Meta-Cognition Strategies

Meta-Cognition

[Updated 7 May 2018]

Before meta-cognition…

When I was a student, I remember staring for hours and hours at folders full of notes, trying desperately to memorise and understand them. It didn’t work. It probably didn’t work for you either. The problem is that memorising information is insanely difficult unless you employ the right methods. For most people, “reading notes” just doesn’t cut it, but whenever I ask students “how do you revise for exams?”, their first answer is almost always “I read over my notes”. I had never heard of meta-cognition and until recently, neither had my students.

The results were predictable. Students would leave their exams devastated that they couldn’t remember everything they supposedly “revised”. I vowed never to allow this to happen again and began my search for “the answer”.

Reading (and most importantly implementing) this post will help you teach more effectively and will help your students learn more. It’s a bold claim, I know. But trust me on this one, the evidence for using meta-cognition strategies is overwhelming.

What is meta-cognition?

“Meta-cognition” is best understood as learning how to learn. It’s a self-reflective strategy that allows students to understand how to learn more effectively and efficiently. Once mastered, students can memorise facts, understand concepts better and make connections between pieces of information with greater ease.

Why is meta-cognition so important?

Research by a growing number of educational bodies and cognitive-psychologists have demonstrated beyond doubt that when students are genuinely reflective about their learning ‘methods’, they improve quicker than their peers.

The Education Endowment Foundation (formerly known as the Sutton Trust) published research in 2012, highlighting a number of strategies that could be employed by schools, to raise the performance of their students. Meta-cognition strategies came out as second only to Feedback as the most impactful strategy. Not only that, but it cost virtually nothing to implement, unlike other (less effective) strategies. More recently, the EEF published guidance on meta-cognition which gives further advice to teachers on how to implement it in their day-to-day practice. You can read the April 2018 update here.

The Learning Scientists, a group of cognitive-psychologists studying the effects of meta-cognition on learning, have also published a variety of strategies, some of which my students have trialled with great success (read on to find out my favourite one). Their work has been picked up by a wide audience of teachers on Twitter, on both sides of the Atlantic. On their blog, they have written extensively on both the benefits of using meta-cognition strategies and on which strategies have proven to be the most effective. You can follow them on Twitter at @acethattest.

Which meta-cognition strategies should I use?

I’ve trialled a wide variety of meta-cognition strategies, both for delivering content and for helping students revise for exams. I’ve written below about the three strategies that in my experience have made the biggest difference to my students. I would advise you to try them all. What you will probably find, as with most teaching strategies, is that some work better than others for “your students”, or fit better with your preferred style of teaching. Just give them a go!

Whatever you find though, leave some feedback for me (and all the readers) so we can see which ones work best across a range of subjects. Don’t forget to mention your subject!

Meta-Cognition Strategies:

Spaced Retrieval Practice is, in my experience, THE way to teach students, in a way that almost prevents them from forgetting the content taught. In essence, you teach your content in whatever manner you choose, but then quickly follow it up with a set of questions. The questions should range from short to extended answers and should cover as much of the information you have taught as possible. Ideally, this should happen within the same lesson that you taught the content. You would then use the same quiz questions in the following lesson, once the students have had a chance to forget some of the information. Going back through the answers helps students to get used to ‘retrieving’ the information, thus improving their memory. Using the same questions again in another lesson a few days later will not only aid students’ memories further, but it will draw out the information that students struggle with the most, allowing you to plan for further teaching on that topic.

Spaced Practice
Image by Oliver Caviglioli. Source: (An excellent blog by) Carl Hendrick https://chronotopeblog.com/2018/05/05/how-should-students-revise-a-brief-guide/

Interleaving is an excellent companion to Retrieval Practice and when the two are used regularly together, they make a huge difference. Interleaving is a revision strategy where students focus on Topic A, then Topic B, then go back to Topic A, then Topic C, then back to Topic B, then Topic D, etc, etc. It doesn’t really matter what order the topics are in, so long as there are lots of opportunities to keep going back and forth between them. By doing so, much like Retrieval Practice, you allow the students to forget, then get them to practice bringing the information back to the forefront of their mind. I teach my students that memory is much like a muscle. It must be put under strain, regularly, if you want it to become significantly stronger.

Interleaving
Image by Oliver Caviglioli. Source: (An excellent blog by) Carl Hendrick https://chronotopeblog.com/2018/05/05/how-should-students-revise-a-brief-guide/

Self-Review Questionnaires are a completely different type of strategy to Retrieval Practice and Interleaving. This involves getting students to rank their topics in order of perceived difficulty. They then have to speak for a set amount of time, or for as long as they can, without repetition, hesitation or deviation (much like the BBC Radio 4 comedy show “Just a Minute“). It will quickly become evident to the student whether the perceived difficulty matches up to their actual knowledge of those topics. They can then begin to address the areas where they are evidently weaker, removing unnecessary revision from the equation and focusing on what’s truly needed.

My Recommendations

If you’re a Primary School teacher then there really is no better book you can buy than Metacognition in the Primary Classroom (my Amazon Affiliate Link) by Peter Tarrant and Deborah Holt. In this book, they not only go into the rationale and research behind meta-cognitive strategies, but they explain how you can put them to use. In fact, rather than giving a broad approach to meta-cognition, they break their strategies into age ranges. Obviously, there are clear advantages to using particular strategies aimed towards a specific age group and this book shows you exactly how to do it. Why not take a look?

If you teach Secondary, then I recommend Thinking About Thinking (another Amazon Affiliate Link) by Stephen Lockyer. In this book, he gives a broad range of strategies you can apply to your classroom immediately, whilst explaining the rationale behind them in clear terms. His writing style is very accessible and you can use this book to dip in and out of at your own leisure, making it a must-have for anyone looking to improve outcomes at a minimal cost.

Final Thoughts…

I would like to take this opportunity to thank the Learning Scientists for bringing Retrieval Practice and Interleaving (amongst many strategies) to my attention via their blog and on Twitter (links are above). Please follow them – you won’t be disappointed!

I would also love to hear how you’ve used meta-cognition strategies to improve your students’ performance. Add a comment and I’ll get back to you soon!

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And don’t forget to SHARE this with any teachers you think would find it useful!

Andy

Black Box Thinking for Teachers

Black Box Thinking for Teachers

What is “Black Box Thinking”?

Black Box Thinking is a philosophy which allows learning to emerge from mistakes.

The phrase was coined by Matthew Syed in his excellent book of the same title, where he examines performance and critical self-evaluation in sport, aviation, politics and many other fields. He took the term from the “black box” flight recorders fitted to aircraft, which contain vast amounts of data, to be used to inform future improvements. They are used extensively, but especially following poor performances. These could result from human error, failures of systems and procedures and unexpected events.

How does black box thinking apply in education?

In education, just as in aviation, we continually train ourselves and others, ensuring consistently high performance. But despite the time put into this training, students can still underperform in exams. Schools and inspection bodies collect this data, containing a wealth of information to guide current and future performance. But I’m not certain that we use this information effectively.  After all, which information should we act on and how on earth should we act on it?

When teaching doesn’t work…

A few years ago, Steve, a friend of mine working in another school, called me on A Level Results Day. He was in shock. For the last few years, his students had achieved excellent exam results and he was considered by many to be an “outstanding teacher” (I hate that phrase!). This year, however, a number of his students had “failed”. By “failed”, he meant that they had passed, but had significantly dipped below their expected grades.Steve had to account for this dip in his post-results analysis that he had to present to the Headteacher. But only two months earlier he had predicted much higher grades. How could he have got it so wrong?

In essence, he had assumed that because he had always been right about his students in the past, he was able to draw similar conclusions about his current students. Unfortunately, he was looking at the wrong data or at least interpreting it in the wrong way.

Steve’s current students were not in any way “weaker” than in previous years. Nor had his teaching changed much. But he HAD missed one crucial point. The STUDENTS were different. He had forgotten to take this into account. This caused him to infer that the data he had used effectively last year was just as relevant for this year’s students. Steve was wrong.

When the “data” doesn’t add up…

We are all familiar with the use of assessment results to inform our understanding of how students progress towards their targets. However, those results do not “measure progress“. They are a proxy, something which may indicate progress but which is not synonymous with it. Steve believed his assessment procedures to be rigorous. He used a range of assessment questions from the exam board’s past papers. He was a seasoned examiner and was a competent judge of student responses. But he was ignoring something crucial. Steve focused entirely on improving the skills and techniques used in answers to exam questions. It made no difference in the end.

Steve recalled some of the papers from the exam board to see what had gone wrong. He assumed that the students had ignored the techniques he had taught them. How could they have forgotten the special mnemonics they had constructed together? Had they not written using PEE paragraphs? Did they follow up each of their ideas with a brief evaluation of it? Did their conclusions not follow the highly prescribed formula he had repeated time and time again?

The papers showed Steve what had really happened. The students didn’t know the content.

As much as they had tried to structure their writing, they just didn’t have enough subject knowledge. Steve expected a deep evaluation of quotes and he’d even taught the students how to go about discussing multiple interpretations of keywords and phrases.

But the students hadn’t memorised the quotes.

It got worse. The case studies in the exam were supposed to trigger students to consider socio-economic theories, court cases and historical events.

But the students only understood the ones they were tested on in class and so hadn’t read widely enough to answer the questions in the actual exam.

Why do your students fail?

Your students succeed and fail due to many factors. They may lack knowledge and understanding of a theory, method or event. They might not have ‘memorised’ the information they need. Their skills of analysis and evaluation may undermine the depth of their understanding. Steve considered all of these possibilities but was still at a loss to explain the underperformance. The truth was, that these weren’t the only factors that were at play. It’s often more complex.

Let’s look at why three particular students failed:

Student A had recently been dealing with a bereavement of a close family member. This had taken its toll on the student, who had performed well up to that point. In the final run-up to the exam, Steve had believed that this student would cope well with study leave, having demonstrated for almost two years that he could work well independently. However, in this instance he was wrong. The student was unable to focus at home, in the way he could at school, in part because he was constantly surrounded by distractions relating to the passing of his relative. Whilst his bereavement would not be much easier at school, at least he may have found some space to concentrate a little better, or for longer periods, enabling him to perform better than he eventually did on exam day.

Student B had a poor track record regarding her attendance. But despite this, she still managed to perform well in her assessed essays. As it turned out, she was close friends with a student who had written the same essays in the previous year. She re-worded these essays and in some cases had even memorised them by rote, for closed-book timed assessments in class. By doing so, she evaded the attention of staff who were actively looking for students requiring intervention. Since her grades were good, they didn’t consider her to be at risk of failing. Her problem though, was that in the exam she was not able to adapt those memorised answers when the question changed ever so slightly. She pulled the wool over many eyes, including Steve’s and failed outright.

Student C was a high performer. At GCSE she had achieved all A* and A grades and had done so with little visible effort. Throughout A Level, however, she had not always enjoyed the same level of success. Essay grades ranged from A* to C. Steve had been hot on the case with this student and had accurately identified where marks were being gained and lost. He gave thoroughly detailed feedback to the student, who was able to redraft the essays to an excellent standard, following the advice he gave. But on the day of the exam, her marks were inconsistent across the paper. Why had she performed so well in some areas, but so poorly in others? As it turned out, the detailed feedback had made no difference. Why? The student hadn’t had to think hard enough for herself as to how to improve. In the end, her highest marks came from the topics where Steve’s feedback was much more limited in detail (despite the formative essays being of an equally low quality to others where feedback was detailed). In this instance, the student had performed badly overall because she hadn’t become independent enough. She was still overly reliant on the teacher to help her to improve, even in the final weeks and days before the exam.

Action points for “Black Box” teachers

  • Assess regularly. Balance scheduled tests with unscheduled ones to accurately identify true levels of understanding.
  • Use rigorous assessment methods (past paper questions, etc)
  • Give feedback that strikes the right balance between being too detailed and not detailed enough
  • Create and maintain a ‘culture’ of student independence
  • Reward resilience and genuine effort, rather than high attainment alone
  • Test knowledge and understanding in creative ways, to avoid “scripted” responses
  • Formalise how you will act on the data you collect. Checklists are a time-efficient way of developing set procedures. (More on this in a future post!)

Final thoughts…

Learning from failure is sometimes the only way. I would love to hear your own stories of “Black Box” thinking. In the meantime, you can take a look here at Matthew Syed’s Black Box Thinking (my Amazon affiliate link).

Please leave a comment on this post or send me a tweet (@guruteaching). I’ll get right back to you!

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Improving Knowledge Retrieval

improving knowledge retrieval

Is improving knowledge retrieval possible? Yes!

Watching my students’ faces as I explain to them that they will be sitting a test in a fortnight is something to behold.  I often witness a whole range of emotions, from annoyance, to despair, to completely blank and unreadable expressions. It’s never a good look! So, a priority I’ve been working on for the past few months is improving knowledge retrieval, so that when a test is announced, my students can deal with it in a much more positive way.

I’m not a magician or have super-powers though!

I’m using a tried and tested method for improving knowledge retrieval by my students. They tell me that their greatest fear is that they will forget the information they need in order to perform well in the test. So, I’m teaching them a simple tactic for knowledge retrieval. Now, my students react to news of upcoming tests much more positively. They view them as a way to demonstrate their successes, rather than as a log of their failures.

How do teachers test students’ memory in the classroom?

Typically, teachers give little thought to the amount of time spent between the learning and the testing. We often test students’ memories either straight after teaching them, or months or even years later, if they are studying a two or even three-year long course.

This is a problem, but one with a simple and highly practical solution. Not only that, it won’t add to the ever-increasing teacher workload problem.

I’ve discussed this with a number of colleagues in different schools and they have all had the same experience with their students, regardless of the type of school or the nature of the individual students. More research is needed in this area. Fortunately, teachers and educational psychologists are beginning to pay attention to this issue and develop strategies for improving knowledge retrieval.

The research on improving knowledge retrieval

Recently, I read a post by the Learning Scientists, who have explored one solution to the issue of knowledge retrieval. They call it Spaced Retrieval Practice. I’ll leave it to you to read their blog post on it, but I’ll summarise their research here.

We often deliver content to students, then test their memorisation of that content too soon. Students haven’t had enough time to forget the information. Therefore, when they remember it, we as teachers praise their efforts. We shouldn’t! Remembering something that you’ve just been told is a pretty low bar to clear. By allowing students a little longer to forget some of their knowledge, we test their ability to bring back to their memory the information that has temporarily disappeared. This is what will improve their grades when they sit the test at the end of the course.

The Memory Muscle

I describe memory like it’s a muscle. You need to exercise it in order for it to grow stronger. The more stress you put the muscle under, the stronger it will grow. Similarly, the skill of being able to recall information is improved when a little stress is applied each time. The stress, in this case, is the length of time between the teaching and the recall. Practising knowledge retrieval regularly not only aids students in being able to recall the information, but it also helps them assess more accurately just how strong their memory is. Ultimately, over the long term, students will make more progress.

The results are in…

  1. Students remember more information because they have practised retrieval
  2. Students then become more confident and so worry less about upcoming tests
  3. The lack of anxiety about the test then enables them to REMEMBER EVEN MORE!

When you use knowledge retrieval practice effectively, you create a virtuous circle. Now it’s time to share this information more widely so that all teachers and students can benefit from it. Please SHARE this blog post with as many teachers as you can!

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How To Analyse Exam Results

Analysing Exam Results

So, how did results day go?

I always ask this question with my fingers crossed behind my back. For some teachers and some students, it will have been a day of celebration. For others, it might have been a very different kind of day. Tread carefully!

It’s very easy to take one look at the exam results your students have achieved and let your emotions take control. Many teachers have told me that they immediately look to see who achieved the top grades and also who failed outright. (The middle of the road students being ignored yet again! Aaaarrghh!!) Many of us want to jump for joy when we see our (students) work pay off. However, many teachers also feel deflated and even under pressure to ‘explain themselves’ when they return to school if a student or group of students has not made the progress expected of them.

But now that Results Day has passed, with all of its euphoria, hysteria and emojis, we as teachers need to re-evaluate how we will teach our next cohort of students. This is probably the most important part of my planning for the following year, more important than individual lesson plans, or even marking assessments. Without knowing how to analyse exam results deeply and accurately, there can be no clear strategy for the following year.

As I mentioned in my post on Making Better Decisions, a clear strategy is the key to success. Otherwise, the same mistakes will be repeated and ultimately results will decline. For next year’s strategy to work, we need to make sure that we are fully knowledgeable about what is going to improve students’ chances and how we can avoid the triggers that lead to them dropping below their potential. It’s easy to panic when things don’t go as well as planned and you might have a thousand thought flying around your head. Those thoughts need to be organised if they are to create better conditions for learning next year.

How to Analyse Exam Results

Below are my Top Ten Questions for analysing exam results for your classes. You can answer them with the focus on students, teachers, school leadership, resources, attendance, behaviour, whatever is most appropriate. The most important point though, is honesty. Only a truthful examination of the reasons for the results being what they were, will lead you to a better strategy for next year. If you shy away from the true reasons for a dip in results, then you will never put it right. This means analysing your own performance and the performance of those in your team. Sometimes this can lead to difficult conversations (particularly with yourself!), but they are conversations that must happen and they must lead to action, to build upon successes so far and improve the following year.

Answering the Top Ten Questions in as much detail as possible makes it easier to have these conversations with yourself and others, as you will invariably move from ‘blame’ to ‘solution’, a much more positive conversation point.

Top Ten Questions

  1. How close were my predictions for these results?
  2. Which results were surprisingly high? Why might that have been the case?
  3. Which results were surprisingly low? Why might this be the case?
  4. Which surprising results should be investigated further, via recall of scripts or a re-mark?
  5. What steps should I put in place to reduce the probability of low results?
  6. What steps should I put in place to increase the probability of high results?
  7. Did students in my classes perform to a similar level in their other subjects? Why or why not?
  8. How do my results compare to results in similar schools?
  9. How do my results compare to results in schools nationally?
  10. How do my results compare to previous years? (Does a trend emerge over time?)

What next?

Once your analysis is complete, create an action plan to tackle each of the factors that emerged as being influential, both positive and negative. This action plan should include short-term and long-term tactics to raise achievement. Share this action plan with your team and see what else they can bring to the table. Good practice is to see what other departments are doing too. They may have similar positive and negative points that could be better tackled inter-departmentally.

Finally, good luck for the next year!

Knowing how to Analyse exam results is a huge challenge for all of us every year. I’d love to know what questions you ask, or how you tackle underperformance – particularly of pre-identified groups.

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Marginal Gains to Raise Achievement

apply marginal gains to raise achievement

Marginal Gains: Achieve Olympic Success in the Classroom!

This week’s post on Marginal Gains is a short but highly practical one that you can use with your students. You could use it as a starter task in each of the first lessons with your new classes.

I take my inspiration today from Sir David Brailsford, the man behind the incredible success of the British Cycling team. When he took over Team Sky back in 2009 he set himself the goal of achieving success in the Tour de France within five years. His philosophy, achieving success through marginal gains, was to take every aspect of a cyclist’s life and make a 1% improvement in each of those aspects. This included training methods, nutrition, technology, clothing, etc as you would expect. But he took it even further, looking at things like making sure that the team members had the best possible pillow to sleep on, monitoring how much sleep they got, spending time visualising success and a whole host of other daily habits. He even had the team learn how to ‘properly’ wash their hands, cutting down risks of infection, which could have led to illness and therefore underperformance.

Each of the things that Brailsford tried to improve by 1% would have made a negligible difference on its own. However, when added up over a long period of time, these marginal gains not only led to improved levels of progress on the track but a complete dominance of the sport. Team Sky achieved their Tour de France success within three years, not five. Added to that, British Cycling has amassed a significant number of Olympic medals at London 2012 and now at Rio 2016.

A question to my students at the start of this year:

What can you improve by 1% in order to make a  significant difference to your learning over the next year?

I’ll be getting my students to come up with their own suggestions first and to discuss just how much of a difference they will make to learning, over the course of a year. Then I’ll add in the suggestions below:

  • Go to bed earlier
  • Drink more water
  • Eat less junk food
  • Eat more healthy food
  • Turn screens off for an hour before bed
  • Spend 30 minutes revising each week, even if you don’t have a test coming up
  • Spend 5 minutes at the start of each week organising your workspace
  • Write a to-do list at the start of each week and complete it
  • Spend some time improving your physical fitness
  • Spend 5 minutes organising your files each week
  • Spend 5 minutes speaking to your teacher on how you could improve your next assessment
  • Spend 5 minutes speaking to your parents about what you achieved last week – positive thoughts
  • read a daily motivational quote to help develop resilience in tough situations
  • Read a book for fun to stimulate your imagination
  • Listen to a podcast on a topic related to your subjects
  • Read a broadsheet newspaper
  • Contribute to a forum on the internet related to your subject, e.g. www.thestudentroom.com
  • Keep a weekly or daily journal, related to your learning in school – be honest and periodically read back over previous entries
  • Follow some academically useful Twitter accounts

This task is a nice target setting exercise for the beginning of the year and once completed you can revisit student responses to see how far they have stuck to their plans. Keep the results, or even display them in your classroom!

What About Us Teachers?

Teachers are really busy. All of the time. That makes it difficult to justify spending extra time looking for ways to find another marginal gain. So, free up your time! Here are Seven Ways To Reduce Teacher Workload. There. Now you can spend that extra time planning, giving feedback, or better still, having a well-earned rest.

As usual, let me know of your success stories!

Andy

 

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Making Better Decisions

Making better Decisions

Making better decisions makes the biggest difference

There are many schools of thought on how we make decisions. Some people seem more rational, others seem more emotional. Some take a short-term view, others take a long-term view. Personally, I think we all do all of these things at different times. The problem though is when we make decisions in the wrong way in high-pressure situations with long-term consequences. There are very few decision points that change our lives. We need to equip our students with the tools to make the ‘right’ decisions under pressure. Here’s a guide on how we can teach our students to practise making better decisions.

How should we make decisions?

I recently read Winners: And How They Succeed by Alastair Campbell, a former political advisor. In Winners, he explores the different ways that people at the top of their game (sport, politics, business, etc) behave, make decisions and form a ‘winning’ mindset, in order to achieve success. His main theory throughout, is that most, if not all of the people he studied were adept at formulating and operating the following three-part system:

  1. Objective
  2. Strategy
  3. Tactics

Set a clear objective

Students are given objectives all the time. They could be learning objectives, punctuality and attendance targets, predicted grades for assessments, obtaining entry to a good university, etc. However, many students don’t know what their targets are. At the risk of sounding like I’m preaching to the choir, sharing these objectives with students is crucial to raising achievement. Having the students write them down and reflect on them is a simple but effective way of cementing the objective in their minds.

For example, if a student wants to attend a good university then they need to write this objective down. They then need to be able to explain why this objective is important to them and what the pros and cons of setting this objective might be. Evaluating the objective helps the student to appreciate more fully why they are seeking to achieve it. Without this discussion, they risk falling into the trap of asking “why am I bothering with this?” when times get tough in pursuit of the objective.

Objective

How do we set the ‘right’ objective?

As usual, it’s a case of practise, practise, practise. Students (and the rest of us!) need reminding, each time we make a crucial decision, that we should step outside of ourselves and take a range of perspectives. That way, we avoid (or at least minimise) the risk of making poor judgements or of basing our decisions on the wrong factors. Setting the ‘right’ objective can save a lot of time and effort.

Billionaire entrepreneur Richard Branson says that if you have a good idea, then share it with as many people as possible. The upside is that by presenting your idea or decision to a range of people, you will refine it through debate. If at the end of your conversations you still want to make the same decision, then it’s probably already had the wrinkles ironed out – your decision will be the right one and will avoid many of the problems that an unexamined decision would encounter.

Define your strategy

Strategy is everything. But what is it? Isn’t it just the same as tactics? No. Strategy is a static idea which underpins your tactics so that they all pull in the same direction. An example of a strategy to achieve the objective of obtaining a good university place might be “demonstrate a high level of ability to admissions teams”. This might seem like a tactic, but it isn’t – it’s very broad and can be implemented in a number of ways. You’ll see the difference when I outline “tactics”.

Strategy should rarely, if ever, change. In Winners, the ability to stick to a strategy, nomatter what else is going on, is a key difference between those at the top and everyone else. Students need to be reminded of this. Give them examples of strategies you’ve employed in your own lives, to achieve success in your career, or how you were able to afford to buy a house, or how you completed a marathon. Alternatively take inspiration from top performers in sport, music, politics, etc. Students are much more likely to engage if they see someone relevant to themselves going through a similar struggle.

Making Better Decisions

Formulate tactics that support your strategy

Tactics are the individual actions you perform in order to uphold your strategy. In the example above, the strategy is “demonstrate a high level of ability to admissions teams”. There are a number of tactics that students can implement to help this strategy. Revision, attendance, enrichment activities, independent learning, work experience, responding to feedback, teaching others, maintaining a ‘growth-mindset’, writing a strong personal statement, etc. These tactics are all employed to implement the strategy.

Tactics are much more subject to the ever-changing conditions of the world we live in. Football managers often change tactics at half-time, or when they substitute a defender for an attacker. Tactics must be relevant to the individual situation and to the individual person. Tactics must always, however, support the strategy. If they do not, then a different tactic should be used. If unsure of what tactic to use, refer back to the strategy. When the strategy is implemented well, the objective will be met. Simple! (Just stick to the strategy!)

As usual, tweet me your ideas! 

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Building Resilient Learners

[Updated on 8 May 2018]

Are your students tough enough?

How to build resilient learners

Resilient

Every year the same questions in education appear again and again. One question I’ve been wrestling with recently is about resilience. Specifically, “Are our students resilient enough?” or “How can we make our students more resilient?” I suppose the answer differs, depending on the expectations we have, the age or maturity of the students, or perhaps even our own subjective perceptions of what it means to be ‘resilient’. But however you look at it, more and more is being expected by exam boards, universities and employers. Just to keep pace with previous cohorts, students need to achieve ever-increasing exam scores. To do this, they must study in more depth and in greater breadth. But how can they manage such a monumental task? The answer: resilience.

Let’s take a look…

Resilience

noun
  1. the ability of a substance or object to spring back into shape; elasticity.
  2. the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties; toughness

Why do our students need to build resilience?

Students need to know why resilience is important. They need to see the relevance of it, to achieve good grades in their exams, but more importantly, that they need to leave school as resilient people. Our students will encounter challenges in their jobs, relationships, day-to-day decisions and long-term plans. They need to know that they WILL be able to find the answer if they look in the right places. They also need to know where those places are! Once you’ve given some lucid examples (from your own life if you are feeling brave!), they will see the benefit of practising resilience at school.

Resilient learner

How can we tell if students are resilient enough?

This one is easy. Ask all students to do something challenging. Read their faces as they work through the problem. Listen to how many of them say “this is impossible”, or “there’s no way I can do this”. Watch to see how many of them put their pens down before writing anything, or start looking out of the window. These are our target students. Building resilience is important to all of our students, but some are already more resilient than others. Focus your attention on where you can make the greatest difference.

Five ways to build resilient learners

Live-model the creation of the answer

Students who appear to lack the resilience to “have a go” at a challenging task sometimes just need to know where to start. In cases like these, showing a live demonstration of how to construct a good answer is a no-brainer. I used to show model answers on my whiteboard so that students could see what a good answer looked like. However, this only served to put the less resilient students off even more. They had no clue how to go about creating such an answer. What they really needed was to see, step-by-step, how to create the answer, rather than just seeing the final product. You can read more about how and why I now use live-modelling here.

 

2. Give feedback using SMART targets

As a student myself, when I was stuck on a task or struggled to come up with an idea, I often heard my teachers come out with comments like “You need to try harder”, or “Just put a little bit more effort in”. This made no sense to me (and made me pretty annoyed too!) because I felt like I was putting maximum effort in, with no results to show for it. A better comment from my teachers might have included something specific that I could research. Or they could have scaffolded the steps I should follow. They didn’t have to give me the answer, but they could at least have pointed me in the right direction! This would have helped me progress further, in subjects where I essentially became disengaged.

I use the SMART method to help my students overcome their challenges. Feedback should always aim to be Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Timely. By using SMART targets, students will be much more able to find solutions for themselves and will be much less likely to just give up and become disinterested.

Building Resilient Learners

3. Develop independent learners

I’ve blogged in the past about the necessity of developing Independent Learning as a strategy to raise attainment. As students move up through GCSEs and A Levels it becomes crucial that they are able to direct their own learning beyond the classroom. However, if they haven’t learnt how to do it beforehand, then they may see this as yet another hurdle. Therefore, developing independent learners lower down the school is the long-term solution. Give students

Give students long-term, open-ended projects, rather than heavily prescribed and weekly homework tasks. Then make sure that you give SMART feedback at some point during the process, before they submit their final piece of work. But most crucially, make sure that students take full control of what the end-product looks like, so that when they submit it, they can feel as though they have challenged themselves and can fully appreciate that they have earned their marks by overcoming their challenges. Students seeing their hard-won success is key to building resilience.

4. Use motivational quotes

Another thing I’ll be doing this year is to have some motivational quotes and pictures displayed around my classroom to refer to from time to time, whenever students begin to find challenges mounting up. An excellent quote I’ve used in the past, particularly in the run-up to final exams is by William G.T. Shedd: “A ship is safe in harbor, but that’s not what ships are for”. For me, this sums up what resilience is all about – moving away from what is comfortable and towards what helps us grow and show our true potential. It’s short, visual and inspirational. Students can relate to it and in my experience, it works.

Motivation - Michael Jordan

5. Know your students!!!

There is one thing that has made the greatest difference in my ability to build resilient students. I get to know them. Regular conversations with the students as they go about their work in the classroom, or when I see them on the corridor at break time helps to build a trusting relationship. Not only does it help with reducing challenging behaviour in lessons, it also gives me an insight into what makes them tick. Being able to see, as a student walks through my classroom door what mood they are in, or knowing that they have exams coming up in other subjects, or that they may have challenges outside of school, enables me to tailor my delivery to their current mindset as well as to their level of knowledge. The key here is playing the long game. There is no silver bullet. But building that positive relationship over time, showing that you can be trusted, pays real dividends.

Recommended Reading…

An excellent book about how to work with students lacking in resilience is Fostering Resilient Learners: Strategies for Creating a Trauma-Sensitive Classroom by Kristen Souers (Amazon affiliate link). This book explores a range of strategies that you can use to help develop your relationships with students, particularly those who have undergone ‘trauma’, leading to them lacking in resilience. Reading this book has made a huge difference to how I manage the behaviour and expectations of a number of my students and I recommend it to anyone seeking to find evidence-informed ways to engage students who struggle with resilience.

Now, over to you…

I would love to hear some ways you have built resilience into your students. 

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Homework: What’s the point?

Homework Project

Does Homework Matter?

Ok, time to get your homework planners out.” [Groans are heard around the classroom].

Is this a familiar scene? Was it just the same when you were at school? As a teacher, do you give the same types of homework tasks over and over? Are your students bored by this? I’ve started introducing some homework tasks that are slightly different to what they’ve been used to. Things that take the students out of their comfort zone.

It’s making a difference.

This week I’m looking at homework – what we do, why we do it and why we should view homework differently.

What exactly is the purpose of homework?

1. Link between lessons

When we plan a sequence of lessons, there should be a common thread running though them. Good sequences of lessons flow naturally from one lesson to the next. Students should be able to understand why one lesson follows from a previous one. Setting homework can ease this transition. It gives the students the opportunity to see the wider context of the topics they are studying.

For example, if planning a lesson on global warming, followed by a lesson on natural resources, you could bridge that gap, helping the students to see why they are interconnected. In this example you could set a task that encourages the students to consider how the causes and effects of global warming could be mitigated by different factors and specify the use of natural resources as one of these factors to consider. This introduction to the topic will show students how the topics are linked and will also improve the starting point for each student the following lesson, enabling progress to develop further and quicker.

2. Opportunity to go into detail without time constraints

Students are required to learn in ever increasing levels of depth and breadth, to satisfy the requirements of exam boards and government targets. However the amount of lesson time that can be devoted to this is not increasing to cope with the demand. Homework is the most obvious solution. But there are so many questions to consider here. How should we use homework? Should we just give more homework? Should we change the type of homework we give? Should we do both? When? For which student groups? When? The list goes on…

In my own experience, there are some specific areas that we could devote weeks of teaching-time to, but we only have days to work with. Effective homework tasks are far better than higher volumes of homework. Not only because they place less pressure on students and teachers (we need to leave time for quality marking too remember!), but many tasks we use are slow to achieving our learning objectives. My advice here (again from my own experience) is to select a niche in a very specific topic area and to ask an open question to the student (e.g. “analyse and evaluate the effectiveness of…”, “how does x compare to y?”, etc).

You could give further support to scaffold the students’ responses if they need it (sub-questions, particular areas to look at, sentence-starters, etc). The open question will enable higher level learning to take place, whilst the support makes the depth of learning accessible to students who otherwise might not develop further. I’ll be writing about Effective Questioning in a future blog post. Subscribe so that you don’t miss it!

3. To ensure progress across a sequence of lessons

Progress is not linear. I’ll repeat that: PROGRESS IS NOT LINEAR! I make this point regularly to colleagues who feel that lesson observations and data points throughout the academic year should be used to monitor quality of teaching. To put my point quite frankly, lesson observations as a way of measuring student progress are a blunt instrument and should be abandoned immediately. More on that in a future post I think! Progress happens at different rates, at different times in the course, for different students. In order to ensure progress over the long-term (the true purpose of education?) students must be able to go beyond what is taught in the classroom. Some topics require much greater depth of understanding, or a broader range of ideas to be considered, before progress can really be ‘achieved’. Independent learning and homework are two solutions to this.

Blogging Homework

Use project-based tasks to deepen understanding and develop skills further

I recently began setting my students longer, more project-based tasks. This meant that they could take time to develop depth and breadth in the knowledge and skills that I wanted them to focus on. One task was for students in small groups to create a “viral video”  on the ethics of animal experimentation (on either side of the debate). I wanted students to develop their responses, but also to try to convince others to side with their view. The students not only improved their argument skills, but they also developed a greater awareness of how others perceive their arguments, how to use language to convey meaning and how to use technology to raise awareness and increase engagement of an issue. These skills will be invaluable to the students in their exam, but also after they’ve left school to work in a whole variety of industries.

Getting students to create or contribute to a blog is another method. In doing so, students begin to develop a long-term approach to the way they present their information, redrafting, responding to feedback, etc. You could create a blog for the class, or you could have the students (individually or in groups) create their own.

Practice independent learning

With so much pressure being put on students and teachers to raise achievement in exams, it can be very tempting to “teach to the test”. The result? Students achieve good exam results, but they have little ability to do anything else – things that would be useful in the “real world” once they leave school.

We deal with this, not by ignoring the teaching of exam technique, but by supplementing what students do in class with guided independent tasks. I’ve seen good examples of this amongst my colleagues, from wider reading lists, to homework menus, to term-long homework projects. The common theme throughout is that the student retains some autonomy over what sources of information they use. They can use as much or as little as they like and they can present their findings via a method of their choosing. The result? Higher levels of engagement, more creativity, the students retain the information for longer and they develop “real-world” skills.

Opportunity to learn outside of the limitations of the classroom

The last thing we want to do as teachers is to limit our students in any way, I’d certainly be horrified by this, as would many parents. However, we often don’t think about the ways our students can be limited. A classroom limits learning. By its size, by the resources available, by the students present and by the teacher leading the learning within it. Homework allows for students to free themselves from these limitations. They can access resources not available to schools, they can free themselves from peer-pressure when doing things their own unusual ways. The depth of student responses improves, as does the breadth of their studies.

But perhaps even more importantly, it can contribute to the teacher’s understanding of what the students are capable. This will influence how the teacher leads the learning of other students, now and in the future. Setting “the right” homework enables students AND  teachers to develop in a significant way.

 

There are tonnes of other ways that homework can raise achievement in our schools, far too many to mention here!

I’d love to hear of any methods you use to increase engagement and deepen learning. As usual, drop me a message!

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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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