Dichotomy

noun n.
a division or contrast between two things that are or are represented as being opposed or entirely different.

In life, few things are black and white. It would certainly be easier if they were. And yet as educators, we tend to separate many of the apparent issues into extremes. Our views become polarised. We fit things into neat little boxes and sometimes become unable to open that box up and examine the real nuance of the debate.

There seems to be a tendency in life; in education but particularly on social media, to label and categorise, to sit firmly at either end of a continuum unable to see other perspectives, which at best is narrow-minded, and at worst is divisive bullying. I wrote a bit about this here in a blog exploring knowledge and skills.

It’s great to have strong opinions on things. I believe it’s really important. Especially when they amplify the importance of issues which directly impact our young people. However, there’s a difference between passion for something you believe in and conversely a firm reluctance to shift your stance or see things from another point of view. I would argue that as educators we need to be more skilled at examining the shades of grey and finding the best viewpoint, not just the one which people are shouting loudly about.

Personally, I sometimes struggle to find a strong voice because my arguments are never usually either/or. (As someone who is known to do a lot of black and white thinking in my personal life, this in itself is a strange dichotomy!). I find it’s not always as straightforward in schools. Especially when it comes to the incredibly complex, wonderful individual young people in our care. For a while I somewhat downplayed my educational values because they seemed to cross too many extremes. But I’ve come to realise that it is entirely possible to believe two things at the same time – it’s not a weakness to be want the very best for young people through high expectations, boundaries and routine, teaching behaviour as a curriculum of its own, and yet at the same time demonstrate compassion and understanding for the individual circumstances. Often it’s precisely because of that strong sense of care and duty to the young person, that you want the best for them. It is possible to believe that excellent learning and teaching, high standards and nurturing classroom environments are not mutually exclusive.

‘’Dichotomous or black-and-white thinking can be dangerous and is often based on the premise of achieving perfection. It gives you only two alternatives, one of which is usually neither attainable or maintainable. The other then tends to be the black hole in which you inevitably fall after failing to get to the first. You set your sights so high, constantly chasing an ideal that you can grasp only moments at a time. When the standard for being okay is this lofty, you’re destined to feel lousy most of the time.’’ Evelyn Tribole & Elyse Resch

Often if we examine approaches more carefully; if we look beyond the attention grabbing headlines or the 140 character tweet, we come to realise that there are many subtleties, and it is absolutely key to understanding these if we are to learn as professionals and develop the best systems for our young people. Most of my educational views have been formed due to a professional learning ‘pick n mix’ of theory, research, practice and experience. Yes we can veer more towards one approach. It is quite possible to believe that a particular way of doing something is the best. And as leaders of learning, I think we need to ask ourselves if we have the conviction and direction to lead with purpose, yet the humility and integrity to adapt and be flexible within our approach to meet the individual circumstances of of our wonderful young people and their families.

And likewise, as human beings we need to accept that our feelings are not mutually exclusive. It is perfectly acceptable and indeed quite normal as teachers to feel absolutely exhausted, and still be hugely resilient. We can very much be independent, and yet still need others to support us. It is entirely possible to feel apprehensive about returning to school after the holidays, yet at the same time be very excited to see the young people and teach them face to face once more. It’s entirely normal to know that others have it way worse than you, but accept your own pain and hurt – something which has been a huge learning curve for me.

Let’s cut others, and indeed ourselves, some slack. Let’s realise that it’s ok for two opposites to exist in harmony. Let’s have a voice but use it for good, to shape things for the better and take people with us rather than knocking others down. Let’s practice what we preach to our young people, and be tolerant of other viewpoints. By all means challenge others’ thinking by sharing our views, but accepting that context is key. We may all be teachers, but no one knows your school and your pupils quite like you.

The problem with black-and-white thinking is that you never get to see the rainbow. Omar Cherif

Impact

#MonthlyWritingChallenge

Have you ever thrown a stone into a glass-like pond and noticed the ripples spread outwards long after the initial impact? One tiny pebble, breaking the surface tension of the water, and causing the water to spread, influencing the water around the initial point of contact, and the water around that.

In any organisation, we all have the power to make an impact. It doesn’t matter the role you hold – your actions, your words, your smile – can effect someone in ways we simply might not be able to imagine. I’m sure lots of people will have heard of the story of the caretaker working at NASA headquarters. According to the popular legend, during a tour of NASA HQ in 1961, John F. Kennedy encountered a janitor mopping the floors. “Why are you working so late?” Kennedy asked. “Mr President,” the janitor responded, “I’m helping put a man on the moon.”

This commitment to a cause, this determination to do our best and make an impact no matter how small, really resonates with me. Especially when I think of education and schools. Like the smallest of pebbles hitting the water, no matter what part we play in the life of a young person, we have the opportunity to make an impact. It might be the canteen staff, office staff, cleaning staff, janitorial staff, teachers, support staff, middle leaders or senior leaders. I think of my own P1 boy who talks so highly of the friendly support assistant who always talks about sweets at interval. Or the kind dinner lady who gives away cakes at the end of lunch time or stops for a chat at breakfast club. Or the lovely office lady who always has a wet paper towel to fix any playground injury. Our interactions matter.

I’m the teacher who will happily volunteer for lunch duty; who will sign up to help at the school dance; who will go along with my own boys to support the fundraiser. And all of those things are so important because we should value the community in school and beyond. These aren’t ‘duties.’ Instead they are opportunities to make an impact. To positively effect someone’s experience outwith the classroom. To show ourselves as human first, teachers second.

I love this quote by Haim G. Ginott,

‘’I have come to the frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element. It is my personal approach that creates the climate. It is my daily mood that makes the weather. I possess tremendous power to make life miserable or joyous. I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration, I can humiliate or humor, hurt or heal. In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis is escalated or de-escalated, and a person is humanized or de-humanized. If we treat people as they are, we make them worse. If we treat people as they ought to be, we help them become what they are capable of becoming.’’

Our impact as educators can be positive or negative. We can choose the adult we want to be and how we respond to our young people. It won’t always be easy. We will experience disappointment. We will feel infuriated. There will be times when we feel like giving up on a young person because we are so frustrated by their choices. It can sometimes feel like an uphill struggle. That we aren’t making any difference. But those are the very moments we are having the biggest impact. We might not see it at the time, but your reaction in those testing times won’t be forgotten. Young people are learning to be grown up, by watching you.

Unlike the ripples in the water, our impact as teachers isn’t always quite so instantly visible. And often that makes it hard. As performers at the front of a classroom, we can seek instant gratification. But often we don’t come to realise our impact until long after our pupils have been sitting in front of us. Yes the assessment will tell us instantly whether we’ve done our job in terms of the teaching of knowledge, but it might be years or even decades before we understand the impact of our kindness or our determination not to give up on a young person. Pupils are incredibly astute. Your interactions never go unnoticed. In fact, positive or negative they will make a very definite imprint in the hearts of those on the receiving end.

This week, news of my new job and imminent departure from the school I’ve been at for 10 years, was made public. The messages and kind words I’ve received this week have confirmed to me that our impact as educators is very real. We just don’t always hear about it day to day. But never forget the impact you are making. It may be months or years before a young person looks back and realises just how much of a positive influence you were. You might never find out. But know that you were.

Most of us are now on holiday. Please use this time to recharge and reset in order that we have the patience, and resilience to make that positive impact when we return to school. Have a fantastic break.

Boundaries

#MonthlyWritingChallenge

As I reach the water’s edge, I see the boundary where the safety of dry land ends and exploration into the unknown depths of the sea begins. The security and comfort of the land visible, yet being washed over repetitively by the strength and power of the waves. The sand shifts therapeutically beneath the foamy, crash of the tide. Here, it is familiar, reassuring and known. How will it feel to cross over into this unfamiliar territory? Am I brave enough to push through this boundary?

If I stay here I’m safe. No currents to sweep me into the unknown or take me off in a different direction. Feet planted firmly on the beach, I’m in control. The luxury of the familiar, soft white sand beneath my feet. Walking one foot in front of the other, moving forward but seeing the world the way I’ve always seen it. The water calls to me… blue and refreshing. A new perspective. But full of risk and challenge. If I allow myself to trust in nature, to feel the water carry my weight, what do I gain?

I like boundaries. I like the rules I create for myself. I like the familiarity of being in control. I like to stand on a firm foundation. And sometimes it’s essential to have these boundaries. They protect us and keep us safe. They allow us to understand what we will and will not tolerate. But life isn’t always predictable. Or tolerable. Or without waves. And sometimes the boundaries we set ourself can be damaging, by limiting our experience. By keeping us too comfortable. And not giving us the opportunity to develop the resilience to cope when things aren’t We all know the saying ‘growth happens outside our comfort zone.’ So when do we push ourself to break the boundaries? To do things differently, to tolerate the discomfort? I’ve learned there sometimes need to be some short term pain, for long term gain. Feel the fear and do it anyway. Often the outcome is worth it.

I’ve learned that sometimes, boundaries need to be like the shoreline. Changing with the tide, moving in and out and flexible enough to accommodate feelings, situations and growth.

And with that, I place my paddle board into the water, bathed by the orange glow from the sunset. Kneel onto the board and find the courage, (and the balance) to stand up and float towards the horizon.

Motivated learning

It’s been another week of adapting to change and I’ve spent the weekend recharging. Both my boys have now fully returned to nursery and P1, and I am eternally grateful for the early years staff who have been nothing short of heroic in their care of my wee ones. I’ve been in school four days again this week with senior phase pupils, supporting them with the completion of practical work. And as well as this, I’ve been engaging with learners at home.

For me, it’s been a joy to be back face to face teaching, despite the challenges, and pupils have made really great progress in a short time. For some, possibly more progress in a couple of in-school sessions than throughout the whole home learning period. Which I fear is not for want of effort on the teacher’s (or learners!) part, but perhaps a lack of my own understanding of this really complex issue of motivation to learn. As well as the challenges we are all facing at home during lockdown. To me this highlights the importance of the connection with their teacher and the need for the teacher to be there to guide the learning. Something which I’ve been reminding my team this week to take comfort in – learners really do need their teachers – never underestimate the value you have.

And it has really got me thinking. About learning. About motivation to learn. About assessing learning. And about what we prioritise in our return to school.

Reflecting on my 14 year old self and how I myself might’ve coped with learning from home, I most likely would have been studious, timetable colour-coded and worked as hard as I possibly could to do my best. Was this a pressure from my school? Not particularly. Did my parents put pressure on me to do well? No. I think they only ever asked me to try my best. And I suppose, my ‘best’ was what motivated me. And that achievement, spurred me on to want to do better and to continue to improve. But I know others for whine that wouldn’t have been the case.

So I want to unpick this through my blog this week.

What is it that motivates young people to learn? What drives them to become more knowledgable or be better than they were yesterday? And what can we do to understand this in an effort to increase the motivation of our learners? In every school across the country, I reckon there are huge numbers of highly motivated students, and also those who could do with more motivation. How can we help motivate those who need it most?

Success

A huge part in this, is my belief that as teachers we are there to support all of our pupils to achieve success. Success was what motivated me as a learner. That feeling of accomplishment was the drive I needed to continue to improve. It feels good when we ‘get it.’ Yet, often this desire for pupil success translates into making tasks too easy. Not challenging learners, when indeed pupils love a challenge. Our job is to support and scaffold the learning to make it achievable. And whilst simplifying tasks will allow students to experience success, I fear that this is at the cost of not allowing the young person to experience a feeling of pride. Instead we should aim for ‘High challenge, low threat.’ As Mary Myatt @MaryMyatt talks about.

Relationships

This low threat aspect, highlights the need for trust and a strong relationship between the novice learner and the expert teacher. I would suggest that we can’t do learning on our own.

No significant learning can take place without a significant relationship.’ James Comer tells us.

I’m a strong believer in this. Pupils must trust that we are there to support them and have their best interests at heart. Young people can very easily tell when this is not genuine. They need to feel safe in order to take risks in their learning. We want them to make mistakes so that we can learn from them. Misconceptions are often the best opportunities to learn. We want them to struggle so that they feel accomplishment. And a good teacher builds this relationship to ensure that learners feel like they ‘belong’ in a learning situation in order for them to thrive. Is the online classroom simply too unfamiliar to students despite our best efforts to ‘dissolve the screen’?

Assessment

A contentious issue is obviously the assessment aspect. Whilst our education system in Scotland is still entrenched in, and values summative assessment, within an arguably flawed model, there is always going to be the motivation of exam results. But I would argue that for many, this just isn’t a positive driver in motivation. Because we all know that learning doesn’t equal performance on any given day. Learning is much more than a snapshot assessed by an exam. Learning is a change in long term memory. It’s moving the thinking from the working memory to the long term memory so that it becomes automatic and understood. So exams don’t always accurately reflect learning. Think of those who often ‘cram’ the night before exams. Or those who fall apart on the day of an important assessment.

The last two weeks in Scotland, have seen learners return to school to complete practical work for assessment evidence. Whilst I welcome the opportunity to work with the young people in school, and feel it’s important for pupils to have these opportunities to work in school, I do worry that this suggests a panicked decision by the government, in which the focus is on the destination and the tick list, not on the journey and the progression. ‘Getting stuff done’ as opposed to embedding real routines for learning. It again highlights the obsession for evidence. And yes, evidence is important but is this our priority right now? And how can we address this?

I feel that if we were to focus on motivating pupils to learn, not just to pass exams, we would be making huge in-roads with this. The passing exams would be a by-product of this. But this is no mean feat. It is a huge undertaking to shift the mindset of learners and teachers, placing a focus on deep learning rather than ‘getting through it.’ Have we become obsessed with what Mary Myatt describes as the ‘curse of content coverage?’ Read here I would argue that whilst we are still rushing to gather evidence and get ‘through courses’ rather than a long term goal of highly motivated learners, then yes we will struggle to close the motivation gap.

This week I finished reading Peps McCrea’s @Pepsmccrea wonderful book ‘Motivated Teaching.’ Read a blog post about this here. This gave me lots to think about and I would really recommend this to anyone who wants to explore motivation in more depth. It really is a fascinating area and one which Peps discusses with much more clarity than I am able to do justice.

So as we focus our attention on the return to school over the next few weeks and months, I really hope that we don’t all rush back into ‘covering the course’ to get stuff done. And instead return to school mindful of the factors which drive motivation. Is this an opportunity to pause, consider what our learners really need in order to ensure they are in a place which maximises the opportunity to learn? I hope we will consider well-being, connection, success and motivation. Because my thinking is that if we get these elements right, and continue to focus on ‘learning,’ everything else will fall into place.

Thanks for reading. I would love to hear your thoughts on this.

Knowledge AND skills??!

Can we have our cake and eat it?! As a hungry art and design teacher with a sweet tooth, I really hope so.

There has been much debate about the idea of knowledge or skills, of knowledge preceding skills and whether a skill is simply procedural knowledge. This week a brilliant conversation took place on EdClub (I missed it because I fell asleep fully dressed putting little one to bed and woke up at 3.30am!). However Pritesh Raichura @Mr_Raichura captured his thoughts and summarised the nuanced debate brilliantly here. I won’t even attempt to compete with Pritesh’s knowledgeable and fascinating read (he’s far more experienced than I am on this) but I do think it’s interesting to consider how this impacts me as an art and design teacher.

Firstly, I don’t think it it has to be one or the other. I’m learning that so many things in life are a strange dichotomy of extremes. But they can exist in harmony. I’m anxious about the return to school next week, but I’m also hugely excited to welcome back our young people. I’m extremely passionate about learning and teaching, but at the same time I hugely value relationships and nurture. And so it is with knowledge and skills. In my opinion, we need both.

Secondly, I’ve not always thought this. At fact at one point I was very against the notion of a practical subject being about knowledge. My thinking on this has most definitely been challenged. But the more I read and learn, the more my thinking evolves. And this is based on my experience in the classroom. It’s ok for our practice to adapt as our understanding increases.

Ten years ago I might have been sceptical of the part knowledge would play in Art and design. After all, we are a practical subject. Hands on, often hugely subjective and very skills-based. Much of the learning which takes place within an art and design department features at the top of Blooms Taxonomy – high order thinking skills such as creating, evaluating and analysing artworks and design. And in my opinion, that is exactly how it should be. So I’m not about to suggest removing all creativity within the subject and making pupils spend periods writing and memorising facts instead of drawing and designing. Our subject will always be practical.

However, back then, my inexperience and lack of understanding might have caused me to write off the need for strong subject knowledge. Perhaps this was because I worried it would distract learners from developing creativity or experiential learning. But having done lots of reading and seen the benefits firsthand for learners in both my Art and design and photography classes, I’m now convinced that to achieve success in the high order skills, learners need the strong foundational knowledge and understanding to support their explorations. Knowledge plays an important part in improving learners’ ability to successfully recall knowledge and in doing so, aid their creativity.

I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve heard young people tell me ‘Miss I can’t paint.’ It’s always a challenge to me to show them that everyone can learn to draw and paint. But I understand that young people come to us with different skills and for some, drawing and painting does come far more easily. For the young people who struggle with painting, breaking the skill down and giving them chunked knowledge to help, is absolutely vital for them to experience success.

The knowledge that when we add water to watercolour paint, the colour lightens, is so vital to being able to use this art material. By explicitly teaching this, young people can use this to improve their practical skill. I think this has always been the way I’ve taught, and in fact I’m sure many other art teachers do. But it’s not been until recently that I have really considered the explicit knowledge I was teaching young people in order for them to build a skill. And I think this is more important than ever to give all young people the chance to succeed. It’s our job!!! After all we are the experts.

This has been amplified during home learning. And something all tired teachers at the moment should take comfort in. Yes we are vital for the connection and the relationships we build, but also in skilful way we can break down learning and knowledge in ways that young people can make use of in their practical work. Consider the confident, skilled artists who have coped well regardless of whether we are in the physical classroom beside them. Then consider those already facing challenge, who find drawing difficult, who lack confidence, can’t simply experiment to become a better drawer. They need the expert knowledge which their teacher imparts. They need the foundational knowledge of how to measure, how to see, and how to record. They need taught this and then for it to be modelled. Yes, there is the argument that this is not creativity but I would argue that by giving the young person a step up the ladder, their confidence and motivation to experiment creatively is enhanced and leads to a greater chance of them wanting to experiment. Young people are often very reluctant to explore artistic freedom if they already lack confidence in their ability. I see this as the way to foster creativity by giving them the tools and knowledge to have the best chance to succeed. The desirable difficulty concept is highlighted here. Once confidence and knowledge is established, they are best placed to move into the realms of creativity and often

It’s important to point out I am all for creativity, expression and individuality. But I do think learners find that increasingly challenging. If we are able to give them the building blocks of knowledge about seeing, observing, measuring and recording early on, in my opinion they are far better placed use that knowledge to develop their own skills.

Maybe I’m too easily influenced, maybe I need to have more conviction in one theory or evidence base, rather than sit mid way between two differing viewpoints. But I’m not sure that having such a fixed mindset that one or other is best, really benefits our young people. Surely we should be tapping into all evidence out there to provide the very best experience and learning for all young people? I’m always learning. And happy to be challenged in any of my thoughts. Because ultimately it will help me to get better. And that is what we should all be striving towards.

Thanks for reading. Have a great week ahead, especially all the practical subject teachers in Scotland returning to our classrooms.

Pride #MonthlyWritingChallenge

Pride is the small, quiet voice whispering ‘I actually did it. I made it.’

Pride is sharing an authentic sense of self.

Pride is celebrating our imperfections and honouring our achievements.

So at what point does pride become problematic? When does the quiet voice of authentic pride celebrating personal success, become overshadowed by the harsh, dark clouds of voices, bellowing, ‘Look at me. Look how brilliant I am. I am better than you.’

I find it fascinating how this word can be such a dichotomy. For me, pride is a really personal thing. Only we know what makes us proud. Authentic pride comes from a struggle, the challenge faced, the working hard at something. That is different for everyone; we all face different challenges. I’d be proud of myself if I ran 10k in under an hour. But for someone fitter than me, there would no pride in that achievement if they were used to running a sub50 10k. When we are proud of our authentic self, we genuinely want to share the success with others. This could be for lots of reasons – to give hope, to encourage others or to thank those who lived and breathed the struggle alongside us. It might be a text message to a friend, or a phone call to say ‘I did it.’

And it’s so important to acknowledge the accomplishment and the feeling it gives us. The feeling of personal success spurs us on and drives us to go further. True pride builds resilience and strength, which comes from the understanding that you made it through the difficulty, and you will make it again.

As a teacher, one of my goals is to help students to take pride in their own learning. To communicate to them that learning knowledge and skills, is difficult. That it’s ok to make mistakes, and to not get there straight away. For many young people, I think it’s easier to look lazy than to show themselves as finding something difficult. But instead encouraging them, acknowledging the struggle and motivating them to persevere are some of the toughest challenges of being a teacher. But the feeling of accomplishment and pride (both theirs and my own) when they master it should be celebrated, and be the driver to motivate future learning.

So when does Pride mutate from a perfectly acceptable form of self actualisation to something more damaging? At what point does pride transform into arrogance and egotism? And who is it that decides when pride is problematic? The sharer of the pride or those sharing in someone’s pride?

This quote from CS Lewis, for me highlights the darker side of Pride and a reminder that being proud of our achievements alone is not the issue.

“Pride gets no pleasure out of having something, only out of having more of it than the next man… It is the comparison that makes you proud: the pleasure of being above the rest. Once the element of competition is gone, pride is gone.”

CS Lewis

The idea that pride becomes destructive when it no longer becomes about self is, I’m sure something we can all relate to. How many of us have seen a post on social media which is less celebrating personal achievement and more the pleasure gained from having more than, or being better than? It’s a fine line. When our accomplishment is compared to others or shared for the benefit of others, pride becomes less about personal best and by contrast is more to do with an inflated sense of self. This is not authentic pride.

But how often is this about our own reaction to others achievements? The problem is we cannot be truly content if we are in competition with others. Either seeking others approval or judging others actions. Often this about our response to others pride, rather than those simply sharing their own pride. Our interpretations of others’ achievements can impact our own ability to feel content and magnify our own insecurities.

We are all unique. We all have our own skills and qualities, strengths and weaknesses. And being honest about these is the best way to experience true pride in ourselves. We need to be our own cheerleaders. And we need to encourage and support our tribe too. Assuming goodwill. We (mostly!) all want the same thing. Or very similar things.

https://www.forbes.com/sites/tracybrower/2020/09/20/working-remote-how-to-build-trust-from-a-distance/

I love this philosophy. And always try to see the best in everyone which is not always easy. I know Gavin Oattes shares this quote often and I think it is originally taken from the all blacks legacy: ‘It’s not about being the best in the team. But being the best for the team.’ Correct me if I’m wrong Gav!

So let’s not swallow our pride. Let’s share it far and wide. If it’s authentic, and if others view it in the way it is intended, without comparison but assuming goodwill, pride can be a positive vehicle to drive improvement, personally and collectively.

Thanks for reading. Have a good week everyone.

Are multiple choice questions effective as retrieval practice? a) yes b) no c) maybe d) not sure

So four weeks into another phase of home learning and I’m pleased to write that not much has changed about my practice during lessons. Except perhaps the practical aspect. Every lesson still features a retrieval practice task. Pupils still need to think hard every lesson to recall knowledge. And pupils are still applying this knowledge creatively to their own personal projects. In Higher photography, this has involved quite a few multiple choice tests – partly because of the ease of setting this kind of task remotely and partly due to MCQ being the format of summative assessment by SQA.

Kahoot, mentimeter, quizizz and Microsoft forms are just some of the ways in which teachers are using MCQ to test recall remotely. Personally for me, forms have been such a game changer for this. Self-marking, instant feedback for learners in relation to why their response is right or wrong, instant grades imported into class grade book, ability to integrate images – the list goes on. Because it’s been my go to, this week, I started thinking about how effective this strategy was in terms of retrieval practice. I was inspired to do some research and it me got thinking about how we as teachers can make the most of this low stakes, high impact testing. Is using multiple choice quizzing really promoting true recall if we are providing the answers for our students? How possible is that learners just guess the correct answer? Are typed short answer quizzes more effective in forcing actual retrieval? And if there is evidence to support MCQ, then how can we use MCQ to promote deeper thinking amongst students? I am a huge fan of MCQ, but I have definitely become more knowledgeable about how best to use them. I hope this post might be useful to consider as we make up our next multiple choice quiz for students.

There has been a great deal of research done into the effectiveness of retrieval practice and the testing effect. Even if you are unaware of the term retrieval practice, you will most certain,y have used quizzes or low stakes testing in your classroom. Both are considered highly successful ways for students to move knowledge from the short term to long term memory by working hard to recall the information. This week marked the launch of @KateJones_teach second book on retrieval practice which I was so honoured to have been asked to contribute to. Like Kate, I’m so glad that the academic research on this is finally becoming more readily available to teachers in wonderful books such as hers. So, delving further into the strategy which I’ve embedded with pupils I was keen to understand if there were ways I could improve.

Firstly, I’ve discovered that part of the reason retrieval practice is so popular with students in my class, is because of the desirable difficulty with the task. The Goldilocks effect. Not too easy, not too hard. It’s achievable for all of them as it covers key knowledge we have learned together, yet tricky enough to engage and challenge them. I try really hard when developing questions to consider common misconceptions, challenge common errors and use easily confused knowledge to be tested. If it was too easy, there would be no sense of satisfaction. I would say that the average score in my recap quizzes is around 60-80% with some pupils consistently achieving higher. For me, this is important because if all pupils were achieving 100% then my quizzing would be too easy. Pupils would soon lose interest because there’s no challenge, no sense of accomplishment when they succeed. Likewise, there needs to be a sense of achievement, so similarly if my quizzes were too hard, there would be a lack of motivation, pupils would switch off because it is too difficult. Balance is key.

The argument that multiple-choice tests rely primarily upon recognition processes seems, on the surface at least, to be a reasonable critique of multiple-choice testing. Multiple-choice questions do, in fact, expose the correct answer to the learner by presenting it as one of the alternatives, which could obviate the need for retrieval. Not all multiple-choice questions, how- ever, can be answered through recognition processes alone.

Optimizing multiple-choice tests as tools for learning Jeri L. Little & Elizabeth Ligon Bjork.

Link to research paper here

This is where some understanding of how to best compose multiple choice questions is really useful.

Consider the answers to this MCQ.

Which camera control is used to effect depth of field?

A) sausages b) aperture c) sunshine d) chocolate.

Now hopefully this question quite clearly illustrates why MCQ might get a bad press. And I’m pretty sure that the most teachers wouldn’t use this way of quizzing, but it illustrates the point. This particular question is not a good example of recalling information for learners. There is only one plausible answer with several obvious red herrings, therefore students can guess the term they know is something to do with photography. For me, this is not effective retrieval practice. Instead, using plausible answers forces students to have to consider their schema around certain knowledge in order to choose the correct answer. Consider this as an alternative:

Which camera control is used to effect depth of field?

A) shutter speed b) aperture c)iso d) exposure

For me, this is far more effective. All answers contain knowledge we have covered in relation to photography. Students should recognise all of the terms, so they need students to be clear about which term is correct. Students need to understand the information in order to select the correct answer. Yes they could guess but it hopefully forces them to think in more depth.

Finally, generating answers which really force learners to think, to recall and to join the dots are some of the best multiple choice questions I’ve used. By using common errors, misconceptions and easily confused knowledge, I can as a teacher, really drill down into the learning of my pupils and work out how much they know. Consider this as a question:

A photographer increases the size of the aperture to change the depth of field. Which statement is correct?

A) the photographer has used a lower f number to create a wide depth of field

B) the photographer has used a lower f number to create a shallow depth of field

C) the photographer has used a higher f number to create a wide depth of field

D) the photographer has used a higher f number to shallow depth of field.

Without getting into too much of the detail of photography, the correct answer is B) However to get this right students need to demonstrate that they first know that using a lower f number gives a larger aperture, and secondly that the lower f number also gives a shallower depth of field. By using knowledge which they often mix up, I am able to rally force them to think. Any one of the possible answers is plausible and uses correct photographic terminology. What’s more there is a deeper level of understanding required in order to achieve the correct answer. Yes these types of question all assume that the learners know aperture is related to depth of field, but hopefully I would have used that as an earlier question to determine who knew that. I might use a mix of questions, layering the level of complexity of the question to really dig into depth of learning.

In which case, I think it’s also important that as teachers we are able to analyse the results. Too often we may perhaps be lured by the self-marking aspect of a quizzing tool however it’s valuable for us to go through pupil response to get a handle on where the errors have been made, so that we can identify next steps to clarify this for individuals. Purely recording scores is unlikely to move learners forward, whereas understanding the areas which need more work will hopefully continue to build on the success of retrieval practice for learners.

I’m sure this isn’t rocket science for many educators out there but I hope this post has been useful in highlighting some ways I’ve found it easy to improve this strategy for young people and my formative assessment of their learning.

Life is like a multiple choice question. Sometimes it’s the choices that confuse you, not the question

Plant trees you’ll never see

I don’t think any of us chose to enter the teaching profession to sit at a screen all day. It’s a very different existence to that which we are used to. And it’s tough. Really tough. It makes me realise just how much our day to day lives consist of interaction. And whilst we are doing all we can to emulate the connection with our young people, nothing beats being able to teach them within the same physical room.

Think back to life in our physical classrooms. The subtle expressions of confusion which allow us as teachers to check for understanding. The nods of agreement when learners finally ‘get something’ you’ve explained. The look of frustration when a task is tricky. The pleading eyes which beg for assistance without wanting to outwardly communicate that in front of peers. The snippets of gossip the S6’s tell me. The silly comments between peers. The under the breath moans when a task is particularly difficult.

These interactions are what build relationships. The respect you gain for pupils when they honestly admit to needing help. The trust they gain for you when you quickly swoop in to offer support in a way that doesn’t single out one particular individual. The belief you have in them when you see them persevering with learning. The confidence which they take from your expert subject knowledge and your demonstration of skills. The faith which grows when they know you want the best for them and will do anything you can to help them achieve their potential. This doesn’t happen overnight. Building a relationship takes time. And whilst the foundations for strong relationships have already been laid in the physical classroom, the move to online platforms for learning, somehow force us to rewind and reset. It’s like being back to that start of term in August. It will take time to build that trust again.

For me, this week has gone relatively well. I’ve had good attendance and positive interactions at live check-ins. Some brilliant work submitted, and opportunities to assist and support lots of learners online who are having difficulties. But, in the interests of honesty, it’s not all been brilliant. I’ve really missed our pupils. It may seem the ideal teaching situation to be sat with a room full of silent learners – indeed I’m sure many of us during a particularly difficult period with S2 have wished for this exact scenario. However, despite how much we may have moaned about how vocal pupil A was, or how frustrating the low level chatter might have been late one Tuesday afternoon, I don’t think any of us would swap it for our current situation.

There is definitely much less of a need to a focus on behaviour whilst teaching remotely – no one pupil distracting others and no-one wandering out of their seat. But, talking to a teams meeting of 15 pupil icons, with no familiar faces and no idea of what is going on at the other end, is a somewhat different challenge. Are they listening? Are they focussed? Are they learning? Are they understanding? Are they even there or have they just logged on, then gone back to sleep? Last week I wrote here about some of the ways I’ve been working to increase participation of pupils in live lessons. I found the strategies really useful for encouraging pupils to ‘think hard’,’ participate and check for understanding. This week, this has definitely given me confidence that there are most definitely effective ways to take the pedagogy in school and transfer this to a remote situation.

As a profession in which self-reflection is so important, it can be so difficult to know how we are doing. Reflecting on my lessons this week, I’ve pondered many ways in which it might have been better. Did that questioning go as well as it could have? Was that task structured in a way to support understanding? Did I remember to ask everyone to make sure there is active participation? Are we having an impact? Are the kids ‘getting it?’ Is the way we are doing it working for learners? It can be frustrating when students whom we know are brilliant learners in the physical classroom, don’t submit work. Or don’t even appear online. It can be soul destroying to have spent time making resources and a only a small number of pupils engage. But this situation we find ourselves in, is unknown – we haven’t taught like this before. And there are so many more variables which will impact engagement and online learning. We need to be compassionate for the individual situations our learners find themselves in. Just like we as teachers are learning, so are our pupils. And it’s a huge, steep learning curve for them.

I’ve never met a teacher who doesn’t want the best for their pupils. That’s why so many are exhausted right now. They are constantly trying to improve the online learning experience for our young people. To support them in the best way possible. When we can’t be beside them in person, we try our very best to be there for them virtually. But it’s definitely not the same, and it perhaps doesn’t give us that instant gratification that comes from a successful face to face lesson.

I want to finish by saying that whatever you are doing, you are making impact. Young people and families appreciate the connection with teachers. They might not admit it, but in their lockdown world, these online interactions and opportunities for learning are more important than ever. Like everyone, young people are facing huge challenges during COVID. We need to be mindful of this and communicate our support. Whilst there might not be the instant satisfaction of productive period spent in school with learners, don’t underestimate the positive influence you are still having on your young people. We might not see it visibly in the same way as we would in school. It might be a while before our young people look back and realise the dedication you had to their learning by teaching a live lesson with a toddler sat on your knee. Or the late nights you committed to, to ensure the voiced over powerpoints were recorded. They might not understand initially that you encouraging them to respond in the chat or unmute to give answers might have been worthwhile learning and not just an attempt to embarrass them. But someday they might.

As the wonderful Gavin Oattes often reminds us, ‘plant trees you’ll never see grow.’ It’s often years before young people look back and realise how thankful they were to have you as their teacher. Don’t let that stop you doing your best for them this week. You have huge impact and what you are doing during this period of online learning is important and appreciated.

Hang in there if you are finding it tough. Reach out to others if it’s been a difficult day. Take confidence from the small wins. You have got this.

Learning about home learning

This week I’ve cried. I’ve felt elated when tech worked. I’ve felt overwhelmed. I’ve felt proud of myself. I’ve felt exhausted. I’ve laughed. I’ve met up virtually with colleagues. I’ve seen smiles on some of my S4’s faces for the first time in months! I’ve worried. I’ve connected with new people. I’ve been inspired. I’ve stayed up late. I’ve fallen asleep. I’ve given my own kids way too much much screen time. I’ve learned lots. Mostly by making mistakes.

But I’ve kept going because of our young people. And connecting with them to help, support or feedback makes it all worthwhile. So what are my takeaways from this week?

1. Structure works. Structure of lessons. Structure of tasks. Structure of instructions. Structure within the week. I think my own boys, and my learners respond best when we provide that structure for them.

2. Work smarter not harder. I’m trying hard to make sure the resources I’m spending time making, last longer than lockdown. Focussing on the threshold concepts, pedagogy and skills and making videos or voiceover powerpoints which can be used year after year makes investing qthe time worthwhile. Avoiding mentioning specific information which may change (SQA assessment etc) and instead instructional coaching of the knowledge, skills and process which will support pupils. The key subject knowledge and skills which will always remain important.

3. At the start of this week’s lesson, I asked learners what would make home learning better. Feedback from my learners was that they would like more quizzes and more live lessons. I’m pleased that the habit of retrieval practice in class, has been useful to them and they recognise how useful the testing effect is. Whilst part of me feels flattered that they appreciate our time online together, part of me wonders if there’s another reason they would rather attend a live lesson than go off and work independently. Is it because it’s easier to sit and listen to me than having to go off and discipline themselves to think hard? With this in mind, my lessons this week have attempted to get pupils working harder than me. Lessons involved cold calling pupils to give responses in the chat, asking pupils to unmic to answer, voting for answers using symbols in the chat, incorporating Menti tasks to build wordclouds and collaboration on tasks which make them think. So this week I’m going to try more of this. And some brief support check-ins at the start of periods to connect and set pupils off on task with a view to scaffold their independent learning before leaving them to work on their own.

Infographic by @unleashing_me Sufian Sadiq @chilternTSA

3. A toddler entering a live lesson asking to go ‘pee pee’ sometimes is more of an icebreaker than any game! And I think my pupils appreciated this visible act of being human. I hope it put them at ease. I’ve accepted that my own kids will join in with lessons, or meetings. They are being ignored and left to their own devices so much that when they do need cry out for attention, I’m going to try my best ‘to see them’ and give them what they need. And not beat myself up about it like I did last time round.

4. I have the best colleagues. When we’ve been unable to nip back and forth into each other’s classrooms as we do in person, the chat function on teams has allowed us to ask those silly questions and check things with each other easily. Everyone has just got on with our new way of working with a smile. Our online meetings are a chance to laugh and share a cuppa whilst supporting each other and working through issues together. On Friday afternoon after a tough day, I literally hugged my laptop when I heard the voice of my work bestie – and after a chat with her felt so much better. On Friday night a group of colleagues met on Zoom to laugh and it was exactly what I needed. It’s very easy to become an island during this whole period of lockdown. And with that isolation brings uncertainty, lack of perspective and worry. Connection is key.

5. This is a marathon not a sprint. We need to look after, and pace ourselves. Wellbeing is absolutely vital if we are to be the best for our young people. And it’s important that we encourage them to do likewise. The lines between work and home have blurred significantly. It’s been too easy to work through lunchtime or keep working late into the night. I’m going to try harder this week with boundaries. I need to get outside more. I need to set aside some time for me to read, watch tv or switch off.

Have a great week everyone – remember my mantra. ‘We can only do what we can do.’ And that is enough. You are enough.

It’s not what we do, it’s the way that we do it.

This has been a really strange first week of term, and that’s saying something considering back in August I thought it couldn’t get much weirder. But this week, all across the country, teachers have been working hard to prepare for home learning which will begin on Monday. It’s been a challenge, and many have understandably felt overwhelmed. It’s been really important to support each other and throughout the week I’ve seen nothing but examples of teams coming together, collaborating and just getting on with it in order to support our learners. I think it’s safe to say that this is going to be a long haul – we’ve been fortunate to have had three full days to prepare unlike many colleagues south of the border. So as we approach the beginning of home learning, I thought it might be useful to reflect on some of the research and evidence which I’ve been using to inform my approach for the weeks ahead. I fully anticipate making tweaks to my plans, as I reflect on the reality. But I’m sharing these ideas in the hope that it might be of use to someone else. Most of my approaches have come about as a result of reading the EEF’s research summary on remote learning which can be found here.

As well as this, we also consulted learners in our department about what worked for them during the previous lockdown, and will continue to survey their opinions about how things are going over the coming weeks to hear what we can do to help, support and improve things.

As always, the dichotomy of my values is never far from my thoughts. There often seems to be, unnecessarily in my opinion, an either/or situation in education. Strict or soft. Attainment or achievement. Nurture or exam results. Academic or vocational. Live or recorded. Synchronous or asynchronous. Contrary to what others believe, for me personally, these can exist alongside each other and indeed I believe it is important that they do. My high expectations and desire to deliver quality home learning experiences which pupils are expected to engage with, is positioned absolutely parallel to my need for empathy and compassion in the difficulties our young people and their families will face over the coming weeks. I find it almost impossible to separate the two as they are so intrinsically connected in my vision as to what education should be. Therefore, I feel it’s important to acknowledge the steps forward we have taken since March when we found ourself in this same situation, such as increased device provision and staff/pupil digital training in anticipation of another period of remote learning. Nonetheless I believe it’s important to recognise that there will still be difficulties. Yes we have increased expectations and things should be better than in March, but it goes without saying that there will be challenges. So here are my thoughts on this.

There has been much debate this week about live vs recorded lessons. PowerPoint versus Sway. Google classroom as opposed to Microsoft teams. But in line with my thinking, the evidence suggests that the important part is the actual learning itself not whether the lesson is synchronous or asynchronous.

“Pedagogy trumps the medium. That’s the case whether teaching is live or pre-recorded or a mix of both” Simon Cox

We know that teachers all teach in different ways, so it’s only natural that each person will have a preference for what works best for them. And that may change depending on the content being covered and the context . But what’s important is that we are still using the features of effective pedagogy to make our pupils think. With that in mind, I’ve tried to ensure that I’m providing high quality tasks which are linked to the learning which pupils will cover as part of our art and design curriculum. Try not to be seduced by gimmicks or apps which may well look good to share on social media but perhaps lack substance. Instead consider the appropriateness of the learning and how we can ensure learners can access this. I’ve encouraged staff to build pupil confidence in the first instance with straightforward tasks, perhaps recapping learning so that pupils experience success instantly. This is important as anyone who uses retrieval practice will know. The demand on thinking can be something to work towards. In art and design, we’ve had to adapt lessons and outcomes due to limited resources at home but what matters is that the task features modelling, checking for understanding, opportunities to practice and feedback. For anyone concerned about their digital skills, please hold on to the fact you are great teacher. You know your stuff and it’s no different on a digital platform. Yes there will be aspects which you will be unfamiliar with, but you are still the subject expert at what you are teaching. Take confidence from that – your pupils most definitely do.

Just as you wouldn’t overload pupils’ working memory with instructions in class, remember tasks issued online should be clear and simple too. Avoid the temptation to over complicate lessons with power-points full of text, information and graphics. Remember many of our young people may be viewing these on a small screen such as a phone, so keep it simple. Use bullet points to keep instructions short and to the point. It can be tempting to signpost young people to lots of different supports, but I would suggest drip-feeding these as needed to avoid young people feeling overwhelmed. After noticing his tweet about the impact of instructions, I have been reading about front loading in Adam Boxer’s blogpost here. He explains a front-loading instruction… ‘where you put your Means of Participation or whatever at the front of your instruction, where you anticipate the point at which a student might stop listening to you and thinking about something else (like the answer to the question) and get all the important information in before that point.’ Rather than giving them a video link, (which they will click on and rush off to watch without knowing what their focus is) then explaining you want them to look for three points about X, try swapping it over. Give the link last then they know what they’ve to look for before navigating to the resource. It’s something to bear in mind and I’ve found this really useful this week when scheduling tasks for pupils. I’m more mindful of the placement and order of the instruction, ensuring the way in which they should complete the task ie on paper, digitally, or on Kahoot all comes before the specific task or question.

For me relationships are absolutely key. But this goes way beyond the interactions that we will make online this week. Yes it will be important to check in with our young people online and give them support, conversation and let them know that we are there for them in the coming weeks. However, I would argue that the ground work for this has already been laid in the months leading to this. Many teachers are worried about how learners will engage in home learning. Whilst there are many factors which will impact this, in my opinion, if you have already built up a strong positive relationship with young people, they will be far more likely to make the effort to participate. The mutual trust and respect you have grown with them since August allows them to feel connected and safe in this new online environment, secure in the knowledge that you will be there for them. You will hopefully have built in the intrinsic motivation for learning which will be the catalyst for their home learning experience. During the first lockdown I listened to the wonderful Richard Gerver on the ‘Becoming Educated’ podcast and he spoke about considering what we want our learners to be able to do when we aren’t around. I found this really useful to consider during our time in school from August and it very much helped shaped my learning and teaching to ensure I was giving young people the knowledge and skills to be able to work successfully under their own initiative. The more we have worked to create confident, independent learners in school, the more likely they will be to cope when we aren’t right beside them in the classroom.

So assuming we have had some engagement with young people on the online platform, I think it is so important to ensure, as we would in the physical classroom, that we feedback on this. For this to be effective, pupils need to know that we will look at their work and comment on it so they can get better. As we would in class, feedback is more effective when given at the time or soon after the task so bear this in mind. And whilst it might not be possible to give instant teacher feedback on submissions, I would suggest that self-marking quizzes, quick chat comments and praise all go some way in encouraging the pupil to keep going. Pupils then know they are on the right track giving them the confidence to continue. The sooner specific teacher feedback is given the sooner the pupil knows we are invested in them working at home and the clearer the feedback, the more they will be able to move forward.

Opportunities for checking in and class interaction are important too. Learners will be missing their friends and the social side of school so I will try to build in activities which encourage discussion (breakout rooms in MS teams is good for this ) or collaborative activities encouraging pupils to share learning and peer assess work (shared documents which pupils can type in simultaneously and Padlet are both great.) Live lessons will not simply be me talking at pupils for the session. I will use the chat function to cold call pupils checking for understanding, model tasks, and integrate apps such as polls and Mentimeter to survey pupils and quiz their knowledge.

Since March, hundreds of devices have been issued to our pupils to ensure they have an ICT platform to engage in home learning. Last lockdown we became incredibly inventive about home learning tasks which used objects found around the home as we were mindful that many young people, just like us teachers, were limited with resources. In a practical subject such as art and design, that can prove difficult but using cereal boxes, loo rolls and nature made for creative outcomes. This session we were a bit more prepared. In October we issued all our seniors with a pack of drawing materials to keep at home as a precaution. It’s so important that young people have what they need to continue with their folio work. They won’t have us there beside them, so having the appropriate materials helps tremendously and relieves a little bit of stress for them instead of improvising.

And finally, the most important point. Every pupil, every teacher and every circumstance is different – flexibility and compassion is key in making this work. We understand that this will be challenging, so being human and admitting this to our learners goes some way to reassuring them that we are all in a difficult situation. Knowing our pupils, and being proactive in the support we offer will also be important. Doug lemov talks about ‘dissolving the screen’ in his book Teaching in the online classroom I think it’s important that we find ways of breaking down the limits of remote learning. Small things like face to face videos help build connection or playing music as pupils enter live lessons helps soothe the teenage brain before engaging on what can be overwhelming and uncomfortable. Reassuring learners that cameras and microphones can be switched off and encouraging pupils to interact via chat will go a long way to building confidence – remember pupils are masters of texting and WhatsApp. As their confidence builds, you can increase expectation of asking them to speak out. Again you know your pupils best, bearing in mind their challenges and finding ways to overcome these, are your superpower as a teacher. Monitoring interaction, checking in personally with families and ensuring that we offer support and understanding rather than punishment or consequences is far more likely to encourage families to persevere.

Look how far we’ve come since March 20th 2020. No other profession has undergone such extreme and complex change in such a short space of time. We can do this, because we always do. Be good to yourself, don’t ruminate when it doesn’t go to plan – it won’t all work out the way we hoped. Reach out to others – they will get you through. And remember we can only do what we can do.

Have a great week everyone – you have got this.

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