This much I know about…improving both my teaching and my students’ learning

I have been a teacher for 26 years, a Headteacher for 11 years and, at the age of 50, this much I know about improving both my teaching and my students’ learning.

Real student learning isn’t anything very exciting to watch; so said one of my most experienced colleagues recently during her Performance Management review. And after (re-)reading books by Willingham, Nuthall, Berger and Brown, Roediger & McDaniel over the summer I reckon she’s about right.

Coherent school improvement stems from the accurate interpretation of your students’ performance. A forensic analysis of our students’ results using all the intelligence available (and with the examination boards’ on-line post-results services, combined with our understanding of the combinations of flesh and blood that produced those results, and copious amounts of our own wisdom and judgement, we have all we need) is a great source of evidence for understanding how we need to modify our teaching to improve our students’ performance.

Model the process of interpreting your students’ results for colleagues. Combining my analysis of my students’ AS Economics summer examination results with my summer reading led me to present the following slides to colleagues on the first day of term:

 

Six weeks of deliberate practice later…there is genuine learning going on! We’ve been really working hard on learning the deeper AS Economics theory thoroughly and then applying the theory to different surface case studies. We’ve looked in detail at examination question command words as seen in the Powerpoint which accompanies the video. Once you’ve watched the video, I’ll explain how I know that learning was taking place during this seemingly mundane lesson. Stay with it; it’s a longer clip than I like to show but it illustrates all of my summer time reading influences. And I still have a cold…

 

 

Seven eights are fifty-six!? Short-hand codes are useful to help students learn. A la Willingham, if my AS Economics students are going to apply deep knowledge they need to possess that knowledge with un-thinking certainty. I’ve created a short-hand for my students for the Economics theory they should know without having to think about it: I call it, seven eights are fifty-six. I know my times-tables without thinking and my students need to know the Economics theory in the same way. Then, when they come to apply that theory to a new surface case study in their examinations, all they have to think about is the application, rather than using their energy trying to remember the theory. (Showing off my memory skills, I also bore them with the opening speech to Antony and Cleopatra which I learnt 31 years ago and remember like it was yesterday. Nay, but this dotage of our general’s…)

We come to know whether learning is going on inside our students’ heads by the work they produce. To secure their learning the students designed this paper from the Chinese Underwater Wedding Photography Case Study I took from the BBC Business website. Berger-like they worked on the wording of the questions until they were authentically examinationesque:

 

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.

I wrote this recently about whether research evidence can even change practice: Even if we find a way of parcelling up research in a form which the individual classroom teacher will read, the next challenge is for him to change his classroom practice. If, extraordinarily, a teacher reads research which prompts him to deliberately alter his teaching, the final challenge – and possibly the most important – is for him to measure the impact of this pedagogic change on his students’ outcomes. And what if the data says it hasn’t worked?! The Willingham/Nuthall/Berger/Brown et al evidence-based pedagogic advice, coupled with my experience, has given me some wisdom about how to improve; I’ve never worked so deliberately nor so hard on my teaching. The students have attempted questions from five different examination papers in the first six weeks, something I would never have planned before my summer reading; their performance data is getting better and their confidence has grown steadily. Next week they’ll sit a previously unseen paper under examination conditions to assess synoptically their first half-term’s progress and all the evidence suggests they’re ready for it! Importantly, if their performance is no better than my last year’s students’ performance, it’ll be time to think again.

P.S. I’m not sure George Osborne would survive long in my Economics class…

 

 

 

About johntomsett

Headteacher in York. All views are my own.
This entry was posted in Research, School Leadership, Teaching and Learning. Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to This much I know about…improving both my teaching and my students’ learning

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  6. mrbenney says:

    Hi John. The video was far from mundane- it was truly fascinating and thank you for inviting us into your classroom. I really like what you are trying to do in terms of shallow (the context) and deep (the theory). It reminds me of a bit of Dan Brinton’s learning intentions blog where he says “Shirley Clarke advocates separating the learning intention from the context in order to achieve a greater “degree of transfer” of learning to other areas.”
    I look forward to the moment when a pupil comes out of an exam and rather than say “I couldn’t do the question on mutation and resistance of bacteria as we’ve never studied it” they say instead “I was able to apply my knowledge of natural selection to answer the question on bacterial resistance.” Lots to reflect on here John. Many thanks.
    Damian

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