Post-its and Door Stops: The Culture of Learning Walks at my School

I have been thinking about writing this blog for a while and a bit of an exchange on twitter last week has prompted me to get round to it! SLT learning walks are an emotive issue and one I was struggling to fully explain the senior team I am part of stance’s on in 280 characters!

At my school, our senior team each have 3 or 4 timetabled learning walks over a fortnight. That means, in theory, that one of us should be out on a learning walk during every lesson. In practice, we probably don’t stick to the timetable consistently – but its existence establishes the expectation that we should all be out and about visiting lessons regularly. A doorstop is an essential piece of classroom equipment; there are no closed classroom doors. There is no-one just quietly getting on with being brilliant without that practice being shared and their talent being used, no-one quietly struggling and no-one quietly coasting along being mediocre or, on occasion, poor at their job. Teaching is too important for us to let that happen.

I joined the school when it was recently out of ‘special measures’ and graded as ‘requires improvement’. Five years on it is now graded ‘outstanding’ with a progress 8 score that places it in the top 1% nationally, but the approach to learning walks has not changed; we do them all the time, looking to identify best practice that can be shared, offer support where it is needed and address  areas of serious weakness.  We leave a positive post-it note with the teacher of every lesson we visit and if we see something not quite right – perhaps the behaviour system is not being followed or the lesson doesn’t seem particularly well-planned – we will make a point of visiting again in the next few days (something that wouldn’t necessarily mean anything to the teacher, who is used to SLT being in and out regularly) to identify whether we saw a one-off or something a bit more entrenched that perhaps we need to have a chat with the teacher about.

It’s hard to explain exactly how we have achieved it but I feel confident that teachers do not see these learning walks as threatening.  I teach almost a 50% timetable myself and am treated exactly the same as any teacher; I have enjoyed receiving nice notes, have appreciated the occasional nudge to have a look at an area of my practice that perhaps needs a bit of attention and once, in my first year, gratefully accepted the offer of support I got when it was noticed that, having come from an all-girls school was struggling to adapt my planning for the all-boys classes I was now teaching (my school is two Academies – co-located boys’ and girls’ schools in which the teaching is still largely single-sex).  In the aforementioned twitter exchange today, a few people suggested that staff at my school must be unhappy and experience high-levels of anxiety but I don’t think that is true; our retention rates are high, new teachers often join on the recommendation of friends and ex-colleagues and in the independent, anonymous survey our large MAT does every year, job satisfaction rates are really high.

The way we do it means that we, as a senior team, are talking about teaching and learning all the time.  And we are talking about it in context – about it based around what is actually going on in the classrooms of the school we lead – not in any kind of abstract way. It baffles me how any senior lead for CPD can, for example, make decisions about what a staff’s CPD needs are if they are not seeing what is happening in classrooms. It baffles me how any senior lead for teaching and learning can decide on their strategy and then see whether that strategy is actually being used and crucially, whether it is working if they are not seeing what is happening in classrooms.  It also baffles me how a senior team can successfully introduce and embed any strategy – be it around T&L, curriculum, assessment or behaviour – without looking at it in a multitude of classrooms and having constant conversations with teachers and middle leaders about what they are seeing.  Last year I overhauled marking and feedback at my school and without regular learning walks what would I have done? Some big launch in which I told everyone what I wanted them to do and then six months later do a book scrutiny I suppose. Instead what I did was launch it, then visit lessons all the time, talking to staff about what was happening – “I noticed you did X, have you thought about Y?”-  or leaders –  “So you have asked staff to X; in practice I think they are having difficulty with this element of it, can I help you to rethink it?”  I also identified the common issues around the new policy throughout the school so planned CPD around it.

How many teachers out there despair when some new initiative is launched by their senior team which doesn’t work – and often there is no need for! –  but there is no forum to discuss it, and it just limps on for months, or years, before slowly fading away?  Three years ago I launched a new assessment strategy for key stage 3 – it was to do with rolling down GCSE scores into the lower years and involved a half-termly assessment and a ‘best piece’ of work.  Three months of learning walks and the conversations they prompted with teachers meant I realised quickly that it was, frankly, stupid, and I ditched the whole thing to everyone’s relief, replacing it with something hugely informed by what I had seen in classrooms and heard from teachers.  Two years ago I went into a maths teacher’s classroom and noticed her books hadn’t been marked according to the school’s policy. When I went back to have a chat to her about it later that day she apologised for not following policy but she also explained why she felt written marking was not a particularly effective method of delivering feedback. A year later I spearheaded a complete move away from written marking and it all started with that conversation with that teacher.

Of course sometimes regular learning walks will reveal a problem but my goodness how crucial it is that the team leading a school know it exists so they can address it. Sometimes they are macro: in recent years learning walks have shown us the day-to-day frustration that teachers were experiencing with students not having equipment; we realised that the changes we had made to our curriculum meant there was now a lack of alignment between curriculum and our teaching and learning strategy; we identified an overreliance on exam-style questions and a lack of well-thought out formative assessment.  All of those things have been addressed.  Sometimes they are micro: we have, through learning walks, become aware of teacher who felt intimidated by older male students; a teacher not following our behaviour policy because she didn’t agree with it; a teacher who was brilliant at everything other than questioning!  Again, all of those things were addressed. Teacher one had some coaching. Teacher two got her chance to have her say and then was kindly and firmly told that the policy was not going to change and she needed to follow it. Teacher three was told how great he was but that we wanted to help him get better at questioning and sent off to observe staff who were great at it (and guess how we knew who those teachers were…..?) Sometimes there are difficult conversations but that’s how people get better. That’s how a journey of continuous improvement happens. That’s how the very, very occasional lazy and/or incompetent teacher (because they do exist; we have all met one!) does not get away with it for very long.

Without regular learning walks, how is a teacher’s performance being measured? We have to be realistic – we are public servants being paid by public money performing a role crucial to the communities we serve and, indeed, to our nation so it is vital that there is an element of monitoring of performance. A one-off lesson observation? A set of results at the end of a school year? Most teachers would agree that these are not valid ways to assess them so what is? Regular learning walks mean we can look beyond results and in the past we have addressed a teacher getting great results in year 11 but teaching in such a narrow, examination-focused way that his students were turned off the subject for life and a teacher who, conversely, taught brilliantly but continuously failed to achieve results. Both needed support in different ways. Neither were ‘judged’, just helped to improve, thus improving the experience and GCSE results of their students. The point is, we would not have known what the problems were without regular visits to their classrooms. As for one-off observations, well we can all pull off a firework lesson once a year when our payrise depends on it.  What is harder, and much more effective, is to continuously teach solid, well-planned lessons.  I walked around lessons with a headteacher from another school who was doing one of our termly MAT reviews recently and she said: “the teaching here is not that special. I am surprised you get the results you do” and I thought, ‘but that is just the point – lessons here are not ‘special’ – no-one has pulled something attention-grabbing out of the bag because they knew you were coming’.  Teachers here teach consistently good lessons and I am sure our learning walk culture has helped to encourage that. It is not a ‘special week’ when SLT come in, it is a normal week. So teachers get used to normal weeks every week meaning there is a normal expectation of good, consistent teaching.to

Teachers doors are not just open to SLT. Our open door culture extends to all staff. In the last fortnight I have been visited twice by the Exec Principal, twice by the Principal, once by my Head of Department, once by an external visitor and once by an NQT who had been given a list of people to go and see to look at live feedback.  We all benefit from being seen and getting regular feedback and also from being able to go and see good practice whenever we want.

Of course it’s strange how you can become so steeped in a school’s culture that you forget it is not ‘normal’. A friend of mine, a senior leader at another school, was recently talking to me about the gap between students’ English results and maths results and ruminating on the reasons for it. “Why don’t you take a walk around maths lessons next time year 11 are being taught?” I asked and she looked horrified: “teachers wouldn’t know what I was doing there. They wouldn’t like it,” she said. “But you could feed back to the rest of SLT at your next meeting,” I insisted. “Tell them what you saw and what perhaps needs sorting”. She practically laughed in my face. “I would be told off,” she said. “I would be told maths was nothing to do with me and I had no business walking into lessons of a subject I don’t line manage”. When I asked her whether the line manager of maths was going in regularly to look at lessons he said he doubted it. I just couldn’t believe it and had to remind myself that in my previous school my headteacher, in five years, walked into one of my lessons – other than to do a scheduled observation – approximately zero times. My line manager approximately once.   l am genuinely shocked at some of what I read in my twitter exchange last week; so many teachers just couldn’t believe that the way we do learning walks didn’t lead to stress and unhappiness and that above all, they weren’t based on some sort of shady ulterior motive: ‘but what are you looking for?’ demanded one; ‘why do them every week?’ questioned another; ‘what’s your reasoning for this? Lack of trust’ decided another;  ‘I don’t want feedback. I just want to be left alone’ was the most shocking of all. At first I felt irritated and defensive but after a while I just felt sorry for them. I reflected on how lucky I was to be in a school where teachers, including myself, are restless for improvement despite many being at the top of their game and how those open doors are a metaphor for how outward facing we all are. And as for the idea that there is any lack of trust at my school? Well that couldn’t be more wrong.  Teachers trust SLT to visit their lessons and NOT make judgements. Teachers trust SLT to offer constructive, informed feedback. And SLT trust teachers (which we all are, foremost, too) to show us every day the great teaching our students deserve.  And you know who else trusts us? Our parents and our students. They trust us to be absolutely sure that there is a consistency in the quality of the education we are providing. Children only get one shot.

 

(Oh and to the two tweeters who called our staff ‘poor teachers’, they are not expected to write reports, do any written marking, fill out any sort of ‘monitoring’ paperwork or attend spurious weekly meetings or whole-school CPD sessions.  There are no stressful performance-management lesson observations and no big initiative –launches.  The first day of every term is an INSET day given over to teachers to do what they want with. We just expect them to teach well, all of the time – or for 38 weeks per year!)

Rank Order Assessment

Rank Order Assessment is a pretty emotive subject. There are people who think it is diabolical – indeed, the Executive Principal at the Academies I work at was called ‘cruel’ just last week when he spoke at an event about it. However, I think it can be absolutely transformative at key stage 3 and that any short-term unhappiness or disappointment it might cause students, its longer term impact more than makes up for.

For anyone unsure, Rank Order Assessment is the process of assessing students, ideally through formalised examinations, and then ranking them from top to bottom performer in each subject and overall. What a school can do with that information varies, but in its purest form, the overall rank will be used to stream students, with, say, your top 30 ranked students being placed in set one, your next 30 being placed in set two, and so on. Streaming means they will be in the same ‘set’ for all their subjects. Students know where they ranked at both subject and overall level. We didn’t come up with the system, we took the idea from Burlington Danes in London under the leadership of Dame Sally Coates who took it from Sacred Heart Catholic School, whose headteacher, Serge Cerfai started it and 10 years later remains as passionate as always about its impact. We have been running it for five years now and have tweaked and changed things over the years to make it something that works for our students in our context.

At my Academies, we assess and rank students four times over the course of key stage 3: It happens for the first time at the end of year 7 and determines their stream at the start of year 8; in the middle of year 8 we do it again and re-stream accordingly; at the end of year 8 they are assessed ready for their streams at the start of year 9 and then midway through year 9 it happens for the last time. We triple-weight English and maths and double-weight science for the overall rank, meaning that the stream students are placed in is largely determined by their performance in core subjects, but every subject counts.

The most common question I am asked when I tell people about this system is: “so the child who is 180th in a year group of 180 knows they are 180th?” And when my answer is “yes”, they look aghast and question whether giving them at information is ‘fair’ or ‘kind’. The well-used response all staff at my Academies will give, is: “is it fair not to tell them?” We all know that GCSE scores are not based on any kind of arbitrary grade boundaries and so that the student who gets a ‘1’ in, say, their English GCSE in year 11 is essentially being told they have performed in the bottom 1% nationally in their examinations. Why not tell them that that is where they are heading in year 8 when there is still time to do something about it? We give students the full ‘results day experience’ when they receive their ROA results. Staff man tables with brown envelopes and students collect them, choosing whether to open them with their friends or to take them to a quiet corner or even wait until they get home. They experience the nerves, the hope that their work has paid off or last-minute admission to themselves that they didn’t really give it their all and quiet fear that they may be about to feel the impact of that. When they open the envelopes they shriek with delight – “I’m going up to set three!”; “I’ve gone up 15 places in the rank!”; “I came first in drama!” – or screw the paper up in disappointment – “I’m going down a set”; “80th in maths? I was 25th last time”; “I’ve dropped 8 places”. Sometimes there are tears and that is never easy to see but I would rather they cry now. I would rather they realise now that they are not working as hard as their peers. I would rather they approach a teacher now to say ‘I don’t know what’s gone wrong’. I would rather all these things happen in year 7 or 8 or 9 while there is still time to do something about it.

Rank Order Assessment is the only way we summatively assess key stage 3 students, the only ‘data’ we expect staff to generate and results from it is the only thing we report to parents – a percentage mark in each subject, the subject rank and the overall rank. There are no scores or grades or prose-descriptor bands.

People who visit the Academies to look at ROA quickly realise that it is so much more than a key stage 3 assessment system; it is cultural. It has created a culture whereby younger students are held accountable for their academic performance and there is a real, tangible reward for hard work and a real, tangible consequence for lack of effort. It has created a culture where parents care about that piece of paper that lands in their hands twice a year because it means something. A friend who leads a department at another school local to mine despairs over the fact that he sends home reports highlighting students’ dismal performance in his subject but receives no contact from parents about it; they are told that their year 8 child should be achieving a ‘7’ but is currently on a ‘4’ and they just don’t seem to care. Why? Because it doesn’t matter! Nothing will happen! Parents tell themselves there is plenty of time to improve this and presume the school will ‘do something’ at some point to make that happen. Tell a parent their child’s underperformance means they are dropping to a lower stream and it is a different story. We run parents’ evenings the day after ROA reports go home and it is full of parents wanting to know exactly what their child needs to do to move back up to stream two next time, or exactly how they can help to ensure their child doesn’t drop another ten places because they know if it happens again it will be a stream move down. Most impact is felt in the core; I cannot count the number of meetings I have had with parents who are furious their child is “only going down because of maths” and leave those meetings knowing that the only way back up is to support us, and their child, in improving their performance in maths. So they start doing that not in year 11, off the back of a horrifying mock result with four months to go until the ‘real’ exams, but in year 8.

ROA has not only driven increased student effort and parental engagement, but also been a contributory factor in improving teaching and learning at key stage 3. The fact that students are never more than four months away from their next set of assessments means that there is a sense of purpose in their lessons that I would argue many schools do not achieve outside of year 11. It is really important that students are getting the same deal, and therefore the same chance to achieve in their assessments, in all classrooms, so stream 3 being given a substandard lesson in the function of the lungs whilst everyone else is being taught it well can have an actual impact on their ranking and therefore creates a culture where every lesson really does count.

People often ask whether ROA has the same impact for high ability students as it does for low, and in my experience, it broadly does. A student in stream one wants to stay there, and he or she knows that students in the stream below are snapping at their heels. A student in stream seven wants to ‘get out of the bottom set’. Even students who know they have little hope of moving out of that bottom stream – they will be aware that their literacy levels (usually a key driver) are inhibiting them – will still strive for an improved place in the rank, and I have just as many low prior attaining students bounding up to me on results day to tell me that they have gone up 4 places in the rank as I do high prior attainers grinning about maintaining their spot in the top stream. Essentially, Rank Order Assessment creates an environment in which everyone knows that they just have to work a bit harder, that they have to keep striving to do a bit better. There is no nonsense about ‘if you do X then you will achieve a 5, or a 7, or a 9, there is just a constant dialogue about how to do better.

I am often asked about how SEND students cope with, or feel about Rank Order Assessment, and my answer is that I cannot answer on behalf of this group any more than I can answer on behalf of students with blonde hair or size 5 feet! Some SEND students like it and some don’t; some SEND students find the experience exciting and some find it very difficult, in exactly the same way that all students have differing thoughts on the process. Whether we like it or not, SEND students will be assessed at the end of key stage 4 in exactly the same way as their non-SEND peers, so it would be wrong of us to ‘water down’ their ROA experience. SEND students get all exam access arrangements they are entitled to during the examinations and receive additional support according to their needs. For some students that will be using homework club for support with their revision, for some that will be accessing after-school sessions in managing exam stress and anxiety. Some ask a trusted member of staff to be with them when they are going into examinations and some like to open their results with someone who they know will support them if they are disappointed. Essentially they get the same support – recently noted as ‘exceptional’ – by Ofsted in Rank Order Assessment as our year 11 students get around their GCSEs.

A strong and supportive school is essential for students – SEND or otherwise -to thrive in a Rank Order Assessment system. Rank Order might seem like a rather ‘cold’ process, but done correctly it is the opposite. Done correctly it is an opportunity for students to feel the full force or what we, at my Academies, refer to as ‘wrap around care’: we supply booklets full of advice about the examinations themselves and revision sources; tutors deliver sessions advising students on revision strategies; teachers run lunchtime subject-specific revision classes and heads of year phone the parents of every student who is moving down a stream to see how they are feeling about the result and offer a meeting to talk through next steps.

I could keep writing about Rank Order Assessment for pages and pages and pages. Getting it right, from the communication with parents, to the setting of the examinations, to the actual process of creating the rank is a complex beast, and anyone reading this blog who is interested in these things is more than welcome to contact me for that information. There are countless arguments against it, and I am not going to address all those now although again, readers are welcome to put them to me!

Ultimately, it works for our students in our Academies. Our GCSE results are phenomenal and we feel that ROA at key stage 3 play a large part in this. Our parent view survey from our recent Ofsted inspection showed that 90% of parents were happy with the information we provided on their child’s progress. At a recent information evening with year 10 parents about assessment at key stage 4, parents were disappointed about the fact we no longer use ROA, and at parents’ evenings when told their child was on a ‘5’ or a ‘7’ or whatever, followed up with “yes, but where does that place them in the rank”? Students talk positively about it to visitors – yes, including those who are consistently placed in the lowest stream.

It might not be for everybody. But in the right context it can be, as I said at the start of this blog, transformative.

Leading the Change: From Red Pen to No Pen

There are loads of blogs out there about why schools should ditch written marking in favour of different methods of feedback. In the last couple of years, I have led my school’s journey from red pen to no pen marking and this blog is about just that – leading a move away from written marking in a big school full of leaders and teachers who had been feeding back to students that way for a very long time; I do not go into detail about exactly what we now do instead – there is enough out there already about that.

Spearheading a change in a practice that, let’s face it, is the bit most teachers really hate about their job is always going to be popular but ensuring it is replaced with something effective that teachers can be held accountable for is really important – and not easy. I hope this is useful to anyone who might be ringing in the new year with starting their school’s own journey away from written marking.

 

  1. Be clear with leaders about why – and don’t make it a whinge about workload
    People always assume my reason for starting a discussion with our senior leadership team about changing the way teachers delivered feedback to students at my school two years ago was to reduce teacher workload. It wasn’t. I wanted to put an end to written comments because I did not think they were the best way to deliver feedback to students or to encourage them to act on that feedback. Reduced workload has always been a bonus by- product for me. Would we ever suggest that our students shouldn’t be required to do something because it is too hard or takes too much time? Of course we wouldn’t, so don’t suggest your school’s leadership should change their approach to feedback because doing it is too much work. No decent leader who genuinely believes something is having a positive impact on students’ success will agree it should stop because teachers don’t want to do it. In the early days of talking about it with our SLT, I was careful to avoid the ‘w’-word and instead talked about how we could improve feedback by looking at it another way and how teachers’ time could be used more effectively if they weren’t writing comments on students’ books.2…… But make sure leaders understand the reality of a written-marking policy
    Do leaders at your school really know what the ‘normal’ written comments once-every two/three weeks policy means for teachers? How long has it been since they were teaching full timetables? How many of them have a PE/maths/drama background rather than an English or humanities one? When an ethics teacher at my school told me that in order to keep up with our policy his 16 classes meant he had to write 960 comments every three weeks, which meant 320 every week and therefore 64 a day – in other words he should be marking two sets of books a day just to keep his head above water and that a parents’ evening or twilight CPD session would throw him into weekend-marking misery – I knew something had to change. Opening leaders’ eyes to the reality of the current policy without complaining about it as such might be the jolt you need too.
  2. Allay leaders’ fears – arm yourself with evidence
    Leaders who have spent their entire (often very long) careers believing that marking and feedback are the same thing and that red pen scrawled all over students’ books is the only way of doing either will be nervous about putting an end to it. They will fret about how other types of feedback can be ‘evidenced’ and worry about Ofsted. Many schools that do not use written feedback have got through Ofsted inspections with no problems, and high profile ‘no marking’ free schools such as Dixons Trinity and Michaela have achieved ‘Outstanding’ in the last year, so be armed with examples such as this. Leaders may also have concerns about how a change in policy around marking may affect students’ outcomes and there needs to be clarity that what is being suggested is not about giving students’ less feedback, but just changing the way it is delivered. Again, evidence of schools or teachers who have abandoned strict written marking policies whilst achieving excellent outcomes will help.

4.Trial it with a working party
Once the leadership team at my school were at least interested in thinking about an alternative to written marking, I set up a working party to try out my ideas of how feedback could happen instead. I wanted everyone to do ‘whole class’ feedback – whereby teachers go through a class set of books once every couple of weeks and keep notes using a standard proforma on positives, what needed to be worked on and teacher and student ‘next steps’ based on these observations. The trial was brilliant because it allowed senior leaders who were nervous about it to see it in action and understand that it wasn’t about simply ‘stopping marking’. The trial also meant that I learnt that my idea of what feedback should look like if we weren’t writing comments didn’t work for every department, leading to what we did next……

  1. Let departments write their own policies
    The trial showed me that expecting teachers of all different subjects to deliver feedback in the same way would not really work. More importantly, our senior team felt that this huge policy change would only work if teachers did not feel it was being imposed on them. I was quite open about the fact that I felt whole-class feedback was the way forward and I knew that most departments would go for a policy based on it, but I also knew that getting whole-class feedback right involved more work than a teacher being freed from a written marking policy might foresee, and didn’t want to replace one list of things teachers needed to do when feeding back with another, so felt it was best for departments to get to their list themselves! I was also aware that heads of department might feel nervous about moving away from written marking. We encouraged departments to spend a couple of months talking over ideas and trying things out before putting together a policy that they would trial for a term.
  2. Don’t diss the old way
    Many, many teachers will have spent years doing written marking and many will pride themselves on the care and attention they have paid to it. Many leaders will have expended untold time on energy on holding people to account over written marking policies. Whatever you have read on twitter, don’t bang on about how stupid/pointless/what a waste of everyone’s time written marking is. Don’t sell the change based on how useless the old way was, regardless of what you might think. In the privacy of senior team meetings, I sometimes raged about the years of my life I had wasted on writing meaningless comments students spent 2.5 seconds reading and 1.5 seconds forgetting about, but in front of staff I just talked about a new way of marking that could allow us to continue to deliver the high-quality feedback we always had whilst making it more timely and helping us to use it to be more responsive in our teaching.
  3. Spend lots of time with heads of department
    Over the next few months I talked to heads of department constantly about how they were getting on with their trials and policies. I walked around lessons a lot and then just had corridor chats with them about what I had seen and any little changes they might want to consider or things perhaps to think about. The regular talking enabled me to learn that generally, they were really nervous about being given autonomy around feedback, which I hadn’t expected, and I found that many were leaning towards ‘new’ policies that were not that different from the old ones! There seemed to be a lot of form-filling and spreadsheet entry and requirements for students to write stuff in their books fairly frequently to show that they had received and were acting on feedback. Many still wanted written comments to be made on exams or end of topic tests. When I dug down into the reasons for this, they all talked about ‘evidence’ and it became clear that for some, they were more concerned about devising systems that meant they could still check their policies were being followed and would be easily demonstrable to an observer than they were about actually working on developing the best way for teachers to give and students to receive feedback. This wasn’t their fault; it was a regime they were used to and they needed reassurance that they really did have the freedom to move away from it. I remember one head of department talking me through her complex system of form-filling and sheets for students to write on and teachers to file, and asking her to, just for a moment, imagine that no-one was ever going to set foot in her classroom or look in her piles of workbooks other than her and her students and tell me how she would feed back to students were that the case. She told me and when I said “so do that” she finally got it; this was not about SLT or Ofsted or about anything other than doing what would work for her and her students in her classroom. For a lot of heads of department, it took them a while to really feel comfortable with this.
  4. Review policies with heads of department

After department policies had been in place for a term or so, I did a work scrutiny with the heads of department. I was really clear that it was not being done to them, but as a way of supporting them, and we sat down and looked at 20 student workbooks alongside anything else (most teachers were using folders to record observations and deliver whole class feedback) they wanted to bring along. We talked openly about what their policies looked like in action and interestingly, they were much more critical of what they saw than I was! Together, we worked out a few little tweaks and changes to their policies.

  1. Review how feedback is going and work out next steps
    A term or so later, myself and the Principal focused our learning walks on feedback. We had no pre-conceived idea of what our next steps should be and, indeed, whether any were necessary. What we found was that most departments were doing whole-class feedback and that most teachers were delivering it regularly, but there was a bit of a gap between teachers who were doing it very effectively and those who were doing it in a way that was less effective. We identified that the most effective method involved teachers delivering feedback, then delivering a teaching episode based on that feedback (which would usually be heavily reliant on modelling), then giving students the opportunity to act on it. In English, a clear example might be:
    Feedback: Most of you are using really boring clichéd similes
    Teaching episode: Let’s look at Jenny and Bob’s excellent similes. Look at these three boring similes on the board and watch how I make them more interesting
    Act: Now find the similes in your work and change them to make them more interesting.
    We delivered CPD to all staff based on this principle and then had a short meeting with heads of department in which we looked at a few issues that were about policies rather than teacher delivery of feedback. The major one was that most policies were still frequency-based but schemes of learning did not necessarily enable this, so, to use another English-based example, a policy saying that students should receive feedback on written work every two weeks based on extended writing alongside a scheme of learning that had students reading a novel for four weeks and only answering comprehension-based questions was setting teachers up to fail! We talked to head of department about this and worked with them on how they could look at their schemes of learning and curriculum plans and ensure their feedback policies serviced them.
  2. Keep the conversation going
    This is about where we are now, really! The important thing is that we keep reviewing policies and their implementation and what feedback looks like in the classroom, as well as obviously how effective it is in terms of student outcomes. Leading a big change like this has not been easy and has taken some courage; no matter to what extent I have the rest of the leadership team on board and how much of the decision making I have devolved to middle leaders, ultimately my name is still on the tin for changing something that was easy to monitor and hold people to account for to something that is not. Since the change, we have maintained our excellent GCSE results and Ofsted have come and gone; I can’t reveal the outcome yet but the lack of written marking did not prevent a very pleasing judgement being made.

 

If you are thinking about leading a change in the way feedback is delivered in your school, I would plan out a two-year (and beyond!) journey. It is easy to please staff by ditching written marking but hard to ensure that what replaces it is effective. Plan, trial, review, review, review!

Not Another Blog About Knowledge Organisers

“I am really enjoying doing Of Mice and Men with my year 8s, but what exactly am I supposed to be teaching them?”

This was the question I was asked this week by a colleague teaching English for the first time.  It got me thinking and I realised it linked in with recent conversations I have had with other teachers who will freely admit to not enjoying teaching Key Stage 3. Let me explain.

Back when I was a Head of English I would plan out my Key Stage 3 curriculum by essentially deciding on topics –  Romeo and Juliet, persuasive writing, World War 1 poetry – then setting up some sort of end-of-topic assessment or piece of writing to take place when it was finished, and I think that this is what many heads of department still tend to do.  The problem is that it all ends up feeling a little directionless; once the topic is over, it is kind of forgotten about and we tell ourselves that students have improved on their ‘skills’ in some way but ultimately nothing tangible really comes out of it.

The topics that we deliver to our younger students – Jack the Ripper in history, Kindertransport in drama, Aboriginal painting in art – have no real bearing, content-wise, on our subjects’ GCSEs, and key stage 3 therefore becomes a period of ‘treading water’, despite it being the second-longest of the key stages, until GCSE courses start.  Many of us are coming round to the idea that teaching ‘skills’ in isolation does not really work, and that showing year 8 students how to ‘analyse’ sources about The Black Death in year 8 won’t really make them better at ‘analysing’ sources about The Cold War in year 11, making key stage 3 feel even more redundant.

And this leads to many teachers not enjoying teaching younger students – no-one enjoys doing anything that they can’t really see the point in!  Now I am not saying that there is a teacher in the land who thinks teaching any child is pointless, but if there is no clarity around what should come out of the other end of a unit of work, then there is going to be a problem.

For me, the answer to all this lies in Knowledge Organisers, which when I first came across I saw as a great teaching and learning tool but I have come to realise can solve the problems described above, which are primarily curriculum issues.

Anyone can download a Knowledge Organiser for a huge array of subjects and topics. They can be photocopied and distributed to an entire year group in 24 hours and teachers can start setting self-quizzing homework as soon as they are in their students’ hands, but that’s not really the point, because they will only be effective if they are used to provoke important conversations about our curriculum at key stage 3 and crucially, to give it purpose.  Dumping Knowledge Organisers into a school and presuming they will affect change – what Durrington refers to as them being used as an “isolated pedagogical tool” –  is counter-productive and can even be dangerous if Heads of Department and SLT are not prepared to look carefully at the topics from which they are derived.

Asking a department to look at each topic they teach and decide what the key takeaways are from it is really powerful, and at my school have led to entire units of work being removed, new ones being introduced and topics being shifted from year 9 to year 7.  They make heads of department look at exactly want they want to have been achieved by the end of year 9 and how that can be spread across the three years and through which topics.  Much that students come across during key stage 3 doesn’t really need to be taken forward, and this adds to its directionlessness; in ethics there might be a strong focus on some parables but often the content of these is not really important – by working out what important knowledge we want to use them to teach, suddenly there is a shared purpose leading to improved motivation for teachers to teach and for students to learn! This doesn’t mean just spreading GCSE content down to year 7 – it means deciding what students need to know to access GCSE content and skills in the future.

I said that when I led an English department I used to decide on my topics, but the use of Knowledge Organisers at my school has meant that teachers are starting to work out what they need students to know first, spreading that over the three years and then laying topics over that. It is a long journey, but we are on it.  So ‘Of Mice and Men’ might lie over contextual knowledge about 20th century tragedy and some grammatical knowledge of, say, prepositions, determiners and different types of adjectives. Teachers can deliver the unit with the freedom to go down whatever route they want with this rich, enjoyable text and teach students lots of wonderful stuff linked to it, but know that the ultimate goal is to use it to teach those things, and when they move onto the next topic, they might not be talking about George, Lennie and the American Dream any more, but they will continue to talk about prepositions, determiners and tragedy, in the same way a geography teacher might move on from a topic about work around the world but will carry on referencing primary, secondary and tertiary industries if that was the key knowledge delivered through the unit.  It’s not to say that the knowledge allocated to the topic is the only important thing about it but it is the most important thing about it and the thing that, if students forget everything else about it (because they will – think about all they are learning in the different subjects they are studying every day; it simply won’t all stick) they should be supported in remembering

Some subjects – maths, science and languages spring to mind – will of course be teaching a much higher amount of content that students really will need at key stage 4, and Knowledge Organisers can support them in identifying what needs to be repeated and gone back to – interleaved, in other words – again and again and again.

If you are a key stage 3 teacher delivering a topic without a clear idea of what the point of it is, then I urge you to get that conversation started with your colleagues.  If you are a teacher with a vehement dislike of teaching key stage 3, then think about whether it is linked to the lack of purpose that you get in key stages 4 and 5 and if so, raise that with your head of department, and don’t accept answers about the lack of public assessments; that is not the issue.  If you plan topics first and then try to decide what students should get out of it then you are doing it the wrong way round.  Scratch it all and start again: knowledge first, topics second. This post is not really about advocating Knowledge Organisers, although I think they are a fantastic tool; it is about using key stage 3 wisely and being absolutely clear on what the ultimate point of it all is – because the silver bullet in improving student and teacher engagement in the younger years at secondary school is a coherent, purposeful curriculum.

 

 

 

Why I Ditched PowerPoint

As a terrified ITT student ten years ago, learning how to use PowerPoint was a Godsend; the idea that I could put my whole lesson on something that would guide me through my painstaking lesson plans so I wouldn’t forget the questions I wanted to ask, information I wanted to give and activities I wanted students to do along with the precise time-limits to ensure I got to the plenary that was the make or break between a passed or failed observation was beyond my wildest, exhausted dreams.  Spending hours on them was a small price to pay in exchange for that sort of peace of mind and students who would be captivated by the colours and whizzy animations, plus, I would use them again and again…. Right?

Well… wrong. The following year when I dug out my PowerPoints to teach the units on Of Mice and Men and travel writing again, I looked at them and realised my questions were unclear, my explanations overly complicated and my activities lacked direction.  In other words, I had learnt a lot about teaching over the year and my practice had developed beyond the lessons I had planned (and committed to PowerPoint).  So I re-planned and re-PowerPointed, sure that now I knew what I was doing, and I could create lessons that I would deliver year after year. Except the problem was that over that NQT year guess what happened? I learnt more, my practice developed further and once again, a year later, I looked back on my PowerPoints and realised I could do way better.

It shocks me really that I carried on like this for the next six or so years, honestly believing every September that this was the year I had nailed it, and I would plan (and PowerPoint) lessons I thought I would keep on using, until about two years ago I realised I had, in my decade of teaching, re-used a PowerPoint only a handful of times. Not only was I in the hands of the ever-wavering National Curriculum and GCSE specification Gods, but I was never going to ‘nail it’; I was going to keep developing my practice and learning more about my subject, so why would I want to use last year’s lessons when I would always be a better teacher who could plan better lessons than I was a year ago?

Over the last 18 months of very rarely using PowerPoint I have come to the conclusion that it has improved my practice.  I am more responsive to my class and am much more focused on teaching according to their rate of progress than on getting through my eight slides.  Of course I plan my objective and sketch out the episodes of my lesson – usually give some instruction, ask some questions, model then allow students some time to apply what I have taught them – but I don’t drag my groups through my meticulous plans regardless of whether they are ‘getting it’ or not. Rather than display 6 bullet points about Romantic poetry which I read out to my group, I talk to them about it and bullet-point as I go, therefore modelling effective note-taking. Rather than displaying a task that might say something like: 1. Write paragraph (10 minutes); 2. Swap with a partner and find their similes (3 minutes); 3. Give yourself a www/ebi;  EXTENSION Use metaphors too, I set them up with the task and then walk around and look at what the students are doing to decide when to stop them rather than work to a prescribed time limit (I have never understood this outside of exam question practice), work out whether they are ready to move on or whether I need to stop them and re-teach something or grab a great piece of work to display on the visualiser to show them all what it should look like. Rather than writing a model answer onto a PowerPoint slide, I write a model answer directly onto my whiteboard or using my visualiser, narrating my thought process as I go.

The most powerful thing about ditching PowerPoint has been the way it has forced me to be better prepared for my lessons in terms of my subject knowledge; if I am going to explain something without the use of five pre-prepared bullet points then I have to know my stuff, and I have a feeling that spending 30 minutes reading up on feminist interpretations of Lady Macbeth is 30 minutes better spent than making a flashy PowerPoint about it. (And you know, if you display five picture of Lady M played by various actresses looking calmly at the blood on her hands, then that is what your students will be focusing on – ask yourself whether that is what you want!)

Of course, PowerPoint has its place as a resource – I still use it to display pictures, clips, bits of text and sometimes my ‘do now’ starter questions, but I would argue that it is not an effective medium to actually plan lessons. If I haven’t convinced you, then go and have a walk around your maths department. I bet you won’t see a PowerPoint presentation in sight. Ask those teachers why they don’t use it.

If you can’t imagine delivering a lesson without your projector then I urge you to challenge yourself and give it a go.  Research your topic so you feel confident about your subject knowledge and make a few notes to roughly plan out what you want to achieve and how you think you’ll get there. You might find that you don’t get to your plenary and you know what? If you don’t because you have ended up slowing things down, or going over something again, or maybe even veering off in a different direction because it turns out that that is what your class needs – it doesn’t matter.