Observations

I recently posted 5 pieces of advice on the @starterforfive blog. Several tweeters took issue with the advice. While I don’t mind healthy debate or people disagreeing with me I don’t feel that those that were taking issue get what I’m about. Hence this post.

Firstly I am going to post some links to some previous blogposts about observations for the purpose of giving context and to avoid repetition (earliest first). Everyone’s view of observations will be coloured by their experiences of observations…

https://mylifeasacynicalteacher.wordpress.com/2013/11/09/my-experiences-of-mocksteds/

https://mylifeasacynicalteacher.wordpress.com/2013/11/17/my-experiences-of-ofsted/

https://mylifeasacynicalteacher.wordpress.com/2013/11/19/my-positive-experiences-of-being-observed/

https://mylifeasacynicalteacher.wordpress.com/2013/11/27/observations-what-are-they-for-what-is-the-point-of-them-at-the-moment-what-should-they-be-for/

https://mylifeasacynicalteacher.wordpress.com/2014/01/21/how-outstanding-is-outstanding/

https://mylifeasacynicalteacher.wordpress.com/2014/11/01/the-fallout-from-ofsted/

https://mylifeasacynicalteacher.wordpress.com/2015/05/30/dialogue-during-observations-what-new-torture-is-this/

To be honest I was initially surprised by the negative reaction until I realised 3 things:

  1. Most of the people taking issue with it were members of SLT
  2. They were saying that THEIR school wasn’t like that or that THEY as SLT members weren’t like that
  3. They were saying that observations SHOULDN’T be like that.

In actual fact what they were doing was personalising the post and turning it into a criticism of them or their school. That was not my intention. I think they may also have misunderstood the intent behind my advice as well. I also think they may have been reading things into my advice that I did not actually say because there have been so many blogposts over such a long period of time complaining about observations. This is a summary of what I meant.

  1. Find out what the observers are looking for- I don’t see how this is controversial. My school has a focus. It has a school improvement plan. There is a departmental improvement plan. Observers will often focus on these things in their observations and in their feedback. Individual observers have their foibles and preferences just like anyone else. Of course nobody is supposed to have preferred teaching styles any more. Anyone who genuinely believes that they or anyone else doesn’t have preferences is living in fantasy land. It’s worth knowing what the preferences are.
  2. Give them what they want- If you know what observers are going to be looking for why would you not show those things? If something is in the Departmental or School improvement plan then why would you not make sure that you do it and do it well? If an observer prefers a certain style of teaching or lessons or ways of managing behaviour why not do it that way? The NQT year is HARD. Why create additional levels of difficulty unnecessarily?
  3. Don’t confuse a great observation with great teaching. All too often they’re not the same thing at all-  Observations are highly subjective. I’ve had very positive feedback from lessons I have thought were ok. but no better. I’ve had very negative feedback from lesson I thought went ok too. This happens more often when being observed by non-subject specialists and people who don’t know the kids very well. Great teaching happens over time. It’s what you do day in and day out over a long period. A great observation can be indicative that great teaching is taking place but it certainly isn’t the same thing. I know many teachers that can turn out a great observation that really struggle to reproduce that standard day in day out.
  4. A great observation is one after which the outcome is you being left alone to get on with the job of teaching- I find that the frequency with which new teachers are observed/supported/dropped in on is directly related to how well they are doing. Is this not the case everywhere? It’s certainly my experience.
  5. A bad observation is one that necessitates further observations- In my experience even when feedback is negative unless there is some sort of follow up observation resulting from the negative observation it wasn’t that bad.  It’ generally only been the worst of my observations that have resulted in a follow up observation.

In my current school they have recently moved away from doing full, graded lesson observations towards a system of 10 minute drop ins. It’s supposed to be supportive, non-judgemental, formative and collaborative. I think it eventually will be. The person leading on it is very good and having discussed it with SLT it is clear that they want it to be successful. I have played a not insignificant role in advocating and pushing for the changes and have invested what capital I have in the new system. I have made my suggestions and I think they have been taken on board and we will move to a system that is pretty close to how I would do it if I were in charge in the reasonably near future.

Some issues remain though:

  1. Staff are used to their pay progression being dependent on very high stakes, judgemental graded observations. There are still a lot of performance lessons going on and limited trust in the system
  2. Some middle and senior leaders are not conducting the learning walks or giving feedback in the agreed way. This is being addressed as a training need and hopefully will be sorted out in the near future.
  3. When things don’t go as they should staff tend to keep it to themselves or address it through their union (eventually) rather than at the time and through SLT. This has led to SLT only hearing the positive and having a slightly false rosy picture of how it is going (The staff are positive about the change but not universally so and the system is not without flaws)
  4. There are still a minority of people using observations to grind axes and push agendas.
  5. The observations are almost exclusively done by post holders. This is changing slowly but there is still a long way to go.

I have personally had no negative experiences of being observed in the last 2-3 years. I have also had little feedback that has made me any better at teaching. The best thing about the observations has been the discussion afterwards about teaching maths (when I’ve been observed by a Maths teacher). That could happen without the observation though.

The best system of observations I have experienced was entirely informal. Every member of the department would sit in the back of someone else’s lesson doing their marking during frees and then have a chat about the lesson afterwards.

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Dialogue during observations-What new torture is this?

I have read a couple of blogposts about observers offering feedback or intervening in lessons during the lesson being observed. After I had ranted at my partner about what an awful idea this is and how I would down tools if it happened to me again she suggested that I write a blogpost rant instead.

Before going on at length about why this is a bad idea I will say what conditions would have to be in place to make this acceptable to me:

  1. All observations would have to be conducted by someone whose opinion on how to teach Mathematics I respect.
  2. All observations would have to be conducted by someone whose feedback on the teaching of Mathematics I value.
  3. Any dialogue or intervention that occurs would have to be subtle and unobtrusive so as not to undermine my credibility or disrupt my lesson.
  4. If, when and how any possible intervention is going to take place would have to be agreed and it would have to be my decision whether or not it actually happened. If I can’t veto their intervention I don’t want any interventions taking place.

I’ve written several blogposts about my experiences of observations and the various senior leaders I have worked with over the years. I have come to the conclusion that while many of them are nice people and most of them are competent at at leat some aspects of their jobs I don’t really want them in my room. I don’t want to be observed by most of them. No good ever comes of it. I don’t want their feedback. It’s rarely any use to me. I want to be left alone to get on with the job of teaching.

I tolerate these interlopers in my classroom disturbing the learning environment because I have to but I’m not obliged to like it.

Almost every time an observer has decided to contribute to one of my lessons in some way it has either been disruptive, undermining or both. Rarely has it ever made the lesson go any better.

I think my main issue with this idea is simple. It assumes that the observer knows what a lesson needs better than the teacher does. Lets look at that assumption for a minute:

  • Does the observer know the dynamics of the class better than the teacher? Unlikely.
  • Does the observer know the various needs and issues of the pupils in the class better than the teacher? Unlikely
  • Does the observer know what the pupils in the class are capable of better than the teacher? Unlikely
  • Does the observer know more about the subject material being delivered than the teacher? possibly if they are a subject specialist.
  • Does the observer know more about the best way to get the pupils in the class to understand the material? Possibly if they are a subject specialist.

I do not believe that most observers would know best if they were observing one of my lessons. There are only a handful of colleagues I have worked with that I would have been happy to have contributing to or intervening in a lesson during an observation. Each one has been an excellent maths teacher, someone I trusted to act in my best interests and someone whose opinion on teaching Maths was valuable to me.

I have worked with far too many middle and senior leaders that I would not, for a variety of reasons, have wanted intervening directly in one of my lessons during an observation. The ones I would not want commenting on or intervening in a lesson far outnumber the ones where I wouldn’t mind.

As I don’t see how it would be possible for staff to choose which observers can and cannot intervene in a lesson during an observation that is not problematic in some way I think I would hate an observation system like this. Unless there is  a serious issue with the behaviour of the pupils, the safety of the pupils or the professionalism of the teacher, that needs addressing immediately, feedback can wait until after the lesson.

Differentiation- a follow up post

It took me an unconscionably long time to understand that different people mean different things by the term differentiation.

I went into my first proper job thinking that if you planned lessons that catered to the needs of all your pupils and gave all of them the opportunity to make progress then you were differentiating. The goal was to maximise the progress each pupil made in the lesson.

Provided the level of the work and the resources used were appropriate for the students I viewed pupils not behaving properly, not listening or not doing enough work as a behaviour management problem rather than a problem of differentiation. Unfortunately at that time my behaviour management was not great. The effect of this was compounded by the general behaviour in the school being appalling, the processes for dealing with behaviour ineffective and the leadership team disinterested in dealing with poor behaviour (and often ineffective on those occasions where they did actually attempt to do something).

What confused me at the time and interests me now is that the school considered inadequate differentiation in my lessons to be more of a problem than my behaviour management. Differentiation was frequently mentioned as an area for improvement in my lesson feedback and for a long time I failed to understand why. I was setting work that every pupil was capable of doing. I was providing support and extension work for those that needed it. I had different resources for those that needed them. Nobody was able to adequately explain what they wanted in terms of differentiation.

Finally it clicked. I was planning lessons that pupils would be able to access if they listened and tried. I viewed it as my job to find ways to make them listen and make them try to enable them to access the work. I was giving them tasks that required a bit of thought sometimes. Those that didn’t listen could not do the work. Those that didn’t want to try would get “stuck”. They’d get “bored” and start messing about. In my eyes the problem was that I was not able to get some pupils to listen and/or try. I was not succeeding in my attempts to deter pupils from messing about.

In the eyes of the school the problem was largely one of planning. A lesson in which pupils struggled if they did not listen was “too ambitious”. It showed that I did not know the ability of the class. A lesson in which pupils were required to think was “too ambitious” or “unrealistic” in terms of what the pupils were being asked to do. If pupils misbehaved because they “didn’t get it”,  “the work was too hard”, “too easy” or “boring” it was a failure of planning. The pupils reasons for not working were always taken at face value.

What they meant by “differentiation” was that lessons should be planned to minimise poor behaviour rather than to maximise learning. If there were behaviour issues in the lesson that this was put almost entirely down to poor planning of the lesson.

All of the training and support given on planning and behaviour was about how to keep the pupils entertained rather than how to get them learning or doing what they were told. If anything following the advice given in that training made the behaviour in my lessons worse. Fortunately my department had some excellent managers of behaviour in it so I learned from and was supported by them.

This had an enormous impact on how I planned lessons before I learned how to manage behaviour. The goal was to get pupils from the beginning of the lesson to the end without ever having to listen, be stuck, think about how to answer a question for more than 2 seconds or  do anything they might find challenging (unless it was the sort of student who enjoyed challenge in which case challenge had to be provided). If they learned something that was great but nobody seemed to have much of a problem with it if they didn’t provided they behaved.

Even when my behaviour management improved the prevailing view was that if you had to set detentions or send pupils out then this was a failure on your part to plan a sufficiently engaging and properly differentiated lesson. This meant that any teacher wishing to be viewed positively by the leadership team or ambitious for promotion planned their lessons with behaviour at the forefront of their thinking with learning a distant second unless they were an excellent manager of behaviour or the pupils were scared of them.

The only teachers I’m aware of that did not plan in this way much of the time were the ones the pupils were scared of.

I thought when I moved to a better school I was leaving all that behind me. Sadly not.

In my next school the behaviour was better. The way the school dealt with poor behaviour was better. The results were much better. The view of differentiation was much the same though. It just caused fewer problems because the behaviour in the school was pretty good most of the time. If you were a reasonable or good manager of behaviour then the behaviour in your lessons would be fine most of the time. The pupils were largely compliant but many were disaffected and did as little work as they could get away with.

The NQTs really struggled with behaviour. This was partly to do with a lack of clarity in the systems and procedures for dealing with behaviour. Most of the NQTs simply did not know what they were supposed to deal with themselves, what they were supposed to refer upwards or two whom they were supposed to refer it. The behaviour policy was extremely vague and whenever anyone asked they were just referred back to the policy most of the time. There was also a very real fear of being judged if they asked for support with behaviour. This was hugely damaging. I tried to support them in a similar way to the way I was supported when I started out.

NQTs that had problems with behaviour in their lessons were often given criticised for or given support with their differentiation, planning and resourcing of lessons rather than training or support in managing behaviour. In my opinion this not only damaged the standard of education their pupils were receiving in the long run but also slowed their development as teachers where classroom management was concerned.

If the proposed solution to poor pupil behaviour is “easier lessons” or “more engaging lessons” then it speaks volumes about the priorities of a school. If a reasonably well planned and differentiated lesson doesn’t work because of poor behaviour then to suggest “more differentiation” as the solution is bonkers.

One observation I was doing an algebra revision lesson just before a mock exam. I had algebra packs on a range of topics ranging from simple linear equations to simultaneous equations with a quadratic on each table and pupils had to choose in their pairs which they wanted to revise. The overwhelming majority of pupils worked really well. 2 did not. They were convinced they were A* students and should do the hardest questions when they couldn’t. When they struggled to complete the hardest pack rather than choosing an easier one, looking up how to do the work in a textbook or their exercise book or even listening to a brief explanation they loudly proclaimed that my lesson was **** and refused to work until I had no choice but to give them detention.

In my feedback session I said that I was disappointed that they had not worked and that I had to set them detentions for lack of work and disruptive behaviour. I said I would ensure they did the work in detention. The observer said I had not considered that their preferred learning style was kinaesthetic, that I should have differentiated for their preferred learning style, that I should have known that they would behave in that way when faced with challenging work and planned for their reaction to avoid the confrontation. I pointed out that my plan of monitoriing their work and effort and giving them detention if they did not do enough work was planning for their behaviour. Judgement: Requires improvement…

What that feedback in essence says is that if a child is lazy that should be differentiated for and that if a child is a giant pain in the posterior that should also be differentiated for. Why? Are these now considered special needs?

Are we really saying that if a child is lazy or poorly behaved then giving them easier work is a better option than making them work or making them behave? If a child is lazy and we reward their laziness with less or easier work then what message does that send to the rest of the pupils?

My current school is a very good school yet a significant proportion of the teachers I’ve seen teach strip much of the challenge out of their lessons.

Planning and differentiation can have an enormous impact on pupil behaviour. Of course they can. I’m not suggesting otherwise. If the lesson is too demanding or not demanding enough then poor behaviour is more likely. If pupils cannot access a lesson the likelihood of poor behaviour is increased. However that does not mean that all poor behaviour is caused by poor planning or a lack of differentiation.

In every school I have worked in a significant proportion of some teacher’s planning and differentiation is motivated by a fear of poor behaviour (and a fear of being judged as a result).

Too many teachers plan lessons that are less demanding than what we know the pupils are capable of. When we know that pupils could do something if they listen and if they try but we also know that some of them won’t listen or won’t try the temptation is always there to avoid the behaviour problems by avoiding the topic or dumbing it down. I still find myself doing it sometimes.

I decided years ago that I was going to plan every lesson assuming all pupils were going to behave and do their best and that I would deal with it if they didn’t. Initially the behaviour was very difficult and the learning dropped off a cliff but over time two things happened. The first was that my classroom management improved beyond all measure. The second was that the pupils started to not only learn more but become more self-sufficient. Giving them permission to be stuck and trying to shift their view of what it means to struggle with something or be stuck on a question slowly changed their attitude to the subject and to hard work.

Too many teachers, in my experience, seem to view differentiation as compulsively avoiding any situation where a pupil might become stuck. We hold their hands, spoon feed them and give them very little thinking time before intervening. Some of us don’t even know or recognise we’re doing it until it’s pointed out.

If we “differentiate” away the difficulty in our lessons we deny pupils the opportunity to experience successfully struggling with something difficult by themselves. We deny them the sense of accomplishment that comes with figuring out something really difficult and we ensure that if they come across something they can’t do in the exam (and they probably will) they will be ill equipped to deal with it.

I find pupils arrive in Year 7 willing to attempt challenging questions and willing to have a go at things they don’t get. That might suggest that things are different in primary schools. Their willingness to risk failure, looking stupid or getting things wrong decreases the longer they are in secondary school for. This is often the case across the entire spectrum of ability. While puberty and peer pressure play a part in this I think the way we teach plays a big part too.

Things Michaela School may wish to think about

In my previous post I described my visit to Michaela School. The visit was very positive and I was very impressed with the school.

I’m not so arrogant that I think I could run the school (or maths department for that matter) better than they are being run but I do have a few issues and suggestions the school may wish to consider. Many of them the school may have already considered and almost certainly are already aware of but I’m going to offer my unsolicited advice anyway.

Having met some of the staff of the school I’m confident this will be taken in the spirit it is meant.

Routines:

In my experience routines that work with a small number of pupils can fall down or require amending when the number of pupils increases. This is particularly true of routines involving a lot of staff members. The end of break time and lunch time routines may need changing as it may be difficult to make them work with fewer staff members per pupil. SLT are likely to be spread thinner as the school grows.

The narrow corridors are likely to result in bottle necks even if all pupils observe the rule about walking on the left because the stair cases are fairly wide so when pupils go from the wide stair case to the narrow corridor the school may find it quite slow going. There are various way of addressing this. A one way system for the staircases might help but having a slightly (2-5 minutes) staggered end to lessons so Year 7 can get to their next lesson and line up outside before the larger children are let out of their lesson would probably have more impact. This is unlikely to be a significant issue next year but might start to become a problem as the school grows.

It’s worth considering whether a routine that works well with 120 pupils will still be practical when you have 600 or more and planning how the routines will evolve as the school grows. This can help avoid persisting with a system that is unlikely to continue working and pre-empt problems that are fairly predictable.

The Curriculum:

While I agree with and have long been an advocate of a knowledge based mastery curriculum it is not without it’s issues. One of those issues is the difficulty of curriculum mapping.

The idea that pupils do not move on from a topic until they understand it, can reliably do it and have retained it makes mapping out the curriculum significantly more challenging.

By mapping out the curriculum I mean having a detailed plan for which students are going to have covered what and by when. One of the advantages Michaela School has is that Schemes of work and curricula are being devised from scratch or incorporating existing work elsewhere that they perceive as excellent. This means a lot of work for the people creating the schemes of work as there are a lot of one person departments. It also means there is no need for compromises or disagreements between department members about how it all should work.

I think it would be worth each subject looking at the entire GCSE curriculum and deciding for each topic which ability groups will study that topic and when. This has several elements to it.

  1. What did the pupils arrive with us knowing or being able to?
  2. What grade/number/letter in the new assessment system de jour do we want pupils of each ability group to get at the end of Year 11 (or 13)?
  3. What do they need to know or be able to do to get that grade/number?
  4. What are they going to learn and when that will get them from one to the other?

Obviously in a system where the class does not move on until they have mastered something different pupils and different classes will get through topics and different speeds but a good scheme of work can allow for that.

Having this progression pathway mapped out would go some way to addressing one of my concerns about assessment that I will come on to later. Levels have been scrapped but the new system for assessing pupils at the end of Year 6 will if anything leave us even less informed about what pupils can and can’t do (and that is quite an achievement in my opinion) and who knows what “3 levels of progress” will turn into? Either way having the progression pathway that ensures pupils can jump through whatever hoops are placed in their path (and the path of the school) can only make life easier for everyone.

While I understand the schools view about doing things because OFSTED want to see them the fact is that in the absence of much data the schemes of work are going to come under closer scrutiny than they otherwise would. That being the case it wouldn’t hurt for the scheme of work to show clear rigour and differentiated progression pathways for the pupils of different abilities.

I also think it’s a good idea anyway and something I have long wanted to do myself. Having always been frustrated by working in schools with separate KS3 and KS4 schemes of work that don’t necessarily join up very well and aren’t always coherent I would love to have the opportunity to write a better one. I’ve considered doing one but it wouldn’t get used in my school so while I’ve started making one many times it usually gets abandoned. Every school I have worked in has had some topics that are not covered enough, some too much, some topics are taught too soon (with low ability pupils particularly) and we often discover knowledge gaps once we start the GCSE. It ought to be possible to avoid these issues. I would also recommend that as much planning of the schemes of work for future years happens this year as possible. As more pupils arrive nobody is likely to wind up with more free time. More management responsibilities will, if anything, reduce HoDs time available to get this sort of thing done.

Bodil has already decided what she wants pupils to know by the end of year 7. I would do the same for Year 8-11 as well but have different ones for each level of ability in each year group starting from Year 11 and working backwards. That gives a framework on which to build a scheme of work.

I would also spend a fair bit of time teaching exam technique in all subjects. Every year we have pupils (especially pupils that are EAL or have poor literacy) that fail because they struggle to decode the questions or struggle to understand what the question is asking for despite having the maths knowledge needed to pass. If they were taught how to do this from year 7 their chances would be significantly better in my opinion.

Assessment:

I like the self-quizzing and I like the end of unit online tests that I saw when I visited the school. The school may well be complimenting these with many other forms of assessment but I did not see those. As such some of these questions may be redundant. The school may well have the answers to these questions but the following occurred to me:

  1. End of topic tests may tell you whether pupils have learned the topic but do you know 2 weeks, a month or 6 months later whether they have retained it?
  2. Will pupils, parents or an inspection team understand that a pupil who gets 80% one week and 30% the next might have made progress. They like their numbers to go ever upwards…
  3. If pupils can retake tests in the computer lab or at home then how do you know it is their work and the result a true reflection of their ability.
  4. How do you judge using the percentages whether a pupil is heading towards the grade/number you want them to get?
  5. How will the assessment system feed into target or predicted grades (numbers?)?
  6. Would it be possible for a pupil to get good marks on all their end of unit tests (after retakes?) for 5 years and then get a bad grade (with no causal disaster or extenuating circumstances)?
  7. Would it be possible for a pupil to appear to making progress when they were not?
  8. Would it be possible for a pupil that is making progress to appear as though they are not?
  9. How will you generate the big picture of what each pupils knows at the moment in each subject?

The biggest issue for me is how do you know whether pupils are making the expected progress or not? With the demise of levels there will be a new system of judging expected progress. It is highly likely to be as ridiculous as the last but we will all be judged against it. A way will have to be found to marry up your system with that system. That could be tricky.

This is where having an evolving over time curriculum map would be a massive help as it would be much easier to see and much easier to show where pupils are and where they are headed in relation to whatever the new “3 levels of progress” might be.

SLT and Middle Leaders

One of the better managers I have worked with once told me that when considering introducing a new policy think about the following:

  1. What difference will it make?
  2. How much better is it than the existing system?
  3. Is that worth the extra work?
  4. When will you evaluate it?
  5. How will you know if it is successful?

When evaluating a new policy consider:

  1. You have introduced your policy…so what?
  2. What impact has it made?
  3. How do you know?

I have found thinking about these questions helpful in the past and recommend considering these questions regularly.

I wish the staff and pupils of Michaela school every success and will be following their progress with interest

My visit to Michaela School

When I got to Wembley Park Station I somehow managed to not see the massive sign for the school opposite the station and ended up wandering around near the stadium for about 15 minutes before I eventually found the school.

The office staff were very welcoming and pleasant and I had a nice chat with the Head teacher (@Miss_Snuffy) before going to see a Maths lesson. I watched the end of break time routine which was interesting. Each of the four tutor groups lined up. When the tutor group nearest the door was lined up perfectly they were sent to their lesson. This takes a little while but I think it is probably worth spending 5 minutes ensuring that pupils are calm and in the right frame of mind to learn before going to their lesson after break. I wonder whether the routine will be sustainable as the school grows.

When I went into the lesson there were clearly established routines for taking in homework and giving out books that worked extremely well and were very efficient. All the pupils had done their homework and it appeared to me that they had done it pretty well.

The pupils were doing a test for much of the lesson. The test was a multiple choice test that they were doing on tablets. They were all expected to do their working out in their books and there were clear expectations about how the working out would be presented that all but one of the pupils followed. All the pupils were engaged and working in silence. The tests are self-marking and the feedback is instant. Two of the first 3 pupils to finish had 95% and then had to go through their work and find their error. The test was sufficiently challenging that it took me a little while to find the error (not reading the question fully and thus not simplifying one of the answers).

I then went on a tour of the school with another visitor and two of the pupils that had finished their tests. The pupils guiding us were very articulate, bright and friendly so I was surprised to discover that one of them is quite shy. They told us what they had been learning in all the subjects we visited and myself and other visitor, noting how confident and bright they were, gave them something of a grilling.

I was particularly impressed by the intelligent and considered responses they gave to our questions about Rudyard Kipling’s poem if-. They told us the entire school had learnt the poem off by heart so I thought it would be interesting to ask them some questions about it.

We had quite a lengthy discussion about which bits they agreed with and which they didn’t and why. The level of analysis and interpretation that they responded to our questioning with was fantastic. This is especially true because I was playing devil’s advocate a little bit and throwing them a few curve balls. I found myself wondering if they would be able to analyse a poem they didn’t know off by heart as well. I don’t know. Perhaps an English teacher can tell me.

As part of the tour they took us to the computer lab and showed us what they do for homework. One of our guides showed us Times Table Rock Stars. I haven’t used times table rock stars much recently and was unaware of the website having only used the paper version. Our guide answered 65 questions in a minute whilst talking to us and only made one mistake (a typo rather than a mathematical error). I suspect that had she not been multi-tasking she would have been about as quick as me. We then had a quick wander through the classroom of @joe_kirby  where the lesson was about cautionary tales. It seemed pretty demanding for a year 7 class but the pupils were engaged and there was some decent answers coming from the pupils.

They also showed us a couple of other websites they can use for homework including how they can access the tests they have done in their lesson online so they can try to do it again if they have not got 100%.

At this point we had a cup of tea and a chat with the Head of Maths (@Bodiluk) about the school generally and Maths specifically. Bodil is impressive in many ways. I am slightly concerned that she is taking a lot of work and responsibility on herself that should probably be shared but her concern for her department’s workload and work/life balance is admirable. I like that levels have been scrapped. I think the way that pupils are being assessed instead in Maths (and as I understand it across the school) is good but possibly flawed (what system isn’t) in some ways. That being said scrapping levels and replacing them in the way they have is brave and I will be interested to see the outcomes and what OFSTED think. I will be outlining some concerns and offering some unsolicited advice in my next post. The way pupils are being taught (as described by Bodil) is not dissimilar to how I teach and the main difference appears to be in the curriculum. There is a much greater focus on numeracy, number facts and number bonds than I am used to. I think this has real benefits and those benefits could be seen by how quickly, easily and naturally pupils were able to use number facts to answer questions. Typically my pupils, particularly the lower ability ones, would take far longer to answer similar questions because they would be held up by their poor numeracy.

We then went to lunch. Of everything I saw at Michaela School the lunchtime routine was the thing I liked the most. Every table had up to six students and an adult sitting at it. My table had 5 students sitting at it. Two of them were very shy but warmed to me over lunch. The others were very confident and chatty. They were clearly used to talking to visitors. A pupil collected and served lunch to everyone on their table. Joe Kirby talked about the importance of making the most of every minute of every day. We then discussed how we had made the most of the Easter break. Then the lunch stuff was collected up and returned by another pupil and we talked about nice/helpful things that we have done for others. At some point a pupil collected and gave out ice cream to everyone on their table and pupils and staff gave “appreciations” to other pupils and members of staff. This is an opportunity for pupils and staff to thank other pupils/teachers. Then after a pupil had cleared the tables and another pupil had wiped the tables the pupils were dismissed by tables. The pupils then went . The whole thing was absolutely delightful and had a really feeling of family or community.

I then shared my Maths and Science resources and schemes of work as I agree with @Bodiluk that the amount of time teachers spend creating resources and duplicating each others work is ridiculous and unnecessary and went home after having had a lovely day.

Thanks to the staff and pupils of Michaela School for such a nice, informative day.

I will be writing a follow up post in the next few days about some things the school may wish to consider moving forward.

My response to “In order to challenge an idea you must have a better one (or make a positive case for maintaining the status quo)” (This is part comment, part rant)

I started reading this post http://headguruteacher.com/2015/02/08/launching-the-college-of-teaching-vision-vs-inertia/ and by halfway through the first paragraph I was cringing. It wasn’t that I disagree with everything he wrote in the piece (although I do disagree with some of it).

Now I like Tom. I think he’s good. I think he’s written a lot of good stuff and I broadly agree with much of what he says.

Also a lot of this post is about me and my experiences rather than him particularly.

One thing that still amazes me is how much, having worked for so long in a bullying environment, certain phrases evoke strong feelings of resentment and anger and the following type of phrase is one of them:

“In order to challenge an idea you must have a better one (or make a positive case for maintaining the status quo)”.

I read that and it provoked an immediate mental and physical reaction.

Why?

Mostly because I’ve seen phrases like that used, in combination with a supposed “open door policy”, to pretend to be willing to listen whilst silencing staff.

I also fundamentally disagree with the notion.

It’s quite possible to know what is wrong with an idea and yet not know how to fix it or how to make it better.

It’s quite possible to know that an idea will not work without having a better idea.

It’s quite possible that a “new” idea has been tried repeatedly before without success.

It’s quite possible that awful though the status quo is the new idea is worse.

It’s quite possible that the new idea isn’t any better than the status quo but will involve more work (and last time I checked “I don’t want to do more work for no discernible benefit” is not generally considered a “positive case”).

For me there are several issues with this position:

  1. Change almost invariably involves extra work (at least initially). People generally do not want to extra work unless the benefits of doing so are obvious. Therefore if you don’t want objections to your shiny new idea then make the benefits obvious.
  2. The people coming up with these new ideas are paid to lead. I am not. Convincing staff of the merits of a new idea is their job. It is not reasonable to demand staff come up with solutions, alternatives or arguments for the status quo in order to challenge an idea because it simply is not their job to do so. I have a demanding job. I don’t have so much free time that I want to be spending any of it doing someone elses job for them. If someone puts a bad idea in front of me I should not have to take time away from teaching related activities in order to come up with some sort of solution/alternative/argument. That seems to me to be a ridiculous waste of my time (not that I won’t do it. It’s in my contrary nature to do exactly that). If you put an unpopular idea to the staff it’s your job to fix it not mine.
  3. In my experience this position is often used as a method of silencing dissent. If people know that they will be expected to come up with solutions, better ideas or a coherent argument in order to challenge a bad idea then they are far less likely to challenge a bad idea.
  4. If people have to come up with a “better” idea then we need to be clear about what we mean by “better”. Better how? Better in whose opinion? If I have to come up with an idea that’s better in your opinion than your own idea then that’s unlikely to happen with many leaders simply because many leaders have been unwilling, in my experience, to accept that there are any flaws in their ideas until the ideas predictably and sometimes disastrously fail.
  5. It’s quite possible to know that something is wrong without knowing the right answer. Peer review in Maths and Science show examples of this all the time. Imagine what would happen if the Maths and Science communities said “You cannot challenge an idea unless you have a better one”. It would not make for good mathematics or science. It would not improve the quality of ideas.

Finally I would like to give a couple of examples of what can happen when leaders take this view:

I have two anecdotes that I believe illustrate the potential problems with this viewpoint. Both of these examples are the same school.

To give a bit of context, the Headteacher there hated being challenged. They also hated being presented with any form of problem to deal with. People that questioned, challenged, referred problems upwards or were not sufficiently enthusiastic about the brilliance of new policies were rarely, if ever, promoted. Many perfectly good teachers were “encouraged” out of the school for these sins.

The rest of this post is part anecdote part rant and to summarise for anyone who does not wish to read a rant:

“In order to challenge an idea you must have a better one (or make a positive case for maintaining the status quo)” is in my experience a position often taken by bullies and poor managers that do not wish to listen to staff. It can result in very poor policies not being challenged. However I wish to be clear that I am NOT saying that everyone who takes this view or says these words is a bully or a poor manager.

On with the ranty anecdotes

1) We were presented with the schools plan for improving attendance. Having looked at the agenda I foolishly thought this would be a plan for getting more kids into the school more of the time. I had already decided to say nothing as I was always the one sticking my head above the parapet.

To summarise, the plan was:

If a pupil attends any lesson or registration in the morning they are marked in for the morning.

If a pupils attends any lesson or registration in the afternoon they are marked in for the afternoon.

This was presented in the most long winded way possible as if it were a radical breakthrough.

When the person telling us about this master plan had finished talking and asked for questions all eyes turned to me and my friend next to me. The silence became slightly uncomfortable. Some people aspiring to leadership roles said it was a great idea. There was then more uncomfortable silence.

I then put my hand up and asked some questions (I can’t help myself sometimes). The conversation went something like this:

  • Me: Are registrations and lessons now optional?
  • Him: Of course not. Why would you think that?
  • Me: Are you not suggesting that pupils be marked present whether or not they are actually present? Provided of course they have attended at some point during the half day?
  • Him: Yes but that doesn’t mean they don’t have to go.
  • Me: So what is the school going to do about it if a pupil doesn’t attend a lesson or registration (besides marking them in ofc)
  • Him: I don’t know.
  • Me: This might improve our statistical attendance. Have we given up on actually improving the attendance? If not then what’s the plan for that?
  • Him: That’s not what we’re discussing today.

Now I had no wish to argue for the status quo (large scale internal and external truancy and generally poor attendance figures). I didn’t have any “better” ideas. I was not on the pastoral team. I’m not an ESW or an EWO. It was not my job to know about how to improve attendance and I’m not hugely interested in attendance figures beyond the impact they have on my ability to do my job. Does that mean I should allow nonsense to pass unchallenged?

This policy was introduced. When the reports came out and pupils that truanted regularly had good attendance figures the rate of internal and external truancy increased significantly. While the figures showed improved attendance the actual attendance to lessons dropped precipitously (particularly the lessons of teachers that insisted on work and good behaviour).

The second anecdote relates to plans in the same school to deal with a sharp decline in the standards of behaviour in the school that happened one year.

This is a summary of what they did (in this context “academic” means “has a chance of getting 5A*-C”):

  • Poorly behaved pupils that were not “academic” divided their time between “Learn to learn”, statutory subjects and college. “Learn to learn” was a class full of the worst behaved pupils in a year group. It was generally “taught” by someone the HT did not like if the timetable allowed for that and someone with slack in their timetable if it did not. Pupils were supposed to learn study skills, how to revise, how to not behave like a total muppet and other “important” life skills. What quickly became very clear was that people were not being chosen to teach those classes on the basis of their ability to manage behaviour. Thus what the pupils learned was very little. So many pupils wanted to go to college that they decided to only send the worst behaved pupils AND THEY ACTUALLY TOLD THE PUPILS THAT THIS WAS THE CRITERIA FOR DECIDING WHO GOES TO COLLEGE with predictably disastrous effects.
  • Poorly behaved pupils that were “academic” did a normal timetable apart from they miss some lessons to be involved in a variety of mentoring/counselling programs. “Sports mentoring” was so in demand with the pupils that they could only let the worst behaved do it. Pupils in my tutor group apologised in advance for their poor behaviour when they discovered this and told me they were going to make sure they were “naughty enough” to get in. It was painful to watch. The school counsellor was an attractive young woman. Lots of the sillier boys competed to be the most “troubled” so they would be referred to her. While I wouldn’t suggest for a second that attractive women should not be employed in that role I think that the school, once informed that this was happening, should have considered who they referred and why a little more carefully. Most of the mentoring programs suffered from similar problems.
  • The school rewards policy had significant rewards for “improvement” but did not specify that the behaviour or work had to in any way be acceptable. Thus if a pupils behaviour moved from intolerable or unteachable to merely awful then we were expected to give them an achievement point. This led to some of the worst behaved pupils in the school winning laptops, vouchers etc and pupils that were well behaved all the time winning nothing. This did not go unnoticed by some of our pupils whose behaviour had previously been acceptable.

The issue was that every stage of the implementation of this plan the staff were informed of the plan. Staff were informed of proposed changes and tweaks to the plan. At every stage most staff were quite happy and able to rip the plans to shreds down the pub or in the staff room. However when given the opportunity to comment or ask questions very few people said anything other than how brilliant it all was. Those of us that did point out the fairly obvious flaws in the plan were told that we shouldn’t criticise the plan if we didn’t have solutions or a better idea. Now I could have defended the status quo as opposed to the impending disaster but I had no wish to defend the status quo because the behaviour in the school was pretty awful. However the proposed changes were worse than the systems already in place. I also had no wish to come up with a better behaviour policy for 2 reasons:

  1. I didn’t have the time to waste on doing so because I was working 60 hours per week teaching 26 lessons per week.
  2. I knew the leadership team well enough to know that once they presented an idea to staff they were pretty much wedded to the idea and the only way to get rid of a bad idea at that point was to let it fail eventually (pointing out that it was failing all the while). While the policy was dying on its arse the SLT member we nicknamed “Stalin’s minister for agriculture” would extoll the brilliant strides forward the school was making as a result of the policy. Nobody recognised the school he was talking about.
  3. It was not my job to write a functional behaviour policy.

I thought I’d try engaging with the consultation process this time rather than simply pointing out the flaws in the plan. I joined the behaviour working party. I discovered that it was full of aspiring leaders who seemed to want to compete for who could be most enthusiastic about the policy as it stood. They certainly didn’t want to suggest an improvement as that would be taken as criticism. They had no intention of doing anything to jeopardise their meteoric rises into jobs often well beyond their levels of competence. Thus any concerns raised were immediately shot down and anyone raising issues was labelled “negative”, “not a team player” or it was implied that they only had concerns because behaviour management was not a strength of theirs. The behaviour working party reported back to SLT that the proposed policy was fully awesome in every way.

The one good thing that came of my time on the behaviour working party was that one of the deputy heads let slip that the purpose of the policy was “to reduce exclusions and referrals” rather than “to improve pupil behaviour”. I pointed out that reducing exclusions and referrals was not the same thing as improving behaviour because you could reduce exclusions and referrals simply by deterring staff from referring pupils to their line managers, which didn’t go down very well. I also pointed out that the school already had an unofficial policy for reducing exclusions and referrals. It was offering “support” to people who referred too many pupils. This “support” generally entailed observing them, telling them they were useless, implying that they should manage behaviour using appeasement and selective ignoring and then observing them again if they did so and telling them they had improved (if the number of referrals had decreased in the interim). It was blaming the teacher whenever an incident happened in a lesson that led to a pupil being excluded. Saying that led to bollocking number 18472 from the HT.

This behaviour policy lasted a year in which the behaviour in the school was the worst I have ever seen and the results took a nose dive as a result. Thus the following year a shiny new behaviour policy was presented to staff in September…

Those are two examples I picked out of hundreds I could have chosen from my time at that school. Every time the story was the same. A silly idea was put forward. Nobody had bothered to think through any sort of contingency plan. Nobody considered what would happen if pupils or staff did not co-operate. The policy was doomed from the outside due to negligence on the part of those people coming up with the plan. They tried to pre-emptively silence dissent with ridiculous posturing and making out that anyone critical of their ill conceived nonsense should keep their thoughts to themselves unless they could come up with something “better”. Coming up with something that I and/or the staff thought was better was not at all difficult. Coming up with something that they would accept as better would have taxed the intellects of the finest minds that ever lived.

I’m not saying that everyone who utters or writes the words “In order to challenge an idea you must have a better one (or make a positive case for maintaining the status quo)” or similar is a bad person, a bad manager or as awful as the ones I worked with. I’m sure many people who believe that have good intentions.  I’m sure many of them are competent.

I still cringe whenever I hear that sort of thing (or anything similar) said though and I probably always will. Most colleagues I know who are as well travelled as I am do too. In my experience it’s indicative of an attitude of not listening to staff.

If you are someone in a leadership role who says that sort of thing then just reflect for a moment on whether your staff might be silenced by that position and whether or not that is something you actually want.

Differentiation

After reading Harry Webb’s (@websofsubstance) latest blog on differentiation ( https://websofsubstance.wordpress.com/2015/01/25/seriously-differentiation-really-doesnt-work/ ) I thought about differentiation for a while.

You see I have struggled with differentiation for many years. I don’t mean that I find differentiating my lessons so that all the pupils can learn difficult. I don’t mean that I find differentiating my lessons to an extent that I am happy with the lessons I plan difficult. By “struggled with differentiation” I mean that I have often struggled to differentiate for my classes to the satisfaction of the middle and senior leaders, consultants and inspectors who have come in and observed me.

You see for me a lesson is differentiated if every pupil in the class can access it and has tasks to do that are appropriate for them. It is in essence about knowing your class. It is knowing where they are starting from, what they are likely to be capable of and what strategies and resources and most likely to move them forward in their learning. It is about knowing about what barriers pupils face to their learning and planning to circumvent or minimise them. It is difficult and it’s something teachers do as a matter of course every lesson.

So what does it look like in my lesson?

Generally, if we’re in the middle of a topic the planning starts with the marking of their books or looking at my notes about who struggled with the previous lessons work. If starting a new topic I normally do a “big picture” lesson or a brief informal assessment to establish prior learning. This allows me to divide the class into 2-3  groups.

Generally all the pupils do the same main task. A few pupils may need to do another task first or a more scaffolded version of the task. Some pupils will get less of the task done than most. Extension work is always available for those that complete the work, those that show they understand it and those that I decide should be doing it. The workload involved in having the scaffolded and extension resources prepared is minimal because I have been teaching for a long time.

This works for me, it works for the vast majority of my pupils (in terms of them making progress) but it does not always work for observers.

For me the problem is not “differentiation”. I have never taught, or even seen, a lesson where no differentiation has taken place. Lectures yes, but no lessons.

You see any teacher as they help their pupils learn will do so differently depending on the pupil.  They might use different language, different examples, they might use diagrams for some pupils but not others. All of these things are differentiation.

Teachers expect different amounts of work from different pupils. Differentiation.

Teachers will speak to different pupils different numbers of times in a lesson. Differentiation.

The problem is the level of differentiation, personalisation and individualisation demanded from teachers by people who have not taught a full timetable in a long time. Many of the people that have insisted on insane levels of differentiation probably didn’t do what they’re advocating themselves because it’s not possible. For some lessons some of the time perhaps but with the number of lessons we teach? No. To do what they want without burning out or being forever tired, feeling like you haven’t done your job properly and thus grumpy would require a significant drop in the number of lessons we teach and thus would cost a lot of money.

I believe the following story illustrates the problem with differentiation:

A few years ago the school I was working at were very concerned about the Maths results. a consultant was hired to come in and tell us how to improve. The two issues that were honed in on were the balance of teacher talk and pupil talk being too skewed towards teacher talk and differentiation. I won’t write about the “talk” part of that because even think about it makes me furious.

We were all observed and we were all told how we should be differentiating better. I was essentially told that I should have 3 levels of resources, that I should cater to the pupils learning styles and that the SEN pupils should have different resources to support their individual needs. a quick calculation established that every class I taught would require a minimum of 11 different resources if I were to attempt this. Most of my colleagues immediately said this was impossible. I knew that refusing to do it was non-starter as it would just invoke the wrath of SLT. Instead I asked whether planning out our differentiation should be our top priority. I explained that there are only so many hours in the day and coming up with 11 resources per lesson obviously takes time. Thus our work and effectiveness in other areas may be reduced if we do this. I was told categorically by the consultant and SLT that this and sorting out talking too much were to be prioritised above everything else.

I actually made a genuine attempt to do what was asked of me. I kept a diary of the time I was spending working and what I was working out. I worked 65 hour weeks for a half term and in that time I did not have time to mark books or run my usual revision sessions at lunchtime and after school. I also had very little time at the weekend to relax because I was planning.

What, I hear you ask, was your reward for doing what you were asked? Well, I remember being asked on an almost weekly basis why my classes were not getting revision sessions like all the other classes. I remember my marking being criticised after ever observation, learning walk and book review. In short I remember a complete absence of anything approaching realism about workload from the people demanding the insane levels of differentiation.

That, in a nutshell, is the problem with differentiation…