The problem with revision

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Re-vision

Mid 16th century word meaning to ‘look again or repeatedly (at)’): from French réviser ‘look at’, or Latin revisere ‘look at again’, from re- ‘again’ + visere (intensive form of videre ‘to see’). OED.

I think I have spent many years getting revision wrong.   My own ham-fisted attempts at school were neither based on evidence nor were they very successful.  I enjoyed my subjects at school, I was motivated and engaged and I kept up with my homework (mostly) but revision was like kryptonite.  I have never had a brilliant memory for details, I could recall the broad brush of an argument, concept or approach but none of the fine strokes of facts, writers or quotes.  My school teachers never really talked about revision apart from ‘finding a method that works for you’.  I think we had a generic session on different methods including using colour or recording your voice (learning styles – anyone?) but no explicit personalised coaching or explanation of how or why it works?  By the time I got to Sixth Form the assumption was that you had made it this far so you were obviously doing something right, why don’t you do more of that.

Whilst my memory is poor, my notes and studies have always been meticulously organised.  I remember painstakingly reading and re-reading them, highlighting and underlining them and howling at the moon because my memory was so poor.  My degree offered no further support for improving my revision techniques but I must have improved  somehow as I started to do quite well in exams.  I wondered what I was doing differently as I picked up the highlighters and carried on colouring the key quotes and passages in my core textbooks.

The first time you encounter a topic, you fumble around trying to make sense of the concepts and make it fit into your existing schemas. The new words and concepts feel strange and alien and take a while to get used to. Revision is the chance to look at the same topic anew; with a fresh pair of eyes, make new links and examples, consider how it is similar and different to what you already know, see with your eyes wide open. Many of the revision strategies that students (and teachers) use do not produce much learning – instead they trick us into thinking we have learned more than we have.

I am left wondering whether the word revision is not very helpful as it has too much baggage.  It is a thing that is done at the end, the after thought and not something which is woven into the way we learn how to study.  Do we need to rebrand revision?  Perhaps relearning or reviewing might be more useful terms in explaining what needs to be done.

During my PGCE, the science of learning and revision was curiously absent from the myriad of lectures about Bloom and Vygotsky.  When it came to revision, we were offered the learning pyramid or cone of learning as a model.2882821_orig.png

I was training to be a teacher at the time and this made perfect sense, intuitively if you have to teach someone something it will stick better than just reading about it.  I remember feeling uneasy about the statistics cited but the overall model confirmed my pedagogical biases and confirmed the superiority of progressive rather than traditional teaching methods.  Daniel Willingham argues this should be called a cone of shame; the model is not based on reliable evidence.  There are so many factors which influence memory retrieval that it is a nonsense to present them in this order of priorities and attribute these statistics to them.

Thankfully, we are in a different place now.  There is a coherent canon of strategies emerging from cognitive science that provide a more evidence-based approach to revision.    It is clearly the case that not all methods are equal.  Some are far superior to others and some may be time-consuming and ineffective.  One of the key influences on my thinking has been the work of John Dunlosky.

 

Dunlosky et al (2013) What Works, What Doesn’t

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Dunlosky et al suggest a range of effective and less effective strategies to use in revision.

What Works

  1. Self Testing (Quizzing yourself gets high marks)
  2. Distributed Practice (Spread your study over time)
  3. Elaborative Interrogation (Channel your inner four-year-old)
  4. Self-Explanation (How do you know)
  5. Interleaved Practice (Mixing apples and oranges)

What Doesn’t

  1. Highlighting
  2. Rereading

Dunlovsky’ do’s and don’t are nicely abridged in Alex Quigly’s Throw Away Your Highlighters.

For me, highlighters can represent how our habits of teaching and learning can go unexamined and how we can too easily waste time and money each year by not being truly critical about our practice in the classroom.

Let me first be clear. I have spent years with students using them with some guidance that I thought was enough. As a subject leader I have commissioned the purchase of hundreds of packs of highlighters. I have likely inadvertently funded a Stabilo Christmas party drinks tab once or twice. Only in the last couple of years I have been more critical of every facet of my own teaching practice and it leads you to ask broader questions about the efficacy of each teaching method, each tool you employ and each passing fad that attracts your eye (especially if it costs money, however seemingly small the budgetary hit).

Alex is not wrong.  For too long, too many of our revision tactics have been at best ineffective and at worst a waste of time and effort.  We can do better than this.  Revision and relearning are too important to leave to chance.

 

Yana Weinstein & Megan Smith (The Learning Scientists) have reduced the cognitive research into 6 key strategies that can make a difference.  Oliver Cavigliolo has turned them into fantastic info-graphics that should be the basis of all future discussions about revision.  Each strategy is clearly explained with key research evidence provided.

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How to plan your studies

1.Spaced out learning

Research shows that spacing out your learning over time rather than cramming at the last minute is the key to success.  This means you need to plan you learning, five hours spread over two weeks is far superior to the same five hours spread out all at once.  Create small spaces of time for study and do a little bit at a time so it all adds up.

 

2. Interleaving

Switch between ideas while you study.  Don’t study one idea for too little or too long.  Go back over ideas to make sure you understand them.

How to develop your understanding.

 

3. Elaborative interrogation

As you study ask yourself questions which get you to explain and describe ideas with as many details as possible.  Make connections between different ideas, think how concepts are similar and different.  Try to apply the ideas and concepts to your own experiences and memories to make stronger connections.

4. Concrete examples

Use specific examples to understand abstract ideas.  Collect examples from your textbook, class notes or that your teacher has used in class to demonstrate a concept.  Create your own relevant examples for the learning.

5. Dual Coding

Combining words with visuals.  Develop different ways to represent the information visually for example an info graphic, timeline, diagram or cartoon.  Put the text away and try and describe the concepts from the visuals.  Eventually, attempt to draw what you know from memory.

How to consolidate your knowledge.

6. Retrieval practice

Practice bringing information to mind.  Use frequent, low-stakes testing and quizzing to improve your learning.  Use flashcards, key words, draw a diagram from memory or multiple choice quizzes.  Don’t only recall words and definitions, try to recall main ideas and how things are related or different from one another and new examples.

The Sandringham Memory Clock

The teaching and learning team at Sandringham School have developed a rather neat way to embed all of these ideas.  The Sandringham Memory Clock usefully portrays revision as a process that involves all the ingredients of evidence-based cognitive science.  Revision is not just made up of isolated activities like flashcards but needs to be built into a cycle of review, practice, checking, retest, relearn, repeat.

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What have I learned about revision?

By leaving revision to the end of the course and allowing students to do ‘whatever works for them’ we are doing them a disservice.  If we are to maximise their memory potential we need to arm them with the techniques of cognitive science and consider rethinking how we structure linear learning.  The science of learning teaches us that we should perhaps build in more explicit repetition along the way.  The revisiting of topics and concepts should not be left until the end of the course, end of units, end of term.   We need to provide lots of opportunities for revision and relearning along the way.

 

For the love of blogging

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It has been a year or so since I started blogging about professional issues and I wanted to reflect on what I have learnt and how I felt about the journey.  Whilst I am neither consistent, coherent or very good, I have enjoyed giving myself time to reflect on my own personal and professional development.  Like many others, I started blogging as a means of capturing my own thoughts about my practice and to engage in some sort of discussion about the direction of travel and the nuances that surround the decisions that we make.  My ramblings may not be read by many but that is not the point, committing them to paper has been a mixture of bravery, foolishness, narcissism and cathartic release.

In some sense blogging has been a liberation, of sorts. A space to express my views on the issues that surround teaching and learning; to make sense of my own journey and ways forward,  It has given me the chance to define and explore my own agendas in a way that structured INSET never has.  But it is much more than this.  Reading other peoples blogs has been some of the best CPD I have ever had and all from the comfort of my own laptop.  Even as a dipper in and out of the blogging sphere, one is overwhelmed for the creativity and desire for change in our profession and the sense that we are wrestling (to borrow the zeitgeist) some sort of control back.  Azumah Dennis (2017) suggests that

“These spaces matter.  They are fun, anarchic, dissenting, punk spaces that help shape what is means to be a … professional.”

Whilst government policy and the pace of curriculum change can at best be described as shambolic, the bloggers and tweeters maintain a healthy discourse about the purpose and role of education.  The subjects that are considered worthwhile are not driven by an external government agendas, we are defining the debates ourselves.   Blogging is so much more than venting and storytelling.  The debates and discussions may get a bit messy and we do not follow Oxford-style rules but on the whole the content is coming from a good place.  In blogging and social media, we get the chance to dream big and talk of how the future might be.  In committing these thoughts to the blog-o-sphere we are creating alternative professional spaces that are shaping an alternative vision of pedagogy and practice.  We are questioning the very foundations of our professional practice and seeking the evidence for doing it better.  Is direct instruction always bad?  Does group work improve learning?  How should we assess progress?  We are answering Dylan Wiliam’s call to arms and discovering on how we can improve, not because we are not good enough, but because we can be even better.

Dear reader, it may not come as a surprise to hear that I have been struggling in recent months.  It has sometimes been difficult to hold on to the good stuff; curriculum change coupled with institutional issues have left me questioning myself more than usual. In these moments, I have been left wondering whether it is time to hang up the chalk as I feel somewhat defeated and then I stumble across lovely blogs that remind me of the importance of our task and the joy of the classroom.  I hope I find the space to keep reading and occasionally writing.  To my blogging colleagues who make the tough times easier, I salute you and thank you for the light in the moments of darkness.

 

C. Asumah Dennis (2017) Blogging – a chance for teachers to create a public pedagogy – InTuition Research. Spring.

Enthusiatic skepticism: the problem with becoming more research aware, research informed and research engaged.

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De omnibus dubitandum.

All is to be doubted.

Rene Descartes

Oh dear, once you open the Pandora’s box of becoming an evidence-based practitioner, it seems impossible to close the lid and carry on as before.  Perhaps Pandora is not quite the right analogy; becoming research informed has not quite unleashed plague and pestilence but it has certainly shaken many of our beliefs and assumptions and I guess all of us on this journey are holding onto some sort of hope.

Becoming more research informed, research aware and research engaged is an exhausting process which has cast new light into my professional practice.  Some of this light has helped me think more clearly about things whilst other illuminations have unsettled some of my core assumptions about the process of teaching and learning (I’m looking at you Hattie … class size at A-level has no effect!  Hurrumph).  The problem is that you cannot turn the light off,  nor can you turn it down as one set of questions leads mind-bendingly to another.  As former Spice Girl, Melanie Chisolm told us at the turn of the last century, things will never be the same again.

I have always had some nagging doubts about our established practice, some deep-rooted malaise about how things are done in the world of education.  I mean, target grades, I kind of know why they are used as a measure of accountability but how did we get from that to each student having them in the front of their book and on each piece of work?  How depressing if your grade is not towards the top of the alphabet and your progress is constantly in red in the mark book.   How awful that your performance four years ago determines what teachers must grade you against today.  Surely on some level, unconscious bias must creep in so that the existence of this target in the front of your mark book must colour how you see the student’s work either positively or negatively?  What other mechanisms exist that make the target grade the student’s master status?

I guess my social science background has helped lay the foundations of an inquisitive mind and has kept me questioning things.  For example, I feel labelling theory remains as valid a critique of pedagogical practice today as much as it was in the 1960s.  My studies have developed in me a desire to demand proof and evidence before accepting an idea whilst paradoxically an awareness of some of the pitfalls of the research process and the pull of my own unconscious biases.  I guess if my own academic background has taught me anything it is that most hard facts are much less certain than we would like to believe.  We must be comfortable with the nuanced answers and be open to the possibility of not knowing.  The rock of evidence is constantly pitted against the methodological whirlpool of confirmation bias.

I am also aware that I am a product of my own professional timeline.  My teacher training began in the last century at the Institute of Education.  It was a mixed blessing containing a smattering of educational theory (Vgotsky, Piaget, Bloom et al) alongside some more faddish approaches like learning styles with an emphasis on the progressive approaches and experiential learning.  Didactic was bad and group work was better.  I remember writing out ridiculously detailed three-part lesson plans with tick boxes for learning styles, PSHE, SEN, numeracy, literacy elements.  My goodness.  What were we thinking?  These lesson plans became overworked, one-off pieces of professional object d’art – beautiful to look at but of no real value in the classroom.  There was no focus on research evidence in the classroom.  We all tinkered with a bit of action research, as is the wont of the PGCE but it was at best a flimsy attempt at being evidence-based; at worst an exercise in leading questions (would you say you enjoyed my lesson today more than yesterday?).

There was much to learn from cognitive psychology about learning and adolescent brains but there was no significant movement to provide the golden thread about what felt like a disparate list of facts.  We are in a much better place now, with an emerging paradigm from the EEF, detailed evidence from the Learning Scientists and the grassroots teacher-led movements such as ResearchED.

However, our practice often lags far behind the evidence or professional debate.  We do things in schools because we have always done it this way, for administrative and bureaucratic reasons or because of our own confirmation bias.

Becoming a research-aware teacher is a difficult process which is made more so if not everyone in your school is on a similar journey.  I am acutely aware that it is not always useful or appropriate to question every policy and decision but there must be a forum to kick around the ideas, research the evidence and come to a reasonable conclusion without being seen as someone who is not rowing the same way?

As a profession, when we question things we are seen as an enemy of promise or Gove’s infamous blob but it is not this way in all industries.  A recent TED talk by Astro Teller the director of Google X explains how things could be different by developing a culture of enthusiastic skepticism which has helped google become the technology giant it is today.  He says that when you work in a dream factory, in order to achieve the big things you must spend most of your time breaking things and proving they are wrong.  This is a messy process but rather than hide the mess, you should run at the hardest problems first.  These guys have created self-driving cars by having culture of professional ambition and open critique or as they call it enthusiastic skepticism.

Enthusiastic skepticism is not the enemy of boundless optimism. It’s optimism’s perfect partner. It unlocks the potential in every idea. We can create the future that’s in our dreams. Astro Teller

Admittedly, I am a creature of habit and changing teacher habits is one of the hardest things to do.  We can use all sorts of selective data to ‘prove’ our policies and pedagogical habits are the most successful. But becoming more research-aware is a journey which requires the skills of enthusiastic skepticism.  Unguarded enthusiasm for every new piece of research is too soft or too hot.  Likewise, being overly skeptical about potential changes to our habits is too hard or too cold.  We need to find the goldilocks position which will create genuine and long-lasting system change based on evidence. We can only dream big if we can harness the powers of those of us who are skeptically enthusiastic and those enthusiastic skeptics.  We need to run at our most sacred cows with the relentless questioning of a four year old constantly asking but why do we do it this way?

 

 

“It’s just the beginning it’s not the end.
Things will never be the same again.
It’s not a secret anymore.
Now we’ve opened up the door.
Starting tonight and from now on.
We’ll never, never be the same again.
Never be the same again.” Mel C.

The problem with data

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It is January and I’m up to my eyeballs in data and feeling a bit grumpy about it all.  Meetings are consumed with the analysis and woeful predictions about what might happen in the summer.  As usual, I think we are focusing on the wrong things.

Firstly, the reliability and validity of progress data in the first year of these linear courses needs to be questioned and used with caution, any general conclusions must come with massive caveats.   Indeed, in my own subjects we still feel in the dark about what the summer assessment might look like.  We have the specimen papers but the first AS papers were not necessarily similar to the sample papers.  We are desperately covering all possible bases with the content and getting students to transfer the skills to different contexts.  But, that is just good teaching, I hear you say (and I know it is but we all do a bit of ‘teaching to the test’, don’t we … okay, okay this deserves a future blog, I promise.)

Secondly, the mock data in the Autumn term is not necessarily a good proxy of performance over the whole specification.  Students only have partial knowledge of the subject and are not necessarily able to make the more sophisticated links they can at the end. For some students, it is only when they have completed the course that they are able to achieve the higher mark bands and the knowledge begins to link up.

Thirdly, student progress data is vulnerable to all sorts of teacher bias with the tendency for both type 1 or type 2 errors.  We tend to assume that students are either making more progress than they actually are or we suggest dramatic underperformance where things might not be as bad as it seems.  The consequences of these labels can be catastrophic for some student in terms of their motivation and subject confidence.

My view is that perhaps we are worrying too much about what this data says about departmental performance and school outcomes and not enough time thinking about individuals and their barriers to learning.  Our time may be better spent thinking about the individuals in our room and discussing some of the barriers they / we are facing in helping them make progress.  Spreadsheets are not good at telling the complex stories of the individuals in our rooms.

The anxiety about data is only useful if it results in a capacity to think about and contain individuals.  We all need to recognise that we are dealing with uncertainty and senior leaders will have to contain their own anxieties about not knowing and help contain the anxieties of those in classrooms and this means listening to the stories about individual and institutional barriers to learning.

Colleagues put away your spreadsheets, pop the kettle on and talk about the kids you are worried about.  Why are you worried about them?  What is stopping them making progress?  What would help? Can you have this conversation with them?  As Tom Sherrington famously recommends imagine …” there was no OfSTED, no SLT… just you and your class… what would you choose to do to make it great? Do that anyway.”  This is not to suggest we should not be accountable for our actions but that the tail should not wag the dog.  Part of me has been wondering that instead of providing loads of lunchtime and afterschool revision sessions, perhaps I should just hunker down and put all my effort into making my classes excellent.  Is my time better spent knowing my subject, keeping the pitch high and pace fast with some desirable difficulties along the way.  I should keep an eye on my top end and aim bring the others along with me.

As leaders in education we must decide whether we are going to be sh*t umbrellas or sh*t funnels. (Apologies, I cannot remember who I have stolen this from, I think it may have been Kev Bartle?).  For the latter, the data obsession is used to point fingers and ‘make’ staff accountable.  The anxiety is not contained and pushed down the hierarchy and I wonder where it goes next?  An alternative approach could be to acknowledge the uncertainty at the heart of the education project.  There are many variables which influence student progress and we need the capacities to reflect on them and most significantly the individual student must be at the heart of this enterprise.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Minding the gap between research and practice – Saturday 12th November 2016

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I attended the Canons Park Teaching School Alliance conference on Saturday 12th November 2016 and here are my reflections on the day.

The Hive.

I must admit I have only dropped my son off here to for children’s parties and I have never been through the doors.  It is a large space, well suited to this type of conference.  It could be anywhere as it looks like most hotels and conference centres do with the light wood doors, swirly carpets and Molton Brown soaps.  However, you get a surprise every now and then as you turn a corner or look out a window to be confronted with the stands of Barnet FC.  Come on you …. bees?

Welcome.

A warm welcome from Kev where he reminds us of our task; to mind the gaps between research and evidence, to question our current practices, to work out what evidence is there and what is missing and be more comfortable with ‘not’ knowing.

The ingenious Oliver Caviglioli has made some of his summary notes which I will use as an aide memoir in my reflection.  Massive thank you to Oliver for these scribbles of beauty (if I could have one super power it would be to make notes like this!)

Keynote 1. James Richardson (EEF) Embedding research in 24000 schools – limits to the EEF’s endowment and the role of teachers.cxdtqwlxgaay_sx

As we approach the 5th anniversary of the establishment of the EEF, James walks us through the Foundations top achievements and how its work and focus has changed.  I had not realised it was established with such a large endowment of £136 million to boldly go where few researchers had gone before. They have produced 66 reports, carried out 130 project evaluations and 1 in 5 schools have become involved in RCTs.  An significant beginning.

Historically, schools have been the passive recipients of university research, but this paradigm is changing with schools taking the role in leading trials.  The EEF has three clear roles including summarising the existing body of research (meta- meta analysis), finding gaps and making grants for those areas to be researched and sharing the results.  It is sharing the results which has proven to be the most challenging.  Whether teachers believe the research depends on many factors including trusting the advocate, the practicable applications and how much effort the change would take.  Schools tend to listen to other schools (which could be a great way of sharing the good practice but it has also been a sure fire way of sharing some questionable activities – look how quickly triple marking spread as a solution-  to a non-existent problem).  The task of research schools will be to carry out this research and help disseminate and communicate the agenda.  I think this is a tough challenge as we are asking teachers to change their habits, and most of us are creatures of habit and routine. Information alone does not change peoples behaviour, we need to engage the profession with a space and capacity for reflection.

What seems clear is that the EEF evidence does not always speak to the emerging canon of work in cognitive psychology.  The cognitivists have a wide range of lab-based studies but the challenge ahead is for the EEF to use research schools to see if this evidence can be replicated in real-life settings. Current gaps in the research include: marking & feedback, leadership and culture.

One interesting debate was about whether it is important for all teachers to read all the research?  Not all are willing to engage with research for a variety of reasons.  More must be done at ITT stage, to establish evidence-based practice as a core professional quality.  However, I wonder if we are not all engaging with evidence-based practice then how are we meeting our annual 30 hour CPD commitment?  Surely, the lions share of this time should be given as time and space to find out about and reflect on current research and evidence?

Best practice would suggest all schools need to have a research advocate who can help bridge the gap and help embed these national debates into everyday practice.

One of the messages I was left with, is just how long it takes to embed research.  The EEF would like to become the educational version of NICE, but people at NICE suggest that it can take 15 years from the publication of their research and guidance for this to filter down into day-to-day medical practice, 15 years … I am not sure I have another 15 years in the profession?

Keynote 2: Phillipa Cordingley CUREE

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Phillipa introduced me to the work of Viviane Robinson and used a really rich case study to get me to think about the tools we use and how we can evaluate them.  Leadership is important here as well as the bravery to use or peer support to deal with the difficult stuff rather than just reinforcing our existing beliefs.

Session 1: David Weston, Phillipa Cordingley, Helene Galdin-Oshea.

The CPD Standards and Professional Learning.

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The panel gave us an overview of the work of the CPD Expert Group and the 5 standards of effective CPD.  The guidance was music to my ears and I hope signals the end of poor quality professional development.   For too long, CPD has been something which is done to  teachers rather than a genuine opportunity for personalised, evidence-based enquiry that improves the outcomes in our classrooms.  Professional development should not be a ‘done to’ process, teachers need to be engaged with evidence, given time for collaboration and a process which is deeply embedded into the school culture.

Session 2: Candida Gould – Empowering Teachers.

Candida led a thoughtful session reminding us of the why we must engage in research and the benefits to our classrooms and our morale as teachers.  She spoke about how the journey into the world of evidence-based practice is full of many stumbles and falls, but it is this not knowing or being uncertain which drives us on.  Engaging with research should take us out of our comfort zone.  We need to disturb the educational equipoise.

Is it good to do what we have always done?  What is the opportunity cost of changing our practice?  On balance, what is the evidence for our current practice?

There is much uncertainty in our practices, but we should embrace this and be curious about what we don’t know.

Candida talked about how her school had started to become more evidence-based with the following ingredients:

  • A culture of asking why
  • A common language to talk about pedagogy and evaluating research.
  • Continuous exposure to research, sharing blogs, research bulletin.
  • Recommendations for reading linked to performance goals and development projects.

I liked lots of her ideas and began to wonder how evidence-based the schools I have taught in have been.  One of the intriguing ideas Candida has left me with is this idea of a T shape learner, where the top represents the skills and the vertical the knowledge.  The idea is you cannot deepen the knowledge without developing the skills.  I need to find out more as it seems like a sensible way forward in the skills versus content debate.

Session 3. Richard Found – The Sandringham Learning Journal.

 

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A very thought-provoking example of how to change a school culture from Richard Found. The experience of writing and publishing articles for a learning journal has transformed how staff (and students) at Sandringham approach research and professional development.  Richard described how the journal had evolved from a rather make shift in-house production to a more professionally produced journal and how the opportunity to have an article published had inspired all sorts of action research and teacher reflections.  The journals are a thing of beauty and something Sandringham should be rightly proud.  Not all the articles are as ‘evidence-based’ as one would perhaps like but they are a clear statement of intent and a culture of enquiry.   We read a few in the session and you cannot help but be impressed with the range and depth of the articles.  All staff contribute to this journal, not just teachers so articles from governors and support staff add to the diversity of voices.  This has been developed alongside a teaching and learning website  www.sandology.co.uk and spin-off versions for the students.  However, to work this needs advocates and senior staff commitment.  I like it.

Plenary: Dr Gary Jones.  Effective Leadership of evidence-based practice.

Admittedly, I had to leave half way through this one as I had a lift organised.  However, it seems clear that we need a genuine culture shift in our leadership teams rather than pseudo-enquiry which plays lip-service to this agenda.

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Another thoughtful day.  My thanks to Keven and Helene for organising.  Much needed chicken soup for the teaching soul.

 

Post-Trump teaching

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27 years ago today the Berlin wall fell.  It remains one of the very few lessons I remember from school, our teacher got very excited and passionate about the significance of the day.  The date bears a historical burden as it was also the day in 1938 of the anti-Jewish pogrom ‘Kristallnacht’, a harbinger of later inhumanity. He confidently proclaimed that it was probably the most important historical moment of our lives, the end of the cold war and a new era of peace and prosperity.  A wall which symbolised so much fear and division fell in a peaceful, popular uprising.  We were witnessing a triumph of the human spirit, a victory of freedom over bondage.

Today, as we contemplate the consequences of a Trump Presidency and I cannot help but feel the same feelings as I felt in that Year 9 history classroom all those years ago.  In 2016, we have witnessed seismic shifts in our political and social landscape.    Brexit and Trump represent a generational challenge to progressive politics and liberal ideas.  These values represent the moral compass of my classroom and it feels as though they are being eroded from within.  I do not know if  I truly believe that politics is the answer as much as I used too.   My rallying cry to my students has always been a version of Marx’s famous quote …

“Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it”  (Theses On Feuerbach, 1888)

… I just don’t know whether I believe the change is possible any longer.  What faith can one have in political processes that seem broken.

I am also left wondering about the usefulness of polling and political science as it has proven itself to be fairly useless in the last couple of years.  The social scientist in me wonders whether there is a flaw in the sampling frame, the question design or some issue with social desirability as they are consistently unable to make the right call.  Or does the presence have a more pervasive influence on the electoral outcomes.   wondered whether the publishing of the polls may have some unintended response and influence on the wider population.  Perhaps it is more of an art than a science?

Anyway, I digress.  The question is how do we as educators pick ourselves up and carry on when it feels like the fabric of our outlook, the certainties of our beliefs are being unpicked one by one.

Professor Albus Dumbedore gets it right when he tells Harry Potter “Dark and difficult times lie ahead.”  Our political systems seem broken, our leaders have lose their heads, racism, misogyny and locker room banter is on the rise.  The world has become more inward looking, nationalism triumphs over rational economic self interest, populism triumphed over experts, paranoia and fear triumphed over trust.  It seems as though we do have “dark and difficult times” ahead; the future seems more uncertain than ever before.

The campaigns we have witnessed in the American elections and the Brexit referendum were dreadful and offer no models to young people about how to engage in political debate.  These campaigns were an embarrassment and the behaviour on show would have led to a serious reprimand if it was how a young person behaved in class.  Whatever happened to good old-fashioned winning the argument?  As any teacher knows, success will require all sides to work together and find the common ground.  Is this possible after the deep wounds of these recent campaigns?

However, once we have got over the shock and a period of mourning, we need to recover and regroup, ‘keep on – keeping on’ as Alan Bennett might say.   There is hope sat in front of us everyday.   Everyday we are surrounded by possibility and potential.  By hope.  Potential floods the room like Lynx deodorant after PE.   Dumbledore’s quotation ends: “Dark and difficult times lie ahead. Soon we must all face the choice between what is right and what is easy.”  I know the young people that I work with will make better choices than their predecessors.  Now is not the time for giving into political apathy.  Teaching has never mattered more as they will be the ones who will really make a difference in the challenges ahead.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The problem with growth mindset.

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I think I might be a little late to this party but I want to reflect on my thinking about growth mindset and resilience.  Views about the usefulness of growth mindset seem to be polarised as it is seen as either a magic wand or a passing fad.  It is probably neither and it’s usefulness may be weakened by an inconclusive evidence base.  It may remain an important piece of the puzzle of learning but as with all puzzles, the whole is greater than the sum of it’s parts. I wondered whether it was time to evaluate my use of this concept and approach.

My Dweckian conversion.

By the 2010s, I had become a Dweckian convert, and I attributed much of the academic success of my classes to my awareness and sensitivity to the growth mindset agenda.  I had developed a range of assemblies,  interventions and feedback strategies that used the language of resilience.  Student voice feedback on these interventions was positive and my value-added was good.  Therefore it works, right? Well, maybe and maybe not.

My gosh, it seemed like a silver bullet, the purpose-built panacea to the challenges of the education system. Carol Dweck had given us a language to explain motivation, the importance of effort and a psychology of success.

 

 

10-growth-mindset-statements

The idea of a growth mindset is a simple idea that was guaranteed to make all the difference.  People with a fixed mindset attribute their success as a product of their innate talent – without effort.  Whilst those with a more growth mindset believe success is down to hard work dedication and responding to failure and feedback.  This approach suggests that a growth mindset can be taught and that failure should be seen as an opportunity to improve.  We should praise effort and perseverance rather than innate qualities or talents.  Seems a positive thing, isn’t it?

Many years ago, I had a poster in my classroom that had the tagline ‘attitude determines altitude’. I have never really believed that students who are struggling look up at the poster with the inspirational quote and decide in that moment to turn their lives around. Real life is not a Robin Williams movie. Moreover, the poster was there for my benefit as well as making the room more aesthetically pleasing. Whilst I was not an early adopter of her research, it gradually began to seep into my consciousness, my teaching and my own psyche. All of a sudden, we had a language that seemed to tie up all the loose ends left over from the debates surrounding labelling, self-fulfilling prophecy and cultural deprivation or what contemporary sociologists might call ‘habitus’.

To be fair, I was not the only one who had become super excited about the concept of growth mindset. It appeared on CPD brochures, regular slots in the education press as well as an essential criterion in job descriptions and school mission statements.  I began to use Dweck’s words in my feedback to students, carefully praising the effort. Focusing on the dialogic feedback about how to improve. I planned assemblies to look at these ideas along with the case studies from Matt Syed in Bounce, Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers and the inspiration from Erikson’s 10,000 hour rule.

So there I was, a card-carrying member of the growth mindset club, on a mission to use the psychology of success to improve my practice.  Yet, and yet a strange knot began to grow in the pit of my stomach, where was the evidence to support this new-found belief.

 Evidence that growth mindset approach works?

Results from the largest UK trial of resilience training in schools (the UK Resilience Project) continue to be disappointing and largely ignored.  Despite my desire to find evidence to support my ideas, it has not been easy to prove.  Without evidence, should we abandon this on the educational scrap heap along with brain gym and learning styles?  I am not sure I am ready to do that yet but what value is left?

 What is good about a growth mindset approach?

 A renewed focus on attitudes and learning behaviours can be helpful. We have a common language to use with students and with each other. The message that application and effort are the keys to success can only be helpful particularly against the backdrop of labelling and self-fulfilling prophecy.  There seems to be a connection between mindset, a coaching approach to teaching and learning and the growth of independent study methods.  But my cynical side suggests this is all too neat. We know that many problems of the education sector are both structural and institutional. How significant is this piece of the puzzle?  Are we all talking about the same thing?

Variations on a theme: Whose concept is it anyway?

 Angela Duckworth (2012) – Grit.

Resilience seems to be narrowly defined as the ability to cope with adversity or disappointment. Perseverance tends to be about the ability to keep going, to complete a task and be committed to learning. Whereas grit, is defined by Angela Duckworth as the tendency to sustain interest and effort towards long-term goals.

Marc Smith (2016) – Academic Buoyancy

Smith points out that much of the research and discussion about resilience investigates cases of extreme adversity rather than the everyday problems that students face. This ability to cope with daily hassles, setbacks and minor adversities can be reconceptualised as ‘academic buoyancy’ in order to distinguish the term from the traditional view of resilience.

Academic buoyancy contains the so-called 5Cs: Confidence (self-efficacy), Coordination (planning), Control (low uncertain control), Composure (low anxiety) and Commitment (persistence). Smith (2016) suggests we should use the 5Cs as the starting point of planning any interventions.

The problems of growth mindset.

I am anxious about the conflict between our use of ALPS target grades and the concept of a growth mindset. It seems to me that the process of setting target grades is antithetical and even undermines the growth mindset approach. I have attempted to fudge this paradox by quietly making students aware of their target grades but their feedback in class has been developmental and dialogic.

The use of praise.

As a social scientist, I have been long aware of the concepts of positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement and the often forgotten vicarious reinforcement. We see these in action in schools all the time. The growth mindset approach has reminded me to praise the effort rather than the person, or some innate abilities. However, the usefulness of praise is contested. From a psychological perspective, the praisers status, age, gender, ethnicity and the students own experience of attachment and praise in early childhood may have an impact on whether the praise will have any impact at all.  Again, are we looking at part of the puzzle and if so, what part does this represent for each individual learner?

Problem 1: The problem of definition and understanding.

The age-old problem of definition means that there can be a blurred understanding of what Dweck means by growth mindset. People often confuse it with being flexible or open-minded as well as assuming they already have one.   It is perhaps better to consider that everyone is a mixture of both fixed and growth mindsets and that we oscillate with experience. There is no such thing as a ‘pure’ growth mindset or a fortunate individual who achieves this nirvana in all walks of life.

Dweck is worried that some educators misunderstand or misapply the concepts. Praising effort alone is useless when the student is getting everything wrong and making no progress. Praise must be tied to a student’s process and strategies and tied to an outcome. Hollow praise convey our low expectations and praising effort without the coaching and critical feedback.

Problem 2: The problem of the poster and going through the motions.

You cannot just skip the process. A poster or assembly alone without the changes to everyday practice will not work. It is not enough for us to mouth the platitudes of growth mindset. Effort alone will not make students successful, out teaching practice needs to embed critical AFL and strategies for improvement.  Furthermore, these concepts are open to expropriation by other agendas. Look at Nicky Morgan’s emphasise on ‘character education’ and how that is absorbed much of the language of resilience and grit.

Problem 3: The problem of measurement.

 A concept that is complex to define will be even more difficult to measure. I have noted that a range of private companies are developing questionnaires and self-report measures that are being targeted at schools to provide evidence (for Ofsted) of how resilient students are. The idea is that you measure them before, during and after to prove how fantastic your interventions are.

Whilst I approve of the increased use of evidence in education, I cannot see how this type of enterprise could add any benefit. In the complex story of school-life, how can you isolate a notion of mindset over metacognition.

Problem 4: The infrastructure of education is in conflict with these concepts.

The use of target grades and ALPS data seems antithetical to a growth mindset approach. Clearly, you can approach target grades with caution with a ‘this is a minimum-grade’ expectation but once you have opened that Pandora’s box there is no going back. This thinking has led me to wonder how useful target grades are to the students? I understand how they are useful as a stick to beat me and measure class and department performance with but how depressing is it to be told your target grade is a D. Perhaps more useful to be told the average grade at AS in the UK is a D?  Furthermore, in an accountability culture that encourages us all to play educational triage, what space is there for growth mindset work?

Problem 5: Correlation does not imply causation.

David Didau usefully reminds us that the relationship between mindset and academic performance is not a straightforward one. It is intuitive to believe that changing a person’s beliefs will alter their behavior but the evidence is much more complex.

He cites a range of studies where mindset interventions have backfired due to the confounding effects of variables such as direct experience vs the indirect experience, social norms and cultural traditions. He concludes that,

“Mindset interventions don’t work by trying to browbeat pupils into believing in the merits of hard work or that their ‘brain can grow’. Direct appeals and information alone don’t change behaviour very effectively at all. In fact, effective psychological interventions involve a subtle, well-aimed nudge, which initiates a more complex social process.”

Problem 6: Does growth mindset individualise failure?

 David James, professor of social sciences at Cardiff argues that the limitations of mindset outweigh its uses. When students fail it can be explained away by the fact they did not have enough of the right mindset, they failed to adapt the way they think about life, they do not have the right character to be successful.

British psychologist Tim O’Brien says Professor Dweck’s theories could be “used against certain groups of learners as a tool for labelling, blame and exclusion”.

“The adolescent learner with emotional difficulties who used to get criticised in the staffroom for ‘having a chip on her shoulder’ now has a far more respectable research-based label to use against her – she’s got a fixed mindset,” Dr O’Brien writes.

We must resist the myth of cultural deprivation when explaining the attainment gap. The patterns of inequality in our society are mirrored and exacerbated by our education system.   Rather than question our systems and structures we are able to explain educational failure away as the result of poor attitude. This unconscious bias is insidious, pervasive and a shame on our profession.

Conclusions.

It seems healthy to maintain a critical approach to the use of growth mindset. Although there are many problems with its implementation, not least how it might clash with institutional culture, it does seem to give us a language about learning, application and motivation. It clearly cannot be the only tool in the toolkit. Perhaps its real value, despite its poor operationalisation is the adoption of a shared language of learning. It is a piece of the puzzle, but as with most things the complex phenomenon of learning is more than the mere sum of its parts.   As long as we do not use it as a stick to beat underperformance but rather as a aide-memoir to the type of feedback and the journey we are all on together.

Sources:

 

https://hbr.org/2016/01/what-having-a-growth-mindset-actually-means

 

David Didau

 

http://www.learningspy.co.uk/psychology/top-20-psychological-principles-for-teachers-1-students-beliefs-or-perceptions-about-intelligence-and-ability-affect-their-cognitive-functioning-and-learning/

 

Critiques of mindset.

 

https://www.tes.com/news/school-news/breaking-news/carol-dweck-whole-idea-growth-mindset-say-yes-they-can

 

http://www.theguardian.com/education/2016/may/10/growth-mindset-research-uk-schools-sats

 

 

Everyone needs a Hilary

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In my first few years of teaching I was honoured to share an intimate office, some might call it a broom cupboard with a colleague called Hilary Matthews.  We were quite different Hilary and I. We were at different points in our careers;  she was a teacher of many years and I was a greenhorn, she was originally a music teacher who had become an English teacher who had taught in the UK and Alaska and I was an ambitious, inexperienced, newly qualified teacher who had only taught in his placement college and thought he could do it all straight out of his PGCE.  In the beginning, we were both tutors and teachers of level 1 students in an inner-London FE college.  The students were delightful if complicated and gave me fairly instant feedback on “how shit that lesson was”.   We have all had those white knuckle moments where students can adeptly puncture our teaching egos.  In the same class, a student called Letitia used to know how to buckle me from the get-go, before I had welcomed the class she would raise herself to her full height in front of her audience and announce “Sir, are you going to talk all lesson”.  It was perhaps a fair question but delivered in the full knowledge that it would unravel my newly qualified confidence in what I had prepared.

There were lots of reasons why students had ended up on a level 1 course and we had only 9 months to decode the causes and work out solutions for each student.  For some it was a skills deficit combined with maturity or emotional and behavioural difficulties whilst others had more complex home lives which had impacted on their educational journey.  Over 40% of this cohort were dyslexic, most were EAL learners and many had felt that they had a rough deal in their secondary schools (interestingly, during my tenure all the surrounding schools became academies as they were struggling to hit the 1990s floor targets).  Whilst wanting to avoid cliched or stereotypical descriptions, it is true to say that this cohort represented a difficult and challenging introduction to the world of teaching combining the dark arts of behaviour management with the task of teaching numeracy and literacy to vocational students on a Friday afternoon.

Our office was called 2M3 and it was conveniently located right outside the boys toilets.  Not the best table in the restaurant but it meant we were on a main thoroughfare in the college and that we had more than our fair share of footfall from students and staff alike into our broom cupboard.  Our unofficial duty was managing the behaviour in the toilets at all times, a joy at the best of times.  Large colleges do not really have structured break and lunchtimes like schools do, so this meant a steady dribble (imagery intended) of students all day long.  Alongside the smokers and graffiti artists, I had the more distressing experience of finding a student who had put another student’s coursework into the toilet then done his ‘business’ on top.  It was the day before submission, much of it was handwritten and I found myself putting on the gloves and fishing out what I could.

Whilst the office was ideally suited for storing cleaning items we somehow squeezed in two desks, a filing cabinet and a cheap kettle from Tesco.  As a side note, I still do not know how Tesco manages to produce a kettle for £3, the economics baffles me, but nonetheless we took advantage of this cut-price offer.  We had no fridge, so we kept our milk on the windowsill, a la halls of residence.  The office was probably a toilet at some point and had frosted glass on the victorian windows so there was no view unless you opened the window.

We both had a computer and our own telephone extension, an experience I have not had in the secondary school system; who would have thought that FE would have the upper hand on giving staff sufficient space and resources to work.  This really was one of the most difficult things to sacrifice when I entered the secondary sector.  There is something about having your own desk and office-space where work can be left and returned to.  In secondary, my experience has been very different.  You teach in a range of different rooms and you are largely expected to cart your stuff around like a packhorse.  You can always work in the staff room says a senior teacher who has their own desk and fridge.  Moreover, it is the inefficiencies of setting up camp at each change of lesson, this is not a professional or kind way to live, but I suppose we all get used to regimes.  This enlightenment took place in the last century as the college had realised how much more efficient it was to give staff this professional courtesy.  When I made the move into secondary, it felt like a foreign country with very different norms and expectations around working conditions.  As a secondary teacher, it has taken me many years and the wearing of different hats to argue for a similar commitment to teachers’ working spaces.

We shared a printer and a bookshelf.  The office was located at the rear of the building, 3 or 4 stories high,  so when we opened the 6ft windows we had a wonderful view of the boys toilets and a block of flats opposite.  The man on the third floor used to sit in his string vest and watch daytime television, occasionally standing up to show us his pants.  We did not open the window often.  The building was a classic Victorian School built in the style of ER Robson.  A multi-storey red-brick building with multiple gables and segmental windows which whilst a beauty to admire suffered from many of the practical issues of these London School Board designs.  The heating was intermittent and the layout of many of the classrooms was impractical, the paint was falling off the walls and the windows rattled in the wind.  In winter, we had to scrape ice off the inside of the windows. But I loved it.  My confidence grew in the classroom and whilst I was only a page or two ahead of the class,  I felt as if we were all making progress together.

Hilary was an excellent person for me at that point in my career.  She would put the kettle on and patiently listen to my blatherings about problems in the classroom or teaching ideas that I had.  She was non-judgemental and used what today we would call a ‘coaching’ approach by being that person who could help me frame my thinking about teaching and learning and contain my anxieties about the role.  She would ask the right questions and encourage me to come to my own conclusions.  She helped me make links between the micro-interactions in the classroom and wider institutional and systemic issues.  She tolerated my naive adherence and beliefs in all things progressive, even though she knew that a traditional knowledge-based curriculum was still what many young people needed.  She encouraged my wilder experiments in group-based learning but quietly brought me back in the room without destroying my house of cards.  She took an interest in new ideas that I had gained from my IOE PGCE but politely refused to accept the evidence for learning styles.   (What on earth was the institute of education doing peddling such nonsense in the 1990s?)

I used lots of other teachers in those first years to help grow my approach and develop my creativity but Hilary remains an anchor in my values.  She was not my line manager, she was not my named mentor but she was and remains a pivotal person in my early professional development.  If she knew I was writing this, she would probably wave it off as tosh but there was nothing more inspiring than working alongside someone with so much depth.

Teaching can be the loneliest profession in the world.  Surrounded by people all day but with no one to really talk to.  Hilary helped me make sense of the emotional landscape of teaching and my place within.

The tables are somewhat reversed now.  I am the greybeard as I enter my 17th year of teaching and I wonder if I am able to offer anything as valuable as I got from Hilary.  I am blessed to work with fantastic colleagues who are undeniably better teachers than I am but the task is to use that talent and depth of knowledge to reflect on the journey.  I often think “what would Hilary say?”  I should probably phone her and ask.  We need more Hilary’s.

 

Hopes and fears for a new term.

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My new school shoes sit in the hallway, staring at me.  Summer is all about being barefoot but September is about slipping your toes into new leather.  They are a rather unremarkable pair of school shoes, an identical copy to my last pair if you must know but they represent the beginning of ‘the beginning’.  They don’t yet fit like my old ones, they look similar but we have not yet moulded to each others idiosyncrasies.  They do not yet understand how my feet work or the cadence of my walk, I suppose from their perspective I am not allowing any leeway for their newness. I have not given them the time they need to settle, after all they have never been my pair of shoes before.  We have much to learn from each other in the next few weeks.

I am full of excitement and terror in equal measure.  I cannot wait to meet my new classes and tutor group, I love the challenge of working them out but at this point it is all so overwhelming.  My anxieties are running wild and filling my head with their usual nonsense.  I know it will take time to establish rapport but it is difficult to hold onto the rational thinking when sat at the top of the roller coaster.

My teacher dreams have started again, you know the usual ones where you lose control of the class, upset your co-workers or express some home truths to the SLT.  I know they are manifestations of my anxiety about beginnings along with some wish-fulfillment but they are becoming more vivid and unresolved.  So it seems an appropriate time for me to write down some of my hopes and fears for the new academic year.

Hopes.

I hope I am able to be good-enough and offer something of value for my students and colleagues.  The words ‘good’ and ‘outstanding’ have become so meaningless in edu-speak that it might be better if we abandon them completely.  However, what I want is the emotional space to reflect and consider my practice, to be resilient and hold onto my values in the maelstrom of school life.

I want to inspire my students to go off-piste and explore the nooks and crannies of subjects that interest them.  I will never forget the serendipity of university libraries where an exploration for one theme could quickly become a joyful discovery of the new and profoundly more interesting.  We do not always hold onto the joy of the new in A-levels.

I want to say no to the fads and time-wasting that goes on in education.  Out time is so precious that it ought not be wasted on anything that does not add to the bigger picture.  Meetings, should be just that and not extended monologues or briefings.  Our time spent together should be about collective endeavour not ticking off another person’s to-do list.

Fears.

The unpredictability of these new linear specifications is playing on my mind.  I need to get as much advice as possible about what the feel of them will be.  Teaching linear without the AS remains an on-going challenge.  How do we schedule and revisit the topics whilst building up the skills over a two year period?  What type of internal exam do you give at the end of Y12?  There is much debate and discussion to be had.

Ofsted remain an ever-present threat and their judgements seem as volatile as ever.  You are as good as your last set of results but with so much curriculum change it is difficult to know whether we are comparing apples and oranges?  I do not know what I feel about Progress 8, Achievement 8 or even the use of comparable outcomes.  Each school must be hoping they have done enough to survive the judgement based on these new measures.  Is it better or worse?  I guess the problem with these new measures is this transition phase where some schools will come out worse whilst others may see their stock rise.

Data – entering meaningful data remains a challenge on a new specification.  The grade boundaries on the new AS were a complete surprise and not what we were expecting.  I guess we will continue to stick our fingers in the air.

CPD – I genuinely fear the generic one-off training sessions on how to become a better teacher.  I think on the whole they are a poor use of time.

I wonder whether schools struggle with their inherited practices and procedures and it is sometimes difficult to see how these may distract us from the real task.  Ofsted do not require ‘triple marking’ or lesson observations but I guess we cling to the familiar even though they add a great deal of stress and take up too much time away from quality lesson planning.  One of my favourite things last year has been to planning lessons with my colleagues and using them to fine tune my approach or even become braver in trying new things.  I guess we need to live more in the hope than the fear.  Good luck for the new term everyone.

 

 

 

 

UCAS 2016: A buyer’s market?

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We have survived A-level results day, despite my worst fears it was a sunny end to an emotional day.  Our results were a mixed bag with some surprises but no change there.   Our first cohort of new specification students have survived onto year two, well mostly.  We have done our last ever AS level exams but my thoughts on that deserve another blogpost later.

Most of our year 13 students have found a place at university and I am genuinely thrilled for them.  The day goes through the full range of emotions from surprise, despair, anger, disappointment to eventual joy as they negotiate the bumpy terrain of university admission.

My anecdotal reflections are that most universities were prepared to significantly drop their entry requirements to secure the applicant.  Some offers went from conditional to unconditional overnight even though the candidates had not met the entry requirements.  Many were prepared to drop 80 UCAS points, even the mighty Russell’s!  The BBC have reported that record numbers of students were given university places on results day.

For the students who have managed to secure a place, on a course they want at an institution they are happy with, I am overjoyed.  However, I am left wondering how I feel about it being a buyer’s market.  The courses are so numerous and with a shrinking pool of applicants there had to be some serious stretching of the entry requirements to ensure that courses were up and running.  Now to a certain degree, this has always been the case.  Results day is always a day for negotiation but I cannot remember a time when it felt like a closing down sale where everything must go.  Alongside the elasticity of entry requirements, the universities are ratcheting up their special offers to applicants.  Free iPads, iPhones, laptops, money off tuition fees, money off MA courses.  It really has become a bewildering market place.

It this a good or bad thing?  Clearly, many students will benefit from this avalanche of lower offers, I often wonder what is the real difference between a student with ABB and one with BBB are?  So perhaps a softening is no bad thing.  However, all the free gifts are not really free are they?  They are being taken out of their tuition fees which means universities will have less to spend on teaching and learning?

I was also wondering about the equity in the system.  Your experience of education, as usual depends on the performance of your cohort.  We have witnessed other years that resemble more of a seller’s market, before the removal of the cap on numbers many institutions have pulled up the drawbridge and sat tight.  I guess it is difficult to see students as individuals in a marketised higher education system.

More importantly, it makes me wonder about the phoney war that takes place in sixth form classrooms in the previous 9 months.  Students and their tutors sweat blood and tears to get their UCAS applications together and yet the state of play changes so radically on results day.   University admissions teams must also live in a state of heightened alert as no one really knows anything.  I guess I am left wondering if there is another way of doing this?  Could our time be better spent on exploring different courses and careers and leave the market place ‘free for all’ until after the grades are in?

The unconscious curriculum at researchEd 2016.

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Some reflections on how the unconscious works its way into our classrooms, staffrooms and school processes.

This session will follow the tradition of Melanie Klein, Anna Freud and Wilfred Bion and attempt to explore some of the ways in which unconscious forces may influence teaching and learning.  The role of the teacher is often defined by powerful unconscious phantasies which are prone to projections and transference. An understanding of anxieties and defence mechanisms may help us make sense of the emotional landscape of learning. We can consider both the conscious and unconscious components of relationships as well as the connecting emotions and behaviours which may link to earlier experiences and states of mind.

 

researchED 2016 National Conference

 

 

The myth of gained time

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One of the many lies we tell ourselves about the summer term is the one about ‘gained time’.  For teachers, struggling through the spring term and faced with the inhumane amount of work that surrounds preparing young people for exams, the thought of ‘gained time’ in the second summer half term can seem like some sort of salvation.  A holy grail.

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According to the NUT, gained time is “the time during the academic year, particularly in the summer term, when teachers who take examination classes or groups are released from some of their timetabled teaching commitments as a result of pupils being on study or examination leave.”

I had so much hope for mine, I wanted prepare fantastic lessons, overhaul our departments resources, clean out the cupboards in my classroom and file all the papers on my desk.  In short, I had planned to do great things. Well, in my head at least.

But, alas I have not.  My time has been occupied with one-to-one revision sessions, UCAS week and helping with personal statements and end of year administration tasks (thanks SLT, nothing I like more than filling in a grid or two).  We are planning a new linear curriculum and we have managed to bash out the overall structure but I have failed to add any of the detail.  To be honest, I have yet to pick up a Year 2 book, other stuff keeps getting in the way.  I have done some planning but nowhere near the amount I had thought about in my head.  At the moment, this holy grail seems like nothing more than an empty cup.

I do not mind any of these other tasks getting in the way of my great plans but I am a more than a little frustrated and disappointed in myself.  I feel deflated.  I feel I have failed.

However, it is these feelings which are interesting to think about.  I am forgetting where we are in the emotional landscape of teaching and learning.  Part of me began to wonder why I had built up these few extra hours into this magical time and what purpose this idealisation might have?  When things are difficult, one of the common defences is to ignore the pain of the now and focus on a bright, perfect, idealised future.  One that does not involve the compromises or stresses that surround the difficulty of the day-to-day.  We have all heard this one from others – things will be better next year.  But my emotional response to my failure to complete things feels much more that this idealisation complex.

I often find that the endings and beginnings are often the most difficult times for me.  Of course, I am finding difficult to throw away the work of the students who have just left me.  A part of me is not yet ready to let them go, so I have let ‘their’ stuff linger for longer than it should.  It sits on my desk, in my cupboard with a fantasy that our time is not over, that our bonhomie will not be forgotten.  I worry about them.  Will they find their feet now they have flown my nest?

On the other hand, is it any wonder why I am finding it difficult to plan the detail of the new material for my new classes. As I am a sixth form teacher, they do not really exist yet but they are occupying my thoughts.  There is no class list but I am beginning to imagine their types and individual needs.  They are an unknown and I am already anxious about meeting them.  Will they be as good as my previous class?  Will I like them?  Will they like me?  How long will it take us to establish a rapport with each other?  Will they think I am a good-enough teacher?  Although September is still many weeks away, I can feel it’s breath breathing down my neck.  It looms like a dark cloud on the horizon.  My rational self is looking forward to meeting my new classes, all that fizzing potential and positivity.  But this other part of myself is anxious about the beginning.  Perhaps my anxieties help explain the idealisation and deflated feelings I am having about my lack of productivity in my gain time.  This quest should never have been about the perfect use of gain time, instead a bit of self care and recovery should have been in order.

Perhaps we should not call it gained time.  Perhaps it is better called emotional recovery time.

 

 

Being a teacher with a chronic illness.

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Illness is other people.  Really sick people, not me.

I have been a teacher for 16 years and an AS sufferer for 28 years.  I have other roles in life; husband, father, brother and I hope, friend but my sick-role is finally catching up with my work-role or vice versa? As with all big life events it has made me stop and question things and ultimately question myself.  I share these things not for sympathy but in the hope that the questions I am asking are the right ones for us all, it has just taken me to a while to get here.

I have been a teacher for so long and teaching is such a deep part of my psyche that it is often difficult to disentangle one from the other.  I have ‘lived’ the pace of the school year as a child, adolescent, student and as a professional with the familiar timings of anxious beginnings, periods of manic marking followed by the fallow recovery of the holidays.  I have always thought that the ebb and flow can be overwhelming at times; a feeling that has not diminished with experience.  But this is the deal, the unwritten contract, the life of a teacher … isn’t it.

I cannot live this pace anymore,  I cannot sit up and mark until midnight every night, I cannot live only at weekends and half-terms.  The demands of the job did not always feel right as a young professional but perhaps even less so as I approach mid-career with my own children and illness to consider.  There is a ‘wounded healer’ approach to the profession that is willing to sacrifice itself at the education altar.  I am guilty of this and there are some difficult questions to ask about whose needs are really being served by a mentality that always puts others before oneself.  As painful as this journey has been, I have had to face up to some of these demons and finally start to put myself in the picture, or at least build a different frame.  I guess when the plane is going down you have to put your own oxygen mask on first, right?

My illness, ankylosingspondilitis does not let you choose, it takes away your choices.  I live in a body that does not feel like my own.  My own immune system has betrayed me and continues to attack my spine, joints, eyes and digestive system.  Each new symptom is another body blow to my morale but it so quickly becomes my new normal that I soon forget the emotional pain of its onset.   My hands, I cannot remember when my fingers ached so much.  Some days it is a struggle to hold the pen.  When I watch myself writing on the board, it feels like an out of body experience.  I do not recognise the hand or the writing.  In the last 6 months, I have taken to using a walking stick at school.  This has taken a huge amount of bravery, more than I thought it would.  Finally, a physical sign of my progressive illness, a symbol of some sort of acceptance on my part that I am not the same as before.

Elizabeth Kubler-Ross suggests that any change has clear stages of denial, grief, anger, bargaining and finally acceptance.  Whilst I recognise the stages and emotions, I do not experience it as a linear evolution.  I am liable to revisiting and reliving all and none in the same moment.  In the unbearableness of a bad day, I can fool myself that it will all be alright tomorrow.  Sometimes it is, but often it is not.

My choices are limited but I can no longer choose to ignore the onset of this disease.  There was a period of my life when I was self-managing my illness well enough, that I could pretend that this illness was other people.  Really sick people, not me.  But not anymore, I have to recognise the impact it is having on me and those I love.

I have to say yes to powerful high-risk medications with the hope they will give me a better quality of life.  I have to say yes to rest, even though my mind is racing through the list of things on my to-do list.  I have to think about the pace of the day, week, month and term.  On a daily basis, I need to store up enough energy to get home and put my kids to bed.  The AS community have a nice metaphor that uses spoons.  Each day when you wake up you are not sure how many spoons you will have to survive the day.  Sometimes getting up costs you two spoons but other times it will demand four.  You have to judge whether you can make the distance on an unknown and forever changing tank of fuel.  Perhaps this is not so dissimilar to my early teaching career where I would mark and plan until morpheus demanded that I lay down my head.  Today, I am often so exhausted by the day-job that it has become difficult to push myself so much for the evening shift.

I have had to come to terms with having this disease but I have not accepted the impact on my life: the constant pain, fatigue, irritability, the anxiety about letting people down.

As a teacher with an illness it has taught me much more about compassion and empathy.  We are mostly a caring profession but in the maelstrom of the classroom it can be all too easy to forget the bigger picture and broader context.  Many young people struggle as much as I do, if not more so but without the resources both emotional and physical that I have to keep myself safe.  I am indeed a lucky one with a supportive partner and understanding colleagues.

Moreover, my illness has helped me question our professions own martyr complex.  The idealisation of the hero teacher saving the day was never a useful starting point.  I have always felt there is something terribly adolescent about the mind of the education sector that often splits staff into ‘good’ and ‘bad’.  This splitting feeds into our own neurosis and encourages the distorted psyche of the martyr complex.  It is 10pm already, if only we do another hour or two everything will be fine.  We wonder what will be the consequences of failing to meet another internal deadline that does not reflect the reality of your own workload.  Once you have the good or bad epithet in a school it becomes a master status, all your future interactions are interpreted through that label.  We have all seen this happen to colleagues and it cannot be nice to be on either end of that polarisation.

So just like Max Weber’s Calvinists we plod on, doing more and more with less and less in the hope that we will be put on the special list and that salvation is another data sheet away.  This teacher work ethic and mentality cannot be healthy.  Comparative education studies tells us that this is not the norm across the world.  In England we spend preparation time marking, in Germany they practise the exposition and in Japan they think up good questions.

In the polarising of teachers, I have often wondered whether there is something of the playground that gets held onto in our profession.  I guess the task of adolescent development and containment is bound to arouse some deep held anxieties that get projected and carried around the adult staff.  In a hierarchy that replicates some of our previous relationships, it is not surprising that the earliest rivalries are awoken.

I have had to get much better at prioritising and accepting that not everything will get done, not all requests are reasonable and that ultimately, I am responsible for doing what is possible.  I have also had to get better at asking for help, this has been a massive personal journey.  John Tompsett has posted about the 1990s management metaphor – lessons from geese and whilst it does get a bit cheesy in places there were a few parts of the story that struck me.  Geese fly in formation so when a goose gets sick or wounded, two geese drop out of formation and follow it down to help and protect it. They stay with it until it dies or is able to fly again.  I too have been lucky to work with people who have been able to hold me together through the bumpy bits.  Geese don’t engage in splitting or projection, when a goose falls out of formation it can feel the friction of flying alone – it quickly adjusts itself and moves back into formation to benefit from the uplift from those in front.  And finally, geese honk to recognise each other and encourage those upfront to keep up the good work.  We should regularly honk at each other.

Being ill has not weakened my commitment to the profession, if anything I am humbled and re-energised by my experiences.  However, I will need to think about how to do things differently.  I need to alter my pace and temper my trajectory.  I need to feel comfortable with asking for help and sharing the burden of change.  I need to put my own health and welfare before the job.  As I have said, I am lucky to be surrounded by supportive colleagues and a very understanding partner.

Our professional commitment to staff welfare has to go beyond cakes in the staffroom and free lunch on inset day.  We need to question the impact of each policy and procedure and ask ourselves who is this really for?  We all want to improve learning and I do not question the commitment of my colleagues but I just wonder sometimes what the pedagogical benefit of filling in another grid, template or spreadsheet will be?  As I have fewer spoons than before, I have become more protective of my time and what I do needs to count and make a difference.

The problems with becoming an evidence-based teacher: science and pseudoscience in education

Sticky

A scientific approach to our teaching methods is a commitment to a systematic way of thinking, a healthy skepticism about ones own ideas and those of other people.  It is the ability to see the classroom as a laboratory in which one can observe with an open mind.  One can develop testable questions, gather facts and test predictions but the classroom is a complicated laboratory where there are many issues to consider including cause and effect, validity, replication and generalisability.  Nonetheless, becoming a more evidence-based profession is one of the most important battles we must have in the teaching community but the journey is full of pitfalls and false hopes.

However, this approach is sometimes counter-intuitive and contradicts much received wisdom and ‘best’ practice.  The prevailing voice in school leadership is not usually the one with the most evidence, but those who wear the most pips on their shoulders.  We are all entangled with too much edu-baggage about teaching and learning, that it is sometimes difficult to stand back and be objective.

I qualified into a profession that was obsessed by three-part lessons, learning styles, an evangelical belief in group work and a condemnation and mistrust of chalk and talk.  How quaint some of these ideas seem from my comfy chair of hindsight but at the time I could have recited chapter and verse on why anyone of them were deserved of my time.

But the world turns and it seems we have not stopped learning about learning, and our task now is to arm ourselves with the best evidence for the methods we deploy.  We should be inspired and assured by this growing movement.  For example, I have really enjoyed the Deans for Impact initiatives on the science for learning and their ability to synthesise and breakdown the best ideas from cognitive science.  The EEF toolkit has been revelatory in it’s promotion of metacognition and feedback alongside the seemingly contradictory evidence for things that we once held dear including; teaching assistants, uniform, and the importance of the physical environment.  To be fair, the picture painted by the EEF is a lot more sophisticated and their recommendations come with some pretty robust caveats but it is an epiphany nonetheless.

However, as I gaze into the void of my sixteenth year of teaching I sometimes find myself adrift from my progressive teacher training, questioning my old assumptions and wondering more and more if my beliefs and instincts have been doing more harm than good.  Clearly, my beliefs and instincts need to be put under close scrutiny, kicked around with colleagues, questioned and held up for scrutiny.  So far, so good. This seems like healthy professional spring clean.  Don’t allow a belief about pedagogy or a teaching practice back in until it has paid it’s rent … in evidence.  But what type of evidence am I looking for?

There are many who are more qualified than I am to comment on the nature and quality of research evidence into teaching and learning but even from my lowly standpoint evaluating teaching approaches is a complex one which often requires labyrinthine processes to please the many-faced research gods.  Research methods are not a neutral tool and they are deeply intwined with deeper epistemological concerns.

At least in medieval times, those who objected to a scientific approach could use divine authority to reject the findings.  In late modernity, when people disagree with one lot of evidence they just reject it by claiming a superior type of science.  From a practitioner point of view, this is all very confusing when one study is seemingly trumped by another as being closer to the truth.

Furthermore, not all who make the claims of superior truths are open to question and healthy skepticism.  The rejection is often ideological rather than empirical but how are we to separate out the disparate truths that emerge from this picture.  I struggle enough to keep up with the competing health claims made for and against red wine.   In this dystopian future, education will become a battle-ground of warring sides with claims and counter-claims.

How can we separate out the science from the pseudoscience?

It seems to me that education is full of pseudoscience – fake experts looking to sell us the next big thing.    Snake oil salesman who creep into our thoughts, play with our emotions and plant the seeds of groupthink and which become parroted back and forth.  However, it can be extremely difficult to spot the science from the pseudoscience.

Firstly, the ‘object of study’ in education seems resistant to the kinds of measurement and standardisation found in the ‘normal’ sciences.  How do we measure meaningful progress anyway?  At times like these, I am persuaded by those who argue that all educational data is a social construct.  But then, so what if it is?  Perhaps it does not accurately capture the learning, but the realist in me thinks that we could learn to embrace it’s imperfections.

Secondly, proving cause and effect in education studies is notoriously complex and we should remember that correlation is not causation.  There is a worrying relationship between the number of films that Nicolas Cage has starred in and the number of people who have drowned by falling into a swimming pool.  We should not jump to banning Nicolas Cage movies, although there is a special place in movie hell for his efforts in National Treasure(2004).

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Thirdly, sample size and generalisation.  Replication of the studies is an essential but tricky task.  Is evidence from key stage 3 useful for key stage 5 and vice versa.

Fourthly, we should be wary of the illusion of objectivity.  Research is not free of our own values, biases, ideologies, philosophies – it is value-laden.  Values will influence every step of the research process;  choice of topic, methods used, sample chosen and interpretation of the data.  If the idea of value-free research is a myth – how do we recognise and make sense of the values embedded in the process.

As Atul Gawande argue we can have no special authority on the truth but we can become better at seeking and evaluating the truths that are presented to us. We need to hold onto the healthy skepticism in the classroom and keep kicking our ideas around until they earn their keep. We should rebut the bad science and trumpet the facts of the good science.

There is strength in numbers, we all need to approach this aware of the baggage we bring to the table, no one can do this battle alone.  As Alex Quigley puts it we should have strong opinions weakly held and surround ourselves with critical friends who can help unpick our thinking and challenge our biases.

In terms of evaluating the usefulness of educational practice it becomes less important about what you think but how and why you think it?

 

 

The problem with SCLY 4: Crime and Deviance option.

Sticky

Dear AQA,

I wanted to take this opportunity to give some teacher feedback on the SCLY 4 paper that our students sat this summer. I have been a social science teacher for over 16 years, for most of which I have taught AQA. On the whole, I have been very happy with the experience that students have in their final exams. However, I felt that this particular paper was one of the more difficult ones that I have ever seen for a number of reasons that I wanted to feed back my anxieties and observations. I am not against challenging questions, in fact at times I prefer them as they give young people a chance to shine above the usual textbook heavy answers. However, I feel that the questions and assessment objectives should be available to all students.

My anxieties about the paper is that on reflection it seems to draw from an extremely narrow part of the specification. Examiners clearly have the right to ask any question from any part of the specification, but one would hope for a more equitable spread of topics.

In particular, I felt that state crime whilst an excellent topic is difficult for most students to achieve A02 marks. Whilst there is lots of analysis in the topic – the critical evaluation is limited, particularly for those students who rely on the main AQA endorsed textbooks.

Furthermore, the theory & methods question on postmodernism was clear but a topic many students at undergraduate level fail to fully comprehend. Again, I feel the exam board is right to set challenging questions which stretch the most able, but one would hope that the other questions on the paper felt less scary and were more doable. Some of my students felt devastated by the paper and even my top mark band students may not have been able to show you how excellent they really are.

I will look forward to the examiners report and any feedback from the board about the performance of this unit and advice on the ways in which I can improve my delivery, but from the average students perspective that was a very challenging paper which did not have the same feel to previous papers.  I recognise this may sound like teacher sour grapes, but I genuinely enjoy teaching this specification.  I take full responsibility for preparing my students for this exam and it is up to me to make sure the specification is fully taught.  I also have no right to dictate the questions and there is always an anti-climax after the exams but after some reflection there is still something about the paper which did not feel right.  It might just be me, but then again maybe not.

Yours sincerely

Brexit in the classroom.

Sticky

Like many in our profession, I am gutted.  The Brexit result has knocked me for six and I still cannot quite believe it.  Clearly, I am in Kubler-Ross’ denial stage of grief and mourning and the thought of acceptance still feels a long, long, way away.  I am left wondering how I am going to contain my own sadness, frustration and disappointment in the classroom.  Since my earliest political awakenings, it has made sense to call myself a European.  At school, we were encouraged (I think required) to take a European language through to GCSE.  I am not a natural linguist, but I struggled on with GCSE and A-level German, not just for the technical skill of language learning but also for the broadening of horizons and cultural awareness.  To be honest, I was probably better at the sociology than working our the differences between the nominative, accusative and dative cases.

I accept that the EU is a flawed institution, but in an increasingly globalised world it still felt morally right to be part of a larger group.  Whatever the economic arguments and I know they are disputed, being part of the EU said something more about our interconnectedness and interdependence on others.  Clearly, a majority of the population do not feel the same as me.   I am not familiar with the Brexit UK, it is a place that I do not recognise and I am going to have to try hard to understand the sequence of events that have led to this point of no return.  I guess I am mourning the replacement of Great Britain by little England; a place that I thought only existed in comedy sketches and the Daily Mail.

One could argue that this is my own political naivety and that at some point in the near future I will have to suck it up and move on.  Fair enough.  However, I am left with a burning sensation that I (we) have let down the young.  Three quarters of young people voted to remain and those aged 16 and 17 years olds were disenfranchised from the whole process.  In the weeks before the EU referendum, our own school mock election saw a resounding 80% vote in favour of remain.  Brexit is clearly something which most young people did not want.  One of the best things about working with young people is the hope and faith they have in the future.  They are not burdened with our cynicism and were more able to separate the truths from the lies of the EU campaign.  It feels like we have stamped on that hopefulness.  I hope this experience does not make them turn their back on the political process.  For those young people who have lived through the defeat of the general election and the failure of an EU referendum, politics must look like a bit of a hopeless cause. The skepticism of the baby boomers has trumped the optimism of the young.  To some extent the Brexit vote can be seen as the failure of progressive politics and vision.

The moral panic about immigration has been a recurring theme in my teaching, one in which we have carefully unravelled the facts from the dogma.  I still cannot believe that we have voted out on the basis of this fundamental misunderstanding about demographic trends.

The Brexit vote leaves many difficult things to explain including:

  • Why did David Cameron bet his shirt on this referendum as a means of solving his internal party struggles rather than the greater good.
  • Why we choose a binary referendum which does not measure the more sophisticated, complex and contradictory views that people might have on Europe.
  • Why are we divided by age, class and location with pro-European Scotland, Northern Ireland and London Vs anti-European England and Wales – we will have years of constitutional unrest.
  • Why those with the most to lose from Brexit have flocked to it’s banner because the political elite could not help contain the real anxieties about wages, housing and identity.

Young people will be worried about the implications of this referendum and at times of anxiety they will turn to a range of support mechanisms, including us their teachers.  We will need to offer some form of containment for the feelings of fear and uncertainty.  We will continue to talk about democracy and the respect of the democratic process, tolerance of different views, the universality of human rights and the continued importance of politics and political solutions.  For many young people, we will need to be the hope, in what may seem like a hopeless situation.

 

Hickman out

Sticky

Our final class is done and the ink is dry on your exam papers.  It will be strange to think that we will not be part of each others lives anymore, I will never mark another one of your essays nor will you have to put up with my appalling jokes and long-winded stories.

All good things must end and it is true to say that I have learnt more from you than you have from me.  Our time together has given me hope, you are a fantastic group of young people who are determined to make a difference and I believe that you will.  My life has been enriched by our time together and I hope you will hold onto the curiosity you have displayed in class.  Question everything, always.  Whenever you find yourself agreeing with a majority just pause and reflect on why.

This farewell is a bittersweet moment but also a significant milestone as you say goodbye to being a high school student and embrace the unknown of being an undergraduate.  Everything changes in this moment, you go from having to ask to go to toilet in class to being responsible for your own rent, bills and TV licences.

As with all good endings there is the excitement of the beginning.  You are at the start of a fantastic odyssey; there is more to learn, new people to meet and places to go.  I am terribly excited for you and the possibilities that lie ahead.

I have but two more things to say, “Hickman out”.

 

 

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The problem with linear A-levels: more for less?

Sticky

Sometimes, teaching can feel like an eternal hard labour of sisyphean proportions.  It can be a bit frustrating, unrewarding and repetitive.   I guess it is difficult to feel as though the job is ever complete as there is always more to do.  At times, it is an impossible task that can never be sated.  It might just be grumpiness, the muggy weather or the constant irritation of my hay-fever but I am starting to feel anxious about next academic year already.

We seemed to have survived the first year of our new linear A-level courses.  Students have had a go at the AS exams and they were not a million miles away from what we had been doing in class (hurrah!).  Although, using these new specifications has been a bit like gazing into a murky crystal ball, wondering what their real intent is?

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With so few specimen papers, exemplar work and an uncertainty about how useful the legacy papers are, it has been a challenge to know what emphasis to give and how much to focus on the different areas of the syllabus.

Having climbed out of that hole, I feel like I am back at the beginning as we begin to attempt to plan for what Year 2 might look like.  I have plotted the topics into my year planner and I am worried.  As per the linear model, we need to build enough time in the scheme of work to deliver the new content as well as review all the content covered this year.  Under the old specifications, we always had synoptic content that linked back to what was learnt in AS but rarely did we have to walk all the same ground again as they were using the material in a different way.

  • How long will it take to review this year’s learning?
  • Should I leave it to the end or build it into a more spaced-learning (interleaved) style?
  • How much assessment should I do of Year 1 material.

I guess my anxieties are about not really knowing what the shape or pace of Year 2 is.  To a certain extent, this will always be an unknown as different groups respond in different ways; teaching has always been about trial and error.  However, it is my concerns about depth of the new content that worries me.  Different textbooks have different ways of interpreting the ‘new’ spec and I need sometime to digest this information.  Don’t get me wrong, I like the challenge of teaching new stuff, preparing classes and thinking of creative approaches is the fun bit. I just want to make sure that I am teaching in some way prepares them for the exam leviathan that awaits them at the end of the year.  This feels like very new territory, no teacher under 37 have ever taught a linear A-level and no teacher under 30 has ever sat one.  Whilst I am sure it is not rocket science, I would like feel a bit more confident with the journey ahead rather than stumbling my way across the boulders.  Rather predictably, the exam boards do have some new specification courses but they are all £300.  Who has money left in CPD budget at the end of the year.  Moreover, I think these courses should be free to make sure we are all on the same page, but I digress.

Once you add in all your disruptions of learning, INSET, mocks and so on, you realise you have not got as much time as you had previously thought.  Linear A-levels are not necessarily the holy grail to better learning.  Part of the ‘sell’ of linear A-levels was that there was less content but more time to develop a deeper understanding of the material.  I think the reality is the complete opposite.  From where I am sat right now, it feels like we have more to do than ever as we must cover new Year 2 material and review ALL of Year 1 material.

With these new linear curricula and the fallacy of gained teaching time, I wonder if we will end up having to deliver more for less?

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On wishing my students good luck

Sticky

Well, here we are again.  It feels like yesterday when we were just meeting and sussing each other out. Like two large walruses upon first seeing each other;  suspicious but curious about each others provenance, probing each other for strengths and weaknesses, looking for a way in, seeking a connection.

You quickly realised I have a penchant for long-winded stories that often do not go anywhere and I for how different you are from each other and every other class that I have ever taught.  No two classes ever feel the same and nor should they be treated so.  The dispositional and situational factors vary so wildly that each class, each lesson has a microclimate of its own.  A climate that can turn on a sixpence and defy even the predictive powers of Tomasz Schafernaker.  I hope I have made more fair weather than fowl.

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It is the challenge of this classroom dynamic that keeps me coming back for more, I always want to know what could happen next week (no spoilers).  Just like the eponymous Wizard of Oz, I am frantically pulling levers behind the scenes to see what you will make of the spectacle in front of you.

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I have spent weeks scanning the room, reading your body language, asking you questions, assessing your learning and wondering how to push you further.  I hope I got it right more times than I got it wrong.  Your weekly essays display a real sense of a young person getting to grips with this subject, learning how to write academically and finding an authentic voice.  This is real progress over time, do not be distracted by the numbers and letters on your progress data.  Hold on to that journey, remember the struggle and remind yourself how you got through it.

There is a weak correlation between intelligence and A-level grades, the key to success is resilience, grit and determination.  In my experience, those who work hard, listen to diagnostic feedback and seek teacher support do well.  Here is a reminder of grit from Angela Lee Duckwork.

I do not really believe in exam luck, to a certain degree you create your own luck in exams.  It is about the hard work you are putting in over the next few days but it is also about the work you have done over the last few months.  Be comforted by the thought that you know more than you think but do not become complacent.  You must stay on course and commit to your revision plans, do not be blown off course by the temptations of social media, television and procrastination.

Make sure each subject has a fair share of your time and do not rob Peter to pay Paul as you will not be able to cram it all the night before.  Remember all we have discussed about spaced learning and planned revision.  The sunny days are difficult but believe in deferred gratification, short term pain for long term gain.  You have a glorious 6.5 weeks holiday in front of you, it will be here soon enough.

In the stories that are told about education, we like to think that the ‘hero’ teacher can step in and save the day.  Whilst I think what we do as teachers is important, this idealisation is uncomfortable and denies the more mundane reality.  Nothing would happen unless you meet us halfway with a curiosity and desire to learn; we can engage, enthuse, inspire and explain but we are dead in the water without your intrinsic motivation.  Thank you for meeting me halfway and bringing so much of yourselves to the lessons.  Now it is time to show others just what you can do.

I know you are all more than capable of success in this exam, let the examiners see how brilliant you are.  I am the lucky one, I have got to see it throughout the year.

Good luck classes of 2015-2016, but I know deep down you won’t need it.

Mr H.

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Predicted grades: Between Scylla and Charybdis

Sticky

It is predicted grades time and I am agonising more than ever.  It has always been a task that has filled me with dread but this year it is at best overwhelming.  My anxiety about the new specifications and the unknowns about grade boundaries that have sent me into a spin.

Progress and prediction data has always been a tricky thing.  We all attempt to feed the data machine with professional integrity; although the complex relationships that surround teaching and learning are often not best described by a drop-down box.  Progress may be non-linear and spiky for some and we should worry less about turning a spreadsheet from red to green.  Predicted grades are also awash with practical pitfalls for example; if you share classes and units, when attainment is divergent on different topics and papers.  However, if we do not give useful data then tutors, heads of department, heads of year and senior leaders are not able to target support where needed.  A tricky task but one that I felt I knew where I stood and what was expected of me.

We have had a new data box included this year, one where we have to select from a drop-down menu and choose: on target, above target or below target.  This has got me in a real pickle.  What on the face of it should be a simple question has got me thinking about how I track progress and predict grades for my students.  How reliable and valid are my efforts?

On the one hand, it represents an attempt to streamline the data demands and have a clearer narrative about student progress.  In a world without levels, I guess we have to pitch our tent somewhere.  The instructions seem quite clear; the school is asking in my experience, as the classroom teacher do I think the students are either on target, above target or below target.  This is a type of data task I have been carrying out for over 16 years and has not really bothered me in the past.  But now, I am left wondering.

The problem is  … I may have undermined my own belief in the data.  In the old days, I felt it was so simple.  I could differentiate between those who are doing well and those who were struggling.  Send some postcards home for those exceeding expectations and then arrange  some intervention for those below the expectation, a sort of educational triage if you will.  So far, so familiar.  What on earth am I moaning about.

I guess I am wondering about how accurate I have been in the past and whether my belief in the data was doing more harm than good.  The problem with teaching subjects in a list of topics and themes is that progress really can only be judged overtime.  Just because someone writes a good essay on Marxist approaches to crime, it does not necessarily mean they will translate this ‘skill’ into some of the more difficult aspects of post-structuralism (tbh, I am not sure I could write a good essay on post-structuralism).

Well, you see a further complication is that we are all teaching new specifications this year and new schemes of learning.  Without any experience of the marking rubric and enough data on standardisation it is very difficult to know where the boundaries might lie and therefore almost impossible to offer a valid prediction.

Well, what can I do?

I can grade work on the last topic give an estimate of the mark band and translate that into potential grades.  I can qualitatively identify the skills they are using and which assessment objectives they can demonstrate in their essays.  I can make comment on the softer skills; the effort put in, classroom behaviour, home learning, engagement and so on.  But on the grade … the quantifiable, statistically reliable, objective assessment grade …  I am going to have to use a mixture of evidence and best guess.

What I am now anxious about doing is using my intuition to guess what this ‘working at grade’ will mean in the summer exam series.  The problem with using your gut instinct is that it opens the possibility for a range of biases and pre-judgements.

There is also the problem of for whom this data is for.  A low prediction may crush a student and cause a self-fulfilling prophecy.  Whilst a more positive reading of the runes, a ‘best case’ scenario may mean my predictions are too positive which distorts the schools overview of progress.  So as I mount the tight-rope of predicted grades in a world of known unknowns, I do so with a knot in my stomach wondering if I can avoid the jaws of accountability and out swim the whirlpool of student despair.

 

 

The beginning of the end: student stress and anxieties

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Phew, I had a tough first week back after half term.  I seemed to spend most of my time talking to students who were experiencing quite raw emotional difficulties.  Some were already on my radar, but others seemed to fall out of the woodwork and were waiting for me in the office.  At times, it felt like one crises after another and the turmoil of the day stayed with me for some time afterwards.

Each individual had their own story and narrative but I wondered whether some of this might be triggered by the combination of a half term break and the fact that their teachers are beginning to gear them up for the summer exams. The countdown has begun.  There is nothing like a bit of high-risk, all eggs in one basket-testing to make the wheels fall of the cart.  To be honest, I am starting to feel a bit wobbly myself when I consider how little time we have left.  It feels like we have reached the beginning of the end and I wondered whether the ending was beginning to play on all of our minds.

For some, school was not the major issue in their lives, but as we enter the final furlong and their exams loom ever closer, the sticking plaster that was holding them together finally gives up the ghost.  Some of these students will require serious therapeutic intervention by trained professionals, I know my boundaries and when the issues are bigger than my capacities and skills.  Although, for many young people I fear that unless they are in crises there is so little help available but I should save that rant for another blog post.

For others, they will require a bigger band-aid, a stronger sense of emotional containment.  This is not to act like a sponge or a cushion, we cannot absorb all their anxieties or wipe them all away.  We are also not trained counsellors, so we should refrain from offering therapy sessions.  However, there is something therapeutic, preventative and helpful about our everyday interactions.  We are ideally placed to offer this sense of containment.  We can help describe the feelings, give them language to describe the ‘dread’, rationalise and make sense of the overwhelmedness and provide a safe space for this type of thinking.

This will require a more intensive pastoral approach.  It can be felt in our daily routines and interactions.  It will require lots of unconditional positive regard, resetting of their mindset, challenging their negative and dysfunctional thinking about themselves and their abilities.  Our primary task remains one of adolescent emotional and intellectual development.

If we remain connected to the emotional factors that surround teaching and learning we will be able to help students overcome these anxieties and develop some sense of being held.  However, to do this well, we will need to experience some form of containment for our own anxieties to prevent us from splitting and projecting them into the student body.

I am lucky, I work in a team of people who have become quite good at taking my emotional temperature and helping me put my worries back in the box.  There has been so much change in education this year, I wonder whether the anxieties about the beginning of the end will start to overwhelm us all and who will be able to hold them?

 

 

It is time to talk about young people’s mental health.

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Children’s Mental Health

Week 8 – 15th February 2016

The theme of Children’s Mental Health Week this year is ‘building resilience’ and teaching children to ‘bounce forward’ from life’s challenges.

The Facts.

  • One fifth of children have experienced a mental health problem before the age of 11.
  • 1 in 10 children and young people aged 5 – 16 suffer from a diagnosable mental health disorder – that is around three children in every class.
  • There has been a big increase in the number of young people being admitted to hospital because of self harm.
  • Over the last ten years this figure has increased by 68%.
  • More than half of all adults with mental health problems were diagnosed in childhood. Less than half were treated appropriately at the time.
  • Nearly 80,000 children and young people suffer from severe depression.
    Over 8,000 children aged under 10 years old suffer from severe depression.
  • 72% of children in care have behavioural or emotional problems – these are some of the most vulnerable people in our society.
  • 95% of imprisoned young offenders have a mental health disorder. Many of them are struggling with more than one disorder.
  • The number of young people aged 15-16 with depression nearly doubled between the 1980s and the 2000s.
  • The proportion of young people aged 15-16 with a conduct disorder more than doubled between 1974 and 1999.

Whose job is it anyway?

“Teachers are not counsellors, and sometimes schools need professional support to make sure that problems in childhood do not spiral into bigger mental health problems later in life.”Catherine Roche.  The chief executive of the mental health charity Place2Be.

I think I agree in the most part, teachers are not trained counsellors and there should be boundaries between the different roles.  What I do not understand is why schools are not stuffed full of counsellors?  Why is it so difficult for young people to access mental health services?  Why is it so difficult for teachers to directly refer into these projects?  Why do more schools not have full-time counselling services available?  I know it would be costly, but it might be an excellent use of pupil premium money to support the most disadvantaged.  Our primary task has to be the emotional and intellectual development of young people, so we have a moral duty to provide mental health services for staff and students.  There needs to be a whole school commitment to improving mental health and wellbeing.  Emotional health has to be everyone’s business.

 

On the other hand, I also think teachers have an essential role to play with young people’s mental health in developing resilience, mental health awareness, early intervention and prevention programmes.  Whilst I am not suggesting we pop on our white coats and ask students to recline on a couch, I do feel there are counselling aspects to a teaching and learning relationship.

More must be done in initial teacher training and on-going CPD to help teachers develop a language of mental health.  We need to have the language to describe our feelings and the ability to notice when things are not right.

We know our students well; we observe their behaviour and interactions.  We see them everyday for extended period of time each day, I spend more time with some of my own tutor group than my own family.  The language we use, the reliability of our routines, the questions we ask, the way we re-frame the problems presented, the unconditional positive regard are essential ingredients in developing a healthy mind.  Our primary task is to offer some sense of containment, of being held in mind to aid future emotional growth.

 

I think we need to make time to talk more about mental health.

 

 

 

 

Why attachment matters

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Young people’s ability to form relationships is shaped by their early childhood experiences.  I have found that some of the puzzling behaviour we face as teachers can be understood by using attachment theory to explore potential meanings.  I do not feel our early experiences are necessarily our destiny, so much happens between infancy and adulthood that can shape our adult selves.  Nonetheless, these are a set of ideas I keep returning too that offer me some meaningful insight into what might be going on.

Why attachment matters

As we edge closer to the high-risk exam season, I have been wondering why I still find some young people such a mystery.  Why have I struggled to develop a relationship?  Why can I not seem to make an impact?  Why does their fear of failure over-ride all the positive work we have done together?  Why can I not get them to commit pen to paper?  Why are they still acting out and taking up so much of my class time?

Attachment theory was developed by the psychoanalyst John Bowlby who describes it as “a lasting psychological connectedness between human beings”.  The process of secure attachment helps establish the mental processes for future relationships and learning.  Those who have experienced secure attachment are more able to regulate emotions, reduce fear, have empathy for others and have better insight into themselves.  Bowlby called this template the internal working model, the mind’s internalised pictures of physical and mental experiences.  On the other hand, children who have experienced insecure attachments can find it difficult to manage their emotions and engage in reciprocal relationships.

Now I do not pretend to be an ‘expert’ on my more puzzling pupils.  For most, I have a scant overview of their lives outside my classroom.  However, what I do have are my close observations and the transference and counter-transference of our everyday existence.  What is left behind in our interactions provides me with useful material to reflect on possible meanings and potential solutions.

I guess I am wondering more broadly whether school always a ‘safe haven’ for young people?  How might their earlier experiences and baggage shape how they interpret the experiences and expectations of life in school?  How might securely and insecurely attached young people experience school differently?  What can be done to help?  For some young people, we are the port in the storm.  By trying to understand we may be able to offer meaningful emotions that may feel confusing and frightening.

There are 4 identified attachment types (although, different writers do use slightly different typologies).

  • Secure attachment. – ‘I’m ok, you’re there for me’

These students have experienced consistent, secure relationships with early care-givers.  They feel they can trust their teachers, they form meaningful relationships, they are resilient and able to adopt a growth mindset when faced with feedback.

  • Insecure avoidant attachment – ‘I think I am ok but It’s not ok to be emotional’

These children may have experienced rejection in early infantile relationships.  They come across as independent learners and are keen to maintain their self-reliance.  However, they may find it difficult to ask for help.  I am often fooled by their appearance of being self-starters that I forget to make the help available in different ways.  In the past, I have found the ‘write me a question’ – technique kind of useful.  I guess being sensitive to their anxieties will help them develop trust over time and feeling more secure will help them more directly for help.

  • Insecure ambivalent – ‘I want comfort but it doesn’t help me’

These students have experienced inconsistent caregiving.  They may be easily frustrated and be both craving and rejecting of adult support.  The may present as immature, fussy, helpless, passive, whiny, petulant or angry.  They may be attention-seeking and find it difficult to overcome barriers.

They may demonstrate separation anxiety when not the centre of your attention.  In the end, you give in and give them some one-to-one time.  At times, this calms the anxiety but it can also be collusion in preventing greater autonomy. They need the constant reassurance of being ‘held-in-mind’ which they hopefully internalise to help them experience independent thoughts and strategies to self-manage the emotional minefield of learning.

  • Insecure disorganized – ‘I’m frightened’

These students have experienced neglect or chaotic early homelife.  This young person perceives teachers to be frightening.  They may have a strong sense of panic, fear or helplessness.  They may present bizarre or unpredictable behaviour.  The often present as sensitive to criticism, defiant and or controlling.

The uncertainty in their lives, may lead to the use of defence mechanisms to guard against feelings of helplessness.  The task, the teacher, the other students all risk being the ones who are stupid and useless.

I guess I find this ‘type’ of student the most difficult to think of strategies.  I guess one hopes that the consistent relationship with overwhelm the existing emotional traumas.  This student may also struggle with the beginnings and endings that punctuate school life, so may need more reassurance around these periods of time.

It was hopeful to stumble across Attachment Aware Schools who seem to be providing more training and thinking around these theories.

Re-reading some of Bowlby’s work has been an unsettling task, I cannot help but wonder what sort of behaviours I display and what that might tell me about my own inner life.  I am hopeful that this is the task of this blog, to link my personal and professional journeys, to be my very own safe space.

Attachment Aware Schools

Bowlby, J. (1988) A Secure Base: Parent-Child Attachment and Healthy Human Development. London: Routledge

Geddes, H. (2006) Attachment in the Classroom: the links between children’s early experience, emotional wellbeing and performance in school. London: Worth Publishing

 

Robbing Peter to pay Paul and other educational dilemmas.

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It used to be easy to read the landscape in education.  The horizon seemed a long way away but there were clear markers along the way and obstacles that would push you off course, a thorny bush across a pathway, a deep pond by the crossing.  You set your pace to suit your journey, experience had taught you how to overcome these hurdles and you knew you could get there.

To change the metaphor, each term had an ebb and flow and the needs of different groups would pool around different stretches of the river.  That is not to say you could ignore the needs of those who had not reached the surface, they still bubbled away like a strong current.  In September, you worry about those making a transition into the school or across the key stages, then the cycle of open evenings and propaganda events, followed by  mock examinations, Easter trips, exam preparation, study leave, activity week and so on.  I am not being rose-tinted about things, I am just saying it was easier to go with the flow.  I guess there was some belief or sense of natural justice that everyone got their turn.

When did it become so much more Darwinian.  At times, it feels as though the different stakeholders (be they Departments or Key Stages) are left to fight it out Mad Max Thunderdome-style.  I guess with the rise of accountability measures and managerialism it gets more difficult to hold onto the concept of the whole young person.  With everyone focusing on ticking off their own PM targets, does it become more difficult to steer the ship.  Now, teachers do not strike me as Wolf of Wolf street material, but I do sense a change in the air.

It is not acceptable for one department to run interventions which seriously disadvantage another.  This is not a solution.  It is not acceptable for the noise from one lesson to disrupt another student’s silent reading task.  It is not acceptable that some maths classes are taught in food technology rooms and some English classes in the woodwork shop.  Equally, it is not acceptable for schools to put their ‘best’ teachers with the top set and A-level classes.  I know there will always have to be compromise with limited resources and on the whole, teachers are good at being accommodating and making things work.  However, I wonder whose voices win and are we able to bear the opportunity cost of the decisions made?

 

Linear A-levels: Hobson’s choice or Morton’s Fork

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Well as the mist settles, the pathway seems clearer with linear A-levels.  In my mind, it seems obvious that we will all have to eventually offer linear courses without the AS qualification at the end of Year 12, once all the courses have reformed to the linear model.

Despite all the kerfuffle made about co-teachability and the propaganda meetings from exam boards to calm the nerves of anxious and angry teachers, it seems an au fait accompli.

 

The DFE announced that the reform would not dictate a particular model for AS and A-Level programmes, but I think they do.  We have a classic example of a Hobson’s Choice or a Morton’s Fork.

 

Model 1. The 4 to 3 model.

Students take AS qualifications in all four subjects at the end of the first year and then choose which three to continue to A-Level.  This looks like what most of us have at the moment.  It feels comfortable, like an old pair of slippers.  Whilst it may maintain curriculum breadth and help with enrolment there are several flaws in its design.

Firstly, the decision of which three to take forward may become more complicated.  As AS grades are decoupled, it could be that a grade at AS is not a good indicator of performance over a two-year linear model.  Secondly, if other centres are only offering 3 subjects in a linear model, does that mean they can resource them with additional contact time which will clearly advantage and improve the learning.  If we sit tight with the 4 to 3 model are we doing more for less?  Will other centres make more progress if they can resource each subject with more contact hours per week?  Fourthly, the financial cost, my god the cost of continuing to enter students for four AS exams that no longer count.  Is this attractive in a time of austerity?  Someone is making a fortune out of all these curriculum changes and it certainly is not me.

A recent survey by UCAS suggested that most schools are maintaining this model until all subjects have been reformed so that all subjects would be taught similarly, with external assessment at the end of Year 12.  However, most were looking to change delivery models after the final wave of reforms in 2017.

Model 2. The linear way.

Students enrol on three A-Levels and do not take AS in any subjects; they continue with all three subjects in the second year.

I think there are still problems with linear A-levels.  It will be difficult to track progress without external assessment until we become comfortable with the specifications.  We are putting a lot of stress on the final few months of the course; oh the joys of high-risk testing.

However, there may be a glimmer of hope.  With a bit of planning and structure we could regain Year 12 as a year of personal growth and experimentation.  Key stage 5 could be seen from a more developmental and holistic perspective.  There is a chance to provide a wider range of opportunities that will create more well-rounded young people.  But, and there is always one.  The risk is that we will still need to deliver the grades in Year 13.  Without the support of modules and the rigour of external assessment – can we be certain that we can deliver?

Model 3. The pick and mix model.

On paper, this looks enticing and sounds like it could be the fudge that wins the day.  However, there are several howlers lurking behind it’s appearance of personalisation.  A student who is on both a linear and AS course will need to take sometime for study leave around the AS exams.  This will reduce any potential benefit to the linear subjects who will lose the mix and match students for a few weeks in the Summer term.  How will subjects who only have internal exams compete with those who have entered students for external AS assessment.  I fear it may mean a plague on both your houses.

The final nail in the coffin.

The universities are keeping up the pretence with suitable ambiguous statements of intent surrounding these curriculum change but I think the writing is on the wall for our current models of delivery.

We know that the AS exams will no longer count towards final A2 grade.  The nail in the coffin really comes from the attitude of the universities who have said they will use a broader range of criteria to make offers. Ah … they are going to use GCSEs.  Therefore, unless your students are going to outperform their target grade on the standalone AS qualification we may be doing them a dis-service as they may not get as good an offer as someone who has similar GCSE grades but who has not under performed on a decoupled AS qualification.  (I guess this could work the other way around as well, with those who hold low GCSE scores using the decoupled AS grade to prove they are more able.)

 

It strikes me that there reforms are laden with the ideas of freedom to choose but when you look a bit closer the cupboard is rather bare.  We have heard much of these ‘freedoms’ in the marketised world of Academies and Free Schools.  But the reality rarely matches the rhetoric.  By hook or by crook, Gove has got his way and linear is here to stay.

 

 

OED. Hobson’s Choice.

A Hobson’s choice is a free choice in which only one option is actually offered. As a person may refuse to take that option, the choice is therefore really decided between taking the option or not. In other words, one may “take it or leave it”.

OED. Morton’s Fork. Noun.

A dilemma, especially one in which both choices are equally undesirable.

I try to be objective. I do not claim to be detached.

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quote-i-try-to-be-objective-i-do-not-claim-to-be-detached-c-wright-mills-86-89-43

Like it or not, teaching is a political act.

If the personal is political, then teaching is a political act.

Whether you draw from the progressive or traditionalist wing of the profession; teaching is a political act.

In deciding what knowledge and skills we pass on; teaching is a political act.

We teach about values and morals, we teach about citizenship, we teach about what it is to be human; teaching is a political act.

We teach students about disagreement and how consensus is achieved; teaching is a political act.

We teach about privilege and whose voices are most likely to be heard; teaching is a political act.

We are engaged with our own learning and reflective about our own practice; teaching is a political act.

We motivate the unmotivated, love the unloved and have unconditional positive regard for all the young people in our lives; teaching is a political act.

We are humbled and honoured to have this responsibility; teaching is a political act.

 

The stories we tell ourselves about education

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I love a good story, well who doesn’t?  Good storytelling is good for the soul, helps us make sense of ourselves and connect to a wider world.

Stories enable us to see chaos where there is randomness, it affords us meaning, a sense of control of an uncertain world.  Some evolutionary psychologists argue that storytelling is a means of keeping our species alive, a way of warning others of dangers yet to come.

A redeeming feature of humanity is our ability to apply a narrative and anthropomorphise innate objects.  When participants were asked to watch a short film involving two circles, a triangle and a rectangle moving around a screen; 33 out of 34 participants created a narrative where the triangle was ‘frustrated’ – the circle was ‘worried’ and the little shape was ‘innocent’.

Stories also help develop our emotional intelligence.  We can empathise with the characters, see inside their minds.  Some people say that those who read fiction are good at reading other people’s emotions.  They clearly have a greater insight into another’s psychological processes but let us not get too fanciful.  I like Agatha Christie novels, it does not necessarily make me a suitable candidate to become forensic investigator.  (Although, in this particular fantasy life I am a mix between the burning injustice of Quincy and the bumbling schtick of Columbo).

However, there is also a dark side to our use of stories. Sometimes, we tell ourselves stories to reaffirm our existing prejudice, to support our own bias and bolster our own ego.  Then we tell these stories to others, who parrot them back to us and depending on our position, they become gospel – the final word, drowning out the quieter voices.  The quieter voices (in our heads and outside) give up and accept the louder narrative.

Irving L. Janis refers to this phenomenon as groupthink, where people set aside their own personal beliefs or adopt the opinion of the majority. A superficial form of conformity but clear evidence of the existence of a group mind and the impact of situational factors.

I guess I am left wondering what sort of stories we tell ourselves about our professional practice as teachers.  Do we suffer from groupthink? How many of these stories are fiction?  How much is based on experience and fact? How much of the narrative is about making sense out of the unknown?  How many of the stories are used to reaffirm an existing bias or bolster our self-esteem?

What stories have we been telling ourselves about marking without considering the opportunity cost of our actions?  What stories do we weave about student progress?  What stories are we telling about student progress this academic year, when in reality we have a new specification and unknown grade boundaries?  What stories are used for curriculum design when deciding what is best for young people?  What stories do we tell about young people that further individualises their failure?

Are these stories a force for good or bad?  Do they provide a golden thread, an arc that links the different parts of our work or a redeeming narrative against which we can plot our course?  Or do they foster a bias?  Do they create a groupthink?  Do they keep us afloat at times of change?

I hope I am brave enough to examine my own biases and challenge the stories that I tell myself.

bias (There are a few grammar errors in the following song).

Lyrics:
I’m biased because I knew it all along… hindsight bias… I knew it all along.

I’m biased because I put you in a category which yo may or may not belong…
representativeness bias don’t stereotype this song

I’m biased because of a small detail that throws off the big picture of the thing…
anchoring bias see the forest for the trees

I’m biased toward the first example that comes to my mind…
availability bias to the first thing that comes to mind
Chorus:
Oh oh bias don’t let bias into your mind

Bias don’t try this…
it’ll influence you thinking
and memories, don’t mess with these
but you’re guilty of distorted thinking

With a cognitive bias your mind becomes blinded to decisions and problems and you’ve
been forced to solve them wrongly.
I’m biased because I’ll only listen to what I agree with… confirmation bias … you’re narrow-minded if you are this

I’m biased because I take credit for success but no blame for failure…
self-serving bias… my success and your failure

I’m biased when I remember things they way I would’ve expected them to be…
expectancy bias false memories are shaped by these

I’m biased because I think my opinion now was my opinion then…
self-consistency bias but you felt different way back when

 

 

 

Reciprocal vulnerability

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This term I have been trying to notice things a bit more.  I have tried listening, not the usual head-nodding and jumping to conclusions listening.  But I have been really trying to listen to what my students are saying, noticing how they say it, observing their behaviour, my behaviour, reflecting on the projections, transference and counter-transference of life in the classroom and at school.  In closely observed vignettes,  I feel I have been developing a deeper understanding of the emotional content of teaching and learning relationships.  I sometimes feel this way, whilst at other times I feel as if I am as clueless, clutching at straws, joining the dots that are not really there.  My antenna has been on … and it is bloody exhausting.

One of my ambitions in starting the blog has been to scratch the surface of my little corner of the world of education.  To dig a bit deeper into the gap between rhetoric, dogma and the messy reality of the chalkface.  To explore the ideology of education, to unravel why I do things the way I do and whether they are of any benefit.  To explore the real learning that goes on in our educational institutions, academically and emotionally. To hold my own practice to account, to evaluate myself and my thinking.

One of the concepts that has stuck with me since the beginning has been the idea of reciprocal vulnerability.  I first heard it from John Tompsett at this years ResearchEd, and his blog led me to the work of https://videopress.com/embed/lr0SYjEA https://videopress.com/videopress-iframe.js“>Brene Brown.

Reciprocal vulnerability is the idea that we must explore and share the things that make us uncomfortable.  We must lean into the discomfort to make sense of the messy emotions that surround our day-to-day lives.  To build better relationships and connections with one another we must embrace and be seen to be vulnerable.

Those involved in the processes of teaching and learning are dealing with vulnerability on a day-to-day basis.  The defences against the pain of learning are clearly demonstrated in what we call disruptive behaviour.  As professionals, it seems clear that our role is to help contain some of these anxieties so that real learning can take place.  However, what about my own anxieties about being a teacher.

In my early career, I think I had learnt to cover them up.  With bluster and bravado, I was determined to fake it until I felt I had made it.  As I began to develop professionally, my roles changed from only managing my own emotional landscape about teaching and learning to positions of responsibility where the job is to help other professionals manage their own anxieties about the classroom.

Now that I have become a bit longer in the tooth, I can see how important it is for me to not ignore or negate my own anxieties and vulnerabilities.  In fact, there is strength in admitting them.  This makes sense as much of what we are dealing with is uncertainty.

Brene Brown suggests that our vulnerability is the birthplace of shame and fear as well as the spring of joy and hope.  Those of us who are more emotionally healthy and resilient have the courage to own some of these vulnerabilities.  We numb our vulnerability with modern addictions to shopping, food, drugs but these behaviours numb both the bad and good feelings.  To cope with our own vulnerability we try to make everything uncertain – certain.  To cope with our own vulnerability, we look for others to blame to discharge the pain and discomfort. To cope with our own vulnerability, we pretend that what we do and how we behave does not impact on others.

Brown recommends that we attempt the following:

  • Let ourselves be seen, deeply seen, vulnerably seen.
  • To practice gratitude and joy.
  • To believe that we are good-enough and worthy.

I hope I have the courage to do so.

 

The problem with mocks

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I have just finished marking my mocks.  It is a bit depressing if I am honest.  It would seem very little of my teaching or advice about the exams has stuck.

It is ok, I tell myself.  This is a diagnostic process, it is not about pass or fail. The cohort and class performance will help me analyse what topics and skills need more work.  I can use this to help plan targeted intervention and action plans.  This is a diagnostic snapshot to help me tweak my lesson planning for the rest of the year.  This is a diagnostic snapshot to help students reflect on their own learning and analyse their own strengths and weaknesses.

It is also important for students to experience the process, students need to get a feel for what the real exams are like.  We make everything real, the layout, the external invigilators, the rules & regulations, the rickety exam desk, the invigilator with the clicking heels, the little cards with their names on.  It is an exact replica of what will happen in the summer series.  I know this dry run is important for them to acclimatise but it is what they have produced which worries me.

The mock exams went very well, all the students turned up, they followed the procedures and seemed to take them quite seriously.  No one took in a mobile phone or an apple watch and everyone remembered to write their name at the top of the paper.  But why do I feel such despair about the whole enterprise?

I guess part of me wonders whether with such disappointing results was it really worth the effort?  It occurs to me that many (although not all) of my students had not really bothered to revise much.  They may have done the odd spider diagram but their preparation had none of the blood, sweat and tears that come with the summer series.  At best, I think the mocks reflect how much they could remember from their autumn term classes.  Therefore, I wonder what they really tell me.  How valid is this exercise?

We must also consider the opportunity cost of a mock series.  You lose a whole weeks teaching time, it has taken two days of my holiday to mark and our department time will be taken with standardisation.  Now, I am not saying any of these things is bad of its own accord, but I am left with a disappointing set of mocks wondering how I can retrieve a win from what feels like a defeat.

It seems like a phoney war which has been scripted long ago.  Next week, the students and I will sing a familiar song about working harder and focusing on the question.  We both know these dance steps like the back of our hands.  I will put their examples answers on the board and they will nod in the right places.  On the surface, it looks like engagement with learning but there is also a sense that we are doing it for the camera.  We both know it was a phoney war.  There is a sense of collusion here as I chose a paper that was goldilocks, not too difficult, not too easy, it was just pitched right for them to show off their skills.

I guess what frustrates me the most is that they are refusing to put the car into top gear until the real race.  Maybe they are right, perhaps you should save the fuel until the final lap but how will you know how fast it can go unless you give it a spin, take a risk and nudge it into top.  Why would you not give this your best shot?  Why would you not want to show off what you can do?

Why indeed, this is a good question that wants exploring.  Why would you want to risk failure half way through a course if you cannot achieve a grade that you think you are worth, that your parents would be happy with?  In the half-hearted attempt and withdrawal from the race, one protects the more vulnerable parts of oneself.

However, I should not overlook the emotional content of this phenomenon.  Feeling the despair may have its uses as well.  It feels too hard, too much to do with not enough time.  I am not sure how I will get it all done.  I am pretty sure this emotion does not originate in me, there is a transference of this anxiety.  The reality of only being half-way through a course and not quite getting it all, not being able to make the connections, not seeing the bigger picture can at times make one feel in despair.

Perhaps these mocks are not just an academic snapshot but also a means of taking the emotional temperature of the young people I work with.  The real task here is to help contain some of these feelings and help hold onto the painful experience that is learning.  The real task here is to turn this despair into something more hopeful.  This will involve digging into the mark schemes and looking at where we went wrong but it will also need me to be aware of the emotional factors in teaching and learning.

Anti-minotaur: The myth of student progress.

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This term I have mostly been getting myself in a pickle about measuring student progress. I want to do it with integrity, reliability and validity but I wonder whether all three of these are possible. When considering student progress, I have been inspired by the work of Alvin Gouldner and I wonder whether we have created our own magnificent minotaur.  Although Gouldner is writing about the myth of value-free sociology, I think many of his arguments should be considered when thinking about how we deal with data on student progress.  In his polemic essay, he suggests that we should be aware of the emergence of a group myth and the narratives that surround these ideas. The stories we tell ourselves to justify this approach are well formulated and professionally validated but do they obfuscate or move us further from the truth.

The lair of this minotaur, although reached only by a labrynthian logic and visited only by a few who never return, is still regarded by many sociologists as a holy place …Considering the perils of the visit, their motives are somewhat perplexing. (1962; p.199)

I guess I am wondering whether our obsessions with data have not become our very own professional minotaur.  Our individual, departmental and whole school methodologies feed the beast and keep the fear alive.  We are essentially dealing with uncertainties, does the minotaur exist to help us cope with that fact.  A defence against the unknown?

What grade is it anyway?

Where we are starting with new specifications this year, we have little or no guidance on how the grades will be broken down and at times it feels as though we are all a bit lost at sea. However, our data monsters require that we feed them grades, but whether our approximations are anywhere near the real thing, only time will tell. In the meantime, I keep using the old rubrics but who knows if the new grade boundaries will be anywhere close.  Have I got to grips with this new mark scheme?  Even if I felt 100% confident with my allocation of raw marks, I essentially cannot tell what grade it would be?

Will they get their target grade?

On the face of it, this is a ridiculous question to ask after only a few weeks of learning. How do I know?  The students have yet to reach the fulcrum of the specification whereby they will be able to apply the skills and knowledge they have picked up along the way.  I can tell you how well they can deal with what we learnt in the Autumn term but this is not necessarily an indicator of their journey over the year.  If anything, a young person’s progress should be spiky rather than a gradual incline as they have individual responses to different topics and skills.

To keep in line with changes in KS3, some schools are resorting to the fudge of asking teachers whether students are above target, on target or below target with perhaps some ‘working at’ or quantitative measure alongside.

Oh dear, I am finding this heuristic quite challenging to apply to my markbook and what I observe in the classroom. To give a progress check, I have to triangulate my own grades with those of other teachers with whom I share my classes and decide on a best fit.  This sometimes feels like a hunch rather than a wholly evidenced-based approach.  I guess the question is how good are my hunches?

Type 1 and Type 2 Errors

In a wider discussion about workload and data, Nick J Rose  reminded me that any data decision is subject to two types of mistake. Type 1 errors (false positives) where we judge an underachieving student as making good progress and type 2 errors (false negatives) where a student who is making good progress is judged to be below target.  If we take a more cynical view we tend to make more type 2 errors with more a more generous approach we will be guilty of type 1 errors.

However, there is a goldilocks solution, the safe bet, the mid-point of ‘on target’. In November, can you really put your hand on your heart and say that a student is on target to achieve their ALPS or more in June. Hmmm.

The problem is we are dealing with uncertainty.  I feel confident in my ability to comment on a students behaviour, engagement and homework effort. I can even give you the grade of their last essay and a summary of my mark book  but there remains much uncertainty in how this all adds up to progress over time and whether they are above, below or on target.  It feels to crude, too reductionist to summarise this terms learning into these nominal categories.  It does not seem to do justice to their learning journey.

Validity

Clearly, there are different flavours of validity but at its most basic we need to consider the quality of whether the measure in anyway reflects the truth. There are lots of barriers to the truth.

Psychologists use the term confirmation bias to explore how we interpret data to fit our pre-existing ideas. We all like to think our opinions are based on years of rational, objective analysis but unfortunately, like any other sphere of human activity, teacher judgements are prone to a range of biases and we are back to the problem of me using my hunches.

Reliability

Are we all using the same language when we talk about student progress? Have we operationalised our concepts well enough? What counts as on or above target? Is this a consistent measure between teachers, departments, or even between students in the same room. Will I use the same set of observations when I come to complete the progress data later in the year. How do we triangulate progress in classes that have two teachers?  The measures need to be consistent.

Who is the data for anyway?

One of our accountability measures has to be student progress.  I don’t have a problem with per se but I wonder whether there are perverse effects of using our crude student progress data as a means of measuring ‘good’ teaching and pay reviews.  Will teachers be inclined to make the spreadsheet go from red to green rather than the more difficult spiky profile of a young person getting to grips with a subject and skills taught via different topics and units?  We are at our best when we are at our most transparent, but the reality is often more complicated than the snapshot.

Snapshot versus longitudinal?

I guess I am worried about whether progress in class and in certain topics is a good indicator of progress over time.  I think snapshot data is really useful as a form of assessment for learning but progress over time needs to be more nuanced and sophisticated.

The labelling process.

If we accept that our ability to measure student progress is at best limited. What happens once we start to apply the labels of under-achieving, more able, the comfortable middle.  We know labelling is a complicated process and can be used as a force for good as well as a more negative self-concept.  The self-fulfilling prophecy is never as straight forward as it seems and there are a variety of student responses to these labels.  I guess it depends on how we manage the student feedback about progress and what this means to them and how it informs our strategies in the classroom.

Our attempts to create certainty from the unknown, clarity amongst the chaos of learning is fraught with problems.  We are after all measuring human beings not baked beans and the objective measurement of human behaviour is a complex and contested phenomenon.  However, our attempts are important in terms of how we target our limited resources and on individual student behaviours.  What is needed is a more reflective and reflexive approach that can meaningfully draw on a broader range of experiences of learning.

“We sociologists must—at the very least—acquire the ingrained habit of viewing our own beliefs as we now view those held by others.”

Gouldner (1970; p.489)

I guess I lie in bed wondering whether I have got it right, are the right students on the right lists?  Will the monster still find me in the labyrinth?

 

Anti-Minotaur: The Myth of a Value-Free Sociology, Alvin W. Gouldner, Social Problems, Vol. 9, No. 3 (Winter, 1962), pp. 199-213

Gouldner, Alvin W (1970) The Coming Crises of Western Sociology

The problem with marking

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To mark, or not to mark, that is the question.

“In England we spend preparation time marking, in Germany they practise the exposition and in Japan they think up good questions.”

Dylan William c.f John Tompsett (2015) Love over fear

Recently, I have been thinking a great deal about my approach to marking.  I feel like I have lived (or survived) many different marking epochs in my very different schools.  I survived the simple tick, flick and sticker approach to the ‘one size’ fits all feedback grid.  I have wrestled with the ludicrousness of verbal feedback stamps and dedicated my time to the burdensome but earnest ‘triple marking’ and green pen comments.  I have gone from detailed feedback sheets with a box for student feedback to the summative comments in the margins and diagnostic suggestions at the end.  I have used self, peer, group and gallery marking.  I have created simplified marks schemes and tick box success criteria and I have used marking codes and highlighter to speed up the process.  I have given whole class feedback as well as dedicated time for individual reflection and improvement based on personal feedback.  I have worked in places that have a prescriptive marking policy (once every 4 lessons, by the way) and others which have a more laissez-faire approach.

Now, it feels as if we have reached a more mature and ‘post-modern’ age of marking and feedback.  We are finally asking what marking is useful?  What marking helps students make the most progress?  For whom do you mark? I have really enjoyed engaging with these questions and challenging my own ways of working.

Is this the nirvana of teacher autonomy, where professionals can develop their own methodology about the when and why, where a diversity of approaches is seen as a strength rather than a lack of consistency or is it a wild-west where anything goes?

If it perhaps unfair to suggest that we are without guidance when it comes to marking and feedback.  The EEF Toolkit and Hattie tell us that quality feedback is essential in helping students make progress – but they stress quality not quantity.  I guess this effect is multiplied when explicitly linked to metacognitive strategies and the emergence of dedicated improvement and reflection time.  This all seems a long way away from when I was an A-level student (1992-1994, if you are asking) and I remember submitting essays and getting nothing but a grade at the top.  This is in stark contrast to what feels like the detailed, extensive feedback I feel obliged to provide that sometimes takes up more space than the submission.

As an A-level teacher, I have always tried to give students a written exam question on each topic that we study which is marked with diagnostic feedback.  As the specification dictates that we study one topic per week, this has meant an essay per week.  In recent years, this has become a bit ‘DIRT’-ier which has combined more reflection, questions for them to address, redrafting and a target to focus on next time.  However, in essence, my rule of thumb has remained the one essay per week.  It is not as exciting as the take-away homework where a menu of activities is on offer to build on students’ learning.  I often let them choose an essay title, but the product remains the same – a 400 word essay.  As well as individual feedback, I choose one essay a week to share with the whole class as a learning point about introductions, synthesis, use of evidence or the killer conclusion.  So far … so traditional?

This strategy has served me well for many years, it ensures that students have had to read the textbook, process the material and attempt a real-life exam extended writing question from the first week onwards. It means that most students will have a large bank of exam questions in their assessment books which can be used for revision purposes and that I have progress trackers for each topic which inform my planning and revision strategies.  I have for many years lived the ‘marking is planning‘ mentality and believed that it is a significant contributor to my humble successes.  However, I have always had a niggle about how much time this strategy requires and since having my own children, I have had to work hard to maintain this marking commitment.

I have been rather impressed by the ‘marking is different to feedback’ brigade ably led by Messrs David Didau and Toby French who have challenged over-prescriptive marking policies and the fetishisation of marking and they have got me thinking.

I guess I am wondering whether this commitment to quantity and quality is sustainable, particularly with the recent growth in KS5 class sizes or even desirable, as it will come with a considerable opportunity cost. Perhaps an essay per week from each student is an expectation which is no longer realistic?  I can her people spitting out their tea and shouting at me right now, ‘get them to peer mark‘ ‘make them more independent so they can check their own learning‘.  In essence, I do not disagree with these instincts and both are worthwhile approaches.  However, there is something quite special about reading a whole essay, getting inside the students’ thinking and working out what they did well and where they went wrong and what they could do to improve.

Moreover, I have always felt there is an opportunity cost to marking, which is planning. It has become clear that by being a slave to my marking I have not been able to spend as much time improving the quality of my lessons.  However, the student voice suggests the students are very happy with weekly assessment and the level of feedback I give.  The weekly essay means that students have to settle early into a regular pattern of work around my subject of reading, reflecting and writing.  However, what is possibly lost in order for us to commit to this marking treadmill?

Now there are some things I can do to help with planning. I have really, really enjoyed my departments ‘joint’ planning approach this term and it feels good to talk through the topics as we deliver them. I want to do more of this – but we are only allocated 3 hours of departmental time this term.

Nonetheless, I wonder whether it is time to consider my own personal sacred cow of ‘an essay a week’. This is difficult for me as I tend to put what little success I have down to this strategy that stretches the learning of the topic and technique into weekly bite-size chunks. However, it might be time to think again.  However, I am anxious at letting go of the familiar and with good cause.  If I did not set formal written home learning would students commit to the wider reading and the practice of academic writing?

We have talked about moving towards an expectation of fortnightly formal ‘essay’ or exam question,  alongside a range of independent tasks and essay plans to structure their study time in-between. I am still uncertain about how I feel about this in my own classes – particularly where I am the ‘majority’ teacher, I want them working hard and committing their knowledge and skills to paper.  I need to square this questioning of my every day practice with my knowledge that regular, consistent rehearsal of the extended questions is what helps my students achieve.

To go linear or not go linear: that is the question.

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Anxieties about change.

I am in a genuine conundrum that I cannot quite resolve with my usual pondering and mulling over of things.

Since the A-level reforms of 2015, we developed a model that looks similar to what we had previously delivered. In Year 12, students sit AS exams in the May / June series even though they no longer count for anything. This seemed right at the time as we have a mixed offer of AS levels who were all at different points of curriculum change. It meant that all students could continue to have a similar year plan despite studying a combination of linear and non-linear subjects.  Our current delivery model gives us about 30 weeks of delivery before the start of the exam season. As a teacher, I have often felt this is far from satisfactory, you just start getting somewhere with your Y12 class and it is time to stop for study leave.

However, in a linear model you do not have to sit the exams then, there is the opportunity of gaining back the lost 6 weeks and teaching straight through. Well, that’s the solution isn’t it? It is certainly what many school sixth forms are planning to do or have implemented from the beginning. As we approach the tipping point where most courses will have made it to the linear specifications, we approach the possibility of a paradigm shift in what can be provided.

If we abandon the AS external exam and replace it with a Y12 exam in the final half term, we will give ourselves more teaching and contact time than we know what to do with? We could slow the pace and change the pedagogy, spend more time wallowing in the depths of the subject rather than merely dipping our toes in.

However, why does this make me anxious? This is exactly the type of challenge which would normally get me excitable. Imagine the endless possibilities for doing more in a different way. More time for IAG, visits, trips, residentials, literacy … the potential is endless.

Why do I feel as though we are throwing out the baby with the bathwater? Here are some of my anxieties.

 Objective measures.

We would be abandoning any external yardstick on student performance. The problem with internal exams and new specifications is that we have yet to learn what the ‘feel’ of these new specifications is. It will take a few rounds of standardisation and exam feedback for me to be totally confident in the use of the specification and mark schemes. Over time, we build up a clearer view of the boards emphasis and pet peccadilloes.

I guess one could argue this is a staff development issue and one that ought not hold back any chance of change and I think I agree but I also want to be confident that I know what I am sending students into. We are all working from a couple of specimen papers and an unknown grading threshold? I have been to the exam board meetings and taken part in their standardisation training but it is not the same until you can offer your own student papers into the marking machine.

The problem of UCAS.

There has been much discussion amongst our HE colleagues about using a broader set of metrics to measure student potential when applying to university. I guess for some, they will be advantaged by the use of their GCSEs but for many of the students who I teach, those who go on to get ALPS plus one or two grades, their GCSEs are a poor way of judging their abilities. At least an external exam in Year 12 provides objective proof of their journey. Again, am I just stuck in an old mind-set? The universities will have to develop different methods for sorting and sifting candidates. Perhaps we will see more interviews and testing beforehand? I guess we could offer a predicted grade based on their internal Y12 exam but this does not address my worries about objectivity. At least our current predicted grades us external AS grades as the yardstick and although young people often do significantly better it does seem a useful heuristic.

Student motivation.

The focus of the exam series has really helped some students capitalise on their Year 12 learning. It has is always lovely to watch a student use the exams as a means of focusing their commitment to the course and improving their grades. On the other hand, we could also argue that some students are not yet ready and feel demotivated by the Y12 external exam series. Other observers also argue that this cohort of students have been tested too much, at every stage of their development and to what effect. Whilst I have some sympathy for this analysis, I am also mindful of my very specific goal of preparing them for my own exam and part of that preparation must involve some testing that feels real and not mickey mouse.

The prospect of the external exam in Year 12 can be used to galvanise that group feeling in the classroom of us against the examiners. The split between teacher as final arbiter and teacher as support can be useful at times. However, perhaps this is a ridiculous anxiety as ultimately we ‘judge’ the students in many different ways and they are used to us wearing our different hats.

The 3 or 4 conundrum.

Curriculum 2000 was all about breadth and the move towards four AS subjects was a nod towards that debate. In my own experience, four AS subjects allows a student to grow into them and eventually discard one as time goes on. In a truly linear model, why would you bother with a fourth subject when universities only make offers on three? However, who knows what A-levels you will enjoy from the vantage point of Year 11 options evening, so perhaps four subjects gives you some options later on. Furthermore, the dropping of the fourth AS subject will involve a contraction of the subjects on offer. We are already a discrete provision but will this be the death knell of the breadth of offer in small sixth forms as they lose a quarter of their AS exam entries.

So where does this leave me? Are my anxieties real or am I stuck in an out-dated mind set and model? Should I mourn my lost certainties or embrace the potential of new possibilities? Whatever the answer, the decision will not really be mine but my own cognitive dissonance interests me.   After mulling over the pros and cons, I still feel as ambivalent as when I started? I guess I need to do some more research and see what others are doing, but  clearly change feels difficult more difficult than usual and it is when we get stuck that tells us the most about ourselves.

The Science of Learning

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I rather liked this and pinched it from David Didau.  Nothing new but a review of the scientific consensus on how we learn and what teachers can do.  I also loved the misconceptions section and reflecting on how many of those had seeped into my own practice. My PGCE (1999-2000 vintage) seemed to be built around the ideas of VAK learning styles and we all had to create lesson plans and checklists to prove we were engaging the kinaesthetic learner.  Thinking back, it really was emperors new clothes stuff.  I wonder which of the sacred cows will be slaughtered next?

5th October – World Teacher Day!

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I do like an occasional moan about work (ahem); overwhelming workload, confused communication and the grim reality of choices that have to be made in times of austerity and finite resources.

However, I remain extremely proud of my profession and the positive, life-changing impact we can have on young peoples lives.  (I think the reverse can be true but I will save that for another post.)  As World Teacher Day approaches (who knew?), it seems timely for me to join in with the chorus of appreciation for my own teachers who inspired me in the past and those who I have worked with and work with every day who make a difference to me.

From my own secondary school, I need to thank Mr Young, my drama teacher for his unshakeable belief in me and what I could do and that it is ok to be different.  From CWC, I need to name check Hilary Matthews, Chris Curran, Marie Mcadam, Alex Yates, Jez Taylor, Max Morton, Phil Bunce, Nicole, Clare Reilly, Ita Leavy, Des Reardon.  From Harris,  I would like to doth my cap in eternal gratitude to Laura Turner (Nicholls), Kirsty Martin, Sarah Newman, Ashley Harold, Nikki Pelletier, Sarah Murray Thompson, Debbie Peel, Charlotte Tatum. Clare Marks and Kate Atwell. And finally, from my current family Vic, Vanessa, Manisha, Aimee, Sarah Mac – thanks for the continued inspiration.

Let’s change the debate about our profession. We really do make a difference.

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The Stationery Ritual

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Last week of August, whilst raking over the embers of the summer break I find myself being drawn into my annual stationery rituals.  I linger in the stationery isle at the supermarket, find myself fantasising in the windows of Rymans.  Stationery is not just stationery to teachers, it takes on this other life.  I have long been obsessed with my September stationery ritual.  The choosing, ordering, cataloguing and organising of new stuff fills my heart with joy.  It gives me goosebumps thinking about the rows of new pens and pencils, scissors in their stands and rubbers at the ready.  I was engrossed by an article in the TES listing the top 5 teacher items of stationery, nothing could break my reverie.

This inexplicable joy felt at new pens got me thinking, feelings never exist in isolation and extreme feelings are always worth thinking about.  Why does this annual ritual exist?  Why am I disproportionately happy?  Does it matter?

My wife who is a non-believer in my psycho-babble nonsense would have said it is obvious that these feelings are just about getting organised and being ready for the new term.  To a certain extent, this is absolutely true but the depth of feeling made me start to explore these buoyant feelings of control, calm and happiness.

This hoarding and cataloguing ritual seems to always take place in between the chaotic events of results day and the first day of teaching.  This makes me think of a rather latent state of mind.  From a Kleinian perspective, latency is characterised as a period of apparent stability where anxieties are repressed, split off and played out in other activities.  Internal conflicts tend to be played out into the external world.  As a young child, I distinctly remember having a vast collection of rubbers from everywhere and I took great joy in possessing and categorising them in different ways.  The collection and collecting made me feel safe.  Tightly controlled. obsessional activity performs an important function and defence against anxiety.

I guess emotionally I am in the perfect storm.  This awkward in-between stage, still mourning the loss of students who have left or the ones we have lost.  I hope they are ok?  Will their new teachers understand them as well as I do?  Will they survive the next step?  What could I have done differently?  Alongside the seismic anxieties that surround the beginnings of new relationships.  Will they like me?  Will I like them?  What expectations will they have? Will I be good-enough?

Anne Alvarez suggests that the calmness of latency is a necessary state of mind that we must return to at different stages of the life cycle.  The defences of latency are at times useful in helping us with any task that needs concentration and the capacity to ignore other thoughts and feelings.  Who would have thought my stationery obsession would become such an important part of my psychic repertoire?

Youell, B. (2006) The Learning Relationship: Psychoanalytic Thinking in Education.

Experiences in the classroom

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“No man is an island, and yet we wish to believe that we are independent of forces of which we may not be conscious either from outside ourselves or within. At times we are aware of these pulls from within ourselves, at other times they overwhelm us and become the source of irrational group behaviour” (Stokes, 1994, p.14).

 

My experience of working with different groups of students and staff is often powerful and overwhelming. Whilst working with a group it is difficult to consider the group processes of which one might be part. However, it is important that we are able to reflect on our ‘experiences in groups’ as a means of exploring in what ways the unconscious may effect the learning and teaching.

The work of Wilfred Bion helps us explore group dynamics. Bion (1961) published a small volume of papers called ‘experiences in groups’ which introduce a new way of looking at groups and group processes. For Bion, the group is an important field of study, which offers us a deeper understanding of the individual. “The group, therefore, is more than the aggregate of individuals, because an individual in a group is more than an individual in isolation” (Bion, 1961, p.60). The group mentality, group culture and the individual are interdependent phenomena, which must be observed to fully understand the tensions in the group.  I have found it useful to think about the concept of a group mind when reflecting on my experiences.

Valency

Bion uses the concept of valency as a means of exploring the social functions carried out by the individual for the group. Bion described valency as “the individual’s readiness to enter into combination with the group in making and acting on the basic assumptions” (1961,p.116). We all have the capacity to shift between dependency, fight-flight and pairing mentalities, however the concept of valency suggests that as individuals we all have a tendency towards one of the basic assumptions above and that we will often fulfil the functions of that role. This tendency is an unconscious, instantaneous and an irrational function on behalf of the group.

Obholzer and Roberts (1994) suggest that individuals are unconsciously sucked into performing a function on behalf of others as well as themselves in all groups and institutions. From this perspective, the troublesome individuals are needed by the group to express some of the feelings and anxieties that cannot be owned by the group as a whole. Through a process of projective identification, the group is able to locate these difficult emotions into vulnerable group members who have their own valency for one or other aspects of these anxieties.

Kelly

Kelly had been excluded from school and attended a pupil referral unit in the College that I taught in until she was 16 years old. She had managed to progress onto a level one course with the desire to work with children. She admitted that she quite liked the naughty ones and felt she would be good at dealing with them. Kelly had a history of conflict, a very difficult relationship with her mother and had recently moved into a bedsit on her own. This had been a difficult process with a degree of confrontation with her social workers. There had been a number of behavioural problems in the previous year, but we were all hopeful that she could have a fresh start.

It was difficult from the beginning with Kelly often being the flashpoint for conflict within the group. She would come in late, do the work when she wanted to. She had a difficulty forming relationships with the other students. In the third week of the academic year there was a serious fight involving Kelly, which resulted in her leaving the College on the grounds of gross misconduct. I do not doubt that Kelly was dealing with numerous personal issues during this time, but I cannot help but wonder whether there was also an unconscious group dynamic at work. The first three weeks of term, on a new course in a new environment would provide ideal conditions for heightened group anxieties both conscious and unconscious. I wondered whether this powerful group mentality was able to use Kelly’s talent for confrontation with students and staff as a means of dealing with its own unconscious needs.

Immediately after she left, there was a noticeable reduction in tension as you could sense the group’s sense of relief. It felt as though we had conveniently got rid of something rather unpleasant. The group quietened down and there was much less conflict in the room and the group seemed more cooperative. However, this utopia did not last for long as another member of the group soon became a focus of attention, Andre. Not before long the tensions in the group had risen to a similarly high level. I wondered whether it was important to have a difficult, belligerent, confrontational member who can be sacrificed when things get too difficult.

It seems clear that Kelly had learnt a painful lesson in this classroom. She was sacrificed for the good of the group. I wondered whether anyone with Kelly’s valency could ever have a fresh start or whether this was part of a more continuous, destructive and unfulfilling pattern.  I also felt a sense of failure in my inability to deal with the wider group anxieties and find ways for both the group and Kelly to cope with the anxieties of the beginning.

There is a sense of reparation in Kelly’s choice of returning to college and having a second chance.  Her aim at interview was to get qualifications and become a youth worker with the ‘naughty children’.  However, it is interesting to consider how quickly other powerful and primitive forces may overrun the desire for reparation.

 

Faisal

Faisal was a very young looking male student in a GCSE re-sit group. There were 22 female students and only 2 male students in the class. At the beginning, Faisal quickly paired with the other boy in the group. I considered what a powerful pair they might make, they were always together and seemed to hang onto each other in this large group of girls. However, this coupling did not last very long as the other boy began to make other friends. Faisal found it very difficult to fit into the group on his own, his attendance and punctuality quickly deteriorated. He spent a lot of time going to the toilet which upon investigation meant hanging around the common room playing pool with a large group of business studies boys. The group began to pick up on this and Faisal became the butt of what seemed at the time as gentle jokes or ribbing. It started with comments about his regular toilet habits “he is in the loo again” which later became accusations “what could he be doing?” On reflection, I wondered what sort of communications might have been going on. On the one hand, these absences may have been Faisal’s means of communicating how difficult it might be to fit into this group. On the other hand, I wondered whether this was the start of some sort of group attack and whether this may also serve a function for this group.

After a while, Faisal began to fall behind on his work but this seemed to serve a function for the group. No matter how badly the other students were doing, no one was failing as much as Faisal. Halfway through the course I made a progress chart for the students to tick off their achievements as we went along. In an individual tutorial, I tried to use the chart to point out how far behind Simone had become. She replied, triumphantly “at least I am not as far behind as Faisal”. Whilst I reminded her that this meeting was about her progress and not about Faisal’s, part of me could not help but sigh a sense of relief that she had not fallen as far behind as he had.

I was aware of this feeling again a few days later when I met Faisal to discuss his progress. For some reason, I did not feel able to push Faisal on his progress as much as I would have done with other students. We talked about the units he was struggling with and we made some future appointments for me to provide one to one support. I should have put him on a first warning at this point, but I did not. I was also aware that he would probably not meet his appointment with me as he had failed to meet any of our previous meetings. I wondered whether at some level I was colluding with group to maintain Faisal’s position, why did I not feel able to challenge Faisal more thoroughly? What was to be gained by keeping Faisal at the bottom of the group?

It is helpful to consider Faisal’s experience in the context of the group. I wondered whether Faisal had served some function for the group. It seems clear that in a group of anxious adolescents in might be useful to have a ‘troubled’ individual who could not cope with the work or the group. It is difficult to be different from the rest of a group and I wondered whether this difference made it easier for Faisal to carry a sense of failure for a group who already have ‘failed’ at their GCSEs.

I also felt that I had failed Faisal, it seemed impossible for us to have a worthwhile relationship. My sense of failure also needs to be thought about. Whilst this could be seen as a projection, I wondered whether thinking about our failed relationship might also be useful and help make sense of Faisal’s experience in the group.  I reflected on how difficult it was for him being the one of only two males in a large group of girls and whether I could think about what this might be like for him. Faisal lived at home with his mother and sister but had no contact with his father. I was aware that the situation in the classroom may have replicated some of his earlier experiences.

Societal stereotypes about the ‘caring’ professions are still quite strong and to be a young man on a caring course leaves one in a very exposed position. However, I wondered whether a more unconscious gender agenda might also be considered.  The re-emergence of the oedipal conflict can stir up considerable anxiety which in turn may lead to renewed defences against this anxiety, such as splitting and repression. In adolescence, this may result in a preference for friends of the same sex, detachment and hostility towards the parents to defend against the unconscious fears of intimacy and aggression.  Faisal was a likeable student, but it was impossible for us to have a worthwhile relationship. My interventions were politely rejected and I found it extremely difficult to put down firm boundaries for him. He truanted most lessons to be with a larger group of boys in the canteen and I was the one who was left feeling rejected and unwanted.  I wondered whether his rejection of my role and my failure to have any authority was the working out of some form of reawakened oedipal struggle.

What had Faisal learnt from the course? It seems clear that it was a painful experience, which may have been driven by powerful unconscious forces. Teaching and learning may be affected by unconscious group dynamics as well as the reworking of earlier experiences.

Although these interactions happened over a decade ago, the feelings they evoked remain fresh in my mind.  I often think about these two students and wonder who will occupy their position on behalf of the group in my next class and what I can do to be aware of these forces and reduce the anxieties inherent in the learning relationship.

Stokes, J. (1994) The unconscious at work in groups and teams: contributions from the work of Wilfred Bion in Obholzer, A and Roberts V. Z. (Eds.) The unconscious at work. Individual and organisational stress in the human services. London: Routledge.

Bion, W. (1961) Experiences in Groups. London: Tavistock Publications.

What do I need to do to get an A?

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Some anxieties about grading the new A-level specifications.

I have attended the new specification meetings for both A-level psychology and A-level sociology, walked through the new content and completed the marking exercises in preparation for the new term ahead. The content changes are not major, apart from my concerns about the removal of suicide from AQA Sociology.

The new mark schemes look doable, sometimes 3 mark bands have been split into 5, whilst in other examples 3 mark bands remain but the points allocated have changed. I have got some worked examples, I think I know how to apply the mark boundaries. We seem to be using the familiar language in the assessment objectives.

The thing that is really worrying me is that we are not sure what the grade boundaries will be.  I know the exam board would say that they do not know either as they will need to wait until the first cohort have sat the paper before the boundaries can be set. I also know that we never really know where the grade boundaries will be as the exam boards reserve the right to move them up and down each year depending on the cohort performance.  We are always dependent on the bell curve being in our favour (so much for gold-standard?).

However, there is something comforting about having a set of past papers, looking at the questions and showing students the grade boundaries for each cohort. I just feel this comfort blanket is no longer there and it is making me anxious.  I guess I feel I do not know what the new AS and A-level look like.

Clearly, I will need to set assessments and mocks which will need to be turned into grades to be used as a quantitative progress check. I know that in the past we have general patterns of 80%- A, 70% – B, 60% – C and so on. However, this has it’s own problems as often the pass mark can be much lower, in some years an A is around 65%. So how accurate will using this heuristic be?

Furthermore, the request for progress data has always been a difficult one, fraught with issues of reliability and validity. How do you meaningfully capture an individuals progress in a single grade?  The temptation to turn the spreadsheet from red to green over the course of the year can overwhelm the drive to provide valid data?

My school, department, students and their parents will expect accurate progress data at KS5. I know there is an element of professional judgement at work here but for these new specifications it will really be a shot in the dark, even more so than usual?

I also know that there is a move towards providing developmental feedback without grades, so the students focus more on how to improve rather than worry about the grade. In general, I think this is a good idea and fits in well with the moves towards growth mindset and resilience when developing academic skills. While grades have become only part of the assessment and feedback story, we still need to be confident in what grade A, C or E work looks like?

It could be that I am just over worrying about the new academic year.  The new specifications will bed-down just like they always do and I will learn alongside the students.  We have done this before (curriculum 2000, and 2009 spec changes) and we coped.  I wonder why this is making me more anxious than last time around?  I am not against curriculum change, in fact I advocate a more radical overhaul of our current A-level system.   I guess it is because this current meddling and fiddling with the architecture of A-levels has so little pedagogical merit that I am finding it difficult to accommodate the new paradigm.  Change for changes sake does not necessarily improve progress?

Suicide is a sensitive sociology subject that needs to be taught in schools

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Oh dear, AQA have go themselves into a right pickle over the teaching of suicide in A-level sociology. Are some subjects too sensitive to teach? Suicide has long been the epitome of the sociological imagination, it is the core study which demonstrates the history of our social science as well as worked examples of each methodological approach.  An outstanding student can weave this example into a wide range of answers. It is the one of the few generic studies that I demand students have ready to use in every situation, during the exam season it lurks deep in their back pockets waiting to pounce on to the page and an easy A02 mark.  It represents the sociological equivalent of ‘Mornington Crescent’ in a theory and methods paper.  Therefore, I find the decision to scrap it as a topic at best puzzling but on a deeper level much more worrying. The rationale offered by the exam board is that some students may well find the topic too distressing.  This may well be true but if we use this as a guide to curriculum design we would no longer teach any of the humanities and most of Shakespeare would be on the banned list.  I personally find the work we do on the dark side of the family and domestic violence much more harrowing but there is no agenda to remove these from the curriculum as they are too disturbing. This argument is further flawed by the fact that AQA go on to advise that centres may still use suicide as an example of theory and method but there will no longer be an explicit question on it.  Well we would not want a coherent position here would we.  I suggest that it is neither because it is too sensitive nor that they were overly worried about how teachers were delivering it, merely that in the new specification something had to go and as they have beefed up the globalisation aspects of the course, this was the next small concise topic to go without doing to much damage.  However, I disagree.  This is the small example which makes the course coherent, it is the essential bit of learning that enables students to see how theories are linked to method. I am not the only one distressed by this removal of a vital part of the specification.  Suicide is a sensitive sociology subject that needs to be taught in schools.

However, there are some important discussions to be had about suicide, mental health and social support.

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The gender, age and regional differences alone require some deep discussion and reflection and that is before we consider the validity of such figures and whether they may be a social construction.  I also feel there may be something genuinely healthy or even reparative about exploring the darker aspects of human nature.

A good-enough teacher?

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How do I know if I am a good teacher?  How would I know?  On what standards should I judge myself?  Am I good for those students at the top? Do I care enough about those at the bottom?  Am I able to close the gap? Can I meet or exceed my targets? What have I done for the silent middle?  Am I a good colleague?  Am I a good line manager?  These existential questions have dogged my thoughts during my teaching career.  Throughout my time, I have been lucky enough to receive some excellent feedback along with a healthy dollop of praise during my appraisals.  I think I am experienced enough to realise when my teaching is good and reflective enough to realise when it could have been better.  Nonetheless, in the dead of night, after a difficult week and at the end of term I am genuinely filled with doubt and anxiety.  I hope this does not come across as a personal failing or an issue of low self-esteem because deep down I do know I offer something of value to others.  Moreover, this is a professional reflection on how we might think about these issues.  It has taken me a long time, but the concept of being good-enough has helped me dampen down some of these demons and find a way through the emotional roller coaster of life as a classroom teacher.  This is not a reflection on work-life balance or a gripe about being overworked and having too many demands on my time.  I actually enjoy work and others have been more articulate about the work-life discussion.  Moreover, this is an exploration of what is left and how it feels when I reflect on my teaching.

The role of the teacher is often defined by powerful unconscious phantasies which are prone to projections and transference.  As teachers we are ideally placed to become transfer relationships where past experiences are re-enacted in both the students and ourselves.

The powerful anxieties and projections that surround these relationships creates an environment where teachers are often idealized or denigrated.  I wonder whether the idea of good and bad teachers has an existing template informed by our phantasies about good and bad parenting.  There is as much debate surrounding what ‘good’ parenting means and I have often felt that the same judgements, language and feelings surround teachers.  At any one point, one can be seen as too caring and not setting clear enough boundaries or too strict and not emotionally open.  I am really interested in thinking about how Melanie Klein’s concept of splitting and projective identification might be a helpful way of thinking about this professional issue,  There does seem a deep desire in educational institutions amongst students, staff and senior leaders to fit teachers into the good / bad dichotomy.  The reality is clearly much more difficult as we are all both good and bad.  The point is being able to recognise when you are Mr Keating or Ms Trunchball or somewhere in between alongside where the ideas about good or bad have come from, who they belong too and what function they are serving.

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This climate of good or bad teachers is further perpetuated by an increasingly persecutory inspection regime which does not allow much space in-between these ideal types and fails to recognise the emotional landscape of learning.  A popular theme of educational reportage is the claim claimed that every school has at least one bad teacher. Despite the dubious quantitative evidence to prove this claim, the witch-hunt begins and the narrative of weeding out the deadwood continues.  The anxieties of the school are located into one or two colleagues who are perceived to be weak.  If only it were that simple.  I understand the need for accountability and I am not necessarily defending poor teaching and learning, I am merely suggesting the emotional landscape here is much more difficult.  Teaching and learning is an anxiety provoking process and I am interested that at times our anxieties are pushed into some teachers whilst our hopes are carried high on the shoulders of our knights in shinning armour.  It is not much fun being at either end of this idealisation or denigration.  As a teacher you only ever feel as good as your last lesson, it is somehow difficult to see that our whole is greater than the sum of our parts.  Nonetheless, the notion that teachers are either good or bad seems a recurrent motif in educational discourse.

I hope I am able to use this blog to explore some of the anxieties inherent in the role of the teacher and suggest that a more useful approach is to consider whether one is ‘good-enough’ and to resist the dynamic of the idealised parent and or teacher. A good-enough teacher is someone who can make contact with the emotional factors of learning and offer some form of consistency and containment.  The key to this debate is to understand the anxieties that surround learning and teaching.

Parents, students and educational organisations themselves often perpetuate this powerful notion of a good teacher. It seems clear that the polarisation of ‘good’ teachers and ‘bad’ teachers does not allow for the reality of a ‘good-enough’ teacher. It is interesting to consider this splitting as a psychological defence against the anxieties inherent in the task of teaching / parenting. Isolated in the classroom it is extremely difficult to know whether you are good-enough which leaves space for your own anxieties and phantasies about the good teacher.

Both parents and teachers are persecuted by the impossibly high ideals that surround the concept of a good parent. In an educational climate, which has become obsessed with escalator targets it is hard not to feel slightly persecuted by an agenda that expects a statistical year-on-year improvement. In my own classroom, the expectations placed on teachers and tutors are extremely high. With no extra resources or time, we are expected to deliver on many inherently contradictory agendas including; widening participation, inclusion vs academic excellence, gifted and talented vs growth mindset, independent learning vs visible learning. I often feel extremely split between improving the academic performance of my department and my pastoral responsibilities. The expectation is that an ‘ideal’ teacher would be able to manage both the curriculum and the emotional development of young people. I often wonder whether we have set ourselves a possible task?  For some, the pastoral support and experience of emotional containment will build up their self-confidence, resilience and empower them to access the curriculum, but for others the academic demands of content, assessment and exams will be over-powered by their own emotional and psychic needs.

One of the infantile phantasies that surrounds the role of parent and teacher can be evidenced in the projection of omnipotence. The impossible or unrealistic demands put on the teaching profession stem from the phantasy that teachers and parents are all powerful.

“the ideal of the perfect teacher who can meet the differing needs of a whole class may be one such defensive fantasy, produced simultaneously by the teacher, to persecute themselves for failing to meet the ideal, and by the culture which denies the reality of teaching” (Shaw, 1995, p.65).

Isca Salzberg-Wittenberg (1999) suggests that we must look critically at the aspirations and fears with which teachers approach their jobs and the nature of the teacher / student relationships. Teachers must have the space and tolerance to consider the transference between teacher and student. We need to examine our own behaviour, particularly when we feel anxious, overburdened or unduly virtuous. An awareness of the impact of our own infantile wishes and attitudes might help us understand the powerful unconscious drives in our relationships and strife to minimise their effects and find a more adult satisfaction in the work.

‘Good-enough?’

A more useful approach is to consider whether one can be good-enough and to resist the dynamic of the ideal teacher. D.W. Winnicott suggests that a good-enough parent is one who provides opportunity for steady growth and development, one who is able to help an infant move from dependence to independence.

“A good-enough mother and good-enough parents and a good-enough home do in fact give most babies and small children the experience of not having ever been significantly let down. In this way, average children have the chance to build up a capacity to believe in themselves and the world – they build a structure on the accumulation of introjected reliability” (Winnicott, 1967, p.193).

“What is needed and absolutely needed by the infant is not some kind of perfection of mothering but a good enough adaptation, that which is part of a living partnership” (Winnicott, 1989, p.44).

It seems clear that there might be some similarities in the capacities needed by Winnicott’s good-enough mother and the notion of a good-enough teacher. A good-enough teacher will be someone who can make contact with the emotional factors of learning and offer some form of consistency and containment. A good-enough teacher will be able to sensitively adapt to the changing needs of the students without being too diverted by their own psychic agenda. However, this journey will be a fraught one where the frustrations of learning from experience must be borne.

In this model, the students will be able to hold onto some of the teacher’s capacities as they develop their own ways of coping with failure by understanding and tolerating frustration.

“The task of the teacher may be thought of as resembling the parental function: that is, to act as a temporary container for the excessive anxiety of his students at points of stress. It will mean he will experience in himself some of the mental pain connected with learning, and yet set an example of maintaining curiosity in the face of chaos, love of truth in the face of terror of the unknown, and hope in the face of despair” (Salzberger-Wittenberg, 1999, p.60).

Am I good-enough?  Using Winnicott’s approach and the concepts of containment and emotional insight, I hope that I might be but the journey is far from complete.  However, the notion of good-enough has helped me cope with the emotional roller coaster that is teaching.  By putting some of my demons to bed, I have been able to create more emotional space for reflecting on the real task and challenges of working with young people.

 

Salzberger-Wittenberg, I. (1999) The Emotional Experience of Learning and Teaching. London: Karnac.

Shaw, J (1995) Education, Gender and Anxiety. London: Taylor and Francis

Winnicott, D.W. (1967) The concept of clinical regression compared with that of defence organisation in Winnicott, C, Shepherd, R. Davis, M (ed) (1989) Psycho-analytic Explorations. London: Karnac.

Winnicott, D. W. (1959) Melanie Klein: On Her Concept of Envy in Winnicott, C, Shepherd, R. Davis, M (ed) (1989) Psycho-analytic Explorations. London: Karnac.

 

Beginnings and endings

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Beginnings and endings punctuate life in a school, not only the big beginnings and endings in September and June; they also remain a focus of each term, topic and assessment. I have always felt a mixture of both excitement and terror at all of these junctions.

We must be mindful of the powerful emotional baggage that surrounds beginnings and endings. A teacher must be able to recognise these powerful dynamics within themselves and the students. These periods of transition are often a site of significant pain and anxiety as well as an important feature of emotional growth.

New relationships may evoke earlier ones; the unconscious mind holds onto such bodily and emotional states. The feelings of being pushed out at birth and the terror of infantile helplessness are vividly remembered as the infant moves from the familiar to the unfamiliar, from the warmth and containment of the womb to a cold, uncaring outside.

The ‘new’ person can become part of a range of phantasies where they are invested with good and bad qualities. In particular, the teacher-student relationship may reawaken infantile feelings of dependency and helplessness. I am acutely aware of the huge expectations the students have of my courses and me. Sixth Form is invested with the promise of a second chance, there is a tacit understanding that the slate is wiped clean; a fresh start. However, this ‘fresh start’ approach comes often accompanies unrealistic ambitions. I am not an enemy of aspiration, it is an essential part of what we do. Moreover, I am wondering whether there is an idealisation of what Sixth Form might be like and how it will automatically transform students into perfect A-level students who are fully formed independent learners. We know this does not happen overnight and that this process may well be long and difficult involving great resilience from all involved.

Furthermore, any beginning involves the loss of an old relationship, an ending. New relationships may also become entangled with a loss and mourning for a previous relationship. Would they be as good as last year’s group? Would I be as helpful as their previous teachers? Are we your best students ever? Will you remember us? Will they remember me?

With this in mind, I wondered whether it was ever possible to have a fresh start or whether the echoes of previous relationships may interfere with new ones. I reflected that my difficulties with beginnings might be a powerful communication about the complex emotional agenda that accompanies all beginnings.

“For if we are too frightened to allow ourselves to be open enough to have an emotional experience of newness we also shut ourselves off from the perception of something different, from discovering something new, producing anything fresh. If, however, we do not thus rigidify our thinking and affects, we pay the price of the agony of helplessness, confusion, dread of the unknown – of being in a state of beginning once more” (Salzberger-Wittenberg,1999, p.9).

We must also be mindful of the anxieties that accompany endings. The ability to bear loss will depend on ones previous experiences of separation. Separation involves feelings of loss, frustration, anger and anxiety. The loss may evoke earlier feelings of helplessness, chaos and panic, which exist in the mother-infant relationship. The mother’s ability to wean the baby gently, bear some of these unbearable feelings will provide a sense of containment and an internal capacity to contain these fears. It seems clear that the good-enough teacher must be able to offer a sense of containment during vulnerable periods.

The unconscious mind may hold onto a range of phantasies surrounding the separation. They may hold persecutory thoughts, such as the teacher does not like me and cannot wait to get rid of me, or the phantasy may involve the denigration of the old relationship and idealisation of a new one. There may be feelings of rivalry and envy about the new group (baby). Ex-students will consistently enquire what my new group is like and whether they are as good as they were? Likewise, I always ask whether they are getting enough support from their new institution. Clearly, there are painful emotions surrounding endings and they are evidence of the powerful relationship a teacher can have with the students. However, it may also be a time to test what has been learnt. A good ending seems a pre-requisite for the emotional health of students and staff alike. A good-enough teacher should help the students prepare emotionally for the end. As a teacher I always wonder what lasting impact I may have had on the students. Whether I have been able to offer something of value? Have I helped them to develop their capacities to cope with the world or are they still too dependent to manage on their own.

Salzberger-Wittenberg, I. (1999) The Emotional Experience of Learning and Teaching. London: Karnac.

Predicted grades – It’s a mug’s game.

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To be honest, I have always struggled with predicted grades.  It is the classic battle around student data between formative and summative assessment.  Teachers want useful formative data to help diagnose a students strengths and weaknesses.  Whilst schools, senior leaders and parents all want to know what grade they are likely to get at the end of the course.  The answer is at best problematic in terms of the reliability and validity of this judgement alongside the more complex issues of student motivation, labelling and our own unconscious bias.  Is it helpful or a hinderance to be labelled this close to the real thing?  Will this grade motivate or decimate this student and the progress they are making in this subject?  The process of predicting a grade is far from a science and influenced by many factors, for example how easy is it to give an accurate prediction for a class you share?  If they are a C with you and an A with your colleague – does a B do their learning justice?

At this point in the year, we have still not finished teaching the course content or honing the written skills needed in the upcoming exams.   It is amazing what happens in the last few weeks as we gear up for the real thing.  Whilst we have a range of formative and summative assessments to reflect on, what do we really know?

Daisy Christodolou uses a useful analogy of marathon running in her recent book Making Good Progress.  Marathon runners are judged by their final time in minutes and seconds but their coaches carry out a wide range of activities to help them perform better including  running some marathons and half marathons but equally lots of activities that focus on the skills needed.  For us in the classroom it might include vocabulary testing, multiple choice, question-decoding and so on.  When all these different measures are considered it may be possible to tease out some themes and patterns about final performance but what happens in training is not always a good proxy.  Christodolou says the triangulation of all this data may make it more likely that the runner will go faster but they will not guarantee it  – it is probabilistic but not deterministic.  Furthermore, doing lots of marathons before the big race may actually impede learning as we over-focus on summative tasks and not enough on improving the nuts and bolts of good subject knowledge, extended writing and exam technique.  Predicting grades is a complex process.

This annual charade has been made even more ridiculous by the omni-shambles of curriculum reform as we move to linear exams in A-levels and a new grading system in some GCSEs.   There is a much higher degree of uncertainty this summer, we do not really know what the grade profile will look like and whilst the national trends will be similar there is likely to be much more volatility at school and department level.  I know I speak for all teachers when I say thank heavens for more uncertainty in an already uncertain world.  Well, at least our pay and career progression is not linked to it … oh hang on.

It seems as though Ofsted have also come to the view that predicted data may not be valid, reliable or useful as we enter this period of exam change.

Sean Hartford (March 2017)

In short, it’s a mug’s game at times of change in qualifications, and should be avoided. That’s why I have written to all our inspectors in the March 2017 ‘School inspection update’ to ask that they do not request predictions for cohorts about to take examinations

This is great news, although I suspect school leaders, parents, governors and students will still expect it.  However, he continues to make a sensible  suggestion that as we go through this period of curriculum change that inspectors will not put too much reliance on test and exam data.

Good heavens.  To be honest, it is Ofsted who have in part created this data behemoth and accountability culture.  I am not suggesting that we should not be accountable for what we do but it is good to see them begin to remove some of its horns which might allow for a real discussion about learning and progress.

 

The problem with staff meetings (Vol. 1)

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Oh dear, we really have some shocking practice in the education sector.  I have sat through too many meetings which have been either dull and irrelevant or difficult and poorly managed.  Why do we do this to ourselves?  You get a group of teaching professionals together but we are not always able to make a meeting productive or meaningful?  Why?  In this first blog, I want to get some practical issues out of the way but I think it is also valuable to think about why groups are not always able to perform as a work group.  What secret and not so secret scripts are being played out amongst a staff group?

I guess it is the word ‘meeting’ which is most problematic, perhaps we should switch to the word lecture or briefing to be a more accurate description of some of this activity.  If some middle leaders meetings had been around in the middle-ages even Dante would have thought it a strange and unusual punishment.  Why is it sometimes such a difficult forum for staff to use to share ideas and support the functioning of a school or department.  What anxieties are at work which might taint the experience?

Whose agenda is it anyway?

I guess staff meetings are called for a variety of purposes including; improved communication, problem-solving, airing of anxieties, review of practice, introduction of new policies, standardisation and pastoral issues.  However,there is an opportunity cost to having all these people in this room every week (often twice or three times) and we need to have clear outcomes for everyone involved.  Everyone needs to feel they are getting something out of it and /or that they can contribute something to it.  This is time that cannot be spent lesson planning and marking.  This is time that cannot be spent working with students, so we must think it a very important activity to distract from our core purpose.  I do understand that with a limited amount of time you are not going to please everyone in the room but there are a few things that meetings should not be:

Extended briefings.  Being talked at for an hour by the same person or same small group of people.  Does the same person need to chair each meeting?  Can this be rotated to broaden the agenda widen the voices?

Notices. Reading of emails that have already been sent.  This is my pet hate.  Thank you, I have read your email but it seems as though I am going to lose that part of my life again as you tell me exactly the same information.

Patronising responses.  Disagreement is okay we do not need to be belittled because we have a different view of an issue.  Rank does not make your voice the most important or your opinion the most worthy.

Materials. Make enough handouts and preferably distribute before meeting if you want people to have read and be able to comment on with a degree of reflection.  Another pet hate is getting loads of data at a meeting and being asked for a definitive opinion there and then otherwise the discussion will be closed.  Have the courtesy to share this stuff beforehand.

Have enough seats.  Preferably in a room that is big enough.  Yes, if you have called the meeting this is your responsibility.

Contributions. Making no time or space for questions.  With a 15 item agenda you are not leaving anytime for questions, comments or observations.  This tells me enough already.  My opinion is neither sought nor valued.  I have mentally gone home.

Discussion that goes nowhere.  Splitting into smaller groups to discuss an issue is useful but not so much if you feel the contributions are not going to have an impact or be considered as the ideas seem to drift into the ether.

How could we do things differently?

Whose chair is it anyway? Rotating chair amongst the members would get different voices heard, we are after all, all leaders of learning?

Flip the meeting.  Send out a briefing sheet before to allow more time for discussion in the meeting.

Meaningful Impact.  Ask teachers what they need.  Evaluate the impact of the meeting on the teaching and learning.  How much of what happens in a staff meeting has an impact in the classroom? It may not be true that all meetings are useless, they’re good to keep the gears of the school twisting but rarely do they meaningfully impact the learning and lives of students.

Genius, Not Endurance.  Too many meetings are to be endured and we are not able to engage the genius rather than the resilience of staff. Too many meetings focus on minutiae and housekeeping.  Could these ideas be put into a briefing sheet and can we prioritise the ideas that will have the most meaningful impact?

Having everyone in one room does make it easier to check off the housekeeping issues – policies, events, priorities, scheduling issues, operational feedback but there is also an opportunity cost of not using this group of people to develop more collegiate approaches to teaching and learning.  The internet and social media could be used to carry out the housekeeping stuff and helping us to keep the main thing, the main thing.  We need to clear the decks to focus on the primary task and mission critical goals like pedagogy, assessment and curriculum planning.

Colleagues, we owe it to ourselves to get out of this rut.  In my next post, I want to explore some of the unconscious dynamics of the team meeting and why change may be harder than we think.