“But we need to finish the course” – What if we plan NOT to complete the specification?

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On Saturday, at #SASFE17 Matt Pinkett tweeted this from session two with some sixth formers:

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I had planned to suggest something similar in session 3 so they beat me to it.

Teachers seem to be very concerned about ‘finishing’ a course. Understandably, they want to be sure they’ve covered everything that could possibly come up in an exam with the students to give them the best possible chance. Even if this means racing through content on a lesson by lesson basis and doing this until the last lesson before the exam; if they’ve covered it, then they know it.

But we know this isn’t true. Just because you’ve explained something or dedicated a lesson to it doesn’t mean that a) they understood it or b) they will remember it in 2/3 years time. Instead of quantity of learning, should we look at the quality of learning?

In my session at #SASFE17 I shared a model, based on cognitive science that might be an alternative to the model above.

I used a very unscientific method to share my hypothesis. I suggested the following:

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If we rush through content without considering what students have learnt or using any methods to help students to remember long-term, they might only remember 50% of the content.

However, if we spend time using strategies that cognitive science suggests helps with long-term memory (spacing, interleaving, recall, testing etc) this might mean that we don’t have enough time to fully complete covering the content of the course. I propose that this might not be disastrous as it sounds.

Here we can see that only 75% of the course was covered and if it was all then remembered over the long-term, they will ‘know’ more than if everything was rushed through without any embedding (only 50%).

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Of course none of these numbers are accurate but I use the illustration to show that using strategies for learning that may take more time might not be at the cost of learning.

Let’s assume that my hypothesis is correct. What does this mean for teachers?

They need to decide which aspects of their specification are core concepts that are essential for understanding the most of the specification. Are there key theories that are the essential basics of the subject, through which, lots of other concepts connect?

For example, in GCSE RS, if students understand the meaning of the crucifixion of Jesus it also helps understand salvation, incarnation and resurrection.

Might this change the order and the detail in which teachers teach content? Are there some topics that would be best taught early on so that the planned recall throughout the rest of the course can embed them fully?

It will mean that the time that we have with students in class and what we set for HW/prep is key. We need to consider what methods we will use to help with spacing and recall. We need to plan this all carefully and well ahead of time.

Do we need to differentiate between classes and/or students on what will be missed out? Might students that are working towards level 3-5 at GCSE have a different ‘core’ selected to those working towards 7-9?

Finally, do we tell students if we don’t plan to cover the specification? How might this be framed? Do we tell them from day 1 what it is that won’t be covered so they have 2 years to work on it themselves?

Teachers are scared not to cover the full specification, but if hours are limited and not enough to cover all content, the logical solution might be stop trying to squeeze it all in and think strategically about the time available.

 

Exam stress

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I love this term. It’s when all our hard work comes to fruition. However it’s the time of year when the stress begins for year 11 students. The first written GCSE is next week and teachers are trying to squeeze in all their last minute tips and go through a whole course in the final few lessons. Teachers are tense, students listen and the stress is passed on. Teachers suddenly expect students to be spending 2 hours after school each day on their subject. It’s totally understandable. Some teachers’ pay progression relies on it.

But it doesn’t have to be like this.*

I had my last lesson before the first written exam this week. Essentially it was the same as every lesson I’ve taught them since day 1; I knew what I wanted to cover with them and we did a practice exam question. We played a game (which I rarely do). I didn’t mention anything like ‘remember to do X’ or ‘in the exam…..’. Their exam could’ve been next week or next year.

This is because I’ve been planning for this for two years. We’ve spread out that stress over two years. My expectations and sense of importance started from day 1. ‘Revision’ started from HW one; I’ve not set any ‘revise’ homework in recent weeks. I do think these exams are important for them and I expect them to work hard, take them seriously and do their best, but I’ve expected that all along. Not in the last few weeks. Nothing’s changed….in my classroom anyway.

I deliberately don’t make a tense atmosphere or present a sense of urgency to them. In fact I’ve set minimal work for them to do as HW in the past few weeks. No holiday sessions or after school ‘revision’. I’ve never told them to spend hours on my subject; I’ve interleaved all they need in lessons and HWs.

If we want a calm and positive learning environment we should be teaching and training our students how to plan and prepare for something in the long term, not resort to last minute, short term gains. Our professional stresses don’t need to be shared with them. I am still accountable for their progress and results but I have planned and prepped throughout. I have no doubt they will all do well on the day. We’ve covered all bases for a long time.

This time should be for them to be proud of what they’ve learnt and want to get on with it. I believe that if teachers spoke about the importance of exams throughout and planned a careful curriculum then any last minute interventions or assemblies wouldn’t be needed. The skills of the teacher is not to offer more interventions it’s to carefully and strategically know their specification and the time they have and plan a course that benefits long term learning. Moaning about not having enough time is pointless.

All of this shifts the rhetoric around exams from an urgent, stressy, fearful experience to a satisfying recognition and denouement of all their hard work.

 
* I understand this only applies where a class has had one teacher for the entire course. Classes that have had multiple/no teachers over the GCSE may need special provision.

Comparing students to give current, new specification, GCSE grades (without grade boundaries)

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In the absence of grade boundaries, yet still being under pressure to complete data sheets about students, there are several courses of action that teachers have taken:

  1. Make up grade boundaries (using some sort of logic)
  2. Create grade descriptors for 1-9 using some of the information we have been given
  3. Just make it all up

Although I have pondered grade boundaries, as I don’t use marks with my GCSE students there is no need for me to come up with % or raw mark grade boundaries. I have also avoided number 2 as it can be complex and rely on complex and often ambiguous language. In an attempt to avoid number 3, I have trialled using student comparison to help with our data entry.

I’m currently trialling ‘No more marking’ so the idea of comparison was in my head when we did this yesterday.

We took a list of our students. Here is a made up class to help me explain:

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Throughout this process, I had in my mind two sets of information about grades and levels of knowledge & skills; Ofqual’s Religious Studies GCSE grade descriptors (2/5/8) and our exam board mark scheme (in our case AQA GCSE)

We initially identified the student/s that we believe could get full marks and have assumed that full marks will be a grade 9. We then identified the student that has shown the least aptitude with the course content and skills and allocated them with a 3. We believed that he could do slightly more than the grade 2 descriptor. We then identified a student that we thought would be a grade 5 and 7 using as far as possible, logical increments of knowledge and skills.

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I then posed a set of questions to my colleague about the remaining students. I also had student data in front of me so I knew roughly where to start the questioning. Here is an example of the type of conversation we had:

Me: Billy’s data suggests he should be 4-6. Is he ‘stronger’ or ‘weaker’ than Sally?

Colleague: He’s really good with responses in class but in his written work has lacked detail that Sally has, so weaker.

Me: Is he stronger than Brian?

Colleague: Definitely. He can give examples in his work that Brian can’t.

The conversations were actually more detailed than this as we could both discuss specific knowledge and skills that we know they have to have. Whilst, I know this class to some extent, the discussion with my colleague meant that we could consider carefully what they can/can’t do. I can’t vouch for my colleague, but I know if someone did this with me it would certainly help to clarify what it is that each student needs to do to progress further as we discussed in terms of knowledge and skills, not in terms of how many more marks they need to achieve.

In all cases we have taken a holistic view of the student; classroom responses, accuracy of answers, test capability etc. It is not just from one test with marks and grade boundaries.

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So we finally ended up with a set of class data, that was essentially a ‘rank’ of the class, using grade descriptors/mark schemes. I know that the term ‘ranking’ of a class can be controversial but this is in no way is shared with students or used with them. It had the outcome of generating a grade that we needed to enter in our data system but hopefully more usefully for my colleague we had a good discussion about the individual students and their strengths and areas that we can help them on in the coming months.

I’m not claiming that this is any better than the suggestions at the start of the blog but it certainly is another way, instead of using randomly made up grade boundaries. It also encourages a teacher has to know their class well (not just what marks they get) and helps to diagnose potential future support for a student.

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The marathon of assessment

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This post is inspired by Daisy Christodoulou’s book ‘Making good progress’ which I highly recommend if you’re interested in assessment in any way.

In the book she uses the metaphor of a training for a marathon when talking about assessment and I really like how this can explain what I do with my students. I thought it might be useful to share my thoughts on how I do this. I am using the final marathon race in my context as the GCSE exam in year 11.

Marathon runners rarely run whole marathons in training

This really interested me as this is exactly how I’ve been sorting my assessment for past few years. Students learn early in the GCSE what an exam paper requires them to do. We practise exam questions from the first half term. Not all of them but the simple ones to get them confident; these are ‘small’ assessments. I scatter them throughout the term. I rarely tell them they will be doing an ‘exam question’ because I don’t want to put undue emphasis on them completing them. For some odd reason it works. I could put an exam question in front of them in period 1 on Monday and they don’t even respond. I say ‘stop talking, write’ and they all do! I never have ‘is this a test?’ Or ‘you didn’t tell us?’ Or ‘I didn’t revise for this’. I just put them in front of them and I’m so confident that they can do them, it seems to rub off on them.

However, I will tell them about the longer tests but I don’t expect them to ‘revise’, I’ve been doing that for them already through their homework. Longer tests will interleave all previous topics, not just the one they’ve done. This produces the ‘medium’ sized assessment.

Not everything you do to prepare for a marathon involves running

It is important not to think that everything that is preparation is doing exams or even exam questions. A marathon runner may buy a new pair of trainers, they may choose their diet carefully and they must also rest. None of these involve running. There are so many things that I do to prepare students for an exam that aren’t an assessment. Unmeasurable stuff like class relationships, praise and confidence building are essential for students to feel they can succeed. Their homeworks are all either writing multiple choice questions, doing the multiple choice quiz or learning keywords. Whilst they won’t be questioned directly on a keyword. They have to know what they mean to access the questions. If they’re asked to evaluate  “Sanctity of life is more important than quality of life”, they have to know what these terms mean to have any hope of answering the question.

You cannot start training a few weeks before the marathon

Most of us are rubbish at planning ahead of time. We will leave things as long as possible. Most children will not consciously prepare for their exams until a couple of months or some cases weeks before their exam. I strongly believe that teachers have a duty to put this structure in for students so they are practising from day 1; we shouldn’t just leave it to chance. I start ‘revision’ with my classes from day 1 of the GCSE. This includes all their homeworks. Our teaching from day 1 should focus on the final outcome, the marathon/exam. Some teachers don’t like this idea as they think it is about teaching to the test. I think it is and it isn’t. Also, we can assume that most people that train for a marathon  do it out of choice. Whilst student may have opted for a subject, for core subjects this isn’t true. This is even more reason to put the structure in for them from the start.

Practising the whole marathon is about performance analysis 

I only give two full ‘mock’ experiences; December and March of year 11. It’s the only experience of the ‘large’ assessment they will get, with all the content and all the skills needed, as the real exam. My emphasis on these mocks is different to some others. I don’t care what they get in terms of marks or grade. It is much more useful as a diagnostic tool. It is exactly what I need to help them unpick what they need to work on in the last months; how to focus their final revision. We spend time on these papers after they’ve been marked. They improve aspects individually and I pull together common errors and plan around them.  A mock exam shouldn’t be seen as anything other than a snapshot of where they are and where they could get to. It’s a really important indication to me about my teaching (this is why I find it odd that people outsource marking) and where they’ve ‘got it’ or I need to recap.

It would be easy to continue with the metaphor in many ways but for me the key aspect that reflects what I do is the increasing levels of practice of different aspects (the ‘small’ and ‘medium’ assessments) that are key aspects of working towards the ‘large’ assessment.

Why marking Pupil Premium books first is misguided

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I’ve blogged before on how I dislike people talking about groups of children in sweeping generalisations. Pupil premium is a special case as it attracts money. Money makes people do odd things. One thing that seems to have been suggested by someone and then spread throughout schools is marking pupil premium books first.

I personally find the premise behind this ‘strategy’ at best misguided and illogical and at worst discriminatory and unprofessional.

The premise/s they have used to support it are:

Mark PP student books first because you will:

  • Be more awake
  • The lesson will be more fresh in your mind
  • Focus more on them than non-PP
  • Spend more time on them
  • Give more detailed feedback
  • It will be your ‘best’ marking
  • You will have a better attention span
  • It keeps vulnerable students in your mind

 

The DfE states that:

PPG provides funding for two policies:

  • raising the attainment of disadvantaged pupils of all abilities to reach their potential
  • supporting children and young people with parents in the regular armed forces

However there are so many issues surrounding the strategy of marking PP (especially FSM students) books first:

Issue 1- Conflation with academic ability 

In many cases PP is conflated with ‘low ability’ or not ‘making progress’. It’s used as a piece of data that indicates academic skills, like you might use a SAT score. This is a huge misuse of data. In no way does PP indicate a child’s academic ability. There will be PP children that have low levels literacy or an SEN need or high absence. Equally there will be PP children that have beyond age reading ability, are classed as ‘above average’ ability and who attend school 100%. You cannot make a sweeping generalisation. If the former is true, marking their books first WILL NOT make any difference.

Issue 2- What about non-PP?

If you are willing to say you mark PP books first so they get better treatment you are essentially saying that non-PP are not worth better treatment. Could you really tell a non-PP child’s parent at parents evening ‘I mark your child’s book last because you’ve never claimed for free school meals’? The value judgment you are making on non-PP is never what the government intended with this funding.

Issue 3 – Who says that the first books marked are the ‘best’? Evidence?

I’ve heard people claim they’re less tired, they are more focussed and they have more time for the first books. This is a very concerning indictment of that teacher/schools marking policy or systems if a teacher publicly says they don’t mark in a similar standard throughout.

In an unscientific poll on twitter about which books do people mark first, many claim that the first books aren’t always the ‘easiest’ to mark or may not have the ‘best marking’. Teachers need to read a few books to gauge where the class has struggled etc  either way, there’s something wrong with choosing PP books to be at the ‘optimum’ stages of marking about other students.

This clearly shows that marking & feedback in schools needs a serious overhaul or complete rethink.

Issue 4 – The child whose parent/s haven’t claimed FSM but could

If you claim that PP children need more attention as they are disadvantaged and need more support you are on really dodgy ground if you have children in your school who fit the criteria but for some reason their parent hasn’t claimed FSM. You are essentially saying, because your parent hasn’t completed a form, I’m not going to give you the attention you may need. That’s immoral and unjust. Judging a student by PP and not by need in my eyes is negligent and unprofessional.

Dr Rebecca Allen, Director, Education Data Lab
points out:

“…it is important to note that many non-FSM pupils come from lower income households than FSM pupils. (Hobbs and Vignoles12 estimate that only around one-quarter to one-half of FSM pupils are in the lowest income households in 2004/5.) This is principally because the very act of receiving means-tested benefits and tax credits pushes children eligible for FSM up the household income distribution. It is the diverse nature of the non-FSM pupils across England that means that is more difficult than we might think to compare pupil premium gaps across schools. A school may substantially narrow the gap by working hard to improve the attainment of their most deprived children, or through the accident of the characteristics of their ineligible children.”

Issue 5 – Evidence it ‘makes a difference’

If any teacher claims that marking PP books first has made a significant difference to a student’s progress I would argue this is the case because:

  • It may have ‘closed the gap’ because you’ve ignored non-PP.
  • You’ve used effective marking strategies in those books but not in the others, being PP is irrelevant
  • You’ve consciously ‘not bothered’ with detailed feedback for non-PP

None of these are admirable.

In a publication of ‘good practice’ from the DfE (thank goodness) none of the methods for minimising barriers include marking PP books first..

The reality of there is very little evidence on what makes effective marking and what improves progress. I’m doubtful that these teachers have found an effective solution that the EEF didn’t see.

Issue 6 – Focussing on the ‘gap’ instead of attainment

When asked about marking PP books first, some teachers have replied with an excellently ‘on message’ response about national statistics showing that we need to ‘close the gap’. All very admirable and I’m sure would be perfect for an interview response. However the reality is that if you focus on the gap the whole time you’re missing the point.

Dr Allen says:

“Concentrate on better results for pupil premium children, rather than narrowing the gap
. Free school meals children are clearly different from one another, but they vary far less than the group who are not eligible for free school meals, since this group includes both those with bankers and cleaners as parents.  Many schools have always had pupil premium gaps close to zero because their non-claiming pupils are no different in their social or educational background to their pupil premium children. So, although it is gaps in achievement that contribute to social class inequalities and should be the national benchmark to assessing policy success, it is better for schools to concentrate their focus on the attainment of their FSM pupils rather than the size of their own pupil premium gap.”

Issue 6 – The assumption of PP minority groups 

In some schools/classes, non-PP is the minority. Marking PP ‘first’ becomes a challenge as if you believe your marking is ‘best’ with the first few books, which PP books will you put at the top? Another sub group? This truly illustrates how marking PP books first is nonsense.

Issue 7 – Misapplication of ‘what works’

Some teachers will argue that they’ve used the EEF toolkit as evidence of ‘what works’ for their PP students. I agree that great feedback and response is essential for learning. The issue is that it’s being justified for use just for PP students. What works for PP students works for everyone. Good teaching is good teaching for all. All students deserve quality feedback. If a teacher cannot equally spread that amongst their students the teacher and/or school need to rethink what they’re policy or system demands.

Dr Allen confirms:

“As it turns out, great schools tend to be great schools for all children in the school – the statistical correlation between who does well for FSM children and who does well for non- FSM children is very high. Moreover, schools can make a difference to the life chances of FSM children – there are huge differences in attainment for these children across schools, far larger than there are for children from wealthy backgrounds who do pretty well in all schools.”

The nFER report on disadvantage makes it very clear is that what works is for all students:

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Issue 8- Assuming PP means ‘disadvantaged’

One of the biggest things that annoys me about some teachers attitude to PP students is the assumption that they are disadvantaged. I can’t help feeling that this stereotypical response is what causes the ‘gap’ in the first place. Whether they are disadvantaged or not it is highly unlikely that marking their book first will deal with any disadvantage they do have.

Issue 9 – Lack of focus on the individual child

Finally, the clumping of PP students has almost become a differentiation strategy in itself. It is absolutely not. Within that group of students there are individuals. Each with strengths and needs. Marking their books first seems to be a proxy for meeting their needs. I know the teachers/schools that mark their books first do many other things but I would argue we should mark all books equally and spend that ‘extra’ time with those that are struggling or not making progress, PP or non-PP.

 

Some teachers and schools have somehow got caught up in a rhetoric surrounding PP students. I teach so that ALL my students can make great progress whilst looking at each student individually for how I can support them. A policy of marking their books first, in my opinion, is a policy made to ‘tick’ a pupil premium action box. How many of these teachers/schools will ditch this method if Ofsted stopped focussing on pp students?

Instead we should be focussing on great teaching (and feedback) for all students.

 

 

References & related documents 

http://www.nao.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/Funding-for-disadvantaged-pupils.pdf

http://www.suttontrust.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/Pupil-Premium-Summit-Report-FINAL-EDIT.pdf

https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/the-pupil-premium-how-schools-are-spending-the-funding-successfully

https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/473974/DFE-RR411_Supporting_the_attainment_of_disadvantaged_pupils.pdf

https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/public/files/Publications/EEF_Marking_Review_April_2016.pdf

Research in education is great…until you start to try and use it.

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One reason that I’ve been interested in education research in the past couple of years is because, by luck/coincidence it mainly supports what I already do. I’ve been setting quick 1-5 recap quizzes for years, well before I read cognitive science research on the positive impact of retrieval practice. I’ve not really done much to change how I teach yet it ‘works’ with the research.

However, it’s not always as simple as confirming what you already do. Research in education is a minefield. Might it be better to leave well alone?

Here is a (not comprehensive) summary of why using research is problematical:

1.Not enough specific research has been done for context specific conclusions

In the EEF ‘A marked improvement’ publication on marking, the authors make the following comment, very early on:

‘The quality of existing evidence focused specifically on written marking is low. This is surprising and concerning bearing in mind the importance of feedback to pupils’ progress and the time in a teacher’s day taken up by marking. Few large-scale, robust studies, such as randomised controlled trials, have looked at marking. Most studies that have been conducted are small in scale and/or based in the fields of higher education or English as a foreign language (EFL), meaning that it is often challenging to translate findings into a primary or secondary school context or to other subjects. Most studies consider impact over a short period, with very few identifying evidence on long-term outcomes.’  p5

This is true for many areas of teaching yet teachers and schools are being encouraged to use research more.

If I work in a coastal school, with majority white, FSM boys, will any research be directly applicable to my context?

Is it just a waste of time with the current lack of useful and applicable research?

  1. It can go against our instincts

In ‘Make it stick’, The Science of Successful Learning by Peter C. Brown, Henry L. Roediger III and Mark A. McDaniel, they make a point about interleaved practice and teacher discomfort:

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Teachers prefer for themselves and their students to feel comfortable as they learn. Clearly some research informed practice won’t always ‘feel’ comfortable.

3.Ofsted may not agree

Ofsted have previously commented on what they see and think ‘works’, not always what research may suggest is the case. There are examples in Ofsted reports that make a statement on something that a school is doing that may not correlate with research. In recent years, as research has become more prominent, comments in some cases have declined especially in cases where practice has been ‘debunked’ and Ofsted have attempted to make it what they are aren’t looking for when inspecting. Should inspectors continue to make  judgements from their collective or personal view or would it mean that reports would be impossible to write?

And perhaps more controversially, should an Ofsted team comment on a school that is actively going against what research points to as being effective?

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Is the issue here consistency or that research may not support it?

4.It’s not always convenient for leaders

One reason why so many schools have been reluctant to ditch grading lesson observations (even though evidence shows they’re unreliable to consistently make valid judgements) is not because they think grading is a valuable tool for teachers but a perfect system for a spreadsheet.

5.It doesn’t support a school’s priorities

Schools that want to prioritise English and Maths in the curriculum will not be interested in research that suggests that the Arts or Philosophy might help learning, even when there might be evidence that they can benefit English & Maths. The political gaming of league tables will always mean that leaders want what seems to be more direct action such as giving more curriculum time to core subjects.

  1. It’s not the way we’ve always done it

Teachers can be habitual. We like to teach in a way that we know, even if it isn’t hugely successful; we are reluctant to change. It’s comfortable to stick with the way we’ve always done things.

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Who cares if research has a better way?

7.We can cotton pick what we want…

The EEF toolkit rates ‘peer tutoring’ as having a positive possible effect. I could see this and tell my staff ‘I want to see ‘peer tutoring’ in all your classes because that will enhance learning by ‘+5’ months.

However, the evidence behind this summary wouldn’t support this action. It specifies that the tutoring is most effective with cross-age tutoring, with two years between the students. That wouldn’t be the case in one class in the UK.

And crucially it also states:

‘Peer tutoring appears to be less effective when the approach replaces normal teaching, rather than supplementing or enhancing it, suggesting that peer tutoring is most effectively used to consolidate learning, rather than to introduce new material.’

Research in the wrong hands and with superficial or no in-depth analysis can be dangerous….

8…And ignore what we don’t like

I don’t like teaching using group work. I’ll ignore any research about its possible learning benefits.

9.Research suggests…..

Even in the EEF toolkit each intervention has a list of caveats. Nothing is simple. Looking at the effect sizes is one way but even that is full of complications.  All we can ever say is that ‘Research suggests….’ and always present it with the scepticism that it deserves.

Should we be directing teachers how to teach using research that can, at best, make suggestions of what might work?

  1. Sources contradict each other

Read any literature review and you will almost certainly find a variety of previous papers that have different and often contradictory findings. Interpretation bias can also make a difference. You can pretty much use research to prove or disprove your point if you want to.

As a leader, would you reduce class sizes or not?

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EEF Toolkit & Hattie’s effect sizes (0.4 is seen as the point where something ‘makes a difference’)

11.It’s not what we want it to be

Research on classroom displays suggests that, especially for younger children, too much stimulation can hinder learning yet in primary schools across the country teachers spend hours on colourful bordettes, elaborate scenes and ‘welcoming’ boards.

Whilst there is research that some targeted displays can actually accelerate progress they may not be the wonderfully creative and attention grabbing scenes that some teachers love to construct.

Sources & references

How to get students to evaluate – Teaching by concepts & transferring knowledge

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The new GCSEs are providing a challenge for many teachers especially in Religious studies. One of the many challenges is that there is more evaluation (some legacy specs were void of this). Many teachers have gone for teaching a superficial type of evaluation that often resorts to using a mnemonic for students to use for every question. I don’t have issues with mnemonic buts the ones I’ve seen don’t seem to get at the heart of evaluation. They encourage students to provide arguments for and against and then come to a personal conclusion. In my opinion, that isn’t true evaluation. I understand that this may be seen as useful for lower attaining students but does it allow the higher attaining students to show high level evaluation and does it prepare for A level?

From day 1 of deciding the new specification we’d follow, I’ve been pondering using key concepts for teaching and consequently evaluating the quality/strength of the concepts instead of the for/against arguments.

Key concepts

I’ve debated with myself and other colleagues what to call these. I’ve even asked the students. I keep coming back to ‘concepts’ although ‘themes’ and ‘ideas’ were mooted.

A key concept is a core belief or position that is the key point in a given argument. It is the ‘thing’ that is contentious and debatable. It’s the core idea that makes an argument arguable.

A simple example of concepts in the fox hunting argument would be:

  • Animal rights
  • Dominion over creation
  • Human traditions

You could then use these three concepts to argue for and against fox hunting and include a variety of views on each concept. At the end of each concept it is possible to pull together the various opinions and summarise which argument is more valid/strong/useful in the overall argument. The structure of argument lies in the concepts not for or against arguments.

At the end of the argument, instead of an opinion on the issue from the writer, it is an overall judgment of the quality/validity/strength of the concepts within the argument. One crucial point of the new specs, in my opinion is to move away from personal valued judgements to critical thinking and logical conclusions. No A level or high level essay requires personal opinions. I believe we need to start the process of academic writing in key stage 4. Students can give their personal opinions on an issue in lessons but in my class, not in their exam answers.

This is clearly more complex but much more of a true evaluation of the key arguments.

My thoughts are that this structure will allow the top students to access the top levels with more independence and flair than just using a mnemonic but it also means that the lower attaining students can ‘fall back’ on a simpler version of for/against, which is all they will need.

How to teach concepts

First of all I’ve introduced the students to what we’re calling a concept. I used a very simple, non-subject specific model: Pizza vs burger. This meant even those with limited conceptual understanding could access the idea. We looked at what the concepts for this argument might be, how we could strike the argument and how the intermediate and final evaluations might look. I gave them a structured template to use. They then chose their own topic and followed the same process, all the time being non-subject specific. To me it was important they understood what concepts and evaluation meant before applying to complex content.

In terms of lessons and teachings I am mixing the fors/againsts with concepts. I try to regularly ask ‘what might be an important concept in this?’,  to get them generating ideas and applying the skill of identifying them. In this way, they can always ‘fall back’ on the simple for/againsts.

This first map shows the traditional way of teaching by belief/religion:


Whilst links can be made, many times, the core arguments in the debate might not be pulled together.

However with the concept example, views can be compared and contrasted by concept and then used as paragraphs within the argument:


Example

At a recent gathering of RE teachers we discussed this question:


Colleagues lamented that their students wouldn’t be able to answer this as they could probably argue about prayer but wouldn’t be able to link it to an understanding of God. They didn’t think their students would also be able to identify other ways of understanding God.

In my opinion this is down to how you teach. If you do a lesson on prayer, a lesson on worship, a lesson on the bible and a lesson on Church leaders a student may not have the skill to synthesise these to apply to the question. But if you start this series of lessons with the question ‘How do Christians understand God?’ and evaluate each way on its effectiveness/pros/cons then they will be able to evaluate this question more easily.

The key to this is planning. Instead of planning a scheme by the topic elements, we need to plan with concepts. The lessons will be very similar but students will need to be asked to make links and identify the key concepts that these elements contribute to.

Knowledge transfer 

This structure also limits ‘box’ learning. I often hear colleagues saying ‘my students get mixed up if I don’t teach them as the structure of the exam’. Concept teaching pervades this notion of learning an element for a certain aspect of an exam. If a student has a clear understanding of the key concepts behind the beliefs and teachings they will be able to draw on this huge range in their answers, they won’t rely on rote answers/phrases. Their understanding will go from many individual elements of topics to concepts that interlink to make a whole ‘story’ that, in the case of religious studies makes a religion and it’s beliefs and teachings. This idea of making connections is important for learning.

In the case above, sanctity of life doesn’t just belong with euthanasia but also with abortion and capital punishment etc. They can transfer knowledge from one area to another with accuracy.

My next challenge is to pick out these key concepts in advance so I can be sure we cover all the possibilities.

Further reading

This blog from Lee Donaghy has been the first I’ve seen of others following a similar structure (he’s called them ‘abstract generalisations’, a term borrowed from @jcarrollhistory.) so I was very excited to read how it’s being done in History. It gave me confidence we’re doing the right thing.

This site is  great for suggesting how students can transfer and apply knowledge

A blog on ‘The Secret to Creativity, Intelligence, and Scientific Thinking: Being Able to Make Connections’