Category Archives: ramblings

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)

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“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.”

 

How do we report and measure attainment in Maths? And Why?

An interesting discussion in the Maths office this week has led to some musings.  When the English education system moved away from Levels, my school took the new GCSE (9-1) grades and “translated” the old Teacher Assessed Levels (TALs) into new Teacher Assessed Numbers (TANs) as shown here on the school website:

conversionchart785

As I teacher I am required to provide a TAN on each student I teach at various points in the year. As I was doing this earlier this week I started thinking about what these are used for.  Here I am not talking about the actual process of assessment. I am just thinking about why we collect that information and what we do with it. It seems to me that there are 3 key recipients of this information each with their own agenda.

1, The Students.  This is a form of feedback, albeit a very blunt, summative piece of feedback that basically tells the student how good they are at Maths (in my case) summed up in a single score. The student may be aware of their previous score(s) so they may also get a measure of their progress.  They may also discuss it with their peers so get a sense of their relative position in their year group.  But mainly, it is a single measure that tells them where they are at today.  Students used to have a good understanding of what Level 4, 5, 6, etc. meant.  In fact I still hear of Year 8s and even 7s asking what level they are. It wasn’t that long ago.  Inevitably they will take time to get used to a new scoring system. In our case it is linked to 9-1 GCSE grades. But the key difference of course is that these TANs are their teacher’s opinion (based on summative end of unit assessments) on how they are doing, rather than the external impersonal authority of the exam board.

Due to the simplicity of the summative score this feedback doesn’t actually tell the student how to improve other than “work more” or maybe even “work less” depending on that student’s disposition and level of ambition towards that subject.

2, The Parents.  All parents want to know how their child is doing at school. Through parents’ evenings and other contacts, we can provide much more nuanced information on this progress.  But I believe most parents like the clarity of some sort of score. The score needs to be understood in context, e.g. in our case it looks like a GCSE grade but it is not any sort of prediction, well not until KS4 anyway.  The question for me is what do parents then do with this information? Obviously a full range of responses exist here from nothing at all, to deciding to get a tutor in and putting additional pressure on the student to work harder in whatever way they see fit. Even though the parents may do nothing, the mere fact that the TAN is shared with the parents is likely to have some impact on the students’ engagement with school, positive or negative.

3, The school leadership. By having a regular school-wide, “score” for each student per subject the school can do all sorts of analysis of the attainment and progress of their student base.  What the school then do with this information is myriad: e.g. decide on classes/sets, plan intervention including deployment of support staff, provide support to teachers, evaluate teachers as well as track overall school improvement.  The data may be shared with Ofsted although my understanding is that this is not statutory.  These are pretty wide-ranging but basically boil down to helping the school focus their efforts and resources in the right place.

It strikes me that these are 3 quite different and potentially conflicting sets of objectives. For example the school may wish to collect data that is useful for analysing whole school performance but is not relevant or motivating to individual students. (A Twitter conversation here with @LaSalleEd highlights how their MathsAge system shares specific content objectives with the student, but calculates an overall score solely for school use)

The dynamic between students and parents varies as children get older.  I believe there is a case for parents of primary children having information that their children don’t see, but as pupils approach GCSE they need a realistic view of what they are aiming for which can prove an incentive to work hard.

Lots of questions, not many answers, I’m afraid. I would like to understand more about what other schools do. I understand many have adapted the old levels system by basically changing the scale but didn’t see a need to make a broader change to reporting.

Please leave comments below or get in touch on Twitter, @mhorley.  Thanks!

 

Collaboration

collaboration-mindset
I’ve had a couple of experiences of collaborative lesson planning at different schools. What we are doing at the moment with our mixed attainment Year 7 classes feels like the best I have experienced. I’ve been pondering why this is.

Collaborative planning can be a hard sell .  It can feel inefficient.  Some may be thinking “I could have planned this lesson in the time we’ve been sitting here discussing it”.  It’s sometimes difficult to get everyone involved, especially if the less experienced teachers perceive that the more experienced teacher will know the “best” way to teach a topic and therefore don’t feel they have much to offer.  It’s taken me time to appreciate that there is no “best” way to teach anything – it’s a complex interplay of the teacher’s experience and preferences, the relationship with the class and what’s gone before in the sequence of learning.

However, it is also patently inefficient for 6 teachers teaching the same topic to the same age children to be creating 6 sets of powerpoint slides and worksheets.  This struck me when I started teaching. How much time do teachers spend creating their own resources and lessons as if they were the first person to have ever taught it!?  At the time I thought why doesn’t just one person in the department to it, or, better still, one person in the country.

If classes are in sets then there is a justification that each teacher needs to “tweak” things for that particular class and the “level” they are working at. I would speculate that this is usually down to the teacher’s preconception of what the class will or will not make a decent stab at rather than a clear understanding of the individuals’ prior attainment with that topic.  However even if tweaking is required (we still tweak for our mixed attainment classes) it is still a whole lot quicker than starting from scratch.

There are, of course, plenty of lessons resources available either for free or by buying into schemes such as Boardworks, which could mean that nobody has to create any PowerPoint slides ever again. Or your department could follow a text book scheme which often have on-line resources to support them. But picking up someone else’s slides and just stepping through them is unlikely to result in a good lesson, teaching is not as simple as that.  It’s not really about the PowerPoint.  There are many subtle nuances within the flow of a lesson that are nothing to do with what is on the screen, the worksheet or the text book. And the temptation to spend to glance briefly at the resources just before the lesson without really thinking properly about the sequence of learning is always there.

This year, our Year 7 teachers have been meeting once a week for 55 mins in a timetabled PPA slot we call a TRG (Teacher Research Group).  We are doing the same for Year 8 teaching. It is voluntary for teachers to attend these TRG sessions as it is not additional PPA time.  So far, all teachers do regularly join and generally feel that they get back the time they give up.  There is one designated lead teacher for each year group who “chairs” the TRGs and is responsible for keeping the files and folders organised.  Being the lead shouldn’t be a big burden but it is important to have someone clearly identified in this role.

The TRGs vary, but generally will start with looking at a very simple overview of the next 8 lessons or so with names and dates alongside which we might spend a few minutes discussing – effectively the medium term plan.  We try to keep a week ahead of the lessons being taught.  Too far in advance and we are likely to forget what was discussed.  Going the other way, we risk the situation (which we have sometimes slipped into) where lessons are shared the night before and we miss the opportunity to discuss them.

It is this discussion of the individual lessons that is the crucial part of co-planning. The teacher that has planned the lesson will run through it, with the other teachers thinking about their own class and picturing how things will run. As we go, someone makes changes on the slides or writes brief notes on them to follow up later.  The discussion focuses on specific explanations and questions, but can also cover the flow of the lesson, the practicalities of classroom management or verbal questioning.  Often there is not a clearly defined end point for a lesson, it is up to teachers to manage the pace with the class and draw the lesson to a close at an appropriate point. This can mean that we sometimes get out of sync by a lesson or two but this is manageable.  We go at a decent pace in the TRG which enables us to get through a week’s worth (4 hours) of lessons.  We have 6 classes in each year group, so that means that each teacher is creating a lesson just under once a week.  The starting point for this teacher is sometimes last year’s lesson, or sometimes we will briefly discuss the key learning points and key questions for the lesson in the TRG to give the teacher planning it enough to go away with to start planning.  Homeworks are also created collaboratively and are linked closely to the lessons aiming to include some more challenging open-ended or problem-solving questions alongside practice of core concepts.

In addition, we do “learning walks” once per week where one class will be covered, usually by the Head of Department.  The teacher will go round the other classes to see the lessons in action.  They are looking to see how the pupils are responding to lessons we have planned and are not commenting on individual teachers. Every few weeks we will devote some of the TRG time to learning walk reflections where we discuss more generally what we have noticed and what we need to change.

Personally I have learned a lot from our TRGs this year.  As well as an efficient way to plan high quality lessons, it is also a very effective form of ongoing CPD. I feel more confident actually teaching the lessons having had the chance to discuss them with colleagues beforehand. It has been a fundamental part of our transition to teaching in mixed attainment groups, which I don’t think would have worked without collaboration.  I also notice that we have more informal reflective discussions between teachers about how the lesson went as we all have the common ground of having taught the same lesson.

The key challenge of course, is time. It would be great to continue this model right up to Year 13 but timetabling all these TRG sessions will be difficult. My message to anyone in a position to make a decision on this would be to have a go, make a start.  If TRGs are effective then they deliver high quality lesson planning and ongoing CPD for all staff involved.  These are two pretty fundamental aspects of teaching, aren’t they?  So let’s dedicate the time to them.   Marking policies might be a place to look at for clawing back some of that time.  But that’s a topic for another post…

 

 

Mixed Attainment Maths

91550e5e-3800-4842-bdbf-8f82c0e85564On Saturday, I presented at #mixedattainmentmaths (Powerpoint is here), the first in hopefully a series of conferences bringing together teachers and educationalists to share ideas and experiences of teaching in a mixed environment.  As I had expected, most of the presenters had a deeply held conviction in the validity of organising our classes in this way, whether it be for social justice reasons or due to educational research demonstrating that the overall progress of learners is improved compared to a setted environment.

I admire those who are championing this cause.  Since starting teaching I have felt a sense of unease about putting children into sets, but the pragmatist in me can see the reasons why it is the predominant way of organising secondary maths in the UK.

My talk was mostly about some of the resources that we have developed over the last year or so of teaching our Year 7 and Year 8 classes in mixed attainment groupings (currently with a small nurture group in Year 7).  If you would like to read more about some of the changes that we have made, Gwen Tresidder from NCETM wrote a case study on our school here.

Before looking at some maths, I did touch on some of the considerations for schools moving to mixed.  It is a significant change to make to a department and one that needs to be considered carefully. In particular:

  • Is there a problem with classroom culture in your lower sets or indeed sometimes top sets where maths can be seen as something that is all about speed and getting the right answer rather than reasoning and problem solving?
  • How will teachers be supported? I believe that we have been successful so far in moving to mixed groups and the key to this has been our weekly 1 hour collaborative planning sessions.   e. 1 hour for Year 7 teachers and 1 hour for Year 8.
  • How to plan the low threshold high ceiling activities that provide suitable challenge for a wide range of learners. The “Toy Story” tasks, I called them, where different learners can be working at different levels at the same time in a manageable way.
  • How to develop teachers’ skills in questioning a mixed attainment group.  I have noticed that there is more whole-class dialogue in our mixed attainment classes, but it requires skill from the teachers in directing these questions and managing the responses so that everyone learns something from the explanations given. This recent blog from Dani Quinn has oodles of great advice on this.
  • The need to develop children’s skills and habits in providing careful explanations of their mathematical reasoning. We ask them to stand up to make a contribution, for example. Initially I was uneasy about this, but I have really seen the benefit once it becomes established. You can see children carefully constructing their explanation in their head before standing up. When they are ready, they stand up and usually give a coherent explanation using correct terminology. It makes them slow down, think first, and I believe they know it is a better contribution and feel proud as a result.
  • How to convince parents that their child is being given “appropriate” work to do. This has been particularly challenging with the higher attainers, especially when that child is in top sets for other subjects.  Some parents feel we are just following a fad. We have made efforts to explain the reasons behind what we are doing, but we probably need to do more.

The focus of this workshop was on that last point, i.e. how to provide challenge to higher attainers in mixed groups.  I will be writing more about that over the coming weeks, so please follow this blog if you are interested.