Sunday, 19 January 2014

Can I be that little better at….knowing what high quality work looks like?

There are times when you catch up with a colleague in school and have a conversation that completely spins your thinking on its head.  Last week I had such a conversation with a fellow teacher.  There were a few emails about effective methods of feedback going back and forth between two colleagues.  Somewhere in the dialogue I was cc’d in to share my thoughts.  I did what was easiest and said I’d pop along to their classroom and have a chat.  I showed one of the teachers a few ideas and we spent a little time looking at how I have been using feedback questions.  I talked about how the method causes students to think and hopefully help close the gap between where they currently are and where they should be.  The method creates a dialogue between staff and students and is as easy to provide as simple comments.  I then explained that feedback should be evenly distributed to all students.  If not, those who have made a number of mistakes have far more comments/scribbles on their work than those that do not.  This can cause students to believe that if there’s a lot of feedback, my work must be wrong.  Instead I put forward the point that even the best pieces of work should receive equal amounts of feedback as we look to stretch and extend.  My colleague agreed.  Then he said something I had not yet thought of. 

“You and I could probably quickly and easily think of feedback to push work further and further, but does every teacher in every department know what high level work, answers and knowledge looks like?  What about PGCE/ITT/NQT students?  Do they have the experience to be able to extend every student?  Do they actually know what an A* paragraph or essay actually looks like?  You would assume that because we all have degrees we could, but I know from my own experience that in the first few years of my teaching, what I was probably doing in cases like this wasn’t that great”.

Within an instant a wash of memories came flooding back.  He was right.  When I remember back to my first few years of teaching, my ability to stretch and challenge was nowhere near as good as it is now.  I knew the topics I was teaching to an extent but could I really push those who were at the top even further.  Could I extend those students who seemed to have mastered the topic I was teaching them?  At the time these students either scared me or stumped me. 

If I was also being honest, did I actually know what high level work consisted of?  Do I even know now?  Am I able to offer the correct advice to make work actually great or is the guidance I give simply my own perceptions which may ultimately be incorrect?  Do we inadvertently teach them the wrong things when work gets to a certain level? 

When a student produces what in my eyes is a fantastic piece of work, would my colleagues (or even the exam board) agree?  If two students produced what seemed on the surface to be a very high level work, could I accurately distinguish why one piece was better than the other and what I could do to move it forward still?

Another point that passed through my mind was as a teacher, do we spend more time giving feedback to correct misconceptions?  What sorts of comments do we give those in the class who have suitably mastered the content we have provided?  Do we breeze past excellent pieces of work with a few ticks and a complimentary ‘well done’?  Is an A* piece of student work the end of the road where we can happily tick off ‘another student who will pass the course’ and not provide anything constructive in terms of advice?  Would we even know what to say to make it better?

My colleague also talked about the feeling of isolation in our rooms as we teach lesson after lesson.  Back in his early years he felt unsupported by his Head of Department and therefore muddled along himself, realising now that he was probably doing things wrong.  Did he at that stage know the depth of knowledge in his subject well enough to be able to guide students through to excellence?  Did he know how far he was expected to teach?  On his own with minimal guidance, did he know what a high standard in all aspects of his subject was?  No one had ever told him so he wasn't so sure.

All of these considerations had been ones that I probably had on a daily basis.  As the years pass on the experience and understanding of our subject probably covers over some of these as we learn what we should actually be doing.   Some of these probably still surface from time to time though.  I know I still have moments where a student asks me for advice on an excellent piece of writing and I have to take a minute.  And even then I worry that my advice would be nothing compared to say, an English teacher, for example.
So even now as what might be deemed as an experienced teacher, am I certain that I have the knowledge to know what a high standard of work looks like in every topic I teach?  Have I fallen into the monotony of teaching what is required to pass the course?  And do I have the ability to stretch even the most able students in my class?  Can I be that little bit better at knowing what high quality work looks like?

Examples of excellence – students
In the spirit of Ron Berger, keeping copies of excellent work from past students can be an absolute goldmine for future lessons.  We all know when we have come across a beautifully written piece of work that meets the highest criteria.  At this time, instead of filing away for moderation or assessment, keep a copy to use with other students.  These pieces of work can be used in many ways during lessons ranging from modelling, scaffolding and critiquing.  Demonstrating the depth of knowledge and necessary skills to produce work of this high standard can be an excellent teaching opportunity.  It sets the aspirational level and requirements needed to reach it.

Examples of excellence – teachers and experts
How many times as teachers have we attempted to complete one of the tasks we set our students?  Ultimately I know that time amongst other things rarely allows us the opportunity to do so.  Using student examples therefore bridges this gap and creates a resource.  The problem here though is that students themselves are not as ‘expert’ in the subject as we are.  Their knowledge isn't as in depth as ours so the level of work they are producing reaches a peak.  Finding time or even an opportunity to complete the task ourselves provides an example of excellence that (I hope!) goes beyond the level required.  I know of teachers who actually do the same task as students in class at the same time.  Brilliant!  This higher standard of work again can be used in a multitude of ways in lessons to further stretch and challenge the work students will attempt.  And it doesn't have to end there.  In fact I think we can go further still and actually look for real experts.  If attempting to write a newspaper article, isn't it possible to gather a bank of actual articles from real journalists that cover a range of writing styles.  Just as used in ‘An Ethic of Excellence’, these pieces of work can be unpicked and help students go well beyond the limits of subject specific criteria.  We can use these to see what actual great work looks like. 

Teach beyond the curriculum
There are times when the curriculum or exams feel like they mould what and how we teach.  Worrying about meeting the ‘required course content’ set out by governing bodies or exam boards means that we sometimes focus on what is in front of us.  The numerous conversations I have heard where a teacher tells a student ‘You don’t need to know that, that’s college stuff’ do have elements of sense.  If grades and performance are ultimately how we are being judged by, why risk going off of the beaten track to teach something extra.  But surely we should be looking beyond our curriculum at relevant times.  Being aware of what the A/S or A level syllabus contains is a starting point.  What is the leap between GCSE and beyond and can we reach out and grab elements of it in our lessons?  Knowing what the higher level courses contain can help us understand the level of ‘great work’ students in our subject should be producing.  Can we go further still and pull in richer examples from the world of work?  Are there various sectors that tie into your subject that could push the learning further?  It is a brave thing to look at the curriculum as baseline of what should be covered, something which is seen as the minimum requirement.  It is a brave thing to use that as the foundation which can be built upon further to create a great curriculum which ultimately leads to great work.

Examiners’ report
Readily available after exams are the various qualification providers and provide a wealth of information.  They summarise the quality of answers from the previous examination which can help teachers work out what is missing from a high quality piece of work (at least in the examiners eyes).  The reports show various misconceptions and provide guidance of how to improve.  As a starting point for looking at what at least a full mark answer looks like, this can provide an excellent insight.

Collaboratively planning
There are too many times that teachers can feel isolated in their classroom.  With 5 period days, responding to emails, marking, assessments and so on, some teachers rarely find time to leave their four walls.  But if we are looking to see what a high quality standard of work looks like, using colleagues can be an essential resource.  When planning a task, think about what the outcome will be.  Using a colleague to unpick the criteria to meet this outcome can help immensely.  Collaborating to work out the set standard and truly identify what an excellent standard really looks like can be invaluable.  Having that extra piece of experience and knowledge can help you understand the requirements of what great work really looks like.

Dedicated departmental time
How often in departmental meetings do you spend actually looking at what high quality work in the current or upcoming topics is.  Do you spend time as a team working out what an A* (and even beyond) piece of work in this unit will be?  Do you bring along previous pieces of work from last year’s students and collaboratively critique it so all staff know what level we are aiming for?   Do you answer some of the higher level questions or tasks as a team, taking note of what content is essential to meet it?  Do you collaboratively analyse the various materials like the syllabus and examiners’ report to see how to develop students work further?  Meetings like these in the run up to new units can be a life line to both new and experienced teachers.  Are you confident that everyone in the department is knowledgeable, and fully supported, to know what high quality student work should look like?

Subject specific reading
I have probably spent the majority of my time this year reading about general teaching and learning and less about my subject.  Although in the pedagogical sense I haven’t plateaued, have I allowed my subject specific knowledge to do so?  Keeping up to date on your subject should be essential.  What are the new developments?  What has changed?  What new literature could be used with students?  How have businesses, jobs and the real world developed in your subject?  Keeping up to date in our areas of expertise is essential in helping us incorporate stronger and more challenging learning in our subject.

Cross moderation
Whether this is a set annual process as a department or a more flexible opportunity between colleagues, comparing and cross referencing students work can be incredibly helpful.  How easy can it be to pop to another teacher’s room with a couple of students books to quickly analyse?  Or even compare marking or assessment of a piece of work?  On paper it seems very easy.  In reality it means finding time.  But I believe it is time well spent.  Many schools create the culture where doors are open and observers welcomed.  But how about creating a culture where we can openly analyse the work of each other’s classes.  There is always a sense of nervousness and worry that pride/reputation may be at stake.  What if the work my students are producing is not as good as a colleague?  This shouldn’t be the case though.  If we can have people analyse what we as teachers do in a judgemental way in observations, surely the supportive analysis of your students’ books by a colleague should be a welcome opportunity.