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.

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.

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.

Differentiation

The following post is a staff CPD session run at my school, The Ebbsfleet Academy, by our incredible Director of Learning for English, Briony Thomas. Briony, who eschews social media, has kindly allowed me to publish her work on this blog. I think her advice is invaluable to teachers, and a good reminder of all the excellent practice that happens in schools beyond Twitter!

I used to think that differentiation meant creating a whole range of fancy resources for a lesson…perhaps three different handouts to match my colour coded lesson objectives/outcomes of ‘All, Most, Some’ or ‘Good, Great, Outstanding’…

Four years into my teaching career, and my approach to differentiation has completely changed.

Now I am very wary of providing differentiated resources. Making individualised handouts is exceptionally time-consuming and for that reason, an unsustainable burden on your time (your work-life balance matters!). Instead, in my opinion, differentiation should be more fluid; based on addressing the misconceptions of specific students when they arise. Yes, you should plan how you will differentiate a task if you need to; but do not provide scaffolding until you know a student really needs it. You don’t want to assume that a student needs more help than they really do!

Problem 1: Task time

Students finish tasks at different times. Some speed through to the finish and then sit around twiddling their thumbs and distracting other students. Others work at a snail’s pace and can also lack resilience, give up and resort to distracting others too.

Solutions

Set a basic task completion expectation: “At the end of these four minutes, I expect everyone to have completed at least questions 1-3.”

Reward those who complete the task fully: “At the end of these four minutes, if you have exceeded my expectation and completed questions 1-5 to the best of your ability (crucial if you don’t want them to rush for sake of it!), then you will be rewarded with a merit.”

Make sure you always include a challenge that requires a longer answer to stretch your high ability students and ask them to share their responses with the class at the end (this can be their reward in addition to the merit they have already earned).

During the set time limit, give them frequent reminders of the time they have left and ask for hands up when they have completed certain questions to gauge the overall speed of the class and adjust your timings if you need to (they rarely notice when 7 minutes becomes 10…).

Problem 2: Teacher time

Certain students find it very difficult to get started or keep going without any direct teacher input, but you can’t be in more than one place at once.

Solutions

Group your most needy students at the very front of the classroom so they always feel like they are your priority. After explaining the task to the rest of the class, you can give a quieter, more focused second round of instruction to this group.

I know this arrangement isn’t always possible in different classrooms, especially when you have to consider behavioural concerns, so another way of doing this is to have mixed ability pairs (I would avoid larger group work generally as it is far too easy for students to be off task without you realising). For example, split your pairs into As (higher ability) and Bs (lower ability). After giving your instructions to the class, ask the As to explain the task again to the Bs. You could vary this by asking Bs to ask As any questions they still have about the task or by asking Bs to explain the task to As and getting the As to check if they understood it correctly. You want to vary it so as far as possible the students aren’t aware why they are either A or B.

If a student is consistently needy during a task and you are sure that they have understood the instructions but are just lacking confidence, then remind them of the hypercorrection effect, whereby if they have a go at a task and get it wrong, they are far more likely to remember the right answer next time than if they didn’t attempt the question at all. If this problem is more widespread across the class you can have a ‘no hands up’ time period for 5 minutes or so and encourage them to ‘save’ their questions by writing them down, by which point they might have figured out the answer or find it easier to just give the task a go anyway.

Rather than having a challenge ‘question,’ make the challenge task to become a class expert who acts like the teacher would and circulates the class helping those with their hands up.

Problem 3: Simplifying

You are trying to teach the class something really complex that you know they are going to struggle with but you’re unsure to simplify it.

Solutions

As experts ourselves, we can often forget how complex certain concepts are for our students to understand. When planning to introduce a new concept, think about all the different parts of knowledge students will need to know to understand it and separate this knowledge into manageable chunks of learning. A basic formula is to activate the students’ prior knowledge. For instance, before reading Oliver Twist with a class, they need to have a good understanding of Victorian London. Starting with an open question like: ‘what are cities like?’ is attemptable for everyone in the class. You don’t want any child to read the first question and think, ‘I can’t do that’. It will immediately disengage them from the beginning and it can be really hard to get them out of that negative mindset. From this starting point, you can then gradually make the questions more difficult, for example moving to: ‘What do you already know about London?’ to ‘How do you think London might have been different in the Victorian era?’

Multiple choice questions followed by choral answering (whole class answers A, B or C together) can be a really useful way of ensuring that all students feel confident enough to participate. You can also correct misconceptions immediately by asking those students who answered correctly to explain how they came to the right answer without making it clear which students got the answer wrong in the first place. As students are far happier to take a guess with multiple choice questions, this can also be a great way of making use of the hypercorrection effect explained earlier.

Problem 4: The word gap

With an increasing number of EAL students and with a high percentage of students who come from ‘word poor’ backgrounds, sometimes their lack of vocabulary can seem like an insurmountable burden.

Solution

The word-gap is such a huge problem that it is often the reason why there is such an apparent disparity between students in your class.  To address this problem head on, in your planning, it is so important to decide which words they are likely to find problematic. In the lesson you can gloss over the meanings of these words quickly so they do not provide a barrier to your students later on. For instance, “‘The west end of London was particularly prosperous’, I say you say ‘prosperous’. Prosperous means wealthy and successful. What does prosperous mean?” Keep these definitions as short and simple as possible. Often dictionaries use words in their definitions that are far too complex for our students to understand. To differentiate for students who already have broader vocabularies, you can use them as your ‘human dictionaries’ to provide these definitions themselves as you go along. This is a handy habit to get into when you are talking to the class to as well as reading with them because again, the most important thing when setting a task is to make sure they understand your instructions.

For words that they need to understand in more depth, providing images to illustrate their meaning can be really useful. This can allow students with already broad vocabularies to deepen their knowledge of a word by seeing how it could be applied in different contexts as well as making the lesson more accessible for EAL and word poor students who could really benefit from a visual aid.

Problem 5: Writing

You have students who can verbalise their answers clearly but really struggle to get their thoughts down on paper.

Solutions

Writing scaffolds are essential for a mixed ability class. You can write these up on the board during the lesson when the need arises and signpost only the students you want to use them, to make use of them. Providing sentence starters is a great way of helping those who need an extra hand to get started e.g. ‘The daughter of Henry VIII was…’

When you want students to provide a longer, more detailed response ‘because/but/so’ can be a really useful way of encouraging them to develop their explanations. E.g. ‘Henry VIII divorced Catherine of Aragon because…Henry VIII divorced Catherine of Aragon but…Henry VIII divorced Catherine of Aragon so…’

Providing sentences or paragraphs with missing words ensures that all students will put pen to paper. They can even leave the gaps blank initially and then fill these in later when they’ve had a chance to think about them. Then, when you go through these answers with the class, they can complete any missing words in green pen.

To stretch the high ability, you can challenge them to use words from their knowledge organiser to improve their vocabulary. This is an extension that can be pretty much be used whenever they do extended writing.

“Do now”

I recently finished Glass Ceilings, which is my favourite education book of 2018 – so far, that is. Amongst the many, many take-aways from this book was a reminder to me of a simple but effective practice I had all but stopped. The ‘do now.’

In Glass Ceilings, Hall describes the powerful simplicity of a small number of repetitive teaching activities observed in US Charter Schools that had a dramatic impact on learning, and one was the omnipresence of a ‘do now’ so children entered a classroom and were immediately working. Hall called this ‘bell to bell working,’ which I loved.

I raved about ‘do nows’ in my early years of teaching, adopting the name after devouring Doug Lemov’s seminal Teach Like a Champion. You wouldn’t walk into my classroom without finding a slide on the board of some kind of ‘starter’ or ‘warm-up’. The idea is that they ensure all students have something to do from the moment they enter the classroom.

At some point, I seem to have forgotten this. During my first few terms at Ebbsfleet, I’ve wasted at least 3 minutes of every lesson getting my class in and doing the register, tending to ask the students to revise using their knowledge organisers while I do this. But for the past two weeks, I’ve asked them instead of answer the questions on the board silently in their books.

At first, they rebelled. The first two lessons they went from being placid, calm and silent on entry to chatting and asking unneeded questions as I valiantly struggled to behaviour manage, answer questions, and take the register. Any change in routine is hard for children. After about three days, they got into the swing of it, and the focus and learning right from the moment they enter the room has now hugely improved.

The other benefit of a ‘do now’ is it forces me to reflect on each lesson as I teach it: what are the key concepts they struggled with that I want to revisit straight away at the start of the next lesson? Here are some recent ‘do nows’ for our study of Jekyll and Hyde:

  1. Write down every date you can remember that links to ‘Jekyll and Hyde.’
  2. What happened on those dates?
  3. Use your knowledge organiser and add anything you have forgotten in a green pen.

Extension: What has happened so far in the novella?

Super extension: What do you predict will happen next?

  1. Who wrote ‘On the Origin of Species’ and when?
  2. How does ‘On the Origin of Species’ link to ‘Jekyll and Hyde’?
  3. Who developed the theory of psychoanalysis?
  4. How does this theory link to ‘Jekyll and Hyde’?

Extension: what specific quotations or examples from the novella link to these two texts?

 

These examples are quite ‘knowledge-heavy’ – they look like overly basic recall perhaps. But over time, after finding the students were beginning to automate this, I started adding some more ‘application of knowledge’ questions to these – such as ‘why did Stevenson write this novella?’ or ‘how do specific aspects of Victorian society impact on the novella?’ or ‘why did Stevenson choose to write a novella and not a novel?’

All in all, the do now takes me about four minutes to plan and type into a Word document, and four minutes for the students to complete. Simple but effective.