Author Archives: tlamjs

About tlamjs

Sometimes have a life, biology teacher, Assistant Head, former Head of Department, interested in teaching and learning. All views are my own or more likely flatteringly borrowed from far more intelligent people, but in no way represent the institutions I work for. Also on twitter @tlamjs.

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 

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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

Education is in good hands: SASFE17

DAQVmNDXYAAlqH8It seems an age has passed since Saturday when the second Forum on Education was held at St Albans School. Many ideas have been whizzing about my head since listening to the keynotes and popping in and out of the seminars (of course one of the great draw backs to organising a conference is not being able to attend sessions in full). The theme of Learning Relationships seemed to knit together the different topics on offer, with unusual perspectives giving a reminder of what is actually important for learners and teachers.

 

I would just like to take this opportunity to thank everyone present, delegates and speakers alike, for making the day so enjoyable to host. The conversations that flowed showed just how important it is to take time to reflect on and discuss what we do, emphasising keynote speaker Mike Grenier’s focus on slow education. The fact that all of the speakers were teachers, actually at the coal face of education, brought an honesty that can be hard to mimic. Certainly my one big ‘takeaway’ from the day is that education is in good hands. It is an absolute pleasure to have helped set up the right DAQnpyEXsAAcxpzenvironment to enable us to come together. With huge thanks to the cleaners, porters, catering team and John in reprographics who all enabled the conference to go ahead. And I would single out Rob Hagon and Network Support for their hard work in allowing the IT to be invisible throughout the day.

The St Albans School Forum on Education 2017 has set a high bar and following the success of the day, we will be looking to host our third conference at a similar point in the Summer Term 2018. Once again tickets will be in limited supply to ensure we retain the intimate and small-scale atmosphere that makes SASFE so special. Watch out for updates in September and January!

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Are you looking for speakers at your next conference or teachmeet?

I would whole-heartedly recommend all of the following, arranged in alphabetical order.

  • Dr Jill Berry – closing the conference with her keynote on how leadership can be used to maintain and improve working relationships within a school.
  • Elizabeth Carr – explored the role of the subject in learning relationships and how to model history as a discipline.
  • Dawn Cox – discussed how whole school initiatives need to be fully focused on learning and linked to research in her seminar titled ‘Where’s the learning?’
  • Andy Ford and Tom Hockedy – a session that presented the progress of an Action Research Project at Berkhamsted School trying to answer the question ‘If the learning environment is more advanced, will it create more powerful learners?’
  • Mike Grenier – opening the conference with a keynote on how Slow Education can help develop learning relationships in a school.
  • Dr Greg Hacksley – joined by St Albans School Upper Sixth pupils Dan, Darcey, Josh and Paddy this session took a pupil’s-eye view of education to answer the question ‘How do I learn?’
  • Matt Pinkett – used a mixture of anecdotal evidence, personal experience and research to argue that there is a masculinity crisis in our schools with suggestions of what schools can do to address it head on.
  • David Rogers – discussed the concept of grit, detailing a long term project that aims to develop academic resilience to give pupils the qualitites and qualifications needed for academic success.
  • Professor Sophie Scott – her pre-lunch keynote discussed how laughter acts as an emotional regulator in relationships. As Victor Borge put it “laughter is the shortest distance between two people.”
  • Kevin Squibb – gave a quick introduction to Hattie’s idea of Visible Learning, leading to discussion of how to take create assessment capable learners.
  • Drew Thomson – examined the importance of relationships between colleagues and looked at how staff can maximise the impact of those around them.
  • Bukky Yusuf – spoke about key strategies to establish effective learning behaviours with disaffected pupils in her seminar titled ‘Challenging classes and the lessons I learnt.’

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Learning Relationships: SASFE17

Discussion

On Saturday 20th May St Albans School is holding its second education conference, this year exploring relationships in learning. The event is intentionally small in scale and refreshingly non-corporate, taking the best aspects of a TeachMeet and combining an overarching theme with dedicated time and space to driving conversations over refreshments, breaks and lunch (and perhaps even in the pub after the official event has ended). As a forum, the day works by actively giving delegates the opportunity to discuss themes from the keynotes and seminars on offer. This year the schedule has been tweaked to allow even more opportunities for talk and thought. The seminar sessions are workshops in the true sense of the word, allowing those present to contribute and drive the collective thought process. The hugely positive feedback from delegates at last year’s conference is shared at the bottom of this post.

Keynote speakers

The fabulous Professor Sophie Scott will be providing much merriment and mirth with the science of that most human interaction, comedy and humour. As deputy director of UCL’s institute of Cognitive Neuroscience her research interests include the neural basis of vocal communication and how our brains control the production of voice. Professor Scott’s TED talk on why we laugh has been viewed almost 2.5 million times.

Audience

Find out more about taking the time to develop learning and Slow Education, the antithesis of the McDonald’s production line, with keynote speaker Mike Grenier. Mike is an English teacher and Housemaster at Eton College and “one of the leading lights of the ‘Slow Education’ movement”.

Jill Berry
Jill at SASFE16

Dr Jill Berry is returning to SASFE following last year’s highly successful closing keynote. Author of the book Making the Leap and a preeminent consultant on leadership, she will be bringing her unique perspective to the day. As a former English Teacher, Head of Department and Head, Jill will be discussing the leadership of relationships with ideas that can be applied to the ‘leaders’ in every classroom of a school.

About the theme

The more I teach, the more convinced I am that relationships are key to successful outcomes. Human interactions are what makes education work and ultimately why we will not be replaced with machines. SASFE17 will help frame the discussion of what makes learning work on the level of relationships; come along and be a part of this discussion! It would be great to have you there on the day.Discussion 2

Tickets: can purchased here  or by emailing forum@st-albans.herts.sch.uk

St Albans School website: see here for more details

Why come along?

Don’t take my word for it… See the feedback from the St Albans School Forum on Education 2016!.

Feedback: What was your favourite aspect of the day?

“The whole thing was great, actually. Each speaker brought something quite different to the table…I enjoyed being able to take some ideas away from all sessions I attended – every single one gave me a practical idea to take away that I could implement or adapt. Importantly, they have all had an influence on my thinking and my approach; on my philosophy. I was really impressed actually!”

“There was a refreshing honesty about what we both know and don’t know about education. Speakers were engaging and clear.”

“Provided food for thought. Challenged my thinking and viewpoints.”

Martin Robinson

Martin Robinson, mid-keynote, opening the conference in 2016

“Practical suggestions directly related to my subject area”

“The ability to be in a smaller, intimate group.”

“The discussions which took place beyond the seminars”

“A combination of delivery, hands-on work in groups, discussion.”

Feedback: What was the most beneficial aspect of the event?

“As I so often find to be the case the most beneficial parts of this conference were those where the opportunity for discussion with staff from a variety of backgrounds/viewpoints was provided. In particular, I found the inclusion of a student in one of the discussions to be most thought provoking.”

“Networking and chance to discuss.”

“Well structured day. Sessions right length. Liked the 3 short keynotes. I liked the fact it was a relatively small crowd.”

“The opportunity to discuss with teachers from very different schools and backgrounds”

“Small groups meant you felt part of the event rather than simply a number”

“Meeting contacts old and new”

“The commonality of the speakers”

“Stimulating and challenging ideas to take away”

Ian Yorston

Ian Yorston giving his keynote on IT’s role in assessment at SASFE16

“The small group sessions and opportunity to share ideas”

“The combination of excellent workshops and keynotes with time for networking. It being small helped here. The day flew by!”

“An excellent opportunity to meet like-minded colleagues.”

“The small seminar style of options, with the opportunity to meet other teachers with similar interests and concerns.”

“Meeting other enthusiastic teachers and engaging in stimulating discussions.”

“Meeting enthusiastic teachers local to me, in all subjects and levels of management was really refreshing and motivating.”


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Transcription Factors

Intracellular proteins that bind to specific regions of DNA to control transcription are known as transcription factors. Examples include:

  • PIF and DELLA proteins
  • Proteins coded by the regulatory genes of the lac operon
  • cAMP and the second messenger model
  • Products of proto-oncogenes and tumour suppressor genes

Gibberellin and DELLA proteins

DELLA proteins inhibit transcription by binding to a molecule known as PIF. This prevents PIF from transcribing DNA into mRNA. However, DELLA is broken down when the plant hormone gibberellin is present. The PIF is now free to join to the promoter on the DNA and start transcribing it into mRNA, which can then be translated by a ribosome.

In the case of wheat and barley seed germination, amylase is synthesised when the gibberellins destroy the DELLA proteins. This allows the starch in the endosperm of the seed to be broken down to provide a source of carbohydrate for respiration. E.g. the gibberellins turn on the gene for amylase production by destroying the DELLA proteins.

Glossary:

  • DELLA: proteins that inhibit the binding of transcription factors. Regulate amylase production in barley and wheat seeds.
  • Endosperm: tissue that provides a source of energy for the developing embryo of a seed.
  • Gibberellins: plant hormone that is involved in growth, germination and flowering.
  • Intracellular: within a cell, as opposed to extracellular meaning between cells.
  • lac operon: length of DNA found in E. coli that controls the expression of proteins involved in taking up and digesting lactose.
  • PIF: phtochrome-interacting protein, a transcription factor.
  • Proto-oncogenes and tumour suppressor genes: genes involved in the regulation of the cell cycle, growth and programmed cell death (apoptosis).
  • Second messenger model: a process involving intracellular signalling molecules, such as cyclic AMP, that are triggered by extracellular messengers, such as oestrogen.
  • Transcription: the production of mRNA from DNA.
  • Transcription factors: proteins that control the flow of information from DNA to RNA by controlling the formation of mRNA.
  • Translation: the production of a polypeptide by a ribosome from mRNA.