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!

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.

Strength in Small Words

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Over the years I’ve discovered that there’s power in small words. Small words can make such a difference in ethos and class climate, but it’s hard to see this until you deliberately try changing a few you use and become conscious of how these subtle tweaks in language can have far reaching effects .

For example, I now often use the word ‘might’ in questions rather than  ‘is’ or ‘does’ because then children feel more inclined to make suggestions. For example, ‘why might Charlie be scared to open the chocolate bar this time?’ as opposed to ‘Why is Charlie scared …’  You  seem to open up the landscape and children feel more inclined to offer up their ideas because you have implicitly signalled to them that you may not have the right answer (even if you have). That’s the trouble with teaching sometimes, the old ‘guess what I’m thinking’ routine…doesn’t help learning really.

At the same time, teachers also need an open minded attitude to pupil’s answers; they need to be prepared to follow pupils down seemingly dead ends, discuss half-formed ideas and even mull over completely wrong ideas. You learn a lot about misconceptions when you do this, and that can allow pupils to think themselves forward and also help you to get inside what they’re thinking. You have to be prepared to say, ‘Mmm that’s interesting, tell me more…’  For example, ‘Ah interesting,  oh I see, Charlie wants to keep the chocolate wrapper paper nice, he doesn’t want to tear the nice paper.’ You think to yourself, oh no, this child has missed the inferred sense of anticipation and fear of the bar not having a golden ticket. Nevertheless, you probe a bit more. ‘So tell me more about Charlie and the paper then?     …Oh, I see, if there’s a ticket inside he won’t want to tear it – now that’s an interesting idea. Does he know there’s a ticket in there I wonder? No he doesn’t? I see, but there might be. How might that make him feel I wonder? Oh, really scared? What might he be scared of then? Oh I see, scared that it hasn’t got a ticket inside. So is it really about tearing the nice chocolate wrapper paper I wonder or something else? Oh I see, you think it’s more about not getting the ticket… ‘  And so on. Using the words ‘I wonder’ also makes a big difference too;  you’re telling them you’re thinking too, you’re not certain. When there’s too much certainty in a classroom it’s a terrible thing, no room for thinking through uncertainty because someone already knows it all!

Anyway, I find this approach works. It’s only a small tweak, but I’ve seen that it’s changed the way children react to questioning. Which brings me to my next little word that has a big effect. A while ago, I started putting the word ‘yet‘ on the end of some of the things I said to the children and now I hear them saying it too. Where once I might have said, ‘Is that right?’ I now say ‘is that right yet?’ This carries a powerful sense of progress and movement. Even asking a child if they understand it yet seems to change the dynamic a great deal. Or asking them who hasn’t got it yet tells them you’re confident they will soon, you’re saying you see their success ahead. You’re loosening up any ideas of being fixed. It’s even good for behaviour, ‘oh dear, you’re not listening yet’ – give them a chance to look forward.

But there are also plenty more  little words with big effects and these are the ‘goods’ and the ‘well dones’ and even the ‘excellents’ that we might say to children without any real reference to any specific learning. How many times have you walked around the classroom, looked over a piece of work and said ‘good, well done’?  It’s part of our nature to want to praise children, to boost their confidence and make them feel good about themselves, but we need to take care. Too much ‘loose praise,’ as I call it, without reference to exactly what you’re pleased with, means that gradually children get far too involved in ego feelings than acknowledging effective learning. To add to this, most teachers, if they check up, will see that they are praising the same children, in the same way over and over again, while certain children receive very little, in fact maybe they get more frowns than anything else. If you could get someone else to count your ‘praises’ and to whom in a day, I think it would surprise you. So, with those small words of praise, I’ve found it’s important to be clear about what you’re praising and why. ‘Well done, I like the way you’re now remembering the full stops, see?’ If you don’t follow that ‘well done’ with the explanation, it’s likely the child will sit there and just feel good about themselves but not make any reference to the learning task at hand. Again, it’s a subtle point, but some care here  actually helps children invest themselves in their learning in the right way. We spend a lot of time talking about the comments we write in children’s books and how to ask all those higher order questions etc, but it’s also important to think about the day to day more informal ways we talk to children too.

So, something to think about over the summer. We need a break!

Well done to us…for getting through this year of uncertainly and change.

Post-mortem or medical? Quality v quantity?

In thinking about feedback I really like Douglas Reeves idea that authentic feedback should be like a medical rather than a post-mortem. Like this, feedback shouldn’t be about what went wrong, but about how to get better. Focusing on what went wrong is the traditional transmission method of feedback where the teacher is centre stage, passing judgement on the pupil’s demonstration of knowledge acquisition. We know now this only widens the achievement gap, it makes low ability pupils shrink back and the more able ping forward – so for a while now we’ve known we need to turn around in the road and face the other way.

This is why ‘next steps feedback’ should really drive the new curriculum and any new assessment systems put in place. It is this kind of system that should govern summative assessment too, indeed even school tracking systems. In this way, the ‘where are they now’ snap shot is a moment in time that is looked in on, ‘snapped’ and then used to understand the field of play, and by this I mean children who are not locking into and benefiting from the next steps pathway.

Like this, a school tracking system should work for (not with) the next steps assessment system to create a strategic overview that can then drill down to groups or individuals who need more attention within the context of the whole school. In this way, a tracking system will support in-class assessment and support a teacher’s ‘aerial view’ of what’s going on. This is important because we’re really close up and personal in class aren’t we? Yet really, any teacher worth anything should know which individuals are not moving and making those next steps.

Systems like new Learning Ladders and Classroom Monitor seem to be on the right track here, but my one worry is the old quality v quantity problem. Some systems seem to try to provide next steps assessment pathways for anything and everything, which will mean stressed out teachers who get squeezed into a corner where they have to tick things they’re not really sure of because of time. This is what was wrong with the last system, overkill! Really, if we’re taking on a mastery curriculum we should take on a mastery assessment system too where less is more and we cut out what we can do without and focus on the vitals.

So, next steps: good; each and every next step: bad.  We need to be careful the accountability shadow doesn’t needlessly spoil it all and make us ‘panic assess.’

Anyway… just some quick thoughts on how it might just all fit together. You never know…it might just work!

Fewer things in great depth.

This week I met Clare Gatsby on Thursday who really impressed me with her take on asse
ssment; what a switched on, clever lady. Then on Friday I trained a bunch of Schools Direct students about primary science and they impressed me with their take on…just about everything! (Watch out old timer teachers – this new lot are top notch!)

So – a pretty impressive week!

One thing that came up all week was the Tim Oates concept of ‘fewer things in greater depth’ in relation to curriculum and assessment.  When we look back at the journey education has been on since 1988 it really had gone a bit potty with teachers trying to teach everything and assess everything with the result that potentially nothing was learnt or assessed that well, but was heartily ticked off as ‘done’. Things are better now, but there are lots of reasons why this happened; everyone had a hand in this from teachers, leaders and most definitely politicians. In the profession a kind of unconscious contract was made to define lots of teaching as being evidence of lots and lots of learning so that it was assumed that the harder teachers worked the more pupils must be learning. The profession, weakened in many ways from the backlash against the apparent sloppy pedagogies of the 70s, colluded with this fixation on teachers and teaching, while learning itself was often overlooked. Yet still this kind of unintended collusion in the classroom has the potential to spoil the latest ‘assessment and learning spring’ if we’re not careful.

What do I mean by collusion? Well, I mean those instances when pupils and teachers agree on success because it just makes everything easier. We unconsciously collude on what successful learning is. Teachers can do this by allowing pupils to feel success is only about completing tasks, making everything neat and tidy and being correct when mostly deeper learning is far messier, error ridden and all over the place. Deep learning should look nothing like we imagined ‘good learning’ would be like when we were kids. There should be crossings out, notes, drafts, dead ends and arguments, disagreements and a great scratching of heads. Have you ever seen a photo of Einstein’s office? It wasn’t pretty.  The problem is that deep learning is different from what education has been used to. It’s often slow and often messy. We might present things nicely at the end, fine, but the journey has to be messy. We weaken learning when we try to make it like a shiny text book.

Like this, a quiet collusion has sometimes gone on in classrooms, making children feel like they are climbing lots of ladders and ticking lots of boxes, and teachers feel like everyone is off their back. The point is that deep learning takes time, things need to slow down and pupils have to think more and work harder. Mostly, they’d rather not do this; we’d all rather just get a nice tick and smiley face than have to work harder wouldn’t we? So children quite like the idea that successful learning has been about finishing and everything been ticked. We’ve allowed this too because in the back of our heads there’s always that nagging feeling we need to ‘get on with it’; we need to get through this unit or that topic or else we’re incompetent. Somehow coverage has also become a sudonym for learning. In essence, teaching can be unwittingly mistaken for learning.

Anyway, this brings me full circle back to Captain Oates’ ‘fewer things in greater depth’ motto and I say, ‘bring it on!’  Let’s do less, but do it better. As Dylan Wiliam says, let’s lose some of the important things in order to focus on the more important things well. We need to bite the bullet, get the scissors out and believe that fewer things in greater depth will work, because it will. Yes indeed, less is more.

To finish – enjoy this funny clip on ytube and think of assessment and feedback while you do! Food for thought!

A quote to make us think….

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

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

I like to be optimistic…

Just a few optimistic thoughts about the new assessment reforms:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Smart Differentiation…again

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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