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.

Pay it forward

We often talk about the impact that we as teachers have on young people. Helping them to see their potential, encouraging their success and supporting them to achieve their very best. But this post recognises the encouragement great teachers and leaders often give to colleagues, and the importance of those individuals who go beyond their day job, to take time to build others up and inspire through formal or informal mentorship.

I’ve been incredibly fortunate to have been able to support aspiring teachers, student teachers, early career teachers, experienced teachers, new and established principal teachers over the last few years. It’s always a privilege to be able to tease out their confidence and help them to see their own strengths. Often the conversation is all they need. The opportunity to share and clarify their thinking which gives them confidence they need in whatever situation they find themselves in. I’ve listened to worries, concerns and frustrations. I’ve been asked searching questions or my opinion on moral dilemmas. I’ve offered advice on application forms and supported individuals prepare for interviews. I’ve reminded colleagues of their worth, of gaining perspective and the need for balance. I’ve been there when colleagues have been successful and shared disappointment when something was not meant to be. I hope I’ll always be someone who makes time for this and who colleagues feel they can come to for this support. Because in my own career, this has made a huge difference to me.

All teachers are truly brilliant, but sometimes in education, you will find a small number of individuals whose values, energy and purpose totally aligns with your own. You will look up to them. You will be inspired by them. And you will learn so much from them. Find these people, hold them close and use their experience to help you be the best you can be.

For me, many of these inspirational mentors are people I haven’t even met! But they build me up. They keep me right. And their support, when I’ve needed it, has been invaluable. From taking time for a phone call to talk through an issue I’m experiencing in school, to giving me honest, direct and practical feedback on an application form. They’ve thought of me and given me opportunities to shine. They’ve connected me to other colleagues. They’ve encouraged me when I’ve doubted myself. They’ve been a cheerleader when I’ve been successful, and even more so when I’ve not been experiencing success. They’ve helped me to become the teacher and leader I am today. And I’m incredibly grateful for that. These acts of mentorship don’t need to be formal. They very often aren’t. They may not officially be mentors, but are instead good people, being good role models and being incredibly good with their time. Through them, others are being given opportunities to thrive. Colleagues are inspired to be even better. And ultimately it is our young people who benefit from this act of paying it forward.

Always remember to look back. Never be too busy. Or too important. Because not long ago the person asking for the help was you.

Have a great week.

You do you

Over the last week or so, many teachers finished term for summer. Others will finish in the next few weeks. A well-deserved rest after a year in which the goalposts just kept on moving! It’s been extremely tough and everyone – both young people and staff – need a rest. Many of us are looking forward to chilling out. But this blogpost is a reminder that ‘rest’ looks different for everyone. Each of us will approach our holidays differently. And that is absolutely ok.

For some of us, holidays will mean a change of pace. Some people cope well with going from 100mph 5 days a week, to slamming on the breaks and experiencing opportunities for long lies and lazy days. For others, the transition may be more problematic. It can be really difficult to fill long days when you are used to the routine of school keeping our minds occupied. It can feel strange to slow down and spend time in different ways. To give ourselves permission not to be thinking, doing, or being busy. But instead, to just be. It may be lonely for some. Not everyone is surrounded by friends and family. For many, life might not slow down despite the break from school. That might be appreciated or unwelcome. Parents, carers, or illness might all affect our responsibilities and our experiences of summer 2021. Being tolerant of others’ situations which we may not fully understand, is so important to allow everyone the rest they deserve.

Some teachers need to keep busy despite the break – they like to continue to work, to think about lessons, and use summer as an ideal time to learn. There might be those who want to do planning, buy stationary, set up their new classroom, make posters and create resources. Those like me, who channel their active minds into listening to podcasts, professional reading and webinars because time is limited throughout the year. I find summer a great opportunity to re-energise my practice, challenge my thoughts and develop as a teacher because I have a bit of capacity which isn’t always the case during the intensity of the school year. Please don’t judge those who need this. They are doing what feels right for them.

At the opposite end of the continuum, there are those who don’t want to think about school, education or learning. They need this break in order to recharge. Those who won’t check emails or won’t want to be contacted about school unless a complete emergency. Those who will indulge in life outside education; meals out, holidays, seeing friends and avoiding all talk of when we return to the classroom. This complete detox works for them. And I understand that completely too.

I’ve had various ‘discussions’ with my husband about this. He reckons that I’ll crash and burn. That I’m not giving myself time to switch off. That come August I’ll be exhausted. That others will feel they should be doing more. But I can’t affect how others feel. I can only control the controllables. And I’ve learned that this is good for me. This is me. I find that this time of learning and doing very different from school – it actually reinvigorates me and reenergises me so that I can be in a better place for the new school year. I do enjoy doing other things too – drawing, paddle boarding, running, reading – things which keep me doing but allow me to escape elsewhere.

What is important is that you do what’s right for you. Do what makes YOU well this summer.

One of the things which often makes this difficult is comparison.

Comparison is the thief of joy.

Theodore Roosevelt

Whilst social media can be a really excellent way of connecting and collaborating in the world of education, it can also lead to a great deal of unhealthy comparison. Teachers regularly post photographs of resources, preparation, planning and ideas they have been developing. More often than not they unintentionally generate a negative reaction despite being posted from a place of positivity. This can be for many reasons but reflecting on the times when my own reactions to social media have been rooted in comparison, I’m almost certain this has landed this way because of my own feelings of insecurity. The way I’m feeling at a certain point, influences my reaction to what I’m scrolling past. But, if as the voyeur, I observe and instead

‘Believe in the goodness of all people. Assume positive intent…’

Mary Frances-Winters

I find social media to be a far better place. It also helps me to remember that Instagram or Twitter only show a snapshot of someone’s summer – the photo worthy, best bits. Beware of this, as it can mask a whole host of other experiences and emotions. It also helps me to filter what and when I choose to post.

Finally, this word. Should. ‘I should really do the dishes.’ ‘I should be seeing more of my friends.’ ‘We should be exercising more while we have the time off.’ ‘I should cook dinner instead of ordering another takeaway.’ ‘I should be starting to think about school preparation.’ It’s hard, but when I consciously tried to remove the word ‘should’ from my vocabulary, I gave myself permission to do what’s right for me.

We are all different. There’s no right way to ‘do’ summer. Please don’t judge how others are spending their break. Please act with kindness and appreciate we all need different things this holiday.

You do you. Whatever helps you to feel recharged and ready to be the best for the young people in August…. Do that.

Why high expectations alone are not enough…

Expectations. Noun. Plural a belief that someone will or should achieve something.

As teachers, it’s easy to say we have high expectations. High expectations of behaviour. High expectations of uniform. High expectations of attainment. But what do we mean by this? And is it really enough? This blog explores how we can maximise the impact of our expectations.

The expectations teachers have of their students inevitably effects the way that teachers interact with them, which ultimately leads to changes in the student’s behaviour and attitude. The work of Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobsen (1968) shows that teacher expectations influence pupil performance. They found positive expectations influence performance positively and they described this phenomenon as the Pygmalion Effect.

The language we use to address students. The way we communicate and model our expectations. The relationships we build to foster trust. The explanations of why we do things this way. The excellent learning and teaching which allows pupils to thrive. The success they achieve, which motivates them to persevere. And the relentless drive from staff for pupils to achieve their potential, all contribute to buy in of these expectations.

Conversely, when we lower expectations, students also respond. But in contrast, when we lower the bar, they often in turn meet that bar, leading to poorer performance. This is known as the Golem effect. Labelling pupils. Setting classes. Expecting less from some learners. Accepting lower standards of uniform or behaviour. Very quickly expectations are diluted.

The trouble with expectations, particularly low expectations, is that they are a self-fulfilling prophecy. Very quickly, students learn to believe they will never be anything other than the ‘lowest reading group’ or that they’ll never have the chance to be in the football team because it’s only for the top pe students. Or the sense of disappointment and upset when academic success is not realised. And when expectations are not met, there is often a tendency for disappointment, anger or even shame. As teachers, we need to manage that. We are experts at finding learners’ individual strengths. Of drawing out the thing that allows them to shine. The area which gives them hope and an opportunity to meet high expectations. Once they experience that, they are hopefully moving in the right direction. Over communicating expectations, sharing them again and again, and modelling how we expect learners to meet them is another helpful way in encouraging young people to meet these beliefs.

Expectations are like a curriculum. We need to teach expectations. If we expect pupils to enter our room calmly and get straight to work on a ‘Do Now’ task, we need to teach learners how to do this and explain WHY this is a purposeful and important start to lessons. If we expect all pupils to wear uniform, then we share WHY this is important for equity and we have contingency measures in place to support learners who may experience difficulty with this by providing uniform items they may be without. Lowering standards is not the answer in my opinion. Instead, encouraging pupils to buy into these expectations as the norm, because we explicitly share the benefits and then supporting them to do so through modelling, practise and putting supports in place to help meet them.

Another consideration should be that expectations are realistic and achievable. Having the expectation that all pupils will achieve 5 highers, is simply not fair, pragmatic or in anyone’s best interests. It will only lead to disappointment and perhaps shame of not meeting this expectation. Despite excellent learning and teaching, all pupils are individuals and are on their own very personal learning journey. Instead, insisting that all pupils try their best at all times, and reach their own potential, is feasible and encourages high standards.

In teaching, we are all well aware that nothing is black or white. There obviously needs to be an element of understanding on occasions when expectations are not met. To dig deeper, to see the bigger picture and understand the context. Then, it is vitally important to put the support in place to allow young people to experience success in meeting the expectation.

Ultimately, as part of a school community, buy into the values and our collective expectations is vitally important to ensure a sense of shared ownership, team spirit as well as fairness. I’d encourage you to consider your own expectations this week – I’ve found it helpful to explore what shapes my values with regard to expectations. As always for me, it’s the dichotomy of ensuring our expectations encourage the very best from learners, whilst caring personally and challenging directly to support individuals to meet these expectations when this proves difficult.

Have a great week everyone. We are nearly there!

Every cloud

I, like many other teachers across the country, am absolutely shattered. In a year like no other, teachers everywhere have risen to the challenges which we have faced. School closures, online learning, blended learning for those isolating at home. And all this before we even consider the qualifications ACM. We are understandably ready for a holiday after completing our own jobs, on top of setting and assessing, moderating and marking, teaching and learning. But as always, we have adapted, done our best for the young people, and got on with it. And I for one am incredibly proud of our profession, and in particular my department team.

They say that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Always one to try and find the positives, I believe that our team are 100% stronger, wiser and most importantly, better teachers for this experience. Never before have we spent so much time as a department, talking about learning and assessment. And this comes from a department who commits most meeting time each week to learning and teaching. We’ve bonded as a team over developing our understanding of national standards, we’ve shared a cuppa and blethered whilst discussing benchmarks, we’ve blind cross-marked in silence and then celebrated when we’ve been concordant. There has been a real focus on understanding the what and why of our teaching. This can only be a good thing.

I am so grateful for the way in which our team have embraced this experience because its been outwith our comfort zone. Never before have the same teachers who have taught the course and built up a relationship with the young person, had to assess their work. There is an enormous pressure when you have supported the young person and know their struggles snd achievements throughout a practical folio. Every teacher in the country wants the best for our young people. So that pressure to get it right, is very real.

I am 100% confident that our assessment decisions are robust, fair and in the best interests of the young people. Yes it has been a different experience this year, but we should take pride in the fact that we know our stuff. We teach these courses day in day out, and we analyse our results and the national standards every year. We couldn’t do our job successfully if we didn’t.

In art and design in particular, there are some changes we have welcomed. The focus on quality not quantity. This has allowed slow careful workers the same opportunity to demonstrate knowledge, process and skills rather than rush to complete a set number of pieces for their folio. This focus on the demonstration of actual learning complexity rather than the quantity of drawings is a positive departure from the checklist mentality.

Similarly removing the pressure to have every piece of art work double mounted has been another way in which precious time has been siphoned. Importantly the opportunity cost of this, is that we can really focus on the learning and teaching allowing pupils to work right up until the deadline rather than leaving a week or so for ‘mounting.’ This is not to say that we don’t take pride in our pupils work and we absolutely want to mount up important pieces and show it off in the best possible way. But this shouldn’t detract from precious learning time for pupils. And doesn’t need to be done for every single piece of work. Any good art teacher can see quality beyond a double mount. And to add to this, it’s more environmentally friendly!

The ACM has absolutely had its flaws. But this blog isn’t about that. It’s about recognising the resilience, strength and determination of teachers across the country to do our best for our young people and get it right to recognise their hard work in a year filled with challenges. When I look at our team, I see teachers who are tired but more importantly, teachers who are more confident in their assessment decisions and who will go into the year ahead, teaching with an increased understanding of the national standards and the curriculum they are teaching. Yes there are flaws in the system, but with a profession so committed to doing the best for young people, I am confident that together we can get it right moving forward.

Thanks for reading! Would love you to unpick any positives from your own subject experience. Have a positive week – we are nearly there!!

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