How and why I help my students to learn quotations

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‘a quotation is a handy thing to have about, saving one the trouble of thinking for oneself, always a laborious business.’ A.A. Milne

I’ve always been rather envious of those who can effortlessly pull out a quotation to match a given situation or circumstance. As an English teacher, it is useful to have an apt line or phrase to hand to exemplify a teaching point, or help students to see connections between different texts both past and the present. A good quotation is a thing of beauty in and of itself – a short, often poetic utterance that can say something of what it means to be human even when shorn of its surrounding context.

I would imagine a lot of people think learning quotations is a bit of a waste of time and, along with memorising poems, an outmoded example of the kind of Stephen Fry cum Oscar Wilde infused wit that everyone admires of eccentric public figures, but not of themselves or their close friends. If such a view exists, I think it is a rather sad indictment of our age where learning things off by heart – like the names of songs on your favourite album or even the name of the album itself – is often seen as pointless given the efficiency of cloud-based repositories in the sky.

In the context of examinations, the need to learn content off by heart is called into question even more. Why should students need to learn lines of poetry to do well in English? In what way does remembering a series of quotations from a novel count as evidence of deep learning? These questions have been raised a lot of late with the introduction of a greater number of closed book examinations in English, at both GCSE and A Level. The concerns have been loud enough to warrant Glenys Stacey to release this statement about the requirements of the new toughened GCSE syllabus, in which she assures all that ‘there is no expectation that students should have to regurgitate paragraphs of text’ and that ‘assessment is about learning and understanding, not memory.’

In some respects I am broadly sympathetic to the sentiment of Stacey’s words. Nobody can learn or remember everything, and in an age when so much is available at the touch of a button, or the swipe of a finger, there are times to focus less on the small details and concentrate more on the bigger picture. Whilst Stacey’s view of the distinction between learning and memory may be a little confused (isn’t all learning a form of memory?), I understand there is a difference between superficial retrieval and deep analysis. In no way do I think students should be disadvantaged if they cannot recall the precise words a writer uses when they are casting around for evidence in support of an interpretation. Great readings of texts are not dependent on a given quota of textual references, yet they can certainly be enhanced by one or two well-deployed quotations made by a skilful student.

I think therefore that there is something eminently worthwhile for students in learning lines from the texts they study in class or books they read at home. From a practical point standpoint, a well-selected quotation can stimulate deeper language analysis or act as a cue for links to other ideas and interpretations across a text. More importantly, learning the words of the writer, whether in writing or out loud, can show a greater appreciation of their ideas and feelings – their purpose even. I’m with Andrew Motion, who has a great affection for line the ‘sun destroys the interest of what’s happening in the shade’ from Larkin’s Whitsun Weddings. The quotation contains an image I think I will remember for the rest of my life, and which I don’t think is lessened from being uncoupled from the poem itself.

Up until a couple of years ago, I never really took any meaningful steps to help my students learn quotations. I guess I just thought that through osmosis they would remember important lines and powerful images like the Larkin one above. I used to write ridiculous targets in their reports in the lead up to exams, such as ‘Charlotte should create a bank of quotations to support her arguments in essays’, or ‘Josh should aim to learn quotations to support the main ideas and themes.’ It was one thing for me to put the onus of learning onto the students, but at the very least I should have provided them with some kind of structure: guidance on which quotations to choose, advice on how to learn them or use them effectively in their writing, and a clear rationale for their long term ‘utility’.

Since I have started to focus much more on helping my students remember quotations, I have developed a number of different approaches, which I think have proved successful across the age and ability range. My year 11 class can reel off well over 20 quotations from each of their three set texts and they can explain their importance in relation to the key themes. Crucially, I think learning words and phrases has helped them appreciate what the writer is trying to communicate, and, in turn, more about the writer as a human being. My year 13 class know a large number of the terms used to describe characters in The Tempest and can readily provide textual evidence to support statements about the main ideas and attitudes. I am finding that having a common currency of learnt quotations significantly enhances our ability to talk about the play with confidence and make sophisticated interpretations and connections as a class. Learning quotations is not the be all and end all, but in my opinion it is contributing to my students demonstrating some pretty deep understanding in their work.

And so, in the spirit of sharing, here are some short descriptions of the main approaches I have been using with my students, together with some illustrative examples. In the cold light of day they seem pretty feeble, but I can vouch for the fact that they are making a difference to my students’ learning.

  1. Repeated recall

In most of my sixth form lessons, though increasingly more so as we get closer to the examinations, I begin with some kind of short activity that supports the learning of quotations. I often use the same activity several times, returning or tweaking an earlier resource once a period of time has elapsed for forgetting. At first the students think they are never going to learn the quotations, but they soon start to see a difference and genuinely find the process and the result rewarding.

  1. Missing words

This is the activity I use the most. I select about 10 quotations and present them to the students with one, two or three words removed. I usually choose the words with the greatest semantic resonance, because this then enables elaboration for language analysis. As students gain more confidence, I extend the number and scope of quotations and increase the amount and type of words taken away. I provide opportunities for students to select and recall their own choices and, to my surprise, include random examples, which more often than not the students get right. The end goal is for students to be able to remember as many quotations as they can entirely from free recall, and then use these wisely to enhance their analysis and interpretation. What is effectively an oral start to the lesson provides fruitful stimulation for the transition into extended writing tasks.

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  1. Anagrams and puzzles

A few years ago I think I would have poo pooed this approach, deeming it too simplistic and not worthy as a genuine learning activity. My increased understanding of how memory works and the different ways in which students need to process information in order to make it stick have meant that I now include much more of this kind of low stakes quizzing. It works particularly well for terms that characters use to describe or refer to each other, such as the myriad of names used to refer to Caliban in The Tempest. I don’t spend long on anagrams and puzzles; the trick is little and often. Knowing well over 15 terms used to define Caliban has helped the students really understand the way in which his character is positioned by language.

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  1. Catch phrase (well, sort of)

This activity is my attempt at applying the rationale building memory palaces to regular short-term lesson starters. Memory palaces are excellent ways of learning quotations – the different rooms and use of imaginative images to support learning lends itself well to remembering vivid images in texts – but they are time-consuming to set up in class, and more suitable for students to complete at home. My version of using images to form connections with words is much quicker and more simplistic. I simply select an image or combination of images from Google and then lay them out on a PowerPoint slide as prompts for student recall. You can have a lot of fun with this and make the images as easy or hard as you like, depending on age, ability and level of student confidence. Students are also encouraged to select their own images as they build up their own quotation libraries. The image

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10 quotations used to describe or define Miranda in The Tempest

  1. Exemplifying statements

This is a fairly straightforward variation on the ideas outlined above and is more suited to when students have some degree of mastery over a wide range of quotations. I begin (or sometimes end) the lesson with ten short statements about the text being studied, for which students have to supply some evidence by way of quotation. The great thing about this technique is that you can have the 10 propositions all together (on a slide or handout) or show them one by one and target certain individuals with the minimum of notice. Again, this approach lends itself to differentiating across and within classes. Once more, it leads effortlessly into elaboration, either by linking the quotations to other ideas or contextual details or deepening understanding through commenting on the methods of presentation used.

Healthy competition

Of late, I have combined some of the above approaches and introduced an element of in class competition. With my year 11 class I began with what I called level 1 quotation tasks, where I presented about 10 or so quotations to be learnt with one or two words missing. Once successfully completed, level 2 tasks were given where the same quotations were present but with different words omitted. Level 3 took away most of the words except the first one or two to serve as a cue, whilst introducing 5 or so new ones. Level 4 progressed to a combination of images and prompts, whilst level 5 (where some of the students are currently at) is solely image based. It sounds complicated, but in reality is quite simple. The students seem to like the additional competition, and all of them have learnt a lot of quotations in a relatively short amount of time. It stretches the more confident yet supports those that need more prompts.

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I have blogged before about one of my favourite books of recent years, Reality Hunger David Shields. The book is a collage of quotation by various thinkers and writers about our obsession with ‘the real’ in art, literature and culture, each unattributed quotation is numbered and organised into chapters with letters from the alphabet. Quotation number 273 sums up the spirit of this post:

My taste for quotation, which I have always kept – why reproach me for it? People, in life, quote what pleases them. Therefore, in our work, we have the right to quote what please us.

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Teaching problems and the problems of teaching them – lesson #1

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   ‘Do you think they’re true, all those things they say about B – Mr Arthur?’

  ‘What things?’

  I told her.

  ‘That is three-fourths coloured folks and one-fourth Stephanie Crawford,’ said Miss Maudie grimly.

                                                                                                            To Kill A Mockingbird

This extract comes from a conversation between Miss Maudie and Scout Finch in chapter five of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. The widowed Miss Maudie is helping the younger Scout to understand something of the way of the world, namely who is ultimately responsible for spreading the town’s gossip about their reclusive neighbour Boo Radley. There is nothing particularly interesting or noteworthy about this exchange, and I doubt very much it would even warrant a mention in an examination response. Yet, from a teaching perspective, I learnt something valuable from dwelling upon this passage in a recent lesson, particularly about my class’s understanding of how fiction works and the way in which they approach reading a novel.

Before I look at this example in more detail, it might be useful to set a bit of context. This year I have inherited a lovely, bright and hardworking year 11 top set. We have just started reading Lee’s novel and I am very much enjoying teaching the class. I usually teach a set 3 or 4, which is always incredibly rewarding, though perhaps in a different way. For me, one of the benefits of teaching a top set – aside from how they generally humour my pitiful attempts at comedy – is the way they are sympathetic to my neurotic determination to reach a better understanding of the impact of my teaching. Over the last few years I have fallen into (what I hope is a useful) habit of asking students directly about the effectiveness of my methods, usually at the end of the lesson but sometimes during it in a kind of postmodern meta-commentary of teacher effectiveness at the precise moment that that effectiveness is unfolding.

After reading the passage out loud I put the book down and conducted a quick straw poll of who understood the meaning of Miss Maudie’s reply. To my surprise, or perhaps intuition, most of the class put their hands up. Admittedly, this is not the most robust means of gathering evidence – perhaps the worst kind of AFL imaginable – but I nevertheless found their collective response instructive. It revealed to me a problem with how they understood the concept of ellipsis: the way in which writers communicate meaning in the gaps and silences of their texts, and not always handily signposting such moments with an introductory dot, dot, dot.

It had seemed pretty obvious to me that between Scout’s ‘I told her’ and Miss Maudie’s cool response there was a passing of time, a passing of time in which the much older, wizened figure of Miss Maudie chewed over Scout’s naïve assumptions about Boo Radley and spat it back out at her as a truism of the spiteful nature of the Maycomb rumour mill. This interpretation had only seemed ‘pretty obvious’ to me because I am an adult reader with two degrees and 11 years of teaching experience behind me. It had only seemed pretty obvious because I have read hundreds and hundreds of novels and learnt a great deal about the way that meaning often resides in the metaphorical margins of texts – in the unsaid, or, more precisely, the unwritten.

Look again at the passage:

  ‘What things?’

  I told her.

  ‘That is three-fourths coloured folks and one-fourth Stephanie Crawford,’ said Miss Maudie grimly.

That passing of time I was referring to earlier – the one that exists between the question and the answer and filled in with the narrator’s report ‘I told her’ – is so easily missed. I think most students would not be attuned to such levels of careful, slow reading. Why would they be? I know that I, largely in response to the demands of exams, tend to go for the passages in texts that stick out a mile: you know, the ones that scream ‘here is a metaphor that can be pulled apart’, ‘look, over there are some short sentences which I’m sure you can make some comment about the build up of tension.’ This is the kind of literary diet I think a lot of students are fed, an approach to the art of analysis which tends to focus on surface and neglects the delight and ambiguity of hidden depth.

What is so great about To Kill a Mockingbird is it there are lots of these little narrative subtleties – things that are said or felt, without ever being rendered explicit – if you know where to look. Perhaps a better example of the elliptical at work in the novel is Atticus’s repeated recourse to exam the wisteria vine at such moments where his capacious intellect and wisdom has been challenged by the perverse logic of his children’s perception. See this instance below, where following Scout’s misplaced, but understandable, chain of reasoning to explain her desire to quit school, Atticus buys himself some thinking time by studying the nearby plant:

Bit by bit, I told him the day’s misfortunes. “-and she said you taught me all wrong, so we can’t ever read any more, ever. Please don’t send me back, please sir.”

Atticus stood up and walked to the end of the porch. When he completed his examination of the wisteria vine he strolled back to me.

“First of all,” he said, “if you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view-”

The brief narrative diversion enables Atticus to respond to his daughter in such a way as to advise her of the correct course of action in tackling her school troubles, whilst remaining sympathetic to her sense of righteousness.

Over the past few years I have found that I am having these kinds of insights on an increasingly regular basis. Whilst I am not always sure what to do with the knowledge I glean from these teaching epiphanies, or indeed the time to react to them fully for the benefit of my students, I feel like I am building up a valuable store of knowledge about the craft of teaching English. In the weeks to come, I intend to write up some of the teaching insights I have picked up of late, largely with my top set, since that is really when I started to make a note of the details. My intention is largely personal, a means for me to try and make sense of observations I have made of my own classroom practice. My hope is that others may find my reflections useful, and perhaps share some thoughts in the comments below.

Maybe I am making far too much out of one tiny example. Maybe. What I do believe is that in gaining tiny, microscopic insights like these I am continuing to improve my practice. I never want to lose sight of the fact that learning is a complex act, and that at the heart of that complexity is the teacher, to all intents and purposes alone in their classroom with a myriad of possibilities, desperately trying to figure out how to make it all seem as simple as possible.

Prospero’s knowledge: magic or curse?

‘Real learning requires stepping into the unknown, which initiates a rupture in knowing’. Leslie Schwartzman

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The pursuit of knowledge

I have been thinking a lot about The Tempest recently. Preparing two A2 classes for their imminent exams means I have been immersed in the ideas and characters in this late Shakespeare play. At the same time I have been working on approaches to help teachers improve their subject knowledge as a part of our professional development programme, something I think is sadly lacking from much INSET which tends to focus more on generic aspects of pedagogy. A number of issues in the play, and more specifically tensions arising from my teaching of it, have made me reflect on the nature and efficacy of teacher subject knowledge. This post attempts to outline some of these issues and how I think I have resolved them.

Those familiar with The Tempest will know there is a speech near the end where the main protagonist Prospero renounces his ‘rough magic’ and symbolically drowns his books and breaks his staff. The scene is the moment in which the magician, the rightful Duke of Milan who was overthrown by his own brother and exiled to a faraway island, recognises the part his own selfish pursuit of magic played in his usurpation and rejects it in order to be restored to humanity and his previous courtly status. He has come to realise that for reconciliation to be possible, he must wave goodbye to the one of the sources of the initial disorder: the magic that is his ‘art’.

In constructing Prospero’s character Shakespeare drew upon contemporary concern for the danger of magic – embodied in the divisive figure of John Dee and Marlowe’s recasting of the Faustus myth – as well to fears about the underlying danger of knowledge acquisition itself, particularly of the supernatural kind. In an age of growing humanistic enquiry and learning, Shakespeare’s presentation of Prospero appears to be asking, is there a price to be paid for the pursuit of knowledge? Should we strive to know the secrets of nature, or should we make do with what is determined for us by others? Should we have the ambition to think like a god, or heed the lessons from over-reachers like Prospero and Faustus who venture beyond boundaries and suffer terribly as a result?

Rethinking CPD

I have always believed that strong, evolving subject knowledge is as just as important to excellence in the classroom as strong, evolving pedagogy. In many respects this belief drives my approach to teaching. Regardless of the topic or age group, I go to great lengths to ‘know’ as much as possible about what I am teaching – indeed as much as I do about how I am going to teach it. In the past this ethos has involved spending large chucks of holiday time reading and re-reading primary and secondary sources, taking copious notes, listening to online lectures and podcasts and even reviewing old university notes. I have never thought it acceptable to be on the next page or even the next chapter to the students; I want to be on the next book!

This desire to keep on top of the knowledge necessary to help my students thrive has become increasingly burdensome. Whilst I like to think that I have a rich seam of conceptual underpinning from my own studies, I have inevitably forgotten a great deal and much of what I have learnt (and remembered) is no longer relevant to the students, courses and texts I now teach. Every year I therefore have to replenish my knowledge and add to it. Each new text represents a mini programme of study and even though I adore reading, with increased responsibility at work and home, it is becoming more difficult to put in the hours to get to the level of understanding necessary required.

If I am feeling like this, then surely others are too, and if this is the case CPD must address the imbalance between time spent honing subject knowledge and time spent developing pedagogy. I have thought a lot about how to do this practically and meaningfully: devising ways to give teachers more time and resources to concentrate on developing their subject expertise. From distributing INSET more equitably to implementing subject audits that help teachers to identify priorities for future development, there is much that can be done. Within this re-articulation of CPD there is a need to raise the profile of subject expertise, particularly in relation to the development of Growth Mindset. I believe in embedding this philosophy from the outset through the recruitment process, along the lines Michael Fordham expertly delineates in his post on the ways schools can announce their commitment to strong subject knowledge to prospective staff.  

Overreaching?

But what if this is the wrong approach and that I am overstating the importance of deep mastery over subject content? What if, beyond the basic levels of understanding necessary to cover the core curriculum of each domain, there is no additional benefit accrued to students as a result of teachers knowing more? We all have colleagues who know their subjects inside and backwards, but cannot use what they know to inspire others. Similarly, we are familiar with those who can teach a variety of subjects outside their specialisms – often to good effect. Though caricatures, these extreme positions raise the possibility that maybe there is an optimum amount of knowledge a teacher needs to be effective: enough to get the job done, but not too much to get in the way of the learning. What if, like rarefied academics such as Prospero and Faustus, there is a consequence for teachers attempting to know (or to teach) too much?

Whilst I remain committed to the virtues of strong subject knowledge, every year things happen in my classes and with certain students in particular, that make me question my certainty. This year these instances have manifest in my teaching of The Tempest. Now in my third year of teaching the play, I feel I know it reasonably well, including background context, dramatic history and critical interpretation. I try to use this knowledge to explain, clarify, challenge and extend my students. For the most part this approach is successful (though only the results will tell!), and my students’ essays this year have been demonstrably better than the first time I taught the play. Yet there are occasions where I feel that what I know might have got in the way, and that as a result of wanting students to go beyond what is strictly necessary to do well in the exam, I have taken them from a position of certainty to a state of doubt.

One example where my subject knowledge appeared to hinder rather than help was my recent attempt to teach a psychoanalytical reading of Prospero’s character. I wanted my class to understand how Ariel and Caliban can be read as facets of Prospero’s psyche: Caliban the desirous ego that acts solely upon impulse, and Ariel the more ethereal representative of restraint and conscience, the id. Prospero is the superego, mediating between the two positions by way of the Reality Principle. I realised this would be tricky so I structured my approach carefully, introducing the ideas in a number of different ways, explaining them in detail and reinforcing them through retrieval activities. And yet, despite my planning the students still struggled to understand. Worse, their subsequent essays were weaker than previously. Had my own understanding of this complex interpretation led me to introduce something too difficult for my students, resulting in them losing confidence? Had I overreached in my ambitions as a teacher?

Mental models

In their excellent book Make it Stick Brown, Roediger and McDaniel offer a useful corollary to what I have been discussing. They consider how ‘the better you know something, the more difficult it becomes to teach it’. Drawing upon Jacoby, Bjork and Kelly’s ‘Illusions of Comprehension, Competence and Remembering’ and Eric Mazur’s paper ‘Confessions of a Converted Lecturer’ (available to view on Youtube), the authors describe how as an individual’s expertise grows the mental models that underpin their mastery start to get increasingly complex, at which point the ‘component steps that compose them fade into the background.’ It seems that despite my best efforts to carefully structure my teaching of complex theoretical material, I might be guilty of forgetting some of the steps that helped me achieve mastery and as result neglected to teach what was necessary for my less experienced learners. In other words, my subject knowledge might have got in the way of my students’ learning.

The premise that I might have forgotten some of the steps necessary to understand the concept of psychoanalytical interpretation makes perfect sense. As a teacher I must therefore continually guard against taking for granted complex mental models that have helped to give structure and coherence to my own understanding, but which my conscious mind has long since forgotten. And this is where I think knowledge about teaching complements knowledge about subject content. It provides insights into how to teach complex concepts like theoretical interpretation and facilitates the assimilation of new knowledge into old. Depth of subject knowledge remains central, but it is harnessed through appropriate pedagogy, which is unlikely to ever be absolute or definitive.

Learning for the future

In what appears to be a defining moment in education – where increased rigour and content is being brought to the fore – the successful alignment of subject knowledge with teaching expertise needs considered thought. Many schools (including ours) are introducing much more challenging texts at KS3. There is the temptation to think that simply moving towards harder content will automatically raise the rigour and in and of itself prepare students for more demanding examinations at GCSE and beyond. This is unlikely. In reality, many teachers (like me) will need as much support in understanding what they are teaching as how they are going to teach it. Subject specific training is absolutely necessary if challenging Classical texts like The Odyssey are to be taught and understood in a meaningful way.

As well the need to provide teachers with adequate support to develop their subject knowledge, I also think there needs to be greater recognition that this increased ambition has the potential to make learning fuzzier and to create doubt amongst students. The difficulties I have encountered in my teaching, for instance, are almost impossible to mitigate and so we must be equipped to deal with uncertainty when it arises. Next time round I will approach the way I teach psychoanalytical readings differently, but even then I may still get it wrong. Or rather, I may get it right and my students may still not understand. This should not mean I settle for second best, though. My students’ confusion was the result of poor execution, not misplaced ambition.

Prospero and his creator Shakespeare existed in restrictive and tightly bound worlds, where the scope of knowledge, whilst rapidly evolving, nevertheless had limitations and where fears to established order were rife. We live in intellectually freer times, and so we owe it to our students to ensure that we are armed with the tools necessary to fully challenge, develop and critique their learning. And this means spending as much time on what we know about our subjects as how to deliver them, and be prepared for doubt, confusion and sometimes failure – on our part and on the part of our students. Whilst it is eminently possible to teach students to a reasonable level without strong subject knowledge, I think that it is only with deep expertise that we are truly able to take learners through the threshold concepts of our domains – from positions of certainty to uncertainty (what Land et al refer to as ‘liminality’) and out the other end to a ‘transformed way of understanding.’

In The Tempest Prospero renounces his magic, not because he does not value the knowledge he gleaned from the volumes he ‘prized above his dukedom’, but because he recognises he put his learning to the wrong use. The Tempest may well have been Shakespeare’s last solo-authored play, but he certainly did not give up on the power of ‘art’ to transform lives; he embraced tension, championed uncertainty and in doing profoundly altered people’s understanding of themselves and the world around them for many years to come.

This is the magic of knowledge.

 

Worksheet 2.0: learning concepts, deliberate practice and desirable difficulty

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If you had told me a few years ago I would be extoling the virtues of worksheets via the public medium of a blog post, I would have thought you were barking mad. Early in my teaching I had been encouraged to see worksheets as a bit of a remnant from the teaching Dark Ages – an outmoded tool that showed a lack of imagination and a lazy approach to planning. I have since come to form my own opinion about their efficacy in the classroom. In short, I think that handled well worksheets are an incredibly useful instructional aid. I use them a lot in my teaching and bizarrely my students seem to like them too, particularly my A level classes.

Before you stop reading, I should stress that a raft of pedagogical reasoning underpins my approach to designing worksheets, and that I use what I create in specific ways to enhance my students’ learning, not as an opportunity to kick back and drink coffee, which I do anyway regardless of the activity. There are essentially three principles that guide the design and execution of what I shall henceforth refer to as worksheet 2.0. These principles relate to the amount of interactions students have with subject content, how much time they get to practice with specific elements of that content and how frequent low stakes assessments help to review and deepen learning.

This post does not really go into the ideas. I am sure that many of you are already familiar with the relevant research, such as Graham Nuthall’s work in uncovering the realities of classrooms beyond the watchful eye of the teacher, or the work of K. Anders Ericsson surrounding deliberate practice, popularised in books by Doug Lemov and Matthew Syed. Likewise, a lot of good stuff has been written about the importance to education of the ideas emanating out of cognitive scientist Robert Bjork’s wonderful ‘Learning and Forgetting Lab’. This post is more about how I have tried to synthesise some of these ideas and theories through the design and implementation of worksheet 2.0.

I have increasingly been using worksheet 2.0 in all my classes, but I think the most successful application of it – the class where students ‘appear’ to have made the most progress as a result of its usage – is my current A2 Literature group. The rest of this post lays out some of the ways I have incorporated the principles of learning new concepts, deliberate practice and desirable difficulty with this class.

Principle One – learning new content

I always try to engage A level students with in depth knowledge about their set texts and the relevant context – often above and beyond what is strictly speaking necessary. I go to great lengths to read around a topic and provide students with all the information (articles, weblinks, critical essays, film interpretations) they need to achieve success, become more independent and compete with others from more culturally literate backgrounds. The trouble is, whilst most of the students diligently read and understand this material, they are often not able to retain it.  It doesn’t seem to matter if I ask to see their notes, help them with annotating and summarising techniques or give them specific areas to focus on. After reading Graham Nuthall’s The Secret Lives of Learners it became clear: they lack repeated, structured exposure to this new information. In one of many seemingly obvious, but ultimately quite profound, observations of learning Nuthall concludes that students need to piece together ‘three complete definitions or descriptions of a concept’ for it to transfer to long-term memory. Enter worksheet 2.0 as a way of helping to structure these repeated interactions and make long-term retention more likely. 

1)    This first example relates to social and historical background to Shakespeare’s ‘The Tempest’. I set the students a chapter to read from the play’s introduction and used worksheet 2.0 to structure the reading, and hence their understanding (the first interaction). The next lesson revisited their responses in pairs and as a group (the second interaction), and the following week the content was re-introduced through exemplification in a piece of extended writing (the third interaction).

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2)    The second example of this approach is even simpler, one which I have used a lot to help develop students’ understanding of plot, character, relationships and key ideas. I call it Twenty in Ten. Students have ten minutes to answer twenty comprehension questions. As with the previous example, I find three different ways to introduce and refer back to whatever content I want students to know. The students I teach seem to really like this structured way of reading and organising their written notes.

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Principle Two – Deliberate Practice

At our school the science department achieve truly staggering results. They have by far the largest intake of A level students and they consistently achieve way above the national norms. The department is well led with great, enthusiastic and hard-working teachers. Yet, as much as these things are key reasons for their success, I felt there were also other factors at play too. When I read about the work of K. Anders Ericsson it struck me – they are engaged in deliberate practice, albeit without realising it. Every student has access to lots of workbooks, each containing thousands of specific questions organised around core topics. I think that one of the reasons our students get so good at Chemistry, Physics and Biology is because they engage in countless hours of specific deliberate practice on these questions that hone their levels of mastery. Worksheet 2.0 is my attempt to replicate this approach in English, which does not so overtly seem to lend itself to isolating individual elements in this way.

3)    The following example is one of many similar versions I have made to accompany the teaching of ‘The Great Gatsby’. This novel has a number of set piece scenes that invite forensic close analysis of ideas and methods. My approach here enables deliberate practice on both the art of close analysis and – by way of the notes made and a short class discussion – focused analytical writing. On some occasions I repeat the activity in the same lesson with a different passage and no writing structure, enabling me to mark students’ work quickly and provide immediate corrective feedback. 

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4)    This example is more about the structure of specific sentences to aid analytical expression. I am thinking here of the use of relative and non-finite clauses to frame brief analytical comments. I model how to combine the two sentences and then students engage in deliberate practice of similar examples.

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Principle Three – Desirable difficulties

Whilst there are a number of different aspects to Bjork’s notion of desirable difficulties, the one that I have been trying to harness the most in my A level teaching is the use of frequent, low-stakes testing to not only gauge levels of understanding, but also to significantly increase them. At the beginning of each week I have been getting into the habit of giving students a short, focused assessment on the previous week’s learning, including aspects of comprehension, the learning of quotations, and developing literary and academic vocabulary. Using worksheet 2.0 as a vehicle for regular testing has helped me to gain valuable readouts of students’ performance – and so address misconceptions or gaps in understanding – whilst also deepening their levels of mastery.

5)    This example of low stakes assessment takes the form of multiple-choice questions, which I have blogged about before and whose leading champion (especially in the realms of English) is Joe Kirby. In this instance I used variations of the following questions to develop a critical vocabulary for talking about and analysing the ideas in the play. 

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6)    The next example illustrates how I have been trying to help students learn quotations from the text and be secure in their understanding of literary terminology for discussing writer’s craft. This year, more than ever before, I have consciously tried to teach students to learn quotations. Not only do I think it’s helpful for doing well in the the exam – which it is in a closed book assessment – but, moreover, because I think it significantly enhances their understanding of the themes of the play and how the different ideas cohere with expression.

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Obviously, I do a lot more with my classes than just dole out worksheets and let students work on ill-conceived activities. I don’t think any teacher worth his or her salt would seriously expect that would enhance students’ learning. What I do think, in fact am convinced about, is that worksheets – whether version 1.0. 2.0 or 2.1 – are a valid and useful tool to support effective teaching.

Not Dark Age, Modern Age or any Age. Timeless.

 

The Elements of Language: what we are using in place of levels

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In my last post I blogged about our department’s plans for a new KS3 English curriculum, which we are looking to phase in gradually starting this coming September.

This curriculum change is part of a wider set of reforms, in part a response to the shifting national picture, but in the main the result of a desire to transform the reading and writing competences of the students at our school. Changing the texts and sequence in which they are studied is a necessary first step, but this alone will not lead to significant rises in attainment if that content is not well taught or if there are not robust methods of assessment to purposefully guide instruction or to meaningfully evaluate its impact.

And so to the subject of this post: the nature of the model of assessment that we will be using to drive our ambitious plans forwards. It is not perfect, but what I am convinced about is that despite its inevitable shortcomings, it will prove to be a much better method of assessment than the ambiguous and imprecise system of levels that we are currently using. It will support learning, rather than distort it.

Formative and Summative

There are essentially two strands to this assessment model. One is concerned with measuring the progress of students’ over time (summative) the other, the more important, is a tool to support the class teacher in their ongoing understanding of student learning (formative). Michael Tidd is excellent on this distinction. The first supports the reporting process; the second supports the learners. Under this new assessment framework there will be one extended reading and writing assessment at the end of each year, which will take the form of an examination.

From these assessments students will be given an overall percentage for their performance over the two parts, which will then be compared against their starting point and their target for the end of the year. Regrettably, we think a baseline test is necessary. Whilst I sympathise with the valid arguments about retesting students at the beginning of year 7, we want to fully understand exactly what is behind the normalised numbers we will be receiving from our feeder schools. I appreciate this is not ideal, but for us, as I hope you will see, it is necessary: we want to know what our students can and cannot do so we can adapt our subsequent instruction accordingly.

The Elements of Language

The Elements of Language (see below) is the terminology that will allow us to articulate what we actually mean when we talk about effective reading and writing. Divided into 10 elements – five for reading and five for writing with corresponding assessment objectives – each element is embodied by a single word. So, for example, for writing there is A02 Control and A03 Style, whilst for reading A06 Knowledge and AO7 Interpretation. Together The Elements of Language define our notion of literacy and provide a genuine vehicle for a cross curricular focus on developing reading and writing – a shared language for talking about literacy and a practical means for understanding what it looks like.

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The Elements of Reading and Writing

The Elements of Language are divided into The Elements of Reading and The Elements of Writing. Each element has a corresponding Assessment Objective and has four stages of progression (see below). Within these four stages there are three clearly defined statements about the knowledge and understanding required to master. As much as possible we have tried to avoid vague skills definitions, which are unhelpfully imprecise, particularly as a means for helping students to understand next steps and to guide future instruction. This was more difficult to achieve with The Elements of Reading, which use some evaluative terminology in order to avoid an overwhelming number of specific statements.

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Assessment that drives learning

The creation of these three distinct objectives within each stage of progression is deliberate. It is designed to enable every unit we teach to work on one specific aspect from each overarching objective (or element) and to carry out this coverage in a coherent, systematic and rigorous manner. Across each term (we will run termly units) teachers will be focusing on teaching ten specific areas for improvement, along with responding to the learners’ needs as required. A simple tracker like the one below will help the teacher to maintain a firm grasp of whether students are learning the different objectives or not. Students will receive a 1 if they partially meet the objective criteria, a 2 if they fully meet it and a 0 if they fail to meet the criteria at all. These judgements will be made at the discretion of the individual teacher; they will not be tied to a specific piece of work.

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Because there are ten Elements of Language, and an on-going monitoring system that makes a 0-2 judgement, students’ progress can be easily transferred into percentages, both individually and per objective. We believe this highly visual and transparent terminology will give the teacher a clearer and more specific set of information they can act upon to inform their planning and to respond to the needs of their learners. It will also allow the co-ordinator to see if there are patterns of underachievement and if intervention is required. The specificity of our statements makes the understanding of English and how to get better at it much clearer: the students either demonstrate an understanding and application of a particular element or they don’t. This information will be available to teachers across the curriculum, particularly in the essay-based subjects as part of a shared planning model.

Interim and end of year assessment

Each term our students will complete one extended reading and one extending writing task, as well as a contextualised speaking assignment. Both extended writing tasks will be redrafted multiple times using the gallery critique model in an effort to establish a culture of excellence. Students’ work will receive regular, specific feedback; it will improve accordingly, along with their levels of motivation and self-perception. This work will not be graded. We are completely doing away with the notion of a half term assessment or APP task, believing instead that there are better ways to assess on-going knowledge and skill acquisition (see below) and that real progress takes a longer period of time to manifest– namely a year or perhaps even longer.

The Use of Multiple Choice Questions

I have already blogged here and here about the benefits of the multiple choice format, primarily as a means of informing teaching, but also as an effective method of managing the demands of marking – a real problem for so many, many teachers. As I have already outlined, the only extended pieces of writing that will be subject to specific assessment will be the end of year examination. Termly pieces will be produced but not be judged in isolation. Rather they will be used to evaluate whether a particular strand of an assessment objective has been met and if re-teaching or consolidation is required. Learning will need to be shown as secure as opposed to being performed in a one off piece.

Across a term, multiple-choice assessment will test the extent to which the focused elements have been learnt, or are on their way to be being learnt. Some aspects of reading and writing are easier to test using this format than others. The Elements of Language that perhaps lend themselves the best to multiple choice are Vocabulary (A01), Control (A02), Style (A03), Knowledge (A06) and Interpretation (A07).  Just to be clear, I am not suggesting these tests in and of themselves prove learning has occurred. They don’t. They provide an indication of the learning process and, most importantly, they provide a reliable guide for future instruction. Every class will sit these assessments and results will be used by individual teachers, as well as across the department to inform joint planning.

Limited, inconsistent, secure and exceptional

The end of year assessments (along with the year 7 baseline test) will be marked using our new KS3 mark scheme (see example for reading below). This mark scheme is broken into five different standards of performance, which we have termed ‘limited’, ‘inconsistent’, ‘competent’, ‘good’ and ‘exceptional’. These different standards – as much as humanly possible – match the four incremental phases of development within the separate Elements of Reading and Writing. I am aware that this system runs the risk of the ‘adverb problem’ as highlighted by Daisy Christodoulou here. I have wrestled with this conundrum for a while now: what is the best way to effectively judge a holistic piece of extended writing where different aspects (or elements) of English are synthesised? This mark scheme is my attempt at a response.

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Whilst I am not completely sure that it fully resolves the dilemma, I hope the way the standards are articulated at each level, and the relative specificity of the individual objectives, will make the marking clearer and more reliable. Obviously, robust standardisation and moderation procedures will also be necessary, as will exemplification at each standard. And this is exactly what we intend to do: exemplify what we mean by ‘exceptional’, ‘good’ and so on. To do this we plan to take the most accomplished student in the year above and use their exam response to set the standard for what is excellent’, which we can then rework downwards for ‘good’, ‘competent’, ‘inconsistent’ and ‘limited’. When a better response is produced this will become the new ‘exceptional’, thus ensuring the bar for what we expect from our students is always rising.

As with the termly tracker, at each of the five stages there are 2 marks available, 0 for not met, 1 for partially met and 2 for fully met. Again, like with the ongoing monitoring, the end of year assessments will be converted into percentages by combining the raw reading and writing marks. These final percentages will produce a transparent measure that will show the extent to which progress has been made or not been made. At this stage we are not fully decided upon what would represent a realistic, yet challenging, percentage target for the year. I expect it will be something like 10-15%, though this will most probably become clearer once we have implemented the assessment model and refined its workings.

A note on starting points

‘Exceptional’ is, of course, what we would like all of our students to be by the end of KS3. If they achieved the criteria that we have laid out then we truly would have instigated step change. Yet, we are realistic enough to know that this will not be possible for all, at least in the short term, perhaps even ever. To this end we want to make it clear that the minimum we expect our students to be is ‘good’ readers and writers, particularly those that come in at or around the normalised mark of 100 – what is deemed to constitute ‘secondary ready’. In our eyes this pretty much equates to our scale of ‘competent’. And this is why all those who come into our school at secondary ready will follow the second assessment pathway marked ‘competent’. Those below this will follow the greyed out area labelled ‘inconsistent’. There are no criteria for ‘limited’, since by its very definition ‘limited’ implies a considerable lack of requisite knowledge and understanding. We don’t need to define this.

And that is pretty much our new assessment model. It is still in draft format, so I’m sure there will be some glaring errors, typos, omissions and the like. We will also be making amendments and tweaks over the coming months.

We feel that we have come up with a model of assessment that is right for the students of our school and one that will actually help drive improvement, not get in the way of it.

I hope it is of use in some way elsewhere.