If you are reading this then you are probably a Highly Committed Teacher. Well done! You’ve survived another year! The trouble is that it’s now the end of the summer term and you’ve got very little left to give. Unless you take a proper break, you’ll end up being “committed” to a different sort of institution altogether! After a year of focusing on everyone else in the room, it’s time to take care of yourself. The value of “teacher wellbeing” can’t be underestimated.
I struggle with switching off, so I’ve compiled a “teacher wellbeing” to-do list, to keep me on the straight and narrow over the holidays, so that I’m refreshed and ready to start again in September. I’ll be miserable and be of no use to anybody unless I take care of myself over the holidays!
Teacher Wellbeing To-Do List
Go and see that musician or band you’ve been meaning to see. Soon they won’t be touring anymore and you’ll regret it forever.
Get fresh air regularly (not necessarily exercise!).
Spend quality time with your family, especially your children – they grow up so quickly!
Meet friends you haven’t seen in a while – especially non-teachers.
Finally buy yourself a Kindle and read a load of books for pleasure. (Personally, I’d recommend signing up to Kindle Unlimited as well. You can read millions of brilliant books for a ridiculously low cost. It’s only £7.99 a month! I’ve got through tonnes of books this year because I didn’t have to go out and drive to the bookshop. I can just download and read them any time I want.) I use a Kindle Paperwhite [affiliate link] and it’s so much better than reading on my iPhone. No eye-fatigue!
Be leisurely in all that you do. Take time enjoying the little things.
Go somewhere new – get out of your routine.
Treat / pamper yourself.
Have a nap.
“Decide” to forget about work. Rest means rest.
Stop being so busy. Say no to stuff that just fills your time and that you do through silly obligation. This is YOUR time.
Go to bed early / late / whenever!!
Stop reading edu-blogs for at least a month!
Stop writing edu-blogs for at least a month!
Nap in the fresh air (park bench, garden, tent, etc).
Turn off Social Media and News notifications. (Also, this might be something you permanently want to change, for your own sanity.)
Play that computer game you’ve not had time to play for the last few months.
Have another nap.
If you find even one of these things useful, then my work here is done! But ultimately, just do what you like, when you like. You might not get that chance in six weeks time!
Have a great holiday,
By the way, you can find me on Twitter at @guruteaching. Come and say hello!
Teachers: Are You Too Busy? (Then Reduce Your Workload!)
“Reduce teacher workload!” can be heard up and down the country, in staffrooms and online. The truth is it’s one of the simplest things that schools can do to help retain staff and maintain their wellbeing.
That being said, however, some schools aren’t doing all they can to remove unnecessary burdens. Those who have done so, enjoy rave reviews on Twitter and elsewhere, which of course doesn’t do them any harm when it comes to recruiting and retaining excellent staff. The best staff know their worth and will inevitably leave the school earlier than they would’ve done if they feel that another school would trust them and let them just get on with the real job of teaching. Even the Department for Education has begun to take note of the issue, identifying some key areas where schools can reduce teacher workload.
Some of the ideas I’ve listed to below are things that individual teachers and departments can do to reduce teacher workload. Others require Senior Leadership Teams to make brave decisions. But they are decisions that pay dividends for schools with the courage to take those simplest of steps. Take a look and see how many you could decide to do right now.
Seven Ways To Reduce Teacher Workload
1. Collaborative Planning
This is a no-brainer. Too many teachers get caught up in the trap of creating their own resources when others have already created ones that they could use. One way to avoid this is by deciding which parts of the course that you will resource and who will resource the other areas. This way (providing that everyone pulls their weight), a broad and deep course can become much more manageable and will take much less time to plan for.
When planning collaboratively, you should take care to establish a common set of standards for the resources, so that no matter whose resources are used, students are guaranteed consistency of quality (and so that no teacher has to work harder than a similar colleague, unless of course, they’ve agreed to do so).
Standards you might want to discuss with colleagues include:
The format of resources used (presentations, worksheets, online content, wider reading, homework)
Assessment tasks, mark schemes, success criteria, etc
Permissions to edit resources
Potential enrichment activities such as trips, guest speakers, clubs and competitions
2. Ditch Written Reports
This one is controversial for some schools, but not where I work. We ditched written reports as we didn’t see the value in them when the same information was given throughout the year in data reports to parents and in a yearly parents evening. The hours that were saved by not having to write reports, especially those with generic or copy-and-paste comments (don’t pretend you haven’t done it!) mean that not only is teaching workload reduced but staff morale increases. A huge part of the aim to reduce teacher workload is not that teachers don’t want to put in the hours, it’s that often they are forced to put hours into things that make no discernible difference. This is a quick solution that, in my experience, has absolutely no downside.
3. Reduce Data Drops
Many schools still require teachers to submit assessment data too frequently. Some teachers I’ve spoken to (thankfully at other schools) are required to submit assessment data once every half-term. That’s six times a year. Per class! I would ask why that is necessary.
As I’ve written before, we know that the progress made by students isn’t linear. So if a data point showed that a student had dipped, then that often means nothing at all. It’s the pattern over time that counts. If a student had dipped in their efforts or attainment, either in class or in homework tasks, the teacher doesn’t need a classful of assessment data to intervene, they just need a short conversation with the student. Reduce the data drops and you also free up time that was used analysing instead of planning better, or giving feedback, both of which are far more useful. Stop “weighing the pig”, just fatten it up, as you might say.
4. Promote Student Independence
The ability of students to work and learn independently is vital. Not only for courses that demand ever greater breadth and depth of knowledge but in life too. For too long, teachers have been forced to spoon-feed students in order to ensure they gain good grades. This can’t go on. Apart from the fact that it doesn’t do the students any favours in preparing them for life beyond school, it is completely unnecessary. We need independent and resilient learners.
Instead of giving students the answers immediately, you could set them a wider reading list, as I’ve done in Religious Studies and Law. The list of sources includes hand-picked textbook chapters, press articles, YouTube videos, and academic journals, covering the main themes to be studied over the year, broken down into termly sections. I show students where the resources are kept, but I ask them to find, read and comment on each source themselves, ideally in advance of the lesson where it will be taught. This Flipped Learning approach makes such a difference to students of all attainment levels and can be customised for any student to access.
Oh, and you only have to create your list once. It pays off for years as students become more confident in their own resourcefulness and require less and less guidance from you. Click here to read my Three Top Tips for Independent Learners.
5. Only Create Evergreen Resources
Don’t reinvent the wheel. Just modify and refine it. When choosing a topic to create resources for, make sure that you would be happy teaching this topic in this way for the next five years, regardless of who you are teaching. That way, once you’re planning is done, you can “bank” that planning time next year, the year after and the year after that, etc, in order to focus on something else of use. (This includes valuable family time or having a well-earned rest!)
Also, to ensure that your resources are suitable for next year, don’t just make them specific to your current class. Include a range of activities that you would use with a different class too so that you have to do as little tinkering as possible next year.
6. Give Whole Class Feedback
I mark a lot of essays. I used to frequently lose evenings and weekends every month. That was a time that I could (and should) have spent with my family and I regret not moving to this system much earlier. Here you can read more on why I think Marking Doesn’t Work.
When giving feedback on a classful of work, quickly read through a number of answers, without giving written feedback on them. Instead, jot down on a PowerPoint slide a list of common mistakes, misconceptions and missing pieces of content. Then, read through each piece of work and only comment on things that are unique to that piece. You will find that this reduces workload and it also provides you with a “response to feedback” resource for your class when you hand their work back. They can then learn to look for errors, with the guidance you’ve produced. With enough practice, they will need the teacher less and less, as they develop the ability to self-edit, rather than waiting for lots of feedback.
To enhance this further, you can use the whole class feedback slide you produced the following year. This will be used to prepare your new class attempting the task. That way, students should make fewer mistakes and which reduces the number of comments needed in your feedback.
7. Reduce Meetings To An Email
Do you ever find yourself meeting with colleagues to discuss something, only to find that the meeting took an hour and the issue could just as easily have been resolved via an email? Well in future, reduce teacher workload by using email instead of physical meetings in the first place. It won’t work for everything and some things are done far better in person, but it works for a lot more than you might realise.
Feel free to share your experiences of reducing teacher workload below. Any extra tips will be much appreciated!
Oh, and share this post too. Hopefully, your teacher friends won’t be too busy to read it.
Knowing how to improve literacy is crucial if we are to improve the life chances of our students. The attainment gap between highly literate students and their less literate peers is stark. Add to that the complexity of examination questions and the texts that often accompany them and you have a perfect storm. Students who are well-read and who have grown up in vocabulary-rich environments tend, on average, to achieve much higher examination marks. They then have more opportunities available to them and once they have children of their own, the cycle continues. Those who have not grown up in a vocabulary-rich environment achieve lower scores in examinations and consequently have fewer opportunities to them. The next generation’s children inherit an even more challenging education system and the problem becomes ever more acute. The National Literacy Trust has conducted extensive research on the effects of literacy on people’s lives and how to raise literacy levels. You can read their work here.
Improving literacy not only raises the life chances of today’s generation, but it also improves the chances of future generations. So narrowing today’s attainment gap, in my opinion, requires a bold and well thought out literacy strategy. Here, I explain one way in which you can improve literacy with your students, with an immediate impact: Live Modelling.
Improving Literacy With Live Modelling
I read a tweet recently by @positivteacha highlighting a huge literacy issue, that I’d also noticed in my own students.
“Showing kids a pre-prepared model answer and asking them to write a paragraph off the back of it is no different to showing them a picture of Duck l’Orange and sending ’em to the kitchen to knock one up.”
Mr Pink @positivteacha
As teachers, we’ve created a problem. In our attempts to produce resources to support students’ learning, we often think to ourselves “they could do with seeing a model answer of how it should look”. A huge proportion of students see this perfect answer on a pre-prepared PowerPoint slide and think to themselves “I can’t possibly do that. What if I make a mistake? What if someone notices? I’m not good enough.”
We didn’t mean to create this problem. In fact, this attitude is held by some students, regardless of our input. However, we DO make it worse by only showing students the “end-product”, rather than showing them how to get there. We want them to adopt a more positive attitude so that those who are reluctant to make an attempt gain the courage to do so. We have to show them the journey, not just the destination.
A method I’ve been particularly keen to try out “properly” for a while is “Live Modelling”. The idea is that teachers should move away from their pre-prepared slides, especially where it shows exemplar answers. By removing these carefully scripted responses, teachers are forced to model the writing of these responses by hand, LIVE in front of the class.
Scary, you might think! Well, that’s the point entirely.
Live Modelling demonstrates in a very explicit way how the writing process really works, in all of its ugly beauty. When I write on the board in front of my class, they see a teacher who sometimes struggles to phrase ideas the way they would like. They also see a little of themselves when they watch me writing, redrafting and making mistakes. Ultimately, they see that its okay to be less than perfect.
“We have to show them the journey, not just the destination.”
Writing is a messy process and it is okay to make mistakes along the way as your thought process develops.
What I’ve Observed So Far…
Since trialling Live Modelling consistently for a couple of weeks, I’ve noticed a growing confidence among many of my less-literate students. They are now less reluctant to ‘have a go’ when they are unsure of how to proceed with a sentence, a description or an explanation. Consequently, they have made much more progress over time than the times where I hadn’t used Live Modelling. Now obviously, it could just be a coincidence that those students have made particularly good progress at the time where I used Live Modelling. However, the more classes I use it with, the surer I am that it is having a greater effect than just showing those pre-prepared model answers I used in the (recent) past.
Additionally, as my students become more resilient learners, they have become less afraid to use new and more complex terminology. The increased variety of the sentences they can now use will hopefully lead to better quality explanations and arguments in the future. Consequently, their performance across all subjects will hopefully improve.
I use the word “hopefully” on purpose. I don’t yet know how well this will work. If I’m the only person using this method, then it will have only a limited effect and on only a small proportion of the students in my school. But if used as part of a whole-school focus on literacy then it really does have the power, not only to improve answers but ultimately to change lives.
Thanks go to @positivteacha for his inspirational tweet!
Hopefully, you’ll be inspired to have a go too. Please leave a comment and share your experiences too!
I don’t know about you, but even my most resilient students often struggle with revision, especially for GCSE and A-Level exams, where the stakes are high and the content is complex. Using textbooks is an excellent start in helping them develop their knowledge, but as you know, having more interactive resources like revision videos can be of even greater benefit to students, regardless of their ability.
Do you think your students would benefit from interactive revision videos, with built-in quizzes, to help consolidate and extend their learning? If so then I have a FANTASTIC resource for you to share with them.
Study Rocket is a new website where students can sign up for sets of revision videos, created by expert teachers and animated by professionals.
Revision videos are available for all subjects studied at GCSE and A Level and are tailored to specific exam boards, so you only pay for what you really need.
The videos contain summaries of key topics required by each exam board, followed by self-marking quiz questions to help students assess their knowledge of those topics. By giving the students the opportunity for immediate automated feedback on their revision, you reduce teacher workload – no more marking!!
I know that many of my students struggle to revise using notes and books, so I will be recommending Study Rocket to them to help with all of their GCSE and A Level subjects. As you know, a variety of revision resources is much more likely to lead to success than textbooks and notes on their own!
Many courses are already available on the website, with the remaining ones coming online soon.
Not only that, but right now there is a huge 30% discount available for anyone who pre-orders courses which haven’t come online yet. Get in there quickly before the videos go online! Just register your interest by entering your email address on the website, so that you are notified when the videos for your chosen course come online.
If you have any questions about Study Rocket then please reply and I’ll get back to you!
P.S. For more tips on how to build resilient learners, click here.
When I was a student, I remember staring for hours and hours at folders full of notes, trying desperately to memorise and understand them. It didn’t work. It probably didn’t work for you either. The problem is that memorising information is insanely difficult unless you employ the right methods. For most people, “reading notes” just doesn’t cut it, but whenever I ask students “how do you revise for exams?”, their first answer is almost always “I read over my notes”. I had never heard of meta-cognition and until recently, neither had my students.
The results were predictable. Students would leave their exams devastated that they couldn’t remember everything they supposedly “revised”. I vowed never to allow this to happen again and began my search for “the answer”.
Reading (and most importantly implementing) this post will help you teach more effectively and will help your students learn more. It’s a bold claim, I know. But trust me on this one, the evidence for using meta-cognition strategies is overwhelming.
What is meta-cognition?
“Meta-cognition” is best understood as learning how to learn. It’s a self-reflective strategy that allows students to understand how to learn more effectively and efficiently. Once mastered, students can memorise facts, understand concepts better and make connections between pieces of information with greater ease.
Why is meta-cognition so important?
Research by a growing number of educational bodies and cognitive-psychologists have demonstrated beyond doubt that when students are genuinely reflective about their learning ‘methods’, they improve quicker than their peers.
The Education Endowment Foundation (formerly known as the Sutton Trust) published research in 2012, highlighting a number of strategies that could be employed by schools, to raise the performance of their students. Meta-cognition strategies came out as second only to Feedback as the most impactful strategy. Not only that, but it cost virtually nothing to implement, unlike other (less effective) strategies. More recently, the EEF published guidance on meta-cognition which gives further advice to teachers on how to implement it in their day-to-day practice. You can read the April 2018 update here.
The Learning Scientists, a group of cognitive-psychologists studying the effects of meta-cognition on learning, have also published a variety of strategies, some of which my students have trialled with great success (read on to find out my favourite one). Their work has been picked up by a wide audience of teachers on Twitter, on both sides of the Atlantic. On their blog, they have written extensively on both the benefits of using meta-cognition strategies and on which strategies have proven to be the most effective. You can follow them on Twitter at @acethattest.
Which meta-cognition strategies should I use?
I’ve trialled a wide variety of meta-cognition strategies, both for delivering content and for helping students revise for exams. I’ve written below about the three strategies that in my experience have made the biggest difference to my students. I would advise you to try them all. What you will probably find, as with most teaching strategies, is that some work better than others for “your students”, or fit better with your preferred style of teaching. Just give them a go!
Whatever you find though, leave some feedback for me (and all the readers) so we can see which ones work best across a range of subjects. Don’t forget to mention your subject!
Spaced Retrieval Practice is, in my experience, THE way to teach students, in a way that almost prevents them from forgetting the content taught. In essence, you teach your content in whatever manner you choose, but then quickly follow it up with a set of questions. The questions should range from short to extended answers and should cover as much of the information you have taught as possible. Ideally, this should happen within the same lesson that you taught the content. You would then use the same quiz questions in the following lesson, once the students have had a chance to forget some of the information. Going back through the answers helps students to get used to ‘retrieving’ the information, thus improving their memory. Using the same questions again in another lesson a few days later will not only aid students’ memories further, but it will draw out the information that students struggle with the most, allowing you to plan for further teaching on that topic.
Interleaving is an excellent companion to Retrieval Practice and when the two are used regularly together, they make a huge difference. Interleaving is a revision strategy where students focus on Topic A, then Topic B, then go back to Topic A, then Topic C, then back to Topic B, then Topic D, etc, etc. It doesn’t really matter what order the topics are in, so long as there are lots of opportunities to keep going back and forth between them. By doing so, much like Retrieval Practice, you allow the students to forget, then get them to practice bringing the information back to the forefront of their mind. I teach my students that memory is much like a muscle. It must be put under strain, regularly, if you want it to become significantly stronger.
Self-Review Questionnaires are a completely different type of strategy to Retrieval Practice and Interleaving. This involves getting students to rank their topics in order of perceived difficulty. They then have to speak for a set amount of time, or for as long as they can, without repetition, hesitation or deviation (much like the BBC Radio 4 comedy show “Just a Minute“). It will quickly become evident to the student whether the perceived difficulty matches up to their actual knowledge of those topics. They can then begin to address the areas where they are evidently weaker, removing unnecessary revision from the equation and focusing on what’s truly needed.
If you’re a Primary School teacher then there really is no better book you can buy than Metacognition in the Primary Classroom (my Amazon Affiliate Link) by Peter Tarrant and Deborah Holt. In this book, they not only go into the rationale and research behind meta-cognitive strategies, but they explain how you can put them to use. In fact, rather than giving a broad approach to meta-cognition, they break their strategies into age ranges. Obviously, there are clear advantages to using particular strategies aimed towards a specific age group and this book shows you exactly how to do it. Why not take a look?
If you teach Secondary, then I recommend Thinking About Thinking (another Amazon Affiliate Link) by Stephen Lockyer. In this book, he gives a broad range of strategies you can apply to your classroom immediately, whilst explaining the rationale behind them in clear terms. His writing style is very accessible and you can use this book to dip in and out of at your own leisure, making it a must-have for anyone looking to improve outcomes at a minimal cost.
I would like to take this opportunity to thank the Learning Scientists for bringing Retrieval Practice and Interleaving (amongst many strategies) to my attention via their blog and on Twitter (links are above). Please follow them – you won’t be disappointed!
I would also love to hear how you’ve used meta-cognition strategies to improve your students’ performance. Add a comment and I’ll get back to you soon!
In all my years of teaching, I’ve rarely come across students who were naturally ‘good’ at presenting. In theory, student presentations should demonstrate knowledge of their chosen topic. But too often the breadth of knowledge or depth of understanding fails to show what was supposed to have been learnt. In this post, I’ve put together some of the tips I’ve given to my students so that they can show a greater level of knowledge and understanding and thus raise their level of attainment.
Why are student presentations so important?
Recently on Twitter, there has been a huge increase in the number of teachers arguing over whether the teacher or the students should be in control over the learning that takes place. I freely admit to having mixed views on this, despite identifying primarily as a “Trad”. (You can read an excellent article on the distinction between Traditional and Progressive teaching by @teacherhead (Tom Sherrington) here.) In my opinion, the teacher should be the one who teaches. After all, we’ve studied educational theory, have greater experience of what constitutes excellent answers and we are experts in our own subject areas. Not that students can’t contribute themselves of course!
Ultimately though, it is the primary responsibility of the teacher to ensure that students learn. If teachers can pass on that torch to students, then that is a fantastic achievement. However, to place the onus of learning primarily on our students could be disastrous. Too often, they simply aren’t equipped with the skills required to bear that responsibility.
However, at some point, students have to be able to take ownership of their learning to some degree. That way, they develop their skills in learning how to learn, which is an excellent life skill. Not only that, but it is a natural way for students to stretch themselves and demonstrate a greater degree of independent learning. An excellent method to enable this is for students is to research, learn and present to the rest of the class.
What are student presentations for?
I use student presentations in three different ways:
Summative assessment at the end of a unit
Formative assessment in order to plan next steps for the class or for individuals
Using student presentations to demonstrate the extent of understanding, as opposed to an exam, can be very beneficial. Firstly, the students get to show everything that they know, rather than being constrained by a specific exam question, as they would get in an essay. There are some excellent advantages to this.
Firstly, the students will demonstrate all of the areas that they are knowledgeable about. This is beneficial for the student, as they get to show off what they have made progress on throughout the course. In addition, they will always have learnt something, even if only a little. This has the benefit of allowing even those who have learnt only a little to feel as though they can contribute meaningfully to the lesson.
Secondly, presentations allow for the practice and demonstration of skills beyond being able to read and write. Some students feel much more comfortable presenting their ideas verbally than they do via a written format. In my experience, this is even more pronounced in students whose written skills are significantly hampered by poor spelling, punctuation and grammar. Low levels of literacy can sometimes hide a depth of understanding of subject content.
Thirdly, when students present to the class, the teacher can assess the standard of response without having to mark a pile of books, essays or portfolios. This can also be a huge advantage, particularly for teachers who, by the nature of their subject areas or Key Stages, can be swamped with the amount of written feedback they are expected to give. Presentations can and should still be assessed, rather than just listened to, but the feedback can be written or checked off a list as the presenter speaks, thus reducing workload and avoids the need to take marking home.
I often give students the opportunity to present, as opposed to writing an essay, part way through a unit. This is to see what standard their knowledge and understanding is at before I continue teaching the remainder of the course. As a teacher, it allows me to plan much for effectively, making sure that my lessons are more relevant to the needs of the class.
When my students present well, they highlight to me not only what I have taught well, but also the extent to which I have challenged them. In contrast, when students do not present well, it can be a sign that I have not explained concepts to them in a clear enough way, or that they need additional support regarding specific topic areas. Either way, my teaching and their learning both improve in the immediate aftermath.
As I’ve written about in the past, Flipped Learning is an excellent way to develop independence in our students. Student presentations which follow the Flipped Learning principle of independent research, prior to the lesson, are invaluable. It’s an opportunity to demonstrate maturity and a willingness to stretch themselves beyond the classroom. It also allows for lower-order skills such as information gathering to be undertaken, where the presence of an expert is not needed as often. In the lesson that follows, more time can be given over to higher-order skills of analysis and evaluation. Here, the presence of an expert is often much more necessary.
Who benefits most from student presentations?
Obviously, the students who have learnt and prepared the material will make progress in their level of knowledge and understanding. But do other students benefit from watching students presentations?
It depends. (And this is where you as the teacher come in.)
The evidence that students learn well from others is not conclusive. However, this is not necessarily because presentations are a ‘bad’ way to teach. Rather, the quality or the nature of student presentations, as opposed to teacher presentations, may be found wanting. Having observed students present in my classes and in other subjects too, I’ve compiled a number of tips that I now give to my students, each time they present to their peers, to help to ensure maximal quality.
What students should avoid when presenting
Students often rely too much on the written word and this often impacts negatively on what they present visually to the class. I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen a PowerPoint slide covered in text. Not only is this difficult to read, in terms of the size of the font used, but it also distracts the audience from listening to the presenter.
Another reason why students shouldn’t place much text on their slides (if slides or their equivalents are used), is that they can have a tendency to just read them out to the class. This too can be not only distracting but can leave the audience feeling as though listening is a waste of time. After all, they can read for themselves at their own pace.
Many students will also spend a disproportionate amount of time making the visual appeal of their presentation fantastic, but at the expense of providing real value to the listener. The point of the presentation isn’t to show off design skills. The visual appeal should really just be “clean and clear”, so as no to distract from the content.
Tips for student presentations
Focus on your verbal presentation rather than relying on the written text on your presentation screen. Make it a speech, rather than pointing to what you have written. Otherwise, the audience will keep shifting their attention from the speaker to the screen and back again, ultimately focusing on neither.
Use images on your slides (if you even use ‘slides’) instead of text. A symbolic image can be far more thought-provoking than a paragraph or a set of bullet points.
If you absolutely must have text on the screen, then limit it to three bullet points. If you can’t limit it to three, then split the ideas across more slides.
Provide a detailed handout to the class at the end of the presentation, so that any points that went unnoticed by the audience can be addressed and taken away to be studied further.
Have at least one ‘scriptless’ section, where the content of the presentation has been memorised. (This is mainly for those students who are more comfortable with presenting, or who have a greater depth and/or breadth of subject knowledge.)
Allow for Q&A at the end of the presentation, so that any students who want points to be clarified can have their questions answered. This is also beneficial for the presenter, who will then be able to demonstrate subject knowledge that they hadn’t thought to put into the original presentation.
I firmly believe that by following the tips outlined above, students can create excellent presentations. As always, I welcome critical argument of anything I’ve written and I would love to know if you give similar or different tips to your own students. Just leave a comment or tweet me (@guruteaching) and I’ll get right back to you!
Black Box Thinking is a philosophy which allows learning to emerge from mistakes.
The phrase was coined by Matthew Syed in his excellent book of the same title, where he examines performance and critical self-evaluation in sport, aviation, politics and many other fields. He took the term from the “black box” flight recorders fitted to aircraft, which contain vast amounts of data, to be used to inform future improvements. They are used extensively, but especially following poor performances. These could result from human error, failures of systems and procedures and unexpected events.
How does black box thinking apply in education?
In education, just as in aviation, we continually train ourselves and others, ensuring consistently high performance. But despite the time put into this training, students can still underperform in exams. Schools and inspection bodies collect this data, containing a wealth of information to guide current and future performance. But I’m not certain that we use this information effectively. After all, which information should we act on and how on earth should we act on it?
When teaching doesn’t work…
A few years ago, Steve, a friend of mine working in another school, called me on A Level Results Day. He was in shock. For the last few years, his students had achieved excellent exam results and he was considered by many to be an “outstanding teacher” (I hate that phrase!). This year, however, a number of his students had “failed”. By “failed”, he meant that they had passed, but had significantly dipped below their expected grades.Steve had to account for this dip in his post-results analysis that he had to present to the Headteacher. But only two months earlier he had predicted much higher grades. How could he have got it so wrong?
In essence, he had assumed that because he had always been right about his students in the past, he was able to draw similar conclusions about his current students. Unfortunately, he was looking at the wrong data or at least interpreting it in the wrong way.
Steve’s current students were not in any way “weaker” than in previous years. Nor had his teaching changed much. But he HAD missed one crucial point. The STUDENTS were different. He had forgotten to take this into account. This caused him to infer that the data he had used effectively last year was just as relevant for this year’s students. Steve was wrong.
When the “data” doesn’t add up…
We are all familiar with the use of assessment results to inform our understanding of how students progress towards their targets. However, those results do not “measure progress“. They are a proxy, something which may indicate progress but which is not synonymous with it. Steve believed his assessment procedures to be rigorous. He used a range of assessment questions from the exam board’s past papers. He was a seasoned examiner and was a competent judge of student responses. But he was ignoring something crucial. Steve focused entirely on improving the skills and techniques used in answers to exam questions. It made no difference in the end.
Steve recalled some of the papers from the exam board to see what had gone wrong. He assumed that the students had ignored the techniques he had taught them. How could they have forgotten the special mnemonics they had constructed together? Had they not written using PEE paragraphs? Did they follow up each of their ideas with a brief evaluation of it? Did their conclusions not follow the highly prescribed formula he had repeated time and time again?
The papers showed Steve what had really happened. The students didn’t know the content.
As much as they had tried to structure their writing, they just didn’t have enough subject knowledge. Steve expected a deep evaluation of quotes and he’d even taught the students how to go about discussing multiple interpretations of keywords and phrases.
But the students hadn’t memorised the quotes.
It got worse. The case studies in the exam were supposed to trigger students to consider socio-economic theories, court cases and historical events.
But the students only understood the ones they were tested on in class and so hadn’t read widely enough to answer the questions in the actual exam.
Why do your students fail?
Your students succeed and fail due to many factors. They may lack knowledge and understanding of a theory, method or event. They might not have ‘memorised’ the information they need. Their skills of analysis and evaluation may undermine the depth of their understanding. Steve considered all of these possibilities but was still at a loss to explain the underperformance. The truth was, that these weren’t the only factors that were at play. It’s often more complex.
Let’s look at why three particular students failed:
Student A had recently been dealing with a bereavement of a close family member. This had taken its toll on the student, who had performed well up to that point. In the final run-up to the exam, Steve had believed that this student would cope well with study leave, having demonstrated for almost two years that he could work well independently. However, in this instance he was wrong. The student was unable to focus at home, in the way he could at school, in part because he was constantly surrounded by distractions relating to the passing of his relative. Whilst his bereavement would not be much easier at school, at least he may have found some space to concentrate a little better, or for longer periods, enabling him to perform better than he eventually did on exam day.
Student B had a poor track record regarding her attendance. But despite this, she still managed to perform well in her assessed essays. As it turned out, she was close friends with a student who had written the same essays in the previous year. She re-worded these essays and in some cases had even memorised them by rote, for closed-book timed assessments in class. By doing so, she evaded the attention of staff who were actively looking for students requiring intervention. Since her grades were good, they didn’t consider her to be at risk of failing. Her problem though, was that in the exam she was not able to adapt those memorised answers when the question changed ever so slightly. She pulled the wool over many eyes, including Steve’s and failed outright.
Student C was a high performer. At GCSE she had achieved all A* and A grades and had done so with little visible effort. Throughout A Level, however, she had not always enjoyed the same level of success. Essay grades ranged from A* to C. Steve had been hot on the case with this student and had accurately identified where marks were being gained and lost. He gave thoroughly detailed feedback to the student, who was able to redraft the essays to an excellent standard, following the advice he gave. But on the day of the exam, her marks were inconsistent across the paper. Why had she performed so well in some areas, but so poorly in others? As it turned out, the detailed feedback had made no difference. Why? The student hadn’t had to think hard enough for herself as to how to improve. In the end, her highest marks came from the topics where Steve’s feedback was much more limited in detail (despite the formative essays being of an equally low quality to others where feedback was detailed). In this instance, the student had performed badly overall because she hadn’t become independent enough. She was still overly reliant on the teacher to help her to improve, even in the final weeks and days before the exam.
Action points for “Black Box” teachers
Assess regularly. Balance scheduled tests with unscheduled ones to accurately identify true levels of understanding.
Use rigorous assessment methods (past paper questions, etc)
Give feedback that strikes the right balance between being too detailed and not detailed enough
Create and maintain a ‘culture’ of student independence
Reward resilience and genuine effort, rather than high attainment alone
Test knowledge and understanding in creative ways, to avoid “scripted” responses
Formalise how you will act on the data you collect. Checklists are a time-efficient way of developing set procedures. (More on this in a future post!)
Learning from failure is sometimes the only way. I would love to hear your own stories of “Black Box” thinking. In the meantime, you can take a look here at Matthew Syed’s Black Box Thinking (my Amazon affiliate link).
Please leave a comment on this post or send me a tweet (@guruteaching). I’ll get right back to you!
A podcast is an audio recording which delivers content verbally, as opposed to the content being in text form. By adding podcasts to your resource bank for students, you will inevitably engage students who, perhaps, don’t engage fully with text-based resources. Podcasts improve learning by delivering content in a manner which suits some students better than textbook use.
This is certainly my experience. Recently I was invited to try out the podcasts offered by Audiopi. I was blown away by the high quality of the content delivery. But also by how much information I retained, even some days later. I’ve always struggled with retention of information when using texts to learn. I would have to put in hours and hours of intensive study, only for my performance in tests to be “inconsistent” as one kind teacher put it! I don’t want the same experience for my own students, so I’ve introduced podcasts.
When using the Audiopi podcasts to learn new content, I found that even just listening to them once, whilst making brief notes, I remained attentive and could recall the information easily days later. (I listened to the History ones, as I’m an enthusiast but not a subject specialist in this area. Listening to the excellent History podcasts enabled me to assess more accurately whether I was biased by my own subject specialism.) The ability to rewind and re-listen to the Audiopi podcasts, as many times as I liked, further allowed me to go over some ideas over and over until I understood them. This helped a lot!
To enhance the experience of the content delivery further, the Audiopi podcasts improve learning by using sounds and music to excellent effect. This can be a very tricky thing to achieve. Many podcasts I’ve listened to had music playing in the background, but it was irritating, distracting, or just didn’t ‘fit’ with the narrative. Audiopi succeeded in this regard. I would definitely recommend subscribing to them if increasing engagement or depth of study is a particular focus of your department.
Currently, Audiopi offers a range of podcasts aimed at GCSE and A Level students for the following topics:
The first podcast in each Audiopi series is free and you can listen to examples of all their tutorials too. They also have some examples of podcasts on their YouTube channel here, so you can even try before you buy!
Is the success of podcasts supported by research evidence?
Yes! Researchers at George Washington University reported that podcasts improve learning. They do this by reaching students who do not necessarily engage well with textbooks. Using podcasts also helps to supplement textbook use for students who are already engaged by those texts. For more information, you can read an article on their research here.
Do you recognise those students in your own class? If so, then you should seriously consider using podcasts, especially in the run-up to exam season.
How could I use podcasts with my students?
I typically use podcasts as a Flipped Learning resource in preparation for a future lesson. Sometimes I use them as an independent learning resource to aid comprehension, add depth of content and to revise from. In both of these cases, students have told me that they prefer learning this way, as opposed to using textbooks. The reasons are many. But the most significant are that students enjoy listening and can do it anywhere, even on the school bus! Secondly, they have to be more cognitively active in order to make notes. This is because there aren’t textbooks to lazily copy from, which we know is an inefficient way of studying.
To help podcasts improve learning, you could also use transcripts as a text-alternative or to supplement the audio recording. You could even use the transcripts to develop comprehension-based activities. I’ve certainly found that with my own students, the depth of knowledge increased substantially after podcast use, compared with textbook-only study. My students made rapid progress and they improved their examination performance too.
To begin searching for podcasts, take a look in the iTunes store, websites such as the BBC, or even (for more advanced students) some university websites. Failing that, just Google the subject or topics you are looking for and add “podcast” to your search query.
Some free podcasts to get you started…
Geography: GCSE Bitesize Podcasts
Law: BBC Law In Action
Chemistry: A Level Chemistry Revision – Chris Harris
Economics/Business: BBC More Or Less
Politics: Politics Weekly – The Guardian, The Bugle
French: Coffee Break French
ReligiousStudies/Philosophy: Philosophy Bites, BBC In Our Time
Spanish: Spanish Obsessed With Rob And Liz
General: LSE Podcasts, TED Talks
I would love to hear about your podcasting experiences and would be happy to answer any questions you have about starting a podcast. I’ll blog about that another time. Just leave a comment at the end and I’ll get right back to you.
Disclaimer: This article is not an advertorial. For total transparency, I received access to one Audiopi podcast series, in return for a review by me for their website. This article was written entirely independently and not as any form of “payment” for the podcast. I wrote this article simply in response to my positive experience of listening to the podcast.
Starting a class blog is one of the most effective ways to engage students in and beyond your lessons. I’ve been using them for years and my students absolutely love them. Recently, my Year 10 class asked me to create one just for them. They’d heard from some older students how much they enjoyed learning in this way and why blogging beats using “traditional” methods hands down. I would agree for the most part with their assessment. However, when blogs are used effectively, they do not replace “traditional” methods. They simply present traditional methods in a modern way.
For example, in my both my Law and Religious Studies lessons, at all Key Stages, the most important part of my planning is “Questioning“. My students love to go deep into a topic during debates, looking at concepts from a broad range of perspectives. They love it even more when I drill down into what they mean by the words they’ve used, or what assumptions are built into their reasoning and beliefs. This is as traditional as teaching gets, just take a look at the dialogues in Plato’s works.
Blogging simply allows that dialogue to take place in an environment more familiar to today’s students, the digital natives. And we all know that when students are in comfortable surroundings, their fight or flight system switches off and they become more naturally inclined to engage with the lesson. The depth I’ve seen in some of the comments sections of my class blogs has been phenomenal.
When blogging is done well, it takes the topic away from the teacher and gives ownership and independence of learning over to the students. The teacher can still moderate the debate, but they become a moderator rather than the centre of the discussion. Not only that, but your entire debate is recorded. This means that your students can revisit it when planning an essay or revising for a test. How many of your verbal debates in class were recorded accurately and in detail in the past year?
Why aren’t more teachers starting a class blog?
Trying something new is always a challenge. Below I’ve listed some of my colleagues’ responses when I’ve asked them about blogging. Some of these may sound familiar…
The teacher is not familiar with blogging, so they worry about doing a bad job, or that it will take up a disproportionate amount of time for very little gain. (Below I’ll show you my foolproof 5-minute process to set up your blog. It takes me longer to create a decent worksheet!)
The teacher feels they are “not good with computers”. (Sorry you aren’t allowed to use this one, it’s not 1998 anymore.)
The teacher feels that their methods are perfectly fine, so they don’t need to change anything.
The teacher sees blogging as a fad, that will soon go the way of Brain Gym and Learning Styles.
The teacher is worried about how students may abuse the blog, bully other students on there, or somehow get the teacher into trouble.
Whilst all of these problems are valid to some degree, they all boil down to one thing. Fear. Fear that we as teachers aren’t good enough, or that we will try something that doesn’t pay off. Personally, I don’t think that as teachers we can afford to think in these terms, even if we try to rebrand the Fear as “just being practical” or muttering to like-minded colleagues “I’ve seen this before”. Apart from anything, we are supposed to inspire our students and give them the sense that it doesn’t matter if you fail. You just learn from it and do things differently next time, without judging yourself or worrying about being judged.
Not only that but as I mentioned in a previous post on Flipped Learning, students should be encouraged to engage with materials before the lesson in which they are studied. This allows the teacher to focus more on higher-order tasks regarding analysis, evaluation and problem-solving, rather than basic content delivery and comprehension. Blogging allows this to happen but also introduces the depth of analysis via peer-led discussions of the content.
Top tips for creating your ‘beginner blogger’s mindset’
Don’t judge yourself before starting a class blog.
If it ‘fails’ first time around, don’t judge yourself then either.
Stop thinking that others are judging you. They aren’t. In fact, they’re probably jealous of your guts to try it in the first place.
Now try it again, but tweak it a little.
Repeat until you succeed. (It really won’t take you long – you’re probably overestimating how hard it really is!!)
Tell others what made it work and what the benefits of blogging vs other methods are.
How do I set up my first class blog?
Firstly, you will need to decide on a blogging platform. There are many out there and for the most part, there is little between them in terms of how you would use them in the classroom. However, I’m going to show you step-by-step how to use WordPress.com to set up your blog. I use WordPress for all of my classroom blogs and even this blog you’re reading right now! It’s very easy to set up and to customise as you see fit.
All you need to do now is to follow each step and you will have your very own blog to use within five minutes!
Go to www.wordpress.com and click on “Get Started” in the top-right corner of the screen.
Select an initial layout for your blog from the basic templates. (You can change this later.) For ease of use, I would pick the “A list of my latest posts” option as it offers the simplest layouts.
Choose a theme. A theme is a detailed template which you can customise or leave as it is. Any theme will do for now, as again, you can change this later if you like.
Choose your domain (the web address of your blog). Type into the box a word or phrase you would like to appear in your blog’s web address and a list of FREE and PAID options will appear. Choose the FREE option. WARNING: You cannot change your domain once you have registered, so try out a few names to see which ones work for you.
Pick a Plan. Again just select the FREE option, unless you are familiar with blogging and web design and want more features. Personally, I think this is completely unnecessary for classroom blogging, but once you catch the blogging bug you might consider this in the future. With the exception of this website, I’ve always used the FREE options and been completely satisfied with what they have to offer for my students.
Create your account. Type in your email address and select a username and password in order to log in to your blog in future.
You will be sent a confirmation email to the email address you registered with in the previous step. Go into your email and click “Confirm”. You will be redirected to a login page where you need to enter your username and password that you picked in the previous step.
You will now be directed to your “Dashboard” where you can create your own content or link to content that exists elsewhere on the web.
Publishing your first post
Now that you’ve set up your blog, play around with the different features in the dashboard to familiarise yourself with them. Don’t worry about clicking on the wrong thing, you can’t break your blog! As with any new technology, the more you play around with it, the quicker you will learn about it. The Dashboard is designed to be as user-friendly as possible. However, if you are having any issues understanding how things work then there are a tonne of tutorials on WordPress, aimed at beginners. I’ve found that YouTube is also a brilliant resource for blogging tutorials too, with the added benefit of you being able to see what you are supposed to type or click on.
Keep your first post simple.
I tend to make my first post about “House Rules” for students using the blog. It really helps if from the outset students know exactly what they are and aren’t allowed to do on the blog. Set out your high expectations and (hopefully) the students will meet them.
To create a new blog post, go to the Dashboard and click the “Add” button next to where is says “Blog Posts” (I told you it was user-friendly!). Type in your title, then add your text beneath. You can add images if you like, or you could even add a link to another website. Once you are finished, it’s time to “Publish” by clicking on the “Publish button on the left-hand side.
Congratulations, you are now a blogger!
I would love to hear about your classroom blogging experiences and would be happy to answer any questions you have about starting a class blog. Just leave a comment on this post or send me a tweet (@guruteaching) and I’ll get right back to you.
Does the thought of answering questions at teaching interviews fill you with dread?
For many, the answer is a resounding YES! Not only is the application process extremely time-consuming, but if you are lucky to reach the interview stage, you will deal with on-the-spot pressures too. Most schools will observe a lesson you’ve prepared before moving to formal interviews. If you reach this stage you’ve done well. However, this is often the point at which candidates struggle the most. After all, you can prepare a lesson, knowing to some degree how it will go. But how can you predict what will be asked in an interview? Answering questions at teaching interviews is a skill you need to develop. Fortunately, there’s a way.
Thankfully, most schools look for the same sorts of qualities in a candidate, regardless of the subject, or level of responsibility. The questions asked by schools then, are broadly similar, or at least they aim to draw out the same elements from candidates’ responses. Schools want to appoint someone who is hardworking, dependable, honest, self-evaluative and looks to develop their own skills and knowledge.
If you are applying for a Leadership position, then you should prioritise extra qualities that are more specific to leading staff. These include having a clear vision and priorities for the role, developing successful strategies to solve problems, being able to lead teams of colleagues and being analytical and self-critical.
How would you deal with interview questions without preparing a detailed answer in advance? For most of us, the answer would be ‘requires improvement’. But in reality, with a little self-reflection, you will have an arsenal of anecdotes that you could bring out to demonstrate your capability in all of these questions.
Take a look at the questions below and see how you would respond:
Popular Questions at Teaching Interviews
Tell me about yourself.
Why do you want this job?
How would you deal with a difficult colleague?
What would you do if a student disclosed X?
How would you deal with apathetic parents of an underperforming student?
How would you teach topic X to a more able / less able group?
What is your biggest weakness?
What was the last teaching book you read? How did it impact your teaching?
How do you think your observed lesson went?
What value do you bring to the department?
Tell me what an outstanding lesson looks like?
Describe an “outstanding” school?
What is more important: attainment, progress or achievement?
How would you deal with a student complaint against a member of staff?
What would you do if you disagreed with an instruction given by a senior member of staff?
Do you have any questions to ask us?
General tips for answering questions at teaching interviews
Be authentic. Tell the truth and justify everything with reasons based on actual experience. Headteachers and governors can smell a “fake” response a mile off.
Don’t just tell. Instead, show. Use examples of how you have dealt with situations from your own experiences. This could be about managing the expectations of students, building relationships with colleagues, overcoming a personal challenge regarding a teaching method, etc.
Go beyond your teaching experience and show how you have dealt with similar situations outside of school. In other words, how do you demonstrate the values the school wants, in your personal life? (Be careful not to over-share though!)
Be reflective. The best teachers can evaluate their performance, showing how they could have dealt with situations differently. As always, have examples at hand. Are you still evaluating? how many times have you altered your practice? (The more the better!)
Show that you pay attention to detail. Have examples that demonstrate how you diagnosed an issue leading to underperformance and then show how your response to that made an impact. You can read this post on Black Box Thinking For Teachers for some inspiration!
Do your research on the school. The role you are applying for is at THEIR school. If they have specific priorities then show your knowledge of them. This could include closing the attainment gap between boys and girls at Key Stage 4, or it could be gaining more A/A* grades at Key Stage 5, for example.
Use data. Instead of saying “I have excellent results”, say “last year my classes achieved X% in their GCSE exams. This demonstrates your attention to detail.
Work out in advance what YOUR vision for the role is. Keep referring back to that vision throughout your responses. The more your vision comes through, the less doubt there will be over your character (a MAJOR point that interviewers consider).
Structure your answers using the STAR technique. Click here to see how this works.
Be a “Purple Cow”. Lots of candidates will give the same sorts of responses to standard questions. Be memorable by answering the questions in a unique way.
There are a lot of good books out there on answering questions at teaching interviews, but having read a lot of them, they often aren’t useful for teaching interviews. For that reason, I’ve narrowed down my recommendations to a couple of excellent books which will make teaching interviews a much easier and less stressful experience. I’ve included affiliate links to both books below.
My second recommendation is Why You?: 101 Interview Questions You’ll Never Fear Again by James Reed. Whilst this book isn’t specific to teaching, the questions he asks and answers within it are often asked in teaching interviews. James covers the main areas usually examined in the interview, including character, experience, career goals, competency and even those curve-ball questions like “If you were an animal, what would you be?” Reading this will undoubtedly prepare you for interviews at any level, from NQT to Executive Headteacher.
I loved and hated interview questions at different times in my career. Hated when I hadn’t prepared or rehearsed a good enough answer. Loved when my prepared answer showed my true ability and future potential.
Share this with anyone applying for teaching positions, I promise they’ll thank you for it!
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