Category Archives: education

(Tab)let them eat cake III

A lot has changed since I wrote my last blog regarding EdTech. For one I now have a different role and am directly involved with shaping the digital strategy of the school. Therefore it is probably time for an update of what I have been doing to explore this area of education. Charles Darwin wrote that “ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge” and in all of my EdTech blogs I have made it clear that I do not know enough to comment effectively. However, I am now slowly building up a decent idea of what can be achieved, hopefully without being blinded by “shiny news things”-syndrome.

WebDAVNav: I have to start with this because it is so simple but incredibly useful, although no doubt I am seriously behind the times. WebDAVNav is an app that allows you to access your resources from a smartphone. For example mine is set up to see all of the “my documents” folders and files associated with my username on the school system. Additionally it is linked to the shared pupil and staff resources, allowing me to look at a moment’s notice no matter where I am. This has proved to be super-useful and something that I keep returning to as I am out and about. It is difficult to say just how great it is, but I can’t imagine life without it now!

Tablets: The process of convincing me that they have a role to play in my classroom is well underway. I can see how they might help teaching and also learning, surely the only reason you would ever adopt anything new in education? Having met with the tablet working party throughout last year it was clear that they can provide excellent solutions to certain problems. E.g. want to use a computer but don’t need it for a whole lesson? Instead of booking out a computer room for just 10 minutes of actual computer time why not slide open those tablets and dip in and out as and when required to support pupil learning.  This is the type of small-scale learning-focused issue that I think will be the real reason why they might be adopted en masse in education (rather than some game-changing mega miracle that significantly increases student learning with proven tablet causation). It will be the small and seemingly insignificant things that, together, make a huge difference to turn educators’ heads towards any new thing, technology included. This is illustrated by the popular concepts espoused by Sir Clive Woodward (the one hundred one percents) and Sir Dave Brailsford (marginal gains). An obvious example is a calculator; no Maths teacher would plan their whole lesson by simply stating “use calculators” just as much as we shouldn’t be planning a lesson with only “use tablets”. They have the potential to be a very good resource to aid good teaching and help students learn.

To discover just what anything, EdTech or not, can do it is important to try it out. Therefore this year we have implemented a tablet-trial, equipping a teacher with tablets to use with their classes. This boils down to a class set of windows tablets that students sign into and use in just that member of staff’s lessons; neatly termed “bringing a computer room to the classroom”. Although a far cry from 1:1 it is a starting point to evaluate not only their effectiveness but also the logistics and infrastructure should a larger project ever be rolled out. The plan is for six different teachers to use the tablets with their classes and use qualitative feedback to assess their effectiveness. This will also be useful for those in school who would like to see how they might be used. The teachers involved in the trial have been to a Microsoft Showcase training day and it will be very much up to them as to how they choose to implement them. We also have a few members of staff going to see tablets being used in schools to see how and why the investment has been made.

Over half term I attended a Microsoft Showcase event, looking at the Windows Surface. To me this is everything that I would want for using devices in the classroom, most importantly because it comes with a keyboard. I actually borrowed a Surface Pro from school over the summer holiday and can vouch for what an incredibly impressive kit it is (although it should be mentioned I ended up effectively using it as a laptop, but since my training day can see a whole host of opportunities to improve the way I work). The Surface is a great idea, well-realised and compatible with the Microsoft Office way of working that is ingrained within myself and the school. The day was illuminating and all the presenters made good sales pitches for the products and systems on show. Although seeing and using the technology was useful lunch was actually the highlight for me (and not just the delicious macaroons). I spent most of it discussing with Phil Burney whether it was possible to roll out EdTech in a school successfully. His words were very practical in suggesting that only with time, training and ongoing support is it possible to have a successful and sustained implementation of something like tablets. The bigger picture is how can you give staff confidence with new technologies? Going from being highly proficient in something to starting right back as a beginner is a daunting prospect. Leaders should look to change the “yuck factor” or “I am fine without this new fad” attitude with plenty of time, training and support. My thoughts from March’s OSESIS event ring ever clearer, especially the do and don’t comments. For me this raises the central tension with trying to implement anything; how can people evaluate how it might be useful if they don’t know what it does. Bringing me nicely to…

…e-Homework: We are trialling the use of setting homework via our virtual learning environment (VLE) with a year group for the rest of this term. To allow a full evaluation to occur all teachers of this year group have been asked to set homework this way; bringing us back to the issue of mandate versus optional take up. But without trying it we cannot see whether it helps the learning of our students. Once again this is the key point – does it help teaching and learning? If so there is no problem. Another question to ask is “does it take more time and effort than how I was working before?” Long-term, having practiced, it should take no longer than the original way of working. But it is very difficult to comment without having tried it. The results of this trial will be hugely informative.

And finally:

At heart I am very much a moderate and at times can be accused of being quite conservative when it comes to new things. Even more so if they are being forced onto people. However, even I realise that a no at any cost approach to anything new will severely limit innovation (whether technological or not) and that without trying things out all you have is gut-instinct or opinion. There is plenty going on here to start the evaluative process and no doubt I will report back in brobdingnagian proportions in the future.

Header image from www.freefoto.com

Tyrannosaurus test

Last night I popped into London to attend the entertaining Intelligence Squared debate on whether testing demeans education. Outside the Emmanuel Centre in Westminster the glittering educators of the capital filed into the debating chamber, one lady perusing her copy of Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers. The main question seemed to be whether regular school testing helps students to flourish or actually hinder development. So what do we think? Is standardised testing a tyrant king with no regard for anything other than soulless data collection? Or does it have a place in the ever changing modern world? I suspect no sensible educator would fall at either extreme of this spectrum, but nevertheless the debate was interesting and amusing in equal measure. Summer Turner has written up her thoughts with usual thoughtful-panache so if you are only going to read one blog on the event read no further and click away.

First up and for the motion was Tristram Hunt, former Shadow Secretary of State for Education and Member of Parliament for Stoke-on-Trent Central. He cut quite a dash up at the lectern. I could quite easily see why it is such a loss that he has resigned from the Shadow Cabinet. In fact much of the audience were left wondering what might have been by the end of his persuasive speaking. Out came the easy on the ear soundbite that students need to be “learning skills for jobs that don’t yet exist” and that tests were not suitable preparation for the workforce. Throughout the evening Hunt was an incredibly good sport, taking gentle jibes and digs about currently inhabiting the political wilderness with good humour and class. He started his address with “Friends, Comrades” to much mirth and towards the end referenced “frenzied Corbynistas.”

Next came Daisy Chirstodoulou, she of Seven Myths, speaking against the motion. Recently she has written several excellent blogs on the subject of assessment, therefore it was no surprise that she constructed a logical and reasoned case for testing (in fact I don’t think either sides of the house wanted to dispose of testing completely) and more tests in particular. One main foundation of this argument was the hidden bias of other assessment methods, Christodoulou ascertained that teacher assessment discriminates against low income pupils and therefore testing should replace such an unequal practice. It was at this point I lost the specific reference she used but her suggestion that tests are fairer resonated with some parts of the audience. In all her speech was a barnstorming and surprisingly emotive appeal to equality by declaring testing a fairer method. At this point I felt convinced that relentless testing was a necessary and useful tool in education’s arsenal. Since the debate Christodoulou has written up the experience which is well worth checking out.

Tony Little was close to persuading me to reconsider throughout much of his discourse. Much came from his wonderfully titled An Educated Person’s Guide to Education, the content of which I absorbed while on holiday this summer. For this reason hearing Little regal and bring to life the chapters of the book was an immersive and trans-medium experience. According to his address we are a juggernaut at full speed heading off a cliff by persisting with a regime of testing for testing’s sake. In his own words “we’ve allowed the exam testing business to go too far…we run the risk of being slaves to data.” He spoke at our Prize Giving ceremony three years ago and from this I know that Little does value achievements beyond GCSE and A level, particularly the former of which it was clear would be the tests that would be ditched. Additionally the wonderful Centre for Innovation and Research in Learning that was one of his final acts as Headmaster of Eton College is testament to his dedication to a broader approach to learning; one only needs to look around the incredibly impressive space to know there is a purposeful exploration of improving education and thus avoiding the “shrinking curriculum.” However, he still did not quite explain what might take the place of the current state of affairs.

And then to Toby Young, so often providing an alternative view point on education. It seemed to me that his premise was to take down those for the motion, perhaps a sensible tactic but also one that might alienate the undecided (although this is maybe my meek agreeability coming to the fore). In this vein he joyously pointed out Tristram Hunt’s opposition to decoupling the AS from the A level in response to, former Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove’s recommendations; in doing so pointing out the obvious that this would have meant more exams. Quite a change of tune indeed. Where Young was particularly strong was taking down the idea that testing in education was removed from the kinds of tests faced in the workplace. Again the theme of equality, or perhaps inequality, was seized upon “an atmosphere of healthy competition and regular testing” is key to helping disadvantaged pupils.

After some questions from the audience (some were even genuine questions!) we were ready to hear the result. It transpired that the result was not ready for us and, chair for the night, Sir Anthony Seldon put to use his improvisational skills (I wonder if Wellington College have lessons for improv?) to fill time. Asking ostensibly Tristram Hunt, but more accurately the gentlemen to his right, whether he would like to be a Headmaster Tony Little amusingly intercepted with “are you asking me?” However, my favourite and beautifully superfluous question was asking Daisy Christodoulou what her favourite myth was (answer you can always just look it up), proceeding to then ask what her second favourite was (projects and activities are the best way to learn). Before we had a complete count down from one to seven the results were in. Those for the motion had convinced the most people to change their minds and so it was we had collectively resolved to end the tyranny of the test.

As always debate and discussion engender a self-reflection that otherwise might not have come about. For me there were several questions that lay unanswered, the two most pertinent being:

  1. What are the alternatives to standardised testing?
  2. Does testing suit certain subjects over others?

In particular question two raises the issue of how we examine or assess creative subjects. Although I will be continuing on with my end-of-topic and end-of-year tests in Biology, I am not so absurd to reason that this approach works for Drama or Design and Technology. In what is becoming one of my favourite phrases at the moment, there is of course no “one-size fits all”, tyrant test or not.

Five books all Biology A level students should read

This is part one of a series of posts listing, in no particular order, essential reading for A level Biology students.

  1. The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature by Matt Ridley

This is truly essential reading for anyone interested in biology. As the title suggests it is a compendium of ideas and thoughts pertaining to evolution and in particular how they might impact on being human. After reading it in the first year of university it immediately had a profound and significant effect on my understanding of the subject. Its many themes have stuck with me throughout and since starting teaching I have come back to it time and again as a source of inspiration for both teaching and improving my understanding of key topics within biology. Each chapter is written in an accessible style and abounds with humour. Whether pondering the absence of male bdelloid rotifers to discussing the Inca sun-king’s “house of virgins” Ridley writes with authority and clarity. Forgive my hyperbole but The Red Queen is among my absolute favourite books; even if you do not study biology put this on the top of your reading list!

  1. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

A book with a significant and poignant historical perspective, it looks beyond the science of the immortal HeLa strain of cells to explore the civil rights movement in 1950s America. Consequently this is a perfect recommendation for any student studying History and Biology at A level. Additionally the ethically dubious actions described would also promote great discussion beyond these two subjects. As a journalistic exposé and investigation into an appalling miscarriage of ethical justice it is superb. Furthermore it also highlights the incredible advancements that were made as a result of this malpractice and poses the question; do the ends justify the means in medical research? Beyond being a great book about biology this is also, as the Times reported, “as gripping and rich as any work of fiction you will read”. I am incredibly thankful to my former colleague who gave this to me as a leaving present and whole heartedly recommend it.

  1. Life Ascending: The Ten Greatest Inventions of Evolution by Nick Lane

As a Biology teacher I was amazed when I first read Life Ascending; it is almost a perfect accompaniment to A level Biology. Not only does the chapter-structure mean that you can dip in and out, reading sections that pique the interest at will, but at least six of the chapters are directly relevant to the subject specification. For example it is easy to see how DNA, Photosynthesis, Movement and Sight are connected to A level, but even The Origin of Life (respiration – see Nick Lane’s other cheekily titled Power, Sex, Suicide: Mitochondria and the Meaning of Life) and The Complex Cell (eukaryotic v prokaryotic cells) are germane to Sixth Form study of biology. I would, of course, argue that every chapter was relevant and incredibly useful in building up and linking together the big ideas in biology to create a schema for the subject. Perhaps the best epithet is from the aforementioned Matt Ridley “If Charles Darwin sprang from his grave, I would give him this fine book to bring him up to speed.”

  1. The Epigenetics Revolution by Nessa Carey

This is the book which smashes open the fascinating world of epigenetics. So you think DNA is a stable template that does not change? Think again. Carey describes plenty of inherently interesting examples, even if you weren’t interested in the underlying biology her writing would cause you to be absorbed in these well-written illustrations. One in particular is drawn from the Dutch Hunger Winter and suggests that malnourishment in early pregnancy increases the risk of obesity in not only the children of the malnourished mother, but her grandchildren too. Why? Obviously I would recommend you read Carey’s lucid and accessible narration to find out, but it is the seemingly magical interactions with the nucleotide bases that make up DNA itself that is epigenetics. To me the topic is the future of the subject and if students want to be part of this “revolution” this book is a must-read.

  1. Darwin’s Island by Steve Jones

Admit it, you’re thinking “Ah! The Galapagos Islands”. But no the title actually refers to Britain and is an outstanding account of the experiments Charles Darwin investigated in and around his home county of Kent. Jones writes with wit and enthusiasm, this craftsmanship is best illustrated by the fact that my favourite chapter is the final one entitled The Worm Crawls In which centres on soil.  In some hands thirty-two pages on this topic might drag, but once finished I was inspired to present an assembly on the humble earthworm. More than anything this book allows readers to see past the rightfully headline grabbing HMS Beagle voyage to cast an eye over the incredibly rich and detailed research that does not necessarily receive the credit it is due. As Jones points out Darwin’s visit to the Galapagos Islands only lasted five weeks, compared to the forty years working in Britain.

Part tow in this series of recommended reads is Another book all Biology A level students should read.

Save the date for SASFE! Assessment and Feedback Conference.

This is something I have been incredibly excited about and resisted the urge to tweet or blog details throughout the summer… Until now!

On Saturday 28th May 2016 St Albans School will host a day of ideas sharing on the topic of Assessment and Feedback in Secondary Education. This area is one that is currently very much at the forefront of education; the conference will gather together a variety of speakers from both the state and independent sectors to present on and discuss the matter. To reflect the collegiate and collaborative nature of the day it will be called a “Forum on Education” and features a huge quantity of high quality sessions. There will be three keynotes over the course of the day and I am very excited to reveal the line-up for the St Albans School Forum on Education (SASFE):

Jill Berry @jillberry102 – Former Head Teacher, now an educational consultant with a particular focus on helping new and aspiring Heads will be speaking about using feedback in leadership.

Martin Robinson @SurrealAnarchy – Educationalist and author, interested in developing Teaching and Learning by building on the tradition of grammar, dialectic and rhetoric. Martin will be introducing SASFE and opening up the discussion.

Ian Yorston @IanYorston – Director of Digital Strategy at Radley College and author of The Unreasonable Man blog will be examining the impact of technology on assessment.

In addition to the three keynotes the day will feature three seminars, with a choice of different themes. The confirmed sessions are listed below and boasts an equally stellar cast:

  • Dawn Cox @MissDCox – assessment in RE and beyond.
  • Scott Crawford @srcbio and Ben Weston – assessment in Science and beyond.
  • Nick Dennis @NickDennis – exploring the ‘testing effect’ to enable knowledge retention and deployment in the Key Stage 3 History classroom.
  • Emerge Education @emergelab – two to three “start-ups” will present their innovative ideas and be available for questions and discussion throughout the day.
  • Heather Fearn @HeatherBellaF – To be confirmed.
  • Andy Ford @awgford – How do you get students to reflect on feedback when there is no time?
  • Andy Gale @PocketMoneyTron – developing assessment for Key Stage Three Computing.
  • Jennifer Hart @Miss_J_Hart – assessing student progress in lessons.
  • Jessamy Hibberd @DrJessamy – will be providing programme notes on using feedback in mindfulness.
  • Emma Kell @thosethatcan – using assessment and feedback in post-doctoral research.
  • Cameron Palmer – assessment in MFL and beyond.
  • Dave Payne – looking at whole-school assessment, specifically level marking in Humanities at Key Stage 5.
  • Sam Pullan @MrSamPullan – using feedback in the performance management process.
  • Mumta Sharma @mumta_sharma – assessing practical work in Science.
  • Rob Tanner – developing a programme of assessment for the Higher and Extended Projects (HPQ and EPQ)
  • Drew Thomson @mrthomson – using assessment and feedback in middle-management.
  • …with more to be confirmed soon!

On the day itself a delightful array of refreshments  and a sumptuous lunch will be provided. Although the conference is strictly not-for-profit there will be a small charge for tickets. This will cover the expenses of running the day only. The cost is just £30, representing phenomenal value for money.

Keep an eye out for more information soon

#SASFE16

(Relatively) radical thoughts

Lately I have been entertaining some radical thoughts with regards to education. Please bear in mind that my mild mannered and conservative tendencies so this is *relative* radicalism. Two ideas in particular have recently been bobbing away in my mind. Both tenuously connected and both due to conversations with fellow teachers. I have tried to outline my thought process with each below. SPOILER ALERT I do not think either approach would actually work in practice, however, the debate and discussion of the theory is always interesting!

Thought 1 – Why aren’t timetables constructed according to how many pupils a teacher has?

Instead of a teacher having, for example, 24 periods out of 30 in a week regardless of their subject or average class size they in fact have an allocation based on how many pupils in total they teach. So a teacher of a, let’s say just for argument’s sake and nothing at all to do with me being a science teacher, core subject who has “full” class sizes would teach fewer periods than a teacher of a subject with “half” class sizes. The actual size of a “full” or “half” class obviously depends on the school but the principle is the same. Just to further labour the point here is my clumsy exemplar from Hogwarts Academy. Teacher A is a Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher and Teacher B takes Care of Magical Creatures. Let’s pretend further that Defence Against the Dark Arts is a core subject with classes of 32 pupils. Whereas Care of Magical Creatures, as an elective subject and with the practicalities of space and pupil to magical creature ratios, has class sizes of just 16. The proposal above would have Teacher A with just 12 timetabled periods out of 30 and, with one class per period, teaching 384 pupils. Meanwhile Teacher B has 24 timetabled classes but also, if we assume the same as before that each period is one class, teaches 384 pupils due to the beauty of Maths.

Why? Well firstly both teachers will be guiding, marking, assessing, feeding back to and teaching the same number of pupils. They will therefore have the same amount of time to focus on each individual in their classes. For example book marking would be for the same number of students, allowing the same level and quality of feedback to be given. What a splendid idea! Now to pick it apart…

Probably the main issue mentioned are the financial repercussions of employing full time teachers in core subjects to teach half the number of periods in a week. In fact there is probably no school that could afford to do this. Secondly there is the point that many core subjects have double lessons, which ruins the period allocation for a timetable that I was suggesting. Also many subjects that have “half” classes are due to the practical considerations such as health and safety (watch out for those unicorn horns) or small uptake as they are optional. Work carried out may well be in more detail or require more support and feedback. This line of thought is from a discussion during one of the ISQAM cluster days I attended this year, for further information about this course Andy Ford has penned an excellent summary of the Level 1 course. As stated in the opening paragraph of this post I do not believe this idea could work, but what I do like is how it makes me consider its benefits and also the specifics of the issue that make iota impossible to implement.

Thought 2 – Why can’t parents pick their child’s teachers?

This stems from the 5 Big Ideas That Don’t Work In Education article quoting Professor John Hattie, specifically point number 3 that school choice has no impact on learning. The proposed alternative is summed up in this quote “Hattie argues that if parents had the right to select the best teacher in a given school, that could truly be empowering. It would also be challenging to implement.” I picked up particularly on that second sentence; of course it would be “challenging to implement” as schools don’t work like that! However, yet again through discussion with a colleague I left my comfort zone to consider how it might work in independent education. Let’s call the colleague Tom* what follows is a summary of an email he sent me:

“Is parents picking teachers such a bad idea?

I don’t want it.

But it’s surely just the logic of independent education.

Schools could employ teachers on zero-hours contracts; parents probably still want a ‘package’ and schools would probably still insist on it to create an ethos. But in (say) Year 10 your fees get you eight or nine teachers. You pick ’em.

Teachers offer themselves at whichever level(s) they want. Set their own maximum class sizes and advertise them. Are paid according to uptake. Those in demand will do well; those not in demand will not be a drain on the school’s finances.”

I had not considered any of the above, having just closed my mind to anything but the orthodoxy of how I have always known education to work. While I still disagree with what was suggested (as, it must be stressed, did Tom but agent provocateurs are important in any thought-process) it once again made me think through the pros and cons. Why would it not work? Perhaps it would but what effect would it have on the staff body, not just in terms of working hours but also morale and wellbeing? Should that matter? I could keep on posing these weak hypothetical questions all night…

…instead I will conclude today’s rambled musings by reminding myself to always consider both sides of an argument. A simple technique to solidify the thought-process and contemplate what might be. It’s also a reassuring return to my mild-mannered and conservative leanings.

*He is called Tom (I would be hopeless at espionage) and he should definitely have his own blog; Tom is far more interesting than me and would generate many ideas to stimulate discussion and debate. Here’s hoping it will happen soon!

Tickety-boo

This post is a part response to this article detailing what one examiner thinks whilst ploughing through their marking. It is also time I put down why I subject myself to a summer of missed evenings to make endless ticks and crosses on someone’s hopes and dreams. Unlike the Guardian article I do not have anonymity, but that doesn’t stop me detailing why I do it (and it certainly is not for the money) and what we can learn from the process. Unlike the author I do not “try to guess…what kind of person” wrote the answers. And I have not been privy to hilarious responses, in fact I always think it a little sad that a student has veered so far away from fact as to blurt some form of nonsense.

I have written before about the uneasy marriage of subject understanding and examination technique – I am against exam teachnique, where students are taught how to just answer exam questions, like performing fleas in a flea-circus jumping through tiny hoops. At its worst teachnique is akin to looking through a monocular at the narrow confines of a specification point or sentence in a syllabus. However, understanding how an assessment works is vital and it is here that the lines blur. When does good teaching become unhealthy and blinkered teachnique-ing? (I’ve laboured this poor play on the two words enough so good to go out with a really pitiful attempt) Here ends this little tangent as this is meant to be about why I mark exam papers.

My top five reasons for being an examiner:

  1. Improve understanding of how an assessment works.
  2. See where common misconceptions occur for different topics.
  3. Plot “healthy” ways to address these misconceptions when teaching a topic.
  4. Improve/refresh/confirm subject knowledge.
  5. Meet with enthusiastic people who enjoy discussing the subject.

One of the best perks for this particular job is the moderation / standardisation day. It is great to meet up and indulge in some geekery. I genuinely find the time spent pawing over an examination paper and mark scheme in early June to be some of the most worthwhile CPD I take part in. As each year goes by I feel like I have another layer of understanding about not just how exams work, but also the subject too. Each year my knowledge of Biology increases as we discuss the finer minutiae of osmosis, transpiration or some other process. I have read calls for teachers to take an actual exam in their subject as part of the interview process or performance reviews and I actually quite like the idea. Surely we should be masters of our domains? I would add to this suggestion that we should also be examiners for our subjects too as a means of staying on top of and feeding back into the assessment system.

Beyond the obvious peeking inside the machinations of deciding a mark scheme, the actual process of marking is incredibly illuminating. The common mistakes that are seen from paper one to paper three-hundred and fifty also help me to understand where students go wrong in their understanding. This is where the Jaffa Cake conundrum really comes to the fore, it is plain to see when a student has a clear understanding of a topic and also when that clarity is lacking. Truly my advice to all students who sit a Biology exam is to

“write less, better”

There are definitely misconceptions common to Biology and, I would guess, some more uniform mistakes that I see that are also made in other subjects too. Below are three such errors founded on my school-based marking of end-of-topic tests as well as examination work. For me this advice is firmly in the good teaching camp and is more know thy assessment than the teachnique of knowing just a reduced and useless junket of knowledge to jump through a worthless hoop, but please let me know what you think. I live in fear that I will one day fall down on the wrong side of this particular tightrope.

List of three common errors and suggested quick fixes

Response that are totally barking up the wrong treeRead the full question! Actually read every word, read it again. Box the command word, underline the key words and glance at the mark allocation (BUG).

Candidate scribbles down everything they know about a topic mentioned in a question but has no specific focusAnswer the question! If the instructions above (RTFQ) have been followed the question will have been carefully read, twice, and the components highlighted in some way. Write down a response and when finished immediately read it through, checking it has actually answered the question.

Partial or no response – It is difficult to know why sections are left blank in an examination, there could well be reasons specific to the individual which an examiner would never know. In mocks and end-of-topic tests that is not the case, so I will base this “fix” on these internal assessments and be quite blunt with the solution. Learn the content. There is no substitute for knowledge and understanding, so put the hard yards in to revision and start learning! The real paper or final assessment is not the point that you want to find out you did not know enough.

My frustration is that there are students who have excellent subject knowledge and understanding who are being failed. This is not a complaint about challenging questions and I like the idea that “intelligence is knowing what to do when you don’t know what to do”, but this goes beyond that. At times I ponder this significance and there are points during the process when I have had my fill of marking with a deadline looming large. In fact in the past when I had finished my share I would tell myself “never again” only for the New Year to fall and my resolve to soften. Now I won’t even contemplate the question until January. I know there will be a time when I just don’t fancy doing it again, but for now the insights into understanding and learning that I gain from standing on the other side of the looking glass are too great and beneficial for me to ever consider it a waste of time. And there was also the occasion in a moderation meeting when we somehow managed to digress to discussing the definition of “producing wind”, but that story can wait for another time…

Know Thy Impact

Yesterday I had the good fortune of attending the Impact Conference 2015, which gathered a truly stellar cast of speakers together in London. Trying to measure the effect of interventions when it comes to teaching and learning is a fascinating area and one that I have come to via Professor John Hattie’s Visible Learning books, especially The Science of How We Learn. As a keen scientist (okay biologist) I am also interested in the idea that by observing something you can’t help but change it; certainly the Hawthorne Effect is a useful reminder that many interventions will work by just being a source of increased attention to detail and raised level of effort. So how do we sift the useful from the useless and how can we prevent the proliferation of educational homeopathy? These were just two of the questions I approached the conference with. Below is an outline of what I took from two of the excellent speakers on show, Professor Rob Coe and the aforementioned Professor John Hattie. Sadly once again I cannot rein in my inefficient verbosity (some might call it verbal diarrhoea) thus I will not be writing up the fantastic Sam Feedman and Philippa Cordingly or the hilarious genius that is Dr Ben Goldacre who all also spoke at the conference.

Professor John Hattie (talk I) I took a great deal from both of Professor Hattie’s talks, in particular challenging the assumption that just because something works it is good and therefore shouldn’t be changed. Reassured that there is very little you can do to decrease attainment (although interestingly labelling students has an effect size of -0.61) it was heartening to hear him say that in the UK success is all around us; it is impossible for everyone to be in PISA’s top 5. Certainly one of the main takeaways from this talk was a reemphasis on seeing learning through the eyes of the learner and using criteria from the learner’s point of view to measure impact. This was nicely summarised as “teachers who learn to be learners and students who learn to be teachers”. Another key point I eagerly agreed with was that the job of a teacher is not to help students realise their expectations but to help them “exceed what they think they will do”. During the first session Professor Hattie was also at pains to point out that he did not say that “teachers should not be researchers” in a recent interview. Instead he urged us to be “evaluators”, a not so subtle change in semantics. I actually fully agree with this. As teachers we are not trained in research so it seems a task for which we are not optimally suited. One might argue that there should be more emphasis on research on the ITT and other training courses, but my own opinion is that this would be detracting from learning the skills needed for actually teaching. However, that’s not to say that the area of research should not be revisited at some point in a teaching career.

Professor Rob Coe As joint author of What makes great teaching Professor Coe did not disappoint during his witty and

insightful talk. He made it clear that it isn’t enough to just know the effect sizes for certain interventions but, as teachers seeking to improve education, we should always evaluate what we do. I liked his point that using motivation to enhance attainment is putting the carriage before the horses in that convincing a student that your lesson is a “game they can win” to raise attainment will have the knock on effect of increasing interest and motivation. Professor Coe confirmed my belief that we do not allow enough time to elapse for an answer after asking a question, but extended this to waiting another 3-5 seconds after an answer to elicit even better responses. This is something I aim to do immediately, both with my classes and colleagues! The final point I’d like to pick up on from this part of the conference is the question “do we know a good lesson when we see one?” There is no doubt in my mind that grading of lessons is an absurd practice but it is wonderful to hear evidence to back this up:

  • When two teachers observe the same lesson and one grades it “Inadequate” the probability that the other will agree is just 10%. Even with thorough training in how to observe a lesson the probability increases to just 40%.
  • When an observer judges a lesson “Outstanding” the probability that the pupils are really making sustained, outstanding progress is just 5%.

Moral of this story? Do not grade lessons.

Professor John Hattie (talk II) Opening on a slightly controversial theme of “neurotrash” Professor Hattie argued that this area of educational research is interesting but does not actually get us anywhere. So often you can simply replace the term “brain” with “learner”.  Turning his sights next to the cause célèbre known as “twenty-first century skills” he suggested that by themselves they are irrelevant as they are devoid of content. In fact it is only where they come with content that you start to establish a transition from surface to deep learning. Indeed he spoke on how critical thinking and problem solving quite simply should not be taught outside of subjects. Another fantastic quote, this time on the importance of learning from failure, was “the second time it’s a mistake, the first time is a learning opportunity”.

I was introduced to a concept that I had not heard of before; James Nottingham’s Learning Pit, see here.This is another instant takeaway that I will look to explore and guide my classroom work. Again the words spoken by Professor Hattie were particularly pertinent in that “feedback feeds on error” and we must not stigmatise failure, instead encourage a thorough reflection and analysis of what went wrong and why. Overall I found yesterday’s conference to be a fantastic INSET / CPD opportunity and would recommend the January event to anyone interested in looking at ways to measure and evaluate impact. Additionally the discussions with other delegates will also be worth the cost of the ticket! Click me!

Header image taken from Wikimedia Commons.

An OESIS in the desert

Just before the end of the spring term I was lucky enough to be at the Online Education Symposium for Independent Schools held at the always marvellous Eton College. Having written before about EdTech I hope it is clear that I am nothing if not open minded to anything that can improve pupil learning whether pen and paper or ones and zeroes. And at OESIS there was a wealth of ideas, innovations and enthusiasm from the US and UK all aimed at helping learning. Within minutes of the conference starting Tony Little, outgoing and indomitable Headmaster of Eton, addressed one of the main issues in eLearning (and I paraphrase): how does it become a real positive for students in the UK, rather than a distraction? When will eLearning be recognised by UCAS and therefore not seen as a diversion from the examinations that form the basis of university entry? Pertinent points to ponder.

Online Education Symposium for Independent Schools

Image taken from OESIS Group website.

The conference itself was incredibly enlightening as a succession of US teachers, Heads of School and educationalists presented on how they made the most of technology to promote student learning. It seems across the pond there is a similar amount of innovation within this area than in the UK and also the same difficulties with separating benefit from cost (in the Hattie sense of the word as well as monetarily). Blending learning between “bricks and mortar” schooling and online courses seems the furrow being ploughed and one I heard a lot about over the course of the two days. Perhaps one of the most surreal moments was a session where we were shown around a virtual classroom for students to explore using avatars, answering questions from teacher-avatars also inhabiting this SIMS like habitat. Indeed during this session a huge smile was brought to many faces when, having been invited to join up and explore the space as an avatar, a delegate blocked a virtual-doorway so the presenter’s avatar could not leave a room! Conversely it was the human interactions over the course of the symposium that really helped me understand what sort of impact technology can have. I find this is always the way with conferences; chatting with other delegates is often worth the cost of the event alone.

The sessions I learned most from related to how to fully involve, engage and use staff to help guide the process of using EdTech. For example Sarah Hofstra, of the Hybrid Learning Consortium, outlined a few dos and don’ts during her session on SPOCs (Small Private Online Courses):

  • Do offer eLearning as an opportunity to increase the impact of teaching and improve student learning.
  • Do not force teachers to use eLearning.
  • Do be patient, wait for the second or third year to be a watershed moment where staff see the effect of using technology.
  • Do not push or pressure teachers into this way of working; it will be severely counterproductive to any aim to increase impact as staff “lash out”.
  • Do allow staff themselves to spread positivity about using technology, do not impose it from on high.
  • Do not necessarily expect it to work within existing frameworks, be prepared to create something completely different; at the most radical end of the spectrum think about using a non-traditional timetable.
  • Do emphasis the benefit of developing life-long learning, amongst students and staff.
  • Do allow students to embrace their own technologies (smartphones, tablets, etc) and be there to help guide their use.

Perhaps the statement that most caught my attention was that the US schools that have made the most progress and greatest success with eLearning have been those that paid their teachers to be more involved. E.g. paying extra for staff to spend their summer developing a course or topic online to then use in to complement their teaching. Additionally schools that successfully use EdTech hire firms, such as the Hybrid Learning Consortium, to actually come in to set up, train and manage the initiatives.

Another session that I found very illuminating was a panel involving a number of Heads of School who had successfully set up and built EdTech and blended learning into their curriculum. In particular the responses to the two questions below: 

  1. What would you do differently?
    • Have different expectations; not expecting uptake / effect too early and not assuming everyone is on board.
    • Allow more time to educate staff.
    • Allow teachers to still teach in the way that they want to.
    • Have the infrastructure in place and staff employed for instruction (one school had two full time “tech instructors” for training purposes, but others found they needed more).
    • Have a greater emphasis on not allowing precious skills, such as picking up a pencil, to be lost.
  2. If you started afresh at a new school what would you do?
    • Hire well! Employ open-minded and passionate teachers, ideally with a keen interest in EdTech.
    • Design creative and collaborative workspaces that not only enhance learning but bring the best out of any technology being used.
    • Use a non-traditional schedule for the school day, e.g. timetable based on blended learning rather than classes, labs, etc.
    • Ensure “messy classrooms” (e.g. student-driven, project based and tech-inspired group work) were encouraged.

In summary the two days really did have a profound effect on my understanding of using technology in a school. And this is without going into detail about the amazing Emerge Education lunchtime workshop where I was treated to presentations on using a RaspberryPi laptop from Pi-Top, the incredibly interesting OceanBrowser from Rodney Tamblyn and Cristian Dinu speaking about Learn Forward’s interactive textbook.

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Image taken from pixabay.

Image taken from pixabay.

This post uses a simple coding trick – if I can do it you can too!

Header image taken by Michael Smyth, 2011.

The Twenty Five Four Percents – TLAB15

My recollection of Saturday is a bit of a blur but for a third year running I was left wishing I had access to Hermione Granger’s Time Turner necklace as this would have been the only solution to the problem of choosing which workshops to go to. Sadly time travel was not an option, but the tweets on the day and subsequent blog posts (e.g. Cup of Teaching, Nikki Able, Those that can…, Kamil Trzebiatowski and many more) have given me a flavour of what was happening around Berkhamsted. The two workshops I attended were excellent and more on them in the future. However, this post seeks to be a brief summary of my own workshop for anybody who was unable to make it.

The title of the workshop was a play on Sir Clive Woodward’s statement that “Winning the Rugby World Cup was not about doing one thing 100% better, but about doing one hundred things 1% better”. The session was based on a post I wrote at the start of this academic year and at our little gathering I hoped to discuss ideas that I had picked up and adapted to use in my teaching. Nothing was earth shatteringly novel and I was certainly not breaking any new ground with my presentation having borrowed almost all of the ideas from elsewhere. In fact the best had been nicked with glee from the brilliant colleagues I have worked with, but as English workshop leader Mike Grenier put it in a tweet on the day “better to be a professional magpie than ostrich” and I made this point in my presentation with a few Pica pica flying on to my email address. However, I hoped that even if people took just one thing from the session they might refine and improve it further and then let me know how it went. This actually happened during the workshop with great ideas (much better than my own!) coming from the delegates listening. The hour time limit put paid to any ideas of discussing one hundred ideas, so twenty five four percents it was.

  1.  Backburner Bingo – students are given an incomplete key word grid that they fill in as the lesson goes on. Some of the key words should be novel and some can only be found out through listening to teacher / carrying out activities in the lesson. This is then completed in the background until someone yells out “BINGO!” and wins a prize. The key is to ensure that for some definitions there is no one correct answer to draw pupils into a discussion. However, Backburner Bingo can become a bit of a distraction, especially if your pupils enjoy the competitive element!
  2. What’s in the box? – simple activity where you unveil a box in the classroom that has something inside it (although often this can be imaginary or hold something that could not possibly be contained). By giving a series of clues students then try to guess what is in the mystery box. E.g.
    • Alive
    • Has a backbone
    • Venomous
    • Has fur
    • Lays eggs

With the answer being a duck-billed platypus. Sometimes I intersperse these clues throughout the whole lesson, which is what I attempted during the workshop. Again this can be used to elicit discussion. Certainly my demo did this with the question of whether round was the best word to describe a Jaffa Cake; probably not and disc was suggested as a better alternative!

  1. Patience – when asking a question do not expect an instant response, but allow a good 8-10 seconds before actually looking for answers. I used a tortoise moving slowly across my slide to illustrate this point, but often just count to ten in my head. This was something I picked up from The Multiplier Effect and also use it in departmental meetings.
  2. Random name generator – using the settings on PowerPoint to allow a random name to be picked from a class list, which led to…
  3. Random command word generator – pupils have to create a question with one of the exam question command words (e.g. describe, explain, calculate, etc), which led to…
  4. Random verb generator – created by a colleague, Cécile Coudert, in the Languages Department who customised it to test students on whether to use être or avoir. In fact anything could be plugged into it and a couple of people told me they did similar activities with their classes.
  5. Revision bookmarks – another colleague, Rob Tanner, has created bookmarks with a proposed revision schedule for students to use, as tweeted by Mumta Sharma on the day. The great thing about these are that they act as a constant reminder that pupils should be taking responsibility for their learning early in the school year (e.g. for GCSE groups the schedule starts in February). Again this idea was further improved by the suggestion that students could use a hole punch when they had covered an area or completed revising a topic.
  6. Six words – students use just six words to summarise a key word, term or process. E.g. in one class an AS student came up with “globular protein, specific complementary active site” to describe an enzyme. During the session I actually asked people to come up with their own to describe TLAB15, having had a little time to reflect on this task my best effort would be: whirlwind of enthusiasm and idea sharing.
  7. Three pictures – students summarise a key word, term or process in three pictures. On the day Andy Ford tweeted his own three pictures to sum up the day.
  8. Trips for further interest – my colleague, Tom Robinson, has started to organise and run voluntary stretch and challenge trips on the weekend for students to come along to if they wish. We have been to the London Natural History Museum and its offshoot in Tring and to Downe House in Kent. Although this does require the usual paperwork we have found them to be fun days that help to eke out the interest and passion from the Sixth Formers who come to them.
  9. The Jaffasaurus – Again something I have stolen from a colleague, Dave Payne, and I have written before about “the Jaffa Cake conundrum” and will only briefly outline it. By writing less, better students can ensure that even if their tired and overworked teacher / examiner marking their end-of-topic test /exam has run out of their favourite biscuits they will still be awarded a mark. This idea led onto…
  10. RTQRead The Q The aim is to eliminate irrelevant detail and ensure students actually address the question when writing an answer. Again leading to…
  11. ATQAnswer The Q Do students actually answer the question in front of them, or do they try to answer one that they have seen before? This “four percent” and number 12 were also discussed in my previously mentioned post. However, just before the day itself a brilliant former colleague, Lucy Smyth, told me she uses BUG with her classes to a similar effect:
    • Box the command word
    • Underline the key words
    • Glance at the marking allocation
  12. Teacher Tips For Success – pinned up on our Biology notice board and at various points around the department are laminated posters with each teacher’s top tips for exam success. The three subtitles are:
    • Best piece of revision advice
    • Most common mistakes seen in exam papers
    • If I could give one piece of advice to someone taking an exam it would be

All of these have the purpose of making students look back and review past mistakes and (hopefully) change their practice in future.

  1. Observation (of the Nation) – as HoD I have always enjoyed carrying out lesson observations; not for the form filling in, but for picking up new ideas and activities to use. Therefore the fifteenth four percent was a hearty recommendation to go out and observe colleagues departmentally and beyond. In fact instead of a flashy INSET course in some soulless hotel function room I believe people would gain much, much more from going to another school for the day. Not only observing lessons but soaking in the whole culture of the place. Interestingly both the eighth and ninth “four percent” were picked up from just this process; my colleague, Tom Robinson, spent a day at Westminster School and came back brimming with enthusiasm and a Six Words, Three Pictures worksheet.
  2. Lesson Study – this is a natural continuation of point 15 and something we are just setting up at the moment, forming triads of colleagues working together to plan and deliver lessons. There is lots of information all over the internet about this ancient Japanese teacher improvement process. We are lucky enough to be working with the University of Hertfordshire to set ours up. What I am particularly interested in is how to make it sustainable and more than a flash in the pan… Any thoughts are most welcome!
  3. The Triptych Learning Conversation – a new (and still currently being refined) model of observing lessons. The emphasis is on having a proper conversation between the observer and observee both pre and post observation. This is again taken straight from the brain of someone much cleverer than myself and on Saturday it was a real pleasure to meet Dawn Cox whose excellent blog post inspired me to start designing a document to improve the whole experience of observations. More on this from me in the future.
  4. Subject selfies – to some the selfie is the very embodiment of vulgar egotism. However, many departments can use them as a way of promoting discussion of their subject and for this reason I think that they can be a great way of engaging students outside of the classroom. As much as the selfies of teachers by an ancient monument or overlooking the crater of a volcano makes for a great departmental display, it is when the students themselves engage with the process that the idea really takes off. A colleague in the Geography department, Laura Andrews, has made a super display of “geo-selfies” with contributions from both the staff and students; there are selfies from the peak of Kilimanjaro to overlooking Sugarloaf Mountain.
  5. Learning audits – this is as much about terminology as it is good practice. Any form of work check or book scrutiny should be used as a means of sharing good practice as much as it is about accountability. The fact that terms such as “book look” or “learning audit” get this point across a lot better than the alternative nomenclature is no surprise!
  6. Further reading – encouraging students to read beyond the specification, with a recommended book of the term, e.g. Life Ascending by Nick Lane (as an aside this is a fantastic accompaniment to A level Biology, I cannot recommend it highly enough!). What I forgot to mention on the day is that we now try to source these recommended titles from our pupils, so posters go up in classrooms with the phrase “recommended by Stew Dent, U6RJL”. This point was followed by the need to read beyond the subject ourselves as educators and to take an interest in books to improve our teaching. As one delegate pointed out this does not necessarily need to be in book form anymore and TED talks are an excellent source of innovation.
  7. Twitter – voyeur is the wrong word, but I am certainly someone who likes to listen / read what is going on around the country and this is the place to do it! On occasion I tweet some inane opinions, but mainly this is for me to stay in touch with the great minds across the country.
  8. Blogging – similarly I stumble upon lots of excellent and highly sensible ideas via blog links on twitter. However, my main point here is that by writing a blog yourself it gives you a chance to properly reflect. Certainly writing this has made me think very carefully about what actually happened on Saturday and how I might improve on my presentation in the future. Therefore I would encourage others to blog to help distil and refine ideas and allow others to gain from the experience. In fact look no further than workshop attendee Paul Gillam’s excellent blog on Edexcel IGCSE Biology, perfect for high achieving students and teachers alike!
  9. Formal idea sharing sessions – immediately after TLAB13 I set up a formal cross-curricualr group that met to discuss ideas in my own school. It was not compulsory, no-one told others how to do things, instead it allowed for colleagues to sit down and actually chat. Something that we never quite seem to find the time to do.
  10. Collaboration – as mentioned, I can take very little credit for any of these ideas. But that is the point of teaching, we should not always be looking to reinvent the wheel but rather improve and refine what is around us. Our collaboration allows up to improve the one hundred one percents and we do this without consciously thinking about every time we help or pas son an activity. As the thirtieth POTUS said “I not only use the brains I have, I use all the brains I can borrow”.
  11. Failure –we are very keen to let all and sundry know how important it is for students to fail (again a previous post makes this point even more explicitly), but as teachers we should not be ashamed of failure either. Beautifully this point was made by Neil Atkin in his superb workshop earlier in the day.

As a final note, I would be very happy to share any of my resources or the presentation itself. Just contact me and we can be part of the collaboration I was just typing about. Or even better please, please, please let me know how you use and improve these ideas. I am serious when I say I am already looking for my next twenty five four percents.

Header image taken with permission from @TLABerkmasted.

The TLABoratory

Next Saturday sees Berkhamsted School hold its third Teaching, Learning and Assessment conference (TLAB15). I have been lucky enough to attend the two before and both times came away awash with ideas and, more importantly, renewed enthusiasm for my work. Each visit has benefitted me in numerous incalculable ways; from my classroom teaching to decisions made at a departmental and even whole-school level. With tickets now sold out and the event just eight days away I feel the familiar professional curiosity of what might unfold. Based on previous experience I am sure to be in for a real treat… In fact one of the main problems I have faced each time is whose workshop to attend. However, away from the key note speeches and conundrum of which workshops to go to, I am also looking forward to the chance of chatting with everyone there. Over the last year there have been so many tweets and blogs that have influenced my work that I cannot wait to actually speak with the people who have written them.

...and to think they said this design wooden work

…and to think they said this design wooden work (image taken with permission from Nick Dennis

Just like my dilemma of choosing a workshop to attend, there will be so many people there who share my interest and, dare I say it, passion for teaching and learning that there is no way I could speak to them all. To some extent this is what I would term the laboratory of collective enthusiasm and this is the real driving force of the teaching profession. The fact that people are prepared to give up a Saturday to further their own practice and feedback to their place of work. There are plenty of displays of this dedication across the country at various events. However, I single out TLAB as it just happens to be the one that properly sparked my interest in teaching and learning and therefore I owe it a great deal.

I remember being in the audience of the keynote speeches and participating in the workshops of TLAB13 and thinking: THIS. IS. INCREDIBLE. Swiftly following this day I asked to set up a Teaching, Learning and Assessment Group (TLAG – imitation is the greatest form of flattery!) at my own school and started co-ordinating a cross-curricular ideas sharing forum. In many ways recreating the TLABoratory like conditions of endeavour, curiosity and openness. This group has been operating for the last two and a half years and is a fantastic conduit for creativity and collaboration. Yes, we do not set the world on fire with what we discuss, but the accumulation of small gains is very much what education is about.

This brings me nicely onto some shameless self-publicity *pretends to hang head in shame*. I have the very enjoyable task of actually delivering a workshop this time around. The concept of this workshop is to look at the small margins of improvement – refining what works well to make it even better. The session is brazenly called “The Twenty Five Four Percents” in homage to Sir Clive Woodward and his one hundred one percents. I hope to share twenty five ideas that might enhance learning and teaching in the classroom and beyond, one hundred would have been pushing it in the 50 minutes provided! Please be forewarned, I will not be delivering earthshattering advice and no doubt a lot of what I say people do already, but most likely twice as well. In fact I fully admit that most of the ideas have roots (pun intended bearing in mind the conference logo) elsewhere. However, having the chance for some open discussion and ideas sharing is all part of the laboratory that is teaching and if I can give something, anything, back then it will be my honour to do so.

And at this point I must return to my slideshow… I have a presentation to plan!

Header image taken with permission from Berkamsted School website.