This week a wonderful distillation into the science of learning put together by the Deans for Impact programme has been shared across Twitter. It is fantastic and concise summation of a series of cognitive principles, along with some pretty direct and helpful guidance about the application of these principles in the classroom.
It really is a pretty fantastic little read – incredibly helpful and extremely practical, so much so that both David Didau and Nick Rose write short pieces extolling its virtues to their followers. David even went so far as to demand his readers ‘Do please read and share as widely as possible’ as ‘this document ought to be distributed to every teacher in the UK.’
I couldn’t agree more with the sentiment and for a brief moment I thought about getting the paper copied it and put into every teacher’s and classroom support staff member’s pigeon hole come Monday morning. It certainly is tempting. The problem, however, is that this would probably be a waste of time and money – unlikely to make any real difference.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for getting the findings of research findings into the hands of busy teachers in as easy and accessible manner as possible. Many schools do this very well. At Durrington Andy Tharby puts up research summaries in the toilets, and Alex Quiqley at Huntington emails out what is essential fairly complex revision strategy guidance in helpful digestible formats.
I very much like easy wins like these, and I try to do them myself in my own school, though probably not quite so well as those mentioned above. Whether they actually make any difference, however, I am not so sure about. I doubt it. As many better than me have expressed on numerous occasions before, there is a big difference between knowing about something and doing something about it: between understanding and familirisation to faithful enactment.
This failure to translate knowledge into practice usually boils down to lack of time and inadequate training. You need enough quality professional development to properly understand what is worth trying to implement in your classroom, and enough time and ongoing support from knowledgable colleagues to properly reflect upon its success and to refine the approach if necessary. These are ultimately some of the major themes from the Teacher Development Trust’s recent report into effective forms of professional learning.
I’m lucky that this year we have taken the decision to close our school early on a Wednesday afternoon and to have two hours of dedicated professional learning per week. This will certainly help with the time issue and has created a framework in which we can build purposeful and iterative development activities. There is much that we are doing on these afternoons, which I hope to blog about in the coming weeks and months. Suffice to say for now that we have built a programme that should provide the time and ongoing training that will make informed changes to teaching and learning, such as those summarised in the Deans for Impact report, much more likely.
But even though I believe our professional learning activities will make a big difference towards successful enactment of research findings, I suspect that this may still not be enough. To this end, we have developed two approaches that we think will help to support the standard and impact of professional learning, and help to make sure that more of what we know about the science of learning translates into classroom practice. They obviously wont guarantee enacted change, but perhaps they will act as more of a helpful nudge than a photocopied report from a largely unknown American organisation placed with the best of intentions in staff pigeonholes.
The first of these approaches is an agreed set principles of learning, which we have made the basis of the way that we talk about teaching and learning across the school, whether in staff training sessions, meetings or, more generally, in one to one conversations about learning. We call them, rather unimaginatively, our principles of learning, and their existence has really given us a shared understanding of what we want our teaching to be considering when they plan their lessons and how we want them to shape the learning experiences of our students.
The second approach is more of a steer, and has proven to be a really useful tool for key stage co-ordinaters and head of department in their planning. In light of the sheer volume of curriculum changes, we took the decision to introduce a medium scheme of work template common to all subjects and key stages. This is not so much about determining what or how teachers teach their lessons, but rather a way of helping departments to make sure that our agreed principles of learning – such as the benefits of spacing, or the needs to use regular low stakes assessment – are part of the fabric of their enacted curriculum: that all students benefit from what we know about the science of learning.
Obviously, our principles of learning and standardised medium term planning templates will not guarantee that teachers are introducing desirable difficulties into their teaching, presenting students with multiple interactions with new learning or even providing all students with powerful foundational knowledge. But together with high quality professional learning (more on this to come) and more time to think, plan, reflect and collaborate, we hope that teachers will think a little more carefully about what and how they will teach and that our students will learn in ways that are more likely to make a difference to their long term understanding.
‘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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
This post is about the draft of our new KS3 English curriculum and the rationale behind its construction. My next post will explain how this curriculum fits in with the method of assessment we have devised to replace the largely ineffectual SATS levels. It will effectively form the third part of my series about the use of multiple-choice questions in English, and will describe how we intend to use the format within a holistic system of assessment.
Like others, for a long while I have wanted to make a step change to KS3, knowing that this represents the best way to raise attainment. Intervention work, early entry or the deployment of the most experienced teachers with exam classes are all very well and are often necessary means of helping students achieve, but they also often lead to artificial, short-term gains and in many cases are effectively papering over the underlying issues. Too often the continual and disproportionate demand of examination success leaves little resource to focus on the root cause of student underachievement. Until now, that is, where national changes to exam structure and assessment measures have made it wise for us to make the time to make our key stage three curricula fit for purpose.
Despite what sometimes feels like an overwhelming amount of change and uncertainty, now really does feel like an exciting and perhaps even defining moment for the future direction of the subject: a chance to shape, particularly at KS3, what we teach our students along with the freedom to assess that learning in the manner that we best see fit. In this regard, we can acts as professionals who understand our subject and the students that we teach. I intend to take advantage of this opportunity-cum-imperative to create an ambitious curriculum, one that will inspire our students and provide them with the knowledge, skills and cultural understanding necessary to achieve success in their lives – up to and beyond their examinations.
This is not simply about choosing a bunch of hard books – though as you will see below the texts chosen are considerably challenging – but more a matter of doing what is right for our students, raising expectations through the roof and, as much as humanly possible, creating a level playing field with those who enjoy more privilege. As I suspect is the case elsewhere, at our school the best English students – the ones who have a ‘natural’ ability to write fluently and who appreciate the underlying concepts and intentions in texts – are the ones who read most widely and deeply. Our most able students are thus the ones who have often got there in spite of their schooling, not because of it, and for who reading challenging books for pleasure is normalised within the home environment. This has to be the case for all our students.
Here, then, is the draft version of our new KS3 curriculum.
Of course, designing a new curriculum is only part of what is needed to raise attainment. Making sure that the texts chosen are taught in an effective way, and that colleagues are well supported and feel confident enough to teach them well is equally, if not more, important. It would be naïve not to expect some considerable anxiety around teaching works like The Odyssey or with spending a term on sonnets with year 7. This is why we intend to invest heavily in providing supportive wider reading material and creating opportunities for joint planning sessions in a similar vein to the lesson study model.
We have not arrived at this curriculum overnight. Neither do we expect to begin teaching all of these texts from next September. Over the coming weeks we will agree upon the best way forward, making sure that what we implement is manageable and that it really does lead to a step change. I should perhaps make it clear that a lot of the structures and systems that will facilitate the delivery of our curriculum are already in place from previous initiatives. It is also worth noting that we have a supportive headteacher and work in a school where creative and bold solutions to problems are encouraged. I realise that this is not the case for all.
To help make some of the nuances of the draft a little clearer, I have summarised some of the thinking behind the choices taken and provided further explanations of the supporting structures in place.
The Reading lounge
One of the main resources our department has at its disposal is a Reading Lounge, a bright, funky space solely for the purposes of English lessons. Whilst we would prefer a vibrant library (space it at a premium), having the Reading Lounge at the bottom of the English corridor enables us to ensure time is dedicated to reading for pleasure. Once a cycle year 7 and year 8 pupils will read modern stories that are in some way in dialogue with the texts in the taught curriculum. This approach will enable our students to get the best of both worlds: exposure to important, brilliantly written texts of cultural value and access to exciting contemporary fiction from authors they will already be familiar with. The Reading Lounge texts are in bold italics, and these choices give way to books to take home to read in year 9.
It has become increasingly clear to me that the idea of having a new topic or focus each half term is flawed. For many years this had been our approach. We would try and cram a lot into each six or seven week block and then rush through an assessment in the last couple of days of term, the very time when students were not able to produce their best work. We would then dutifully mark and level these assessments and enter the results on a spreadsheet, where they would remain until report time. A monumental waste of time!
Since September we have been experimenting with termly units at year 7 and 8. Although in its infancy, this less is more approach appears to be helping deepen our students’ understanding, as well as providing teachers with the flexibility to respond to their students’ needs. Without the pressure of constantly having to move on to the next unit or getting the assessment done in time, teachers are better able to respond to the learning needs of their classes and reteach material if necessary.
This past year we have also placed a much heavier emphasis on the process of redrafting. Influenced by some of the ideas in Ron Berger’s excellent ‘Ethic of Excellence’ our curriculum will give our students the time and space necessary to produce their very best work and to be inspired by their own excellence. How redrafting fits in to our wider system of assessment will be addressed in my next post.
This year for the first time we have started to set from year 7. Whilst I understand the arguments around mixed ability and, in principle, subscribe to the idealism of its intentions, in practice it is no longer tenable with the growing chasm in the ability profile of our incoming year 6. We were finding that at KS3 the most able were not consistently being stretched and the least able were not being sufficiently supported. On the curriculum draft the different numbers in brackets signify our four new sets, which are spread across three bands. As you can see, in some cases we feel that is appropriate for students to study different texts, though we believe that all will be challenged by what we have chosen.
Whilst this term is bandied around a lot, for me it perfectly captures what I have experienced in my time as a teacher. I really believe that a lack of cultural capital is one of the most significant reasons why our students do not excel in English, but they do more in Maths and Science. I also firmly believe that cultural capital has a value outside of economic terms (see the comments at the end of Joe Kirby’s recent post on how to plan a knowledge unit for a debate around this issue).
The texts and periods we have chosen will provide a solid understanding of the journey of English literature and the development of our present identity. It is far from exhaustive and we are painfully aware that in order to achieve other aims, such as redrafting and an emphasis on explicit grammar teaching, we have had to sacrifice a great deal. Some of this will resurface in year 10, like Frankenstein and American fiction. We have also tried to provide some balance in terms of race and gender. I’m sure for some it will still seem too elitist.
Whilst our students achieve very good English results, they are far from being expert writers and readers and they could do much better. They are well supported in year 10 and particularly year 11 and make very good progress because they work hard and the exam is relatively formulaic. Many would flounder if the exam asked the question in a different format, or if it relied upon responses to more challenging material. Many of our students also struggle to make the transition to A level and almost all find it incredibly difficult to deal with unseen material. Even our brightest students – those who apply for Oxford, Cambridge or medical degrees – are often let down in their applications by their inability to express themselves coherently in the written form.
Our new curriculum is therefore the first step towards developing more articulate, genuinely independent writers and thinkers. We want our students to not be disadvantaged by background and to enjoy as much chance of success as those who attend the very best schools in the country.