Teachers Who Hate Knowledge? Really?

The current, slightly polarising, debate is about teachers who deny knowledge matters. I can imagine that there might be some misguided folk who do actually state their position as strongly and there will be another group to whom Gove is the saviour, the Messiah, of our education system. His position is that learning, rote learning, is so important it must take prime place in his rhetoric.

As I often do, I prefer a middle path, one where some knowledge matters; and how children learn that knowledge, so they can both use it and make sense of it matters. Not just having the knowledge but able to use in a meaningful way. Mastermind, the TV programme with the black chair and the chosen subject, is an example of knowledge for its own sake. I am pleased when science questions get asked. I can often answer them. And the actually are quite simple. Knowledge that I have I can usually restate. But when the art questions are asked I probably struggle. They seem hard. Actually knowledge of facts falls into one of two boxes. If I know it, easy. If I don’t know the fact, then it is almost impossible.

My problem with the the Gove model is that we don’t really know which bits of knowledge matter, or more importantly, will matter for children who will not enter the employment market for many years. It can’t be that important that any *particular* piece of knowledge is that important, can it? Let me take a brief look at electronics. It used to be that knowing how to solder transistors into printed circuit boards was important. No longer, though, as what matters now is being able to create circuits with chips, integrated circuits. There are some similarities but there are important differences. Now, I don’t mind if you learn to solder one or the other. Both give you useful skills. But can one be more important than another? Really?
The point is that we need some knowledge but we can’t know which bits matter. Which bits will matter in ten or twenty years time.

I can’t say we should not teach knowledge; I think we should, but I want the balance to be right. We should be ensuring our children have the right attitude to learning. Bit like Carol Deck says. Growth mindset – then they can specialise, ready for their appearance on Mastermind.

Is there a bit of knowledge that we all must have and that will remain until the end of time? What is it?

What Ofsted want…

Several folk have already blogged on this title. I don’t have any inside knowledge on this, though I do know the current boss of Ofsted. We both were consultant head teachers in London Challenge. I have visited Mossbourne Academy, Michael Wilshaw’s school that he turned from a rather dismal Woodberry Down into a stunning academy. I hold no liking for the academy system, which is very expensive, and, as Hattie has shown with his effect sizes work, just does not cut the mustard in terms of improvement. Academies are great for political kudos but … well you can tell what I think!
Michael and I are probably at different ends of the leadership spectrum. His school was outstanding, urban, complex and mine was outstanding, urban and complex. We were both London heads with all the advantages and challenges that incurred.

He and I experienced the impact that London Challenge had on schools. We learned that collaboration between schools beat competition, hands down. When we looked at the rate of improvement we found that, in general, London schools were improving, as were schools nationally. Better improvement was found in those schools that were being supported by London Challenge. But the very best improvement was being wrought from those schools that were doing the supporting. Schools like mine and Michael’s.

What Michael and I wanted was high quality learning in our schools. We went about that in different ways but we both achieved excellence for our students. We both did this by focusing on learning rather than by a particular pattern of a lesson. We did not mind if there was a particular way of teaching provided we got great learning for our students. If learning was not at the high level we required then we would, in our own, different ways, discuss the lesson with the teacher AND with the students. 

I had teachers who were stunningly outstanding who could be described as very traditional. I also had equally stunning teachers who were what could be described as progressive. We had some who had desks in rows and others who had tables with groups. Ability grouping in my school was a departmental decision. Provided the students were well taught it did not matter how you did that. Whatever you did would be looked at as we wanted to learn what worked for our students, in our context, with our resources and then shared with other staff. We had our own ways of doing things. We picked the best of what was out there but refused to follow some of the “current best practice”, if it did not suit us.

I think that this is what the leader of Ofsted is saying when he says Ofsted do not have a preferred way of teaching. So why the concern? My view is that the inspectors have to say something about the lessons they observe. All they really need to say is, “the learning was good/outstanding” or whatever. But the “rules” say they have to comment on what they saw in some detail. So if they see a lesson where learning was not stunning what do they say? Probably they fall into the trap of giving advice. Stuff like, “If there was group work, the learning would have improved.” We insist that they do this so that their observation is “evidenced”. So that we know what features of the lesson they are using to make the judgment. 

This system causes them to identify what a lesson needs to improve or to comment on the features that were seen and identify them as contributing to the quality of the learning. So what would I do if I ruled the world? I would only have them report to the school that they agreed with or disagreed with the school’s own judgements. I would not let them give any feedback to individual teachers. I don’t think that feedback is their job. As I was sharply told when I once challenged the purpose of Ofsted and, as I saw it, the lack of value for money provided, that they were “not the national improvement service. They were the national inspection service.” They have a mixed role and that causes the conflict. 

What I think they should do is: Go in. Observe and provide a judgment. Stay away from commenting on why the learning was good, or bad , or whatever.

Teachers and their SLTs are the experts in the learning needs of their own students. Ofsted just measure. Ofsted, just tell us how much you think the pig weighs. Don’t tell us how to look after it. Perhaps when schools take the full responsibility for their students’ learning we will achieve quality learning across our schools. When we have true cooperation with high challenge and appropriate support we will achieve the improvements London has seen.

Perhaps we could get the government to spend the academy money on that, rather than on political votes!

Watch Me! Getting students to listen to each other.l

A few years ago, while I was a head teacher rather than a retired head teacher, I visited New York with a number of colleague, London heads. We were interested in how some New York schools were managing to do so well with some disadvantaged students. One of the schools we visited was a KIPP, Knowledge is Power Programme, school. I can’t do the school justice by trying to describe it in a few words but suffice it to say that I was the most sceptical at the start of the visit and at the end of the week I was planning to take some of my own school leadership team back to New York to see what we could learn. After that SLT revisit we built our own, English version of the induction programme we had observed. One of the most impressive elements of what we had seen was the way students were asked to pay attention to not only the teacher but also the other student in the class.

I will describe part of what we did.

In the KIPP school the teacher used a trigger phrase, “Watch Me” and pointed to his eyes and all students had to stop what they were doing and focus on the teacher. They did truly focus on what he did and what he said. The difference between the New York Version and the sometimes shabby version that I seen in many, including my own, English schools was the degree of engagement that the New York students showed compared to the English students. I am sure you will have experienced the difficulty of getting all students to put their pens down, focus on me scenario that makes this attention getting process a little fraught and one that sometimes needs a disciplinary response.

What was even more impactful was that the teacher could say, “Watch Joanne” and students would give Joanne their full and focused attention. Joanne would be explaining something or answering in a tentative, exploring way that learners need to do to further their understanding. What was super was the respect in which all learners were held, evidenced by the attention given.

Clearly one can’t just walk into a classroom in any school and utter the magic “Watch Me” words and expect the degree of compliance needed. Students have to be trained to know what to do, and critically why they are doing this. Students must understand why this is for them and for their learning. Teachers also need to be consistent in their delivery of “Watch Me” and use this technique for learning and never for (mis)behaviour management.

It works as a whole school system and this degree of agreement between teachers will be difficult to achieve. Some will object, for a whole variety of reasons, and these objections may be silenced by the learning impact of the technique. Or the objectors will win the day and “Watch Me” will not be part of your school. Shame but democracy is more important than learning, is it not?

Learning focus roles in school.

Who, in school, does not have a role that is learning focused?

Ok, it is a rhetorical question but one that I think schools need to consider.

My view is that no one has a role that cannot be assessed using their impact on the quality of learning. But what I want schools to do is consider how much more strongly they can tie all the roles into student learning. In my own school we always tried to identify the unique contribution that each person and each role made towards our drive for excellence in learning.

We began with teachers and their role in directly impacting on learning. Training, good INSET, etc was always our aim. We then started to look at the things teachers do, and the systems that impacted on them to see if these supported the move towards excellence in learning. For example, we asked ourselves how well were learning assistants supporting learning. When we explored this we noted that some practices by LAs were not particularly helpful. Perhaps you have to check out this blog in the future to see what I mean and what we did?

But I want to take a look at the head of year role. This is often defined as a pastoral role. I have always been rather cautious about pastoral roles, not because students don’t sometimes need pastoral support, but because I know if a school has a good system for something it will usually find lots of work for the role to fulfil.

Let me digress a little. If a school has a great behaviour system, we really mean misbehaviour system, then that school will find lots of misbehaviours that need attention. What would happen if a school, instead of a (mis)behaviour system, had a similarly resourced behaviour for learning system? I bet that they could find lots of examples of great learning to build on! What would such a system look like? Back to the head of year role…

In many schools they know that roles need a learning focus and they say that their heads of year are learning focused. Hmnnn?! Just check what these heads of year actually do. They often are more concerned with removing the negative impact of disruption, misbehaviour, than with furthering the quality of learning for their year group. I know how damaging disruption is in a class – John Hattie cites the highly negative impact of just one disruptive student. What I want to assert is that a focus on that aspect, removing misbehaviour should be overridden by a focus on ensuring there are good learning behaviours and that teachers are fully supported and informed about what constitutes good learning for a year group and for a particular class and for each individual student. That role can be the learning role that a head of year adopts.

If we stop a child misbehaving then what behaviour does that child now adopt. Too often we simply expect the child to now show good learning behaviours as if learning behaviours are simply the absence of misbehaviours. Sometimes a child misbehaves because he or she has no appropriate, secure alternative behaviour. We need to train such students to adopt good learning behaviours not just stop poor behaviour.

So what does a head of year in my learning focused system actually do…? Have to wait for a future blog for some of these details. And we might have some input from a new head of year who wants to explore this new and, for her, exciting role. I am hoping she will blog how it works in practice as it happens.

Traffic Lights – Thanks to Joanne Lloyd

I have attached the powerpoint from my lesson to show the slides that were shared with the pupils.  My aim was independent learning and self/peer assessment tasks throughout.
This was lesson 1 at the start of a topic not covered by pupils before at KS4.  Year 11 mixed ability Additional Science GCSE. (A*-F pupils).

Pupils were given objectives called plan your progress (with increasing difficulty)  for the lesson and asked to traffic light them according to their current knowledge, green showed v. good knowledge, yellow some knowledge but more needed and red was to show no currrent/previous knowledge.  

Pupils were then given A3 paper and a list of titles to research/find out about. Some titles were chosen to not have a straight answer in the book but require working out and thinking about. Peer assessment followed, pupils asked to swap summary sheets and for each section peer assess what has been written and see if it could be added to/worded better/be improved? 

Each peer wrote post it improvements and fed their comments back to their partner.  Once pupils had their sheets back they then revisited the plan your progress and traffic lighted again (either with colour again or with the word red/yellow/green) pupils then completed the feedback points for homework and we used the sheets in future lessons to refer to. (additional plenary to assess the task – for assessment of me really, was also carried out)

https://docs.google.com/file/d/1jaPMCzI3zuJRxgp6JX9BwIKGGxTFnFZ1IEgUgVKUN4ruet_uj3EpvUv7mjzL/edit?usp=sharing  Powerpoint that Joanne Used

https://docs.google.com/file/d/1vEBn3v_byeapmsr7dR-2oxS6VwMbbeqQp7U2jsU5bBTH2w7AD72kl_1xv4l8/edit?usp=sharing  Joanne’s lesson plan

Comments would be good.

Differentiating Upwards

From now on, simply known as UP!

Question: PGCE student – “What is differentiation?”
Answer: Mentor – “It’s about making the work easier for the pupils to understand.”

This type of conversation, or similar versions, has probably happened for most teachers at the start of their careers. The ‘D’ word then becomes some kind of magical tool that only a few truly understand.

When the ‘Inspector arrives’ the teacher will have remembered their mentor’s early advice and proceed to cover their plans and boards with ‘WALTs, WILFs, Shoulds, Coulds and Musts’. Educational texts will have been plundered for the latest tips and pupils will then be subjected to being given different tasks presented on different coloured paper (laminated) on different tables.

When the Inspector leaves the teacher will return to their ‘differentiation by outcome’ approach but with the nagging feeling that they don’t fully understand the ‘D’ word. The mentor’s words are still remembered and the latest Twitter Guru is then sought out for further insight.

Personalised learning (misunderstanding of) and the caring nature which all teachers intrinsically have can lead to potpourri teaching and learning.

For those of you who have participated in one of the many OTPs around the UK we may have mentioned the term ‘Differentiating Up’. For one cohort this was made concrete due to one of the participants relating a colleague’s recent Ofsted experience.

The teacher was trying to ensure that his Merit and Distinction BTEC pupils were both catered for (it’s here where any teacher thinking about exam board implications will be likely to limit the learning in their classroom). This lesson resulted in nearly all the pupils opting for the ‘easier’ versions of tasks. Hence, the ‘caring approach’ plan was undone through no fault of the pupils.

Another participant mentioned that she teaches her Yr7 pupils GCSE standard work. In essence this exemplifies the ‘UP!’ process.

Try thinking about what is required to achieve the absolute maximum of learning.

Following the old adage about ‘shooting for the stars’ means you’ll probably get pupils to exceed their own expectations…and yours.

Still not convinced? I teach in a school with the same proportion of EAL pupils as most of you will. After an ‘interesting and expensive’ day of tips and advice and promising myself to learn “Hello” in 57 languages I then spoke to one of our successful Polish pupils. I apologised for having not known about all these new techniques. She insisted that by being challenged to learn like the others was the reason for her success. The ‘differentiating down’ methods were not going to help when she was being asked to write the same essays as her top set friends.

I would advise thinking more about getting the learning right in the first place through planning for all by using a system such as SOLO.

Many traditional differentiation techniques arise from incorrectly thought out lessons in the first place.

An Example

My own planning would be from a lesson ob by a ‘trainee’ Ofsteder… who saw one of my Yr11 lessons.

‘An example of ‘UP!’ from my own planning was from a lesson I taught for a visiting observer a couple of years ago. The previous ‘E’ grade achieving pupils were reaching ‘C’ grades for their speaking and listening because I had previously fully explained/demonstrated the excellent type of work that I was expecting to see that day. This high (Up theme continues) set of expectations is based on Berger’s ‘An Ethic of Excellence’. The learning needs to have a ‘hook’ with the real world and the determination to succeed will ensure that grades and marks are achieved as a matter of course. Never show anything less than the best work as ‘models’. I have heard teachers say “they can’t do it.” They can!’

‘Learning for one = Learning for all.’

Look Up!

Scott Slocombe

Head of English and OTP/ILP Facilitator


Progress or Learning?

Progress or Learning

Ofsted – do they really want to see progress over 20 minutes?

I think we would could agree on one definition/description of learning. That would be a behavioural change as a result of an activity. We would need to be clear that “activity” needed a general and open description that included thinking as well as manipulating real stuff. It is also not enough for the learner to have simply completed the activity; we need some evidence of the behavioural change in the learner.

Do we have to evidence the learning or does it exist before we evidence it? That is a little like does a tree make a sound if it falls in the forest with no one to hear it fall? I want to assert that the learning has happened before we evidence it. the learning is not a function of the evidencing but we only know it has happened by evidencing – getting a student to demonstrate something new that uses that learning.

If we take that as true then we can define progress as evidenced learning. I think that is what Ofsted mean when they say they are seeing progress.

The other way in which schools use progress is to evidence learning over a longer timescale. A child moves from level four to level five. This is progress. I guess it will be possible to see the moment in a lesson when the last piece is put into place by the learner that completes the move from level four to level five but that would be a much rarer event and most lessons would not provide that evidence. Also how would an external observer know that for that child that was the last piece in their jigsaw? The teacher would know, I expect. One could see it in the planning if the plan was student specific.

So, my view is that Ofsted do not want to see progress over the short timescale of a single lesson. But what is looked for is evidence of learning over a lesson, or part of a lesson, and when that is seen often enough in a variety of lessons in a school that provides evidence of likely progress. Looking at students’ books will provide evidence of a learner using their earlier learning to further learning. That is evidence of progress over time.

A C E – Autonomous, Challenge, Engagement

A C E – Autonomous, Challenge, Engagement

Blog 1 – Autonomous

I was pondering on whether to use the word independent or the word autonomous. Both create quite effective mnemonics, ICE or ACE, and was trying to work out if one was better than the other or were they completely interchangeable. As I had my laptop open at the time of thinking I could Google both words and various dictionary type websites told me that they were synonyms. Autonomous won mainly because I don’t tend to use autonomous too often but I frequently use independent.

I was thinking about what the main features of an outstanding teacher were, and, indeed, are their main features or is it something else. I came to the conclusion that main features of the teacher was not going to do the job. What mattered was that the teacher created learners and situations where learners could act independently, autonomously, in their learning.

What do we mean by autonomous learners? What does a lesson look like with autonomous learning?

One feature would be that the learners were actively learning and the teacher was not actively teaching the whole class. Teachers often find this difficult to do. Sometimes there is a school expectation/culture that teachers need to be seen to be working hard in lessons. Until that changes it will be difficult to get autonomous learners. I don’t mean that teachers should be inactive while students are engaged in their own learning but that teachers are doing things other than directly teaching.

For example, the teacher could be standing in the corner of the classroom, somewhere at the back is often good for this, observing the learning. If I entered that room then I would hope to see a focussed teacher who is thinking about the effectiveness of the planned learning. Perhaps I would see him (when I use him I also include her) spending some time near to a group of students listening to the conversations. He would be reflecting on how deeply the students were learning much more than just checking that they were “on-task”! (On-task is a rather pointless use of the skills of a qualified teacher). Compliance checking is a low level, displacement activity that teachers should not need to be engaged in for more than a few moments in any lesson. Having listened, and probably not allowing students to ask him any questions, (they would know he was assessing and so is not to be disturbed in this thinking), he would be considering if any intervention were needed. The balance would be to not intervene. We often do not trust our learners enough. If that is the case then our interventions, well meant as they are, confirm that they *need* us in order that they can learn. This clearly acts against our students being autonomous learners.

Lots more to say but I guess you might have some views.