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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New year’s resolutions – for other people

Ofsted

It is received wisdom in the teacher world that Ofsted is not fit for purpose. Too many people have blogged much more eloquently than I to explain why; simply put – Ofsted need to scale back in a big way. They need to be mindful that everything they say becomes gospel in schools that are gunning for Good or better – that is, all schools. They need to look at the data: are results (including student progress from starting points) good? If so, why? What is that school doing well that other schools can learn from? And if results are awful, as they are in too many schools, what does that school need to do to improve, and how can it be supported to improve outcomes for all students? Other than this – do we really need anything else?

Department for Education (political influence on)

Yes, I know there is an election coming up and you want to put out enough policy ideas to make all the interest groups vote for you. But please, enough. Enough of change. I’ve spent my holiday working out how we will implement the new GCSEs and the new A-levels next September, and calling exam boards who assure me their support materials will be out “soon.” It’s not good enough. You can’t tear up KS3, 4 and 5 at the same time and expect us to just do it all without support, while doing the job we’ve always done (teaching children) as well as we’ve always done it (or better). There are not enough hours in the day. So just spend a year consolidating, supporting, reviewing, consulting. 

Headteachers

Headteachers have the greatest responsibility to build their school’s ethos and support their teachers. I’ve been blessed to have only experienced incredible Headteachers, driven by strong moral purpose, who are exceptional at what they do. The Heads I have worked for have challenged me to be better, but have also supported me without question or anger when I’ve made mistakes. I will never forget the first big mistake I made, in my first year of teaching. The Head took me into her office, asked me what I did wrong, asked what I would do if I could do it again, listened to my rubbish response, and coached me to a better one.

Students

We think we know our students, and in some ways, perhaps we do. But in other ways, we can never know them. We can never know the struggles they face, we can never know what their formative years have done to them, and we can never know their true potential. We just need to keep raising the bar. In my second year of teaching, I predicted a student in the lowest set for English a B, thinking I was being very generous. She came up to me with that grade, asking: “do you think I’ll get a B?” I replied, thinking I was being supportive: “I know you will.” She retorted: “I’m going to get an A, Miss – you’ll see.” And she did. And I did.

 Teachers

All teachers want the best for their students, but that aspiration can look different to different people. There are still teachers out there who say: “that’s really good progress for a student like that.” There are still teachers out there who say: “we can’t control their home lives, and so they won’t ever achieve what they could.” There are still teachers out there who say: “you have to understand that this child has special educational needs.” I know there are, because I’ve met them. These statements are wrong. They are wrong, and they underestimate both what the child is capable of, and the adult. We, as teachers, have enormous power to change a child’s life trajectory. Let’s stop being scared and use that power.

Things I have learned this term

This has been one of the most fulfilling terms of my career, and also one of the most challenging – how often these two seem to go hand in hand. It has been something of an adjustment, having to learn how to manage a department as well as take on new whole-school responsibilities. Not to mention trying to teach. Here are some of the things I have learned this term:

How to do duty… And how to not do duty

In the early days, I felt ridiculous doing duty. I’d knock apologetically at classroom doors, and teachers would scowl as if I were interrupting them – which, of course, I was. Now I’ve done my duty periods enough times, I think I’ve worked out which classrooms I can pretty much leave alone, and which benefit from a “casual walk-through.” I think back to myself as a new teacher, and how I’d have liked SLT to approach my classroom; I’m tougher with the students who are clearly taking advantage; I’m tougher if it’s a supply teacher or an NQT – I tend to haul students behaving less than perfectly away from the former in particular with little discussion. Especially as we come to the end of term, I feel like they are the ones who most need a calmer classroom. I’ve also realised that the more visible you are, the easier it becomes. Serendipitously, a spate of SLT sickness has allowed me to take on more duties; practice makes for some fast improvements.

How to teach less, but well

It has been a big adjustment going from having four classes to three. You wouldn’t think that losing four periods would have such a big effect, but the remaining 15 hours a week I am teaching have become my favourites. I really miss my year 9s, who (I’m almost sad to confess) are racing up to me at lunchtimes to fill me in on how much they are learning with their new teachers and how well they are behaving. Now, I feel grateful every lesson I can shut the door and just be a teacher. At the start, it seemed like this was the least important part of what I do, but after a bit of a battle with my year 10 class, I realise it is the most important. It is worth spending extra time making those 15 hours my best of the week. The fewer issues I have in my own classroom, the more helpful I am in the rest of my roles.

How to take feedback

I am so blessed to have a plain-spoken member of my team who simply does not sugarcoat: I know when I’m doing a good job, and I definitely know when I have to do better. A few weeks ago, she told me, in much more couched terms, that I wasn’t a presence in the English department at the moment; I wasn’t supporting teachers enough. After recovering from this blow, I resolved to do better. How can I ensure I check in with all the teachers I am responsible for, so none of them feel like she felt that day? How can I rebalance my responsibilities so I don’t let teachers down?

How to keep my sanity

That said, the English office is always a place of sanity for me. It’s amazing to have such a team of motivated individuals. We share the office with the Maths department, so they also deserve kudos for keeping our spirits up at the end of a long term. In particular, there are four or five of the teachers who have been permanently stocking the office with chocolate, Haribo and donuts. I need to exercise more restraint in future, but this term these have been all but essential to a healthy spirit.

My favourite thing this term has been observing the three colleagues who have opted into the “Leverage Leadership”-style “developmental observations” – 20 minute drop-ins with brief and focused feedback following (Harry Fletcher-Wood has written about this in helpful detail). It has been really something watching each colleague grow and improve as term has gone on. The Headteacher is fond of telling me that when she is feeling stressed, she goes and “walks around year 11 English lessons.” I know exactly what she means – there is nothing so soothing as watching great professionals at work.

Some thoughts for the term ahead (the year ahead feels too enormous to contemplate):

I will keep writing

Like almost everyone, I suffer from melodramatic crises of confidence, and I have found it increasingly hard to write this term. Or rather, to publish – I’ve written copious posts which now lay strewn in various folders, achingly missing the special something which would allow them to flow freely into the digital world. I’d like to write better, of course, but at times it might be worth just chucking it out there (like this post in fact, which I never intended to publish).

I will support teachers

I have come to realize that my time in school needs to be spent being completely available to the teachers I am responsible for. They need to be supported, and their needs must always, always come first. I know, and must never forget, that it is harder to be a teacher on a full timetable than any of the positions I have been lucky enough to hold: I have never been so viscerally exhausted as a HoD or member of SLT as I was teaching, even with some years of experience, a full timetable. That is the real hard work.

I will be great at my job

In the past, I’ve tried to be all things to all people and have taken on far too much outside school. This led, last year, to a five-month long cold I just couldn’t shake and needing a pair of crutches to move around (a very long story). I need to remember that my first responsibility is to my school, and no matter how exciting the opportunities I might be offered, sometimes it is better to just say no, and instead be great at the day job. After all, I have a long way to go to be “great”!

… but I will take time to do other things

The Head of Maths and I have been talking about going to meditation classes for about six months. I have a tendency to race from thing to thing with little thought or reflection – 2015 is the year to stop this nonsense. I will also see my friends more, even if they choose to live in far-flung suburbs or crazily West.

Self-evaluation: a year in review

For any of you who do not know, this has been my first year as Head of English. Having previously trained on the Teach First programme, I would still maintain that the first year of Teach First is the hardest. But this year has felt more like that year than I had expected it would.

I’ve become used to people asking me: “were you Head of English in your last school?” At the start of the year I heard this question several times a day. I saw it as a challenge, and felt defensive when explaining that I wasn’t. I see now that the questioners were nervous about their school; English (along with Maths) is a great driver of a school’s success, and they didn’t want some idiot at the helm of it. Now, when people ask me this, I see it more as an opportunity to be proud of what I have done in this first year, as it has less the tone of “and do you have any idea what you are doing?” and more with the tone of “and you have done it for a whole year without me yet asking if it was your first?”

I’m still worried that I’m also apparently Head of Media Studies, although you wouldn’t think it from the two fantastic Media Studies teachers in the department. They have run the subject together, and the synergy between them is absolutely gorgeous. Constantly co-planning, sometimes co-teaching, always refining what they are doing and turning (unprompted) all of their amazing lessons into wonderfully transferrable Schemes of Work, I know I have to do better by them next year.

The walk to and from school has never seemed more important. As a teacher, and especially as a trainee teacher, I took for granted being able to moan, whine and cry to those in my immediate vicinity. Making mistakes this year has often meant upsetting or inconveniencing those people, and so moaning, whining or crying to them would be particularly misjudged. I’ve taken the walking time to try to put the day in perspective, but too many times I have marched home in anger, or shlepped home in defeat.

It took me a long time to recover my vision, which had seemed crystal clear at the end of last year. In those first weeks and terms, I felt like I was stumbling from crisis to crisis without a long-term view. Two aspects helped me regain this: one was my line manager’s vision (more of which below), which seeped into my bones through constant repetition, and the other was blogging, taking assemblies and speaking at events, where I have been forced to clarify what I am doing and why.

I have been nothing but blessed in the incredible team of teachers who form my department and make it work. My overwhelming disappointment is that I have not harnessed their talents at too many points this year. As the year has gone on, however, we’ve started to move as a unit, which is the only way to make a department work. They have picked me up at my lowest points and been more lovely than they had to be to me throughout this year. Sharing an office with them means no day passes without true, belly-laughter and feeling awed by the generosity of humans, who are brilliant teachers, who give infinitely more to their students than any contract stipulates.

Apart from these crucial colleagues, I couldn’t have survived the year without:

  • Dance – I’ve made a core group of dance friends who have often picked me up after a hard day, made me laugh and talked through my many problems selflessly. I can also continue to attest to the necessity of having a hobby where you can lose yourself and become a completely different person, if only for a short time. This has been central to retaining my sanity.
  • Twitter – This is where I go to be inspired, and to also be challenged in the work I do – is my direction right? What are other people doing? Wow – other people are doing that? How can I do that? Is that better than this? I have also loved the warm exchanges I have had with so many countless Twitter-ers this year.
  • My own students – each of my classes have made this year easier for me. I wouldn’t go so far as to say I haven’t worried about them, because you always worry about your students, but I’ve never had such a reassuring bunch of classes. They have all ticked over, being quietly amazing, and have made my life as a teacher incredibly easy. My kids this year have believed I teach them well, even when I have had a million other priorities; they have been beautiful in lessons and have made incredible progress because they believed in themselves and worked very, very hard. I’m lucky to carry two of these classes forward to next year, and desperately sad to be losing my adorable year 7s, who have always made me laugh and smile.
  • My line manager – at times this year, too many times admittedly, I’ve been standing in the middle of a metaphorical road transfixed by oncoming headlights and he has gently pushed me in the right direction. He listens to all my ideas, and gently guides me towards the better ones; always refining, and challenging me to refine, my thinking. The clearest visionary I have met, he asks of everything: “is this the best thing to serve our children? Are we doing right by our children by doing this?”
  • My family – by which I mean my parents, grandparents, cousins, aunts, uncles – from near and afar their support and love has never meant more. They have always supported me, and their belief has helped me through the darkest of times.

Next week will be a calmer one, with around 50 year 6s at our summer school, and following that I am resolving to take a chunk of time off. Although already I am desperate to begin formulating plans and shaping ideas, I know from experience now that too little rest will undermine my best intentions. Happy Summer, teachers!