Rethinking differentiation: getting the most out of questions

“Inspectors reported concerns about Key Stage 3 in one in five of the routine inspections analysed, particularly in relation to the slow progress made in English and mathematics and the lack of challenge for the most able pupils.” (Ofsted, KS3 ‘The Wasted Years’, 2015)

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Credit: Betanews.com

When I trained, the common approach to differentiation was to teach to the middle, stretch the top and support the bottom. The (anecdotal) result? Lots of time-consuming creation of single-use resources, extension tasks that lack rigour or provide ‘more of the same’ or support pathways that remove the complex thinking – and that’s before you have to cater for the range of learning styles in your class! As a trainee teacher in an era when teachers were told ‘Ofsted want progress every 10/15/20 minutes’, it felt like there was a perverse incentive to make the visible learning as easy as possible to show.There were weeks where I’d spend hours making different worksheets for different tables, parallel tasks and card sorts that I’d tell myself I’d use again (but inevitably wouldn’t).

Then I was given the piece of advice that changed my approach to differentiation (and workload): a resource should never take you longer to make than the students to use.

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Leadership development: it starts earlier than you think

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Credit: QuotesGram

Succession planning should be at the heart of any medium/long-term planning within a school. With a national shortage of school leaders (Read more here), the idea of planning for future leaders is becoming increasingly important. According to figures released by Future Leaders, whilst 74% of teachers are women, only 65% of heads are women (original DfE report here). At a secondary level, the difference is more stark, with women making 36% of headteachers in a a sector dominated by women (62% women: 38% men) (read more).

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Reclaiming KS3: Driving questions for rapid progress

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Flickr: Creative Commons

When looking at examiners’ reports at KS5, there’s been a welcome move in recent years warning staff not to send students into exams with pre-prepared essay frames, writing templates and other formulaic crutches designed to get students through exams with the minimum of independent thought. Aside from my personal feelings about endless writing frames, they send the message to students that ‘you can’t do it on your own’. Students can become reliant on them and then panic and go into learned helplessness when you suggest that they write an essay independently – worse when it’s accompanied with cries of ‘but Mr/Mrs so-and-so gives us starters!‘.

At KS5 this is well overdue but with shifts in GCSE exams to new specifications, I’m inclined to say that this is a very welcome shift away from teachers dragging students through with check-lists and crib sheets, and towards a curriculum that values students’ independent application of knowledge.  On #EngChatUK there was a lot of pre-specification worries, which seem (largely) to have worked themselves out. (Whilst planning this blog I found a new post by Andy Warner on the new GCSEs which is worth a read here)

The relevance to Key Stage 3 is to work backwards from KS5. If we’re going to ensure that KS3 is challenging, engaging and unapologetically academic, then there needs to be time set aside for promoting the value of scholarship and high-level thinking. In KS3: The Wasted Years, Ofsted mention that it is the ‘most able whose progress was particularly affected when secondary schools did not build on prior learning.’

Using driving questions to structure and support learning ensures that all students make rapid and sustained progress.

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What WomenEd means to me

WomenEd_LogoRectanglePurpleFollowing our inaugural YamJam, our WomenEd ideas session started me thinking about what WomenEd means to me. The advantage of such a self-supporting movement, led by a fabulous steering group, is that it’s an open house, a place for sharing ideas, collaboration and personal reflection.

For me, I see WomenEd as a sustainable grass-roots movement that nurtures female leadership and promotes opportunities for women to shape the educational climate of the country. Whilst self-deprecatingly suggesting that this may be ‘a tad ambitious’, it hit me that perhaps that such qualification is the very reason WomenEd is needed.

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Rethinking KS3: Early Intervention

In earlier blog posts I’ve been exploring the ways that KS3 can be reclaimed to have a positive Assessmentimpact on student achievement over time. Ofsted’s document KS3: The Wasted Years explores the issues affecting KS3 at the moment and, to me, gives very clear guidance to schools about what is required for them to be successful.

Firstly, Ofsted state that ‘[successful schools] ensure that pupils are well aware of their school’s high expectations for behaviour and conduct, and they have a clear understanding of pupils’ achievements in primary school and build on them from day one.’ (Ofsted, 2015). For more on this see the earlier posts in this series.

The ways that this can be done are:

If we want to see students make expected or more than expected progress at KS4, we need to get in early on and identify knowledge gaps, effort issues and behaviour issues before they become a massive problem. It sounds very common sense: intervene at KS3 to prevent putting a sticky plaster on a gaping progress wound at KS4.

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Happiness starts now. Have a break.

Credit: Brainspores.com
Credit: Brainspores.com

When somebody else verbalises the thoughts you’ve been pondering for a while, it’s an enlightening experience. I had the privilege of watching Andy Cope (@BeingBrilliant) deliver a keynote presentation this morning and the key, very refreshing, message is that happiness is a myth. It sounds depressing but actually, what he suggests is that we’ve bought into a myth that happiness is just something we’ll achieve if… if what…?

  • If we lose a few pounds?
  • If we upgrade the car?
  • If we land the promotion?
  • If we get good results?
  • If we have a successful Ofsted?

By buying into this myth, we’re actually depriving ourselves of valuing the here and now by continually waiting for the time when we’ll have ticked off all the happiness criteria. It’s a myth because no sooner have you achieved the ‘I’ll be happy when…’ target, something else takes its place.

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Progress over time: Why there may be still a place for ‘well done’

In a time when Ofsted no longer grade individual lessons and there’s a move towards demonstrating ‘progress over time’, a new focus for observation, scrutiny and inspection has been identified: marking.

The major problem with this focus on marking is that – like when ‘Ofsted wants to see…’ was the be all and end all of lesson planning leading to VAK learning styles, thinking hats and brain gym (because we all know that without moving around the brain won’t get enough oxygen)  – marking risks becoming a tick-box, ‘prove we’re doing our job’ exercise where the primary people involved (student and teacher) aren’t the primary audience for the feedback being given.

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A positive message for all teachers from Ofsted. Any marking policy that’s justified by ‘Ofsted want to see…’ is misleading. (Click to enlarge)

It’s worth pointing out that Ofsted do not have a particular expectation with marking, they don’t have a set expectation about the frequency or detail of marking in exercise books, nor do they want to see ‘excessive written dialogue’ with students. This should be an announcement that makes teachers cheer, but it doesn’t because the general message of Ofsted appears to have been corrupted and manipulated into another stick to hit teachers with – namely that in order to show progress over time, your marking has to be excessively detailed with little tricks to show students are acting on feedback.

There are a number of problems with this approach:

  1. It assumes that the only way that meaningful feedback can be given is written
  2. If (1) is true, then all verbal feedback must be recorded with verbal feedback stamps (see @TeacherToolkit’s brilliant post about this here)
  3. That the only way to show student progress is if their response is close to the feedback given
  4. It risks creating a ridiculous culture of marking martyrdom where the ‘brilliant marking’ is usually the most detailed, most tick-boxy because it looks pretty on a page, thus having a negative impact on work-life balance and staff well being.

Then I’ll explain why I’d like to rediscover a sincere ‘well done’.

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Reclaiming KS3: Engagement

In this series of blogposts I’m exploring ways that KS3 can be reclaimed rather than being viewed as a second priority behind KS4/5. To go further, what I’m suggesting is that if schools want to ensure maximum progress gains at KS4, then targeted investment in KS3 is essential.

The three ways that this can be achieved are:

  • Challenge (Read the post here)
  • Engagement
  • Early intervention

Engagement

employee-engagement-survey-staff-surveyThere’s been a lot of discussion about the nature of engagement and relevance in the eduTwittersphere in recent months and it’s clear that these concepts raise a range of issues to be explored.

Sometimes I find that engagement is often tied up in discussions of relevance and self-esteem and many other concepts that shift the focus of learning away from the student and on to the teacher. When engagement becomes synonymous with ‘entertaining’ and ‘fun’, there’s an implication that if there’s an issue with achievement or student behaviour, it can be explained away as ‘the child only behaved that way because they found the lesson boring’. This approach fundamentally undermines teaching staff and excuses poor behaviour. It gives students an opt out and acts as a stick to hit teaching staff with – hardly conducive to developing a high performing team. Positive behaviour for learning should be non-negotiable, regardless how entertaining students find the lesson. In this post, I’ll be exploring why challenge can help foster engagement and how through praise we can promote engagement within an academic environment.

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Reclaiming KS3: Challenge

ProgressThere’s been a lot of focus on KS3 and the role it plays in achievement at KS4. Sometimes I wonder if due to pressures in the upper school, KS3 risks becoming the neglected sibling of KS4/5. It shouldn’t be. If KS3 is purposeful, challenging and engaging, the chances of having the progress gaps to be filled in KS4 will be drastically reduced. In short, the key to success at KS4 is strong KS3 provision.

 

The keys to success at KS3 are:

  • Challenge
  • Engagement
  • Early intervention

This post will focus on the first area: challenge.

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Why I’ll defend EdTech, but accept it’s not the magic solution to pupil progress

There’s been a lot of discussion in the press about tablet devices, mobile phones and other technological approaches to teaching and learning. The general trend from comments close to the government is that tablets and mobile phones are inherently a problem (Pupils set for ban on mobiles and iPads in the classroom to stop lessons being disrupted). For me, articles like this risk conflating two separate issues: use of mobile devices as a behaviour issue and thoughtful use of educational technology. Grouping the two together is unhelpful.

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I’m not for one second suggesting that there should be a free for all with mobile phones in school. In fact, I’m very much in favour of having strict policies for their use and consistently enforced sanctions for those students who choose to ignore basic rules. But the more this debate goes on, there’s a danger of throwing the baby out with the bathwater, so to speak.

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