Let’s not forget the three circle magic

All this talk of ‘getting our country back’ (pause while I hold my head in my hands and let out a deep groan) has led me to thinking about the implications of change and the bringing in of the new. Education has certainly undergone sweeping change with a new curriculum and assessment arrangements. As a profession we’ve wised up to many practices that were and are pedagogically shaky, like ability grouping, rigid three part lessons and an obsession with teacher performance over pupil learning.  We’re starting to think for ourselves at last and hit back at dictates and initiatives we’re told are the right thing to do; instead we’re deciding that for ourselves.  Yet with all eyes looking forward, we must take care not to discard practices that really worked for pupils and teachers, just because they belonged to an age coloured by prescription and dis-empowerment for so many.

The three circle English planning sequence is one of these gems I think we need to revive and bring out into the light again. Some schools never stopped using this approach to planning writing, but when the new curriculum came along, some school became quite confused about the structure of a teaching sequence in English: do they plan on the basis of genres, quality texts or chunks of the English curriculum? Lots of schools are doing different things; many have opted to buy in planning schemes to give them the supposed security of coverage, but the three circle medium term plan is a great way to bring all these requirements into one place, and I was much aggrieved to meet a group of teachers the other day who had never head of it before. Eeek!

The reason I’m a keen three circle planner is that it begins with both pupils and teacher reaching a shared understanding of quality in the writing and moving children towards a quality written outcome based on a quality text which allows all the little bits and pieces of writing to be put into context, and this is so important these days with all that prescriptive spelling, punctuation and grammar we expect children to learn – it’s pretty stale without a context.

My obsession with the three circle planner came about eight years ago when I was made a Lead Teacher for Literacy for Lewisham – those were the days when local authorities had money and would pay for more experienced teachers to go out to support less experienced teachers across the borough – imagine how important that was for teachers in their first years, sat alone in a one form entry school? Now, schools have to become an academy chain to get this kind of support I suppose. Nevertheless, at that time I went on a day’s DfE training run by the people who wrote the National Literacy Framework. This was attended by a wonderful woman (whose name escapes me now) who came up with the idea of the three circle planner.  It was then that I was introduced to the concept of ‘backwards planning’. This seems like second nature nowadays, but back then AfL hadn’t really kicked in and things like success criteria were in their infancy – keying pupils into quality was assumed rather than made deliberate, and the assumption was often wrongly made. .

The idea of backward planning is simple,  but very effective. It starts with the end result – the quality outcome and then works backwards. I remember how adamant this woman was that when you sit down to plan – you as the teachers have the outcome of the whole writing unit written down at the bottom of the page, then you pick your way back to the start. This is no different from locating your destination on a map before you start a journey, then working back to the start point  with your finger to trace the best pathway rather than simply starting out and trying to find your destination on the map. This way you see the start and the finish clearly and don’t get side tracked only to finish up somewhere else.

At the time, I’d been teaching about three or four years, but this idea was an epiphany for me. So often I would support teachers with planning and they would get side tracked by ‘activities’ at the expense of learning and this was because the outcome hung about at the end somewhere in the distant future, rather than being the focus from the start.  When you plan backwards – you can’t take your ‘eyes off the prize’, so appealing ‘activities’ like making pirate hats, animal masks or turning your class into a jungle can’t side track the learning unless it’s crystal clear that they are part of that journey towards the prized outcome.

Here’s a three circle planning sequence I put together recently for a writing unit I did with Year 2: I’m sure other people have done much better planners, but it’s an example at least. The termly topic was China so I found a lovely traditional story about China and based the sequence around this. The destination or quality writing outcome is clear at the end of the circles – the three circles overlap indicating the transition from one stage into another.  The three stages lead to that quality piece of writing at the end, and all activities are designed to lead to that in one way or another either as word, sentence or text level learning.

The first circle is familiarisation – here you’re really asking, what does a good one look like? You can use more than one text here to get a feel for a genre or focus on one, but the point is to arrive at a shared understanding of the quality. What is it about this that is good? Make a list? Allow the children to help create it. Identify the language features and sentence types. Why are these important? What do they do?  Experiment writing some of your own. I like the children to get to know the text inside out and I love the Pie Corbett talk for writing approach so if the story is too long to recite often, or there’s a range of texts, then I create our own ‘Pie Corbett’ version of the story using most of the original words and phrases, but editing the length usually down to an A4 page of text. This helps the children to see the whole shape of the story and feel that writing one themselves is achievable. For very young children a story map with pictures on is helpful. Long stories that are pages and pages long seem like an impossible task to a young child, but if you write a version that is just a bit longer and better than they could do, it serves as a model for them to aim for and base their own success criteria around. This is all about the Zone of Proximal Development isn’t it – the distance between present and future learning.

Like this, the children and you become immersed in the text. Find the version of this particular text I created here. I also dropped in lots of the SPAG I needed them to learn as well.  Often I will allow the children to make the story characters using card and lolly sticks, then they act out the story in groups- this embeds key words, phrases and sentences into their memory which they can call on when they write their own. It also helps them to see the whole plot clearly. This is a key technique devised by Pie Corbett and for years now I’ve seen it work wonders. All the best writers mimic good writing they’ve read, and all writers have to be able to say it before they can write it.

After familariation then there is capturing ideas. Here children get further into the features of the text like character and setting type. We investigate what these are like through things like writing in role with  letters between characters, diary entries or speech bubbles between characters etc. Here you can drop in lots of the SPAG too and link it to the context of the writing. This is also when the more arty activities can come in, but it’s important to make sure they lead to the writing outcome and involve the children in thinking about the story plot and language features. For example, it would be no good making a river if the children didn’t spend time thinking about the vocabulary to describe water movement;  this then supports their setting description later. Distraction activities here might be things like making Chinese food or making a raft to cross the river – these don’t lead to supporting  the writing outcome. I always say that if an activity can’t be linked to some aspect of the content of that final quality writing outcome then it’s just a distraction. Fine, if you want to make Chinese food in DT to make a good link to the topic that’s great, but it’s not literacy; there’s no food in the story to write about.

After all this lovely text immersion, then it’s time for invention – the children plan and write their own stories. Some children will be able to really make it their own, change characters and setting for example. For less experienced writers, they might only manage a straight retelling of the story relying heavily on following the simplified Pie Corbett version. The children might plan their stories on a story mountain or a story map similar to the one they might have used to map out the original story in the first place – this makes sense because they understand the structure and how the story fits together.

I tend to do the writing sessions in sections that follow the story map – the opening, build up, problem, solution and ending so the children don’t rush to write the whole thing at once, but instead drill down to what makes a good opening etc before they write one. Sessions can begin with the children looking through a piece and picking out the best bits. Sometimes I write a couple of versions by hand and get them to pick out which one is the best and discuss why – this helps to draw out the success criteria for the writing in that session. Shared writing and editing are important at this stage with lots of paired talk about how and what. We always do a lot of revisiting writing through edit and improvement sessions; it really helps children to do this in pairs and redraft sections so that there is what I call a ‘noticeable improvement’ in content and presentation. Lots of talk about what this might be goes on too. All this rests on that familiarisation at the start, when the children were really keyed into the text quality. By the end, the children have written, edited and redrafted in order to create their own stories that can be published and shared.

I like this method of teaching writing because it covers genres, as well as curricular content and all that SPAG, but also puts quality texts at the heart of the process. It also frees up teachers to chose text that they know suit curriculum topics and the children’s interests and backgrounds. Essentially, any good children’s text can be used, teachers shouldn’t be tied down to those set by schemes that might not suit the context.

So perhaps this is all old hat to you and you’ve been a three circler since year one, but if not, the three circle planning sequence could support your writing planning and make the writing more meaningful and lead to pupils writing their own excellent texts rather than simply meeting a curricular check list. But whatever you use, ensuring pupils engage with quality text examples is the key and then ensuring lessons lead towards a quality text outcome will guide planning and prevent tantalising activities leading you astray.

I’m also using the three circle planning sequence for maths so that the in the familirisation stage pupils are supported in understanding the concept and practising methods. Then in the capturing ideas stages they would be understanding and applying the method in different contexts and lastly, in the  invention stage, they would be developing mastery in the concept by being able to create their own problems, solve other’s mistakes and write their own ‘how to do…’ success criteria for different aspects of the concept.

So – there you go, three circle planning. Love it.

Broad and balanced: think science. 

Last weekend I was fortunate enough to go to Belfast for the  Primary Science Teaching Trust’s International conference. As usual, anything to do with the Trust makes me want to wave a giant flag for primary science, which we all know is suffering badly from second class citizenship in the land of Maths and English. However, not all schools are allowing this marginalisation to happen, but quite the reverse: they are enriching those two high stakes core subjects through creative enquiry based science and reaping the rewards through not only  fantastic progress, but recognition from Ofsted that they provide a rich curriculum for their children which, far from detracting from literacy and numeracy learning, only deepen them. 

It it in this way that I would urge Ofsted to continue celebrating schools who truly treat science as a core subject and have it high on the school profile. In the same vein, I’d also ask them to give those schools who fixate obsessively on Maths and English a sharp poke with a stick because ironic as it might seem, some school leaders do things more readily for Ofsted than they do for the children they are meant  to provide for. 

No doubt there are school leaders who will  blame teachers for this narrow focus, after all it’s teachers who are teaching all this stuff. Yet at the same time these leaders insist on focusing school monitoring only on English and Maths, even to the extent of limiting observations to only these two subjects and ensuring that teachers’ pay is attached to the children’s progress data in them too (although it shouldn’t be related to data scores for any subject of course). Quite simply, if you want a broad and balanced curriculum don’t reward people for being fixated and narrow, and relating progress for English and Maths to pay does this.  In turn, the DfE focus on only Maths and English results fuels this. Let’s face it, if you give a salesman a commission for selling blue boxes, he’s only going to want to sell blue boxes; he’ll even want to persuade people who want red boxes that blue are better. This is not to say that leaders or teachers are only motivated by prescribed targets – they  aren’t, at least I’ve never met a teacher who would deliberately prioritise a salary rise over learning, but then again,  I have met leaders who have prioritised data targets over learning, but that’s a whole other can of worms that has been written about a lot, hasn’t it? The truth is that performance related pay means a certain performance matters and for most teachers it’s the pressure to perform well that matters, not the money. Teachers want to do well, just like anybody, so that’s why making performance judgements about just two subjects is bad for that broad and balanced curriculum that must include science, and lots of it. 

This year has been a challenge for all schools making the transition to a new curriculum and assessing without levels, so they can be forgiven for making this the main focus rather than curricular breadth. However, schools must now think about where science is in their school and how it sits alongside reading, writing and maths. Science subject leaders, and what they do, need to be brought into the spot light, as is so with Maths and English subject leaders, then the profile of primary science will be raised nationally. This certainly doesn’t mean we need to bring back science tests- surely we can raise the status of a subject without involving the STA? Yes we can, if teachers are encouraged by all those ‘in charge’ to focus more on science, including covering it often through English and Maths and not always assigning it to ‘afternoon learning’ when young minds just aren’t as snappy, let alone old ones. I’ve seen some really effective writing about science topics at some schools and all sorts of science measured and analysed in maths, as well as really effective learning in science in its own right; this should not only be encouraged now, but expected across primary schools.  

Come on, the scientists of tomorrow who will sort everything out when you’re too old to stand up are sitting in your primary schools now. Give then a chance! 

What a performance!


‘I saw him teach a lesson – he’s not that good’ – I heard someone say this recently, and it made me cringe.

Dear all, make a point of challenging people when you hear them say this kind of thing please.  Here’s why:

The minute you start to make a judgement like this about a teacher over a lesson, is the minute you fall into the performance trap – a trap that you would never lay for a pupil, I hope. This kind of approach to teacher appraisal is deadly for the profession, anti-learning and stuck fast in a fixed mindset approach. Here’s the thing – I just don’t think I teach as well when I’m being observed in a judgemental way because I’m not a performer – I’m a learner.  I’m also confident that I’m a good teacher –the classes I teach make good progress, but I also embed the idea of learning into their little heads and how to be a learner – which is more important than anything to me. But I walk away most nights after school and wonder: how can I get better, how can I get the kids to learn better. Just as effective learners challenge themselves, so do effective teachers.

Like I said, performance is deadly for teaching. It’s like this see – you come home every day and reverse your car into the car sized space outside your house; sometimes you do it without even thinking, it’s like magic; you even impress yourself at times when you look back and see just how perfectly you managed to get  your car in that tiny space.  Then one day, you arrive home and your neighbour is there trimming a hedge – he pauses when he sees you in your car; you line up your car, and he turns to watch, ready for a chat and a hello when you get out. Then all of a sudden, you can’t park your car for toffee! You’re like a seventeen year old, your provisional license fresh from the DVLA. In and out you go, paying more attention than you’ve ever done before to that tight wheel-turn out, and that sharp turn in -but it’s no good, every time you think you’ve done OK, you look up and your ten feet from the kerb. Finally, you opt to park across the road where there are no other cars – you get out feeling silly, mumbling something about not being able to park when people are watching; you and neighbour laugh together; he agrees, says it’s the same for everyone. And it is.  Even though my neighbour doesn’t give a damn how I park, I do when I’m being watched and it spoils my parking.

When teachers are under pressure to perform, when you know that you’re going to be judged, it’s no different from fumbling about parking in front of people –especially when you know those people observing you want to see all the things on their little tick list and are desperate to see ‘a great lesson’ so they can sleep at night before Ofsted come. It’s worse too when you know that the people you work with will talk about ‘your lesson’ in the same kind of terms they might use when watching a stage play or a dance troupe. This is why when we hear that kind of talk about teachers, we need to challenge it because it only embeds performance culture and is no good for anyone.

I’m not saying that lessons can’t be commented upon – quite the opposite, and I’m not saying that teachers can’t be held to account – they should be. However, as with so much in teaching, it’s not what you do, it’s the way that you do it. Lesson observations can be very different in a school with an authentic learning orientation. They feel better; they allow teachers to challenge themselves; they allow leaders to challenge themselves too and all that finger pointing and showmanship is absent.  Just as a teacher’s job is to make pupils think, so it is a leader’s job to make teachers think, and nobody thinks well when caught in the headlights. Think about all the things we hear over and over again now: wait time, thinking time, talk partners, no hands up, meta-cognition, reflection time, –  it’s all about the thinking, all about the learning. It must be like this for teachers too if we want them to improve.

For me, the first step is to allow teachers to feel invested in any kind of observation cycle in just the same way that we want pupils to be invested in an assessment cycle. Create a dialogue about what the focus is – make the learning intention clear; create a dialogue about what success might look like: what would the children be doing and saying in an effective lesson and create a dialogue about how we can support and facilitate this.  Let the teacher take charge and tell you what they want to try – let them talk to you about their methods and their choices, open it all up. Then in the lesson, focus on what you’ve agreed- are the children doing and saying what you expected? Is it working? This will allow for rich dialogue after the lesson – a dialogue for learning. People talk about lesson study and teacher learning communities (TLCs) – these are along a similar line aren’t they – but the point is that it’s about learning, not a performance. Nobody is calling anybody anything, are they? If you do lessons like this, you don’t talk about the teacher being anything and if you build this kind of culture in your school, people gradually stop talking about each other as performers with a label attached. It makes a massive difference to helping teachers get better, which is what all schools want.

It’s all about the learning, not the show.

Tah dah!