Sunday, 31 August 2014

Screams of Work

I have never ever found a scheme of work that suits me.  In fact, I hate practically every scheme of work ever invented. There, I have said it. It is out there, so feel free to judge and criticise me. I don’t hate what they represent; I just hate the bleeding things and the obsession people have towards them.  Somewhere in the dark recess of your teachery brains we have this notion that if everything is encapsulated in a couple of printed sheets of paper we are safe, secure and confident. I am starting a new topic: phew, I feel better as have some markings on a piece of paper.  As we use garlic and crucifixes to ward off vampires, we also have schemes of work to ward of OFSTED. Look, here’s our scheme of work. Be gone, it's in our scheme of work.  

Every summer it is the same. Endless streams of teachers plan their schemes of work. They plan every second and every space in a series of lessons to microscopic detail. I have seen pristine booklets produced to support the SOW (I am now going to abbreviate from now on) and they have lovingly produced memory-stick bursting PowerPoints to support each lesson. I have seen the military detail that teachers have planned lessons weeks in advance of the term starting. Right, it is week 4 so in the third minute the students must be completing the card sort that links to the lesson in week 2 and week 8.

I plan. I write plans and for years I have written SOWs. Each new topic has its own SOW typed and planned by me and my fingers. I know what I am going to do and when I am going to do it. However, each year the same thing happens. I get to about lesson two and I realise that everything needs changing. The resource I spent four days laminating are not needed, because I could cover it in one sentence in a lesson. The work producing a SOW does not seem proportional to the time saved. I can guarantee there are teachers out there who have spent days writing a SOW, and if they were stubborn like me, they will teach them irrespective of the fact they don’t work.

This year my department are trying something new. We have tried an approach recommended to me by a friend and I am indebted to them for this idea. We have transformed our SOWs and turned them into ‘Learning Journeys’.  The problem with having SOWs in department is that you need to have billions of the things for everything to be covered in a department. Each year group might have a number of sets. Each year group will have a number of topics. The list of SOWs needed then doubles and quadruples. This then further changes when new curriculums are introduced or the exams are revised.

Here’s what one of our Learning Journey’s looks like:

Learning Journey

Year 8: Horror Writing

Teaching structure
Big question / objective
Features of horror
What are the typical features (character, settings) of a horror story?
Gothic horror
What makes gothic horror different to horror?
How do writers create tension?
Narrative perspective
Why do horror stories select a first person narrative instead of a third person narrative?
How do writers make the reader identify with the protagonist of the story?
How important is the setting in a ghost story?
Atmosphere / mood
What can you do to create a particular mood in your writing?
Choice of adjectives
How can adjectives suggest something about a place?
How can personification be used to make a setting creepy?
How can I create a believable character?
Similes / metaphors
How do writers use figurative language to make writing effective?
Showing not telling
What is scary?
Action - Verbs
How can verbs be used effectively to create drama?
Action – Sentences
How can I vary the sentences that I use?
Use of dialogue
How do you use dialogue effectively?
What is a paragraph?
Structuring a story
What different ways can a story be structured?
Dramatic devices – foreshadowing / dramatic irony / tricks
How can I manipulate the reader’s thoughts and feeling?
How can I make my story original?
What should I write?
What do I have to do to improve?
Demonstrate skills
What have I learnt?

A teacher’s role often is to provide a narrative to the learning. Or, simply an order of aspects to learn. The beauty of the Learning Journey is that the narrative is up to the teacher, but the content is the same between staff. I teach differently to other people in the department I am in, yet this way I can enable the department to have the same points of learning. There can be some form of consistency. Too many times have I junked whole aspects of a SOW, because it didn’t make sense to me or how I want to sequence a lesson.

The 21 points are just things to cover. They could be covered in one lesson or a number of things can be covered in one single lesson. The coverage is up to the teacher. There is just an understanding of what they cover. Now, the beauty of this is that some things will apply for your Set 1 only, and some will apply only to other sets. But, rather than keep the Learning Journey like a SOW and only reviewing it when it comes to the next time we teach the unit, we are going to evaluate the journey and review which components relate to which set and what needs adding or removing.

I am really enjoying planning this way and I feel the rest of the department agree with me. It’s a simpler way of planning which places a stronger emphasis on what you want the students to learn or experience. Plus, teachers don’t have to translate the SOW for their group. Too many hours of my life have been wasted on thinking about how I am going to dress up a lesson to be interesting to a student. This way, I am focusing on the learning first and then the way to deliver the learning second. Teaching can become easily cluttered and often the way dominates the what.

Oh, and with this way of planning is quick.

Thanks for reading,


Sunday, 24 August 2014

Whack-a-mole results analysis!

So, the results are in and the number crunching begins. As I said in my last blog, whatever the results some action will take place. But, what action should take place? There are so many actions that could be done in reaction to a set of results. That’s it, we are never being examined with that board again. That’s it, we are never doing that again. That’s it, we will definitely do that thing again. Inaction is bad. Action is good. Everything is about the action-plan. Do you have an action-plan? What is you action-plan? What are you doing about such and such?

I am in the process of developing an action-plan for improving results. I was happy with them, but there are still things to improve. My brain is formulating ideas and thoughts to improve things. I am scrutinising the exam paper and looking at things question by question. But, here’s the rub (as in me rubbing my head): the peaks and troughs of the exam marks reflects only one cohort. The analysis of results would help the current year group immensely if they knew the issues on the paper. Yet, in a form of alchemy we apply the issues and problems with the next year group to go through the exam system. It is as if they are and exact match. Supposedly Timmy in Year 11 is like Johnny in Year 10. It is as if we are dealing with the same student, but we have changed the name.

We are also trying to infer the teaching quality from an exam paper. We know Ofsted do it. Bad results (not accurately) reflect ineffective teaching. We look at what teaching worked and what didn’t. To be honest, that can be like me deciding the colour of the paintbrush a painter used in a masterpiece. We can guess. We can interpret. But, can we really know the truth? 

Of course, a lot of this is looking at patterns. We are looking for ‘trends’ or ‘patterns of behaviour’ like someone looks at tea leaves. I see that you are going to marry a man with a beard who looks after ducks – no, I mean, your results will improve if you read more newspaper articles. However, isn’t the problem endemic in English. The problem-fix issue. We look at the problems and then we look for solutions.  

If I am honest, a lot of my teaching revolves around this. I take work in and look for patterns in the mistakes. I then teach the students how to avoid those mistakes. I build the problem-fixing into every part of my teaching. Hell, I even name the blog after it. But, doesn’t this ‘mind set’ actually hinder progress.  If our focus is always on the problems, then aren’t we likely to neglect the bigger things. If I obsess over the use of apostrophes for a whole lesson, I could be missing out on developing the students’ use of cohesion in a text. One thing gets selected over another. Its priority changes. It moves to the top of the peaking order. You might think: the problems are very important or students will not know how to improve. However, isn’t our teaching primarily concentrated on this aspect?

This week, I was reminded of a conversation with Jill Berry at the fantastic Pedagoo event organised this year in London. Our discussion led to, strangely, problem solving. I assure you I wasn’t using Jill as an agony aunt – which I think she would be good at, if the need arose.  For the life of me, I cannot remember the book cited by Jill, but she discussed this idea of how we deal with problems. It was simply: start with the successes and look at those first and identify what worked well there and then apply that to the issues.

For me, it is a great way to look. It avoids that pessimism that often occurs when looking at work. These students can’t possible do blah and blah. How do they expect us to get them to do X when they can’t event do Y? But it also prevents that rose-eyed optimism that follows some work. These students are just so naturally gifted. Instead, it gives you a wider picture of what could be done.

One of our successes has been our Literature results. So, instead of looking at the issues I am analysing what made the Literature results so successful. What worked so well for the students? Was it the texts we used? Was it the approaches in teaching we used? Was it how we taught Literature over time? Was it the teacher’s enjoyment of the topics? Was it the students’ understanding or enjoyment of the topics?

Once identified, I can then explore the use of this in relation to the issues or weaknesses on other parts of the exams. Rather than say, a lot of students did not do so well on Question 8, so we need lots of practice and more focus on Question 8, I am saying: The way students explore poetry in lessons reflects well in the exams, so let’s get us exploring non-fiction texts in the same way. Ultimately, this could avoid the infamous ‘whack-a-mole’ that happens in education. Here’s problem. Here’s a strategy. It is fixed. Here’s another problem….

Results time can be a bit like the dodgy wine stain on the carpet you can’t wash out. You might put a lovely rug over it or move the coffee table to disguise it. Nonetheless, it is still there. We might phrase things like: ‘I know that this happened, but look at X – isn’t it brilliant?’ We become our very own spin doctors. What if the lovely rug could teach us something about the dodgy wine stain? Ok, you have to admit some analogies don’t work. No matter how much you try.

Ultimately, it boils down to the ‘what’ and the ‘why’, but changing them to the successful elements.

What went wrong? Why did it go badly?  

What went well? Why did it go so well?  How can we repeat this with other areas?
The last three questions are the ones I will discuss with my department and form the basis of any action-plan.
Failure often is the driving force for change in education. What if success was the driving force for change? This works well, so let's apply it to something that isn't working so well.  

 Thanks for reading,


Wednesday, 13 August 2014

A letter to an English teacher on results day

One of my most popular posts on the blog has been my letter to an NOT. It is here, if you haven't read it yet. Given the current state of play with the English exams, I felt it necessary to blog about it as we await the forthcoming results.

Dear English teacher,

At the moment, I can’t predict how the exam results will go for my class, my department, my school, my county or even the rest of the country. I can guess, I know that, but it isn’t a secure guess. Some people have given me the look of doom, usually associated with someone awaiting an execution. Other people have given me a positive ‘thumbs up’. Yet, still I don’t know what the outcome will be. Positive. Negative. In the middle. All I know is that some action will take place based on the results.

Never before in my umpteen years of teaching have I faced such uncertainty or such doubt. Even Twitter is torn. I have seen tweets predicting low grade boundaries, whilst other tweets have highlighted the letter from OFQUAL, suggesting wide variations nationwide. Some people predict a positive outcome because of the General Election next year. Other people predict that Gove’s raising the bar will mean that we are in for another frugal year of high grades.

Whatever will happen, there will be something that always occurs: the personalisation of the results. We, as teachers, will always see that the results are a direct result of our work and our ability to teach. We can’t help but see the results as our own child – our responsibility, our lifeblood. The sad thing is that some teachers will see the results of affirmation that they are the best teacher in the world. For others they will see the results as confirmation that they are the worst teacher in the world. The sad thing is that education isn’t so clear cut. The teacher facilitates the learning, but there are other factors that inhibit success that suddenly are forgotten about when results day arrives and we ponder and procrastinate on what has happened.

Three years ago it was me when there was the furore over the grading boundaries changing. I had a set that was predominately C/D grade students. A slight change in the grade boundaries and a class like that suffers incredibly. For the last two years, I have seen what it has done to a teacher’s confidence and their faith in the system with other colleagues in different schools. Therefore, I think it is handy to remember the following points:

[1] The GCSEs and A-levels represent the teaching over the years and not just the last two years

I have seen people get endlessly stressed before the exams over not fitting everything in to the course. There is a ‘do or die’ fear over teaching. What we have sadly forgotten is that GCSE results reflect teaching over time. The teaching they had in Year 7 is just as vital as the teaching they had in Year 11. In fact, in some cases, I think the teaching in Year 7 is more important than the teaching in Year 11.

From an English point of view, if they were taught something well in Year 7, then I am only revising it in Years 10 and 11, and securing that knowledge. Year 10 and Year 11 is not a blank slate. Students come to us knowing some stuff and having some skills already for they step through the door. Think about the journey they have been on to get to the exam. Has it been a consistent, focused journey? Or, has it been a journey with many odd bits to it? Or, has it been two years of damage control?

The GCSE result reflects on 5 different teachers and the primary teachers too. Not one sole teacher that picked them up after Christmas because a teacher went on maternity leave.

[2]  There are far more things in the world than are dreamt of in your philosophy!

This links in to the previous point, but it is one that needs commenting on. What is the overview for the teaching of the subject? I have witnessed many different models in many different schools of teaching English. Some have been effective. Some sadly have not be as effective as others. The problem is, and I mean this to not be patronising, the overview. There is much more to the teaching of English than a classroom teacher might see. What is the direction that students go on? Is there a clear direction?

Has the teaching prior to the GCSE exams been focused on ticking boxes? Or has the teaching be focused on developing and refining skills? The transition from one year group to another is so important. The differentiation between year groups is vital. Get this wrong and you could be repeating things for the sake of things. Classroom teachers might see bits of this, but is the Head of Department that should have this overview. I recall one HOD stating (correctly in my opinion) that the novel should have a different focus for each year – character / setting / theme.  The overview is important.    

 [3] They are TEENAGERS!

Teachers are expected, at times, to work miracles. Teenagers don’t always do what you tell them to do – FACT! We are expected to help them to secure a high grade, yet they will not include quotes in every answer. I have said that until I am blue in the face this year. The one time the student listened; they did really well. Yet, times that by thirty and you are doing quite a lot of nagging over the simplest of things.

And, a lot of parents struggle to get teenagers to tidy their room, so is it any wonder that we struggle, as teachers, to get them to read the question carefully before answering it. Reading a question carefully is a doodle compared to tidying their bedroom. Still they don’t do it.

[4] They are TEENAGERS who think they know best

The joy of being a teenager – Oh I remember the days – is that you feel invincible and strong. You also feel that you know best. Everything is in the present. The future is something only adults think about   - note: that doesn’t apply to everyone. The number of teenagers that leave revision or preparation for the final exams to the week before an exam is monumental. Why? Because, everything is about the here and now.

One of the funniest things (or saddest things) I heard a student say was:

‘I am not going to revise ‘cos I’ll see what result I get in the mock exam. That will tell me how much work I’ve got to do’.

Of course, there is some logic in there. Whereas, most of us are cautious and try to do our best and prepare and play the ‘long-game’, the average teenager will prioritise in terms of time. The number of students I have seen dramatically improve their effort because the exam is a month away! By then, it is often too late.

[5] We are teaching human beings

Predicted grades are hilarious. They are based on probability a student achieved a level in KS2 is likely to produce this grade. One school I worked in decided to go for aspirational grades, which basically meant everyone was down for getting an A. Interestingly, they didn’t all get A grades.

A prediction for a student is generally based on a student working consistently well or consistently improving over the years. There’s something big and fat that gets in the way of this: Life! What predicted grades do not consider is that life changes things for people. The things in an average teenager's life can affect how they work. Something bad happens at home and this has a direct impact on learning. This doesn’t really equate to predicted grades. Maybe we need to have predicted grades based on different scenarios: predicted grades based on a divorce in the family; predicted grades based on parents being made redundant; predicted grades based on everything in their lives being hunky dory.

The majority might get their target grades, but there is a hefty number that will not get their predicted grades and that is through no fault of our own as teachers. Unless it is your own child. We never know what is going on in a child’s life and it does have serious repercussions for teaching and learning.

[6] Life can be pants

Thanks to the death of the modular system this thing will occur more often. A student could work really hard and do really well all year and then when it gets to the final exam they fail – and they fail badly. It happens. They might have misread the question. They may have missed a question.

Life does that. You prepare for everything and then something goes wrong. Sadly, this doesn’t always factor in with discussions in schools, but students can have a bad day.

[7] English is more than the subject you teach in the lessons

The growing concern I have is that English has been made, thanks to APP and other aspects, to be a clear, neat subject. In fact, it is a messy and complex blob of great stuff. The things we teach in lessons only touch the surface of what students need to succeed or become great in the subject.

I always say to students that they need to read and write at home on a regular basis to become better writers. Yet, how many do that? The A* students generally will do that and… ummm that is usually what makes them an A* student.

Students often see the subject as the cramming of knowledge. The mad panic to remember silly acronyms or names of key themes in a text are always the things student panic about close to the exam. What they rarely do is think, and ponder things. Instead, it is cram, cram and cram knowledge. That knowledge is good, but it is what you do with that makes it so important. Did the student think outside your lesson?

I teach English, but I get students to think.

[8] The demands of other subjects

I love all the subjects that are taught in schools – yes, I am buttering things up. But, students prioritise subjects. Their revision timetable can be governed by their future options, but it is often governed instead by the subjects they favour, or they perceive as an easy win. English, sadly, for some lads can be neglected, because they see it as a done deal. They can read. They can write. So, what have they got to learn or revise?  

[9] The position of English in the school

Let’s be honest about things. English can and does get a rough deal in schools. I was sat at a meeting and we all agreed that usually Year 11 or Year 10 English lessons often occur last thing in day. It was unanimous that this happened in several schools. The thing I would raise is what is the school doing to raise the importance of Maths, English and Science. The Core subjects are the ones that reflect most in a school’s performance. So, what is the school doing to support this? Too many times things are directed to lessons and to teachers, but there needs to be a whole school culture towards these subject areas.

Do well in English and you are more likely to do well in other subject areas.

[10] The drive of the students

English matters to schools as it could affect Ofsted’s decision to come in and harass a school, but what does English matter to a particular student?

What does it matter to the student that has been offered a place in college without a grade C in English?

What does it matter to the student that will work for his uncle’s firm when he leaves school?

What does it matter to the student that know he will redo GCSE English in college next year as it is offered as part of the incentive to join the course?  

What does it matter to the student whose parents will be happy with whatever they get as long as they behave?

In our hearts, we want the student to fulfil their potential, but that can fall on deaf ears if the student isn’t driven. Consequences and action form part of this drive. No drive and we are struggling.

[11] The Exam System

I have more faith in the existence aliens on other planets than the current, and future, exam systems. I have had to tell students half-way through the course the weighting of an exam had increased by 20%. Every school that teaches AQA will be in the same boat. Just when we are getting our head around the new regime, we are dealt this blow. As with most things in the exam system, you look at the past and try to build on what has happened before. This year we don’t have a Scooby Doo what the grading criteria will look like, as there never has been a weighting like this. Yes, we can predict and we can guess.

This year we can’t securely say what students might achieve, because we don’t know because things were changed half-way through the GCSE course.

If students did everything you asked them to, then I’d be happy about performance related pay. But, they don’t. They are individuals with their own minds, dreams, issues and anxieties. Like spaghetti, you can’t separate things, you can only be the sauce on top that hopeful infuses everything together.

This blog could be seen as a teacher’s way of getting out of a bad set of results; it isn’t. It is an exploration of how one set of results doesn’t show the true picture of what is really going. Students are just numbers to some people and this blog, hopefully, shows you that there is much more to that number. Before anybody judges you or you teaching based on results, give them the full picture.

I didn’t spend the last year with my feet up showing video after video. I taught my students the best I could. But, do you know what? Whatever the results next week, there will be one thing I will be thinking of, and it is something every good teacher will be thinking of: what do I need to do to make things better next year?  

Thanks for reading,