Ultimate Flash Cards

In terms of revision, we know what doesn’t work:

reading
highlighting
summarising
copying

and doing nothing!

Conversely, we also know what is likely to be more successful:

generation
retrieval
elaboration
spacing and interleaving
metacognitive strategies

The problem is some students find the language of these strategies off putting. The terms can seem opaque and clinical, no matter how many times you discuss and share the underlying reasoning.

Different terminology can help – words that capture the essence of effective study strategies but present them in more accessible and memorable language.  Often it is best to present things as clearly and simply as possible.

The Five Rs

The five Rs underpin our approach to independent study, including the guidance we give our students on writing effective flash cards.

  • reduce – identifying learning
  • recall – remembering learning
  • rethink – connecting learning
  • review – reflecting on learning
  • repeat – going back over learning

Flash card guidance

  1. Reduce

Create a learning overview by breaking down subjects into topics, units, modules and concepts. Whatever works best. Use the overview to group flash cards together within each subject. This makes revision more manageable and gives it a coherent structure.

  1. Recall

It can be useful to see recall as production and recovery. Production involves writing short prompts that invite retrieval of everything that can be remembered about a given topic, such as write a list or complete a graphic organiser e.g. Venn diagram or table.

Recovery involves recalling factual details using questions as cues. There are simple what/when/where/who questions, with how and why questions also used if appropriate. These questions strengthen memories and prime for rethinking. Three is about right.

  1. Rethink

This is important and involves designing activities that extend understanding by encouraging connections. Not exam tasks, but tasks inviting something to be done with what has been recalled, such as explanations, reasons, comparing and contrasting.

  1. Review

Planning makes study purposeful. Keeping track means weaknesses are prioritised and strengths returned to after forgetting has occurred. Colour coding (red for tomorrow; amber for a few days and green for a week) and adding dates is simple and strategic.

  1. Repeat

Steps 3-5 are repeated lots of time and at intervals. Dated cards and an overview of topics enable planning and reflection at review. Different subjects and different topics can be deliberately woven into a study session. Repetitions are determined by time available.

Example:

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The ‘ultimate’ reference is tongue in cheek – I don’t know if this approach is in any way optimal, but it is more likely to be successful than what is often produced and used.

Thanks for reading

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The race to the bottom is still very much on!

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Like you, I get lots of emails every day. I’ve not yet figured out – or rather not bothered to figure out – how to turn off the automatic alert. As a consequence, I frequently get interrupted at work. Earlier this week, an email popped up with the subject Quotation Bank in it. Mildly intrigued and on this occasion needing a distraction, I clicked the link. I wish I hadn’t. I think I have discovered a new low in educational profiteering.

As their name suggests, The Quotation Bank offer banks of quotations for all the major exam texts, all helpfully analysed for meaning and method. Whilst they are probably no worse than any other study guide, online or otherwise – they all adopt the same cynical approach of focusing relentlessly on assessment objectives and working backwards from mark schemes – there is just something very depressing for an English teacher of reducing literature to a bunch of quotes. Equally disheartening is having a whole industry that exploits the narrow end goal, but invests very little (by way of decent textbooks) on how to actually get there.

Perhaps I have a particular beef with what Quotation Bank has to offer because to me it signals a new low in the race to the bottom – one step too far in the finding of cute ways to maximise exam success through the back door. It’s fair enough for teachers to arm their students with an understanding of the text’s key lines alongside the study of the text itself, but to build a revision approach around a few decontextulised snippets alone seems to me to be rather missing the point, and certainly not what I thought I was signing up for when I came into teaching English.

All this reminds me of something that occurred a few years back when I was teaching Dorian Gray at AS level. I remember coming across a critical opinion crib sheet on the Internet, which consisted of a dozen or so quotations from different critics about the novel. I think I sighed before continuing my searches. I wouldn’t have given it a second thought, were it not for the fact that a couple of weeks later when I was reading through some recently released exemplar essays from the exam board, I came across some of the essays that contained the exact same critical quotations. Word for word.

Now it may well be that the crib sheet came after the exemplar essays. Maybe a resourceful student (hopefully not a teacher!) got hold of the scripts and knocked up a list of all the critics mentioned onto a flashcard for their own preparation. I don’t think so, but it was over five years ago now, so I cannot be sure. Either way, it doesn’t really matter. A quick search now for some of the ‘critics’ cited (and their supposed thoughts on Dorian Gray) throws up multiple cheat sheets and online flashcards with exactly the same material. It’s the literary equivalent of what journalist Nick Davies calls Flat Earth News, where news stories become news stories by sheer virtue of being spread widely with no one having the time, inclination or expertise to check their validity.

Now, I don’t expect A Level students to read the whole of tomes like Simone De Beauvoir’s Second Sex – who has? – but I would hope they could handle more than just a few pithy lines from a dubious critic. I’ve always been of the belief that one of the purposes of A level study, particularly in a subject like English, is to prepare students for the next stage of an education, whether or not they choose to continue with it. A level should, in part, be about introducing students to scholarship, teaching them the concept of literary theory and giving them a decent taste of the real thing. Not watered-down soundbites designed to convey an appearance of knowledge.

In my opinion, these are both examples of the race to the bottom – a race that is unfortunately still being run, despite the best efforts of many principled teachers and school leaders to base improvement on long-term, sustainable developments informed by evidence and genuine subject expertise. The pressure to achieve success is clearly is still all consuming and fuels a desire to find ways to bypass hard work, to look for quick wins and is the reason why companies like Quotation Bank continue to exist. The knock-on effect for a university education is only too clear.

What I think confounds the problem is the failure of the exam boards to do their jobs properly. And I am not just referring here to their inability to distinguish between knowledge and soundbites. It seems to me that, at least in my subject, there are just not enough examiners and that those examiners we do have do not always have the expertise required to examine properly. Whilst anecdotal, I know of several teachers who examined this year on texts that they had not read. A Twitter poll I conducted a few months ago suggested these were not isolated cases. Now, if you think about it – that’s ridiculous: you determine the grades of students for a text you’ve never read!

The response to this would probably go something like, ‘oh, but it’s the skills you are assessing for on the mark scheme.’ Sounds plausible, but it’s really just nonsense. Again, only anecdotal, but we have had several cases where our strongest students got much lower grades than we expected. Obviously, I understand we all have good days and bad days, but almost every time we ask for scripts back it is clear the examiner has not fully recognised some of the more sophisticated points made, and that trite, yet obvious analysis is rewarded whereas insight and subtlety is not. Surprise, surprise – on almost every occasion we appeal, grades go up, sometimes by a ludicrous number of marks.

It would be better if exam boards stopped focusing on making money on designing resources to support the teaching of their own specifications. The primary function of an exam board is surely to design and assess their qualifications, and to make sure the grades they award are consistent and fair. The curriculum, teaching and learning is for schools and teachers to worry about. Likewise if exam boards put more money and effort into recruitment, and not relied on the dubious proposition of valuable CPD for teachers, they would not need to lower the bar to get all their scripts marked. If all examiners had expertise in what they were examining, students would be encouraged to understand the whole text and get to grips with hard content and not just how to create the impression that they understand.

Without a market for short cuts, there would be little incentive for anyone to provide them, and the race would turn round in the other direction.

 

Less is more: pitfalls to avoid when feeding back mocks

lessismore12-171010141840-thumbnail-4It’s that time of the year when GCSE and A Level students up and down the country are sitting mock assessments. Many of these will be dictated by the school calendar, and many students will sit more than one. Whilst there is not the space here to dissect the relative merits of mocks, one would hope schools are thinking carefully about their value and the impact on students and teachers.

However mocks are set, they have to be marked. Given this usually takes hours – particularly for those with multiple exam classes – and students spend hours answering them, teachers understandably want to make the effort count. Often, however, this desire to do the best for our students can lead us to make silly mistakes, to increase our workload and reduce the impact for our students.

The following are some of the pitfalls I try to avoid when feeding back to students. They are based on a combination of my own experiences in the classroom or things that I have seen in the schools where I have worked. I do not intend to rubbish anyone who does any of the following, as we all do things that if we slowed down and thought about we would probably wouldn’t do anymore.

  1. Don’t write detailed individual comments on students’ work

Ok, this may not appear to directly relate to feeding back, but it does affect it. If you go to the trouble of writing copious personalised comments, you inevitably want your students to read them. In my experience, the 2-3 minutes they spend reading your comments, is never worth the 4 or 5 hours you spent writing them. Do yourself a favour and collate misconceptions at class level and invest class time addressing those instead.

  1. Watch out for conveying undesirable messages

Always be mindful of the unintended consequences of the language you use, even when you are trying to motivate students. Comments like, ‘the examiner wants to see X’, or ‘you can pick up easy marks if you do Y’ are actually quite destructive. In the short term, you might come across as clued up on the specification, but in the long term you risk devaluing students’ hard work and contributing to the wider perception that schooling is only about passing exams.

  1. Avoid relying on self-assessment or peer assessment

This is not a criticism of self or peer assessment per se. I am referring to instances where it is used in place of teacher marking. If you need to use students to mark your papers then you probably have too much work and you should address that issue directly, rather than sweeping it under the carpet. Also, longer answers, exam mark schemes and rubrics are hard enough for experts to interpret, let alone children. Students who mark their own work will do it badly, won’t learn anything from the experience and you will get dodgy results.

  1. Going through every question on the paper

Laboriously trawling every question is tempting, but ultimately a waste of time. I totally understand that we want our students to understand exactly why they gained a mark here, or missed a mark there, but this kind of forensic approach pretty much contravenes every rule about attention, working memory and motivation. In other words, the learning process. You would never try and cram so much content into an ‘ordinary’ lesson, so why do so when feeding back?

  1. Wasting time on spontaneous explanations

Closely related to the above is when we try to tell students what they should have written instead. With the possible exception of simple questions where the answer is either one thing or another, this attempt to provide an explanation on the hoof is unlikely to ever work. If students didn’t get something when you explained it carefully the first time round, they are unlikely to achieve an epiphany in a cobbled together explanation you haven’t planned for. Better to plan for addressing common errors in a more systematic way.

  1. Avoid unnecessary and burdensome DIRT activities

Giving students little personalised activities to tackle when they get their papers back sounds a good idea. After all, we want students to be able to recognise where they went wrong and take steps to address their misunderstandings without always having to rely on us. The problem, however, is that to design these kinds of activities well enough so that they are meaningful takes time, which could be better served planning 2-3 high leverage tasks for the whole class or for groups of students. You also run the risk of creating more work for yourself and getting in to a never ending feedback loop you cannot close.

  1. Be careful interpreting at question level

The closer you get to the exam the more sense it makes to focus your time on the questions that students performed badly on, right? Well, yes and maybe no. Obviously, you will be guided by students’ performance on specific questions – identifying areas of weakness before it is too late is surely one of the points of a mock exam. The problem, however, is that sometimes question level analysis can lead you astray. It is not always the whole question that needs addressing, but rather a specific step in a process is missing or a concept has not been fully grasped. Students need to understand what specifically needs attention, not simply to do better next time on the 8 marker question!

So, what to do instead? I am trying to keep to the following three things:

  1. Keep a record of the class strengths and weaknesses
  2. Note down exemplar responses, for better or worse
  3. Use these notes and exemplars in the coming weeks – not all at once

Not terribly original, I know. But it is intended to keep me sane and maximise the impact of my efforts on my students’ learning. Hopefully, I will stick to these principles, though I know this is often easier said than done.

To see, or not to see: that is the question

q

For much of Hamlet, the prince of Denmark skulks around Elsinore in a cloud of melancholy, questioning everything: whether he would be better off dead or alive, whether the ghost of his dead father really is the ghost of his dead father, and what, if anything, will happen to him when he shuffles of this ‘mortal coil’. These are big questions – some of the biggest we ask as human beings – so it’s unsurprising that despite its four-hour running time, the play fails to provide any definitive answers.

Such is the nature of drama, of course: to pose imponderables about existence, to set tensions and ambiguities in place that live on long after the curtain has fallen and the audience has departed. It’s a medium the genius of Shakespeare clearly understood: that the question is often far more revealing than the answer. His plays constantly question existence and show an appreciation for the absurdity of the human condition long before Camus wrote about the ‘fundamental disharmony between the individual’s search for meaning and the meaninglessness of the universe.’

Whilst there are a number of similarities between the theatre and the classroom – the performance, audience unpredictability and uncomfortable chairs – there is ultimately a world of difference between the questions posed by a playwright through the characters on a stage and the questions asked of students by a teacher in a lesson. The dramatist enquires away from the known order of things in search of new insight, whilst in the main the teacher starts from certainty to help construct that understanding for others – to teach the body of scientific and artistic thought that has been accumulated over time.

I have already written about how I used to waste lots of time asking silly questions. My orientation was too often skewed the wrong way; my questions tended to lean more towards the inductive like those of the artist, rather than deductive like those of the teacher. Too much speculation – why questions instead of what questions, or how questions instead of who or where questions. Too much; too soon. I was putting novice students in the difficult position of trying to grapple with ideas and methods that even Hamlet would have struggled to disentangle.

Andy Tharby has got the right idea when he argues we should focus more agreed interpretations first, as opposed to getting secondary school students to offer insights and judgements they are often ill equipped to make. I’m not advocating against developing thoughtful, enquiring minds; actually, quite the opposite. By focusing questions on building students’ understanding of what is already known (in this case about a text), it is more likely that in time, they will know enough to be able to ask about ‘the undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveller returns’ themselves.

Emphasising the deductive has improved my questioning and, in turn, my practice. I don’t mean in the showy sense where style is valued over substance, where the emphasis is on the moves of the teacher, not the content the question is trying to get at. I mean in terms of precision. Carefully worded questions help isolate variables for students so they can see what gets threaded together to form the complexities of plot, character and theme, and the intricacies of rhythm, rhyme and staging. Well-honed questions reveal gaps in understanding, as well as providing the path towards achieving it.

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All this takes time, which means other things have to go – Powerpoint presentations, arty handouts, copious marking. All this becomes untenable. But that’s ok, because in the main, the questions are the lesson. The process also sharpens the subject knowledge, exposing strengths as well as weaknesses. When I’m struggling to phrase a question about Hamlet, Ophelia or Polonius, I realise I am probably not clear enough in my own mind about what specific aspect of their character I want to tease out. I read the passage again, perhaps around it too, until I know and then I have focus.

Almost all my lessons now consist of the text, a pen and a notebook, with all my scripted questions marked out for me in advance. I don’t always ask all of them, and they are still not as good as I would like them to be, but I think they make my lessons much more purposeful. There’s definitively still space to explore and, because that space has been created by the efficiency and precision of the questions and the speculations are stronger because they rest on a firmer base.

As Hamlet never said, ‘The question’s the thing that develops their understanding.’

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‘The Best Laid Plans’: 101 Reasons Why Lessons Go Wrong

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I have been teaching for nearly 14 years, and only recently have I come to accept that are just some things beyond your control.

Entrances and exits

  1. Late from registration
  2. Late from last lesson
  3. Late from PE (standard)
  4. Late from assembly
  5. Late from speaking to another teacher
  6. Doctor’s appointment
  7. Time out card
  8. Toilet pass
  9. PE fixture
  10. Art trip
  11. Intervention

Unwelcome interruption

  1. Fire alarm
  2. Door alarm (sounds like fire alarm)
  3. Car alarm
  4. Tannoy
  5. Someone needs to talk to a student
  6. Someone needs to talk to you
  7. Someone pops in and pops back out but you can’t see who
  8. Someone’s on a learning walk
  9. Two people on a learning walk
  10. Several people on a learning walk
  11. Several people on a learning walk with the head
  12. Several people on a learning walk from another school
  13. Several people on a learning walk from Denmark
  14. Ofsted
  15. Pseudo Ofsted or Ofsted-lite
  16. Student passes wind
  17. You pass wind
  18. Visitor passes wind

Teacher down

  1. Tripping over a wire
  2. Tripping over unusual name – Ha! Ha!
  3. Smacking into a desk
  4. Dropping a book
  5. Dropping a pen
  6. Dropping the clicker

IT failure (high and low tech)

  1. No sound
  2. No visuals
  3. No sound or visuals
  4. An excess of sound
  5. No internet
  6. Internet but no YouTube
  7. YouTube but clip won’t load
  8. YouTube but clip has gone
  9. YouTube, clip there, but blocked
  10. Computer locked from last teacher
  11. Desk locked from last (messy) teacher
  12. Board pen runs out
  13. No board pen
  14. No board rubber
  15. Red or green pens only
  16. No remote

Freudianisms

  1. Accidental double entendre
  2. Accidental rude word
  3. Rude word you never knew was a rude word
  4. Rude word in a text
  5. Rude word in a text you never knew was a rude word
  6. Rude word shouted out
  7. Taboo word in a text you had forgotten
  8. Taboo word in a text you remembered but thought you would discuss

Health and safety

  1. Coffee spillage
  2. Tea spillage
  3. Pen spillage
  4. Someone’s brought something up
  5. Someone’s brought something in
  6. Chair incident
  7. Table incident

Teacher standards

  1. Poor planning
  2. No planning
  3. Over planning
  4. Lost plan
  5. Planning for wrong day
  6. Poor question
  7. Poor example
  8. Poor resource
  9. Poor task
  10. Confusing instruction
  11. Confusing explanation
  12. Generally confusing yourself
  13. You’re tired
  14. You’re hungover
  15. You’re tired and hungover
  16. Students are hungover (sixth form only!)

Pesky kids

  1. No pen
  2. No book
  3. No planner
  4. No homework
  5. Nothing!
  6. Trainers
  7. Earrings
  8. Chewing gum
  9. Fidget spinner (or generational equivalent)

Seasonal

  1. Wet break
  2. Windy break
  3. Too hot
  4. Too cold
  5. Too slippery
  6. Wasps
  7. Bees
  8. Flies
  9. Butterflies
  10. Yes, pigeons!

 

It’s just a bit of fun. None of this has ever happened.

Thanks for reading.