This much I know about…teaching students how to plan stonkingly good essays!

I have been a teacher for 25 years, a Headteacher for 10 years and, at the age of 49, this much I know about teaching students how to plan stonkingly good essays!

The art of essay planning is difficult to learn. Too many students get to A level and claim that they’ve never been taught how to write essays and that they don’t like to plan, I just write it.

Maybe too many students can’t plan essays well because they have never been taught how to do it well. Teaching the art of essay planning is often a case of training students to:

Underline the key words in the title;
“Thought-shower” their ideas;
Group together similar ideas;
Take each group of ideas as a paragraph;
Put the paragraphs in order;
Write the essay…

all underpinned by the ubiquitous PEE paragraph structure: Point-Evidence-Explanation. The odd  Mind Map might be thrown in amongst the spider diagrams. Of course I generalise, but I bet I’m not far off the mark.

Sometimes in teaching you have a moment of originality. As I write that line I realise that when I publish this post dozens of readers will add a comment which will point out they had my moment of originality way before I did. No matter; I’ve never come across this idea before and that’s good enough for me.

Work backwards from the finished artefact in order to understand how it was constructed and replicate the writer’s original essay plan. To help my Theory of Knowledge IBD students learn the art of essay planning I presented them with a beautifully crafted essay and asked them to uncover the author’s essay plan. The essay is written by Magdalena Lomacka from the American International School, Vienna and is one of 50 exemplary Theory of Knowledge essays available from the IBO website. The essay title, Compare and contrast our approach to knowledge about the past with our approach to knowledge about the future, invites open, rambling responses and such a response would gain very few marks. Now, the essay is restricted to 1,200-1,600 words and anyone who writes seriously realises that’s very few words to shape a response to such an open essay title. But such a constraint is a real advantage; such a constraint means the writer has to waste not one word. Magdalena’s essay isn’t word perfect; however, if you work away at the essay like an archaeologist works away at a delicate structure hidden in the ground, you’ll unearth a priceless literary treasure.

In a well-planned essay you will find its argument summarised in about ten sentences. I asked the students to use a dreaded highlighter pen to identify the key sentences which, when strung together encapsulated the essay’s argument. Again, I imposed a limit of no more than a dozen sentences. Here’s the essay reduced from 1,600 words to fewer than 400 words:

In order to compare and contrast our approach to knowledge about the past and the future, I shall consider the methods and limitations of understanding them through the study of history, science and the arts.

If essential information regarding the same event varies depending on location and the time period in which it is studied, we must ask to what extent we really depend upon history to give us the truth. Yet being acutely aware of one’s history is so important, because from it we can extract wisdom valuable for making new decisions and predictions. [However] the limitations of forecasting include not only those already associated with attaining the knowledge of the past, but also the practical issues that can arise in the future and that currently simply cannot be accounted for.

However, more precise forecasting seems to be possible by means of science, as scientific method allows us to make predictions that must be true if specified conditions are justified. In order to say that I know [something scientific], not only do I have to completely rely on the authority that has made the conclusion, but also assume that all its underlying assumptions are correct. Our approach to the knowledge of the future also relies on the predictions made by scientists, but these, just as the theories discussing the past, tend to alter due to new insights and are hard to rely on due to complexity.

Having discussed the methods and limitations of history and science, it is valid to discuss a more imaginative approach to our knowledge of the past and the future. [Human achievements] would never have happened were it not for abstract ideas of creative minds; in that sense, our creative approach to knowledge about the future creates it.

Ultimately, just as in history we use reason to assess evidence and try to limit emotional and cultural bias, so does scientific method aim to obtain objective knowledge of the past and the future. A final distinction could be made by the means of emotion, as our approach to the future can possibly be that of hope and determination to shape it.

It’s a beautifully constructed argument; these 355 words are the essay’s thread and taken almost verbatim from the original essay. All Magdalena has done to complete her essay is provide specific, relevant examples to evidence her points, using a very light touch; she hasn’t got enough words to allow herself to get bogged down.

Janus

Now the students can identify two other features of the text. One of the two original thoughts I’ve ever had is the concept of Janus-faced sentences. In order to signpost the argument’s thread, I teach students to begin each paragraph with a sentence which looks back to the previous paragraph’s point and forward to the next point in this new paragraph. Magdalena’s essay contains a number of such sentences which help build the skeleton of her argument:

Having discussed the methods and limitations of history and science, it is valid to discuss a more imaginative approach to our knowledge of the past and the future.

Furthermore, at word/phrase level there are a number of lexical choices which help the reader to follow the argument: in order to; if; yet; however; also; having discussed; ultimately. This close level of analysis focuses students even more intently upon the art of arguing a case.

Exemplify each point and you have the plan. Nailing the argument-thread in 355 words means that Magdalena has 1,244 words left to write about the well-chosen examples which evidence her key points. At this point the students are set the task of writing the essay plan, linking the key points in the argument-thread to the examples. What they end up with, having dug carefully beneath the finished artefact, is the structure which holds it together and the place where the writer began. I think Magdalena treats her examples with a beautifully light touch: Picasso’s painting of Guernica surely is not an accurate account of how many people died in the massacre or of what they looked like. What she assumes here is that the reader is on the same intellectual plane as her; she doesn’t waste precious words explaining Picasso’s Guernica, she just assumes anyone reading her essay will be familiar with the painting.

guernica-full

How can students produce truly excellent work if they don’t understand the process by which such works are produced? Reading exemplar texts is one thing; digging away to unveil the original essay plan takes the students’ understanding of how exemplar texts are constructed to a significantly higher level. Magdalena’s clarity of argument is rooted in a thorough plan; the plan means that actually writing the essay is the easy bit! I think that it is only when they have an understanding of the planning process of the best essayists can our students begin to produce work which reflects their own very best writing skills. Now, after my moment of originality, my TOK students’ first task when writing their own essays is to write their c.10 sentence argument-thread…this isn’t bad for starters:

“When the only tool you have is a hammer, all problems begin to resemble nail.” How might this apply to ways of knowing, as tools, in the pursuit of knowledge?

To what extent does inappropriate use and the limitations of the ways of knowing hinder the pursuit of knowledge? The only way to overcome indiscriminate application of the ways of knowing is through the synthesis of all of the ways of knowing when in the pursuit of knowledge. The limitations of emotion as a way of knowing hinder the pursuit of knowledge because strong emotion alters perception, can distort logic and inflame language. However courageous and brave acts cannot be explained in any other way but through emotion. Human perception is limited and therefore sense perception prevents us having a full understanding of the world. However it’s the most immediate way that we gain knowledge and it can help us to see the same patterns repeatedly which can help in the pursuit of knowledge. Reason is not always logical and therefore it can alter our understanding and knowledge making it untrustworthy which can hinder in the pursuit of knowledge. However intellectual enlightenment allows us to be consciously aware of our choices to improve our rationality. Language is flawed in as much as that it is the only way we can communicate our feelings and ideas. But what else is there? And the most sublime literature can stir emotion and capture truth. It is important that we know about the limitations of the ways of knowing in order to develop a better understanding of the world around us and become more rounded human beings with the ability to understand many different perspectives and use them to reach a reasonable knowledge of the truths of existence.

Posted in Teaching and Learning | 11 Comments

This much I know about…loving the job again

I have been a teacher for 25 years, a Headteacher for 10 years and, at the age of 49, this much I know about loving the job again.

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I do like a good aphorism. These famous lines from Mark Twain have always resonated:

Sing like no one’s listening, love like you’ve never been hurt,
dance like nobody’s watching, and live like it’s heaven on earth.

I reckon Tom Sherrington’s a modern day Twain! His liberating Tweet has a hint of Twain about it…

tom tweet

In many ways the profession’s on the front foot. I’ve just returned from two days at Ampleforth College with the leadership team thinking about developing our school and I feel empowered like never before. As a whole staff we have been asking ourselves a single question,

How do we create the conditions for every teacher to want to improve their teaching?

and over the past week colleagues have submitted their answers to that question – the result being a 10,000 word document with all the ideas we needed. We have  some more thinking to do before we present the pared down plans to our colleagues next Wednesday; in the meantime here’s my own aphorism which encapsulates the spirit of our two days’ thinking (with obvious apologies…):

Plan like no one’s observing, teach like you’ve regained your worth,
Lead like no one’s inspecting, learn like it’s heaven on earth.

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Posted in School Leadership | 5 Comments

This much I know about…the choice facing school leaders

I have been a teacher for 25 years, a Headteacher for 10 years and, at the age of 49, this much I know about the choice facing school leaders.

coasting-old4

Nearly every worthwhile thought I have is derived from something I’ve read. Written as a travelogue, Coasting describes Jonathan Raban’s single-handed 4,000 mile voyage around Britain which he made in 1982 in an old restored 32-foot sea-going ketch, the Gosfield Maid. His story takes various digressions, just as his journey does, as he mulls over his childhood as the son of a vicar in the Church of England, and the current state of Britain under Margaret Thatcher during the time of the Falklands War. It’s a great read.

All my life I have had to summon up the courage to be different. Chapter Two of Coasting is a description of the dogged insularity of the Manx, whom Raban compares to the Falkland Islanders, whilst the Isle of Man becomes a metaphor for the insularity of the larger island on which he himself had been brought up and lived up until this point. In the following extract he recalls an oft-repeated tale he hears told by the Manx fishermen…

When the Manx came to define their own national identity…they did so in entirely negative terms. What was so wonderful about being Manx? The Manx did not get above themselves.

In a fortnight of knocking about on the Island, I heard the same story three times. Each time it was told slightly differently and set in a different location, but in essence it was the same – a cogent, and depressing, statement of what it is to be an islander.

The scene is the quay at Peel, or Port Erin, or Laxey. A fisherman has just unloaded from his boat a shallow bucket full of crabs. All around the edge of the bucket, the crabs are showing their claws and trying to scramble out. A comeover* approaches the fisherman and tells him he ought to get a bigger, taller bucket, or he’ll lose half his crabs.

“Nay”, the fisherman says. “them’s all right. Them’s Manx crabs. As soon as one gets his leg cocked over the edge of the bucket, t’others all gang together and drag him down again.”

The story always ended in a wheezy burst of self-congratualtory laughter. To tell it was to demonstrate that you were a cynical Manx realist. It was a fine and flexible story. You could use it indiscriminately against Manxmen who talked about leaving the Island and going Across, against comeovers, against anyone who got ideas above his station, against anyone vain and ambitious enough to pursue an ideal of excellence which wasn’t recognised by the Island. The story in itself consituted a first-class argument for staying put and saying nowt. Either that, or be thought pretentious by the gang and get dragged back into the bucket. The tellers of the story always happily identified themselves with the gang.

*someone from the British mainland

This country’s school leaders have a choice. Do we remain Islanders or do we have the courage to pursue an ideal of excellence which wasn’t recognised by the Island?

Help shape the Headteachers’ Roundtable Education Election Manifesto. If you would like to attend the next meeting of the Headteachers’ Roundtable on 4 February 2014 at Huntington School, York, please contact k.barnes@huntington-ed.org.uk. All welcome!

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This much I know about…why putting your family first matters

I have been a teacher for 25 years, a dad for 17 years, a Headteacher for 10 years and, at the age of 49, this much I know about why putting your family first matters.

To publish this has been a tough call. After a week of talking it through with him, my son Joe agreed to me posting this article. The tipping point came when one of my closest colleagues read it and said, It MUST be published at some point soon because too many of us are working ourselves into the ground. Joe remarked that what happened to him and me probably happens to lots of people…

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An Arthur Miller Life Lesson

“People are much more similar than you think. As I go around the world and ask those I meet what matters most to them, they all say their family comes first.” So said the CEO of Barclays, Antony Jenkins, to his sixth form student audience on a recent edition of the Today programme. But I’m not sure everyone who says his or her family comes first really means it; I now know that I didn’t.

When I began blogging back in June 2012 I used the This Much I Know format, plagiarised from the Observer magazine. That first blog post resonated with many readers and had over 1,800 views in the first twelve hours. This final bullet point seemed to touch people most:

To some extent, I missed my eldest son growing up. Joe is 15 years old now and a young man. When I cuddle him I can’t believe the width of his shoulders and he squirms away as quick as he can. He thinks I’m an idiot! Read Death of a Salesman if you want to know why you should spend more time with the people you love. I taught it last year and now, whenever my sons ask me to do something, I do it, irrespective of my work.

Between 1998, when I was appointed Deputy Headteacher at Huntington School in York, and a February day in 2011 when Miller’s play awoke me, Joe morphed from a two year old toddler into a young man; metaphorically I had slept through the whole process.

We always wanted our house to be an open house. We planned for it to ring with youthful laughter. We hoped it would be a second home to all our sons’ friends. We imagined it alive with bright, young faces. But I put my work first and our dream died.

I didn’t mean to be a misery, but I know I was. I would take Joe to football on a Sunday morning when he played for the Under 9s knowing I had a Technology College bid to write. I would be moody when the kick off was delayed. I would be mad with him when he didn’t try. I felt like he was wasting my time, time when I could have been working.

When his mates turned up, I would snap at them when they were rowdy, growl at them when they had a popcorn fight in the front room, bark at them to be quiet in the early days during the rare sleepovers at ours, because I had to get up early to work. They soon grew afeard and Joe went to their houses to watch the footie, to hang out, to lark around because their folks were much more fun.

Despite the obvious signs of failure to connect with Joe, I ploughed on with my career. I secured one headship then another. Headships are all consuming things; you’re a Headteacher every minute of every day. And my designation became Joe’s vehicle for abuse. “Stop being a Headteacher” he would mutter with no attempt to conceal his contempt for me.

I justified my work obsession through the middle-class lifestyle it afforded us as a family, even though I knew that was nonsense. I ended up working even longer hours; coming home late meant I didn’t get to eat tea with my wife and the boys. In so many ways I was an absent father, though present every day. And the gulf between me and Joe grew wider.

So it was, teaching A level English on that day in February 2011, that Miller’s insight changed my life. Near the end of Death of a Salesman Willy Loman clashes with his son Biff; as they fight Biff suddenly kisses him. Willy is astounded. He says, (after a long pause, astonished, elevated): Isn’t that — isn’t that remarkable? Biff — he likes me!

We were watching the Dustin Hoffman film version of the play before we got to read the text. I’d never seen the play and so, with the students, was watching it for the first time. Biff’s kiss and Willy’s response destroyed me. I had to leave the room, weeping uncontrollably. The students were bemused whilst my colleague Jane provided me tissues in wordless confusion as I fled to an office across the corridor.

 

A myriad of different issues surfaced in that classroom: my own Postman dad’s sense of futility having spent 42 years delivering letters and dying three years before he could retire to tend his roses; my sense of failure at being unable to forge a healthy relationship with my son; the hope that Joe still loved me.

The next lesson I took my father’s alarm clock into class – the same despised alarm clock that had rung him out of bed at 4 am every working day – and talked about it as an objective correlative for my relationships with both my father and my son; the whole sense that we can waste time without choosing and once it has passed, it’s passed. How I wanted for my son something wonderful and I felt I’d mucked the whole thing up.

As I said in that original blog, I decided that day that if either son ever asked me to do something I would do it, no matter how much work I had and I’ve stuck to that principle fiercely. It’s meant me going to bed later, getting up earlier and doing some work stuff just well enough, but that’s OK – the school’s doing fine. Consequently, since that moment in my English class nearly three years ago, my relationship with Joe has, to a great extent, healed.

And last night the 17 year old Joe had his mates round. They commandeered the front room, played cards to awful music and laughed like we’d wanted them to laugh all those lost years ago when, before Arthur Miller taught me a life lesson, I’d have claimed to have been one of those Antony Jenkins types who always put their family first.

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Posted in Other stuff, School Leadership | 206 Comments

This much I know about…resisting the misery of life in our schools

I have been a teacher for 25 years, a Headteacher for 10 years and, at the age of 49, this much I know about resisting the misery of life in our schools.

weight-of-world-2

It seems that there are many people working in our schools feeling pretty miserable. It appears to me that such attritional conditions have become all too common place due to school leaders being unable to shoulder the pressure of external accountability on their own; instead they find themselves unwittingly passing that pressure onto SLT who, in turn, pass that pressure onto Subject Leaders who, in turn, pass on that pressure to their teaching teams. Too many schools are toxic places. Back in October, just for a moment, the whole thing got to me too:

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I’m not being critical of my school leader colleagues. The thing is, I’m sure school leaders realise that the best thing for students is a happy, motivated staff.  But it’s bloody hard to resist the relentless pressure: it drives some Headteachers to do things that, if they thought about it, they’d be appalled at; apparently, some Headteachers are observing assemblies OFSTED-style, which seems both mad and sad to me. There again, the football manager syndrome means that you are only as good as your last set of results. @Chocotzar gets it right in her(?) latest blog post when s/he says: I’d have never dreamed when I started that HTs would be on £100k+ salaries, accompanied by the cut throat longevity of a Spurs Manager. And I don’t like it. I don’t think I want to be one of those Heads that are rarely in schools, completely strategic (from a distance) and then sacked when a DfE missive changes the goalposts. I recall with great sympathy a colleague Headteacher saying to me last year that he was sick of being accountable for what 1,600 people – the staff and students in his school – say they are allegedly doing (or not doing).

Go beyond the data. I was in a meeting recently when I expressed my frustration at being unable to weave careers education through the curriculum in any meaningful way. A colleague Head was incredulous that I should be having conversations with Subject Leaders about such a thing; according to him the only thing he talks about with Subject Leaders is student progress data. I tried to explain that if he was to get the teaching and learning right – including the curriculum – the data would largely look after itself, but he was having absolutely none of it. The way he spoke at me was filled with vehement derision and was a clear manifestation of the pressure upon Headteachers.

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It’s worth recalling Mike Hughes’ perceptive aphorism: The most effective leaders seem to have erected a sheet of polaroid across the school gate: all the confusing, paradoxical and frustrating initiatives hitting the school, as they pass through the polaroid, emerge as parallel lines, harmonious with our plans and processes. Keep things in perspective and Hold Steady.

Read Tim Brighouse when your working world seems a lousy place: his How successful head teachers survive and thrive is an inspiring read.

brigshaw cover

Tom Sherrington is an inspirational force in education. His latest post, Ten reasons to love teaching, is a welcome injection of positivity.  Imagine there was no OfSTED, no league tables, no SLT… just you and your class..what would you choose to do to make it GREAT? Do that anyway…

Concentrate on people. Love is a leadership word.  This is a line from the post 20 Things all Great Organizational Leaders Do. As a Headteacher it’s worth comparing your leadership traits against this checklist.

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Defensive pessimism works for me. I was delighted when my sister sent me this Now article a few years ago – it defined my approach to life! Reflecting on the darker side of things can allow for greater self-acceptance and self-esteem, better health and an enhanced ability to handle life’s challenges. All this helps the defensive pessimist to make lemonade out of life’s lemons, precisely because they embrace the sour bits.

Now magazine-page-0

What’s good for our students is good for us toofor instance:

We know students perform at their best when they feel safe, happy and academically challenged. We know this to be true, so why not the same for the teachers in our schools?

We know students respond best to feedback when there is no grade, just constructive commentary. We know this to be true, so why not the same for teachers when we observe them teach?

Perhaps, as school leaders, we have forgotten what it is like to have fun. I love this Smirnoff advert from 2002…

 

Maybe we have lost what it means to be carefree like a child. Holly Forshaw was a wonderful student with a special spirit at whose funeral I spoke eight years ago. She never had the chance to lose what it is to be a child. In her Memorial Book one of her friends wrote, Who is going to dare us to be wild now? In the spirit of Holly, my challenge to school leaders for 2014 is to dare to be wild now and then – I reckon it’ll do you and your colleagues all a bit of good!

I really like it when you speak like a child
The crazy sayings like “I’m so free and so wild”
You have to make a bargain with me now
A promise that you won’t change somehow
No way, no how…

Nothing lasts with age, so people say
But I will always try to feel the same…

Posted in School Leadership | 14 Comments

This much I know about…the lack of space for student flair in our examination system

I have been a teacher for 25 years, a Headteacher for 10 years and, at the age of 49, this much I know about the lack of space for student flair in our examination system.

I’ve never used a course text book. I’ve taught English for a quarter of a century and designed all my teaching materials. I will be looked upon dimly by Liz Truss MP, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Education and Childcare, who emerged recently as an avid fan of text bookswhen speaking to an audience of publishers.

Just teach the subject well. I began teaching in a sixth form college with five A level groups in my first year. I loved it! In those days I believed (with the idealism of youth, quite rightly) that examination success would be a by-product of teaching students to be active readers of literary texts.

Today the mark scheme is god. Teaching Economics A level has been a slightly depressing experience. It’s hard not to be reduced to teaching to the specification. And students are dismayed by this emphasis upon teaching to the examination mark scheme rather than teaching the subject. Recent student Harry Cunningham, writing in the Guardian, reflected upon his education under Labour and then the Coalition, saying, Throughout my time at school, but particularly during my GCSEs and A-levels, I was constantly frustrated by the emphasis on assessment and marking. The entire system seemed geared towards the end result: the grade rather than the content, and this inevitability led to a feeling I would have been better off going home to study independently. Sadly, I can identify with Harry from the Economics teacher’s perspective.

OCR and Heinemann have a close relationship in Economics A level. I’m sure their relationship is an example of some sort of market structure described in these text  books…

AS eco front cover

a2 cover

Here’s the deal…It costs £78 to enter one student for the full four unit OCR A level Economics. The OCR endorsed Economics text books cost £43.25. Everything you need to know about Economics to gain an A* in the OCR A level Economics examination is contained in those two books. Pay OCR/Heinemann £121.25 and they will see how much of the OCR endorsed Heinemann text books a single student can regurgitate. The relationship between OCR and Heinemann is surely unhelpful in developing talented, free-thinking economists.

The examination system has become a reductive process. I know the text book is just the content and the examination tests understanding and application, but the OCR Economics specification/OCR endorsed text book connection is very close. Consider this tiny example to exemplify the OCR-Heinemann text book relationship. Here’s an AS level question:

Opp cost ques

Here’s the mark scheme for that question:

OCR mark scheme

Here’s the definition of Opportunity Cost from the OCR endorsed Heinemann text book:

opp cost

If you think that’s bad…here’s a 15 mark question from the January 2013 A2 OCR Economics paper:

 Question

Here’s the mark scheme:

mark scheme

And here’s the page from the text book about the elasticity of demand for labour:

PES text book 2

We live in a world where examination markers are thin on the ground: the mark schemes enable anyone with a basic understanding to mark the Economics examination papers; if they are unsure, they can always refer to the OCR endorsed Heinemann text books.

The structure of the textbook is a mirror image of the structure of the specification. Here’s the specification overview:

spec overview

Here’s the contents page of the AS textbook:

AS eco book

Here’s the contents page of the A2 textbook:

A2 contents

And here’s the Waterstones blurb for the A2 book: This is an accessible, engaging student book that is tailored to the new specification. It is complete with a range of inspiring activities for use in class, or for homework, it helps to add variety to lessons. Succinct definitions for key terms are highlighted for easy reference. Exam advice and topic-specific pointers ensure exam confidence. Full colour diagrams clearly illustrate key concepts. Real-world activities bring learning to life and reinforce understanding. Relevant, up-to-date examples are worked into the text to ensure lively, enjoyable learning. To make planning straightforward, the book includes both optional units (Transport Economics and Economics of Work and Leisure) as well as the mandatory final unit on The Global Economy.

Where is the place for a student to express flair? One of my Economics students, Luke, gained a grade C in the final Unit 5. We’ve looked at his paper and it is a superbly written response to the questions asked, but explores relevant economic content which isn’t detailed on the mark scheme and cannot be found in the OCR-endorsed Heinemann textbook. Now, with inexperienced markers who cannot exercise professional discretion, if it ain’t on the mark scheme it ain’t gonna get any marks! And Luke, by the way, was offered a $270,000 bursary to study Economics at Chicago but chose the PPE course at Oxford instead.

LCR photo

Luke tweeted me recently. He’s suddenly realised the limited nature of the OCR Economics A level specification:

Luke tweet

How to get full marks. In a recent paper 3 mock exam two of my students gained 57/60. When I talked to them they said they had been working through the text book at home and just learning it. They said my lessons were good, but they’d realised that what they had to do to do well was learn the text book verbatim; Harry Cunningham’s reflections made real…I would have been better off going home to study independently.

One national examination board? I still can’t work out why Michael Gove rejected the idea – in his speech announcing his U-turn he seems to blame OFQUAL. It was one of his ideas I did support! Even the Daily Telegraph thought it was a decent idea…

Whose media? Whilst we have the text books, there is great content on-line for free. I have fallen in love with the author of this website: http://mrshearingeconomics.weebly.com/ What has been amusing my students is whether the object of my affection is Mr Shearing or Mrs Hearing…and of course there’s always Geoff Riley whose expertise and generosity know no bounds.

Posted in Other stuff, Teaching and Learning | 16 Comments

This much I know about…being coached to improve my body language!

I have been a teacher for 25 years, a Headteacher for 10 years and, at the age of 49, this much I know about being coached to improve my body language!

You get what you give. I once gave my colleague Zoë Parker a poster of the first Clash album. When she left for Australia she bought me this poster in return. Brecht’s gaze now arrests everyone entering my office.

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How do you move from good to truly great? As @HuntingEnglish has discussed, this autumn, as part of our drive to improve teaching even further, we have launched a three-year coaching programme whereby six times a year we work in designated coaching trios on the elements of our practice we want to develop as individuals.

I keep on working at being a better teacher. My post back in March, about my dismay at the lesson observation feedback I was given, highlighted my questioning technique and how I subliminally used hand gestures to help students to the right answer. It’s been bugging me ever since and at times I’ve been reduced to perching upon a stool in lessons so that I can sit on my hands to control them as I teach. I took our coaching trios initiative as a chance to focus explicitly upon my use of body language when I teach.

Video technology has come a long way since the static VHS at the back of the class room. I remember setting up a VHS recorder on top of the filing cabinet over a decade ago and filming myself teach. The only thing I remember is how I had a tendency to walk up and down the room with my hands palms-down on my backside! Bizarre stuff. Now I have to get over the middle-aged, grey-haired, slightly portly imposter with the Jimmy Hill chin who happens to be me. The two videos I’ve produced have taken no time to create using an Iris-Connect camera to film and Windows Movie Maker to edit.

The element of performance in your teaching is important. In this first video I am asking (on reflection, in a quite ham-fisted way) AS Economics students to shape possible examination questions from a case study on the housing market. My coach/mentor is a newly qualified drama teacher and in our first session she enabled me to watch my body language and listen to my tone of voice in a fully conscious state. I could see that I appeared wearily grumpy and came over as a bit intolerant. I think if anyone told me I was moody I’d refute it, but I am, I guess, and there it was on screen, as we watched the first video. And the drama teacher background of my coach/mentor was pure genius serendipity; she suggested in mentor mode that I should act a bit more, modulate my voice so that I sound more positive, and stop pointing at people! The video hit me hard; I’m not sure how I could have developed my confidence if I’d been taught by me.

 

Teaching is inextricably linked to the teacher as a person like few other professions. In my defence this was a pre-OFSTED inspection lesson, period 3 on a Wednesday, the very hour the call could have come… I may have been a bit impatient, but I do love this class, honest!

Keeping focused on the small developmental area of your practice between coaching sessions requires real discipline. In the second video we concluded that I had made some progress, but I am still a bit away from perfecting my body language and tone of voice. I am giving some feedback to the same class about an essay on subsidies. The point I am making is that subsidies given to producers don’t directly reduce the price of goods, they enable the producers to increase production of the goods and it is that increase in supply of the goods which then results in a reduction in price – it is a subtle but important difference.

 

Laughter is important. There were three moments which amused us when I was being coached. The first one is where I wake Harry up from his trance without missing a beat (59s). The next was the moment when I repeat my June lesson observation habit of using my hand gesture to guide the student to the right answer (2m 49s). And lastly the nano-second when my whole body says out loud, For goodness’ sake I can’t believe that you don’t get it! (3m 17.5s). I also think it’s funny how, as price falls, I begin to topple over (4m 58s).

I’ve been reflecting upon teaching second subjects. I think there is something in the fact that when I teach English I have two decades of experience in explaining complex things clearly to students who find those things difficult; I have yet to establish my range of strategies for explicating Economic complexities and I don’t yet understand why students can’t get it, because it seems so simple to me.

My coach/mentor used our introduction to coaching in our latest coaching conversation. She is learning to use coaching questions as I am learning to reflect upon my practice.

I could quite easily have entitled this blogThis much I know about…the importance of a teacher’s body language/questioning/clarity of exposition. The more times I watch the videos the more things I notice need improving! In the second video, amongst many improvements I could have made,  I needed to plan my questions in more detail. I should have begun with just the one supply curve, then gone to the shortage, then the second supply curve; that would have obviated the need to erase the first additional supply curve when I was in full retreat and it would have made my exposition and questioning easier to follow.

Working on marginal elements of your teaching requires fully conscious effort. Doug Lemov cites Joshua Foer from the latter’s study of memory, Moonwalking with Einstein: The secret to improving at a skill is to retain some degree of conscious control over it while practising…to force oneself to stay out of autopilot. Lemov goes on to say, The process of intentionally implementing feedback is likely to keep people in a practice state of increased consciousness and thus steeper improvement. Working on my coaching feedback has taken enormous effort. If developing practice is not privileged within a school it is very hard to engage teachers in meaningful development of their own teaching. We have all at some time or another intended to work on the feedback given to us about our teaching, but, as Lemov says, we end up losing sight of it amidst the wreckage of our tasks list. Or perhaps we try it briefly and tell ourselves we have made enough progress, or that the feedback wouldn’t really work.  And even if improving teaching is an explicit school-wide priority, it helps if the Headteacher presents a convincing case for all of us to improve our teaching just to win over (as far as you can) the hardened sceptics. As @HuntingEnglish pointed out in his post I cited earlier, you also need to change operational structures so that you give explicit time to teachers to develop their teaching: you can’t just wish teachers to be better.

Endnote: I have been captivated by Veronica Weusten’s book The Talented Teacher, recently recommended to me by @realdcameron. I think it is delightful and true and confirms for me my heartfelt belief that, fundamentally, students need to feel loved; get a copy if you can!

Click here to find out more about The Talented Teacher:

Talented_teacher

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