Teaching and Learning Leaders

Image courtesy of @TeacherTweaks – click for link!

Dylan Wiliam’s quote has become totemic for many teachers and school leaders as a driver for good quality CPD, and I am no exception. So much so, that we are reorganising our approach to CPD across the whole school in September, using teaching and learning leaders appointed from within our existing staff body. This is part of our commitment to becoming a growth mindset school, and is the strand that will foster a growth mindset amongst our teaching staff.

The idea first began to percolate when I went to Kev Bartle‘s workshop at TeachMeet Clevedon back in October 2012. In that session, Kev outlined his model of bottom-up CPD run by classroom teachers, his antidote to the top-down model that had become anathema to me over many Inset days listening to another expensive speaker brought in to provide no lasting impact on my practice. It made perfect sense to me, and Kev continued to evangelise the Pedagogy Leaders model through his Trojan Mouse keynote at Pedagoo London in March 2013, and then in a Guardian article in June. The principle is described there as follows:

an approach to the development of teaching and learning…that doesn’t come top-down from a member of the senior leadership team with an “amazing idea” but instead emerges from the experiences and insights of those true classroom-heroes who teach four out of five periods every day.

I jumped at the opportunity to visit Canons High, with my Headteacher, for the first Pedagogy Leaders Network Day in December 2013. The day was designed to outline how they had approached the project and to help delegates to learn some of the lessons, so that the model could be propagated in other schools. It was a real privilege to be there, along with Zoe @fullonlearning Elder and David @dockers_hoops Doherty amongst others, to hear and see the Pedagogy Leaders in action.

pedleaders

 

Once I’d heard one of the Pedagogy Leaders, Tom Curtis, describe his role, I was already sold, but a presentation from Leah McCormick on how the Ped Leaders worked as a team to drive improvement in teaching and learning across the whole school sealed the deal. I didn’t need to see Canons’ glowing Ofsted report and RAISEonline data to know that this worked, and that it could work for us.

Back at base, we were putting the finishing touches to our vision of becoming a growth mindset school, and the continuous improvement approach to teaching and learning chimed perfectly with where we were headed. We began to adapt the Pedagogy Leaders model to our own context, creating the idea of Teaching and Learning Leaders at Chew Valley.

Image courtesy of @shaun_allison. Click for link!

Crucial to the concept was that it should involve all staff. In September, every teacher will be assigned to a Teaching & Learning Team on a cross-curricular basis. My initial idea was that the T&L Teams would focus on developing a growth mindset through:

  • Differentiation
  • Marking & Feedback
  • Questioning
  • Literacy & Numeracy
  • Independent learning

Teaching and Learning teams will meet once per short term in the standard Monday meeting cycle to share best practice and develop skills in their specialist area. In addition, each Inset Day will have a standard structure:

  1. Whole staff (if needed)
  2. Teaching and Learning Teams
  3. Faculty Teams
  4. Pastoral Teams
  5. Development Time

Teaching and Learning Leaders will also meet with SLT as a group once per short term to discuss the overall direction of the project.

We advertised for five Teaching and Learning Leaders, each to be assigned to one of the priorities. These role comes with two non-contact periods in each timetable cycle and a one-year TLR3 payment. The advantage of the TLR3 is that is can be added on to an existing TLR, meaning that existing TLR post-holders could apply for Teaching and Learning Leader roles. The non-contact periods are designated time for the Teaching and Learning Leaders to observe lessons (developmentally and confidentially – not graded), work with colleagues, and find best practice in their expertise area. Teaching & Learning Leaders would also chair and coordinate their termly meetings and the Inset day training sessions. They would be entitled to (and expected to use) a full day to visit other schools to find best practice in their specialist area. This could be split to allow visits to more than one school. The posts would be held for one academic year and new T&L leaders would be appointed for 2015-16. Existing T&L Leaders would be able to apply for the second round.

Once appointed, the Teaching and Learning Leaders will have a bespoke CPD programme in term 6 to prepare for the September launch, covering:

  • Developing Growth Mindset
  • Leadership skills
  • Coaching
  • Lesson observation
  • Facilitation
  • Sharing best practice
  • Twitter and blogging

These sessions will also be crucial for the T&L Leaders to shape their vision for the programme and decide on their priorities; Leah McCormick was very clear that this was crucial for the success of the Pedagogy Leaders at Canons, who asserted their independence from the start by banishing SLT from their first meeting!

The advantages of this model for me are clear:

  • Distributed leadership
  • Cross-curricular working
  • Whole staff regular and continuous focus on key teaching and learning issues
  • Working collaboratively to improve practice
  • Pushing teaching and learning forward
  • Developmental lesson observation model
  • Leadership experience and CPD for T&L leaders

We launched the strategy at our growth mindset inset in March, and in the end made six appointments (such was the strength of the field). In the initial meetings with the newly appointed Teaching and Learning leaders over the coming term, we will negotiate the priorities and how the group will work together. Much of it will be up to them!

One of the key elements which I want to see is the T&L Leaders sharing the best practice they find on a communal blog, after the model of Canons Broadside, KEGS Learning Lessons, and Durrington High’s Class Teaching. The blog – eChewcation – is already set up and I hope it will become a resource not just for Chew Valley staff but for wider teacher community. What shape it – and the project as a whole – will take is as yet undecided, but it feels like the exciting start of something new, and better.

Posted in Growth Mindset, Leadership, Teaching | Tagged , , , , , | 4 Comments

Tracking progress over time: flight paths and matrices

Everyone should already be familiar with the KS2-4 Transition Matrices. A staple of RAISEonline, they were the first thing our HMI asked me for in our last Ofsted inspection and form the staple diet of inspectors judging the impact of a secondary school on progress in English and Maths.

Framework for KS2-4 Transition Matrices

Framework for KS2-4 Transition Matrices

And quite right too. It’s common for secondary teachers to bemoan the inaccuracy of KS2 levels, but like it or not, somehow those students got those levels in Year 6 and we need to add value during their time with us. Of course, the starting point (KS2 levels) and the end point (GCSE grades) are both in flux for the next few years, which renders the measurements somewhat uncertain (see my blog KS2, KS4, Level 6 and Progress 8 – who do we appreciate?), but the principle of measuring student performance on entry and exit to judge progress makes sense.

Over the past year we have been experimenting with progress flight paths which I found initially on Stephen Tierney‘s @LeadingLearner blog. We are now using transition matrices based on our own version of progress flight paths to track progress in each year group and identify students who are at risk of not progressing over time. In this post I will outline the methodology we use; I’m happy to answer any questions in the comments or via my “contact me” page.

But we don’t have National Curriculum levels any more…

No, that’s true – and we don’t use them. As outlined in my post Assessment in the new national curriculum: what we’re doing, we have adapted our assessment criteria at KS3 to reflect GCSE criteria. All our language in reporting to parents and policy statements now refers to “Chew Valley Levels” to clarify our position. This way, we preserve some continuity for students and parents who are used to the levels system, but we create a consistent ladder of knowledge and skills to assess from Year 7 to Year 11. As GCSE grades change to numbers, we may well consider adjusting to a numerical assessment system across the school too, but maintaining the principle of a five-year continuous assessment scheme in each subject.

The flight paths

The flight paths we are using, based on the @LeadingLearner model, are set up as follows:

  • Expected progress: one sub-level of progress in each year
  • Better than expected progress: one and a half sub-levels per year
  • Outstanding progress: two sub-levels per year
  • World class progress: more than two sub-levels per year
Progress flight paths tabulated

Progress flight paths tabulated

The flight paths do not presuppose that progress over time is linear; this was my initial misunderstanding of the model. Rather, they show the trajectory of progress over time within which students need to perform if they are reach or exceed the end of KS4 destinations outlined in RAISEonline. Creating marker points at the end of each year enables early identification of potential issues with progress. At Chew Valley we collect assessments three times in each academic year, all measured against the flight paths. At the first assessment point, only one short term into the year, a greater proportion of students might be lower on the flight paths, but over the course of the academic year teachers can focus their planning to ensure that those students who are at risk of falling behind have any issues addressed.

Creating transition matrices from the flight paths

Using SIMS tracking grids, we have created transition matrices for each year within the curriculum. These can be populated with student names at each assessment point, and generated for teaching groups, gender groups, pupil premium cohort, or any other field within the SIMS dataset. Simply put, students are plotted in the grid with the row representing their KS2 prior attainment level and the column representing their current performance assessment. We will be able to adapt the row and column headings as the assessment systems change.

Example tracking grid template in SIMS

Example tracking grid template in SIMS

Within the template, the fields are colour-coded to represent each of the flight paths:

  • White = below expected
  • Green = expected progress
  • Blue = better than expected
  • Pink = outstanding
  • Yellow = world class

Once populated, the matrices are distributed to curriculum and pastoral leaders and, critically, class teachers. They enable at-a-glance identification of progress issues on an individual, cohort, prior-attainment bracket or group scale.

Example of a populated tracking grid with student names anonymised. Note the tabs across the bottom for teaching groups and subgroups

Example of a populated Y8 tracking grid with student names anonymised. Note the tabs across the bottom for teaching groups and subgroups.

When I was a Head of English, this is the data I would have wanted my SLT to be providing me with. As with all data work in my leadership role, I am trying to adhere to the principles I outlined in my post The Narrative in the Numbers, and to make the data as useful as possible to enable teachers in the classroom to do their job even better. By clicking on my class tab along the bottom of the spreadsheet I will be able to see at-a-glance which students in my group are progressing well, and which less well; then I will be able to plan what I’m going to do about it over the next few terms.

Transferability 

Currently this method is only applied to English and Maths. We have experimented with using an average KS2 points score to create a generic baseline and applying it to other subjects, but it throws up too many anomalies to be reliable or useful (which poses some interesting questions about the proposed Progress 8 methodology). However, it would be possible to apply this model from a Year 7 baseline assessment in any subject – the tools are there.

 

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Becoming a growth mindset school

The idea of becoming a growth mindset school has been over a year in the making. Our Headteacher bought each member of SLT a copy of Mindset for Christmas, and it was the main agenda item at our annual senior team conference. Today I launched the idea of becoming a growth mindset school to all staff at our INSET day. This is the basis of the presentation I did.

Our INSET session was for all staff – teaching, support, administrative, catering, site, network, technicians – everyone! It was essential for us, if we’re going to begin the process of shifting the culture of the school, that all staff are working together as one coherent team. It felt wonderful! As people arrived and settled down, we encouraged everyone to fill out a self-assessment questionnaire, with the results to be given out later! You can download our questionnaire (borrowed from John Tomsett and Huntington School) here.

What is Growth Mindset? 

Professor Carol Dweck and "Mindset"

Professor Carol Dweck and “Mindset”

Growth Mindset is the idea Professor Carol Dweck, the Lewis and Virginia Eaton Professor of Psychology at Stanford University. Dweck has conducted a lifetime’s research into mindsets and established an opposition between a fixed mindset (the belief that intelligence is fixed) and a growth mindset (the belief that intelligence can grow). The differences Dweck establishes are well illustrated in this helpful infographic by Nigel Holmes.

fixedgrowth-copy

Dweck’s approach to mindset was sparked by her own experience of education. In her book, she describes what happened in her sixth-grade class:

Even as a child, I was focused on being smart, but the fixed mindset was really stamped in by Mrs. Wilson, my sixth-grade teacher… She believed that people’s IQ scores told the whole story of who they were. We were seated around the room in IQ order, and only the highest-IQ students could be trusted to carry the flag, clap the erasers, or take a note to the principal. Aside from the daily stomachaches she provoked with her judgmental stance, she was creating a mindset in which everyone in the class had one consuming goal—look smart, don’t look dumb. Who cared about or enjoyed learning when our whole being was at stake every time she gave us a test or called on us in class?

Our aim as a school has to be to build the growth mindset in our young people, and avoid the fixed mindset that can trap them into a premature plateau and cause them to fall short of their unknowable potential.

The Science behind Growth Mindset

I have previously blogged about my tentative first steps into neuroscience. As part of today’s presentation I used this Robert Winston video to explain about neural pathways and synapses:

This video really helps to visualise the learning process in the brain. The first time we try to learn something, it can be really hard. This is because we are making the first connection between neurons across a synapse. If we give up at this stage – as the fixed mindset might encourage us to do – we will never form that neural pathway. If we persist, repeat and deliberately practice the new skill or knowledge, we will create a secure pathway in our brains which will allow us to recall and re-use that skill or knowledge.

Establishing a growth mindset works in just the same way. The first time we challenge our fixed mindset approach to something, it’s difficult. Persisting in the fixed mindset strengthens that pathway in our brains and makes it more difficult to challenge. But building and repeating growth mindset approaches makes them stronger and more powerful too.

Dweck’s work and why a Growth Mindset is important

To give my audience a break from my voice, I turned to a helpful TED talk:

Here Eduardo Briceño outlines some of Dweck’s research studies, and how they apply in particular to education. The most powerful for me was the study into the use of praise. When similar children were given fixed mindset praise (“you did that really well; are so clever at doing puzzles!”) or growth mindset praise (“you did that really well; you must have tried really hard!”) it dramatically reduced or improved their ability to progress onto harder puzzles. Briceño’s examples are clear and well-articulated, which helped to illustrate the application of Dweck’s research into an educational context.

Why are we interested in Growth Mindset

In our school, we use PASS surveys to help us understand how our young people feel about themselves and their school experience. In these nationally benchmarked tests, our school’s scores come out green, well above the national norms. However, there are some interesting anomalies around the numbers. Students’ own perceived learning capabilities – the extent to which they believe they are effective learners – are the lowest average scores across the school. Even more powerfully, as students moved from Year 7 to Year 8, whilst their self-esteem and attitudes to teachers improved, their perceived learning capability declined. As SLT, we interpreted this to mean that whilst students were increasingly positive about school and themselves as they progressed, they became less confident in their own ability to learn. This can lead to a slow-down of academic progress, often manifested as a lack of effort or a “can’t do” attitude: “I can’t do Maths.”

In simple terms, we need to reverse this trend. As Shaun Allison has noted on his blog, we need to be producing Hobnob learners, not Rich Tea:

The #BiscuitClub Case Study

Ashley Loynton has run a case study group with the boys in his Year 11 Science class to develop a growth mindset approach. You can read more on his blog, but he outlined the approach that he had taken and shared the impressive results: from Year 10 Core Science achievement of 2Bs, 8Cs and 1D, the students went on to achieve 1A*, 1A, 5Bs, 3Cs and 1D in their Physics mock exam at Christmas. The difference? A growth mindset approach. One boy even stuck the Nigel Holmes infographic over the power button on his XBox, to make him think about what he should be doing every time he went to switch the console on and break the habit of getting in from school and switching straight into gaming mode. That feels like success to me.

What difference can a Growth Mindset make? 

Here I paid due tribute to John Tomsett, who firmed up the idea of a growth mindset school for me as I sat in his session at #TLT13. His blog has been incredibly influential, but most notably the post “This much I know about…developing a Dweck-inspired Growth Mindset culture.” John has been very helpful and supportive, providing materials that he has used at his school and useful, intelligent advice. Thank you Mr Tomsett! This results graph, taken from his #TLT13 presentation (which he has helpfully embedded on his blog), helped illustrate what can happen to a school which adopts a growth mindset culture enthusiastically:

Huntington School A*-C, courtesy of John Tomsett

Huntington School A*-C, courtesy of John Tomsett

I also used the example of New Heys School in Liverpool which, when faced with closure, adopted growth mindsets and saw their results rise by 39% in two years. You can read Winchester University’s case study of New Heys here.

How will we enact a Growth Mindset culture? 

This is where the session became more open. We have several ideas already:

  • Ensuring all stakeholders – staff, students, governors and parents – have the approach clearly explained
  • Changing the language of reporting
  • Using growth mindset praise
  • Using formative comments only for assessments (both on student work and in lesson observation)
  • Removing the concept of “Gifted and Talented” and instead identifying “high starters” in curriculum areas
  • Using peer-to-peer coaching to develop teaching and learning

The buzz in the school hall was overwhelming. Staff were full of ideas. We aren’t launching to students and parents until September, so there is plenty of time to harness that energy and those ideas into a coherent strategy. It’s really exciting!

Changing Mindsets

I finished the session with the results of the questionnaire, so that all staff could assess where they currently were in terms of their mindsets. Finally, we discussed how Dweck encourages us to change our mindsets when we find ourselves taking a fixed approach:

  1. Learn to hear your fixed mindset voice
  2. Recognise that you have a choice.
  3. Talk back in your growth mindset voice.
  4. Take action.

I finished on this animation illustrating the mindsets:

Below is the Prezi I used in the INSET session. If you can’t see the embed, click this link.

I will be updating you on the progress of this project on this blog over the coming months – with the first being our new teaching and learning approach! Watch this space…the Trojan Mice are coming!

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Proud Letters

Today was one of those lovely moments in teaching where you see an idea you’ve spent months planning come to fruition and do some good. Today was the day of the “Proud” letters for Year 11.

hogwarts_letter_by_emilywhetstone-d4m7bsn

A letter of hope…but not delivered by owl!

Back in January, I wrote to all Year 11 parents and carers asking them to write a letter to their young person to show their support, offer them advice, and motivate them in the run up to their exams. I got the idea from James Heale at #SLTeachmeet back in May 2013, and blogged about it here. It was so simple, but the potential for impact was so great. How often do any of us receive a physical letter any more?

Over the course of February and the beginning of March, the letters came in. We’d provided a stamped return envelope with the mailing, and a sheet of paper, to make it as simple as possible for families to participate. And participate they did! Of course, not every family returned a letter, and there may be a whole host of reasons for this, but nearly three quarters of the year group’s families did. Our Headteacher wrote a letter which he personally addressed and signed to all those students who hadn’t had one from home, so there was something for everyone to open.

We’d also asked families to keep the scheme secret, so that the delivery of the letters came as a surprise today. Of course, it wasn’t a complete secret, and some of them were expecting it, but for most it did come out of the blue. Today Year 11 had a special assembly with the Head focusing on revision advice and approaches (you can see this on our school’s revision centre webpage), followed by a session with tutors working on memorisation techniques. We then distributed exam timetables and a revision action plan template, along with blank revision timetables – and the letters. The letters were designed to motivate the students, giving them the push into serious revision planning.

There were tears, of course – and smiles. So many smiles. Having spoken to many of Year 11 today, they were so grateful for the letters, and many of them said that it had genuinely motivated them to revise more. They were re-reading them in the queue for tuck and lunch! It was also great to have comments from some parents with the returned letters saying what a great idea they thought it was. My hope is that some of the students will go home today and discuss revision with their families prompted by this letter, and that they will see that home and school are working together to support them.

I’m very grateful to James Heale for the idea and for emailing me over the template of the letter he’d used in his school. Moreover, I can’t overstate the importance of the commitment and effort that busy families have put into the project, many of them handwriting letters, and some contacting relatives as far afield as the USA and Australia to contribute. It all serves to show the students that we – the school, their families, and the important adults in their lives – genuinely care about them and their success.

We will definitely repeat the “Proud Letters” project next year, though keeping it secret may be a little bit trickier!

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Creative Writing – Poetry Workshop

I was reminded today of one of my career highlights. When I was a keen young second-in-English, I organised a creative writing workshop for enthusiastic students of all ages with a visiting poet, Anthony Dunn. He ran a great workshop which I have adapted and run myself numerous times since. Here’s how it works:

The shock of the unexpected – The Jaguar

The world rolls under the long thrust of his heel

The world rolls under the long thrust of his heel

The first exercise is a cloze using Ted Hughes’ poem The Jaguar. Here it is (download link):

The Jaguar

The apes yawn and 1________ their fleas in the sun.

The parrots shriek as if they were on fire, or strut

Like cheap tarts to attract the stroller with the nut.

Fatigued with indolence, tiger and lion

Lie still as the sun. The boa-constrictor’s coil

Is a fossil. Cage after cage seems empty, or

Stinks of sleepers from the 2__________ straw.

It might be painted on a nursery wall.

But who runs like the rest past these arrives

At a cage where the crowd stands, stares, mesmerized,

As a child at a dream, at a jaguar hurrying enraged

Through prison darkness after the 3_________ of his eyes

On a short fierce fuse. Not in boredom—

The eye satisfied to be blind in fire,

By the 4_________ of blood in the brain deaf the ear—

He spins from the bars, but there’s no cage to him

More than to the visionary his cell:

His stride is 5_____________ of freedom:

The world rolls under the long thrust of his heel.

Over the cage floor the 6____________ come.

The aim of this exercise is to get the students to think of the word that fits the gap, then not to use that word but to think of a far more  interesting word to use instead. Ask them to feed this back and discuss their choices, and what the do to the sense of the poem. Finally, show them Hughes’ version. His language choices a startling – muscular, electric, and totally unexpected. This is what we are aiming for in our writing: language which shocks the reader into attention.

Getting the words flowing – free writing

Next, get the students to write for two minutes without stopping. There should be no brief other than that quality control doesn’t matter, and that the writing won’t be shared. The only rule is that they must continue writing at all times, without pause or hesitation, whatever comes into their heads. Anthony Dunn uses this technique as a warm-up whenever he sits down to write. It overcomes the fear of the blank page, gets words flowing from the brain to the pen, and allows inspiration to come from the mundane external world or the internal monologue the writer has with themselves. The work the students go on to produce will be written underneath the free-write; the fact that the page is already half-filled with poorly-structured, half-formed thoughts in a messy scrawl is liberating and enables more of an anything-goes approach to the creative process.

Focusing on the detail – describing the everyday

Knitted wool - seen close-up!

Knitted wool – seen close-up!

The final warm-up is to describe an everyday object with the closest scrutiny and attention to detail possible. Anthony Dunn used his jumper, a particularly chunky knit as I recall! I have since used a board rubber, jacket, and a classroom clock. It doesn’t need to be coherent, but the description should try to capture the detail of the object with as much clarity as is possible. Reward this in the feedback!

The main event – bring on the metaphor

The final creative task is to write a poem in which an everyday object serves as a metaphor or vehicle for another idea. I usually ask them to look in their bags or pencil cases, or around the classroom, for an object they can use, but I have also provided stimulus objects on cards before (a mirror, a clock, a ring, a coin). Through the close description of the everyday object, they should aim to shed light on the broader or deeper idea they are exploring. Memorably, one student wrote a series of monologues as different mirrors including in a shop changing room, a handbag compact, and a car rear-view mirror, giving their perspectives on what they reflected. Others have used clocks and watches to meditate on the merciless march of time. My career highlight, however, was a collaborative poem written by two students in the very first session with Anthony Dunn, using the sharpening of a pencil.

sharpening a pencil

The sharpening of a pencil

Clara and Eleanor’s poem was so good, I submitted it to the TES back when they published student poetry, and it made the paper in November 2001. I still have the clipping. I hope they won’t mind my reproducing it here:

The sharpening of a pencil

Lead to the table top,

The first twist around the metal pole

The striptease continues.

Slowly she sheds her dirty skin,

Leaving her lingering scent behind her.

Around the newly revealed figure,

Lie the peeled coils of colour.

As the rhythmic turns continue

A crowd of stubble gathers.

Tapping in trays, piles of ash form,

A dense black smoke mingles

Around her new body.

She turns: Clean. Pure. Sharp.

Getting straight to the point.

On occasions like this, when I’m privileged to be the midwife to creativity, I am reminded that there is no better job in the world than teaching – and these are not rare occasions. How lucky we are.

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What I know now about how the brain works

Cognitive science – how the brain works – is quite important to teaching and learning. So why is it that it’s only been in the last three years of my career (which started in 1996) that I’ve learned anything about it?

I am certainly not an expert. My science qualifications go up to GCSE level. You would think that a postgraduate certificate in education would include something on the functioning of the organ that the job is primarily concerned with, but no. I learned about Piaget and Vygostsky, but having gone through the three lever-arch files of PGCE notes this is all I could find about the brain:

All I knew about the brain from initial teacher training

All I knew about the brain from initial teacher training

What’s even stranger is that I didn’t notice the lack. I taught, led departments and cross-curricular teams, developed curricula, mentored new trainees, and never once stopped to wonder whether I was missing something – until blogs opened my eyes.

Through blogs like David Fawcett’s excellent My Learning Journey and David Didau’s LearningSpy I was introduced to the works of Daniel Willingham and Robert Bjork, and going back further Hermann Ebbinghaus and others. More recently I read an excellent blog from David Bunker on using Willingham to help teach English – a subject close to my own heart – and self-confessed science geek Ashley Loynton pointed me in the direction of  The Human Memory site, my new go-to place for mind-boggling. I am still very much an amateur, and painfully aware that partial understanding can be dangerous. However, I am going to attempt to share my understanding with staff at my school in the next couple of weeks, so here’s what I know now about how the brain works. If I’ve got anything terribly wrong, or you can help clarify my lack of expertise, please let me know in  the comments before I make a fool of myself in front of the Psychology department…

Neurons, synapses and neural networks

Neurons are brain cells; synapses are the connections between neurons. When learning takes place, a new synapse is formed. At first, this connection is fragile and tentative, but every time it is used again it strengthens. Eventually, well-trodden pathways between neurons become networks which can be travelled rapidly, instinctively, and unconsciously. This is why I can drive my car without really thinking about it, but why I need to look up the year of Shakespeare’s birth every time I want to know it. It’s also why our brain can play tricks on us, looking to run through well-established neural networks even when the situation demands a road less travelled.

Neural plasticity

Neural or synaptic plasticity is the ability of a synaptic connection to develop in strength and efficiency. It is why, if we want students to learn things, we need to get them to repeat them, and why revision – seeing things again – is such an important process.

Revision - seeing things again - is essential for securing learning

Revision – seeing things again – is essential for securing learning

The formation of these neural networks in our brains means that we need to plan for learning which encourages repetition and channels students’ energies into building strong, resilient and efficient synaptic connections. Covering it once and moving on just won’t cut it.

Cognitive Science and the Growth Mindset

In my amateurish way, I think I can see why the growth mindset makes sense as an approach. It seems self-evident that the forming of new synaptic connections and the development of strong neural networks is “growth” in the genuine physical sense – the formation of a new or stronger connection in the biology of our brains. I felt slightly uncomfortable with Dweck’s “the brain is a muscle – it gets stronger the more you use it” idea, which seemed over-simplistic. But now I can see the roots of her metaphor in the growth of the brain’s synaptic connections.

Synaptic transmission (image from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chemical_synapse)

Every time I teach now, I think about what is happening in the brain. I can’t believe I never did before. But then, I didn’t know it before. Now I do, I think about it all the time. And that’s how learning works, isn’t it?

Post script: here are twelve mind-bending facts about the brain from Buzzfeed as a bonus assembly/tutor time/thunk activity!

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The Other Stuff

This week the DfE finally published the 2013 Teachers’ Workload Diary Survey. Primary teachers work for an average of 59 hours per week; secondary 55 hours. Headteachers put in 63 hours per week at secondary. In response to the survey, I had the idea of blogging my diary, to show what a typical week for a secondary deputy head was like. I soon realised that this had all the makings of a vanity project, and it seemed self-indulgent. All teachers work hard, all teachers put the hours in; I’m nothing special. How could those hours possibly be worth it? Why on earth would anyone want to be a teacher?

Shaun Allison has been blogging the “bright spots” he has seen at his school. It’s my privilege to be in a similar position to Shaun, and I’ve witnessed some superb teaching across the curriculum this week. However, what has struck me more than anything is the other stuff that makes a school such a fabulous place to be.

Last week, the performing arts team put on Much Ado About Nothing. Kev Bartle has blogged before about the importance of the school production in the school experience. One day I will write about writing and directing three school shows myself. This one, however, was a triumph. Two casts, in the round, every word clear as a bell and interpreted deeply and powerfully. I have seen plenty of less impressive professional Shakespeare productions.

Many of the cast of Much Ado were also amongst the helpers braving the wind and the rain on Sunday to hand out goody bags to the finishers of the Bath Half Marathon. They do this every year, contributing much to the success of the event and to the wider community. Meanwhile, in Exeter…

Two staff were off with our cheerleading squad, acquitting themselves with distinction in the senior division against adult competition.

The previous day, whilst Much Ado was preparing for its Saturday matinee, our Young Enterprise team “Go Appy” were at a trade fair in Cabot Circus in the centre of Bristol, demonstrating their business idea of a self-created app on iPads and receiving feedback from passers-by and potential customers.

Also last week, the usual round of fixtures continued including victories for two Year 7 football teams. This week rehearsals continue for our Singfest choral concert, and preparations for the Festival of Movement for our gymnasts, cheerleaders and martial artists. Our badminton team will be representing Avon. Before half term our Dance Festival had over 300 performers. Over half term – in the holidays – our staff were with students in Salamanca on a Spanish trip and in Washington DC for history. Tonight, a French teacher was at school until 7pm meeting with parents about the French exchange. On Monday next week our Year 13 students will present their Extended Projects in a full exhibition. Today I was rehearsing with the staff band for a Battle of the Bands event later in March. On Thursday all staff will be wearing badges publicising their favourite books for World Book Day, and Year 7 will be trying to “collect” as many teachers’ favourites as possible – as befits a school featured in NATE‘s latest magazine for generating a whole-school reading culture.

I don’t think Chew Valley is unusual. Teachers up and down the country are giving their time, and giving themselves to these experiences for young people. Yes, in state schools too. That’s why the hours are worth it. I know the lessons are the focus, but (as Geoff Barton wrote recently) school is about more than exams.

The other stuff matters. It’s what goes on beyond the classroom that creates the beating heart of a school, and weaves it into a community. That’s why it’s worth it. 

 

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