Why Teachers Need Each Other: Setting Up Learner Communities

As teachers, we think a lot about teaching and learning, spend hours developing resources and hone our classroom practice so that students can get the most out of the hours they spend with us. However, rarely do we give any thought or attention to our own development and learning. This, I am realising more and more, is a serious problem. Firstly, it means that for a good many staff there are limited opportunities for them to improve and grow. But the biggest issue is that a lack of self-development damages students: those who do not learn themselves are going to find it more difficult to effectively model the process of learning with their students.

So, how to we solve this problem and get teachers learning? At Copleston High School we have just embarked on a process that will turn all our classroom staff (teachers, CTAs and Cover Supervisors) into action researchers. We took the following approach:

Our first action was to start a dialogue with staff and take their ideas about teaching and learning seriously. Therefore, we set up an area on our FROG VLE where staff could suggest what the school should focus on and then vote on which were the best proposals.

We have a termly Learning & Teaching Group Meeting to which each department sends a Rep. Up until 15 months ago, its role was to discuss items that appeared on an agenda, which was rarely populated by anyone else other than senior leaders. We took the decision in October 2010 to offer them an alternative: carry on as we had been, or use the time to form action research groups. The vast majority opted for the latter and so we took the top five priorities from the staff survey and turned them action research titles. Members of the Teaching & Learning Group then divided themselves up according to interest and started researching.

I wanted to create a buzz about action research, get people innovating so that others might follow (see Geoffrey Moore, 1991). I love the way Seth Godin talks about this in his TED talk:

We now had five action research groups with interesting findings that they could share. After an insightful trip to Cramlington Learning Village and talking to staff there we adapted their idea of holding an internal conference. We started organising conference packs, speakers, food, etc so that it had the feel of a real conference, but it would be for our staff about our development. We felt this step was important, because it would signal a new direction and new expectations from staff. We called our conference Copleston Sauce: Open, taste and Love Learning (a title created by 7LM – my Year 7 ICT group – they even designed the logo).

On the first day of the conference (Tuesday 3rd January 2012) we split the whole teaching body into groups of five and asked them to sit together at round tables in the main hall. This was not a shock, we published lists and an explanation before the event and held two briefings in December. We started by talking about the reason why the school exists: to serve the community in which it sits. We then explored, how we can exemplify the idea of community in our practice. We talked about teachers forming communities in order to learn so that they could mirror and demonstrate amongst themselves what they expected of students in the classroom. We talked through the idea that the school community needs to have an andragogical and pedagogical strand in order to grow (see David Price’s blog on the Learning Futures Project). This, we explained, was why we wanted them to form small learner communities and conduct some action research.

Next, we got each member of the new learner communities to go to one of five workshops based around the research topics conducted by the members of the Learning & Teaching Group. This enabled us to model the process with staff and plant some seeds in their minds.

With the help of a protocol we designed specifically for the occasion, we got the learner communities to start talking amongst themselves and deciding what would be the focus of their action research. It was a risk constructing the groups and not allowing total freedom of choice, but the principle of learning from others and mixing up staff with different roles and skills was an interesting experiment – it will be interesting to see the results of the evaluation when it comes back. At this stage we felt it was important to drive home the community angle and to make staff even more aware of the potential within the school.

The initial response was incredible. The questions being posed were fantastic and the level of engagement from staff was amazing – the conference ended at 4:00 pm on Wednesday 4th January 2012, and 20 minutes later there were still staff in the hall discussing their action research. The sharing has continued on twitter with people suggesting resources and links and it was happening across departments and between staff and CTAs. We feel that the freedom for each learner community to determine its own title was important in building ownership of the process. It has created a genuine enthusiasm for action research and a platform on which we can build a school community that truly has learning at its heart. What we have done is in no way unique and borrows heavily from work already carried out by Learning Futures Project, High Tech High in California, Cramlington and the work of Dylan Wiliam. However, it is a big step forward for us and we believe is moving us into a completely new space in terms of development

The challenges we now face are helping staff to realise their plans in the coming weeks and to establish a model for making action research a key component of the Professional Development programme year after year. We really want the conference to happen again next year and for the most part to be run by the Learner Communities. What the conference this year has shown us is that teachers really do need each other to develop and to enable them to thoroughly practice what they preach.

Being Brave with AfL: the Art of Public Critique

Inspired by Usain Bolt article in Big Issue #966

‘Critique in most classroom settings has a singular audience and a limited impact: whether from a teacher or peer, it is for the edification of the author; the goal is to improve that particular piece. The formal critique in my classroom has a broader goal. I use whole-class critique sessions as a primary context for sharing knowledge and skills with the group’ (Ron Berger, An Ethic of Excellence)

When I first read Ron Berger’s work on critique I was blown away: he was able to get students giving detailed and almost professional feedback to others so that work was substantially improved as a result. To me, this seemed like an ideal that was practically out of reach. Like the vast majority of teachers I have used AfL strategies that ask students to comment on the effectiveness of work and, I suspect, for most of us the results were disappointing. Comments were too general and therefore difficult to act upon. Even with modelling and practice, the quality was still a way off where I wanted it to be. Take a look at these videos by the man himself explaining its purpose and power:

Critiquing has changed my attitudes and transformed the quality of work in my classroom. Of course, there are other factors that have helped with this (for example, project based learning, SOLO taxonomy and Big Questions), but critiquing deserves the spotlight as a strategy that can have a profound impact on learning. It is high risk and takes time to master, but I have been so impressed with the results. Asking students to put their work up for public scrutiny is a bold move, asking them to listen patiently as others coolly dissect their work is difficult for some. It is difficult for teachers too, relying on a whole class to come to with quality comments with just a few prompts from you. However, it does work if approached in the right manner.

So, here are my ‘Top Five Tips’ for successful critiquing:

1. Establish the right culture
You need to get across the message early on that a piece of work is not an end in itself, but a stage in a longer process. Quality takes time and students need to get away from a checklist driven mentality and move to one of continual improvement. This will probably be a struggle at first, as students used to the former. Also, you have to ween them off their grade/level dependency (it only makes their checklist addiction stronger). I agree with Berger when he tells students there are only two grades in his class: ‘A’ and not done.

I have launched this concept in two ways. Firstly, I have quotes on my windows that read:

“What could you possibly achieve of quality in a single draft?”
“Would you ever put on a play without rehearsals?”
“Would you ever play a gig without practicing first?”

The purpose of these quotes (straight from Berger) was to establish, in terms relevant to them, why drafting is needed. I then moved into the more abstract and asked students to consider an article from the Big Issue about what made Usain Bolt great (Issue #966). From this they pulled out their favourite quotes (see image above) and we made a display. I did this same activity with all groups from Year 7 to Year 13 so that the message was absolutely clear.

2. Go Over the Rules… Every Single Time
From the Work at High Tech High, via Darren Mead, I got the following rules:

– Hard on content, soft on people
– Step up, step back
– Be kind, helpful and specific

(Click on the rules for Darren Mead’s excellent dissection of how they work).

These have been crucial in making critique work. By making the whole AfL experience public, it is easier to spot weaker comments and ask students to clarify or provide specific examples. Also, the idea that everyone should be involved has been crucial. In most instances, the process has been contagious and students have responded well. The last rule sums up everything else and gets to the heart of why the process is so powerful. Practice has shown me though that rules need to be established before every critique. Year 9 will soon be doing their fourth of the year and I will go over the rules carefully; it reinforces the expectations and shows them that it is a serious business.

3. Aim for perfection and insist on quality
The first few times that I used critique I treated it too lightly. I wanted to establish the concept of it with students and so allowed them to get away with comments that were not that in depth. This was completely wrong. Critique works best when it works towards quality. It has to be the goal of every session, even if it seems hard or harsh. You might need several sessions of critique to get the desired product, but it should always be there as your aim. This is why I gave Year 13 an article aimed at Cambridge students, written by a leading academic, as an example of what I was looking for. That is the level I want them to reach and their critique of each others work was centred around making this a reality.

4. Critique a Variety of Media
With some groups I made the mistake of critiquing two pieces of written work with them early on. In their minds the process became synonymous with that media, rather than as Berger says ‘a habit that suffuses the classroom.’ Therefore, I have tried to ensure that we look at least two different media early on so that they understand that the process of critique is about attitude and not just about writing. Below are the first two drafts of an Audioboo completed by a mixed ability Year 9 group in order to answer to the question ‘Why did Wilf go to war?’:

why did Wilf go to war? (mp3)

After the first recording we critiqued the work and the students talked about the need to offer specific information to back up points and they also wanted to have better explanations. There was a lot of discussion about what specific information was relevant. The second draft is below:

why did Wilf go to war 2 (mp3)

There are two obvious differences between the two drafts. The first is length; the second attempt is almost two minutes longer and therefore includes much more detail. However, the most impressive thing is the amount of students who joined in the second time around. Many more wanted to add some details or an explanation and it became (almost) a whole class piece. Next lesson we will go back to this and critique again to make further improvements.
Audioboo and critique of exhibition pieces have stopped critique from becoming stale and allowed my groups to grasp its true purpose: helping them to achieve quality.

5. Only critique work when it is ready
At first, I tried to critique a whole class at the same time. It was hard to keep the pace going and also it was too long. This approach worked fine for sixth form where numbers were smaller and patience longer; in fact, when Year 13 critiqued their opening paragraph to an essay it was incredibly beneficial as we could identify several key features of a good answer and share excellent examples of knowledge to back up points. Looking back though, the reason it was so successful is that everyone had a paragraph that they were ready to share. Critiques where lots of students need to share work often fail because of variation in the amount of work they have achieved. Therefore, I have been working hard to find ways to minimise this.

Lower down the school I have tried several things to ensure that critiquing is more fluid and focused. With Year 9 I trialled critiquing someone’s work at the end of each lesson. This has created a really healthy attitude among the group, although we quickly extended it to cover two people (less scary and more opportunity to develop key principles of what we are studying). With Year 8 I have critiqued segments of a whole: We ask different people to present one part of the work and then stitch the bits together to make a whole. Then, we can critique the whole product. This gives us a range of opinions and answers, but also allows us to focus on the principles of an effective piece (the Audioboo recordings above are a good example of this).

Sometimes you need to see all the work. Post-its are great for allowing everyone to contribute, but it still needs for you to bring back the discussion to a central place and establish the key features. After a Post-it activity, questions like ‘What features did you see a lot?’ and ‘What advice were you writing often?’ are good to get the discussion going.

To recap, if you want a whole class to successfully critique the work of other students it is a good idea to…
1. Establish the right culture
2. Go over the rules… every single time
3. Aim for perfection and insist on quality
4. Critique a variety of media
5. Only critique work when it is ready

If you need further proof, I used critique in a lesson observed by an HMI. I said six words in the 30 minutes they were there: “Get yourself ready for a gallery critique.” They were very impressed.

Teaching: The Unthinking Profession

I have been on the road again this week delivering training in a number of schools. I really enjoy the experience and always learn from the people I work with and it is tremendous fun. However, as a trainer I know that sessions packed full of practical strategies will go down really well and this is beginning to trouble me. I worry that theory and context are almost vilified in the profession and we can no longer see past the quick fix of a good practical tip.

Before going on I would like to say that I exclude the users of twitter from this description – they are keeping the art of theory alive (take a look at #edjournal for proof). They are, however, a minority and only in the most enlightened schools are they central to decision making.

This trend is worrying for three reasons:

1. Teachers, in general, are not interested in theory. The sessions where there is a substantial theory base will always get a weaker reception. Teachers want ‘stuff’ they can take away and use tomorrow. While I always show how the theory works in practice, it never seems to have the same impact as CPD with titles like ’10 engaging starters’ or ‘7 great discussion tools’. While there is a place for practical tips, but I know that this approach offers little impact. A good idea might be used once or twice, but understanding how it works and why it works will bring lasting and sustainable alterations to teaching methods. The ‘quick fix’ is just that and somewhere down the line a proper solution needs to be found. I see too many Senior Leaders promoting ‘Sharing Good Practice’ sessions as the way to improve teaching and learning in their schools. While it will allow for a dialogue to be a created about learning it needs to be followed up with a ‘Sharing Good Theory’ session where staff explain the philosophy behind the techniques that they use and why it leads to better learning.

2. If we can’t see the relevance of theory then how do we move forward? If only a small minority are reading about new approaches and trying them out, experimenting and refining, how can the profession raise itself up to better standards? Few people have heard of or seen Sir Ken Robinson, hardly anyone has read Geoff Petty or John Hattie, let alone slightly leftfield texts like those by Steven Johnson or Daniel Pink. I am concerned that standards will not improve in the majority of schools, because no one is looking into what is possible and exciting.

3. I think the attitude of the profession at large towards CPD and theory plays into the hands of our critics. Some politicians and large chunks of the population see teachers as lazy and stuck in their ways. They view teaching as being a simple set of skills, that as Michael Gove put it can be passed on from the master ‘to the apprentice’. I firmly believe that teaching is a highly creative discipline, providing tremendous scope and freedom to experiment. But it also consists of patterns and lines that can be follewed to create a more firm understanding of the students in front of you. Without theory to map a route we are either aimless or rigid, and neither is good enough in education. I find it hard to imagine a doctor being negative about new approaches in their specialism, or lawyers refusing to read the lasted case law. Why should teachers resent good CPD and theory?

I have talked to many teachers about this and most feel under pressure to perform well with exam groups and to meet expectations. They get observed occasionally, pull out a few tricks and set pieces, and then get back on the treadmill of reports, emails, marking and planning. They feel like they do not have the time to read theory and experiment, it intrudes on their daily business of survival. Also, the quality is not always there in CPD sessions and people get turned off. It is hard not to feel sympathy for this argument, but we need to break it down and move the agenda on. Leaders need to take bold decisions and teachers need to talk about theory, share it, just like we do on twitter, and help to breathe new life into our unthinking profession.

Five Reasons to Play PS3 in A Level Lessons

I have recently bought a PS3 for my classroom and, yes, it did raise a few eyebrows at first. In fact, several weeks on and it still seems to create the same reaction in some people. However, it was the response of the students that most interested me. The first game that I experimented with was Sid Meier’s Civilization Revolution.

I had wanted to use it for a while to help teach the Tudors unit at AS Level. One of the key teaching points of the unit is how Monarchs governed their states and I was fairly sure that it could help students get a feel for the mindset of the Early Modern Period.

The results were fascinating and made a real impact. However, I don’t want to go into the whole defence of game based learning, or even explain how it can be used to create a real enquiry (that has been done with much greater eloquence than I could muster by the likes of Dawn Hallybone). All I want to set out here is five simple reasons why we should be using games to teach through at post-16:

1. It is great for teaching concepts – so far we have used it to launch the Tudor unit in Year 12 (looking at the concept of kingship), the Crime and Punishment unit at Year 13 (using the CSI game to look at the concept of investigation) and with Year 7 to look at Chronology (using the History extension pack of Little Big Planet). The initial playing generated a lot of excitement, but the discussion that followed was the really amazing part. Students were able to provide concrete (allbeit digitally rendered) examples to back up and explain abstract concepts. It was brilliant to hear three Year 12 students discussing why it was virtually impossible to create a state noted for culture while engaged in a protracted war, or why it was futile to build a banking system when most spare cash was being spent on an invasion army. The game had managed to solidify thinking on a difficult concept in less than two hours – it would have taken weeks for me to feed them enough contextual knowledge to reach the same point. This approach is one that I want to hang on to. I can not see me using the PS3 as a straight tool for learning about a particular time period or skill – that seems to take out the excitement and the thinking. It was the connections that had to be made and the abstract nature of the thinking that made this work.

2. It doubles up as a blu-ray – the advantages of blu-ray are documented widely, but having that technology available in the room is superb. Buying a separate player would cost just as much and the PS3 has more to offer the class. It means that we can show clips that create much more atmosphere. For example, when looking at the changing landscape of crime drama we show two clips from Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Psycho’. Seeing this in high definition is fantastic, but it also shows the students that you care about the presentation of the sources of information you use. Carrying the box with reverance and carefully placing it in the player adds to the drama and makes them care more about the content. Honestly, design and presentation matter an awful lot in post-16 teaching.

3. If you have wifi, it is a cheap way to get internet access – the fact that it is almost a pc at a fraction of the cost is superb. For less than £200 you can get access to a host of web resources and use them in lessons. If you want a cheap way to play video clips or show striking images, then the PS3 has got to be a serious consideration. It is another access point to help students look up and clarify those small issues that arise when they are involved with completing an enquiry. The novelty of doing this additional research on the PS3 has proven engaging too.

4. It creates a buzz among students – the amount of comments I have received since the PS3 landed at school is incredible. The students think it is brilliant that the History department has one and the teachers actually know how to play the games. One student (Year 12) wrote on the VLE ‘History + PS3 = Cool’. I have to agree.

5. It is a technology that is constantly evolving – with the recent introduction was motion and visualising technology the PS3 has opened up a new avenue of use for the classroom. I don’t know how well it will work for what we need to teach, but it will be fun to explore this with the students. And the best part is that new games and hardware to connect to the PS3 will emerge every year so that we can keep offering a variety of approaches and remain fresh. We should not abandon the principles of play and exploration at KS3 – keeping the learning active, engaging and different is as vital at post-16 as it is with Year 6 or 7 and using a games console is just one way to bring this into the classroom.

These five points are not an advert for PS3 consoles, although I obviously do like mine, more an attempt explore games based learning and student engagement at KS5.

Hope it helps.

If you could change just one thing… you would be creative

Sometimes we think to much about being creative and come up with all manner of elaborate schemes to engage and excite students. Sometimes it might be better to take a step back, look at the basics and change just one thing…

In the last week of term we decided to do some lessons outside. In fact, we did a day outside, complete with lunch cooked by the students on fires that they constructed themselves.

There was a lot of smoke and, more importantly, a lot of laughter. The day was a great success and this was down to three things:
1. Change of scenery
2. New element or angle to the work
3. Different students coming forward to contribute

The change of scenery started out as a way to help students gel and mix with a wider group. However, it actually energised their thinking. The task was a mystery, but instead of clues on paper they were spread around an orienteering course. This meant that students had to locate the clues before starting to piece them together. The route they chose affected the clues they reached and therefore their answers. This made the debrief fascinating, especially since unexpected students were coming forward to voice their opinions. The ‘outdoors’ element completely threw some students who are usually good at this type of thing, whereas a few ‘quiet’ individuals were vocal about the way they had tackled the orienteering part. The whole exercise reinforced the notion of variety being vital in learning. The change of senery meant skills not normally seen in the classrooom were needed and the students loved the chance to demonstrate them. One young man is autistic and finds it hard to cope with the lively nature of life at school. He can be thrown by last minute changes to his day, but here (due to his scouting background) he was confident and a real leader.

We will definitely be doing this again and coming up with new scenarios to challenge students.

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