New Year, New You?

New Year, New You

Forget setting goals. Cultivate good habits instead.

This article was first published in HWRK Magazine in December 2020 and contains affiliate links.

I’m a huge fan of New Year. Not because of the celebrations (as if we’ll be doing much of that this year), but because they give us an opportunity to sit back and take stock. I like to use this time to think about how I can improve my teaching, so that the following year I can look back and see how I’ve developed. The key to this though seems counterintuitive.

I don’t set goals.

For me, goals are an unwelcome pressure and distraction. Worst case scenario, I don’t meet them and I feel like a failure. Best case scenario, I achieve them, feel great for a split second and then I worry about the next goal, as if the previous one doesn’t matter anymore.

For me, goals are a lose-lose situation and nobody needs that in their life.

So, instead of setting goals, I cultivate habits. In doing so, I don’t need to worry about hitting a certain target, or even measuring anything at all. It’s easy(ish). Last year I decided I would use more retrieval tasks during my lessons, after reading Kate Jones’ fantastic book, Retrieval Practice. I didn’t decide to put a retrieval task in every one of my lessons, or use it in a particular way, or to standardise the ways I would use them. I just decided to do it more often. No pressure, no worries.

It worked. Not only that, but I naturally began to do it more often as time went on. It became part of how I operated as a teacher, as I slowly found my own way of doing it. Now, I can look back on how my teaching has developed and I can confidently say that it’s in a much better place now than it was a year ago.

As far as departmental curriculum planning goes, there are ways you can encourage similar habits in your colleagues. Each teacher in your department could work on a particular strategy, tactic, use of resource, or whatever. Keep it simple though. For example, you could agree to try out some sort of questioning technique or behaviour management method more often. Or, you could ask students to complete a particular type of task more often, that appears to have made a positive impact in the past.

Your new habit doesn’t have to be tracked and it certainly doesn’t have to be observed or even checked at all by anyone else. The whole point is that by trying out a new habit, the teacher is free to take their time with it and do it in their own way and at their own pace. In doing so, any “data” (and I use this term VERY loosely) gained will be useful.

If you want, then any feedback on your and your colleagues’ new habits can then be discussed in a much more open and less formal setting than your typical Appraisal meeting, where there might be incentives to give a more “polished” version of reality than you otherwise would do. Avoiding untruthful versions of how it went can then lead to much more helpful conversations about how to implement any positives discovered across the whole department. You might also come to the conclusion that it doesn’t work, which brings me to my next point.

One thing to bear in mind, is the impact that any additional habit has on your existing ones. Every time I hear about teachers being asked to do extra things in their lessons, without dropping other things they’re already doing, I despair. You only have a finite amount of time and energy. We can’t afford to waste either one of them.

So, to help make space for any new habits, I’d like to offer you one piece of advice. You can take it or leave it, but for the last couple of years, it’s worked brilliantly for me.

Conduct a brief past year review. It’s simple and doesn’t have to take more than a few minutes.

Think back over the types of activities, resources, procedures, etc that you have worked with over the past year and ask yourself these five questions:

1. Which ones caused you the most stress?

2. Which ones didn’t seem like they were worth the effort?

3. Which ones did students do badly?

4. Which ones did you do badly?

5. Which ones could easily be replaced, improved or completely dropped?

If you can think of anything you’ve done in the past year that answers at least two of these questions then think about dropping it. If you can think of anything that fits three or more, then (if you can) you should probably drop it now.

Pro Tip: Getting your whole department to conduct the past year review might be a useful exercise to make your departmental operating procedures run a little smoother. But approach this with caution and try not to take it too personally if it’s your own pet project that everyone else wants to scrap. Nobody gets it right 100% of the time. Be ok with that.

So remember: Your time is precious. You have better things to do than to waste your time on things that cause more problems than they solve. You should do those instead. Setting goals might motivate some people, but we teachers have plenty of those in our lives already. Let’s just cultivate some better habits. They matter more.

How To Teach Students To Write Better Conclusions

Writing Better Conclusions

Writing better conclusions is a very specific skill that requires explicit teaching

You are reading this because you want your students to write better conclusions. I want my students to do so too. Not because they can’t write well already, but because writing conclusions for essays is a very specific skill that requires explicit instruction. The improvement in quality that I’ve seen from my own students’ essays so far has been huge. By teaching this specific skill, you will raise the attainment of your own students too. Here’s how to do it.

N.B. This has taken years of constant reflection and refinement and some of these tips might seem counterintuitive, or even go against the way that you have taught writing conclusions to your own students. They may also work better in some subjects rather than others, especially if exam board criteria specifies a preferred style of writing. So tailor these tips to your own context.

What should a conclusion include?

Conclusions should make a clear judgement

The whole point of a conclusion is to make a judgement. Your students need to make sure, therefore, that they make that judgement clearly, in their conclusion. This doesn’t mean that an extreme position has to be taken though. Obviously, there will also be times where a judgement will involve a certain degree of nuance and balance. However, the judgement should still be obvious to the reader. Using a short sentence to highlight the decision that has been reached is often a useful way to aid clarity. E.g. “Friar Lawrence was to blame for the death of Romeo”, or “The Second World War was unavoidable, after the decisions made at Versailles”. Once your student has written this short sentence, they can then unpack the reasoning for it. This structure helps the reader to identify the rationale for the decisions that have been made.

Using a short sentence to highlight the decision that has been reached is often a useful way to aid clarity.

Weigh up multiple sides

Conclusions that weigh up multiples sides to a debate show balance and a clear consideration of views. By doing so, you avoid the criticism that the conclusion is too one-sided, or lacks breadth of study. Show your students worked examples that pick out opposing views within the conclusion, before selecting one of them as being more persuasive.

Show “how far” you agree or disagree with a particular viewpoint

Conclusions should reflect the complexity of the arguments presented. If the subject matter is complex, then this should be highlighted in the reasoning given in the conclusion. A simple conclusion will naturally follow, therefore, from simpler chains of reasoning. So, make sure your students write down to what extent they agree or disagree with a particular viewpoint.

Explain why the main reason matters more than the others

Some reasons are more convincing than others. This might be because they make more logical sense, or they are supported by more empirical evidence. They may suffer from fewer or weaker criticisms, or they may just reflect specific values deeply held by the writer. Students should make sure that they show why their main reason is the most important one. Otherwise, their reason will look like it has not been thought through properly.

Explore further consequences, or even offer warnings!

Sometimes the conclusion reached could point to consequences further down the line, or even serve as a warning. Take the reader beyond the bounds of the question and show that the broader context has been considered. E.g. “The current European law on the right to privacy are not sufficient to counter the power of the free press to publish what they like. But not only that, the situation is quickly worsening, as social media allows anyone with internet access to publish what they like, in full knowledge that the authorities can do little to stop them. This will inevitably lead to the erosion of the rule of law and democracy itself.”

Take the reader beyond the bounds of the question and show that the broader context has been considered

Consider the logic of the arguments presented

Where a chain of reasoning is weak, this should be reflected in the evaluative decisions made in the conclusion. One easy way to point out logical weakness is by identifying any assumptions that the argument relies on. This could be in evidence that seems to go unchallenged, or in a particular interpretation of a word or phrase. Points such as these are often overlooked, but can be used to demonstrate close attention to fine detail.

Consider the limits of the conclusion

Sometimes there are conclusions you can draw, but with particular limitations in their scope. The criticisms that your student points out might only weaken rather than destroy an argument. They might only criticise the classical form of an argument, but not other, more modern forms. A conclusion might only be able to make comment on specific areas that cannot be extrapolated from. Warnings about the future, as mentioned earlier, might not be sustained by the reasoning presented by your students. It can be tempting to make a provocative statement in the conclusion, giving it a controversial edge. However, some exam boards penalise students when their conclusions aren’t supported by sufficient evidence.

Use evaluative language

If you want your students to come across as evaluative, then they should use language that reflects the weighing up of arguments and evidence. Using phrases like “Despite the fact that”, or “this is a devastating criticism” can be very useful in helping the reader (or examiner) to see what sorts of judgement your student is attempting to make. The use of adverbs when setting out judgements can aid students in presenting with clarity the extent of their decisions, e.g. “Dawkins’ arguments from the Selfish Gene significantly weaken the theist’s position on a designer God”.

The use of adverbs when setting out judgements can aid students in presenting with clarity the extent of their decisions

Mention specific scholars, events, quotes, theories…

The conclusion should also point out specific scholars, theories, quotes, events, etc that form a major part of the reasoning. In doing so, the evidential basis for your student’s argument will be stronger and the decision itself is more likely to be seen as well thought out.

Create a sense of closure

By the end of the conclusion, the reader shouldn’t have any questions about why that conclusion was reached. By using the words of the question in the final paragraph of the essay and by setting out the extent of the scope of their judgement, students can directly address the central issue while giving the impression that they have covered all of the necessary angles.

What should you avoid when writing a conclusion?

Summaries of previously-made points

Writing a summary of the main points in your conclusion is normally a waste of time. Essays that do this typically end up looking repetitive. Focus instead on selecting the main reason and writing why it matters more than the other arguments.

New ideas that should have their own paragraph earlier on

It’s tempting to add into your conclusion a new argument that you haven’t mentioned earlier. This is a big red flag to many examiners. The general rule is that if it is good enough to be in your conclusion, then it probably deserves a paragraph of its own earlier on, where you can deal with it in much more detail. Whatever is in your conclusion must flow from the arguments presented and should be based on those arguments.

I hope you find this useful. Teaching your students how to write better conclusions will not only make them a better writer, but, hopefully, it will consolidate and clarify their understanding too.

Let me know if you have any other tips by leaving a comment below.

You can find me on Twitter @guruteaching.

Andy

Are Your Students Remotely Learning?

Remote Learning

The move to remote learning has been a limited success, but it also carries a great risk, both to students and to teachers, unless we focus on the right things.

Remote learning was and is a noble idea. It promises flexibility, independence and encourages resilient learners. Remote learning has also forced teachers to update their technological skills, enabling them to share, collaborate and use content in a much more efficient way.

This, surely, bodes well for the future of education and it prepares students for the real world, where companies increasingly encourage remote-working arrangements.

But, let’s be honest here. It’s not working, is it?

Consider all of the hours you put in: uploading new content, making sure your tasks are both classroom and home-friendly, checking homework, looking to see who the latest self-isolating students are, not to mention the CONSTANT emails/comments/messages from students and parents.

We can add to that, the fact that this increase in workload, coupled with the idea in the back of your mind that a parent could be “observing” you teach, can be panic-inducing and exhausting.

Then, there’s the additional pressure of student progress. Students who are at home tend to fall behind. That’s quite natural. After all, they haven’t had face-to-face lessons with their teacher. Joining in from home on some sort of “live link” just isn’t the same.

Not to mention the fact that they’ve had to share the family laptop with all of their siblings, who also need it for their own lessons. (Of course, this also assumes a best-case scenario, where there IS a family laptop.)

I’ll not even go into the problem of healthy, but self-isolating students who fail to attend morning lessons, simply because they’re still in bed.

So what can we do about it?

In complex situations like this, I find it useful to go back to first principles.

What is it that we truly value?

For many of us (and in no particular order, before this starts an #edutwitter pile-on) it is:

  1. The health, wellbeing and education of our students.
  2. Our own health, wellbeing and development, not just as teachers, but as human beings.

Simplifying our teaching, to address these two areas, can narrow the range of choices we need to make and will help us eliminate activities that take us further away from these values.

What should we prioritise?

  • Pastoral care of our students
  • Developing students’ subject knowledge, as far as we can, given today’s constraints

What should we not do?

  • Expect our students to be independent enough to cope without our help
  • Hold ourselves to unrealistic standards

This period won’t last forever. One day we might even look back on it like we do when we had that amazing “snow week” back in 2010.

Back then, we were cold, worried about our safety, we hadn’t seen our parents for a little while and we were more than a bit concerned about the panic-buyers in the shops.

Now, we just say “Remember when we had that snow week? That was weird, wasn’t it?”

So…

Stick to what you value: Keep yourself healthy and teach as well as you can.

Remember: You aren’t in the same situation as you were in last year, so be kind to yourself and try not to compare your current teaching to how you used to do it or how you would like to. You can’t control everything (and you’re not meant to).

Some students aren’t remotely learning right now. We can help them by breaking down some of those barriers to learning, but we can’t force it to happen.

You are right to be optimistic though.

Teachers are good at optimism. It’s what drives us.

Just don’t let it drive you round the bend.

I’d love to know your thoughts on this. Leave a comment or send me a message @guruteaching on Twitter.

Andy

Using Wider Reading to Broaden Diversity of Scholars at GCSE and A Level

Wider Reading

This article was written for the Education Blog at the Copyright Licensing Agency and published in September 2020, which you can read here.

Designing your A Level or GCSE curriculum is easy, if you are only concerned with teaching what is on the exam specification. But despite each board’s efforts, you might still end up with a relatively impoverished curriculum for your students. Obviously, exam boards can’t include everything on a given topic, covering it from all angles. But when we omit those different avenues of thought, we limit students’ understanding of the topic. Wider reading is therefore essential if we want our students to receive the best quality curriculum that we can offer.

In so many subjects, it is the default setting that subjects are studied from a Western European point of view. This is fine, to a degree. A lot of excellent scholarly work has been conducted by philosophers, historians, scientists and artists over the centuries. They have helped to form the culture(s) of the European continent and are therefore an excellent way to begin our study, or teaching of our subjects.

But theirs isn’t the only point of view. There is a much broader context and when we ignore this, we remove opportunities to understand both ourselves and other people. The lack of diversity in our curricula, over centuries, has led to misunderstanding and even intolerance of “minority” views. We have a duty to current and future generations to build upon the work that has been done in this area, so that our students can avoid narrow-minded views of the world and can see the world through the lenses of people beyond themselves.

This is the beauty of reading fiction, after all. We can lose ourselves in the worlds inhabited by the characters in our favourite novels. We do this by seeing through their eyes and by contemplating their experiences, values and motivations. In non-fiction, i.e. in our teaching of academic subjects, we can emulate this, by including a broader diversity of scholars than the ones we are typically presented with by exam boards.

A cursive glance over the scholars presented by most exam boards would indicate that the majority of scholars worth listening to or reading about are white European men. Is their experience more valid than the experiences of everyone else? What other unconscious messages does this send to our students? Are those messages even more damaging for our students who don’t fit into this narrow cultural bracket? Who are they supposed to relate to? Who should they take as their academic role models? This is difficult, but we should not shy away from dealing with it.

I propose a solution. It isn’t something that everybody will immediately accept, for a myriad of reasons. But it is a solution nevertheless: We should explicitly teach the work of a more diverse range of scholars, beyond those names in the exam specifications. To clarify, I mean teaching extra scholars, in addition to those named on the exam specifications, rather than instead of them. We cannot wait for specifications to be revised, to reflect greater diversity, as this happens too infrequently for our purposes here.

Sceptics will rightly point out, though, that adding a wider range of scholars requires more work to be completed by the teacher and the students and under the pressure of time. Sceptics will also rightly point out that you can get 100% in the exam, simply by mastering the named content and scholars on the specification, rendering this extra study unnecessary. Again, I completely understand, both as a classroom teacher and as an experienced examiner for both GCSE and A Level. I would add that there is also the vital issue of access to relevant and suitable materials, not to mention the gaps in our own subject knowledge as teachers.

But despite these issues, if we just pander to the “minimal effective dose” method of only teaching the specification, we do our students a disservice. They come to our schools and colleges for a deep, broad and rich education. Exam results are one important aspect of this, but they aren’t the entire thing. Sometimes we need to remind ourselves of that and think deeply about it, even if we already know it on a superficial level.

As far as our own subject knowledge goes, this could be the most significant barrier. Teachers (myself included) can get too used to being the “expert”. It’s a great feeling to know that you’ve mastered the teaching of the topics demanded by the exam board. After years of teaching the same specification over and over, you can become very comfortable (and justifiably so). However, we promote lifelong learning in our students. We teach students the value of education, both for practical reasons and for its own sake. It would be hypocritical if we didn’t also apply those principles to our own teaching. It might be time for us teachers to read more widely about our subjects.

After all, we are the champions of our subjects. We are the gate-keepers to the knowledge that our students can access. We shouldn’t limit their access to this knowledge by presenting only one section of it as the entire thing. It’s dishonest. We can do better.

What Should Trainee Teachers Look For When Observing Lessons?

Trainee Teacher Observing Lessons

[Updated 27 Oct 2020]

I remember being a trainee teacher back in 2005 and going in to observe lessons. The lessons were pretty good, by whatever measure you might use. But I didn’t learn a lot from being there. Like someone with no technological knowledge inspecting the inside of a mechanical object, I just didn’t know what I was looking at.

I mention this because I think observing lessons is actually brilliant. I learn a lot from observing colleagues and I gain a lot from the feedback I receive, when they observe me. So why doesn’t this work for trainees, or even Early Career Teachers for that matter?

I think it comes down to experience. When an experienced teacher observes someone, they can watch the lesson and decide what they would do differently and why they would do it that way, drawing from their own classroom practice.

A trainee or inexperienced teacher cannot do this anywhere near as effectively or independently, in most cases. This is problematic for our trainees. We expect them to go into lessons, taught by our colleagues and expect them to soak up all of the good practice they witness, without realising that they simply aren’t equipped to do so.

So let’s equip them.

Here are some useful questions for trainees and Early Career Teachers to consider when observing. Hopefully, by getting them to reflect on their answers, we might help to focus their attention on what matters.

Lesson Observation Questions

  • Has the teacher demonstrated that they have high expectations for behaviour and progress? How did they convey this?
  • Does there appear to be a routine being followed? If so, what is it?
  • Is the classroom environment suited to the task? (e.g. grouped tables, equipment, use of space, etc)
  • How long does the teacher allow the students to work for, before checking progress?
  • Does the teacher model answers for the class? (If so, what was good about the modelling?)
  • What standard of answer does the teacher expect from the students?
  • How variable is the standard of answer from the students (and how does the teacher respond to this)?
  • When challenged by disruption, rudeness, etc, how does the teacher respond? How effective was the behaviour management strategy? (Did it work? Quickly?)
  • How many students are checked for progress during the lesson?
  • How often does the teacher ask questions? (What follow-up questions are asked?)
  • How could the students’ learning be stretched further?
  • How could the students’ learning be supported further?
  • Are strategies being implemented to teach specific groups, such as boys, Pupil Premium, SEND, high prior attaining students, etc?

This isn’t an exhaustive list, but it gives students something to concentrate their attention on. When they begin their own teaching, these questions will naturally form part of the feedback on routines, expectations, behaviour, progress, differentiation and assessment. Having clear anecdotes to return to from their own observations, will help trainees and Early Career Teachers to compare their practice to the practice of experienced staff.

With any luck, they might even learn from us.

Recommended Reading

The one thing that all trainee teachers need to get to grips with early is effective behaviour management. Without this, learning suffers and so does the overall classroom experience of everyone involved. Mastering behaviour management strategies, therefore, no matter what school they teach in, is vital. Tom Bennett’s book, Running the Room, is THE perfect resource for solving behavioural issues as they arise and gives excellent advice on how to create a classroom culture where behaviour incidents are prevented before they happen.

What other questions would you add to the list?

Leave a reply below, or send me a tweet!

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

[This post contains affiliate links]

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