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]
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.’
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.
This post aims to collate news coverage and blog posts about the recently published Sutton trust report into what makes great teaching.
- Sutton Trust report PDF
- Summary of Sutton Trust report
- Professor Coe’s presentation – What makes great teaching?
- Durham lecture: Improving eduction. By Prof Coe
- YouTube playlist of Prof Coe speaking at ResearchED conference.
- 10 things teachers should know from the research. By Lee Elliot Major
- What makes great teaching. By Daisy Christodoulou
- Who needs the sutton trust when you have Mr Clarke. By Shaun Allison
- This much I know about… what makes great teaching. By John Tomsett
- Much about what we believe about teaching is wrong. By @websofsubstance
- Myth-busting. By Shaun Alison.
- What makes great teaching and the role of technology. By Jose Picardo
- What makes great teaching – expert views. By Guardian teacher blog
- 7 things that don’t work in the classroom. By World Economic Forum
- The problem with praise. By Richard Bailey.
- Great teaching leads to student progress. By Stephen Cavadino
- What makes great teaching. By Huntington School T&L blog.
- The Sutton Trust report – Great teaching? By Donal O’Mahony.
- In search of praise in PE. By @ImSporticus.
- Our checklist for great teaching – How does it fit with the Sutton Trust report? By John Smith.
- My lessons from America – Reflections on Sutton Trust teaching summit. By Tom Sherrington
In the news
- Education study finds in favour of traditional teaching styles – The Guardian
- The seven deadly sins of teaching – TES
- Teachers warned that praise can make pupils complacent – The Independent
- Lavish praise from teachers does not help pupils – BBC
- Traditional teaching best, modern popular styles harmful – BREITBART
- Teachers told praise can hamper pupils learning – The Scotsman
- Why praising to the skies clouds the issue – TES
On Thursday 22nd May I presented some ideas at #TMCOOP about how to raise attainment at KS4. Below is a summary of my presentation.
Raising attainment at KS4.
I’ve noticed in my relatively short time of being a teacher that one of the overwhelmingly strongest indicators of how well a student achieves is effort. This may sound obvious. It is. Angela Duckworth discovered this in her research on GRIT (persistant effort towards a long term goal). If we want to do well at something that’s difficult it will require a huge amount of effort. How often do students not realise this until it is too late… “I wish I’d put more effort into revising.” When I look back over the past few years and analyse why some students have performed well at KS4 and some didn’t, the main differentiator is effort.
During last two terms I have attempted to build an ‘ethic of excellence’ in my classroom. I want all students to aspire to achieve the very top grades and I want them to know it will take a huge amount effort. I also want them to know that I will match their effort by supporting them through rigorous marking and feedback. Students aren’t always the best at following instructions from adults but they can be extremely good at mimicking behaviours.
An ethic of excellence.
Having read Ron Berger’s remarkable book ‘An Ethic of Excellence’ I was motivated to get my students working their socks off. In the book Berger talks about how he spends a lot of time ensuring that the work he asks his students to do is as close to a ‘real life’ as possible. He also discusses how he built a culture in his classroom whereby students only received one of two grades for their work – ‘Excellent’ or ‘Not finished yet.’ What a powerful system. I decided to give it a try with a GCSE class that were about to start a 10 week coursework project. Target grades ranged from A to E.
Do target grades have an adverse effect on effort? If a student is targeted a D/E grade, is it possible that they might see that as an opportunity to adjust their effort to reflect the low target, i.e. not try very hard. To test this hypothesis I started by setting a default expectation of all students in the class: A*. Was I confident that all students would achieve this? Realistically, probably not as there are many factors out of my control (attendance being one of them). But I was confident that this strategy would help everyone achieve or exceed their target grade (something that I hadn’t managed to do in the past).
Talent isn’t born.
I spent sometime explaining to students about the David Beckham’s and Jonny Wilkinson’s of this world and how much effort they put into practising. At the beginning of most lessons we would watch a short clip that actively demonstrated how high levels of effort matched with deliberate practice can lead to very impressive results. I found the work of Daniel Coyle (and his book ‘The Talent Code’) particularly helpful in shaping my thinking around this. In his book, Coyle explains how he spent almost two years scouring the world researching groups of talented people – from teenage Brazilian football players to young musical prodigies. A recurring theme was shared amongst all these successful groups. Lots of effort coupled with deliberate practice that was guided by a master coach.
Students were beginning to understand that the more effort they put in, the more they asked for my advice, the more they thought about their work the better the chance they had at achieving an A*.
This is where the effort manifested itself in the classroom. I introduced Berger’s idea of grading work as either ‘Excellent’ or ‘Not finished yet.’ Berger describes the art of re-drafting brilliantly in the video ‘Austin’s butterfly’ which is about a young boy who is asked to draw a butterfly by copying a photograph. You can see the difference in quality from the first attempt to the final attempt.
I attempted to build a culture in the classroom where it was typicality that all students would re-draft their work. Students were asked to re-draft their work several times which often led to a small incremental increase in marks between drafts but a huge difference by the time the final draft was submitted. Students also learnt to take a bit more pride in their work which appeared to come about because they had put so much effort into the redrafting that when it came time to submit a final copy they wanted it to be as close to perfect as possible.
Feedback – no grades.
The re-drafting was helped along by precise feedback in which I gave no grades. Instead I opted to simply tell students how many marks they were away from an A*. I then broke the mark scheme down into very small specific chunks which when added up would give full marks. This helped me move away from phrases like “Explain more” and enabled me to give really precise feedback to students. If a student was 15 marks from an A* they were able to tangibly see where they could add those marks to their work. With a potential A* on the line they were happy to continue to re-draft.
I’d like to say a class full of A* grades but that was not the case. However all students did either achieve or exceed their target grade with no student scoring below a C and four students securing an A*. It wasn’t just the grades that pleased me but also the students attitudes towards their work. In class they were more focused and keen to give me work to mark. The students were proud of what they had achieved and I was extremely proud of them.
What I have described in this post is by no means an exact science and I’m certainly not telling you to change what you’re doing, but this worked for these students.
And remember… “Don’t be upset with the results you didn’t get from the work you didn’t do.” I think this applies to us all.
GCSE Computing revision materials.
This is a work in progress. This post will be updated regularly over the next few weeks to cover the OCR GCSE Computing syllabus. The resources can be easily adapted if needed. Feedback welcome!
1. Computer Systems
Self-reflection[PDF] [.DOC] | Chunked revision booklet [PDF] [.PPT] | Multiple choice questions [PDF]
4. Data representation
Talent isn’t born. It’s made.
In Daniel Coyle’s book ‘The Talent Code’ he travels the world to seek out groups of very successful people and in an attempt to discover why they are so successful. Through his observations of multiple different groups from musicians to football players he noticed one recurring trend – deep practice. In fact he has created an equation that summarises the elements needed to make progress and succeed at something. It looks like this…
Ignition or primal cues relates to the motivation a person has to be successful in the first place. As a teacher I believe it’s part of my job to talk to students about what motivates them to succeed. Some students are able to easily articulate this. whereas some will need some help finding the reason why they need to be successful. Either way I need to support the students I teach in understanding their ignition to succeed.
Continual deep practice is about increasing the amount of myelin in the brain*. Have a look at this great interactive guide to Myelin on Daniel Coyle’s website. Myelin is…
Myelin is a lipid and protein sheath-like material that forms an insulating cover that surrounds and protects nerve fibres.
The general idea is that the more myelin you have insulating your nerve fibres, the faster impulses (or information) can travel between nerve cells. Some scientists believe that myelin can be increased with regular deliberate practice. It’s similar to bandwidth in the speed of an internet connection. The more bandwidth you have the faster the transfer of data. The more practice you put in, the more the myelin wraps around the nerve fibre increasing the bandwidth (the diagram below shows this in a bit more detail). It’s worth noting that this works both ways and needs to be maintained with regular practice.
Daniel Coyle uses the example of Brazilian soccer players to explain deep practice in action. From an early age they play a game called Futsal and they continue to play it into their teenage years. Futsal is played on smaller court with a smaller ball which means that players will touch the ball more often than playing 11 a side on a full size pitch. This is deep practice. It’s quality controlled by a master coach (someone with expert knowledge of the game / subject) who intervenes with striking impact to ensure learning is meaningful. The video below examines more examples of where deep practice has produced successful outcomes.
How does this apply to revision?
If we want students to be successful in exams then they need to practice – sounds simple enough, but is not entirely true. If we want students to be successful they have to fine tune their practice so that it is deep, deliberate and regular in order to build up a thicker insulation of myelin. What follows are few strategies that I am currently trialling to achieve this.
1) Regular self assessment with input from the teacher.
It’s important to let students assess their own strengths and weaknesses when it comes to a topic to revise. Teachers are the master coaches described in ‘The Talent Code.’ We have to know our students well and track their learning and use this information to intervene with self assessments so that students know what they are actually good at and areas that they need to improve. The key to good revision (I believe) is to focus more time on the weaker areas (being deliberate) rather than spending lots of time revisiting knowledge/skills that a student is already competent in. Below is an example of a self-assessment I have used with students. The black ‘X’ represents the student response. The green Y’s represent my response based upon prior testing and my knowledge of the students competencies through questioning and classwork. If I have agreed with the students response I have not added an additional symbol.
The grid provides a clarity. Students get validation for what they think they already know or an opportunity to discuss area for improvements. It also helps students to focus in on the weaker areas and thus provides a starting point for revision.
2) Chunking information.
Once students have self assessed their strengths and weaknesses and they have been agreed, they can then begin revising required knowledge. In order to not overload the students working memory I have created a resource that chunks the information down in smaller sub-topics (see the list on the self reflection diagram above). Each sub topic has a series of questions that students answer in an open book environment. Example answers to these sections are released to students once they have attempted to answer them. They also have access to past paper exam questions and answers. Students are free to work through this revision pack using the self assessment as a rudder to guide them towards topics that will require more attention.
3) Regular rigorous multiple choice tests.
The ‘chunked’ revision materials are sync with a multiple choice test. I have created the tests using Joe Kirby’s brilliant posts on designing rigorous multiple choice tests (Post 1 | Post 2). I’ve attempted to increase rigor by adding more incorrect answers that are based on common student misconceptions.
The tests can be taken multiple times and using a platform like Edmodo means the tests are also tracked and scored without the teacher lifting a finger. Edmodo also allows students to go back through the test and see where they dropped marks.
A key element here is frequency and over a 6 week revision period it’s important to space the timing of these multiple choice tests to aid retention. As Joe points out in his most recent post on curriculum design,
Repeated retrieval improves long term retention: frequent quizzing prevents forgetting.
4) Regular ‘Walking – Talking’ mock exams.
One new strategy that has been trialled at my school this year has been ‘walking-talking’ mocks in all subjects. For those not familiar here’s how they work. The students revise for a mock as normal. When the mock exam takes place the teacher walks them through the first question and then gives students an appropriate amount of time (depending on the number of marks available usually) to complete the question and then get some instant feedback on how well they did. It’s hard to judge the real impact of doing this exercise but it certainly helps students feel more comfortable in exam conditions. I know I have been guilty in the past of running a mock exam in ‘exam conditions’, students tend to score poorly on it, get feedback but didn’t get an opportunity to re-draft answers (my fault) and the whole scenario was demotivating and not very productive. A walking-talking mock provide students to feel success in an exam environment. This new found motivation can then be used to drive revision sessions. As the year goes the strategy is to get students to sit 3-4 mock exams and by the end of the process provide them with less and less support as their confidence grows.
This post is by no means a ‘you should run revision sessions like this’ post. It’s a reflection on some of the ideas that have inspired my thoughts around how to do revision better. It is very much a work in progress and feedback is very much welcome!
I often tell my students to not be upset with the results they didn’t get from the work they didn’t do. I feel the same and care deeply about their results. When my students walk into the their exam I want to make sure I’ve done everything within my power to ensure they succeed.
Myelin – by Daniel Coyle
How to grow a super athlete – by Dainel Coyle
The myelin in all of us – by David Shenk
Why use multiple choice tests – by Joe Kirby
How to design multiple-choice questions – by Joe Kirby
Research on multiple-choice questions – by Daisy Christodoulou
Walking, talking mocks: are mock exams the way forward? – by Martin Jones
Hardwiring learning and effort = success – by Domini Choudhury
*I am not a scientist. For more information on myelin please see this interactive guide or even better still, read Daniel Coyle’s book ‘The Talent Code.