Fast reading and fast readers

“But the privations, or rather the hardships, of Lowood lessened. Spring drew on: she was indeed already come; the frosts of winter had ceased; its snows were melted, its cutting winds ameliorated.”

(Charlotte Brontë, Jayne Eyre)

I always recall the word ameliorated as it turned up in Jane Eyre when I studied it for A level. ‘What an unusual word,’ I remember thinking at the time. Clearly it means the weather improved or changed. An unusual word and it drew attention to the pathetic fallacy in the text reflecting the shifting plot. If I was reading it out aloud I’d add a spring like tone to the sound of it to add a reading cue for the listener. This is why when we listen to good readers we understand the meaning more efficiently.

What happened there was inference. As a reader, motoring through the text at full speed you meet uncommon words. You may, as was the case with me at the time, be meeting the word for the first time. However, most times, with a combination of grammar and reading cues, you can decode enough of the meaning to continue reading without pausing to look the word up. This is a very specific reading skill which overcomes the raised extraneous and intrinsic load of meeting a new word whilst reading at pace. Decoding and inference at pace is what you need to be able to do in order to be a reader who can switch to different texts at ease – older texts, texts from other countries, texts in translation, texts with stylistic adaptations for effect and so forth.

Now I say all this because recently an interesting paper garnered attention in the English teaching community. The paper focused on what it called ‘fast reading’. It’s an unfortunate phrase that gives you the image of a teacher rattling through a text at speed. In fact, it means a teacher reading without interruption, without popcorning to other children in the class, without pausing to discuss the impending doom captured by the cleverly inserted pathetic fallacy, but instead consciously embedding tone and emphasis which provide reading cues. There is much merit in this – fast reading will help children decode and infer at speed and be able to use this ability to infer meaning when reading other new texts for themselves. You would, of course, then still be wise to explicitly teach inference at pace amongst other aspects of the teaching of inference. Teaching inference is a large part of what an English teacher does and is rooted in reading, listening and in processing the language with sophistication.

All good so far, what’s the issue? Well, one thing teachers have taken to is pre-teaching vocabulary before a chapter. This means the teacher will pre-read the chapter, identify the new words likely to trip up the readers and then pre-teach them before the reading of the text. This removes the extraneous load of meeting a new word and therefore makes the reading experience have a lower intrinsic load. You can see here the immediate issue – the pupils aren’t developing the decoding and inference skills needed to process new words at speed in fast reading. Pre-teaching vocabulary isn’t transferable to a new text. A pupil can’t pre-read a chapter, identify the new words then pre-teach themselves the words before reading the chapter again.

The answer is complicated again. There are times when a word can be solved by grammar or reading cues to a strong enough degree. The reader has to be able to decipher the words to the degree needed to function. I could read, ‘The nearest elder, a Ntask, was still several miles away…’ I can see the unusual word ‘Ntask’ is a proper noun, a name of an elder, this person might have some kind of rank, status or gender, but in terms of reading I can carry on without needing to stop and start looking this up. If, however, the sentence becomes impenetrable and my reading is wholly arrested by my inability to decode a word I might stop, lightly hold my finger on the word and my kindle would very kindly pop up a definition of the word including ‘in usage’.

Now, in an English class, the reality is I can’t simply hold my finger on the word because we have paper books and I have a whole class of pupil readers with me. So there will be times when I pre-teach vocabulary. There will be times when I do pause at a new word with the class and quickly teach the inference needed to decode the word. I have got to expose them to the raised intrinsic load which has been delivered by the raised extraneous load and then teach them how to resolve this using decoding and inference.

Inference itself goes much deeper than this light touch analysis. We are English teachers and we can pause and dwell on a passage before going ever and ever deeper into a text. But at the same time, we must be careful to not think that removing extraneous load in reading is always helpful. In some instances, it removes intrinsic load and the pupil never gets to develop the transferable knowledge and skill necessary to read at speed in such a way that it brokers them to other texts.

Our challenge, as English teachers, is not to teach them solely for the measurable now, but also for the unmeasurable future. A time when we hope our former pupils are enjoying reading a wide range of new and challenging texts for themselves as adult readers.

The secret to well-being for us all…

The origin of this theory actually comes from medicine. At our university, we train individuals from the ‘helping’ professions such as teachers, social work, and healthcare professionals including  nurses, midwives and allied health (not good for your league table positions on ‘salaries after five years’, but we just ignore that). This means we’ve got experienced professionals from these fields who have then become academics. It’s a fantastic thing really – these people aren’t traditional academics, but people who’ve forged two careers and stand on the boundary of both. We also share practice across helping professions – there’s a lot of similarities: caring nature, mentoring models, standards, excess work, high stakes accountability, unbelievable stress and so forth.

As part of our enrichment programme in teacher education we wanted to introduce more well-being sessions, but ones that were grounded in theory. So we turned to our healthcare practice colleagues. Podiatrist, Dr Adrienne Sharples duly came and offered a session for the trainees and the session was theoretically quite interesting. Adrienne asked questions like: who is checking their work email in their own time? Who thinks about work outside work hours? And of course all the teachers in the room were putting their hands up. The idea she introduced was ‘bounded empathy‘ – the notion that as caring and empathetic professionals we had not established firm boundaries between our duty to empathise during working time and our ability to switch off this empathy during our own time and subsequently we had ‘unbounded empathy’. Her research demonstrated that those with ‘unbounded empathy’ experience poorer well-being. We become ever more involved in loco parentis as teachers, taking accountability and empathy from our professional persona and bringing it with us, through the boundary to our own persona where it reduces our well-being.

Now that this idea is with us in the teacher education department we’ve taken it further and developed the notion of ‘bounded professionalism’. The reason we are checking work emails, working excess hours and generally sacrificing our personal well-being for the sake of a micro-point on someone’s spreadsheet is not solely due to unbounded empathy. Quite often, the things we are doing in our own time don’t really contribute very much to learning at all. Excess marking, data drops – there’s actually quite a lot we’d happily remove. However, in the teaching and education profession we’ve cultivated a notion of what a professional is like and what a professional does. And a ‘professional’ sacrifices well-being and personal family time in order to ‘do the job to a professional standard’. We’ve got a wholly soft boundary that leeches and leaks from one side to the other. I frequently meet senior managers who think that working 55-65 hour weeks is what is expected of a senior manager and that having a soft boundary, that lets them work all weekend, is expected and that only seeing their family for a limited time at the weekend, let alone during the week, is the ‘price paid’ for being a senior manager. Why should a senior manager give more of their own time than any other professional? Do they deserve less time with their family? They are paid extra because the decisions they take carry more risk for the organisation, not because they do 15 hours extra per week. One reason we haven’t substantially reduced workload in the profession is because senior managers are reluctant to let go of the extra work and ensure bounded professionalism is in place.

As a profession, then, we need to have ‘bounded professionalism’. This means to inhabit your professional persona within firm boundaries. When you exit your professional persona you no longer operate in work mode – checking emails, working on marking or plans. You can move from one persona to the other with your empathy checked and your professionalism checked. There is also a realistic and sensible work loading on this professional persona.

When the work load is too high and the bounded professionalism is too weak, then the only option is to sacrifice well-being in order to meet the excess workload. And we all know the end game of that: they leave their job and sometimes they leave the profession. If they don’t, their well-being and their physical and mental health suffers (and quite possibly their family and relationships). Senior managers and teachers alike have to establish new firm boundaries: turning emails off over the weekend and cultivating a culture of not working on the PC into the late hours. Further, they need to be reviewing the high impact events which can shock the professional boundary – the mock exam season just before Christmas, the endless run of late night open evenings, parent evenings and options evenings or even just weekend emails requesting work. Sitting down and planning directed time means these things can be done and people can have hard professional boundaries. It’s time to reclaim the profession and for all of us to reclaim our well-being.

 

 

Toxic teachers and toxic leaders

During the leadership and management workshops we run with the trainees, one of the concepts we introduce them to is that of toxic workers. The theory is quite simple: in an organisation there are people who work very hard and perform their jobs to an acceptable standard, but whose interactions with others is so toxic that they reduce the productivity of others. In short, their net contribution to the organisation and the profession overall is very poor compared to someone who perhaps does not work as hard, but is a pleasure to collaborate and work with.

When the trainees were invited to say if they’d met such people in their lives prior to entering the profession they all volunteered stories. These stories came from all kinds of professions, but also included schools. Toxic teachers, toxic leaders, toxic managers. And the theory says – toxic people can rise quite well through the systems. The system rewards people who are toxic. This can be from the martyred single person department who does 60 hour weeks with bitterness and moaning and who never collaborates right up to a school leader burning good teachers out of the whole profession in pursuit of an ofsted grade of a P8 score. The end result is the same – the net contribution to the organisation and profession overall is negative and easily outweighs any of the positives generated.

There is much toxicity in education. You see it on edutwitter: ‘edu-trolls’ – deeply criticising and undermining all and sundry whilst seemingly doing good themselves. You see them in teachers, disdainfully dismissing all ideas about education from others, the government, from HEI, from anyone really. Anyone can be toxic and it can take a number of forms.

Communication can be toxic – who are the people you dread emails from? Why do you dread them? Are they passive aggressive? Are they down right rude? Are they ad hominem? Do you write such emails? Are you toxic? We do need to be reflective about our own practice.

Face to face communication can be toxic. In meetings, it’s the same – whose presence do you dread in meetings? Who would you least like to have do a learning walk on you? Who would you rather not do duty with?

Policies can be toxic. Which policies make you despair? No evidence for the policy, focused on ‘what ofsted want’, controlling for the sake of controlling, and so forth. What policies affect your well-being and make you want to leave the school or profession?

We are turning the profession around these days – I genuinely believe we have more schools, federations, HEIs, MATs and LAs focused on well-being, work load reduction and a better profession. But we also need to recognise the toxic pollution in our system and be more conscious of it. Not replying all or CCing in someone to an email. Not using passive aggressive language in a meeting. Not formulating a marking policy which makes people leave the profession. Overall, making the profession a place where new teachers want to stay, not leave.

Curiosity and the Curriculum

einstein

With the growing popularity of cognitive load theory (CLT), we are seeing teachers adapt their teaching: removing the irrelevant, the cul de sacs and the diverting tangents from their teaching. Pupils can meet a piece of novel information mid lesson that they can’t locate within their schemas of knowledge and that can overload the working memory. They could also form misconceptions from incorrectly located knowledge.  Yet before all of these fascinating and intriguing diversions are removed from your teaching we’d urge you to pause and consider the nature of self-regulated knowledge acquisition.

When you first hear something on edutwitter or in education that seems to be gaining traction what do you do? Dig a little more? Learn a little more? Well the same happens with pupils. Their epistemic curiosity is driven by trying to locate new knowledge within their current schemas of knowledge. If they are unsuccessful, but still curious, then they accumulate new knowledge to expand a schema or build a new schema so that they are able to locate this new knowledge and further knowledge from the same field. Those intertextual or intersubject references of yours may be sometimes lost on most of the class, but for some of the class those references make them go off and read a new book, watch a film or start reading up on a subject – all wholly self regulated. They may be novices, but they can still be in schema building mode.

Curiosity is an innate human characteristic, but it’s also definable. It’s a compelling desire to acquire further knowledge or develop a particular skill. Linked with strong self-regulation it can be ultimately rewarding. If you are designing a curriculum you have to think – am I building this into my teaching? Are you giving them La Grande Permission to go off and independently acquire new knowledge in order to epistemically locate a nugget of knowledge that you have exposed them to?

An inspired child is one happily gorging themselves on your subject; their amplified curiosity pushing them to accumulate new knowledge or abilities beyond that which they are learning in your lessons.  As an English teacher, I knew that children I inspired would be reading and writing beyond that which I was doing in lessons. They were no longer only learning my subject in lessons, my subject had become part of their identity. Accumulating new knowledge and abilities in English was part of their identity and driven by them – in addition to learning the curriculum which I had designed for them. I’m no different. My curiosity in my subject is continuous, self regulated and it forms part of my identity. When I teach, I don’t just pass on knowledge, I also pass on the curiosity that drives the passion for my subject.

There’s a world of self-regulated learning out there for the curious child and any curriculum you design needs to consider how you broker that curiosity to them.

Does culture trump everything?

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Barak Rosenshine’s Principles of Instruction provide a useful summary of some important ideas that we would encourage our trainee teachers to read and think about. The practice of instruction is an important aspect of teaching which many professionals need to be concerned with in their day to day work. However, as academics, one of our roles is to encourage our trainees to question the wide range of evidential and philosophical positions that they encounter, and before Rosenshine’s work becomes a kind of unchallengeable orthodoxy (something that happens with influential educationalists’ work – c.f. Lev Vygotsky) we would raise two questions that we think speak to the wider question of culture and its effect on education

  • To what extent are Rosenshine’s principles (and the research that he bases them on) facilitated by the cultural context within which he is working?
  • To what extent can any educational idea be successful if the cultural environment that it is being introduced to – both within and outside schools – does not see view that idea as desirable or compatible?

In raising these questions, we don’t seek to denigrate Rosenshine’s (or any other thinker’s) work, but rather get trainees and their mentors to think about  the wide range of processes at work in teaching and learning. However for at least one or two of us in the UoB team we would posit that culture might be the most significant, and perhaps unrecognised factor involved in these processes.  What we’re referring to when we talk about culture is in some senses, an intangible combination of location, class, race, gender and ethnicity, but for simplicity’s sake, we might see it as the interconnectedness of three things; who I am, where I come from and how those things shape my world view. This might also apply to groups of people or organisations, so culture could also refer to who we are and how we see the world.

Writing in the TES recently  teacher and blogger Mark Enser suggested that he thought that every UK teacher’s practice could be improved by adopting Barak Rosenshine’s principles of instruction. However, he also commented that he thought that it would take a culture shift to effect such a change in UK schools.  Enser is right about this – to move to the kind of culture in which instruction was the focus of all teaching would require some big movements in the way that both educational policy is made, schools are run and teachers are developed. Attempting such a shift would lead to that second one of our two questions above; is such a shift achievable, or indeed, desirable? To explore this further for a minute, let us return to Rosenshine, an academic working at an American University (Illinois, in this case) and working with people who are going on to teach in American elementary schools, high schools and colleges. Anyone who has spent any time in the American education system will know that instruction is very important; indeed, many of the people who work in these institutions will be referred to as instructors. Within this education system, they are expected to instruct, to lecture, to set quizzes and tests and to confer grades on their students.

We would suggest that this is something subtly different to the Northern European conception of a teacher. In the European tradition, instruction has only been a part of what the teacher is expected to do. Some people might think that this is what needs changing  about UK schools– that teachers need to be left to teach – but notice here that they don’t say “teachers need to be left to instruct”. We might suggest then that the culture of Northern European education – as opposed to an American, or Far Eastern one perhaps – is one in which the teacher has a more holistic, and certainly more pastoral, role. The teacher standards (regardless of what one thinks of them) in both the UK and the Netherlands would seem to indicate this. We could of course, have a national conversation about whether or not we think that this should be the role of the teacher, but right now, in many ways, this is the culture of UK education.

Instruction is of course, a hugely important part of many educational processes. Improving the way that our trainees here at UoB give instruction is something that we focus on quite a lot. Rosenshine provides a good starting point for thinking about what teachers need to do with instruction. But what about those circumstances where we don’t want them to be instructing (we think there are some) or perhaps those circumstances where we need them to be more critical than Rosenshine’s principles require them to be? (And we should say here, that probably in opposition to a lot of people writing on the internet, that we believe “whataboutery” to be a thoroughly good thing, as it drives inquiry on). We have recently been engaged in some research[i] which suggests that there might be some difficulties for science teachers  – who require a particular kind of ontological self- awareness – if they approach their instruction, or any other aspect of their teaching,  in an uncritical way; a fact not lost on some American colleagues who are thinking along similar lines. Such criticality requires an understanding of the culture in which Rosenshine originally develops his research, and the cultures from which his research examples are drawn (largely Maths, Science and English classrooms in the USA and Australia). It also requires some understanding that the culture of school science requires that teachers’ instruction deals in things that are, at best, simplifications.

The importance of understanding culture, is importantly for us, acknowledged by a wide range of people in education who come at the problem from different perspectives. Tom Bennett, for example,  arrived at the conclusion that the culture within a school is the single most important factor in determining how pupils behave. We often extend this by telling our students that they need to understand the culture that surrounds a school as well and this thinking is what leads to the second of the questions that we started with. If we want to promote a particular way of thinking about teaching and learning we need to understand the culture into which we are doing that promotion. Careful thought about this process is required beforehand if it is to work. For us this is best exemplified by the cautionary tales of the involvement of both Dulwich College and Wellington School in state education. Both instances suggest that knowing a little about the culture of the area that you are moving your educational philosophy into might be useful, and a consideration of the cultural differences between that philosophy and the world view of the people you are trying to introduce it to may also prevent misunderstandings. To paraphrase Theodore Roosevelt you might carry a big stick, but you still need to remember to walk softly.

 

[i] Bates, G. & Connolly, S. (in review)  “The role of intellectual virtues in the development of the science teacher: an initial provocation” Research in Teacher Education

Is it important that they enjoy your subject?

Should enjoying your subject be part of learning it?
photo of four girls wearing school uniform doing hand signs
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Reading through the latest in the TES on the Shanghai Mathematics study I was struck by a quite simple statement.

“The research also shows that while teachers felt pupils enjoyed maths more when taught using the mastery methods, a survey of pupils did not back this up.

And the researchers warn that previous studies in East Asia have found that pupils are less likely to enjoy maths than those in England.”

The teachers thought the kids were enjoying their mathematics, but they were not. Naturally, there are some subsequent questions you might ask yourself:

Is it that important that they enjoy your subject?

Is it that important the method used to teach them enhances their enjoyment of your subject?

How did these teachers get a wrong perception?

These are important questions. For example, I enjoy running and being a runner. I don’t enjoy hills. I hate them. I don’t enjoy long steady runs. I tolerate them. But the fact that I have to do them to be a good runner doesn’t stop me from enjoying running. In fact, there is some part of me that finds hill running quite interesting and makes me curious. Lactate threshold training is a key part of running and I’m often to be found reading in-depth sport science texts about the very thing I hate. Curiouser and curiouser.

However, as an English teacher it is very important to me that people enjoy English. Even though sometimes English is tedious, frustrating, difficult and challenging in all sorts of ways (as well as being endlessly enjoyable), it is important to me that the end result is that they enjoy English and are fascinated to learn more about the subject even when it is a very difficult area. That ‘curiosity’ is what drives us to opt in to learn more about the subject independently and in our own time. It pushes the ‘subject’ into what we perceive as our leisure time and becomes part of our identity. We begin to source new knowledge in the subject independently and look to locate this knowledge within our current knowledge.

The current GCSEs in English Language and Literature are not holding their own in the marketplace of being pre-A Level recruiters. English is not a vocational subject, rather it develops transposable knowledge and skills which employers and students alike value. In addition, it is a deeply rewarding subject to study on personal and philosophical levels.

I am not one for ‘making lessons fun’. My subject is fun. However, I have to think about whether my perceptions as a teacher of my students are right. My running coach can easily ‘beast’ me to make me stronger, but that would probably put me off running or at least being taught by that coach. So it is important that a teacher has access to student voice. Sometimes it is challenging learning my subject, but I want the overall picture to be one of the students enjoying my subject: student voice is thus important.

Is it that important the methods I use to teach them enhances their enjoyment of the subject? That is difficult. I think I want the methods I use in teaching to enhance their curiosity in my subject. I want to make students stronger in such a way that they enjoy the challenges in learning more about my subject. I also want them to go on to study English at A Level and beyond.

And finally. How did these teachers get such a wrong perception of their students’ enjoyment? Did they mistake progress in learning for enjoyment? Making progress in your subject seems to be not enough to make students enjoy your subject. There must be a fostered curiosity whereby you see and appreciate the challenges within the subject and begin subsequently locating that new knowledge and curiosity within your identity. E.g. You become someone who reads interesting and difficult books as part of your identity.

it’s this last point that GCSE English isn’t fulfilling. The combination of specification, teaching methods and perceived employability are not competing with the STEM subjects. Whilst English teachers can make changes to the latter two, the first one remains out of their hands. There is a disconnect between the discipline of English with its focus on the study of language and its rich range of texts with an emphasis on reader response and the GCSE specifications for English Language and Literature. This is because English teachers do not have enough input into the GCSE specifications. At the moment, the boards are revisiting the specifications for their five year refresh and we need English teachers to have an open and consultative voice on this refresh to better help us to develop the next generation of life long students and teachers of English.

Cognitive Load Theory and Assessment

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Recently, we did a CPD session on using Cognitive Load Theory (CLT) as a lens through which to view teaching and assessment in HEI. There’s scope for teaching practice to be improved in universities: use dual coding, stop reading out slides word for word and so forth. We also focused on summative assessment design. The difference between schools and HEI is we can design our own formal awarding assessments. To highlight an example of poor assessment design for our session we used the QTS Numeracy Skills Test. When you are trying to work out the question, someone starts reading the question out again, overloading your working memory. It’s an infuriating, but excellent example of poor assessment design through the lens of CLT.

In HEI, however, we can design out some of these poor assessments. We can also go further. We can look at whether the right assessment vehicle is being used for the intrinsic load being assessed, whether the assignment briefs contain too much extraneous or ambiguous information and other enhancements. In our session, we also acknowledged criticisms of CLT which are that it is a lab based concept: some extraneous load is normal in the field or discipline. This means whether you are learning or accessing schemas of knowledge, it’s not always possible in real life to remove extraneous load. When one of our trainee teachers is teaching, they have to deal with substantial extraneous distractions on their working memory whilst trying to access their schemas of knowledge in order to run the logistics of the lesson, perform in-action reflection and still teach. These can be unexpected answers or questions from a child, an observing SLT listening in on a learning walk or the mother of all extraneous loads – the rogue wasp. In all situations, they will be expected to demonstrate the Teachers’ Standards despite quite a lot of extraneous load (be reassured trainees, we do get better at managing it all). In seriousness though, if we are considering CLT then assessments have to do two things. First, you need germane laboratory style assessments to see if they can achieve the intrinsic load of the topic. For example, at Oxford University, they have increased the amount of time available for the mathematics paper to increase outcomes of all students. The intrinsic load was more important than the ability to cope with the extraneous load of a limited amount of time.  Secondly,  you need field or discipline based assessments to check they can access their schemas of knowledge as required despite the extraneous load provided by real life. As Mark Enser says in his blog, we do get better at this. So handling intrinsic and extraneous load together is something we can improve with practice and experience.

This brings us back to schools. Schools have focused a lot of their efforts on CLT as a means through which to raise the intrinsic load of the content being taught through germane teaching. So far, so good. But secondary schools are spending huge amounts of learning hours teaching towards GCSE assessments – sometimes from year 7 onwards despite the knowledge needed for these requiring just 120 guided learning hours per GCSE. Teachers in secondary school can look at their GCSE assessments through the lens of CLT and ask, critically: are these well designed? I recall the infamous GCSE English question, ‘Is George and Lennie’s dream in Of Mice and Men futile?’ The extraneous load of the unusual vocabulary choice in the question prevented many students from accessing their schema of knowledge about the text rendering the assessment of their knowledge inaccurate. Mathematics papers are notorious for containing higher reading ages than the students sitting them. If the assessment is the same intrinsic load, but starts to test working memory or things other than the intrinsic load of the assessment, is this poor design? Is it failing to test the schema of knowledge held by the student sitting the test? Well, only if it is not done deliberately.

The current GCSE papers have some sections which have a low extraneous load. They also have some sections which are so fiendish that teachers spend disproportionate time preparing students for it, and some sections which deliberately raise the extraneous load (e.g. the English unseen poetry section). If an assessment has a high extraneous load, then it should be because this is what happens in the discipline. If there is no need for a high extraneous load, then the assessment should be as germane as possible.

Those assessments which contain unnecessary extraneous loads also have higher ‘failure’ rates. This is where the assessment has not successfully accessed the schema of knowledge that the students have. They also raise the stress levels of teachers who are held accountable for these poor performances. How many times have you sent a student into an examination confident that they have the knowledge needed to do well only to be baffled when the grade comes back? Preparing students for assessments in a high stakes environment is fraught with difficulties. It can be as simple as not knowing one unusual word that prevents them accessing their schema of knowledge. You cannot control for a poor assessment in the same way we can in HEI. We can redesign the assessment to improve the ability of our students to access their schemas of knowledge and to demonstrate their knowledge effectively. We can also deliberately reproduce tasks from the discipline to better prepare them to work in the discipline. Schools have had this type of assessment (coursework and experiments) stripped from them because in a high stakes environment it is easy for an adult to assist students in managing the extraneous load in the assessment.

What then for schools? Well, currently, they still have scope to design their own assessments from KS1 up to KS3 (government NCTs notwithstanding). They don’t need to reproduce the poor assessment design of KS4 which eats up precious learning time and introduce it into years 7-9. They can also work on allowing them to work on subjects as a discipline. English students can work in the fast moving world of journalism, writing copy to speed; geographers can go out into the field and match the real world to their schemas of knowledge: there is scope for excellent curriculum design where assessment is designed for the students not the accountability system. There is a match between HEI lecturers and teachers for KS1-3 in terms of the ability to design curriculums and assessments.

I’m wary of calling for redesign of KS4-5 assessment because it does nothing but create more workload. However, there is a case for a fresh review of the assessments through the lens of CLT. Can we improve the ability of these assessments to enable students to access their schemas of knowledge and for teachers to spend more time teaching content and less time preparing students for the unnecessary extraneous loads of the poorly designed assessments? I’d be interested to hear from teachers who know their key stage or secondary subject assessments in fine detail and how they view the assessments through the lens of CLT.

Micro writing: extended writing made easy!

The basic premise of micro writing is focused on that age old problem for teachers: a student’s ability to transfer subject knowledge from articulated utterances and thoughts into high quality extended writing against a specific criteria. The problem with this transference is it doesn’t always happen very well. Knowledge and/or opinions about a subject do not always translate into being able to write well about a topic in the exact form required by the task or assessment in hand. This problem is amplified when it comes to extended writing. Within one or two paragraphs, sometimes sentences, we could say ‘stop writing because I have no need to read two pages of this writing to tell you what you are doing wrong’. Just like with whole class marking, I’ve no need to give detailed feedback repeated ad nauseam on the whole essay. In fact, much of the time I don’t need an extended piece of writing unless it is a full dress rehearsal of the real thing. The moment you buy into that idea is the moment you can reduce your workload and increase the precision of the feedback.

As an example, let us look at a typical form, an essay in response to a posed question. For an essay, you would often drill the various components of the essay in micro writing sections which you would then spread out over a number of lessons broken down as follows:


A very brief plan for the essay (a handful of bullets at most)


Opening two paragraphs


Thematic or topic sections consisting of 2-3 paragraphs in 100-300 word blocks


Concluding paragraphs


Having broken the essay down into the four different types of writing, you can now drill these in micro writing.

At each stage of micro writing, you would use both types of modelling – modelling of process using live writing and articulation of the decision making that you are taking; and modelling of finished products with colour-coded section highlights.


Writing out essay plans – frequently they would be given a question out of the blue at some point in the lesson (Do Now, transition time, plenary) and then have to frame how they would have approached that question, the decisions they would make and outline a brief plan. We would then examine the decision making process of this and review the resultant plan. It’s very easy to mark these and comparative marking would do the job here as well. Visualisers can also be very helpful here. I think a good visualiser is worth its weight in gold for bringing a writer’s lens to written work and enabling everyone to have an insight into the decision making processes of a writer at work.


The opening two paragraphs – these are tricky things to write and both frame and foreshadow the rest of the writing. It’s a frequent writer’s block, this point of an essay, so drilling works well. It’s easy to read their opening paragraph and comment on in seconds. It’s not whether they do it effectively once that’s important. It’s whether they can do this effectively every time. Get them to reflect on their confidence to do this.


Two to three paragraphs on a topic or theme – these paragraphs need to cite evidence and synthesise it into the body of the writing. Here there will be a need for them to recall knowledge and to integrate it well. Once again, they need to be able to do this effectively always rather than just as a once off. In an essay, they will usually need to write a thematic chunk of writing two or three times in an extended piece. So there is no need to write three thematic chunks of the essay straight off. Get the art down first then scale this up. They need to be able to produce their 1-300 word chunk of writing at quality whatever the topic.


Lastly the conclusions. Again, they struggle with the writing of these and lose a lot of marks. Give them lots of practice of this. Write a conclusion to an essay you might have written to one of the practice questions, Write a conclusion to your peer’s essay. Write a new conclusion to one of your old essays. One paragraph conclusions are easy to mark. As always, they need to be good at concluding, not just be able to write one good conclusion.


At the end of this, you bring the pieces together in the full essay in timed conditions. Again, you would be using modelling and close textual analysis to enable the students to see how the different sections operated together – particularly with signposting and foreshadowing.

Students trained with micro writing will be able to immediately tell you which sections of the essay they did well and which they need to improve and direct you to the section they felt most troublesome and where they need the most feedback, making your formative feedback focused and high impact.

This approach works for any writing where they are taking knowledge and/or opinions and have to articulate that knowledge within composition. It’s also less labour intensive than making them write lots of poor copy. You want to intervene quite early on before they’ve written too much at the lower standard. This saves them time and it saves you time.

If you like the premise of micro writing then try it out on an individual level with other forms of extended writing. Collect in tiny pieces of micro writing from each of them to quickly mark formatively or use them as a resource in your teaching – visualisers, comparative marking, peer work, etc. It makes extended writing much more manageable for both students and teachers.

Proof – the final frontier for teachers

Is it time to return to the cult of the teacher?

It’s the first thing you get told when you come into teaching: what works with one class doesn’t necessarily work with another.

A trainee teacher might lament after a lesson (that did not go so well) where they had repeated the plan from another class and their sage mentor would say – it might have worked quite well with 9x, but 9y are a different class.

This is not about learning styles, which has been substantially criticised. This is about knowing the individuals in your classes. A good teacher is always thinking about ‘maximum learning’. Don’t mistake this for, ‘entertainment’, ‘engagement’ or any other glib insult. We are not ‘making our subject interesting’ – our subject is interesting. But we are fine tuning the lesson to the unique community of learners that have been assembled to experience the subject with us in the form of lessons.

If we are really honest this is one of the biggest issues with the accountability system. A school’s results and standards of teaching don’t go up and down so dramatically as measured from year to year as the data likes to report. What happens is that one cohort is very different to another in terms of collated outcomes. A senior manager prays that a specific cohort goes through the system out of sync with the ofsted inspection cycle of a school. God help any school if ofsted turns up shortly after their one dodgy cohort’s variable results. This is really an amplified version of what Becky Allen refers to as ‘noise’ – the variables that can affect outcomes and attempts to measure progress using what is actually non-comparable data. A school could be comparing one good cohort with one not so good cohort and be deemed terrible or amazing depending on which came first. I’m afraid Progress 8 has done nothing to prevent this from happening as others have already said. The off-rolling we have seen is a direct result of people trying to manage this ‘noise’ and its impact on accountability measures. Indeed, having read Becky Allen’s blogs on closing the gap you begin to think the issue with the RCTs of the EEF is that they need to make stronger their awareness of ‘noise’ and how schools cater for this when exploring ideas that emerge from the RCTs. Rather than use the RCTs as eternal proof that setting, technology or any other intervention ‘works’ or ‘doesn’t work’, one should see the output from these RCTs as a source of information and evidence that could be useful when looking at one’s own specific cohorts (and remember, every year group is different).

All too often, we end up looking for the silver bullet. We try to remove the very thing which makes us human from the school system – our variability. Once all variability is removed then we can finally say that our resource or pedagogy is proven to work with all. Yet the inherent variables and other influential attributes all mean we cannot prove that something ‘works’ for everyone and every school.  That’s why social science can never lose its subjectivity or its lack of ability to resolutely prove things in the way that medicine likes to do. It’s therefore why you can’t ‘prove’ anything in education. But you can get the next best thing: a teacher.

A teacher, through forming a deep relationship with a class, can use their knowledge, intuition and teaching to maximise the outcomes for the individuals in that class. Those outcomes will be many, varied and not always measured or be measurable. Those outcomes will be assessment outcomes, aspirations, values, passions, inspiration, personal growth and so forth. Some will be quantified and some will be qualitative. The teacher will subjectively work out which methods, from their vast list of methods and evidence, are best for this group of individuals. It’s an amazing feat of human engineering and it’s a time-honoured ability: to be a truly amazing teacher for a class. And it’s the closest thing we will get to proving something works in education. You want a silver bullet? There it is: the teacher.

Eye to the telescope: Why teachers need theoretical lenses.

witten

Teachers need theory. They also need to theorise. To us as a group of academics, this seems self-evident; theorising in education means thinking about why things happen in the classroom, and offering models that explain that why. However, it has become increasingly clear that education academics in particular, and perhaps academics more widely, have not been particularly proficient at explaining to teachers (both experienced ones and those closer to the commencement of their careers) why theory matters. The quote at the topic of this post, taken from Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, should remind us that we need to look at how we might use theory to frame our experience of the world, while at the same time, remembering that the frame is not the same as the experience itself

A recent article in the British Educational Reasearch Journal brought this home to us with some force. In the article, a group of researchers had collected some data about the practice of setting by ability in British schools, and had then chosen to look at that data through a theoretical “lens” provided by the work of French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu. What does this mean? For most academics in most arts and social sciences, when they collect data, they need to locate that data in a theoretical framework, both because they need to think about how they will analyse the data but also, for practical reasons of time and space, they need to articulate how they are thinking about it.  These researchers  were interested in the idea that setting simply reproduces an educational status quo, and so looked at the data with Bourdieu’s concept of “symbolic violence” in mind. For Bourdieu, this term describes a situation in which a state of affairs has been established in society which damages a group of people, but has become so accepted or legitimised that even the people who the situation harms ,  often agree with it.  Some of the data that the researchers collected did support a Bourdieusian analysis of setting; for example, very few of the respondents in the survey – who were children in schools where they were set for subjects such as Maths and English – challenged the notion of setting as being the best way to determine who was taught what, even if they were in the ‘bottom set’.  However, the researchers also acknowledged the limitations in that this Bourdieusian analysis was less successful when helping to determine other things, for example why there is a significant gender difference in terms of pupil attitudes to setting.

Putting to one side the arguments that surfaced later in the online discussion  about methods and validity of data , what interested us were the nature of the responses to this article that appeared on the internet. These were fascinating, most notably because what became apparent to us was a) that some people did not really understand the way that the researchers were using Bourdieu and b) that a large number of teachers at best, did not really value the idea of theoretical lenses, or at worst understand the idea.

The point is here that that these researchers, like many across education, are deliberately choosing to look at their data using a theoretical model. They are doing this in order to do two things. Firstly, to see what that data can say beyond the obvious, literal description (to offer an interpretation of it) of it and secondly, to test out the theoretical model. In this particular instance, the researchers determined that some of Bourdieu’s ideas were useful for thinking about why pupils feel the way that they do about setting, but that in other respects they were not. Academics do this all the time in research.  I started my academic career using theoretical lenses from cultural studies to explain how I thought children worked creatively. Now,  alongside these, I use cognitive and sociological ones. I don’t think any of these tell the full story of the writing  and films that young people produce, but pragmatically, they make me think about how that production happens.

This does not mean that the theoretical model works or successfully explains real world phenomena all the time, but rather that it might offer some perspectives on it that we may not have previously considered. This is the important thing about theoretical lenses for teachers. You may not agree with the researchers’ findings regarding  (in this example) setting, but what you should probably do, as an informed and reflective teacher, is think about the inherent problems of setting – and most teachers would agree there are at least some of these – from both your own and other academic perspectives. People who suggested that the researchers had decided on the outcome of the study prior to collecting the data are sort of missing the point here;  this was a Randomised Controlled Trial, and the data included quantitative as well as qualitative elements, but the researchers were clear  from the outset that they were coming from a place in which the social justice imperatives of education were driving their work.  As such, they chose to make a Bourdieusian analysis of that data. Other academics might choose to look at that data through a different lens.  It would be interesting to see, for example, something like Creemers & Kyriakides’ Dynamic Model of School improvement  applied to the same data to see what it said about setting in terms of school effectiveness – or the extent to which Lave & Wenger’s ideas about communities of practice might work in schools which stream by ‘ability’. Even if we want to view data in purely scientific terms, it is highly likely that we will be applying a theoretical lens to it – perhaps Popperian falsifiablilty, or the Kuhnian idea of the scientific revolution. Either way, these are still theoretical models, with imperfections and limitations, but this doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t bother with them.