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

[Updated 27 October 2020]

Why is it so difficult to engage boys in the classroom?

Boys are treated like defective girls”, so says psychologist and author Michael Thompson. I think he’s right. Have you noticed that 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”

This is simply 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. The difficulty in deciding which “category” they fit into creates a real challenge for educators. Moving away from “categorising” boys at all and instead, understanding how and why we treat them differently, is the beginning of the solution.

Should we just train the boys to be like the girls?

This is more complex than it might seem, but the short answer is no.

Many of the boys I teach read less often and consequently fewer books than the 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 young male audiences? No. 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 societal roles they are expected to play, due to gender, differs significantly.

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. 

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. Discussion is seen as a positive activity, where active listening and reflecting is considered as important as speaking.

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 usually encouraged by fellow boys, nor do they typically seek encouragement. Asking for support is often perceived by boys as a weakness. Consequently, there is very little social incentive to truly discuss, listen and reflect. Egos are fragile and it’s just not worth the risk to their reputation Their style of work and play is therefore heavily dominated by competition and shows of individual strength, be it physically, or through verbal argument.

In general, at least in Western societies, 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 the complex social skills demonstrated during a dolls tea party?

Now, 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.

Five strategies to engage boys in the classroom 

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

Let’s face it, in most cases neither of those terms is 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.

There is nuance to this view though. By playing to what boys enjoy reading about, we can actually do harm. As teachers, we should be broadening their “cultural capital” and expanding their knowledge of subjects beyond their own experience. If we don’t do this, then we limit the range of examples and consequently the network of ideas, or schema, that boys need, in order to learn new knowledge with ease. The more we teach them new things, the easier it becomes to teach them even more new things. So hold your boys to a high standard and make sure they use academic vocabulary, explain their examples clearly and show detailed reasoning behind their decisions.

2. Be careful how you use competition to engage boys

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. Frequently encourage and consistently use feedback

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, as well as between the weaker and stronger boys.

Praise frequently, but based on student effort, rather than on attainment. This way, your boys will feel as though they can take risks and attempt challenging work without worrying about your reaction to a wrong answer. Boys are very good at detecting insincere praise though, so only give it when it is due, or it loses its impact.

4. Ask better questions and more of them

Improving your questioning in the classroom is one of the best ways to raise attainment. The teachers who make a more positive impact on attainment than their colleagues ask more questions and they plan their questions carefully. This drives higher attainment for boys and girls alike. However, boys often shy away from explaining the rationale behind some of their answers. For this reason, it is crucial for teachers to ask boys in particular how they arrived at their answers.

By getting boys to demonstrate the process behind their decision-making, they will clarify their knowledge in their own minds and develop their confidence and resilience. This makes it much more likely that they will buy into the next challenging task, especially if it relies on having strong prior knowledge.

Ask questions such as “why is that the answer?”. Alternatively, show wrong answers and ask boys to comment on “why is this the wrong answer?” By introducing a range of examples and, crucially, non-examples to their schema, you will play to boys’ eagerness to show you up as an authority, while actually building their own reputations as a successful academic student.

5. The Teacher-Student Relationship

In my experience, having a positive relationship with the boys you teach makes the biggest difference. This isn’t rocket science, we should be aiming for this in all of our students. However, when boys are often boisterous, the positive teacher-student relationship we need and they often crave can be difficult to maintain. Keeping this at the forefront of your mind, though, can be the one thing that makes the difference in the long-run.

Don’t expect the boys you teach to be as naturally compliant as the girls. Work hard at engaging the boys, through challenging work and even just by having a conversation with them as they work. Find out what makes them tick and show your interest in their lives. The boys I teach respond particularly well to this and it has made a huge difference to the attitude they show in my lessons and towards their work in general.

Ultimately though, set high expectations and support them in living up to them. If they go off-task after a few minutes, then chunk the learning into short tasks to help them. If they struggle with tasks involving extended reading, then practice and model extended reading frequently, so that they can improve over the long term. Live-model what answers should look like and show how to construct those answers, so that boys know how to start. Visibly investing in these areas will show to the students that you are in it for the long-haul, that you have their interests at heart and in response, they will readily buy into what you are trying to do.

Recommended Reading

The best book to read on the subject of teaching boys has to be Boys Don’t Try: Rethinking Masculinity in Schools, by Matt Pinket and Mark Roberts. They take the reader through the research basis for their understanding of why boys often underachieve in education and how we can overcome that problem. Their strategies are very easy to implement and frequent anecdotes help you to see how to apply those strategies in your own classroom. It changed my own classroom teaching and the impact has been significant. 

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Any thoughts…?

Do you have any tips on how you engage boys in your lessons? Leave a comment!

You can find me on Twitter @guruteaching. Say hi!

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