The Towers Staff Blog
As part of our commitment to promoting a culture of research and professional curiosity amongst our staff, we have created a Teaching and Learning blog. The entries are written by teachers at the school and we invite parents and students to read them in order to further understand our vision and priorities.
The Importance of Closing the Gap
The key idea behind our policy of ‘Closing the Gap’ is figuring out what the students don’t know and teaching them it. I don’t think anyone would disagree with that in principle...
Sometimes, as teachers, we don’t see the obvious; we do things because it seems like the best way and we simply don’t question it. Well, I think that marking is one of those things. It simply became an assumption that, the more you wrote in the student’s book, the better and somehow, as long as they responded to it, they were learning. Well, it took a conversation with a student focus group of very honest Year 10 students to get us to relook at how we marked and gave feedback. One of the students commented that being told, “in your next piece of work, you could do this” did not actually tell them how to do it. They knew what it was that they were supposed to do, so if they knew how they’d have done it in the first place. Another talked about self assessment saying, “We write what we could do better but we don’t get the time to actually do it.”
Andy Tharby, talking about feedback in his own English classroom, reiterates this idea. “Let’s say I write, ‘You need to use the possessive apostrophe accurately’ in a child’s exercise book. This is only useful if: a) he already knows and understands the concept of the possessive apostrophe, and b) the feedback reminds him to use the possessive apostrophe in his future writing. If these requirements are not met, then my written feedback will not solve the problem alone. Only focussed teaching and/or sustained practice over time will lead to a genuine improvement.”
So, if not for the students, who have we been marking for? Is it because we are good teachers who work hard, therefore we drag bags of books home at the weekend? Is it our way of showing our love for the students? Well, actually, I think it is a false love - we are doing because we have been told to - or because it is ‘what we do’. As busy teachers, it can take several days between the students completing a piece of written work and the teacher being able to sit down for several hours to ‘feedback’ on the whole set of books. By the time they get the feedback, they have moved on to something else. This does not help their learning. Jo Facer, talking about marking at Michaela says: ‘The thing is, what makes the difference in their writing is the quality of the feedback and how timely it is. They don’t need feedback on a paragraph they wrote two weeks ago.
As part of the workload challenge, the Government set up independent teacher workload review groups, one of which looked at marking. They commented that ‘It can be disjointed from the learning process, failing to help pupils improve their understanding. This can be because work is set and marked to a false timetable, and based on a policy of following a mechanistic timetable, rather than responding to pupils’ needs.’
I think much of the focus on feedback and marking as a key driver for progress came originally with the best of intentions from the EEF toolkit. However, the toolkit itself defines feedback as ‘information given to the learner and/or the teacher about the learner’s performance relative to learning goals.’ The notion that feedback can equally be seen as the information that the teacher gathers in order to inform their planning is one that is often missed.
So, what have we done about this? In September, we launched our new assessment policy as a feedback policy, based on the idea of ‘Closing the Gap’ between what they should know and what they do know. Teachers gather evidence about student progress through a variety of means, starting with the most immediate, in the lesson while it is taking place. If teachers do give specific feedback on an extended piece of work, the marking is coded with each code representing a specific gap. When the teacher has gathered sufficient evidence, they will teach a ‘Closing the Gap’ lesson which is planned around the individual needs of the students in front of them. Instead of spending their time marking, we want teachers to spend their time planning, so that our students will know how.
To take it to its simplest, we are figuring out what they don’t know and teaching them it. I don’t think anyone can argue with that.
Workload Challenge - Eliminating Unnecessary workload around marking.
By Tara McVey
The Importance of Revision and Review
What does learning look like? Focus? Quiet concentration? Engagement? Answering questions? Lots of writing? Well, while these things are reassuring and look lovely, they are simply the things that we can see; they do not equate to learning because learning, in itself is invisible.
Even a learner finds it difficult to know when they are learning. Robert Bjork talks about the idea that both teacher and student can be fooled into thinking that the kind of teaching that improves understanding and ‘performance’ during a lesson will therefore lead to long term retention when the opposite is often true. ‘Manipulations that speed the rate of acquisition during instruction can fail to support long-term retention and transfer, whereas other manipulations that appear to introduce difficulties and slow the rate of acquisition can enhance post-instruction recall and transfer.’ So, there are cases where the teacher feels as though the student has ‘got it’ in the lesson, and the student feels as though they know it and yet, the research shows that they won’t actually remember it.
In ‘Why Don’t Students Like School’ Daniel Willingham introduces the idea that we don’t like thinking hard - but that we need to think hard in order to remember. He states that memory is the ‘residue of thought’. But, as humans, we will avoid thinking if possible. The problem is, therefore, that we like things that make us feel as though we are learning without having to actually work too hard.
In ‘Make it Stick - The Science of Successful Learning’, the authors talk about the ‘illusions of knowing. They pick up on the idea that we are ‘poor judges of when we are learning well and when we’re not’ pointing out that we, as learners, prefer strategies that feel fruitful and fluent such as re reading information and massed practice. These make us feel as though we know the information. Students tend to overestimate how well they’ve mastered class material - because when something has been explained fully to them, the ease with which they grasp it makes it feel as though they understand it - and even know it to the point whereby they don’t think have to study it.
And, unfortunately, when students do study, they don’t always use the best techniques, preferring instead the false feeling of familiarity that comes with simply rereading a text lots of times. They feel good about the time they’re spending; parents, seeing them studying, feel good about the work they’re putting in. Pupils become familiar with the material and fluent in reading it - but they don’t actually know it. However, the discovery that they don’t actually know it can come too late - in fact, just after the words: ‘You may begin.’
One solution that the authors of ‘Make it Stick’ offer is retrieval. By this, essentially, they are talking about using testing as a learning tool. And they qualify the retrieval by talking about ‘effortful retrieval’ which ‘makes for stronger learning and retention’. ‘We’re easily seduced into believing that learning is better when it’s easier but the research shows the opposite: when the mind has to work, learning sticks better... After an initial test, delaying subsequent retrieval practice is more potent for reinforcing retention than immediate practice, becaused delayed retrieval requires more effort.’ They point out that ‘giving students corrective feedback after tests keeps them from incorrectly retaining material they have misunderstood and produces better learning of the correct answers.’
Professor John Dunlovsky of Kent State University also recommends testing (including student self testing) as a revision tool, pointing out that, ‘more than 100 years of research has yielded several hundred experiments showing that practice testing enhances learning and retention.’ He is talking about low stakes recall type testing including the use of flashcards. They other technique championed is the idea of ‘distributed practice’ based on students coming across the material to be learned on more than one occasion ‘such as when students review their notes and then later use flashcards to restudy the materials, or when a topic is covered in class and then later studied in a textbook.’ So rather than studying a single topic for a number of hours in order to revise, a student would be better off even using the same amount of time but spreading out the learning across sessions which would benefit long term retention.
So, how are we using this understanding at Towers? Well, every lesson begins with a review task - which, at times, is based simply on the previous lesson and, at other times, on lessons which have been taught long before. We use low stakes testing in lessons to reinforce learning. We run revision sessions for Year 11 students which teach them how to self quiz. We have invited the parents of every year group into school to explain the ideas behind it, to share our understanding of how to reinforce learning, of how to move something from our short term memory to our long term - but then be able to access it when required. Our subject staff have been given joint planning time to work together on creating curriculum revision lessons that draw on these ideas.
We have plans to keep working on it and to keep building on the ideas that are out there - because our students deserve to know how to become the best that they can be. And that’s exactly what we’re trying to do.
By Tara McVey
The Importance of Routine
It is an accepted truth that students like clarity, fairness and boundaries. Without boundaries, they feel less safe and secure, without fairness they feel unmotivated and without clarity they don’t know how to do the right thing. It is also true that every parenting book ever written will, at some point, talk about catching them being good, about promoting positive behaviour. I think being clear about expectations, including classroom routines, allows students to know how to be good.
It also gives clarity to parents and they know that they will be getting the same message from every teacher their child has and every senior member of staff that they speak to. Parents may not always agree with what we do, or how we do things but the strength of the same message being delivered day after day will earn respect and mutual understanding.
Tom Bennett, at the start of the Spring term, blogged about this, focusing on the need for class routines and getting students to practise them until they got them right. Well, I believe we can go even further, because, if the entire school, every teacher in every classroom, has the same expectations and uses the same language, we achieve utter clarity. No student should ever get into the situation where they do the wrong thing unknowingly. Every student, everywhere, will practise those routines every day.
In ‘Teach Like a Champion’ Doug Lemov’s 30th Technique is ‘Tight Transitions’. By transitions, he means times when students move from place to place or activity to activity. He points out that when they’re in transition, they’re not learning and says that transitions have ‘an immense if generally underacknowledged influence on the learning that happens before and after.’ If we can cut a minute apiece from the transitions that take place in our school each day, and sustain that improvement for 190 school days, practically speaking, we would add a week’s worth of learning to our school year.
So our routines at Towers have clarity. We expect students to line up and enter in silence, using ‘Entry 1...2...3’. We expect them to start work immediately on their review activity. We expect STAR behaviours from everyone, using this language to reinforce and be consistent. We exit in a structured way using ‘Exit 1...2...3’. Students walk on the right in school buildings. Our boundaries are clear, are shared and are used by every teacher in every room. Students know exactly what they need to do in order to do the right thing. We are consistent and we are fair.
It takes effort, repetition, constant reinforcement. But it’s working.
An extra week of learning - That has to be worth it.
By Tara McVey
The Importance of Standing Together
Our Principal has used a mantra frequently when talking to parents: “If it’s not good enough for my children, it’s not good enough for yours” and I think this is our starting point for expectations. What do you want for your children? I want mine to be well behaved, to be nice to people and to work hard. But, if I’m honest, I want more than this: I want them to be articulate and eloquent and to care and I know they will only become like that, if that is what they are taught, if that is what is expected of them. At Towers, we are strict because we care.
Why do teachers do what we do? And I know it is not a fashionable response perhaps - or it’s a little cheesy for some - but we do it out of love. We love our students and our school. And we believe. We believe in our school, in our children, in our teachers, in ourselves.
In a meeting at school, we talked about the ‘The Straight Story’. This is a film about a man who rides across America on a ride on mower to see his estranged brother (more heartwarming than it sounds!) Anyway, on the way he encounters a runaway and talks to her about family. As one person, you are like a single stick: vulnerable and easily broken, but a bundle of sticks - that’s family. You can’t break that. That is what our school is - the bundle of sticks who together cannot be broken.
On a visit to Michaela School in London, we saw in action their sense of purpose, the idea of all the staff rowing together in the same direction. This clarity of vision is not simply about words, or a ‘big picture’ ideal. Their clarity of vision feeds right down to the detail. In the school’s recently published book, Sarah Cullen has written a chapter entitled ‘The Devil is in the Detail’ seeing details as ‘thousands of tiny opportunities to question the status quo and possibly do things better.’ Rather than seeing detail and relentless consistency as bureaucratic or unnecessary, she states that, ‘when every last detail is thought of, nothing but teaching and learning in its purest form is left. For new teachers, constructive feedback is given for almost every lesson, concerning details as fine as the amount of time given in a countdown for books to be handed out. Erosion of the school’s culture on any level - by pupils or staff - is addressed swiftly and succinctly, always with a clear focus on just what is at stake if standards fall, or any small detail is ignored.’
And what is at stake? Well, we know that students actually like boundaries. It is a mantra of our school that not only do we believe that every child wants to learn but we also believe that every child wants to behave. We just have to be clear about teaching them how, about what that means, about letting them know that we are strict because we care.
It bears repeating: we are strict because we care. We know that to have high expectations of pupils is to have high expectations all the time, no matter what. We are all human and there are days when something has happened which means that you don’t feel like working hard, you don’t feel like being nice. But you do. Because it is right. A reason is not an excuse, not for us or for any pupil. To make allowances for behaviour that is just not acceptable is to let them down. Because, in the end, you wouldn’t let your own child do it. Out of love, your own children are expected to behave well, work hard, wear their uniform with pride, be polite. So, out of love, at Towers, we stand together and are consistent because we expect the same of our pupils. Because to expect any less of them is not fair.
So, we work tirelessly for consistency. Because on the day when you are tired and it seems like more effort to pick up on the student who calls out in class than it is not to correct them for it, on that day, you are not doing it for yourself. You are doing it for the teacher next door, the one who has them next, the one down the corridor who will issue the correction for that behaviour. We are the bundle of sticks who cannot be broken. We are all in it together.
By Tara McVey
The Importance of Knowledge-Led Curriculum
‘You are to be in all things regulated and governed,’ said the gentleman, ‘by fact. We hope, before long, a board of fact, composed of commissioners of fact, who will force the people to be a people of fact, and of nothing but fact.’
Facts. Somewhere amongst the VAK and the discovery-based learning, facts fell out of fashion. During the second half of the twentieth century, the Dickensian notion of a factually dense education with its whiff of repression and child cruelty gave way to one of discussion and discovery. So called ‘progressive’ educational theories, such as those inspired by Vygotsky, Kagan and Montessori, vehemently eschewed the didactic ‘chalk and talk’ style of teaching many of our parents (and some of us!) grew up with. It was decreed that teachers would henceforth be known as ‘facilitators’ who would sit back and let learning happen. Students would work in groups and discuss. Answers would be discovered through trial and error. The individual learning style of every student would be taken into consideration and teachers would not stand at the front of the classroom droning out facts, Gradgrind style. Learning became fun, posters were created and classrooms were noisy and colourful. But did it work? Research suggests not.
However, the times they are a changin’. Kirshner’s work on fully-guided instruction is clear that decades of research tells us that direct, explicit instruction for novices is more effective and efficient than minimal guidance methods. Other educationalists and schools alike have realised that a knowledge-dense curriculum, rich in historical dates, times tables, rigorous spelling tests and scientific formulae learned by rote is the best gift we can give our students. At Towers, we are embracing the return to the old ways. In the English department, the shift started a few years ago when we created our Grammar for Writing scheme of work. Realising that some of our sixth formers were still struggling to write accurately at length, we taught a sequence of lessons that focused on the differences between adverbs and adjectives, on building multi-clause sentences and on using semi colons accurately. We taught it to every year group. Was it the most fun the students had ever had in their English lessons? Probably not. Did it work? Absolutely.
Visits to schools such as Michaela have reminded us that we, as teachers, are the experts. Our collective education, the degrees and postgraduate qualifications we have accumulated between us, make us the best people to feed the young minds who sit in front of us for five hours a day. Using my nine year old son as a research case proved useful. Desperate to learn how to rainbow flick (a football trick involving trapping the ball between both legs, rolling it up the back of the right leg with the left foot before flicking it skilfully over the head), he convinced me to let him watch a Neymar tutorial on Youtube. Learning the steps from an expert before practising for hours in the garden resulted in the skill being mastered. Could he have worked it out by himself? Maybe. Eventually. But being explicitly taught by an expert was by far the quickest and most effective way of learning.
At Towers, as a result of our new vision, students sit in rows, they knowledge check in silence and are regularly tested on the facts they have been taught. Research reveals that without regular revisiting and testing, knowledge is forgotten. We believe that regular testing, quizzing and exams, with supporting guidance on how to revise, ensures that knowledge is firmly embedded and stored in our students’ long term memory.
Other next steps involve rebuilding our curriculum and providing subject teams with the precious time they need to create challenging, ambitious, knowledge-led schemes of work that will ensure our students can compete with their peers from selective and independent schools, with young people from the most privileged of backgrounds, to hold their own at university and on their future career paths. As Joe Kirby, English teacher at Michaela, reminds us in his chapter of the school’s book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers, ‘the consequence of reducing the knowledge taught…is an entrenchment of the gaping achievement gap between richer and poorer pupils’. We don’t want a student’s socioeconomic background dictating his or her future. We want all of our students to achieve and to excel.
So, is it working? Well, experiencing a challenging year 9 class chorally reciting the accurate spellings of words such as pernicious, vengeance and onomatopoeia is evidence enough for me that we’re going in the right direction.
AP: Teaching and Learning
The Importance of Active Shakespeare
At the start of the academic year, Towers was awarded the accolade of becoming a Royal Shakespeare Company Associate School – with this new title we have embraced the opportunity to embed, within our Key Stage Three curriculum, active and shared approaches to the teaching of Shakespeare.
Through our study of Shakespeare, our English classroom has become a rehearsal room and our students transform into the actors. Together, the class deconstruct the works of Shakespeare through shared learning, exploration and discovery. In line with our school vision for a traditional education and academic rigour, the Active Shakespeare lessons challenge ALL students to become participants and readers, regardless of ability. Notably, you cannot be a passive learner when exploring Shakespeare’s language within collaborative study.
The benefits of studying Shakespeare this way are vast; students gain a deeper understanding of the text, which is open to interpretation; students are free to act openly and playfully with their language and bodies. Young children today have such regular access to multimedia and technology, that it is powerful to see a collective act of imagination, when bringing to life the world of the play. The class has a shared purpose and work through tasks to discuss, speculate and question some of the themes, ideas and perspectives within A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Tempest and many more of Shakespeare’s plays. An improved level of critical thinking has arisen through this method of study as the students are intellectually challenged and no longer afraid to inquire. As engaged co-creators, students inhabit the world of the play, grappling with the themes and ideas. Outcomes from active lessons show an astounding level of personal interpretation; students are sophisticated in both oracy and written analytical responses.
Each term, I am impressed with the retention of knowledge that students gain from active study. To open my final Year 7 lesson last term, we began to play a simple knowledge checking activity. As a ball was thrown around the circle, students must accompany the catching of it with a reference to our play of study, A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Beginning as a recalling of character names, the game quickly developed into a recital of some of the key speeches from the play. With miraculous fluency, these wonderful Year 7 students were able to passionately deliver lines from the play, some of which we had studied five weeks previously. As the competition heightened – don’t repeat something that has already been said or you will be out – students recalled more and more obscure and detailed lines. Not only that but they spoke them with gusto and confidence which well surpassed their years.
Our active programme extends beyond the classroom setting. Within our enrichment curriculum, a committed group of students meet weekly to rehearse and explore scenes from Shakespeare’s plays. Not only performing to their families at school, our students have recently, in collaboration with the Marlowe Theatre and Royal Shakespeare Company, performed to the public as part of the Tempest: By the Sea production in the local community of Folkestone. An active approach to Shakespeare is bringing new cultural experiences to Towers School.
Soon, some of our students will be following in the footsteps of many celebrated actors, plying their multitudinous new skills on the stage of The Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-Upon-Avon. Furthermore, we are excited to see these skills transfer across disciplines and into the social and personal repertoires of our young players. After all, ‘all the world’s a stage’.
Rex Gibson- Teaching Shakespeare: A Handbook for Teachers
The RSC Shakespeare Toolkit
Ayanna Thompson & Laura Turchi - Teaching Shakespeare with Purpose
Fiona Banks- Creative Shakespeare: The Globe Education Guide to Practical Shakespeare