Uncategorized

My shock and dismay at reading in SchoolsWeek that schools half of schools surveyed had already or were considering pulling out of initial teacher training next year (https://schoolsweek.co.uk/recruitment-fears-as-schools-withdraw-training-placements/)  has inspired me to lay out a counterview.  In my opinion it is now more important than ever that schools actively engage with teacher training: for the wider education community, for the schools themselves and, yes, for the pupils whom the trainees will be working with in their training year.

It is entirely understandable that schools are worried about the implications of having unnecessary people on site.  ITE providers are well aware of this and will work with schools to ensure that government guidelines are followed.  Long placements rather than short visits obviously pose fewer challenges in this regard, and also bring other advantages to a teacher training programme, including the opportunity to build secure relationships.  Of course it would not be sensible to compromise the safety of pupils and staff to allow trainee teachers into school.

However, the concerns seem to go deeper than that with the article referring to the “amount of school time pupils have missed”.  It is my concern that such schools may be missing out on a potentially valuable asset to their school community, as well as an important contribution to the wider profession.

 

Benefits to the profession

The benefits to the wider profession of supporting with the provision of initial teacher training are well established.  Instead of new teachers having a purely theoretical education and little practical experience they enter the classroom with a solid grounding of experience.  They have had the opportunity to experiment with their classroom practice under the watchful eye of a mentor, normally in classes to which their mentor or an experienced teacher is permanently attached.  Not only does this build their confidence, but it allows them to understand how theory can be applied to context and how students can react differently to different teaching approaches.

Teachers develop a lot in their first few years of teaching (and beyond).  But when recruiting new teachers we all benefit from the experience that they have been given in front of classes, including their students.  The guidance they receive at this point is vital in preparing them to take responsibility for their first classes.  Sometime the circumstances of particular schools mean that it is not appropriate for them to act as placement schools for a period of time.  This decision can be made in the interests of staff, students and the trainees themselves.  However if a significant number of schools fail to engage with teacher training the whole profession will suffer as scarce placements are divided between trainees for shorter periods and the enter the classroom in their NQT year lesson confident, less experienced and less equipped to support students.

Furthermore as a profession we have a major job to do in the next few years.  It is going to be a Herculean labour to pick up from shutdown, get education back to smooth functioning and work to close the achievement gap created since March 20th.  This is not going to be helped if we shut down our training programmes and create a self-generated recruitment crisis or force ITT schemes to compromise on quality and send out a generation of teachers less equipped to tackle that challenge than in previous years.

 

Benefits to the School and Department

Supporting initial teacher training is not a wholly selfless endeavour.  Any school that finds it so may not be making full use of the opportunities it presents.  In my experience, trainee teachers are generally keen and enthusiastic participants in the school community.  Especially when placements are long enough to allow them to build relationships with departments and the wider school community they bring energy, ideas and engagement.  As just one example, just before school shutdown our trainees really showed their value; they were flexible, helpful and keen to support students and classes that were suffering disruption and anxiety.  They helped set remote learning for those who could not make it in even before shutdown, supported making contact home and prepared resources ready for the inevitable further disruption.  There is no reason to assume that next year’s trainees will not be equally committed, flexible and willing to help as we navigate the return to some form of normal education.  They will certainly be a much valued extra pair of hands for all departments who are lucky enough to have them.

There can be a perception that working with trainee teachers is a lot of work; far more than the allocated mentoring time.  There is no doubt that mentoring is not an easy ride to extra “frees” and, if an trainee is struggling, it can take a lot of hours of extra support and reserves of extra patience to help guide them through their difficulties.  However anyone who has mentored for a number of years will tell you that this is not the end of the story.  As well as the core pleasure we get as educators of supporting another person’s development (whether student or student teacher), there are also the many ways that a trainee can contribute to enriching your own professional development.  From discussing lessons and unpicking lesson plans (your own and theirs) to analysing the successes and failures of learning, to jointly teaching or marking student work.  All of these activities can give a reflective practitioner an injection of new life into their own planning and practice to their own and their students’ benefits.

Finally one of the great advantages of teacher training arises when it comes to recruitment.  We recruit a lot of our NQTs either from our own pool of trainees or through our training partners.  We know where they have been and what training and development they have had so far and they have already shown their commitment to their own development and our school community.  During times of teacher shortages, having a strong pool of potential hires year-in, year-out helps to keep our teaching team strong and gives us the opportunity to continue to work with some very talented young teachers, long after their initial training is finished.

 

Benefits to the pupils

Which takes us to the final key advantage – the benefits to the students themselves.  There is sometimes an impression that students “lose out” by having a trainee teacher – that this comes at a cost to learning.  Obviously their learning experience will be different if they have a training teacher to one with more experience and consideration is needed when timetabling to ensure that classes don’t consistently have trainees throughout their course.  One justification for this is the wider community answer – if they have a strong practitioner who is handing over to a trainee that may come at a (small) cost.  But that is how the practitioner became strong in the first place, and how they will secure a better trained teacher next year, or in the subject they have next period where they have the NQT and not the experienced teacher.

 

But there is more immediate justification for teacher training here which is that it does not have to come at great cost to students.  Trainee teachers can enhance pupils’ learning experiences in any number of ways:

  • They can work with small groups and individuals to support catch up or allow the classroom teacher to do this whilst they teach the class.
  • They can support with planned interventions for students who are struggling with the material, have been absent or have a gap in prior learning.
  • They are often eager to create new resources and update old ones, leaving in their wake a legacy of new lesson ideas that the remaining teachers in the department can then build on in future years.
  • They can help me to better understand the impact and limitations of my own teaching by focusing on a particular student or group during a lesson observation, helping gather student voice or reviewing aspects of my practice that I am trying to develop (e.g. distribution of hands down questions around the classroom).

It may be that we have to be creative in the deployment of trainees, and that we need to consider carefully whether this is the right time to have them lead as many classes as they normally might or to be left alone with classes recovering from the trauma of shutdown.  However when I look through this utterly non-exhaustive list of ways that trainee teachers can make a powerful contribution to students’ learning, I can’t help but think that we are going to need these sort of supportive interventions and relationships more than ever in 2020-21

 

 

Questions I use to reflect on whether I am getting the best value from trainee teachers:

  1. Am I using the trainee in a variety of ways based on their needs and the needs of the students in the classes to which they are attached: team-teaching, small group work, individual support as well as whole-class delivery?
  2. When the trainee is leading a lesson and doesn’t need my observation how can I use my time to enhance students’ learning: who can I work with, talk to or support?
  3. Which resources and lesson ideas are in need of development and how can the trainees help me to work on these?

When thinking about the time lost during school shutdown it is easy to feel a little anxious, especially for our exam groups.  We are all aware of the socio-economic gaps that exist in educational outcomes and I am not aware of anyone who thinks these won’t have grown significantly during the time of school closure.  The usual disadvantaged groups are more likely to have struggled to work independently whether due to lack of motivation and structure or lack of resources (computers, shared internet time, quiet spaces to work) and other responsibilities (caring for siblings) at home.  Some other individuals or groups may have fallen behind that we would not previously have had concerns about: those with many siblings for example, or with parents who are critical workers.

In thinking about how to close these gaps when our students return my initial thoughts were primarily centred on curriculum and knowledge: lost learning.  How could I pick up the pace of my lessons, trim any inefficiencies in teaching and deliver material in the most intense but effective way to make up for this time before exams?  And there are some clear ideas from research that will guide us in this.  But as I looked into the matter, I realised I was focusing on the wrong concerns and, indeed, in danger of making matters worse rather than better.  The first and most important impact of shutdown is going to be the emotional impact on our students and our relationships in the classroom.

Carpenter and Carpenter (2020) have argued that we should not underestimate the level of trauma the lockdown may have caused in the young people in our care.  They note that they have suffered 5 key losses during lockdown: to routine, structure, friendship, opportunity and freedom.  The subsequent levels of uncertainty and anxiety, even as things return to “normal” cannot be overlooked in our planning – in fact they must be central to it.

In which case our priorities on returning are not primarily about recovering “lost” knowledge opportunities.  In fact, as teachers and tutors we will need to focus on the following areas:

 

  • Rebuilding relationships – with our students and tutees, in the classrooms and around school. The extended period of shutdown may have led to the fragmentation of relationships that were previously thriving.  In many ways we need to be prepared to restart relationships: revisiting classroom routines and expectations, guiding and repairing group dynamics and supporting students as they interact with us and each other.  We are all aware that learning can be slower in the early weeks with a class than later in the year, as they get into the rhythm of learning together and with us – we need to be prepared that our classes and tutor groups may be significantly further back than they were in this regard and be ready to invest time in this aspect of our practice, rather than racing on with missed content.

 

  • Managing anxiety about change – the nature of the shutdown means that a significant number of students may experience ongoing anxiety and insecurities about the stability of the world around them, including school. Transitions and uncertainty will need to be managed with great care and thought as will changes to routine e.g. unplanned assemblies, unstructured lesson activities or even things such as new seating plans.  Unfortunately it is unlikely the schools will be able to pick up with a simple, straightforward routine from day 1.  As the pandemic (hopefully) winds down, we may still experience limits to the group activities we can offer, and ongoing cover situations for sick and vulnerable staff.  However, we are used to dealing with a small number of students who struggle with change or disruption to their routine and have strategies to help with this: from lesson maps to early communication about changes to their routine.  We need to be prepared to deploy these strategies for most or all of our students until they are clearly settled back into school.  Transparent lesson objectives and informative steps-to-success will be more important than ever, but so will effective communication, secure seating plans and guidance as to what to expect from each lesson as early in the hour as possible.

 

  • Managing anxiety about progress; there is likely to be anxiety on the part of both teachers and students about learning hours lost and progress slowed.  Objectively we know that every school is in the same situation, but as our internal research when the new GCSEs came in showed, knowing this doesn’t prevent anxiety in the moment.  We have learned from past errors that accelerating the pace beyond that which students can follow, increasing our references to exams, exam skills, exam techniques, deploying “countdowns” or trying to increase the pressure on students is counter-productive.  Whilst a certain number of people work well and even thrive under pressure, a significant number also become demotivated, retreating or giving up.  So the best way to help our students recover is to focus on motivating them in the learning.  From the point at which they return share with them clear and transparent plans that lay out how we will achieve the learning goals of the course.  The PLCs we already have can help show them how we plan to structure this.  One of the best things we might do for our exam groups is to avoid any mention of exams as far as possible and simply focus each lesson on its inherent value and relevance to them. This is good teaching practice at any time, but may well be essential in the Covid-19 recovery period.

 

 

  • Planning a curriculum to close gaps; of course, none of this means that we do not have to make up lost learning and plan how to deliver a valuable curriculum to our students.  We need to do some critical thinking in our teams about what the most powerful and important knowledge in our courses is and how we are going to ensure students leave school with this firmly embedded.  This will be the bedrock of the transparent plans that help reduce their (and our own anxiety).  Now is the time to deploy teaching strategies that will help us to achieve maximum impact.  Crucially we need to be aware of the power of interleaving our curriculum to support students’ learning.  (If you would like a refresher on  this, here is a good place to start:  https://www.learningscientists.org/blog/2016/3/28/weekly-digest-3).  An interleaved curriculum has the potential to be more powerful than ever in supporting our students.  It will ensure that concepts and knowledge is regularly revisited which will help those who have ongoing absence created by the pandemic, or those who do not fully grasp material the first time around because they are still experiencing the effects of trauma and settling into routines.  It will stop the learning students know they have missed since March being addressed in one big, high-stakes “block”, or being left until much later in the course, where it will hang over them like a big black cloud.  And it will exercise students’ brains to maximum effect, ensuring that each lesson has maximum impact.  Finally it is a planning investment which will improve our curriculum for years to come.  If not already thoroughly embedded in your teaching, now is the time for interleaving.

 

  • Improving learning strategies:  and finally it should be noted that even those students who have been working successfully at home may well have developed learning strategies that do not support them in the classroom. Nuttall (2007) emphasised the importance of peers on learners’ ideas, misconceptions and schema-construction.  Our own student voice survey clearly indicates that students are, understandably, using their friends more than ever for support and learning advice during lockdown.  This and other strategies that support independent learning do not necessarily translate easily to group learning when students are back in class.  However it would not be surprising if students cling to strategies that have proven useful during a period of great disruption and difficulty.  Rather than attempting to “retrain” them into our ways of learning this is a great opportunity to build self-reflection and independence.  Metacognitive techniques can be deployed to encourage students to reflect on their own approach to learning: what worked and what didn’t, how learning alone is different to learning in class and which strategies they will now discard and which they will continue to deploy – in class, at home and in revision.

 

As we plan a return to learning, whether that is in July, September or even later, I am therefore reflecting on the following questions to help me work out how best to support my students:

 

  • What has been the emotional impact of lockdown for these young people and how can I ensure that this is recognised and supported in my tutor group and my classroom?
  • How do we re-establish classroom routines in a safe way, without increase anxiety and trauma?
  • What additional learning needs and gaps have arisen as a result of shutdown?
  • Where do we restart the curriculum to support students’ emotional and learning needs upon return?
  • How do I plan to support my students in catching up and build an interleaved curriculum to recapture lost learning? How will I share my plan with my students to help reduce their anxiety and reassure them that we are working to ensure they will not be disadvantaged by this situation?

I would strongly recommend all teachers, and especially form tutors, take the time to read:

Carpenter, B. & Carpenter M., (2020), “A Recovery Curriculum: Loss and Life for our Children and Schools Post Pandemic”, published by Oxford Brookes University.

I must admit I didn’t expect to be overwhelmed with work from students when schools were shut to most students two weeks before the Easter holidays.  However I am delighted to find that I was wrong and that I have received at least some work from over 80% of my students overall, and 90% in some classes.  However this has presented a new challenge.  For years 7-10 and 12 we are setting work on a lesson-by-lesson basis in accordance to the timetable. This means that I am receiving 25+ pieces of work back from students for each lesson I would have taught.  Furthermore, many of the tools we use to assess students’ understanding in class are denied to us when they are working remotely.  No quick whole-class quizzes, instant modelling to everyone, verbal feedback or on-the-spot marking is easily arranged and peer feedback is likely to prove an administrative nightmare, if possible at all.

For anyone on a full timetable this is somewhere in the region of 500 pieces of work a fortnight, from students beavering away at home, keenly awaiting feedback on how they have done.  This would not be sustainable at the best of times, but many of us have other responsibilities and concerns at the moment and need a system that

Over Easter I have therefore been reflecting on workload-friendly marking and feedback techniques that will maintain regular contact with students, show them that their work is valued and being reviewed and have a positive impact on their progress.

It is worth remembering research has led us to 4 key principles that underpin all our subject-specific assessment policies.  These are:

  • Building a dialogue between student and teacher.
  • Ensuring students respond to feedback given in a meaningful way e.g. developing or redrafting the work.
  • Distinguishing between mistakes which students can correct themselves and misunderstandings which need reteaching.
  • Addressing literacy mistakes and misunderstandings directly.

Whilst following there are some feedback strategies that seem likely to be of particular use to us to manage this workload whilst still providing students with meaningful feedback regularly.  The ones I am finding best fit remote learning are summarised below:

 

Whole Class Feedback: works well for significant pieces of work (e.g. long written answers or projects and worksheets with multiple answers).

Whole class feedback can still work remotely if slightly adapted in delivery.  It can be a major time-saver to deliver feedback on work completed by a large number of students (20+).  This is how I approach it:

  • Read 5 or 6 submissions from a range of students (e.g. PAL, PAM, PAH, PP, male, female, SEND).  Note the common mistakes and misunderstandings which arise on a separate document.
  • Identify solutions for these. I normally plan for these to be delivered to a large number of students or the whole class at once.  For example:
  • “A large number of students have been writing “black death” instead of “Black Death”. As a major historical event we treat The Black Death as a proper noun and so please ensure that you have used capital letters for this term.”
  • Or, several students have given the definition of assimilation as “the process of taking in and fully understanding information or ideas”. This is an accurate definition of this word, and it is the first one that comes up on Google.  However, as with many words “assimilation” has several definitions and this is not the one that best fits our work on the Australian Aborigines.  If you have used this definition take another look and think carefully about which definition fits.  Replace your definition with the one that best fits the context of what we are learning.

The key here is that the feedback should be focused on solutions and give students clear actions to take if they have made mistakes and explanations to correct misconceptions.  This might involve referring them to a specific website or video that will clarify things for them.  As a result they should be able to respond to the feedback by editing their work.

  • Read through another 5 or 6 pieces of work to see if my feedback points would apply to these students.  Are there any substantive mistakes or misconceptions I haven’t covered, or students who would not be able to respond to my feedback in any way.
  • After this I read briefly through the rest of the submissions. Generally my feedback sheet will apply to most or all of the students in my class (one or two may need individual help, support, comments or advice and one or two may have completed the work so effectively they need different, extension work or to move onto the next piece).  Students can then be given the feedback in any form that suits me and the class.  This will normally be one of three ways:
  • Coded responses where I number or code the different feedback points and tell the students which apply to their work.
  • Copy-and-paste where I select one or two key points to add to the student’s document.
  • Self-assessment where students are given the whole sheet and asked to identify the comments which apply to their work.

Don’t forget this method can also be used to share positives about the work. For example:

  • The question on Captain Smith’s reasons for using Native American names for landscape features required an exercise in historical imagination, as no historian knows the answers for sure. In this case the key is applying your research to come up with a reasonable suggestion.  This question was very well handled all round.

Modelling and Answer Sheets:  works well for shorter-answer questions with clear mark-schemes where students are building or repeating a particular skill.

One way we encourage students to respond to feedback is to self-assess their work.  In class I am often in a position to share answers from other students or to model answers using a visualiser.  Using remote learning at first made this seem impossible, as we cannot realistically set up “live” lessons for most students in years 7-10.  However I am now at the stage where I have adapted my strategies to help me deliver feedback in this way.

  • After reading through 5 or 6 pieces of work from a range of students I will have a sense of what stronger and weaker answers look like for this piece of work.
  • I then adapt the responses I have had to create annotated models of different levels of answer for students. In history we are practicing a lot of 4-mark explanation paragraphs.  I will therefore take one or two of these and show students what a 1-mark, 2-mark, 3-mark or 4-mark answer looks like, annotating each to explain why it received the marks it did.
  • I then ask students to assess their own work and note the theme which arises: for example, greater use of specific facts and data as evidence, or linking clearly back to the question.
  • Dialogue is developed when they send me their self-assessed work and I read through to ensure that they are broadly correct in their mark allocation and have identified a meaningful target. Again, for most students this will be all they need, but some will then clearly need individual help and support and I will work with them more closely.

For both these strategies I use my time to read students’ work carefully and ensure that they are on the right track.  My energies then go into planning strategies and interventions to support students’ learning moving forward.  I save a lot of time annotating individual pieces of work and repeating myself when there are common patterns to students’ mistakes and misconceptions.

 

Online Quizzes and Auto-Marked Assessments

There are now a lot of different tools and programmes that do this work for you.  I find the quiz function on Show My Homework to be perfectly useful.  By setting a quiz with simple multiple-choice answers I can ensure that the work is marked, students have multiple opportunities to improve their answers and gather a quick snapshot of how well the class has understood and learned the material.  Quizzes can be reused and I can target teaching at particular questions the class have struggled with in my next activity.

 

By using a combination of these strategies instead of marking each individual piece of work that students send, I hope to ensure that the principles of impactful assessment are maintained, whilst managing the workload generated by remote learning.

In choosing whether to mark work individually or to adopt one of these strategies I reflect on the following questions, normally when setting the work:

  • Is this work likely to show a consistent pattern of mistakes and misconceptions?
  • Will this feedback method give students the opportunity to respond to the feedback by developing their skills or improving their knowledge?
  • How will I know if the student has made effective use of my generalised feedback and understood how it applies to their work?

Version 1 of this blog was shared as we closed the school on March 20th.  Thank you to everyone who has contributed their experiences over the first two weeks of remote learning.  The blog is substantially the same, but I have been able to add some more suggestions and ideas based on these.  As many comments related to giving feedback, I have gathered some ideas about workload-friendly feedback strategies in a separate blog.

For an indeterminate amount of time, we are going to have to support students’ learning remotely as best we are able.  Were this a good way for them to learn we would, of course, do this far more as part of our normal practice.  The gap in achievement between PA students and those in school would also be much smaller.  However we know that remote learning cannot replace the classroom experience.  The dialogue, constant feedback that teachers get from reading faces and body language, circulating the room and asking questions are all missing or much-reduced.  We rely considerably more on students asking questions and effectively making their own “hinge” decisions, which we know many will struggle to do.  However research does give us some guidance as to how to make the best of this situation and some particular pitfalls to avoid over the coming weeks.  These are the principles I intend to follow in working with my classes:

 

 

  • The “Matthew Effect”

(Matthew 12.29:  “For to everyone who has, more will be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who does not have, even what he has will be taken away.”)

The Matthew Effect applies to lots of things in life and is best paraphrased as “the rich get richer and the poor get poorer”.  This is a particular concern of remote learning.  We know that some of our students will be diligent in logging on, completing the work and submitting it for feedback.  This may be from their own motivation, but in a lot of cases it will be because of the structures and support around them.  Some of our students will lack that support and drive; perhaps they have never had it, or they have parents working or struggling with sick relatives and so it is not available at this moment.  For those, the gap in learning may grow dramatically.  This in itself is a good reason to minimise new and overly challenging content delivery.  As a result I plan to:

  1. Maintain a careful track of students who are engaged with the learning and those who do not seem to be managing it. There may be little I can do at this stage to address it, but when students are back in school we can plan careful support and interventions for those who have fallen behind.
  2. Record live lessons so that students who are not available at that particular time have full access to the learning. Don’t forget some families are sharing computers or internet access so we cannot assume that all or students, even in Sixth Form will be available at “normal” lesson times.
  3. Ensure you update the central spreadsheet so that tutors can make efforts to reach out to families, by email or ‘phone where work is not happening. This will remind them that we’re still working and on hand to offer support (even remotely) and encourage them to engage with the work.  We know that children work less well when no-one is looking – it may help them to be reminded that we are looking and do care.

 

We are now operating a whole school approach to this which is fantastic and tutors are keeping in touch with students who are struggling.  One key tip is to set deadlines that support this – if you ask for work to be submitted on Wednesday or Thursday then you can update the tracking sheet on Friday.  Tutors can then start the week with calls on Monday and Tuesday and remain up-to-date.

 

  • Feedback

AfL is one of the most important things we do, still rates as the highest impact strategy in the EEF’s Teaching and Learning Toolkit.  But many of the tools we need to make this work are being stripped away: students won’t be in front of us to produce work, we cannot run question-and-answer sessions and we cannot chase missing “homework”.  However we can mark work which is sent to us and we can do our best to give all students useful feedback.  Therefore I have told my older students that I will:

  1. Use live marking and chat facilities on Google to engage with them whilst they are learning. When we know what the situation is with key workers I will publish a timetable of my availability so that they do know how they can get hold of me for question-and-answer sessions and interaction through documents if needed.  Don’t forget to share live learning with students who cannot be present when you can, recording audio sessions and sharing document.
  2. Design and create regular quizzes of short answer/multiple-choice questions for SMHW. These are easy to mark, will guide me on what work to set and give me a quick shapshot of engagement whenever I want.  They will also be useful homework activities for the future, so will reduce my workload when students do return.

For younger students and bigger classes the workload to deal with large quantities of written work submitted remotely is proving significant.  I have therefore put together a separate blog on key strategies to manage this.

 

  • Students will struggle to master new content.

Learning new content can be incredibly difficult for students. We all know they bring all sorts of misconceptions and preconceptions to their learning that we carefully plan for in lessons, and probe for in our questioning and discussions.   The power of their pre-existing ideas (even if erroneous) can distort new information leading to further misunderstanding.  With this in mind I intend to:

  1. Minimise the amount of new content I deliver to students remotely.
  2. Replan and rewrite resources with remote learning in mind wherever I do try to deliver material. I know that if I just “send out” the material I would have used in lessons it will lack all the explanation and clarify I would have offered.
  3. Carefully select which topics I deliver: even if out-of-order I know there are certain topics that students will be able to understand and which lead to fewer misconceptions than others.  I will therefore “pick” these out of the curriculum to deliver remotely and start planning how to knit together the bigger picture when students return.
  4. Add a range of instructional methods to my resources that students can access: g. carefully produce or select some text, identify a good video, look for a website that covers the material as well.  That way if they struggle to comprehend one way they can look to a range of sources.

 

  • The most effective independent study involves students reviewing and recalling material or practising skills.

 

This is the principle upon which we set homework and we have regularly commented on how much students have to learn for the new GCSEs.  Rather than too much new content I intend to:

  1. Focus on revision and retention of powerful knowledge (Key Stage 3) and material already covered (KS4 and 5).
  2. Use extensive knowledge testing and revision guidance to ensure that this is thoroughly embedded and that students have a strong mastery.
  3. To promote engagement give extension work that builds on this, with new reading, case studies and resources, in favour of brand new content. This will give students the chance to extend their thinking and build their expertise without creating and unbridgeable content “gap” with those struggling to work online.
  4. Produce and carefully model skills for students so that they can practice these at home. Some teachers are already well ahead of me in terms of producing and sharing short skills videos with their students as a form of modelling … now it is my goal to master this technology and start to deliver it to my students.  Again, these will also be an investment in future learning.

 

  • Supporting students with SEND

For students with SEND trying to work without teacher and TA support is a particular challenge. A significant number of our high need students struggle to manage homework independently and so use the support of homework club to complete “independent” study normally.  They are therefore likely to struggle with remote learning more than most. 

However there are some core strategies that will help them:

  1. Ensure tasks are clearly broken down.  If setting a project or a chunk of work at once ensure that they have a clear breakdown of tasks to complete.  Don’t set work for several lessons without breaking down what they should be achieving in each lesson.  We are asking that for years 7-10 work should be set for every lesson on SMHW.  So instead of setting a single piece of work for the next 4-5 lessons, post each lesson’s activities separately, even if you are not expecting submission until the whole project is completed.  You can do this in one sitting on SMHW with the work released remotely on the date you choose, so this does not require you as a teacher to log in every single time you would have had a lesson.
  2. Deploy command words carefully. Try to use consistent vocabulary and give clear models so that students know what they are aiming for.  Guide students very closely on the outcome:  should they answer all the questions? Should they do as many as they can in an hour? Should they spend x amount of time on each one and then send you the work even if unfinished?  Do not forget that they may take longer to complete the work than some students: in class we are there to support and the bell draws efforts to an end.  How will you support them to manage this at home?
  3. It is possible to target sub-groups with different tasks on SMHW but this is not necessarily something you will be able to manage easily if you have not done this before. However, you could attach additional resources or instructions for all students that direct them on actions to take “If you are struggling with this work…”.  It could be an alternative task or resource they can use, or a hint sheet to be opened if needed.
  4. Vocabulary lists – do not forget to share these wherever possible to support students with understanding the work and tasks you are setting. Don’t assume that because you posted one once they will remember to access it; far better to post it with every piece of work set or, if stored remotely (e.g. in your Google Classroom) to constantly remind students of its presence. 

 

  • Live lessons

For many students, especially in older years, teachers have been able to run live lessons and presentations using Google facilities.  If you are doing this please remember the following:

  1. All videos should be turned off (teacher and students) and the meeting should be recorded in case any later issues arise.
  2. Maintain professional language and behaviour throughout. If any students do not do this or are behaving inappropriately remove them from the meeting and alert their Head of Key Stage and your faculty leader who can contact them to explain the ground rules and ensure they can access learning appropriately.
  3. Record any live lessons for students who cannot attend (see above).

 

There is no way that we can pretend learning over the next few months will be anything like normal.  When the students return there will be gaps between groups of students like very little we have previously seen.  We will have to do a lot of careful thinking about how to deliver the rest of the curriculum and transfer all the powerful knowledge we would have been teaching students over the next few weeks to other points in the curriculum.  But the research does offer us some guidance that can help us do our best to meet our students’ needs.

 

As I plan work, I will be asking myself the following questions to help me refine the activities as best I can:

  • Will the students be able to master this material: what support would they have needed in class and have I adjusted for that as remote learning?
  • How will I know if the students who have tried this have struggled, even if they don’t directly tell me? How will I assess this remotely and encourage and motivate them if they have found it hard?
  • What is the plan to pick up on this with the students who do not access it? How will I support them on their return to school?

As we work over the next few weeks I intend to review my practice as I go and revise and edit this piece.  A lot of this is new to all of us.  At the moment this is new – we have only our intuition (honed by our experience) and the research to guide us.  But all research is context dependent … we know our students and are going to learn a lot more in coming weeks.  Please do share things you find to work well, or things you find not to work with me as we go, so that I can pool our collective wisdom. 

For an indeterminate amount of time, we are going to have to support students’ learning remotely as best we are able.  Were this a good way for them to learn we would, of course, do this far more as part of our normal practice.  The gap in achievement between PA students and those in school would also be much smaller.  However we know that remote learning cannot replace the classroom experience.  The dialogue, constant feedback that teachers get from reading faces and body language, circulating the room and asking questions are all missing or much-reduced.  We rely considerably more on students asking questions and effectively making their own “hinge” decisions, which we know many will struggle to do.  However research does give us some guidance as to how to make the best of this situation and some particular pitfalls to avoid over the coming weeks.  These are the principles I intend to follow in working with my classes:

 

 

  • The “Matthew Effect”

(Matthew 12.29:  “For to everyone who has, more will be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who does not have, even what he has will be taken away.”)

The Matthew Effect applies to lots of things in life and is best paraphrased as “the rich get richer and the poor get poorer”.  This is a particular concern of remote learning.  We know that some of our students will be diligent in logging on, completing the work and submitting it for feedback.  This may be from their own motivation, but in a lot of cases it will be because of the structures and support around them.  Some of our students will lack that support and drive; perhaps they have never had it, or they have parents working or struggling with sick relatives and so it is not available at this moment.  For those, the gap in learning may grow dramatically.  This in itself is a good reason to minimise new and overly challenging content delivery.  As a result I plan to:

  1. Maintain a careful track of students who are engaged with the learning and those who do not seem to be managing it. There may be little I can do at this stage to address it, but when students are back in school we can plan careful support and interventions for those who have fallen behind.
  2. Make efforts to reach out to families, by email or ‘phone where work is not happening. This will remind them that we’re still working and on hand to offer support (even remotely) and encourage them to engage with the work.  We know that children work less well when no-one is looking – it may help them to be reminded that we are looking and do care.

 

  • Feedback

AfL is one of the most important things we do, still rates as the highest impact strategy in the EEF’s Teaching and Learning Toolkit.  But many of the tools we need to make this work are being stripped away: students won’t be in front of us to produce work, we cannot run question-and-answer sessions and we cannot chase missing “homework”.  However we can mark work which is sent to us and we can do our best to give all students useful feedback.  Therefore I have told my students that I will:

  1. Use live marking and chat facilities on Google to engage with them whilst they are learning.  When we know what the situation is with key workers I will publish a timetable of my availability so that they do know how they can get hold of me for question-and-answer sessions and interaction through documents if needed.
  2. Do everything I can to encourage submission of work and give prompt feedback. They are lacking the live, “instant” feedback of the classroom but I have time and space to return work as quickly as possible to help support them.
  3. Post regular models of marked work with feedback on line: I can anonymise examples of work or produce my own so that those students who have not completed tasks or are struggling can still engage with models, corrections and common misconceptions I am seeing.
  4. Design and create regular quizzes of short answer/multiple-choice questions for SMHW. These are easy to mark, will guide me on what work to set and give me a quick shapshot of engagement whenever I want.  They will also be useful homework activities for the future, so will reduce my workload when students do return.

 

  • Students will struggle to master new content.

Learning new content can be incredibly difficult for students. We all know they bring all sorts of misconceptions and preconceptions to their learning that we carefully plan for in lessons, and probe for in our questioning and discussions.   The power of their pre-existing ideas (even if erroneous) can distort new information leading to further misunderstanding.  With this in mind I intend to:

  1. Minimise the amount of new content I deliver to students remotely.
  2. Replan and rewrite resources with remote learning in mind wherever I do try to deliver material. I know that if I just “send out” the material I would have used in lessons it will lack all the explanation and clarify I would have offered.
  3. Carefully select which topics I deliver: even if out-of-order I know there are certain topics that students will be able to understand and which lead to fewer misconceptions than others.  I will therefore “pick” these out of the curriculum to deliver remotely and start planning how to knit together the bigger picture when students return.
  4. Add a range of instructional methods to my resources that students can access: g. carefully produce or select some text, identify a good video, look for a website that covers the material as well.  That way if they struggle to comprehend one way they can look to a range of sources.

 

  • The most effective independent study involves students reviewing and recalling material or practising skills.

 

This is the principle upon which we set homework and we have regularly commented on how much students have to learn for the new GCSEs.  Rather than too much new content I intend to:

  1. Focus on revision and retention of powerful knowledge (Key Stage 3) and material already covered (KS4 and 5).
  2. Use extensive knowledge testing and revision guidance to ensure that this is thoroughly embedded and that students have a strong mastery.
  3. To promote engagement give extension work that builds on this, with new reading, case studies and resources, in favour of brand new content. This will give students the chance to extend their thinking and build their expertise without creating and unbridgeable content “gap” with those struggling to work online.
  4. Produce and carefully model skills for students so that they can practice these at home. Some teachers are already well ahead of me in terms of producing and sharing short skills videos with their students as a form of modelling … now it is my goal to master this technology and start to deliver it to my students.  Again, these will also be an investment in future learning.

 

There is no way that we can pretend learning over the next few months will be anything like normal.  When the students return there will be gaps between groups of students like very little we have previously seen.  We will have to do a lot of careful thinking about how to deliver the rest of the curriculum and transfer all the powerful knowledge we would have been teaching students over the next few weeks to other points in the curriculum.  But the research does offer us some guidance that can help us do our best to meet our students’ needs.

 

As I plan work, I will be asking myself the following questions to help me refine the activities as best I can:

  • Will the students be able to master this material: what support would they have needed in class and have I adjusted for that as remote learning?
  • How will I know if the students who have tried this have struggled, even if they don’t directly tell me? How will I assess this remotely and encourage and motivate them if they have found it hard?
  • What is the plan to pick up on this with the students who do not access it? How will I support them on their return to school?

As we work over the next few weeks I intend to review my practice as I go and revise and edit this piece.  A lot of this is new to all of us.  At the moment this is new – we have only our intuition (honed by our experience) and the research to guide us.  But all research is context dependent … we know our students and are going to learn a lot more in coming weeks.  Please do share things you find to work well, or things you find not to work with me as we go, so that I can pool our collective wisdom. 

In the first part of this blog “Reflecting on Homework: Getting it Wrong” (https://jmsreflect.blog/2019/12/01/reflecting-on-homework-getting-it-wrong/) I identified some key strategies I have tried over the years which have not worked to support most students.  These include:  tasks set to an arbitrary timetable rather than to meet learning needs, complicated open-ended tasks and flipped learning.

Considering the amount of work that can go into setting, chasing and marking homework this is a considerable waste of effort on my part and the students’!  However, with greater understanding of the research and insight into how students learn at home, I have been able to focus on improving the quality and impact of my homework.  In our team we now focus on the following things to help make homework effective:

  • Rehearsal of content: One of the most useful things students can do at home is revisit core content and commit it to long-term memory.  This reduces cognitive load in the classroom when applying material to new skills and contexts.  Giving students small, manageable amounts of content to learn, tasks that involve revisiting content (such as writing up the lesson in 5 bullet points) and regular quizzes can support their learning throughout the course.  We often set small multiple-choice quizzes as homework.  Using a site such as Show My Homework allows you to reuse quizzes regularly to ensure students are revisiting material throughout the course.  Short deadlines (a few days to a week) are ideal here, as they allow the student to review the work whilst it is still clear in their mind.  Giving them several attempts at the quiz allows them to try again if they have struggled and achieve success, rather than feel that they have “failed”.

 

  • Practice of Skills: Rehearsing specific skills and exam techniques can take a lot of time, and students can usefully do this at home.  However it is vital that they are clear on what they are aiming for so that they really are practicing valuable skills, not just practising “getting it wrong”!  Just because it is homework it is important not to forget the “I DO – WE DO – YOU DO” model.  Students at home need to work independently (“YOU DO”) and so before this they need skills clearly modelled, before working with the teacher in some practice examples in class.  Uploading the classroom resources and models to a shared drive which student can access from home gives them a first port of call for support, before they get stuck and need me.

 

  • Differentiated Tasks: At John Mason we do not use a “must/should/could” or “all/most/some” model.  Rather all students aim to achieve the same lesson objective, with different levels of structured support to help them achieve it.  The same philosophy can apply to homework with careful consideration of the extra support some students will need.   Partial solutions are a powerful tool to help students who are not yet ready to complete unstructured tasks independently.  I have not gone down the route of juggling different “homework groups” with different tasks set: instead I normally offer extension and support resources and use metacognitive strategies to reflect with students on making the right choice for them.  Most students want to do well and aim high and those who are not ready to operate without support, for whatever reason, can be encouraged towards it over time, rather than in a single task where they are making the decision on their own.  Some students may take a “lazy” choice at times, but we can discuss that later and in private – in the meanwhile, they are still doing some meaningful work.

 

  • Small regular tasks: there is no magic quantity of homework that best supports students’ learning but research suggests that if students are doing more than 60-90 minutes a night it starts to have diminishing returns.  In order to support students with committing content to memory, we have moved away from extended termly projects to small, regular tasks that see them revising and revisiting material on a regular cycle.  As we have seen that the vast majority of students tend to “save up” big projects and do them in one burst of effort we now break more complicated projects into smaller steps to allow us to monitor students’ progress and guide them throughout the project.

Of course, not every student completes their homework. Unfortunately, home and life circumstances mean that this remains a regular pattern for a small number of students, and an occasional issue for a larger number.  Some, especially early on in a course, but even in year 11, end up selecting the least useful approaches – putting the work off, completing it an unhelpful amount of time after the lesson, rushing it or even having to do it in detention.

However, the move away from flipped learning and big “high stakes” projects means that this does not create a situation in which students’ learning in class is damaged.  They can still access the lessons and be warmly welcomed without feeling that they are in “trouble” or that the poor decision about homework has fundamentally damaged either our relationship or their learning.  However the number of students making these choices is lower than it has ever been in my teaching experience.  With a clear sense of purpose, manageable tasks, accessible support and consistent follow-up most students understand the value of working at home.

As previously, these are the questions I reflect upon when planning a homework task:

  • Is the purpose of this task inherently clear or does it need further explanation from me?
  • What additional barriers will disadvantaged students face in completing this work at home? How have I acted to overcome these?
  • When students have forgotten what I just explained, how will they know what they are supposed to do for this piece of work and what the end product should look like?
  • What will the learning consequences be if the student does not complete the homework and how will we make up the deficit?
  • How will students who have been absent from the lesson complete this work, or what should they do instead?

For more on homework, try:

EEF Toolkit, (2016), ‘Homework (Secondary)’ https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/pdf/generate/?u=https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/pdf/toolkit/?id=155&t=Teaching%20and%20Learning%20Toolkit&e=155&s=

Whether or not homework benefits students’ learning has always been slightly less certain than strong advocates or detractors would have us believe.  The research on the impact of homework has always been less clear than would ideally be the case for making teaching decisions.  On balance, it seems that for older students, homework does support good educational outcomes.  However this does not make it true for every child.

Cowan and Hallam (1999)’s ‘Model of Homework’ although now slightly dated, beautifully shows the myriad of factors that can affect the outcome of setting homework.  As well as the task itself and how it is presented, there is the culture, consistency and expectations of the school community.  Beyond this, the student’s own characteristics such as motivation and self-belief can greatly affect their engagement with the task.  Furthermore there are many factors in their home such as support, resources and the distractions of the environment that can make the outcome less than positive.

Considering the following possibility:  a student is faced with a homework task in a subject they do not enjoy.  The task is a complicated and challenging one, of the sort relished by high-attaining student.  But this student does not know where to get started.  The task relies on remembering key information from the lesson, which they have not recalled.  It requires completing some further research, but they have little idea what to type into Google to generate useful information.  They half-heartedly try coping some material from Wikipedia, but know that they got told off for this previously and have no idea how to turn the material into the “own words”.  At home, there is little support.  Perhaps no-one else can understand the task, or their carers are busy with long shifts or younger siblings.  Anxiety builds but they are too nervous to go and explain to the teacher that they weren’t listening well enough in the lesson and now don’t know what to do for the homework.  On the morning it is due, they sleep little and wake up feeling terrible.  They’re tired, have a headache and are unusually listless.  It is a tremendous relief when their carer agrees to phone the school and confirm that they will not be in that day, as they are too sick.

Sadly this is not a far-fetched example, but a recurring reality for some student, a problem that grows as they advance through their schooling and the pressure grows more intense.  However it is increasingly clear that there are a number of factors that are in the school’s control which can make this outcome more likely, and reduce possible positive impacts of homework.  These include:

 

Tasks without a clear learning purpose:

When I started teaching, I barely thought about homework at all.  There was a whole school timetable so I had to set homework on a particular lesson each fortnight.  Whilst I put a lot of time and thought into planning my lessons, homework was always an afterthought, some basic research for the next lesson or a fairly meaningless summary task “Write a letter from King Henry II explaining why he was sorry for killing Becket.” Some children would duly turn up with beautifully tea-stained pieces of paper for me to display and praise whilst others would spend a breaktime with me painfully scrawling out a couple of lines that basically involved rewriting the title and scrawling “King Henry” at the bottom.  There was little purpose, little sophisticated learning and a lot of detentions.  It was not good.  One key issue was that the tasks lacked purpose and were set hurriedly and with little thought. Instead of being able to set tasks when they were meaningful to the learning, I was constrained by a strict timetable and so the pressure to set something was greater than the pressure to ensure that the work was of a high quality.

 

Complicated Open-Ended Tasks:

When I became the subject lead, I was able to take control of the timetable and my mission became to make homework more meaningful.  The stream of detentions I was picking up from teachers in a very small department (2.5 fte), nearly all for homework, convinced me that weekly or fortnightly homeworks were unmanageable.  There was literally no way to chase down the last missed homework before the next was missed and so sanctions were piling up for some students.  I adjusted the approach to more substantive project-based work. This had a number of advantages, not least in that it gave 6 weeks to chase down and extract work from those who had not submitted anything.  It also meant that there was no regular scramble to invent a “task” but that we could use a series of projects that were carefully designed to be meaningful.  However the most disadvantaged students struggled most.  Completing the tasks successfully involved working on the project slowly and steadily over 6 weeks to conduct research and complete the final piece.  I never looked into the matter too closely, but I strongly doubt that more than 10% of students did anything like this.  Instead the experience at home was 5 weeks of nothing and then a frantic weekend of hours’ of work pulling together a project as quickly as possible.  At parents’ evening we would discuss better strategies and offer support sessions and more guidance about breaking the projects down.  But these would only work for those who approached the task in a certain way; and not one I have ever mastered myself.

The difficulty with open-ended homework tasks was that, whilst they could be both challenging and meaningful, they required a lot of skills and characteristics that most students were still developing. They needed effective study habits, including the ability to plan ahead and self-regulate. They required a level of time management that many adults find difficult.  They demanded a wide range of resources both to research and produce, to which not all students had easy access.  The most successful probably received considerably support from home either in preparing the project, understanding the criteria or even just in the forms of prompts and encouragement to do some work before the deadline loomed.

 

Flipped Learning:

In another attempt to make homework more meaningful I have also dabbled with “flipped learning”.  This approach never really became core to my practice because the problems seemed so insurmountable from early on.  In principle the idea seemed sensible: by having student pre-read or pre-prepare for my lessons as they do for some A-level and university seminars, they would come in with knowledge and information I could shape more efficiently than ever.  Their learning would advance dramatically and they would get the absolute maximum out of lesson times.  Assuming, of course, that my exposition could easily be replaced with an alternative resource.  And that my questioning, and continuous AfL to assess when students were ready to move on was unnecessary in teaching new material.  And that all students would complete the work to the same desired point of understanding so that I could pick up the lesson at exactly the right point.

In reality, of course, the disadvantaged students were those least likely and least able to complete the work or to secure support when they tried.  They therefore turned up to the lesson with an even greater gap between their starting point and that of their peers, plus a teacher who was more than a little irate at the problems created by them not doing the work set.

In each of these approaches good intent was thwarted by the complicated reality of the many, many factors that shape students’ response to homework.  From trying these different approaches and by continuing to return to the research, I have slowly come to a formulaic but effective approach to homework.  Key things that make homework effective are:

  • Small regular tasks
  • Rehearsal of content and practice of skills
  • A strong culture of purposeful work
  • Differentiated tasks and especially careful consideration of the needs of students with SEND
  • Clear models and support with the work

I shall explore these in  Part 2 of this blog:  Reflecting on … Homework: Getting it Right.

In the meanwhile, here are some questions that help me reflect on whether a task is likely to go wrong before I set it:

  • Is the purpose of this task inherently clear or does it need further explanation from me?
  • What additional barriers will disadvantaged students face in completing this work at home? How have I acted to overcome these?
  • When students have forgotten what I just explained, how will they know what they are supposed to do for this piece of work and what the end product should look like?
  • What will the learning consequences be if the student does not complete the homework and how will we make up the deficit?
  • How will students who have been absent from the lesson complete this work, or what should they do instead?

Like over 80% of teachers, I believe that boys and girls should be able to perform equally in any subject and should have equal opportunities so to do.  I don’t use the “gender” column of my class data sheets to adjust expectations.  And, of course, I offer equal support opportunities to both genders.  So gender gaps have very little to do with me or my classroom practice.  And I can relax and breathe easy.  Perhaps there are other colleagues whose attitudes are less modern and who bear a greater share of responsibility for persistent gender gaps in attainment.  Though that it hard to believe as most overtly echo my own views.  Far more likely it is the children themselves and the attitudes, behaviours and expectations they bring to the classroom.  The way they are programmed by wider “society” into certain gender roles and behavioural patterns that affect their educational outcomes.  And the gender gap exists throughout the education system.  So that must be it … it is society’s problem, nothing to do with me and I can relax.

The only downside to reading “Boys Don’t Try?  Rethinking Masculinity in Schools” by Matt Pinkett and Mark Roberts is that it challenges such assumptions.  This can be discomfiting.  To learn that the 80% of teachers who say boys and girls should perform equally in any subject then went on in interviews to show gender oriented attitudes about writing, behaviour, oracy and mathematics gave pause.  I began to think about staffroom comments about “boy-heavy” classes and “not your typical” boy/girl (e.g. those making subject choices that did not fit gender stereotypes).  Of course this may just be a drop in an ocean, or behind closed doors and so it is still possible to think it may not matter.  Not much.

But then you’re challenged to think about all the little choices you make as a teacher, all the little ways in which gender expectations trump individuals; some encouraged by those around and above us.  As I continued reading, I made a list of my own sins in this regard and some of the questions it raised:

  • Using gender to plan lesson seating and as a tool for behaviour management, and thus having different expectations of students’ behaviour before I even meet them. Could this then lead to different reactions for the same behaviour based on gender?
  • Being surprised at the number of boys when walking into a (voluntary) revision class. Did I express this, even inadvertently, and reinforce the expectation that these sessions were not “for” boys?
  • Expecting far more boys in a leadership detention. Did this change the nature and tone of my conversations with students; more of a shrug at the boys’ tales of bad behaviour, greater disappointment and time spent reflecting with the girls?
  • Turning a blind eye to gender-reinforcing “interactions” and “banter”, especially as students get older. Is an ironic eye-roll really enough to challenge the reinforcement of gender norms and the low-level harassment or incursion of their personal space that some students have to endure in the school environment?
  • Adjusting expectations of a “boy-heavy” class both in terms of behaviour and outcome. How far am I therefore driving behaviour and attainment differences?

The list goes on, but the point is that, when I really thought about it, and as I paid close attention to my own practice in subsequent weeks, I began to notice gender-oriented comments and behaviours my own practice and that of those around me.

Of course, the question remains how far this matters.  Our students have had a whole lifetime of gender-oriented behaviour training from society, peers and the media.  Is my expectation that there will be more boys in this week’s after school detention really going to do any significant damage?  Especially as it is a prediction that I could bet my life savings will prove to be true, without much fear of going homeless.

But the sheer prevalence of such conditioning is one of the reasons our modelling and expectations do carry such power.  If boys live in a world where academic success is feminine and damage to their esteem is fixed by asserting masculinity their behavioural choices can be individually rational but destructive over the long-term.  If tests, rows, anxiety, pressure and stress all create a drive to “masculine” behaviours of messing around, not revising or working hard, and getting into trouble then every time we reinforce the underlying expectations we are reinforcing these behaviours.  And, in a time of increasing anxiety in all our students, boys and girls, when we reinforce behaviour and study norms in our students, we perpetuate and increase the anxiety levels of those who feel that they don’t, can’t or don’t want to fit in.  Which is probably all of them.

Each time we, as teachers, model, perpetuate or reinforce these behaviours it probably is just a drop in a vast ocean.  But then the first 5 minutes of, say, my lesson next Tuesday period 5 is just a drop in the ocean of their learning.  I still intend to plan it and make it the best I can.

Because by developing ourselves, and consciously, actively challenging these expectations we as teachers have the power to be more than a drop in the ocean and to promote positive change.  Of course, habits are hard to change and I have already made slips.  But we can learn from these and reflect on how to get better.

And of course my list is just the behaviours I have noticed in myself.  One of the most powerful feedback tools for teachers is that of peer observation. A  peer can help you probe further into your gender practices and expectations.  They can focus their observation on interactions it is very hard to track ourselves whilst teaching.  So my next challenge to myself is to ask a colleague to use our observation time to really probe gender interactions in my classroom.  I want to know:

  • Do my questions fall equally on boys and girls? Not just in terms of number but in terms of challenge level of the questions?
  • How long do I give each gender to answer, think and reflect? Do I move on more quickly or leap in with the correct answer when boys get questions “wrong”?
  • Is my behaviour management consistent – do I notice and address off-task behaviours when they appear in boys and girls?
  • Is my tone and voice adjusted by gender? Am I communicating different expectations with non-verbal cues such as body language?

I suspect some hard answers but they will be useful because, as Pinkett and Roberts argue so convincingly.  This really matters.

As further reading, of course I recommend “Boys Don’t Try? Rethinking Masculinity in Schools” by Matt Pinkett and Mark Roberts.  Now available in our CPD library.

Amanda Spielman (2018):  “Too many teachers and leaders have not been trained to think deeply about what they want their pupils to learn and how they are going to teach it.”

When I became Head of History, over a decade ago, our curriculum offer was quite typical and largely outside of my hands.  We followed a conventional Key Stage 3 covering 1066-1945, in line with the National Curriculum directives, and did a range of units at Key Sates 4 and 5 that were intensively focused on modern world history.  In these courses we included as much overlap as possible in order to, we believed, give our students the best chance of excelling in their final exams.

The freedom offered in recent years is both empowering and exhilarating, but not something that it was easy to instantly know what to do with.  At first, I tinkered with the original national curriculum material, cautiously chose a wider range of A-level and GCSE options as directed by the new specifications and, to be fair, invested a considerable energy into mastering these new topics.  However in the last couple of years I have found myself in a position to think much more carefully about what students should be learning in their time at John Mason – what is the “powerful knowledge” I want them to take away, and why.  In developing my thinking in this area, a number of principle ideas from educational research have been tremendously helpful.

Key idea 1:  Learning is about knowledge in long term memory and builds in schemas of connected ideas.    

Too often in the past I have considered units of work, and even lessons in isolation, considering their “quality” based on performance-related outcomes (rather than learning outcomes) such as pupil enjoyment.  Furthermore I have often failed to be explicit in helping my students to integrate new knowledge to an integrated whole.  The fact that it is easier to teach a course the second time around is a truism that I now relate to the connectedness of knowledge in my own head and my tendency to forward-plan rather than plan from the end.  In light of this I am changing my curriculum planning model and instead of thinking forward from units or even tasks that I like or want students to experience, I am thinking about the key knowledge they need to understand.  In this planning, the knowledge organiser is becoming an indispensable tool.  They are available to download (and time is not infinite!), but wherever possible I am trying to make my own, or at least edit the ones I download, to ensure that I am carefully thinking about the knowledge we are delivering and how it connects in a meaningful way.

Key idea 2:  Students’ response to teaching will be affected by the knowledge they already have, the mindset they bring to the class or subject and, more than anything else, their peer group. 

However, no matter how carefully designed the knowledge organiser and related teaching activities, each student is going to connect the ideas in their own, unique, brain in their own, unique, way.  If in doubt they will look to their peers for guidance which can be helpful, but can also end up building and escalating misconceptions.  The student with the greatest understanding is not necessarily going to be the one the others listen to.    The implications of this for teaching, learning and curriculum planning are vast.  However, one or two key things that I need to think about at the curriculum planning stage strike very strongly.  The first, perhaps, is the need to consider our students’ context very carefully when planning curriculum delivery.  Not knowing doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll ask – and certainly not that they’ll ask the teacher.  They can and will attach ideas to what they do know and can create powerful and long-lasting misconceptions in this process.  It is therefore imperative that I consider their backgrounds and access to relevant contextual information very carefully when planning learning – that vital cultural capital or lack thereof that can make so much difference.  It is important to allow time to explore pre-conceptions.  Educational visits and other experiences that bring the learning to life can take on a new significance, for children who are unable to visualise the content we are describing.  And, vitally, I must share the curriculum map with students (the knowledge organiser comes in handy again here) in order to help them piece together the individual units of learning in a meaningful way.

Key idea 3:  Teaching needs to be responsive, and interactive and the need to build a dialogue about learning includes assessment.

Even with the most careful planning in the world I cannot entirely change idea 2 and my students will build schemas that are unique to them.  But the better I can understand what they are thinking and how they are assimilating information the better able I am to shape this and tackle misconceptions.  Again the implications here are many and varied and this links closely to the nature of questioning in the classroom, which I have discussed a lot elsewhere.  However, for me, the biggest implications for “bigger picture” curriculum planning have been for assessment.  I’ve put a lot of thought into how and when to assess, how to create assessments that really give me insight into what students have taken from the learning and how to “break away” from the rigid adherence to exam questions when a different assessment model would offer better insight.  It is also the key rationale behind our dialogic marking policy, the careful emphasis on minimising staff workload and allowing freedom to respond to what the students have understood.  A driving principle behind our approach to formative assessment is to identify and address misconceptions, in whatever form of response is most appropriate.

Key idea 4:  Memory is strengthened by revisiting material and retrieval practice and learning is maximised when the cognitive load is optimised.

Understanding of how memory works has been one of the most important research areas in developing my teaching and planning.   The old model of delivering blocks of material and then revising these at the end of the course (or expecting students to revise the material) was my instinctive approach for many years.   Now when curriculum planning I try to carefully consider the principles of interleaving, retrieval practice and cognitive load.  This is not the place to detail research into memory at length, but the key implications I have taken are this:

  1. Students will not remember all the “powerful knowledge” I want them to on the first exposure and so I need to work out how to revisit material over the lifespan of a course. This needs to be carefully planned to ensure that the information itself does not lose internal coherence (e.g. in history, say, a chronological structure).
  2. Regular, spaced retrieval practice including low-stakes testing will support students’ retention of the core material they have learned. The time for this needs to be worked into my curriculum plan.  I have made the decision to allocate lesson time to this as I am just not convinced that it will be done well at home by all students, thus creating a chasm in their understanding.
  3. The more information they have readily available in long-term memory the less the “cognitive load” is of absorbing new material and more complicated concepts. By revisiting concepts after spaced retrieval practice I maximise the likelihood of students being able to access such material.  Therefore I need to plan this into my curriculum delivery model.

Key idea 5:  Students of all ages and attainment levels can benefit from metacognition.

Too often in the past I have focused on the end product as the end of the learning,  My assessment of students’ success has been based on a summative piece of work and I have used my professional judgement to try and unpick where and how things went wrong and to plan interventions.  I am only just beginning to understand the power of metacognition to help students understand, plan and monitor their own learning.  I am blogging about my experiences with this in other posts.  However I am already experiencing the implications for my curriculum planning.  The need to leave time and space and identify key points for me to model my own approaches and thinking has further developed my planning around the delivery of new concepts and assessments.  The construction of learning models that support an iterative process where students are able to experience learning in repeated iterations, wherein they reflect on their past learning strategies and develop these is vital.  We are going to be doing a lot more work on this in the next year but already it is feeding into my planning models and we are developing resources to support this at key points throughout the learning in all key stages.

With all this to consider, there is a lot to take on.  Different teams and subjects are at different places and there is work to do in developing these ideas in practice.  Developing and improving a curriculum is not a single or an overnight job but one I am working on all the time.  It will never be perfect.  However, with these research ideas in mind, I feel more confident than ever I have that I know the right questions to ask of our curriculum and that I am identifying ways to improve it that will have real impact on students’ learning at John Mason School.

Questions to help reflect on curriculum design:

  • How have you designed your curriculum and what is the rationale behind this?
  • How do your curriculum choices reflect the context of your pupils?
  • How did you choose what to teach and when?
  • How are subject skills developed throughout the curriculum?
  • How do you identify gaps in knowledge and how do you assess skills?
  • What works well and what needs to be developed within your curriculum?

After many, many years of just operating instinctively, I have been thinking a lot about questioning over the last few years.  I have been reading a lot about questioning.  I’ve read about strategies, types of questioning and pauses.  I’ve blogged as my thinking has developed; about distributing questions equitably, or using pauses at different points in the questioning sequence to build students’ responses.  I have learned about hinge questioning and how to construct  multiple-choice questions that really probe students’ thinking.   I’ve been introduced to technology that does an amazing job at supporting quiet students to respond and participate, or at randomising my question selection.

I have learned a lot.  To summarise some key thoughts in a few bullet points, I have learned that:

  1. Questioning is very important – perhaps one of the most powerful tools we have as classroom teachers.
  2. Performance and learning are not the same – so questioning needs to be subtle and strategic.
  3. There are many different types of questioning, with many different purposes.
  4. Students respond to questioning in very different ways.
  5. There is a LOT to learn about questioning, and it is very complicated.

Some of the advice I’ve heard and, indeed, repeated to teachers in the past now makes me cringe.  To take one example: whole class questioning.  I find this a hugely powerful tool, at the right time and in the right place.  If routines are established it can be an efficient way to poll the class.  However the routines are vital – the equipment being available, the speed with which it can be accessed.  If not, chaos quickly ensues.  Of course students copy each others’ answers; so I’m looking for more than just what is written on the whiteboard.  I’m gauging reaction time and looking to see who is stuck, looking around at their peers or quickly changing their answer to conform with the class.  It matters whether this is a hinge moment, or an opinion poll or a quick plenary.  It matters whether the act of correcting their answer is the learning I desire or whether I really need to know how many students actually know the information … in which case perhaps I should be considering a quick (private, low-stakes) written quiz.  Thus to simply tell teachers to “try whole class questioning” is remarkably simplistic and probably not going to work without much greater support and guidance.  And yet it happens.  A lot.

One of my roles is to support our early career teachers, who increasingly come from a variety of routes into teaching, with many different levels and types of training.  “Questioning” is a recurring development point, frequently raised by reflective teachers themselves who are always looking to improve the quality and value of their classroom interactions.  It is a hard one to tackle: there are so many things to get right, and so many which can go wrong. There is a lot of reading out there and much great advice, but it can be too specific, or else act like a “menu” of strategies.  It is not always clear what to pick.

With a focus on metacognition in our school this year, I have been thinking a lot more about my own thinking and about how and why I make decisions as a teacher.  To support our early careers teachers I have mapped out this questioning flow diagram that tries to capture some of the decisions I make on a day-to-day basis.  My key thinking boils down to:

  1.  WHY AM I ASKING THE CLASS QUESTIONS?
  2. WHAT DOES USEFUL INFORMATION LOOK LIKE HERE?

This is not meant to be a comprehensive overview of questioning.  It links to pieces that explore the issue with far more subtlety.  It leaves off some big ideas in questioning (e.g. hinge questions) as I find them to be a little complicated when struggling with questioning, although immensely powerful when well planned and because I really wanted it to be a single page for easy reference.  Every time I look at it I tweak it a little more, or question whether I have included or excluded the right things.  Several colleagues have suggested tweaks which have been included here (with thanks to Lucy Dasgupta and Chris Davies).

However my early career colleagues this year do say they have found it helpful as a starting point and so I am sharing it here.  Any constructive suggestions would be appreciated and any colleagues who have their own similar maps and would be willing to share, I’d love to take a look.

https://docs.google.com/document/d/1APF3e4BfzDPp-ntNcCkhg2GNwNrGuuqkfH7KfaQeAU8/edit?usp=sharing

Questions that help me to reflect when planning questioning:

  1. Why am I asking the class questions?
  2. Should more students be involved in this questioning sequence/dialogue?
  3. Is this questioning strategy time-efficient for my major goal?
  4. What would this look like if it worked brilliantly?  Where should I go for help with that specific strategy or vision?