A Love Letter To Miss Watson

Miss Watson emailed me recently. Miss Watson!
She was my form tutor in year 9 and 10, and the only woman who taught me anything about how to break a wild class. She had poker straight hair, and huge glasses, and always wore a burnt orange jacket that she would only take off if it was 53 degrees and even then we still had to ask before we could take our blazer off.
I hated Miss Watson. And loved her. Because that’s how it is when you’re a teenager. The teachers who spend all their time moaning at you for your own good are often those you come to love most.
My typical crime at school was listening to my walkman. Miss Watson hated it and would steal my earphones if I refused to put it away.
Plus I was forever in the wrong queue. Miss Watson would make us line up outside her class on either side of the door. Boys on the left. Girls on the right. I would queue with the boys every time. If boys went in first, I would hang near the end, and she’d make me swap over when I got to the front. If the girls went in first it was a victory. I’d swan in last, with all the boys, to make my point. Miss Watson was smart enough to know this victory made me feel good. And I was dumb enough to believe I’d gotten away with something.
It was autumn 1996 when I first met her. Our form arrived in the stark blocky room of 9C. Unlike other form groups, whose letter reflected their tutors’ surname, we were exotically named after Miss Watson’s first name, Carole. Yup, with an ‘e’.
Our form group was not pleasant. We had decimated tutors over the year and become known as the ‘nasty’ form. Later, when I taught in London, I met the karmic reincarnation of our 9C selves in 9MO.  It was only then I realised how horrific we had been and felt terrible for every teacher we made flee from our classroom in tears.
Miss Watson was never going to cry. She basically told us as much when we arrived.
Her thick Wigan (Wig-uhn) accent clipply told us that she had heard how awful we were, and that we were going to stop it. Now.
She was about 4 feet 10 tall and blind as a bat. We were terrified anyway.
In one of our first form meetings she whipped out a record player and played ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ to us. After the song she told us about how, at university, when the world felt a dark place, the  person she could rely on was Freddie Mercury. With the few pennies she had, she’d bought enormous headphones and spent days at university lying on her bed, listening to his voice. She hoped we all had Freddie Mercury’s who helped make our lives better. And she wanted to hear about them. Each of us was going to have to make a speech, just for a few minutes, over the next few weeks, about a thing we really liked.
We were flummoxed. And a bit outraged. What was this bullshit? We were used to swinging on chairs, and throwing things at each other, and boys pinging girls’ bras, and reading David Hughes’ copy of the Daily Star which he got from some builders on the train to school each morning. Reading speeches to each other sounded rubbish.
It was and it wasn’t. I don’t remember many of them, really. They probably weren’t very good. But I remember being amazed that we did it anyway. We actually listened. We didn’t shout, or throw things. We snoozed a bit. But we were placid. A definite break-through.
I don’t remember making my speech at all but I know it was about Terry Pratchett. A few weeks later Miss Watson gave me a page of the Sunday Times magazine featuring an interview with him. It was the kindest thing a teacher ever did for me. I’d never seen the Sunday Times. I didn’t know authors gave interviews. I kept marvelling at how she could have thought of me, on a Sunday, when she wasn’t at work. And I wondered what sort of human being does that? Who bothers to pull a page out of a newspaper, and put it in their bag, and carry it to work, and get it out at the right time and say “I saw this and thought of you”. I remember thinking, right then, that I wanted to be that sort of human being.
Years later, in my own classroom, I was forever doing the same thing. Giving pupils books that I thought they might like once I was finished. Passing them magazine articles; sharing music of bands they loved.
I still have the Terry Pratchett article, too. It’s in a small memory box I keep of the most important things from my teenage years. It’s a permanent homage to Carole-with-an-e.
More amazing, perhaps, than Miss Watson’s form tutoring was being in her French class. Here, she was Madame Watson. Not Miss. Never Miss. And never Laura, for me, but always Laure. In fact, she diligently called us all by our French names: James was Jean-Jacques, Clare became Severine, David … Daaarveeed.
I hated learning French. I still hate it. Languages are my Achilles heel. I don’t care for them, they make me uncomfortable, every time I utter a foreign phrase I feel like a hippopotamus trying to pirouette.
The amazing thing is that Miss Watson didn’t solve that. She just taught me anyway.  She taught me that a truly great teacher doesn’t make you love a subject. She just gets you an A* whether you liked it or not.
Ten years after I started in that blocky form room, I had my own form and subject classes. My classroom emulated everything I had learned from Miss Watson. Clear instructions on the board, rigorous routines for starting the lesson, constantly asking questions, giving resources out, ending the lesson in a clear and consistent way. I stole her clippy matter-of-fact way of speaking, and the way she always did fun games at the end of lessons and vocab tests at the start. And I wore jackets. Lots of them.
I gradually came to see how she had got our form on side. After those initial speeches, she broke us into teams. We were selected each half-term by raffle and the groups competed against each other for points in mini-quiz activities. My favourite was the A-Z game, where we wrote all the letters of the alphabet on a piece of paper, and then had to complete a word for each letter based on a theme. The team who could complete the most letters won.
Topcs included chocolate bars, car manufacturers, capital cities. Cries of “Rome? Is Rome a capital city? It’s got a football team…” would fill the air. And instead of 30 pupils battling the teacher – our prior modus operandi – there would be 5 groups each trying to work together and outpit each other.
Somehow she would mark the papers by breaktime and we’d pile into her room to see who had the glory. (I look back now and presume she had a free period, but to us it was magical). She would take the moment to check our ties, shirts, blazers, the walkman. It was only as an adult I realised she made several points in the day when she would see us (she would let us eat lunch in her room for the first 15 minutes of our break, for example) – not just because she was “cool”, as we thought, but because she wanted to reinforce her expectations for us, and also be there in case we needed her.
When I was 15 and split up with a dear boyfriend, (young love is intense, isn’t it?), I went to school 20 minutes early and put all the chairs down in our form room and flopped on a chair and sobbed in the corner. And all she said was “you’ll be okay, Laure” and she made me help her put some worksheets out. It was exactly what I needed.
The high-point of Miss Watson, however, was The Day of the Nail Varnish Incident. It is the story I have told most often to new teachers I have trained about behaviour.
The Nail Varnish Incident began like every other autumn term blustery morning. We piled into our form room: shirts had to be tucked, trainers changed to shoes, walkman taken from me again. Grr.
And, as was the ritual every morning, Emma had arrived wearing nail varnish. Loud, red, luscious nail varnish. Which Emma lovingly painted on her fingers almost every night and which, for weeks on end, Miss Watson had required her to remove each morning.
The routine never changed. Miss Watson would go into her stock cupboard, produce a bottle of nail varnish remover and plonk it on Emma’s desk along with a series of cotton wool balls. The removal would begin.
Only this day, there was a problem.
Two minutes into the cleaning Emma thrust the bottle onto the desk with force. Her eyes gleamed, her mouth smiling, her tone defiant. She announced: “It’s empty”. And leaned back in her chair.
For a moment we froze. For the first time it was possible: one of us might win.
That possibility was tantalising. But incredibly short.
In one swift move Miss Watson strolled from her desk, swiped the bottle with one hand, spun, threw it in the bin, caught the stock cupboard handle, swung it open, grabbed a second full varnish remover bottle, spun again and placed it in front of Emma. She slinked  back at her desk before the stock cupboard had even closed.
Emma never wore nail varnish again after that. And I learned that persistence is about 90 per cent of achievement when it comes to improving teen behaviour.
Someone asked recently if a teacher had changed my life. I’m not sure that Miss Watson did anything that changed my route through it. My french grade never mattered. I didn’t become a teacher because of her. No major change in my circumstances occurred because I was in 9C.
But I do think Miss Watson changed me as a person. She modelled a whole new type of human. Determined, smart, curious, fierce. But always, always intentional and kind.
After twenty years, I am glad I finally get to say a proper thank you.

What I Learned About Teaching at the Wellington Education Festival

Last weekend I attended the Sunday Times Education Festival at Wellington. It was brilliant. Sunshine, nice grounds, hundreds of people chatting about edu-nerdy things. It’s basically my nirvana.
Busy enjoying myself I didn’t take many notes or feel particularly moved to write a blog about it all. HOWEVER, one event stayed with me all week for what it encapsulated about the true spirit of teaching. So I thought I’d share that part.
At lunch-time on Saturday I was lucky enough to be in the ‘street’ – a part of the festival including street-y food vendors and a soundstage. In total, about twenty people were milling around, with the majority of attendees still tucked away watching talks.
Out of apparently nowhere I hear two booming voices: “HELLO!”
It was two men stood on the stage. They were in England shirts. The night before, England had crashed out of the cup.
“We’ve come all the way from York. We left at MIDNIGHT, we slept in our car at 4am, we’re about to sing you a song about ENGLAND WINNING THE WORLD CUP even though THEY WENT OUT LAST NIGHT. But it doesn’t matter! We’re going to sing like that didn’t happen”
I was fairly suspicious and about to leave when they began. And they delivered one of the most incredible performances I have ever seen – especially given that it was delivered to twenty-people who were mostly interested in getting a hotdog a-sap. That the song was crushingly called “Bring it Home” didn’t matter; their enthusiasm was infectious.  I mean, England were already out. The performers had driven for about twelve hours AND YET – they performed as if in front of a 100,000-strong crowd. It was quite something. Not only did I watch it all, I even found myself whooping for an encore.
Among the small crowd I noticed blogging-headteacher John Tomsett, so I went to ask if he knew the group, given that John is also from York. He did. In fact, they  were two of his teachers and they had released the single for charity. He explained how the reason they drove overnight was because their Friday evening had been spent chaperoning the sixth form leavers’ party. Also, he said, they were now legging it back to York to perform in another gig at 6pm.

Look at that energy!
Look at that energy!

As the two ran (literally) to their car all I could think was: this is what great teachers do. By which I don’t mean “be in a band” but instead that they make people believe in outcomes even when they feel impossible. Great teachers put in the necessary planning, they spend the hours to get to the point where they can deliver something (in this example, driving: for most teachers, it’s planning), and then they deliver it with all their might even if only a few despondent individuals are present. Great teachers yank people’s brains with something so interesting or baffling or important that they find themselves wanting to know more. It’s what those guys did on the stage, and it was one of the best examples of teaching I saw in the whole weekend – among a stiff competition.
After lunch I watched a bit of David Starkey’s session. He knows his  Magna Carta. But, in teaching terms, he didn’t hold a candle to those boys.

What Happened at the TouchPaper Problem Party?

Saturday was the scene of the first ever TouchPaper Problem Party, and it was amazing. It was, quite literally, a super fun nerdy education party!
The story of its genesis is remarkably simple. A few months after I gave a talk at the ResearchEd conference in which I laid out 7 questions that I thought were important for education, Dr Becky Allen contacted me with a tantalising idea: What if we put a bunch of up-for-it people in a room who wanted to answer these questions, and then gave them access to research, wifi, and some coffee?  What do you think would happen?
I had no idea. But it sounded like a lot of fun to find out. 
Skip forward five months and we found ourselves stood in a room at the Institute of Education, on a rainy Saturday surrounded by 43 people geared up and ready to THINK. Having selected one of the 7 TouchPaper Questions to work on, teams were split across six tables (we ended up missing out problem 1 in the end) and each team had an intrepid facilitator pre-selected to help the group walk through their paces.

This is what thinking looks like
This is what thinking looks like

It was nerve-wracking waiting for people to arrive. Yet once we got going the atmosphere was party-like. People were excitable, introducing themselves, exclaiming they had not seen each other for a long time, or only ever spoken online, or explaining that they had read blogs for years but had never stepped into the Twitter or blogging fray themselves.
Crazily though, people really didn’t know what was going to happen. Though facilitators were selected for their great teaching skills the whole thing was quite experimental, with each group being told they just had to think “and present something back at 3 o’clock”. To assure everyone that I knew this was a bit weird I made the group repeat a mantra that got me through teaching several times: “Remember: it’s not brave, if you’re not scared” .
Furthermore, Becky and I consoled ourselves with thinking that if nothing else happened in the day we would at least answer the question of what happens if you stick a bunch of motivated edu-nerds in a room and ask them to answer hard questions.
As it happens, the answer to that question is: Amazing things.
What we found by 3pm
After several hours of thinking, discussing, arguing, writing, dancing, or whatever else facilitators demanded, groups fed back their thoughts on each problem.
Here is my quick summary of notes, though I fully expect the groups to roll their eyes at the shadow of deep thought I am presenting here:
Group 2 – “How can one invoke in a class the emotional state most productive for: (a) prosocial behaviour, (b) evaluative thinking, (c) memorization, (d) creation?”
We heart research design
We heart research design

Eleanor Bernades and Katharine Vincent did an incredible job of marshalling their team throughout the day.
The group presented a proposal for a study in which students would be tested for physiological indicators of mood. [The group didn’t mention the Gates watches, but several US schools are already using technology to do something like this]. By seeing how students respond physiologically to different types of stimuli it would be possible to see if there are pronounced changes, and also to track what impact this has on learning. If you had a large enough sample size, and got students to do enough different tasks it might be possible to see what sort of stimuli is best for what types of activity.
A second group also considered how student mood can be manipulated for creativity, including creating introspection, calmness and divergent thinking.
There are, of course, ethical issues to consider with this question. However the fact the group got to such a clear research design was pretty impressive, and it should be possible now for groups to plan to implement this kind of research design and actually track what the impacts of different stimuli are, if they can get hold of the technology.
Group 3 – If a child needs to remember 20 chunks of knowledge from one lesson to the next, what is the most effective homework to set?
This group grew! Originally one of the smaller crowds, by the time the day began Kris Boulton was leading 8 intrepid Problemeteers – the biggest of all groups.
Undeterred, Kris’ presentation outlined the key assumption taken by the group through the day and laid forth several hypotheses about what a good homework for memorisation would include. These were:

  • It should focus on recall, repetition and be planned strategically
  • It should focus on knowledge that is progressively more difficult
  • Task variation may be more important
  • The aim of the task should be to revise already learned things, not take in new knowledge

However, there was a killer blow. David Thomas, a member of the group, pointed to research that showed that if you are trying to get students to remember things in the long-term, there can be a downside to having them retrieve information too soon. So if a student has to remember things over a short period, and keeps going back to them, they are not having to dig around in their long-term brain and find the information. Because they are not getting used to ‘finding’ information that hasn’t been looked at for a while, it could be that homeworks which have students regularly re-visit materials might actually do damage to the memorisation of it. BOOM! 
So, there is more yet to be figured out on this issue but it shows that the path to the answer might not be quite what we think.
Group 4 – What determines the complexity of a concept?
Michael Slavinsky, a man far cleverer than me, already had his group fired up to answer one of the most difficult TouchPaper Questions by provoking debate on this blog and by

I went a bit woozy when Alex got his tech out...
I went a bit woozy when Alex got his tech out…

discussing on his own blog. This group not only blew my mind when I went and sat near them (at one point Alex Weatherall was explaining about dependencies, i.e. concepts that need to be taught before other concepts in science so that students have maximum understanding, and all I could think was, “This is above my pay grade” and scarpered, quickly, before anyone asked me for an opinion).
However, the heavy thinking of the day led to a really clear presentation in which Michael explained how concepts might be given a “complexity value” based on:

  • Linguistic complexity – for example, are the words used abstract or concrete nouns, or domain specific
  • Logic complexity – conditionality of statements, level of inference
  • Intuitive Feel – are there multiple ideas that seem to contradict one another, or go against perceived wisdom

The group then began to think about the complexity of transfer. So, once a concept has a “complexity value” is there also something about the backgrounds of teachers or students that make it particularly difficult to transfer the concept from the teacher’s mind to the students. For example, if a student struggles with language then the weighting of linguistic complexity may matter more.
This was a fascinating start for a complicated area, but made me start to think about the possibility of curriculum ideas having “complexity values” which would enable us to see how difficult each concept is and could also feed into the work on recreating assessment “levels” which I know many schools are now doing, [Michael has also blogged some initial thoughts from the day here – go read!].
Group 5 – What are the necessary and sufficient conditions under which students will enter a classroom and most speedily engage in productive problem-solving?

Defining the problem. Literally.
Defining the problem. Literally.

Harry Fletcher-Wood’s group were enthused throughout the day, always looking as if thinking about the really hard stuff was what they were born to do! It was quite cheering.
In their presentation Harry gave 8 necessary conditions for entering a classroom but he said them very quickly so I don’t have them written down. Harry – can you blog them soon please?!
He also suggested coming up with a tool whereby teachers would suggest 20 techniques for ensuring these 8 conditions, which could then be tested and commented upon by practitioners for their usefulness. This sounds brilliant. I would like to see this happen and exist somewhere online. MAKE IT HAPPEN HFW.
Group 6 – What rule best predicts teacher ‘behaviour’ ratings of pupils?
For various reasons this ended up being a very small group but it was led by David Weston, CEO of the Teacher Development Trust, and in conjunction with Loic Menzies and 2014-01-18 15.54.28Anna Trethewey of LKMCo. Treating themselves as the G&T group they decided they could have it stitched up by lunchtime, but the reality was more complex. After a quick start the afternoon required much more thought, but what they presented back was pretty amazing.
In order to work out how a teacher will rate a students’ behaviour they argued that there are ‘internal’ and ‘external’ factors which play into whether or not a students’ behaviour is deemed acceptable or unacceptable. Each teacher, at any moment in time, will hold a series of values (internal) about what is acceptable or unacceptable and these will be influence by external factors (e.g. what the student did, how able you are to deal with it) and this creates a calculation about any behaviour’s acceptability.
When a teacher is asked to create a behaviour grade and record it online there is an ‘aggregation’ of memories about students’ behaviour and whether it has been acceptable or unacceptable. This is affected by things including, but not limited to: recency effects (recent behaviour outweighs past behaviour), very memorable behaviours, whether a teacher has kept formal records of behaviour and uses those to inform their aggregation process.
This was then drawn into a complicated-looking formulae (by David and Loic), and re-explained for those frightened of maths by Anna (an English teacher, natch).
What was impressive is the level of detail by which it would be possible to start testing the idea. For example, is there a difference in the way that people rate behaviour if they keep records than if they don’t? Also, a question arises about the types of values that would cause a teacher to say a behaviour is acceptable or unacceptable. [The team did start to delineate these, but they can blog about it for themselves]. If we know this then we can think about why there might be inconsistent treatment of behaviours in different classrooms, what this means to students, and how it could be overcome.
Group 7 – What is the optimal number of times for a student to (a) read, (b) hear, or (c) say information aloud if they are to retain for 1, 3, & 6 month intervals?
Led by the accomplished Helene Galdin-O’Shea, group 7 had the most difficult time because it had the question phrased most problematically by me. For the other 6 questions I’m willing to fight my corner (and sometimes did) so that people don’t change the wording. But there were (are) issues with 7 that came to the forefront.
As Helene pointed out, however, there is a simple answer to this question: quiz, quiz, quiz. By having students retrieve and recall information at different times over a period2014-01-18 12.10.03 you can improve their memory of certain information. How the quizzes should be done, however, might be important – for example, do they encourage students to remember what things mean, what sort of cues can help with retrieval, how do you space the quizzes for maximum effect.
To that end Joe Kirby suggested 3 questions that need to be answered to break open this problem a little more:

  1. What frequency and interval should information be recalled so that students remember it best?
  2. What is the best order for content to be presented in so it is best remembered?, and
  3. Which type of quizzes are best for memory? (e.g. short answer, multiple choice, etc).

Some of these questions overlap with other TouchPaper Problems. E.g. frequency and interval were mentioned by Group 3 on homework memorisation. The order that content should be presented in was mentioned by Group 4 on the complexity of concepts. But this is good! An aim of the problems was to start breaking into the general principles needed to understand learning. That some overlaps are rising up suggests to me that we are getting to the core parts of what good learning is.
Conclusion and next steps?
The quality of the day was entirely down to the quality of thinking and the boundless energy brought by participants. Becky and I spent much of the day beaming at how cool it was to see so many people so involved in really difficult stuff all related to classroom practice (rather than annoying abstract discussions you can spend way too much time on in academia and policymaking).
The conclusions were fascinating and prompt further thought. We asked people at the end to say what they wanted to see happen next. Overwhelmingly people want to carry on thinking, maybe working with their group, and consider ways of getting more time to think.
We are excited about the idea of doing more. Michael Slavinsky, facilitator of Group 4, has already started thinking about ways the TouchPapers might be used at the next ResearchEd and Becky and I will put our heads together to think what might be best to do next and will let you all know once we have a plan. (Your feedback on that has been invaluable, thank you!)
In the meantime do keep thinking, blogging, discussing, and get in touch if you have any ideas for taking things forward. But most importantly I hope you went back to your work, wherever it was, more inspired and re-energised about the potential of answering hard questions that really matter for teaching. That’s the truly important stuff.


TouchPaper Problem #7 – Memorising information (for up to 6 months)

This is the seventh blogpost expanding on the TouchPaper Problems first discussed at #Researched2013 and due to be tackled at the first TouchPaper Problem Party.

Question #7 – What is the optimal number of times for a student to (a) read, (b) hear, or (c) say information aloud if they are to retain for 1, 3, & 6 month intervals?

Of all  the TouchPaper Problems I’ll admit this is the most populist. It somewhat derives from the debates by Joe Kirby, over at PragmaticEducation, and his quest to have students be masters of knowledge. The blogs themselves derive from a broader debate about the importance of knowledge in education (sometimes seen as being in opposition to skils, but really – let’s not get into that).

Joe writes a lot about the concept of mastery, and while I don’t wish to reduce it too much, a big part of that is remembering content. I can understand why Joe thinks this important. Having taught students in examined subjects, I never had the luxury of thinking “weeellll…. even if my students don’t remember what we did, they had a nice time, and I think they are motivated towards x now, so they will come back to it in the future”. Instead, I used to think “aaaaagh – I taught you the central nervous system last November and now you don’t remember it?! Yes, I know it’s May and that’s a long time ago, but you neeeed this…” And so on and so on.

Hence, I got to thinking. How often must students interact with a concept before they retain it? Is there a magic formulae by which I can get students to repeat a word 6 times, write it 10 and play it once, loudly, on a youtube vid once which will then mean they never forget?

I suspect there isn’t, and yet…

If we unpack this question there is the possibility of getting some rules of thumb out of it, not least because memory has been a very frequently studied area of psychology. Now, answers here may depend on what someone is learning. Perhaps it is easy to memorise ten french words but really difficult to remember how an author symbolises melancholy. Maybe I can say outloud certain things, but need to see others. And is there a difference in the time between learning and remembering? I purposely picked 1, 3 and 6 months in the problem because they are all, quite firmly, in the long-term memory box. If you are memorising something at 1 month then it must be in your long-term memory. But I pondered if there might be a difference (equally there might not) and if we could find out what it is that may save us all the many drawn-out summer revision classes where we beat ourselves and our charges up for not remembering what we did last September.

We can but hope.

TouchPaper Problem #6 – Teacher Perceptions of Behaviour

This is the sixth blogpost expanding on the TouchPaper Problems first discussed at #Researched2013 and due to be tackled at the first TouchPaper Problem Party.

Question #6 – What rule best predicts teacher ‘behaviour’ ratings of pupils?

Teachers are often asked to describe student behaviour: to their parents, on report cards, even to students themselves. But is it the child’s behaviour only that determines how teachers rate the pupil or are there other factors at play?

There are two ways that it might be possible other factors matter:

1. Something about a teacher means they perceive student behaviours in different ways. For example, perhaps I hold a belief that it isn’t “ladylike” for girls to be loud. If I teach a female student with a particularly booming voice, might I therefore (however subconsciously) give her a lower behavior rating than a female student of similar behaviour patterns but with a quieter voice? (And is that because her behaviour is actually worse?)

2. Could it be that something about a teacher means the students actually behave differently? Sticking with the volume example, is a teacher with a naturally booming voice more likely to have a loud class, who they then perceive as chatty, and so mark down for behaviour?

Clearly, these factors will be different for different people. This is why the problem ask what best predicts the rating. We’re not saying that knowing something about a person will always tell you how they will perceive behaviour, but what is it about us that gets us closer to the answer.

Other thoughts that come to mind for me are:

– Does a teacher’s level of optimism matter? Do more optimistic people rate students more highly? Are students better behaved for more optimistic teachers?

– Does a teacher’s own experience of education matter? If they were taught in chattery classrooms and nevertheless did well, perhaps they don’t mark down chattery students. If, on the other hand, the chatterboxes of their youth are the ones they think destroyed their chances, do they then take this as an opportunity to “right the wrong” and mark such students down?

At this point, I don’t know. But I’m looking forward to having people think about how we might figure this out, and what sort of information we would need to do so.

TouchPaper Problem #5 – Getting Classes To Enter Rooms Effectively

This is the fifth blogpost expanding on the TouchPaper Problems first discussed at #Researched2013 and due to be tackled at the first TouchPaper Problem Party.

Question #5 – What are the necessary and sufficient conditions under which students will enter a classroom and most speedily engage in productive problem-solving?

Education is a zero sum game. We have a finite amount of time and once it’s used up, there’s no more. Every second a student is doing something they shouldn’t be in a lesson, we are losing them. This sounds harsh, I know. Children do have the right to daydream, rebel, fight us, make friends, and so on. BUT, as teachers, our job is to try our best to rein in those inclinations, or even use them purposefully, for the few short hours we get each day and push as much energy as possible into the pursuit of expanding knowledge and skills. That expansion should leave students less afraid in the future of new things, and may even open areas of passion and interest. It’s a good power that we yield.

But, we don’t always do it effectively.

In particular, the starts of lessons can be tough. Thirty individual learners, each with their own pathway to your door, each bringing their own anxieties and excitements, all need to come together within a few minutes and be operating as one body. We are basically trying to perform a magic trick of turning lone wolves to turn into an ant colony.

It is this analogy – wolves into ants – that made me first think about TouchPaper Problem 5. Question is: How do we do it?

Over the years I have seen some very effective techniques for getting students into their lessons and calmed down. Greeting at the door is sometimes considered important. But what if this means taking attention away from students inside the room who then start thumping ten bells out of each other? Other teachers have books already laid out on desks, but how long does this take? Does it mean the students are out in the corridor longer? And does that even matter? (After all, if 10 seconds longer on the corridor means the lesson starts 30 seconds more quickly than otherwise, we have ourselves a winning situation).

Furthermore, I’m not sure any of these techniques is necessary. I’ve seen great lessons that started with a teacher who didn’t say a single word. They didn’t greet. They didn’t move. They didn’t speak. So what did this classroom have? Arguably, it had trust. But how do I know that? Can I measure it? Could any observer see it?

Of all the problems in the series I think this might have the most unpacking to do and could yield the most specific answers. If it did, it would provide a very useful “rule of thumb” for teachers when they meet their. It’s also possible that there are differential points for types of room, age, frequency of being in the room, etc. I suspect it will also be a topic area with very little written about it – so if we want a solution we must think carefully, how will we find it?

It’s not an easy one Question Number 5. But it’s fascinating. I look forward to hearing what people think.

TouchPaper Problem #4 – What determines the complexity of a concept?

This is the fourth blogpost expanding on the TouchPaper Problems first discussed at #Researched2013 and due to be tackled at the first TouchPaper Problem Party.

Question #4 – What determines the complexity of a concept?

In my estimation, this is the hardest of all the problems, but it’s also really important.

As a teacher I was constantly trying to figure out “how difficult is this material?” and gauging whether I needed to edge it up or scale it down depending on the students I was teaching. But: how do we know if something is complex?

I remember working with a history revision class who were learning about the appeasement. I didn’t think appeasement would be a difficult concept. I mean, kids appease each other all the time in the playground when they, say, allow an older bullying set of kids to play football with them, even if they don’t really want to, in order to avoid a conflict. Problem is, appeasement actually turned out to be quite complex. “To appease” is easy to understand. “Appeasement”, however, is a strategy, a non-concrete object, and it’s quite difficult to talk about accurately without practice. My students kept saying things like “Britain wanted to appeasement Hitler” or “the appeasement happened in Munich” – and while both are in a ballpark I could understand, they were inaccurate enough that they couldn’t go uncorrected.

A second thing led me to create this problem. Earlier the year national curriculum levels were “abolished” and schools are now being encouraged to create their own. Many vocal opponents of levels complained that the stages did not adequately follow on from one another, with some actions described at Level 8 not necessarily seeming more difficult than those at Level 7. Others suggested that what we should have instead are lists of knowledge that students will have and that this should get progressively more difficult as we go forward.

But: how do we know which knowledge is the most difficult? To go back to the issue of appeasement, I’m fairly certain I could get a 7 year old to understand much of it. There also people who write their PhDs about it. So what is the essential difference between the types of concept the 7 year old and the PhD are using when discussing appeasement?

As with the other problems, I am certain there has been lots of study on this. Taxonomies of knowledge exist. Philosophers of knowledge have hierarchied such things on occasion. But what I want to know is how these tools can help a teacher know the complexity of a concept. Because if we can answer that question then we can start to construct assessments and curriculum on the basis of some collective understanding.

Getting to that point, however, seems like will be far from easy. Any suggestions?

TouchPaper Problem #3 – Effective Homeworks for Memorizing Things

This is the third blogpost expanding on the TouchPaper Problems first discussed at #Researched2013 and due to be tackled at the first TouchPaper Problem Party.

Question #3 – If a child needs to remember 20 chunks of knowledge from one lesson to the next, what is the most effective homework to set?

One of the most frustrating moments as a teacher is when you ask students to recap something from a previous lesson and there is silence. “Come you!” you say, “We went over this yesterday! None of you remember the dates of WWI/Hamlet’s occupation/the word for salad in Spanish?!”

Thing is, human minds are not brilliant at remembering things from one point in time to another. We need to (a) pay attention to the item in the first place, and (b) turn it over in our minds enough that it moves from our short-term memory to our long-term memory. Classrooms are not always good for attention. I cannot be the only teacher who has had the experience of teaching a class packed full of knowledge for the students to only remember, often in precise detail, the part of the lesson when a bee came into the room. They can tell you which window it entered, who spotted it, the look on Miss’ face when she realised her lesson was shot, how the subsequent screams and chase sequence went, and even where mr bumblebee met his death. But the rest of the lesson – GONE.

One way to get around this is we set homework I used to set vocabulary tests all the time. “Here, learn these words I would say”, passing out a leaflet with information from our lesson and hoping that somehow the motivation to do well in a subsequent vocabulary test was enough. But: is “learn these words” really the best I could do?

Was there not, perhaps, something more specific I could have set students?

What if I had said: Every day between now and next week say these words every morning when you wake up and every night when you go to bed. Would that have been better?

On the one hand it is more specific, so students who don’t really know how to just “learn this” would at least have something to do. But on the other hand, would it actually motivate students? If I didn’t test them, would they really have learned it? And would it even have worked? Would it have actually increased their memory between the two?

I don’t know is the honest answer. It’s why I set this as one of the problems.

There’s also the additional factor that many people think rote learning isn’t enough. Some people will say that they can’t just say words every day, they need to do something with them. If so, might it be better if I get my students to select an activity – rewrite the words, say the words, or do actions for the words. [Yes, that’s the old visual-auditory-kinaesthetic idea that I know deeply divides people. Stick with me though, we’re just thinking through the possibilities….]

In the end, it is a puzzle. We have things we learn in one lesson and we will learn them through a variety of activities depending on the lesson plans, resources, textbooks, etc, that we have. And then we have homework. And then we have another lesson that builds on that original knowledge. The solution to the puzzle lies in figuring out how that homework part of the equation can most effectively bridge the other two parts.

Any answers? Let us have them in the comments!

Announcing: The 1st TouchPaper Problem Solving Party

Back in September, the ResearchEd conference hosted a vast range of speakers suggesting how research might be more effectively used in education. My own contribution was a presentation of 7 problems which, if answered, would help teachers understand important things about their job. (See the full talk here)
The list was called the “TouchPaper Problems” – a reference to the blue paper with which one lights fireworks. I created each problem because I felt it would give information useful in classrooms. They are difficult questions though. Each one will require several layers of theory-testing and consideration before they can be considered ‘solved’. This sort of public problem-solving approach in the past motivated mathematicians and engineers to solve some of the most fundamental problems in their sector. My theory is simple: we should do the same in education.
To move things forward the brilliant Becky Allen suggested it would be interesting to see if it  really is possible to answer these questions. She threw open a challenge: Why not get curious people together, provide some coffee and facilities, and over a few hours see if they can work together to start solving the problems?  It was a genius idea. And so….

You Are Invited to the 1st TouchPaper Problem Solving Day!

On Saturday 18th January 2014, between 11am and 4pm, Becky and I are inviting you to join a day of problem-solving at The Institute of Education in London.
There are 50 total spaces available, with the group split into 7 teams that will look closely at a specific TouchPaper Problem and use the session time to start pulling it apart, finding out what research is already available and considering next steps for solving the problem.
On the day the teams will be led by our amazing group of facilitators including Katharine Vincent, Michael Slavinsky, Helene Galdin-O’Shea, David Weston, Harry Fletcher-Wood and Kris Boulton. Together we have planned a way of ensuring that throughout the day the teams will begin breaking down the question and moving towards answer.

Why take part? Because it is education nerding at its finest!

We have no idea if the questions are possible to solve in one day or not. [Though It seems unlikely]. What we are excited about is seeing what happens when people who are really interested in finding answers to these questions start working together to achieve them. Hence, we can’t promise you will go away with a particular skill or  set of knowledge. But you will get a whole day of looking at a difficult education problem and learning lots of materials around it. There’s also the added prestige of being a person trying to answer some of the hardest problems we face in our profession.

Sounds fun? Here’s how you sign up….

The initial 50 places will be assigned on a first-come, first-served basis. To register complete this SurveyGizmo link.
Two notetable things:

  1. We have asked you to select the questions you are most interested to work on during the event. Please fill in so we can assign you to a group. We guarantee everyone in the first 50 will get a place on a preferred question.
  2. We have asked for some information about your background. This is just so we can balance groups. You don’t have to be a teacher (or have been one!) to take part.

Once the first 50 spaces are gone, we will close registration and assign groups. If there are still spaces in some groups we will then open an additional, more specific registration for the questions that still have spaces left.

We hope to see you there!

TouchPaper Problems

Should teachers publish the test scores of their classes?

I am currently being forced to read shedloads of papers about “Total Quality Management” – both in engineering and in education. Much of it is soporific management speak. But every now and then something catches my eye.
Here’s today’s:

Having charts showing defect rates posted on the shop significantly predicted company improvement

Among a bunch of ideas about collaboration, and decision-making, and organizational value, it seems that something as simple as highlighting the current defect rate on an assembly line was significantly associated with an improvement in company effectiveness, income and customer satisfaction.
This caught my eye because my blog earlier this week on marking student work described how I stick students’ marks on the front of their folders. I also kept a “class average” score on the wall (well, it was on the front of the folder crate for each class) and that it was updated as we went throughout the year. I did this to keep us all focused on our aim of constant (even if slow) improvement.
Today, when I saw the article though, I wondered if we should also expect the same for teachers?
If I kept myself accountable to the students through our class-average wall, should teachers be expected to be airing their class results more often? Should they be published centrally? Should we be defending them regularly? I know that many schools already do this. Teachers are expected to hand in data, and explain where they are up to, and why. But I wondered how widespread it is? And whether it should be even more public? Shared across the whole staff? Shared with parents?
Given some of the management I have seen, this can be a panic-inducing thought. What if SLT try and stitch me up? Am I going to lose my job? Or what of the things we can’t control: “it wasn’t my fault, they put the six naughtiest year 10s in my class and gave me a triple lesson – how was I supposed to cope?”
Yet on the other hand I think that may be the very act of those conversations, about the fears that we have, about the fact that we have been fitted up with a triple lesson of challenging kids, is vital. Really, as professionals, we should expect someone to call us in on occasion and account for where we are at with our students’ progress. It only works if we have management who are willing to help, of course. If I say that I am struggling with the six Year 10s I need to know that someone is going to do something – move the students, send in cavalry, rejig the timetable – if all I get is sympathy and wide-eyes then we might as well not bother. But, if the information was there for everyone to see, everyone to defend, and everyone to ask for help this feels like it would be a good thing. After all, it would mean that a teacher could say “I told you months ago I was struggling with this class, in fact I published it on my wall!”

Still, I can also see reasons why it wouldn’t be useful (I suspect teacher stress would be the first people would suggest). Hence, DON’T WORRY, I’m not advocating for this as a national policy. More I am batting around the idea of asking teachers to be more open about information. To simply consider putting your class’s current levels/scores somewhere bold and loud, and keeping it up there as progress happens (or doesn’t). If we think transparency in politicians is helpful, surely we must also think it’s important for us to be truthful and hold ourselves accountable too?
But like I say…just a thought….