Progress in my classroom? How it is made and how I know it.

This is a response to the April #blogsync topic.

Progress in a lesson – knowledge

Many bloggers have written persuasively about how difficult it is to see progress over the course of a single lesson, and how it is a ridiculous demand for senior leaders to make when observing a single lesson that in order for it to be outstanding “progress is at least good for different groups and is exemplary for some.” I agree, but there are clear instances where I can see progress in a single lesson in my classroom, and these seem to be around the acquisition of knowledge. A student can come in to my classroom not knowing how to use colons and semi-colons to construct a complex list, and they can leave knowing it. Students can come in not knowing the difference in camera movement between a pan and a crab or a crane and a tilt, and leave not only knowing it but having filmed using them. They can come in to the classroom not knowing who the “Havisham” in Duffy’s poem is, and they can leave wanting to read more of Great Expectations. This learning can happen by discovery in a carefully planned inductive activity, it can happen by direct instruction, it can take the whole lesson or five minutes. I can check it in a mini-plenary, via whiteboards, thumbs up, traffic light cards, a homework, or if I’m feeling particularly Ofqual a twenty-question in-silence written test.

Knowledge matters. It is of critical importance that children leave my lessons knowing more than they did when they came in. Imparting knowledge is part of my core responsibility but, it seems to me, is the simplest bit of this most challenging job.

Progress over time – skills

More difficult to quantify, and with much less “stickability”, is the development of skills. This is a long game. As Tom Sherrington memorably put it, “it takes the time it takes”. You can develop skills through direct instruction, but this is more about modelling, trial and error, repetition, and what David Didau calls “deliberate practice“. In other words, the students themselves have to develop and strengthen the intellectual muscles used in that particular skill. The ability to construct an evidenced and persuasive argument is something that develops slowly, over time. I rehearse it in writing, applying the skill to Shakespeare or school uniform, smoking or Seneca; I repeat it in spoken debate with feminism, Marxism, media theory on in-role character defences. I will use the process to intervene, refining and developing the skill in written feedback or spoken interactions, and I will plan peer assessments so the students can benefit from each other’s expertise.

Progress in skills is rarely linear. Students will often produce a stunning assessment, then slip back in the next one. Slowly, incrementally, they get there. How do I know? Because I am a subject specialist – I know what I am talking about. I know what an evidenced and persuasive argument looks like, I know what a well-edited cross-cut film sequence looks like. I know the difference between a “sophisticated” piece of writing and one which is “assured”.

The hard thing with assessing skills is, that unlike with knowledge, there are so many ways to get them right, so many degrees of success. There are infinite shades of grey in each of my examples above, and in each case I have to apply my judgment. Sometimes, my judgment will not agree with AQA’s or OCR’s or Ofqual’s, in which case I will protest and make representations and appeal but, ultimately, refocus my attention on the students. I still know what a sophisticated piece of writing is, but it is essential for my students’ success that I also know what AQA think a sophisticated piece of writing is and that they get the benefit of both definitions.

Progress that really matters – development

The progress that matters to me most in my classroom, however, is not subject specific. One of the real privileges of teaching 11-18 is seeing students arrive as children and leave as adults. The influence that teachers can have over young people in this phase is a humbling and heavy responsibility. Schools should help to shape tomorrow’s adults with compassion, empathy, a sense of responsibility, an understanding of the world around them, and the confidence to make their own minds up. I strive to provide students with the skills to express those qualities in the best ways they can. Often, I won’t see this progress in my classroom. But, sometimes, a few years later, an ex-student will pop back to school, or I’ll see them in the street, or a shop, or on holiday, or they’ll contact me on Twitter, or, as has happened five times so far in my career, they apply for a teaching job at my school. Then I’ll see it. I’ll see what well-adjusted, astute and confident adults they turned out to be. I’ll remember them at 14, and know that I played my small part in that astonishing metamorphosis of growing-up. And there is no prouder moment for a teacher than that.

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11 thoughts on “Progress in my classroom? How it is made and how I know it.

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  4. Great post, interesting and thought-provoking ideas here. I have a challenge at this moment. I’m going to give a session to twenty English teachers, who teach Brazilian students, how it is possible to promote a sense of progress in each lesson. Do you think this is possible?

    • I’m sure it’s possible to promote a sense of progress in each lesson – that is, the feeling that the students know more when they leave than they do when they came in, or they can do something better when they leave than they could when they came in. However, I think that there is a danger in this approach as it can lead to “bite-size” learning which is difficult to sustain. It can also create a “hoop-jumping” culture for teachers where they are so keen to demonstrate a sense of progress that the sustained, embedded learning can get lost. We certainly have that problem here in the UK where a (mistaken) belief that school inspectors are looking to see progress demonstrated in 20 minute sessions has created a very strange and strained pedagogy. Far more important, I believe, is real genuine progress over time, where students can demonstrate weeks later that they are genuinely improving in their learning which is embedded, sustained and tenacious.
      If you want to read more on this topic I’d recommend Kev Bartle’s blog: http://dailygenius.wordpress.com/2013/02/12/the-myth-of-progress-within-lessons/ and David Didau’s “The Problem with Progress” series (part 3 here: http://www.learningspy.co.uk/featured/designing-lessons-for-learning/)
      Good luck!

  5. Pingback: 4. April 2013 #blogsync: Progress | EDUTRONIC | #blogsync

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