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!!

The elephant in the room

Assessment: the process of considering all the information about a situation or a person and making a judgement:

Mention that word to any teacher or student, and it creates a whole host of opinions, thoughts and ideologies. Even more so after the past two years of exam disruption. It’s no wonder that it is a hot topic right now. However I can’t help but think that the current educational climate is the perfect storm to unpick some thoughts on assessment. What is the purpose of assessment? How do we measure success?And are we brave enough to consider assessment in a way which moves beyond it’s ‘aye been this way.’

I remember the sense of innovation which BTC5 brought when describing assessment.

‘Curriculum for Excellence focuses on a broader range of knowledge and understanding, skills, attributes and capabilities that children and young people develop in a range of contexts. This means that assessment in Curriculum for Excellence will involve a broad range of approaches that allow children and young people to demonstrate what they know, understand and can do. Assessment will support learning and promote learner engagement resulting in greater breadth and depth in learning, including a greater focus on the secure development of knowledge, understanding and skills.‘ Building the Curriculum 5

Assessment which measures not just what children can write in a test. But what they can demonstrate, say, make and do throughout their learning progress. And the empowerment of teachers to use their professional judgement to inform next steps in learning on an ongoing basis, through conversation and observation as well as physical evidence. Good teachers were already doing this, but it made it clear that assessment should be continuous and formative to support learning of individual pupils. Does this translate into the current exam practices we in see in high schools across the country?

Consider what you believe the purpose of assessment to be. Maybe for different people it has different purposes. Measuring progress?Achieving high scores? Is it to force pupils to learn something? A right of passage? Or maybe, it’s to find out what pupils can and can’t do.

I would suggest that in my subject, Art and Design, assessment provides information on where a pupil is at. What they can do and what they still need to master. It’s very rarely high stakes, but instead a continual, formative overview of the progress an individual is making practically. I hope the culture in our department encourages continued hard work and effort throughout the year, not just at exam time. Yes there’s often a bit of a push as deadline approaches but I feel confident that overall, the work completed is truly reflective of the candidates’ ability. I’m not naive enough to believe other subjects do not face limitations to working in this way. But I am very fortunate that my subject lends itself very well to the continued assessment of coursework.

What about the argument that some pupils need the pressure of a high stakes assessment? Some believe these particular students will only revise or put the work in when there is something at stake. Or even that pupils need to appreciate the experience of the exam hall to prepare them for their future. I’d argue that this then is about the culture we create. If we have consistently high expectations, from the very first piece of work students complete and insist on high standards – not just ‘done,’ but of ‘excellence’ then we are more likely to create the conditions for continual hard work. Especially if teachers skilfully break down the difficult task into steps to ensure students can achieve and experience the feeling of accomplishment. I’ve found that once students experience that taste of success, it fuels the culture for excellence and they are more likely to push consistently, not just when there is an ‘assessment.’ I would also argue that it encourages ‘cramming’ rather than a mindset of continued hard work and deep learning.

And what about assessment of vocational courses? If we are to value what we assess, we must assess what we value. Practical skills, team work, decision making, time management, organisation. Assessment is so much more than an exam which measures performance at one given point. Progress not perfection.

Another consideration is whether currently learning drives assessment (in my opinion it should!) or instead, whether assessment drives learning. Are we teaching to the test? Or are we teaching for deep learning? Are we assessing when pupils are ready? Or are we blanket assessing a snapshot of performance at a given point? Who would admit to preparing students specifically for what will enable them to pass the assessment? And if so, who does this really aid? Who does it help? Our current situation does nothing to mitigate against this. And the added pressure which teachers face due to timescales and deadlines does nothing to help. A focus on high stakes assessment undoubtedly leads to pressure to cover course content in an almost whirlwind like fashion or we see as Mary Myatt refers to as ‘the curse of content coverage.’

Another question to consider might be, if we were to adopt a different culture around assessment, what would we teach? How would we teach? This brings up considerations around curriculum, threshold concepts and schema. Planning how we build on knowledge and make naturally occurring links because they help support learning, rather than because they will feature in an end of year test. Using assessment to help students understand their progress and how to move forward, and rather than a score or a grade which perhaps explains very little.

And if we did approach assessment in a way which did not favour high stakes assessment, I wonder how this might affect teacher wellbeing and job satisfaction. As a keen advocate of retrieval practice, I see a lot of value in regular, low stakes, high impact approaches. As do pupils, because they experience instant success which drives their motivation. They identify where there are gaps in their learning and focus on these to ensure deep learning. Retrieval focuses on best bets in teaching and importantly, aids teacher workload by ensuring tasks are not time consuming to produce but yield deep thinking for learners. I tend to think that retrieval practice is similar to what Dylan William suggests about feedback ‘it should be more work for the learner than the teacher.’ I may need to explore this in another post. But I do wonder how this might affect secondary education. How would secondary teachers teach their subject without the pressure of being expected to achieve excellent exam results? Would this enable more great teaching to happen everyday rather than a race to get through a course? More questions than answers but I think it’s interesting to consider.

To be clear, I’m not for a second suggesting that we lower our standards of what young people can achieve. ‘No exams’ does not equate to ‘no learning’ or assessment. It does not mean an easy ride. In fact, the very opposite. Assessment absolutely needs to be robust and rigorous. It needs to measure progress of individuals throughout school, not just over an exam period. It must inform learning next steps. Mindsets of learners, parents and staff would have to change. And the culture around learning and progress, would need to considered. Not only this, a joined up approach with further and higher education would ultimately be a key piece in the jigsaw. But I do think now is the time. Because if not now, when?

Wishing all my colleagues a great week, particularly those in secondary schools who are in the midst of assessment. Hopefully this has given you some food for thought.

Togetherness #MonthlyWritingChallenge

What do these things have in common? A seesaw. A conversation. A hug.

Any ideas?

‘I can do things you cannot, you can do things I cannot; together we can do great things.’ Mother Theresa

There are some things in life we can’t do on our own. A seesaw isn’t much fun without someone there to provide the counter weight. A conversation with ourself is far lonelier than with a friend. And as we’ve all learned this past year, hugging ourselves instead of a loved one is just not the same. Sometimes we are ‘better together.’ Could this quote from Mother Theresa be any more appropriate for education?

Togetherness in learning. Togetherness in leadership. Togetherness in culture. Togetherness in our journey.

A partnership. A team. A recognition that we all have individual skills, qualities and knowledge which collectively can make a huge impact for young people.

I want to first think about togetherness in learning. I strongly believe in the quote by James Comer; ‘No significant learning can take place without a significant relationship.’ But I also believe that it is a very special kind of relationship. Not grown from friendship, over-sharing or unprofessionalism. Instead, i think it’s the learning that fuels the relationship. We aren’t there to be friends with the young people. Students won’t learn from someone they don’t trust, someone they don’t think has their best interests at heart or someone who they don’t believe really knows their stuff. Likewise, students won’t learn from someone who may be friendly, approachable and fun, if the same teacher doesn’t have high expectations and rigorous learning routines in place. Establishing positive relationships is so important. But let’s ensure this is done through the lense of learning.

I hope I do both in my classroom. Encourage sky high expectations, yet have the warmth and compassion to build trust and togetherness with pupils. I’ve talked a bit about this before, when I discussed motivation here. I think it’s important that in order to build that partnership, there needs to be an understanding that although the teacher may be the expert and the pupil the novice, working together, great learning occurs. I can recollect several occasions seeing pupils in awe of my live painting demonstration – this instantly builds trust. The pupils believe i know what I’m talking about. They trust that I have the expertise to be able to teach them. They want to learn how to do it as well as I’ve shown them. But it also requires my understanding that they are novices, and my teaching must reflect this. I need to appreciate that they need the small steps. They need clear explanations. I need to meet them where they are but encourage them to aim for the top. And it’s this togetherness which allows learning to flourish.

Creating a culture of togetherness in a classroom, or a department, or indeed a whole school is massively impactful. The notion that we are all part of the learning, that we all learn from each other and that individual interactions impact us all, is hugely powerful. I love when a real bond forms between a class. But it doesn’t just happen, it takes work. Great teachers are super skilled at this. It takes persistence and perseverance. A relentlessness in encouraging ‘the team.’ A conscious effort to use language which promotes the joint nature of the learning journey. ‘We’re going to be looking at something quite challenging today but I just know that we’ll work through it together to get great results.’ Words matter. Using any opportunity to reinforce the norm of working together, the partnership and the collective accountability is massively helpful in drip feeding the notion that we are better together.

Is this just as true when working with staff? Absolutely. For me, leadership is about bringing people with you, building others up in order that they thrive, and using the skills of the team for the collective good. Again this can’t be done in isolation. We need an appreciation of each individual within the team – what inspires them, their ‘why?’ So that we can utilise this and encourage them to thrive. We need to be human and bring our whole self to work so that we can relate to others, yet maintain our commitment to challenge directly if things aren’t going so well. As Brene Brown states, ‘Clear is kind. Unclear is unkind.’ We need to admit to making mistakes, show humility and honesty to encourage this kind of culture with others. Again using the team – building trust and togetherness is the goal so that everyone moves in the same direction.

How do we create togetherness? I’ve touched on this a bit, briefly already. But firstly, I think it’s recognising that it takes time. Time and space to allow togetherness to grow. Understanding that we sometimes overestimate what can be done in a day, yet underestimate what we can achieve in a year. Relationships take time. Trust doesn’t just happen. We need to clearly communicate the shared vision. Constantly. And create opportunities to build that trust.

As we’ve certainly learned this year, life is so much better when there’s a sense of togetherness. Many of the challenges we’ve faced during the pandemic have been because our freedom to be together has been compromised. Times without face to face teaching. No Christmas dinner with family. Cancelled plans with friends.

This week as restrictions lift a little and we are allowed to hug our loved ones once more, let us remember that just like a hug, we can’t do it alone. We need each other. We need to be part of something bigger. And let’s not forget those that find it hard to be part of a team. Ensuring they are understood and valued exactly as they are, will go some way to helping their individual feeling of togetherness.

Enjoy the hugs this week and have a great one!

Modelling

As teachers of art and design, I think modelling is one of our real collective strengths. Not because of our good looks and catwalk prowess(!) but because like other practical subjects, it’s really important for pupils to see techniques demonstrated by an expert in order that they can learn and master these themselves. So this blog will unpick some of my thinking around why modelling is so important not just in Art and Design, but across the curriculum.

This time last year I’d heard of a visualiser, but had never actually used one to demonstrate techniques. Now I wouldn’t be without it. A year ago, I’d never made an instructional video for my pupils, but always wanted to. Now we have a YouTube playlist with over 50 asynchronous video resources modelling key concepts in Art and Design.

Despite the huge number of difficulties we have faced during the COVID-19 pandemic, online learning has magnified the need for excellent pedagogy. And in art and design, it has really shone a light on modelling and explicit instruction.

Great art and design teachers do this every lesson. It may now seem like a distant memory, but pre-pandemic, our lesson ritual involved gathering all pupils close around a table to demonstrate the lesson. Sometimes, we might have done this at numerous points in the lesson to break down the task into stages. I remember the worry back in August when we returned to school but were having to teach from the front. How would we recreate a demonstration using a visualiser? How would we assist pupils, without sitting right beside them to help?

But we managed. And I would argue that the use of a visualiser actually improves our ability to demonstrate. Because it allows ALL pupils to see ALL stages of the learning. They can see our demonstration in close-up. It allows us to demonstrate our meta-cognitive process as we model and, (and this is a biggy in a practical subject such as art and design!) it means that there is zero disruption to learning because pupils don’t need to leave their seat. The modelling is now not just limited to the short time around the demonstration table. Instead techniques, concepts and common mistakes can be viewed by learners at multiple points throughout the lesson on the whiteboard.

So what are my top tips for modelling in Art and design, or indeed any subject.

Provide an example

I think this is really important for so many reasons. Firstly it lets learners see what they are aiming for. It helps boost motivation because usually the exemplar is impressive and pupils like the challenge (especially when I then go on to give them the steps to achieve success.) I often call it, what a good one looks like. In a frantic, busy timetable it can often be tempting to wing it and just go without but it really is an important part of preparing for your lesson. In many cases an exemplar, helps me as a teacher because sometimes practical processes take too long and it’s a good idea to have ‘one I made earlier.’ This avoids wasted time during a lesson. Finally, it’s a really important process for me to go through as it helps me identify the difficulties, mistakes pupils may make and helps me to think about to breaking down the modelling into steps. It also builds teacher confidence because especially in the early stages of teaching, it can be hugely daunting to demonstrate live in front of a class of young people.

Explore thinking

Whilst demonstrating I am asking questions. Constantly. I am probing pupils to check their understanding and guide their thinking. ‘What kind of line should we be using here?’ ‘Where is the light coming from?’ ‘How dark should this side be?’ This engages learners throughout and builds their confidence. It means they are not passive, but gaining the meta cognitive thinking to guide them through the process. I often think that in art and design, we are teaching pupils not, ‘how to draw’ but ‘how to see.’ This requires prompts to encourage them to see things in a way which will help them. I also want to give them the thinking process to ensure that when they get stuck, they have the tools and thinking skills ways in order to get back on track.

Ongoing demonstration

This is why visualisers are really useful. Pre-pandemic, there might have been a tendency to cram everything into one demonstration to avoid disruption to learning and having pupils constantly stopping and starting out of their seats. I’ve seen pupils become really frustrated because they are just getting into the task and then they are being asked to get out of their seat to watch something they can already do. They want to get on and make progress. And as teachers, we don’t want to break that flow of success. Visualisers mean that learners who need to can watch. Learners who are confident can continue working.

Demonstrate the process

Sometimes, as an early career teacher, demonstrations are the most daunting part of the lesson so the thought of having to demonstrate multiple times may be off putting. However, if we reframe ‘the demonstration’ as ongoing modelling throughout the lesson, it becomes a lot less high stake and pressured. It allows us as teachers to model the process and the stages which learners need to go through to achieve success. We can also use this to address difficulties identified as we scan around the classroom. Working together through the process is also really useful. I use the modelling process ‘I do’ (pupils all watch me) then ‘we do’ (pupils work alongside me – I guide the stages, pace and structure.) And finally ‘you do’ (as pupils build confidence, I set them free to work independently.) This structure really helps pupils to progress at their own pace and allows me to support those who need more practice.

Provide an opportunity for pupils to work themselves

This can often be difficult for teachers. It’s a fact that we like to talk! But the ‘you do’ stage of modelling is really important. We need to give time for our pupils to demonstrate their knowledge snd understanding of the learning too. So this is our opportunity to circulate, to check everyone has grasped the technique and stand back and let them go. It’s this bit which builds the motivation. As pupils realise that they can actually do it themselves, they are motivated to achieve more.

Identify the key learning.

When planning demonstrations and modelling I think it is useful to think of the learning and the knowledge pupils need, rather than the task itself. This helps to identify the aspects which we need to reinforce and concepts which a transferable. It can be tempting to become a Blue Peter presenter and create demonstrations which become a set of instructions taking through procedures in order to achieve a finished piece. Yes we need to model in a way which breaks down the learning into steps, but it’s important that we aren’t just telling pupils what to do. We need to explain why we are doing things, model the thinking and the visualisation required to see things in the way an artist would.

As many of us return to our physical classrooms this week, I know that modelling will be a real focus of excellent learning and teaching in classrooms across the country. And I hope this post will highlight many approaches which I know so many of us already do everyday in art and design, and beyond.

Have a great week everyone – I cannot wait to have all our pupils back in the building!!

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