There are no shortcuts or golden tickets. Get teaching right first. [Sir John Dunford]
Education is not just for the elite. It is for everyone regardless of the circumstances into which they are born. In order to ensure students are every background get the same opportunities as everyone else, teachers have to pay meticulous attention to disadvantaged students for it’s those students who stand to gain the most from effective teaching and learning.
‘Get teaching right’ or ‘quality first teaching’ gets mentioned a lot when talking about ‘closing the gap’ between disadvantaged students and their peers but what does this actually mean? Saying these things repeatedly is not overly useful – it doesn’t encourage teachers to change their teaching habits or reflect on their practice. Should teachers be doing things differently for disadvantaged students in lessons day to day? Probably not, but disadvantaged students should be at the top of a teachers thought process when teaching as it’s these students who stand to gain the most from teaching that increases subject knowledge and provides lots of opportunities to bring that information to mind.
What does it mean to be disadvantaged?
Dr Nicholls has a great insight into disadvantaged students here. He talks about the need to disrupt the loop of unequal outcomes for disadvantaged students and has come up with a list (this does not assume all disadvantaged students are affected by these things) that highlights some of the key factors that may identify a young person as disadvantaged…
Another significant factor that relates to learning is that disadvantaged students tend to arrive at secondary school (and primary school) with a lower number of words in their vocabulary and a distinct lack of cultural knowledge (compared to their peers) which restricts their understanding and delays their progress. Joe Kirby makes a great argument for scientific based curriculum design here that would certainly help close the knowledge gap for disadvantaged students.
What can teachers do day to day?
Routines. A lack of routine can disrupt the start of a lesson, waste time handing out books, lead to confusion and a general misunderstanding of expectations in a classroom, all of which will affect learning for students. Consider:
- How will students enter your classroom and what will they need to do upon being seated? For example what if the expectation was that students had 30 seconds to enter and get seated and then immediately completed a short quiz of 4 or 5 questions that tested their knowledge of lesson content from last week, last month, last term and last year? The accumulative effect of this interleaved approach on learning could increase a students knowledge over time whilst providing a smooth start to the lesson that focuses on learning from the outset.
- Also consider your routines/expectations for:
- getting students to be silent.
- TRY: ‘3,2,1, eye contact’ and explain to students that once you get to 1 all students should have eye contact with you. This is a great way of getting students attention. Be persistent, habits don’t form over night.
- questioning and how students should respond [see below].
- handing out books / resources – what’s the most time efficient way to do this? Are students trained in this so that it becomes automatic? Every second counts!
- circulating the room whilst students are working? Do you check in on disadvantaged students first?
- working environment during a task – what is the default noise level? Purposeful, directed talk amongst students is useful for developing understanding but when this is not part of the task do students need to talk? A noisy classroom makes it difficult to concentrate for long periods of time.
- getting students to be silent.
Directed questioning. No reasonable person would expect a teacher to know every disadvantaged student that they teach (especially with large cohorts) so use your annotated seating plan.
- Don’t be afraid to have your seating plan in your hand whilst questioning and use it to ensure disadvantaged students get questioned regularly. I’ve seen teachers use this strategy in my own school to great effect.
- Use the no opt out strategy from TLAC – don’t allow any students (let alone disadvantaged to simply say ‘I don’t know.’ Give them wait time, let them look over their notes before attempting answer. Circle back to them to ensure they have understood.
- Use ‘no hands up’ when questioning. This blog from the Learning Scientists highlights the negative affect ‘raising hands’ can have on student performance… Asking students to raise their hand to signal their achievement (when they knew an answer) highlights differences in performance between students, making it more visible. This can lead to students in lower social classes, or with lower familiarity with a task, to perform even worse than they would have.
Frequent quizzing. As already stated this is a great routine for getting students into a class and settled whilst also benefitting their learning. As Joe Kirby suggests in his blog, we have over 100 years of scientific studies that frequent testing is the best way to disrupt the curve of forgetting. The best thing about low stakes quizzing is that teachers don’t need to grade, track or spend hours marking them. They can be self-marked by students as teachers explain the answers and knowledge gaps can be addressed immediately.
- TRY: For the next six weeks instead of your planned starters try quizzing students at the beginning of each lesson using the ‘last week, last month, last term’ approach. What do you notice about their learning? What if students were quizzed at the beginning of every lesson, every day, every term? Would that help balance out the knowledge deficit?
Modelling. When teaching it’s important to model what great performance looks like in your subject and even more important that you model the process (meta-cognition) of how to approach problems / tasks. The EEF see meta-cognition as one of the most impactful learning strategies that especially helps disadvantaged students.
Feedback. This is another strategy which the EEF deems to have high impact on student performance. The most important thing about feedback is that students do something with, ideally acting on the teachers feedback to improve their work and consolidate or extend their understanding. How can teachers be more meticulous with their feedback for disadvantaged students?
- Marking little and often rather than a whole set of books in one go. I’m not a fan of ‘marking PP books first’ as this suggests that other student books are less important or may receive feedback that is of less quality then the books marked first – which is wrong.
- Try whole class feedback that addresses common misconceptions.
- When conducting a feedback lesson have your annotated seating plan in your hand and visit the disadvantaged students frequently to ensure they have understood and are acting upon your feedback.
Read. Encourage students to read lots. Make it part of your lessons and teaching rather than an ‘add on’. As Katie Ashford describes, a good reading lesson should follow these principles…
- In any lesson, reading should primarily be for comprehension. Pupils need to understand what they are reading, and so the teacher should pause at appropriate moments and check for understanding.
- Reading is an opportunity to improve pupils’ fluency and ability to read with expression. Teachers should therefore model good reading and ask pupils to read aloud (year 7s love this, so get them into that habit then- it’s harder as you go up the school, in my experience).
- Reading is an excellent opportunity to improve pupils’ vocabulary. Teachers should pause to explain the meaning of key words, and may want to give further examples of new words used in context.
TRY: As part of explaining a new concept give students a a passage of text to read that explains the concept (perhaps with a diagram if appropriate) to compliment your explanation. This could be read as a class or individually. If this habit is formed over a time it could help increase student vocabulary, fluency and understanding whilst enabling them to read outside of their normal experience (e.g. scientific articles, classical literature, e.t.c.).
The thing that does make a difference, not just for disadvantaged students but for all students is effective teaching and learning. The challenge for teachers is ensuring that disadvantaged students get overexposed to this every lesson as it is those students who stand to gain the most. Be bold. Be courageous. Have relentlessly high expectations of all students. Form effective habits and don’t leave anything to chance. We only get one chance to help all students access the opportunities they all deserve.
“To build a better world we need to replace the patchwork of lucky breaks and arbitrary advantages today that determine success–the fortunate birth dates and the happy accidents of history–with a society that provides opportunities for all.” [Malcolm Gladwell]
Having used knowledge organisers with students for almost two years now, it’s always a great starting point when planning for a new specification of GCSE. Inspired by Joe Kirby’s post, knowledge organisers seek to…
Specify subject knowledge in meticulous detail.
I’ve written before about knowledge organisers (read more here).
In planning for the new GCSE Computer Science specification I’ve created a number of knowledge organisers (making use of the OCR specification booklet). Feel free to download, use, share, edit, e.t.c.
Paper 1 – Computer systems
Paper 2 – Computational thinking, programming & algorithms
*some of the topics have been combined into one knowledge organiser.
Good feedback causes thinking.
If feedback is one of the most important factors in improving student work and outcomes.
If the modelling of the feedback process enables young people to develop their own self-regulation of improving work.
How does a school implement a whole school feedback policy that takes into account the many nuances of each subject?
Feedback is important. We feedback to students daily in every lesson in a variety of different ways. Part of my role this year has been to draft a feedback policy for the school so that students consistently get effective feedback across the curriculum.
Before venturing any further it’s worth pausing for a moment to consider the difference between marking and feedback (something that is often taken for granted).
Marking is very much about checking a piece of work against a set criteria. If the criteria is clear and concise this is something students should do themselves before submitting a piece of work. Providing the criteria is clear then the act of marking should open up the gaps in learning. It’s the feedback that follows to the student that can communicate how well a student has met the criteria and initiative improvements to the work. The purpose of feedback? It has to be to close the learning gaps.
In thinking about and working towards effective feedback it’s worth considering what research on the matter suggests – remembering that the research is just start of the conversation.
One of my favourite thinkers on the subject is Dylan Wiliam. From his work with Paul Black called ‘Inside the black box’ they suggested that in order for students to truly benefit from feedback students needed to know three key things:
I’ve tried to sum this up visually in the diagram below:
This is where modelling becomes a pivotal part of the feedback loop. In order for students to achieve the required ‘good performance’ it needs to be modelled to them. This could be through the use of work from previous students or live modelling of current work as students are undertaking the task. Simply providing students with a rubric is not always useful as they tend to be vague and abstract. Showing students an example of good performance and then de-constructing it with them to highlight the success criteria seems a far more valuable use of time.
Once students have a more secure understanding of what it is they are aiming for and have made an attempt, they next need to know how far away from the desired good performance they are and what they need to do in order to close this gap – the feedback.
Dylan Wiliam also suggests training students to carry out a number of steps before submitting work (which starts the wheels in motion for self-regulation):I’ve tried this multiple times and have started to embed this into my practice, insisting students check their work against the criteria, check for spelling errors, e.t.c. before submitting the work. I have also in some cases handed work back to students to carry out these checks sending a clear message to students that they must take some responsibility in the feedback process.
John Hattie’s meta analysis into effective teaching and more precisely feedback is nicely summed up (in another of @LearningSpy’s slides) here:
The key idea to take away here is that feedback is really powerful but its impact has the potential to be both positive and negative. So how do we keep the impact positive? How do we train students and motivate them to actively seek feedback themselves and eventually self-regulate part or all of the process?
Taking into account some of the ideas from the research and then also spending time talking to teachers in my school who consistently get good outcomes, I drafted (with the help of @Teach_Physics) success criteria for effective feedback (a starting point at least) that could be used to shape a whole feedback policy.
These criteria can be applied to both verbal and written feedback. As we began to test the criteria by going through our feedback strategies we quickly found that it is difficult to argue that each is not important for closing the learning gap between current and great performance. One aspect of the criteria that we discussed at length was should a feedback strategy be created with observers in mind and be made explicitly visible to them. The answer is probably no. Feedback strategies should concern themselves with improving student awareness of great performance and closing the gap between current and great performance. Ofsted don’t dictate how feedback is given or the frequency of it, therefore as long as a feedback policy contains examples of the strategies being employed by teachers, the emphasis can be placed upon the observer to look at the policy beforehand so they know what to look for. This is an important step forward as it stops teachers creating redundant feedback strategies that have the sole purpose of pleasing an observer rather than closing the learning gap.
Drafting a whole school feedback policy.
In drafting a whole school feedback policy it’s important to take into account a few things:
- The principles of effective feedback (see success criteria) are probably the same across different curriculum areas.
- The feedback strategies employed by teachers across different curriculum areas are probably not the same.
For example if we take verbal feedback given during a PE lesson on a practical skill vs. written feedback given to a written piece of work in English, the principles of effective feedback are probably the same but the strategy to achieve this is different:
- It’s possible to challenge the student in both cases to think about and produce excellent work through verbal (probably easier with verbal feedback in a practical situation as the teacher can model it immediately) and written feedback.
- Feedback can be close to the learning – in the moment for the student in PE. The challenge for the English teacher is the turnaround of marking/feedback but there are strategies to help achieve this (code-marking for example).
- Ensuring no student opts out of the feedback (especially vulnerable groups like pupil premium) is challenging and there may be issues beyond the teachers control that impact on this, but that doesn’t mean to say we should not aspire to every student acting on feedback to improve their work and close the gap to great performance.
- Giving students time to act on feedback is paramount to effective feedback otherwise whats the point? In both situations in this example it’s possible to give students time and space to act on the feedback they receive. It may require some planning in terms of building time into a SoW, but this is a really important part of the process.
- Is it manageable for teachers? This is another challenge, but not an impossible one if the teachers (in this example) are prepared to experiment with different strategies (especially when dealing with written feedback).
This academic year we’ve moved our policy on feedback forward by setting the criteria for effective feedback (and we’re open for this to change as new ideas emerge) and then asking curriculum areas to use feedback strategies that hit the criteria and work for their subjects – Autonomy | Consistency.
Adapting a form I first read about in @HuntingEnglish’s post about whole school feedback, curriculum teams have been asked to create a policy using the template below:
This will be a working document that is quality assured and tested throughout the academic year through regular work evaluations and lesson observations. The policy also includes an appendix for each curriculum team which they will update with examples of the feedback policy in action so that observers have a clear idea of what they should before going into any classrooms. It makes supportive accountability easier as the curriculum teams have come up with their own strategies (that meet the criteria).
Here’s the first draft of the Science teams policy:
Feedback matters – lets embed it into our practice rather then bolt it on.
@LearningSpy archive on feedback – http://www.learningspy.co.uk/tag/feedback/
@HuntingEnglish – Whole school feedback – http://www.huntingenglish.com/2015/05/16/whole-school-feedback-policy/
@headguruteacher – Making feedback count – http://headguruteacher.com/2012/11/10/mak-feedback-count-close-the-gap/
@danbrinton – Fast feedback – https://belmontteach.wordpress.com/2013/12/06/fast-feedback-4/
@teachlikeachampion – Forget the rubric – use worked examples instead – http://teachlikeachampion.com/blog/dylan-wiliam-advises-forget-rubric-use-work-samples-instead/
If learning happens over a period of weeks, months and years.
Is lesson planing always carried out with student learning in mind?
Recently I have led a series of talks/sessions/workshops on the challenges of leading teaching & learning across a school. What has struck me as somewhat odd is the number of people that hear the phrase ‘teaching & learning’ but only really register the ‘teaching’ part. Teaching without any understanding of how people learn or what learning is, conjures up thoughts of the blind leading the blind. What does your school focus on? Is their balance between teaching and learning with links between the two?After reading books like ‘Why students don’t like school’ and ‘the hidden lives of learners’ I can’t help but think about learning whenever I’m planning a lesson or reflecting upon my teaching. This has led me to reflect further on lesson planning and a few questions that teachers could consider, to focus the planning of a lesson to maximise learning:
1. What is the desired learning outcome?
2. What do I want students to think about at different points during the lesson?
3. Will the activity make them think hard about the desired content or distract them from it?
4. How will I link new knowledge to students existing knowledge base?
5. How will I model the learning outcome?
What I think about when I plan a lesson.
I always go back to a definition of learning by Professor Coe that has stuck with me. and stays at the forefront of my mind…
So I think about the one thing I want my students to learn and then design a sequence that will enable them to think hard about the knowledge and apply / practice the desired skills. If an activity does not contribute to the learning then it doesn’t form part of the lesson.
The spectrum below (created by Shaun Allison) expertly depicts what teachers should be aiming for – the struggle zone. Learning should be difficult enough that students grapple with the content but not so difficult that it flies straight over their heads or so easy that it doesn’t require any real thought at all.What is the quickest path to the learning?
On a recent trip to Malaysia (so recent I’m currently sat in my wife’s parents house in Malaysia writing this post) me and my wife decided to fly direct from London to Kuala Lumpur, with a 3 month old in tow it seemed like a sensible idea. Our objective was to get to Malaysia as quickly as possible with the least amount of hassle and distraction. Now we could have flown from London to Amsterdam, wait a few hours flown to Dubai, wait several hours before flying onto Kuala Lumpur which would have used up almost a whole day on travelling. This option might have saved us a little money but would have almost certainly used up lots of time and energy. This scenario made me think about lessons and the quickest possible route to learning.
I’ve observed a number of lessons where the objective has been really clear on the learning that the teacher wants the students to engage with, but the students have been held back by a flurry of activities with questionable links to the desired learning. This leads me to think that as teachers, if there is a direct route to the learning we should take it. When planning a lesson, if the objective is for students to learn X why should they embark upon an array of activities that eventually lead them to X or miss the destination altogether? We sometimes get bogged down in planning lessons to fill time using multiple activities (that sometimes take us off course) to buffer the learning rather than getting straight to the learning.
Consider the two diagrams below – which one best represents your lessons?
When planning a lesson it’s important to keep in mind the learning and design activities that will enable students to think hard about the desired learning by spending time in the struggle zone and allow time for students to practice the application of desired knowledge / skills.
Habits of highly effective lesson planning.This blog post by Pepe Mccrea outlines habits of highly effective planning. Below are the 7 habits with a few key extracts from Pepe’s blog.
1. Start with the end in mind.
Excessive clarity – The clearer you are about where you want them to get, the better you’ll be able to help them get there.
2. Take the shortest path.
Don’t waste time designing overly complex learning experiences. What is the least I need to say to explain this concept to my students? What is the least amount of information I need to give them before they can get started?
3. Assess reliably and efficiently.
Hinge questioning Asking the whole class to: answer a multi-choice question using hand-signals; or show their thinking using mini-whiteboards.
Exit ticketing Giving students 3 questions to answer on a sheet of paper which they have to hand to you as they walk out the door.
4. Build learning that lasts.
Plan for thinking As Daniel Willingham so eloquently puts it, ‘learning is the residue of thought’. Plan what you want your students to think.
Anchor thinking David Ausubel tells us that ‘what students already know is the most important factor in what they can learn’. Design activities to help your students tap into what they know and make connections with what they’re going to learn about.
5. Anticipate the unexpected.
Increase your impact further by looking for points in your lesson where students are likely to struggle, make mistakes or develop misconceptions.
6. Move towards inter-lesson planning.
The relationship between lessons is just as important as what happens within them.
7. Plan better together.
Sharing your planning and practice not only brings fresh eyes to old problems and helps us articulate what we’re doing and why, but it also spreads our understanding of what works (and what doesn’t) amongst our profession.
We often have lots of great ideas for lesson activities but must consider the execution of them and the effect they will have on the desired learning. When planning a lesson consider:
– working backwards from where you want students to end up.
– what you want students to think about at different points in the lesson and how your planned activities will foster that thinking.
– the quickest path to the learning – don’t waste time with lots of activities that just keep students busy – focus on tasks that enable students to grapple with knowledge / skills in the ‘struggle zone.’
Always in the pursuit of doing better for the students I teach, two posts have made me reflect deeply on my practice this week.
In the post Joe describes how he specifies the subject knowledge required for a given topic in meticulous detail. This is useful for a few reasons:
– it clarifies for the teacher exactly what the students need to know and enables more precise planning.
– it serves as a good benchmark for students at the beginning of a topic. Seeing the required knowledge laid out in front of you on a side of A4 is extremely powerful and will enable students to highlight what they are already know.
– when it comes to revision, students have real clarity about the knowledge they need to know.
During my relatively short time as a teacher, when starting a new topic I may have shared a vague outline of what the topic will involve but never to the detail suggested in Joe’s post. I feel like a trick has been missed here, which is why I plan to experiment with knowledge organisers from this point forward.
Andy’s post puts into practice Joe’s knowledge organiser for a GCSE English class. Andy also describes in depth his approach to a series of lessons leading up to an exam. Lessons follow a similar routine (although the stages of each lesson might involve different delivery styles / mediums):
1) Begin with a ‘memory platform‘ where they will be tested on key knowledge/quotes from the knowledge organisers using a wide range of quizzing methods. Students need to be fluent in this knowledge and to do this they will need to cover it repeatedly. They will be encouraged to elaborate on these points of knowledge, exploring their wider significance.
2) Revise and extend a key area. OMAM and AIC – the green lessons – will be taught side-by-side, whereas the poems will be revised in pairs.
3) Lessons will end with 15 minutes of deliberate writing practice where students will be expected to hone the finer parts of their analytical style by writing a paragraph at A/A* standard – this is a top set – based on the content of the lesson (modelling and scaffolding will feature here too).
When planning revision sessions (and in a broader sense planning a curriculum structure) it’s worth thinking about the following:
If learning happens when we think really hard about something and we remember what we think about, then engaging students in activities, practices and routines that encourage this is probably a sensible course to take.
GCSE Computing revision.
As a result of reading the aforementioned posts and adopting the collective thinking of Professor Coe and Daniel Willingham, I have developed a revision structure for a GCSE Computing class I teach. It follows this cycle:
1. Start with a memory platform, usually a multiple choice quiz (these are deliberately rigourous with any one of the three answers a potential correct answer, forcing students to study the different answers and think hard about theirs).
2. Knowledge organisers. I have only just started using these as prompted by Joe and Any’s blog posts earlier this week. But I intend to use them at the beginning of teaching a topic as well as revision. It’s a collection of documents that will be referred to throughout the entire course. in revision sessions the knowledge organiser is an opportunity to see an overview of the knowledge and pick out the things they can remember and the things that they need to revisit first.
3. Key subject specific vocabulary. Students are then given time to recall key terms from memory for a particular topic. This is followed up by the TLAC technique ‘Check or change’ where students check their definitions against correct definitions and make changes if needed.
4. Flash cards. Students are then given time to create a set of flash cards based upon the key subject specific vocabulary. Flash cards have previously been identified as a more effective revision technique. I’m working on the premise that if students are comfortable with the subject specific vocabulary then they should be able to at the very least attempt every question for that topic (obviously they need to understand the context of each question, that comes next). Feedback from students has been really positive as the motivation to use the flash cards appears to be higher than to write out copious notes.
5. Past paper questions. Finally students attempt past paper questions, using the subject specific vocabulary in different contexts. I have also experimented with working through long answer questions with students using the following routine:
- students attempt a question in exam conditions
- teacher works through the answer with the class using students answers to prompt discussion and supportive critique
- students attempt the same question again in exam conditions
- teacher works through answer again with the help of students to model an answer
- a similar question (that requires the same knowledge but uses a different context) is then used as a starter in the next lesson.
It’s hard to evaluate how much of an impact the above strategy will have on exam performance but…
… from a teaching perspective, revision sessions certainly seem more focused with a greater clarity of what students need to know for each topic which lends itself to more precise deliberate practice.
… students have a much clearer picture of what they need to know and the work they are producing is of better quality and a greater depth. Students are more inquisitive and motivated to increase their knowledge.
… lessons have a greater sense of urgency to them.
RESOURCE: GCSE Computing knowledge organisers.
If learning is invisible.
If learning occurs over long periods of time.
If teaching is led by an individuals’ beliefs and values.
If effective teaching is hard to agree on and to a large extent determined by outcomes (but not entirely).
Is it right to persist with inferring judgments on teachers and lessons?
It seems we’re trying desperately to measure something that is very difficult to quantify (if not impossible). “Weighing a pig doesn’t make it fatter” a colleague of mine said recently when discussing the grading of lessons. Does the grading of lessons actually detract from genuine, deliberate improvement? This made me consider an over arching question – what is the purpose of lesson observations? Are they to judge or are they to offer support and help develop teachers? Is it possible to do both? In my experience I’m not sure that it is.
The problems with grading lessons.
The main problem with trying to judge a lesson is that it’s hard to agree on exactly what great teaching is and in the moment of an observation it’s impossible to know what the learning gains for the students will be as a result of that lesson. If learning is invisible and it happens over long periods of time then perhaps all we can see in lessons is performance rather than learning and as Professor Coe points out, this generates lots of poor proxies for learning that we quite often use to grade lessons and assume learning is taking place.
Despite a shared vision of improving the outcomes for young people, because the act of teaching is based upon peoples own beliefs and values (which will differ from person to person) it’s very difficult to agree on ‘good practice,’ and quite often our own confirmation bias takes over when attempting to observe it. As a result you could say it’s unlikely that multiple observers will arrive at the same grade, which brings into question the reliability of grading individual lessons. This was evident in the MET project…
Questions around the reliability of lesson observations are further explored here…
If we consider Professor Coe’s ‘Poor proxies for learning’ is it possible to truly know whether a lesson is likely to produce good outcomes from a 20 minute observation? It’s easier to check for evidence of a schools ‘list of non-negotiables’ in lessons – have books been marked, is homework being set, learning objectives, e.t.c. This is made possible by their prescriptive nature. But can observers accurately predict outcomes based on this and the conditions in the classroom? We know that a calm, quiet classroom does not necessarily indicate that learning is taking place, however it quite often gets used as a proxy for learning during observations. Which leads to this question…How many lessons that are judged to be ‘outstanding’ produce truly outstanding outcomes?
The day the soldiers stop bringing you their problems is the day you stopped leading them. They have either lost confidence that you can help them or concluded that you do not care. Either case is a failure of leadership.
As a senior leader how well do you know your teachers? How often are you in and out of lessons?
As a senior leader when was the last time a member of staff came to you for help regarding a tough class? In a thriving school that genuinely prioritises the improvement of teaching, shouldn’t this be fairly common?
As a senior leader, how much of your time is spent in lessons speaking to students about their learning, getting a feel for typicality of teaching across the school? This should be a daily ritual, part of your core business.
As a senior leader how much time have you spent with the teachers who consistently get great results? What have you learnt from them? Has this been shared?
Teachers are people, not robots that can be pre-programmed. They have beliefs and values related to teaching and education. A teacher on a full timetable is an extremely busy person carrying a reasonable amount of stress with them on a daily basis, mainly because they care so much about their students. Lesson observations should serve to support, challenge and develop teachers but quite often in a graded system the added stress of ‘being observed’ leads to a culture of fear. This is probably caused by:
- a lack of clarity for teachers around what observers are looking for in lessons
- a lack of clarity for observers around what they should be looking for in lessons
- subjectivity of observers and teachers
- what will happen next should a teachers lesson not be ‘up to scratch.’
If teaching is the most important factor in achieving great outcomes for young people, do we really spend enough time trying to genuinely improve it? Does a graded system help create a culture of improvement or distract from it? Does a graded system inspire teachers to improve or does it burden them with unnecessary stress? Does a graded system sharpen the focus of improvement or blur it beyond recognition?
It’s very difficult (if not impossible) to agree on a list of prescriptive teaching strategies (and Ofsted don’t presbive any methods of teaching) but it’s easier to agree on elements of great teaching. When I think about elements of great teaching I tend to look no further than Shaun Allison’s fantastic model.
Whenever I revisit this model I find it difficult to tweak or change it. When I share it with colleagues it just seems to make sense to both them and me. How teachers go about implementing the above model into their lessons / series of lessons should be down to them. What this model looks like in a series of drama lessons it probably different to what it may look like in a series of maths lessons (however that does not mean that are things that cannot be learnt from observing both). Teachers should be trusted as the professionals that they are to do what’s best for the students.
The danger of moving away from a graded lesson observation system for some schools is that it could invite mediocrity, as most graded systems bring with them a very prescriptive set of teaching strategies. In some cases where schools are in need of improvement putting in a prescriptive structure can be the first step towards improvement – tighten up for good, loosen for outstanding. Tightening up will only take you so far. Grading lessons can show a direction of travel for improving teaching (as Dr Dan Nicholls explains here) but it also comes with excess baggage which can slow down the speed of travel. Perhaps a simple ‘secure’ or ‘developing’ may provided a stepping stone to merging the two schools of thought on grading lessons, e.g. “From the evidence collected in the lesson the questioning observed appears secure because… Further evidence from talking to the students suggests…” However this opens the flood gates of subjectivity, which can be curbed with prescription and eventually takes back to square one.
What is the alternative?
What if instead of trying to judge the teachers / lessons we adopted an approach where observers go into lessons to learn. This could take the form of observers going into lessons to collate evidence for teachers (perhaps under the headings of Shaun’s expert teaching model above) with a view of feeding this evidence back to them, similar to a lesson study approach. Build a picture of what appears to happening in the classroom (feeding the pig) rather than making a judgement (weighing the pig). Evidence could come from questioning students about their learning, looking at student work, observing how students / teacher interact with each other as well as assessment data provided by the teacher.
What if observers gave live feedback to teachers based on their observations during the lesson instead of waiting hours, days or even weeks to feedback. Here’s an example. A lesson is underway and the observer is watching as the teacher delivers an explanation of a key concept using a subject specific key term. After the explanation the observer spends a few minutes questioning the students to gauge their understanding of the task they have been given and the key term being used by the teacher. Out of the several students that have been questioned by the observer they are all able to explain the task (what they have to do) but none are unable to articulate what the key term means. Using live feedback (rather than waiting for the follow up feedback session) the observer is able to give feedback to the teacher straight away who is then able to help move the students forward with their understanding of the key term. In the follow up meeting the teacher explains that they had been using the key term for a few lessons and despite explaining the meaning in the first lesson they had failed to continually reiterate the meaning of the key term through the series of lessons. Together the observer and teacher are able to collaboratively come up with a simple strategy of asking students to repeat back definitions of key terms during lessons and the teacher was set the target to make this habit across all their lessons. This also served as a timely reminder for the observer to continue to develop across their lessons. At a department team meeting later that week the teacher is able to feedback their experience to colleagues.
Collated evidence + clear collaborative target = genuine improvement(?).
Not only did this experience serve as a timely reminder for the observers own teaching but the other teacher involved had a small step to implement and experience some immediate success. The observer followed this up with another supportive observation where they the teachers new habit developing in real time and it allowed the observer to collate further evidence of what was happening in the classroom, for the teacher. How might this process had gone if I had graded the lesson? I think the point here is that there is no need to grade the lesson at all – making the simple more complex for no additional gain. All the teacher needed to know was what was happening in the lesson – what did the observer notice that perhaps the teacher did not? What are the next steps to improve? In hindsight (my confirmation bias may be at warp factor 10 here), but I think a grade being given in the example explained above could have diluted the feedback and perhaps stifled the motivation for improvement.
Collating evidence in the classroom.
Chris Moyse has already started some great work on evidence based lesson observations – read about it here.
The idea revolves around going into lessons to learn and help teachers see things that they may not notice during a lesson – very similar to the lesson study approach. I’ve started to develop a document (in its first draft – feedback welcome) to collate this adopting the principles of great teaching from Shaun Allison’s model.
Draft observation form [PDF version]
Judging the quality of teaching.
How do we judge the quality of teaching if lessons are not graded? We really get to know our teachers. If quality teaching is the most important factor in determining great outcomes then SLT and middle leaders should spend more time in classrooms. What if members of SLT blocked out an hour a day to get into lessons and provide live feedback to teachers in the teams they line manage (if the one thing that would move a school forward is the quality of teaching, is an hour a day manageable? Probably). This could also be used to ensure non-negotiables are being met reducing the need for additional book scrutinies, learning walks, e.t.c. This could be on a continuous cycle that creates an open door culture and encourages teachers to ask for help rather than shy away from it. This would help the school have much clearer picture of the typicality of teaching. Judging the quality of teaching would be qualitative, as Shaun Allison explains…
If we really need to assign numbers to teachers, based on a 30 minute observation, to know about the quality of their teaching, then we are doing something really wrong. We still know our teachers inside out – we know who the really great ones are, and who are the ones who need that extra support with a particular aspect of their work. Without the need for numbers. We know this by looking at their student outcomes, as well as by looking at and discussing their lessons, the feedback that they give to students and the work that their students produce during lessons and at home. We know our staff.
In order to genuinely improve teaching we need to stay focused on the main thing – the quality of teaching. We need to focus on how it can be improved and not allow anything to dilute or blur supportive feedback. We need to remember that teachers are people and that our best chance of improving the outcomes of students is to support and challenge colleagues through a trusted relationship built upon collaboration and a relentless desire to learn.
- Grading individual lessons is difficult, unreliable and time consuming which often results in little actual improvement.
- Grading individual lessons does not always speak to the person, diluting and blurring the focus of improvement.
- How can lesson observations be used to improve teaching (feeding the pig rather than weighing it)?
- Live feedback during observations – why wait for a feedback session if it could help students in the moment.
- Collation of a variety of evidence including student voice, assessment data, work in books, e.t.c. to give teachers further insight into their lessons.
- Continuity – SLT take joint ownership of improving the quality of teaching with middle leaders through daily time spent in classrooms. Time spent here could reduce the need for additional learning walks.
More questions have been asked than answered in this post but I hope it has provided some questions to consider when attempting to improve the quality of teaching through observing lessons. I intend to follow this post up with a more strategic plan of how the points in this post would manifest themselves in school (the logistics) and potentially replace a graded observation system.
In my last post on leading whole school CPD for teaching staff I described my plan for the year and my thinking behind it. Now that the first term is over it seems like a good time to reflect on how the schools vision for genuinely continual, personalised CPD is taking shape.
At my school CPD sessions are scheduled every other Wednesday afternoon throughout the whole year. During term 1 these sessions were given over to departments. This has been really popular with staff and has enabled departments to recap and embed expectations whilst sharing great practice. In preparation for this department heads were asked to submit a plan for the sessions (brief summary of what would be covered in each session). This was really useful for me as I was able to see at a glance what departments were working on and also start to connect the dots across the school – linking up departments that were focusing on similar things.
Outside of the Wednesday afternoon sessions being run in departments I now had term 1 to set up and embed optional CPD activities for staff, something that had not happened before in school. Before I outline some of the optional activities, first let me explain my thinking behind this approach.
In John Kotter’s book ‘Accelerate’ he puts forward an idea of how great organisations stay creative and innovative as they grow in size. When most start up companies begin they don’t tend to have a hierarchical structure, instead they work in small groups that collaborate and innovate with flow. This is in essence one of the driving forces behind successful start up companies – their ability to work in a way that is free from hierarchical structures which encourages and enables innovation and creativity. Ironically as these companies grow into large organisations they tend to develop a more structured hierarchy and lose the spark of creativity they once had when they were a small start up. Kotter argues that the truly great organisations run what he calls a dual-operating system – they have a structural hierarchy to ensure organisational accountability but they also deliberately create opportunities for groups of people to get together and collaborate outside of this structure.
This is what I wanted to create with optional CPD activities – opportunities for people (regardless of job role) to get together and collaborate on things they are interested in. Making these groups optional means you get the right people on the bus at the beginning which increases the chances of success. Success is teachers talking about teaching. Success is collaborating in meaningful ways which empowers people to take action and improve because they feel passionately about doing so.
With Kotter’s dual operating system in mind I went about setting up a few optional CPD activities over the course of the first term…
15 minute forums.
Over the course of the first term we have held three 15 minute forums on Friday lunch times. Each session is lead by a member of teaching staff and attendance is completely optional. These sessions serve as a great opportunity for colleagues to share ideas and discuss them in more detail. The worry is always ‘will anyone turn up?!’ Thankfully numbers have been good with sessions ranging from 15-20 colleagues in attendance. Sessions this term have included:
- Positive relationships with staff and students.
- Effective mind-mapping techniques for revision.
- Learning dialogue.
What has been really pleasing is that the sessions are not necessarily about someone giving you a ‘silver bullet’ on how to do something. The theme that has evolved is that staff bring something they are working on, explain their thinking and any impact it has before others from the group share their experiences or thoughts on how a strategy could be improved or implemented more widely.
Another relatively easy activity to set up. I choose the book ‘The hidden lives of learners’ by Graham Nuthall to start of with (after the first cycle I will be asking staff to submit book options and then vote on a range of books). I sent an email out to all staff advertising the activity and set a limit of 10 places. Within a couple of days the places were filled, books were given out and the ball was rolling. Towards the end of term 2 we will meet to discuss the book and present back to the staff body during a morning teacher briefing on what we found out.
‘Bright spot’ learning walks.
No grades no forms. The purpose of these learning walks is to find great practice, those bright spots that exist somewhere in every school. I conducted one in our Science department recently where I managed to take pictures of several great resources and bits of student work. These then go into a presentation which can be used for a teacher briefing. During the teacher briefing you display the images and ask colleagues to explain more about the context of what was going on in the lesson and how the resource / strategy helped. Longer term I would like to create more of an ‘open door’ culture across the school and involve staff in searching out the bright spots for themselves.
I’m not sure if it was over-ambitious and just stupid to organise a TeachMeet for the penultimate evening of an 8 week term, but I did and it offered another opportunity for staff to get involved. Just over 100 heroic teachers from different schools (across multiple phases) showed up for an evening of having their thinking challenged whilst also being inspired and thanked for their hard work. The theme of the evening was about understanding what works rather than just being bombarded with 1000s of ‘quick wins.’ TeachMeets are a great opportunity for expanding your thinking, developing ideas and networking with great people outside of your immediate day to day surroundings. Last weeks event was brilliantly captured by David Vignolli (a visual artist from London).
Now that these activities have been set up it’s my role to ensure they continue (for as long as they are useful to people). My hope is that these additional activities provide staff with opportunities to engage and develop in ways which suit them. The one size fits all approach to CPD is dead. To make great teaching a typicality across a school, staff must be given meaningful opportunities to develop and feel supported in doing so. Investing effectively in staff will ultimately lead to better experiences for the students which is what all of this is about after all – the students.