Keeping it simple in 2015

80-20finalImage: @jasonramasami

Armed with a cup of tea and a tin of chocolate biscuits, I have finally made the decision to sit down and write this reflection. The watery sunlight of 2014 is quickly disappearing behind the row of terraced houses opposite my own, so I better get going…

2014: the highlights

My 3 year-old son. He is the most relaxed and gentle child you could ever meet – like a pint-sized Gandhi (apart from a certain stubbornness at dinner times!). Hearing his language develop this year has been fascinating; the way young children acquire words seems to me mysterious and almost magical. We have read to George every day since he was born and it is incredible to see the effect of this on him. Some days he will spend at least an hour in total listening to stories. When reading to him as a very young child, it felt like the words and their meanings were bouncing off his blank face, as if he were hearing the rhythm of the tale without comprehending the meaning, only pointing out a picture or two or counting the number of ducks to keep me entertained. But this year, I have realised that much, much more has been happening in some invisible spot in his mind.

Only on Monday, we were leaving the swimming pool when George said:

“You go ahead and I’ll follow after.”

These words have been taken straight, verbatim, from Julia Donaldson’s The Gruffalo and now, it seems, have become an unconscious part of his verbal arsenal.

So, from being George’s dad I have learnt much about children and reading this year. Firstly, that we, as adults, must be patient and prepared to put in years of dedication. Secondly, that the sharing of stories between an adult and child has a significance far, far beyond education.

This blog.
According to the stats, I have written 44 posts and this blog has had nearly 90,000 views this year. I would never have believed that possible at the end of 2013. Many thanks to those of you who have taken the time to read and share my posts. From starting out as a predominantly English-based blogger, I have moved on to discussing wider education issues too. It has surprised me that I have managed to keep it up for so long – I now find that I have strong and unexpected ‘blog itches’. I am not sure whether my blogging urge stems from a genuine desire to share my ideas about teaching or an egotistical desire to have an audience for something I have written. Probably a bit of both.

In recent months, I have teamed up with the hugely talented Jason Ramasami who has been kind enough to provide the illustrations for my posts. There is nothing in the world quite so exciting as seeing your scribbled ideas emailed back to you as an image that captures your point with a clarity and vitality you only wish you could emulate in written form. I look forward to working with Jason in 2015.

Here is Jason’s artwork for three of my personal favourite posts:

What I learnt about great teaching from learning to brew beer. This was about how my friend, Gavin McCusker (who, in one of 2014’s low points, sadly left my school), taught me the art of homebrewing.

imageTalking about teaching in a world without lesson grades.  My school removed the farce that is lesson grading this year. This post describes my first non-graded observation in many a year.

post-grade-feedback1Wreaking havoc on the educational universe: the problem with change. I wrote this one a couple of weeks ago on how constant change can inhibit our development as teachers.

tharby-vishnu-shivaFINAL

Reading. I got to the end of 2013 realising that I had barely read a book all year. This was unusual for me and it needed to change. I have read twenty-two this year, at least fifteen of which about education. Okay, I might have become an edu-nerd in doing so, but I feel that I am satiating a need I have had since childhood. I am at my most content when reading, whatever the subject!

Opportunitiy. Writing this blog has opened unexpected doors. I have been appointed as ‘Research and Development’ leader at my school and we are beginning to build a wider culture of enquiry. I am grateful to the way the ever-positive Shaun Allison has supported me this year. One of the highlights was our first CPD ‘edubook club’ which involved every member of staff reading and talking about education. The response was enthusiastic and positive. I have been invited to speak at various events – as keynote speaker at an NQT event, at #TLT14 and at Brighton University. I have enjoyed the challenge of these, even if they have rubbed up against my natural introversion.

2015 – what next?

So as not to bother Jason on New Year’s Eve, at the start of this post I have reused his image from one on simplicity I wrote at the start of the year. In that post, I discussed the Pareto Principle, the idea that 20% of our actions have 80% of the overall effect, and that the other 80% have only 20% of the effect. It is time to listen to my own message. I feel that I have spread myself too thin this year, taking on too much and overcomplicating things. I have read so many wonderful books, papers and blogposts in 2014, have spent so much time thinking about education, that my mind has reached saturation point. It is one thing to read and write about new ideas, it is quite another to put them into practice.

In all honesty, I do not think that I have got any better as a classroom teacher this year. In some ways, I have become confused and distracted by all these ideas from the outside. The fundamental key to teaching has to be to concentrate on those sitting in front of you, not on what you will write in your next blog. I need to redress this balance in 2015. Consolidation must take precedence over creation.

Similarly, as much as I love Twitter and the edu-blogosphere, the fact is that they are relentless. They have led to me taking extra work home and finding it difficult to switch off from work. This is unhealthy.

So, in the spirit of simplicity, in 2015 I aim to:

1. Concentrate on the children I teach and what they need to learn before anything else.
2. Write fewer blogposts.
3. Read fewer books on education…but more fiction, poetry and things that take my interest. (I have started already and am currently halfway through a book on meteorology.)
4. Ride my bike to and from school – not only for fitness, but also because it makes it harder to take work home.
5. Get better at noticing the small things around me. (A dad should never be mulling over work while he absentmindedly baths his child at night.)
6. Finish off the book I am working on with Shaun Allison and continue to work with Shaun to build a positive, informed approach to CPD at our school.

Happy New Year.

And remember: keep it simple in 2015!

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Wreaking havoc on the educational universe: the problem with ‘change’

tharby-vishnu-shivaFINALImage: @jasonramasami

The Hindu triumvirate consists of three gods – Brahma, Shiva and Vishnu. We will not today concern ourselves with Brahma, the supreme creator of the universe. Instead we shall focus on Shiva, the destroyer, and Vishnu, the preserver. In Hinduism, the acts of destruction and re-creation are closely related – Shiva not only wreaks havoc on the universe, but also gives rise to beneficial change. Vishnu, however, is the compassionate conservative, returning to the world during times of need to restore the balance between good and evil.

The tension between change and preservation is one all teachers have to contend with. It is the Shiva acolytes (the Shaivites) who seem to have the upper hand here in Britain. Change and its many avatars – improvement, development and reform to name but three – hold sway in ministerial chambers, DfE offices, exam board schmooze-parlours, SLT conference rooms and line-management meetings up and down the land as important people donning plastic name-badges compete to design the future of education. Curricular are rewritten, assessment systems dumped, exams redesigned and definitions of ‘best practice’ replaced with the regularity of Spurs managers. The rate of change is break-neck. The classroom teacher eking out a living at the chalk-face is rarely consulted, even though she and the children she teaches will be the main beneficiaries of all this gift-wrapped newness.

I will never forget the oft-repeated sentiments of my wonderful mentor and friend John Wolstenholme, who recently retired after over thirty years in the classroom. In the face of decades and decades of change-for-the-sake-of-change, John always hoped at the start of every year that he would have the chance to teach exactly the same curriculum as he did the previous year. It never happened. Someone always saw the need for change.

It seems to me that we must not forget Vishnu and his unfashionable preference for preservation. We talk of teacher expertise, of the need for practice and repetition, of small day-to-day changes as the practical path to long-term classroom mastery. Yet how often is this precious process torn to shreds by the winds of unbridled change?

Let me share an example. As an English teacher, I have taught certain novels several times over, each time trying to hone and improve my delivery. I have agonised over the minutiae. Which details should I guide my students towards and which should I sensibly overlook? Which questions should I ask and when should I ask them? Which passages do students struggle to grasp and which are more easily comprehended? Yes, the experience of having taught different novels in the past helps me to plan the teaching of a new text more carefully, yet nothing can compensate for the experience of actually having taught that particular text before. Every time a text is removed from the syllabus, a wealth of teacher knowledge and expertise goes with it. We become expert teachers not only through the generic classroom skills of, say, behaviour management and questioning, but also through our deepening knowledge of subject content and how best to teach it. (The recent Sutton Trust report is clear on this.)

Just this term, I taught Orwell’s Animal Farm to year 8s for the first time. This was an autonomous decision (as all the best changes are!) and a worthwhile improvement on the turgid teen novel I had taught in previous years. Even so, there will be much for me to improve on next time round. Next year’s classes will get the better deal.

A single change like this is easy to manage and to bear. It is when change is piled upon yet more change that things become tough and, over the years, draining. Unable to draw on the comforts of well-hewn expertise, and overloaded with new content and initiatives, we flounder. We fall back into the uncertainty of our NQT days. Our years of experience count for less than they should.

This is not an argument against change, rather an argument against the rampant fetishism that surrounds it. Sadly, one does not improve one’s job prospects by suggesting that things should be kept just as they are. Change validates us. To become a success, we must be seen to be the constructors and executors of the new. From education secretary to ITT student, our role is to destroy the past so that a better future can follow in its wake.

I prefer a slow, cautious version of change. Of course, in extreme circumstances wholesale and brutal change is unavoidable and often for the best. It does not follow, however, that everything should be hacked down to its roots while we cross our fingers and toes in the hope that it will grow back in a healthier condition next spring. Instead, like the artful, nurturing gardener, our pruning should be subtle and minimal; it should imagine the splendour of the future tree beyond the wispy sapling before us.

I thought I would leave you with some simple questions that could be asked of all proposed changes in education:

1. Who will lose and what will be lost as a result of the change?
2. Will the gains achieved from the change outweigh the losses?
3. Have those who will implement the change – i.e. classroom teachers and their representatives – been listened to and involved in the consultation process?
4. Is the purpose of the change to develop and improve the knowledge and skill of children (and less measurable effects too) or is the purpose to create the illusion that children are developing and improving?
5. What evidence base – research or otherwise – is this change supported by?
6. How many other changes and reforms are teachers currently grappling with? Would it be wise to increase the pressure and uncertainty on teachers by adding another change to the mix?
7. If we could be teleported to the future (6 months, a year or a decade) and while there informed that our proposed change has been a failure, what would the likely causes have been? (Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow is great on the planning fallacy – it is easier to imagine future success over future failure because failure comes in many more forms than success.)
8. How will the effectiveness of the change be evaluated?
9. If the change leads to more working hours, what will be stripped away to compensate for them?

*

It is said that Vishnu will return to earth one final time (he has entered the corporal world nine times already, most famously in the incarnations of Rama and Krishna) to restore harmony once more. The ancient texts have it, more worryingly, that this appearance will take place just prior to the end of the world…

More prosaically, classroom teachers up and down the land would like our leaders to acknowledge that nurturing what we already have provides us with the simplest and most sustainable path towards improvement.

Merry Christmas.

Related post:

A simple classroom in a complex world

The book group: CPD for the future

the-wallImage: @jasonramasami

The world of Twitter and edu-blogging can feel far removed from the reality of my day job. There seems a metaphorical Berlin Wall wedged between the two. I have been blogging for over a year now, yet only a handful of my colleagues read my posts. With the pace of modern teacher life it is hardly surprising. Keeping up to date with our own planning and marking is enough in itself. Sometimes I feel I am leading a double-life as a blogger and a teacher. Writing these words is ultimately something I do for myself, audience or no audience.

I do, however, genuinely believe that there are great gains to be had from reading about teaching, whether in the form of blogs, ‘edubooks’ or research papers. I have written before about the importance of nurturing the cerebral life of schools, of finding time for talking and thinking about teaching and learning, and it seems such a missed opportunity that after eight years in the classroom it is only recently that I have begun to investigate my own practice with more rigour.

So what has stood in the way in the past? It has, I think, been the reductive totalitarianism of the Ofsted-driven description of what makes for effective teaching. There has always a great distance between what I have intuitively found to work in my classroom and what has been decreed as best practice. A few years ago, I remember a teacher declaring that, “If the learning objective does not contain the phrase ‘to be able to’ then your lesson cannot be ‘outstanding’.”

I have never forgotten this. I thought it was nonsense at the time and I still do now.

But things have changed. At the end of last academic year my school ditched lesson grading and all its associated absurdities. We have developed a ‘tight but loose’ definition of teaching and learning built around the principles of challenge, explanation, modelling, practice, questioning and feedback. As a ‘research leader’ this year, one of my roles has been to introduce a whole-staff ‘EduBook club’ as a way to bring fresh teaching ideas and robust outside evidence into the school. Each teacher and TA has chosen a book which they will discuss during INSET days in groups lead not by members of SLT, but by ordinary classroom practitioners.

Last Friday, I hosted the group reading Graham Nuthall’s The Hidden Lives of Learners. Our group, consisting of classroom teachers, NQTs, subject leaders and teaching assistants, discussed the introduction and the first two chapters, using our reading as a springboard for a broader reflection on our own experiences in the classroom. We considered how teaching methods and learning are fundamentally different things. We considered how orthodoxies of ‘effective teaching’ are often decided by fashion as much as anything else. We considered how the style of teaching and the personality of the teacher are of lesser importance than the effectiveness of the learning (a big phew! for a dullard like me.) We considered the importance of warm, kind classroom atmospheres but also the hard truth that these do not necessarily lead to good learning. We considered how students dumbfound us: they seem to know both more and less than we think they do! (Nuthall’s research has shown that students, on average, tend to know just short of fifty per cent of lesson content already.)

We talked about more, too, and I am certain that each group member took away quite different thoughts and ideas. The wonderful thing is that the book encouraged us to talk about teaching in an open and honest way, far beyond the limitations of the lesson grades and tick-box descriptors that have been the norm over the past decade or, in other words, the span of my teaching career. In our discussion, drama teacher David Hall talked about how sincerity is a vital quality in teaching. It is vital to good CPD too.

Of course, thinking and talking about teaching alone are not enough in themselves. They must lead eventually to changes in classroom practice and, crucially, student learning. However, the fact that teachers are being given the time and the trust to investigate and engage with wider evidence and ideas fills me with genuine optimism for the future of our profession.

The wall is beginning to crumble.

Related posts

Creating a research-rich climate: our first steps

Talking about teaching in a world without lesson grades

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