Some years ago the school I worked in had no real accountability measures or explicit expectations about how teachers marked their books. Consequently, many never did, and the vast majority of the others (including myself) did it sporadically and with no real impact or reason. It was very much a case of ticking the pages and leaving a “well done” or a “good work” at the bottom to show the student that their books had been looked at. I remember a training day where teachers who were deemed outstanding were asked to put on exemplary lessons for teachers to partake in. It was a great experience but what shocked me was that in one lesson the books were marked with nothing other than ticks and “well dones”. Clearly not “outstanding” practice (whatever that may be, but that’s another discussion!).
Then, about 3 or 4 years ago, I started to read quite widely about educational practice and realised that this simply wasn’t good enough. Hattie and Wiliam published their stuff and it became apparent to those of us that read this kind of thing that marking and feedback probably the single most important thing a teacher can do to improve student progress, if done well.
So I decided to change my ways. When I sat down and thought about it, which I’d never done previously, I realised that sometimes I only marked some sets of books once or twice a term. Where was the good in that? By the time the work was marked, students had moved on to a new topic! The marking was irrelevant! The second problem, I realised, was that the comments weren’t targeted at the work the students had produced; they were simply generic praise or encouragement.
To tackle these two issues I resolved to do two things: mark more frequently and regularly, and ensure that the comments I wrote were actually referring to the quality of the work students had produced and suggest ways they could improve. These two simple things seem so obvious now, but working in a culture where these basic things are not seen as normal and marking isn’t ever spoken about or monitored creates a situation in which terrible practice can develop.
Anyway, I decided to start tracking my marking using a spreadsheet (something that I still do) so that I could see when each set of books had been marked. This turned out to be a fantastic tool in supporting and motivating my marking. The visual record of highlighted and un-highlighted boxes served as a catalyst to ensure that each class got their fair share of attention and that no books were left for an unacceptable period of time.
The second change, the quality of comments, was also massive. As well as marking for literacy errors throughout a piece of work (which I’d always done), I began leave one comment at the end that embodied both some praise and formative feedback, for example “Lovely description with excellent choice of similes, but please revise the rule for using apostrophes.” Clearly this was much better. But I still didn’t see a lot of impact.
I began looking at other colleagues’ work. I determined to steer well clear of the frankly patronising and nauseating “2 stars and a wish” that some colleagues employed, but I did discover that one colleague separated out the two parts of the comment, beginning with a positive and then setting out the target for improvement below next to a circled capital letter “T”. Again, better, but still no real impact on progress.
At this time it began to be picked up by the SLT, thanks to a county visit, that actually marking is quite important (you’ll detect a hint of understatement here), and they began to talk more about marking and make their new higher expectations more evident. HoDs suddenly felt that the answer was to have pages that had more teacher feedback than student work on them. The emphasis was on the quantity of what was written, and this was reflected in the scrutinies. I am fairly confident that I could have covered those pages in irrelevant scrawl and, provided there was plenty of it, the scrutinies wouldn’t have picked this up.
And, as I stated earlier, still no real impact. So what was missing? From a 2014 perspective, it will be obvious to most: a lack of DIRT time. Giving students the time and space to reflect on their prior learning, respond to teacher comments, make corrections, redraft their work and enter into a dialogue with the teacher about what they have done. Couple this with high quality peer assessment and you have, in my opinion, the silver bullet. The gaps will close, the students will make progress and, if done regularly and routinized, a culture of learning and aspiration will begin to develop.
The last thing that we introduced, which I think really makes for great practice, was the use of highlighters in our marking. Rather than just having the two comments at the end with a positive and a target, we now colour code these in blue and yellow. Blue = www (what went well), yellow = ebi (even better if). The students know what the colours stand for and the students work looks great. We don’t cover the whole lot in highlighter, but pick out key bits that correspond to the comments at the end. And, if you keep on top of it, it really isn’t all that time consuming.
So, why the blog title? I few weeks ago I was discussing with my new headteacher the importance of marking and feedback, and he coined this phrase, acknowledging the potentially back breaking work load associated with good marking that isn’t carried out in a smart way. “Teachers need to be marking for effect, not marking for England.”
And herein lies the rub; great marking that has an impact isn’t about teachers writing a lot in books, in fact sometimes we may not need to write anything. I don’t like to comment extensively on class notes and things like that. Comments should be reserved for pieces of writing that are original and demonstrate a student’s learning and ideas and they should be targeted in a way that supports and develops that learning and those ideas. It should only ever focus on the work in the book and it should consist of questions, targeted comments, peer assessment and DIRT time, not lines and lines of generic blather telling the student how lovely they are and how much the teacher thinks of them.
This week I read Graham Nuthall’s “The Hidden Lives of Learners” ready for the @EduChatUK discussion on Wednesday. It is a fascinating study of student behaviour and learning in the classroom, but I’m not sure it has any new implications for most teachers. I’m vastly oversimplifying here, but the key points of the book seem to be:
1) Everyone learns differently depending on their prior experiences
2) A concept needs to be revisited at least three times for it to be learnt.
3) There are three separate cultural spheres at play in the classroom
I’d like to discuss each of these in turn.
1) Everyone learns differently depending on their prior experiences.
Prior experience, the “nurture” aspect of the false nature/nurture dichotomy, is arguably the single most important factor in determining the performance and behaviour of a student in the classroom. Regardless of the school experience, a child that has spent the first four years of his life in an unstimulating environment in which he receives limited social interaction or parental feedback, and where the usual babysitter is the TV, will unquestionably perform less well than a child for whom the opposite is true. This is because success in the classroom relies on internalising “normal” social relations and a high level of cultural capital. The former allows the child to interact positively with adults and peers and the latter allows the child to make connections between his own knowledge and the new knowledge that he’s learning in the classroom (I have blogged about this previously in a post entitled “Ways to Change the Way we Differentiate”). So, although what Nuthall discusses is clearly true, it is not new. Good teachers have known this since ancient times. It’s very much an example of the “Matthew Effect”, as described by David Didau. What may be revolutionary for some teachers is the notion that we should try to gauge and understand a student’s prior knowledge base so that we can design learning experiences in such a way that they will connect to that prior knowledge, although I’m not even sure that we need to take such a vast variety of information into account in our formal planning, but rather we need to be aware of it so that we can differentiate effectively during our lessons in the explanations we give and the examples and analogies we use to clarify concepts for individual students.
2) A concept needs to be revisited at least three times for it to be learnt.
When we want students to learn any concept we try to demonstrate it and give them chance to practice it in as many ways as possible. If we just tell them or show them something once or twice, there is clearly no way that this can then be committed to the working memory. What I loved in Nuthall’s book was the metaphor of a “learning landscape” that we have to allow our students to explore in many different ways in order to be familiar with it. You can walk through a landscape using many different paths, you can fly over it, you can draw it, photograph it, map it and describe it. In the same way we need to engineer situations that allow our students to explore concepts in many different ways. So for example, this week I’ve been trying to create lessons that will allow my students to explore how and why social relationships are affected by social media. Their homework was to transcribe some examples of their own social media use. We read two newspaper articles: one about how there are marked differences in how the genders take absorb “text speak” into their own spoken vocabulary; the second was about a young woman who tweeted about knocking a cyclist off his bike whilst driving. We watched a YouTube clip made by a freshman at an American university on how his friends use social media, and lastly the students were given the space to study and make notes on the transcripts they had brought in. This led to them being in a strong position to understand the concept we set out to investigate (the effect of social media on human relationships). Again, Nuthall’s assertion is probably correct, but it’s nothing new.
3) There are three separate cultural spheres at play in the classroom
The argument that there are three social or cultural spheres at work in the classroom is an oversimplification. However, I can see that this is a really useful way to think about the classroom when dealing with the social aspects of learning. Nuthall suggests that the classroom is divided up into the public culture that we take for granted, controlled (in theory) by the teacher; the social sphere of the students that teachers are very often unaware of; and the private mental worlds of the students themselves. Students’ priorities are very much bound up in the latter two and to get them to engage with public sphere they have to be experts in designing and delivering exciting and engaging lessons. We have to be aware of the peer culture and try, as best we can, to tap into it and use it to our advantage. He gives some lovely examples of the sorts of conversations that students have in the classroom through transcriptions of recordings he has made. These show a variety of traits, from serious and active discussion of the topic, through topic related arguments about misconceptions and misunderstandings, to all out battling and bullying in an effort to recreate the social hierarchy in a new way. The implications for us as teachers are clear: we have to be constantly aware of what everyone in the room is doing and saying. This, obviously, isn’t possible, but we must at least try. Again, this is nothing new, and comes down, as always in the teaching trade, to the relationships we have with our students and the way we actively differentiate for individuals within the lesson. My issue with the three spheres assertion is that it dramatically oversimplifies things – there are in reality an infinite number of spheres in the classroom as people from different backgrounds and different social statuses interact with one another, negotiating and renegotiating their own personal and social identities through, and in spite of, the things that they learn or do in lessons.
Although I insist that there is nothing new in this book and that it simply serves to underline what teachers are, hopefully, already doing, it is still an important read for anybody involved in education, because it forces us to rethink how we deal with the issues outlined and gives us a vehicle through which we can actively think about and discuss them. Furthermore, it is worth reading just for the transcripts of the conversations the kids have. Some of these are laugh-out-loud funny, and some are desperately sad and tragic, particularly the racist name-calling that takes place as students from different ethnicities jockey to work their way up the hierarchy of their peer group. It is a book that should be on the shelf of the staff section of any school library and one that will help us to deal more pragmatically with the things that, as teachers, we often forget about or take for granted.
I had an epiphany yesterday. We were practising comparing and analysing a couple of poems, as you do at this time of year with your year 11s, when one of the brightest boys (on paper) in my class complained for the umpteenth time that “This is stupid! It can’t be right! It’s just words. I bet if you spoke to these poets they wouldn’t have ever thought this stuff when they were writing the poem.”
I went and sat with him and instigated a discussion on the complexities and nuances of language and of texts as cultural artefacts that can be dealt with separately from the author. We discussed the hidden depths of meaning that language has and how language is a vehicle of knowledge, culture and history. He pointed out that the kettle I use is just a kettle because it’s a kettle, so we talked about how the word kettle has origins going back to the industrial revolution and beyond, and that all the historical and cultural connotations are bound up in the word. Well, this really annoyed him because he began to realise that, in reality, words aren’t “just words”.
The student in question is an A* student in maths and science, and we began talking about how things either are or aren’t in these subjects and that invariably there is a right or wrong answer. So we discussed further the possibility that without language we couldn’t know anything about the world, and that the extent of our knowledge is bound by the extent of our vocabulary and that new words have to be invented for new ideas, concepts or discoveries, even in science and maths. This really got him thinking, and he finally decided that he just found poetry hard because he doesn’t like ambiguity. Clearly, this very bright young man’s brain has developed in such a way that it thrives on certainty and proof.
I began thinking a bit more about this. The main problem, to my mind, is that throughout key stage three, this student has studied poetry for three half terms (historically there’s been one poetry unit a year every half term where I work). This means that 46 weeks of the year in years 7-9 he’s not read any poetry worthy of the word.
Then, in year 10, he’s studied a few poems for his controlled assessment that he’s had to compare with a Shakespeare play. This has really emphasised in his mind how much he hates the stuff.
Next, in year 11, he has to study poetry to develop the skills needed to answer the unseen poetry question in the exam. Again, he knows that he has to do this to pass his exam, has already decided on and embedded the notion that he’s rubbish at it, and therefore sees this stuff as out to get him.
But then the problem is compounded, you see. All this is happening in parallel to him dealing with his adolescence and growth into young adulthood. This is a time when we are desperately trying to find out who we are and how our identity fits into the social world around us. We crave certainty and clear black and white answers. We don’t want ambiguity and confusion and ambivalence as this stops us from knowing who we are. And so, when sporadically exposed to poetry, it only adds to the confusion and difficulty of growing up. Not only are we fumbling around trying to understand individual and group identities, but we’re also expected to interpret pieces of text with no real correct interpretation. This has got to be the best way to upset somebody who is worried about their own uncertainties.
So what is the answer? Students should study poetry because it is the epitome of linguistic and cultural achievement, and they have to study it because they’re going to be examined on it. Therefore the answer is obvious. STUDY LOADS OF POETRY ALL THE TIME.
If our students are given a steady diet of poetry almost every week of their teenage lives, it will help them to come to terms with the fact that the world is a place with multiple layers of meaning that can be interpreted in an infinite number of ways. It will allow them to deal with issues that they can relate to from a safe distance. They may realise that it’s ok to be a little unsure of exactly who they are. And less importantly, when they go into the exam, they will be confident in understanding and interpreting poems and in articulating their ideas about them.
“Stretch them and they will Soar:” the bright future of English teaching.
I’m really excited about the new KS3 English Curriculum. As far as I can see, there’s a lot to like. And I’m also in the very lucky position of moving into a role where it’ll be up to me to design and implement it. My interpretation of how to apply it is very simple: the students in my school will enjoy reading and writing high quality texts with ease and fluency. They will develop a cultural capital the majority have never had at that age through studying great literature, and they will understand and be able to articulate why and how language works and changes in the ways it does. And they will be confident speakers who can use and shape our marvellous language for a myriad of purposes and situations. All this will be framed by an intimate knowledge and understanding of the history of English Literature.
Ever since I began teaching, KS3 has consisted of texts like Hatchet, Stone Cold, Skellig and the others. These are all good stories that kids should be reading, but they should be reading them in their own time. If a child only gets 3 or 4 hours per week in English in secondary school, then that three or four hours really has to be spent in studying great literature with the help of someone who knows the subject. For so many years, we’ve shied away from actually challenging our students by studying texts that they we know will be easily accessible. But what a waste of time that is. Surely if we make the hard stuff accessible then the other stuff becomes easy reading for their leisure time? There has been a history of us as English teachers implicitly telling our students that they can’t study “hard” texts and great literature. They’re just not up to the job. This is clearly rubbish. And it’s also no wonder KS4 is such a shock when they actually have to look at some literature.
Last year I was having a conversation with somebody on Twitter about redesigning the year 9 curriculum. Her curriculum consisted of a rich diet of great work from “The Canon”. When I pointed out that it may be a bit much for my students, she replied with a lovely phrase that I have never forgotten: “stretch them and they will soar.” This has become almost a mantra for me since then, and it really is true. It’s a beautiful phrase that cleverly sums up and encapsulates the way teaching is going; one might say it’s the spirit of the Growth Mindset in a nutshell.
Let me give you an example. I teach a set 5 year 9 group. This in a vertical setting system and so consists of students who are considered to be the weakest in their band (teaching these types of groups over the last few years has made me become a strong advocate of genuinely mixed groupings, something I intend to write about soon). What I’ve noticed this year with these students is that they really believe that they are rubbish. They are convinced that they simply can’t read, write or speak well. And who can blame them? They’re into their 9th school year of people telling them that they can’t do things, and of support departments giving them labels and little stickers that they can show teachers saying “don’t ask me to read aloud” and the like. Talk about a self-fulfilling prophecy!
This half term we’ve been studying the poetry unit. This is an absolute pet hate of mine – how crazy to do one unit a year on poetry in English. Poetry is the absolute epitome of linguistic achievement and the most fun (our new curriculum will have a rich diet of poetry all year round). In recent years I’d have read a few poems with them, drawn a few pictures relating to the imagery, created some storyboards etc. etc. And don’t get me wrong, we’re still doing a bit of this. But what we’re now doing in addition is some proper study of the language and how it works to create meaning; really getting to the nitty-gritty of the interaction between sound and sense and how the two work in a symbiotic relationship to create a beautiful whole.
So we read and compared three poems together: Leisure by WH Davies, Human Interest by Carol Ann Duffy and Hawk Roosting by Ted Hughes. Our focus was on the meaning of the poems and how these related to the sound of the words as the poems are read aloud. These kids, who think they can’t do things very well and have the paperwork to prove it, were identifying and discussing tetrameter and pentameter. They were identifying feet and iambs and trochees and telling me where the stress was in the lines and how this forced the reader to read it in a certain way. They were explaining how the clanging and clashing of harsh consonant sounds in Human Interest reflects the narrator’s confused and desperate state of mind, and how the careful rhythmical control in Hawk Roosting demonstrates the power and majesty of the bird, and how Davies’s use of iambic pentameter structured into rhyming couplets ties in with the sense of ordered beauty he is describing (a few weeks earlier they also produced some very articulate and enthusiastic persuasive speeches on their pet hates, which they really shouldn’t be doing according to the little stickers in their planners).
These are kids who can’t do things and have the paperwork to prove it. What rubbish. They’ve just been allowed to fall into the trap of believing they can’t do it thanks to the adults that have made them that way. Talk about manufacturing a dependent and underachieving underclass of the future. The biggest struggle to my mind is to ensure that all staff in our schools are prepared to push and challenge these types of students so that they consistently produce good quality work that is worthy of the genuine praise it receives. It’s a steep hill to climb, but we’ve got to try.
“Stretch them and they will soar.” They sure will.
Teaching interviews are one of the most bizarre and testing interview formats there are, and a wise old colleague once said to me that every teacher should put themself through the process at least once a year. I’d go further and say that all teachers should try and have at least a couple each year. The last thing you want to do is see a job you really want, take the time to apply, get shortlisted, and then get there and realise it’s years since your last interview and you’re out of practice and consequently your depth, freezing in terror. Interviews, in my opinion, are great CPD opportunities, building character and resilience by testing your professional mettle, whilst at the same time giving you the opportunity to have a good look at how another institution does the job. I think in the last 5 years I’ve probably had about six or seven interviews; there’ve been ones I’ve wanted and not been offered and ones I’ve decided I’ve not wanted and been offered. I had one that I felt I’d have to take if offered due to the calibre of the institution, and was very relieved to get the phone call the next day to say I hadn’t got it. But from all of these I’ve had really useful feedback that has helped me prep for the next one.
In my first ever interview for a teaching post, ten years ago in June, I was told I looked too relaxed and comfortable, which translated into arrogance. Later, I was glad I didn’t get that job; the following year the school went into special measures and the following week I landed another job where, at the interview, I consciously worked on not looking too relaxed; I still take care to heed that advice and have never had a negative interview since. What follows are my thoughts on being interviewed, honed by ten years of being interviewed.
1) To job-hunt or not?
Every professional person should take a keen and active interest in the job market. I’ve always been happy in the jobs I’ve had, but this is the best reason to be always on the lookout. If you don’t desperately need or want to move you will be much more relaxed at interview as there’s no pressure to get the job. The compulsion to get a job if you really need to move puts unnecessary strain and pressure on you and forces you to view the interview in a skewed perspective, possibly attaching a virtually life or death weighting to the outcome.
2) Choosing which job to apply for.
If you keep abreast of the jobs within your commutable area, you will begin to see patterns in job advertising and learn to read between the lines in the adverts themselves. Why does that post have an R + R attached to it? Why has that same job that was advertised last month been advertised again? If you see a job that looks too good to be true, it probably is. But if you see anything that you think you might fancy, put in an application; it can’t do any harm, can it?
3) Writing a letter.
Tailor the letter to the job. As you apply for jobs, you’ll begin to amass a bank of application letters that you can use again. Some you’ll be able to use wholesale for different jobs, most you won’t. But you will be able to cherry pick appropriate paragraphs that fit the jobs for which you’re applying. When you write your letters, make sure that you focus on the relevant skills for the job. Applications for classroom teaching posts should focus on your ideas about pedagogy and be firmly rooted in practical examples; HoD type posts should include this but also focus more on your own ideas on leading others and middle leadership in general. Get your colleagues to proofread what you write, especially if those colleagues are in a similar post to the one for which you’re applying or ones senior to it.
4) Preparing for interview.
If you read widely and are generally interested in education, this bit should be a doddle. You need to be able to spend a whole day talking professionally about matters relating to education, and if you read a lot you will already be in a position to do this. If you’re going for a leadership role, it would make sense to brush up on theories of leadership (I got some feedback from an interview a bit ago that I hadn’t mentioned Maslow when asked about leading a team, which I found quite peculiar). But the key reading you need to do is anything you can find about the school itself. This will obviously include the school website and Ofsted reports, but you should also look for newspaper articles, school newsletters, and anything else you can find. It looks great if you can squeeze a mention of a recent school event into an interview as it shows that you’re genuinely keen and curious and is evidence that you do your homework and are thorough and conscientious. In terms of preparing a lesson, don’t prepare anything that can go horribly wrong. Prepare a really good “bread and butter” lesson with a variety of interesting tasks neatly chunked that clearly demonstrates the kids have learnt something new. Make sure that students are aware of the success criteria and have clear, simple learning objectives that are easily measurable (I like to phrase mine as questions: if the students can’t answer the questions at the start and can at the end then they’ve made progress). Ask for any available data on the class you will be teaching so that you can explicitly show differentiation and, as with any lesson, aim to challenge the top end and differentiate down. Put a lot of thought into your body language too and even practice the body language you want to exude on interview around your own place of work.
5) The interview.
This is the bit where many of us fall down, and I would honestly put this down (most of the time) to a lack of practice. Think about how we constantly tell our students that the only way to perfect anything is to practice it deliberately and reflectively, learning from mistakes and acting on feedback. It’s exactly the same for us on interview. Before now, you should have practised and hopefully perfected being the teacher that you aspire to be so that on the day it’s not a case of putting on a show. On the day you want to be calm and in control and keen and interested. It’s a cliché, but remember that you’re interviewing the school as much as the other way around. The best bit of advice I can give is to treat an interview as day of CPD where you’re looking at how another school works and engaging the staff of that school in dialogue about your approach to teaching. Think carefully about body language well before the day; when you get there you want positive and calm body language to come naturally.
6) After the interview.
If you’re offered the job and you’re impressed enough with the school to want to work there, pat yourself on the back and have a good drink; you’ve earned it. You’re in for a few days or even weeks of elation tailing gradually away to a constant feeling of warmth and happiness (at least till you start the job). If you wanted the job but didn’t get it, probe whoever you’re speaking to for as much feedback as possible and note all this down to use next time. Learn from your mistakes and try not to repeat them. If you’re offered it but have decided you don’t want it by this point, be totally honest and candid with the school. Let them know why, in the end, you didn’t find them attractive. They will want to know how a fellow professional from outside their institution views them, just as much as you will want to know what they made of you.
Overall, I think the key thing is to see the job market as something that you are a permanent and active agent in. Don’t see it as something to painfully and grudgingly dip into when you have to; rather, be in control and be part of it. It’s really nothing to worry about once you know it well enough.
Last week Tom Sherrington (aka @headguruteacher) wrote a blog on a book he’d read by Martin Robinson entitled “Trivium 21c”. It got me thinking about how contemporary British education fits into the history of education in general and reminded me of a series of lectures that I listened to over Christmas by Professor Michael Drout on the Liberal Arts and their enduring legacy. In these lectures (with the rather grandiose title of “How to Think”) Professor Drout outlines the history and development of the Liberal Arts tradition and argues against the assumptions of many contemporaries that the Liberal Arts subjects are a soft option lacking rigor that do not prepare students for the world of work. He argues that, contrary to this, the subjects of the Liberal Arts, namely English and the Humanities, are actually the most difficult and challenging of subjects because of the nature of their objects of study, which cannot be easily measured and understood. Whereas in many cases the sciences deal with physical things that can be measured and quantified, the Liberal Arts subjects deal with things that can’t, for example emotions and behaviours. He further argues that they prepare students for any area of work they wish to enter and that, more than likely, they will end up in charge of whatever area it is they choose to go into. The professor isn’t trying to put down the sciences – he admits that he absolutely adores and is fascinated by them – but is simply trying to restore the respect that what we now term Liberal Arts subjects had throughout 2000 years of history up until the Modern period.
According to the Professor the reason that these subjects used to be held in such high regard was because they gave their students what he terms “the tools to rule”. Young men in the Ancient and Mediaeval worlds were sent off to be educated by highly respected teachers who would ensure they were versed in the subjects that were deemed essential for those with civic responsibilities. These subjects were known under the umbrella terms of the “Trivium” and the “Quadrivium”, derived from the Latin words for three and four. The Trivium consisted of Grammar, Logic and Rhetoric, subjects of study that were seen as a prerequisite for studying the Quadrivium subjects, which were arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music. This makes absolute sense: if you can’t speak, write and think clearly and correctly, how on earth can you hope to succeed in other subjects that rely on these skills for their mastery?
The argument continues that the Trivium subjects, which underpin success in all others, have lost respect today because they never became “sciences” in their own right. Professor Drout argues that other subjects gradually mark out a territory and develop tools for measuring their objects of study. As a result, anybody wishing to study these disciplines needs to undertake rigorous training in the methods required to describe, measure, explain and analyse their objects of study. For Trivium, or Liberal Arts, subjects, the objects of study are people and the evidence they leave behind, primarily the written record.
These subjects really are undervalued by many, but studying language and history is of paramount importance. The Greeks, Romans and other European elites throughout history understood that their offspring, for whom they had great expectations of civic achievement and honour, would need to be able to bend other people to their will if they were to get their own way and consequently influence their world. This meant they needed to perfect the art of persuasion, the manipulation of language in a way that changes the way people think and therefore how they behave. They needed to be great orators who could force their thoughts and ideas into a logical framework in order to persuade others to ascribe to and believe in them, and, ultimately fight and die for them.
But it is important to bear in mind that these people who prized the Trivium subjects so highly throughout history were a small minority. They were usually men, and usually rich men at that. But they were also the people who made history happen. In other words, they were the people with power. The difference is that today, when education is compulsory for all, many parents do not have these kinds of lofty ambitions for their children and therefore they do not place such heavy emphasis on the subjects needed to achieve such goals. The families of many of our children are far too concerned with everyday matters – paying the rent, finding a job, looking after sick and elderly relatives – to give too much thought to what their children are studying. Because of its universality education is taken for granted and many parents do not worry about ensuring their children excel in key subjects. They leave it to the schools and just assume that the teachers will get on with educating. I’m not advocating a return to elitist approaches to education, but I think we can learn lessons about how education in general, and specifically Liberal Arts type subjects in particular, are and were viewed now and in the past. This then raises the following questions: how can we raise the aspirations of the parents of students who have little or no aspiration in the first place and, more specifically, how do we get them involved in ensuring that these children develop the skills of communication required to succeed in education and in later life? I don’t have the answers to these questions, but I’m sure we need to look to history to learn how to answer them.
I was lucky enough to be sent on a course this week. I really didn’t want to go. It was originally booked for another colleague who, in the end, wasn’t well enough to go. As it was already paid for the powers that be thought that, so as not to waste money, they’d ask me (I have a bad habit of saying yes to things without thinking them through first). Worse, it was on a topic that I’ve written on several times before and feel very strongly about and so I thought I’d be like a granny sucking on eggs. The topic was differentiation.
But how wrong I was. I left for Manchester at 6.15 in the morning, wondering why I’d agreed to go and be shown how to dumb down texts and worksheets and how to create differentiated learning objectives that catered to all levels. I expected things about creating key word sheets and selecting books for the correct AF level or how to prepare several versions of the same reading comprehension.
Instead I was confronted with a course leader (Isabella Wallace, @wallaceisabella) whose whole philosophy toward the dreaded D-word was that each challenging task should engage everybody whatever their current level. This was music to my ears. The whole course was really underpinned by the beautifully mutually supporting theories of Carol Dweck’s “growth mindset” and John Biggs’ SOLO taxonomy, meaning that tasks could be tackled whatever a student’s level, and they could easily be stretched to the next level too. There were loads of really good little activities that could be applied to any topic or subject quickly, easily and painlessly with just a tiny bit of forethought.
So the next day I arrived in school and rewrote my lesson plans, following some of Isabella’s advice. My bottom set year 11 (who it transpired had been awful the previous day for the supply teacher) walked into a clip of Jeremy Kyle having it out with an absent teenage father (working on writing to argue you see) followed by a quick discussion of the pros and cons of Jeremy’s techniques. Students then had to try to answer the learning objective: “how well can you justify your belief in the supernatural?” (An aside here: an LA advisor recently told me my objectives were dry and to rephrase them as questions – you’ll see why in a minute). It turned out that most didn’t know what the supernatural was, so I asked them instead “do you believe in ghosts?” They were given a sheet of paper on which they had to write either “Yes, I believe in ghosts”, “No I don’t believe in ghosts”, or “I’m not sure whether I believe in ghosts or not”. We then left the room and went and stood on the staircase with 100% believers on the top landing, 100% non-believers on the bottom and the rest working out where they stood in between. We all (including myself and the TA) had to justify why we were stood where we were.
Next, we went back to the classroom and laid out three pieces of A1 paper. On one we wrote “Ghosts can talk”, on another “ghosts can be good or bad” and on another “you can feel a ghost’s presence”. Next, we carried out the “silent debate” (something I picked up at the course). Every student had a different coloured pen and spent two minutes at one of the sheets, writing comments and responses to what others had written, before moving onto the next one. The amazing thing here was the sheer immersion of the students. The concentration and focus was such that for 15 minutes they were in a pure state of flow, something I’d never seen with this group before, and by the end of it we had 3 sheets covered in brilliant comments and responses (with the exception of the odd “YOLO”) that we can use next lesson to really build up and structure our arguments.
At the end students went back and had another go at answering the objective. This time they could do it, meaning progress was clearly demonstrated in their books (and why the objective framed as a question is so damned useful). The proof that this was so engaging and so clearly a successful example of differentiation was that, in a group that yesterday had made a supply teacher really upset and needed the intervention of the Head of Year, everybody was 100% engaged throughout and contributed really constructively, as well as having made clear progress. After they had finished answering the objective they kept trying to add more comments even though the bell had gone, and, more importantly, one of the students (who was removed the day before) asked me if we were carrying on with what we’d done as it was “sick”. Formally, I could say that all students had moved from the prestructual, unistructural or multistructural level of SOLO to the relational level, which with a bottom set of LAS isn’t to be sniffed at in a single lesson.
The lessons that came later in the day were almost (but not quite) as brilliant as this one, with almost everyone making excellent progress and being engaged all the time (I had a year 11 Media lesson linking up key words from the Superhero genre and a year 7 literacy lesson on building complex sentence structures, but I won’t go into the detail here).
The downside of the day is that it forced me to shell out a load of department cash on resources that are going to allow me to carry out these kinds of lessons every day, but that will be money very well spent, I’m confident.
A key thing that Isabella said yesterday was: “differentiation is about ensuring all participate”; “same task different level of challenge”. I think my lessons today really reflected this, so thank you Mrs Wallace for some great ideas.