Live Lesson Obs: Making lesson observations formative : February 3, 2013
You can push and prod people into something better than mediocrity, but you have to encourage excellence.
We’ve all experienced the dread and agony of formal lesson observations, haven’t we? We’ve sweated blood over our preparations, filled in inch thick lesson plans and obsessed over meaningless details in our presentations. Or is that just me?
A while back now I read something (I forget exactly what) by Phil Beadle which went along the lines of “Be brilliant and they’ll forgive you anything.” This nugget has rattled around in my stony heart ever since with the result that I’ve started to relax somewhat when I’m observed. But, I’m still an obsessive by nature and find it hard to resist staying up late the night before ‘tweaking’.
For sometime now I’ve felt unhappy about the process of lesson observations. It’s widely accepted that giving students a grade for their work gets in the way of them acting on feedback and actually learning something; most schools even have ‘comment only’ marking policies to enforce this very thing. So, why do we insist on grading lesson observations? Doesn’t this prevent teachers from learning too?
I fully understand the pressure on a school to compile databases on its teachers’ effectiveness and am sanguine about the reality that we all exist somewhere on spreadsheets as 1s, 2s and 3s: it’s just a fact of our (somewhat truncated) professional lives. But while I accept the inevitability of grading, there’s a very real danger that there’s not much point to lesson observations other than to add to the already groaning burden of teachers’ accountability. Unless, that is, the observation is developmental.
I try to make all my observations developmental. Instead of trying to decide if what I’m observing is any good or not, I focus on how my feedback might result in the teacher improving their teaching, and, like the canine pets of Russian behavioural psychologists, improving their students’ learning. I work on the assumption that if teachers are waiting to find out what grade I think their lesson is they won’t hear very much else. And as soon as I’ve told them, they’re either too relieved or devastated for any kind of developmental conversation.
At Clevedon School we have a healthy balance of judgmental and developmental observations. Every single teacher in the school has received a judgement so far this year and our spreadsheet is duly updated and kept in readiness in the event that the inspector should call. Whilst no system can ever be perfect, we’ve put some real thought into how we can take some of the pain out of the process and make observations valuable development for all. concerned.
Firstly, we wanted to get rid of all the time hanging about after an observation waiting to find out the result. Of course every effort is always made to see the teacher with 24 hours but even when this does happen the situation is cold. The lesson has happened and any opportunity for learning is diminished by time and distance. The other stone we wanted to shake out of the observation shoe was the fact that while we had to make a summative judgement of some sort, could the process not be, at least in some way, formative?
The result of all this cogitation has been christened, the Live Lesson Obs. Here’s the paper work we use:
The idea is, and this is a bit out on a limb, that the observer should actually speak to the teacher. And vice versa. As an observer you would run your finger down the proffered dishes available for each of the given courses and select a prompt for a conversation to have with the teacher being observed. This has a number of real advantages:
1. There is an expectation that teachers have to let students get on with some work and give them strategies to cope constructively with being stuck.
2. As a teacher, you get to explain your thinking to the observer as the lesson progresses. You can explain why particular students are doing particular things and why you may be deviating from the lovingly crafted plan you’ve given them. In my case, I take the opportunity to explain exactly why what the students are doing makes the lesson outstanding. In the same way that Ofsted’s judgements on schools’ effectiveness often come down to whether the head teacher is more assertive than the lead inspector, a successful observation comes down to the teacher’s ability to articulate why the lesson has been designed as it has and to point just how students are making progress.
3. As an observer, you get to ask teachers why they have made particular decisions and (this bit’s my favourite part) you get to prompt them to make changes or suggest possible improves at the point of teaching. This makes the process truly formative. If I see something going wrong, I don’t have to just sit and watch as the train wreck unfolds; I can ask questions and offer advice that might improve students’ learning and the teacher’s teaching.
4. As the feedback takes place during the lesson, there’s no need to go through that anxious wait to find out what the observer thought: for better or worse, you know.
Maybe you worry that this sort of process may be open to the abuse of incompetent observers? To a degree, any system of observation depends on the skill and integrity of the observer but another part of our observation process is that the observer becomes the observed. We usually operate in triads where the discussions between teachers are made transparent. Of course mistakes may still be made, but this should minimise them.
This makes the whole process of observations feel more like it’s being done with teachers than to them. Teachers feel empowered by being able to explain their thinking and observers get to check out their judgements by asking the teacher if what they’re interpretation of what they’re seeing is accurate.
None of this is unique or particularly innovative, but the effect can be magical. We’re all agreed that improving the quality of teachers is the key to improving standards and this has helped to turn what is often merely a laborious way of monitoring into a system rooted in professional development and growth. Having experienced both in the fairly recent past, I’m unequivocal about which I prefer.
Anatomy of an outstanding lesson : January 22, 2013
Outstanding lessons are all alike; every unsatisfactory lesson is unsatisfactory in its own way.
Leo Tolstoy (and me)
It’s all very well writing a book called The Perfect Ofsted English Lesson, but it does rather set you up for a fall. People expect you to be able to bang out Grade 1 lessons to order. Anything less than outstanding would be a bitter disappointment. I’ve reflected a number of times that it must seem like the most appalling hubris to have written the damn thing; teaching a great lesson becomes a minimum requirement. Anything else and I am exposed as a fraud!
Now, I’ve always had high expectations of myself and on those occasions where my lessons have been judged to be less than outstanding I’ve indulged in recrimination and self doubt to the point of obsession. Being considered outstanding at what I do for a living is a matter of professional pride. It’s also a question of credibility; how can I expect to be taken seriously when observing others if I can’t cut the mustard myself?
So, to say there was some pressure to perform when my new Head asked if could observe my Year 11 class this morning is something of an understatement.
We’re currently studying Steinbeck’s classic, Of Mice and Men and in the previous lesson we looked at characterisation. I put the class into home/expert groups and used Question Formulation Technique to get them to generate questions about the various characters in the novel. After going through the process they ended up with a short list of 3 ‘good’ questions which we would revisit and refine today.
So, when planning the lesson I needed to show that students had made progress from that lesson to this. Here’s the plan based on my 2 minute lesson plan questions:
And here is the presentation I used:
I tweeted the plan the night before and had some wonderful marginal gains suggested which I duly implemented. I also worked out that in order to get the individual writing done there wouldn’t be time for students to select their own quotations form the text so I stuck a selection up around the room on what I call my ‘Stuck Stations’. These also contained a model response on Slim – a character they would not be writing about.
In order to build a bit of anticipation I pumped out Joan Jett’s Bad Reputation as students came in and directed their attention to the question on the board and nobbled a student, Arran, to let him know that he’d be leading the feedback on this task, They rose to the occasion magnificently and Arran chaired the discussion masterfully teasing out some fascinating insights on who would make the best prime minister. This gave me time to take the register and chat about the context of the lesson with the Head and the Subject Coordinator for English who were both observing. We use a system called Live Lesson Obs which requires observes to talk to the teacher and students about what’s happening during the lesson so I’d planned for plenty of opportunities to ensure this could take place seamlessly.
After a brief discussion about the learning outcome and what would be expected, I asked students to select 1 question from their shortlist which would enable them to meet the learning outcome. We then used the Deeper Questioning Grid to refine the question so that it was suitably challenging. This was the part of the lesson I was most pleased with and the students all wanted to push themselves to create the most challenging question. Also, it was really clear to see the progress they were making from the questions they’d come up with in the previous lesson.
At this point I got them to select a suitable quotation from those I’d prepared earlier and gave them 10 minutes to Zoom In and Out in response. I made a point of saying that I wanted them to take a risk and write something I would find surprising or interesting. Normally I’d write my response alongside the students but I wanted to keep myself free to monitor what they were doing and talk to the observers about what was going on. I overheard the Head say how much he was enjoying the lesson: always a good sign!
As they were finishing off their answers I gave out highlighters and asked them to make sure they had CSPed their work. My maxim is: if it’s not proofread, it’s not finished. This done, I got them to highlight where they had taken a risk or written something they were particularly proud of. Then they explained how their work met the learning outcome before swapping with a partner for some quick peer assessment.
Here’s a couple of examples of their work:
I knew it had gone well because I’d seen some fantastic work and felt that many of the students in the class had managed to finally get their heads round evaluating the writer’s intentions. And sometimes you just know: everyone was smiling and felt good about what they’d accomplished.
I toddled off for some feedback at break and was delighted (and not a little relieved) to find the Head agreed. Outstanding across the board: nailed it!
So, what was the secret of success? Well, although I spent longer planning than usual I didn’t obsess too much and certainly didn’t waste time creating silly one off resources. There were two main factors that contributed:
1. The effort I’ve put into marking and giving quality feedback which I’ve insisted students act on and given them dedicated time to do it.
2. The quality of the relationship I have with the class and the fact that I have sky high expectations for them.
All the techniques and strategies used can be found in the following posts:
Building anticipation… How to get kids to look forward to your lessons without dumbing down
Building resilience: Sir, I’m stuck! tips on motivation & independence
Developing oracy: it’s talkin’ time! Strategies for improving the quality of teacher talk & students’ questioning
How to get students to value writing - the importance of proofreading
Building challenge: differentiation that’s quick and works : January 19, 2013
Since having a good long think about differentiation some while back it doesn’t keep me up at nights nearly as much as it used to. But this is still one of my most visited posts so clearly other folks continue to be troubled. I want to set out my stall early by saying that this is yet another of those troublesome topics which is far simpler than most teachers imagine. My bottom line is that mucking about with the ‘All Most Some’ approach to differentiation by outcome is the work of the Devil of Low Expectations, and is to be shunned.
Another question which I’ve been kicking around for a while is the difference between ‘task’ and ‘outcome’. Generally, we consider differentiating by outcome as charalatanism and the preserve of those too idle to plan. Differentiating by ‘task’ is virtuous and suggests we’ve been hard at work planning what each and every one of our little lovlies will be doing at every moment in our lessons.
The truth (certainly the truth as I see it) is elsewhere altogether. At my previous school teachers where obliged to record ‘learning objectives’ at the start of each lesson. This, I considered, was only right and proper. At my new school, we talk in terms of ‘learning outcomes’. Initially, I railed against this and thought it a distinction likely to result in teachers thinking about activities rather than learning. The scales fell from my eyes when I read here that we should think about lesson planning in terms of ‘learning’ so that ‘outcome’ ensuring that there is a simply explicable point which everyone involved can nod and subscribe to. We are learning X so that we can do Y. Not only has this streamlined my planning but it’s made thinking about differentiation easier too.
You will, no doubt, be delighted to hear that there are alternatives to much of the nonsense insisted on by poorly informed school leaders: the two ways I avocate approaching differentiation are:
1) Marking & feedback
2) Task design
The first is fairly straight forward. Students do work, I mark it with feedback that requires them to do (or re-do) something, and then they do it. Based on my knowledge of each individual I will have a good idea of what they’re capable or and whether the work they’ve handed in demonstrates progress. I would aim to mark a class’s books regularly enough that at least 1 out of every 4 lessons is spent acting on feedback. Not only does this mean that every student in the class has a uniquely differentiated lesson plan, it also means that I don’t have to fritter away my time planning ‘activities’ (shudder!) Marking, therefore, is an integral component of the 2 Minute Lesson Plan.
The second is a barrowload of low access (and effort), high impact tricks that I’ve cobbled together (pinched) over the past few years to force students to make choices. Task design is diametrically opposed to activities. Activities or keeping students busy, is high effort, low impact. Spending time carefully crafting what Jim Smith calls Fireworks Moments which look great but are over in minutes, or seconds, are an absolute waste of everyone’s time.
Here’s some examples of the kind of easy to plan, challenging to complete tasks which should be part of every thinking teacher’s planning:
Students need to use their knowledge of George and Lennie, two characters from Steinbeck’s classic (and English teachers’ perennial staple) Of Mice and Men to make a decision. This task can be accessed at the level of “I’d be a bit scared of Lennie trying to stroke me” or at the level of analytical and evaluative comment. The choices they make and how they articulate them are, of course, based on their ability.
Here’s another one:
This is a little more demanding as the characters come from different texts and also ask students to consider something outside their every day experience. But, they’re both women, both characters in Shakespeare plays and as such have enough similarities to make the question accesible.
These questions can be used as a springboard for some oracy development using thought stems or as a prompt for a piece of analytical writing, but the act of having to make and explain a choice will allow students of differing abilities to come up with different kinds of responses. If I want to increase the challenge, all I need to do is either decrease the similarity between the choices or add more items to chose from.
Here’s another idea:
I love getting students to compare things. Not only does it crop up a lot as an assessment objective in the English curriculum but it is the single best way I know for teaching a concept. In the past I’ve tried and failed to use Venn Diagrams (NB: Venns still have their uses) to help students see the similarities and differences between things but Comparison Alley is a much more user friendly tool. I was introduced to the idea by the prodigiously talented Darren Mead and have not looked back since. The advantage is that I’m no long trying to squash all my similarities into the tiny space between the intersecting circles of a Venn. In the example above students summon up all the stuff they know about these two poems and then organise it visually. This act of organisation helps students to focus on the relationships between the things they know and provides a foundation for them to begin the process of analysing these comparisons.
Here’s one of my favourite Comparisons Alleys:
This is a great way for students to analyse metaphors. They get to see the unique properties and the overlaps between the source and the target. In this case ‘thee’ and a ‘Summer’s day’. Obviously this needs some contextualising; the knowledge that a Summer’s day is a bit sweaty and plagued by wasps might not shed new and interesting on Shakespeare’s intentions in using this metaphor to describe the object of his affections. Again, the quality of students’ responses is not dependent on their ability to access the task but on the quality of what they already know and understand.
Another favourite technique for getting students to organise their knowledge in interesting ways is Six Degrees of Separation (this time purloined from Zoë Elder.) The challenge is to be able to come up with a logical sequence between one idea and another.
This example is pretty easy as both the start and end point have been determined. Also we’re just trying to get from one concrete noun to another. This becomes much more challenging when we produce something like this:
1. Get students to select an aspect of the topic you’ve been covering.
2. Show them some sort of stimulus – a picture, a film, a piece of music, or whatever
3. Get from the stimulus to their topic in 6 steps. Or, if you want to make it harder, 7. Or 13.
The point to all this is that students are not only recalling what they know about a topic, they’re also having to sequence this knowledge and having to think about cause and effect. You can easily differentiate by putting in check points which careful selected individuals have to include such as, at step 4 must be The Battle of Hastings, or step 3 must be oxidisation. Think carefully about whether providing these check points is increase support or adds challenge. You can also provide keywords which need to be included or (cue evil laugh) avoided!
My last offering in this post is another gift from Darren Mead which ne calls Before Before After After. Here’s an example*;
In this case, you could ask students to describe what they can see now. This is simple. All that’s required is identifying what’s there. Equally, you could use a written text, a diagram, a film clip or a page of statistics for this exercise.
Next, ask students to shift their focus to Before.
What might this picture have been like if it had been taken 5 years before? Now students have having to rely on their wider knowledge and apply it to what they identified as taking place now. In the case of a story, how might it be different if it were set 5 years earlier? And then? Ask them to speculate what it might be like in 100 years time? Now they’re having to bring together all kinds of knowledge to hypothesise about possibilites and probabilities.
And finally, I like to share an idea developed by Lisa Ashes which she called Question Squares:
Apologies to mathematicians; clearly these are not squares. However, they do promote thinking and get students to expand out their ideas from What, through How, to Why. If you want to increase challenge and give yourself an easy life (and who doesn’t?) simply give the topic title and and ask students to record What they know, How it connects, and Why it’s important.
The effectiveness of all of these ideas depend on the quality of questions you ask. The way we design tasks is essential if we are to allow students to work with content knowledge in increasingly complex ways. Just simply covering the course is not only ineffective, it’s irresponsible.
So, could differentiating be as simple as planning the questions being asked, giving feedback on the results and then providing time and space for the feedback to be acted on? Yes, I think it is.
* In case you’re interested, the picture is of Migingo Island on Lake Victoria and was found on Guardian Eyewitness.
The observant amongst you may have noticed that all of the above are ways of structuring SOLO HOT maps without having to bother with fiddly bits of paper. Shhh! Don’t tell anyone.
Effective group work : January 12, 2013
OK. I have 3 points to make:
1. Group work does not make us more creative and it does not make us work harder.
2. Learning is social and effective group work (apparently) doubles the speed of students’ learning.
3. Almost all teaching in schools depends on a teacher’s ability to create effective groups because, wait for it, classes are just large groups.
Let’s deal with each of these in a bit more detail.
Firstly, as I’ve discussed before, when we try to work together to work towards a collective goal we get, what is known as the Ringelmann Effect. This means that in a group each member believes that every other member is doing the hard work. This makes us feel that we can take it easy because our lack of effort will not be exposed. The argument here is that working in a group is ineffective because everybody slacks off. The alternative is, I suppose, that we each individually try to build our own Statue of Liberty or Great Wall of China?
There is also the argument that group brainstorming makes us less creative as it actually limits our capacity to come up with interesting ideas. There’s lots of research on this and it certainly seems compelling. But there’s a certain amount of common sense that we need to apply here. We’ve all encountered students who struggle to answer questions and come up with ideas. Left to their own devices they sit, head on desk in an expanding pool of drool. We all know, that simply getting them to discuss some possibilities with the student sitting next to them will be sufficient to jolly them along. Maybe they haven’t become more creative – maybe this just gives them less of an excuse for doing nothing? Who cares: it gets them working. I’m sure we can all cite thousands of examples from our own lives of occasions when a simple conversation with a friend or colleague opened up new possibilities or pointed us in previously unexplored directions. Conclusion: when research findings run counter to experience we need to be suspicious.
So, if we accept that while group brainstorming may not be all it’s cracked up to be but that talking to people about our ideas is hugely important then we should be well on our way to accepting that learning is essentially social. Yes, of course, we can learn by ourselves: from written texts. Which someone else has written. It’s not too great a stretch to agree that the acts of reading and writing are essentially similar to the acts of speaking and listening and that reading is another way to have a conversation. Anyway, that’s all rather beside the point.
Dylan Wiliam says that effective group work requires two ingredients: collaborative goals and individual accountability. If we have one without the other then the group work will not be effective. Teachers are generally good at creating group work where the first condition is met but less good in ensuring accountability. Wiliam points out that selecting a student to report back to the class before the work is finished is a bad error. It means that only one group member is accountable and that everyone else can muck about. If, however, you don’t say who will be reporting until after the task is completed everybody is on their toes. Here he is in his own words:
The shock horror moment for me is at the end where he concludes that jigsawing is ineffective because it doesn’t meet these two conditions. Now, I have no idea how Dylan has approached jigsawing during his 8 years of teaching but I’m guessing it was nothing like my approach. Maybe there’s a semantic issue here but what he calls jigsawing is what I call Home/Expert groups and this is, as I’ve said before, the Ultimate Teaching Technique. What makes it so effective is that it is focussed so tightly on ensuring individual accountability; if you haven’t worked as part of your expert group you will be publicly exposed as a lazy toe rag when you return to your home group. For some other techniques for creating effective group work have a look at Alex Quigley’s Top 10 Group work strategies.
Although he mentions Robert Slavin, Wiliam doesn’t clearly cite his evidence for the claim that effective group work doubles the speed of students’ learning but I’d be very interested to see the research.
My third and final point on the efficacy of group work is the rather obvious observation that all teaching is group work. Classes are groups and our goal is, surely, for these groups to work. When teachers (and students) rail against group work what they’re objecting to is small groups within the larger group working on some extended task. My point is this: your objections to group work come down solely, it would seem, to the size of the group you are working with. A class of 30 individuals working in silence on a controlled assessment is still a group and a teacher will have had to work hard to create the conditions for the individuals in that group to work effectively. The collaborative goal (that the group is functional) maybe be fairly loose, but this is still a goal which requires the collaboration of all within the group. We have all had the experience of ‘bad’ groups and dread, say, Year 9 on a Friday afternoon. This is because we are, mistakenly, prioritising individual accountability over collaborative goals. The collaboration must be adressed before any work can be done. Failure to deal with poor behaviour for learning will mean that you will preside over a horribly stressful situation for everyone involved.
Yes, of course bad group work is bad. But all sorts of wonderful things can be screwed by the incompetent or the ignorant. The point has to be that unless we try to be better at designing effective groupwork we are doing our students and society a isservice.
And to finish; watch this lovely piece of film and ask yourself what else would be impossible without group work.
Developing oracy: it’s talkin’ time! : December 29, 2012
Talk is the sea upon which all else floats
~ James Britton, Language and Learning, 1970
Students spend a lot of talking, don’t they? Everyone can speak, so why would we want to waste valuable time teaching them to do it? Well, while all this is undoubtedly true, many students don’t speak well. This is, I hasten to add, not the same as being well spoken.
As teachers we’re pretty leary of the idea of talking in lessons. Teacher talk has got itself a very bad name. But in the best examples of talk lead lessons, teacher talk is generously interspersed with questions (both to and from the teacher) and with structured student talking.
The concept of ‘oracy’ has been with us since 1965, when researcher Andrew Wilkinson coined it in an attempt to escape the woolliness of ‘speaking and listening’ and give parity with the more respected terms ‘literacy’ and ‘numeracy’. Speaking & listening has long been the poor relation in the English order of study and is often neglected across the curriculum.
Head teacher and literacy guru, Geoff Barton has been urging us to get away from the idea of teaching literacy and instead literacy as an integral component of teaching and learning. No where is this more important then in the teaching or oracy. It’s impossible to fully separate the pedagogical process of using talk to teach and teaching talk. We all use talk to teach every lesson: we either do so in a way which models high standards of oracy, or we don’t. Which are you?
Cambridge professor, Robin Alexander sees talk as “essential to children’s thinking and learning, and to their productive engagement in classroom life” and cites evidence from “over 20 major international studies” that make it clear that the quality of talk within classrooms raises standards. Nuff said.
This being the case, Alexander argues that we need to do some work with teachers to improve the quality of their talk before we can hope to improve the quality of students’ talk. He identifies six distinct functions of talk (for thinking, learning, communicating, democratic engagement, teaching and assessing) and advocates strategies for developing each discreetly.
In a presentation to the DfE Alexander said:
One of the reasons why talk is undervalued in British education is that there is a tendency to see its function as primarily social, as mainly about the acquisition of confidence in the business of communicating with others. Of course, confidence is a precondition for articulating ideas in front of others, but so too is the acquisition of ideas to articulate, so confidence cannot be pursued in isolation. We all know people who talk rubbish with supreme confidence! Yet note that most of the attainment target levels for Speaking and Listening in the current National Curriculum orders for English make heavy and repeated use of the words ‘confident’, ‘confidently’ and ‘carefully’: ‘pupils talk confidently … pupils listen carefully’. These repeated social or behavioural modifiers say nothing about the structure, content, quality or manner of talk, and indeed they deflect attention away from such attributes. But as psychologists, neuroscientists, anthropologists and classroom researchers have long understood, the function of talk in classrooms is cognitive and cultural as well as social.
Because of this narrow understanding of speech ‘primarily social’, we are often reluctant to do more than gently facilitate the development of students’ oracy; after all what business do we have in asserting that our speech is better than theirs? This squeamishness is endemic in our education system. Teachers pussyfoot around students’ inability to articulate clearly or precisely out of some misguided belief that they don’t want to crush their individuality. However, as in any other area, if we want to improve our students’ skills we need to actively intervene and accelerate their development.
This is, of course, not without problems. In most other subjects, teachers need to be merely good at teaching in order for students to make progress. For instance, we can use high quality texts to model the skills required to be a great writer without ever having to write ourselves. But, because of the interactive nature of talk, teachers need to be highly skilled speakers in order to develop the oral competence of their students.
So, what to do?
At my school we will be addressing two strands for actively intervening in the development of oracy next term. They are questioning and talk for writing
Firstly, we will focus on escaping the shackles of recitation or Initiation Response Evaluation (IRE) questioning. IRE goes like this:
Teacher: What is the chemical symbol for Oxygen?
Teacher: Well done.
While this kind of ‘guess what’s in the teacher’s head’ questioning has it’s place in assessing what a student has memorised, it’s not at all useful for getting them to think. Instead, we need questioning that ‘requires students to think, not just to report someone else’s thinking.’ (Martin Nystrand)
To that end, questions should have clear and specific purposes such as to clarify (what did you mean by that?), probe (can you tell me more about that?) and recommend (which answer do you think is best?). Another problem with IRE is that once the teacher has selected a victim, everyone else in the room can relax: they’re safe from further interrogation until the teacher has evaluated (well done) their stooge’s response. If instead students are expected to evaluate their classmate’s responses by bouncing questions around the class expectations for participation are that much higher. Now questioning might look like this:
Teacher: With your partner, discuss what you know about Oxygen. (suitable pause) Dan, what do you know about Oxygen?
Dan: O is the chemical symbol for Oxygen.
Teacher: Emma, is he right?
Emma: Er… yes?
Teacher: What else do you know about Oxygen?
Emma: You breathe it.
Teacher: Sam, which of those answers do you think is the most interesting?
Now, at this point students are often very good at snookering with the classic, ‘I don’t know’ gambit. The appropriate riposte to this is to say something along the lines of, “I know you don’t know – I’m asking what you think.” At this point we need to stand firm and make sure that they do think. You could hover over them and stress them or you could give them some discussion time. Either way, as long as you’re clear why you’re asking the questions and let go of the need for ‘right’ answers, all will be well.
Here’s a very useful question grid to help you plan how you’re using questions as well as getting students to design their own questions:
The second focus is on talk for writing. We’ve all met those frustrating students who can verbalise fabulous ideas but as soon as they pick up a pen their mind goes blank. “I don’t know how to start!” they wail disconsolately. “Just write down what you said a moment ago,” we urge them, but to no avail. You see, if they could write down what they’d said, they would have done it. The problem is that they can’t. The thought processes we use for speech and writing are not the same. Try analysing spoken language sometime; its garbled nature can be fascinating.
When students speak they don’t consider the structure of what they’re saying. Often it isn’t in sentences and they are quite literally unable to organise it into anything coherent enough to remember, let alone write down. I use what I call Thought Stems to force students to focus on how not just what they’re saying.
Here’s some examples specific to English:
So instead of the insipid, unfocussed open questions and pointlessly meandering, conversational verbiage into teacher lead discussion often descends, students are required to think using academic language. They are forced to turn the unformed maelstrom of ideas into something which has structure and, crucially, which they can remember well enough to write down.
In a department meeting at Clevedon School we came up with some more excellent techniques for improving students’ speech. They include:
- Getting students to work together to design their own thought stems using mark schemes to find key command words
- Student lead feedback – make students lead feedback and discussions. Some students are naturally very good at this but the less confident could lead sessions in pairs or use prompt sheets
- Paired writing – encourage students to discuss language and sentence choices at the point of writing
- Listening triads – to held students focus on how they speak not just what they say get 2 students to discuss a question and the third to record their conversation – this can result in some surprising revelations for students
- Value listening by asking students to feedback what they’ve heard rather than what they’ve said in a discussion.
All this is only the tip of the oracy iceberg. As with my previous posts on reading and writing, this isn’t easy, but it is simple: improve the way you ask questions and make students frame answers in academic language. There’s loads more that can be done but this is a start that all teachers can begin the process of embedding into the practice.
Be warned: students don’t enjoy being forced to respond in these ways and it takes a deal of determination to push through the pain barrier, But if you explain why you’re doing it and persevere in face of their pain, your efforts to model high quality talk will start to bear fruit and standards (including those all important exams) will improve.
Is there a right way to teach? : November 24, 2012
It’s become a trite and hackneyed truism that if they’re not learning you’re just talking. We’re all clear that teaching only happens when the little tinkers manage to make some sort of progress – preferably that of the rapid and sustained variety. But this simple truth, like so many others, seems to have been systematically and catastrophically misunderstood by many school leaders and inspectors.
Until recently it was universally accepted that the key to a good lesson observation was showing that pupils are making progress in the 25 minutes available to us, and that the only way we could demonstrate this progress was by shutting the hell up and letting the kids do some work. If a teacher was observed speaking to the whole class they’d be exposed as being a bit rubbish and fast tracked on to the capability process.
But is this right? Surely sometimes we need to stand at the front and indulge our passion for a spot of whole class teaching? I mean, c’mon, we all do it, don’t we? We just pretend we don’t. When the inspector comes a calling we fall into line and do the Ofsted monkey dance just to ensure we’re not on the SLT hit list.
Well happily, Ofsted boss Sir Michael Wilshaw recently said in a speech to the RSA that, “Ofsted should be wary of trying to prescribe a particular style of teaching, whether it be a three part lesson; an insistence that there should be a balance between teacher led activities and independent learning, or that the lesson should start with aims and objectives with a plenary at the end.” He then went on to describe the methods employed by an outstanding maths teacher at his old stamping ground, Mossbourne Academy who, as far as I could work out was one of those old fuddy-duddies who believes in actually teaching students rather than in just putting on a show.
Clearly, this doesn’t mean that we should stand at the front droning on endlessly whilst expecting students to pluck peals of desiccated wisdom from our parched lips. For anyone feeling confused, please note: this is still a crap thing to do. Lecturing is emphatically not the same as direct instruction. It’s just that effective whole class teaching requires you, as the most knowledgeable person in the room, to say stuff. Telling kids what’s right and wrong is more efficient and less likely to result in confusion than letting them fumble around in complete ignorance for lesson after lesson.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m all for a spot of constructivism. I love students working collaboratively in carefully constructed groups on carefully constructed challenges that allow them to deepen their understanding of a topic by getting the hands dirty with the filthy stuff of learning. But I swear that I will throttle the next person to gleefully and unoriginally pronounce that they would rather be a “guide on the side rather than the sage on the stage.” Really? I’d rather teach.
When I began my career, direct instruction was all the rage. As a young teacher I was exhorted to share objectives, provide exemplars, model tasks, provide success criteria and then let the students get on with it. At the end of the lesson, said objectives would be reviewed, future planning would be informed and everyone would go home happy, safe in the knowledge that they were able to do something new or better. This was what we used to call the three-part lesson: starter, main course and pudding. I remember my excitement the first time I wrote an objective on the board and students gazed in bewildered wonder at this mysterious collection of words. Boy was I cutting edge! The old lags shook their heads and muttered about this new fangled nonsense never catching on before pulling on their faded corduroy jackets and shambling into their classrooms.
Education super boff, Professor John Hattie has found that after formative assessment, direct instruction has the greatest effect size of all teacher interventions. So why has it become so unfashionable? At some point over the last ten to fifteen years, its reputation has become so tarnished that it’s considered by many to be not just passé, but actively bad for kids.
In 2008 I was observed teaching in the way I had always understood to be outstanding. I did everything I’d been previously been praised for and turned out what I considered to be a first rate lesson. Students took part in a discussion and, down to the way we analysed the mark scheme at the beginning of the lesson, demonstrated a superb ability to build on and challenge the points they heard in a way which developed the issues and supported each other to make a significant contribution to the debate. The inspector wandered out after 20 minutes and wandered back at break time to tell me the lesson was satisfactory due, solely, to the length of time I had spent speaking. To say that this knocked my confidence would be somewhat of an understatement.
I get that things move on. I really do. In my quest to be the best teacher I can be I’ve embraced progressive teaching methods whole-heartedly and am, largely, a convert to the cause. I’m happy to admit that I’m almost certainly a better teacher for being forced to re-evaluate my practice, but insisting that teaching from the front somehow prevents students from making progress seems to fly in the face of all available evidence.
A generation of teachers have waltzed through their early careers believing that speaking for more than five minutes is the height of unprofessionalism. There’s certainly a time and a place for students to experience those joyful eureka moments when they discover new knowledge for themselves, but sometimes it’s just more efficient to acknowledge that you’re the expert in the room and that it would be in everyone’s interest to take on board the stuff you’ve learned at great taxpayer expense.
And I’m not the only one to think so. Hattie asserts that teachers are “indoctrinated with the mantra ‘constructivism good, direct instruction bad’” and suggests the reason for this antipathy might be due to its conflation with didactic teaching. He describes it thus: “The teacher decides the learning intentions and success criteria, makes them transparent to the students, demonstrates them by modelling, evaluates if they understand what they have been told by checking for understanding, and re-telling them what they have told by tying it all together with closure.” There’s surely not much we can find to rail against here is there?
Now, we might not want to teach this way every lesson but this is, perhaps, the most efficient method of transmitting knowledge to youngsters. The bottom line is that teaching like this will considerably increase students’ chances of passing those pesky GCSEs.
I’m happy to agree that passing exams is not the be all and end all of education and that there are all sorts of other things we should be doing other than getting kids to pass exams, but it’s a relief to hear that Ofsted are no longer telling us that there is only one right way to teach. Maybe eventually that message will filter into schools and teachers will be trusted to teach in the way they judge most effective.
In the meantime, I’d advise stapling a copies of Wilshaw’s speech & Hattie’s research to your lesson plan the next time you’re observed by someone you suspect of not knowing their backside from a hole in the ground. That should stump ‘em.
Go with the flow: the 2 minute lesson plan : November 17, 2012
Like all teachers, my main aim in life is to run, whooping, out of the school gates by 3 o’clock. My time is therefore precious and I can’t be wasting it mucking about planning lessons. Fortunately for us skiving scoundrels, SMW recently told us that as far as Ofsted are concerned there is no need for lesson plans. As long as lessons are planned.
These are my two guiding principles for lesson planning:
- Focus on learning not activities
So, how’s this for a minimalist approach to lesson planning? Just answer the following questions, and then try to ‘break’ the plan:
1. What did students learn last lesson and how will it relate to this lesson?
2. Which students do you need to consider in this particular lesson?
3. What will students do the moment they arrive?
4. What do you want students to learn and what activities will they undertake in order to learn it?
5. How will you (and they) know if they have made progress?
By breaking the plan I mean that you should conduct a thought experiment where you anticipate everything that could go wrong and consider your response. A bit like a risk assessment.
The only other consideration I will typically indulge in is whether the plan is likely to produce ‘flow’. Basically, is the level of challenge complemented by the level of support? Here’s my handy visual for mapping flow based on the ideas from Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi‘s book. The theory is that if lessons are high challenge/low stress students will be more likely to enter the mystical state where time flies, they become utterly absorbed in their work and ideas just, er… well, flow.
I have the diagram above up in my room and regularly ‘take the temperature’ of a lesson by asking students to place themselves on the graph. This gives me valuable information about whether I need to raise or lower the stress or challenge of a particular activity. Invaluable.
But can you really do all this in two minutes? No. Of course you can’t. Certainly not from scratch.This was a bit of a childish response to Ross McGill’s rather nifty 5 minute lesson plan which you can download from the TES here. And I have adapted (shamelessly pinched) the ideas for this quickfire approach to planning from John Tomsett’s marvellous Lesson Progress Map which can be found here.
I do, however, believe that teachers often spend too much time on lesson planning, and that marking is generally a better use of time. In fact I’d argue that marking (if done well) is planning. If you’ve thought carefully about your medium term plan and have a clear overview on where students are supposed to get to, marking their books provides all the input I need to plan purposeful lessons.
It’s worth bearing in mind that most of the time we spend planning gets wasted thinking about Question 4. You can save yourself a lot of frustration and get some elegantly simple ideas by using something like the Learning Event Generator.
In any given week I’ll sometimes spend a disproportionate time planning one or two lessons but most will be put together in no more than 5 minutes. My formula tends to be that if every fourth lesson for every class is a corker, all will be well. Using a checklist like the one above could help us streamline the process of preparing lessons and free up more time for formative assessment. Or having a life.
Anyway, give it whirl; see what you think.
Total Teaching: every lesson is group work : October 27, 2012
It’s no secret that I think children learn best in groups. I’ve argued back and forth with sundry opponents who claim that group work is variously inefficient, pointless or too hard to do and have (to mind my mind at least) matched them stroke for stroke with no quarter given on either side. It seems that one of the main objections to group work is that it has in some way a constructivist, anti-knowledge agenda, and who knows? Maybe in some teachers’ minds it does. But for me, children working in groups is the most efficient, practical and successful way to impart knowledge. You doubt me? Then I’m guessing you haven’t tried The Ultimate Teaching Technique.
Oh, you have? It didn’t work? No matter. Try again. Fail better.
Whatever. The purpose of this post is not to rehash old arguments or retread well-trodden teaching tropes. No, my aim is to share a revelation I had during an INSET session yesterday. The speaker was sharing Alan McLean’s idea of the 3As needed to create what he calls the Motivated School: Affiliation (how much do you belong?), Agency (how much can/will you do yourself?) and Autonomy (to what extent are you controlling your learning journey?) For more on this please peruse Zoë Elder’s magnificent Marginal Learning Gains site.
I was particularly taken with the ideas for creating affiliation with classes. We’ve all had ‘great’ classes where the children will eat from the palms of our hands and turn educational cartwheels on request. Likewise, we’ve all suffered the sink group: that dysfunctional bunch who struggle to sit in a chair without battering each other about the head and neck and speculating about the sexual proclivities of their mothers. The thought of ‘doing’ groupwork with such children is off-putting to say the least. And then it hit me: regardless of how we choose to teach, all classes are groups and therefore all teaching is group work. Any attempt to deny or ignore this simple truth is at best benignly burying your head in your own ideological sand, but is more likely to be a sure fire way to cock up each and every lesson with that ‘tricky’ group in an increasingly spectacular fashion.
Maybe, I thought in a delirium of end of term tiredness, teaching should somehow embody the philosophy of the Dutch football team circa 1972. Total Football was about (and forgive my shaky gasp of sports metaphors) every player being technically proficient enough to play in any position on the pitch. What if every teacher approached every lesson and every class with the understanding that, what ever else they were planning to do, teaching is de facto group work: Total Groupwork (or Total Teaching?)
Maybe this observation seems banal. Maybe it is banal, but it got me thinking thusly: effective group work takes planning and preparation to ensure its success. Whereas it may appear, at least to the untrained eye, that a charismatic teacher can command a room’s attention with little more than a sketchy knowledge of the curriculum and few well chosen words. But even here we’re only seeing the tip of the teaching iceberg.
This is particularly apposite in light of the Baron Wilshaw von Ofsted’s recent speech to the RSA where he stated that inspectors, “should be wary of trying to prescribe a particular style of teaching, whether it be a three part lesson; an insistence that there should be a balance between teacher led activities and independent learning, or that the lesson should start with aims and objectives with a plenary at the end and so on and so forth.” In fact he went so far as to endorse a ‘didactic style’ of teaching if it works. “What works,” he said, is, “what’s good.”
Lecturing effectively requires as much skill and hard work as any other approach to teaching, it’s just that the effort often seems invisible – sometimes even to the teacher themselves. You see, this style of teaching will only work with a ‘good’ group. I don’t care who you are; if you pitch up in front of group of south London teenagers they are unlikely to hang on your every word; chances are they’re not going to learn much from you. Why? Because of a lack of affiliation. A lack of trust and belonging. Where this doesn’t exist, teaching is impossible. Trust is a prerequisite for any academic progress to be made. So, what is it that makes a good group?
Before we discuss that, let’s briefly have a look at its nemesis, the ‘bad’ group. Old Andrew deftly describes how bad groups are created here. He says, “When you believe that behaviour results from your negative disposition you can create a cycle of personal destruction. A class will be unpleasant to you. You will become upset. You will blame yourself for becoming upset. You will focus on changing your behaviour not the class’s. They will see that you will not stand up for yourself, and your attempts to but a brave face on being mistreated will be seen as weakness. They will behave worse. Lesson by lesson it will get worse, and no matter how positive you are they will behave worse and hate you more.” True enough.
The obvious answer is not, contrary to much misguided advice given to poor, benighted NQTs, to simply plan wonderful, engaging lessons (although this clearly helps) it is to be an absolute fascist about rules and consequences. I was recently observed teaching a ‘good’ group by an NQT and was staggered by the insight of his feedback. He said in an email to me, “you have a Zen Buddhist attitude – calm and relaxed, but you can feel that if students mess with you they will see a storm.” Quite right. As an experienced teacher, even though I started a new school this year, the kids I teach have a certain amount of trust for me. They work out very quickly that I will hold them account for their behaviour, but that if a certain level of compliance is achieved we can move very quickly into building relationships which promotes the kind of behaviour for learning which we are expected to show case in our lessons.
Enough of digression and self-congratulation. My point is that however much I might value behaviour for learning I am also a stickler. The most effective first step in creating affiliation in your classroom is having clear rules and expectations. When everyone understands these rules and accepts you as the authority figure in your classroom then you can relax a bit.
Zoë Elder (author of the wonderful and beautiful Full on Learning) recently talked to me about the balance needed between relationships and communication. She says that although negative communication can destroy relationships, if the communication does not allow for criticism to be heard then the relationships will overwhelm the teachers’ ability to teach. Equally, the communication must be right in order for functional relationships to develop. This is what goes wrong for all those well-meaning NQTs whose struggles and suffering we read about on the TES forums: their desperate attempts to do the right thing and please their students is sadly self destructive.
To create a climate in which effective group work (teaching) can occur I suggest the following steps:
1. Lay out minimal expectations that every student must conform to
Rules are your friend. But following rules blindly can be difficult so start by explaining why you’re a fascist about trainers (or whatever). You must insist that every student follows the school’s rules on uniform, mobile phones, chewing gum etc. Failure to do so will not only undermine all your colleagues but will also mark you out as a soft touch. This should also include a seating plan from which you do not deviate no matter the pressure. If you are defied on any of these things you must make a stand, even if it ruins your carefully crafted lesson. Follow up on whatever consequences you set out: once they get the idea that you won’t do what you’ve said you’ll do you’re finished. If you work in a half way decent school you will be supported in these endeavours. If you don’t, either find some allies or get out as quickly as you can!
2. Be a human being
Stay calm and on message until they start to comply; it will get better. Kids are inherently funny so laugh at their jokes and at yourself. You need to find reasons to like them. Pretend that every group is your favourite group and it will start to come true. Once the rules are established you can do away with most of ‘em and concentrate on teaching with all the flair and verve you possess.
3. Have massively high expectations
I try to teach every student as if I believe they can get an A*. Obviously this boundless optimism needs to be tempered by reality but if they don’t achieve I’m disappointed with myself. I certainly don’t mean that you should let the less able flail – this is where creating agency comes in. If you believe kids can achieve the highest standards they’ll surprise themselves. Ron Berger says that if a student’s work isn’t perfect it isn’t finished yet.
4. Give them a choice
Not about everything and not all the time but allowing students an element of autonomy helps students feel that they’re in control. I like the idea of allowing students to choose at least one of the following; the task (a bit radical), who they work with, how much time they have, or what the outcome will look like. Like the best restaurants, a limited choice is best. An overly extensive menu creates crippling indecision but list of two or three interesting choices is perfect.
5. Be consistent
This is the tough bit. The day to day grind of a teacher’s work load would be daunting to the likes of Sysiphus. The good news is that doing all this most of the time of is enough. If students are used to you checking their uniform, you won’t have to: they’ll just do it. If students are used to you marking their books, you can afford to miss a week or two at the end of term when you’re feeling tired. If students are used to you delivering interesting lessons they’ll forgive you the occasional lapse. In fact, if you can offer them a ratio of 1 excellent lesson for every three standards ones they’ll be pretty chuffed.
And there you have it: a sane, rational argument for Total Teaching.
Knowledge is power : October 21, 2012
I’ve been having a bit of think this week.
Firstly I read Daisy Christodoulou’s post on Hirsch’s Core Knowledge curriculum. She points out that Hirsch, oft-condemned for being the darling of ideologues like Mickey Gove is, in his own words ‘a quasi socialist’ and big mates with Diane Ravitch (who is nobody’s fool.)
Then I listened to the hugely entertaining Jonathan Lear give an excellent presentation at Independent Thinking’s Big Day Out in Bristol on Friday and like any speaker worth their salt he got me thinking. His point, if I may make so bold as to attempt a precis, is that we limit children’s learning if we set out to teach them a concept in a clear and focussed way. His rallying cry is… vagueness.
Like Jim Smith’s redefinition of ‘lazy’, Jonathan wants us to unpick and unpack the benefits of being ambiguous, a bit ill-defined and somewhat nebulous. Got it? He illustrated with the use of Little Miss Sunshine who, when both her hands were held, completed an electrical circuit and lit up. When this phenomenon is demonstrated to children, particularly primary school children, they want to know how. What on earth, they wonder, is going on? His point was that had he simply said, ‘right boys and girls, today we’re going to learn about electrical circuits,’ something would have been lost. The nascent curiosity of their young minds would have been, if not crushed, certainly restricted.
So far so good. I’m all for harnessing students’ curiosity and tricking them, á la Hywel Roberts, into learning accidentally. But then he asked us to consider why students seem to become less curious and excited about learning as they trudge their way through the education system. Is it, as Ken Robinson suggests that we teachers flatten it out of them with our dull, quotidian lessons and our soulless reliance on text books? Jonathan referenced a study of divergent thinking (The ability to interpret a question in many different ways and the ability to see many different answers to a question.) undertaken by NASA and used by SKR to make his point in Out of Their Minds. It goes a little something like this: Most people are able to come up with 10 to 15 uses for a paperclip. People who are good at divergent thinking would come up with around 200. Unfortunately, our capacity for divergent thinking deteriorates with age. This longitudinal study of kindergarten children measured 98% of them at genius level in divergent thinking. Five years later, when they were aged 8 to 10 years, those at genius level had dropped to 50%. After another five years, the number of divergent thinking geniuses had fallen further still. Robinson argues that the main intervention that these children have had is education, a conveyor-belt education that tells them that there is one answer at the back of the book but don’t look and don’t copy.
But is this really true? Have a look at this:
Correlation is not causation
Clearly, the decline in piracy is to blame for the problems we’re experiencing with climate change. Any right thinking human being can see that the only viable solution to the likely annihilation of the planet is to finance privateers to harry world shipping. Those pesky Somalians are actually doing us a favour.
Except, of course, that this is nonsense. It should be obvious that any link between piracy and global warming is the most arrant and wrongheaded pap. Correlation does not mean causation.
So, could Ken be equally wrong about what NASA’s data reveals? Could it not perhaps reveal that as we get older we dismiss the idea of a giant 50 foot paper clip as ridiculous. How could it ever be used to clip paper? And it would be hopeless for getting the battery out of your iPhone! The less we know, the wilder our misconceptions about the world. As we know more we restrict ourselves to the most likely solutions to problems because this is the most efficient way of using our brains. Our divergent thinking happens in microseconds allowing us to converge on sensible, useful solutions. Or maybe I’m wrong: maybe pirates did keep the temperature down.
And then Jonathan demonstrated the uselessness of teaching children knowledge by asking us to look up the date of Mozart’s birth. Predictably, an audience member was able to retrieve this information from the internet in a little over 5 seconds. You see? Why bother knowing anything – you can always look it up. Or, as ED Hirsch asks, can you? Now, I can’t speak for cognitive science but some things just make sense: the more you know, the easier it is to fit new concepts and information into your mental map. Hirsch makes the point that “Any teacher of science who fails to offer concrete experiences that manifest the feel and heft of things is missing a big opportunity for helping students gain conceptual insight. Any teacher of early math who doesn’t challenge students with real-world problems that require a translation back and forth between the physical world and the abstract relations of math is leaving out an essential element of good math teaching.” Or to put it another way, “The best teaching methods do not have to be coupled with an anti-fact or anti-academic mentality.”
The only way you can use the internet to substitute for learning knowledge is if you have massively low expectations. Try looking up this one : what would have happened if Mozart had been born in 1450? Or, Is Mozart better than Picasso? Why does the the Dies Irae movement of the “Requiem Mass in D Minor make me feel a bit tingly?
So, why can’t we bring together the awe and wonder of some of the marvellous progressive thinkers with a bit of old fashioned academic rigour? Why have the two come to be seem (from both sides of the gulf) as mutually exclusive? The current vogue for SOLO taxonomy is, in my mind, representative of this division. I gave a seminar at the Big Day Out (which after a conversation with Phil Beadle I wished I’d retitled as SOLO – shit or not?) which tried to bridge the divide. If you don’t believe in the fundamental importancve of knowledge then SOLO just ain’t gonna work! SOLO, more than anything else has got me to reconsider the importance of knowledge within our curriculum. In my haste to take students on a journey to becoming extended abstract thinkers I neglected to concentrate on the quality of what students knew. One of the delegates at Friday’s event pointed out that this taxonomy of educational outcomes while conceived to improve the quality of thinking at the post-graduate level is equally applicable to the National Curriculum levels of Key Stage 2. You would however hope that students had acquired a bit of knowledge in the intervening years and it is these ‘mere facts’ which improve the quality of our thinking. Quite simply, if I know more than you in a particular area then my thinking on that topic is more refined and nuanced than yours. I’m sorry but it just is.
As Sir Francis Bacon said back in 1597 (Get me – I looked it up!) , ‘Knowledge is power.’
Jonathan finished his presentation by asking whether the world would be a better place if it were run by five year olds. My first thought was that it would be a lot messier and more concerned with cake and Ribena. But having watched the last in the latest series of The Thick Of It, I’m not so surely they could make it any worse!
Outstanding teaching & learning: missed opportunities and marginal gains : October 14, 2012
I work at an ‘outstanding’ school where the teaching and learning is ‘good’. As such we are squarely in Wilshaw’s sights and almost certainly due an inspection at some point this year. We were last inspected in November 2011 but a lot of goal post moving has gone on in the intervening months. The new inspection framework is widely seen as a ravening beast out to devour schools that are not delivering to the lofty standards of our hero, the saviour of Mossbourne Academy.
In essence, what this means is that if we want to retain the right to put ‘outstanding’ on our headed paper we’d better be able to demonstrate that our T&L has improved since last year. Has it? Well, there’s plenty of wonderful teachers who preside over fantastic lessons every day but, like most schools there’s also several other groups. Most significantly there are those teachers who are currently ‘good’ but aren’t sure how to further improve and those who ‘require improvement’ but not for want of trying. The gulf between good and outstanding appears daunting and insurmountable; small wonder then that many teachers are happy to settle for ‘good’ as being good enough.
Clearly this needs to be challenged but not by wielding a stick or telling teachers to try harder. In some of the lessons I’ve recently observed teachers are busting a gut – more effort is not the solution. What’s characterised most of these lessons are missed opportunities: learning that could so easily have happened if the teacher had been in a position to notice what their students were doing and able to intervene.
In an outstanding lesson a lot of this ‘noticing’ happens at the point of planning. I encourage teachers to try to ‘break’ their lessons = to look for the weak spots where students won’t get a tricky concept, or where they won’t do what we expect because of something which could have been anticipated. These potential stumbling blocks are often the difference between good and understanding and sometimes all that’s required is to have considered is ‘what will I do when…?’
How do you go about broaching this with staff? There’s absolutely no point telling teachers to change everything they do: even if they could do it it wouldn’t work. But what about making one small change? Or two? Or a whole list of tiny tweaks?
Having read Zoë Elder‘s recent output on the aggregation of marginal gains for learning based on the winning strategy of Team GB Cycling Performance Director, Dave Brailsford, it seems clear that there is huge potential in the idea of making lots of tiny tweaks in our teaching can result in massive improvements in students’ learning. Alex Quigley has even designed a bicycle wheel to help students select and monitor the marginal gains they will make in their work. This is great and a useful addition in our panoply of tools to further reine students’ ability to assess and improve their work. However, it also seems a ready made opportunity to help teachers reflect on the micro improvements they could make to their teaching.
Here are some suggested micro improvements which would certainly have made a difference to some of the lessons I’ve recently observed:
- Design learning objectives so that they have a tighter focus on why students are learning. Zoë has already written a terrifically useful post on this here
- And then ask yourself whether assessment tasks, however small, align with planned outcomes? (via @damianainscough)
- Meet and great students at the door (@OldAndrew recommends wedging it open to get them in faster) and have clear routines for distributing books resources
- Learn students’ names and use them
- Bell work: learning should begin as soon as students enter the room – make sure you have something for them to do that doesn’t require them to wait until their tardier classmates have arrived
- Read their books at least once per fortnight – you don’t have to mark everything but they do need to know that you look in their books regularly
- Build in time for students to act on feedback. Most of the feedback we give students is never acted on – if we give students directed improvement and reflection time they’ll be forced to act on feedback
- Consider ways to reduce teacher talk – ask how else could I give instructions so that more students will receive the information rather than just the keeners at the front
- Plan 3 questions to stretch the most able student in the room and 3 questions to support the least able student in the room (if that doesn’t sound marginal enough then just one of each would do)
- Use language which reflects your amazingly high expectations for all students – I hate the ‘all must, most will, some could’ differentiated outcome which gives ‘some’ students permission not to try as hard as others. If I expect students to achieve A*s they may well surprise themselves.
- Give students time to answer questions. Get them to discuss first or write down 5 possible answers or whatever. Never allow them to get away with ‘I don’t know’. I always respond with, ‘I know you don’t, but what do you think?‘ and give them time and space to answer. This works especially well if you’re not just asking students to guess the answer you have in your head.
- Get way from IRE (Initiation, response, evaluation) type questioing. Have a look at Pose Pause Pounce Bounce or Basketball not table tennis for some suggestion on how to manage questioning well.
- Give very clear time limits and stick to them – buy an egg timer! Also, be aware that group work expands to fill the time you give it – allow students 5 mins less than you think they need.
- After students have completed an activity, ask them what it assessed and how it might have met the learning objective
- Ask students what they have learned during the lesson – maybe they could suggest 2 or 3 things they now know and 1 or 2 things they still have questions about.
- A lot of classroom activities involve reading and writing. Make sure you are taking opportunities to explicitly teach literacy skills – see my post on The Matthew Effect for details.
This list is by no means exhaustive and none of these strategies are ‘right’. In fact you may strongly disagree with some of them. As long as you’re clear about why I have no problem with that: Ofsted make the point in the School Inspection Handbook (Sept 2012) that “The key objective of lesson observations is to evaluate the quality of teaching and its contribution to learning, particularly in the core subjects. Inspectors will not look for a preferred methodology but must identify ways in which teaching and learning can be improved.” In addition, Sir Mike’s gone out his way to assure us that there is no single model for outstanding teaching. (What Ofsted say they want). Which is nice.
No, this list is just a sample of some of the micro improvements we could make to ensure that lessons are less likely to miss opportunities for learning. No single item will shift good teaching to outstanding but if we focus on enough of them we might just do enough to tip the balance. As teachers we will improve our practice by overturning the ill-considered stones in our teaching and having a good look at what crawls out. David Weston (@informed_edu) suggests videoing yourself and watching it back with a trusted colleague. This could be an excellent way to make a start on compiling your own list of marginal gains.
Find your own lights
An actor friend of mine once told me a lovely story about meeting Sir John Gielgud. The ageing thespian took my friend on to the stage of whatever theatre they were performing in and gestured up at the lights. “Do you see those lights?” he rasped. “And those lights?” My friend nodded and waited expectantly for the pearl of wisdom about to fall from his ancient mentor’s lips. “Those are my lights. You must find your own lights.”
Many thanks to all the lovely people on Twitter who suggested their own marginal gains. I’m sorry that I’ve not included everything but that’s the point: this is my list. You must find your own list.