Teacher workload and retention are ongoing concerns in many schools at the moment.  Despite the government’s reluctance to recognise the problem (https://www.tes.com/news/school-news/breaking-news/government-has-no-plan-tackle-worsening-teacher-shortages) many schools, teachers and experts report difficulty recruiting and retaining teachers.  The impact on teaching, learning and student progress is immediate and apparent to all who have been affected by staff shortages.   Certain areas are hit harder than others and Oxfordshire presents some particular challenges; prices are similar to London and the property market is extremely difficult to get onto, but there is no equivalent living allowance.  Schools are increasingly finding creative ways to recruit NQTs but retention remains an issue: just as they really start to excel, they also desire affordable housing and somewhere to settle down.  They quickly discover how much of a challenge this is in Oxfordshire.

However there is good news for schools.  Teachers value a supportive school in which they are able to develop as professionals in their early years.   Burn et al’s 2016 research showed that (as well as economic factors) there were some key retention factors which are, at least to some degree, within the control of schools, if managed well.  These include:

  • The demands of the job
  • Characteristics of the school (factors leading to departure included “imposition of a very particular teaching style or expectations of a commitment to continued professional learning that were thought to be excessive”.

Supporting our NQTs through their first years is a key challenge at the moment, but things have changed a lot since I was an NQT and so I wonder whether I am always the best person to give advice.  As part of our NQT programme this year, we have planned in some sessions for our second- and third-year teachers to meet with our NQTs and give them the benefit of their experience and wisdom.  (This idea was stolen from another school at a meeting or conference.  I wish I could credit them here … but can’t remember which.  Apologies if it was you … and many, many thanks!)  The sessions are informal, we have given them a budget to go out for coffee or to buy in stocks of cake and treats.  The idea was that they could share (and moan) with people who had recently been through a similar experience and who could show them the light at the end of the tunnel, as well as offering some practical advice.  No managers or SLT or others who might be involved in their assessment, just a chance to ask questions and have a chat.

After the meeting Harriet and Dominic sent me a summary of some of their key advice to the NQTs and it represents some of the best practical advice for new teachers I have seen.  So I am sharing it here:

  • For disruptive students to stay on task: create a to-do list of the lesson for them (inc. Write the L.O, write the title etc.) to speed it up, laminate the tasks that need to be done every lesson and then add to it in board pen to be wiped off for the next lesson. Add a task or practice they can do when complete.
  • Organise seating plans so that weak pupils are easily accessible. If possible, seat with students that are capable (more than one preferably) so that they can teach (challenging themselves) and aid the less able pupil.
  • For form time: put notices on a ppt to save time and as an aide memoire. Perhaps add a puzzle or ‘thunk’ on there too to give them something to think about.
  • Get the tutor group to do more – give them jobs and duties to make them more responsible and relieve the pressure and help keep the tutor’s focus on the really important things.
  • See if parents can be emailed to save time with phone calls. This also allows a photo of the pupil’s work to show what they have done that lesson.
  • Use the ‘tutor report’ system if the tutor group is presenting challenges in several subject. This will also help prioritise who to ring in your phone call hour.
  • Organise your PPAs so that they are protected time and plan what they are for. Not only does this provide protection from the school (who won’t take them, but just in case…) but also from over-generous  “yessing” to every request. Set aside one hour to call parents, one to mark a specific set of books etc. Only take that hour for phone calls- if there are more, they will have to wait for the next specified hour (prioritise!)
  • When ringing home, intersperse negative calls with positive ones. It can be draining being negative. Similarly, after a tough day do some positive calls home. They can really help lift the spirits.
  • Make a blank powerpoint pre-formatted for slides you use all the time. This will half planning time. An automatic date alone can be a great time saver.
  • Extend your screen (from laptop to board) rather than mirroring it and use presenter mode. It makes things a lot easier and allows access to ‘notes view’ and ‘next slide’ to support lesson delivery.
  • Marking- get students to mark as much as possible. Make the success criteria/ mark scheme very clear and they should be able to do it themselves. This will also make them understand what the markers are looking for too.
  • Make a success criteria and only mark for those things. If the list has 10 things, just give them 3 targets each (write the numbers in their books) and then in DIRT time they can work on those three things rather than writing the same thing in 30 different books.

 

Finally, using their budget for the session, they have created a comfort stash of treats and pick-me-ups for the NQTs to access when they need.  This is a simple but brilliant idea I very much want to continue.

As a Head of Department, mentor and now Professional Tutor one thing that has changed since I joined the profession is the universal set of teaching standards.  I am very concerned that many new teachers feel held to a set of standards that I could not have achieved in my first few years and experience pressure to perform in line with teachers of greatly more experience.  The structured approach to my first year of teaching, the feeling that there were key things to achieve and that the journey was one of development was both a support and comfort.   I wonder whether expectations of teachers in their first few years are entirely realistic under the current model.  The next step is to ensure that some of their observations are with younger teachers; it is intimidating to always watch experienced teachers at play, especially if they seem to ‘get it right’ with ease.  Of course, we don’t, but when someone is new it can seem a lot smoother than it really is!

Another thing that developed with time is the sense of resilience and ‘big picture’ thinking.  Only after my first year was I able to review the progress of my class towards the end goal and plan improvements.  I still need to do this every year … but do so with a greater sense of perspective of the impact of mistakes and excitement at the scope to improve.  I can remember when a single bad lesson could ruin your whole week … then the whole day… then learning the resilience to put it in greater perspective.  Learn and move on, balance it against the successes.  However I wonder whether we sometimes put too much pressure on newer teachers to achieve that level of reflection and resilience earlier than they are ready to.  I now know how November feels, how exhausted everyone is by Christmas (students and teachers) and the impact that it can have on behaviour.  I am prepared for it and can take action within school and by planning my work-life balance to support myself and my team through this.  I know what exam season will be like and what support is available during this period when everyone is working so hard.  But this perspective came with time. Regular contact with younger teachers can help both sides.  The NQTs can see where they are aiming in the next couple of years, and the second- and third-year teachers reflect on how far they’ve come.  However teaching is busy, prioritising is difficult and it can be hardest of all for newer teachers.  Therefore we plan to continue to carve out time for them to do this and support each other and I expect more sound, practical advice to come out of this as the year goes on.

Questions that helped me reflect on supporting NQTs:

  • Who is best equipped to understand what they are experiencing and how to navigate the challenges?
  • To whom are they most likely to open up and get quality support and ideas?
  • How much of our programme is driven by their own perception of the support they need as opposed to being pre-designed?
  • Bearing in mind workload, how can we facilitate them getting this support without adding to the pressure or it being an additional ‘expectation’?

 

Burn et al (2016), Recruitment and Retention of Newly Qualified Teachers in Oxfordshire Schools can be found here:  http://www.educationdeanery.ox.ac.uk/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/RR-Full-Report.pdf

I recently read Arnot and Reay’s (2004) report on ‘The Social Dynamics of Classroom Learning’ and was struck by the depth and richness of their findings, after doing group interviews with a small sample of year 8 students.  The report is well worth reading although, for me, it was the comments by boys that particularly struck home at this point in my teaching.

The Research

The boys in Arnot and Reay’s research were articulate about their learning and have clear insights into their experiences.  It is well worth reading the original to hear the comments in their own words.  Five key things I took from the article were that:

  • Lower achieving boys generally lacked a clear idea of what made a “good learner” and associate this with certain behaviours such as not talking and doing the homework. 

This is a message they may well have received over years of instruction about behaviour and ‘tellings off’ coupled with rewards when they achieved these goals.  However, if this is their definition of good learning it is hard to see why they would put in the extra effort or work that other students do.  If they have been a “good learner” by completing the homework task, what is the merit in redrafting it to make it a bit better?  What is the value of doing a little further research when you can just make the font slightly bigger?

  • The boys interviewed all wanted to do well, even if they recognised that their own behaviour could be a barrier to this.

It is easy to see that if they are not always sure how to do well, and lack an understanding of what good learning looks and feels like, they are going to struggle with this.  This can lead to them being very extrinsically motivated and feeling under-confident and seeking support and positive reinforcement from those around them.  This could come from messing around with friends or just self-directing onto the wrong tracks e.g. focusing on the number of pages rather than the substance of an essay.  A lot of teachers are thinking about metacognition as a learning tool and it is easy to see how it might be helpful with overcoming this.

  • They had a strong concept of “stupid” and were incredibly anxious about receiving that label, from their peers and their teachers.

I think I have been reminded at every training session back to my PGCE that boys would rather be seen as lazy or naughty than stupid.  They were aware of the trap into which they fell though, with feeling stupid if they were given easy work and feeling stupid if they tried work and found it too hard.  What was striking to me was the amount of emotional tension these boys can feel about their lessons and learning and I wonder whether I am doing enough to take some share of that burden.

  • Friends were often a trusted source of support, even if they then got into trouble for talking.

This led me to reflect on how well I was supporting them in seeking help from their friends if needed.  A lot of my lessons involve group work with a chance to discuss the work before being ‘exposed’ to class or teacher feedback, but my seating and grouping arrangements are, like many teachers, focused on behavioural considerations rather than emotional support.  Our geography team strongly advocates sitting students together in groups in which they are comfortable and I am interested in trying this with my classes to see if it offers better support for underachieving students.

  • The underachieving boys rarely felt empowered to control their own learning.  They saw knowledge as something outside of their control. 

A lot of people seem to be discussing ‘cultural capital’ and ‘educational capital’ at the moment. Broadly speaking these refer to the things you have to bring with you to get the most out of the education system as it stands.  It is easy to forget some of the things that students can find daunting even asking for help or knowing when and how to ask for help to place demands upon them beyond their skill set.

In real life:

Interested to find out more and to see how far this applied to my students I conducted some short interviews at the end of last term with some boys who have been struggling in my GCSE class.  I was staggered by how well their responses fit the findings of Arnot and Reay.  One student, for example, has been in trouble for distracted behaviour, especially in group work.

The first revelation from the interview was his interpretation of what he saw as the most important part of the source analysis task:  “Doing the work.”  I attempted to draw this out further by asking him to clarify which bit was the most important and he said again “Doing all the work.  All of it.”  (Lacking a clear idea of what good learning looked like here but wanting to do well.)

I asked him what the others in his group were doing during this task and he thought a moment before responding that they were “talking about the sheet”.  We reflected on the difference between his approach and theirs and he broadly offered two reasons for the difference:

  • Their competence exceeded his: “they write more quickly”, “they can do it all”. (A strong concept of ‘stupid’ with frequent comparison to peers.)
  • His eagerness to stay out of trouble: “I’ve got to get it all done”, “I get told off for not working hard enough” (Wanting to do well.)

However, underpinning his analysis was a lack of grasp of the significance of the task.  He ended up copying large chunks of the sources into his table, without thinking about what they meant or joining in the discussion with his group.  (He was grouped away from his friends, who he may have trusted more to engage in discussion.)

Essentially, he was overwhelmed by the task and the amount he thought he had to do and did not understand that the key purpose was to discuss the sources.  He felt ‘safe’ if he wrote a lot (even copying) although this put him on track to fail in the discussion and questioning that was to follow, increasing his uncertainty and lack of control.  His experience was of “getting into trouble” for not doing enough work, in my subject and others,  and so he was desperate to up his word count.  I had failed to communicate to him that the core purpose was the discussion about the source material and it was that which I was interested in.   (Uncertain how to seek help and lacked control over his own work.)

Over the half term I have had time to reflect on some ways to better support these boys with their learning.  These are the questions I have been asking myself:

  • Have I done enough to ensure that they are working in a way and with people they are comfortable taking risks with? As an adult I take more risks when with people I trust; why wouldn’t they.
  • I know that this will lead to some off-task and distracted behaviour so how will I manage this?
  • How do I give them clear guidance as to the core purpose of the learning and support them with the less significant aspects without making them feel ‘stupid’?
  • How do I start to build a better concept of ‘good learning’ with these students, to build a more positive experience?

I can’t pretend to have the right answers to these questions yet, but I feel like Arnot and Reay’s work has got me asking the right questions and that can only be a good thing.  I’ll reflect further on what comes out of it in a few weeks.

Reference
Arnot, M. and Reay, D. (2004) ‘The social dynamics of classroom teaching’ in M. Arnot, D. McIntyre, D. Pedder and D. Reay (eds.) Consultation in the Classroom: Developing dialogue about teaching and learning’, Cambridge: Pearson

 

It was interesting to hear Mr Gibb blame teacher workload on education academics whom he described as being “invariably” the root cause of the problem.  This is in direct contrast to my own experience both of academics and of their impact.  The education academics I have met and worked with have never been driven by ideology.  They have invariably been greatly interested in how their ideas are applied in the classroom and keen to work in partnership with teachers to the benefit of learners of all ages.  Nor have I met academics who are not deeply aware of teachers’ workload and keen that their ideas make a positive contribution to getting impact for input.  Nearly all work closely with teachers in the course of their research and actively engage schools, teachers and other stakeholders in their research.  Furthermore, the vast majority have, at some time, worked as teachers and they retain and draw on a strong understanding of what a teacher’s life is really like.  The same, sadly, can be said for very few politicians with responsibility over educational policy.

Admittedly the application of academic research in the classroom is not always obvious.  This may be because it is designed to help us think and reflect rather than give ‘easy solutions’ to what academics recognise to be complicated problems.   This can lead to tempting simplifications of complex ideas and the impact is not always positive on either learning or workload.  However, this is generally the result of a complex interplay of factors, and far from “invariably” the fault of the academics.

More importantly, at other times, academics produce beautifully simple ideas with immediate relevance for the reflective practitioner.  (At this point they are just as likely to be condemned for ‘stating the obvious’ as praised for elegant simplicity!)

I was introduced to one such idea in a seminar by Dr Gill Boag-Munroe this weekend.  Amongst a review of theorists of learning she presented this beautiful and, for me, highly intuitive, model of a learning sequence by Professor Anne Edwards:

 

Edwards

This clear and simple model may not look like much although it was a breath of fresh air as we were deep into Vygotsky and Engestrom.  Even when first conceived it may not have felt new and revolutionary in terms of changing or challenging teachers’ practice; but this could well be part of its genius.

Upon close examination it feels almost like something you could come up with yourself … though I never have.  It certainly seems to capture what I’m trying to do in my learning sequences.    But the acid test always has to be utility.  In most cases this means helping to clarify thinking and do things a little better – which is often much more applicable than radical changes in thinking and direction, especially in the middle of the school year.

In this case, reflecting on Edwards’ model  brought rapid clarity to a learning sequence that had not worked.  Thinking back to a sea of confused faces I experienced just last week, it highlighted for me that I had spent far too little time in stage 2 and been too keen to accelerate to stages 3 or even 4 for a variety of reasons.  This lack of structure had left the students unable to apply key concepts and reach the higher levels of thinking I seek for them and left me a little stumped going forwards.  I have now planned some more tightly structured tasks for our next lesson to help better scaffold them towards the more complex application.

Of course, Edwards does not say that you have to follow this in a prescriptive way either insisting that you start at box 1 or that you move through in order.  But this sequence would be the most typical.  I looked at the model to review some learning sequences I have planned for the next couple of weeks.  In two cases it suggested to me some tweaks I could make to improve the flow of learning.  For one sequence of lessons I could see clearly that I was about to repeat the same error and skip far too rapidly through “tightly structured” tasks which may well leave some or all of my learners struggling to apply the information in more open-ended tasks.  In another I feel that my assessment plans jumped to quickly from stage 2.  If learners are not given the opportunity to explore and apply learning in a risk-free way it is unlikely that they will really think about it and achieve the confidence with the material I would like, even if they do ‘pass’ the assessment.

I’m sure this model wouldn’t apply to all learning or appeal to everyone and no-doubt there are limitations which will become obvious with further use.  This is one of the main reasons why it is rarely helpful to turn any single, useful tool into a prescriptive requirement.  But for this weekend I was excited by the clarity the model gave my thinking and the immediate applicability of Edwards’ ideas.  If this is the kind of addition to workloads that academic research leads to then I remain open to hearing more of their ideas.

Questions that help me reflect on academics’ research and ideas:

  • How would this apply to my teaching, students and other contextual factors?
  • Does this speak to my current needs as a practitioner?
  • What can I do differently because of this idea and what impact would I expect it to have?
  • How much work is involved in using this tool or applying this concept and is it worth the likely outcome?

These blogs are not written to speak to the latest educational “debate” generating a Twitterstorm and I had already planned my theme for this week in advance of Justine Greening’s speech.  Nonetheless, it is a timely co-incidence that I had planned to write extolling the value of the MSc to teachers, just as proposals are unveiled for a non-university route into teaching.  Greg Ashman, amongst others, has already written a thoughtful contribution on this debate and I have little to add:  https://gregashman.wordpress.com/2017/10/01/teachers-should-have-university-degrees/  so I do not plan to focus on that directly.

My blog was inspired by my weekend plans: beginning (much later than I had hoped, as ever) to complete my reading and plan my tasks for the first weekend seminar of the second year of my MSc, coming up soon.  I started this course last year, not without some trepidation and after not really considering it relevant to me for some years.  I had several concerns, not least finding the time to do it justice and questions about the practical application of a university-based course, especially as I have been teaching for over 10 years.  When I started teaching these qualifications were still relatively rare and, having an MA in my subject (history) led me to feel comfortably ahead of the game on the qualifications front.  I was learning a lot ‘on the job’ and drawing on further reading when I became a mentor in my early teaching years.  Then, as I took on more responsibility, time became a factor and my teaching development undoubtedly stagnated as I juggled everything else.  I still didn’t think about taking on an extra course, even as they began to proliferate.  I didn’t feel I needed the qualification and couldn’t see how I would spare the time.

It was when I became Director of Research and Innovation in 2015 that my attention was sharply drawn to how out-of-touch I had been with some key developments in the field of education, not least the entire Edublogging and Twitter scenes.  I’m still barely competent at the latter.

The feeling that I was missing out, that there was a world of thinking that I couldn’t quite access drove me to reconsider my views on the MSc.  No longer considering it purely a qualification I began to assess it as a tool to develop my pedagogy and re-engage with educational thinking.  A colleague had recently completed one and had nothing but positive things to say about the experience and I gamely committed a significant portion of my savings and an even greater portion of my free time to the three year course.

The first year was an eye-opener for me on many levels.  I was thrown into a world of academic research and scholarship that led me to reflect on my teaching in a wholly new way.  The course I had chosen, Oxford University’s Masters in Learning and Teaching was designed with working teachers in mind and, whilst the workload is strenuous it is well-tailored to the workload of a teacher, with many opportunities to reflect on my own lessons and planning, speak to students and colleagues and conduct small-scale research in my classroom or department.  (Many thanks to willing colleauges who have supported me with this throughout the year … and whom I hope will continue to do so over the next two.)

Unlike on my PGCE, when I often felt so overwhelmed by the demands of functioning in the classroom that I struggled to see the relevance of the academic side of the course, I found the two knitted together well in this context.  Some of the reading and seminars inspired me to reflect on my practice as a teacher or a team leader, thinking about my sense of agency in the classroom or how I tried to build a professionally-engaged department.  Others challenged my preconceptions, some built over years of teaching, about, say, the experiences of looked-after children or the moral dimensions of teaching as a profession.

I had rather dreaded the seminar weekends in the first instance, and had considered looking for a course that was purely online or more heavily isolated in study.  However I was encouraged by several people that these would be a powerful learning tool and they were absolutely right.  It was fascinating to grapple with issues from the reading with people in a similar position and humbling how honestly and openly many were willing to share their reactions expecting, and receiving, a non-judgemental response.  It was quite exciting and at times a little terrifying to find some of the strongest researchers in their field giving up their Friday evenings or Saturday mornings to lecture us or lead discussion groups.  It certainly put in perspective what I’d at first perceived as my “lost” weekends.  However, although not every session fitted with my professional interests, there was not a single weekend where I didn’t leave buzzing with new ideas and excited to get back into the classroom to apply what I’d learned.

In short, the first year of the MSc achieved everything I could have hoped.  It gave me tools which helped me to reflect on my own practice and introduced me to colleagues grappling with similar issues.  It supported my understanding with a programme of reading and seminars well-designed to appeal to experienced classroom practitioners.  It opened me to new ideas and research, whilst helping me to understand both the strengths of my own practice and how I could develop as a teacher.  I have never lost my love of being in the classroom, of planning lessons and of supporting students’ learning.  But above and beyond this the MSc has re-awakened my passion for and engagement with pedagogy.

I am now a firm advocate of the value this and similar courses for experienced teachers.  I would encourage anyone who is thinking about doing a Master’s to pursue it; speak to your Head for support with funding, find the time if humanly possible and engage with the amazing opportunity it offers.  It is with great excitement that I have downloaded the resources and articles to prepare for my first seminar weekend of year 2 and I can’t wait to get going again.  I can’t wait to see how my teaching will develop this year as a result of my studies and reflections.  And I sincerely hope that Greening’s plan for a vocational route into teaching takes careful account of the value to teachers of accessing the amazing body of pedagogical thinking and academic research out there, both for practical guidance and inspiration.

Questions that helped me decide to start the MSc:

  • Am I open to new ideas that could invigorate and refresh my teaching? Are there educational issues I’d like to explore further?
  • Would I enjoy discussing pedagogical issues with a circle of engaged teachers exploring the same issues?
  • Have I ever felt like I have enough time to do anything or do I generally do better when I just ‘crack on’?
  • Do I want to know more about the underlying issues that everyone on the blogosphere seems to confident and certain about?

 

This week’s colleague-author is Tina Herringshaw whose research has focused on Growth Mindsets.  Here she reflects on empty praise, meaningful responses and the power of videoing yourself as a teacher.

As a reflective practitioner I have been part of numerous research groups at JMS looking at a wide variety of educational research, however I still found that my main issue with my lessons was that my students would constantly ask for re-assurance. ‘Miss, is this ok?’

Teaching a visual art subject has its difficulties as we each see art differently. However we teach a set of fundamental rules that students use to develop skills and analyse their work to know how to improve. Why then did I still have endless students needing confirmation that their work is ‘correct’ or ‘nice’?

We always teach our first yr7 art lesson to dispel the myth that you are either born ‘good’ at art or not.  By teaching them to use their powers of observation to improve their first effort at drawing a common object (say, a tomato) we show them that just as we learn how to walk, talk or ride a bike and we can learn how to get better at art.   Through further discussion with an ex-colleague of mine – Lucy Dusgupta, I made the link that the ideas behind this lesson are at the core of Growth Mindset. I wanted to find to out more. How can I build resilience in students so they ‘know’ they are doing well, and can use feedback to help them improve?

To start my reading, Lucy shared with me her  MSc dissertation ‘Exploring strategies that foster a growth mindset rather than a fixed mindset in previously high attaining secondary school mathematics students’.  I then started to read more including two articles by Carol Dweck, the leading researcher in this field: ‘The Perils and Promises of Praise’, and ‘Carol Dweck Revisits the ‘Growth Mindset’’.  Dweck states:

‘Students’ mindsets  –  how they perceive their abilities  –  played a key role in their motivation and achievement, and we found that if we changed students’ mindsets, we could boost their achievement.’

I became interested in how teachers’ feedback can limit students’ mindsets, potentially driving their need for approval of their work.  Working with a group of interested teachers we observed each other  teach and then discussed the feedback we gave.  We used an observation template from Lucy Dasgupta’s research to help us focus our observations.  Our reading and observations helped us to identify a goal: we wanted to remove “empty praise” (‘yes’, ‘good’, ‘great’, ‘well done’) from our practice and replace it with meaningful feedback that promoted progress. Dweck explains why this matters:

‘Many(educators) believe that praising a students’ intelligence builds their confidence and motivation to learn, and students’ inherent intelligence is the major cause of their achievement in school. Our research has shown that the first belief is false and the second can be harmful – even for the most competent students.’

We began videoing ourselves and analysing our key phrases we used. This was a very useful reflective tool.  Even after a year of aiming to use only growth mindset responses I still found that at times I gave empty praise; it is a hard habit to break.  I tried different ways of giving meaningful praise with useful feedback to build resilience. For instance, ‘you have managed to sew accurately around that shape, now see if you can add a second layer to build more detail to your design’. I found it hard to not add on the phrase ‘well done’ at the end. It felt unfinished, so I often used ‘Ok’. I am still trying to practice not using any empty praise in my feedback. Evaluating my practice regularly through videos, helps to make me aware of where I use filler words and empty praise.

In summary being part of the R&I group on Growth Mindset has helped me to build resilience highlighting and altering my practice. It is hard to say whether the number of students seeking validation and asking ‘Is this ok’ has dropped?  They get encouraged to this way of thinking in lots of ways over a long period of time.  What I do know is that I’m more aware of my responses, so if my students do ask me, my response is to guide them towards the success criteria to self-evaluate and less of me giving them an unproductive answer. I aim to give them the tools to work out the answers so they don’t need me to tell them if it’s ‘ok’. I try to ensure my interventions will help to boost their motivation, resilience and learning.

Questions to help me reflect on the impact of my responses to student questions:

  • Is the student seeking meaningful feedback or praise and reassurance?
  • If I have offered praise, have I explained what they have done well and why the work is successful, or just offered ‘empty’ praise?
  • Why do they need me to tell them if the work is ‘good’ or ‘ok’? What would help them to work this out for themselves?
  • What will help me identify and change my classroom habits when I want to develop new teaching strategies?

 

If you are interested in reading more, Carol Dweck’s ‘The Perils and Promises of Praise’ can be found here:  http://www.helpwithteaching.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/The-Perils-and-Promises-of-Praise-Carol-S-Dweck.pdf  and ‘Carol Dweck Revisits the ‘Growth Mindset’’ can be found here:  http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2015/09/23/carol-dweck-revisits-the-growth-mindset.html

 

The closely related ideas of triple impact and dialogic marking have been heavily criticised recently for a variety of reasons.  Some of these are criticisms that raise important questions and highlight issues of evaluating impact within teaching.  One key question has been that too much focus was placed on impact without enough of the ‘hidden cost’ of generating that impact, particularly in terms of teacher workload and stress levels.  Seeking to evidence quality dialogue was also a challenge and systems of different coloured pens quickly evolved.   For many the “purple pen” marking system has become a symbol of much that is wrong with teaching.  The use of different coloured pens in marking symbolises lack of autonomy, a focus on appearance and evidence rather than meaningful impact and bureaucratic assessment policies run amok.  Criticisism has even come from the top with School Standards Minister Nick Gibb bemoaning teachers “wasting time” marking in coloured pens (October 2016).  Nicky Morgan also expressed concern (March 2016) and Ofsted, worried they may have started the whole thing, distanced themselves from the phenomenon and withdrew their guide to marking in 2015.

Some of the criticisms are entirely legitimate.  A huge amount of investment goes into training teachers to develop their professional judgement.  This is necessary because teaching is infinitely complex and varied, which is one of the things that makes it such an amazing job, as well as an awesome responsibility.  Policies which prevent teachers using their judgement as professionals fundamentally undermine the profession and the work they do.  A specific pen colour isn’t going to turn someone who doesn’t understand quality assessment into someone who does (teacher, parent or student) although it may just mask some of the conceptual weaknesses that need to be addressed with supportive CPD.  Using a purple pen to correct their work isn’t going to “fix” students’ problems with learning if they lie outside of a very narrow range of issues; it is unlikely to increase motivation, address conceptual misunderstandings or make up for a rushed job.

Our school has recently revised its formative assessment policy quite radically, removing most of the directives that had crept in over the last few years including those about pen colour, regularity of marking and specific symbols and codes to address specific work issues.  The drive behind this was to restore teacher autonomy and allow teachers to use their professional judgement when giving feedback.  Different subjects, students and pieces of work might call for different systems and the best person to make this judgement is the teacher on the ground.

However, with greater freedom comes greater responsibility and it is sometimes hard to know what to do for the best, with all the noise and fiercely held opinions.  Elliott et al’s “A Marked Improvement” is an incredibly useful document for teachers looking to understand what the research really says.  The review is thorough, well-organised and raises as many questions as answers, which is a fair reflection of where we are.  Some things we know work, some things we know don’t work and most things are … well, complicated.  For anyone looking for a quick-cheat guide to tell you how to mark this isn’t it.  However if you think judgement and experience count for something this strikes a good balance between research and open questions.

When it comes to purple pen, there are three key conclusions in Elliott’s report that have driven my thinking:

  1. “A key consideration is clearly the act of distinguishing between errors and mistakes.”
  2. “Unless some time is set aside for pupils to consider written comments it is unlikely that teachers will be maximising the impact of the marking.”
  3. “No high-quality studies appear to have evaluated the impact of triple impact marking … [although] there does appear to be some promise underpinning the idea of creating a dialogue, further evaluation is necessary.”

These ideas individually and collectively have shaped my thinking about marking in many ways over recent years.  Specifically I have learned that it is important that I do the following:

  1. Address fundamental misconceptions through re-teaching and ensure that students have time to work with and assimilate this new information. This may be through redrafting, correcting or a new piece of work but it involves not just ‘new’ learning but unpicking old learning and rethinking – this has to be done carefully.
  2. Make pupils correct their own mistakes.  Not only does it save me time, but it might help them remember to slow down and check their work next time.
  3. Build workload-friendly systems and habits especially where pupils are responding to input. I want to easily see what they have done, check that they now understand and move forwards appropriately.

And that is where the purple pen comes in and does a beautiful job for me.  When my classes are used to using it, they know what it means and time is saved by having it as part of an established routine.

  • Students can use it to correct mistakes and those corrections stand out clearly in the work.
  • For short pieces or responses to questions I’ve raised purple is easy to find in their files or books; I can instantly zoom in on their responses and redrafted work.  This in itself saves time and allows me to focus on what is needed; checking this is now in line with my expectations.
  • If the corrections stand out for me purple also stands out for the students.   Perhaps quite some time in the future.  Perhaps when they need to revisit the work and I’m very keen for them to revise the corrected material, not the original errors or mistakes.  Or when I want them to think about how they improved that type of answer the last time and apply that thinking without me having to repeat the feedback.

I’m not saying purple pen should be used for every piece of work.  An entire redrafted essay in purple is just painful to read.  I’m not saying that it should be used every day, in every subject – that is exactly what has been wrong with too many policies.

But I am saying that it is not the evil devil-child of bureaucratic teaching.  In fact, what came out of our old policy was that I was forced to try a new thing and it helped.  What came out of spending time reviewing the research is a better understanding of why it worked and how to use it.  Not all the time, in every scenario, with every child.  But enough that even given more freedom I intend to continue to mark primarily in red and have pupils redraft in purple.  Not to mention that I have a stock cupboard full of purple pens and someone has to use them!

Questions to help me reflect on my assessment and feedback:

  • How confident am I that I have correctly worked out which are mistakes and which are fundamental misconceptions? Is further dialogue needed to pin this down?
  • How will I know that this is having impact and that the student is now moving forward?
  • Is the method I am using the most time-efficient way to achieve the desired impact?

The research

‘A Marked improvement? A review of the evidence on written marking’ can be accessed here:

https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/public/files/Publications/EEF_Marking_Review_April_2016.pdf

 

In this week’s guest blog, Oonagh Fairgrieve reflects on what she learned when given her disaggregated INSET time to focus on a research project that interested her.  She picked ‘talk-less teaching’ as her starting point but ended up thinking about teaching as a much more integrated whole.

 

“Never become so much of an expert that you stop gaining expertise. View teaching as a continuous learning experience.” Denis Waitley.

 

One of the things about reflective practice is that you begin to reflect on your own reflections. As a Social Science teacher, I feel sometimes that I overanalyse my behaviour in a classroom too much, reflecting on what I should have said at a certain moment in time, what I could have phrased differently; the list goes on.

 

As part of my own continuous professional development I chose to look at the concept of “talk-less” teaching. It made sense to me to think that the more time we spend talking, the more time students are passive, the less learning happens in our classroom. In my initial research on talk-less teaching, I found similar results in interviewing and observing teachers and students; that too much time was taken up with explanation and a “talk and chalk” approach and students felt that more individual guidance and collaborative learning made an engaging and stimulating learning environment.

 

However, my research suggested that there was an important difference between reducing the amount of teacher talk and changing the quality of teacher talk. This change, needs to start with the teacher themselves; but may be guided by continuous professional development, or by mentoring from another reflective practitioner.   As Nunan (1996) states: understanding “has to begin with the teachers themselves, considering the ways in which the processes of instruction are illuminated by the voices of the teachers.” By focusing on whether teacher talk matches our intentions at any given stage of a lesson, rather than the time it takes, I hoped to enable learners to achieve more in a lesson and for learning to be more impactful…in theory, at least.

 

Walsh (2005) argues that for teachers and learners to work effectively together, both the teacher and learner need to acquire competence in language communication; making use of a range of appropriate interactional resources in order to promote active and engaged learning. By putting interaction firmly at the centre of teaching and learning and by reflecting on their quality of teacher talk, teachers will immediately improve learning and opportunities for learning.  This fit with my focus and I spent a few weeks reflecting on what I needed to say and when I needed to say it.

 

I found it helpful to use the principle of modes (developed from Walsh’s framework).  Although designed for use in a MFL or EAL classroom, I was able to apply this to a Social Science/Humanities lesson:

  • Skills and Systems: I used DIRT at the start of the lesson to give feedback or check previous knowledge and understanding.
  • Managerial: I thought carefully about when and how to give an instruction or explain a new concept to the whole classroom.
  • Classroom Context: I used questioning rather than talk to capture opinion, check knowledge and spark discussion

 

By reflecting on what I wanted to say before I said it, I began to create a reflective running dialogue, almost like a verbal lesson plan.   To break out of my normal habits, I used tools such as Google docs to provide iterative feedback and trialed interventions such as muted lessons.  Being open about what I was trying meant that capturing student response to this was straightforward, and colleagues also supported me to reflect on the importance of and nature of talk in a lesson.  My results interestingly found little impact on progress, but a definite impact on student attitude towards the subject and to the learning itself.  It is possible that with longer-term development there will be more impact on student progress.

 

But crucially for me was my which led me to my key reflection; the importance of the quality of teacher talk.

 

But interestingly, reflecting on teacher talk and what I wanted to say and what I wanted students to learn led to reflecting on independent learning. This is because through the use of effective teacher talk, we create an environment where words are like gold and are meaningful. We create an environment where students begin to understand the importance of collaborative work. This in turn linked to students’ mindset and attitude because by doing this, I could, in turn, instil confidence and esteem thus encouraging a growth mindset; where students feel confident to reflect on their own abilities through the use of talk.

 

To summarise, this project showed me the power of effective talk but also how focusing on one part of my teaching leads to almost a “web” of continuous professional development that is interconnected. By starting with what we say, who knows where we will end up?