Sunday, 28 December 2014

We don’t know what we don’t know… 21st century skills

We don’t know what we don’t know…

So we have to teach children not the knowledge base that is current, actually we only would ever teach a tiny, tiny fraction of the sum of knowledge, but we must prepare them for a world that does not yet exist.

I am trying to encapsulate those who proclaim against teaching children knowledge and would have us teach children skills, to learn usually.

This is an example of association by juxtaposition. One says one, or more, correct thing(s) and then places next to that a statement. The second statement then becomes true by association. You may want to get the logic of the correctness, or not, of the second statement.

The transistor was invented in 1948 in the Bell Labs in America. This functioned in a similar way to the valves that were used in radios and other electronic apparatus. It is unlikely that the explosion that occurred over the next few years would have been predicted by many around that time. The transistor led onto the integrated circuit, invented about ten years later. This led to the development of the electronic computer in, well it really depends what we mean. Valve computers, Colossus were doing sums in the 1940s. It was then not much of a jump to the large computers that were run using integrated circuits that we would recognise as the modern version of computers. In the 1970s the Altair, probably the first personal computer came into existence. In the 1980s IPM invented the PC, a portable personal computer. Apple 1 on 1976. And so on.

This is not a history of computers. It simply says that future developments come from current developments. If you understand how a triode valve operates it is not too much of a jump to understanding how a transistor and then an integrated circuit works.

Mobile apps for phones appeared in 2008. No one predicted that in 2000! But apps are simply developments from the types of programming that were going on ever since the computer had been invented. The job of ‘appwriter did not exist before 2007. Did our education system beat itself up because we had not prepared children to enter this brand new job market? No it did not. The knowledge we need to write apps is simply a development from existing skills. Were those entering this job market able to cope? Of course they were.

We are fine to just develop the curriculum as time progresses. Stuff we know now will merge into stuff we need to know in the future. Just like it always has.

Sure the future will be different but just because the calendar changed from 1999 to 2000 it does not mean we have to change the way we teach children. We certainly should not think that one day they will wake up and their brains have suddenly become inadequate for the world they are now in.

Stop this silly 21st century skills nonsense now.

Sunday, 21 December 2014

Who is responsible for engagement, teachers or children?

Whenever I bring this topic up I get an anti response which is based around the idea that some children, because of some feature of the child, can’t be held responsible for engaging. I don’t believe, even if this were true, that the few should determine what we do for the majority. My work with EBD schools has further convinced me that nearly all children can behave properly in class and can learn effectively. The numbers that seem unable are a very tiny fraction and it might be that we need to work even harder on that tiny number.

What I am going to propose is based on the view that we lose something by thinking the teacher is responsible for generating lessons that are engaging. Let me deal with the opposite end of that spectrum. I am not saying that teachers should try to plan lesson that are devoid of engaging stuff. I don’t want lessons to be planned to be boring. Give me a little more credit than that.

Let’s think about what lessons might be like of children can be expected to engage rather than the current, widely held view that teachers provide the engagement. How would the planning teachers did change? How would misbehaviour now appear to the teacher, other children and school leaders if a child was responsible for engaging in the learning?

My thoughts are that we lose the opportunity to teach children how to engage if we hold teachers responsible for providing engagement.

So what would we need to teach children?

Listening skills: Children know how to listen but do they know how to listen carefully and how to begin to place what they hear into their thought processes so that learning can take place. I guess the title would be ‘Listening for Thinking’ to try to define what I mean.

Trust: Children should trust the teacher to provide appropriate learning opportunities. They should be willing to listen for as long as is needed. I can hear the sharp intakes of breath from some. This does not mean that the teacher should simply talk for England (or Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland). I would be very critical of a teacher who was continuing to talk when children were clearly not in learning need of the talk. I also would be very supportive of a teacher who was talking a lot if that was what was needed. Perhaps I hold teachers in too high regard? Perhaps I trust them to do what is best for their children in terms of learning? I think not.

Whenever I said to my mother that I was bored she told me to go and read something. She made it very clear that my feeling bored was a consequence of my own action/inaction. I was very rarely bored as a child and that was when the telly began sometime in the afternoon and never seemed to even begin on a Sunday. It was also black and white. Bored is a feeling the child needs to act on not something that the teacher needs to feel responsible for.

Learning is hard: It is. It needs hard work. We need to think and we are not primarily built for thinking. We have to put aside our genetic dispositions for scanning the environment for possible threats and focus for a long time so that we can learn. Children need to be told it is ok to feel lost, as though they are not understanding but with continued focus and application learning will happen. Teacher also need to ensure that they understand learning and how it is most likely to happen.

I think there are other things we would need but, for the moment, that is enough.

Perhaps more, later.

Friday, 14 November 2014

Engagement - too many meanings!

In thinking about engagement and what I want when I talk about engagement by children in lessons I am sometimes frustrated by the meaning some others attach to this word. In this post I want to try to define what I mean by engagement and what I do not mean. This is a prelude to exploring how we might teach, encourage, help children engage in lessons in a way that supports their learning.

This is part two. Part one is here.

What I do not mean by engagement.

Engagement - engaged to be married.

Engagement - I have an engagement. I need to go now. A meeting, event of some sort.

Engagement - I have been engaged to deliver an INSET Day at Bog Standard Comprehensive School

Engagement - I am engaged (taking part) in doing this activity.

Engagement - I am enjoying this activity. (I am quite happy with learning being enjoyable.)

Engagement - I am designing this activity so that the children will be engaged. So that children will be interested.

The last one is the one which I think is missing the point. I do not think we should have to try to get children to do the activities we have planned for their learning. I am assuming we will have planned these well but our primary thoughts will be what they need to learn; essentially, what they need to know.

What worries me is that teachers may distort the content, avoid the difficult stuff, by their perceived need to get children engaged, to get them to see the activity as interesting, fun, motivating etc. What this attitude leads to is desperate attempts to make learning fun, and so not boring. God forbid that children might just get on with the learning and trust the teacher has set work that will allow them to learn.

I am assuming we all know about internal motivation and how important it is to support that rather than using extrinsic rewards to drive a child to take part in the lesson.

A child who does not take part, who does not participate in the learning activities is either being set work which is too easy or too hard or is misbehaving. Too hard or too easy, if it is not just the child’s inaccurate perception, is a result of the teacher’s poor planning. If the child is misbehaving, refusing to do the work set, or not trying to do the work properly, then there are appropriate ways to deal with this. An appropriate way is not to make the work more attractive. We should not be bribing children to learn. We should have high expectations and so should they. If you are having to think too much about how to make the work attractive to the children in your class then you need to take a long hard look at the learning culture that exists in the class and perhaps in the school. Let me again make it clear that I have no issue with children enjoying the activities but I do not think we do our children a proper service by sugar coating the learning to make it palatable. learning is hard work and it needs to be recognised as worth doing.

The description of the engagement I want is encapsulated by the phrase:

Engagement in the learning, not engaging with the activity.

Engagement with the activity is superficial. The hope, I guess, is that the child learns, almost, by accident by completing the tasks set by the teacher. What I often see is children doing an activity and then the teacher identifies the learning outcomes that were expected. Not as reinforcement but to ensure the learning has happened. My question is, if the learning can be brought about by the teacher identifying the learning why do the activity? Perhaps the engagement engendered by the activity was not well focused? Perhaps the children were not engaging in the learning? Perhaps more thought needed to go into the activity and the ability of the children to actually engage in the learning rather than look for the fun!

With that as the definition of engagement my next, probably, post will be about how we might enable children to engage

Saturday, 8 November 2014

Engagement. Teach children how to engage.

I have a view about engagement. My view is that engagement is not something teachers should be amending the learning plan to include. I am sure that adding engagement is not the best way to work with children. I think we may well be missing an opportunity and doing children a disservice for their future learning if we provide the engagement.

Children do need to engage in learning. It is axiomatic that to learn they must engage with the learning. I am saying that the engagement in learning is an internal process for a child. By trying to make a task engaging we are using external, extrinsic, motivation and the evidence is that intrinsic motivation is what we want. That is what will generate life long learners.

I want to distinguish between engaging with the task and engaging with the learning. When teachers add the engagement to make the activities enjoyable that is wrong, for me. When teachers create activities that challenge children and children meet those challenges effective learning can happen. When children know how to engage and how that leads them to learn great things can happen. I wish there was another word for making the activities engaging. I wish that teachers could distinguish between the two versions of engagement. One version is ‘willingly takes part’ and the other is ‘learns’.

Let me digress for a while. Please bear with me. We, my wife and I, have two dogs. Lovely Belgian Shepherds, Carlos and Merlin. As a breed one could say Belgians are enthusiastic, which makes them great dogs to train and very enjoyable to be with. But they are also quite excitable. When it is time to go out their preferred method was to wait for the inner door to be opened and then barge out past, and into, any object or human that was in the way in a rush to get to the door leading to the garden. They would knock over anything. The corridor to the external door was a wreck. If you have dogs you may well know the effect!

My wife was very angry that the dogs knocked everything down. My suggestion for a solution, which did not go down too well, was to say that the corridor should be cleared so that there was nothing to knock down. Seemed sensible to me. But my wife, who is not to be trifled with - let me assure you, said that this was certainly not the solution. She said I must train the dogs to go out sensibly. So, train them I did and we now have a much calmer time instead of the mad rush to exit. Stuff rarely gets knocked down and humans are reasonably safe. She was right. Doing the right thing, training the dogs is a much better solution. Removing stuff is a solution but it is a poor one. Took some time to teach the dogs to walk, calmly behind me to the exit door. Not as quick as just moving the stuff out of the way!

Creating engaging activities will mean that children enjoy their work but, for me, it is the wrong solution. They may not learn as effectively. We need a way of getting children to learn because they have the skills to learn, not because the teacher has managed to create a fireworks lesson which, I believe, might well distract from the learning rather than add to it. The impression is that children are learning when what is really happening is that are just waiting for the next enjoyable bit. Teacher as an entertainer. Or more cuttingly, teacher as a clown.

If we could teach children to engage in learning rather than have to be engaged by the teacher then we might have done them a real, life long favour. Or should we go for just clearing the corridor to the exit so that nothing gets knocked down?

In my next blog I am going to explore how we might teach children to engage. It will rely on the attitude my wife has. Do it properly and have rightly high expectations of behaviours. Perhaps she should write the blog. I love her lots.

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Can I improve my students' memory?

Treading of dangerous waters, here. But the following is a distillation of what I have read and hopefully understood about memory.

At some point your children will take exams and the more they can remember, facts and processes - know what and know hoy - the better they are likely to do in the exam, other things being equal.

It is important to be clear about two stages relating to memory.

The first is one that many teachers will already do well. Getting the stuff in. This starts with the teacher being very clear about what the student is to learn. Do they really need to hear, and potentially learn, that interesting story you always tell when teaching the topic? Really? I know you enjoy it and your children may well laugh but is it time well spent? Would it have been better to repeat the work in a different way rather than add a piece of narrative that is loosely connected to the thing you want them to learn?

That does not mean there should be no stories. Stories have a very special place in relation to learning. Stories seem to be privileged as routes into the brain. Stories place facts in a sequence and relate items together. Stories can change facts into understanding - or at least begin that process for our learners.

So the first feature of improving the memory of students is to be sure they receive the information they need. As rich as it needs to be and no more. If we think of this as a process model we want to refine the input so that what is presented is as accurate and complete as can be.

I do not mean spoon feeding nor rote learning. Both have their place in very specific setting but in general they will not lead to quality learning per se. There are reasons to make the learning a little more difficult that one might at first choose. Make the learners work a little harder to comprehend and their learning will be enhanced. Perhaps this works by priming their brain to activate the areas they already know which will relate to the new learning. There is some evidence that asking students to try to solve problems that they do not quite have all the required knowledge for enhances the learning hen that new knowledge is presented. Which knowledge we should present in this way and how often we should do this is a matter of professional judgement. I can see it would work for those students who were well motivated and somewhat tantalised by the puzzle aspects of such learning. But it could also be the case that some did not really try, knowing that they did not yet have enough information to resolve the puzzle. It might annoy some students who feel that the teacher should be providing the knowledge first.

Given the teacher is providing the knowledge to students the ability to explain clearly is paramount. Great teachers give great explanations. They pace the explanation that provides pace, possibly just a little faster than the students can easily manage but not so fast that they are lost. Make them work for it. Great explanations may well be a knife edge and that is difficult to define. Presenting work that is at the time just outside the student yet expecting them to keep up could be seen as an exemplification of high expectations. 'I know you can do this' is an attitude great teachers display to their students. Not dumbing down as this could be come just spoon feeding where the students do little thinking about the new knowledge as it is presented. Robert Bjork describes these as 'desirable difficulties'. It is very well worth reading the details and watching the videos.

So we have carefully selected what is to be learned and we have constructed the explanation phase using the ideas of Robert Bjork. Our children surely know what they need to know. Sadly no. In most schools the above is often well done. In some classrooms too much emphasis is placed on discovery type learning. What these teacher probably believe is that children who 'discover' the knowledge will understand if better that 'being told'. The evidence is that this is not true. At best children understand as well and in many cases they will not know as well. The major disadvantage for all children is that the discovery process takes so much longer. The second issue is that disadvantaged children do considerably less well than more advantaged children. The Matthew Effect prevails.

The second matter is to do with what, in my view, is less well done by many teachers. Once learned, ie in one's brain, there is a need to practise recall. if we cannot recall then we cannot truly say something, in the academic sense, has been learned. The recall needs to be, as dog trainers know, proofed. I am in no way suggesting children are dogs other than to say that dogs trainers and good owners know that their dog needs to be taught to, say, sit in as many different environments and with as many different distractors as possible.

In multiple choice question parlance the wrong answers are called distractors. They are there to distract. The learning must be as secure as possible. So present children with answers that are similar, more similar as they become more secure. Make sure they are answering from their knowledge rather than using other clues. (Other clues are fine once we know they are secure in their learning.)

Testing, children testing the extent to which they know something, is an underused technique to aid memory. Not an important test like the one to decide which set you are in for GCSE physics but low stakes, the outcome is for you to know what you now need to relearn type of tests. We need lots of these. Short tests where the feedback allows a child to realise what he/she knows and does not know. If possible to know why they don't know whatever has been tested. Proper diagnostic testing. Teachers can write these tests. They do not have to be something external but it does require some thought if the test outcome is to be more than a simple list of what the child has answered correctly and what incorrectly. Write the test so that the outcome is for the child and not for the teacher to be able to record a mark.

So clarity of input and checking of what has been properly learned will support memory and recall.

Tuesday, 28 October 2014

What really bugs teachers?

The answer is simple. Having their time taken doing tasks that are essentially pointless or very much on the sidelines of them doing their job as quality educators.

This blog is prompted by a meeting of a few teachers-who-blog in Birmingham.

I always enjoy talking to teachers - one of whom put my conversation with him as a gentle interrogation. Those who know me in real life may well recognise this description. I think it is me trying to be really clear and get to understand precisely what is being said. But I may have to think a little about the abruptness of the questioning process.

This is in no way a scientific survey. It is crap as evidence so it would be really simple to dismiss it as a piece of nonsense. I'd just want to add that in my work over 5 years with over 500 outstanding teachers in London, Bristol, York, South Wales, Mansfield and Sheffield, the story is remarkably similar.

Is it really the most important thing in a school trying to move from good to outstanding to check children's books, disrupting lessons in the process, for the percentage of dates underlined? Not as part of a sampling of work generally but as a specific activity? Will sorting that move the school to the level it aspires to? Does the school know how this makes their teachers feel? Perhaps they should sample staff views. They might not be too keen on the responses, though.

Teachers know that monitoring must happen. I do not get any feeling they they object per se. What these bright, dedicated and hard working graduates want is to be valued and to have the things of value monitored. They do not want some distant proxy such as whether the dates are underlined or not to form a significant part of the monitoring. They recognise that it takes SLT time which could be used so much more effectively. This type of highly specific monitoring strikes me as an attempt at control which is both crude and negative.

How about an insistence that children write things that went well in the lesson and how it could have been a better lesson, frequently, and have the teacher write a comment on each of these. Sounds like it might be some use but is a lot of work. But how about if these many pages are filed away and never again seen? Not quite as useful. We have probably done away with make work tasks for children but this growing pile of paper feels like make work for teachers. I wonder if anyone in such schools has ever costed this. Teachers are paid well and have long holidays; we know that! Lets say a teacher costs £50000 per year (including on costs) and their contract time is 1250 hours. That means each hour of work we get the teacher to do costs £40. It would be useful to think about whether the activity the teacher does is educational value for money.

What somewhat pointless activities are you engaging your teachers in?

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Knowledge and Information

I am sure that the differences between knowledge and understanding are explored in some deep academic way and I probably should get to grips with that but I want to suggest that the differences between knowledge and understanding are quite simple a difference in amount rather than nature.I was waiting for an appointment and looking at a large map of North Wales, which is where I live. A better map than the one shown here.

I was looking at the map and thinking how difficult it was for me to remember some of the names of places in Wales. I do not speak Welsh. Although one learns some things by living in a country that uses a language as different from English as can be it is much more complex for me to know where places are and the relationship they have to each other, geographically, than for places in England.

Why is this? The map above is not too clear, which adds to the difficulty somewhat but see if you can locate Wrexham. In Welsh this is written Wrecsam as there is no X in Welsh.

Wrecsam is to the top right on the map. If you have no idea where Wrexham is then this task is more difficult than in you have more of an idea about its location.

Ok now find Llangollen, which is close to where I live. Don't worry, I am not planning to get you to visit me!

Llangollen is below and a little to the left of Wrexham. Found it?

First you have some knowledge. You know the word Wrexham. That it is a place in Wales. That it is top right on the map. You also know the same things about Llangollen.

You also now know where Llangollen is in relation to Wrexham. If I told you they were about ten miles apart you get knowledge of the scale of the map.

Would you agree that you were beginning to understand the locations of Wrexham and Llangollen?

My hypothesis is that understanding comes from adding knowledge to that which you already have. Nothing more than that.

How you assess knowledge and understanding is a different matter.

Friday, 10 October 2014

Micromanaging Teachers

How can you be a different and more effective SLT?

Only read this if you want to change, for the better. Only read this if you think you can be better and in being better you and your staff can be more productive and create the quality learning school that you desire. Only read this if you are feeling that the high level of control you are currently exerting is not delivering the outcomes you actually want for all the humans in your school.

My motivations for writing this are twofold. Like Monty Python that may expand to three or fourfold, or more!

The first motivation is my belief that teachers deserve to work in an environment that trusts them to do their very best and that very best will be good enough to deliver a high quality, humane learning environment that anyone will agree is a place they would want to work in, would be challenging in a good way for all and they would want to send their own children to.

The first belief one needs to have is a belief on teachers. They are, almost without exception, a really great bunch of people who dedicate themselves to the betterment of the children they work for. If you are thinking that your staff are not like this then one question I want you to ask yourself is, ‘What are you doing to make them that way?’ They will behave in the ways that work in your school. If they see a head teacher who focuses on admin then that is what they will do, and being teachers they will do that very well. What really do you want your teachers to focus on? If you don’t answer that question with the word ‘learning’ then you need to rethink what education is all about. Call me a name and stop reading. Write me a comment at the end to tell me so. I’ll read it and if it says something I’ll think about it. Convince me I am wrong, if you can.

If you are still with me then I’ll suggest that what is driving you in the wrong direction is the external pressure of Ofsted. Odd really. What Ofsted want is quality learning. Not a pretend version showing some of the features of an outstanding lesson.You need to understand when great learning is likely to be happening and not try to fake it by having some surface impression of learning. Do you think great lessons always need shared learning objectives? Why? Because you think Ofsted wants to see evidence of shared learning objectives? Have you checked the Ofsted documentation to see if that requirement, shared learning objectives, is there? You might be surprised if you do. You will have to come on one of my courses to see why shared learning objectives are potentially dangerous to learning. Let me tell you what two things are needed. One, a teacher who is utterly and completely clear what the learning needs to be and how best to get there. And then, two, school systems that support the kind of classroom environment that allows great learning. (Classroom is shorthand for any learning space.)

The second motivation comes from reading Twitter. I am saddened by the number and nature of the reasons teachers give for feeling highly, far too highly, pressured by their leadership teams. The micromanaging of teachers is a really dominant feature and it is such a stupid and destructive thing to do. Teachers are some of the brightest and most highly motivated workers in this country. Why on Earth do you think they need to be managed like 15 year old trainee chefs? Nothing against chefs by the way.

To use a military metaphor, ask yourself if a general micromanages his/her troops? What would happen if that were the case? That is not what Sandhurst teaches its leaders! Train teachers well. Use your inset time properly and then check the outcomes. You have to trust that your training is effective and not try to catch every raindrop yourself.

Trust appears frequently in my thoughts about teachers. Not a blind, fluffy trust but a hard headed I-have-trained-them-well and they are bright, motivated individuals trust. Hold them responsible for their outcomes and trust that the methods they use, while fitting in the broadest outlines you can construct, are properly thought out. You will be fully aware of the latest and best evidence on learning. No brain gym here! No learning style based teaching in this school. You know the myths and have provided the evidence for their ineffectiveness.

You also know that great teaching does not have to look like the rather blinkered view of what makes a great lesson that you hold yourself. Lessons you like. A great lesson is where the likelihood of great learning exists, time and time again. Exists over lessons throughout the term and is not measured by a single short observation supported by a clipboard and a check list! A great lesson does not have features. It has great learning.

So what was my system for getting the best out of teachers?

First is to go and look at and listen to the learning around the school. Visit lessons but with no agenda other than to see what is really happening. Visit lessons where there is a supply teacher. Visit anywhere there are children supposed to be learning. Of course teachers need to know that you will be touring the school, or your SLT will but they should be certain that you are never looking at individuals. You are trying to pick up the patterns in what happens in your school. I never used a checklist, other than the one in my head that allowed me to be aware of the features of lessons that were likely to lead to better learning. Sometimes I would stay in a lesson for only a few moments. Sometimes I could stay for a good fraction of the lesson. It just depended on what I saw. I was asking the questions; what is going on here and how is it contributing to learning?

I would see traditional lessons, my preferred style, and progressive lessons. Neither got credit or discredit because of the way the lesson was delivered. Did I think there was evidence that this lesson would lead to learning was my criterion. I knew from previous exam data that different teachers got good or less good results with different groups of children. I was not about to impose a way of working that was good for that teacher and that class. I had boundaries, but that is not the issue here.

The data I collected were what was repeatedly seen on my, and other SLT and HoDs and Heads of Year, visits.

We then collated what we had seen and where there were patterns we used those to build our inset programme. We might have been looking to see of the previous insets had been successful. Think carefully about that because the fact that we rarely saw evidence of what the previous inset had focused on could well have meant it was not a useful thing to have been taught about, or perhaps we taught it wrongly or … lots of other possibilities.

We may well have seen student behaviours which we liked or did not like. Put these findings into the inset plan if there was evidence of a pattern.

Quite a simple model, really. I could come to your school and teach you how to do it. I toured the whole school at least 3 times a week. Took me just over an hour for a typical tour.

Friday, 15 August 2014

Going SOLO - An English teacher's experience of using SOLO.

Going Solo…
Having been persuaded of the limitations of Bloom’s Taxonomy and introduced to the benefits of SOLO through an OTP course, I decided the only way to really find out was to experiment with it myself.  
My school is currently involved in a series of PLCs where, as teachers, we work in groups of three to focus on a particular area of improvement in our classrooms.  My group chose Progress and so this seemed like to perfect opportunity to bite the bullet and try out SOLO.
After a little research, I was particularly attracted to the SOLO hexagons and so I decided to base my lesson around these.  
I chose my top set Year 10s to `experiment on’ as they are always open to ideas and I knew I could be honest with them – I told them I was unsure if this lesson would work but I had decided to give it a go anyway!
Lesson one involved introducing the class to SOLO.  I relied upon YouTube and its explanation of SOLO through Lego as that is how I was first introduced to it.  It seemed to simplify, what appeared to me to be, a very complicated system.  They picked it up very quickly and remembered all the symbols and what they represented.  My first dip in the ocean of SOLO appeared to have gone well.
However, lesson two had the added pressure of two colleagues observing me.  I find this very unnerving at the best of times so with the added pressure of teaching the unfamiliar territory of SOLO I started to regret my decision to ‘Go SOLO’.  I needn’t have worried.   My pupils didn’t let me down and, even after several sleeps between lessons, they were STILL able to explain the SOLO symbols and their meanings as a starter.  
The next step involved pupils rating their knowledge of Curley’s Wife from Steinbeck’s `Of Mice and Men’, placing themselves in the corresponding SOLO stage: Prestructural, Unistructural, Multistuctural, Relational or Extended Abstract.  On the whole, most pupils placed themselves in Multistructural.  This was as I expected as we had already spent some time looking at the character of Curley’s Wife.  A particularly confident group, already thought they were Extended Abstract.  I made all this very visible for the pupils, me and my colleagues by having the pupils place their names on a post it sheet next to their chosen SOLO stage on the whiteboard at the front of the class.   
Pupils were then asked to work in groups to annotate the passages in which Curley’s Wife appeared - something they were already used to doing. They then had generate points about her character from the text and place them on the pre-prepared hexagons.  Was she a tart? Was she just an innocent girl? Was she misunderstood? These are all points which appeared on the cards.  Having spent a fair amount of time discussing her with the class I had never witnessed the quality of the level of thinking in which the pupils were now involved.  Even the quieter ones, who barely spoke let alone defended an idea, were arguing and debating points.  The hexagons really seemed to have given them a focus as they were discussing: which one was the best; were there better ones; did they need all of them?
Once this task was completed, they then had to construct an essay plan.  This involved linking and tessellating the hexagons in order to link their ideas about Curley’s Wife throughout the novel.  Having taught this essay several times previously, this concept was new to me as well.  I had always tackled her character chronologically rather than trying to focus on linking the presentation of the character.
At the end of the lesson, pupils then had to return to the post it sheets on the board and adjust their level of thinking.  All but one pupil moved up a level.  This was a particularly quiet boy, somewhat lacking in self-confidence.  The group who put themselves in the Extended Abstract also admitted they probably weren’t in that bracket initially but now felt they actually were.  On the surface, my first attempt at SOLO appeared to have been a success in both the pupils’ eyes and my colleagues’.  However, I had to reserve judgment until I actually read the final essays.  Having marked them, they were definitely different from any other essays I had read about Curley’s wife and perceptive and insightful links were evident throughout all the essays. Would they have produced the same level of work without the SOLO lesson?  I didn’t know and that was the flaw within my lesson.  I didn’t ACTUALLY know their level of knowledge - only what they thought they knew.  I had no real evidence to support this.
Undeterred, I decided to give SOLO another chance.  This time I used my Year 9 top set and I must be a glutton for punishment because I had my Head of Department and my Deputy Head observing me for my Performance Management.  Keeping to the basic structure from last lesson I knew I had to add another layer to the lesson.  I had to make sure that as well as the pupils’ own opinion I had to have evidence in the form of what we call a `Burger Paragraph’ which consisted of a Point, a Quote and an Explanation.  So, after the post it starter, I asked pupils to write their own paragraph about Curley this time.  They then levelled this using the NC ladders.  A controversial task I know but I wanted to really demonstrate progress.  Once they had done this they carried out all the same tasks as the previous class.  At the end of the lesson they then wrote another, paragraph which, once again, they levelled.  About 95% of the class received higher levels for their work.  
Finally, they were then asked to return to their post it sheets.  Once again all but one pupil felt they had increased at least one level of understanding.  Having read as many of the paragraphs as I could during the lesson, I felt I could legitimately judge that the SOLO aspect of the lesson had indeed been a success.  This was reinforced further when I marked their work after the lesson.  As an added bonus my Head of Department and Deputy Head also agreed.
So, although I still need to do some tweaking, I definitely see the value of SOLO and will be Going SOLO much more often in future.

Sunday, 27 July 2014

An additional level in SOLO taxonomy

Solo has, via a great deal of research into students' thinking identified itself as having the following level.





Extended Abstract

I like solo for a number of reasons including its versatility in helping thinking for learning as well as a planning aid. But, always a but, I find the jump between relational to EA rather large and not as intuitive as the steps between the other stages. I have been thinking about what might be needed between those two stages. What does one do to move from relational, connecting knowledge items in a useful way, to then move to EA, applying that knew understanding to another context?

It seems to me that to do that one has to have some deep understanding of the underlying structure of the now related knowledge. What are the features that the related knowledge is connected by?

The common example of deep knowledge is given by the two sentences:

The cat sat on the mat


The dog sat in the box.

These two sentences are identifying different situations. Not least one is about a cat and one is about a dog.

But the underlying feature is of an item above another. The cat above the mat and the dog above the base of the box. When we recognise this underlying structure it is then possible to create 'new' scenarios. One could have:

The surfboard was on the water. This has the same deep structure, even though it is a very simple idea.

So I am proposing having an additional stage in solo so the model looks like:





Deep - meaning the identification of the underlying structure(s) of the knowledge being explored
(I think I have a symbol for this level. It will be a D with dots on the line that makes the D shape.)

Extended Abstract

I would welcome any views on this and especially anyone who tries this out in the classroom. Does it support children moving to EA. (I don't want to advocate a rush to EA. The earlier stages must be completed securely and thoughtfully. They have their own intrinsic value.)


Monday, 28 April 2014

Observing the possibility of learning

I am somewhat troubled, by many things, but this particular trouble is to do with learning.

Can we see learning? Can we detect learning has happened? Can we identify any link with the teaching activities that happen in classrooms that lead to learning?

It is so obvious that, over time, say a term of school, learning must have happened. Children who attended my physics lessons did have more physics knowledge than they had at the start of the term. They could answer questions on test papers that they previously had no knowledge of. By any definition, learning had happened.

What has caused this learning to happen?

It must be due to something that the learner has done. They must have interacted with the physics I was trying to teach them in some way. It is an active process on their behalf. By active I mean they must have been thinking about the physics, I do not mean they will have been physically active. Only thinking type activity will cause learning. It is the thinking part that has allowed them to connect the physics to stuff already in their brain. That connecting is one part of the process called learning but only when that stuff is retrievable. It will be retrievable during the lesson but learning that is useful for school stuff becomes so when it is retrievable some time after the time when it was first encountered. When it is used to support further learning next term, or in the exam etc.

The next part is for those connections to be made more secure. That is done by practice, lots of questions and problems to be solved. Put the numbers in the equations. That could have been a mechanical task with minimal thinking but for true learning which would lead to understanding the 'just stuffing numbers into the equation' type practice would not lead to any significant depth in understanding. Can-do learning rather than the more valuable does-understand learning.

So, because learning which is evidenced by the degree of understanding the child shows takes time some folk say we cannot evidence learning in a short time period such as a typical lesson. I think I must agree with that. But that does not mean we cannot identify that the early parts of the processes have happened. That the teacher has done his/her job in providing the appropriate conditions for the learning process over time to then have a good chance of happening.

What system would we need to be able to observe that? Seems possible to me. We would be saying something like, 'On what I have observed secured learning is likely to be able to happen in the future.'

Diagrams are good, pictures work. So here is one to try to describe the learning process I have identified above:

Initial event (teacher explains some physics) --- Child can repeat or use in some simple way this physics content --- child practices and thinks more about the physics --- future lessons same material gets used to support additional learning --- child continues thinking and gains deeper understanding --- more secure knowledge results

Well, it is a sort of a diagram!

In the course of a lesson we can only hope to observe the first three parts of this process and then only of the teacher chooses to do any practising of the newly presented material.

A bit like trying to observe my journey from North Wales to watch Saracens play in the Heineken Cup Final in Cardiff but only watching me prepare and then leave. Not certain that I will get there in time but some factors would show I was possibly going to succeed.

Is that good enough?

Monday, 7 April 2014

Correcting Errors in Learning

But why would errors in learning matter *so* much? Surely we just tell them the correct answer and they learn that?

We all know it is important that children do not learn incorrect information. I think is is axiomatic that no teacher intends for this to happen but I would ask some teachers, perhaps you, to think about how we 'protect' children from learning the wrong thing.

Some teaching approaches seem to leave the possibility of inaccurate learning to be more rather than less likely. Graham Nuttall tells us that teachers do not know about 70% of what happens in their classroom. Does not make sense but it becomes very obviously true if you are an observer, quietly sitting, almost invisibly in a corner of the room you see children doing all sorts of things that the teach may well not approve of.

Also children learn a lot of stuff from their peers, but much of this, according to Nuttall, is simply wrong.

I wonder if it is really possible for a teacher to spot these errors? I know you do some assessment, some questioning, some checking but it might be better to adopt teaching techniques that are more likely to minimise the unwanted, incorrect learning.

What prompted me to write this was the Robert Bjork blog stuff from the learning lab.

This piece in particular:

Retrieval-induced forgetting
Memory cues, whether categories, positions in space, scents, or the name of a place, are often linked to many items in memory. For example, the category FRUIT is linked to dozens of exemplars, such as ORANGE, BANANA, MANGO, KIWI, and so on. 

When forced to select from memory a single item associated to a cue (e.g., FRUIT: OR____), what happens to other items associated to that general, organizing cue? 

Using the retrieval-practice paradigm, we and other researchers have demonstrated that access to those associates is reduced. Retrieval-induced forgetting, or the impaired access to non-retrieved items that share a cue with retrieved items, occurs only when those associates compete during the retrieval attempt (e.g., access to BANANA is reduced because it interferes with retrieval of ORANGE, but MANGO is unaffected because it is too weak of an exemplar to interfere; Anderson, R.A. Bjork, & E. L. Bjork, 1994, Experiment 3). 

We argue for retrieval-induced forgetting as an example of goal-directed forgetting because it is thought to be the result of inhibitory processes that help facilitate the retrieval of the target by reducing access to competitors. In this way, retrieval induced forgetting is an adaptive aspect of a functional memory system.

Media previewMedia previewEmbedded image permalinkNow, it seems to me that this retrieval induced forgetting might be a rather lengthy process which we would rather avoid. But if you insist on allowing children to explore too much and learn wrong stuff you might need to think about adding lots of time in your future planning to try to encourage retrieval induced forgetting. That is plan how to tell them the right stuff enough times so that they get what they could have got in the first place!