Friday, 21 November 2014

Thumbs down for thumbs up...and an alternative

It used to be commonplace for teachers to ask pupils to self-assess at the end of lessons using a thumb up or a thumb down (and occasionally a thumb neither up nor down).  Thumb up indicated success or "I managed that comfortably" or "I understood everything".  Thumb down indicated failure or "That was really hard" or "I didn't get it".  

There are problems with this.  Let's for a moment assume that it works, that it's an accurate way for pupils to communicate self-assessment judgements.  Which group of pupils will tend to raise their thumbs at the end of the lesson?  And which group will tend to lower theirs?  It's not rocket science.  As an assessment tool it won't tell you anything you don't already know.

Actually, in practice, few pupils will want to be "the one that didn't get it", so a pupil who has struggled may put his or her thumb up (along with everyone else) to indicate success.  Essentially, as an assessment method it's unreliable.  (You could ask pupils to close their eyes and then raise or lower their thumbs - do you really think that's going to work?)

And this goes for any simple self-assessment system - traffic lights spring to mind as a similarly ineffective strategy.  The principle of asking pupils to make judgements about their own progress is a very sound one, but a short cut like this won't hack it.

However, you could try using thumbs up/down differently.  Try asking pupils at the end of the lesson how challenging they found the lesson.  Thumbs up for challenging, thumbs down for unchallenging.  Why?  Because you want your lessons to be challenging. Challenging is good. Challenging drives pupil progress.  Challenging demonstrates that you have high expectations.

And what will happen?  Pupils will need to get used to it (because they've spent so long getting used to thumbs up meaning easy), so it'll cause some confusion initially.  But then, once it's established, you'll have an useful pupil-centred evaluation tool.  What you want is for all pupils to put their thumbs up to indicate that they've been challenged.  Are all pupils in all of your lessons challenged?

Developing pupil ownership

If you've been following these posts, you'll have picked up the theme of pupil ownership.  I think this is important.  The model of a teacher-driven, teacher-centred classroom is outmoded.

The future is uncertain, the skills that pupils will require when they leave school are unknown: of the seven- or eight-year olds you teach next week, many will leave the school system in 2024.  This is a sci-fi year.  Children won't know what 'driving' means or 'handwriting' or 'shopping trolley'.  We don't know precisely what skills young people will need, but we do know that they'll either need to work things out for themselves/make informed decisions/evaluate what they've done, or that we should equip them with the capacity to self-manage, self-assess and self-evaluate.

And if developing pupil independence isn't a substantial enough carrot, the Teachers' Standards require that pupils are guided to reflect on the progress they have made and their emerging needs and encouraged to take a responsible and conscientious attitude to their own work and study.

How could you go about this with the children in your class this week?  You could start by auditing your current practice. To the right are some questions you could ask yourself. Inclusion of any these elements would indicate a degree of pupil ownership.  (Just to acknowledge the possibility of some of these elements would be a starting point.) But if pupil ownership is part of your classroom climate then these elements are not bolt-ons.  This way of thinking should become integral to your practice.

To get pupil ownership up and running, identify some gaps and start putting some steps in place.  For example, at the start of a new topic (or theme or unit) ensure there's sufficient space  (time, opportunity) for pupils to identify what they already know and the skills/knowledge they'd like in place by the end of the topic. This is curriculum design and that's your first lesson of a new unit planned (in skeleton form).  There's an example of the left of doing this using a KWL grid and an iPad. 

When reporting back, pupils could decide the method or tool to use - poster, presentation, video, podcast.  Remember: this is the 21st century - why do pupils need to write sentences about what they've learnt?   Ensure there's sufficient space for pupils to assess what they've done - encourage them to assess thoughtfully, to be critical friends.  Self-assessment isn't just about colouring in a set of traffic lights or raising a thumb (although this is a start): it's about equipping children to make informed judgements about the progress they've made.

Monday, 10 November 2014

What do we talk about when we talk about "climate"?

Classroom climate makes a significant contribution to effective teaching, according to the Sutton Trust's review of evidence.  Now it's back on the agenda it's even more likely that classroom climate will crop up at interview.   Describe the climate in your classroom.  What do you understand by classroom climate?  How do you create an effective classroom climate? So what is classroom climate?

Essentially it's the characteristic atmosphere/ambience/feel of your classroom.  The adjective positive tends to be attached to the notion of climate.  Kyriacou talks about a positive classroom climate that is "purposeful, task-oriented, relaxed, warm and supportive and has a sense of order".  Bucholz and Sheffler encourage readers to aspire to a "warm and inclusive classroom environment" in which "cooperation and acceptance" is fostered.  There's some danger here that the notion of climate could descend into a spiral of woolly pleasantries.  My classroom provides a warm and welcoming environment in which everyone is accepted and supported.  That seems sceptical, perhaps, but climate is important and it's too easy to launch into a string of vague but positive-sounding adjectives. 

You can get around this by talking about the philosophy that underpins the way your classroom operates.  This philosophy must be rooted in pupil progress - after all, if pupils aren't making progress then what's the point?  Ask yourself what it is about the climate (ambience/feel) of your classroom that enables pupils to progress.  This philosophy should be rooted in inclusivity - this is about all children not just some children.  How do all the children in your classroom know that they are valued, that their learning is important?

Think about the other elements that characterise your classroom practice.  Is the climate pupil-centred or teacher-centred?  Are pupils encouraged to reflect on their learning?  Is pupil ownership a characteristic of the climate in you classroom?

However you see and describe your classroom climate, you need to place yourself at the centre of it.  There's not a contradiction here if you see your classroom as child-centred - you are central to the establishment of this type of climate: you are responsible for the way it is.  Rogers uses the phrase "the nature of teacher leadership" to describe this: through teacher leadership, pupils know how things are (i.e. expectations are clear).

Thinking about classroom climate gives you a critical platform to examine how what you say you believe matches up to what you do in practice.  You may say (to your friends, tutors, mentors, head teachers, etc.) that you believe in one set of principles, but in the classroom you may work to a different set of principles (driven by what feels like necessity, or accepted practice, or by what you really believe).  Brookfield describes the friction “between what we say we believe and what we privately suspect to be true” as cognitive dissonance.  You could ask yourself about how closely the climate you aspire to is matched by the climate in reality.

It's worth thinking about this carefully before interview - you want to end up in a school where the values are in line with your own.

Saturday, 8 November 2014

Games to play instead of playing the worksheet game

Most games involve collaboration, often in the possibly contradictory form of competition. The benefits of playing games stretch beyond the curriculum (in its smaller, National Curriculum sense): pupils can develop strategic thinking, memorising skills, logical reasoning and more.  Pupils will probably engage more enthusiastically with games than with worksheets.  Games allow you to recycle materials: instead of photocopying all those worksheets you could invest in a few reusable resources.  You still need to think about what you want children to achieve in the lesson and decide how the game needs to be adapted.  Here are some suggestions:

Pelmanism.  Infinite variations of the turn-over-two-cards-to-find-a-matching-pair game. Find a pair of adverbs...a pair of prime numbers...a pair of parallelograms...  Some more ideas here:

Consequences.  Pupils collaboratively generate sentences or simple story structures.  Opportunities to practice using speech marks and other punctuation.  The rules are here:

I went to the shop.  Adaptable memory game, with opportunities to develop simple extended sentences and lists; opportunities to practice use of indefinite article.  Child 1: "I went to the shop and bought an apple."  Child 2: "I went to the shop and bought an apple and a banana."  Child 3: "I went to the shop and bought an apple, a banana and a concertina."  Some further suggestions here:

Guess Who.  (I've never understood what the question mark is doing there.) Encourages pupils to frame questions ("Does your person have a red beard?" etc.), supports comprehension development, and logical reasoning.  What more could you ask?  For more ideas see:

Top Trumps.  Develops strategic thinking, interpretation of information texts, retention of facts.  The National Children's Bureau evaluation of the Schools Top Trumps Tournament (2011) concluded that playing Top Trumps had "positive learning outcomes for children in terms of literacy, numeracy and decision-making skills".

Mastermind.  Develop logic skills, design effective experiments, and discuss scientific reasoning in the classroom.  Have a look at Strom and Barolo's paper, "Using the Game of Mastermind to Teach, Practice, and Discuss Scientific Reasoning Skills" (2011).  

Friday, 7 November 2014

9 things you could do instead of using a worksheet

1. Understanding word problems.  Pupils could create their own sets of questions (based on a question/process you've modelled). You may need to provide some word/phrase banks to get them started.  They can swap the questions amongst themselves and respond.  They can evaluate the questions - if they're too easy they can try to work out how to make them harder.  

2.  Understanding sentence construction or parts of speech.  Pupils could collaboratively generate sentences, passing folded pieces of paper around the table (in the style of consequences).  Each child starts the sentence with a name or article + noun ("John" or "The house", for example) then folds the paper to hide the word/phrase and passes the paper to the child to the left who writes a verb ("runs" or "contemplated", for example).  The round continues (you'll have several pieces of paper circulating at once), with at each stop the addition of another part of speech.  The next one could be adverb ("cautiously" or "often", for example).  You decide an end point and then open up the pieces of paper to reveal the sentences: "John runs cautiously."  "The house contemplated often."  You could add further rules: For this round each word must begin with a T.

3.  Articulating knowledge about a subject.  Pupils could create a mind map or a poster or a display or a presentation.

4. Measuring (length, area, perimeter, etc).  Pupils could draw shapes then find the perimeter or area.  Squared paper might be useful.  Pupils could draw shapes with a perimeter of precisely x cm.  How many rectangles can you draw with a perimeter of precisely 12 cm? 

5.  Presenting research.  Pupils could design their own templates for presenting findings (and then use and evaluate them).

6.  Sentence construction.  Provide a stimulus (a picture, for example) and get pupils to describe what they see.  In the distance there is a snow-capped mountain.  Beside the river a small man with a dog is walking.  This should be a speaking and listening activity, at least to start with.  If children can construct sentences through talk they'll have a better chance of being able to write sentences on paper.

7.  Practising mathematical operations.  Give pupils selections of numbers.  They choose which ones to use to practice the operation you've been working on.  They understand the meaning of challenge (because you have high expectations and have ensured that learning is challenging), so if they find practising with a certain set of numbers too easy, they know to look for numbers that present a more demanding challenge.

8.  Articulating knowledge/understanding/opinion derived from an image/map/artefact. Pupils could think and talk about what they see.  Like you would.  Adults don't look at maps, or paintings, or a Ming dynasty jug, or listen to a piece of music and then fill in a worksheet - they think and talk...about how long it might take to drive from San Diego to Yosemite, about what makes Duchamp's Fountain art, about the blue and white dragon handle, about whether Andy Williams is better than Pharrell Williams.  To facilitate this with children you'll need to get them to think about questions.  And you'll need to model ways of talking about images and artefacts.

Fountain (1917) attributed to Marcel Duchamp

Dragon-handled jug Ming dynasty, early 15th century CE
9.  Practising mathematical operations II.  Here's the answer.  What's the question?  How many different ways can you make x?  Or you could add rules to make it into an investigation: How many ways can you make 48 by multiplying two numbers together?  ...Three different numbers together? ...Four different numbers together?  Is there a pattern?  What is it?  Can you work out the formula?

Tuesday, 4 November 2014

Guiding pupils to reflect on their progress

Teachers' Standard 2 requires you to guide pupils to reflect on the progress they have made and their emerging needs.

How can you do this?  You could get pupils to write reflectively, give them a reflective writing frame, or a questionnaire to complete.  But this will immediately exclude some pupils.  The requirement is not to guide only those pupils who can write reflectively to reflect.  This is all pupils.

To ensure this is an inclusive part of your practice this needs to be about thinking (reflecting) and speaking and listening.  There will be pupils in the class who are less confident about talking and some who are unable to speak in certain social situations.  You may work with pupils who have significant communications difficulties - the suggestions here will need further thinking, but guiding pupils to reflect remains an expectation: it's not acceptable to say "My pupils can't do that."  If you're working in a Nursery or Reception class there's no reason why pupils can't think about or articulate what they can and can't do, but you might need to adapt the language in the suggestions below.

For the substantial majority, talking is the most inclusive way for pupils to articulate their thinking.  Developing the role of reflective talk also a good way to establish a culture in your classroom that will prepare you well for observation (by tutors, mentors, school senior leaders, Ofsted inspectors).  Those who observe you teach will often talk to pupils about their learning, their progress and their learning needs.  Typically, observers will be drawn to the pupil/s in your class who you would least like them to be drawn to.  So equipping all pupils with the capacity to articulate their thinking isn't just about meeting the Standards.  It's about having successful observations.  And, most importantly, it's about pupil entitlement.

A useful way to think about how to do this is to start with the questions that pupils might be asked and then to think about the answers that you'd like to hear them come up with.  Here are some examples:

It's important to emphasise that these aren't responses that pupils can meaningfully learn by rote. You can't use My Turn/Your Turn as a strategy to embed reflection.  This is about creating a climate in your classroom in which pupils talk confidently about their progress and the barriers they encounter.  So it's not just about what happens in one lesson ("We did reflection on Tuesday morning"), this should be a part of all learning.  And you're not going to get this to happen overnight - so if Ofsted are visiting tomorrow and this isn't already part of your classroom climate, then it's too late.

So start now.  You could use the questions above as prompts.  Create enough space in your lessons for thinking and dialogue, and get pupils used to talking about what they can and can't do, and the progress they've made.

Sunday, 2 November 2014

Raising the bar: How do you make activities more challenging?

Challenge will keep pupils engaged and motivated (TS7), ensure that the promotion of good progress (TS2) is at the heart of your teaching, and signal to anyone monitoring your practice (tutors, mentors, senior leaders, etc.) that you set high expectations (TS1).  But the challenge needs to be relevant to the learning, and you'll need to employ different types of challenge to ensure that all learners are challenged.* 

I'm going to start by busting some myths about challenge.

More of the same isn't more challenging.  If a child has completed one set of questions, then another set of questions that duplicates the level of challenge is a waste of time.  It is a way of keeping the pupil busy, but that doesn't equate to high expectations or pupil progress. (No Teachers' Standard requires you to keep pupils busy.)  This is a problem with depending on worksheets.  

Writing more sentences about something isn't more challenging.  Requiring more able pupils to write more content will keep them busy longer but doesn't challenge them. Actually, writing more about something can be easier - more words allow writers to waffle.  And if this is a history lesson or an RE lesson, for example, measuring outcomes in terms of the quantity of written output (the least able group will write 4 sentences, the most able group will write 2 paragraphs, etc.) will mean that pupils in your class with the capacity to excel in these subjects will fail if they aren't confident writers.

Bigger numbers isn't more challenging.  65 + 22 is no more challenging than 15 + 12 (there are no complicated tens boundaries to cross); calculating the area of a 12m x 7m rectangle is no more challenging that calculating the area of a 3cm x 5cm rectangle (it's just times tables); counting in hundreds is no more challenging than counting in ones (one hundred, two hundred, three hundred...).

So how can you increase challenge?

Get pupils to set their own more challenging tasks.  These could be based on the tasks they've already completed.  The tasks they set themselves will tell you a lot about the pupils' understanding, and you can intervene (raise the bar) if you feel the self-set task isn't sufficiently challenging.  This could also have a positive effect on your workload, saving you hours devising insufficiently challenging tasks.  (If you're working in the Early Years, models of good practice would suggest children are already initiating activities.)

Think carefully about what the curriculum actually requires.  If this is a history lesson, for example, you'll want pupils to articulate their knowledge and understanding of the past (KS1), to note connections, contrasts and trends over time, to devise historically valid questions about change, cause, similarity and difference, and significance (KS2).  Challenge isn't about writing more, it's about developing more understanding, becoming more analytical, becoming more competent at identifying and questioning patterns.   If the task focuses on writing, this will only tell you that confident writers can write more than those who find writing difficult. You already know this.  It won't tell you anything about their capacity for noting connections or devising questions.  Opportunities to talk, share and present ideas will push expectations to a higher level for all pupils. This is about the climate you create in your classroom.

Think carefully about what makes a task more challenging.  Why is 17 + 6 harder than 22 + 6?  Why is it harder to calculate the area of a rectangle you've drawn yourself than one you've been given on a worksheet?  Why is counting in 3s harder than counting in hundreds?  Once you've worked out what makes something more challenging, use this to inform the challenges you set pupils, and to inform your interventions after you've asked pupils to set challenges for themselves.

*NB: If you find yourself at an interview and you're asked about providing challenge for pupils, make sure your answer refers to challenging the least as well as the most able pupils in your class.

Saturday, 1 November 2014

Working with a group - what's your teaching role?

There's been some whole class input, perhaps, and now pupils are working in groups.  You're working with one of these groups.  What should you be doing?

Fundamentally you’re accountable for the pupils’ progress during this activity (TS2).  Note: the important thing isn’t that the pupils complete the activity they’ve been set – there's no Teachers' Standard that requires you to ensure that pupils complete activities.  The significant thing is that pupils make progress: by the end of a successful lesson pupils will have acquired something (a skill, knowledge, understanding) which they didn't have at the start.   If the activity is driven by the learning outcome then completion of the activity and making progress are one and the same thing.  But if the activity is just a filler - an apparently related task that pupils spend 20-25 minutes doing in the middle of the lesson that doesn’t in itself contribute to progress – then you'll need to adjust the activity as you teach it in order to secure progress (and then make sure that subsequent planned activities are intrinsically linked to pupil progress).  If you think your only role is to ensure task completion, you’re thinking of yourself as a task manager.  You’re not a task manager, you’re a teacher.  So teach.

Accurate and productive use of assessment is central to your teaching role (TS6).  Make sure that when you work with a group you have the means to record what you observe, and use this information to monitor progress, set targets, and plan subsequent lessons

The further suggestions below assume that the activity is fundamentally of  value, i.e. the activity contributes to pupil progress.  The character of each intervention (left-hand column) will depends on your personal approach, your choice of words, tone, gesture, balance of listening and talking, use of resources, etc. There are, for example, as many ways of making the activity more challenging as there are shades of grey.  The middle column links the intervention to the Teachers' Standards.  The right-hand column suggests a more pupil-centred approach to the intervention with a further asterisked link to the Teachers' Standards.

What if...

All the pupils know what’s required and are doing it or 

one/some/all of the pupils complete the task/activity very quickly?

One/some/all of the pupils don’t know what to do?

One/some/all of the pupils are disengaged?

There's insufficient time for one/some/all pupils to complete the activity?

The activity requires collaboration but the pupils aren’t collaborating?