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!