Making a success out of success criterion!

I recently blogged about my worry that success criteria were becoming just another ‘tool of transmission’ -allowing children to be passive recipients of teaching rather than active agents in their own learning. Sadly our socio-cultural constructions of teaching and learning mean that the transmission model  is the default to which both pupils and teachers will revert to if they are not reflective about the learning process (or feel over loaded). This is why teachers need to be continually reflective about their practice and certain that the more time given to children understanding their learning will always result in better results  – even better coverage of the curriculum too!

To this end, I unpicked what was going on with the success criteria in my class and bounced back after the Easter break ready to shake up a few things. I tried to marry the need to engage pupils with learning goals and steps to success with the need for energy and agency.  Here I shared the learning question, but spent a few minutes discussing what success would be like, then I asked the children to arrive at three very short phrases, or even three words, to remind them of the steps to success. I specifically asked them not to write full sentences, but after discussion to think of these words or phrases that would remind them of how to be successful or what success looked like.

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The results were immediately plain to see for all. The children had to engage and be active here, they  had to think about their own learning journey. Importantly, did it work?  Yes it did!  For me the progress was evident straight away and we only spent two lessons on rounding and then moved on because everyone was on track. For some children, I made sure me or my TA discussed it and used their words to scribe in three points – but even my level 1 writer and mathematician wanted to write ‘numberline’  and ‘halfway’ himself and this clearly made him feel much more in control of his learning and he was rounding two digit numbers independently in no time at all.

I’m going to keep going with this and see how it works across the other subjects – children need training in these things don’t they. Some of them moaned a bit at first (see they like being fed everything if you’re not careful) but then  they felt the results too. By the third day they were having a go quite happily.  They definitely needed to discuss the  success points briefly as a class first and share some ideas about what three things to put, but following this there were high levels of engagement and importantly ownership.

Anyway, would love to hear thoughts on this.. or better ideas that are out there.

A quote to make us think….

“Almost every child, on the first day he sets foot in a school building, is smarter, more curious, less afraid of what he doesn’t know, better at finding and figuring things out, more confident, resourceful, persistent and independent, than he will be ever again in his schooling, or, unless he is very unusual or lucky, for the rest of his life”  (Holt 1971)

How should we as educators react to this?  My first response was one of disappointment that education could be described as subtracting so much from something so wonderful, so full of potential. Then I felt annoyed, irritated that anyone could  be so pessimistic about  places of learning, places many of us pour our lives into so intensely and so often; surely we are better than this and surely it’s not just schools that have the capacity to take so much away from children? I know that schools can also be sanctuaries for many children and it makes schools sound like Dickensian work houses – a very far cry from the rich, vibrant, happy learning environment I work in. Then I thought that perhaps as teachers we need constant reminding of that fresh, five year old standing at the school gates; we need to remind ourselves of the limitless potential in all children and that from day one they come to us with everything that they need in order to learn, but require everything from us to protect and keep that safe.  Sometimes it’s good to stir things up a little… to shake the dust off…

I like to be optimistic…

Just a few optimistic thoughts about the new assessment reforms:

  •    “make detailed performance descriptors available to inform teacher assessment at the end of key stage 1 and key stage 2. These will be directly linked to the content of the new curriculum”

This counters the APP system where there were attainment targets (ATs) which ‘related to’ the national curriculum programmes of study (PoS). The problem was that the ‘related to’ aspect only confused stressed out teachers even more because in effect they had to correlate an assessment system with a teaching programme. Now the ATs are the same as the PoS which should enable a direct route from teaching to assessment rather than having to assess against criteria relating to teaching.  For me, this is directly linking cause and effect rather than trying to match them. 

  •   “improve the moderation regime to ensure that teacher assessments are more consistent.”

I’m not sure the reforms will cause improvement by themselves, but they at least put moderation on the table again.  At this point it would be good for educators to ask what effective moderation is and importantly, what is it for? Is it to check up on teacher’s ability to assess or it is to enable teachers to improve their understanding of learning outcomes? There is a subtle yet very serious point here. We have a chance now to move from a ‘defensive moderation regime,’ where teachers are implicitly defending their own or attacking others assessments, and move to a ‘constructive moderation regime,’ where teachers generate a shared understanding of learning outcomes. We know that co-constructive learning  works in our classrooms, it raises achievement and attainment, so it is time we stood by those principles throughout and, to quote Chris Watkins, treat knowledge as a ‘collaborative product,’  rather than a prize by which only certain people can triumph.

 In the past, moderation for too many schools became a kind of performance task where teachers were set against each other on how well they could ‘talk levels’ and expound ‘levelness’ in their assessments. What I hope now is that  moderating becomes the source of really effective professional dialogue about what children are doing and where they should be going, with all the focus on the detail. It should be an opportunity now for teachers to agree on practical descriptions of the PoS themselves rather than deliberating what makes a certain level, or even score. It’s important here to emphasis the ‘agree’ part because teachers need to grab this chance and take ownership of the system in a collaborative way without setting themselves against each other.  For example, take one aspect of the English PoS for Composition and take it to pieces. ‘This is what it looks like if a child is using simple organisational devices in  non-narrative material,‘ which is different from waving a writing sample and saying ‘this is a level 3c’  (or perhaps even ‘this is a Year 4 writer with the expected score.’)  We need the kind of dialogue that will make the difference to teachers, and in turn, children’s learning. I hope we haven’t come all this way with the likes of Shirley Clarke and Dylan Wiliam to narrowly evaluate learning first and foremost and leave description and elucidation a poor second?   We need to avoid being experts on ‘levelness’ and ‘scores,’ but rather become experts on the actual learning first. That’s the right way around! Horse, cart…

This a chance to develop our sense of exemplification (which in turn has the potential to strengthen classroom modelling…progress across the ZPD and all that).  So, for example, instead of just ticking a box that says, ‘can organise paragraphs around a theme,‘ we sit down and agree on what emergent paragraphing is, make our own success criteria for it if you like, involve ourselves in dialogic moderation!  This will also strengthen teacher subject knowledge, because as generalists primary teachers really need this! That’s another elephant in the room for primaries – regular subject knowledge revision is virtually non existent. (The other day I heard of a child being taught that a paragraph meant leaving a space every six lines, uh? Not at my own school I hasn’t to add!)

It is my hope that this is a chance to really use assessment FOR learning (everyone’s learning) rather than assessment OF learning, a chance to describe more than just evaluate.   This means teachers and pupils are dead clear on everything because it’s exemplified and defined. No mysteries! No teacher’s secret. No ‘them up there’ secrets either.  If we know what we’re looking for, ten to one the children will too! 

Or am I just being naively optimistic?  I hope not. 

Success! Whose success? – has the success criterion become just another tool for transmission in your classroom?

hypotised child

So many times in education new things sweep through classrooms. There is a great rustling of excitement, teachers rush to use this latest tool…hopefully there are some good effects to learning, but then the new gimmick (that you were sure wasn’t just a trick) gets sucked into the gurgling whirlpool of curriculum coverage.  (Whaa! Hang on to a branch – save yourself!) Also – the last tidal wave of Ofsted wanting pace and challenge has meant at times pupils barely have time to pause and think  – gotta be active, active, active. Let’s hope we didn’t forget the learning too! (Thankfully I think they noticed the pendulum swinging away there – I hope).

The truth is, these new things are usually based on common sense ideas, but dressed up in fancy, new clothes and somehow, some way, we all take more notice of the fancy clothes than the common sense. I hope this hasn’t happened with our dear friend the success criterion, which was realised in the profession as a means to make learning explicit and clear.

My point is that most of us would agree that we are trying to create independent, self-actualising learners who eventually become their own best teachers. Provocative as it may seem, the very best teachers seek to eventually make themselves useless to their pupils, while the worst make themselves indispensable to their pupils, so that the teacher is everything, a life line to learning, the keeper of all. This sounds extreme, and perhaps it is, but sometimes this is needed to make something quite subtle deliberately evident. I am wondering you see whether there are times when a simple tool like a success criterion can slip quietly into becoming a means for the dependency and passivity that we seek to overcome in our pupils.

This thought came to me when I was looking at some old plans. I realised that I had written in the success criteria for the lesson on the plan and that this was the same set of success critiera printed out and used in the children’s books. Well, that’s making the learning journey explicit to the children some might say? Exemplifying success so that the destination is clear? Yes, maybe. But I wonder how many teachers are doing this in the usual mad rush we always find ourselves in, and simply giving out these steps to success without a second thought?  ‘Read your success criteria won’t you children…and don’t forget to share it with your partner at the end to check you did it.’

In this case, how far are the children really involved in their own learning journeys if they are told what they are going to learn (the learning intention) and how to get there (the success criteria)? That sounds to me more dependent and passive than ever!  What will they do on their first day at work unless someone appears with a tick list for success?

I suggest that we just take a moment to stop and check here. Is it a good indicator of learning success to have every book with the same printed success criteria and learning intention at the top of the page? Ok, so you might differentiate them, three different printed success criteria, but what is the real purpose to these?  The real purpose is to make pupils stop and think about what they need to do in order to successfully learn something or for them to understand what success looks like. The very best way to do this is allow pupils to take control of this themselves. This does not mean reading something stuck into their book, nor nodding their head when shown a list on the white board. The answer must be for pupils to determine success themselves after having success modelled to them. This is subtly different from being told what success is or looks like because this way it is a very active, engaging process that is all about self-agency.   This is what modelling is for after all, to pull pupils across that zone of proximal development, but how much more powerful to have them become active agents in this process themselves.

So, I say, let’s remember the common sense part of success criteria and not get distracted by the fancy typing and boxes that look nice in books, especially when they’re highlighted!  You can have your printed title and success criteria, but why not leave the set of empty bullets points for pupils to write in three or four things they have agreed with a friend? This would really be enabling the personlised learning this AFL tool was originally devised for. Would we be so daring as to even leave a space for them to write in the learning question? They’d spend too long writing it all out? Oh well, let’s just give it all to them then? Really? Why not put a collection of different success criteria on the table to choose from then. Choose the one that you and your partner agree best describes success? Why not leave a selection of learning intentions too? What did we learn? What will we learn if we do this? At least ensure each child has got themselves involved in what success is! Also be careful of agreeing a success criteria as a class as a whole, because let’s be honest, that is only the criteria agreed between you and the pupils who contributed isn’t it?

Perhaps I’m over thinking this, but I think it’s worth shaking this up a little – we must always reflect on these ‘new-fangled-thingamy-giggies’ mustn’t we? We must always make sure we’re working hard to become increasingly useless!

All thoughts on keeping success criteria active and rooted in learning gratefully welcome!

Smart Differentiation…again

Recently I’ve seen some great attempts at lifting the lid on learning in classrooms. It’s nice to see that old three way differentiation, ability grouping scenario disappear from our classrooms. Having been one of those children who sat on ‘that table’ when I was a kid and did ‘that work,’ while I looked over in awe at the illusive ‘top table,’ who I was sure did work akin to top secret service code breaking, yes having lived through that it is a pleasure to see that stratification of the classroom wane.

A while ago I blogged on ‘smart differentiation’ and I thought I’d come back to it because I’ve seen this type of approach popping up more and more. A while ago now, I started offering choice to ALL pupils in differentiating their own learning to suit where they were in their learning. I haven’t looked back.

It doesn’t have to be bells and whistles, it can be used on any lesson – but the important thing is to think about the range of ability in your class and provide a progressive range to meet that. Once you get going it isn’t too hard to do because most things children learn have a next step or a previous step.

I provide these choices as either activities on different coloured paper, or different areas on the board, or in baskets or pots on the children’s tables and I call the activities MUST, SHOULD or COULD, and often there’s a MIGHT too. Through modelling and discussion the children know what each activity entails and then it’s up to them to choose. They sit in mostly mixed ability groups, but access whatever they feel suits them.

This MUST/SHOULD/COULD concept has been around a while, I can’t remember where I first heard it (sorry whoever you are) but lots of teachers picked it up, but never quite took it through to an enduring pedagogical approach to differentiation. We’ve tried to.

The first few times there’s a bit of a wobble as the bravado boys choose activities too far ahead,  and then others allow themselves to coast on a MUST when they could easily go for a SHOULD or even a COULD!   However, this doesn’t take long to change as children actually don’t like doing things that are too easy for long, and they certainly don’t like feeling things are too hard either – just a little uncomfortable is just fine. We have a culture which means all children want to challenge themselves and help each other too so …it all just works.

The wonderful thing is to see children unrestricted in their learning and learning shoulder to shoulder in a very positive way. Everyone feels they can get there…it’s only a matter of time and effort. This has a profound effect on the psyche of the class, which is very powerful – like nuclear powered learning really. A healthy competitiveness abides, but it’s supportive and enjoyable.

Anyway, here’s a photo of one of today’s lessons – this time baskets were at the front to choose from. It wasn’t a fancy lesson at all, fraction questions from a book (come on it’s the end of term). But the number of children who started off gingerly trying the fractions of shapes then by the end were finding fractions of numbers and then multiple unit fractions anything was possible, progress before your eyes. Pure gold!

It’s worth a try. I’d have liked a chance like that when I was seven!