Monthly Archives: January 2016

Can we have the important stuff now, please?

Dear colleagues at the department,

Thanks for sending out those documents about the maths exemplification. They look lovely – although perhaps in the rush to get them out before the deadline, the proof reading went a bit astray. I guess it must have turned out to be harder to put together than you’d hoped.

Or maybe, like us, for KS2 your real focus has been on the high stakes Writing exemplification that will have such an impact on schools, teachers and school leaders. Doubtless you’ve been put in a difficult position having to pull something together in such a hurry, and with such a stringent list of criteria: it must be quite a challenge to find evidence for all the aspects required, particularly as some are quite uncommon in decent writing. We share your worry on that front entirely, I assure you.

And what an operation it must be to coordinate all the efforts of relevant people within the department and outside it to try to create something that will be useful and comprehensible. You must have quite the team – and all for the sake of that one little document.

That’s not to mention the technical detail on progress measures. No wonder you’ve had to leave half of it unexplained. Who really knows what the Writing outcomes will look like until we see the exemplification? But then… you do have control over that bit too, don’t you, I suppose?

In some ways, your situation is as bad as ours. I mean, as a classroom teacher in Year 6, I don’t have to be worrying about compiling all this evidence from a range of pupils across the country to try to exemplify the expected standards.
Although… in some ways, trying to compile that same evidence for every one of my pupils, might be seen to be even more of a challenge, one might think.

Why is it, by the way, that you use evidence from different pupils’ work? Wouldn’t it be easier for you to use the work of one child? And perhaps more representative?
But what do I know?

I also don’t have the worry of coordinating lots of colleagues to reach the final product. I will have the luxury of being able to reach those judgements alone, with just your documentation for company. But don’t worry – there’ll be plenty of people to check up on me afterwards. I’ll soon know about it if I get it wrong.

By the way – what happens if the moderator doesn’t agree with the judgements I’ve made for the sample?  Sorry… I keep bothering you with questions, but… it’s just… the stakes are quite high for us.

Anyway, I should go. I’m sure you’re busy. It’s probably just like us: just before these big deadlines we end up working all hours at night and weekends. I bet you’re the same, aren’t you, trying to get everything ready for the end of the month? We all just have to work to these crazy deadlines that the department set and… oh… except… of course… you set your own, so I guess you can change them if you want. Which must be nice.

Well, I’m sure we’ll see it when you’re good and ready. At least we can be assured that if there are any “significant changes” coming up that we’d get at least a year’s notice. Although, you have to wonder… if all this isn’t significant….?

All the best

Michael


For those who are interested in the maths exemplification documents, they can be found here: KS1 and KS2

For those who think I might be a bit mean to the poor people working at the department (and you’re probably right), don’t forget my fanmail to them here.

 

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KS1 & KS2 tests – videos for parents

At my school we’re increasingly using the school website and Facebook pages to communicate with families, particularly aiming to reach those who are not so easily able to attend after-school meetings and events.

I also sometimes wonder if parents meetings don’t end up being overly long-winded because we feel that if we’ve dragged parents into school then we ought to make it worth their while coming; nobody wants to travel 20 minutes each way for a 5-minute meeting. But sometimes, 5 minutes is enough.

I have now put together two videos for parents of our children in Y2 and Y6 to give them an overview of the National Curriculum tests. I’ve stripped out the school logo, etc. and am now sharing them for anyone who wants to make use of them.

You can link to it via your school website or facebook page using the URL (https://youtu.be/nF1n1g4CePI) or the YouTube sharing tools.

EDIT – I’ve now added a KS1 video too:

Again, you can link directly (https://youtu.be/M8MjPFWRQs0), or share/download the video as you wish.

The videos are available for direct download from my Google Drive via the links here, for schools who wish to top-and-tail with their own content or school logo, etc. I do ask, though, that you leave the main body, including the final slide with my details, in tact – or contact me directly if you want to make other changes. The downloads of the full videos are available from these links:

Key Stage 1: https://drive.google.com/file/d/0BxDHhjOLp-QWeUlnSUJjTTItb00/view?usp=sharing

Key Stage 2: https://drive.google.com/file/d/0BxDHhjOLp-QWbHFRZ2FISi1aQ3M/view?usp=sharing

To download a copy for your own use, click the small download triangle at the top of the screen.

Achieve100You may also be interested in the free booklets for parents that explains the tests in more detail. These are available from the Rising Stars website at

http://www.risingstars-uk.com/Subjects/Revision/Achieve-100-KS1/Free-Stuff/The-2016-National-Tests-A-Parent%E2%80%99s-Guide

What if you never marked another book?

Whenever I speak publicly, I always highlight my key message for teachers:

Do less, but better.

It’s a principle that serves me well, and an effort to tackle the workload behemoth. And it often requires a different approach to thinking. Rather than asking ‘what can we change about what we do?’ when trying to find workload solutions, I prefer to take a more extreme starting point, as demonstrated by my tweet yesterday:

We all seem to be trying to find ways to cut corners and shave minutes off marking, without going back to the starting principles of why we bother in the first place.

My reason for posing the question was not to suggest that we do it (although I’m still not persuaded that marking has anything like a worthwhile benefit for the time cost), but to start the discussion from the opposite direction. What if marking didn’t exist? What bits would we decide to introduce because they’re so valuable?

It was partly prompted by a recent poll I did where I asked people how much of the progress their children make comes down to marking. The answers varied – perhaps unsurprisingly – between 0% and 100% and were pretty evenly spread across the range. But I quickly realised that many people were interpreting my question about “never marking” to mean “never looking at books” – which is very different.

When I posted the question in the tweet above, some people responded with joy, focusing on the time freed up for other things (notably all things that people thought would benefit children; no-one said they’d be at the pub more). But some defended marking, and these defences fell into a few common camps, which I’ll illustrate – and then challenge – with reference to a few (semi-anonymous) tweets.


Marking work shows children that you care about their work

I think marking is just about the worst way to do this. It reminds me of being told once to be more effusive in my praise in my marking. I tried, and children in my class found it “weird”. They didn’t recognise ‘me’ in the marking. And when I pushed them on it, they pointed out that when I think something is amazing, I read it aloud to everyone. I do that during lessons as I spot things, but also in later lessons. Occasionally, when everyone has done something fantastic, we make an effort to share those things more widely. That shows that I care about their work. My constant badgering as they do things shows that I care about their work. My marking doesn’t, any more than the written feedback I receive from an observation shows that my headteacher cares, more than the verbal feedback does.

Marking is about making sure they do the work to the standards you want.
(Else, most children would think “why am I bothering?”)

Again, marking is too late to do this. Looking over their shoulder in the lesson is the time to pick up on this – not after the event. Especially not when sometimes it can be days after the event. And are we really still so far from growth mindsets and intrinsic motivation that we believe that without feedback our children will sign out completely? Is there any greater failure in education if that’s the case?

They’ve taken the time to do the work, so I should take the time to mark it

This is a non-argument for me. I took the time to plan the lessons  so they should do the work set in it. Schooling is not about quid pro quos, and teaching shouldn’t be about offering kids rewards for playing their role. I’m only interested in spending my precious time and effort on things that will benefit the children, not appease them.

Children like to have their work marked

I agree to an extent on this one – although it’s far from universally true. I think more often kids like the praise. They also learn that the correct answer to give when asked is that “marking helps me to know how to improve”. Ask upper KS2 kids and that’s what they’ll tell you. Ask them secretly if that’s what they really think, however…
Children are essentially teacher-pleasers in many cases, and if they think we value marking, then so will they. When I was at school we valued the work that went on the wall more than what went in our draft books. It’s just what we’d been trained to value.


Interestingly, nobody said “children would make less progress”, or that learning would be affected or anything like that. And plenty of people – perhaps a small majority – offered arguments on the other side of the coin:

[stopping marking] would have almost zero impact on pupil progress. I genuinely believe that.”

“As long as you look at every book and then make notes/adjust planning for the next lessons, no loss would be had by no marking”

“My children would still make and show progress, even without the evidence of marking and feedforward”

“Planning would improve and consequently so would outcomes for children.”

“I would still give all the verbal feedback I do now and kids would still learn. I would have more of a life.”

“I probably wouldn’t be on my way out of teaching. It’s the biggest pain about the job. There’s too much & most is pointless”

I would add, that I don’t actually think I’d argue for never marking a book again. I think there is benefit in using written recording sometimes – particularly with older children – for conveying messages about learning. Most of the benefits are about practicalities of conversing with all children. There are also some advantages of recording feedback to children in a more concrete form.

However,  I do sometimes wonder if we’ve gone so far to the other extreme that the negative impacts are actually worse than if we had no marking at all in many cases. If teachers were forced to mark less and plan more, I think the curriculum would be more effective and then outcomes would be stronger all round. I think if teachers were expected to spend time looking at, rather than writing on, work and using that information to adjust teaching, then progress might be better in many areas. I think that if teachers were allowed to focus on real scrutiny of a smaller number of pupils, then we might find disadvantaged pupils more able to close the gap.

And what’s more, I think that if teachers really had to prove to me that marking in their books was clearly having impact – not just “making kids do stuff”, but actually lead to gains in their learning – then many would struggle, despite reams of dialogue and coloured pens.

But if we’re trying to reduce workload and marking is an area of focus, then why not imagine all marking were scrapped… and then think which bits would you be arguing to bring back in, rather than trying to shave edges off what we’re already doing. We might be surprised.

Do Less, But Better.


Thinking of pointing out to me that the EEF says feedback is the most important/effective approach? Read my other recent blog: Marking ≠ Feedback

Who wrote the interim frameworks?

Just over a year ago, I was railing against the awful draft performance descriptors that had been produced through the DfE, and urging people to respond to the consultation about them decrying their awfulness.

And we did.

So the DfE/STA went back to the drawing board. I had presumed that they would seek further advice and expertise and that a shift in thinking would occur. What we ended up with was the bizarre and hastily-cobbled-together interim assessment framework. And it seems that this re-hash – with the exception of mathematics – was brought together by virtually the same people.

The DfE have today told me that the KS2 frameworks were put together by a very familiar list of consultants:

The interim frameworks were written by the following  independent drafting teams:
–       Jane Turner and David Shakespeare for Science
–       Mike Ollerton and Nigel Bufton for Mathematics
–       David Hawkes and Heather Rushton for English reading
–       Mavis Humphreys, Margaret Fennell, Alastair West and Jo Shackleton for English writing

The interim frameworks were reviewed and updated by experts for each subject area.
Final drafts were shared with groups of teachers for each subject for comment. These individuals gave support to the process at different points in the drafting timeline. Not one individual was responsible for the final version, and further internal work was undertaken by the Standards and Testing Agency once the external support had concluded.

[Italics are quoted from DfE email response] You’ll notice many of the same names in Tim Taylor’s blog from autumn 2014 about the previous incarnation of descriptors. Tim pointed out then that not one of them would be required to actually use the frameworks in earnest.

Now, we don’t get to know who the teachers were who were invited to comment, nor what their comments might have been. Personally, I have a fair few words I’d like to direct at Ms Humphreys, Ms Fennell, Mr West & Ms Shackleton for the hideous list they’ve ended up with, but perhaps I am being unkind. Perhaps the demands of the DfE/STA were too great for any common sense they shared to overcome.

It’s notable that these groups apparently each met on one day in August. A single day to construct a whole assessment system… after several months of waiting.

The thing is… I’m not even surprised by this nonsense any longer. I just wait for the next instalment each time.


 

If anybody has any contact with any of the named individuals – especially those blamed for the KS2 Writing interim assessment framework – please do point them this way: I’d love to hear a comment from them!

Marking ≠ Feedback

This has been something of a bugbear (who knew that that was a single word!) of mine for some time now.

Every time feedback gets discussed, many people go out of their way to emphasise how they have found more effective ways to give feedback to children. There seems to be widespread agreement that written comments are not the only way of giving feedback, and everyone has their method of reducing workload without sacrificing the quantity of feedback given to children.

But the focus is always on ways to reduce marking workload. It never addresses the other aspects of feedback.

Andy Tharby explains this much better in his blog than mine (so do go and read the link at the end!), but the EEF toolkit also shares some important points here.

Firstly, this most undervalued statement is its opening offer on the role of feedback :

feedback

 

Nobody ever seems to mention the second object in that sentence. And yet feedback given to the teacher is, I would argue, of far more value than that given to the pupils. After all, the teacher is both the expert, and the one in control.

More to the point, teachers spend so much time worrying about the feedback they’re giving to children that they can too quickly neglect the feedback they could be collecting themselves. Certainly it can become undervalued.

Any teacher who has observed a trainee will recognise the number of occasions in a lesson taught by a novice, where valuable information is provided by the students, but missed by the trainee teacher. That information could be in the pupils’ questions, their answers, their first attempts at a task, or even in their facial expressions or body language. Much of the art of excellent teaching is the skill of responding appropriately to this feedback. That information “about the learner’s performance relative to learning goals” is invaluable in helping the teacher to reshape the lesson.  Often, the feedback a teacher receives leads to feedback for the pupils on their progress and next steps. (Although not always in the form of marking, as mentioned in my previous blog “Hidden Feedback“)

A good teacher might respond to hundreds of pieces of such feedback in  a day.

And then there’s the marking. Or rather, there’s the opportunity to look at the work the students have completed.

Naturally sometimes there are opportunities for further feedback to be given to the children, and so written comments, or codes, or videos, or highlighters – or all manner of tricks of the trade might be useful. But the most important feedback here, once again, is for the teacher.

A first glance at a piece of work can tell you a huge amount. A closer reading, or scrutiny of the calculations can indicate a mass of information about the progress students have made, their misconceptions, their areas of strength and future needs. It can help to shape teaching, planning – even the whole curriculum in some cases.

But if the priority is to provide feedback for the pupils – written or otherwise – then some of these opportunities can be lost. If the teacher seeks information that can be converted into childspeak, or highlighted in some way, there is  a risk that they might overlook some of the valuable insights that are available.

Worse, if the demand for evidenced feedback is too great, then a teacher may put off even looking at the work until time allows for greater depth marking. A whole opportunity to obtain feedback has been lost. Even where shortcuts can be found – and many of them have much to recommend them – the most important aspect of feedback to be obtained from a teacher looking at books, must surely be that gleaned by the teacher that allows him or her to ensure that:

feedback2

And if written comments, or sticky dots, or pink highlighting, or a video clip, or a QR code allow you an opportunity to provide further feedback directly to the student to allow them to redirect their actions, then all well and good.

But there’s a lot more to feedback, than marking – written or otherwise!


The post was inspired in part by a #PrimaryRocks chat on Twitter, but also by the excellent post on a closely-related theme by Andy Tharby of Durrington High School, Worthing:

https://reflectingenglish.wordpress.com/2016/01/10/how-to-ensure-that-feedback-leads-to-real-learning/

 

For whom do we toil?

When I was a young(er) teacher, I learnt a few tricks of observations.

As an NQT, I knew that my mentor wanted to see a calm environment; she saw it as an indicator of the all-important behaviour management. And so I obliged.

In later years I had a Head of Year for whom I always included something that engendered good engagement – all the better if it was on coloured paper. Another subject leader rated talk partners, and so they always appeared in lessons in which I was observed.

When marking became the thing, I’d always ensure that I grouped children in my observed lessons according the work I’d marked the night before. Rarely did I do it at any other time, but it ticked the box.

And then it was progress in the lesson. So every observed lesson, I ensured that I asked children to do something at the start of the lesson (often giving them rather too little time or guidance), before teaching them some new skill and asking them to try the task again, with evident improvement clear for the observer to see.

A cynic might suggest that these things didn’t help children make progress, but rather than created the illusion of progress for the observer.

And now it’s progress over time. But I’m a cynic.

The latest craze seems to be for hot and cold tasks and the like. Now I’m sure there are many arguments for this approach in some cases, but it seems that the main reason put forward is for its ability to “demonstrate progress over time”.

It’s the drawn out version of my “progress in a lesson” trick, to show progress over a period of days or weeks. It offers the evidence on  a plate to our external judges; it stops them from ‘catching us out’ on that tickbox in the Ofsted framework.

But frankly, if an inspector can’t see progress over time by looking in books, then either there is something very wrong with the books.. or the inspector!

Progress over time is when children go from using simple multiplication facts to being able to use the standard written method.

Progress over time is children who use repetitive sentence structures in September, are showing more variety by January.

Progress over time is a well-planned curriculum that builds on prior learning and extends pupils’ experiences.

We shouldn’t be finding ways of making progress over time evident; we need to be finding ways to make progress over time happen. The evidence will come. And if that means dragging the inspector to see it, then so be it.

An opportunity to be heard at the DfE

It’s an odd business, this teaching malarkey, isn’t it? We spend a lot of time telling children how important what we’re teaching them is, but we never really know how much difference it makes. Was it that key lesson that helped them reach level 4 “the expected standard”? Did your inspirational teaching lead students to study your subject at university? Might you have been the person that changed pupils’ minds about some big issue? We just have to hope that among the thousands of children with whom we come into contact, that somehow, somewhere we’re making a difference.

My year working on the DfE Teacher Reference Group was very similar. I have no idea if anything I said in those hallowed halls made the slightest difference to what happens inside the department. I couldn’t say whether the collective wisdom of some excellent classroom practitioners shared with the civil servants and ministers helped to save us from an erroneous decision, or persuaded the minister of something key. I just have to hope that the convening of the group at all was an indication that the DfE was at least interested to hear teachers’ views, even if they don’t always like them. (And I’m quite certain that they didn’t always like the views expressed at the meetings I had with some great teachers there).

I like to think that they disbanded the last Teacher Reference Group just to get rid of me, but the truth is that the initial incarnation was not built from a fully open competition for places, and it does make sense for that to happen.

The DfE is now looking for an unspecified number of classroom teachers to offer an ear and some wisdom to the great and the good at Sanctuary Buildings, and they’ve only given you a couple of weeks to get your application in!

You must be a practising classroom teacher – not a member of any senior leadership team – and teaching a timetable of at least 60%. Other than that, it appears to invite applications from a cross-section of school types, sectors, regions and even urban/rural settlements. Supply and travel costs are covered, just so long as your headteacher is happy for you to take up to 5 days absence in a year to attend the meetings.

So go on – I urge you to put in an application. If only for the fact that if you’re reading my blog, you’re quite likely to be the sort of person who’s interested enough in the big picture of education to be a valuable voice that the DfE would benefit from hearing!

Application details and forms are here:

https://www.contractsfinder.service.gov.uk/Notice/0b744c11-99ab-45a0-9e52-641c448ccbd7

Closing date is the 22nd of January, so don’t dilly-dally!