Archive | October 2014

The Big Question: raising challenge by dropping objectives.


My new school, like many schools, has twilight sessions dedicated to staff development. Each session is led by a member of staff and focuses on an aspect of T&L. I elected to lead the group on “Stretch and Challenge”. The idea is that the groups meet three times over several weeks. The first session involves a presentation by the group leader followed by a discussion around the topic, before members agree on something they can work on in their teaching. In the second meeting, the group discusses their successes and problems and work out how they will present their ideas to the whole staff in the third meeting.

In my presentation I banged on about raising expectations, making things harder in lessons, and providing more targeted support to help students meet the challenge. I talked a bit about the danger of capping aspiration and the pitfalls of differentiated objectives, and…

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The Big Question: raising challenge by dropping objectives.

My new school, like many schools, has twilight sessions dedicated to staff development. Each session is led by a member of staff and focuses on an aspect of T&L. I elected to lead the group on “Stretch and Challenge”. The idea is that the groups meet three times over several weeks. The first session involves a presentation by the group leader followed by a discussion around the topic, before members agree on something they can work on in their teaching. In the second meeting, the group discusses their successes and problems and work out how they will present their ideas to the whole staff in the third meeting.

In my presentation I banged on about raising expectations, making things harder in lessons, and providing more targeted support to help students meet the challenge. I talked a bit about the danger of capping aspiration and the pitfalls of differentiated objectives, and finally introduced a strategy that I hold dear, that of replacing objectives with big learning questions.  I began doing this about this time last year, and I saw the benefits straight away. We had the county improvement chap in and he’d just been observing my lesson. His key suggestion was the replacement of traditional learning objectives with big questions. My LO had been something like “To explore and analyse the author’s use of language in the article” and his suggestion was to reword it to “How do the author’s language choices affect the reader?” Initially, I was thinking “why? What’s the point? This seems daft!” But then I tried it and was amazed at the results. And this was the same, on the whole, for my T&L group members.

At our second meeting, we held a round-the-table discussion about how the introduction of learning questions had affected our lessons and the learning of our students. An Art teacher started us off. She said that she had used the questions with a range of groups and had seen profound changes. For a start, students were just more engaged by the objective because it instantly forced them to think about answering the question, rather than working out what the objective meant or was telling them to do. They instantly knew whether or not they could answer it, and if not they were exploring ways of providing an answer; all challenging and stretching stuff. Where this teacher had really added something though was in that she allowed the students to add their own questions underneath the main question, thus giving them more ownership over the lesson and their learning. She felt that this had massively enhanced her plenary sessions and given them much greater focus in their debriefing discussions as they focused on the questions that had arisen throughout the lesson and were visible on the board, as well as the big learning question.

This was echoed by a Maths teacher who had posed the question “Why factorise equations?” This seems almost too vague, but she felt that the dialogue and discussion it had produced was way above what students would normally engage with. Objectives would normally be about outlining what students had to do; this meant they had to first be able to do it before then being able to debate why they were doing it in the first place. This is clearly giving the students the space and opportunity to work at a much higher level than normal.

A Society and Ethics teacher had posed the question “Who is God?” to his year 7s, where normally he may have posed an objective “to understand different views of God”. Again, the debate that this fired up was far more passionate and engaging than usual because students had such strong views, but views that wouldn’t necessarily have been tapped into by the posing of an ordinary objective question.

An English teacher said that in his view the introduction of learning questions had really “raised the bar” in his lessons, and that after a while students were trained into the habit of trying to answer the question as soon as they enter the room. Clearly this gets the lesson and the learning underway very quickly and avoids the need to plan for instant challenge and starter activities, should you be that way inclined.

I added to this by showing the group my year 10 books, so that teachers could see how each learning episode had been geared towards ensuring students had a comprehensive understanding of a novel and its language, context, structure and viewpoint, and how this was preparing them to answer their controlled assessment question at the end. I also tried to show that getting students to provide written answers to their learning questions allows the teacher to stretch and challenge the students through differentiated feedback that students then respond to in their own way.

The overall consensus was that, by their very nature, learning questions invite engagement and are less alienating than objectives. Objectives tell you what you must do, whereas questions invite you to answer them. They are inherently less threatening and more democratic and they force engagement without being overtly coercive. There is also the fact that a step is removed that can hinder the smoothness of a lesson: usually the teacher has to mediate to ensure the students understand an objective. The question eradicates this and allows students of any ability to jump straight in and have a go, leaving room for teachers to differentiate intuitively and reactively where needed rather than trying to anticipate where the differentiation will need to take place before the lesson has begun. Clearly, not everyone would agree with the learning question approach, but I’m confident it’s improved the learning of my own students over the last six months and the feedback I’ve received from the members of my group would also suggest that there’s a lot to be gained from framing our lessons in this way.

Differentiation: response to Andy Tharby.

I was thoroughly heartened to read Andy Tharby’s (@atharby) post this week on the dangers of differentiation” . So many teachers feel compelled to differentiate in silly ways because they are told to by Ofsted-wary SLTs or HoDs who spend their lives looking over their shoulders. I’m talking here about those “must/should/could” objectives and the pressure to provide different tasks for different levels of ability. My views on these can be found here:

I’m always banging on about how the best differentiation is in fact invisible and intuitive, and this seems to me to be Andy’s key point. If we are differentiating well then the students will be engaged in their work and making progress, but not because you’ve designed each kid a separate worksheet, but rather because you’ve used your skills as a teacher to allow the students to access the topic you’re currently studying. Good differentiation comes from a good teacher framing and reframing explanations so that they can be understood by everyone in the room; it comes from targeting questions in verbal and written feedback that stretch and push students; most importantly, it comes from fostering a classroom culture in which students don’t give up, thrive on struggle, and realise that the more mistakes they make, the more they will learn and progress. Teachers need to scrap their differentiated objectives and stop worrying about colour-coded worksheets and have the strength of conviction that what they’re doing is right, providing it works. It was very refreshing to read another blog from an English teacher who stands squarely in the camp of raising the challenge for students, rather than making things easier as many of us have been told to do for so long.

It’s not “Below the Radar”; it’s there for all to see and we’ve just got to try and deal with it.

Apologies for the long-winded title, but I’ve just been reading Ofsted’s “Below  the Radar” report. It is, in my opinion, a welcome publication that highlights a problem that every teacher faces to a greater or lesser extent every day. Every teacher wants to be free to teach smooth and uninterrupted lessons, but invariably, and maybe inevitably, this isn’t the case. The low-level disruption that is the focus of this report takes myriad forms, from “students rolling their eyes”, to “inappropriate use of technology”, to students simply sitting quietly but not getting on with their work. I have a lovely year 10 group, full of enthusiastic and hardworking students who are keen to do well, but my word they love to talk, and it isn’t always about what we’re studying in a lesson. Would my lessons be deemed inadequate because one student began asking another about something that had happened at break? Maybe. What’s worrying is that it isn’t that long ago that a lesson in which most students were engaging and learning would be deemed a good lesson. You might have 20-30% of the group not really doing a great deal, but it was accepted that you can’t engage all the children all of the time, so to speak. But this is no longer the case. So what exactly is the problem, and what can we do?

In the Ofsted survey, one primary teacher said ‘Pupils are not prepared to listen unless they are entertained.’ The idea that learning should be “fun” and engaging is both an expectation (in many schools) and a problem. This is something I used to get furious about, using terms like “edutainment” and the “disnification of education” in my arguments. It’s obvious that just because students are engaged it doesn’t necessarily follow that they’re learning. They spend massive amounts of time engaged in Facebook and Fifa, but I doubt they’re learning very much. And, I suppose, here is a big part of the problem: this is a generation with instant access to entertaining and exciting media products that tickle the pleasure receptors on demand, 24/7. How can we, as the people who want to unlock the skills and knowledge that will pave the way to becoming culturally literate citizens, ever compete with this? I remember an AHT in a school I used to work in standing up and telling teachers that all behavioural issues were the fault of the classroom teacher because lessons were not planned to be engaging enough. As you can imagine, this person did not command the respect of the staff because, if we’re honest, when it comes down to it, serious study and learning is hard work and can’t be all “Brain-Gym” and “co-operative learning”, much as this person would have liked it to be.

Thinking back, I remember endless hours sat in the university library, forcing myself to read dry academic articles because I knew that I needed to get my head around these things in order to pursue my chosen career goals. Often I would realise that I’d read whole pages and not taken in a thing, and then have to make myself go back and start again. It was painful, but the pleasure came in mastering the concepts and ideas. And there was an extrinsic motivating factor: doing well in exams and entering my chosen profession. And this is still true today; I don’t read Hattie for the beauty of his prose or because I want to find out what happens next. I put up with his prose because I want to learn from him and get my head around his ideas. But how can we convey this sentiment to a 13 year old on a wet and windy Wednesday afternoon? Or even worse, a warm and sunny Friday afternoon? To daydream, especially after lunch, is natural. And we’re never going to find that every student is interested in every subject.

Motivation is certainly an issue. Children are not naturally inclined to work hard for working hard’s sake. There has to be a social pay-off. My kids (4 & 6) will happily help me dig the garden or trim a hedge and carry the rubbish away, but I couldn’t just ask them to go and do it themselves. They’re doing because they get to spend time with me (something they don’t get to do much of in the week) and thus strengthen the social bond we have, and because I praise them for doing a good job, and praise feels good. They also know they’ll probably get an ice cream at the end of it. But how do we do this with students studying trigonometry?

As the Ofsted report states, many students are anti-establishment and see teachers as symbols of what they are against, not something they want to be part of. I’m lucky to work in a school where this is not the case for the majority of students, but I have worked in places where it is overwhelmingly true. When a big chunk of students come from families and areas where jobs pay little and people find self-fulfilment through non-state sanctioned channels, all state-sanctioned institutions come to represent an “other” that is to be feared or suspected. In these situations, teachers have a tough time focusing on forging healthy student-teacher relationships and using these as a motivation for good behaviour for learning.

There are some things we can do, most of which are obvious and well discussed. Clearly, we must have rigorous and consistently applied consequences systems. For 95% of students, these work well, especially when there is a visible sequence of consequences. Many schools, including mine, use the C1, C2 etc. system. Students see their initials appear on the board and usually curb their behaviour in response. The problem with this system, though, is consistent application. Students have a strong sense of what is fair and what isn’t, and when they perceive an inconsistency this can lead to further problems and wasted time as they try to argue the toss with the teacher. Furthermore, it’s not always clear for a teacher when to issue a consequence or how quickly to build these up. If we issue a C1 (warning) because a student is sat doing nothing and the student disputes this, do we then move straight onto a C2 (send the student out for 2 minutes and discuss their behaviour)? If they “roll their eyes” do we move straight onto a C3 (20 minute lunch detention with SLT)? And if they dispute this move straight to a C4 (removed from the lesson, put in isolation and a one hour after school detention with SLT)? Many of us would say yes, because that’s the system, but equally as many may think that this is detrimental to student’s learning and undermines the student- teacher relationship, as well as stopping us from supporting those who are engaging positively with their work. Sometimes, if a student isn’t engaged but equally isn’t stopping the learning of others, the best option, from a democratic viewpoint, has to be to avoid causing a conflict and concentrate on working with the students that have earned your support. Weighed up, the argument and conflict that would ensue from challenging the student would be far more detrimental to the lesson than not issuing consequences.

Another way, without wishing to contradict myself, is to make sure we have plenty of variety in our lessons and to try and make them engaging. But we have to be very careful not to substitute hard work with fun and frivolous activities that are tenuously linked to what we want them to learn. I’m all for a short and engaging activity at the start of a lesson that helps them “find a way” into the learning, but this should not be at the expense of studying difficult texts or engaging with challenging concepts and ideas. However, it is fair to say that if students are going to read actively and write in a quiet focused way, they need to know that this isn’t all they are going to do. We have to mix it up a bit. Students like using scissors, glue and coloured pens, and it doesn’t harm to build in some activities that utilise these things.

As an English teacher, I have a bit of an advantage here. The subject matter I’m dealing with is intrinsically interesting. Great literature deals with people and their lives, the decisions they face and the psychological problems they have to work through. Because of this, we have a natural urge to want to know how writers deal with these issues, if only because they are the same issues that we could all potentially face. I imagine that History, Geography and Science teachers are in a similar position, but how do teachers of Business or IT frame their subjects in a way that makes students want to find out more? I don’t envy them, I have to say.

The ideal that most of us are aiming for these days is the development of a culture in schools where students are motivated and interested because they simply want to get better all the time, the “Growth Mindset” idea. To my mind this is a noble and positive focus, but can it ever be realised completely? I’d argue that it can’t, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be aiming for it. There are just too many factors outside of our control that have too much bearing on student behaviour, especially the home environment and peer pressure. But that isn’t to say that there isn’t any point in aspiring to create an environment in which students are inherently studious and hard-working. In reality, we must try to do this, otherwise we are failing our students.

So can we ever eliminate low-level disruption? I’d argue that, in reality, no, this won’t ever happen. But we shouldn’t beat ourselves up about it; we just need to keep trying. Perfection is a goal, and an impossible goal at that. But if we keep chipping away and doing our best, we can provide the best possible schools in the circumstances with which we are given. We have control over a lot of factors, and these are the ones we must focus on to improve behaviour, but we mustn’t waste time worrying about the things that we can’t change. And as classroom teachers, we have to see every lesson and every day as a fresh opportunity to build relationships and improve students’ lives.