An Interview with a Teacher

Here’s a post Nancy Gedge and I have put together for this month’s #blogsync about the power and influence of books both personally and professionally.

The Diary of a Not So Ordinary Boy

Back in May I fell into conversation with @atharby (Andy Tharby, he’s a secondary English teacher) about the power of reading.  We talked about the interesting notion in this post, that one of my children knew (or thought he knew) about sailing through reading.  Swallows and Amazons, in particular, figured highly.  One thing led to another, and this post was born.

An interview with – two – teachers.

Nancy:  Which was the first book/series of books you remember getting really excited about?

Andy:  It’s strange. I can remember the moment, but not the book. It was one of Enid Blyton’s The Secret Seven. I was sat with my mum on her bed. I’m not even sure if I was reading to her or reading alone. The first page was tense, but I can’t remember why, with a description of snow and a crisp full moon. It’s funny how…

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Reflections on a successful student

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 Image: @jasonramasami

“Can he get an A*?”

In the autumn term, when Rasheed’s father asked me this at year 10 parents’ evening, I squirmed in my seat. My mind screamed, “NO, he’ll get a B.” Eventually my vocal chords, with little assertion, found a compromise:

“I’m not sure, but if he works hard he might achieve an A.”

Rasheed – not his real name – has a MEG (a ‘minimum expected grade’) of a B, and I rather think that the anchoring effect, as described by Daniel Kahneman in Thinking, Fast and Slow, was playing its hand. Kahneman writes:

“It occurs when people consider a particular value for an unknown quantity before estimating that quantity. What happens is one of the most reliable and robust results of experimental psychology: the estimates stay close to the number the people considered – hence the image of an anchor.”

The effect has been shown to influence and constrain our thinking beyond our control. My prediction for Rasheed, therefore, was probably anchored to that ‘B’ that sits adjacent to his name on my class list. If you had asked for my reasons, I would have claimed that my prediction was based on my understanding of his current ability.

On closer scrutiny, my reasoning reveals an uncomfortable prejudice: my subconscious belief that a student working at Rasheed’s level at the start of year 10 is only capable of achieving a B by the end of the year. (Our students complete their English literature GCSE in year 10).

Here is a random paragraph from Rasheed’s work taken from October. He was writing about John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men:

“George was in disbelief as he sat ‘stiffly’ on the bank, he was frozen with shock. He also ‘looked at his right hand that had thrown the gun away,’ this means that he was emotionaly numb. It may also suggest that he was angry at what his ‘right hand’ just did, it shot his friend. It shows that he wanted to blame it on something. Steinbeck used these words to replicate how frightened he was after he shot Lennie.”

There is little real analysis here, just a gunfire list of descriptive inferences. On such evidence, a B might seem more than a fair target.

At the end of June, after the students had completed their literature exam, we returned to Of Mice and Men to write their English language controlled assessment. Eight months on, here’s a sample of Rasheed’s writing:

“Furthermore, she reveals a more dominant side when she stands ‘over him’. Here Steinbeck describes physical levels to illustrate social hierarchy. To emphasise her power, Steinbeck uses the metaphor ‘whip’, a harsh sounding word that not only stings Crooks but the reader as they feel his pain. This onomatopoeic word generates images of slavery, which was abollished many years before, yet is still remembered to this day. Hence, we could speculate that Steinbeck felt a certain degree of sympathy for Crooks. Moreover, it conjures up images of a slave master, Curley’s Wife and Crooks, the slave. It is this that gives Curley’s Wife a vociferous tone. When Crooks had ‘reduced himself to nothing’, our sympathy is eroded away from Curley’s Wife and deposited into Crooks. On closer analysis, it might seem that by describing Curley’s Wife as powerful, he is actually exposing her weakness as Crooks is the only person she feels she can attack.”

This paragraph, written under controlled conditions, represents the journey Rasheed has gone on this year. Even though his ideas are not completely polished, you will notice a new-found maturity of style and depth of analysis. A* is a not a million miles away.

Rasheed, it is fair to say, has blossomed over the past three or four months, and not only when writing about Of Mice and Men! When we witness such success, it is important to attempt to unearth the causes.

First, of all it is worth mentioning the curriculum plan. It was a risk entering every year 10 student for English literature this year; we will find out in the summer how successful this approach has been. However, the quality of the controlled assessments we recently moderated, along with the supporting data, shows unanimously that a year of analytical writing practice has paid dividends across the year group. The quality of the writing about the novella was further enhanced, I believe, by the knowledge students had of the text; as they already knew the storyline and themes well, they were able to find extra layers of meaning with relative ease. Rasheed’s progress, then, is partly explained by the general picture.

Yet this is not the full story. I would like to claim a little bit of his success for myself. The most obvious affect I have had as a his teacher has been through my teaching of essay writing (see this post on life after PEE). I would contend that his writing has improved not only through an improvement in his ability to access more subtle ideas, but also through an improvement in his ability to express himself through analytical language. This improvement has been replicated across the class, to various degrees, and it is something I have taught explicitly through a range of modelling and scaffolding strategies. Pleasingly, I can detect my influence in his work.

But of course there is more. Rasheed exudes the growth mindset. His effort levels are quietly impressive. Since the beginning of term, he has often waited behind after lessons to ask what he can do improve and what we will be studying next. He listens, nods, says ‘thank you’ and goes. I will never forget the time he arrived at a lesson and asked which poem we were covering today. I told him – it was one we had not covered in class before – and he smiled.

“Yes, that’s one of my favourites,” he replied.

His progress, however, cannot just be explained away by in-school factors. Rasheed’s father, clearly, has sky-high expectations for his son (expectations, unfortunately, that were not shared by his English teacher at the beginning of term). The research into mindset suggests that there is a cultural element to the attribution of success. In many Asian cultures, success is more likely to be attributed to hard work and effort than it is in the West, where too often success is linked to talent. His cultural roots may well be significant.

Perhaps there are other opaque factors at play too, factors that we as educators may never fully grasp hold of. What has happened within his mind? What invisible neural connections have fizzed together this year? Is he a thinker? Does he sit at home on his bed mulling over what he has learnt today? Or does he pace around the house religiously rehearsing the sentences he will write in his next piece? Who knows?

Success is a complex concoction. To understand its richness accurately we must not only engage with robust educational research, but also zoom in on those fascinating individual case studies readily available to us. Our students.

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Last week, I asked Rasheed whether he realises how much he has come on in English. His response is instructive:

“I didn’t know I could improve so much.”

Neither did I.

(Thanks to those of you who have taken the time to read my scribblings over the past few months. It is time for me to take a holiday from teaching and blogging. I aim to be back again in September. Enjoy the break.) 1DA9A47D-5771-4594-9E10-B11AEE763898 79B58F87-24F3-4F60-BF0D-50FE8E422E2D

Talking about teaching in a world without lesson grades

post-grade-feedback1Images: @jasonramasami

Teaching is a lonely profession. Outsiders rarely understand this. On any given day, I might communicate with over a hundred children, adapting my register and tone according to the needs of the class, the child and the situation as best I can. Yet, for many of us, communication with our colleagues can become little more than a passing word in a noisy corridor. Days or even weeks can gently slip by with little more than a cheery “Morning!” or a half-hearted “Good weekend?” As much as I enjoy teaching, I am always in role in the classroom, even if this has become more natural and relaxed over the years. I wonder if in our drive to improve the educational chances of our students, we might have forgotten the very human need for adult conversation.

The equation we work by is simple but probably wrong: hard work equals better educational outcomes. Doing seems to take precedence over thinking. Talking about teaching seems even more frivolous. How can we justify sitting down for a chat when there is a pile of mock exams eagerly awaiting our inspection? I wonder, though, whether the chance to stop, think, discuss and, dare I suggest, laugh about our practice with our closest colleagues is shamefully undervalued in our profession. Discussions about teaching can feel all too formal and rushed. They can also create an honesty problem. The fear of being ‘found out’ if we admit our weaknesses looms large.

Nothing, however, is worse than the forced feedback discussion that takes place after a graded lesson observation. However good the relationship between the observer and the observed teacher might be, however beautifully the lesson might have gone, the lesson grade – that arbitrary numeral from 1 to 4 – taints every moment of that most awkward of meetings. However much we might dress it up with ‘successes’ and ‘areas for improvement’, the purpose of the meeting becomes to feed back the grade. That grade forces an uneven dynamic: the observer becomes a judge and not a support; the teacher must succumb to the observer’s ‘superior wisdom’. Even though both are privy to the lesson, one view is unavoidably valorised over the other. The grade itself is obviously codswallop. How we can bottle the hugely complex social and cognitive dynamics that constitute a lesson, or part of one, into a comparable single digit is beyond me.

This gross crudity destroys the opportunity for the feedback session to become the vital meeting it should be. Two professionals have shared an experience in the classroom, albeit from opposing vantage points, bringing different experiences, beliefs and biases into the mix. What better catalyst for a rich discussion on the values, theory and pedagogy that underpin successful teaching?

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Roll on this week and roll on my first non-graded lesson observation. My school has thankfully taken the plunge and introduced a feedback-only system. Before the lesson I had spoken to Kate Bloomfield, my Head of Department, about my experimentations with ‘gallery critique’ and that I wanted her view on how effective she felt it was. In my planning, I made a few adjustment to the way I run these lessons by sharpening up the focus of feedback and giving students the opportunity to ‘magpie’ ideas from one another.

In the feedback meeting our discussion was wide-ranging. Kate praised the structure of the lesson and the effort of the students. Kate pointed out that the quantity of writing students had to read might have been over-ambitious for some. Might it have been more effective if those students who struggle with reading were asked to read shorter sections? This was a salient point which brought ideas about working memory to mind. We discussed the videoing of lessons such as this using IRIS technology and the benefits of having a bank of ‘good practice in English’ videos. We began to roughly plan some ideas on this for next year. I shared my reflection that it had been pointless to ask students to write feedback on each other’s spelling and punctuation; teaching them to proofread as part of the gallery critique process could be much more effective. Kate discussed how she would teach a similar lesson next week. My final action was to email her my lesson PowerPoint.

In short, we had a relaxed and interesting discussion, from which we both took something. We were able to talk and think about teaching and learning as two professionals in a meaningful way that would directly feed-forward into our future practice. More important than the planning, the lesson and the feedback was the fact that we had a genuine chance to put everything to one side to talk about teaching.

The end of lesson grades has given birth to something much more exciting. Time for discussion is limited in our profession; let us make sure that the fleeting chances we do find are not dogged by meaningless accountability measures.

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Related post: Hiding our Hearts of Darknesss: another voice against graded lesson observation