Re-finding my teaching mojo

Back to School – Bluesquarething

So, it’s been a while since I wrote a blog post. But this year I am determined to find the time for self-reflection that I missed out on last year – and forcing myself to blog at least once a fortnight should help me do that.

The return to school after such a long break is always a funny one, and this year I’ve felt less organised than ever. Partly I think I overworked myself last year and really needed a long break, meaning that I didn’t even do the token 3 or 4 days in the run up to starting this year.

And yet, it really doesn’t take long to get back into it. This morning I felt quite disillusioned arriving at school. The same corridors, the same room, the same tip that I didn’t tidy properly at the end of term… and the same requirements to be excellent, to be outstanding, to have engaging, entertaining lessons. I really didn’t think I had the energy for it any more when I rolled up at 8am.

By third lesson I’d spent two hours with my new form, taught a tutorial lesson that didn’t result in me wanting to bang my head against a wall and was starting to take some shiny new Y7s through the intricacies of logging on. I didn’t have time be tired, found myself making jokes the kids didn’t get (is it just me that does this?) and just generally felt quite at home.

This afternoon I met both of my new Y10 classes and was impressed by their work ethic, their ability and my planning (I might be one-sided but I genuinely thought they both lessons were well paced, included varied activities and both actually had a plenary!).

So, while it seemed a dispiriting moment to be heading back to the front lines, it’s actually reminded me of all the things I love about teaching. Interactions with enthusiastic kids, being helpful and supportive, seeing people make progress on a minute by minute basis and all that stuff.

We’ll see how it goes in week two once they’ve gotten a little more comfortable 😀

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Controlled Assessment Strategies

The Passage of Time

Originally uploaded by ToniVC

How many teachers are spending at least some of their time planning schemes of work, resources and other bits and bobs for the next academic year?

How many of those teachers will sit in 1 hour chunks (or some other arbitrary time period), during which time they start, get stuff done, save and then (whether finished or not) put everything away and start a new task for another hour.

My Y10 computing students have just finished a 20 hour controlled assessment task. 2 or 3 times a week they’ve come into my classroom, logged in, grabbed their controlled assessment booklets and ploughed on with a task. 55 minutes later they get told to stop, save, put it away until the next time – worst case scenario due to their timetable, in 6 days time.

Don’t get me wrong. There are interventions, tips, hints, guidance and all sorts of other things going on – I’m not just leaving them to fend for themselves. What seems ludicrous, though, is that sometimes the students are just building up a head of steam, getting into the zone, getting themselves into the task, when they get the call to save, log off an pack up until next time. That process of getting yourself into the right frame of mind, and into the right headspace to be able to visualise the problems and challenges you’re dealing with, must sap the students’ productivity.

When I have a big job to do, I’ll sit down and do it. It might take me 90 minutes instead of an hour. It might take me 4 or 5 hours. It might take me a few days or even weeks, but it’s very unlikely that I’ll be using pre-defined, 1 hour chunks to get it done. It’s unnatural to do so.

I’m seriously considering booking my students off timetable in order to complete their controlled assessment in larger chunks. Initially I thought about 5 days, Monday to Friday. That would give me time to do some bits that don’t count towards the time and would give the students time to really get themselves into the task.

The downsides? There’s little time to reflect on the problem. A task that is completed over 3 or 4 weeks has time to permeate, and gives the students time to research and reflect. It may be that, with such a number of subjects (plus all that, not inconsiderable stuff going on outside the classroom), most students aren’t really doing this anyway (my homework tracking book would back that up), I’m not sure.

There’s the logistics of covering my timetable for a whole week, as well as the effect on other subjects of losing their students for a week. If every department did that then it might (MIGHT) be chaos. Or, it might work out really well. Certainly the Geography department take students out for 3 days of fieldwork around this time each year. Why not computing students as well?

Another issue is that time to help students identify issues and to spend some time away from controlled assessment working on them. The OCR programming tasks, for example, come in 3 parts – each progressively more difficult. I’ll usually stop and do a week or two of revision on a particular concept before starting each task, to make the students are fully prepared. So maybe I do 1 day for task 1, 1.5 days for task 2 and 2 days for taks 3, spread out over 3 weeks?

The issue raised here also raises the question of whether the model is flawed for the rest of the year. Carousels, where students learn about Subject A for a half term, Subject B for a half term and then Subject C for a half term, with longer lessons (perhaps a half-day at a time) might be more natural and would allow for longer project-based activities to be explored more effectively. But that might be a post for another day.

Has anyone tried the more intensive approach for longer controlled assessment tasks? Any feedback from those who’ve been there would be much appreciated.

Minimally Invasive Education

Library girls

Originally uploaded by dcolson5201

Let me take you on a short journey.

Around Easter time I wanted my Y8s to try web design using WordPress instead of Dreamweaver. Not an IT expert? I wanted them to use a new piece of software they hadn’t used before. So, I prepared some supporting resources and did my ‘teaching’ bit – standing at the front of the room, demonstrating how to do various things.

The result, perhaps predictably, was that the students got bored pretty quickly, didn’t really pay attention, I got cross and little progress was made – both in terms of the physical outcome (a website) and in terms of student understanding.

I realised that the students weren’t paying close attention because they didn’t need to know that bit of information at that time. I knew they would in about 3 minutes, but they didn’t. And so I showed everyone at once, no-one really cared, and then I had to do it again, 20 times over, as each person got to the point where they *did* want to know. But by then, I was grumpy and that only put the students off wanting to ask.

My immediate solution was to produce a quiz based around the software (What button do you press to do this? How many different themes are there to choose from? Etc…). The next lesson I got the students in groups, handed out the quiz and explicitly refused to help the students to get the answers. The result this time was students that wanted to know the answers and were engaged in trying to figure out the software and also helping each other. Resilience, peer support, all that (pedagogical) jazz.

That wasn’t a big pedagogical realisation for me, it was just part of the day-to-day continual reflection and readjustment that forms part of my job.

A month or two later I went to the Computing At School conference in Birmingham, and there I was fortunate enough to choose a session run by James Franklin entitled “The productive teacher”. There, I learned about Sugata Mitra, an Indian professor who has done pioneering work in the field of Minimally Invasive Education. The theory is quite simple – take away the teachers and rigidity, provide an environment in which people have the tools and resources required to learn, then just let them get on with it.

I realise now that this is exactly what I did with that pesky Y8 class. I provided the tools (computers and software) and the framework (quiz) to allow the students to learn. I then took myself out of the equation. The concepts were simple enough, the software relatively intuitive and the students now had a reason to want to learn. It’s a small experiment, and hardly conclusive, but I think there’s something in this idea.

Jumping ahead to the last two weeks of term and I’m trying a (slightly) longer experiment. Those same Y8s (2 classes of) have been given the CodeAvengers URL and been told that most of the rules no longer apply. They can talk to each other, they can move around the room at will, and I won’t be answering any questions. “Can we use a calculator?”, I’m not answering any questions. “How do I do this bit?”, I’m not answering any questions.

So far both of my Y8 classes have had a 1 hour lesson. The atmosphere has been massively more positive and there’s been a genuine sense of energy. The fact that students are walking around the room adds to that sense of energy and hasn’t detracted from the sense of purpose. The students are talking about their progress, how far they’ve got and what they can do to help each other. I did have some reservations about the idea, and here are the kinds of questions I would ask if this was someone else’s blog post:

What about the student who chooses not to engage or do the work?

I know this student. I’ve had a full year to know which student it is. And I’ve watched him (and her) like a hawk. This students chooses not to engage in ‘normal’ lessons. They typically find the work hard and find the option of not trying easier than having to apply effort and probably failing. In both lessons this student worked harder, and for longer, than they have in any other lesson this year. This student is not suddenly top of the class, but he/she has made significantly more progress in this lesson than in previous lessons. The momentum in the classroom pulls everyone along.

What about the student who finds it really hard and doesn’t want to look stupid in front of friends or the loner?

While there are loners in secondary schools, there are no hermits (that I’ve met). Even the student who hates working in groups and would much rather do his own thing has ended up engaging with others – far more than they would if they were forced to work in a group. One of my quietest and weakest students spent most of the lesson out of her seat. She made middling progress over the lesson, but having been shown how to solve one problem, she went on to help about half the class solve the same problem. This from a student who never speaks and is totally overwhelmed during group work.

How do you measure progress?

Measure, shmeasure. you don’t fatten a pig by weighing it every day. That said, you do need to measure progress, rightly or wrongly. Observation is good, and if I was going to make this a longer term strategy (which I am), then there would need to be some assessed tasks. But that comes *after* the learning, not during. Formative assessment can be informal and can be as simple as giving out a couple of stickers, or an occasional “well done”. It’s important to stil be there and to offer encouragement – just not ‘teaching’.

How do you make sure that the work is the students’ own?

If I give a student a series of 4 buttons to click on to achieve the outcome, and they do the clicking, whose work is it? Them because they did the mouse work, or me because I’m the only one who understands which buttons to click and why? Most good learners that I know *want* to learn. If they get stuck and they end up getting help then they have a burning desire to know *why* this answer is better than theirs. Now, yes, some of these students are not the most effective learners, but they do still want to know – especially when it’s from a peer. Me, I just *know stuff*, or I know loads of stuff, or I do this all the time (this is what the kids have told me). Peers are on an equal footing. It is to be expected that the sage on the stage will just know everything. If little Johnny in the next seat understands it, then why the heck shouldn’t I?

And those challenges, and my responses, are the reason why I think this idea might just be a huge one, for me at least.

Next year I plan to do a lot more MIE (or ‘sitting on my backside’, as it probably appears), and over prolonged periods. We (the students and I, together and separately) need to do some reflection on what we’ve learned, how we’ve learned it, why we’ve learned it, and whether this new (to me) strategy is a good one. I suspect it’ll require quite a bit of setting up in terms of preparing resources that the students can access independently and in a non-linear fashion, but I think the rewards might well be worth it.

TMNE10: Metacognitive Wrappers

Context: Teachmeet Northeast took place on Thursday 9th December. Each day I’m blogging about one thing I learned at the event.

This is my final post in the series and, although I did miss one day, I don’t think I’ve done too bad.

Before and after ‘Proper Scrabble’ (see previous post for details) Darren Mead and Fergus Hegarty introduced us to the concept of a metacognitive wrapper. Now that sounds quite a heavy phrase, so lets break it down first.

Meta means ‘about’; Cognition means ‘the process of thought’. So metacognition is thinking about thinking. I understand this to be thinking about what we are learning and how we are learning it, in addition to doing the actual learning planned for that lesson / period of time / topic / etc.

In practice, we were presented with three questions before the activity. I’m afraid my memory has gotten the better of me and while there are a number of research papers on the subject I’m going to misremember / make up the three questions and say “What strategies in Scrabble might help you win?“, “What do you know about pirate lore?” and “How imaginative are you feeling?“.

We then played ‘Proper Scrabble’ (see previous post) and afterwards were asked three similar questions: “What new strategies did you develop?“, “How did your knowledge of pirate lore help you?” and “How important was it to use your imagination?” (I’m pretty sure most of these are fairly accurate, but I know I made the last one up).

What did it mean to me, in practice? It reminded me that the students will succeed far more if they reflect on their learning. Read my first post in the TMNE10 series and see Darren’s definition of learning (recap: it’s ‘change’). The point of having a pre-learning checkpoint and a post-learning checkpoint is to allow the students to recognise that change. To let them see that their thinking process is now slightly altered. To see that they have *learned* something, or to use the new lexicon of choice, so the students can measure their own progress.

I think this stuff is great, although I’ll be honest and say that it makes my head hurt a little. At least at first. I have no doubt it is worth persevering with though.

You can find more excellent stuff from Darren and Fergus at the Pedagogical Purposes blog.

Image attribution: queen of the elves Originally uploaded by @superamit