The Quick, The Weird, and The Thorough: How I Mark Student Work

Bit late on this month’s blogsync but better than never, right?…
Topic (last) month was: Marking With Impact. Having taught several subjects across KS3 – 5, my marking techniques have varied. Here are just three which I think had impact even if they’re not faultless.

The Quick

In my first year I taught 580 students per week. I taught each class of 30 once per week, and face an SLT-imposed minimum half-term marking policy. If I did what was expected, I would have needed to mark 96 books per week. Except, I had to wait for students to fill up their books first which meant that by half-term I had 580 books to mark. In a week.
Hence my TeachFirst tutor recommended the following for the sake of my sanity:

Speed Tip #1 – Draw this, or even better, get kids to draw it in advance ….

Smiley Face = one thing I liked
T = one target for next time
Do not write more than you need to [so, no “hi mohamed, this was a really good piece. i really liked that you”…. JUST STICK TO THE POINT…you can show the kids you care by your behaviour in the classroom]. Once the columns are filled, stick down a level/grade/score if you must.
Next time, make sure to look back at the target and state whether or not the student achieved it in the next piece of work. If you can, have it affect the mark. And stick with the target until it is achieved. [You can also add new targets, but don’t drop any until they have been met].

Speed Tip #2 – Print stickers for common “i likes” and targets

There are two ways to do this.
One, I would purchase customised target stickers from Sticker Factory with things like: “Add an example from the text to support your argument points” (non-fiction analysis) or “give two reasons why the study was valid/reliable” (psychology).
OR, if the work was more specific, I would type up targets, print them on a blank A4 Sticker Page, print, cut up and stick into books. (Cheaper than Sticker Factory, and more flexible). Even with the cutting it saved time because I type a lot quicker than I handwrite (and I used a mini-guillotine for cutting).
What was the impact? Speed. Pure speed. This got me through SLT requirements, my students got drip-fed regular feedback, parents found it easy to understand and the targets accumulated so students couldn’t ignore them. There are predictable downsides (e.g. it’s not massively thorough marking), but if speed is your concern this is where to start.

The Weird

By contrast, this marking technique was loooong but had HUGE impact on work quality.
When teaching Sociology AS I noticed my class needed more opportunity to ‘bat around’ difficult new concepts. Faced with new ‘-isms’  – e.g. functionalism, marxism, symbolic interactionism – students needed time to discuss what they are so they could assimilate with their prior knowledge and because the language can be a little tricky (so they often struggle with -ism vs. -ist, which takes a bit of practice to grasp).
Hence, I created homeworks where students responded to letters written by imaginary characters. Perhaps a sociologist, perhaps their cousin who was stuck on their schoolwork, perhaps a researcher interested in teen views on an issue. Because it is a letter, students were less afraid of just ‘attempting’ to put their ideas down – and I could vary up the formality depending on how comfortable I felt students were with the concept. [i.e. more comfortable, more formal].
But, more importantly, I didn’t mark the letters. I wrote responses back. IN CHARACTER:
zac cm letter
This did a few things. First, it made feedback non-threatening. Two, I could make it personalised to the student (as a big One Direction fan I can imagine that….). And three, it was fun! Students wanted to read their feedback and they really really wanted to respond. Students who were reluctant to do homework normally would continue back and forth several times until they understood a concept.
Obvious downside: It takes ages. The class had 18 people in it. A handful needed to go back and forth several times. Thankfully I am a speedy typer, so that helped.
Upside: Never have I known such engagement with a class in terms of feedback. Also, it rayoshowed them that I really cared enough to put in this much effort.
Overall impact: Really useful when you have older students, struggling with a particular topic, who need a bit of a boost and a bit of belief that you care about them. In those instances the impact is worth the effort. Use sparingly.

The Thorough 

In my last two years of teaching I mostly taught GCSE Citizenship and GCSE Humanities.
I had seven different classes who I usually saw twice a week. For those students I did this:
foldersAs you can see there is information about target grades, past grades, checked class work and homeworks, and cumulative targets. There was a sheet for each module and it was stuck on the FRONT OUTSIDE of folders (using the A4 sticker sheets, above). I was very clear with students it wasn’t there to embarrass them. It was there how we were all doing mattered, and we needed to be able to see it.
I explained that I was impressed with anyone improving. The grade didn’t matter, what I wanted to see was improvement. In return, I displayed average test scores for each class on the wall and explained that my aim was to see those averages going up. If those averages were sliding downwards then I knew I wasn’t doing my job right either.  [And when, inevitably, some classes were struggling I would talk with them about what I was doing to ensure they were all learning better].
I tried to keep feedback specific and encouraging. Students could also gain points for behaviour and homework. [There is a tiger sticker not pictured here that a student received as an extra boost – yeah, even at GCSE, they love them!].
Ultimately, This strategy isn’t just about marking. This was about creating an ethos of improvement, and making feedback central to that. Also, it wasn’t as time intensive as it looks. I typed the sheets in advance, and they were stuck on by students in lesson. I also found that because students were so focused in their work I could mark during lessons.
Overall impact: Again, it passes SLT requirements, parents like it, it makes record keeping easy,(students could take books home, but not the folder, so this meant I always had it to hand), and it gave us a clear focus for our studies. It’s not quick, but it did work well.

TouchPaper Problem #2 – Productive Emotions

This is the second blogpost expanding on the TouchPaper Problems first discussed at #Researched2013

2. How can one invoke in a class the emotional state most productive for: (a) prosocial behaviour, (b) evaluative thinking, (c) memorization, (d) creation?

One of the things we do as teachers is plan activities. We figure out what students should be  know or do (or we’re told what they must know and do) and we then plan a variety of tasks that, if undertaken carefully, should mean the student ends up with whatever it was we were attempting to transfer to them.

Too often, when planning, teachers worry about the way students will feel during the tasks and less about whether or not the students will gain the required knowledge or skills. (Someone saying “I have planned a really fun lesson” is the usual giveaway for this one). On the other hand, teachers sometimes worry about what students will be thinking about and neglect to ponder whether students will be motivated, interested, delighted, disgusted. 

Some people may scoff at this latter part, but learning involves both things: emotions and cognition. Our emotions are related to motivation and interest, and those things affect the way we think. This doesn’t necessarily mean that we must be happy to learn. In fact, there is fairly good evidence that a mildly negative mood is actually more productive when we are doing detailed work requiring highly accurate step-following – for example, solving a complicated mathematical equation.

This got me thinking. Are there rules of thumb that teachers could use to consider the mood of their classroom and then align it most productively? If the aim in a session is to have students working well together (perhaps this is a drama exercise) is there a conducive mood for this? At the cognitive end of things, if I want students to memorise a list of French verbs and their agreements – what should the atmosphere of my classroom now be?

But just answering the question of “what mood is productive?” is not really a problem. So I pushed a bit further.   Even if I was certain that a mildly negative mood is best for maths – so what? How do I safely and humanely induce it?

Now, I say safe and humane, but I’m also willing to accept the idea that non-humane ways might work too and  in the spirit of not wanting to rule things out I’d be willing to let these into a solution (presuming they could, somehow, be ethically proven) because then at least we’d know. Of course, knowing something will work is not the same as needing to do it (and obviously, I would advocate against it).

Nevertheless, in my head this problem would be solved if someone could show what is the most effective mood for each of these outcomes, and at least one way to induce that mood among a majority of students in a classroom environment.


TouchPaper Problem #1 – The Spelling of a 1000 Words

This is the first blogpost expanding on the TouchPaper Problems first discussed at #Researched2013

  1. What is the shortest period of a time in which a person with dyslexia can be taught to spell the 1000 most common words in English?

This question is fraught with perils, I know, but let me explain….
In teaching we often face the issue of: “How do I do x?” So, how do I teach my class about symbolism, or how do I get Janine to use full stops properly? What would therefore be ideal is if teachers had a range of principles from which they could derive the best solution. I.e., I know something about what symbolism is, I know how such a concept typically can be transferred, and I start to craft an activity which transfers that kind of knowledge to the students in front of me. The difficulty arises in that we don’t really have many clear and well-known rules of thumb to help answer these kind of “how do I…” questions.
So, I started thinking. What questions do teachers regularly ask, and my first thought was: “How can I help my students spell?”
But it needed to be more specific, otherwise TouchPaper Condition 3 (having a defined end-point) would not be met.
So I changed the question, “How can I help my students spell the 1000 most common words in English?”
I picked the most common words for practical reasons: they are the ones they will use most often. I also suspected, although this may not be true, that across those 1000 words there would be lots of variations which would help students to start to see how spelling works.
But then I wondered to myself how useful this question is. After all, most people learn to spell – at least well enough that they can spell the 1000 most common words. As it stood it may be a problem but answering it is not really challenging. At least not ‘million quid’ challenging.
So then I thought about who find things difficult in spelling. Now Dyslexia can be debated. I know David Didau has doubted it. BUT, it is something seemingly ‘testable’ to which a ‘diagnosis’ can be made. As with anything a person may be mildly or severely dyslexic, but we can assume that most people cluster around an ‘average’ or ‘most common’ point. And if we taught that person the 1000 most words, and we did it quickly, then that would be quite something. Because not only would that student now have an incredibly useful skill, but to answer that problem we would have to do several things. INCLUDING:

  1.  Work out what dyslexia is and what it is doing in the brain
  2.  Find a way to work around or ‘with’ the dyslexia, and
  3.  Speed up those techniques so that knowledge transfer can happen most quickly.

Now, a few criticisms have been thrown my way. So let’s see if I can answer them:
What if people with dyslexia are no different to people without dyslexia in terms of the way they learn to spell? That’s fine. If uncovered this could be added to the ‘proof’, and the problem would be solved merely by answering how quickly any ‘average’ person could learn the words.
What if we find out that the shortest period is, say, 5 minutes – but it involves torturing children via electrocution (or some other equally nasty method)?  So…obviously I hope we don’t find this out, if only because the legalities of torturing children are quite clear and I don’t want to be responsible for anyone going to jail. BUT – let’s say by a miracle of chance we did work this out without torturing anyone (phew). then I’m afraid I still believe that would be a good thing to know (though obviously not do). As Matthew Hunter has said before, education research isn’t going to tell us what to value. But if we know that the quickest way to learning is through violence, then we must face that and then make an informed decision about what we will do. My hope is that we would say “Darn. Okay, let’s use that second quickest way to resolve this issue” and in doing so encourage everyone else to leave their torture instruments to one side. But being afraid of what we might find is, for me, not a reason to shirk an important problem.
Is this really about the technique rather than the shortest time and should the question reflect that?  Thing is, techniques are what we will uncover once we have figured out the principles underlying the questions above. But the motivating problem is the time, if only because it seems to me an inherently good thing to learn this stuff quickly. If you can learn a 1000 words in a week, then you could (potentially) learn a lot more in the next year or so. Why wait?! And so for me I want to stay focused, problem-wise, on the shortest time because it is motivating. In terms of what teachers would get from this being solved, however, would be all the knowledge that had to be developed in order to figure out the answer.
Next up will be TouchPaper Problem #2: How can one invoke in a class the emotional state most productive for: (a) prosocial behaviour, (b) evaluative thinking, (c) memorization, (d) creation? Get your thinking caps ready…

Homework Excuse Notes

homework excuse note
With no #blogsync over the summer, I’ve not written anything ‘classroom-y’ for a while. So I thought I’d share this tip while awaiting the September blogync topic.
One of the problems of my first year in teaching was getting students to do homework. More specifically, I struggled keeping tabs on students who didn’t do the homework, which meant I didn’t give consequences for failing to turn it in, which then meant I got even fewer pieces next time around.
In my second year I therefore devised a plan. First, I gave out all homeworks on brightly coloured pieces of paper that students wrote on and turned back in. All my classes started off with a silent individual task. I therefore instilled in students that at the beginning of homework hand-in day they put their brightly coloured paper on their desk before beginning their individua lstarter  task. That way I could quickly glance around the room and quickly see who did and did not have their homework out. Anyone without their brightly colourer paper had a ‘homework excuse note’ dropped on their desk. This was to be completed immediately.
At an appropriate time during the lesson, I would then go around and collect a piece of paper from everyone. You either handed in your homework, or your homework excuse note. That was your choice. No “But miss I just need to get my usb…”, no “i’ll bring it at break”. If you had something to say, you said it on paper, or otherwise you gave me the homework. Even if students didn’t have a reason, I would ask them to write “There is no reason” and then take that from them.
If a child managed to get their homework to me before the end of the day (most usually after lunch) I would let them fish their excuse note out of my file [I had a box file for each class where I kept the homeworks] and then replace it with their work. Otherwise, the excuse note stood.
Before going home, I checked through the homeworks and marked in my gradebook who had not done it and then sorted out consequences accordingly (as you’ll see on the slips, I used ‘credits’ and detentions). As with my detention system, the main benefit of the homework excuse note is that the students must write down their excuse. Doing so means (a) they are less likely to lie, and (b) you have a permanent record that you can show to parents/department heads if necessary.  Having everyone hand in something on the day also meant I could keep an easier record of who was absent. If I didn’t have anything then I knew a student hadn’t been there and this made managing my records much easier.
In general, it worked like a dream. But a word of warning: With my two KS3 classes (I mostly taught GCSE) I didn’t give homework regularly and hence I was less consistent with its enforcement and the whole thing was less effective.  The system is reliant on you making the whole thing as routine as possible. For the first few weeks you need to reinforce all its parts (the coloured paper, the notes, the handing in). Also, you always-but-always must implement the consequences. Do it relentlessly for a few weeks though and the benefits will pay off. After a while it became automatic with my Key Stage 4s (so automatic that the kids would try and circumvent it “why do i have to fill this in, why not just give me a detention slip now?”) and gradually the homework rate went up and up and up. By the end of the year there were students religiously handing in homeworks who I honestly didn’t think I’d ever get any from.

June #blogsync – My Best Classroom Explanations

This month’s #blogsync asked education bloggers to describe “an example of a great classroom explanation”. The theme is inspired by an Alex Quigley blog on “Top Tips for Explanation”, itself inspired by Joe Kirby’s “What Makes Great Teaching?” It’s an important issue because all teachers know that the way we explain things matters for how successful student learning is.
Problem is, I’m not really sure what counts as an explanation.
So below are three different types of explanation that successfully helped my students learn something and which might give you some ideas for explanations in your own classroom and also might show why debates about ‘teacher’ vs ‘student-led’ learning are often a bit odd. Alternatively, maybe you won’t think one (or any) of them, is really an explanation. That’s okay, but let me know why in the comments so I can ponder the distinction a bit more.
The Classic Didactic Explanation
I inherited a Year 11 Citizenship GCSE group a few weeks before their final exams. They’d previously had 7 teachers in 18 months and they simply did not have the knowledge required to pass their exams. People sometimes scoff at thoughts of a Citizenship GCSE: How much knowledge can it really involve? Answer: a lot. If you don’t believe me, here is the list of key terms a student needs to know and use in essays in just one of their exams (the shorter one). And this isn’t all of them.
Desperately trying to convey the information quickly, and struggling against the tide of their low-morale, I had the students draw the above diagram out, bit-by-bit, and explained as we went. It was old-fashioned chalk & talk, but it worked. They behaved; we drew; we questioned; we wrote out what each part was. Then, next lesson, we did it again. And same the one after that, until eventually I could point to any part of that diagram and they could tell you what it was and why. Don’t worry, this is not all we did.  As starter activities for each lesson I used news stories from the week (similar, if harder, to what they see  in the exam) and asked questions using the knowledge they had learned  (E.g. I remember one was about Nick Clegg. Cue, is Nick Clegg in the Opposition or Government? Nick Clegg is an MP, which House does he speak in? If Nick Clegg is an MP what sort of electoral system is used to vote him in? And so on…) and at the end of the lesson we would tackle a 12-mark past exam question by first trying try to figure out which part of the diagram was important for the question, which vocabulary we would need and take it from there.
What blew me away was that really focusing on this knowledge for a few lessons meant students then the grasped news items and exam questions way quicker and much deeper than when I taught Citizenship piece-by-piece – i.e. doing a whole lesson on the commons, then one on the lords, then one on laws, etc. Having an overview, with the correct terminology, of the whole political/legal system meant it was far easier for them to know what was going on when we then honed in on one issue (e.g. much easier to understand the EU and how it fits into the picture when you have a basic grasp of the way laws/courts work in England).  Seeing this difference was one of the reasons why I started to come round to an idea that Daisy Christodolou had explained to me a year earlier (yes, she’s been on about it for a while!) about ED Hirsch and his belief that a foundation of factual knowledge is critical for true understanding.
Though uncomfortable with chalk-and-talk activities I nevertheless started the following year’s teaching with this same process – getting the students to draw the outline on their folders and referring back to it as often as possible for consolidation. The difference in the quality of their understanding, and the more sophisticated vocabulary and analysis in their controlled assessments, throughout that year was incredible. Having that base of vocabulary really made a difference. Hence, while varying activities is very important it’s also true that starting by telling students the simple stuff over and over again helps lay a base for more complex topics.
Moral of the story: Bloom didn’t put knowledge at the bottom of his taxonomy because it is unimportant, he put it there because it is the vital first step.
The “Experiential” Explanation
On my fourth day with a brand new Year 13 BTEC Health & Social Care group, we had a conversation that went like this:
 Me: “Who are the people most likely to suffer obesity in England today?”
Student: “Rich people”
Me: “Why rich people?”
Student: “Because they can afford the most food, so they eat the most, so they get fat. Poor people can’t afford food, so they starve, so they are thin.”
No matter how I tried to question, reason, explain that people with lower incomes  are the group with the highest risk of obesity, the students simply would not have it. In their  heads, the more money you had, the more food you had, the  fatter you would get.
Unsure what to do next I made an unusual move:
Me: “Right, get your coats…..”
Ten minutes later (with appropriate permissions having been sought from school & supermarket) we were stood at the tills in our local Tesco. Each student had a basket.
Me: “Okay, let’s imagine you’ve just got home from work and you’re a single parent, you’ve got two children, they’re hungry because they haven’t eaten since midday and you’re tired. You can spend £5 on tonight’s dinner but you need enough food for all three of you and you have to be able to make all of the meal in fifteen minutes or less. Off you go….”
Twenty minutes later when the students stood in front of me with a sorry mess of frozen pizzas, angel delight, and tesco value meals the problem began to dawn. We then went and stood in the freezer section comparing the nutritional values of cheaper and more expensive goods.  Slowly, clicked some more. Finally we thought about who has the time to buy and cook fresh food, or who has the money/education/space to buy or grow (and store) fresh herbs. After trogging back to our classroom we then got back to looking at the data and writing out analyses (and yes, it’s not quite as straight forward as poor = fat, or cheap=frozen food, but we could only get to that once they understood the risks).
Moral of the story:  Sometimes you can’t just “tell ’em”, sometimes a good explanation means helping them see it for themselves.
The Peer-to-Peer Explanation
Unlike many teachers, I am not an advocate for peer-to-peer marking or teaching. Why would you get the least knowledgeable people in the room teaching other people about it? BUT, there have been occasions when it has felt right.
I taught an unusually sociable and hard-working A-Level Psychology group. Over a year their team work, their concern for each other’s work, their ability to help one another was top-class. It also helped that we studied a whole unit on memory so they knew how to make information retainable.
When studying mental health treatments I therefore asked each group to prepare a 15-minute ‘teaching’ session for one treatment. Students were encouraged to use vivid mnemonics, music, actions – and they had to provide at least 4 key facts that the audience were required to remember, as I later based our weekly vocab test on their presentations.
Several of the sessions were excellent but the one that blew me away was the group who looked at Electro-Convulsive Therapy (ECT), a procedure historically used for treating Schizophrenia. The group used the question “Is Harry Potter schizophrenic?” and asked the class to look at evidence that he might be (think: delusions about flying on brooms, the ‘lightening’ mark on his head). They also introduced the session with the song “R-E-S-P-E-C-T” and later used this to talk about the ethics of giving ECT.
Their explanation had it all: a catchy tune, a mnemonic, a link to something relevant to students, it gave clear facts about the treatment and its ethical issues, and was – frankly – better than I would have done. It also gave students an opportunity to practise public speaking, slide design, and thinking of ways to remember concepts for themselves. The subsequent vocab tests also showed that the students had really understood this treatment.
Moral of the story: There are times when the best explanations might not come from you. Hard to hear, but true.
Reflecting on these explanations made me remember why I think knowledge/skills debates, or ‘teacher-centred’ vs. ‘learner-centred’ debates are usually over-egged. Different students, different topics, different contexts, all lead to the need for different types of teaching. In each of these sessions students developed new knowledge (and new skills) useful for our next steps as a class and their next steps in education.
People might ask: “But don’t you think there is a quicker/more efficient/more rigorous method for getting them to learn x thing?” Possibly. But students are people, not automatons, we can’t just ‘programme’ them to remember. And even if we could, they learn as much from the intentions of our actions as they do from the content. If I had yelled at my new BTEC students and told them they simply must believe me, it would have been easy for them to think I didn’t really care about their thoughts, hence they’d have had the perfect excuse to never again think for themselves. When my psychology students did those presentations we’d already had several lessons of hard-going teacher-led activities on brain biology. We were all getting bored. If I hadn’t harnessed their innate sociability they would have started using it themselves – chatting to one another under their breath – and I, aware that my enthusiasm for teacher-ledness had run out, probably wouldn’t have had the energy to fight their rational desire to be more involved. Hence, I harnessed their strength and made it into an opportunity rather than ignoring what were completely reasonable ways to feel at that point.
Yes, some explanations formulaically work with classes over and over again. But others, less so. What we really need to do next as a profession is work out: how do we know which explanation  type we need?  How can I figure out, in advance, if an activity will work for this group or not?  Because that’s a question I still can’t answer at all….

Why Sex Education Matters to "Nervous" Young People

With schools taking a vacation from the National Curriculum and a renewed focus on traditional ‘academic’ subjects, many schools have already laughed subjects like Sex Education off their teaching roster. “Teaching about condoms?” they say, “Ha! How quaint. These days we teach about real things like romantic poetry and royal history”.

Except, however quaint it might seem, sex matters to young people and positive role models are depressingly rare.

Blogger @redorgreenpen yesterday tweeted an article about the game “Nervous” where girls are encouraged to let boys trail fingers under their skirts until the girl flinches – thus revealing her “nervous” point. The game is not new. It was known by this name among my own school friends, though as a tomboy I heard more of the boys’ side than the girls, and frankly many of them disliked being pressured into doing it too (after all, the presumption was that they had no “nervous” point – a fairly awful situation also). Hence, this is a human rather than “feminist” issue. What we saw as a game, however, was subtly affirming implicit messages about power, consent, and of “going further” as being equal to “winning”, and there was simply no room for conversation about any unease we felt nor any clear way of getting out of it unless you had the fortune of having boyfriend which meant you were ‘off-the-table’, so to speak. It is only now that I flinch about the message that portrays of girls as property – at the time I doubt I’d have thought anything of it.

Worries about messages like these meant one of the first articles I ever wrote for LKMCo was about the topic of sex education. It was about an in-depth year 11 programme covering a wide range of topics with the skilled help of external professionals long since bonfired in Coalition cuts. Much of what I taught the students were questions new even to me: What exactly is the HPV Vaccine? Why is it needed? Where can you touch on another person’s body without asking? (there is somewhere!) What is the difference between sexual assault and sexual harassment? Can you text your friend a pornographic picture?  Important questions that all too often get ignored.

The biggest concern arising from that programme was the lack of confidence young people had about their ability to take charge of their sexual activities. A girl once asked: “Why are you telling us this? The boys will do what they want to us anyway”. The idea that anyone could ever be unhappy about sex was also never mentioned. If anything we were supposed to talk about sex as if it were perfunctory, inevitable, and that you would neither be happy or nor unhappy about. It was as if it would just happen.

That led me to write at the time:

Do students need to know more than the ‘basic facts’?  After all, what skills does a sexually well-educated person need?  By 15 all students are aware of what sex is, so what else am I trying to teach them?

At the beginning of the 12-weeks I share intentions for the programme.  Firstly, given that students will – at some point – have sex, there are several risks they need to think about so they can plan to avoid them.  Secondly, they need to find a language to talk about sex so that if things go wrong they know where to get support and how to talk about it.  In my mind it is vital that young people understand there are boundaries in sex and that if broken you can find the right sort of help.  In each of the years I taught this programme at least one student has later revealed how they came to be in a situation where they were forced into sex.  Yet many hadn’t realised this was unacceptable, or that they could do anything about it.  

All people should also know where they can access contraception, medical clinics and legal protection – this programme aims to begin that path.  But just knowing things does not equate to being able to do them.  So, we focus on two practical skills.  Firstly, making decisions about and using contraception or abstinence. Secondly, we focus on obtaining and evaluating information – e.g. making a clinic visit or balancing online information.

Even after several years of thinking this through, the answers weren’t complete but we were starting to get it right. Since then, with the refocus of the curriculum, much of this hard work (not just in our school, but many) has been washed away. This is a potentially disasterous step back. If we never teach it, or if all we do is worry about the facts, and never build the skills of confidence, then students will instead continue developing them through games like “Nervous” which only reinforce destructive ideas of passivity or force.

We can do better than that. And we must.

#Blogsync: How would I improve the status of the teaching profession?

Teachers don’t need their status raised in the eyes of the public. Telling people that you’re a teacher, especially one who works in a secondary school, generally garners immediate respect. People will tell you that you’re brave, and how they couldn’t do it, and how important the job is, and that they take their hat off to you. So for public PR we probably shouldn’t bother.
A bigger issue is that teachers often talk  down the job, especially to their own children. “Better become a shopkeer, actor…. Pondcleaner!” they say. Being a teacher is also not sexy sounding. What normal person wants to spend year after year saying the same words to different faces? Who wants to deal with the raging hormones of teenagers and the daft mistakes they consequently make? (Those remarks, ironically, are what I said when I helped TeachFirst’s first recruitment team find a university room for running recruitment sessions in 2003. I helped, of course, but I thought they were deluded).
What later changed my mind was that TeachFirst made rethink about teaching as a profession. I know this isn’t what TF is known for, and no doubt several commenters will spend time below the line focusing on all its negatives, but TF does do high quality and continuous learning  for its teacher participants very very well. So well that it made me see teaching as something to be incredibly proud of, no matter who tried to put me off doing it.  Sure, some of this in the hype  – the adverts, the schmaltzy videos, the “mission statement”. But the best thing about TeachFirst is the continual professional development you receive. These are the parts many of its critics don’t see: the school competition where participants compete for funds to run extracurricular activities, summer internships spent creating curricula for charities or working with policymakers, the chance to mentor new participants when you return to summer institute, participants being coached towards goals they set for in their second year, plus endless access to workshops, training days, and an active online community. And this isn’t just over the two years of the programme. It continues after that. By my third year of teaching I was training new participants at Summer Institute and evening workshops, and I could attend annual conferences, dinners, residentials where some of the top thinkers in education were speaking (some free, some very reasonably priced and always at times that fit around schools). These experiences meant I learned about teaching beyond my own context, and I worked with participants in many schools, all of which helped make sense of the increasing levels of responsibility I was facing.
For me, these activities helped me learn about teaching and helped me do a better job. That was why I took part. But they also meant when talking to other people about my job it sounded, frankly, cooler.  Friends in “top jobs” drew parallels with their own work and commented that teaching involved more than they expected. Teachers didn’t “just” teach, they were also involved in a “profession” that develops, and teaches each other, and influences policy. Other groups are seen this way – doctors, nurses, police commanders – and it’s quite proper that teaching be considered the same way.
Still, it has never felt right to me that teachers coming through other routes didn’t get these same opportunities. Both local authorities I worked in provided some similar opportunities  but not anything on par with TF. Academy chains and Teaching Schools might also lead such provision, but it can’t be ensured. And while TeachFirst does a lot it is only a small organisation that trains a tiny percentage of new trainees, it can’t do it all or alone. To raise the status of teaching as a profession there must be opportunities for every teacher to enact and develop their professionalism. This is why I support the revamp of the Royal College of Teaching, and why I support the idea of teacher licencing (as long as it is linked to developmental activities beyond one’s own school).
Not only would more access to continued teacher learning improve our own practice, it also enables people in other fields to see that ‘teaching’ is a complex, growing, engaging, innovative field.   Or, at least, that it involves a lot more than just saying the same words to different faces year-in and year-out.

The @redorgreenpen Problem

If you haven’t been reading @redorgreenpen‘s penetrating “7 kids in 7 days” blog, then you’ve missed out. By describing in searching detail the behaviours of seven students, anonymous blogger redorgreenpen gives the most authentic descriptions of challenging students’ lives I have read in some time. Possibly ever.

The story of Arianne on the sixth day made me particularly nervous. With a penchant for incredibly aggressive behaviour, redorgreenpen laments Arianne being label as having ‘Behavioural, Social and Emotional’ difficulties (aka, BESD). Too often the BESD status becomes an excuse for not requiring her to behave better in classes, but this just makes things worse:

I believe that the vast, vast majority of the population is capable of exercising control over their behaviour. But if that basic standard really is not possible for Arianne, by god, she should have gone to specialist provision years ago. If we’re going to decide a child is incapable of taking responsibility for their own actions and behaving properly, someone else needs to step in and take that responsibility for them. That takes money, resources and time. There’s no denying that. But at the moment these uncontrollable children are operating in a responsibility vacuum, insulated by layers of obfuscation and excuses

Arianne does need help, and schools can very rarely access it. Having worked closely with BESD departments I know how the sort of complex inter-service help Arianne needs is often only available once a student has officially been tagged as ‘BESD’. And even then it is slow going. There is often no end to the difficulties of convening professionals, getting parents onside, legal implications, court appearances, continually writing and writing referral documents that get ignored, or lost, or need restarting. Then, on top of that, the complexities of the child’s mental state – the extent of runaway, drug, self-harm, sexual, suicidal behaviours – all of which needed to be factored into decisions taken by the school can make exclusions or managed moves an achingly long process. All the while teachers are being told “stick with her”.

But then came the seventh day – Fawsia. Another traumatised student, this time with an equally difficult backstory yet unwilling to misbehave. Her lack of aggression means her needs are constantly overlooked. Redorgreenpen explains:

The allocation of resources to students in schools is basically based on how loud you shout, how badly behaved you are, how many problems you cause. I’m sure Fawsia could do with some counselling: she’d probably actually turn up to the sessions unlike a lot of the kids who do get that privilege. But Fawsia stays in the background, hidden.

And then comes the nub:

Every time someone advocates including all the Ariannes in your classroom, think of Fawsia, sitting in the corner, having another hour of her education wasted.

The @redorgreenpen Problem

On what grounds do we value one student’s outcomes over another?  

When you only have one teacher in a class whose job it is to deal with the Ariannes and Fawsias (as well as twenty-eight other students) how do you do it? In this case it’s about behaviour – should Arianne’s aggressive behaviour suck in more resource than Fawsia’s desperate silence? Or, in the case of intelligence, should a precociously smart Tyrone ever be in the same class as a plodding Caitlin?

The most obvious answer is that we don’t pick one over the other. We give schools more resources. Proper mental health professionals working full-time inside schools. Proper referral systems where Arianne and Fawsia both get the support they need, without endless rationing which means only the loudest and most extreme cases get it. Proper learning diagnostics, proper follow-up, proper evaluation. But proper resources are ever-unlikely.

And so it is that most day teachers simply must answer the ‘redorgreenpen problem’ over and over again. On what grounds do we value one student’s outcomes over another? How do we pick who to prioritise?

This Is Water

I recently wrote a piece called “Why I Learn” to inspire pupils at Greenwich Free School. You can find out what they thought of the piece here.
Partly the piece was inspired by a commencement speech given by David Foster Wallace. Last week I discovered this excerpt of him reading the speech set to music and visuals. It’s beautiful. Definitely one to share widely.

Progress: How I know it is made

The topic of this month’s #blogsync is “Progress in my classroom? How is it made and how I know it?” This post doesn’t really tackle the philosophy of progress but I am going to give my best tip for ensuring you and your students know they have learned all the essential facts on a topic.
When I taught A-Levels I devised a one-page photo system. I would list out all the topics students needed to know in a unit. Then I would write out 4 or 5 “key facts” for each of those topics. In Psychology and Sociology if a student knows those facts they at least have the foundational knowledge. (If they can then add studies that support the facts they will do even better, if they can evaluate different study outcomes and methods then even better.)
I would then make a picture sheet representing each of the things they needed to know. Here is an example for the Anomalistic Psychology unit:
Each student got an A3 copy of this page. On the first lesson I would get them to try and guess what the pictures represented and figure out the topic. Usually they were awful at this. As each lesson would go on and we would learn about the information for each topic I would get them to add words, notes, etc, to the pictures based on what we had learned.
By the end of our lessons on the topic the aim was that they could be given a blank sheet with the photos on, point at any picture on it, and tell me (a) what the topic was, (b) the 4/5 key facts about it, (c) 2-3 studies related to it, and (d) ideally some evaluations (on this picture the circled items actually help give ideas about evaluation so you can point to something in the circle and one of the other pictures and get the to evaluate the topic using the evaluation style).
You can be quite statistic-y about it. You can measure how many pictures students can remember each week for example. You can also build these up over time and bring them back out periodically over the year and make sure students are retaining knowledge. But crucially students see what they have learned. They are very aware that the first time they looked at that picture nothing made sense and by the end they have lots of key knowledge.
That’s a type of progress that both I, and they, can be certain about.