Saturday, 2 February 2013

Progress, progress, progress

Changing my philosophy towards progress

Education, for me, is about the small things. The marginal gains, the little improvements, the little rules, the little sparks of understanding and me the little teacher – sorry, I just couldn’t find a way naturally to get my height into this conversation. I am 5ft 5, so virtually a hobbit. Furthermore, I have quite large feet.  Anyway, something happened on Twitter to bring this all home to me. A student of mine had a conversation on Twitter about his school memories. He posted that one memory he vividly remembers was of me praising his cardigan. Naturally, I can’t remember this little comment, but he did and still does to this day, proving to me how the little things do matter. This week I have praised students for their choice of their coats, shoes and scarves. Hopefully, one student will cherish the memory and recollect it and tell their children, or even their grandchildren.  Maybe it was such a big deal because most of my praise has an English slant to it. Powerful use of prepositions there, Tim. Amazing adjectives, Penelope. Sublime superlatives, Jenny.

Anyway, I want to share with you one small change to my philosophy towards teaching that has happened over the last few months. It is mainly down to one small class, but it is having a huge impact on all of my teaching.  I have always enjoyed teaching Year 8 and this particular class has a great vibe and we have a great laugh. Surprisly, they are incredibly responsive to feedback and marking.  This, I think, has allowed me to experiment a bit more with what works and what doesn’t work in lessons.

Planning Schemes of Work are my forte, I like to think. Each of my folders has a plan for each unit of work. Lessons are planned week by week and day by day. Holidays are spent adapting, improving, changing, and creating SOWs.  I enjoy the planning of the lessons. The Challenge: how am I going to teach this in a creative and engaging way?  In English, the planning is usually structured about the end task or what needs covering. Or, what are they not doing in their writing. Mainly, all this is pinned to a topic or a book. The learning is a like an escalator. We are staggering up to the end point. It is slow, but we can see the top and we can see where we started from. Now, this escalator approach has worked generally well for me. Each lesson has been another rung on the ladder. I have been aware of the progression and students know the end point.  It has produced some good results.

Assessment time, folks. Dum. Dum. Dum. It is the moment when the atmosphere changes in lessons. The teacher’s blood pressure rises. The students panic and look worried.  It is almost as if we have played a klaxon to show the danger of this next piece of work.  WARNING! WARNING! ASSESSMENT. This is where everything counts.  This is where those weeks of learning will come to fruition. Sometimes it does come to fruition. Other times it doesn’t. Depending on the task, I might mark a draft. Or, a ‘sir proofreads it for you’ as I like to call it. Sadly, assessment time can be the time when you see how they just didn’t get it.  You can be left having a whole class redo things again, because they missed out one important part of an assessment. Recently, I had a class create websites for teenagers. They spent more time making the work look like a webpage so that they neglected the fact it was for teenagers.

Milestone activities.

In a previous school, a dear friend of mine muttered these two words in a conversation. She is a historian, by the way. I asked her what one of these ‘milestone activities’ were. She described them to me. At the start of a topic in History, she would set them a quick test to see what knowledge they had about a topic. Then, she would assess them at the end of the topic to see what they have learnt. I make an encouraging remark and then left the idea alone.

Five years later, the presence of Ofsted is looming ahead and everything has gone crazy about progress. Progress this. Progress that.  This is everywhere in teaching. I even write it on exercise books.  My wife, as a primary school teacher, has similar conversations in her school about progress. It has become our mantra in a way.  It is no longer:  ‘education, education, education’. It is now: ‘progress, progress, progress’. Mr Gove, I let you have that one for your next speech, for free. We have almost shifted over night from ‘What is the objective? to ‘Where is the progress?’.  In a way, it is a good shift. A move away from the ‘what’ to the ‘how’. However, we have to fight that it doesn’t become a focus on ‘how many’.

With my mind on progress, I have changed my planning with this Year 8 class. It is no longer an escalator of learning. It is more like a race, but a race where I have tied all the students’ laces together.  The first thing I want my students to do it stumble and fall down. The rest of the learning is me untying their laces and getting them to win.  Therefore, I have started two topics with this Year 8 class with a milestone activity. The first one is ‘Great Expectations’ and the second is writing biographies.  The ‘Great Expectations’ assessment is a response to an extract, so at the start I gave them a similar task relating to another extract. They did it badly. Some didn’t write enough. Some misunderstood the question. Some focused on plot and not techniques. Some didn’t use quotes.  Some didn’t explain things as they should. It gave me my starting point.  My teaching had a clear focus at the start of the topic now. I knew what they personally needed to do to get better. I could then direct some of my teaching to improve these ideas.

Recently, I marked the final assessments and all of them were 100% better. In fact, preparing for the assessment involved looking at what they did wrong and they were ‘learning from their mistakes’. I now can show Mr Inspector that there has been progress. I can show the impact of my teaching. I can show how I have intervened to help some students. I can show how I have tried to push some of my high achieving students. My planning now allows for that. I no longer have an escalator approach of cramming stuff into students for the end assessment.  Students now have a good understanding what they need to do to succeed. This 'bookending of assessments' helps me to define the learning process and not have it solely as the end goal. We all know the exam systems is going all 'terminal' on us, but surely we can build some bookends into it.  

Some people may read this and think this is a cruel method of teaching as I am setting them up to fail. However, I disagree totally. Isn’t a far worse to spend a whole term preparing for an assessment and only at the end of it does the student realise he /she was barking up the wrong tree? They got the wrong end of the stick. If they had a bad attempt at the start, they then know that whatever happens they will do much better next time. I think my method is far more humane than the hit or miss approach that we often have with assessments. It is only after all our teaching we discover that they just haven’t got it. 

Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.

My Year 8 class embraced this idea of a first attempt. They got it. They could see the benefits. It wasn’t viewed as the ‘crap’ attempt. It was our starting point.  We did the same thing with the next topic and worked even better.  They were engage on a different level. It was engagement on a learning level.

I could never say this to that Year 8 class, but I will say it here. Thank you. You have helped me to progress.   

Thank you for reading and @Gwenelope  for her help,


1 comment:

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