#5 “Oh dear! Oh dear! I shall be too late!”

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Time is so so important in education. From countdown clocks on school TVs that track every second to the beginning of the first GCSE/A-level exam of the year, the micro planning of movement around a school to the hotly contested (in some schools) directed time allocation. Schools measure time like no other. My only comparison is from my time in the Army, where timings were crucial and if not precise led to catastrophic implications.

From my readings of books such as “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers” by the good folk of Michaela School I was reacquainted with the idea of the ‘Matthew Effect’. Now this is (losely) based on a particular teaching of Jesus found in the book of Matthew. It is the parable of the Talents. It’s educational spin is that the achievement gap grows when those that have, get more, and those without move further and further behind. It represents a problem with current education, and has led to a flurry of techniques designed to ‘close the gap’, a friend of many a good snake’s oil salesman. The world of economics gives us some insight with the ‘opportunity cost’, doing one thing means you cant do another.

But may be another tact will help.

Other developed countries close their achievement gaps but we don’t, why is that? Our kids when they are young start off at similar academic levels (let’s take reading) than those from other developed countries. But as they get older we start to fall behind, why is this? May be its for socio-economic reasons? Nope, other countries have the same issues as us. May its because our teachers could be rubbish? Nope, ours are well trained and well resourced. So what is it? The chief cause seems to be bad theory. We’re barking up the wrong tree with the wrong stuff trying to achieve the wrong goals. Cards sorts, Who Wants To Be a Millionaire, Fling the Teacher and the like. All designed for ‘participant enjoyment’ but all a massive waste of possible learning time. “But it’s fun”, “the kids love it”, “they’re so ‘engaged'”. Engaged in what? – a game, a making task or a ‘Im not really sure but they seem to like it’.

I have come to see from over 20+ years doing this stuff that the key to this game is INTENSITY in lessons (This is not pace, the easiest stick to beat any and all teachers with). That’s my takeaway for you, Academic Intensity. When I came across others who also wanted to know, “Where’s the academic RIGOUR in this?”, I cartwheeled all the way home. Students learning more in the same period of time. Disadvantaged kids rely more on school to help them close the gap their more fortunate students are gaining from outside of school. Its a highly unpopular idea but for some kids school is the middle class parents they don’t have. So the issues is not “What works (with these kids)?”, but on how to make the most effective use of time. And efficiency needs to play an important part to help students catch up, like they do in other developed countries. A school that says ‘We count time because time counts’ is not a factory as some would like to criticise it with, but one that sees the need to make the most of every opportunity. Opportunity costs, and this can be seen very acutely in the way KS3 is to be a playtime of fun activities designed to hook the ‘clients’ for your subject as it competes with other subjects for GCSE students come options time.

Content is king, rigour is crucial. Motivation comes from achievement and every second counts. Let’s not short change our kids just to benefit ourselves with a short term gain of keeping kids happy. Let’s give them the best to help them become their best.

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#4 Back To The Future: A return to common sense teaching (What they did/didn’t teach me at Teacher Training College)

st lukes campus_0I’m old enough to remember (and to have attended) teacher training college where at the age of 18 you had already set your sights on the noble profession of teaching and in my case spent 4 years pursuing said aim. With it being so long ago (& about to go back for NPQSL) it seems hard for me to remember what I was taught in the distinctly liberal “education studies” modules as much as I can remember “chin/knee/toe” for the set up for throwing a shot put (St. Luke’s College, Exeter – class of 1994 PE). Two names I do remember from those education studies modules are Piaget and Rousseau. And more specifically the book ‘Emile’ written by one Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Its about a boy whose tutor, Jean-Jacques tries to convince the boy Emile that he has absolute freedom to choice to do whatever he likes. Sadly all his actions are manipulated and so this freedom seems more like tyranny. The jist that we were meant to get out of all this was that children are by nature good, and that the world is a bad, corrupting influence. That innocence and virtue are inherent qualities to all humans from birth. There was a load of other stuff that didn’t really excite/inspire/interest me but it did portray a sure sense that kids are inherently good and that ‘learning’ is a very natural process. The idea of an innocent and perfect child. Now this seemed to clash with my protestant theology picked up previously from Sunday School classes as a young boy. The idea of ‘original sin’ and the need for God’s help to overcome this inclination for bad rather than good did appear at odds with the ‘new romanticism’ of the Enlightenment Period I was now reading about and learning as strict orthodoxy. Divine law was replaced with ‘nature is best’. The Puritan Education of the seventeenth century was replaced by an anti-intelectual movement in the nineteenthΒ  century. I don’t know where you are on the faith scale, I only mention this as a possible reason for particular starting points on how we think education should be ‘done’, and we all hold very strong views whether we are aware of them or not. Saying we don’t adhere to any particular ideology on education and that we are just pragmatic, taking only that which works is a nice idea, but sadly is untrue. A few simple questions about the purpose of education and how children learn best will bring to the surface quite strong battle lines you may or may not even be aware of, but this is often rare. Most of us these days know our ‘progressive’ from out ‘traditionalist’ and on which side of the fence (& argument) we sit.

Lets get back to common dogma. At St. Luke’s I understood “experiential learning”, including some weird idea that kids should learn fire is dangerous by being burnt by it themselves. I learnt the importance of “activity” for learning and how we ‘learn better when we learn it (discover it) for ourselves’. It was about enquiries, discoveries and to follow kids interests if we are going to get them to ‘engage’ with the learning and like our subject and to like us as their teachers. The kids should be having fun was the new barometer we were meant to use.

Having looked into this rise of Rousseau type rationales, I have come across the following influencers. The first is John Dewey who in 1913 wrote that we should follow the natural ‘powers’ in each child and allow learning to follow along lines of ‘impulse’. Then we had William Kilpatrick who in 1918 wrote in ‘The Project Method’, exactly that. And that learning should follow the natural interests of each child. Then we get onto the Plowden Report of 1967 where the term a “child centred approach” appears. Play was heavily emphasised as an effective way for children to learn. Teachers should become facilitators, probably where the old ‘guide on the side not sage on the stage’ adage comes from. It also emphasised choice and experience. Its probably where the downplaying of the importance of knowledge and eventually the moral split between high order and low order thinking all came from. Then came thinking hats, brain gym, learning styles and ‘market place’ activities. Activities were the new messiah to create engaged, happy learners who would behave brilliantly because their interests were being met and they were having a good time in the lesson.

So we appear to have two ways of thinking about education. Some see it as a natural, drawing out from within a child, others the need for an effortful, unnatural and even sometimes painful method of passing on knowledge from one generation to another. My point is that I was only ever presented with the ‘progressive’ ideology and methodology to teaching, trained in faulty romantic notions of whats best in education. It is only as I have been in education for 20+ years that I have seen the possibility and the greater effectiveness of more traditional thinking and practise. I can now see how a knowledge rich curriculum, with the recognition that there are more similarities between kids than their differences, the proven effectiveness over other teaching methods of explicit teaching, the fact that subject content can be/and is the engager, and that strong routines create the conditions for learning and not a straight jacket to Dickension Rule all lead to better outcomes for kids and form a new and exciting ‘old but new’ way forward. Why were we not shown this alternative back in our informative trainee teacher years? Why was the secret of what actually works hidden from us? My only hope is that like me you too are able to weigh up the two sides, and begin to see the faults and the failures of ‘progressive education’. And sadly it has failed. Existing instructional practices have not been working. Romantic ideas about education are fundamentally wrong. They are well intentioned but mistaken. Then may be you too will look back for the future. May be then, and only then can we have a chance of changing the demographic deterministic mindset and reach the goal which is democratic education, where ALL children are given the opportunity to succeed, regardless of who their parents happen to be.

#3 Challenge – Everyone enjoys one, everyone needs one

So I’ve knocked off differentiation, now I’ll have a go at ‘challenge’ (or ‘stretch’ or ‘stretch and challenge’)

We all like to complete a challenge. That marathon run to raise money for a charity, trips to escape rooms, that little book of sodukus, or Candy Crush (self confession). Kids love challenges too. Repeating levels on a computer game, with such resilience to keep going again and again in the face of failure. We could do with some of that willingness with computer game challenges to translate to the classroom. In all these we try, we fail, we go again, we learn and finally we win. There is no greater sense of achievement than conquering a challenge.

A big no no is the practice of different learning objectives for different students (‘some/most/all’, etc), and different tasks for different groups of students. Same task with support for some to reach it I have already covered in my post on ‘differentiation’. Apologies for repeating myself but I do find it hard to come up with a satisfactory answer to the question posed by many a student, “why can’t I do the purple/green/expert/(insert school practice) task?”, or for this practice to sit well with my conscience. I really don’t see how ‘growth mindset’ and ‘differentiated tasks’ fit in the same sentence.

Let me explain how this practice of grouped learning objectives and grouped tasks works itself out in the classroom.

So typically there’s a task up on the board. Call it the ‘core task’, the ‘green task’ or henous of henouses the ‘Grade 3’ task (who wants to do a task that has no academic currency?). As mentioned in my post on differentiation this caps both learning and in the process attainment. So back to the lesson. Along with the ‘core task’ (‘all’), there is a challenge/stretch task or question to be completed (usually) after the core task. The more able students get through the core task quickly and love the fact they have been given a special task by the teacher to complete and are overtly being praised for being bright (and often for working hard, I get that). Then you have the middle ability children. They are annoyed they aren’t allowed to do the same work as the bright students, they fancy having a go at a challenge too. They are highly motivated to work harder and to try harder work, but they’ve also realised their fate is now set in stone. The less able suffer the most. They get it, they’re the ‘dumb’ ones. They know they’ll never be allowed a challenge, even though they too quite fancy the sound of one. Now eternally doomed to word matches, gap fillers and easy worksheets. And the result of all this? We are actively (if not intentionally) widening the achievement gap between our students.

Students ARE keen on completing difficult work. They feel privileged to be thought of as good enough, clever enough to be chosen for this work. But we can’t give up on academic rigour for the less able. All material should be challenging and made accessible for all through clear prior instruction, modelling of answers/solutions and then ‘live support’ for those who need it.

These thoughts are based on the work of Mary Myatt, from her book The Curriculum: Gallimaufry to coherence.

About me

Hi there πŸ™‚

I’m a geography teacher teaching in Birmingham. I qualified as a PE Teacher from St Luke’s College, Exeter University and studied Geography as a second subject. I taught both subjects in a school in Cambridge, before heading out to Uganda, East Africa. I spent 4 years there setting up a school, starting with Yr8 (Yr7 is their last year of Primary) and adding a year group each year. I was the school’s first headteacher at the age of 26 and I trained my deputy up to take over from me.

Then back to the UK and I became head of Geography at a private school in Worcester. I then worked at a college for the blind before splitting my time as a supply teacher and as a Reserve Soldier in the British Army, on an Additional Duties Contract. It meant I could spend extended periods of time completing Army training and going on exercise. Due to a medical condition I was unable to deploy and so left the Army and started teaching again full time in Birmingham.

I grew up in Herefordshire and have an amazing daughter who is in Yr10 and am married to a lovely and beautiful lady from Bulgaria πŸ™‚ I am an evangelical Christian and a convert to what I can only describe as the ‘new traditionalist’ education movement.

I hope this helps you to get to know me a little.

Remember, the most powerful force in the world is Love πŸ™‚

#2 Differentiation – Steps & Ramps

Gosh, well this one’s going to get me in trouble. And I’ve only just started blogging!

So here goes.

So I used to live in Uganda. A lot of things take time to filter all the way to Africa but the idea of wheelchair access to buildings did. So ramps were built out of wood that go over steps and so provide a straight ramp for wheelchairs to be able to access a building (same building, remember that). And this is my basic premise – access to the same building but the building of a ‘ramp’ for some.

I personally do not believe in differentiation by task. I remember back in the day when the debate was between differentiation by task and differentiation by outcome. I believe differentiation by task caps students’ achievement and so their attainment, and I have still not come up with a satisfactory answer to the question posed by many a student, “why can’t I do the purple/green/expert/(insert school practice) task?”, or for this practice to sit well with my conscience. I really don’t see how ‘growth mindset’ and ‘differentiated tasks’ fit in the same sentence. It’s a bit like ‘democracy’ and ‘three line whip’. I digress.

I also belief all students should be entitled to the same curriculum and it’s indicative content. This is a line of thought I am still developing. May be I’ll write more on curriculum in the future.

So back to my wooden ramp. I have come to the conclusion that ‘support’ to complete the same task is the way forward. In my ideal world I would do away with the word differentiation. Instead ALL tasks (the same tasks) would have support ONLY for those that need it. I am guilty as I suspect many others are of putting the support (sentence starters, key terms to include, etc) up on the Powepoint of the task for all to see. My bad.

May be a better way forward is ‘live support’. Some pre-planning of common misconceptions is wise practice, but I am referring more to live conversations with those who have not grasped the concept we are learning about or who are genuinely struggling. This requires little upfront investment by the teacher, except excellent subject knowledge and knowledge of common misconceptions of the topic being learnt. To be flexible enough and to have the skill to build that ramp live in the lesson so all students can access the same building.

I think I’ve survived and probably still have a teaching career intact πŸ™‚

These thoughts are based on the work of Mary Myatt, from her book The Curriculum: Gallimaufry to coherence.

#1 CPD – Through gritted teeth

I really don’t think I have ever enjoyed an INSET day. Often the victim of generic, whole school “training” which is just an elaborate “I’m assistant head in charge of this area, so here’s all the work you need to do for me”. I’m sure people are well meaning, but wasting my time does not make you my favourite bunny.

And so “Battle Hymn of The Tiger Teachers” came in to my life unannounced. Someone had suggested to me ‘Michaela Marking’ as they knew whole class feedback was where my thoughts at the time were heading. Any excuse I can find to buy a book is open license to me, much to the bane of my wife. So I bought the book and “BOOM!” – that was me ruined to ever teach ‘progressively/ divergently/ constructively’ again. The good news is this set a series of events in motion that has led me to begin in September at what has been dubbed “Michaela in the Midlands”. Finally I get to do what I believe in and have found my tribe.

So, CPD.

Definitely not generic, whole staff rubbish as I have mentioned previously. And while at it, my pet peave, ‘Teacher Tips’. Friday morning, during staff briefing, after notices. That 5 minutes that no-one is paying attention to and is thinking, “can I just get to my form room before the bell goes?”. And it’s usually the current champion of the “hero teachers arms race” chomping at the bit. My personal opinion…if it’s that good we should all be doing it, so roll it out whole school. No more “I’m ace, and you’re not”, normally by teachers who don’t have kids.

Solutions

  1. Weekly department meetings to co-plan curriculum, lesson content and method of delivery/instruction. In this crazy world where teaching as a non-specialist in a subject (when/where did we let that creep up from?) no longer causes anyone to bat an eyelid, this becomes paramount. This needs to be in directed time, not extra time. One school I know of worked their time so that they could send their kids home at 1.45pm on a Friday and give Friday afternoons over to department planning.
  2. Weekly seminars – pre-reading on the stuff that really works. Teach Like a Champion is a good place to start. And if you’ve got a keenie reader of education blogs like me then I’m sure that person can suggest a few good reads. Let people read and discuss, not be talked to for an hour about how they are not logging behaviour correctly, etc etc.
  3. Induction- pre-reading, I love more homework. I am Monica. πŸ™‚
  4. INSET days – Back where we started. Time for subject teams to meet AND TO TALK ABOUT CURRICULUM, LESSONS & FEEDBACK only. Plus time for prepping resources, photocopying etc.

So I’m not sure what happens with the whole copyright thing. This is my first blog and it’s my reflections on the wonderful book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers edited by Katharine Birbalsingh. Buy it, read it, do it. πŸ™‚