Tag Archives: education

Learning Relationships: SASFE17


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.


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.”

Book now

EXTENDED IDEA: Sex and long-termism

I’m trying to be a little more innovative in my posts, see Extended ideas.

By sex, I mean male or female*. Apologies if the title has been clickbait to potentially something very different.

Recently I have been thinking about sonographers and ultrasounds, specifically those undertaken in health authorities that allow pregnant women the chance to find out if their bump is a little boy or girl during the 20 week scan. While I am aware that such a practice always comes with the caveat that it is not 100% accurate, I wondered just how accurate it is. Does the sonographer keep a record of how many foetuses they correctly detail the sex of? Or are they just a point of prediction with no way of following up whether the information provided was correct? My thoughts are that they never actually find out whether they are right or wrong. Why would they unless they encounter the mother again?

I wonder how many parents have an extra surprise on the arrival of their little bundle of joy? And what is the training in identifying the sex of foetuses? I might guess they use still and moving library images from 20 week scans (and dare say it would be easy to find out the exact details of the training, but that’s not quite the point of this extended-idea). It would be a very interesting experience to be expecting a girl and then finding you are welcoming a little boy into the world, or vice versa.

My rather loose point is that it is sometimes very difficult to see how something one does actually turns out in the long run if there is no-one looking at outcomes much further down the line. Whether it’s the accuracy of determining sex of a foetus or anything else. For example, how do we actually know that anything a teacher does actually affects a pupil or class or year group? More importantly, what happens 5, 10, 20 years down the line? Do you produce “lifelong learners” or is it just a trendy thing to say? Longitudinal studies with regular follow ups can help identify trends or patterns, but are very much for the long-term. It seems to me too many people in education are concerned solely by the short-term. And don’t get me started on association football managers, the epitomy of short-termism! Seeing how things pan out isn’t necessarily the same as letting things drift, but perhaps this is the problem? More thinking (by me!) is required on this topic, but an interesting chain of thought nevertheless.

*Last term I was asked to present to my school’s Diversity Society on sex and gender. A fascinating area, but for me sex is biological – due to chromosomes and therefore primary and, to some extent, secondary sexual characteristics – whereas I believe gender is a social-construct and inherently subjective.  However, chromosomal and developmental abnormalities is a topic to itself. As is gender and I am certainly open to interpretations that are non-binary. Both are perhaps best revisited in further detail in the future.

Teaching and Learning Observations

One of the duties of my role is to “undertake an extensive programme of lesson observations”. This is a task I greatly enjoy and not an altogether new assignment. In my former life as a Head of Department lesson observations were an annual duty as part of Performance Reviews. However, I was always left dissatisfied with the focus on accountability rather than the craft of the classroom. Certainly more time was taken up with the nuts and bolts of performance management than having a proper discussion on teaching and learning. Ultimately this would often leave both parties involved in the process a little short-changed when it comes to actually reflecting on the observed lesson; more a case of box ticking than profound contemplation.

Therefore it was a very happy coincidence that the eminently sensible Dawn Cox was at hand with advice. Last year she blogged on how lesson observations were often divorced from what really mattered. This was just as I was coming to similar conclusions and yet here it was in black and white, with a clarity and directness my own thoughts lacked. Dawn highlighted a list of some of the worst points of lesson observations. Some of these points I could identify having occurred when I have been observed and also, more distressingly, some mistakes I have made when observing as a HoD. To improve what is a vital and omnipresent part of teaching she suggested several ideas; these got me thinking about what lesson observations should really focus on.

Before I describe and explain my adaptations of Dawn’s ideas it should be pointed out that as Head of Teaching and Learning my observations are completely decoupled from performance management. I go out of my way to make these as stress-free as possible, including the option to say no to the observation (most colleagues are pleased to invite me in…I think!) and no need to provide any planning or paperwork. Listed below are three distinct stages that my ideal teaching and learning observation would comprise:

  1. Pre-observation – teacher and observer sit down to agree and discuss a lesson to observe. This discussion would cover what the teacher of the lesson would like to take from the observation. The focus would therefore come from the observee / teacher not the observer. Alternatively the observation could have a more general focus, if the observee wishes.
  2. Observation – this would be recorded in the narrative style, listing actions that have occurred during the lesson. This objective viewpoint would then form the main stimulus for stage three of the observation. Additionally, and with the observee’s permission (agreed during the pre-observation meeting), student work would be looked at and specific students spoken to during the lesson in an attempt to glean more information.
  3. Post-observation – a formal meeting between the teacher and observer. The observer would act both as a sounding board as well as bringing constructive ideas to the discussion, sharing the narrative record of the lesson and any other relevant information.

Time. It always comes back to time with any new idea in teaching. In practice I had to almost abandon stage one due to lack of time, particularly mutually free time. In the picture below you can see the top section is called “arrangement of observation”; this can be as simple as “via email”. Sadly it has been almost impossible to schedule a meeting before and after an observation; I feel that of the two the post-discussion is more vital to the process.

Overall image

Here is an anonymised scan of section 1. As stated before it is incredibly difficult to have the pre-observation discussion, however, I feel that this section should still have some role in the form. So, like the human appendix, it is there shrivelled and of no real use hanging on in vestigial format.

Section 1

From the same lesson is the narrative account, making up section 2. Note the post-it note box, which I use to record my musings. In this anonymised version it states “A picture tells 1,000 words!” and “Live marking – in front of student”. Both of these I picked up during the lesson and wished to remember for the Teaching and Learning newsletter, used to share good practice. The narrative record is split into two columns and has notes on what was going on.

Section 2

Finally the third section shows my attempts at noting down the major discussion points during the debrief. To write everything down would detract from the reflection, certainly it is difficult to be in the moment when trying to scribble down each point. This lack of comprehensive notation is a nod to Dawn’s proposed coaching suggestion and very much the essential part of feeding back observation details. However, the point detailed below were all discussed and considered in one way or another. I believe it is important to have the signatures to show that this is an official observation, albeit divorced from performance management, and also gives a more formal ending to the process.

Section 3

This post-lesson discussion actually led to me arranging a second observation to watch the same teacher with the same class (hence the “Tue p2” scribble) as part of a longer reflection on teaching and learning.

Should anyone be interested I am more than happy to share the blank pro-forma. Essentially I have tried to shape teaching and learning observations to best suit the observee. As with everything this is an ongoing process and very much of the ‘design-refine-redesign’ model of formative evaluation. My thanks go to Dawn Cox for providing the inspiration in her original blog post. Although I have adapted it and focused on just three of the key points, it is very much the offspring of her thoughts.

DID YOU KNOW??? Dawn was a presenter at the St Albans School Forum on Education on Saturday 28th May. Follow @SASForumEd to keep up to date!

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.

Save the date for SASFE! Assessment and Feedback Conference.

UPDATE: Ticket price confirmed as £30. This includes refreshments, lunch, transport from St Albans City Railway Station / Car Parking space and all of the incredible CPD below. See the official interactive schedule here.

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 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. With demand for tickets expected to be high please make sure you email your name, subject specialism / role and school to forum@st-albans.herts.sch.uk for details of how to buy a ticket.

So what are you waiting for?! Save the date and get in contact!!!

Keep an eye out for more information soon


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.

Jaffa Cakes and Writing Less, Better

Without doubt one of the best ways of finding out about new tricks and ideas to use in the classroom is by chatting with other teachers. I have been lucky enough to work with some fantastic educators since I started teaching and my current place of work is no different. Our Teaching, Learning and Assessment Group meets regularly and it is a fantastic way to catch up with staff from across the school to swap stories and listen to ideas. This is something that I find can be quite difficult to do during the non-stop treadmill of term time unless there’s the excuse of a TLAG session. In the last couple of years I have incorporated many of the ideas staff have spoken about at these meetings. However, in this latest blog post I am going to mention a couple of ideas from a colleague that I actually heard via the pupils themselves.

I first heard about “The Jaffa Cake Conundrum” from a Sixth Form class when trying to press upon them the importance of precision in answering Biology questions, both verbally and in writing. Although I am loathe to play the exam game too much (see my previous post on failure) it is important that students understand how they will be assessed and therefore how to show themselves off the best they can and avoid any potential pitfalls. A classic example that I use to illustrate this is a two mark AS exam question which asks the candidate to describe the role of amylase in the small intestine.

Did you hear the joke about the small intestine? It wasn't villi funny. (image taken from Wikipedia)

Q. Did you hear the joke about the small intestine?
A. It wasn’t villi funny.
(image taken from Wikipedia)

What can follow as a response to this question is quite a bit of information on amylase, e.g. it’s a protein with a tertiary shape, it has an active site, the two theories of enzyme-substrate action. Pupils are surprised when I tell them they would have gained no marks for these answers. Even worse the candidate might mention salivary amylase, which certainly does not Answers The Question! (This phrase is often shortened by us teachers to the acronym ATQ in the margin of a piece of work. The slightly more impatient amongst us might use ATFQ, which of course stands for Answer The Full Question. If you thought the F stood for a naughty word then this acronym has acted as a Rorschach test and I’m afraid you’ve been classified as a potty-minded degenerate) I’m sure most teachers have heard of and use ATQ or the related RTQ, or Read The Question, so I am not breaking any new ground here and more importantly you might be wondering what any of this has to do with Jaffa Cakes? I’m getting there I promise!

Returning to the exam question above many candidates completely miss the point that it is only what the enzyme does in the small intestine that is relevant, thus they lose easy marks. This phenomenon is seen quite regularly in the answering of Biology exam questions. I would guess this is because the subject has a great deal of factual recall and on seeing a certain word from a topic pupils cannot help themselves but write everything they know about that topic. Perhaps other subjects have the same problem? In Biology pupils seem to have a real fear of missing a fact out, sadly this means they mostly fail to actually ATQ and lose all precision in their answer. While discussing the fact that it is easy to include superfluous information that wastes time and does not gain marks, a couple of Sixth Formers mentioned a phrase they use in Geography. Their teacher, Dave Payne, who is also the Head of Geography and a regular attendee of the TLAG, teaches the same idea using the phrase…

2014.08.07 write less better

…instead of writing everything that they know on a topic or process students are urged to be much more selective. Just as in the exam question example above there are times when showing off how much you know does not help pick up marks in an exam. It was after seeing how we could apply “write less, better” to Biology that I discovered another idea Dave was using in his teaching. This time it involved Jaffa Cakes (I told you I’d get there eventually).

Yum (image taken from Wikipedia)

Yum (image taken from Wikipedia)

Firstly “The Jaffa Cake Conundrum” is not whether a Jaffa Cake is classified as a cake or a biscuit. It is obviously a cake, but for anyone who still needs convincing please see http://www.hmrc.gov.uk/manuals/vfoodmanual/vfood6260.htm for more information. So what is The Jaffa Cake Conundrum? Picture the scene: the time is 11:43PM and an underpaid and underappreciated teacher moonlighting as an exam marker is onto her 43rd script. Peering at the dim-glowing screen of her computer monitor she absentmindedly reaches with her free hand to a packet of Jaffa Cakes nearby; their quick release of sugar is one of the few things that have maintained the focus to read and mark the plethora of answers over the last three hours. Imagine her shock that there are no more Jaffa Cakes left in the packet. She still needs to mark five more papers to keep up with the schedule. There’s nothing else for it, she’s going to have to go cold turkey and do it without the Jaffa Cake… This is where Dave brings the story back to the classroom: how can exam candidates ensure that their answer is not adversely affected by the dip in their examiner’s blood glucose levels*? The answer is, of course, to RTQ, “write less, better” making sure they ATFQ! This is the crux of “The Jaffa Cake Conundrum”, concise, well-worded answers that include as much relevant information to gain the marks on offer without any extraneous fluff.

2014.08.07 table

I now use all of the ideas mentioned in this post when discussing with pupils how to approach exam questions and I think the names Dave gave to the last two really resonate with them. Above is a table that I show to students to try to help them understand the importance of the phrases I now use in the classroom. I encourage them to use it as a step-by-step process in how to approach a Biology exam question. It still needs tweaking so let me know if you have any suggestions!

*This is obviously all very tongue in cheek. Both Dave and I use it to highlight the importance of writing precisely in response to a question. In no way are we calling into question the standards of exam marking!