#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.

Learning or performance? Where are you?

In thinking about assessment, data and ‘everything’, I was reminded about learning and performance orientations and realised what great significance this concept continues to have. (Chris Watkins is the master in this area). I’ve made a kind of scale based on the idea of what certain school aspects might look like under a full learning or performance orientation. I expect most schools are a bit here and there (ones in trouble further over toward a full performance orientation). In my humble opinion, the best place would be for everyone to have a full learning orientation and for us all to get away from performance being a motivator in education.

This is a work in progress and I know I’ll keep changing it! Needs refining…

See below, or for PDF here’s a link Learning or performance orientation1

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Whatever happened to the growth mindset?

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At one time, the ‘growth mind set’ was a phrase on every school leader’s lips and Carol Dweck, its progenitor, was the ‘it’ person in education. But where did it all lead? And where are we now in thinking about how pupils think about themselves as learners? It seems to me that for many schools, the new curriculum and so called new approaches to assessment have not led to any real change in learning orientation, as people like Tim Oates might have hoped for. There seems widespread confusion in what  mastery in learning really means. Yes, people on twitter seem to get it, and educators that put themselves out there may not be confused, but these are the minority I feel.  There are hundreds of teachers and leaders who are very much stuck in ‘level land’. Teachers are still asked every few weeks to sort children into numerical data groups and pressured to get children to a certain threshold by a set time resulting in just what the abandonment of levels sought to do away with: the sacrifice of deep learning for speedy surface progress. Worst still, many schools still reserve mastery for the ‘top’ children and  have the so called ‘bottom’ children sat counting their fingers in the corner with a teaching assistant while the teacher gets the rest to ‘expected,’ and ‘challenges’ those pupils who are ‘exceeding’.  This got me to thinking – where is the precious growth mind set in all this?

To remind myself: what does it mean to have a growth mind set?

To being with, the term growth mind set is a phrase created by psychologist Carol Dweck to describe a belief system built on the understanding that intelligence is incremental and ultimately changeable. In her book, ‘Self Theories,’ she explains why some pupils possess a ‘mastery –oriented’ approach to learning, where they seek challenge and persist in the face of obstacles, while others avoid failure at all cost and rarely enjoy challenge.

As educators, we know that children who love learning, are motivated by effort and enjoy overcoming setbacks fair better, not just at school, but also in life. We also know that assessment for learning techniques work better for pupils hooked into learning in this way. These are the children who don’t slump into a miserable pile over the desk when learning gets tough, or go quiet and try not to get noticed, but rather become energized by  difficulties and won’t rest  until they ‘get it’. These are the children who keep us on our toes because they aren’t satisfied going over old learning for long, but they also make the fastest progress and have an infectious way of motivating others too. We want children to be like this. If we want schools to be truly effective and for children to leave school imbued with this love of learning, then we need to understand that this attitude can be cultivated in all pupils and we owe it to them to ensure this happens.

So what happened to the mind set?

The problem is that, as with many new things in education, complex ideas are quickly précised into bite sized bullet points so that leaders can feed this to teachers in hourly staff meetings, then tick off evidence of implementation  in learning walks and observations so they can tell themselves they have disseminated this new practice across the school. Sometimes this might work, but this cannot work with the growth mind set because, as Dweck says, ‘people develop beliefs that organise their world and give meaning to their experiences;’ this creates our ‘meaning systems.’ People’s beliefs about themselves and others, their ‘self theories,’ are not something that can change in a few staff meetings. Whether or not one has a growth mind set goes to the heart of who you are and how you think, feel and act.

Too many school initiatives have used Dweck’s theory merely as an motivational device to attempt to get pupils to work harder rather than committing the whole school community to a complete change of heart in relation to learning and ability. Importantly, this applies to everyone, including teachers, parents and most definitely leaders as well. Some of the most fixed mind sets in schools can exist in the minds of leaders in how they think about their staff and in the way they treat them, which ultimately sets the tone of the whole school environment.

If leaders and teachers really want to cultivate a growth mind set in their pupils the whole school needs to check up on what they think and feel about ability and intelligence. It is my firm belief that schools who still label children by ability, and separate pupils into closed ability groups might very well pay lip service to the growth mind set vogue, but do not really believe in it all.

At the heart of the growth mind set is the understanding that wherever a pupil is, their intelligence can be increased; there is no set quota of intelligence that a child is endowed with at birth. This goes against the way many teachers think and talk about children because our theories about others, and indeed ourselves, tend towards being fixed in nature. Let’s face it, first impressions stick, just like first loves; once you feel something about someone or something it’s hard to shift it and nine times out of ten we spiral into a repetition of the same thoughts and feelings about people and situations. Intelligence is no different. It is after all only the sum total of one’s present skills and knowledge which is open to change during every waking hour; we must get away from the idea that somehow intelligence is a sealed box inside the head that is, to a greater or lesser degree, filled with a kind of mental elixir.

Dweck found that pupils who had a less fixed theory of intelligence regularly sacrificed opportunities to appear ‘clever’ in favour of opportunities to learn something new. We all know pupils like this: those tenacious kids who ask question after question and won’t rest until they have succeeded.  Whereas, pupils with more fixed ideas about intelligence feel the need to look clever and avoid looking ‘stupid’. They seek easy success to demonstrate this and regularly disengage from tasks that pose a threat to their perceived intelligence. We all know plenty of children like this too! (We know plenty of adults too.)

In practice, we know that children (and adults) who will persevere through adversity regardless achieve more because for them failure motivates rather than undermines. If you think and feel that you have a fixed amount of intelligence then whatever you do it will remain the same, therefore failure only exposes the truth about how much intelligence you have. If this is true then it makes sense to hide failure and avoid anything that exposes this unchangeable truth. However, if for you intelligence is fluid and can be built upon through effort and practice, then a failure is a signal for you that growth and change are just around the corner – so failure takes on a whole different meaning, it becomes a motivator.

In truth, too many classrooms have too little cognitive discomfort for places of learning. A classroom should be a place full of quizzical looks, small frowns and lightly chewed lips, interspersed with eureka moments followed by yet more finger tapping and head scratching. Why this seems to frighten teachers is not a mystery, but a result of intense pressure for progress and evidence of lots of ‘learning success’ with little or no mention of the horrible F word.  These days, there is little time to fail in class. Why failure seems to frighten pupils is because we’ve disconnected failure from the concept of learning when there is no learning without failure first, as Samuel Becket said: ‘Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.’

Growth mind set:  Failure = a challenge which leads to future learning.

Fixed mind set:  Failure= an intelligence deficit which can’t be changed so only leads to looking stupid! Avoid it!

This is why growth mind set initiatives in schools need to be much more than a simple motivational driver. Any initiatives need to challenge everyone’s beliefs about intelligence and then lead to real change in thinking and behaviour. This means that the shared ‘meaning systems’ of the school community support change in the individual meaning systems of all. If this doesn’t happen, children’s feelings about being ‘stupid,’ ‘slow’ ‘bright’ or ‘clever’ are only reinforced and behaviour will not change.

There’s much more to say on this, not least about how teachers communicate with pupils in confirming or breaking down fixed mindsets. Teachers can have a dramatic affect on how pupils view intelligence just by changing how they talk about learning and deliberately making pupils conscious of when they are literally building their own intelligence.   However, this needs to go hand in hand with a school ethos that mirrors a mastery-approach to learning  for all – including teachers and leaders, a place where failure is recognised positively and utilised by learners rather than desperately feared, and certainly a place where  we get away from the same old cavalry charge for data that has driven shoddy practice for years. Data never leads to learning, but it might do the other way around.