Tag Archives: teaching

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.

Advertisements

(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.

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.

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.

(Tab)let them eat cake II

A few recent blogs have re-kindled my interest in “EdTech” and its place in teaching and learning. Following my post on discussing tablets during a Teaching, Learning and Assessment Group meeting last term I also feel obliged to give a quick update of what happened next. My own thoughts remain very similar to before. I have the same healthy scepticism for any new learning directive or teaching strategy regardless of whether it includes technology or not; convince me that the benefit outweighs the cost. This theme was further highlighted by Tom Bennett’s Raging against the machines? Not really. Adventures in misunderstanding post on EdTech. He too has a “hearty scepticism” and would like to see “wide-ranging evidence” to persuade him it has a significant impact  – but too often this sort of attitude is perceived as technophobia rather than a considered stance to new methodologies. As Bennett says

“If tech adoption were cheap or easy, and didn’t take much time, I wouldn’t worry so much about it. But if you want to persuade people that it’s right for them then it’s not unreasonable to ask what evidence is there that this will have a positive impact before they money on it. That’s just good governance.”

The fact is that it is not cheap nor easy to implement ,on a whole-school or even departmental scale, changes to EdTech so we had better be sure that they make a measurable difference. I am pretty open-minded about most new ideas but can be prone to paralysing cognitive dissonance when I fear that they might cause colossal amounts of work… In this respect I would imagine I am very much like everyone else who actually works as a classroom teacher and understands all of the trials and tribulations required to semi-successfully teach and assess a large(ish) class of students. In fact a blog post from December by the excellent Heather F on how technology has transformed her teaching struck a chord with me. In addition to her, as always, sensible musings her point that “if applications of technology are genuinely useful they won’t need the hard sell” is bang on the money (pun intended). I have no doubt that tablets will prove very useful both in specific subjects and across the school at some point, but I have not yet been made aware how. Perhaps this will be something I find out as I look to delve deeper into their impact in the classroom. However, I am equally open to the idea that we are not at that point just yet. That is what I mean by having an open mind and not being immovably one way or another, pro or anti EdTech.

Ain't no party like an S Club party! (Image taken from Flickr)

Ain’t no party like an S Club party!
(Image taken from Flickr)

So what did we do next after our aforementioned TLAG meeting? We set up a ‘working party’ to explore staff attitudes further (it seems from my own personal experience that jokes on the theme of “well it certainly is work but I’m yet to get to the party” are either unfunny or have been said before).  The group was made up of seven members of staff from a range of subjects across the School and hoped to represent a spread of opinions, from those very open to EdTech, those with experience of its implementation and those who were healthily sceptical. I believe that we got the balance about right other than we seem to have more “sceptics” than “champions” to borrow from Harry Webb’s superb recent post on why EdTech sucks (and what to do about it). The aim of the group was to discuss how best we could survey what teachers across the school thought about the possibility of EdTech, specifically personal devices such as tablets, aiding teaching and learning in the classroom. One thing that we all agreed with is that coercion of having to use EdTech will simply not work, as Harry Webb says “mandation is clearly not the answer”. However, there are definitely some benefits or “lots of small gains” as a member of the working party mentioned at our last meeting. We also felt that people did not know enough about what you could do with a personal device in the classroom; the “unknown unknowns”. I include myself in this category – I do not know exactly what I could or could not do with something like a tablet – and aim to expand my knowledge by attending conferences, reading blogs and participating in workshops to see what they can offer. No doubt you’ll hear my experiences in the eagerly awaited third instalment of the (Tab)let them eat cake saga, release date to be confirmed.

I am lucky enough to work with a range of talented people and one such colleague summarised a sensible approach to EdTech and the vast array of shiny gadgets available with these two simple questions:

  1. How does ‘it’ make the teacher’s job simpler, easier and more effective?
  2. How does ‘it’ make the student learning process simpler, easier and more effective?

If ‘it’ does not have evidence that it improves either of the above then you need to re-consider whether ‘it’ is the right approach to learning and teaching, whatever ‘it’ might be. The working party has also focused the direction of how we will canvass the opinion of the staff body; in our most recent meeting a method we considered and agreed upon was to actually go into departmental meetings to discuss the range of options available. Following a chat with one or two members of the working party (staff with the “known knowns” to bastardise further the Rumsfeld quote) there would then be a short departmental questionnaire to fill in. Our aim is to roll this out in the next half term and try to get round every department before the end of the academic year. I am intrigued to find out what people around the school think and this will then inform the next steps of the working party. Additionally I am also looking forward to discovering myself, first hand or via the conference circuit, what might be possible. However, if it does not improve upon or simplify what is currently in place then I may well remain the open-minded sceptic. To be continued…

Header image taken from Flickr.