Sunday, 5 July 2015

It’s all about the books, about the books, about the books - no trouble!

Things have changed.

There wasn’t a sudden announcement, but the emphasis in observations has dramatically changed over the last four years. Because someone, in their infinite wisdom, decided that teaching is too hard to assess simply by looking at the teacher for an hour from the ineffective perspective of being perched at the back of the classroom, the focus has shifted. It went from focusing on the teaching to focusing on the students and that horrible word…PROGRESS. Then, the focus suddenly dropped onto books and exercise books. Now, don’t get me wrong, the exercise books have been a part of the observation process, but they haven’t always been the primary focus. They have always been very far down on the line of priorities. Now it is all about the books. Oh, and that’s no trouble.

Lesson observations have become like a very messy divorce. We now have observers openly blanking teachers. People will observe my lessons by looking at the books and they will simply ignore me. The materialistic things (the second car and the paintings) and the children are the focus and not the person that has been holding everything together for the past few years. Maybe, I should consider getting a prenup before I start a year of teaching. Look, before you observe me, you need to remember that I inherited this class and that I am not responsible for Tim’s terrible attendance or the fact that Susan doesn’t seem to keep still.  But, it isn’t you were are looking at, Chris, so just imagine we are not here. They say this while loudly talking to a child and moving the furniture around.  

So the humble exercise book has become the cross to nail on my teaching for the year. It is all about the books. No trouble. See there is a problem with the humble exercise book. It starts looking beautiful at the start of the year and then by the end of the year they look like something that has seen several years of military service. It is wrinkled. It is creased. It might miss a page. It might have a scar of ink across the cover. They never look like how they should look in your mind. They look ugly. However, the first page looks beautiful because both teacher and student were concerned about making a good impression and three terms later there is no need worry about making a first impression.

Pick up a book in my room and I will go through several states of fear and anxiety. Did I mark it recently? When was the last time I marked it? Did the student hand it to me when I was marking the whole set? Is it marked enough? What colour pen did I use? Did I use the right colour? Is my handwriting clear enough? Did I write something appropriate? Did my handwriting of the word ‘work’ make it look like something inappropriate? Did I have a breakdown mid marking and ‘let rip’ with my anger and frustration? Before this book obsession, I just marked. I didn’t think about anybody else; it was just me and the student. Now, it is like the opening night of my version of ‘Hamlet’. I am being critiqued.  

I look at exercise books all the time. I scrutinise exercise books as a Head of Department. Not because I want to chase people and tell them off for not marking. But, because I want to see what the learning looks like in that person’s lesson. How has the learning been shaped? How has the student developed over time? What has the teacher done with a topic? How have they supported a student? I suppose, if I am honest, I don’t look at things the way others look at things: desperate for some evidence of progress or no progress. The things I look at are:

1] What is the learning that has taken place? What is the journey that students have been on?

2] What activities have students done to enable the learning to take place?

3] How has teacher’s marking guided the student to improve?

My feedback to staff will cover these things. As things have progressed, I have discovered quite a few things, but the most important thing I have noticed is: target setting.

I have noticed that most teachers have a bank of ten key targets that they give students to direct them in the process of improvement. Yes, I am guilty of this. The targets are my short-hand. They make the process of marking quick and easy. They are my catchphrases. The sentences are preconstructed in my head. All I have to do is simply go to the space in my brain where they are located and pick one. I have stock targets for top and bottom of classes and readymade targets for reading and writing. The nature of the job means that at some point in the past we needed a way to speed things up and simplify things. A bank of targets in our heads has been the way to do this.

So what did I do with my department about this target setting issue? I extended the bank of targets the teachers use. I gave them more. I gave them topic related targets. I gave them targets related to reading and targets related to writing. Therefore, when students have an assessment, teachers have a bank of targets to give the students, which they could adapt if they wanted to. But, I even made it easier for staff by giving a skill to a letter or number, so all staff had to do is write a letter and the students wrote out the target. The results was faster and easier marking, but more precise feedback. We used this model for our GCSE mock marking and I’d say it reduced the marking load considerably. Plus, we kept the targets to one per question. The problem we have with marking exam papers is that there is often a catalogue of things that students need to improve, but we opted for one target per question and I can safely say that our recent Year 11 students knew what they needed to do for each question.

For question 1, I need to …

For question 2, I need to …

In addition to this, we made the targets (skills) explicit to students. They knew what the targets were going to be at the start of the topic. In fact, the teaching was planned around the targets we might set the students. Therefore, students were able to see how things linked to the overall task. In fact, I got students to actively engage with the targets by attempting a piece of writing and assessing based on the sheet. I even got students to self-evaluate the targets throughout a topic.

I know, it doesn’t sound too ground-breaking. However, here’s a bit of the principle behind it: Teachers are magicians standing at the top of a ladder.  They are seen, by students, as the experts in their subject. They do the work that students are expected to do without thought /effort and it looks like magic to them. A student is at the bottom of a ladder in terms of how they see themselves. They see the magical stuff but there is quite a bit of a way for them to get close to the magician. If I am honest, students see English as something mystical. Either they over complicate it or they over simplify it. We don’t help things by parading mark schemes written by monkeys with typewriters, checklists and example answers. It is good natured but is it really effective in helping them to see what they need to do to improve? Too many times students say that they must write more to improve their English level. If only, it was that simple.

We have shared these skill sheets this year and we are going to build on them next year. But, for me, they work. They are not a hierarchy of skills. I am not telling students do this and you get a grade A. Instead, I am saying that these are the skills I will see a person do if they want to be the best. It would be crazy to focus on everything. Instead, focus on one at a time. Plus, we have a conflict within ourselves when it comes to target setting. We are conflicted between content and skills. Knowledge and skills. Accuracy and skills. All too often, I have spent three weeks teaching students and got them to produce a piece of work. The targets I set the student do not always relate to the previous learning. It focuses on the basics. I might have taught students to use a range of clauses in their writing, but the target I set them is about spellings. Not related to the previous learning. Yes, the basics are important, but I am giving conflicting messages. It is like me asking students questions about a war poem and then asking them: ‘Which band was at number 1 the most in September 1983?’ The questions and the targets (feedback) should be about the previous learning. All too often they are not. In English, we find it almost necessary to be constantly writing targets about accuracy, but this might be going against the grain of what we are trying to teach.

Our feedback in the classroom is under scrutiny and so too is our questioning. Maybe, rather than focus on endless writing in books, we look at what we write. The language we use for setting targets. The choice of targets. One line of teacher’s writing can be more meaningful and effective than a page of scribbles where a teacher expresses their frustration that a student hasn’t listened through the art of exclamation marks, capital letters and underlining.

Maybe, if we start with the framework of targets as the basis for our teaching, then students might be clearer about what is they need to do to get better. If we use the same language of targets at the start and in the middle and at the end, then maybe these students have a better chance of making progress.

I will add more screengrabs from my PowerPoint later. Thanks for reading,

P.S. Like Arnie, there is no point setting a target unless like 'The Terminator' we return. I'll be back.... to see that you have followed your target.   

1 comment:

  1. Teachers are magicians standing at the top of a ladder and they are seen by students as the experts in their subjects. Having trouble in essay writing? Go to free online proofreading services and browse around!