The privilege of discussion

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Proficiency in oral language provides children with a vital tool for thought. Without fluent and structured oral language, children will find it very difficult to think.

Bruner,1983.

At parents’ evenings in my current school, I am often told ‘They come home talking about your lessons and we debate it’. This makes me very happy for several reasons. It means they’ve probably understood what we were studying, they’re confident enough to explain and discuss the topic with another adult (that may not know anything about it) and of course, it’s particularly useful in defeating that good old Ebbinghaus forgetting curve.

However, this report out today and a discussion with a friend that has just moved into the independent sector, has made me think more about this. Is quality discussion a social privilege?

The poverty of silence

You see, in previous schools, I didn’t hear this said by parents so much. The demographic of my previous schools were not the same as my current school. The privilege of discussion seems to correlate with socio-economic background.* There’s a lot of research to back this up including a huge discrepancy in the number of words a child may know at a certain age, due to socio-economic status.

Sadly, for some children, the nature of discussion and the range of vocabulary is limited at home. How much can we do to try to improve the experience of discussion a child is exposed to?

I know about the research;it’s just struck me this week how it might be a cause of the ‘gap’ and possibly what I do/can do about it. I’m quite lucky that I teach a subject that I mainly teach through discussion. We discuss everything. Students are exposed to a wide range of vocabulary and I love talking about etymology with students. They even learn some Hebrew, Punjabi and Arabic.

What can we do about it?

  • Use subject and pastoral time in school for discussion e.g form time. Example, watch BBC Newsround and then discuss an issue. Ensure all students contribute. Do this regularly. I know some English teachers lament the removal of ‘speaking’ in GCSE but that in itself didn’t go far enough. It’s not about presenting an issue. It’s about proficiency of spontaneous discussion on a range of topics, expanding vocabulary along the way.
  • Give younger students an opportunity to discuss a topic with older students
  • Encourage parents to discuss the topics from school at home. Not just ‘how was school?’ (I know that getting a teenager to talk at all can be a challenge!)
  • Set homework that involves discussion with others.
  • A debating club or better still debating as part of the curriculum for all students

*However we do need to be careful. Whilst FSM can be used as an indicator of financial status it cannot always be a direct indicator of home support and the discussion that occur at home.

Reading: includes lots of relevant research links http://www4.esc13.net/uploads/speech/docs/12_13/A_GOLDEN_Opportunity_Vocabulary.pdf

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An increase in marks does not mean a student is making progress

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I don’t have a mark book. There’s little point.

Having a set of marks for a student doesn’t really tell you much. For them to be meaningful they need a lot of extra data that isn’t efficient to record in a mark book.

Example

Let’s imagine a test that is out of 20 marks; a 1/2/4/5/8 mark questions.

A student does 3 different tests in a term and my mark book looks like this:

10/20. 12/20. 15/20

It seems this student is making good progress; their marks are going up. But of course that isn’t true. There are far too many variables for this to have any sort of meaning.

  • What if the first test they only attempted the 2 mark and the 8 mark?
  • What in the second test they only attempted the 4 mark and the 8 mark?
  • What if in the third test they attempted them all but got 3 in the 8 mark?

None of those tests are anything like each other, other than mark structure. The questions aren’t even the same, nor are their answers. It is absolute nonsense to say that this student is making progress.

Yet so many people are fooled by it. Leaders are placated by the lovely ‘arrow up’.

We need to stop pretending that increasing marks mean progress.

Possible solutions

  1. Give them exactly the same test each time. Even then it is not resolved as the ‘make up’ of their score may be different each time.
  2. Ditch marks/grades/levels. They don’t mean anything and are a poor proxy for progress. Research also is very clear on how using them isn’t a great idea
  3. Use a method that looks at the work itself (see my blog here on how that could be done)
  4. Have an incredibly detailed mark book that records:individual question scores,what the questions were and the things they didn’t do for each question. Not exactly time saving.
  5. Get students to make a record of their answers and what they did/didn’t do. I do this for end of year exams via a google form. It relies on them being honest and understanding their gaps. Even then, it’s just a snapshot of one test.
  6. Redefine progress. Don’t use spreadsheets or data unless it really tells a story. Stop getting teachers to use grades and then using it to analyse progress. Just ask a teacher ‘do you think they’re making progress? How? Why?’. Give subjects time to establish how they think they can determine this.

Progress without data – How it can be ‘shown’ & benefit the teacher in the process

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Progress has become a feared term for some teachers. It’s a term used to check they’re doing their job, that they are pushing students to their limits or sadly, if they’re not doing their job. Yet, regardless of people’s views on how this has been done badly, I do have a responsibility to ensure my students are making progress over time, otherwise what’s the point of my teaching?

Sadly, teachers are compelled to make sure their spreadsheet shows acceptable increments in student data. The box must ‘go green’. The arrows must ‘go up’. It makes a mockery of data tracking as teachers are pressurised to massage some data or even make it look good to placate a leader that is checking. It’s a waste of everybody’s time. Hours and hours of it. It tells us nothing about the student and with some subjects in their first year of GCSE, is all a game of crystal ball reading.

I’ve been avoiding using marks/grades/levels with students for a few years now. Luckily my school mainly reports on ‘progress’ rather than using grades or levels. So, if asked to ‘prove progress’ and I don’t have a spreadsheet of marks, how can it be done?

Here’s how it can be done professionally and with the added benefit of teacher reflection…

I’ve chosen to look at one particular aspect of the GCSE at key stage 4: evaluation questions. I’ve chosen it because it has the biggest range of ‘skills’ needed in the GCSE: structure, using quotations effectively, selection of relevant knowledge, literacy,  analysis and of course, evaluation.

I’ve taken an attempt at this question from last year as a basis. You could start from the first time you get a student to attempt the skill. It needs to be something that can be repeated over a long period of time and has the same conditions for when it is produced.

I then looked at their work on this question over time. Each time they complete a question can compare their work and see what the gaps are in what they’ve done.

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I can clearly see what they’ve done that has improved over time.

Students answers must keep improving….shouldn’t they?

This then informs me of what I might do to move them on again. In this particular case lots of students had moved to adding some of the analysis but I wanted to be sure they could do this consistently.  During this time I read this:

3 times

This is interesting because it doesn’t fit with the narrative of constantly getting students to ‘get better’ by doing more. It’s about getting good by being consistent. This is a concept many leaders, need to take on board. We should probably be suspicious if data keeps going up and up!

So, all I needed to then do is ensure they could repeatedly do the same quality of analysis. My next support was not to ‘improve’ their work but was to try to get consistency. I created these:

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They will now use these every time they complete a question for at least the next three times. I want them to repeatedly show me they can do these with different content in the same conditions.

They then showed this in their work before they hand it in:

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Things don’t always go right but…

In my opinion, it isn’t always about the improvements from the children but about what I am doing to try to support the improvement. For example, I tried a strategy that I don’t think worked. It doesn’t matter. As I am being a reflective practitioner and this means that I am trying things out. What would a leader prefer, a teacher that doesn’t adjust and tweak things and students don’t improve, or a teacher that is reflective and tries things when some work and some don’t? Teachers should be supported in development not final outcomes.

It’s just another waste of teacher time, providing portfolios of evidence…

The students’ work is in their folders. If I have a conversation with someone about it, I lift up their folder and can show them. I can explain what I did in between attempts and how successful I think it was. Keeping their answers of these questions together really helps.

For ease, I’m taking pictures of work rather than copying it. It really is only a few seconds when I mark their work. I’m not creating a huge portfolio. It has actually really helped my diagnosis of what’s working and not working by looking at them. In some cases I hadn’t realised quite how their style of writing had improved; something a spreadsheet doesn’t record. It has been a good tool to help me understand what is happning with their answers.

Won’t teachers just play the game with the work instead of the data?

This is where controlled conditions are important. We have to trust that teachers will do this. We have to value this process of teacher development. It has to become a discussion about progress not just a presentation of evidence. Most teachers wouldn’t be able to make-up processes of development and student work when discussed, certainly not as easily as putting a an ‘arrow up’ on a spreadsheet.

I’m not suggesting progress can only be evidence through work. We know it can be a poor proxy for progress. It’s all about what the teacher has been doing to support students. This may not have paper evidence. Whole class feedback and discussion should not attempt to be evidence; conversations about planning and teaching matter.

Conversations instead of spreadsheets

If we replace observations with drop-ins to see how the teachers latest idea is going, if we replace data drops with a discussion of student work (not just paper), if we swap performance management numerical targets with a teacher’s reflections throughout the year maybe our understanding of student progress will be far more enlightening that through a spreadsheet.

Why won’t things change?

  • Some leaders prefer to spend their time analysing data on a spreadsheet
  • Some focus on outcomes rather than the process.
  • Some think that everything teachers do should have a positive impact (when it isn’t the case)
  • Some see failure of a strategy as failure as a teacher leading to lack of confidence
  • Some think they don’t have enough time
  • Some believe that progress means that there is always an observable difference in outcomes
  • Some believe progress happens in one lesson
  • Some over-complicate things with huge portfolios of paper evidence; there’s only one portfolio of paper evidence, the student’s work.

So, are you students making progress? Let me know what you’ve been up to…..

 

Student work used with their permission

How to learn keywords & quotations – weekly retrieval

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I’ve blogged before about how we have tested students on keywords. It forms part of their 3 set homeworks to learn the keywords. However we realise we need students to equally be able to recall and apply quotations in their writing.

We have therefore adapted our weekly quizzing to use one of the them to help learn relevant quotations.

Week A – They have to retrieve the 10 set keywords for the current topic (given to them on sheets for homework). They peer mark.

Week B – They used to have 10 random, interleaved prior topic keywords. We’re now changing to 5 keywords only and then 5 quotations. They will peer mark these too. The benefit of this is that they will see others students’ quotes and it saves me from marking.

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Students will be told a topic and sometimes a religion and they have to recall a quotation that could support a view (either ‘for’ or ‘against’). They will need to recall an appropriate quote (not word for word – paraphrasing is fine) and where it’s from. We’re not getting students to learn specific references. We are getting them to remember the source e.g The Bible, The Qur’an, Hadith etc

quote1

At the same time we have reduced  and simplified the keywords as we originally included all given by the exam board but realised they’re not all necessary to be learnt in this way.

We’ve also created HW booklets for the quotations (from these HERE from AQA )to go with the key word booklets. We have attempted to keep these to a minimum ( possibly not successfully!), reusing quotes where possible so they can remember one and apply over several topics.

We will also give them index cards to help with their own retrieval practice. They can write a quotation on one side and the topic/s that it can be applied to on the other so they are useful to be used both ways round.

We’ve also started to add more quotations into the multiple choice online quizzes they do for another homework. We really hope this will help them to learn the quotations over the 3 years.

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‘Research’ based activities for learning

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I am currently reading this book:

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I thought that I knew quite a lot about memory and understanding (chapter 1) however, I’m pleasantly surprised to have learnt some new things which I can see impact my teaching. In particular I have been thinking about a part of it that says:

“activities which prompt learners to think about and process meaningful information should be encouraged” p12

This is important as it reduces the chance of the isolation of information which is easily forgotten. If students can link their learning it adds to their schema of knowledge and in turn has a better chance of staying in their long-term memory.

It then lists a few examples of how this might be done. I already do some of these and I have always thought they’ve been useful for particualr parts of the specification. This blog is for me to process these ideas and think how they might be practically applied to the classroom and hopefully improve my practice.  These are some further thoughts.

 

Making Links

The quickest and easiest ways of doing this is to ask students what they already know about X, knowing that you’re going to teach them about Y, which is in someway linked.

  • I start most lessons with a quick 1-10 of prior learning ( a mixture from a long time ago, a while ago and recent lessons). I will deliberately ask them questions in this that I know links to the topic that lesson.
  • Comparing concepts also encourages students to make links. I like using double bubble maps for this.
  • Venn diagrams can also help make links and connections
Suggestions for GCSE RS – compare: Sunni/Shi’a, angels (Islam/Christianity), Life after death (Islam/Christianity), Sacraments (denominations), Just war/Holy war

Categorising

 

  • Having a set of cards with keywords/ideas on a particular topic is useful (the dreaded card sort). Students can then sort them into the categories given or decided by themselves. Sometimes I give them a set of cards and get them to decide how to organise them (if I don’t have a specific outcome in mind but just engagement with the concept)
  • Alternatively, a set of images could be used on the cards.
  • Mindmaps ( or simpler spider diagram) – creating a mindmap of a topic can help them pull together a whole topic and can see how things link up. The branches of a mindmap are essentially categories within the overall topic. The more they can do independently the better. However I often do a whole class start where I ask the group what might be the better initial branches. This gives everyone the starting framework to add information. Mindmaps also help with making links as lines can be drawn between items that connect.Consider the best time for a mindmap. At the start of a topic and then add to it? at the end? a while after the topic to help with retreival pratice?
Suggestions for GCSE RS – set of images of different types of punishment, which are acceptable in Islam/Christianity? Why?,  set of cards with quotes from Jesus, which can be applied to war? 

Hierarchies

  • The same resources for categorising can be used for this. The difference is that students use the cards and put them into some sort of hierarchy e.g importance, influence, strength of argument, priority, frequency
  • Diamond nine – this forces students to create a differently weighted hierarchy. They have to choose a ‘top’ idea which can sometimes be difficult.
Suggestions for GCSE RS – This type of activity could be really useful for analysis of  reasons in evaluating arguments for the new GCSE.
Examples –  set of cards with reasons for abortion, which might a Muslim/Christian believe is most-least acceptable? set of cards with the events of Jesus’s life on, which were the most important? set of cards on the death penalty, which would be the strongest/weakest arguments?
Students could also complete the task from a faith perspective e.g from the point of view of a Christian, which teaching/belief would be most important when considering euthanasia?

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Caveats

The important aspect of all of these activities is that students have to think;think for themselves. They have to process the information they have in front of them. In my opinion, this is reduced if they work in a group or even a pair. If you’re not careful, one student can dominate and allow others to take a back seat. It’s the thinking process that matters so where possible these should be done alone.

They should be used sparingly and appropriately. Imagine walking into every lesson and having a card sort. It’s one of those things that should be used when you want students to be able to process the knowledge not just an easy lesson filler/time waster.

Thirdly, giving them the chance to explain their choices is very important. This can be done through written work, teacher questioning, paired/group work or as a whole class discussion. Again, the more the emphasis is put onto their own justification the more they have to engage with the content; they can’t just copy somebody else.

Finally, it is essential that the most time is spent on the processing of the information and not on the peripherals of the activity. For example, colouring a mind map or cutting out pieces of card are not a good use of learning time. The strength of these come from the cognitive process not on aesthetics or practicalities.

Invisible differentiation

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I heard a story of an Ofsted inspector taking two student books, one a lower attaining starter and one from a higher attaining starter. The inspector then proceeded to look at the same lesson in the books and try to find evidence of differentiation.

This really made me think. What would they see in my student books? And the answer is troubling; it’s ‘nothing’.

It’s troubling because if they were to make a judgement on just this I would ‘fail’. Yet I know there is a lot that I do to ensure that everyone achieves and can be extended.

It’s in my teaching along the way…

When I teach, I consider the variation of students in the room. My use of vocabulary ranges from ensuring the students with lower literacy understand key vocabulary to the use of more technical terms. Everyone in the room can access both but as minimum they can know and use the core vocabulary.

I go through structures and skills all together as a class. Again, ensuring that all can access the basics and yet everyone can access the high level. For example, I go through a possible structure to use in their answer. It’s up to them if they use it. However, everyone has a copy of that structure in their folders. I wouldn’t just give that to some students; they all have it.

I also model good examples. Every student has a copy of these. This means they can all see what a good one looks like and can use it as a model for their work.

I will use emphasis in my explanations. I will highlight higher level responses. I will indicate the kind of vocabulary that shows a deeper understanding. The higher attaining starts are well aware of what they need to do, but I haven’t excluded anyone else from this.

I also don’t just teach what is on the spec. I extend knowledge and understanding well beyond. For example, I teach students some Arabic at GCSE. I don’t need to but it really pushes their skills and extends their core knowledge.

It’s on the board…

I leave lots on the board that is supportive or may extend. For example, some of the technical key words, a diagram of the structure they could use, a quote they can attempt to use in their work by themselves. If it’s not on a PowerPoint slide then that support will be gone and potentially unevidenced.

It’s in my in-class support….

I walk around my class, answering questions. If I see common issues I stop the class and clarify. I reference the stuff on the board if I can see students are missing something. I remind them to use their notes. I remind them of good examples and structures. It’s what I tell them whilst they work.

It’s in their use of notes….

I encourage students to take notes during my lessons. Whilst they vary in terms of independent notes, there are core ideas, words and content that I make them all have. Sometimes when students are doing a piece of work I will give them the option to use their notes or not. These core notes provide a basis for their support. I train them to look back at their notes each lesson and see how useful they are. As these notes will include a range of material including that needed for high end answers, they can all use their notes to achieve.

It’s in my expectations….

I expect all students to do the top end work. I don’t give them different tasks based on any sort of data. They all do the same task but all the previous stages means they can all access it. I don’t have students saying ‘I don’t know what to do’ because the preparation and support given for the piece of work means that, unless they’ve been absent, they can all attempt a piece of work and have a range of support as above.

What you won’t see

On the whole, you won’t see different tasks, different vocabulary lists, different structures, levelled worksheets, target level activities, different homeworks, different mark schemes…. anything that limits the possibilities for students. 

In my classes, you won’t really see anything different in student books which ‘proves’ that differentiation has happened. However it does happen and it seems to work fine, except if someone comes looking for it in their books……..

The insight that many new senior leaders lack and what can be done about it

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I’ve been thinking about what it is that can potentially cause issues between senior leaders and teachers. In many cases that I have experienced (at secondary level), it has come down to a lack of understanding of senior leaders of subjects other than their own.

This post is based on the premise that senior leaders in schools need to have a least a basic understanding of the variation between and unique challenges of every subject/key stage. If you don’t think this, stop reading here.

The issue

I once went into a meeting with a deputy head as we needed to discuss workload within RE; a colleague had left and I was essentially marking for 800 students. I will never forget what the deputy head said I should do:

“You can easily whizz through a set of books whilst students are working in class”

I sat, possibly with my mouth wide open and pondered what he was saying. He wasn’t talking about the ‘live’ marking (marking student work and feeding back whilst they are completing tasks) that can help reduce mark load. He meant that I should take a different class’s books and mark them whilst the current class,  working totally independently and without my input, do their work.

The issue here is that he was a Maths teacher. He had no concept of what marking was like in RE. Whilst he was probably talking about checking ‘correct answers’, possibly in a nice short list of 1-10, I was having to read pages of extended writing, checking for SPAG errors. He lacked the understanding and possibly the empathy that was needed in that situation. He didn’t offer helpful advice for me. 

This isn’t uncommon. Teachers that decide to go into senior leadership will not always have the cross-subject and cross phase experience that may give this ability to understand what teaching and learning is, in areas out of their own experience.

This can become exacerbated when you have a leadership team from ‘similar’ background in terms of subject. I would argue that subjects can be grouped* and that if there isn’t a member of SLT from each group or a significant understanding of the other groups. Then there may be avoidable issues.

Why is it an issue?

Most first time Assistant Heads come from one of the following:

  • Head of department/faculty
  • Head of year

And occasionally

  • Lead practitioner
  • SENCO
  • Senior teacher

The issue is that it is rare that most spend a significant amount of time out of their subject specialism.

The knowledge and insight that I believe senior leaders need are:

  • How a subject’s curriculum works
  • Variation between key stages
  • The challenges that a subject/dept. faces
  • Simple pedagogical differences between subjects

Does it really matter?

I think it does. A senior leader, regardless of role, is a leader and a manager of all staff and of all subjects. Their knowledge and understanding is essential in making things smoother. Ignorance can cause unnecessary conflict and problems.

For example, a senior leader that see their 5 classes, 3 times a week and say that books should be marked every week, won’t realise for an RE teacher that sees classes once a week that it means 20 sets of books to mark a week compared to the SLT’s 5.

You can’t fully prepare for an SLT role but some experience and exposure to as many different subjects before a teacher is in role will really help.

What can be done to develop the insight needed?

Middle leader collaboration

In my current school we have a regular middle leaders meeting. There is a short agenda and for 90% of the time it is middle leaders sharing what they are doing or will do on a specific issue. For example,  this means that the Head of Maths shares what they are doing with the Head of Geography. The Head of Drama shares what they are doing with the Head of MFL.  The assistant and deputy head are also there listening and contributing. This is a great way for colleagues to understand the way other subjects work. It’s a good chance to develop this cross curricular understanding.

Associate roles

A Head, with foresight and a focus on developing their staff, will create associate roles where possible. These are commonly associate SLT roles which gives someone an insight into the wider perspective SLT need to take. However, if you are a Drama specialist it may be useful to become an associate member of the Maths department. This may include being include in subject meetings, in the department email group, ‘observing subject teaching, joining a subject for INSET or asking to join the Head of subject in their line management meetings. It needs to be done with sensitivity but it could provide a great insight into a subject different to the person’s specialism.

External course/CPD focus

Many middle leaders that want to go on to senior leadership go on a course such as the NPQSL to help prepare. However there is no requirement on this course to do anything that is cross curricular. It has to be whole school but it doesn’t necessarily mean it has to be the kind of thing that provides insight into how different subjects work around the school. A Head could suggest that colleagues doing this kind of course should do something that enhances their knowledge and understanding of different subject areas.

Consultation, communication & collaboration

If someone is already a senior leader and doesn’t have the knowledge needed, then this can be the best way to gain insight. It’s also called ‘good management’.

If a leader wants to create a new policy, for example, for homework, instead of sitting writing this by themselves or even with other SLT they should work with middle leaders/teachers to find the best solution for all. Even better they should work with broad principles and ask colleagues to adapt for their own subject.

Duh

Some of you may be reading this and thinking ‘duh, yeah’ but I am well aware that there are many leaders out there that don’t do this and in their ignorance, produce policies or systems that may well be great for their subject specialism but completely unworkable and problematical for other subjects.

This kind of uninformed behaviour is regularly shared on social media. Sadly,  it can be a significant cause of stress in teaching and in some cases people leaving the profession. It IS important.

 

*For example…..

  • Humanities based – History, Geography, RE, English etc
  • Mathematical based – Maths, science
  • Creative based – art, drama, music etc
  • Technical – Food, textiles, resistant materials etc
  • Languages – French, German, Latin etc
  • Physical – PE, dance etc