Who Are We Doing This For?

Marking

This article originally appeared in HWRK Magazine in January 2022.

As we begin a new year, it’s useful to reflect on the previous one and try to learn something from it. In many cases, the lesson to be learned is to slow down, cut out what doesn’t matter and do what is best for our students. Now, you might think this is obvious, or even condescending, after all, what teacher sets out to do their second-best, or who enjoys giving themselves more to do than is necessary? But the problem is, as a profession, we often do. There’s a pandemic alright, but I’m not talking about Covid-19, it’s the tragedy of toxic school policies that lead to burnout. And it affects us all.

Workload policies have begun to creep into schools over the past year or two and rightly so. Workload is an enormous factor in the decision-making of teachers who choose to leave the profession every year. But policies alone don’t seem to have solved the problem. This is partly because they are sometimes used to make a “challenging” workload appear more palatable, at least to the casual observer. But in the main, I believe that they simply aren’t ambitious enough. Tinkering around the edges by cutting the odd meeting, putting fruit in the staffroom, or adding a “wellbeing day” is genuinely nice, welcome even. But, like rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic, it doesn’t really make a difference.

It comes down to the “big stuff”, the things that many school leaders, often led by Ofsted (apologies for mentioning them this early in the term) are often wedded to out of habit, or perhaps even out of fear. And the biggest of them is feedback.

Let me say this, for those of you with worse hearing than mine at the back: FEEDBACK IS NOT MARKING.

But we often treat them as if they are synonymous. They aren’t. Marking is one form of feedback. But its effectiveness is highly dubious. Add in the fact that it consumes a ridiculous amount of time and energy, with so little return on that investment and you can see why so many teachers hate it.

Fortunately, the tide is turning, with more and more schools relying *exclusively* on other methods to ensure students make continuous progress. Whole class feedback, for example, is a complete game-changer. When planned thoroughly and then implemented thoughtfully in the classroom, it has far-reaching consequences for the students, especially when you give your students time, then and there, to respond to that feedback. It can address whole-class issues, or errors and misconceptions made by single individuals. But it only takes a few minutes to plan and execute, not hours and hours of writing the same comments over and over, only for the students to glance at those comments and do little about them next time they complete their work.

Don’t get me wrong, I do understand why some teachers love to write individualised comments on every student’s work. We like to think that every student will take on board those carefully crafted messages and that they matter as much to the students as they do to the person who wrote them.

However, apart from the odd outlier, I don’t see much evidence of that. Most comments aren’t unique to a single student, many comments are largely irrelevant by the time they’re read and some of them make no sense at all to the student, without the teacher also talking about them at length. They might as well not have been written and I think, deep down, many of us resent how true that is. We’ve just gone along with it. It’s policy.

So, if your students aren’t benefitting from it, who are we doing it for? If your answer is “for SLT” or “for Ofsted”, then you might want to reconsider what you’re here for too, because you’re not solving anyone’s problem.

Here’s a New Year resolution for you to consider then: Let’s get rid of marking.

Nobody can say we didn’t give it a good go and that our motives weren’t pure. It just wasn’t worth the paper it was written on.

Why Making Sense Of Mock Results Isn’t Easy

Mock Exams

This article first appeared in HWRK Magazine in November 2021. You can read the article on the HWRK Magazine website here.

“Correlation is not causation”.

I’ve been thinking of using this as a mantra. Far too often, even those of us who are aware of its truth can fall prey to this logical trap. After all, how many times have you tried out a new teaching technique, with students seemingly succeeding as a result, only to find out later on that they only really made progress because of your newfound enthusiasm, rather than the clever new strategy you used?

The key question is, how do we separate the truth from the noise? We need to ask the same question about mock exam results.

As we move into “mock season”, we should be especially mindful of the correlation/causation problem. The whole point of Autumn mocks is to find out what students do or don’t know, what they can or can’t do and to work out what I need to do next, in response to their performance.

Making Valid Inferences is the name of this game and it’s a lot harder than it seems.

Just imagine this: a student answers a “describe” question with a one-line response, when they should be writing a detailed paragraph or two. What should we make of that as their teacher?

  • Have they misunderstood the amount of detail required?
  • Do they have gaps in knowledge?
  • Is their understanding accurate, but shallow?
  • Did they merely guess the answer correctly without actually knowing it?
  • Is their response just a regurgitation from a revision sheet?

Without an accurate answer to these questions (and more besides), our next move may not have any impact. So what should we do?

Well, let’s look at the responses from the whole class:

  • Do many other students struggle similarly on that question?
  • Are other students having issues with that same exam “skill”, e.g. do they evaluate instead of describe?
  • Did they all run out of time?

Or is it actually more complex than that?

Sometimes there’s a mixed response from different students across the class. Do students from one group perform better or worse than others? A change in seating arrangements might help. But then again, it might not.

Maybe it was the weather that day. Did a wasp fly into the room during your explanation? Were your students in a bit of a rush after being late from PE? Was there a funny smell from the farmer’s field next door that students kept getting distracted by? Did you (without a hint of irony) forget to set a recall homework task on the topic where they underperformed?

In other words, did the problem occur during the teaching, rather than during the exam?

A Question Level Analysis can be helpful, but it won’t always provide the answers that we as teachers need. A good QLA can still only give you a limited amount of information. The information you actually need often comes from your memory of teaching that topic at the time.

What was it that helped or hindered your teaching? This might be a resource issue, a timetabling one, a staffing conundrum, or something on a whole school level, largely beyond the control of the class teacher or Head of Department.

It might even be that your own knowledge just wasn’t strong enough on that topic. That’s an uncomfortable thought, isn’t it? Well, it shouldn’t be. And we can address it without stigma, shame or professional embarrassment. In fact, I’d argue that if we are teaching a challenging curriculum, then from time to time we should fully expect it and actually embrace it in our practice, both individually and as a department. Think back to when you taught that topic: how strong was your subject-knowledge? And are you the best judge of that?

To tackle post-mock issues then should be a collaborative effort, not siloed off for a Head of Department or a Key Stage Coordinator to deal with alone. As a departmental team, it is worth discussing not just “how well did they answer question 8”? but also “how well did we teach the students to be able to answer question 8?” By posing the question in this way, we are much less likely to make assumptions about the student’s answer and much more likely to find the true reason for their response. We should discuss and model our own in-class explanations, how we scaffold and how we assess as we teach, checking for misconceptions and encouraging detail and nuance in students’ responses.

Having these discussions also stops us from letting ourselves off the hook. Much of a student’s attainment is down to things that occur beyond the walls of our classrooms and this is why holding teachers solely accountable for exam results is highly problematic. But we are responsible for how we teach and this impacts student responses in exams in arguably the most significant way. If we have taught it well, the students will typically perform well in assessments.

There are schools across the country, whose cohorts are classed as “disadvantaged” in various ways, but who also routinely outperform other schools whose students “have it easier” (at least on paper). This comes down to the teaching.

As Dylan Wiliam puts it, “Every teacher needs to improve, not because they are not good enough, but because they can be even better.”

So, scrap “correlation is not causation”. My mantra should simply be “Keep improving my teaching”. Everything else is just noise.

You can read more posts like this in HWRK Magazine | The Essential Magazine For Teachers

On Routines, Running, Greasing the Wheels and (Crucially) Biscuits

man running on side of road

This article first appeared in the September 2021 Edition of HWRK Magazine.

I may not look like it, but I love running. When I’m at my “peak” fitness level (which is not only rare, but also far less impressive than it sounds) I’m able to get myself up at 5:30am, throw on my running gear and do a reasonable 5k. This lasts about two or three weeks, then I run out of steam. I make excuses to miss the odd day, which quickly spirals into a string of missed days. Right now, my non-running streak is at the several month mark. I desperately want to run though, so why on earth can’t I stick to my routine?

Well, I do have a theory. I can’t prove it, but whenever I tell someone, it seems to resonate with them. It’s got something to do with biscuits. 

My running “routine” (if you can call it that) involves a lot of thinking about not running, then talking myself into running, then forcing myself to actually do it. If there are any obstacles in my way, like having to do something else urgently (or even not urgently), or if I’ve had a heavy meal beforehand, or if I’m tired, then I justify to myself that I don’t need to do it this time. I’ll just do it tomorrow and everything will be fine.

But, it’s not fine and it gets much worse. My routine is easily destroyed if I do something simple, like eating a biscuit. This might seem like a small thing to you, but what eating a lovely little biscuit does is signal to me that “you know what? Running isn’t that important. You can just eat biscuits. Nobody will mind”. It’s a seductive voice. Think M&S Christmas food advert voice. In the end, the biscuit always wins and I’ve found the perfect excuse to stop running. If I’m eating biscuits, then I’m already not being healthy, so I might as well quit exercising too. Game Over.

What’s this got to do with teaching though? Well, in September, we all like to start with a clean slate and embed good habits and routines, both for ourselves and our students. These take a little getting used to, but with a bit of effort, they stick and after a couple of weeks, you might even think “I’ve nailed it”. Cue, the biscuits.

Once you think you’ve embedded your routines, like setting frequent retrieval tasks, enforcing a behaviour management strategy, or keeping on top of your emails, you will inevitably hit a point where you think, “I’ll just not do it this time. I’m… too busy. Plus, I’ve already stopped doing that other Very Important Thing that I was supposed to be doing. I’m only human and sometimes I need a break… That’s it, I deserve a break” But at this point in the year, it’s a trap. It’s the M&S Christmas food advert voice again. And it really isn’t on your side. 

Once you miss a day or two, or a week, or longer, your routine will naturally fall by the wayside. But worse, it will then be harder to resurrect it than it was to start it from scratch. It’s tainted by “failure” now. You’ve lost your streak. It doesn’t have that special shiny new object feel that it had, back in that first week in September, that felt so motivating.

Fear not though, there’s something I’ve found helpful in exactly this situation: Plan for the inevitable breakdown of your routine. 

Make a decision, ahead of time, about what steps you will take when your routine goes to pot. Think about how you’ll feel when it happens and also what your lack of routine will do to your day. Then, make a To Do List which deals with those issues. Keep it brief, actionable and realistic. Then have it ready for when the inevitable happens. You’ll thank yourself.

Tonight, before I wrote this, I enacted my own To Do List: I laid out my t-shirt, shorts, socks and trainers. I’ve set my alarm for 5:30am and, in a rare stroke of genius, I even set the timer for the coffee machine to come on. I am going to run. There’s nothing to get in my way. I’ve removed the metaphorical biscuits.

Then, tomorrow night, I’ll just lay out my gear again. It’s much easier to get back into my running routine (and stick to it) once I’ve greased the wheels a little by taking the effort out of the period where I’ll be at my most vulnerable to giving up, i.e. bleary-eyed at 5:30am. 

So, grease your wheels too. Automate and schedule your recall tasks in Google Classroom, Microsoft Teams, or whatever platform you use. Have a handy phrase that sums up the behaviour principle you need to keep remembering and repeating. Display it on your classroom wall so neither you nor the students can miss it. Set aside a time of day where you are undisturbed and ONLY allowed to deal with emails. Remove those biscuits.

But most importantly, when it goes wrong, just remember: If I can get back into running (and hopefully one day soon my favourite work trousers), then you can get back into your good routines. After all, you chose them for their usefulness in reducing your workload, or because they help students make more progress. They may even serve an important moral purpose. To thrive in this job, you need your good routines to stick and you really can do it. 

Best of luck (and don’t forget about the biscuits).

Read the latest edition of HWRK Magazine here!

Edu Book Review

Edu Book Review

This article first appeared in the Summer 2021 Edition of HWRK Magazine. You can read this article here. This article contains affiliate links.

With so many edu-books released this year, where should you begin? Here are three of the most impactful that I’ve read this year.

A new teaching book seems to be released every other week at the moment. Maybe that’s just because of all the free time teachers suddenly had during lockdown, since the schools were shut?

As if.

I still have no idea how some teachers find the time to write so much and so well. But with limited time to be able to devour all of these new books, where should you start? Here are three that I seriously recommend, both for the short-term impact in your classroom tomorrow, but also for the way in which they will help you to develop as a teacher over the long term.

Retrieval Practice 2: Implementing, Embedding & Reflecting by Kate Jones

If, like me, you want your students to be able to remember more of the curriculum that you teach, then this is an absolute must-read. Kate Jones has written extensively on the theme of retrieval practice (this being the sequel to her first book, Retrieval Practice: Research and Resources for Every Classroom). The book itself strikes a careful balance between what educational research can tell us and also what it can’t, alongside real-world examples from the classroom practice of teachers. This is where some pedagogical books go wrong, but where Retrieval Practice 2 excels. From the outset, the educational research is presented with clarity, for novices, but with further references for those who want to dive in even further. If retrieval practice is something you intend to focus on in your department or in your school, then there really is no better author that I would trust, to guide you along the way.

The Feedback Pendulum by Michael Chiles

Feedback is often misunderstood, conflated with marking and overly laborious. Michael Chiles aims to put an end to this in The Feedback Pendulum, which is his follow-up book to the also excellent C.R.A.F.T. of Assessment. In The Feedback Pendulum, Chiles takes us through not just how we could assess better, but also the wider issues that are sometimes overlooked. One such issue that Chiles deals with masterfully is the culture of assessment within schools and individual classrooms. Using Chiles’ advice, Middle and Senior Leaders can identify underlying problems across the school and with other stakeholders such as parents, that undermine attempts at effective assessment. Feedback is a highly complex concept and to do it well, you need to understand the nuances of it. This book is just that. Nuanced, practical and will stand the test of time.

Mentoring in Schools: How To Become An Expert Colleague by Haili Hughes

Haili Hughes has created an exceptionally useful guide to mentoring, in her book Mentoring In Schools. In fact, when I read it, I felt as though I was being mentored by Haili herself. The chapters are designed to fit with the Teachers’ Standards and so this gem of a book can be read from cover to cover (as I did), or you can dip in and out of the parts that are most relevant to you at the time, as a Mentor. What Haili does particularly well is to include not just her own extensive experience, but also that of others, including a wide range of voices. Those voices do not just offer insight, but they offer a breadth of practical strategies and questions to ponder. Reading this book will make you a better Mentor, that’s for certain. But it will probably make you a better teacher in general too, as many of the strategies discussed and the issues raised are as important for teaching pupils as they are for mentoring new teachers.

Remote Learning: Five Things We Should Keep Post-Covid

Remote Learning

This article was first published in May 2021 in Sec Ed. You can find the link to the original article here.

Since lockdown ended and we all returned to our classrooms, I have noticed that things are different. I did not expect them to remain completely the same, but what I have been surprised by is just how much my teaching has changed since March 2020.

During lockdown, I could not wait to leave it all behind and I counted the days until I could return to my physical classroom. I was particularly tired of looking at rows of initials instead of faces. But now I am back, I realise something: the technology that I have struggled with and the new strategies I have had to adopt will be sorely missed if we abandon them now. As much as I can’t stand the phrase…

…we’re in a ‘new normal’

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not going to get all misty-eyed about tech-filled 21st-century schools being some utopian wonderland. Fundamentally, I don’t think teaching and learning will change that much, no matter how much tech we throw at it.

What I do believe, however, is that we have crossed the Rubicon. We are not experts in it yet, but enough of us are now good enough at using certain technology for us to embed features of it into our permanent everyday practice.

The tech and strategies that will stand the test of time will be those that help to improve access and attainment for students, and which reduce workload for teachers.

With that said, here are a few of the remote learning strategies (and the tech that underpins them) that I believe are here to stay:

  • Self-marking quizzes.
  • Marking using comment banks.
  • Setting and collecting all classwork/homework assignments online.
  • Collaborative working, using shared docs.
  • The importance of making routines explicit.

Self-marking quizzes

Marking work is a repetitive and laborious exercise. Thankfully, it is something that does not necessarily have to be done by a human, at least, not in the traditional sense.

By designing multiple-choice quizzes, using software such as Google Forms, you can reclaim your time. Google Forms allows you to assign the requisite number of marks for each answer. But you can go much further than that, by setting out what feedback the student will receive when they answer correctly or incorrectly.

One of the most useful feedback tactics I have used is directing students to online videos of worked examples, or websites containing explanations of complex concepts. This takes the pressure off teachers to provide those same details themselves, especially if it relates to a common error.

A set of quizzes that might once have taken me two hours to mark, or which might have taken 20 minutes of my lesson when peer-assessed, now takes less than a minute, including the time it takes to record the results, as you can instantly import them into your spreadsheet.

Comment banks

We have found a way to streamline the feedback mechanism for longer and more complex answers. Platforms such as Google Classroom allow for the creation of comment banks. Teachers can use these by dragging and dropping the appropriate comment onto the required section of the page. By doing this, you avoid having to rewrite the same sort of comments over and over again when they are common to many pieces of work.

The positive impact on your time can be amplified further if you use comments that are particular to a specific exam skill that you give feedback on.

The comment bank can work for a broad range of questions of a particular style, rather than for only one specific question. For example, in a GCSE “describe” question, you can use the exam board descriptors as your comments, making them usable for all future “describe” questions, thereby cutting future workload beyond this one task you are marking.

In reality, you might only need to spend 30 minutes to create four brief comment banks for an entire GCSE course, if there are only four types of question on the exam. That is a lot of time saved, both in the short and long term.

Setting and collecting online work

Setting work for your class is usually straightforward. But having learning materials ready and available for students who are ill, isolating, or elsewhere has always been a pain point for teachers.

Students might not pick up the worksheet, or you might forget to send that email. By setting the work online, everyone can access it in both our classroom and at home.

However, what makes this even more valuable as a strategy, is that it prevents students from falling behind when they inevitably lose bits of their work during the year, reducing the potential for gaps in their folders and (by extension) their knowledge. Just direct your students to the section on Google Classroom, for example, and they will have everything they need.

Collaborative working

I have always found it difficult in my own lessons and for homework to get students to collaborate effectively on tasks. Even with the best will in the world, it can become a less effective use of time compared to working independently, especially if those collaborating are in different locations.

With the use of online software, students can both work on the same document at the same time, allowing one another to see what their peers are producing in real time.

This has been invaluable during lockdown, as one of the major drawbacks for students has been the anxiety produced by not knowing whether or not they are keeping pace with their peers. Collaboration using a Google Doc, for example, alongside a live video or text chat function, where students can discuss the work, allows them to create something as if they were side-by-side in the same room. They can “see” each other typing, allowing for a better connection between students working together.

Explicit routines

Our routines have changed. We have had to adopt new phrases, employ new transitions between tasks and find new ways of moderating the behaviour of our students. Doing these new things during lockdown, after being comfortable with my own long-established in-person routines, was a bit of a shock to my system.

Since coming back to the physical classroom, I’ve become much more explicit in my instructions to students. Prior to lockdown, I relied much more on my “personality”, for want of a better word, to monitor and influence student behaviour.

I have rephrased my behaviour instructions in a very specific way. This is because during remote learning, I could not be a physical presence in the room and could not detect as easily when students were struggling, or were off-task, so I had to adapt my instructions to remove unnecessary barriers to their understanding of the task, such as the behavioural cues.

Previously I could intervene in an ad hoc way. But in the remote lesson I could not, so I had to set up students better in the first place.

My instructions in the physical class now begin with a behavioural cue, e.g. “While discussing…”, “On your own…”, “Using your sheet…”, etc. This means that students are less likely to begin doing something in the wrong way, so that less intervention is required from me to correct their course of action.

This might seem obvious, but the effectiveness of the instruction often stems from where the behavioural cue occurs in the instruction. If you place it at the beginning, students absorb it much more than if it is placed at the end, when they are too busy still thinking about what you said at the start.

Conclusion

It has been a memorable year in education (so far) and not always for the best reasons. But it is one that has truly revolutionised how we think about our teaching. Now we are all back in the physical classroom, it is time to capitalise on what we have learnt and build upon it for the future.

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