The countdown to the #LearningFirst Conference is down to single figures, and I might be the most frightened I've ever been. Saying that, I'm so grateful to everyone at @BeyondLevels, and Canterbury Christ Church, for offering me the opportunity to push myself outside of my comfort zone - I'm excited to learn from this experience.
As part of a packed programme, I've been asked to present a workshop, detailing different ideas regarding living in a world without levels, which, to me, is the best scenario; take back control of assessment, and put learning first. Amongst an itinerary of PhDs, Masters Graduates and big names, I'm hoping to be the reassuring voice of you - the teacher. I'm petrified, but looking forward to meeting you.
Naturally, my learners are far braver than I am, so I've roped them in to help me. Here's a preview of what you can expect...
See you at the weekend!
In a previous setting, I remember a big debate forming part of a staff meeting; how can we change the phrase 'Book Scrutiny' to something less demonic? For many, these two words send a shock of fear down the spine. However, I fail to think of many professions that don't encompass some form of Quality Assurance, and ours is no different. Moreover, it shouldn't be. It's just, as per usual, the strategies employed have often left a bad taste in people's mouths, resulting in negative connotations of such actions: scrutiny, observation, audit...sweating yet? Don't.
The silly thing is, unsurprisingly, whatever you call the Quality Assurance in any profession, its primary objective remains the same. Therefore, it's not the idea of being scrutinised that we don't like - it's the idea of 'failing' it. Furthermore, it's the proceeding steps that cause the discomfort; what happens next? That's the bit we need to get better at. It's common sense to check the quality of a product. Your car goes for an MOT, restaurants leave you a comment card, and I know you've heard of Trip Advisor. It's a necessity. Often misconducted.
My post today comes with a couple of aims:
Below, you will find 2 pieces of writing, each, from a small group of children in my English class. They will be presented as a series of paired sliding photos; one pair per child.
My writing process is very much based on Pie Corbett's methods. I first starting writing about him here. Check it out!
I teach writing using a three step process. I presented each step in 3 separate blogs that you can read by clicking below:
I was once asked how I plan English. After giving a terrible verbal answer, I wrote it down. Give that a read here and here.
All of my teaching relates to what I call the ToolBox. Whether displayed or otherwise, you can read more about that (with free resources) here.
Now I feel scared. I wonder if I'm actually brave enough to press POST.
Disclaimer. I'm more than aware we are very much 'working towards' age expectations. However, I am so proud of how far they have come in a single term, and I am really looking forward to building on our strong foundations. I am pleased to be developing a class of young writers, who are seeing themselves as such; writers. We will add further tools to our ToolBox in the coming terms. Let me know if you'd like updates!
A while ago, I wrote about the time I showed my class various articles, regarding teachers' requests for an extended data submission date, in light of the late receipt of the exemplification materials. I showed them the video message, from our Education Secretary, addressing teacher's concerns regarding assessment, where the MP clarified some of the surrounding myths.
It wasn't a lesson on indoctrination, as one might think, but my hook for a unit of Poetry.
We talked about the pros and cons of exams. I explained how I use them as a teacher. They said why they think they're useful for life. We shared experiences of tests and how we feel while preparing for them, taking them and hearing our result; the downs and the ups.
After that, we read this poem, by Michael Rosen. It's his hauntingly accurate Guide To Education.
Later, we read the poem "The Minister for Exams" by Brian Patten. We discussed the message behind it and I was careful to ensure they understood its apparent breaking of 'the rules'; I hadn't spent months banging on about proper use of capital letters for them to take this example as gospel. We noticed how, while punctuation was used normally, capital letters appeared at every new line, rather than new sentence.
We read the poems, and I showed them this video too...
While Patten's is a little more sombre, Rosen's penultimate line lightened the mood a little - "Education is getting better because there is much more testing". It really struck a chord and I was very impressed with the children's ideas and responses to the poem; they had a lot to say.
I was using the poems, video and discussion as a stimulus for children to write their own poetry inspired by Patten and Rosen, but I felt like part of it became a life lesson; a chance for them to think about their future and how to get there, beginning to understand some of the hurdles that they might need to overcome on the way; this strange idea that, sometimes (despite our own best efforts) our successes are completely down to whether someone else agrees with our answer!
Our next lesson started with me teaching the difference between open and closed questions. We gave examples of each and talked about how an open question can have many answers, and that our answer might differ from someone else's...so who is correct? If anyone? Apples or leaves?
Later, we started to make up our answers to open questions, thinking about how we could include our different writing tools: metaphors, similes, etc.
After our annotating of the poem, rehearsal of open and closed questions, it was time for the children to write their own. Many of them came from a real place. It was so interesting to read their final verses. Patten uses a road-sweeper as the result of his 'failure', and we took some time to discuss our own ideas of a job we would dislike. The whole point of the unit was to discuss how differing opinions are part of life, and job choice was the same. We were careful to ensure your idea of an awful job, might actually be someone's dream career (my younger brother always wanted to be a bin-man; he used to sit at the window and wave through the glass!)
While we 'ticked off' a few Poetry objectives, we gained so much more. We learnt that the discomfort of exam season is almost universal, but in a sense it's a rite of passage, the storm after the calm. We learnt about how people will always have different opinions to ours, but it's what we do about it that's important. We learnt how, sometimes, we can give our all, but if that key person disagrees, it might not get us where we need.
Not fair? Ask the Minister for Exams.
Let's teach children the idea of a Plan B and equip them with the skills to cope with possible failure, because there are times in life when we could have done no more, at the hands of an unknown authority.
SATs week has arrived and the tests have been opened. You're about to be assessed on a 6 year curriculum, that you've only experienced for a maximum of 2 years. There is a great expectation that many will come out as 'Emerging' or 'Less than expected', when in actual fact they have made incredible gains against the curriculum they were just on. For all, the progress will have been tremendous; there's just no previous set of numbers to prove it. How irritating.
Here's why I thought the Baseline Assessment was a great idea.
Originally, a group of companies were put forward as the official suppliers of, what would have been, a nationally recognised test, to be completed within the first 6 weeks of a four-year-old starting school. The critics never liked the idea, and in practice, it sounds like a hideous ordeal for a small person; a test, for a 4 year old? Horrific.
Paper and pencil, tapping a tablet screen or supplying copious notes and photographic evidence were all strategies included in administering these entry exams to infants just out of the pram, but they have finally been announced as no longer being 'used for accountability'.
The differing actions of data collection were cited as the main reasons for the decision; how can you fairly compare data collected through such different methods?
However, I actually thought the principle of the Baseline Assessment was ideal.
The first 4 years of every child entering your school have been completely different. One little person in your September intake was read to every day, while another was placed in front of the TV to stare at whatever screen was on at the time, age appropriate or otherwise. That little boy sat in his high-chair completing some very cheaply resourced crafts, while another was hardly spoken to as their primary care-giver (be that hired or otherwise) barely said 2 words to them, because why would they? They're only a baby. That little girl was taken to the park (free of charge) to play on the swings while another viewed the world through the phone screen that was tossed at them to keep them quiet, day in, day out.
The first day of school arrives and they all find themselves in your classroom; vibrant displays, carefully chosen resources and a team of smiling faces are all ready to help nurture their social skills and physical development. It's your job to start teaching them their initial sounds, letters and numbers. Now, some of them have seen these before in books, some of them might even have made recognisable marks on paper before. Some of them have already started learning how to share and be sociable, to say please and thank you and how to look after their most basic needs. However, some of them have no idea what you're talking about; they've never been read to, scribbled with a crayon, cheered '10 Green Bottles', jumped in a puddle or had a friend over for tea.
The Baseline Assessments were FINALLY a way to get the Ivory Tower to see what you're faced with on that first day in September. Yes, it seemed drastic, but these people only speak in graphs and percentages. YOU know what's going on; you've done your home visits, asked the important questions, and put the appropriate support in place. But the Big Wigs didn't see that, they weren't there.
It was finally a way to see the ENTIRE impact your school has on a child's life, measuring their development across the whole time they spend with you; rather than checking up on them 2 years in, when some of your best work has already been done, and then again at the end of KS2.
We are all so aware that children make progress at different rates, racing up and down depending on what's going on in their lives. So what about those children who made their most accelerated progress once they stepped into your safe, Early Years environment, catching up with many of their peers? It goes unnoticed by those who could ultimately tell you you're not doing a good enough job? Based on what? They don't have their starting point in a format they'd recognise.
Part of me can convince myself these are no longer being 'used for accountability' because the results would have been too good; the upfront and honest nature of their starting point, with little room for criticism of the school, against an impressive KS2 result (after a lot of hard work and a supportive family) would mean we're doing too well! Surely, it's better to assume all 4 year olds are the same, and expect them to achieve identical results with little regard for how far they have come? Maybe not.
I think the results of a Baseline Assessment would have been too much of a wake-up call for too many important people; they got scared. Finding the genuine value of a school's impact from start to finish? Too real. To banish them completely would be too much money wasted, so we'll say "Schools will have the option to continue to use the baseline assessments...as part of their on-entry assessment of pupils. The outcomes from the assessments will not be used for accountability."
Translation; We would like to politely ignore the differing backgrounds of your children, in favour of assuming they are identically matched in every aspect at age 4, as this is the system we use at the end of each key stage. We will review your end data, without knowing the start point, and let you know our findings.
Although maybe not the best method of data collection, I think the Baseline Assessment was a decent idea (that needed tweaking) discarded too soon. The principle of it was exactly as I believe Assessment should be; measuring a starting point (Baseline) and an end point (SATs), noticing the difference between the 2. Surely they couldn't 'fail' that way? I'd be interested to hear from anyone using them.
Return of the old National Curriculum and the associated levels? No.
My entry today comes with 2 objectives:
The previous curriculum was built around cycles of objectives that got continuously harder before the year had finished. For those able to keep up, it was great; the challenge was always there, pre-set. However, for those who struggled with the previous objective, whether you understood or not, you were pushed to move on. Common sense will tell you that the teacher would keep track of everyone's success, able to tailor the lesson as best as they could so everyone was stretched. This includes every best effort to organise timely intervention. However, the awful levels culture skewed this ideology somewhat. In a world fuelled by numbers, practitioners and their school leaders found themselves in a wicked game to create the illusion of success, by having your numbers as high as possible, to be superficially judged by those the other side of the gate.
This was a 2 fold problem:
The results of this were self explanatory; the gaps among the learners got wider, and many were left behind when others were forced on, while other groups were left unprepared for the next year because they were never given the time to fully understand all of the learning they had just skimmed (but were able to scrape together the satisfactory amount of evidence in order to be judged as the 'higher' band on a single occasion, likely encompassing a heavy amount of modelling and very little independence).
Grossly unfair on all counts, and completely impractical as they continue through the education process.
The 2014 National Curriculum is our chance to rebalance our classrooms and provide support for those who need it most, while also providing open ended application for those who relish a challenge.
Rather than needing to understand a concept in 2 days, before revisiting it, at a harder level, in 3 months time, we now have a set of objectives that you have a year to engage with and understand; emerge into, and aim to master. For the first time in my career, I have a curriculum encouraging the use of manipulatives and imagery to enable the children to build up a bank of practical experiences to help them solve problems. Yes, there are a lot of objectives, but through your Assessment For Learning, you can decide which ones require the most time allocation (made easier because the objectives stay the same).
Rather than pushing your children through a set of criteria to reach the highest number as quickly as possible, we now have a system that encourages them to stay within their set of criteria, but experiment with the application of everything they have learnt during that time; depth, not breadth.
This is likely the part many teachers are finding the most difficult; it's the biggest difference between the 2 curriculums, and therefore ignites the most fear. Whereas, before, you would steam through adding and subtracting 3 digit numbers, up to 4 digits, to money, through to decimals, we are now being asked to provide other challenges that stay with the 3 digit numbers; word problems, number puzzles, proving/disproving statements, investigations, missing digit problems, using the inverse, etc. The fear is visual; "you're still doing 3 digit numbers", so where's the progress? Simple. The progress comes from the complexity and level of understanding required to complete a problem successfully; much more beneficial in the long term, compared to, "Now try this 4 digit number."
Why? The new system is about checking understanding. Really, if you've understood the place value behind adding and subtracting, and how to use the columns in a written method, you'll be successful regardless of how big the number is, so the only thing you were stretching was the question! Now you can provide opportunities to apply the learning, and you don't need to touch the next set of objectives in order to do that; touching the next year group's objectives isn't a signal of attainment.
The successes of this are also 2 fold:
While it's had some teething problems, I am a firm believer in the 2014 National Curriculum and the Assessment changes it has brought along with it. It will just take time. The problem is not the new curriculum or the 'standards' it is written with, but the expectation that pupils, who have only just completed a year of the new system, will be able to be fairly assessed on an order of events they haven't partaken in, within a wider community of schools and their families who haven't had a chance to catch up with the new system in a mutually understood language - we are not even convinced those who wrote the system fully understand it!
Teachers, calm down; you're clouding yourselves. We are conditioned to respond to criticism and jump through hoops to achieve criteria we spent years learning. Now that the criteria is different, we panic because know the same critics will come, expecting to see the same professional practice with little REAL time to adjust. Use this chance to work together to create a system that works for you; a system you'll be able to confidently explain to a critic.
Critics, please don't touch the curriculum for at least 6 years. Give it time to filter through, for at least one cohort to get through the whole process. Let us make sense of it; we are more qualified than you.
It is our job to make the most of what we are given, to equip these children for the rest of their lives. A daunting prospect when led by a less-qualified, higher power with a more numerical aim, but we can do it!
Teaching Maths is like spinning plates. While teaching fractions, you need to keep the number and place value plate spinning, ensuring the geometry dish is still going, before the multiplication ceramic comes crashing down.
In years gone by, this could have been achieved through 'starters'; traditionally the first 10 minutes of the lesson, to warm up the students' brains. When we were working with the National Numeracy Strategy, I used to take an objective from Block A through E for each day, Monday to Friday, to revise. It worked well; we all knew every Wednesday that I would present some form of graph and ask questions; we dreaded Fridays because I would ask for decimal fraction equivalents.
However, in this time of curriculum change, where children already in the system are playing catch-up to meet the new expectations, sometimes the first 10 minutes of revision could be better used as a hook for the latest objective or a chance for deeper study of the raised bar.
Yet we still need to keep the plates spinning.
Alongside my Entry Quizzes, I try to have a good grasp on what the children can already do. While never 100% accurate, it's much simpler to plan for their next steps when you have a real-time starting point. Using this information, I know where to pitch their work and, as a further result, I can also design more challenges for them; chances to reason, problem solve and apply.
Each lesson includes a series of questions that the children can choose from. (I'm likely to write about this sometime too!) But, in addition to these Challenges, I use simply typed sticky labels, placed randomly in spare spaces by some helpful children, to mix up the types of question they answer; it's like an extension of the Extension, adding that 'starter' style revision, just to the end of the lesson, once the most important skill of that day has been covered. I have found it more time-efficient than opening the lesson with a series of information that might be of little use when it comes to the main input. In an ideal world, of course the opening would link to the main, but then we return to square one when considering how to prepare children for a world that isn't so neatly compartmentalised.
For example, in a lesson on addition, showing adequate proficiency once you have answered your questions, tackled the Challenge (the Extension; likely a set of word problems or a "what are the possibilities?" question) you can flick through your book spotting the stars; these are the sticky labels.
Upon the labels, you might find new versions of the measure problems we have been tackling, or a fractions question that'll need to be solved. It might ask you to calculate the area of a shape, or find the answer to a question requiring multiple steps. Either way, you'll need to search your brain (and your book) to remind yourself of the methods, ideas and strategies we were learning, switching from the addition you have just been practising.
It will rarely be something new, and I have found it really useful as tool to look back on; cast your eye over their answers to see how much is being retained and what will need further coverage.
Furthermore, I'm a big believer in the children's books becoming almost like a catalogue; a self-made text book. Hopefully, by encouraging them to look back through everything they have achieved, the pages become little triggers; setting off a memory of that unit we haven't visited recently, searching for the label that could be answered by revising this page.
As with everything, this won't work for everyone. However, I think it's important to find new ways to have the children revise the learning they have covered; it's a study skill for life. This method gives every child a chance to do that. We work hard to ensure 'everything makes sense' to our classes, but once we are not there, we need to feel confident that they can make sense for themselves, choosing suitable methods to solve mixed problems with the vast knowledge they have been given.
I have created some Challenge stickers below; each set adheres to the objectives of the specified year group. They're great for a quick and easy extension, covering a variety of topics, aiming to keep as much learning as possible at surface level for easy retrieval and application. They should print neatly on a simple label sheet (18 labels to a sheet). Alternatively, you might want to print on paper and guillotine.
Many have forgotten the most important aspect of this; the children. The learners should be at the forefront of as many decisions as possible. And if those in charge find that difficult, then it's down to you to do the moulding. If what you're doing is showing promise, why would you change it? This is the wonderful opinion of my current setting. Conversely, if the approach advised isn't working as well as you hoped, then amend it. Make edits based on the learners and use them as your guide; not the heading on those PowerPoint slides you were handed at last week's meeting.
Too many decisions are already made by those who haven't set foot in your school to see the learners in action. So do them a favour and make good choices on the children's behalf. Speak to your class, involve the families and come to a common understanding in a profession that is already diluted.
Predictably, the conclusion of every single assignment/research/debate/discussion will be along the lines of, "one size doesn't fit all", and, ironically, I don't see that changing. So if that teacher chooses to do that thing you heard about, and you feel it's not right for your class, don't do it.
At times, you will feel like you're breaking the rules, and you will most certainly be taking some risks, but have the learners as your end goal, and you can't go wrong.
We need strong-willed people like you to lead our young people to a successful future! Positivity and the love of a challenge create success. It's Kommon Cents.
My week of teaching started with me showing my class the video message from Nicky Morgan MP (Secretary for Education), regarding the changes in Primary Assessment, and explaining how teachers got together to change the submission date for their own moderation of KS2 Writing. I explained how the Government were a little late with the 'homework' they had promised us (by releasing their exemplification materials a little too out of time), yet still expected it to be 'marked' by the same deadline. This led to a fascinating discussion; a great stimulus for a unit of work on poetry (which I will share at another time).
I felt it was important for the children to understand, that many of the demands we make of them aren't necessarily coming from us. Some will say this was too heavy, but they had some interesting and extremely valid thoughts; I'd recommend you bring up the subject with the older children in your own school. I was incredibly impressed with how mature their ideas were regarding tests; why we take them, the pros and cons, etc. In many cases, their opinions were very profound. It also enabled them to put some of the difficulties they will face, with the system, into perspective against their ambitious futures because, ultimately, the assessment system means nothing to them at this point in their life.
Teaching is acting; we must make things appear to be of higher importance in the mind of a child. Take Statutory Assessments, for example. Depending on your angle, I believe you have 2 options:
In a sense, it's similar to AT1 and AT2 in Religious Education; Learning about... and Learning from...
A great teacher will help the children learn FROM their experiences of preparing for assessments. By this, I mean they will promote the behaviours in preparing for a test, the attitudes while taking the test, and the reaction when you hear the result.
A different teacher will educate the children ABOUT taking the assessments. By this, I mean they will only cover topics needed for the test (because why would you need to know anything else?), coach you to answer the different types of question required in the test, and encourage you to judge yourself based upon the result, as if this test has defined you.
Not too long ago, and even still now (as some refuse to accept the glorious disappearance of meaninglessly inflated 'levels'), I would cringe when hearing children boast about their grade when, quite simply, you would look across the classroom at the child who had received a much lower result, but put in far more effort leading to great improvement! Equally, you would hear of the person barking at their class to include various vocabulary, because someone had considered it to be "a Level 5 word" (what even IS that!?!) Even more heart-breaking was the experienced teacher calling out their children because they were "still only a 2B!"
Now, there's no denying that qualifications can impact your future, and that children experience various styles of assessment throughout their primary career, but I firmly believe these should be used as something to learn FROM, rather than ABOUT; if they have to do them, make them as useful as possible. Life, after all, is full of tests.
As well as a tool for tailoring holistic learning, a great teacher, in my opinion, will use statutory tests, in-house assessments, etc, for the following:
Finally, demonstrate the value of improvement. Why? Because you might feel your 50% result wasn't good enough, compared to the person who gets a consistent 74% every time. But the fact you used to get zero, and continued to put in the effort, to achieve your ever-increasing personal best, is far more important. In the same way that using the lessons above, and applying yourself consistently, will launch you into a life of varied fulfilment, respect from the right characters and an internal sense of self-worth, knowing you worked hard to get you to whatever dream you had when that different teacher told you "your result isn't good enough".
The test you're about to take doesn't mean much; but your education is everything. Learn FROM the process, not ABOUT the process.
Note: As you will see by the dates in the photos, this entry has been a long time in the making. It is written out of overwhelming pride in my learners; I am so pleased with what they achieved in such a short space of time and I have been really looking forward to sharing it with you.
RECAP - As I have previously written, Pie Corbett's system of 'Immerse, Imitate, Innovate' when planning for writing, is one of my favourite approaches. For me as a teacher, it makes complete sense (although not the only approach - one size doesn't fit all, remember!) To present my interpretation of what he means, I am going to explain the unit of work I planned, provide photos to illustrate what the children did, and I'm hoping you'll see the learning journey they went on in the process - each set of photos shows the work of one child, across the entire process, in order.
After the Immersion, I needed my children to Imitate; within safe and specific boundaries, model what it is to be successful in what we are learning. Remember, I was looking for my children to start using expanded noun phrases and commas appropriately.
Using all of our discussions (and the mindmaps that came from them) we had lots of ideas that we could use. I wrote some short pieces of writing that, in turn, were missing one of the features I was looking for. The children were extremely aware of what we were learning; each day we had discussed why an author would use these in their writing and the effect it has on the reader when they are present.
As a result, when we read a piece of writing (that I had written) that didn't use expanded noun phrases (although did provide more ISPACE openers, featuring a correctly used comma), the children were keen to explain how the former would improve it.
Equally, when we read another piece (that I had also written) that was extremely repetitive with the sentence openers (and showed even less reason to require a comma, making all the sentences the same length, although used expanded noun phrases) the class had lots of ideas of how to include some variety (and the resulting punctuation requirements).
Essentially, we repeated the same pattern twice in order to imitate success;
The first round was all about the noun phrases, and the second was trying to find ways to include commas (most often by extending the sentence with extra clauses, thus making the writing more engaging for the reader and therefore, more successful).
I put the success of this down to the fact that, on each occasion, the learners only had one thing to think about. Again, I previously wrote about how some classrooms see learners too often trying to create a completed piece of writing with no build up, using (for example) 5 different features, none of which have actually been taught to the children; they're expected to have gained enough knowledge of those 5 different aspects from the 10 minute modelled writing their teacher did, that had no relevance to the writing they worked hard on yesterday or the unrelated writing they will do tomorrow; this odd idea that 'having lots done' is good, with little consideration for how much the children have gained, understood or could use again by themselves; instead, giving them a worrying experience that promotes them to over-rely (polite word for copy) on the teacher's example because they have no knowledge of their own. A signal of faults in the system, not a reflection of the teacher.
Through the method we used here, the children experienced applying 2 different aspects in depth (using everything they had learnt in the days previous), not needing to worry about the other, more secretarial qualities, because they had been taken care of on this occasion. Consequently, they also had 2 pieces of writing to be proud of and even more examples to draw upon when it came to the Innovation stage!
To be continued...
Note: As you will see by the dates in the photos, this entry has been a long time in the making. It is written out of overwhelming pride in my learners; I am so pleased with what they achieved in such a short space of time and I have been really looking forward to sharing it with you.
As I have previously written, Pie Corbett's system of 'Immerse, Imitate, Innovate' when planning for writing, is one of my favourite approaches. For me as a teacher, it makes complete sense (although not the only approach - one size doesn't fit all, remember!) To present my interpretation of what he means, I am going to explain the unit of work I planned, provide photos to illustrate what the children did, and I'm hoping you'll see the learning journey they went on in the process - each set of photos shows the work of one child, in order.
While a range of objectives would broadly be included, I had chosen some key ones that we would focus on:
Writing needs an inspired context so, using the book as a stimulus, I wanted the children to write the next chapter; Sir Simon, a ghost trying to scare the Otis family out of the house, comes up with his next plan. Each chapter was already about each of his failed plans (you can see at the bottom of the flipchart that we had kept track of his attempts so far) so we were quite simply writing another idea. As teacher, I'm not overly bothered what the idea is; I need to see some expanded noun phrases and the beginnings of using a comma appropriately!
The Immersion came in 3 stages:
To be continued...