“I learnt this little performance trick in only twenty minutes!” “Outstanding!”
My school is awaiting the imminent visit of OFSTED. No matter how sensible everyone wants to be regarding the matter, and I would like to think our school is definitely not responding with the hysteria I have heard attending other schools, there is always a sense of palpable unease. This springs from many matters, but primarily from a culture of uncertainty created by OFSTED, with subsequent uncertain and ill-judged decisions made by schools in response to OFSTED, and with some educational consultants exploiting the confusion. In the research of Shafir and Tapersky (1993) they showed that when faced with uncertainty people fail to make logical decisions and often defer decision making altogether. Whatever the reasons for the uncertainty created by OFSTED, misnomers and fears abound, leading to a pervasive skewing of good learning and an erosion of trust in schools that we must fight against. We are left with the ‘OFSTED Uncertainty Principle’: which is that given the irrational fear of OFSTED, and the lack of clarity in their communication, schools make bad decisions and a climate of fear erodes the required conditions to actually improve teaching.
A major part of the problem is the mixed messages that emerge from OFSTED (as well as the ill-judged response from some schools). @oldandrewuk has presented the many contradictions that exist between what Sir Michael Wilshaw says about good teachers and teaching (much of which is highly laudable, despite his pantomime villain status) and then the evidence of what good practice videos OFSTED present – see his blogpost here: http://teachingbattleground.wordpress.com/2013/02/26/does-sir-michael-wilshaw-know-what-ofsted-good-practice-looks-like/. With the uncertainty regarding ‘what OFSTED wants’, it only opens the door for fearful, rushed decisions that help no-one, least of all our students. Anyone in education over the last couple of years will have heard horror stories of excessive new marking policies devised to present a new focus upon learning over time, but really created to respond to OFSTED inspectors looking through student books. Or the new hoop jumping craze that is teaching in bitesize twenty minutes slots, reducing teaching and learning to a circus of ‘progress’ exhibitionism! The coloured lolly sticks and cups of branded AfL materials abound because they ‘exhibit progress’, therefore the circus of ‘progress products’ emerges and teachers are diverted away from the sound basics of great teaching, such as questioning, oral feedback and clear explanations. All less brandable, less saleable and packageable of course, despite the fact that they patently work and always have done! I believe whole-heartedly in the impact of real AfL – I am less enamoured by the gimmick industry that surrounds it. Faced with uncertainty, like some addiction to self-help books, we try to buy in the solution, forgetting that the solution is already there – a shared knowledge between committed, knowledgeable professionals.
Clearly, the ‘OFSTED uncertainty principle’ leads to a detrimental ‘industry’ for the supposed OFSTED model, which is too often divorced from what schools actually need to improve teaching and learning in their unique context. Take for example this advert for CPD I sourced from @hgaldinoshea only is morning which actually inspired this post:
I’m sure there are many useful elements of this course, but the overt obsession with the ‘twenty minute’ teaching approach has become the latest ‘brand’ of teaching for the OFSTED industry that is wrong-headed and actually inhibits deep and truly ‘outstanding’ learning. I admit, this is not necessarily the fault of OFSTED, but they must communicate their aims across their organisation better, or school experiences shared between teachers by word of mouth threaten to waste any positives shared by Wilshaw himself. When coupled with the OFSTED good practice videos, schools build a picture of good learning that appears more about performing than learning. I know teachers who can perform brilliantly, but many other teachers who don’t sing and dance in twenty minute spells but help their students learn better and deeper and become disheartened and dissuaded from holding steady to their style that works brilliantly and is sustained and valuable. This short-termism of the ‘twenty minute make-over‘ (like the naff home improvement television show, it looks good, but when you scratch beneath the surface of the decoration nothing works properly!) is clearly insufficient for sustained, deep learning. It exhibits ‘engagement‘ but not learning. Teachers need to get the attention of their students, they need to engage them in the knowledge of their particular subject, but we must be wary that it does not necessarily translate into the deeper learning that produces actual knowledge and success for our students.
In contrast to the course outlined above, feeding off the ‘OFSTED uncertainty principle’, OFSTED have released some excellent information about good teaching. As an English teacher, I refer to the excellent ‘Moving English Forward‘ document regularly. I started off the school year with it in my department as a timely reminder. It makes clear that ‘excessive pace’ and an ‘excessive number of activities’ is one of the attributes that actually inhibits great learning. I expect the message of the report contradicts many messages currently being circulated around schools when presented with the message of twenty minute progress performances. @oldandrewuk, once again, shared this speech from Wilshaw that makes many salient points all teachers and school leaders would know to help them hold steady. If schools demand three page lesson plans then Wilshaw’s point that planning “shouldn’t be too detailed” and should be flexible is a stark assertion. If schools are advocating a common lesson structure formula, particularly one that includes twenty minute ‘progress points’, then Wilshaw’s statement that a “formulaic approach” that becomes a “stultifying mould” bears serious reflection. My Head teacher, @johntomsett, chose to share that speech with the whole staff to quell misapprehensions, misnomers and fears. I think it created some sense of relief and eased fears. I was asked a question by a colleague, when I was delivering training on questioning and feedback, about whether every student had to answer a question to exhibit the required progress. Expected by OFSTED – in a class of thirty…in twenty minutes! This may seem an absurd and unrealistic requirement, but committed teachers are clearly uncertain if they are even asking that question. Sir Michael would do well to exploit his media machine and considerable influence to repeat his message over and over until it sticks with teachers and leaders…and inspectors… in every school.
The blame doesn’t lay solely with OFSTED, although they exhibit contradictions in their messages to schools and inconsistencies in their approach which are damaging. We, as teachers, must respond by rejecting the false idols of teaching and learning supposedly labelled the ‘OFSTED way‘, particularly any shallow notion of progress – especially in its latest twenty minute gimmickry guise. We must retain trust in our colleagues and hold steady to our shared understanding of great teaching and learning. We must present compelling arguments for what great teaching is in our specific context: to OFSTED, to the DfE, to parents, to governors and to anybody else who is listening. Finally, we must collaborate and trust one another to eliminate the ‘OFSTED uncertainty principle’, resisting temporary, knee-jerk changes in favour of sustained and shared shifts in our practice that make a real difference.
(This post is a copy of my article for the Guardian Teacher network)
I’m a huge football fan and I always have been since my father took me to watch Everton with the promise of dour football and a lukewarm pie. Such inspiration led me to play football almost continuously throughout my childhood to the present day. If I was to total my hours of practice it would surely be in the thousands. In fact, it would near the 10,000 hours total which has been associated with becoming an expert by people in the know. Only I am not an expert. I am little better than I was when I was a spotty teenager. A long time ago I stopped improving at football. I had reached my ‘ok plateau’. I was no Wayne Rooney and I had accepted that I was going to be ok as a happy amateur. So how does my football practice explain the problem of teacher improvement?
The author, Joshua Foer, originated the term ‘ok plateau’ in his popular science book, Moonwalking with Einstein, on the subject of improving memory. He used it to describe that common autopilot state when you have habitually mastered the basics of a task, but despite being skilled you stop really improving to reach expert status; you simply plateau in performance.
Teachers are as prone as any other profession to this state. After our time as a trainee and NQT, when we are grasping new knowledge and making successful connections, our improvement slows, sometimes to a stop. This, unsurprisingly correlates with a decline in regular coaching.
The evidence, from Rivkin, Hanushek and Kain (2005), is that after the first couple of years teacher quality reaches a plateau and teacher experience beyond this point has a negligible impact upon student attainment. This clashes with our basic presumptions about experience in teaching and it should certainly give us thought.
I believe I experienced a similar ‘ok plateau’ for at least five or six years. After mastering the craft of behaviour management and getting to know the nuts of bolts of teaching English I was simply happy to be doing a good job. With the storm of demands created by workload, any improvement beyond this point seemed fanciful. I stopped reading about teaching and learning and I stopped being coached with genuine regularity.
Part of the problem is our system of continuous performance development (CPD). This system is tied to targets and professional standards that actually inhibit conscientious teachers taking risks and experimenting with new teaching strategies. We set targets, either consciously or subconsciously, so that we may meet them, regardless whether they genuinely improve our practice or not. Gone is the regular critical feedback of our first couple of years. We move into autopilot, often even entering a state of professional inertia.
There are no quick fixes to the issue of genuine continuous teacher improvement. One method is to undertake consistent coaching systems that better imitate our earlier state as training teachers. We need to separate the judgemental CPD targets from genuinely developmental strategies, like coaching in departments. In my school we are employing a team of expert coaches to drive research and personal coaching across the school. In departments, we are also moving to a more personalised coaching model where feedback is constructively critical and consistent, with time allocated to do this.
A key issue is that experienced teachers are not undertaking the most effective method to continuously improve; deliberate practice (see my blog post on the subject here. Deliberate practice involves chunking smaller aspects of pedagogy and repeating that practice with lots of immediate coaching feedback. When I play football I get no specific feedback, it is trial and error, with lots of uncorrected errors. Deliberate practice is about a self-critical process of reflection and gradually, but consistently, raising the level of challenge. It is the responsibility of the teacher to be committed to such time consuming and challenging practice, but it is also the responsibility of school leaders to support teachers and to create fertile conditions for such development.
There are many books that delineate effective deliberate practice and support successful teacher coaching, such as Practice Perfect, by Doug Lemov, or Talent is Overrated, by Geoff Golvin, so teachers can take some control of their own development if their school conditions prove barren.
Many teachers are now writing blogs to reflect on their practice; undertaking action research, attending TeachMeets, or connecting with other teachers in professional networks, such as Twitter, to develop their pedagogy. There is such a passion and commitment to our vocation that I see every day in our profession that is heartening.
I may be a bit past my dream of playing for Everton, but with the right type of practice and support I can improve to eventually become an expert teacher. When Dylan Wiliam popularises research that proves that students with the best teachers learn twice as fast as average then our pursuit of excellence, with effective coaching and deliberate practice, could just make a transformative difference for our students.
So often this year I have encountered students crippled with a fear of failure. At this time of year, with exams looming, that crisis of confidence can erupt – flattening a student with terrific force. In schools we can use the resilient language of the ‘growth mindset’, but for many students it never comes close to penetrating the hardened layers of protective shell that students have formed from an early age. I also sense that despite our willing use of the language of the ‘growth mindset’ as teachers, we too often doubt that willing resilience will see us tackle failure confidently and that success will follow. With these thoughts in mind I came across this speech by J K Rowling, given as a Harvard commencement address back in 2008, that eloquently articulates the benefits of failure:
“Ultimately, we all have to decide for ourselves what constitutes failure, but the world is quite eager to give you a set of criteria if you let it. So I think it fair to say that by any conventional measure, a mere seven years after my graduation day, I had failed on an epic scale. An exceptionally short-lived marriage had imploded, and I was jobless, a lone parent, and as poor as it is possible to be in modern Britain, without being homeless. The fears that my parents had had for me, and that I had had for myself, had both come to pass, and by every usual standard, I was the biggest failure I knew.
Now, I am not going to stand here and tell you that failure is fun. That period of my life was a dark one, and I had no idea that there was going to be what the press has since represented as a kind of fairy tale resolution. I had no idea then how far the tunnel extended, and for a long time, any light at the end of it was a hope rather than a reality.
So why do I talk about the benefits of failure? Simply because failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me. Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena I believed I truly belonged. I was set free, because my greatest fear had been realised, and I was still alive, and I still had a daughter whom I adored, and I had an old typewriter and a big idea. And so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.
You might never fail on the scale I did, but some failure in life is inevitable. It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default.
Failure gave me an inner security that I had never attained by passing examinations. Failure taught me things about myself that I could have learned no other way. I discovered that I had a strong will, and more discipline than I had suspected; I also found out that I had friends whose value was truly above the price of rubies.
The knowledge that you have emerged wiser and stronger from setbacks means that you are, ever after, secure in your ability to survive. You will never truly know yourself, or the strength of your relationships, until both have been tested by adversity. Such knowledge is a true gift, for all that it is painfully won, and it has been worth more than any qualification I ever earned.”
J. K. Rowling See full transcript here.
In a testing fortnight personally, when I too had experienced failure, the speech resonated deeply. Also, if I were to look back on my teenage self I would see a boy terrified of failure. Now, the more I fail the more I manage to succeed. The adversity and strength gained by overcoming failure has meant I am happy to tackle challenges I wouldn’t have thought possible as a student. Job interviews, public talks, public writing – all frighteningly public opportunities for failure, but all tackled with something like excitement and a healthy dose of fear. I need to keep communicating that to students. Don’t be afraid to fail. Aim to fail with confidence.
Coincidentally, J K Rowling gave this speech in Boston, not far away from Walden Pond, where Henry David Thoreau had written about living “deliberately” over a century and a half before. The parallels between the words of each famed writer about how we need to live are clear:
“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary.”
Henry David Thoreau, ‘Walden or ‘Life in the Woods”
Over the coming weeks I am going to aim to remember to continue to attempt to fail with confidence and draw confidence from failure. I am going to try to communicate that message to my students. I have a suspicion it may lead to some success and that “inner security” described by J K Rowling.
There is a lot of cognitive science research that proves what revision strategies work best for embedding information into the long term memory – which is our goal in relation to exam success. Some of it is common sense, but other aspects may surprise you or challenge your thinking.
There are many time-consuming revision strategies that actually fool us into thinking we have embedded the knowledge into our long term memory. For example, simply re-reading texts or notes has been seen to have a low impact with regard to memory retention, especially considering how much time this can take, but students are happy because this is a relatively undemanding task that takes little mental effort and it feels like effective revision. Re-reading ‘Of Mice and Men’ for an English Literature exam doesn’t have the impact we need, especially given how time consuming it is as a revision activity, therefore other, better, strategies should be undertaken. Other edu-myths also cloud effective planning for exam revision. There is an old adage abound in education that: “We learn: 10 percent of what we read; 20 percent of what we hear; 30 percent of what we both see and hear; 50 percent of what we discussed with others; 80 percent of what we experience personally; 95 percent of what we teach to someone else.” This is a myth based on no evidence. It has become perpetuated because it is an easily reductive formula, but it is unfounded. David Didau lances this particularly boil to good effect here. We must go beyond these simplifications and seek answers from more reputable research to judge against our experience.
The following strategies are underpinned by more reputable scientific research and evidence:
– Information retrieval over re-reading: It may prove more challenging in the short term, but getting students to try to remember the content of a given topic is more effective than making revision notes based on their original content, textbooks etc. ‘Concept mapping’ is an ideal teaching tool for this (think of its popular branding, image and colour laden brother ‘mind-mapping’!). At the end of each week for example, have students attempt to retrieve the information, without their notes or books. They create a hierarchy of connections that they can attempt to organise conceptually.
Research: http://learninglab.psych.purdue.edu/downloads/2012_Karpicke_CDPS.pdf. Thank you to @websofsubstance whose excellent blog post of retrieval helped me source this research: http://websofsubstance.wordpress.com/2013/04/06/golden-retrievers/
– Collaborative retrieval: Typically we associate revision activities and memory as requiring individual focus. Indeed, there is some evidence that group work can inhibit some learning, but there is evidence that students working in groups can have a positive effect, where students work together ‘cross cueing’ the information they are recalling. Put simply, they help one another remember and retrieve aspects of key information they would not have remembered individually. Also, the social nature of working together can create memory cues that help individuals recall well over time. Of course, any errors in retrieval, either individually or collaboratively, need teacher correction.
– ‘Spacing’ versus ‘massed’ practice: This finding is common sense really. ‘Spacing‘ is when revising the same information two or three times across a few days improves the likelihood of retaining information in the long term memory (Nuttall, 1999). This may include revising a poem and making connections with another poem, then revisiting the key aspects of that poem in the subsequent lesson, before finally doing a ‘concept map’ at the end of the week to revise the learning from the lessons that week. ‘Massed‘ practice, or ‘cramming‘, can have a good short term effect on memory recall, but it fails in the long term in comparison to ‘spacing’ out revision. There is no exact time or number of days concerning how much ‘spaced’ time should be allocated; however, the research indicted the number of days ‘spacing’ is shorter the nearer the exam. In practical terms, over a half-term, we could revisit a concept after a couple of weeks, but nearer they exam we would cluster a couple more ‘revisions’ of the concept/information.
David Didau has written an excellent blog explaining spacing etc. and the implications for curriculum planning, and what ‘progress’ in learning may look like here.
Research: http://psi.sagepub.com/content/14/1/4.full.pdf?ijkey=Z10jaVH/60XQM&keytype=ref&siteid=sppsi and for an in-depth focus on ‘spacing’: http://uweb.cas.usf.edu/~drohrer/pdfs/Carpenter_et_al_2012EPR.pdf
– Using ‘worked examples’: This is the common method of using past exemplars or creating your own through ‘shared writing‘ strategies. It gives students a working template for their revision and reduces obstacles that stops them learning more knowledge. Ideally, teachers should lead model worked examples of exam questions, thereby giving students a clear idea of an excellent answer, before fading back and letting students tackle exam questions independently. Of course, once more, quality feedback is key in this process.
A great blog by Joe Kirby goes into great depth about the ‘why’ of using ‘worked examples’ here.
– Regular in-class testing: Drilling answers to tests, under test conditions, can improve both short term and long term memory to boost revision (Roediger et al 2011). Like the retrieval practice of ‘concept mapping’, the very act of retrieval without resources to support proves more memorable than any ‘re-study’ activity. Taking a test can lead to students becoming less confident, therefore quick and accurate feedback is key to making testing highly effective and building confidence. There is research to say that teachers often drastically overestimate what they believe their students to know (Kelly, 1999) so repeated testing is a practical necessity. In terms of learning, there is much research that testing revision material has a positive impact on long term memory in comparison with simply revisiting material.
Another important consideration is that students naturally revise in a ‘massed’ learning style i.e. last minute cramming! It is labelled the ‘procrastination scallop‘ by Jack Michael here. This led to a recommended ‘exam a day’ approach, which forces students to distribute their revision more evenly, rather than just cramming. It may seem excessive, but getting students to do challenging retrieval that informs the teacher what they know and don’t know (and invariably if they have revised or not) regularly, like quizzes etc. could do the job.
Research: http://people.duke.edu/~ab259/pubs/Roediger&Butler(2010).pdf and the ‘exam a day’ research: http://www.teachpsych.com/ebooks/tips2011/I-07-01Leeming2002.pdf
A lot less scientific, but a fun revision strategy that works for many:
– Building a ‘palace of memory’ is a much less scientific way of improving memory recall, but it is apparently thousands of years old, originating with the Greek poet, Simonides of Ceos, in the fifth century BC. See this Guardian article for an excellent example of the method in action: http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2012/jan/15/memory-palaces-lists
How does this equate to a revision programme?
I am now avoiding revision activities or homework revision tasks that recommend simply revisiting information. I will plan to interleave different topics each week, to create the necessary ‘spacing’ between topics (in my English GCSE class this will mean studying poetry for English Literature at the start of the week, the novel and short stories in the middle of the week, ending the week with English Language revision). I will give regular mini-tests, drilling individual answers, with ‘worked examples’ in the first instance to model a good answer. The feedback on their answers will be timely and regular. I want to undertake weekly retrieval activities that reflect upon what they have learnt that week (combining ‘spacing’ and ‘retrieval’)
It is clear that the process of revision happens inside and outside the classroom. Students who possess the grit and resilience to persist with the humdrum nature of revision tasks will have a greater chance at success, but teachers must also identify and plan revision strategies that work. Of course, our experience and intuition about what will work best for our students is important, but we should challenge our assumptions with the wider research that is easily accessible on the web.