Archive | October 2016

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.

Protecting work-life balance: what can we do?

This week’s Sec Ed front page was a depressing but inevitable result of the TIMSS report released last week that found that teachers in England are working longer hours for less comparable pay than similarly qualified peers in other professions. It’s no surprise that significantly less than 50% of the workforce has over 10 years’ experience or that if classroom teachers are working long hours they are leaving for less stressful professions.

I felt for my NQT a couple of weeks ago when she received her first qualified teacher pay packet and worked out that she was being paid just over £4 per hour. I tried to sweeten the bitter pill by pointing out that in five years she’d be earning over £30,000, but by her reckoning she’d still only be on about six quid an hour. I haven’t dared work my own hourly rate out!

It’s crucially important that those of us in leadership positions or who have been in the profession a while model a healthy work-life balance for our less-experienced colleagues. We must not let them believe the message that the job is never done or that they should be working every waking hour planning lessons or assessing work. It is true that in reality the job is never finished – there’s always something else that you could do in this line of work – marking a few more books, designing another resource, planning another lesson, tweaking a display, ringing another parent; the list goes on. But we have to be brutal with our work and put it down to ensure we do actually have a life outside of work.

So what can leaders do to minimise overwork and ensure that our colleagues are not burning themselves out before they’ve even begun to get within two (or even three) decades of retirement age? There are a few things that, to my mind, all leaders should be compelled to do to ensure teachers stay sane, happy and, above all, teachers.

  1. Be nice
  2. Everyone works better in a pleasant environment where people are friendly. This is particularly important when we are often dealing with a small minority of students that set out to be unfriendly towards teaching staff – you don’t need this from colleagues as well. A smile and a natter go a long way.
  3. Trust and support colleagues
  4. Very few teachers set out in this job to make a dog’s dinner of it. Trust and support teachers, empower them to make their own decisions, and remove the feeling that they’re constantly under the microscope. Yes, we have to monitor colleagues’ performance, but there’s no reason we can’t do it in a pleasant and supportive manner.
  5. Don’t create unnecessary work
  6. The subheading says it all – if something doesn’t need doing, don’t ask people to do it. Avoid the urge to create more documents for teachers to fill in which will add to the workload. Make sure systems (for data collection etc.) are streamlined and minimal.
  7. Lead by example
  8. Senior Leaders must lead by example. Fair enough, arrive early if that’s when you best work is done. But leave in good time too. Let teachers see that you go home at a reasonable time every day, talk about the non-work related things you’ve done at the weekend, and encourage colleagues not to work evenings and weekends. If they’re having to do that then the system isn’t working.
  9. Share the message

Make it common knowledge that you value work-life balance. This is practically the same as point 4 above, but we have to be explicit about our expectations, both in what we do expect, and what we don’t e.g. marking books at the weekend or staying up till the small hours creating lessons.

  1. Give useful advice

I encourage my colleagues to avoid writing copious amounts of feedback on students’ work or making PowerPoints for every lesson (personally, I never, ever use PowerPoint – it constrains the organic development of a lesson in my opinion). Share the tricks that you use to save time and encourage your less-experienced colleagues to use them too.

Clearly this list isn’t exhaustive and I’m not trying to tell everybody that this is what they must do to cut workload, but these are the pillars I live by to keep myself and (I hope) my faculty sane. It’s not rocket science; teachers with their own lives who can keep work in perspective do a better job, are happier and are more likely to stay the course. Persecution, blame and a punitive culture in any organisation helps no-one.

Why Learning Shouldn’t Be Equated With Fun

Should learning be fun? Well should it?
Many teachers bend over backwards to create “fun” lessons because that’s the way to “engage” our young people; the “youth of today” simply can’t be trusted to engage for any length of time with difficult, serious and challenging topics. These young people are brought up on a diet of multiple devices simultaneously vying to entertain them with the zippiest, fastest, most colourful bit of time-wasting mulch that can be designed. With this in mind, how can it be fair to expect their brains to grapple with a single, challenging academic problem? But the solution is simple – let’s make learning fun!
Let’s design multi-sensory, noisy lessons in which students can discover for themselves just how the slippery concepts of synecdoche and metonymy can be understood, differentiated, analysed and evaluated (thanks for the ready example from your blog this week @mr_englishteach). Let’s allow those students that want to try and understand the nuances of metaphorical language through the building of a tower of paperclips to do just that, whilst others who prefer to crack out the tablets to find an app that lets them play a game about metaphors get on with it, and our more “auditory” charges attempt to write a rap entitled “Synecdoche and Metonymy”. Imagine the fun they could have, and all the while a reasonably well-paid subject expert plays the “guide on the side”, gently nudging them towards the understanding they need. Hours of learning fun for all.
Hang on. I’ve got an idea. What if, instead of doing that, the “guide on the side” took the proverbial bull by the horns, stopped pussyfooting around and just taught the bloody concept? The teacher could stand in front of the class, display a couple of examples, explain and tease out the differences between types of metaphor, and then give students the time to identify and analyse other examples and maybe even create their own, all in a nice, calm, quiet classroom in which everyone’s engaged doing the same challenging but fascinating and rewarding task? Now I think I may just be onto something here. I think I’ll set up my own consultancy in which I peddle my idea around education conferences charging exorbitant fees to share my revolutionary new ideas. I might call it “Teaching That Works” or something.
You see, all this talk of “fun” in the classroom gets my goat. Fun is frivolous and pointless, a great way to unwind but, let’s make no mistake, no way to improve the mind and develop wisdom. It’s irresponsible to equate learning with fun – learning is hard work, challenging and difficult, but, and this is the point teachers need to get across, both intrinsically and extrinsically rewarding (intrinsically in the glow of satisfaction one achieves when the penny drops, extrinsically in the kudos one receives when peers and teachers recognise the excellence achieved in a piece of work). Learning should never ever be equated with “fun”; to do so is to lessen its worth, undermine its importance, and make it the same as a trip to the fair. Learning is far more important than that.