Planning for mastery

As a follow-on to the initial inset session I have written about previously on memory, I was excited to build on these ideas in delivering a CPD session on planning for mastery with an extraordinary Lead Practitioner, Sophie Smith, who has championed Ark’s English Mastery course of lessons at my school for the past year.

That said, as scary as a day one inset it, you know teachers will be automatically more excited and engaged than at 4pm on a Wednesday, two weeks into term time, when a stack of marking beckons. Showing my draft to a colleague, the feedback was: ‘more pictures.’ I’m not a very visual person, so can’t claim credit for any images on the powerpoint – these are all the work of Sophie.

We began with another paper ‘do now,’ but this time I wanted to collect an insight into people’s thinking about education: what, in their view, was the purpose of education? How good was the current planning in their area? What were the most important aspects of planning? And how much time did they spend on those aspects?

First, I wanted to link mastery planning to the school’s context. We know that our children arrive to us further behind than more advantaged children, who have more social and cultural capital, along with simply knowing more stuff, and having practiced stuff more. I also wanted to pick up on a challenge I’d been given in the feedback from the first session: ‘where is the space for children’s creativity?’ asked one colleague. I asked teachers to think of the most creative child they had encountered: the one who had thought of a new way to solve a problem in maths, or had asked a curious question in science, or had linked different factors together in history. Ninety nine times out of a hundred, those children are also the ones who know the most. This correlation suggests to me that knowledge is the essential bedrock of creativity. You can’t create successfully in a vacuum.

We then posed the question: how do you teach a year 11 class who have an exam in a week’s time? Is it the same or different to your usual teaching?

In retrospect, this question would have worked better later in the session, or perhaps in a later session. There is too much to consider in changing the planning paradigm to successfully cover it all in an hour. What we wanted was for people to note the urgency with which they taught year 11 before an exam, and for us to link this urgency to our way of planning in all years – because time is short, and we have five years to close a significant gap.

I then shared what I found to be a useful distinction from Joe Kirby on planning: changing the paradigm from engaging starter, exciting activities, and reflective plenary to recap, instruction and deliberate practice. (I’ve added ‘deliberate’ to Kirby’s wording for two reasons: firstly, because we need to be completely focused on practising the specific aspects our students most struggle with, and secondly because without it the memorable phrase: ‘Recap, Instruction, Practice’ spells ‘R.I.P,’ which I felt would not connote a happy paradigm for teachers.)

Why is this so important? We know our students come to school massively far behind; research shows that less advantaged children at aged five have heard 30 million fewer words than their more advantaged peers. We also know that, nationally, students on free school meals achieve nearly half the five A*-C including English and maths compared with their more advantaged peers. We can’t do anything about how our students come to us, but we do have five years to close that gap to ensure they aren’t leaving us academically deprived.

Then, instead of citing the Sutton Trust’s research on motivation as I had planned (‘too many words! More pictures!’), Sophie engaged teachers with the cart and horse analogy: we often see self-esteem as the horse, pulling along the achievement, but in fact it is the opposite: achievement drives motivation and builds self-esteem; when children start succeeding at school, they are more likely to buy in.

We shared four key concepts on planning for mastery: select the content, sequence it, teach it, and quiz it. In retrospect, each could be a session by itself. Sophie shared the more rigorous texts brought in with English Mastery, and we asked departments to discuss how much children should read in their subjects, and what they could get them to read. In sequencing, I emphasised considering both the knowledge and practice gap when planning any lesson. For teaching, I didn’t go into nearly enough specific depth, and allowed departments to discuss themselves what they felt the highest leverage teacher actions were, with some interesting results. And finally with quizzing, I cited the knowledge maps and multiple choice tests we were already creating and which could be easily reused.

Subject teams took fifteen minutes then to look over a lesson together alongside these key principles and edit it. We finished with a similar quiz, with room for teachers to write their concerns and needs for support. Most wrote ‘time,’ and a few asked for support in making knowledge maps or finding rigorous content. The next most prevalent concern was meeting the needs of all students, which I will be writing about soon.

In reviewing the feedback sheets, I was interested to gauge the teachers’ response to the do now question: what is the purpose of education? Rank these statements 1-6 where 1 is the most important purpose. The vast majority, 60%, rated ‘forming good, kind and moral individuals’ as the top priority, followed by ‘preparing our students for the world of work’ at 27%. Not a single person chose either of these options as the most important purpose: ‘ensuring our students achieve the highest results in national exams’ or ‘teaching our students rigorous content so they outperform their peers in exams’. For the least important, 37% chose that latter option. The next most popular least important choice at 33% was ‘teaching our students the best of what has been thought and said.’

Mastery CPD

Do now (1)

E. D. Hirsch at Policy Exchange

I’ve written previously about the impact Hirsch’s ideas in Cultural Literacy had on me, and so, with all the zeal of a convert, I clamoured to hear him speak at Policy Exchange last week.

Nick Gibb introduced Hirsch, outlining the influence he had on his thinking and the direction of travel in the Department for Education. He noted the strong social purpose behind Hirsch: the desire to equalise the distribution of intellectual capital in society, and compared this to the 2007 National Curriculum’s hostility to teaching prescribed knowledge.

Hirsch followed, quipping amiably: ‘it’s so rare for people in the USA in high political office to read books,’ before launching into a forty minute survey of his major educational theories. He explored the idea of developmentalism – to allow a child to develop on their own – and noted the ensuing confusion from such a disparate method of education, and gave some of the theoretical history which underpinned such notions.

Behind every utterance, the drive to use curriculum to equalise society was discerned. Explaining the wrong-headed focus on teaching reading skills, Hirsch cited Willingham’s research which suggests that ‘about a week’ is enough time to teach children ‘reading skills;’ ‘any more than that is a waste of time.’ High reading ability can only be achieved by a broad, wide-ranging and well-rounded education. He cited studies of poor readers who could outperform good readers when they knew more about the given topic, and, perhaps more fascinating, that students with low IQ and high IQ who both knew lots about the topic did equally well in reading about it. Knowledge, for Hirsch and most of his audience, overcomes ‘brute handicaps.’

Furthermore, just as the novice finds it debilitatingly hard to look up new vocabulary in a dictionary (in particular, discerning the ambiguities of words), so the internet age rewards those who already have wide knowledge: ‘Google is not an equal opportunities fact finder.’ I know from sending students off to ‘research’ a topic that this is true – too often they stumble across extremely dubious sites, and come away with ever more misconceptions than they began with.

The overriding purpose of education, for Hirsch, is an acculturation of children into society; we need to teach them the language and ideas of that society before they can enter into its dialogue. For those who worry that teaching knowledge is indoctrination, this is a vital point: it is impossible to (successfully) argue from ignorance. The old paradigms of transferable skills and discovery learning ‘have not been successful in bringing about equality’: core knowledge, conversely, has shown a remarkable gap-closing propensity in Massachusetts, Japan and Shanghai among others.

Throughout, Hirsch was self-effacing, describing himself as a classic ‘hedgehog’, knowing ‘one big thing’ (‘I just go around, repeating my one big thing’). We are so grateful to the Inspiration Trust for bringing Hirsch to London and to Jonathan Simons and Policy Exchange for organising this lecture so we can hear this legend repeat this one, big, hugely important thing.


Memory: an inset session

On 1st September, I wasn’t as nervous about starting a new school as I was about standing in front of the teaching staff of the secondary school at 10am to make my pitch about knowledge and the curriculum. I advised myself that it is always easier to speak to people you don’t know, yet this did little to assuage my fears: whatever I told myself, first impressions count.

Happily, I have lucked into my second wonderful line-manager in a row, and together we worked on a session that would hopefully engage the teaching staff at the right level.

To begin, teachers had a multiple-choice quiz about memory, knowledge maps and multiple-choice questions. The idea was to put into practice what we would preach about pre-quizzing and how to construct MCQs.

We split the session into two parts: theory and practice. To begin, I took two key questions: how does memory work, and how can we teach to build memory? I used Hirsch’s example of ‘Jones sacrificed and knocked in a run’ to highlight that we don’t always know how important knowledge is unless we don’t have it and suddenly can’t access what looks like a fairly straightforward sentence (stealing from Daisy Christodoulou the sentiment that ‘knowledge is like oxygen: it is vitally important, but we only notice it when it is not there.’ I went on to explore other examples of sentences students required explicit content knowledge to be able to access ideas. Then, using Joe Kirby’s excellent ideas on knowledge and memory, asked what we mean by knowledge – after all, if many of us took a GCSE paper now we would fail it, having completely forgotten what we once crammed in. We need to move from a cramming culture to one of real mastery.

I then shared the forgetting curve, exploring the idea of revisiting to secure concepts in long-term memory, along with Willingham’s advice that ‘memory is the residue of thought’: we remember what we think hard about.

forgetting curve

The two practical implements we focused on were knowledge maps and multiple choice questions. Knowledge maps are hugely useful for three main reasons.

Firstly, they nudge subject leads to make decisions on what to teach. You obviously can’t teach everything about Frankenstein, for example; you must be selective and deeply consider the most vital information you want students to retain for a very long time.

Secondly, they provide clarity to teachers. The first question any new teacher has is ‘what am I going to teach them?’, and a knowledge map answers that in a single slide. They provide further clarity for subject leads in knowing that everyone in their department is on the same page, and are helpful for senior leaders to have more detailed knowledge of what exactly is being taught.

Finally, they are brilliant for revision. Not intended to be only for teachers, students too can be literally on the same page as their teachers. A knowledge map is a powerful tool for revision, helping students to know exactly what it is they need to revise, both as they are taught the unit, and in the months to come.

I then shared three organising principles for knowledge maps. Firstly, they are selective; you should only select what can fit onto a single page. Secondly, their terms are defined – a list of complex vocabulary without definitions is useless as a revision tool. Thirdly, they are organised into manageable sections, allowing teachers and students to focus on the discrete aspects of the unit.

To assuage the fears that MCQs could not test skills, I shared some examples. The first tests pure recall, which is of course important. The second two test application of that knowledge, looking at how well students can infer and analyse. I explained how each of these latter questions still relied on a huge breadth of student knowledge – you need to know the meanings of the poetic terms in order to decide whether they are being used in the example.

  • When did Coleridge write ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’?
  • a) 1665
  • b) 1793
  • c) 1797
  • d) 1815
  • e) 1816
  • ‘I, the true murderer, felt the never-dying worm alive in my bosom, which allowed of no hope or consolation.’ Which language techniques are combined here, and what is the writer trying to suggest?
  • a) In this quotation, onomatopoeia and religious imagery are used to emphasise how disgusting Frankenstein is.
  • b) In this quotation, a simile and religious imagery are used to emphasise that the death of Justine will never be forgotten.
  • c) In this quotation, pathetic fallacy and natural imagery are used to emphasise how destructive what has happened is.
  • d) In this quotation, prolepsis and a metaphor are used to suggest that the creature will wreak his revenge.
  • e) In this quotation, a metaphor and graveyard imagery are used to emphasise how destructive the guilt Frankenstein feels is.

Drawing heavily from people much smarter than I on MCQs, I explained three reasons for using them. Firstly, workload: although requiring a much greater effort upfront, MCQs are quick to mark and can be used year after year, compared with the uphill struggle of the essay, which is quick to set, but must then be marked 30 times, at length, year after year after year. Secondly, MCQs allow for a much clearer diagnosis of what students do and do not know – in an essay, where a student misplaces a comma, we might not be sure if they do in fact know how to use a comma, but were distracted by exploring Macbeth; or if they can use a comma for lists but not to separate clauses, or if they can’t use a comma at all. With MCQs, you can test each of these aspects separately, and have a much clearer diagnosis of what students know and do not know. Thirdly, MCQs enable teachers to test the breadth of their subjects, not just the depth; with MCQs, we can find out what students know about every single theme and language technique, compared with an essay which might focus on one theme, and include examples containing three or four techniques.

After sharing some key principles for creating MCQs – five options to avoid guessing, plausible distractors to make it challenging, unambiguous distractors to avoid contention over multiple responses, building misconceptions into the distractors, and including more than one correct option, subject teams had 15 minutes to make five using a subject-specific text they had brought along.

Finally, teachers re-did the do-now test as a plenary. Looking through teacher responses really helped me to see where my explanation had been clear, and where I need to clarify at a later inset. In particular, almost no-one managed to get the multiple correct options right; often they would get two of the three, for example. This made me consider that multiple correct options might be too tricky for students at the start of using MCQs, or that we should flag up how many correct options there are in the question.

I was excited to find for the rest of the inset days a number of presenters used MCQs, and my colleagues referring to ‘distractors’ as they noted some ‘ambiguous’ or ‘implausible’ ones where they occurred. More than that, though, I was overwhelmed by the excitement and energy expressed by so many teachers on these ideas.

Memory Inset


The importance of history

I’m beginning this blog with a very self-indulgent story. If you’re not interested, do feel free to skip the next four paragraphs.

From 2008-9, I embarked on my final “learning for fun” quest, in undertaking, for no particular reason, a Masters in History. I suppose I had loved History at GCSE, and had found few Literature Masters I liked the look of. Truthfully, after four years of stamina reading, I had almost forgotten what reading for enjoyment felt like, and rather wanted to recapture this by fasting from fiction for a short while.

In the long summer between my degree ending and this beginning, I took advantage of my enviably jammy job (theatre box office clerk; the quiet days meant luxurious hours of sneaky reading – sorry to all my managers who told me not to) to read all about a section of history I had never studied before.

I had lived in Ireland for four years, choosing to study in a country lacking in tuition fees (yay!) and student loans (at least for foreigners like me). In my studies and in the many, many jobs I had (such multi-tasking certainly pulled me through my Teach First interview) I had noticed that Irish people (warning: massive generalization coming up) seemed to be much more invested in their history than my English contemporaries. I wondered if this might be partly due to our lack of focus on the history of our own country; or perhaps that history is not compulsory after year 9. I was continually struck in Ireland by the omnipresence of history, and woefully underinformed about the country I had started to call my home.

In my pursuit of an understanding of Irish history, I mostly have the staff of Hodges Figgis to thank. I mean, I was on first-name terms with most of the booksellers in that store; something my new Amazon addiction makes me mournful of. I fumbled blindly in pursuit of even a basic knowledge of that country’s history, and with the help of Hodges Figgis (Dawson Street, Dublin 2) began the course with a more than cursory understanding of it.

What this laborious exercise taught me was the power of self-learning, something I advocate from time to time in my own classroom. The amount we can learn simply by reading, once we have acquired higher levels of literacy, is astonishing. I sought to contextualise my new historical fascination, and even managed to branch out from my country of specialism.

 The mighty Hodges Figgis

Yet history isn’t just about places and names and acts. It is also about culture. One of my favourite books is a history book; Orlando Figes’ Natasha’s Dance explores the highlights of Russian culture (including literature, but also music, dance and drama) in the context of its social and political history. Coupled with an exquisite writing style, I would highly recommend this book for anyone even faintly interested in anything to do with Russia.

In my English degree, my most loved lecturer, Dr. Amanda Piesse (Renaissance drama – and no, that didn’t mean very much Shakespeare) talked about New Historicism: the influence of history on a text, but also of a text on history. This pervasive idea in literary criticism strikes me as one very crucial reason that we should all be readers of history.

Far be it for me to expostulate on what a National Curriculum should and should not contain, but should someone more qualified than I suggest a compulsory study of History from the beginning of primary to the end of secondary, I would very much be in favour of this for our budding literary critics.

The purpose of literature is not only decorative; it is also educative. We read not for pure escapism; we read to inhabit other minds, other places and other times. If we are interested and delighted by fiction, we may also find interest and delight in history. We find story-telling not only in fiction.

Our children deserve a broad and balanced curriculum. Can you study literature without history? Can you study literature without Classics? Well, of course you can. But is it as good?