Immersed in the insularity of a new job in a new school last year, TLT13 passed me by. The first awareness of it for me was seeing exciting looking tweets and blogs on and after the day, when clearly it was too late to join in. This year, though, I was determined to be on it – which made me feel even more delighted to be asked to present something as part of the literacy strand.
A train journey with a dear friend and past colleague provided me with plentiful food for education thought, and by the time we arrived at Southampton I was already percolating a “things I would like to be better at” mental list, which overflowed as the day went on.
Creeping into the lecture theatre, only slightly late, I was relieved not to have missed Tom Sherrington’s opening. He spoke passionately about leading a new school, this time a large comprehensive, and noted pleasingly that what applies in a grammar school applies “even more” there; he also remarked that the extent to which expectations can be low is amazing. Candidly referring to teaching his year 8 class as “feeling like someone who has just done a 10K run with no training,” he went on to explain that teaching is really rather straightforward (not easy; never easy – but definitely straightforward): know what you are trying to teach – the key concepts, the objective; and keep the pitch high: never lose sight of the top end, while bringing the other children with you. He showed his famous tweet: “if there was no OfSTED, no SLT… just you and your class… what would you choose to do to make it great? Do that anyway.” He clarified at this point that he did not mean there should be no accountability; rather that if what you are doing in your classroom is amazing and it is working, no-one will mind.
Referring to the new behaviour system being rolled out in his school, he noted that for classroom teaching to have its desired impact, the culture and systems first have to be in place: without these, all else is meaningless. Too much teacher time, otherwise, is spent controlling behaviour and not teaching. (Incidentally, I remember a friend of mine moving to teach in a private school where lessons were 35 minutes long. I asked her how she got through the curriculum, and she replied “well, no-one misbehaves, so the lessons don’t feel that short.”) Tom went on to explain that children need to feel confusion and struggle in their learning: if they are getting everything right, the lesson is not challenging enough. Tom also remarked that his school had scrapped levels on reports, saying he “can’t justify another 6b meaning nothing.” He noted they will fill this vacuum with something better, and I can’t wait to see what that might be.
My first session of the day began with a clip of some rather peculiar, red-haired, 80s looking woman singing. I had long suspected it, but I then knew how completely amazing Kev must be, both as teacher and headteacher. His session made close reference to the OfSTED clarification for schools document, and he began by noting his annoyance that many SLTs aren’t yet getting it right with OfSTED: when they are doing things “with OfSTED in mind”, it is often the OfSTED of five or eight years ago. Opening with the wise words: “there is no such thing as progress within lessons. There is only learning”, he was scathing on the preponderance of mini-plenaries and other such AfL strategies reduced to progress-prop gimmicks.
On lesson grading, Kev noted that even if you observe a main-scale teacher for 30 minutes six times a year (this is approximately five times more than I have ever been observed in a year), that still represents only 0.4% of the teaching that teacher will do over the year. Referring to the policy exchange report “Watching the Watchmen”, he reminded us that OfSTED inspectors can see the same lesson and give it every one of the four arbitrary grades.
On lesson observations, he asked why SLT “who teach the least” should be the ones to lead on teaching. While I agree that a top-down approach to observation is not favourable, I can’t help but look at the SLT in my own school which contains some of its strongest practitioners, and my line manager (deputy head) who remains one of the best teachers I have ever seen in action. Kev went on to explain why learning walks and book looks were also a waste of time if done in a top-down fashion; better practice, he suggested, was to have a department look through books together and discuss each other’s practice. Of “data trawls”, less is more: in Kev’s school, they enter data for year 11, 12 and 13 only twice a year; this ensures the data is reliable and robust, and not the product of an over-tired teacher putting in any old thing every half term.
Kev had strong words to say about consistency: teaching is about humans – messy, uncontrollable humans; we need to open ourselves up to uncertainty, and mystery. He put forward an alternative set of ideas on how a school might be run, largely built on trust, and assuming the best of people.
I was so excited to finally meet Chris in person, having long admired his blog, but first I had to be bowled over by his phenomenal talk. Chris was speaking about progress and assessment within a “Growth Mindset” school. With the dynamism of a Mr Keating, children-on-desks educator, he told us we had to begin by thinking of the “X kids” – the “mutant kids who can do it.” We had to consider the students who had most excelled in our subjects, and what they had that we could replicate in schools.
Immediately, the pastoral implications of this jumped out: no-one really believes children are naturally Shakespeare; rather, they have self-esteem and self-belief, along with the self-awareness to know how to change and develop into better students. Achievement and mindset go hand in hand.
Importantly, growth mindset must not become reductive; a tick-box on a lesson plan or a resource sheet. Rather it must become embedded at a whole-school level, as Chris has written so eloquently about in his blog.
Along with this, we need to build demand and a high level of challenge into our curriculum, knowing where we want our students to get to and then plotting how to arrive there. Chris spoke of asking subject leaders to tap into their core moral purpose: why should students study their subject? And with that in mind, bend the (very flexible) National Curriculum to that purpose.
Echoing what Tom Sherrington had said, teachers saying students have “nothing to improve” clearly need to set the challenge bar higher; what more could they read; what more do to broaden their knowledge? Chris also outlined his school’s method of tracking progress, which looks very exciting, and I can’t wait to hear more about it.
Like everyone I had heard speak so far in the day, I longed to be a student in Chris Curtis’s classroom. His opening salvo: “how is writing an essay like going on a date?” immediately made the room buzz with activity and excitement. He noted we are often busy moulding the next journalists, and not academic writers; something to be mindful of with the advent of the new GCSEs. Proclaiming “death to the PEE format,” he showed us something much better: point and then development. Using the fantastic resource below, he guided us through how to develop an idea, and gave us plenty to take away into our own classrooms.