It’s not about me. It’s about maths.

tweet

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.”

Advertisements
Standard

Why is teaching making you so poorly?

0114_sick-woman-tissue_485x340

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.

 

 

Standard

Are we really assessing learning?

exam

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.

Standard

How to teach using a booklet and visualiser

booklet

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.

VIS-GEN-GVIS-50-2

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.

Standard

First snow

first-snow-001

The radio tells me for the first time this winter in some places it is snowing. Not heavily. Just a few bright white flakes from a grey sky, too small for anyone to tell each one is perfectly unique.

In the warm I’m tearing up just a little bit.

There is a picture of us last time it snowed, Amber, Bessie and me. If you just looked at the photo without knowing anything about us you wouldn’t know anything was wrong. We are smiling and my mum, dad, brother and my sister in law are there with us. The sky is bright blue and in the next photo we took my brother’s dog is nosing a drift.

But something is wrong. While you’d never know it, that photo was taken two days after our daughter received her diagnosis of Williams Syndrome.

The brittle smiles mask fear. The photo doesn’t show that couple in the photo, who used to be us, had not slept for two nights. The photo in the snow does not show the long dark hours, the weight of dread, the exhaustion of too much fear in too little time, or the stomach flipping nausea caused by a familiar world shifting forever

The photo does not show any of that. Nor does it show what was to come. It doesn’t show the appointments with Speech and Language. It doesn’t show the sleepless nights. It doesn’t show the appointments with the geneticist, or the liver specialist, or the growth specialist, or the Community Nurse, or the paediatrician. It doesn’t show horrible blood tests or nasty cannulas. It doesn’t show scary results, or the two weeks we would spend in hospital. It doesn’t show the fitting of a nasal feeding tube, or the pump and syringes that go with it.

All it shows is a cold moment frozen in time. Two people more scared than they’d ever been but desperately trying to hide it for each other’s sake. Two people who know they have to be brave because the future is sure to be hard. Two adults and a baby too small to know she’s the unknowing, innocent cause of all the worry.

But this fear isn’t why I’m crying. It is relief and release, flushing away the emotional dirt and infection of months of accumulated anxiety.

Things feel different, as if something broken has healed in a way that has strengthened us all.

When I look at the photo of us all in the snow it’s not the difficulties we’ll face but don’t yet know about that make me emotional. It’s the answers to a prayer, which went ‘please help us bear this.”

It’s the kindness and dishevelled warm competence of our paediatrician. It’s the hospital nurses, doctors, cleaners and porters who smothered our daughter in love when we were exhausted and at our lowest. It’s the nursery where her key worker cares so much about her she wept when she heard Bessie was in hospital. It’s the responses of our friends. It’s the overwhelming positivity of everyone in our families. It’s my wife turning into some sort of superhuman, able to work and play and love and care on an hours sleep a night. It’s my parents moving from their home of more than thirty years to live by us without so much a second thought or backward glance.

But more than all this it is Bessie. Bessie of the beating heart and healthy little body. Bessie of the charismatic ‘Ello!’ as she enters a new room. Bessie of the ‘ooh!’ when she sees something she likes. Bessie of the hugs and the kisses. Bessie of the slurping of water and the guzzling of food that tells us her tube won’t be there for very long. Bessie of the determined crawls and the first steps. Bessie who sings in church. Bessie who dialled the police when left to play with a phone at the doctor’s. Our daughter. Our joy, our pride and our everlasting love.

When I look at the photo now I hear a whisper I wasn’t able to hear when it was taken, it’s saying “No you’ve got it wrong! Bessie is not a burden you will bear. She is a gift you have been given.”

I get that now, and it’s all such a relief.

Standard

Perfect behaviour improves test scores.

teaching

This post is about the impact of perfect behaviour on the test scores of the pupils in my Y9 history group, and why making sure children in school behave well should be top of the list of things SLT do. It was prompted by my thoughts after teaching a group about which I have had no behavioural concerns for the first time in my career.

This is not to say I’ve been fire-fighting terrible behaviour at all other times.  I’m reasonably sure that colleagues at the schools in which I’ve worked would say my classes were generally orderly and purposeful. But, while it’s always dangerously flattering to be told otherwise, they’ve never been perfect; although it may not be noticed by an observer, subtle, low level poor behaviour has always been a factor that negatively affected the learning of at least a few pupils in each of my classes. To distinguish between what is considered good behaviour in most contexts I’ve worked in, and what good behaviour really is, I’d like to begin this post by explaining what truly exemplary conduct looks and feels like to me.

Perfect behaviour at my school is very easy to see. There is no ambiguity. It begins with every pupil silently entering the classroom and then writing the date and title down without being asked to. It means that pupils then move straight to the first task (always a retrieval quiz of some sort) as soon as they have finished. It means that teachers can take the register and warmly say good morning to every child while smiling at them each individually.

It creates an environment in which pupils say good morning back because they want to, not because they have to.

Perfect behaviour means that children listen attentively while a teacher talks, and make notes in their booklets.  It means that when someone in the class is reading, the other children track the text, annotating and highlighting as they go. It means that when teachers ask a question pupils try their best to answer, and if they struggle say things like “can I have a bit of help, please?”, and never “dunno.” It means they listen to each other as attentively as they do to an adult. It means that when they are explaining or modelling something, pupils sit upright in their chairs and listen. It means never staring out of the window, fiddling with pens or distracting themselves or others. It means that if they don’t understand, they put their hand up and say ‘I don’t get it, could you explain it again, please?’

The effect of all this on me as teacher has been profound. Firstly, and perhaps most importantly, I look forward to lessons. I like the Y9 group a great deal. I know all their names, whereas in the past, a half term in on two lessons a week, I might only really know the names of those I corrected and nagged most often.

Before going on it is important that I make it clear this exemplary behaviour has not been the result of any mystical horse whispering on my part, and nor has it been created by engaging, inspirational teaching that enthuses pupils in their learning so much it doesn’t occur to them to misbehave. The conditions in which I teach existed long before I started work at my school. They were created by a system put in place by the Head, outgoing Vice Principal and SLT, and maintained by teachers who stick to it. This means giving pupils one warning for any misbehaviour and then removing them from the room if it continues. This was something that Professor Becky Allen was astute enough to notice a few weeks back when she watched me teach; her most telling observation was ‘you wouldn’t be able to teach like that in most schools.’ And she was right.

It was partially because I liked my Y9 group so much that I found taking their first set of tests in quite daunting. But this was only part of the reason I was apprehensive. Mainly it was because for the first time in my career, this set of results would provide clean data; there was nobody who’s poor performance I could attribute to their own inattention or bad behaviour. The results, whatever they were, would be the product of the child’s own ability and my own teaching, added to the amount of work they did at home to consolidate and extend learning.

As a class they did better than almost any I’ve taught before, and better than any I’ve taught for such a short time. The average percentage, on the first part of the test, which sampled all of the curriculum we’ve covered so far, was about 60%, with the lowest score 29% and the highest 98%.

Of course I can’t be sure that the reasons I think they did better, which I’m about to go into, are definitely the reasons the tests were so pleasing, but I’m comfortable sharing them as things to think about.

  1. The test was aligned to the curriculum.

That I have to even point this out is concerning. As bizarre as it may seem, I’ve often had to administer tests that are not fully aligned with what I’ve actually taught. This can happen for a range of reasons, but the main one is that many schools do not actually have a common curriculum that goes into enough detail to what should be taught to pupils. Without this, teachers may stress areas of topics that are never tested, or neglect to teach areas that then come up in an assessment. It’s difficult to say whether this is worse than actually sharing assessment questions before they come up and teaching to them, which also seems regrettably common. The MAT I work for (Midlands Academies Trust since you’re asking), has avoided this by producing one common curriculum that is taugwht in each of the four schools with all pupils in each school sitting exactly the same test. The result is that teachers can be sure that if they teach the prescribed curriculum, their pupils have the chance to do well. For anyone mentally smacking their forehead and shouting ‘how obvious!’ it may be interesting to learn that this issue is one identified by Dylan William in his latest book as a reason for pupil underachievement in many American schools.

  1. There was little extraneous mental load on pupils.

Anyone teaching a class which doesn’t behave perfectly knows how much pupil attention can be devoted to events in the classroom which aren’t learning. From the appearance of a spider through to the passing of notes or the appearance at the door of a class clown sent out from another lesson, there can be an infinite number of distractions. When this happens it is inevitable that pupils will miss out on some learning, because it is much hard to focus on reasons for the stagnation of medical thought in the medieval period when someone two desks down is breaking wind deliberately. In a classroom with perfect behaviour there are no distractions making it entirely logical that the pupils in it will learn more.

  1. All pupils have been exposed to the curriculum at least once, perhaps more, and have had the opportunity to increase their exposure to the material outside the classroom.

A great deal of time in my lessons is spent on whole class reading. This may involve pupils reading aloud, but more commonly this means me reading to pupils from the booklet. The result of this is that, even in the absence of any other teaching, I can be certain that all pupils have been exposed to everything on the curriculum. The perfect behaviour of the class, in regards to tracking, means that they will have read everything in the booklet at least once. Pupils in this particular class have actually engaged with almost everything in the curriculum more than once. Their completion of retrieval practise and cold call questions has meant that most concepts have been covered multiple times. Their behaviour has also meant I have been able to talk for longer and link back to previously covered content much more frequently, further increasing the number of times each piece of knowledge has been taught. That this has had a positive impact on test scores will come as no surprise to those familiar with Nuthall’s “Hidden Lives of Learners”, which provides an evidential base for the common sense assertion that the more times you are exposed to something the more likely you are to remember it.

  1. My feedback has been better.

The excellent learning environment has made it much easier for me to spot errors, gaps and misconceptions. While pupils have been working it has been easy for me to move around the classroom and read what they’ve produced, and has meant that on the many occasions when I’ve spotted something that needed addressing, I’ve been able to quickly stop the class and fix it. In a chaotic classroom this just isn’t possible because some pupils are quick to take advantage of the times in which the teacher is reading the work of another pupil by misbehaving. Teachers, of course, are quite aware of this which means their attention can’t be focused fully on either reading work or managing behaviour, which means both get done worse.

  1. Pupils tried their best in the test.

I think this is really the result of the other four positive impacts of great behaviour. Because pupils have worked hard, they are more confident and so gave their all in the final test. This makes the information I’ve got back really powerful and useful. In the past I often felt I couldn’t be sure whether a pupil scored very badly because they actually knew nothing, or because they didn’t think it was worth the bother of trying. Now I feel confident that if a pupil doesn’t write anything for a certain question it is because they didn’t know the answer, which means it needs reteaching.

In conclusion, I’m more convinced than ever that the single most impactful thing any school can do to improve its results is to make sure pupils behave perfectly in lessons. As I hope I have demonstrated here, the effects are profound and far reaching.

 

Standard

Don’t reinvent marking

nirvana.jpg

Back in the days of what I call edu-twitter 1.0 (I. e, when I first started using it), Joe Kirby then of Michaela School, wrote a blog post called “Marking is a Hornet”. The post is about why written marking has little or no impact on learning and takes up time teachers could be spending on more productive things.

It was a paradigm shifting piece of work. At the time it was written many schools, perhaps because of a misunderstanding of John Hattie’s work, had fetishized written marking. At the school I worked in at the time, teachers were expected to mark and provide written feedback at least every two weeks. At some schools things were even worse, with teachers expected to mark the corrections pupils had made to work based on round one of marking, effectively doubling the load. I’ve even heard stories from teachers working in schools that went further, expecting teachers to mark the work of their pupils three times. One acquaintance of mine left teaching after the school at which he’d worked introduced a new policy which required every piece of work a pupil completed to be marked the same day they did it.

The result of this madness (part of a period I am calling The Great Stupidity in the hope it will catch on), was disaster. Teachers have always worked long hours and there was little slack. With nothing else cut, evenings, weekends and half-terms disappeared in a storm of different coloured pens, post-its, stickers and proudteacher hashtags over photos of stacks and stacks of exercise books.

Many were either unable or unwilling to keep up and the profession lost people it could not afford to lose.

Joe’s work was taken up by other talented teachers, including Jo Facer and Toby French, whose ‘Marking is Shit’ posts and talks popularised the idea of whole-class verbal feedback as a more effective and less burdensome way of helping pupils improve their work.

Serendipitously, this flowering of ideas coincided with the emergence of evidence that written marking had no demonstrable impact on pupil outcomes. This, understandably, was a cause of real anger among teachers and leaders in schools who felt our inspectorate had pushed this such approaches in their reports. This, predictably, was denied by Ofsted, which promoted Alex Ford to do some digging. The result of his investigation was this post, which I still don’t feel he gets enough credit for. This post convinced Ofsted, who should be commended on their willingness to engage with robust critique, there was an issue and resulted in them forbidding their inspectors to ascribe any outcomes to either marking, or a lack of marking.

This created a context in which schools felt safer to be more original and creative with feedback policies and, I think, has helped reduce workload for many teachers in many schools.

So far so good. But there is an emerging threat.

I once read a fascinating piece of music journalism which described the evolution in rock and roll music. The article said that new movements in rock and roll are actually very short lived; what starts out as original, exciting and fresh soon ossifies. The Heavy Metal of Black Sabbath and their contemporaries became Hair Metal, just as Nirvana’s originality and sense of danger was corrupted into Puddle of Mudd and the unspeakable awfulness of Nickleback.

I’m worried something comparable may be happening in our schools, with the spirit of Joe’s original work being twisted and distorted into involved time-consuming formats that are actually recreating the issues with the marking polices they have replaced.

I’m seeing PowerPoint slide templates in which every pupil in class is named with each given a different target. I’m seeing overly prescriptive whole-class feedback sheets which must take as long to fill in as marking the books. I’m seeing resurgent ‘marking codes’ projected onto a screen instead of being written in books. I’m seeing starter activities that demand teachers give their pupils feedback from a generic template.

This isn’t happening because anyone has bad intentions. SLT love consistency and teachers sometimes needs protecting from themselves because if they think hard work in itself impresses those above them in the hierarchy, they will quite naturally find ways of trying to show they are willing to work hard.

We need stop this now. Firstly, as Tom Sherrington has said about Rosenshine’s Principles of Instruction, when we turn anything into a checklist we kill it; those that first developed whole class feedback as an idea envisaged relaxed teachers reading the work of their pupils, jotting down what needed to be retaught and then simply reteaching it. What can be very simple should not be overcomplicated. Secondly we may be in grave danger of losing any ground we have gained in regards to workload.

Let’s go back to the source material. Read Joe Kirby’s post. Read Jo Facer’s work. Untangle. Uncomplicate. Simplify.

In the face of an onrushing storm of school budget cuts, the recruitment and retention crisis, and rising pupil numbers, failing to do so could be a total disaster.

Standard