The World is Upside Down

The education world, which effects everyone – as the children in front of me every day are the future care home managers, neurologists, pizza servers, coffee producers and let’s hope, inventors of all the ideas urgently needed to save the planet – is completely upside down.

John Hattie said something along the lines of ‘the good news is, teachers make a difference; the bad news is, teachers make a difference’. But we can’t have it both ways. If teachers are to be held up as possible saviours of society, if we genuinely believe that education is a good thing, that it can improve society by creating social mobility, giving chances to those who would not otherwise have it, then we need to do everything in our power to support the very people who have the most power to create this change – teachers. Even if you don’t believe in social mobility, either because it’s too utopian or you don’t believe that everyone deserves an equal chance at having the life they choose, those pupils in front of me every day are still the ones who will be looking after you when you are too infirm and your sugar loaded diet has caused your brain to decline to have any control over your life, who will be serving you coffee with or without a smile every day until then and who will be responsible for possibly, and hopefully, inventing the things we need to get us out of the mess we’ve made of the planet – so educating them well, matters.

I want to go into work every day feeling inspired, healthy and energised. I want to feel fully supported in my mission to teach Maths so well that the young people in my classes become confident and happy learners of Maths, and also healthy well balanced, future doctors, entrepreneurs and ice-cream makers. I would like the structures and resources to be in place to fully support this. I want to make a difference and I often do, but this comes at a huge personal cost because the system is broken. The endless stories of teachers breaking under pressure are tiresome. Enough is enough. Let’s turn the world the other way up.

Education is an investment not a drain on precious resources. We have the money and power to have an education system that works, really works. Instead we mass educate on the cheap and then publically humiliate the very people who we want to use to change our world. The message is clear: you want me to teach every lesson with passion, enthusiasm and excellence. Me too! But what those teacher training adverts so inadvertently hide is that you want me to also sacrifice my life, relationships, health and sanity. 

It’s time to remove the kryptonite. If education was a business we would have gone bankrupt years ago. We spend very little of our day focused on our core business – teaching and learning; we do not teach in Shanghai or Singapore where teachers use well- researched resources, teach well- motivated students who arrive from primary with their number facts solid; we do not become experts at year 8 Maths, teach one lesson twice and then have time for collaboration and further improvement of our expertise. Instead we teach back to back lessons, spreading ourselves thinly in our expertise across 7 year groups, dealing with lack of motivation, outright hostility, huge social issues, poor resources, huge admin and accountability pressures etc etc etc – all under a negative and constant stream of hostility from government, and sadly society in general. I am not a social worker or counsellor nor do I have the emotional reserves to replace all the neglectful and inadequate parenting. And yet as budgets for health and social services are cut I am increasingly expected to be all this and more, without expertise or supervision – all whilst feeling the increasing accountability of being compared to the teachers in Shanghai and Singapore. No wonder so many of us have trouble sleeping during term time.

You can’t have it both ways. Teachers make a difference. Tired, uninspired, ill, overloaded teachers still make a difference. Just not the difference we need or want. You want me to make a huge inspiring change in the lives of all those I am privileged to teach? Then cherish me, support me, inspire me! Remove my kryptonite. Turn the world upside down. Teachers are the most important resource in education and therefore in building a better future. Our job is to be of service to our pupils and to society. A pupil’s job is to learn and the give back to society. Everything should be done to make this as easy and as brilliant as possible. Government’s job is to serve society, therefore the Department of Education’s job is to serve school leaders in supporting them in making their schools the happiest most excellent places to work and learn. Ofsted should see itself as of service in helping them achieve this. A Head Teacher’s job is to be of service to help their senior managment team support middle management in being highly organised and excellent managers of teachers. Heads of departments and Heads of Year should see themselves as being of service to support teachers in being the best teachers and change agents they can be so that our pupils of today become well balanced, healthy, intelligent, thoughtful, resourceful, inspirational coffee servers, care home mangers, neuroscientists, farmers, teachers, inventors and leaders of our future.

P.S. This blog post has been in my head for over a year and I am very hopeful that the excellent new workload reports will start to remove some of the kryptonite and start transforming schools and the education system into organisations that revolve around creating the conditions for optimal learning and the development of happy, healthy excellent humans. Right now teachers are modelling the opposite.

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What does outstanding Maths teaching look like?

So I’ve been thinking a lot about this question this week and the more I think the bigger the question gets. Firstly I had to get over what I don’t like about the question. Ofsted have sullied the word ‘outstanding’ making it into a judgemental label of fear related to the distribution of power. Secondly am not sure you can see outstanding teaching. Outstanding teaching looks like many things, is difficult to judge and does not happen in isolation. By definition, however, outstanding teaching should result in outstanding learning. But then learning is really tricky to measure too….

But it’s still an important and valid question. So I like the question because it has made me reflect deeply about what research suggests and about my own practice.

Let’s take two of my recent lessons: Year 8 ‘constructing triangles’ which I’ve thought extra about because we videoed it as part of micro-teaching in The Learning Lab. There are lots of reasons why I wasn’t happy with the lesson, partly the whole videoing thing again and getting over the size of my hair and the sound of my voice, and the disturbing fact that the sound of the fidgeting with geometry sets feels louder on the video than what I thought were carefully construed instructions. However, if it wanted to demonstrate ‘rapid progress’ to get that much-coveted Ofsted badge then this lesson was perfect. Most of the pupils went from not being able to construct a triangle to being able to and with much expressive and very observable joy. However, after the imaginary inspectors have left I am still evaluating the learning. Encouragingly some even remembered the method less than 24 hours later but I know it will take many more opportunities to practice, built into further lessons, homework, starters and assessments before they get anywhere near possible ‘mastery’ and even then several will forget and swear they were never taught this to their year 9 teacher.

The next lesson I want you to join me in an imaginary inspection is my year 10s doing a Maths Challenge paper under exam conditions. You walk in the room to find me marking year 12 homework whilst the class is silent and apparently writing in a small booklet. There is no ‘rapid progress’ and no obviously measurable learning for you to judge. Have I become a rubbish teacher overnight?! Ah well I always say I require improvement……

But there’s a spare chair at the back so please take a seat and a moment to silently reflect. There are 31 14-15 year olds working in silence on some very challenging mathematical questions. I don’t get up and walk around the room – not once in 45 minutes. Occasionally I glance up; once I catch the eye of a pupil who I know is struggling with the resilience and effort needed to keep up with a high flying class, who are having to move through the new curriculum at considerable speed thanks to the hastily introduced reforms to the Maths GCSE. I catch his eye and he gets back down to it – no challenge of my high expectations, but an acceptance that right now the best choice would be to give the paper another go. If you had seen that split second of expert teacher behaviour you would have witnessed evidence of learning over time, of my continued determination to win this pupil over and help him exceed his own expectations. I think he knows how much I care and believe in him, and that that is why I keep my expectations high, despite his struggle and pretence at not caring. Another time I am alerted to the fact that one pupil is staring into space. I reserve judgement and the need to press him into immediate action, remembering that deep thinking can look identical to doing nothing; he got one of the highest marks in the class. It may look like I am doing very little, even being lazy, but the whole time I have my highly trained teacher radar on – I know these pupils and they know me. It takes year of practice as well as a school community that supports discipline, routines, expectations and the many, many other things that go into supporting excellent learning, to create the conditions for that lesson. And make no mistake, had you been sat on that chair at the back of my classroom you would have been privileged to have observed a carefully crafted working atmosphere of silent focus, without disruption, of high expectations in utter safety, allowing and encouraging a group of teenagers going through that hideously difficult stage of life, to work through the kind of maths questions that make all of pause for breath before attempting. They surprised themselves with how well they did and some of them surprised me, always a pleasurable wake-up call.

So, I’m still thinking about what outstanding Maths teaching looks like but know for sure it doesn’t look like any one thing and that we should reserve judgement. To misquote James Carville, ‘It’s the learning stupid!’ But how to evaluate that is a whole ‘nother blog. So to conclude my thinking so far: outstanding Maths teaching comes in different guises, results in outstanding learning, and does not happen in a vacuum. The conditions for outstanding teaching parallel those for outstanding learning – a culture and atmosphere that encourages risk-taking and provides the resources and support for constant small steps towards improvement; one of utter safety but with high expectations.

Outstanding Maths teaching in particular requires this as Maths is often an emotional roller-coaster to teach, our exam results being used to determine who leads us and pupils having to overcome huge emotional blocks in order to experience the first taste of success. I love teaching Maths and wish there was greater support and less pressure so that we could develop an expert national team and come out of this horrendous supply problem.

Mathosgraphy Part 2: a deeply reflective measurement of progress

So, a couple of weeks a go I blogged about my Mathsography. It’s a Teacher Hack to align students at the beginning of the year and get to know them. You have to know them to teach them well; in particular you need to know what they need from you as a subject specialist. I use the first part of the Mathsography to attempt to identify what has happened on their previous mathematical journey that has helped or hindered their learning. Then it’s a fresh start with a plan to aim high this year, which we both make a written commitment to.

Now I get this all might sound a bit hippy. Indeed the post starts with what sounds like a meditation. That’s because I practise mindfulness and meditation. (‘Practise’ being the operative word and an apology to all those I’ve treated less than mindfully this week). So without realizing it this style of teaching has crept into my work because it’s part of who I am. However, this year the Mathsography has developed into a really useful post-levels measurement of progress. More

The Tomsett Method:a joint evaluation 

So, this week my-esteemed-colleague-and-fellow-blogger-teacher-adventurer-Greg and I both read this post by John Tomsett. Greg put the idea straight into an A level IT lesson and I dismissed it for my current Year 11s thinking it would be more appropriate for a written subject. More fool me.

Fortunately I bumped into Greg and ended up in one of our highly enjoyable teaching and leaning rants, and he challenged my dismissal of what we now appear to calling ‘The Tomsett Method’, as it had been very successful with his class. So, driving into work one of the mornings that I have already forgotten the name of, I decided to take the last six questions of a foundation calculator paper and ‘Tomsett’ them. It felt quite a vulnerable thing to do but desperate times call for desperate methods (this is the group I’m am trying to out smart all data on. I wrote about them here). Scanning the papers so I could project them turned out to be a bit of a hurdle involving me interrupting my go-to-much-younger-emergency-scanning-help-teacher’s Year 8s but, hey, I think modeling that we all need help learning is part of my job.

So what happened? It surprised me at how different it was from the usual exam technique advice of how to tackle a question which we all do verbally when preparing pupils for exams. The Tomsett Method goes back a step further than that. It shows pupils what we are thinking in order to carry out the steps that we teach them in order to approach a question. We tell them to read a question carefully and highlight key words. But this method shows what we are thinking as we read the question and how we decide which are the key words. This is written evidence, that pupils can take time to process visually, of adult metacognition.

Impact? I did it over two lessons so I can’t monitor much impact yet. Overall I felt a sense of gratitude. I felt the pupils were more engaged. That may have just been a morning thing but I’d do it again. In fact I think I need to make it a regular part of my practice. It makes sense to start with year 10. I’ll let you know what happens.

P.S. Thanks Greg for your constant support and push to improve. And to John Tomsett for his blog extraordinaire.

Improvement List: so no-one gets left behind

The Improvement List sits inside the back cover of each pupil’s book. They simply write the title and then add to it whenenever we use D.I.R.T. to evaluate progress e.g. at the end of a topic or skills practice or after a test. Anything that they don’t feel they’ve mastered/are-lying-on-a-deck-chair-on-a-tropical-island-of-paradise-with, then it needs to go on their Improvement List and they need to do something about it. This is crucial. It’s no good evaluating adding fractions with a picture of dungeons breathing fire in the dungeons of hell (gotta love year 8!) unless you do something to head towards that tropical island of paradise.  More

The Learning Zone

A Teacher Hack to link Carol Dweck’s ‘Brainology’ idea with John Hattie’s ‘assessment capable learners’.

Carol Dweck’s ‘Brainology‘ programme teaches pupils how learning effects their brains in order to help them develop a growth mindset and thus learn better. John Hattie states that pupils need to be ‘assessment capable learners’ able to answer the questions: 

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I want pupils to make the most of their time with me. I want them to be doing the right practice questions for them. Maths to GCSE is an eleven year course where we constantly revisit previous work to build on it, deepen understanding, make connections with new topics and help pupils to apply it to new problems and develop different ways of thinking. Regardless of how we set, every group we teach is mixed ‘ability’ and in front of us are 30 pupils who all have different needs (see my previous post on setting). So, how to meet their different needs? How to make sure they are all appropriately challenged or scooped up and not left behind?  More

Revision – what works best?

Revision: What works best?

Our brains haven’t (yet) evolved to be good at exams. Being able to recall memories on demand and turn them into timed demonstrations of our understanding is incredibly difficult. Listening to reports of some of our pupils’ punishing Easter Holiday revision schedules got me wondering whether the advice we give in terms of how to revise could be improved. Often pupils claim to be ‘revising’ (some up to 6 hours a day) but what are they actually doing? Reading through notes whilst keeping an eye on social media notification is probably a waste of time. Being me I had to check the research; fortunately my favourite Highly Useful Psychologist, Daniel Willingham, got together with a bunch of other psychologists, reviewed over 700 pieces of research and came up with the following list: More

Mathsography: The Story of Maths and Me

‘Close your eyes, focus fully on yourself and let go of the distractions around you. This is time for you to think just about you. Relax. We’re going to time travel. I want you to think back to your earliest memory of Maths. It could be sitting with a grandparent and counting your toes, counting bricks, sharing sweets out. It’s hard to recall memories on purpose so don’t worry if you can’t think of anything just yet. If you do have a memory try to think how it made you feel. Is it a happy memory, sad or just neutral? Then open you eyes and write a brief sentence about your earliest memory of Maths.  More

The Learning Lab: A Revolution in CPD

Eighteen months ago three of us set out to write a new course to lead teaching and learning within our school. Our aim was to move away from the top down dictates coming from government, and the many entrepreneurial scams that have taken money, time and energy out of schools, and develop high quality research-based, active, in-house CPD. We named it ‘The Learning Lab’ because as teachers, we recognise that we need to constantly learn and take risks to improve. As I prepare for my final Learning Lab session of the year I thought it was a good time to use my blog to formally take some time to reflect on the journey so far.

Personally it’s been a roller coaster ride which has pushed me way out of my comfort zone, whilst allowing me the privilege of using the geekiest of my strengths to help create something very special. I feel both incredibly grateful and utterly in awe of what we have accomplished a very short space of time. 

The Learning Lab comprises three intense days of studying research-informed ideas based on John Hattie’s top ten, followed by training in solution-focused, peer to peer coaching. With the pre-reading and reflection tasks, plus intense days fully focusing on goal driven steps to improve teaching, followed by a coaching cycle encompassing both a teaching goal and a coaching goal, The Learning Lab takes serious commitment from the teachers involved. Being part of it seems to create both renewed energy and enthusiasm, coupled with sheer mental exhaustion at the end of each day-long session; that, and gratitude that we work in a school with senior management who give us three full days off timetable to focus fully on our teaching.

I passionately believe that teachers are the most precious resource that any school has and along with Bill Gates, I believe that every teacher deserves a coach. Businesses spend millions on coaching because it works. Research suggests that CPD without coaching has little or no impact on teaching; but as Rachel Lofthouse et al., state in a 2010 report into coaching in schools, it has to be of a high quality – and that takes time, and long term faith and commitment from everyone involved. It is D.I.R.T. for teachers and needs to be treated with utter respect. If it becomes part of top down accountability or a cosy chat over a cup of coffee, it’s time to rethink. Our coaching is driven by the teacher’s own professional goals as a result of study in each morning session of The Learning Lab; it focuses on drawing out the strengths of each teacher and empowering them to be even better. Coaching is highly skilled; we have a long way to go and all need a lot more practice but we have made a promising start on this exciting journey.

So, we’re coming to the end of our first year of rolling The Learning Lab out – what has the impact been so far? My colleague is in the process of researching just that for his Masters dissertation so we will hopefully know more shortly, but it’s the buzz about teaching and learning that amazes me. As a profession we traditionally seem to spend very little time talking about our core business – learning – and yet plug into Twitter and the educational  blogosphere and the gradual growing under swell of passionate exchange of ideas and resources is both heart warming and awe inspiring. I used to feel like a research geek and very isolated but now I hear many more conversations about teaching and learning and research. At school, every time I hear the words ‘The Learning Lab’ or ‘coaching’ I am genuinely amazed and profoundly grateful that my inner geek was allowed to be part of creating something truly unique that I hope will continue to support my colleagues as we all work towards being the very best we can be for our pupils. 

Maths: To set or not to set? That is the question……or is it?

Spurred on by our last department meeting’s passionate but somewhat polarised debate about setting (research shows its bad/ you can find research to prove anything), I took another Google meander to try to gain some clarity.

Depressingly it didn’t take long to find research on the negative impact of setting on the majority of our pupils. John Hattie (Slide 11) lists ability grouping under his list of disasters with an effect size of 0.12 and in this country the Education Endowment Fund cites setting as having an effect of minus one month. Apparently we’ve been gathering pretty secure evidence on the detrimental effects of setting for over 30 years and it’s in Maths that the effects are clearest and worse. Great. What are we doing?! More

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