Tag Archive | Education

Opening The Door On Our ‘Craft Knowledge’

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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:

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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.”

Coaching in Schools: Top Five Reads

There appears to be a significant rise in coaching in schools at the moment that provides hope for a more coherent approach to teacher improvement. The whole topic of Performance Development is schools is a contentious topic. Clearly, performance related pay and other ideas are being mooted with justified scepticism from teachers. Of course, the lines between coaching and Performance Development can, and will, be blurred and obscured, but if we can develop a system of coaching free of the inhibiting spectres of annual targets, or even OFSTED, then there is hope for a developmental system of teacher improvement that might well make a difference to teachers and therefore to the ultimate success of students.

Over the last year I’ve sourced evidence through Dylan Wiliam and beyond about the plateau in development experienced by teachers (indeed most professionals) after a couple of years. In American research, by Rivkin, Hanushek and Kain (2005), it has stated that after three years there is little improvement in teacher quality. It would stand to reason that teachers reach a level of competency when they can then effectively switch on the autopilot and teach very well…or not of course. This plateau in performance also correlates with a lessening of direct coaching. On a PGCE course, in the NQT year, and sometimes in the third year, teachers are regularly engaging in coaching conversations – many intentionally, or some as a by-product of early performance development. After that the ‘continuous‘ aspect of ‘Continuing Professional/Performance Development’ too often gets lost. Coaching is the potential antidote. It can provide the vehicle for ‘deliberate practice’. ‘Deliberate practice’ isn’t a process of vague trial and error – it is a process of specific chunking of teaching skills, repeated practice, with regular and precise feedback. It is this crucial mode of feedback which requires continued coaching. There are many models and methods of coaching which I will likely explore in further posts, but I wanted to share what i thought was some useful reading on the topic. There are many books in the field, both specific and some not specific to the profession. I have selected what I have found most useful in my attempt to be a better Subject Leader and coach:

1. ‘Practice Perfect: 42 Rules for Getting Better at Getting Better’, by Lemov, Woolway and Yezzi.

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This is my favourite coaching book as it is packed with a host of practical approaches to coaching in the school context and methods to improve the all-important ‘deliberate practice’ so key to becoming a better teacher (see my post on ‘deliberate practice’ here). It gives lots of specific examples with everything from the right phrasing to encouraging a coaching mindset, to detailed accounts of where to practice and how.

2. ‘Mindset: How You Can Fulfil Your Potential‘ by Carole Dweck.

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In many ways this book has become seminal in the field and education and beyond to articulate the psychology of success. The dichotomy of the positive ‘growth mindset’ and the more limiting ‘fixed mindset’ underpins the language and practical process of coaching. It isn’t the most practical of coaching books, as it focuses on illuminating the concept with examples, but it does provide some crucial advice about using language effectively in coaching. Also, it provides a clear narrative that any coach can communicate with ease to make the process more effective and, hopefully, more likely to succeed.

3. ‘Talent is Overrated: What Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else‘ by Geoff Golvin.

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There are many excellent books now on the market that focus on the development of expertise and even genius. From Daniel Coyle to Matthew Syed, there are books well worth your time, but if I had to choose one book about performance and practice, which combines the theory of Dweck with the practical focus of Lemov, it would be Golvin’s book. He presents a compelling argument for ‘deliberate practice’ with lots of specific approaches, from becoming better at golf to being great in business, he priorities the importance of feedback, central to effective coaching, and outlines the grit and perseverance in evidence when analysing expert performers.

4. ‘Switch: How to Change Things when Change is Hard‘, by Dan and Chip Heath.

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This book is not about coaching or teaching in any specific way. It is, however, essential reading for any professional looking to help make changes in an organisation and with individuals. It is so good I couldn’t help but write a blog post all about it here. The book brilliantly articulates how you can change habits, even the most hardened, which is essential knowledge for a coach. It also clarified the emotional factors underpinning performance and how you can positively help an individual makes changes to their practice. It presents an intriguing range of case studies that will get any would be teacher, coach or school leader reflecting deeply.

5. ‘Visible Learning for Teacher: Maximising Impact on Learning’ by John Hattie.

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You would be forgiven for asking why I haven’t chosen more books specifically about coaching itself. I think there are some laudable subject specific books, but I would argue it is paramount that any teacher coach needs to be themselves great learners, readers and researchers on education in order to coach colleagues towards improving practice. What is key is that coaches in schools have a broad knowledge of pedagogy and that any coaching actually focuses in upon teaching and learning that has the greatest impact. School leaders and coaches are duty bound to synthesise the best research in the field, followed by research that approaches such research with practical applications. Books like Zoe Elder’s brilliant ‘Full On Learning‘ or Jim Smith’s ‘The Lazy Teacher’s Handbook’ are essential in developing an expert range of pedagogy. Hattie’s research is so fundamental in that it slays some sacred cows and actually guides teachers towards pedagogy that is proven to work, with the evidence that underpins the practice. Of course, context is crucial, so even huge meta-analyses of evidence needs to be equated with individual school contexts, but the book is a must read for a well informed coach.

I have had the difficult task of narrowing the number of books to only five, but I expect Jackie Breere’s prospective ‘The Perfect Coach‘ will be another gem that synthesises many practical approaches to coaching in schools if the rest of the ‘Perfect’ series in anything to go on. If you have any great suggestions for other books specifically on coaching in schools, or other books related to coaching then please do comment. If we are to be a good coach, we must pursue knowledge and good practice deliberately and reading and researching is a great start.

Shared Writing: Modelling Mastery

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‘.

What My Parents Taught Me About ‘An Education’

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Educating Rita!

On Friday the 15th of March I had the great pleasure to watch my mother, Rita, finally become a graduate, a couple of years short of sixty. It was a moment of sublime pride to stand with my father, my brother and my two sisters and watch my mother hobble across the stage (thanks to a recent knee replacement!) and receive that little envelope that means so much. I don’t normally write about my personal life, but I know my parents are a key reason why I am a teacher, why I value education so much. I also wanted to publicly celebrate my main role models for grit, perseverance and wisdom: my parents. Of course, they made me teacher I am and the person I am. My mother completing her degree, whilst working full time, confirmed every cherished belief I have about the value of having a great education.

I came across this quotation recently and I thought it very wise:

“You don’t really understand human nature unless you know why a child on a merry-go-round will wave at his parents every time around – and why his parents will always wave back.” William D. Tammeus

I knew that I didn’t really understand fully the love of a parent, so crucial to human nature, until I became a parent myself. That incredible and irreducible tug of love that keeps you perennially in its wake became so real, so quickly. Now that I am a parent of two beautiful children I am more thankful than ever to my parents for the values they have instilled in me and the love that have given unreservedly. I began to reflect more closely upon the ‘education’ my parents had given me.

My parents are both from proud but humble roots. Education was very much a privilege in our house – without doubt. It was, however, a privilege we were free to spurn or cherish. My parents didn’t look to the best Primary around, or a Secondary schools with stratospheric results. OFSTED reports were an alien document back then. My parents believed simply in going to the local school with your friends and doing your best. My parents, both hard working, expected us to be the same. In the main, we did work hard, but not always and I experienced failure more times than if I were mollycoddled . I cannot once remember being chastised about homework or pushed regarding exams – I failed in those areas more often than I would have liked. My parents had little knowledge about the actualities of getting into universities that so crucify many parents with anxiety today. The whole attitude of my parents was rather laissez faire – if you worked hard enough you would be what you wanted to be. If you didn’t, well, you would get what you deserved – nothing!

For years, into my mid-twenties, I had thought my parents hadn’t known enough about education, hadn’t pushed me. I hadn’t gone to a great school like the one I teach at myself. I compared the situation to many of the forthright parents I see today, supporting their child with specific resources, guiding them into learning instruments, moving post codes to secure the best school – that sort of thing. I had thought my parents rather naive about education on the whole. It had turned out that I was the naive one all along. My arrogance stopped me seeing it for too long. I had received an exemplar education from my parents – I only hadn’t been wise enough to see it.

My father’s boldness of character, wit and warmth have always been qualities I have wanted to emulate (if I ever get there I will be a happy man!). My mother’s loving generosity and sheer grit and determination were always qualities I had secretly wished I could possess. I hadn’t realised that an education of character from my parents was the best education possible – more than any school prop (be it tutor or computer), or even wisdom regarding the machinations the school system. Both my parents have worked as carers for the elderly for the majority of their lives (including their infirm parents as a more natural obligation) in different capacities. Once more, their utter dedication and emotional intelligence stood me in better stead to deal with the complexities of my job than my teaching training ever did. My father was, and is, a home carer for the elderly; my mother arranges care packages for the elderly. I couldn’t be prouder that they do the jobs they do. They both work with dignity and integrity that I will always strive to imitate in my fashion. That is an education to be proud of indeed.

Most recently, my mother’s pursuit of her degree (whilst working full time) has been something of a culmination of my understanding – my education of character. It is also a very appropriate circle of experience, as my young daughter will start school for the very first time this year. My mother’s four year degree has never been a sure thing. Working full time, and being a grandmother to a legion of grandchildren, whilst researching, writing essays and sitting exams, created a gruelling schedule that would stretch the capacity of anybody. A few times she contemplated quitting, but she simply refused to give in. Holiday suitcases were filled with books and essay materials. She would have you believe it was other people around her who kept her going, and yes, our family were supportive, particularly my father of course, but it was her inner-drive – this personification of grit and resilience – which meant she hobbled proudly across the stage to receive her degree. In some ways, professionally, the degree will make little difference. But, once more, to me and my family, it means more than we can express.

It is another step in my brilliant education. It makes me want to be better. A better parent, a better partner and a better teacher. In my role ‘in loco parentis’, I hope I can be a proxy role model for my students. More so, I hope they receive an education from their parents the like I did from mine. They will be lucky, loved and well educated if they do. The motto of the Open University is ‘Live and Learn’. I most certainly am learning. Thanks Mum – thanks Dad.

Motivating Students Using ‘Gallery Critique’ #Blogsync

“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.

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Well, I didn’t say it was an aesthetically beautiful gallery!

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.

Is Character the Essential Student Outcome?

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I recently wrote a post about how a singular ‘all eggs in one basket‘ three hour examination would have a negative and narrowing effect upon our curriculum and, of course, our students. After thinking about what prospective assessments we can look forward to, or not, I thought about our purpose beyond helping students make the right moves along the conveyor belt of passing exams. Before I came to thinking about what assessment model would be more appropriate, I thought about starting with what type of students we are aiming to develop. We often focus upon the quantifiable outcomes in school: league tables, international measures and evidence based outcomes of cognitive ability, but we too often neglect those non-cognitive learning dispositions which will see our students flourish in a rapidly changing world. We ignore the less easily quantifiable aspects of an education – such as developing character: dispositions like resilience, perseverance and self-discipline. How do we value those aspects in a system so bent on measurement and examined assessments? How do we go some way to balancing cognitive development with character development?

As we teach the International Baccalaureate at my school, alongside A Levels, it occurred to me that their ‘learner profile’ was a good place to start to investigate a fitting school curriculum, with a functional assessment model, which purport to have that aim of engendering confident, flexible and resilient learners who will thrive in a future abound with complexity and challenge at their core.

International Baccalaureate Learner profile: http://www.ibo.org/programmes/profile/documents/Learnerprofileguide.pdf

The aim of all IB programmes is to develop internationally minded people who, recognizing their common humanity and shared guardianship of the planet, help to create a better and more peaceful world.

IB learners strive to be:

Inquirers

They develop their natural curiosity. They acquire the skills necessary to conduct inquiry and research and show independence in learning. They actively enjoy learning and this love of learning will be sustained throughout their lives.

Knowledgeable

They explore concepts, ideas and issues that have local and global significance. In so doing, they acquire in-depth knowledge and develop understanding across a broad and balanced range of disciplines.

Thinkers

They exercise initiative in applying thinking skills critically and creatively to recognize and approach complex problems, and make reasoned, ethical decisions.

Communicators

They understand and express ideas and information confidently and creatively in more than one language and in a variety of modes of communication. They work effectively and willingly in collaboration with others.

Principled

They act with integrity and honesty, with a strong sense of fairness, justice and respect for the dignity of the individual, groups and communities. They take responsibility for their own actions and the consequences that accompany them.

Open-minded

They understand and appreciate their own cultures and personal histories, and are open to the perspectives, values and traditions of other individuals and communities. They are accustomed to seeking and evaluating a range of points of view, and are willing to grow from the experience.

Caring

They show empathy, compassion and respect towards the needs and feelings of others. They have a personal commitment to service, and act to make a positive difference to the lives of others and to the environment.

Risk-takers

They approach unfamiliar situations and uncertainty with courage and forethought, and have the independence of spirit to explore new roles, ideas and strategies. They are brave and articulate in defending their beliefs.

Balanced

They understand the importance of intellectual, physical and emotional balance to achieve personal well-being for themselves and others.

Reflective

They give thoughtful consideration to their own learning and experience. They are able to assess and understand their strengths and limitations in order to support their learning and personal development.

The IB ‘Learner Profile‘ is emblazoned about my school, and although in reality we have a relatively small cohort in the context of the whole school, the learner profile sparks my interest each time I walk past it. It makes me think how the IB constructs its aims and shapes it curriculum around its students. The IB is rightly lauded by Gove and he is critical of our qualifications not stacking up against such international models, but I am yet to be convinced that he is leading an authentic shift towards our core purpose being centred around our students and their future. With the IB Diploma foregrounds qualities, such as ‘open mindedness’, they are fostered in real terms by having the ‘Theory of Knowledge‘, at the core of the diploma, a philosophical exploration of knowing, with a rigorous focus upon the domains of knowledge in each other subject area of the IB Diploma. It is placed alongside the ‘Extended Essay‘ – a genuinely independent piece of assessment that requires students to devise their own thinking and undertake real inquiry, supported by expert teachers. Not only that, with the ‘Creativity, Action and Service (CAS)‘ assessed element of the qualification, active citizenship is made real. The ‘Learner Profile‘ isn’t just window dressing – it underpins the philosophy and aims of the qualification – shaping the assessment model to fit those aims.

 

Another school school system celebrated by Gove is that of Singapore. I am interested in the ‘Desired Outcomes of Education‘ in Singapore. Once more, a core focus is centred upon what type of learner their system is looking to develop:

Singapore: http://www.moe.gov.sg/education/files/desired-outcomes-of-education.pdf

1. The Desired Outcomes of Education (DOE)1 are attributes that educators aspire for every Singaporean to have by the completion of his formal education. These outcomes establish a common purpose for educators, drive our policies and programmes, and allow us to determine how well our education system is doing.

2. The person who is schooled in the Singapore Education system embodies the Desired Outcomes of Education. He has a good sense of self-awareness, a sound moral compass, and the necessary skills and knowledge to take on challenges of the future. He is responsible to his family, community and nation. He appreciates the beauty of the world around him, possesses a healthy mind and body, and has a zest for life.

In sum, he is:

• a confident person who has a strong sense of right and wrong, is adaptable and resilient, knows himself, is discerning in judgment, thinks independently and critically, and communicates effectively;

• a self-directed learner who takes responsibility for his own learning, who questions, reflects and perseveres in the pursuit of learning;

• an active contributor who is able to work effectively in teams, exercises initiative, takes calculated risks, is innovative and strives for excellence; and, a concerned citizen who is rooted to Singapore, has a strong civic consciousness, is informed, and takes an active role in bettering the lives of others around him

Lastly, I was interested in another programme praised by Gove, that once more places character development, and a more holistic view of the student, at the heart of its core purpose – of course, alongside exam success etc. – the KIPP programme in America. The debate about KIPP schools fills column inches in America, so a quick Google search will do the job of beginning further research into their system, but I wanted to focus upon their ‘Character Growth Card’. Students are graded on their ‘character’. This may seem anathema to some, but at least it is a recognition that some things are valued in education beyond examination scores.

 

KIPP Character Growth Card: http://www.kipp.org/files/dmfile/KIPPCharacterGrowthCardandSupportingMaterials.pdf

These qualities best embody what type of students the KIPP programme aims to develop:

OPTIMISM: expecting the best in the future and working to achieve it;
Gets over frustrations and setbacks quickly;
Believes that effort will improve his or her future

ZEST: approaching life with excitement and energy, feeling alive and activated;
Actively participates;
Shows enthusiasm;
Invigorates others

GRIT: finishing what one starts, completing something despite obstacles; a combination of persistence and resilience;
Finishes whatever he or she begins;
Tries very hard even after experiencing failure;
Works independently with focus

CURIOSITY: taking an interest in experience and learning new things for its own sake; finding things fascinating Is eager to explore new things;
Asks and answers questions to deepen understanding;
Actively listens to others

SOCIAL INTELLIGENCE: being aware of motives and feelings of other people and oneself; including the ability to reason within large and small groups;
Able to find solutions during conflicts with others;
Demonstrates respect for feelings of others;
Knows when and how to include others

GRATITUDE: being aware of and thankful for opportunities that one has and for good things that happen;
Recognises and shows appreciation for others;
Recognises and shows appreciation for his/her opportunities

SELF-CONTROL: regulating what one feels and does; being self-disciplined

SELF-CONTROL – SCHOOL WORK:
Comes to class prepared;
Pays attention and resists distractions;
Remembers and follows directions;
Gets to work right away rather than procrastinating

SELF-CONTROL – INTERPERSONAL
Remains calm even when criticized or otherwise provoked;
Allows others to speak without interruption;
Is polite to adults and peers;
Keeps temper in check.

 

The formation of ‘character’ being explicitly linked to an education is nothing new – Plato advocated the telling of stories to help “fashion” the minds of the impressionable young; John Locke had the revolutionary idea that women were equally deserving of an education that developed character. Today, educationalists, such as Guy Claxton, have proffered their own version of such skills; creating a sort of ‘character taxonomy’. I do get slightly suspicious when ‘solutions’ are bandied about easily; particularly if such ‘experts‘ start selling their particular ‘brand‘ of character building. Each school should look at their own context and needs for their students – not buy in some quick fix. I happen to think the whole programme of PSHCE is a rather elaborate sham that doesn’t help create character, as much as reading ‘If’ by Rudyard Kipling over and over can do so! Covering topics such as ‘open mindedness’ in splendid isolation from domains of subject knowledge is foolhardy, but having a curriculum where we reinforce and foreground learning dispositions and character traits throughout the curriculum, in a coherent way, with assessment models constructed for that aim, is entirely valid. Perhaps we could use the time freed up from PSHCE in a more productive way?

I do not doubt that development of domains of core knowledge are essential (this article by Daniel Willingham brilliantly sums up the importance of knowledge here), but whilst I agree that our choice of what knowledge is important (which is currently up for debate), it should be balanced with what dispositions of character we are seeking to develop in our students – such as the resilience to tackle challenging new domains of knowledge. Of course, assessment matters. What we assess skews how we teach, whether intentionally or more indirectly. If we create a narrowed curriculum of summative three hour exams alone we risk losing the opportunity to promote a rich range of skills integral to learning new knowledge. With robust and reliable speaking and listening assessments, for example, such as recorded public debates, presentations or a viva voce based upon their research, we can harness and hone communication skills so crucial in the formation of self-confidence and resilience. If we were to raise the profile of guided research and inquiry skills, bound to specific domains of knowledge, in our assessment, such as the IB style ‘Extended Essay’, or portfolio based projects, we could better foster resilience and perseverance, whilst honing skills appropriate for a future where information will only proliferate still further.

In our obsession for easily measurable outcomes (easily packaged, replicable and cheap to administer and judge of course!) we are forgetting that assessment can work in our favour, if we work backwards from the point of what we want students to know and how we want students to approach their pursuit of knowledge. Jean Piaget’s view of intelligence is appropriate: “Intelligence is what you use when you don’t know what to do.” The US Department for Education are looking to address this balance between cognitive and non-cognitive dispositions, focusing upon dispositions such as resilience (indeed, resilience is included in the ‘Common Core Curriculum’ for mathematics). It is summarised in this very useful report: http://www.ed.gov/edblogs/technology/files/2013/02/OET-Draft-Grit-Report-2-17-13.pdf. I think the report is outstanding and the recommendations it poses should frame our curriculum development. Two such recommendations stood out:

“Educators and administrators interested in promoting grit, tenacity, and perseverance should draw on key research-based best practices, for example, (1) provide students with opportunities to take on higher-order or long-term goals that are “worthy” to the student—goals that are “optimally challenging” and aligned with the students’ own interests, and (2) provide a rigorous and supportive environment for accomplishing their goals.” (Page xii of report)

“Administrators and educators need professional development, curriculum materials, and technological supports. Other potentially high-leverage strategies may be restructuring school days to have longer periods and increasing school staffing so that teachers can give individual students more thoughtful feedback and attention.” (Page xiii of report)

Is there a whiff of jargon about the whole business? Yes – and we should be wary of creating a new pseudo-subject akin to PSHCE. Are schools solely responsible for character building? Absolutely not – parental role models trump teachers every time – as John Hattie’s states: “The effect of parental engagement over a student’s school career is equivalent to adding an extra two to three years to that student’s education”. Should we do our best to reinforce dispositions that help (both students and parents) with learning and foster the qualities of character that make our students happy and more healthy citizens? Yes. Should we place character development at the heart of our model for a future curriculum, including, crucially, how we shape our assessment model – I think we should. That does not mean ramming our sense of morality in the faces of our students in the vain hope they will make significant changes to their character, but it is a positive belief that if we enhance our curriculum (keeping it richly broad) and tweak our assessment models towards a holistic and a more authentic range of outcomes that we can do a better job of developing rounded young adults ready for the future.

Finally, I would like to end with this quote from Novel Laureate Professor of Economics from Chicago University, Dr James Heckman, from a Boston Review article – see here:

“First, life success depends on more than cognitive skills. Non-cognitive characteristics—including physical and mental health, as well as perseverance, attentiveness, motivation, self-confidence, and other socio-emotional qualities—are also essential. While public attention tends to focus on cognitive skills—as measured by IQ tests, achievement tests, and tests administered by the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA)—non-cognitive characteristics also contribute to social success and in fact help to determine scores on the tests that we use to evaluate cognitive achievement.”

See here for an excellent research piece by Heckman on ‘soft skills’.

 

Note: I am aware there are debates about the selectivity of KIPP schools and the ultimate success of their graduates. Singaporean education has also been criticised for being highly conformist and hot-housing students to succeed. I do not believe simple education tourism works, but that we should consider carefully our new curriculum aims and our assessment model – reviewing international models as a point of reference, not as a quick fix.

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Reading Fast and Slow

slow reading
Reading too slowly?

(This post is a development upon my post yesterday, Reading with Michael Gove; with a more practical consideration of the approach to teaching reading.)

The movement towards a ‘slow education‘, encompassing deeper, richer learning experiences, is surely the antidote to our assessment driven, checkpoint laden curriculum. In my previous post I explained that we should slim down our content-filled curriculum to maximise the opportunities for reading. More reading is surely a rallying call every teacher, not just English teachers, would happily herald. I do, however, have reservations about how we go about teaching reading, both in English lessons and beyond.

Few things in my professional life give me more pleasure than the special experience of reading to, and with, my English groups. When I think about my time at school I can start to piece together fragments of those rapt moments of whole class reading which no doubt kindled a love for school that resulted in me becoming a teacher. When I now teach the class reader I enjoy it immensely and I love it when students groan when we have to stop reading and they have to do some ‘real work’! I do, however, have a sense of conflict with the nature of reading and studying the ‘class reader’. I think about how we naturally read at pace and at our own volition; how the process is slowed down by ‘study‘. Then I wonder about the paucity of reading many of our students experience (boys are in particular danger of falling significantly behind in terms of reading for pleasure and reading attainment – see here) beyond the annual ‘class reader’, and whether we are killing a potential spark for reading. I then come to thinking about how we can balance the slow study of reading with the pleasure of natural fast reading .

I teach in a fantastic English and Media faculty where we value reading and in a school that tries hard to foster a reading culture. The library does some great business, with a good proportion of our students; students read regularly in form time; last year we undertook our own ‘Big Read’ fundraising, whereat we raised thousands of pounds. Our strategies are not an OFSTED tick-box, but a value system, supported whole-heartedly by our school leaders who understand the real value of reading. We clearly value reading. we want our students to be ‘word rich’ – with all the attendant benefits that brings. Still it never feels like we are doing enough. It feels like a truly Sisyphean task at times. In our department we ensure that least one novel is read a year at KS3, with much poetry and shorter reading besides. We are aiming to slim down our content, deepening and slowing down the assessment process to enhance the learning – and we are looking to cram as much reading into the curriculum as possible. We know the importance of reading for pleasure and being word rich. What becomes crucially important is how we can boost ‘real reading‘ for many of our students who only read that one ‘class reader’ a year.

For the legion of students who don’t read habitually (and evidence from the National Literacy Trust indicates a perennial decline), the reading we facilitate is paramount. Yet, reading a novel over the course of six weeks, and studying it within an inch of its life, can drain the pleasure away from reading for many students. E.D Hirsch even argues that this provides little boost to long term learning and knowledge building (I debate Hirsch’s views at length in my previous post). Don’t get me wrong, most English teachers work brilliantly to stave off boredom and to enrich the understanding of our students, with strategies that also strengthen their reading skills and their worldly knowledge. I would like to think I do a half-decent job myself! Fundamentally; however, we still face the scenario where many students are desperate to read on, but we stifle this natural curiosity to stick to the plan and to teach reading skills

What we need to do is to think of different ways to facilitate reading with students that better imitates the natural state of reading a great novel – that of reading it fast – not pausing for breath, never mind a four day break between chapters! Perhaps, if we unburden our curriculum we can find more space to read in a more rapid way – such a way that encourages the natural pace of reading, a high degree of challenge and more independent and interdependent teaching and learning. We could have ‘reading weeks’ like at university. In my university experience, I learnt more in reading weeks than any other time.

Over a month ago I talked casually to a colleague in our faculty about what she was doing with her Year 9 group at that moment. She was working with visually stunning images (see PPT below) when I dropped into the lesson and I was curious as to what the pictures were and how they were being used. It turned out that she was teaching ‘Animal Farm’ by George Orwell. This wasn’t on the ‘official‘ Year 9 plan so I was intrigued. She had simply taken a two week slot, having found time from our slimmed down content approach (we had dropped a scheme of learning from Years 7, and 9. Believe me – no-one noticed!), and decided to challenge them with the great Orwell novella. She actually taught it to two classes of varying ability ranges. There was no grand outcome – with attendant assessment measures. Simply some initial debate, discussion and reading…lots of reading. By way of celebrating that reading they created this lovely display. All in a couple of weeks. Fast reading that satisfied the pleasure principle of reading much more than our typical approach.

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Class display on ‘Animal Farm’

Here is the great PowerPoint resource she used in conjunction with the novella: Animal Farm PPT

It struck me how simple but effective this approach was and how we didn’t have to be burdened by the demands of a content driven curriculum – that we could read – dare I say it – for the sake of it! Michael Gove, as I described in my previous reading post, has lauded the power of reading. He has heralded the educational philosophy of E.D. Hirsch, who, as stated in the accompanying post, sees reading challenging literature as the crux of successful English study. I have heard numerous stories of OFSTED being very positive about extended reading programmes, Library lessons etc., which similarly foregrounded extended reading. As the saying goes, therefore, ‘we have nothing to fear but fear itself‘.

I therefore want to work with my department to construc a KS3 curriculum that not only embraces ‘dedicated improvement and reflection time‘, but one that dedicates ample time to reading – more than we thought possible perhaps. Many of our students don’t have a love for reading, yet that passion that can be so transformative for success in educational settings, so we need to find time to nurture a liking at the very least; help it grow into a passion. It takes whole-school support (not just financial, but a good book stock doesn’t come for free) from leadership, from a great school library and support from parents if this pleasure is to be grown and sustained. If we could read at least a book a term, a classic a year, in addition to the ‘class reader’, then maybe we could help turn the tide towards reading for pleasure? I am conscious that doesn’t seem overly ambitious – but we would hope it would be the tip of the iceberg for more and more reading for pleasure.

As English teachers we must reflect on our KS3 curriculum. We must reflect upon our priorities. Yes, there are a multitude of factors outside of our control which inhibit reading for pleasure, but we can only control what we control. The precious curriculum time we possess must be used to engender a pleasure for reading wherever possible. I, for one, want to review how we can read more than ever, without waiting for the official sanction from Michael Gove. In fact, I could end with his very words which echo my sentiments exactly:

“There is one must-have accessory that no one should be seen without: a book.

Books complement any outfit and suit any season. But far too few of us make sure we’re carrying one. And we certainly don’t follow the first rule of fashion – to work the racks. We’re not picking up enough new books, not getting through the classics, not widening our horizons. In short, we’re just not reading enough.”

Some questions I am asking at the moment about reading (particularly at KS3) include:

– How do we best balance ‘fast‘ and ‘slow‘ reading?
– What is the best approach for the pedagogy of fast reading?
– How do we space out reading throughout our curriculum to ensure students develop their reading skills in the optimal way?
– How do we ensure students read at least three extended books a year within curriculum time at KS3? Hopefully encouraging many, many more.
– How do we create a broad and engaging book stock to satisfy our ambition? How do we personalise a range of challenging reading material that is in the ‘zone of proximal development’ for our students?
– How do we get parents to support and engage with the process of reading?
– How do we bridge the knowledge gap between their reading at KS2 and KS3?
– How do we maximise our whole school approach to literacy to complement the drive for more reading? How do we get students to read more books that complement other curriculum subjects?

Any responses are of course welcome.

Reading with Michael Gove

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“I thought I’d begin by reading a poem by Shakespeare, but then I thought, why should I? He never reads any of mine.” Spike Milligan

My usual attitude closely resembles a ‘less is more’ approach with regards to the curriculum: less bureaucracy, less outcomes and data, less focus on testing – the list goes on. So I agree when Gove and others recommend the abolition of our endless succession of tests, from controlled assessments to a catalogue of resits, in favour of deeper learning. The more I teach English and lead an English department the more powerfully I believe that the ‘less is more’ approach must be completely reversed when it comes to one aspect of the curriculum: reading.

When Michael Gove, early in 2011, announced that students in Britain should read fifty books in a year (he had visited the Kipp Infinity School, in Harlem, that had undertaken that very challenge) I can remember being surprised at the suggestion of such a seemingly Herculean task, given my knowledge of the actual reading habits of children in my school and beyond. Despite my surprise, I could not but applaud the ambition. I still think his view is laudable, but that it is flawed regarding how Gove believes it should be approached. I had forgotten this challenge until hearing Gove speak recently about it once more in his ‘Social Market Foundation’ speech – see here. One part of the speech came back to his Kipp school inspired challenge:

“Jonathan Rose’s wonderful book “The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes” is revelatory about the appetite for intellectual improvement that existed among working people. It provides both powerful statistical evidence and moving personal testimony which underlines just how hungry working people were for culture. In 1940, on average, boys from every background were reading six books a month and girls over seven.

When I suggested recently that school students here emulate school students in some American charter schools and read 50 books a year it was regarded as either hopelessly utopian or dangerously Gradgrindian. Amongst working class boys in 1940 it would have been regarded as slacking. A 1944 survey of unskilled workers showed that almost half had grown up in homes with substantial libraries. And these working class readers were not only reading widely – they were reading deeply. As Rose points out in his work, housemaids read Dickens and Conrad and kitchen maids saved up money to attend classical music concerts.

Now, I will credit Gove with his ambition (how could more reading be a bad thing), but I would identify that his views fail to recognise the seismic shift in society since the 1940s, which means our approach must be more nuanced than he argues. What Gove fails to do on a consistent basis, when he discusses the benefits of ‘cultural capital‘, is to recognise that society has changed. What we cannot do is simply wish our society to hark back to a bygone Industrial Age. Literacy and reading in the traditional sense have waned, but other literacies have emerged in our digital age and we must realign our curriculum accordingly.

In his speech, Gove presents knowledge of the literary canon as the primary driver of ‘cultural currency‘. Then he propounds his baseless theory that a traditional pedagogy is the only fitting way to impart such a cherished collection of the best of what has been thought and written. He proposes that ‘progressives‘ have given naive working class boys false hope with the fake democracy of ‘co-construction’ and other such dangerously ‘progressive‘ methods, and that we must simply accumulate a broad knowledge of the canon to pass through the higher echelons of society. I would ask Gove to proffer definitive evidence to prove there is any serious causation, or even correlation, between progressive teaching methods and social mobility.

To suggest that there are not a legion of social factors at work to militate against such ‘working class boys’ entering the higher rungs of society is absurd and disingenuous. To argue that ‘progressive‘ teaching methods have been a major factor in harming social mobility is also nonsense and a false cause. The success of KIPP schools in getting students into American universities is much-lauded, but the drop out rate is huge – only a fifth of the original KIPP university cohort completed their degree. The causation goes far beyond tests scores and reading ability: there is a whole host of challenging social factors which inhibit the success of the working class students Gove talks about (see this Economist article for an interesting exploration of the issue).

What is glaringly obvious is that books were not only high cultural currency for boys and girls in the 1940s, they were also one of the few outlets, as a pastime, for those many hours spent inside the home. Children now have a world of imaginative outlets, such as: television, computer games, the Internet and film…the list that begets our modern cultural capital is seemingly endless and militates against the reading of the classics. Of course, Dickens was the low brow family soap opera of his day; Conrad your niche ‘Homeland’ or ‘The Killing’ television series. What we must do is end the canonisation of dead authors at the expense of a rich contemporary landscape of fiction and non-fiction reading, as well as the complex wealth of media and digital literacy. Gove builds a false dichotomy when he speaks of reading – it is a ‘classic is best, to hell with the rest’ approach. Or so it appears through the refracted lens of the media (I hope I am wrong). What we should do is enlarge the reading at the heart of our curriculum, but do so in a way that in a way that celebrates the rich diversity of contemporary literature and media, as well as the best of the canon. We will not be able to communicate this to students of the 2010s without so-called progressive methods, or the digital media that pervades every aspect of their young lives.

Gove cites E. D. Hirsch repeatedly – again, turning to America for his model for his inspiration. Granted, I have a lot of time for Gove citing Hirsch. Hirsch has related some excellent analysis of the power of vocabulary as a knowledge base which is simply fundamental for success in life. He has repeated the striking metaphor of ‘the Matthew effect‘ (an allusion to Matthew 25:29: “For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath.”), whereat the word poor become poorer, the word rich become richer. Here is a driven article by Hirsch on the power of literacy in helping transform life chances: http://www.city-journal.org/2013/23_1_vocabulary.html. There is sound neuroscience to suggest that the brain requires such a deep knowledge base and vocabulary recognition to free up the working memory to tackle the daily complexities of life and to succeed in the classroom, exam hall and ultimately the workplace. Yet, Hirsch also relays the same vague argument about ‘progressive methods‘ being to blame for a supposed dearth of knowledge: “under the influence of progressive educational theories, had begun to use simplified language and smaller vocabularies”. I would say I was one such Machiavellian ‘progressive‘, but I pride myself on reading challenging literature; I pride myself on an approach that is rooted with rigour and a liberal dousing of classic literature, alongside contemporary texts that span the multi-media landscape.

As Hirsch would surely agree, knowledge begets more knowledge – the ‘word rich become richer’. This is because so much conceptual understanding is based upon the foundations of prior knowledge. It is these solid cognitive foundations which provide the structure required to become an expert reader, one who can then derive pleasure from reading. The issue is that I see on a daily basis students without anywhere near the foundations of language they need to grasp fifty books from the canon or elsewhere. The prior knowledge we need to activate is typically then the supposedly ‘low culture’ stories from the multi-media that pervades students lives. If this is connection making is progressive dumbing down then we are stuck in a cul-de-sac. From Piaget to Vygotsky, to Hirsch and Willingham (both celebrated by Gove), there is widespread agreement about the requirement for activating prior knowledge – the truth is we need to look for that knowledge beyond the narrow, conservative parameters suggested by Michael Gove. Of course, if Gove was serious about a foundational reading knowledge he would fight tooth and nail against the widespread closing and funding decimation of our national library system. Not just that, he would bring children into libraries with a balance of multi-media reading and research, alongside more traditional reading. I await the fight with eagerness!

If Gove’s diatribe against progressive methods is an attack upon constructivism then he will give little attention to the crucial peer culture that works crucially alongside the teacher led discourse, whether we want it to do so or not. As expert teachers we cannot afford to ignore the crucial social interactions and we must harness the power of student discussions and debate; we must get students to problem solve and undertake interdependent inquiry – all crucial skills required of a twenty-first century citizen who needs apply their knowledge in real contexts. I don’t want to play top trumps with Hirsch or Vygotsky, unlike Gove, I want to see diversity in reading and diversity in pedagogy. In evidence, provided by Hattie, progressive methods peer tutoring and peer influence can be harnessed positively alongside reciprocal teaching and direct instruction.

Unlike Gove and Hirsch, I am very much a child of the digital age. My reading primarily takes place on my iPad rather than traditional books; my reading is a post-modern mash-up of the modern and the classic; I span blogs, educational research, fiction, tweets, FB links, Youtube videos, websites…often in the space of fifteen minutes! My interleaved reading, spanning digital texts – both fiction and non-fiction – is much nearer the experience of our students. My vocabulary recognition is based upon reading a host of traditional classic texts, but my passion for reading as a teenager was sparked by books I chose outside of the school curriculum, modern authors like Bret Eastern Ellis and Chuck Palahniuk. Most of my early independent reading was inspired by school reading AND television. I therefore feel I am appropriately educated to foster greater reading for pleasure that many who purport to be experts; better placed to leverage classic reading with modern cultural references. When I imagine children reading in 2040 it bears little relation to Gove’s traditional mode. I think reading for children may be more like an immersive game experience than an analogue approach (think of the constructive power of astronaut or flight simulators). We shouldn’t ignore Shakespeare for game based learning, but we should also not pretend popular culture does not exist, or that the very notion of reading is not adapting rapidly.

Is not a comparative study of great literature with contemporary media not enriching in its exploration of meaning? Hirsch himself talks about existing knowledge being “mental Velcro”. Is not drawing upon existing media narratives from popular culture a way of channeling understanding – hooking into the interests and passions of our students? I am not suggesting we hand out iPads and let them loose on Wikipedia as a proxy for reading; or advocating playing Assassin’s Creed over the artistic and cultural study of Renaissance Florence – but I am arguing that we should not exclude popular culture (Dickens was the popular culture of his day, frowned upon by the literary establishment) when creating this ‘common core‘ of knowledge as propounded by Hirsch.

We should leverage popular culture as a way to understand better the classics of the literary canon. Gove himself reviewed the book: ‘The Seven Basic Plots’ by Christopher Booker. He labelled the book a “Masterpiece”. The premise of the book is that there are seven archetypal stories that span the history of storytelling. The book relates literacy as classic as ‘Beowulf’, linked to modern ‘low culture’ films such as ‘Jaws’. This comparative meaning finding, between high and supposedly low culture, much better reflects our modern cultural experience (the post-modern) and it activates that crucial knowledge base so crucial for learning. Does the media ‘reading’ of film not have value in a media saturated society?

Hirsch goes onto argue about the methods used to teach reading in English classes: “In English class, young children are now practicing soul-deadening how-to exercises like “finding the main idea” in a passage and “questioning the author”. These exercises usurp students’ mental capacity for understanding what is written by forcing them to think self-consciously about the reading process itself. The exercises also waste time that ought to be spent gaining knowledge and vocabulary.” Once more, I agree in part. We can deaden the love of reading by slowing down the reading process (part 2 of my reading blog focus, to accompany this post, is about ‘Reading Fast and Slow‘ and how we must simply find more time for students to read in that natural state, sans analysis). I would argue; however, that a metacognitive understanding of reading skills is no bad thing – it foregrounds the ‘how’ of the reading process, allowing for the working memory to tackle challenges like understanding new vocabulary or analysing the narrative method.

Hirsch also criticises a ‘thematic‘ approach to reading. Once more, I can see the potential for a reductive slicing of great texts into bitesize chunks, which is something examiners are inclined to do; however, a thematic understanding to reading can also deepen the crucial knowledge base. Is not Booker’s ‘The Seven Basic Plots’, lauded by Gove, an exercise in pattern recognition? Do we not order the world by ‘chunking’ such information successfully? In our English department we study Dystopian fiction. As part of that learning we do read extracts from classic literature, such as ‘1984’, ‘Lord of the Flies’ ‘When the Machine Stops’ and ‘Brave New World’. We also study great contemporary literature, such as ‘The Road’ and ‘The Hunger Games’. Not only that, we engage in flagrantly ‘progressive methods’, such as watching Dystopian films trailers, creating their own dystopian desert island, and, shock horror, we do close analysis of language and style – killing their soul by locating the main idea! We also have a class reader, where we read a novel, typically dystopian but not always, in Year 9. The library uptake for books such as ‘1984’ is brilliantly healthy. I find our progressive methods can actually inspire a love of reading, where before a love of film or television existed alone; whilst connecting to their prior knowledge, thereby heightening their ability to make positive connections in their learning.

Gove has issued his social mobility busting canon. I shall engage with it and shape it appropriately. I will teach it the best way I know how. I will teach it with a wide array of progressive methods, alongside more traditional methods. I will endeavour to inspire students to read with a passion, reading a whole host of varied literature….maybe even inspiring something approaching fifty books a year if we are lucky with some students! Am I criticising Gove’s ambition – no. Do I applaud his celebration of the classics – absolutely. Am I a child of the digital generation that sees the rich compatibility between the classic and the modern – most definitely.

I am reminded of another American educationalist and his words:

“If we teach today as we taught yesterday, we rob our children of tomorrow.” John Dewey

Reading-Cartoon

‘All Eggs In One Basket’ – The Three Hour Exam

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Timothy Salthouse is a University of Virginia psychologist. He has conducted extensive research into testing, from intelligence to aptitude tests (from the age of eighteen to over eighty) in the snappily titled: ‘Implications of Within-Person Variability in Cognitive and Neuropsychological Functioning for the Interpretation of Change‘ (Neuropsychology 21, no.6 (2007). Now, why is this relevant to our current British education system and Michael Gove’s proposed changes to our curriculum and assessment at KS4 and beyond? Please let me explain. The research prompts serious reservations about something most teaching professionals know instinctively – putting all our eggs into one exam basket is both reductive and destructive.

Michael Gove has proposed that we should do away with coursework or other internal assessment procedures, except for specific subjects, such as Geography fieldwork or Drama practicals. That leaves subjects like mine, English, looking likely to end up with a summative judgement of a three hour examination. We all have our reservations about the exam system. Like the Heisenberg principle in quantum physics, we know that to precisely test one thing, we must inevitably be less precise with testing others. Therefore our testing system becomes narrower and narrower, to make a judgement on a narrow definition of the ‘progress’ of our students. In our results driven system, the curriculum gets ever condensed to meet the progress measures. All the while, the complexity and wealth of information our students have to deal with in our digital age is not narrowing at all, but growing exponentially! Surely our reservations about an ‘all eggs in one basket’ assessment aren’t just unfounded fears from educators seeking to survive in a judgement laden, punitive system?

Salthouse’s research presents us with really unsettling answers about the accuracy and efficacy of such a crucial and singular ‘all eggs in one basket’ assessment. His research has uncovered that there is a wide degree of variability ‘within the same individual’! That, on different days, people could sit the same test and perform in a vastly different fashion. This clearly raises the issue that any one single measurement provides an insufficient evaluation of a young person. His data showed that ‘the within-person deviation’ in test scores averaged about 50 percent of the between-person deviation for a variety of cognitive tasks. With such a bell curve of performance for individuals, sitting the same test, without specialist revision or preparation, simply on different days, how can we justify an ‘all eggs in one basket’ exam to culminate years of study? How fair is it for students that examinations on a Friday afternoon, for example, may suffer a degree of variability which may make students worse off than other students sitting a different exam board on a different day, with some bad weather? The variables are huge and the stakes are sky-rocket high. Of course, we see punitive attacks on entire schools for deficient performance.

This issue does not take further issues into account, such as the quality of examiners, or lack thereof. There is no professionalisation of examiners and the consistency of exam grading is annually brought into question, particularly for subjects such as English, which have a significant degree of extended interpretation. I could show you some exam papers of my past students which have been marked shockingly badly. Coupled with within-individual variation, such summative judgements become even more questionable. To ignore the breadth of quality internal assessment for such a high-stakes test smacks of ignorance.

In other curriculum and assessment models lauded by Michael Gove, such as the International Baccalaureate Diploma, there is a significant proportion of internal assessments; from portfolio work, to oral recordings and to extended coursework essays, externally moderated. The iGCSE assesses oral recordings for the speaking and listening component. If our politicians are scared of cheating in the system then provide a better model that deals with the gaming (or better still, remove the corrosive competition inherent in league tables with course comparison indicators!), such as using oral recordings; live moderation; draft evidence in essay work, or a portfolio approach. These assessment models may be more expensive, but they will mitigate the risk of the high stakes end of course exam model. Perhaps Gove has these in mind, he is just keeping his curriculum cards close to his chest – I hope so!

As Salthouse puts it: “…the existence of within-person variability complicates the assessment of cognitive and neuropsychological functioning and raises the possibility that single measurements may not be sufficient for precise evaluations of individuals, or for sensitive detection of change.” A bit of a mouthful, but the idea is simple: we simply cannot have a system where one bad day can scupper the life chances of any given young person. That is no model for a system looking to enhance deeper learning and militate against teaching to the test.

The culture of resits is ultimately corrosive to deeper learning. I do not advocate a resit culture, the perverse multiplication of exams, it gains nothing, except perhaps the ample profits for the exam boards! Yet, surely we have advanced beyond the antique paradigm of the ‘all eggs in one basket’ exam. Portfolios, speaking and listening assessments, well structured coursework all have their place in a more holistic approach to assessment. Let it be rigorous – I have no argument with that – but let’s not play roulette with the future of our students.

As Michael Gove concedes on the issue of the EBC qualifications replacing the GCSEs he is still intent on measures such as eliminating internal assessments for academic subjects, and other such narrowing effects upon educational outcomes. He clearly lauds the certain judgements of examinations, when evidence put forward by the likes of Timothy Salthouse calls their consistency and accuracy into question. We must therefore challenge the narrow and reductive proposals and put forward better curriculum and assessment models. We have a moral imperative to ensure that our students have a fit for purpose assessment model that is rounded and fit for the twenty first century.