Here’s a sneak preview of some of the articles due to the published in the winter months of 2017…
If you can’t explain it, you don’t understand it…
In January, SecEd magazine will run my article on teacher explanations and modelling. Here’s an extract:
Albert Einstein once said that “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”
And so it is with teaching and learning.
Amid a focus on active learning approaches whereby students take the lead in the classroom and teachers act as mere facilitators – the art of quality teacher explanations – sometimes called ‘direct instruction’ – has been, if not exactly lost, then denigrated and devalued.
But here’s the unfashionable truth, the elephant in the room, the secret hidden in plain sight: the most effective, expedient way for students to learn is for the teacher – that educated, experienced, expert at the front of the room – to tell them, then show them, what they need to know.
Rather than designing convoluted ways of enabling a student to ‘discover’ new knowledge for him or herself, perhaps as a result of engaging in a range of group activities, teachers should take the shortest, simplest path: they should just tell them then show them what they need to know.
In short, we should make effective use teacher explanations (telling) and modelling (showing).
Oil the hinge…
Also in January and also in SecEd, I’ll explore how to use hinge questions as a form of assessment…
According to Dylan Wiliam there are only two valid reasons for asking a question in class: either to provide information to the teacher about what to do next, or to cause students to think.
The latter involves dialogic questioning, which is to say questions that encourage discussion, questions that are open, philosophical, and challenging.
But what is perhaps less widely regarded, or at any rate less fashionable to admit to these days, is that closed questions can continue to play a vital role in an effective classroom.
Indeed, if – as Wiliam said – there are two reasons for asking questions (to provide information to the teacher and to cause thinking) and open questions accomplish the latter, then closed questions can help us to achieve the former.
In other words, closed questions are great assessment tools to use in the classroom. They can provide valuable assessment information to the teacher about their students’ learning and progress, about who has ‘got it’ and who has not, and about what needs re-teaching, recapping or developing further.
What’s more, closed questions used as a form of assessment reduce the marking load on teachers and make assessment ‘live’ and responsive. Further, closed questions used as a form of assessment turn assessment into a means of learning, they are assessment as learning rather than assessment for learning.
And one of the most effective forms of closed questions is the ‘hinge question’…
I cannot teach anybody anything, I can only make them think…
Having explored the importance of closed questions, I will then turn my attention to open questions and, in particular, dialogic questioning techniques such as Socratic questions…
Dialogic questions are questions that encourage discussion, questions that are open, philosophical, and challenging.
Dialogic questions – such as Socratic questions – don’t just cause thinking, they promote critical thinking…
Critical thinking provides students with the tools they need to be able to monitor, assess and reconstitute their thoughts and actions. Critical thinking also provides students with a powerful inner voice for reasoning.
If it can be said that the act of thinking has three possible functions – to express a subjective preference, to establish an objective fact, or to formulate the best solution to a problem from various competing points of view – then critical thinking enables students to determine which of these three functions a question requires, and then to come to a conclusion.
John Dewey described critical thinking as a process “in which the thinker turns a subject over in the mind, giving it serious and consecutive consideration”.
How to engage parents…
In School Business Manager Magazine in January I’ll share some proven approaches to engaging parents. Here’s an extract:
MetLife research from 2012 suggests that, although home-school communications have improved over the last twenty-five years, parental engagement remains an area of improvement for most schools – and the responsibility for improving it often rests with the School Business Manager.
Parental engagement is of great import in all sorts of ways:
• According to Butler et el (2008), Haynes et al (1989), and Henderson (1987), it is associated with higher academic achievement.
• Butler and Haynes also claim that effective parental engagement leads to increased rates of pupil attendance.
• Becher (1984) and Henderson et al (1986) say it can have a positive effect on pupils’ attitudes to learning and on their behaviour.
Research has also shown that getting a school’s communications policy right can lead to:
• An increased level of interest amongst pupils in their work (see, for example, Rich  and Tobolka ),
• Increased parent satisfaction with their child’s teachers (Rich), and
• Higher rates of teacher satisfaction (MetLife ).
So the big question for SBMs is how can parental engagement be improved?
Transforming a failing school…
In February’s edition of School Inspection + Improvement Magazine, I’ll share my thoughts on how to turn-around an under-performing school. Here’s a short extract…
Although genuine, sustainable school improvement is a slow, incremental process, time is often in short supply.
The unrelenting cycle of inspection can put huge pressure on school principals and senior teams to demonstrate rapidly rising standards.
What, then, is the secret to turning around an under-performing school in a relatively short space of time, whilst laying down the foundations for sustainable improvement?
Learning at large…
In February in SecEd, I’ll give a passionate case in favour of the humble lecture format…
A lecture: A long serious speech, especially one given as a scolding or reprimand. Otherwise known as a chiding, a rebuke, a reproof, a reproach, a remonstration, a berating, a castigation, a tirade, a diatribe, an harangue, an admonishment, and a lambasting.
So…it’s fair to say that the humble lecture has acquired something of a bad name for itself.
The Harvard physicist Eric Mazur said it was “almost unethical to be lecturing” these days and, as long ago as 1869, Charles Eliot – in his inaugural address as president of Harvard University – declared that “the lecturer pumps laboriously into sieves [and although] the water may be wholesome, it runs through [whereas] a mind must work to grow.”
Even earlier, in 1852, John Henry Newman wrote that true learning “consists, not merely in the passive reception into the mind of a number of ideas hitherto unknown to it, but in the mind’s energetic and simultaneous action upon and towards and among those new ideas.”
An article which appeared on the BBC News website as recently as November 2016 – beneath a headline which asked “Shouldn’t lectures be obsolete by now?” – questioned why lectures remain by far the most common form of teaching in universities despite the fact many had predicted that digital technology would have killed them off by now.
And then I’ll explore the other end of the scale, small group teaching…
The advantages of small group teaching are perhaps obvious…
For example, when teaching to small groups, we increase the opportunities for students to ask us specific, detailed questions and are afforded more time to answer these questions.
Small group teaching also provides more opportunities for students to deepen their learning by verbalising – articulating orally and not just in writing – their learning, explaining things to the teacher as well as each other. This process of thinking aloud helps students to make sense of difficult concepts and new knowledge.
Small group teaching provides more opportunities for detailed discussions about what students are learning as well as what they need to learn next. It provides plentiful opportunities for the teacher to clarify with students exactly what they should be doing and the level at which they should be achieving.
Small group teaching provides the opportunity for teachers to get to know their students and to be seen as approachable and available.
Teachers are more able to provide high quality, detailed formative feedback to students when their numbers are small, and feedback can be given to individuals rather than whole cohorts, allowing the teacher to utilise eye contact, tone of voice, and body language in order to clarify and sharpen their verbal feedback.
Feedback works both ways: in small groups, there’s the opportunity for the teacher to gain feedback from their students about how the lesson is progressing, the extent to which students are learning and progressing, and how individual needs are being addressed and met.
Learning in small groups allows students to make informed judgments about their own work and about each other’s work, and this can help to deepen their understanding.
In the spring, I’ll look at ways of improving primary to secondary transition for pupils with SEND in my article for SEN Leader Magazine…
Our school years are amongst the most emotionally and mentally challenging because – whilst we’re at school, more than at any other time in our lives – we experience myriad transitions: there are changes to our teachers and teaching assistants; changes to the year groups, classes, and schools we attend; changes to the culture and learning environment in which we study (as we move from nursery to primary school, from primary school to secondary, and from secondary school to further or higher education); changes to the level of difficulty offered by the ever-evolving curriculum; changes to the nature and level of expectations that are placed upon us; changes to the resources and support available to us; and changes to our home lives, too.
And this lengthy list ignores the fact that our bodies begin to change, too, as we transition through puberty.
How we respond to all these transitions can determine whether we succeed or fail, and influence the extent to which we develop resilience, patience, self-efficacy, and other social skills that are required later in life.
The emotional and mental effects of all these changes are amplified for pupils with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND).
Accordingly, one of the SENCo’s main duties is helping pupils with SEND to manage these transitions and reduce the negative impact they can have on pupils’ education and well-being.
Teaching the unteachable…
In March, I’ll share my thoughts on how to teach disaffected students…
One of the most common complaints that teachers have – and one of the reasons so many teachers leave the profession – is that they have to teach students who just don’t want to be taught.
How, they ask, can you force students to learn something that they have no desire to learn?
The honest answer is ‘you can’t’. However, you can do much to help disaffected and demotivated students to see the benefits of learning what you need to teach them, and you can organise your classroom in such a way as to encourage greater engagement and involvement.
For example, disaffected students tend to perform better when they are in small group settings. However, as it’s not always possible to cut class sizes – and, with the budgetary constraints placed on schools these days, it’s becoming increasingly less likely to happen – you need to create opportunities for students to engage in group work whilst in a whole-class setting.
There’s no such thing as average...
Also in March, I’ll look at some strategies for teaching less able students. Here’s an extract…
Before we begin, I have an admission to make: I don’t like the term ‘less able’. Less able than what, exactly? Less able than the more able? That’s a pretty banal and facile statement. Less able than they could be? Than we want them to be? Less able than the average student? If so, what’s ‘average’?
No one is ‘average’; rather, we are all made up of myriad individual characteristics. If you take an average of each of us (height, weight, IQ, shoe size, etc), you won’t find any individual who is average in all respects.
This is known as the ‘jaggedness principle’.
In the 1940s, the US Air Force had to refit fighter planes with adjustable seats because the cockpits had been designed around the average range of ten body measurements taken from a population of 4,063 pilots. But because no individual met all those criteria, they ended up with a seat which didn’t fit a single pilot.
So ‘average’ doesn’t exist and we’d be wise not to compare students to the average, deeming some to be ‘less able’ and others ‘more’.
What’s more, the term ‘less able’ implies a fixed state of affairs. The ‘less able’ are destined to remain less able ad infinitum. They will always reside to the left of our graph, there to languish in the shadow of the bell curve.
No, I don’t like the term ‘less able’ at all.
I prefer ‘lower performing’ and even that niggles. But for all its faults, at least ‘lower performing’ has the advantage of being less permanent, less immobile. Someone who is lower performing has the opportunity to improve their performance and become a better performer or a higher performer.
But this still implies a arbitrary comparison. What are we using as our measuring stick? The most recent summative assessment data? But surely this only tested students on their mastery of the most recent topic? Key Stage 2 SATs results? But surely this only tested students in English and maths, and even then on a narrow field of study within these two subjects? Teachers’ predictions for end of year or end of course outcomes? The latest university admissions data shows the weakness in that, with only 16% of A Level predictions bearing fruit.
Whatever stick we use to beat less able students with, it will be – like all sticks, I suppose – narrow. Someone who is deemed less able by one measure might well be more able by another. We are in danger of arbitrarily writing off some students because they didn’t perform as well on a test than other students. We are defining them by way of a snapshot taken through a pinhole lens.
Whatever term we want to use – and I will stick with ‘lower performing’ for the purposes of this article – we must first accept that students cannot be pigeonholed in this way. All students – like all human beings – are different, unique, individual.
We should not pool the ‘less able’ into an homogenous group and assume that what works with one of them will work with all and that what has been proven to work with ‘less able’ students in another school, in another district, in another country, (according to research evidence and meta-analyses) will work in our classroom.
When is revision not revision..?
In April, I’ll look at ways to make the most of exam revision…
The words ‘Today, we’re going to revise for an exam’ strike fear into students’ hearts.
Revision lessons have become synonymous with dull, repetitious labour. Revisiting by rote what students have already studied. Sitting past paper after past paper in silent rows, receiving nothing in return but a miserly missive in blood-red ink.
As such, I’ve learnt over the years that it’s better to talk not of ‘revision’ but of ‘exam preparation’, and preferable to think of ‘exam preparation lessons’ not as repeating what’s gone before but rather as a form of deliberate practice.
‘Revision’ implies going over old ground without seeking to learn from it and make improvements, and without seeking to introduce new concepts and spark fresh ideas.
‘Practice’, however, implies doing something new, incrementally improving your performance through a process of trial and error (or perhaps, as one teacher put it to me recently, ‘trial and improvement’). And so doing by receiving feedback, learning from your mistakes and making tweaks in order to achieve marginal gains.
In short, exam preparation lessons should avoid learning by rote, reading and re-reading class notes. They should, instead, make use of two teaching strategies which have been proven to be amongst the most effective forms of pedagogy in any lesson, namely: practice testing and distributed practice.
I also have two new books due for publication in the first half of 2017 (which means I really have to get on and write them, I suppose!): Teacher A-Z which is – as the name suggests – a reference book listing an alphabet of teaching strategies, and The New Teacher’s Survival Kit which is a guide to surviving and thriving during teacher-training and your first year of teaching.
At some point I also plan to sleep.