Pointless or Powerful? Should we bother creating teaching and learning policies in secondary, and what should they do?
This is just a short blog on the back of discussions I had yesterday evening about Teaching and Learning policies in secondary schools. I posted out some extracts from T&L policies from a couple of different schools, which (in my view): manage to place students at the heart of the teaching experience; set out broad principles for why teaching is important; promote wider aspects of good teaching; and are not overly prescriptive in terms of pedagogy.
The reaction to this post was very interesting. On the one hand, the examples got a handful of "likes" but there was quite a lot of criticism too:
I have read many pieces over the years about how gaming might be used as a pedagogical tool in teaching. Today, I want to turn this on its head. I think new teachers can use gaming, or rather the principles behind gaming, as a mirror to reveal some aspects of effective teaching.
Let me explain a bit further. All games, at some level, have to teach their players how to play and be successful in the game world. Once upon a time, this was done with weighty manuals (Civilization 2 had a manual spanning 200 pages when I got that in 1996), but now the teaching aspects of games tend to be embedded in the gameplay. Although games are only ever going to be a proxy for classroom teaching, I do think there are some essential principles followed by the best games, which make their ‘teaching’ elements effective. I call these the “Nintendo Principles”, after the company who, according to Metacritic, have made 5 of the top 10 games of the last 20 years.
These ‘Nintendo Principles’ are perfectly illustrated in the most recent release from the Japanese game studio, the Legend of Zelda, Breath of the Wild. The game follows an ‘open world’ approach, meaning that players are thrown in with very little preamble, and can pursue their own path through the game. So far, so progressive. In all honesty, I am not recommending an ‘open world’ approach to teaching, curriculum is too important, but because of its structure, the Legend of Zelda has to do almost all of its ‘teaching’ in game, whilst ensuring there is a good balance of challenge and reward. My contention is that these ‘Nintendo Principles’ are comparable to the fundamentals of good classroom teaching and provide a useful starting point for new teachers to consider their practice. They are also principles which pupils will be aware of, either implicitly or explicitly.
Principle 1: Challenge is Important to Motivation
Video games producers have a direct interest in ensuring their games hit the right level of challenge. For producers, getting this spot on means more interest, greater longevity, and the prospect of better reviews and critical acclaim. In most adventure games, challenge is linked to story progression (another powerful tool), but it might also be connected to collecting a range of items, achieving certain goals in a number of areas etc.
This weekend, the West London Free School organised a history teachers’ conference which looked at the importance of knowledge in the curriculum. Although I was unable to attend, I followed the debates and keynotes closely on Twitter. One of the central ideas which came out of the conference was the importance of substantive knowledge and the potential role of the textbook in acting as a backbone (and even progression model) for a knowledge-rich curriculum. (*)
Textbook publishers have not been slow to catch onto this idea that the textbook might be making a return to the classroom and have started putting out flyers for books (old and new) described as being “knowledge rich” or “content driven”. In addition to this, these books are often sold as promoting the development of long-term memory, hooking into the other significant trend of neuro-science-driven pedagogy. (**)
One of the most important jobs any head of department does is selecting the resources for the department, especially when these may act as the progression model. I have therefore written this series of blogs as a way for departments to think critically about this decision making process and have tried to produce a list of key questions I used to ask when purchasing resources as as head of department. Hopefully this will act as a useful guide for other history departments.
To illustrate my selection methods, I am going to apply my criteria to the newly released ‘Knowing History’ series from Collins. The main reason I want to focus on these books is that they seem to be generating a lot of buzz (in the Carr sense?) in the history community at the moment; especially as a possible solution to teaching a knowledge-rich history curriculum. Another reason for my focus on the series is that the publishers have targeted them at a wide audience with a very competitive price £7.99 (take note other publishers). As many schools are likely to get these on a deal, a school could kit out a whole year group for say £1000. It is therefore plausible that these might end up being widely bought, especially in schools where there is concern to meet the new demands of subject knowledge but where subject specialists are few and far between (a really big issue still!). Finally, the author, Robert Peal has been very vocal in damning other textbooks and recommending his own, so I feel that his series makes a good test case for my selection criteria. (***) In essence, I am asking whether or not Peal’s books meet my criteria for teaching a knowledge-rich and disciplinary rigorous curriculum.
The following is a list of the key topics and questions I intend to cover in each blog. These will be updated and linked as I write them. EDIT: I would like to note that not all textbooks will hit all of these criteria perfectly (in fact I doubt many will - my own certainly doesn't) and that every textbook will have its shortcomings. However, using criteria such as these might allow departments to make more informed choices about which sacrifices they want to make.
(*) Proponents of knowledge-heavy curricula have often cited the idea of the textbook as the key to driving such a change – see for example Oates’ review of textbooks or Christodoulou’s work on AfL. I tend to be in agreement with the idea that the textbook can act as a progression model, but this needs careful writing.
(**) I am certainly not challenging the importance of understanding neuro-scientific research in education. Indeed, my Leeds Trinity students will be able to tell you that we have focused heavily on research by Howards-Jones, Willingham, Dweck, Brown, Roediger and the like in our first few weeks of ITT.
(***) I would like to clarify before I begin, that I have just written my first textbook and understand how difficult and time consuming a process this is. I also know how publishers can put demands on textbooks which run counter to an author’s intentions. In this case however, I imagine that Peal has probably had a large hand in determining the editorial direction. Collins advertises the series with the strapline: “Encourage a thirst for knowledge in your KS3 History students with high-quality, content-rich lessons that lay the groundwork for the new History GCSE” and endorsements such as “Knowing History has been designed to build historical thinking from the bottom-up and it does this with supreme confidence, taking the number one spot on my winner’s podium of history resources with ease.” As such, I think testing these claims is a worthwhile enterprise as part of my wider blog on resource selection. It should also be noted that Peal himself has never been backward in his critiques so I hope he takes this in the spirit it is intended, namely encouraging robust scrutiny of resources.
Overt the last 2 weeks I have been reading and analysing Daisy Christodoulou's latest book "Making Good Progress?" This is an area which I have long been interested in, as followers on my blog will know.
You can find the chapter analyses below, however I want to offer something by way of an overall summary of the book.
CHAPTER 1 - Why didn't AfL Transform Schools?
CHAPTER 2 - Curriculum Aims and Teaching Methods
CHAPTER 3 - Making Valid Inferences
CHAPTER 4 - Descriptor Based Assessment
CHAPTER 5 - Exam Based Assessment
CHAPTER 6 - Life After Levels
CHAPTER 7 - Improving Formative Assessment
CHAPTER 8 - Improving Summative Assessment
CHAPTER 9 - An Integrated Assesment System
I generally enjoyed reading “Making good progress?” and found the argument cogent and, on the surface, persuasive. I do however have some reservations about Christodoulou’s complete rejection of carefully considered constructivism, as I detail in the chapter reviews. If nothing else, Christodoulou has provided a useful synthesis of many decades of thought on assessment, across many disciplines.
Yet I also feel like the book was something of a missed opportunity. If it is read widely, then this book may have a big impact (though I imagine it will circulate
In my last two blogs, I explored some of the problems which have arisen from a limited engagement with historical interpretations and a general fear of talking about historical truth. In this final part of the series, I hope to offer some tried and tested classroom approaches which might help students build a better understanding of the provisional nature of historical claims, whilst not going down the rocky road of vague relativism.
Tackling the issue of oversimplification
To prevent students from falling back to a lazy cynicism about historical interpretations, I like to use the following approach which I term the “IMA” approach to unpicking interpretations. This works best when students are asked to read extended extracts from historians, or even whole articles. It certainly would not work with tiny gobbets. In essence, the process involves:
In my last blog, I spent some time explaining why I think we still have a long way to go in teaching students how to engage fully with historical interpretations, and not simply dismissing views on the grounds of an historian’s motive. Today I want to deal with a second key aspect of helping children to become better critical readers both in history, and more broadly, namely historical truth.
Putting truth back into history
I fear we spend too little time talking about historical truth in schools. This is because the idea of historical truth has become immensely unpopular. Post-modernists like Jenkins have argued that history has no objective truth, and that to pretend otherwise is a dangerous fallacy. Indeed, Jenkins (1991, 1995, 1999, 2003, 2009) suggests that all history writing is a battle for different groups to construct their own histories in their own self-interest. Taking this to its extreme, he even made the case for the removal of the study of history altogether (Jenkins, 1999, 2009). To my mind, this rejection of the possibility of historical truth is a dangerous stance to take, now more than ever, and one which prevents our students from being properly critical of different truth-claims.
On Friday, the defence secretary. Michael Fallon said that NATO needed to do more to tackle the “false reality” being propagated by Russia. He argued that Russia’s production of “Fake News” was destabilising western democracy and undermining electoral processes. Claims like these are nothing new. For the last six months, the US has been awash with claims of “Fake News” being put out by both the Republicans and Democrats, and a simple search for the #FakeNews hashtag reveals some terrifying results. I find it striking that a country which was born of the declaration that some truths are self-evident, should find itself at the forefront of a post-truth version of politics.
All of this is very disturbing, not least because if we are in a post-truth world, there is a very real question about whether knowledge is important any more (I would argue that it is more so than ever - more on this soon). Naturally there has been much soul searching and even more hand wringing about how we approach the issue of truth having been downgraded in our political discourse. In some cases, people are drawing historical parallels and suggesting that we learn the warnings of the 1930s; to be on guard against malicious propaganda; to disbelieve the information coming out of the (insert the group you disagree with here) camp; and so on.
History lessons and the post-truth discourse
Followers of the Schools History Project will know that one of the founding principles of the movement was to help students see the relevance of history to their lives, and give them some of the tools to help understand it (Schools History Project, n.d.). Over the last few months, I have seen numerous exhortations in the history teaching community for educators to warn pupils of the dangers of misinformation, and encourage them to be on guard against malign interpretations. Although well intentioned, I think this use of history misses the point of our discipline somewhat. In fact, I wonder if such an approach, namely using history to make pupils sceptical of information, has actually contributed to the post-truth problem.
This is a short series of blogs inspired by Ben Newmark and Mike Stuchbery's #youreallyshouldteach hashtag. Each blog will be an story which might help teachers delivering the C19th America / American West courses. Each story aims to offer a novel window onto a key topic - in this case the Indian Wars and Indian policy of the 1870s. This would make an excellent comparison to the more well-known stories of Red Cloud's War or Sitting Bull and the Little Bighorn.
You can find downloadable versions of these resources over on the C19th America blog HERE. If you want to find out more about Chief Joseph, I can highly recommend Elliot West's excellent book: The Last Indian War, or Ken Burns' documentary: The West.
Fight No More Forever
It was late Spring when Chief Joseph looked back over his beloved Wallowa Valley for the last time. The new, green leaves promised a beautiful summer to come. In the past they would have reminded Joseph of the hunting season on the Plains. This time, he saw them differently; fragile and temporary, soon to fall in the stiff Autumn breezes. They reminded him that nothing, not even his own homeland could last forever, and that soon his own people would fall like the leaves in the gale of white settlement.
Land and exploitation
The Nez Perce had historically had good relations with white explorers and settlers, but decades of settlement since the 1840s had strained the relationship as whites came in search of the American Dream. Tensions rose further still when gold was discovered in the 1860s.
In 1863, the government demanded the Nez Perce sign a new treaty, giving away 90% of their lands, including the Wallowa valley. The Nez Perce were divided over the treaty and many refused to move to the reservation. When Joseph became the chief of the Wallowa Nez Perce in 1871, he also refused to give up his ancestors’ vision of a free-ranging life. But this lifestyle was increasingly leading to conflict with white settlers who feared the presence of the Nez Perce, or wanted access to the gold fields.
In 1877 Joseph was called to a meeting with the US Army General, Oliver Otis Howard. Howard had already written to his superiors to say “I think it is a great mistake to take from Joseph and his band of Nez Perce Indians that valley...and possibly [should] let these really peaceable Indians have this poor valley for their own.” The government were not convinced. Joseph in turn repeated his stock response, that the land was the home of his people and not his to sell. Howard could almost see the writing on the wall when he came to the meeting with Joseph, but Joseph would not sell the land.
An unwanted conflict
Just wanted to say a huge than you to people who attended my talk on life after levels today. I am posting the PowerPoint and links to other useful resources on this blog post. Please do get in touch if you would like to discuss further.
I'm afraid today's blog, a bit like yesterday's is a bit of a rant. More to the point, it is a response to yet another partially researched claim, namely that Grammar Schools (Schools for Everyone TM?) are more effective than their comprehensive counterparts. Indeed, the Telegraph ran an article a few days ago stating that this was a ringing endorsement for May's flagship education policy. Here I wanted to unpick some of the claims being made about Grammar Schools, and ask that we take a moment to be cautious before endorsing a systemic change based on limited evidence. I am fairly sure I have my calculations right here, however please let me know if you think I have made a mistake.
The Progress 8 Issue
The claim that Grammar Schools outperform state Comprehensives does have some basis in evidence. This can be seen in the latest GCSE statistics published by the DfE. The Telegraph explains that...
here's been a lot going around on Twitter recently about reducing the marking load of teachers. Much of this is to be applauded. I have seen some really nice ideas for dealing with feedback more effectively from Ben Newmark, Toby French, Tom Bennett, even the Michaela bods. However, I have a major worry: school marking policies won't actually change!
In the current educational climate, school approaches, and especially those relating to marking and feedback, are driven by a few key factors:
So here's the rub. If schools want to achieve the first aim, the following drivers are often counter productive.
* I am not going to discuss the reductive nature of the first educational goal, though that in itself plays a major part here too. Nor will I be dealing with the impact of a narrowly target driven system which means that some schools are in the habit of changing their policies more frequently than I change my socks. Indeed, some schools I have worked in have been so malleable in their policy approaches to teaching that they have become almost invertebrate. In the course of five years in one school we shifted from a focus on Kagan groups and peer marking, to flipped classroom, to next-step marking, to triple marking, to digital marking, to purple pens of progress, without ever stopping to think about the impact of any of these approaches.
** I could write a whole blog on the rise of the purple pen as a gateway pass to Deputy Head status, but I think I might leave that for another day
Bad Advice and Poor Models
As people have been pointing out all week - good feedback does not mean detailed written marking on every child's work. Yet, if we look at some of the "Outstanding" schools and "Teaching Schools" which have been set up as beacons of excellence, we see such policies being advocated. This "Outstanding" Teaching School for instance says:
This school has not been formally inspected since 2007 so it seems somewhat remiss of the DfE to allow it to advise other schools to follow such policies. (see http://www.harrogategrammar.co.uk/content/uploads/2015/04/Learning-21.01.15.pdf and http://www.harrogategrammar.co.uk/content/uploads/2014/02/Policy_AssessmentRecordingReporting23.01.13.pdf)
Another "Outstanding" school has a marking policy which demands extended written feedback in a rainbow of colours: http://www.rossettschool.co.uk/parents/policies/marking/ (last inspected in 2010)
These two examples are far from the only ones, nor are they the worst cases. Countless others come out of the wordwork in conversations with teachers up and down the country - sadly not all put their marking policies online. The big worry is that these "Outstanding" schools (many of whom have not be inspected in nearly a decade) shape the approaches taken by "Good", "RI" and "Inadequate" schools in significant ways as they strive to model the "excellent practice" of their "betters".
The Ofsted Factor
But the problem doesn't stop there. In every school I have been to, there has always been someone with the job to read Ofsted inspection reports and pull out and apply key approaches deemed necessary to attain the elusive "Outstanding" grade. Yesterday I suggested that Ofsted, through their reports, has been key in encouraging schools to implement poor marking practices. When I mentioned this, I was promptly slapped down by Ofsted's Sean Harford.
There has been something naggingly familiar about the grammar school debate which has been raging on Twitter recently. True I have heard many of the arguments before in educational discussions, but this was something more. It only struck me when I began editing a chapter of my upcoming book on C19th America.
I have copied a page of the book for you below. In many ways I feel it encapsulates exactly the same lines of argument that we see currently, simply replace "slavery" for "educational inequality" and "slaves" for "low SES children" and you are away. I think this reveals not only the lines of debate, but also, with hindsight, some of the main faults in each.
Worryingly I look ahead to how this debate was resolved and the long term failure of such a solution...
"Do not ye deem, that I came to send peace into earth, I came not to send peace, but sword. For I came to part a man against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the son's wife against the husband's mother" [Matthew 10: 34-35]
NOTE: I have updated this blog in light of some of the comments below. Items in bold are updates.
I have found myself pondering more and more on these verses from Matthew over recent months. To all intents and purposes, I feel like the world around me has become one of stark binaries. Friend or foe? Believer or unbeliever? Leave or remain? Corbynite or a Blairite? Pro-grammar or pro-comprehensive? Neo-trad or progressive? Child-centred or discipline focused? The list goes on and the arguments are endless and largely fruitless. It turns out that I am not the only one to have noticed this. As I was writing this blog, Ed Podesta posted an excellent piece on the same issue. I fear this will be much less eloquent, however I would like to add my own thoughts as one of the people who finds these sharp divisions both troubling and counter-productive.
This blog was prompted by two recent events. In the first instance, I posted a letter sent to a friend’s Finnish parents. The letter demanded they leave these shores and stop “polluting the air”. Within seconds, my timeline was filled with tweets acclaiming or decrying such actions. Those on the left of the debate were soon demanding various forms of corporal punishment for the offender and implying that all Leave voters shared such sentiments. Meanwhile, those on the right called me a liar and demanded I prove the verity of the letter, or dismissed it as irrelevant. I took the post down.
Just a short blog to thank all of you who attended my session at TFSI yesterday. As promised I am uploading the session resources here for you to download. Please do have a browse around the rest of the site whilst you are here. There are lots of links to blogs on progress, progression, second-order concepts and substantive knowledge in the blog bar on the right.
Blog posts which may be of particular interest:
So with very little fanfare, the grade descriptors for the new GCSE grades 9-1 were released on Friday. Those schools who have opted to use these as a progression model, assessment system and general replacement for both NC Levels and GCSE grades must be delighted that they can finally start implementing their systems.
In this blog I want to take a look at how these grade descriptors can be utilised from Years 7-11 to provide a clear and coherent flight path for pupils in history.
Using the grade descriptors to create a flight path
Many schools for instance have opted for the following basic flight path:
As such, the grade descriptors will help to define what this path might look like for pupils in lessons. They could be used as part of the reporting process, discussed with parents and form targets for written feedback….
“Don’t worry too much about your subject knowledge,” I was advised by one senior member of staff during my training year “just make sure you are two pages ahead in the textbook.” Even at the time I remember thinking this was very odd advice (although a great relief when I looked at the catalogue of historical content I was meant to master by June). As it turned out, this was some of the worst advice I would ever be given as a trainee teacher. Every time I felt a bit overwhelmed by planning for a lesson, my subject knowledge development would be the first thing to go on the back burner. Why bother spending time learning the ins and outs of the French Revolution when I could spend my time better creating a novel card sort or envoy activity? Not enough time to do even the most rudimentary research? Set them off on a Google-based FOFO activity – problem solved!
Needless to say, many of these lessons ended up being incredibly dry, poorly conceived, and of little use to anyone. It took a long time and a lot of courage (largely as a result of being the only history teacher in a small school) to realise that the lessons where I had excellent subject knowledge were always the best ones. Even so, I had been set back a long way (as my ex-colleagues noticed when I tried to teach the French Revolution at the start of my THIRD year of teaching – I was even mistaken for an NQT because of this.)
I have long been a fan of Tom Bennett’s no nonsense approach to behaviour management. I have recommended Bennett’s blog many times to trainees and NQTs nervous about expectations in the classroom (as you will see from these pages). As such, there are many things I like about the ITT behaviour report (one of the long-awaited responses to the Carter review) which was published on Wednesday:
So far, so vanilla. Yet I also feel there are a number of fundamental issues with the approaches suggested by Bennett and his team. The following points are very much a response to the report and to Tom's blog "Let's fix this together" published today.
Just wanted to say a huge than you to people who attended my (rather history focused) talk on life after levels at ResearchEd today. I am posting the powerpoint and links to other useful resources on this blog post. Please do get in touch if you would like to discuss further.
I have also uploaded my notes from two other sessions, in case you missed them:
Just a short post to say thanks to everyone who came and contributed to my HA session on the Making of America today. It was great to talk to so many enthusiastic historians.
You will be able to find relevant blog posts for C19th America by clicking on "GCSE/A Level Topics" above and following the LINK to "America 1789-1900". The blog posts are indexed and contain some interesting bits I have found whilst reading around the topic.
I will also be uploading a range of teaching resources which you can find by clicking on the "NEW UNIT" resources on the right hand side of the page. These will be updated as I add new things. I have also added a CPD folder in which I will put today's PowerPoint. My old American West A Level resources are also available here for download.
If you do trial any of the materials; make useful modifications; or want to share your own resources, please do get in touch via the contact form and I will make them available on the blog and in the file store.
Finally, here are some links to recommended books. Many of these are available as audiobooks so you could even get a copy with a free Audible trial and listen to them on your commute: