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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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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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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