Tag Archive | Writing

The Language of School and Cracking the Academic Code

‘I speak therefore I am’

Ten years ago I moved from my home in Liverpool to become a teacher in York. I went to the Liverpool University so my accent, dialect, and my language more generally, was largely unchanged from my time at school. Of course, I had undertaken lots of reading and language development between leaving school and becoming a teacher, but I still required a significant shift in my language to become a teacher with clear and effective communication. It wasn’t just my thick scouse accent, although my accent was strong and unintelligible at certain frequencies for some of my students it quickly transpired! I had to develop a more ‘academic‘ register of speech that was a model for students and their language development.

Within a couple of years of training and then teaching my accent had dulled greatly and rather subconsciously I began to speak with a different register entirely too. I began to speak more like an academic essay. I spoke more elaborately to be explicitly clear, with more specialised vocabulary and a more conscious structuring my speech. Very quickly my new ‘teacher voice’ became automatic. For better or worse, it became my voice. Now, my subconscious desire to eradicate my accent may well have been an unconscious response to what Frederick Williams described as the ‘stereotype hypothesis’. The hypothesis that teacher’s expectations of a pupil’s performance corresponded closely with how far student’s dialect diverts away from the standard. Only yesterday I read an article about the tyranny of dialect-dulling in academia here. My more elaborate speech was my attempt to model the language required of academic talk and academic writing, only I wasn’t doing it consciously, it was just happening so I could communicate effectively in the classroom.

A few months ago I read about Basil Bernstein’s ideas regarding language use. In the 1970s British sociolinguist, Basil Bernstein, posed the hypothesis of different types of speech in the home. He presented a basic dichotomy between ‘elaborated code’ (most often found in the language of educated people in the home) and ‘restricted code’ (a more compressed shorthand ‘code’ for communication). Bernstein was criticised for conferring greater value onto the more formal register of the ‘elaborate code’, viewing language and class as a value-laden hierarchy; however, the case is that he doesn’t argue one is necessarily ‘better‘ than the other, but he does recognise that both types of language exist in the home and beyond and that we must be able to shift our register appropriately. He recognised that power is conferred to those who know the difference and those who can adapt their language in appropriate circumstances with skill.

Two Types of Talk: The ‘Academic Code’ and the ‘Personal Code’

Why is the ‘academic code‘ important? This is the primary mode of communication in the school context and it therefore connotes success in most circumstances. It crucially transfers to later professional contexts, as shown in the dialect in academia article linked above. What we largely do as teachers is leave this code as implicit knowledge, letting some students who have been initiated in the code tacitly by parents become even more successful, whilst the uninitiated flounder. What we must do as teachers is to make this ‘academic code‘ explicitly known to students. It is a code that is teachable and key to their future success. To do so we need to recognise some of its features. I have kept it simple in grammatical terms and welcome further explanation by those much more expert than me.

‘The Academic Code’: Speech and Writing

– It has the more formal register we typically associate with writing;
– The ‘voice’ is that of an expert asserting an opinion. It is typically impersonal in style and declarative in tone, not assuming a personal emotional relationship with the audience;
– Specific noun phrases such as ‘archetypal protagonist’ are favoured over deictic pronouns, such as ‘him’;
– Shifts between topics are lexically and syntactically marked with a range of complex discourse markers;
– Vocabulary becomes more specialised and technical;
– Less assumptions about shared knowledge in vague linguistic terms are applied – see ‘noun phrases’ above;
– Expanded utterances include more logical sub-clauses, such as ‘one other type’ and ‘the second method’ etc.;
– There is typically a hierarchal structure that sequences of information into an argument.

The ‘Personal Code’: Speech and Writing

– It has the less formal register we associate with speech. This reliance on prosody can be seen most explicitly in ‘text language’ and expressive writing;
– The ‘voice’ is more commonly exclamative and interrogative etc. It lacks the impersonal formality of the ‘academic code’;
– There is more reliance on deictic references and vague pronouns;
– There is typically more generic, less specialised lexis e.g. ‘It’ instead of ‘igneous rock’;
– There is an emergent, free structure, like speech, rather than a clearly hierarchical, logical structure;
– Anaphora is common as a cohesive tie, such as ‘He….He’ in sentences and utterances, rather than a more sophisticated range of discourse markers. Commonly used conjunctions like ‘and’, ‘so’ and ‘but’ repeated. Research (Lazarathon, 1992) found that ‘and’ was used to connect five times more clauses in speech than in writing;
– Telegraphic speech (short utterances focused on nouns and verbs) is more commonly used, which is reliant upon shared personal knowledge.

To exemplify the codes here are two very short examples of student talk from my classroom recently. Example A is some student talk in the ‘Personal Code‘ based on George’s decision to kill his friend Lennie in the novella, ‘Of Mice and Men’:

A: He was right. He should have done it because he saved him from worse.

Example B is another student articulating the same point in ‘Academic Code’:

B: I would argue that George, the protagonist, was morally right to kill his best friend Lennie. Ironically, he saved him form a cruel death at the hands of Curley – who had a shotgun and was looking to pursue his raging obsession for revenge.

Now, you might rightly criticise my comparing chalk and cheese here, but they are two real examples. Student A was right in the broadest sense, but he didn’t elaborate logically upon his knowledge, nor was he specific with his use of nouns and pronouns like Student B. Student A didn’t just lack ‘detail’, he lacked the grammatical patterns required of success in the academic realm. What was noticeable for me was that both students were of similar ‘ability’, but their register of speech was different and it was also reflected in their performance in written assessments. If you observe language in almost any profession you will see a greater complexity of vocabulary choices and hierarchical structures of language that more closely match the register of student B. Go down to your local courts and listen to some courtroom legalese and see for yourself how speech and written texts overlap with a degree of register wholly alien to everyday conversation.

I have clearly set up a dichotomy here, but it is important to state at both codes are complex, both are necessary for our daily lives and they both represent a complex cross-over between the spoken and written modes of language. Both codes can also be equally as indecipherable to the uninitiated and are crucial to success in a variety of social contexts.


Where Next? Code Breaking!

Well, we need to start firstly by educating students, and teachers, about the explicit differences between the different codes – between the ‘academic code’ and the ‘personal code’ – in speech and writing. Having access to such an ‘academic code’ can be like having a key for social mobility. It need cost the ‘Pupil Premium’ budget to make a difference either. We should ensure that classroom talk scaffolds and recasts the speech and writing of students at every available opportunity to ensure they match the patterns of the ‘academic code’ and it becomes automatic through ‘deliberate practice’ (like it did for me when I began teaching). It is important that we provide a range of formal opportunities for talk: presentations, debate and discussion that is formalised with the expectations of the ‘academic code’, crucially, both inside and outside of the classroom.

Put simply this code needs to be at the heart of the DNA that is our educational discourse. Teachers need to know it, use it, model it and teach it explicitly. Students need to learn the difference and how to readily adapt their code to match the circumstances. This mobility of language might well help engender the greater social mobility we seek through education.

Thank you to those people who took part in #LiteracyChat yesterday who sparked this post.

Also, I must doff my cap to Lee Donaghy, whose brilliant blog triggered some wider research on scaffolding and the power of language in the classroom more recently. His blog can be found here: http://whatslanguagedoinghere.wordpress.com/2013/03/27/park-view-school-language-development-project/.

David Didau also produced a very useful and insightful post on oracy here: http://learningspy.co.uk/2012/12/29/developing-oracy-its-talkin-time-2/.

Finally, this erudite essay by Mary J. Schleppegrell puts the argument of a ‘language of schooling‘ much more eloquently than I ever could: http://dyna2.nc.hcc.edu.tw/dyna/data/user/hs1283/files/201204140958460.pdf

Shared Writing: Modelling Mastery

If the path of repeated deliberate practice makes something like perfect, then imitating good models of writing provides solid foundations for the pursuit of writing excellence. ‘Shared writing‘ is one specific strategy that models writing in a highly effective way and is one of my favourite and most effective teaching strategies. ‘Shared writing’ begins with the sharing of the key information or language related to the written task, before the teacher then leads the students in co-constructing the writing, scribing the writing with targeted questioning and feedback. In my experience there are few better ways to illuminate each step of the complex writing process for students and it can work across the curriculum.

In many of my blog posts I keep returning back to a quotation from the brilliant Ron Berger about excellence:

“I believe that work of excellence is transformational. Once a student sees that he or she is capable of excellence, that student is never quite the same. There is a new self-image, a new notion of possibility. There is an appetite for excellence.”

(page 8, ‘An Ethic of Excellence’ by Ron Berger)

This brilliant insight into the transformative power of excellence chimes beautifully with the importance of modelling and the potential power of ‘shared writing’ when it produces writing of real excellence. We can co-construct with students a piece of writing – helping them tread the path to mastery, but we, as teachers, take the primary role as expert guides. It is much more than just a demonstration – it is an active process which can engage the entire grouping in effective questioning and feedback. With the writing process students have internalised their own models over a span of years. When students approach something like expertise they develop an internal ‘mastery model‘. That is to say a model that has instinctively broken down a complex process into effective steps that can be reproduced over and over. In English, it is the internalising of a pattern of sentence structures and the use of a range of vocabulary and rhetorical devices, until those patterns become automatic. Here is a video example of Pie Corbett modelling the process with teachers: http://youtu.be/LGMv6Tf-Lm4.

The problem that we know keenly is that many students simply don’t have a ‘mastery model’ in mind when they are writing, due to a potential array of complex factors (such as a lack of wider reading) so they revert to a ‘default model’. Such a ‘default model‘ is taken on either consciously or subconsciously, where they revert back to the their faulty habits of writing. The problem with this model is that students slip into an automatic state which can simply reassert all their flaws, inaccuracies and misunderstandings. With repeated modelling and ‘shared writing’ students can over time internalise the ‘mastery model’ of a given genre of writing. They can then free up their working memory to develop the requisite creativity to diverge from a model of imitation to one of greater independence and originality.

I have usually enjoyed undertaking guided writing, but I am not unaware of its pitfalls, or why people can shy away from it as a teaching strategy. Providing a ready made model is easier in the sense that it is quicker and it gives the teacher a chance to craft and perfect their writing. I have undertaken guided writing and invariably it is very quick paced and it is not error free. Some teachers lack the confidence to write free-form, in case of errors, but, of course, this is good for the students to learn. In fact, it may be the most important thing that they learn. We must make students recognise that errors and self-correction are a wholly natural part of the writing process. Indeed, they are integral if any student is to make sustained improvement towards their own ‘mastery model’. Another reason that can inhibit using the strategy is behavioural control. Shared writing can mean writing with your back turned to the class, which, of course, is manna from heaven for some cheeky students! Through lots of deliberate practice and failing I have developed a few tricks to hopefully smooth out those issues and help shared writing sing:

Shared Writing: The Top Ten Tips

1. Have a clear idea of your desired ‘mastery model’, to the point of having large elements of it already pre-prepared (like some ‘here’s one I made earlier’ Blue Peter special!), from specific vocabulary you wish to model, to specific discourse markers or sentence structures

2. If you are unconfident that students will stay on task throughout the writing, select a student to scribe the writing, either on the computer or on the whiteboard. This allows you up to manage the room and place yourself according (such as hanging around like an ‘Angel of Death’ behind your more troublesome students!)

3. Be crystal clear about your expectations. Will you allow students to simply contribute orally when they so choose, or is there a simple protocol, like putting their hands up. I don’t think there is a foolproof method, but build a simple habit and have quick and easily cues to make the task run smoother

4. Questioning: pre-plan who you will question in readiness. This can be highly specific, pitching questions that are appropriately differentiated so that students can co-construct the model with you with confidence

5. Pre-plan your questions, thinking how ‘open‘ or ‘closed‘ you want each question to be, for example: ‘How do we best start an essay paragraph?’ and ‘What discourse marker would be most appropriate at this stage of your paragraph?‘ or ‘What term we learnt earlier in the lesson should we use here?’

6. Pose, Pause, Pounce and Bounce‘ your questions around the room. The ‘bouncing‘ of your questions are particularly key. It keeps the class focused on the task because they know they may be questioned at any point. Make clear to students that the best writing is often a sort of mental dialogue, whereat you question what is appropriate. By undertaking ‘guided writing’ you are making that thinking visible, drawing upon the knowledge of the group

7. A crucial point for me is to ensure everyone is writing simultaneously. It works as a control mechanism, but it has learning value, as students have to commit to the ‘mastery model’, even simply through their motor memory of writing the piece. I have often had complaints from students about being ‘tired’ by writing so fast, or writing such a detailed response. My answer is simple: ‘Good!’ Feel the pain, no-one said becoming an expert was easy or effortless

8. Circulate the room and praise their effort (with specific feedback like “Good use of a discourse marker for clarity Claire – thank you” – rather than a vague “Excellent!“) if they are making thoughtful contributions. Get as many students involved as possible; invite critical challenges and revisions. Don’t feel the need for everyone to necessarily contribute, some students will need to concentrate wholly on the act of writing. Silence does not always confer disengagement with task, some students will be thinking deeply about the writing process

9. Get ongoing feedback on the model. You could use the ABC Feedback model, whereat students can either ‘Add to‘ the writing, ‘Build upon‘ what has already been written, or ‘Challenge‘ what has been written

10. Get students to review the writing. It may be masterful but it certainly won’t be perfect! Get them to discuss and feedback what are the key elements of this genre of writing and exploring evidence from the model that has just been co-created. Also, you can get students to compare with their ‘default model’, too often in evidence in their work, highlighting the salient differences. Finally, ask them what they have learnt about writing so that they explicitly reflect on the process.

When shared writing works well it can be a brilliant symphony of ideas. It can also at times be flawed and not produce a shining gem of mastery! Embrace this fact – writing can be messy and disorganised – the process can be just as valuable as the product. The greatest pieces of writing are often a brilliant chaos of revision and rewriting (show students a draft of Orwell’s ‘1984’). In reality students will gain confidence in this knowledge that writing may not be fluent or easy. They can, and will, still learn much even from a flawed ‘mastery model’. I would heartily recommend ‘shared writing’. It is one of the best ways of modelling, which we can all agree is important, because it doesn’t just model the end product, it also models the process of writing. Done repeatedly and habitually it can also, I would hope, engender Ron Berger’s ‘appetite for excellence‘.

The Three Rs and Aiming for Outstanding


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.

Crafting and Drafting – Creating a Culture of Excellence

Firstly, may I say that this post is directly inspired by Ron Berger’s book, ‘An Ethic of Excellence: Building A Craftsmanship with Students’ and ideas related to the concept of #marginalgains.

My starting point is my current work with my Year 11 GCSE English group. We are undertaking mock exam preparation, but not in the conventional way. We are not drilling away at endless past questions, tweaking tricks of timing and poring of examiner feedback. We are writing an extended letter for a real audience over a period of hours, with drafts and revisions aplenty. What I want students to develop is an ‘ethic of excellence’ in their writing. Early on in Berger’s book he states the power of ‘transformational work’ and how being motivated by the highest expectations is essential to success:

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. When the teachers at the Austine School for the Deaf pointed out to Sonia that many students wouldn’t obsess over their work as she does, her reply was quick: This school has ruined me for life, she said. I’m never satisfied with anything until it’s almost perfect. I have to be proud of it.” (Berger, ‘Ethic of Excellence’ – p8)

I’m not attempting to assert my students have undergone such a life-long transformation, but I am certainly going to groove their habits for writing to be marginally better than they have ever been before. I stated to the group that their writing will not be finished until it is at an A or an A* grade. Many of the students have a target grade significantly lower, so they are naturally daunted by the prospect. Now, I reassure them that it may take five drafts, with students carefully supporting and critiquing one another, with some precise support form me, to improve still further to that final point. They are still surprised by the expectation level being significantly higher for their work than what they are used to producing. Indeed, the gap between a C grade and an A grade can often appear insurmountable. That is where the ‘marginal gains’ approach proves so useful. We breakdown and define successful writing, and therefore A* writing unsurprisingly, using the wheels of marginal gains – where each spoke of the wheel becomes a small element of their writing that they can improve – to reach a successful whole piece of writing – the completed wheel (see my previous blogs on #marginalgains for examples of such wheels). The small steps make success more manageable for students and therefore they become more motivated and far less likely to give up.

So many students suffer from what Carole Dweck terms the ‘fixed mindset’ – a deep rooted sense that they will inevitably fail; therefore, to preserve their sense of self, they avoid trying their to do their best in their learning in case they confirm their deep rooted fears about their lack of ‘ability’ – which they view as fixed. By using the narrative of ‘marginal gains’, used so successfully by David Brailsford for the British Olympic cycling team and the Team Sky cycling juggernaut, students are assailed by a ‘growth mindset’ approach to their learning. The small improvements and targets are achievable for students and they can see the steps to success that preserves their often delicate sense of self-confidence. As Berger states:

“We can’t first build students’ self-esteem and then focus on their work. It is through their own work that their self-esteem will grow.” (Berger, ‘Ethic of Excellence’, p65)

In the process of setting up the task I showed the students a piece of writing I had recently composed. I showed students the email I was sent asking for a “chatty style” with “student anecdotes” in the piece. This perfectly linked to their task, as they too were writing for a real audience with a real purpose (so important in enhancing student motivation). They were given the task of writing either one of the following letters:

‘‘Write a letter to the York Press (letters@thepress.co.uk) arguing for or against the view that the media promotes the wrong role models for teenagers’


‘Write a letter to the Guardian newspaper (letters@guardian.co.uk.) arguing for or against ‘Reality’ television.’ (full school address / telephone number required for submissions)

My piece of writing was not too dissimilar, so students were able to critique my work and I discussed openly how I had drafted my writing multiple times. This was similar, but not nearly as impressive, to Berger’s example, where he worked on architectural prints for designing his house for over a year…ok, my example is nowhere near, but the principal is the same! I was open about my initial failures and struggles and I articulated that I expected them to suffer the same…and that that was a very fine thing – failure was the very path to success! What they need to be able to do on this path is to self-assess and judge their successes and failures as they draft. Berger, again, brilliantly articulates this as the “assessment inside students”, which in many ways is infinitely more important than the external assessments we are obsessed with. If they know what outstanding work looks and feels like they can replicate it. Doing one great piece of work goes a long way.

The students have only completed their first draft – we have a fair few lessons, and drafts, to go I estimate. They will hopefully make many marginal gains as they go through their drafting process – each the reflecting upon details like writing techniques, their paragraph structure, proof reading etc. We will not send those emails (and we will eventually send those emails – just like my Year 11s last year sent their letters of complaint to David Cameron about his erroneous claims about ‘broken Britain’!) until we have crafted our writing – until it can be the best they can possibly produce. I will also display the work on the school website and the English and Media Faculty blog – as any learning or project work on display for a real audience immediately heightens the quality of the learning, and the end product, for students. Exam preparation can wait – we have real writing to craft first!

In honour of Ron Berger, I used a craft analogy with my group as we discussed the task. I spoke to them about crafting a fine antique piece of furniture. That they would first need to source their wood (research & plan ideas); cut and plane down the wood and sand it into shape (write the sentences and adding the appropriate rhetorical devices); nail the pieces together with care (paragraph their writing); then varnish their piece (draft it to improve); let it dry and varnish it see more (more drafting!); before finally adding some finishing touches (those final key tweaks and rhetorical tricks). I know the analogy needs a little refining – doesn’t everything – but I think the message was received! Each stage of the process has multiple opportunities for marginal gains – so we will make timely peer and self-assessment stops on the way to make those gains.

I am looking forward to those finished crafted letters. I expect they will be excellent!

Many thanks to @Fullonlearning and @Pekabelo for their ideas today in shaping much of this post. Of course, thanks to Ron Berger too – I would highly recommend you buy and read his great book that I have taken the liberty to quote repeatedly!

Moving Beyond the EBacc – A Curriculum Fit for the 21st Century

Caption: “I sat Gove’s EBacc and look where it got me!”

I am not necessarily angry at the demise of the GCSE; however, I am annoyed that Gove appears to be spurning his undeserved privilege to create a truly world class qualification in the place of GCSEs that can make us all proud. Gove’s EBacc isn’t finalised by any means – but surely the misguided proposal of a sole final three hour exam for a national English qualification could not possibly be the totality of any qualification to ready students for a complex and rapidly changing modern world. Expecting a qualification with a concluding three hour examination as its only method of assessment to ready students for their diverse and highly technological future is like asking a giraffe to climb a tree to ready it for survival on the barren plains of the Serengeti! Gove appears to avidly ignore a wealth of educational evidence, and the myopic prejudices of Gove and Gibb look set to squander any hope of a modern qualification for English, the Humanities and beyond, that is truly fit for purpose.

There are a range of examinations, both nationally and internationally, to draw upon to create the best qualifications for our 11-16 year olds that is fit to prepare them for their complex future. Gove appears to eschew such research, evidence and expertise, and he appears to stubbornly rely upon his conservative prejudices – he may praise certain qualifications, but he refuses to learn lessons from them. So what current options do we have for which to build an ideals set of qualifications? We have the GCSEs (labelled as wholly discredited, mostly by people whose knowledge is slim and their prejudice fat); the iGCSE (a favoured preserve of Private schools); the International Baccalaureate – at both Middle Years and Diploma (praised repeatedly by Gove), as well as a host of internationally renowned qualifications. I would ask a series of questions about how our assessment for this curriculum stage, and our curriculum more broadly, would be composed to best suit the skills and knowledge required for the future:

Where is the place for Project Based Learning?

The PISA report, one of Gove’s sacred tracts, revealed how assessment models that embed project based learning are the way forward for successful assessment models. I have quoted this in my diatribe against Gove’s Ebacc before (https://huntingenglish.wordpress.com/2012/09/16/an-angry-response-to-gove-levels/), but it bears repeating. PISA found in the ‘framework for assessment’ aspect of the report that:

” “problem-solving competency” can be developed through “progressive teaching methods, like problem-based learning, inquiry-based learning” and project work. “The Pisa 2012 computer-based assessment of problem-solving aims to examine how students are prepared to meet unknown future challenges for which direct teaching of today’s knowledge is not sufficient,””

This approach is not a new phenomenon, but it is a manner of assessment that is rich in a diverse manner of skills: from independent research; to reading a complex range of sources (from the Internet to ancient literature) and synthesising ideas in a logical structure; to extended writing with a real purpose and a real audience; to a final oral presentation which is ‘testing’ in the most rigorous and rewarding manner. In IB schools, 11-16 year olds already undertake such projects, like in the Southbank international school in London: http://www.southbank.org/personal-project.html. Should we not seek out the assessment celebrated by the very international body Gove so clearly heralds?

Where is the place for Speaking and Listening?

A three hour exam is all well and good as a simple measuring stick, but our children will need to exist in a social world where they will also need to communicate successfully in a myriad of ways still unimaginable to us now. They need to be highly flexible in their capacity to communicate with different audiences and in different contexts – in a truly globally connected world. The current GCSE model of three oral assessments in English, includes a drama performance, a group discussion and an individual presentation. It is imperfect, but it is wholly appropriate to lending credence to the central place of oral communication in any and every assessment model. Gove could warmly remember his days as President of the Oxford Union if he were to come to a state school like mine (he would dread this I’m sure!) and listen to some highly enlightened current debate. Only this week my Year 11 English group have been arguing about the nature of fame, Warhol’s ‘fifteen minutes’ and the importance of role models in our contemporary world. Yes, a final examination does not exclude the central position of discussion in our pedagogy, yet every student and teacher in the land will be under pressure to teach to the test – keep your dogmatic league tables Mr Gove and you will continue to see teaching through the eye of a narrow test.

In the International Baccalaureate Diploma there is an oral presentation and an oral commentary (recorded for and moderated by the IB) in the A1 English aspect of the course. These form nearly a third of the overall assessment for A1 English for one of the most renowned and rigorous qualifications across the world. The oral commentary is a developed response to literary texts and it is highly challenging. Is such an assessment model not fit and proper for our students? Would it not hone a whole host of skills and inject a much needed diversity into our proposed Ebacc assessment model?

Where is the place for multi-modal writing and technology?

Gove is a self-professed traditionalist, and as an English teacher, I would debate heatedly the importance and relevance of Shakespeare in any modern English curriculum. I may draw the line at Gove’s liking for Dryden, but I have a keen preference for the classical canon. That being said, we live in a rapidly changing world where media literacy and multi-modal texts must be combined with the best of the traditional canon of knowledge. This isn’t pandering to create a curriculum for ‘enjoyment’; the reading of film, a critical analysis of the web and a skilful knowledge of texts that combine all of the above, are crucial skills for a future when the written word will continue to synchronise with technology in ways we cannot fully comprehend.

Once again, project based learning can encourage the use of tools of modern technology in a real and innovative fashion. Seeing students be creative with iPads, smart phones or computers to create films, applications or presentations, truly celebrates a multitude of skills appropriate for the future when technology will surely be integral to learning and living.

Where is the place for extended writing not completed in exam conditions?

Now, let me set the record straight, neither old fashioned coursework, nor the new controlled assessment system is ideal as a mode for assessment. Crucially; however, the role of extended writing produced in a series of drafts, and honed and crafted, is just as valid as any examination approach to extended writing. If the issue is the ‘gaming’ of the system that occurs with coursework, as so famously exposed through examples like the honourable Prince Harry and his Private school art teacher; or the limiting of curriculum time created by the stultifying controlled assessments, then learn from those errors and make the assessment better! Create an independent piece of extended writing that is offered in a portfolio approach, where proposals are recorded, drafts are retained etc. We may even come to recognise the value of crafting writing with research, deep thought and revisions, rather than celebrating the reductive time constraints of the exam model. Again, the IB Diploma has this enshrined in the Extended Essay aspect of the qualification. It allows for an independence of thinking and exploration we would surely seek to foster in all our students – whilst honing a range of skills simply not possible in an exam-only model.

How do we get our students to ask and answer questions that can’t be tested?

The exam-only model is clearly reductive. It is easily measurable, quantifiable and scalable (and sellable to bloated exam boards!) – therefore it is the default model for education systems around the world. Crucially, however, continental systems still manage to embed philosophy and critical thinking at the heart of their curriculum. In the IB Diploma, for example, TOK (Theory of Knowledge) explores knowledge and thinking in rich and diverse ways. Time is found to explore and critique knowledge in a way comprehensively ignored in our national curriculum at 11-16. It is this deep learning and thinking that helps foster citizens who can think flexibly and be able to apply their thinking skills in innovative and creative ways.

Finally, I would ask a broader question: why are independent schools, and their students, given the privilege of choice, when our state schools are hampered by that behemoth that crushes all breadth and richness of curriculum provision – school league tables? I will admit it is my very personal bête noire – but whilst schools are forced to supposedly raise standards in a system which fosters a heightened narrowing of the curriculum to achieve ‘success’, how will we ever see the required diversity of curriculum provision needed for the future of our children? How can a system that actively promotes competition over collaboration, in a survival of the fittest to scramble up the league table to relative safety from the attack dogs of OFSTED, ever work in raising standards for all? With such a pervasive culture of distrust and narrow judgements, how will schools enjoy the freedoms to innovate and enrich? With such crushing judgements awaiting schools, it is no surprise when cheating ensues, when good practice is ditched at the alter of expediency. I am not condoning such corrosive behaviour that impacts negatively upon students, but I understand why it is going on when the conditions for growth and development for state schools are as fruitless as Osbourne’s scorched earth economic policy.

When will we corral the experts in the field of education to create an English qualification fit for purpose in preparing students for a changing world? When will we be led with courage and the foresight to let schools collaborate in local unison to create assessments fitting for our children and their futures? To bastardise a political phrase: we must be the change we seek. We must forge a vision of a future proof curriculum that we can be proud to teach and make Gove and his colleagues stand up and take notice. Parents, teachers, school leaders and unions must unite in this cause. It is crucial to the very future of our nation in a globalised world where economies of scale mean that Britain must create a highly innovative and creative knowledge economy. It begins with education. It begins with an evidence based curriculum fit for purpose. It begins with us.

Can the iPad really help improve children’s writing?

When the iPad is mentioned as a tool for learning to large groups of teachers I always detect a initial sense of awe and a frisson of excitement, quickly followed by a healthy dose of scepticism and even fear for some. I think the vast majority of teachers see it as a potentially useful tool for teaching and learning, but perhaps too many still see it as something of a glorified word processor! What is crucial is that those teachers have the experience of going beyond the ‘gimmick factor’ to realise the potential of the iPad to transform conundrums which often confound us as teachers.

It is a helpful tool (in my view the most helpful ICT device by a mile), not a miracle cure – but any teacher who witnesses the motivation levels inspired by the iPad will experience how it can engage students in the challenging process of writing and much more. With its myriad of apps, the iPad can harness oral rehearsal like no other technology to aid the writing process. With its capacity to show students writing through the projector at any moment (Apple TV, Airplay or a variety of other apps), it becomes a powerful way to make formative assessment instantaneous for all; helping to make the craft of writing more easily visible, and with good teacher pedagogy, more understandable. With the capacity to make real ebooks the iPad can make the writing process feel more real and more valuable to our students – there is no better way to make students value the crucial skills of drafting and proof reading than to create the opportunity for a genuine audience and create products the look and feel professional.    

‘Didn’t we inspire great writers and great writing before the iPad, or other such ICT?’ Yes. ‘Can’t we motivate students to write for the sake of it – can’t outstanding pedagogy exist without the iPad tool.’ Yes, undoubtedly. We should aim for a state of play where students are highly motivated without a reliance on technology; where students develop the core skills of writing both with and without technology – and yes, we must continue to hone their skills with the humble pen and paper! However, we should not ignore the potential gains provided by tools like the iPad, whose multi-functionality provides a host of ways to improve teaching and learning for writing. The iPad, with it’s unmatched range of applications, and it’s reliability and quality, can provide a series of marginal gains that cumulatively can make a significant difference to the learning of students – with writing being a key skill that can be enhanced.

It is about the pedagogy stupid!’ 

Any teacher who has used the iPad with students will know the x-factor it provides (nothing to do with the awful Simon Cowell product I assure you!) – the initial oohs and ahhs and impressed looks; the endless excited questions about it. Like anything, however, those initial awed impressions fade to a level of familiarity. That being said, the raised sense of motivation is palpable and never really goes away – remember, we are teaching ‘digital natives’ who have an expertise with technology (often beyond our own – something we should not fear, but instead harness) that makes them feel comfortable in their learning, often assuming the mantle of the expert unconsciously and with aplomb. When they begin to master the tool their confidence rises still further and they are more engaged than ever. Boys in particular, exhibit greater engagement and focus. One male GCSE student in my school reflected upon his learning with the iPad, stating: “I’m more likely to use technology – I’ll do more and work harder. It’s something different and new. I can make things look better and so I wouldn’t mind showing my work to the class then.” This young man is your archetypal disinterested boy, typically turned off by the process of writing, as he has formed a hardened sense of failure from an early age that is difficult to unpick. The technology gave him a sense of confidence and pleasure in writing that should not be underestimated – in fact, I view it as absolutely crucial to success.

Beyond the confidence and beyond the motivation levels of students is the use of the tool to enhance core teacher pedagogy. Why the iPad is the best technology, in my opinion, for students, is that is has such multi-functionality, such flexibility. Actually, the fact that it is keyboardless (you can purchase wireless keyboards of course) I perceive as a strength – as it removes the misnomer that technology for writing is simply a word processing tool. It can be that, but to transform and modernise and pedagogy it needs to be so much more.

 ‘The ‘How’ – ways in which the iPad can help improve student’s writing:

Oral rehearsal and recording: the iPad provides many applications that allow students to work both individually and collaboratively in rehearsing their writing – a crucial skill to support writing. For example, in devising a scheme for next year’s GCSE controlled assessment on writing a monologue, the students will work together on filming a monologue using iMovie. They will use the variety of camera shots and scene changes to build the narrative structure and sense of voice. They will edit the film, reflecting on the language choices, before showing it to the group to receive constructive criticism. The final process of writing up the monologue becomes cognitively clearer, the students have drafted without realising they have drafted! By using ExplainEverything, students can record their ideas, perhaps commentating on a text they have uploaded to the slide in the application, before they embark upon writing a conventional essay. They can play a presentation to the group and receive feedback on shaping what they have produced, giving then the constructive criticism they need to then write well.

Aiding the planning of writing: iPad has a legion of apps specifically for creative planning, such as Popplet, that are very useful tools. By using the likes of Notability, students can record their notes, save images, draw and be creative in their planning. Websites, such as Pinterest, or the Dropbox app, can be used to share planning, to access shared research or to engage in ‘flipped classroom’ learning. Again, the options are endless, but the teacher should hone their method to best suit their students. Apps like Comic Life can allow students to create comic book style plans for their narrative writing; Puppetpals can allow students to ‘play’ with interactions between characters, to practice speeches or debates in a fun and lively fashion.

Writing models: alongside using their own writing in the process of modelling, by using applications like Goodreader, or accessing documents from Dropbox, students can annotate upon almost any document imaginable! Classic skills of text marking can again be shared and made easily visible for all – the process can become shared, guided by the teacher or other students. Any annotation can be saved and stored, therefore making it accessible for future lessons, or even other groups of students. Although I have not used it, Google Documents can be utilised for creating shared documents and drafting writing across different devices – something I plan on researching soon. Annotation is an age old teaching strategy that isn’t new to any of us, but the iPad can take it up a level or three. The iPad is simply a tool to make the process of modelling and annotating more interactive, more easily visible and making any text more accessible.

Using the device and its applications as a stimulus for writing: I need not explain the potential use of the web or the YouTube app to aid wiring, only to say that it is fantastic to not have to book a computer room, or to organise and undertake the potted journey to the computer room to research the web, or to find some crucial gem of information that the students need for their writing! A range of stimuli for writing is there at the touch of a button – from the music library, the photograph library, iBooks, iTunes U etc. – the options are endless and all ready with easy and flexible access.

Formative assessment – unveiling the mysteries of the writing process: by using Apple TV, or applications like Airplay or Ideas Flight, it allows the teacher to stream the learning from any iPad in the room instantaneously – see Fig 1. Using Notability, students can write their ideas, perhaps a model paragraph or the opening of a narrative. The teacher can stream the writing and embark on questioning to support their writing, garner feedback from others and annotate directly onto the writing on the student’s iPad. The opportunities for guided writing and shared writing are obvious. The visibility of their writing becomes a powerful way to unveil the process of writing explicitly and with simple immediacy. Finally, taking a photograph of the written work of students is a great way to share their work and provide useful feedback for any given task.

What is clear is that the iPad has so many useful tools it can be almost be overawing, like a child flooded with excitement in a sweetshop! Each school or department needs to identify their priorities, harness their shared knowledge and learn together. You can use Twitter to find answers from their PLN (professional learning network) or the host of helpful YouTube video guides to help you through using the device as a teaching and learning tool. Our English and Media faculty have identified key teaching and learning strategies which will enhance our teaching and learning pedagogy – many in evidence above – that we will work together in honing. There will be elements of risk, there will be failures (technology has a habit of doing that at inopportune moments!), but the benefits outweigh the challenges. With some mastery, iPads can undoubtedly improve writing, providing marginal gains at every step of the writing process to result in better writing by our students.

FIG 1.