No, this post isn’t a dissection of David Dimbleby’s negotiation of a bent table full of politicking talking heads. I’m sorry if you came looking for political debates! My post is an exploration of one of the simplest, but most fundamental, aspects of how students learn and how students display their learning in lessons: higher order questioning. It is simply about getting students to ask ‘why‘ and an exploration of the crucial value of such deep questioning.
‘Daddy, why is the sky blue? Daddy, why are poppies red?’ Learning about the world by asking ‘why‘ questions is just about one of the most natural states for children. Here my daughter is sitting in the back seat of the car making sense of the chaotic world flying by the window. This scene conveys a basic truth that we must always harness in the classroom: children have an instinctive curiosity about the world. My daughter doesn’t yet comprehend why she should ask ‘why‘ questions (a later metacognitive state so crucial to learning), she just instinctively attempts to make sense with ‘why‘. It is the open nature of ‘why‘ questions which make them so powerful and essential to learning.
Despite being naturally inclined to ask such questions, students ask relatively few questions in the classroom setting. In fact, it takes six to seven hours for a typical student to ask a single question in class (Graesser and Person, 1994). Perhaps it is less surprising when we consider in a class full of anything from twenty to thirty inquisitive students that there is relatively little direct questioning of the teacher in class. Some students hog the attention of the teacher, skewing the balance of such questioning still further. Compare this to over twenty six questions from the same archetypal student in a one-to-one tutoring session. The numbers are striking. With this data is makes it even more essential to ensure that we make sure that students ask the right questions. Most questions in the classroom are closed questions that don’t elicit the deeper comprehension provoked by open questions such as ‘why…‘, ‘how…‘ and ”what if…‘. Questions like Isaac Newton asking ‘why did the apple fall from the tree?‘ or Copernicus asking ‘what if the earth orbits the sun?‘
Asking such deeper questions are important because, put simply, they make you more intelligent! By asking ‘why‘ questions – rather grandly described as ‘elaborate interrogation‘ (this document outlines the strategy, with others, really effectively: ) by cognitive scientists – students can actually make new knowledge stick and become more memorable. By asking questions about their new knowledge they become more active learners, which, again, aids recall. The questions elaborate upon what they are learning, hooking the knowledge more deeply in their long term memory, as such questions connect new ideas and concepts to their prior knowledge. Searching ‘why‘ questions are the mental pathways that connects their prior knowledge with what they are attempting to learn. Research on questioning – see here – shows it contributes to reading comprehension, getting students to hypothesise and focus their attention on the key aspects of the text, whilst crucially helping students identify what they know and don’t know. The metacognitive basis of questioning is crucial: that essential ability for students to think about their own thinking, working out what they need to know next and articulating their knowledge.
As teachers we should monitor our questions to ensure we are asking many more of these open questions which generate deeper thinking. We can use students themselves as ‘question monitors‘ to note and evaluate such questions. In some video technology, like IRIS Connect, you can tally your question types to reflect on your own questioning. Not only that, by monitoring the questions of students we can better judge their level of understanding – see the research here. Knowing what the students know, and what they don’t know, is crucial for a teacher in accurately identifying what students are learning and understanding. We can ask ourselves the question: Are students asking enough ‘why’ questions in my classroom? This connects intimately with the question: ‘are my students making progress?’
Furthermore, with the reality of the lack of questions being answered by teachers, we must better scaffold questions shared between students. The research on ‘guided reciprocal peer questioning‘ – see here – provides further evidence why we should actively focus on students asking ‘why‘ questions of one another. This table, from Alison King’s, ‘Structuring Peer Interaction to Promote High-Level Cognitive Processing: From Theory Into Practice’ (2002), provides a really useful framework to share with students to ensure that they are asking deeper questions:
Guided reciprocal peer questioning: question bank
What is a new example of…?
How would you use…to…?
What would happen if…?
What are the strengths and weaknesses of…? How does…tie in with what we learned before?
Explain why… Explain how…
How does… What is the… Why is… How are…different?
Compare…and…with regard to…
What do you think causes…?
What conclusions can you draw about…?
Do you agree or disagree with this statement:…? Support your answer.
How are… and…best…and why?
By scaffolding these questions you can better structure the quality of group discussion whilst also honing their metacognitive understanding, allowing them to actively make their next step in their learning. If we can calibrate students to ask better questions we will make them better learners. Once more, this process of metacognition is proven by a vast amount of cognitive science research to be a key component in successful learning.
Few teachers would ever seriously say they didn’t encourage questioning in their classroom, but perhaps we need to better monitor the quality of our questioning and that of the students. Deeper questioning doesn’t just happen: it is modelled and scaffolded by the class teacher. We could undertake some very simple action research and see if the research that states students ask on average one question over the course of six or seven hours is true of our classroom. My most popular post from my blog is all about questioning and creating a ‘culture of enquiry‘. Find it here: ‘Top Ten Tips – Questioning’ and see if some of the strategies can help you enrich the quality of questioning in your classroom. Many of the ‘top ten tip’ focus in upon generating more questions: such as the ‘Question Wall‘, and the ‘Just One More Question‘ strategies. Whereas other strategies, such as ‘The Question Continuum‘, the ‘Question Monitor‘ and ‘Socratic Questioning’, focus upon the quality of the questions students ask.
Building a thoughtful ‘culture of enquiry‘ in our classrooms should be a priority if we want to improve how students learn. By monitoring the quality of their questions we can identify their progress and what they know. By enhancing and scaffolding their questions we can deepen their knowledge.
Why, given the evidence, would we not focus our energies upon improving the quality and quantity of our students’ questions?
Useful questioning resources:
– A NSTA document with a good explanation of different question types and an exploration of ‘wait time’: http://www.nsta.org/pdfs/201108BookBeatHowToAskTheRightQuestions.pdf
– A good essay collating questioning research: http://rsd.schoolwires.com/145410515152938173/lib/145410515152938173/Classroom_Questioning_by_Cotton.pdf
– A great guide to asking better questions: http://cet.usc.edu/resources/teaching_learning/docs/Asking_Better_Questions.pdf
– A popular blog on questioning: http://www.fromgoodtooutstanding.com/2012/05/ofsted-2012-questioning-to-promote-learning
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.
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.
“I believe that work of excellence is transformational. Once a student sees that he or she is capable of excellence, that student is never quite the same. There is a new self-image, a new notion of possibility. There is an appetite for excellence. After students have had a taste of excellence, they’re never quite satisfied with less; they’re always hungry.” (page 8, ‘An Ethic of Excellence’ by Ron Berger)
One feedback strategy I have found helped enhance the writing of my students so far this year was the use of ‘gallery critique‘. The initial inspiration came from Ron Berger, whose ‘Ethic of Excellence‘ provided inspiration in the pursuit of motivating students. Like any teaching and learning strategy, it is far from flawless, but I think that having trialled it extensively with different groups, from students to teachers themselves, in staff training, it was well worth nominating.
After having selected the ‘gallery critique‘ strategy to meet the #blogsync brief of identifying a strategy that elicits motivation, it transpired that David Didau then wrote a peerless summary of the strategy here. This synthesis of research, expressed so skilfully, did make me think that my post had become rather redundant, but I wanted to explore some of the evidence base for the effectiveness of the strategy – particularly my specific use with my GCSE class.
More broadly, the evidence base for the effectiveness of feedback and assessment for learning is sound and thorough. Feedback has the greatest impact in John Hattie’s seminal synthesis of research, ‘Visible Learning‘; although, of course, feedback itself is a broad term. Dylan Wiliam is lauded as a guru in this particular area. He defined the five key areas of effective assessment for learning as follows:
– clarifying and understanding learning intentions and criteria for success
– engineering effective classroom discussions, questions and tasks that elicit evidence of learning
– providing feedback that moves learners forward
– activating students as instructional resources for each other, and
– activating students as owners of their own learning
The “big idea” that ties these together is that we use evidence of student learning to adapt teaching and learning, or instruction, to meet student needs.
(From ‘Excellence in Assessment‘ by Dylan Wiliam)
The strategy of ‘gallery critique‘ is so appealing because, done well, it addresses each of the five areas of effective assessment for learning. I have learnt, through experience of trailing the strategy, that clarifying the success criteria is essential if students are going to create work worthy of a gallery. Each time I now use the ‘gallery critique‘ method I make sure I have used multiple models of high quality work matching their task as a precursor. Also, equally crucial, is having the highest expectations of behaviour when undertaking the gallery reflection and feedback. It can be an off putting strategy if you have a challenging group, given you expect students to walk around the classroom, but, like anything in the classroom, they need training until this strategy just becomes a ‘new normal’ for how they would learn on a regular basis. Of course, it is about being explicit about exactly how students should move about the room. I demand silence during the gallery reflection stage, verbally celebrating students who are undertaking the task with particular focus. I ensure students have a scaffold for their responses using the ‘ABC’ feedback model (they write on their large post it notes – either A for ‘Agree with…’, B for ‘Build upon…’ and C for ‘Challenge…’). I also articulate tight time-frames to ensure students are focused on the job. I then select exemplars that have multiple examples of feedback and talk through them with the class, huddled around in an arc facing the work, questioning students appropriately. Students follow up the ‘gallery critique’ with some sustained ‘dedicated improvement and reflection time‘, whilst I attempt to remedy any misapprehensions with individual students.
In terms of evidence, I focused upon using the strategy with my Y10 group preparing for an ‘Of Mice and Men’ controlled assessment. I regularly identified distinct improvements to drafted paragraphs based on using the ‘gallery critique‘ method; however, I am suspect about my own instincts here, because as Hattie states, almost every teaching intervention makes some form of improvement. That being said, we repeated this method of formative assessment, with the second batch of model paragraphs being distinctively better than the first (I included more exemplar models the second time around). I couldn’t grade this improvement, as it was part of the controlled assessment process, so any marking of drafts isn’t allowed (much to the annoyance of students who are used to this being the case), but the paragraphs were clearly better. I did want the ‘soft data’ of student voice evidence, so I undertook a student voice activity with my trial group. I did undertake the questionnaire just before their controlled assessment so they were nervous and lacking in confidence somewhat (by the end of the lesson I had a different response to their ‘confidence level’ question – with more than half of the group feeling more confident).
The evidence from the questionaries from my Y10 GCSE group is certainly not a ringing endorsement of the strategy! What clearly came through the questionnaire was that 82% of students in my GCSE group preferred teacher assessment over peer or self assessment. Only 18% favoured peer assessment. Of course, students are always dependent and reassured by teacher assessment, for good or ill, but it does draw into question whether this strategy enhances motivation, or whether it is simply defers the true gratification for students that is teacher assessment. One complication is that students know I will not, and cannot, mark a draft of their work, as the controlled assessment process prohibits this, so their annoyance may translate to their views on the questionnaire. 27% of students evaluating that the ‘gallery critique’ method was “not useful at all”; 32% thought it was useful at times; 18% deemed it useful and 18% thought it was very useful. Their reflective opinion did appear to clash with the quality of their written outcomes, but it is an interesting piece of evidence (arguably, watching videos would receive a high percentsge for its usefulness but I would be rightly sceptical of their judgement!). Interestingly, 64% of the group thought that reading the work of others was “useful at times”. Clearly, the desire for teacher led assessment predominates and is indeed the dominant model for education – why wouldn’t students be conditioned to be reliant upon it? Does the strategy motivate students undertaken in this specific manner in the English classroom? Clearly not as much as I thought.
The next crucial question: does it work? The proof will inevitably be in the summative pudding of the controlled assessment mark. I will be able to equate it with their previous reading assessment, not ideally as there are differences. I will also be able to compare their performance with other groups (again, recognising that a host of variables are at play) to ensure there is some hard data to supplement the student voice and my teacher observations of progress.
It is the case with assessment for learning, like most teaching strategies, a balanced variety of well honed approaches will work best to help students make progress. Peer assessment that is well scaffolded and modelled, and conducted with well chosen groupings, can be highly effective formative assessment, as the evidence suggests, but striking a delicate balance of assessment for learning is key. Students often dislike self-assessment, but that self-regulating skill is key to success, therefore we must persevere, ensuring our pedagogy scaffolds the assessment to make it purposeful and have impact.
It is only appropriate to end with the inspirational words of Ron Berger when thinking about the value of the ‘gallery critique’ strategy:
“Most discussions of assessment start in the wrong place. The most important assessment that goes on in a school isn’t done to students but goes on inside students. Every student walks around with a picture of what is acceptable, what is good enough. Each time he works on something he looks at it and assesses it. Is this good enough? Do I feel comfortable handing this in? Does it meet my standards? Changing assessment at this level should be the most important assessment goal of every school. How do we get inside students’ heads and turn up the knob that regulates quality and effort.” (P103, ‘An Ethic of Excellence’)
In summary, ‘Gallery critique’ is one very useful formative assessment strategy for getting students to better ‘turn up the knob that regulates quality and effort’, making their work worthy of a gallery.
Marking workload getting on top of you?
Many schools, and departments, have been reflecting about their marking policies ever since OFSTED declared more than a healthy interest in scrutinising books. Progress over time has rightly been identified as more important than single lesson snap shots – of course, that evidence if best found in ongoing student work and the attendant formative assessments. This has combined with greater scrutiny of standards of literacy, particularly writing. I have no problem with this; as you would expect from an English teacher. I think it is of paramount importance to have the highest standards for writing across the curriculum. Unfortunately, it appears that in many schools OFSTED fear has fuelled a misguided obsessed with marking, resulting in draconian whole-school marking policies that are less about learning and more about monitoring teachers. Marking and assessment must be the servant, and not the master, of our pedagogy and our profession.
Firstly, I think it is important to understand the OFSTED context, so I can then move beyond it to the more important context: the pedagogy and the learning. In the recent guidance to OFSTED inspectors for judging literacy standards in schools – see here – it relates some specific guidance:
“A basic way of reviewing pupils’ work is to select an extended piece of writing from near the beginning of a pupil’s book (or folder of work). This can then be compared with a piece from the middle and one nearer the end. Is there a discernible difference in length, presentation, sophistication (e.g. paragraphing or length of paragraphs), common errors, use of vocabulary and variation in style? Look at the teacher’s marking. Are the same issues highlighted in the later pieces as in the earlier ones? Has the teacher identified any developing strengths or commented on improvement?
When looking at books from other subjects, it is important to form a view of what it is reasonable to expect. If pupils are writing in a form that would be taught in English, it is reasonable to expect that they would draw on what they have learnt already. This is often the case in primary schools. In secondary schools, there is considerably more variety. Do teachers identify important errors (such as some of those contained in questions about literacy in lessons above). Key subject terms should be spelt correctly. Basic sentence punctuation should be accurate. If it is not and is not identified, how will pupils improve?”
This extract outlines that OFSTED inspectors are guided towards a scrutiny that is selective and one that recognises “variety“, whilst maintaining high expectations of formative feedback. Ultimately, the goal is to successfully recognise written feedback that combines high expectations of literacy and guides students towards making progressive improvement in their writing (reflecting their knowledge and understanding). It is therefore key that we do not overreact with a marking policy that has teachers poring over every written word by students, but instead we need one that recognises the importance of formative written and spoken feedback with a “view to what is reasonable to expect“. We can still maintain the highest of standards, whilst marking reasonably and not to excess. We will maintain the highest of standards not by doing more and more writing assessments, but by slowing down the whole process and getting students actively engaging in drafting and proof reading their writing. We must avoid the tyranny of content coverage at the expense of in depth, quality learning.
A wealth of great research and evidence has lauded the impact of feedback and of assessment for learning strategies for decades. Luminaries such as Dylan Wiliam have guided the way. We must use this valid focus on literacy and high standards of formative assessment as positive leverage to improve our pedagogy and refine our use of assessment for learning strategies. Yes, teachers should give written feedback to a high standard, but we must be reasonable regarding what we can expect is realistic and sustainable for teachers. The answer is a balance of quality, selective formative feedback with well trained peer and self-assessment. If we want great lessons planned and executed consistently then marking must be selective; with a process that builds in reflection time for students – not a roller coaster of internal assessment points, arbitrarily set to give the impression of high standards.
This national context has informed, but not misdirected or narrowed, our redesign of the policy for assessment and marking in our English and Media faculty. We have consciously renamed it our ‘feedback policy’. The relabelling of our policy from ‘marking’ to the broader term ‘feedback’ is more than just window dressing. It is a realignment of priorities currently skewed by a fear of OFSTED. Marking quite obviously presupposes a ‘mark’ on the page; whereas much of our daily pedagogy consists of oral formative feedback. Oral feedback has the unassailable strength of being instantaneous in comparison to the delay of written feedback. Regardless of what teaching and learning activity are being undertaken, oral feedback is integral to learning and progression. We have therefore foregrounded its importance in our feedback policy – placing it on par with written feedback (personally, I think it actually has greater impact on learning). Indeed, our policy is an attempt to unite the two and to enhance our pedagogy, rather than arbitrarily tighten our accountability measures.
Our feedback policy can be found here: 2013 English and Media Faculty Feedback policy
We mark students’ summative work using a separate portfolio approach, with five major end assessments, each supported by a formative mini-task:
Crucially, we have adapted our feedback policy to serve our students and to help them improve, not to tick the OFSTED box; however, by creating a system that records oral feedback more systematically in the students’ books we have managed to meet both requirements. Our approach to feedback is precisely selective and measured. We are also aiming to use assessment and feedback as the servant, not master of our pedagogy. We are using ‘Dedicated Improvement and Reflection Time’ (the label borrowed from the outstanding Jackie Breere), as a continuous formative process within lesson time to raise standards of literacy through a targeted and smart use of peer and self-assessment, combined with skilled oral feedback:
Teachers take the opportunities during lesson to monitor and formatively guide their writing, using our stamp system and getting students to record our comments to identify issues and to set targets. We are not carting home bags of books on a weekly basis, on top of our already thorough and rigorous marking regime, that see students take a little more than cursory glance at, or struggle to find value in even when given time. The oral feedback becomes the written feedback and students are engaged actively in the process. Students also undertake the standard proof reading exercises, of their own writing and of their peers, using highlighters, but in a systematic and highly consistent way. We are building good habits for students, whilst maximising lesson time. When students are writing, or undertaking other activities, teachers can be constantly having dialogues about their work and how they can best improve.
Here are some examples of using our stamp system simply and effectively during classwork, whilst the students are completing their writing so they can improve instantaneously (well, we hope they improve!):
We view that dialogue as so important that we now have ‘one-to-one weeks’ in each term when we undertake ‘dedicated improvement and reflection time‘ (we must remember that students often struggle with written feedback alone, therefore finding time to discuss their progress is typically more effective – as well as being more effective in terms of teacher workload). They are once more guided through peer proof reading and self-regulating strategies (with some valuable extended reading time), whilst the teacher has a crucial conversation about their progress. In those often five minute conversations we can identify issues and/or targets, as well as reviewing their preparatory book work and their portfolio of finished work. The most important part of ‘dedicated improvement and reflection time’ (DIRT) is the time given to students. They need time to reflect on feedback; to analyse and grasp their targets and to ask questions to illuminate how they can progress further. By doing less writing in this manner we will work slower, but ultimately standards will likely be higher.
I would reiterate that OFSTED’s focus upon the evidence of written marking has made us reflect upon the efficacy of our practice and attempt to improve it, but we have not forgotten that assessment and marking – rebranded more holistically as feedback – should be the servant of the classroom teacher, not our master. Its very function is to support students – it should not be used as a stick to beat teachers. My key messages about the current ‘marking’ focus for me are as follows:
– We should remember that oral feedback is as valuable as written feedback and we should shape our pedagogy with that in mind – closing the gap between the two. The gap should also be closed between the teacher giving feedback, both orally and in the written form, and students self-assessing their own writing and peers giving effective feedback;
– We should remember that peer and self-assessment done well takes careful training and scaffolding, but we must not ignore decades of research about the impact of AFL, taking the retrograde step of relying solely on written teacher feedback;
– We should undertake written feedback that is selective, targeted and uses precise language;
– We should dedicate more than adequate time for students to act upon feedback;
– We should devote time to engage in dialogue with students to ensure they understand what they need to do to improve.
A great post by Tom Sherrington, with useful strategies to ‘close the marking gap’: http://headguruteacher.com/2012/06/17/264/
Useful OFSTED case study: http://www.ofsted.gov.uk/resources/good-practice-resource-making-marking-matter
The original research about AFL that is still required reading for teachers: Inside the Black Box’, by Black and Wiliam – https://www.measuredprogress.org/documents/10157/15653/InsideBlackBox.pdf
Today there is a great article on the BBC website about the inexorable progress of the Sky cycling team under the expert stewardship of Dave Brailsford – see here. The ‘aggregation of marginal gains approach‘ is now well known and can be easily summarised as identifying those small performance factors that, when aggregated together, can have a significant cumulative impact. This can apply to teachers tweaking their pedagogy to transform their practice; students breaking down their tasks to focus on the constituent parts to improve; or school leaders aligning their school priorities. The article takes the process a step forward by focusing on the key developments for moving from good to outstanding as a team.
The first quote from the article that immediately stood out was the following:
“You’ll get more from a £900,000 rider with a coach than you would from a £1m rider without one.”
This seamlessly applies to a school context. Rather than investing in yet more teachers; or seeking the expensive intervention strategy of paying more for ‘top’ teachers, or even paying for extra teachers to make class sizes smaller, we should invest in quality coaching. We should aim to find more of that most crucial, but expensive, commodity for teachers: time. We should help our existing teachers become better, rather than looking to import in super-teachers, or other imported quick fixes. Coaching is a cheap and crucial method in improving our core business, helping teachers improve their pedagogy. We should question how can we develop better coaching?
So how did Brailsford lead team Sky to become “the most admired sports team in the world“? Being well funded helps, and it helps schools. Team Sky stay in the best hotels, with the best pillows etc. – we benefit from having the best school buildings and the best equipment – it is common sense really; however, less expensive marginal gains are also at work.
Hone in on the important data:
“Every turn of the pedal a Team Sky rider makes is recorded by a power meter, analysed using performance software and then benchmarked against Kerrison’s “power curve” models.
Last year, for example, Wiggins’s training was assessed against a template for a Tour/Olympic double. The gaps between these two lines on a graph – where Wiggins was and where he needed to be – were where Team Sky directed what Kerrison describes as “coaching interventions”.
Measuring power and using it as a training tool is not unique to Team Sky – and neither is it new. But what sets them apart is their total faith in it.”
Yes, obviously we are not teaching machines, although our assessment outcomes sometimes make us feel like we do! The lesson here is concentrating on the right data. There are swathes of data models for schools to the point where teachers become swamped. We should simplify our data collection and recording. This post exemplifies using data as a school leader brilliantly, but the rule applies more broadly. We should question what is the best data and how do we use it?
Slow the teaching and learning down, aiming for high quality mastery over quantity:
“But even with squads that large, most teams race all season, go on holiday in the autumn and then start training again in the winter. There is not much room for coaching.
Not at Team Sky, though. Their top riders race fewer days than their rivals and they structure their seasons to accommodate mid-season “training blocks”. For Wiggins, Chris Froome, the rest of the Grand Tour group and even the 10 riders targeting the Cobbled Classics in the spring, that means time off to train at altitude on Tenerife’s Mount Teide.”
Under pressure from OFSTED, curriculum specifications etc. we often try to cover every minute detail of every subject – we often become overly content driven in the fear of missing the minutiae of a potential exam question. What we must do is slow down the learning. There is a movement for this very ideas – see here. Excellent practitioners, such as David Didau have advocated ‘Slow Writing’. In our department, we are moving towards rooting DIRT (Dedicated Improvement and Reflection Time) into our daily pedagogy. Much better to do 80% of a job brilliantly than 100% of it badly! We should reflect on what should we not do – like Dylan Wiliam implores – we should stop doing too many good things! We should question what can we drop out of our curriculum to allow for real depth and quality to occur?
You get what you pay for:
“All teams have costs they cannot avoid – hotels, petrol and so on – but given the correlation between wages and winning, most keep their “operational spend” down to a minimum, typically allocating 90% of their resources to salaries. It is the cycling equivalent of putting the best possible XI on the pitch at the expense of everything else.
At Team Sky, however, that split is 80/20, with greater investment in non-riding staff, research and training camps. “You’ll get more from a £900,000 rider with a coach than you would from a £1m rider without one,” is Brailsford’s rationale.”
Rightly or wrongly (I say wrongly whole-heartedly!), budgets are tight. We should ask the question of every spend in our school: what impact does it have on teaching and learning? This should drive our choices, whether as a subject leader or school leader. People may question the relative wealth of the Sky Team – comparing it to some Wellington or Eton School equivalent. That is true to some degree, but at the head of the innovation team (the ‘Secret Squirrel Club’) is Chris Boardman – a man who devised the world’s fastest bike with the tools in his garage! Great things can still be done on tight budgets, they may just require greater ingenuity! We should question deeply what we spend our money on and we should challenge the government to invest further in top quality education.
“We’ve got good at conference calls,” said Brailsford, adding these are not just any conference calls. These are mandatory Monday morning conference calls, with standardised minutes.
But as good as these virtual meetings are, you cannot beat an old-fashioned, face-to-face chinwag, which is why one of this year’s innovations will be the establishment of a permanent performance base in Nice, staffed by Kerrison and Shaun Stephens, until recently the head coach of the Australian triathlon team.”
The question should be how do we best communicate? How do we best make use of technology to drive improvement in our practice: such as using blogs, email communication, meeting and training time? Again, what should we not do? Are we wasting our time and that of our teachers with excessive meetings? Or, should we adapt our currently meetings to ensure the hone in relentlessly on teaching, learning and pedagogy?
The “elephant in the room” for cycling may well be the spectre of drug cheats that casts a lengthy shadow over achievement. Our ghostly apparitions may be OFSTED, exam boards (and the tricky shenanigans of grade boundaries!) or our curriculum model; but they are things we cannot control – mere apparitions and even media driven crises blown out of true proportion. We need to follow Brailsford’s model and keep the main thing the main thing – refusing such distractions from our core business of teaching and learning.
This last week I had the pleasure to read some excellent blogs on outstanding practice. It was fascinating to see what fellow practitioners think about great teaching, with exemplary practice outlined in a very helpful way. In this post by David Didau here there is a hugely useful model of what a great lesson looks like. In this post by Tom Sherrington here there is a breakdown about the qualities of great teaching more generally: with a particular focus upon ‘rigour’ (reclaiming it from Govean parody!). I was interested in the overlap and interplay between those two posts. I happened to be teaching ‘Of Mice and Men’ with my Year 10 group at the moment, like David, and I too was being observed. What I wanted to do was not aim to exhibit a ‘showpiece’ one-off lesson (although these can be rattled out the bag by many experienced practitioners to mask a dull daily reality). I was intent on representing the real routines my group exemplify in any given lesson – to display the rigour articulated by Tom Sherrington, combined (hopefully!) with some of the outstanding strategies employed by David Didau.
Although we all feel pressure to perform when observed, we must aim for consistency in our practice before a pursuit of an outstanding lesson judgement, and we must trust in ourselves that this consistency will be rewarded. I have heard from a few wise leaders who have said that if every lesson saw our students display good progress then we would cumulatively see good to outstanding progress in student attainment. Of course, there are a host of important contextual factors to consider, but on a simple level, sticking to the ‘three Rs‘ of relentless and rigorous routines would see students flourish. I do not think it is having low standards to be happy with a consistent sequence of very good lessons, rather than haul ourselves over the coals in an obsessive pursuit of outstanding; it is effective pragmatism and a realisation that rapid progress does not happen every lesson. I have found that some cast iron ‘outstanding’ plans just don’t spark on the day, whilst seemingly simple lessons can smash through the ceiling of mediocrity and see students reach new heights. We must then reflect with care, but without despondency if the lesson doesn’t turn out exactly as we planned or wanted. What is crucial is that we learn from the experience of the lessons that didn’t go well and then tweak our pedagogy to improve still further.
With this in mind I tried to aim for a great sequence of lessons, where hopefully the observation lesson would show an accumulation of skills, rather than a one off showpiece. The following sequence of lessons outlines the planning for most of the week, with the lesson plans for before and after the observation lesson being just as crucial:
– Key question: How does the theme of power link to the theme of loneliness?
– Starter: Who would make the better American president? See PPT. Student feedback: ‘Pose-pause-pounce-bounce’.
– In pairs, create a ‘power map’ using the ‘Character Cards’ resource. The pairing then needs to select three of the characters who have distinctive power relations. – They should co-construct a top grade paragraph that answers the key question. This should be done with students writing alternate sentences (with each partner orally critiquing the sentence of one another) and it should be completed on paper (for the gallery critique).
– Any questions should be posted on the ‘Question wall’.
– Recap the four steps of effective evidence analysis – their group target.
– Recap their proof reading target – each pairing is given two minutes DIRT time on their paragraph (Dedicated Improvement and Reflection Time).
– Complete a gallery critique. Remind students about the criteria for their feedback and how many paragraphs they should read ideally. The critique notes will be made on a post it note – using the ABC feedback model (Agree with; Build Upon and Challenge). Conduct oral feedback.
Tuesday’s Lesson (Observation lesson)
– Key question: How is the theme of friendship presented in relation to the theme of loneliness?Obscure the two themes from the KQ and probe some ideas.
– Starter: Who would you most like to sit next to in class? See PPT. ‘Think-pair-share’ responses using the ABC feedback model.
– Revisit the key question and elicit oral feedback using the ‘Pose-pause-bounce-pounce’ model.
– ‘Just a minute’ recap of last lesson from selected student – link to current KQ (articulate end goal of controlled assessment essay).
– In pairs, use character cards to create a friendship map (this is intentionally an open concept). Ask observer to select a map that is interesting. Get that pairing to rearrange the characters on the PPT slide – (See PPT) – whilst orally articulating their ‘map’. Get other pairings to conduct ABC feedback.
In pairs, write a model paragraph that answers the key question (akin to last lesson). Remind students that they need to write alternate sentences. Show a model PEEL high grade paragraph response – see PPT – with ‘four steps to a successful explanation’ model – see images slide on PPT. Question students about why the paragraph is so successful.
– Have two minutes DIRT time (use highlighters).
– Conduct a gallery critique (teacher model first oral response).
– Key question: How does social prejudice exacerbate loneliness?
– A student is made the ‘Secret Teacher‘ to privately note the best oral responses.
– Individuals note a list of the prejudices present in the novella. In groups, discuss those prejudices. Conduct ABC feedback
– ‘Prejudice Continuum’: the students have to individually select where they think each prejudice resides on the line, from ‘Most individually damaging’ to ‘least individually damaging’. Teacher orchestrates feedback and the ‘Secret teacher‘ orders the answers along the continuum.
– Individual writing of a top grade paragraph addressing the key question. Show two model examples from last lesson and unpick and reiterate key points. Use the question wall for any student questions, with post it notes, and allow a one minute question session midway through their writing. Otherwise, work in silence.
– Have two minutes DIRT time for their writing – with peer proof reading, then individual proof reading. Conduct oral feedback. Select students to read their paragraph, with another student having to give constructive feedback based on our writing targets from the previous week (a four step model to explain evidence).
– The ‘Secret teacher‘ gives feedback on their observations.
(There was a fourth lesson in the week but I wanted to keep the post to a reasonable size!)
Useful resources referred to in lesson plans:
Of Mice and Men 'Character Cards': OM&M Character cards
Review of the week and the ‘Three Rs’
What I hope is evident is that much of the pedagogy in the lesson plans above is repeated to develop and deepen the habits required to produce great learning. Consistency, good habits and routine are king. The first two lessons of the week, in particular, clearly mirror one another to develop the required writing skills. Repetition is often frowned upon in education, with the misguided notion we should be endlessly creative and different to maintain the interest of students. Students derive comfort and increasing expertise through incrementally increasing the level of challenge through the repetition of the most effective teaching and learning strategies, not from an endless array of activities.
The reality of the lessons outlined above is that I also learnt a great deal about where they stumbled on Monday, when student progress that was definitely not outstanding, to actually inform my planning for Tuesday. For example, they failed to analyse the quotations as successfully as I would have liked on Monday, which was rather unexpected, so I added in an A grade model on Tuesday and spent more time modelling the paragraph structure to enhance their quality of analysis in the subsequent lesson. Not every lesson sees rapid progress – to think this is the case is to have a fundamental misunderstanding of human nature…never mind hormonal teenagers! By working at the core habits relentlessly; however, I was able to make ‘marginal gains’ lesson upon lesson – only nuanced, slight improvements, but essential differences (this recognition often becomes easier with experience). Good became better.
Another clear factor about my pedagogy I hope is in evidence is my focus upon questioning see here and oral feedback see here. I couldn’t write those blog posts without practising what I preach! What is clear is that OFSTED are interested in progress– (it is the latest buzz word careering around schools). Some people are therefore quick to mystify this term, complicating what can be the best, and sometimes the most traditional, of teaching and learning strategies: simply asking great questions and eliciting thoughtful, intelligent feedback. When I hear we people explaining ‘mini-plenaries’ every fifteen minutes, or have our students spinning plates in different ‘learning stations’, with no real deep understanding or knowledge, just for when the OFSTED inspectors are in the room, I despair. Stop the showpiece; don’t invite the circus to town – just follow habits of excellent routine pedagogy!
If we develop real rigour in our habits then it will be obvious that students are learning and making good, or sometimes even rapid, progress: clearly in their attitude and demeanour; in the quality of their questions and feedback; in their written work and in their books or folders. Each one of my lessons above allocated time to make improvements (DIRT). It is trained behaviour, that may appear uninspired or lacking the necessary rapidity, but the rigour of proof reading may well be the two most important minutes of those lessons. Any observer should note that rapid progress is often the product of slow reflection! Not only that, it is this regular habit which may well transfer to becoming more settled habits for students when writing at any time in any subject – the learning trumps the chase for a great observation once more. It is a rigorous routine of real note (thank you Jackie Breere for the inspiration for DIRT) – whether a lesson is graded outstanding or not, students will reap the rewards of such sound learning.
When I speak to many colleagues they simply want to be shown what an outstanding lesson is, what it looks like, and how they can replicate it. This is problematic: as outstanding looks, sounds and feels different in different subjects. That being said, some definitive patterns of learning arise in great lessons. For me, those are seeing students highly engaged in responding to challenging questions, posed by a teacher with the highest of standards; it is feedback being artfully weaved around the group, lifting understanding; it is students reflecting with due care attention to their thinking and their work; and it is the palpable sense of motivation and commitment to the task at hand. These patterns are honed by routine, not derived from any off the peg lesson plan or formula for success.
Postscript: I am thankful to David Didau, Jackie Breere and David Docherty for their ideas that have informed my lesson plans outlined in this post.
I love a leading and provocative title, but I have you reading so I will assuage all those Maths teachers nice and early that this is not an attack at all – indeed, it is quite the opposite – it is a robust defence of Maths and the teaching and learning of mathematics. You heard it right: ‘English teacher writes in defence of Maths‘. Now, as a Subject Leader of English, I am acutely conscious of the pressures faced by core subject teachers, in both English and Maths, and particularly those of the Subject Leaders of Maths. In many ways I recognise that it is not really a fair playing field. One key critical factor, which as a teacher of children (and not just English) irks me greatly, is that society most often supports and celebrates the majesty of reading and writing, but it openly scorns mathematical study – the weight of culture actually militates against the learning of mathematics.
The impact of cultural conditioning cannot be underestimated and the stigmatising power of language cuts deep and endures. I was brought up in a literate working class background, rich in reading and good humoured talk. Education was seen as a privilege and I was warmly supported in a loving climate. I am whole-heartedly thankful for brilliant and loving parents. One small failure on their part is that they “couldn’t do Maths”. This familiar refrain passed readily onto me and around about thirteen years of age (after I had been temporarily sparked by a brilliant Maths teacher, Mr Laing, who openly debated his early struggles with Maths, and his Damoclean conversion to becoming passionate about Maths). I pretty much stopped trying hard at Maths. I couldn’t see the benefits, I was happy to take the easy route, perpetuate the stereotypes passed onto me. Does this sound familiar?
The stigma of illiteracy is anathema for our society so we do something about it – we need to tackle innumeracy with the same sense of importance.There is a widespread societal acceptance that mathematics cannot be learnt easily, in fact, from many the notion that it cannot be learnt at all; not like those supposedly ‘natural‘ subjects like English, or Art, or PE. Of course, all of this is nonsense! As is the stereotype that those ‘blessed’ with mathematical skill are particular geniuses! From birth, children are indoctrinated with this closed system of thought, which of course becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy. Children become unwilling to put in the time and effort to develop the mastery, so the mastery, and the pleasure therein never comes. Anyone who has read Carole Dweck’s ‘Mindset‘ will be fully versed in the destructive power of such culturally vindicated language. Day after day, these negative representations wear away at the will of students like water hollowing out a stone.
As humans we are naturally averse to thinking, we seek this state so we can focus upon the important stuff, like danger and our primal needs for survival. This neatly explains why I prefer to snack on sweets and not tackle complex mathematical problems of an evening! So children, intelligent and wily creatures that they are, will do their damnedest to avoid the difficult thinking and challenges that attend learning in Maths lessons. I wrote recently about reading great, and challenging, literature, like Shakespeare, to enjoy what W B Yeats termed “the fascination of what’s difficult”. The same principals apply to Maths, only children are vindicated in their avoidance of tackling the subject by negative cultural language and stereotypes. See this great collection of clips from films for irrefutable evidence of a deep rooted cultural bias against mathematical study:
A great video via Dan Meyer showing you how ‘Hollywood Hates Maths!’
Now, this video is comic in its collective negativity, but how many students are turned against mathematics because of these less than subtle social messages? In ancient times, Plato and the Greeks viewed the study of mathematics as purifying the soul – nowadays it is depicted as a pursuit for unpopular geeks alone! Let’s remember that children suffer from tremendous social forces in their daily lives that impacts upon their behaviour and their habits; no more so then teens, who walk through a status and identity minefield everyday, acutely sensitive of their appearance to their peers. The ‘Maths geek‘ stereotype is more seriously damaging than it may first appear. How many countless children have been turned off from committing the hours and hours of deliberate practice needed to help our working memory fit to deal with challenging mathematical problems? It is ironically this crucial deliberate practice which eventually can render Maths ‘easy’, or even, dare I use the term ‘natural’!
Compare this with the cultural capital firing the English canon. Shakespeare has been rendered cool by DiCaprio; television shows of great novels are abound; tablet devices and eReaders are cool accessories to boost reading; poetry is aligned with music and more. We can draw upon politics, comedy, the media – the list goes on. Even as an English teacher I can draw inspiration from ‘The Dead Poets Society‘ (and I shamelessly do!) or ‘Dangerous Minds‘ (well, I plainly don’t!). Our study in English is reliant upon vocabulary recognition (see this excellent essay by E.D. Hirsch on the topic), which of course is bolstered by our wider culture; by talk with the family and by the myriad of texts that surround students in their daily lives. Much learning is tacit and implicit – we can simply draw upon that learning in English. Don’t get me wrong, reading is beset by challenges – again, these are outlined by Hirsch in the essay linked above – but many cultural benefits are in our favour too. We are the popular big brother to the ten stone Maths weakling!
What needs to happen is that the pervasive cultural narrative attached to mathematics needs to fundamentally shift. You may well quibble that that is a rather tall order for individuals without Rupert Murdoch-like media power…and you would be right. We can and should; however, do our best to change our local culture, the culture of our school, or family of schools, including feeder Primaries and more(this language sets the rot in early, like gender ‘appropriate’ toys the dye is cast quick). We must work from Primary level and even before to celebrate the rich pleasures to be found in number. We need to work with parents in highlighting to them the power of their language – a crash course in ‘growth mindset’ thinking – as well as actually dealing with the language we use (many a staff room would be littered with similar attitudes to mathematics based in my experience).
We can also illuminate how mathematics it is rooted in everything we do (perhaps school staff should read some books on the topic, like ‘The Undercover Economist‘ or ‘Alex’s Adventures in Numberland‘ to name just a couple). We need to articulate how it can make you eminently employable – wealth, status and power are for some reason very appealing to teenagers! We could even promote careers in ethical banking for example, god knows we need more of those! Effectively, we need many more mathematical role models who can articulate its value in a whole host of ways. Ultimately, we need to make mathematics real – we must draw away the veil of mystery from mathematical concepts and make mathematics relevant to everyday life. We must make it feel relevant beyond the four walls of the classroom and the exam hall. Hollywood, nor anybody else, is likely to do it for us.
George Sampson famously quoted, in 1921, “Every teacher in English is a teacher of English“. Perhaps we need to shift our school cultures to ensure that people think and talk with the notion that ‘every teacher in English is a teacher of Maths‘.
I’m no Maths expert; however, I have found these really interesting ideas that certainly got me thinking about inspiring the teaching and learning of mathematics:
http://www.ted.com/talks/dan_meyer_math_curriculum_makeover.html A great talk from DD Meyer, an American Maths teacher who provides a lively vision for mathematics in the classroom.
http://blog.mrmeyer.com/ The great blog of the aforementioned Meyer.
http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/video/2013/jan/22/algebra-mathematics-masterclass-video A great teaching master class on using mathematics to engage and inspire in a real way.
http://www.ted.com/talks/arthur_benjamin_s_formula_for_changing_math_education.html Another intriguing TED talk to spark thinking about re shaping the teaching and learning of mathematics.
http://maths4us.org/about/ This programme looks to tackle many of the issues outlined in my post.
I started the school year talking with my faculty about our success in the summer and throughout the previous year and of course the areas we needed to improve. Upon reflection we could identify some clear reasoning why the successes occurred, hard earned as they were. The reasons primarily centred on having a team of very good teachers who taught very good lessons consistently (to bastardise a Bill Clinton phrase: “It is the teaching stupid!“) – which is backed up by hard-nosed lesson judgements. This was bolstered by our effective managing of data and our concentration upon the things that mattered that we could control, like controlled assessments (I think we are all agreed that is a dirty word that we will be happy to be rid of soon enough). What struck me, particularly having read John Hattie’s ‘Visible Learning for Teachers‘, was that we had some experienced ‘intuitions‘ about why we did well, some hard data and some soft data, all leading to the same conclusions, but that to continue to replicate that success we needed to be much more systematic with our evaluations and our evidence.
I wanted us to focus even more closely on what happened in the good lessons that made them consistently good – after all, that is point of what we are trying to do isn’t it – get better at teaching. I wanted to explicitly know this so that regardless of what assessment models or curricular systems are imposed upon us in the coming year, or even future years, we could still teach great lessons consistently: essentially “keeping he main thing the main thing”. We also reflected upon the truth that there is no ‘one size fits all formula’ for good teaching, but that did not stop us analysing the evidence of high impact strategies. Knowing that, and what interventions worked best, would be a crystallisation of all the answers we need. It takes effort, but done properly the rewards are huge (I don’t underestimate such effort when we are all pushed to the limits to do the job well – perhaps schools should have their own ‘Delivery Units‘ to to do the job across the school?)
I therefore wanted to make a concerted attempt to think with both the heart and the head (or the ‘Elephant’ and the ‘Rider’ to unite my previous post) and to source the best evidence possible for great teaching. That included the epic meta-analyses of John Hattie and his team. I am in no doubt of the efficacy of this type of research; it is essential for medical research and it does add value to educational debate. I was, and am, however circumspect at the same time. Instinctively I asked how could individual teaching strategies be fairly judged within school contexts when there are a whole host of other factors at work simultaneously – a complex web even the sharpest of minds would struggle to delineate. For example, how could the success of ‘questioning‘ be fairly judged when at the same time ‘teacher subject knowledge‘, ‘class size‘ and a whole host of other effect sizes are at work? Therefore, I surmised that such data is imperfect. Yet, the more I read, the more I couldn’t avert myself from the fact that this was still the best way to source the answers about what made good teaching and good interventions effective. What is key is that the sheer scale and selectivity of the trials improved the quality and accuracy of the data, and continues to do so.
The ethical basis of ‘testing’ on children is a valid objection to such an evidence based approach. The idea of a ‘control group‘ not having an intervention instinctively sits uneasily with me. In practice, with a technology trial for example, it is hard to deny a class the right to use technology which may be most appropriate with a task. However, when I thought about it, I considered that many interventions can actually have a negative effect, or be a distraction, so it was a case, once more of thinking differently, thinking more scientifically and less emotionally. I am simply not in my job to be unethical, quite the reverse. What would be unethical would be to not undertake RCTs (randomly controlled trials) and to instead base our teaching, our interventions, indeed our entire system upon a hunch, or on a personal basis, solely based on ideology. When we move educational policy at break-neck speed, we are likely to take in unnecessary risks, which I deem wholly unethical. This is my primary objection to Gove’s Ebacc proposals. There is no evidence, no research and no trials to support his radical change. I find his approach arrogant and potentially dangerous. He is so caught up in the political expediency of a ‘shock doctrine‘ style swift change that he ignores the experts and the evidence. the obvious question is why then should educational policy not be driven by such an evidence base?
What we cannot do is simply rely upon the ‘noble myth‘ (described by Plato as well meaning, but flawed reasoning to perpetuate comfort for the greater good) of our intuitions alone, however experienced we are. Our well meaning, but flawed emotional response to ‘what has always worked‘ for us is always going to be too narrow in scope, too bound with our own emotional bias to be sufficient. We need to focus in on the practice and the pedagogy, which often means stepping back from the personal. Yes, we are all emotional beings (thankfully so – the best of us often being those most in touch with their emotional intuition), who teach with our head and heart, but we must reflect and make adjustments and plan improvements with as scientific an approach as possible if we are to properly define what is good teaching. As an English teacher, this strikes against some of my natural instincts, stemming from the Romantic ideal of individual genius and the power of emotional intuition to find ‘the answer‘.
Of course, any one source of evidence is too narrow if we have the opportunity to source more evidence from a variety of methods. The best answers, as I have stated, are to be found when we have the greatest breadth of the evidence: including hard data (ideally through rigorous control based trials), but also including soft data – like student voice and teacher feedback – and our personal and professional intuition as experienced experts – those aforementioned ‘noble myths‘. What is crucial is that we have policy makers, school leaders, subject leaders or teachers who do not unthinkingly implement changes based upon statistical evidence, provided by the likes of Hattie, without taking a full account of the unique context of their country, their school and their students. This would be foolhardy and it is a valid concern levelled at evidence led policy that we must address. School leaders, for example, will be sold snake-oil by gurus looking to sell their foolproof educational wares based on what they present as the most rigorous of evidence (of course that data will be flawed and manipulated, as such data can be). Some leaders are simply looking for a quick fix to their problems, when quick fixes don’t exist in schools! Therefore we must question the methodology behind the evidence and weigh up the factors impacting upon the evidence – again, taking a more scientific approach.
So what is to be done? In our faculty it is about trialling strategies and becoming more systematic about that trialling. It is about sharing our good practice and our good pedagogy, but crucially then evaluating its impact in a more rigorous fashion. In all honesty, our current evidence does not stand up to the scrutiny I outline above. Therefore it is important that we so the hard work to make this so. Focusing with utter consistency upon the pedagogy and the practice…and the evidence of impact.
This model of sourcing better evidence to justify change needs to replicated at school level and even on a national level. This is happening, but typically away from view. The Education Endowment Fund is currently running trials across a thousand schools in Britain to source evidence to direct policy – read this fascinating research on school interventions for instance: Teaching and Learning Toolkit. The debate is happening and policy people in Whitehall are listening: listen to Ben Goldacre’s brilliant analysis here on how evidence led policy is being undertaken in Whitehall (the education focused section begins around the twenty seven minute mark – including debate about phonics teaching). We must challenge the many ‘noble myths‘ that attend our educational discourse and source as must high quality evidence of impact as we can.
Just over half a year ago I decided to begin a blog, in unison with a new Twitter account, with both very much representing my professional self. I have been surprised and delighted by the breadth and scale of the audience for some of my posts and the blog has provided me with a place to reflect upon my practice and record my reading and ideas – put simply, it has made me a better teacher. Many of them are my attempt to record my teaching strategies, and the many I have sourced from others, so that I remember them…and remember to use them! I am very grateful for all the other teachers, bloggers and authors whose great ideas are effectively responsible for my blog (I am intent on creating a list of the inspirational blogs of others others in 2012 very soon too). Here is my list based on the number number of views:
Perhaps my personal favourite. I love literature and I love teaching and seeing students learn and develop – this post articulates what I see as the most important aspect of my job as an English teacher: communicating the greatest of what has been written and spoken and helping students develop emotionally. It is not something measured, but something valued beyond measure: how tragedy and literature can provide strength and resilience in the face of tragedy and loss.
In the last year we have been undertaking an iPad project, with real success. I have have seen so many motivated students working collaboratively with iPads, whilst seeing my colleagues pushing the boundaries of their practice and knowledge in a powerfully positive way. This article articulates some of my research into why the iPad was the right tool to leverage better pedagogy in our faculty.
The article is about the simple tweaking of core pedagogy and practice to make that all important shift to better teaching. The best part of the blog is the end set of links – a clear indication of how my blogs are most often simply a synthesis of other great blogs and the ideas of superb practitioners. Standing on the shoulders of giants indeed!
This post, once more, is reliant upon the great ideas of others. The marginal gains wheel, devised by @liplash_mason, was incredibly popular. I used it with my Y10 GCSE class with pleasing success twice in preparation for controlled assessments. Student feedback was vey positive. This post led to a more general introduction in the Guardian Teacher Network, which was a real pleasure to write, giving me a chance to celebrate the genesis of the idea with @fullonlearning and @macn_1.
Does what it says on the tin really. At some point in 2013 I will produce a ‘Top Ten Reads’ to encompass some great books I have read since collating this list. This list would easily stand the test of time, as I would still have these five featuring in any future list. Gems one and all.
This post was my attempt to combine some of my key thoughts and ideas about being a great teacher – particularly having had the pleasure to watch quite a few in action. In my biased view, there is still no more important vocation, so this post is my humble attempt at contributing to a long standing discourse.
My first top ten post and an attempt to collate many ideas and strategies that I believe to have had the greatest positive impact upon my teaching. I happen to believe that clear explanations, great questioning and effective formative feedback is the holy trinity of outstanding teaching, so this post is very important to me in that regard.
This letter was a real trigger for my blog developing and extending to a wider audience. It was also the first time I had a post reach four figures in one day. I think my frustration and anger at the shape of Gove’s educational proposals and the feckless opposition to his deconstruction of state education touched a nerve with many. I didn’t receive any reply to my many emails and communication, but I felt my response served some purpose, however insignificant. Secretly, I hope Twigg read this letter, but I doubt it very much. I hope he is reading much about education, from those with more experience and wisdom than I, because he needs to get a hold of his brief and make a positive alternative to Gove’s corrosive marketisation of education. I remain sceptical.
One of my most recent posts and very popular (particularly in America it seems!). I have become a huge cheerleader for post it notes in the last year. It chimes with my belief in ‘making the learning visible’ and they provide the most simple and cost effective tool for teaching and learning. I think you sense my enthusiasm running thought the post! And no, I don’t possess shares in post it note companies!
My most popular post by a country mile and happily so. I am not quite sure why this post was so popular above all others, but perhaps it is because the strategies are so universal and cross curricular in nature. I think all teachers know that questioning is at the fulcrum of good teaching and learning and it was ever thus. In my decade of experience I think I am just becoming an much better in asking great questioning and I think I am getting better with creating a culture of enquiry. I’m definitely still learning and asking questions!
Much more work to do next year, with many more attendant posts I am sure. I would heartily recommend any teacher to start a blog in 2013. It would be a resolution to fire new resolution into your teaching!