There is something deliciously masochistic about setting off at dawn, still reeling from the brutal assault of the first week of term, to ResearchED’s annual conference - ooh feel the burn! Wearing my freshly minted ‘recently qualified teacher’ mantle last year, I was determined to inoculate myself against the prevalence of education myths and poorly conceived fads that continue to slosh around schools. I came back with an armful of ideas (and books - oops!), that kept me fuelled for the entire year. It was an exciting thought, wondering what new nuggets might refine my classroom practice this year, as I continue on my journey towards ‘Working Out What Works’ - the organisation’s slogan.
Although, for the second year running, I travelled alone to the event, in a school bursting with like-mindedly motivated individuals, you can never be
lonely. I was soon enveloped into the warmth of a teaching community that had assembled at Chobham Academy in Stratford, London. The first job of the
day was to pore over the conference programme, and select seven sessions from the embarrassment of riches. Instantly filled with regret at the sessions
that I knew I would now miss, I was consoled by the thought that many of the sessions are filmed on ‘livestream’. I will outline below the key points
I took from those sessions and explain how they have already influenced my classroom.
You can watch some of the talks here: https://livestream.com/L4L/rED17?t=1504937237924
Session One - Peps Mccrea - Expert teaching: what it is and how do we build it?
Given my ambitious goal towards ‘expertise’ and having devoured his terrific book Memorable Teaching last year, I thought it best to first go to Brighton’s own Peps Mccrea’s (Associate Dean at the Institute for Teaching) session to find out what expert teaching actually is. In a nutshell, Mccrea’s engaging talk broke down expertise into three main areas:
- Impact - how we might measure the impact of our teaching, although he also noted that this was often difficult due to the often contested purpose of education, with areas of effectiveness that cannot be quantified.
- Experts have better mental models - how expertise is not just about what we know as teachers, but how it is organised, enabling better judgements on how to act upon that knowledge. This could include knowledge of:
- Curriculum path and the sequencing and addressing of misconceptions
- Knowledge of pupils - use of assessment to gauge not only what they already know, but also what ‘makes them tick.’
- Pedagogy - or knowing how to teach.
He also asked, can we claim to be experts if there are other teachers in our departments or schools that know more about the subject than we do?
Mccrea also claimed that expertise can be contextual and that being in a different classroom reduces our expertise in a specific context. I found this take away nugget particularly interesting, given the challenges that many of my colleagues face with their nomadic movements from classroom to classroom. I also felt blessed that I have the fortune to have my own room.
- What mental models allow teachers to do:
- The ability to pick the right tool for the job
- Greater anticipation of what will happen next.
- Ability to do the right thing.
He also noted that ‘expert’ teachers do less. The automaticity of their knowledge enables them to conserve energy, and they are more opportunistic. They often take longer to make decisions, however their targeted interventions tend to have greater impact.
Session Two - Nick Rose - How can we help new teachers use research evidence to inform their teaching?
For the second session I decided to see if I could pick up any nuggets that might assist me with mentoring new teachers this year, by going to see Teach First’s Nick Rose. Rose also co-authored one of my favourite books last year: ‘What every teacher needs to know about Psychology’. Interestingly I noticed that I used my background knowledge of the speakers to inform my choices. Further evidence that knowledge is the driver of our curiosity. Now I must confess here that I was so excited by Mccrea’s talk that I was feverishly tweeting during this one, however I still managed to glean the following:
- The starting point should be with common misconceptions such as the infamous Pyramid of Learning - It is completely made up, so don’t use it folks!
- They will need knowledge of research methods and data analysis, and making sense of evidence based research.
- Application to the classroom
- Exploring how research can be developed - The EEF DIY Toolkit is an excellent resource for this.
- Leadership development.
Rose referenced a new report that is coming out soon to assist with ‘putting evidence to work’. For further information try: www.teachfirst.org.uk. I shall certainly consider using the EEF toolkit with NQTs to see what can assist with their action research project this year.
Session Three - Daisy Christodoulou - Improving assessment: the key to education reform
Okay, I admit it. One of the reasons for going to session two was to make sure I had an advantageous spot in the school theatre for this talk. Christodoulou wrote my favourite book on education last year, ‘Making Good Progress’, and so there was no way that I was going to miss her presentation. Every inch of the theatre was crammed, and as the diminutive, yet charismatic figure approached the lectern, a breathless hush descended on the assembled masses. These are the main points:
‘Better measurement leads to improvement’ whereas ‘bad measurement leads to distortion.’
She broke assessment down into these areas and offered a solution for each -
- Prose descriptors - now synonymous with assessment
- Absolute judgement in essay marking (as opposed to comparative judgement)
- Using grades as discrete categories
- Thinking that test scores matter
- Prose descriptors - she explained the limitations of being able to make accurate inferences using prose descriptors and demonstrated the impact in small changes to the structure of questions - e.g. 11+3 is much easier for young children to calculate than 3+11, as children tend to count up on their fingers and yet a prose descriptor would have them as the same skill and level. She identified how although feedback given using the descriptors tended to be accurate, it was often unhelpful to students. For example saying things like, ‘include more detail in your analysis’ or ‘add more sophisticated vocabulary’, which does not tell the student how to achieve these aims. The recommendation was to define descriptors as questions. She again emphasised the benefits of using multiple choice questions to help diagnose the presence of misconceptions to inform the next teaching steps. The distractors need to be unambiguously wrong but still plausible, and my take away nugget was to start with the wrong answer, or misconception rather than correct answer, when creating MCQs.
- Absolute judgement - Christodoulou spoke very persuasively about the limitations of human judgement due to the natural biases we all have. She also spoke of the difficulty we have of even agreeing with ourselves (consistency in making the same judgement on one piece of work), let alone agreeing with colleagues or examiners. Her recommendation was to use a system of comparative judgement as we are far more accurate when comparing work. She cited her company’s comparative judgement engine - No More Marking as an extremely accurate way of assessing, that moves away from the limitations of prose descriptors and plays into the overwhelming strengths of human judgement.
- Grades as discrete categories. Christodoulou explained how grades tended to distort the truth about student abilities, as they are laid on top of a scale. She showed how two students on either side of a grade boundary could have more in common than two students at opposite ends of the same grade which can lead us to make inaccurate inferences about their learning.
- Thinking that test scores matter. This was devilishly provocative, but the point being made was that test scores alone are not important, it is the accuracy of the inferences that we can draw that matter. She sagely stated, ‘when a measure becomes a target it ceases to be a good measure.’
Session Four - Jude Enright - Dragon slaying with the sword of “truth”: how did one school leader use evidence to end their Ofsted nightmares?
Feeling a little sluggish after a lunch break in the sunshine, I thought I’d liven myself up with a little bit of Ofsted bashing!! Enright spoke powerfully about her dissertation on the schools’ inspectorate. This was more for the school leaders here, but having just experienced a recent inspection it was nice to hear an empowering account of how school leaders are wrestling back control from the organisation that seems to have a confusing purpose - to audit schools or be our benevolent educational guide?
Session Five - Robin Launder - Evidence-based Behaviour Management
I hadn’t originally planned on seeing a session on behaviour management. After all, I’ve cracked that nut haven’t I? Sadly, a bruising encounter during period 6 on Friday, with a positively effervescent year 10 class left my ego severely dented. Luckily, the programme claimed that in this session I would return to school with ‘top-notch behaviour CPD’ with something I can implement in the classroom on Monday morning. Launder did not disappoint with his highly engaging and humorous style; the packed classroom were soon in stitches.
The golden rules of behaviour management in the prison system were first identified:
- Don’t make the situation worse - use emotional neutrality
- Don’t let the situation happen in the first place!
Emotional neutrality is a key point that I picked up last year from Michael Linsin’s excellent blog ‘Smart Classroom Management’ - the idea being that trying to make students behave is a recipe for stress and ruins relationships. The idea is that if a rule is broken, the classroom management plan is calmly followed without need for lectures and shaming. So it was nice to see that this strategy was being reinforced here. Launder cited the following elements for successful behaviour management from Konin’s research:
- Clarity - both in behaviour and academic instruction
- Challenge - the idea that engagement is about being in the stretch zone, rather than having fancy ‘fun’ activities. He claimed that all students wanted to learn and that tasks need to have what he described as ‘achievable difficulty’. In other words, make the work too hard or too easy and students can grow restless or volatile.
- Momentum - he spoke of the need for pace and variety in lessons, as well as the importance of ‘slick transitions.’
- Presence - using humorous images of evolutionary biology, Launder demonstrated the use of posture, clothing, voice and eye contact - ‘when we feel good, we take up space.’ My take away nugget from this has been to take up as much space as I can in my classroom, (the doughnuts and biscuits help!) including presence at the door, allowing students into my space, moving around the whole classroom, and especially striking the ‘Wonder Woman pose!’
- Withitness - I must admit that I baulked at this term. Surely our varied and rich language has a better label. However, ‘withitness’ was usefully defined as our ability to attend to what is going on in the classroom at all times, anticipate and strategically intervene before the situation has even been conceived.
Another key take-away nugget for me was to display the classroom rules and revisit them regularly. This seems obvious, however, with limited space, I have
merely used Powerpoint slides to discuss expectations, and so I realised that I have been missing an important trick. On Launder’s advice I reduced
my rules from five to four to ensure that limited working memory resources aren’t exceeded. He highlighted the need for the use of inclusive language
in the rules, and that rules are ‘negotiated and explained’. He also stated that rules become effective once they are automatic, with little input
from the teacher. The rules he suggested were:
- We are quiet when the teacher is talking
- We follow direction right away.
- We let others get on with their work.
- We respect each other.
Session Six - Alex Quigley - 50,000 small solutions to the big problem of the new curriculum.
For me, this was the standout session of the day. I have been a fan of Alex Quigley for a long time, with his excellent blogs on teaching English, and his book ‘The Confident Teacher’ is one that I return to regularly.This session was a rallying cry which criticised the limitations of whole school literacy initiatives and their failure at closing the attainment gap for disadvantaged learners, especially in light of the demands of the new school curriculum. He began by describing how he followed an able student for a day and became overwhelmed by the different languages that the student had to be proficient in:
And all this was underpinned with a separate code: the language that he spoke with his friends. Quigley noted that this student took it in his stride, but for him, he was unable to access most of the content that day due to his lack of literacy in the majority of these languages, which left him exhausted and demoralised. What must it be like for our least literate students?
Quigley proposed this formula: Attainment gap = a communication gap. The best way to tackle this in our classrooms therefore, is to address the vocabulary
that students need for each of these subjects. ‘Texts’ he stated, ‘have to be tackled skilfully.’ He coined the phrase ‘word consciousness’. Which
I have found a useful phrase to take back when planning for my lessons. He also proposed reading more actively in all subjects. That literacy intervention
was not just about reading fiction. He passionately asked, what use is ‘Drop Everything and Read’ to a science teacher, who has so much challenging
vocabulary and content of their own to teach?
He offered a number of suggestions based on Beck, McKeowan and Kucan’s incredible book, ‘Bringing Words to Life.’ I have had this on my shelf for ages and am now finally reading it. I am so glad that I am, because it has already transformed my teaching. My vocabulary instruction had long ago removed futile dictionary hunts that led to further confusion, however, I was still guilty of the ‘define the word, now write me a sentence’ approach. This book has so much more to offer in the way of ‘robust vocabulary instruction’. I cannot recommend this book enough. Tip: www.onelook.com is an excellent resource for student friendly definitions.
Quigley defined these steps when building vocabulary for students:
- Select - identify the words that will be useful for students to have in their lexicon
- Explore - discuss the etymology of words and word groups with similar prefixes and suffixes.
- Explain the new word.
- Consolidate - use repetition, testing, and giving students opportunities to use the new vocabulary.
He powerfully ended with a plea to teachers to focus on ‘closing the vocabulary gap.’
The slides and video for this presentation are here: http://www.theconfidentteacher.com/2017/09/researched-2017/
Session Seven - Andrew Old - Myth busting for New Teachers
I thought I’d end the day with something more lighthearted, and try to finally put a face to the twitter phenomenon and legend Andrew Old. I love a bit of myth busting and so I was sure there would be gold in this session.
Old began with a list of commonly used ‘motivational quotes’ that are so loved by schools. They speak their wisdom to us from the walls, posters, assembly Powerpoint Slides every day. In short, most of them are made up! Or at least attributed to the wrong person. His advice was to go to www.quoteinvestigator.com to check out any quotations. I agree. If we are to be taken seriously as a profession, we need to weed out the bunkum. He stated the case for a healthy professional scepticism, as in other professions, ‘doubt is part of professionalism.’
Some of the myths he busted were that, for learning to be effective it has to be:
Blooms taxonomy also came in for a bashing, which he described as ‘outdated’. Special vitriol was levelled at pseudo scientific theories such as, ‘the right and left brain’, ‘Brain Gym’, ‘VAK’, ‘learning styles’, and the fact that there is ‘no hierarchy of needs’. I have only been in the profession a handful of years and I have found these theories to be alive and in some cases prevalent in our schools today.
Old also outlined the controversy surrounding the barbarism of attachment therapy, and how it was used dubiously to inform ‘attachment theory’ and the existence of a separate condition known as ‘attachment disorder’ as a medical diagnosis is still considered debatable. Reactive attachment disorder, he stated, is rare and controversial. Old directed us to www.childmyths.blogspot.co.uk to find out more.
Other SEND myths he claimed had little evidence were the use of coloured lenses for dyslexia, and that inclusion he claimed, seemed to have a negative impact. The only literacy intervention approach he felt likely to be effective was phonics.
Now, I must stress that my aim here is not to offend anybody who holds these views, but report the content of the sessions I attended, and perhaps outline the extent of the debatability with some of the ‘givens’ that currently exist in education orthodoxy. Andrew Old suggested that a convenient way to check theories was, surprisingly, Wikipedia, which draws attention to discredited theories with cited evidence to check, in case there is any doubt.
On the train home I mused, ‘that should keep me going for a bit.’
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