Category Archives: ramblings

Some principles on classroom routines in the new year

Before getting into the nitty gritty of planning some actual maths lessons for the new school year, my mind has been swirling around some principles for how I manage my classes next year.  Routines don’t come naturally to me, I used to actively avoid them in my previous life before teaching.  After the last few years, I feel I have learnt the hard way and have now come to truly appreciate the power of a good routine established with a class.

Many of these routines are whole-school and I intend to embrace these as much as I can next year, having previously maybe been a bit sneery of such things.  For example, the lesson-entry routine in our school is great.  All pupils stand behind chairs on entering. They can get their equipment books out, etc.  They can have a look at the activity that will be on the board. But they don’t sit down until we have a chorus of “Good morning, Mr Horley”.  They do this in every lesson (up to and including Year 11) and it is well-established school-wide. It gives a nice, clean positive start to the lesson and encourages oracy right from the start.

However there is only so far whole-school approaches can define routines, individual teachers need to fill in the gaps with the minutiae of the detail in the routines of their own classrooms that build upon the whole-school principles.

At some point I will attempt to write the details of my routines for each class.  At this stage, here are my principles:

  1. Say it simply.   I want my pupils (and my!) mental energy to be devoted to doing maths not remembering routines.  Whatever I do has to be easy to explain to the most overloaded Year 7.  I need to do it in small chunks.  It’s important to get routines established early but let’s aim for the first week rather than everything in the first lesson.
  2. Say why.  I have a mantra for next year: as far as possible every “rule” will come with “and this is why we do it this way”.  Hopefully they will agree it’s a good idea, be more likely to remember it and be more likely to follow it!
  3. Reiterate, constantly.  If they don’t get it all in the first week, not a problem because I will be reiterating consistently throughout the year.  I need to avoid veering “off message” to try to liven things up, which I am prone to doing.  A bit of boring repetition is not actually all that boring for kids if it is done with positivity and becomes “the thing we do”.
  4. Do it collaboratively with the department.  Back to my initial paragraph, my classroom does not exist as an island in my pupils’ lives.  As a team we need to constantly discuss what we do consistently across the department, and what we have autonomy on.  Even where we have autonomy, we should aim to share ideas, especially with the new members of the team. It’s difficult to find time to meet formally so it is more likely to be the informal chats in the office where this gets done.

Next is to get into the detail for each class…

 

 

Knowledge Organisers in Maths – The Journey Part 3

Read Part 1 and Part 2.

As our final versions of the Knowledge Organisers are being printed over the summer holidays, I have been preparing some of the resources for how we test our pupils on the knowledge contained therein.  As I wrote before, the real value in actually creating these resources is in the discussion that it prompts amongst the teachers in the department.  So it’s not ideal that I am doing this on my own in the holidays. I hope to carve out some INSET time at the beginning of term to run through this with the department, especially important for our new trainees.

Towards the end of summer term we did manage to have a quick discussion and agree on a couple of principles for testing.  As a school, across all subjects, we have decided to make the Knowledge Organiser tests high-stakes.  They are high-stakes in that pupils will get a detention if they fail to achieve 80%.  Also, most departments are doing Multiple Choice tests, mainly to keep the marking burden light.  An implication of making the tests high-stakes is that they have to be marked by teachers.  We need to ensure that pupils can achieve high success on their tests by learning purely what is in the Knowledge Organiser.  We are not testing application of knowledge, just the knowledge itself.  In Maths, this means we are not doing a standard maths test where the pupil would be working out answers, but we are testing that they have learned the definitions and examples as given.  We will do this using multiple choice questions where there may be more than one correct answer, maybe we will call these Multi-Multi Choice Questions (MMCQs).  Below are some examples showing the extract from the Knowledge Organiser and the associated MMCQ.

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This all feels very different from anything I have ever done or seen done in Maths before so it makes me pretty nervous about how it will work.  But I am also excited because if our pupils can start lessons with a firm knowledge of these basic facts and definitions, maybe they will make more progress in doing the maths that uses them.

Please do let me know if you have any thoughts or comments based on your experience.  I am not publishing the whole set of MMCQs yet as we will be working on them next term, but do get in touch either via comments below or on Twitter if you’d like me to e-mail what I have got so far to you.

Visiting Totteridge Academy

As a maths department, what achievement would you feel most proud of?  An outstanding set of GCSE results with a high proportion achieving 9-7? Data showing excellent progress between Year 7 and 11?  Pupils that visibly enjoy maths and actively engage in lessons, showing that they are willing and able to think mathematically?  A team that effectively improves the teaching practice of all of its teachers and manages to continuously improve the teaching in all its classes? Or having the confidence to share these achievements with other maths teachers by inviting them to your school for a day.

Personally, I would like to be pushing towards the bottom of that list and that is exactly what the team at The Totteridge Academy (TTA) are achieving.

I always find it a hugely powerful experience to extract myself for one day from my own familiar routine and setting to see how others are doing it.  I have come away from TTA today buzzing with ideas, an enthusiasm that quite rightly should be tempered by the mantra of “do one thing and do it well”.  It’s great to glean ideas from others, but any change in how we do things back home is worth nothing without the commitment of the team that’s behind it.  I feel that, at least at a department level, we need 100% consensus on implementing new ideas.  If we can’t get that, we shouldn’t do it.

It has been a rapid change at TTA and I’m sure that the things I have seen today are only part and maybe not that big a part of the story.  But I’d like to reflect on 4 things that I found interesting.

1, Standards of oracy, use of domain-specific language.

What struck me here was not just the way that teachers insisted on ‘right is right’, the Doug Lemov principle that I know many teachers strive for, but how pupils were on board with it too. The classroom culture was such that pupils would put up their hands to comment / correct answers given by other pupils.  Not in a smug, you got it wrong kind of way. But to build up the answer so that collectively as a class we can be certain we have it nailed. Maths is seen as something which is precise and there is a satisfaction in completely and correctly answering a question.

2, Use of chants

As an alternative to Knowledge Organisers (see previous post!) the team at TTA have developed an A3 sheet of about 40 “chants” that pupils learn through the year. Examples include:

Comparing fractions…            …find the LCM

Estimation…                              … 1sf

Multiplying fractions…            …top top bottom bottom

Dividing fractions…                  …x by the reciprocal

Factors of a number…             …go into a number

Multiples of a number…         …are the times tables

I loved the way these were used in lessons.  During an explanation from the teacher or from a pupil, they would say the first part, pause and then the class responds with the second part.  This was clearly a well embedded part of the routine that all classes seemed confident with. A really slick way of reinforcing core knowledge whilst keeping pace to the explanations.

3, KS3 5-a-days and parental involvement

The principle of empowering parents to help their children isn’t going to patch all the gaps that you might have with Year 7 and 8 but it makes sense to give it a go.  In a targeted way, parents are given a weekly set of numeracy questions with worked examples to give them the confidence to help their children at home.   I want to find out more about this and how it develops over the course of the year.

4, Group work

The key to success here is group accountability.  The groups are consistent from one lesson to the next and they accumulate points as a group over the term.  Anyone in the group may be called upon to offer an explanation to the whole class.  The lesson I saw started with pupils working individually on a problem presented to them.  It wasn’t a race amongst the group to get the answer first, in fact they seemed to be conscious of each other’s work and would slow down and offer advice if another group member wasn’t getting there.  Once all had agreed upon an answer, they would next rehearse their explanation. Again, there was real collaboration and awareness here.  One would start the explanation, get to a certain point and then pass the baton on to the next member in the group.  They would all practice a piece.  Once they finished, if there was time, they would rehearse the explanation again. It all seemed very natural to them, I don’t think I have ever seen such a high level of collaborative work in a maths classroom!

All in all, an inspiring day. Many thanks to the staff of The Totteridge Academy for hosting so many of us.

 

 

 

Knowledge Organisers in Maths the journey – Part 2

Part 1 is here.

I have somewhat mixed feelings about “making your own stuff”.  On the one hand I feel that there are thousands of teachers across the world spending time making resources for things that have been taught for decades, so why are we wasting time reinventing the wheel?  But on the other hand there is something to be said for using something in our teaching that we know to be exactly the way we want it, that we know inside out because we wrote it ourselves.  And when that something isn’t just written by the individual teacher but by a team collaborating on a project it becomes that much better in quality and hopefully the team feel that much more confident in using it.

So has been my experience of creating our first batch of knowledge organisers in Maths.  I started the process thinking that there must be loads out there and it is surely just a question of picking the one we most like the look of.  Although I have magpied bits, mostly from Andy Coleman’s comprehensive collection posted here, our particular version has been the result of around 2 hours of department time where we have discussed the specific nuances of how we model solving linear equations, the use of specific terms in our teaching (e.g. a heated debate on indices vs. powers), and written the words live on screen as a real collaboration between the 5 of us.  Admittedly a small team helps here and more people would likely have made the process take longer.  I am always super conscious of taking up teachers time in meetings but everyone seemed to be enjoying it and getting value from it. It is something I hope we can spend some more time doing in our department next year with our new staff members.

So I am sharing our work with a bit of hesitation.  Firstly they are far from perfect and definitely far from finished.  We haven’t actually used them with real live pupils yet, they have been created in a vacuum. By this time next year, I expect them to look very different.  But more importantly I wouldn’t want departments to miss out on the experience of collaborating to create something they own as a team.

During our discussions on the maths pedagogy, we had to keep reminding ourselves of the principles of what we were trying to achieve with the knowledge organisers:

  1. They are not trying to achieve everything, just the key “facts” that need to be learned.  The absolute base knowledge that learners at all levels need to access the curriculum.
  2. As soon as we found we were trying to write teaching points we would stop.  It’s not a text book or a revision guide.  It is not aiming to explain how to do things, but be a concise list of key information.
  3. The definitions don’t need to be perfectly mathematically rigourous.  They should be durable, in the sense that they are not contradicted by future learning.  But of paramount importance is that they make sense to our learners and are written in language they can access. Often in maths examples speak louder than definitions.
  4. Low-stake tests and pupil self-quizzing.  This is the next part of the journey but something we need to be mindful of now.  How do we expect our pupils to engage with this? What will our low-stakes tests look like?  Current thoughts are that we give them a key fact, they fill in the definition and an example of their own, ideally different from the one given to them.

So, for what it’s worth, here they are.  By all means copy individual definitions if you like them and they work for you.  Just don’t take the document and print out 30 copies to give to your class as that is unlikely to get anyone very far.

Knowledge Organiser Maths Yr7 Term 1a 1b v1

Knowledge Organiser Maths Yr8 Term 1a 1b v1

Knowledge Organiser Maths Yr9 Term 1a 1b v1

 

Part 2 is here.

 

Visiting Michaela

As with many things, I find myself somewhat behind the curve when visiting Michaela Community School in Brent this morning.  Without doubt, more has been written about this school in the 4 years since it opened than any other school in the country.  I found this recent post from Adam Boxer useful, it contains links below to blogs written by the staff – seemingly a part of the job description for working at Michaela.

The school prides itself on “being different from other schools” which was the message being delivered to Year 8 by the head Katharine Birbalsingh within a few minutes of my arrival. Being “different” inevitably attracts attention in itself, but it is also part of the mission of the leadership to “spread the word”.  They are not content with creating a great school in a corner of London, the bigger goal is to revolutionise the system.  And so, I joined the steady stream of daily visitors wanting to know more.

Having read so much about the place, much of what I saw was what I expected. Impeccable behaviour in classrooms, and seamless, silent transitions between lessons. The chanting of Invictus at lunch time, followed by the daily topic for discussion and then an “appreciation”. What struck me most was the relentless focus on oracy (not that they call it that) with not a single mumble being allowed to pass unchallenged in lessons or elsewhere.

But my main reason for visiting was to see the maths in action and in particular to get an insight into teaching of lower attaining groups at KS3.  The sets are given different names and at no point is anyone allowed to utter the words “bottom set”. I was told in hushed tones which set I was seeing.  The approach makes sense although in my experience it doesn’t really matter what you call them, kids work out pretty quickly which set they are in.

Central to the maths curriculum is a set of booklets that have been created by Dani Quinn and her team. They become the structure and central resource for the lesson.  I saw them being used in the following ways:

  • As a reference for the instruction part of the lesson where sections might be read out aloud by the teacher or the pupils.
  • Some parts were fill-in-the-blanks, scaffolded tasks as a lead-in to independent work.
  • As a source of individual questions to be modelled by the teacher
  • As a source of individual questions for pupils to do on mini-whiteboards
  • As sets of questions for pupils to work on independently
  • And, as I was told by a student, as a revision resource

Although they are used as a core resource, teachers were using the booklets very flexibly, not in any way seeming to be constrained by them and often veering off-piste to do some additional mini-whiteboard questions, for example.

All groups have the same booklet but the lower set(s) would be expected to proceed at a slower pace and therefore not cover everything in there.  I don’t see a way around this. If you are going to set students then of course the lower groups will have to either learn fewer topics or cover them in less depth.  Bart sums it up when he joins the remedial class in a new school:

bart

I have many thoughts on setting in maths still flying around but that will have to wait for another day. In the case of Michaela, what was interesting was that the lower sets are no smaller in size.  I counted 24 in a bottom set Year 10 and was told that there must have been some absent.  There are simply no behaviour issues in these groups and the insistence of seeing every single whiteboard means that nobody is left behind. I realise how much I rely on circulating the room and providing individual instruction with my smaller bottom sets.  I saw little of this. Instructions and corrections were mostly being given from the front of the room even if they were targeted at individuals.

Another component of why this works was the use of self-reporting.  I have all but given up asking questions like “who didn’t understand that?” or “who got that right/wrong?” I would always prefer to see actual evidence of understanding on whiteboards or in books rather than asking students to self-report by putting hands up or by using Red-Amber-Green cards to show level of confidence. But what I saw at Michaela was a classroom culture where pupils seemed to be showing honestly where they were at. There was no stigma attached to being right OR wrong.  “Is there anyone in this room that doesn’t understand that?” Two hands shot up immediately. A short whole-class discussion ensued based on the student articulating clearly what they didn’t understand with another whole-class example. To have this quick verbal check in addition to formative assessment of student work is very efficient. In another lesson, when a student just said,“I don’t understand” this was immediately thrown back with “you need to ask a specific question”.

What I didn’t see was any use of Powerpoint.  Michaela teachers are masters of the visualiser. Everything I saw on screen was skilfully projected snippets of the booklet or some other printed material or their modelling of solutions using pen and paper under the visualiser with the occasional show-call of student work.  PowerPoint is not banned and they would use it for particular images or animations that benefit from it, but the point is, there is no “clicking through” a presentation as the structure of a lesson.

Visiting any school is refreshing and enlightening – I am very grateful that I am being allowed to use some of my Year 11 gain time to do so.  We can learn so much from each other, but mustn’t get carried away with the notion of “it works there so it will work here”.  Contexts vary, and as I discussed with Ms Birbalsingh before I left, the fact that Michaela has started from scratch with both its pupils and its teachers is a unique situation very different from trying to improve an existing school, especially when it comes to expectations on pupil behaviour.  It’s inspiration for making changes at your own school, not an instruction manual for how to do it.

Would I want to work there? Well yes, who wouldn’t want to work in an environment with impeccable behaviour, excellent resources that the team has created and continually refine, and therefore has a strong sense of ownership in. The relatively low contact time (13 hours per week on average, 19 max) is somewhat offset by the high amount of “duty” time – the high presence of staff is key to maintaining the behaviour. But that still leaves quality time for collaborating as a team, especially as time is not spent creating PowerPoints.  My current school won’t be seeing the back of me anytime soon, though – a daily commute from Wandsworth to Wembley Park is certainly not what I’m looking for right now!

 

Knowledge Organisers in Maths – the journey part 1

I am instinctively cynical about any “latest new thing” in teaching. As a profession, we have been teaching kids things for centuries, and I feel it it is highly unlikely that anyone will suddenly stumble upon something genuinely new that will have a significant impact on learning.  Knowledge Organisers feel a bit like they are the latest new thing, so I have to say my heart sank ever so slightly when I was asked to join a middle leaders meeting this week to discuss our plans for introducing them next year.

In reality, I’m sure there is nothing particularly new here.  If I could go back 30, 40, 50 years, I would probably find examples of these being used in schools even though they may have gone by another name.  And I think the name is part of the problem.  To me, “Knowledge Organiser” doesn’t really describe what they are.  Maybe it’s because I’m old enough to remember the Filofax of the 1980’s which were called Personal Organisers. Filofax The Original Organiser

There was a whole world of wonderful inserts which you could buy and arrange how you desired, clipping them into the 6-ring binder, a wonderful way of whiling away your day! The name “Knowledge Organiser” implies to me that the learner will compile some sort of folder themselves over time and decide how to organise their own knowledge.

From what I’ve seen, that’s not what they are.  They are Fact Books.  I’d like ours to say “Maths facts you need to know in Year 7”.  I feel that is more descriptive of what they are and how they will be used.

I’ve decided to write this because I left my meeting feeling much more positive about them than I was at the start.  This is a whole-school initiative – surely the only way to introduce them so that pupils and parents see a consistency across subjects.  Although I agree with a lot of what Kris Boulton says (Why Maths Teachers Don’t Like Knowledge Organisers) I think it is right and proper that we support the whole-school initiative and don’t fall back on the refrain “but Maths is different” thus risking acquiring (reinforcing?!) a reputation as the awkward squad!

So why am I becoming more convinced of their possible merit? In our meeting we had a good discussion on the principles of what Knowledge Organisers are and how we should use them, namely:

  • They list the base level of facts that pupils need to know to achieve in this subject in this term.  They are not intended to cover everything. They are not to be seen as a syllabus or a revision guide.
  • Their core purpose is to enable pupils to engage in self-quizzing. We will need to explicitly teach pupils how to do this.
  • They will form the basis for fortnightly quizzes.  It is this retrieval practice which creates the change in change in long-term memory.

There are plenty of examples of excellent Knowledge Organisers out there (Jo Morgan has a collection on this page.)  I intend to lean heavily on these when creating our own.  After all, there is nothing new about these facts, although inevitably we will want to tweak and adapt to fit our Scheme of Work and format.

So my starting point is to sit with the team and see what we think.    It’ll be interesting to hear their thoughts..,

Part 2 is here.

Part 3 is here.

 

Praise where it’s due

For regular readers of this blog, I’m afraid this post has nothing to do with maths. Writing helps clarify thoughts and that is my main reason for doing it. If others read it and find these clarified thoughts have some resonance, that makes me happy. If you feel moved to comment on these thoughts and add your own experiences, then that is really powerful as it hopefully moves us all forward.

This post is about school-wide systems for praise and sanctions. I am not SLT, and this year I don’t have a Pastoral leadership role. The reason I am involved in this is because I am a member of a Teaching and Learning Focus group.  For the last couple of years, my school has run these groups in the directed time after school that traditionally might have been used for one-size-fits-all twilight INSETs.  At the beginning of the year, teachers self-select which group to join, each group being led by a member of SLT. There are about 6 meetings throughout the year with the idea being that a particular issue is discussed, researched and some form of action taken.  It’s a form of Action Research. From my perspective this has worked well this year.  I see this as the leadership of the school saying, “OK, we do lots of good things here, but it’s not perfect. What can we improve? And how? Work as a team, do some research, consult with other staff and come back with a proposal.”

As a team, we are now at the proposal stage.  I think it still needs some work and more consultation with staff.  We haven’t done the “hearts and minds” bit yet.  If we don’t do a good job of convincing the entire staff body that this is a good idea, the whole thing will have been a waste of time.  My school is not the sort of organisation that issues diktats from senior management, I’m glad to say.  Organisations that do rarely achieve the change they require. People may pay lip service the new initiative for a while, but if you cannot convince professional adults (i.e. teachers!) that this is something worth doing, it simply won’t happen.

So first, let’s look at our current “Praise and Concern” system. I’m going to start with “Concern” because that is the bit we are not proposing to change, but it’s important to understand the context.  As all schools do, we have a behaviour policy.  I won’t go through the detail of it here, but it basically involves warnings, detentions and removal from the classroom to a “referral room”.  Each of these “concerns” is to be recorded on SIMS by the teacher who issues the sanction.  There is a workload implication here, but it is generally viewed as something worth doing.  Recording the data centrally is important because it enables other staff (i.e. form tutor, head of year, etc.) to get an overview of issues pertaining to an individual student occurring across different subjects.  It’s particularly useful for highlighting frequent low-level transgressions which might not result in detentions but which could be impacting learning.

At the moment, the same system is used for Praise.  These are also recorded on SIMS. There are a bunch of categories and, as with Concerns, the teacher is expected to write a sentence or two of comments.  Every few weeks, a Praise and Concern report is sent to tutors. This report lists, by student, each Praise and each Concern.  How form tutors use this information varies widely, with some displaying it all in front of the form, some displaying just the praise bit, some having individual conversations and some not sharing it directly with students but just taking note of it for themselves. The raw numbers are also shared in end of term reports that go home to parents.

We feel that the main problem with this system is the idea that Praise and Concern are seen as two sides of the same coin. They are not.  Often students look at their net score (i.e. Praises minus Concerns) and I know of students who have asked for Praises to offset a certain number of Concerns. An evident issue is that it is often the students with the poorest behaviour who end up with the most praises “Well done, you’ve got your pen out, have a praise”. That sort of thing.  And the quiet ones who do what is expected of them day in, day out get ignored.  That is borne out in the data and from focus groups with students – they know what’s going on.

It is also apparent that there is a lack of consistency about how often and how many teachers issue Praise.  Some ignore it completely and use their own systems. Others use it frequently including issuing whole-class praise, which is nearly as bad as whole-class detentions in my view.

In parallel with Praise and Concern, we also have a system of housepoints.  This culminates at the end of the year with the inter-house Sports Day (still my favourite day of the year!).  Lots of points are awarded on Sports Day but these add to points collected throughout the year by individual students.  Housepoints are more personal to students.  They write them in their planners when they are awarded and each term the form tutor “collects” them and enters them into a central system.  Our hypothesis is that because students write the reason for the Housepoint in their planner and then keep a record of them, these are more meaningful and motivating.  From focus groups with students we believe that this is true for lower years (Year 7-8) but house points are less valued by older students (Year 10 up).

In looking for something better, we have reviewed educational research on the role of praise in teaching.  We were looking at the role of extrinsic rewards impacting on intrinsic motivation (here and here), and on how to make praise “purposeful” (here).  We defined purposeful praise as praise which would motivate a love of learning and challenge our students.

This is closely linked to ideas of growth mindset.  How, when and what praise is given for can impact on a students’ mindset but it’s a highly complex picture and difficult to draw general conclusions to apply in the classroom.

However, among our group there was a fairly close consensus on the following:

  • We should praise the process and the effort observed in the moment, not the individual.
  • Extrinsic rewards (e.g. stickers, housepoints, postcards home, etc.) have a place but need to be valued by students and need to be issued for something specific, for going “above and beyond”
  • Narrative, personal feedback given to students is more likely to motivate and challenge them than extrinsic reward
  • We need to be more fair and notice and acknowledge those who are quietly engaged in the struggle of learning.
  • The current housepoint system should be relaunched but there should be no attempt to track students’ individual scores.  You are collecting them for your house!
  • Centrally collecting data on praise issued is not valuable (although collecting it on Concerns is).

I would be really interested to hear from any others on their perspectives.  How do the praise and sanctions systems sit together in your school? What do you do that works particularly effectively?  Either comment below, or get in touch by e-mail (mark.horley@gmail.com)

“I noticed” vs. “I liked”

I am hugely privileged in my role this year as a Teaching for Mastery Lead having had the opportunity to join various Teacher Research Groups (TRGs). This, combined with the work we are doing in Year 7 (see this article), and mentoring trainees has meant I have spent nearly as much time joining other teachers’ classes as I have taught my own classes. Whilst that makes me feel slightly guilty, I hope that this will pay off next year and in years to come –  I am learning so much in the process. It would be great if all teachers had a sabbatical year, 4 or 5 years into their teaching career where they teach a 50% or less timetable and spend time observing others in their own school and other schools nearby including cross-phase (i.e. primary-secondary). A pipe-dream maybe, but it could go some way to alleviating the retention problem at that crucial stage in a teacher’s career when it should be getting more manageable but often doesn’t.  There were some encouraging signs of this in the recent Education Select Committee report on Recruitment and Retention of Teachers.

Sitting and watching (actually I rarely manage to sit still for long, the urge to get up and engage with students is too strong!) someone else’s lesson only gives half the picture, however. Going hand-in-hand with the lesson is the shared reflection on that lesson afterwards between teachers. And this is the point.  It is not a lesson “observation” in the traditional, pre-2014 Ofsted sense.  I am not there to evaluate the teacher in any way. I am a fellow professional who has another perspective on the learning happening in that room.  Because I am not leading the lesson, I should be able to notice things, and I may notice different things than the teacher who is leading the lesson.

A lesson observation is traditionally is followed by “feedback” which is more often than not a one-way conversation between the observer and the observed.  Usually it is a very polite affair which starts with a lot of “I liked…”, “I thought … was lovely” – the WWW.  All nice to hear, but do you ever get that feeling that these are platitudes and really you are waiting for the EBI? The “I thought maybe you could…”, or “In the past, I’ve tried…”  I’m not saying that this style of feedback is not useful, especially when the observer has many more years experience that the observed.  But I would say that anyone with more than a few months’ experience in the classroom has something to offer and that the conversation should start off very differently.

Earlier this year I was invited by Danny Brown to join a lesson of his. It was last thing on a Friday and after the lesson I also joined his staff meeting.  The lesson was fascinating, but it was the staff meeting that has really stuck in my mind since.  It wasn’t a department meeting as such, but a voluntary gathering to reflect on a lesson that had been given by one of the department and observed by others.  The focus was on something that was “noticed”.  It was not an attempt to analyse everything that happened in the lesson, but a focussed discussion on something that was interesting for some reason and that we can all learn from.  There was a high degree of respect and trust between these teachers and the discussion became deep, insightful and .

I have been practising this ever since in discussions following lessons, be they informal “feedback” with colleagues (I dislike this term because it implies a one-way flow of traffic) or more formalised TRGs as part of my Teaching for Mastery work.  It takes some practise.  Commenting on something without evaluating it can be tricky.  You sometimes feel like you aren’t really making a point.  But actually just clarifying what happened at a particular point can then open into useful conjectures as to why that happened.  This is where different insights from different people in the room can become really powerful and is the essence of a fruitful TRG discussion.

We need to see a major culture shift in our schools. For too many years, lesson observations have been about scrutiny and accountability and not about close collaboration of a team of professionals seeking to improve their practice.  This has led to a culture of fear in schools where many teachers still would rather not have someone “observe” them because it causes anxiety as they feel they are being judged.  I would warmly welcome anyone into my classroom at any time and would always want to know what they noticed, but I recognise that is not a common attitude amongst teachers.  We need to practice how we share these noticings with each other so that they are truly supportive, non-judgemental and lead to fruitful discussions.  And we need to be open and receptive to these discussions and realise that they are about mathematics and learning.

The approach can be very time effective.  We don’t need to sit through an entire lesson to notice something interesting, 10 minutes might be enough.  One noticing might spark a couple of useful insights on a short post-lesson conversation.  I might call this “noticings-lite”.  It’s not a huge investment of time, the bigger challenge is the shift in culture.

If we are serious, though, we do need to organise this and having more than one adult seeing the same lesson can generate the range of perspectives. This is what the Teaching for Mastery programme is achieving this year and for once it is coming with funding to enable teachers to be out of class.  In my experience watching each other and carefully analysing lessons is simply the most powerful form of CPD there is, far more beneficial than most whole-school INSET.  I hope it continues to grow in a funded sustainable manner to increase the skill levels of all teachers.

QLAs – are they worth it?

In every school I’ve worked in (4 including PGCE placements), I have been required to enter all test results into a spreadsheet, commonly known as QLA (Question Level Analysis).

Until recently, this has seemed to me like a fairly reasonable thing to do.  Sometimes more useful than others depending on the nature of the test and the actual results produced by the students, but generally OK…  Takes a bit of time to enter that data but, hey, I need to add up the scores anyway and I love a nice spreadsheet…

But I wanted to know what others thought. So I posted the following poll on Twitter:

As Dave Gale‏ (@reflectivemaths) pointed out, I might have added a category…

I agree, that would have been good, but actually what is more interesting than the results is the discussion that this generated.  It seems that there is a quite a wide range of opinion on the humble QLA.

So, let’s start with the positives. Some people really value them:

 

 

 

 

Others felt that the workload requirement was unrealistic so maybe we should get someone else to do it but that the end result may have some uses:

 

 

 

And then others who question their value and have stopped doing them:

 

 

This last point is crucial to me. There is a problem if we are doing something that is a waste of time. Time is a finite resource and every additional task we do drains our energy for the important part of the job – being in a classroom full of kids. But actually the problem is greater than it being a waste of time. There is a danger that we read TOO much into our wonderful spreadsheets.  The practice of labelling a question with a single topic is highly dubious.  Even if we got more sophisticated and labelled each question with the multiple topics that are embedded within it, something which is more prevalent with the new GCSE vs. the old,  this still struggles to capture what the question is about and how difficult it is.   There is a wide range of difficulty and sub-topics in say, a question on standard form.  Answering a simple conversion question accurately could give false confidence that this topic was sorted.

With key skills tests lower down the school where one question maps directly onto one topic, there could be value in charting this progress over time.  But for GCSE papers?

There are some elaborate tools available such as Pinpoint learning which produce reports and customised question booklets based on the results. However they still rest on the premise that we can get a reliable read on a students’ proficiency, confidence and competence in a topic by answering one question on it.

 

Today, as I was marking the latest set of year 11 mocks (the 5th they have done since December), I thought I would do a little experiment.  I generally mark the papers first, then enter the data into the spreadsheet.  The alternative is to enter the data as you go along.  This may seem like a trivial difference, but when we are spending several hours doing this work, it’s worth analysing the most efficient way to do it.   I’m not the fastest marker, but I calculated that I averaged 7 minutes per paper when entering the data at the same time and 4.7 minutes per paper when not going near the computer.  I was surprised the difference was as much as this.  I then timed how long it took me to enter the data, which averaged 1.7 mins per paper. So yes, about 10% quicker to enter the data at the end.

Apart from being mind-numbingly boring (which some teachers get their very understanding partners to help with!), this data-entry task takes 30-50 mins per paper for a class of 30.  So at least 1.5 hours work for a full 3-paper set of mocks.

I could spend 1.5 hours entering all that data into a spreadsheet that probably won’t get used, and if it does get used may lead to false conclusions.  Or I could use that time for something else, like planning carefully how I want to hand back their test papers ensuring that I am using the lesson time most effectively, maybe selecting or writing new questions that I have a pretty good hunch everyone needs to work some more on.  That hunch comes from doing the marking in the first place and doesn’t need a spreadsheet to back it up.

A perspective on teaching mixed attainment

In a world first for this blog, I have a guest post!

The power of collaboration and Twitter has led me to Bruce Gray (@bucksburnMaths)  who teaches in Bucksburn Academy in Aberdeen.  I am a recent convert to teaching mathematics in mixed attainment groups rather than sets but I am a pragmatist at heart and fully understand the reservations and difficulties with this approach.  It is not a small decision for a maths department to switch from teaching in sets to mixed attainment groups, especially if other subjects retain sets as my school does.  My summary of how to do it which I have written about before:

  1. Collaboration and co-planning must be part of it 
  2. Do it one year at a time, i.e. start in Year 7, and review each year

To find out more, check out www.mixedattainmentmaths.com.  The first #mixedattainmentmaths conference was held in January and plans are being put into place for another one in June.  If you are interested, leave a comment on this post or get in touch via Twitter or email.

Anyway, enough from me.  Grab a cuppa and read Mr Gray’s story.  Just, please – make sure you get to the end!

 

 

Mixed set maths classes. It’s a phrase in the past that has made my brain shriek in horror and caused me to physically shudder with trepidation. Throughout my time teaching (coming up to a full decade this year!!!) I’ve often wondered “Where would you even begin?” whenever the topic has been brought up in meetings and CPD events and pretty much every time I’ve came to the same conclusion: “Not a damned clue! I’m glad we don’t do it in our school!” My PT (Principal Teacher, i.e. Head of Department) had been talking about it for a while after seeing it at a Stirling Maths Conference (the highlight of any Scottish Maths teacher’s year!) but, much to my relief, nothing had actually came of it.

Then, at the start of the 2015/2016 session everything changed. I actually missed the first three weeks of the new school year. My wife (also a teacher) and I had our daughter on the first teaching day of the school year and I missed the same thing we did every year with our next S1 classes (equivalent to Year 7) – get them in, do some introductory lessons, slap a diagnostic assessment to see what they know, and then split them into the traditional “top”, “middle” and “bottom” sets before getting stuck into delivering content. I didn’t think anything would be different when I returned as “That’s the way we’ve always done it.” Little did I know that I was going to go back and everything had changed! Much to my dismay I returned from my three weeks of paternity leave to discover the department had decided to bite the bullet and take the plunge into the world of mixed set teaching.

I can’t remember exactly what my reaction was to this news but it was not wholly positive – I’m imagining a combination of an ashen faced “You did what?” and a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. The way the S1 classes had been timetabled to come to Maths meant it wasn’t really possible to set them all in an effective way and would have resulted in a couple mixed ability classes so, in order to give all pupils the same experience, we were just going to keep them all in their register classes rather than in ability groups. A sound reason. The fact my colleagues had discussed it at length and believed that it result in a better standard of learning experience for all pupils also reassured me so I decided to stop moaning, roll my sleeves up, and get on with it.

I hated it.

Serious, genuine, unbridled hatred for the whole damned thing.

I tried my best to be positive, I tried my best to make it work, I tried my best to deliver lessons that meet the high standards I have always set for myself and it felt like every single time I tried during those first few months I failed. Completely, utterly and hopelessly. I remember my misery coming to a head one rainy Winter morning. I was running over my latest set of failed lessons in my head during a 6 a.m. session of making baby’s bottles before going to work when something inside snapped. “I don’t want to go to work. I hate my job” I muttered to myself through a choked back sob with slumped shoulders and eyes reddening with tears. The whole thing had made me totally and utterly miserable. I had no idea what to do. For the first time in my career I had serious doubts about my future. I’d always said that if the job ever became a chore, if I ever fell out of love with it, then I would throw in the towel and find something else. Rather than doing anything silly – like quit my job there and then or hide in the stationary cupboard until the whole thing went away – I had a talk with my PT about it. I am really lucky and have always appreciated his approachableness and the support he’s offered over the years. I was glad I was able to go through the cathartic process of getting it all off my chest and it helped me break the problem down and see what the actual issues were. As far as I can remember there were three points that made those mixed classes the bane of my existence.

 

1) Organisation

Organisation has never come easy to me. It’s something that I’ve had to work hard at. In recent years I think I’ve been a bit guilty of getting complacent in terms of my organisation and fallen into a routine. I’d gotten to know what each level of class should be working on, how I’d go about delivering the content and what resources I’d use as part of the learning and teaching. Building this bank of knowledge up has really helped me keep on top of my day-to-day and long term planning but it also meant that when faced with something new (like this new system of mixed ability classes) I was lost. The rug was well and truly pulled out from underneath me. My safety blanket of experience was gone and it meant most lessons had to be planned from scratch – something I really wasn’t organised enough to do.

 

2) Workload

I direct fallout from the above point. Having to plan a new S1 course as it was being delivered required a lot of work all the time. I felt that as soon as I had something planned that I was happy with I had to get on with the next topic – there was no time to stop, collect my thoughts and reflect on what worked as we had to hammer on with the next set of lessons. The big thing that is needed to make mixed ability lessons work is differentiation and while this often takes place in my non mixed set lessons it needs to be done in a much more meaningful and effective way. A greater range of activities needs to be planned which leads to a much heavier workload. Matters were not helped by the fact that I was usually reluctant to use resources I’d found online and instead preferred to use resources of my own. This really was unsustainable.

 

3) “Won’t somebody think of the children!?!”

I may make light of it with that heading but this was a real sticking point for me. At every meeting we had as a department to discuss how we and the classes were getting on with this new set up I would constantly be bringing up the fact that I was hating it. Everything I said would usually start along the lines of “Look, I want this mixed ability set up to work BUT…” I meant the first bit, I really did want it to work, but I knew I was not meeting all the needs of every child in my class. This was something that really hurt to admit to. I didn’t feel I was doing a good enough job with the children at the extreme ends of the ability scale by aiming “right down the middle” with my teaching. The higher attaining pupils weren’t being stretched at all and the less able pupils found the work too challenging. This was the aspect that made me feel the worst – the fact that I perceived myself to be failing in terms of delivering an education and experience that each and every child has the right to. If you’re not doing that then you quite frankly aren’t doing your job.

 

Unloading and actually putting into words what was making me miserable was a good starting point to actually addressing the issue however it wasn’t something that was really possible to fix on my own. The department I work in is one I am passionately proud of and a huge part of that pride is down to the people I work with. I may have more in terms of “years served” in the profession than most of my colleagues but whenever I watch any of them teach I almost always come away going “I wish I could do that as well as they do.” and I have nothing but the utmost of respect for them. They are the reason I didn’t jack it in and quit when I had my crisis of faith. There is no way I’d willingly leave a team like the one we have. Things didn’t suddenly get better overnight and it took time me to be able to even say “mixed ability classes” without wanting to spit but I personally, did get there. The three things that helped me get there:

 

1) Divide and conquer

This is key in combating the workload. We had five mixed first year classes all following the same course and everyone planning different things for them. It was a colossal waste of teacher time with all the development work being needlessly repeated. The way around this grew quite organically. I found myself talking to my colleagues more and asking things like “What are you planning?” and “How are you going to deliver this part of the course?” Then I found I was given a well needed boost in confidence by being able to say “Oh, I’ve got something like that already.” and firing off an email with the activities attached. It actually got to be quite exciting opening emails and finding a bundle of emails with new activities ready to use. What ultimately helped me get over my reluctance of using other people’s resources is the fact that I have a deep set respect for my department as both teachers, work colleagues and friends and I trust them wholeheartedly with each and every aspect of the job. Each and every one of them passes the test of “Would you want them to teach your child?” with flying colours and it’s an absolute privilege to work with them. This job really is much, much easier if you are surrounded by good people! Our planning system developed beyond the scattershot of emails being sent back-and-forth and got more organised with everyone taking a topic, collating resources and developing a differentiated plan for the department to deliver. I’ve really grown to enjoy this. The fact that the resources for the current block of work has been prepared in advance frees up time for you to really focus on the next block and really look at what you want to teach and how you are going to differentiate the resources. In terms of what the pupils are doing it really gives consistency across the department. It means all the pupils are covering the same content and getting the same experience.

 

2) Everyone needs to buy in

This is vital for mixed ability classes to work. Every member of the department needs to be willing to do their share of the prep and to give the teaching of mixed classes a go. I found it much easier to deal with and was willing to give it a go (despite the fact I absolutely loathed the system) because everyone else was in the same boat and me refusing to even try to work as part of the team would just let everyone else down. I find the pressure of “Oh no! Everyone is going to see what I’ve prepared!” a bit of positive pressure. It means I have upped my game and made sure I’ve put a variety of different activities in my blocks of work. It also means I’m doing things that I would never have done with my classes before. I would have balked at the idea of something like a “treasure hunt“ or something similar but, after being taken out of my comfort zone with these classes, I now I find myself willing to give these a go with my set classes.

 

3) Be willing to try new things

You can’t be precious about the way things have been done in past. This is something I’ve been guilty of before. I’ve often uttered the phrase “Well, I’ve never done it like that before.” when faced with an alternative way of teaching something before trotting out exactly the same lesson as I’d delivered the same time the previous year. I feel (actually that’s not strong enough – I know for a fact) teaching mixed ability has made me a better teacher. I’ve had to think more carefully about what I teach, how I teach and the kind of activities. I also feel I had become a bit complacent in my teaching. I didn’t feel like I was an expert but I definitely was a bit arrogant in terms of “My way is pretty damned good and there isn’t really much point in changing things.” I’ve now realised that it can be a very freeing experience to burn everything down and start building from scratch (ought it’s not something I’d advocate doing too often!). Another thing that has helped is relinquish control (to a degree). Letting others have control of your resources is part of this but giving pupils more freedom over the tasks they are doing has been a very enlightening experience. For mixed ability teaching to work there needs to be a range of differentiated materials provided for most lessons. I assumed there would be a large group of pupils who would always go for the easy route and would pick the straightforward tasks every time. The truth of the matter is I am continually genuinely surprised at the kinds of comments my pupils make. “I’m going to try the easier sheet but if it’s too easy I’ll come back and get this tricky one”, “I think it’s going to be tough going but I’m going to give this challenging option a go” and similar such comments are regular occurrences and while there is the odd pupil who will go for the easier activity rather than pushing themselves I am often surprised by the maturity and insight the kids show when given this responsibility for their own learning.

 

While I feel I am a convert to the church of mixed ability teaching I would not say I’m a believer who follows its teachings without questioning. Maybe it’s just my suspicious nature but I view each new topic warily and mutter “How this going to work then?” to myself before diving in. I’m only half-way through my second year of teaching this way and I can still see potential dark clouds looming. Whether or not they actually come to anything remains to be seen but it would be foolish to ignore any of these potential problems. Again, I could break these issues down into a trinity.

 

1) Resources and budget

It turns my stomach whenever I hear of cuts to education be at a national, local authority or individual school level however, despite the fact that education should be viewed as an investment rather than a black hole money is just poured in to, these cuts are a very real and current issue which means we are expected to do exactly the same job with less funds to go towards day-to-day items such as basic stationary, photocopying and printing budget and the purchase of resources. A major factor that has made our mixed ability teaching achievable is that we have moved away from textbooks (for the most part, there are still times where a good, well written textbook is the best resource for the job in hand) to differentiated worksheets, card matching activities and active learning tasks all of which rely heavily of having a healthy photocopying budget. We are trying to make savings by reusing resources but that is not always possible and it is inevitable that new copies of resources will have to be made. The fact our class sizes are small has also made progress with this system much more manageable. It goes without saying it’s far easier to get around a class of 20 individuals than a class of 30+. I know we’d cope with bigger class sizes but I don’t think he pupils would get as rich an experience and from a classroom management side it would be that bit trickier to administer. Our teacher numbers and class sizes look safe for the future but it is still a very realistic concern to have.

 

2) The extreme ends of the ability

I think we are doing a pretty good job of catering for a majority of the pupils in the classes as the lessons are well differentiated or the content is delivered in such a way to make it accessible. There is still a nagging doubt though that some pupils don’t have all their needs being met. It’s easy to worry about the low end pupils (and when I think about differentiation my mind automatically goes to “Right, I must plan something for the less able pupils”) and it’s easy to forget the high end pupils or to just give them more work rather than something truly challenging. I don’t think that this is a problem inherent to mixed ability class. Even with classes set by ability you will have individuals that fall out with the main group. Now I sit down and organise and type out my thoughts it seems less of a problem and more something to keep in mind and not let slip.

 

3) What effect will it have long term

In the short term the mixed ability classes have been a hugely positive experience. There is a genuine buzz in the department when we have these classes in and I think it’s making me get better at differentiating with classes across the board. It’s got rid of the classic problem of kids being turned off from Maths because “I’m stupid – I’m in a bottom set, I’ve always been in a bottom se and always will be so there’s no point in trying to better myself.” Sure, there’s kids that still don’t like the subject – you can’t please all of the people all of the time – but comments of “I can’t do it.” are gradually being replaced “I’ll give this a go” and “This looks tricky. I’m not ready for it… YET!” It’s really encouraging to hear little comments like that being made. It’s part of the reason I get up in the morning! The long term effects remain to be seen. My gut feeling is that it will help attainment. If pupils are engaged and motivated it feels like that has to be the inevitable outcome but we can’t say that for certain without cold hard facts so we’ll just have to wait for the dreaded benchmark of “What did they get in their exams” a couple years down the line before labelling our journey into mixed ability teaching a success.

 

In conclusion… Well, I’m not sure I have one. Do I still hate mixed ability teaching? Is there still the “Serious, genuine, unbridled hatred for the whole damned thing” I mentioned at the start of this ramble?

No, not at all!

Hate has given way to something else. Love? No, not that but thoughts along the lines “I’m can’t do it” have definitely been replaced with a gleeful “I’ll give this a go.”