Category Archives: teaching

Tomatoes and Pens: Revision Ideas

Despite what one of my colleagues might think (don’t ask!) the Pomodoro technique is a way of helping focus attention over a short period of time. It helps to break up uninteresting or hard work, not all people need to use it but it can be a valuable tool for students overwhelmed by revision and something that I would advise they at least try. Essentially you set a timer for 25 minutes and start working – during this time there should be no access to phones, internet, talking or any other distractions – once the timer starts you are on the clock until the 25 minutes is up. There is much more detail about this process in A Mind for Numbers by Barbara Oakley, which I would highly recommend. And if you are into R2D2 you’ll want to read the mention at the bottom of Nick Dennis’ post.

Having spoken to my Upper Sixth about this method since September I finally made them work in this way during a lesson on Monday. After five minutes of setting out the task and ensuring everyone had what they needed, we set off on 25 minutes of focused revision. Everyone was engrossed in their work, actively revising by making resources, answering questions or testing their knowledge. Following this period of deep concentration I encouraged students to get up and take a stroll around the classroom. After this short break we reconvened and students were then free to work as they wished, most had questions to ask. Either I answered them or they came to agreement in discussions. Once again everyone was on task. They felt this exercise was very productive and something they will try independently in their own time.

The Pomodoro technique has become one of my favoured ways of working for many tasks throughout the day. However, I do not always stick to working for just 25 minutes. Sometimes I find that I am on a roll and want to finish the report or marking I am working on. Very rarely do I ever end early. Once again I would suggest that this is not necessarily a method for everyone, but definitely worth trying. I find it most helpful during those odd periods where I feel listless and lack the drive to “eat my frogs” (to use another term from A Mind for Numbers). And if you are wondering why it is called Pomodoro, this is due to the use of a tomato-shaped kitchen timer by Francesco Cirillo, the originator of the idea.

Monday’s lesson was a double, so after the Pomodoro task I handed out the old staple of revision lessons – a past exam paper. Once again I had a particular trick that I wanted students to use to help with the revision process. It has been something I have urged them to do but thought that modelling it in a lesson would help pupils see the benefits. I call this method the three pen technique, so called because you need three different coloured pens (as I type this I realise that requiring pens and the need for them to be of different hues has stirred up a lot of discussion in the past. I suggest you read this surreally brilliant blog by Whatonomy as a way of catching up on this). E.g. blue, green and red. Students would complete the paper under the following conditions:

  1. Using the blue pen and under timed exam conditions, answer all questions on the paper.
  2. Using the green pen and with the help of notes, textbooks or a classmate, add to the answers given in step 1 and finish the paper if necessary.
  3. Using the red pen use a mark scheme to add further details to the paper.

 

Come revision time I have used this technique for a while and in a number of different environments. Here are some examples of step 2 and step 3 from a student on course for a high grade:

 

Step 2:

2

Step 3:

3b

And another step 3:

3a

Should students complete a series of papers in this way it is interesting to see how the proportions of each colour change. In many ways this acts as a crude diagnostic test to see why students are losing marks. E.g. Lots of blue and red but little green can show a lack of understanding or poor choices of selecting information from their notes (or indeed poor notes to work from). Similarly a lack of blue denotes a student has not committed to memory the key aspects of a topic. It is easy to see how the combinations can help a teacher infer where a student is in terms of their revision; therefore making suggestions to help the student better prepare for their examination. It is also easy to discuss with a student how they might take this way of working as an opportunity to self-assess where they need to target revision. Therefore helping a little with the journey towards independent learning.

So there we have it. Two simple ideas that have been around for ages but can help students as they embark on revision. Both have the potential of making a student more independent and go a little further to taking ownership of their revision. And if the pen is mightier than the sword, imagine how mighty three pens are!

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The Dunning-Kruger Effect

What links an inept bank robber, Charles Darwin and two Cornell University psychologists? Read on to find out!

David Dunning and Justin Kruger describe the Dunning-Kruger effect as a cognitive bias of both unskilled and highly skilled individuals. What I find most interesting is the differentiation between how the bias affects the skilled versus the unskilled.

  • Those that are relatively unskilled are biased towards thinking that they are better at a task than they actually are.
  • Whereas highly skilled individuals underestimate their competencies, instead thinking that a task that they find easy will be easy for everyone, regardless of how objectively difficult it might be.

This is aptly summed up in the statement below:

“The miscalibration of the incompetent stems from an error about the self, whereas the miscalibration of the highly competent stems from an error about others”

(Kruger and Dunning, 1999)

This topic is such a huge source of fascination to me. One reason in particular is that it is by no means a new phenomenon. Although given its Dunning-Kruger moniker in only 1999, scientists have been aware of it well before. For example the extraordinarily talented Charles Darwin commented in the Descent of Man that

“Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge”

(Darwin, 1871)

This covers precisely the bias of unskilled individuals; they think they know something exactly because they do not know it well enough (feel free to swap know for understand  or vice versa at any point in this post, depending on what side of that particular precipice you stand). Darwin goes on to say

“It is those who know little…who positively assert that this or that problem will never be solved”

(Darwin, 1871)

Or, less eloquently put, individuals without the skills to understand an issue will often by the first to say it is intractable. Even more interestingly we are all prone to some degree of agnosognia, or deficit of self-awareness, about ourselves. If you are not very good at something then often it can be impossible to know you are not very good at it!

“The skills you need to produce a right answer are exactly the skills you need to recognize what a right answer is”

(Morris, 2010)

From a personal perspective there are obvious exceptions that come to my mind; I know I am not very good at singing or speaking Russian. There is no false sense of expertise in these fields! But my concern is the things that I think I am good at… Perhaps my confidence in thinking I am good at explaining the semi-conservative replication of DNA is totally misplaced? Perhaps it is a combination of the Dunning-Kruger effect twinned with “The Curse of Knowledge” (another closely linked cognitive bias, this time held by people who know a great deal on a subject and assume others know as much causing issues when they try to explain concepts)?

At times in my teaching career I have had the immodesty to think that I am good at helping students learn in general. Reverse Imposter Syndrome* might be the culprit?! I am an impostor thinking that I understand a topic, simply because I do not have the capability to realise I do not understand it. Or as Dunning put it perfectly:

“We are all just confident idiots”

(Dunning, 2014)

There have certainly been watershed moments in my time as a teacher. When looking back I have realised that certain techniques or strategies didn’t really work. Certainly reading literature on learning has allowed me to see how I can refine and improve my practice. With each epiphany helping to shed a little more of my Dunning-Kruger outlook with the realisation that I did not know enough or understand what I was trying to do to actually evaluate it properly. I might venture to suggest most teachers are subject to a little of the Dunning-Kruger effect at one time or another. We are all, and this is by no means a criticism, “confident idiots” some of the time. Conversely we also fit the bill as unconfident geniuses* at times too. 

What of the inept bank robber mentioned at the start? This is perhaps the reason I find the Dunning-Kruger effect so interesting! The story goes that a man named McArthur Wheeler inspired the eponymous psychologists. Perhaps recalling the childhood activity of using lemon juice as invisible ink, he rubbed it into his face then set off to rob two banks. To his astonishment he was arrested shortly afterwards, police simply watched the CCTV footage from each bank. The height of stupidity one might argue? Yet this was not a spur of the moment decision; Wheeler had planned this novel approach, testing the lemon juice’s effectiveness by taking a photograph. The fact that the Polaroid picture in question was empty should not surprise us, it is thought that the camera had not been set up to face him. Wheeler fitted the bill of an unskilled individual so well that he could not even take his own photograph correctly! Or in more blunt terms:

“Wheeler was too stupid to be a bank robber [so] perhaps he was also too stupid to know that he was too stupid to be a bank robber”

(Morris, 2010)

*Recently there have been suggestions that the Dunning-Kruger effect leads to Imposter Syndrome, suggesting that feelings of inadequacy are due to the skilled thinking what they do is easy, thus devaluing the skill. This is exactly the reverse of the “confident idiot”, e.g. the unconfident genius.

Sources:

Darwin, Charles, 1871, “The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex”, John Murray, Introduction, p3.

Dunning, David, 2014, “We Are All Confident Idiots”, Pacific Standard, Tuesday 27th October 2014.

Kruger, Justin; Dunning, David, 1999, “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments”, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, vol. 77 (6), p1121–34

Morris, Errol, 2010, “The Anosognosic’s Dilemma: Something’s Wrong but You’ll Never Know What It Is (Part 1)”, New York Times, Sunday 20th June, 2010.

Writing less, better. TMLondon

I love the phrase “writing less, better” and have blogged on this idea before. Indeed the Jaffa Cake Conundrum was the title of my presentation at TMNQTHerts in October. Since then I have tried to develop simple and effective ways to encourage students to respond efficiently to written tasks. I am still amazed at how much student written work is just spurious fluff with no real meaning. Too often the task instructions are rewritten, wasting time for both the student writing the work and teacher feeding back.

My presentation at TMLondon looked at five ways of encouraging students to ditch the bluster and hone in on the task. Below is the list of ideas, perhaps you recognise the acronyms?

  1. Don’t rush! RTQ
  2. Don’t repeat the task instructions! ATQ
  3. Don’t use pronouns! Write names, key words, etc
  4. Don’t panic with exam questions! BUG
  5. Don’t overcomplicate! KISS

RTQ = Read The Question, or RTFQ*. Don’t assume you know what the task is about, read instructions carefully and ask if unsure.

ATQ = Answer The Question, or ATFQ*. Having read, and clarified where necessary, the instructions start writing something that is directly relevant and meets the success criteria.

What is the meaning of this?! Well, since you ask, it’s a pronoun used to identify a specific person or thing close at hand. What “this” certainly is not, is a good way of demonstrating a good grasp of a topic or task. By far the better course of action would be to use key words and terminology to make a more lucid and effective piece of work.

BUG = Box the command word, Underline the key words, Glance at the mark allocation. To avoid losing marks in test questions use BUG as a way of structuring a response. It surprises me that some A level students do not know the difference between describe and explain!

KISS = Keep It Simple, Stupid. This principle was apparently used by the US Navy and Lockheed aerospace (thanks Wikipedia!). Why try to make things more complicated? Sure there might be complex processes that need to be learned, but making the simple complicated is an easy trap to fall into.

KISS leads directly to the idea of “intellectual impostors”, or more accurately Intellectual Impostures by Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont. Richard Dawkins’ excellent book review Postmodernism disrobed in the scientific journal Nature was brought to my attention by Tim Jefferies in a tweet about UCAS personal statements. He observed that some students overcomplicate to try to appear more intelligent; this is something I can verify too. The contrast between a clear and lucid literary style to the passage below from Felix Guattari could not be starker:

“We can clearly see that there is no bi-univocal correspondence between linear signifying links or archi-writing, depending on the author, and this multireferential, multi-dimensional machinic catalysis. The symmetry of scale, the transversality, the pathic non-discursive character of their expansion: all these dimensions remove us from the logic of the excluded middle and reinforce us in our dismissal of the ontological binarism we criticised previously.”

As Dawkins states, “an intellectual impostor with nothing to say” would not cultivate a literary style that was clear or lucid (Dawkins, R (1998) Postmodernism disrobes, Nature, vol. 394, pp141-143). Instead they create something that is quite the opposite as a kind of snake oil to obfuscate. Returning this train of thought to our students, although we should be encouraging flair in writing it should not be at the expense of clarity. An easy strategy a pupil could take to check they have not fallen into this trap is simply to read the written work out aloud. Prose that a student might think reads articulately on the page can often be byzantine, convoluted and thorny when properly analysed. This is where KISS comes to the fore!

I hope you enjoyed this post and or the TMLondon presentation. If so you might be interested in a secondary education conference on Saturday 28th May in St Albans. Tickets can be bought for just £30 through TicketSource.  Book now

Full information can be found here.

*The F stands for Full!

UPDATE:

Thanks to the wonderful Leon Cych you can now watch the two minute nano-presentation from the night itself here

Header image courtesy of canva.com

The Assessment Working Party’s Findings

Since June I have been convening a working party to discuss assessment. Originally meetings were wide-ranging and took in plenty of discussion and ideas of what did not work. It is a precious balance between focusing a discussion and allowing a free-flowing debate to occur. Certainly our first meeting was characterised by the latter, but at the expense of actually getting anywhere in terms of a tangible outcome to help student learning in the school. However, as we met more regularly our agenda became more focused and something quite spectacular happened; we came up with a detailed and concrete proposal to take to the next level.

Assessment is a huge tranche of teaching, but as we honed into what we did at our school it became apparent that the working party would concentrate our thoughts on what happens after a piece of work has been assessed or marked. It was clear that the standard of marking was very high across departments. However, a common issue was that students did not make enough of the extensive comments, formative assessment and feedback given to them, whether written or verbal. Often it was lost in the maelstrom of comparing performances and grades, or at times completely ignored.

Throughout the process we had three main pillars of thought that we would bear in mind for any proposal:

  • It must directly benefit student learning.
  • It must avoid a “one size fits all” approach and be flexible enough for different departments to use successfully, but have common elements to tie the system together from one subject to the next.
  • It will not increase teacher workload, if it requires more time then time must be found from elsewhere in the school’s assessment programme.

Our proposal is essentially a process of formative evaluation, encouraging the view that learning goes beyond the end of a topic in a scheme of work. In that manner it gives a nod in the direction of mastery learning, with the idea that students are ever building up their skills, knowledge and understanding of a subject. It also looks to focus on what students can do rather than what they cannot; a bank of “I can…” statements are included to highlight the progress made as well as helping to focus the next steps to take. There would be blank spaces for students to add their own “I can…” statements, further tailoring the self-assessment. The process can be summarised in the text and pictures below and would take place on a half-termly basis (NB this example is very much knowledge based as it is coming from a clearly defined Biology topic).

  1. On completing a piece of work, topic or area students read through a bank of “I can…” statements associated with skills, knowledge or understanding of that work – ideally there would be no mark or grade associated with the work. Students then rank their competence as either 1 – consistently excellent 2 – good or 3 – inconsistent (this did raise the wonderful question of whether we could use emojis for this purpose). The bank of “I can…” statements are presented in the same format from subject to subject but their contents are subject-specific.Step 1
  2. Students use the information from step one to set a target to work towards, at the same time setting a date to review progress. The teacher comments on the target and signs the sheet.Step 2

Steps one and two would be presented on the same document.

  1. In the next half-term students are given a second self-assessment document, deciding how much progress they have made towards their target using a four point scale of None, A little, Nearly there and Got it! Pupils also need to decide the next steps they will take with regards to the target. They also link this work to the School Values, circling those that are appropriate to the work they have completed.Step 4
  2. They then go on to rank themselves with a new set of “I can…” statements (or indeed some of the same from before depending on the subject) relating to the new piece of work or topic.Step 4
  3. Students use the information from step four to set a target to work towards, at the same time setting a date to review progress. The teacher takes in the self-assessment document, commenting on progress made towards the original target and also on the new target.Step 4 and 5

Steps three, four and five would be presented on the same document.

Each department would have free reign to decide the content of the self-assessment document, however, it would need be presented in the same way with the same style and look (see pictures above). This will help to create a common framework that ties the system together so that while the content differs from subject to subject pupils will understand the process and become accustomed to the routine of reflecting on feedback. We proposed that the system be used with our Year 9 classes in September 2016 and that the system would then be reviewed and refined as feedback from teachers using it came back to us (self-assessment of the self-assessment, very meta).

Did we stick to our three pillars of thought?

  • It must directly benefit student learning. I hope so! Encouraging reflective practice in students, tasking them to show independent resourcefulness and motivation can only be a good thing. As mentioned earlier this does drill down into the concept of mastery and hopes to give rise to an appreciation that learning is not consigned to individual lessons, pieces of work or topics, but is rather a continuous process that does not sit in defined and discrete blocks of time.
  • It must avoid a “one size fits all” approach and be flexible enough for different departments to use successfully, but have common elements to tie the system together from one subject to the next. With HoDs having a free hand to decide what is included within the “I can…” statements it avoids being an unworkable centralised system that will ultimately fail to deliver. By ensuring the documentation looks the same and is formatted identically it gives a common framework to the process.
  • It will not increase teacher workload, if it requires more time then time must be found from elsewhere in the school’s assessment programme. Although there is a definite set up cost to deciding the content of the self-assessment document, time has been set aside in a future INSET day for this purpose. Additionally the self-assessment takes the place of a homework on the homework timetable; teachers would collect in and comment on the students’ targets in place of marking their books for that week too.

Some self-criticisms and unanswered questions are listed below. These are issues we are still considering and hope to answer by the time we launch the self-assessments in September 2016.

Q: Where will the self-assessment document reside? Will it be in folder, books or an electronic copy?

Q: How will the self-assessment link to the pastoral system? Can Form Tutors access it to help guide and inform their tutoring of students?

Q: How will it link with reporting? Is this something we would encourage to be shared with parents / guardians?

Q: How do we link it from one year to the next?

What next?

Having shared our findings at a recent Head of Departments meeting we will be given a slot at INSET to present our findings and detail the proposal. Some of the day has also been given over to starting to plan and create self-assessments in departmental meetings. Exemplars will be provided from a range of subjects (Biology, Drama, English, French, Geography and Maths). The aim is then for us to launch in September 2016, informing students of the system through an assembly before they receive their first self-assessment and discussing with parents via written communication and an information evening.

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

A quote that inspires me

Today was Day 20 of the 21 Days of July #teacher5aday initiative, to tweet a quote that keeps you motivated. The quote I have selected is based on Marianne Williamson’s famous passage from her book A Return to Love. It is pinned to the wall of my form room and I often refer to its principles with my pupils. It reminds me of this great post by Nick Dennis quoting Thoedore Roosevelt. Coincidentally Nick re-tweeted a link to this post earlier in the week and is, I know, a fan of the film Coach Carter that also uses the quote . As the contrarian that I am, I have edited the original wording of the quote. Below is my version:

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine. It’s not just in some of us; it is in everyone. And as we let our own lights shine, we unconsciously give other people the permission to do the same.”