Immersed in the insularity of a new job in a new school last year, TLT13 passed me by. The first awareness of it for me was seeing exciting looking tweets and blogs on and after the day, when clearly it was too late to join in. This year, though, I was determined to be on it – which made me feel even more delighted to be asked to present something as part of the literacy strand.

A train journey with a dear friend and past colleague provided me with plentiful food for education thought, and by the time we arrived at Southampton I was already percolating a “things I would like to be better at” mental list, which overflowed as the day went on.

Tom Sherrington

Creeping into the lecture theatre, only slightly late, I was relieved not to have missed Tom Sherrington’s opening. He spoke passionately about leading a new school, this time a large comprehensive, and noted pleasingly that what applies in a grammar school applies “even more” there; he also remarked that the extent to which expectations can be low is amazing. Candidly referring to teaching his year 8 class as “feeling like someone who has just done a 10K run with no training,” he went on to explain that teaching is really rather straightforward (not easy; never easy – but definitely straightforward): know what you are trying to teach – the key concepts, the objective; and keep the pitch high: never lose sight of the top end, while bringing the other children with you. He showed his famous tweet: “if there was no OfSTED, no SLT… just you and your class… what would you choose to do to make it great? Do that anyway.” He clarified at this point that he did not mean there should be no accountability; rather that if what you are doing in your classroom is amazing and it is working, no-one will mind.

Referring to the new behaviour system being rolled out in his school, he noted that for classroom teaching to have its desired impact, the culture and systems first have to be in place: without these, all else is meaningless. Too much teacher time, otherwise, is spent controlling behaviour and not teaching. (Incidentally, I remember a friend of mine moving to teach in a private school where lessons were 35 minutes long. I asked her how she got through the curriculum, and she replied “well, no-one misbehaves, so the lessons don’t feel that short.”) Tom went on to explain that children need to feel confusion and struggle in their learning: if they are getting everything right, the lesson is not challenging enough.  Tom also remarked that his school had scrapped levels on reports, saying he “can’t justify another 6b meaning nothing.” He noted they will fill this vacuum with something better, and I can’t wait to see what that might be.

Kev Bartle

My first session of the day began with a clip of some rather peculiar, red-haired, 80s looking woman singing. I had long suspected it, but I then knew how completely amazing Kev must be, both as teacher and headteacher. His session made close reference to the OfSTED clarification for schools document, and he began by noting his annoyance that many SLTs aren’t yet getting it right with OfSTED: when they are doing things “with OfSTED in mind”, it is often the OfSTED of five or eight years ago. Opening with the wise words: “there is no such thing as progress within lessons. There is only learning”, he was scathing on the preponderance of mini-plenaries and other such AfL strategies reduced to progress-prop gimmicks.

On lesson grading, Kev noted that even if you observe a main-scale teacher for 30 minutes six times a year (this is approximately five times more than I have ever been observed in a year), that still represents only 0.4% of the teaching that teacher will do over the year. Referring to the policy exchange report “Watching the Watchmen”, he reminded us that OfSTED inspectors can see the same lesson and give it every one of the four arbitrary grades.

On lesson observations, he asked why SLT “who teach the least” should be the ones to lead on teaching. While I agree that a top-down approach to observation is not favourable, I can’t help but look at the SLT in my own school which contains some of its strongest practitioners, and my line manager (deputy head) who remains one of the best teachers I have ever seen in action. Kev went on to explain why learning walks and book looks were also a waste of time if done in a top-down fashion; better practice, he suggested, was to have a department look through books together and discuss each other’s practice. Of “data trawls”, less is more: in Kev’s school, they enter data for year 11, 12 and 13 only twice a year; this ensures the data is reliable and robust, and not the product of an over-tired teacher putting in any old thing every half term.

Kev had strong words to say about consistency: teaching is about humans – messy, uncontrollable humans; we need to open ourselves up to uncertainty, and mystery. He put forward an alternative set of ideas on how a school might be run, largely built on trust, and assuming the best of people.

Chris Hildrew

I was so excited to finally meet Chris in person, having long admired his blog, but first I had to be bowled over by his phenomenal talk. Chris was speaking about progress and assessment within a “Growth Mindset” school. With the dynamism of a Mr Keating, children-on-desks educator, he told us we had to begin by thinking of the “X kids” – the “mutant kids who can do it.” We had to consider the students who had most excelled in our subjects, and what they had that we could replicate in schools.

Immediately, the pastoral implications of this jumped out: no-one really believes children are naturally Shakespeare; rather, they have self-esteem and self-belief, along with the self-awareness to know how to change and develop into better students. Achievement and mindset go hand in hand.

Importantly, growth mindset must not become reductive; a tick-box on a lesson plan or a resource sheet. Rather it must become embedded at a whole-school level, as Chris has written so eloquently about in his blog.

Along with this, we need to build demand and a high level of challenge into our curriculum, knowing where we want our students to get to and then plotting how to arrive there. Chris spoke of asking subject leaders to tap into their core moral purpose: why should students study their subject? And with that in mind, bend the (very flexible) National Curriculum to that purpose.

Echoing what Tom Sherrington had said, teachers saying students have “nothing to improve” clearly need to set the challenge bar higher; what more could they read; what more do to broaden their knowledge? Chris also outlined his school’s method of tracking progress, which looks very exciting, and I can’t wait to hear more about it.

Chris Curtis

Like everyone I had heard speak so far in the day, I longed to be a student in Chris Curtis’s classroom. His opening salvo: “how is writing an essay like going on a date?” immediately made the room buzz with activity and excitement. He noted we are often busy moulding the next journalists, and not academic writers; something to be mindful of with the advent of the new GCSEs. Proclaiming “death to the PEE format,” he showed us something much better: point and then development. Using the fantastic resource below, he guided us through how to develop an idea, and gave us plenty to take away into our own classrooms.

Research Ed 2014

There’s a kind of brutality about holding an education conference on the first Saturday of the first week of term. Last year, I had just begun a new job in a new school, and I remember half sleeping through a session in the afternoon before calling it a day early. Whole months blurred by thereafter. Not so this year.

John Tomsett, Alex Quigley, Rob Coe, Stuart Kime

My day opened with a session in the stunningly be-windowed Old School Hall with some helpful thoughts on research in a school setting. Tomsett noted that working in a school was not about research vs. evidence, but about the two taken together. He remarked that his school development plan consisted of only two aspects: 1. Improve the quality of teaching and 2. I missed, possibly distracted by the countless humans attempting to enter a room clearly squished to capacity. Quigley explained we need to move beyond guesswork, but that this was hard as schools are always changing – both internally, and externally due to political implications. As well as piloting a series of RCTs, Quigley’s aim is to put research in the hands of teachers, giving them time to look at and understand it. Coe and Kime relayed the challenges and expressed the need for robust evaluation. I admire what they’re doing, and am excited to see what the outcome is.

Dylan Wiliam

The creator of AfL was my next session. Wiliam began by reassuring teachers in the room that doctors do not always follow the evidence, with apparently 40% of GPs prescribing antibiotics where they know it will have no impact, i.e. for viral infections; to make patients feel better. Education research was, he explained, “messy.” Wiliam ran through the issues of RCTs, which essentially boil down to: you can’t control what humans say or do at every (any?) moment in time. The most helpful take-aways for me were his comments on the EEF’s teacher toolkit, which ranks interventions against the cost and the “effect size.” He noted that this only reflects how these interventions are currently used, and not their potential; if setting has an adverse effect on students (minus one month in learning), this could also reflect schools’ tendencies to place the best teachers with the C/D borderline classes, and neglect the higher and lower achieving classes. Wiliam said the best teachers need to be with the students who need them the most; students who need to go furtherst. I can’t help but agree wholeheartedly. Feedback, which ranks very highly for effect size, can, when poor, make things worse for children. Research of this kind can only measure outcomes; we really need to drill down into practice as a next step.

Philippa Cordingley

Cordingley spoke of her study into Teach First schools (which are, by definition, schools which are low achieving in exam results and/or serving economically deprived communities), and what made some schools “Exceptional.” In terms of exceptional, she explained many were “Ofsted Outstanding”, and others achieved more than 75% A*-C (including English and Maths) at GCSE level. I think it is worth bullet pointing the practices of exceptional schools, as explained in the session:

  • All teachers took responsibility for their own CPD and sought to improve
  • Teachers had deep expertise and knowledge of the curriculum, and saw this as more important than improving their pedagogy
  • Coaching/mentoring was incredibly structured and formal
  • There was a structured learning environment for teachers in improving their practice
  • Leaders in the school were aware of modeling themselves as learners rather than experts
  • They invested in teacher education
  • They had a single model of pedagogy which was clear to all teachers, and which all teachers bought into, and there was a shared understanding of what made fantastic teaching and learning
  • Performance management was rigorous, resulting in some persistent underperformers leaving and the other previously underperforming teachers improving
  • They were interested in working with the community
  • They worked hard to involve parents
  • Rather than focusing on behaviour, their focus was on improving teaching and learning; behaviour often improved after the teaching
  • Department meetings were where teachers talked about teaching
  • Teaching and learning practices were underpinned by theory and research

This might reflect my own confirmation bias, because all of the above sounds sensible, but the other findings sound a little muddy to me: group work was used more in exceptional school, except for in MFL lessons. More interactive learning methods (games, puzzles, websites) were used in the exceptional schools in all lessons – except English, where lessons were more traditional. I can’t quite square this data, and I began to wonder about how much of the research we could take at face value, given the small sample size. Nonetheless, some helpful ideas.

Michael Cladingbowl

The Director of Schools for Ofsted seems an affable chap, calm and pleasant. By no means an evil devil ogre. He spoke sensibly of Ofsted’s overall mission: to improve schools’ improvement, as per its statutary duty. He reminded us of the not-so-distant past, where 2.3 million children were in “mediocre” schools, which had often been that way for generations. He also remarked that “he history of inspection [was] littered with the corpses of those who have tried to do too much.” Clearly, much needs to change with the inspectorate, but in trying to do all things they may well succeed in none. He referenced the false dichotomy between knowledge and skills, noting “a sensible teacher does a bit of both.” Previously an English teacher, Cladingbowl was well aware of the power of language: the language of Osted, he remarked, had too often seemed to be the language of “warfare”. I greatly approved of his suggestion to view it instead as a “dance”, as I think that definitely sounds more fun. He noted that inspection must be designed to inspire curiosity and not compliance; teachers and indeed schools cannot be afraid to take risks. He hinted of the bright future, coming to a school near you soon (September 2015), where inspection would provide clearer evidence to parents, and inspectors would be solely contracted and trained by Ofsted. He mentioned that eventually (and there was a vagueness about the time period of this eventuality) there would be less focus on grades, and a change to thinking about whether a school is good enough, as well as “telling the story” about the data, answering the question: “why are the outcomes of this school as they are?”

Tom Sherrington

I was very excited to hear Tom Sherrington speak, as I’ve been an avid reader of his blog, where you can in fact read his overview of this session. Sherrington dug deep into several key areas of research, usefully glossing works as he went. He began with Hattie’s on homework: although the overall effect size seems small at 0.29 (0.4 is apparently the level at which an intervention has a meaningful impact), on closer inspection this is an average of the primary school impact (0.15) and the secondary, 0.64; so in fact, homework can be an extremely effective lever for student achievement. Later, Sherrington emphasised that we must take care that results are not just the average of extremes. He also warned that when research is presented as a “digest”, “soundbite” or “headline”, it can lead to bad decisions: the detail is crucial. He went on to mention Bjork on memory, considering that students retain more knowledge when their learning is spaced or interleaved. The implication for schools, he went on, is that they need to consider how much weight to place on this evidence: especially as this could lead to a complete re-working of the curriculum, we need to be sure. He then explored two pieces of research, and explained the pitfalls and drawbacks of each, reconfirming what William had said earlier about the messiness of education research, and dealing with humans in general. Although overtly aware of his own confirmation bias, I liked what Sherrington said, because I probably have the same bias. He referenced a rule in his new school about “green pens”, and noted that is we are to make certain pedagogy practices “law”, we have to have evidence and a degree of certainty in its efficacy to achieve the buy-in of teachers. The essential message: don’t take anything on face value: interrogate the detail.