(Sorry about the picture, Tom, it was the best one I had of you…)
Two weeks ago I attended the ResearchED English and MFL Conference which was held in the stunning Examination Schools. Since then, there are few sessions and key messages that have stuck with me and which I thought might be worth sharing.
Session 4: ‘Bridging the gap: transferring classroom knowledge to examination contexts’ by Jude Hunton (@judehunton) and Chris Peirce (@peirce_chris)
I was particularly interested in Jude and Chris’ ideas about ‘exam literacy’. They made several references to the ‘giants whose shoulders may have been bruised by repeated clambering upon’ and who have informed their approach (e.g. Willingham; Bjork and Bjork; Brown, Roediger and McDaniel; Dunlosky; David Didau).
They also shared this tweet from Tom van der Zee:
Chris made the point that classroom displays are cues in a physical context which can’t be used in exams. Perhaps, if we want students to practise recalling from memory, we need to strip back our beautiful displays and instead do what Ashlawn’s English department have done: bedeck the rooms with whiteboards. Chris talked about a range of ways in which they make use of these whiteboard walls in lessons including interrupting learning for students to move to a whiteboard and write up what they know. It’s an idea that stuck with me because we’re about to move into a new building and I’m wondering about the utility of displays. Whilst I love having a prettified classroom, and have always thought display cues a useful tool, perhaps there’s a few reasons why whiteboard walls might be a sensible idea: it reduces teacher time spent beautifying classrooms; it means that students actively engage with their learning environment and it encourages students to use their memory/practise retrieval rather than relying on context cues.
Another idea that stuck from Jude and Chris’ session was their use of regular ‘exam literacy’ sessions where classes are collapsed and put in the hall. These sessions are not simply ‘walking talking mocks’ but involve students, sat at exam desks, being led by a number of different teachers. Creating opportunities for students to transfer their knowledge in a different context was part of the reasoning behind this approach but also demystifying that experience of being in the exam hall. I know that these spaces are in demand in schools but I can see why using the examination hall as a context within which to build exam literacy makes sense.
Session 6: ‘Leading the Evidence-Based English Department’ by Lyndsey Caldwell
Lyndsey is the Head of English at Cherwell School and her session has really stuck with me and I’ve been reflecting on it a lot over the past fortnight.
I was particularly struck by Lyndsey’s PlayPumps analogy. PlayPumps are a well-intentioned idea that combines a borehole pump with a roundabout to provide water for African villages. It’s also a well-endorsed idea which is supported by the likes of George Bush, Jay-Z and DJ Mark Ronson. PlayPumps seem like a dream solution to Africa’s water problems: playing, happy children being provided with play equipment whilst simultaneously pumping clean water.
The problem, Lyndsey argued, with these well-intentioned PlayPumps was that they continued to be funded even when the data questioned their validity. They are less effective than normal pumps, children were often unavailable at times of water demand (you know… ‘cos school) and women often ended up pushing the roundabouts round themselves when a traditional hand pump would be far easier.
Lyndsey argued that there were several English play pumps – well-intentioned ideas that we thought seemed like a great idea but which were questionable. For example:
- Teacher autonomy
- Learning Styles
With this in mind, Lynsdey talked through her leadership of Cherwell’s English department in which she has: shifted an established culture of teacher autonomy and picked strategies that have the most impact on students in the long term with low impact on teacher wellbeing but high-leverage.
Some of the things that stuck with me that Lyndsey’s English team do under her leadership:
They do less better
- Lyndsey has decided that her English department ought to reduce the focus and do less, better. Therefore, they have reduced the content of the curriculum but have made it rigorous and culturally enriching. Students at Cherwell study two units per year in KS3 whereas most English departments across the country are doing anywhere from 3 to 6.
- Part of the rhythm of these two units involves a feedback lesson every fortnight. Teachers are able to manage this because they are NOT expected to mark books in the way we might expect i.e. they are not expected to write anything in a student’s book but, instead, are expected to read a class set of books to inform the feedback lesson and give whole-class feedback. Lyndsey argues it takes about an hour to read a class set of books which is a huge time saver for teachers whilst ensuring more regular feedback to inform planning and give students timely support and guidance.
- Lyndsey has reduced the variety of tasks in lessons by stripping out low value tasks entirely by asking: where’s the excellence in that task?
- The focus in lessons is discussion followed by annotation and then writing.
They manage distractions
- Lyndsey argued that she wanted to help teachers to manage distractions by moving away from a ‘quiet working atmosphere’ to silent writing.
- She argued that teenagers have such a heightened sense of self that they avoid embarrassing themselves (by, perhaps, working hard instead of chatting to their mates) and so removing the social element allows them to focus on their work.
They focus on crafted direct instruction
- Team meetings are spent modelling how to model and talking about how to explain things to students effectively.
- Lyndsey’s team film and store direct instruction videos onto YouTube for students to access.
- Lyndsey’s team model extensively and skilfully in lesson for support and challenge.
They use standardised formative assessment
- Formative assessments are placed two weeks before summative assessments to allow for a feedback lesson in between.
- Lyndsey’s team use regular low stakes knowledge tests, in particular multiple choice, the results of which they analyse (e.g. by tracking the letters given to a multiple choice question to help spot common misconceptions across a class).
I feel like Lyndsey’s session came at a crucial moment in my thinking as I’ve been reviewing our current KS3 offer (which I introduced in September) and been considering the idea of doing less but better. Her prioritisation of doing things that have a high impact on student outcomes with low impact on teacher wellbeing also struck a chord.
Session 7: ‘What Research Should English teachers Know About?’ by Carl Hendrick (@C_Hendrick)
Carl managed the graveyard shift exceptionally well by giving an engaging run through the research we English teachers should know about.
Carl referred to the Semmelweis Reflex which really stuck with me – the reflex-like tendency to reject new evidence or new knowledge because it contradicts established norms, beliefs or paradigms. Carl told us the story of Ignas Semmelweis who realised that two maternity clinics at a Viennese hospital had distinctly different maternal mortality rates due to puerperal fever: 10% in one and less than 4% in the other. The difference? In the first babies were delivered by medical students and in the second they were delivered by midwives. This led to him concluding that the medical students were carrying ‘cadaverous particles’ on their hands from the autopsy room into the maternity clinic. Semmelweis introduced hand washing which reduced mortality rates in the first clinic from 18.3% to 2.2%. The problem? His findings challenged established medical opinions and his ideas were rejected: ‘Doctors are gentlemen and gentlemen’s hands are clean’.
This made me think about teachers and institutions that are reluctant to change practice despite what new evidence is telling us. Whilst we shouldn’t change what we do on a whim, we should be reading, evaluating and implementing ideas that will make a difference in our contexts.
Carl shared this tweet from Dylan William and talked about how important Cognitive Load Theory is. He pointed out that if the cognitive load in a lesson is excessive then no learning happens. He gave us an example of a ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ extract and talked through the layers of demand put on students to interpret the text (let alone anything else). I loved his wheelbarrow analogy with regards to this – that a student, carrying a (cognitive) load in his wheelbarrow is unlikely to gain much from having a 5 minute discussion with another student about what they think the extract means. The chances are those students will put down their heavy wheelbarrows and talk about how heavy they are. Carl said there were two ways in which we could reduce excessive cognitive load: get them to know stuff and worked examples.
Carl shared an anecdote from his training in which he observed a fellow teacher delivering an ‘engaging’ lesson in which she entered the room covered by a sheet to imitate a ghost and asked students to note down their feelings. When students were asked, a while later, what they had learnt all they could remember was that their teacher entered the room with a sheet on their head because students remember what they think about. We need to stop distracting students under the guise of engaging them and, instead, focus on what they need to learn and know. Engagement is a poor proxy for learning and we cant con students into learning.
Carl’s message about what we English teachers should do:
- Read research as opposed to doing research
- Create a journal club – create a space to collaborate and reflect
- Focus less on what teachers are doing
- Defend our professional dignity from fads and gimmicks
I had a great day and came away with lots to think about – and I’ll be exploring implementing some of the ideas after I’ve thought and read some more. It was also an opportunity to catch up with some fantastic people from #teamenglish. I’m really looking forward to my next ResearcED event in Rugby on the 1st of July (though I will be speaking so we’ll see how much I’ll be able to enjoy it…).