Since using Twitter as a CPD tool as opposed to a simple socialising tool, my knowledge and understanding of more progressive methods of teaching has been developing quickly. From first hearing about SOLO taxonomy sometime in the autumn term of 2012 through another English teacher’s blog, I quickly moved on to reading John Hattie’s Visible Learning for Teachers and am now in the process of trying to use and embed SOLO in all my teaching and learning.
Over the last few weeks I’ve been trying to make sure that for every topic I teach I have a handout prepared for students that lists the learning objectives and the skills they need to demonstrate to meet these, each categorised at the appropriate SOLO level (I have the SOLO levels and visual representations of them drawn on my windows so that I can refer to them as required). For convenience, I have neglected the unstructured level and merged the unistructural and multistructural levels.
When we returned from the Christmas break, I presented my year 10 Media and Film class with one of these sheets. Down the right hand side of the sheet is a ticklist that students can tick when they are confident that they have met each criterium. Students were able to do a quick self-evaluation of what level they felt they were at and so be able to see where they would need to go next. We quickly realised that all students needed to complete one more objective at the multistructural level in order to move up to the relational level. We promptly set about learning what we needed to achieve that criteria, and then, equally as promptly, forgot about our ticklists and drifted back to our old-fashioned scheme of work. It was business as usual, so to speak.
But today was different. Today was the first day of making an active, concerted attempt to embed SOLO into our learning. Two year 10 groups who are just embarking on a new unit (in which the ultimate goal is to be able analyse and compare the portrayal of violence in Romeo and Juliet and two war poems) were given their SOLO ticklists to ponder what they could and couldn’t do and what they would need to do to move on. In groups, they planned out a series of steps which they thought would create a “map” that would guide them on their learning journey to success at the end of the unit. This was consolidated on the board at the end of the lesson, with a photograph taken that can now be printed off and stuck in the students’ books to help them move along the agreed learning path at their own pace. This is the ultimate in differentiation, as I ensured that all students were aware that they will all have to find their own ways to evidence their learning along this path. For example, where one student might choose to produce a booklet with different pages dedicated to biographical facts about characters in Romeo and Juliet to evidence their knowledge of the personalities of characters, another student might produce a PowerPoint or Prezi presentation, and another might choose to draw or paint them and then annotate with factual information. So tomorrow my students begin their personalised journeys along a path that they themselves have plotted, calling in at the stops that I’ve prearranged, but arriving at each stop at their own pace and on their own terms, producing their own choices of outcomes to evidence their learning. The real beauty of this approach is that all students can aim for the highest levels of achievement and can see what they need to do to get there without having their aspirations and achievements capped by their so-called target. We’ll see how it goes…
I love my teaching room. It has five whiteboard spaces around it that are used by me and the students in every lesson for various purposes that support our learning journey. This is by no means revolutionary, but by gum it’s made the teaching and learning in my room flow much more easily.
To contextualise, when I entered the teaching profession ten years ago there was very much a belief that old-fashioned whiteboards were a thing of the past and interactive whiteboards were the future. Everywhere I looked white space was being eradicated in favour of a big interactive screen and a projector. The traditional focus of the room, the front, was still very much the focus, as teachers stood there delivering 3-part lessons that were front-loaded with instruction supported by a series of slides prepared using whichever software the teacher preferred.
But even in my first few months as an ESOL teacher in Spain, I found I naturally used a lot of old-fashioned whiteboard space. I could travel to four different locations in Madrid to deliver lessons over a 14 hour day, and so long as I was armed with a variety of whiteboard markers and there was a whiteboard or flipchart available, everything was ok. Whether it was me demonstrating a point or a student demonstrating their ideas, the whiteboard provided a focal point for discussion and learning. And yet the following year when I entered teacher training college, everywhere these indispensable aids to learing were disappearing in favour of their more technologically advanced counterparts. And although I tried desperately to plan and deliver lessons on ActivStudio, it just didn’t feel right. But in those days I had less confidence in my abilities and constantly tried to mould myself into the style that seemed to be expected, rather than moulding my teaching to my natural style.
But now I’m older and wiser and more confident in my own convictions. I have LOADS of whiteboard space and the IWB is used only as a projector. I have a small board devoted purely to learning objectives and another devoted to an instant challenge activity to occupy the students as soon as they enter the room (this has become an expectation among the students and has fostered some really healthy competetiveness as they rush to enter the room and be the first to solve the puzzle). Another board is devoted to the week’s homework task and yet another is used to display the lesson’s key words and any other important vocabulary that crops up. There is still the interactive board at the front, used mainly to show relevant clips or images from the web.
But my favourite whiteboard is the one I had installed before Christmas. It’s a great big old fashioned one. The left hand side is devoted to showing the steps that the lesson will follow so the students know what they’re doing the minute they come in. But the rest of it is free for me or the students to scrawl and scribble ideas that come up as the lesson proceeds. I love it. And with so many boards around the room it has taken away the impression of there being a definite “front of the room”. And when you walk in it really feels like a space where learning happens. At least in my opinion.
(My next idea to try out is recording our whiteboard work by photographing it using my phone and then uploading it to make available for students to access from home via the school website, but that’s for another week.)
When I look back to my school days in the 90s, I am amazed at the developments in pedagogy between then and now. In my memories, we sat mostly in rows and were presented with a body of knowledge that we could tap into or not, depending on whether we felt like it. Providing we weren’t openly dispruptive, nobody cared very much whether we learnt anything or not. Actually, that’s a little unfair. Teachers were over the moon when they found you were engaged and interested, but they weren’t going to lose sleep if you weren’t.
When I began teacher training in 2004, it still seemed that to some extent this approach to teaching was acceptable. Providing each lesson was divided into 3 parts and nobody was disruptive, all was deemed to be well. We lovingly planned lessons with starters, mains and plenaries, and delivered them to our classes expecting that they would lap up the knowledge therein with gusto. If they didn’t, well, that was their problem, providing they didn’t cause any overt disruption.
But teaching is much more demanding, and interesting, now. We are charged with ensuring that every child is a bright and curious learner who takes responsibility for their progress and actively directs their own learning. This is as it should be. And it’s no longer for us to actively “teach” the students. Instead, our job is to create an environment in which student learning can take place while we gently nudge them along, giving them useful feedback (as they pootle away on their journeys) in an effort to make sure they continue heading in the right direction.
When I first came across this approach a few years ago, I was cynical to put it mildly. It smacked of idealistic nonsense that would have no real effect and would disappear quite quickly. But the more I read and the more I try to implement this approach, the more convinced I become of its value and merit. There is no doubt that the work involved in creating such an environment is more burdensome on the teacher than the traditional didactic approach. But the beauty of this approach is that if the planning is thorough and the marking and feedback is timely and appropriate, the actual lessons pretty much take care of themselves. Students come in knowing what they need to do and just get on with it. It takes a lot to train them to do this, but once the systems are embedded it is just a case of steady but consistent maintenance to keep them on track. There are very few groans because the kids are looking forward to doing what they do and are often engrossed in it.
The ironic thing is that the most memorable teachers for me were the ones that could teach exciting and engaging lessons in a traditional way, entertaining me with tantalising tidbits of information wrapped in entertaining narratives and personal anecdotes. But in all honesty how many of them can I remember? Three, maybe four at best. And I don’t believe that I have that kind of charisma talk to a class for an hour and keep them engaged. But I know that with hard work I can create a fertile learning environment in which students can develop, and with a little light maintenance I can keep this environment going. So now, this is how I try to direct my practice, as somebody who creates and tends a fertile environment, rather than someone who broadcasts my wisdom and knowledge in the hope that some of it will take root (there is a definite gardening metaphor in all this, but we’ll keep away from cliches). When I look at my groups getting on with their work, and then think back to myself 20 years ago, either sat at a desk copying out of a textbook, or listening to a teacher espousing, or just being left to do my own thing provided I didn’t cause any problems, I can’t help but a feel a little bit jealous.
So last night we set off for the usual Thursday night loop. It was bitterly cold, the ground was icy and the moors were shrouded in low cloud and gloom. Perfect winter night riding weather. Then the first problem struck; my bar light died within the first mile. Not to worry; I had my (much weaker) helmet light in reserve. 6 miles in we reached the first real downhill section. This was where I realised the iPhone attached to my bar had died. Surveying the descent, it dawned upon us that this generally fast and swoopy track had become a gulley-riddled rollercoaster due to the recent snow melt, and to add to the fun it was covered in a sheet of ice. Good for testing the technical skills. As we descended, the next disaster struck; the pads on my back brake finally disappeared leaving nothing to slow me down safely. At this point I decided it was time to head for home and make sure that from now on all the right checks are made before setting off. Wasn’t it (the once great) Lance Armstrong who once said: “Prior preparation prevents poor performance”, or some such nugget of wisdom? UCI World Cup here I come (not).
I’m trying a new idea. By my own admission, I am notoriously bad at setting homework. It doesn’t help when you read research that points out that its effect on learning and progress is entirely negligible, and when you understand just how much bad homework tasks can impinge on a student’s home-life and get in the way of them doing fun, constructive, developmentally useful things. But ours is not to question the wisdom of Gove and Wilshaw, and it’s also school policy that has to be followed. So, to counter my forgetful approach to homework, and to improve the written literacy of my groups, I am going to set the same topical written homework piece each week for all my groups that they will complete on paper and stick into their exercise books upon completion. The piece will be marked when the book is marked and personalised formative feedback will be given. Students will be expected to act on that formative feedback and also leave their own comment should they feel inclined. The homework task will be displayed for the whole week on its own board (or piece of board) thoughtfully entitled “Homework Board”, and therefore will always be visible, thus reminding me that it needs to be done. My aim is to get them to write this in their planner at the start of each lesson, eradicating the possibility of a mad dash at the end of the lesson meaning it doesn’t get written in. Next week’s task will be “Write a letter to Beyonce persuading her not to mime at concerts”.