Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Setting a baseline apres la deluge.

Interesting situation at the moment. We are currently homeless. Ok, that was a melodramatic way of putting it. We're not exactly homeless but thanks to circumstances beyond our control - a flooded kitchen basically - we are in a B&B. This impacts, to an extent on my MA work. It definitely has a huge potential impact on my teaching. It'll be interesting to reflect on how I work to transcend the limitations of not having easy access to my library and resources.

However, it seems that reflection is not just about picking up on the practicalities of the profession but requires an honest critical engagement with the subjective personal, emotional and instinctive elements of the whole person so...

What's this about setting a baseline? The area of my professional development that is forming the core of this assignment is my personal search for excellence as a classroom teacher. (See blog on Larivee.) To make progress one needs to know where one is and consider where to go.

I had an observation performed on me the Friday before the flood hit and, as always, I took a risk. I have been called foolish for this but I think I am sufficiently self-aware to acknowledge where I need to develop. The risk was lessened, to an extent, in terms of its emotional impact on me because I was out of teaching for sixth months of last year and so I was aware that certain teaching instincts and practices maybe need reseated. I actually wasn't expected to be graded at any level higher than satisfactory. So what was my risk?

I have a class of extremely able Y9 students - over 20 of them gifted and talented and the vast majority targetted A* at GCSE. Here were my focus areas for these students:

  1. Stretching and challenging the most able.

  2. Ensuring that all these students made good progress

  3. Ensuring that all students were engaged.

Of course, alongside this I had to show that I was using data to plan for all students - those who were underachieving and on target - as well as the myriad demands made by the new OFSTED observation framework. Simple.

I won't bore you with the nitty-gritty of the lesson which looked at equal access to sport. (Yes that's an RE lesson. Check out AQA specification B.) However, you may need to know how I met my self-imposed challenges.

  1. Stretching and challenging the most able.

  2. My starting point was actually to look at what the scheme of work (SOW) demanded for students and increase the challenge. I must admit I used the latest form of Bloom's Taxonomy to shape the learning objectives towards the higher thinking skills necessary. This was supplemented in the lesson itself through scaffolded higher order resources, questioning and expectations.

  3. Ensuring that all students made good progress

  4. Clearly the aim was for this to be shown in outcomes - completed worksheets, feedback to class, completed extended writing, etc.

The final challenge required me to have a good awareness of who was in the class, prior attainment, EAL, SEN, etc. I then targetted different resources and support mechanisms to the class.

So what was the feedback? Well, it was nearly a good lesson. I had met the challenges I set myself about engaging all students so was pleased with that. However, what stopped it being good? The stretch and challenge was good as was the use I made of data and the resourcing. However, the observers didn't feel that I had demonstrated - or perhaps the students hadn't demonstrated - that all of them had made good progress. Two reasons were given for this.

  1. Not all students had completed the work grid as expected.

  2. It was felt that I had rushed the evaluative work at the end of the lesson. Indeed one of the students commented that I always rushed the important bit.

This made me stop and think. The lesson was almost good so why wasn't it good? Why had I not had the little tweak that moved it on.

I think I had too high an expectation of this class. Yes they are able, bright and motivated but they're only 13/14 years old. I should have narrowed it down and asked them to feedback fewer barriers to access in sport. Ok, lesson learned. Next time improve on that Mr Apostate.

Did I rush the last bit? Hmm. I had already amended the lesson as I taught - a nifty bit of reflection in practice - I could possibly amend that. Here's the thing though - why did the student say this. Was it truly what he thought. Only one way to find out. Bite the bullet and ask him. The problem is - it can be tricky for a teacher to discuss classroom practice with students. You lay yourself open to criticism. It can be a fearful experience - after all we have had the training and experience and he is a young lad. On the other hand - he is the customer. So screwing up my courage, biting the bullet, nailing my colours to the mast I had a conversation with him and in the end had to concede he was right. For this class to develop I needed to challenge their evaluation and analysis not how many facts they can remember.

Note to self:

For this class allow more discussion time.

Saturday, 5 November 2011

Praise from a struggling student

I seem to spend most of my reflective energies on 6th form teaching - seems fair enough since that is an area that is almost self-taught. I think on my PGCE I taught maybe two lessons of 6th form. It's also one of my developmental target areas - the other being to hit outstanding in terms of lesson observations.

So where am I at the end of this week? I had a good lesson with my year 12 philosophy class. (The one I referenced here ) Of particular concern with this group are a handful of students who are struggling to access the subject matter with one young lady really being stressed over it. I have an additional fun element to this class in that I am timetabled one lesson a fortnight in a technology room. :s This is an easy solution in that I book a computer break out area to teach in. However, the fundamental issue of supporting a wide variety of student needs is still there.

The subject matter for the lesson was looking at the problem of evil - with particular reference to the theodicies of Irenaeus and Augustine. Having achieved some success with the previous lesson in providing work for different needs I felt it important to set them to work in the same group. With the success of differentiated learning objectives at A-level I started from the same point and set 5 differentiated learning objectives. The students were then set a series of 11 tasks each linked to set pages in the textbook.

Why this approach? For two reasons.

1. Although all students need to cover the basics of what the tasks set the demands of the assessment objectives for AS essays scaffold up for different abilities.
2. It gives control over the pace of work to the students allowing them to feel confident with their progress before pushing themselves.

I was then able to spend a large proportion of the time working with the most needy group. It seems a bit juvenile but we returned to the level of reading the text a paragraph at a time shared among the group participants. One interesting comment came from student S. who said she felt patronised by this. Nevertheless we persisted.

The other three groups were not neglected. Remember there was one of high-achieving students and two middle-achievers who had different challenges in achieving their best. Whilst the needy group - lets call them group A. - were writing I spent time with each of the other groups; supporting, guiding, challenging as appropriate.

Was it successful? Three things lead to me think it was.

First, Group A all managed to produce better work of an appropriate level.
Second, student S. came up to me and said she thought she felt more confident and comfortable after that lesson than any other philosophy lesson she had dealt with.
Third, the other groups had also produced work appropriate to their level even the most able group.

Why was it successful? I think there were reasons.

1. Students knew what was expected of them but they also knew that they had challenges they could take up if need be.
2. Group A students received both the support and guidance they needed but they were also prodded, challenged and pushed to achieve.
3. Students recieved afl (assessment for learning) in lesson. This assessment was based on the assessment criteria of the specification but it was presented with an immediacy that allowed development in lesson.
4. The necessary supporting reading was presented in more digestible chunks.

The more personal support provided in a no-lecture situation permitted students to feel more comfortable and hence more empowered to develop their learning.

So where do I go with this?

Obviously, I need to continue to develop the differentiation and personalised support within classes - although I need to ensure that the most able students do not feel disenfranchised and unsupported. More importantly, however, is the need to try and ensure that the students develop their self-study skills. What I am looking to do is develop the VLE class-site to provide guidance for learning outside the classroom.

What I do not plan to do is provide loads of questions. What I think we can do is develop a sequence of sites that provide:

i. Background information on the philosophical issues for this topic
ii. A variety of support materials: Routledge press links, Stanford encyclopaedia, etc.
iii. A summary of the main ideas students need to make sure they grasp.
iv. Clear links to the textbook, specification and markscheme.
v. How their reading links in to the development of the topic.

I want to avoid spoonfeeding the students, overburdening them with work or leaving them unsupported. It may work. It may not. We shall see.

Thursday, 3 November 2011

Transforming Teaching Practice - Barbara Larivee.

(Reflective practice, vol 1, No 3, 2000)

One of the joys of following this MA course in education is that I get to read academic texts that challenge. Of course when I started to do the course I was looking for an academic challenge but the current module is a personal challenge. It is about become a reflective practitioner in education and, through doing so, become an increasingly proficient educational professional - although one gets the feeling that the current denizens of the education establishment hierarchy would use the word craftsmen.

So I'm reading this introductory text and blogging live as I think - so it may be a tad disjointed.

Barbara Larivee places her work in the current context of the changing culture of education. "To combat increasing student alienation, and meet the scope and intensity of the academic, social and emotional needs of today's students those entering the teaching profession will need to find ways to create authentic learning communities by adjusting the power dynamics to turn power over into power with learners" Within this milieu teaching becomes a philosophical and ethical code of conduct. Teachers need to develop the skills that enable them to tie their beliefs and ethos with the tricks of the trade.

For Larivee critical self-reflection is the merging of critical inquiry - the conscious consideration of the implications and consequences of classroom practices on the students - with self-reflection that examines the personal values, beliefs and assumptions of the teacher. This entails integrity, openness and commitment rather than compromise, defensiveness or fear. As with all reflection that challenges our self-perception we can have a built in inertia that resists the transformation of our current paradigm of teaching.
The essential practices of a reflective pracittioner.

Larivee identifies three key practices:

1. Making time for solitary reflection.

Larivee recommends that one needs to spend time each day to negotiate the challenges presented by the days work. This essentially entails a self-critical inquiry into the impact of teaching and negotiating the feelings of frustrations, insecurity and rejection and recommends pouring this forth into a daily journal. (That's you readers:) ) However, this is more than mere rant. one needs to engage with the day in order to find meaning and regain a sense of purpose. it also allows one to identify patterns and themes.

2. Becoming a perpetual problem-solver

Freire (1993) warns that the teacher who is not critically-reflective risks "magical consciousness" - that is seeing the classroom as a whimsical sea of blessings and curses beyond control. To counter this, suggests Larivee, the critically reflective teacher views the classroom life as experimental - a laboratory in which one takes purposeful action to solve problems. In identifying and analysing the issues surrounding control and power the teacher becomes enabled and empowered to transform these issues and thus imbue their day to day practice with a renewed vision and energy.

3. Questioning the status quo.

Preaching rebellion is an interesting way to develop teaching but, effectively, Larivee suggests that the critically reflective teacher must challenge the status quo. A moment's reflection can reveal the point of this. It has been said that the seven most destructive words in English are "We have always done it that way." This locks people into methods of work that can often be stagnant and non-transformative. However, in looking to move beyond thesafe and institutional and seeking their own truths the teacher can become a source of transformation and renewal. A caveat needs uttering at this point: transformation and novelty can be threatening. The effective change agent is one who invites and engages rather than confronting and alienating. This applies to all levels of school hierarchies. (I suggest reading Vineet Nayar's amazing book "Employees First Customers Second. Then ask yourself - how would you apply it to school.)

It must also be remembered that the effective change agent is one who has transformed their own practice and can demonstrate good practice. It is this self-transformation that is the challenge laid down by LArivee's concept of self-reflection. One repositions oneself and the classroom situations as a means of moving beyond our old position and establishing a new perspective. All negative situations can be reevaluated and the new vantage points allow a way to move on.

Larivee reminds us as practioners that we all bring our baggage into the classroom wherever we go. This applies in equal measure to students, teachers and observers. These may be past experiences, beliefs, assumptions, feelings and our own agendas. Each of these filters will change - sometimes subtly but sometimes grossly - our reaction in a classroom. It may be threatening to question our own motives but it may often be of enormous transformational value.

As a personal illustration I want to present my encounter with an organisation called Human Utopia. Their agenda is to transform relationships within schools to enhance the learning experience of the students. They have been part of the partnership in my school since its outset and I personally believe have played a vital role in the success of the academy. However, the most immediate impact on me was in my relationships with my own children. Following their initial sessions with the staff it forced me to reflect back on my own role as a father - for good and bad. What I saw when I looked within was not necessarily comfortable. I could have responded in two ways. I could have dismissed it and continued to travel down the road I was heading or I could face up to where I was and take the opportunity to move to a different path. This change of direction, I believe, saved my relationship with my children and I am grateful to HU for the chance.

This is at the heart of Larivee's transformation of practice - the challenging and development of our core-beliefs and self-assumptions that shape our actions. We need, she asserts, to consider our actions in the light of our world-view.

Of course we cannot truly transform our actions overnight since we are all emotionally invested in our beliefs. In fact we may not be able to divest ourself of our harmful or deluded self-images and core beliefs or may do so by taking two step forwards and one back. However, as in all stages of learning there is an initial difficulty and we need to be courageous in overcoming the dissonances thrust upon us by reflection.

How useful is the article for me personally?

The interesting thing is that the school I am in is gripped by the tension between being a transformative school open to new ways of teaching but maintained by teachers who, even if they want the best for the students, are gripped by their own preferred way of teaching - and I include myself there. The thing is we are presented with new initiatives and ways of acting with what can be dismaying frequency - from government, SLT, our own departments, etc. - and we can feel threatened and even demotivated by the flood of demands placed upon us. (This is especially apparent when the reasoning is not properly presented or a very tight timeline is given to us.) The challenge is to ask ourselves:

  1. Where do we want to be?
  2. Why do we feel threatened by these demands?
  3. What are we going to do about it?
As an illustration let us consider the observation process. Observation is an inescapable part of the teacher's life and my school is no different. This year it was announced that as part of the move towards excellent teaching those teachers who were graded below good in their observation would be asked to develop a personal excellence plan. Understandably many colleagues were anxious and even angry about this. I say understandably because there can be negative perceptions that we are being judged as being unworthy. However, for once I felt unthreatened. Why?

If we go back to my first observation within the new Academy in 2007 I was graded satisfactory - and despite OFSTED saying otherwise satisfactory is satisfactory. It's ok. I was very angry with this. I was threatened by it. I felt as if I was being judged as failing. However, I had a discussion with my head of college and she agreed to come and observe me at a later date where I was assessed as Good with Outstanding. What had made the difference? I reflected on the feedback.

I want to be the best teacher I can and since that time observation for me has been about taking risks in order to develop. Each year since I have been observed in early autumn with a focus on an area where I know that I need to develop. I'm usually sure that I will receive a satisfactory grading - although usually with some good and outstanding features. However, what is important is the discussion of how to improve. I then invite further observation and each time I have improved.

The step back is not about regression as a teacher. It is about using observation as a means of identifying where I need to develop. (Say it quietly but even ASTs still need to develop. I bet I do better eLessons than our ASTs. In fact one of our ASTs nicked one of my LRC lessons for her own use.)

I want to be the best I can and so, even before I knew that this excellent teacher plan was being implemented, I had decided that I would do this for myself. I have already invited observation. In discussion I have identified what I need to do now and I will do my best to get there by the end of the year.

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Is sixth form teaching that different?

You see I teach 3 sixth form classes. I have a year 12 class of 14 students, a year 13 RS class of 18 students and a year 13 Philosophy class of 11 students. I have to teach these wonderful students three 90 minute lessons per fortnight per group. Now, consider this:

1. They are mixed ability. We are talking an effective range of A*-E.
2. There aren't that many to make effective group work that meets the needs.
3. They have different literacy skills in a literacy intensive area.
4. Some of the RS students are put into RS because they need a 3rd or 4th A-level and they got a good GCSE grade.
5. Sadly most struggle with the step up to A level particularly in terms of study skills and self-motivation.
6. They have to meet the demands of long essay writing.

Easy? You'd hope so but not always. It would be lovely to say - there's the text and there's the questions. Get on with it. Let me tell you my experience this week.

On Monday, first day back after half-term, I taught y13 philosophy for period 1 and was expecting homework in. Did the usual thing - you know shared learning objectives, shared learning outcomes, etc and received, well basically, blankness and excuses for homework to be sent in later.

P4 - year 13 RS class. Again - learning objectives, learning outcomes and trying to have one to one discussions with students about their essays. (Some of these essays were good but some below standard.) Again? Blankness.

What to do? I had to teach a year 12 philosophy class a lesson to review an area they struggled with before half-term the next day and the year 13 philosophers the next day. I also have to teach the year 13 RS class on Thursday. So, time for thought.

Quite clearly, I couldn't come up with a one size fits all solution so need to break it down.

Priority one: Year 12 looking at ideas as to where we get the idea of God from - and they had struggled before half-term. However, not all students had struggled equally and some seem quite confident with the topic - plus, I have loads of notes on the students reflecting my thoughts and those of the other class teacher. Therein, I felt, may lie the solution.

The most basic learning outcome was the successful essay discussing the statement "God is made in the image of Man." but I needed to enable all students to get there. So, obviously, differentiate. At the top end I have two students who can just go with the essay and explore the topic. At the bottom end a handful of students who struggle to extract the info - these guys have a simple grid in which to place the info in a structured form. For the other 50% of students they needed support in either structuring an essay or using supporting evidence. The obvious answer was to break the question down into smaller questions to allow them to approach the essay. This I did, they did the work and the essay is due in Friday at a seminar. Was it successful? We shall see.

Problem 2: Year 13 philosophy - students targeted between A* and C. Not impossible but they're not they're yet. Again, obviously, the solution lies in differentiating the work in such a way that they can work independently whilst I wander and support. Here I took a different approach. Rather than working in a classroom I set an eLesson up for them.

First, they had differentiated objectives. Simple, you might say, but I sometimes wonder just how much we do such things at sixth for. (Note to self: go and observe more sixth form lessons.)

Second, I gave a good introduction to the philosophical issue with a link to exactly what the specification says.

Third, I provided plenty of learning materials linked to the learning objectives. (Thank you Michael Lacewing and Routledge press.)

Fourth, a clear description of the task

What happened? Well all the students from the A*s to the C targets worked happily at their own pace to address the targets that they felt they could do. I was then in a good position to monitor, assess and guide individual students in a way that they needed.

A big plus of this is that the struggling/shy students weren't hidden by the dominant ones. I was in a position to assess with an eye to improvement and development each student at some point.

Was it successful in terms of student progress. The answer is, qualified, yes. Why qualified? Although students made progress in terms of knowledge and understanding the final analysis and evaluation of the topic is not due til next lesson. Again, I will let you know.

Problem three: Year 13 exam technique. Well, I'm due to teach them tomorrow but my thoughts and feelings coming on from Monday's lesson is that they need practice in answering essay questions - especially those demanding their own reflection and evaluation. The problem here is that there are so many reasons essay answers can be poor. So, what is my solution? Quite simply I've turned it on them. Their homework is to identify what they think the top 5 tips for a good essay are and where they think they struggle. So the challenge is essay practice. Again, I plan on dividing them into groups of similar needs and again I will let you know.

I am far happier with the second two lessons taught than the first two but let's bring it back to the question I started from?

There are some differences between KS5 and KS4/3 teaching. They are more mature, in theory they all want to do the subject and they should have more independent study skills. However, the basics still remain.

1. Clear, learned sharing objectives and outcomes.
2. Clear tasks.
3. Good use of differentiation - here I used objectives and tasks.
4. Lesson based afl is a must
5. Know thy students

Is this all? Probably not and I know all teachers have different approaches. I would be fascinated to see what other people think on this.

An update.

I taught my year 13 RS today with pleasing results. I paired them up matching a weaker essayist with a stronger student trying to match the developmental area. Although this led to some initial moaning as established groups were broken up it I was gratified with how developmental dyads appeared where each shared thoughts and ideas with the other.

The focus of the discussions were not merely what do we do well or badly but what concrete action can be taken to improve essay technique. Each student needed to identify for themselves a solution.

It was also pleasing to see how students listened to each other in whole group discussion and suggested solutions.

The challenge now is for this to be put into practice. The notes I made in the lesson are available to all students via the college VLE and on Monday they have been warned that they will be subjected to a timed assessment. They are expecting a 50 minute exam - Part A is 30 mins and B is 20.

However, one of the common problems is time management with a lengthy Part A which may have gained a couple of extra marks being written at the expense of a quality Part B worth 10-15 marks. To be this is a nobrainer and so I will take their Part A off them after exactly 30 minutes.

Another common problem is poor planning and structure in evaluation and so, prior to them commencing part B, they will be given a planning grid.