Why I dislike differentiation… and why great learning and teaching is the best way to support ALL learners

According to Carol Tomlinson in How to Differentiate Instruction in Mixed-Ability, ‘differentiation, is a framework or philosophy for effective teaching that involves providing all students within their diverse classroom community of learners a range of different avenues for understanding new information (often in the same classroom) in terms of: acquiring content; processing, constructing, or making sense of ideas; and developing teaching materials and assessment measures so that all students within a classroom can learn effectively, regardless of differences in their ability.’

Whilst I don’t have a problem with the concept that all learners, regardless of differences in their ability should be able to learn effectively, I do want to explore exactly what ‘a range of different avenues’ means. This blog post will look at what differentiation is and isn’t, as well as a closer inspection of what this might look like in the classroom more specifically, the art and design classroom.

I think there is a huge misconception about the meaning of the word differentiation. The fact that it contains the word ‘different’ has always irked me. Not because I believe that young people shouldn’t experience different levels of support and challenge, but instead that in some way or another young people will learn completely different things. Within education, I think there has been a tendency for differentiation to somehow mutate into an expectation of different outcomes for different learners. That might be different worksheets, different activities or my absolute pet hate success criteria which includes ‘all, most, some.’

Now before I go any further, I’m happy to admit that I’ve ‘been there, done that and got the T-shirt.’ When I first qualified as a teacher, I was encouraged to have different art outcomes for different young people. I have also tried differentiated worksheets, which quite frankly took such a great deal of time to create and ultimately caused more confusion in my classroom. And encouraged by a DHT I’ve tried ‘all most some,’ before building up the courage of my convictions and abandoning it because of my inability to see past the self-limiting statements. And now with a bit more experience under my belt, I think I have formed a better understanding of what differentiation, or ‘scaffolding’ as I prefer to think of it, is in the classroom.

To address differentiation, we need to teach everyone better.

I feel very strongly that as teachers, we need to have high aspirations that all students will learn everything within our curriculum. The journey might look different for each individual, but the destination for everyone should be the same. It’s also important to note that of course there are learners who need very specific support to complete tasks. I am not for a second suggesting that these are not valid or indeed necessary for specific pupils with identified needs. However what I am suggesting is that excellent learning and teaching benefits all learners, and by addressing our core business, every pupil benefits. Learners shouldn’t be taught different things using different pedagogies. Nor should we be trying to water down our content to create even bigger gaps in attainment. We should be ensuring that our learning and teaching is of the highest quality so that everyone has the chance to be successful.

‘When it is obvious that the goals cannot be reached, don’t adjust the goals, adjust the action steps.’ Confucius

So what could we consider as action steps? And what does this look like in the classroom?

Cognitive load

We often don’t do our students any favours in terms of the cognitive load we put on them within lessons. Consider the covid19 pandemic whereby everyone is affected yet the most vulnerable are the ones who suffer. If we don’t fully understand the impact of cognitive load, all our pupils will be impacted but it is our pupils who need extra support where this impact is felt most strongly. I would suggest that if teachers understand this theory, it would positively impact all our learners, but most notably those who might require additional support.

‘I’ve come to the conclusion that Sweller’s cognitive load theory is the single most important thing teachers should know.’ Dylan Wiliam

Usually unintentionally, we create cognitive overload for students. This is almost always well-meaning and from a place of wanting our learners to succeed but in actual fact it does the opposite. We sometimes give students vast amounts of information, PowerPoint slides jammed with images and text (sometimes too small to even read!) or lengthy instructions spoken by the teacher at the beginning of lessons to be remembered before they start work. In other ways, classrooms can often become a source of cognitive overload due to wall posters, distractions, visuals and decorations. I’ve seen first hand when sensory overload affects learners and it has given me a very different outlook on the way I set up my classroom and organise my lessons.

I didn’t learn anything about cognitive load whilst studying to be a teacher. Whilst a lot of CLT is common sense, and many teachers might be using these principles already without conscious knowledge, I’m pretty confident there might be others like me who would benefit from a better understanding of this in order to support all learners.

A great book to explore this is Ollie Lovell’s Cognitive load theory in Action if you would like to understand this in more detail.

Modelling

The use of a visualiser has totally transformed the support I am able to give students. I wrote more about modelling here but in terms of scaffolding, modelling is an excellent way to ensure all learners get specific help at any point in the lesson. Instead of trying to remember the spoken information and instructions given during a live demonstration at the start, the visualiser allows this to be taken a step further by supporting pupils throughout the lesson, in real time as a piece of work or learning develops. In a practical subject this is particularly useful. I can be doing the task alongside the pupils on the visualiser and they can watch initially before setting to work themselves. I then usually scan the room to ensure everyone is coping – pupils know that if I bypass them without comment then they are on track. At that initial stage, I can determine where common errors are being made and use these to direct learning when I return to the visualiser. Or I can offer one to one support if necessary. Pupils can use the continued support if required by checking in with my modelling on the screen, or if they are confident in their learning, they can continue independently.

In our department, catapulted by online learning, we have also taken this a step further by creating demonstration videos which are shared with pupils. This allows them to pause, rewind, rewatch on their own device during a lesson and gain support on the individualised aspects they are struggling with, at their own pace. In a room where there are often 20 young people, and only one subject specialist teacher, it allows each pupil to have access to their own personal instruction, at their pace. I feel this is a huge support in terms of scaffolding, as well as addressing the common issues of cognitive overload. Yes, creating a video is time consuming but if our aim is to support each learner in the individual way they need supported, this goes a long way to achieving that. And by ensuring the videos we create are focussed on the key learning rather than a specific outcome or exam related task which may change, their longevity and lifespan is increased. It also reflects the idea that differentiation isn’t about changing the outcome we expect from pupils – everyone is working towards the same goal – but the length of the journey, and the steps to get there might be different.

Desirable difficulty

I feel strongly that ‘differentiation’ is not about simplifying the task. Again, I’ve written a bit about this here. Learning is difficult. To learn something is a challenge. To feel proud of our learning, we need to know that it has been an achievement and we want to feel a sense of accomplishment. If we make the learning too easy, there’s little satisfaction in moving forward. For example, in art and design we are learning to draw a building. Some learners might find this difficult. To differentiate this, we adapt the steps that learners need to practise to get there. Showing learners where to look and guiding their eye. Breaking it down into simple shapes. Discussing the angles and using a pencil to measure. Starting lightly and building the strength of our marks. We give them the tools to think and see like an artist. What we don’t do, is tell them to trace it on a light box. Or give them a simpler clip art building to copy. Or let them colour in one the teacher has drawn. Not all learners will need all of the support steps. But that’s the beauty of scaffolding as opposed differentiating. In other subject areas, we might support learners with difficult learning through sentence starters or writing frames. ‘I do, we do, you do’ is another excellent way of allowing the learner to build confidence – again very useful in practical subjects. Initially learners will watch the expert, then use guided practice before progressing to independent practice.

I think art and design teachers are generally really good at differentiation. We are used to working with young people and adults, who find our subject challenging. Very often these are highly academic students who really struggle to draw or create. It’s often rewarding to see students who find other subjects difficult, excelling in art and design. Whatever their experience or their ability – and a key point is we don’t always know – we would be doing them a huge disservice if we labelled what they were capapsble of and didn’t support them individually to aspire to be the very best artist possible. In doing so we ensure equity and aspiration for all.

Thanks for reading and please share your thoughts. Have a good week.

6 months in a new post – this much I’ve learned…

When you move to a new school, it doesn’t matter how much experience you have, you don’t have experience of that particular school. This can be both a blessing and a curse. And it’s this that has comforted me, haunted me, driven me, frustrated me and encouraged me throughout my first 6 months in post as Principal Teacher of Expressive Arts. To be the best for the school, I need to know the context of the school. And that takes time.

Surface level change is obvious. But deeper impact, is cultivated and built over time and cannot be rushed.

On the surface, I’ve achieved a fair bit. I already feel fairly settled. I have built the foundations of a strong team. I’ve made good relationships with pupils. I’ve started scratching the surface of attainment. I’ve lead by example. I’ve initiated and led staff in a number of wider school projects such as the exhibitions and performances for our royal visit , our virtual art gallery and our online Christmas concert. I’ve begun to make links with the local community. And, most importantly I’ve learned lots. But it’s a slow process and perhaps that allows for plenty of opportunity to pause and reflect. So what have 6 months in post taught me?

Making impact takes time

It’s such a fine balancing act. Enough change to feel we’re moving forward together, yet not too much to disorientate. I’ve consciously given myself time. Rushing into a new post, full of ideas and ‘new’ ways of doing things can be hugely detrimental and shows a complete lack of understanding of the school and dept context. I’m sure we all know something who arrived in a new post and didn’t nothing but mention, ‘in my last school we did…’ I’ve therefore tried to really get to grips and understand where we are right now. What our biggest challenges are and where the strengths are we can build on. What motivates and inspires each team member, and consequently what causes them anxiety. Only then can change really be meaningful as it directly links to us as a team, is created by the collective and addresses our own particular needs.

Human first, professional second.

I’d say that this has always been a priority, but throughout the pandemic it has been magnified. I’ve been fortunate to have learned this first hand from others and feel privileged that I’ve been able to model the same empathy, compassion and care which has been shown to me. I don’t think we can underestimate how tough the last two years have been on individuals and as leaders, starting from a point of compassion is the least we can do when we are unaware each individuals circumstances. The way we talk to colleagues, the attempts we make to understand situations, the way we ask others to do things for us.

Always believe in your ideas and do what’s right, not what’s easy

Seek other perspectives, Listen and learn from the experience of others, but learn to trust your instincts when it comes to something you are passionate about. You need to be able to defend your actions so it’s important to go with you gut. If you truly believe you made the best choice, it’s far easier to live with that decision even if it turns out not to be the right one.

People will always work harder when they feel appreciated.

If someone is doing a good job, I tell them. Like with pupils, I often seek out individuals to congratulate their success in a football match or competition. I try to make the same fuss over staff. Genuine, specific praise goes a long way in encouraging and building staff up.

Do less, but better

When starting in a new post, it’s extremely easy to say yes to everything which comes your way. In fact sometimes it feels like you are obliged to. Every opportunity, every request for help, every experience available. You are excited and full of energy. You want to be seen to be keen, and want to get involved with the life of the school. And this isn’t all bad. It helps build a sense of belonging, introduces you to other colleagues and allows you to contribute to the wider life of the school. However, sometimes the effect of doing everything is often that instead of seeing the best of you, what colleagues see is a thinly spread version of your best self and not your true potential. I’ve definitely been guilty of this and so in the next 6 months, before committing to anything extra, I’ll be asking these questions:

⁃ will it positively impact the learning and teaching and curriculum experience of our young people?

⁃ Will it impact workload of staff?

⁃ What are the well-being benefits to those involved?

If it ticks these boxes then there’s a good chance it has a worthwhile place. If it’s purely to get a photo on Twitter, or in the local news, then we’re doing it for the wrong reasons. Yes there are hugely positive experiences for young people to be gained from community working, outdoor learning and linking with industry but these need to be coherent and well-planned within the context of the curriculum.

It’s not always easier to ‘do it yourself

This has been a huge learning curve for me. At home, I’m often of the opinion that if you want something done, it’s better to do it yourself. But in leadership, this isn’t always the case. I’ve needed to use those around me. It has required me to lean into the expertise of others and give up some of the control. Admittedly I’ve found this hard, but it has most definitely rewarding to empower others. The collective responsibility has allowed others to share the collective success. Quite simply, in a middle leadership role this vast (three very different creative subject specifics all with huge extra curricular input) I couldn’t possibly have done it on my own. Building the capacity and confidence of others has been so worthwhile, both for me and my team.

The past 6 months had not always been easy,(Possibly more to do with moving to a new area, having no central heating and all the challenges of the global pandemic!) but it’s definitely been worth it. I’ve loved the opportunities I’ve had to support a bigger team and I’m excited about the months ahead.

#OneWord2021 Reflection on the year gone by

Last Hogmanay, inspired by Jill Berry I reflected on the year which had passed and looked ahead to what 2021 might bring. I tried to find positives within the challenges of a global pandemic and considered how I might use these experiences from which to grow. I attempted to choose a word for 2021 but really struggled to find a fit. In the end I settled on ‘Dichtomy’ and it seems that in retrospect it was quite apt. Little did I imagine that in 12 months this city girl would have a new job, have sold a house, moved 100 miles, and have begun to readjust to rural living far away from any family or friends. It has been quite a year – a year of bravery and a year of fear. A year of sadness for loss of the old, and excitement for new beginnings. A year of incredible planning ahead, yet taking each day as it comes. A year of positives, balanced out by trying times. Here’s a look back at 2021…

My year, like everyone’s, started in lockdown. A return to home learning allowed us an opportunity to put into practice everything we learned the first time around. Positive routines, increased participation ratios and asynchronous resources which helped break down learning for young people all helped me to become a better teacher. I loved live lessons with young people but hated feeling so distant from pupils and my team. In addition, I loved time with my own boys and the flexibility it allowed in terms of childcare, getting outside and exercising. But it was tough! Without the interaction of young people and connection with colleagues in person, each week became a little harder. It made our return to in school learning very welcome and at various points I’ve often reflected on my gratitude at being in the building and hearing voices in the corridor.

I was fortunate to be given several great opportunities to share my practice with others – presenting to iPGCE students at Strathclyde university, recording various podcasts, and working with Pgde art and design students at Moray House before they completed their virtual placements. I have loved being able to help and influence others within education.

At the beginning of the year, I knew I needed a new challenge but wasn’t quite sure what. Having been in my post for over ten years, I needed to get my teeth into something. I had more to give. And then… not one, but two jobs caught my eye. His and hers, matching posts. In Oban. I can’t explain what possessed me to consider moving 100miles for a new job, but something about it just felt right. My word of 2021 came into play again… applying for a new job was a real dichotomy. Heartbreak at leaving the familiar, excitement at being able to contribute to a new context. Fear of not being good enough to do a different job, confidence that I could make a positive difference. Worry that we were going to uproot and unsettle our boys. Assurance that it would all work out ok. Sadness at leaving behind great colleagues and pupils. Happiness at the opportunity to meet new people and build great teams. And so it goes on…

After 6 months, I continue to see my word of 2021 reflected in much of what I live, think and do in my new role. The dichotomy of wanting to do it all, yet knowing I need to pace myself. Of having a strong vision of where we need to go, yet knowing I need to take others with me and thus feel ownership. The dichotomy of challenging directly, yet caring deeply about my team. The new challenges, the new relationships, the new perspectives side by side with the old experiences which shaped me as a person. The beginning of 2022, sees me wanting to grow and move forward, continuing to build and improve myself and others, at a pace which is both manageable and aspirational.

2021 has provided yet more opportunities for me to curate my work/life balance. Another dichotomy I constantly face is the need to relax and realign, yet struggling to be still and do nothing, instead feeling the need to be busy. But I’ve realised that self-care for me is not the same as that for others. When I’ve enjoyed time for me – be that running, paddle boarding or drinking gin with friends and family – I’m in a better position to handle the complexities and the challenges of life. And that’s self-care. Spending such an amazing summer at Port Ban meant that I had plenty of opportunities to practise my paddle boarding – making new friends and enjoying the space and time to just ‘be.’ And one of my most recent discoveries in my new house, is the simplicity of sitting beside my wood burner and getting lost in a book. I look forward to much more of that in 2022.

Finally, the dichotomy of being a mummy, and all that brings, parallel to working full time as a middle leader. I so often feel torn and this year has been no different although I’m proud of how I’ve coped. Being a mummy is hard. Really hard. Juggling homework, pe kits, permission forms, school nativity, parties, packed lunches, tears, tantrums, a million questions and school/nursery drop offs don’t come naturally to me. Throw into the mix numerous precautionary Covid isolations, working from home as well as home learning in a rented house with no central heating, and it’s been a recipe for building my patience, self awareness and keeping perspective. I love my boys with all my heart. They amaze me everyday and I love being the one to care for them, love them and make them feel safe. But I also love my job. So I’m learning to lean into the dichotomy of life as a working mummy. Because it’s who I am.

And this holiday I’ve been most thankful and proud of both of them as I pause to watch them grow and play together after all that this year has thrown our way. I am so thankful for all that we have – family, friends, love and careers. The tears, tantrums and arguments are definitely lessening and to all those with young children, it does get easier. Here’s to 2022.

Pace #MonthlyWritingChallenge

Pace Verb Definition move or develop (something) at a particular rate or speed.

Often associated with sport in particular football and running, but mentioned frequently within a school context, pace is a term which is used with both negative and positive connotations.

Whether it is discussing pace of lessons, pace of teacher talk or pace of change, there are many things in education which require us to consider the speed at which something is developing.

During the recent October holiday, I used the communal laundry to do not one, but two, loads of washing – the joy of caravan life! Whilst some people might find this hugely inconvenient and time consuming, (traipsing back and forward until a machine becomes available, timing the cycle, setting a reminder to return so that someone else does not need to unload your clean underwear, and then waiting patiently while the seconds count down and it is tossed through the tumble dryer) there is something I love about this opportunity to be mindful of this period of time we usually take for granted. As I stood watching the tumble dryer timer tick down and querying the pace of my own tumble dryer, I realised that I’d never actually stood in the same way, mindfully counting down until the end of the cycle. By contrast, the whole laundry experience provided a useful pause to reflect on the pace of something which often goes unnoticed. I wonder how often we get an opportunity like this in school?

Now from the outset, it’s important to recognise that pace of change is not the same as pace of improvement. It can be very easy to feel like within a school context there is constant change. Especially within the context of the past 18months. Changes to the structure of the school day, changes to safety measures, changes to the way in which courses Are taught and changes to assessment. Never before has education experienced such rapid pace of change. It has forced teachers to be flexible, adaptable and reactive in a way which has arguably been needed but for many, has been faced with reluctance. Without doubt, some of these changes have had a positive impact. I wrote a little about this here. But change for change sake is not useful. Instead, schools need considered, sustained improvement and this is perhaps more difficult to see.

‘Sometimes we can become impatient with the pace of improvement.’

Just before the holiday, amidst a mix of family covid scares, extreme end of term tiredness two new jobs and the stress of being unable to find a more permanent home for our family, I reflected on the pace of improvement within my new role. I was pretty hard on myself. I wanted to see immediate impact, measurable improvement and real change as a result of my leadership. I felt like progress had been slower than I might have liked. In the laundry during my holiday week when forced to pause and consider pace from a different perspective, I reminded myself that it’s only been 10weeks in post during a particularly challenging term amidst a global pandemic and I should probably cut myself some slack. I realised that whilst there may not have been huge visible changes outwardly, I hope that incremental improvement is evident in the meaningful conversations which have taken place, and the building of strong foundations through positive relationships with both pupils and staff. This I hope is a more sustainable pace of improvement and is more valuable in the long run.

I’m no plumber, but I reckon the pace of my washing machine cycle at home would be similar, if not slower, to the industrial laundry machines I used this holiday. However the laundry experience itself, provided a different perspective to consider the pace of this everyday household task. Whilst in the midst of change, it can often feel difficult to see our progress, but by changing perspective it is possible to become more aware of the subtleties of improvement. Take some time to remember your impact both individually snd as a team.

To all those beginning post graduate student placements tomorrow, all the very best. Be mindful of the huge learning curve you are on and the pace of improvement you will experience over the next few weeks. Reflect on your incremental improvements and learn from every experience. I wrote this post last year to remind us we were all student teachers at one point. All the best. Have a great week.

Novice and expert learners

Building on a post I wrote a while ago here, and having read a bit more on the subject since, I felt that there might be worth in exploring this a little further within a subject specialism.

This week I’ve been reading @ttdelusion Bruce Robertson’s second book – The Teaching Delusion – Teaching Strikes Back. If you haven’t read it, I would highly recommend. I’m a huge fan of Bruce’s work – his knowledge of excellent learning and teaching, and passion for using this is a key driver for improvement is hugely inspiring. I find myself furiously nodding along to what he writes or regularly reading out quotes to my poor husband. So I found the first chapter on Curriculum Delusions particularly struck a chord with me.

Exploring my ‘why?’ as a teacher, I feel strongly that my purpose in the classroom is to allow ALL learners to flourish. Not just those who find it easy to draw, or those who have natural ability in drawing. Not just the ones who go to weekend art classes, or come along to lunchtime art club. Everyone. Every. Single. Pupil. I’ve always been passionate about ensuring everyone can succeed. For me, it is hugely fulfilling to see learners find success in Art and Design, building their confidence and in turn their motivation – even more so when they may not have experienced opportunities to shine in other areas of the curriculum. My track record for this is strong, with many young people achieving much better in art and design than in their other subjects. Now believe me, that’s not because art is a skoosh. Far from it. But I do believe that the way I teach has a lot to contribute to this. Strong relationships and direct instruction, have allowed me to impart my expert knowledge to novice learners to improve their ability before encouraging them to apply this in creative contexts. I believe it is my job to help young people become better at seeing, recording, creating and designing. And to do that I play an important part – not just as facilitator of this learning but in the initial stages as the expert in instruction. Especially in the initial stages. I’ve written previously about the advantage of having knowledge such as colour theory committed to long term memory, and the same applies when we consider the progression of the curriculum.

From The Teaching Delusion – Teaching Strikes Back Chapter 1

But I know this will be met with some criticism, especially from art specialists. Where is the personalisation? Doesn’t this stifle creativity in the BGE? Shouldn’t young people be free to create work in their own way? How creative is it if all pupils are learning the same techniques?

Well yes. Possibly. But I believe there can be room for both. Like I wrote in this post on Dichotomy, it’s not either/or. For me the planning, sequencing and coherence of the curriculum is absolutely vital in order to equip young people with the knowledge, confidence and success they need early on, gradually allowing them to develop the tools and confidence to use these to be creative. Creativity flourishes when we have tools to be creative with. By providing young people with the foundational knowledge, in turn their confidence to be creative and explore the knowledge in different ways, opens up. If we know the rules, we can break the rules. But we need to know the rules first.

However, I think it’s important to look at what happens when we don’t teach like this. Because I’m not embarrassed to admit that I’ve not always thought like this. And as a fresh faced, early career teacher I did my fair share of creative lessons which had a distinct lack of teaching. When I started out teaching I remember feeling completely disheartened and just rubbish because my lesson on portraits hadn’t gone well. I’d let pupils discover the facial proportions by looking at their classmate, allowed free reign over materials, ideas and approaches. I thought I was allowing them to be creative. But in reality, a very small number of pupils excelled and the rest were pretty disastrous. Those who didn’t have knowledge of how to measure, observe, and understand the properties of different materials were left to flounder. They could experiment, they could explore but ultimately it was the luck of the draw whether they discovered a successful approach. Despite, me the expert, being in the room alongside them.

And pupils always know when their work hasn’t been successful. In S1 pupils are pretty hard on themselves, so if their work looks like it could have been done by their sibling in Primary 2, they very quickly lose confidence. In both themselves and their teacher. This in turn leads to disengagement and behaviour issues.

Now I’m not saying that there isn’t a place for what Bruce Robertson describes as non-specific teaching. Pupils would become bored without the opportunities to apply their knowledge to different contexts. Pupils need to look at the work of other artists and analyse their approaches. But like the way in which a good design brief is written featuring constraints, there needs to be a structure and focus on what we are learning. So it is vital to plan the art and design curriculum in a way which allows for this learning progression and confidence to build – initially through direct instruction, with growing independence and opportunity for non-specific teaching. Otherwise we risk failing the pupils who need it most. If pupils come to secondary with varying levels of knowledge about art materials, the design process, observation and colour theory we do them a disservice if we don’t attempt to give them the strong foundation to go on to be creative. If we focus on creativity alone with unlimited freedom and lack of specificity, very often pupils (and staff!) become frustrated, learning becomes more fragmented and the gap between the most naturally talented and those who struggle most, increases.

And at a time when there is such a focus on ‘closing the attainment gap’ a big part of me, agrees with Bruce Robertson. Those who love and excel in art will continue to do so regardless of the way they are taught, but those who need the most support to build their toolkit will suffer if we don’t allow our teacher expertise to be shared in an explicit way.

For those who worry that designing a curriculum in this way discourages individuality and creativity I would argue the opposite. Some of the most creature design solutions have come from the constraints of a design brief. Pupils grow in confidence when we instruct directly, but that’s not enough, we then need to give them opportunities to apply their knowledge in creative ways. We hold their hand until they are ready to take their first steps. And when they do, they are far more likely to succeed. Instead of narrowing the opportunity for whom art and is a possible career pathway, this curriculum design opens up the possibilities for all learners.

It’s worth noting that despite the need for creative thinking, creative ability and innovation as desirable skills in young people – I agree they are vital – employers, SQA, art schools and colleges will all still ask to see evidence of basic art and design skills within a folio. We can’t throw the baby out with the bath water. We must do all we can to help ALL our learners discover their creative toolkit.

Yet again, like so many things in education, it’s not an either/or.

“Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” Maya Angelou

Feedback. Part 2.

In last week’s blogpost, which you can read here., I considered how we build the foundations for effective feedback in the classroom. Establishing a culture where feedback is a gift. Creating the culture where both giver and receiver value and trust each other. And ensuring high quality learning and teaching precede and therefore minimise the need for feedback. These were some of the approaches I discussed. I also asked these questions:

How do we ensure that within a busy classroom, teachers racing through the curriculum don’t fall into the trap of feedback which is easy and comfortable? Instead, how do we make use of these optimal conditions for feedback which we have created, and that our practices really maximise the impact?

I think as busy teachers, who absolutely want the best for our young people, often we can be guilty of wanting a ‘silver bullet.’ A quick fix which will create high impact with low effort. From the EEF findings it is clear that Feedback most definitely has the potential for high impact, and for relatively low cost. But the findings don’t mention low effort. Unfortunately there are no simple strategies which can be parachuted into a lesson in isolation which instantly improve feedback. Like many things in education, feedback deserves more than a quick sticky plaster approach. It is not just about completing a feedback task which ticks the box. For feedback to make a difference, it needs to be ingrained as part of the continuous loop. A habit which both teachers and students are well practised in and understand. There are no simple ways to ‘do’ feedback.

Dylan William states ‘’Rather than thinking about feedback as an isolated event, this report makes it clear that feedback is likely to be more effective if it is approached systemically, and specifically.’ By becoming aware of and adopting some of the principles below and embedding them in our practice, we can and will positively impact our learners’.

So apologies but this post will not contain templates of feedback strategies to try or classroom activities to improve feedback. Instead it will unlock some of the characteristics of effective feedback. Notably in a way which allows the teacher to use their professional judgment to decipher the best delivery yet built on the strong principles of what effective feedback might look like.

It is an unfortunate a myth that to be effective, feedback needs to be instant. In fact much of the research on timing of feedback is of mixed evidence. From the EEF report, ‘The evidence regarding the timing and frequency of effective feedback is inconclusive.36 On the one hand, immediate feedback may be effective as it could prevent misconceptions from forming early on. However, delayed feedback could also be beneficial as it may force pupils to fully engage with the work before being given an answer.37 In turn, this may lead to them working hard to retrieve information they’ve already learned, which could help pupils to remember more of the learning.38

Some feedback needs to be instant. For example if it relates to health and safety. We do not want pupils to wait until next lesson to hear that the way they’ve been holding the saw in technical is dangerous. Or waiting til next lesson to remind pupils the correct way to carry a knife in Home economics. Sometimes it needs to be instant. And it can absolutely be more effective in the moment, particularly if it relates to specific errors which if repeated in learning could form dangerous misconceptions. Verbal feedback is advantageous here. Consider the visual nature of art and design, where misconceptions will be very obvious to teachers early on. And therefore straightforward to pinpoint and clearly feedback to pupils before others do the same. This may be quite different to extended written pieces in which it may be more difficult for teachers to recognise during a quick walk around the classroom. The report also suggests that sometimes feedback and subsequent reteaching of a concept after a delayed period is actually more beneficial to pupils as it brings into play the forgetting curve, forcing them to retrieve information from long term memory and indeed strengthening the learning. Therefore there is no best time to give feedback. But importantly, that we do give the feedback. And it focuses on the learning not the task, nor the pupil.

Another consideration is how we can best prepare students to accept the feedback positively and with a view to using it to improve rather than taking it personally. Harry Fletcher Wood discusses this in a blog post here. It specifically mentions how teachers can:

Convey high standards and a belief students can meet those standards ‘I’m giving you this feedback because I know you can get an A on this’, has a dramatic effect on student likelihood to redraft and student grades (Yeager et al., 2014).

If we think about it, it’s often difficult to accept feedback, even as adults. Especially if it contains a suggestion that what we’ve been doing previously hasn’t been good. So by preceding feedback with a comment explaining why you are giving this feedback – because I know you can do better, because I believe you are capable of more, because I want you to achieve even greater success – goes some way to ensuring students know this isn’t personal and instead it comes from a place of genuine care and desire to see them improve. The study by Yeager et al found that students were more likely to adopt a growth mindset and use the feedback to propel them forward when it began with an explanation about why the feedback was being given. Something to consider.

And finally for this post, and this was the absolute game-changer for me; Students need the opportunity to use the feedback. How often do we write out feedback, mark jotters or give whole class verbal feedback for it to be glanced at by learners and then never referred to again? Using effective feedback strategies should be built on the need for pupils to actually practically do something with the feedback. Pupils should be given time to go back and improve, redraft, rewrite or indeed attempt the assessment again in order to show the application of the feedback given. Too often I worry that we are intent on flying through what Mary myatt refers to as the ‘curse of content coverage’ that we forget that pupils need opportunities to show personal improvement. Vitally, this builds pupil confidence in the task and trust in the student/teacher relationship. In the past I’ve asked pupils to redo a prelim having provided feedback to help them improve answers. This can be a useful way to allow pupils to demonstrate the impact which feedback has had on learning. It is worth noting however that it is important to be careful that feedback does not solely focus on task specific improvement. Remember our end goal is not a snapshot performance pupil who can answer one specific question well. Instead feedback should be about the deep learning, and transferable to the next piece of work so that learners can apply knowledge and skills in different contexts.

I hope this has been useful. I would love to hear your thoughts.

Future feedback posts will explore practical feedback strategies in the classroom as well as establishing a culture of effective, honest and open staff feedback.

Have a great week everyone – for many our last before a well deserved break!

A matter of feedback…

Feedback. We give it all the time. We receive it frequently; whether we ask for it or not. We know it makes a difference in our teaching. But, from experience, it’s definitely not an easy thing to get right. That is, if there even is a right way to do feedback. This blog post is a tentative first step into exploring how good our feedback as teachers really is, and how we can make it even better. I aim to explore different aspects of feedback over the next few posts and delve into specific, practical areas of feedback for use in the classroom.

Many areas of education create debate. But I’m hopeful that feedback might be one aspect that the majority of educators agree is vital as part of effective learning and teaching. Despite this commonality in realising the importance of feedback, the ways in which students receive feedback varies greatly. We need to recognise that various approaches are indeed needed to suit individual subject specialisms, ages, and stages as well as school context. Feedback in music, will look very different to feedback in maths. Yes there may be some common threads and key similarities in what makes both sets of feedback effective, but each will suit the specific subject and the learning taking place. It’s like exercise – we know we need to do it, we know it makes a difference but we all take our own approaches to making it work for us in terms of the where, when and how. Not everyone is a marathon runner. But that does not make the gymnast any less fit. If feedback across a school follows core key priorities in terms of its purpose and impact, there is room to manoeuvre the specifics of the feedback itself.

The first two aspects of Feedback which I will explore in this post, are not technically feedback at all. But I believe they lay the foundations for effective feedback, integrating beautifully with high quality learning and teaching as well as building strong relationships. And so it is, that feedback isn’t something which stands along, instead it forms part of an important loop.

Everyone needs feedback. It helps us get better. When I make a new recipe, I want feedback from my tasters. So that I can make it again even better. When I go for a run, I want to check strava for instant feedback on my pace and how it compares to previous runs. So that I can try and do even better next time. And when I read my son a bedtime story, it’s good to hear his feedback so I can make my voices and silly sounds much improved the following evening. Feedback helps us get better. And as teachers, we all want that for our young people. So why wouldn’t we spend big parts of every lesson giving individual feedback?

Well, Sometimes we will. Sometimes we need to and it helps move learners forward. But we also need time to teach. So it comes back to opportunity cost, which I touched upon here. If we are giving feedback, we are not doing something else. That’s why I think it’s important to minimise the need for feedback in the first place and find efficient ways to give meaningful feedback when time is tight. If lessons are taught well from the outset using clear learning intentions and success criteria; if teachers clearly explain and model the learning, if teachers guide the learning and then give opportunities for deliberate practice, the likelihood that learners get it wrong or need feedback to correct, is less likely. Of course feedback will always be necessary to move learners forward but if we can spend less time correcting common errors which might have been overridden by better instruction, then the time can be used to give really personalised and impactful feedback.

So we’ve established that feedback is a gift because it aids improvement. But it needs to be viewed in that way through the classroom and school culture. An ethos of continual improvement not because we are not good enough, but because we can be even better. In order to create that learning environment, there requires a strong relationship between giver and receiver. For feedback to land in a way which allows it it be used to propel forward, there needs to be a shared understanding of why the feedback is being given. Like so much of our work in the classroom, a positive relationship between teacher and pupil is vital in order for feedback to be listened to and acted upon. Pupils need to trust and respect their teacher, and understand that the feedback given is because the giver genuinely wants the young person to do well. A learning partnership, when both sides are working hard for the best outcome is desirable. When a relationship breaks down, young people are less likely to buy into the need to improve.

I don’t think any of the feedback foundations is ground-breaking, indeed good teachers do these almost without thinking about it. What becomes more tricky is implementing effective feedback, and sustaining it. Like the exercise analogy, we all know we should go to our gym class on a Monday night or get up early for a run before work, but when it’s dark and wet, our intentions can often be sidelined for ease and comfort.

How do we ensure that within a busy classroom, teachers racing through the curriculum don’t fall into the trap of feedback which is easy and comfortable? Instead, how do we make use of these optimal conditions for feedback which we have created, and that our practices really maximise the impact?

Part 2 to follow.

Opportunity cost

A few weeks ago we viewed a house. It was stunning. Great view to water and hills. Lots of outdoor space. Double garage. Spacious. Bespoke. Great location. And just within our budget. On paper it was our dream home. So we arranged a viewing. But… (yes there’s a but!) it needed too much work. New roof. New windows. Potential. Lots of potential. But just not perfect. The discussion then ensued about the compromise we were willing to make. And to be honest, it continues. But it made me think. Is there always a compromise?

In classrooms across Scotland this last few weeks, teachers have tried to establish routines, build relationships, share learning intentions, ask effective questions, model and scaffold learning, check for understanding and give effective feedback. All whilst teaching pupils behaviour expectations and encouraging them to be be resilient, creative and ambitious! Wow. Teaching is incredibly complex. Ands that before we add in the global pandemic we find our self working within. Or adding into the mix lunch duty, extra curricular clubs or supported study.

We all want the best for our learners and yet we must consider that it is difficult to do it all. If we, as teachers, are doing one thing, then we are not doing something else. Sometimes it’s inevitable that there is a compromise. Therefore we need to be absolutely certain that the practices we employ in our classrooms are the the most effective. It’s interesting to consider the notion that doing less but better could be more impactful than doing it all but without substance.

You’ve probably heard of opportunity cost. The notion that if we choose to use our time in one particular way, there is something else which is unable to be done in its place. If teachers are busy doing wall displays, they aren’t able to spend that time giving pupils valuable feedback. If staff calendars are filled with operational meetings, they aren’t able to commit time to developing the curriculum. If staff are photocopying and laminating, they aren’t able to engage in professional dialogue. Everything has an opportunity cost. No one method is wrong, but we need to be sure we utilising the best approaches if it means others need to be compromised.

Being really clear about what’s important and holding strong to our values is something which will help shape how we use our incredibly precious time as teachers.

For me, Educational research has opened my eyes to so many best bets for learning and teaching, and confirmed why I do lots of what I do when I’m teaching young people. The research is effective. It works. And seeing the impact it has on young people is hugely motivating. When the learning and teaching going on in my classroom is of a high calibre, my job satisfaction is increased. Research is not the only perspective, but it’s a good starting point. As with everything, context is key.

Knowing the research is there and having access to it in a way which is clearly distilled and accessible for teachers, is one way in which we can support time-short teachers to access the information they need. It’s also important to sift through what is relevant and prioritise what will work in your setting. Some schools circulate a helpful summary of individual educational research papers or books. Others share interesting articles to create a space for enquiry. I particularly enjoy professional reading which brings much of the research together in one place and books by authors such as Bruce Robertson and Tom Sherrington helpfully collate important research into easy to digest, practical guides. Discussing this with colleagues through professional reading groups can be really helpful too, to clarifying thinking and engage in discussion to share good practice.

But how do we make use of this without overwhelming teachers who are already working incredibly hard? For me, it’s about making it relevant and worthwhile for teachers.

Allowing them to buy in to the impact it will have on their classroom and the young people. And starting small. ‘Great oaks from tiny acorns grow.’ In my fortnightly faculty update, I include a small snippet of educational research to inspire staff. I don’t insist it’s read, or check up but my hope is that by planting these small seeds, staff will come to it in their own time and by their own decision. In my mind, this is far more powerful and impactful, than it being forced upon them which I suspect may instead turn them off.

The element of personalisation to CLPL means that staff feel ownership of it which makes it far more powerful. Individuals can identify their own individual needs and then seek out professional learning which inspires and motivates them to improve their practice. Flexible professional learning which works around time-strapped teachers’ existing commitments is more likely to be accessed and engaged with, for example drop-in 30 minute sessions, while walking the dog, or driving to work listening to a podcast. We do not have to do it all. Identifying one small area of focus and getting it right, can have a huge impact. If we focus on just improving feedback, the knock-on effect of this for questioning, modelling and scaffolding is huge. There is so much educational research out there that it can be overwhelming. And it can lead to dilutions and lethal mutations if we are not incredibly careful as well meaning practitioners simplify, distort and try to provide a quick fix. Prioritising our needs, the school needs and then digesting small portions of credible, relevant educational research can have huge impact. And what often happens, is that it feeds the appetite for classroom improvement.

This was the main premise behind ScotEd – a FREE, online professional learning conference which aimed to bring short dip in, dip out sessions which would inspire Scottish teachers to explore educational research. We understand that no one will be an expert by the end of a short session, but if the presentations spark a curiosity to find out more and a realisation that educational research is relevant to our classrooms and can have huge impact if explored in more detail, the event will have achieved its purpose. Please tune in on Saturday 18th September 2021 to make up your own mind. Follow @ScotEd2020 for a link to the livestream.

All in Scottish education are very aware of change. However, improvement is not the same. Sustained, long term improvement takes time. It doesn’t happen overnight. It’s not change for the sake of it. It’s not trying new approaches with an instinct it might work, for us then to revert back. It’s not change, because someone else is doing it and we better too. Or change because it works for the school down the road, so it must work for us too. Change in that context is exhausting and surface level. And that’s the compromise.

Like the house we viewed (and are still going round in circles about!) improvement may be incremental. It’s not rushing in to make changes, before we’ve experienced and lived in it to know what might work best. It’s knowing what’s possible and listening to the experts about how best to do it. We might not be able to afford to do the kitchen this year, but if we know it’s in the plan for next year we can work towards that. But if we do the kitchen now, it means we might have leaky windows over winter. Compromise. Opportunity cost. Systematic, long term planning is needed, and it’s the same for school improvement.

School improvement, like upgrading a house, is far more rewarding because is hard fought and comes from a place of relationships, values, research and context. When we know where we are going (and every school’s destination might be slightly different!) the route to get there becomes much clearer, and less daunting.

Have a great week everyone. I hope you will join me next week to connect at Scoted.

What I wish someone had told me…

For NQT’s, the summer before starting your probationary year is a huge one. Often filled with lots of excitement and for most, a sense of anxiety. How much preparation should you do? How much reading will help get you ahead? How should you set up your classroom? There’s a desire to feel ready and prepared, and yet a need to pace oneself in order to survive. I remember spending that summer buying books, laminating and printing loads. I’ve seen a few future NQT’s post about how they should best prepare for their first week so I thought a blogpost on this might be useful. This is by no means an exhaustive list nor is it anything you won’t have heard before, but it may be a helpful reminder. I’m sure others will have more to add.

It’s important to acknowledge that the year ahead will be a huge learning curve and you are not expected to know everything in August. Your values, your morals and your character will determine how you approach the year ahead and for me, that’s more important than the resources you prepare. Yes spend time preparing if you want to. But let’s face it, there is only so much forward planning you can do in advance of meeting your learners and reacting to the prior understanding they come to you with. It’s vital you are rested, recharged and in a good place to be the best you can be for the young people. So do what is right for you. I wrote a little about this here.

This post is not just for new teachers but also for those starting a new post or indeed anyone returning to the classroom after summer or a longer period. These are my thoughts on where it might be best to focus our energy during the remainder of the holiday.

1. You set the weather in your classroom so…

Instead of using summer to laminate resources, print out posters and create novelty lessons, I’d argue it is worthwhile to spend some time having a think about the culture you want to create in your own classroom. For many NQT’s, it may be the first opportunity to have your own room for the very first time, and it can be tempting to spend lots of energy (and pennies!) on creating a picture perfect classroom. By all means, if creating beautiful learning walls are helpful to you in your day to day teaching, then absolutely go for it. But don’t punish yourself if you don’t. Aesthetics are great, but the impact you as a teacher have will be more powerful. Think about your expectations and how you will communicate these. It’s important to be clear on that early on so you can over-communicate by ten! How will you build the relationships which will become the bedrock of the learning and teaching partnership? Learning pupil names and genuine interest in them is a good starting point. It’s important to note that I am not trying to become ‘friends’ with pupils, instead that we establish mutual respect. Welcome them by name, remember things they tell you and build the sense of team within the class. Primary teachers are really amazing at this and arguably it is more difficult in secondary but definitely can be done.

2. Routines, routines, routines.

I’m a big believer in teaching pupils routines. Aside from saving valuable lesson time and automating important procedures used daily like distributing materials, routines are also important because they allow learners to focus their working memory on the learning. But again you need to think this through and decide how you want these important routines to be played out by pupils. Do you want pupils to line up to enter the classroom? Will you expect one pupil to distribute materials or will you hand these out? Hands up to answer questions? There is no right or wrong way of doing things but I think it’s good for you to have thought about what will work best in your setting, context and classroom. So that you are then able to make this explicit to your pupils. But do remember that pupils won’t just ‘know’ how to do things in your class – you will need to teach them like anything by breaking it down, and allow them to practise. It will take time and effort but will be worth it . And bear in mind that in secondary school pupils have lots of new routines to learn for each new classroom they enter.

3. Subject knowledge is king

If you have the inclination and the time, I would probably focus my attention and reading on areas of subject knowledge which I might be less confident with. Perhaps you have been given a course outline for the year groups you will teach. It’s impossible to be an expert in all subject content, therefore there might be areas you will be teaching which you know less about. I’ve found that I’m more likely to be stressed or get flustered when I am not 100% certain of the content. Brush up on areas you might not have covered within your degree or seek out opportunities to learn from colleagues. When you have an idea of the curricular areas covered in the classes you will teach, you can target these in your reading, podcasts or documentaries watch list.

4. Pedagogy. Not pretty lessons

When planning lessons for your first week (and beyond!), think about the learning, not just the finished outcome. What do you want pupils to know. Or be better at?Be wary of falling into the trap of creating activities which either provide the illusion of learning by keeping pupils ‘busy’ or indeed focus on a specific outcome which can be put up on display. Read more about this in ‘The Teaching Delusion’ by Bruce Robertson. It can be tempting to spend the first week doing ‘fun,’ ‘getting to know you’ activities. Remember that in high school if pupils are doing this in every subject, it can lose impact and very quickly learners will lose interest. I much prefer to get stuck right into learning. And I usually choose something with high impact and low threat. Pupil motivation comes from success, so learning something which is achievable but gives instant gratification can be a very powerful way to start a new year. And whilst pupils are working, you can get to know them.

5. Don’t be afraid to ask

Be the teacher who self-reflects and is not afraid to ask. Show how keen you are to learn and use collegiate time to listen and gain from other members of your team. Be willing to contribute ideas or even just show enthusiasm for someone else’s if you don’t feel confident enough to put yourself out there in the early days.

6. Pace yourself.

It can be tempting to volunteer for everything and anything in the early days. You are enthusiastic and want to show how committed you are to your new school and your role. Remember there will be lots of opportunities to get involved with the wider life of the school and in the early days your priority should be building confidence in your classroom. You can still show how motivated you are, without stretching yourself so thinly that you can’t do any of it particularly well. You don’t want to feel you are playing catch up in the classroom because you have signed up to help with after-school and lunch clubs. Be careful not to overstretch yourself in the early days, but express your interest in getting involved when you can.

7. It’s not only your pupils who are learning.

There will almost certainly be good lessons and not so good lessons. And every single teacher has experienced that feeling of deflation when a lesson hasn’t gone as planned. Your pupils are not the only ones who are learning. So don’t be too hard on yourself – we’ve all been there. Remember this and accept that these are opportunities to get better. Self reflect, ask what you can do differently next time and talk about it with your mentor.

8. Connect

A support network who will be there for you through the ups and downs of the year will make a big difference. But it can be hard to meet people in a busy school. Smile, be friendly and socialise. Don’t worry if you aren’t the most outgoing person in the world. It’s about being genuine and warm. Start in your own department but don’t limit yourself to those closest to you. Get out and about and go for a wander around the school. Remember there will be new staff in similar situations to you in departments all across the school. Seek out opportunities to meet other NQT’s – perhaps suggest meeting for lunch once a week. Teachers are busy people and it can be easy to work through break and lunch if you don’t make a conscious effort to stop and set aside some time to recharge. Even on my busiest days, I always feel a little more refreshed when I’ve stopped for a blether, a giggle and a wee distraction from the four walls of your classroom. I always try to make the effort to have lunch with my teacher buddies on a Friday. But don’t worry if it takes a wee while to seek out your tribe. Keep smiling, being friendly and you will find others who reciprocate.

9. Comparison is the thief of joy

It can be tempting to compare yourself to other NQT’s in the school, peers from your course or even teachers on social media. However we can never know the full story behind someone’s journey. Remember you are you, on your own path. Do what feels right for you. Use evidence and reading to gain knowledge about classroom practice, seek out the expertise of teachers in your department and mould this with your own values to make you practice the best for you.

10. Feedback is a gift

The beauty of your NQT year is that your trajectory of improvement will hopefully be phenomenal. Evidence suggests that after the first few years this slows down considerably. One of the reasons for this is the amount of feedback you will receive in this period. Sometimes this will be positive, sometimes it will be constructive but hopefully it will always be honest. Use the time before you start your year in school, to prepare yourself mentally for receiving this feedback. Understanding that your mentor, observer or colleague giving the feedback, cares for your progress, therefore their comments however negative or honest, are intended to help you get better. This mindset ensures that the feedback, is not personal and instead will land in a way which allows it to be useful and helps you to move forward. Take it on board and think of it as a gift.

It’s taken me a long time to realise but being in a good place physically, mentally and emotionally at the start of a school year, is just as important than any planning or classroom prep.

Enjoy what’s left of the holiday and all the best for the school year ahead.

Affirmation. But from whom?

Affirmation: Definition. a declaration that something is true.

We all appreciate affirmation from others. Confirmation that what we are doing is correct. Reassurance that we are on the right track. It helps our self-confidence, builds our motivation and allows us to take pride in our achievements. In education, it isn’t just pupils who appreciate this affirmation, but teachers and leaders. But whom do we seek reassurance from? And when does it become problematic?

We all hope our young people will value the feedback from a teacher and we hope that the affirmation they receive will buoy them; allowing them to continue to thrive. I recall my primary 1 son telling me excitedly one evening that Mrs McDaid had told him that P1b were the best class in the WHOLE school. Imagine that affirmation for a 6 year old! Positive reinforcement, which if said enough, might just be believed. Fast forward 10 years, and analyse the impact of a teachers’ encouraging words on a 16 year old. Is this affirmation still sought, and if so, is it just as influential?

I would argue that it most definitely can be, but only where a positive relationship has been built up and the conditions for receiving feedback have been well-established. And the converse of this is true. Where the relationship hasn’t been nurtured; where there isn’t trust or respect between learner and teacher, there is very little chance that the affirmation will be sought or indeed land with the intent desired.

Likewise, where affirmation of a particular negative trait of a pupil is shared with them, intentionally or unintentionally, this can have hugely damaging and detrimental impact. Especially if this is reinforced by others. Additionally, there often exists a tension between the affirmation from a teacher and the endorsement from peers. During adolescence this is a hugely challenging conundrum. How as teachers do we ensure learners are more interested in the stamp of approval from their teacher, than pleasing their peers? Creating a school or classroom culture where success, achievement and learning is celebrated and the social norm is to be motivated to learn, seeking affirmation from teachers goes some way to support this.

Teachers often seek affirmation too. From our students. From our colleagues. From our principal teacher. From leadership. From parents. Think back to being a student teacher and receiving affirmation from a mentor after an observed lesson. Positive comments on the lesson can be a real confidence boost. But how worthwhile is it, in helping teachers move forward? The feedback, needs to be directive and honest, and as a result is more likely be a real catalyst for improvement rather than an affirmation of the status quo. As Kim Scott discusses in ‘Radical Candour,’ ruinous empathy may be the positive affirmation we crave, because in the short term it massages our ego. But in order for affirmation to be challenging and productive, we need words which which are honest and true, yet which are caring and compassionate.

And it’s important to recognise that affirmation comes in many different guises. It may not be a professional conversation. Instead it may be the reassurance of positive behaviour or pupil engagement in learning. Exam results may provide some sense of affirmation that pupils have performed as predicted. The ethos within a classroom. Parental comments. Inspection reports. League tables. But like everything, affirmation from outwith comes with a health warning.

‘’Affirmation from others should be a supplement to our self-worth, not the basis for it. When the opinions of others hold too much power in our lives, our worth becomes dependent on how they perceive us. We could end up at the mercy of others’ opinions to maintain a positive self-image. Read more here

So we need to be careful of how we receive affirmation. Important as it is, we can’t let it become the be all and end all. Especially if our sole purpose becomes the affirmation from others. It’s often the case that negative feedback is ill-informed and lacks context. Is it truly affirmation if it is not accurate, and instead a perceived reality of others? We need to examine what is affirming and what is not. What might be accurate and therefore provide something we can learn from, and what needs to be brushed off?

In the age of social media, anyone can pass comment on a school without direct experience. Therefore, it’s important to call out when we recognise ignorance and react in a dignified way, because it can be detrimental to the whole school community. Remember, say it enough and they’ll believe it. Positive or negative.

The people who really know what is best for a school are those who are part of it – pupils, teachers, leaders and parents are those who can truly affirm the school experience. They live and breathe it. So let’s all assume the positive, in the affirmations we give and receive.

Have a great week.

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