Assessment in a Knowledge Curriculum

I have written and spoken at length about simplification. In short, I have come to believe that a knowledge curriculum simplifies everything we do as teachers. Rather than considering engagement, entertainment, or pupil interest, a knowledge curriculum relentlessly and ruthlessly prioritises kids learning stuff in the most effective way: that is, reading it, writing about it, and being quizzed on it.

In my past life, here are some ways I assessed pupil learning:

  • Painstakingly marked their books with lengthy written targets for improvement that pupils responded to
  • As above, but for essays and assessments
  • Used spurious National Curriculum levels to denote the level the child appeared to be writing at
  • Developed an assessment ladder based on vague descriptors provided by GCSE exam boards to denote how far a child was from the GCSE expectations
  • Had pupils complete multiple choice exams which, having sweated over making, I would then have to mark
  • Had pupils swap books with one another to write insightful comments such as: ‘good work. Next time, write more’
  • Asked pupils to tell their partner what they know about a topic
  • Asked pupils to write a mind-map of what they know about a topic
  • Asked pupils to make a presentation of what they know about a topic

Not only are the above techniques unnecessarily complicated, they almost never gave me any useful information about what my kids could do.

At Michaela, we ask the kids questions constantly. Every lesson begins with two to five practice drills. In English, this would consist of two or more of the following:

  • A spelling test
  • A vocabulary test
  • A grammar drill
  • A gap-fill on a poem the pupils are memorizing
  • Knowledge questions on a previous unit
  • Knowledge questions on the current unit

We then read some material, and ask the pupils questions to ensure they have understood. The pupils then answer some questions about the material. We then go over the questions as a whole class, and pupils edit their responses using the whole-class feedback. For a lengthier piece of writing, I would use a half-page of feedback as outlined in my post ‘Giving Feedback the Michaela Way.’

For our bi-annual exams, pupils write an essay or, in subjects like Science or Maths, complete an exam paper that tests their ability to apply their knowledge. They also complete two to five ‘knowledge exams,’ which are simply open answer questions about everything they have learned that year. (Example questions from English could be: ‘What is a simile? When did Queen Elizabeth die? When was Macbeth first performed and where?’) We don’t painstakingly mark every paper – instead we sort them swiftly into three piles: A, B and C. A quick glance can tell us how a pupil has done – lots of gaps is a C, a sample glance at a number of correct answers and all questions attempted with a well-worked extension an A; everything in the middle a B.

The reason we can assess so simply is that in a knowledge curriculum there is a correct answer. There are, though we love to deny it, right and wrong things to say about literature. At Michaela, we are explicit about this. When I asked for pupil inferences about Curley’s wife in Of Mice and Men in my previous school, I remember asking them what the colour red could symbolise. Their answer, ‘jam,’ was simply wrong. What we do at Michaela is to codify the knowledge we want the pupils to learn, teach that knowledge, and then relentlessly test that knowledge.

Simple.

Giving feedback the ‘Michaela’ way

I’ve written before about marking, but just to summarise: it has always been something I’ve loved doing. There was something in that Boxer-like satisfaction of ploughing through an unending pile of books, leaving lovingly crafted comments in an array of coloured pens and stickers that just looked like it would work so well. How could pupils fail to make progress when I’d spent so many hours on them?

So something I was nervous about when starting at Michaela was their approach to marking; that is, don’t do it. I’d read Joe Kirby’s blog and spoken to him at length, but remained steadfastly concerned that marking worked – if you ensured pupils

acted on feedback. I then moved to the idea that marking worked, but at what cost – a teacher with six or ten classes cannot be expected to give the detailed feedback the lightly-timetabled members of SLT seem to manage on a weekly basis.

In my second week at Michaela, we had a department meeting where Joe brought up the excellent question: it’s great for workload that we don’t mark, but how do we make sure we’re giving feedback to make pupils’ writing better?

One of the main reasons I think I find marking helpful is because it holds me accountable – I am actually reading if I am putting a pen to paper to say something about it. (I annotate the books I read in the same way – it helps me to remain focused.) But while this is an essential strategy when it is 7am on a Saturday, pre-intervention, and you want to clear the last 20 books to enjoy a semblance of a weekend when you return home that afternoon, or 9pm on a Wednesday when you just want to sleep, actually, I had underestimated my ability to focus.

To begin with at Michaela, I couldn’t get out of the habit of marking. I would spend two hours with about 60 books, circling and underlining when I couldn’t resist; writing limitless notes to share with the class, photocopying paragraphs to get pupils to annotate their peers’ examples. Joe’s comments on this kind of feedback were: ‘would you want all teachers to be photocopying twice or three times a week? Is it worth the time getting the pupils to annotate a piece of paper they are then just throwing away? What else could you be doing with that time?’ Moreover, I was reminded of why marking is not always the best method – if I’d put the merest hint of a mark on a child’s book, their hands shot in the air: ‘why is this circled?’ ‘I can’t read your writing on this spelling correction.’ ‘Why is there a question mark here?’ Marking breeds over-reliance on the teacher.

Now, I’m getting into the swing of the Michaela way. I read my pupils’ books once or twice a week. I teach four classes, each with between 28 and 32 pupils, so it is about 120 books in all. I read 60 books in 30 minutes. As I read, I make notes: spellings lots are getting wrong, things they’re all doing well at, and the main issues they need to improve. I note down anyone whose paragraph is amazing to reward with merits or show the class; I note down anyone whose work is messy to give a demerit to. It looks something like this:

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In the following lesson, I teach the spellings from the front, and then test pupils. They will write their corrections out in green pen, interleaving the ones they got wrong, or the ‘toughest three’ if they managed, on this occasion, to score 100%. I’ll test them again the following day. I’ll share the positive things I found and celebrate the star paragraphs, and then explain carefully, perhaps modelling on the board (as Katie Ashford has described brilliantly here or occasionally putting a great paragraph from the class under the visualiser, how they can all improve their own paragraphs. And then they improve them, in green pen. It looks like this:

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The second powerful tool is in-class feedback. With an excellent behaviour system, silent writing for 25 minutes means I can see every child’s paragraph twice while circulating, giving them suggestions and tweaks while they write. On my colleague Lucy Newman’s suggestion, I’ve also started using my visualiser more. This way, we can take a pupil’s book, display it to the class, and show pupils how to edit their mistakes in that very lesson, just by giving oral feedback on the common errors they are making, or the aspects they really need to focus on improving. 

The thing is, what makes the difference in their writing is the quality of the feedback and how timely it is. They don’t need feedback on a paragraph they wrote two weeks ago. At Michaela, they can improve the paragraph they wrote yesterday, while it is fresh in their minds. I miss marking, I do. But I’m realising I did it for me, not for the pupils.

At what cost?

I know that what I do works.

I know, albeit from just over five short years of experience, that the way I teach children English works. Students enjoy coming to English. They do what I tell them to do. They interact with ideas. They put up their hands, give responses when prompted, discuss when directed, and smile lots. They make good progress, sometimes excellent, progress.

Before, when I was challenged about my practice, I would probably have said something similar to the above.

Now, I am not so sure this is a valid response. Because there is a second, unsaid and often unconsidered half to this sentence.

I know what I do works… But at what cost?

Marking

I mark every student’s book every week, unless they are ill when I take them in. In addition to this, I mark any essays or assessments students have done, whether for a pre-decided mock exam or assessment point, or simply exam practice. When I made the change from fortnightly marking to weekly marking, I saw a dramatic improvement in my students’ progress.

But at what cost?

I have marked, for the last five years, constantly. I have marked in free periods, before and after school, at home, during the weekend and even on flights. Some might say this is the inescapable fate of the English teacher. Yet now I am on a very light timetable, with very small classes, and my marking load appears undiminished. Although what I do works, would I want it to be replicated by every teacher in my team on a full timetable? Absolutely not. If I were to continue in this way, would I remain in the profession? Absolutely not.

If the cost of student progress is teacher burnout, it cannot be worth it.

Intervention

Last year, as Head of English, I checked student data weekly for exam classes. That is because it was constantly changing, what with redrafted coursework, completed Speaking and Listening exams and constant teacher-assessed mock essays and exams. Using this data, I picked out students and created personalised intervention plans. I would confidently estimate that there is practically no year 11 student who was not in some way “intervened” with.

I have given up before school time, after school time, lunchtime, Saturdays, half-terms and Easters over the years. I have altered entire holidays to fit in with a schedule of revision, to the point of cancelling and re-booking flights.

Our students achieved phenomenal results; only King Solomon Academy achieved better in English the year before last for schools in London with comparable amounts of students receiving free school meals.

But at what cost? If I knew I would have to run intervention in this way until retirement, would I stay in this profession? Absolutely not. Do I want to stop running intervention and instead delegate it to my team, asking them to similarly give up weekends and holidays? Absolutely not.

And what of the students? Tired, stressed, but well-prepared; what happens to these students at sixth form? At university? Learning there will always be “extra” put on for them can’t incentivise them to make the most of lesson time.

If the cost of student progress is complacent students and teacher exhaustion, it cannot be worth it.

All the activities

I used to spend hours lesson planning. I would research existing plans and resources, cross-referencing with other teachers’ and TES resources, and trying to make every lesson an individual snowflake, never repeating the same series of activities. I would ensure there was something for everyone, and plenty of opportunities for students to talk together, research independently, collaborate and postulate together. I would review their “learning” and value the “ideas” they came up with, however ill-founded; however misunderstood.

I have had students carouselling, moving, making, standing, dancing, clapping, acting, advocating, laughing, enjoying and even learning while they did this.

And those students did achieve good results.

But at what cost? How many Cs could have been Bs, Bs As, if I had stopped cramming in activities for the sake of engagement and fun, and started simply telling students what they needed to know, and then testing to make sure they had learned it?

Would I have still been addressing classic misconceptions after 3 years of teaching the same class – no, Shakespeare was not a Victorian; no, that’s not where you put a comma…

With my year 10 intervention class last year I tried something different. Shocked by their lack of knowledge and understanding, their lack of retention, I relentlessly talked to them, got them to write independently and then quizzed them. It was a massive uphill struggle, but that struggle was as much against pre-conceived expectations of what their lessons should look like and the expectations I should have of what they were able to access as it was about changing what they remember. And while I struggled on, students knew more, could explain articulately, and could remember and apply challenging concepts. It was far from perfect, but I haven’t seen better progress previous to employing these methods.

If the cost of student engagement is student learning, it cannot be worth it.

 

We have a responsibility to students, and a responsibility to ourselves. We must be open to new ideas, to new approaches. The proof is in the results: certain methods lead to increased student achievement, happier teachers and a more workable system of education. Whether what I do works is irrelevant – it must work, be sustainable, and lead to the best possible student results.

So the next time someone dismisses your ideas by telling you “I know that what I do works”, you can bite your tongue and keep doing what you do, reaping the benefits for yourself and your own students, or you can ask: at what cost?

Reading exercise books

Marking as an English teacher means you spend most of your week reading. If I am honest, most of what I read is what I mark. A set of exercise books can become a novel; more than a novel depending on the class size. A novel, of course, full of repetition and analysis. Perhaps, then, more a book of critical essays.

A recent conversation prompted me to realise that while anyone I have worked with knows that marking is 1. My absolute favourite part of teaching and 2. The way I spend almost every evening, weekend and holiday, I have somehow neglected to say very much on the subject here. Below is my attempt to shoe-horn my ideas about marking into a blog about reading.

Teaching lessons: in my first year in the classroom, I found I wasn’t terribly good at it. I read Phil Beadle’s How to Teach, wherein he writes: “make no mistake: this is the most important thing you do as a teacher… mark their books with dedication and rigour and your class will fly.” Essentially, Beadle contends, you can be the greatest educator ever, but if you don’t mark, your students won’t progress; conversely, you can be a bit of a rubbish teacher, but if you mark well, great things could happen. In my first-year-teacher despair, I clung to marking.

While my mentor and line manager watched me hunched over yet another pile of books (“you’re marking again Jo?”) and begged me to instead spend more time planning semi-decent lessons, I ploughed on regardless, writing buckets of WWWs and EBIs on every page a child’s pen had reached. I handed books back, and rushed to deliver my next rubbish lesson.

Happily, what I learned from this was to balance my time more effectively. I went on to spend less time marking, to mark less frequently and say less, and taught better lessons where children went on to make some progress, as well as making my life less of a nightmare.

Indeed, as the years have gone on, it seems that the thinking around marking, at least in my sphere of existence, has become ever-more progressive and manageable. If the mantra of my mentors early on was “mark less!”, it is now “write less!”

I’ve read so many excellent blogs on time-saving marking, notably from Joe Kirby; and Alex Quigley has signalled my earth-changing, life-altering view of marking, and made me realize that “marking” as a term is horribly outdated. What we need to talk about, instead, is feedback. (Indeed, Quigley’s department has a feedback policy as opposed to a marking policy, a semantic shift I adore.)

When we mark a student’s book, they need to spend about as much time doing something with that marking as I spent giving feedback. This means that rather than writing “nice notes” as I had been advised early on (“put something on every page, so Ofsted don’t think you’ve ticked and flicked”), I do tick and flick their notes (if they are there and in good order; if they are not I tend to write “WHERE ARE YOUR NOTES?!”). I mark their extended writing closely, but not too closely if it’s riddled with errors – most of their ideas are good, and the human brain can process only so much red/pink/green ink.

At the end, I write an encouraging comment (unless they have been truly lazy) and a target. I used to check students had met their target the next time I marked their books, but I now recognize this is not the most effective way of target setting. I now phrase their target in such a way as to encourage editing there and then. And, crucially, I give students time to go back and improve their writing.

The first ten to twenty minutes of the following lesson can then be spent improving a decent paragraph and making it marvelous. The efficacy of this exercise very much depends on what you have written as a teacher; your comments need to be specific, detailed and open-ended, allowing students to add to their responses without needing you to stand beside and cajole each letter from their biro.

Interestingly, in our department’s mock-Ofsted last year, the English specialist pulled out a couple of books that he believed showed outstanding marking. These books had a relatively small amount of ink spilled, but it was done in a miraculously effective way. Teachers had written short, pointed questions at key moments, and students had responded and improved their work. Easy as that: marking not to build confidence, not to check every error, not to show Ofsted we have marked – marking, instead, that allowed students to progress, and allowed teachers to mark without wanting to kill themselves. What a relief!

I haven’t written about the state students keep their exercise books in, because it’s not something I’m especially concerned about. Perhaps another year I will endeavour to inspire students to keep their books pristine, but I’m not a very visual person, and I can’t help but overlook dog-eared covers for the glorious writing inside.

All of this sounds so painfully straightforward, I wonder if anyone is still reading. There will always be new ideas, and new approaches. Yet the core of marking is beguilingly simple: mark often, mark strategically, mark specifically, and make the students do some work too.

The power of poetry

I’ve mentioned it two or three thousand times before, but I’ll say it again: I love my year 7 class. I’ve had many year 7 classes before, and I’ve found them all to be cute, lovely and well-behaved, but this year my year 7s stand out in a completely different way.

Part of this, I think, is due to my time-table: in previous years, I’ve taught 3 KS3 classes and then one KS4, plus a KS5. This year, I teach all exam classes, except for my year 7: they are my one and only class I am not pushing through a GCSE. They are my one and only class who are truly mixed ability (as in: all classes are mixed to some degree; these guys aren’t set yet).

Never before have I so appreciated the freedom which comes with teaching a KS3 class. I feel relaxed around this class; I take them on wild tangents when the conversation turns. I am excited to teach them, because I’m never completely sure where a lesson will take us. I’m flexible with my planning, moving lessons and assessments around due to their emerging needs because I don’t have any hard deadlines for them, or firm content to cover.

Right now, I’m loving teaching them poetry. Some genius teacher in my department created a beautiful scheme of work on war poetry, and it has been utterly joyful to teach. We began with a lot of context, which with the topic in question is not only fun and meaningful, but also pretty easy to teach, as usually students have great prior knowledge from primary school or history classes.

We studied Wilfred Owen in so much depth, students were commenting on different poems long after we had “finished” them, in their spoken and written responses. We moved through to female poets and conscientious objectors, and finished with Japanese poets on the atomic bomb.

Throughout the year, I’ve tried to mention in every class that my aim is for them to come up with interpretations. I have shied away from doing this with previous year 7 classes, as I’d found that their interpretations were almost always insane and had nothing to do with the text. With this class I decided to take a risk.

I’m not sure what has happened, but these students are already genuinely capable of coming up with interpretations which are not only valid, but also imaginative. I do a lot more whole-class discussion with this group, partly because the room layout discourages group work and circulation (I physically cannot get to about 6 students crammed into tight rows in a tiny room) and I want to speak with every student; this might have helped them to finesse their arguments as I always want evidence from the text, something their co-students perhaps aren’t so pushed about.

The most joyous moment of the course is hard to pinpoint. I thought it was the student who was so low-achieving at primary school she came in without a level, putting up her hand and giving an interpretation that was actually amazing, which sparked an important class conversation which went on for many minutes. That same student wrote an essay a week later and neglected to use a single quote or write about a single word from a single solitary poem. I despaired.

Having just marked their final assessment on this unit, there are too many “moments” to list, but I’ll mention a few.

The student above actually put in a number of quotes in her essay and used enough technical language to wind up on the cusp of level 3, which put a massive smile on my face. One of my level 4/5 borderline students suddenly grasped how to analyse language, which pushed her over the border to the magic 5, which I know she’ll be thrilled about because she works so hard in every lesson. A number of students wrote about ideas in their final assessment which we had never covered in class; one example is at the bottom of this post, but there were many who tried something new out.

But what made me smile more than anything was the paragraph below, written by a student who also receives some intensive English catch-up.

H lovely paragWhat I loved about this was the joy in poetry that came from it. We’d not spoken specifically about the ideas she writes about, and given the parameters of the essay this came out of nowhere. But the genuine joy and love of poetry is so easy to see, and this is something which came through in so many students’ essays.

My year 7 love poetry, with the same fervour my year 11 hate poetry.

It’s easy to see why though: my year 11 study the AQA “Relationships Cluster” of poems which has some lovely poems in it, but some really, truly dull ones. I’m constantly banging on about AOs and how they need to evidence their thinking in their essays in order to hit those AOs consistently throughout. I’m also forcing them to compare poems, which is nowhere near as effective as them doing it themselves (“miss, isn’t this like…”) and feeling really smart for thinking to do it.

My new aim is to build on this love and enthusiasm; to cling to it. Is it the normal year 7 excitement which will fade by the summer term, when new priorities come into play for them? Or is there a way to continue to invest them in what we are doing?

And how do I make this happen with all my exam classes?

Interpretation parag

Write me something I want to read

The title of this post is my rallying cry to my classes. I have a methodical, some might say overly prescriptive, outline 99% of my lessons follow: we look at some stuff, talk about it, sometimes act it out or walk around doing things with it, and then, every single time (except the time all the clocks stopped and I was vamping thinking I needed to fill lesson time) they write, in silence, for an extended period of time.

How long? If I’m honest, 10-15 minutes. I always, always plan for it to be longer. In fact, it needs to be my new week’s resolution to ensure it is for longer.

I had a year 9 class who found even 10 minutes incredibly challenging. In response, for one term, instead of reading for 10 minutes at the start of every lesson, they wrote. A diary. Which I never marked. Their writing style improved immeasurably (I admittedly use this word in its truest sense).

See, I’m not just about the reading. I am also interested in reading what they write.

Of course, we all teach children who do not have the gift of writing. But I’ve found the easiest and most often-used lines which come up with results are:

“Write me something I want to read.”

“Use a comparison I’ve never heard before.”

“Don’t tell me – show me. Make me guess.”

I do genuinely love marking. Not only because I’ve heard it is a sure-fire way of students improving, and I occasionally feel that everything else I do is subject to terms and conditions from which it is exempt. But because I love to read their work.

This was especially apparent with my last year 11 class. They were gifted writers (as well as gifted analysts and speakers). Marking their mock exam papers became a joy: looking at the dry writing task of a popular exam board, a significant number basically took the mick. The results were hilarious. I would suggest that a weekly diet of Charlie Brooker had something to do with it.

Then, when I started marking real exam papers for the real exam board, I realized how important this slogan is. I marked so many papers I sprained my hand. And the very vast majority were not filled with joy. I looked in anguish towards the pile of Year 11 books beside the papers, counting the pages until I could turn my attention to my little angels, who I knew would entertain and engage me.

English is the most subjective of beasts, but we all of us are humans. Give us something of interest, and we will look favourably on it. I’m not boasting, but I’ve read an awful lot. Yet most of my students can surprise me, for which I am daily grateful.