What have we been tweaking?
Our Twitter handle ‘Teacher Tweaks’ came about after we worked together as Advanced Skills Teachers. We decided that whenever we worked with people we ended up suggesting they just make small changes to their practice in order to have a big impact. We have taken some time to reflect on the small changes that we have made in our own practice over the past few years:
The language of Mindset
Carol Dweck’s book ‘Mindset’ has become a much-discussed piece in the teaching profession. We found the book very thought-provoking and the main effects have been to change the language we use. Instead of referring to pupils as ‘good at Science’ or a piece of work as ‘excellent’ , we say that a pupil has made good progress because they ‘put in excellent effort’ and ‘responds well to feedback to improve further’.
Modelling and Exemplars
Debbie, in particular, would like to think that she was pretty hot on assessment for learning. She trained at King’s College London (the home of ‘Inside the black box’) and was whole school AfL coordinator early in her career. This meant she was the queen of sharing learning intentions, co-constructing success criteria and reviewing learning. One of the areas we did realise we both needed to develop was the use of modelling and exemplars to improve students’ understanding of what they were aiming for. We realised that some of the best teachers we observed (particularly in Maths) were very good at modelling the processes that would enable learners to be successful. Mel always referred to this as ‘thinking out loud’ but feels much better referring to it as modelling now! The other area we have tweaked in our practice is the use of exemplar work. We’ve come a long way from the days of holding up a nice looking summary poster to using a range of exemplars at different levels to the even more sophisticated technique of using two or three pieces of work at a similar level to look for subtle differences.
Challenge for all
We’ve moved away from separating the terms ‘differentiation’ and ‘stretch and challenge’ to think about these aspects more holistically. It can be easy to assume that certain tasks will be too difficult for particular students, when they should have an opportunity to be exposed to more challenging tasks. We have moved to the idea of supported challenge for all, where we still provide support as appropriate, but we give students more control over the level of challenge. There may be support resources or more challenging tasks available, but students can decide when they need these different levels of challenge.
Often in lesson observation feedback, we were both told that questioning was a strength of our practice. We had our lolly sticks and random name generators to ensure all students participated and we planned our questions at different levels to enhance differentiation. It wasn’t until Debbie visited another school and saw some very impressive classroom interactions that we started to realise our questioning could be greatly improved. The teacher in question had such high expectations for the verbal responses in her classroom and wouldn’t accept an answer that was anything less than would be expected for a written exam response. Instead of accepting a partly correct answer and filling in the gaps herself, she went back to the pupil and pointed out that it needed to be a full sentence and there were more technical terms that could be used. We have since raised our expectations when it comes to questioning.
Feedback for impact
We both remember feeling very virtuous when we reflected on our marking. We spent hours giving our students detailed feedback on what was good about their work and how to improve and our marking was often highlighted as good practice examples on marking reviews. The problem was that we were working so hard, yet our students were making the same mistakes over and over and we were getting very frustrated at giving the same feedback! After tearing our hair out, we read some fantastic blog posts and realised that we needed to consider marking as planning and use it to set up tasks specifically focused on tackling the issues identified.
Revision: What really works?
We spend so much time in the classroom ensuring our pupils know the content well and often forget to teach them how to revise. The revision tips published in books and online suggest pupils make summaries, highlight key points and produce revision cards but research1 has shown that these strategies are largely ineffective. The most effective techniques are the ones that are based on pupils putting in effort to recall the information, through self-testing and spreading out revision over time to give sufficient opportunity to revisit the material on numerous occasions. This means that we give our students homework tasks to write their own quizzes on topics they have just completed as well as on past content to ensure they are constantly recapping throughout the course.
What is progress?
Finally a point about progress. We cringingly have to admit that, as ASTs, we spent time trying to share with staff how they could stop the learning process in its tracks to reflect on the ‘progress’ their students had made over the previous twenty minutes. Twenty minutes! Stopping learning! Oh dear, oh dear. Fortunately now we have come to our senses (and read a lot from people who know what they’re talking about) and realised that progress happens over much longer periods of time. This shift in our thinking has led to tweaks in our practice that mean we plan sequences rather than focusing on each individual lesson, as well as building in opportunities for students to have at least three opportunities to learn something to increase chances of memory retention2.
We intend to continue tweaking as we consider how we can improve the learning experiences and outcomes for our students. After all, as Professor Dylan Wiliam said ‘Every teacher needs to improve, not because they are not good enough, but because they can be even better.’ That sounds like a call to tweak if ever we heard one!
Mel Aberson and Debbie Light are experienced teachers who are passionate about teaching and learning. Their first book Lesson Planning Tweaks for Teachers is out now. You can find them on Twitter @TeacherTweaks and read their brilliant blog here.
1 Dunlosky et. al. 2013, ‘Improving Students’ Learning With Effective Learning Techniques: Promising Directions From Cognitive and Educational Psychology’ Available via http://psi.sagepub.com/content/14/1/4.full.pdf+html?ijkey=Z10jaVH/60XQM&keytype=ref&siteid=sppsi
2 The Hidden Lives of Learners, Graham Nuthall. NZCER Press 2007