Lessons from ‘Small Teaching’

I would really recommend this book. Though ostensibly aimed at university lecturers, so much of this works in the secondary classroom, perhaps due to the way American universities organise and assess their courses. I loved the way the author started each chapter with a story to illustrate his principles, and also the way the tweaks suggested are minor and quick to apply for busy classroom practitioners. Here the key learning points I took from the book:

  1. Knowledge

Lang’s book begins with how to ensure students acquire the necessary knowledge, and he stresses the need to frequently quiz students on what they have learned to aid them in knowledge acquisition. But along with quizzing, he also explores the impact of predictions and pre-tests: even if students get these predictions wrong, it can stir their curiosity (with the caveat that learners do need some prior knowledge for this to work! It’s no good asking complete novices what they think of the French Revolution when they have absolutely no knowledge at all of revolutionary France). He then explores the best way to ensure long-term memory by weighing up interleaving of knowledge, concluding that it is usually best to block learn something and then revisit it while teaching the next topic.

  1. Understanding

I’ve often grappled with what it means to ‘understand’ what we learn, and I loved the simplicity of Lang’s conclusion: ‘understanding’ is when we take the blocks of knowledge and link them to our prior understanding; it is when we form links between our knowledge to gain a greater understanding of the whole. In which case, activating prior learning at the start of any topic is vital, which can be as simple as asking: ‘what do you already know about…?’ He then explores other ways to get students to make links, such as making concept maps (otherwise known as mind maps…), or asking about different texts or themes and how they compare.

  1. Practice

Lang points out that mindless rote-learning is pointless – we need to find a way to get students to practice mindfully. We want them to know things to automaticity without it becoming mindless. He counsels lots of in-class practice with teacher coaching as they write, rather than a lot of practice at home when students can be lazier and not push themselves.

  1. Reflection

I had always thought of ‘reflection’ as a sort of useless add-on in education, as so often our idea of what we understand is misjudged. This is possibly still the case with younger learners. However, I was intrigued by his overview of ‘self-explanation’, whereby you get children to explain what they are doing as they are studying, including saying when they don’t understand or are stuck. He advises teachers to prompt this inner reflection with a simple question as they study or write silently: ‘why are you doing that?’

  1. Belief

The final part of Lang’s book is dedicated to exploring beliefs. We know that if students believe effort leads to success they will be more successful; we also know that the teacher’s own beliefs about the reward of effort will rub off on their classes. Lang reminds us that humans are social animals and feed off emotions, and so the atmosphere of the classroom is vitally important. Like Willingham, he advises using story-telling to tap into their emotional response to learning, along with reiterating the purpose of the material covered and being generally enthusiastic about it. Citing Carol Dweck’s Mindset, he also asks educators to build in low-stakes tests that enable students to take risks and fail, as this will lead to greater learning, with the caveat that many students have a fixed mindset, and so early failure may put them off learning.

 

All in all, a fantastic and helpful survey of some key aspects of the science of learning, with lots of applicable ideas.

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I Wish I Taught Maths

I was terrible at Maths. I had never learned the basics – times tables, long multiplication – nothing. When I sat the entrance exam for an assisted place scheme to go to a local private school, I scored almost nothing on the Maths paper. The kind Headteacher led me through the paper question by question, one to one, and decided to offer me a place because I seemed to understand it, I had just ‘never been taught it.’ Once ensconced in the private school that changed my life, I was sent to top set Maths. I struggled. I made my teacher, Mrs Meadows-Smith’s, life a misery. I asked stupid, time-wasting questions. I hated Maths.

And so the next year, I was placed in the third set for Maths. And I loved it. Finally, I could understand what was going on. Mr. Shepperson’s explanations were clear, and his enthusiasm was encouraging. I spent a term in set 3, before being propelled again to set 1. Where again, I hated it. We took a half-termly test, and every half term I came bottom, or second from bottom. On the eve of year 11, I heard someone say in an off-hand way: ‘The kids at the bottom of set 1 will get Bs; the kids at the top of set 2 will get As.’ That was it. I petitioned the Head of Maths, and got to join set 2… Again, with Mrs. Meadows-Smith. That poor woman. I had learned nothing in terms of behaviour, and continued to be distracted and annoying. She persevered. She never once raised her voice. She was kind and patient, even though I was her literal nightmare. I have no idea how I managed to get an A at GCSE Maths, but I imagine it was 5% due to me, and 95% due to Mrs. Meadows-Smith.

By the end of year 11, I loved Maths, because I could do Maths, and Maths is incredible when you can do it. I asked the Head of Maths if I could do Maths A-level. The response was categorical: no. I may have ‘scraped an A’ at GCSE (code for: we have no idea how this has happened but we are very happy for you), but I could only hope for a C at best in the AS level, not to mention the even harder A-level.

He was right. But when I walk the corridors of any school, I always linger a little longer in Maths classes. Maths is different to basically every other lesson in schools. The operations required are different. The method, in many ways, is different. Children do not encounter Maths in any other lesson apart from Maths: Maths teachers have the hardest job in terms of getting children to understand their subject.

 Reading Craig Barton’s How I Wish I’d Taught Maths has only convinced me more that I wish I could teach Maths. But the book is about so much more than Maths. Barton’s journey is one many readers will recognise: ‘mid-career’ he hit a ‘crisis’, whereby he realised that much of what he had done was actually ‘wrong,’ and did not lead to greater student understanding of Maths. He embarked on a mission to find out how to do it better, and this book is a record of that mission.

Each chapter follows the same helpful pattern: what Barton used to think, what he has read on that particular subject (always an astonishing amount of books, journal articles and a few blogs thrown into the mix), before a useable summary of his ‘takeaways’, which, because they are written by an actual teacher who teaches actual children, are completely actionable and never require bonkers amounts of effort.

So much of this book is helpful beyond Maths – chapters on how children learn, the novice/expert issue, what motivates learners, how to get better at instruction, cognitive load theory, worked examples, deliberate practice, formative assessment and long-term memory all include a useful précis of the science involved plus applicable insights for teachers of all subjects.

For example, in a chapter exploring what motivates students, Barton talks about the balance between struggle and success, something that every teacher will recognise: while we do want children to ‘struggle’ a bit, so they find the work challenging, and endure the kinds of difficulties that ensure their thinking is engaged, we also need them to succeed so that, long term, they will be more likely to persevere. Yet we don’t want them succeeding too easily, or all the time. Barton’s exploration of tricky issues like this, with his perspective as a working teacher, is invaluable.

One example of a transferable, useful and research-informed trick Barton shares is to get students to give each answer they write a ‘confidence score’ out of ten prior to marking. The idea is that it makes the children think about how much they think they know something. When they then go through and self-correct, they are more likely to take in the mistakes they have made and remember to not do it that way again. This is the ‘hypercorrection’ effect, whereby ‘errors committed with high confidence are more likely to be corrected than low-confidence errors.’ Another of my favourite insights is that student learning is significantly improved following self-assessment, but students who have peer marked do not experience as much improvement. This is a great nugget of research that will save countless minutes of class time across the land (‘I don’t have a partner’/‘no, that’s a 2 not a 3!’/‘Miss, he’s doing it wrong/making a mess of my book!’).

Having endured many ‘co-planning’ sessions, I, like Barton, was perplexed: why does all the research suggest co-planning leads to better teaching, but every session I sat through seemed like a total waste of time? Barton’s insight is that planning a lesson together is less helpful than writing questions together. To transfer this out of the Maths domain a little, we might think of this as creating the lesson content together, rather than the logistics of a lesson together. Indeed, I increasingly think the best way to support teachers is to give them (or co-create with them) the lesson content, and then use coaching to ensure they are delivering that content in the best possible way.

Obviously, all of the examples in this book are of Maths, and I’m afraid I am unqualified to share my insights on how helpful these are; though I defer to two readers, Kris Boulton and Dani Quinn, whose Maths skills are, in my view, unparalleled: their effusive praise for the book speaks volumes (Maths pun attempted).

One of my favourite things about reading excellent books are their citations. After reading Barton’s book, my Amazon wishlist is absolutely bursting with education tomes, which works well with my new year’s reading resolution to read more non-fiction books.

So what will I do now? The plan to get a Maths A-level looks to have legs, thanks to Kris Boulton’s ‘Up Learn’ project, and, life-logistics depending, I’m hoping the next five years will see me re-engage with Maths in a more formal way. In the mean time, I will continue to lurk in Maths classrooms, and lend Barton’s book to everyone I know who actually does teach Maths (and to a few people who don’t).

What should school CPD focus on?

We’ve all sat through some real shockers of school CPD sessions at one time or another. Thinking about the elements of what I think makes great teaching, here are the school-based CPD sessions I think every school should be running:

Behaviour

The most important thing in a school is that the children behave. Managing behaviour should be returned to again and again to ensure all teachers have clarity, and that the systems are applied consistently by all. It is also worth thinking about when behaviour slips – is it in the canteen, at the beginnings of lessons, during the fire drill – and addressing those specific moments with a new approach.

Reading

Children read in every single lesson, but it’s not always obvious how to get them to the point where they will read aloud confidently.


Writing

Children write in every single lesson, but is their writing always accurate and coherent? There are lots of small tweaks we can make to out practise to help children write more effectively.


Questioning

I think questioning is the absolute most important thing a teacher can do. The best teachers I have seen pepper their explanations with multiple questions asked of as many students as possible to check they understand, and then to see if the students can apply their understanding to new scenarios and begin to think more deeply about the content.


Explanation

Subject departments should be talking in their CPD time about the best way to explain tricky concepts, and thinking about the common misconceptions children have.


Booklets

Rather than using Powerpoints or photocopying multiple sheets, departments should focus on pre-producing booklets and then planning how to deliver them. Those responsible for resourcing should be trained in the best and fastest way to produce booklets under the inevitable time pressures of any school.


Knowledge Organisers

Knowledge organisers force teams to consider what they want students to learn for the long term. CPD on making them as effective and clear as possible would be helpful, especially in the early days of adopting them.


Recaps and quizzing

Understanding the science of memory, the power of overlearning, and the simplicity of recapping prior knowledge would go a long way to helping children retain knowledge for the long term.


Deliberate practice

Not all practice is as helpful as it could be. Helping teachers discern the most important skills for children to practice and then supporting them to make activities that ensure children are undertaking deliberate practice is invaluable.


Feedback

Rather than laboriously marking every book, teachers can give whole-class feedback. But it is not always obvious which aspects to focus on to make the feedback as effective as possible.

 

All of the above aspects could easily be covered in short 20 or 30 minute slots, and focused on key aspects or resources, but I think that all the elements are crucial to good teaching. In terms of pedagogy, I don’t think we can do better than implementing coaching observations, as advocated in Leverage Leadership, with frequent low-stakes observations focused on one minor tweak each time to improve teaching. 

The Writing Revolution

I have always been convinced that children need to read texts with high cultural capital. It is only in the last five or so years that I have begun to think more carefully about reading, and why it is so vital every child reads in every lesson, and how we can go about checking children’s reading. But I have really neglected to think about writing. In my early years as a teacher, I would get children to do ‘extended writing’ for fifteen to twenty minutes every lesson. More recently, I began to see the merit of using short-answer comprehension questions to check children’s understanding.

What The Writing Revolution provides is both a revolutionary rethink on how we teach writing across a school, and some really easy-to-integrate, sensible activities to help hone students’ writing skills. Below are some key take-aways for me.

 

The content drives the rigour

Just like reading, the more rigorous the content studied, the more challenging the writing required. Writing about a very simple text is much simpler than synthesising the key elements in a very complex one.

 

The stem of writing is a short, simple statement…

…but children need to be able to expand on that statement in a variety of ways. The authors use the connectives because, but and so. Using these, you can really see how much children have really understood of the teacher instruction and the text read. In his foreword, Doug Lemov gives an example to illustrate this: if the sentence stem is: ‘the Great Fire of London burned 4/5 of the city,’ the three sentences the student writes might be: ‘The Great Fire of London burned 4/5 of the city, because at the time, citizens didn’t have the knowledge to stop the fire before it spread;’ ‘The Great Fire of London burned 4/5 of the city, but London survived and thrived;’ ‘The Great Fire of London burned 4/5 of the city, so the city was rebuilt as a result.’ After reading a complex text, we can give students a sentence stem and get them to finish it in these three ways to encourage them to apply their knowledge, as well as focusing on creating a grammatically accurate sentence before they are ready to write long paragraphs.

 

Note-taking is crucial

Taking notes by pen consolidates understanding. Children putting ideas into their own words is invaluable in helping them to process what they are learning. We need to explicitly teach children how to take notes, and explicitly teach them the signs and symbols associated with note taking.

 

Teach sentence types and transition words

We need to teach children: topic sentences, sentences of supporting detail and concluding sentences. Using this language across subjects will help to ensure student paragraphs are more coherent. Likewise, teaching the three ‘transition’ types and the associated words (time and sequence transitions like ‘first’, ‘second’, ‘finally’; conclusion transitions like ‘in closing’, ‘consequently’, ‘in the end’ and illustration transitions like ‘for example’, ‘such as’, ‘particularly’) will help to add coherence to student writing.

 

A cheat for quotations

We need to explicitly teach children some helpful words to introduce quotations and drill them so they practise this – getting students to embed quotations is notoriously tricky. I think almost all English teachers already do this, but perhaps some feel like they shouldn’t. I think we should feel happier about drilling ‘Shakespeare writes’ and ‘Romeo states’ because this is the crucial first step to accuracy, without which children can never move on to use their own insight and creativity to express their ideas more originally. After quoting, we need to teach children to paraphrase the quotation to display their understanding immediately after using it, again by teaching some useful fragments like: ‘in other words…’, ‘therefore, according to the author…’ ‘Romeo’s point is that…’ With my intervention group of year 11s, I’ve simply introduced ‘this means…’ which has really revealed to me who understands the quotation and who does not.

 

Summarising is vital

One of the best tasks the iGCSE English required, in my view, was that students write ten bullet points (not in full sentences) about a text and then made these into a short summary. Summarising is a helpful skill in and of itself, but it is also a great activity to consolidate learning in the acquisition phase, and one that is easily incorporated into lessons. The authors provide some incredibly useful scaffolds in their book to develop summary writing even further.

 

Explicitly teach them how to craft essays

The authors break down the art of the essay into really manageable steps, including writing a thesis statement and then supporting it with paragraphs that are developed using a very clear and simple scaffolded plan, relying on student knowledge of the sentence types outlined above. If we teach the individual elements of writing, crafting the essay draws on this explicit knowledge and helps students to form cogent arguments.

 

 

There is a lot more to The Writing Revolution that I haven’t covered. Every school’s current situation will be different, and for me the aspects above are the most pressing ones for us to address now. Yet all of the above seems, to me, entirely manageable with a few tweaks. The beauty of The Writing Revolution is that a few tweaks will lead to a lot of gains in learning.

 

 

 

Starting at a new school: SLT edition

Let me start by saying: I think I’ve started at enough schools for a lifetime now. Starting at a new job – any job – is mind-bogglingly tough. In my first week, I have basically stumbled around the school, finding myself in cupboards as I have managed to repeatedly get lost in what is probably the simplest layout of any school building I have ever been in. Still, having read Ben Newmark’s excellent and useful blog on starting at a new school, I thought I might add my two pence on beginning at a new school as a member of the leadership team.

It is basically impossible to lead when you’re not sure where the pens are (true story: I did not think to bring a pen on my first day and had to be bailed out by my incredible Head of Department), but nonetheless I set down some of my learning below.

 

  1. Teaching is the first thing

The first time I was a Head of Department, my line manager said: ‘focus on your teaching first. That is always the most important thing.’ Earlier this week, I was in the middle of dealing with an incident ten minutes before teaching, when my Headteacher told me to ‘leave it – teaching is more important.’ Teaching is the heart of every school, and every lesson taught matters. This week I have gone for ‘strict, very strict’ and hope I can ease off a bit as soon as I can trust my classes.

 

  1. Make time for everyone

Despite constantly being lost and running late as a result, I’ve really wanted to try and make time for everyone who has taken the time to stop by for a chat. As a member of a leadership team, you want to work well with every single person at the school. That first conversation sets the tone, so you have to welcome it. I’ve already had so many fascinating conversations, and hope to have many more.

 

  1. Ask the stupid questions

‘How do I leave the building?’

‘Where is room “Hu1”?’

‘What’s my username?’

‘Where do I stand for playground duty?’

Honestly, the list of stupid questions I have asked has no end. But I think you have to ask them, because sooner or later people will look to you, and you need to be doing things right. I’ve tried my best to find a few different people to lean on, so I’m not bombarding one person with all of these.

 

  1. Think about what you would change

As a senior leader, you have a massive opportunity to set the direction of the school, and the start is a great opportunity to seize those ‘fresh eyes’ (that don’t last all that long). As the week went on, I kept a ‘wish list’ of things I would change if I could and added to it every time I thought of something. This will be useful for strategizing when I’ve found my feet a little more, and also ensures thinking is more ‘solutions focused’ in terms of ‘what do I want this to look like?’, which is helpful, and not ‘what doesn’t work?’, which is less helpful.

 

  1. …But don’t push it

You’re not going to change anything if everyone hates you and feels alienated, so I’m in no rush to stomp around changing things. The school already works really well, but we all know there are lots of areas for improvements. Anything I know will be a longer-term structural change will need a lot of planning, starting with building up positive working relationships with all teachers and staff.

 

  1. Escalate like a newbie

I’ve leaned really heavily on the SLT and pastoral leads this week because they have the relationships and credibility with the hardest kids. I haven’t let anything go, but I’ve had to knock on a few doors and ask for help more than a few times. I think that’s ok, but I’d love to know what I could have done differently if people have tips!

 

One quick word about commuting, which I have never done in a serious way. The server in the St Pancras Pret a Manger has given me three free coffees this week (and on Tuesday I think also gave me a free lunch somehow), not to mention a huge smile and friendly chat every day. They are the best part of the commute. Yes, that is a formal endorsement of Pret.

Overall, the week has been hard – trying to learn loads of kids’ names, loads of adults’ names, and loads of rules, but I’ve absolutely loved it. I’m so excited to be at the Ebbsfleet Academy, working with a group of inspirational teachers and leaders from whom I have so much to learn. The very vast majority of the kids have been warm, polite and welcoming; all of the adults have given generously of their time to help me settle in. Being a comprehensive school in Kent’s grammar system brings some challenges I have never faced, and I’ll try and write about it as much as possible! I have such a good feeling about 2018.

West London Free School: Knowledge Rules

West London Free School is well known as the flagship free school. Opened in 2011 by a parent group and spearheaded by the indomitable Toby Young, it has championed a knowledge-rich curriculum, and attracted a number of luminaries of traditional education to work there.

I arrived for my visit at lunch break, and was met with the very usual sound of a playground full of excited children. The outdoor space, as with so many London schools, is limited, which does have the benefit of ensuring the children are really looked after by teachers. As the children merrily chatted, teachers weaved in and out of friendship groups, chatting with their charges.

West London Free School’s corridors are not silent, but I did note a marked difference between volume on the playground and the volume as the kids filed into lessons after the bell rang. There was a low whisper between some as they made their way into their classrooms, and behaviour expectations were rigorously reinforced. Expectations of pupils’ behaviour were high, with the result that across the school the worst behaviour I saw was some covert whispering, generally spotted quickly by teachers, who dealt with it with meaningful pauses or ‘the teacher stare’ rather than sanctions.

Across the school – across year groups, subject areas, and ability groups – the pupils’ focus was superb. The atmosphere in classes was one of concentration, but also energy. I firmly believe that this is because the children at West London Free School know they are learning. In every classroom I visited, the teacher’s style was traditional. Desks were in rows, and teachers were at the front, often sitting and commanding the class with their (clearly expert) subject knowledge.

In year 11 English, the teacher led a whole-class discussion as pupils annotated the poem. The only resources being used were the GCSE anthology and a pen. The teacher’s own copy had been annotated in huge detail, showing her lesson preparation and own subject knowledge. In year 10 History, pupils were learning about the suffragettes, using the textbook with teacher guidance, additional information and questioning to extend their learning. In year 8 Classics, the pupils listened to a reading of Homer’s ‘The Odyssey’ while taking notes about what they were hearing.

Lesson changeover was tricky, as the school is served by one narrow staircase, and moving that many children up and down is always going to be a challenge. Yet the trainee science teacher I saw moved from entry to beginning the pupils’ learning in under two minutes, with every child focused. The Head of Science played a large role in her corridor, popping into every science classroom to support with settling pupils rapidly.

I can’t finish this post without mentioning the children of WLFS. I know children are always lovely, but I was really struck by the politeness of every pupil I encountered. In every lesson, they moved their books so I could see them, often whispering to me to explain what they were learning. In every room I went into, pupils stood ‘for the visitor’ and were unfailingly polite and welcoming and happy. They are an absolute credit to their teachers and their community.

Visiting West London Free School gave me great hope for the knowledge community. It is clear to see that when children behave, and teachers know their subject and prepare well for their lessons, a really lovely atmosphere of focus and achievement can be created. I am very excited to see what the next chapter for West London Free School holds.

Bedford Free School: knowledge and discipline

‘We believe that, given the right circumstances, all children are capable of extraordinary things.’

So reads the wall in the reception of Bedford Free School. The school was established in 2012, and has been working out exactly what those ‘right circumstances’ are. Last year, for example, under the previous Principal, Mark Lehain, the school introduced silent corridors. It is hard to imagine the peaceful halls of the school otherwise, but the children have taken to them well, and are grateful for the ‘calm’ atmosphere. One year 10 who showed me around said: ‘it’s great, because we get 50 minutes of learning in every 50 minute lesson with the silent entry.’

Across the school, and including in cover lessons, behaviour is exemplary. One class’s teacher employed Doug Lemov’s ‘do it again’ technique to line up her class anew outside when there was ‘some silliness’ on the stairs (standing in the stairwell, I heard nothing). Standards are very high here. Executive Principal Stuart Lock tours the school, asking of teachers his trademark: ‘is everything to your satisfaction, sir/miss?’ to provide a supportive climate for teachers.

Bedford’s context is unusual: a commuter town to London in part, it is said that a larger than average number of children attend long-established private schools. The intake of state schools in Bedford, therefore, doesn’t always reflect the full demographics of the area.

Apart from behaviour, I was struck by the knowledge focus of the school. All children carry ‘100% books’, which contain knowledge maps collating the core knowledge of each subject. These are referred to, used, and tested across subject lessons. In History, pupils began their lesson by filling in a partially blanked-out knowledge map, allowing the teacher to assess their recall. In Art, pupils completed a knowledge-based end of unit exam, where they were asked to identify paintings and techniques, among other aspects. In Science, I saw a teacher going over a recent exam practice paper, re-teaching questions the class had struggled with.

The school is increasingly using booklets like these in English to ensure pupils’ focus is on the text and linked questions, and this has led to remarkable consistency across classrooms. The writing in these booklets is supplemented by work in their books.

Bedford Free School have a generous approach to guests, offering for me to take away any booklets I saw. (‘All we ask is that you send them back to us if you make any improvements so we can all improve!’)

Every pupil reads for 30 minutes a day in what the school calls ‘DEAR (Drop Everything and Read) time’, but which is improved immeasurably by having the whole class read a text together with a teacher, thus ensuring all pupils are held accountable to be reading during this time, and no child can just stare into space. This also ensures the pupils are constantly being exposed to high quality texts, improving both their literacy and their cultural literacy.

In addition to academics, the school day is structured using ‘electives’ built into the timetable, so every child enjoys extra-curricular activities. Incredibly, last year 92% of pupils at the school participated competitively in a school sports team, despite the fact that the school cannot host matches due to its lack of facilities.

As with all the best schools I have visited, the focus is on relentless improvement, and there is no complacency. Stuart and his team are working hard each day to tweak the conditions to ensure every pupil at Bedford Free School can achieve their full potential.