Teaching: Leading Learning at #TLT16

I have always been interested in leadership, probably even before I started teaching. I’ve always been an organiser, and I’ve enjoyed getting people involved in a project and seeing it through to realisation. As a teacher, I was quick to take on extra: I took on my first responsibility after two years; I was second in English after three; I was Head of English after five. I truth, that last jump was probably two years too soon, but I learned an awful lot from my mistakes in those two years!

I started this blog in December 2012 to share my experiences of senior leadership as a Deputy Head. I called it Teaching: Leading Learning without hesitation. The name of the blog stems from the long held belief that teaching is itself a leadership role, and that if you teach well you already have the skillset of an effective leader. In my session at #TLT16 I set out to explore how my experience as a teacher has prepared me for Headship, and the lessons my experience as a new Headteacher has for teachers.

Leadership behaviours in teaching

leadershipbehaviours

Going through the now defunct Leading From the Middle, several home-grown leadership development courses and, more recently, NPQH, I’ve read a lot about different leadership styles and behaviours. It’s interesting to look beyond education and think about business models of leadership, and whether they have relevance to us in the public sector. Hence my plundering of Zenger Folkman’s generous free-to-access resource library, where I found the “Top 9 Leadership Behaviours That Drive Employee Commitment.” They are:

  1. Inspire and motivate others
  2. Drive for results
  3. Strategic perspective
  4. Collaboration
  5. Walk the talk
  6. Trust
  7. Develops and supports others
  8. Building relationships
  9. Courage

These are qualities that have relevance to educational leadership but also, clearly, to classroom teaching.

Inspire and motivate others

This is clearly the role of the leader: to bring people with you on the journey. And it is the role of the classroom teacher too. To spark the interest of your learners, to get the best out of them, and to do your best to make sure that they want to do their best too.

Drive for results

We’re in an outcomes business, and there’s no point pretending otherwise. Results bring choice, raise aspiration and open doors. It’s the role of the school leader to evaluate every initiative, intervention and idea in terms of its impact on results, stopping the things that don’t help and doing the things that do. It’s the same for the classroom teacher. We must ask ourselves: what can I do that will make the biggest difference to the students’ outcomes?

Strategic perspective

Stonemason

Why do you do what you do? (source)

The leader’s role is to hold and share the vision, based on core values, and align everything in the organisation towards achieving that vision. The teacher’s role is the same: to know how this activity fits into this lesson, which fits into this week, which fits into this scheme of learning, which fits into the long term plan, which contributes to this young person’s experience of this subject across their schooling, which shapes the adult they will become. Where does what you are doing today fit into the bigger picture? Think about how this ten-minute activity contributes to the cathedral that you are building.

Collaboration

Geese

Leadership lessons from geese (source)

A leader doesn’t fly solo. The leader is part of a team. We achieve what we achieve together. And we recognise that we can’t know and do it all, so we call in help, advice and support when we need it. The teacher is no different. The class must work together – the culture must be right. And, when it’s needed, it is a sign of strength in the teacher to seek help, advice and support.

Walk the talk

We all know of inauthentic leaders who don’t walk the talk. Words are hollow and empty when leaders are dishonest or do not act with integrity. Classrooms work the same way. When you say you’ll read their work, you have to read it. The students’ faith in you comes from you modelling the behaviours that you expect.

Trust

This comes from walking the talk. Trust is built over time by leaders who look, listen and learn, leading to an understanding of the issues facing those you lead. Then, it comes from actions rooted in integrity, with a clear and transparent rationale consistent with the vision and values you espouse. The same with the classroom teacher. If you say something is going to happen, it happens. You don’t let your students down. You are consistent, constant, reliable. You win their trust.

Develop and support others

headstanrads

The National standards of excellence for headteachers, Domain Two, standard 5, says that excellent headteachers will:

Identify emerging talents, coaching current and aspiring leaders in a climate where excellence is the standard, leading to clear succession planning.

This is a vital part of any leader’s role, but the process of developing and supporting others is what a teacher does. It is the job.

Building relationships

Relationships lead to trust. This is how things get done – not by ordering people around, but by building relationships with colleagues which bring about commitment to the shared enterprise. Am I talking about leadership? Or teaching? Or both?

Courage

 

typorama

Mark Twain: always good for a quote

Joanna Postlethwaite put me on to this quotation in her “Head in Heels” session at #WomenEd. It’s a different take on the “do the hard things first” I’ve used before, and it’s about not shying away from the most difficult tasks. If challenging situations aren’t grasped and resolved, they will fester. If you don’t eat that frog now, it’ll grow – and then you’ll never be able to stomach it. The same in your classroom – whatever you tolerate, that’s where your expectations sit. If there’s a problem, tackle it. Don’t let things go, or you’ll struggle to get them back.

Spheres of influence

spheresofinfluence

In leadership, and in teaching, it pays to focus your attention where you will have the most influence. In both cases, this is the inner two circles in the diagram above: the areas where you have complete control, and the area where you have direct influence. You can’t control everything. But what you will find is that, if you are outward facing and focused on outcomes, the energy you are expending on the inner two circles will have an influence on the third. And the third, on the fourth. What you’re doing with your students in your classroom matters. What you’re doing with your team in your department matters. What I’m doing with my school matters. We all influence one another. We all matter.

 Download the slides from my #TLT16 session here (Dropbox link)

 

Moving On

Picture-620x340

It’s always been a wrench to leave a school. Maybe I’ve been lucky in the schools I’ve worked in, but I’ve never been desperate to leave any of them. For me, moving on has always been about the next challenge and the next step in my career, moving up to new responsibilities in new contexts.

I know that internal promotions can work really well. I’ve had two in my career, firstly with a responsibility point added in my first school and secondly when TLRs were introduced and leadership in my school at the time was restructured. I remember now the trauma of having to re-apply for my job, up against external candidates, and the relief when I was successful. I really enjoyed the new responsibilities and the challenge as I moved on to the leadership spine, but I found it difficult to “re-make” myself in the new role. It seems silly now, but I remember that as a Head of Department my work clothes were shirt-and-tie-with-smart-trousers, accessorised with a nice line in v-necked jumpers. On my first morning of my new leadership spine role, I wore a suit. It was my attempt at signifying that, although I was the same person in the same school with the same staff and the same children, something was different. Navigating that shift in relationships in an internal promotion can be a tricky business!

moving on

In my experience, I’ve always found it preferable to look for my next steps beyond the school I’m currently working in. Arriving somewhere different allows you to re-establish yourself afresh, each time with the benefit of a few more years’ experience and the benefit of knowledge gained from mistakes and missteps in the current role. It’s also, I think, helpful to work in a variety of contexts, seeing how it’s done in different schools with different cultures and ethos (ethe? ethea? ethoses?) I’ve learned so much from every school I’ve worked in, and each one has added to the repertoire of approaches I can use in any given context.

always done it

Rear Admiral Grace Hopper’s useful quote (source)

There’s a benefit to the school in appointing from outside as well. New faces from other schools bring new approaches and challenge the status quo. Even if this doesn’t lead to change, the process of challenging “the way it’s always been done” has got to be healthy.

Despite all this, it’s still hard to leave. It’s hard to re-establish yourself; every time you start at a new school you remember how much classroom and behaviour management is based on reputation, routine and relationships that you’ve built up over time. A fresh start means starting again. It’s hard to leave the students, from knowing all the names, characters, families and histories to a completely blank slate. And it’s hard to leave the staff, that dedicated group of professionals who pull together for the benefit of young people in the face of sometimes overwhelming challenges. But despite all this, I know that moving on is the right thing to do, the right thing for me – and I’m looking forward to the next step.

My First Lesson

Today I saw the new batch of PGCE students on their first day in our school. It’s always great to see the latest generation of teachers taking their first steps to join our great profession – especially now, when so much of the public narrative is around the challenges and problems we are facing. It gives me hope! It also reminds me of my first steps into teaching, and drove me back to my old PGCE files to recall my first lesson.

This is what I looked like in 1996. There's no excuse, really, is there?

This is what I looked like in 1996. It’s hard to know where to start. The outfit? The hair? The unfocused gaze? There’s no excuse, really, is there?

My secondary English PGCE course began with a compulsory two-week primary experience. I still think this is a brilliant idea; the more we can do to establish cross-phase thinking the better, and where better to start than right at the beginning?

My Primary School Experience Journal

My Primary School Experience Journal

I was sent to a primary school on the outskirts of Nottingham with Vicky, another secondary English student, and attached to a mixed Year 5/6 class. I had all sorts of  tasks to do: observing a pupil, observing a task, investigating equal opportunities and so on, before I got started on some small group work. I remember helping the class teacher hand-crank the Banda machine to get my worksheets off to do some technical accuracy work with a group of six hand-picked students. Here’s my crib sheet…

Hand-cranked worksheet in Banda-purple with red pen annotations

Hand-cranked worksheet in Banda-purple with red pen annotations

And then, in the last days, time to take the whole class. I was going to get them to do some creative writing based on a piece of music. I cranked the Banda machine, I planned my lesson with the class teacher, I psyched myself up. Then, the class teacher stepped out. It was over to me.

Worksheet from my first ever full-class lesson

Worksheet from my first ever full-class lesson

I don’t remember much about the lesson, if I’m honest. What I do remember – what I’ll never forget – was the debrief with the teacher afterwards. “How do you think it went?” she asked, kindly. “It was okay…” I said, hesitantly. “And were you comfortable with the noise level?” she asked. A sure sign of a skilful teacher: giving me the opportunity to learn from failure and improve. Here’s what I wrote in my evaluation:

Evaluation of my first lesson

Evaluation of my first lesson

  • Lesson 1: experienced teachers make it look “deceptively easy.” The children listen, attentively, and do as instructed without question. This does not happen without a lot of ground work!
  • Lesson 2: don’t rush. Establish the ground rules. Explain the task carefully. Take your time!
  • Lesson 3: model the behaviour you want to see. The way you are is reflected back at you in the behaviour of the children. If you’re unsettled and anxious, they will be too.
  • Lesson 4: evaluate your practice. Go back and have another go, working on what didn’t go well the first time. It gets better.

My primary school experience journal ended with a series of reflection tasks. The final question was: “How do you now see yourself as a beginning teacher?” Here’s what I wrote:

The end of my primary experience journal, September 1996

The end of my primary experience journal, September 1996

Ahead of me now I see a lot of hard work; an almost infeasible amount. However, my work with LF has given me a set of goals, and another role model to emulate, and my enjoyment of the experience has proved that no matter how high the mountains of work, the reward of a child proud of his or her success or achievement makes it all worthwhile.

Although I looked ridiculous, I’m still quite proud of the 1996 version of me. He was right.

Colour coded self-assessment

This year every member of our teaching staff belongs to a Teaching and Learning team. These cross curricular groups are working together to improve pedagogy as described in my post Teaching and Learning Leaders. There are six teams: Research, Feedback, Independence, Engagement, Differentiation and Mindsets, and the work of each team is posted on our Echewcation teaching and learning blog.

I belong to the mindset team, and this term I have been working with colleagues from Maths and Languages on using self-assessment to improve redrafting. The concept is based on Ron Berger’s book An Ethic of Excellence, and the principles of improving work over time through specific feedback. This is best encapsulated by his famous “Austin’s Butterfly” example – mandatory viewing for all teachers! Just in case you haven’t seen it:

In Berger’s example, the work is improved through kind, specific and helpful peer feedback. I worked on this principle last year (see my post on Closing the Gap Marking and Feedback), and this year I have been looking for ways to encourage students to be more independently reflective on the quality of their initial drafts so that they can see how to improve. The principle we have been exploring in our teaching and learning triad uses colour codes for students to self assess their drafts.

Students use colours to identify successes

Students use colours to identify successes and drive progress

The idea came from our Head of RE and PSHE, Lou Pope (@philosophypope on Twitter), who had used the technique with her groups. When she explained it to the Teaching and Learning Team, I knew I had to give it a go! Here’s how it works:

  • Students complete a first draft of a task, with clear success criteria established
  • They go through their drafts, highlighting where they have met each criterion in a different colour
  • They then reflect on the pattern of colours – which criteria have they consistently met? Which have they met the least? Whereabouts in the work have they achieved the most success? And the least?
  • Redraft…and repeat until excellent.

Photo 11-06-2014 18 11 17

I liked this approach on several levels. Firstly, the act of colour coding the draft forces the student to evaluate every aspect. If they’re not highlighting part of their work, what is it doing there? How is it contributing to the success of the piece overall? Secondly, the visual nature of the finished product was very appealing. It would be easy to see the balance within students’ work of one element over another, and for students themselves to recognise what they needed to do more (or less) of.

I decided to run a trial with my Year 10 GCSE Media Studies group, who were working towards a controlled assessment in Advertising and Marketing based on perfume adverts. The students have never studied Media formally before, so they are still getting to grips with the conventions and demands of the subject, but they are making superb progress. As part of the assignment they need to analyse two existing adverts. I got them to complete this through marginal annotation, then unleashed the coloured pencils! Students had to choose four colours and highlight where they had:

  • used media terminology to identify technical features
  • explored the connotations of the technical features
  • commented on representation
  • commented on the impact of the advert on a specific audience

The gallery below shows a selection of the students’ drafts with their highlighting:

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After the highlighting process, the students evaluated which success criteria they had covered in detail, which only touched on, or which they had omitted completely. They then  began a second draft, some using the same adverts as in their first draft and others choosing to to apply what they had learned to new texts. The new drafts are barely recognisable – they are light years ahead of the first versions, and the students are really proud of the progress they have made. I will update this post with some of the improved work in the next week!

My next step is to apply this to my GCSE English class as they complete their next assignment, in a bid to help them to move towards becoming the reflective, self-improving learners that our Dweck and Berger-inspired approach is aiming for.

Colour coded self-assessment – highly recommended!

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)

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!

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