Starting a Class Blog in 5 Minutes

Starting a Class Blog

Why is starting a class blog important?

Starting a class blog is one of the most effective ways to engage students in and beyond your lessons. I’ve been using them for years and my students absolutely love them. Recently, my Year 10 class asked me to create one just for them. They’d heard from some older students how much they enjoyed learning in this way and why blogging beats using “traditional” methods hands down. I would agree for the most part with their assessment. However, when blogs are used effectively, they do not replace “traditional” methods. They simply present traditional methods in a modern way.

For example, in my both my Law and Religious Studies lessons, at all Key Stages, the most important part of my planning is “Questioning“. My students love to go deep into a topic during debates, looking at concepts from a broad range of perspectives. They love it even more when I drill down into what they mean by the words they’ve used, or what assumptions are built into their reasoning and beliefs. This is as traditional as teaching gets, just take a look at the dialogues in Plato’s works.

Blogging simply allows that dialogue to take place in an environment more familiar to today’s students, the digital natives. And we all know that when students are in comfortable surroundings, their fight or flight system switches off and they become more naturally inclined to engage with the lesson. The depth I’ve seen in some of the comments sections of my class blogs has been phenomenal.

When blogging is done well, it takes the topic away from the teacher and gives ownership and independence of learning over to the students. The teacher can still moderate the debate, but they become a moderator rather than the centre of the discussion. Not only that, but your entire debate is recorded. This means that your students can revisit it when planning an essay or revising for a test. How many of your verbal debates in class were recorded accurately and in detail in the past year?

Why aren’t more teachers starting a class blog?

Trying something new is always a challenge. Below I’ve listed some of my colleagues’ responses when I’ve asked them about blogging. Some of these may sound familiar…

  • The teacher is not familiar with blogging, so they worry about doing a bad job, or that it will take up a disproportionate amount of time for very little gain. (Below I’ll show you my foolproof 5-minute process to set up your blog. It takes me longer to create a decent worksheet!)
  • The teacher feels they are “not good with computers”. (Sorry you aren’t allowed to use this one, it’s not 1998 anymore.)
  • The teacher feels that their methods are perfectly fine, so they don’t need to change anything.
  • The teacher sees blogging as a fad, that will soon go the way of Brain Gym and Learning Styles.
  • The teacher is worried about how students may abuse the blog, bully other students on there, or somehow get the teacher into trouble.

Whilst all of these problems are valid to some degree, they all boil down to one thing. Fear. Fear that we as teachers aren’t good enough, or that we will try something that doesn’t pay off. Personally, I don’t think that as teachers we can afford to think in these terms, even if we try to rebrand the Fear as “just being practical” or muttering to like-minded colleagues “I’ve seen this before”. Apart from anything, we are supposed to inspire our students and give them the sense that it doesn’t matter if you fail. You just learn from it and do things differently next time, without judging yourself or worrying about being judged.

Not only that but as I mentioned in a previous post on Flipped Learning, students should be encouraged to engage with materials before the lesson in which they are studied. This allows the teacher to focus more on higher-order tasks regarding analysis, evaluation and problem-solving, rather than basic content delivery and comprehension. Blogging allows this to happen but also introduces the depth of analysis via peer-led discussions of the content.

Top tips for creating your ‘beginner blogger’s mindset’

  1. Don’t judge yourself before starting a class blog.
  2. If it ‘fails’ first time around, don’t judge yourself then either.
  3. Stop thinking that others are judging you. They aren’t. In fact, they’re probably jealous of your guts to try it in the first place.
  4. Now try it again, but tweak it a little.
  5. Repeat until you succeed. (It really won’t take you long – you’re probably overestimating how hard it really is!!)
  6. Tell others what made it work and what the benefits of blogging vs other methods are.

How do I set up my first class blog?

Blogger

Firstly, you will need to decide on a blogging platform. There are many out there and for the most part, there is little between them in terms of how you would use them in the classroom. However, I’m going to show you step-by-step how to use WordPress.com to set up your blog. I use WordPress for all of my classroom blogs and even this blog you’re reading right now! It’s very easy to set up and to customise as you see fit.

All you need to do now is to follow each step and you will have your very own blog to use within five minutes!

  1. Go to www.wordpress.com and click on “Get Started” in the top-right corner of the screen.
  2. Select an initial layout for your blog from the basic templates. (You can change this later.) For ease of use, I would pick the “A list of my latest posts” option as it offers the simplest layouts.
  3. Choose a theme. A theme is a detailed template which you can customise or leave as it is. Any theme will do for now, as again, you can change this later if you like.
  4. Choose your domain (the web address of your blog). Type into the box a word or phrase you would like to appear in your blog’s web address and a list of FREE and PAID options will appear. Choose the FREE option. WARNING: You cannot change your domain once you have registered, so try out a few names to see which ones work for you.
  5.  Pick a Plan. Again just select the FREE option, unless you are familiar with blogging and web design and want more features. Personally, I think this is completely unnecessary for classroom blogging, but once you catch the blogging bug you might consider this in the future. With the exception of this website, I’ve always used the FREE options and been completely satisfied with what they have to offer for my students.
  6. Create your account. Type in your email address and select a username and password in order to log in to your blog in future.
  7. You will be sent a confirmation email to the email address you registered with in the previous step. Go into your email and click “Confirm”. You will be redirected to a login page where you need to enter your username and password that you picked in the previous step.
  8. You will now be directed to your “Dashboard” where you can create your own content or link to content that exists elsewhere on the web.

Publishing your first post

Now that you’ve set up your blog, play around with the different features in the dashboard to familiarise yourself with them. Don’t worry about clicking on the wrong thing, you can’t break your blog! As with any new technology, the more you play around with it, the quicker you will learn about it. The Dashboard is designed to be as user-friendly as possible. However, if you are having any issues understanding how things work then there are a tonne of tutorials on WordPress, aimed at beginners. I’ve found that YouTube is also a brilliant resource for blogging tutorials too, with the added benefit of you being able to see what you are supposed to type or click on.

Keep your first post simple.

I tend to make my first post about “House Rules” for students using the blog. It really helps if from the outset students know exactly what they are and aren’t allowed to do on the blog. Set out your high expectations and (hopefully) the students will meet them.

To create a new blog post, go to the Dashboard and click the “Add” button next to where is says “Blog Posts” (I told you it was user-friendly!). Type in your title, then add your text beneath. You can add images if you like, or you could even add a link to another website. Once you are finished, it’s time to “Publish” by clicking on the “Publish button on the left-hand side.

Congratulations, you are now a blogger!

Final thoughts…

I would love to hear about your classroom blogging experiences and would be happy to answer any questions you have about starting a class blog. Just leave a comment on this post or send me a tweet (@guruteaching) and I’ll get right back to you.

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Answering Questions at Teaching Interviews

Answering Questions at Teaching Interviews

Does the thought of answering questions at teaching interviews fill you with dread?

For many, the answer is a resounding YES! Not only is the application process extremely time-consuming, but if you are lucky to reach the interview stage, you will deal with on-the-spot pressures too. Most schools will observe a lesson you’ve prepared before moving to formal interviews. If you reach this stage you’ve done well. However, this is often the point at which candidates struggle the most. After all, you can prepare a lesson, knowing to some degree how it will go. But how can you predict what will be asked in an interview? Answering questions at teaching interviews is a skill you need to develop. Fortunately, there’s a way.

Thankfully, most schools look for the same sorts of qualities in a candidate, regardless of the subject, or level of responsibility. The questions asked by schools then, are broadly similar, or at least they aim to draw out the same elements from candidates’ responses. Schools want to appoint someone who is hardworking, dependable, honest, self-evaluative and looks to develop their own skills and knowledge.

If you are applying for a Leadership position, then you should prioritise extra qualities that are more specific to leading staff. These include having a clear vision and priorities for the role, developing successful strategies to solve problems, being able to lead teams of colleagues and being analytical and self-critical.

How would you deal with interview questions without preparing a detailed answer in advance? For most of us, the answer would be ‘requires improvement’. But in reality, with a little self-reflection, you will have an arsenal of anecdotes that you could bring out to demonstrate your capability in all of these questions.

Take a look at the questions below and see how you would respond:

Popular Questions at Teaching Interviews

  1. Tell me about yourself.
  2. Why do you want this job?
  3. How would you deal with a difficult colleague?
  4. What would you do if a student disclosed X?
  5. How would you deal with apathetic parents of an underperforming student?
  6. How would you teach topic X to a more able / less able group?
  7. What is your biggest weakness?
  8. What was the last teaching book you read? How did it impact your teaching?
  9. How do you think your observed lesson went?
  10. What value do you bring to the department?
  11. Tell me what an outstanding lesson looks like?
  12. Describe an “outstanding” school?
  13. What is more important: attainment, progress or achievement?
  14. How would you deal with a student complaint against a member of staff?
  15. What would you do if you disagreed with an instruction given by a senior member of staff?
  16. Do you have any questions to ask us?

General tips for answering questions at teaching interviews

  • Be authentic. Tell the truth and justify everything with reasons based on actual experience. Headteachers and governors can smell a “fake” response a mile off.
  • Don’t just tell. Instead, show. Use examples of how you have dealt with situations from your own experiences. This could be about managing the expectations of students, building relationships with colleagues, overcoming a personal challenge regarding a teaching method, etc.
  • Go beyond your teaching experience and show how you have dealt with similar situations outside of school. In other words, how do you demonstrate the values the school wants, in your personal life? (Be careful not to over-share though!)
  • Be reflective. The best teachers can evaluate their performance, showing how they could have dealt with situations differently. As always, have examples at hand. Are you still evaluating? how many times have you altered your practice? (The more the better!)
  • Show that you pay attention to detail. Have examples that demonstrate how you diagnosed an issue leading to underperformance and then show how your response to that made an impact. You can read this post on Black Box Thinking For Teachers for some inspiration!
  • Do your research on the school. The role you are applying for is at THEIR school. If they have specific priorities then show your knowledge of them. This could include closing the attainment gap between boys and girls at Key Stage 4, or it could be gaining more A/A* grades at Key Stage 5, for example.
  • Use data. Instead of saying “I have excellent results”, say “last year my classes achieved X% in their GCSE exams. This demonstrates your attention to detail.
  • Work out in advance what YOUR vision for the role is. Keep referring back to that vision throughout your responses. The more your vision comes through, the less doubt there will be over your character (a MAJOR point that interviewers consider).
  • Structure your answers using the STAR technique. Click here to see how this works.
  • Be a “Purple Cow”. Lots of candidates will give the same sorts of responses to standard questions. Be memorable by answering the questions in a unique way.

Recommended Reading

There are a lot of good books out there on answering questions at teaching interviews, but having read a lot of them, they often aren’t useful for teaching interviews. For that reason, I’ve narrowed down my recommendations to a couple of excellent books which will make teaching interviews a much easier and less stressful experience. I’ve included affiliate links to both books below.

My first recommendation is 50 Teaching Interview Questions & Suggested Responses: For Primary School Teaching Interviews by Mark Thomas and Lynne Ryder. This book contains most of the commonly asked questions and gives excellent guidance on how to respond in a way that maximises your chances of success. The authors have decades of combined experience as headteachers, so if they tell you to mention something at the interview, then you’d better do it!

My second recommendation is Why You?: 101 Interview Questions You’ll Never Fear Again by James Reed. Whilst this book isn’t specific to teaching, the questions he asks and answers within it are often asked in teaching interviews. James covers the main areas usually examined in the interview, including character, experience, career goals, competency and even those curve-ball questions like “If you were an animal, what would you be?” Reading this will undoubtedly prepare you for interviews at any level, from NQT to Executive Headteacher.

Final thoughts…

I loved and hated interview questions at different times in my career. Hated when I hadn’t prepared or rehearsed a good enough answer. Loved when my prepared answer showed my true ability and future potential.

Share this with anyone applying for teaching positions, I promise they’ll thank you for it!

Good luck,

Andy.

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Giving Effective Feedback

Giving Effective Feedback

Giving effective feedback is a balancing act

My students are about to receive their mock results. For some, this will be a time for them to feel relieved that their efforts so far have paid off. For others, they won’t be happy with their result. Ultimately though, the result itself doesn’t really matter. It’s how my students respond to their result that counts. The hope is that my students will find that balance between fear of failure and over-confidence, to best prepare them for the final exams. In this post, I explain the methods used to ensure that my students respond positively, so that they will achieve their desired result in the future. Giving effective feedback is a tricky business and the stakes are too high for us to do it badly.

Why target setting is priority number 2

As teachers, we constantly set targets, whether short or long-term, aspirational or realistic. Target setting is absolutely necessary, but it must be well-informed and fully explained. Otherwise, your students may not understand those targets immediately.

In many cases, my own students have seen their own targets as too high, too low, or completely arbitrary, before the targets are explained. If I didn’t explain the targets to them, then they risk putting insufficient effort in, to achieve their target. The explanation, though, must contain the ‘bigger picture’; this is priority number 1. More on that in a moment.

Students’ lack of engagement with targets also seems to be caused by their own perceptions of themselves as learners. They often see themselves as an “A grade” student, for example. This makes it harder for them to come to terms with any grade that doesn’t fit with that label. Following a positive result, they can then become lazy, thinking it’s in the bag. A negative result can leave students thinking it can’t be done. It’s vital then, that we spend time, before giving feedback, to help students understand what they should be looking to achieve, both in the short and long-term. They need to know and be constantly reminded that ‘progress‘ is not linear and that their path to success will not be a straight one.

Students need to see the bigger picture

One exam result can seem like the entire picture to some students. So, in order for targets to be meaningful to your students, they need to understand their own situation. By this, I mean that your students need to be able to see what their current level of achievement looks like, compared to their past achievements. Have they dipped? Plateaued? Accelerated? Where is it going?

They should also be made aware of how far a student like them should be expected to achieve by the end of the course. I often cite examples of students from previous years, who have achieved similar mock results, but have then gone on to have even greater success when they have followed a specific plan. I then share that plan, breaking it down into practical steps, which when followed, led to my previous student achieving the desired result.

By making the steps simple, my current students are able to see further progress as realistic. This provides them with the motivation required to increase performance in preparation for the exam. Because the feedback conversation is focused on future achievement, rather than past failure, my students’ mindset is far more receptive and they tend to react more positively.

Students need to feel supported

Many students will know that a poor result is their ‘fault’, but guilt and remorse will only make them dwell on negatives. This distracts from the positives and creates a barrier to forming a solution-focused mindset. So, ensure you are giving effective feedback by using as many comments as possible about what your students have achieved. By beginning the feedback conversation in this way (and feedback must be a conversation, not just one-way) your students will be encouraged to feel as though they have a platform to build upon for future success. They will also see you as being on their side, rather than just being there to find fault.

Many successful schools use the “What Went Well / Even Better If” structure to ensure positive feedback. Here, students are left in no doubt that their successes, no matter how limited, have been recognised and rewarded on some level.

Top Tip: A good way to enhance the WWW/EBI system is to share with the whole class a range of WWW comments that you have given to the group. This then provides students with concrete, achievable examples that they can strive to emulate in future assessments.

Preparing students to receive feedback

This week I’ll be giving my students a brief questionnaire to fill out before they are able to access their results. The purpose of the questionnaire is twofold. Firstly, I aim to prime the students with as much positive-mindset thinking as possible, so that their result will be seen as just one step on the way to future success. I want to build resilient learners. Secondly, I want the students to be able to see what practical steps they can put into place, to get them from where they are to where they need to be.

Here are the questions I’ll be asking:

  1. What do you stand to gain from success in this subject?
  2. What is your end-of-course target?
  3. What practical steps did you take to move towards your mock exam target?
  4. Which of those practical steps paid off?
  5. What was your target for the mock exam?
  6. If your two targets are different, then explain why.
  7. Which practical steps would you change or not use again? Explain your reasons.
  8. How close do you think you will be to your target?
  9. If you achieve your mock target, how will you react? Why?
  10. If you don’t achieve your mock target, how will you react? Why?
  11. If you could go back in time and give advice to yourself three months ago, what advice would you give?

I may change the wording of the questions, or even add/remove some of them. However, what I want to do is to create a dialogue with each student about their own journey. The questions are really just conversation-starters.

Planning your next steps

After giving feedback on the mock exams, it’s crucial that you put a plan in place to ensure that every single student can be monitored and so that their performance on exam day is not left to chance. The plan should be specific, realistic and time-bound if it is to work. But most importantly, the onus should be on the students to solve the problem. All you are doing is giving them a blueprint to follow and dates by which you will measure their success on agreed criteria. Your role is an advisory one. You certainly shouldn’t be expected to re-teach content, especially if your students are perfectly capable of independent learning!

Steps you can put in place:

  • Students should respond to feedback as early as possible – create improved answers or redo the mock exam from scratch.
  • Set aside specific times for on-to-one conversations with each student (if logistically possible). This should happen as soon as possible.
  • Share results with colleagues in other departments and the Head of Year to see if there is an issue beyond your subject.
  • Students create an action plan for the final exams: exam dates, when they will begin revising, successful revision methods, when they will be assessed throughout the revision period to see if it’s working.
  • Book another one-to-one for 6 weeks time to see how students have got on individually. Did they bother to stick to the plan? Where’s the evidence? Did it work? How do they know? What do they now need to focus on? Is parental involvement necessary at this point?

Finally…

Don’t judge yourself as a teacher, according to the exam results in front of you. There’s a good chance that you weren’t in control of more than half of the factors that affected your students’ performances on the day.

Besides, by now giving effective feedback, you will make a huge difference to your students.

You can be proud of that.

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Encouraging College Students to Read

Encouraging college students to read

Why is encouraging college students to read so hard?

[This post contains affiliate links]

Students don’t read books anymore. Instead, they “waste” their time on social media, binge on box-sets, play video games and go out with friends. Personally, I think that sounds brilliant. They are living the dream, aren’t they? (I can’t remember the last time I did all four of those things in one week!) The forms of entertainment they pursue, though, do have one thing in common. They offer instant feedback and gratification. Books can do that too when chosen wisely. However, many college students don’t know which books will offer that short-term “buzz” which other media seems to offer so effortlessly. Encouraging college students to read is a challenge, but hopefully, a much easier one, once you’ve read the rest of this post!

I want to share with you something I’ve shared with my students over the years: I have a very limited attention span for reading books. I always have, but the key for me was not to just give up reading, it’s to read something else. When your students visit a bookshop or an online store like Amazon, they don’t know where to begin. This post is my attempt to shorten the list, to help students to choose a book, that is appropriate for their reading level, but that will stimulate their minds too.

Why should students read at all?

Of all the different forms of media, books offer students the highest quality. The best books are written by authors who have had polished their writing style to make it easily accessible. Their texts have been edited and re-edited to enhance the reading experience. When written well, they offer complete escapism. Books expand students’ experiences. Above all else, the quality control measures put in place by publishers ensure that only the best books get published. They are then reviewed and only when something is of high enough quality will it gain the attention of the masses. Oh, and books make you smarter, so encouraging the reading of books can only end well.

The same cannot always be said about some other popular forms of media. Video clips, blog posts (I include myself here) and the pseudo-journalism that seems to have invaded social media are all flawed in many senses. The result is, that if students only get their information about the world from unvetted and unedited sources, then they limit their experiences. But even worse, their idea of how the world is, or should be, can become warped. News intertwines with fake news. Celebrity endorsements take priority over rational thought. This can’t turn out well!

What books should my students read?

My students don’t read very much. In fairness, neither did I when I was their age. My reason was that I’d outgrown the children’s books I’d been reading but I had no idea where to look for books with a bit more grit. I’ve heard the same story from many students I teach. In the end, I usually recommend to them the same books year after year. This is my list. I hope you see some value in it. I won’t pretend that it’s “a list to end all lists”, in fact, it’s largely swayed by my own personal beliefs, political leanings and what I find interesting. It isn’t balanced and certainly isn’t complete!

I included a variety of fiction and non-fiction texts, but both serve the same purpose. They both teach us about ourselves and they both teach us the importance of contributing to the world. When you see the titles, this will be obvious in some cases, but perhaps not so much in others. My solution would be to read the book to find out why it made the list.

I’ve categorised these books so that if students want to read more about a particular topic, they can be directed straight to a relevant book. Some of these books are very accessible to pre-college students, but most students would need to be at least 16 years old to gain the most value from them.

 

Fiction books for college students:

The Harry Potter Series by J.K. Rowling

The Hunger Games Series by Suzanne Collins

Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaardner

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

Nineteen-Eighty-Four by George Orwell

A Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

Lord of the Flies by William Golding

To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon

My Sister’s Keeper by Jodi Picoult

The Martian by Andy Weir

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

Non-fiction books for college students:

Positive Mindset and Success:

Tools of Titans by Tim Ferriss

Understanding People:

Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari

 Leadership:

Winners by Alistair Campbell

Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg

Understanding Truth:

Freakonomics by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner

Bad Science by Ben Goldacre

Law and Politics:

The Secret Barrister: Stories Of The Law And How It’s Broken by The Secret Barrister

Chavs by Owen Jones

The Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli

Entrepreneurship:

Will It Fly? by Pat Flynn

Anything You Want by Derek Sivers

 

Finally…

Encouraging college students to read is a long game, so keep at it. Reading is one of the best ways to help students improve their understanding of themselves and of the world.

By the way, you might want to check out my post on 19 Books That Make You A Better Teacher Today.

Also, if you think I’ve left out something brilliant and that should be read by students, then you’re probably right. There’s a good chance that I haven’t read it, or I forgot to add it to the list. Just leave a reply at the end to let me know!

 

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Making New Year’s Resolutions Work

New Year's Resolutions

My New Year’s Resolutions

Each year I make New Year’s Resolutions with varying degrees of success and failure. But what I’ve learnt is that the plans I make only work when I’ve made a conscious effort to keep them. Last year I decided to start blogging and it’s been one of the most valuable and rewarding experiences of my professional and personal life. I had never blogged before and the idea of it filled me with fear and excitement in equal measure. Each week I wondered whether people would understand what I’d written, whether they would agree with me, or whether they even cared at all. It’s easy to lose motivation if you dwell on the negative “what ifs’ for too long.

This week I want to share with you some of the problems and solutions I’ve discovered over the past year. Not because I think you should copy what I’ve done, but because we all fail at times when making grand plans. Hopefully, after reading this, you can at the very least be reassured that your New Year’s Resolutions are achievable if you approach them in the right way.

Make a resolution you will be proud of

Last year I wanted a new challenge. It’s not that I was bored, or had too much time on my hands, I just wanted to squeeze a little more out of my experiences. I’d been reading a number of blogs, some on teaching, others completely unrelated. The best ones all had something in common: they shared ways to add value to the world. This, for me, was something that drew me to teaching in the first place. It’s also something I try to promote with my students when they have to choose career paths, apply for Higher Education courses, or just to find meaning in what they are doing right now. If we all tried our best to add value to the world, in whatever way we can, then we can honestly say that we are successful.

Adding value to the world isn’t always easy. That’s why we sometimes need special times like New Year in order to motivate us. But what exactly does “adding value to the world” mean? It sounds like a throwaway phrase that a politician or a celebrity might use. But it’s far from superficial. Adding value means taking what skills, knowledge and opportunities you have and putting them to use for the benefit of others. We all do this as teachers, but often we limit ourselves when faced with more challenging ways to add value. New Year is a great time to make plans to add value to what we do. Below I’ve included a brief list New Year’s resolutions you can make, to improve your students’ experience in education.

Some resolutions for you to try:

  • Personalise learning for your students in a more sophisticated way. Look at what or how individual students need to be taught, rather than what or how groups need to be taught.
  • Give your students specific opportunities to demonstrate independent learning and reward them for going above and beyond.
  • Encourage more collaboration between your students so they benefit from gaining interpersonal skills.
  • Encourage more collaboration between yourself and colleagues to improve teaching and reduce workload
  • Build stronger relationships with parents and families of your students to help support them better when they’ve left your classroom
  • Start a classroom blog with one of your classes
  • Write your own education blog or contribute a post to someone else’s blog
  • Mentor a colleague on something they find challenging but you find less challenging
  • Spend a little extra time creating a ‘perfect’ resource rather than a resource that ‘will do for now’
  • Give more instant verbal feedback and less delayed written feedback to help students progress over time
  • Learn and use a teaching method you’ve never tried before, to boost engagement by varying your approach to lessons
  • Follow some education bloggers on Twitter (I’m @guruteaching) and contribute to debates

How can I keep my New Year’s Resolutions?

Often the only way I’m able to stick to my plans is by using a support network around me to keep me on the straight and narrow. When I started blogging, for example, I made sure that my posts went straight into my social networks. That way, I knew that my friends and colleagues would ask me about how my blog was going, as they would see updated posts each week. If I missed a post, I knew that certain people would ask me why, which just made me feel guilty. It’s December now and I’ve posted several posts each month, every month since beginning.

Your New Year’s Resolutions don’t have to be posted on social media though. Find yourself an accountability partner. This is someone who will ask you the questions you don’t want to answer, so that you force yourself to keep going when you don’t feel like it. That way, when the end of the year arrives, you will be able to stand tall and say that you’ve achieved what you set out to do. Be honest here, how often can you say you were able to do that? How great will you feel?

My New Year’s Resolution this year

I’m now going to put my money where my mouth is. This year I want to create a set of infographics to put around my classroom, as cheat-sheets or how-to guides for my students. They have to be colourful, interesting to look at and above all, they must be easy to use. I have absolutely no background in design, so this will be a real challenge for me, but one that I will be proud of by the end of the year. I’m a fan of online tools and the most promising one I’ve found so far for creating infographics is Canva. I’d love to hear about any other you’ve used too. Please leave a reply below if you know of any others.

YOU are my accountability partner here and I really do want you to ask me how I’m getting on with designing my infographics during the year. Feel free to make me feel guilty on Twitter if you think I’m not sticking with it. Hopefully though, I will add value to my students’ world.

Best of luck to you and have a happy New Year,

Andy

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Top 10 Education Blogs 2016

Top 10 Education Blogs

Why I Love Education Blogs

This week I want to share with you my top 10 education blogs. I read these when I want to be inspired, to deepen my understanding, or for a quick guide on how to do something. Education blogs are a fantastic way to develop your pedagogical knowledge, learn new ways to deliver lessons and to get your head around educational research and policy. Not only that but by commenting on the posts, you can join a community of teachers (including the author) who can debate, challenge and collaborate on the things that matter the most to you and your students.

These top 10 education blogs have been absolutely crucial to my professional development over the past few years and I wouldn’t be the teacher I am today without them. In particular, they’ve helped me cut down on unnecessary tasks, thus reducing my workload. Click here to read more on how to solve the teacher workload problem.

My top 10 education blog list (which is in no particular order) comprises some that you will probably have heard of and some less well-known ones too. Do what I’ve done and subscribe to them all, so that you never miss a post.

TOP TIP: Follow these bloggers on Twitter too. You’ll read a lot more than just what they put in their posts! You can follow me on Twitter @guruteaching.

My Top 10 Education Blogs

  1.  Te@cher Toolkit
  2. Scenes From The Battleground
  3. The Learning Spy
  4. Headguruteacher
  5. Laura McInerney
  6. Learning Scientists
  7. Leading Learner
  8. Pragmatic Education
  9. The Echo Chamber
  10. Tabula Rasa 

Have a read, subscribe and send me a tweet if you think I’ve missed something important!

Also, feel free to add your own education blog address in the Leave A Reply box below, so fellow educators can easily find you.

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Measuring Progress: A Pointless Exercise?

Measuring Progress

Why measuring progress is overrated

Last time you were observed teaching a lesson, did your observer focus on ‘measuring progress’ in their feedback? What exactly did they mention? Did you believe them? Did you feel proud or ashamed of the feedback? Did either of you ‘grade’ the quality of the teaching or even the teacher? Was the amount or rate of learning measured? Was the observation a positive, or even a useful experience? Teachers across many schools have had experiences such as these. It is one of the factors contributing to a crisis in recruitment and retention of high-quality teachers across many countries. But it is a factor that can be eliminated very simply. Ban lesson observations from discussions on student progress. They simply do not work.

What does ‘progress’ even mean?

In this post, I hope to convince you that measuring progress in lesson observations is a waste of time. There, I said it. Do I have a chip on my shoulder? Yes. Why? Because students in every school are at risk of a second-rate education. This is due largely to teachers altering their lessons to ensure short-term success within a lesson, at the expense of better progress over the long-term.

There, I said it. Do I have a chip on my shoulder? Yes. Why? Because students in every school are at risk of a second-rate education. This is due largely to teachers altering their lessons to ensure short-term success within a lesson, at the expense of better progress over the long-term.

This problem is exacerbated even further during lesson observations. In many schools, the ‘rate’ or ‘amount’ of progress within the lesson is still being ‘measured’ by SLT and external inspectors alike. However, the problem with aiming for short-term success is that the long-term needs of the students are put aside. This is simply for the sake of teachers trying to demonstrate excellent progress in front of observers. After all, nobody wants to be judged as anything less than brilliant! Observations are a snapshot, a small-scale sample. They simply cannot be used as evidence of student progress.

Fortunately, many high-performing schools are taking on board ever-increasing levels of educational research, in order to raise the achievement of students. Organisations such as the Sutton Trust have researched what factors make the greatest difference to learning. Schools have developed Learning Improvement Plans in response to this research. Now it’s time for Senior Leadership Teams (SLT) to examine whether or not lesson observations are useful enough in improving student progress, to justify the problems they also generate.

So, what’s wrong with measuring progress?

To really understand this question, it’s important to go back to first principles and to ask these fundamental questions:

  1. What is the purpose of education?
  2. What role should teachers play in education?
  3. What role should students play in their own education?
  4. What else matters?

1. What is the purpose of education?

The ‘purpose’ of education, in my mind, comes down to one simple idea. Education should aim to provide a person with the knowledge and skills to ensure they are able to flourish and succeed once they have left education. In order to achieve this aim, educators should measure progress. But only when it helps education over the long-term. We should evidence the development of students’ knowledge, but there are far better methods than old-fashioned lesson observations. Monitoring student folders is far more accurate. It can’t be staged and it allows teachers to teach in their own way, using their own professional judgement to guide them.

Artificial situations have also been created by teachers, in order to ‘demonstrate’ their own teaching ‘skills’. But a teacher’s aim is to promote learning as their first priority! The cause of this mismatch in priorities is that in too many cases teachers feel they must ‘perform’ to the latest standards, or use the latest methods ‘preferred’ by external inspectors or SLT.

Finally, too many teachers provide students with everything they need in order to pass an exam. This can be useful, but only insofar as it equips the students with the skills they need after leaving school. However, students are often so spoon-fed that they don’t know how to learn or how to solve problems even though they managed to achieve good grades in their exams.

A good education system should create resilient problem-solvers. A focus on measuring progress, however, often makes teachers less likely to spend enough time on challenging tasks. This is because the task may not provide positive ‘progress’ data in time for the termly data-window when assessment results are submitted. Instead, many teachers favour shorter and less rigorous tasks, where they can demonstrate repeated intervention, rather than allowing students to learn resilience.

2. What role should teachers play in education?

There is often a debate about whether the teacher should be the ‘sage on the stage’ or the ‘guide on the side’. I don’t think it matters, so long as you change it up now and again. Students need both direct instruction and the freedom to tackle things in their own way. That way, they benefit from having an expert in the room and from having the space to be creative in how they learn. A focus on measuring progress in a lesson can sometimes interfere with this process, creating unnecessary constraints on the structure of lessons.

Teachers should be able to teach in whatever way they like, so long as by the end of the course, students are able to demonstrate that they can achieve well in the exam and go on to lead successful lives. After all, isn’t this what matters most to our students?

3. What role should students play in their own education?

Learning how to learn is arguably the most important skill a student can learn at school. It happens when we give students a variety of levels of challenge, over time, with varying levels of support. Independent learning is crucial, whether through homework or through students’ own wider reading around the subject. Students often overlook their own role in their own education. Therefore it is vital that we teach students explicitly about their own role in the learning process.

Unfortunately, though, students often overlook their own role in their education. Therefore it is vital that we teach them explicitly about this. I would even argue that it should be done before you begin teaching subject topics. That way, it won’t be viewed by the students as a simplistic reaction to a badly completed homework, or as a trendy add-on following a course we’ve been on.

One consequence of creating a culture of independent learning is that some students will do it extremely well. Sometimes my own students will turn up to a lesson, having taught themselves the topic at home.

4. What else matters?

Teachers are in education for the long haul. So are students. Observers should be too, but often they become distracted by short-term thinking, rather than planning for the future. The consequence is that lesson observations are added to the workload of teachers and SLT.

However, a quick cost-benefit analysis shows that the number of hours put into lesson observation schedules does not make enough positive difference to long-term teaching, to justify the expense. Teachers are worn out. SLT are worn out. We can’t really use the ‘data’ gathered as it doesn’t really measure progress accurately. Our paperwork is then filed away for external inspection teams. This is so that SLT can at least be seen to have tried to monitor and make an impact on student progress.

Meanwhile, lessons are taught with ‘education’ as a secondary priority.

But there is one last nail in the coffin of lesson observations: external inspectors now take less and less account of what they see in lesson observations when making judgements on progress. Sir Michael Wilshaw, an experienced headteacher and the head of Ofsted (at the time of writing), has frequently bemoaned the way that many teachers feel they ought to measure progress, often several times per lesson and especially during inspection visits. Bite-sized chunks of learning are used too often, at the expense of students taking their time on more challenging tasks. I mentioned this earlier, but you can read more about his experience in this Telegraph article.

In essence, Wilshaw views the process of measuring progress as a much more long-term one. Progress ‘measurements’ should take into account long-term data trends and evidence of students making progress over time. The individual lesson observation plays such a superficial role in the measurement of progress, that we might as well abandon it altogether.

So there you have it. If you want to measure progress then leave lesson observations out of it. They are quite frankly, not fit for purpose.

Recommended Reading

If you want to know more (from a true expert on the subject) then I recommend the brilliant book Making Good Progress (Amazon affiliate link) by Daisy Christodoulou.

Here, she gives practical advice in simple terms, based on extensive research. You’d be hard-pressed to find a better book on this subject. It’s had a huge impact on the way I teach and I know I’d be a poorer teacher without having read it.

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

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A Beginner’s Guide to Personalised Learning

Personalised Learning

Why is personalised learning so important?

Ask any group of students the question, “How do you learn best?” and there will always be at least one student who  answers differently to the others. Usually the answers vary a lot. Differentiating the way we deliver content is one of the most significant challenges to teachers today. But it is also the most crucial. The ‘challenge’ is that all students are different. Personalised Learning is THE solution.

Some students prefer problem-solving tasks. Others prefer rote-learning. Others prefer having to teach other students. Some just want to be lectured. So, how can we as teachers with a finite amount of time possibly plan for all of this, for several lessons per day, five days a week?

Easy! Only kidding. It’s never easy. However, I do want to share with you my three top tips for personalised learning which have helped me to cater for my students in a much more successful way.

Personalised Learning Tip 1: Know your students

There are few things more disheartening than spending hours planning a range of activities and producing the resources to go with them, then discovering that the students don’t want to engage with them. Or even worse, that they’ve had negative experiences with them in the past. However, you can plan for this by asking students (at the beginning of a term) how they would like their course to be delivered.

Last year I created a short questionnaire on Google Forms (it took literally five minutes), asking about the types of task my students prefer. Then, I asked which ones helped them make progress, which ones they found most difficult, etc. Finally, I emailed my students the link and received their concise yet detailed and honest feedback by the next day. Now I knew what they wanted and how I could make it work for them.

A further dimension you could explore is to ask students to evaluate their experiences so far and then to rate them. You can read more about how I get my students to rate their learning experiences in my Student Feedback post.

Personalised Learning Tip 2: Share the course outline

Students who know where they are headed and can see the checkpoints along the way will be less likely to “get lost”. They will be able to anticipate points along the way where they know that they may need more support, or conversely where they have existing knowledge. Sharing the course outline has the added advantage that students can begin completing their own Independent Learning, ahead of time on topics of their choosing. They will all naturally take different paths to the same destination.

Personalised Learning Tip 3: Students must respond to feedback

Each time a student responds to feedback in a specific way, they are personalising their own learning. Good marking holds up a mirror to the student’s own performance and provides opportunities and a structure for improvement. You’ve given your students guidance on how to remedy any weaknesses in their performance. It’s now up to them to act on it. Students build more resilience and independence when they take ownership of their learning, rather than relying on a teacher to do it for them. Higher exam results usually follow.

Let me know your thoughts, just drop me a tweet or leave a reply below.
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Reduce Marking Time

reduce marking time

What would you do if you could reduce marking time?

I’ve spent far too much time marking work. So have you. All teachers should reduce marking time. Why? Because when we reduce marking time, we can spend more time doing other things that either make us better teachers or just better people in general. Students automatically benefit from either of those results, as they are then educated by someone who is less tired, more patient and has more life experiences to draw from in lessons, due to all the leisure time they have freed up. Sound good? Then read on…

Since I specialise in essay-based subjects, the marking of each piece is often extremely time-consuming and it can really drain my brain. There’s nothing more soul-destroying than finishing my day teaching, only to glance at my pile of marking and realise that I still have hours to go. This can’t continue. Heavy teacher workload is bad for morale and my marking has in the past been put off for just long enough that when students finally receive the feedback, the work has been forgotten.

Remember I mentioned about the importance of feedback being timely when I wrote about it a few weeks ago? If you missed it, then just click here.

So, after many months of trying out different ways to reduce my workload, without reducing the quality of my teaching,  I’ve settled on a simple solution that works well for me but most importantly, my students.

I’ve managed to reduce marking time by several hours per week!

This post is a simple guide to marking. It won’t increase workload, is easy to implement and the students benefit from it more than so-called ‘traditional’ methods of marking. It can be used instead of comment-based marking, or as a complimentary method (which is how I use it).

I use this method as a complementary method to comment-based marking as there is still a place for that. However, students sometimes need very specific advice. When that is the case, this method may not always be the best fit. I’ll leave that to your professional judgement – you know your students best!

So, what is my magical method? Using a MARKING CODE to reduce marking time.

What is a marking code?

I often end up writing the same or very similar comments over and over again. By using a code to represent the most common comments, I’ve saved myself a lot of time. The codes that I use are pretty generic, but you can tailor them to specific marking criteria. Sometimes, this enables students to make more progress. Again, I’ll leave that up to you!

The marking code is simple. All you do is write an abbreviation of a comment instead of writing the whole comment each time. For example, instead of writing “evaluate the strengths of this argument” you could just write “ev st”. So long as the student understands what your abbreviation means, they will be able to act on it and improve their performance.

To help my students understand the codes I’ve written on their work, I have created a code sheet which they can stick into their books and folders, to refer to when responding to feedback. This sheet contains the most common codes I use. When I’ve used codes that aren’t on the sheet, as they are very specific to the task completed, I plan a “responding to feedback” activity in lesson time, where I explain the new codes and give students the opportunity to respond to the feedback there and then.

My marking code

My students have found my codes to be just as useful as having longer comments written down. However, in some cases, my codes have actually been better any comment I could have written. This is because my students are forced to think for themselves about what would improve their work, rather than having me literally spell it out for them. A further consequence of this is is that my students have also become far more independent and self-aware. In turn, this has led to them being able to produce much better quality work later in the course, as they are able to anticipate the codes that I might mark their work with. They have become better writers and are able to self-edit as they go along.

Codes I use to reduce marking time

Sp – Spelling error

Gr – Grammatical error

P – Create new paragraph

Exp – Explain this further

Eg – Add an example

Sch – Add a scholar’s view

Ev St – Evaluate the strengths of this argument

Ev W – Evaluate the weaknesses of this argument

Comp – Compare this with an alternative viewpoint

WR – Show evidence of wider reading

Con – Make connections with other elements of the course

Conc – Add a conclusion

How will this decrease my existing workload?

Use these codes to reduce marking time INSTEAD of writing comments or long-winded feedback paragraphs. That way, you will spend less time putting pen to paper. If you think that students might not fully understand your codes, then spend five minutes in a follow-up lesson to help them understand. That five minutes in a lesson is far shorter than the extra thirty minutes you might have spent, essentially writing the exact some things down in full sentences. Better still, each time you use the codes, students will become more and more familiar with them. Consequently, you will spend less and less time in lessons going through feedback.

Now over to you

I’ve already used the codes to reduce marking time and improve my workload. Will you do the same? Perhaps you have an even better system? Either way, I’d love to know your thoughts. As usual drop me a tweet or leave a comment!

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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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