Saturday, 5 April 2014

Dynamite Paragraphs - How to teach your students to analyse brilliantly

This method is suitable for analysing both language and literature.

This strategy comes from material that was shared by an AQA adviser for English at a recent course attended by my super colleague Karen Cunningham @kcquietcorner.

The adviser gave a bank of words that can be used to construct deeper, more probing analysis of language and encourage more detailed responses, especially under the time constraints of exams. However, as I have found this week, this method works equally well with students in lower years.

So I took the word banks and created two posters that I stuck up in my room. 


After seeing students keen to take photos of the posters I reckoned it would also be useful to create printable versions, which I now have.


The first poster demonstrates how paragraphs might be started, encouraging a wider range in vocabulary right from the off. I’ll use the first class I tried this with as my initial example and I’ll replicate actual responses from the students. It was my Year 11 set 4 (out of 5 sets) and we had been studying the poem “Bayonet Charge” by Ted Hughes. I was trying to teach them the old ‘write a lot about a little’ strategy and students had picked out 3 quotations that they thought would be worth further exploration (and hopefully would then replicate in the exam).

Here’s the poem in its entirety: a brutal, powerful and heartbreaking snapshot into what must surely be the final moments of a WWI soldier as he goes over the top.

Bayonet Charge

Suddenly he awoke and was running - raw
In raw-seamed hot khaki, his sweat heavy,
Stumbling across a field of clods towards a green hedge
That dazzled with rifle fire, hearing
Bullets smacking the belly out of the air -
He lugged a rifle numb as a smashed arm;
The patriotic tear that had brimmed in his eye
Sweating like molten iron from the centre of his chest, -

In bewilderment then he almost stopped -
In what cold clockwork of the stars and the nations
Was he the hand pointing that second? He was running
Like a man who has jumped up in the dark and runs
Listening between his footfalls for the reason
Of his still running, and his foot hung like
Statuary in mid-stride. Then the shot-slashed furrows

Threw up a yellow hare that rolled like a flame
And crawled in a threshing circle, its mouth wide
Open silent, its eyes standing out.
He plunged past with his bayonet toward the green hedge,
King, honour, human dignity, etcetera
Dropped like luxuries in a yelling alarm
To get out of that blue crackling air
His terror’s touchy dynamite.


I modeled how to create a Dynamite Paragraph with the help of the students, as a whole class activity; the students were then expected to do two more on their own. To start off, one of the students chose the line from the second stanza:
In what cold clockwork of the stars and the nations
Was he the hand pointing that second?”

It’s a complex and challenging extract: the second stanza sees almost a slowing or a freeze-frame of the soldier charging as his final thoughts occur and he begins to question his existence.

We first looked at what we considered to be the first two words worthy of exploration: “cold clockwork”. We discussed each word in turn. What did the word ‘cold’ connote? The students came up with suggestions such as ‘heartless’ and ‘unemotional’.

Then we moved onto ‘clockwork’ which seemed harder for the students, but in its purest form they agreed related to time. Therefore, the two words together gave a sense of time being uncaring.

We then tried the same method to look at the words ‘the stars and the nations’. Through discussion and questioning, the students deduced that this might relate to the universe (stars) and conflict between countries (the nations), or war.

Now we needed to write the paragraph so we referred to the first poster to get a starter sentence. Students will need practice in order to embed this type of sentence starter but it doesn’t take very long to get the hang of it.

In the second stanza, Ted Hughes creates the impression of the soldier questioning why he is there: “In what cold clockwork of the stars and the nations/ Was he the hand pointing that second?”

We now moved to the second poster to construct our first PEA bit of the paragraph and we chose: “this suggests” from the first column and came up with our first layer of meaning.

In the second stanza, Ted Hughes creates the impression of the soldier questioning why he is there: “In what cold clockwork of the stars and the nations/ Was he the hand pointing that second?” The words ‘cold clockwork’ suggest that time will move on whatever happens to this soldier; that it is unfeeling and doesn’t care.

Many students that struggle to move from D-grade-type responses would probably end their analyses here. But, instead, you return to the second poster and choose a word or phrase from the second column in order to take the analysis a step further, e.g. 'This could also imply that...' or 'In addition to this...' and then move onto another point about the same same quotation. This is what we came up with at this stage:

Further to this, the mention of ‘the stars’ seems to suggest the universe, backing up the idea that time is moving on, whatever happens on Earth at that moment. The soldier is realising that his life is very small in comparison with the universe. The mention of ‘the nations’ suggests the countries on Earth which are at war with one another.

Pretty good so far! But we’re not done, because we now need to add the final layer, the piece de resistance: an interpretation of the entire idea evoked by the quotation. This is where A* students come into their own and the idea of interpretation might seem out of reach for many lower ability students. However, when given a structure to work from I’ve found some students are more than capable of coming up with some astonishing ideas: a great example of setting the bar as high as possible and seeing what happens.

So we go back to the second poster and now choose a third layer of analysis using the third column, one that allows some left-field thinking and encourages imaginative thinking. “Maybe”, “This could possibly mean”, “Perhaps”. 

It could be that because the starters are suggestive rather than concrete, the students feel confident in trying some original ideas out. Higher ability students are much more confident about suggesting outlandish ideas; lower ability students much less so: they fear failure and are embarrassed about getting things ‘wrong’.

So we had a go at a third layer in our model paragraphs, each student having an individual go and then we shared and discussed some of the outcomes. They were AMAZING. Sheri’s in particular blew our minds so we chose his answer for our model:

In the second stanza, Ted Hughes creates the impression of the soldier questioning why he is there: “In what cold clockwork of the stars and the nations/ Was he the hand pointing that second?” The words ‘cold clockwork’ suggest that time will move on whatever happens to this soldier; that it is unfeeling and doesn’t care.
Further to this, the mention of ‘the stars’ seems to suggest the universe, backing up the idea that time is moving on, whatever happens on Earth at that moment. The soldier is realising that his life is very small in comparison with the universe. The mention of ‘the nations’ suggests the countries on Earth which are at war with one another.
Hughes may possibly be suggesting that the soldier is actually having an existential crisis in this split-second, which is ironic as he now almost certainly is facing death. Hughes could be emphasising here how pointless our lives really are as humans when we are so tiny in the universe and the history of time. The fact that war has made life even shorter is the cause of anger for Hughes, I think.

As our fab LSA Andy commented as we were packing up, “If someone had ever told me I’d even hear the word existential in this class, let along used in such a powerful way, I’d never have believed them!” I agreed. Sheri obviously has a great vocabulary, but he’s shy and often reluctant to commit pen to paper. This simple structure actually gave students the tools with which to construct sound analytical paragraphs but, added to that, an opportunity to go a stage further and attempt to be creative. Other students’ work, although perhaps not in quite the same league as Sheri, surpassed anything else they’d done in terms of analysis of language all year.

I’ve tried it with all of my classes now, including a Y8 cover class I’d never taught before in their study of The Lady of Shalott. They lapped it up. Here are some example of the Dynamite Paragraphs written by the year 8s in response the question: “How does Tennyson create the sense that Camelot is a magical place in this part of the poem?”

Tennyson describes the appearance of Camelot from the outside: “Four grey walls, and four grey towers/ Overlook a space of flowers” This actually suggests that Camelot is not magical because the word ‘grey’ is repeated and we usually associate grey with something dull and quite boring. However, the ‘space of flowers’ suggests beauty and colour as a contrast, which might smell lovely in the air. In addition to this idea, Tennyson could even be suggesting that, from the outside, Camelot might look ordinary, but if you are on the inside looking out, it looks beautiful all around. Perhaps he is saying that you only really feel the magic of Camelot when you are in there as it is so special and surrounded by beauty.

And another one:

Tennyson starts with the description: “On either side the river lie/ Long fields of barley and rye”. This highlights what surrounds Camelot and show how it stands out from the landscape of ordinary crops. Although they do not seem magical described like this, if you imagine it, it could imply that the crops’ colours of yellow and gold are beautiful. Tennyson could even be showing the difference between the ordinary farmers and worker and the people that live in Camelot. The farmers see the fields as part of their normal day of work but the people living in Camelot would look out of their windows onto the gold of the fields and the silver of the river, making it seem precious and magical.

The Dynamite Paragraphs are such a simple concept but they highlight an area of analysis that seems such a leap for many students to make and they’ve worked really well so far, including when practicing Paper 1 language questions that ask how writers create effects.

I must give full credit to the lovely @kathdarliston85 who came up with the name Dynamite Paragraphs when I shared this with her and the equally lovely @FranNantongwe when they visited the other day. Thank you both for your insights and views as we discussed this strategy. 

Just look what @JamieClark85 did with the idea of Dynamite Paragraphs!

Just wow. I LOVE Twitter!

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

When Molly wrote to Michael...

My daughter is in Year 7. She was speaking to her Geography teacher last month about how much she disliked some of the education policies she was hearing about (mostly via me although, to be fair to her, she did some reading around too). Her teacher encouraged her to write to Michael Gove. So she did.

And today he replied. This is the letter he sent, which replies to each point she made in turn. I didn't see the full letter before she sent it but you'll see she had a varied palette of concerns, going by his detailed reply. It has amused me no end that she thought to express her concerns not only about the status of Teaching Assistants and the length of the school day, but also the removal of Baroness Morgan as Chair of Ofsted!

Anyway, here is Michael Gove's reply in full:

What do you think? 

She's pretty pleased to have received a reply, although she said she thinks he's deferred on a lot of the points. My husband also pointed out that our daughter is, indeed, lucky that she doesn't have parents that work long hours, what with us being a nurse and a teacher... But, hey. 

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Introducing... PO-LEGO!

So here is a way that I've been teaching a poem's structure for the past few years that a colleague dubbed Po-Lego (the 'g' is soft to give it a slightly exotic and continental appeal, belying its humble and completely home-made status). It's worked equally well for Year 7 right up to Year 11, every time I've used it and students are able to write about structure very effectively once they've grasped the idea that the way the poem is presented on the page often reflects its ideas and themes. 

I decided to make a Po-Lego display today to make use of a box I bought from Accessorize the other week when they sold off their ex-display stuff for charity (look out for that by the way, I got a shed-load of amazing stuff for just £12. They do it at the end of each season apparently).

These photos should tell the tale clearly enough:


Saturday, 22 March 2014

Getting started with Lesson Study - some practical tips

What is Lesson Study?
Traditionally, lesson study is a method used for improvements in teaching and learning, originating in Japan but widely used in the US and the Far East over the past 15 years, with widespread success.

Working in groups, teachers plan approaches to learning, usually a tricky concept in a subject area, and together they design what they call a ‘research lesson’. 
One of the group then teaches the lesson and the others observe the students and the learning. 
The focus is NOT on the teacher’s performance. 
The learning is scrutinised and the teachers reflect on the lesson methodology. 
The process is ongoing; the aim is that pedagogy can be honed and improved to maximise the impact of teaching.

Conventional Japanese lesson study looks a bit like this:

You might surmise from this that the normal climate of the classroom might be a tad disrupted by swarms of other teachers with their clipboards in the room while you attempt to teach. It works very well in Japan and in the other countries and cultures but, as I mentioned in a previous post, these education systems build in CPD time into every teacher’s timetable as an integral part of their working week. This allows the time to collaborate, observe, reflect and discuss. We don’t, typically, have this luxury in the UK. However, the benefits of lesson study are so great, that it is worthwhile adapting its use.

A UK model of lesson study might typically look like this:

·   Teachers plan together, with (usually 3) key learners in mind.
·   The lesson is taught with other teacher or teachers watching the lesson.
·   The students’ learning is the focus, not the teacher performance.
·   Students are often involved in the feedback process (carefully-managed).
·   Feedback and findings inform future planning.
·   The process is ongoing and reciprocal.

When trying to implement a cycle of lesson study, there are a number of factors to give some careful thought to first. We’ve been using lesson study in a number of ways over the past few years now and these points are obviously just from our own point of view and experience, so this is not a Bible of Lesson Study by any means. Hopefully you’ll find our past and current findings useful if you set off on your own path though.

What are you using lesson study for to begin with?

There are probably three main uses for lesson study that you might want to consider, none of which are entirely separate and, indeed, can compliment one another but which could blur the focus if not discussed beforehand.
·   Is it to improve pedagogy through examination of improved technique, centering around subject knowledge in particular subject areas? (This is what lesson study first set out to do.)
·   Is it to approach collaborative and coaching-led improvement in teaching and learning more generically and across subject areas?
·   Is it to identify key students’ needs and track their responses to differences in teaching?

Who is going to take part in the first round?

I would strongly recommend that you start with a group of willing volunteers; people that really want to work it through with a bit of trial and error and who aren’t going to see it as an onerous task on top of an already creaking load. If you have a teaching and learning group or similar, I’d say this is ideal.

And on that subject, here are some of the more common problems that we’ve had with lesson study over the past few years. These are based on the model we decided to focus on: looking at the learning of key students in order to tweak teaching.

·   Lesson study is a time-sponge
·   The Japanese model is fairly unmanageable
·   It requires commitment to the whole process – this can be an issue if the programme is ‘imposed’
·   It doesn’t work as well when the three-part model is compromised (when the planning or feedback parts are not present)

None of these problems are insurmountable, though, and the beauty of lesson study is its flexibility. What do we say to problems?

So here are some suggestions to these issues:

·   Lesson study is a time-sponge
Start small; use non-contact time to begin with. This is probably a tad contentious but the fact is that, unless your SLT is convinced of lesson study’s merits from the off, you are unlikely to be granted any time. Use the time you do have wisely, track the success and impact of findings and present them to SLT at the end of your pilot in order to try to persuade them to allow more time in the next round of lesson study. Hard data might be what SLT wants and the aim is of course that, over time, this can be provided. In the short or medium term though, use lesson studies to find strategies that seem to work with the key students and then share these findings with other teachers of these students. Canvas these teachers to see if the strategies are affecting the progress, attitude or visibility of the students. Anecdotal evidence can be very powerful.

One idea I have long had and continue to plug away at is that cover supervisers be used to cover classes at times they have formal tests and assessments, leaving class teachers free to visit other classrooms. It would be fabulous if lesson study could be used to improve teaching and learning of pupil premium students: could PP money be used to accommodate cover if impact can be measured and shown to make a difference?

·   The Japanese model is fairly unmanageable
No-one really wants hoards of teachers blocking up the aisles and standing in front of their whiteboard. We’re lucky to have an observation classroom that accommodates up to 8 teachers comfortably who can watch a lesson and discuss it as part of a lesson study. However, working in pairs and threes, lesson study can be hosted in any classroom without any disruption to the dynamic of the lesson.

As stated above, start with volunteers and build up momentum. The best T&L groups feed in to school development through piloting innovative practice; could your lesson study pilot be shared across the school after one or two rounds, again, with evidence of its success in the for of improved T&L and students’ attainment.

·   It doesn’t work as well when the three-part model is compromised (when the planning or feedback parts are not present)
The three stages: planning, lesson study and feedback/reflection are essential and non-negotiable if it is to work. The planning stage runs the risk of being the perceived ‘disposable’ part. It’s true, however, that it could be missed out of the first round. The lesson study can take place once focus students have been identified and in this way it acts as a ‘diagnosis’ as it observes the students in their usual habitat. However, the feedback afterwards should the inform the planning of the next lessons with these students. 

If time does not allow the lesson study observers to work with the teacher to plan, then the least that should happen is for the observer(s) to see the lesson plan (even via email) before the next observed lesson. It’s often a very useful exercise to plan a lesson 1) with your focus students and their needs in mind 2) with annotations for your observer(s) that explain your decisions about the lesson. Think about Zoe Elder’s (@fullonlearning) excellent advice about learning objectives: ‘so that…’; think about why you are including certain tasks or questions. It’s a reflective exercise.

Most models of lesson study include student interviews. The official advice is to conduct interviews with focus students after the lesson but, if time does not allow, I would take time in the lesson to chat quietly to students and ascertain their perceptions about the learning. Whatever you think about student voice, this part of lesson study has often resulted in some very interesting evidence. Be careful to make it clear to students this is about their learning, not their teacher and use skilful questioning to draw out reflections rather then offer blunt opinions.

Lastly, here are three brief examples of different lesson studies we’ve tried out in the time we’ve been using it:

Case Study 1

An English teacher and geography teacher worked together to improve approaches to differentiation in mixed ability geography lessons. They planned together, with the English teacher asking questions about the planning as the geog teacher ‘planned aloud’, talking through his planning and articulating reasons for decisions. This was useful as it opened up questions about whether certain tasks or methods are included out of habit or out of consideration of the students’ needs.
3 focus students: lower ability (girl), middle ability (boy) and higher ability (girl).

The post-lesson interview with the students revealed that the lower ability student had misunderstood much of the initial instructions and felt lost in the task but was worried she was being a nuisance asking for too much help.
The middle ability student was the happiest and felt that the lesson was pitched perfectly; he and his teacher were pleased with the outcomes he’d achieved.
The higher ability student felt slightly frustrated that the lesson had been stopped so many times by the teacher wanting to add extra explanations when he saw some students struggling. She'd wanted to be left in peace to complete some extended work.

In feedback, the teacher decided after discussion that he could, in the future, offer 3 levels of support when he set up an active task like this again:
Minimal – go off, work independently and see you later
Intermediate – go off to work, but use support materials when needed and ask for help if/when problems occurred
Maximum – stay with the teacher to begin with, for further explanations and support, then try to work more independently when you feel more confident.

Case Study 2

A subject leader taught a lesson in our observation room with the rest of the department watching. The focus here was actually to improve on the quality of feedback teachers could give one another, as the department was about to embark on some peer walk-throughs to gauge quality of engagement in lessons. The lesson was ‘hosted’ from behind the glass by one of the lead practitioners who led the teachers through questions that focused on key students’ learning and participation in the lesson so they could see the lesson with a fresh pair of eyes, from a student perspective. The session’s impact was successful in a number of ways, not least in ‘bonding’ the department in some sharing of good practice and agreed outcomes and it also led to walk-throughs that had student learning as the focus, rather than teacher ‘performance’ which would not have been particularly helpful in this instance.

Case Study 3

As well as using lesson studies to spot RHINOs, as outlined in previous blogposts, I recently use it to compare outcomes in writing with some of my lower ability year 10 EAL students when I observed them practising their extended writing in a Science lesson. I was able to feedback to their science teacher using not only what I’d seen them do in his lesson but using my previous knowledge of the boys and what they have been achieving in English of late. We’ve both learned a lot from this experience and the next stage will be for my colleague to come to me in an English lesson and observe those 3 boys to see what common strategies we can develop in helping them with their written work.

I'm convinced that lesson study is a powerful strategy for improvements in teaching and learning; its potential should not be under-estimated.

Friday, 14 March 2014

RHINOs and Lesson Study - What now?

What we’ve learned about the RHINOs using Lesson Study

Here follows an update on this post from November where I outlined how we had realised how many RHINOs (students who are Really Here In Name Only) were comfortable inhabitants in our classrooms. Data, teacher-judgement and observation can help us identify the RHINOs, but that’s only a third of the story. Once we know who they are, lesson study can then be utilised to note particular behaviours and engagement – or lack of it.

Then comes the bit that leads to action: careful diagnosis of possible strategies to counter typical RHINO behaviour. Some of these students are adept at not being noticed or challenged by even the most experienced of staff. This is why lesson study is the ideal method for tackling RHINOs: the observer acts as an extra pair of eyes in the classroom, leaving the teacher free to continue with the lesson unimpeded.

Discussion and reflection following lesson study is essential so the right strategies are applied to gain the maximum impact. You might assume this requires a raft of teaching experience, but this isn’t necessarily the case. I’ve been working with trainee teachers recently on some lesson study cases and the insight they have shown in suggesting ways forward has been very impressive. That’s the power that lesson study can wield: it’s low-stakes, lacking the pressure of a traditional, teacher-focused observation and solutions are often reached through discussion and collaboration.

So, here are some of the RHINO profiles of students we’ve noticed in our classrooms over a number of lesson studies in the past few months. All strategies are of course not conclusive or exhaustive; they are a mix of things we’ve discussed, tried or come up with ourselves, plus some ideas suggested by folk that attended my Pedagoo session in London on 8th March.

Mr Lover-Lover

You may remember ‘Rob’ from my last blogpost, the chap who spent all of his efforts into acquiring a new beau rather than working hard, doing the bare minimum to get by. He knew exactly what to do to keep the teacher off his back; was savvy enough to do some work; was polite and affable throughout, and showed us maybe one reason why some students aren’t achieving what they are capable of. Parents of nice-but-terminally-idle boys in particular may relate to Rob.

Potential strategies?
·   Seating change: Place him somewhere more prominent, with students who you feel will be fairly oblivious to his charms.
·   Put markers on his written work: each time you re-visit his table, put a stamp or draw a line under his last piece of work so you’ve got a very quick visual indication of amount of work done. Also set ‘minimum work required’ markers and targets, e.g. 'You've got to write 3 more paragraphs and they each need to contain key quotations and a range of evidence.' 
·   Tight time-targets: Give able but idle students like Rob deadlines to work to.
·   Questioning: Name students like Rob to feedback on work done when reflecting on learning. Don’t accept short or cop-out answers: insist on extended responses and revisit him often.

Mr Don’t-Look-At-Me

Callum is a year 7 student who is under-attaining in most academic subjects. He is Pupil Premium and getting literacy catch-up support but he hasn’t made an awful lot of progress yet. He is quiet and pleasant. He sits with two louder and more confident girls and as the tables are arranged in groups, he faces slightly away from the two main areas the teacher delivers from. When we watched him in class we saw him smiling and nodding but not talking when his group of three was asked to discuss things. Callum did not put his hand up for help at all and the louder, more needy students took the attention from the teacher and the LSA for too long. It took him a good while to open his book while other students were already working. The teacher got round to him eventually and was able to get Callum on task; he worked well after that and the teacher included him in some gentle, inclusive questioning when the class shared their responses.

Potential strategies?
There are some clear ways forward and quick solutions here with Callum that could impact on his learning immediately. Sometimes staff just need a bit of a nudge to put these strategies in place, and this will help Callum, the teacher and LSA enormously.

·   Seating: Again, this is crucial for someone like Callum, whose confidence is on the low side (like many PP students) and who prefers keeping a low profile. We suggested he move tables altogether, to the table nearest the main area the teacher delivers from; facing forward so he can be seen and he has much less chance to ‘hide’.
·   Use of LSA: Where teachers are lucky enough to be working with a LSA, their work with RHINOs can make all the difference. Giving the LSA ‘permission’ to make Callum a priority is important, so the LSA doesn’t feel he is ignoring the other, louder students. He can go straight to Callum, get him on task and then continue to support other students in turn.
·   Achievable targets and regular checks: Students like Callum need to know they are achieving small targets and not being overwhelmed with more extended tasks.
·   Questioning: Using questioning to include Callum in a way that doesn’t make him feel exposed or embarrassed is a skill. The classroom needs to be a place where students feel they can express themselves freely without worrying that they will be ridiculed if they fail. Making failure - and recovery after failure - a key part of learning is something that should be shared with all students, but especially vulnerable ones.
·   Keep expectations high: Just because a child is quiet and works at a slower pace doesn’t mean their work should be ‘dumbed down’ in any way. Yes, break the task down into chunks, but make it clear this work is ‘hard’ and it will need effort and practice. Then you can issue sincere praise when accomplishments are made.

Miss Easily-Distracted

It seems compulsory to have one of these students in every class: can’t sit still; head like that of an owl so it can spin round at any noise, distraction or leaf blowing past the window; asks for the toilet at least once per lesson; if given the chance, won’t stop talking, whispering, rolling eyes, giggling… you get the picture.
Harriet was a Y11 student in a set 2 class; predicted a C or above for English but regularly only getting Ds. She was also one of those students who are infuriating to teach when in a whole group, but actually very pleasant, sincere and more attentive one-to-one. I was worried about her lack of progress in class and decided to visit another colleague’s class to conduct a lesson study which I felt would encourage a neutral approach, removing the frustration I felt when she was in my own class. Luckily for my purposes, she was maddening in my colleague’s lesson too. Hurrah! I mean: Oh dear, poor colleague.

Harriet’s output was probably one-third of the vast majority of the group, but that wasn’t surprising: she’d gone wandering around the room for looking for glue/rulers twice; she’d missed crucial instructions as she was trying to get the attention of another student at the time and she used this opportunity to not crack on, saying she didn’t understand when the teacher noticed the lack of industry; she’d asked to go to the loo (and had permission granted) and she’d delighted at the appearance of a fly in the room. But this had all been spread over the course of an hour and always with good grace and smiles. Would the teacher necessarily identify Harriett as disruptive? Maybe not.

Potential strategies?

After a discussion with my colleague and a return lesson study to my class too, we came up with the following strategies:
·   That old favourite: Seating. Harriet was moved in both classes right at the front, with no-one of either side to her.
·   Planning ahead by the teacher: when equipment is needed, it’s either out on the table when students come in or handed out by one student to avoid pointless meandering. We’ve started using small clear boxes with lids to keep basic equipment in: one box contains glue, rulers, highlighters, rubbers, etc. so it’s easy to keep on tables but the lids prevent fiddling or the construction of highlighter towers. 
·   Clear explanations and questions: insist on ‘all eyes on me’ for verbal instructions; ask key students to repeat instructions back so everyone is clear.
·   No toilet trips without medical passes. I’m known as notoriously mean in this way – even if a student says they are going to be sick, I pass them the bin. Like Tom Bennett has said before: students very rarely actually want the toilet; they want a wander round because they are bored. Tough!

Again, all this may sound pretty obvious when it written down, but lesson study gives teachers the chance to discuss these basic classroom strategies in a way that is often ignored when we talk about intervention which tends to perhaps focus on more extreme cases. And because feedback after lesson study is not couched in criticism about the teacher, it allows gentle coaching and support to be suggested while focusing on the needs of individual students.

I suggested to our trainees that they conduct a lesson study of their own choice of focus a few weeks ago. One trainee identified a student who was under-attaining in her own subject so she observed him in another subject. I was delighted to be copied into the email she sent to the teacher she observed. The feedback for lesson study can be as simple and easy as this:

Dear Chris,

Thank you for letting me observe your lesson 2 with 7IT3 yesterday. 

I was particularly interested in Tom as he's been recently put on the SEN register, he's an FSM student and he's underachieving in Maths.

Seeing him in a different subject was very useful. He is a very keen and enthusiastic boy, but I find he can easily switch off in my lessons.
You made your objective and instructions very clear and he was very eager to start. I found him very able and quick. You periodically gave him direct explanations what to do next and that kept him engaged throughout the lesson. This was very useful for me to see, so I know how to keep him on task. This showed me that I always have to have something extra up my sleeve for him, but I need to instruct him to put his hand up when he completes a task or it's easy to overlook him. I also found your subject really suits him as Tom works very well independently; I struggle to get him to participate in group work. 

I don't know if my comments are useful to you but your lesson was certainly very useful to me, so thanks again.



An ideal follow-up would be for Chris to visit Dee now and use lesson study to see if she has been able to implement the strategies she has identified and if so, what impact this has had on the student’s progress.

We continue to trial lesson study’s use in a range of ways and I remain convinced of its potential power in improving student attainment and the quality of teaching and learning.

Thursday, 2 January 2014

Love the ones you're with

Developing lesson observations that help, not hinder

I was lucky enough to attend a great session hosted by Dylan Wiliam last year. Much of what he had to say about improving teaching and learning in the UK resonated and I’ve seen it discussed a lot in my Twitter explorations. I don’t know if what I’ve read elsewhere is indicative generally, as I’m obviously selective to a certain point with my blog and research reading, but the consensus seems to have been positively in Wiliam’s favour on his keys points.

In summary – and prĂ©cising heavily - he had this to say about improving teaching and learning:

·           Improvement in student attainment requires improvement in teacher quality.
·           Improving the quality of entrants takes too long so we need to ‘Love the ones we’re with.’
·           The changes that will benefit students all involve changes in teacher practice.
·           In the UK, as long as you go to school, it doesn’t matter very much which school you go to, but it does matter which classrooms you are in.
·           Students taught by the most effective teacher of 50 teachers learn in 6 months what they will learn with the least effective teacher in 2 years.
·           In the classrooms of the most effective teachers students from disadvantaged backgrounds learn at the same rate as those from advantaged backgrounds.
·           Good teachers: know where students are; identify learning destinations; plan routes; regularly check progress & adjust the course as conditions dictate.
·           Students who have a role in the assessment of their work achieve more.
·           All ability students benefit from this approach but lower ability students benefit the most.
·           Teachers need to make ‘marginal gains’ through opportunities to explore and share effective strategies.

What we can take from all this:
·          “Teachers are at their best when they are their quirky, idiosyncratic selves”Some teachers’ weaknesses require immediate attention; most students however, benefit from the development of teachers’ strengths.
·           Telling teachers what to do doesn’t work.
·           Improving practice involves changing habits which is hard.
·           Hardest bit is not getting new ideas into teachers’ heads; it’s getting the old ones out, so it takes time – but it doesn’t happen ‘naturally’.
·           Raising achievement > improving teaching quality > improving CPD and basing it in the classroom > Teacher Learning Communities (model trialled in over 1000 schools)
·           Making a commitment
o        Teachers must commit to reflect and aim to continually improve; focus ONLY on what makes a difference to students
o        Leaders must commit to creation of expectations for improved practice; keeping focus on making a difference to students; provide time, space, dispensation for innovation and improvement

Much of this won’t be news to many teachers and leaders, especially those to regularly seek to reflect and improve on their practice or who seek to support others in doing so. But there are many teachers who can only look to Wiliam’s model and those of other commendable academics and leaders with a wistful longing. Perhaps their school’s T&L group is not run in the way Wiliam’s successful TLCs have done: maybe due to a lack of time? lack of solid commitment? a lack of understanding of how teaching and learning improves? Whatever the reason, for many teachers, their own school’s model of improvement is not working for them: they might feel under scrutiny to teach a certain way and the only way their teaching is measured is via the dreaded Ofsted-styley framework. 

      I’m guessing we could agree here that, in our experience, gradings and judgements about teaching Just Don’t Work if you’re looking to make improvements in the teachers you have and that you want to develop and encourage, long-term. And long-term is the key. Change takes time and investment. We can't just morph our current teachers into brand spanking new and outstanding clones. Who would even want that, really? I've seen schools that try to develop a House Style in their teaching and in some cases they achieve very impressive results, as far as Ofsted are concerned. But they can also result in teachers that physically shake when a member of SLT enters the room and who find themselves on competency after more than 2 grade 3 lessons. We don't need an army of brand new teachers: we need support and nurture and investment in the staff we already have.

      Wiliam is so right when he says 'teachers are at their best when they are their quirky idiosyncratic selves'. Why on earth can't teachers who get good results  be left to teach the way they do best - as share good practice with others? We should be giving our colleagues as many models of good practice as we possibly can when we seek to improve teaching.

Like Wiliam - and Stills - say, you need to love the ones you're with.

A small number of school leaders are taking the brave leap into non-graded lesson observations for their staff, in a drive to make them developmental. But we can also agree here that this is, sadly, not the norm, and too many school leaders still (rightly?) fear the spectre of Ofsted’s judgements on their staff, their leadership, their schools that may result in a disastrous report. Therefore, their observations of individual lessons are based on a framework designed to make whole-school judgements and the results are divisive, confusing and demoralising. It’s a circle more vicious than a sack of Siamese cats. So I’ve been thinking about how observations can escape from judgements and gradings but at the same time invite meaningful, ongoing and supportive improvement. No pressure then.

I would still maintain here that the Lesson Study model is a fabulous way to observe lessons and it certainly has a huge impact in studying how students learn and behave in lessons. But there are certain times when more focus is needed on the teacher and their practice.

So I’ve had a go at a record sheet; a pro-forma; a progress starting point… I can’t quite come up with a name I’m happy with yet without it sounding like something out of a David Brent sales seminar. But I’m sure that will follow. For now, it’s called a Teaching Progress Observation form. Any alternative suggestions for names will be gratefully considered.

I’ve tried to work backwards, looking at what the key success indicators might be in any lesson and boil it down to its simplest form. I’ve also tried to consider how useful this form would be for trainee teachers and teachers that aren’t used to observing lessons. Many teachers and trainees feel very uncomfortable in judging other colleague’s lessons – and well they might, when we consider how much a judgement can affect a person’s self-esteem. 

The never-ending tick-boxes that go to make many observation pro-formas strike me as particularly unhelpful in supporting and developing practice: they are distracting in lessons and prevent the observer from seeing what really goes into the vast part of the lesson. An inexperienced observer can also find themselves getting a tad obsessed with making sure each box as been ticked and, indeed, what constitutes a tick for the boxes they are least sure about.

So I’ve tried to keep things simple too. My belief is that the evidence from a lesson observation should be a starting point for discussion between the teacher and observer and an opportunity for the teacher to begin to reflect on the lesson from another person’s viewpoint.

These are the key questions I think might help this process:

·   What was the learning aim of the lesson?
(Either taken from the teacher’s LO; from questioning students or from what you have gathered from observing.)

I don't think it necessarily matters if it's not displayed throughout the lesson, but it does need to be shared and explicit. Do students know what the point of what they're doing? If the observer isn't clear, the students probably aren't either. 

·   To what extent was the learning aim met?
o        How did you/the teacher know this?

This is probably your AfL: a measure of what has been learned up to that point and, importantly, to what extent. It will need to be revisited if it's to stick and accumulate. It doesn't have to be an overly-conscious and arbitrary display for the observer but it's very important to gauge this before learning can move on, either in this lesson or the next.

·   What behaviour management strategies did you seeing being utilised?
o        How successful were these from what you saw?

Very often it's easy to ignore this, especially if there are few behaviour issues. But if there are, that's because it's well-managed and good habits have been established. By consciously looking for these habits and for signs that measures are in place when someone raises their head, it's easier to pick apart successful behaviour management. 

·   Which students stood out today?
o        Why was this?

I like this one because the teacher may not always realise that one or two students either dominate or slip off the radar. Is any one student's name used more than others? Why is this? And in the discussion afterwards, look at the students who might have needed additional support. Were they supported sufficiently in the lesson? The observer doesn't need to pass judgement on this though; it's a starting point for discussion.

These last three are taken from the developmental Learning Walk process I learned about on SLE training, detailed here. They seem on first glance a bit wishy washy, but after using them a lot in the past 2 years, I’ve seen how effective they can be.

·   Favourite
(What did you like about the lesson?)

Who would't like being told their lesson contains something that's been favourited? Observers can include resources and displays here, as well as relationships, tasks or anything else they liked.

·   Feeling
(What feelings did you get about the lesson as whole?)

This is often the hardest to articulate. But how did the lesson feel? What was the atmosphere? Quiet and studious? Quiet and lethargic? Buzzy and exciting? Buzzy and out of control? Calm? Safe? Too safe? 

·   Question(s)
(What questions would you ask the teacher or any of the students about today’s lesson?)

This is maybe the area that would normally count as the target area, but because it relies on questions rather than judgements, it invites reflection. As I said in more detail in my Walk On Through post (linked above), this part offers the teacher the chance to justify their teaching choices. Sometimes there's an answer; it just wasn't made clearer in the lesson. And sometimes there's not, which can lead to a greater understanding of the process of teaching and learning. But it also allows explanations to be made that the observer just wouldn't have prior knowledge about, especially perhaps when thinking about differentiation (see also my post here). Much of the resentment that arises from classroom observations involves the teacher feeling they didn't have a voice or the chance to explain themselves. This process allows that opportunity.

I wouldn’t want this form to be any longer than a side of A4; it’s not the story of the lesson in several chapters, it’s a starting point for reflection.

As I’m sure many teachers now know, there are plenty of studies to support the use of diagnostic/formative feedback only for the most part when assessing students’ work. Why should this be any different for teachers? What are we if not grown-up kids? Wiliam cited one particular study that looked at the effect of 3 control groups of middle school children who each received a different type of feedback. The 1st group were given tests scores only; the 2nd received scores and comments; the 3rd received diagnostic comments only.

When measuring improvement in attainment, the 3 groups scored as follows:

1st group (score alone) – no improvement in achievement
2nd group (score & comment) – no gain. It was found that the score actually negated the effect of the comment.
3rd group (comment alone) – 30% gain in attainment.
Additionally, when trying to raise student self-esteem, even NO feedback was better than grades or praise without substance.

So for these lesson observation forms there are no grades. At all.

I’m going to give them a go with the new trainees when they arrive in January and go through their usual round of lesson observations across the school. And for those staff I’m currently coaching, I’ll suggest them too. If anyone else wants to have a go as well, tweet me and I'll email you a link to the first draft of the form. Do let me know how you get on, and I will too.

Quick extra thought:
What about if the observer didn't write anything in the lesson and just absorbed what they saw? Following the lesson, the observer and teacher could have a go at filling the progress form in themselves for 10 minutes, without consulting. Then compare and discuss. It would be very interesting to compare perceptions of the lesson from the observer's (and students' if they've been spoken to) with the teacher's. I'll definitely try this out in the next few weeks.