Mission to the Moon

The Cold Moon Rises Over Cornwall

I have written before about my belief that the expansion of SLTs during the New Labour years, declining real wages, retention difficulties and the consequent normalisation of early promotion has hollowed out so called ‘middle’ leadership.

This weakening of subject leadership (a much better term than ‘middle leadership’), accompanied by England’s startlingly young teacher demographic has created a top-heavy management structure in which many decisions are taken by those at the top of the hierarchy.

Probably too many decisions.

On my drive to work I’ve been listening to the BBC World Service’s 13 Minutes to the Moon, which is about Apollo 11: the mission on which humans walked on another world for the first time.

Two things are very striking. The first is just how young Mission Control was. The average age of the team that put humans on the moon and brought them back safely was 27. The second is how much responsibility these self-described kids, were given. During the thirteen minute long descent of the Lunar Lander, a 26-year-old recalls having to make a split-second decision on whether to ignore a computer warning or not – at that moment he had the power to abort a mission that had cost billions and billions of dollars and may well have resulted in NASA missing the target set by JFK to land a man on the moon by the end of the decade. He chose to proceed with the mission and he was right to.

And NASA was right to trust him to make the decision. 26 or not, he was the right person to decide because he was the person closest to the problem. It was his system. He owned it. He knew it best.

Of course, it isn’t quite as simple as this. The young man wasn’t plucked off the street, thrust a headset and then told ‘go on, decide, yes or no?’ He was clever, he was knowledgeable and he was well trained. He knew exactly what he was doing and NASA’s policy to devolve decision making to the lowest possible level was a deliberate and wise one.

Devolving decision making to the lowest possible level can work very well because it is sensible to give as much autonomy as you can to those actually wrestling with the problem. When this doesn’t happen those further up in the hierarchy need to know the jobs of everyone below them better than those doing them do.

This might work in very linear simple workplaces but at NASA, or in a school, this just won’t do.

In schools where subject specific leaders and teachers are not allowed to make decisions far too much ends up on the desks of senior leaders, who then become so befuddled and makework busy that strategic decision making feels impossible. Systemically we have accepted a degree of centralised command quite remarkably top heavy compared with other sectors. Non-teaching friends of mine are staggered by how little voice subject leaders can have over things as minor as set-changes and as important as recruitment. This is distinctly odd, and actually quite unfair given how accountable they are for what happens in their departments.

Top down decision making can also make for terrible, blunderbuss policy blasts such “everything must be marked every two lessons”, or “all pupils must do twenty minutes of silent reading in every lesson”, which then causes everyone’s workload to spiral as byzantine mechanisms are put in place to ensure compliance.

Blunt top-down policy making is also a sedative. When common sense is outsourced people stop thinking and can become dependent on edicts irrespective of how dumb these are. This can make it appear as if they aren’t capable of independent thought and increases top-down tinkering.

This is not to say every teacher should be left to do whatever they think best in a classroom. Different levels of skill, training and experience, and the usefulness of some basic commonalities such as entry and exit routines means it can never be quite as simple. We need to train our new teachers and new leaders well.

But ultimately the aim of senior leadership should be to free their teachers to solve the specific problems they are facing every day, not to quixotically try to solve all these problems for them.

It is an approach that works. It is the approach that got us to the moon.

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Is homework worth the pain?

Early today, @positivteacha sent this tweet.

Amen! Who of us could honestly say we haven’t felt like this?

Homework is a pain. It’s difficult to set, fiddly to track and it increases workload for teachers. If pupils aren’t well behaved in lessons worrying about how hard they are working outside them is a waste of time.

We could go further. There is a line of argument that goes we shouldn’t set homework at all, as doing so is an intrusion on valuable family time, especially for those who work long hours.

Perhaps we should just scrap it.

Except that if we did it is our most disadvantaged young people who would lose out.

If schools stopped setting homework the most privileged of our young people would continue to do it because their parents, understanding the competitive nature of schooling, would insist. Even if privileged parents, perhaps out of a sense of astonishing altruism, agreed not to set their children homework then they would still be providing their own offspring with a wider range of learning experiences than many poorer parents would be able to do. The net result of not setting homework would be a widening – as it if weren’t wide enough already – achievement gap between rich and poor.

So I while I absolutely agree homework is a pain in the backside I don’t think we can stop setting it.

At the Nuneaton Academy we have thought hard about how best to square this circle, and I’d like to use the rest of this post to explain the principles we use to set and track homework.

Principle 1: Homework must be efficient and useful

We absolutely insist that homework teachers set is tangibly useful to pupils and their parents. If it is impossible to see how the work helps the child improve then we open ourselves to accusations it is pointless and being set for the sake of it. We do not set cereal box projects or art work for subjects which are not art.

Our teachers set the quickest and least fussy methods to get the job done, and understand short and regular is much better than long involved pieces that are only irregularly set and very often left to the last minute.

Family time is precious, especially for parents working long hours, and we understand any intrusion into it must be worth the pain.

Principle 2: Homework must be clear and doable.

Vague homework is a big cause of pre-bedtime stress and tears. We do not set homework that involves googling or researching things and we do not set homework that assumes there is a knowledgeable adult there to help. We also insist pupils have the resources they need to do the work they are asked to, be this a revision guide, booklet or knowledge organiser. For us homework is often to self-quiz before a test, or to complete an extended piece of writing based on guidance in a booklet. We also love setting practise as homework, which might be work on multiplication or freehand sketching. All our homework is set on a great app called MILK, which means parents as well as pupils can see what has been set.

Principle 3: Centralise tracking

Perhaps the most significant reason systems in schools collapse is the burden of maintenance becomes so great teachers stop using them. This is as true of homework as it is of behaviour. If teachers have to ring home for all homework not completed, or even worse set detentions they have to personally run, then pretty soon teachers will stop recording when it isn’t done and eventually they may stop setting it at all.

At TNA tracking of homework is centralised. All teachers have to do is right click on the pupils’ name on SIMS and select a ‘no homework’ option from a drop down box. There work is then done.

Once a fortnight we the run a report on a specific year group. The parents of any child with more than one ‘no homework’ gets a letter and a text message informing them, and asking for their support in making sure this doesn’t happen again. The letter also invites parents to let us know if there are reasons it is hard for their child to do work at home and making it clear we will work with them to sort the issues where we can – in the past this has meant space in the library after school, and signing out of laptops for those who need them.

If pupils continue to leave homework undone despite parents being written to then we may call home or invite parents in for a meeting. We have not chosen to sanction non completion of homework with detentions so far – this is because in the past I’ve found this usually creates brand new problems, including copying of each other and rushed huddles of children scrawling on paper in the corridor before and between lessons to avoid a punishment, which defeats the whole point of the exercise.

Finally we talk constantly about why homework is so important. We run assemblies on it. We ask pupils every morning what they’ve done as they come in and we ask them what they’ll do every day as they walk out. We tell them their homework should be useful and if they don’t think a task has been useful we ask them to tell us why.

Homework isn’t a lot of fun. We know it can be hard to get done.

We also love our children enough to feel – done properly – it is worth the pain.

 

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Dual coding – part of the answer but not all of the answer

Earlier today, @kenradical sent this tweet, expressing concern that if we exclusively use simple diagrams and icons when dual coding we might miss opportunities to use rich imagery to make content memorable.

While there is room for both simple and rich imagery in history lessons, I think Rich wise to strike a cautionary note. From growth mind-set and flipped learning, to PEE paragraphs and target grades, English education is full of examples of ideas that have been bastardised and misapplied.

To head this off it might be instructive to remind ourselves just how much beautiful illuminated manuscripts, coded portraits and iconic posters bring to history lessons;

Rich imagery brings a sense of period and immediacy. While the Venetian Ambassador’s famous descriptions of Henry are compelling and revealing, they can never have quite the impact of Hans Holbein’s 1536 lost “Portrait of Henry VIII”, in which we see him at his most cocksure, commanding and imperious.

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Of course, key components of the portrait could be reduced to simpler drawings – for example a piece of jewellery to represent wealth – but this would be a poor substitution, robbing pupils of the impact of the brash, ostentatious and grotesque whole. History teachers should be respectful of this power, ensuring children do not mistake the faded, small versions of such work in their textbooks or booklets for the real thing. Nothing beats darkening a room, commanding the attention of the class and then announcing, “this, ladies and gentlemen, is Henry VIII the way he would want you to see him”, then projecting a full-size, high resolution version.

Similarly, it is difficult to think of a better way of conveying the folksy, whimsical and sinister nature of Nazi values and beliefs than the propaganda posters, which remain as disturbing as they ever were more than sixty years after they were first printed.

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Rich imagery is an important part of the history teacher’s palate, and to neglect it is to rob the past of vibrancy.

It is also worth considering how skilled history teachers have used imagery as mnemonics for years. As an example, let’s consider perhaps the most famous royal portrait of them all; George Gower’s Armada Portrait of Elizabeth I.

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This painting, as all children should know, drips meaning: Elizabeth sits centrally in a position which projects power and authority. Her dress shows her wealth. The background shows the defeat of the Spanish Armada. Elizabeth’s back is towards darkness and a mermaid which may represent the now executed Mary Queen of Scots, suggesting Elizabeth’s troubles are behind her. In the light her hand sits on a globe, showing England’s dominance of the seas, and her fingers touching America show the beginning of imperial ambition.

It is a Knowledge Organiser isn’t it? A beautiful one. And the history community has been using beautiful knowledge organisers like this for years.

This is not to say there is no place for the sort of simple, elegant pictography @olicav is such a master of. Indeed we are enriched by it- for examples of just how much it can add to history teaching have a look at the Knowledge Organisers being produced by @MissSayers1.

But they cannot and should not take the place of beautiful imagery. Let’s remember and be proud of what we have always done as a discipline. Let’s be careful. Let’s avoid turning helpful work on dual-coding into another wave of harmful genericism by remembering not everything is suitable for every purpose.

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Puzzle

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Williams Syndrome is joyously puzzling.

Those with the Syndrome, caused by a microdeletion of between 26 and 28 genes on  Chromosome 7, have a strikingly asymmetrical intellectual profile. While musicality is often enhanced and speech and language are comparatively strong, mathematical and spatial ability are profoundly impaired.

You can see it in this Oliver Sacks documentary, in which a charismatic, articulate child with Williams’ Syndrome with many gifts is completely stumped by a fairly simple mechanical puzzle.

My daughter has Williams Syndrome and this doesn’t bother me at all. I’m very comfortable with my daughter being better at some things than others.

It doesn’t bother Robert Plomin either. This recent TES article suggests he’d go further and tailor school curriculum to the individual genetic profiles of children.

This seems like a good idea. Why insist my daughter do loads of maths or Resistant Materials if it is clear she has no aptitude in these areas? Why insist a child with a small working memory struggle through vast tracts of things he will never be able to write essays about? Wouldn’t it both more pragmatic and kinder to tailor a curriculum to the inherent abilities of those who study it?

But Bessie loves doing puzzles.

She has a favourite. It has twelve pieces and has a crocodile on it. It comes in a wooden frame. When she wants to do it she carries it to me shouting “PUZ-AL! PUZ-AL!” She likes to empty the pieces on the coffee table she calls “DA PUZ-AL TABLE.”

Of course, whether it is because she has Williams Syndrome or whether it is because she is a toddler, she is no good at it. Not at all! I have to put the pieces in the right place for her.

But Bessie doesn’t care she isn’t good at jigsaws. She likes to press those pieces down anyway. She likes me to tell her what is on each piece and she likes the moment the little pieces suddenly emerge into one picture and she can announce “Ooooh! Crod-o-dile!”

It would be awful if we stopped because she isn’t good at them. Bessie’s entitlement to jigsaw puzzles is predicated on her entitlement to enjoy them as a little girl, not on how good or bad she is at putting them together.

This is what the argument for the genetic personalisation of education, at least in the way I have interpreted it, fails to understand.

And it is a catastrophic misunderstanding.

What is on our curriculum is not the reserve of those with the natural ability to ably perform tasks based on it. It is a human inheritance. Homer’s epics and the work of Maya Angelou belong to everyone, from the illiterate who are read their works aloud to those who will study PhDs on them. If we were to turn our backs on this principle where would we end up? Would we stop the genetically poorly co-ordinated from playing football in a Sunday League team? If we discovered certain genetic combinations typically correlated with a lack of appreciation for modern art would we remove this from the curriculum for these people?

We would not. Because to do so would be to end up with the most reductive curriculum it is possible to envisage – one in which we cage our destinies in a double-helix.

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What does knowing your class mean?

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For the particularly obtuse who wouldn’t twig otherwise, the Teacher Standards make it explicit teaches should have an understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of the pupils in their classes. Knowing your class is such an obvious feature of good teaching that in itself it can’t ever be much more than an irritating truism.

Unfortunately, as is common with broad and uninterrogated truisms, practical interpretations of this very basic fact can far too often result in nonsense.

For much of my career ‘knowing your class’ actually meant just knowing the numbers and information attached to pupils in the past. It meant knowing whether they were a High, Medium or Low attainer. It meant knowing their reading age. It meant knowing how they scored on the tests they sat at the end of primary. It meant knowing their dreaded ‘target grade’ and being able to parrot off all this information at the drop of an Ofsted inspector’s hat.

Knowing this stuff was how teachers proved they did indeed know their classes.

Which is silly.

Firstly, a lot of this data is historic with some being years old. For example, the data used to assess a pupil as High ability is often drawn from SATs tests completed at the end of primary. This means that by the time the child reaches Y11 the information, even if it was once accurate, is at best outdated and at worst now unrepresentative of how the child has changed in the intervening years.

Even if the child had not changed at all, the numbers attached to them tell us nothing about why they scored as they did. Are the Low Ability because they have a small working memory, or are they Low Ability because they weren’t taught well in Year 5? Do they have a low reading age because a teacher didn’t have a good grasp of phonics instruction, because they have EAL, or because they find tests boring and don’t bother doing them properly? The numbers tell us nothing without the story and when we overemphasise the importance of supposedly empirical facts we deprioritise the most powerful information and lose nuance.

Furthermore, many of the numbers are generic. They don’t tell us anything about what on our curriculum our pupils know and what they do not. They are not starting points in most subjects. They don’t tell us what a child needs to do to get better. Even when teachers keep detailed records in their own subjects these are often of little use to anyone else, because a third party will not know the conditions under which assessments were done or the amount of preparation and help pupils received, or what was going on in the complex life of the child when they did the work.

A lot of this is unknowable which means the only way to act upon it is to make assumptions we probably shouldn’t – for example that a child is unintelligent or hardworking – before we’ve had the time to know the people the numbers are attached to.

It is for all these reasons that I am comfortable admitting to mild sacrilege; for the first month or so of taking over a new class I deliberately avoid looking at any data about them apart from SEND needs. Instead I pay very close attention to work, ability to read, scores on my tests and quality of extended writing. I ask who is left handed and adjust my seating plan if I need to. I work out who is comfortable volunteering answers and who I’ll need to prod. I focus on what they can do in my subject and what they struggle with.

I record all this. I make mental notes. I annotate my handwritten register. I scribble on my seating plan.

Only then, only after I’m confident that I know my group will I look at the centrally held data. Where does it match what I thought? Where is it clearly wrong? Is there anything I need to do differently in light of it? Does it give me answers to questions I had?

For unless we have rules about how to navigate the ocean of information available to us it is all too easy to drown in it.

 

 

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Rules are not temporary.

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As my attitude to teaching has changed over the years I’ve had to spend lots of time and thought consciously weeding out some of my internalised beliefs and habits.

One of the most pervasive was that a productive learning environment meant classes in which children always demonstrated visible enjoyment and enthusiasm. This meant lots of discussion, jokes and good-humoured banter even when reductively engaging activities such as group work and marketplaces for their own sake are put aside.

It is a tempting thing to think. Classes in which pupils make witty comments, shout out occasionally but then stop when told not to, are comfortable sharing their opinions, and innately know the line between acceptable and unacceptable are an absolute joy.

But in sixteen years of teaching I’ve only ever had a handful of classes able to self-regulate this well, and earlier in my career my attempts to make all my groups work like this caused me many, many problems.

My misguided efforts invariably followed the same pattern. I’d start strict to show my charges I meant business. No shouting out. No talking while I was talking, ever. Sanctions for forgetting equipment or homework. Usually this worked in creating a calm, purposeful and quiet environment. I now know this is where I should have left it, but too often I took this initial compliance as evidence this was ‘a good group’, and so then began to systematically undo all my previous good work in an attempt to create the lively, buzzy and fun room I thought was the undisputed idyll.

For a week or so, sometimes, my relaxed rules did indeed result in the environment I wanted. Pupils would shout out a really good answer proudly, which nobody minded me letting go. A pupil would interrupt me but then apologise, which I’d say was fine. Pupils did look crestfallen when I told them I was disappointed they’d forgotten their pen, then thank me charmingly when I provided one. But before very long more children we shouting out more and then arguing when told not to. Half a term later whole swathes were forgetting pens, demanding them from me and complaining if I ran out. Before I knew it I was reading up and asking for advice on classroom management without ever twigging if I had just carried on doing what I was doing I wouldn’t have had to bother.

As my stress levels rose, I soon stopped looking forward to these classes. Eventually, invariably, I’d lose my temper, raise my voice, then belatedly try to pull the pupils back to order by going back to my original standards, often delivered in a dreaded ‘expectations lessons’. Of course this was now too late, with pupils used to more supposed freedom resenting the rules because they were now perceived as punishments.

A good class had been ruined and I had only myself to blame.

Rules and routines in schools should not be seen structures that eventually wither away. They are not necessary evils to feel squeamish about. They are not punishments. They are the mechanism by which we keep order in a complicated, dynamic context, which exist in the same spirit we have rules for how we drive our cars on the road. They are the means by which we keep things safe, orderly and fair, and we should not feel bad about scrupulously upholding them at all times even when – actually especially when – this means children can’t do whatever they want whenever they want to.

All over the country at this time of year there will be hundreds of teachers working hard to set their expectations high. My advice would be that nobody think of this as a period of high battle alert which will end once the fight is won. This is not a war and the rules are not weapons.

There is nothing wrong with a quiet, hardworking class who never shout out and rarely if ever get to have a laugh for the sake of it. Many children actually prefer them to the loud, boisterous and visibly enthusiastic classrooms I once yearned to teach in.

I know this is true because as I’ve become comfortable with this, more and more pupils, especially quiet ones, have told me so.

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Expectations lesson! (Again)

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For much of my career the start of the school year was a very stressful time. While some of this stress was unavoidable, I now think the unpleasant tension associated with delivering expectations to my classes was unnecessary.

For many years teaching my first lessons, particularly with classes known to behave badly, felt like going to war. It meant pupils copying a slide with a list of rules such as “don’t talk while the teacher is talking”, and then detention after detention for pupils who broke them. It meant raising my voice, and getting hot and sweaty with supressed nerves and directionless anger. It meant wrestling with the fight or flight reaction in situations in which flight wasn’t an option. It meant lost learning time when a whole class had to redo an “expectations lesson”, and feeling guilty about this because there were children this was very unfair on.

Some readers will want to jump in now: “Oh you were doing it wrong,” they’ll be chorusing, with ever-so-nice but still condescending smiles. “No wonder you had problems! You should have had an open discussion with them and perhaps agreed some class rules. If you’d involved the pupils your pupils would have behaved!” Please take my word that I tried this sort of thing for years, and then when it didn’t work and changed approach felt guilty about it for years more. I really did try, in so many different ways and if anything it made things worse.

My method, while far from ideal, was necessary in the context I was in. When teachers are told the management of pupil behaviour is solely their responsibility, especially in when they are told this in schools in which bad behaviour is normalised, teachers have no choice but to use punitive sanctions and force of personality to manage their classes.

It does not have to be like this. In good schools where SLTs take primary responsibility for behaviour, teachers can just get on with teaching. At the Nuneaton Academy we begin the year with assemblies in which all pupils are told expectations, routines, rules and the consequences for both good and bad behaviour. These basic expectations are the same in every classroom, which means there really is no need for teachers to go through these all over again. All they need to do is get on and teach, and follow our simple, centralised system.

Of course, it won’t ever be quite as smooth as this. Because some of our pupils and teachers are new, and some of our pupils forget rules, and because some will naturally test the boundaries, SLT spend almost all their time in the first weeks walking the corridors, constantly dropping in and out of classrooms to reinforce, model, encourage, coach and support both pupils and teachers, with the question “everything to your satisfaction?”, repeated so often it becomes almost a mantra.

It’s about showing our staff and pupils that we take responsibility for managing behaviour so that teachers and pupils can get on with teaching and learning free of stress, anxiety and the sort of stomach twisting nerves that make you behave in ways you’ll later be embarrassed by, even if they sort of work in the short term.

All in all, it’s just a much more civilised way to work.

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