Research Ed 2015

There is surely no better way to begin the school year than immersing yourself in the genius of other educators. Compared with the last two conferences, though, this is the first I have attended every session, and not felt overly exhausted by the close – a testament, I think, to beginning the school year in a dynamic school with an exciting role, surrounded by supportive staff, but also to Tom Bennett’s astonishing capacity to gather together the best and the brightest to deliver and to dazzle.

Daisy Christodoulou: Life after levels

A long-time admirer of Christodoulou since reading her fabulous book, this session brought the theory and practice of life after levels to light. Noting that prose descriptors provide only the illusion of a shared language (after all, ‘Can compare two fractions and identify which is larger’ could apply as well to 3/7 or 5/7, 3/4 or 4/5 or 5/7 or 5/9), and ultimately ‘adverb soup’ she went on to share much wiser systems.

First, using the questions themselves, thus showing exactly what students can and cannot do, to provide clarity on exactly what they still need to master. Even better, use multiple choice questions, to probe student understanding more deeply by building in key misconceptions to the possible answers. Second, because of course we cannot get rid of essays, by ranking them instead of using spurious descriptors (as Christodoulou notes, we often get through half a class of marking and realise we want to change the first few – we are always, if only unconsciously, comparing essays for quality as we mark). This sounds tricky in practice, but I’m excited to explore ‘No more marking’, which presents essays to you to rank two at a time, before applying an algorithm to rank the lot.

Listening to Daisy Christodoulou is like listening to the future. I have often felt worryingly far behind where she is, but I am desperate to catch up.

Nick Gibb: The importance of teaching

Gibb, unsurprisingly, used his speech to provide examples of schools doing well as a result of government reforms. Along the way, he cited the BBC’s ‘Chinese School’ as a start to move towards a profession where we are focused not on our preferred teaching methods, but on those which deliver outcomes for children. He noted that ‘for some, a romantic aversion to formal teaching will forever trump the evidence,’ and I hope this is not the case. Gibb went on to also say that ‘pupil performance is not the sole aim of a school,’ explaining that although uniform might have no impact on pupil attainment, we wish to retain it for another reason.

Tim Oates: Other nations’ systems

This session focused on debunking many of the myths of other nations’ school systems. He opened with the assertion that we need to be exploring why some students are so much further ahead than our students, and closed by noting that we can’t adopt another system wholesale. Oates was scathing on a number of individual arguments, demolishing them with a mountain of evidence. On Singapore, for example, their case is often dismissed as their society is overly homogenous and their educational outcomes the result of high levels of private tutoring; yet Oates disputes both counts. He noted there was high social inequality in Singapore and large income variation, and yet their educational outcomes were outstanding (the subject of a worrying conversation later with Dani Quinn, who pointed out ‘if their educational outcomes are brilliant but there is still vast social inequality… Is our mission doomed?’). He noted that private tutoring usually exacerbates a gap between rich and poor, as the rich can afford the best tutors, and yet no such gap exists in Singapore.

Jon Brunskill: Moral psychology

Brunskill began by asking: what can moral psychology teach us about behaviour management? This fascinating session asked more questions than it answered, as we explored various moral dilemmas. He noted that children are often in the ‘pre-conventional’ stage of behaviour, where they believe the bigger the sanction the worse their act, and therefore behave well mainly to avoid such sanctions. He asked the troubling question of strict and successful behaviour systems like those at Mossborne kept students in this paradigm of behaviour, not allowing them to progress to the higher levels of behaving well because it is morally the right thing to do. He also questioned the idea that moral reasoning influenced moral action, sharing the Milgram experiment which involved participants delivering life-threatening shocks to others (luckily, actors) on the orders of men in white coats (also actors).

Towards the end, Brunskill began to unpick why some people act heroically, and explore some ways we as teachers can influence our students – I look forward to hearing more on this in the future.

Amanda Spielman: marking and remarking in exams

I’m not sure I have enough knowledge of statistics to have kept up with Spielman on marking, so I won’t try to poorly paraphrase the bulk of this fascinating talk. When looking at exam marking, Spielman praised the move to electronic marking, much despised by many examiners, for allowing unusual behaviour (overly quick marking; late night marking) to be picked up and addressed more rapidly. She also explored the issue of re-marking, noting that while 99% of grades do not change, often more marks are picked up by students, perhaps as a result of the markers’ sympathy in knowing these students are desperate to move up a grade.

Katie Ashford: The building blocks of literacy

I was so excited to hear Ashford speak, as I’m a massive fan of what she is doing at Michaela Community School with her phenomenal reading programme leading to astonishing student progress. She began by speaking about some of the low expectations we have of students noting ‘I want you to feel bad’ about saying things like ‘it’s not realistic for him’ to achieve a decent GCSE grade. After engaging the emotions, Ashford moved quickly on to the practicalities of teaching children to read, advocating robust assessments (‘a “4b” isn’t going to tell you anything about what a child does and doesn’t know’), a strong phonics programme like Ruth Miskin’s, and fluency and comprehension interventions. Finally, she went into detail about her reading plans at Michaela to have students reading 100 classic texts over their time there (or, ‘100 books kids probably wouldn’t read if they were left on their own’). She also noted the importance of reading across the curriculum, which is something I’m going to think hard about in my current role – what are children reading in every subject, in every lesson?

Sam Freedman: The five big challenges for the next government

Freedman began by asking how far we had come towards a school led system, and ended by asserting that such a system is still preferably to top-down initiatives led by government, which can provide a short-term push but in the long term do not make for sustainable system improvement. While government can devise what students learn, it is probably best for schools to have control over how students learn. The five challenges boil down to one: capacity. He then outlined challenges in resources, infrastructure, teacher supply, leadership and expertise, going over much-talked-of challenges in teacher recruitment and shrinking school budgets, and offering some suggestions for resolving these (make schools direct an easier thing to apply for; scrap fees for PGCE courses). The most important quote for me was that ‘schools are panicking and burning out teachers way too early in their careers.’ This is not a system issue, but a school issue; it is the job of leaders to shield teachers on the front-line from the stresses and strains of accountability, or we will be left with no more teachers.

I’m still digesting the genius of the day, and have added about ten books to my Amazon wishlist. The message of the day seems to me that we need to be critical and think harder, but not necessarily work harder.

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Fostering a love of reading

As an English teacher, the goals I have for my students tend to be simple: I want them to achieve a great grade at the end of their English experience, and I want them to love reading – now, and forever.

Year 10 and 11 are mostly about the former aim: we work as hard as we can to ensure students “do well” in an academic sense. We need, due to time pressures, to prioritise this aim. For me, this makes year 9 all the more precious. I am blessed to work in a school which trusts me to do what I feel is right for my classes, and what I have decided to do with my year 9 is to invest time in my second aim.

To begin with, reading lists (of which more, later). How can we expect students to know what to read on their own? I didn’t enforce reading from the list, but most students did. I had a wonderful, warm, fuzzy moment a few weeks ago when I realised almost every student was reading a recommended book.

Then, silent reading. Controversial, perhaps (although part of me feels very sad that some people feel that children reading silently might be a bad thing). I started year 9 off with 10 minutes of silent reading every lesson, and one 50 minute reading lesson a week. In my experience, I felt that the main factor holding my students back was their literacy. They were amazingly creative thinkers, but they did not have the deep and fast comprehension skills they needed to succeed academically. I wasn’t going to back down from this: these kids needed to read. (Incidentally, although I experienced major guilt for these extended reading sessions, this was assuaged hugely by one conversation with a fellow teacher at a Prince’s Teaching Institute session, who was also a mother. She told me that her son had once been an avid reader, but now all he did was play computer games. I believe her exact words were: “if I could know he is reading for a solid 50 minutes a week, I would be thrilled.”)

This policy has had its ups and downs. To begin with, it simply didn’t happen. The students didn’t have the will or the ability to concentrate for so long. But over the weeks, something changed. I can’t remember when the shift occurred, but it seemed that, all of a sudden, they were actually reading, and really enjoying their reading. In fact, during the lesson I would catch some reading instead of doing the work – obviously not ideal, but surely a great thing to catch a student doing nonetheless. (Thinking of the alternatives, I would say this is actually pretty amazing. “You! Yes you! Stop reading immediately!” I really never thought I would say those words. Perhaps a sad side-effect.)

Then the students started reading books not on the lists, and enjoying them. And then recommending that I read them – more on this later too.

When I asked my year 9 one jittery session (yes, it still happens; they still find the reading hard at times, particularly towards the end of the day or the end of the term) why they thought we read at the start of every lesson, I received some valuable responses. One student, however, noted that they believed it was “to calm us down so we start the lesson ready to learn.” I hadn’t even considered this, but given the fact that I was essentially curtailing a 50 minute lesson and making it 40 minutes, I realised then that I’ve always managed to get a lot done with this class. The student was right – we begin the lessons in a focused and calm mindset. This only strengthened my belief in the silent reading starter.

But more than that, I really hope that my year 9 students can continue to love reading. These students deserve more than just a cookie-cutter course designed to allow them to have a grade on a piece of paper. English is about so much more than that. If these students can learn to love to read, I will have done my job.