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.
The Ultimate Low Cost, High Impact Teaching Tool?
The humble post it note – sometimes you don’t need to invest in a fleet of iPads, interactive whiteboards or Visualisers to make the learning visible and to have a positive impact upon learning. Some of the best things in life are simple…and yes, cheap! The post it note is so flexible, easy to use and multi-purpose that it most surely must qualify for the ultimate low cost, high impact teaching tool.
Not only are they cheap and flexible learning tools, the very nature and size of them (varied as they now can be) encourages, even demands, a precise and concise use of language. Rather than pages of notes, students have to be selective, synthesise and exercise higher order thinking to use post it notes successfully – it can be very much a case of less is more. The original purpose of note making still stands, and is brilliantly fit for purpose, but they can be used to develop pedagogy in a variety of ways. Progress has become the de rigueur term for OFSTED, and has spread beyond her ivory towers and has become a new byword in schools, like it never quite existed before OFSTED began browbeating us all about it! Before it became a buzz word, teachers were busy helping students progress and learn in blissful ignorance – the post it has been a perennial tool for such teachers. The post it has outlasted most technology to provide a quick but highly effective tool for instant formative feedback, for effective questioning and a whole host of other aspects the makes progress visible in student learning.
The humble post it actually began as a failed invention. Dr Spenser Silver, in 1968, was aiming to create a super-strong adhesive, but instead he created a ‘low tack’ adhesive by accident. Even the famous canary yellow colour was due to the simple fortune of the neighbouring lab having spare yellow paper! Such serendipity leading to such a gem of a product reminds me of the often instantaneous impact and the spark of creativity that the post it can engender in the classroom. The post it is now so iconic it has even been established in different digital apps on MacBooks and tablet devices. Their usefulness knows few bounds – by limiting my list to a ‘top ten’ I am acutely conscious that I am merely scratching the surface of their use in the classroom and their pedagogical potential!
Our faculty has been undertaking an approach to making the learning visible (influenced by Hattie and the Harvard ‘Visible Thinking’ approach). We are utilising a trio of core tools to help us do this: iPads, multiple whiteboards on the walls in classrooms and the simple post it. We are tweaking the environment, but aiming to shift the pedagogy – the post it is the cheapest of the lot and it has an impact that punches clearly above its weight!
The following list of teaching and learning strategies is based upon the use of the basic post it, with no requirement for a rich array of colours or sizes, although that has become one of the enhanced facets of the humble post it:
1. Secret Teacher Feedback: this a practical classroom strategy that works brilliantly and with great subtlety. Post it notes are the tool to provide subtle feedback, praise or critique, in a ‘secret’ manner when you want students to work independently. You can establish calm, purposeful parameters for the classroom atmosphere, whereat students can write/learn quietly or in silence, should the task benefit from such an atmosphere. I find it is unobtrusive but a supportive guide to better progress. I find it works best in conjunction with point 2 on the list! This idea is directly inspired by Zoe Elder’s ideas for using post it notes for feedback in her pedagogical masterpiece, ‘Full on Learning‘. Buy it, read it, cover it in post it notes to track your burgeoning ideas!
2. Question Wall: there are endless variations on a ‘question wall’ (I have explained this in more detail here: https://huntingenglish.wordpress.com/2012/11/10/questioning-top-ten-strategies/.The post it note provides a simple method for placing their questions onto the wall. It also allows you to write on answers in reply, particularly, if like in point 1, you are looking to establish an atmosphere of purposeful independence. These post it notes can be grouped by sectors on the wall, depending upon the question type, as explained on the aforementioned post. The post it is moveable and flexible, so you can even use one question from one student and have another student communicate the answer – the options are endless.
3. Post It Note Formative Feedback: formative feedback is essential for progress. The post it note provides a quick option for feedback, as in point 2, but you can also use post it notes for peer assessment, or for teacher feedback on draft work. The rationale being that the post it can encourage more independent engagement with their own work – one or two judicious targets in a post it can really shape any ongoing classwork. It also encourages concise, targeted teacher feedback. OFSTED are particularly enamoured by literacy and book marking at the moment. Why not use the post it as a method to have students assess their peers for written accuracy (this does need to be delicately handled at times)? Given a literacy support document, they could identify patterns, then make notes on the post it and they then have to make their own corrections/improvements. The teacher could easily fulfil this role. Having a succession of spellings corrected for them is little help for students, but a post it note regarding a spelling rule, with some hints for improvements could initiate some productive self-reflection and proof reading.
4. Key Subject Specific Vocabulary: another important literacy strategy is identifying the key subject specific vocabulary of any given subject. As crucial subject specific terms arise in the lesson they can be identified by using post it notes, which can gradually build in spit a useful lexicon of terms for a given scheme of learning. If students are working in groups, or as a whole class, one student could be allocated the responsibility of recording key words from the lesson and noting them on a post it. As a plenary, the student or the teacher could reflect upon these post it notes. The teacher could initiate enquiry about whether they form into a pattern. The post it could be a way of organising the terms into a distinct sequence or diagram, to reflect relatedness or hierarchical patterns – see point 6.
5. Petite récits: okay – they anglo-saxon description would be ‘mini-narratives’, or micro-writing – I just thought the French made me sound more cosmopolitan (the truth is my French is Bartonesque!).There are endless opportunities for students to hone their skills with compressed narratives – or the myriad of ways of creating a creative response within the limited space the post it allows. They could present generic narratives in ten words for example. I have witnessed terrific ten word mystery stories, or you could boil down the meta-narrative of World War Two into a simple ten word response. One idea I particularly liked was the ‘six word memoirs’, with the simple but creative idea to compress an entire biography into a concise gem of a few words. See these examples here. It is a great strategy across the school curriculum for any ‘character’ or historical figure – great as a swift starter, or even a summative plenary. Try it for yourself! Similar models are prevalent across the web, such as ‘Seven Word Stories’ e.g.youngwritersproject.org/node/19338. This compression of language (which students skilfully hone of their mobile phone each day!) gets them to really focus in upon the essential information, whilst providing another useful cross curricular literacy strategy.
6. ‘The Ideas Tree’: a description for any activity where you get students to brainstorm ideas for a given topic or concept. The teacher can shuffle the post it notes around creatively to organise the ideas to give form to their collective ideas (there are multiple variations in reorganising post it ideas to shape meaning, from ‘diamond nine models’, to a ‘pyramid of priorities’ that reflect a more hierarchical model to organise their ideas). These ideas can provide a semi-permanent resource in the classroom for students to utilise and support their learning, and they can provide the teacher with a ready made resource to recap prior learning or to provide a read made plenary to reflect upon progress.
7. ‘Guess Who/What?’: the simple party trick of common fame that students love. Place a key word/character/concept etc. onto a post it and place it upon the forehead of a student – they subsequently have a limited number of questions they can ask before they guess the term/topic on the post it. It can place a pedagogical focus upon good questioning, or more simply provide a fun group task to stimulate talk and recall key information.
8. The Post It Plenary : students leave a post it on a board/wall/door which reflects upon the learning of the lesson – perhaps with a simple ‘Today I learnt….’ sentence stem to scaffold their response. Some or all of the student responses can be revisited in the subsequent lesson; whilst the teacher can use the responses to inform planning. Another variation on the strategy is to have a learning arrow which indicates various degrees of progress, such as shown on the following image (kindly donated by my talented colleague Heather):
The post it note can be placed appropriately on the arrow to reflect where the students believe they have progressed towards in the course of the lesson. Is provides very visual and instantaneous feedback for the teacher that can and should shape future planning. By taking a photograph of the arrow, with post it note feedback, it can provide another useful resource for the following lesson and the future learning.
9. Opinion lines: students have to decide where their post it would reside on an opinion line to represent their viewpoint, with some concise justification for their views. Again, the post it note is perfect because of the flexibility it provides – with subsequent teacher, or student led, feedback, the post it may shift along the opinion line. The humble post it provides instantaneous correction – the opportunity to change the position on the line once each post it point or idea has been discussed.
10. ‘Pin the Post It on the Donkey’: essentially, this is a catch-all description for when you project an image onto the whiteboard and ask students to provide a written response which they then place on the relevant area. In Maths, this could be placing the answer on the relevant point of a graph, with explanation; in History, it could be quickly placing a post it upon a historical figure with a concise explanation; in English, it could be a powerful descriptive image and asking students to write a brilliant sentence or two for one aspect of that image, or a quick-fire analysis of a presentational device on a media text (multiple responses can deepen the quality of analysis).
Added Extra – Nice idea for literacy across the curriculum:
Post it Review: A lovely idea, though not strictly a teaching and learning strategy, was to encourage students, and adults, to place post it note reviews into books surreptitiously in school libraries, bookshelves in classrooms – anywhere where reading is happening! Leaving in a post it note review as this secret gift promotes reading, making the reviewer synthesise their reading, whilst the prospective reading gets a lovely surprise to stimulate their desire to read.
Any ‘top ten list’ is a cap on ideas, feel free to add more – there is certainly more to do with post it notes…
My most recent post on #marginalgains was an attempt to move my thinking forward and explore what I view as the most important marginal gains for my teaching, as well as exploring what I see as the essentials of teaching pedagogy. The two key areas I see as being the key ‘hinge point marginal gains’ (marginal in terms of shaping often lengthier learning activities, as well as being usually only one of two minute spells in the overall lesson time, but crucial in terms of making progress) are questioning and oral formative feedback.
I see these two areas of pedagogy as essential in oiling the wheels of learning and making progress visible. I want to continue to make marginal gains with a laser-like focus upon these two areas of pedagogy. With this in mind, I am making these explicit in my planning for the coming half-term.
The following teaching strategies were partially inspired by Harvard’s ‘Project Zero’ thinking skills approach to learning. I am planning to trial them all over the course of the next half-term:
1. Oral Formative Feedback and the CSI routine
Now, apologies for my false advertising, there is no criminal investigation, no Who music dramatically emerging from the speakers to herald the activity (although that may actually be a good idea!). It is simply an acronym for the thinking routine – ‘Colour, Symbol, Image’. With any given idea or topic, students can show their understanding by making simple, but potentially sophisticated relational links to the idea/topic. I see it as a simple oral feedback approach, perhaps conducted through a ‘think-pair-share’ approach to oil the wheels still further, undertaken quite swiftly. It is a simple but precise approach that may work better with certain topics and ideas, but is eminently flexible and a great hinge point to identify progress.
2. Oral Formative Feedback and the 3-2-1 Routine
This strategy is similar to the ‘CSI routine’ in that it provides a quick and precise language, and a routine for feedback (students love a good sign-posted routine!). The 3-2-1 routine stands for ‘3 thoughts or ideas; 2 questions; and 1 analogy‘. I like this step by step approach as it can provide effective differentiation in their level of response – with the the questions and the analogy clearly stretching student understanding. Once again, the quality of response clearly demonstrates how much, or how little, progress students have made with a given topic or idea. It can therefore provides a real hinge point to the lesson.
3. Questioning and ‘Creative Questioning’
A very simple idea in many ways, but I think it is an effective strategy for generating creative questions and getting students to generate their own questions that can be imaginatively transformative. For any given object or topic students can work in pairs to create an imaginative list of questions, using the following prompts:
– How would it be different if…
– How might it be used differently…
– What would change if…
– How would it be different if it was used by…
– Suppose that…
– How would it look differently if…
In the past I have had students make brilliant Dragon’s Den style persuasive sales pitches to sell a plastic bag or a left shoe to great effect! Given the new possibilities, students can select a question to magi natively explore, thinking around the new possibilities. It could provide a stimulus for writing a narrative, creating a piece of art, devising a drama piece, or a new design technology creation. The question prompts exemplify students the imaginative and transformative impact simple questions can have upon their learning.
4. Questioning and the ‘Great Question Continuum’
This involves reflecting upon questions deeply in a very visible way. A few weeks ago I noted some great questions related to the English Literature staple, ‘Of Mice and Men’, on Twitter (from the sage David Doherty aka @dockers_hoops). It involved asking which character would and should be the next American President; followed by which character would you least like to sit next to in class. These ideas were brilliant gems that got me thinking how far an original question can take the learning. The continuum involves the students first devising questions, in pairs or groups, on any given topic or idea. Then the continuum is created very visibly, either on the whiteboard, or more semi-permanently on a display board (great to resume the strategy in future lessons) – with student questions being on post it notes for added flexibility. The horizontal axis would represent the ‘Interest Level’ generated by each question – that is how likely the question is to inspire new thinking and new possibilities, and simply the interest level it generates from the group. Then the vertical axis could be flexible in a variety of ways, should you wish to include a vertical axis. The vertical axis could represent ‘Complexity‘ – that is how far the question would deepen their understanding and generate complex thinking. Students could feedback their opinions, shaped by the teacher, to identify the best questions – which then could be the subject of further exploration. By reflecting deeply upon question quality and the breadth of thinking inspired by the question the students could better independently consider different responses and interpretations – a definite marginal gain, and potentially definitive one, for their continued learning.