Questioning Questioning: SASFE18

Discussion 2This year sees the third St Albans School Forum on Education (SASFE) on Saturday 12th May. An energetic conference with a small-scale and very human touch; delegates are not there to make up the numbers but are part of a forum. SASFE is very much built on the successes of conferences such as the Schools History Project, TLAB, Pedagoo and other events of that ilk. There is no hidden agenda, no corporate branding and it is not-for-profit. We simply put on an event hosted by teachers, for teachers, listening to and learning from our peers. Taking the best aspects of a TeachMeet and combining an overarching theme with plenty of time to stop, think and discuss what is being presented. Conversations flow throughout the day (they might even end up in pub after the official event is over!) and hopefully impact on actual teachers in classrooms over the country.

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Our theme for 2018 is ‘Questions and Questioning’ with keynotes from Drs Caroline Creaby, Nick Dennis and Bettina Hohnen, as well as three seminars from a variety of figures in education. Tickets for this event are just £27 and this includes on-site parking, refreshments and lunch. To preserve the smaller-scale feel of the day places are limited, so if you are interested please book tickets via TicketSource (booking fee applies) or get in touch via email.

Audience

In the past SASFE has tackled ‘Assessment and Feedback’ and ‘Learning Relationships’. This year’s theme looks to explore the importance of questions. Teachers ask questions all of the time, it is an ever-present weapon in the armoury of teachers around the world. What could be more apt than starting to question questioning? Chris Moyse’s excellent series of Research in 100 Words posters features ‘Ask Questions’. In it he darhowawaaaiprl.jpgsurmises that the most effective teachers ask pupils to explain how they answered a question, honing in on the thought process rather than just the final answer. Come and join us to question questioning itself. It is the delegates that really make the conference so worthwhile; I do hope you might consider coming along and experiencing SASFE for yourself.

Thoughts from SASFE17: Education is in good hands

Thoughts from SASFE16: The Conversation


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Interdependent learning in action #srocks18

Do you really want your students to be independent learners? I don’t think so and will be talking about my stance on this issue at the inaugural Southern Rocks conference on Saturday 3rd February… If you have a ticket and are interested in this topic please come along to my postprandial workshop. If you are not lucky enough to have secured a ticket I am sure you could independently find this all our by yourself. Or not.

More and more I am convinced that there should be interdependence between learner and teacher, combining elements of dependent (teacher-led) and independent (student-led) learning. At a very basic level this could be a teacher going through worked examples on a board moving on to students practising further exercises by themselves. In fact all lessons involve a spectrum* of interdependence.

My Southern Rocks session will look at three ways of trying to promote interdependent learning:

  1. Self-regulation of learning
  2. Rules of studying
  3. Building topic-specific vocabulary

1 and 2 are based on whole-school interventions, whereas 3 is an action research project from my very own classroom. However, if you will not be at Southern Rocks, Chapter 10 of Carl Hendrick and Robin Macpherson’s What does this look like in the classroom? is a very useful stimulus for discussing what we really mean and want from independent learning. Or for those really short of time see this thread from Daniel Sabato.

*If you are being fussy you might call it a ‘continuum’ rather than ‘spectrum’.

Key Words in A level Biology

This post follows up from Keywords and fluency of understanding, a post written before the Autumn Term. It seems apt that I reflect back on the vocab books and weekly testing I have introduced with my Upper Sixth class.

Vocabulary book.PNG

How it looked in the classroom

Every student in my class was issued with a vocabulary book in September. This was specifically for the first topic, Plant Physiology and Biochemistry. The students themselves numbered it from 1 to 35 with two numbers per page. Examples from three different students should make this format clear, see below. I had decided the key words in advance (see appendix for the full list) and – as we gradually covered the topic – gave them words to put in the correct place. E.g. number 13 was the Calvin cycle. For homework students found a definition – handily enough there was a full glossary at the back of their textbook – copied it down and learned it for a vocab test at the start of the next lesson.

VB1.PNG

Student A – key words 23 to 26

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Student B – key words 27 to 30

 

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Student C – key words 31 to 34

Fortuitously the arrangement of other Upper Sixth Biology classes gave this intervention a quasi-experimental design that I could compare my class to the other three classes. The fact that the cohort numbers 40 and I have ten, exactly a quarter, in my class was further good luck. This would allow me to evaluate the vocab books and weekly testing for my class which I will now call the experimental group. All 30 other Biology A level students in the Upper Sixth did not use the vocab books or have regular key word testing, therefore these students will be called the control group.

What happened?

Good question (and for those who like a bit of value-added data (VAD) tomfoolery this will be a real treat!). Firstly, as a basic comparison the table below compares the mean average score for the Plant Physiology and Biochemistry end-of-topic test for the experimental and control groups:

Experimental Group 66%
Control Group 64%

Two percent! I have written before about gains as small as 1%, but is 2% a good result? Ultimately this does not tell us too much. The classes are all mixed-ability by the standards of the school, so it might seem that my intervention has had a positive effect. But students are organised into classes by option blocking of their other subjects, therefore I might have randomly been allocated students whose attainment is higher by chance.

This is where VAD might help. Our students are given ALIS scores which project future A level performance from GCSE results; see the clever people at CEM for more details. So I can now use the projected ALIS grade to compare to student performance in the end-of-topic test to calculate a residual. E.g. if a student is projected an A grade but scores a B their VAD residual is -1, if the same student gains an A* their residual is +1 and if they get their projected grade the residual is 0. The table below shows the average VAD residual for both groups:

Experimental Group -0.8
Control Group -1.2

This means the experimental group, on average, scored 0.8 of a grade lower than their projected grade. However, this was better than the control group where students scored, on average, 1.2 grades lower.

Does this mean anything? Well, let us muddy the waters a little by considering that the experimental group has a second teacher (an excellent person and very knowledgeable biologist) who takes them for half of their allocated teaching time. How do the experimental group’s scores compare in the topic they did with me, using vocab books and regular testing, to the topic they did with Teacher 2? The information is tabulated below:

Topic

Mean average score Average VAD residual

Plant Phys. and Biochem.

66%

-0.8

Genetics

65%

-1.1

We are still looking at very fine margins but it certainly seems that they have attained better grades, in terms of VAD, for the topic they used vocab books and regular key word testing. However, (and as all good biologists know) correlation does not mean causation. There are a huge number of reasons for this, really very small, discrepancy. For example, is the Plant Physiology and Biochemistry topic the same difficulty as the Genetics topic? Questions like this will continue to be considered as the year goes on.

What did the students think?

They have humoured me and done as asked, producing the vocab books and gamely accepting the vocab tests. They seem to not object massively to the intervention and, as the topic came to an end, were quite pleased with their final vocab books (I think). In fact, they have even suggested making the vocab test harder by mixing up previous key words.

What next?

My class / the experimental group have almost finished their second topic, Energy and Respiration, so I will have further data to consider in due course. However, their points of view are equally important to me so I have arranged a group interview with a few of the students and another separate group interview with a few students in the control group. It will be interesting to consider their responses amongst the data!

Appendix

Key words for the Plant Physiology and Biochemsitry topic:

  1. Abscisic acid (ABA)
  2. Absorption spectrum
  3. Accessory pigment
  4. Action spectrum
  5. ADP
  6. Aerenchyma
  7. ATP
  8. ATP Synthase
  9. Auxin
  10. Bundle sheath cells
  11. C3 plant
  12. C4 plant
  13. Calvin cycle
  14. Carotenoid
  15. Chlorophyll
  16. Chloroplast
  17. Dormancy
  18. Endosperm
  19. Giberellin
  20. Granum
  21. IAA
  22. Light dependent reactions
  23. Light independent reactions
  24. Limiting factor
  25. Mesophyll
  26. Palisade mesophyll
  27. PEP
  28. PEP carboxylase
  29. Phosphorylation
  30. Photoautotroph
  31. Photolysis
  32. Photophosphorylation
  33. Photorespiration
  34. Photosystem
  35. Reaction centre

 

Questions and Questioning

This post is based on a school TLAG (Teaching, Learning and Assessment Group) meeting held at lunchtime on Monday. Wonderfully, sixteen teachers came along and gave up their free time to debate and discuss how we use questions. The stimulus material is shared below.

Why Do We Ask Questions?

Good question! Well it seems they provide necessary practice for students to actually practise new material and help connect new information to prior learning. Questions also allow a teacher to make an assessment of how well material has been learned and whether there is a need for re-teaching. Effective teachers ask students to explain the process they used to answer a question. E.g. orally, through rough working, mini-whiteboards, etc.

Wait Times

Teachers significantly overestimate the time they give students to think about and answer a question. The typical teacher pauses, on average, between just 0.71.4 seconds after their question before continuing to talk or attempting to ‘repair’ the interaction… Even worse, if teachers think a student does not know or will be slow in giving an answer this period of time is often less than 0.7 seconds. However, if we can just wait three seconds, amazing things start to happen:

  • The length and correctness of responses increase.
  • The number of “I don’t know” and no answer responses decrease.
  • The number of volunteered answers greatly increase.

Patterns of Questioning

Is there a pattern of questioning that you notice? Using I (initiation of a question), R (response), E (evaluation) or F (feedback) and the colours red (teacher) and blue (pupil) we can construct some theoretical patterns of questioning:

  • IRERF
  • IRF
  • IRERERF

Or how about getting peer evaluation or feedback from another pupil:

  • IREF
  • IRERF

Next time you observe a lesson, try to make a note of the patterns that questioning takes in the classroom.

‘Open’ and ‘Closed’ Questions

‘Open’ questions give pupils the chance to “influence the subsequent course of the lesson”. Therefore ‘open’ questions transfer power from the teacher to the learners. ‘Closed’ questions tend to have one answer, or a range of correct answers. E.g. recalling facts or information. Therefore they have a more predictable pattern (IRF).

DISCLAIMER: Harris and Williams argue that the words ‘open’ and ‘closed’ are not sufficiently complex terms to cover the concept!

Hands Up?

Finally, a consideration of how to select pupils to answer a question. A random name generator? Lollipop sticks? With a brief clip from Dylan Wiliam’s BBC2 programme The Classroom Experiment, first shown in 2010 used to end the session.

Read Further

Why Do We Ask Questions?

Via Chris Moyse’s Research in 100 Words series.

Good and Grouws (1977) Teaching effects: a process-product study in fourth grade mathematics classrooms. Journal of Teacher Education.

King (1994) Effects of teaching children how to question and how to explain. American Educational Research Journal

Wait Times

Stahl (1994) Using “Think-Time” and “Wait-Time” Skillfully in the Classroom. ERIC Digest.

Patterns of Questioning

Mehan, H. (1979) ‘Learning Lessons: Social Organisation in the Classroom’. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press.

Mortimer, E. and Scott, P. (2003) ‘Capturing and characterizing the talk of school science’’ in Meaning Making in Secondary Science Classrooms, Buckingham: Open University Press.

‘Open’ and ‘Closed’ Questions

Harris and Williams (2012) (2012) The association of classroom interactions, year group and social class, British Educational Research Journal, 38, 3, 373-397.

Hands Up?

BBC2 The Classroom Experiment (2010), Episode 1 

BBC2 The Classroom Experiment (2010), Episode 2 

Keywords and fluency of understanding

In many ways learning Biology is like learning a language. All subjects are laden with specific terminology, often with meanings that have a greater level of precision than when the words are used in everyday speech, but Biology must surely take the biscuit in this regard. The sheer scale of rote learning needed to access understanding of topics at A level is quite phenomenal. Certainly in the past I have been guilty of taking this for granted; the curse of knowledge has often led to some muddled conversations with pupils. So this year the main tweak to my A level teaching will be to focus on keywords as a way to drive a greater fluency of understanding.

As is always the case, I am neither alone nor the first to look into this. The importance of learning and recalling keyword definitions is a well-known and discussed area of education. For example, Dawn Cox’s recent post detailed her own thoughts and strategies to give pupils the best possible chance to understand Religious Studies holistically (pun most certainly intended). In Biology there has often been a focus on ‘big ideas’ that connect topics. Seeing the subject as a whole rather than as piecemeal topics is the difference between having a good understanding of Biology or an excellent one. Pupils who can interpolate within the A level topics are invariably those that do the best when confronted with atypical demands.

The word I have been using more and more to describe this sophisticated understanding is ‘fluency’. This term works well on two levels. Firstly, the more easily and articulately a pupil can express themselves is fundamental to showing what they understand, whether in writing, orally or in exam papers. Secondly, and aping the linguistic simile at the start of this post, fluency pertains to the ability to speak and write in a foreign language easily and accurately. In this case Biology is the ‘foreign language’ and once again the ease of communication is highlighted, but without the required accuracy there will be no deep understanding. Therefore, fluency within a subject depends on ease, articulation and, above all, accuracy of communication. If accuracy is the foundation of fluency, then it seems logical that having a comprehensive knowledge and understanding of keywords will allow a pupil to develop within the subject.

So what does this mean in a practical sense? What will I do differently this year in my classroom? Inspired by Dawn, I will be introducing weekly ‘vocab’ tests for my Sixth Form classes. We will spend about 5 minutes a week of lesson time looking through a selection of keywords for a topic, even if they are yet to be studied. Pupils will have a ‘vocab book’ and be expected to keep it up to date with the words covered. Then the next week they will be tested on the definitions of keywords. All of this will definitely be happening. I also hope to add in a comprehension task that will assess understanding more effectively… But this will require more time and thought. Bear with me while I try to find the right balance, but in time I hope to report any interesting findings.

Bobbing up and down in a sea of school

If you are a teacher, you have probably heard the word ‘resilience’ bandied about at staff meetings and INSET. Questions might have been posed such as ‘how do our pupils become more resilient?’ or ‘how can failing safely build resilience in learners’. Do you know what… It is a load of nonsense to use ‘resilience’ to describe the vast majority of pupils in the UK school system. Resilience is not achieving a D when the target was a C grade. The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune in a school context are rarely so all-encompassing to require the use of the term ‘resilience’. It is purely natural to have peaks and troughs in academic and co-curricular performance. Indeed, the trials and tribulations of social interactions will also cause embarrassment, regret and anxiety as well as elation and joy all in the same day (insert ‘and that’s just in the staff room’ joke here). This oscillation of good and bad is perfectly natural, something that is part of life as a human being. It is not normal to be permanently happy as much as it is not normal to always be top of the class. Bobbing up and down between extremes is normal. Recovering from the lows is a hugely important life lesson, so too is coping with success. There is nothing new under the sun, certainly this is not a new concept in education.

Here is a better way of looking at the idea of bouncebackability*, this time with a slightly different buzzword: academic buoyancy. It is defined as “students’ capacity to successfully overcome setbacks and challenges that are typical of the ordinary course of everyday academic life” (p129, Martin et al, 2013). It is the word “typically” that is so important. Children at any stage in their learning will be disappointed by events in and out of the classroom at school. But it is all relative, a ‘first world problem’ as the meme goes. Learning how to interdependently deal with the disappointment is key. The capacity to overcome everyday academic adversity, or in other words academic buoyancy, is a much better way to look at this than resilience. So the next time that someone uses the word ‘resilience’ in the staff roo, think to yourself ‘do they really mean it?’ More likely what they are eluding to is academic buoyancy. And we should welcome this bobbing up and down with open arms as part of the learning process.

* The word “bouncebackability” is attributed to former Crystal Palace FC manager Iain Dowie following a 3-1 win against Wimbledon AFC on 31st January 2004.

Want to find out more about academic buoyancy?

Martin, A. J., Ginns, P. and Brackett, M. (2013) Academic buoyancy and psychological risk: Exploring reciprocal relationships, Learning and Individual Differences 27 (2013) 128–133.

Learning from the teaching perspective

I was recently asked what I thought were key ‘pillars of learning’ that teachers should be striving to uphold to ensure learners are successful. While I am not keen on the symbolism, whether Doric or Ionic, this is a short and to the point exploration of what I believe is central to good learning. In fact I would go back to a tweet, a particularly unloved one, from last November:

Tweet

Behaviour

The cornerstone of learning, without pupils paying attention and co-operating it does not matter what else the teacher does. As David Rogers points out at the start of his blog post Behaviour: it’s about the simple, small things, “behaviour is an emotive subject”. Different teachers invariably have different points of view, but my own view is quite simple: pupils should be silent when someone is talking to the class and should act on teacher instruction in good time. This approach aims to produce and maintain an environment where learning can flourish. But what do I know? If you prefer a little more clout and evidence and have not read Tom Bennett’s Creating a Culture: How school leaders can optimise behaviour you should really check it out. While there is a lot to take from this report, not all of it applicable to every setting, the statement “better behaviour benefits everyone” cannot be argued with. Behaviour is the linchpin of learning. A slightly more appreciated tweet of mine in reply to Abbie Mann’s question “What one piece of advice would you give to an NQT about managing behaviour?” sums up some key behaviour advice I have magpied together:

Tweet advice for NQT

Graft

Simply put, there is no substitute to working hard. Industry is needed and pupils must put in the necessary hard yards of effort and toil to try to understand and recall the work they are covering. Both at school and through homework, time must be dedicated to learning. It is not easy, particularly in today’s world of distraction, but without hard work pupils cannot expect to be successful. If you are willing to stretch the metaphor of learning to pugilism, Muhammad Ali’s quote below puts it nicely:

“The fight is won or lost far away from witnesses – behind the lines, in the gym and out there on the road, long before I dance under those lights”

Punctuality

Another habit of character that needs little explanation. Getting to class on time and handing in work before deadlines is crucial to making the most of a teacher’s time and therefore receiving the guidance and feedback needed to succeed. Where there is a slapdash approach to moving between lessons or handing in work, this will have much larger issues for learners and contribute to a general malaise within a school. Ignore Evelyn Waugh’s take on punctuality, instead look to the New Zealand rugby union team’s mantra:

“If you are not early, you’re late”

Trust and patience

This is more about the expectations of the teacher and senior staff. Learning is not something easily defined and nor is there a clear outcome. Therefore, HoDs and SMT must be patient in expecting any ‘results’ from approaches to teaching and learning. Trust must be in place that by focusing on behaviour, graft and punctuality pupils will learn. To paraphrase the idiom, you won’t lose weight on the first day of your diet (or something like that); lessons are not appropriate units of time to measure learning outcomes.

Relationships

In the vein of Lieutenant Columbo “just one more thing”… Since November I would add to the ‘pillars’ identified above the concept of a learning relationship. It is crucial that there is a productive relationship in place between learners and teacher. It is important to note that this does not equate to being liked by a class or pupils enjoying every single task that they complete. Just as you might have a good relationship with your GP this does not necessarily mean you are best friends or enjoy being poked and probed. However, relationships are at the very heart of learning. The more I teach, the more firmly I think this is true. Don’t believe me? Well how about this from Professor Daniel Willingham’s exceptional book Why Don’t Students Like School?:

“The emotional bond between students and teacher – for better or worse – accounts for whether students learn”

The Pillars

  • Behaviour
  • Graft
  • Punctuality
  • Relationships
  • With time and trust afforded to those at the chalkface