We know what we are talking about, so we should talk about it

Firstly let me make it clear that, rather than reading my version, you’d be better turning to

Looking back maybe it was obvious. I used to say I only got into teaching because I wasn’t brave enough to try being a stand up comic. I always like to lay out my classroom with space at the front for me to pace, to strut and to perform. I was never so good at standing off to one side. So, whereas I wouldn’t like to call myself a sage, I know I love to be on the stage. And I know I could teach children and explain to them things they didn’t already know in a way that (I hope) was often relevant and always done with enthusiasm for my subject.

Yet when I joined twitter I got dazzled by the lights. I couldn’t stop clicking on links written by teachers who had just implemented a newly developed idea that was flipping excellent. Innovators flying solo and above the rest of us with embellishments and gizmos to take the drab out of learning and engage those oh so disinterested pupils. Discussion and decision-making games to make children that distracted they were tricked into learning.  At the same time for various reasons, some that are documented on this blog and some not yet, I began to lose belief in my own ability to teach effectively. This double slap combination left me grasping at every suggestion I read. Surely the bold world of twitter, blogs and the world wide web could save me and my sagging, flailing career.

But all these ideas led to was a distant ideal I could never replicate in my classroom and an unshakable feeling I was failing. The harder I worked at mimicking these hero teachers the worse I felt about my job. After all, if I was putting all that effort in and still my pupils weren’t really learning or often even that interested,  I must surely be a poor teacher. I was working harder and harder, introducing new formats and plans every week for little if any gain. I was drowning under technique and forgetting my subject.

I can’t say there was some road to Damascus moment that saved me. I had already slowly realised how much easier it was to rely on myself as the expert and not some mysterious ever-mutating teaching strategy before I found the two books listed above. But when I read Daisy Christodoulou defending and promoting direct instruction and Jess Lund write about “no nonsense, no burn out” it wasn’t just me and a few others at my own school. What we were thinking, others were thinking and championing. Such a relief!

And so now I am confident enough again to tell my pupils stuff, to explain things to them, to introduce them to facts, to talk to all of them – from the front. I still rely on other resources too of course: youtube is my good friend and so is the text book (radical, eh?) Then I set them some work to support that learning and check to ensure they have understood it. I make sure these first pieces come with support so that they can gain confidence and then finally once they have that knowledge secured, I introduce some more challenging decision-making tasks. Maybe then, from time to time, I might plan in a game or a gimmick as well:)

Lets get more grown ups in school

Last week I was taking a group of year 8s just off of our school grounds to do some Mission Explore work for their geography lesson. (See http://www.missionexplore.net)
The next day I received this email forwarding on concerns from a concerned member of the public who had rung in to the school. The email also got copied into some members of SLT. It was like I has been caught doing something I shouldn’t. Here is the correspondence

“A member of the community expressed concern that on Friday morning some of our students were behaving oddly. The member of public saw girls running up and down Woodland Path, some others on their hands and knees on the zebra crossing, causing villagers to remark on their odd behaviour. They thought the girls were truanting from school.”

Do you know what? I am rather proud that my class were doing their mission explore work so well that they got this reaction. They weren’t just indolently lying about wasting their time. They were interacting with their surroundings and seeing their own environment from a new perspective. To me this both good Geography and good Learning.

I am worried about a lot of adults’ opinions of schools. Firstly, these viewpoints are based on what they experienced 10, 20, 30 , 40, 50 , 60 years ago. So their ideas may not all be relevant to how teaching and learning is today. Secondly, and more worryingly, is that these opinions are based on personal perceptions formed by children and teenagers. We all know how a pupil can say about a really caring teacher “oh he really hates me.”, when it is quite obvious this is not the case and the pupil has completely misinterpreted being told off for being disliked. These false understandings then get fixed in the memory as truths. On top of that, these selected and possibly incorrect recollections are then stretched out to form a whole philosophy of education, which is then applied en masse to any situation or issue in education whether it concerns their own child or a whole national government policy.

This is why schools should be getting parents and the wider community across the threshold and into the classroom; not so we can tell them what to think, but in order for their opinions to based on up to date, relevant and accurate information and experiences.

Second Thoughts on Mr Gove’s new Proposed Curriculum… let’s not worry about it

I wrote my first thoughts on the evening Mr. Gove announced his draft changes to the school curriculum. Now I will have another reflection at them……..

The bottom line is that on second thoughts we don’t really need to worry that much. The document clearly says that it is NOT a directive on how to teach, but rather on the content that needs to be covered. In my small area of expertise (mainly Geography and partly History) I can see that this is not a slimmed down list as was promised. What we are being given is a collection of what some rich old white men with broadly traditional, conservative views of their world think pupils should be learning and more importantly what these children should KNOW.

But why should I be concerned about this?

Firstly, like many I now teach in an academy and officially don’t have to follow all these lists.

Secondly, who would actually ever find out if I didn’t teach Glaciation? After all, in 2o years and 5 inspections I have never had a Geography expert either inspect my department of observe one of my lessons.

But most of all the biggest influence on pupils’ Geographical learning is not what the DfE decides up in Westminster, but in how we in our departments choose and plan lesson and activities, in how we individually deliver and adapt these lessons to our own styles and our own classes needs and interests. for example, sustainability is no longer a ‘must cover’ any more in geography; it doesn’t even get a mention in the draft document, whereas previously it was all over NC levels 5, 6, 7, 8 and exceptional performance. Now, as tricky an idea as it often is to my less able pupils, I will continue teaching it because I think it is important to have an idea of how to plan carefully and compassionately for the future.

Additionally, I have just finished reading “Dancing with Architecture” by Phil Beadle. If this book said one thing to me, it is that the how of our teaching is more important than the what. So if I tell pupils at the outset that “all will be able to describe” Russia or the geological time line or whatever, “most will be able to describe in detail and partly explain” and “some will be able to explain fully,  compare and analyse” then sure enough that is what they will happen. We will all go home satisfied, unsurprised and within the fortnight, have forgotten the whole drab and boring hour we spent together in room 47. Mr Gove will be pleased and I will be a day closer to retirement.

However if the department trusts in our own professional “fascination and curiosity” and we encourage our pupils to do the same, then the learning will memorable, relevant and of a high quality, even if OFSTED couldn’t find a way of measuring it. As Phil Beadle also says “Who cares what OFSTED thinks?….a generally outstanding teacher will be sufficiently confident in their own abilities to not bother engaging in any real way with the centralised attempt to define what it is they should be doing.”

An end of Term Lesson; with Learning and a DVD

There has been some strong hints dropped this year from my SLT about not just playing a DVD in your last lesson of the year with a class; and I can appreciate that. We have an activities week in the last week, so the ‘fun’ part of the end of term has already been catered for. However, we are all tired and personally, my ability to string many coherent sentences together is greatly diminished at the moment

So I have struck upon a plan which seems to be working well with Key Stage 3 classes. I have used the following resources:

  1. Planet Earth Box set DVD
  2. Julia Skinner’s  (@TheHeadsOffice )100 word challenge idea see www.theheadsoffice.co.uk

Heres how it goes:

a) I ask the class to write down 6-8 words that come to mind when they think of “deserts” or whatever the title of the DVD is that they are to watch. They have to draw a line under those words.

b) Then I tell them we are going to watch a DVD on this topic for about 30 minutes and afterwards they are going to produce a piece of descriptive writing on the landscapes they have seen and what happens there. I say they should write down some words and ideas for this during the DVD, but not many as actually watching and listening is more important than taking lots of notes.

c) I stop the video with about 20 minutes to go of the lesson (ours last for an hour) and tell them to complete their piece of descriptive writing. the only two rules they have to follow are:

  • It must not exceed 100 words (I am strict on this)
  • They cannot use any of their original 6-8 words they wrote down at the start of the lesson

Because this is the last lesson of the term chances for peer and self assessment are not available, but I know this idea could be extended further to allow for more redrafting and improving of their work.

But as a stand alone end of term lesson that both challenges my pupils to learn and think and is also a bit different, this has so far worked very well.

The Joy of Learning Returns

Yesterday I was bemoaning all that pressure and work we are heaping on our teenagers and how this was killing their joy of learning

Today I saw this talk by Hans Rosling and I was reminded that the Joy of Learning is not yet dead, even if it is feeling under the weather at the moment. If you haven’t seen Hans talk before please do look up others of his video on youtube

Revision Classes and the Death of “The Joy of Learning”

It is the end of the school day. You have finished your 6 hours of learning. In every lesson you have worked as hard as you can.You have worked as hard as you can for nearly two years now. This morning, you heard the headteacher talk in assembly about the importance of good grades and how last year’s Year 11 gained the school’s best ever set of GCSE results. You have listened to everyone of your subject teachers tell you your target grade, your predicted grade, your current grade and the % chance you have of reaching your FFT. At the week-end you got cornered in the kitchen by your parents as they lectured you about not wasting your opportunities and your talent. You are going home tonight to 3 hours of revision – as you do every evening.

You are looking forward to the 20 minute walk home were no one can bug you at all. But you are an earnest and diligent 16 year old, so what do you after school instead of going home?

Of course – or go to an extra after school revision class.

The school is providing many each day of the week. In fact there were some in the Easter holidays and there a couple at half term too. You get the impression that there is nothing at all in your life other than revision and work. How many GCSE grade points will you get? How many A-A*? How many A*-C grades?  It feels there is no other way of weighing up your value to the school or the school’s value to you, other than by your exams results.

From being a bright and enthusiastic Year 10 with a passion for 3 or 4 of your subjects in particular, you now feel burdened by the never ending expectation and pressure to work and achieve. The joy of learning? More like the over bearing duty of it.

I worry about what we are doing to our teenagers; what we are telling them about what matters in life; what pressures we pushing down on top of them. Just how many extra classes do they need to go to reach their potential?

Teachers,  headteachers, governors and the government – we are all to blame. We have begun to judge each other and at other schools by exam passes and grades. We have fallen into the trap of simplification and as a result, the joy of learning and of thinking is being sucked out of our pupils, our lessons and our schools.

If I was to say “Stop! Relax class. Exams aren’t everything. What matters most is how you treat each other” I would be regarded as a naive simpleton. My point of view would not be taken seriously and my teaching methods would come under scrutiny. I would be asked “How do you know if every pupil in every class has made progress in every one of your lessons today?”

Because to far too many people,  measurable progress is all that matters in education.