How to Pass Teacher Training

Those who can… Teach!

Teacher Training is one of the most rewarding things you will ever do. It is also one of the most challenging.  This post is about how to handle this challenge. You’ve chosen to embark on a career that will have a profound impact on thousands of lives, so we must get it right. Our future and the future of the next generation depend on it.

Below I’ve outlined FOUR practical tips that I’ve been asked countless times by trainees during my career. Take a look and please share with fellow trainees if you think they’d be useful.

Checklist

1. Before Starting Teacher Training

Firstly, decide why you want to teach. If you are “in it for the right reasons”, ie the desire to make a difference, to help shape the world, to guide young people to make good decisions, etc, then this on its own will keep you motivated. If you have decided to teach for the money (what money?), the holidays (which you will work during) or the 3pm finishes (good luck!) then perhaps now is the time to re-assess. Either way, it’s a good idea to speak to a variety of newly qualified and experienced teachers, just so that you know what you are getting into!

Some people going into teaching may need to update or refresh their subject knowledge. Particularly if they are going into teaching several years after being in full-time education themselves. My advice would be to pick a decent GCSE level textbook and swot up on some areas you wouldn’t feel confident teaching about. Don’t worry about being an expert though – that comes with practise and trust me you will get plenty of that!

2. First Few Weeks

Trainees often ask the beginning of a course, what should I focus on? Behaviour management? Time management? Making creative resources? The truth is, there isn’t just ‘one’ thing trainees should focus on, but there is one ‘main’ thing. Learning. Engaging students in learning is the single most important function of a school, a lesson, a task. Get that right and students will behave (usually). Get that right often enough and you will improve at managing time in the lesson. Get that right and homework will be completed well and on time. Teacher Training is all about Learning.

3. Developing your Skills

Once you have a few weeks ‘experience’ under your belt, you should start to focus in on some of the details. In order to become an outstanding teacher, you must be able to analyse and evaluate how your teaching impacts on specific groups of students. These groups are often compared against the performance of the class, to see whether a group is performing to a disproportionately high or low level. Your job as a teacher is to put strategies in place to raise the attainment for these groups so that they achieve their potential. Some of these groups include boys; girls; more able and talented students; students with special educational needs; students with disabilities; students from areas of socio-economic deprivation; students who speak English as an additional language; etc.

Teacher Training

4. Passing the Teacher Training  Course

To pass your Teacher Training course you will need to demonstrate that you’ve met the government standards. To do this, you will have to create a portfolio of evidence, ranging from academic essays to records of lesson observations, extra-curricular activities you’ve planned to resources you’ve produced, etc. You will probably have to keep a reflective journal as part of your portfolio. This isn’t something to be feared – nobody enjoys writing down their weak points each week! However, if you want to be taken seriously as a professional, you need to demonstrate that you can self-evaluate truthfully and in detail. This journal will become your best friend once it comes to interview time!

Gathering evidence can be an overwhelming task or just a task. You choose. Organisation and adding frequently to the portfolio are your best tools for success here. Make a point of adding and annotating a piece of evidence every single week and ideally more often if you can. That way, you won’t end up (as many trainees do) with only a couple of weeks to go until they are assessed, with almost a term’s worth of evidence to create and file away.

Final thoughts…

There are lots of other things that you’ll have to deal with during your Teacher Training (workload, homework, behaviour, jobs, etc), but I’ll dedicate specific posts to them at another time. Just remember, your job is to make your subject engaging and relevant. If you do this, your students will learn and they will make a difference to the world once they leave your classroom.

I hope you found this useful. Leave a reply if I’ve missed something out!

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Raising Achievement Using Teamwork

Raising Achievement

Question: What do the most successful performers in ANY industry have in common?

Answer: Teamwork.

No man is an island. Not only that but in a world where  teachers connect with each other 24/7 over email, social media, etc, we no longer work in isolation. This week’s blog post is something I’ve been considering for a while now. We work in teams, so how do we make the best use of our colleagues in order to raise achievement?

What does a successful team look like?

If you want to see what phenomenal teamwork looks like, just watch a pit crew in a Formula 1 race. Teams in education are no different and the most successful all have the same essential attributes:

  • Every member has a pre-defined job
  • They all do their jobs extremely well
  • They trust each other
  • They hold each other accountable
  • They hold themselves accountable

Now ask yourself: do the above points accurately describe the teams you belong to? If not, then what can you do to improve your team and to raise achievement?

Teamwork

Five simple ways to improve your team and raise achievement:

1. Know your job

It’s crucial that you know exactly what you are personally responsible for and what others are personally responsible for. Without knowing this, how could you begin to raise achievement? If you are unsure then a useful exercise is to sketch out a hierarchy (most if not all schools are hierarchical), showing the different levels of responsibility of team members from the very top to the very bottom. That way, it will be much easier to hold yourself and others accountable for the whole range of responsibilities. Once all the jobs are defined, you can begin to collaborate more effectively.

2. Actively work with each other

When designing a scheme of work, or contacting a student’s parents or planning a trip, do we actively involve others in the process? Not only is it useful to share workload when completing complex tasks, you will also benefit from colleagues’ experiences too. In their roles, they may well have encountered similar issues to the one you are busy solving. I always find it helps to see things from a different perspective – it also pays dividends to learn from other people’s mistakes!

3. When analysing your own performance, focus on the important details

It’s very easy when things don’t go to plan, that we can make excuses. Studies show that this happens even more often when others are observing – some people just don’t like to take responsibility for things that THEY could have done differently. For instance, a particular cohort of students may have a real issue with completing homework on time and to a good standard. Is this a behaviour issue? is it their organisation skills? Is there a knowledge deficit? Do they lack engagement with their subject? It’s vital to determine the correct cause of the issue, or else you will waste energy trying to solve a problem that doesn’t exist, whilst the real problem keeps rumbling on.

4. When holding others accountable, ask the right questions

The same studies that show our unwillingness to hold ourselves responsible also show that we prefer to blame others. Teachers MUST hold each other accountable. Without this, we won’t be able to maintain and drive up standards. However, this can be done in a positive, developmental way, or it can become punitive and lead to decreased motivation. When asking colleagues to evaluate their own performance, ask questions that generate practical and useful answers. Framing ‘problems’ as ‘opportunities to develop specific teaching methods’ is another proven strategy. Another popular one is the ‘feedback sandwich’ – give one piece of positive feedback, then one way to improve and then another positive. Remind colleagues that they have more good points than bad, but don’t shy away from being totally honest. Over the long term, it’s important to make sure that colleagues feel supported and encouraged. Even teachers who are completely honest in their self-evaluation won’t feel motivated to fix problems if they feel their positive attributes aren’t valued.

5. Keep in regular contact with each other

This one is my own particular failing (hence why I put it at the end!) but it makes a huge difference when I get it right. Far too easily we can become engrossed in a never-ending checklist of day-to-day tasks. It’s important, now and again, to let others know what you are up to. Also to engage them in a conversation about how they could participate, or how you could help them. In my own experience, it prevents problems down the line, where I’ve ended up duplicating the work a colleague had already done, or where I could have offered help before a problem reared its head. One very short email every week or so is all it takes and the shorter it is, the better!

Success

Call to action!

The best teachers will always act on advice, even if they only focus on one tiny snippet at a time. Don’t get left behind! Take one small step from those outlined above and spend no more than five minutes on it TODAY. You know fine well if you leave it until tomorrow then it will never get done. Be outstanding and raise achievement NOW!

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Disrupting Education

Disrupting Education

When should we rock the boat?

Disrupting education is essential to bring schools into the 21st Century. Why? Schools are old. Really old. The system isn’t much different now to how it was during the Industrial Revolution. The aim of schools back then was to create a population fit to work in a variety of factories. Subjects were taught in isolation from each other, with no differentiation. Today, we have differentiation, but largely the same model. Only now, we are moving people out of factories, as robots are moving into them. We aren’t needed in factories anymore! Schools need to address this urgently, or we will become irrelevant.

Why is disrupting education the solution?

Ask yourself: Do we maintain the status quo in education because we already have the best possible model? Or are we afraid (or just unwilling) to change the current model because the new one might not work?

I like the word “disruptive”. When something is disruptive it focuses our attention on it. We think about it properly and act on it. When was the last time we properly considered disrupting education, eg. how and why we plan our school buildings, timetables, technology and lessons the way we do? I think we should. I believe we should completely revolutionise what a school’s purpose is, who it is for and how it operates.

Last week when looking for something to read this summer I came across founder of Wired magazine and “Futurist” Kevin Kelly (@kevin2kelly). In his new book, The Inevitable, he discusses some of his ideas about how the future is likely to look in 10 to 30 years time.

We already know that there will be new devices that our lives will revolve around, like mobile phones today. These devices probably won’t even be invented until a few years time. We also know that Artificial Intelligence will be so sophisticated, cheap and widely accessible, that much of today’s “education” in schools will be largely redundant. The result? We won’t need to learn things that computers will do automatically and much more efficiently for us.

I always remember my Maths teacher telling me that I should put my calculator away because I’m not going to have one in my pocket at all times when I’m older. Ha! So, is new and emerging  new technology already making some of our subjects obsolete? Let’s see…

How do we use technology already?

1. Google Translate: can translate languages at the click of a mouse

In Modern Foreign Languages lessons, we learn how to spell, pronounce and understand different languages. We do this primarily because if we didn’t, then it would be difficult to communicate with others around the globe. What if technology removed that barrier? Would we still teach and learn other languages? Would there be any point? My heart is saying yes, but my head is saying no (for the vast majority of students). Would it become a luxury rather than a necessity to be able to speak fluent French in future?

2. Augmented Reality: apps can project holograms of the people you are speaking to on Skype

What if we didn’t teach students from our catchment area, but from around the world instead? Imagine each student, from countries around the world, sitting in your classroom (if a physical classroom is even needed), in holographic form. It sounds far-fetched, but there are companies all over the world who are already adopting this technology for holding meetings and training events. AR is already disrupting industry. It will disrupt education. I think that AR will become a feature of top performing “global schools” at some point in our lifetime. As teachers, we need to begin thinking about how we can best utilise this technology, although perhaps on a much smaller scale at first!

3. Virtual Reality: can simulate practical learning environments in standardised and measurable ways

In many industries where the work is physically demanding, involves an element of risk, or requires a detailed and standardised analysis of techniques used, we use simulators to train workers. These simulations used to take place in huge physical machines – think of the flight simulators you see at fairgrounds. Nowadays, simulators rely less on machinery and more on software to simulate the ‘sensation’ of our physical environment. Consider this: some schools in our inner cities have little in the way of outdoor space for athletics training. What if we could train students on a physical technique in a classroom environment, where a ‘virtual’ javelin was used instead of a physical one? Data could be gathered and analysed immediately using inbuilt software and could give personal feedback, in real time, to 30 students at once. No marking required!

Future Technology

My question to you:

If we could implement any of these (or other) technologies now, at no cost, how would it change the way you taught your subject?

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Independent Learning: Three Top Tips

Independent Learning

Why is independent learning so important?

Top students often go beyond what they’ve been asked to do when it comes to producing extended pieces of work, especially if given the chance to conduct research. It’s a virtuous circle, helping students become top students and then because they are top students they continue to learn independently as that is now their new ‘normal’ expectation. Depth and frequency of independent learning typically lead to better results in formal assessments. So the question is, how do we get the rest of the students to conduct independent learning?

Below are three handy tips you can use to encourage students to engage in independent learning.

Checklist

1. Guide your students

Most students don’t use independent learning to complement the required tasks they are given. Sometimes they just can’t be bothered. However, many students don’t bother because they haven’t the foggiest idea where to start. One thing you can do for them is to provide a simple and unintimidating list of sources they can use for specific topics. Break it down to page numbers and even paragraphs if need be, just to get them started. You could give the students this menu of options at the beginning of each topic, each term, or as I’ve done, at the beginning of the year to glue onto the inside cover of their folders. I give a copy of a Wider Reading List to my A Level students at the beginning of their final year. They should aim to use at least one of the sources in addition to the textbooks and other materials they receive in class when they submit an essay. I also encourage them to add a source to the list, to demonstrate even greater independence. The list offers guidance to those who don’t know where to go for information, but allows them to be independent learners too.

Independent Learning - Wider Reading List
Wider Reading List

Choice is important too. If the students feel as though they can pick whichever source they like, they will feel a greater sense of ownership over their learning. This is a well-documented way to boost engagement. Not only that, but once students are offered a choice, they are able to consider a range of alternatives before finally deciding upon a source to use. Their skills of source-selection and evaluation become more refined, allowing them to be even more independent in the future.

2. Choose your sources carefully

If independent learning is not a common feature of your class, then ease yourself into it. Don’t pick a stack of weighty titles from the bookshelf, or the top ten ranked pages on Google – the students won’t thank you for it and will most likely just not read it.

Instead, choose two or three easy-to-access resources and not necessarily written ones either – YouTube is brilliant, so are Vimeo and Slideshare. Students who have conducted independent learning before are much more likely to do it again, compared with students who have never done it before. Remove the barrier to starting independent learning by making it less demanding first round.

3. Set your expectations and monitor them

Students must know that independent learning is not an optional extra, but a required part of the course. Those of you operating a Flipped Learning model will understand how homework can be used to gain huge advantages. Here, the student gets to choose what, when and how they use the independent learning material. They choose how much advantage they want to take and in what direction.

How do you know they’ve done it?

At the bottom of the options menu, create a box where students can write down each time they’ve used one of the sources. You could even give a termly reward for those who have made the best use of the menu, or for those who have shown the most progress. Make it meaningful to students and they will adopt it.

 

I would love to know how you promote independent learning in your classes. Send me a message!

Also, if you want to see an example of a menu that I’ve used then leave your email address below and I’ll send you a free copy.

Enjoy!

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Future Leaders – How to Prepare Them

Leadership

Why do I need to know the difference between Plato and Aristotle? I’m not going to be a philosopher!”

Thus began my Friday afternoon a few months ago. A group of A Level students was finalising some revision for their final exam on Philosophy of Religion. They had been learning the content for months by this point and had no problem with the main points. However, now that the exams were almost upon them, the students were beginning to feel frustrated, scared and annoyed by the fact that they hadn’t quite mastered everything quite yet. Time was running out. Fear and frustration are commonplace amongst students and it often leads them to ask why they are studying the subject in the first place. I replied to them that I was teaching future leaders the skills they would need to change the world. Only I’ve thought more about it since then and there’s an issue: we don’t know what the future will look like, so how can we possibly prepare for it?

How do we prepare students to work in future industries?

When students reach a certain point, they choose a range of subjects to continue learning. This is either because they enjoy them, or because they see those subjects as valuable in helping them get a job in the future. But how do we guide our students to make good choices for the future when we haven’t a clue about industries that don’t exist yet? Not only that, but what if students pick subjects related to one industry, but then after a few years of employment they want to move out of that industry? Many people have been left high and dry due to a lack of alternative career paths related to their education and skills. We need to move away from that.

Below I’ve given the five areas that we teachers should focus on, in combination with high-quality subject content, so that our students are prepared for a variety of opportunities that will come their way in the future:

  1. Critical thinking skills
  2. Problem-solving skills
  3. Teamwork
  4. Project management
  5. Self-directed learning

Critical Thinking Mind

Critical Thinking Skills

Making wise choices does not come naturally to many students. They have neither the skills, the experience nor the patience, in many cases, to truly examine an issue in depth. This is a quality that is earned through practice, so we should try to give students as many opportunities to practice as we can. I find that beginning a lesson with an open question, such as “Assess how far…”, “To what extent does…” and revisiting the question every 10-15 minutes from a new angle, helps students to develop their critical thinking skills. Top tip – get students used to making a case for a viewpoint. Then have them argue in defence of it whilst other students pick holes in their arguments. They will love it and it will prepare them well for resolving conflicts in the future- a very useful skill.

Problem-Solving Skills

All successful leaders have problem-solving skills. That is how they succeed – they identify a problem that someone has and they provide a solution. Within their own organisations, they will encounter problems too, be it with processes, products or people. In lessons, I try to simulate scenarios where solving a problem is the main success criteria for the activity. It could be done as a role play, as a Dragon’s Den episode, etc – whatever works for your subject!

Teamwork

Most employees work in teams to complete goals. They usually have individually defined roles within their teams, but in order to work effectively, they must collaborate. This was a prominent feature of a previous post of mine – There’s no “I” in iPad. I build collaboration into most of my lessons in some way, shape or form. The crucial thing to remember is that each individual must know what their own role is and why they are collaborating. This is as opposed to working individually. Understanding the value of collaboration will only serve to help students adopt it willingly.

The Future

Project Management

A key feature of managerial positions in most companies and for independent entrepreneurs is the ability to manage projects effectively. But this isn’t usually a key feature of most curriculums so if we want our students to succeed further up the career ladder, then we should at the very least lay the foundations for them whilst they are with us. Tip: Set students projects that require a number of simultaneous tasks to be completed using a range of resources. This will help simulate the world they will enter in the future. Adding complexity to project management is also a particularly useful tool for challenging the most-able students in your classroom.

Self-Directed Learning

Learning doesn’t finish when you leave school. However, you typically won’t have someone around to teach you what you need to know once you’ve left. This is why it’s vitally important to be taught, whilst at school, the value of and some methods of independent, self-directed study. I try to implement self-directed study for each of my classes at least once a term. This is usually on something beyond their typical homework tasks. Examples have included:

  • learn from scratch how to create a movie trailer on an iPad
  • find a good YouTube video that teaches you about Asimov’s laws of robotics and assess what makes the video “good”
  • use www.thestudentroom.com to create a list of the best revision sites for studying and revising for your AS Religious Ethics paper. Use one of the sites to create a mini-revision guide for a topic of your choice.

I’ll be posting soon on how and why I think education systems require a revolution, to keep pace with an ever-changing world. I’d love your thoughts on this.

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Goodbye to Grades?

 Grades

Do grades matter?

Does having grades written on assessed pieces of work help or hinder the progress of students? Many schools in the UK and across the world are beginning to adopt “comment only” marking policies, claiming greater success than with traditional “grading” methods. This week I want to consider the pros and cons of each.

Why we use grades

  • Students like to know how well they have done so that they can compare themselves to their targets and to their peers. It gives them a clear idea of how hard they need to work in the future to maintain or improve upon their current performance.
  • Schools like to know where to place students against their targets, so that they can assess the quality of the education they provide, in order to maintain and drive up standards over time.
  • Parents like to know what grades their children have achieved as it helps them to assess the quality of their school provision and enables them to plan for additional support at home if needed.

Conclusion: Grades work! So why would anyone decide to change?

Celebration

Pitfalls of grades

Increasingly, evidence from studies around the world has demonstrated that a “comment only” marking policy is more likely to influence a student’s future study habits than a “grade only” or “comment and grade” system. This seems counter-intuitive. Surely, if a student is given more information about their performance then they will perform better in the future? Unfortunately not – they tend to forget about the comments made by the teacher and focus solely on their grade. This takes their focus away from the clear guidance on how to improve and replaces the guidance with a label.

Labelling is often very useful, as it helps us quickly identify and categorise things. However, when we give grades, we hang it around students’ necks like a name badge for the lesson, week, term or even year. This can have hugely demotivating consequences for them. If students have done well, they won’t feel as though they need to try harder. If they haven’t done well then grades won’t tell them how to improve (remember – seeing the grade will cause them to ignore most of the written feedback).

Grades are also not always helpful when assessments are largely formative. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, the feedback process is eternal. In contrast, grades are so “final”. They don’t necessarily tell us what grade a student is currently working at, as progression is not linear – it goes up and down over time (but hopefully more up than down).

So, what is better about “comment only” marking?

“Comment only” marking requires students to evaluate the standard of their work, using the guidance you’ve given, helping them to plan for their own progress. For many students, when they see a “B” grade, they think that that will do (and they may even be right!) However, they might not understand how they achieved that grade, particularly in subjects where assessment is done via extended writing tasks. If they don’t know how they achieved the “B” grade, then they are not in a good position to repeat or improve upon that success later on. “Comment only” marking offers a solution to this, by showing students specific things they can do, to achieve marks in specific areas.

“Comment only” marking: Four Handy Tips

Top Tips

  1. Give feedback quickly – the longer you leave it, the less impact it will have on the student.
  2. Be focused. You don’t need to comment on everything – choose the points that will make the most significant difference to the student’s work (probably not spelling in the majority of subjects)
  3. Be specific – don’t write “add more detail here”, do write “explain why Henry VIII broke away from the Catholic Church”
  4. Make positive comments as well as negative ones – e.g. “thorough explanation of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave”
  5. Use the language of the exam board (if appropriate), to help students understand how to show greater quality next time – e.g. “compare this theory to the theories you studied earlier in the course – which is more persuasive and why?”

I’d like to challenge you to have a go at “comment only” marking (where previously you would have included a grade) over the next few weeks. See what difference it makes to students in one class and let me know what you’ve found. 

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Student Feedback – A Useful Guide

Feedback

I’m not the perfect teacher.

I get at least one thing wrong every day, often at least once a lesson and frequently more often than that. Having said that, I think I still do a decent job of teaching my students. They make the progress expected of them, behave well towards each other, develop their skills and confidence and by the end of the year they are a lot better than they were at the beginning of the year. But that’s just a snapshot, one that is easy to take in the summer term. It doesn’t reflect the hard work that has gone into ensuring that the students are staying on track and making the most of their opportunities. In this week’s post, I want to talk about how I’ve approached student feedback, to refine my teaching little by little over time: student feedback.

What my friend was getting wrong

I have a friend who teaches at another school (it’s honestly not me, although if it was then it would explain a lot!). He was asked at the end of his Induction year, to create a student evaluation questionnaire, in order that he could develop his teaching methods for the following September. He was doing well and was not under any significant pressure to change anything, so was free to design questions in any way he felt appropriate. However, he made a crucial mistake – he thought he was a great teacher and he thought the students shared his view of himself – so his questionnaire became more about confirming his own biases than about gathering new data.

Questions included:

  • Why do I enjoy Mr. X’s lessons?
  • What should other teachers do that Mr. X does?
  • Does Mr. X always want me to try my best?

The results, predictably, were not very useful for two major reasons. Firstly, several of the questions did not allow students to say in detail what they really wanted to say. Secondly, several of the questions put words in the students’ mouths that they would not have used, had the question been asked in a more objective way. This did not create honest feedback, which was the entire point of the exercise.

Full of pride, my friend handed the results to his Mentor, who in a matter of moments dismissed the results. She told him to go back and do it again properly, but this time, he should create a set of questions that were less about confirming pre-conceived notions about himself and were more about looking for ways to improve his teaching.

Thoughts

Round 2

Mr. X still figured he had nothing to lose, being the fantastic teacher that he believed he was, so he created a much more objective set of questions. They included fewer yes/no answers, giving more multiple choice ones instead. He also threw in some very open-ended questions, allowing the students to give whatever feedback they wanted. After all, he had nothing to fear!

The results were much more useful this time, but not for the reasons Mr. X expected. He thought that the students would again confirm his biases, but this time in their own words. They didn’t. Instead, they showered him with abuse! At least that’s how he felt. They used phrases like:

  • He just stands at the front and tells us what to do then just expects us to know how to do it when we don’t get it.
  • He does the same activities all the time.
  • He tells us things that aren’t relevant for the exam.
  • He only talks to the smart students or the naughty ones. I just get left out.
  • We never do group work.
  • He only does interesting lessons when other teachers are watching.

Ouch.

The Comeback King

To his credit, Mr. X didn’t dwell too long on the feedback, although he did allow it to ruin a perfectly good weekend. He showed his Mentor the results on Monday and this time she laughed. “Well, what were you expecting them to say? Did you think they were your friends? That they wouldn’t dare hurt your feelings? Or did you think that nobody else in the school was as good a teacher as you?”

What would you do in his position? Here’s some advice I gave him (admittedly I heard or read it somewhere – I can’t take full credit for it) and that I keep reminding myself of, whenever I receive feedback from students, whether I’ve asked for it or not!

Checklist

1. Step back

It’s very easy to believe your own hype or to take criticism personally. When you are given feedback, imagine that it is not about you, but that it is about someone else and you are tasked with giving them advice on how to respond to the feedback. This is tough and in some cases it might even help to wait a day or two after receiving the feedback so that you can regain a good sense of perspective.

2. Choose your battles

Often its the little victories that help make the biggest difference. Chose two or three points to work on and set yourself a date in the near future to achieve them by. Short term is crucial – you need a quick victory at the start, or you could begin to start believing you “aren’t worthy” or that you can’t fix the problems that were so helpfully pointed out by your students. Once you’ve won some quick and easy battles, begin to choose some more challenging ones – but give yourself the right amount of time to address them. Again though, always give yourself as short a timescale as you can afford – do not dwell on the problem!

3. Check your solutions

Don’t we always tell our students to do this? We might be tempted not to here because it’s scary. But how will we know if we’ve addressed the problem correctly unless we test ourselves again? You can use the same questions again, or us a slightly modified set if that would encourage better quality or more useful answers. Just don’t fall into the trap of confirming biases again. Just because you addressed the problem, it doesn’t mean that it is fixed – you might have just highlighted a different problem!

4. Repeat stages 1-3

Feedback is an eternal process, not a conclusion. We should embrace that idea and keep looking for small, winnable battles so that over time we can refine our teaching. If we want our students to love learning and to not fear failure then we must walk that journey with them.

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Engaging Boys – A Practical Guide

Engaging Boys

How To Engage Boys

Why is engaging boys so difficult?

Boys are treated like defective girls”, so says psychologist and author Michael Thompson. I think he’s right. Boys are frequently compared to girls with regards to exam scores, classroom behaviour, the standard of work produced and neatness of presentation. Many boys fail to perform as well in these areas,  leading to ‘poor’ performance in formal examinations where it counts the most. Engaging boys to raise their attainment is clearly a huge challenge.

So, are boys just not as good as girls when it comes to formal assessment? Or is the system unfairly rigged to favour girls over boys? Let’s see.

Myth: “All boys are the same”

Not true! Just look at the last group of boys you taught and their wide spectrum of attributes. Boys are often excitable, creative, loud and headstrong. However, there are quiet boys too, who lack confidence, struggle creatively and who seem distant when you try to engage them. There are even quiet boys who are incredibly confident and loud boys who are overcompensating due to their own perceived weaknesses. It is often difficult to decide which “category” they fit into. However, the real challenge for educators is to move away from “categorising” boys at all but to understand how differently WE treat them.

So what’s the solution? Should we just train the boys to be like the girls?

The problem with boys and girls…

Toys

Boys in Secondary Education typically read less often and consequently fewer books than girls – particularly fiction books. Why is this? Is it because boys don’t enjoy reading? No. Is it a lack of quality authors writing for male audiences? No. It’s more complex than that. Engaging boys differently to girls is crucial and here’s why:

Girls are typically brought up in a different way to boys. Their toys and games are different. The heavily gendered characters and storylines in the cartoons they watch are very different. The roles they are expected to play, due to their genders are extremely different. This causes a knock-on effect: at school when boys and girls are given the same task to do, they will naturally approach it in different ways, due to the way they have been conditioned by their environment.

The consequence…

Girls are often more collaborative in their approach to tasks, seeking guidance and support, constantly engaging in a feedback loop with their peers and teachers. Girls are encouraged to do this through the type of play where conversations are a key element.

Conversely, boys are often more solitary, waiting until they have completed a task (to whatever standard) to then present their finished product to others for feedback. Once given feedback, boys then get on with solitary work again. Boys are not encouraged by fellow boys, nor do they seek encouragement. The need for support is perceived by boys as a weakness. Their style of play is heavily dominated by competition and shows of individual strength.

Girls are also better prepared for tasks involving empathy, evaluation of evidence and being diplomatic, as those skills are built into the types of “play” activities they participated in when they were younger. Have you ever witnessed a dolls tea party? Compare that scene to a boy smashing a Lego house with a dinosaur. Which skills do you think will benefit those children in a formal examination? Boys are expected to grow up to be brave, resilient, confident leaders who take no prisoners. These are useful traits in many areas but less so in formal examinations.

The solution to engaging boys is threefold!

1. Stop valuing “girly” attributes over “boyish” attributes

Let’s face it, in most cases neither of those terms are used in a positive way. However, we teachers often forget that stories about aliens destroying a football stadium can have as much literary value as a love poem. We arbitrarily celebrate the types of media that girls tend to gravitate towards and we negatively stereotype the media that boys gravitate towards. The result is that boys become used to hearing that certain things they value are worthless. They might love pirate stories, but after being told that they shouldn’t read them all the time, they eventually stop reading, because they aren’t interested in reading anything else. Boys then lose interest in their favourite things and many lose interest in general.

2. Competition?

Engaging boys in competition

Boys often love competition. However, this is also a lazy stereotype. Some boys hate it and would rather work collaboratively, rather than in an adversarial way. Not only that but as I wrote earlier, boys need to learn the skills of collaboration in our classrooms, as they often won’t be taught this explicitly in their “home” environment. Be patient with boys here, it often won’t come as naturally as it does with girls – the boys haven’t had anywhere near as much practice! Competition is great for engaging some boys but you must include opportunities for collaboration within the competitive environment too.

3. Feedback loops

Feedback Loops

Feedback is crucial for engaging boys. The earlier in their lives that boys learn to give and accept feedback, without any fear of perceived weakness, the better they will perform and the faster they will progress. The feedback must be a continual process, like a conversation – not just an event at the end of a piece of work. As by then, the feedback is too late in many respects. Once boys are able to use the feedback process more naturally, they will begin to be able to develop deeper self-evaluation skills and may even engage more often in independent learning too. This helps to narrow the gap between boys and girls.

Any thoughts…?

I’d love some feedback on what you think of this post, your experiences of teaching boys, or what you’d like me to write about in future. 

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A Guide to Excellent Revision

Revising Effectively

“Little Jimmy just isn’t good at revision…”

In an ideal world, we would plan a sequence of lessons, teach it according to the plan, encourage lots of revision and then little Jimmy would demonstrate every last thing you’ve taught him when it came to the examination. Unfortunately, this isn’t an ideal world and for many reasons we purposefully deviate from our initial plans. Add to this the fact that Jimmy is burdened with huge volumes of information to recall, analyse and evaluate. There’s also a good chance he isn’t doing any independent learning at home. Critically, Jimmy just does not seem to “test well”, even when under less formal conditions he demonstrates deep understanding and applies skills effectively. Houston, we have a revision problem! But is there a solution?

Below I’ve identified the four key factors , in my own teaching experience, which have had the most significant positive impact on revision and consequently on examination success

1. Prioritise key topics 

In any given exam, the question setters want the candidates to demonstrate mastery of particular topics and skills. The questions they have asked in the past are usually* a good guide to what they will expect students to know in the future, so plan accordingly. If for example, an examination board had set out eight topics for students to learn but had only asked questions about seven of them so far, then that might be a trigger to focus particularly on the only unexamined topic as a priority. So, throughout your sequence of lessons, ensure you give extra time to topics/skills that:

  • Cross over into a number of different examination questions
  • Look like they are more likely to come up this time
  • Previous students have struggled with in past examinations.

*Warning: trying to guess the questions in advance is a risky strategy. Sometimes it pays dividends, but it can also lead to damaging outcomes if content is not also revised thoroughly.

2. How to not run out of time 

Timing in examinations is frequently used by students as a reason for underperformance. However in the majority of cases that I’ve witnessed, it doesn’t really stand up to any level of scrutiny. Most of the students who cite “timing” as the reason for not finishing a paper actually spent a lot of their time in the exam writing nothing, because they were struggling to recall information. This is not a timing issue, but a memory issue.

3 methods for memorising key pieces of content include:

  • Peer Q&A – students pair up and test each other using quickfire questions
  • Cue cards – on one side students write out 3-5 bullet points summarising a topic. They do this for a number of topics, then hand them over to someone else, who will test their memory of the key bullet points.
  • Jigsaws – students create a 3×3 grid. On one side of each line, they write out a statement, keyword, case study, scholar, quote, etc. On the other side of each line, they write out a corresponding statement, definition, case study conclusion, theory name, etc. On the outer parts of the grid they can write down some red herrings, so that when it has all been cut out, they will find completing the grid more of a challenge. The higher the level of challenge, the more active the brain will be and consequently the more likely that students will be able to recall the information quickly enough.
Jigsaw Grid (Christian attitudes towards abortion and euthanasia)

3. Practise, practise, practise

Usain Bolt is the 100m world record holder. How did he become this? Clue: he didn’t just spend all of his time reading about running, drawing diagrams about running, creating calendars about when he will run in the future and watching other people run. He practised running. Over and over and over and over. Bolt knew that in order to ensure success on the day when it counted the most, he would have to work just as hard on days when it (seemed like it) counted the least. He will have “failed”, by his own standards, on so many of those practise runs that it would make many runners give up. However, he just saw these failures as another way not to do things on race day. Gradually, he cut out these mistakes and by the end of his training, he didn’t make errors anymore. He trained hard so that the race would be easy. Many of his competitors will have trained easy, but predictably their race was too hard. Students must approach their revision for examinations in exactly the same way.

4. Routine

Top performers in all professions have something in common. They typically have a morning routine during their training, which doesn’t change on the day when they need to perform under pressure at the highest level. This is true for athletes, politicians, soldiers, singers, entrepreneurs, actors, etc, etc.

Far in advance of the examination, give students an opportunity to reflect on their own morning routine and to evaluate its advantages and disadvantages with regards to their performance later in the day. Having students do this on a regular basis will help them find their own routine which works for them. Once they find their routine, encourage students to stick to it as closely as possible, particularly on the day of their examination.

In my own experience, students have benefited from this as they approach examination day. Fear of the unknown is the worst of all. But if we can our get students to reflect about every minute of their day, then some of that fear will dissipate. Some students might even see examination day as just a normal day like any other. After all, they aren’t doing anything differently.

Please share this post with other teachers – this is the “business end” of the academic year and we all need all the help we can get!

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There’s no “I” in iPad

iPad

Stop, Collaborate and Listen

Students love using technology in the classroom. Not just because an iPad makes a change from pens and paper and not because it’s “less work” than other traditional methods. They enjoy using an iPad, or other technology because it’s what they do outside of the classroom – they are “digital natives”. Student use iPads, apps, video streaming, social media, etc, 24/7. They know within seconds that a sports star has signed a new contract, that a spoiler for a film has gone public, or that a celebrity has just been photographed doing something exciting.

Students receive the information, evaluate whether they like it or not, share it with others and comment on vital pieces of that information at length. Media outlets and tech companies are streets ahead of many schools in the way they deliver content. If we want to increase engagement and demonstrate relevance to our students, then we must find a vehicle for content delivery that is just as immersive as the student experience beyond the classroom.

To some teachers, this thought can be daunting. Particularly for those who aren’t too tech-savvy. But if you are already reading this blog (and hopefully signed up to the email subscription!) then I’m probably preaching to the choir. There are devices and apps for everything you can imagine, with more and more being released every week.

Online Collaboration

Here is a practical guide to using iPad apps, to enhance your existing teaching methods.

1. Content Delivery

YouTube: Film an explanation or demonstration. Students can use this to learn key information at the beginning of a topic, revise for a test, evaluate their own work or the work of others. May require more than one take – but fantastic as a permanent revision resource for students to use at home!

Explain Everything: Copy text and images into the templates in the Explain Everything iPad app and let it create an animated presentation to show to students. Easy!

2. Presenting

iMovie: Students can research information about a whole topic and create a movie trailer based on their research. My students created a disaster movie trailer, based on research they had done on the causes and effects of global warming and humanity’s response to it. They loved watching each other’s and can still remember a great deal.

WordPress: I’ve already posted about my (not so secret) love of blogging, but I’ll keep doing it until we’ve all had a go! Seriously, why not? (Top tip: post a link to an article, then tell students that their homework is to submit a short response – but they can’t repeat anything another student has already mentioned. They will all try to complete their homework as soon as possible, rather than leaving it to the last-minute!)

3. Collaboration

Dropbox: Students can work remotely from each other and drop files into the same shared space. It syncs in real-time too, so they can see how each other is editing their project. Brilliant if students are all contributing via mobile devices with limited access to a hard-drive.

Twitter: Write a tweet (a comment no longer than 140 characters), include a # (hashtag for those of you still living in 2006) and tell your students to follow (search for) that # and tweet their reply, making sure to include the # within their reply. Excellent for sharing online content and debating it beyond the classroom.

Apps

What do these technologies have in common?

The clue is in the Vanilla Ice quote at the top of the post – collaborate. Students collaborate on social media, when it comes to sharing links to a funny video, to comment on a photo, to react to a shocking news headline. They engage each other in a debate – sometimes to further their own agenda, sometimes to follow someone else’s. Collaboration is the most fun and engaging part of many lessons – are our traditional teaching methods set up to provide opportunities for this? The apps above definitely are. They enable collaboration to happen with ease – they are a central feature. So…

Your iPad mission (should you choose to accept it):

Ok folks, it’s that time again – have a look at what you can try out THIS WEEK (be honest – if you say you’ll do it next week then you probably won’t ever do it). Borrow an iPad or even a set of them so students can make a movie trailer, create a walk-through of an experiment and upload it to YouTube, set up a Twitter account and start a conversation.

As always, let me know how it goes!

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