Assessment and Feedback in ICT


Originally uploaded by Pkabz

Apologies for the lack of posts recently, but real life has been taking over of late.

Thankfully, I was emailed today asking about how I deal with assessment at KS3 so I can kill two birds with one stone.

The email wasn’t so much what or how I assess, but how do I communicate this with the students and how do they respond to it. In many subjects a stuck in sheet at the front of the book serves to maintain a persistent and consistent platform for feedback and responses – but in ICT lessons we don’t use exercise books, and I’m loathe to start just for that reason.

We could always give students pieces of paper, or have them filed in the room, but this seems similarly arbitrary and far from ideal.

We did try using Moodle for a good few years, with a course set aside just for assessed pieces of work to be uploaded and feedback given. It required one upload assignment for each assessed unit and while the feedback was persistent (students could always go back and look at it) it was still very unidirectional.

Since about the middle of last year we’ve been using the Moodle Dialogue Module. While I was loathe to start adding non-core modules because of the hassles involved in upgrading further down the line, the functionality really couldn’t be found any other way.

Installation and setup is simple, although it’s virtually essential to be using groups*. I find it easiest to get the students to initiate the dialogue (you need to be enrolled as a teacher for the students to see you) although you can start a dialogue with an entire group at a time.

Both sides can write messages and upload files and the conversation is private between you and the student. This way the student can upload their work with a brief self-assessment, you can leave detailed feedback and they can respond. Every 3 or 4 lessons we bring the students back to the dialogue and look at what their specific targets are and can measure their own progress.

We’re also in the process of designing some large display boards with level descriptors so students can refer to these as they go.

It’s not perfect, and one of the bugbears is that impatient students will hit the submit button 3 or 4 times, creating 3 or 4 entries that can’t be edited or removed after the 30 minute grace period.

On the whole, though, it’s working very well and in the whole discussions and working parties on assessment and feedback our system has been praised by SLT – so it can’t be that bad!

* Top tip: Set up the groups before you enrol the students and give each group a unique enrolment key. Put a different enrolment key on the course and when students sign up with their class’ enrolment key they automatically appear in the right group.

What Ofsted are searching for

Coast Guard – Search and Rescue Demonstration

Originally uploaded by U.S. Coast Guard

At last week’s ICT2012 conference I was really looking forward to hearing from the DfE and Ofsted, both of whom were sending representatives. Sadly both had to pull out, however all was not lost and the organisers of the conference managed to find a number of colleagues who had undergone recent ICT thematic inspections.

The thoughts below are an amalgam of what was actually said, what I remember being said, the hastily scribbled notes I made and a few bits of input from elsewhere. I don’t claim that they are accurate or gospel, but assume that any mistakes, errors or ommissions are mine.

Create an Open Curriculum at KS3

Rather than specifying exactly what is going to be learned and exactly how it is going be be learned, allow students to explore problems, identify strategies and form their own solutions. This is brave, and risky, and challenging. But without that challenge there is little actual learning, and what there is is superficial.


One school was praised for having an open Wifi network at a policy towards BYOD. I’m not 100% on this one personally, but I can see that allowing students to use their own mobile devices as a platform to engage and extend learning could well be a positive thing. I think that security, data protection and the risks of loss and damage are significant – not to mention the digital divide. And for me it is moot as the whole school policy of no mobiles is very unlikely to change in the immediate future.

Comparing Tools

Rather than teaching students how to create bullet points in PowerPoint, encourage them to thnk about alternative ways of presenting information to a given audience. Compare Prezi, PowerPoint and ComicLife and you’ll have students who are in a much better position when it comes to tackling real problems productively in the future.

Digital Leaders

The idea of getting students to take on some responsibility – either through completing donkey work on the VLE, sharing techniques with students, running staff INSET or even running sessions for parents – has been one I’ve been keen on since I first heard about the idea. It currently resides on my ToDo list somewhere below “plan tomorrow’s lessons” and somewhere above “solve world hunger”.


Yawn… I know, but a solid SEF and Quality Assurance document mean that you are reflecting on your department’s practices and you know where you have flaws and what you have to do to fix them. There is an element of hoop jumping (OK, a lot of hoop jumping), but both documents ultimately lead to an improvment in provision for the students. So suck it up and get it done!

Curriculum Mapping

In many schools ICT is an option at KS4, but the PoS was (and the subject as a set of knowledge and understanding) still is mandatory. One school was praised for clearly mapping the old PoS to non-ICT subjects at KS4. Another was awarded outstanding with no mention of this despite having no mapping in place. We don’t have it and while it is on my ToDo list it, probably lies only just above solving world hunger and just below dusting the ceiling…


This is a key topic right now. It’s one thing to have curriculum based eSafety lessons, to have digital leaders running INSET for parents and having clear policies in the department handbook – but that still isn’t enough to get you outstanding (apparently). Criticism of the department that did all of the above included the lack of a CEOP button on the front of the VLE. All schools should (I’m not sure if it’s mandatory, but I think it will help a lot) have someone who has attended the free CEOP half day workshop. The issue is not just one of “have you taught it”, but more of “is it embedded and understood at every level within the school”. Do the teachers know how to deal with students accessing inappropriate material? Do the students know the likely consequences? Are staff and students alike aware of their digital footprint? Potentially, it never stops, but the odd lesson on not sharing your password and not giving your phone number out simply won’t cut it, is the message.

And that’s about it for now. Very little mention in there about teaching and learning, but I think that’s because that applies to everyone. It’s not that it doesn’t need saying, but here we’re looking at the ICT thematic elements. Outstanding teaching, learning, pace, progress, measurement, awareness, subject knowledge, behaviour and all of that other stuff is still essential. This just has to sit on top.

But remember, as gruelling as all this sounds, if it were easy we’d all be going home at 3, collecting our gold plated pensions and live our lives oblivious to what stress really is 😀

The Best Things In Life Are Free (a story about CPD)

FREE BEER 3.3 Ready to Drink!

Originally uploaded by AGoK

They say that the best things in life are free, and yet people regularly pay £200-£400 for a one day course on a variety of topics. Heck, I’ve been lucky enough to charge for running CPD sessions myself, so I’m not writing here to complain!

This last Friday, though, the decision in school was that for our staff development PD day, where previously we have had outside speakers come in and run session on whole-school issues, we would take advantage on some of the that already exists within school. Part of it is that there are pockets of expertise in one particular area and part of it is that some teachers are (naturally) better at some things than others.

Heads of department signed their staff up to 3 sessions a week before the day and the idea was to spread staff around the sessions so we can all feed back in the next departmental twilight (this week).

I signed myself up for ‘Planning for Outstanding’ delivered by a local assistant head, ‘Starters and plenaries’ jointly run by an HE and a science specialist, and ‘Building Challenge to Support Pupil Progress’ by one of our assistant heads.

Feel free to skip a section or two if you like, but as you might have guessed by the title, the day was really, really useful and productive. It did that thing that happens at Teachmeets, the CAS Conference and other events that I would class as the very best I’ve been to – left me enthused and convinced that I have the tools to be a better classroom practicioner.

I ‘decided’ before the day that it was going to be a good one and that I wasn’t going to be cynical about being told how to teach by my fellow teachers. While I mean that, it also tells you something because I initially had to decide not to be cynical. I can safely say that no conscious descision was involved in deciding that it was a genuinely powerful and incredibly worthwhile day.

Right then, gushing over, here is a breakdown of the 3 sessions (which I summarise largely for my own reflection, but also with the hope that others can steal the same ideas for themselves).

Planning for Outstanding

In this session we looked at how we can use our in-house lesson plan to plan effectively for learning and progress. This sounds a bit dry, and it’s hard for it not to be, but after the talk about Ofsted and standards and what Ofsted expect to see and how we can make sure we plan for it, the best thing to come out of the session was a really interesting version of a lesson plan that the kids get to see.

The idea is that you produce an A4 or A3 document that looks like a lesson plan but that lasts for a whole topic of work. You have aims and objectives, key words and a place for pupil and teacher comments at key stages (say three times over the course of the unit). This allows an opportunity for providng (and, perhaps mildly cynically) evidencing AfL and students’ responses to AfL. I say mildly cynically as it saddens me that we have to produce evidence for Ofsted. That said, I think that overall it leads to a positive result as this kind of back and forth can only, really, be useful for the students.

The really intriguing section, though, is the bottom half of the page. Here you have a 3 x 10 grid (assuming a 10 week topic, adjust as necessary). For each lesson there is a satisfactory, good and outstanding description of the lesson outcome (e.g. I can create a 3D drawing of a house, I can create a 3D drawing of a house and use textures to make it look realistic, I can create a 3D drawing of a house with a range of extra features such as a garden, fence, hedge and swimming pool). You could rename these as All, Most, Some; you could use grades A-B, C-D, E-F; you could use levels 4c/4b, 4a/5c, 5b/5a.

Each student gets one to stick in their books (I know, I know, ICT, I’ll come to that) and this is their primary document throughout the project. Now it’ll take some time to prepare and you need to allow some freedom for course correction along the way, but it’s basically a whole SoW mapped out from the pupils’ perspective. I’m very, very seriously considering giving it a go.

Starters and Plenaries

This was a really, really fun session. It wasn’t run by anyone above me in the food chain (which always takes the politics out of the equation) and we more or less had a load of ideas thrown at us and we got to have a go at them. Nothing makes a session like this greater than having practical things to do and much fun was had. Here is a run down of some of the ideas we tried out:

Stand Up Sit Down – Students have 4 cards pinned together on a keyring, lettered A B C and D. Stick 15 questions on a slideshow and everyone has to show a letter. Get it wrong and you’re out (but still have to play). Be still standing at the end and get a merit, sticker, sweet or some other reward.

What’s The Image? – Print a picture, get it laminated, cut it into odd shaped pieces and instant jigsaw. Starter is to assemble the picture and deduce the topic of the lesson or kick off a discussion.

Loop Cards – A bit like dominoes with a question on the right and an answer on the left. The cards go round in a circle so read your question, whoever has the answer asks the next. Time two teams or pit whole classes against each other in a time trial.

10 Questions – One volunteer (or victim) has to answer 10 questions asked by the teacher. The class don’t comment but give a tick if they think the answer is right and write their own answer if they think it’s wrong. Discuss the answers but it takes some of the pressure off the need to be right all the time.

Mystery Bag – get a cloth bag or even a box. Put objects inside that relate to a topic and students have to feel their way around and either guess the linking theme or suggest 5 more items that could be added.

Guess The Logo – Pretty simple idea, get osme logos related to the topic and remove enough detail to make them less obvious.

Question Answer Question – Write out a list of 10 questions. The students have to first answer the question, then write a new question that leads to that answer (which you can’t do if you don’t understand the topic).

Artist’s Easel – Provide a paragraph of prose explaining a method or process (e.g. how an email gets form one computer to another). Students draw a diagram to represent the process, highlight (say) 9 key words and finally perform a diamond rank or similar.

Memory Board – Put 10 or so words on the board. Give students 20 seconds to remember them then hide them. Students have to explain all of the key words on paper or whiteboards.

Weakest Link – Odd one out game, stick 4 pictures on a slide and get students to identify and justify the odd one out. Especially good if you make the answer ambiguous.

You Say We Pay – Slideshow of images related to a topic with obvious names written underneath. One (or two if you want some competition) pupils sit with their back to the screen and have to guess the object. Those giving clues aren’t allowed to use any of the words on the board.

What’s In My Head? – At the end of a lesson have a picture of a head with some key words behind it (unseen). Pupils list the keywords they think you will have included and then you can reveal the answers or get students to elaborate on their suggestions.

What’s The Question? – Based on jeopardy, have a series of answers on the whiteboard and students have to work out the questions.

Guess Who – Just like the Churchill advert (Am I…. Genghis Khan?). Laminate some A3 paper, cut into strips and apply velcro to make a headband. Laminate some people, objects or ideas and away you go.

True/False – Write some HARD true/false questions. Two teams have a go at guessing the answers – teams because this encourages debate and discussion about WHY the answer is true or false. They’re tough questions so there’s no shame in getting it wrong and even if guessing you have a 50/50 chance.

Scrambled Letters (this was my favourite) – laminate 3 copies of the alphabet per group (groups of 3 work well). Each person should have one copy of every letter. Set a question and the winners are the first group to spell out the whole answer. Teachers (at leasT) get HUGELY competetive. And it hits the literacy agenda too.

Dominoes – Produce domino cards with words relating to the topic in hand. Students have to play the cards however they want as long as they can justify the links in the context of the topic.

Diamond Rank – Produce 9 cards or key words. Students (preferably in groups) organise these into 1 most important, 2 very important, 3 important, 2 less important and 1 least important.

Missing Object – Create a slide with 15 or 20 objects. Then a blank slide, then the same slide with 1 object missing. It’s surprisingly difficult to spot the missing object.

As well as those, check out ContentGenerator, Quiz Busters and Triptico for loads more white-board based ideas

Building Challenge to Support Pupil Progress

This was another great session, with a good mix of theory and practical ideas. Initially expecting it to be about G&T students I actually found myself being given a whole range of strategies that fit in well with my minimally invasive strategy. They’re mutually exclusive in the sense that I have to be invasive enough to set specific tasks, but the principle of encouraging students to think and learn for themselves is on the same wavelength. The workshop leader even started with the same sat-nav metaphor I used with my Y8s last week.

The theory stuff included why we need challenge (e.g. top football teams raising their game against their closest rivals) and what happens if we don’t have it (no sense of achievement, slow progress). We looked at the fixed vs growth mindsets and examined questioning strategies (which I have always found to be a weakness of mine). The Pit is an idea whereby if you draw a graph of clarity vs time you start just positive (concept), dip way down (conflict), start to turn a corner (construct) and shoot out higher than ever (consider). The idea is that by tackling tricky concepts without being spoon fed you get confused, but then work your way back up and ultimately understand the topic far better. All of the practical tasks below are designed to support this pattern.

The practical stuff that supported this could largely fit into the previous session as well, although some tasks were too long to be thought of as plenaries and starters. not all, though, by a long shot.

TarsiaGoogle it and you’ll find a website that lets you input key words and spits out triangles that fit together by linking two things together. Like a domino but with more complexity and more thinking involved.

Concept Mapping – Something that many of probably come across, but I hadn’t. List key words randomly around a piece of sugar paper then draw lines to connect some of them. On the lines write (in prose) about the links and explain them. After a few minutes, swap with another group and you can’t make any new connections, but have to expand on the previous ones. Perhaps repeat once more and then go back to see what has happened to your original map.

Which Wordle Words? – Use Wordle or Tagxedo to create a uniform word cloud and have students select just 5 of the most important. Then make them rank them or use them in a sentence. Tagxedo has the added benefit that you can mouse over the words and they will pop out on the screen so you can highlight them interactively.

Thinking Tube Line – Grab a screenshot of a train line (preferably with a branch somewhere) and remove the station names. Have one concept at one end (e.g. freedom) and one at the other (Internet). Students then have to fill in the station getting from one to the other. It may end up as a journey or a continuum, or something else. Surprisingly tricky to do and if you do get a high flier finished early then add a thir word at the end of the branch (safety) and get them to think a bit deeper.

Folded Opinion Line – A twist on a classic. Have ‘agree’ and ‘disagree’ on the back wall and students stand according to their opinion. Get the left-hand half to step forward, turn around and shuffle to the far end – the most extreme on the right is facing the most central, and the other most central is facing the furthest on the left. Each side must talk for 30 seconds without pause or interuption about why they chose to stand where they did and at the end they decide on a (potentially) new place to stand.

Challenge Cards – Rather than rewarding quick finishers with more work at the same level, give them a card with a question. A really tough question. Maybe give KS3 students a GCSE question, or GCSE students an A Level question. How does the Internet work? When is it OK to ignore copyright? What is the definition of a computer?

6×6 – Produce a 6×6 placemat of pictures or key words (or both). Students roll a die to select the row and the column, ultimately collecting two pictures. They then have to explain the link between them in the context of the topic at hand. Surprisingly engaging and more-ish.

What If? – What if the Internet broke tomorrow? Students consider the question and suggest 3 things. Now ask which is th emost likely, the most appealing, the most concerning?

Bloom’s Taxonomy Planner – There are a few versions of this around. Print one out and stick it near your desk or wherever you plan. You could devise questions for your lesson plan or make them up on the hoof, but by having the starting points at your fingertips you can tailor the level of challenge to the progress of the students. Struggling? Ask some basic knowledge questions. Doing well? What about some application or analysis? High fliers? Jump straight to synthesis and evaluation.

Thinking Dice (URL)- This wasn’t actually included in the session but following a brilliant session by Steve Bunce at the Optimus Education ICT2012 conference last week the whole department are getting some thinking dice. 6 brightly coloured dice with question starters ranked by their level according to Bloom. Get the students to come up with the questions for you. Weaker students can start with the red – the most able with the blue and purple. At £10 a throw (no finaincial gain for me, I promise) I think they look pretty good.

Matching Words – Start with an unrelated topic (e.g. cars). Individuals (in teams of 4) have 60 seconds to write down as many words as possible. The team captain then reads out their list and ONLY gets a point if EVERYONE in the group has that word. Repeat for a related topic and add the scores. In theory, all teams should do better on the second attempt, and they are surprisingly reluctant to cheat.

So there you have it. 34 ideas by my reckoning. That’s even more than you get at an average teachmeet, for an entire staff and at a total cost of £0. Easily the best value CPD I’ve had this week.

Another way?

Business Plans Don’t Suck – Mind Games Do

Originally uploaded by pinkpurse

I woke up this morning and came across two Telegraph articles via @schoolduggery that, at first, look like teacher bashing.

In the first, we have some quotes from Michael Gove on the day before tougher Ofsted rules come into force with sound bites like “zero tolerance of poor teachers” and comments such about how Ofsted “will even assess how well teachers ‘articulate and mouth’ the sounds of letters” and “check payrolls to ensure the salaries of weak teachers reflects their performance”.

In another article we are told that “Those admirable goals have earned him the undying hatred of organisations and individuals who put the interests of inadequate teachers above the interests of children who need, and are entitled to expect, a decent education.”, with several comments about the introduction of performance related pay for teachers.

What worries me is not that teachers are being measured against a high standard, or that the dreaded ‘O’ (who are expected to come knocking any day) will be taking a tough stance. What worries me is all the talk of those teachers who are judged to be ‘not good enough’ being sacked or (effectively) fined. It’s the punitive aspect that scares me the most. If we were to translate that into the classroom then we would be giving punishments to students who are underachieving. We could expel those working towards an E or an F within a term instead of a year*. As it is, I find that shouting at, restricting the free time of or otherwise punishing students who aren’t flying high doesn’t have a particularly good effect. Giving them support, encouragement, engaging them, differentiating resources, etc, etc, etc. all seems to have a much more significant effect.

It is particularly worrying when you see schools drop from Good to Unsatisfactory in the course of a single Ofsted inspection, when you see an ‘Outstanding’ teacher three years on the trot suddenly labelled as ‘Satisfactory’ on the grounds of a single observation. Measuring the ‘performance’ of teachers is not as simple as timing a race or counting the profits, and in such a subjective environment we find observations and appraisals can appear more as an ordeal to be survived rather than the positive, constructive activities they are meant to be.

I’m not saying that there are no teachers out there who are sitting back and not giving the best for our students. What I am saying is that creating an atmosphere of collegiate support and positive help for those who might need it is likely to have a much more powerful and lasting effect than threatening teachers with frozen salaries or a P45.


* Just to clarify, this is a response to a comment in the first article (“Heads and governors will be able to sack the worst-performing staff in just a term – rather than a year – under new “capability” procedures.”). It is not the case that any school will expel a pupil for achieving poor grades.

Time for a change?

I seriously considered leaving education today. And if I had a viable exit strategy I might have taken it further.

Did I have a bad lesson? Was a pupil abusive, violent or threatening towards me? Not at all. I had the pleasure of my delightful Y7s, made a breakthrough with my Y8s, managed some productive revision and even had a pleasant time on a cover lesson.

What made me think about leaving was the agenda for Monday’s full staff meeting. Item 1? OFSTED. And pinned up next to it, the minutes of a recent Heads of Faculty meeting.

  • In recent years we’ve been told our lessons have to be pacey.
  • They have to help the students demonstrate independent learning.
  • We have to give the students time to explore concepts and ideas.
  • We have to demonstrate progress. From every student. Every 15 minutes.
  • We have to make sure we build literacy explicitly into every lesson.
  • We have to show an awareness of which pupils are FSM, EAL, EM, GAT, SEN, SA, SA+.
  • We have to show how we make learning activities available to kinaesthetic learners, visual learners and audio learners.
  • We have to differentiate our work for multiple intelligences.
  • We have to aim for a 70:30 classroom.
  • We have to assess every student every 6 weeks (that is, after every 6 hours – imagine having to assess every employee at work at the end of every day).
  • When OFSTED show up I have to have a full suite of policies to show them
  • When OFSTED show up I have to have detailed exam analysis to show them
  • When OFSTED show up I have to have a detailed, evidence based SEF to show them
  • When OFSTED show up I have to have marking that demonstrates progress to show them
  • When OFSTED show up I have to have detailed lesson plans to show them
  • When OFSTED show up I have to have detailed ‘narrowing the gap’ data to show them
  • When OFSTED show up  I have to have seating plans to show them

Via the minutes of the meeting I was informed that in my gained time I also have to arrange for a collaborative observation program for my department. Every member of the department has to carry out observations and also has to be observed. Each observation must be written up, objectives set, observations repeated and the whole process evaluated. In addition to planning new schemes of work, updating resources, rewriting lesson plans using the new double sided lesson pro forma, preparing book scrutinies… oh, and at some point teaching all of the Y7, Y8, Y9, Y10 and Y12 students.

At the same time I am told that I will have to work for another 36 years. That I will receive less pension than I was promised (despite the fact that the TPS pot has been overpaid for many years). That tests are too easy. That my subject is not good enough. That I need to solve gaps in parenting. That I should receive performance related pay. That teachers are paid too much. That public sector workers in the north are paid too much. That teachers ‘cheat’ when the watchmen come. And today I’m told that ‘teachers don’t know what stress is‘.

Three local schools have had the dreaded ‘O’ visit them in the last 3 months. Two were graded Satisfactory (which will soon be officially less than satisfactory) and one was given notice to improve. SLT appear to be living in a climate of fear that is pervading every meeting, every document, every decision and every discussion. It appears that my job is becoming more and more about pleasing our overlords (Did I say overlords? I meant protectors – Jonathan Coulton) and less and less about educating and enthusing children.

I’m not leaving teaching today, because there are still too many moments that I enjoy. The XKCD comic at the top of the post perfectly sums up the reason I became a teacher. The idea that someone can leave the room knowing more than they did when they went in has always fascinated me, and that I have the ability to be a part of that is wonderful. The fact that my AS Computing class is taught almost exclusively out of schools hours – when neither I nor they are required to be there – fills me with hope. TEACHING is a great activity. Teaching, at the minute, doesn’t always feel like a great job.

Under Siege?

Caverlaverock Castle with Trebuchet

Originally uploaded by jarek69 & evelyn

I’ve not been blogging much lately, and while I’m not overly keen on meta-posts I’ve been thinking a lot the last couple of days about why that is.

Partly, it’s because I’ve been flipping busy. But writing a post doesn’t take long, so that’s no excuse.

More significantly it’s because a lot of the things I’ve been thinking about, and even started to write on occasion, have been less than positive. And I don’t want to be whinging and moaning – partly because it reinforces the negativity, partly because it makes me look bad and partly because I’ll end up saying something that will get me in bother.

So why the negativity? I’m not 100% certain, but here’s an interesting fact.

In the four days alone I’ve seen news reports telling me that:

Teachers who say things like “I’m not a teacher on here. I’m just like anyone else, I drink, swear… but don’t tell anyone.” can find themselves reprimanded by the GTC and hauled through the press. (

Schools who are judged as outstanding will be free from routine inspections by OFSTED, except those whose exam results drop (so no pressure there then).

Even those schools judged as outstanding will be subject to departmental inspections, particularly focussing on those subjects trying to get themselves into the EBacc (staff meeting).

Those schools judged as outstanding in every area, but merely very good in terms of teaching (based on a 2-day snapshot) will no be allowed to be outstanding.

Schools that are currently satisfactory actually require improvement. OK, I can just about accept that, but it means that all schools will either be unsatisfactory, requires improvement, good or outstanding. That sounds to me like an F, a D, a C and an A*. (

It seems to me that there are lots of students in my Y11 classes who are doing better than scraping a C, but are not up to A* standard. It feels like someone is saying “unless you are truly amazing [which, after all, is what outstanding means, at least as I understand it] then you’re just not good enough”.

You see, and now this has turned into a negative rant. Which isn’t what I want. And inspection is a necessary evil. There are some schools and some teachers who don’t work hard enough, or don’t work right. There aren’t many of them, but we do need to ensure that standards are high. Fine, I accept that. I just feel as though the entire profession is under siege at the minute.

We’re lazy (we should have fewer holidays and longer working days), we’re overpaid (hence the pay freeze), we’re greedy over pensions (which is why I’ll be losing £100 a month on top of that pay freeze), we’re rubbish (hence all the OFSTED stuff) and we’re not allowed to have any kind of public or personal life (see any news story relating to teachers and social networking – including my HT telling me that any teacher with a Facebook account is being silly).

So maybe that’s got something to do with the lack of posts lately, despite lots of good stuff going on. I think I need to start focussing on that, really.

Satisfaction guaranteed?

Collar-label making process

Originally uploaded by Stephanie Booth

I have a new idea for organising my classes.

They’re currently mixed ability, which means I sometime have very bright students mixed in with less able students, and this makes things confusing, so I propose putting them into 4 groups.

I’ll have one group on the Outstanding table, where the best, the brightest (and the well dressed) can be quickly identified. I’ll also make sure I put a big sign on the table, so all the other students know who they need to emulate.

On the next table will be the Good students. Those who are doing pretty well, but could do better. If they work hard, they might move up to the Outstanding table, but I’ll have to lay down the law and threaten them with possible relegation to the Satisfactory table.

Actually, no. We’ll call it the Requires Improvement table. If I judge they’re not up to snuff, they’ll be plonked here and given a good going over. They’ll be told in no uncertain terms that if they’re stuck on this table for more than two cycles then that’s it – we’ll be looking to throw them straight down to the Unsatisfactory table (otherwise we’ll run out of room to put all those kids from the Good table who are coasting!).

Finally we have the unsatisfactory table. I don’t care if their social background is an issue, I don’t care if previous students have left their table in a mess – if they’re not sorting themselves out good and quick then it’s out on their ear and we’ll have to hire a whole new cohort of students to see if they can do better!

You see it’s all about choice, really. If I’m asking a question, I want to make sure I’m well informed as to who is who. I wouldn’t want to ask the wrong kind of kid!

Wait… what? What do you mean there’s a free table over there where the kids can pick their own curriculum and choose their own school hours?

Oh, I give up…

Literacy in ICT


Literacy is a big word at the minute. Not just because it has 4 syllables (depending on how you pronounce it), but because they-who-must-not-be-named* have released a new framework that mentions literacy specifically across all subjects.

One of my biggest problems, and I said this to my Headteacher, is that I have never been taught how to prepare students for essays and exams. I’ve never been taught how to teach for literacy. Until now. That’s one of the reasons for this (extremely lengthy) post.

Many tweeps** have been posting and asking for advice as they have suddenly had it thrust upon them to write a departmental literacy policy or to provide some other form of paperwork to their SMT. That’s the other reason for this (extremely lengthy) post.

I’m hoping I can be of some help to those people, but this article (which has been coming for a while) should also help me distill some of my own thoughts on the issue. The main reason is not that I’m cleverer or more specialist in literacy strategies, but because my SMT started us down this track before the summer break and we’ve already done a lot to push things on.

One of the most important things we did was to ask Geoff Barton to come and do a whole day of INSET with the entire staff. I had intended to post straight after that PD day but real life took over and I never seemed to manage the time. Suffice to say that my cynicism before the day that some bloke was going to come and tell me how to do my job properly was completely unfounded and it was one of the best and most productive INSET experiences I’ve had.

The main thrust of his argument is that literacy is not some plug-in or bolt-on that you stick into a lesson plan, it’s actually just about good teaching and learning. There were many bits of information I’ve taken with me (for example, a key indicator of academic success is that by 5 years old you can manage to have a conversation with an adult; preferably over a dinner table) and the striking difference between the word-rich and the word-poor has definitely remained in the back of my mind throughout the last few months.

So that’s all well and good – I’ve had a lovely time getting some training to do with literacy. Lets try working that into some practical ideas:


Many primary teachers will be familiar with VCOP already, but it was totally new to me and has really been a revelation. It stands for Vocabulary, Connectives, Openers and Punctuation. There are loads of resources out there ripe for pinching and adapting, but as most will be aimed at primary pupils you need to take a little care in terms of pitch.

Very simply, we present the students with a question and the first thing they do (after decomposing the question) is to suggest and write down some key vocabulary. So if we’re talking data security we could start with hacker, firewall, virus, anti-virus, etc…

Continuing from this we move on to connectives, which are the words used to join bits of sentences together; for example using a phrase like ‘for example’. Alternatively you could use a contrasting connective (do you see what I’m doing here?) and so you start to think about how to go from “this AND that AND the other AND the next bit” to a proper sentence structure.

Obviously the next section is for openers, and here you get the students to write the first few words of each paragraph. Again, with the topic of data security I could have one sentence opening the discussion: “Data security is increasingly important in the digital age because…”. The following paragraph could be about viruses: “One of the most common risks to data security is the computer virus…”. Next: “Hackers are people who try to…”. Maybe a couple more before we get to “In conclusion,…”. So already we have a structure to the work and we have planned what issues we are going to talk about in the essay itself and we’re less likely to forget to include something or, worse, to get sidetracked with a minor issue.

Personally I found the last step to be the hardest to work with, and that’s punctuation. The idea here is that you think about whether you’re going to use commas to separate list items, full stops to differentiate between sentences, semi-colons to join related sentences together, etc. I find this stuff comes fairly naturally and, perhaps it’s a flaw of mine, but I generally gloss over this bit.

And there we have our essay! The first time you do this it takes a good hour or so, but with practice you can easily give students 10 minutes for VCOP planning and then however much time you think is appropriate for the essay.

So, who is this for? The very weak? Those in Year 7 and 8 who need the most basic literacy support? Well so far we’ve been using it with the Y11s, who did badly in the essay question at the end of the WJEC Unit 1 exam in summer, and the 6th formers, who need to write significantly long essays as part of their Edexcel Applied Unit 1 coursework. And it’s been an overwhelming success. The students are able to quickly plan and structure their answers, the essays coming in are significantly improved in both readability and content, and I’ve even had students asking their English teachers if they can use VCOP in those lessons too.

2. Writing for an audience

Those who teach ICT will be familiar with the phrase ‘Audience and Purpose’. It underpins almost everything in the ICT curriculum and I’m forever trying to stop girls making everything pink and trying to stop boys putting guns in every piece of workª. But I was amazed to find out (purely because a meeting happened to be in an English room) that a key phrase in the English curriculum is ‘Audience, Context and Purpose’.

Actually, I shouldn’t have been surprised – of course it is. English is often about writing for an audience in the same way that ICT is often about preparing work for an audience. So when my Y9s are trying to sell the houses they designed in Sketchup, we spend a whole lesson writing the copy for the flyers, brochures and websites. We ask them to list 3 adjectives to describe their house; we compare their adjectives with an estate agent’s website; we talk about the use of language to persuade and exaggerate; they write copy that is amazingly detailed, descriptive and often even poetic. And we’ve been doing that lesson for 2 years now.

There are loads of examples similar to this that I can pick out, and I suspect that most ICT teachers can do the same. We’re already talking about appropriate language, we just need to recognise that this is about literacy as well as about ICT. I also think it does the pupils no harm at all to see that this ICT stuff on appropriate language is exactly the same as the principles they are learning about in English. Pupils have an amazing knack of denying the obvious links between subjects.

3. Reading for meaning

Again, something we’ve been doing implicitly for a while, we often set students off with project briefs. They have to take a letter or a document, read it, understand it and churn out a simple plan. This might be a bullet point list of tasks with a rough guess on how long each one might take, or a gantt chart at KS5 (we don’t bother in KS3, although we used to). We give them highlighters and get them to mark key phrases. We get them working in pairs to support each other (ideally matching a word-rich student with a word-poor student). All of this stuff relates to literacy because it involves reading, and processing, the information in order to understand and do something with it.

4. Marking policies

Marking policies are a difficult one for me. We have a whole school marking policy that now includes standard symbols for highlighting spelling, grammatical or punctuation errors – but in my department we tend to mark things online and adding those types of comments are tricky. My own policy is to flag up mistakes in the feedback, but not inline. The alternative would be to print the work out to annotate it or to have to open it in a particular package that allows annotation and probably have to use a graphics tablet to do it. A good idea if that’s what you want to do, but probably not all that practical.

5. Dictionaries in every room

Another new whole-school policy is to have a dictionary and thesaurus in every room. Easy with ICT – we generally have 20+ computers that are all connected to the Internet. Stick a dictionary website and a thesaurus website in the bookmarks on the standard student profile and every pupil has almost instant access. I think it’s also sensible to have a paper copy of each too, but it’s a simple one if you’re trying to show your SMT that you are taking literacy seriously.

6. Simplify and repeat

When I talk about audience, I say “the audience, the people who are going to read this, are going to want…” or something similar. Every timeªª. The idea is to explain what a word means as you use it, so the kids understand it – and to do it a lot. I’m sure I heard somewhere that you have to tell a pupil something 10 times before they’ll definitely learn it, so tell it often. Viruses, small programs that harm your computer, can be picked up really easily when you go on dodgy websites. Parenthetical commas all the way.

And that’ll about do for now.

I dare say that if I were to wrack my brain a bit harder then something else might fall out, but the point is that with the exception of VCOP, this stuff is just what we’ve been doing anyway, we’ve simply made it a bit more explicit. We’ve talked about it, had 2 days of INSET to put things in place and to get some training in it and we’re making progress with it.

Hopefully that’s of some use to some of you. I’m convinced it’s been of much use to me, and to my students.



* I won’t name the organisation, but if you’re still not sure, it starts with an O.

** I dislike that word, but I have to admit that it works.

ª Yes, there are times when those two things would be appropriate, but it’s trying to get in that there are times when they aren’t that seems to be the challenge.

ªª OK, not every time, but I’m trying