Creating a culture for academic excellence

I wrote this last week for our school blog. Thought I’d repost it here too for anyone who missed it:

Class Teaching

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In this week’s 15 minute forum, English teacher Andy Tharby discussed how we can create and sustain a fertile culture for academic excellence.

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Our school is situated in a coastal town and has an intake that covers a large social demographic. We are currently asking an interesting question: how can we help students from all backgrounds and academic starting points achieve academic excellence? One small but significant group of students have been at the forefront of our attention – those who achieved highly at KS2, but are making less progress than those who arrived at lower starting points.

In The Hidden Lives of Learners (2007), the researcher Graham Nuthall (2007) theorised that there are three interlinked worlds that shape a student’s learning:

  • the public world of the teacher;
  • the highly influential world of peers;
  • the student’s own private world and experiences.

If we are to help more students achieve academic excellence and aspire to the top then we need to tap into each…

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Hop, skip, jump: the origin of useless teaching & learning policies

hop skip jumpImage: @jasonramasami

Jonny Edwards is a great teacher. Everyone says so: his pupils, his colleagues and his end of year results all bear witness to the fact.

One day, during Jonny’s free period, the school’s inquisitive new CPD leader, Dave, comes to see him.

“Jonny,” he says, “I’d love to learn the secret behind your classroom success. What’s the magic ingredient?”

“Ah,” says Jonny with a mischievous glint in his eye. “Then you must come and see the first few minutes of my next lesson. Watch carefully.”

Later that day, Dave, clipboard in hand, finds himself seated in the back row of Jonny’s Y11 class. The class file in, settle down, open their books and write down the lesson title. All is fairly standard until, precisely three minutes into the lesson, an extraordinary event occurs.

Jonny stands at the front and calls the class to attention. Once every eye is settled on him, he turns himself ninety degrees so that he is facing the door. He lifts one foot from the floor and jerks forward; next comes a shuffled canter; finally a two footed jump.

“Right class, let’s get started!”

Our new CPD leader is amazed; he has never seen anything quite like this before. Who knew that teaching could be this simple? Hop, skip, jump!

For the next few weeks, Dave starts to practise Jonny’s manoeuvre on his own classes. Sure enough, he starts to notice an improvement. If he starts his lessons with a triple jump three things happen: students work harder, they appear more attentive and the quality of their work improves. Incredible.

Over the next few months a transformative new teaching and learning policy is rolled across the school: The Triple Jump Start. A full INSET day is set aside in which Jonny guides teachers through the routine, step by step. The nuances are important. You should stand directly in the centre of the room. You should hop forward an optimal 80 centimetres. You should land with both arms outstretched. You should, like Jonny, raise your eyebrows at the moment of landing. The perfect Triple Jump is performed with a soundless poise and grace.

While some teachers appear slightly quizzical about the new policy (one culprit is reprimanded by the headteacher for being unable to stifle a high-pitched squeal during Dave’s insistence that planning one’s triple jump routine should take precedence over planning the content of one’s lesson), the staff seem broadly supportive. After all, the school is failing and nothing else has seemed to work.

For the next term, Dave insists that every teacher hones their triple jump routine. Dave understands that teachers are tricky customers so he announces that from the first week of February there will be a series of lesson pop-ins: the focus will be on the implementation of the Triple Jump policy. SLT will expect to see it at the start of every lesson. And, he assures a few concerned faces, don’t you worry if we come into your lesson a little later – we will quietly check in with a member of the class to see whether you have already performed it.

By the end of the academic year, The Triple Jump policy is in full swing and Dave has hard data to prove it. In January, only 2.5 percent of teachers – i.e. Jonny – were opening classes with a hop, a skip and a jump; now, at the end of July, there are only three sticking points – two recalcitrant English teachers and a wheelchair-bound R.E. teacher. This amounts to a staggering ninety percent take-up rate!

Come August, come exam results day. The school’s progress data is still well below national average but, encouragingly, it demonstrates a five percent improvement on the previous year.

It’s an upward trajectory! The start of the Great Leap Forward! In the following year, The Triple Jump becomes a cornerstone of the school’s teaching and learning policy. (It is rumoured that Ofsted, in their next inspection, will want to see it implemented by every member of staff).

Content, thinking and shaping: three principles for working with brighter students

untitled_artworkImage: @jasonramasami

In 2013, Ofsted published a pretty damning report about the provision available for more-able students at secondary schools in the UK. One statement from the report rings true to me:

Many students become used to performing at a lower level than they were capable of. Parents or carers and teachers accept this too readily.

The report argued that there are three main challenges for schools: to ensure that our most able students do as well academically as those of our main economic competitors; to ensure that students become aware, early on, of the academic opportunities available to them; and to ensure that all schools help students and families overcome cultural barriers to attending higher education.

I think it is fair to say that individual teachers cannot solve all of these problems alone; however, there is probably much we could be doing better. If I am honest, I have long hidden from the fact that I could be challenging some of my students more than I am, and even though I have long prided myself on ‘teaching to the top’, this has rested on a fairly conservative estimate of what the ‘top’ consists of.

Perhaps the first port-of-call for all classroom teachers is to introduce students to university and further education opportunities as early as possible. We must help our students to consider the long-game: their GCSEs are merely stepping-stones on a much longer journey – even if they mark the end point for us. Not all bright young people will have high aspirations and expectations set at home; for them, we teachers are very important. We can start tomorrow by making a simple modification to our language use – it’s not if you attend university, it’s when you attend university.

It is important to consider the moral argument, too. Every successful society must nurture its finest young minds. And this is not just about the future economic prosperity of the nation; this is also about creating a new generation of thinkers, scientists and artists who will keep us safe and enrich the culture of the future. We talk a lot about improving equity in schools, but this should never be at the expense of allowing some to move way beyond their peers if they can. It is also important that these young people, our future, see beyond the functional and competitive purposes of education. Learning has intrinsic value and knowledge is its own reward. It is a fine message to take into the future.

Let’s take a step back from all this idealism. What can we do every day to help our highly capable students to make progress? While extra-curricular opportunities play an important supporting role, my hunch is that the answer lies in the place students spend most of their time in school: in our classrooms. I think that there are three areas worth considering: content, thinking and shaping.

Content – what will they be learning?

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Cultural capital. Whatever we choose to teach them in the limited time they have with us must contribute towards their cultural capital. It is no good being intelligent and hard-working if the knowledge and skills you have gained at school do not help you to become socially mobile. At a very minimum, all able students should leave secondary school with the knowledge and skill needed to read a broadsheet newspaper from cover to cover with understanding.

Coherence and cumulativeness. The curriculum must be carefully sequenced so that students learn new concepts in the context of what they have already learned. This is especially important for disadvantaged able students who rely so much on school lessons as they have nothing else to full back on.

Exam specifications as springboards, not straightjackets. Exams are designed to sample knowledge and skill, not dictate what is taught. An over-focus on exam technique leads inevitably to the narrowing of the curriculum. Sadly, this has the most impact on able students as they require far less time on exam preparation. Once again we need to play the long game: what they learn now can be stored away for the future. Bring in A-Level and undergraduate level content, and lace your lessons with stories and ideas from the great wide world. (And let’s be honest: in a norm-referenced exam system, it is those who are taught ‘beyond’ the specifications who will achieve the highest grades.)

Depth and breadth. Our able children need a broad school curriculum, but must also be given the time and opportunity to explore topics in great detail. A balance is preferable.

Knowledge and vocabulary. It is no use being bright if you are not actually learning anything. Being exposed to high level content is not the same as actually learning it. Expect students to reel off facts with great depth and accuracy. Expect them to use advanced subject-specific vocabulary – and make sure you model this for them. The language culture of your classroom goes a huge way.

Wider reading and research. Twenty-five hours a week is not long enough. Give your bright students extra reading and research to do. This should be more specific than ‘just Google it’. It could include books, journals, carefully-chosen web-sites, news reports and documentaries. You could start creating a bank of extension resources to go with each topic. Make sure you place books in your students’ hands – the personal touch goes a long way.

 

Thinking – what kind of thinking will they do?

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Subject-specific thinking. Your able students need questions and tasks that allow them to think deeply and accurately about the content at hand. As such, you should be mindful of generic approaches to ‘thinking hard’ – such as Bloom’s Taxonomy. Resources like subject-specific ‘question templates’ can help you to get students to think deeply about your subject in an appropriate way. 

Integrated extension questions. Teachers often leave the more difficult tasks to the end of the lesson – the ‘extension’ questions. This makes logical sense when working with students of very similar ability, but not when working with mixed-ability groups. Resources and worksheets need to allow students to move quickly on to more challenging material, rather than endlessly completing tasks they already know how to do. (I have a strategy whereby all ‘stretch’ questions are coded in red – students can choose to go to these first if they are ready.)

Probe thinking. As Doug Lemov says: “The reward for a correct answer should always be a harder question.”

Risk-taking. Many of our able students are those who are used to getting things right; this has become part of their identity, and their peers expect them to uphold this. They become typecast if you like. Often these students also like to please their teachers. This, however, is what holds them back. They need to take more risks and ask more questions otherwise it is unlikely that they are learning as much as they could be. They can help to drive the process by taking on the responsibility of asking for harder work.

 

Shaping – do they know how to create excellent products and performances?

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Do we know what excellence looks like? It is important to share student work with our colleagues as often as possible. We should work backwards from great examples to help us plan our lessons. We should also look out to other schools to compare and contrast their top standard with ours – sometimes the only reason that we do not stretch our students is that we do not realise that more is possible.

Do our students know what excellence looks like? We should also share excellent exemplars with students as often as possible – and sticking them on the wall is the least helpful way of doing this. Students need to read them, discuss them and deconstruct them. Furthermore, sharing descriptive success criteria is a pretty useless strategy unless this is accompanied by concrete examples of work.

Live-modelling and upscaling. Complex thought-processes need to be explained explicitly. We need to learn how to model A* standard work and thinking, even if it is difficult for us. Sometimes this can be made easier through upscaling: take an average example and given it the full makeover with the class.

Break down complex procedures. Even an A* student will need guidance on how to proceed with complex tasks. She will also benefit at times from the ‘marginal gains’ approach – this involves sharpening her skill with the constituent parts of a task before tackling the whole.

Parameters versus freedom. Not all bright students are the same. Some need a lot of guidance, support and parameters; others need these to be stripped away. Our knowledge of our students, therefore, should always guide our decisions.

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My school’s motto is ‘Going beyond our best’. For our weaker students, it is easy to imagine this place beyond current performance. For our brighter students, however, we might need to define it more clearly.

I hope this simple check-list – content, thinking and shaping – can help you to achieve this.

 

10 prevalent myths about English teaching – part 2

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This is the second part of a double-bill based on common myths in English teaching. Part 1 and myths 1 – 5 can be found here.

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Myth 6: Young people find quiet hard work boring.

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In the first place a third to a half of your class are likely to be introverts who probably prefer a quieter environment and time to think. Not only that, but reading and writing are silent pursuits – in the same way that music involves noise and PE involves movement. That’s not to say there should be no noise in an English classroom, just that reading and writing are complex cognitive processes that require huge levels of concentration and attention and as few distractions as possible. Many students are happy to tell me how quick and enjoyable lessons of quiet hard work are. If anything, they feel like they go faster!

Myth 7: Because young people learn new vocabulary implicitly, there’s no need to teach words explicitly.

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The human mind has evolved to acquire new vocabulary naturally; however, we need multiple exposures to these words in multiple contexts for this to happen. This is why we need to design these contexts and exposures ourselves – the opportunity for practice and repetition will not be available outside school for many children. It’s useful to choose the vocabulary you will teach and think of ways to make it stick: by teaching it in context; by giving students lots of ways to use the word; by sharing its etymology; and by testing their understanding and knowledge regularly.

Myth 8: Closed questions do not challenge students to think critically about a text. 

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If students can answer lots of closed questions about a literary text then they know it very well; this wide-ranging, connected knowledge is the stuff that deep analysis is made of. Closed questions and tasks also range in difficulty. Consider the difference between these two closed questions about An Inspector Calls: ‘What is the Inspector’s surname’ and ‘Explain three critical interpretations of the  Inspector’s  role in the play’. The second is clearly a more challenging task.

Myth 9: You can elicit anything about a text through good questioning.

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Questioning can elicit some pretty fine stuff, especially if your class are knowledgeable and interested. But good questioning is not alchemy. Sometimes you will have to explain ideas, concepts and interpretations of texts yourself. Never be afraid to do this. Often, there is no other way your students can learn new and challenging ideas.

Myth 10: There is no such thing as a wrong answer in English.

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This myth has a twin sister: Any answer is is valid – as long as you can back it up with evidence. Ultimately, right-versus-wrong is the wrong frame of reference. Instead, our students need to be able to discriminate  between good and bad. In other words, the difference between a strong interpretation and a weak interpretation – and all the shades of quality in between. To develop a sensitivity for this, our students need to be exposed to a wealth of sophisticated and critical  insights over a sustained period of time.

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Thanks for reading. If you can think of any I have overlooked, please add them in the comments.

10 prevalent myths about English teaching – part 1

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Images: @jasonramasami

I have recently been putting the finishing touches to the first draft of my forthcoming book, Making Every English Lesson Count. The book will look at how the six principles that Shaun Allison and I explored in Making Every Lesson Count – challenge, explanation, modelling, practice, feedback and questioning – can improve the teaching of English. It will also challenge some of the myths I have heard (and have believed) about English teaching. Most of these are not myths in the purest sense; they are partial-truths that can limit our practice if we are not mindful of them.

I am also aware that these might seem like a series of straw man arguments.  I do not think for one moment that experienced and skilled English teachers seriously believe in them. Nevertheless, I have heard each of them referred to –  implicitly or explicitly – at some time or other. Think of the myths as a set of provocations as much as anything.

A special thank you to Jason Ramasami who has illustrated each myth with his customary precision and humour. The first five myths are published below. The next five will be available tomorrow morning. Watch this space …

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Myth 1: English is a skills-based subject.

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Next time your class have completed a timed reading response, identify the best essay and then identify the best paragraph in this piece. Now work backwards. What types of knowledge does the student utilise? Knowledge of plot? Knowledge of historical context? Knowledge of important quotations? Knowledge of vocabulary? Knowledge about the writer’s themes and ideas? I imagine there will be a huge depth of interconnected knowledge – even if the assessment rubric demands that you assess skills.

In fact, good general knowledge is fundamental to reading new texts too – we cannot make strong inferences without it.

Yes, there are generic skills in English, but they need to be applied to something. This is where knowledge comes in.

Myth 2: A polished piece of writing in a student’s book is always a sign of a good writer.

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Polished writing is often a sign of a good writer, but not always. The level of scaffolding and support a teacher has given can mask huge gaps. This was always the problem in the days of coursework: teachers felt pressurised to do most of the thinking and hard-work for the students. Unless all students do exactly the same task in exactly the same conditions, comparisons are hard to make within or across classes and schools.

Similarly, if you are going to collect data on progress, then you must ensure that all assessments are carried out in the same way. If not, the data, like the polished work, does not tell the full story.

Myth 3: Redrafting/DIRT fills learning gaps.

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Again, it can fill them, but not always. It is wise to give students time to work on their mistakes and misconceptions, but the re-drafted or improved work should not be confused with closing the gap. If you want to test whether the gap has been filled, then test them again a few months later to see if you can find substantial improvements. Improved work in the short-term is not evidence of long-term learning.

Myth 4: Sharing grade/level descriptors with students is a useful strategy. 

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It is useful to provide reminders of key assessment obectives – i.e. remember to embed quotations; to evaluate the effect on the reader; and to consider contextual factors. However, writing is a complex skill that cannot be bottled down into neat descriptors. We know that ‘sophisticated’ is better than ‘competent’ but knowing this is about as helpful as being trapped in a cave with a torch without batteries. If you want students to be able to descriminate between levels of quality, then your best bet is to talk through and discuss some examples.

Myth 5: Texts that relate to students’ lives should always be chosen for study.

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Surely the idea of school is to introduce young people to ideas, experiences and knowledge beyond the confines of their day-to-day lives? Texts should open doors to new worlds; otherwise, we lock and bolt young people in the rooms they already occupy.

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Thanks for reading. As always your comments would be much appreciated. Here’s the link to Part 2

What happens when we teach interpretations of literature as facts?

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Image: @jasonramasami

Your class have been reading a literary work for some time. You feel that it is now time to evaluate  a particular aspect of the text – let’s say, how an important character has been drawn. You ask for the class’s ideas – perhaps you first give them a chance to think alone or discuss in pairs. As the ideas come in thick and fast, you create a list or a mind-map on the board. You probe your students’ responses to improve the depth of thought. Soon you have a board covered with ideas. These include defining adjectives, references to pivotal events, vital quotations and links to the text’s social and historical context.

The mind-map is not bad, it’s just that … it would have been far better if you had just told them in the first place.

Recently, I have been thinking about whether literary interpretations should be taught as explicit knowledge – in the same way as theories and concepts are in science lessons. This, of course, throws up a plethora of thorny problems. Aren’t we each entitled to our own opinion? Aren’t all opinions valid as long as we can back them up? Shouldn’t literature encourage free-thinking in our youngsters, rather than straightjacket them with the pedantry of their elders?

Putting these complications to one side, I decided I would put it to the test. Before my lesson on J.B. Priestley’s Inspector Goole, I picked four of the most interesting interpretations of the play’s enigmatic visitor I could find and created a mind-map.

At the start of the lesson – as normal – I asked my mixed-ability year 10 class for their thoughts on Goole. They touched tangentially on the ideas of moral conscience and the voice of socialism, as well as the predictable he must be a ghost, like ‘ghoul’. Their ideas were interesting and on the right track, but not yet fully-formed.

At this point, I told them that my role was to take their ideas further by introducing them to some of the most interesting interpretations of Goole I had encountered. I revealed the diagram below point-by-point, and we discussed each theory as we went. I gave them time to draw a visual representation of each theory – so as to harness the power of dual-coding. At the end of the lesson, the class divided into pairs and took it in turns to explain each point on the diagram to each other.

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By the end of the lesson, every member of this mixed-ability group appeared to understand these theories. I tested them on their knowledge two days later. They had retained the meaning of terms like moral epiphany and quasi-religious.

Perhaps the most interesting moment of the lesson, however, came at the end. A pair had extended upon the idea of Goole as Priestley’s mouthpiece. They had decided that the Inspector should be renamed Priestley’s Parrot. His role is to repeat Priestley’s message of social responsibility and compassion into eternity: on stages, in classrooms, yesterday, today and tomorrow.

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Who says didactic teaching cannot lead to creativity and originality?

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A couple of days later this principle repeated itself. I was working with a year 11 student whose teacher had recently given the class a crash course in Freudian theory. We were looking at an episode  from The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde when Hyde savagely murders Sir Danvers Carew and is said to erupt into ‘a great flame of anger’. “Perhaps the ‘flame’ is a metaphor for the way the unconscious mind can suddenly burst through,” she suggested.

In my opinion, if we want to encourage critical and divergent thinking – which we surely do – then we must provide our classes with the tools to do so. If not, then we rely on young people plucking ideas out of the ether, the educational equivalent of alchemy.

Implemented carefully, the explicit teaching of ideas and interpretations need not be restrictive. Instead, it can induct students in the discipline of the subject and spark genuine insight.

Related posts:

Knowledge-first English teaching – a video

The poetry dilemma:to teach or to elicit?

 

Knowledge-first English teaching

Tod Brennan, @TodBrennanEng, is putting together a series of interviews with English teachers. This morning we chatted about the benefits of a knowledge-first approach to English teaching. The video link is below:

Do follow this series of interviews. They are bound to be fascinating.

Last week’s guest was Caroline Spalding on career progression:

Related posts:

Can we teach children how to make inferences?

English teaching and the problem with knowledge?

General knowledge, the new English GCSE and the ‘as-the-crow-flies error’