Appraisal: down but maybe not quite out!

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So, it’s that time of the school year when teachers dust off their performance management paperwork, remind themselves of the targets set 12 months previously, and then cobble together some ‘evidence’ to meet them. In some schools this is a routine, perfunctory process, a bit time consuming and inconvenient, but nevertheless relatively benign; in others, however, it is still a bit time consuming and inconvenient, but with a lot more additional stress, with exam performance targets under close scrutiny and pay awards in the balance. In either case, the whole process is a monumental waste of time.

In recent weeks two very different responses to the future of annual appraisal have emerged. For some, the whole process is so flawed, broken and inefficient that the only logical cause of action is to get rid of it completely. Jack Marwood’s post on the subject is also instructive here. At the other end of the spectrum are those who also see the process as flawed, broken and inefficient but not necessarily terminally so. For these, a more humane, purposeful and impactful appraisal procedure is possible – one that balances the needs of the individual teacher with the needs of the students in the school. Whilst I can certainly see the appeal of jettisoning the behemoth that is performance management, I think there is still hope: that appraisal can be done better.

Appraisal and professional growth

This week we took our first significant step towards building a better appraisal model. We believe the changes that we have introduced will over time help to develop teachers and improve the quality of teaching and learning in the school. By taking out the deeply flawed and reductive measure of exam performance, and shifting the emphasis towards disciplined self-enquiry, we have begun to see teachers setting more meaningful, focused and impactful objectives for themselves. The fact that these identified goals are then married to provision from the school professional development programme is, we think, much more rigorous and much more likely to bring about change in the classroom.

Every teacher and classroom based staff member identifies two professional learning goals – one that relates to their subject pedagogy and framed as a target; the other more enquiry based and formed as a question. Both objectives are informed by reflection into current practice coupled with anticipation of future challenge. A number of tools have been created to guide this enquiry process, which include looking at the broad range of student outcome data (assessment, book learning, survey results) as well as more evaluative teacher reflection information. The introduction of a learning journal knits the whole process together, and is where all ongoing professional development activity will be recorded, whether it is wider reading, CPD session summaries, planning ideas or reflection notes. At the review stage we want the conversation to be about lessons learned around understanding teaching and learning, not crude interrogations of decontextualised numerical data.

Perhaps the other important change to the way we are developing appraisal is giving it the time and respect that it deserves. I have written before about our new Wednesday afternoon Professional Growth programme, where we have two hours enshrined CPD every week. This structure allows us the scope to invest in getting professional learning right. Last week we set aside some of our two hour training slot to afford staff time and space to think carefully about their development and what they need to focus on to improve and make a difference to the students that they teach or support. We also used took yesterday as INSET day so that the vast majority of staff could have a sustained period of time to discuss their professional learning – to look closely at what has gone before to better plan for what lies ahead.

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Subject pedagogy goal

This objective is very much focused on developing an aspect of the teaching craft. It is highly specific, both in terms of the actual aspect of pedagogy identified, but also in relation to the stated student outcomes that will follow as a result of any change in teacher behaviour. Last year we introduced lesson study into the school through the fantastic Teacher Development Trust. The process of setting an enquiry question at the heart of the lesson study model greatly informed the way we are framing subject pedagogy targets. We want to get much better at concentrating our efforts where they are most required and these kinds of focused goals do just that, as well help us to measure the impact of our professional development programme on student outcomes by evaluating the impact of individual training plans and looking at the cumulative effect of those plans across the whole school.

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Research and Enquiry Question

Unlike the subject pedagogy goal, which focuses more on improvements to the art of teaching, the enquiry question is geared towards reaching a better understanding of student learning. The school has three main focuses in relation to better understanding how students learn: metacognition, short and long-term memory and feedback. Enquiry questions are set in light of one of these three overarching themes and reflect the convergence of individual teacher need and whole school priority. The theme inherent in the question determines the learning community that the teacher is part for the rest of the year – an iterative process that begins with a research overview, wider reading and group discussion before moving towards collaborative planning and individual on-going enquiry supported by a lead learner. Accountability is not so much about providing a definitive answer to the question, but rather demonstrating a definitive sense that the question has prompted deeper understanding of the underlying issues and how they might be addressed.

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This is by no means a perfect model – far from it. It will obviously take a few years to refine the process, and we must make sure that we continue to provide the time necessary throughout the year for meaningful conversations about the impact of the professional learning on what happens in the classroom. Gone must go the days of meeting once a year to set crude performance targets that everyone forgets about until 12 months down the line. We are already thinking about affording the interim review the same status as the annual review by giving over another INSET day to evaluate progress and adjust development plans accordingly.

Appraisal directly linked to unreliable performance outcomes does not work – it breeds a culture of fear and inertia, when what we want is continual professional learning that leads to one or two informed intentional changes aimed where the need is the greatest. We hope our model is moving closer in this direction.

Thanks for reading.

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Collaborative teaching cycles: from scrutinising learning to understanding learning

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I’m not really a big fan of the practice of book scrutiny.

What is book scrutiny?

Book scrutiny usually involves a head of department or key stage co-ordinator collecting a sample of students’ books from across the teachers of a year group and evaluating the quality of student progress against some form of rubric or checklist. The evaluator completes a summative analysis and, depending on time and school context, provides formative feedback to the teachers concerned. In some instances this might be a ‘well done, good job’, but at other times it may be more of a ‘this or that was missing’ or ‘ that was not completed in such and such a way’. In both cases, I am not sure little of any value is actually achieved.

I understand why schools use such an approach; until fairly recently we did too. Book scrutiny represents a way of ensuring equality of provision by identifying areas for improvement, such as marking or quality of activities. It sort of makes sense. The problem is that it doesn’t work, even in the most benign of school cultures. If we put aside for now the false premise that learning can be seen in books any more clearly than it can be seen in lessons, book scrutiny is still an epic fail because it doesn’t achieve what it sets out to do: namely to bring about high quality learning for all students. It might help to identify in department variation, but it is unlikely to do anything about it. Compliance alone rarely does.

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Book scrutiny carried out in this manner represents a process and accountability driven model of school development. All that has happened is that one dubious proxy of learning (lesson observation) has been replaced by another (book scrutiny). This top down, or rather, middle-down approach is more likely to lead to alienation and the creation of corrosive professional relationships, because the focus is on compliance to overt performance rather than on professional development through collaboration. In such a model teachers become isolated and collected wisdom and expertise is marginalised. Worse, understanding student learning or the issues of busy teachers is more of an afterthought.

Obviously, it is important for subject leaders to have an understanding of the quality of teaching and learning in their department. But any HOD worth his or her salt would probably already know this without the need to trawl through a set of books. Instead of checking learning in abstraction under a system of compliance, I would rather engender a process of collaboration and openness where the focus was directed solely towards improving student learning by looking at student learning. I would prefer a mechanism that facilitates teachers engaging with the messiness of the classroom experience: sharing ideas about what worked, what didn’t, what explanation was effective, what tasks were or were not successful.

From scrutinising learning to understanding learning

It is my contention that teaching and learning cycles may offer such a means of developing collaborative teacher inquiry – it is a model that lends itself to facilitating teachers working together, where the leader is within the process of understanding student learning, rather than sat outside evaluating it without the context or nuance necessary to see the bigger picture. As I will outline below, at the heart of this process is student learning, whether in the books themselves, or more likely the books in conjunction with discussions, reflections and questions of the teacher who was there at the heart of the process. This ethos of trust and sharing must surely be better than a purely compliance model.

The teaching sequence for independence has been well documented by David Didau, whose five part series on the phases building towards independence remain a must read. This is not really the place for discussing the nature of teaching cycles in and of themselves, but rather their use as a tool for the professional development of subject pedagogy. Suffice to say, at my school we have developed our own version of the teaching cycle and have been working with departments about what it might look like in their subject areas. There are a number of differences to David’s model, which I will try and write about in due course.

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For me, opportunities for meaningful professional collaboration arise at two distinct points of a teaching cycle: in the initial planning for learning phase and then again with a subsequent review of that learning (or performance) at the end. Both of these are strategic points where teachers can learn a lot from working together. The planning stage represents the chance to share likely misconceptions, discuss and refine effective and efficient explanations and to circulate wisdom or innovation. Reviewing the relative strength and weakness of different interpretations of a cycle within a department allows for new insights to be discussed, codified and stored for future use and for teachers and subject leaders to see different ways of teaching broadly similar objectives.

Central to both the planning and the review stage is, of course, actual student work. Over time we intend to build up stores of exemplar material that not only help to set and define what achievement looks like, but also provides a powerful lens through which to understand the processes that goes into the creation of it. This may be in the form of writing, or it may be a video clip of a performance or a model or artefact. Seeing what other teachers are achieving with their students is, I think, much more likely to lead to a rise in attainment than simply receiving ‘results’ of an abstract tick box exercise, irrespective of how deftly this may be handled. In this process of collaboration there is the chance for the teachers to explain the context, challenge each other and enter into a dialogue that gets a little closer to understanding ‘what works.’

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Next steps

We are lucky to be entering a phase of our school development where we have more time for on-going professional learning. From September we will have two hours of enshrined CPD each week – our school will close early on a Wednesday and all students will be off site during this time. These two-hour sessions will largely alternate between two different forms of Professional Growth – subject knowledge and pedagogy (department time) and inquiry and reflection (wider, bespoke CPD). We plan on having departments run at least one collaborative teaching and learning cycle for each year group they teach per year with subject pedagogy time. We will see how it goes this year and review the process next summer. Whilst I doubt it will be perfect, I think it has the potential to be a much more powerful form of active professional development than the static model of process and compliance inherent in the term ‘scrutiny’.

We’ll see.

Thanks for reading.

Holding your nerve – the missing element of great teaching?

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It occurred to me this week just how much good teaching is dependent on holding your nerve – how difficult it can be at times to stick to your guns when you have to contend with so many daily pressures. I don’t mean the undue external pressures, which often force teachers to compromise their practice: lack of time, fear of accountability, initiative overload or intervention fatigue. These things represent very real pressures, but they are not the subject of this post.

I am thinking instead about the pressures teachers often put on themselves. All teachers care about their students’ learning and they think a great deal about how to maximise their progress. The prevailing ethos of self-reflection, however, can lead to a continual cycle of doubt, where teachers consider and reconsider the way they teach and implement changes as a consequence. Whilst reflection is clearly an important element of good teaching, it can be exhausting and at times counter-productive: often what is required is simply to stick to one or two courses of action and pursue them relentlessly.

I love social media. I have got so much out of being part of an informed educational community, which freely shares ideas and resources. I therefore try and share what I can. I worry a little, though, about some of the enthusiasm I see towards materials shared online: not because these resources are necessarily bad, often they are great, but rather at the readiness at which they appear to be imported into classrooms. I know that every time I introduce something new into my teaching, I must take away something that I was doing before. I therefore try to be clear that what I bring in is going to be better than what I discard.

The profession understandably encourages teachers to try out new ideas and adapt their teaching. This makes sense, and I am certainly not against teachers trying to find new ways to improve their teaching. I do it myself. The trouble is, if you try too many new things, you never actually know what works. Was it the new resource I introduced? Was it the way I adapted my explanation? Was it the way I sequenced the material? If you change the variables, it becomes impossible to isolate what was successful, and therefore to replicate it again in the future. Sometimes less is more.

Limiting yourself to one or two new approaches therefore makes sense. Not only is it likely to be less stressful and more manageable than trying out something new each week, it is also practical –identifying what works or does not work allows more time to consider the reasons it was successful or unpick why it failed. Yet, holding your nerve and keeping one two areas of focus is very hard: it takes discipline and a little bit of courage, particularly when what you’re doing is not seeing immediate results. I am now in my 12th year of teaching and, despite all of that experience, I still have to resist the urge to change up what I am doing when I encounter a degree of difficulty or suffer a setback.

Year 11 – what is an image?

Three instances in the past few months have reminded me of the importance of working on one or two pedagogical developments at a time, and of sticking with them for a decent stretch of time. The first involves my year 11 class. This may sound incredibly ridiculous, but I don’t think in all the years that I have been teaching I have ever explicitly taught the concept of an image or imagery. The term is bandied around all the time in my lessons, often incorrectly, with students referring to the effect of this image or of that imagery. I have never actually sought to unpick the difference between the two or what distinguishes an image from simply just another word or phrase with some kind of wider connotation or evocative quality.

The concept ‘what is image?’ arose when I was preparing my top set for their iGCSE examination. For one of the questions students have to identify interesting uses of language and explain the effects on the reader. The mark scheme lays out the expected answers, and next to some of them it indicates what they consider are ‘images’. I wanted to understand why some of words and phrases were labelled images and others not. To my mind, it was not always clear – there was a discrepancy between my definition of imagery, and how the exam board were treating it in their mark scheme.

I decided to confront the issue head on with my class: they are a bright, inquisitive bunch and I thought a couple of lessons exploring the nature of images would be an ideal way of developing their conceptual understanding. The problem was that in order to develop their understanding of imagery, I first had to challenge their existing knowledge and remove some of their certainty. Understandably, they did not like this, and their hostile reaction made me want to retreat into the comfort of their prior, though incorrect, knowledge. I pushed on, but it was some weeks before I think I really moved on their understanding. A few years ago, I would have crumbled, even if was aware of the notion of desirable difficulty.

Year 13 – reading then writing

Over the past couple of years I have changed the focus of my teaching, particularly at A level. I understand much more about the importance of deepening knowledge of texts in order to write about them effectively. Whereas I used I to get students to complete lots of small pieces of writing as we worked our way through a text, I now do little if any writing until they have gained a significant knowledge base: from the basics of plot and character to analysis of meaning, critical insights and contextual influences. I plan much more for multiple interactions with knowledge, which I assess through low stakes formats.

It is now well into the second half term, shortly before Easter, that I turn to essay writing – once I feel the class have a decent grasp of the text and have something to say. This is the third year I have adopted this approach, and on each occasion I have constantly questioned whether or not I am doing the right thing. Whilst I am focusing on deepening understanding, I know colleagues have already set multiple essays. It still feels strange and counter intuitive to leave writing essays until a couple of months before the exam. And yet, each year I have noticed my class’s first essays are significantly better than they were using my previous approach. Their examination results have not suggested otherwise.

Year 13 – coursework: from first to final draft

I love the freedom and flexibility of coursework. When you get the right combination of texts and students with enquiring minds it is a pleasure to teach. Coursework can give students the opportunity to make interesting connections and explore ideas in much greater depth than is often possible with examination texts. That said, I never enjoy marking a pile of 2000-3000 word essays, particularly first drafts. From my experience, and this may be a consequence of my bad preparation, first drafts are not great – disorganised, riddled with error and far from the standard required.

Every year I quietly sob at my desk as I read through stodgy first draft after stodgy first draft and wonder where I went wrong. In years past I would have panicked, knowing coursework is a good opportunity for students to gain significant marks before the examination. I ask myself whether I need to run extra sessions, offer lengthy tutorials or provide better examples of the standards required. Yet every year, almost without fail, the final drafts are always appreciable better than the first. Sometimes the essays are almost unrecognisable, as students seem to realise that the deadline really is the deadline. This year it was no different. The first drafts were universally poor; the final drafts were a delight. If I feel this way, what must less experienced colleagues think with no experience of how students change over the year?

Hold your nerve!

All this may simply mean that I am a terrible teacher – that I don’t know how to teach coursework effectively, do not have the ability to inspire my students from the off and make too many assumptions about what they do and do not know when I am planning. I suspect, however, that I am not alone; I certainly hope not. What I hope instead is that every teacher can recognise that whilst it’s good to reflect, great to adapt and make changes to your teaching, it is also important to stick to your guns and persevere with what you set out to do. If you don’t, how will you ever know whether what your doing is making a difference or not?

Thanks for reading

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.

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.