Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Starting to embed Assessment for Learning in your practice

Teachers' Standard 6 requires teachers to make use of formative assessment to secure pupils’ progress.  The terms formative assessment and Assessment for Learning are often used interchangeably and I'm going to treat them as synonymous here. 

The Assessment Reform Group (ARG) published 10 principles of Assessment for Learning (AfL) in 2002.  This is a good place to begin but it's a lot of words to take in if you're just starting to think about introducing AfL strategies into your practice.  Some of the 10 principles either present a general rationale for AfL (a key professional skill and central to classroom practice) or describe its place in the learning/teaching cycle (part of effective planning) or tone (sensitive and constructive, fostering motivation) or ethos (recognising the full range of achievements of all learners).  For the purposes of this post I'm putting those principles to one side.

That leaves these principles:
Learners should become aware of how they are learning (as well as what they are learning).
Learners need to understand what it is they are trying to achieve and have a shared understanding of the success/assessment criteria.
Learners need information in order to plan next steps in their learning.
Learners need to develop the capacity for self-assessment (in order to become independent learners).

Here are some suggestions about how you could begin to embed these principles in your practice:

I don't want to suggest that this is AfL-by-numbers.  Children won't be able to just talk about the strategies they've used: you'll need to plan how to scaffold this process; they won't be able to devise success criteria until you've modelled how to do it; self- and peer-assessment will need thoughtful introduction (including familiarising children with language of constructive feedback).  This is about the climate you create in your classroom.  And if you can't picture a context in which the questions in the third column are commonplace, then you may need to go back to your plans and build in some space.

Tuesday, 28 October 2014

How closed questions shape misconceptions

Which one is the rectangle?

It's the sort of question that you'll hear in lots of classrooms.  The purpose of the question is to assess pupils' knowledge.  There are problems with this kind of question.  The structure of the question implies that you expect one correct answer.  Responses will either be in line with what you expect ("correct") or conflict with what you expect ("wrong" or "interesting").  Pupils either will know or won't know the answer, or in this case either will know or won't know the answer that you're expecting.  With closed questions like this it will often be a case of guessing the answer that the teacher is looking for.

Worksheets are part of the problem.  They close options, they narrow understanding, they invite a uniform response.

Ask an open-ended question instead.


What are the properties of these shapes?

What are the common features of these shapes?

How could you describe this shape using mathematical language?

If you were using a Venn diagram to sort these shapes, what headings would you use for each of the sets?

This isn't just about shapes but shapes do provide a straightforward way of making the point.

So back to the opening question: Which one is the rectangle?

The problem with the question is that both A and B are rectangles - there isn't one, there are two.  A square is a rectangle (a quadrilateral with 2 pairs of parallel sides and 4 right angles).   Incidentally, a square is also a rhombus (a quadrilateral with 2 pairs of parallel sides and 4 sides of equal length) and a parallelogram (a quadrilateral with 2 pairs of parallel sides).

Learner-centred/teacher-centred - evaluating lessons 3

In other posts I've talked about how you could focus your lesson evaluation on learning and teaching or on inclusivity.  Another evaluative angle to take would be to consider the extent to which the lesson was learner- or teacher-centred.  In a learner-centred lesson, pupils will take a more active, participatory role; in a teacher-centred lesson, pupils will be more passive, with the teacher making most or all of the decisions.   Strictly speaking, there's no right or wrong here: a teacher-centred approach suits certain learning contexts, a learner-centred approach suits others.  (However, from other posts, you'll know that I lean towards a learner-centred model.)   Think about it as a continuum:

You could ask yourself  To what extent did the teacher- or learner-centredness of the lesson support the outcomes I was anticipating?  If, for example, you want pupils to generate ideas, you might have planned an active, participatory lesson in which pupils lead dialogue and devise their own key questions - in this context you as the teacher will have planned to take a back seat, perhaps a facilitating role.

It follows that the role of talk and the talker is central to both the teacher- and learner-centred models:

Mercer notes that “the history of educational practice shows that talk amongst students has rarely been incorporated into the process of classroom education… The reasonable explanation for the traditional discouragement of pupil-pupil talk is that…it is disruptive and subversive… So while the experience of everyday life supports the value of collaborative learning, educational practice has implicitly argued against it.” He was writing in 1995 - it would be good to think that we'd moved on.

"How inclusive was that?" - evaluating lessons 2

Teachers' Standard 8 requires you to take responsibility for improving teaching.  Wherever there are opportunities, I'd encourage you to take ownership: decide which aspects of your practice you'd like to discuss with colleagues.  You can do this by deciding in advance the focus for you response to "How did that go?"

You could consider how inclusive your lesson was.  The Venn diagram below is a useful way of thinking about this.  With each of the elements you could ask yourself to what extent... For example, To what extent did I set suitable learning challenges (for all children)? As with any evaluation you then need to be prepared to provide evidence of this.  How do you know that the learning challenges were suitable?  (This links back to how you have planned the lesson.)  

You could evaluate the inclusivity of your practice independently, without the support of or feedback from an observer.  The DfES produced a useful teaching observation checklist intended for school self-evaluation but you could apply it to your own evaluative thinking.  It's important to remember that inclusion is about all pupils, not just pupils with an identified educational need.

Focusing lesson evaluation on inclusivity addresses Teachers' Standards 8 and 5 - you're demonstrating that you have a clear understanding of the needs of all pupils and can evaluate 

Monday, 27 October 2014

"How did that go?" - starting to evaluate lessons

You get to the end of an observed lesson and the observer asks, "How did that go?"  What are you supposed to say?  Where do you start?*

Basically the observer is asking for an evaluation.  He or she wants you to give your (informed) opinion on your own strengths and areas for development in relation to what has just taken place. This fits with Teachers' Standard 8 - you're being asked to demonstrate that you can take responsibility for improving teaching.  But there are lots of different ways of approaching this, different angles to consider.  Here's one:

Evaluating learning and teaching 
When asked "How did that go?" you could talk about these two elements separately.  For example you could comment on the extent to which the children you were teaching made progress - this is evaluating learning - and you would need to link this evaluation to evidence.  If your response to the observer's question were "All the children made progress" then the observer's follow-up should be "How do you know?"  (You need to think about this when you plan your lesson - How will you know at the end of the lesson that the children have made progress?)

You could comment on the extent to which your teaching was effective.  The complication with this is that if the children haven't made progress the conclusion should be that your teaching wasn't effective.  However well thought out your plan, however well prepared and well resourced your lesson, if the children haven't made progress, if you haven't made a positive impact on their learning, this was an unsuccessful lesson.  Having said that, after an unsuccessful lesson, if you can pinpoint what it was that didn't work, you can turn this experience around.  Thinking about and identifying what didn't work gives you a clear platform for improving teaching (see, again, Teachers' Standard 8).

Frankly, learning and teaching are inseparable.   If you felt that your teaching had been effective but that the children had made no evident progress, then there's an opportunity for you to dissect your teaching - Why didn't the approach I used have the impact that I'd anticipated? If you felt that you hadn't taught the lesson effectively but that the children had made progress, then there's a different kind of opportunity - What am I doing unwittingly that is resulting in evident pupil progress?

And your evaluation can be framed entirely positively.  Children made progress.  The teaching was effective.  But always be ready to respond to follow-up questions from the observer.  "Did all children make the progress you'd anticipated?  Were all children appropriately challenged?  How do you know?"

*These suggestions also work if you're starting to complete written lesson evaluations.

Saturday, 25 October 2014

Raising aspirations: selection for the non-selective state sector?

Children from poorer families leave school with lower educational attainment than children from richer families.  The attainment gap widens particularly in the primary school years.  It appears that this gap is at least partly explained by differences in the aspirations of parents and children from poorer and richer backgrounds.  So it follows that investment in interventions which raise aspirations has to be the right thing to do.

Unfortunately, it's not that simple.  Raising aspirations without a concomitant investment in raising attainment is at best a wasted opportunity and at worst ethically...misjudged.  Think about it: if you raise the aspirations of children from poorer families (with lower educational attainment) and then fail to raise their educational attainment you'll have children with unrealistic aspirations.  This is further complicated by the Education Endowment Foundation conclusions that "the relationship between aspirations and attainment is complex and not fully understood" and that "interventions which aim to raise aspirations appear to have little to no positive impact on educational attainment".  

The links between aspirations and attainment are indeed tangled.  It might make sense to think that an intervention aimed at raising aspirations leads to a change in attitude which in turn leads to raised attainment.  But the intervention might instead trigger raised attainment and it's this which leads to higher aspirations.  The Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF), in its review of interventions, questions research which suggests that there is any causal relationship between interventions focusing on raising aspirations and statistical evidence indicating a closing of the attainment gap between children from rich and poor backgrounds.  

The JRF review cautiously suggests that interventions which focus on behaviours rather than attitudes might be the way to go.  "Promising" interventions appear to involve:
But some data which appear to indicate success are undermined to an extent by questions around selection. Take the Aimhigher project, for example, which sought to widen participation through mentoring, university visits, and summer schools.  The data suggest that these interventions had a significant impact, with 60% of mentees achieving five grade A* to C GCSEs compared with an average of 31% of all students in partner schools.  But as Smith notes in her evaluation report, 58% of mentees were female and schools were more likely to select female mentees because of "their attitude (more open and positive to new experiences) and the likelihood that females would positively engage with mentoring provision".  Were these students already more likely to achieve five grade A* to C GCSEs regardless of the Aimhigher opportunities?

Of course, these interventions are driven by a desire to widen access.  But if they focus on children who are already "high performing", the aspirations, and the capacity to meet them, may already be in place. Here's a child, you might say, who's doing better than everyone else - let's send her to a residential summer school, or take her to visit a Russell Group university.  That's fine, but maybe she's succeeding because she's already getting that kind of investment at home. This echoes some of the problems that lie in identifying and investing further in children identified as gifted and talented.  Do interventions which focus on raising aspirations simply provide additional opportunties for pupils who already have additional opportunities?  Ultimately, is this just selection (with an apparently inclusive tagline) for the non-selective state sector?

Friday, 17 October 2014

Beginning with the end: planning for learning

When we plan to do stuff it might make sense to start at the beginning.  Building a house, for example: lay foundations, build walls, add wooden bits, stick roof on top.

But really we start with a vision (this is how we want the house to be) and plan steps that lead toward that vision.

With the completed house the success criteria are the waterproof roof, solid walls, light-admitting windows, homely ambience, and so on.
Vision: providing warmth and shelter, admitting light, exuding homely ambience.

It's the same with planning for learning.  Teachers' core product is learning, so teachers' lesson planning needs to start with a vision of what pupils will have learnt by the end of the lesson. 

What learning looks like is indicated by success criteria.

You need success criteria in order to judge whether the shift (in skills or understanding or knowledge) that you envisaged has actually taken place.  Success criteria can be expressed in terms of what pupils are doing, saying, writing, etc.: broadly, in terms of how they are behaving - behaving in the sense of human behaviour, rather than good/bad behaviour.  

Some examples:

At the end of a lesson on division, pupils will be using a new division method to find answers, checking their answers (and peers' answers), talking with confidence about the method they've used, articulating what they are struggling with, expressing the progress they have made in the lesson.

At the end of a history lesson on Florence Nightingale, pupils will be talking about Nightingale's life and work, describing significant events, making comparisons with their own experiences of health services, identifying and expressing the new understanding and knowledge they have gained in the lesson.

Once you know what you envisage pupils doing at the end of the lesson, think about the experiences/opportunities they'll need to get there successfully.  In the division lesson they'll need to practice, make errors (if they're not making errors it's not challenging enough), identify the errors and understand why they're happening, explain the method, think about the progress they're making.  In the Florence Nightingale lesson pupils will need to encounter resources which tell them about Nightingale's life (books, videos, images, objects), have opportunities to sequence events, make decisions about the relative importance of events, consider their own experience of hospitals, articulate their ideas, think about the progress they're making.

Then think about what input is required from you.  In the division lesson you'll need to get an idea of pupils' existing understanding (What do you know about division?), model the (new) method, discuss with the pupils how they can check their answers, clarify your expectations about collaboration and self- and peer-assessment, and encourage them to reflect on the progress they're making.  In the Nightingale lesson you'll need to identify what pupils already know (What can you tell me about Florence Nightingale?), discuss with pupils how they might find out more (using the resources you've provided), clarify your expectations (including what you want pupils to be able to present by the end of the lesson), and encourage them to reflect on the progress they're making.

In summary:

1. Identify the vision/ success criteria – how will you know that they’ve learnt what you wanted them to learn?
2. Identify what pupils will need to do achieve the learning you envisage
3.  Identify the input that you’ll need to provide (during the lesson intro and throughout the lesson)
At the end of the lesson pupils will be… using, checking, articulating, comparing, identifying, describing, etc.
Practice, make mistakes, identify the mistakes they’ve made, use/ encounter resources, compare, prioritise, explain, make decisions, think about progress, etc.
Identify existing understanding, model, manage discussions, clarify expectations, encourage reflection (on progress).

Planning this way round means you focus on pupil learning and progress.  Activity relates directly to learning.  Lessons won't become lectures. 

Monday, 13 October 2014

How "interesting" blunts pupils' interest

Teacher: "What's 9 times 7?"
Pupil A: "56."
Teacher: "That's an interesting answer.  Has anyone got a different answer?  What's 9 times 7?"
Pupil B: "63."
Teacher: "Yes, 63.  Well done."

Here the initial problem is that interesting comes to mean wrong.  There's a reluctance to use the word "wrong" in schools.  It's like putting crosses next to pupils' written answers, or using a red pen (for anything).  But all of the alternatives we employ ("interesting", question marks, green pens) give the same message: "That's incorrect."  (Green pens will be banned from classrooms in five years - mark the date in your diary.)

And what's so wrong with letting pupils know they've got the wrong answer?  They will have already worked out that interesting means wrong and will have dealt with it, so it's not going to lead to lasting psychological damage (at least no more than any other aspect of everyday life in school does). 

The problem is that the wrong/right answer scenario 
1) tells you only who does or doesn't know a specific fact - as an assessment tool it's of very limited use;
2) challenges no one (you either know the answer or you don't) - it's a nonstarter in terms of demonstrating your high expectations;
3) disengages pupils and fosters a risk-averse climate in your classroom (wrong answers are dismissed, only correct answers praised).  How will you understand the needs of pupils if you don't know what they are struggling with?  (And I'd love to hear if anyone's ever been motivated by "That's the wrong answer, but well done for trying.")

Actually, using "interesting" (or question marks/crosses, red/green pens) isn't really the issue.  These assessment tools are perfectly suited to this pub quiz approach to questioning. You could swap "What's 9 times 7?" with any other closed question with a single correct answer: What shape is this?  What's the capital of France?  Which two atomic components combine to make water? Who wrote Moby Dick? The issue is that you've asked the wrong question.  Closed questions lead to wrong/right answers; wrong/right answers lead to disengagement.

So what could you ask instead?  
Instead of "What's 9 times 7?" you could ask "How many ways can we make 63?"
Instead of "What shape is this?" you could ask "What are the properties of this shape?"
Instead of "What's the capital of France?" you could ask "What can you tell me about Paris?"

And if you are set on asking closed questions, treat all of the answers you get (right or wrong) impartially (keep your elation/disappointment to yourself), record them (flip chart, white board) and then, collaboratively, investigate.  So when pupils  suggest  that 9 times 7 is 56 (or 61 or 63 or 72), you can follow up, model (drawing on pupils' ideas) why only one answer is correct, and deal with any misconceptions straight away.

Wouldn't that make for an interesting lesson?

Saturday, 11 October 2014

What stands out when you're outstanding?

If you're on an initial teacher training (ITT) programme or are a qualified teacher, you're expected to meet (at least) and, as a rule, exceed a set of standards, the Teachers' Standards.  You'll be observed and judgements about the extent to which you're meeting or exceeding the Standards will be made.  You'll be encouraged (I hope) to make judgements about your own practice based on a set of criteria that will have been shared with you. UCET and NASBTT (April 2012) suggest that 

Trainees graded as `outstanding’ teach consistently good lessons that often demonstrate outstanding features across a range of different contexts (for example, different ages, backgrounds, group sizes, and abilities) by the end of their training.

I thought it would be interesting to ask a group of mentors what they were looking for in 'outstanding' trainees.  I Wordled what they wrote and here's what came out: 
Here engagement refers to pupil engagement (trainee engagement is implicit), relationship to the relationship between the trainee and the pupils, and differentiated to the extent of provision for all pupils' strengths and needs.  Creative carries many implications, but here refers to the extent to which learning is delivered in ways which ensure pupil engagement.  I've picked up the implications of ownership elsewhere.

Group mentality: thinking about 'group work'

Group work means working as a group.  It's something we understand and appreciate: many hands make light work, two brains are better than one.  (Too many cooks spoil the broth - there's always a counter argument.)  "Group work" implies collaboration.   Collaboration underpins learning and teaching.  Remember Vygotsky? ..."problem solving under adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers”?

So when you think about group work, are you thinking about purposeful activities which pupils can complete collaboratively?  You may have planned an activity requiring pupils to contribute to a single outcome (a presentation, a solution, or a method).  Or the activity might be intrinsically collaborative (a game, or a challenge that involves combining a range of skills).  Or it might involve peer support or evaluation with pupils providing positive, constructive or critical feedback to each other (solid Assessment for Learning practice) in order to fulfil the requirements of the activity.  That's group work.

This kind of group activity doesn't just work.  You'll have to model it, perhaps give it some structure (hand out roles: scribe, spokesperson, manager, etc), set clear expectations, train pupils to collaborate effectively.  Once you've got this established, group work - collaborative group work - will pay dividends.

But if "group work" means "sitting at a table with five other pupils, each pupil working on an individual task", then it's individual work.  "Group work" used in this context is an organisational euphemism for the way pupils are distributed around the classroom.  It's to do with management rather than learning. That's fine, and it often makes sense for pupils to work without the explicit support of others.  But it's not group work.

Monday, 6 October 2014

Why giving children stickers is intrinsically wrong

Why give a child a sticker?  The typical answer touches on motivation, positive praise, the acknowledgement of good behaviour or good work, the encouragement of non-compliant pupils to stick to rules or to stay on task.  Giving out stickers is accepted practice, not in all schools, but in lots of schools.  So why's this a problem?

Children's motivation to engage in learning should be intrinsic, driven by their own internal sense of enjoyment and fulfilment, by what Ryan and Deci describe as the "psychological needs for competence and autonomy".  Teachers fuel children's intrinsic motivation by providing high quality learning experiences (lessons, activities, resources), by offering a relevant and/or stimulating curriculum, and by fostering individual pupils' sense or understanding of their own progress.  When motivation is intrinsic, rewards are unnecessary.  Let me expand.

a) If the lesson/activity/resource is interesting, purposeful and challenges everyone at an appropriate level, then pupils will be motivated.  If you recognise and address the barriers that may impact upon individual pupils' engagement, then all pupils will be motivated.  You don't need stickers - the lesson is a reward in itself.   If, on the other hand, the lesson is dull, unchallenging, and/or involves the completion of mundane, dully repetitive and/or irrelevant tasks, you may feel the need to resort to stickers.  However, they don't represent a reward: they represent a point on a continuum that runs from apology at one end ("I'm sorry that activity was so mundane") to bribe at the other ("If you complete this mundane activity you'll get a sticker").

b) If the curriculum is relevant and stimulating then pupils will be motivated.  This isn't about the National Curriculum, over which we have little control.  This is about the curriculum you offer the pupils in your class, the way you frame the National Curriculum in order to make it relevant.  If pupils understand how the curriculum is relevant to them or see the subject as stimulating, they'll be engaged (providing the lesson is interesting, purposeful and challenging).  You don't need stickers - the curriculum is a reward in itself.  If, on the other hand, the pupils are not able to see the relevance of what they're learning about or are unstimulated by the content, you may feel the need to resort to stickers.  See above - there's a pattern.

c) If pupils understand their own progress, can see that time in school is impacting on the development of new understanding or skills and have mechanisms to express this (all elements of Assessment for Learning), they will be motivated.  Why wouldn't this be so?  Picture the disengaged pupils in your class - how many of them can talk positively about the progress that they've made or are making?  Progress is its own reward - stickers are redundant.  ("You've learnt to do something you couldn't do before.  Well done - have a sticker."  It makes no sense.)  Pupils who are not making progress or who don't perceive or can't articulate progress will become disengaged.  You might resort to stickers in the hope....they don't notice they're not learning?

For lots of pupils stickers are part and parcel of how school works.  They come to accept the ubiquity of the sticker, and expect achievement or compliance to be rewarded. What makes it worse is that stickers (and other extrinsic rewards) undermine intrinsic motivation.  

Saturday, 4 October 2014

Why homework needs more thinking

Picture this.  It's the end of Thursday or Friday afternoon and you're handing out a worksheet to each child to take home with maths or comprehension questions to complete or spellings to learn or class work to finish.  What's wrong with this?

The problem isn't about children spending insufficient time playing or the disruption to quality family time.  Homework was never intended to be something that helped families bond or enabled children to play more.  The problem with homework is that too often it has no effective impact on learning.  Why?

1) Homework provides opportunities for pupils to consolidate misunderstanding or to learn things wrongly.  This isn't the fault of parents/carers.  If you want a child to learn something, sort it out in school.  (Of course there's the stuff that children learn at home, from interacting with people and things outside school, but I'm talking about homework, set by teachers for children to do when they're not at school.)

2) Homework too often emphasises or extends the gap between high and low achievers.  Let's imagine you've set the same five multiplication problems as homework for all, the children who get it will complete successfully, the children who don't, won't.  (This is a problem with worksheets in general.)  

3) You have no way of accurately monitoring who did what.  Some parents/carers will complete the questions on behalf of their children - so the children won't have understood how to do it but you'll think they have.  And some parents/carers will complete the work incorrectly.

4) Some parents/carers are better equipped to support their children than others.  Often these will be the parents/carers of the most able pupils in your class.  So, again, homework will serve to widen the gap between the least and the most able child.

5) Homework creates unnecessary workload, particularly if you're expected to mark work which children (or parents/carers) complete at home.  This reduces your time to focus on learning and teaching in the classroom.

What's the solution?  Your school will have homework policy ("...parents and school working in partnership...regular homework...linked to the taught curriculum...") and Teachers' Standard 4 requires that you set homework to consolidate and extend the knowledge and understanding pupils have acquired.  The government have stepped back from telling schools how many hours of homework a 5-year old should do so there's nothing stopping you (within the bounds of the school homework policy) from deciding what to ask pupils to do.  So when you're setting homework, make it something that children can take ownership of, that doesn't contribute to widening the gap between more and less able, that allows you to check on misconceptions or misunderstandings, and that doesn't add to your marking workload.  How?

  • Set tasks which don't  necessarily involve writing or recording on paper.  These could be "Think about..." activities, observation or physical/kinaesthetic activities.
  • Link these tasks to lessons you'll be teaching in a couple of days, or next week.  Be clear with your pupils that the set task is in preparation for such-and-such lesson.
  • Use the introduction of this lesson as an opportunity to hear children's contributions and adjust the homework tasks you set to ensure that all children can participate.
For example:  Think about why some people walk to work, others drive, and some cycle or use public transport (in preparation for a lesson on writing a balanced argument or a geography lesson on urban transport choices).  Or: Sit in as many different chairs as you can find (in preparation for a D&T or history project on furniture design).  Or Look for right angles around your home (in preparation for a lesson on the properties of shapes).