Icebergs, taking risks & being outstanding : February 11, 2013
How do we recognise a great teacher, a great lesson or great teaching and learning? How do we know what we’re seeing is outstanding?
The sad truth is that often observers don’t (or can’t) see the wood for the trees. They see your planning, they see your interactions with a group of students and, hopefully, they see the evidence of impact in your students’ books. But most of what goes into making your lessons finely crafted things of beauty are invisible. Observers only ever get to see the tip of the iceberg.
If a writer of prose knows enough of what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an ice-berg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water. A writer who omits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in his writing.
Can Hemingway’s wise words on writing prose can be applied to teaching? Instead of flopping about trying to make students do too much in a given lesson we should have the confidence to ‘omit’ all the fantastic stuff we know we do day in day out because its presence is what what will make the edifice float with such stately elegance.
The bit beneath the surface is our knowledge of our students and the relationships we’ve lovingly established over months or years. It’s the routines we’ve set up and the massively high expectations we’ve communicated. Only we know how hard we’ve worked on these things and unless we take the time to tell our observer, how will they know? If we hope that they can extrapolate all this from the 20 minutes they spend in our lesson and intuit all the hard work from a brief conversation about targets and a flick through a few books then we could well leave ourselves open to disappointment. Instead we need to expect that an observer will know all these thing because we will take the opportunity of point them out.
So, what can we do?
This post is a distillation of all my thinking over the past six months on how we can demonstrate to an observer that we are outstanding teachers and that the lessons that are being observed showcase outstanding teaching and learning.
Often, one of the biggest tensions for teachers is the fact that what we believe is best for our students is not what Ofsted (or our SLT) want to see. Over the past few years this has lead to teachers performing the Monkey Dance in front of observers and then getting on with the day job; that of getting recalcitrant kids to learn stuff.
Now, fortunately for all of us Sir Michael Wilshaw has recently said this:
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.
This is excellent news.
Here’s a list of the stuff that, according to Ofsted, represents outstanding T&L:
• Sustained & rapid progress (NB – this does not take place in individual lessons but over time)
• Consistently high expectations
• Excellent subject knowledge
• Systematic, accurate assessment
• Well judged, imaginative teaching strategies
• Sharply focused & timely support
• Enthusiasm, participation & commitment
• Resilience, confidence & independence
• Frequent & consistently high quality feedback
• Engagement, courtesy, collaboration & cooperation
The clear and splendid implication I take from Wilshaw’s remarks is that we shouldn’t have to worry about how we’re doing these things as long as we’re doing them. Obviously we cannot reasonably expect to do all this in 20 minutes, but maybe we can find a way to show it. This gives us more freedom to take risks, embrace failure and, of course, try hard.
Here are some handy pointers from the great and the good:
You must learn to fail intelligently. Failing is one of the greatest arts in the world. One fails forward towards success.
The idea of ‘failing intelligently’ is a fascinating one. As Zoë Elder points out here, “making mistakes may or may not be the result of risk-taking. A mistake may simply be indicative of carelessness, lack of time or stress, rather than an overt effort to take a risk”. The more effort we put into careful preparation, the more likely our mistakes are to have been worth making, and more likely we are to ‘fail forward’.
Show me a teacher who doesn’t fail every day and I’ll show you a teacher with low expectations for his or her students.
This is as clear an indictment of playing it safe as I’ve ever encountered. It is ridiculously to meet low expectations but there is little reward for doing so. As teachers we owe it to our students to risk failures, identify where we went astray and feed all this invaluable information into our next experiment. And if you’re still not convinced, here’s why:
A teacher’s job is not to make work easy. It is to make it difficult. If you are not challenged, you don not make mistakes. if you do not make mistakes, feedback is useless.
If we don’t challenge students to meet our outrageously high expectations, they won’t make mistakes. This results in a desultory lack of progress. This is one of the biggest potential pitfalls we encounter when teaching able students: they can do a lot of what we think is hard so we end end up lavishing them with praise for their efforts without raising the bar. This is well known. Vygotsky told us that success should always be just beyond where we currently are so that we have to strive and reach for it.
This applies to teachers as much as it does to our students. The vast gap in the feedback given to teachers judged as ‘good with outstanding features’ is an appalling travesty. It is simply not acceptable to fob off these teachers with meaningless guff about gut feelings, lack of a certain je ne c’est pas, or the observation that student x was briefly off task despite producing a fantastic outcome. If, as an observer, you cannot give kind, helpful and specific feedback on how to get to outstanding you really shouldn’t be allowed to make judgments on others’ teaching!
So, once we’ve acknowledged the iceberg and committed ourselves to taking risks, what next?
Outstanding has to be a way of thinking rather than a way of doing. The truth is that for most of us the idea of working harder is impossible: we’re already flat out. This is the beauty of an approach like the aggregation of marginal learning gains. Sometimes, we can make a huge difference by making relatively minor, but deliberate improvements.
I start by spending less time planning. Yes, you heard me. I’ve written before about my approach to lesson planning but I’ve recently boiled it down to the following essentials:
• Time is precious (the 2 minute lesson plan)
• Lessons should focus on learning not activities
I’ve written before about my medium and long term planning model, the Learning Loop – the basic premise is that lessons should build on each other in a coherent way.
In English I’ve identified 2 distinct loops: creativity and analysis which I deliberately thread through all schemes of learning and every lesson. This is a little simplistic, but it’s a useful place to start and I would urge you to identify the main loops within the curriculum area you teach. With this in mind, it really doesn’t take much time to plan what it is that students need to learn.
During the lesson
With the planning taken care of, we need to consider what to do during a lesson to ensure it’s judged as outstanding.
1. Explain why to the observer – make sure any observer understands how well judged and imaginative you teaching strategies are. If you’re confident enough, seek them out and explain it to them. Even better, get the students to explain it. Failing that, staple the research findings for your approach to your lesson plan. If an inspector is any cop, they’ll appreciate this; if they’re not, they’ll be intimidated by your professional knowledge and leave you the hell alone. I make it absolutely clear to any observer that they are witnessing outstanding teaching and learning and make sure they see the parts of the iceberg which lie beneath the surface of the lesson. I point out why each individual is making ‘rapid and sustained progress over time’ and direct them to particular students and their books.
2. Observe the learning – it’s important to leave yourself free to observe what’s going on. I always have a block of post-its on which I scribble comments. If students are working in groups I’ll leave these on their table to discuss; if they’re working individually I’ll pop it on their work and stand back. This is a great way to show how your interventions are ‘sharply focussed and timely’ and is clear evidence of ‘frequent and high quality feedback’ to add to all the wonderful examples of ‘systematic and accurate assessment’ in their books. If a particular student doesn’t appear to be as engaged as you’d like, point them out to your observer and tell their story. Show them how much progress they’ve made over time and contextualise their particular issues. Obviously, this will depend on your students’ ‘resilience, confidence & independence’ and this too needs is worth pointing out.
3. Questioning – this is an essential part of teaching and wonderful opportunity for developing students’ oracy. I don’t care who you are or what subject you teach, you must take the opportunity to ask good questions. It can be hugely impressive to include a hinge question mid way through your lesson but you should ensure that your questioning seeks to clarify, probe or get students to recommend. Even better, you can get the students them selves to do this while you sit back and point out the ‘engagement, courtesy, collaboration & cooperation’ to your observer.
4. Take the temperature – the best lessons just seem to ‘flow’ with students experiencing an appropriate level of challenge and stress. However, this is hard to judge and we may need to ‘take the temperature’ of our lessons to ensure we’ve pitched it right. Get students to explain where they are on this chart:
You can then make micro adjustments to the levels of stress or challenge to make certain that students are displaying appropriate levels of ‘enthusiasm, participation & commitment’.
5. Take risks – through your observation of the students’ learning and your temperature taking you are in a position to take some exciting and fairly safe risks. Explain to the observer that because you’ve noticed x you’re going to do y. You might adjust time limits to increase or decrease stress or shift the emphasis of questioning to raise or lower challenge. You might move students around or throw particular students some curves. The point is that while these things might not work, the observer will be interested and engaged in your experimentation as you’ll have explored the reasoning first.
The purpose of all of this is to make sure you don’t leave the reading of your professional practice to chance. Don’t hope you’ll be outstanding; expect it.
How you think is as important as what you do, and if you think of your teaching as art, then you can enjoy the process of being creative and of taking risks.
Not everything you do will work, but if your thinking is outstanding and clearly articulated then it’s almost impossible for an observer to disagree with you. At any rate, the onus will be on them to explain clearly and precisely exactly why you’re not outstanding: if they fail to do this, challenge them politely but assertively by laying out the evidence that your have both understood and met the criteria.
One last piece of advice:
Be brilliant and they’ll forgive you anything.
Coda: You might argue that being judged outstanding in an observation doesn’t make you an outstanding teacher. And you’d be right. But, labels have power. Once you become known as outstanding you will start to become it.
The myth of progress in lessons by Kev Bartle
So, what *IS* the point of INSET days? : January 6, 2013
Every teacher needs to improve, not because they are not good enough, but because they can be even better. Dylan Wiliam, keynote to SSAT conference, December 2012
Back in August 2011, long before I ever thought I might one day be feeling guilty about being paid for going to another school and talking about teaching, I wrote this post asking what the point of an INSET day actually was. I didn’t really answer the question.
However, I did point out this:
All too often the only requirement for staff is that they sit and listen. Either to an expensive motivational guest speaker or to a member of the school’s own leadership team. Teachers tend to be fairly intolerant of this and have a tendency to misbehave. We know that if we took this approach in an observed lesson we’d be (rightly) lambasted so we resent having it inflicted on us. Why does it happen? Cos it’s easy. The expensive motivational guest speaker will have delivered his (it’s always a bloke!) spiel many time before and can just trot out the same old same old and pick up their pay cheque.
On Monday, I’ll be the “expensive motivational guest speaker” and I cringe. Both at my own glib sense of certainty 18 months ago but also at the truth that this observation contains. I haven’t delivered my spiel often enough for it to be stale and I can take comfort from the fact that it’s rooted in my own classroom practice but still; it is a spiel. I’ve been given a loose brief but I know practically nothing about the school, its values, the people who work there or the students. Who the hell am I to tell them how to teach?
Well, I’m the guy they’ve hired and I’ve got a moral responsibility not to be crap. I know now about the tough balancing act of giving enough value for money in terms of input but also allowing staff time to think, discuss, plan and implement ideas. I know now that INSET is not the same as a lesson and the same rules don’t apply. Giving a learning objective at the start is a bit patronising and just providing some handouts and letting folks discover it all for themselves would, I am sure, not go down at all well.
And this has got me thinking about some of the entrenched views I’ve expressed on what teaching should be like in the past. I’ve come out on a number of occasions and said that group work is the approach most likely to result in students learning, and, while I’ve since qualified this position by arguing that all teaching is in fact group work of one for another, I know full well that I am there for my ‘expertise’ (such as it is) and that I will be expected (at least in part) to provide an entertaining and interesting lecture.
That said, I’ve worked hard to make my presentation interactive, thought provoking and useful. I’m not selling any snake oil and I have no particular axe to grind. I’m not even taking any copies of the book to flog.
Well known education writer and speaker, Ian Gilbert replied to my original post, all those months ago by saying:
Many schools have wasted a lot of money on me and my colleagues not because of the ‘same old same old pick up the cheque’ routine (the money-back guarantee if we’re crap sees to that) but because we’re treated as a one-off, stand-alone thing unconnected from the overall, stated and known-by-everybody (in theory) development aims for the entire school.
Teachers turning up not knowing what the day is about means SLT is not doing its job. SLT not capitalising on the new ideas, the buzz, the questions we create, is also SLT not doing its job. One or two teachers sitting there being rude where there are obviously many teachers keen to learn is SLT not doing its job. Not asking the speaker to be better or to stop before they do to much damage if no-one is listening is SLT not doing its job. Ringing up in July asking if we have any speakers for the 1st September, doesn’t matter what they talk about, we’ve only just got round to thinking about it, is the SLT not doing their job. Not asking up front for a money-back guarantee and/or refusing to pay if feedback shows the day was awful is the SLT not doing its job. And for more horror stories on how to ruin an INSET day, check out the latest blog post here.
The best follow-up to an INSET day is for the SLT to outline their clear expectation that they will be looking for ideas from the day being employed in lessons within the next two weeks, that they will be looking for evidence of conversations about the day in faculty meetings and policy, that they will refer back to it during briefings and staff meetings (don’t throw that flipchart away, pin it up!) and that the next INSET day or twilight will be led internally by a cross-faculty collection of staff sharing their successes or otherwise based on how they have used the day to move things forward.
And that’s true, isn’t it? It’s not going to be up to me to make the training I provide worthwhile, it’s up to the school. If they want me to be be a one off, stand alone sideshow then that is, ultimately, up to them. You can, as the old adage goes, lead a horse to water, but you can’t make the bugger drink.
So, what is the point of INSET days?
Headteacher, John Tomsett says in a recent article, “I take it as a given that every single one of us wants to become a better teacher” and that “only at least good teaching is good enough for our students.” He makes the point that “all teachers slow their development, and most actually stop improving, after two or three years in the classroom. But continuous professional development means that we have to reflect upon our practice regularly and systematically.” This then is the point of INSET: to give us an opportunity to reflect and develop.
And while I still can’t help but feel a little guilty about the fact I’d do a much better job if this was at my own school, planned in collaboration with colleagues and addressing our development priorities. But it isn’t and that’s really not my concern. What is my concern is to provide the very best value for money I’m capable of and then to let go of the results.
Bit like the day job really.
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.
The Matthew Effect – why literacy is so important : September 30, 2012
The rich shall get richer and the poor shall get poorer.
In the world of the 2012 Ofsted framework very few schools are going to quibble with the prominence being given to the teaching of literacy but I’m far from concerned that we’re clear on precisely why teaching literacy is so important beyond the fact that Big Brother is watching you: running scared of Wilshaw is not enough.
I saw the fantastic Geoff Barton deliver a presentation called Don’t Call it Literacy at the Wellington Education Festival last year and his insightful thinking made a tremendous impression on me. Geoff very generously links to all his presentations on his website here. The first thing I did after witnessing this tour-de-force performance was read Daniel Rigney’s excellent book The Matthew Effect. His message is stark and having read it there’s no going back. As teachers we need to know that if we’re not explicitly addressing the needs of ‘have nots’, then the gap between the word-rich and word-poor will get ever wider.
Rigney tells us that, “While good readers gain new skills very rapidly, and quickly move from learning to read to reading to learn, poor readers become increasingly frustrated with the act of reading, and try to avoid reading where possible.” Who can argue with that? Few people persevere with something they find difficult and uncomfortable. No one wants to feel stupid, and struggling to read is guaranteed to make you look thick. What happens is that “students who begin with high verbal aptitudes find themselves in verbally enriched social environments and have a double advantage.” If you’re literate you will gravitate towards literate friends. It comes as no surprise that “good readers may choose friends who also read avidly while poor readers seek friends with whom they share other enjoyments”. And these friendships make a difference. The more we interact with the word rich, the deeper our own pool of words will be. Because, as Myhill and Fisher point out, “spoken language forms a constraint, a ceiling not only on the ability to comprehend but also on the ability to write, beyond which literacy cannot progress”. So, if our spoken language isn’t up to snuff nothing else will be either.
Here’s the principle in action:
Poor literacy results in some shocking statistics:
- One in five parents easily find the opportunity to read to their children, with the rest struggling to read to their children due to fatigue and busy lifestyles
- One in six people in the UK struggle with literacy. This means their literacy is below the level expected of an eleven year old
- Seven million adults in England cannot locate the page reference for plumbers in the Yellow Page
- 1-in-16 adults cannot identify a concert venue on a poster that contains name of band, price, date, time and venue
- More than half of British motorists cannot interpret road signs properly.
If the problem starts with poor reading skills then so must the solution. Robert MacFarlane asserts that “every hour spent reading is an hour spent learning to write” and conversely every hour spent avoiding reading causes the word-poor to get poorer. And this is only going to get worse. As the EU High Level Report on Literacy points out, “the digital world is centred around the written word”. Those who struggle to read and write are at a catastrophic disadvantage.
So whose fault is it?
Well, apportioning blame never really helps but it’s interesting to note that at age 7 children in the top quartile have 7100 words while children in the lowest quartile have less than 3000. At this age we could argue that the main influence is parents. But one study shows that at 16 1 in 12 children have a ‘working vocabulary of around 800 words. Whose fault is that? I can’t help but hear George Sampson’s call to arms ringing in my ears: “Every teacher in English is a teacher of English”. Whether you agree with this is now irrelevant as the principle’s been enshrined in the revised Teaching Standards.
We are responsible if not to blame. No one else can or will help the word-poor so it’s up to us. But are we up to the task?
Anecdotally, I hear that many teachers struggle with their own literacy and obviously, this will be a barrier in their roles as teachers of English. So, what to do? Well, obviously we have a duty as professionals to do something about our own literacy. And clearly schools have a duty to provide training which helps address this problem. Ofsted note in Removing barriers to Literacy that “…in the secondary schools where teachers in all subject departments had received training in teaching literacy and where staff had included an objective for literacy in all the lessons, senior managers noted an improvement in outcomes across all subjects, as well as in English.” So this is about self-interest as much as anything else.
They also say:
[S]chools need a coherent policy on developing literacy in all subjects if standards of reading and writing are to be improved. Even with effective teaching in English lessons, progress will be limited if this good practice is not consolidated in the 26 out of 30 lessons each week in a secondary school that are typically lessons other than English or the 70% or so of lessons in primary schools that do not focus on English. This debate is, of course, long established and formed a central point of the Bullock report on English published in 1975. Previous efforts to raise literacy as a whole-school initiative have tended at best to have a short-term impact. The All-Party Parliamentary Group for Education recently reported that “schools should be developing cross-departmental strategies to develop literacy” and recommended that Ofsted should look “more closely at this”.
Moving English Forward (2012)
So, here are some cross departmental strategies for developing literacy
As Geoff Barton says, “the secret to literacy is making the implicit explicit”. As members of what he calls The Literacy Club, we implicitly understand how to read and write skilfully. The mistake often made by teachers is to assume that students share this implicit understanding. Some do but most don’t. Those that don’t need this process to be made explicit if they’re to have a chance of doing what we find easy.
3 x reading strategies (skimming, scanning and independent research)
3 x writing strategies (long & short sentences, varied sentence starts, varied connectives)
3 x spelling strategies (what words look like, sound like and other connections e.g. mnemonics)
It’s easy to get confused about the difference between skimming and scanning: skimming is about quickly getting an overview of what a text is about whilst scanning is about retrieving specific information. Expert readers do these things unthinkingly. Poor readers just see acres of text and give up. We need to make it clear to students what we’re doing when we read. We need to explain that the first sentence of a paragraph is often a topic sentence which summarises what the rest of the paragraph will be about. We need to explain that some words are more important and contain meaning while some words can be safely ignored. Try showing students a page of text for 5 seconds. Ask them if they knew what it was about. Ask them how they knew. This is excellent practice for being able to decipher pages of text.
Expert readers implicitly understand how exam questions relate to passages of text. The answer to the first question will be near the beginning and the answers to later questions will be located logically throughout the text. Many students don’t know this and given a list of questions have literally no idea idea how to find the information they need. It seems obvious to members of the Literacy Club that the key points in a text will either be in the first or last paragraph – we need to explain this to to the word-poor students we teach.
Independent learning is great, right? Well, no. Often it’s not. In the worst cases independent research is simply FOFO (fuck off and find out) and results in students make all manner of terrible mistakes from plagiarism to basic lack of understanding of my the internet should be used. If you give a students a homework task to ‘research the life of Martin Luther King’ what are they going to do? Obviously they’ll type it straight into Google. The unwary may well end up clicking on a link like this:
What they pop in the homework will not be what you were expecting and it won’t really be their fault. Students benefit from knowing that they should look at at least 3 sources to get a range of opinion. They should also be taught about how to develop a thesis to narrow the focus of their research and make their task more manageable.
Long and short sentences
English teachers waste a lot of valuable time banging on about compound and complex sentences. These things are worth knowing but across the curriculum, students will benefit from the clear and simple expectation that their writing should contain a mix of long and short sentences. That is all.
Varied sentence starts
Too much of the writing students produce can be mind numbingly tedious. This is not a good thing. Try banning the use of articles (a, the) to start sentences. Encourage them to begin some sentences with words that end in -ly (adverbs) -ing (present participles) and -ed (past participles). That way we will get stuff like, “Hungrily, I wolfed my dinner”, “Laughing, I walked over to my friends” and “Shocked, she notice her phone was missing.”
Connectives are dead easy to teach and they make you look clever. Point them out in a text and ask students what job they’re doing. They get them to connect their own sentences and paragraphs using a help sheet like the one below:
Hey presto! thinking becomes more structured and writing becomes more coherent. For some more ideas on improving writing, take a look at my Slow Writing post below.
I have a theory that people who are ‘good at spelling’ are simply implicitly aware of various spelling tricks. I cannot correctly spell receive with recalling ‘i before e except after c’ and need to sound out Feb-ru-ary to have a chance of getting it right. But these processes are invisible to students: they just see the awesome spelling machine I have trained myself to be.
I really like these three symbols for prompting students how to approach spelling:
Next time someone asks you how to spell a word instead of simply giving them the answer and making them dependent on you for answers help them work out a strategy for remembering how to spell it in the future. One of my favourites is my strategy for the word ‘rhythm’. I could never remember this and always had to look it up before writing it on the board (English teachers use this more than you might imagine) until a student point out that Rhythm Helps Your Two Hips Move. Genius.
These strategies are not a panacea and are just a beginning. They will however give all teachers some simple too use teaching techniques which students will then have reinforced in all their lessons. It’s the start of a what for many will be a long and uncomfortable journey, but as Einstein said to Socrates, ‘A journey begins with a single step.’
Geoff Barton’s essential presentation Don’t Call it Literacy
Making feedback stick : July 16, 2012
There’s really no argument about the fact that feedback is pretty important. It sits right at the top of the list of strategies which make the biggest impact on students’ progress. If we’re not giving students feedback on their learning then, frankly, what in God’s good name are we doing? There is nothing else which should have a higher priority in your teaching.
OK, with that off my chest, it’s important to acknowledge that there a couple of problems to be aware of. All, sadly, is not rosy in the feedback garden.
Firstly, most of the feedback students get comes from their peers and, sadly, most of that is wrong. It would seem that nature abhors a lack of feedback almost as much as it does a vacuum: any lack of meaningful feedback on the part of teachers is an opportunity for misinformation to breed.
The second problem is that approximately 70% of the feedback given by teachers to students is not ‘received’. That is to say, the students either don’t read it, don’t understand it, and don’t act on it.
Some other problems associated with feedback are:
- Feedback is most often accepted when it confirms existing beliefs; where beliefs are challenged, feedback is often rejected
- If you give feedback to the whole class students think it must be directed at someone else and no one ‘receives’ it.
- Students often find teachers’ feedback to be “confusing, non-reasoned and not understandable”
- Even when they do understand, they’re not sure how to apply it to their learning
- Most feedback is related to tasks rather than processes - that is to say it tends to focus on what was done rather than how it was done.
So what to do? Prof Hattie suggests that feedback needs to be: ‘just in time’, ‘just for me’, ‘just where I am in my learning process’, and ‘just what I need to help me make progress’. Regrettably, it often isn’t.
Armed as we are with all this knowledge, it’s time to examine some strategies for making feedback stick. At my new school we use a system for recording written feedback called Triple Impact Marking.
The idea is as follows:
1. Students proofread work and highlight where they have met success criteria – this could either be self or peer assessment.
2. The teacher corrects misapprehensions and asks questions about the students’ work: How could you…? Why might…? Do you think…? and sets a specific task which will require students to act on the feedback they’ve been given ie. Rewrite the 2nd paragraph ensuring that you…
3. Students answer the questions and complete the tasks using the feedback they’ve been given.
The hard bit is forcing yourself not to correct students’ work but instead to get down and dirty with a spot of dialogic questioning. I found this a real mental gear shift and at first struggled to find the best sorts of questions to prompt meaningful reflection at stage 2. My experience is that it’s best to ask something concrete like “How many adjectives have you used?” rather than something abstract like “Is your writing descriptive enough?” This will get the student to read their work back but also gets them thinking about whether using only 2 adjectives was really enough to qualify their writing as descriptive.
Of course, for all this to have any impact at all, the next time must be as soon as possible. Asking students to hold feedback in their heads indefinitely doesn’t work: there must be given an opportunity to act on it next lesson. So, to maximise the impact of marking we need to commit to giving our feedback as soon as possible and then beginning the next lesson with Dedicated Improvement and Reflection Time (DIRT) so that they have an immediate opportunity to improve. This feeds neatly into my maxim that marking is planning (and the very best form of differentiation).
For me the most crucial aspect is that feedback should not come at the end of something. If it’s to be meaningful it has to happen during the process in which students are engaged. Now as this isn’t always possible during a lesson we need to plan for opportunities to act on feedback. Why not use the Learning Loop planning model to ensure that these opportunities are built into your schemes of learning?
We’re often in a rush to cover the next bit of the curriculum but this is yet another reminder that sticking rigidly to schemes of work and ploughing on with the next part of the course is a sure-fire, guaranteed way of preventing students making progress. And who wants that?
Planning a ‘perfect’ lesson : June 30, 2012
How long does a decent lesson take to plan? Ofsted have recently made clear that they’re not interested in over complicated lesson plans noting that “excessive detail within plans causes teachers to lose sight of the central focus on pupils’ learning.” So, who are we putting all that effort into planning for? Our students? Our selves?
John Tomsett writes
Over the past twenty years we have made tremendous progress in teaching and practice in our state schools has never been better; however, over-planned lessons are a curse. One candidate for a post at Huntington had a lesson plan a full nine pages long. He could not teach because he was too obsessed with what his plan said he should be doing every two minutes. And more experienced teachers are losing confidence because they think there is some secret formula for teaching great lessons for which they have not been trained.
Sound familiar? I’m with Phil Beadle when he urges us in How To Teach (and I’m paraphrasing cos I can’t find the page reference) put your time into marking instead of planning. He says (and this is a quote) “you can turn up hungover every morning, wearing the same creased pair of Farahs as last week, with hair that looks like a bird has slept in it, then spend most of the lesson talking at kids about how wonderful your are; but mark their books with dedication and rigour and your class will fly.”
Obviously, Phil being Phil this is a polemical position with which you will want to take issue. Please note that I am not endorsing Farahs, bad hair or talking at kids. However, the fact remains that pouring your heart and soul into lesson creation is not, perhaps, the best use of your time. Really.
I’m a big fan of random lesson generators such as The Lesson Generator and the Learning Event Generator. There’s even an iPhone app. These are all potentially a little bit silly, but I like the challenge of making “democracy” as a “dot to dot activity” work. It often goes awry but as long as you take the students with you and get them to unpick the failures they will always be able to fail better another time.
John also mentions checklists in his post and has included this extract from Michael Fullan. For those disinclined to click links I’ll summarise: Fullan says that checklists must be “simple, measurable and transmissable”. They should also be “precise, efficient, to the point and easy to use in even the most difficult circumstances.” Above all they should be “quick and simple tools aimed to buttress the skills of expert professionals.” That’s us lot.
Now, as you may know, I’ve just written a book called The Perfect (Ofsted) English Lesson (Very reasonably priced at only 2.39 on Amazon.) In it I address the checklist Ofsted inspectors have been trained to use when inspecting your lesson. Please understand that this is not my checklist, neither am I endorsing it.
- Does the lesson plan relate to the sequence of teaching?
- Does the planning demonstrate high expectations and challenge?
- Is the plan appropriate for the learning needs of all groups of pupils?
- Is there a ‘safe’ learning environment?
Start of the Lesson:
- Does the lesson get off to a flying start? is there a recap of previous learning?
- Are the learning objectives are clear and appropriate in number?
- Are the learning objectives are shared? Are the success criteria are clear?
- Is the learning real?
During the Lesson:
- Is the teaching well placed?
- Does the teaching hold learners’ interests?
- Does the teaching meet a range of learning styles?
- Does the teaching meet a range of abilities?
- Does the teaching actively engage learners in the learning process?
- Are learners given clear information and guidance throughout the lesson?
- Is there paired or collaborative work?
- Is questioning used effectively?
- Are all learners actively involved?
- Is clear feedback given on progress?
- Is pupil knowledge and understanding increased? is there an opportunity for pupils to demonstrate increased knowledge and learning?
- Are reading and writing skills are developed?
End of the Lesson:
- Are the learning objectives reviewed?
- Are questions used to check what learning has taken place?
- Is there feedback from teacher to pupils? is there pupil-to-pupil feedback?
- Is there evidence of self-assessment?
- Is the next lesson previewed?
- Is the lesson brought to a clear close?
Does this checklist meet Fullan’s criteria? Obviously all this is discussed at tedious length in the book – but that’s the bare bones of what Ofsted are looking for. Whether or not you think it’s important to tick it all off is quite another matter. I certainly don’t.
I’d be interested to hear what you all think.
Fast forward a few months >>> THIS is my latest thinking!
Why we should strive for perfection : June 26, 2012
This article was first published, in a slightly different form, on the Guardian Teacher Network
Is there such a thing as the perfect lesson or the perfect teacher? Well, no, probably not. At least, not that I’m aware of. There is no magic bullet that can turn us into amazing teachers overnight; being outstanding is not, I think, a matter of charismatic delivery. It’s about hard work and effort. It’s about thorough planning based on sound assessment for learning. And it’s about consistently being there and having high expectations of, and belief in, the kids in front of you.
I consider myself to be a good teacher who is capable of delivering an outstanding lesson with a fair trailing wind and if I’ve had a good night’s sleep. Like me, you’ve probably taught some shoddy lessons along the way of which you were immediately and rightly ashamed. The temptation is to nail these horrors into lead-lined coffins and bury them in twisted graveyards of memory. But there’s gold in them thar hills.
I’ve certainly had my share of failures. I’m a risk taker by nature and am constantly experimenting with new and exciting ways of tricking my students into learning. Sometime these risks pay off. And sometimes they explode spectacularly, showering me with shredded pieces of singed lesson plan. I’d like to think that these failures have all impacted positively on the students I teach. Maybe not straightway, but they serve as a useful reminder of, “That time sir tried to use kites to teach us about sentence structure.” (This still makes me groan with remembered shame.)
After twelve years of teaching , these failures are increasingly few and far between. In the average week, I’ll own up to delivering a couple of satisfactory efforts amongst the mainly good lessons I preside over. The outstanding lessons are (and I hope for a couple every week) either the product of inspiration and as surprising to me as they are to my students, or meticulously planned.
It is this latter instance of the well-planned, competently delivered lesson in which students seems to make amazing leaps and bounds that I’m interested in dissecting. If you’ve not yet experienced one of these perfect moments in your teaching career, stick with it. You will. And when it happens, you’ll probably be shaking your head and wondering what it was that worked so well.
I’ve tried to bottle the lighting of an outstanding lesson on many occasions and guess what? It doesn’t work. The only thing, in my experience, which offers any kind of cast iron guarantee of an outstanding lesson, is a thorough knowledge of, and an excellent relationship with, your class. If you know what they know you almost can’t help but help them make progress.
Sound simple? It is. But it ain’t easy.
Easy be damned. I hate the word as I hate hell, all Ofsted inspectors and SEAL!
You see, it is my firm and unswerving belief that every teacher can be outstanding. All it takes is belief and hard graft. One without the other might result in drudgery or delusion, but the two together can make the most dithering, diffident practitioner a potential master of the universe. I’m not kidding! Anyone can become outstanding. Obviously, some teachers aren’t going to believe this and others won’t put in the required work. But for those that do believe and are prepared to sweat blood I would point you in the direction of Samuel Beckett’s wonderful words of wisdom:
I have this quotation emblazoned on my classroom wall to remind my students, as well as myself, that it is the effort to excel that matters. Who cares that it didn’t work this time? Who cares that we got the answer “wrong”? As longs as we dust ourselves off and try again we can be sure whilst we may not succeed we will certainly fail better.
Perfection may not be possible. Certainly not every day. But until they replace us with bioengineered robo-pedagogues, we need to remember that it is the striving to be our best which marks us out as the outstanding teachers our students deserve. Determined reflection and a relentless pursuit of perfection will always pay dividends.
For those willing to believe and work hard, I would point you in the direction of my new book, the cheekily titled Perfect (Ofsted) English Lesson.
Are teacher observations a waste of time? : February 24, 2012
“I never allow teachers or school leaders to visit classrooms to observe teachers; I allow them to observe only students”.
John Hattie (2012)
I’ve been mulling this statement over for the past few weeks and it seems to boil down to this: are we interested in how teachers teach, or how students learn? It’s become a truism in recent times to say that just because a teacher is teaching there is no guarantee that students are learning anything.
But, if you walk into a classroom it’s hard not to look at the teacher. Especially if they’re standing at the front delivering their lesson. It’s very hard to remember that what the teacher is up to is not actually that important; it’s what the students are doing that ought to matter most. By observing teachers are we really only focussing on hot air? We routinely ask questions of teachers like. are they differentiating? How are they asking questions? Are they using this or that strategy? This kind of observation runs the risk of merely inviting the observer to give their advice on how the teacher could teach ‘more like me’. All this results in is cosmetic change for change’s sake. at best it’s well meaning but ineffective and at worst it’s bullying and used as a club to force compliance. Why should we change the way teach just because an observer has a preference we don’t happen to share?
Isn’t it more reasonable to ask what the effect of teaching is? Hattie suggests that all observations should be either from the students’ point of view, or of the students. If observations were focussed on what the students were doing instead of what the teacher was doing would we have a much sounder basis on which to make judgements and offer advice?
Some questions to ask about teachers’ effects on learning might be:
- Are you aware of each student’s progress from their starting point to the point at which the success criteria have been met?
- How close is each student to attaining the success criteria?
- What needs to be happen to help students move closer to meeting the success criteria.
- Are the students aware of their progress?
I’ve been videoed teaching a few times in the past and have always found it a salutary experience. I cringe watching myself and vow that I’ll find ways to rid myself of all the irritating verbal tics and the nasal twang. I think now that all this agonising has been missing the point. Beyond my own vanity, it’s not really about me. Maybe, I need to look into filming my students instead? This will certainly be something I try to focus on in future classroom observations.
SOLO taxonomy training : January 30, 2012
A few weeks ago I rather rashly offered to present on SOLO taxonomy to the North Somerset Aspire network. As always with this sort of foolishness it’s made me consider my understanding of the subject in a lot more depth.
Before the Summer I’d never even heard of it. But since then the whole world (or at least the very narrow teaching geek world I inhabit) has exploded with SOLO fever. Tait Coles and Darren Mead have done their best to help me understand some of the complexities but it’s taken Lisa Jane Ashes, another English teacher, to get me over the last few humps. I now feel confident(ish) about sharing with others the work I’ve been been trying out with students.
So, after cannibalising Tait’s Prezi, I began putting together a presentation which said what I thought needed saying. Here’s the resultant PPT:
And here are the bits and bobs to go with the presentation :
And just in case anyone’s not had enough about SOLO rammed down their throats recently, here’s a collection of posts which touch on it. Hope this is useful to someone.
Please leave any comments: always value formative feedback.
Update: here’s my new SOL reflections display:
Should we stop doing good things? : September 12, 2011
Surely doing good things is something we should do more of? Especially at school. I have seldom met a teacher who is not interested in doing the best for their students and therefore pretty keen to do good things. Good things are, well… good. Aren’t they?
Having just watched Dylan Wiliam’s keynote speech at the SSAT conference in 2010, I’m not so sure. The speech was provocatively titled, “Stopping people doing good things: the essence of effective leadership”. Needless to say, this is not a leadership style I have encountered before and until watching, probably wouldn’t have been interested in trying.
After demolishing the fashionable straw men of school improvement (class sizes, better qualified teachers etc.) he concludes that schools don’t make much of a different when demographics are taken out of the equation but teachers make an enormous difference. See below:
This leave us with a stark choice: replace existing teachers with better ones, or improve the effectiveness of existing teachers. He says that “If we could replace the least effective 15,000 teachers with average teachers, the net impact on student achievement at GCSE would be an increase of one-fortieth of a grade in each subject.” and that “Raising the bar for entry into the profession so that we no longer recruit the lowest performing 30% of teachers would increase achievement at GCSE by one grade—by 2030.” Which is, as he says, not soon enough.
So, by a process of elimination, what’s left is improving existing teachers as the best (and most cost effective) strategy for raising standards. OK, so doesn’t that mean getting bad teachers to do good things? Apparently not.
He restates what every thinking teacher knows, that the highest impact intervention we can use is formative assessment. No arguments there. At this point I’m thinking formative assessment is a “good thing”. He can’t mean we shouldn’t do it. And he doesn’t. What he says, in a nut shell, is that change is difficult. As teachers, we are ‘experts’ in our own practice: we are highly skilled at teaching the way we teach. I have some personal experience of this; it has been a long a painful battle to stop relying on ‘charisma teaching’ and to step back and try to take a constructivist approach. At times it has been distinctly uncomfortable and has prompted much hand wringing and soul searching. But it’s definitely been worth it. (More detail here.)
Asking teachers to change will, in the short term at least, make them worse at teaching. He makes the point that we do most of what we do without thinking aboutit; it’s become instinctive and “That’s why telling teachers what to do doesn’t work”. We don’t need extra knowledge, we just need to change our habits. Well, I’m not totally sure about this because without the knowledge that I should changing my practice and some ideas about how to do it I’d have found it impossible to shift my teaching habits. DW says, “the hardest bit is not getting new ideas into people’s heads, it’s getting the old ones out. That’s why it takes time.”
He quotes some interesting research from Vilfredo Pareto who advocated what has come to called Pareto improvement which is, “a change that can make at least one person (e.g., a student) better off without making anyone else (e.g., a teacher) worse off.” Yes, I thought, that’s right. That’s why differentiation is so hard. There’s little point asking a teacher to enact change which will have a significantly negative effect on their work/life balance. They just won’t do it and rightly so.
Wiliam talks about the fact that Weight Watchers is effective despite the fact that everyone already knows their core message: “eat less, exercise more”. What they do is reinforce this knowledge on a regular basis and provide support to ensure that it is acted upon.
Should CPD be the same? Wiliam argues that we already know what works. We don’t need any new ideas. What we need, perhaps, is to be refocussed on the essentials and supported in embedding them in our practice. He describes sharing good practice as “a very dangerous idea” and as “a fundamental distraction”. He makes the point that teachers are already working like buggery and that, “it is incredibly hard to stop people doing valuable things in order to give them time to do even more valuable things”. Teachers are pretty much all engaged in going their absolute best for the students in their care. That’s why we’re teachers. But, there is, quite literally no time to waste on psuedo-science like brain gym and learning styles. If we’re going to be asking all these dedicated, hardworking teachers to improve, we have to focus on what works. And at the top of the list of what works is formative assessment. No argument. It just is. But what if I really like brain gym and want to introduce to my staff? Tough: don’t.
The message is that leaders must insist that teachers commit to continuously improving their teaching practice and must work on strategies supported by evidence that shows they are likely to result in improvements for our students. In return, it needs to be acknowledged that teachers are best placed to decide what they need to work on to improve their practice. This will, he says, lead to “unprecedented improvements in student achievement”. Well, we all want that.
I think my favourite part of the speech is his conclusion that as teachers we shouldn’t compare ourselves (or be compared) to the ‘outstanding’ colleague down the corridor. This sort of comparison is an absolute no no in AfL and so it should be in teacher assessment (this is something on which I have strong feelings and have written about here). Instead, we should all strive for a “personal best”. To my mind this is a clarion call for a growth mindset approach to teaching and learning where we are prepared to take risks and , as Samuel Beckett said, “fail better”.
You can get a copy of the slides used in the presentation here.