Focus on the Final Foot: Why I’m in Favour of Ready Made Resources

Last week I read this article from John Blake: “The solution to the workload crisis? Stop teachers designing their own lessons.” I found myself agreeing with the sentiments, so I read the full report: Completing the Revolution: Delivering on the promise of the 2014 National Curriculum. I thought it was sensible and attempting to address some very real problems in education – I would recommend reading it.

I understand the issues that some people have with what Blake terms “oven ready resources” and the fear of robotic automatons reading from a script, but my concerns at present are the unhealthy hours that teachers work. Something has to give. My sense is that far from being a restriction, having some well crafted, quality-assured resources and curriculum programmes will help to sharpen up the way that we teach material and improve our work-life balance. The report calls this the Final Foot:

As well as lowering their workload, such “oven ready” resources will also help teachers focus their professional expertise on “the final foot” between them and the children they teach in the classroom. Instead of hours making different worksheets, their attention can all be on using those resources to help the children they are teaching.

In my school, we have well-resourced lessons, and the benefit of these is enormous, letting me concentrate on this so-called final foot. Here are a couple of examples to illustrate it.

Brushing up on subject knowledge

In my post last week, I listed some sources for finding out about George Orwell and the context for Animal Farm. While I try to be efficient by listening to audiobooks and podcasts on the commute, time is finite. Rather than deskilling me and making me less likely to understand what I am teaching, having a good starting point for a lesson frees me up to pursue those aspects that increase my understanding and therefore improve my teaching.

Recently I taught The Charge of the Light Brigade, starting with a pre-planned lesson that already had retrieval practice questions in the Do Now, a model answer which was ready to unpick and even something simple: the poem copied and pasted on slides ready for me to annotate in class. This meant I had more time to think deeply about the poem, reread some notes and explore the context further. It took me to the original Times article which Tennyson would have read. You can see echoes in the language/tone of the poem in the article e.g. “ they flew into the smoke of the batteries”; “exhibition of the most brilliant valour, of the excess of courage, and of a daring”. I learnt much more about the Crimean War and understood that the Crimean War was the first where newspaper reports were ‘live’, albeit taking three weeks to arrive. From then I pursued the shift from event to news to poetry and the complications of stories told third hand, then the links to Ozymandias.

Crafting explanations

A good explanation can be the making of a lesson, but it can often be an afterthought – the planned lesson is seen as the endpoint. It’s all very well having a lesson ready and the notion that you’ll explain dramatic irony here or tell them what a subordinate clause is there. Yet there is an art to explaining these things – use the wrong words and they just don’t get it, or worse a misconception becomes ingrained (see other pitfalls in this great piece by Tom Boulter). A great explanation needs examples and non-examples, it needs analogy, it needs prior thought about the misconceptions that might arise. I think teachers should practise more, and a great explanation gets better with practice. These things can happen when teachers plan their own lessons, but when teachers plan all their lessons from scratch, this’ll happen less, or in the evening or weekend.

An example of a great explanation is this one from @positivteacha on iambic pentameter. You can see how deeply he has considered the sequencing of it and the examples he uses as exemplification. I used this to reconsider my own teaching of iambic pentameter when looking at Ozymandias. I used these lines to explain the metre: “Who said: ‘Two vast and trunkless legs of stone’” and “And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command” then asked them to see whether the following line was written in iambic pentameter: “My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:” which led to some great moments of discussion. Then three questions to explore: How does the regular iambic pentameter combine with the irregular rhyme scheme to reinforce Shelley’s ideas?/ How does the iambic pentameter serve to diminish Ozymandias’ power?/ How does the regular iambic pentameter help to reinforce the idea of the everlasting and inevitable power of nature? Having ‘taught’ iambic pentameter for many years, this is the first time I gave it any real degree of thought. Again, this could happen without pre-planned lessons, but I’m not sure it would.

 

We have this norm in teaching, where it is taken as a given that teachers work long hours. Most professions wouldn’t entertain the thought – the job finishes when it does. We all want to do our best, but when this means that we have zero time for ourselves, our profession is unhealthy and our lives are unhappy.

Would I prefer to plan all my lessons from scratch? Probably. But the reality is that it takes time, and that time often comes in the evenings and weekends. Whether you are someone who disagrees with John Blake on this issue or not, I am firmly in the camp that teaching at present is an unsustainable profession, so I would welcome a range of high quality curriculum and lesson resources. It will make me a better teacher.

As Blake concludes the report:

No textbook or worksheet will ever substitute for a positive relationship between teacher and pupil but these “oven ready resources” can underpin those relationships by reducing teacher workload on activities which can be done effectively by external bodies. That then expands the time and energy available to teachers to deploy their professional skills where they will make the most difference, in “the final foot” between them and their pupils, in the classroom.

Teacher Workload Reports: initial thoughts

I welcome the reports into teacher workload and I hope that school leaders read them and implement some of their recommendations. Here are my initial thoughts on the data, planning and marking reports:

For leaders, not teachers

These reports are ultimately for the benefit for teachers, but if you have no control over your school’s policy, you will find little practical inspiration from them. The problem with workload is that it is often closely linked with your school and your leadership team. In the marking report, it is stated: “If the hours spent do not have the commensurate impact on pupil progress: stop it.” Yet if you are the NQT who does this, you are possibly going to fall foul of the next book scrutiny. You can see that there are only two recommendations specific to teachers in the marking report, two in the data one and two again in the planning, which reinforces the idea that the audience is not actually classroom teachers.

However, it’s not necessarily a bad thing that the advice is aimed at leaders and institutions. Teachers are very rarely the sources of their own workload problems. They are at the mercy of the “policy” and the “initiative”. I appreciate that the marking report states:

Evaluate the time implications of any whole school marking assessment policy for all teachers to ensure that the school policy does not make unreasonable demands on any particular members of staff.

The Data report:

Take measures to understand the cumulative impact on workload of new initiatives and guidance before rolling them out and make proportionate and pragmatic demands.

When I filled in the survey myself, this was something that I wrote about. Lots of things are good things to do, but they take up time. It is up to leaders to make these choices. There is a vagueness in what is meant by “unreasonable demands” and I am sure different people will have their own ideas about what this means, but it’s so important that we ask this question.

Broad advice

I do feel that this sense of imprecision runs through all of the reports. For example, the marking report recommends ITT students develop “a repertoire of assessment methods” and teachers use “a range of assessment techniques” without being precise about what these look like.  If you are a teacher struggling with the marking workload, being told to use a range of techniques isn’t helpful when those techniques are not clear.

There are definitely principles that everyone should get behind and there are not many parts of the report that I disagree with. For example, the suggestions of making marking “meaningful, manageable and motivating” seems sensible.  These terms are then defined in more detail, so can serve as a very useful starting point for any marking policy.

Once something is said to be good practice, it can take on a life of its own, so I appreciate why these reports need to be careful. It is much easier to say what shouldn’t be done than to say precisely what should (except posters). There are some case studies on the blog and there will hopefully be more, although this one recommends different coloured pens and writing VF for verbal feedback in books so perhaps we should be careful with these too.

I really like the line in the planning report that “there should be greater flexibility to accommodate different subject demands and needs, as well as the specific demands of primary phases.” It is important to acknowledge that there is much variation in subjects and phases, not just with planning but other demands too. Should an English teacher teach the same load as a maths teacher? Should a teacher who has predominantly KS5 have the same teaching load as one who teaches mainly KS3?

Workload issues in the planning report

The planning report has good intentions but some of its recommendations seem to lead to more time:

School leaders should place great value on collaborative curriculum planning which is where teacher professionalism and creativity can be exercised.

I agree that shared planning can be beneficial, but where does the time for this come from? It has to come from somewhere. Similarly, the demand to create “a fully resourced, collaboratively produced, scheme of work” as a default is a noble one but I can assure you that this is a time-consuming process and someone has to do this. I’m not arguing that this shouldn’t be done, just that to create a really good scheme of work that can be used by anyone takes time.

I have always struggled with the fact that there are not some free central resources that all teachers can access. Ones that they can adapt for their context, change and share back. TES can be useful, but there is a massive quality control issue- try to look for a lesson on similes (smiles/ similies) and you’ll see . Also, the idea of teachers selling their resources runs counter to a profession where we should be interested in helping each other. This happens on Twitter of course but I feel that the DfE should appoint teachers to make schemes, perhaps as a summer project, or recruit experienced, recently retired teachers to do it. Even just creating a quality controlled shared site would be a start.

On textbooks, I agree with the recommendations that we should use them but it is not a “mistrust of textbooks” but a lack of good enough ones that I am more concerned with. Textbooks are a huge investment when curriculum content changes so often, so the DfE should look at ways to make this commercially viable.

All in all, I think the reports make sensible recommendations that will impact positively on workload. We just need more concrete examples of what should be done.

 

Filling subject knowledge gaps

I ended one of my previous blogs with this sentence: “I have become a better teacher in recent years by trying to become a better English teacher”. This is definitely true, but in all honesty I have tended to try to get better at the things that interest me, or the things that are most obvious, such as teaching writing. I get excited about something like rhetoric and then direct all my energies into it, but some areas inevitably get neglected. I am now going to tackle those areas- not weaknesses as such, but subject knowledge gaps that I need to fill.

The 19th Century

I am currently writing a scheme of work on 19th Century Literature and once I started putting together a knowledge organiser I realised that a) I knew nothing about the century and b) fitting a whole century on a knowledge organiser is not a task that should necessarily be undertaken.

So many holes in my knowledge were uncovered as I started. I didn’t know the first passenger trains were in 1825 for example. I didn’t know when the Crimean War was, or even the decades of important moments such as the abolition of slavery. To illustrate how problematic this lack of history is, imagine that we were studying “20th Century Literature.” We know instinctively how a book written in 1950 would be different to one in 1970, how one in 1912 would be different from 1920, but it is harder to understand how 1850 is different from 1870. Lumping everything together into the same 19th Century shaped box is not helpful. Dracula was published in 1897 and Frankenstein so much earlier in 1812, yet they are placed together in the same category of 19th Century Literature, with 85 years between them. To put this time gap in perspective, Tarzan and the Apes and The Lost World were published in 1912 while 1997 saw the publication Harry Potter and The Philosopher’s Stone.

SKGAps 2To try and combat this breadth of ignorance, I have been listening to one of the Great Courses on Victorian Britain on my commute this term. I imagined that this would be a bit of a chore but I absolutely love it. The course is 18 hours long and I’m about a third of the way through. It’s constantly surprising and endlessly fascinating. It is changing how I view history and how I consider the texts produced in that time- it will help my teaching of 19th Century Literature no end. No more will I just say, “they were very religious in those days” as a catch-all statement about context for virtually any text before 1950.

Grammar

SKGaps 1I know my grammar fairly well, but looking at the list of terminology that students in year 6 are expected to learn, I know that I couldn’t explain them easily to a novice. I think this is sometimes the case for teachers. We know our stuff, but teaching that stuff is another thing entirely. Even seemingly simple terminology such as ‘verb’ is much more complex than “It’s a doing word”. Mark-schemes for AQA mention ‘sentence functions’- easy to understand but quite difficult to get students to comment on effectively. I need to improve some of my knowledge of, and all of my teaching of, grammar. So the question is how do I get to the point where I am a grammar expert? The answer to this one- as it often is for me- is reading. Gwynne’s Grammar is the guide that I have chosen to read. However, I have owned this since 2013 and not read a word, so that might be easier said than done. I’m going to read 5 pages a day, starting today. By putting it in writing on this blog, at least my 63 readers will hold me to account.

New specifications

I am delighted to see the back of controlled assessment and I am already enjoying teaching new specifications. But the unfamiliarity can be a problem. I have brought myself up to speed with specifications and examinations, but there are always nuances that are not apparent until you start teaching, and sometimes only after you have taught it through. We have started teaching poems from the AQA Power and Conflict cluster and I have made sure that I am very familiar with every poem that I have taught, but I don’t yet know all of the poems that I will be teaching later on in the school year. At first I wasn’t so concerned about this, but it has become apparent to me that an overview of the whole selection of poems would make teaching each individual poem easier- for me and the students. Common patterns across the poems- themes, viewpoints, language techniques- have been discovered almost by accident, and a more thorough understanding of the whole body of poems would have meant that sequences were designed around this, rather than spotting them when they come up. This is my holiday reading for my two weeks off in October- a poem a day.

All of these things at first seem to me like the least exciting parts of being an English teacher: specifications, history and grammar. Yet reading some of the best poetry ever written, finding out about a century that shaped modern Britain and becoming more accomplished at the mechanics of language should never be described as ‘least exciting’, should they?

Further reading on English teaching:

Andy Tharby’s list of essential English teacher blogs: 25 Practical Blogs for the English Teacher

My original post on improving English teacher subject knowledge: Trying to be a Better English Teacher

My post on books to develop subject knowledge in English: An English Teacher’s Library

 

Personalised CPD

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about how we practised classroom routines at DKA in order to ensure consistency. With similar behaviours and routines used across the school, it is just much easier to teach. Does this mean that everyone is expected to teach in an identical way, or that individual needs are not important? Of course not.

That is why the CPD programme that we have developed is not built solely around the school’s development needs, but with the individual teacher in mind. It is incredibly difficult to make CPD highly personalised, but I believe that we have a system that works, where every single teacher in the school gets the specific personal development that they need. Here’s what we do.

Low stakes coaching observations

This is the most important professional development that happens in our school. Every teacher-from the principal to the cover supervisor- has a weekly coaching observation which is followed up by a coaching meeting. Each probably lasts for about 15 minutes. The idea is to focus on just one small feature which can have a large impact. Paul Bambrick-Santoyo writes about this in Leverage Leadership:

No single small step will dramatically change a classroom in and of itself. Multiple small changes, though, implemented week after week, add up to extraordinary change.

The low stakes, supportive nature of this is crucial in it being used as a development tool- nobody needs to worry about judgement or grading. Coaching meetings will often include some practice, so improvements can be embedded.

Emma Hickey, head of MFL at Dixons Kings Academy, has written about the benefits of coaching here and Harry Fletcher-Wood has an excellent series of posts which explore leverage observations at length.

Differentiated CPD sessions

In addition to coaching, we still have a version of what you might call ‘traditional’ CPD. The traditional model is not particularly effective, because delivering the same training to all staff can mean that nobody really gets exactly what they need, so in our CPD model every member of staff participates in one CPD session per week, but not everyone is in the same one. Tuesday is for heads of department, heads of year and principal teachers, and often has a focus on the leadership of teaching and learning in the school. The other session, for the rest of the teaching staff, is on a Monday. The CPD will often focus on the same topic but from slightly different perspectives. Here is an extract from our plan:

Personalisation 1Of course, just because someone is a head of department, it doesn’t mean that they don’t need to focus on improving teaching too. And just because someone isn’t in a leadership position, it doesn’t mean that they are less experienced. So, even within this model, we need to be conscious of the fact that there are wide differences between teachers. This is why we will have more than one session every Monday and many Tuesdays. These sessions will be created based on what we learn from staff voice, coaching etc as the term goes on. We also have induction sessions for new staff and weekly Teach First sessions, plus meetings of steering groups such as department literacy reps in the example above.

CPD session design

Having noted all of this, it is still difficult- if not impossible- to pitch a session just right so that everyone gets exactly what they need. You could have just two people in a session and not be able to pitch it right. That’s why we always ask- what’s in it for everyone? One of the best ways that this can be done is to allow staff to reflect, to plan, and to consider what they will do for their own classes. For example, this week we looked at some strategies to help with behaviour management. Time was given for staff to plan exactly which strategies would work best with particular students, even scripting what they might say to specific students to get them back on track. The previous week, after a brief presentation on differentiation and feedback, teachers were given most of the session to plan. (They were also able to leave if they wanted to work elsewhere.) This means that teachers are getting something which directly impacts on their classes.

Subject pedagogy

We have also increased the number of departmental meetings so teachers can focus on improving their pedagogical content knowledge. The Sutton Trust ‘What Makes Great Teaching’ report said that “the most effective teachers have deep knowledge of the subjects they teach”, and we place high value on teachers getting better at teaching their subject. While it is useful to improve in more general aspects of teaching, we can’t do a whole staff training session on how best to teach Shakespeare, which is what an English teacher might need. (Well, I will if the principal lets me). In this post on subject-specific practice, I wrote about how MFL used their meeting to practice speaking in the target language.

It isn’t easy to get CPD right for everyone, and we won’t always manage it, but the pace of improvement when you build a school culture around individual teacher development is incredible.

Doing things so you don’t have to do them…

One of the best things about my job is that I get to see lots of other people teaching, and this week I noticed a common thread in lessons that allowed me to reflect on my questioning, and then, in a roundabout way, on my teaching of writing.

In particular, I saw No Opt Out, a technique taken from Teach Like a Champion, used expertly in several lessons. This is the idea that when a student says “I don’t know”, you stay with them until they get it, or give various cues to support, or ask another student before returning to them. As Lemov writes: “In the end, there’s far less incentive to refuse to try if doing so doesn’t save you any work, so No Opt Out’s attribute of causing students to answer a question they’ve attempted to avoid is a key lever.” It’s something that we practised in CPD last year and it was great to see it being used in lessons.

Yet there are some very real problems that can occur when this is used. Momentum can be lost when you stick with a student, especially when the question might just be a quick check that forms part of an explanation. It can mean that others in the class switch off, which is not great, especially when the strategy is designed to eliminate this kind of thing. I felt a little of this ‘switching off’ in one of my own lessons this week.

These are the pitfalls of No Opt Out. But the strategy exists for the long term gains rather than just for addressing the moment where students don’t get it. This happens over time by building a culture in the classroom where “I don’t know” is rewarded with “Great. I’m going to help you so you will know.” It becomes easier to think when the question is asked than to avoid it. Showing that you will probe is a way of ensuring that you don’t have to probe in the long run, but you have to keep doing it until everyone works it out. This can then mean that the best exponents of No Opt Out rarely have to use it! Or, at the very least, they know that “I don’t know” actually means that and not “I haven’t thought about it.”

So why did this lead me to think about writing? Well, by coincidence I have been teaching redrafting, which is another method which we can make obsolete after a while. When we explicitly teach it well, we can get to a point where we rarely have to do redrafting. Once students have the habits effective in redrafting, they can become proficient in revising work, editing things as they write. I have been using Kelly Gallagher’s STAR Revision mnemonic (which I think is one of the few useful ones in English) to model this. You can read more about this in Revision Before Redrafting.

It takes work to build these habits, but once students know how to do it, they can do it in their head, they can do it mid sentence, they can reorder sentences in paragraphs as they write. You barely have to teach it again.

Revision 1Here are some examples of how this works, taken from one of my classes this week. In the first example, the task was to redraft the opening. You can see lots of changes, with perhaps the most interesting one that it now starts with a simile.

 

Revision 2In the next example, a different student is now consciously revising as they write. This was the very next lesson after the explicit teaching of redrafting. You can see them change their mind halfway through ‘beautifully’ and constantly  revise their writing. Is it perfect? Not yet. But it is almost a second draft without writing the first.

Revision 3The final example has just one word changed. The man holds a photograph on his heart rather than his stomach. I love that.

Looking at the messy examples above reminds me that another keep-doing-it-so-you-don’t-have-to-do-it strategy is being fussy about presentation! Whether it is thinking, revising or using a ruler, persevering at the start means that you will rarely have to do it again.

Technology that makes my life a little easier

My old classroom had a suite of computers, an interactive whiteboard and a visualiser. I loved the visualiser and it was great to not have to book IT suites, but did these things transform my teaching? I’m not sure. In fact, I spent a lot of time trying out sites and doing things on computers because I could rather than I should (I still have nightmares about those ClassDojo monsters). I’m not complaining- I was very fortunate to have that classroom- but I think that the technology that is most helpful to me now as a teacher is all relatively simple. So here are three pieces of technology that make my life easier.

The Clicker

AugustI think this has been the most useful piece of technology I have ever purchased. It has a couple of very simple functions: it clicks slides back and forward; it has a laser pointer. The greatest benefit is that I can move around the classroom when I’m teaching- I’m never stuck behind my laptop. If, when circulating, I need to revisit something with a student, I can click back through slides. Simple but really useful. It was recommended to me by @amsammons and is available here for £7.25.

Quick Key

Quick Key is an app which scans multiple choice quizzes. Results can be broken down by student and by question on the app. You can then export the data in various forms from the website for further analysis.

It’s easiest to illustrate the benefits with an example, in this case a quick homophone activity I used with a class. The first 5 questions had options of your/ you’re and the next five were there/their/they’re. I scanned it in and then exported the data in question level analysis form, which looked like this.

QK1Where there is an X, the question was not answered. If there is a letter, then that indicates that they were wrong and they chose that option.

With the exception of one student on one question, it is clear that the class coped well with your/ you’re. The X in this case was actually a correct answer which just didn’t scan properly. Questions 7 and 10 were answered poorly, particularly Q7. Both of these required ‘there’ as an answer, yet students generally went for ‘they’re’ for Q7 and ‘their’ for Q10.

Q7: ___________________ are nearly 65 million people in Great Britain.

Q10: I saw him standing _______________

The three students who struggled the most with homophones were given additional exercises during class and I also spent some more time teaching them the differences. The class were then given an extended quiz on there/they’re/their just to make sure that guessing was less likely to be a factor in success. We looked together at the specific examples, addressing why they may have used the wrong one. The first one looked to be that the word ‘are’ had confused them but I was surprised with the errors on Q10.

It’s so useful to have this kind of precise individual and question level data, which can be immediately acted upon. One of my colleagues sets Quick Key quizzes as a Do Now activity, marks them straight away and then provides follow up activities and reteaching where necessary within the same lesson. With well designed multiple choice questions, Quick Key is an incredibly effective tool.

QK2It costs around £20* for the annual Pro subscription. I’d recommend this as the free one does much less and you can have a free month’s trial if necessary. It’s not without frustrations. Students will find all sorts of ways to fill the forms in incorrectly and you need to avoid bright lights when scanning. You can always manually enter the answers as a last resort.

*Smartphone not included.

Evernote

EvernoteI think we could do well by talking more about organisation and productivity for teachers. I am envious of those  people for whom organisation seems to come naturally so I have tried to improve my productivity in the same way that I might try to improve my questioning or my feedback.

I read a number of stories about how Evernote had transformed the way people work, had a look at what the fuss was about and am now a convert. Evernote is an app for creating, organising and storing various forms of media. It’s versatile and can be accessed on different devices and synced between them.

If someone grabs me on the corridor and asks me to do something, I can record it immediately. I can clip pages I want read to view later. I can forward emails there. I can make checklists and tag in a way that keeps me organised. I can set alarms, store documents I will need, add images, record voice reminders. By capturing things in an organised, searchable place, I don’t have to hold things in my head or fill endless notebooks. When things need doing, they are there.

I don’t think Evernote would be nearly as effective without an organised system. I use a variation of the ‘Secret Weapon’ method which you can read about here. Without this- and the excellent advice in Getting Things Done– Evernote could just be a messy electronic version of a notebook. As with Quick Key, there’s a free and a premium version. The free version is pretty good with Evernote.

A final point. All of these are things that I’ve been using for a significant period of time, not merely weeks or months. I filed this blog away for many months to ensure that I wasn’t just talking about the latest fads (which is why Plickers is not on here). These might be just what you need, but they might not be.

The space between the question and the answer

Here is a puzzle:

If a great question is asked, but only a small proportion of your class actually think about it, is it a great question?

This post isn’t about the questions we ask and it isn’t really about the answers- it’s about the space in between. It is about ensuring great questions are met with a suitable depth of thought from students, because if we can’t guarantee that students are thinking about our questions, then we can’t guarantee that they are learning anything. Using questioning as a teaching tool, as a diagnostic tool, as a key element of our explanations, becomes ineffective because students are not really participating.

The problem is that thinking is a pretty invisible process. How on earth can we somehow get inside students’ minds and ensure that they are actually thinking?

Visible checks

Thinking is invisible, but there are ways that we can see the effect of thinking.

For example, one strategy I use when asking students to identify something in a text is to place their finger on it. If they can’t find anything, they put their finger on their head. I can scan the room and see the participation at a glance. Students know that I will often go to those who have fingers on their heads first, so the ‘opt outers’ make more of an effort, even though I’m just as likely to pick someone with their finger on something too. Now, there are definitely some chancers who just place their fingers on the page and hope, but they are less and less likely to do this.

Getting students to write an answer down to a question is another simple way of being able to track participation. Mini white boards are particularly useful for this. At Dixons Kings Academy, we have whole school routines and language for MWB use. Teachers have to spend less time establishing their own routines and the consistency of approach makes it easier to focus on responses.

One of my colleagues, Luke, uses whiteboards effectively during continuum tasks- tasks where students place themselves on a line with opposite viewpoints at each end. It is very easy for students to follow their friends, to hide in a larger group or sometimes just to move to the place which is closest to their seat. Luke asks them to take a whiteboard and explain their rationale. This way, it is harder for students to avoid thinking. Even if they take the lazy option in where they stand, they still have to justify it! The physical act of writing on whiteboards is a visible sign of participation (if not of the quality of thinking) and Luke can intervene when they are not writing. He can then use the responses to prompt discussion and diagnose understanding.

The inevitability that anyone can be asked to answer, anyone can be asked to comment on an answer (anyone can be asked to comment on the comment on the answer etc)

In my role, I am lucky to be able to see many examples of excellent questioning from teachers. The thread that runs through them all is the expectation that students answer questions because the teacher wants them to, not because they decide that they want to. Questions are asked, students think about them, and the teacher asks a particular student for their answer. Where this is routine, you get answers of a higher quality, fewer “I don’t knows” and, ultimately, better work. When there is an inkling that a student hasn’t tried to think, these teachers stay with them and make them think. There are no shortcuts from question to answer.

However, even with a culture of strong questioning, it is difficult to ensure that students are focusing on other students’ answers. I have noticed that once I go to one student for an answer, some can switch off. For example, if I stay with a student and ask them further questions, or remain with one who says “I don’t know”, there is a possibility that every other student stops listening because they are not being asked the question.

It has to be a regular feature of lessons that students are asked “Is she right?” or “Can you give me an additional reason?” Otherwise, a supposedly rigorous technique of probing questions becomes a terrible one with impact on only one student. This doesn’t always come easily. It is a day in, day out technique which creates a culture in a classroom and across a school. But just like when the initial question is asked, any follow up questions need to have an expectation that anybody could be called on.

What about random name generators such as lollipops? I am fairly ambivalent on this but I have recently shifted back to the no lollipop camp for a couple of reasons. My justification for the sticks was always that it made it clear that I could pick any student. There was a bit of theatre to it all too. But without lolly sticks, nothing changes: I still pick randomly but I also target questions. (Plus I kept losing sticks). Here are a couple of excellent blogs on the issue: Tom Bennett on the problems and Harry Fletcher-Wood on the benefits.

Waiting

This isn’t a new suggestion but it is sometimes difficult to ensure effective wait time. It can feel awkward and can be particularly difficult with a challenging class. Also, if a student isn’t thinking then giving them ten more seconds is just giving them ten more seconds of not thinking. Often, the issue isn’t opting out but perhaps not knowing how to get to the right answer or a good answer. We have to be explicit about the behaviours that we want during this thinking/ waiting time. Another of my colleagues at DKA, Maria, narrates what students should be doing. For example, she might say, “I can see 5 students checking their notes for answers- excellent,” thus making clear what is expected. We should also value silence in these moments too, as too much narration might hinder quality thinking.

Now I said that this wasn’t about the quality of questions but it is worth saying that if you want students to think deeply, the questions need to be designed so that this is possible. And if the content of the lesson is limited or the text you are studying is just not good enough then no matter how much waiting time you give, the quality of thinking- and the quality of responses- will be poor.

Developing the art of the sentence

If you have read Teach Like a Champion 2.0, you’ll be familiar with ‘The Art of the Sentence’.

The technique is described as follows:

Ask students to synthesize a complex idea in a single, well-crafted sentence. The discipline of having to make one sentence do all the work pushes students to use new syntactical forms.

Sentences are the simplest mentor texts and students with a command of effective sentence-building tend to produce the best writing. At my school, Dixons Kings Academy, we’ve been starting every lesson with The Art of the Sentence. It’s a simple strategy with a massive impact.

Improving thinking

A well-constructed sentence is about more than just literacy. The best sentences actually improve the quality of thinking. As Doug Lemov writes, “…helping students learn how to write increasingly complex, subtle, and nuanced sentences is teaching them to develop increasingly complex, subtle, and nuanced thoughts.”

Here is an example from a list of analytical sentences shared by Andy Tharby:

________is motivated not only by… but also by…

This construction enables-or forces- students to think in a specific way about the text. As students are presented with more and more of these sentence constructions, they will reach for just the right one when they want to think precisely about a concept.

AOS 1We asked staff to reflect on the habits of thinking we needed to develop in our students and then designed sentences to promote this. For example, in many subjects there is a need to consider and then express cause and effect. Which sentences might help students to develop this habit of thinking?

As a result of_______________, ______________________.

One inevitable consequence of___________________

____________________________ is a direct result of

 

AOS 3Building vocabulary

Precision of expression is crucial not just at the sentence level, but at the word level. Most words are learnt from context, not through the teaching of them, and a single encounter with a word will be unlikely to ensure full and rich knowledge. But repeated exposure to a range of carefully chosen words is an approach worth taking. (See Choosing which words to teach)

IncAOS 2reasing purposefulness

Every lesson starts with an artful sentence. While the sequence can be extended and sentences studied- as I do repeatedly- this can also be completed quickly at the start and the simple routine makes lesson starts more purposeful. I use mini whiteboards, some teachers use computers, some books and some just ask students to think of their response. The immediate habits of thinking and working set the tone for the rest of the lesson: no minute is wasted in the pursuit of learning. Teachers then transition into the teaching of the subject.

Our Director of Literacy took on the mammoth task of creating slides, trawling the internet for interesting and unusual images to use, and designing just the right sentences.

Initially, there were small issues that needed addressing. Some students were using the sentences without the precise meaning. For example, one student in my class wrote, “Ultimately, there is a cat and a bird.”  This follows the instructions of the task, but with no real understanding of why we should use that word. Also, with the wrong image /sentence combination, sentences don’t really work either. “On the surface” only works if there is something deeper that is not on the surface. The first time that students encounter a word such as “inevitable”, it probably has to be explained. The second time might require another explanation but students soon get it.

In one of my recent lessons, students were writing a paragraph comparing Helena from a Midsummer Night’s Dream with a typical Elizabethan woman and I saw this: “Helena differs from a typical Elizabethan woman in a number of ways respects.” This topic sentence construction had been used on a number of slides. Then, in another lesson, a student wrote: “Ultimately, Romeo is a tragic hero and is fated to die.” I hear the sentences in class discussion and see them in writing with increasing frequency.

Next steps

So far, we have used the same sentences across the school, but we will shift to making them more subject specific, allowing students to develop the vocabulary and precision of thought in a particular subject discipline. We will also increase the complexity of some of the sentences now that students are grasping the concept. At present, we have been constructing sentences based on images but next will be graphs, extracts from literature, historical sources.

Further reading:

Doug Lemov on The Art of the Sentence

David Didau on The Art of Beautifully Crafted Sentences

Chris Curtis’ Death to Sentence Stems! Long Live the Sentence Structures!

Andy Tharby’s Sentence Escalator

Old year’s resolutions

In March my external hard drive died. I couldn’t recover anything from it and I went through all of the stages of grief. I found the back up I had made- in 2011- and frantically searched for any of my new resources to no avail. But as I searched, I was struck by how many schemes of work had been abandoned and how many excellent resources remained unused. Measured in hours, I cannot think how long it took to create those resources, only for them to never be used again.

At this time of year, when we are thinking of resolutions and a new start, it’s important to remember that a lot of what we do is pretty good already and doesn’t necessarily need changing. We have to be careful not to invest time and energy in a bunch of things that appeal not because they are better, but because they are new. Even when they are worthwhile, we can always count the costs in the trail left behind of what we just stop doing to fit them in.

Why do things get abandoned? There are new books to study, new specifications to cover, new school agendas, new Ofsted agendas and original new ways of approaching content. We feel a need to stay current, fearful of missing out on the next innovation. We see another teacher sharing a picture of their classroom display and then that nagging sense we are not good enough kicks in so we drop everything and make a new display. I’ve contributed to this by blogging enthusiastically about what felt like great new ideas (progress investigators anyone?) before I had any indication if they were particularly effective.

Of course, some of those new things are better, and we still need to remain open to new ideas, but much of what will make us better in the new year, we’ve been doing already.

Consequently, I’m making some ‘old year’s resolutions’. Rather than listing all of the new things I’m going to do, I’m going to develop and refine what I’m already doing:

I will read the books I already own.

I can’t stop buying books, particularly ones on education. There are weeks when I’ve spent more time browsing for books than I’ve actually spent reading them. Truth be told, many of the books I’ve read are to all intents and purposes exactly the same book. There’s only so many times someone can tell me that the key to expertise is practice, for example. This abundance of books also means that there is little chance of them having too much of a deep influence on my practice, even when they are useful, because I quickly move on to the next one.

So I will stop buying new books in abundance in order to read those I haven’t touched. I will reread some of the books which were particularly useful but which have lost their impact because I’ve forgotten about them.

I will continue to focus on the basics

Calling them ‘basics’ is not quite the right word, but I’m talking here mainly about questioning, explanations and feedback. I have worked hard to improve the quality of my questioning this year and will continue to work on this, in particular ensuring that when I ask questions, everyone thinks. I am happy with the quality of my feedback but there is a nagging feeling that it isn’t having the desired effects, so there is further work to do. I won’t rip everything up, just refine what I do currently.

I will keep these at the top of my priority list because they can always be worked on. If I come across something interesting which is all shiny and new, I will consider whether it will take me away from these main things.

I will refine my classroom routines

Having started at a new school after working for over a decade at my previous school, the most notable challenges have been in the smaller aspects, the day to day routines that have changed. With a couple of exceptions, I teach double lessons, and it is a shift that I’m not sure I have completely nailed yet. It’s other things like new routines for the distribution and collection of homework. It’s even in where I keep the glues and how I set out my classroom. None of this is particularly exciting or interesting but it is exactly what I need to continue working on.

I’m not going to pretend that I won’t try some new things in 2015. If I think a new idea will improve my classroom practice then I’ll definitely give it a go and when I receive feedback from others, I’ll be open to it.

You could even argue that not doing so many new things is a new thing in itself.

Further reading:

My post on what to do when launching new ideas.

James Theobald on opportunity cost: Why is opportunity cost so important? Bo knows.

 And here is a link to a website where you can buy scratch and sniff cards for all your favourite poems. I MUST HAVE THESE!

 

Teacher workload: Can it be sustained?

Like many teachers, I filled in the DfE workload survey. I tried thinking about the external demands that increase teacher workloads but I quickly realised that most of the decisions around what teachers are expected to do comes from within the school.

It then forced me to reflect on the consequences on teacher workload of actions I take and advice I give. I have responsibility for CPD and deliver many training sessions to groups of staff and I need to ensure that my advice doesn’t increase teachers’ workload to unmanageable extents. Our school day is longer than most schools and teaching is a time consuming job anyway. I now try to approach much of my advice to colleagues with the question: Can it be sustained? Can it be sustained over a year and can it be sustained over a teaching career?

I think it is easy to forget just how challenging it is to have a full teaching load when you haven’t had one for a while. You have lots of marking, lots of planning and it can be quite intense to work all day with little time to take a breather. Many leaders don’t suffer the long term draining effects of this because with promotions come reduced teaching loads and it can be easy to downplay the experience of these who have worked these hours over a long period. It has been nearly a decade since I taught a full teaching load and by the end of my one quite busy day I am exhausted- many teachers have 5 of those days!

Whenever a new idea is pitched at staff and they are asked to all do it, we have to consider this context and the cost of the new initiative: Will this increase teachers’ workloads? The answer to this is usually ‘yes’ so we have to carefully consider what we must get rid of in order to accommodate this new amount of work. Otherwise, either teachers have to work harder or things won’t get done. Neither of these consequences are helpful.

Marking is probably the place where we can make our biggest wins with realistic expectations of what we expect from staff. I’ll try not to labour this point as I have already written about 300 blogs on feedback. Suffice to say that that we need to shine a spotlight on feedback and make sure that it is effective and done for the right reasons. It’s the thing that drains teachers’ time so we need to do whatever we can to reduce this time and make it more efficient. No teacher should be giving feedback that will remain unread by students in fear of ‘failing’ a book scrutiny. Mary Myatt writes sensibly about what Ofsted expect to see here.

@Cherrylkd shared a story in this blog about teachers being asked to hand in their planning a week in advance. The story reminded me of a friend who had to prepare detailed lesson plans for every lesson and where snap inspections took place to check. I cannot fathom why schools would place this unnecessary burden on their staff. We work hard enough without additional layers of work which hinder our effectiveness.

When it comes to planning lessons, the majority of my lessons are now pretty simple. It’s not often that you will see something that looks magnificently complex as you would have seen in my classroom in the past: hats and balloons and rhythmic gymnastics. But good lessons- even those deceptively simple ones- take a long time to plan properly. They take time to conceptualise and resource, so asking for a detailed lesson plan is just more work. Asking for it a week in advance is like asking me what I fancy for my tea next Tuesday- or asking me to write the recipe for what I will eat.

We also need to take a sensible approach to things like differentiation and understand that there are differences between what we can do and what it is reasonable to expect teachers to do. See these blogs from Andy Tharby and David Fawcett for ideas.

While Ofsted can be used negatively to increase teacher work load- ‘You need to do it because Ofsted say they want it’– we should also acknowledge that they have made it abundantly clear that there are some ridiculous things that have been done in their name, and they have attempted to quash these myths. (We shouldn’t let Ofsted off the hook completely as many of the myths originated from their reports and from inspectors moonlighting as trainers.)

There are times when I would encourage working hard for a shorter period. For example, I tend to mark books more intensely at the start of the year to a) inform my teaching and b) to set a standard. There are other times when a lot of initial effort reaps rewards e.g. that tough class where you will benefit from speaking to many of the parents early on. I also think that time should be invested in curriculum design which again saves time at a later date. None of these things can be sustained over the year.

Sometimes I get frustrated when I don’t get a reply to an email or when somebody misses a deadline. Yet I also have a massive to-do list of emails I haven’t responded to and deadlines that I too am struggling to make. My complaint is that I keep getting asked to do more things. Which means that the things I ask others to do are having the same effect. They are one thing in many things that teachers have been asked to do. James Theo write about this piecemeal accumulation of workload here.

There are some difficult questions posed when you consider the sustainability of different approaches. For example, how can you decide what to sacrifice? Will we need to stop doing some valuable things because of the burden on teacher workload? I know a number of things which I could do to make my teaching better but if these come at a cost to my well-being, are they truly worth it? Schools tend to live in a culture of short-termism and we can often justify intensive intervention (when this is normalised, is it intervention at all?) by saying it is ‘just this once’.

What I do know is that no child will benefit if they have an exhausted teacher in front of them.