Tuesday, 3 March 2015

Can I be that little bit better at......wrestling with the intervention lesson monster?



As the nights drew in over the winter term, a number of lights came on in classrooms after the school day had finished.  Across the country in numerous secondary schools, teachers began to run Year 11 'intervention' sessions in the build up to final exams.  Many of these included revision lessons, coursework catch up sessions, additional reteach sessions or specific intervention groups.  The vast majority of them are invaluable additions to the schools curriculum and offer opportunities for various students who need that extra support.  In fact some of these are vital in helping a specific few leave school with an education that will set them up for life.  Teachers work tirelessly with individuals and some may say that massive gains are made.  There are however some worries that have begun to crop up.

I'm in a very fortunate position to be able to network and even work with numerous teachers and departments across the country.  One thing that has come up quite often of late is the following scenario.

A teacher plans a very well designed lesson which asks students to learn new content and then add this new knowledge to a piece of coursework/extended writing.  The task is set and students begin to get down to work.  As the teacher moves around the class, she notices that a few of the individuals have completed very little work.  As is expected, the teacher challenges this position and is met by the answer:

"It's OK Miss, I'll do it in catch up class after school on Thursday"

On the face of this there are two main problems.  The first is obvious in the fact that a student is producing minimal work within a lesson.  That can be common within the classroom and can be easily responded to.  The second is the fact that a student is choosing to do minimal work in timetabled lessons, simply to do this work in additional support sessions.  Is this right?  Has the balance of what timetabled lessons are for suddenly shifted?

The point I am therefore pondering (and am yet undecided upon) is whether intervention and catch up sessions have become a problem?  Are the provisions, all with the right intentions, actually causing some students to do less work in class and rely more heavily on time outside the lesson?  Is a culture cropping up that were not aware of?

Are we replacing what helps with other stuff?

Revision sessions and support groups for specific students are an extremely helpful option.  But have other 'catch up' sessions crept into this category?  Are sessions now being put on and teachers time being used to help those who have chosen not to do the work previously in lessons?  And if so, is this rewarding them?


The safety net

Does the fact that schools run sessions after school give students that additional safety net?  Does the presence of them give the message to students that even if you produce minimal work in lessons then there is still time for you to catch up later on?  My biggest worry is that it might.  If students believe that there is an additional opportunity that they can take, then will they choose at times to take their foot off of the gas?

The decision maker

I chatted to a well grounded student today and posed this exact question about additional catch up sessions.  They came up with a number of reasons in a balanced way justifying their place, and even their removal, from school.  One of the biggest things he said was that the presence of them might be giving students who"can't be bothered" a reason to choose not to do any work.  The knowledge that they could catch up at a later date might allow them to pick and choose when they wanted to do anything in actual lesson time.  

The school within a school

With the creation of additional sessions after school, are we inadvertently creating two schools.  With the school day ending does another one begin?

Are the pressures of teaching being passed onto students?

With the increased levels of accountability and pressure for results, do teachers feel that they are required to run these sessions to fulfill target grades?  Is this additional pressure being passed onto students and in turn increasing their stress levels?

The enjoyment of learning

With this in mind, is the expectation and requirement of students to attend these sessions actually removing the love of learning?  Is the memory of staying most nights after school for most of Year 11 a memory that we want students to leave with?

A change in balance

Are additional sessions shifting the responsibility for students grades from the student and onto the teacher?  Does it feel like we have to work harder to get students through their GCSE's?

Teachers workload and stress levels

The additional laying out of these types of sessions will ultimately lead to an increased workload.  With workload itself being a national talking point, are we laying more pressure on teachers to not only teach their timetabled lessons, but to also teach additional lessons outside of curriculum time?

Is it actually counterproductive?

And this is my final thought I'm wrestling with.  Because we want the best for our students, and we want to ensure we have the best results possible for our own professional progress, do we feel that we should be doing these sessions?  Is that part of the problem though?  If they weren't rolled out in schools would students work harder?  And that was a point made by a student.  If they weren't there they'd have to work more in class.  They knew that they would have to knuckle down, learn what was there to be learnt, complete work to the best of their ability and shift the responsibility back to themselves.  Because they weren't on offer, they would have to ensure they used curriculum time really well.  Without the safety net they felt it would push them to work more in class.  So can we be that little bit better at using catch up classes?  Maybe so, and here's a few ideas how.


1. Ensuring catch up sessions aren't just an opportunity to recover what was taught in lessons

Because this may convey the message that if they don't listen first time in class, they can listen to it again in our time after school.

2. Stretch, challenge and enrichment

Instead of catch up classes, can sessions after school actually go beyond the syllabus?  Can we network with local Universities to run master classes to inspire the next graduates?  Can we link with specialist providers in our field to show how our subjects are used in industry?  Can we bring in experts to share their knowledge and push learning beyond its existing level?

3. Setting a criteria for these sessions

There are students who genuinely need this additional support and I don't know any teachers who would want to not provide this.  But do we ensure that those who need it get it rather than those who can't be bothered getting a second chance?  Could an effort grade or indicator be one option.  Students who we know have tried hard, even if they have picked up misconceptions, could be allowed to attend, with those who simply chose to do nothing being asked not to?

4. Removing the need for them?

Could the way we design lessons, curriculum's and schemes be reviewed?  Could we analyse our teaching and learning?  Asking the question why additional sessions are actually needed could lead to some real improvements to the department.  Why do we not have the time to deliver the course in lessons?  Why isn't the content sticking?  Is the delivery of content and the quality of teaching an area best focused on?  What tweaks could we implement now so that we manage workload and expectations?

And so.....

The truth of the matter is I am still undecided.  I probably will be for a very long time.  It feels as though they have become a part of a schools culture and removing them may be too much of a shock to the system.  And why would you remove them if hardworking students are seeking to improve their grades further?  But then again, would removing them and addressing why we might need them solve the problem itself?  Might that be the change in culture that our teachers and students actually need?

Tuesday, 30 December 2014

Can I be that little bit better at.....changing the game?


Change is difficult.  It's been a running theme throughout this blog that there was a stage in my career back in 2009 where I begun to realise that what I was doing in the classroom probably wasn't as effective as it could have been.  Activities were designed before the learning or outcomes were planned.  Questions were machine gunned around the room without any care or consideration.  Feedback did little to benefit anyone but looked good on book trawls.  Differentiation became a logistical observer tick box nightmare and dented our photocopying budget.  The problem is though, as a teacher, it is very easy to fall into a routine without realising you've got there.  I had all the best intentions in the world to become the best I could be, but after a few years habits take shape.  At the 2012 SSAT conference Dylan Wiliam highlighted this issue by saying:


"Currently all teachers slow, and most actually stop, improving after two or three years in the classroom"

His point was that the environment is so challenging when we start teaching that we are forced to improve.  After we sort classroom routines and management strategies our progression begins to plateau and we can sometimes simply coast.  He stresses that it takes ten years of deliberate practice to develop expertise in our job.  This may be the case but ten years of constant refinement and improvement can be a difficult thing to keep on top of with all of the other tasks that make up the complex job of a teacher.

Naturally then we begin to develop habits.  Many of them are effective in the classroom and define who we are a teachers.  Unfortunately, there are habits that could do with refining or tweaking if we are to stay at the top of our game.  The thing is though, habits are tough to break.  To the annoyance of my wife I bite my nails.  It isn't the worst habit in the world but after a bit of reflection (or nagging) I consciously make an effort to reduce it.  In fact when I catch myself doing it I make the decision to stop.  However, after the two years that Wiliam talks about, do we realise the bad habits that we fall into and can we change them?  In his 2014 white paper 'Optimizing Talent: Closing Educational and Social Mobility Gaps Worldwide', Wiliam goes on to talk about the difficulty in changing habits:



What isn't required is an overhaul of our teaching.  We don't need to scrap everything we do and reinvent the way we approach lessons.  Not only is that unrealistic, but it is time consuming, incredibly difficult and hard.  Instead we need to be more pragmatic and identify key areas and work on them.  On the back of a number of low medal returns in track cycling, Team GB/British Cycling didn't throw the programme out of the window and start from scratch.  Instead they decided to focus on a few key principles.  One of these being that they needed to know more about their opponents than their opponents knew about themselves.  After the Athens games they went to every World Cup and World Championships and videoed the opposition and built a massive database which they used to their advantage.  It's so simple when you think about it.  So how can this apply to us in teaching?

"Great teaching cannot be achieved by following a recipe, but there are some clear pointers in the research to approaches that are most likely to be effective, and to others, sometimes quite popular, that are not.  Teachers need to understand why, when and how a particular approach is likely to enhance students' learning and be given time and support to embed it in their practice."
Professor Robert Coe from Durham University.

If we are going to change the game maybe we need to focus on core components of teaching and understand not just the what of them, but really get to grips with the why and the how.  Why is feedback effective?  How can we improve the way we approach planning?  Why is one particular questioning strategy better than another?  Asking questions like this, reflecting on what we do, and then refining our practice is a lot easier than starting from scratch.  So what have been the game changers in my own practice over the last few years?

Planning


Planning lessons is an area that has been widely talked about in education.  In fact I talked about it here.  How much is too much?  How much is too little?  Taxonomies or no taxonomies?  What makes up an outstanding lesson?  If there's one thing that has been highlighted over the years it is that planning is very personal to individual teachers.  One persons approach can be completely different to another and we shouldn't be trying too look for the 'magic formula' of what makes a perfect lesson.  In fact the varying contexts, school settings and students we work with means that a fantastically planned out lesson for one teacher may not work for another.  However, there are some key things that can make planning more effective and more efficient:
  • Plan collaboratively - As Hattie states in Visible Learning, planning is at its most powerful when teachers work together.  Collaborating with others allows ideas to be bounced around, lessons to be critiqued, subject knowledge to be extended and strategies to be shared.  Although finding time may prove an issue, it is definitely worth the effort to do so.
  • Keep it simple - Are we spending our time trying to teach too much and actually over-complicating things in lessons.  Trying to cram in every detail, every fact, followed by a starter, plenary and a wide range of activities can make a 60 minute lesson look very messy.  Try and refine what you teach by identifying the core principles and spend time developing students understanding of them.  What are the two or three things that must be learnt so that students can then access subsequent information.  How can we share that in a way that is accessible for our students?  Focus on this, slow down the time spent on them and remove the messiness.  
  • Learning first, then activities - It can be very easy to think of a new activity to hook students in or grab their attention.  Sometimes in this instance though we focus too much on the activity and not on the learning.  What do you want students to learn?  Will doing this activity help do this or just distract them?  Will it clearly help them acquire the knowledge or skills they need?  Does it take you longer to resource the activity than students spend using it?  If so, maybe rethink what you're doing.  Keep it simple instead.
  • Make them think - Daniel T. Willingham's states that memory is the residue of thought.  When designing lessons check how much real thinking is taking place.  Will students spend time really unpicking information, questioning its value and discussing their opinions.  Will they be spending time thinking about applying knowledge to real contexts or challenging problems?  
  • Backward design - What is the end point or goal and plan backwards until you get there.  Such a simple yet powerful approach which ensures you identify the various stages and routes to an outcome.
Biggest impact:
  • SOLO taxonomy - Love it or hate it, SOLO has really allowed me to unpick a topic and its various components before teaching it.  By doing so it has allowed me the ability to identify core knowledge that I need to spend time covering.  Used purely during the planning phase, it helps me pull apart a topic and refine what I will teach.  It helps ensure that I find larger context to fit the new knowledge in so students see where it fits into the bigger picture.  Mapping it out also lets me create a journey or story, which I don't have to stick to, but helps me explain what it is that I am teaching.

Feedback


Feedback is incredibly complex and the focus of two of my blog posts here and here.  In fact we know that if done well it can have a very high effect on students learning in the classroom.  Unfortunately we also know that if it is done badly it can have detrimental effects.  Feedback has also begun to be applied unreasonably in some schools with increasingly high expectations in marking policies.  It can make an enormous contribution to teacher workload and see little results on what really matters; student learning.  Instead of adding to the complicated world, here are my three game changers for feedback.
  • Feedback should cause thinking - Taken from Dylan Wiliam, if I am going to provide feedback, it had better make students think hard about it.  Throw away comments and the token 'Really good work' are now replaced with a number of strategies such as feedback questions and critique.  Students need to have a change in thought about misconceptions and actively try to correct them if things are going to move forward.  Feedback also needs to help students identify what has gone wrong and what needs to be done to get better.  Making them think is proving to be a great way to make them do that.
  • Feedback should be more work for the recipient than the donor - If you find yourself spending more time writing feedback than students do acting upon it, I'd rethink what you are doing.  Marking keys, burning questions, proof reading work before submission, critique and DIRT time are all ways in which students work harder than you and actually act upon the feedback you are giving.
  • Feedback should close the gap from where students are and where they should be - Do our comments (or even peer comments) actually move the learning forward?  Do they help get students up to the level that they should be?  Would you understand your comments if you read them?  If there are no real misconceptions can we extend a student?
Biggest impact:
  • Feedback questions - Such a simple strategy but ensures students engage with feedback.  When spotting misconceptions, put a number in the margin where the error took place.  At the end of the work, place a question which links to that number.  The question is a reworded variant of the original question, or simply a prompt question that forces the student to realise what mistake was made, and make them think about what the correct answer is.


Questioning

Leven and Long (1981) found that we ask around 300-400 questions a day whilst teaching.  That is a lot of opportunities to fully engage with students and assess their understanding (or effect their thinking).  It is therefore wise to reflect on how we approach questioning (as I did here and here).
  • Provide thinking time - With the average gap between asking a question and asking for an answer being less than one second (Walsh and Sattes 2005), is it no surprise that sometimes the depth/quality of students answers isn't as good as it could be.  Providing wait time, or even using a strategy like snowball questions, jigsaw groups or think, pair, share can be very helpful in giving students the time to formulate a high quality answer.
  • Inclusive questioning systems - Using strategies like Doug Lemov's 'Cold call' or the simple 'No Hands up (with hands up)' method ensures that every student in the class is included in the questioning that goes on.  Check whether you keep asking the same people for answers.  If you do, maybe try one of these methods (here).  Once the culture is formed and the environment is safe for students to contribute, the confidence in sharing answers increases (as does the learning).  Hinge questions are also a great way to get a whole class providing an answer.
  • Modelling & constructing exceptional answers - Stepping away from 'I don't know' or poorly constructed answers is very important.  If this happens try modelling answers with students.  Scaffold their responses so they learn how to provide a well constructed answer.  Highlight exceptional answers and explain why.  Write key points from students answers on the board.  Use ABC questioning.  All of these methods help ensure students know what a good answer is and begin to share them themselves.
Biggest impact:
  • 'No hands up (but with hands up) - Using a simple system where students initially refrain from putting their hands up to answer a question.  It has allowed me to create an environment where all students know a question could be posed to them at any point.  More students stay focused and answers have developed in quality over time.  I also allow hands up after a few answers are taken to allow those students who wish to add to the discussion the opportunity to do so.  From experience I would recommend staying away from random name generators or whizzy name selectors.  Although they allow questioning to be truly random, they slow down the lesson and become tiresome after a while.

Differentiation

The various abilities and needs of students in your lessons mean that we need to tailor how we teach each one.  It doesn't mean that differentiation needs to add to workload or contribute to an over-complicated lesson.  Differentiation should also be for the students we are providing it for, not observers or tick box scrutiny.  I spoke a lot about a sensible approach to differentiation here.
  • Differentiation doesn't need to be visible or just for observers - Differentiation is for your students.  It shouldn't be about ticking off a component of a lesson and definitely shouldn't be pointed out purely for the benefit of an observer.  Differentiation is subtle, personal and ingrained in what we do.  It isn't a short term fix but a longer process of planning.
  • Differentiation is teaching (and very responsive) - It's the conversations we have, the bespoke feedback we give, the way we differ questions between groups of students.  Differentiation is very responsive and happens regularly within the classroom without us even noticing.
  • Aim high and support up - Scrap must/should/could outcomes and set high expectations for all.  Use models, examples of excellence and worked examples where possible.  Show students what they should be aiming for (and even surpassing) and help scaffold students up towards that outcome. Using graphic organisers to help map out ideas, or even dropping in a few A-level questions.  As Daniel T. Willingham said, we shouldn't make the tasks easier, instead we should make the thinking easier.
Biggest impact:
  • Modelling and examples of excellence - Simply demonstrating exceptional work either through modelling or using examples (professional work, my own work or student work).  By doing so, students can see the high expectations that we are aiming for.  By modelling the process, individuals can also see the steps/thought process that was taken so that they can develop similar approaches (or not) themselves.  Modelling and using high quality examples has definitely become a prominent feature in my classroom.

Literacy

Literacy has such an importance in learning.  Establishing how to write effectively and communicate in a coherent manner is something we should all be teaching our students.  With the push for improved literacy in schools, there has become a view that 'literacy' in teaching has become a bolt on.  At it's worst it's become a tick box rather than a core component of our teaching.  I've talked extensively here about how we are all teachers of English and identified a few ways that we can help improve verbal or written communication in our lessons.  As a non-subject specialist, here are a few things that have worked well in my classroom:


  • Demonstrate great writing - Showing students what great writing is has been an important element of my teaching.  Using articles or examples of excellence, students can see first hand what we are aiming for.  As a class we can deconstruct it, analyse it, critique it and discuss what has made that piece of writing great.  We can then begin to model and scaffold how the writer has created their work.  Spending time in lessons to talk through detail and process has allowed students the opportunity to learn from others and endeavor to implement similar ideas themselves.
  • Build up vocabulary - Of the many ways I have found effective in improving students vocabulary it has been encouraging reading around my subject.  Many of my lessons include articles where students naturally pick up subject specific words which are used within context.  We read, we discuss and we take.  We can keep glossaries of new words and even use techniques like @TeacherTweaks vocabulary upgrade to get students to review their writing and improve its academic quality.  Spend time on words as they will benefit students writing in the long run.
  • Build up confidence in structure - Showing students the fundamentals of sentence and paragraph structure is worth focusing on.  I am no English teacher so don't feel confident looking at the technicalities of writing.  What I can do though is use simple scaffolds and strategies to build a foundation with students before allowing them to be creative.  The use of Doug Lemov's 'At first glance' sentence starters helps students include a better quality of academic writing.  Using Helen Handford's 'Four Part Process' for writing excellent sentence that include definition and meaning have shown my students the fundamentals.  Even initially using an essay structure like I.D.E.A (Identify, Describe, Explain and Apply) helps get the basics right before removing the shackles and encouraging freedom.
Biggest impact:

  • The four part process - A process borrowed from Lee Donaghy (who borrowed it from Helen Handford), it is a fantastic way to structure sentences with students.  It asks individuals to identify the thing being written about, add a verb, define it and then add meaning.  Like any other framework, the end result is a sentence that can be read as a complete entity.  The process isn't finished there but requires students to then go away and refine/redraft it further until as a class we have created an amazing sentence.  Co-planning, modelling and high expectations is key.


Making it stick

Remembering information so that students can use it over the long run is an important factor.  Helping students store information so that they can use it in future learning, discussions, debates, answers and exams has become increasingly more important.  The work of cognitive scientists and psychologist is extremely complex but fascinating.  Although we are still learning more about how the brain works every day, there have been some interesting strategies that could be extremely helpful within education (even if just as a starting point):

  • Using desirable difficulties - Robert Bjork's term 'Desirable Difficulties' refers to a number of strategies including frequent low stakes/high impact testing, spacing out the retrieval of old information over time, and interleaving topics together.   The combination of these ensures that information is retrieved at numerous points throughout the learning process, and more importantly, over time.  Small mini tests that focus on old topics during starter activities, identifying where two topics link and spacing out when we revisit old parts of the curriculum are just some of the simple things we can embed into our curriculum, schemes or lessons.
  • Helping working memory - There is still so much to learn about the brain, its functioning and capacity.  However, the discussions around working memory is one area that even though I am a complete novice in, is still an area I find is helpful to know when designing lessons.  With its limited capacity, do we make lessons to fussy or distract students from what we really want them to understand?  Does making them design a powerpoint about the 'principles of training' make them think more about what clip art/animation/font to use rather than really learning the content?  Do our explanations confuse students or overload their working memory?  Keep things clear, simple and focused has been my biggest lesson learnt.
  • Make them think - Daniel T. Willingham talks about memory being the residue of thought.  So how much of my old approach to lessons really got students thinking, and thinking hard?  Check back through your planning.  Instead of copying a definition from a book, could they not answer an exam question which forces them to use the definition in context?
  • Three is the magic number - Although in lower school settings, Nuthal's research of student learning in the classroom brought out a point that really stuck out for me.  In it he found that for a student to really learn, understand and remember a concept, they would need to encounter it on at least three different occasions when being taught it.  I now ensure that I check through my plans and groups of lessons to see if I am asking students to use this information in a variety of ways numerous times.
Biggest impact:
  • Cumulative tests - We use cumulative tests in a variety of ways now.  All of our unit exams and assessments used to be block tests which just focused on what was just taught.  We now include questions from every topic so that students retrieve information from units that were taught 2 months, 6 months or even a year prior.  Although we have yet to see the full impact of this, students are more able to recall topics that would previously have been forgotten.

Data

Data can become one of those time consuming tasks that adds to our ever increasing workload if we are not careful.  For a long time a created spreadsheets and did very little with them.  Data can have great impact on teaching and learning if we use it correctly.  So what have I learnt about data?
  • Are we collecting data just to say we have collected data? - If it's not going to change teaching and learning or help move your students learning forward then don't waste your time.  To often we keep records for 'others' to check.  Follow school guidelines, refine what you do and create a system that helps you make a real impact.
  • Does data improve T&L? - Compare data with your colleagues and department.  Talk about what others are doing in certain topics to get great results.  Borrow ideas from them or co-plan.  Look at what areas your classes have struggled in and evaluate whether the way you taught it was the problem.  Make data be a part of your professional improvement.
Biggest impact:
  • Data to make a difference - Still very much in its early days, we have begun to share data across the department.  Now at meetings we fully scrutinise key areas and talk about what we did, how we taught it, what exactly students got confused with (with exams and tests on the table in front of us to do so) and how we can teach it better next time.  It's about using data to make teaching and learning better, and to help improving us collaboratively.


And so?

I started the 'Can I be that little bit better...?' series as a way to talk openly about my professional development.  Cultures are changing, errors have been made, practice has improved and a lot of thinking has happened on my part.  There is still a long way to go and improvement can always be made.  What I have done though is decided that good teaching is more than just adding strategies to your game.  It's a lot more than that.  It's an understanding of our craft.  Part of this is knowing the fundamentals that underpin effective learning and consciously trying to refine them.  It's then about trying to be a little bit better at using them in the classroom.

Friday, 31 October 2014

Can I be that little bit better at......'doing' data


I will be the first to admit that data and I have had a turbulent relationship over the years.  When I talk about data in this instance I am talking about test scores, exam scores and assessments.  I fully understand the importance of tracking where students are in order to identify those who are falling behind, those who are on track and those who are performing above initial expectations (if we even know what that is?).  After assessments or at calendared data collection points over the various terms I will happily input information to help build up a picture of my students.  I create my own spreadsheets where I can add any additional information in an effort to demonstrate what might be happening over the year.  Here's the problem though.  Once I have input all of this data I rarely do anything productive with it.  Of course I do the obvious stuff and look over it and identify any trends or anomalies that may crop up.  There's the 'Who has hit their targets' check.  There's the 'Who is working above expectation so I can breathe a sigh of relief' check.  There is also the 'Arrrggghhh! What on earth are they doing?!' check which usually results in me crying inside before planning what to do to help this student.  I can use it to talk to students about progress over time and even inform parents of how students are doing.  I do get the feeling though that I have drifted unconsciously into collecting data for the sake of collecting data.  As if it is a way of compiling evidence which I can show line managers without really knowing why.  It kind of feels like I am collecting data for others rather than doing it to either a) improve students learning, or b) improving and aspect of my teaching.  In fact I get the overwhelming feeling at times (and it's my own fault) that I am simply 'doing' data rather than 'using' data for any real or significant purpose.  And within a department context as well, are we using data collectively to bring about meaningful change?  Who knows?  It's got to that time when it's time to change how I tackle the data beast.

So what have we been doing?

The last few years (within our department) have seen us begin to approach data with more of a purpose.  Initially we would input assessments and on a very large spreadsheet we could do the basics.  This would include things like:
  • Picking out those students who have done well
  • Who is on track?
  • Who is performing below expected standard?
  • Who would benefit for intervention?
  • Who is on the C/D borderline?
  • Who do I need to contact home about?
  • What topic areas did students perform badly in which I need to revisit?
The list looks a bit negative and reactive, dealing with what's happened.  There are a number of other things as well but the primary focus on this was to pretty much highlight those not performing as they should and doing something about it.  It could help drive conversations with line managers or within a department about the current state of play.  It usually resulted in some interventions and occasionally ended in a few kick up the bums (for staff and students).  However, I feel that none of this significantly changes the thing that really matters; the teaching and learning.  Remember that this is just my own opinion but here's why.

Are we asking questions?

One of the most common sense things I've heard about data came from our Deputy Head in a meeting last year.  In a conversation about how to create change from what we've collected he said that "Data provides a great opportunity to ask questions about what is going on".  Now I've heard a lot of thoughts around data but this one sits firmly at the front of my mind.  Data can show us a lot of things but asking questions from what we see is a more powerful strategy in my personal opinion.  Why is student x not performing as well as they have in term one and two?  Is there a link between under performance and the seating plan in the class.  How can group x make as much improvement as group y?  Data doesn't always show you the full picture.  In fact it shows you very little compared to the enormous amount of factors that takes place in classrooms and lessons over the whole year/key stage.  But it's contribution can be very powerful if we use it to spot things and ask questions.


Are we just talking about data?

I've spent many a meeting simply talking about data.  With my latest set of results and a spreadsheet sat in front of me I can revel in high grades and cower with poor ones.  We can compare and discuss how classes have been performing.  We can find averages and mention the overused phrases like 'Above national average', '3 levels of progress' and 'Ofsted would grill us with these results'.  The thought from me though is what is this achieving?  Yes we are talking about data but is that actually bringing about change?  Yes it may give me a wake up call that my class is behind everyone else's but do I know how to rectify that?  Yes I can put students forward for intervention but are we missing the point as to why they need it in the first place?  Does knowing that a certain class has 12% higher A*- C help other teachers or simply demoralise them?  Are we just talking about data to simply say we've talked about data?

Does data make us say things we're not quite sure of?

There are those times when the data in front of us doesn't read so well.  At that moment of time (especially when sharing it with others) we may start saying things like "Well what do you expect with those kids?" or "They are bottom set" or "Well I must just be a terrible teacher!".  The flip side to this is when results go very well and we revel in the glory.  Sweeping statements like this don't actually help in the bigger scheme of things and actually masks over the details.  I've done it many a time and have also seen colleagues beat themselves up because of how their classes have performed.  For me, comments like those above help us deal with the disappointment we feel inside when things haven't quite gone as expected.  But saying these things doesn't unpick areas we can work on.  It generalises things without focusing on the detail.  It becomes a factor or a reason which unless we look at it more closely, we might not be quite sure it really is the case.

Does someone else do the analysis for us?

Workload is an issue and I know that delegation can make it easier.  I do wonder if having someone else analysing our data helps us understand the bigger picture ourselves.  Although it can be time consuming, understanding your own class performance helps in some small way identify steps to move forward.

Do we follow up the data?

I'm sure we all do but I'll just make the point anyway.  If students perform poorly on a topic area, do we find time afterwards to close the gap between what they know and what they should know?  If we pick a poorly answered topic area to reteach with the class afterwards, what about those who actually performed well in it?  Do we do a blanket coverage for everyone or can we make it bespoke so people work on areas that they need to?


Is data dominating our time unnecessarily?

I hope not but it can easily do so.  If the time it takes outweighs the benefits or impact it brings, does the system need to change? 

Are we finding time to collaboratively look at data?

Sometimes data can feel like an isolated task.  I mark the assessments.  I create the spreadsheet.  I analyse the results.  I react to the results.  I then plan what to do with the results.  I then do something about the results.  I then also have a meeting to discuss results with a line manager where I talk about my results.  The isolation can sometimes make us work on problems and find solutions which probably aren't better than the initial idea in the first place.  Take this as an example.  A class does poorly on a particular component of a test and as a result we spend the next lesson reteaching it.  But what if we teach it similarly to the way we did the first time?  That was the way I taught it when students clearly didn't understand it so will they get it again this time?  Has there been a change in the way I taught it?  If not, I shouldn't be surprised if the same misconceptions crop up or students still don't get it.  As they say, practice doesn't make perfect.  Perfect practice makes perfect.  Using colleagues during the data analysis can be an enormously important approach and a great time for learning off of each other.

Is data improving teaching and learning?

And this is the main question on my mind?  If we are simply 'doing' data then I'm not sure we are.  If we just talk about it without bringing meaningful change then we certainly aren't.  If we look at data and pick weaknesses, but then still teach the same way, then once again I don't think we are.  If we try and hide our data or make generalisations because results aren't great then we aren't.  Is data improving our teaching?  Is data improving the learning in the classroom?  After a meeting with Pete Pease, our Director of Learning for Maths and Science, I'm hoping that it begins to do so.  Data can still be about trends and anomalies, but in a more powerful approach shouldn't it also be about developing us as teachers and improving the learning that goes on in classrooms.

How? - Data with a purpose

During that meeting I found that we've taken great leaps in the way that we are tackling data in our department.  It seems that although not full proof (and the model I will propose isn't full proof either), what we have put in place has created a great foundation.

When marking exams or tests we note common misconceptions or identify students who have performed differently then expected.  This simply takes the form of a blank sheet of paper and a few scribbles as we go.  Building a picture as we go can be vital later on.

After each theory assessment or exam we then create a spreadsheet which breaks down the exam into its smaller components.  These components are colour co-ordinated for cross reference and tracking.  For each component we enter the mark that each individual student got.  It takes very little extra time.  Although this is nothing new and not rocket science, it allows us to do a number of effective things.  Firstly we can get a better overview of each topic area.  How have the students performed in general?  Did they score well or is this an area we need to look more closely at?  Were there any strong areas?  Is there a trend in results compared to question types (multiple choice, short answer or long answer)?  Was it a technical aspect that was answered well/not well?  Was it the written communication that was effective/ineffective.  The spreadsheets allow us to quickly get a better understanding of where we are.

Secondly, the data allows us to look at students performance over time in each topic area.  Our unit tests, for example, used to be block tests which just focused on what had been taught.  This is no longer the case and we now include questions from every taught topic in every exam.  Ultimately our final unit test will have questions from the full course.  With this colour co-ordinated on our spreadsheet we can quickly see if the topic of  'somatotypes' for student A is still a weak area or has it got better?  Is student B forgetting information over time?  Is it the same areas that are still causing us the most problems?  This allows us to keep our finger on the pulse and respond when needed.

We are also very focused on follow up and after every test and data analysis, we run two closing the gap lessons.  In the past we may have picked a poorly answered topic area and taught this to all students once again.  But what if some students did very well in this and it becomes a waste of time?  Instead we share the test information with individual students and they use this to pick weak topic areas to focus on.  They revisit the targeted area, analyse their response, check mark schemes/lesson notes/text books/resources and attempt to answer the question again with a better outcome.  Some students simply read the question again and instantly know what the answer should have been.  This approach makes it bespoke for all students and allows us the opportunity to go round and work with students on a 1:1 basis or in small groups.  Two lessons of work and hopefully this topic isn't a weakness in our next unit test.

So what's different then?  How can data improve T&L?

Pete's message was very clear.  Although we have a solid foundation and things are better than they previously were, can we raise our game and use this data to improve teaching and learning?  The power of in depth analysis and collaboration within your department team can be a powerful tool and one which can occasionally be underused.  Finding time in meetings to step away from 'doing' data should be high up on the priority list.


Transparency and a supportive culture

The first area for improvement is transparency within the department and one of a supportive culture.  Sharing everyone's data with one another may seem a scary prospect and may cause anxiety if an individuals class has underperformed.  Even more so during a department meeting.  Why would we want others to see this?  It can feel like we are opening ourselves up and bringing our reputation as a teacher into question.  But it doesn't have to be like that.  The ethos should be about using each others experience to help move the department as a whole together.  It's a difficult culture to develop but learning off of each other through discussion and observations is a powerful driver of change in teachers habits.  Sharing a departments data with its own teachers allows us to sit down with each other and perform a detailed analysis.  We can look across classes at different groups of learners.  We can highlight topics that have been answered well across the different groups.  We can see what question types have been answered better in different classes.  All of these things, with each other, sat around a table, allows us to then ask the question 'why?'.

Bringing out the detail

With asking why we normally have a multitude of reasons being given.  Sometimes if a topic has gone well and results highlight this we can say things like 'they were a bright class'.  If the results are poor we can say 'no matter what I said they didn't get it'.  These things might well be the case but it doesn't give us much to work with.  It isn't specific enough.  Instead it's worth looking at the overall spreadsheet and identifying areas that weren't answered well.  Picking out topics (only two or three at a time) we can then bring out the students exams, tests and assessment papers for detailed analysis.  What did students write on question two in all of our classes?  Can we see what their thought process or thinking was?  What specifically was it that they got wrong, missed or interpreted incorrectly?  Is it a trend across all classes which may be down to our scheme of work or materials?  If not, is it down to individual classes or specific groups.  It is an interesting task and by unpicking student answers for poorly answered questions we get to the core of the problems.  I could hazard a guess and say 'well it's because they don't use technical terminology' but how do I know unless as a group of teachers we look through the papers in detail to see if it actually was?

A driver of change

Once we have looked at the papers and worked out what went wrong in these questions/topics, we can then begin to bring about change.  Usually I would then go back and reteach that piece of information so students got exposed to it again.  What if the way I taught it was the problem?  What if my explanation was the issue?  What if my examples confused students?  Through collaborative analysis we can look at classes who did perform well on a topic and ask the teacher to share how they taught it.  What did they say?  How did they model it?  What resources did they share?  We rarely find the time to visit other classrooms so this is a perfect, and very beneficial, time to develop each others practice.

Making the change to the learning that takes place should then be the key.  Knowing what my class needs to work on, and knowing how other teachers have successfully taught it, we can then spend time working together to improve students understanding.  This is where planning with colleagues comes into its element.  Challenge each other, learn from experience, seek advice and reflect.  If it doesn't work when we reteach or recover the topic again we can easily come back and unpick it again.  Has data ever allowed this to happen in your department?  I know it can easily be missed.

Doing data?

We shouldn't simply be 'doing' data.  The value of what we collect and collate can actually be a powerful driver of change and if used wisely and in a manageable way, can actually ensure (in a collaborative way) that we improve and increase the learning in our classrooms.  It doesn't have to be more time consuming either.  We mark the papers so we simply input the finite grades.  We look at our results so it's now about looking at this as a department.  We have the papers so it's easy to bring them out to scrutinise specific answers from your class.  We always try to correct the mistakes of our learners but now it's about learning off of each other and making that change to our practice.  It's about a culture within a department and one which could contribute positively as we move forward.  It's about using data rather than doing data.

Sunday, 31 August 2014

Can I be that little bit better at.....understanding why I might be getting differentiation wrong



There are a few things in education that either scare me or confuse me.  One such thing is the term differentiation.  When I trained as a teacher we discussed the fact that students vary in ability in lessons.  This is common sense and something anyone would be able to tell you.  If I remember back to my own school days, every lesson I was in put me in a different academic standing.  Some lessons I flew in, some I struggled and some I just plodded along.  It's obvious then that students in lessons may require additional support, help or challenge.  Now this thought sits very comfortably with me.  But this sounds so simple.  Why then does the term 'differentiation' wake me up in the middle of the night with screams of terror?

A few years into my teaching something changed.  All of a sudden (and I'm not sure where it came from) people were talking about the fact that we need to be planning detailed lessons that highlighted and catered for every single student in the classroom.  The word flew in like a whirlwind and numerous strategies and ideas were left in its path.  Suggestions of designing a lesson numerous different ways, creating thirty different worksheets for thirty different students, changing the outcomes for the different abilities in your lesson, utilise students learning styles, that it should be clearly visible to an observer how I was differentiating for every student.....  It all got a bit overwhelming and if I'm totally honest, a little bit far fetched.  Luckily for me our school stayed pretty grounded and kept things in perspective.  But the worry of whether I was doing it right still lingered.
The differentiated worksheet

The reason that this particular face of differentiation bothers me is that it seems very unrealistic on teachers.  I am fully aware that the students in my classroom are very unique and learn in very different ways.  Experience tells me this.  I understand that some prefer different approaches and various forms of interactions.  I understand that students differ in the type of instruction they need.  They're not battery hens where a one size fits all system works.  But what for me felt like hysteria around differentiation a few years back gave me the feeling that what was expected wasn't for the students, but for other groups of people.  It felt like there was an expectation that every lesson had to be uniquely tailored to all students.  Now that takes time.  And I tried it for a while.  Believe me I did.  I spent hours on each lesson thinking how I could ensure every student was catered for.  But ultimately it became an impossible task and I felt fraudulent when I eventually only did this level of planning for things like observations.  So how could I manage this effectively and be realistic, and a bit more effective, in helping cater for students in my lessons?

As part of my renewed focus on my practice over the past few years I started to think of ways that I could scrap this view of differentiation, and simply look at ways that I could instead provide challenge for all.  In fact I'm not even sure what I'm talking about is differentiation anymore.  With it I began focusing on approach that would ultimately work for me and my students.  So what lessons have I learnt?

Differentiation isn't a short term fix
For me differentiation felt like a series of short term solutions.  'How could I adapt this part of teaching for this part of this lesson for this student on this day' became stuck in my head.  What I've learnt is that differentiation isn't about that at all.  It's not about one off strategies and doing things in isolation.  These can help but for me it's much better than that.  Differentiation is all of those tiny subtle things we do on a day to day basis.  The things we do naturally with the various students in response to their needs.  The hundreds of conversations, questions, discussions and pieces of advice.  These small moments that happen consistently on a daily basis makes a much bigger deal in the long run.

Sometimes you may not even know you're doing it
There are times in our profession, especially in observations, when we feel we have to make every action in our classroom visible.  But sometimes differentiation will happen and you may not even notice you've done it.  I worry that we expect differentiation to be the adapted worksheet or different task.  Something we know we've done and can point to in lessons.  Something we can physically hold on to and say 'here it is!'.  Or worse, something we go out of our way to make visible for others to observe it.  But differentiation may simply be the bespoke feedback you've given or the way you've demonstrated something differently to a student.  It's the way we respond to students needs.  It's helping students move forward.  As I've just said, it's the tiny conversations we have.  Those small things happen every single lesson and we may not even notice or recognise it.  That for me is differentiation.

Differentiation should be simple
Over complicating differentiation has been my downfall in the past.  It shouldn't take hours of my planning time but instead be part and parcel of what I do.  I don't need over complicated resources, activities or tasks.  Making things more efficient and manageable is a much better way to go.

More work isn't differentiation - is it?
There were times when all I did was provide more work for those who were flying which meant less work for those who weren't.  Is this differentiation though or is it just simply setting more tasks.  I'm not sure I know the answer.  I guess that if we do provide more work, it should firstly be something that extends students rather than being much of the same.  Secondly we need to make sure that there is a culture that everyone is expected to have the same output otherwise some students may produce two or three times the amount than others.

30 different worksheets for 30 different students isn't realistic
Yes every single student in your class is different but spending hours creating unique and bespoke resources can be very time consuming.  If it will help, if it will challenge, if it will support and if it will be used again then go ahead and make it.  If you feel that simply planning your explanations, your questioning, your feedback or demonstrations would be a better and more effective part of a lesson, maybe the worksheets can wait.



Don't make the task easier, making the thinking easier
Adapted from Daniel T. Willingham, this little nugget of advice has really stuck with me.  Instead of making the outcomes of tasks easier for different groups of students, structure the thinking behind it that little bit better.  A colleague of mine said a few months back that ultimately, every student in her class, regardless of ability, will have to sit the exact same exam with the exact same time limit as everyone else.  Making tasks easier for some just means that they will know less.  I have to agree.  Gone are the 'must, could, should' objectives and differentiated endpoints.  Instead every student has to learn the same key content, but, the way each student thinks and gets there may be different.

Differentiation is about knowing your students
I can't think of many things more important to help you teach your students.

Focusing too much on a group
I found myself guilty of focusing on specific groups of students that I actually took my eyes of those that remained.  Pinpointing under achievers or stretching the more able is important, but what I did when doing this was forget about those not in these groups.

And finally, differentiation is responsive
If you have a firm grasp on your group and you use various forms of evidence, assessment or data, you can plan differentiation into your lessons effectively.  Equally, if you know your students and know the difficult parts of the topics you teach, you could probably plan and adapt your delivery differently at these 'sticking points'.  Being prepared and planning differentiation is important.  However, I fell in love with the term coined by Andy Tharby; Differentiation the responsive way.  Most of the differentiation we do in lessons happens in response to the events that unravel.  Yes we can plan until the cows come home but it's the moments in a lesson when you have to rephrase an instruction, give a prompt when someone is stuck, pose a tough question that spins a student on their head when they are flying.  We never know what will happen in lessons.  We work with students so why would we.  Having experience, skill and expertise in our teaching means we can respond to differentiating when it jumps out on us unexpectedly.

So my approach to differentiation has changed and I hope for the better.  Instead of trying to plan numerous resources and creating an extensive range of activities, my focus is to respond to students needs in the lesson.  Planning to pinpoint sticking points, looking at tailoring questions, giving personalised feedback and helping support every student to achieve the same high aspirational goal is the key.  So how am I doing it?

1. Data, assessment and information that I'll actually use
Data is important but too often we can focus on the wrong things.  Regular marking, questioning students, homework scores, test result, quality of book work.....are all things that help me build up a picture of how my students are doing.  Years ago I would mark books because I had to.  Now I take books to help me see who needs help, who needs to be stretched and who needs a rocket firmly placed.  Paying attention to these details helps you understand the individuals and allows you to have those all important conversations.

2. Seating plans
Now I have tried a million different seating plans in my lessons.  For a while the consensus for some was to have more able and less able sat together.  The idea was to have direct support there when the lower ability student needed it.  It allowed students to feel confident that the person next to them could help them and in return, the more able student would reinforce their understanding by explaining it to their peer.  At the end of Year 11 I regularly get students to evaluate my teaching so I can tweak in preparation for my next group.  Out of all of the things, this type of seating plan took the biggest hit.  The higher ability students in the class highlighted their dislike for such a plan.  They felt that when they wanted to extend themselves they had to come back to help those who were struggling.  They also felt that discussions were limited and never grew with much depth.  The less able enjoyed the support but benefited more from my intervention.  Over the last few years I now group students based on their results.  After unit tests or exams, the groups are reworked.  Those that consistently achieve around the A*-A grades work together.  Those around the B grade sit together.  And this goes on.  And it changes every unit.  Now is it working?  Well if I had to group students without any sort of data but purely on knowing my students they would be roughly the same groups.  It means that I can go to every group and pose a slightly different question or challenge their thinking.  On one table I may pose a question that gets them to reinforce a key piece of information.  On another table I may ask students to think about the impact this topic has had on another.  It isn't full proof but it allows me to provide 6 or 7 differentiated pieces of instruction, questions or feedback very quickly.

3. Oh no, not SOLO - The Marmite of eductaion
Love it or hate it but using SOLO taxonomy to plan my lessons allows me to think through the different stages or a topic.  It really helps me break down the components and begin to formulate a plan of delivery.  This allows me to identify possible sticking points and create simple contingencies or interventions.  The system also allows students to have different entry points.  I can work with some students developing the important content knowledge that they need whilst helping others tie this topic into other areas we have covered.  The taxonomy also allows students to go back a level as well.  I worry some feel that we need to get to the top to EA as quick as we can where as we can actually spend a good lesson or two developing students uni/multi-structural knowledge go back and forth until it is secure.  For me it's a real help.

4. Conversations
More than anything I now try to spend time chatting to my students.  Lesson time doesn't allow me to have numerous 1:1 chats, primarily because I have to get through the teaching.  One thing I have done is design a rota where I aim to chat to 4 or 5 specific students every lesson.  Over the course of a few lessons I have had a conversation with every member of the class about their progress, where they are at, what needs to be improved and where need to go to move them forward.  The conversation is bespoke, it's unique and it's tailored to that student.  By using a rota as a guide combined with the general hustle and bustle of getting around your class, I now try to ensure I have real conversations with students about their learning.  Some are longer than others, some are more direct than others, but ultimately they happen and they happen regularly.



5. Bespoke feedback
Feedback, in my own personal opinion, has to be one of the best methods of differentiation.  What I say to one student will be different from what I say to another.  The tailoring of this feedback can prompt a student to become unstuck or stretch their thinking beyond the curriculum.  Each student is individual no matter how similar their grades may suggest.  What you say can be hugely important and is such a vital part of our craft.  Marking falls under this category as well.  It may be slightly more time consuming than generic comment stickers or stamps, but I aim to give every student at least two feedback questions when I mark.  Yes two students may have a similar grade or mark, but they have probably had a different experience doing that work.  Knowing my students allows me to provide personal feedback that works for that individual.  Feedback in my eyes in key.

6. Questioning
There's a real craft in using questioning to support, stretch and challenge.  Planning questions for key parts of the lesson is advisable but the art of being responsive and posing them in real time is a real skill.  There are those students whose bewildered faces suddenly become enlightened when a rephrased question you pose gets them unstuck.  There are those able students who think they've done it, only for you to spin their head with a higher level question.  Having such questions at the ready may come over time with increased confidence in your subject and increased experience.  But, along with the bespoke feedback you give, what can be more effective and more efficient in terms of differentiation?  In my eyes, not much.

7. Examples of excellence
No book has inspired me more than Ron Berger's 'An Ethic of excellence'.  The book shares numerous stories of how Ron gets students from a young age to create work well beyond their years.  It is a masterpiece and a must read.  Throughout the book Ron explains how he uses 'examples of excellence' with his students to demonstrate the high quality of work they need to produce.  He doesn't expect lower ability students to create any less work than a more able.  In fact he aims students to produce professional pieces of work such as architect designs and town radon reports.  The choice of excellent examples is a fundamental building block in the process.  By sharing outstanding or high quality work with students, you can inspire them to achieve work beyond what they probably believed.  The examples help students understand where work could lead to and the dissection and unpicking of it helps to make the steps to greatness concrete.  Collecting examples from industry, media articles and from students is easy to do and can be brought out when units or schemes are taught again in the future.



8. Modelling
Modelling is not a new idea but one that is used so regularly in the classroom.  And is it differentiation?  If we go by any technical definition it might not be.  In my classroom though, modelling is an essential component.  Over the years I have begun to use students work as it happens.  Sharing students work with their peers can be very helpful.  Like with examples of excellence, models happen there and then.  They can incorporate greatness, errors, and process of thinking.  They help students who are struggling see the next steps.  By working as a class to refine a sentence it can help the more able progress their work further.  If we use models in the right way, they become an important method and can provide so much in terms of moving everyone forward.



9. I scaffold and structure
As Daniel T. Willingham talked about, I shouldn't be making the task easier.  Instead I should support the thinking that is needed to get there.  And I totally agree with this.  Within my lessons students are expected to produce excellent pieces of work.  Some will get their by themselves.  Others will need varying levels of support.  What none of them needs is for me to make tasks easier and expect lower standards.  Using a variety of scaffolds is very helpful.  Using ideas like the four part process for writing excellent sentences is one great tool that pops up again and again in my class.  For some students it becomes the guide that they really need.  For others it is just a simple reminder of what to include.  For others it is irrelevant as they write with confidence, style and elegance.  Ideas like Dough Lemov's 'At first glance' sentence starters has also been a great way to develop, support and extend.  Simply providing three words of differing academic difficulty (although all of them are still quite high) forces students to think and adapt the subsequent sentence they craft.  Designing and displaying these starters is quick and effective.  The important thing is that these types of scaffolds become redundant the more skillful the students become.  And that's what I feel scaffolding and using structures (like PEED, IDEA and so on) should do.  Help when it's needed but then disappear when ready.




10. Graphic organisers
I rarely produce a worksheet for lessons anymore simply because of the balance between the time it took to produce it, compared to the time the student actually used it.  Instead I have a bank of graphic organisers which I can tweak and tailor when needed.  The beauty of these resources (such as double bubble maps, compare and contrast maps) is that they can help students keep track of the information before working with it.  The less able in the class can use them to record key points and then manipulate them.  The more able can use them to find more detailed connections and relationships.  The organisers are excellent and can be used flexibly from one lesson to the next.  Adding prompt questions or even high level statements can support or stretch abilities.  They can also help scaffold and structure work.  A complex essay can be quickly mapped out before becoming a plan for the subsequent drafts.  Graphic organsiers in my classroom have made things a lot clearer for students and have a place for all ability levels.

11. A level beyond the curriculum
I've thought a lot that we shouldn't simply be restricted by the curriculum we follow.  Yes students must know, cover and learn information that may come up in exams, but we can go beyond to really enlighten them.  I've been dropping a few AS level PE exam questions into lessons.  I use them for two reasons. Firstly, when something becomes difficult, showing them something at a more advanced level demonstrates the bigger picture and has helped students understand the topic better.  Doesn't sound right does it?  Secondly, they provide a great challenge when students have finished work and shows them that a topic isn't finished.  There is always something more to learn.

12. Expect excellence
And finally, I set the expectation that every student can produce great work.  I know that links into the Growth Mindset ethos, and some might argue that not every student is capable of producing great work, but I do set the aim that we all can achieve a high standard of work.  And I demonstrate how.  Redrafting work shows that things do get better when we act upon feedback.  Using techniques like the literacy upgrade shows that by improving the vocabulary we use in answers or essays, or work becomes more academic.  By spending time with a peer/group/class removing redundant words I show that we don't all need to waffle and in fact we can become much clearer in our writing.  Demonstrating these small things makes a big difference and changes habits.


And so?
And that final point is the big deal for me.  It's the small things that make a big difference over time.  Like Sir Dave Brailsford's Marginal gains, the aggregation of all of these little strategies improves the outcome over time.  Are some of these things differentiation by definition?  Most probably not.  But I have learnt that I can't make lessons 1:1 or bespoke to every student every lesson.  That takes too much time and is unrealistic.  Instead I can put in manageable strategies and spend time doing the things that matter.  In my eyes, if you asked me outright, I'd say effective differentiation (for me) is talking, questioning, challenging, marking and responding.  I call it teaching.  So can I be that little bit better at differentiation?  I probably can, and probably a million times better.  But I am not super human.

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

Can I be that little bit better at......asking effective questions?


After writing my last post on barriers to effective questioning, I began to reflect a lot on the strategies I use in the classroom.  One of the main areas of focus was why some of the methods I have used throughout my career might not have been as effective as they possibly could have been.  Questioning is such a frequent tool in the classroom and one that is used to elicit what it is that students think or know about a topic.  If we don't ask questions then how on earth can we assess their learning.  From the last post I made the point that some of the ways I delivered questions fall short of the mark.  I pulled out a list of reasons why my questioning techniques need tweaking in order to maximise their impact:

  • Calling on high achievers a lot more than low achievers
  • Same student answering
  • Not enough wait time
  • Lack of depth in the questions
  • 'Guess what's inside my head'
  • Responding to students answers (just moving on)
  • Giving them the answer
  • Asking questions that are too complex
  • Dealing with 'The hands up kids!'
  • Patience
  • 'I don't know' and dealing with similar answers
  • Only gaining one students insight
  • Wrong answers and what I do with them
This list is quite extensive and rightly so.  If you look at them closely, they are more about what the students gain from questioning rather than what we as teachers do.  And I firmly believe that that should be the case.  If I remember back to my school days I probably thought questioning was a way for teachers to either annoy us or check we were still awake.  As a new teacher I thought questioning was part and parcel of what we were expected to do.  Now more experienced I see questioning as a way for students remember, connect, expand ideas, discuss, agree, disagree, share opinions, challenge, entice curiosity, offer perspectives and much more.  So when looking at this list in an effort to improve questioning, new strategies or refined techniques might not attend to all of them in one go.  However, a series of habit changes and a combination of strategies might ensure that the questions I ask have a lot more impact than before.  So can I be that little bit better at asking effective questions?


Culture

One key area that kept cropping up when looking at my questioning was why students don't involve themselves in the process.  If I think back to my days at school, I can picture classes with old friends and peers with different abilities, backgrounds and views on education.  We had some who enjoyed school.  We had some who tolerated school.  We had the naturally talented.  We had those who struggled.  We had some who gave their all.  We had some who wasted talent.  We had some who knew it all.  We had some who found school wasn't for them.  With such diversity in the class I found that sharing ideas and opinions during class discussions could be a mine field.  A wrong answer could be met with a severe put down from peers.  A great answer could result in ridicule as you are seen as a 'boff' or teachers pet.  The worry of the teacher finding out you have no idea left you feeling pressured, panicked or worried.  The culture of a classroom might not be that different now.  Who really knows.  But that culture where sharing answers during class questioning is safe is extremely important.  Yes we want students to challenge each other and offer opposing opinions, but we need to ensure that the environment in which questioning occurs allows everyone to contribute without the worry of ridicule or panic.  Setting clear rules, modelling how to share answers, demonstrating good protocol and scaffolding the process allow students the security to be involved.  Celebrating good answers, valuing opinions and rationally challenging ideas takes time to achieve, but setting up such a culture means that the methods that follow might have a lot more success.

Quality of answers

If we allow it, student responses could become very weak or low in standard.  Challenging students to provide answers can be quite a task in some instances.  Setting expectations that every answer must be high quality can be even harder.  Still, it is worth the battle if you set ground rules regarding the answers students provide.  It will take time to introduce them, model them, scaffold them and reinforce them, but the quality over time will improve immensely.
  • Set that expectation that every student must speak loud enough so that they can be heard by all.  There is nothing worse when a student mumbles and the majority of the class can't hear it.  
  • Ask that they use well structured sentences and language.  Now this will take time to develop but similar to writing, students should be using specific terminology, sound structure and a range of vocabulary.  Be a stickler for slang words.  It will be tough but it is well worth it.
  • Develop it if it needs to be.  Some students will settle for giving you the minimum they possibly can.  If an answer is a bit thin on the ground, before using another technique like ABC questioning, ask the student to refine their answer so that we as a class can do something with it.  It may need prompts and probing questions but getting a culture established among students that high quality answers are the norm is a great first step.

One Mississippi, two Mississippi........Wait time

As I pointed out in the last post, teachers rarely leave students enough thinking time before asking for an answer.  As simple as it may seem, pausing before asking students to contribute is a key thing.  Unfortunately from my own (and others) experience, the fear of silence in a lesson is one of the reasons we rush in.
Make it your standard practice to allow at least 3 or 4 seconds before asking students to contribute.  The difference in that and rushing is can be immense.  The quality of answers and the depth of thinking might just be that little bit better.  Silence doesn't mean that learning isn't taking place.  Students need space to think so build this in (just make sure that it doesn't just become extended daydreaming time).

Planning questions

With the nature of learning and the messy form that it can take in lessons, it is not uncommon that its direction can deviate at times.  Trying to plan your questions is therefore unrealistic.  In fact I would recommend not trying to plan every question as it would be so time consuming and probably a waste of time.  Instead the majority of questions we pose are responsive to the situation and occur when needed.  The ability to react in such a way requires us to have expertise in our subject knowledge so we can stretch and challenge all abilities.  However, you are still able to plan carefully designed questions to use at specific times.  Imagine a topic you teach.  Many have key points that must be understood or common areas of misconception.  At these times, during your planning phase, construct one or two questions for the lesson that you can pull out at these pivotal points.  The ability to have them on hand to reinforce or correct the learning can be extremely helpful and ensure students head towards a desired outcome.


ABC questions

I have absolutely no idea where I first heard about this technique.  It has now become a regular routine in my classroom even if I don't make specific reference to the strategy.  ABC stands for Add, Build and Contest/Challenge.  It is a way of turning the process of questions and answers into a class dialogue.  Rather than simply gaining one students insight or calling on the same student over and over again, the teacher poses a class question which they allow time to mull over.  When the teacher calls upon a student to answer they use this as the beginning of the dialogue.  The teacher then invites other students to contribute.  The first stage is having others 'Add' to the initial answer.  Was there anything that you would add that might have been missed out?  Was there a bit of information, key word or idea missing?  Was there a part of the answer that needs refining?

The teacher then asks if anyone would like to 'Build' upon the answer.  This involves adding more structure or content.  It could involve drawing in additional information or vocabulary to make the answer more academic.  The idea is the class is now building this up and developing the complexity.

The final stage involves offering the opportunity for anyone to 'Challenge' what has been said.  This is crucial as students may not agree.  Rather than let it be a free for all, the process allows a rational approach to rebut, disagree, oppose or offer a different perspective.  The process of reasoning also allows students to understand a variety of viewpoints or even consider an alternative answer that might not have been initially perceived.  Depending on the quality of the answer, the ABC process can begin again.  The whole process is simple to implement and excellent for modelling.

Live write the answer

Such a simple idea but one that I see underused.  It is certainly one that I have only recently begun to do more avidly.  The process simply involves annotating answers on the board as students give them.  Attention spans, working memory capacity and distractions can sometimes mean that after a complex answer has been given, peers or classmates have forgotten what has been said.  The process involves the teacher keeping track of the answer and noting down any key elements of it on the board.  This allows students to then reflect upon what has been said and generate a discussion about its quality.  With it being so visual, the teacher can then manipulate structure or have it critiqued by the class in an effort to improve it.  Students can discuss the answer in pairs or consider it individually.  By it being live, it is easier to keep track or the thought process and in itself becomes more memorable.




Driving questions

Driving questions are generally thought provoking open ended questions that is used in approaches such as PBL.  A driving question is large in itself but requires a bank of knowledge and understanding to answer it.  Although large, the question is refined enough that it requires students to focus on specific topics and information.  It can been seen as a hook which prompts curiosity.  In our current GCSE course, we split our topics into units.  Each unit was carefully designed to include areas of the curriculum that were related to each other.  Each of these units has a driving question which literally 'drives' the learning.  In our recent physiology unit, the question we launched with was 'How do the four physiological systems interlink to allow an athlete to perform in competition?'.  The question prompted curiosity and thought before the subsequent lessons pieced the answers together.  Every lesson the driving question was mentioned and new information was added to the students thinking.  At the end of the unit students are given this as an extended question which they must answer using what they have learnt.  The beauty behind using this method is every student has the same carefully selected question throughout.  The question itself is one which all students ultimately need to know by covering the unit.  It allows teachers the opportunity to assess what has been learnt and forces them all to demonstrate it.

Questions as objectives

Very similar to driving questions is the process of using questions as objectives.  The question will pose curiosity among the students and set up a bigger picture of where this topic is going.  Like with the driving questions, all students should be expected to answer it in some form during the lesson (whether as a final task or plenary).


No hands up (but with hands up)

There are a lot of strategies out there that work on randomly selecting students to answer questions in lessons.  The 'not knowing if it is me' scenario is one way to keep most students involved in the lesson.  The process involves choosing a student at random who provides an answer.  As it could be anyone, student naturally need to be paying attention.  Over the years you might have seen name cards, lolly pop sticks, spinning wheel random name selectors, an Octopus that selects boxes with students names on (or was that just in the 2010 World Cup?).  My preferred method which I share with fellow teachers is extremely technical and simply involves pointing at a student and asking them.  Either way, the process means that the same students in lessons don't get asked.  But hold on a minute.....what about those students who actually want to answer a question rather than the student trying to wriggle out of it.  Should they still not be allowed an opportunity to share?  Why should they be penalised?  This is a good point.  The last thing we want to do is cause students to lose motivation or give up caring.  A straightforward solution is to work on the no hands up strategy (Doug Lemov calls it 'Cold Call') but after one or two answers, allow students to put their hands up and share their responses.  It seems so simple yet on numerous times when I have mentioned this people say 'Oh yeah, I'll do that'.  Yes all students should be part of the questioning process and have to think.  No hands up does that.  But we should still allow those who genuinely want to contribute, and who may bring a high quality answer that may change the lesson, to share their ideas as well.

Modelling with questions

There are times when a student comes out with a mind-blowing answer that summarises everything you have asked so concisely.  It doesn't happen everyday and sometimes it is lost on the majority of their peers.  Students need to understand why it is you are praising  the depth of the answer.  Annotating it on the board and deconstructing it helps the remainder of the class see how that conclusion was made.  Highlight the thinking.  Highlight the structure.  Highlight the vocabulary and use of terminology.  Show students (just like with writing) how they too can end up at the same outcome.

Hinge questions (and other whole class response systems)

Hinge questions have quickly become one of my favourite questioning strategies.  One of the problems with a lot of questioning is it only asks one student at a time.  There is a danger that doing this does not paint an accurate picture of what the remainder of the class thinks, and, it is time consuming to then move onto the next individual.  Whole class response systems allow you to quickly see what every student thinks and gives you a slightly better temperature of the classroom.  A hinge question itself is where at a critical point in the lesson, usually for me at the stage where I want to move onto more complex tasks, you share a multiple choice question on the board for students to think over.  The answers are labelled 1, 2, 3, 4/A, B, C, D and students have to raise their hand/white board in response to which answer they think is correct.  Designing hinge questions can be tricky to start with.  The wrong options need to be close enough that they may be plausible but not too similar that they may cause a misconception to be learnt.  That can be tricky to unlearn and fix.  They also shouldn't be too easy that they become pointless.  A quick scan of the class allows you to decide whether to move on or spend more time on the topic you have just covered.

Question statements

Stolen entirely from Dylan Wiliam is question statements.  As a teacher you display a statement based on a topic or piece of learning you have just covered.  Rather than it being a question to elicit an answer, it challenges students to think of a more developed response that share their opinion.  To do it justice, here is the excerpt from Dylan:


This is an idea that I have become a big fan of.  It's simplicity yet alternative way of working means that students are forced to think and draw opinions.  The simple tweaks to our input means that students can be continuously challenged.

You've got 30 seconds - Bounce.

Out of all of the lessons I have observed, one where I watched our Director of Learning stood out the most.  In his lesson he had a mixed ability Year 9 class.  During the lesson he asked a question to students.  He offered some wait time before he asked for an answer.  No hands went up and no contributions were made when called upon.  At this point I got my pen out ready to make some eagle eyed observation notes.  Before I had even got the lid off he simply said to the class, "Okay guys you have 30 seconds to get an answer, off you go".  My pen was safely put away.  The answers that came from the repeated round of questioning was a million times better.  Initially I thought a number of problems had occurred.  Maybe the question was to complex?  Maybe the students weren't listening?  Maybe they hadn't gained the necessary knowledge to answer it.  Instead all the students needed was 30 seconds to bounce their ideas around and feel confident that what they were going to say was along the right lines.


Snowballing

One of the first real strategies I had for questioning (apart from simply firing them from the hip) was snowballing.  It still becomes part of my teaching repertoire and crops up in lessons now and again.  I simply ask a question to the class and allow students time to develop an answer for themselves.  I then ask students to share it with a partner so they can compare and evaluate the answers they have reached.  They then grow into groups of four, then half a class until we share a refined answer as a class.  The process allows students to analyse each others statements.  When the group size grows each student has a chance to share their view and time is allocated to refining that answer into a shared consensus.  The final few answers hopefully include a wider content base, more factual meaning, higher reasoning and increased structure and vocabulary.  The process itself doesn't ever have to reach the whole class stage.  Sometimes time won't simply allow it.  A similar strategy is 'Think, Pair, Share' where the same principle of independently creating and answer before collaborating exists.  Instead of going for large numbers, the same principles exist for sharing an answer with a partner before sharing their perspective with a class.

Write it down

Sometimes students aren't able to pull together a constructive answer in their head.  Occasionally a question is quite complex or contains wording which needs thinking time.  In this instance it is a great help to allow students an opportunity to write down initial thoughts.  It only needs to be in short hand or bullet point but allows students an opportunity to refer to notes when sharing their ideas in class.


Exit tickets

Exit tickets have now become a common theme in my lesson.  The strategy is great to use as it ask students to summarise the key learning within the lesson as well as provides some more of formative assessment which you can use for future planning.  Ideally used right at the very end of the lesson, the teacher poses a challenging question on the board.  In my experience, the question should only be a maximum of a 3 or 4 marks so students have ample time to respond to it.  The question pulls out the key learning concept from the lesson and forces students to show they have an grasp on it.  As we know (from Bjork's Learning v Performance) it doesn't give you a huge indicator of what learning has taken place, but it is another opportunity to squeeze thinking into your lesson and have students manipulate the information they have just had shared with them.  The teacher asks the students to either answer the question on a slip or write it in their books for marking.  If the responses are very poor, the teacher can then attend to that topic area in the next lesson.  If the answers are excellent, the teacher can skim this before moving onto a new area.


Generating questions

Research suggests that the majority of questions that are posed in lesson come from teachers.  Why is it that we spend little time getting students to develop their own questions?  A technique I borrowed from Martin Said on my visit to Cramlington in 2009 was the Questioning Grid (Kipling's).  The grid has been well documented by such teachers as John Sayers and Tait Coles.  It uses Rudyard Kipling's 6 questions (who, where, what, when, how and why) combined with other words such as is, did or might.  Responding to a stimulus (possibly a driving question) students have to generate questions for themselves using the boxes as prompts.  The rule of thumb (although I am not quite sure) is that the further to the bottom right corner you get, the higher the level of question you are creating.  Students then select their top one or two questions which they then share on a question wall or with the class in another format.  The class can then select a question which to investigate or pose to the teacher to answer.  The technique itself doesn't have to simply be for inquiry but works well in any other circumstance that the generation of questions is needed.  The modelling and challenge that a teacher facilitates helps students see what a good question looks like.


And so....?

Culture, confidence and strategies are all well and good but as teachers we need to ensure that whatever question we pose has a benefit to the learning.  Sometimes asking less is more.  Sometimes designing a few well constructed questions is better than machine gunning 300 off in one session.  Maybe the strategies themselves are not important but the quality of the students answers.  Maybe forgetting strategies and focusing on designing well crafted questions around the content of your lesson would be time better spent.  I'd have to hold my hands up and say I don't know.  What I do know is that some of the strategies, habits, protocols and procedures that I have listed above have been time efficient and have created an environment where students are sharing their opinions in a much more refined way than they had before.  So can these methods help me ask more effective questions?  I hope so.