Tag Archive | Teaching

Wise Words For My Younger Self

“Before, you are wise; after, you are wise. In between you are otherwise”
― David Zindell, The Broken God

I read a great TES article a couple of weeks ago which was based on the conceit of writing a letter to our NQT selves, with the benefit of our experience (see here). I was taken by the idea and it has lingered in my mind ever since. I therefore decided to write one of my very own.

Dear Alex,

You will begin teaching with a deep seated fear of failure. This lack of confidence will drive you to want to be better and, with time and support, you will be better…thankfully, much better! In fact, your fear is your secret weapon – harness it and make it a positive force that drives you. Eventually it will dissipate and harden into something like experience. People will eventually look to you to develop their confidence in order to conquer their fears (which may seem absurd considering your current state!) and this will become one of your favourite parts of the job. Each struggle you will overcome in your early years of teaching will serve its purpose and show its value many times over.

Uncertainty attached itself to your decision to become a teacher, but your instinct was right. The variety and difficulty of the job will test you daily, but this will mean you are never bored. You won’t lose your passion for helping children and passing on a lasting love for English. Your passion to see children have the same opportunities that you were given will never falter. The job is incredibly hard but more rewarding for being so. Shout loudly about how much you enjoy teaching – too many people resort to easy cynicism that you know to be wrong.

You will realise that the relationship you have with students, and their willingness to work hard for you, will outdo any teaching and learning strategy you can devise. Never forget to cultivate those relationships. It will be one of the greatest pleasures you will get from your career. Quickly, you will realise ‘liking‘ a teacher can be wholly different from ‘respecting‘ a teacher. Don’t strive for popularity – strive for respect. You will develop more and more confidence in your own professional instinct. It will tell you that what you know they need to learn will always outweigh what they think they want to learn.

On your PGCE you went along with the crowd and mocked the advice to be a ‘reflective practitioner‘ as lame jargon repeated ad nauseum – theory not rooted in reality of the taxing day job. You were all wrong. You will eventually give the exact same advice! The job is a maelstrom of emotion, complexity and dizzying change (which is one of its more perverse attractions). Find time to reflect and talk about your practice as much as you can. You will spend hours writing about teaching in the future – ironically, you will be at your most productive and effective as a teacher when you do this. Don’t be taken in by the false economy of not committing yourself fully to getting better because you ‘don’t have the time‘.

You remember watching ‘Dead Poets Society’ and thinking you wished teaching was like this, but knowing that it wasn’t. Well, you were right. But the call to ‘seize the day‘ was undoubtedly true. Only, more accurately, I would tell you to ‘seize the CPD’! It takes thousands of hours of deliberate practice to become an expert. This will not happen on any single training day, no matter how good it feels to you at the time. You will need to read, reflect and retain your passion to get better beyond the parameters of such training and practice. After a couple of years you will plateau and not realise it. Don’t let yourself fall into lazy habits – don’t worry about what others are doing – try to be better than yourself.

Don’t look to OFSTED for answers – they turn in the wind. Don’t try to become the ‘outstanding’ teacher you have the good fortune to observe. Know yourself – that isn’t how you work. Commit yourself to gradual, small improvements (the tortoise can defeat the hare) and be the best version of yourself you can possibly be.

Ten years later you will realise choosing to teach was the wisest choice your young self ever made. Despite the early bumps, particularly your rocky first year, enjoy the ride!

Yours,

Alex

Try writing the letter yourself – it is very cathartic!

20130609-190933.jpg

Motivating Students Using ‘Gallery Critique’ #Blogsync

“I believe that work of excellence is transformational. Once a student sees that he or she is capable of excellence, that student is never quite the same. There is a new self-image, a new notion of possibility. There is an appetite for excellence. After students have had a taste of excellence, they’re never quite satisfied with less; they’re always hungry.” (page 8, ‘An Ethic of Excellence’ by Ron Berger)

One feedback strategy I have found helped enhance the writing of my students so far this year was the use of ‘gallery critique‘. The initial inspiration came from Ron Berger, whose ‘Ethic of Excellence‘ provided inspiration in the pursuit of motivating students. Like any teaching and learning strategy, it is far from flawless, but I think that having trialled it extensively with different groups, from students to teachers themselves, in staff training, it was well worth nominating.

After having selected the ‘gallery critique‘ strategy to meet the #blogsync brief of identifying a strategy that elicits motivation, it transpired that David Didau then wrote a peerless summary of the strategy here. This synthesis of research, expressed so skilfully, did make me think that my post had become rather redundant, but I wanted to explore some of the evidence base for the effectiveness of the strategy – particularly my specific use with my GCSE class.

More broadly, the evidence base for the effectiveness of feedback and assessment for learning is sound and thorough. Feedback has the greatest impact in John Hattie’s seminal synthesis of research, ‘Visible Learning‘; although, of course, feedback itself is a broad term. Dylan Wiliam is lauded as a guru in this particular area. He defined the five key areas of effective assessment for learning as follows:


– clarifying and understanding learning intentions and criteria for success
– engineering effective classroom discussions, questions and tasks that elicit evidence of learning
– providing feedback that moves learners forward
– activating students as instructional resources for each other, and
– activating students as owners of their own learning

The “big idea” that ties these together is that we use evidence of student learning to adapt teaching and learning, or instruction, to meet student needs.

(From ‘Excellence in Assessment‘ by Dylan Wiliam)

The strategy of ‘gallery critique‘ is so appealing because, done well, it addresses each of the five areas of effective assessment for learning. I have learnt, through experience of trailing the strategy, that clarifying the success criteria is essential if students are going to create work worthy of a gallery. Each time I now use the ‘gallery critique‘ method I make sure I have used multiple models of high quality work matching their task as a precursor. Also, equally crucial, is having the highest expectations of behaviour when undertaking the gallery reflection and feedback. It can be an off putting strategy if you have a challenging group, given you expect students to walk around the classroom, but, like anything in the classroom, they need training until this strategy just becomes a ‘new normal’ for how they would learn on a regular basis. Of course, it is about being explicit about exactly how students should move about the room. I demand silence during the gallery reflection stage, verbally celebrating students who are undertaking the task with particular focus. I ensure students have a scaffold for their responses using the ‘ABC’ feedback model (they write on their large post it notes – either A for ‘Agree with…’, B for ‘Build upon…’ and C for ‘Challenge…’). I also articulate tight time-frames to ensure students are focused on the job. I then select exemplars that have multiple examples of feedback and talk through them with the class, huddled around in an arc facing the work, questioning students appropriately. Students follow up the ‘gallery critique’ with some sustained ‘dedicated improvement and reflection time‘, whilst I attempt to remedy any misapprehensions with individual students.

20130301-191759.jpg
Well, I didn’t say it was an aesthetically beautiful gallery!

In terms of evidence, I focused upon using the strategy with my Y10 group preparing for an ‘Of Mice and Men’ controlled assessment. I regularly identified distinct improvements to drafted paragraphs based on using the ‘gallery critique‘ method; however, I am suspect about my own instincts here, because as Hattie states, almost every teaching intervention makes some form of improvement. That being said, we repeated this method of formative assessment, with the second batch of model paragraphs being distinctively better than the first (I included more exemplar models the second time around). I couldn’t grade this improvement, as it was part of the controlled assessment process, so any marking of drafts isn’t allowed (much to the annoyance of students who are used to this being the case), but the paragraphs were clearly better. I did want the ‘soft data’ of student voice evidence, so I undertook a student voice activity with my trial group. I did undertake the questionnaire just before their controlled assessment so they were nervous and lacking in confidence somewhat (by the end of the lesson I had a different response to their ‘confidence level’ question – with more than half of the group feeling more confident).

The evidence from the questionaries from my Y10 GCSE group is certainly not a ringing endorsement of the strategy! What clearly came through the questionnaire was that 82% of students in my GCSE group preferred teacher assessment over peer or self assessment. Only 18% favoured peer assessment. Of course, students are always dependent and reassured by teacher assessment, for good or ill, but it does draw into question whether this strategy enhances motivation, or whether it is simply defers the true gratification for students that is teacher assessment. One complication is that students know I will not, and cannot, mark a draft of their work, as the controlled assessment process prohibits this, so their annoyance may translate to their views on the questionnaire. 27% of students evaluating that the ‘gallery critique’ method was “not useful at all”; 32% thought it was useful at times; 18% deemed it useful and 18% thought it was very useful. Their reflective opinion did appear to clash with the quality of their written outcomes, but it is an interesting piece of evidence (arguably, watching videos would receive a high percentsge for its usefulness but I would be rightly sceptical of their judgement!). Interestingly, 64% of the group thought that reading the work of others was “useful at times”. Clearly, the desire for teacher led assessment predominates and is indeed the dominant model for education – why wouldn’t students be conditioned to be reliant upon it? Does the strategy motivate students undertaken in this specific manner in the English classroom? Clearly not as much as I thought.

The next crucial question: does it work? The proof will inevitably be in the summative pudding of the controlled assessment mark. I will be able to equate it with their previous reading assessment, not ideally as there are differences. I will also be able to compare their performance with other groups (again, recognising that a host of variables are at play) to ensure there is some hard data to supplement the student voice and my teacher observations of progress.

It is the case with assessment for learning, like most teaching strategies, a balanced variety of well honed approaches will work best to help students make progress. Peer assessment that is well scaffolded and modelled, and conducted with well chosen groupings, can be highly effective formative assessment, as the evidence suggests, but striking a delicate balance of assessment for learning is key. Students often dislike self-assessment, but that self-regulating skill is key to success, therefore we must persevere, ensuring our pedagogy scaffolds the assessment to make it purposeful and have impact.

It is only appropriate to end with the inspirational words of Ron Berger when thinking about the value of the ‘gallery critique’ strategy:


“Most discussions of assessment start in the wrong place. The most important assessment that goes on in a school isn’t done to students but goes on inside students. Every student walks around with a picture of what is acceptable, what is good enough. Each time he works on something he looks at it and assesses it. Is this good enough? Do I feel comfortable handing this in? Does it meet my standards? Changing assessment at this level should be the most important assessment goal of every school. How do we get inside students’ heads and turn up the knob that regulates quality and effort.” (P103, ‘An Ethic of Excellence’)

In summary, ‘Gallery critique’ is one very useful formative assessment strategy for getting students to better ‘turn up the knob that regulates quality and effort’, making their work worthy of a gallery.

School Improvement – The Dave Brailsford Model

20130205-190308.jpg

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.

Regular communication:

“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.

The Three Rs and Aiming for Outstanding

20130201-191828.jpg

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:

Monday’s lesson

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).

Thursday’s Lesson

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:

PPT: OM&M PPT Creative Questions<

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.

‘Love English, Hate Maths?’

20130123-221041.jpg

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‘.

Useful Resources/Ideas:

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.

Top Ten Group Work Strategies

20130111-223220.jpg

If I am continually vexed by any one question in education it is ‘how can we enhance student motivation?‘ Of course, I do not have the answer, and if there is one it is multi-faceted, complex and, frankly, not going to be solved in this blog post! From my position as a classroom teacher, I am always on the look out for those strategies that create a state when students are motivated and in their element, where they work furiously without even realising they are doing so, without realising the clock is ticking down to the end of the lesson. There is no better compliment than when students question how long there is left and express genuine surprise at how fast time has passed, and that they have actually enjoyed that lesson!

My, admittedly non-scientific, observations are that many of the times students are in ‘flow‘, or their element, in my lessons is when they are collaborating in group work. Why is this then? I believe that we are obviously social beings and we naturally learn in such groups (not always effectively it must be said), but that, more importantly, when working in a group we are able to correct, support, encourage, question and develop ideas much more effectively. The power of the group, guided by the expertise of the teacher, accelerates learning, makes it richer and demands a learning consensus that can push people beyond their habitual assumptions.

Don’t get me wrong, there are pitfalls and obstacles to group work. This constructivist approach should build upon expert teacher led pedagogy – ensuring that students have a good grounding in the relevant knowledge before undertaking in-depth group work. Group work can also be beset by issues in many nuanced forms: whether it is subtle intellectual bullying, where the student who shouts loudest prevails; or the encouragement of mediocrity and laziness, as students let others do all the work; or simply by poor, distracting behaviour. Another issue is ‘group think’ miscomprehension – indeed, how does prejudice flourish if not in social groups? Yet, this failure is often great for learning as long as the teacher can illuminate the error of their ways. Of course, no teaching strategy is foolproof and plain good teaching should remedy many of the potential ills of group work, just as good teaching can make more traditional teacher-led ‘direct instruction’ wholly engaging and effective.

I am intrigued by the idea of ‘social scaffolding‘ (Vygotsky) – the concept that most of our learning is undertaken in group situations, where we learn through dialogue and debate with others, not simply by listening to that voice in our head! That being said, I am not talking teachers out of a classroom here. The role of the teacher in devising and planning a successful group task takes skill, rigour and utter clarity and precision. Students need to be clear about a whole host of things: from their role, to the purpose of the task and the parameters of expected outcomes to name but a few. Teachers need to keep groups on track, intervene appropriately to improve learning and regularly regain student focus. Teachers have a pivotal role in guiding the group work at every stage. Group work certainly isn’t the lazy option: it takes skill in the planning and the execution, and sometimes, despite our best laid plans, it still fails. That shouldn’t put us off – aren’t all teaching and learning strategies subject to such risks?

If I was to define a simple and straight-forward basis for the rules for group work it would be:

– Have clearly defined tasks, with sharp timings and with the appropriate tools organised
– Have clearly defined group roles
– Have clear ground rules for talk, listening and fair allocation of workload etc.
– Target your support and interventions throughout the task, but make them interdependent of one another, not dependent upon you
– Always be prepared to curtail group work if students don’t follow your high expectations.

So here it is, my entirely subjective top ten strategies for group work that I believe to be effective (ideas for which I must thank a multitude of sources):

1. ‘Think-pair-share’ and ‘Think-pair-square’.

Well, no-one said this top ten had to be original! This strategy is one of those techniques that we employ so readily that we can almost forget about it, it is simply so automatic for most teachers; yet, because of that we can easily forget it in our planning. We need to use it regularly because it is the very best of scaffolded learning; it almost always facilitates better quality feedback by allowing proper thinking time and for students to sound out their ideas and receive instantaneous feedback from peers. ‘Think-pair-square’ adds a touch of added flavour, involving linking two pairs together (to form the ‘square’ to share their ideas before whole class feedback). Once more, it is about adding depth to ideas, stimulating debate and collaborative thinking. I defer to this blog post by @headguruteacher for the skinny on ‘Think-pair-share’ here.

2. Snowballing or the Jigsaw method

Similar to the ‘square’ approach mentioned in ‘Think-Pair-Square’, the ‘snowballing’ activity is another simple but very effective way of building upon ideas by starting with small groups and expanding the groups in a structured way. As the metaphor of the snowball suggests, you can begin with an individual response to a question; followed by then pairing up students up; then creating a four and so on. It does allow for quick, flexible group work that doesn’t necessarily require much planning, but does keep shaping viewpoints and challenging ‘answers’ is a constructive fashion.

The ‘jigsaw method’ is slightly more intricate. David Didau describes here how it is the “ultimate teaching method”, but that it benefits greatly from careful planning. Put simply, when researching a topic, like the causes of the Second World War, each member of a group is allocated an area for which they need to become the ‘expert‘, such as ‘the impact of the Treaty of Versailles’, or ‘issues with the dissolution of Austria-Hungary’ for example. With five or six ‘Home‘ groups identified, the ‘experts‘ then leave that group to come together to pool their expertise on the one topic; they question one another and combine research, ideas and their knowledge. Then each ‘expert‘ returns to their ‘home‘ group to share their findings. It is a skilful way of varying group dynamics as well as scaffolding learning.

3. Debating (using clear rules)

As you probably know, our own inspiring leader, Michael Gove, was the President of the Oxford Union. Clearly, these ancient skills of rhetoric and debate have seen him rise to dizzying heights. Perhaps we need to teach debating with great skill if we are to produce citizens who can debate with the best of them…and with Michael Gove! The premise of a debate, and its value in enriching the learning of logic, developing understanding and the simultaneous sharpening and opening our minds, is quite obvious so I will not elaborate. If you are ever stuck for a debate topic then this website will be of great use: http://idebate.org/debatabase. The Oxford rules model is an essential model for the classroom in my view. It provides a clear structure and even a level of formality which is important, provide coherence and greater clarity to the debate. The rules, familiar steps though they are for many, are as follows:

Four speakers in each team (for and against the motion)
First speaker introduces all the ideas that team has generated
Second speaker outlines two or three more ideas in some depth
Third speaker outlines two or three ideas in some depth
Fourth speaker criticises the points made by the other team
Each individual speaker has two minutes to speak (or more of course), with protected time of thirty seconds at the beginning or the end
The rest of the team is the ‘Floor‘ and can interject at any time by calling out ‘Point of Information‘ and standing. The speaker can accept or reject an interjection.

You may wish to have the other groups work as feedback observers on the debate being undertaking (a little like Socratic circles – number 8). This has the benefit of keeping the whole class engaged and actively listening to the debate.

4. Project Based Learning/Problem Based Learning

I have to admit I have only ever undertaken project style work on a small scale, but in the last year I have been startled by the quality of work I have observed in project based learning across the world. The principals of Project Based Learning are key: such as identifying real audiences and purposes for student work (a key factor in enhancing motivation); promoting interdependent student work, often subtly guided by the teacher at most stages; letting students undertake roles and manage the attendant challenges that arise; learning is most often integrated and spans subject areas; and students constructing their own questions and knowledge. Truly the best guide is to survey these great examples:

http://www.hightechhigh.org/schools/HTHI/ The curriculum here is founded upon the PBL model.
http://brookfieldcyclingproject.blogspot.co.uk/ A brilliant PE based PBL.
http://deeplearning.edublogs.org/2012/12/02/meet-the-ancestors/ A great Art centred project.

The Innovation Unit has also produced this brilliant must-read guide to PBL in great depth here.

‘Problem based learning’ is clearly related to the project model, but it explicitly starts with a problem to be solved. It is based primarily upon the model from medicine – think Dr House (although he is hardly a team player!). David Didau sagely recommends that the teacher, or students in collaboration, find a specifically local problem – this raises the stakes of the task. Clearly, in Mathematics, real problem based learning can be a central way to approach mathematical challenges in a collaborative way; in Science or Philosophy, the options to tackle ethical and scientific problems are endless. There is criticism of this approach – that students struggle with the ‘cognitive load’ without more of a working memory. Ideally, this learning approach follows some high quality direct instruction, and teacher led worked examples, to ensure that students have effective models to work from and some of the aforementioned working memory.

5. Group Presentations

I would ideally label this strategy: ‘questions, questions, questions‘ as it is all about creating, and modelling, a culture of enquiry by asking students questions about a given topic, rather than didactically telling them the answer – then helping shape their research. The teacher leads with a ‘big question‘; then it is taken on by groups who (given materials, such as books, magazines, essays, iPads, laptops, or access to the library or an ICT suite etc.) have to interrogate the question, forming their own sub-set of questions about the question/ topic. They then source and research the key information, before finally agreeing to the answers to the questions they had themselves formed. The crucial aspect about presentations is giving students enough time to make the presentation worthwhile, as well as allocating clear roles. High quality presentations take time to plan, research and execute. Personally, I find the timekeeper role a waste of time (I can do that for free!), but other roles, such as leader, designer and scribe etc. have value. Also, the teaching needs to be carefully planned so the entire presentation is not reliant solely upon any one person or piece of technology. Developing a shared understanding of the outcome and the different parameters of the presentation is key: including features like banning text on PowerPoints; or making it an expectation that there is some element of audience participation; to agreeing what subject specific language should be included. The devil is in the detail!

6. ‘Devise the Display’

I have a troubled relationship with displays! I very rarely devise my own display as I think displays become wallpaper far too soon considering the effort taken to provide them – like newspapers, they become unused within days. I much prefer a ‘working wall‘, that can be constantly changed or updated (or a ‘learning continuum’ for an entire topic when can be periodically added to each lesson). That being said, I do think there is real high quality learning potential in the process of students devising and creating wall displays. It is great formative feedback to devise a wall display once you are well under way a topic. It makes the students identify and prioritise the key elements of their knowledge and the skills they are honing.

I find the most valuable learning is actually during the design ideas stage.You can ‘snowball’ design ideas with the students; beginning individually, before getting groups to decide collaboratively on their design; then having a whole class vote. I do include stipulations for what they must include, such as always including worked examples. Then, the sometimes chaotic, but enjoyable activity it to create the display. I always aim for the ‘60 Minute Makeover‘ approach – quick and less painful (it also makes you less precious about the finer details)! I think they also learn a whole host of valuable skills involving team work, empathy and not to annoy me by breaking our wall staplers! I think it is then important to not let any display fester and waste, but to pull it down and start afresh with a new topic. I know this strategy does put some people off, because it can be like organised chaos, but if everyone has a clear role and responsibility the results can be amazing. [Warning – some designs can look like they have been produced by Keith Richards on a spectacular acid trip!]

7. Gallery Critique

This stems from the outstanding work of on Berger. Both a teacher and a craftsman himself, Berger explains the value of critique as rich feedback in his brilliant book ‘The Ethic of Excellence‘. It can be used during the draft/main process or as a summative task. This strategy does have some specific protocols students should follow. The work of the whole group should be displayed in a gallery style for a short time. Students are expected to first undertake a short silent viewing (making notes to reflect is also useful here). The students make comments on the work – post it notes being ideal for this stage. Then the next step is a group discussion of ‘what they noticed‘ in particular, with debate and discussion encouraged – of course, the feedback should be both kind and constructive. The next step for discussion is talking about ‘what they liked‘, evaluating the work. The final stage has the teacher synthesise viewpoints and express their own; before ensuring students make notes and reflect upon useful observations for making improvements.

8. Socratic Talk

I have spoken about this strategy before here. What is key is that like the debating rules above, a clear and defined structure is in place, particularly with ‘Socratic circles‘ which embeds feedback and debate in a seamless way. It takes some skill in teaching students how to talk in this fashion, but once taught, it can become a crucial tool in the repertoire. In my experience, some of the most sensitive insights have emerged from this strategy and the listening skills encouraged are paramount and have an ongoing positive impact. It also allows for every student to have a role and quality feedback becomes an expectation.

9. Talking Triads

Another simple, but highly effective strategy. It is a strategy that gets people to explore a chosen topic, but with a really rigorous analysis of ideas and views. The triad comprises of a speaker, a questioner and a recorder/analyst. You can prepare questions, or you can get the questioner and the analyst to prepare questions whilst the speaker prepares or reflects upon potential answers. This can be done in front of the class as a gallery of sorts, or you can have all triads working simultaneously. If they do work simultaneously, then a nice addition is to raise your hand next to a particular triad, which signals for other groups to stop and listen whilst that specific triad continues, allowing for some quality listening opportunities.

10. Mastery Modelling

This involves a form of formative assessment from students, whereat the teacher gives a group a series of models, both exemplar models and lesser models, including some with common errors that students would likely identify. The students need to do a critical appraisal of the these models as a group and identify their summary assessment of the models first, before then devising and presenting a ‘mastery model’ that is a composite exemplar model of work. This strategy works in pretty much every subject, with the subject being either an essay, a piece of art, or a mathematical problem. This presentation should include an explicit focus upon the steps taken leading to create the ‘mastery model‘ during the feedback – this unveils the process required for mastery for the whole class.

Useful links:

A great research paper that analyses group work and its importance:
‘Toward a social pedagogy of classroom group work’
By Peter Blatchford, Peter Kutnick, Ed Baines, and Maurice Galton

An excellent National Strategies booklet from back in the day when the DfE was interested in pedagogy. I particularly like the ‘different grouping criteria’/’size of grouping’ tables:
Pedagogy and Practice: Teaching and Learning in Secondary Schools Unit 10: Group work

Nice step by step guide to the implementation and the delivery of group work
Implementing Group Work in the Classroom

20130111-223252.jpg

Evidence Driven Education

20130106-101856.jpg

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.

Alfie Kohn: ‘Achievement’ at the Expense of ‘Learning’

20121222-234225.jpg

Very few videos on the web can engage me enough to make me persevere in watching them for nearly twenty minutes, even less so inspire me to write about the video and encourage others to watch it! This video by Alfie Kohn does just that and I heartily commend it for your holiday viewing:

Alfie Kohn: Achievement at the Expense of Learning

Christmas is a time for wishful thinking. My wish would be that Michael Gove would view this video. As I am being wishful, I would imagine he would reflect and revise his obsession with ‘rigour’ and ‘standards’ after the same bankrupt language and ideology is so brilliantly skewered here by Alfie Kohn. I would imagine and wish he would question the continued regime of league tables and his own proposals for a system that is obsessed with terminal assessments. I would wish and imagine that he would question whether his method of the pursuit of ‘intellectual rigour’ is so fundamentally flawed as to have the exact opposite effect!

Perhaps short of that wish, I would want teachers, and school leaders, to watch this video and reflect upon the language you use in the classroom with your students; your habits of feedback and your focus on ‘learning’ and ‘achievement’. Are we guilty of perpetuating the flaws in our current system? What can we do to mitigate our situation and that of our students? Do we have solutions we can pose within our sphere of influence and power? In light of upcoming English exams, I am certainly guilty of using highly competitive language that promotes the commodification of learning at the expense of learning for its intrinsic value. Is there a better way than our obsession with a succession of terminal assessments? Can we pursue a curriculum that does not quash curiosity, challenge and an intrinsic love of learning, whilst still functioning as a respected, skilled and creative system? There are no easy answers, but Kohn certainly poses questions that strike at the heart of the flawed thinking and leadership currently residing in the Department for Education.

If you watch one educational video before Christmas then make it this one!

20121222-234307.jpg