#LearningFirst Number 2!

I was lucky enough to attend the second #LearningFirst conference on Thursday 22nd September 2016 and, as with the first, I returned inspired and keen to consolidate all I had heard. It also seemed plain to me that when something is right, people just know it; it makes them nod, clap, cheer and celebrate, especially when it’s been a long time coming.

Here’s a synopsis of the main themes and some of the points made. Please note that this is an interpretation. I can’t claim to know what’s in the mind of these skillful people; I can only interpret what they say. In short, this is what I think they meant…

Tim Oates began the conference reminding us of the reasons why we had to leave levels, but also expressing his misgivings at the many schools who have simply changed the labels while repeating all the old mistakes with levels. He reminded us that all too often with levels, the labels,  level 3 for example, meant different things to different people, and this discrepancy was simply ‘no good for assessment.’ The reason levels lacked this common understanding was because they were the result of a ‘best fit’ approach to assessment. We signed children off on parts of the curriculum when they had secured perhaps only 60 %, and this percentage might have been for different criteria for different pupils meaning that Jonny’s level 3 would be different from Jane’s level 3. Add to this, teachers having higher or lower thresholds for quality regarding specific outcomes and you had arbitrary, unreliable assessment that let children down.

With this in mind,  we need to catch ourselves running into the same trap with any new system. Check up if you’re ‘best fitting’ and shoe horning children into something they aren’t, just for the sake of numbers. Make expectations crystal clear to teachers so they speak the same language too, or as one speaker said – ensure there is ‘validation,’ (I think I like that word better than moderation now). In fact, I predict that understanding quality so that the descriptions of learning mean the same thing to different people will be the glue that will make of all this succeed or fail.

Mr Oates also highlighted the importance of children being ‘uncomfortable’ in their learning. For too long teachers have pulled back when a child is uncomfortable, when that’s the exact time to leave a child to think rather than us diving in and explaining.  As Tim said, for Vygotsky, ‘that’s the place to go,’ not shy away from. I vouch for this, as I remember when I first started teaching being marked down in observations because this child or that child was ‘struggling’.  When I look back, we were actually encouraged to ensure children didn’t feel challenged at all, but instead wallowed around in the cosy embrace of their prior learning.  It was also a custom to ‘just teach’ and get through content without making the slightest assumption regarding prior learning at all. How I cringe now…

Tim also made no apologies for uttering his judicious war cry, ‘fewer things in greater depth.’ Reminding us that the new curriculum has meant more than a shift in content, but rather a focus on constructs, ensuring that objectives are specific and cover the key things children need to know and build upon throughout their education.   He maintained that practice is possible when there are fewer things in greater depth, because there is space to apply these building blocks of key concepts again and again rather than trying to skim over expansive content. In this way, there should be ‘high production’ with children saying and doing much, being given the chance to reflect on their learning often. If schools do this, then they have to rely less on data because there is a wealth of evidence for attainment and progress actually in classrooms. One of the terrible mistakes made with the levels era was that numbers often replaced authentic knowledge about learners and learning.

In addition, children should also be ‘exposed’ to simple concepts early in their education so that these act as the building blocks of key concepts, with rich questions and answers being an everyday feature of classrooms.  Assessment then needs to be ‘granular’ and ‘analytical’ rather than a general amalgamation, which we know results in evaluations of learning that overlook deficits. Certainly, when Tim  finished with the immortal words ‘it’s the stuff that counts,’ he reminded us that we need to make sure we are clear about the ‘stuff’ all the way along.

Next was Mary Myatt, who continued the theme by declaring that ‘numbers are only numbers,’ as so many leaders still forget it seems. She maintained that any numbers should always be ‘triangulated with children’s work in books and with what they say’.  And it’s true that Ofsted now follow this line of enquiry during inspections it seems.

In addition, teachers need to recognise the ‘difference between the work and the learning’ so that ‘completing a piece of work’ is not confused with ‘the work’ itself – ‘doing the work is the work!’  Indeed there are, as Mary put it, too many ‘quick sign offs’ simply because a child has been seen to ‘finish’ the task. Cringe…how many times have we told a child to ‘hurry up and finish,’ like we’re all there on a little running track. Is going fast or faster the same as learning deeply? No! For me, this is also partly fuelled by ineffective book monitoring by leaders who chastise teachers for ‘unfinished work’ without understand the learning that might have been going on around that unfinished piece. Moreover, Mary related this to what she called ‘editing cheap praise’ in classrooms so that children aren’t praised for finishing or putting their heads down and getting on with it, but praised for their real efforts in learning instead.  Certainly, when content coverage ‘trumps learning  it is rubbish,’ resulting in ‘loads of dots that are never joined up’.

Certainly, as teachers we need to ‘dig deep’ in how we teach and how we question children, avoiding ‘superficial responses’ to signal when to move on,  and being ‘operational instead of educational’.  There were without doubt some pithy gems in Mary’s talk that teachers and leaders need to heed. Mary finished with predicting that labelling and ability is still an issue that requires considerable redress – we should not be calling children ‘lower ability,’ but rather talk about children with ‘low prior attainment.’  I can only agree with her prediction that the discourse on ability might one day be looked upon in the same way as the discourse on sexism and racism, after all marginalisation, is marginalisation.

After this, Chris Chivers shared his years of wisdom as an educationalist, reminding us to pay attention to the transitions in school and between schools and also to see just how valuable our relationship with parents is and how we should  work hard to include them in our decision making. I can say that I spent six months on secondment last year and noticed the difference having parents on board can make. I also know that poorer parents will have just the same care and aspirations for their children as more affluent families, but ten times the amount of barriers to fulfilling those intentions.  This is not the same as not caring.

Then for the main part of the day we moved through presentations of various people’s journeys through assessment. What was striking was the humility and honesty of everyone who spoke. What a relief to know everyone else has made mistakes trying to get things right for their children! Quite a few people admitted to starting systems that were just like levels again and having to abandon ship and start all over again. Nearly everyone admitted that there was still much more to do and more to tweak. There was consensus that numbers were needed, but also agreement that it was everything behind the numbers that counted. As Tim Oates said, ‘it’s the stuff that counts!’

One of the most inspirational talks was from Ruchi Sabharwal, about how she had tackled pupils’ own entrenched ideas about themselves as learners using Solo Taxonomy. She explained how she’d used this to continue to lift the lid on learning.  It certainly flagged up the care we must take to ensure any name or label is pinned to the task and not to the child. As educators we must be so mindful of the propensity for humans to use labels to form images of themselves and create stuck identities. This is why Carol Dweck’s work is so important to study and understand too. Teachers might offer free differentiated choice in a mixed ability setting, but if children pick the same ‘labels’ each time, is that because they’ve attached themselves to a label or that they really are making informed learning choices?

Lastly, James Pembroke leapt onto stage attacking ‘progress measures’ with his witty and concise delivery. Yes, he was completely right, ‘sometimes progress is simply consolidation’ so how will that show up on the progress measures?  I know that a teacher can make considerable progress on pupils’ learning behaviour with little effect on actual ‘data’ until perhaps the next year when all that hard work has been synthesized and then they have a new teacher.  How will that be measured? Maybe share the data increase between the teachers?  See how silly it all is.  That’s why tracking should be based on conversations between professionals more than an exercise in corporate accountability.

James was also completely right to say that we might track and monitor progress, but should we be measuring it? After all, progress isn’t always measurable! Certainly, the idea of a linear progression is, as he put it, ‘a fallacy,’ and I would agree. Interestingly, only 1 in 10 children follow what we all consider the typical trajectory anyway, so this concept of zooming from A to B applies mostly to no one! All it really does is ‘encourage pace at the expense of depth’ and as James reminded us too, ‘in any healthy system numbers will go up as well as down’.  For James then, ‘progress is: catching up, filling gaps, deepening understanding and overcoming barriers’ so if it is all these – then what is expected progress and could that ever be expressed as a score? See, it’s silly!  He finished by advising us all to ‘do more with less’ because ‘the less we carry, the further we go.’ Priceless!

Priceless all round.

Are observations out of date?



The one thing you can always be sure of in teaching is change.  The utterance, ‘but that’s the way we’ve always done it,’ seems futile at the best of times. Certainly, such a viewpoint has often held back authentic impact on our children’s learning; teachers who hold on to their ‘ways’ without checking up on the effect are usually on a hiding to nothing. So, it is in this vein that I want to suggest that there could be great benefit from schools abandoning formally observing teachers in the way that many have done for so long.  I’ve no doubt this might cause a sharp intake of breath for some leaders, and I’m sure an excited squeal from teachers far and wide, but there is growing evidence to support change in observing teachers at work.

Having just been through an Ofsted inspection, and  being able to compare this with two other previous inspections, the emphasis on formally observing teachers has clearly changed and there is good reason for this, both in theoretical and practical terms. Education is emerging from being suffocated by a performance driven culture that squeezed the breath out of authentic pedagogy for learning. Great emphasis was put on data and teaching to evidence school improvement, while learning itself was assumed rather than confirmed. At last educators are beginning to put learning first and understand that when schools do this, everything else falls into place. This is why understanding the difference between learning  and performance culture is so important and often rarely discussed in schools.  I’ve written about performance in education before and one of my heroes, Chris Watkins spent many years unpicking this phenomenon in detail.

One might say that the culture of measuring performance has always been present through the system of summative testing; however, the obsession with judging schools and teachers through narrow performance measures grew sharply with the introduction of the national curriculum in 1988. This was fuelled by Thatcher’s dislike of teachers, her love of market forces, plus Kenneth Baker’s obsession with measuring and ordering anything that moved. I’ve no doubt education needed a kick; however, the publishing of league tables resulting from high stakes testing, and let’s not forget those terrible timed three part lessons, created a culture change that was more corporate and ‘sales driven’ than ever in the history of English education. Tony Blair of course came along and rather liked it all; ‘accountability’ was indeed  New Labour’s watch word, but accountability and learning often aren’t very good for each other at all. As Dylan Wiliam (2016) remarks, ‘it is highly unwise to use a teacher evaluation framework as a teacher improvement framework,’ and will most likely have the result that ‘we improve teachers in ways that do not benefit their students’.  Certainly, chasing teachers for levels as a way to ‘raise standards’ did just this. However, are we also doing something similar with formal observations of teachers?

If I look back at my career as a teacher and think carefully about how and why I improved from a bumbling, inexperienced NQT to where I am now, none of it was ever born out of the highly pressured observations that were tied to performance management or school evaluation. These were something just to get through and hope you were able to pull off on the day.  Yet where the real improvement and confidence came from was from my sincere wish to improve all the time, studying and understanding what really helped children learn well and watching and learning from other practising teachers. To my mind, this is the most effective ‘improvement framework’ that will lead to more effective teaching and better outcomes for pupils. It’s true that not all teachers are that reflective about their practice (although I haven’t met that many who aren’t) and not all teachers are interested in learning about pedagogy as such, but there are ways to encourage change here.

In the same way that children learn little when they feel under the microscope, teachers are the same. Teachers also usually learn more from each other rather than they do their leaders, some of whom may have been out of the classroom for a long while. Teaching certainly requires its knowledge base, the longevity of experience matters, but it is essentially a practical skill which requires practical transfer in the same way that learning to drive requires driving around with a driver, swapping and taking the wheel of course, but essentially learning alongside a practitioner. Who would ever feel confident learning to drive with an instructor who no longer drives?

However, school leaders certainly do need to see what’s going on in classrooms and understand the quality of teaching and learning in their schools – this is central to their role, but this is not the same as supporting teachers to improve (problems result from evaluation frameworks and improvement frameworks being transposed remember.)  So the question is: can leaders evaluate teaching effectively without formalised performance driven observations? The trouble is that a formal observation doesn’t always tell you that much about a teacher’s actual daily practice because the event is, by its nature, a performance, a presentation, a show and not an observation of ‘practice,’ otherwise defined in a dictionary as ‘the customary, habitual, or expected procedure or way of doing of something’. In fact, often teachers drop parts of their customary, day to day practice in observations because it may not be on what they perceive as the desired tick list for a lesson; however, the idiosyncratic way that a teacher works might be very effective indeed for their pupils’ learning because of the distinctive relationship they have with them. In other words, it’s unlikely that a school leader will really get what’s going on by sitting with a clip board and watching a single lesson. They will only really find out what the teacher did or did not do well that day; leaders might believe they can infer the daily practices of a teacher in that slot, but they just can’t.

It is in this way that wiser folk have turned to look at the progress in pupils’ learning over time using a ‘range of evidence of learning’ and this is a key phrase that is so important in any evaluation framework. If we know that watching a teacher perform doesn’t tell us that much, but a range of evidence of learning does, then we need to be clear about what evidence of learning really is. This is why formal observations may not be that helpful as part of an evaluation framework, but instead should morph into developmental peer observations and be shifted  into a school’s improvement framework.

In returning to the evidence of learning, this is still a kettle of fish, but things are looking up. Inspectors and leaders went through a very strange phase of looking for ‘rapid progress’ in a single lesson, so much so that children all over the country were rushed through content so quickly that it’s a wonder they learnt anything at all. Classrooms suddenly became quite unsettling places to be in. It surprised me that even some really experienced school leaders could not tell the difference  between teaching pace and pupils’ cognitive pace, which are quite different, not seeing that all that matters is that they are aligned, not that they are of any particular speed. Put bluntly, it really doesn’t matter if pupils are on the carpet for 20 minutes, what matters is whether they are engaged in the learning journey. Ofsted got this in the end and ensured inspectors stopped nit picking on style and timing, but instead looked at what they should always look out for: learning.

This brings me back to the utility of formalised observations to evaluate teaching and learning. It’s questionable if they really give leaders a true understanding of the quality of teaching and learning in a classroom; they can also skew teachers’ practice as they spend hours stressing over observations, and also the outcomes of observations, rather than aiming for consistent good practice over time. It seems a far better idea to have a situation where leaders are simply a common presence in classrooms through learning walks and by  being on the floor as often as they can, then their presence becomes normalised and teachers move away from inauthentic performances. By doing this, leaders also get a much more realistic idea of the day to day habitual practice of teachers and whether this is driving learning forward.

If the purpose of observations is to improve teaching and learning rather than evaluate it, then they shouldn’t be that formal and certainly shouldn’t be connected to performance management or pay increases. This avoids skewing teachers’ motivation because the nature of learning and performance is such that if you feel that you’re being judged on a performance you will behave differently than if you feel you are involved in learning and developing. The thing about performing is that improvement is not the motive whereas with learning it is!

Observations under an improvement framework should be driven by the teachers themselves, through reflective practice and professional dialogue. We have heard time and time again that teachers improve when they focus on their strengths, share this with other teachers and build their own practice. Of course a shared understanding of how children learn well and what a good lesson might look like should be constant features of discussions outside the classroom so that there is in effect an evolving school ‘success criteria’ by which teachers can assess themselves, but teachers will improve far quicker if they are encouraged to improve through peer and self assessment; the same is true with pupils.

In this way, leaders need to decide whether they are observing a teacher to help them improve, in which case they need to spend time with that teacher as a peer before and after the lesson discussing their practice and how they might improve. Alternatively, if leaders want to use observations as an evaluative tool, to assess teaching and learning, then they should not rely on these one off appearances in classrooms three times a year or so, but rather they should make themselves a common presence in classrooms and also rely on triangulating their assessment with the other forms of evidence of learning,such as pupils’ learning in books, conversations with pupils and of course data (that is quality assured through moderation and intimately connected to real learning).

At my school, I think we’ve done a really good job in separating our evaluation and improvement frameworks so that (as Dylan Wiliam suggests) we improve teachers in ways that do benefit their students rather than simply satisfying administrative or evaluative structures in school, but I’m not sure this is the case in that many schools. A clear distinction needs to made between appraisal and improvement when it comes to sitting down with that clip board. Sensible people stopped grading lessons last year, perhaps this year we should go a step further?

Ref. Wiliam, D. (2016) Leadership for Teacher Learning. Learning Sciences International.

Assessment: The journey so far…

traditional teaching

I often wonder why I’m so interested in assessment. Why I read about it in my holidays and feel perfectly happy tinkering and engineering my ideas about it all the time. It never feels like work. Well today, as I sit on a Greek island somewhere far away, I know why. It sounds too profound, too Hollywood, too idealistic, but to my mind getting assessment right will offer a great gift to our children. The gift will be to know themselves very well indeed; to look inside their own mind and understand themselves; to be deeply honest with themselves; to look towards quality and measure themselves against it; to work towards improvement because they know change is always possible; to see the change in themselves and to understand that improvement is always in their own hands. The right approach to assessment, throughout a child’s school career, has the potential to do this; it has the potential to make our kids strong people.

So, what about this year? How far have we travelled in this direction? Well, I think I can sum up this year as a time when we sought to close the gap, but this time, not just between what children know and need to learn, but at last, as an educational community we have thought about the gap between actual learning and all manner of ciphers for learning. In simple terms, this last two years have been about accepting fact that we’ve spent too much talking about units of measurement for learning rather than the learning itself. And in that mix, we often misunderstood assessment, or at least saw it only in one light, which was to act as a critical tool to hold ourselves and our teachers to account. I’ve no doubt that many teachers and leaders did recognise this and fought against the tide, but so many didn’t and perhaps still don’t.

Over the last two years, I’ve helped implement Learning Ladders, a new curriculum assessment system into our school, and supported some other schools to do the same. I consider assessment as a pedagogy, so that whatever we do we always remind ourselves that when we evaluate a child’s learning, we make sure that not only do we do something with that evaluation that benefits that child further, but we also do our best to involve the child in that process too, gradually drawing our pupils into evaluating their learning themselves and acting on that evaluation. I will always maintain that the best teachers seek to become useless to their pupils…eventually.

So now, where are we? What have we gained? What do we need to think about next? (I’m thinking both in terms of our assessment system and for assessment in general.)

The gains:

  • A large part of the educational community is taking charge, sharing ideas and practice. For example, look at the work of Beyond Levels and the #LearningFirst conferences. School leaders and teachers are coming together to share ideas and tease out the best ways forward for learners.
  • Assessment has moved away from being associated purely with data and tracking and is becoming increasingly associated with making an impact on pupils’ learning. Hurray!!
  • More teachers are being held accountable through the development of their pedagogical craft, with a view to improving learning (and learning behaviour) over time, rather than being held to account through straight forward numerical data, that may or may not accurately reflect a child’s journey towards academic progress. (I’ve just spent six months on secondment with a really challenging group of children, much of the progress they made was in their behaviour and attitude to learning; progress was certainly not always academic in some cases. Did I have any effect on that ‘progress over time’? Yes I did! Now they are well set up for next year when they will take off!
  • Senior leaders are able to lead teachers more effectively because gaps in pupils’ learning are easier to identify which results in more productive conversations about pupils’ progress. Our Learning Ladders system has a finely tuned gaps analysis tool so that when overviews of progress are looked at, conversations about why certain pupils are or aren’t making progress become very detailed about the aspects of learning in question. The result is really productive conversations about assessment, curriculum planning and pupil progress rather than those ones of the past where progress meetings were around levels or sub-levels and the details about pupils’ learning were not always foremost in people’s minds. We’ve discovered that being able to drill down to the granular curricular detail has meant that it’s much easier to pin point issues. Sometimes the issue might be teacher’s confidence in assessment; they’re just not sure about how to assess a certain aspect, it might be the first time in that year group and they’re finding their feet. Other times, it might be a teacher needs to refine and focus their planning a little more so they hit gaps in learning and at other times we might see that a child has been absent on the three times division and fractions were taught for example. This kind of depth of conversation just didn’t happen as easily with levels and for so many reasons.
  • School leaders can look at overviews of learning (which all leaders have to), but with Learning Ladders we have purposely not made inflexible bench marks or narrow progress thresholds for points within the year. Achievements in learning are noted on the system and accumulate through an algorithm into a score, but this is used as a measurement outline. This allows for the overview that school leaders need, because we have a traffic light score range based on a very general expectation of progress, but the  fact that it’s considered a range means that teachers focus on the learning rather than getting to a certain score;  plus, we have worked hard to make our assessment ethos mean that everyone understands the difference between ‘being seen to reach a level or a score’ and real progress in learning. These two were often confused under levels. Back then, moving up a level  assumed progress in learning, whereas now real progress in learning leads to an increase in the score. This might all seem like playing with words, but this is the whole impetus behind the idea of ‘learning first’… put the learning first and data will follow, but if you put the bench marks first, it might not.
  • Curriculum and assessment relate to each other in a cause (what do I want to learn) and effect (what did I learn) cycle rather than being loosely associated through summative assessment outcomes. This means that learning intentions are not merely derived from the national curriculum, but they are the curriculum. In the past there were two languages ‘curriculum’ and ‘assessment’ which meant that teachers had to translate the taught curriculum, into learning outcomes and then assessment judgments. Teachers no longer need to bridge the gaps between what is taught and assessment judgments because they are using the same language.
  • Teachers are more able to use assessment as a framework for planning because they are clearer on what children need to learn next and where there are gaps in children’s learning.
  • Teachers are able to access quality learning outcomes through shared learning moderation within our Learning Ladders group and soon these will be available to all on the system too. This means that the sloppy ‘best fit’ approach has been refined into a much sharper mastery approach for the detailed steps in learning. While I agree with many that the interim frameworks are far too demanding (that was my experience in Year 2 anyway), the Learning Ladders system means that the details required for a mastery curriculum to work well are exemplified. All assessment needs to be underpinned by shared images of quality and this should underline any decent assessment system.
  • After a year of everyone teaching the new curriculum, teachers are moving from using Learning Ladders as a ‘tick off tool’ to much more of a support for planning. Yes, we teach more than just the criteria on Learning Ladders because that is the basis for a broad and balanced curriculum, but that structure and mapping of the curriculum has been invaluable to support teachers mapping their way through all the changes.Teachers’ confidence in assessment and planning for it are now on the up!

Area of development:

  • The DfE interim frameworks don’t seem to reflect the key performance indicators considered appropriate by the rest of the education community. A lot of the guidance that goes with them is vague and open to many different interpretations. This has meant that teacher assessment is more difficult and less reliable as schools become more reactive to moderators requirements than authentic learning needs.Something isn’t right with those ITAFs! How many teachers have kicked themselves because they know that competent seven year old writers have had to be labeled ‘below expected’ because they didn’t do enough commas in a list or possessive apostrophes? This cannot be right.
  • 53% of pupils in the country reached expected in RWM the end of primary school. Really? Yes, expectations are higher, but pupils and teachers haven’t suddenly been knocked on the head so come on! Are we saying failure is a sign of success DfE? Schools need to plough ahead and make assessment work for their pupils; I know it’s hard – but we have to ignore this nonsense and follow our principles on assessment. We’re all in the same rocky boat of changing goal posts and incompetent management of national assessment from above, but we can still get on with doing what we know is right.
  • For some schools, assessment it still a vehicle for accountability much more than it is for learning. Leaders need to look at the progress over times in both hard and soft data and ensure this is aligned to authentic learning and not ‘ciphers for learning’. In other words, don’t set up a system that kids you into thinking all is well, when it isn’t!
  • Many schools still set children into ability groups and limit children’s learning through this approach. These schools need to trust learners and communities of learners and allow all pupils to reach their very highest potential; ability setting does not allow for this academically, socially or emotionally for pupils. Learning is not all about knowledge and skill acquisition.
  • Lastly, we have spent the past couple of years getting to grips with everything new, but we still need to move assessment more into the hands of pupils. Assessment is not complete unless it engages the learner into assessing themselves and moves them more and more towards independence. I think with Learning Ladders we have this in our sights. We have developed pupils’ overviews to summarise and see next steps, these have been very effective; next we need to refine these so they are easier for pupils to use regularly.  For me, this is the beauty of Learning Ladders, it is evolving to suit the needs of pupils, teachers….and leaders. This is the right away around, I promise you.
  • As always, I have to add that any assessment system can be used badly if the leaders running it don’t have sound principles on assessment; however, some systems encourage a certain approach that is modelled on the old levels system. No names here, but these should be avoided.

Final thoughts

I’m so optimistic that we can make assessment work for pupils in the UK, but we have to keep nudging the government our way and stand up for teachers in the classroom. Yes, we need to check teachers are doing the best by their pupils and then we need to check that school leaders are doing the best by their school communities, but as Mary Myatt put it so well, this must be through a culture of ‘High challenge and low threat’. The unwelcome consequences of a high threat culture in assessment mean that people then do things more out of fear rather than reasoned and deliberate action. High challenge, low threat always results in the best outcomes for pupils, teachers, leaders…and humans.

Why I love Learning Ladders.

Learning Ladders

I should start by saying that the only vested interest I have in Learning Ladders is in my role as Assessment Leader at my school and chair of a growing assessment working group in Lewisham made up of a number of schools who all use Learning Ladders. I want Learning Ladders to grow for one reason: because it works for learners and teachers. As anyone who has ever read one of my blogs before will know – I have little time for leaders who chase teachers for data, but I have plenty of time for leaders who support teachers to help children learn as effectively as possible. It goes without saying then, that no system will work well if school leaders and their teachers have the wrong principles about assessment and data. No doubt those who do have sound principles know that data and assessment are different and have very different purposes, yet at the same time they have a relationship that matters to schools a great deal. It’s getting that relationship right that school leaders need to work on, but I’ve written about that and so have many others ..and better. Here, my purpose is to wave a flag for what I feel is good for learners and schools. Still so many leaders are struggling to find the right path for their schools, well, here’s a good one.

Having implemented Learning Ladders across our school two years ago, and also having supported other schools in the borough to do the same, and  importantly as a working classroom teacher, I know that Learning Ladders works for teachers first and this has made an incredible difference in shaping our assessment practice. There’s also plenty of other reasons I like Learning Ladders – they aren’t a huge corporate entity, but instead a social enterprise made up of individuals who have developed the system and are passionate about learning and supporting schools. This listening to schools and building the system around their needs has meant that essentially Learning Ladders is a system developed by teachers, for teachers. I’m proud to say that a few of these developments have come about through our own assessment working group feeding back to Learning Ladders and the team listening carefully and acting on our suggestions.

What I’ve tried to do here is think about the questions teachers asks themselves sat in their classrooms day in and day out. I’ve linked these thoughts to what the Learning Ladders system brings to teachers as answers. One of the biggest issues for teachers is time, time to do anything well, and so this has also been a huge consideration in trying to make the system work well for teachers. Mind sets have had to shift from a time when assessment meant dragging a test paper out of the cupboard to understanding assessment as pedagogy, as a way to shape learners. Changing this understanding takes time, but when something is right, it is right. Teachers have started to feel the change in their practice for themselves, but what I say over and over again (and what I will never stop saying)  is that no system will ever compensate for a lack of understanding about assessment, and what it should do for learners. However, Learning Ladders at least offers the framework for excellent assessment practice to unfold.This is how Learning Ladders works: (the planning tool is under development for next year).


LearningLadders Evolution.

Learning Ladders evolution

Find out more at https://www.learningladders.info/

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!