My problem with ability

I’ve always had a big problem with grouping students by ability. The Sutton Trust EEF Toolkit shows that ability grouping, setting or streaming has a negative impact on student attainment.

Ability grouping slows progress down

Ability grouping slows progress down

One of the first blogs I read and favourited when I began exploring the online educational world was Kenny Pieper’s Setting by ability: why? which used Ed Baines’ chapter on ability grouping in Bad Education: debunking myths in education to argue that setting and streaming was “self-defeating in the extreme.” Since then I’ve had a look at the research myself; there’s a list of some of the articles at the bottom of this blog. My favourite was Jo Boaler, Dylan Wiliam and Margaret Brown’s study Students’ experiences of ability grouping —disaffection, polarisation and the construction of failure. Susan Hallam concluded her study: “ability grouping…does not raise standards, and in some cases can lower them. It can also have detrimental effects on pupils’ personal and social development.”

It’s fair to say, the case for setting and streaming is full of holes and there is plentiful research out there to show that it doesn’t achieve what it tries to achieve. As the Sutton Trust Toolkit says: “ability grouping appears to benefit higher attaining pupils and be detrimental to the learning of mid-range and lower attaining learners.” In other words, it exacerbates the Matthew Effect and ensures that the gap between the knowledge-rich and the knowledge-poor widens.

Ability has no bearing on your accomplishments; effort does

Ability has no bearing on your accomplishments; effort does

My big problem with any discussion around grouping is with the weasel word “ability.” As Fearghal Kelly says it has all the connotations of a fixed mindset. When you talk about a “mixed ability” group what are you really saying? That some of them are more “able” than others? This language implies that those “low ability” students you have are actually less able to improve. The word itself reinforces the widening of the gap. In actual fact, as we all know, students who end up labelled “low ability” have complex needs, some cognitive, some behavioural, some social, and some attitudinal which have led to them performing poorly. This poor performance – their prior attainment – gains them the label of “low ability,” but it does not necessarily follow that low attainment corresponds to lack of ability.

I want to root the word “ability” out of my own and my school’s vocabulary. If we are truly to become a growth mindset school we must avoid the bear-trap of labelling students with fixed terms like “middle ability” throughout schooling when we actually mean “achieved between 25 and 40 marks on their English reading paper in Year 6 which was then translated using a threshold into an arbitrary level 4.” This has nothing to do with the individual’s ability. It is all about performance.

Ability is not fixed. As teachers we can work with young people to overcome their cognitive, behavioural, social and attitudinal issues and improve their ability to access the curriculum. We certainly won’t solve all of those issues outright, but we can ameliorate them  – and we must. But labelling a young person as “low ability” is not going to motivate them or us to try.

No matches. Mission accomplished.

No matches. Mission accomplished.

I wrote to parents this week explaining our grouping and curriculum approaches in school, and I didn’t use the word ability once. “Students are taught in groups with the full range of prior attainment,” I wrote to explain those subjects that mix – the majority of our curriculum is taught this way. Some still set, of course – that’s the Head of Faculty’s decision. Our challenge now is to raise attainment for all and to ensure that every student continues to increase their ability to learn, grow and achieve.

 

Research articles:

Limits Assembly

A Flea - as drawn by Hooke (image via Wikimedia commons)

A Flea – as drawn by Hooke (image via Wikimedia commons)

Fleas are remarkable creatures. They are usually between 1.5 and 3mm long, but they can jump 33cm horizontally and 18cm straight up into the air. If a flea was a person, this would be the equivalent of jumping straight up to the clock face on Big Ben, or clean from one end of Wembley Stadium to the other.

Apparently the key is jumping off with your toes, rather than your knees, as this video shows. Worth noting for sports day, perhaps?

What is even more remarkable about the flea, though, is that this quite extraordinary physical ability can be limited by one really simple intervention.

If you put fleas into a jar with a lid on for three days, they will only jump half the height they are capable of. In that time, they will learn that this is how high they can jump and then – even if you take the lid off – they will only every jump the height of the jar until the day they die, even though they are physically capable of jumping at least twice as high. And what is even more remarkable is that the offspring of those fleas, even if they aren’t kept in a jar, will still only jump to the height of the jar lid.

jar

What invisible jar are you working within?

We, as humans, are just as capable of limitation. Think about the things that you don’t think you can do because somebody has told you you can’t. As small children, we believe we’re capable of anything, but usually we begin to limit ourselves. When will my daughter, currently five years old, stop believing that it is possible to become an astronaut? I hope, never; but I expect, soon. Not because I will do anything to limit her ambition but because, in the world in which we live, there are so many influences slamming that glass lid down and telling us “that’s not possible” or “you can’t do that.”

Roger Bannister breaking the four-minute mile

Roger Bannister breaking the four-minute mile

This year marks the 60th anniversary of Roger Bannister demonstrating what can happen when we challenge the naysayers. For decades it was believed to be beyond human capacity to run a mile in less than four minutes, but on 6th May 1954 Bannister did exactly that. To achieve this great feat he had to run at a speed of 15 miles per hour, covering each of the sixteen 100m distances in 14.91 seconds, showing incredible endurance. And what happened afterwards was really interesting, because his great competitor, the Australian John Landy, beat Bannister’s time 54 days later. It was almost as if Bannister was one of the fleas in the jar who had turned to a flea next to him and said, “what lid?” Since Bannister the record time for the mile has come down to 3 minutes 43 seconds. Bannister had proved what was possible; others followed.

Changes in the record for the mile over time

Changes in the record for the mile over time

So of course, the best weapon to combat those invisible limitations is ourselves. But the truth is, we often impose our own limitations on ourselves. As we grow up, we learn to protect our fragile egos from the embarrassment and pain of failure by stopping trying. We create little invisible prisons for ourselves within which we operate without even realising. We won’t put our hands up in class because…well…that’s not something we do. I won’t volunteer for that Change & Create Team because…well…I haven’t done anything like that before. Should I take up a musical instrument? Audition for the school play? It’s just not me. Should I go for an A in History? My challenge grade is only a B…it’ll be really hard. Try telling that to Roger Bannister.

The jar has no lid

I’m here today to tell you that your jar has no lid. You might not succeed, but as the Chinese philosopher Confucius said:

Confucius with pic

Disclaimer: this may not be an exact translation of the original Chinese.

This is the attitude that got people to the moon 45 years ago this month. When announcing the intention to go to the moon seven years previously, in 1962, President Kennedy said:

We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because…that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win. 

This is called moonshot thinking:

Don’t be a flea. Remember, your jar has no lid. Jump as high as you can.

If you can’t see the Prezi embed, click this link.

An Appointment at the Reading Spa

ReadingSpaPosterA4150dpi

The Chew Valley Reading Spa is in session…

 

I’ve just had the great pleasure of taking part in our inaugural Reading Spa. Inspired by the brilliant gifts available from Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights in Bath, the event was designed for our sixth formers to help re-ignite their love of reading and brilliantly organised by English teacher Bell Wall alongside our librarian Jane Hillis.

Each sixth former was given an appointment with a member of staff to serve as their “bibliotherapist” for their spa session; in my case Amelia, a Year 12 student. These weren’t students we taught – the bibliotherapists were assigned from willing volunteer teachers to each sixth former. The students filled in a reading survey giving details of their reading tastes, habits and enthusiasms; I was given Amelia’s survey a week in advance so I could have a think about what sort of books I could recommend for and discuss with her.

If this doesn't reignite your love of reading, nothing will...

If this doesn’t reignite your love of reading, nothing will…

The library was transformed into a reading spa for the day with comfy sofas and chairs, mood lighting, and a wonderful array of cakes and coffee laid on. Jane, the librarian, had gathered a great selection of books from a range of genres to pick and choose from. The spa was on!

A huge array of reading delights!

An array of reading delights!

Amelia and I chatted through her reading survey, getting to grips with the sort of books she liked and what she’d already read. She’d devoured The Color Purple as part of her Literature course and already ordered Beloved and The Secret Life of Bees to broaden her reading in that genre. I recommended Twelve Years a Slave, The Handmaid’s Tale, The Yellow Wallpaper, Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit, The Bluest Eye and Cloud Atlas before leaving her to browse the selection whilst I enjoyed a florentine,  and a wedge of chocolate cake, and a mug of Arabica, whilst struggling to believe that this was actually work.

After a period of browsing (during which Bell recommended I have a go at The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton) Amelia decided to have a go at The Bluest Eye and Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit. Whilst we were having our chat three other sixth formers were meeting their appointed bibliotherapists, and there are more appointments scheduled throughout the week. In the future, Bell plans to expand the project to include staff, to create a wider reading community and help answer that perennial question: “what should I read next?”

All in all, the reading spa was a great success. I loved the opportunity to talk about books and reading whilst Amelia got some more books to read, all in a relaxed quiet hour in the library. With cake. Highly recommended!

Download a reading survey template.

Reading Spa 2014 Feedback

Points about prizes

I have been thinking hard about values and ethos recently. It’s probably to do with being on NPQH where every other slide on every PowerPoint is about your values and vision, but my thoughts were also prompted by Joe Kirby’s recent blog series on rewards which begins with the Lewis Carroll quotation:

“Everybody has won, and all must have prizes”

Image via Wikimedia commons

I remember David Cameron using this same quotation post-Olympics as he laid out his vision for the future of a Conservative-led Britain in the pages of the Daily Mail:

“In schools, there will be no more excuses for failure; no more soft exams and soft discipline. We saw that change in the exam results this year. When the grades went down a predictable cry went up: that we were hurting the prospects of these children.
To that we must be very clear: what hurts them is dumbing down their education so that their potential is never reached and no one wants to employ them. ‘All must have prizes’ is not just patronising, it is cruel – and with us it is over.”

Roger Bannister reaps the benefits of competition

Roger Bannister reaps the benefits of competition

I find this difficult, because I’m caught on the horns of a dilemma. On the one hand, I’m a fan of competition. I know that it can spur people on to achieve bigger and better things. I’ve been listening with interest to the documentaries commemorating the first four-minute mile, run by Roger Bannister on 5th May 1954. Most commentators, and Bannister himself, agree that competition from Australian John Landy pushed him on to achieve that feat. Kennedy’s drive a decade later to put a man on the moon was driven more by competition with the Soviet Union than scientific advance.

Man on the moon: the space race was driven by competition

I’m also a fan of competitive sport, both as a spectacle and as an integral part of schooling within and beyond the curriculum. Despite all of this, I can’t help feeling uneasy at the notion of awarding prizes to the single best performer in a discipline.

I’m certain this unease has its roots in my own experience; schooling is formative for all of us. But unlike Michael Gove, I am not driven to emulate my own schooling for the students in my care. My school (all boys, independent – read about it here) was competitive in every respect from the entrance exam to the end-of-year prize-giving; all very well if you were the single person that won. Which, after the first year, I was – I won the subject prizes for English and Biology and went up to shake the Headmaster’s hand the day after the great storm of 1987.  From that point forward, I measured myself against the success of others, constantly looking over my shoulder at the competition – the epitome of a fixed mindset. It’s no wonder that Carol Dweck’s story about being sat around the room in IQ order in sixth grade strikes such a chord with me! In the Sixth Form, when the school prizes were awarded, I came second in English. And I was gutted.

The competition

Let’s put this in context. I had a place to read English at Oxford; I got an A at A-Level and a 1 in S-Level English – and I was disappointed. Because there was someone better than me. It turns out the teachers were probably right, since the prize was awarded to my contemporary and all-round lovely bloke Andrew Miller, who went on to write the Man Booker nominated Snowdrops (heartily recommended by the way – a fantastic novel). I should have been proud of my achievements, but I wasn’t, and this was entirely due to the competitive ethos of my school where only one person could feel truly proud of what they had achieved – the winner.

I have no doubt that Cameron, Gove et al would nod at this and say “quite right.” In a true meritocracy, I wasn’t good enough. Perhaps they might even say that without the competitive ethos I would not have achieved as highly as I did. But I can’t accept that. In a growth mindset we should be measuring performance against our own yardstick, aiming to better our own personal best irrespective of the performance of others. This is the message I teach in my classes, the ethos I want for my school, and the frame of reference I set myself.

Are prefects compatible with an egalitarian ethos?

Are prefects compatible with an egalitarian ethos?

The same idea permeates my attitude to prefects and student hierarchy. My school had three levels – house prefects (bronze badge), sub-prefects (silver badge), and prefects (gold badge). As I’ve said, it was an independent boys’ school, so what do you expect? I was a sub-prefect but was never nominated as a prefect – I still don’t know why. The criteria weren’t published. I was certainly never in trouble, I was academically successful, I had 100% attendance throughout my school career. I wasn’t sporty; was that it? Maybe I wasn’t high-profile enough. Maybe there was a quota which had already been filled. My point is this – I had done my best throughout my schooling, and I was left disenchanted. A good student, passed over, left resentful and irritated, feeling second-best when there was no need! That’s why I strive in my classes to recognise the achievements of every single student, not to pass over any of them, and to celebrate each of them.

I wish I’d gone to the school I teach at now. There are no prefects, no Head Boy or Head Girl with their own offices and privileges putting them a cut above. The thriving school council, branded Change & Create, is comprised of self-generated student-led teams engaged in projects such as fundraising, Amnesty International, caring for the chickens, gardening, regenerating the pond and memorial garden, caring for wildlife, raising awareness of mental health issues… If a student wants to be part of it, they step up and join or form a project team. This way the community of the school pulls together towards common aims without the interference of hierarchy or external judgement. It is growth mindset in action.

And yet…we still have prizes. Each year the highest performing student in each subject discipline receives an award. Every school I’ve ever worked in has had them. And, for the winners, they’re great. The public recognition of achievement is powerful and important. We temper it slightly with awards for “most progress” and “best effort” alongside the achievement awards, which I think helps. And thankfully, we don’t have the situation which prevailed in a previous school where students were only permitted to receive one prize, which led to the bizarre situation of having my Media Studies nominees returned because they’d already been nominated in Art or Chemistry or something, so the second best media student would get the prize…and the senior leader in charge would not be budged. Insane!

Prizes can make us part of a shared community history

Prizes can make us part of a shared community history

The prizes themselves bring something else, however – a story. They’re named after an ex-teacher, ex-student, or member of the school community who wanted to put their name to an award. Some of them stretch back decades, some are more recent. Every year, as the story behind the award is read out, I get a lump in my throat: “this award is in memory of…a servant of the school for thirty years…” The names of the recipients are recorded, and it connects us to a shared community history that helps make the school more than a set of buildings and a seat of learning. I love this part of the prize-giving ceremony. I just wish there was a prize to recognise and reward the efforts of all our learners for the victories, achievements and triumphs they have celebrated on their journey with us.

Assessment in the new national curriculum – next steps

My original post “Assessment in the new national curriculum – what we’re doing” remains one of the most popular on this blog. Here I will outline how we have refined the model proposed in that post and integrated it with progress tracking, as well as our latest thoughts on assessment without levels and growth mindset.

How will we assess in the new national curriculum? 

I was delighted to hear that Durrington High School had been awarded an assessment innovation fund grant by the DfE. I was even more delighted when Durrington DHT Shaun Allison published his thoughts so far in an excellent blogpost! As a school also actively pursuing a growth mindset, the approach to assessment outlined by Shaun struck a chord and seemed closely aligned to what we are trying to achieve at Chew Valley. I presented the key points of the Durrington approach to middle leaders yesterday and we have adopted the principle of the Growth and Thresholds assessment system, explained as follows (paraphrased from Class Teaching):

Teachers identify the key knowledge and skills students need in order to be successful in KS4 and work backwards to decide what this would look like, if students have mastered it in KS3 – the excellence standard. Teachers then produce a curriculum and assessment framework that allows teachers and students to know what they’ve got to do to achieve excellence.  

In the Chew Valley version, we will continue to use GCSE grades as the basis for our assessment model. It makes sense, longer term, to use the new 1-9 GCSE grade scale as a whole-school assessment framework, with rough equivalents as follows:

levelsgradesnewgcse

In other words, students entering in Year 7 would be assessed with grades usually between 1 and 4, and move up a consistent assessment scale throughout their time in secondary school.

We remain wedded to the notion of criteria referenced assessment, although I enjoyed having my thinking pushed on this by Daisy Christodoulou’s provocative defence of norm-referencing. The problem comes with the assumption that there will be clear criteria attached to the new GCSE grades 1-9; my understanding is that there will be criteria attached to the levels and marks within the new GCSE specifications but that they will not be clearly linked to specific GCSE grades. This will allow Ofqual to apply comparable outcomes and shift the boundaries year on year. Thus we will need to assign criteria to the new GCSE grades on a “best fit” basis, leading to some insecurity and uncertainty within the assessment framework, especially in the early stages.

We have not yet decided when we will shift over to 1-9 grades. The existing system will hold up until 2016 at least, and then there will be an incremental shift as first English and Maths, then Science, History, Geography and Languages, then arts subjects move over to the new grades. We also haven’t decided if we’re going to sub-grade them – grade 2c, 2b, 2a anyone? It was a bastardisation of the national curriculum levels; should we be wary of falling into the same trap again? We’re taking a watching brief on both these issues!

Tracking progress in the new assessment framework

With the advent of Progress 8 (blogged about here) we have been running an experiment with progress tracking using flight paths (blogged about here). As indicated in that second blog, in the initial experiment we tracked progress in English and Maths from their respective KS2 baselines, and all other subjects from the average points score of English and Maths at KS2. This worked fine for English and Maths, but it didn’t work for other subjects. I know it seems obvious that tracking progress in Drama from a baseline of the average of tests in English and Maths won’t work, but that is the methodology being applied in the Progress 8 measure so I thought we’d better use it. What I’d got wrong, of course (it’s so easy to do!) was that I’d let the accountability framework dictate my practice rather than common sense and what was right for the learners. So, we’ve made a change.

From September, we will continue to use the KS2 baselines for English and Maths – this is a tried and tested approach and it is giving us clear and helpful data both for individual students and for self-evaluation and external accountability purposes. In all other subjects, we will conduct a baseline assessment in the first term of Year 7 to establish a clear, subject-specific starting point for each student. We will then use that baseline assessment to track progress in each subject across KS3. We will treat the baseline assessment as the “baseline” in the same way as KS2 English and Maths data, even though they will be four or five months apart in time, and apply the flight paths model to each subject in exactly the same way:

Progress flight paths tabulated

Progress flight paths tabulated

We still have the existing template to track progress against an English and Maths KS2 average points score, so I will be able to keep an eye on the Progress 8 headlines, but this refined model will provide the ability to track progress in, for example, Art from their starting point in Art. Which seems obvious, doesn’t it?

In time we will convert the “levels” in those flight paths to the “grades” via the equivalences listed in the table above. It may be that in, for example, languages, the baseline will be very low (where students have not studied that particular language in primary) and this may require the model to be refined – watch this space!

Targets and a growth mindset

When I launched the idea of becoming a growth mindset school back in March, several staff discussed the idea of targets (we call them challenge grades or levels) and whether they were compatible with a growth mindset. Potential, according to Dweck, is limitless – it’s not about aiming for a destination but about constantly continuing to improve. As John Tomsett said in a conversation on twitter recently:

I overheard a conversation between two girls revising for a languages exam this week. They were working on tenses. One said to the other: “I don’t need to know that; that’s what you need to do to get a B. I only need a C.” Her companion was aiming for a B, so continued to revise it. This is why Michael Gove was so against early entry – the wasteful settling for a lower level of achievement. This is the danger of target grades – if students work hard and get there, they stop. And, unless that target grade is an A* (and even then), that is a waste.

This is a substantial shift in my thinking (see one of the earliest posts on this blog, Targets, for my starting point!), but actually the flight paths approach provides us with a different way to frame the conversation about progress. In the old model I would use formulae and statistical cohort analysis tools like CATs, FFT and the like to predict likely outcomes and “add a bit on for challenge”, then track and discuss progress towards that made up number. It makes more sense to me now to assess where students are starting from and then feed back whether their progress is below, expected, better than expected, outstanding or world class from that starting point (using the flight paths model). Thus reports to parents might say “Matilda is currently working at a Grade 3 in Science, and this represents better than expected progress from her starting point in this subject”. At the moment this is a tentative, half formed policy shift which will need to be put through the crucible of SLT and Governors – what better way to try it out than to put it to the test on twitter first?

In summary

The abolition of national curriculum levels remains an opportunity to do something different and better with curriculum and assessment across the whole of a student’s school experience. The fact that each individual school is having to come up with its own system remains a fatal flaw in terms of capacity. The new assessment innovation packages may go some way to preventing this – especially if they are of the quality of the work coming out of Durrington. Whilst there is still a lot of work to do, and a lot of uncertainty, it is still my aim that assessment and curriculum in my school will be the better for the reforms.

Assembly – Challenge

My assembly for this first week back after Easter is based around the concept of Challenge. I’ve used the good old Chambers dictionary to help me. The Prezi is below; if you can’t see the embed, please click this link.

Challenge: 1. verb: to summon someone to settle a matter in a contest

In the first meaning of the word, we are encouraged to pit ourselves against others. These contests can be evenly matched, as in sprint races which are sometimes decided in hundredths of a second; sometimes the odds can be stacked against us. The difficulty in measuring yourself against the success of someone else is that you can never account for their level of preparation, skill or ability; your opponent is outside your control. Instead, I would like that “someone” to be yourself. Set yourself a challenge and test your own preparation, skill or ability against the standard you set yourself. What are you capable of?

Challenge: 2. verb: to subject to stress, examination or test

Challenge: to subject to stress, examination or test

Seriously, this was the definition in the dictionary. To challenge something is to test it, try it out, see where its weaknesses are. In the end, this is how your education is assessed in this country – your learning is put under examination. Whilst it is possible to shore up your work with last minute revision, quick fixes and sticky tape, the only way to guarantee that what you have learnt stands up to the test is to make sure that it is securely, properly learnt in the first place. This has the added benefit of taking the stress out of revision as you are going over things you already know again, rather than trying to learn them for the first time. To use the old cliché, this is a marathon, not a sprint. Talking of which…

Challenge: 3. noun: a task, undertaking etc. to test one’s powers or capabilities to the full

This Easter holiday I enjoyed three great sporting events which saw competitors testing their powers of endurance and stamina to the full – and beyond. Firstly, the London Marathon; the water-based endurance test of the Boat Race; and the equestrian challenge of the Grand National. I was sat on my sofa for all three of course, but I haven’t been idle, pushing myself in my own challenges. I am continuing to keep up with my New Year’s resolution of accentuating the positive, and I made a concerted effort to get back on track with my reading pledge challenge, finishing Mick Waters’ Thinking Allowed: On Schooling  and reading Veronica Roth’s Divergent trilogy cover to cover – both highly recommended.

Challenge: 4. noun: a difficulty which stimulates interest or effort

This is the kind of challenge that I’m really inspired by, and I’ve recently come across the story of NFL full back Derrick Coleman, celebrated in this advert for Duracell, which illustrates this idea perfectly.

Coleman was declared deaf at the age of three. Despite playing American Football through  High School and college at UCLA, he wasn’t picked in the NFL draft and was dropped by the Minnesota Vikings when signed as a free agent. However, the Seattle Seahawks gave him a chance, and he scored his first touchdown for them in December 2013 against the New Orleans Saints. Coleman is now a Super Bowl champion following the Seahawks 43-8 demolition of the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XLVIII.

Coleman is a true example of resilience in the face of difficulty. Not all of us face the challenges that he faced, but we all have difficulties to overcome, be they physical, emotional, social, or other. How we respond to those challenges is everything; we can let them overwhelm us, or we can use them to stimulate us to try harder, seeking help where we need it and resolving never to give up.

And finally, a word about challenging behaviour…

Challenging behaviour in the classroom – East High style

In the books I was reading for my challenge over the holidays, Tris, the main character in Divergent impressed me with her “never give up” attitude, but it is Mick Waters I want to return to. Mick Waters talks about challenging behaviour, what he calls “giving your teacher a hard time.” He says that most students, when asked what they would do to give their teacher a hard time, would try:

  • Talk over your teacher
  • Rock on your chair
  • Leave your coat on
  • Forget to do your homework
  • Pretend you haven’t done your homework

However, what Waters goes on to say is that there are other ways to demonstrate really challenging behaviour. He recommends you try:

  • Asking for a more detailed explanation
  • Asking searching questions
  • Asking the teacher to help you understand the subject in more depth
  • Asking for detailed feedback on your work to help you improve
  • Asking for books and websites you could study on your own to help you understand more about the subject
  • Asking for places to visit where you could see the ideas and topics you are learning about in action

Try and challenge yourself to challenge your teacher this week. Push yourself to push them. You’ll both see the benefit.

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.

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.

 

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!

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!

UPDATE: here’s a video presentation I prepared about Proud Letters for #TMCotham on 8th May 2014:

and here are some lovely tweets from other who have tried it: