Thinking strategically

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I once went to an important meeting, with several schools leaders, that I thought was going to be a highly strategical, team planning meeting. I left disappointed. We didn’t discuss anything strategic at all; it was all immediate concerns and very little concrete planning. It was the perfect time and place for discussing the future challenges ahead but it didn’t happen. I’ve since deduced that it’s because the people that steered the meeting didn’t know what strategical, team planning was. And sadly, in my experience, many school leaders don’t seem to know the difference between strategic planning and daily running of a school.

So in this blog I’m going to share some thoughts. No education or leadership theory. Just some (hopefully) ideas on how we can steer towards strategic thinking and some of the pitfalls (plenty of non-examples…..) You may not agree with me.

What is strategic thinking?

I think it is thinking about the big picture (of a school, of a year group, of a subject, of a faculty etc) and all the parts that it is made up of. Then considering what is working well, what needs tweaking and what needs changing. And then, crucially, how it will be done, when and by whom. Those whom it involves need to involved in the thinking ‘behind’ things to a certain extent. It needs a careful balance of being informed to having too much information. A strategic thinker works out by how much!

Strategy comes in all areas of a school and those with a responsibility should be supported to think strategically. A Head of Year will be swamped with student issues day-in and day-out, how can they be supported to also think strategically? How can a new Head of Science be supported to think strategically about how their department can develop? Strategic thinking needs to be modelled from the ‘top’ but should be expected (with support, time and guidance) from everyone, no matter what their role is.

Working out what works

Working out what works is the the foundation of strategic thinking. But it has to be what works for the individual school. In my experience the least strategic-thinking schools just borrow ideas/policies from other schools without thinking about them. ‘If school A does this and they get good results then if we do it, we will also get good results’. It just doesn’t work like that.

You can’t try everything. Staff and students will become apathetic to every new initiative. Strategic thinking needs to take into consideration a range of things and then come up with a ‘best bet.’:

  • What other schools do – this can be eye opening – especially if leaders have been at the same school for a while. Not for copying but for having a space to watch and learn from others, to then consider what may or may not be useful for your school. This is best done once the initial strategic thinking has been done so there can be a focus on specific things. This has been made much easier and time effective with people blogging on what they do.
  • Research – There is very little research about improving maths GCSE grades for unmotivated boys in School A. However, there is research about attitudes in maths, unmotivated boys and subject specialist knowledge of how maths works. These together might help.
  • Theory – Leadership theory, change theory, psychology, motivation theory….. can help to work more systemically through things.
  • Collective experience – Did you know that your head of Drama used to be a police officer? What could they contribute? Did you know that your Head of year 9 has a masters degree focusing on student motivation? What did they find out that might help us? Have you considered that the teacher that has been in the school for 20 years might know how parents in this community think and have responded to things in the past? How might this influence our communications? If you think that the more you’re paid the more you know, you’re seriously missing out on collective expertise.

The enemies of strategic thinking

Watch out for these!

  • Egos – if people are protective of their role, feel threatened, think that they are more important than the whole the process will be stunted
  • Fear of change – ‘we’ve always done it this way’ is a good reason to keep doing something if it is effective. If not, it might be time to change. Strategic thinking requires conscious, thoughtful change management.
  • Lack of context– ‘I did this at my last school’ might be a great idea but your last school wasn’t exactly the same. ‘ It’s great to have external feedback and support, but unless they have a good understanding of context, their advice might not be appropriate. Dylan Wiliam said ‘everything works somewhere, nothing works everywhere.’
  • Onerous paperwork – It’s tempting to create reams of plans and evaluations with sheets and sheets of data. Keep it simple.
  • Generalisations – Making everyone do the same thing isn’t strategic it’s controlling e.g. all staff sit in the same training session about ‘questioning’. Consistency in strategic thinking comes from looking at individual cases and developing from there. Why make all subject leaders do exactly the same thing when only some need to become better at it? (note: this is not about school routines, everyone should do the same thing to ensure power through consistency)
  • Time – If anything is going to fall to the bottom of the ‘to-do’ list it’s the things that may not seem urgent right now
  • It’s only for Senior Leaders – Power – If you think that your voice is more important or that people should do as you say, you will never have a strategically run school. If everyone in a school thinks strategically then it means that the complex network contributes to the whole school. It doesn’t just fall onto senior leaders. Middle leaders probably have the capacity to make the most difference under their remit. If they’re thinking strategically then it becomes powerful for the whole school.
  • Lack of trust – often manifests in micro-management. If you think strategically, you will have systems that ensure people are free to work as they want but with structures that ensure that everyone is doing as they should. A fine balance which many leaders struggle to implement.
  • Fire-fighting – usually linked to time. Most schools fail to be strategic because the day-to-day running of a school is so busy (even chaotic?) that there is no time or brain space to deal with the strategic. That’s why behaviour systems (the biggest time sapper?) and day-to-day tasks (marking?, planning, data) should be kept to a minimum to allow for the much more powerful thinking to happen. A tough one in challenging schools. It takes strong leadership to overcome this way of working.
  • New shiny things – when a new shiny thing comes along it’s so tempting to want to do it in your school. Unless it fits directly into the strategic plan it will detract from the main thing.
  • I’m right, you’re wrong – If you think that strategic thinking is a matter of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ you will struggle to see that others have things to offer and maybe, there is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’
  • No reviewing – How is the plan going? Are things working? Not just what you think, what about those involved? Are you prepared to hear things that you don’t want to? At what point should something be ditched? How will that be communicated or will it just fizzle out? What impact does that have on motivation and collegiality?

Proxies for strategic thinking (they may contribute but they aren’t enough)

Don’t be fooled. Strategic thinking is much deeper than just…

  • Writing a development plan
  • Writing a SEF
  • Asking people what they think e.g. staff surveys, parents surveys, student panels etc
  • Meetings….and more meetings
  • Reading (and making others read) ‘research’
  • Visiting another (random) school
  • Completing leadership qualifications e.g. NPQH
  • Reading someone’s blog and telling others what it said
  • Putting out a regular newsletter/bulletin

Photo by Felix Mittermeier on Unsplash

Photo by Frank Albrecht on Unsplash

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Disciplinary knowledge in RE – How does it impact the curriculum?

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After a few chats this weeks about assessment and the disciplines in RE, I’ve been thinking about how we might approach using disciplinary knowledge in the RE curriculum and the teaching of it in RE lessons. (For more on the disciplines in RE and further reading Disciplines: A new direction for assessment in RE?)

In the absence of a National Curriculum for RE to guide the way, the CORE report (2018) proposes that ‘Pupils must be taught:….the different ways in which religion and worldviews can be understood, interpreted and studied, including through a wide range of academic disciplines and through direct encounter and discussion with individuals and communities who hold these worldviews.‘ It suggests … ‘ Religion and Worldviews should enable young people to…develop skills relevant to various disciplinary approaches to Religion and Worldviews, including qualitative and quantitative research skills (at age appropriate levels), philosophical enquiry, hermeneutical approaches to texts, and approaches for understanding the arts, rituals, practices and other forms of expression.”

For many, this is a new way to consider curriculum content and ways of teaching about religion & belief in RE. The inclusion of disciplinary knowledge is relatively new and I’ve seen little about the practical implications on curriculum writing (please do point me to anything!).

In this blog, I’ve decided to present my thoughts in different models, each with a different approach to including the disciplines. For the sake of simplicity I will use Theology, Philosophy and Social Sciences (to include history, geography, sociology etc) as the disciplines that I’m referring to. These are not in a hierarchy of recommendation/best practice but I think they show how the disciplines can be part of the RE curriculum ranging from ‘not at all’ to dominating it.

Model 1 – No discernible disciplinary knowledge

This curriculum model is created using purely substantive knowledge including substantive concepts in what is taught. It does not reference implicitly or explicitly any of the disciplines. It would study everything as facts but without any mention of where they come from and how we know that they are facts. It could include diversity of views but no reference to the root of the differences. In reality this type of curriculum and teaching would be very difficult to do but possible in a short period of time e.g. within a lesson, and may be especially accessible to a teacher that has little background knowledge to address the ‘how do we know this?’ question when looking at substantive knowledge.

In this model it is not possible assess disciplinary knowledge as it doesn’t exist. Progression would purely be shown through accumulation of substantive knowledge.

(I do suspect that some ‘anti’ knowledge-rich people (‘It’s just facts and more facts’) believe that this is what happens in some RE classrooms. I’m really not sure it’s possible though).

Model 2 – Implicit disciplinary knowledge

This curriculum uses the methods (and resources associated with it) of disciplinary knowledge in the curriculum but without any explicit recognition of them with students. The curriculum may be based on a series of enquiry questions that specifically relate to a discipline/s being used which the teacher may be aware of.

An example might be whilst studying the Trinity, students look at the story of Pentecost in the Bible and what the Catechism says about the Trinity and analyses them but without mention that these skills might be used when using a Theological approach. It also wouldn’t be made explicit what the key features of this approach might take e.g. hermeneutical approach thinking about how we read a text. Students are exposed to the methods but there is no requirement to know what they are and how they might differ depending on the discipline.

I think (please correct me if I’m wrong) the Big Ideas for Religious Education follows this model. The website says that the Big Ideas have been derived from disciplinary knowledge ‘The Big Ideas proposed for RE in this project are a product of disciplinary thinking and reflect both the processes of study and some of the key theories to emerge from the disciplines with which RE is most closely associated: religious studies, theology, philosophy, and others drawn from humanities, social sciences and the arts.‘ However, the model doesn’t require students to explicitly learn the names of the disciplines and specific methods and tools as they are embedded in the Big Ideas.

In this model, it might be possible to assess disciplinary knowledge by specifically telling the students to use the methods in a task however it would relate wholly to them recalling substantive knowledge.

I suspect that most RE curricula and teaching of, follows this model, with a mixture of those that are consciously/deliberately doing it and those that are not. We are teaching the disciplinary stuff but we’re not really conscious of it. If you’re at this stage I really recommend taking a look at the ‘Balanced RE’ self audit tool (primary and secondary) to start to think about how your curriculum may or may not use one or more of the disciplines. This is a start to thinking more consciously about how they work.

Model 3 – Explicit disciplinary knowledge modelled

The third model is the same as above however the curriculum and consequent taught lessons makes students aware of the disciplines. There may be an ‘introduction’ to them as a whole and/or individually, and the teacher will mention which discipline/s are being used at any given point. The use of disciplinary knowledge is how the teacher teaches the substantive knowledge.

Progression of learning would come ‘overall’ having been exposed to the disciplines several times over a key stage/s so that student recognise how the teacher dealt with the source from a disciplinary perspective. Students would recognise that they are looking through a specific discipline but would not be expected to know how to do this autonomously. Assessment could over time start to include giving students the chance to use disciplinary skills but it would be over a longer period of time having repeated each discipline several times.

Model 4 – Explicit disciplinary knowledge taught and used (with direction)

This model deliberately plans for both substantive and disciplinary knowledge to be taught and for students to knowingly use the disciplines in their learning. How structured the disciplinary skills are taught can vary.

I suspect that the Ofsted RE research review may be alluding to this type of model when it says “Some curriculum approaches formalise ‘ways of knowing’ into simplified disciplines, such as ‘theology’, ‘philosophy’ and ‘human/social sciences’. In these cases, the curriculum content is framed as if it were considered by, for example, theologians, philosophers or human/social scientists. These can be taught in simplified ways in primary schools.” Begging the question, what is a ‘simplified way’?

I think (although I’m happy to be corrected!) the REToday ‘Challenging knowledge in RE’ series is a basis of this model, although albeit in small topic chunks and not as a planned curriculum. In one example it introduces students to the discipline through an information sheet including an ‘investigator’ in the field, and then teaches substantive knowledge using the discipline and at the end recommends recalling the details of the discipline to review the learning and how it applies to the discipline. This actively involves the students in the discipline but doesn’t require them to practise it independently. Structure and activities are given to explore the discipline.

In a similar way The Norfolk Agreed syllabus may be used to create a curriculum aligned to this model. It says ‘We need to understand which disciplines it draws on in order to understand the object of investigation and the research methods to employ in RE. This ensures that content chosen for RE is appropriate and well-established within academic traditions and ensures that pupils use and develop a range of subject-specific skills.’ (my emphasis). The implication here is that students are able to use the disciplinary knowledge themselves. This comes through a set of disciplinary questions which are interleaved between the disciplines over the key stages. The exemplar curriculum map shows this as one question approached through one discipline although it does say in the guidance it is possible to use more than one discipline.

In this model, progression comes from knowing the substantive but also knowing what the disciplines are and specifically what you ‘do’ when you use each one however with limits on how they can be used independently.. Therefore, assessment would involve testing both. Assessment could assess:

  • Substantive knowledge by itself e.g. short qus, multiple choice qus EXAMPLE Name the 3 parts of the Trinity
  • Knowledge of the disciplines themselves and how they work EXAMPLE Which discipline would you use if you wanted to find out about beliefs? Which discipline would look at the logic of an argument? What questions would a Theologian ask about this?
  • Substantive knowledge through a discipline EXAMPLE Give the Pentecost story and the questions a Theologian would ask and they have to answer them using the substantive knowledge they’ve learned

The key issue with this model is that significant time is spent teaching what the disciplines are and how they work. To what extent does this mean a reduction in the substantive knowledge taught?

Model 5 – Explicit disciplinary knowledge taught and ‘practised’

This model is as above however, the emphasis is that the curriculum is building towards students being able to use the disciplines independently and confidently.

I think that the RE-searchers model (Freathy et al) possibly aims to do this (please do correct me if I’m wrong) at primary level, through a set of characters. Interestingly it uses self-assessment of the key skills for each character to get students to reflect on their performance/confidence/perceptions.

Progression in this model emphasises if students can use the disciplines, ask the questions and apply the methodologies. When assessed this could take the following forms:

  • Students ability to use the discipline/s independently on previously used material EXAMPLE Give them a copy of the Bible text of Pentecost (already studied) and get them to use a Theological approach to ask appropriate questions about it and identify key parts of the story that link to the Trinity.
  • Students ability to use the taught discipline/s independently on unseen material EXAMPLE Give a survey on belief on the Holy Spirit (previously unseen), using a social science (taught in this topic) approach to ask appropriate questions and analyse the results, linking to beliefs about the Trinity.
  • Students ability to use different discipline/s (not used in this topic)independently on previously used material EXAMPLE Having used a theological approach on the story of Pentecost, ask them to use a Philosophical approach, asking the appropriate questions and coming up with answers
  • Students ability to use different discipline/s (not used in this topic) independently on unseen material EXAMPLE Give a survey on belief on the Holy Spirit (previously unseen), using a social science (not taught in this topic) approach to ask appropriate questions and analyse the results, linking to beliefs about the Trinity.

As above, a key issue here is how much time should proportionally be spent on learning substantive and disciplinary knowledge?

Model 6 – Teaching disciplinary knowledge through the substantive

This model swaps the main curriculum focus from the substantive to the disciplinary. The curriculum is designed so that students’ core learning is about the disciplines and how they work, approached through substantive content. An example of an enquiry question might be ‘How does using a Theological hermeneutical approach to religious texts help us to understand them more? (using Genesis 1-3.). The overall learning is about how to read texts but it uses an example of the Creation narrative in the Bible to exemplify it. A curriculum would therefore develop over time using disciplinary knowledge and progression would be similar to the above bullet points. Students are ‘becoming’ skilled in the disciplines and that is the key method of assessing progression.

This model leads us to ask the question of how we select the substantive material. Are there certain topics that are more conducive to teaching a discipline? If we’re teaching through the disciplines, does the substantive need to be ‘discernibly ‘religious’? (see an analysis of Jayne Eyre using the disciplines by Georgiou & Wright in ‘Reforming RE’ chapter Disciplinarity, religion and worldviews: making the case for theology, philosophy and human/social sciences’)

This model is problematic as it may marginalise the religious/non-religious substantive content as it would spend significant time on learning how to use ‘tools’ for studying it. The Ofsted RE research review says “Pupils need to acquire these components through typical forms of RE content, which are not separated out from their in-depth context.” which makes me think that this model, in its extreme takes the knowledge out of its context which isn’t desirable.

Discussion

Issues with using the disciplines

What is disciplinary knowledge? From my reading of the disciplines and how people are using them in RE it is still unclear what we mean by disciplinary knowledge in RE. Some have interpreted it as the ‘skills’ that students use in RE, others use ‘procedural knowledge’. Should it be separated from substantive and personal knowledge? And as briefly discussed above, are we introducing students to what each discipline is and its methods and/or getting them to use the methods? The REC Draft handbook suggests ‘For younger age groups, drawing on a variety of methods is sufficient, noting with pupils that different methods handle content in different ways and should be evaluated appropriately‘ and then ‘ As pupils make progress through the school, they should be taught how disciplines construct different types of knowledge. This means that there are particular assumptions behind the various disciplines, and different types of question being addressed within them.’ What might this progression look like? What are the different methods and tools we want students to know about for each discipline? Should we use one discipline at a time or more than one? In case we think we are unique in this, this chapter ( Disciplinary knowledge denied?) is a fascinating read in how similar disciplinary issues arise in History. The term ‘disciplinary-lite’ is interesting here. How might these RE models be ‘disciplinary-lite’? i.e. we teach certain aspects of disciplinarity but not all. This is all another blog post.

Assessment is a huge issue. What does progression mean? What does it mean to ‘get better’ at Theology? There is also a danger of making them into a set of levels for each discipline – would that work if they were specific? The REC draft handbook goes back to a levels system in their 3 models to measure progress and so does the Big Ideas assessment model using Anderson and Krathwohl’s Taxonomy as a basis (with no discernible mention of disciplinary knowledge). Assessment and disciplinary knowledge is also a whole blog in itself.

Using enquiry questions – The Ofsted RE research review suggests that we can use specific disciplinary enquiry questions to approach teaching the disciplines however I feel there is a danger that people might think that they are teaching disciplinary knowledge just through an enquiry question rather than what is then taught and the method/s used. Enquiry questions either need to explicitly lead to the use of one discipline or the answering of the question must include the use of a disciplinary methods. For example, in the Norfolk agreed syllabus the questions are colour coded by discipline but just answering that question doesn’t necessarily mean that disciplinary knowledge is being used. In R Kueh, ‘A matter of discipline? On knowledge, curriculum and the disciplinary in RE’, in ‘Professional Reflection: Theory and Practice’, Volume 37, Issue 1, 2019, pages 55 to 59, Richard clarifies “One might think of the way in which different enquiry questions might instead intrinsically be anchored in disciplinary thinking. For example, ‘how have patterns of religion and belief changed over the last century?’ (drawing on the conventions of the social sciences and history), ‘how valid are arguments for the existence of God?’ (drawing on the traditions of philosophy), ‘how persuasive is the case for secularism?’ (drawing on the social sciences, philosophy and theology), ‘what does it mean to have a worldview?’ (drawing on the traditions of religious studies and the social sciences). Here, the disciplinary tradition sets the boundaries for discussion, the conventions to follow, the rules of the game and the legitimacy of the products of pupil work.” We need to think carefully about enquiry questions and how/if they’re used in the curriculum to ensure they promote the use of disciplinary knowledge not just covering substantive content that is masquerading as disciplinary.

I hope that each model is clear and that as reflective practitioners we can see where we are and where we think we want to go. I’m not sure there is a ‘right’ model but I hope that this blog gets people thinking about what using disciplinary knowledge might look like in our curriculum. We can’t even consider assessment until we’re sure what it is that our curriculum does. It’s a long road!

In his Farmington Institute paper ( Professional Disciplinary Dialogue TT428) Paddy Winter summarises…

It is worth noting from the outset that a particular joy of disciplinary knowledge discussions is the need for openness to debate, refinement, and development of ideas.

What do you think?

What’s the point of mock* exams?

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Recently I had to invigilate our year 10 mock exams and whilst walking up and down the aisles, started to think about the purpose of doing mock exams. So I thought I’d pull together some ideas on what are the different purposes for them and the possible pros and cons. You may think it is obvious but from talking to students and teachers, we can have different opinions on their purpose.

I think that the purpose of mock exams is important. It is important because it affects how students respond to them, how they’re run and the implications of what students do in them. If staff/students are at cross-purposes with mocks, it can cause issues. Also, students will naturally assume that all subjects are using mocks in the same way. In my experience, many will be using them differently and I think we should make it clear to students how they’re being used in our own subject.

I personally couldn’t care less about grades. A mock is not there to create a number which is generally meaningless throughout the course. The only grade that matters to me is the real GCSE. I think mocks are about the experience for the students, where a student is ‘at’ with the content and for the feedback that is given. Over the different mocks, this then feeds into preparation for the real exam – in class and out of class. I also think it is important to consider what is on a mock. Why give a pre-written past paper? I think that it depends on the subject/cohort/timing/situation as to what you put into a mock exam. For example, with maths I’m not sure giving a past paper makes any difference because students are practising core maths skills. With other subjects past papers are specific content/case studies/themes that won’t be repeated. They are useful for practise throughout the course but might a mock require a more selective, thought-out paper? We have a year 9 exam, a year 10 exam and two year 11 exams. In RS we use these differently, so this influences what content we select, how they’re run. We don’t use past papers. On the whole we write our own papers to suit the purpose of the exam. I appreciate that this is more complex for some subjects than others however I have convinced another head of subject to give it a go after being initially sceptical! If a question has already been asked it is highly unlikely that it will be asked again. Writing your own mock papers means you have to have a good knowledge of the specification and how assessment works. It also creates a good opportunity to work together as a subject; writing a mark scheme together highlights what you have/haven’t taught well and can therefore influence future teaching . It’s more work for colleagues but I think it is worth it in the long run. It also means that no child can know what is on the mock in advance as they cannot access the paper as they can with previous papers.

To add to my thoughts I did an informal survey of some of the year 10 students and have included their purposes in italics next to each header.

*if you don’t like the term ‘mock’ then interchange with your preference. I think it’s probably just semantics.

Photo by Joshua Hoehne on Unsplash

Retrieval Practice

So that we know what to revise for

To help us get into the habit of revision

To get good practice

keep topics we may have learnt a while ago fresh in our minds

If you are going to encourage students to ‘revise’ (I have many issues with this term) prior to an exam then this is an opportunity to teach them retrieval practice skills and strategies. I personally think that this shouldn’t be done in the run up to an exam but from day 1 on a regular basis, but some teachers/schools still do this kind of revision for exam rather than revision for retrieval/learning. Either way the mocks give students a trial run of this process before they sit external exams.

Some may use the exam itself as retrieval practice for learning rather than for assessment. For example, question topics are chosen specifically to get students to retrieve to help with long term memory rather than for knowing what the students do/don’t know.

Mock exams might be the first time that retrieval practice goes from low-stakes to high-stakes. We do regular retrieval practice in lessons, often without even seeing how students get on. Mocks (depending on how they are marked and then that mark used) steps up the stakes. This gradual process of mock exams, supports students in managing the whole experience of real exams.

Summative assessment

Gives teachers and you how you are doing in the subject

helps us see where we are in a subject/what we need to improve on

to see how good you are at subjects

I suspect that mock exams have been and still are, an opportunity for people to make judgements about student learning, in a high stakes manner. This might include:

  • to allocate grades
  • predict future performance for applications
  • to allocate resources/intervention
  • to decide setting/level of paper

If this is the case, I think we need to be clear with students on this well before the exam happens. They need to know the high stakes nature of the outcome.

Also, some schools may also use it as a tool to judge teachers. The results of the mocks may be used to monitor the ‘performance’ of a teacher. Again, teachers should be well aware of this way before the exams. How will the data be used? Will it be discussed with staff? Is a staff member responsible for a grade of a student that joined a group?

Formative assessment – feedback and improving

Gets you ready to prepare how to improve before real GCSEs

to see what you need to learn

to see where we are all at with learning and what points we’re struggling with

Surely mocks are a great opportunity to identify gaps in student learning and to act on feedback so that a gap is closed before the real thing? If students are answering exam questions then it seems an ideal time to work out what they do/don’t know or can/can’t do and do something about it. If we RAG rate each question then we can get a nice clear over view of what students and a class can/can’t do?

Interestingly this seems less popular than you think it might be with teachers. It is problematic for three reasons. Firstly, the exam paper doesn’t test students on all the content. It’s just a sample from the domain. It can only tell you about some specific topics. This may not be useful for the real exam if we spend lots of time on a limited number of things. Therefore RAG rating questions won’t necessarily be useful. Secondly, just because a student didn’t answer a question type well on specific content, it doesn’t mean that they don’t know how to answer that type of question. It might have been the content that couldn’t write about. Thirdly, if you use past papers for mocks, in some subjects, it’s highly unlikely that the exact same question will come up again next year. Therefore it’s not worth while spending too much time using it for deciding what they need to focus on to improve.

Using mocks for feedback is a whole blog post in itself so I won’t go into it here but I think it’s a very important consideration overall for a teacher. I personally think that the way we run the mocks in my department the feedback and improvement from them is very important but I suspect that the relative use of mocks for formative assessment depends on the subject and the paper used.

Photo by Ivan Aleksic on Unsplash

The Physical Experience

Gets us used to exam conditions

The experience of sitting in a hall/room to complete an exam is an important aspect of mocks (which is why I shudder when senior leaders ask for them to be done in their usual classroom). Most students are used to their usual teaching classroom and complete work there in relative comfort and confidence. The experience of a often large, open room is physically different and we want students to experience this before the real exam as it can be daunting. Alongside this, the students experience other physical aspects that they may not have done so before:

  • hand strain (from writing for a long period)
  • in a different room than they did their learning in (see David Didau’s blog below on this – it’s fascinating)
  • in a room with peers
  • silence for 2 hours
  • cold/hot extremes
  • invigilators walking past
  • sitting at the desk
  • patience – sitting when done

If mocks are about preparation, then we need to include all aspects of that by exposing them to these things at least once before the real thing. Telling students to complete mocks in their usual classroom, with their usual teacher misses the point of a mock, in my opinion (with exceptions e.g. Art). Read David Didau’s blog here on ‘transfer’ and why it is important to consider where students are learning compared to where they sit an exam.

The Mental Experience

So there’s less panic in the real thing

Some students will have an intense 5 weeks of exams in the summer. It will be the biggest amount of pressure they’ve probably had in their lives. It’s the thing that hits the headlines each year and the potential effect on their mental health can be debilitating for some. The mental impact includes:

  • stress
  • preparation and organisational pressure
  • daily pressure from lessons/revision
  • feelings about success
  • feelings about failure
  • motivation

I strongly believe that schools have the power here. The language we use, the preparations we make, the way that teachers are treated with exams by senior leaders (pressure passes down to students), all contributes and I think we can be really smart about this.

Imagine a student that has an assembly in the morning with their head of year talking about the importance of exams and grades, then first lesson their teacher saying how important grades are and then second lesson getting a test back with a grade on and not achieving their target grade and then lesson 3 the teacher talking about their exams and how important it is for them to revise every night for their subject. Lesson 4 the student is given an exam paper to complete and told if they don’t get a certain grade the teacher will contact home and they will re-do it in their own time. Then after school they have a ‘revision class’ for one subject…… We don’t need to do this.

I think this all comes down to curriculum and assessment. If we plan carefully and we assess well, we don’t need to speak to students like this or behave in these ways. I’m not saying that we should pretend that exams aren’t important, they are. But we are the people in charge of what students learn and we have a responsibility to make things as simple as possible for our students. With a well planned curriculum you shouldn’t need to do after school revision classes for all students from Christmas. Mocks should be a gradual introduction to these potential feelings so it’s not a huge shock in the summer.

Real Exam Preparation

So that we can ‘train ourselves’ for our GCSEs

Gets us ready for GCSE exams

to help us understand the conditions we need to work in, teaches us time management

to help us get into the habit of being quiet for hours

To practise for GCSEs

Preparation for structure of GCSE

Prepare us for our GCSE so we won’t be shocked

I’ve put these together as ‘real exam preparation’ because I think that it is important part of mocks for students to have the ‘real experience’ before the summer. I think that mocks are really important for the following:

  • what the paper looks like – I think that mock papers should always be made to look like the real thing, even if you’re not using all the questions. We want students to get used to what they will see.
  • getting stuck – the experience of not knowing the answer, the possibility that a guess may be better than nothing, not letting it demotivate
  • planning and using time effectively – a huge issue especially in subjects with extended writing. Students need to do this by themselves, using the clock in the room. Deciding what to include/miss out if they’re running out of time
  • stationery – coming prepared to the exam, knowing what they need e.g. a calculator, black pen
  • candidate number – getting used to using it and filling in the front of the exam paper
  • one off performance – what it means to have ‘one go’ at something and that’s it (Anecdote – one year, after the GCSE RS exam I saw a student outside of the exam room. He said to me ‘Miss I’ve realised that I didn’t write the right thing for 1b, can I quickly have my paper back to change it?’. He was genuine. He had no understanding that, that was it, there’s no going back!) When else in their lives have they experienced the finality of doing something like this? (remember some will have missed SATS)
  • question types – This really shouldn’t be the first time that a student experiences the different question types. I sincerely hope that all teachers have prepared students for different possibilities and even prepared for curve balls

Choosing the mock exam content

Choosing a mock paper will probably depend on what you think the purpose of a mock is.

I suspect that many subject leads just choose last year’s actual paper for the mock exam. It’s easy as it’s already written, it has a mark scheme, it is balanced in terms of difficulty and you could argue that the grade boundaries belong to that specific paper. The problem with using last year’s paper is that students can get advance access and the content probably won’t be repeated in the real thing (subject dependent). Using last year’s paper supports the purpose of experiencing a ‘real’ paper. However I’m going to suggest that mocks should be a carefully curated set of questions made into a unique mock paper. However, how this is done, all depends on what you think the purpose of the mock is.

A mock to motivate – if you want students to be motivated by the mock you may pick questions that are easier or more difficult. If you want to motivate students that lack confidence then use some easier questions and if you need to motivate students that are over-confident in doing no preparation, use more difficult questions

A mock to predict – A GCSE specification’s content has to be covered during the lifetime of the specification which means that if you’re several years through it you can find topics that have never been asked before and create questions based on these. This works better in some subjects compared to others. The benefit of this mock is that students get to practise questions that are likely to come up. It’s a dangerous strategy only if you tell students to only revise these things. Otherwise it’s just another paper.

A mock to practise weaker topics – If you know that students have struggled on certain topics you might include them in the mock. This isn’t to set them up to fail but it is a good way to revise. They experience a question on a tricky topic, you go through it in feedback and then get them to practise it again a a later date.

A mock to show off – If you’re using the mock paper as evidence of student performance for entry to further education you may want it to be a paper that shows off what they can do. Choosing topics that you know they will do well on may be useful.

How to write your own mock

Some exam boards have the facility for you to use previous questions to compile a new paper using questions from different papers. Unfortunately they don’t all do this for all subjects so you may need to do it manually. You need a copy of all the previous papers (and specimen papers for reference) to see what has already been asked. Then choose questions to compile your paper.

Writing your own exam questions

Having looked at what questions can be asked from the specification it is possible to write your own questions. This can be a useful CPD exercise in itself, especially if the specification is new to you. You need to make sure you know the command words that can be used, the balance of assessment objectives and the specific subject ‘rules’ of the paper. I strongly feel that mock papers should be presented in the exact same way that the real paper will be presented (as far as possible) because the visual experience of a paper is part of the practice. So, use the same number of answer lines, where appropriate.

If you work in a department with a few people you can do this process together to ensure balance. You can then all take a copy of the paper, and write notes on how you’d answer the question and create a simple mark scheme of possible answers. As with all mark schemes, students can be credited with different approaches but if you agree the main possible answers/approaches then it makes marking easier

Using analogies

I use and have probably stolen the analogy of a marathon for GCSE exams. Mocks are part of the training. They may not do the whole thing but they are part of the training that can help us diagnose certain things and help us work out what’s left to do before the final thing. Someone else on Twitter used a football analogy (gotta think of the boys….) where mocks are the pre-season warm ups. It doesn’t matter what you use but I do think that (if the analogy is a good one) then we can use it with the students IF we use the analogy from the start. I tell my students that their first homework IS part of the preparation. That every lesson IS the training. The issue of leaving the analogy to the final stages is that it could add to the psychological pressure not help to relieve it. Start the analogy in year 7.

Questions for teachers

  • Do you know the purpose of mocks in your school/subject?
  • Have you made it clear to students what the purpose of the mock is in your subject?
  • Have you explained the rationale behind it?
  • What questions have you included? What paper have you used Why?
  • Have you considered writing an exam paper for the mock? pros and cons?

Questions for school leaders

  • Are all subjects using mocks for the same purpose? Does it matter? Why?
  • Do students know the purpose of mocks? Does it matter? Why?
  • Have you asked them?
  • Do you know how subjects leads have decided what paper/s to use and why?
Links & further reading

https://thepsychologist.bps.org.uk/volume-21/edition-12/examination-stress-and-test-anxiety#:~:text=Research%20suggests%20that%20examinations%20are%20stressful%20for%20this,judgements%20from%20others%3B%20and%20fear%20appeals%20by%20teacher

All/Many/Some/Few/One…… Diversity & language in RE

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Jews don’t eat pork.

Catholics don’t use contraception

Muslims don’t drink alcohol.

Sikhs wear turbans

Non-religious people are atheists

These may be commonly heard statements about religious people. But are they true? I think in RE we need to teach students how to speak about religion and religious/non-religious living and this comes down to how we approach diversity and our use of language in the RE classroom.

Doctrine vs reality?

This week I have started Theme A of AQA GCSE with my students. I’m not a fan. It’s the relationships and family unit which includes contraception, sexuality and divorce. I started the lesson explaining to the students that this unit includes things that are controversial and may be uncomfortable. It includes teachings that I know they won’t agree with and it’s really difficult to manage their perception of a religion from this. So I explained to them that the religious beliefs and teachings I will be teaching them stand alongside the reality of how people live. Religion isn’t just what the sources of authority say but is a much bigger thing that I want them to know about. I think that we can partly manage controversy and diversity by including what religious people do when we know what their sources of authority actually say.

This is where the use of different disciplines in RE can be useful. My interpretation of this is that when we’re looking at doctrine we are using Theology and the sources of authority that give beliefs and teachings linked to the topic. We can then use Social Sciences to reflect on the reality of how these beliefs and teachings are followed (or not) in real life.

For example, looking at the use of contraception in Catholic Christianity….

These two sources allow us to consider the doctrine and compare it with some data on the reality. Of course, we should always analyse the text and the data with the students; what’s the source? what might it tell us? How can it be interpreted? Is it representative of a whole group? But this is what allows students to really think about the doctrine and its impact on followers.

All or many or some or few?

I think this is the crucial part for RE teachers to be clear on with students. Which of these is correct to use with the topic/issue we’re teaching and how do we know?

An example is that in recent times there have been suggestions that in RE we should be changing how we speak about Hinduism and Sikhism. I’ve seen a few discussions where there have been views that say we should always use Hindu Dharma or Sanatana Dharma or Sikhi. I’ve then tried to look into the roots of all the terms and the views of people around which should be used and when. What I’ve yet to find is how many Hindus/Sikhs have a preference of which terms should be used. Our students have made it clear to us what they think but are they representative? It’s easy to think that one or two adult voices on social media mean ‘a few’ but its more complicated than that.

So how do we know what the reality is? I’ve found that an internet search is sometimes useful on this. It’s surprising what surveys have been done with religious themes and with respondents for specific religions/groups.

I’ve put together a list that might be useful here: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1CUmVPbWMgVdyN08-bxeif6PmfrN-q1tMfVEojrgTRdQ/edit?usp=sharing

Also, I ask people. I ask people on social media and when we have trips/visits, about their views and interpretations. And I share these. It’s important that students know about what people are saying about their beliefs.

And in the cases where we can’t be sure, ‘some’ is the best bet. It doesn’t indicate a value of how many (like many/few do) and is sufficiently vague. And I am honest with the students when I don’t know. I say ” I don’t know how many _______ would say this”. This promotes the idea that lived religion is complex and we can’t always have a clear answer. I even make this clear with data that we do have. Instead of saying “According to the 2021 census there are 272,508 Buddhists” I say ” In the 2021 census 272,508 people clicked the Buddhist option”. There’s a difference and that difference leads to important discussions about data itself.

Overall it’s the discussion and debate that we need to teach students. It’s the heart of diversity; not just knowing what the diverse views are but WHY they are diverse. I think this should be core to all of our curriculums. It requires subject knowledge and confidence from a teacher but it makes RE a richer and more worthwhile subject.

Helping students to understand

I think this is probably a threshold concept in RE and there are plenty of adults that haven’t crossed the threshold! Doctrine is not always reflected in real lived religion and we need to think carefully about how we present that.

This activity has been so useful that I have done it with all groups and will repeat it throughout their RE experience.

I give students the following sentence starters (example for year 7):

They then need to complete the statements with accurate/true endings. It’s actually quite tricky to come up with an ‘All’ that is correct and only applies to year 7s, and that’s the point. There’s also very little that we can say is true for all followers of a religion. Have a go yourself! How many ways could you finish the sentence “All Christians….” which is accurate? I can think of a few endings.

I then link it to the religion/view we’re studying. I sometimes then get students to complete one of them in their starter quiz. It is a real indicator of understanding of what they’ve been taught.

I then use and emphasise these as I teach and encourage the students to use them. The language in itself acknowledges diversity and an understanding of reality.

GCSE and diversity

If we consider diversity in the GCSE then it mostly comes down to diversity of belief/religious practices from interpretations of doctrine. The exam does not require students to talk about the reality of lived religion. Whilst some argue that we should go back to the old exam assessment where all opinions were valid and could be credited, I think we need to actually combine both doctrine and lived religion (not ‘anything goes’). A good bit of Theology and some structured Social Science is what I would like to see. Anyway, I do think, for AQA at least, there is room for the reality (apologies if you don’t know the AQA assessment).

4 and 5 mark questions are generally questions that require students to answer questions about doctrine. However, in 12 mark questions I think a rich, informed argument would involve the reality. Students can give the doctrine and agreed interpretations from religious leaders however they can use real lived religion as part of a logical argument. For example, “Whilst the Catholic Catechism describes the use of artificial contraception to prevent conception as ‘Intrinsically evil’, some Catholics will use it because…..”.

This is especially important with the binary options given in some 12 mark statements; using knowledge of how people really live can enhance their answers. So, I’m going to teach them the reality alongside the doctrine.

Diversity

So how do you approach diversity of belief/practices/views in your classroom? Do your students understand that a ‘religion’ doesn’t mean one way and that it is rich and varied? Is the language that you/students use appropriate for the reality? How do you know?

Assessment in RE – the beginning of something new?

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The RE community have been busily thinking about curriculum alongside other curriculum subject communities. We have engaged in webinars, learning journeys, a NATRE symposium, resources shared and conferences (rightly) focusing on what we teach, why we teach it and when we teach it. However a few of us have been turning our focus on the next important step – how do we know if our curriculum is doing what we want it to do? How do we know that students know, understand and can do what we have planned and enacted for them?

It’s time to delve into the education hot potato of assessment.

We’ve been reading, looking for research, discussing with each other and with experts to start to build up a picture of what is good assessment and where RE currently is in this complex domain.
And the general conclusion so far is, there’s not much out there that is RE focused. As with many other subjects, RE has mainly continued to follow a levels-type system, often with age-related expectations. Engaging with more general educational research on assessment (from this country and beyond) has been a really helpful starting point, but we are aware that whilst a particular approach might work well for one subject, it doesn’t follow that it’s the most effective model for another. We’re on a mission to learn from and build upon what is out there, in order tounpick what might be a better way to assess in RE and consider how that might work across contexts and settings. Of course, being experienced RE teachers and leaders, we’re doing this with the caveat that RE has its own particular challenges and there is a huge possibility that there is, in all likelihood, no perfect assessment model!

Watch this space for updates on our project and please do get in touch with any suggestions or insights……

Dawn Cox & Gillian Georgiou

Suggested reading….

Free Seneca intro to assessment course https://senecalearning.com/en-GB/blog/free-assessment-cpd-course-for-teachers/

ÂŁ ResearchED book on assessment https://www.johncattbookshop.com/the-researched-guide-to-assessment-an-evidence-informed-guide-for-teachers

Research Informed Teacher Enquiry (RITE) – A whole school teacher development model

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This blog aims to outline our school approach to teacher development through a research informed teacher enquiry (RITE) process. We launched it in 2020 however due to COVID we’ve not had a full year of implementation yet. It will take you through the process I went through to create the process and then what it involves.

Looking at what others do

I had seen on social media and heard at conferences what some other schools were doing so I contacted some of these people or read their book/blog etc to pull together some idea of good practice.

I am grateful to these people for sharing what they do and in some cases giving up their time to help me collate ideas:

•John Tomsett & Jonny Uttley – Book – Putting Staff First: A blueprint for revitalising our schools: A blueprint for a revitalised profession

•Severn Vale school via Kirsten Prescott

•Cockermouth school via Dr Rob Petrie

•Bridgwater College Academy & MAT via Chris Moyse blog/presentations/Twitter

It’s important to note that without people sharing we would all be starting at square one and that some of these people gave up their own time in the spirit of making education better for everyone. We can learn from their developments and avoid the pitfalls they found along the way. So much of what follows is copying what they’ve done and tweaking it for our school. We don’t take any credit for the ideas!

Research & ‘working out what works’ on teacher development

I also wanted to see what research might have to offer for our teacher development and read whatever I could find online including:

Teacher Development Trust https://tdtrust.org/about/evidence/ & https://t.co/lz9AXzrD5R

Amy Forrester blog https://t.co/r2x0eJb96F

Jonathan Mountstevens blog https://t.co/dJGOtY10b8

Chris Moyse – Growing Great Teachers – https://t.co/eegHOr847o

Twitter threads https://twitter.com/lawrence0881/status/1277327816967806978 & https://twitter.com/teacher_theory/status/1174002584396468227?s=11

Pulling things together

I wanted to start by thinking about the foundations of what we wanted for our school in this new process. We already had a coaching model in place, where everyone was being trained as a coach so we could utilise this in this approach. We also are research informed in our teaching & learning principles so it was important that we combined these two things together.

I came up with the following to encompass the rationale and process we wanted for our school:

Teacher development not pay progression

It was important that this process was not about ‘success’ but about development and the willingness to work on developing your own teaching. It was not to be linked to any relevant pay progression other than via participation and genuine engagement with making their teaching better. This was made clear to teachers.

Keeping it simple

I’ve seen some teachers/schools promoting the use of action research projects for development. Whilst this might give a structure for development, if done to the letter it can be incredibly time consuming and paperwork heavy. We didn’t want this for our process. We wanted it to involve looking out beyond our school, considering appropriate research but keeping things manageable with the time we had available.

Enquiry questions (EQs)

From my discussions and reading, the use of enquiry questions looked to be a good way to ensure that we focus on very specific aspects of our teaching but also keeps things small enough to try things out with. We used the model suggested in ‘Putting Staff First’:

The deputy head takes in everyone’s EQ to see if he feels that it is suitable for the teacher. Sometimes we can chose things that are too vague or too complex in a limited space of time.

Using research – still keeping it simple

For some staff, asking them to focus on something in their teaching and then looking for research to support their EQ would be a new experience so we wanted to ensure it wasn’t overwhelming. For those people we suggested taking a look at these documents and the research behind them to help them keep things manageable. Other staff, will have the desire to go beyond these and look for subject specific or look at the original papers, behind them. We wanted to keep it open enough for those that are more confident in using research and supportive enough so no-one felt lost.

Beyond this we also have the following to support staff in finding out further research

  • CPD library of books/articles/magazines
  • Videos, research reports, articles, resources shared (in Google classroom ‘staff class’)
  • Encouragement to engage with subject community e.g. within MAT, local network, social media, subject association

Working with a coach

The idea to use the coaching model was to ensure that the process is developmental rather than instructional. Staff were already used to having coaching pairs but it wasn’t as tightly focused as this. The use of coaches gives teachers the opportunity to regularly discuss how the enquiry is panning out and to possibly consider things that they hadn’t considered themselves. The deputy headteacher for T&L is in charge of allocating coaching pairs.

A clear process

I wanted the process to have a clear structure with plenty of time to review and come back to the enquiry so it doesn’t get lost in the busyness of every day school life.

This was then put into the school calendar as regular meetings. This is important to give teachers scheduled timings to meet with their coach and just reflect on their enquiry.

I also created a simple form for teachers to complete throughout the year to keep track of what they’ve read and discussed with their coach.

A successful process?

As I said at the start, we’ve not had a full year of RITE yet (hopefully this year will be the first!). We will reflect on how things have gone this year and possibly do a more formal review next year once it’s been embedded more. We need to hear from teachers to work out what has worked and what needs to change to ensure it does the job we want it to.

Whilst it is important to note that the whole point is the EQ intervention may not ‘work’ we hope that through consideration with the coach and use of research, we can see that these may have an impact on learning. I can only talk from my (biased, of course) perspective on the process. I chose to look at metacognition and how speaking about their work might help students in completing longer length answers at GCSE. Luckily my coach wanted to focus on something similar so we could share articles and research we had read.

My Enquiry Question focus – metacognition and ‘talk’

Looking at student work and performance in internal exams, I believe that the work that I did has made a positive, and quite significant difference to their written work. This will now be how I teach extended writing questions at GCSE from now on. We have had the opportunity to share out RITE focus and possible outcomes with our subject departments which is meant we can share beyond our coaching pair (which probably won’t be the same subject).

We haven’t got to the final stage for sharing outcomes yet. We have pondered making very simple research posters or a kind of ‘speed dating’ event where we share. The deputy head will decide what he feels is best for colleagues in this.

Learn from us….

Please do feel free to take any of this to use in your context. A few things that I would recommend to consider carefully…

  • Coaching pairs – The relationship and pedagogical approach matters here (I think!)
  • Time – giving timetabled meeting times (after school in our case) is essential
  • Support with EQ writing – keeping a clear focus and keeping it manageable
  • Emphasis on being research informed and trying things out not ‘success’ or failure’ of the enquiry –

The curriculum as the model of progress – reading list

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A collection of blogs/articles on using the curriculum as the model of progress. Please let me know of any more to add – particularly at subject level.

General

Michael Fordham

What did I mean by ‘the curriculum is the progression model’?

Christine Counsell

In search of senior curriculum leadership : Introduction – a dangerous absence

David Didau

Why ‘using the curriculum as a progression model’ is harder than you think

Curriculum related expectations: using the curriculum as a progression model

Mr Vallance

Curriculum as the progression model: what are we really talking about?

James Wisechs

Progression in learning

Ofsted

An investigation into how to assess the quality of education through curriculum intent, implementation and impact

Subject level

Homework: how to make it worth while, without the hassle

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Research on homework varies. Opinions on homework varies. Like many things, when done badly it has the potential to causes issues with learning but if it’s done well is it worth it?

In my opinion the main issues with most homeworks are:

  1. Students not knowing what it is or at least claiming so
  2. Students not knowing how to do it
  3. Parents/someone else helping students to do it or do it for them
  4. Some students not having a home environment conducive to completing homework
  5. Poorly thought out/last minute tasks
  6. Research shows that it creates anxiety and stress for some children (and no doubt some parents)
  7. Only set because it’s school policy rather than being based on learning
  8. Have specific resources that students might lose
  9. New information is presented to them which they may not understand or be confused by and they have no immediate way to clarify
  10. It can create a ‘gap’ between ‘groups’ of learners due to variation of home support

The final point is based on this research outcome from the EEF.

https://www.suttontrust.com/research-paper/extra-time/?utm_content=buffer41bf1&utm_medium=social&utm_source=twitter.com&utm_campaign=buffer

In order to prevent this potential gap, the research paper suggests that schools have homework clubs where students can complete their homework with the support and resources needed. This combats many of the issues with homework.

Why don’t we ban homework?

Apparently parents want it. I’ve been told this. I’m not aware of any large scale surveys on it but I’m sure individual schools ask parents.

It also gives extended curriculum time. If every subject has to set 1 hour homework a week that is 1 hour to extend the focus on a subject. For some subjects that don’t get enough curriculum time, homework is essential.

I’ve changed my mind on this. I used to teach without setting homework and the students did really well. There was no need for homework. However now I’ve read more on research of long term memory I can see homework as the perfect solution to spaced practice.

Is flipped learning the solution?

In my opinion, no.

A solution?

GCSE homework

I set 3 types of homework and only these. All my students know what they have to do for each as they are continuous throughout the year.

  1. Learning key words – they are given sheets with these on. I teach them strategies to learn them, give them cards, set up quizlet etc. They then have weekly in class keyword tests.
  2. Writing M/C questions (from the previous few lessons of learning)
  3. Doing online, self marking multiple choice quizzes (interleaved topics)

None of these require the students to do anything that they can get ‘stuck’ on. The m/c quizzes tell them the correct answers if they get it wrong. They then ‘know’ the correct answers. Writing the m/c questions is based on previous lessons. The only issue is if they weren’t in a series of lessons. It’s rare. Even if a child misses one lesson, they were still present for the others.

We use Showmyhomework so all instructions are on there. None require any resources except internet access. I make it very clear that they can do this in my room at any break/lunch if home internet is an issue. In our school it isn’t an issue but I understand for others it can be.

This structure reduces anxiety as the students know exactly what is expected of them for each and it is repeated so often it becomes a habit.

This homework has a purpose. It is linked to research that suggests that the best way to embed something into long term memory is to recall information. All of these do this. It also supports the spaced effect in that the quizzes are set at increasing gaps over a period of time. It gives students time to forget and then have to recall. (Further info on this via http://www.learningscientists.org )

Does it resolve all issues?

I think it resolves issues 1,2,3,5,6,7,10.

4. – No-one else can ‘learn’ the keywords for them. No-one would be able to write the m/c questions for them (except another student from the class). In theory a parent or someone else could do the online quiz. However it wouldn’t be because they didn’t know what they should be doing it would be out of no desire to complete the task which is different to them not knowing how to do it. Most issues with help with homework are not 100% resolvable but I think the nature of these tasks reduces it.

8. The only potential resource that might be lost is the keywords sheet. However I have a stock of these in my room that students can easily access. The sheet is always attached to their homework on Showmyhomework and it is also on our subject website.

9. The only new information to them will be the new keywords. However the homework is not to understand them. It’s to learn the definitions. It’s rote learning. They will learn their importance and develop understanding of the terms during class. They can then easily ask questions about them.

How can we stop the ‘gap’ from occurring?

In my opinion there’s only one way to ensure there is no gap between students. If we ensure that all students have access to everything they need to know, work closely on diagnosing gaps and supporting them whilst they are in class, any added benefit from parental support or private tuition will be minimised.

Some of research on homework

Giving subjects the power of CPD

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With a focus on curriculum being prioritised in schools the importance of a subject and its associated knowledge, pedagogy etc has become more discussed. This means a shift for some schools from a centralised (everyone in the hall together), one-size fits all (everyone needs to know about X), one person making decisions on content (i.e. an AH for T&L/CPD) approach to CPD. Teachers and subject leads can be keen to have significant role in making decisions about their own CPD and really value the opportunity to be reflective (this excellent blog by Freya @FreyaMariaO shows this).

This isn’t to say that there is no need for some whole school/staff CPD, for example safeguarding or things relating to whole school issues however there is a strong argument that subjects need to have the space and support to be deciding what is needed for them at a department level and taking control of CPD time to meet subject specific needs.

My school has been doing this for a while so I thought I’d share some of the things we’ve done and how we’ve utilised this power and time in the RE department.

INSET day subject time

Most of the time on INSET days is given to subjects. Heads of subject and their teams can decide how they want to use the time given. This can be divided up to be used as individuals, small groups or as a whole team (depending on numbers in the department). We usually talk about subject knowledge and curriculum development. I will have given some reading to do or a preparation activity e.g. look through the year 7 quiz for any adaptations we nee to make’. We get so much done and we also get personal preparation time. Our school is excellent at deciding when to schedule these in the year. They’re at perfect times for us to plan and reflect.

There can be some potential issues with this. It requires subject leaders to know exactly what it is that the team needs to work on which may not always be the case. It also requires them to either have the expertise within the department or know how to access external expertise to support on specific issues. Good school leaders will be able to support in this.

Subject knowledge reading

As part of our INSET time and sometimes as part of our department meetings I give my colleague some relevant reading that links to what we are/will be teaching. It might be a blog, an article, a chapter from a book or in some cases a longer text. We both read it ready to be discussed at an agreed time and to reflect on how this might improve our teaching/schemes.

Examples that we have read this year include:

Dharma: The Hindu, Jain, Buddhist and Sikh Traditions of India:  Amazon.co.uk: Veena R. Howard, Veena R. Howard: 9781350224742: Books
We read the Hinduism chapter of this book to support our Year 8 Hinduism subject knowledge of dharma and are now reading the Sikhi chapter for our Sikhi scheme
We are reading this subject knowledge essay from REonline ready for our INSET day in January so we can add/tweak our scheme of learning https://www.reonline.org.uk/knowledge/sikhism/
We read this over the summer holidays to improve our subject knowledge on the Bhagavad Gita for our Hinduism/Hindu dharma scheme

We are able to do this because I can use some of my subject budget to purchase books that I think will be of use. I know that not all subjects can do this so this should be a consideration for school leaders. I can also do this because I give us the time to discuss them and add them to our schemes.

Subject meetings

You’ve heard it said many times, subject meetings should be developmental not admin. I don’t 100% agree with this especially if you have a big team where messages/meaning can be lost in written text. The rule of thumb is that if it can be said in one email then do that, ideally if there are several things then a once weekly subject bulletin reduces emails. However I do think that subject meetings should include either some subject level teaching discussion or at least planning for it for another time.

We talk about how our year groups are getting on with schemes or assessments. We talk about concepts that students have grasped really well or struggled with (e.g. how Ramadan is linked to the moon and the sun) and how we are dealing with this. We talk about how we can adapt the scheme for next time or even ditch parts. We talk about a new resource we’ve found for a topic. We talk about something we read (e.g. the Ofsted RE research review) or saw that might be useful. We use external resources to increase our knowledge of the GCSE (e.g. This free, online AQA, marking guidance course) We talk about teaching and learning in RE all the time.

External expertise

If subjects are given a budget (of time and money), then they can access external expertise when there are gaps in the department. This does depend on knowing someone that has the knowledge/experience/expertise to address the need. This is where I think that social media comes in handy. Through subject networks you can find people that might be able to help out. Ruth Ashbee (@Ruth_Ashbee) ran a system in her previous school where subject leads had external subject specialist contacts to bounce ideas off and some of these had come via social media.

In 2021, we welcomed Inspiration Trust Religion and Philosophy Lead, Nikki McGee to our school to do some training on Hindu dharma. We had told Nikki what we needed help with and she shared her knowledge, links to resources and texts. The great thing about this is that we could ask our (sometimes silly?!) subject knowledge questions to her.

We have also watched videos of people talking about teaching (e.g. videos from the RE subject association, NATRE, annual conference) where we can pause and discuss as we need to and skip parts we don’t need!

Pedagogical development

How we teach things can be very subject specific. We should be beyond the ‘all subjects, all lessons must do X’ at a pedagogical level’ when sometimes it just doesn’t work and isn’t appropriate (I’m hearing of schools that are currently introducing a 5 part, non-negotiable lesson structure). If a school wishes all staff to consider a particular pedagogical practice then there must be time at subject level to discuss how it might work (or not) with their domain. When we launched our Principles for Learning 6 years ago we gave time to subject areas to consider what they already do that might use some of the principles and to discuss what else they might do. We need to also accept that if we do give something to all subjects to consider that they have the expertise to process and adapt or say ‘this doesn’t work for our subject’.

This year we have shifted some of our generic, whole school, 15 minute forums to subject level 15 minute forums. This means that we are able to decide what is shared and we take turns in leading this. It should be something that will be of use to colleagues that the individual does in their own teaching and is worth sharing. Sharing this amongst a team means that everyone gets to have the opportunity to share ideas but also the responsibility of sharing something. It’s timetabled after school and must not go over 15 minutes! This creates a space to focus on subject level pedagogy.

What senior leaders need to do to enable this

In summary:

  • Talking about subject teaching – The key to all of this is subject level discussion. Not ‘Can we buy some more text books?’ or ‘Who should move up a set?’ but subject knowledge and subject level pedagogical knowledge.
  • Time, time, time – This really is the key and is of no surprise. A mixture of longer periods when people can really get into things and shorter times for quick ‘bites’. We all have the same amount of time available to us in schools so the time exists. What don’t we need to be doing to give teachers time for subject level CPD?
  • Resources including money – A school should support subjects in being able to access the things they need to support subject level development. Even a budget of ÂŁ50 for books for the year would be a start. If it could only be spent on subject knowledge/teaching (not student resources) books it could make a difference. Who can school/subject leaders go to for external subject support? What support and encouragement are subject leads given to do this?
  • A culture of development– We’re all doing our best but we can all also be better. The way in which leaders speak about teaching and CPD matters. Telling a subject lead ‘you must do X’ if they haven’t/can’t/won’t consider something important is not good leadership or management. It’s unlikely to lead to a culture of trust.
  • Trust – Subject leaders need to be trusted to do their job. This doesn’t mean that ‘anything goes’, there will always be some leaders than need some direction and support in this, especially if their own experience as a teacher wasn’t one of being trusted/supported.

My lessons are relevant, engaging & fun…

Standard

Have you been told that your lessons need to be engaging? Do you think lessons should always be relevant to the students you teach? Does a fun lesson lead to learning? Some thoughts….

Engagement isn’t always visible

Engagement is often interpreted as being something an onlooker can see when they’re in the lesson. Students should be active or talking or working in silence to be engaged in the lesson. But engagement is not always physical or verbal or only taking part in something. It can be thinking. In RE I think that thinking is a huge part of being engaged. The issue is that I cannot ‘see’ that thinking, so how do I know if a student is engaging? Well I can set tasks that require them to think. These can range from quizzes which require them to process an answer to asking thought-provoking questions. I cannot assume that because a student does not offer an answer that they haven’t thought about it. Plenty of students would prefer to be silent in class.

How can we ‘see’ thinking? I do think there is a difference with getting a student to share an answer and getting a student to share their own thinking on their learning. One is impersonal and one is more personal. I think we need to be careful when asking students to publicly share their own thinking. In RE this is particularly important. However, carefully crafted questions can be asked to reveal student thinking. The skill of a teacher is asking students the best questions to elicit thinking that is useful for the teacher to know.

So I think/hope my lessons are engaging; engaging students to think carefully about what they are learning. This does not have to be visible to an onlooker.

Fun comes in different guises

This is at the heart of the debate. Sometimes I think that some people interpret ‘fun’ in lessons as playing games or using relevant resources to engage students.

We all have different ideas of what is ‘fun’. On Twitter I see people running many miles each day and people sitting drinking in pubs in a large group. Neither are my idea of fun. We should not be trying to guess what our students may think is fun and then planning our lessons around it. We will fail. If we think fun means all students want to be active, running around a room then we’re ignoring the students who want to sit quietly as their home life is full of activity and running around. If we plan every lesson to be sat still in silence, we don’t allow those that want to work with others or discuss as a group, as they have no-one to do this with at home. If we think that linking topics to football will be fun and will engage boys, we are isolating those that aren’t interested in football (boys & girls).

We cannot possibly come up with one size that fits all. However I do feel that at secondary school, variety comes from the range of subjects that students study. When a school’s curriculum is truly broad and balanced it will include times when students can sit quietly, when they can run around, when they can work with others and when they can play a game as it is probably the best way to help them to learn something.

Of course fun isn’t about being active. If I were to describe to you my lessons, they’re pretty much all the same; they follow the same simple structure. Students walking into my classroom know what they’re getting. I’d sometimes even say that the predictability is ‘boring’. Yet, every year at parent’s evening I have students and parents tell me how much they love it; they think they’re fun. There will be some students that agree it’s boring but I guess they’re telling the teachers of the lessons that they enjoy how much they love their lessons and how fun they are. We can’t always be everything, to all students, all the time.

What we cannot afford is to think that fun means more learning. This is a trap that we have probably all fallen in to at some point, especially if we’ve had a tricky class that we feel isn’t engaged. We choose something that we feel that might make them laugh or pay attention to, to teach a point but in reality the learning is overshadowed by the experience. Students remember the ‘fun’ but not the learning. An example in RE is using the Simpsons episodes as a scheme to teach some philosophy concepts or acting out a Christian wedding ceremony to teach the importance of marriage. Is the time used on the additional material that makes it fun or engaging worth it in terms of learning? Do the students remember the learning or the activity? Some have called this ‘edutainment’; entertaining students to try to get students to learn.

Fun can be:

  • Working something out by yourself
  • Working successfully with others
  • Getting an answer correct
  • Having a discussion where you get to say your opinion
  • Completing a task
  • Feeling ‘clever’
  • Doing well/better on a test
  • Telling someone else what you learnt today
  • Learning

So my lessons are fun. But this is a result of the learning itself, not planned to try to entertain students to make learning happen.

The relevance/fun may not be here and now

This is what I think is really important about what I teach. The content I teach in a lesson may not seem to be ‘relevant’ at the time for students so may not seem fun during the lesson. I think that is where teaching can go wrong when we think only about individual lessons; ‘a’ lesson should be relevant.

When might it be relevant? In future studies In future conversations. When thinking about life. When processing life experiences.

When I teach beyond the specification at GCSE I really hope that this means that my students are learning things that will be useful in future studies/life. The sense of satisfaction that they might know things that connect to new learning or even they know something that someone else doesn’t is ‘fun’. Feeling clever is fun. Knowing answers is fun. Students love to ‘feel’ they are learning. Once in a while there is a jaw dropping moment in my classes when students realise something they hadn’t before. The adrenaline of this is part of the fun.

Every week I play #universitychallengeklaxon. Once in a while I can answer a question or two. It’s fun. I’m not a huge fan of the quality of the secondary education that I had, however I’d like to think that some of things that I teach students might be useful for them in the future for things that may seem unimportant but are a bit of fun. A pub quiz or a crossword answer. It’s fun to get things right.

But learning isn’t about a pub quiz. It’s about knowing and understanding the world. It is about engaging with others and the world we live in. The engagement from learning in a class may come at a future moment that the teacher can’t ever predict where/when it will be but it may come.

I often use current relevant examples to help students to understand key concepts. This is especially important in RE with abstract and practices that may be very ‘other’ to students. At the moment when I teach ‘salah’ (prayer) in Islam I mention Mo Salah (Salah performing salah) This will help some students to remember the Arabic word salah but I don’t spend lesson time watching clips of Salah scoring goals etc The learning is about salah, an example is Salah, not the other way round.

Also, remembering that students have their own personal worldview (read a blog on this here) helps me to think about when things may not seem relevant to them (why would 6th century Makkah be relevant? or the 16th century Punjab?) and how I might overcome any issues there may be in them understanding. There are so many ways that events from the past and from religion link to their own lives we would be foolish not to make the links but the links are the process to learn, not the always the content itself.

So my lessons are relevant, sometimes for students at the time they’re there but also sometimes for their future life. The skill of a teacher is to balance this enough so the optimum amount of time is spent on making links and the subject itself.