Tables in the classroom good. Tables facing the front better

 

You see it all the time, some edutweeters responding to an edutwitter discussion about how to teach with a self-defined single model version of teaching: ‘All desks facing the front, teacher at the front.’

And let me start by saying that there is a lot of truth in that particular model. If I have them in groups and then ask them to listen whilst I am giving instructions or doing a similar teacher led activity then I’m just asking for them to not pay attention. You can call it whatever you want, but sometimes it really does work if I have them all facing me when I am teaching.

However, once I’ve completed that learning event and moved on, then I need to consider what the best room layout is for the next learning event. I can’t have one model of desk layout always employed regardless of the activity.  If I was then doing an activity with group work, allocating different roles and they had to work effectively as a team, then I don’t want all the desks giving them physical barriers to represent their internal ones. They are going to have to learn how to collaborate because that’s pretty much what it means to be a citizen in a society – in work, rest and play. That’s why PISA are testing it and why we are good at it. Covid19 will naturally affect this, but the reality is that we will slowly return to working collaboratively in groups within our classrooms.

So, I want to move the desks. Sometimes I move the desks into group tables. Sometimes, I reduce the number the tables in play by only giving a group a single table around which they have to sit. More room for the sitting part & my circulation and more intimacy for the group work – there must not be hiding room in good group work. Too often, we give them a tiny working area for close text or number analysis sat on an island of tables and mini-cliques can quickly emerge which render the group work a poor vehicle for learning. And then here is the important part, if I then moved to another teacher-led learning event I would move the tables again. Only, I would not do this personally – the pupils would be trained to move those tables on my direction, lift – not drag, in a display of co-ordinated table movement, rather like when one turns the dial on a prism viewfinder. I like teaching with plural models of teaching and I like teaching with plural models of desk layouts.

My tables are moved then, habitually, to suit the activity. Whole room clearance for drama pedagogy, Socratic questioning circles, work performance review, partial clearance for group activities and then back to formal rows for teacher-led and the opening and closing of my lesson. It sounds a lot, but in reality there might be 2-3 minor movements in a single lesson. Each movement of tables is an aesthetic display of coordinated memorised room shaping by the pupils. Once I had trained them into creating the half dozen table layout shapes I employed over the year they had no problem in creating them at speed. If you buy into Sweller’s cognitive load like many do, then you should be buying into creating the optimum environment for each activity in your room, each and every time without any disruption. You should also be thinking about the limitations for any model of education in any particular situation with any group of people in a place of education. And you should be thinking about the limitations of always advocating a single model of teaching or education to others. Dichotomy in Edutwitter is a real issue and a red herring. You reduce teacher agency with educational dichotomies. Let well trained teachers choose how to teach each unique class that they have.

This plural approach to teaching models is the real demonstration of how teachers teach – adapting their classrooms for maximum learning.

 

 

 

Lockdown Learning for Schools in September

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When the lockdown came for us in teacher education here at UOB towers, it was like we had been building up to this, technologically, for some time. Little did we realise it, but the past two years that we had been piloting webinars, developing online teaching pedagogies and moving face to face delivery to online delivery were going to become very relevant. The reason we were developing this was quite simple: mentors having to drive a long distance to mentor development face to face sessions were delighted to sit and have a webinar from home instead with a cup of tea beside them and with no commuting. We had just started to experiment using the flexibilities offered by this technology with some of our trainees when the university shut its doors for COVID19 and our entire programme, overnight, moved online. The same content got taught at the time it was scheduled. Live and exceptionally well attended webinars replaced face to face sessions and it was as seamless as switch as you could imagine. From the trainees’ end, this was a bit of a shock (they relied on the physical library more than I thought), but to their credit they have been very resilient despite the challenges of losing physical interaction with their peers and tutors as well as a change in approach to teaching. No matter what we try to do as tutors, we cannot replicate the live synchronous and emotive experience of learning that happened in the physical classroom (I am from the reader response school of thought) and I think we all see the online version as an inferior substitute to the real thing. Though, to be fair to online live webinars, there are some sessions which have proved to better suited to webinars – ‘preparation for assignment’ type seminars where thinking time, intense question and answer sessions and the ability to record everything have proved to be a superior model.

We are fortunate in our School of Teacher Education to have well designed Virtual Learning Environment technology underpinning our delivery. Technology that was designed and used to deliver taught and assessed units within courses (as opposed to Zoom etc., being designed for business). The students, as I said, overnight, have remained enrolled in units, enrolled on courses and ‘attending’ designated sessions as timetabled. The staff are teaching as much as they ever were and apart from some tricky assessment modifications we’ve by and large ensured that the trainees have had a smooth transition in terms of academic input. This shows that we are benefiting from the level of technological infrastructure in homes, with trainees and with the university. Indeed, business and charities are in a similar position – the flexibility of technology has enabled us all to deploy social distancing as a strategy to push back against the R rate.

Thinking about schools now, it is clear that the way forward will be an adherence to the current rule no unnecessary close social interactions. If you can work from home or learn from home using the flexibility of technology you should and alternatively if you can run your business or attend somewhere with social distancing then you can do that. That’s the way the UK has chosen to keep R down (there are other models: Sweden, South Korea and so forth). Some people have to go to a workplace and more people will go back to a workplace as they open up with social distancing in place, but some people can continue to work from home. The same doesn’t quite apply to pupils in schools. Most pupils will have to go to school and be taught via traditional pedagogies by teachers in face to face sessions for some of the time if not all of the time. In the classrooms, social distancing  can and will have to be practiced (due to smaller numbers in school through rota systems). Some pupils will learn online effectively, because they have the environment and technology to do so. Some pupils who could stay at home will go to school because they don’t have the learning environment to learn from home. Those pupils who can learn from home will be taught by teachers using online pedagogies to supplement the face to face teaching. Teachers and schools from September will need to be able to teach face to face and to teach online. What teachers and schools are doing, on behalf of the government, is deploying the flexibility offered by technology to reduce social interactions. It could be that once the R rate comes down and test and trace becomes much better in terms of its success rate that the government will switch to an approach where social interaction is not so heavily repressed, but until we see the infection rate come down and the test and trace capacity increase we have to think about logistics based on current approaches.

My job as a course leader of teacher education is to ensure that the teachers coming in can teach online as well as face to face. We are already doing this for the outgoing cohort. They would normally have run a face to face ResearchEd style conference to finish the course. This year, they will run that conference as an online conference. Live webinars will replace the keynotes and the breakout presentations. They will put on an entire day of live webinar based learning for each other. We are already looking to enhance next year’s cohort’s knowledge of TEAMS and so forth as part of our planning.

When I look to the future (as someone who has written frequently about technology in education), I can see that blended learning is about to become a reality for everyone. You can have social distancing in schools because you must – for those who will attend school. You can have live teaching online because you must – for those who can study from home for some of the time. I know that live webinars are not as good as face to face sessions, but that’s not the important part right now. What’s important is to keep unnecessary social interactions to a minimum whilst maximising safeguarding and education.  There will be regional variations as well – schools and parents in an area seeing a rise in transmission could expect to be placed back on extensive lockdown. Teachers will be, for next year at least, waiting for the COVID19 phone call as opposed to the OFSTED call.

Rosenblatt’s Principles of Instruction

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You might be familiar with Rosenshine’s Principles of Instruction, but are you are aware that the similarly named Rosenblatt also had principles of instruction some 60 years earlier? In the interest of revisiting educational history, Rosenblatt’s principles are as interesting to review as Rosenshine’s.

To start with, Louise Rosenblatt didn’t collect her own principles together. They were spread out amongst her seminal work on transactional theories of literature and Probst put them together. Indeed her most famous text from 1938, Literature as Exploration, is still in print . These principles emanate from the teaching of English (she is best known for the concept of ‘Reader Response’), but the principles can also be explored through the lens of other subjects by considering the notions of epistemic curiosity (Litman, 2008). The main principle to note here is that there is an element of the learning that cannot be placed in a knowledge organiser and cannot be directly instructed for. In English we refer to it as reader response. The idea that every person’s experience of the text is unique. The text sits alone until a reader comes along and consumes it. In doing so, they have an experience. That experience then makes up part of the meaning of the text. So, let’s look at the Rosenblatt’s principles of instruction as put together by Probst (1987).

Thus, you can see how it contributes to contemporary debates over knowledge, “knowledge…is not something to be found, not something the teacher can give to the student…”. Here, I don’t mean that one cannot organise and plan knowledge for lessons – planning and organising knowledge ahead of a lesson is a very good approach to teaching. I am saying that not all knowledge can be organised and planned for in lessons. For English, this is fairly well enshrined in our subject. Each student, when writing about literature, will offer a personal response over and above those efferent aspects of the text that the teacher can plan and teach to the student. It’s not enough, in English, for the student to learn about characters, plots, contexts and themes in literature: they must also personally respond to it. Take the recent real life story about Lord of the Flies – it makes people question their response to the original text. Do humans forever have a touch of the animal within them? Or is it not so inevitable? Our personal response when we read the text forms part of the meaning of the text. And further, that meaning changes as we change and the world changes.

The next step I want to take this to is as a lens through which to look at other subjects. Litman writes extensively about epistemic curiosity. Both the desire to learn more about something one is passionate about and also the desire to fill a perceived gap in knowledge. When learning within a subject, experiences happen. These experiences also feed into epistemic curiosity. The reader response can therefore be applied to other aspects of the curriculum. When learning about the horrors of slavery or the civil rights era, many of us felt compelled to know more. Sometimes, as Litman points out, that compelling need is because we feel a deficit of knowledge. We feel it is important to know more about this topic. It drives our own self-regulated learning with the metacognitive engine running at full speed. On other occasions, a teacher might expose you to a topic and you find it compelling. I still recall the experience of being taught the Norfolk crop rotation method from medieval history in year 9 and deciding I wanted to find out more – independently.

The concepts behind Rosenblatt’s principles of instruction therefore play an important part in a teacher’s planning. When is this going to happen in the lesson? How can we use discussion to facilitate this ‘experience’ and response. It’s not enough to learn that knowledge which we have planned for them to learn. There is more – the experience of learning that knowledge and then further: what is that experience like? By this, I don’t mean gimmicky things which makes a lesson ‘interesting’ – I’m on record as saying our subjects are interesting in their own rights. But that ‘interesting’ actually means it feeds into curiosity. What we want to achieve in our lessons is an experience where the students themselves find our subject interesting and that bits of our subject knowledge are attached to these experiences of curiosity.

I’m interested to know how other subjects approach this unique idea of the triangulation between the student, the knowledge and the experience. I have written before that knowledge alone is insufficient (see our article on Disposable Knowledge). When learning knowledge, students will have an experience of learning that knowledge and that experience becomes part of the knowledge. We can’t say in advance what that experience will be, but it is something we can plan for and even look to enhance.

 

 

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.

 

 

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. (2019)  “The role of intellectual virtues in the development of the science teacher: an initial provocation” Research in Teacher Education, Vol.9 (1), pp.6-11

Are you a PGCE mentor or PGCE trainee? Read on…

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Every year, around this time, a PGCE trainee is preparing to meet their PGCE mentor in a few weeks. And this year, more than ever, I’ve seen on Twitter  ‘Anyone got some advice? I’m about to become a mentor/start teacher education.’

You’ll be pleased to know the whole world has been training teachers and using mentoring to do this for some time so you won’t have to reinvent the wheel. That said, get that starting point wrong and you’ll all be playing catch up until the time comes for the mentor and trainee to part – in some cases with the trainee leaving the profession forever.

The first thing to think about is that very first meeting. We have undertaken a two year action research project into this ‘first meeting’, finding out just what mentors and trainees think are important questions for that first meeting. Some of them are quite obvious

What boundaries do we need to set for communicating with each other? Are you okay with phone/email/text? When? When not? How quick does my response need to be?
Do you want the opportunity to speak to me briefly every day about what you’re doing or are you happy to keep it to the weekly mentor meeting?

Some mentors are quite laissez-faire – a trainee can text them on a Sunday evening whereas others would be appalled. Best establish these things quite quickly. And really? I think as a profession we would rather that weekend communications were kept to a minimum these days.

You know how organised we have to be in teaching right? Well, best get it out there quickly if organisation isn’t someone’s forte. And whilst we don’t just mean the trainees, do ask them what their time management is like. But don’t ask them to plan lessons from scratch at the start of their placement. Give them the plans and ask them to learn with you how to adapt them to their class. When it comes to planning from scratch, co-plan with them before letting them progress to full solo planning.

How are you at managing your time – is this something you feel you need to develop?

Some of the questions are about getting straight to the point so people aren’t trying to engineer conversations around to crucial topics so they can finally ask the question that they really need to ask.

What information do you think you need from me to start this placement off as well as you can? What do you expect of me throughout the placement?
What would you describe as your strengths and weaknesses and how do you think they might help or hinder you on placement?

Some of the questions our mentors came up with were quite clever. This one for example:

If you truly had no idea what to do for a lesson, but had to send something in, would you send in something which was in your opinion not very good or would you write in and say you could not do the task?

And what the mentors said was – I can’t give you feedback on empty air. Just because you don’t think an idea is of a good quality, doesn’t mean others will. Send it in.

There was also a tacit acceptance that trainees sometimes arrive to a second placement having had quite a specific first placement experience or previous school experience.

How were you mentored/inducted on your previous placement/employment?  Tell me about what went well and what could have been better.

I haven’t got time to go through all the questions from the research here, but I think I’ll finish with an awareness that there are different pedagogical models that are present in other schools. The DfE says that teacher education should prepare someone to teach in any and all schools in England. All approaches come with limitations and recognising that a trainee is a teacher in development not a teacher being inducted into a school as an employee is a good thing to do. E.g. just because a mentor doesn’t agree with group work or direct instruction doesn’t mean a trainee has to follow suit. Indeed, if your department or school eschews a particular pedagogy then you should ensure your trainee gets an opportunity to develop this area. What happens if they go to another school that is opposite? E.g. some schools have projectors in every classroom and expect the trainees to be comfortable with using well designed and dual coded materials. Other schools have gone the opposite way and stopped using projected materials. Both schools would need to work with their trainee to practice both approaches.

What kind of pedagogical approaches and techniques have you had the opportunity to experiment with previously?  Is there a particular pedagogical approach that you would like to develop in this placement?

That first meeting then – it crucial to getting everything out and ensuring that lines of enquiry, boundaries, fixed ideas, prior knowledge, expectations and so forth are all explored so that you can move forward from that point as a team.