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