My last post of the school year is a resolution for the school year ahead. There is no special philosophy, research or expensive equipment required. It is a simple focus on ‘opening the door’ more in the coming year. It is about sharing. Not just in the sense of sharing knowledge through blogs, Teachmeets or Twitter, or through great books on education, although all of these have their value. The commitment to sharing and ‘opening the door’ is primarily about being in the classrooms of my colleagues more and them being in mine more too. Not as a lesson judgement, a snooping check or some OFSTED preparation, but to simply share better what we do well.
I am excited at the prospect of becoming a ‘Teacher Coach‘ in the coming year. I will have the pleasure of working with a whole host of teachers across the school. Part of that coaching is utilising video technology to share best practice. As part of the whole-school process we will aim to share our successes, ideas and good practice. I hope to use that technology, alongside good old fashioned human appearances (!) to see, share and support more teachers and their learning. In my capacity as a Subject Leader of English and as a Teacher Coach, this will pretty much be my core business. I need to get better at doing it with consistency. We should look to any levers, like video technology, that help us share our good practice and see other teachers teach and talk about it more often. Sharing good practice matters. It has a significant impact upon student outcomes:
Thank you to David Weston for guiding me to this chart, and for greatly influencing this post.
This ‘opening of the door’ has the attendant benefit of being great for my teaching and learning because I most acutely learn about my craft when I observe other teachers, whether it be interview lessons, student teachers, or my experienced colleagues. What I hope to do is help create more of this ‘open door attitude’ writ large. We mustn’t be afraid to share. We must resist labelling people as arrogant because they are happy to share. We mustn’t inhibit others from being inclined to share their practice, simply because we don’t want to open our door and we are inhibited ourselves.
Teaching is a very emotional business and it is often quite an isolated one. More experienced teachers can go months without an adult in the room, other than a teaching assistant. Opportunities like ‘lesson study‘, where teachers observe practice, like medical rounds in a hospital, is very rare. Just as rare is the basic practice of watching our colleagues teach (outside of more formal PD observations) with anything like regularity. After our NQT year planned approaches to doing this usually grind to a halt. Therefore, often unintentionally, we develop deep-seated emotional barriers to such experiences, becoming defensive about our teaching. Of course, the torturous process attending OFSTED exacerbates these issues and accentuates personal inhibitions. These barriers, over time, ossify into our teacher self. It can sometimes become negative without our ever having intended it to be so. Roland Barth expressed this problem sagely here:
“More often, we educators become one another’s adversaries in a more subtle way—by withholding. School people carry around extraordinary insights about their practice—about discipline, parental involvement, staff development, child development, leadership, and curriculum. I call these insights craft knowledge. Acquired over the years in the school of hard knocks, these insights offer every bit as much value to improving schools as do elegant research studies and national reports. If one day we educators could only disclose our rich craft knowledge to one another, we could transform our schools overnight.”
When a teacher does place value on what she knows and musters up the courage and generosity of spirit to share an important learning—“I’ve got this great idea about how to teach math without ability-grouping the kids”—a common response from fellow teachers is, “Big deal. What’s she after, a promotion?” Regrettably, as a profession, we do not place much value on our craft knowledge or on those who share it.”
Roland Barth, ‘Improving Relationships Within the Schoolhouse‘
I spent time this week talking to my Head teacher, John Tomsett, about him speaking to an experienced teacher in our school who has honed their craft expertly over time with little fanfare (see his excellent post here). So much so, this teacher humbly simply couldn’t understand the attention being given over to his teaching, or the consistently outstanding results his students attain year after year. Not to mention his reputation as being the wisest of colleagues. My abiding feeling after having that chat about this member of staff, and reading John’s blogpost, was being desperate to get in and observe him at his craft! I want to drain the marrow of his ‘craft knowledge’ while I can, use it myself, and look to pass it on. It left me craving a culture of consistently ‘opening the door’.
In the current climate of ‘payment related performance’ there is the corrosive potential for competition trumping collaboration between teachers. Once more, Barth anticipated this notion in 2006:
“We also become one another’s adversaries through competition. In the cruel world of schools, we become competitors for scarce resources and recognition. One teacher put it this way: “I teach in a culture of competition in which teaching is seen as an arcane mystery and teachers guard their tricks like great magicians.”
The guiding principles of competition are, “The better you look, the worse I look,” and “The worse you look, the better I look.” No wonder so many educators root for the failure of their peers rather than assist with their success.
Our guiding principles, as Barth suggests, need to be a determined by a deep-rooted sense of collegiality. By sharing and making sure we share better and more often than we thought possible. Despite all the external factors that inhibit us from ‘opening the door’ we must do so with determination. That is my resolution. I now need to work on the ideas to make it happen. Roland Barth eloquently summarises the challenge and the value of ‘opening the door on our craft knowledge:
“Making our practice mutually visible will never be easy, because we will never be fully confident that we know what we’re supposed to be doing and that we’re doing it well. And we’re never quite sure just how students will behave. None of us wants to risk being exposed as incompetent. Yet there is no more powerful way of learning and improving on the job than by observing others and having others observe us.”
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).
No, this post isn’t a dissection of David Dimbleby’s negotiation of a bent table full of politicking talking heads. I’m sorry if you came looking for political debates! My post is an exploration of one of the simplest, but most fundamental, aspects of how students learn and how students display their learning in lessons: higher order questioning. It is simply about getting students to ask ‘why‘ and an exploration of the crucial value of such deep questioning.
‘Daddy, why is the sky blue? Daddy, why are poppies red?’ Learning about the world by asking ‘why‘ questions is just about one of the most natural states for children. Here my daughter is sitting in the back seat of the car making sense of the chaotic world flying by the window. This scene conveys a basic truth that we must always harness in the classroom: children have an instinctive curiosity about the world. My daughter doesn’t yet comprehend why she should ask ‘why‘ questions (a later metacognitive state so crucial to learning), she just instinctively attempts to make sense with ‘why‘. It is the open nature of ‘why‘ questions which make them so powerful and essential to learning.
Despite being naturally inclined to ask such questions, students ask relatively few questions in the classroom setting. In fact, it takes six to seven hours for a typical student to ask a single question in class (Graesser and Person, 1994). Perhaps it is less surprising when we consider in a class full of anything from twenty to thirty inquisitive students that there is relatively little direct questioning of the teacher in class. Some students hog the attention of the teacher, skewing the balance of such questioning still further. Compare this to over twenty six questions from the same archetypal student in a one-to-one tutoring session. The numbers are striking. With this data is makes it even more essential to ensure that we make sure that students ask the right questions. Most questions in the classroom are closed questions that don’t elicit the deeper comprehension provoked by open questions such as ‘why…‘, ‘how…‘ and ”what if…‘. Questions like Isaac Newton asking ‘why did the apple fall from the tree?‘ or Copernicus asking ‘what if the earth orbits the sun?‘
Asking such deeper questions are important because, put simply, they make you more intelligent! By asking ‘why‘ questions – rather grandly described as ‘elaborate interrogation‘ (this document outlines the strategy, with others, really effectively: ) by cognitive scientists – students can actually make new knowledge stick and become more memorable. By asking questions about their new knowledge they become more active learners, which, again, aids recall. The questions elaborate upon what they are learning, hooking the knowledge more deeply in their long term memory, as such questions connect new ideas and concepts to their prior knowledge. Searching ‘why‘ questions are the mental pathways that connects their prior knowledge with what they are attempting to learn. Research on questioning – see here – shows it contributes to reading comprehension, getting students to hypothesise and focus their attention on the key aspects of the text, whilst crucially helping students identify what they know and don’t know. The metacognitive basis of questioning is crucial: that essential ability for students to think about their own thinking, working out what they need to know next and articulating their knowledge.
As teachers we should monitor our questions to ensure we are asking many more of these open questions which generate deeper thinking. We can use students themselves as ‘question monitors‘ to note and evaluate such questions. In some video technology, like IRIS Connect, you can tally your question types to reflect on your own questioning. Not only that, by monitoring the questions of students we can better judge their level of understanding – see the research here. Knowing what the students know, and what they don’t know, is crucial for a teacher in accurately identifying what students are learning and understanding. We can ask ourselves the question: Are students asking enough ‘why’ questions in my classroom? This connects intimately with the question: ‘are my students making progress?’
Furthermore, with the reality of the lack of questions being answered by teachers, we must better scaffold questions shared between students. The research on ‘guided reciprocal peer questioning‘ – see here – provides further evidence why we should actively focus on students asking ‘why‘ questions of one another. This table, from Alison King’s, ‘Structuring Peer Interaction to Promote High-Level Cognitive Processing: From Theory Into Practice’ (2002), provides a really useful framework to share with students to ensure that they are asking deeper questions:
Guided reciprocal peer questioning: question bank
What is a new example of…?
How would you use…to…?
What would happen if…?
What are the strengths and weaknesses of…? How does…tie in with what we learned before?
Explain why… Explain how…
How does… What is the… Why is… How are…different?
Compare…and…with regard to…
What do you think causes…?
What conclusions can you draw about…?
Do you agree or disagree with this statement:…? Support your answer.
How are… and…best…and why?
By scaffolding these questions you can better structure the quality of group discussion whilst also honing their metacognitive understanding, allowing them to actively make their next step in their learning. If we can calibrate students to ask better questions we will make them better learners. Once more, this process of metacognition is proven by a vast amount of cognitive science research to be a key component in successful learning.
Few teachers would ever seriously say they didn’t encourage questioning in their classroom, but perhaps we need to better monitor the quality of our questioning and that of the students. Deeper questioning doesn’t just happen: it is modelled and scaffolded by the class teacher. We could undertake some very simple action research and see if the research that states students ask on average one question over the course of six or seven hours is true of our classroom. My most popular post from my blog is all about questioning and creating a ‘culture of enquiry‘. Find it here: ‘Top Ten Tips – Questioning’ and see if some of the strategies can help you enrich the quality of questioning in your classroom. Many of the ‘top ten tip’ focus in upon generating more questions: such as the ‘Question Wall‘, and the ‘Just One More Question‘ strategies. Whereas other strategies, such as ‘The Question Continuum‘, the ‘Question Monitor‘ and ‘Socratic Questioning’, focus upon the quality of the questions students ask.
Building a thoughtful ‘culture of enquiry‘ in our classrooms should be a priority if we want to improve how students learn. By monitoring the quality of their questions we can identify their progress and what they know. By enhancing and scaffolding their questions we can deepen their knowledge.
Why, given the evidence, would we not focus our energies upon improving the quality and quantity of our students’ questions?
Useful questioning resources:
– A NSTA document with a good explanation of different question types and an exploration of ‘wait time’: http://www.nsta.org/pdfs/201108BookBeatHowToAskTheRightQuestions.pdf
– A good essay collating questioning research: http://rsd.schoolwires.com/145410515152938173/lib/145410515152938173/Classroom_Questioning_by_Cotton.pdf
– A great guide to asking better questions: http://cet.usc.edu/resources/teaching_learning/docs/Asking_Better_Questions.pdf
– A popular blog on questioning: http://www.fromgoodtooutstanding.com/2012/05/ofsted-2012-questioning-to-promote-learning
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!
“There is no pleasure to me without communication: there is not so much as a sprightly thought comes into my mind that it does not grieve me to have produced alone, and that I have no one to tell it to.”
Michel de Montaigne quotes (French Philosopher and Writer. 1533-1592)
Very recently I responded to a question about great teaching by Joe Kirby (read this excellent blog post) with the answer that explanations, questioning and feedback were the holy trinity of teaching. I have written about questioning and feedback at length, but I have never written about teacher explanations. I thought about why and I considered that part of the problem is that explanations are so integral to everything that we do that we quickly learn our style and then explain away on autopilot pretty much for the rest of our career. I would argue that we need to reflect upon whether we are maximising the effectiveness of our explanations.
Too often we can be distracted in our planning by the tools of learning without giving the required time to the integral act of communicating our subject. When I was an NQT I went as far as scripting my explanations! I am not advocating scripting explanations by any means, it was an act borne of pure fear, but I think it important to maximise the quality of our explanations and give them our time and effort. Looking back, some of those explanations were thoughtful and successful, perhaps more so than some of my current autopilot efforts. We are privileged because we can draw upon a wealth of knowledge gained from cognitive science, as well as our memory of great speakers and great teachers who act as role models for our practice.
These are my top tips try to address different aspects of effective explanations – the what and the how of explanations – the content and the delivery. What is reassuring is that really effective explanations can be deconstructed and be based upon evidence of how memory works, rather than being simply attributed to the power of personality. Great explanations, like all aspects of great teaching, can be repeatedly honed and improved.
Top Ten Tips:
1. ‘Know what the students know’ when planning your explanation: All great teachers have an excellent knowledge of their students. This knowledge is paramount in pitching the explanation just right. Vygotsky’s ‘zone of proximal development’ is key here – the explanation should be matched to the audience: not too complex as to be unintelligible to the students, but not too simple or unchallenging so as to bore the students and prove uninteresting. By knowing your students you can adapt your language to draw upon their prior knowledge before activating links to the new knowledge that you wish them to learn.
2. Use patterns of challenging subject specific language repeatedly:
In most explanations there are one or two key words that you want to stick in the minds of students. In my year 10 English class I am currently comparing Shakespeare’s ‘Sonnets’ with ‘Romeo and Juliet’. Subject specific words that litter my explanations repeatedly include rhetorical terms like ‘hyperbole‘ and ‘oxymorons‘. We have explored the etymology of those words, explored examples and repeatedly modelled them in our writing. With regular repetition such key words become the touchstones of effective explanations and we stress these words in our delivery for explicit emphasis.
3. Make explanations simple, but not simpler. Convey a core message: I do not wish to denounce students as attention-deficit weaklings – human nature is inherently programmed to be forgetful – both adults and teenagers. Effective explanations therefore do need to have the power of compressed language. A good proverb, like “people who live in glass houses should not throw stones” has an enduring power. It generates ideas, sparks connections and combines both easily digestible language and memorable imagery – see tip 5. I would argue that most extended explanations can be compressed into such a memorable statement – what acts as the core message of our explanation. Most often this core knowledge is linked inextricably to the language of the lesson objective. A great explanation may use the ‘inverted pyramid‘, used by journalists to prioritise key information by beginning with this core message, or conversely you could use more traditional argument structures to ensure they remember what you want them to remember:
4. Engage their hearts and minds: Daniel Willingham, in his excellent neuroscience book, ‘Why Don’t Students Like School?’, outlines that emotional reactions to explanations will make them more memorable, but there are disclaimers too. We should be wary of a ‘style over substance’ performance. I like to use humour and often make jokes, but with explanations if you give a comedy routine they will likely only remember the style and the jokes, forgetting the substance of what you are saying. Getting the balance right between ensuring engagement and imparting knowledge is a delicate process: making students enjoy their learning doesn’t always translate to remembering what you want them to learn.
As most charity advertisements will attest, individual stories that spark empathy and interest prove much more memorable than mass scale problems or abstract concepts. Emotional and personal stories are memorable: I remember very little about GCSE Chemistry except the emotive story of Marie Curie. We need to use examples that hook in their hearts and mind onto the knowledge we want them to remember in the long term. To summarise: use humour carefully; use interesting stories about individuals to engage their empathy (something proven to be a natural physical and emotional response when reading stories); link to their personal interests but ensure you return relentlessly to the core message.
5. ‘Paint the picture’ – use analogies, metaphors and images: Cognitive science has proven that analogies and metaphors are crucial to language, thinking and memorising knowledge (see here). Our minds naturally draw upon ‘schemas‘ – a psychology term to define the existing patterns of knowledge we have to help us learn new knowledge. A key way of making new knowledge memorable to to hook it into existing ‘schemas‘. For example, if we were given something to eat we have never eaten before then we would draw upon our prior knowledge – ‘this tastes like chicken!’. They give students helpful templates to build on their prior knowledge and allow them to make educated guesses. When exploring the term ‘oxymoron’ with my English class we drew upon our knowledge of the term ‘moron’, then compared and contrasted this label with the character of Romeo. In Maths, teachers consistently draw upon real world ‘schemas’ to make concepts memorable. By using imagery and metaphors that evoke mental images, students can make mental hooks into what they already know and better organise their new knowledge. In this video Dan Meyer shows how you can use images and known everyday ‘schemas’ such as sport and the act of shooting a basketball to spark questioning, engage students and explain challenging mathematical concepts:
6. Tell compelling stories: Daniel Wllingham describes stories as being “psychologically privileged” in the human mind and memory. As an English teacher this strikes at the heart of what I believe about emotion, memory and learning. Memorable personal stories brings History and facts alive; dry statistics become enlivened when in the context of a story. 64% of students achieving A grades in exams is interesting, but not nearly as memorable as stories of individual students toiling and overcomes tough circumstances to gain an A grade. Our minds make meaning by creating stories. With History we imagine and empathise with particular ‘characters’. Our hearts and minds are captured when a ‘conflict‘ is posed involving characters. Our explanations therefore need to be built like narratives: with characters, conflicts and resolutions. We must avoid meaningless anecdotes of course, as stories should serve to illuminate the core message and not prove a distraction.
7. Make abstract concepts concrete and real: Akin to story making and using effective imagery and analogies to illuminate information, we better remember concrete knowledge rather than abstractions. We are hardwired to do this. From birth, our first words are invariably concrete nouns and verbs to articulate our most basic of needs. Hopefully you have remembered the proverb used in tip 3: “people who live in glass houses should not throw stones“! This is a great example of an abstract idea being made concrete and memorable. We must also avoid using too much abstract language and jargon beyond the patterns of key subject specific language we want students explicitly to remember – see tip 2 – otherwise we risk losing the core message we want students to remember.
Brian Cox, the scientist and television personality (yes – I have noticed he isn’t a teacher and some television personalities have proven to be notoriously bad teachers!) is a great example of someone who makes abstract scientific concepts concrete to good explanatory effect. His explanations illuminates a topic for someone like me who has little sophisticated knowledge of science (the typical student!) in a concrete and memorable way. This short video is a great example of a successful explanation that ticks off many points from my tips with aplomb:
8. Hone your tone: Of course, the delivery of explanations carry a great deal of weight if we are to make them truly memorable. Charisma without content is vacuous, but content without clarity and confidence is less likely to stick in the memory. We need not be performing monkeys, but stressing key words explicitly and using discourse markers with clear emphasis and a tone that conveys enthusiasm will help engage students so they may then listen with intent. We must have undivided attention if students are to process complex new knowledge, therefore our tone must also convey authority. We may have physical positions of authority in the room where students expect you to speak from; we may move about the room to ensure students are actively listening, which requires often a clear and no-nonsense approach. A simple and obvious truth is that a great explanation is worthless if students are not listening to it!
9. Check understanding with targeted questions: One way to secure attention and to make any crucial modifications to our explanations is to ask targeted questions. By having a ‘no hands up’ approach on selected occasions can secure a higher degree of attention. By habitually getting students to comment on what one another has said can better keep all students listening actively (I prefer the ‘ABC Feedback model‘: Agree with; Build upon; Challenge). Questions can close in on the core message, but also open up to interesting analogies and ideas that deepen understanding. When considering an effective explanation a teacher should automatically have questions embedded in that explanation and be ready to flexibly respond to the answers, recasting and redirecting, even repeating the explanation if required.
10. …and repeat: Knowledge stored in the long term memory is most typically information that is revisited, therefore a great explanation must be followed up if we are to maximise its value. The ‘Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve‘ is a nice visual way to remind us that we must give effective explanations, but then revisit the core message with spaced repetition, otherwise there is danger that it will be forgotten:
Great explanations are a foundation stone upon which great teaching is based. There is a complex interplay between our explanations, asking questions and eliciting feedback that if we master we will teach successfully. We should reflect and spend less time on jobs that are extraneous to the core of great teaching, such as creating limited use resources, or focusing upon the tools students use in our planning and get back to the our core practice of explaining, asking questions and giving feedback.
My core message: clear and effective explanations matter!
– Daniel Willingham’s book ‘Why Don’t Students Like School?‘ is an outstanding book that grounds effective explanations in scientific evidence.
– Dan and Chip Heath’s book ‘Made To Stick: Why some ideas take hold and other come unstuck’ presents a really helpful bank of examples and a easy method to make your messages memorable.
– Tom Sherrington’s blog post on ‘explanations‘ crosses very similar aspects to my post in with great success (read his brilliant series), complete with great images and examples.
– Here a great #Blogsync with a range of interesting posts in the June entry on Explanations: http://blogsync.edutronic.net/
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.
If the path of repeated deliberate practice makes something like perfect, then imitating good models of writing provides solid foundations for the pursuit of writing excellence. ‘Shared writing‘ is one specific strategy that models writing in a highly effective way and is one of my favourite and most effective teaching strategies. ‘Shared writing’ begins with the sharing of the key information or language related to the written task, before the teacher then leads the students in co-constructing the writing, scribing the writing with targeted questioning and feedback. In my experience there are few better ways to illuminate each step of the complex writing process for students and it can work across the curriculum.
In many of my blog posts I keep returning back to a quotation from the brilliant Ron Berger about excellence:
“I believe that work of excellence is transformational. Once a student sees that he or she is capable of excellence, that student is never quite the same. There is a new self-image, a new notion of possibility. There is an appetite for excellence.”
(page 8, ‘An Ethic of Excellence’ by Ron Berger)
This brilliant insight into the transformative power of excellence chimes beautifully with the importance of modelling and the potential power of ‘shared writing’ when it produces writing of real excellence. We can co-construct with students a piece of writing – helping them tread the path to mastery, but we, as teachers, take the primary role as expert guides. It is much more than just a demonstration – it is an active process which can engage the entire grouping in effective questioning and feedback. With the writing process students have internalised their own models over a span of years. When students approach something like expertise they develop an internal ‘mastery model‘. That is to say a model that has instinctively broken down a complex process into effective steps that can be reproduced over and over. In English, it is the internalising of a pattern of sentence structures and the use of a range of vocabulary and rhetorical devices, until those patterns become automatic. Here is a video example of Pie Corbett modelling the process with teachers: http://youtu.be/LGMv6Tf-Lm4.
The problem that we know keenly is that many students simply don’t have a ‘mastery model’ in mind when they are writing, due to a potential array of complex factors (such as a lack of wider reading) so they revert to a ‘default model’. Such a ‘default model‘ is taken on either consciously or subconsciously, where they revert back to the their faulty habits of writing. The problem with this model is that students slip into an automatic state which can simply reassert all their flaws, inaccuracies and misunderstandings. With repeated modelling and ‘shared writing’ students can over time internalise the ‘mastery model’ of a given genre of writing. They can then free up their working memory to develop the requisite creativity to diverge from a model of imitation to one of greater independence and originality.
I have usually enjoyed undertaking guided writing, but I am not unaware of its pitfalls, or why people can shy away from it as a teaching strategy. Providing a ready made model is easier in the sense that it is quicker and it gives the teacher a chance to craft and perfect their writing. I have undertaken guided writing and invariably it is very quick paced and it is not error free. Some teachers lack the confidence to write free-form, in case of errors, but, of course, this is good for the students to learn. In fact, it may be the most important thing that they learn. We must make students recognise that errors and self-correction are a wholly natural part of the writing process. Indeed, they are integral if any student is to make sustained improvement towards their own ‘mastery model’. Another reason that can inhibit using the strategy is behavioural control. Shared writing can mean writing with your back turned to the class, which, of course, is manna from heaven for some cheeky students! Through lots of deliberate practice and failing I have developed a few tricks to hopefully smooth out those issues and help shared writing sing:
Shared Writing: The Top Ten Tips
1. Have a clear idea of your desired ‘mastery model’, to the point of having large elements of it already pre-prepared (like some ‘here’s one I made earlier’ Blue Peter special!), from specific vocabulary you wish to model, to specific discourse markers or sentence structures
2. If you are unconfident that students will stay on task throughout the writing, select a student to scribe the writing, either on the computer or on the whiteboard. This allows you up to manage the room and place yourself according (such as hanging around like an ‘Angel of Death’ behind your more troublesome students!)
3. Be crystal clear about your expectations. Will you allow students to simply contribute orally when they so choose, or is there a simple protocol, like putting their hands up. I don’t think there is a foolproof method, but build a simple habit and have quick and easily cues to make the task run smoother
4. Questioning: pre-plan who you will question in readiness. This can be highly specific, pitching questions that are appropriately differentiated so that students can co-construct the model with you with confidence
5. Pre-plan your questions, thinking how ‘open‘ or ‘closed‘ you want each question to be, for example: ‘How do we best start an essay paragraph?’ and ‘What discourse marker would be most appropriate at this stage of your paragraph?‘ or ‘What term we learnt earlier in the lesson should we use here?’
6. ‘Pose, Pause, Pounce and Bounce‘ your questions around the room. The ‘bouncing‘ of your questions are particularly key. It keeps the class focused on the task because they know they may be questioned at any point. Make clear to students that the best writing is often a sort of mental dialogue, whereat you question what is appropriate. By undertaking ‘guided writing’ you are making that thinking visible, drawing upon the knowledge of the group
7. A crucial point for me is to ensure everyone is writing simultaneously. It works as a control mechanism, but it has learning value, as students have to commit to the ‘mastery model’, even simply through their motor memory of writing the piece. I have often had complaints from students about being ‘tired’ by writing so fast, or writing such a detailed response. My answer is simple: ‘Good!’ Feel the pain, no-one said becoming an expert was easy or effortless
8. Circulate the room and praise their effort (with specific feedback like “Good use of a discourse marker for clarity Claire – thank you” – rather than a vague “Excellent!“) if they are making thoughtful contributions. Get as many students involved as possible; invite critical challenges and revisions. Don’t feel the need for everyone to necessarily contribute, some students will need to concentrate wholly on the act of writing. Silence does not always confer disengagement with task, some students will be thinking deeply about the writing process
9. Get ongoing feedback on the model. You could use the ABC Feedback model, whereat students can either ‘Add to‘ the writing, ‘Build upon‘ what has already been written, or ‘Challenge‘ what has been written
10. Get students to review the writing. It may be masterful but it certainly won’t be perfect! Get them to discuss and feedback what are the key elements of this genre of writing and exploring evidence from the model that has just been co-created. Also, you can get students to compare with their ‘default model’, too often in evidence in their work, highlighting the salient differences. Finally, ask them what they have learnt about writing so that they explicitly reflect on the process.
When shared writing works well it can be a brilliant symphony of ideas. It can also at times be flawed and not produce a shining gem of mastery! Embrace this fact – writing can be messy and disorganised – the process can be just as valuable as the product. The greatest pieces of writing are often a brilliant chaos of revision and rewriting (show students a draft of Orwell’s ‘1984’). In reality students will gain confidence in this knowledge that writing may not be fluent or easy. They can, and will, still learn much even from a flawed ‘mastery model’. I would heartily recommend ‘shared writing’. It is one of the best ways of modelling, which we can all agree is important, because it doesn’t just model the end product, it also models the process of writing. Done repeatedly and habitually it can also, I would hope, engender Ron Berger’s ‘appetite for excellence‘.
It is that time of year already. The weeks have suddenly crashed forward like waves and exam dates loom bleakly in the distance. Of course, we start looking for creative ways to sustain the interest of students. We look to engage them in their learning so that they may pay some attention to our relentless pleading for effort and revision. We explain the grandiose importance of said exams and those simple letters on certificates that provide their ticket to their future lives. I have taught for a decade now and I may despair of the examinations themselves, and the crass system of judgement that is league tables, but if our students are to succeed in these exams then as we approach exam season the answer is simple. In the words made famous by that famous sage – Sarah Palin(!): “drill baby drill!”
Let me explain my rationale for what may seem a simplistic and backward looking approach. Yes, there are many constructivist techniques that will aid the mastery of knowledge and therefore be appropriate for revision. Spacing out revision to encompass different topics, with varied pedagogy is likely to help make some of their learning more memorable. The evidence at hand; however, proves that testing as practice, repeated, with skilled feedback has a very positive impact on learning – see research here. This has been labelled the ‘testing effect’, whereat the act of retrieving information for a test is proven to improve recall more than simply restudying information. This is not advocating lots of high stakes testing, but simply a recognition that testing for learning works and improves long term retention of knowledge: the holy grail for exam success. We mustn’t shy away from exam drills given the nature of the assessment.
Let me say that I am a teacher of English that values creativity and imagination hugely. I deplore exams which are narrow and reductive. I will prepare students for an AS level English Literature exam where the great literature we read and I teach, such as the poetry of Robert Browning, is reduced rather simplistically into a mere list of narrative devices. Yet, exams in themselves are a necessary evil – an imperfect judgement of knowledge and understanding – but one of the best tools we have to do the job. What I have come to learn myself is that repetition, and even rote learning, can actually create the fertile conditions for subsequent creativity and the potent force of imagination. In the words of the great American basketball coach, John Wooden: “Drilling creates a foundation on which individual initiative and imagination can flourish.”
I recently posted a blog on ‘deliberate practice’ here which reiterates the point that real improvement and mastery comes from drilled repetition, with quick, useful feedback. Of course, to make the many marginal gains required for true expertise there is much repetition and deliberate practice required. Students will likely not often experience the heralded ‘flow’ state during revision. Going over and over any body of knowledge takes grit, discipline and perseverance because it can often be simply boring. We must be honest with students about the power of conquering boredom. I think the skill of mastering boredom is a sure-fire path to ultimate success. What we mustn’t do, as teachers, is collude with many aspects of our instant gratification culture, and actually avoid the challenge – we must embrace the boredom and the difficulty of repeated exam practice. We must communicate with our students that not all learning can, or even should, be fun; it can often be hard, challenging and mentally gruelling.
Through repeated deliberate practice of exams students become skilled in the automatic state that comes with habit forming. It is like driving in a car for the thousandth time, we then switch off and drift into our own automatic mode, often having creative reveries as we drive. A good real life example of his notion is from the world of sport. Barcelona FC are world renowned for being the greatest football team in the world, perhaps of all time. Their creativity and skill is celebrated by every football fan. Of course, it isn’t sheer chance that has seen this come to pass. The Barcelona way, initiated by a great player, and believer in deliberate practice, Johan Cruyff, relies on the simplest of training drills – the ‘rondo’. See here:
The ‘rondo’ drill cannot replicate the pressure of the actual match in many ways, but the repeated drill hones that quick passing habit which is so key to their creative passing style – known as ‘tika taka’. It is a simplification of the real game, much like focusing in on exam technique, crafting and drafting the perfect exam answer singularly, rather than sitting full papers endlessly. what you can see in the video is the mastery, and the related pleasure, that comes from drilling and deliberate practice. What we must do is stop seeing repetition as being the enemy of creativity or higher order thinking. With exam revision repetition is our friend. We need to communicate that in the language we use to students. Like with writing, we cannot exhibit real creativity unless we have mastered the laws of grammar. Like Picasso painting a Cubist masterpiece, we cannot creatively break the rule unless we practise and understand those rules in the first place. We cannot make the cognitive leap of imaginative originality unless we have a solid grounding in the core knowledge of the basics.
It is common sense really, but too often teachers feel the pressure to teach ‘all singing, all dancing’ lessons, or make the learning fun and creative, when sometimes the most effective method is some good old-fashioned drilling of practice and well chosen drills of testing for learning.
“I believe that work of excellence is transformational. Once a student sees that he or she is capable of excellence, that student is never quite the same. There is a new self-image, a new notion of possibility. There is an appetite for excellence. After students have had a taste of excellence, they’re never quite satisfied with less; they’re always hungry.” (page 8, ‘An Ethic of Excellence’ by Ron Berger)
One feedback strategy I have found helped enhance the writing of my students so far this year was the use of ‘gallery critique‘. The initial inspiration came from Ron Berger, whose ‘Ethic of Excellence‘ provided inspiration in the pursuit of motivating students. Like any teaching and learning strategy, it is far from flawless, but I think that having trialled it extensively with different groups, from students to teachers themselves, in staff training, it was well worth nominating.
After having selected the ‘gallery critique‘ strategy to meet the #blogsync brief of identifying a strategy that elicits motivation, it transpired that David Didau then wrote a peerless summary of the strategy here. This synthesis of research, expressed so skilfully, did make me think that my post had become rather redundant, but I wanted to explore some of the evidence base for the effectiveness of the strategy – particularly my specific use with my GCSE class.
More broadly, the evidence base for the effectiveness of feedback and assessment for learning is sound and thorough. Feedback has the greatest impact in John Hattie’s seminal synthesis of research, ‘Visible Learning‘; although, of course, feedback itself is a broad term. Dylan Wiliam is lauded as a guru in this particular area. He defined the five key areas of effective assessment for learning as follows:
– clarifying and understanding learning intentions and criteria for success
– engineering effective classroom discussions, questions and tasks that elicit evidence of learning
– providing feedback that moves learners forward
– activating students as instructional resources for each other, and
– activating students as owners of their own learning
The “big idea” that ties these together is that we use evidence of student learning to adapt teaching and learning, or instruction, to meet student needs.
(From ‘Excellence in Assessment‘ by Dylan Wiliam)
The strategy of ‘gallery critique‘ is so appealing because, done well, it addresses each of the five areas of effective assessment for learning. I have learnt, through experience of trailing the strategy, that clarifying the success criteria is essential if students are going to create work worthy of a gallery. Each time I now use the ‘gallery critique‘ method I make sure I have used multiple models of high quality work matching their task as a precursor. Also, equally crucial, is having the highest expectations of behaviour when undertaking the gallery reflection and feedback. It can be an off putting strategy if you have a challenging group, given you expect students to walk around the classroom, but, like anything in the classroom, they need training until this strategy just becomes a ‘new normal’ for how they would learn on a regular basis. Of course, it is about being explicit about exactly how students should move about the room. I demand silence during the gallery reflection stage, verbally celebrating students who are undertaking the task with particular focus. I ensure students have a scaffold for their responses using the ‘ABC’ feedback model (they write on their large post it notes – either A for ‘Agree with…’, B for ‘Build upon…’ and C for ‘Challenge…’). I also articulate tight time-frames to ensure students are focused on the job. I then select exemplars that have multiple examples of feedback and talk through them with the class, huddled around in an arc facing the work, questioning students appropriately. Students follow up the ‘gallery critique’ with some sustained ‘dedicated improvement and reflection time‘, whilst I attempt to remedy any misapprehensions with individual students.
In terms of evidence, I focused upon using the strategy with my Y10 group preparing for an ‘Of Mice and Men’ controlled assessment. I regularly identified distinct improvements to drafted paragraphs based on using the ‘gallery critique‘ method; however, I am suspect about my own instincts here, because as Hattie states, almost every teaching intervention makes some form of improvement. That being said, we repeated this method of formative assessment, with the second batch of model paragraphs being distinctively better than the first (I included more exemplar models the second time around). I couldn’t grade this improvement, as it was part of the controlled assessment process, so any marking of drafts isn’t allowed (much to the annoyance of students who are used to this being the case), but the paragraphs were clearly better. I did want the ‘soft data’ of student voice evidence, so I undertook a student voice activity with my trial group. I did undertake the questionnaire just before their controlled assessment so they were nervous and lacking in confidence somewhat (by the end of the lesson I had a different response to their ‘confidence level’ question – with more than half of the group feeling more confident).
The evidence from the questionaries from my Y10 GCSE group is certainly not a ringing endorsement of the strategy! What clearly came through the questionnaire was that 82% of students in my GCSE group preferred teacher assessment over peer or self assessment. Only 18% favoured peer assessment. Of course, students are always dependent and reassured by teacher assessment, for good or ill, but it does draw into question whether this strategy enhances motivation, or whether it is simply defers the true gratification for students that is teacher assessment. One complication is that students know I will not, and cannot, mark a draft of their work, as the controlled assessment process prohibits this, so their annoyance may translate to their views on the questionnaire. 27% of students evaluating that the ‘gallery critique’ method was “not useful at all”; 32% thought it was useful at times; 18% deemed it useful and 18% thought it was very useful. Their reflective opinion did appear to clash with the quality of their written outcomes, but it is an interesting piece of evidence (arguably, watching videos would receive a high percentsge for its usefulness but I would be rightly sceptical of their judgement!). Interestingly, 64% of the group thought that reading the work of others was “useful at times”. Clearly, the desire for teacher led assessment predominates and is indeed the dominant model for education – why wouldn’t students be conditioned to be reliant upon it? Does the strategy motivate students undertaken in this specific manner in the English classroom? Clearly not as much as I thought.
The next crucial question: does it work? The proof will inevitably be in the summative pudding of the controlled assessment mark. I will be able to equate it with their previous reading assessment, not ideally as there are differences. I will also be able to compare their performance with other groups (again, recognising that a host of variables are at play) to ensure there is some hard data to supplement the student voice and my teacher observations of progress.
It is the case with assessment for learning, like most teaching strategies, a balanced variety of well honed approaches will work best to help students make progress. Peer assessment that is well scaffolded and modelled, and conducted with well chosen groupings, can be highly effective formative assessment, as the evidence suggests, but striking a delicate balance of assessment for learning is key. Students often dislike self-assessment, but that self-regulating skill is key to success, therefore we must persevere, ensuring our pedagogy scaffolds the assessment to make it purposeful and have impact.
It is only appropriate to end with the inspirational words of Ron Berger when thinking about the value of the ‘gallery critique’ strategy:
“Most discussions of assessment start in the wrong place. The most important assessment that goes on in a school isn’t done to students but goes on inside students. Every student walks around with a picture of what is acceptable, what is good enough. Each time he works on something he looks at it and assesses it. Is this good enough? Do I feel comfortable handing this in? Does it meet my standards? Changing assessment at this level should be the most important assessment goal of every school. How do we get inside students’ heads and turn up the knob that regulates quality and effort.” (P103, ‘An Ethic of Excellence’)
In summary, ‘Gallery critique’ is one very useful formative assessment strategy for getting students to better ‘turn up the knob that regulates quality and effort’, making their work worthy of a gallery.
A few weeks ago I had the great pleasure to present to the staff of my school for just over an hour on teaching and learning. What had preceded this session for teachers was time to evaluate teaching exemplar lessons and grading them using the OFSTED grade criteria. Subject Leaders were concurrently working with the fantastic Zoe Elder on helping develop an outstanding department. My session, in the main hall, was a chance to get staff focusing in on pedagogy, reviewing some good practice, sharing ideas and departmental approaches to oral feedback and questioning.
Why questioning and feedback? Well, they are simply the ‘bread and butter of great teaching’. Whenever I think or write about pedagogy I cannot go too far without thinking about them both. Too often, many teachers are spooked by the likes of OFSTED and attempt to become teachers they are not; using a variety of whizz-bang bells and whistles in an attempt to display rapid progress – often only succeeding in creating rapid chaos! Hopefully my slot was a reminder that good and great teaching is often as traditional as Socrates himself asking challenging questions, all the way back before we had a concept of an education. We should not turn away from a wealth of innovative teaching strategies and approaches, but we should hone in on our bread and butter and make it as good as it can possibly be.
My PPT introduction (see here:Training Day 30.1.13) aimed to be long enough to clarity my point, but not too long as to inspire the proverbial PPT ‘death’! I made it clear I was not trying to teach teachers to suck eggs!
Many of these strategies were nothing new and many teachers in the room could surely teach the socks off students! What I wanted to help do was to connect that existing expertise; to take people back to the basics, the bread and butter, and remember, revalue and refine their core practice. I was little more than a compere for the great teachers in the room who just needed some time to connect ideas and practice.
Teachers were handed these simplified versions of my online blog posts, many ideas were common- place – but hopefully it was useful to revisit and reflect:
After discussion, aiming to exemplify the oral feedback strategies, departments created a gallery of current practice and prospective areas to develop. As a way of exemplifying one of the feedback strategies, the staff conducted a ‘gallery critique‘.
Below are some examples from the departmental gallery critique from the session:
The gallery findings were collated, typed up and then circulated to all staff to allow for departments to follow up appropriately. This document summarised all the good practice already existing in our school, as well as identifying where we could continue to improve. It really was a great culmination to the session and made sure the gallery technique was more than a gimmick and ensured we made the activity into a useful working document. See it here: Questioning and Feedback follow-up 31-01-13
Feedback was positive, although I have realised it is near impossible to differentiate to satisfy an audience of over one hundred! Based on the feedback I would factor in some time for more exemplar questioning, contracting the early discussion time somewhat (although people conversely commented that the discussion time was crucial). I was conscious of giving people time to talk and simply reflect on their practice with colleagues. For me, blogging about my practice, and reading those blogs of others, really helps that reflective thinking process. In the hurly burly of the day job it is important to find some stillness to reflect upon our pedagogy – especially those strategies we sometimes take for granted: such as the bread and butter of questioning and oral feedback.