’. Teacher orchestrates feedback and the ‘Secret teacher‘ orders the answers along the continuum.
– Individual writing of a top grade paragraph addressing the key question. Show two model examples from last lesson and unpick and reiterate key points. Use the question wall for any student questions, with post it notes, and allow a one minute question session midway through their writing. Otherwise, work in silence.
– Have two minutes DIRT time for their writing – with peer proof reading, then individual proof reading. Conduct oral feedback. Select students to read their paragraph, with another student having to give constructive feedback based on our writing targets from the previous week (a four step model to explain evidence).
– The ‘Secret teacher‘ gives feedback on their observations.
(There was a fourth lesson in the week but I wanted to keep the post to a reasonable size!)
Useful resources referred to in lesson plans:
Of Mice and Men 'Character Cards': OM&M Character cards
Review of the week and the ‘Three Rs’
What I hope is evident is that much of the pedagogy in the lesson plans above is repeated to develop and deepen the habits required to produce great learning. Consistency, good habits and routine are king. The first two lessons of the week, in particular, clearly mirror one another to develop the required writing skills. Repetition is often frowned upon in education, with the misguided notion we should be endlessly creative and different to maintain the interest of students. Students derive comfort and increasing expertise through incrementally increasing the level of challenge through the repetition of the most effective teaching and learning strategies, not from an endless array of activities.
The reality of the lessons outlined above is that I also learnt a great deal about where they stumbled on Monday, when student progress that was definitely not outstanding, to actually inform my planning for Tuesday. For example, they failed to analyse the quotations as successfully as I would have liked on Monday, which was rather unexpected, so I added in an A grade model on Tuesday and spent more time modelling the paragraph structure to enhance their quality of analysis in the subsequent lesson. Not every lesson sees rapid progress – to think this is the case is to have a fundamental misunderstanding of human nature…never mind hormonal teenagers! By working at the core habits relentlessly; however, I was able to make ‘marginal gains’ lesson upon lesson – only nuanced, slight improvements, but essential differences (this recognition often becomes easier with experience). Good became better.
Another clear factor about my pedagogy I hope is in evidence is my focus upon questioning see here and oral feedback see here. I couldn’t write those blog posts without practising what I preach! What is clear is that OFSTED are interested in progress– (it is the latest buzz word careering around schools). Some people are therefore quick to mystify this term, complicating what can be the best, and sometimes the most traditional, of teaching and learning strategies: simply asking great questions and eliciting thoughtful, intelligent feedback. When I hear we people explaining ‘mini-plenaries’ every fifteen minutes, or have our students spinning plates in different ‘learning stations’, with no real deep understanding or knowledge, just for when the OFSTED inspectors are in the room, I despair. Stop the showpiece; don’t invite the circus to town – just follow habits of excellent routine pedagogy!
If we develop real rigour in our habits then it will be obvious that students are learning and making good, or sometimes even rapid, progress: clearly in their attitude and demeanour; in the quality of their questions and feedback; in their written work and in their books or folders. Each one of my lessons above allocated time to make improvements (DIRT). It is trained behaviour, that may appear uninspired or lacking the necessary rapidity, but the rigour of proof reading may well be the two most important minutes of those lessons. Any observer should note that rapid progress is often the product of slow reflection! Not only that, it is this regular habit which may well transfer to becoming more settled habits for students when writing at any time in any subject – the learning trumps the chase for a great observation once more. It is a rigorous routine of real note (thank you Jackie Breere for the inspiration for DIRT) – whether a lesson is graded outstanding or not, students will reap the rewards of such sound learning.
When I speak to many colleagues they simply want to be shown what an outstanding lesson is, what it looks like, and how they can replicate it. This is problematic: as outstanding looks, sounds and feels different in different subjects. That being said, some definitive patterns of learning arise in great lessons. For me, those are seeing students highly engaged in responding to challenging questions, posed by a teacher with the highest of standards; it is feedback being artfully weaved around the group, lifting understanding; it is students reflecting with due care attention to their thinking and their work; and it is the palpable sense of motivation and commitment to the task at hand. These patterns are honed by routine, not derived from any off the peg lesson plan or formula for success.
Postscript: I am thankful to David Didau, Jackie Breere and David Docherty for their ideas that have informed my lesson plans outlined in this post.