How to reduce exam stress in Year 11

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Imagine if no-one did the things on the left……

Don’t …

Instead….

…..do extra ‘revision’ classes (lunch/after school/weekends/holidays) in Year 11 Work with individual students from year 7 on things they’ve struggled with at the time they’ve struggled
Use strategies for long term learning from year 7 instead of massed practice (cramming) at the end of year 11
…..never show students an exam paper Show them sample questions from day 2 of the course
Show them what a whole paper looks like (where possible) early on. Not to complete it. Just to see it.
…..suddenly give extra work/set revision/more homework at the end of year 11 Build up homework across the course.
Only give homework.

Don’t call it revision.

Specify exact tasks to complete not just ‘revise’

….leave incomplete homework unchallenged from day 1 Treat every homework as an important part of the course. Each non-completion reduces their chances of a potential higher grade. Emphasise this point. Oh and make sure that EVERY homework is essential!
…do their first ‘walking talk mock’ a couple of weeks before their exam Model answers and thought processes from the start of the course. A visualiser is good for this.
……use the term ‘revision’ without specifying exactly what it is they need to do Create a common language that is specific to your context.
Explicitly teach learning strategies from year 7. Use them throughout your teaching, explaining what they are and why. Ensure this happens across subjects so it is modelled across the curriculum (separate sessions on this aren’t always successful as they struggle to transfer)
Give them materials to support independent study. See here for a suggestion https://missdcoxblog.wordpress.com/2018/11/18/ditch-revision-a-trial-of-independent-review-from-day-one/
….talk about ‘revision’ at the end of year 11 Talk about retrieval, testing, recall, long term memory from day one in year 7 and reiterate all the time.
…..leave controlled assessment completion until the end of year 11 deadline date Strategically plan the different elements of the course across the time you have.
Any student that isn’t on track, deal with them at each stage. Not at the end.
Take students out of one lesson to ‘revise’ for another Firstly, a change of the usual routine for some students causes stress. Structure the course so this isn’t needed.
What message does this give about the lesson they’ve left? Good planning of a course should eliminate the need for this
Have a whole day to ‘revise’ for one subject A day’s lesson has many issues….

·       It takes teachers a long time to prepare and they then set cover for other ‘less important’ classes. What does it tell those classes? Year 11 are more important, this year isn’t?

·       It gives students a message about priorities and organisation i.e. the school can’t manage them

·       It’s probably really boring

Instead, plan the course without any ‘surprise’ off timetable days

…..think that year 11 is the most important year group Foundations in years 7/8/9 are incredibly important for setting expectations, continuing and developing effective study habits. The start of the GCSE course is also essential in doing the same. The end of year 11 is far too late.
…..use phrases that share your exam anxieties

e.g. we’ve not got much time left, we’ve got so much to do, we don’t know what they’ll do on the exam

Promote the importance of study from day one. A missed homework is essential to their result (make sure it actually is!) and respond as if it were a week before the exam.
….make it up as you go along (this is when you run out of time) Strategically plan the course with the time you know you have (not with extra ‘intervention’). Leave contingency time. Use principles from cognitive science to plan.
Give them a course outline from day 1. Explain how the course will be taught; give a simple overview if possible.
…..teach in a linear manner, just teaching new material every lesson e.g. following through a textbook page by page Confidence comes from knowing you know things. If you move from lesson to lesson never allowing students to realise they know things they won’t develop that confidence.
….use target grades/grades with students Focus on what it is they actually need to do and what they’ve not done. Decide what a student should be able to do and push them to do it without using grades.

The only grade that matters and technically is accurate is their final grade. Anything else creates anxiety.

And where anomalies occur, such as not having a specialist teacher for the whole course… Give the students a clear plan of what will be happening and when. If they’ve had an uncertain course try to make the support certain. Give them an overview of what, when and how it will help them.

 

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Planned modelling

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We are developing the use of our principles for learning in RE and have focussed this year on different types of modelling.

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As with most things, if it’s not part of an agreed system, things can be forgotten.

In an attempt to standardise what GCSE students have in terms of seeing exam questions and exam answers we have created a set system. So far that indicates which exam questions they will practise and a ‘Be the teacher’ style activity. I am also planning on adding to the plan,  ‘teacher modelling’.

All of these are based on important aspects of exam practice:

  • Exposure to different types of exam question
  • Knowing what the command words require
  • Timing of written answers
  • Appropriate length of answers
  • Knowing what needs to be included in an answer
  • Knowing what doesn’t need to be included
  • Identifying a ‘full mark’ answer and why it is full marks
  • Identifying strengths and weaknesses of answers that aren’t full marks
  • Seeing how an answer might be approached and the thought process behind it
  • Seeing different approaches to a question
  • Developing confidence to answer questions
  • Improving their own answers

Plan of exam questions

This is simply to ensure that no matter who the teacher or the class, the student exam practice is the same. We’ve agreed in advance and put on a plan which questions students should be doing per half term. These are spaced so they aren’t necessarily the topic they’ve been studying but topics from prior learning.

* note- these questions have been designed for our course and may not follow the exact exam board specification as we teach beyond this.

Orange = exam questions students will complete

Once they’ve completed their answer, they are simply marked using tick sheets and given feedback in class. They then improve them as needed.

Be the teacher

This is what I call an activity where students are given a sheet with an exam question on it and some student answers to the question. The answers vary in what they have/haven’t included and so the students then have to identify ‘what went well’ and what could be improved. This is an opportunity for students to see potential answers but more importantly to have to apply what they know about the topic and the type of exam question to unpick the answer.

 

 

A few things that you can do in this activity that might be useful is to create weak answers which:

  • Are too short/long
  • Write about the wrong thing
  • Use informal language
  • Include common misconceptions
  • Don’t meet the criteria for the marks e.g. forget something, like a quotation

I then include at least one ‘full mark’ answer. I also try to create answers that look good but have a huge flaw that means they’re not.

A simpler variation of this is that I put a flawed answer on the board and give them a few minutes to identify what is wrong and how it might be improved. We then discuss and I edit it live so they can see the change.

Teacher modelling

I use my visualiser all the time to show student work, when showing students how to complete something and to complete things together. I also type example answers for students to analyse during feedback. However this is ad hoc and I think is important enough to put into the plans as something we will commit to do at least every half term. As you can see, it has been added to our plans and I plan to populate it with the following ideas this summer in year 11 gained time.

Live modelling

I’m lucky to have a visualiser that I can use to show students what I’m doing. Live modelling can include me writing an answer under the visualiser and students copying as I write. I explain what I’m writing and why. It’s a really good way to see how things we might do without much thinking can be shared with the students. Students have said they like doing this. However, you may need to consider if they will write as you write or they will just listen or make notes etc. It can be tricky if students write at different paces. You may also need to consider your handwriting.

You can equally live model by typing, in large font, onto an on-screen document. The benefit of this is that you can then print the answer.

Example full mark answers

Giving students a full mark answer can help them see what one looks like. There are various things you can get them to do with these depending on what you want them to focus on. For example, if they’re not using enough keyword terminology, write an answer with gaps where these would go and get students to fill in the gaps with the appropriate terminology.

If an answer is too long, get them to cross through superfluous words and cut the word count down.

If you want them to see the different elements of the answer, give highlighters and make a key with each element. Get students to highlight where they can see each element.

Write several full mark answers to the same question so they can see different approaches that can be taken. This helps them to see that there are different ways it can be answered that will still gain full marks. As above they can highlight the common features that mean these answers fulfil the criteria for full marks.

Multiple choice examples

If I have time, I will also create multiple choice quizzes that do a similar thing but students have to correctly identify aspects of an answer as asked. For example, a model answer is given and then a question such as ‘Which of these elements has been missed out? a) a quotation b) the source reference c) explanation of the quotation d) a conclusion

The beauty of these, is that there is no marking for the teacher, and this can fit into our ‘3 homework’ model as one of the multiple choice quizzes.

 

Overall, this plan for modelling will mean that over the 3 year course, students will have at least 16 full mark answers in their notes, 16+ answers (mock exams have many more) that they’ve attempted and improved and 16 ‘Be the teacher’ sheets. It sounds like we will spend the whole time doing this but it is basically about 3 lessons per half term which is approximately 18 lessons long, so 1/6 of the time, which I think is probably about the right amount of time.

Curriculum roundup 2019

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Blogs

General

Leadership

‘Knowledge rich’ curriculum

Curriculum planning & review

Subjects

RE – Why Religious Education is a fundamental part of a broad education -Isaac Howarth

Science- Teaching and Learning is Dead – Adam Boxer

Art –Developing a Knowledge-Rich Art Curriculum Part 1: The ‘Why?’ – David Morel, PTE

Art – Curriculum conversations: art

History – Some notes on KS3 planning

English – Why a thematic curriculum is brilliant for Key Stage 3 English (and why it’s also great for your GCSE students too) Anthony Cokerill

Books/Magazines

The Curriculum – Gallimaufry to coherence – Mary Myatt

Chartered College of Teaching – Issue 6 – Broad and Balanced curriculum 

Videos

Other resources

 

‘Tight to good, loose to outstanding’

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What a load of tripe. Someone, somewhere must’ve used this at an education leadership conference and leaders have taken this soundbite and used it in their own school/organisation.

Amongst it’s many flaws are the fact that it’s linking school improvement by Ofsted grade. But more worryingly for teachers, I’ve only ever heard this used to justify making teachers do things the same; to control teaching & systems.

I’ve seen this manifest itself in many ways in schools:

  • Books must all have the same format
  • Assessments must all have the same proforma
  • All lessons must start in the same way
  • All lessons must be structured in the same way or feature a set of ‘non-negotiables’ e.g. there must be ‘mini plenaries’ throughout the lesson
  • All teachers must say ‘X’ or write ‘X’ on the board for every lesson

It seems to be a common feature of schools that are struggling and leaders that really don’t know how to change things. Christine Gilbert in this NCSL report suggests the same: https://dera.ioe.ac.uk/14919/1/towards-a-self-improving-system-school-accountability-thinkpiece%5B1%5D.pdf 

tight

There is a fine line between following a set of agreed principles that can contribute to good practice and telling teachers exactly how they should teach, how their lessons should be structured and what they should be teaching.

Struggling leaders jump in on the ‘you will do it this way’ (regardless of subject, teacher, class etc) instead of saying ‘a principle we would like to uphold is X. How might this be exemplified in your subject/teaching/class?’

Why? Because it is much easier to dictate to all your staff to do it one way than to work with individuals on what might look best in their context. To work at a subject level requires trust of subject leaders, giving them time to think about this, giving them time to discuss ideas, time to implement things, time to review it and crucially the expectation that it will never be a complete or perfect system, but can be tweaked or changed without repercussion.

Silver bullet

This is an important point. Struggling schools want the ‘silver bullet’. They either think they’ll find it from another school that seems to be doing well and can copy it, in the belief it will instantly transform their school or they come up with something that they implement across the school but as many leaders don’t have a full curriculum comprehension (they don’t understand how all subjects ‘work’ and are pedagogically organised), probably works well in some subjects but is totally inappropriate for others. This is becoming more apparent in some MATs that are enforcing common practices across its schools. Even when the schools are very different.

So when they’ve ‘launched’ this great idea with staff and told them in a 2 hour Monday meeting what it is and how they expect to see it in every book/lesson, they’ve heavily invested in it. They’ve spent time on it, discussed it at senior level, made a nice powerpoint to explain it and perhaps more crucially for them, this is the thing that ‘makes them a leader’. Their ego and reputation as a school leader is attached to it. It HAS to work, regardless if it really does or not’.

I’ve seen schools spend hours and hours doing these things and anyone that’s been in the school a long time, could list all the things that have been introduced and then suddenly ditched without explanation or even an email to say ‘we’re not doing X any more’.

Consistency

The observational consistency that these things bring is a good thing for leaders. If they see the purple pens being used by students then it must be working. If they walk into the start of a lesson and there are objectives on the board and students are doing a ‘do now’ task then everything is running smoothly.  If a visitor comes they can confidently tell them what they will see in the school. It all looks very organised and consistent.

What they lack is any evaluation of the impact that they’re having on learning. Of course, any observations of these things are superficial. Just because a student used the purple pen in their work, how could an external observer ever really know if they’ve made any progress in that work without having an in-depth discussion with the teacher and with the student about context?

There are a few schools where there has worked. But the difference is that their common practices were initially based on the key principles they want to uphold. They are very clear about the what and the why. It’s not just the whim of a leader that’s new to the role and wants to make a mark in their position or something heard at a national conference. In these schools it is part of the whole school ethos, not something that senior leaders enforce on bewildered teachers.

I am also not talking about certain things where I believe teachers should be doing exactly the same thing in their teaching. I believe every child should be taught the same content and a scheme should outline that, and teachers should ensure they cover it. How they do this is up to them. I also believe that any assessment processes should be the same between teachers in the same subject. The crucial difference is that these consistencies have been decided at subject level. They should have been developed as a department, with all staff involved, where practical. They are appropriate for the subject and have been developed with subject expertise.

And now we’re ‘Good’….

The final flaw is that I’ve never heard anyone saying ‘we’re now good/outstanding so you can all do what you want’ or ‘we won’t do X any more’.  That would be far too scary. You would then be going back on the things that you said that teachers had to do that got you to ‘good’ and of course they would be seen as worthwhile it’s what moved the school forwards. It’s only used as a justification to ‘get to good’ instead of ‘this is what we believe contributes to make a great school, great education, great teaching and great learning’.

Middle leaders

The final part of this misnomer that is really important is the impact it has on staff independence and consequently staff wellbeing. Instead of trying to address work/life balance by putting on a yoga session or putting cakes in the staffroom, do these things because they’re nice things to do, but address wellbeing by involving staff in their own day-to-day practice.

Middle leaders are the power house of schools, often underused. They are the people that should have the resources to develop good practice in their own areas and lead their department in following the common principles. They have the subject knowledge to be able to apply these principles sensibly to their subject. They have the power to change things yet they’re not always given time or space to develop key ideas that impact curriculum, assessment and teaching.

This doesn’t mean taking the forced idea to middle leaders and telling them to enforce it. It’s about deciding the basic principles and giving middle leaders the time to work on them. The senior leader gives the power of development to those that will be using it on a day-to-day basis.

Consistency doesn’t mean everyone doing exactly the same thing across a school or MAT. It means that everything that people do, follows the same principles that underpin what the school needs to do to develop. It is communal not dictatorial. It can be invisible. It develops over time, it’s not a silver bullet. It promotes the use of colleague experience and expertise over the role of a senior leader, leading. It’s not ‘anything goes’ or ‘anyone can do anything’ in the classroom. It’s not the entire staff of individuals making up their own thing as they go along. Its consistency comes from the staff themselves and everyone knows that if people are invested in something they will work hard to make it work, way beyond having something forced on them.

So ‘tight to good’ can go in the bin, along with ‘getting the people on the right seats’ and ‘surviving to thriving’.

 

Student note taking; Guided notes & Cornell notes

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For a large part of my lessons, I expect students to take notes. This is from years 7-11. At the start of year 7  we show them a quick powerpoint going through the expectations of note making; what it is and what it isn’t. We show them examples of a good use of notes and then some not so good notes and get them to explain why.

One way I make sure that students see the value of note taking is that at the start of the teaching part of my lesson, if I need to connect to prior learning I ask them to open their books and I ask them questions for which I know they have the answers in their notes. No-one can say ‘I don’t know’ as it’s there in black and white. This teaches students that organisation of notes is important as you should be able to find what you need quickly. It also teaches them that notes can be a good way to keep important information. I see these as important skills to develop early on for students so when they go on to further study they can do this effectively without being told.

The Learning Scientists have blogged on note taking and various ideas about how it can be done here.

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Some students become independent in this and create well presented, logical notes. Others stick to pages of bullet points. However, I’m starting to ponder using guided notes at specific stages to support students in their note taking.

Guided notes

We have used a very simple version of guided notes for our some of our topics at core RE. It makes things so much easier for students to see what we’re working on and as we see them once a fortnight it creates the ‘whole picture’ for them, that we add to each lesson.

What are guided notes?

They are a kind of template that students can use to write notes on. They provide a simple framework or structure for the notes but are topic specific, unlike Cornell notes. The teacher needs to create these in advance with headings, key areas and prompts. Students then fill in the content during the lesson. It creates an organised set of notes and the advantage is, you can see if the student has completed each part quickly with a visual check.

Why use them?

Research suggests that using guided notes can help with learning. If we reduce the cognitive load of students having to think about presentation then they only need focus on the content.

They provide a ‘complete picture’ for students. They know that they have notes on everything needed. They can see how things link and combine to create the topic they’re studying.

A huge advantage in my practice is that it is really obvious when a student hasn’t completed them. This may be to lack of work in class or absence. The gaps are very clear. With my class load, much of my ‘marking’ is actually checking completion. This structure makes its very obvious of any gaps.

Another key reason why I am now contemplating using them more is that in our GCSE course there is very specific wording in the specification that I feel could catch our students out. Instead of saying ‘Why is Hajj important to Muslims’ it says ‘the role and significance of the pilgrimage to Makkah including origins’. The words ‘role’, ‘significance’ and ‘origins’ could throw them in a question so if we create the guided notes using this terminology it should help them become used to it. We will also use this in our quizzes/exam questions.

Muhammad summary

Finally, they can be really useful for review/recall/’revision’. You can give them to students and get them to complete them using only what they already know. Some call it a ‘brain dump’ but this is structured. Once they’ve exhausted what they know. They can complete using their original version or their own notes to complete the whole thing.

Possible issues

Firstly, we need to create these. It’s not difficult but it’s another thing to add to the list. The benefit is that once they’re done for the GCSE they’re done for all groups.

My main concern is that my lessons just become a ‘fill in the sheet’ lesson. Students get so focused on completing the sheet that the flexibility of the lesson disappears. If they need to make extra notes it could increase the cognitive load for some students going between resources.

Finally, if we create them for some parts of the course, will they expect them for all. I’m not sure about this. Will we just end up with booklets with them to complete and lose some of the beauty and extension of independent notes?

guided notes

Cornell notes

I’ve not used these but I know people that do. I think that they may require more independent organisation so may be more useful for sixth form/16+ students.

This article shows what they are and how to use them https://www.wikihow.com/Take-Cornell-Notes

Examples from teachers on how they use them:

@MissLower

Andy Lewis @AndyLewis_RE 

The Big Picture

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One day, as an adult I was listening to the radio and a piece of classical music came on that I somehow recognised. I knew how it went and unexpectedly realised how.

When I was a child, I used to have flute lessons. I was fairly rubbish. Every week at my lesson we’d go through the same pieces of music. I played the notes as I could and tried to play each if them for the right amount of time. However I didn’t have any idea what those notes were doing all together. Once or twice my teacher would play it for me but not enough to give me a sense of what the whole piece was about.

This made me wonder, why hadn’t she played the whole thing to me? Why didn’t she let me hear how my flute part fitted in? How the notes could’ve been interpreted into the whole piece? Why didn’t she show me the ‘bigger picture’?


I’m an advocate of giving students a copy of the specification at GCSE/A level. It gives them a sense of everything that is needed as a minimum. It’s not everything but it is better than them not being aware of the minimum requirements. However, are there other ways we can do this to help them makes those links and understand something as it’s whole?

Concept maps

At ResearchED Ipswich last week I had a fascinating discussion with Oliver Caviglioli. He reminded me of how important the bigger picture is and it’s important role in learning. He is a huge advocate of concept maps as a tool to enable this.

So, another one of the plans on my long ‘to-do’ list is to create these concept maps for GCSE. I can really see how they can allow students to see how Christianity and Islam function and the connections between key concepts.

Concept maps differ from mindmaps as they have words linking them (usually verbs) to see the relationship between them. They’re actually very difficult to make as it’s easy to over complicate straight away and there are so many links between concepts it can become spaghetti like.

Modelling

In our whole staff CPD this week I shared how one of our principles for learning, ‘transform’, includes ‘model’.

We discussed that we often learn by seeing something in its final and completed form. It gives a sense of what we’re trying to achieve and what it ‘looks like’. Examples of how to do this are numerous and depend on the subject:

  • Giving an essay to students writing an essay
  • Showing a completed product in DT
  • Hearing the word/sentence in MFL
  • Worked examples in maths
  • Demonstration in PE
  • Using a timeline in History/RE
  • Exam question answers (all subjects)

Without these, how do we expect our students to understand what they are working towards? Lessons and homework are mainly spent on the key concepts and the detail within these. It’s easy to forget how they all link up. Some students may do this themselves when they start to make the links but many won’t. We need to provide them with the means to ‘see’ this regularly throughout their learning. We now plan to show model exam questions at least once a half term and have created these centrally so we use the same resource for all students.

  • How do you show students the bigger picture?

  • How often do you reference back to it?

  • When do you reference back to it?

  • How do you know all students are getting the same ‘bigger picture’?

  • Sometimes the exam ‘big picture’ isn’t how it ‘really’ is, how can you approach this with students.

Ditch ‘revision’ – A trial of Independent Review from day one

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Revision in Secondary schools is usually perceived as something that is either done before a test or towards the end of year 11. Both of these can be considered as cramming or ‘massed practice’; doing all the revision at one time. Annoyingly, it does has an effect on results and it’s this last minute ‘hit’ that people attribute to success in exams.

I have argued for a long time that we need to ditch this idea and teach well from day 1. I have blogged on this here but essentially it means that subject material is reviewed and tested on from day 1, in order to remember things long term. This is known as ‘spaced’ or ‘distributed’ practice. Research suggests that this far outweighs massed practice yet schools around the country continue to spend hours in teacher’s lunch times, after school and holidays to complete massed practice. Safe in the knowledge it will make a difference.

Roediger, H. L. III, & Pyc, M. A. (2012). Inexpensive techniques to improve education: Applying cognitive psychology to enhance educational practice. Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition, 1(4), 242-248.

I strongly believe that telling the majority of students to do this themselves is nonsense. Telling students to ‘revise’ is as effective as telling children to ‘behave’ ; they can’t, they need structures and modelling. Most adults wouldn’t have the discipline to organise it. We need to do it for the students, whilst modelling it for them to do independently. Which leads me to our current trial…..

Independent retrieval practice

I think we’re probably now sorted on doing everything we can in GCSE RS including curriculum design, the things we do in lessons and how we structure the homework to ensure that retrieval is distributed. This alone will have impact. However we also want students to do some of this themselves, so we are in the process of setting up a system for independent retrieval practice.

Retrieval checklist card

These cards will be issued to GCSE students from year 9. They have the specification (and more) on them and then a set of possible tasks to complete that require retrieval or processing of content.

Read+

We will probably add to these cards the page number for each topic. They then can go to the page and read the content and/or read their own notes. However this isn’t enough, they must process it in some way. We will make suggestions, for example create a mindmap or bullet notes.

Quiz

They will need to quiz themselves. This will mostly be using our in house created quizzes which are online marked on google forms. They access these via our subject website. If not they can also use Seneca Learning as it specifically has AQA GCSE.

4/5/12 marks

These are GCSE exam questions. They need to complete a question on the topic. This helps them to transfers the knowledge into a specific type of skilled question.

There will be several ways to access exam questions. The revision guides have suggested exam questions for each topic on each page. Secondly, we will have an exam questions area in classrooms where they can come and take a paper which has several optional questions on it for that topic, and choose one to complete. Finally, we have these questions on our subject website.

Accountability

I think students will need some accountability on these. What stops them from just ticking everything? Firstly, we will be very clear that the reward here is learning itself. Extrinsic rewards can undermine learning.

If they complete a quiz I get an email. We can then sign the card if needed. If they complete an exam question we can mark it and check the card. If they create notes from reading+ we can check these. I think we’ll give them a small retrieval exercise book to use to keep these safe.

It will be light touch. A public ‘well done’ or an email home is all it takes. This is supposed to be independent and not create much work for us teachers. We’re supporting their independence and self-regulation. We need to praise completion for the sole reason it will benefit them and the reward will be on results day and well beyond. This structure can be used beyond their time with us. If we show them the ‘why’ and the ‘how’, they can use these strategies in all further study.

Cumulative cards

The year 9 card will have highlighted the topics we cover in year 9 so they can focus on those. They also will only have certain exam questions covered in year 9 so their card won’t have them all.

This will increase with the year 10 card and finally the year 11 card is everything.

The year 9 card won’t have 12 mark questions as we teach that in year 10

I’m adamant we will not be running Year 11 ‘revision’ sessions; these are often just re-teaching with pizza. However we will provide students the space needed for this independent study. Thursday and Friday lunchtimes they can come to a quiet room, with their lunch and choose to do any of these or their RS homework.

However this isn’t just for year 11, it’s for all GCSE students. They need to realise it starts from day one. This is a structured system from the start of their GCSE study. We need them to understand that the best learning happens over time. We need them to appreciate that every single lesson counts, so does homework. We’ve put in retrieval for them and now it’s time for them to try it out themselves.

Trial

So this is our trial. We will tweak the cards etc as we go along. We will ask the students what works and what doesn’t. All we need now is a name for it. Independent revision? Retrieval practice? Suggestions welcome.

Curriculum intent & design – how not to do it

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Whilst curriculum design may be the remit of subject leaders, how much training and guidance do they get? How much time do they get to really think about the principles and values they want to underpin their subject?

From a discussion with a colleague about curriculum, I thought I’d ponder those things that in themselves may not be good rationales designing a subject curriculum or processes for creating schemes.

So this list is intended to support thinking more deeply about what we do. This is in an ideal world of course; we all have limiting factors in decisions we make.

Some are deliberately ambiguous but included to encourage thought and discussion.

How not to do it….

Design & Ordering

  1. Choose the most ‘fun’ topics first
  2. Choose topics in pre-GCSE year just to get students to choose the subject (and then wonder why the GCSE isn’t always like that)
  3. Put topics at the start that need foundational knowledge to understand when they don’t have that knowledge
  4. Design them on your favourite topics
  5. Design schemes that are completely linear and don’t develop skills and knowledge over time
  6. Asking someone else for their curriculum/schemes on a forum and using that (without any thought to the underpinning principles and values)
  7. Teaching a series of stand alone units with no links between units.
  8. Have no consideration of how students will remember over the long term
  9. Trying to include everything and anything to tick a box when it might not be appropriate (literacy, numeracy, SMSC etc)
  10. Designing it for a particular group (that may be underachieving) e.g boys, Pupil Premium.
  11. Design the curriculum around a data collection system (or any other accountability system)
  12. Teach a course following through a text book from start to finish (without consideration if order is appropriate)

Assessment

  1. Making up assessments after you’ve taught the topic; an after thought
  2. Creating assessment tasks that don’t assess the things you’ve taught
  3. Asking on a forum for an assessment task (when no-one knows what you are going to/have taught)
  4. Designing an assessment task for its engagement/fun with little relevance to outcomes of learning
  5. Think that written assessments are bad
  6. Put in assessment points just to meet data entry requirements
  7. Assess using just GCSE exam questions at key stage 3

Subject content

  1. Teach GCSE specifications at key stage 3 as the curriculum
  2. Teaching knowledge and no skills
  3. Teaching skills and no knowledge
  4. Allow each teacher to decide what they’re going to teach from a subject, so students in the same year group all learn different things
  5. Including ‘everything’ at a superficial level without depth
  6. Choosing ‘easy’ topics that lack rigour
  7. Have no awareness of how your subject links to other subjects
  8. Choosing topics solely due to the existing books/texts you have

Students

  1. Limiting your curriculum it for your ‘type’ of students (e.g. perceived ability, socio-economic status etc)
  2. Ask students what topics they want to learn about and only include them
  3. Designing a curriculum based on skills of the future; preparing students for ‘life’

Knowledge rich teaching? How can it not be?

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This is the third and final post on how I would describe my teaching as ‘knowledge rich’. The previous posts in the series can be accessed below.

  1. Planning schemes using knowledge
  2. Direct instruction with focus on context and linking of contexts
  3. Direct instruction & note taking
  4. Testing
  5. Foundation knowledge & depth of knowledge
  6. Use of etymology & focus on keywords

This post will focus on what I do in my classroom to ensure that students are learning the content that I teach them. Learning in this context means to me that in a day or a week or a month and beyond, they can recall correct information.

Direct Instruction

If we are clear on what it is that we want students to know and understand we then have a decision to make on how they get to know it.

My definition of direct instruction here, is just me explaining to them some of the important knowledge or skills. It’s usually me talking, using a pen and whiteboard and sometimes using a powerpoint slide particularly with things like quotations from holy texts or important pictures, that are easier to prepare in advance.

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I use images and diagrams to help explain where appropriate. I use the whiteboard as the visual representation of the concept or ideas I’m trying to teach. Anyone walking in and seeing this will probably think it’s a mess but it’s a representation of layers of explanation. It shows a process of explanation not an image of one thing. I include key words, definitions, visual representations of abstract concepts and useless drawings of important things (stick people are common).

But my belief is that this direct instruction isn’t a passive, inactive time for students. It’s the time when they get to think about things; process them. Almost as soon as I start to explain something a hand will go up with a question. That question leads to further explanations. Some questions spark a discussion in the class. Students are processing the information I’ve given them. This is a process that leads to understanding. They ask the questions that help clarify their thoughts. They engage with the content directly. Silently, in their heads, some will be processing what they think about it. I can ‘see’ them pondering the ‘what ifs’ and struggling with the ‘this is different to me’. They’re unusually silent when I’m explaining.  They want more of the ‘stuff’. This is the part of the lesson where they make the links to prior learning. They are developing their schema of the topic and it’s exciting! They can suddenly make more connections and sometimes they audibly share these revelations. They feel clever as they would never have understood this part if they didn’t know the stuff from last lesson. Every episode of direct instruction helps build up a picture. The sharing of and processing of this knowledge is the foundation of everything else they will do.

“And here’s how you should think about memory: it’s the residue of thought, meaning that the more you think about something, the more likely it is that you’ll remember it later……You remember what you think about, but not every fleeting thought—only those matters to which you really devote some attention.”

Daniel Willingham https://www.aft.org/sites/default/files/periodicals/willingham_0.pdf

Context

One way in which I have developed what I teach in this part of the lesson is deliberately focusing on context. There is a danger when thinking about teaching knowledge that each lesson becomes a disconnected series of the important things they should know.

An RE example

For example, if teaching Judaism some people teach: one lesson on Jewish religious clothing, one lesson on Passover, one lesson on the synagogue, one lesson on the Torah etc I have done this in the past when I thought that students needed to know as much about a religion as possible in the time frame. I have now pulled back from this and spend this time looking at the context and core concepts that will allow students to understand things in much more depth. We spend a few lessons looking at Abraham and Moses and the importance of their relationship with God and the situations they were in. We look at why the commandments/mitzvot were a really important thing for them at the time and how the covenant was made. The context of this is very important in understanding Judaism and what Jews do today. If I’d just done lessons on random aspects of Judaism the depth of their knowledge and understanding would be limited as they wouldn’t have the foundations to fully understand the context of each thing within Jewish history.

This means that even though I don’t teach them about the synagogue, if they did their own reading they would understand much of what they read due to the important concepts they had already learnt.

Note taking

There is almost a set routine to this important part of the lesson where I am going to explain important things. Their books and pens are ready, everyone is looking to the board and there is complete silence.

To emphasise the importance they are told to take notes after I’ve explained each part.

This starts in Year 7. Students have to do a mixture of compulsory note taking and then independent note taking. For example I may write a date or definition on the board and they should copy this. However unless I say they have to, they can opt to take additional notes. I leave this up to them.

I show students good and bad examples of note taking from the start. I make suggestions of how they present their work. I want to encourage independence and pride in their work. Some are more creative than others.

I will often start the next lesson telling them to open their books on their notes and specifically ask questions that I know they have the answer to in their books. This means I can ask anybody in the room the same question and expect an answer. I will give them time to look in their notes. This emphasises to them the importance of these notes; they will need them. It also promotes a sense of ‘learning’; ‘we already know this’. It reminds them of the important foundational knowledge we’ve already covered that will be built on in this next lesson.

Testing

I have blogged many times on how I do this. It is such a big part of my teaching, lessons and homework.

In relation to the focus of this blog, these are the strategies I use to help them to remember the important knowledge we’ve learnt in class. If they don’t remember the things I’ve explained then what was the point of the lesson? Too often, teachers soldier on to the ‘next lesson’ in their scheme to move forward and forget the important part of helping students to remember each step along the way. These tests are my way of helping students to remember.  All a teacher needs to do is ask themselves these questions at the end of each lesson: When will students use/recall this knowledge again? How will I help them to do this? If the answer is ‘never’, you might as well have not taught that lesson.

Knowledge isn’t everything….

..but it’s more important than I used to think.

These three posts have explained how I have developed my practice to promote the importance of knowledge. They’re snapshots of the aspects of my teaching that I believe put knowledge at the centre. It’s not everything I do. Learning is much more complex than just knowledge.  However I can see the significant difference this emphasis on knowledge had made to student understanding when they have the vocabulary and understanding to be able to ask well-informed questions and discuss things they would never have had the foundations to ask before.

A focus on knowledge – knowledge in the curriculum

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This is the 2nd post in a series on how my teaching has become more ‘knowledge rich’. The overview of the series is here.

  1. Planning schemes using knowledge
  2. Direct instruction with focus on context and linking of contexts
  3. Direct instruction & note taking
  4. Testing
  5. Foundation knowledge & depth of knowledge
  6. Use of etymology & focus on keywords

This post will focus on curriculum; what we teach and how it’s organised.

To some extent my experience of teaching will be very different to most. With RE we don’t have a national curriculum with specified content. Agreed syllabuses vary in detail of what should be taught. Some give a small list of ‘themes’ without any detail about what should be taught within them. It essentially means that  many Heads of RE are free to decide whatever they teach.

Also, lessons are infrequent. At the height of nonsense, I taught whole cohorts GCSE, on one lesson a fortnight. Just ponder that for a few moments if you’ve never done it. A child is off sick, you don’t see them for a month. It’s a bank holiday, you don’t see them for a month. It’s Easter holiday, you don’t see them for six weeks. Combine them and you realise you’ll be lucky to get 15 lessons a year; the equivalent to a few weeks for core subjects.

This is relevant to my teaching because now I am very lucky to be in a school that gives more time to RE than I’ve ever had before. This means I can cover more subject content and have to think more carefully about how it all fits together.

Knowledge schemes

One key difference is in our schemes. I don’t really care what you call them but ours are schemes of knowledge or schemes of learning not schemes of work.

Some people write schemes that are based around a question or a statement and then the rest is activities or ideas of what the students can do in the lesson. They focus more on the student activity than what they need to learn.

Ours now take the format of a fairly detailed list of what we must teach the students. For example, instead of putting ‘The life of Muhammad’ and leaving it to teachers to decide what might/might not be included, we specify what we must teach. This includes the key vocabulary we want them all to know. It’s not differentiated. It’s the same for all students.

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You might argue that this detail is down to teacher autonomy. It’s not taking this away. It’s up to the teacher ‘how’ they teach it but the important aspect is that every student in every class, no matter who the teacher, gets the same level of knowledge.

The rest of the document is relevant resources that can help explain, emphasise or be used to reinforce this knowledge.  It’s about what helps them to learn the key content not what activities can fill the lesson.

Skills as knowledge

Without getting into the skills vs knowledge debate, I have rethought what I think a skill is and how it can be learnt.

I believe that skills can mostly be learnt as knowledge. That knowledge is the skill broken down into its parts. I will use the example of an essay to explain.

You could say that writing a good essay is a skill in many subjects. However if we unpick what makes a good essay we can teach it as knowledge of how to write a good essay. These might include:

  • Using quotations to support points
  • Logical organisation of points
  • Use of paragraphs
  • Selection of relevant and most important content
  • A conclusion

You can then go into each of these and think what makes ‘a good one’ of these and unpick it further. For example with quotations:

  • Use correct punctuation
  • Correct use of ellipsis
  • Reference to source/author/speaker
  • Embedded into reasoning
  • Explained
  • Linked to point being made

etc

There is knowledge here of what correct punctuation is when using a quotation. Students can learn this as the knowledge of this skill. It is possible to teach these and to assess them fairly simply.  I will discuss this more in the next blog.

Overall, students can understand the skill of writing a good essay as a collection of knowledge about how to do each element. I realise there are some elements that don’t lend itself to this method, for example writing ‘with flair’ or ‘coherence’ are much more difficult to teach. But in my experience these foundation blocks mean that all students can work on small aspects of a larger task and make small improvements which then contribute to the whole.  Students will probably not just improve writing essays if you keep getting them writing essays. It’s these small parts of the knowledge that can help them to improve.

Foundation knowledge and depth of knowledge

I now teach in much more depth. In the past I would skim over key concepts or words. This was partly due to time. When you see them once a fortnight you rush through the basics of what they need to know and you have no time to do any more.

Now I have more time, especially at GCSE. I’m not ignorant of the fact that many colleagues don’t have this luxury. I have time to linger over these key things that are really important and crucially I give time to things that aren’t on the specification.

For example, the life of Muhammad. ‘Muhammad’ is on the specification but I used to do some basics of how he grew up and then what he did as the prophet. I missed out crucial details about what Makkah was like at the time, the focus on polytheism, social injustices and his final speech. Now we spend more time looking at these. If they understand these they have a much better chance of understanding things later on in the course e.g the role of women. They don’t realise it, but much of his final speech becomes the Islam specification content later on. The difference is that before I would teach the specification and link things in, now I teach these things as foundations and within context, knowing they will be applied later. This is foundation knowledge.

(As an aside, for RE colleagues, this is where I am wary of thematic schemes. They can lack the foundation knowledge needed for students to truly understand the concepts to then go on to compare and contrast.)

I also look more at things like etymology (discussed in my first post) and complex beliefs. My students seem to be fascinated the more we delve into things. I don’t find it dry as some colleagues do. It’s fascinating! What isn’t fascinating about discussing that some believe that the bread and wine become the blood and body of Jesus? They seem to love it. Mine know what transubstantiation is even if they don’t fully understand it (many Catholics don’t either!). Learning about holy mysteries are both challenging and interesting for the students.

Piecing together a curriculum

At key stage 3 we have designed our curriculum so that the knowledge of key skills is repeated over time. Their knowledge of how to argue ‘for and against’, how to use quotations to support points etc is repeated over the key stage. Their knowledge and understanding of these skills develops over the year.

year 7

See how the key skills are repeated and developed (in colour) across the topics

We’ve also designed it so that the foundation knowledge builds over the year. We start with Judaism, then Christianity and then Islam. Not only does it help understand chronology but they can see the similarities and differences much clearer and the contexts of each of them. They probably can’t truly grasp why Jesus being a Jew was very important in his arrest and Crucifixion if they haven’t studied the mitzvot and context of Judaism at the time.

I will explain key stage 4 in more detail in the next blog which will look at pedagogy and testing.