Responsive Teaching

It’s probably not going too far to say that an observation from Harry Fletcher-Wood altered my teaching in the most dramatic way possible. In 2012, he visited my classroom and offered feedback in the gentlest manner possible – with a series of questions: ‘do you think they were focused on the work? Do you think they can handle doing everything in groups? How did you make sure everyone was working? Was anyone opting out from learning? Do you think your weakest readers were also reading in their groups?’ It was through his eyes I saw that teaching everything through group work (as I had been trained and advised to) was not working, and was not going to work.

So it is no surprise to me that Harry can see what is happening in a classroom, see how to make it better, and then kindly suggest how teachers might make that leap. I can imagine no human better placed than he to be an Associate Dean at the Ambition Institute, a body that is working to improve classrooms across the country. I am ever in awe of his humility and constant drive to learn, despite his eminent authority in education, and his most recent book, Responsive Teaching, offers much to the development of our profession. 

The book opens with a typically humble introduction that identifies three main problems in the author’s past teaching practice: ‘assessment seemed to hinder learning, skills seemed more important than knowledge and Assessment for Learning seemed to be just a collection of techniques.’ He moves through addressing these problems, to considering how we can genuinely work out what children have learned and what they are struggling with, and how we can rebalance to ensure children learn both skill and knowledge in their subjects.

Each chapter follows a clear pattern: it outlines the problem, the evidence, the key principle, the practical tools to improve classroom practice, and then the words of individual teachers reflecting on their own practice in each area.

One of the key take-aways from me were the warnings against ‘extraneous cognitive load.’ I definitely need to think harder about paring my lessons down to ensure children are focusing on the crucial aspect, rather than being overloaded by material that is not yet essential for them. I also need to script model examples more frequently – students always need to see lots more of these than I ever think they do. As Fletcher-Wood writes: ‘Overcoming ambiguity by showing what success looks like seems to particularly benefit lower-attaining students.’

One further aspect of practice outlined in Responsive Teaching that I’d like to think more carefully about is student misconceptions. At Ark Elvin Academy where I’m doing my NPQH placement, a subject expert has listed key misconceptions for every lesson the teacher delivers. It’s an incredible resource for novice teachers, or those teaching out of specialism. I think this is a hugely worthwhile task. Perhaps a group of subject experts could club together to write ‘the book of English misconceptions’, for example?

As always, I could go on, and add more detail on what I learned from this book, but to avoid plagiarism I will simply recommend this book whole-heartedly.

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Mission Possible

I started teaching in 2010, the same year the documentary Waiting for Superman came out. If you haven’t seen it, you should: it’s a polemic on the American school system, starring the Charter school superstars. You hear from Geoffrey Canada, of the Harlem Children’s Zone, along with Michelle Rhee (ex Chancellor of Washington DC’s schools; proponent of performance pay) and the founders of the influential KIPP Charter Schools. The message of the documentary is that the school system is broken, but there are ways we can fix it.

When I first watched this documentary, I remember feeling that our school system was ‘at least not as bad as America’s.’ But I’ve come to see that working in London schools for eight years blinded me to the challenges of rural communities who cannot choose their school; schools who are dependent on one bus a day to transport children to it (making any kind of detention system extremely challenging to implement); the impact of grammar schools on student self-belief; and the funding of small-town secondaries.

But mostly, I’ve come to think that we probably are failing children, on a system-wide level, in a similar way. We don’t have the annual benchmarks of success, but in the schools where we have run the NGRT (a nationally standardised reading age test), the results have been damning. The amount of children not achieving a basic pass in English and Maths GCSEs at 16 is damning. And the number of children leaving school at 16 is damning. I remember being horrified about the ‘drop-out rate’ of American schools, thinking ‘at least we get everyone to the end.’ But 16 is not the end, so we don’t. In fact, allowing children to leave the school system at 16 (and I know colleges and apprenticeships exist and I know these have their benefits) is deeply troubling to me.

In this post, I’m not going to tackle these monumental system problems. I used to worry a lot about the education system, and what we could do to improve it. Now, I look at what we can do in schools to improve the lot of the children we work with, in spite of those poor systems (something The Teacher Gap has really convinced me of). And what Mission Possible does is to examine what goes on in a successful school, in this case the Success Academies in Harlem, New York.

The defining principle of the authors, shared by many in the charter movement, is that the quality of the school and the quality of the teachers are what make the difference to children’s results. The book opens with the impetus to make schools a ‘magical place’ to be, which I found an interesting word to use. While I wouldn’t prioritise some of what the authors consider important (notably, expensive trips and impressive classroom displays), I would totally agree with their other aim of encoding success for students so they want to come to school every day and succeed (and what is continual success in academics if not ‘magical’?).

The writers make much of the rigour of the curriculum, and the urgency required to ensure children catch up with their wealthier peers. Furthermore, the pages on letting children ‘do the thinking’ I ultimately agree with – not in terms of guessing answers or discovery learning, but certainly ensuring they do the bulk of the work in the lesson. In general we are moving, in so many schools, towards teacher-led lessons (something I wholeheartedly endorse); yet it is crucial this does not result in children sitting passively. It is too easy for children to tune their teachers out. Rather, our teaching must be continually asking students questions to ensure they work hard.

This book has helped to shift my thinking on parents. Of the two extremes on this view – shut parents out at the gates versus give parents autonomy to influence the day-to-day of school – I leaned in the past towards wanting parents to let teachers teach, smiling on from a distance. Yet this book is persuasive in the possibility of parents really transforming their child’s academic success. I’m always amazed by how much parents are willing to do to support their child’s learning if you only ask them.

The book also ranges over rigour, reading and pace, but the chief takeaway for me was on the professional development of teachers. Again, the authors implore us to focus on the adults, and begin by asking school leaders: how often do we fix the children when we should fix the adults? I’m certainly guilty of this: walking into a lesson and using non-verbals to remind the students of their teacher’s expectations, or even just standing there (when you’re senior enough), waiting for the class to behave perfectly and then leaving… Only for the class to immediately start to murmur again.

Instead, at Harlem Success, leaders practise live coaching. Instead of ‘fixing’ the children, the observers whisper to the teacher, or hand them a note (‘Ali is doodling; Tommy is looking out the window’) and then watch how the teacher ‘fixes’ their own classroom. They don’t intervene at all – or, with training teachers, they model the first two ‘fixes’ and then watch how the teacher does it. After the lesson, they feed back on how effective the teacher’s actions were and where they might improve. Doing this would require huge teacher buy-in, but I do think it would be far better for the overall quality of teaching.

The book goes into significantly more detail on teacher development, and I’d recommend reading it for those chapters alone. Although not everything in Mission Possible chimes with my beliefs, there is much to admire here.

The Teacher Gap

I think The Teacher Gap is the most important contribution to education this year. The book offers an incisive critique of what is wrong with the state of education, and then offers governments and school leadership teams concrete ways to fix it.

In the opening sentence of this book, the authors, Becky Allen and Sam Sims, note that ‘education is unique among the public services in its ability to propel people forward.’ At the heart of this is the notion that education is a public good, and the potential of a good education to transform lives. Yet, surveying education policy over the past several years, they note that many of these initiatives – Building Schools for the Future, school choice, class size – have little to no impact on student attainment. What does have an impact? Teacher quality. This is especially the case for students from disadvantaged backgrounds, for whom a good teacher can make the ultimate difference in their educational attainment.

Despite this, improving the quality of teachers has ‘rarely, if ever, been a genuine priority for government.’ We can’t even hire enough teachers, let alone teachers with top credentials; let alone begin improving the ones we have. The answer to all of these conundrums, for Allen and Sims, is that ‘we need to give teachers a career worth having.’ This is two-fold: firstly, to professionally develop teachers so they get better at what they do each year, and secondly to manage workload so they remain in the workforce, improving each year.

Part of the joy of this book is that is balances out research (lots of it) with engaging personal narratives, so the numbers are given faces and feel familiar to readers. At the end of each chapter, instead of saying: ‘isn’t the status quo rubbish?’ the authors provide a series of ‘what we can do’ for schools, even without waiting for government policy to alter. This solutions-focused method makes the book, which could feel massively depressing, wonderfully uplifting.

There are too many learning points for me to list here without running to plagiarism, but the ones which seemed most vital to me in the contexts in which I have worked are:

  • Use anonymous surveys to know what teachers genuinely think.
  • Give new teachers ‘easier’ timetables, ensuring they teach (where possible) the same lesson to more than one year group (i.e. give them two year 7 classes) and have them only teach one subject; write their timetables and roomings first.
  • Develop CPD for experienced teachers with experienced teachers and use the peer effect to ensure this is appropriate, enjoyable, and low-stakes.
  • Implement teacher coaching.
  • The 8am to 4:30pm experiment: two weeks where no-one works beyond these hours. At the end, assess what the impact was of losing that extra work time, with a view to cutting more of what proved unnecessary to move working hours closer to this ultimate aim.

In a nutshell: teachers are really important to student success, and this is even more the case for disadvantaged students. We need to train them better, and we need to treat them better.

Making Kids Cleverer

David Didau’s most recent offering is his most compelling manifesto for closing the advantage gap yet. Making Kids Cleverer eloquently and persuasively asserts the worth of an academic education, and adds much to the current discourse. Brilliantly, Didau has not lost his connection with the classroom: so frequently in books written by non (-practising) teachers I find myself dubiously asking – ‘yes, but what about year 9 period 6 on a windy Friday?’ Not so with Didau.

The book’s power comes from the meticulous logic of its argument, developing from the initial question: ‘given the choice, who wouldn’t want to be cleverer?’ It is the coherence of this argument that propels this to being my favourite education read so far this year.

Although the central thesis of the book might be ‘more knowledge equals more intelligence,’ Didau adds crucial caveats: not all knowledge is equal; not all practice is equally effective.

One of the highlights of the book is the chapter on the purpose of education: schools, of course, can’t do everything. I found the idea that academic education is character education a revelation: we can (can we?) teach generic skills of hard work, perseverance and resilience… Or we can double up and make children learn really hard stuff, and lots of it, from which they will (hopefully) develop those character attributes along the way.

Although I loved the unpicking of what intelligence is along with the relationship between genetic inheritance and our environment, for me the most directly useful chapters were those on school culture. In particular, this book gave me a lot to think about in terms of motivation. Didau writes: ‘if students simply struggle they will learn to hate school.’ While struggle might be the optimal way for children to learn most, the reality of human psychology is that they simply will not choose to learn anything if they feel constantly defeated. Didau’s caution to ‘encode success’ prior to introducing those ‘desirable difficulties’ is something I’m taking into my practice explicitly from now on.

There is so much that is great in this book – from an exploration of the theories of ability grouping (Didau leans toward mixed ability and I find his argument challenges much of what I believe, in a good way) to how to move children beyond ‘just knowing stuff’. I would absolutely recommend this as a must-read for teachers.

Balance

I’ve not been a very balanced person in my life. A few years ago, I wrote a post about how I had approached teaching called ‘At What Cost?’ It was the start, for me, of a new way of thinking about education. I was sinking hours and hours and hours into my job, and although I was seeing benefits for the students, I was starting to wonder if it was possible to maintain.

Unfortunately, I continued to sink hours and hours into work after writing that post. Although I thought seriously about how to simplify teaching, and started writing about making teaching a sustainable profession for the long term, I was not living by those principles. Ironically, when I wrote the most about simplicity, I was putting in some of the longest hours of my teaching career: arriving at 6am, leaving at 7pm, and working weekends and holidays.

It’s true, not all of that time was focused on school work. Some of the ‘work’ I’ve lumped into those above hours and days was spent writing a blog, then writing a book (it is out in May and I am very excited), then writing book chapters or contributing to education groups or speaking at conferences. I was living a deeply unbalanced life.

At the time, one of my closest friends compared their calling to education with those called to other causes in history. Nelson Mandela, they liked to say, sacrificed his life for the cause he so believed in, and all for the greater good.

It is very hard to argue with Nelson Mandela.

And you know, if people want to be that teacher, that is absolutely fine. I started teaching the same year the documentary ‘Waiting for Superman’ came out. I saw teaching as a vocation too, and I saw my own life as merely the conduit for improving the lives of others.

The problem always comes when reality confronts the ideal.

I probably would have continued to sacrifice my life for my calling, had not a confluence of bad news in 2017 – personal and professional – led to me feeling like I had lost everything in my life. With the disruption of my career, I felt like I had lost all meaning.

For a long time I struggled with that meaninglessness and emptiness. I struggled to work out what to say in my blog, so I didn’t, or what to say at conferences, so I didn’t.

And then I got used to a new balance. I got used to getting to work at half 7, and leaving at 4, or 5 at the latest. And never working weekends. And not even checking work email on holidays.

For a while, that made me feel empty too.

The me of five years ago would have filled that emptiness with work. But instead I recognised, at long last, that I needed to fill that emptiness in other ways. Here’s what I did instead.

I read more fiction. I went to the theatre. I met up with friends. I invested in my relationships with people. I got a dog. I wrote for myself, not for other people. I enrolled in a creative writing class. I auditioned for an amateur dramatic society. I called my parents more.

Put bluntly, I got a life outside work.

So I haven’t written a lot on this blog for a very long time, but that’s ok, because I haven’t had much to say that I haven’t said in my forthcoming book (please read it).

I’m starting to find balance, and I’m here to tell you it is a lovely way to live.

A New Way of Reading

I knew I had to read this book when I heard Doug Lemov endorsing it. Reader, Come Home sells itself as a portrayal of the reading state of the nation. It is really about the state of humanity.

The author points out that the Ancient Greeks were concerned that rising literacy would fundamentally change people’s ability to remember, and that they weren’t wrong: the rise of reading did change the way our brains worked, making memory weaker, and remarkably rapidly. So today, with the rise in digital devices, both the way we read and the way our minds work has shifted. But are we worried about the right things this time? Our fears seem centred around the fact that more children (and adults, truth be told) are not reading… But they are.

In fact, we are reading more than ever before: the author quotes studies that reveal we are reading around 100,000 words a day now. That’s a short novel, every single day. But what should be cause for celebration is in fact cause for concern, because the way we are reading is so dramatically different.

Wolf quotes a memorable speech by Barack Obama where he said that information has become ‘entertainment rather than empowerment.’ Moreover, our reading is ‘chopblock,’ not continuous, and situated within a technological world where ‘cognitive overload’ is ubiquitous. To take in all this information, ‘skimming’ has become ‘the new normal.’ We focus on the surface rather than digging deeper. And this has a profound impact on the way we process information.

I have often felt I read too much fiction; indeed, my aim this year was explicitly to read more non-fiction. That was before Wolf articulated to me (and I do feel this is personal, as she writes the book explicitly as letters to the reader) the benefits of fiction. For Wolf, we understand others and can show compassion and empathy through reading. Reading connects divergent cultures, so we have a more in-depth understanding of those different to us.

But this only happens when we read with ‘close attention.’ This kind of deep reading requires ‘analogical reasoning’ and ‘inference’ to uncover its many layers. In praise of beautiful prose, Wolf reminds us that beauty in words holds our attention so we focus on what lies deeper.

Yet in the modern world, the prevalence of digital devices results in ‘continuous partial attention’: we live in a ‘world of distraction’. This is not conducive to deep thinking. As well as cycling through the argument, familiar to readers of Lemov and Murphy and Willingham, that knowledge is crucial for deep reading, and that critical thought ‘never just happens,’ the author goes on to explore the impact on children of this way of processing words.

Boredom in children is normal. But ‘post-digital’ boredom is a different kind altogether. Wolf says that this kind of boredom, rather than provoking creativity as the former can, ‘de-animates’ children. The constant stimulation of the screen prevents them from experiencing true, tranquil tedium.

We know from our own adult lived experience how addictive devices are; studies abound to support this, but are barely needed. Of course children are much more vulnerable to this. And when they are developing their cognitive abilities, this has a devastating impact. The multiple stimulants on devices split children’s attention, and studies show that texts read on devices compared with traditional paper lead to weaker comprehension even if no other applications are running. The mere expectation that the device will have multiple purposes diverts their attention, ability to focus, and thus weakens their ability to understand what they are reading.

Moreover, the information overload of our reading society makes it much harder for children to build background knowledge. With so much information and so little time to process it, this threatens the development of children’s attentions and working memories.

There is so much more in this book, and I would urge everyone human to read it. It urged me to reflect on how I feel when I read a novel compared with how I feel when I read Buzzfeed. The guilt I used to feel for losing myself in a novel will be banished from my life. Instead, it will be my phone that I must lock away; my laptop I must periodically lose. Fiction is vital.

Wolf asks: ‘What will happen to young readers who never meet and begin to understand the thoughts and feelings of someone totally different?… It is a formula for unwitting ignorance, fear and misunderstanding, that can lead to the belligerent forms of intolerance that are the opposite of America’s original goals for its citizens of many cultures.’ Far from an optional extra, deep reading is the stuff of life itself.

The human side

I haven’t written for a while. It’s always busy at the start of the school year, but it has not been that busy, and it is suddenly October. But I had to write about what happened on Thursday.

Our school population is changing, and rapidly. At the end of last year, we began to have an influx of in-year admissions, with a heavy bias towards those for whom English is an additional language. That trend has intensified this term. The scale of the challenge is unprecedented at my school, and we are moving rapidly to put in place a more comprehensive programme for EAL learners. But it is embryonic, so I won’t write about it now. I want to write about the human side of EAL.

I want to write about G. G is new to year 7. Two days new. I noticed him first on Tuesday, where he was sitting at the back of our ‘Aspire to Oxbridge’ assembly with this sort of blank look on his face. Entirely still from the tummy up. Legs dancing on the floor ceaselessly from the tummy down. I saw him on Wednesday, when he was late in, and I mimed PE for him before taking him to the class, much to the hilarity of the reception staff. I’ve seen him in lessons, sitting happily compliant, his legs a constant dance below the table, clearly at sea. It is so hard for G.

At lunch today, I saw him during my canteen duty. He was eating alone, but with others – we make our students fill every gap, so no one is ever sitting alone. As usual, those legs were going. I said hello and he replied, merrily, before leaving. He returned ten minutes later.

A lot can happen in a school canteen within ten minutes. For one, I’d spotted a lull and started eating my own lunch in the same spot G had eaten in, so I was right there when he lolloped back to his place. I had a front row seat. And I’ve never seen anything like it: he crumpled in two, and wept. He convulsed with heaving sobs. The boys behind him turned to see what the noise was. I gave them my ‘look.’

‘What’s wrong G?’ but he couldn’t understand me; or if he could, he couldn’t tell me. The year 7 to G’s right clocked it faster: ‘he’s lost his bag. He’s come back to look for it, and it’s gone.’

I didn’t know what to do. I got G to sit down, and he wept on the table.

‘Romanian?’ I guessed. G did not look up. ‘Romanian?’ I prodded further. He looked up and nodded. I used the radio to locate a Romanian-speaking student I knew of on the playground, who came in and spoke to G. Two sentences. Then the student turned to me: ‘he’s not Romanian. He doesn’t understand me.’

But the young helpful man continued to speak to G, and then turned to me. ‘He’s Bulgarian, Miss.’ A few more calls on the radio, and we had a native Bulgarian before G, who had stopped crying, but was still visibly distressed. It hits me in a wave: this goes beyond his bag. It’s the fear he has lost something he will never get back, compiled with the fear of all these strangers in a strange place speaking a strange language.

‘Miss! I don’t even remember Bulgarian! Is so long since I’m there!’ said my native Bulgarian, whose patchy grammar belies his actual home language situation. I suspect Bulgarian may be one of many languages he speaks.

As my so-called Bulgarian tried to talk to G, G suddenly broke into a wide smile. He was laughing. I don’t know what about – was it the old Bulgarian’s broken language? Or was he joking in the language? I have no idea what was happening.

‘Tell him we will find his bag! Tell him not to worry!’ I pressed.

‘Miss, Miss, I can’t even remember “find,”’ my helper protested. ‘Use Ms C’s phone. Use Google translate.’ I do; tell him: G, don’t worry, we will find it. I send him away with his two helpers.

And then comes H, another year 7.

‘Miss! Miss! I found G’s bag!’ Because what had happened? K, the student sitting next to G, had noticed G had left his bag, and had picked it up to give it to him. This has all stemmed from an attempt at kindness.

We move rapidly to the playground to locate G, and I trust I know where he will be. And it is so. He is sandwiched on the bench where my Romanian and my old Bulgarian sit every lunchtime. All are laughing. He grabs the bag with such glee, without even the words to thank his helper.

That afternoon, I pen an email to his father. I write that G was upset about his bag, but that he found it. I write that I hope he is ok, and that he should let me know if there is anything else I can do to support his son. I then stick the whole thing into Google translate and press send.

Twenty minutes later comes the reply:

‘I will talk with him when he gets home. I’m trying to speak English with him at home so he can learn quicker. And thank you so much for your email that was very kind of you trying email me in Bulgarian. Next time you can just email me in English.’