And now for something completely different

We spent last week at school doing things that were completely different. We do this every year, using gained time from years 11 & 13, and year 10 being on work experience to suspend the timetable for years 7, 8 & 9 so we can challenge ourselves to work in different ways, try something new, combine knowledge and skills from different areas and hone our skills.

This year we had trips to Germany and France, we put on Macbeth in a day, we fought to survive on Mars like Mark Watney, built a WWI museum to commemorate the Centenary of the battle of the Somme, painted portraits, then designed and made frames for them, sang our hearts out, pitched products to dragons, ran year quizzes entirely composed of student questions, hosted a fantastic art show will all years represented (Y7 Terracotta Army in photo) and held a brilliant sports day, the best one ever (although I tend to say that every year). We may not be able to do it again.

Why not? One reason is that Year 10 work experience looks increasingly untenable. There are now whole fields such as healthcare where you need to be over 16 to get a placement. Work experience at KS4 is based on an idea of leaving education at 16 which is no longer true. Maybe this is a local issue, but it seems to be harder than ever to get quality placements – and we appreciate all the employers who do provide them – and more expensive to complete the process. This year more placements seemed to fall through at the last minute, sometimes because of the employer, sometimes because of the student or their family. We are thinking of moving it to year 12. They would be over 16, more likely to have a career in mind, and we could link it to their A Level / BTEC subjects. This change would make our alternative week more difficult, but we would still have some released time and could probably adapt.

The second problem is workload. Traditionally the people organising the week have to spend the next one lying in a darkened room. We made changes last year to ease the load, and this year to distribute leadership to year teams and clusters of subjects. My colleagues were their usual brilliant, enthusiastic creative selves, but they are also tired. As well as the ‘usual’ of improving standards, we have all worked hard to help disadvantaged pupils make better progress, introduce our new KS3 assessment model, we have had new GCSEs to learn, plan and implement, and the same for post-16 qualifications. Meeting the challenge of these changes will continue over the next few years. It’s a simple fact that something has to give.

The third factor is attendance. Last year our attendance fell dramatically during this week. We took steps to counteract this, flagging it, simplifying the programme, explaining it and, to be blunt removing some elements that were less aligned with the core aims. At the start of the week this seemed to have worked; attendance was 3% on same period the previous year. I looked at the figures for Friday in despair, however. They dragged the week to worse than the year before. We had to close partially because of the strike on Tuesday. We had been expecting Eid on Wednesday & Thursday, we know the proportion of students who will be celebrating. The attendance codes that concern me aren’t ‘Y’ or ‘R’ but ‘I’ and ‘N’. I know the jump in ‘I’ isn’t all illness, and the number of as-yet-unexplained absences on sports day was just dispiriting. It was a joyous event. The triumphs, large and small, the enthusiasm, the encouragement & support, the achievements, the enjoyment, ‘This Girl Can’ ambassadors proudly wearing their pink t-shirts, the camera dearie, the celebration of community – all of it lifted the heart. I’d really like any help readers can give about how to engage those families who think that all that is just pointless and not worth their children coming to school. My point here, however, is we just can’t afford a drop in attendance like this. We’re RI and while our last HMI letter was very positive, attendance remains a key issue.

I know that we created memories last week that will stay with students for the rest of their lives, helping form the ‘what’s left when we’ve forgotten all we learned’, but I wonder for how much longer we can afford to step away from the timetable and do something completely different given the constraints we face.

Values, Democracy and the EU Referendum

Like many educators in the UK, I found myself disconcerted by the demographics of the vote. The first news article I read about the result, pointed out that the single best indicator of voting choice was level of education. It was also apparent that young and old had voted very differently. Roughly three quarters of young voters supported remain, about the same proportion of over-65s voted to leave.

My school has done a lot of work on democracy this year. We encouraged students sixteen and older to register to vote in the spring. The council hosted events on the importance of local and national representation and kindly lent us actual voting booths, ballot boxes and polling station signage for a school mock election. 

I heard more spontaneous political and economic discussion between students on Friday than in the last twenty years put together.

This clearly had an impact on our sixth form students in particular because they were keen to run a school EU referendum. They did this with style and professionalism. Unlike the mock election. There was no campaigning but they hosted a debate (which frankly was better informed that most of actual national campaigns) and ran the election. Tutors also used materials derived from the booklet from the Electoral Commission that was sent to homes. We asked students to think about the following questions surrounding the claims made by the two campaigns:

  • What do you know already about the European Union? What do you need to find out? 
  • Each side (Leave / Remain) makes claims about the advantages of either leaving the EU or remaining in the EU. What is the evidence for their claims? 
  • Many of the claims made by each side (Leave / Remain) have been contested. How could you find out if a claim is reliable?  
  • The Remain campaign says the NHS is better protected if we stay in the EU. The Leave campaign says the NHS will be better off if we leave the EU. What sources of evidence could you use to decide which side might be right? 

There was considerable excitement on 23rd June, with voting taking place throughout the day. The results gave a large majority vote to remain in the European Union:

  • Remain 73%
  • Leave 26%

As we all know, this wasn’t how the national vote turned out, but it mirrored how young people voted nationally, and this certainly wasn’t the end of the referendum as far as our students were concerned; Friday 24th June turned out to be an extraordinary day. The first thing the Principal said to me that morning was about a conversation she’d heard two year 7 students having. “52%” said one “you can hardly call that a mandate!” Not the average 12 year old conversation.

This theme continued throughout the day. I heard more spontaneous political and economic discussion between students on Friday than in the last twenty years put together. A year 9 student informed me that the prime minister had resigned. A year 10 student asked me if I had seen the stock exchange figures, then showed me a graph on his phone. Another asked me if I was worried about my pension! (I am: have you looked at the AVC fund?). Break and lunchtime was full of discussion about the consequences of leaving the EU. The most frequent question was much broader, though. As several year 12 students put it “Why have they thrown our future away?” Who are “they”? The students have seen the statistics too. Their view is quite clearly that pensioners have made a decision that the young didn’t want but will have to live with. 

I voted remain. I am very disappointed with the result and extremely concerned about the future, but I know that it’s likely that a deal will be brokered with Europe. The divisions in our nation concern me even more – economic, geographic, educational and age. I believe that however we voted as individuals, we all need to work to overcome these. One thing I am sure of: the quality of discussion I and my colleagues witnessed among students was truly inspiring. Sixteen year olds deserve the vote.

I’m interested in the results of school mock EU referendums. Those I have heard about so far all had at least 70% of students voting remain, but so far these have all been Oxfordshire schools, so from an area that voted remain. I’d appreciate it if teachers could let me know their school results. I always welcome constructive comments, whether you agree with me or not.

Workable Wellbeing 2: more ideas inspired by #SLTchat

My first ‘Workable Wellbeing’ post was inspired by the @SLTchat discussion on 6/9/15 and updated a month later to mark World Mental Health Day. You can read it here.

This latest post was inspired by the lively #SLTchat on wellbeing held on 2/5/16 hosted by @ottleyoconnor. Several ideas I included in the first post featured again. Considering timing throughout the school year was mentioned by @ictlinks, using mindfulness courses with staff was brought up by @chrisedwardsuk, and cake featured prominently once again, with @pickleholic tweeting about ‘treat Friday’ where staff sign up to share their bakes.

My contribution about giving ‘I liked this’ cards to colleagues visited during learning walks received a lot of interest. Many contributors pointed out that it’s the simple things that can make all the difference, including thank-yous. My mention of staff dressing up for ‘Back to the Future’ Day last October seemed to capture the imagination of many and @Ed_Tmprince commented on the Easter egg hunt she puts on for her colleagues. I was interested in the Danish concept of Hygge described by @Graham_IRISC – a blend of warmth/comfort/belonging and how certain individuals in an organisation seem to generate it. I must add it to my list of Positive Phrases for which there is no direct English translation.

I was also struck the tweet by @MagnaCartaHead about the role of partnership working, something I had not considered at all in my original post. I know that I and other school leaders in the Oxford East Partnership find it a useful support network. We regularly share good news and challenges, and specific work like the recent moderation of Year 2 and Year 6 writing was particularly useful to all who took part. We have had several conversations about the role of wellbeing on recruiting and retaining staff and we all include membership of this supportive partnership in our recruitment advertising.

#SLTchat is itself a kind of partnership and those 30 minutes each Sunday evening certainly improve my sense of wellbeing and set me up for the week ahead. 

I’ve written a few posts now on wellbeing and worlkload and I’m thinking of how I can draw all these together, perhaps as a post on how school leaders can model behaviour that values work-life balance – something mentioned by several contributors to the #SLTchat discussion. Any comments or suggestions you may have would be very helpful.

Ten tips to avoid exam stress

Exam season is upon us again and it can be a fine balance for teachers between motivating students and causing undue stress or anxiety.

Here are some helpful things students can do to keep motivated and stay healthy too. This list originated several years ago from an A level psychology task I gave my students to do for a unit on stress – use what they had learned to write advice for students who had upcoming exams. I have developed it over the years and this latest version is influenced by advice from our School Health Nurse, Deb Burdett, the NHS,  and the charity Mind.

Ten tips to beat exam stress

  1. Get Organised. Make sure you know what exams you have, what kind of questions they will have and when they are.
  2. Manage your time. Make a revision timetable. Make sure you build in breaks.
  3. Stay In control by sticking to your plan.
  4. The right Environment. Work somewhere that is light, has enough space and is distraction-free.
  5. Boost your confidence. Use a revision journal, recall things that have gone well in the past and visualise your success.
  6. Eat Healthily and stay hydrated. Avoid ‘energy’ drinks: they give the illusion of alertness but impair your performance.
  7. Sleep. Get enough sleep; a tired brain does not work well.
  8. Friends & family. Let them know you have exams and need to revise. Keep in touch during your planned breaks.
  9. Avoid life changes: For example starting a new relationship.
  10. Nerves: Recognise that signs of exam nerves like ‘butterflies in the stomach’ or a dry mouth are just your body preparing for action. 

We include this in our revision guides we give to students and it has also just gone out as the regular (‘Dear Deb…’) item from our School Health Nurse in our school newsletter.

I hope you find this list useful. Please feel free to use and adapt it as you wish. I’d be interested in which resources other schools use.

Students get more help and advice on student life from these pages on the Mind website and advice directed at parents and carers can be found on this area of the NHS Choices website.

April 2017 Update

Our old school nurse Deb Burdett has been promoted on to another area, but we still use the materials we produced together and our current school nurse, covering more than one school, keeps up the good work. We have run special sessions on tackling exam anxiety this year which have proved popular.

This list is made up of simple, but proven advice. The websites cited provide further guidance and signpost additional help for students who need it.

Ten ways you know it’s the start of term.

Feeling a bit disoriented after that lovely holiday? Here’s my top ten list of things that tell you the new term has started!

  1. You breathe out a sigh of relief that the waistband of your work clothes still fits – and a button pops off.
  2. When you finally find your lanyard again you realise that the age gap between your staff ID photo and reality has widened yet further.
  3. As a result of the ‘holiday IT update’ your computer crashes when you try to log in.
  4. There are now 247 emails in your inbox.
  5. Some one asks’Sir?’ / ‘Miss?’ And for a moment you wonder who they’re talking to.
  6. The bells, the bells! Your life becomes Pavlovian again.
  7. At least a dozen new educational acronyms (NEAs) seem to have been invented since the end of last term.
  8. You scald yourself with your coffee, not having time to let it cool down.
  9. You spend more time with your legs crossed as you can no longer just pop to the loo when you need to.
  10. After your busy day, you realise that you have to get up at THAT TIME again tomorrow…

So, how many did you score out of ten at the start of this term? Remember, though, what you do makes a real difference and at least there’s no time to be bored!

Anything I missed? What would you put in the top ten?

Quote of the Week – A Third Year of Inspiration

One of my first posts was about inspirational quotes that I use with colleagues at school, using one for each Of the 38 weeks of the term. In 2015 I followed this up with a second year’s  worth of quotes. You can find these collections here:

Here’s the third helping, with thanks to all those who have sent quotes that inspire them.

  1. I’ve come to a frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element in the classroom. It’s my personal approach that creates the climate. It’s my daily mood that makes the weather.  Haim Ginott
  2. What we want to see is the child in pursuit of education, not education in pursuit of the child. George Bernard Shaw
  3. There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children. Nelson Mandela
  4. It’s always better to try. Even if you fail and fall, the good people around you will pick you up. Tinie Tempah (via @Chilledu)
  5. A teacher today creates ripples in time that extend to generations yet unborn. Not just impact in the here & now but in the here & forever. Jeff Goldstein
  6. Truly great schools don’t suddenly exist. You grow great teachers first who, in turn, grow a truly great school. John Tomsett
  7. Success is no accident. It is hard work, perseverance, learning, study, sacrifice and most of all love of what you are doing or learning to do. Pele (via @10MillionMiler)
  8. Teaching is a beautiful job; as it allows you to see the growth day by day of people entrusted to your care. Pope Francis
  9. In order to succeed, people need a sense of self-efficacy, to struggle together with resilience to meet the inevitable obstacles and inequities of life. Albert Bandura
  10. What sculpture is to a block of marble, education is to a human soul. Joseph Addison
  11. Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak. Courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen. Winston Churchill
  12. Every child deserves a champion: An adult who will never give up on them, who understands the power of connection and insists they become the best they can possibly be. Rita Pierson
  13. Teaching, it turns out, is a team sport, where teachers make each other better fastest by building culture & sharing insights. Doug Lemov
  14. Life’s most persistent and urgent question is ‘What are you doing for others?’ Martin Luther King
  15. The world is changed by your example, not your opinion. Paul Coelho
  16. More than anything else… teaching is about hope. Every child is the teacher’s hope for the future. Education happens when hope exceeds expectation. Teaching is what makes the difference. Andy Hargreaves & Michael Fullan
  17. Whoso neglects learning in his youth, loses the past and is dead for the future. Euripedes
  18. Education is the key to unlock the golden door of freedom. George Washington Carver
  19. Upon the subject of education, not presuming to dictate any plan or system respecting it, I can only say that I view it as the most important subject which we as a people may be engaged in. Abraham Lincoln
  20. Education is simply the soul of a society as it passes from one generation to another. G.K.Chesterton
  21. Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe. HG Wells
  22. No man stands so tall as when he stoops to help a child. Abraham Lincoln
  23. Opportunity dances with those already on the dance floor. H.Jackson Brown Jr.
  24. No matter how may years we’ve been teaching, we should feel a little bit like a rookie every year by trying something new and not being afraid to fail. Heidi Pauer
  25. Education is the premise of progress, in every society, in every family. Kofi Annan
  26. What you do makes a difference, and you have to decide what kind of difference you want to make. Jane Goodall
  27. A well-educated mind will always have more questions than answers. Helen Keller
  28. The only thing you absolutely need to know is where the library is. Albert Einstein
  29. Try to learn something about everything and everything about something. Thomas H. Huxley
  30. If I ran a school, I’d give the top grades to those who made a lot of mistakes… And then told me what they’d learned from them. Buckminster Fuller
  31. The great aim of education is not knowledge but action. Herbert Spencer
  32. What did you ASK at school today?Richard Feynman
  33. Even when not fully attained, we become better by striving for a higher goal. Victor Frankl
  34. Not everything that can be counted counts and not everything that counts can be counted. William Bruce Cameron
  35. Optimism is the faith that leads to achievement. Nothing can be done without hope and confidence. Helen Keller
  36. Good colleagues inspire and encourage each other… good colleagues compliment and complement each other. They keep themselves and they keep each other alive. Jonathan Smith (via Sir Tim Brighouse)
  37. Teaching is not something one learns to do, once and for all, and then practises problem free, for a lifetime… Teaching depends on growth and development and is practised in dynamic situations that are never the same twice. Wonderful teachers, young and old, will tell of fascinating insights, new understandings, unique encounters with youngsters, the intellectual puzzle and the ethical dilemmas that provide a daily challenge. Teachers above all must stay alive to this. William Ayers (via Tim Brighouse)
  38. I can accept failure, everyone fails at something. But I can’t accept not trying. Michael Jordan

I hope you find these quotes useful. Comments are always welcome, as are any quotes you may have found particularly helpful. I’ve done my best to check they are all attributed correctly; please let me know if you spot any errors.

Collaborative Learning: Making group work work

The original article was posted on 19 February 2016, with an update on 27th February on my response to feedback from subject teams and our next steps in improving collaborative learning.

Despite good evidence of the effectiveness of collaborative learning, one of the criticisms of group work is that it’s too easy for most of the work (and most of the learning) to be done by some members of the group, while others (and perhaps those who most need to make more progress) are happy to sit back and let them! My school decided to focus on improving the quality of collaborative learning this Spring. 

Appropriately, this is a collaborative post drawing on contributions from colleagues Rebecca Lightfoot, Kate McCabe (@evenbetterif) Manjula Pillay-Sayers, Harriet West, and Paul Wileman (@StGregoryPE) as well as my own at a recent staff CPD session at our school.

The session started by looking at using the Sutton Trust / EEF Teaching & Learning Toolkit (found online here) to inform teaching practice by drawing on its accessible summaries of what makes strategies effective. I chose collaborative learning as an example because it is one of our identified school priories and has a strong positive effect size, based on a robust evidence base. That research identifies these key points to consider:

  • Assignment of roles
  • Motivation of pupils
  • Quality of discussion
  • Opportunities to practice
  • Training of staff

My colleagues then demonstrated how they used collaborative learning across a range of subjects, with teachers circulating round a carousel of these examples.

Assigning Roles

Paul showed how assigning roles to each member of a group  in PE lessons ensured that they all contributed to the overall outcome. Roles included:

  • Manager – matches team members and tasks, responsible for tactics.
  • Coach – responsible for training, advises during play 
  • Performance analyst – provides feedback & relates to sport science
  • Pundit – comments on team selection, form and play, offers criticism
  • Fan – provides positive support & encouragement

Aligning roles to learning needs ensured that individuals made progress in the areas they most needed to develop. 

Manjula shared roles she used when groups carry out science experiments of discuss topic-based questions:

  • Leader – coordinated work of the group
  • Observer – provides feedback on how effectively the group is functioning to achieve their goal
  • Collator – responsible for capturing results or summarises discussion
  • Speaker – provides verbal feedback to the rest of the class for the group 

Wearing badges helps identify who is who. Students rotate roles for different practicals and reflect on what they learn in each role, developing an understanding of the attributes and behaviours required for successful teamwork.

In Business Studies, Rebecca showed how she assigned responsibilities within a group based on exam assessment criteria, for example ‘include advantages’, ‘provide relevant examples’ or ‘appropriate counter-points’. Rotating these roles enables each student to gain focus on each of these elements. 

Motivation of Pupils

Kate demonstrated a number of ways to motivate pairs and groups in English lessons. In a started activity, for example, pairs work together to make links between texts, charaters and themes.  Groups work together to make an analysis wall for a poem which other groups then scrutinise and improve. In ‘Race to the top’ pairs work their way up a hierarchy of questions from basic comprehension to analysis. In Business Studies, students within groups are motivated because the tasks they are working on as a group are assigned on the basis of individual student’s own personalised learning checklists (RAG-rating against specification knowledge, skills and understanding). Rebecca also introduces an element of competition between groups  by having them quiz each other using the questions and mark schemes they have designed. In Geography, students know that they will be feeding back to each other in dedicated improvement and reflection time. This also provides Harriet with an insight into their progress.

Quality of Discussion

The quality of discussion that takes place in groups is determined by teacher planning, establishment of ground rules for discussion with students, and opportunities to practice this type of working. In PE, Paul thinks it’s essential to consider socil interactions within th group and trains students in interpersonal skills. Students are assessed on speaking, listening and working collaboratively, focussing first on the process, rather than the product. Practice is first gained in open-ended, low risk tasks (such as ways of passing a ball) before moving onto more high-risk ones. 

Student Feedback

Harriet provided examples of student feedback from a Year 10 collaborative learning exercise on types of tourism in Geography. Students commented on many positive aspects, including motivation and engagement:

“It helps people not just sit there and makes them do something.”

“It gets everyone involved so everyone pays attention and learns.”

Also the effects on individual learning:

“It forces you to try and remember, rather than referring to your book.”

“We get to learn independently and then expand our knowledge through discussions with others, and aspire to reach a higher level of expertise.”

On the other hand, some students saw limitations in relying on others to research and communicate some aspects of the activity:

“Some people speak too fast so I do not get the info clearly.”

“You have to rely on other people, some facts may be missed out when someone else does it.”

This realisation, however, can be utilised by teachers in reinforcing the importance of engagement by all group members in the task.

Developing collaborative learning

Subject teams have rated their current performance in different elements of collaborative learning: task design, pupil motivation, generating discussion, and support & practice. The teams have then decided projects with agreed success criteria to develop identified areas of need. In feedback, colleagues valued having been shown the clear rationale behind our focus on collaborative learning and unanimously welcomed the ideas shared by colleagues. They have asked to see more, including opportunities to see them in action in lessons and through more examples of student work.

 I have used this feedback to pair up subjects which complement each other’s needs. For example our Art team view task design as a strength but want to improve the  quality of discussion between pupils. I’ve paired them with our Humanities team who view their ability to foster discussion within pupil groups as a strength but want to improve their planning  of a greater range collaborative learning activities.

The next step is for these paired teams to plan how they can help each other in developing their chosen areas over the next few weeks.

I’d like to thank my colleagues for their contributions and I’d welcome comments from readers, and examples of successful collaborative learning from other schools. I’ll post an update later in the year on how our development of collaborative learning has progressed.

Lesson Observation Feedback

This was my first post, originally written in November 2014. Following a request, I added an update in April 2016. 

Lesson observation is a contentious topic. Is it unduly stressful? Should it be graded? Is it even valid? Recently,  I have been trying to give more effective observation feedback. This is in part prompted by Ofsted’s move not to give grades. I have also reflected on training I and colleagues received from Ofsted inspector Mary Myatt.

Observations are important and one part of the range of evidence informing us about the quality of teaching. I believe it’s most important role is developmental, as a tool to improve teaching rather than just measure it. I therefore tend to the view that giving a grade in feedback can distract from an effective pedagogic discussion. However, I think openness is important: is it right to form a judgement but not communicate it to the teacher? I believe the answer is that single observations are valid but do not in isolation have sufficient reliability to justify a grade. That reliability comes from cross-referencing a range of evidence. A grade can justifiably be attached to this evidence in its entirety.

However reliable an assessment of the quality of teaching is, it can’t of itself improve teaching. Feedback with the teacher has the power to achieve this. I have found training by Mary Myatt has helped improve feedback I give in the following ways.

1. Starting with an overview of evidence used to determine quality of teaching, that observation is only one element, although the one where we feel most under the spotlight.

2. Not using “I” other than in “I noticed…” So as not to give the impression that feedback is based merely on personal opinion.

3. Greater use of questions and take up time to encourage the teacher to reflect (e.g. What was the intended impact? What could have been done there?).

4. Providing more opportunities for comment / challenge from the teacher (e.g. Does that seem a reasonable commentary?)

The extent to which these changes will lead to sustained improvements in teaching remains to be seen,  but there are some positive indications:

– Feedback conversations so far do seem more focussed around pedagogy.

– There is a greater openness about observer effects. It is also easier to view these in context when considering a broad range of evidence.

– Conversations have reinforced the importance of responding to pupil needs within the lesson, including giving sufficient time, in the face of pressures teachers may feel to cover curriculum content at all costs.

I hope to return to this topic when it has been possible to assess the long-term impact of the changes in the way I and my colleagues give feedback.
April 2016 Update

My opening paragraph reads like a piece of history now! No-grade observations are now the norm at my school and, I think, most others. The benefits I listed originally still hold true and I think conversations around teaching really have shifted to being developmental and much more productive. There is now an appreciation among SLT and subject leaders that reliable judgments about the quality of teaching and learning should be drawn from a wide range of evidence. Observations are an important element, along with work scrutiny, learning walks, analysis of progress data and student voice.  We have worked harder to tie our focus for evidence gathering more tightly into our school improvement priorities with a specific focus each term. Recently these have been the quality of feedback to students & opportunities for them to act on it to improve, and meeting the needs of disadvantaged students.  We are now working to improve the quality of feedback that we give colleagues following learning walks.

I welcome comments and it would also be good to hear about how lesson observation feedback is used in other schools.