Remembrance

Remembrance Day in school is one of those moments which make you realise what an important job we do, and what a privileged position teachers are in. It’s always the day of the year when I want to be teaching period 3;  I’m disappointed if I have a non-contact session. It’a an honour to share the silence with young people as we reflect, separately but together, on our individual and collective experience of loss and sacrifice. There are few other occasions where I’m so intensely aware of what Graham Nuthall calls the different worlds of the classroom. On the surface we all experience an identical minute between the bells, but in our private inner worlds each person has an unknown and unique journey.

I always preface the silence with my classes with a little about why Remembrance Day is particularly important to me. I tell them about my Grandfather, an officer in the Royal Navy, serving in the Arctic convoys and captaining a minesweeper, before working on the Pluto programme to supply fuel to the beaches on D Day. After the war he returned to teaching as Headmaster of Grasmere school, where he worked until retirement. Sacrifice is not always about death. We remember the fallen but also those who were – and still are – prepared to risk their lives to defend our society. We can learn a lot from their individual sacrifice for the collective good.

Each year I display a poem on the board for the students to read if they wish. Some like – or need – a focus for the minute. Previously I have used Sassoon, Owen, and McCrae, but in recent years I have favoured Mametz Wood by Owen Sheers. This poem is so resonant and powerful in its description of the uncovering of the remnants of the battle of the Somme in peacetime as farmers plough. Sheers has spoken eloquently of the inspiration for the poem as he visited the site:

Walking over that same ground, now a ploughed field, 85 years later I was struck by how remnants of the battle – strips of barbed wire, shells, fragments of bone, were still rising to the surface. It was as if the earth under my feet that was now being peacefully tilled for food could not help but remember its violent past and the lives that had sunk away into it. Entering the wood, a ‘memory’ of the battle was still evident there too. Although there was a thick undergrowth of trailing ivy and brambles, it undulated through deep shell holes. My knowledge of what had caused those holes in the ground and of what had happened among those trees stood in strange juxtaposition to the summer calmness of the wood itself; the dappled sunlight, the scent of wild garlic, the birdsong filtering down from the higher branches.

Source: Imperial War Museum

As we remember the Great War it is our duty and privilege as teachers to help the next generation reach back into the collective memory of our violent past and hope with all our hearts for a peaceful future in their hands.

Mametz Wood
by Owen Sheers

For years afterwards the farmers found them –
the wasted young, turning up under their plough blades
as they tended the land back into itself.

A chit of bone, the china plate of a shoulder blade,
the relic of a finger, the blown
and broken bird’s egg of a skull,

all mimicked now in flint, breaking blue in white
across this field where they were told to walk, not run,
towards the wood and its nesting machine guns.

And even now the earth stands sentinel,
reaching back into itself for reminders of what happened
like a wound working a foreign body to the surface of the skin.

This morning, twenty men buried in one long grave,
a broken mosaic of bone linked arm in arm,
their skeletons paused mid dance-macabre

in boots that outlasted them,
their socketed heads tilted back at an angle
and their jaws, those that have them, dropped open.

As if the notes they had sung
have only now, with this unearthing,
slipped from their absent tongues.

(Source)

#TLT14 – a tale of two conferences

Simon Sinek, in one of his excellent presentations about communities and culture, says the following:

What’s a community? What’s a culture? It’s a group of people with a common set of values and beliefs…when we’re surrounded by people who believe what we believe, something remarkable happens. Trust emerges…as a group, we’re pretty damn amazing. And the reason is that we all have our certain strengths, and we all have our certain weaknesses, and the goal is not to fix your weaknesses but to amplify your strengths.

What a week it’s been. On Thursday I presented a keynote at the Assessment Without Levels conference in London, under the shadow of Wembley Stadium’s arch. It was a good event, well attended, with some helpful input from representatives from the DfE and some thoughtful and interesting sessions, but it was suffused with a kind of mild panic – is what we’re doing right? How can we demonstrate progress? And – again and again and again – what will Ofsted think? On the train home I reflected that the 200+ delegates had paid their £300+ each in the hope that someone would be able to help them find “the answer” – or at least, an answer – to that death-knell question, and to fix their weaknesses.

What a contrast to Saturday, when I made my journey past Stonehenge to Southampton for #TLT14. David Fawcett and Jen Ludgate have organised this free event for the second year running and must surely now be in line for recognition in the civil list for services to education, if not national treasure status. On arrival, it felt so different. It was like walking through a living 3D gallery of my Twitter timeline avatars; teachers who exceeded my stratospheric expectations when I met them in person. Teachers who were there on a Saturday, who had come to the conference because they wanted to learn from one another. The choice of Tom Sherrington (@headguruteacher) for the opening keynote was inspired, as he began with his most successful tweet:

This was a true keynote. The theme for the day, for me at least, was about great teaching and learning on our own terms, led by the profession, because we are professionals and we know what we are doing. If we do that anyway, then we are effectively bulletproofing ourselves from external attack. My other big takeaway from Tom’s speech was the approach to behaviour he is taking in his new Headship:

Tom’s blog has been the go-to reading for my fellow deputy and myself as we re-examine our approaches to behaviour and this felt like the perfect rationale for aiming for “impeccable”.

My first session was with Debbie and Mel (@TeacherTweaks) whose blog has been a constant source of great ideas. Their session was bursting at the seams with even more of them! It was the perfect way to start the day as Debbie and Mel typify the kind of self-improving professionalism that Tom Sherrington was alluding to in his opening speech. The session was based around four books the dynamic duo had read and how those books had influenced their classroom practice. The books were:

  • Mindset by Carol Dweck
  • Ethic of Excellence by Ron Berger
  • The Hidden Lives of Learners by Graham Nuthall
  • Make It Stick by Brown, Roediger and McDaniel

What was superb was the way in which Debbie and Mel exemplified evidence-based practice. They had read the research, thought about it, and implemented approaches in their classrooms as a result. I thought about the student who had successfully remembered embedded clauses “because Miss Light taught us it last year” using techniques from the books and imagined that he was far from a one-off!

In search of the X-Factor...a slide from my #TLT14 presentation

In search of the X-Factor…a slide from my #TLT14 presentation (click the picture for the rest)

I was already buzzing with ideas, ready to go straight back to school and get stuck in, but I had a session to do next! I was presenting in the same room I’d sat in a year ago listening to John Tomsett describing his school’s Dweck-inspired Growth Mindset culture. Given the impact that this session had on me, it felt like quite a responsibility to step up to the lectern! I was presenting a version of our approach to assessment without levels from the Thursday conference but with added X-Men, pirate maps and ill-thought-through carrying-over-the-threshold metaphors. People seemed to like it (at least, Rachel and Jo did!). I had a ball!

I had a lovely lunch showing off my school’s newly viral video of Sir Ian McKellen going full-on Gandalf during his visit on Friday as part of our work as Stonewall Champions, before the delight of attending Jo Facer‘s session on literacy. Jo’s blog is one of my absolute favourites and it was lovely to be in a room full of English teachers (including my twitter-hero @TillyTeacher) talking about literature and how to encourage readers whilst maintaining rigour. Jo was even more than I’d hoped for – a bundle of energy and wide-eyed enthusiasm, driven by a genuine moral purpose. I left the room with a book recommendation and a renewed resolve to embed and strengthen the reading culture in my school.

My final session was with Jill Berry. Jill and I have corresponded at length via twitter, blogs and on Guardian panels, but I had never met her in person until #TLT14. Her session focused on the doctoral research she is conducting into moving from Deputy Headship to Headship and was the perfect end to the day for me. I sat with Amjad Ali and really enjoyed the discussion about moving into senior leadership positions. Jill was fantastic – an excellent facilitator who provided the forum for really useful discussion and provoked thinking in all the delegates.

And so we gathered back in the main room for the day’s close, delivered by Kev Bartle. As a Sunderland fan travelling to Southampton on Saturday, I think he got a better deal at #TLT14 than he would have got at St Mary’s! He got the whole room doing a Bartle version of Brain Gym (of course!) before capping off the day perfectly by explaining why we don’t need to try to be superheroes because, in our classrooms, we already are. Looking around that room, I was convinced that he was right. We were a room full of professionals who, through sharing and collaboration, were having our strengths amplified.

The Simon Sinek presentation I began this blog with finishes with the following questions:

What are you doing to help the person next to you? Don’t you want to wake up and go to work for the only reason that you can do something good for someone else? Wouldn’t you want them to do that for you? 

At #TLT14 I was surrounded by people who get up every day – even on a Saturday – and make other people’s lives better. I know that I will go to work on Monday and do a better job than I would have done otherwise. It was a privilege to be there.

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

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.

 

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.

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!

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. 

 

Should Ofsted be sharing best practice?

Best Practice in English

Best Practice in English

In amongst all the “we’re not grading lessons any more…in fact, we haven’t for a long time (even though all the teachers who’ve been inspected recently have had their lessons graded)” fuss this half term, there was another mini-farrago when Ofsted published a Good practice resource – Engaging and inspiring learners in English, especially at Key Stage 3It was a decent resource, full of great ideas for engaging and inspiring learners, and the results indicate that Priestnall School are doing something right. David Didau, amongst others, cried foul:

So, as we know, Sir Michael Wilshaw is determined to make clear that Ofsted has no preferred teaching style. Right? Wrong.

from “What inspirational teaching looks like according to Ofsted

I recognise the argument that Ofsted publishing a “good practice resource” does create a conflict with the “no preferred teaching style” stance taken by the Chief Inspector. This is largely due to the thrall in which the all-powerful inspectorate holds the profession – the panopticon effect described by Kev Bartle. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

In a previous role I was head of an Ofsted Outstanding English Department. Following a full inspection in January 2009, we were visited for a good practice subject survey in the summer term. All very lovely! However, the real evidence that Ofsted were interested in more than just inspection came when I was invited to the Department for Education and Skills (as it was then) the following term for a best practice day. Ofsted and the DfES had gathered together all the English subject leaders from every school where outstanding English teaching had been observed over the previous two years. Primary, secondary, tertiary, special, PRU, rural, urban, church, comprehensive – all gathered together to address the four key areas identified in the 2009 English at the Crossroads paper:

  • Independent learning in English: helping pupils to think for themselves
  • Assessment in English: building on good marking
  • Boys and English: how the best schools make a difference
  • How can standards of writing be improved?

Sanctuary Buildings as they used to be

It was a brilliant day. I was inspired, humbled, and overawed by turns. It was like the greatest English-focused TeachMeet in pre-TeachMeet days. Both Ofsted and the DfES seemed genuinely interested in capturing best practice and disseminating it nationwide. The project eventually became the Excellence in English paper and informed Moving English Forward in 2012. It was also a missed opportunity to create a network – there was no delegate list, no contact information, and no follow-up.

A lot has changed since 2009. Skills have been banished from the parliamentary letterhead, the National Strategies are gone, and local authority networks have fragmented as schools have embraced the independence of academy status. Gone are the days when practice could be shared between local schools through a literacy consultant or school improvement advisor (I realise that quality in these roles were variable, but the ones I worked with were, by and large, excellent). Twitter and blogging are great enablers of peer-to-peer sharing, and teaching school alliances may also help.  But Ofsted go into so many schools, in every conceivable context, all over the country. Their inspectors must see some brilliant practice from teachers who have never read a tweet. I recognise that their primary focus is summative and evaluative, but it seems a wasted opportunity not to do more with that evidence base. The potential is there to build up a truly formidable bank of what works in schools.

That doesn’t mean that it’s going to work in my school. I know that – I’m a professional and I can make that decision. But I’d rather have the library of what Ofsted have seen available – there may be something that they’ve seen that will help solve a problem in my context. If Ofsted can clarify that they don’t grade lessons or teachers, but they can find evidence in a lesson to inform a grade for teaching overall, then I’m sure we can see their best practice examples with the same clarity. Here’s what worked for someone else. Have a look and see what you think…

ofstedbest

Fiyero and the Scarecrow: defying gravity

In describing the visit of selected edubloggers to Ofsted, Tom Sherrington drew parallels with the visit of Dorothy, the Lion, the Tin Man and the Scarecrow to the Emerald City to meet the Wizard.

Image via @headguruteacher

“Scarecrow has a brain!” concluded Tom, and it certainly seems that the bloggers have done good work in pulling back the curtain to reveal the mere mortal presence behind the intimidating smoke and mirrors of the spectral inspectorate.

For me, the stories of Oz have a resonance in my classroom, and in particular with the presence of Fiyeros in the student body. For the uninitiated, Fiyero is a character in the Geoffery Maguire novel Wicked, adapted into a wonderful Broadway and West End musical by Stephen Schwartz, telling a revisionist story of the origins of the witches of Oz. In the musical, Fiyero is a handsome prince whose introductory number is Dancing Through Life, where he lays out his simple philosophy:

The trouble with schools is
they always try to teach the wrong lesson
Believe me, I’ve been kicked out
of enough of them to know
They want you to become less callow
less shallow
But I say: “why invite stress in?”
stop studying strife
and learn to life “the unexamined life”

Dancing through life
skimming the surface
gliding where turf is smooth
life’s more painless
for the brainless
why think too hard?
when it’s so soothing
dancing through life
no need to tough it
when you can slough it off as I do
nothing matters
but knowing nothing matters
it’s just life
so keep dancing through…

How many Fiyeros have I taught? These are the students who will take the path of least resistance – “why think too hard?” It’s so soothing to ignore the challenge of the difficult path, shrug it of and not bother. The Fiyeros I teach will in fact expend huge amounts of energy and effort in attempts to avoid engagement with the academic challenge of the classroom, some of them to the point of being kicked out.

In the musical, Fiyero ends up (spoilers) being transformed into the brainless scarecrow we recognise from Baum’s original Oz stories, his lifetime of sliding away from challenges rewarded by an adulthood of ignorance. As we know from the 1939 MGM film, however, this destiny is far from the satisfying “ignorance is bliss” existence imagined by Fiyero:

Many young people will look at the challenges of the lessons we teach and sigh “if I only had a brain…” before giving up. How can we make them see the frustrations that adults feel at wasted time and effort in the classroom? How do we persuade the teenager intent on avoiding trying that, one day, their attitude will be a source of regret?

It comes down to the culture of the classroom and, by logical extension, the culture of the school. Opting out of challenge cannot be a viable route. Effort and engagement with learning should be so ingrained into the fabric of the building, the expectations of students, teachers, parents, leaders and governors, that the consideration of swerving it should be at least unattractive and at best impossible. All need to understand that difficulty is normal, that being daunted by a challenge is healthy, and that perseverance, resilience and determination are the essential ingredients to a healthy growth mindset.

With this culture in place, it’s my hope that I can help young people to have an attitude more like Elphaba: “unlimited – my future is unlimited” – and defy the gravitational pull of inactivity.

They’re never going to bring me down!