“Thou shalt not judge” – Lesson observation without judgements

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As I’m in the process of moving to a grade-less system I’ve been reflecting on one of the biggest issues I think it is important to deal with; no judging.

There is a difference between not giving a grade and not judging. I’m guessing that lots of schools will essentially carry on judging but just not put a number at the bottom of the page. I’m not convinced that this is the way forward.

The problem is that I, along with many other teachers have only ever experienced someone judging our lessons. There are huge issues with this. Many have blogged about the issues with an observer wanting to see a preferred teaching style. I’ve regularly heard people say ‘X likes group work so I will do group work’ when preparing for an observation. It’s natural to do so.

However I think we need a real shift in our focus of observations, particularly if schools take a coaching model. My belief is that we should ditch any form of judgement. This includes using the language of judgement.

If I say any of these, I am essentially giving MY view, my judgement:

“I liked the starter”

“It was good”

“It was an excellent task”

The problem with these is two-fold. They don’t have a specific definition as they are subjective; what I ‘like’ or think is ‘good’ is not what you think’. Secondly, they give the impression that what the teacher is doing is ‘right’ and conversely that there may be a ‘wrong’ way of doing things. Additionally if you happen to use the word ‘good’ there are still connotations with previous gradings.

But we’ve used this language for so long that it’s going to take a while to shake it off.

I believe the power in coaching observations is in the questions the observer asks the observed before and after the lesson. But these also need to be carefully considered. Look at these:

“Did you mean for that child to do that?”

“Did you realise they didn’t all finish?”

“How could you have done it differently?”

These are also laden with judgements. They are giving the observers view on an aspect of the lesson. Instead of these questions I would suggest:

“What were the students doing when..? Was this planned? Why?”

“Did all students complete what you expected them to? Why?”

“Do you think X was effective? Why? Would you change it if you taught it again? Why?”

So, for those moving to a coaching model, working on questioning and using as objective language as possible seems to be a key area for training and support.

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The problem with teaching RE; it’s about opinions

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There are actually many problems. However this short blog will focus on the nature of RE and the unique issue it has; it’s about opinions.

I see it as our job to teach these opinions, with critique, in a neutral, balanced style* as possible.

Therein lies a problem, can a teacher teach something neutrally? And indeed should they?

If I follow religion or a set of beliefs will these not come through in how I teach, what I focus on and the language I use? Should we teach a balanced view of racism and homophobia ?

I personally don’t tell students (or colleagues in school or elsewhere) about my faith. I want them to see me as a teacher, not a Muslim teacher or a Buddhist teacher. Sometimes my opinions come through. It’s human nature. Last week I commented on the kind Mr Gove sending us all a huge King James Bible. The students were probably clear about my thoughts on this. I really do try to avoid it and generally refuse if they ask me an opinion on something that isn’t illegal or could confuse them.

However this blog isn’t about telling students about your faith (another blog in that) but how RE is unique in that people’s own faith can seriously affect how it’s taught. I’m worried about that. On RE forums I’ve seen a discussion on an issue start with critique and then people with a faith become angry and upset that people may have critiqued something they believe as truth. If they’re doing this on an RE forum (not a faith forum) then what are they saying to the children they teach? Are they allowing them that freedom of critique even if they don’t agree? I fear not. And therein lies a huge danger.

I think we should allow students to explore all opinions and we should move away from presenting them with opinions, to them thinking of the variety of opinions there may be and doing independent research to find opinions they haven’t considered. If we give them the skills to come to their own balanced judgment then we’ve done our job. Giving them the opinions and/or telling them what to believe/is right or wrong, is problematical.

This leads on to the controversial issues. If we teach racism from a neutral perspective are we condoning it? In my lessons I’m developing the art of critique and this includes logic of reasoning, credibility & reliability. Students need to work out the illogical reasoning & flaws of racism. If I just said to them were not going to look at the views from the perspective of a racist I’m limiting their ability to skilfully assess reasoning. I’m not there to tell them, I’m there to help them to work it out. This is why I have issues with some faith schools. Some are limiting the students’ ability to do this and therefore are not giving their students the opportunity for further study (again, another blog).

I think the power of RE comes to developing the skills needed to study religions to come to insightful, logical, fully reasoned balanced arguments, not telling them ‘right’ from ‘wrong’**. In my opinion that is confessional RE or Religious Instruction which for the majority of people was ditched in at least 1988.

RE really does have its own issues that other subjects don’t.

* when I refer to ‘neutral’ in this blog I mean looking at both/all sides of an argument rather than presenting only one side.

**I do however make British law very clear to them

Knowledge: It’s about what they know and they don’t know, and often what they think they know

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In my teaching I aim for students to learn something new. However I don’t know what that might be unless I use some sort of diagnostic tool to find out. Here are some suggestions of how to do this:

What they want to know – Socrative (website/app)

The easiest way I have found to use this is asking an open question “What do you want to learn about X?”. Students then submit as many questions as they want about that topic. You then have the class view of what they want to learn. The assumption is that if a student has asked a question on it, they don’t know the answer. I then plan my lessons around answering some, usually not all, those questions.

Google forms

Before a GCSE unit I create a small questionnaire based on the content of the topic. I then ask students a range of question on what they ‘think’ they know. I say this because unless they are fully aware of what you mean they may claim to know something when in fact they don’t. Again I use this to plan the lessons and the groupings/work within a lesson. If a student has said they 100% know something I do a quick check at the start of the lesson either by questioning them or a quick task. It soon differentiates whether they really do. More often than not, they don’t.

Knowledge testing – Multiple choice

There are a few tools for this including both above and an app called Quickey. Also, simple paper and pencil will do.

This is more about checking the exact facts that they need to know. I have blogged on this before and I think if you’re using MC questions for this there should be a ‘I don’t know’ option for them to clearly show they’re not guessing.

A summary analysis of this data will show what needs teaching and who needs it to be taught it.

Knowledge testing – Written test

This one has to be explained to them. You don’t want them to prepare for it and there are no consequences for getting nothing correct. At GCSE this is really easy to do as you can give them a past paper to complete. In subjects like Maths this may be one of the best ways to find out what they already know. I have also blogged before about not telling them what they got right/wrong. The results of what they can/can’t do isn’t necessarily for them but for the teacher.

The nice thing about using a test is that you can use the exact same test later on to see what they’ve learnt.

Problems with finding out what they know

The biggest issue with doing this is when you have the results in and there is a huge variation in the class, it won’t be simple ‘one lesson fits all’. In some ways them all knowing something or all not knowing is the easiest to manage.

As mentioned above they don’t’ always accurately self diagnose.This can be overcome with practice when they realise there are no consequences for ‘not knowing’ it becomes more accurate; it’s no consequence testing.

Also the more specific and detailed the questions, the more accurate a picture you will gain. It is worth spending time creating the questions to get the most accurate answers.

RE teaching: Use of knowledge is changing & I don’t know enough of it

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Yesterday I went to the first Teach First RE conference. It was excellent. However it confirmed my nagging feeling that I don’t know enough.

My partner always teases me about this in general. When I tell him “I wasn’t taught that at school” he says ” You were educated after 1992, you expect to have been taught. We used to learn without being taught”. So now is the time for me to start more learning in RE than I probably will have ever done.

The use of knowledge is becoming (rightly so) more important but as with many subjects it’s the huge breadth of the study of religion that is daunting. I often hear primary school teachers that are concerned about their subject knowledge but I think as new specifications are being written many secondary school teachers of RE are becoming more concerned, especially non-specialists.

Why are things changing?

In the past I have had a basic knowledge of the 6 mains world religions from the main denominations or schools of thought within them but with little knowledge of the sources behind the beliefs. The shift is moving towards a more analytical type of RE where students need to understand a variety of sources and be able to interpret them to be able to start making some reasoned arguments. Instead of just giving an opinion on a topic, they need to now start analysing ( what I’m calling ‘critiquing’) a variety of views and sources and using these to come to a conclusion. It’s moving from “I think abortion is wrong” to “Having considered different views and sources, overall I think that the viewpoint against abortion is the strongest”.

I think that Andy Lewis mentioned in his session ( I didn’t attend) that it seems that the key stages are moving down i.e what used to be KS4 is now KS3 and what used to be KS5 is now KS4. I would go to a further extreme; for higher achieving KS3 I’ve been using KS5 and the skills needed at A level are now starting to be used with KS3. If we want to prepare students for the study of religions we should start them with those study skills from as early as possible, not ‘spoon feed’ and then they have a big shock at A Level when they’re expected to work in a different way.

How am I dealing with the shift for students?

This year I have been trialling some models that I’ve never done before in key stage 3.

  • Using more sources & views – I’ve attempted to present them with a variety of textual sources, opinions & articles with differing opinions
  • Using critique – I’ve been trying to get my higher level students to consider the reasoning, examples and evidence used in different views and critique them. In this they should look at the logic,reliability, credibility and reason-ability of views without criticising the believer themselves.
  • Independent research – I need to accept that I won’t know everything about everything but students can find out plenty without me with the help of Google. I’ve added this in to my assessment criteria and will be using structures to support students to do this even further from September. They need clear guidance on how to research. Someone at the conference mentioned many students inability to effectively research on the internet. This is our chance to embed these skills. We can teach them what they will definitely need for A level and beyond.
  • Developing reasoned arguments – I am teaching them the basics of reasoned argument writing. It will be this that is at the core of my new assessment model. However it’s the knowledge aspect of the model I have been grappling with.
  • Testing knowledge – I’ve trialled using diagnostic questions or multiple choice questions with students. I’ve blogged on this.Jonathan Porter @JHC_Porter also presented on this as his school does this regularly to embed knowledge in students’ memories.
  • What do we want them to know? – I am rewriting schemes of learning and at the very top I am specifying exactly what we want all students to know in that unit. If we’re clear on this then our teaching and assessment can also be clear. Joe Kirby blogged on his use of knowledge organisers and I’ve had a go at one on the Crucifixion of Jesus Christ. However mine is more complex than Jonathan Porter’s so I need to think about what is/isn’t needed.

How am I dealing with the shift for me?

Social media has had a huge impact. I am in contact with members of faith from a huge variety of religions and denominations/schools. They are a great source of information. I’m reading more as I teach and will learn a significant amount in the coming years. As with many people I didn’t cover much of this in my A levels or degrees so now is the time to learn it. Hopefully universities and training providers will cotton on to this need and provide free/cheap, convenient training opportunities for busy teachers. If SACRES want to start being more useful for teachers, this is a key area they can support them.

Schools also need to recognise that subject knowledge support is essential. It is often overlooked in CPD models.

Problems with time

This is a huge issue for RE; both for teachers and for curriculum coverage.

We feel we need to cover everything in such a short time. However many people are suggesting we cover a little in more depth than trying to teach a lot about each religion. If we teach one religion using the skills we want students to develop then in theory they can use these skills to study any religion.

All of this is moving RE into an academic study of religions, which I agree with. It is our job to structure this for our students so the transitions from each key stage is smooth and the knowledge is long lasting so we don’t waste time repeating that what has already been taught.

No stakes testing – not telling students their results

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I’m considering how I might test knowledge as my assessment model focuses mainly on skills. I’ve trialled and am still considering using diagnostic questions or multiple choice to do this.

However, in considering it I’ve been thinking about the purpose of it. Why do I need to know what a student got out of 20? The plan would be to test at the start of a topic, possibly the middle and at the end. If I used the same questions or at least test the same knowledge then this would show me how a student has progressed in their knowledge. But there’s always been a feeling that with multiple choice they could guess the answer which could cause issues. I understand that the idea of diagnostic questions is to pick up misunderstandings by careful writing of possible options however I plan to trial it in a different way. I would use the first test to plan what I need to teach or importantly what I don’t need to spend time on in class.

Don’t tell the students their mark

Why do they need to know it? I will present them with the following:

You must only choose answers you KNOW. You should not guess. 

Culture shift

At the start I think students won’t do this but if I follow it up with something in class that also tests this and if they   dont replicate the knowledge & understanding I can query it with them. I’ve done this in the past and they only tend to do it once if they know that they must really only put what they know and I won’t care. Often our students want to please us with their knowledge & understanding, I will need to develop a culture of being realistic about what they know/don’t known no help them to understand that the more honest they are the more potential for learning there is.

Option ‘E’

So far I’ve trialled multiple choice with options A-D. I’m going to trial option ‘E’, “I dont know”. They must select this if they genuinely don’t know the answer. 

Therefore I don’t need to tell them what they got as they should already know, as they only answered those they know. If they selected ‘E’ 6 times then they should have 14/20. I dont need to tell them this. 

This makes it ‘no stakes’. They can’t compare % issued by the teacher with each other, they can’t cheer when they receive results, it’s almost valueless to them. 

However the value lies with me. I can see what they do/don’t know and adjust my teaching. If in the middle test they don’t know the stuff we’ve already gone through I can recap or set individual work. Finally, over the 3 tests I can see progress in knowledge acquisition .An easy way to tell if they’ve improved is to count the ‘E’s.

I would consider telling them if they’ve made progress but in theory they should also know this themselves. 

I’ve trialled Quickey for this but I think that using a google form and Flubaroo might be more efficient for analysis so will trial this this term.