“I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who had practiced one kick 10,000 times.” Bruce Lee
When I was a young boy I dreamt of being like Bruce Lee. He had complete mastery over his body and mind. He was a genius who could also beat anybody up, if required…crucial for a young, bespectacled light-weight like me! I remember owning a book on ‘Hung Ga Kung Fu‘ – only, I never did commit myself to the training. For one, no-one wanted to grapple with me or be repeatedly kicked a thousand times over, and secondly, my big brother was, well…just too big! After dabbling with a few thousand hours of football practice over the years, without expertise, the next great passion became the pursuit of becoming an expert teacher. This is what brings me back around to Bruce Lee twenty years later. His quotation above about ‘deliberate practice‘ has many ramifications for what our professionalism means and how we must work in schools to improve if we want to become experts and great teachers. The ‘Twelve Bridges’ of ‘Hung Ga Kung Fu’ provide excellent behaviour management poses for the discerning teacher!
Many people know the many great quotations about effort trumping ability; about genius resulting from resilient persistence, rather than innate ability. The mystique that attends the genius attributed to the likes of Bruce Lee (I remember the stories about his fabled ‘one inch punch’ or his superhuman flexibility) is stripped away and the theory of ‘10,000 hours’ of practice presents us with an all too human answer to what becoming an expert means – simply lots of effort! Although more nuanced scientific evidence deems the epic 10,000 as an average, with research proving 3,000 hours can establish expert status in a specific domain, such as chess – see the research here). A famous example of the popular 10,000 hours hypothesis is in Malcolm Gladwell’s enjoyable narrative, based loosely on the theme of ‘deliberate practice‘ , entitled ‘Outliers‘. Gladwell takes a more anecdotal, magazine-style approach; whereas the likes of Geoff Colvin grapple with a more rigorous on ‘deliberate practice’, which is much more specific and complex a narrative than Gladwell suggests. A good example is this golfing analogy form Colvin:
“For example: Simply hitting a bucket of balls is not deliberate practice, which is why most golfers don’t get better. Hitting an eight-iron 300 times with a goal of leaving the ball within 20 feet of the pin 80 percent of the time, continually observing results and making appropriate adjustments, and doing that for hours every day – that’s deliberate practice.” Geoff Colvin, ‘What It takes to be Great’
Interesting elements of the research used by Colvin, from K Anders Ericsson deserve a reading and could be compressed into nuggets like this:
“Across many domains of expertise, a remarkably consistent pattern emerges: The best individuals start practice at earlier ages and maintain a higher level of daily practice. Moreover, estimates indicate that at any given age the best individuals in quite different domains, such as sports and music, spend similar amounts of time on deliberate practice. In virtually all domains, there is evidence that the most important activity— practice, thinking, or writing—requires considerable effort and is scheduled for a fixed period during the day. For those exceptional individuals who sustain this regular activity for months and years, its duration is limited to 2-4 h a day, which is a fraction of their time awake.” ‘The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance’, K. Anders Ericsson, Ralf Th. Krampe, and Clemens Tesch-Romer
Now, undertaking a vast amount of practice does not confer expertise, otherwise we would have moved towards some practice driven master-race long ago! A whole host of other factors weigh into the mix to complicate the rightly lauded power of effort. Factors such as the underpinning motivational qualities and perseverance of the individual; the quality of coaching; the innate cognitive ability of the person and the capacity of their working memory to retain key information. These are just some of the complications that muddy the narrative somewhat. Yet, they may muddy the water, but they do not eliminate the big fish of the idea: that the simple but very powerful idea that ‘deliberate practice‘ can have a transformative impact on performance for teachers and beyond.
Also, it is crucial to note that just turning up for work and bashing out a few lessons is not true ‘deliberate practice‘ either. ‘Deliberate practice‘ has some very specific qualities which differentiate it from mere ‘practice‘, or what we typically deem ‘work‘. This is what is key for schools when aiming for a successful Performance Development system for example. ‘Deliberate practice‘ is not ‘mindless‘ repetition, where a teacher uses the same resource or strategy willy nilly, in a loose ‘trail and error’. It is not trying lots of fun, new resources or teaching strategies out on a pliant group. Instead, it is about a deeply reflective process, that is highly rigorous and specific.
It is therefore often slow and difficult – nothing like the ‘flow’ state articulated by the likes of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. It requires organisation and often works best as action research, or other such reflective process, like blogging your practice. The process undertaken is not easy – therefore discipline, the sort possessed by a rare few, is paramount. The ‘flow’ may come later, with mastery of an aspect of teaching for example, if at all. Too often in education we expect that if we adapt to find something that will establish that ‘flow’ for students they will fly, but the reality is that we are doing them a disservice. if we never make them persevere with the struggle and failure of undertaking difficult work they will never have the ‘grit’ to be true experts in anything. We need to train ourselves, and our students in what W. B. Yeat’s poetically described as “the fascination of what is difficult” if we are to last the course. It takes time and effort – some deep habit forming actions – with a strong degree of resilience to plough through the many failures on the path to mastery.
Here is my simplified idea of some of the key steps in the process:
Key Steps for Successful ‘Deliberate Practice’
1. Define the time and place High quality ‘deliberate practice’ requires a careful consideration of time and place (just like good habit forming). Consider: when is the best time to reflect? When are you best focused and for how long? Define the time and place specifically. Be consistent and persistent about the habit. Ericsson’s research notes that consistency is key.
2. Research your evidence thoroughly, then define, and refine, your focus. Share with a coach/critical friend Then there is the reflective thinking about the specific focus of the practice (intelligent research is key here). Have you researched all the evidence? Do you know your Hattie from your ‘Brain Gym’? Then each skill needs to be broken down into sharply defined elements. The focus is then entirely on that one minor element – over and over, as Bruce Lee describes. As Dylan Wiliam, rather paradoxically stated, “we must stop trying to do too many good things.” Our focus must be narrow – be it asking great questions; establishing rigorous peer feedback etc. – otherwise we will not be able to make exacting improvements. Too much ‘Performance Development’ is over ambitious, has too many strands, or is has distractions divorced from our core pedagogy.
3. Record your evidence and your reflections systematically. Have an open and frank dialogue with your coach on a consistent basis Then it becomes a case of recording that practice (the aforementioned action research and blogging is ideal). It could be an individual blog, or a departmental or school blog. It can be better when you are part of a group whom are willing to give you focused, supportive criticisms, but sometimes that is impractical for the degree of close coaching required. The audience and feedback to a blog can also be very useful to the process. What is important is that we record continually to give structure to our reflections. If we leave our responses down to memory we may well fall prey to ‘confirmation bias‘ i.e. we will believe what we want to believe! This is far from easy in the hurly burly of the day job, so school leaders would do well to facilitate as much of this time as possible, providing resources such as time (all important), the technical support and high quality coaches. Good quality time: such as your coach observing your practice (it could be as short as five minutes) and giving you very specific feedback; or observing experts, within and without of your school, needs to happen weekly. Not only that, to make significant improvements the teacher must be willing to devote more time than could be realistically allocated within school hours. As Ron Berger states, an ‘ethic of excellence’ must be cultivated.
4. Share, reflect and repeat…and repeat… No-one said this process would be easy – becoming an expert in anything takes a grinding determination for betterment. Some people simply don’t care enough to face the difficulty – this is true in all professions and walks of life. Repetition is dull, recording evidence lacks the ‘sexiness’ of the performing act! It is why so few people become true experts. As teachers, we often enjoy the trialling of a new strategy – by the fifth attempt at improving the strategy, the inclination to undertake more student voice or record more summative evidence becomes a burden we simply let fall aside. This is where the discipline of step 1 comes in; as well as the responsibility to your coach and/or wider audience in step 2 and 3.
Coaching in Schools
Coaching is becoming a much more common phenomenon in schools. It is linked to ‘Performance Development’, but that link is problematic. Whilst performance targets are linked to career advancement, we will always naturally become risk averse; falling back upon more well established practices to meet the performance goals. This conservative response doesn’t encourage the attitude needed for the real development of expert skills. Not only that, the best laid plans of ‘Performance Development’ targets at the beginning of the school year often lack the flexibility required for really effective ‘deliberate practice‘. We become determined to ‘pass’ our ‘Performance Development’ target, regardless of whether the target itself may have become useless to our real development needs – if it ever was in the first place.
What schools must do, therefore, is carefully delineate between ‘coaching’ and ‘Performance Development’. They must coach good coaches; they must facilitate time for the deliberate practice to be observed, recorded and reflected upon. Schools must ask how they can lever this type of practice into our weekly structures. Schools must have a relentless focus upon sharing good pedagogy, whilst encouraging that sharing across the boundaries of the school gates. There is evidence to say that teachers stop developing after two or three years. That is to say, that basics of behaviour management are mastered and the basic repertoire of pedagogy is established, but then there must be a fallible ‘trial and error’ process stopping some teachers moving towards true expertise. In our PGCE year, and our NQT year, we typically receive consistent feedback and we often exist in a state of constant reflection (often with fraught nerves and on the brink of exhaustion!). The problem is that is after the close, consistent weekly coaching process stops then we inevitably plateau as professionals. We must work on the ‘continuous’ aspect of performance development in the truest sense: each day, each week and each term.
In reality, such a focused coaching process could be costly and time consuming. The only answer is for leaders to inspire a culture where teachers undertake ‘deliberate practice’ driven by a desire for betterment; where there is some time facilitated regularly; quality training in groups on pedagogy, not time frittered away in endless meetings. As a subject leader myself, I needed to be trained out of this fallacy. I thought a good meeting was nice and broad – sorting peripheral issues – when greater focus on pedagogy was required (any meeting time is simply too precious – we must find other methods to communicate the day to day business). I also need to work much harder in making meaningful coaching time and ‘deliberate practice’ happen for all the colleagues in our faculty. I would admit to struggling to find the right process to make coaching really meaningful and transformative – more ‘deliberateness’ is still required!
In the last year, on a personal basis, my blog has been a fantastic way to reflect and perform a weekly attempt at ‘deliberate practice‘. I have formed a time and place to execute my habit, which has knocked on to me spending much more time researching and reflecting on the day job. It feels nothing like ‘work‘ in the traditional sense, but it complements my day job brilliantly. As a subject leader, it is actually hard to find time to be coached for my own classroom practice, but the willing audience for my blogs has often filled a void brilliantly, inspiring me onward. My coaching targets have been questioning and improving feedback (the subjects of many of my blog posts). When I read this great blog by Joe Kirby here, an eloquent synthesis of Hattie, it brought me back to our opening faculty meeting this year, when we looked at those very effect sizes and started to size up our own coaching needs. My focus on questioning and honing in on quality feedback – very nearly aligned with Joe Kirby’s blog recommendations. My progress has been flawed, as such things always are. My colleagues and I all need to work on undertaking ‘deliberate practice’ with greater consistency – even as the demands of the day job are legion – but then expertise in anything never came easy, or without considerable time and effort. Crucially, we have to want to commit that time and effort – we must keep on kicking!
Support resources for ‘Action Research’, ‘Deliberate Practice’ and ‘Coaching’: Action Research:
Needs a sign up for full access but useful: http://www.expansiveeducation.net/pages/about-us/action-research
Does what it says on the tin! http://www.actionresearch.net/
Highly recommended by Zoe Elder – need I say more? http://www.jeanmcniff.com/ar-booklet.asp
Quite simply the link of links! http://larryferlazzo.edublogs.org/2012/07/21/the-best-resources-for-learning-about-the-10000-hour-rule-deliberative-practice/
Interesting article: http://calnewport.com/blog/2012/04/09/the-father-of-deliberate-practice-disowns-flow/
Clear and very useful blog: http://lifehacker.com/5939374/a-better-way-to-practice
Great overview of coaching for schools: http://thebeechconsultancy.co.uk/uploads/files/leading-coaching-in-schools.pdf Another good overview: http://www.cfbt.com/evidenceforeducation/pdf/5414_CfT_FINAL(Web).pdf
My faculty based coaching resources: https://huntingenglish.wordpress.com/2012/09/06/keep-getting-better-coaching-in-our-english-media-faculty/
Thank you to @Andyphilipday for the conversation that inspired this blog and to @fullonlearning for the many great links on action research.
I’ve written a fair few blog posts now so I need to put together an archive. Here is an organised selection of the vast majority of my posts. Enjoy!
Teaching and Learning
Top Ten Tips for Questioning: My most popular post by a country mile!
Questioning and Oral Feedback – Our Bread and Butter: A post on and oral feedback based on whole school training.
Question Time and Asking ‘Why’: a recent post on questioning – with some useful research and prompt resources.
Great Questions are the Answer: an early post developing my thoughts about the importqnce of questioning.
Inclusive questioning: a simple post with some modelled questions.
Making your Marking Policy a Feedback Policy: practical resource and rationale for improving feedback.
Improving Written Feedback: simple, practical and useful ideas.
Oral Feedback – Top Ten Strategies: does what it says on the tin!
Crafting and Drafting: Creating a Culture of Excellence: feedback Berger style.
Motivation Students Using Gallery Critique: Rob Berger once again the source for effective feedback strategy.
Other notable Teaching and Learning Posts:
Explanations: Top Ten Tips: lots of research but hopefully still practical.
Post It Note Pedagogy – Top Ten Tips: some useful strategies based on a cheap resource.
Top Ten Group Work Strategies: for all the constructivists out there, some common grouping strategies.
Effective Revision Strategies: a veritable buffet of cognitive science research to focus on what works for revision.
Effective Exam Revision – ‘Drill Baby Drill!’: a useful focus on exam practice.
Do Some Flipping Revision!: an exploration of some revision methods using the grandly labelled ‘flipped learning’.
Shared Writing – Modelling Mastery: one of my personal favourite teaching strategies.
The Three R’s and Aiming for Outstanding: a look at lesson planning for successful lessons.
Teacher Coaching and Related Posts on Teacher Improvement
Can Coaching Help Transform Teacher Quality?: Of course, the answer is yes!
Becoming a Better Teacher by ‘Deliberate Practice’: you may note my near obsession for DP!
Becoming a Better Teacher – Teachers Doing it for Themselves: My post on self-improvement used for my #TMClevedon presentation.
Coaching In Schools – My Top Five Reads: not your typical Coaching books.
Confidence – The Rosetta Stone of Teaching: one on the emotion related to the profession.
Failing with Confidence: written with NQTs in mind, but applies to everyone.
Overcoming the OK plateau and Becoming a Better Teacher: based on a Guardian article about teacher improvement.
Doing it all over again in September…Only Better: a motivational post!
Beating the October Blues – Better Learning with Better Behaviour: originally written for NQTs on behaviour management etc.
Keep Getting Better – Coaching In Our English and Media Faculty: an outline of our approach to coaching.
Marginal Gains Posts
Using Marginal Gains for Self-Assessment: the one with the useful bike wheel!
Student Learning with the Aggregation of Marginal Gains Model: more MG strategies & rationale.
New Teaching Ideas – Making Marginal Gains: some useful questioning and feedback strategies.
School Improvement: The Dave Brailsford Model: useful ideas for school leaders.
Politics and Polemics
We should Mistrust Ken Robinson: a critique of TED talk glamour and too much focus on educational gurus. It is nothing personal!
A Letter to Stephen Twigg by a Disillusioned Teacher: little has changed in my view of Twigg.
OFSTED Uncertainty Principle and Holding Steady: a popular OFSTED critique.
Reading with Michael Gove: some reasoned criticism of some of Gove’s pronouncements.
A Creative Curriculum Fit for 2013 and Beyond: a synthesis of some very good ideas and school models.
Evidence Driven Education: a reasoned appeal for evidence.
‘Against the Laws’: an angry response to a loose jibe from David Laws.
‘All Eggs In one Basket’ – The Three Hour Exam: some research outlining why a narrow assessment system is dangerous.
Alfie Kohn: Acheivement at the Expense of Learning: a link to an interesting Kohn video.
Passion and Teaching – A Reply: a teacherly celebration of passion.
Universal Panacea – Revaluing Education: a post proposing better CPD, National College etc.
Posts for English Teachers
Why English Teachers Love Teaching Tragedy: a favourite of mine. A heartfelt celebration of English teaching.
The Spark of Reading: a scientific celebration of reading.
Reading Fast and Slow: different approaches to reading.
Learning with the iPad
iPad Apps for English Teaching and Learning: a useful list.
Why iPad over Android in the Classroom?: some research and points of comparison.
Can the iPad Enhance Reading in the Classroom: debate on the role of tech in reading.
Can the iPad really help Student’s Writing?: some approaches explored.
The Three Fs for Using Technology in the Classroom – Flexible, Frequent and Familiar: the changing role of technology explored.
The IPad as a Tool for Collaboration: Great Pedagogy and Cost Effective!: argument for a different approach to technology.
Winning Ugly: The Secrets of ‘Gritty’ Teaching and Learning: an exploration of the importance of ‘grit’ and where it can be leveraged in our teaching practice.
The Top Five Essential Reads for Teachers: it does what it says really!
What Makes a Great Teacher: my take on a long-standing question.
Making the Learning Visible: Using Multiple Whiteboards: a philosophy for adapting the classroom for pedagogical purposes.
The Power of Habit and Helping Students Master their Habits: a useful post to consider based on my reading of habit changing.
Love English, Hate Maths?: my Guardian article defending Maths.
Cracking the Academic Code: a theory based post on scaffolding students’ language.
Making and Sustaining Habit Change in Education: my exploration of how the concepts from the Heath brothers’ book, ‘Switch’ can benefit education.
On my Blogging Anniversary – Why Write a Blog: a celebration of the power of blogging.
Is Character the Essential Student Outcome?: an exploration of ‘grit’ and non-cognitive qualities.
Wise Words for my Younger Self: a personal letter to myself as an NQT.
What my Parents Taught Me about an Education: another personal one – celebrating my parents as my role models.
A Taste of Berger – Reading ‘An Ethic of Excellence‘: one of my favourite books reviewed.
Americans love a ‘Spelling Bee‘. They are unique competitions where precocious children battle it out in a linguistic street-fight, whilst anxious parents look on with a mix of pride and anguish. It is a big deal in the USA. Arvind, the latest winner, won $30.000 for his efforts! If you have seen the compelling documentary, Spellbound, then you will know the intensity and drama of the competition. Recently, I came across some research attempting to diagnose the practice methods that accounted for the victors of these ‘Spelling Bee’ competitions – ‘Deliberate Practice Spells Success : Why Grittier Competitors Triumph at the National Spelling Bee‘, by Angela Duckworth et al. Clearly, Arvind Mahankali is a gritty individual! I am interested how we can create more Arvind’s in our classroom – students who are willing to apply the long-term effort and practice to succeed.
The research outlines two driving reasons for the success of the students, like Arvind, taking part in the ‘National Spelling Bee’: ‘grit‘ and ‘deliberate practice‘. Here is a helpful definition of ‘grit‘:
“We define grit as perseverance and passion for long-term goals. Grit entails working strenuously toward challenges, maintaining effort and interest over years despite failure, adversity, and plateaus in progress. The gritty individual approaches achievement as a marathon; his or her advantage is stamina. Whereas disappointment or boredom signals to others that it is time to change trajectory and cut losses, the gritty individual stays the course.”
From ‘Grit: Perseverance and Passion for Long-Term Goals’ by Angela L. Duckworth and Christopher Peterson
I have written a whole post defining ‘deliberate practice’ and its transformative power – see here. It can simply be defined as a mode of practice that is repeated consistently, but crucially supported by timely, precise feedback. It narrows the complexity of a task into specific components that can be drilled, honed and ultimately made automatic.
It is hard to extrapolate ‘answers‘ from the unique circumstances of the National Spelling Bee, or individuals like Arvind, to classroom learning more generally, but it does spark interesting questions about how we approach teaching and learning to promote ‘grit‘. I began to think of students in my own school whom I teach who share the same ‘grittiness’ as students like Arvind – the spelling superstar.
I teach one young man in one of my A Level classes. It is rather surprising he is sitting A levels at all. Based on his prior attainment, level 3 in his KS2 SATs, he is an unlikely candidate for further academic study; yet, he makes a mockery of national comparable outcomes. His GCSE results smashed his targets relative to equivalent students nationally and his success will no doubt continue. In my current year 10 GCSE class I have two students, one boy and one girl, who share all the ‘gritty’ traits of successful students like Arvind. At the start of the year, when I discussed their English targets with them, they both agreed to raise their personal target grades. Indeed, they pushed for this to be the case. Ever since they have approached lesson and every homework with a concerted effort that has outdone all their peers. It has seen them rise above expectations and achieve as well as, if not better, than other supposedly ‘brighter’ students with higher target grades.
I am fascinated by what processes and circumstances that create and develop students like those aforementioned. I would observe, from good knowledge of their siblings, that there is certainly an aspect of familial traits which account for their gritty character. Having role model parents exhibiting character traits that embody a true ‘grit’ goes a hell of a long way. According to John Hattie: “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”. As teachers and school leaders we do need to so a better job of sharing a dialogue with all parents about how to develop ‘grittiness’. Carole Dweck, in her work on the ‘growth mindset’, has very useful advice for parents on ‘praising effort and not ability’, ’embracing failure on the path to success’ and so on.
Of course, we need to go beyond talking the talk. we must teach with an aim to foster confident, knowledgeable and ‘gritty’ students. The following is my advice to teachers on how you can encode ‘gritty practice‘ in your pedagogy on a daily basis:
No teacher would challenge the impact of good quality feedback on student outcomes. Undertaken well, and couched in the right language, feedback can set goals that inspires the effort required to undertake the long slog of ‘deliberate practice’. Researchers have proven that setting challenging goals makes a positive difference to students – see here and it surely chimes with our innate common sense too! There is widespread knowledge of research, initiated by Paul Black and Dylan Wiliam, that proves that removing levels can have a positive impact upon students. If they focus upon formative feedback then they get better. If they possess the ‘grit‘ to persevere with responding to such feedback then they will become better learners.
Arvind and his fellow spelling spelling stars all receive plenty of expert coaching, but such feedback can also be replicated in the classroom with consistency. The students I teach that I used as exemplars absolutely thrive on feedback. They ask for it despite often being quiet individuals in the classroom setting. They produce extra work to get even more feedback. They willingly raise their targets to receive more challenging feedback and more challenging goals. I have realised that if I focus on precise and regular formative feedback, students can become ‘grittier’ and be more inclined to undertake the typically difficult process of ‘deliberate practice’.
Public critique and student feedback
Teacher feedback is crucial, but as Graham Nutthall’s research indicated (read ‘The Hidden Lives of Learners‘), students receive most of their feedback from their peers, either formally or informally. We must therefore train students and scaffold their language to ensure the feedback they give is laced with ‘grittiness‘! Ron Berger’s strategy for ‘Public Critique’ is a very useful way of ensuring that student feedback hones in on the right kind of feedback – particularly with a ‘specific‘ focus upon making improvements. I have written about the gallery-style approach to ‘Public Critique’ here. If we ensure that students give one another better feedback we can engender more opportunities for ‘deliberate practice’, enhancing their ‘grittiness‘.
A Culture of ‘Practice Perfect’
Doug Lemov’s brilliant book, ‘Practice Perfect‘, is about how the effective practice can encode success. We can ensure students are better prepared to undertake genuine independent study by drilling them with strong patterns of practice. For example, by repeatedly getting students to tackle ‘worked examples‘ or working to group, classify or improve models of writing we can help them to automate the knowledge needed to become genuinely independent writers. Scaffolding students strongly in the first instance, then moving towards more independent work (with specific feedback again) is nothing new, but honing this process over and over can give students the habits for independent ‘deliberate practice’ which can see students make successful transformations in their learning.
A second key aspect of encoding success is by having a culture of crafting and drafting (read the gems of wisdom from Ron Berger on this aspect here). I was only yesterday speaking to a colleague who worked with a really weak SEN group. She worked on rewriting one piece of work at least four times. I had done exactly the same with my more able GCSE group this year. Students are often asked to complete one draft and then we praise them regardless of whether it is the very best they can do. We need to pursue the often ugly, difficult process of ‘deliberate practice’ in this instance and once more embed the highest standards of challenge into the work we expect from our students – encoding in their minds an innate sense of what excellence looks like and feels like so that they can replicate it.
Better Questioning Strategies
We often forget that our core pedagogy – simply the construction of our questioning – can have a significant impact upon the standards and expectations our students form. For example, if they are allowed the get-out clause of simply saying ‘I don’t know‘ to questions in class then they will avoid the challenge of answering questions in class. If we only proffer closed questions with an easy ‘guessing the answer the teacher wants‘ game for students we will sell students short. We need to ask students more challenging ‘why’ questions (see my post on ‘why’ questions here and my post on asking open and inclusive questions here). The simple truth is that by keeping the level of challenge high in all oral communication in our classroom we will foster a culture that engenders ‘grittier‘ students.
There is much debate about the value of homework, with evidence from John Hattie’s ‘Visible Learning’ proving it is more effective for older students. Of course, the evidence is problematic – see this post from Tom Sherrington about the homework debate, complete with a reply from John Hattie: ‘Homework: What does the Hattie research tell us?. My experience of homework is that the students who apply themselves to homework most consistently are those students who make the most progress in my lessons. Unsurprising really! I’m sure Arvind differentiated himself from the thousands of competitors in the ‘National Spelling Bee’ by undertaking such ‘homework’.This also applies with unerring accuracy with the students I have exemplified.
Only this last week in my GCSE English class students were given a homework task to further research and make final notes in preparation for a Shakespeare controlled assessment. The aforementioned boy in the group, the epitome of a gritty and determined individual, went far beyond most of the other students. What he may lack in innate ability in comparison to some other students in the group, he makes up for and exceeds with effort. Given an open brief and some links and multiple resources, he went to town on the homework. Subsequently, he was far better prepared than most other students, making those marginal gains that will see him excel. My answer is simple. We must set purposeful and challenging homework regularly, with related feedback on that homework. We should embed into our lesson plans a celebration of students who go the extra mile with homework.
We must recognise that a singular inspirational assembly will not embed the attitude, knowledge and skills required to make any difference to the ‘grittiness‘ of our students in the long term. We do need to embed the attitudes and ideas associated with ‘grit‘ in the daily language of a school, with all teachers authentically sharing the belief that concerted effort and ‘grit‘ can make a definitive difference for our students. I do think that simply using the language is not enough and that we need to think about applying the concepts to our pedagogy with routine consistency. We must root ‘grittiness‘ into the culture, language, pedagogy and daily practice of our schools.
– An excellent US Dept of Education report on ‘Promoting Grit, Tenacity and Perseverance‘.
– An interesting article from the New York Times: ‘What if the Secret to Success is Failure?’
– An extensive report by the Young Foundation: ‘Grit – The Skills for Success and how they are Grown’. Via Zoe Elder (thank you Zoe).
This week I gave a seminar at TeachMeet Clevedon. I am going to post more fully on my topic of teachers getting better by undertaking ‘deliberate practice‘ sometime soon. One smaller aspect of my presentation was how teachers can improve written feedback, both to improve learning and to marginally reduce the time taken to give written feedback. With the gift of more time we can free ourselves to pursue becoming a better teacher more deliberately: with reflection, planning and deliberate practice. Of course, written feedback is so crucial that it can improve teaching and learning significantly, therefore it deserves our attention in its own right.
The following list of tips is a synthesis of my experience and that of my English department (see our policy for feedback here). It also draws upon many excellent teachers and their cumulative experience of effective written feedback.
– Create a ‘marking rota’. There is little more disheartening than seeing a pile of marking that you know looms large like on on rushing tidal wave! Our instinct to procrastinate in such a situation and delay is human, all too human. One of the more simple but demanding solutions is to plan our marking more effectively. Aim to allocate a time and a place on a rota basis. Like many good things, the mantra should be ‘little and often‘. The wisdom-filled Kenny Pieper wrote this post on how he manages his marking workload with such a steady chipping away at the immovable rock here. We need to create positive cues to develop this habit and execute it daily. One nice little trick is to actually give students a date for when they will receive their feedback as part of your rota. This small commitment can help you stick to your rota and keeps you honest!
– Give feedback in lesson time. One real focus for our English department this year was to improve the quality of formative feedback. By using ‘oral feedback stamps’, with students writing down own comments, it was an excellent way of crystalline those marginal but often crucial conversations we have with students. In ‘one-to-one feedback’ weeks we have endeavoured to interview every student. Such oral and written feedback combined in this way can have a very positive impact. We also use ‘two stars and a wish’ stamps, once more gaining marginally in terms of time taken for feedback. We are currently undertaking an RCT with year 9 students in an attempt to measure the impact of is strategy on attainment, but the gains in terms of term and given synchronous feedback is already evidence.
– Don’t mark everything. Marking everything a student has written is obviously time-consuming, but more importantly it is ineffective. If we are to constantly correct all issues, always target improvements for our students, then students will become wholly dependent on the feedback we issue. We must make students independent in the long term, but along that path we should guide, no doubt, but we need to take the training wheels off, targeting our time where it will have most impact. With grammatical inaccuracies we could use literacy symbols, such as sp, to identify patterns that the students themselves can identify and remedy. We need not repeat these endlessly – but identify a pattern in a portion of the writing.
– Refuse sub-standard work. This is a seemingly simple strategy, but it is powerful in its implications and ultimate impact. I always have deadlines for significant pieces of written work. Of course, some students miss the deadline, or just as bad, make a hash of it to meet the deadline. It can cause logistical issues in reality, but refusing sub-standard work and setting individualised redraft deadlines sends a potent message to students. By mid-year, students become trained in not handing it sloppy work. The time taken in marking as an exercise in correction and rewriting lessens and lessens. Students need to have internal standards for themselves and their work that is higher than they thought possible. Establishing this sense of pride takes time and effort, but the consequences can transform the quality of the written work your students hand in over the course of the year and beyond. In the words of Ron Berger, the assessment within the head of our students is really what we should focus upon transforming.
– DIRT time. ‘Dedicated Improvement and Reflection Time‘ was devised by the brilliant Jackie Beere. It is a reminder that we can spend every hour god sends slavishly marking, but if we do not give students an equally significant amount of time to reflect and respond to such feedback then our time becomes rather pointless! In the long term, students will understand the purpose of our written feedback if they understand how they can and why they should respond to it. If students see and feel the improvements to be gained from drafting and responding to feedback then your marking time will have a transformative value. Of course, they need training and time to do so.
– Laminate assessment criteria and annotate. This strategy works particularly well with older students in my experience. By training students to understand the often jargon-laden language in the assessment objectives, you can then use the criteria in feedback. By laminating the criteria you can simply circle areas of the criteria (with an appropriate pen!), reducing the time taken on marginal or summative commentary. This can be used for multiple pieces of work.
– Use codes instead of comments. Joe Kirby has written this excellent post explaining his methods – see here. We have all been in that position where we are marking each book and like Groundhog Day we are repeating ourselves ad nauseum! If you recognise the pattern across a group then condense the commentary down to a symbol. Discuss and feedback the meaning of that symbol in class. You can develop your own little hieroglyphic code for groups based on regular patterns! With literacy codes near universal in schools now students are well trained to recognise and act upon such shorthand information.
– Self-assessment then teacher assessment. This is another powerful tweak to marginally improve our practice and better manage our time. Train students to rigorously self-assess (again, particularly older students can be trained to do this quite straight-forwardly with some targeted modelling) their written work. With training students can self-report feedback with unerring accuracy. By following such self-assessment with your usual teacher assessment you can typically reduce the depth required if summative comments and simply feedback on their self-assessment.
– Investing time in peer and self-assessment. There has always been debate attending the value of peer and self-assessment. I have questioned my students systematically in the past and they prefer teacher assessment, but most value the feedback of their peers. Of course, some peer assessment is done badly and students smell a rat when this is the case. Like most valuable skills, students need close guidance, scaffolding and modelling of good quality feedback before they are able to do it well themselves. If you have consistent parameters and high expectations you can make it a powerful lever to improve learning. Ultimately, we want students to have the independence to sit in an exam hall and regulate their own responses based on intuitive self-assessment. This takes time and energy, but it is worthwhile. It has the attendant benefit of balancing the workload of the teacher in a practical and pragmatic fashion.
Unfortunately, I can’t magic away the hours required for high quality written feedback, but I remind myself of the impact it has and this makes it worthwhile. By executing some of these marginal gains in marking you can at least rest assured you have an effective and honed routine. Do note – the patterns that develop in my tips is that students need training to reflect and respond effectively to feedback in order to make it effective. I would add that we need to train ourselves more habitually in feedback habits if we are to sustain the highest quality of feedback.
Here are some useful links to feedback and marking blog posts:
– Tom Sherrington has this very popular post on marking and ‘closing the gap’, with a particularly useful handout resource: http://headguruteacher.com/2012/11/10/mak-feedback-count-close-the-gap/
– David Didau writes here about why written feedback is crucial and some useful tips, like ‘triple impact marking’: http://learningspy.co.uk/2013/01/26/work-scrutiny-whats-the-point-of-marking-books/
– Mark Miller has produced this really useful set of tips to help get on top of marking: http://thegoldfishbowl.edublogs.org/2013/02/19/getting-on-top-of-marking/. mark also produced is post on marking written feedback more effective: http://thegoldfishbowl.edublogs.org/2012/09/23/more-effective-written-feedback/
I’m sure there are many more great posts on written feedback I have failed to mention. Do comment
with a link for a veritable one-stop-shop of marking tips!
“Every teacher needs to improve, not because they are not good enough, but because they can be even better.”
Every teacher wants to get better. I use Dylan Wiliam’s quotation over and over unashamedly because I think it strikes a truth that all teachers and school leaders must embrace. I used it to begin my #TMClevedon seminar on ‘becoming a better teacher‘. We all know and understand the pivotal impact of teacher quality for our students and surely we all want to be better. There really is no bigger prize: better teachers improve the life chances of students. It should be our personal focus as committed professionals. It should be the core purpose of school leaders to develop great teachers. The government should relentlessly focus its resources and efforts into improving our current stock of teachers, supporting them to be better.
Of course, many teachers are not improving. The reality is that the impact of teacher experience on student outcomes actually plateaus after a couple of years – see the evidence here. Therefore waiting to get better simply from the benefit of experience throughout your career won’t happen. We may want to get better, but are we actually going about it in the right way? We must ask ourselves an awkward and challenging question. Perhaps a pretty uncomfortable ‘elephant in the room’ question: Have we plateaued as a teacher?
After the whirlwind of feedback and the perilously steep learning curves of our first two years as teachers the impact of experience dulls. Is the comfort derived from developing good habits of behaviour management and easing our attendant stresses a bad thing? No. Should we be flagellating ourselves with the birch over our failure to become an expert in only a couple of years? Of course not! Should we be looking in the mirror and looking for new answers how to better improve? I would argue yes.
The Problem with Continuous Professional Development
As the line goes, no man is an island. No teacher can improve in splendid isolation. The problem with continuous professional development is that the continuous bit is too often missing. The most commonly booked courses focus on external threats like OFSTED. They are not systematic and most often are not even about learning. David Weston’s (on Twitter as @informed_edu) Teacher Development Trust has outlined the research that has identified that only 1% of CPD has a transformative impact on classroom practice. Even the best CPD will struggle to have a definitive impact upon classroom practice. Time and money are scarce resources in our current climate. This may all sound bleak, but the heartening truth is that teachers can lead a transformation themselves. Let’s not fool ourselves, it will take effort and a boatload of ‘deliberate practice’…but teachers can get better and do it for themselves.
Like waiting for some course that will deliver pedagogical manna from heaven, we too often look in the wrong place for answers. We can too easily waste time focusing upon the latest tools and new resources and not on our core practice that makes the difference. It is perhaps only natural. Shiny new tools promise us so much, yet their promise too often translates into a crumby reality. Spending time making resources, like cards sorts or making lovely new displays, feels very much like hard work, and often is time-consuming, but the actual impact on learning can finite, and arguably negligible, but certainly not worth the time. We need to focus upon the 80/20 rule (otherwise known as the ‘Pareto principal ‘).
We must identify the vital core aspects of our pedagogy that will have the greatest impact for our learners. We must narrow our focus and deliberately practice those 20% of teaching strategies that have 80% of the impact on learning. What are your strategies? Note them down on this diagram and focus in your ‘deliberate practice’ on these and these alone.
I have written at length about the ‘holy trinity’ of teacher practice as I see it: effective explanations, questioning and feedback (both oral feedback and written feedback). I am fully aware my choices may seem rather lacking in glamour and sparkle! There is no branded, bespoke package for teacher explanations. We do them habitually, intuitively and daily, often without even thinking, so automatic are they to our practice. But, like all habits, we need to unpick and analyse if we are to really make sustained improvements. We need to heed Dylan Wiliam’s advice and stop doing so many good things. Instead we must hone, craft and perfect our core practice. Here is my law of the vital few, but remember, these are my strategies – look for yours.
The Answer: ‘Deliberate Practice’
A rather gritty and sobering truth about being an expert teacher, or an expert at anything for matter, is that it takes a tremendous amount of hard work. Thousands of hours of hard work, probably unsurprisingly, is the answer. Yet, what happens with teachers who have taught for many years and who have stubbornly plateaued regardless of the time invested? The issue is that we often undertake the wrong sort of practice and our ‘hard work’ lacks direction. Every teacher undertakes repeated practice, but simply doing something over does not confer expertise – in fact, simply repeating practice can harden bad habits. Teachers need to undertake a specific type of practice: ‘deliberate practice‘.
So what is it? I have written about it in detail here. To use a simple analogy, if you think about a top golfer, they practice specific shots, with a coach giving immediate feedback, typically including a series of corrective tweaks. The feedback is king. The reflection and tweaks are essential. In many ways, we need to revert to our state as an NQT – constantly reflecting upon our practice with the alert mindset of the novice. Perhaps we cannot source a top golf coach, but we can find a ‘critical friend’ in a colleague; we can blog and find an audience there; we can work with our subject leaders, a teacher coach etc. To improve we must undertake what can be a frustrating process with grit and resilience. Here is a simple step by step guide to the ‘deliberate practice‘ method:
What are the Barriers to Improvement?
Of course, such a process that demands monotony and discipline is hard to sustain. Like a new year diet, many of us are likely to slip. Our hands caught in the biscuit tin by mid-January at best! Such barriers are represented in the above image. Firstly, there is the emotional barriers. Exposing ourselves to failure can be a chastening business. Failing regularly seems like plain stupidity – a raw, public affair! We need to focus on the goal and be committed to getting better and being prepared to fail. Often, we will need support: inspiring school leaders, appreciative students, a strong department team – not too much to ask! Secondly, we instinctively view success falsely as a linear process, the fixed idea of the genius not encountering failure is rooted in our psyche. We must be prepared for the messy process of concerted practice in a classroom – the advice to never work with children and animals exists for a reason! Of course,time is a crucial barrier. We must be committed to giving over extra time to hone our practice. We should look to find marginal gains in terms of time with aspects of our practice, like written feedback (see my partner post about my #TMClevedon seminar here). Finally, we must recognise our bad habits – like the smoking granny! Then we need to work on improving our habits.
We can all improve upon our habits. We can allocate weekly times and places to share, research and reward ourselves. We are programmed to follow little cues when forming new habits. We need to find time by reducing our workload in other ways, such as honing our written feedback. Find pockets of time that you can practice and plan. Ideally, this is done with a ‘critical friend’. Perhaps a like-minded colleague? A school teacher coach? A subject leader? By committing ourselves to others and publicly announcing our plans we are much likely to see it through. Too often the new habit, such as executing a new teaching strategy, will simply not pay off quickly or easily. This is where our mettle is tested. We must ride through this hump in the road and focus on the small bright spots of success that can lead the way to being a consistently better teacher.
Reflect to Improve
It is crucial to focus upon being a reflective practitioner to sustain professional improvement. This takes habit forming and an allocation of our time. Good schools will factor this into CPD time. This can involve filming ourselves working on our core practice; writing a blog; speaking with your colleagues, your critical friend or coach, and people on the like of Twitter about pedagogy etc. We should be prepared to read and research like we did when we were at university. If we are serious about being an expert we must undertake the research habits which we would demand of our best students for example. In the past I have been guilty of hypocrisy – expecting to get better as a teacher without the extra commitment. Yes, we have the issue of time, but in the long run the rewards could be transformative for your professional practice.
One final strategy is to practice perfect. The following diagram can help by giving you a simple record of the thirty or so attempts at practice reputed to help root new habits in our teaching routine. It was originally shared by the brilliant Daniel Coyle on his really useful website: http://thetalentcode.com/. Simply take the diagram and select the first letter of the focus of your ‘deliberate practice’. Once you have you ‘E’ for explanations that use thirsty or so bubbles (the full one hundred if you are brave…or foolhardy!) for your letter ‘E’ and check them off as your undertake your classroom practice.
Perhaps make little reflective notes to bank that crucial feedback, both from yourself or your ‘critical friend’. This segmenting of what is of course complex information is important to help us learn new habits and strategies more effectively. You could make two or three bubbles on the diagram milestones for videoing yourself to get that extra layer of feedback into your reflective practice. Using this diagram is only a small reflective strategy, but perhaps it could be the cue you need to form a new habit. Perhaps you could become a brilliant teacher by undertaking such ‘deliberate practice‘ and doing it for yourself. In the words of William Faulkner:
“Don’t bother just to be better than your contemporaries or predecessors. Try to be better than yourself.”
The video link for my TeachMeet Clevedon seminar is here: http://youtu.be/G2liBBzcAlw. Thank you to everyone at Clevedon school for their brilliant hospitality. It was a fantastic few days full of inspiring people who certainly made me want to be better.
“Before, you are wise; after, you are wise. In between you are otherwise”
― David Zindell, The Broken God
I read a great TES article a couple of weeks ago which was based on the conceit of writing a letter to our NQT selves, with the benefit of our experience (see here). I was taken by the idea and it has lingered in my mind ever since. I therefore decided to write one of my very own.
You will begin teaching with a deep seated fear of failure. This lack of confidence will drive you to want to be better and, with time and support, you will be better…thankfully, much better! In fact, your fear is your secret weapon – harness it and make it a positive force that drives you. Eventually it will dissipate and harden into something like experience. People will eventually look to you to develop their confidence in order to conquer their fears (which may seem absurd considering your current state!) and this will become one of your favourite parts of the job. Each struggle you will overcome in your early years of teaching will serve its purpose and show its value many times over.
Uncertainty attached itself to your decision to become a teacher, but your instinct was right. The variety and difficulty of the job will test you daily, but this will mean you are never bored. You won’t lose your passion for helping children and passing on a lasting love for English. Your passion to see children have the same opportunities that you were given will never falter. The job is incredibly hard but more rewarding for being so. Shout loudly about how much you enjoy teaching – too many people resort to easy cynicism that you know to be wrong.
You will realise that the relationship you have with students, and their willingness to work hard for you, will outdo any teaching and learning strategy you can devise. Never forget to cultivate those relationships. It will be one of the greatest pleasures you will get from your career. Quickly, you will realise ‘liking‘ a teacher can be wholly different from ‘respecting‘ a teacher. Don’t strive for popularity – strive for respect. You will develop more and more confidence in your own professional instinct. It will tell you that what you know they need to learn will always outweigh what they think they want to learn.
On your PGCE you went along with the crowd and mocked the advice to be a ‘reflective practitioner‘ as lame jargon repeated ad nauseum – theory not rooted in reality of the taxing day job. You were all wrong. You will eventually give the exact same advice! The job is a maelstrom of emotion, complexity and dizzying change (which is one of its more perverse attractions). Find time to reflect and talk about your practice as much as you can. You will spend hours writing about teaching in the future – ironically, you will be at your most productive and effective as a teacher when you do this. Don’t be taken in by the false economy of not committing yourself fully to getting better because you ‘don’t have the time‘.
You remember watching ‘Dead Poets Society’ and thinking you wished teaching was like this, but knowing that it wasn’t. Well, you were right. But the call to ‘seize the day‘ was undoubtedly true. Only, more accurately, I would tell you to ‘seize the CPD’! It takes thousands of hours of deliberate practice to become an expert. This will not happen on any single training day, no matter how good it feels to you at the time. You will need to read, reflect and retain your passion to get better beyond the parameters of such training and practice. After a couple of years you will plateau and not realise it. Don’t let yourself fall into lazy habits – don’t worry about what others are doing – try to be better than yourself.
Don’t look to OFSTED for answers – they turn in the wind. Don’t try to become the ‘outstanding’ teacher you have the good fortune to observe. Know yourself – that isn’t how you work. Commit yourself to gradual, small improvements (the tortoise can defeat the hare) and be the best version of yourself you can possibly be.
Ten years later you will realise choosing to teach was the wisest choice your young self ever made. Despite the early bumps, particularly your rocky first year, enjoy the ride!
Try writing the letter yourself – it is very cathartic!
Sir Ken – A knight amongst educationalists the world over.
A couple of weeks ago, like millions of other teaching professionals, I watched the latest iteration of Ken Robinson’s celebration of creativity on TED. It reminded me of the first Sir Ken talk which I had the pleasure of watching in Athens…whilst working! Yes, you heard right – I trained to be an International Baccalaureate teacher in the blazing sun of Athens; watching Sir Ken celebrate creativity in a fan-filled Greek classroom for part of that time (those heady days for comprehensive school teachers are long since gone!). Great work if you can get it! Perhaps it was the heat of the midday sun, or the heady scent of sun tan lotion, coupled with the wit and charm of Sir Ken, that made me feel like his words were a sort of watershed for me as a teacher, or education the world over.
I was entranced. I felt determined that a whole new paradigm for schooling was required: the ‘factory model’ of schooling was dead. I felt what I was doing in the classroom was hopelessly ill-fitting for the needs of my students. I was enraptured by his stories of creativity and enriching personalisation. I bought the book (his talks usually precede a book – fair enough, I’m sure he has to pay the bills). I felt myself nodding along with the book, only once I had read it the trance had been broken. I was looking for something like answers for systematic school change, yet all I found were charming individual examples and beguiling prose. I watched the video once or twice more in various professional scenarios and at home. I still laughed. I was still taken by his persuasive argument, yet I had lost the initial spark – like a drunken first-sight infatuation spoiled by the cruel clarity of daylight. The watershed had become little more than a barely perceptible watermark.
Recently I read this article from a link by Geoff Barton entitled ‘Is This Why TED Talks Seem So Convincing?‘. The article was based on the enlightening scientific evidence that a fluent speaker can acutally fool us into thinking we have learnt more than we actually have in comparison to a less fluent speaker – see here. It brought all my frustrations with Sir Ken to the surface. His skilful words and rapturous call for change under warm lights and at the beck and call of a willing crowd had wilted. I was left without any real watershed at all. In fact, it wasn’t Sir Ken who was to blame at all – I had been seduced by the cult of personality – by the promise of change led by such a guru and I was culpable for blame. I had forgotten that the reality of education is a more gritty and compromised state of affairs: with politicians, Unions, teachers and the public all vying for their respective interests, often creating a maelstrom of muddled education policy. Compromises, fractured systems and vested interests abound. No call for creativity by Sir Ken would provide a universal panacea to the grey, ambiguous reality of schooling – whether in sunny Athens, the field of dreams that is California or wet and windy England.
Having recently written a well received blog post on teacher explanations – see here – I began to unpick the fact that Sir Ken’s latest speech was another barn-storming performance. But beyond the frilly knickers of the performance we are left searching for the less aesthetically pleasing undergarments that are the practical answers for change. He includes the memorable analogies – Death Valley in bloom. His charming anecdotes and well-timed wit abound. Only this time I was distinctly less enraptured. The Death Valley image was striking, only the analogy was a little more of the same: a pleasing picture but not an answer. Perhaps Sir Ken just takes the beautiful photo to inspire and that we have to go and work the land, toiling to create the conditions for betterment?
On reflection, creativity appears to me a grittier, tougher process than such talks imply. Thousands of hours of ‘deliberate practice’ enable creativity. It is not all ‘flow’ or organic personalisation. For example, repeating the rules of grammar with sometimes deadening repetition can actually create the mastery required for playful creativity and rule breaking. Sir Ken likely scripted and practised his apparently spontaneously witty talk over and over to create his seeming carefree confidence and fluency. The pleasure of finding ‘flow’ is replaced by the dull but reassuring knowledge that perseverance could help make a difference, in a ‘factory model’ school or not.
Ken is undoubtedly a gifted speaker – like most teachers I can’t help but like him- but my infatuation is sadly over. I will take his glamorous TED talks with more than a pinch of salt. I won’t look to edu-gurus like Sir Ken to provide watershed moments. I will prioritise the ideas of my peers at the chalkface. I will attend a TeachMeet or two. I will read a blog or three. But I won’t expect a TED talk to change the world. I will conquer my finite disappointment in finding that Sir Ken’s speeches are nothing like promises and maintain my infinite hope invested in an education system that improves marginally day by day, by gritty perseverance. I will look spend more time looking for answers for teachers by teachers – being healthily wary of the words of eloquent speakers under the glow of cinematic lighting.
“A small daily task, if it be really daily, will beat the labours of a spasmodic Hercules.”
I have just received my congratulations from WordPress on the first anniversary of my blog! Nearly eighty posts later, totalling easily over one hundred thousand words, I feel immense pride at having reached this point. Pride at the fact that an amazing number of people, mainly teachers, have taken the time to read my posts and leave comments. Pride at the fact that I have managed to balance teaching and writing about teaching. Pride in the knowledge that blogging has helped me in my pursuit of becoming a better teacher. Writing the blog has inspired me professionally: it has helped make me more disciplined with my working habits and it has undoubtedly made me more creative. I would feel I was cheating people if I didn’t recommend blogging for all teachers, even in the midst of busy working weeks.
I hear many valid arguments for not blogging. Workload issues or the sheer temerity of having a life beyond teaching spring up most commonly. I admit, I have the great pleasure of having very young children, therefore my social life has been whittled away like carrion in the dessert – ideal for some evening blog writing! For me, blogging is an antidote to drudgery filled tasks like report writing – without the attendant guilt of more purposeless pleasures.
Other people appear to be paralysed by a pursuit of perfection and therefore decline to publish. Perhaps is it my low standards, but I stick to the attitude of publish and be damned! Errors may exist, but I don’t possess a personal editor beyond my capacity to proof read through tiredness, so my fallibility is exposed – and I care not a jot! I welcome correction and laugh in the face of pedantry…then hastily make the correction! I know some people view blogging as an act of arrogance – a symbol of a misguided sense of a person’s sense of self-importance. The problem with that perspective is that if we all lived by this thinking then no-one would produce or publish anything. People who persist with this complaint need to get over themselves: stop chipping away at the ideas of others and produce some of their own they deem better!
So what are the benefits of blogging?
1. It can make you more efficient and even work less!
I understand the argument that blogging can simply mean more work. I would argue that the discipline of habitually writing a blog can actually hone your skills to the point where you research, plan and execute lessons better, and faster, than ever before. By making myself blog habitually in my evenings, attempting to post weekly, I have created productive habits that have spilled over into my teaching life. Gretchen Rubin, in her book, ‘The Happiness Project: Or, Why I Spent a Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Clean My Closets, Fight Right, Read Aristotle, and Generally Have More Fun’, described the positives thus:
“Step by step, you make your way forward. That’s why practices such as daily writing exercises or keeping a daily blog can be so helpful. You see yourself do the work, which shows you that you can do the work. Progress is reassuring and inspiring…”
Of course, the converse is true, but having people read and respond to your personal reflections or teaching and learning ideas is tremendously motivational. That motivation pushes me to complete my work and subsequently write. It takes habit building – finding a routine: a space to write; a time of day; the usual tools and treats that give you those vital daily cues that writing needs to be completed. Of course, like anything worth doing, blogging does require perseverance. I like the perspective of Alexander Graham Bell, of telephone patenting and “99% perspiration” fame, on this:
“You cannot force ideas. Successful ideas are the result of slow growth. Ideas do not reach perfection in a day, no matter how much study is put upon them. It is perseverance in the pursuit of studies that is really wanted.”
By writing a blog we are committing ourselves to continued learning – however ill defined the ideas. Read some of my earlier blogs and find myself disagreeing with myself, but that is part of the discovery. What better way to constantly remember and model the habits of mind our students themselves need to succeed than by living them ourselves?
2. It can make you a better teacher
I undertook my blog writing hoping that it would make me a better teacher. I am pretty sure it has. My writing has led me to research and search other blogs, books and articles that have easily doubled my knowledge of the art and science of teaching. In one year I have undoubtedly learnt more than my last six or seven years in the job combined. By building my knowledge I have been able to try, trial and improve. I have been able to write about my teaching regularly, reflecting upon my many failures and my less frequent successes, honing my knowledge of how I teach, whilst borrowing ideas from other great teachers about how they teach. I have been able to get constructive feedback on my practice, as well as having my ideas, preconceptions and knowledge tested by fellow teachers and those with more expertise than myself.
By building my knowledge of pedagogy and related research I have become much more creative as a teacher. I have been able to make creative connections between what I have written and what I have had to read to enable me to write with thoroughness. Those creative connections have strengthened my core teaching habits and given me the confidence to experiment.
Too often creativity is depicted as a ‘Eureka!’ moment, or worse, the preserve of the creative genius. This lazy representation has neglected the more workmanlike truth that creativity emerges from gritty determination, dogged persistence and daily effort. Most often the dull repetition of ‘deliberate practice‘ must precede the creative act of breaking the rules, which can often be the hallmark of ‘creative genius’. In the words of Seth Godin:
“The notion that I do my work here, now, like this, even when I do not feel like it, and especially when I do not feel like it, is very important. Because lots and lots of people are creative when they feel like it, but you are only going to become a professional if you do it when you don’t feel like it.”
3. It engages you in disciplined self-reflection
Blogs can be a shouty celebration of success. They can also be a deeply reflective examination of failure, marginal success and barely perceptible improvement. Most teachers really experience the latter. The much heralded ‘ten thousand hour rule‘ of expertise made famous by Malcolm Gladwell is a good barometer for teachers for the true complexity of some of the most obvious core activities of teaching. In my ten years of teaching I feel I am perhaps half way there with the ‘basics’ of questioning or memorable explanations. My self-reflection on this process is the reason why I am making small, incremental improvements. My blog is one key tool to to reflect, as too often in the hurly burly of the job such clear, reflective thinking simply becomes too difficult.
4. It can be great for your self confidence
Teaching can be a solitary pursuit at times. Beyond the discussions in staff rooms and offices, or the less frequent opportunities for useful feedback on our practice, we often disappear into our classrooms and simply get on with things. Talking about what we have done, sharing the ups and downs can be really liberate and having positive feedback and making a record of when things went well is good food for thought in gloomy times. The simple act of writing can build your confidence:
“Action is a great restorer and builder of confidence. Inaction is not only the result, but the cause, of fear. Perhaps the action you take will be successful; perhaps different action or adjustments will have to follow. But any action is better than no action at all.”
Norman Vincent Peale
I plan to keep up my blogging action for a long while yet! Give it a go – find a routine. You won’t regret it.
Thank you for reading, retweeting and commenting.
Ref: The brilliant www.brainpickings.org has been the source and inspiration for many of the quotations selected for this post. If you don’t follow that website you absolutely should.
In the last week Michael Gove has challenged teachers about the setting of the highest standards in our schools. Beyond the Mr Men debate, there is a truth that we should all be seeking the highest standards of teaching and learning possible. In my experience there have been very few teachers who don’t agree with Gove on this, or who do not attempt to challenge students and inspire curiosity with the highest of expectations on a daily basis. Rather than focus upon pointless political point scoring I want focus upon some practical solutions to help raise standards and I would hope Gove lessens his point scoring politicking to do the same. This post aims to explore how we can improve Continuous Professional Development in our schools, thereby improving teacher quality – the singularly most important factor impacting upon standards in our schools.
My starting point is a quotation from Dylan Wiliam, made at last year’s SSAT conference in Liverpool, which has made a deep and lasting impression upon me as a teacher:
“Every teacher needs to improve, not because they are not good enough, but because they can be even better.” Dylan Wiliam
There are different considerations to account for when addressing teacher improvement. Firstly, it is crucial to make the case for changing and improving upon our current CPD provision. Research by the Teacher Development Trust – see here – has proven that CPD informs practice, but it is still yet to be proven to embed practice and it patently does not transform practice. Perhaps the notion of transformative continuous professional development is too ambitious. We would hope that our new staff is already good enough to not require ‘transformation’, but instead require marginal improvements to have a strong positive impact upon student outcomes. Clearly; however, we need to ensure that we at least ‘embed’ improvements in practice. This is paramount because we know that despite the complex array of factors that influence student attainment, teacher quality trumps everything else. We also know that teacher impact plateaus after a couple of years (see my article here on reaching the ‘OK Plateau‘) and that we must make professional development genuinely continuous and continuously effective.
Currently, the DfE are presenting solutions to improving teacher quality, such as ‘performance related pay’. I am not wholly against all the reforms put forward by Gove, but this proposal to use market forces to attempt to improve teachers is wrongheaded and will fail. There is no international evidence that PRP impacts positively upon teacher quality and the process fundamentally misunderstands the largely intrinsic nature of teacher motivation. The vast majority of our teachers couldn’t work harder if they tried (although I would argue many could work smarter – myself included) and no pay incentive system can further improve pedagogy in the classroom without a catalogue of damaging effects. The market force of pay differentiation will do nothing except drive down average pay and it will not see teachers improve in a sustained and systematic way that benefits our children.
The current financial plight in schools does mean that as teacher improvement becomes paramount, the means to drive this improvement becomes still more difficult. High quality training costs time and money. The days of expensive external one day training being the sum total of ‘continuous development’ are clearly on the wane – if they have not died out already. Dylan Wiliam has shared research that proves the efficacy of ‘professional learning communities’ in schools and many models are currently being implemented with success – within schools and in broder partnerships. David Weston (from the ‘Teacher Development Trust’) has outlined the following ‘rules’ of truly effective professional development:
– It must begin by identifying teacher development needs based on the learning needs of the students being taught, and it must build on teachers’ existing skill.
– The coaching or training must maintain a balance of focusing on ways for the teacher to help these students while providing skills that transfer to the rest of the teacher’s work.
– The development process must be collaborative, with teachers of similar skill and confidence supporting, observing and coaching each other.
– The development process must be actively sustained for at least two terms for a large number of hours (i.e. more than 40). And it must follow cycles of trying, reflecting, and adjusting, while maintaining the focus on improved student learning – and not teacher behaviour.
-External expertise is vital to keep the improvement on track, avoid false glass-ceilings and disrupt ‘group-think’ that can develop in departments and schools. This could be an expert teacher from a nearby school, or an external consultant.
Various successful models are being shared across families of schools, but more needs to be done to share what effective CPD looks like in schools in a systematic fashion across the country. The impact of such provision needs to be evaluated and measured as closely as possible. The ‘coaching’ model fits the bill for schools in many ways. It meets the criteria outlined by David Weston and, pragmatically, it is relatively cheap considering the budgetary pressures schools are currently under…oh, and it works.
‘The Coaching Model’: Embedding a Culture of Coaching
One leadership guru who commands universal respect is the Great Britain cycling and Team Sky coach, David Brailsford. He made a simple but prescient statement that best sums up the power of coaching:
“You’ll get more from a £900,000 rider with a coach than you would from a £1m rider without one.” Dave Brailsford
I wrote a blog about how the elements of the Brailsford model can translate to school improvement here. The above quotation is rightly simple, but its message is a perceptive answer to false idols such as PRP. What we must do is create an engine room of high quality teacher coaching within our schools to drive improvements in pedagogy and teacher quality.
Why invest in a team of ‘Teacher Coaches’? The psychology of change and actually changing the habits of adult professionals is very complex. What is widely known is that externally imposed change rarely sticks and changes the culture within schools, or indeed any organization. Hierarchical, top-down change also suffers from the same inadequacies and unsustainability. It can make for an imposed temporary change, but it doesn’t engineer sustained habit changes in the classroom. Teachers must be emotionally invested in any development of their practice in the school community. Involvement and choice are powerful drivers of habit change. Local knowledge form within the school is powerful and develops a greater degree of trust in what is an emotional and often messy process! Teacher coaches have a better knowledge of the school community; they will invariably gain greater respect than any external figures and they will certainly benefit from higher levels of trust.
‘Teacher Coaches’ are in a great position to shine a light on existing successes and spread that light across the school. School leaders can do this of course, but staff are more open to their colleagues suggesting and driving improvement. The coaches can become roles models of the best kind: undertaking research; tweaking the school environment; providing evidence of successful pedagogy; supporting underperforming colleagues; embodying a growth mindset and being open to adapting their practice to improve – in effect, becoming leading lights to drive change. The investment can be relatively small – the impact significant. By selecting outstanding practitioners, and finding them the precious commodity of time, they can be trained to lead CPD; to work with underperforming colleagues, colleagues looking to become truly great, and to undertake the practical and theoretical research which will give their methods credibility with colleagues.
No matter how effective the team of ‘Teacher Coaches’ are, of course, they will not transform teacher quality alone. The ethos of coaching to improve, with the attendant ‘growth mindset’, needs to permeate the organization – from students upward. What coaching promotes is an institution committed to learning to improve through every level. Senior leaders must lead the way. How many Head teachers share their educational reading or talk about their teaching with colleagues throughout the organization? There are few more powerful influential factors than this wholly free tone setting from the top.
Subject Leaders are also a pivotal group if a coaching culture is to be established and thrive. Subject Leaders need to be coached to be coaches – the language and practice of coaching is nuanced and subtle, requiring deliberate practice. Every department can create their own tailored microcosm of the coaching model if they are steered intelligently by school leaders and given time to do so (most often, Subject Leaders need to be guided to better utilize they time they already possess – for example, how many department meetings are wasted on administrative tasks, when time to improve pedagogy and share best practice is already tight?).
Schools can help work together collaboratively to unify models of best coaching practice. There are already many success stories, from the ‘coaching triads’ implemented during the ‘London Challenge’ program – see page 16 of this OFSTED report here. International models, such as the ‘jugyou kenkyuu’ lesson study’ model in Japan (see here for an explanation) have proved a sustained success and we should look outwardly to such working models. There is evidently a thirst for research and development to provide an evidence basis for change in education and teachers and schools must ensure that they lead that area, or we shall be beholden to changes we feel do not represent our expertise and experience.
I wrote this post to articulate some ideas for the SSAT #VISION2040 action group. Organisations like SSAT can help connect schools and teachers to better share successful coaching models on schools. Every school, as previously stated, should develop change from within, and ideally from the bottom up, but we must also connect more outwardly. Cooperation, and not competition, will see our education system improve. In my school we are initiating change to include a coaching model, supporting and constructed with staff – see here. In the #VISION2040 group, Stephen Tierney is initiating a development model in his school that hones in on formative observations, research and reflection and ‘innovation fellows’ – all aspects of a whole school approach that ideally suits the coaching approach – see here. If we are to improve teachers and teaching and learning, our raison d’être, we can do many things, but systematizing and sharing models of coaching best practice can provide a great way to embed improvements in pedagogy.
Useful further reading:
‘Improving Coaching: Evolution not Revolution’ by the National College: http://www.ncl.ac.uk/cflat/news/documents/CoachingSkillsTWFinalwebPDFv3.pdf
‘Creating a Coaching Culture’ by the ‘Institute of Leadership and Management’: http://www.i-l-m.com/downloads/publications/G443_ILM_COACH_REP.pdf
‘Creating a Culture of Coaching’ by the National College: http://dera.ioe.ac.uk/2980/1/download%3Fid%3D147562%26filename%3Dcreating-a-culture-of-coaching-full-report.pdf
The ‘Teacher Development Trust’ Website and newsletters: http://www.teacherdevelopmenttrust.org/
Coaching in Schools – Top Five Reads:
(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.