How to Teach and Encourage Independent Study Skills

Independent Study

How to Teach and Encourage Independent Study Skills

This article was written for SecEd magazine and first published in September 2019.  You can read the original version on the SecEd website here.

There are some students who have such a broad and deep knowledge of some topics that it is difficult to teach them. This “nice problem” stems from the fact that those students study in their own time, independently of the work we give them as teachers.

It adds up. Students who routinely learn outside of the classroom build up a body of knowledge and make connections between these pieces of knowledge. The effect is that they are better equipped to solve problems and to analyse or evaluate with accuracy and fluency. In studying independently, students effectively multiply the amount of time they spend learning, compared with those who rely solely on classroom teaching.

According to multiple studies (which you can find in Meyer’s 2010 paper) independent learning benefits students in their acquisition of knowledge, the ability to judge accurately their own competency, it builds confidence and it increases engagement. As Meyer suggests, though, these effects are experienced differently by different groups of students, depending upon their individual contexts.

So, the question is, how should we teach independent learning skills so that all students achieve the maximum benefit? Below are some strategies worth considering.

Create the right conditions

Creating the conditions for developing independent learners is vital. Without particular attention being paid to this, you leave it to chance as to whether students will acquire the skills they need. To do this, you need to understand the barriers that well-meaning students have to overcome, in order to be truly independent.

First, there needs to be an environment where independent learning can actually take place. This means that there should be (a) access to information, (b) a lack of distractions and (c) space to make sense of the information in order to learn it.

For many students, this simply means (a) internet access, (b) leave your mobile phone in a different room and (c) have a desk to sit at to write down what you have learnt.

However, there is more to it than that. Access to information is only possible if students know how to search for it. Lack of distractions is not only from electronic devices, it can be social distractions in their lives. And many students do not even have a desk at home.

We might want students to be truly independent, but some will automatically find it easier, due to social factors beyond both their and our control. This is where building a home-school relationship is important. Parents might not always appreciate the impact that the home has on their child’s education, or might not know what to prioritise in order to help their child.

It is not a teacher’s job to tell a parent how to bring up their children, but it can sometimes be helpful to suggest things “that have worked for students in the past” in order to nudge parents towards positive changes they could make.

This is controversial, but my experience has been that parents are grateful to receive such guidance (when it is phrased carefully). Having a good, pre-existing relationship with those parents pays off, as they will more likely trust your advice, rather than see it as an attack on their parenting.

Provide sufficient motivation

Students who are motivated enough to complete independent study do so because they see v­alue in it. This can come down to a number of factors. Perhaps the teacher has explained well how the students stand to benefit from it. Maybe the students themselves have seen first-hand the benefits of doing it. Or there may be other factors such as parenting that could be nudging the students in the right direction. More often than not though, it is a combination.

Ultimately, students need to see that independent study is an essential part of their education, not just an “optional” addition to it.

Unfortunately, many students from disadvantaged backgrounds do not experience these positive influences as often as some of their peers. The disadvantage is then compounded further, as the gap widens between the haves and the have-nots.

Motivating the least advantaged students should, therefore, be where the focus lies for us as teachers. Just as we would scaffold responses to challenging in-class tasks, we should also scaffold our guidance on independent study.

  • Step 1: Break down what it means, what it looks like when done properly and then demonstrate visibly a successful outcome. Getting students to buy into the value of independent learning is crucial, as they will be more likely to pay attention to the next step.
  • Step 2: Give students a brief taste of independent study, followed by positive but meaningful feedback on their efforts. Remember, students will be more motivated to study independently if they have already experienced success with it in the past, no matter how small the success was. Building small-scale independence into your weekly routine with the students will give them a huge edge by the time the stakes are raised, further on in their school careers. At this point, what is being done is less important than the fact that something is being done at all. Building good routines is essential.
    Increase students’ attention span

A major reason why students are sometimes poor at independent study is the lack of time-parameters. How long should independent study take? How long should study sessions last? One way to mitigate this is to teach students to work for short intervals, followed by a short break.

The Pomodoro Technique, created by Francesco Cirillo in the 1980s, is a good method to use for this. Students will not be as likely to plough on for too long. Conversely, they will not be put off by the prospect of long and arduous study sessions.

Independent study techniques

Promoting some effective independent study techniques with your students should also help.

Low-stakes quizzes: Low-stakes quizzes are one of the most effective study methods you could use. Simply reading your revision notes will not have anywhere near the same impact on learning as students can fool themselves into thinking they have understood and memorised content when they have not. Students can design quizzes on their own, can pair up with each other, or can access paid or even free quizzes online.

Flash cards: Flash cards are one adaptation of these low-stakes quizzes, with many students turning to online platforms such as Quizlet to create or download topic or even course-specific sets. The best thing about using these low-stakes quizzes is that you can accurately track your progress. You can read more on the research evidence for this method via the Chartered College of Teaching (2019).

Flipped learning: Another independent learning technique students should experience is flipped learning. You can implement this in a simple way. Over the course of a scheme of work, tell students what they will be learning about in the following lesson. Then ask them if they can find out one piece of information about the topic, to bring to the next lesson. Invariably, some will find things out and some will not. Reward those who do and have a conversation with those who did not about why they struggled.

Sometimes these students just need a little guidance on where to look, or what type of thing they should do. Others might just be a little lazy and need to see that there really is value in doing it. One way to get students to see the value of doing it is to get them to highlight the information they gained by independent study in the work they later produce.

This is also a good way for you to see at-a-glance who is and who is not doing it. But whatever happens, each lesson, ask everyone to find out something else for the next topic. It gives them all a chance to start over and either begin doing it, or improve how they do it.

Practice exam papers: Practice papers are vital when preparing for exams such as GCSEs and A levels, where vast amounts of knowledge are tested. Part of the reason why some students underperform in exams is that they are not familiar enough with the exam conditions.

Getting students to attempt whole papers, or even individual sections of papers can be invaluable. It highlights gaps in knowledge (almost immediately) and helps students to understand how much time they should spend on different types of question. Exam boards all have specimen and past paper exams available on their websites.

The cost of independent study

Independent study requires students to spend time that they could otherwise be spending doing directed homework tasks. Or going to the park. Or sleeping. Sometimes, therefore, we should bear in mind that if we focus too much on promoting independent learning, it might end up being to the detriment of other things. For some students, it might be one burden too many. About this, we should be mindful.

That being said, I am yet to find students who have suffered from too much independent study. So, with perhaps the odd exception, we should keep promoting it.

Black Box Thinking for Teachers

Black Box Thinking for Teachers

What is “Black Box Thinking”?

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

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

How does black box thinking apply in education?

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

When teaching doesn’t work…

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

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

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

When the “data” doesn’t add up…

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

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

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

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

But the students hadn’t memorised the quotes.

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

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

Why do your students fail?

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

Let’s look at why three particular students failed:

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

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

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

Action points for “Black Box” teachers

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

Final thoughts…

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

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

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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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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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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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