Why teach?

1 consequence

In England it feels as if we are finding this question harder and harder to answer. Year on year we fail to hit teacher training recruitment targets and lose more and more teachers to private family lives and other professions.

As the number of children in our schools rises, alarm may be turning into panic.

There are, of course, many reasons for this. The familiar culprits of poor behaviour, crude accountability measures, falling wages and inflexible working conditions have probably all played a part.

But there are more fundamental, existentialist questions to answer too. This talk will outline four common consequentialist justifications for teaching as a profession, explore their flaws and limitations, then aim to explain why, irrespective of all these, teaching is still profoundly moral and worthwhile.

2 Equal

Fifteen years ago part of the way in which I was drawn into teaching was a lie.

I was told, and believed, that because teachers were directly responsible for the grades their pupils got in public examinations, good teachers working in poor areas were helping redress societal inequality. The argument went that better teaching in poorer areas led to better grades for poorer children, which led to them going to better universities, which meant they got better jobs and then earned more money.

The outcome of my work would be that poorer children became richer adults and that, gradually but inexorably, I was helping construct a true meritocracy.

This argument, which is particularly attractive to the young who want to change the world, has not gone away.

Well-meaning teacher training programmes, particularly those working in areas of disadvantage, still use the gap between the richer and poorer sections of society as a way of signing up new recruits. We see this in adverts in which poor pupils talk enthusiastically about the impact a teacher made in setting them on the way to high-flying, influential careers and we see it when England’s Department of Education proudly crows the narrowing of attainment gaps between poorer and richer children.

Such messages are compelling. Most of us want to feel our lives have mattered so righting the wrongs of life’s injustices seems a noble way to live and find meaning.

The problem here is that, while there will always be examples that stand out as exceptions, we have little evidence that the gap between rich and poor people in Britain has narrowed or will narrow in the future. Much evidence suggests the opposite and the gap is widening. If we accept this, and persist in believing the main reason for public education and teaching is to narrow differences in wealth, then we must accept that we have failed in the past, are failing now, and in all likelihood will continue to fail in the future. Recent surveys suggest that our younger generations are quite aware of this and increasingly cynical (or actually realistic?) about the idea of social mobility.

This should not come as much of a shock given the nature of our mostly cohort referenced public examination system, which effectively caps the number of top grades that can be achieved each year based on attainment in tests taken at age ten or eleven. Everyone involved in the care of a child, and of course the child itself, is incentivised to use every advantage they have to outcompete other children of the same age. Those with more advantage will usually outcompete those with less, and so go on to more prestigious university courses and better paid careers. If the whole cohort improves, then those in a position to do so will make sure the children they care about will improve more than others. Once again, it is the most advantaged who are in the best position to do this. While it might be a stretch to say things have been set up this way deliberately the effect is the same, as divisions in educational attainment are maintained or even widened.

Cohort referencing means we are being dishonest when we say to all our pupils “work hard and you will get a good grade”, because the limited number of each means that not everyone can. Those blessed with advantage be it affluence or higher intelligence are always likely to do better than those less fortunate. The worst consequence of all this might be that by tying the value of what we teach to a test score, we imply that those who do not get a high grade have been wasting their time. This is particularly alarming when we remind ourselves that the whole way examinations are set up makes it simply impossible for all pupils to reach the top of the ladder.

For some pupils to do better, others have to do worse.

The playing field is not level. If we teach to reduce social inequality then we are failures.

Further evidence of this can be seen in admission figures to the best universities, which show that while more pupils overall are going on to university, there has been little if any improvement in the proportion of poorer young people going to Oxbridge and Russel Group institutions. This is important. While the number of high paid, prestigious jobs remain the same (and may even decline if our economy contracts after Brexit), then it would be entirely illogical to assume that the act of going to university, particularly if it is less prestigious, will lead to greater affluence.

Perhaps we could treat the justification of education as driving social mobility more seriously if those that made it had plans to make richer pupils perform worse in order to make space at life’s top table. This, of course and quite rightly for all sorts of reasons, never happens. No sane government will ever introduce a law making it illegal for parents to pay for private tuition for their child, or banning them from reading to their children before bedtime to help them with literacy.

3 Happier

 

 

Even if we accept that our work does not narrow divisions it might still be possible to form an argument that it is a consequentially justified activity if we could prove that society in its entirety was becoming more educated as a result of our collective work.

Intellectually at least, this argument does carry some weight. While we should at least nod at the dangers of correlation-causation, educated societies do, on the whole, seem to be more peaceful, tolerant and prosperous. It is not a huge stretch to extend this to the belief that should we improve the overall level of education (effectively shoving the bell curve right), then the work of teachers would, overall, lead to the general betterment of society even if the divisions within it remain as acute as ever. This is a version of a classic capitalist argument, in its belief that competition between individuals and groups results in an overall improvement from which everyone, eventually, benefits even if inequalities are never ironed out.

To decide whether or not this works as a reason to teach we need to look at whether England is actually becoming more educated over time, then work out if this is because of schools, before considering whether or not any rise has increased general happiness.

David Didau, who tweets @DavidDidau, has done work on this. In a sequence of blog posts and in his new book, he has demonstrated that if we take IQ as a measure of intelligence, and I do realise this is disputed, then our children do, as a whole, seem to be getting cleverer.

The problem here is that it isn’t at all clear this has been the result of schooling. This may seem counterintuitive given the stated aim of schools, but it is important to remember that children actually spend a very small proportion of their lives in lessons. It is just as likely that rises in IQ test scores, which assess ability to think in the abstract, are attributable to an increasingly complicated world that requires its inhabitants to think in an abstract fashion. This seems borne out by bigger increases in IQ scores in developing countries which are undergoing very rapid technological and industrial changes than in developed societies which went through these changes longer ago.  While David Didau has good reason to disagree with this, citing evidence which tracts differences in increases in IQ between pupils of different ages in the same year, I still don’t think there’s enough evidence for us to say with absolute confidence that England is becoming any better educated as a result of the work of its teachers. While there is evidence that IQ has risen over recent years, and while schools probably have contributed to this, the many societal changes that have happened in the same period means we cannot be sure that this has been only or perhaps even mainly the result of the work of schools. What’s more, depressingly and alarmingly, it appears that literacy and numeracy rates may now actually be declining. We are the only OECD country in which literacy levels of those aged between 16 and 24 are lower than those of aged 55 and over, which suggests our society may actually be becoming less rather than more educated.

It is at least possible that our recent preoccupation with examination outcomes as proxies of education may well have worsened the overall quality of education in England. Brutal, unsophisticated and high-stakes accountability incentivised schools to game play with low value qualifications and to teach to tests. What may have worked for individual schools may well have failed the collective if the overall aim was a better educated society. Encouragingly, it does seem that Ofsted, England’s school inspectorate, is acknowledging this as a risk with its latest framework, but it is far too early to tell how successful they are likely to be.

Even if we put all this aside and could prove that our children are getting cleverer, will continue to become cleverer and that this is because of our schools then it would still be impossible to say whether this has benefited society. This is because we can’t say whether people in the past were any happier than we are today. While we can make judgements based upon our own values, the inherent bias in making such judgements invalidates them. While we may look at the life of a medieval peasant and shudder their pain and suffering, our shudders are because we are imagining ourselves as them. What we fail to get is that if we were them we wouldn’t be us. We don’t know what it was like to be illiterate in a culture in which nearly everyone was. We don’t know what it was like to have a certainty of faith that meant we knew when we died our souls would still exist for eternity. This is not to say that men and women in the past were happier than us, but it does mean we just can’t make an accurate assessment as to whether or not being better educated, however we define this, leads to greater happiness.

So no. The argument that teaching leads to a more educated and therefore happier society is not one robust enough to use as a justification for why teachers do what they do.

4 Better

Some teachers believe the most important purpose of education is to make our world a morally better place. The argument goes that the world is unfair and that this unfairness is the result of flaws in the people who have constructed the societies in which they live. Children in school offer us a fresh start. If we can teach them to be less prejudiced, more honest and selfless, then the world they create when they grow up will be a better than the world we live in now. If we could eliminate negative influences then humans will not behave badly and the world will be better for everyone.

Alternatively, others claim that children are naturally selfish and will behave badly without corrective influences. They may argue that it is possible to create a better society by rewarding pupils for good behaviour and punishing them for bad. If we do this well then children will eventually internalise good values, which will lead to a better society.

There are lots of problems with both these approaches. The first of these is how we define what a ‘better’ society looks like. There is no consensus. For some people this might mean the withering away of the state and the final realisation of Marx’s communist dream. For others it may mean an orderly, traditional societal structure in which rigid hierarchies provide stability and security. If we cannot agree on the ideal society then it is impossible for us ever to achieve a result that satisfies everyone. One person’s dream is another’s dystopian nightmare. Those who do not understand this are naïve, dangerous ideologists or both. Teaching in a way designed to create a specific type of society means teaching children that those with alternative views are either misguided or wicked, which encourages narrow thinking and intolerance.

Even if we could all agree on what kind of society we want to create, there’s little reason to think schools could deliver it. In a typical year children spend only about 10% of their time in front of their teachers, meaning most of the time they are exposed to influences beyond the reach of their schools. This means that any child’s views are far more likely to be the result of their parents, friends and those they admire than they are the work of their teachers. While some countries, including Nazi Germany in the past and North Korea today, have tried hard to drastically increase the influence of schools to create the sort of society they deem desirable, most of us would not feel comfortable emulating their methods.

5 Productive

Every day in England, pupils interrupt their lessons to ask “why do we need to learn this?” What often follows is teachers parroting learned consequentialist justifications. In my subject, history, this might be a teacher saying “if you understand that people in the past had different views, then you’ll understand that people today have too any this will mean you get on with people better when you get a job.”  But trying to justify the content of our curriculum by its capacity for practical application is flawed. Beyond basic literacy and numeracy most of what is learned in school is not obviously useful in the wider world without making absurd leaps. This is something many of the pupils I have taught have been acutely aware of. While it can be amusing to try and construct contrived situations that justify the teaching of something pupils regard as obscure, for example, “if you become a baker and your till breaks and you have to work out how much Mrs Jones owes you and nobody has a calculator and there’s no way you’ll be able to get one then this algebra is going to come in really handy!”

Still worse, if we allow pupils to make this argument we suggest the only subjects which are important are those with a clear and direct link to practical tasks pupils might do in the future. While some might argue this is actually quite right, curriculum developed on this principle would be radically different to most of those we deliver in schools today. In with using Excel and developing a good phone voice! Out with Homer and the irrelevant Renaissance artists!

Do we really want our young people to learn only what is practically useful?

To me it is clear that no consequentialist argument is strong enough to work as a justification for educating our children. As much as we might want to, we cannot say ‘we teach children in schools so that X will happen’, because we can’t agree what we want, can’t prove anything we want to happen does, and even if we could all agree that a change that had happened was a positive one it would be impossible to prove that this change was the result of the work of teachers.

For many of us, accepting this means facing something of an existentialist crisis.

If nothing good comes of our work then why bother doing it at all?

This story might be a helpful way of concentrating the argument.

Not very long ago I heard about a senior leader who had a meeting with a Teaching Assistant assigned to work with a pupil suffering from a progressive disease, which meant he used a wheelchair and was not expected to live beyond his early twenties. The meeting was called because there were concerns the pupil wasn’t getting proper support, with the TA often appearing to be disinterested and bored. In the meeting the assistant accepted she had not been effectively supporting the young person and told the leader that she would prefer to prepare small groups of gifted pupils for Oxford and Cambridge University. When the senior leader asked them why they didn’t want to work with the disabled pupil they’d been directed to help, they were horrified to hear the reply “it’s not like there’s any point. It’s not like he’s ever going to do anything.”

Upsetting, no? But if we derive our sense of purpose as teachers from consequentialism is it really that shocking? Whatever grades the young man got, he almost certainly would not go to university. He was even less likely to ever have a job. His early death would mean that in the big scheme of things how well educated he ends up is irrelevant to the general education level of society. Lastly he would play no part in future society because he would not be part of it so, what does it matter whether or not school equips him with the personal qualities or skills needed to impact on the world?

If we accept consequentialism then there is no point in educating young people like him at all, which makes the Teaching Assistant right.

What nonsense.

She was wrong and we know it.

The story makes us uneasy because on a deeper, instinctive level we know that the value of education is not in any outcomes we hope will be a result of it.

Instead, the true value of education is in the inherent worth of what pupils learn and their entitlement to it regardless of anything that might or might not happen to them in the future.

While justifying education in this way may feel unfamiliar it is not actually new at all. Our obsession with consequentialism may actually be quite recent. For hundreds of years an important reason for education was because what was taught was believed to have great inherent value. Everything taught was a precious jewel to be passed down through the generations. This has perhaps been most famously expressed by poet and inspector of schools Matthew Arnold who wrote in 1869 that the purpose of education should be for young people to know ‘the best that has been thought and said’. Those tempted to dismiss this as the privileged witterings of a Victorian man with a Messiah complext may be interested to learn that precisely the same sentiment was expressed by his socialist contemporary Robert Tressell in The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, in which he argued that:

6 Tressell

This offers us a way forward.

In making the point of what we do the value of what we teach our children, and letting go of the idea we need something else to happen as a result of it we can find real and robust purpose.

We cannot shake consequentialism completely. If we are to make the reason for what we do the things we teach we have to believe that the children we are responsible for will recognise that value of what they learn. While this is of course still consequentialist it is much less of a stretch than the belief that learning Hamlet will result in a measurable outcome in a completely different domain. It is far more realistic for a teacher to say “I hope that by learning Hamlet’s soliloquy pupils will see that people often struggle with feelings of pointlessness” than it is for them to say we teach Shakespeare because it will make them richer. We can have even more confidence in pupils recognising the inherent value of ‘the best that has been thought and said’ if what we teach has been recognised as of great worth by many people over a long period of time. This is why teaching children the Odyssey is better than teaching them Harry Potter or Holes. It is why we do pupils a disservice if we teach them the history of football instead of the Magna Carta. It is why a geography teacher is right to focus on glaciation and wrong to allow their pupils to spend valuable lesson time colouring in and labelling blank maps.

I think we should push past Arnold’s narrow view of what is considered academic in the strictest sense too, expanding ‘the best that has been thought and said’ to ‘the best that has been made, cooked, danced and so on’. Deciding whether pupils will learn to cook a Rogan Josh or a Chicken Tikka Masala, or whether a dovetail joint is a better use of time than a mortoise and tenon should be just as important as deciding whether or not pupils should learn about the Napoleonic wars. There will never be agreement, but the most important debates we have in schools should be over what exactly we should teach our children based on intrinsic and inherent worth. On a subject of such importance there will never be agreement, but these are the conversations we should be having. We should be arguing about whether we should include Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko on our curriculum. We should be should be arguing about exactly which gothic novel should be taught.

Schools should not adapt what pupils learn based on what we think they will be. Instead they should teach children to alter themselves in order to become part of something greater. We all have voices but we sing as part of a choir. Our curriculum should whisper to our children ‘you belong. You did not come from nowhere.  All this came before you.”

This, the antithesis to the way in which ‘child centred’ education has been understood and interpreted in many English schools in recent years, may sit uncomfortably with those who feel it should be teachers making changes in response to whoever they find in front of them. Those feeling uneasy might want to think about how transformative and liberating it is to utterly lose yourself in a mathematical equation, poem, painting or piece of music. Curriculum is a powerful alchemy which can take a person out of their own limited experience and connect them to something so much larger. This is the real treasure. To allow our pupils to do this we must first help them shake off the intrusive egos that push all of us into imposing ourselves on what we encounter whether in school or elsewhere.

This idea was developed in Simone Weil’s 1942 essay “Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God”, which expresses the view that the primary purpose of schools should be to teach pupils to pay proper attention to what they are taught. While she sees the ultimate purpose to be an increase in the capacity for prayer, we do not need to go this far to see better attention as a worthwhile end. If we teach pupils to see the value in subsuming their own egos and individual characteristics to what they are learning and free them from the oppressive belief that what they do in their classrooms is only worth the bother if they are materially rewarded for it, we create an inclusive sense of meaning achievable for everyone.

This provide schools and the teachers in them with a powerful sense of purpose that enables us to throw off the existentialist horror in realising that we cannot be sure anything we do ever leads to anything else. It also presents us with a great, grave responsibility. If none of our actions leads to the outcomes we once thought they did, and the only value of what we teach is in the intrinsic worth of the material itself, then what and how well we teach assumes immeasurable significance.

In this we are saved. We do not teach because by doing so we can eradicate the differences between rich and poor. We do not teach to educate society, or to create a better one. We do not educate our children so that they have ‘skills’ that will lead to them being more productive workers. Our responsibility is more profound. We teach because, as Tressell has said, our children are the heirs of all that has gone before them and by teaching them well we gift them their birth right to the fruit of our civilizations. How important then is what we teach and how well we do it? There is so much to learn and so little, little time. When we make decisions about curriculum we do so as part of a great, great tradition. For hundreds of years, societies have been taking the baton of knowledge and passing it down through their generations and by doing so, showing their children that they are valued, important and part of something so much more enormous than they are.

So if you are a teacher and now or in years to come find yourself doubting whether what you do has real purpose, get up early and stand in any settlement in England. Watch the buses, silly uniforms and clip-on ties go by. Smile at the important, ritualistic frivolity. Think of the schools that breath in our children in the morning and exhale them in the afternoon. Think about how little these children knew when they started school, and how much they know now, and how much they will know in the future. Think about how barren their lives would be if there were no schools or teachers and they were never taught anything at all. Think about how poor they would be in the most important sense, if there were no schools and no teachers.

Think about this and allow yourself to feel the privilege and enormous weight of responsibility you carry, a weight that goes back hundreds of thousands of years. Picture yourself as a link in the only chain that really matters, a runner with a flaming torch you are thrusting into the hands of younger athletes so it won’t matter that one day, sooner than anyone ever thinks, your legs will fail. Remember that even if one of your young athletes does fall that they had the same right to run as their luckier compatriots.

Remember we are all part of race in which the aim is not to win but just to keep going.

We are the links in the chain.

We are the runners in the race.

We are the bearers of the torch.

And this is why we teach.

7 Weil

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My teachers don’t help me

drowning-hands

One of the most common complaints made by pupils in schools, especially when trying to justify poor behavioural choices, is ‘I didn’t understand the work and the teacher didn’t help me.’

This can feel like a devastatingly logical line of argument. After all, how can a child do work if they don’t understand it? And if they don’t understand it, isn’t it a teacher’s job to make sure they can?

But things, as they never are in schools, are not so simple.

Asking pupils who use this argument how they would like their teachers to help them is revealing. Very often, their understanding of help is very specific. Frequently, what they mean by ‘help’ is individual one-to-one support. They mean that they think their teacher should sit down next to them to explain each task, and how it should be successfully completed. They believe if teachers do not do this, they are not helping, which makes any poor behaviour, for example shouting out, justified, as in “I asked for help loads of times but Sir ignored me.”

Logistically, for most teachers in most schools, this is just not practical. I think teachers, certainly in most subjects in secondary schools, should spend most of their time instructing the class as a whole. Any time they spend in one-to-one support is time they cannot spend explaining content to everyone. When it is not necessary, as it often isn’t, one-to-one tuition in lessons is an inefficient use of time.

For pupils who have, for whatever reason, internalised the idea that help has to be one-to-one support, any whole class teaching must seem very frustrating. “Sir is talking to everyone again! He’s not helping me!” This can mean that they switch off and stop listening, which means they miss out on the material they need to complete the tasks they then think they need help with later on.They are then more likely to demand personal help and so create a vicious cycle of slow progress, poor behaviour and confrontation.

This is such a shame. Pupils whose understanding of help is limited to one-to-one tuition miss the truth; their teachers are helping them all the time. When a teacher explains something new to the whole class, they are helping. When a teacher goes through a worked example or model answer, they are helping. When a teacher tells their pupils common errors made on a test and corrects them, they are helping. When a teacher tells a pupil to stop lollygagging out of the window and look at the board, they are helping. Pupils who do not recognise this as help miss all of it, which means that when it is time to complete tasks, it is inevitable they will not understand.

All of this is not to say that teachers should never help pupils individually. When appropriate they absolutely should. But a teacher finding themselves having to do this regularly for an individual child should consider the possibility that the help the pupil needs is actually in engaging with what they are saying to the whole class. Regrettably, I think in the past some pupils have been so individually helped they have come to believe that they actually aren’t capable of understanding anything unless there is an adult available to translate for them. For some pupils this might be true but I am sure for most it is not.

This learned helplessness is dangerous because it robs children of the ability to learn in any other way. We must fight this and push our most vulnerable young people past the idea they need someone with them at all times in order achieve anything.

All of this means, as I’ve written about here, that schools, whether they do this through SLANT or something else, must teach children how to listen. They must insist that pupils know that in order to get individual help from their teacher they must first keep their side of the deal by engaging with support in its very widest sense.

Of course, unfortunately and inevitably there will be times when whole class instruction, whether through a teacher’s inexperience or something else, isn’t helpful. This does need to be dealt with. But the way to do this isn’t to say that the teacher should stop talking to the whole class and help each child individually instead. Such classrooms are chaotic which makes everything harder to do.

Anyone uneasy about what I’ve written here, and I think there may be some, should be clear that all I’m really saying is that I think children should listen while their teachers talks, whether it is to them individually or to them as part of a class, and that pupils understand that whenever a teacher is teaching, they are also helping.

Surely this isn’t controversial?

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First do no harm.

hippocrates

It is really hard to picture a lesson in which there isn’t any feedback. Just try. No questioning to see if children understand before moving on. No scanning the room to see if everyone is paying attention. No walking between desks to see if everyone is on the right question and has made a good start. No watching faces for signs of bafflement or indifference. No stopping to redo something as a class when it becomes clear lots of children are lost. No showing pupils a model answer before or after they’ve completed their own. No crouching down quickly next to a child to whisper a short correction. The closest I can get is the “anyone, anyone” economics teacher from Ferris Bueller’s school.

Feedback is a component of teaching. Not the butter on the bread, but the bread itself. Without feedback whatever we are doing, we aren’t teaching.

Systemically we seem to have a problem understanding this. Perhaps because of an overly simplistic interpretation of Hattie’s work and perhaps because of insidious accountability audit culture we’ve decoupled feedback from teaching, and often treat them as if they were different things that can be measured separately.

For a while feedback became a synonym for marking. Feedback was good, the more of it the better. This meant marking was good, so the more of this the better too. A storm of green pens, highlighters and stick in sheets fetishised the form and we lost sight of what all of it was for. The emergence of helpful research which showed written marking had no discernible impact on pupil learning, and Ofsted’s laudable endorsement of this research, prompted by Alex Ford, has helped matters but triple-marking and other onerous time consuming policies stagger on. With the evidence so clearly stacked against them, and in the midst of a recruitment and retention crisis at least partially due to workload why is this?

Firstly, I think, we are still struggling to shake off an audit culture in which compliance to a policy set by a school’s SLT is regarded as evidence of strong leadership, with some afraid to let go of their vice-like grips on the reins, perhaps out of a prideful fear of admitting they may have got things wrong in the past. Ofsted hasn’t helped, so often the tail that wags the dog, with a major focus of its most recent frameworks seemingly being how consistently teachers adhere to a school’s policy regardless of efficacy. This may go some way to explaining why some schools are so obsessed with everyone doing the same thing, but doesn’t explain why their leaders would interpret this to mean that teachers should very visibly mark, in depth, all the work produced by their pupils.

The most important reason for this is an ill-judged obsession with ‘visible learning’. For whatever reason, some of us have come to believe that a pupil’s work should be a map or download of their brain, or a sort of livestream of the lesson itself. If pupils have received feedback then there must be evidence of this, because this proves it happened. If there isn’t evidence of it, then it didn’t happen. Sadly, this sort of thinking, as I wrote about here, is even infecting the verbal feedback movement, which is becoming muddied and corrupted by standardised forms and other generic formats.

All of this is nonsense.

Learning is invisible. Regardless of how many times a pupil has redrafted a paragraph, or corrected a spelling mistake in green pen, or written down a ‘target’, it is impossible to know if they have really improved or just mechanistically and slavishly followed the directions of a teacher working through the ‘non negotiables’ of their school’s policy. If we define learning as ‘a change in long term memory’, as Ofsted is now doing, then we probably can’t judge whether or not they have really got better until long after the lesson or sequence of lessons in which they received the feedback, and even then we still would not be able to pin down any improvement a pupil made to it given all the other factors (e. g a supportive, educated family) that may have had an impact too.

An even more serious effect of prescriptive policies, however onerous or not, is that they force teachers into believing this written feedback is a separate and more important thing than other types. If we conduct quality assurance on books, folders and tests as if these existed as separate to day-to-day teaching we imply that all the other things mentioned in my first paragraph aren’t as valuable, and lead teachers away from focusing on them. When marking policies are very time consuming we exhaust teachers and may make them worse at these things even if they understand just how important they are. Finally, we should be humble and accept that, certainly outside our own subject specialisms, we are unlikely to be able to judge whether or not a pupil is getting better as a result of feedback, or indeed whether or not they are getting better at all.

Audit culture has also had wider unintended and unforeseen consequences. When teachers are told how to teach or give feedback, they are effectively absolved of the responsibility of working out whether their practice is effective or not. Their job becomes to simply follow the rules. In such contexts their feedback is very unlikely to be as good as it could be because they are responding primarily to top-down edicts and not the needs of their classes and individual pupils. If a teachers’ job is to mark books twice a week, and they do, then they have done their job regardless or not of whether the feedback was appropriate or effective. For schools still hanging on to performance related pay, it may also be worth considering how fair this is if they have limited the freedom of their teachers. Accountability without autonomy can only be defended if those who set tight policies can prove, beyond all doubt, that the methods they insist on are effective. This is impossible.

At the root of all this is the understandable but erroneous desire to know things with a degree of certainty we just can’t. The only way we could really know, with any degree of confidence, whether or the teachers in our schools are really all giving effective feedback would be to replicate Graham Nuthall’s methods and kit out every classroom with cameras and microphones. We’d then need to employ a team of subject experts to carefully watch all the videos and listen to all the recordings before cross-referencing them with the test scripts pupils did months or even years after the initial teaching. This, for a thousand and one reasons is impossible, and even if it were we still wouldn’t really know whether pupils had learned what they had because of the feedback they got or because of a something else that happened outside their classroom that we are completely unaware of. We can’t be sure, and just shouting “I know whether good feedback is taking place” louder and louder won’t help win any reasoned arguments.

This, for school leaders, may seem depressing. But it is only depressing if we assume that teachers are incompetent, remain incompetent without rigid rules and don’t want their pupils to get better. As Mark Enser has so often pointed out (and, I believe, has a book out soon that I hope will make the point even clearer), when schools create cultures in which working to continually improve is a key component of professionalism, teachers placed in charge of their own development generally, with the right training, support, agency and respect, will eventually arrive at effective methods that work in their own context.

This is not to say there are no bad apples. There are some lazy teachers just as there are lazy and careless people in all walks of life. But the solution to this is not to introduce policies designed primarily to make feedback visible to an external observer. Lazy teachers will pay the loosest lip service they can get away with while the conscientious and talented will find themselves hamstrung.

We could do worse than take instruction from the Hippocratic Oath; first do no harm. The purpose of this Oath, created a time in which medical science was in its infancy, was sensible. If you aren’t sure what you think is right, then the first thing you should be sure of is that what you do doesn’t hurt anyone. It doesn’t make any sense to direct teachers in schools to follow tight, prescriptive marking policies if you aren’t certain (and you can’t be) that they actually accelerate learning, especially if you do know they have negative effects on things like classroom practice or the workload of your staff. Much better is to have a loose policy that says something like ‘Feedback takes many forms. Here are some. You may see some, all or none of these if you visit our school. The only thing we can guarantee is you will see feedback.”

As scary as it may seem, at some point you have to trust teachers. The danger of not doing so is cargo cultism, oppressive accountability, exhausted, resentful staff and pupils who learn no more than if you’d had no policy at all.

Please. First do no harm.

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It’s not about me. It’s about maths.

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Earlier this week I was part of a conversation about the successful start Steve, our new Head of Maths has made with his teaching classes. When someone asked him how he’d done it his reply, delivered with a shrug and in a typically blunt and no-nonsense manner, was “just act like I’ve always been here. Sometimes I forget to introduce myself until half way through the lesson. Doesn’t matter though, does it? It’s not about me, it’s about maths.

I thought this was wise so I tweeted it. At the time of writing this post the tweet has been ‘liked’ 380 times, which suggests quite a lot of you think so too.

While of course I was pleased, I was also surprised by how much approval the tweet got. It does not fit comfortably with popular societal tropes of charismatic classroom mavericks who are remembered by their charges for the rest of their lives. It does not fit with the popular philosophy captured in the phrase “I teach children not subjects,” which holds that the first duty of teachers is to build relationships with their pupils.

It also does not fit with common advice given to trainees, NQTs and those struggling to make headway with difficult classes, which is often to spend time going through rules and expectations, and then to focus on getting pupils to like them.

Despite all this, I can’t think of a better description of the proper role of most teachers in secondary schools. We are not employed as generic ‘teachers’ but almost always as teachers of discrete subjects and it is on these subjects emphasis should be placed.

This is easier to do in some contexts than in others. Our Head of Maths has the advantage of working in a school in which behaviour is good and disruption rare, and benefits from a system which removes the responsibility of day-to-day classroom management from teachers. This means he is able to get straight on with teaching maths. In some schools which abdicate disciplinary responsibility to teachers this just isn’t possible and those working in such places may feel they have no choice but to sacrifice subject content, at least to some degree, in order to create a superficially orderly environment through force of personality. Some, particularly the extrovert and charismatic, may be successful which can create the damaging impression that they are examples that can and should be emulated by all. In reality, the best that anyone can achieve in such contexts is, as Katherine Birbalsingh has put so eloquently, “a warlord in a failed state.”

I think striving to be remembered by pupils for the rest of their lives is egotistical and a little creepy. To want to be remembered as being exceptional means we are sort of hoping that others in a child’s life will have let them down. While I would not go as far as to say I object to pupils remembering me at all, if they do I hope it is because I have successfully shared my love of history. I’d far rather a child remembered the story of 1066 than what colour ties I wore or any motivational speeches I gave. I don’t want my pupils to watch a documentary or visit a museum exhibition and think “Mr Newmark taught me this, wasn’t he funny!” Instead I want them to go “Oh! I wonder why they’ve missed out the Battle of Fulford?” I don’t want them to think “Mr Newmark was the only teacher who believed in me” because I want them in a school that makes it clear every adult in the building does.

As years go by and pupils turn into adults, it is natural that memories of us fade. What is left should be what we taught them. I don’t remember the names of my geography teachers but I do know how to spot a glaciated landscape. I don’t remember the names of any of my RE teachers but I know what a minaret is and what Ganesh looks like. I can’t remember who taught me Lord of the Flies in English, but I do know whoever did must have done a good job, because the first time I read of Heart of Darkness I heard the echoes.

This is not to say that we should be ashamed of the times when, because of systemic failures, we have gone beyond our core roles to support a child. I wrote about one such instance in my own career here.

But events like this are human not professional triumphs and should be rare. And even in the midst of them, it is still wrong for our aim to be the child remembering us, even if in the end they do.

So I’m with Steve, apart from what he said in a sentence I’ve taken nearly 1000 words to write.

“It’s not about me. It’s about history.”

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Why is teaching making you so poorly?

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I’ve been a teacher for two years now. Since starting I’ve put on a stone and a half, have stopped all exercise in term time and am eating far too much junk food. I’m also worried that I’m drinking too much. I feel sluggish all the time and sometimes get out of breath just walking between classrooms. I don’t sleep well and often feel worryingly anxious. Every term I seem to get ill and struggle on until the holidays when I collapse. Some weekend days I can barely bring myself to go out of the house. I’ve invested a lot in teaching and don’t want to give it up, but I am seriously worried about my long term physical and mental health.

Teachers, as recently acknowledged by Damien Hinds, work long hours and these eat into time that could be spent doing things that contribute to good health. Anyone starting work at seven in the morning and working through to seven in the evening, or later, will struggle to find time to cook proper meals. Eating high-fat ready meals or takeaways, snacking on sugar and finding bursts of energy in caffeine can quickly create a pattern of peaks and troughs that is hard to break. Even if people working this long can summon the willpower to exercise, it is likely they’ll find workouts comparatively unsatisfying, which affects motivation in the longer term. All this damages quality sleep, which means the high-sugar, high-fat and high-caffeine diets feel necessary to push through the day. For teachers in this situation, alcohol, or indeed any other addictive substance, can be very tempting because it provides a short cut to altered consciousness, which gives the illusion of switching off. For most people though, drinking immoderately takes far more than it gives and contribute to the issues that started problems in the first place.

All that said, the truth is certainly more subtle than long hours cause bad health. Plenty of people in all sorts of jobs, including teaching, work very long hours and thrive. Some people who work comparatively few hours suffer from lifestyle health problems too, which means things must be more complicated.

To understand why some thrive and some don’t, whatever context they are in, it might be helpful to begin by considering what it is that makes some people quite able to cope with a large volume of work and the long hours required to complete it. First, it is important to recognise that people who feel they are being successful and making progress at things they care about are typically far happier with high workloads than those who feel they are failing at things they don’t think important. When things are going well and we can see a direct benefit of what we’re doing, we don’t mind working very hard and may even find ourselves energised. While we may know our hours are excessive, and be mindful of the impact this is having on those close to us, we are less likely to find the time spent working stressful in itself. Teachers perceived to be doing a good job working in high performing schools with autonomy to plan, teach and assess in the way they think best are probably less likely to find long hours stressful, because there is a pay off to self-esteem, career prospects and perhaps even their own finances.

Teachers working in less happy contexts are far more likely to suffer mentally and physically. For those under the cosh, whether it is because of questions around their own competence or concerns about the perceived quality of the schools in which they work, perpetual anxiety can quickly make long hours feel unbearable. In an unfortunate double-whammy, teachers working in environments like this are those least likely to be given professional freedom, which makes work feel even more like drudgery. If results do not improve, which they may well not given the limited influence teachers have, all tasks come to feel pointless, which can quickly create a demotivating sense of futility and senselessness. The frustrations of working like this for hours and hours, day in and day out, can very quickly spill into other areas of life; even if you have the time, it’s hard to find the energy to go for a run or cook a proper meal from scratch when you’ve spent your day in a state of low-level panic about the length of your to-do list. It is far easier to drink half a bottle of wine, eat a pizza and try to forget you’re likely to wake at 4am saucer-eyed and too nauseous to eat anything before the breaktime doughnut you haven’t the willpower to resist.

Unfortunately schools can buy into the inevitability of this, whether consciously or unconsciously, by creating cultures that endorse and even validate it. In some schools Heads begin the count down to the next holiday on the first day back after the last one. This, while superficially a positive example of in-it-together camaraderie (“Just twenty-seven get-ups until Christmas, guys!”), actually sends a rather negative message because it is an admission that the coming term will be relentlessly brutal, and that the best way to get through is to remind yourself at some point in the future it will end. This feast and famine approach to life makes developing consistent, healthy patterns really difficult. Motivating yourself to exercise or eat better for seven days, after six weeks of inactivity and sugar can be so hard it doesn’t feel worth bothering, especially as those who do make changes are unlikely to see any benefits in such a short space of time.

Some schools go further by normalising the binge-eating of biscuits, cake, confectionary and sweets during term time. The stressful, pressurised nature of the job can mean it conveniently assumed that eating poorly is simply unavoidable and providing sugary treats seen as a duty of those chairing meetings. Those choosing not to tuck in can find themselves, good naturedly but persuasively, pressured into ‘having just a slice.’ While saying there is never a place for such indulgences would be going too far, it is just as important to accept that it is harder to stay healthy if snacking is made a regular feature of day-to-day professional interaction.

Some teachers, concerned about relative inactivity and poor nutrition, fall victim to the myth that teaching in itself is such a physically demanding profession that it compensates for a lack of purposeful exercise and a problematic diet. This, on the face of it, is not a stupid thing to believe. Teaching is, of course, more active than many jobs, particularly those based predominantly in offices. Typical teachers do move a fair amount and even the act of standing in front of a class and explaining something burns more calories than working on a computer. Unfortunately though, making a simple comparison like this is flawed. Firstly work for most teachers is not as active as many believe it to be. Those who teach in one classroom and move no further than the staffroom are unlikely to be burning very many more calories than an office worker. Of course, PE teachers and those with responsibilities that take them over a large school site will expend more energy but even these, unless they are getting out-of-breath fairly regularly, are probably not exercising as much as they should.

Secondly, those with more sedentary jobs at all concerned about their health are likely to be acutely aware they aren’t getting enough exercise and so, sometimes literally, take steps to compensate. Increasingly, flexible working arrangements mean office-based workers make time in their day, even at lunch, to do some form of physical activity. In schools such flexibility is rare. This, added to punishingly long hours, which make working through break and lunch common, makes it much harder for teachers to do the same.

Many schools do recognise the unhealthy lifestyles of their staff as an issue and run well-meaning initiatives, typically called things like ‘healthy schools’ to address it. These usually involve a focus on better eating and may include stress-busting programmes like mindfulness, sports clubs for staff and Yoga. While the thinking is admirable, such policies can never have more than a limited impact if they deal only with the symptoms of poor health while ignoring the causes. It is all very well offering beautician appointments in non-contact time, or a running club at 3.30, but if workloads are too high for people to spare the time to attend them then they will not be beneficial to most teachers. Indeed, it is even possible they can make things worse because they can lead school staff at all levels to feel poor lifestyles are actually the fault of individuals for not taking advantage of school provision, which means less focus on changing negative aspects of the overall environment itself.

Some things, admittedly, schools can do very little about. Teachers are more prone to illness than those in many other professions because the nature of their work exposes them to more germs. Schools are full of people, both children and adults, and can act as vectors for coughs, colds, flu and stomach bugs. There is a fairly direct correlation between standing in front of a class of spluttering children and becoming poorly yourself. That children as a whole are not a demographic typified by high standard of personal hygiene makes the situation worse and means those who work in schools are more likely to get an illness than those working in offices. It probably isn’t fair to pin all the blame for this on students though; very busy, time-pressured working environments make us all, at times, less fastidious about things like hand washing and dirty tissues than we know we should be. Remembering this can help us avoid falling for the narrative that our various ailments are inevitably caused by stress and unhealthy lifestyles. While, of course, these do play a role in lowering immune systems they alone are not the cause of the end-of-term flu.

Finally, it is again worth examining the harmful but pervasive belief that good teachers are always busy and stressed. This silliness and easily lead schools and teachers to the conclusion that unbalanced, unhealthy lifestyles are inherent to teaching and there is no place in the profession for those who are either unable or unwilling to accept them. Teachers simply must reject such thinking. Those that do not, victims of a sort of Stockholm Syndrome, are contributors to the sort of culture in which bad health can seem an occupational hazard and becomes normalised, so hiding the true extent of the problem.

What can I do about it?

 

Anyone who has ever been on an aeroplane knows that the pre-flight safety briefing says they should put on their own air mask before helping a child. This is always quite jarring to hear. Our instincts tell us that when it counts the most our first responsibility is to those we care most about, not ourselves. To understand why we get this advice it is important to remember that the airline is not making a judgement about whose life is more valuable. It is a recognition that if, for whatever reason, an adult becomes incapacitated then they are no longer in a position to provide help to anyone at all.

There are lessons in this to those in danger of burning themselves out. When we are not healthy, we do everything worse. Detailed planning may well be done, but its quality is likely to be questionable. Teaching exhausted is a recipe for disaster. Marking and assessing may fulfil all the requirements of a policy but is far less likely to address the most pertinent areas. Even teachers who are able to compartmentalise so well their pupils don’t notice a difference are very unlikely to be able to keep it up forever. Teachers who leave the profession because their health becomes so poor they cannot continue deprive future generations of pupils of an experienced, competent practitioner, which means even an apparent short term victory can result in a far-reaching and more important defeat.

To be fair on ourselves and our pupils we must begin by accepting that our first priority must be our own health and well-being. Only when this is assured can we properly prioritise the needs of those we are responsible for.

Of course, this is much easier said than done.

Exercise is a good place to start because, done regularly, it can provide a structure on which to hang other things too. While meaningfully training for a marathon might be unrealistic for many teachers, especially who those who feel they often don’t have time to go to the toilet, even a very small amount can improve wellbeing. Committing to a brisk twenty minute walk three times a week, preferably at set times, and sticking to it come hell, highwater or Ofsted can be a really positive step towards restoring balance because it makes physical activity a feature of a properly structured week. It also makes increasing volume and intensity of exercise later easier; going from nothing to hard workouts feels like an intimidatingly huge step whereas establishing even a very low level of basic fitness makes doing a bit more feel more achievable.

Those wiling and able to push themselves a bit harder are likely to get more benefits. Being out-of-breath and sweaty can have a meditative effect because it focuses attention. It is actually quite difficult to be anxious about an impending lesson observation or deadline when your mind is set on getting up a hill without stopping or bench-pressing a weight right at the top end of your capability. While the effect is of course only temporary there are longer-term benefits to clearing your mind completely a few times a week, because it provides a sense of perspective that may make it easier to switch off at other times when it is helpful to. Finally, when work is at its worst and it feels like we’re making no progress at all, improving at something else, whether getting faster, stronger or just generally fitter can give a greater sense of control and help reinforce self-esteem, which has a beneficial knock-on effect. While, for most people, exercise has perhaps the greatest overall benefit it is also worth noting that other hobbies can help too; while playing a musical instrument or painting a picture won’t reduce weight or make those doing them fitter, the act of purposeful attention on something other than work has benefits too.

Another benefit of physical activity is that it can provide more motivation to eat better because it makes the effects of not doing so much more obvious.  While eating badly is even more damaging without exercise, the impact of it often isn’t immediately clear because those who aren’t pushing themselves are far less likely to notice until they’re in a really bad state. It is generally easier to resist wall-to-wall cake or three beers every evening if you know regularly indulging will mean you’re less able to run your twice-weekly 5k without stopping for a rest half way through. Once again it is worth emphasising the importance of following through on a commitment to exercise because otherwise good intentions can act as an excuse for not making changes to diet. It is all too easy to succumb to the biscuit tin by thinking ‘I’ll burn this off in the holidays’, and then finding other reasons not to exercise when they finally arrive.

Those who find them either unable to exercise at all, or do much less than they are used to will have to make changes to their eating habits if they don’t want to put on weight. It would probably be a mistake to go into this in too much detail as what works is very individual beyond some basic well-established rules; eat three meals and don’t skip breakfast, watch portion size and make sure that calorie intake does not exceed what’s burnt. Some teachers find it helpful to bring in everything they eat into schools, including snacks, which makes substitutions easier. While it is always difficult to resist cake when everyone else is eating it, it’s easier if you have chunks of pineapple or even just an apple to eat instead. It’s also worth remembering that what seems a craving for alcohol is often actually hunger, which means eating sensibly and regularly can lead to a reduction in high calorie wine, beer or spirits in the evening.

An empty fridge makes stopping at a takeaway or a rushed trip to the supermarket for a ready meal tempting. Planning meals on Saturday or Sunday can also help teachers avoid their good intentions evaporating the following week, as well as helping save money. For those teachers who have time to do it, batch-cooking meals can be even more helpful because heating these up can take less time and be less hassle than even ordering a takeaway. For those who struggle to do this, but do cook sometimes, just making double or more of the amount you usually eat and freezing the rest can be just as easy.

Before finishing up on diet, it is important to acknowledge that a few teachers find losing too much weight more of a problem. Those who find this happening to them must, of course, take action too. These people simply must make sure they eat healthily and regularly to avoid further problems.

A lot of teachers who take steps to increase exercise and eat properly will find they sleep better without doing anything else at all. Establishing a set of patterns and routines creates a reassuring sense of order and regularity that makes falling and staying asleep less of a struggle. However, even those who adopt a sensible, balanced lifestyle can still experience problems.

Tolerating less sleep in the week and trying to compensate with lie-ins at the weekend is usually a mistake. Firstly, this doesn’t really work because it makes establishing regularity impossible. Those that sleep in late on Saturday and Sunday are likely to find it difficult to get to sleep early on Sunday night, which means they won’t have had enough when the alarm rings on Monday. This deficit can make caffeine and sugar feel necessary to stay alert throughout the day, making it more difficult to drop off at an appropriate time. Many teachers don’t actually recognise this as a problem because they are working late into the evenings anyway but this pattern, of course, creates further issues.  While it does require some discipline to do it, especially for those who enjoy late nights at the weekend, getting up and going to bed at the same time each day is more sensible for most people.

Those that do work right up to bedtime typically find it harder to get drowsy and then fall asleep because they are likely to be still thinking about the things they were working on. This is even tougher for those anxious about how this work will be judged, which is another reason to be wary of schools with extensive and punitive quality assurance measures. Teachers, like everyone else, should make time to unwind and relax before trying to go to sleep. To avoid sitting around and worrying, which is no more productive than just doing the work, it is important to do something else and to fully focus on it. Playing a musical instrument, having a conversation about something other than teaching, drawing, reading a novel or even doing something as simple as properly watching a film or TV program works so long as attention is fully on them. At all costs avoid trying to do any of these things at the same time as working because it isn’t unwinding at all. Anything done like this will be of lower quality and will take longer anyway, negating any of the perceived benefits. It should go without saying that email and social media is also a considerable danger, especially if messages and notifications are school related; it’s very hard to not think about school when your phone is constantly reminding you of it. If you can get away with it, don’t have work email on your phone and switch if off, or at least on silent in another room, when preparing to sleep.

Drinking less also has benefits to sleep. While the effects of alcohol can, superficially at least, soothe anxiety and help some people feel calmer, this is usually only temporary. Not drinking at all, in the week at least, is probably a good idea but any reduction will have some benefits. If stopping altogether feels unrealistic, switching to lower-unit drinks, which are increasingly easy to find, can be beneficial to those too habituated to cease indulging altogether.

The changes described so far are likely to make it easier to fall asleep in the first place, but some unlucky teachers will still find they wake in the middle of the night, sometimes for hours at a time. This is truly miserable; turning over and switching on a light to see the clock says three or four in the morning can be unimaginably depressing, especially when it happens regularly. This is far more common for those feeling generally anxious. If this happens, tossing and turning in bed is usually not the answer, but nor is getting up and doing work or, as I have done before, even going in to school only to find it dark and locked up. It is better to leave the bedroom and do something intellectually undemanding for half an hour or so, before trying again. In the midst of this all it can also be helpful to try and retain perspective; in the small hours insomnia can be anxiety inducing in itself with the prospect of the day ahead, already demanding, seeming truly horrific. If this happens to you remind yourself that fatigue in itself is not life threatening. Like driving for most of us, many of the processes of teaching are automated and, while of course unpleasant, most of us are able to get through a working day on very little sleep. That said, it is a serious problem and those experiencing this regularly should get professional help.

It would not be honest to finish this chapter without acknowledging that, as with almost everything in teaching, context is of huge importance. Some schools do make living a healthy lifestyle impossible and teachers working in these should feel no guilt in moving on to more enlightened institutions. Once again it is worth remembering that careers should be long; marathons and not sprints. While martyring yourself can seem noble if, as it is very likely to do, this results in a departure from teaching altogether then the overall, potentially multi-decade, cost is much, much too high.

Looking after yourself does not make you weak. It marks you out as a true professional.

 

 

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Are we really assessing learning?

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My favourite definition of learning is “a change in long term memory”, which means that something has been learned and then remembered permanently.

On the face of it this seems like common sense but the way in which school assessment systems are set up often works against this as an objective

The problem is that many schools confuse performance with learning. If learning can be defined as a permanent change, we can define performance as as a change that doesn’t last. The confusion is compounded by the fact that performance is an important part of a process that might, so long as it is accompanied by other strategies, eventually lead to durable learning.

In a school which confuses performance with learning, the progress of pupils is often measured by what they can do at best the end of the unit, and at worst at the end of a single lesson (or indeed after twenty minutes for those who remember the dreaded mini-plenary). This means that the data going into spreadsheets will only reflect what they have remembered over a short period of time. This can create a misleadingly optimistic picture which suggests that children are doing far better than they actually are. This is because, as we all do, pupils forget over time; just because someone can do something after a day doesn’t mean they will be able to do it a year later, especially if they have been given intensive support to get to that point in the first place.

Schools operating systems which are focused on performance incentivise the prioritisation of the short term over the long. This can mean too much emphasis on one off lesson observations and the progress pupils make in one hour. Teachers working in such systems might quite naturally concentrate on making sure pupils do well on tests focused on what has been covered most recently and may not spend time going back to make sure that topics covered in the past have been remembered.

This, in a context in which almost all Y11 outcomes are based on a set of terminal exams sat at the end of the course, can be a disaster. If KS4 lasts three years (9-11) as it does in many schools, pupils may not be supported to revise content they studied at the beginning of the course until right at the end. This means, of course, that many will have completely forgotten what they were taught three years before. It also means that pupils are not required or expected to revise large amounts of content until the stakes are terrifyingly high; far better would be to help pupils develop effective revision strategies earlier in their school lives so they are well embedded before Y11.

The most impactful way to do this is to make sure that all assessments are tests of everything that has been covered up to the point the pupils sit it. The table below, derived from an example shared by Michael Fordham a couple of years ago, shows how this might be done over one year in any subject.

Test 1 2 3 4 5 6
Content 1

 

1+2 1+2+3 1+2+3+4 1+2+3+4+5 1+2+3+4+5+6

This simple model means that teachers will be much more likely to focus on re-teaching and re-visiting the whole curriculum because if they do not, their pupils are likely to perform increasingly poorly on tests. It also makes it more likely that when pupils study at home, they will need to study the entire curriculum, which makes it more likely they will remember more of it.

In schools that follow this model teachers are much more likely to interleave and expose their pupils to more retrieval practice. This means that pupils are much more likely to remember more of what they are taught for longer.

While this model of assessment is a strong one it is not without its issues.

The first of these is that unless a school dramatically increases the amount of time it spends on assessment, each test will only be able to cover an increasingly small sample of what has been taught. Those feeling uneasy about this (as I was originally), may find it helpful to consider what exactly they are assessing. If we are testing true learning then we are actually assessing more, because we are drawing from everything that has ever been covered. This is also much fairer on pupils too, because a pupil can gain marks from a wider domain of knowledge and won’t be unduly punished for struggling on a single unit.

For once, exam accountability is helpful. Testing in the way I’ve outlined is authentic to GCSEs which sample from a wide domain in a deliberately unpredictable fashion; covering a topic does not guarantee that it will come up on the exam, which is why good pupils prepare for everything.

Assessments in history for pupils in my MAT, informed by the principles of learning I’ve outlined now look increasingly like this:

 

SECTION A: (50% of marks)

Short answer and multiple choice questions based on the entire domain of knowledge taught that year.

SECTION B: (15%) of marks)

One short extended writing question (a paragraph or two) based on the topic covered most recently.

SECTION C: (35% of marks)

One longer extended writing question from a choice of essay questions drawn from the entire domain of knowledge taught that year.

 

This, I feel, offers a reasonable balance between testing what has been covered most recently, and everything else that has been covered too.

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How to teach using a booklet and visualiser

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Early in my career I was part of a teaching paradigm shift, caused by the installation of electronic whiteboards in almost every classroom in English schools.

Before the arrival of these (enormously expensive) pieces of technology PowerPoint was rarely used, and when it was it tended to be for staff training and not day-to-day teaching. Schemes of work at my first school were held in a library of folders in departmental offices, which were followed and contributed to by teams working collaboratively. While, of course, there was some deviation from these (mine were usually unwise!), this centralisation of planning meant curriculum was coherent and departmental heads had oversight of it.

Interactive whiteboards, or just MASSIVE SCREENS as they were much more commonly used as, changed everything. Lessons became PowerPoint presentations with material that would once have been found in textbooks now projected above the heads of the pupils. This coincided with the strange belief that textbooks shouldn’t be used at all and that They Who Must Not Be Named would raze to the ground any school in which they saw them.

One of the effects of this was a decentralisation of curriculum. Teachers began creating their own lessons. In some contexts Schemes of Work became a hotchpotch of directionless standalone lessons. With lessons saved to personal memory devices and private areas it became more and more difficult for anyone to know exactly what was going on in each lesson. While the strongest departments continued to share and work collaboratively, the result was that in many contexts planning became atomised. Personal relationships and internal politics sometimes complicated this still further with some teachers reluctant to share their work with others. All of this increased workload for everyone, because everyone was now expected to plan their lessons effectively from scratch.

Fifteen years into my career, in my school and in others, we are seeing another paradigm shift. This time though, it is much healthier one.

Booklets and visualisers are changing everything.

For those still unclear on the terminology, as I was until fairly recently, a booklet is really just a personal textbook that contains the material pupils will need alongside the tasks they need to complete. This, in effect, is an embodiment of the Lemovian principle of ‘everything in one place’, which results in less time being wasted on transitions between different resources and activities.

In our Trust, in each subject, each booklet is drawn from a planned and sequenced curriculum that covers the entirety of the five years pupils are at secondary school. Each pupil in each year gets the booklet at the same time, which means that assessments can be genuinely standardised. As the pupils keep these booklets with them it makes setting homework very simple, as it is usually something as easy as ‘learn what we covered on pages 3-4 for a test in your next lesson’, or ‘answer question 6 on page 7’.

Writing the booklets is a task shared out among all the history teachers in the MAT (working at a larger scale does make this much easier), which means no one teacher is overly burdened. There is no getting around the fact that doing this well does take a long time, with most of our booklets (that last roughly a half term each) coming in at between 30 and 50 pages. Regardless, we’re finding most teachers don’t mind. Having ownership of an entire unit of work that will be taught to hundreds of pupils is an inspiring responsibility and very different to frantically typing text onto PowerPoint slides in time for P4 after lunch. The greatest advantage of this approach is that it means that everyone then benefits from really high quality work from the rest of the team – instead of spreading out the work thinly and producing lots of lower quality resources, the more focused booklet strategy means overall standards are much higher. It also offers opportunity for further professional development – some members of our MAT history team asked to write booklets on topics they knew little about so they could improve their own subject knowledge. It is also important to remember that the big effort is only at the beginning. Assuming the booklets are of a decent standard, work the following years is really just editing them based on the feedback of the teachers who’ve used them.

Having these booklets radically changes planning. Freed from time consuming resource creation teachers can concentrate all of their efforts on effective delivery. For most this means annotating their own copy of the booklet with the words they’ll need to teach, scripted explanations, diagrams and the questions they plan to ask. Most teachers at my school now also keep their own exercise book in which they model tasks and project onto the board using a visualiser (more on this later).

Teaching using the booklets is very straightforward. Much of most lessons is spent on teachers reading the booklet with pupils, elaborating on the material through explanation and checking understanding through questioning. Page, and even better, line numbers make it really easy to keep pupils on track and to refocus those who have for whatever reason lost their place (“Lucy, page 3 line 26, please”). For pupils who have been absent it is now much easier to catch up – read the pages in the booklet you missed and then just ask the teacher about what you didn’t understand.

Assessment is much fairer; because pupils take booklets home with them they always have what they need to study from. No more trawling the internet for vague ‘revision’ websites and fairer for those pupils who might not have books at home to help them.

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While booklets on their own have a huge impact, when combined with the use of a visualiser the effects are transformative. Again, for those who have not come across them a visualiser is basically a camera that can project work on a desk up onto the screen at the front of the classroom.

The Nuneaton Academy, where I work, now has visualisers installed in every classroom and it has been really interesting to see, without any particular direction from SLT, how their use has increased and created consistency in practice. While consistency is not, of course, a positive thing in itself I think even Mark Enser would approve of what is going on; teachers are simply, without external direction, moving to the method that works best.

In most lessons this now means the teacher places their own copy of the booklet the class is working from under the visualiser and reads, or asks pupils to read, from the text. The teacher then highlights key passages and annotates them to illuminate and add further layers of meaning and understanding, while talking through their thought processes. Pupils follow along, adding their teacher’s annotations if they are helpful and their own if there is something else they think worth noting down. Some teachers task pupils they know to be good annotators to sit at the visualiser freeing them up to draw on the board or to give more expansive explanations, while providing peer role-modelling for the rest of the class.

The visualiser is even more effective when used by teachers to model work. Putting their own booklet or exercise book under it and then completing the tasks while explaining why they have included the material they have, or how they are linking seemingly disparate points together provides pupils with strong models. The teachers I’ve seen do this best incorporate this into the “We” section of the “I, We, You” teaching sequence by pausing to ask pupils what they think should be included before setting pupils off on independent work.

The efficiency of all of this has meant I’ve had to make some alterations to my teaching and unlearn some internalised habits, but overall the switch has been pretty painless because it has been so intuitive and easy. It all feels very different to the days in which we were frogmarched into training on how to use the IWB for engaging learning games. Already I’m finding I’m clicking the PP icon on my desktop less often and even when I am using it, it’s mainly just to show an image in the booklet on a bigger scale so I can point out the details in it, or to show something that reinforces the material in the booklet.

In some ways seems a shame. A bounty of the Great Stupidity I have banks and banks of PowerPoints, representing probably thousands of hours work, stored in neat folders dating back more than a decade.

I don’t suppose I’ll ever use any of them again. I wish I’d never had to.

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