Lightbulb #8 -WordPressure

It’s been quite a while since my last post, partly due to accompanying a school trip to Peru over the summer, but also partly due to the final year of my MA starting with a vengeance, so I haven’t really had a moment either to think of something worth writing about, or indeed to write about it anyway. However, after the last couple of lessons with my Year 12 A Level Language class, I think I now have something interesting to share.

I have found the blogs and wikis are an excellent way to showcase student work, enable peer-assessment and collaboration, and also to promote digital literacy. I had found KidBlog to be an excellent example and it was free until about 6 months ago, when, to my horror, it started insisting on a paid subscription if you wanted to do anything more than look at your previous posts. This was a huge shame as classes the whole way up the school had produced some lovely work and helpful revision resources for each other. I find that Wikispaces Classroom is pretty good and quite secure, if not very pretty, but I wanted something that the girls could take greater ownership of. Much put out, I sought the guidance of the fantastic José Picardo who suggested that I pilot the use of WordPress sites, such as this (!), for girls as an ‘English’ portfolio. The school has been using a WordPress site as an alternative to a VLE for about 18 months now, and teachers in my department and students have responded very well. I was encouraged by this and José, doing a bit of technical wizardry, set up the sites for my 6 Language students.

The sites now look great – very professional and each girl has personalised the site, arranged her menu and uploaded some of her recent written work and class presentations, as well as a reading list. I’ve been nagging the girls to do enough wider reading for quite some time now and where threats and homeworks have not worked in getting them engaged with the process of trawling through literature more academic than SparkNotes, technology seems to have won the day. The words ‘This is so cool!’ and even ‘I’m going to put this on my UCAS!’ we’re heard – a definite victory for those who believe technology enhances learning.

However, this process has not been without its issues along the way, and the girls were definitely not as excited about the process as I was at the start. So below are a few problems that I encountered, and hopefully some useful solutions if you are considering embarking on this!

  1. How we present the resources to students is key

This generation is consistently hailed as confident and computer literate, and the dominant narrative is that we, fusty and old-fashioned grown-ups, should be dealing with our prehistoric attitudes to technology, and sharpish. However, my impression is that although these students are expert navigators of the ocean of social media options, avid watchers of who knows what on Netflix, and no longer need to read a map because of Google Maps/Citymapper and the like (by the way, I’m guilty as charged), they aren’t actually that confident or excited by using technology in their lessons. I had couched my introduction to Wikispaces/KidBlog and so on in terms relating to checking up on the girls’ wider reading more than as a space for them to take ownership of, and the fact that the girls did not have their own ‘space’ as a learner meant that they saw these sites as little more than an admin job. Cue less than exuberant usage of the digital resources that had been set up. When they saw the websites as a portfolio, something personal and something to impress potential admissions tutors with, their interest and excitement was almost palpably stronger. They have so far seemed considerably more proactive in organising their online selves as a result.

  1. The students aren’t as technically savvy as we give them credit for!

One thing that really struck me was that the girls found it very difficult to get to grips with the website and how it worked independently. Although they had had a lesson to set up their spaces, after which I had assumed they could continue on their own, their attempts were unsuccessful at best, or at worst did not occur at all. This may have been tied to their failure to see the value of the sites as more than just admin, and my failure in presenting the sites in a sufficiently enticing way (see point 1), but I had assumed that, with a little bit of trial and error, they would sort of self-teach how to use WordPress, as I had had to when I started up this blog. The best way to achieve this was to model it with one of the girls’ own sites – she logged in for me and, with the class watching, I demonstrated how to create menus, posts and pages and to upload files. To give them all due credit, they got to grips with it very quickly but did need a significant amount of hand-holding at the start.

  1. This will take an investment of time

So far, the girls have had three whole hours of lesson time dedicated to getting their sites up and running, and I anticipate them needing me to book computer rooms sporadically so that I can keep an eagle eye on how well they are getting on with it all. Year 12 in the new AS is fortunately quite flexible in terms of course structure, and for those schools doing the Linear A Level, this will be even easier. For now, however, it is worth being fully aware of the constraints on time in the curriculum and plan ahead to allow for it.

One last caveat: as with any online presence, safeguarding and content is of paramount importance. I know that José, when he set them up, talked to the girls about this and I will be monitoring their content and helping them stay safe online, just as they would on Facebook or Instagram. In terms of other content, their essays, creative writing, presentation documents, reading logs and so on are up there and I think they are very much enjoying having something to show the world. Watch this space…

Lightbulb #7 – There’s an asset out of containment!

A fairly bizarre combination of factors led to this post. Firstly, a conversation with a pupil. Secondly, this rather thought-provoking article in the Guardian. And thirdly, the recent Jurassic Park reboot. I hope you’re intrigued…

The central premise of Jurassic World, for those who haven’t seen it, is that a large, genetically modified dinosaur goes on the rampage in the now opened and finally lucrative Jurassic World theme park. While Chris Pratt’s down-to-earth, rough-and-ready dinosaur whisperer character sees the monster as a ‘highly intelligent animal’, we are openly invited to criticise the park’s frosty CEO played by Bryce Dallas Howard, who spends much of her time on the phone to shareholders talking about the profit margins generated by the reptilian ‘assets’ in the theme park. She eventually, of course, has her view of the dinosaurs shifted and her ice-age heart melted by Chris Pratt, and it all, after a fair few chompings, ends happily ever after. Prehistoric gender roles aside, it began to strike me that education in the UK is in danger of heading the same way with our attitudes to student data and exam results. Are we heading down the slippery slope where the children are no longer even seen as students, but as assets? And when they fail to meet their target grade, or have to take time off school due to stress, will there be panicked distress signals on satellite phones: “There’s an asset out of containment!”

The conversation with the pupil was briefly, and vaguely, along these lines. This Year 7 pupil, having achieved very pleasing end-of-year exam results, was worried that their propensity to fidget and stare out of the window during lessons was having a detrimental effect on their learning. They are particularly concerned that, as they have quite a high MidYis score, that they were not going to meet their potential. While the maturity of this sort of comment coming from a Year 7 pupil is laudable, what worries me is precisely this: that this is a Year 7 pupil. This particular child, a bright, sparky and energetic student, is already feeling the pressure to match up to their data after just one year at secondary school.

What I fear for all pupils is that they will experience the ‘complete meltdown’ described by the NUT, as quoted in the Guardian article (link above). I am blessed to teach a great group of students who care deeply about their learning and are anxious to do well, but I do have concerns that this anxiety is just a fraction of the sort of pressure that we can expect pupils to feel in times to come. We desperately need to see a radical culture change before our ‘assets’ are dangerously out of containment. And way before that, we need to stop seeing them as assets, as little data-generating robots. I don’t really think it’s any more helpful to call them students or pupils. They are children and young people, and this shift in culture must start from the top of the chain.

In a commendable bid to improve standards, the government are putting forward various benchmark measures to ensure all schools are of a high quality in the UK. So far, so good. As several commentators have pointed out, however, there are some issues with the government’s definition of what is considered ‘good enough’, and a failure to understand that, due purely to the nature of what an ‘average’ is, someone will always be in danger of being ‘below average’. That’s how maths works. Those schools whose data does not show a ‘sufficient’ number of pupils gaining 5 good GCSEs are in danger of a damning Ofsted report and forced academisation.

Of course, this filters into the public perception of what goes on in schools. I would hazard a guess that most of the commenters below the line on the Guardian article linked above have not been at school since they took their last public examination. Their views may well (and I’m in danger of falling into the ad hominem trap, I know), be tainted by rosy-tinted memories of their own school days and assumptions that much is the same today. On the contrary, the quality of research into teaching and, as a result, what we know about effective learning has meant that the quality of teaching is often excellent. But even excellent teachers sometimes have to face the suspicion that they are lazy, incompetent, the ‘blob’, militant and dangerously liberal whenever they open their mouths to defend a professional decision they have made. Unfortunately, the trust in the teacher’s professional opinion has evaporated.

The result of this pressure from above? A need for schools to be accountable, and the only possible way to do this, realistically, is through exam results. So we test the children when they get into school, test them every step of the way, make the assessment criteria really obvious so that the children know exactly what they need to do to get higher marks, measure their progress, add extra points onto their predicted grades so that they are required to aim even higher. Hundreds of numbers fill dozens of spreadsheets and databases, while children no longer bother to read my comments on their work, and only focus on which number they have achieved that week. I remember talking to one student about her work, which I had marked formatively without giving a grade: she asked me what mark it ‘would have got’, following that with ‘I know you don’t like giving marks out but…’. After a little more probing it was revealed that she did not pay any attention to the fact that I had corrected a number of spellings and made clear, concrete targets for improvement. All she wanted was the number.

Most of this, I’m sure, is preaching to the converted. These points have been made elsewhere, and probably far more eloquently. But I’m going to put forward my manifesto for data use in schools.

  1. By all means test students when they start secondary school to get a sense of a benchmark. MidYis, Alis and Yellis and similar systems all provide very useful indicators of how well we can expect students to achieve.
  2. Do not set too much store by these indicators. They are indicators only, pointing towards a possibility. They are not a prophecy or guarantee of what will happen.
  3. While it is impossible to fake a high score, it is easy for students to be apathetic and lazy on the day of testing and do rather badly. We should have high expectations for all pupils, but perhaps view all data with a pinch of salt.
  4. This is perhaps one more for the government: set limits on the number of high-stakes tests before public exams start, and particularly at primary level. They are children, not data-sausages. If extra high-stakes testing is unavoidable, perhaps we should take care how we present it to children, and perhaps also the manner of assessment. Testing doesn’t always have to take place in an exam hall after all.
  5. Perhaps we should reserve the term ‘students’ for university students – in German, for instance, the word ‘Student’ refers to university students only while there is a specific term for school pupil – ‘Schüler’. Perhaps by going one step further and habitually calling our charges ‘children’ or ‘young people’ we might just remember that this is what they are.
  6. Remember that these children have a multitude of other things in their lives beyond school. For some children, we have very little idea of what they are having to contend with at home. Some children have to cope with unimaginable pressures outside the world of school. I’m not, of course, denigrating the importance of what they do in school! I do, however, feel that it perhaps needs to be tempered with an appreciation of what else is going on.

These are small things and they won’t, probably, do much to affect the culture shift needed higher up the chain. My sincere hope for the future is that a modicum of trust might be restored to teachers and their professional judgement, and we might just begin to feel that we don’t have to use the children in our care as ‘assets’ to prove our capability.

Lightbulb #6 – Stick it in a box and close the lid

Outstanding. Meeting expectations. NQT. SEN. Dyslexic. ASD. Special measures. Good. ADHD. Able. Meeting standard 5. Gifted and Talented. Making progress. Teachers use terms like this on a regular, even daily basis, and although I’m used to them now, I remember feeling very overwhelmed by them when I started school-based practice on my PGCE. Everything had a name, a label, and if it didn’t have a full word it had an acronym that sounded similar to all the other acronyms. It was overwhelming, but having said that, they were also oddly comforting – everything had a name, a definition, something to help me make sense of this crazy, busy, swirling new career I had entered.

Except hardly any of these terms are actually that helpful. Once I’d finally got my head round what they stand for, I had begun to feel that such labels are worse than reductive: that actually, they encourage us to be lazy, criteria-driven and quantitative, rather than active, descriptive and qualitative. These terms encourage us to put ourselves, pupils, our subjects, our workplaces, in neat little boxes with little sticky labels, and to screw the lids on tight.

Take ‘outstanding’, for example. It’s the holy grail of inspection judgements, the Aladdin’s cave, the treasure hoard of Smaug. The word itself refers to something that is unquantifiable, something that defies the norm, which is remarkable, which literally stands out from the crowd. It’s a daunting prospect. As an NQT I very much enjoyed David Didau’s ‘The Perfect Ofsted English Lesson‘, which has plenty of excellent, practical and research-based ideas or teaching excellent lessons, complete with a handy tick-list of criteria at the end. But if ‘outstanding’ is all about being different, how can this possibly be boiled down to a list of criteria? Granted, Ofsted’s lesson criteria for the ‘Outstanding’ and ‘Good’ judgements are quite broad, but doesn’t that make it worse? Not only are there boxes to tick, but the criteria are wide enough to cover all manner of sins. Hardly outstanding now, is it?

I’m not going to go through each and every label on the list, but another one which really drives me nuts is SEN, or ‘Special Educational Needs’. It’s handy, it’s catch-all. So catch-all, in fact, that practically any student has a special educational need of some description. Of course this refers to what most of us understand as those students who require additional support with their education, often under the umbrella of dyslexia, or low working memory, or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or autistic spectrum disorder (all of which are also catch-all terms, but that’s by the by and would keep us going all night). A student’s special educational needs are endless and particular to each child, and might be simply that they are often kept awake at night by parents arguing, or aren’t given breakfast before they come to school, or are bereaved, are worried about their little brother’s upcoming operation and haven’t been able to focus enough to complete their homework to a high enough standard that week. It might be that they have a greater aptitude for Science and Maths and they really don’t ‘get’ Shakespeare, or ox-bow lakes.

So what do we do with such a huge concept, and potentially infinite variations of additional support and resources we could and should deliver to help our students, with their multiple needs, get the most out of their school? We break the terms down further into compartments that we can slot our students into: we provide larger font worksheets and bullet pointed instructions in Comic Sans MS to support our dyslexic students; we give our two G&T students some extension work they can get on with quietly in the corner while we manage the behaviour of students with ADHD; we’ve got colour-coded notes to support the ‘visual’ learners…and so on. We’ve addressed SEN…on paper. We’ve ticked each box, but what about the individuals within each category? It would, of course, take hours that we simply don’t have to tailor-make all our resources to individual students, but to fully address the special educational needs of all our class, that is, essentially, what we would have to do. The SEN label is helpful, but for all the wrong reasons.

One last label which has recently struck me is the elusive ‘great’. Personally, as a teacher, and I’m sure I’m not alone, this is the quality, more than ‘outstanding’, that I really want to embody. It is the most intangible quality I can think of, with a myriad of different definitions and thousands of ways in which we might see it in ourselves or our colleagues, which is why, idling on Twitter a few days ago, I was struck by Teacher Toolkit’s thoughtful article ‘Visual Anatomy of a Great Teacher‘. Although the article claimed that it was “not a list”, I couldn’t help feeling that it really was a list, a list of idealistic and often contradictory characteristics which could arguably used to define great. And they were hard to disagree with, and I agree entirely with the writer in stating that:

“language and descriptors that commodify teachers and pedagogy to fit neatly into descriptors can only be limiting by its reference of labelling.”

Quite right, I say. So how can we possibly seek to define great? In the same way as we define outstanding. It’s simply yet another label with which we can feel categorised, boxed, restricted – a gilded cage, perhaps.

Teaching is a dizzying and dynamic career, and the world at large is no less incomprehensible. The world we live in is infinitely more complex, dangerous and intricate than we can possibly comprehend, so I suppose it’s only natural that we impose labels on everything around us: healthy, sedentary, techie, sexist, progressive, cool, normal, masculine, feminine…I could go on forever. But as campaigns such as HeforShe are highlighting so eloquently, there is nothing more dangerous and reductive as imposing labels on what we encounter.

I don’t pretend to have offered any solutions, only a challenge, and perhaps a particularly pertinent one at the start of a new term of government. Let’s dispose of labels. Let’s revolutionise our education system to look at our children, our teachers, our schools, as highly individual, highly contextualised, highly unique, no longer items of data that can be summarised by a series of numbers, or a word, or, worse still, an acronym.

Lightbulb #5 – A brave new world?

Integrating mobile technology into the classroom is a thorny area – although I don’t feel that the debate is as polarised as the media and public attitudes might have us believe. I have to admit that, 18 months ago, when 1:1 iPads first came on my radar as something I would have to think about as part of my teaching practice, I would have counted myself as one of the skeptics. Not, I hasten to add, as a result of caveman-like Luddite attitudes to technology, but more because of a lack of awareness about what sort of power these devices can have. I was sure they could do something, but I wasn’t yet sure what.

I’m happy to be wrong. It’s been great! I’ve genuinely loved trying different ways to implement this, and I’ve written more specifically about useful apps and ideas for technology in the English classroom here and here. But, for what it’s worth, here are some of my more general thoughts on some of the challenges, triumphs and tribulations of mobile technology in the English classroom.

 It’s great when it works

There have been some great articles and blogs about the power of mobile technology to improve workflow in the classroom, and apps such as Showbie and Edmodo do create excellent platforms for work to be handed in and marked digitally, while apps such as Socrative are great ways to create digital quizzes or reflective plenary-style questions.

But problems in practice have meant that this have never been as efficient as I wanted it to be, not least because 11-year-olds aren’t famous for being highly efficient and independent. By the time I’ve spent 10 minutes helping half the students deal with technological mishaps (wifi not working, server down, iPad out of battery because they forgot to charge it, other mysterious issues which I don’t have the technical knowhow to fix), I can’t help feeling that I might as well have just asked them to write on paper and collect it in the old-fashioned way in the first place.

Possible solutions

  1.  This may be obvious to you, but it wasn’t for me, so I apologise if this sounds patronising, but do have a back-up plan. This may be for those students who can’t upload their work to Showbie, for instance, to email the work to you or stick it in a shared Dropbox folder, or it may be simply getting them to email it into you later, or to write the work by hand.
  2. Whatever it is you do, have a system to keep track of how students hand in work. The part of me that tends to prefer doing things the long-winded way likes to use a paper mark book, and I’ve started adding another column for each piece of work with a quick record of what format the students have handed in their work: bk for book, Sb for Showbie, E for emailed and so on.
  3. Be patient. I have a feeling that these are teething problems which will eventually settle down when students are more used to this new way of working too. It’s worth bearing in mind that although they are very familiar with mobile technology, students’ understanding of iPads are mostly about watching videos and checking social media, so using them efficiently in school will take some adjustment for them as well.
  4. Keep it simple, certainly at the start. I think it can feel a little overwhelming – I certainly felt a little swamped by all the wonderful and whizzy things you can do with an iPad, and if your head is in a whirl, you can guarantee that the students’ heads will be in a similar state! Find an app or two (at least to start) which work for you and stick with them, and after a while your class should get the picture and some of these kinks will be ironed out. I think my biggest mistake was trying too many different things and then not really knowing which to use, leaving my poor Year 7s feeling somewhat wobbly and unsure of how their work would be collected. The other advantage of course is that the students will now have a centralised location to find all of their digital work for your subject, making it much easier to review progress.

 Does the tech need to catch up with us?

Using AirPlay to flip the iPad screen onto the interactive whiteboard and modelling annotating poems or marking exemplar paragraphs has been a lovely way to avoid the lack of eye contact with the class while you write on the board, or a way to avoid leading the class from the front of the room all the time. I also very much like the way I can collect work (using Showbie), mark it (again on Showbie or using Notability), and send it back via email, without having to leave my desk to collect the work from the printer, and I don’t have to carry enormous piles of books with me. I can also type comments in almost a fraction of the type it takes me to write out feedback and targets.

However, these great timesavers have not altogether met my expectations. Although I have a great little stylus for writing on the iPad (albeit a very cheap one), I haven’t yet managed to master the art of writing on an iPad screen. Detailed annotations – circling spelling errors; wiggly lines; questions; slashes; dashes and so on – these are essential items in the English teacher’s marking toolkit but my iPad marking is extremely clumsy. Most of us lean the pad of our hands on the page when we write, but if I try this on an iPad I inadvertently move the page, or create exciting little squiggles and hieroglyphics in odd places. Try writing something without leaning your hands on the page. It’s tricky, isn’t it? There’s a distinct lack of control – how on earth someone manages to create those fantastic drawings you see in iPad/tablet advertisements I have no idea. And typing isn’t much better: when the keyboard pops up on-screen you can’t see most of what you (or the students!) have written as the keyboard takes up half of the screen.

Possible solutions

  1.  Again, I’m prescribing patience. Perhaps in a few years, the stylus and screen will have evolved such that this sort of thing will no longer be a problem. UPDATE: Today I opened Notability to find a notification that they have developed a way to detect the pad of your hand to prevent the aforementioned unwanted squiggles. Hallelujah!
  2. Customise your equipment. Without spending a fortune, the students have purchased all manner of additional items such as portable chargers and styluses for their iPads, and under recommendation from one of my Year 12 students, I bought a nice, cheap bluetooth keyboard from Amazon for about £15 – this has completely eradicated the keyboard-hiding-screen conundrum and made the predicted text function disappear to boot.
  3. Practice – I did spend a good half hour on my PGCE practising my interactive whiteboard handwriting and I do feel that was a half hour well spent. Perhaps a similar investment of time will help me write more efficiently without using resting my hand on the side of the page? Watch this space…

 Content woes

In a word, English is possibly the most challenging subjects in terms of content, purely because there is so much of it. My overriding feeling is that the supply of content-based apps simply does not meet the demand – certainly not in terms of content. Much of what is out there tends to be too simplistic; it’s better for primary level, but a little superficial for the kind of detail and evaluative approach I’m looking at for my Key Stage 3 and 4 classes, especially when it comes to literacy. There are a few literature quiz apps which could make nice starter activities for revision, but beyond that, have limited use for the analytical demand of English study. The most useful apps are those which promote collaboration or which focus on generating ideas or the planning stages of a piece of work, but ultimately, I do feel that English draws the short straw on the app front.

Possible solutions

 1) Don’t use the apps if they’re no good! I felt a little pressured to use what’s there, but on the most simplistic level, using iPads for instant, (relatively) fuss-free email and internet access is a perfectly valid and useful way to make good use of these tools. Dictionaries, thesauruses and encyclopaedias, easily the most widely needed items in English lessons, are now immediately accessible.

2) Create the content yourself! It is now fairly standard practice for me to simply email powerpoints or worksheets in advance of the lesson – a fairly idiot-proof way of reducing paper waste, annihilating the amount of wasted time spent cutting out and sticking work into students’ books, and ensuring that all students get the work, even if they miss a lesson. The content is exactly what I want it to be. I’m going to start investigating ways to convert my content into iBook format to make it even more iPad friendly, but for now, this is working well for my classes.

I’m probably preaching to the converted or simply reiterating things which people have heard before, but I hope not – if these ideas were useful to me, I’d like to think that someone else might benefit from them too. Please let me know your thoughts, comments and questions.

Lightbulb #4 – Why are we even doing this anyway?

As this Forbes article notes, teachers are not the most highly paid individuals, but nor are they the worst paid. In fact, it’s apparently just right. But I don’t think I know a single teacher who entered the profession for the money, or even the holidays. Clichéd though this might sound, I love my job, not because of the time I spend not doing it (how perverse would that be?) or the money I earn, but because of goals much less quantifiable. I love teaching because of the people I have the privilege to spend time with – pupils and staff alike. I love teaching because of the sheer joy of being able to spend time with a group of young people and discuss my favourite novels and plays and poems. And I get to call that work. I love teaching because I have to think, all the time. Sometimes the thinking is exhausting, the students don’t feel the same way as I do about Andrew Marvell, and sometimes the students are downright irritating. But these frustrations do not diminish the rewards. The rewards of teaching are far less tangible than money or holidays, but, according to some, they are of far less value.

In January 2013, Michael Gove announced the introduction of performance-related pay for teachers, claiming that it would be the key to improving results. While I do not question the value of raising standards in UK schools, I do question the value of using financial rewards as the way to achieve this. At best, it’s a fundamental misunderstanding of what attracts people into the teaching profession; at worst, it’s a devaluation of those intangible qualities which make teaching such a wonderful career. Performance-related pay implies that other rewards are not important.

I do not dispute that in other industries, performance-related pay may be effective in ensuring motivation. Certainly, if you don’t have the same sort of love for your job that I do (and I do appreciate that I am very blessed to feel this way), money will help. And I don’t wish to speak for everyone: no one would say no to a pay rise! However, using financial rewards to boost employee input does nothing to actually promote passion for a task or project, the sort of passion that will reap the rewards which CEOs want to harvest. All it does is promote extrinsic motivation. It’s crude, temporary, and, worst of all, focuses the mind on the reward rather than the action. Stop giving the reward, and the behaviour will stop. Intrinsic motivation, however, is much more lasting and self-sustaining. It’s the motivation behind hobbies, and the motivation I have towards running: I run because I enjoy it and feel better when I do. The same goes for teaching: I want to teach outstanding lessons because I feel good about myself as a teacher when I do. Simply put, performance-related pay will not raise standards – certainly not long-term.

Another question is: how do you measure it? While the government has put forward suggestions about this, they are either arbitrary (‘wider contribution to the work of the school’), difficult to measure (‘contributions to improvements in other areas eg pupils’ behaviour’) or simply too unreliable (‘impact on pupil progress’). Despite our best intentions, regardless of how much hard work we do, pupil progress will always come down to the performance of one hormonal teenager in one hour-long session on one day in June. I can’t think of many things which are as unreliable as that. In other industries, you will have distinct, numerical-based outcomes. These can be measured. 16-year-olds? I’m less convinced.

Of course, school heads will know who their most effective teachers are. Most of the staff body, I’m sure, will recognise who the exceptionally talented teachers are, and will strive to be like them. If senior management in schools are going to award bonuses, they will know who to award them to. But to make performance-related pay fair, the criteria need to be set in advance so that all people know that it can be attained, and how they can reach that level. But what makes an outstanding teacher is still open to debate: Ofsted’s criteria are far from perfect, and can ‘outstanding’ really be a distinct set of criteria which can be ticked off? Surely the word ‘outstanding’ itself refers to something which is beyond definition, something which is distinct from criteria. I’ve been taught by, and trained by, outstanding teachers, but that experience has not given me any clearer a sense of what ‘outstanding’ looks like. Not to mention what it might look like in other subjects, but I won’t go there.

Performance-related pay has its place, but it’s definitely not in the classroom. By all means pay teachers more, but if improving standards is the goal, the key is effective training, research-based teaching, promoting teachers’ autonomy, and recognising the things that teachers do value. These aren’t money and holidays, regardless of what the clichés say.

Lightbulb #3 – Closed text? Closed Mind

In Milton’s Paradise Lost, Eve chooses to eat the Fruit because she desires knowledge, the knowledge of good and evil which Satan promises her. Her problem is rooted a misunderstanding of what knowledge is. She knows what good and evil are, and talks about them with clear understanding that they are oppositions, and that one is to be welcomed and one is to be feared:

What fear I then, rather what know to fear Under this ignorance of good and Evil […]

Paradise Lost Book IX: 773-4

She knows what they are but the problem is not ‘knowing’, as such. While she can discuss them as abstract concepts, what she lacks is understanding of them. All that good and evil are, for Eve, are words, with no reality behind them. It is only through experience, through fully understanding the dreadful implications of her actions, that her fear of death and evil are realised, but too late.

While preparing my Year 13s to take a closed-text exam on Paradise Lost, it occurs to me that a similar misunderstanding about what knowledge is, and its value, is at the root of the idea of closed-text exams.  English Literature is fundamentally a skills-based subject, and, while content knowledge is useful and vitally important, insisting on closed-text exams for both GCSE and A Level betrays a severe lack of knowledge about knowledge.

Of course, there are elements of content which need to be taught and ‘known’. Students need to know what a sonnet looks like, what a metaphor is, what the parts of speech are, what iambic pentameter is, what different words mean, what the conventions of tragedy are, and so on. But the other problem with knowledge is that there is too much of it, so someone, somewhere, sitting in an office in Westminster, has to make the decision as to what knowledge is important and what isn’t. Don’t get me wrong – I adore Victorian novels and can’t wait to teach Jane Eyre for the new GCSE, but why, for example, are 19th century novels a particular genre we have decided that our GCSE students need to know from September, as opposed to any others?

Another issue is that knowledge is no longer a premium. Yes, I was once pretty pleased that I was able to recite Macbeth’s ‘Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow’ speech, and I that I could almost recite all of Sonnet 116 (although I get lost somewhere between the ‘wandering bark’ and the rhyming couplet), but neither of these things have ever gained me anything, except perhaps the odd crossword clue or pub quiz question. Now, I can go onto Google, and with a few keyboard strikes and clicks, almost any knowledge I need is accessible in seconds. I no longer need to know, or be able to recall at a moment’s notice, who wrote what, or when they wrote it, or how that quotation goes. Now I can locate the information I need from my phone, away from my computer, on a train, and at a push at the top of a mountain. To some extent, I no longer need to know anything at all.

Knowledge, as is clear from Bloom’s Taxonomy (objections to it aside), is the first step, and will only get you so far. We are much more interested in what we can do with that knowledge. This is where application and analysis come in. Readers do not simply passively absorb what they read as content, as ‘stuff’. Good readers question, compare, ask how, ask why, and make connections. One of the most fundamental skills of English Literature is explaining how writers use different linguistic and structural features, as well as literary forms, to convey their ideas. To do this, learners need to be exposed to a variety of different features, to apply their base knowledge to this, and consider how the methods used are influential to the readers. It is a skill that is practised, a muscle that is exercised and honed, and through that practice and exercise, learners (ideally) grow in confidence as independent readers of a range of texts and forms.

This, surely, is what we want them to be able to do if we want to say a student is mastering English Literature. Except that they can’t. With a closed-text exam, they aren’t able to put the energy and focus for their examination revision into appreciation of the artfulness and deliberateness of writers’ choices. The focus is instead on remembering quotations or even whole poems by heart. This puts a barrier on curiosity, on questioning, on that independence which we so want our students to have. The question learners are engineered into asking is no longer “Why does this poet use this word?” but “Which word does the poet use next?” It doesn’t take a genius to work out which is the more academically rigorous.

A requirement for closed-text exams creates a bizarre mixed message for students. Is the focus on their ability to understand and interpret texts, to become engaged and critical readers regardless of genre? Or is it an ability to regurgitate a series of facts or quotations? The latter only benefits those who have strong long-term memories, while the former gives us far more scope to test for a range of abilities and skills.

I’m playing devil’s advocate here, but it strikes me that we need to take a leaf out of Eve’s book. It’s not enough to know. We need to taste the fruit to fully understand what the consequences are. This is where the analogy ends, however; eliciting understanding through open text exams (as opposed to fact recall through closed-text exams) is clearly not the same as the Fall of Man. But what concerns me more is the consequence of encouraging a generation of learners to think that knowledge is all there is. No application, no analysis, no evaluation. No one will ask why any more, only what.

Now it hits me. Perhaps that was precisely the point.

Lightbulb #2 – Death to the Formula!

This, controversially, has been my battlecry for the past few months: I’ve been waging war against PEE. It started as a quiet revolution where I would no longer ask my students to write a ‘PEE’ or, as they are termed at the school where I work, a ‘PQA’. Next, I engaged in a more front-line assault with some sentence starters up in my classroom with phrases such as ‘Although we might think that…’ or ‘It is easy to assume that…’ in the hope that it would prompt more independent writing styles. After that, a direct attack: a lesson with Year 10 where I explicitly told them to not talk about PQA. Finally, a major offensive in the form of a four lesson mini scheme of work with Year 11, trying to give them an alternative way to think about essay writing. It worked, to a limited extent: there’s nothing quite like reverse-brainwashing, and it seems many of the requirements of the GCSE examination (timed essays being one) set restrictions on creativity in essay writing.

This sounds all well and good, but why all this effort, particularly when the exam system makes such demands on our students that we have to give them formulae to scaffold the tasks? Let me explain.

I like the website Grammarly a lot – many of its blogs are perfect ammunition for a punctuation pedant like myself. However, a couple of days ago, Grammarly posted this blog and shared it on Facebook: Tips for Writing a Perfect 5-Paragraph Essay. This is the US equivalent of PEE – a formula which originally began as a scaffold for weaker writers which has now become more of an end in itself – no longer a stepping stone to higher-level writing, but the destination. And this is where the problem lies, both with 5-P and PEE. The formats themselves are fine as support structures: they’re clear, simple, and easy to follow, and great for helping students who find the extremely demanding task of essay-writing difficult. But, they seem to restrict, bore and demotivate more able writers who simply don’t need that kind of support.

All writing is about communication, and yes, all forms of writing have generic conventions which need to be followed in order to support that communication. But very few conventions take this down to the micro level of how many paragraphs or how many of what type of sentence should be used. It is telling, in fact, that the Grammarly blog takes eight paragraphs to discuss how to write a ‘perfect’ five-paragraph essay. Something is clearly wrong here and the same is true of PEE. Yes, many paragraphs have a topic sentence, but is that always the first sentence? Or even the second? Is it possible to write an effective paragraph without a topic sentence? Does the analysis have to come after the quotation or could the two be blended together, perhaps with more than one illustrative example?

The inherent problem with these formulae is that they preclude individual thought and expression from the process of writing. And this is fundamentally wrong because, as it has been argued:

‘thought is not merely expressed in words – it comes into existence through words’

(Corden, R. (2000) Literacy and Learning Through Talk. Buckingham: Open University Press.)

In essence, this means that our thought is clarified by the writing process, and I’m sure that this is something that we have all experienced – that wonderful moment when new thoughts or ideas are reached during writing, which challenge what we thought we were writing about. How on earth can this sense of writing as an organic, highly personal process be developed if students are trying desperately to make this fit into a pattern? Surely this will actually make writing harder! No professional or academic writer would even begin to suggest that writing ‘PEE’ paragraphs is the way to present their ideas, and it is clearly not the defining feature of the genre.

What I propose here is a new approach to teaching essay-writing, which is based on the idea that all writing is a) communication and b) defined by the conventions of the genre. I propose that we illustrate to students the following:

  • Essays are a genre of writing just as a newspaper article or a formal letter is.
  • The genre dictates that you need an introduction, a conclusion, formal Standard English, the present tense, and a sense of developing argument indicated through paragraphs.
  • These are the only rules and all rules can be bent or broken if you know why you’re doing it.
  • Within the confines of the question, write what you want to write about, and with passion.
  • You have a reader, who wants to know what you want to say.
  • Essays deserve the same level of careful word, sentence and paragraph-level crafting as a poem or short story.

Although I found that my Year 11 combatants found it a rather relentless battle against five years of brainwashing – not helped by the examination requirement of writing an essay on an unseen poem in 30 minutes – there were key differences in the way they approached their writing as a result of this tactic. They told me they enjoyed approaching essays this way, that they were proud of individual paragraphs which they felt they had crafted particularly well, that they felt passionate and engaged by what they were saying, and that they felt there was a point to writing. While it did feel like an uphill struggle, and one I certainly would not have tackled with a less willing or less able class, I firmly believe the time has come to take up arms against formulaic writing.

So, will you join the fight?

Lightbulb #1 – The Problem with Plenaries

Don’t get me wrong. Of course we have to bring our lessons to a clear, sharp close – even better when students are able to reflect on their learning and you can get an accurate idea of whether students have learnt what you want them to. And of course, mini-plenaries throughout the lesson are key to establishing the pace in which you need to deliver the lesson and provide support if anything has been misunderstood. In an ideal world, a plenary will:

…draw out learning and refer back to the lesson objectives […]  round off and summarise the lesson, […] underline what has been accomplished [and] refocus pupils on the objectives that have featured in the lesson…

But this doesn’t always happen, certainly not for me. Perhaps this is a dreadful confession and I’m a terrible teacher and should swiftly search for a new career path. However, I get the impression that I’m not alone in this – the fact that the amazing Plenary Producer has (at the time of writing) over 100,000 downloads and over 300,000 views on TES is testament to the fact that this is something that many of us find a challenging element of our practice.

So why on earth is this such a problem, and what can we do about it?

Problem 1 – Running out of time

I’m blessed with some lovely classes, particularly my delightful Year 11s who are very motivated, clearly enjoy English, and who are frankly hilarious, even when they don’t particularly like the text. Their ability to lampoon the stalwarts of the English Literature GCSE syllabus is infectious. And, almost inevitably with classes like this, we go off on tangents, discuss things aren’t quite relevant but are interesting anyway. No teacher wants to quash that sort of enthusiasm.

On the other end of the spectrum, there are times when you misjudge how long it will take students to complete a task, or gaps in their knowledge you weren’t aware of become evident and you now have to address, and the same snowballing of thoughts occurs.

So, quite often, I find these thoughts running through my head: yes, we only have 15 minutes left of the lesson but you’ve raised such an interesting point, and we haven’t even got onto the final activity yet, so I’m going to have to change what I was going to give you for homework, and I have a couple of notices to give you…and I need to leave 10 minutes for you to reflect on the lesson as a whole and consider your progress in the skill we’ve been practising.

I wonder what is more valuable: keeping my enthusiastic class enthusiastic and questioning, or ticking the plenary box. I know which one I’d rather do…but we do still need to make sure that students have learnt what we want them to.

So, what can we do about it?

Possible solutions

– Technology: we have recently rolled out iPads in Years 7 and 12, and apps like Socrative are fantastic, and the best bit is that Socrative is very simple to use, has a web-based version, and has the potential to save time. I say potential, because trying to get a bunch of 11 year-olds to download and log into something efficiently can be similar to herding cats…

– Regular mini-plenaries: thumbs up; keeping a stash of post-it notes handy; votes; getting students to move to different parts of the classroom depending on their views. These are all good strategies and don’t take huge amounts of preparation. But this does not really solve the time issue: we just end up spreading the time taken up by plenaries across the lesson rather than at the end.

Problem 2 – Lessons

I think that part of the issue with plenaries is due to the nature of lessons, which the fantastic David Didau explains much better than I can in his piece on lesson planning. It makes perfect sense: of course not all students will progress at the same amount in this arbitrary measure of time that we call a lesson. And a lesson isn’t even the same length across the board. We have 65 minute lessons, some schools have 45 minutes, some have 100 minute lessons and there is any number of possibilities in between.

This begs the question – at what point is it worth students reflecting on their progress and you collecting information as to their understanding of the skill or content they have been learning? Shoving a plenary on the end of a lesson plan does not constitute thoughtful consideration of what students are learning, how difficult the concept that they are learning is, or indeed the nature of learning itself.

Possible solutions

Honestly, I don’t have much to offer here except proposing a change of culture regarding lesson planning. When I trained the word plenary wasn’t actually ever used: on our planning proforma we had a ‘conclusion’ – a much more flexible and catch-all term. Much better than end-of-lesson plenaries might be generating a clearer sense of the point at which students need to reflect. This might actually be 20 minutes before the end of the lesson and before another activity, at the start of the following lesson, as part of a homework activity…

Problem 3 – What students tend to be like

One of the most helpful pieces of advice from my PGCE mentor was the following nugget: the last five minutes of a lesson have to be the most interesting. Students already have their eye on the clock, and they’re beginning (if they haven’t started already) to think about lunch, or the next lesson, or the conversation they were having with their friend before the lesson and are eager to continue. Wrapping up the learning will ultimately occur amidst the low-level disruption of bag-packing – students are uncanny in their sense of when the lesson is gearing for a close, so even when you get started on the plenary, you will hear the unmistakable rustle of paper and pencil cases.

Then you have the problem of effort: how many students are going to pour the same amount of effort into doing a gimmicky consolidation task as the first time they tackled the concept? They’ve already done the work once, so why do they have to do it again?

Possible solutions

Again, I think this calls for a change of culture in our use of plenaries. Do plenaries have to be at the end of the lesson? Do you need to stop a valuable activity mid-flow in order to inadvertently signal that the lesson will end in ten minutes and that students can stop focusing on the lesson soon?

I don’t pretend to have solved the problem, or rather problems, of plenaries, and my solutions seem to have thrown up more questions than they have answered. But I do think it is worth teachers and schools challenging the accepted truth of plenaries as conclusions to lessons, and thinking more consciously about the most appropriate time to have students reflect on their learning. This won’t, and can’t, always be at the end of a lesson.

I’d love to know your thoughts – have you got any better solutions to mine? Are there other problems that you’ve noticed? Please comment!

Lucinda’s Learning Lightbulbs

So, I’ve done it! I’ve finally taken the plunge and set up my blog – something I’ve been meaning to do for ages. And why? I’ve been teaching for two and a half years now and every day has been a delight and a challenge and I want to shout about it! Many people wax lyrical about how wonderful a job teaching is, and I would definitely agree with all of the standard contributions to the list of perks: being paid to talk about my favourite books, never sitting at a computer all day, teenagers being genuinely hilarious and frustrating in equal measure, changing lives…all of that.

But that’s not what I want to talk about in this blog.

I think teachers today are incredible – teaching as a profession has developed exponentially, with research rightly challenging accepted ideas about how children learn. So much so, that I sometimes wonder whether we have become so proficient at teaching that students have become less good at learning!

Having said that, I think there’s a lot still we can do. Tried and tested ideas are just that, but we can’t stop there. We have to keep trying, keep testing, and keep on working out the best way to get these children through their examinations while making them actually want to learn – no easy feat!

Which brings me to what I want to do with this blog. The learning lightbulbs of this blog’s title are ideas, theories, challenges, desires, things which I would want to change, adapt, develop, research, explore, and, more importantly, share. So, please lend me your ears, tell me what you think, and let’s change the world.