Exam Stress, Anxiety and Mental Health: Why Schools Have to Take a Different Approach.

As we near the end of another exam season and tired teenagers (and teachers) get ready for a well-earned rest, we are continually bombarded with media stories of a “child mental health crisis”, supposedly generated by the number of exams students now have to take and the sheer volume of things they have to learn, only to be further exacerbated by the amount of pressure they are put under by parents and teachers.

Schools are constantly criticized on social media regarding this issue. A couple of weeks ago I read about a headteacher in a primary school who had told his Y2 students that the SATS they were about to take were the most important things they would ever do and that their futures depended on their performance in these tests. I hope this is an urban myth, and I hope that if it is true then the headteacher involved is ashamed of themselves. My son is in Y2 and has just taken his SATS and, although he knew he was doing them, he seemed to be under no pressure or stress to perform. This is how it should be.

Schools and teachers have a collective moral responsibility to actively tackle and avoid causing stress and anxiety among pupils. These types of problems are less likely to be related to intrinsic mental conditions that are hard-wired into the brain from birth or during early development and far more likely to be triggered by environmental conditions, for example social and cultural conventions and peer pressure, things which as schools we have some control over.

A frequent culprit that gets blamed for this stress and anxiety is social media. Constant access to these platforms exposes teenagers to an inexorable torrent of peer pressure which often becomes bullying. The crowd mentality that predominates in the online world requires a scapegoat and, as social circles and hierarchies constantly shift and rearrange themselves, almost every teenager will end up being that scapegoat at some point; when this becomes concentrated and repeated it can push students over the edge and into the realms of self-harming and other negative and destructive behaviours. Clearly schools have to intervene to alleviate this mob mentality and to teach students to be polite and kind at all times, regardless of who they are dealing with, and this is usually addressed through assemblies, form time and PSHE programmes, as well as everyday modelling of positive social behaviour by conscientious teachers.

A key area where schools can make a massive difference – in my opinion – is around exams and exam preparation. The way that teachers pass messages about exams to students and the signals we give are hugely influential in shaping students’ perceptions of exams and therefore the stress and anxiety that can be associated with these. It’s paramount that as professionals we don’t pass undue pressure to get grades on to students; these pressures are part of the job for teachers and we need to find strategies to deal with them accordingly. Students need to know that if they have worked hard and done their best then they have nothing to be worried about. The idea that exam failure signals The End of Days for students is a cruel misrepresentation of the truth; yes, the better grades students get the more money they are likely to earn, but this doesn’t automatically mean that they will be happier adults.

There’s a lot to be said for the idea that a person makes and creates their own happiness: students need to be taught and trained how to achieve this. A lot of it comes down to keeping things in perspective; a fall-out with a friend can appear to be the most important thing in the world to an adolescent, but in the big scheme of things it won’t even figure in what they remember as they get older. Helping students to see things in perspective can limit the impact of what they believe are monumental events that can affect their mental health.

One way I try to positively influence the mental health of my students is by thinking carefully about how I speak to them in groups. I constantly tell my Y11s that exams are a challenge to be risen to, not an event to be dreaded. They are a final performance that help colleges and employers to make decisions about candidates, but they are not the whole story. Students should enjoy their education simply because what we are teaching them is endlessly fascinating and engaging – we need to pass this passion and fascination on to our students and this doesn’t need to be marred by a dread of the “terminal” exam (even the language has connotations of disease and death!). Teach the students to anticipate the opportunity to show off how great their knowledge and understanding of the subject is, not to live in fear and dread of the final performance.

A colleague recently retweeted a post from a teenager about how her RS teacher had told the class that they wouldn’t be able to cover all the course before the exam and that she was stressed and worried because none of the students would achieve their targets. To me this is wholly unprofessional and inexcusable behaviour from somebody in a position of trust and authority. Doesn’t this simply demonstrate a lack of curriculum planning and poor teaching rather than anything inherently wrong with the new RS GCSE? My students are expected to be calm and realistic about exams. They’re well prepared and the vast majority of them work hard; they know they are doing a good job and that we’re all in it together, pulling in the same direction, sharing ideas and celebrating our achievements, not being ritually berated every time I see them because I think they’re going to fail.

A couple of weeks before the exams started this year I delivered an assembly to Y11. Rather than the usual pre-exam focus of exam and revision strategy, Growth Mindset and the countdown to the first exam, I focused on health and wellbeing. So much of our mental healthiness comes down to keeping things in perspective, the things we do in our spare time, the food we eat and the amount of sleep we get. I focused on the importance of viewing leisure time as sacred and using it to get out and about. I showed them some pictures of my kids at the beach chasing the dogs and up to their shoulders in a snow drift. I reinforced the importance of getting 8-10 hours of sleep each night and of limiting screen time. It was great that after that assembly I was constantly having conversations with Y11 – initiated by them – both in the classroom and the corridor, about the number of hours they’d slept, what time they’d gone to bed and got up, what exercise they’d done, how they’d avoided caffeine and energy drinks etc. etc.

Another issue that adds to the problem is the fact that everything has to be medicalised now – every type of behaviour is a “disease” or a “condition”. Part of this is the legacy of the self-esteem movement; everyone should be loud and proud about who they are and if they aren’t then there must be a diagnosis pending. Only this week The Telegraph carried a story about the first child to diagnosed with internet addiction. This is just plain daft. I expect the child just needs to have their screen time cut down and find a hobby. By medicalising every character trait we are building a culture in which it’s normal to be sick, rather than normal to be healthy which is what most of us are most of the time. It’s important that schools attempt to share this idea, not whip everyone into a navel-gazing furore in which we are constantly trying to determine what is wrong with us rather than assuming the best of ourselves.

Mental health and its infinite permutations have been subjects of study and debate since time immemorial. In some historical cultures people with unusual personality traits were often designated special status because they were difficult to categorise according to social convention; as a result they were often seen as embodying the sacred and may have been used to fulfil important social functions, for example as shamans or healers in pre-medicalised societies. This kind of thinking seems a distant romanticisation now; if anything is deemed different then we automatically assume there is a problem and stigmatise it with negative connotations, when in fact we ought to be coming at this from the opposite approach and assume that there isn’t an illness or condition to diagnose and that if there is an issue it can probably be dealt with sensibly rather than labelling it, diagnosing it, making a prognosis and therefore inflating and prolonging an issue that may not have been there in the first place.

A big part of the problem is that many of the current approaches to parenting and teaching simply foster young adults with an inflated sense of entitlement. Child-centred, ego-inflating strategies build young people up with a deluded sense of themselves and the world that in the end will lead to disappointment and possibly despair. We shouldn’t teach them to think that the world revolves around them; it doesn’t. We should instead teach them to be pleased with who they are whilst always striving to improve, to get on with it and to be resilient. To do this we need to work towards building a culture of positivity where it’s normal to work hard, help others, and be happy and healthy. We have a long way to go to achieve anything like this.

Advertisements

My Top 10 of Daft Things That Really Should Have Disappeared From Teaching By Now.

Catchy title, isn’t it? I haven’t written a blog in nearly a year, but I’ve pent up enough exasperation over the last 10 months to warrant a Top 10 of Daft Things That Really Should Have Disappeared from Teaching By Now. I’m constantly banging on to my colleagues to “do what works” and cut out the things that have no impact, and so it’s in this spirit that I’ve had to quietly seethe about some of the daft things that many still hold dear in education. Here’s my list for an Educational Room 101.

1) Marking = feedback, and the more of it you do the better your teaching will be.

There is lots of great marking practice out there now. Many colleagues are using codes, whole class feedback sheets and peer assessment to cut down the onerousness and anguish of extensive written teacher comments. The important thing is that as teachers we read the work and plan to address misconceptions next time, not cover the work in lots of empty, meaningless praise designed to make students feel better about themselves.

2) The more hours you work, the better teacher you’ll be.

Teachers need to work relatively long hours, and I don’t think a 40-50 hour week is unacceptable. But most evenings and weekends should be sacred personal time. There are occasions in the school year when this impossible, for example during mock exams, but regular longer working weeks are unsustainable. It’s great that this is now reflected in the latest Ofsted framework where inspectors are holding leaders to account on staff work-life balance (about time too). It’s obvious that a well-rested, happy teacher is going to have more impact whilst they’re at work than a burnt out, bitter teacher who has written all over every student book each week and produced 22 detailed lesson plans every Sunday afternoon.

3)  Teachers don’t need to be subject specialists.

Yes, they do. Otherwise how can they hope to help students kindle a love and fascination for the nuances and ambiguities of that subject? An AHT I once knew declared to a staff meeting that he was “a teacher of children, not of a subject”, suggesting that we should all be prepared to teach whatever the timetable required us to teach. This probably comes from the idea that inquiry-based learning is effective: “never mind that you’re a Maths teacher. Just give them a copy of Macbeth and a couple of plastic daggers and a crown and they’ll have it worked out in no time. You just need to guide from the side!” FFS.

4) Differentiation should be by task

No, it shouldn’t. To my mind it beggars belief that anyone in education expects to see this in a classroom. The other week I spoke to a colleague working in a school where they are expected to plan every lesson with at least three differentiated outcomes dependent on ability. This is insane. How do you decide where the line is drawn and divide the kids into separate groups where one will write the essay and another will create the poster? Surely this is just a race to the bottom for the poster makers? I was further incensed on this topic when I went to a T+L workshop recently that advocated this very approach, along with the frankly laughable and outdated idea of differentiated objectives (of the ludicrous must/should/could variety!). This colleague further told me that in September the expectation that teachers plan for three outcomes at this school will be doubling to six! Imagine that! Such expectations are ludicrous, arbitrary and worst of all damaging to staff morale because they make a positive work-life balance difficult. I want everyone in my class to do their best to produce the best piece of writing of which they’re capable in response to the task set, and this is what I expect to see in my colleagues’ classrooms too. Great differentiation is about knowing the students, fine-tuning instruction and questioning, and knowing when to intervene and what support to provide, not providing some silly Nando’s style menu of tasks.

5)  Student talk = learning/Teacher-talk -= not learning.

I don’t need to spell this one out – students learn best through quality explicit instruction, not through being put in groups to fumble their way to some half-baked answer that then has to be corrected through 10 minutes of explicit instruction provided at the end of the lesson by the teacher in an effort to try and salvage some shred of learning from a wasted hour. (Number 5 could have also been called “Group work works!” No, it doesn’t).

6) Fun = engagement = learning.

Why do some of us still cling to the idea that the only way to get kids to learn is to dress up what happens in the classroom as something completely different? Learning is rewarding in itself and the subjects we teach are endlessly fascinating. Let’s not turn it into a murder mystery with lots daft props sourced from Poundland at the weekend out of the teacher’s own pocket.

7) Grading is an effective way to bring about improvements.

It was a welcome relief several years ago that Ofsted stopped grading lessons and consequently sensible schools did too (I hear many schools do still do this and even using fine-grading – this is inexcusable). At my school we focus on formative feedback, and that’s all we need. What went well in the lesson and what might have been improved? It’s also acknowledged that what is seen is only a snapshot of practice and I always urge colleagues never to change what they were going to do just because somebody is coming to watch, regardless of who it is. This culture of low-stakes observation also leads to much more confidence amongst staff: more doors are left open, staff are happy for colleagues to come and have a look at what they’re doing, and people don’t feel as though people are trying to catch them out. I look forward to the day when Ofsted also behave in this way in practice – they are making the right noises at the top, but many inspectors still seem to cultivate an aura of the mediaeval witch-finder, rather than the benign advice-giver which schools would benefit more from.

8) Bad behaviour = bad planning.

I remember the aforementioned AHT imparting this nugget of non-wisdom to me as an NQT or RQT. It sounded wrong at the time but I didn’t have the experience or confidence to challenge it. Bad behaviour = bad behaviour. Full stop. There’s also a suggestion here that if there is bad behaviour then the teacher hasn’t planned the lesson, which in some schools leads to an expectation that lengthy detailed lesson plans will be produced for every lesson. What a waste of time. Great teachers think lessons through, know what students will learn and decide how best to impart and assess whether this has worked. Filling in a 3-sided A4 document doesn’t help them achieve this or lead to better behaviour.

9) Bad behaviour = communicating a need.

It seems that every individual is encouraged to have a need that should be given a label and that can only be channelled through some form of anti-social behaviour. This is an inherently flawed aspect of the way society now thinks. The fact that nearly all students who exhibit anti-social behaviour in lessons can behave perfectly well in other lessons clearly demonstrates that most poor behaviour is a choice. We have to stop pandering to this silliness. And this leads nicely into Number 10.

10) All children are inherently good.

This is a sacred belief and to question it is, for many, quite simply taboo. Suggesting otherwise opens you up to attacks and accusations from all sides. But the generality of the statement in itself exposes its weaknesses, and the strongest defenders of such a doctrine are often those who push for a much more personalised and individualised approach to education. The truth is, nobody is inherently good or bad, but we are judged as such by the things we do and say. Children are learning to be good citizens and schools are a key part in helping them to do this. Anti-social behaviour that jeopardies the safety and security of others needs to be dealt with promptly and seriously before reintegration can occur, not written off as something else. All children have the potential to be good, but this is not inherent.

There are many more things I could consign to an educational Room 101, but we’ll leave it there and get back to the enjoyable stuff of being on holiday with the family whilst occasionally thinking about how best to bring about improvements for the staff and students in our school (in that order I might add: if the staff are happy it follows that the students will be happy too). Enjoy the Easter break.

Are Progressive Teaching Methods A Bit Like Fast Food?

It’s increasingly clear for those of us in education that are interested in doing what works for our students (rather than simply entertaining them) that traditional teaching methods are far more effective and efficient than progressive ones. Having a skilled and highly knowledgeable subject expert delivering a challenging topic to students from the front of the room has far more benefits than setting a class off on some hare-brained, contrived and convoluted inquiry or project based “learning journey” in which they stumble their disorientated way through mistake after disaster in a bid to discover some simple piece of knowledge that they could have just been told in the first place.

And yet (and I hate to admit this), I still find myself occasionally falling back on the odd bit of progressive methodology now and then. The reason for this is because traditional teaching is just much harder than the progressive approach (no place for a “lazy teacher” in the traditional classroom), both for students and the teacher, and therefore takes a much greater toll on all concerned. Everybody in the room is 100% engaged in thinking hard about the subject at hand. There is no place to hide as teacher explanations, targeted questioning, whole class discussions, and independent reading and writing time – when done well – leave no place for passengers. Conversely, stick the kids in groups with some problem to solve, and invariably there is greater scope for wasted time through off task behaviour; suddenly, there are lots of places to hide.

Over the last two weeks my Y10s have been learning how to tackle Q2 and Q3 of AQA English Language Paper 1. This has involved lots of explanation, modelling and questioning on my part and lots of questioning, answering, independent writing and peer assessment on theirs. There is no denying that the answers they have produced, after being carefully guide through the thinking and writing processes, are absolutely top-notch, and consequently it was lovely to be able to give them overwhelmingly positive feedback yesterday after I’d marked their work.

Stupidly though, after I’d done this I explained that they’d be doing a group task during the lesson. They were visibly excited by the prospect and, predictably, as they moved into groups, much of the discussion began to wander away from the task at hand and I had to vigilantly circulate to constantly nudge them back. In my heart I knew I should have been teaching this next part of the unit from the front, but the lazy little progressive devil on my shoulder kept telling me they’d had a gruelling two weeks, had worked really hard and done well, and that this was a little reward for that. It was almost like we’d taken a break from learning; we may as well have been sitting in a McDonald’s restaurant for all the impact this task was having.

This got me to thinking.

I remember driving home from work a few years ago and listening to an episode of Radio 4’s “The Food Programme”. It was all about the “Slow Food Movement”, which at that time I’d never heard of. The basic premise is that meals are much better when cooked from scratch using fresh ingredients and, where possible, locally sourced produce. They not only taste better (because they use better quality ingredients and reflect the love, care and skill of the chef who created them), but are nutritionally much better for us with more long term benefits, generally containing less salt, fat and sugar, and retaining a higher level of essential vitamins and minerals than their processed cousins.

Yesterday I realised that there is an analogy to be drawn here: the dichotomy between slow and fast food is a lot like the dichotomy between traditional and progressive pedagogy.

Take first, for example, the fact that slow food relies on the skill of the cook to produce a nutritional, tasty meal, just as a traditional approach to teaching relies on deep subject knowledge. On the other hand, anybody can work in a fast food restaurant to bang out a few burgers (but hey, think of the 21st Century skills they develop in the KFC kitchen!). This reminds me of what a progressive AHT once told me: “we are teachers of children, not subjects”, the implication being that any qualified teacher can teach any subject they are required to and that subject knowledge doesn’t matter in the least (because we can all go on the “learning journey” together!).

Secondly, fast food restaurants are designed to be fun, entertaining and stimulating, in the same way that a progressive teacher’s lessons will have been planned with these priorities in mind. Customers and students should be engaged through entertainment from the moment they arrive to the moment they leave. All the senses will be constantly stimulated to ensure engagement (making sure all those personalised – especially “VAK” – needs are catered for of course). Conversely, a good slow meal relies on great ingredients, just like a traditionalist’s lesson will rely on great content and the belief that, for example, Shakespeare’s plays are fascinating enough in and of themselves, without needing to be set to the theme music of Eastenders or recreating a Country House Murder Mystery to solve the death of Banquo when teaching Act 3 of Macbeth.

Nor can it be disputed that slow food cooks constantly check (i.e. formatively assess) the dish they are cooking through tasting and adjust it accordingly (a little more of this, a little less of that); traditional teachers are constantly assessing the progress of their students through low stakes quizzing and questioning and then revisiting or reframing content. In progressive lessons, the activity is king and the teacher facilitates by taking a hands off approach and allowing the students to fumble their own way through. In the same way, the Whopper needs no testing as it will serve its purpose in its standard form.

And, just like traditional teaching, there is no denying the fact that slow cooked food has long term benefits and “sticks to the ribs”. Its nutritional value has innumerable positive longer term effects on the body and a slow cooked meal will keep you feeling satisfied until the next meal time. On the other hand, many of us love to eat a Big Mac, but you’ll feel lousy afterwards and hungry again within a couple of hours (you’re not really hungry – it’s just your body craving more salt and sugar). The staple methods of traditional teaching ensure that the content you learn stays with you: lots of explicit instruction, quiet writing time, feedback and redrafting inevitably commit learning to long term memory. With progressive methods, the students will remember the activity because it was great fun and probably crave another fix very soon, but it’s doubtful they’ve ever engaged with the content in anything more than a superficial way.

So there we have it. I’m sure I’ve missed some other analogical connections between these dichotomies, but to me the message is clear: if you want your students to benefit from education in the long term, go slow (traditional). If you want them to have a great time but gain little, go fast (progressive).

I now intend to go into consultancy on the back of this unimpeachable educational theory. Thank you for reading.

 

PBL as common as PBJ? No way, Jose!

This week I responded to a comment on Twitter written by a certain Dr Jeff Goldstein who claims that:

“In education, PBL should be as natural as PBJ. We need transdisciplinary learning opportunities that mirror the real world.”

Now, on Wednesday, I had no idea what PBJ was, but I knew full well what PBL was, and so I replied “No it shouldn’t. It doesn’t work.” I later found out that PBJ stands for “Peanut Butter and Jelly”, which I gather must be a common part of children’s lunches in the US (not sure on the nutritional value there).

@doctorjeff is clearly a bit confused about Problem/Project Based Learning and its merits. He seems to be advocating its use across all age groups regardless of students’ prior knowledge or attainment. This is clearly misguided and irresponsible – anybody who takes part in a project (if it is to be successful and effective) needs to be an expert in the field in which the project is taking place. I don’t suppose the NASA recruitment team hire people to work on a project with a background in joinery – it would clearly be a waste of time.

Anyway, the good doctor then pointed out that he was talking from experience and that my data was limited. He kindly gave me a link to an American website that runs a competition offering a team of students the chance to have their own scientific experiment sent into space. It looks amazing. This is the link: www.ssep.ncesse.org.

He pointed out that this programme has “amazing impact” and that my “data is limited.” I found this a little presumptuous, but gently pointed him towards the latest PISA findings, not bothering to point out that I’ve been a teacher for 13 years and in that time I’ve seen countless lessons and courses that use the project model and where the students, lacking the suitable knowledge and expertise, just waste time trying to “discover” something that they could have been much more efficiently taught. I pointed out that projects are great for getting things done by teams of experts with a common focus and goal, but that as a model for teaching it doesn’t work because novices need to be actually taught a subject if they aren’t going to waste a lot of time fumbling around in the dark. In his last reply @doctorjeff declared “well you stick to your view and I’ll engage 100,000 nationally in the real space program. My data is also real.” I don’t think I’d suggested his data wasn’t real, but there you go; maybe I’d hit a nerve.

My final tweet (up to now) said “ouch. Presumably the 100K have an excellent working knowledge of the subject before you unleash them on any kind of project.” I knew this had to be true as the group whose proposal was chosen to be the lucky ones who had their project sent into space would have access to goodness only knows how much money’s worth of equipment and expert guidance. Clearly this kind of money wasn’t going to be squandered on a group of 12 year olds with no grasp of the noble scientific discipline. Sure enough, on the website it states:

“SSEP provides seamless integration across STEM disciplines through an authentic, high visibility research experience that correctly places content within a process landscape – an approach that embraces the Next Generation Science Standards, but also requires –

  • a critical understanding of the space technology, and associated spaceflight operations, used to transport payload to and from Low Earth Orbit and conduct microgravity experiments on ISS,
  • a critical understanding of the engineering specifications for the mini-laboratory, which provide real-world constraints on experiment design,
  • mathematics to design a viable experiment to operate in the mini-laboratory, through: refinement of sample (fluid and solid) concentrations and volumes, defining a timeline that is consistent with the experiment’s duration aboard ISS, and defining an approach to data analysis after the experiment returns to Earth

In addition, student teams are writing real proposals that then go through a formal review process. This addresses vital skills in terms of historical research, critical writing and communications, and teamwork.”

So there we have it: in order to qualify for this programme you need to be among the best and brightest of young people who’ve been thoroughly taught in some demanding and difficult disciplines requiring a lot of committed hours of study and – I expect – plenty of teacher-led direct instruction.

I’m not really sure who @drjeff is or what his experience of education is outside of providing real-world, hi-tech simulations for bright and knowledgeable young Americans, but it’s a little disconcerting that he thinks project-based learning is some kind of panacea that will magically produce the next generation’s pioneers; even he must realise that there’s an awful lot of pre-teaching and studying to be carried oout before students get to this stage. I dearly hope his 42K followers don’t take him literally at his word, especially the teachers among them.

Appendix: Some more weird and worrying tweets from Dr Jeff:

“The goal of education should not be to create a generation of content sponges, then force them to prove they soaked up all the water”. (Surely the water is what allows them to have a fertile and productive mind?)

“What needs to be the core objective of 21st century #education? Students capable of critical thinking on demand.” (Surely that’s always been the goal of high quality education? It’s not the domain of the 21st Century. I’m getting flashbacks to that ridiculous“Shift Happens” video that kept being shown in staff training a few years ago.

“exploration and inquiry should be the driver for learning and acquisition of knowledge, not knowledge for knowledge’s sake.” Oh lordy.

“It’s the student’s classroom, and the teacher lights the way” The mind boggles.

Engagement Without Gimmicks: stripping out the superficial.

This week we started the new term’s cycle of T+L workshops. One of the workshops on offer was entitled “Engagement Without Gimmicks”. This was delivered by a very experienced colleague in the English Department who has a track record of great results and who, like me, endured the years of mind-boggling obsession with child-centred, experiential, discovery-based teaching that had such a negative impact on behaviour and results in schools across the UK.

My colleague opened the workshop by sharing a Guardian “Secret Teacher” column that she said had really angered her (I had to stop reading the column years ago as I find the needy, whiny, navel-gazing tone nauseating). In the column a science teacher wrote about how as a young teacher she spent hours creating resources to help her students learn in fun and “hands-on” ways and that she loved doing this, despite her husband’s pleas for her to spend some time with him. Later, when she had children, she found that she couldn’t maintain this pace and began to feel like a failure because her students had come to expect these kinds of activities and she just couldn’t keep pace anymore. Even though she realised that it was far more efficient and expedient to just show a diagram of a brain and explain its workings to the class, she felt like she should be providing the resources that would allow her students to build their own brains from jelly and moulds.

The teacher running the workshop then told an anecdote about how a colleague, when Ofsted were visiting, brought in a sandpit, some sand, shells and containers of water to help her teach descriptive writing based around a visit to the beach. The inspector deemed the lesson to be outstanding. But was it really any better than just discussing the experience, maybe with the aid of an image and an excellent example from a great writer? And could anyone realistically provide these kinds of props for every lesson? And how much time was wasted by students taking the opportunity to mess around in this novel environment rather than doing something useful?

She also gave us another example of how things had changed for the better. We have just begun a unit on Gothic Horror with Year 9. In the first lesson we teach them about the conventions of the genre and give a brief historical overview. She said how a few years ago she’d printed four or six examples from the genre and laid them around the room, expecting groups of students to work together to read these (incredibly challenging 18th and 19th Century) extracts and “discover” for themselves what the conventions were, whilst she hung back with all the knowledge they needed in her head, afraid to just tell them what they needed to know. (Add to this the fact that many teachers would have felt compelled to deck their rooms out with spooky garb – imagine the time cost! – turn off the lights, and play some spooky music as the students walked in). By the end the ones that were better at the subject might have identified a few conventions but they would have no contextual knowledge and she’d end up having to put all this right next time. Instead, by talking through what they needed to know and getting them to write a response to the question “What is Gothic and why is it still important today?” students have learnt lots and consolidated that in their own written response, which they can return to and read at any point.

Another issue identified by the workshop leader was that teachers have been expected to compete with attention-grabbing media platforms (mobiles, Xboxes etc.)  to engage and maintain their students’ attention. Surely this is just insane? Shouldn’t we be finding ways to improve and lengthen students’ concentration spans rather than accepting that they need everything to be dumbed down into fun, short doses? Surely the point of education is to improve students’ minds, not to accept that the damage is done and so pander to and exacerbate dwindling attention spans and the need for immediate gratification?

After this the discussion was opened up to allow everyone to share their own ideas and experiences of things that work in the classroom. A maths teacher talked about the importance of making thought processes visible through careful, methodical modelling and at the same time highlighting where mistakes might be made, whilst also emphasising how difficult what the students are being asked to do actually is, thereby building the students’ confidence and self-esteem when they understand the process.

Another Maths teacher spoke about opening lessons with low-stakes, closed question quizzing to recap learning from the previous lesson. This is something we’ve been using in English to help embed the knowledge needed for the new Literature exams, and we’ve found it to be very effective.

I suggested that structuring learning into a repetitive cycle is something that can improve behaviour, memory, and performance. For example, in English, every section of learning is set up with a big question and some kind of hook or link to another topic. One of my big questions this week was “How does the Inspector assert his authority when he arrives?” (in An Inspector Calls). We began with an image of the Inspector and recapped with a series of closed and then open questions about his character and role in the play. We then read the relevant piece of text and discussed and mind-mapped possible points to include in the piece of writing that would follow. Next, we revised the criteria required for an excellent response to a literature question through discussion and interpretation of the mark scheme (which we’ve done many times over the last two years), and students were given 45 minutes to write a response (whilst I circulated to give advice and support). Afterwards the piece was peer-assessed three times and then students extended and/or improved their original piece in response to the comments. At this point (about halfway through the second lesson) we wrapped that episode up and moved onto our new learning question. This took minimal planning on my part and everybody in this mixed ability group produced something worthy of a Grade C or above in old money (Grade 4-9 currently).

The idea here is that we move away from  planning for lessons but rather plan for “episodes”, however long these episodes need to take (which is often quite unpredictable), and in doing that the planning is massively reduced because we just start the process again when we get to the end each time. Not only that, but students always know what’s coming and so time isn’t wasted teaching them how to do an activity: the engagement comes in the fascinating topics being studied and the teacher’s passion, expertise and relationships with the class.

Relationships and subject knowledge were also discussed at length: it was generally agreed that all students respect a teacher that they know works hard for them, knows their stuff, but is also unafraid to appear fallible and human. We also agreed that the time wasted on gimmicky teaching was far better spent reading up on our subjects to improve and deepen our own subject knowledge, rather than creating shallow, superficial, fun activities that benefited no-one and burnt teachers out as they tried to think up even more original ideas and struggled to manage volatile, unpredictable classroom environments.

It was a fascinating hour and one that suggested that by avoiding creating pointless, gimmicky activities and just discussing topics, working through problems together, revisiting content and employing an effective lesson structure, workload could be made manageable, learning more effective, and teachers kept sane (and in the profession).  All this ensures that students make great progress because they know they are getting a good deal from somebody who cares about them and the subject being studied, thereby allowing them to maximise their potential so that more opportunities are open to them at the next stage of their lives.

Leave it at the Door: why soft skills have no place in my English lesson

I have two points to make in this blog: firstly, traditional academic subjects should be taught purely, acknowledging their own specific set of knowledge and skills; secondly, this can only be done by subject experts. But first, here’s a bit of anecdote.

Like all teachers in this country, in my second year of teaching (2006-7) I began jumping through the hoops and red tape of the teacher appraisal system. Twice a year I’d be observed, and twice a year I’d fill in the school’s lesson plan template and faithfully hand it to the observer prior to the lesson. With only one exception, these lessons were relentlessly deemed as “good with outstanding features”. I was pleased about this as I’d slogged my way through my NQT year – left more or less to my own devices with three particularly challenging groups on my timetable – being observed every half term and receiving the same “satisfactory” outcome. In truth, I think my NQT mentor was being generous or sympathetic and some of these lessons should have been condemned to the dustbin of utter failure. Unfortunately, I just didn’t get how to create a “good” lesson.  Interestingly though, my third appraisal objective during that first cycle of my career was simply “to keep a reflective journal” (my line manager was very research focused and I was privileged to be line managed by somebody who saw this as a worthy target). One of the first entries was a piece called “The Disnification of Education”, which opened with the following lines:

“Whatever happened to good old fashioned teaching? It seems that to be an outstanding teacher one needs to be well-versed in skills that in earlier times we would have seen at the theatre or on the TV. We have to keep children entertained rather than encourage them to develop their skills of focus and concentration. One cannot help but wonder how much of this is a result of bad television and bad diet, culminating in the production of an idiot culture propagated by people who have no respect for knowledge and investigation.

                Only this morning I and a colleague were bemoaning the fact that students no longer even touch upon subjects that form the very basis of our civilisation in anything other than superficial ways. When we study Shakespeare we watch Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet and then discuss how we would direct one scene. When we “study” a novel, we watch the film and read one or two chapters. Science has absolutely no depth – children do very few equations and many experiments are no longer possible due to health and safety. As the idiots who grew up on TV dinners take on roles of authority and influence, so they implement initiatives to make sure that it becomes the one dominant cultural form and ensure the rapid demise of the quality of knowledge and its production.

                This is clearly visible in the example of business models being used in education.”

As I said, this was written ten years ago. At this time the onus was very much on the “engaging” aspect of lesson design. If students were engaged and most behaved reasonably well, then the lesson was deemed a success. I’ll never forget (as a young teacher) being preached to by a senior leader that if behaviour was poor then the lesson planned was plainly wrong for the students as it didn’t address their “needs”. The same person also told a group of young and inexperienced teachers that he wasn’t “a teacher of a subject” but rather a “teacher of children”, and in that respect we should all expect to be called upon to teach whatever the timetable required of us. I smelt something fishy in this (not actually realising it was simply an excuse for poor quality school systems and leadership), but didn’t dare air my views in public due to a general lack of confidence and experience and a fear of being faulted by respected colleagues.

Anyway, I digress. The point is that I managed to find a sure-fire way to always get good or outstanding lesson observations every time. It turned out to be dead easy – all I had to do was make sure I’d filled in three very special boxes on the lesson plan proforma: the “PLTS” (Personal, Learning and Thinking Skills), “Learning Styles” and “Cross-curricular links” boxes. If I could explicitly demonstrate that students were team workers or self-managers or creative thinkers, I could escape the punitive measure of yet another observation or a capability procedure, and this would be even more certain if I could get them to do a bit of numeracy through visual, auditory and kinaesthetic activities. What this really amounted to was making sure that the lesson had lots of fun and noisy activities which encouraged students to work together to some ultimately pointless and superficial end that may or may not be vaguely related to the topic I was supposed to be teaching. This might be getting them to write a rap about Lady Macbeth’s decline into insanity, or producing a storyboard to show what George and Slim did after the end of the book, or making a “mood board” to show how groups felt after reading a Wilfred Owen poem. The disgraceful thing in all this was that it didn’t really matter if the students were challenged or made genuine academic progress in the subject, just so long as they were “engaged” in what they were doing.

I should probably point out here that I am not particularly opposed to PLTS or cross-curricular teaching at all (although I am vehemently against the snake oil of learning styles). There is a time and place for these things, but it is not in my English lesson. You might want to talk about work place skills in a Business Studies or BTEC lesson, but they have absolutely no place in English, Maths, History or Science, for example.  This is because these subjects are built upon millennia of serious research and thought and far transcend the basic “soft skills” agenda that most students are subconsciously taught anyway by the adults in their lives who model decent behaviour (ideally parents, then teachers).

There is no sense at all in expecting to see workplace skills demonstrated in the classroom – what we should be looking for is a room full of students whose cultural horizons are being broadened and deepened so that they understand, become and feel a part of our shared culture, history and civilisation. This is why it is so important that subject teachers are subject experts who can impart the specific thinking and skills peculiar to their subject and develop students’ abilities to apply these to the problems that arise in these subjects. Furthermore, this is why the soft skills that some see as universal – such as problem-solving or creative thinking – simply don’t apply across subjects. When a student tries to solve the problem of how a writer has used metonymy to create a political commentary critiquing a social system in a novel, this is a very different skill set to solving the problem of how a chemical reaction works, or the problem of dealing with and accounting for historical bias or provenance in the study of primary source material in History. Equally, a very different set of creative skills are needed to write a descriptive piece in English and a descriptive piece in Geography; using the knowledge and skills required to write an effective descriptive piece in one subject would land you a square fail in the other. Although the very basics may be the same (i.e. accurate spelling and punctuation, the ability to construct sentences), the knowledge and skills required to do each of these well are very subject specific and can only be taught well by experts in their respective subject. In this way, we can’t be just “teachers of children” happily meandering from one subject to another; if we do this the only thing we achieve is to breed underachievement. How can a teacher that doesn’t specialise in a subject hope to impart a deep understanding of and love for a subject that they don’t know in depth? And how can they ever hope to help others become subject experts in turn?

One reason I feel so strongly about this is because my undergraduate degree wasn’t in the subject I now teach. My PGCE mentor told me that it would take me five years to catch up with my PGCE peers who had degrees in English Literature; in reality I’m still catching up now. But I work hard to constantly update and deepen my subject knowledge and to impart this love of learning and passion to be excellent in the study of language and literature to my students. And I often find that this can give me an edge over colleagues who have Lit degrees, as my autodidactic English education has been more holistic and wide-ranging, taking in swathes of both Language and Literature. My students love it when they acquire little nuggets of wisdom that are subject specific and feel really clever when these are clearly explained to them so they can use them in their own work (sometimes they are things that I’ve only just learnt myself). It is this shared love of a subject and its specific knowledge and skills that make the learning experience so special and something that is uniquely carried out in each subject and classroom differently. But if I hadn’t committed to becoming an expert in my subject then it’s fair to say that I would be a pretty poor English teacher.

And so, to my mind, it is a fundamental requirement that the peculiarity and unique nature of subject-specific skills and knowledge is respected, and that the requirement for teachers to be experts in their field has to be acknowledged if we are to succeed in providing the best learning experience possible for our students and not feed them some “disnified” garbled version of the subjects that we teach. Anything less puts two fingers up to those who have developed our subjects over thousands of years whilst at the same time does a disservice to the young minds in front of us. We should be focusing on teaching our students to become experts in our subjects, not using the subjects as vehicles for teaching some perceived universal skill set that may or may not make them easier to assimilate into some potential future workplace in order that the demands of organisations like the CBI and their sympathisers are placated.

Reflecting on Departmental Practice: being brave enough to do what works

I’ve been reflecting this week on how we achieved our summer 2016 English results. This is because we’re going to have to work very smartly to get similar results this year. In a small school with year groups numbering anything from 75 to 110 (and where there are significantly more boys than girls), the profile and potential of each year group differs dramatically. Last year, in core English, 79% of our students made expected (3 levels) progress and 42.1% exceeded this level (significantly less than we’d hoped for, unfortunately). There were 105 students: 57 boys and 48 girls. Of the girls, 86% made expected progress, whereas only about 74% of the boys managed to do this. In our current Year 11 there are 77 students, with 55 boys and only 22 girls. Clearly, for a Head of English, this poses challenges.

When I think about how we achieved our summer results though, I am positive that we can do well again. Our department doesn’t consist of whizzy, flashy teachers who use lots of dubious technology to entertain students by simulating “real-world” scenarios in the classroom. We hardly do any drama, and group work is a rarity. We don’t take into account “kinaesthetic learners” when planning our lessons or create dumbed down resources for “The Less Able”.

In fact, if you were to come into our lessons I’d wager that you’d see one of the following five things: teachers telling students about a topic; lively whole class discussions; students thinking or writing in silence while the teacher circulates to support and give one to one feedback; students peer assessing one another’s work; students responding to peer or teacher feedback.

I really don’t think there’s much else that we do. And yet, when I conduct our annual student survey, it always comes out that our students really enjoy English and feel that they make good progress and are well supported. I think this is probably for two main reasons: firstly, because we’re passionate about our subject and studying it gets us excited. This must somehow be transmitted to the students. We’re always talking about what came out of a discussion or what a student wrote in their book, and we’re always relaying this to students (who aren’t in our own classes) in the corridor or the canteen or in the playground. Secondly, we don’t accept excuses. If a student hasn’t made an effort, they get told off and are made to redo the work. When homework isn’t handed in, we put them in detention until it’s handed in.

It’s interesting to reflect on this because I don’t think that we’ve systematically set out to work this way, but it is tempting to enshrine these practices in some kind of departmental policy. I’m not sure how it would be worded. Probably something like:

In this department, teachers:

  • Love the subject
  • Love teaching it
  • Don’t accept excuses

I think that would about sum it up. A few years ago I wouldn’t have dared espouse these ideas for fear of being hounded out of my job as some kind of old-fashioned despot and being observed to within an inch of my life until I brought in some props, but I now have the confidence to stand by my belief that these unfashionable approaches do work the best in when teaching my subject.