Category Archives: Teaching

General blogs about teaching in schools.

How exams took the joy, and the learning, out of our classrooms

Originally published on the Parents and Teachers for Excellence blog here.

Two trends have dominated how British exams have changed over recent decades: they have become more high-stakes, and they have become more skills-based. The two have combined to create a perfect storm that slows down learning and makes school less joyful. School leaders are under pressure to achieve good exam results, and so orient their schools around exam performance. They measure pupils in all year groups against the assessment objectives from exams, and expect teachers to teach to these objectives too. Every piece of work is a mini-GCSE exam.

This would make sense if the assessment objectives could be taught directly, but they can’t because they’re based on generic skills. Skills can only be acquired indirectly: by learning the component parts that build up to make the whole such as pieces of contextual knowledge, rules of grammar, or fluency in procedures. These components look very different to the skill being sought – just as doing drills in football practice looks very different to playing a football match, and playing scales on a violin looks very different to giving a recital. Yet in these analogies exam objectives would be something like “play with flair”, “keep possession” or “hit notes accurately”, and the instruction given to teachers is to directly teach these skills. Not to spend time on passing drills and scales, but to spend time on “having more flair”.

Most teachers see that the emperor isn’t wearing any clothes. Consider the plight of a typical English teacher. They’re told that their pupils aren’t good enough at understanding the author’s purpose, so as a result they need to teach more lessons on understanding the author’s purpose. They’re given lesson plans that tell their pupils to identify words which illustrate the author’s purpose, and to write paragraphs explaining why they do so. Maybe they include a handy mnemonic for remembering the model “author’s purpose” paragraph. But it doesn’t work. And it doesn’t work because you cannot teach generic skills directly.

To become better at understanding the author’s purpose you need to know more words, so you can understand the fullness of what the author has written, and you need to know more contexts, so you can understand the significance of those words to the author’s life and times. If you know that the gunpowder plot happened in 1605 and that Macbeth was first performed to an audience in 1606, then The Scottish Play becomes a warning against regicide. If you know that “to twist” was Victorian slang for “to hang”, then Oliver Twist becomes a tale about a boy destined for the gallows. If you know that Dickens first came up with the plot when appalled by the experience of attending a young criminal’s public hanging, then it becomes a campaign for social justice. You cannot infer this from practising to understand the author’s purpose. You can only infer it if you have the knowledge.

Becoming a better reader requires investing time in learning a wider vocabulary and building deeper contextual knowledge, but it would be a brave teacher who puts this maxim wholly into action in today’s schools. With the pressure of high-stakes exams there is no room to teach anything except the assessment objectives being examined, and the assessment objectives only measure generic skills. Instead of exciting lessons where pupils learn knowledge that opens up new worlds of history and literature, their teachers are pressured to push them through yet more rounds of dry and soulless skills practice. Pupils and teachers suffer with frustration as they try to become better at inference by doing lots of failed inferring. They rarely have the chance to learn the knowledge they’d need to imagine what was in the author’s head. Both pupils and teachers leave school unhappy as a result.

The same problem occurs in mathematics. Pupils fail exam questions involving problem-solving, so their teachers are told to teach them problem-solving. They’re expected to make their classes discover Pythagoras’s Theorem at the start of the lesson, as if the great breakthrough of a pioneering mathematician could be reliably and spontaneously reproduced by every fourteen year old on a given Thursday afternoon. Having to do this gives them less time to teach Pythagoras’ Theorem, and so jeopardises their pupils’ chance of successfully solving a problem about it in the future. Once again the pressure to teach generic, skill-based exam objectives directly undermines teachers’ attempts to make their pupils better at their subjects – and better in exams as a result.

We now need to realise what high-stakes, skills-based exams have done to our schools and how to recover from it. This will involve moving away from trying to teach skills directly, and from focusing on measuring them at every juncture. Instead we should plan the knowledge (e.g. vocabulary, historical context) and specific micro-skills (e.g. recognising whether the result of an addition will be negative, or re-writing a sentence to be active not passive) that our pupils need to learn in order to perform at a high-level in their exams. We can still target strong exam performance, but we should do so without expecting every lesson to resemble a mini-exam task. Doing so will mean creating schools where pupils learn more tangible things they can go home proud of, and where teachers teach more of the exciting content that brought them into teaching in the first place.

We can’t afford to ignore the lessons from Chinese school

Imagine I told you there was a way to make our children perform 10% better in their exams after just four weeks of study. It involves changing a school’s timetable and teaching style, but still leaving plenty of room for leadership opportunities and extra-curricular activities. You’d expect to hear a clamour insisting that we roll this out in all schools immediately. Instead, Chinese School has earned itself a long list of critics. They don’t like Chinese education because it of its values. Or more precisely, because it values knowledge.

They argue that we should not be seeking to learn from Chinese teaching, despite its superior results. They concede that doing so would make our children learn more, but that this would come at too high a cost. Any improvement in our teaching of knowledge, they argue, would stop pupils being creative thinkers or challengers of the status quo. Yes, Chinese teaching may improve the learning of rules and information, but it does nothing to teach originality.

They seriously appear to be arguing that in a system in which 35% of 16 year olds failed English GCSE this year our problem is learning too much vocabulary, knowing the laws of grammar too well, and sticking too rigidly to the traditions of the literary canon. Otherwise why complain that Chinese teaching is good at helping pupils learn information?

Read the rest of this article at Conservative Home.

If we want to build character, we must challenge children

Character is the new fad in education. We all want to develop good character in our children, but the policy that achieves this has proven elusive. Proponents of every conceivable activity have queued up to explain how their pet project develops character (and so should get to dip their hands in the pot of government gold). But while many of these are perfectly good things, building our children’s character requires much more fundamental change.

So instead of looking for new projects to fund, let us ask a different question: why is there a deficit that needs to be made up in the first place?

The deficit exists because the core activity of schools – lessons – can become too easy and too self-consciously fun to need any character at all. Take resilience as an example. A child learns resilience by practising. They try tasks that are difficult, fail at them, and keep trying again. Eventually they learn that you do not need to give up when you face difficulty but can be successful if you invest enough effort.

Read the rest of this article at Conservative Home.

3 Teaching Techniques That Made My 2014

At the start of this academic year I wanted to really put the theory of learning I knew into practice. Here are three teaching techniques I tried that I’ll be taking with me into 2015.

1. Interleave *everything*
We know that interleaving concepts and procedures is a desirable difficulty that improves learning. This year I’ve made it my aim to never teach a lesson that uses only one topic. Extension work doesn’t count: the main bulk of a lesson must include multiple concepts. In practice, this means that every set of questions I write includes applying the new thing being learned to problems involving other concepts from earlier on in the curriculum. I found this daunting at first – “what if it’s just too confusing for them?” – but I’ve found there’s tremendous power in my expectation that they can competently use everything I have taught them, at any time.

It’s also made the questions I write far richer and more interesting than ever before. A standard lesson on volume would include questions on upper and lower bounds, percentage changes to a volume when dimensions change by different percentages, and using Pythagoras’ Theorem to find missing dimensions before calculating a volume. These questions were the normal ones. They were not special extension questions for the top 20%. The message this broadcast, combined with the cognitive effect of the desirable difficulty, has made a noticeable impact on learning.

2. Spaced testing of *everything*
We know that spacing and testing are two of the most powerful tools in an educators’ arsenal. So I’ve made it my aim to space out testing of everything my students’ have studied.

The first way I’ve done this is through our departmental testing. This year we’re using low-stakes quizzes on each topic as a replacement for the half-termly summative tests we used to use. What’s great about this is that each topic has two quizzes: one taken at the end of the topic, and one a month later. This reinforces the expectation that students should remember what they’ve been taught, and incentivises them to revisit their learning when it will have the biggest impact on longer-term retention.

The second way is through an idea I’ve borrowed from Bruno Reddy and Kris Boulton at KSA. Long ago they told me about “Only 100% Will Do” starters: simple recall or procedural questions that had been previously studied. Now my students begin every lesson with an “Only 100% Will Do” sheet where they work on concepts from any past year group to make sure that they’re keeping up to speed.

3. Lightning fast in-class assessment
I have always been a big fan of in-class assessment, and could singlehandedly prop up the UK’s mini-whiteboard industry. But over the summer Joe Kirby introduced me to an app called Quick Key. It changed my life!

Quick Key is an optical scanning app for mobile phones. It works by scanning in students’ answer sheets to a multiple choice quiz, and giving you great analytics on your phone or in a spreadsheet. It’s also fast – I can scan a whole class set of answers in about a minute. This lets me pinpoint exactly how well the class are doing at a topic. I will discover that one mistake or misconception is bogging down the whole room, or that four students need extra support in this lesson and another five need extra challenge. The laser-like precision with which I can adapt during a lesson or plan the next one is having a big impact on my teaching.


 
Like any technique, these three have worked well because I made them a habit. We do these three things in the same way in almost every lesson. This consistency no doubt aids their effectiveness. But they are nonetheless three real techniques that put into practice the theory of learning we know to be so powerful.

The Power of Practice

Maths “ability” is just practice. For all the rhetoric we hear about ability in maths, any innate component is of relatively little consequence. What appears to be ability is just practice masquerading as talent. But despite this we have a Western obsession with innate ability. Culturally we treat Maths as something you are either born good at, or born bad at, and those in the latter camp should brashly accept it. After all, if your genes make you bad at something why should you be shy about it?

But innate ability is a distraction from the real cause of good performance – practice. Practice is the single most important component of success in Maths.

Practice matters because knowledge growth is compound. And it’s compound because:

A. Connections strengthen memories. As we learn more, and so have more associations to make with each new piece of content, we remember more. These new connections in turn strengthen our old knowledge, and contribute to the wider structure of knowledge that forms our view of the world. This often looks like innate ability. A student who knows about fractions will learn more from a lesson on percentages than a student who doesn’t know about fractions. We might hypothesise that this is because they are “better at Maths”. In fact it’s because they can build connections with their fractions knowledge, and so understand percentages better (and are more able to remember this new knowledge).

B. Mastery frees up working memory. Our working memories have a limited capacity. Once they’re full they’re full, and we cannot process any more information. One model of working memory conceptualises it as having a fixed number of slots. Each slot can hold one piece of information, like a step in a method or a number being remembered. Trying to carry out a complex process can easily overload working memory as all the slots get filled and thinking grinds to a halt – meaning the thinker is unable to learn. However fluency bypasses the constraints of working memory. Once you have mastered a procedure you carry it out without thinking – it does not occupy multiple slots in your working memory but frees it up to learn instead. This means that the student who has practised to the point of fluency will learn faster, and have an appearance of greater ability.

C. Fluency solves problems. Because fluency frees up working memory, it gives students the space to think about challenging problems and come up with creative solutions. The most well-practised students will therefore come up with ideas that challenge their thinking, and so learn more at the boundaries of their knowledge.

Getting better at practice must be a national priority. We have a national fear of practice. When being trained as a Maths teacher I was told to “Beware the three Xs. Examples, exercises, and more exercises.” The intention – that incredibly dull lessons should be avoided – was a good one. But there is no need to make practice taboo. It is the hallmark of elite performance, a necessary prerequisite to any worthwhile achievement. It is not an end in itself, but the ends we seek cannot be accomplished without significant practice.

There are two components of this challenge to practice better. We need to:

1. Increase the quantity of practice.
Every time a new international study shows that our relative performance is worse than the Far East there is an outcry from people who argue that the outcomes are just not comparable. It is not fair, they argue, to compare UK results to the results of Singapore, Shanghai or South Korea, because in those countries children do hours of homework, have private tutors, and spend far longer practising. This is not an excuse. If the quantity of practice is the cause for this gap in performance then we need to get that same quantity of practice for our children.

2. Increase the quality of practice.
Good practice means learning the right thing, the right way, and with the right feedback. For this we need:

  • Better resources – well thought out sets of practice questions that develop understanding and challenge thinking. No current UK textbooks (that I have found!) are up to scratch, and downloads from TES certainly aren’t. Schools and groups of schools need to put real effort into designing the best resources so that teachers can stop reinventing the wheel and focus on how to teach to the specific group of students in front of them.
  • Better teaching – teachers need deep subject expertise to make sure students receive good quality explanations and are guided through the practice properly. Subject specialism is important here, but so is ongoing professional development. No specialist is too good to carry on learning, so without a better culture of effective CPD we will continually miss out on the potential of the workforce.
  • Better feedback – good feedback is both precise and timely. It must be precise enough to guide you to action (no vague targets please), and timely enough for you to correct any misconceptions before they settle. Without precise and timely feedback your practice could make you learn mistakes rather than the actual concept itself.

The hallmark of elite performance is a relentless dedication to practice. Sportspeople drill basic techniques over and over again, making them instinctive so that in the heat of a game they can be deployed effortlessly. Musicians practise pieces for days and weeks so that they can begin to play them with feeling and creativity. So too must students practise basic techniques until they are fluent, before they can enjoy the dizzying heights of elite performance. Only with fluency can they begin to tackle truly rewarding problems.

Tim Oates describes how, in the drafting stages of the new National Curriculum, he went through battles to have the word “practice” included in the Mathematics section. It was simply too unpalatable. We need to debunk the two pernicious myths: that maths ability is innate, or that fluency is not a prerequisite for good performance. Practice has the power to make everyone good at Maths, and we need to start to unleash it.


This post is based on a presentation I gave to schools at the first Maths Hub Forum in Manchester last month.

 

Assessing Without Levels

Exam season does not a good blogger make. However I have attached below the presentation myself and another colleague from school gave at the National Mathematics Conference in Kettering on Saturday. It covers the principles of our approach to assessing without levels, which will be expanded on when our software is built and ready for wider use!

140608 Assessing Without Levels (Kettering)

Oi! What’s wrong with you?!

Many of the most significant incidents of poor behaviour in schools are in fact caused by students responding badly to the consequences of a prior, and much lesser, misdemeanour. We can all picture the scene – a student who when picked up for horsing around in a corridor decides to argue their case, walk off, or explode with anger. It is these situations that create so many behaviour problems for schools. And they can often be avoided.

It comes down to the difference between challenge and confrontation. Challenge corrects poor behaviour. Confrontation offends poorly behaving students. When we confront instead of challenging we get escalation, anger, and seriously bad behaviour.

The nature of a confrontation is that you respond to it. A confrontation is combative, and invites retaliation. It provokes the fight or flight reflexes so ingrained in us, which is why they lead to students either walking off or fighting back. The nature of challenge is that you rise to it. A challenge is a statement of higher expectations, and an invitation to reach them.

By learning to challenge instead of confront we can significantly reduce the number of behaviour incidents in our schools. Here are three key differences between confrontation and challenge:

Challenge is directed at the problem, confrontation is directed at the person
Challenge is clear and direct. It states the problem precisely and concisely, leaving no room for misunderstanding. Confrontation, on the other hand, is often vague and frequently personal. Stating that “you are running inside” is precise. Asking “what’s wrong with you?”, or making a claim like “your behaviour is awful”, is vague. This is dangerous, because comments like that allow students to project their own narrative onto your words. They can perceive it as a personal attack against which they must defend themselves, or an unjust statement they need to correct. Successful challenge avoids this risk by being 100% clear about the problem.

Challenge is respectful of the person, confrontation is dehumanising
The tone of a challenge is calm, assertive and respectful. It cares about the person being challenged, but will not compromise on their expectation of good behaviour. The tone of a confrontation is angry and disrespectful. Choosing a tone that cares is often enough to signify that you are challenging and not confronting. My acid test is whether I would speak to an adult that way if they were exhibiting the same behaviour. If not, I’ve erred into confronting.

Challenge is correcting, confrontation is damning
The essence of challenge is that you expect better. Challenge does not simply highlight poor behaviour, it corrects poor behaviour. Confrontation has given up. Clearly correcting behaviour and telling a student how they should act demonstrates that you believe they will. Merely chastising them for misbehaviour suggests that they’re not worth correcting.

When we catch students misbehaving we have a choice: to confront, or to challenge. If we confront, we invite combat and retaliation by offending the student and invoking their fight or flight reflex. Confrontation betrays low expectations of behaviour, and can make a student feel that they’ve been written off. If we challenge, we invite them to rise to that challenge. Our respectful tone and correcting instructions show them our high expectations, and make them feel valued.

May “Oi! What’s wrong with you?!” never be heard again.

In defence of mastery learning

This defence of mastery learning was written in response to this article by Steve Chinn, and is published below it here.


 

Mastery learning is the belief that students should master a skill before moving on to learn a new one. In contrast to the classic spiral curriculum, where students raced between topics without properly learning any of them, a mastery curriculum gives students the space to learn a skill, understand it conceptually, and practise until it’s automatic.

This approach matters because of its effect on working memory. Students who have mastered previous skills have their working memory freed to learn new ones, while students who haven’t get bogged down in the basics and don’t have the working memory space to learn something new.

There are some important subtleties of definition that Steve Chinn picks up on. What it means to have mastered a topic must be clearly defined from the outset, or confusion will ensue. As understanding improves when students develop their conceptual map of maths and draw links between topics, we know that mastery early in school will not mean perfection. For me, mastery means two things:

  1. The student can demonstrate or explain the concept orally, concretely, visually and abstractly.
  2. The student can apply the concept automatically, so that it is not dominating their working memory.

Chinn does not engage with these fundamentals of mastery learning.

His first criticism is that mastery learning  will not help children catch up, and that they should instead be taught with an emphasis “on understanding maths concepts”. Given that Singapore Maths and its mastery model is renowned for its focus on developing understanding, this seems like an odd criticism. Conceptual understanding is at the heart of mastery learning, especially of Singapore Maths and its concrete-pictorial-abstract model of learning mathematical concepts.

His second criticism is that mastery learning is flawed because the ordering of skills for teaching is imperfect. This is true – there is no universally accepted hierarchy of all skills. This does not detract from the obvious fact that some skills are dependent on others, and that these dependencies are important for the order in which we teach. Adding fractions requires a knowledge of lowest common multiples, which requires a knowledge of times tables. We may disagree on whether we should teach names of shapes or bar charts first in the gap between them, but we know they have to come in that order.

The next criticism is that mastery learning is flawed because some people, for unknown reasons, appear to learn things differently. Even if we accept this argument, I cannot see where it leads. Is the implication that we therefore don’t need to care about the order in which we teach topics, and should pull them from a hat? If order doesn’t matter for some people, why deprive the others of being taught in a logical sequence?

It is particularly dangerous to support such arguments with anecdotal success stories like the dyslexic maths student whose times table recall was not perfect. Anecdotes do not a policy make. This anecdote seems compelling precisely because it is so rare, and it is so rare because it is an exception to a large body of well established research. This student succeeded in spite of imperfect times tables, not because of them. That they succeeded against the odds is not a reason for us to stack the odds against everybody else.

Strong Soft

Last year I got together with a group of colleagues and friends from outside of teaching to try and establish what the most important non-cognitive skills for our students were. We began by all privately making a list of the things we thought had been influential in determining our own success. Most responses were expected – resilience, curiosity, etc. But there was one thing that came up in all of our lists, which none of us had heard or read about before.

I described it as “the ability to assertively but politely disagree”. As a group we struggled for a good name. Then someone proposed we call it “strong soft”.

Strong soft is the skill of making a point both strongly and softly enough to be heard. Too strong and you’re written off as rude. Too soft and you’re ignored. Strong soft gets the balance right.

And I think it’s the most important skill we don’t teach at school.

Think of the rhetoric schools use when students, who don’t know any better, try to argue about a behaviour consequence or other instruction they think is unfair.

“Keep quiet”
“Don’t answer back”
“Don’t argue”

We’re telling them to keep it zipped and say nothing, but just to accept potential injustice.

The problem is that’s not what we actually mean! What we mean is something more like “I understand you think that this is unfair, and I’m more than happy to explain my decision-making to you and hear your view, but we’ll have to do that at a more appropriate time because right now I’m teaching and you’re learning”. But that just doesn’t roll off the tongue. The consequence of this is that we’re accidentally teaching students that they never have the right to complain or challenge authority, and unsurprisingly this is a teaching they often rebel against.

Instead of teaching this, we need to teach them strong soft. They need to learn how to challenge authority, but in a polite and appropriate manner. If they get into a habit of this at school, then (a) we have less disruption to learning, and (b) our students will be more successful adults, who don’t get taken for a ride but do get respected by their peers.

Here are the three components of strong soft to build into our students’ habits.

Choose a winning time
When the other person isn’t busy with an immediately pressing task, and generally when there’s no audience. If you challenge someone when they’re doing something more important then you’ll simply be ignored. If you do it in front of others then they won’t back down. Strong soft chooses a winning time, when the case will be heard and will get a fair hearing.

Choose a strong reason
The strength comes from clarity. Put your problem into one sentence. Clearly stating the issue and staying on topic forces the other person to respond directly to your point, and ensures the most important thing gets listened to.

Choose a soft tone
Too strong a tone makes you seem rude, and rude people have their arguments ignored. Instead of listening to your point, the listener concentrates on your tone and how it makes them feel. Instead, choose a calm and soft tone that works hard to be as polite as possible. This will impress your listener.

Strong soft comes down to: time, reason and tone. Strength comes from the reason, softness from the tone. If we train students in using strong soft when they need to question or challenge, we will significantly reduce the amount of disruption to lessons, and the trouble they get into. We’ll also be setting them up with the habits they need for adulthood.

Build strong soft into a habit by using the time, reason and tone mantra for the habit routine. Sentence starters like “This feels unfair to me because…” will also make the routine easier. The reward is being listened to – for many students often the first time they have been listened to when challenging authority.

It’s been missing for too long
During the holidays I was talking to a group of Year 11 boys during a break from revision. They were complaining that if a teacher upsets them then they get told to sit there and keep quiet. Surely this is hypocritical – the teachers can’t just sit there and take it if their boss does something unfair to them? Teachers write in the newspapers and go on strike, so why do they tell students to never question authority?

This was a lightbulb moment for me. They just didn’t get strong soft. They’d never seen it modelled by adults around them, and so didn’t understand how to politely disagree. We spent 10 minutes discussing how to challenge authority in a professional manner that gets you listened to, and they lapped up every word.

Strong soft is the most important skill we don’t teach at school. Right time, strong reasons, soft tone.