Lightening the load – how to make big gains in learning by doing less.

load

There’s so much snake oil in education that when something with the potential to really help learners comes along, there’s a chance it’s overlooked; this mustn’t be the case with cognitive load theory. The evidence to support this theory is compelling and educators should take note. Like much research in education, cognitive load theory has been around quite a while, but has only recently come to the surface for many teachers like me. What strikes me most about the theory is the hard evidence that supports the common-sense idea this theory asserts, which is that often less is more when teaching.

The evidence to support cognitive load theory tells us that we often make two distinct errors in teaching. Firstly, we frequently stifle learning because we overload children’s cognitive processing capacity so that little of what we teach sticks. Secondly, we give children problem solving activities prematurely, before content or skills are properly learnt, which slows down learning, or even prevents it altogether. These two points are driven firstly by mistaken ideas about the distinction between engagement and learning and then how children learn the kind of information we need to teach in school.

To begin with, we need to understand that  learning involves the processing of information in the working memory enough times that it transfers to long-term memory where it becomes unconscious or, what lead theorist John Sweller calls, automatic. Here information is imprinted onto the unconscious mind rather like a foot print pressing into fresh cement which then dries and remains. Information processing in the working memory is more like a foot print in very wet mud which soon disappears.

Another good analogy for the process of transferring from working to long-term memory is learning to drive a car. At first, we have to practice very deliberately, in a very controlled, clunky manner so we process each action and we have to do this a number of times (more for some people as we know).  Then eventually, our driving becomes unconscious and automatic, so much so that we often have that feeling that we have driven a whole journey without thinking about driving once. Usually, this doesn’t mean we were out of control, but rather our unconscious long-term memory was.  This development in how information is processed is the transfer of information from controlled processing to automatic procedure. This is how learning sticks.

Cogntive load diagram

Now we experience distraction, engagement and learning (hopefully) in the classroom, but teachers are not routinely trained in understanding cognitive capacity. We recognise when children don’t learn, but it’s always hard to pin point why. Sweller asserts that working memory in most healthy humans can process around 3 to 4 ‘elements’ for around 20 seconds. This means that working memory is small and information doesn’t hang around in it for long at all, like that foot print in the soggy mud.

Cognitive elements are not the same for each person or for each set of information and they will change as learners develop, but essentially elements are chunks of information the mind processes. A very basic example might be the word frog. This might comprise of one element for an experienced reader, but f-r-o-g might then be comprised of four elements for a beginner reader. However, the working memory can only hold around four of these in a short period of time before that information is lost.

Now, when giving instruction to pupils there are two factors we teachers have misunderstood, or simply never thought about. Firstly, the limitation in the working memory and secondly the breadth of extraneous auditory and visual cognitive information created through either poor instruction, or an overloaded classroom environment. Put simply, when we create for example, an all singing, all dancing power point  to teach say column addition, it’s likely that the juicy information on how to actually add in columns doesn’t stick because the working memory of those pupils looking at that PowerPoint is overloaded with extraneous visual elements, or what Sweller refers to as ‘redundant information’ (Sweller calls this the redundancy effect).

Below is an example of the kind of power point page or flip chart I have seen many times in primary classrooms (in fact, I’ve seen many more that are even busier!) Now, clearly the maker of the page has gone to quite a bit of trouble to make it appealing to young children and help support pupils learning how to add in columns. However, it is likely that there is too much visual information to process here. In addition, the teacher will probably be talking at the same time to explain each part; they might even have music on to supposedly ‘settle’ the children – all adding more auditory information to the cognitive load.

busy powerpoint.png

The mind processes large amounts of information without us realising it, so while a child might try hard to take in the main points (adding units and then tens) their cognitive capacity will be bursting at the seams with two sets of basic instructions, a colourful bee character, leaves, grass, arrows, boxes… and so on.  It’s no wonder children might go back to their tables to add numbers and be unclear on what to do.

Cognitive load theory suggests that when we cut out the extraneous, ‘redundant’ information it will be easier to process. We cannot say for certain how many cognitive elements are on that page for each pupil, but cutting down visual and auditory extras will help pupils process the content we want them to. According to cognitive load theory, we are less likely to overload the working memory when instruction is pared down, such as with the page below for example.

Pared down powerpoint

Then the right information is more likely to be held in the working memory ready to be applied to repeated practice so that all important imprinting takes place and information is transferred to the long-term memory.

Learning through problem solving

Often as teachers we like to give children problem solving activities. We like these because they promote collaboration, dialogue and we believe they help children to develop their thinking skills. Learning through enquiry or discovery learning has come about through considering how children learn for example, how to speak and walk. In these situations, children aren’t given direct instructions from others on how to speak or walk, but rather they seem to learn by soaking up the skills and knowledge and simply ‘having a go’. This seemingly natural process of learning has been thought to also work when giving children problem solving activities. This is in the hope that by solving problems children learn how to solve problems.

However, according to Sweller, the information we want children to learn in schools isn’t the same as speaking or walking because humans have evolved to learn to walk and speak. This is, as Sweller asserts, ‘knowledge through instinctive acquisition’.  However, humans have not, for example, evolved to learn how to add in columns – this is what Sweller refers to as ‘non-instinctive knowledge’. In essence, some information we are pre-programmed to soak up and other information we aren’t born with the programming for, but only the capacity to learn it from others in a deliberate way.  Sweller calls this type of information, ‘knowledge absent from the natural world’.  Put simply, leave a bunch of homo sapiens on their own and they won’t learn algebra, but they will learn to communicate and walk about.

Essentially, this type of non-instinctive knowledge is learnt more efficiently from a more knowledgeable other who instructs or ‘teaches’ that information. According to Sweller, it is in this way that society or communities of people might remain illiterate or innumerate unless another human intervenes and teaches.  Because of this, it is very difficult to learn non- instinctive knowledge through problem solving. Children look busy and engaged when problem solving, but not much is being transferred from the working to the long-term memory because all that processing capacity is involved in lots of extraneous content outside the specific knowledge to be learned, as well as simply finding a means to an end rather than processing content information.

This is not to say that human beings can’t learn through problem solving at all, it’s just a slower, less efficient kind of learning. For example, a human being could get in a car for the first time (with the key in the ignition) and after much trial and error work out how to drive the car; many people won’t ever work out how to drive it though. However, we all know that having direct instruction from another will dramatically change this. This is why we have driving instructors… and teachers for that matter.  Like this, when it comes to the knowledge outside our natural evolutionary instinct, this is the best way to learn. Obtaining information from another is more efficient than learning through problem solving.  As Sweller notes, problem solving remains a ‘secondary option.’ Personally, when it comes to my son learning to drive, I’m glad I took the first option even though it cost an arm and a leg!
For example, a teacher might use this problem below in an attempt to help children learn their number bonds to ten:

NUmber bonds to 10.png

A child might spend a while with a set of 10 pencils and finally work out the answer is 7, but it’s likely they won’t have learnt about number bonds or how to solve missing number problems either. This would be much more appropriate to give to children who have learned their number bonds and how to solve missing number problems, then they can retrieve that information from their long-term memory and apply it to the problem. This retrieval of information back from the long-term memory to use in processing within the working memory also embeds information further into long-term memory. This is why returning to topics once they are learned is important.

In summary, cognitive load theory gives us the evidence that we need to cut down extraneous material when teaching and this might include doing away with busy displays too close to the area where the teacher gives instruction, cutting out background music and certainly reducing the redundant information in instruction materials like power ponuts  or flip charts. We must not be side tracked by wanting to engage children at the expense of learning. In addition, we also need to avoid using problem solving as a teaching tool, but rather use it as an ‘embedder’ when content and the problem-solving skills required have been learned.

The good news is that I now have a great excuse to cut down the time I spend making power points and displays! At last a theory about ‘load’ that cuts down load! What more do you want!

My grateful thanks to John Sweller for his generosity and advice. John Sweller is Emeritus Professor at the School of Education, University of New South Wales, Australia.

Reference: Sweller. J (1994) COGNITIVE LOAD THEORY, LEARNING DIFFICULTY, AND INSTRUCTIONAL DESIGN. Laming and Insbuction, Vol. 4, pp. 293-312, 199 available here 

Another useful paper by John Sweller and Paul Chandler

More to say on mixed ability…

sand

Having written an article for TES on how to teach mixed ability, and now looking through the messages and tweets  responding to it, I thought I should respond myself.

It’s always hard cramming everything you need to say into 600 words, let alone a tweet. There were certainly many things I would have liked to have expanded on in the article and I hope I can here.

Firstly, we have to begin with drawing a line in the sand. What do we all agree on? I think we all agree that we want a fairer society where the avenues for social mobility are well oiled and being poor doesn’t preclude children from  the same opportunities as more affluent children. Surely in fact, no self respecting teacher doesn’t agree? And this is not the same as saying ‘everyone is a winner’ either, or that any middle class aspiration for ‘the best for my child’ is a negative thing. It isn’t.  Let’s not allow tabloid sensationalism in here. Certainly, in this era of post truth, we need truths.

I will also add that yes, for some schools this question of mixed ability teaching and choice for pupils are old hat; ‘been there, done that’. Well good! I want to hear people say they’ve arrived here and get it, but sadly this is not the case for most schools, so I will continue to bang on about it until it is, and so should the TES.

Here are some key facts on social mobility and inequality in case anyone was in doubt it is an issue:

The UK has one of the worst records for social mobility among OECD nations (OECD, 2010c; Cabinet Office, 2011; Hinds et al, 2012).

70 % of High Court Judges, and over half of senior medical consultants, FTSE chief executives and top journalists went to public schools, though only 7% of the total population do so (Sutton Trust, 2009). Those educated in private schools are disproportionately represented in the most powerful and well-remunerated jobs (BBC, 2011; Cabinet Office, 2011)

 Private school pupils are over 22 times more likely to enter a selective university than are state school pupils entitled to free school meals, and are 55 times more likely than free school meals pupils to gain a place at Oxbridge. At the 25 most selective universities in England, only 2% of the yearly student intake was made up for free school meals pupils (Sutton Trust, 2010c).

(What’s preventing social mobility? A review of the evidence, 2013:3)

 There are of course many reasons why less affluent children don’t do as well and many of these factors are outside the control of schools. We already act as social service outreach much of the time and if your pastoral care manager is anything like ours, caring for and propping up families is now a huge aspect of their daily remit. However, we cannot escape that education at present, in this country is far from enhancing social mobility:

The evidence shows that in the UK, education at best replicates, and at worst exacerbates, existing inequality. Statistics highlight that British children’s educational attainment is overwhelmingly linked to parental occupation, income, and qualifications (EPPE, 2004; Lupton et al, 2009; National Equality Panel, 2010; EPPSE, 2012). Hinds et al (2011) observe that education has the potential to ‘break the cycle’ of disadvantage, and some schools are of course demonstrating that socio-economic gaps can be narrowed (Allen, 2012). However, in the case of the English education system overall, rather than the socio-economic gap for achievement shrinking as young people progress through it, the gap widens . Lindley & Machin’s (2012) recent work shows that, as educational opportunities have grown, so has inequality.

(What’s preventing social mobility? A review of the evidence, 2013:3)

 Now, there is no doubt that educational inequalities begin before school; however, schools should be places where these inequalities are wholeheartedly and very deliberately readdressed via pedagogy, except they are so often not.

In fact, as my article outlined, for a long time, and to my utter shame as a member of the educational community, these inequalities have been enabled and enhanced by a system that has turned a blind eye to years of the same kind of children, sitting in the same kind of groups, given the same kind of second rate education. Granted, things might have moved on somewhat from a decade ago, but far from readdressing these disparate starts in life, education continues now, today in England to widen inequality.

Now, what do we then do with the over whelming evidence that streaming, setting and ability grouping benefit more affluent children and sustain the achievement gap?

Look at some of the data from 2007 regarding less affluent children in ability groupings:

FSM data

(What’s preventing social mobility? A review of the evidence, 2013:17)

I’m not sure data from today regarding FSM and ability grouping is any better; if anyone has any please share it. (Or fund my PhD and I’ll share it after that!) But have no doubt,  lower sets or groups are more often than not populated by less affluent children.

So, what do we do with this evidence then? Some people have simply chosen to shout louder in their unwavering conviction that ability grouping is best, perhaps hoping that all this evidence will disappear if they keep shouting. Well, it won’t.  Is it then OK to say that mixed ability teaching is just too impractical so let’s just keep doing what we’re doing? Should we not even try something different? How can we ignore such compelling evidence:

Boaler & Wiliam (2001) summarise, “The various studies that have been conducted in the UK provide conclusive evidence that setting and streaming create and perpetuate social class divisions among students. They have also shown that students of similar ability are frequently placed in different sets or streams according to their social class….” (p. 177).

(What’s preventing social mobility? A review of the evidence, 2013:17)

We have to face the fact that we are not dealing with this issue in education unless we begin to make change regarding selection and grouping by ability. It will not be solved overnight and it will not always run smoothly, but these are not good enough reasons not to try.

I hear all the worries and objections to mixed ability teaching, but like all things in education: some things work most the time, most things work some of the time, but not all things work all the time. Mixed ability teaching might not work all the time, but on the whole it narrows the achievement gap and works better for less affluent children and those children deserve a chance; they deserve us putting everything we’ve got into redressing the imbalance.

Here are the main benefits from mixed ability teaching that I have witnessed:

  • Raised self esteem of pupils who are no longer defined by being in a labelled group. This is highly significant as the ‘self fulfilling prophesy’ that often dogs under privileged children cannot be ignored.
  • Expectations held by teachers are modified as children, who might present as ‘low achievers’, are no longer restricted to groups with specific tasks, but instead can try anything anyone else can. Teachers certainly need shaking up here; expectation is more powerful than many of us think.
  • Huge improvements in the oracy of some less affluent children as they learn shoulder to shoulder with children often modelling better use of language and articulation. Let’s not forget, learning is highly social and when less experienced learners are in groups with more experienced learners they will often try to converge speech patterns.
  • Improvements in thinking skills of some less affluent children as they collaborate with more able children who are often more experienced in verbalising their thinking skills and thus model these to others.
  • Improvements in whole class ethos as children learn to work together and support each other rather than sit in separate groups.
  • More under privileged children catching up with the attainment of the more affluent children over time.

Now, I have no doubt that in some cases there are children who really need lots more intervention and direct instruction. Yes, it is impractical to put them on that fluency to ‘Blooms’ synthesis type journey. However, do they always need to sit in a separate group? Are they all called something like ‘the lowers,’ or the ‘blue group,’ so that they only identify as ‘that group’?  Can we lessen the ‘baggage of underachievement’ on them? How often are they able to learn alongside more experienced  children?  Small changes will have a big impact here.

Of course, there’s no denying children are well aware of who is behind and who is ahead; this is not about everyone being the same, but we are not helping to redress that imbalance by concretising identities via groups with labels. Remember, that line in the sand and what we want for children; education should not make life worse for children who need more of a helping hand.

If you want to read more from the meta-analysis referenced here you can find it here.

Mark smart – cheats on getting it done.

cheating-at-cards

Someone asked me the other day how I manage running a class full time plus phase leadership and assessment; this was on a week where I had long meetings on three out of the five days after school, plus I had lost a large chunk of PPA to a sick cover teacher. Just how do you get the marking done, let alone everything else?

Well, ‘I’m not gonna lie’ as they say, – it’s pretty damn hard, but I do look back and think ‘God! What did I do when I was just class teaching?’

Part of the trajectory to getting increasingly smart with your time as a teacher is experience. Remember being an NQT and marking thirty books took three hours? Well, those days are long gone – maybe an hour at the most these days. And, my marking is probably ten times better now. The trouble is that it’s easy giving tips and ideas, but it’s impossible to pass on years of experience. Teaching is like juggling and we know that takes a while to get good at and even then you still drop the ball.

However, when I sat thinking about just how much smarter I work than even five years ago, I can point to a few strategies that really help. Firstly, getting smarter with marking is essential and is one of the biggest obstacles to teachers feeling on top of things. It has to begin with following your school marking and feedback policy of course, but from what I can see, most schools are taking workload into account and not expecting in-depth marking of all children’s learning. So, step one: do you need to mark everything in detail? Is an acknowledgement tick OK for some pieces and if so can your TA help here drawing your attention later to any misconceptions found? Delegate any way you can – but always ensure you know what’s going on with your children and act on it – that’s the bottom line. No point in getting a TA to mark if you don’t share what he or she found out.

So, we agree that every piece of learning should be acknowledged and looked at by an adult – even if this is during the lesson, immediate feedback is the most effective of course. It is just not acceptable to have page after page of learning with no indication that an adult has ever seen it, even worse if the pages are full of errors and there is no evidence of the next lesson attending to these. It used to annoy me if I saw my children’s books like that – and I did quite often. Still, times have changed.

Whatever we think about accountability, we have to accept now that children’s books are pretty much public documents as well as their own workbooks. They are a record of a learning journey which includes the interaction between the child and their teacher and, whether we like it or not, showing learning and progress is how schools and teachers are judged now.  If teachers want to be judged on performance over time and not just on fleeting lesson observations then we need some tangible record of this. Sure, I could rant all day about the rights and wrongs of having to prove children’s learning to others rather than getting on with it all… Oh the frustrations of accountability swamping the endeavours of authentic education, but other people need to know children are learning and they need some form of evidence. Pick your battles – whether we should mark books isn’t one of them, but how you manage your marking might be.

So what about this in-depth marking? I know that lots of people debate whether the time spent on this is ever really worth it because some of the time you might as well just put all that into planning the next lesson.Yes, this is true, so that’s why in-depth marking everything is not productive- but careful planning is.  Also, if you open the books and everyone has made the same grievous error revealing a painful misconception then you’re better off teaching that concept again rather than wasting time marking all thirty books in the exact same way. However, in my experience that rarely happens – unless you mucked up the teaching in some way, then why didn’t you spot this common error during the lesson and change course then?

Mostly what happens in lessons is that 30% of pupils fly along with the concept and you’ll need to stretch their application of it (all that Blooms stuff), 50% will make the odd error, but just need deliberate and varied practice of the concept before applying it elsewhere and then there’s that 20% who just haven’t got the links to the concept yet and you need to deconstruct the process into smaller steps. I’d like to think that eventually everyone masters it – but hey, let’s get real – the spiralling curriculum and intervention groups have to apply now and then.) Hopefully, after a few sessions, that 20% have moved into the deliberate practice club and a lot of the 50% are ‘Blooming’ along synthesising and evaluating etc.

In this situation, in-depth marking, with each pupil spending time responding to it, does result in progress and, whether we like it or not, this interaction between you and  pupils needs to be evident to others. We’ve argued for years that it’s children’s learning that should be the focus rather than how teachers teach so now let’s try to make the most of it.  However, how we do this is what seems to be causing teachers problems.  So here are some ways to ‘mark smart’:

  • Mark while you teach – get those colour coded pens in your back pockets and after the children have got going, get round and dive into their books. Tick things that are on the right track, highlight things they need to spend more time on, then pop back to that child in a few minutes. This way you’re making your immediate feedback evident too. Why not write down a quick question for them to think about there and then – draw a fill-in bubble next to it for them to show their response. If they respond to marking in a different colour, ask them to here.
  • Self marking during the lesson– for some maths and some SPAG focus lessons, half way through the lesson stick the answers on the board and get the kids to mark their own in response pens. Then when they go back – travel around and pick up those who tripped up. Why not get a peer who got it correct to explain how to a child who got it wrong?
  • Self marking at the end of the lesson – this will you save time so you can focus on the more in-depth responses rather than working out who got what. Even a correct answer can be in-depth marked remember.

Marking outside the lesson:

  • Story time marking – so you have a meeting after school and there is no time to mark. What are your priorities? How will you know what the pitch is tomorrow too? Don’t take books home – that’s madness, 7am – 5pm is enough of a working day thanks. So get your TA to read a story for half an hour while you mark. If you haven’t got a TA, then get some quality CD stories; stick them on while you mark. Any school leader who frowns on this then I ask why? Of course putting on a DVD of Mulan for the eighteenth time is wrong, but why not let Roald Dahl do a bit of the work and let him tell them a story while you prioritise? My children love listening to stories and drawing at the same time at the end of the day.
  • Mark during independent afternoon sessions – Sometimes you look around the room and everyone is merrily getting on with things. It might be an art lesson for example, the music is playing and the children are enthralled in cutting up bits and making a collage. Again, you have a meeting after school (or something you need to leave early for) and it’s time for some in-depth marking. Grab five books and sit next to child who could do with a little support now and then. Multi-task and while you’re sat there mark those five books. Go back get another five books and move to another child if need be. This is like mum or dad helping with the homework while cooking dinner – nothing wrong with it now and then. Of course doing it every lesson wouldn’t be right at all– but use the children’s independence at times to help you manage things.

Now the next issue is which pieces should you in-depth mark then? As said, sensible marking and feedback policies won’t ask for every piece to be marked in detail, so which to choose? Well, here your knowledge and intuition as a teacher comes into play. Sometimes it’s a good idea to in-depth mark at the start of an area of learning so that misconceptions are hammered out, although often this isn’t the best place because the start is often the messy stage with errors all over the place that can be ‘quick ticked’ and fed into the next lesson. The middle part is a good place when children are getting to grips with a concept and right in that zone of proximal development  so some in-depth feedback and marking might drag them across to the that place they would have not otherwise got to. Then again, this might be at the end of unit or area too. Only you can really know the answer to this from the feel you have for the learning that’s going on. One thing is for sure – in-depth marking say ‘every Wednesday’ kind of loses the point – in-depth mark when it’s going to help children go further, not because it’s Wednesday.

Also – remember that writing long messages is a waste of time. Research has shown that children don’t read it all and the time it takes to do that doesn’t match the learning gain. I’d say never write much more than one or two sentences and think about effective marking: focus on the learning intention and don’t fall into the trap of marking every error, less is more. Also think about the range of types of marking: scaffold, inform, prompt etc.

So – I do think teachers can get smarter with marking and there are ways they can help themselves, not just with the colour codes and brightly coloured pens, but also with the physical plate spinning of it all. School leaders should support this too.  I expect some of this is deeply patronising and will cause some teachers to roll their eyes, but some teachers I know need to give themselves permission to get smarter and it will serve them and the children better if they do.

Redressing the balance… for teachers too.

I’ve had a little read through the NAHT Assessment Review Group report, ‘Redressing the Balance.’ I thought there was ever such a lot of sense in what they are saying about data and assessment, but I’m left with the urge to wave a flag for teachers too.  Leaders have a responsibility to protect their school and children from the negative affects of high stakes testing and data, as well as all the  other government blunders of late, but teachers really need this too. Sometimes it’s as if teaches are the last thing anyone thinks about in education,when they are the bedrock. Teachers are not as effective when they are stressed and certainly their assessment practice will becomes corrupted if they are pressurised over data or meeting thresholds.

 Take one idea at the beginning of the  report:

“Raw data from statutory assessments should not be used to draw simplistic conclusions about a school’s performance or lead to heavy-handed intervention. This misuse is at the heart of many of today’s problems with assessment. Results from such assessments are a useful indicator of a need for further investigation and may reflect other in-school factors which are proven to influence pupil performance

Can’t agree more!  However, school leaders need to apply this wisdom to any hard data used in school. Imagine the above statement written with teachers in mind:

“Any data data should not be used to draw simplistic conclusions about a class’s or teacher’s performance or lead to heavy-handed intervention regarding the teacher’s performance management. This is at the heart of many of today’s problems with assessment for teachers. Results from testing and in-school data are a useful indicator of a need to further investigate and may reflect other factors which are proven to influence pupil performance like behaviour, social-emotional well being and home environment. Supporting improvements and making progress in these areas may not show immediate progress in academic learning, but will most often lead to great gains there later on. In this way, a class’s progress should be the subject of detailed professional dialogue alongside the use of  data to inform before judgements are made.”

If school leaders are going to make assessment work – they can’t nod their heads to the NAHT ticking off the government and Ofsted for using data badly then turn around and use it in the exact same way on their teachers. If the misuse of data corrupts the system at one level then it will do the same everywhere else when it’s misused in the same way.

Also…

Research therefore supports the fact that judgement of a school’s success or failure on the basis of statutory tests is unjust and unreliable”.

Again – imagine this rewritten for the humble class teacher:

“Judgements of a teacher’s success or failure on the basis of  data alone is therefore unjust and unreliable.”

Please can we really think about this. I still hear toe-curling stories of teachers being pressurised for numbers rather than the focus being authentic progress in learning (these two are not always the same) and their performance being whittled down to an excel spreadsheet.   In the TES today- 55% of teachers felt they had performance targets that were unrealistic and unachieveable. A whopping 79% felt their objectives contained requirements beyond their control.  Why are leaders doing this to their teachers? The news that some teachers’ pay rises have been held back in 2016-17 based on the very questionable data from those ridiculous tests is simply absurd – did the head teachers also forgo their pay rises too? Someone needs to stick up for teachers here!

I’m all for holding teachers to account, we should, but hold them to account in a way that will ultimately benefit children’s learning first.

 

How to leave the comfort zone… for a while at least.

slippers

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to work in another school, but just haven’t got the ‘oomph’ to move from your cosy, familiar surroundings?   Well, a secondment could be a great way to ease you into looking further afield.

Last September, another executive head in our borough approached me and asked if I’d be interested in a secondment at one of his schools for six months. The school has a very different context than my school, a completely different demographic; it also had a cohort in one year group whose behaviour was so testing that they had got through a handful of teachers just in one term and were now taught by supplies.  Would I like to experience this context and try and sort this class out?

At first, I assumed the executive head at my school would simply say no. I’d never really heard about ‘borrowing’ teachers like this and I had some important responsibilities at my school as a member of the SLT. In fact, I was sure he’d say no, so to be polite, I said I’d do it if my head agreed. Off I went back to the comfort and familiarity of my ten year post at my school. When I say ‘my school’ I really mean my school as it was my primary school in the late ‘ehem’…70s and also my own children’s school. My school is like a second home to me and my family are part of its community, although my children are older now, at university or globetrotting somewhere, their friendships are still with ex pupils from families that all live in and around the school.

In one way or another, I’ve been in and out of the school since I was six years old and have experienced it from all the angles possible: pupil, parent and teacher. It’s not always easy thinking about moving when you have links like I do with a place. However, there is always a danger of becoming stale as a teacher in a ‘long haul post’, but I’ve been fortunate to have worked with leaders who have never allowed that to happen. It’s just not the type of school where anyone can get musty because reflection and development are literally part of the foundations of the place. After all these years, it’s stayed the same in so many ways, but managed to update itself in just the right ways and in just the right places.

In recently years, as I progressed to SLT level, I’ve had a few offers from other leaders to go and work for them. I’ve never fancied headship, but being a second in command leading things has always appealed. Some jobs have looked very tempting and others frightened the life out of me. I’ve filled out job applications a number of times and always have my CV updated each year, but somehow, I’ve never seemed to be able to post that letter. The grass has always been rich and green on my side. So when my head appeared in my classroom a few days later, with that ‘time you challenged yourself again’ look on his face, I knew I had to go. Challenge and update time.

I was apprehensive about the move, but also excited and yes, completely comforted by the fact that come the next September, I could walk back into my old lodgings. The secondment school was in the same borough yet it had an almost 90% ethnic minority cohort, polar opposite to my school, but I still knew the area very well, both schools only five minutes drive from my home; that’s London, turn a corner and there’s a different story. I also knew that if I was going to move permanently, which was a possible outcome, then this was probably the only way it would happen, with a great big safety net to flop into at the end, should I need it.

Well, it was challenging and the change confronted me as a teacher in so many ways, but looking back, all for the good. I’d visited lots of other schools before in my role advising schools on primary science and also as a Challenge Partner reviewer. Like this, I’d seen how other schools work, but there is nothing like experiencing another school at that daily operational level and with very different approaches required for such a diverse context.

Setting aside the change in dealing with perhaps not just one or two difficult pupils in a class, but coping with as many as twelve very volatile, challenging children, the change in leadership strategy was also enlightening.  I had a lot of experience, but not this experience so all I could do was learn.  All the usual expectations of learning and progress had to change because sometimes progress meant simply getting a child through the day without them hurting someone; other times, it was progress if a child got through a single  lesson. If I’m honest, there were days (quite a few if I’m truthful) when I thought I’d never get to July at all. Yet I survived by being around really positive people and learnt that the more children know you care about them, the more they give back. Most days, I felt mentally and physically exhausted, but I always got through by trying my darn hardest to be completely optimistic with the children, even on the worse days, with tables turned over and all sorts flying round the room, I tried to stay calm, smile and move on because that’s what the children needed most: a consistent person who wasn’t going to run.

After a while, I learnt all manner of distraction techniques and ways to deescalate situations; I learnt that consequences for some of the most challenging behaviour I think I’ll ever see  from primary pupils can wait, but rooting yourself to the floor, staying calm and showing you care mean everything. Some of the children I met there were the most grateful, caring children I think I’ll ever meet, and were often coping with things outside school no child should ever have to cope with. Forget about ‘expected this’ and ‘greater depth that,’ many of these children needed medals just for putting up with what life was throwing at them.  This is why I will always wonder why school performance is judged using the same measures for all schools. If that school was measured on the progress children made in the important things in life, like sharing, respect, patience, thoughtfulness, then the measures would go off the dial. One thing we know is that children need to be in a certain place to learn well, and getting them to that place is a journey in itself. Why isn’t this kind of progress recognised formally?

This school had previously been judged as requires improvement by Ofsted and they were due any minute, another reason why they needed that class sorted out. Every day, every week there was some improvement, and yes, there were days when it all went backwards, but you got back on with it the next day and learnt a bit more. We waited and waited for the call. When it got to two weeks before the summer holidays, the class were settled, they’d made good progress, and not only in behaviour, but academically as well. To their great credit, when they were ready to learn, they were thirsty to for it and worked and worked. These children really felt the value of learning. However, by then I was sure Ofsted wouldn’t come. Then on the last full week of the year on a warm, sunny Monday morning in July, we got the call.

Everyone had worked so hard to get the school into a steady place, and long before I’d arrived, but with all the assessment changes and demanding new curriculum the data didn’t look so rosy. It seemed so unfair that all that incredible commitment seemed not to show up on a spread sheet somewhere. When the inspectors came, the children were quite amazing. Many of them still had very difficult things going on in their lives, but they shined. My explosive little class suddenly seemed to have soaked up six months of learning and wanted to show it, and not just sums or sentences, but in solid behaviour for learning. On that last Thursday of the school year, they were judged as a ‘good school’ and there were wasn’t a dry eye in the house.

I didn’t stay at the school; it was time for me to go home then. I’d done what I’d set out to do which was to help pull that class together; it might have nearly killed me, but I did it. Another time, I might have stayed. But where could I have possibly got that experience if I’d not left the comfort of my school? We don’t have the behaviour challenges at my school, but I now appreciate the place at a much deeper level. Plus all those little things really are little now. Lost PPA? Double duty? Last minute assembly? No TA? Another meeting?  An extra deadline? ‘These things happen and if you think that’s hard work, let me tell you…’   One thing I also have now is complete admiration for the dedicated teachers back at that school; their resilience and commitment to the children was and is literally, dare I say it, outstanding.

And secondments? Well, I have no doubt too that there should be more. School leaders should perhaps consider this option rather than a long term supply for example, and in turn schools should consider lending out teachers who will gain great experience from it. It also gives old timers like me, with their feet firmly in the warm slippers of their cosy existence, a chance to run through the grass on the other side of the fence. And who knows, this might also be their route to their next post, a post they’d have never gone for without that safety net. It’s also a great way for schools to ‘try out’ people and give them back if they want. So here’s to secondments…

Anyone running a school in the Bahamas, need someone like me? Give me a call… there’s a chance I might stay too.

The good, the bad and…crackers.

Illustration re corporal punishment of s

Conversations about our jobs often pop up around the table at Christmas time, but I didn’t expect a whole family debate on intelligence to rage across the crackers and cranberry sauce, but it did. I came away feeling that intelligence isn’t so much misunderstood, but rather terribly misapplied.

Anyone who reads my blogs will know that assessment is my thing, with a particular focus on  factors that promote or prevent formative assessment working well for pupils and teachers.

One of the biggest bees in my teacher bonnet here is mind set and how both pupils and teachers view intelligence or ability. During some action research I carried out a while ago, I was surprised by just how prevalent fixed mind sets are amongst pupils and how far this appeared to prevent them from taking hold of their own learning. Many of us will have read  Carol Dweck’s research into this, but I wanted to see how this might manifest in my setting.

I found that some pupils had created in their minds a kind of pecking order of cleverness within their class and ranked themselves within it so that they could quite literally order themselves and their peers in  intelligence with phrases such as ‘really clever,’ ‘quite clever’, ‘sort of brainy’ and ‘not that smart.’ This was despite a strong emphasis on choice in learning and mixed ability groupings in the class. It seemed that many of the children had long established ideas about intelligence that had not shifted with our work on learning how to learn or collaborative class ethos.

There were undesirable outcomes from these seemingly fixed views of intelligence, not least the palpable fear of revealing misunderstanding or ‘being stuck’. For pupils this meant revealing their ‘ranking’ in the intelligence order compared to everyone else and running the risk of being seen as ‘dumb’ (their words not mine). The result was that when some pupils needed help, or would have benefited from further explanation, they didn’t ask for it and preferred instead to sit ‘surviving’ by either copying or appearing to write lots of ‘stuff’ and look busy. Ring a bell with anyone?

Of course, some of the nifty formative assessment techniques seek to combat this secret survival thing kids do by forcing them to show their hands right there in the lesson. Using things like hinge questions on white boards and generally responsive teaching that will pick out this kind of quiet ‘wallowing’ well before you find the grim evidence in the books later when you mark…and when it’s really too late. Nevertheless, a teacher’s job shouldn’t be about finding out how far children can hide their misunderstanding; in the end, we’re doing our job really well when we teach children to recognise and use their misunderstanding and deal with ‘getting stuck’ positively. After all, that sticky point, that cognitive discomfort (posh word: dissonance) when learning, should be where learning begins, not ends.

It was no coincidence to me that the children who made the most progress in that class were the children who were never happy secretly surviving and actively sought out help whenever they needed it. “I don’t get it?” was and is a sign of a learner going places, as long as something is done about it of course.  That in itself seemed like an ‘ability’ that took the learner far: doing something about feeling challenged, not shrinking or hiding. When I talked to these few children about what they thought about being clever and ‘intelligent’ they seemed to think about this differently. Their ideas about intelligence lent more towards it being something to be built upon and cultivated rather than something endowed and fixed inside. These children weren’t always confident or optimistic or even enthusiastic in every lesson– things we always count as important factors in learning, but instead, they seemed secure in their feelings about learning itself– this was their confidence in effect: that with help and time, they could always improve, even if it seemed impossible at the start. Like this, their identity and self image did not seem attached to the tasks they undertook.

At the same time, these children could talk about another child being more intelligent, but they did this in a way that was more like talking about a journey when someone is ahead rather than about someone who possesses more of something. It seemed to me that these few children understood ability as an active process while many others, most in fact, engaged with it as a finite endowment or a fixed asset, just as Carol Dweck described. Both these ideas also appeared innate in that they were revealed to me mostly by the way the children were when operational in class rather than when they had rational conversations about intelligence.

This brings me back to the beginning and all that debate about ability. What is it then? What is this thing called ability that teachers still call high, low or middle? We’ve talked about it so much in education and for so long surely we must all know? Well, the more I teach and the more I watch children learning I know that views about intelligence are a potent force when it comes to learning. While on the one hand we all know that children learn, brains grow, connections are built and meaning made, we also know that not all children are the same or can do the same things at the same time, but how pupils and importantly teachers interact with this thing called ability really matters. It is all about how we apply our knowledge of these differences.  Without doubt some brains are quicker, synapses work faster and there are stronger connections; however, the salient point is that all healthy brains can build connections: intelligence is an active process not an entity. This means that defining pupils by ability is problematic and threatens to limit their prospects because no matter what we say, humans suck up self image like a sponge; we carry an image of ourselves that is shaped by what we and others think about us. The moment definitions come into play we start pinning them to ourselves. Defining those children who are further ahead as ‘high ability’ limits them because we all start to think of them as ‘children who always succeed’: a terrible burden for everyone. Pinning ‘low ability’ to a child all too often means they and others see them as low achievers for the foreseeable future.

This creates a problem for teachers. How can we talk about where children are without pinning these things on to them? And how can we really break down this thing that causes children to feel so self conscious about their image in class? Teaching a few lessons on the growth mind set and telling children they need to challenge themselves just isn’t going to touch instinctive ideas that children have developed and that are confirmed not only outside school in myriad ways, but often in school by peers and also teachers who might talk about growth mind set, but have the most fixed ideas of all. It is imperative that teachers think careful how they talk about children, even in the staff room because mud sticks and labels are hard to shift. We all declare we have high expectations for all children, but do we? Believing that all children can improve and build intelligence is not only essential, but I would say it is as imperative to being a teacher as elegance is to being a dancer.

Over the past few years, since that action research, these are the practices that I can say have made a difference in breaking down some of these problems with image and learning. For many these are probably old hat, but nevertheless, they’re worth noting:

  • Celebrate when pupils ask for help when they need it – deliberately create an ethos where questions are welcomed and enjoyed. Don’t forget that teaching is very much about creating the right atmosphere for learners to thrive – it’s not just transferring skills and knowledge (that would be easy).
  • Model being a learner who makes mistakes yourself – a lot. Scratch your head and get confused sometimes and ask your TA or another adult for help.
  • Be gracious when pupils point out you’ve made a mistake, show gratitude and humility rather than defensiveness – show that everyone is up for errors!
  • Watch how you praise pupils – avoid ‘good boy,’ ‘good girl’ type phrases that tickle the ego rather than focus on learning. Mostly, there’s too much praise of pupils in lessons which creates this image focused atmosphere we need to avoid. Think carefully about what you are praising? It is the ‘finishers’? If so is finishing always the same as achievement? Is it the ‘neat and tidy’ pieces? If so, is all learning neat and tidy? When you stop and check, you’d be surprised what and who you praise and how often. When I’ve checked on myself  – I’ve often cringed! What and how you praise contributes massively to how pupils feel about themselves and their peers. As far as you can, qualify your praise by making it clearly task focused, describing what the child did that  was positive. Remember: when you say things like: ‘excellent work’ or ‘well done’ often children have no idea what was ‘excellent’ or ‘well done’ at all and it just becomes another ego badge.  Stars and smiley faces are out  for me too, sorry! (In fact, I think the whole rewards thing needs a re-think… another blog perhaps.)
  • I know it’s been said before, but use the word ‘yet’ a lot. If I ask a child a question, I encourage them to say ‘I’m not there yet?’ rather than a plain ‘I don’t know’. I use it all the time too, ‘you’re not there yet’. It’s a small word that helps keep the doors open so it’s worth getting it well embedded into the class vocabulary.
  • Ban the phrase, ‘it’s easy,’ which children seem to like to say when they get something and see that others don’t. It’s designed to make children feel inadequate so stamp it out. Look out for all the other little gibes that mean the same thing. Talk about it and discuss these things as a class too – bring the bogey man out the cupboard!
  • Lastly, really drill home that struggling is the first sign of learning. Celebrate cognitive conflict and turn it into something you and children look for and prize. I’m not saying allow kids to sit in utter bewilderment either, that’s too far the other way. Vygotsky was clear that we need to take children to that special place where learning becomes possible and this isn’t a place where it’s easy, because you’ve already learnt it, or a place where it’s too hard for any meaning to be made. Get kids to recognise that place for themselves: not easy and not impossible.  Get them to look for it and want it.

These things have made a big impact on  the children I teach. I don’t always get it right and it’s easy to slip into ‘label talk’ so we need to be mindful of it all the time. It’s taken hundreds of years to embed this concept of ‘praising the good child who gets it right,’ so it will take a while to break it down – remember once it was OK to stick a child who got it wrong in the corner with a dunce hat on; my Nan used to get hit with a ruler for wrong answers. Ethos change needs work, time and reflection, but it’s worth it.

Happy New Year!

Science Action Planning: Help!

Another  Lewisham Science Leaders’ Forum on Friday! Thanks to Carole Kenrick from The Ogden Trust for giving us some super  free CPD at the beginning.

Amongst other things we also did some science action planning. To follow up, I thought these questions might be helpful for people new to science leadership and struggling to know where to start to make an impact. Here are a list of questions that might form the basis of an action plan. New people might only start with the first few questions this year and go on to getting to grips with the others after they’ve got their first year under their belt. Hope this helps:

  • What is being taught?  (What is the science curriculum map for each year group) 
  • Is this being taught? (Book monitoring, pupils conferences, learning walks) 
  • Is this adequately resourced to enable teachers and learners to learn? (Resources audit/ budget) 
  • Are teachers confident and supported in their subject knowledge for the curriculum (if not try Reach Out CPD, for example, or get some CPD in.)
  • What is the quality of the learning and teaching of the curriculum? (Is it more child-led than teacher led? Do pupils enjoy it? Do they investigate their own questions enough? Is  there a range of the five types of investigations and lots of practicals? Use observations, pupils surveys, learning walks and books to understand this).
  • How is the learning assessed? (Are teachers clear how to assess science?  Do they use prior knowledge to inform planning? What are they recording for assessment record keeping? 
  • What does the achieved and attainment in science look like? (How many pupils are on track, behind or ahead? SEN? FSM, EAL? What are you going to do to address the issues?) 
  • How can the learning and teaching be enriched? (Visitors, Science Weeks, Science events, extra funding, partnerships etc)
….and I think this last question should be on everyone’s plan, new or more experienced:
  • How can you become a better Science Leader?  (Do you need CPD? Advice? Are you getting time and support?)

I would also say that the enrichment doesn’t have to be only if all those other things are in place because science weeks and visitors etc can be great fun and a quick win; however, if you’ve no time and you’re sinking, then perhaps enrichment is not a priority, but ensuring science is taught should be.

Lastly, when you find something out as a leader, and this creates an action point then think: What am I going to do to address this? How will I know I have? The ‘how will I know I have?’ is so important as it will prevent you from doing things that turn out to be like a ball of string unravelling with no end in sight. Think about going from A to B, but be really clear what B looks like, so you know you’ve got there. It’s like good AfL practice – be clear on quality.

If you can get your head teacher to let you do the Primary Science Quality Mark then this is great way to start and you will get support in making a great impact on science in your school.

With tight budgets now and extreme pressures on schools to make great gains in reading, writing and maths, science will be squeezed on all sides. So chin up science leaders, take a breath and stick your necks out!

Keep waving the flag for science!