Sunday, 24 June 2018

The stench of failure and the sweet aroma of success

There’s one thing we don’t speak enough about in the world of education. Failure. Mistakes. Errors of judgement made by adults. 

The classroom is the place where students can practise, experiment, fail and succeed, yet the school isn’t the workplace to fail, experiment and make errors. Now, before you start thinking I have had a telling off this week for making a mistake and this is a thinly veiled attack at the hand that feeds me, let me assure you that hasn’t happened. No, really, it hasn’t happened. I promise.

As an NQT, I was sold a lie. It wasn’t a deliberate lie, but it was a lie nonetheless.

My youthful self sat and observed lessons and was often presented with perfection. I was taught in university what perfection looked like in the classroom. I watched experienced teachers teach perfect lessons. I heard from students on the PGCE course telling me about their perfect lessons and how their mentor said their lesson on writing as a slug was sublime and ‘clearly outstanding’. I think that same student also informed me that another teacher told her she should be an Ofsted inspector because her lessons were so good. She was the same girl who told me her plan was to teach for two years and become an education consultant and write books.

That one experience highlighted to me from the start that there is a subconscious conflict in education. We strive for perfection, but some of us think and feel that we are the physical embodiment of perfection.

On a personal level, I think that is a dangerous place to be because it is incredibly stressful being perfect. I should know – joke!  ‘Working to achieve perfection’ is a much calmer and less stressful place than ‘holding on to perfection’. Let’s call it the ‘Perfection Problem’.

I admit I am part of this problem. I feed the ‘Perfection Problem’. I talk about more about the ‘perfect’ solutions than the problems. Teachmeets are people sharing their solutions. Books are written about solutions. Blogs are written about solutions. Nobody really talks about the opposite. The mistakes. Imagine a teachmeet about people sharing their problems. Imagine a book written about the mistakes teachers make.  There are businesses and organisations that feed on this ‘perfect solution’ to our problems. We are always one step away from being perfect, if only we had this or this tool. You can see we have an absence of discussion of the mistakes we make and continue to make. We look too much at the solutions and shy away from discussing the mistakes.

We are all guilty of it at some level. But, we do some easy ways to avoid taking ownership of the mistakes.  Errors are usually one of these in the teaching world.

  1. The teacher’s [who used to work here] mistake
  2. The other department’s mistake
  3. The children’s mistake
  4. The parents’ mistake
  5. The head teacher's / SLT’s mistake 

 We displace the ownership of the mistake to someone else. It happened to me. A teacher left one of my previous schools and they got the blame for some inflated coursework marks, when it came to moderation. I left that school and during coursework moderation came up my name was mentioned. Last out of the door gets blamed for a number of things. I was the scapegoat.

The problem is that it is so easy to divorce ourselves from mistakes. How could I possibly control things? They are out of my control so therefore I cannot be held accountable for the mistake. We are dealing with teenagers and they are unpredictable.  The situation allows us to be free from imperfection and stops us from actually talking about mistakes. Then, things transform by the power of semantics and mistakes become issues. ‘What are the mistakes we are making with the boys?’ becomes ‘what are the issues with boys and underperformance?’ I have an ‘issue’ is so much better sounding that ‘mistake’ because there’s nothing personal. And, that’s the crux of the problem.

A mistake is a mistake. It isn’t a person. Yet, mistakes are seen as being so personal. It is somehow a reflection on me. A mistake equals me. We don’t just personalise mistakes; we give them emotions. Mistakes become emotional and personal. Issues are impersonal and unemotional. They are easier to deal with.  But, issues aren’t one person’s responsibility, whereas a mistake is.  

To make us better, we need to be less personal and less emotional about mistakes and take ownership and control of things in the classroom. And, probably talk about them. After all, that’s what we do in the classroom.

With students, we talk about and highlight the mistakes.

With students, we discuss with them how they made a mistake and they can prevent them in the future.

With students, we look for patterns of errors across the group.

With students, we remind them of previous mistakes so they commit them to memory so they don’t repeat them.

With students, we show examples of work with errors and work with less errors.

With NQTs, we let them make mistakes and then afterwards we say to them it was a mistake to do it that way in the first place. Isn’t it a wonder NQTs don’t last long in teaching when we are expecting them to learn all those mistakes on their own. Why don’t we list the mistakes NQT should avoid? We don’t. Teaching isn’t a natural process. It is one that we learn to do. Wouldn’t it be helpful and less stressful if we support others with how they learn to teach? The best thing a teacher can do to help an NQT is talk about mistakes and mistakes to avoid.

‘The Perfection Problem’ is everywhere and to create real change we need to address the balance between solutions and mistakes. And, this will take some shifting of perspective, because we don’t have help from other camps.  One organisation uses words like ‘good’ and ‘outstanding’, which encodes that a school is almost perfect, just perfect or nowhere near perfect.   

My hope is that we can have some grown-up conversations about mistakes and avoid the ‘I’m perfect and don’t make mistakes’ attitude. The new wave of ‘research’ I hope will help support that. My big concern is that it doesn’t become about finding the magic solution.

Yesterday at the Teaching Learning Leeds Conference 2018, I spent 40 minutes talking about loads of mistakes I have made as a human, teacher, middle-leader and beyond and it was full of my mistakes. And it was juicy and full of salacious gossip. So juicy that the people attending have all signed non-disclosure forms.  However, I thought I’d try to categorise the mistakes I have made over the years in the classroom to start the ball rolling.  

  1. Combination mistake

Human’s don’t come with instruction manuals, so when you put Sam and Sally together you don’t realise you are putting dynamite next to a flame. These can take a number of forms like the combination of PE period 4 and English period 5.

2.       The first time experiencing it mistake

We don’t talk about this one enough. The first time I teach anything I make loads of goofs. The next time, I teach it better. We are working on the process for the first time so you can’t see the shortcuts or the problem areas.

  1. Pitching the level mistake

Finding the level of work for a class takes lots of trial and error. I’d say that we are constantly working on this and getting it wrong and right sporadically.

  1. The comfortable mistake

We are sometimes too familiar with material that it clouds are judgement. It worked with classes for five years previously, so it must work well with this class.

  1. The situation mistake

Giving students an assessment in the last week of term isn’t always the best time to get the best from a student. They will be tired and not working at their best. Period 5 on a Friday is a danger point for this too.

I have made loads of mistakes and I work hard to avoid repeating them, but we need to talk about the mistakes we make and why we make them. We need a collective effort to share mistakes in addition to solutions. The solution only really works we have understood the mistake. Our insistence in distancing ourselves from the choices we make in the classroom leads us to try to solve bigger issues in schools with solutions.

It’s all about that classroom.

When that door is closed, it is down to us to make the difference.

And you don’t make a difference without making mistakes.

But, schools need to give permission and support to staff to make mistakes and learn from them.

We won’t get to the real problem unless people can talk about they make mistakes and admit them.

Then, act on them.   

So come on, if you think you are hard enough, talk about your mistakes.


Sunday, 3 June 2018

The Circus of Knowledge – Tent Pegs and Tent Poles

There’s one thing I find dull as dishwater and that’s cloze exercises about the plot. A class reads a section of book / poem / play and then they have to show their knowledge (check they haven’t been sleeping)  of the text by selecting the right word from a selection (differentiated option) or from their brains (challenging option). And, I find them boring. Dull. Uninteresting. Yawn. They are usually involve filling in the gaps of a summary and, although the knowledge of the text is important, I don’t think they help to store that knowledge. They help the teacher to test it, but they don’t help, in my opinion, to store and retain knowledge.

When reading a novel or a play, we are constantly checking to see what students understand and we might test them on certain aspects of the text, because the focus tends to concentrate on the key things. We prioritise knowledge of the text. What is important for the assessment? The problem with that is that we make presumptions about important and ‘not as important’ knowledge. But, how can we possibly know that one specific detail in the opening chapter is as important as a specific episode in the tenth chapter? It is only when we look to make connections across a text, when we see the relevance of points. However, by the time you get to the end of the book and developed some complex ideas about the text, you probably are a bit hazy about chapter 1 and 2. The better students pick up on precise examples whereas the weaker students go for generalised instances. The trick for all teachers is to get the students to focus on precise examples. But, how do we do that and improve the knowledge of specific instances in a text? Well, simply the students need to store more of that knowledge and possibly [gasp] knowledge that might not be necessary or relevant. Because, we don’t see the relevance of one piece in a jigsaw until we put the whole jigsaw together.  

This year I have been writing lots of questions. I have ditched that wafer thin folder of comprehension activities and replaces them with a PowerPoint. A PowerPoint of a slide per chapter or scene. Each slide will contain seven to eight questions. The questions are not complex. They range from quotes, plot points, character’s feelings, aspects of dialogue. They look something like this:

Treasure Island – Chapter 1

  1. Name one character who asks the narrator to write the story down.
  2. What is the name of the inn?
  3. What did the old dog carry with him when he arrives at the inn?
  4. What did he have across his face?
  5. What did he do during most of the day?
  6. What did he ask the narrator to look out for?
  7. What about the ‘old dog’ scared people?
  8. Who had an argument with the man?

Or this:

Romeo and Juliet - Prologue

  1. Where is the play set?
  2. How are the two households alike?
  3. What makes people’s hands unclean?
  4. What kind of lovers take their life?
  5. Where are the children born from?
  6. What could not end until the children die?
  7. How long should the play last?

They are intentionally simple in context, but testing a piece of knowledge. They are used at the start of the lesson. In the middle. At the end. In fact, I put them anywhere when reading the text. Sometimes we answer the questions in their books, but majority of the time we do it verbally as a whole class – almost as a chant.  Usually the first time we look at the questions there’s a bit of hesitancy, because they need to recall an aspect from the reading. However, by the time the class has answer the questions five times, they can offer them freely. Yes, you heard me right. I use the questions again and again. Those questions don’t sit patiently for the next year when I teach the text again. They are used again and again throughout the teaching of the text. When we have finished chapter 10, I will go through chapter 1 questions. Quick verbal test of the class.

I love a knowledge organiser, but there isn’t a knowledge organiser that can effectively convey the body of knowledge for a novel. The knowledge is ‘tent pole knowledge’: knowledge is perceived as holding up a key idea or theme. ‘Tent pole knowledge’ does negate some knowledge. The colour of door. The one word utterance of a character. The flower in the garden.

We have a body of knowledge that isn’t mighty as a pole – more a peg. They are small things that you can easily trip over and miss if you are not watching carefully. They aren’t as gaudy or noticeable  as the tent poles, but they are the detail that that moves you from general to specific understanding. You find that you need a few big poles, but hundreds of pegs to keep the tent up.

This year, I have done this with ‘Treasure Island’, ‘Of Mice and Men’, ‘Julius Caesar’ and ‘Romeo and Juliet‘  with much success. It surprised me how well the students responded to the use of the same questions repeated over the course of studying a text over several weeks. I have seen students grow in confidence and the knowledge of the text improve considerably. Students often forget about Pompey when Caesar is killed, yet I had some weak students making explicit connections between the two in his death. Students were not given the chance to forget the knowledge because I repeated the questioning again and again. The bright students commented on how it helped them to keep the plot and ideas in their heads. Plus, it allowed to make connections across the text easier. God is in the detail. Or the Devil.

The great thing for me was that I was actively building on knowledge. We were adding knowledge to knowledge and acknowledging that knowledge was a cumulative process and that has to be taught as cumulative process.  The process of constant questioning made the previous chapters or scenes read relevant in a number of different contexts. It is natural for us to compartmentalise things. Chapter 1 often gets compartmentalised to ‘done and dusted’ by the time you get to the middle or end of the book. This constant questioning allowed for a renewed highlighting of relevance.

Oh, did I mention how long it takes me to write one of these slides. Five minutes. Compare that to the time it takes to write a cloze comprehension task. Oh, and I used the questions up to thirty or forty times over the term. So, five minutes covered about two lessons worth of work over the term.

If we want knowledge to last, then we need to be putting it upfront and use it hold lessons together. There is a hesitancy to ask the same questions repeatedly. I’d say we need to ask the same questions again and again to ensure the answers stick and students can have a starting point for relevance.

Thanks for reading,