My research dissertation was around the subject of teacher control; the title was something along the lines of, "To what extent does teacher confidence affect pupil achievement and self-esteem?" - the idea being, if a teacher isn't brave enough to let go, and is constantly providing a rigid example for children to copy, will they ever be able to match up to the standard in a way they could replicate on their own? Or will it be a constantly negative comparison to the version you created, leaving them ill-equipped?
Naturally, the conclusion was as fluffy as, "a mix of strategies is best" - this is the conclusion for everything in education. Often a rigid example (the support) is required near the beginning of learning something, and then you can loosen the strings as their experience broadens. Like learning to ride a bike.
With this in mind, the fourth part of my #LearningFirst workshop was about teaching the children the importance of Responsibility and Choice.
Strategies for improving teaching and learning:
1. Honest Modelling.
Your input should be you exampling what YOU would do, however, I think it's important that you let them know OTHERS may do it differently. Explain that if they're finding it tricky, to stick with the method that you have shown, but if they have a way of doing something themselves, that they can confidently explain, then that's alright! (Use their explanation to clarify any misconceptions too).
2. Provide options.
Imagine how far you would get through life without needing to make a decision. Would you ever achieve anything of any real value if you were constantly told what to do? My Maths is self-differentiated, and I veer away from guided groups in writing. Teach children the importance of making choices, and create a sense of pride in being an independent learner. You will also be able to promote more self and peer assessment through this route as they navigate their own decision making.
3. Foster Creativity.
One of the things that makes marking more bearable is that I have 30-ish pieces of work that all different! Disseminate the information they need and watch what they do with it. My class and I have an agreement, whatever they present to me at the end of the lesson needs to be informative and aesthetically pleasing. Try it, you'll be amazed at what they produce. You'll also be maximising the occasions that they find themselves solving problems.
4. Use responsibility as an assessment tool.
Often, the argument against providing less support is that they 'can't be bothered if you don't help them'. If this is the case, your classroom ethos is wrong, not the fact you haven't given them a structure. My children know that taking the easy way out is not going to get them anywhere - a fact they can apply to life. Granted, they're also aware it's going to be tough at times, but then I echo the thought above - teach them what pride feels like.
I found with many purchasable systems, they relied on a very basic, unfounded belief that all children make equal gains at timetabled stop-points within the year. As current teachers, we know that simply isn't true, yet in the business of proving progress, you'd be required the tick the box regardless, in order to make the algorithm give the result you needed on the analysis. I wanted a system that better reflected how children make progress in writing, while also giving leaders what they needed.
My systems works on the simple idea that you can reward children for the smaller steps in progress that they make. By awarding points 0 through 10, you can always credit the children for their inevitable progress, and the overall judgement is based on what percentage of the skills (at whatever level of capability) they are completing successfully.
Don't ask, "But how do you know whether to award them a 4 or a 5?" Use the same part of your brain that decided whether they were at or above, or a 3b or 3a. It takes a few turns, but it always has done.
While I'll never recover the costs of creating the app, I loved every step of the project, and I fully intend on doing it all again soon; it's an expensive hobby, but I really enjoy the process. I'm so grateful for everyone's support - the feedback has been so kind and generous. I can't believe, after making a little sketch in my notebook, that I now have something selling globally; this has been such an adventure. Thank you for everything. Mr N. x
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!
This process relies on them having paid attention at each previous stage in order for them to apply their learning of each skill at the end; the middle section is undoubtedly the most important, where we see the effect this skill has on a piece of writing. Visually, the learning process is extremely clear and the children are able to articulate the progress they have made. Each lesson starts with revision of the skills already covered, ready to add a new one to the list.
It does sound extremely long winded, with an easy response being, “How do you have time? There’s so much to cover!” But my equally easy reply would be that it’s important to invest time. As long as you have a rough plan about where you’ll teach each skill, and in what context, you’re safe in knowing you’ll get the coverage you need, while gently adding new learning to the ever-increasing list of features young writers are expected to exhibit.
I have found this method to be extremely valuable because it gives the learners more stable ground to move forward; investing time into teaching, and designing specific, purposeful practice opportunities, saves time banging on about the same missing features. The challenge as the teacher is to ensure the skills you have taught previously continue to be used, despite changing the focus to something new. For example, while I taught you about time connectives through writing instructions, there’s no reason you can’t continue to use them in your recount, when the new skill I’m teaching you is how to use conjunctions. Equally, I could teach you about using adjectives in your narrative to describe the setting, but I will still expect to see them in your non-chronological report about a creature, when I’m focussing the learning on the purpose of paragraphs.
Constant revision and visual clues help the children embed the learning; this is why I refer to all the skills as the ‘tools’ of writing. However, that’s nothing without you! Use personality, make jokes, anecdotes and actions for them to pin their knowledge to. For example, I always talk about using sights, sounds and feelings in writing; I point to my eye, ear and heart every time I say them. I know that when I say ‘feelings’, I can ask my children ‘Just emotions?’ and they’ll all point to their arm and reply ‘No, physical feelings too!’ I’m amazed they’ve retained so much, but I guess that's through spending time learning something, and repeating the quality we're looking for, rather than expecting sufficient competency after the first model.
Dear Student, I’m so sorry my explanation the other day was so poor, I hope this is a little better. I know what I mean! :)
Dear Colleagues, I'd like to know what you think; have I overthought something so simple, or do you do something similar?
A short while ago, I was trying to explain how I plan English to a student; I found it extremely difficult. This concerned me because I felt as though my poor attempts at explaining were reflective of my approach, rendering my methods useless, yet I was also extremely aware that no idea is original, and that there must be others who plan in the same way I do (just they can articulate it in a clearer voice).
So my post today comes with two aims:
I’m a big believer in teaching a concept before expecting the children to apply it. Many will do both at the same time; model a series of skills while applying them. Personally, I’ve found it difficult to do this. I prefer to break down a process and teach the steps, then model how to use the steps to create success. In my class, this often means that Success Criteria can be the same for a few days in a row, as we gain confidence and learn about each piece of the criteria. Over time, I have found my children more able to retain their learning through this method, as I try to make the learning more explicit before attempting the applying.
To illustrate, I’m going to give a commentary of my decision making process, alongside a fictitious sequence to demonstrate what I mean.
To be continued...
I'm surprised I'm writing this, but I want to discuss homework. What once was the bane of my teaching life, has become a staple part of my week, and I'm almost starting to enjoy it.
I completely understand the debate...
However, with my recent thoughts regarding the children's future (whether that be based on their behaviour, career choice, support from home, or general attitude), once again I'm beginning to consider the wider lessons of homework. It's more than an awkward hour on a Sunday, and I think my change of heart has been triggered by how I've conducted myself composing the tasks in the first place.
Today's blog is a quick timeline of my exampled approaches so far, with some pros and cons for balance.
With a change of school, where things are organised differently, my approach to homework is different again (which I'll share another time). But it's not only the system that has changed, it's also my own thoughts.
Completing home work used to irritate me as a child, and setting it was very similar. It was always an afterthought on a Friday. It took strength not to pull up the first worksheet on Google because, when done properly, it really does have a place and, as a teacher, you can do a lot of good with a well-written piece of homework. My constant thinking recently, is that our children are our investment for the future, and they need to be equipped with a myriad of talents. Now, I find myself putting the time in because I want to; I want them to go home and show off what they can do - I want them to keep their brain buzzing with skills, ready to apply at any given moment.
It doesn't need to detract from playing outside and going to the park, it can be done as well as. So, my top 3 pieces of advice:
The first thing I ever wanted to be was a teacher. Inside my bedroom, I made displays on the backs of my wardrobe doors, had a small collection of exercise books from the local stationers, and I sometimes transformed my room into a 'trip', where I'd laid out non-fiction texts and guide books from places I'd been with my family.
As I grew up, I went through a series of other professions as my target. In many ways, I think I am lucky to have returned to my original idea of becoming a teacher; it gave me a path to follow and a clear end goal. It also meant, whenever I was asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I had an obvious answer.
But what are you to do if you're not sure? Rush into a decision? Lie? Say you don't know?
I like to think I would have gone for option 3, but I suppose I'll never know. At what point do you need to choose? At what point are you allowed to change your mind? Would we become greater successes, with more time to plan ahead, to make our options?
With this in mind, a teacher at my school wanted to open our children's minds to the sorts of jobs out there, and it was one of the most rewarding things I've ever been part of. It wasn't an occasion to pigeon-hole them into a job at 10 years old, but a rare opportunity for them to speak to a huge variety of people about what on Earth they do all day!
It all started with a simple letter to parents, asking if they'd be willing to volunteer their time to speak to our Year 5 and 6 children about their profession. We waited for the exact details of how to organise the event until we knew the sort of response we would get.
A few weeks flew and we received just over 20 replies, all from a wide variety of industries. The response was so good, our teacher decided to hold the event across an entire day. We split the volunteers across 4 classes (5 in each) and the children rotated around each room for each lesson of the day. It was fantastically organised - with a throw-back school lunch thrown in too - and our children gained so much from the experience.
We had a foster carer who explained the 24/7 nature of her job.
A few people from banks, customer service roles and international companies.
We had a midwife, who explained the reason for her profession was to help other mothers.
We had a globe-trotting businessman who explained how his schedule impacts on family life.
There was a publisher who's recently worked with a famous British Vlogger.
A professional footballer who explained his plan B after a career-shattering injury.
A couple of firefighters, a policeman and a few engineers.
We had a clinical psychologist and an occupational therapist.
A student teacher, childminder and Civil Servant.
In a spare hour between meetings, our Head Teacher even came to sit with a group!
Our children were totally inspired. As an anchor, we prepared a small booklet featuring the names of all our volunteers, with space for the children to write questions and make notes. We started the day with what they'd like to be, if they knew, and ended the day with the same question. It was not expected that they changed their mind as a way to 'show progress', but it was interesting to hear how many of them came up with 'but if that doesn't work out...' or had a clearer idea of a route to help them get to where they wanted.
Qualifications, experience and further education are all very samey from your teacher's voice. It verges on nagging. But to hear about the value of effort and hard work, from a wide range of different people, was invaluable.
The day was a complete success; the product of a teacher's work, another example of supporting our learners. I'd recommend you try it yourself. We will definitely repeat it, although maybe spread it across a few half-days; our volunteers essentially had the same conversation 20 times, which can be tricky.
Thank you to our teacher, who masterminded the whole thing, and thank you to our volunteers who I don't think will ever realise the impact they have had.
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.
While completing my studies, an ever-increasing number of years ago, we studied a module called "Cross-Curricular Learning". There was a big push on this approach at the time and it differed from my own schooling, where we had subjects taught discretely. Although my compulsory education has finished, throughout my studies as a teacher, both in and out of the classroom, I have experienced and enjoyed the benefits of teaching skills applied in various subjects, linked to the same 'topic'.
As a teacher, I've previously written of how pleasantly challenging it is to plan a 'topic'; piecing together sensible chunks of learning, making links between curriculum areas in order to best example exhibiting a particular skill. However, in a profession where every conclusion is "one size doesn't fit all", is a cross curricular approach always best?
Teaching in a cross-curricular way means that so much more of the learning can be transferred across different areas of the timetable. Not only is this almost a time saver, it also means that each lesson throughout the day scaffolds the next. For this reason, learners find a great deal of confidence from a cross curricular approach; increased self-esteem and being more willing to participate. It's as if they were taught the answer before this lesson, and now they can apply it to their task.
It's a real skill for a teacher to be able to match up the various learning objectives, in order to ensure the children are reading a book in English, that links to a period of History, that took place in that specific Geographical area, allowing a study of Technological advances during the time (and maybe designing and making a version of your own) while immersing yourselves in the the culture (music, religion, art, etc) of the area it all happened in!
Such a focus on a particular area gets the class fired up; with one buzz-word or topic on their mind, they are free to do their own research. Outside of the classroom, parents are able to talk to their children about, or take them to visit, or help them investigate a variety of things linked to this single subject they are coming home to talk about!
Linking curriculum areas allows better rehearsal of the most basic skills, wrapped up in an exciting context; writing the newspaper article about..., solving a problem linked to…, etc. So much of the vocabulary can be used, outside of lesson it was introduced in, as they may require it for a piece of writing or to aid them in their reasoning.
All of the above only counts if the 'topic' is something the children care about. While much of it is down to delivery (some elements of the curriculum need real acting skills to model how 'exciting' they are), perhaps there are just some curriculum targets that some learners aren't interested in?
Picture this, a cross-curricular theme that the quietest, most polite learners really disengage with, you'd never know because they don't make a fuss; learners in your room that don't give two hoots about different mountain ranges around the globe, the explorers that climbed them, writing a diary entry from their 'journal' and plotting a graph about the heights of each. Or that group of children who aren't fussed by the gory details of the Egyptians, writing a story of an archaeologist, or investigating different types of triangle that didn't make it to the final pyramid design. Through a topic that's solely about either of those, that's potentially 6 weeks of learning missing the key ingredient; motivation.
Equally, while I write above that planning a topic that requires a huge amount of skill, there are some elements that just don't fit. Consequently, we run the 2 main risks:
The solution? Well, you can't ignore the objectives they find boring or that you can't make purposeful links with. It's in the curriculum; they need to learn about it at some point. So perhaps teaching the mountains in Geography and the Egyptians in History, as discrete lessons, means you can appeal to more interests over a longer average period of time, without missing as many curriculum ideas.
My most recent setting has really got me thinking; it's less 'cross-curricular' than I was used to, and I have been really surprised by the differences I have seen.
First of all, I have never seen a group of children so excited about the different curriculum areas; they have a real passion for particular subjects, and this differs from child to child. Now, some will say that we need to get them excited about ALL of the different subjects, but common sense will tell you that's not likely to happen. They keep checking the visual timetable for when Science or History is, or whether Music or RE is coming up. I've never experienced this before, but this is likely due to the fact I never made the 'lines' between the subjects clear enough; we were never learning 'History', we were learning about the Romans (and within that we tackled so many other subjects, that I also didn't specifically state).
Secondly, I've been thinking about how cross-curricular learning, in a sense, could potentially be counter-productive for making the links at the core of being cross-curricular. What links are the children making, when we've been the ones to package it up so neatly for them? My brain ticked over again, and considered how this could also hinder meta-cognition and training the brain to retain and apply information and skills; if I have planned for you to complete a 6 week topic, does that mean you delete everything in time for the next topic to start, or do I need to plan a further week, to revisit this topic, in a few months time to see what you've remembered?
Perhaps a weekly discrete lesson, for more than 6 weeks, encourages the brain to store information more efficiently, over an extended period of time, because you're required to use it more often, with greater gaps between each instance? Like how Maths and English are a constant cycle of revision and extension to ensure the appropriate method of addition, use of adverbial phrases or how to find equivalent fractions, spell homophones or convert to digital time are less likely to be forgotten!
In conclusion, while teaching is extremely fad-led, don't lose sight of making the best choices for your class. Ask them how they learn best, or how they would like to tackle something. At different points in your year, plan chances to be cross-curricular but also remember that everyone in your room has different tastes; perhaps a single unit in a subject would be an enjoyable breather?
What do you think? Cross-curricular all the time, or back to how you and I were taught?