Reading ages…

#15MinForum – 9/03/17

I can’t remember the last time I taught a lesson which didn’t require students to read something at some point. Nor can I remember the last time I spent any real amount of time looking at the text I would be getting students to read (be that on slides or in books) and really considering how individual students in a group might cope with it. There are certainly strategies that I’m sure many of us use in a lesson to introduce keywords and technical vocabulary, or to model the use of language, but how routinely do we look at the texts and the tasks and think explicitly about the impact of our students’ reading ages on their ability to engage meaningfully with these things?

Our latest 15 Minute Forum, led by Andrea Boohig (our Head of Learning Support/ SEND Coordinator), challenged us to think about exactly this…

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Andrea started by sharing some context in terms of how we currently assess students’ reading skills (NFER, Basic Literacy Assessment, Spelling Assessment, Wrat 4, Edinburgh tests etc) and the interventions currently in place to support students (paired reading programmes, small literacy groups, our transition teaching group, one to one support, parental engagement etc). Information about specific students across years 7-13 is made available to staff, and students are regularly retested to establish whether the various interventions are working.

This all sounds like important and impressive work – our Learning Support team is doing great things with vast numbers of students (we have more students with EHCP’s than many special schools do, and then there are those many individuals with needs that aren’t recognised at the same level but which are still of real significance).

But the work of the Learning Support team alone is not enough: it is essential that classroom teachers do their bit…

Hand and book stairs
Photo Credit: thaisteles2 Flickr via Compfight cc

Steps to success…

Andrea set about highlighting the characteristics of students with reading ages below 8 years, between 8-10 years, and between 10-14 years, with some specific suggestions for supporting these students. It is well worth a read and some reflection on your current practice. How carefully do you unpack key vocabulary to support students (not just with technical language, but with multisyllabic words)? How often do we assume that because a student has had chance to read something and then write it down, they have taken it in (when in fact the act of copying one letter at a time limits comprehension almost completely)? How often do we recognise behavioural traits as resulting from a students (in)ability to access the text they are expected to work with? There is a lot to think about…Slide4Slide5


Excerpts from Andrea’s presentation can be viewed below:

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Mixing it up…

#15MinForum – 23/02/17

Each time our Learning Communities meet (which is once per half-term, when we have a late start for students in order to buy some time for CPDL), I have the privilege of being able to wander from group to group under the pretence of ‘offering support’ (when in reality most of what I do is marvel at the richness and depth of discussion our staff are engaging in!)

A few weeks ago I walked in on a conversation taking place in one of the groups who have had the brilliant ‘Make it Stick‘ as their core reading, to hear our Director of Music, Jonny Bridges, explaining the analogy he uses to illustrate for his students the interleaving approach he is using with them… Fittingly for a music tech teacher, it involves a mixing desk…

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As I sat listening, gripped by his analogy, I scribbled a myself a reminder: ‘Jonny. 15 Minute Forum. Interleaving.”


Mixing it up

As you can see in Jonny’s prezi (here),  he started by setting out how interleaving contrasts with the way most of our subjects work through their schemes of learning. Specifically, we tend to teach in successive units of work that are often then not returned to until the end of the year. When following an interleaved approach, the curriculum is weaved in on itself, so that rather than drilling down into one unit at a time before moving onto the next (i.e. AAAA, BBBB, CCCC), the teacher instead moves between topics introducing things one layer at a time (i.e. ABC, BAC, ACB, CBA). This sits nicely alongside – and is indeed inextricably linked to – the idea of spacing vs massing practice (there have been some nice ideas shared in relation to this at previous 15 Minute Forums/ eLearning eXpress meetings, like this one from Gabby Veglio and this one from Annis Araim).

Jonny highlighted that students (and teachers!) may feel frustrated by the fact that they don’t work on a single topic for extended periods of time (as they would in a ‘massed practice’ approach) and therefore they don’t develop the short-term fluency (which is, in truth, illusory!), and instead their sense of mastery is something that develops over a longer period of time as the topic is returned to repeatedly.

And this is where the mixing desk analogy comes in…

mixing it up

This distinction between short-term artefacts from the classroom (‘performance’) and the longer term, deeper conceptual growth (which we might more justifiably call ‘learning’) is an important one, especially as the latter is the one we want and yet a lot of what we are geared-up for is the former…


Learning vs Performance

This article, from Bjork and colleague, is a must-read if you’re interested in exploring more about the learning vs performance distinction, as is this blog from David Didau (@learningspy), which seats interleaving within the wider point about desirable difficulties…

Elsewhere, this guest post on the fantastic ‘Learning Scientists‘ website is worth a few minutes of your time…


Read more about Jonny’s own experiences and successes in his prezi, here



Practice, practice, practice…

#15MinForum – 9/02/17

Does practice make perfect, or does it make permanent? How can routines help make the permanent perfect? This was the tongue-twister that Ian O’Brien, Deputy Headteacher and Physics teacher, shared to whet peoples appetite when advertising our latest 15 Minute Forum.

Setting up the routines for success.

As part of his work in his Learning Community, inspired by Doug Lemov (@Doug_Lemov) et al’s bestselling ‘Practice Perfect‘, Ian has been working to look at whether we can set up routines to help learning or to approach problem solving in a manner that we can fall back on in stressful situations, and whether practice can ‘program’ our responses to these situations…

Using Owen Farrell, England’s ever-dependable goal kicker, as an example, Ian highlighted that it doesn’t matter where he is on the field or who the opposition are, the routine is the same. He can be out on the far right touch-line (the harder side to kick for a right-footer to kick for goal), he can be directly in front of the posts, he can be playing for top-of-the-table saracens against minnows from the depths of the table, or he can be playing for his country in a high-stakes international. Regardless of the specifics of the situation, the routine takes the same length of time and follows the exact same steps. And it is remarkably reliable…


So the question Ian posed at the start of the forum was ‘what do you want the students to be able to do. Find one thing. How do you then drill it so that it is second nature? How can you programme the student response?’

Drill, drill, drill.

In Ian’s own case, the starting point was looking at the way that his physics students, at all levels of the school, lay out their equations. A methodical and highly structured approach has always been something that the physics team has encouraged, and for many students it sticks. But there are also many students who continue to do it their own way, missing out steps, taking shortcuts, not laying things out carefully. And these students make more mistakes and find it harder to self-diagnose their own mistakes.

So Ian set about really focussing on embedding the perfect routine: list out the data provided including the units of measurement, then check the units, then select and write out the required equation, then write it out again and plug the known values in, then rearrange the equation, then finally do the calculation. Each of these is a separate step, each step is written out carefully (with the equals-signs all lining up) and it is spaced out. No shortcuts, even on the easy questions. Like Owen Farrell’s pre-kick routine, the idea is that the routine never changes regardless of how easy or hard the question may be.


For weeks (and now months), this has been hammered home every lesson. It is modelled every lesson. Students peer- and self-assess – not to check whether they got the right answer, but to check whether the work has followed the perfect structure. Mark-schemes have been adjusted to reward the use of the perfect structure rather than just the correct answer – the real exams won’t do this, but it reinforces the programming/routines during this stage of the learning.

Reaping the rewards.

Ultimately, students are making fewer mistakes. Those teaching groups with whom Ian has focussed his efforts at this stage are excelling with calculation work, even where some of the students in those groups are not natural mathematicians or whose prior attainment is generally towards the lower end. Whats-more, where they do make errors, students are able to much more quickly and independently identify the problem and fix it.

So where else might this work? Anything where there is a sequence or format or routine that needs to be deployed consistently! Approaches to structuring a paragraph/ essay (be it PEE, or PETER or whatever the latest mnemonic for writing arguments is), perhaps. The steps students need to go through when setting about constructing a graph, perhaps. The routines students are encouraged to adopt when writing out responses in long-answer questions, perhaps…


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#eLearningeXpress – 26/01/17

Following on nicely from the 15 Minute Forum we had a couple of weeks ago on the topic of frequent, low-stakes testing for committing surface knowledge to long-term memory and aiding retrieval, our latest eLearning eXpress was led by Annis Araim (science teacher and all round good guy!) on using kahoot. For anyone who has not yet experienced kahoot, their strapline ‘make learning awesome’ is a bit of a stretch by the proper definition of the word awesome, but if you’re happy to go with the more flexible use of the word as employed by the kids, it is pretty awesome…kahoot

The premise is very simple. You use the very intuitive web-based platform to create multiple choice quizzes, then the students use their iPad/ mobile/ tablet/ laptop to get in the game (no account necessary – just go to and enter the game pin) and compete with their class to get the right answers (and as quick as possible). It really is as straightforward as that. And the music is irritatingly catchy!


A few other highlights…

  • add images and video, either so questions can be aimed at some aspect of a diagram or picture, or just to make it look nice…
  • use the immediate feedback about how many in the group got the correct answer to decide whether to push straight onto the next question or pause – for as long as you need – between questions to do some supplementary questioning, unpacking, or explaining…
  • download a spreadsheet of the results at the end for further analysis group/ individual analysis…
  • share your kahoot with colleagues and get them to share with you…
  • search for kahoots that other people around the world have made – copy them into your own kahoots and modify them as necessary (this is made easier when you give your kahoot some useful keywords in the description, eg AQA SCIENCE UNIT 2)


Things to be aware of…

  • some students might just guess… the scoring system helps to guard against this to a certain extent, but still there is the chance they might just guess… One suggestion would be to follow up each round with some supplementary questioning just to make sure that those who gave the correct answer are able to back up their choice with some explanation!
  • multiple choice does have limits – it lends itself particularly to consolidating surface knowledge. That said, don’t be fooled into thinking that multiple choice is automatically less challenging than open-ended questions! You can make it fiendishly difficult if you want… throw in some answers which are factually correct statements, but which don’t actually answer the given question… throw in some answers which pander to misconceptions…


I could go into more detail about how you actually set the quizzes up, but it really is so simple as to be fool-proof! There are a few youtube tutorial videos if you do really need them, but I would suggest you just get signed-up and start playing – you can create a simple quiz in a very short space of time indeed. What are you waiting for?! Get Kahooting! Start here…


Testing is your friend…

#15MinForum – 12/01/17

imagesThe latest 15 Minute Forum was the first one to be based directly on the work being done in our Learning Communities. Based on some of the research presented in the excellent ‘Make it Stick‘ (the core reading for three of separate Learning Communities), Gabby Veglio (@MissVeglio, one of our Year Leaders and numeracy coordinator) led a session about the benefits of frequent, low-stakes testing…

Quiz Quiz Quiz

So what’s the gist? Gabby started with a bit of the background theory to the idea of frequently testing the students through low-stakes quizzing (or getting them in the habit of doing it themselves).


All good so far. But for many of us, perhaps the most striking suggestions come when thinking about how to get the most out of an approach which acknowledges the value of testing (though the first thing you might want to do is call it ‘quizzing’ or ‘retrieval practice’, or at least educate staff and students about the fact that ‘testing’ doesn’t have to mean high-stakes tests in the form exams or summative assessments!)


This starts to touch on the ideas relating to the importance of leaving time to forget things and recognising that forgetting (and having to think hard to retrieve) is a good thing when it comes to learning! With that in mind, we are then into the realms of thinking about spacing and interleaving…

Gabby then shared some of the examples that she uses in her own practice to try and implement the principles set out before…

Hungry for more?

Go here to read more about applying cognitive psychology to enhance education practice – it really is a one-stop shop in terms of thinking about retrieval practice and all the associated considerations.

This article from Sodersorm and Bjork is an interesting (though relatively heavy) read for anyone interested in looking at how findings in cognitive science can be applied to the classroom, particularly on the point of the difference between learning and performance.

As always, there has already been a great 15 Minute Forum by the guys over at ClassTeaching on the topics of spacing and interleaving.

The slideshow of Gabby’s full presentation can be seen below.

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Using GoodNotes for Great Notes (and more…)

eLearning eXpress – 15/12/16

This week saw the last eLearning eXpress of the year. Neil Henderson (@neilhtweet), Deputy Headteacher and iPad guru, led a session on some of the finer points of using GoodNotes. We’ve been using this app since the beginning of our iPad roll-out and it is used frequently across the school by students and staff (some staff are currently trialling using it with certain groups as a replacement for exercise books, though some pieces of work will always be done on paper).

This session was about raising awareness amongst staff about some of the key features (and potential pitfalls) for staff using it as a personal tool and for staff using it with students. And when used effectively it is a rather powerful tool indeed…

Photo Credit: ericpalmer3181 Flickr via Compfight cc

As a school which has committed to 1-to-1 iPad deployment, it is essential that we keep a close and critical eye on where their usage enhances – and where it undermines – learning. This means supporting teachers and students not only in knowing how to use a specific app, but also in terms of knowing when to use a specific app: what can it do that will make some aspect of learning ‘better’? How can it add to the learning experience? What are the top tips for reducing the potential for things to go wrong or distract from the learning?


(Neil’s presentation is available in full here as a pdf)

So, why GoodNotes?



Knowing how to keep GoodNotes organised is key to it being useful. In the same way as we want students to keep their exercise books organised (some departments even go so far as to have separate books for ‘exercises’ and for ‘models’ or ‘revision’), there seems little value in having random bits and pieces scattered all over the place. This is particularly pertinent when we are looking to ensure students have notebooks that are backed up and carefully manicured (with content, notes, weblinks, screenshots etc) that can then be used for revision.


Using the notebooks…

At the heart of it, this is what GoodNotes is all about – creating exercise books rich with content from multiple sources. Images, typed text, handwritten text, screenshots, pdf’s (which remain searchable), drawings, weblinks… There aren’t many exercise books where you can do all of that!


Bringing stuff across from (and sending stuff back to) Showbie…

Bringing documents across from Showbie is something you might like to do in terms of using GoodNotes as a central storage system to avoid having pieces of work spread across different apps. GoodNotes also offers a more refined (read ‘better’) approach to writing, annotating, highlighting etc than Showbie (although Showbie remains our go-to app for submitting work and communicating back and forth… see this post on giving verbal feedback from a distance, and this post on self-assessment for more suggestions on using Showbie! )


Backing-up and archiving…

We have our students backing-up to Google Drive, but it can be easily done with iCloud or other apps. We also encourage students to archive notebooks to Foldr (which is used fairly extensively across the school to allow students to access space in their user areas on the main school network).



Further help…

As well as the presentation from this session (which is available in full here as a pdf), Neil has put together a sequence of videos, designed mainly for our students to self-help but ideal for supporting teachers as well. Go here to see them!

The GoodNotes website has a handy user guide with a few other specific features worth noting as well. Go here to see it!

Follow @GoodNotesapp on twitter for tips and links to handy blogs etc.




Models and Modelling

#15MinForum – 1/12/16

Published earlier this month, this guide from What Works Clearinghouse (@WhatWorksED) on ‘Teaching Secondary Students to Write Effectively’ reminded me of a conversation I’d had with Mike Coll, Subject Leader for History and one of our newly appointed Lead Teachers on the Extended Leadership Team, around ideas to do with modelling.

One of the things that came up in that conversation was a feeling that some of the work we’ve done over the last 18 months in relation to assessment and success criteria may have emphasised the value of ‘using models’ (i.e. pieces of work shared to set a standard of expectation, to unpack success criteria or refine student approaches to self- and peer-assessment), but has perhaps overlooked the value of ‘live modelling’… And so Mike led our most recent 15 Minute Forum on this very theme.

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Mike started by sharing the journey he has had in terms of his own thinking, particularly in relation to the fact that he used to spend a lot of time preparing and providing model answers. He suggested that they are useful in terms of giving an idea of what excellence will look like, but no matter how carefully you might go about using it as an opportunity to tease the detail out of a mark scheme or the success criteria, for many students giving them the model and then saying ‘now get on with it’ can be daunting and unrealistic. And that is where the live modelling comes in…


The purposes of modelling

“Using model answers can show students what they should be achieving – modelling should provide them with the techniques and processes to help them to actually achieve it.”


I particularly like this last one. In the context of wanting our lessons to challenge students and really make them think hard, modelling reality shows them that struggle is normal – it is ok to be stuck! Being stuck should be highlighted and endorsed, and through modelling we can demonstrate strategies for overcoming challenge and getting unstuck.


In much the same way, Mike highlighted that when modelling how to construct an answer in History, he’ll occasionally make mistakes or omissions and then redraft as necessary. Again, this message is an important one – keep tinkering until your work is excellent!

On occasion, this might even go as far as to involve a bit of drama in the classroom. It isn’t acting as such, but really externalising the thought process and making clear to students what you are thinking and doing.


Here are a few of the other strategies that Mike shared in relation to modelling:

  • Collaborative modelling. Ask a student to get it started, and then invite others to contribute the next part or suggest revisions.
  • Comparative modelling. Give a couple of models and get students to evaluate them. In the History setting, Mike identified that this has had an impact on getting students to think carefully about what the question being asked of them, rather than simply writing down all of the stuff they happen to know about a topic referenced in the question!
  • Deconstruction. Give an example paragraph (or get one from a student/group) and then deconstruct it by identifying specific skills. For example in History, underline/highlight in one colour where there is evaluation of extracts, in another colour where these evaluations have been supported with evidence, and in a third colour where the answer demonstrates an awareness of historical context.


The Clearinghouse guide unpacks this idea a bit further, including some example statements that a teacher might use…modelling-example-1-8


For more on modelling, this post over at Class Teaching is well worth a few minutes… it was a source of inspiration for this session!

The day I had a curry with John Hattie…

…and a rundown of some of his latest work.

It turns out, according to the professor born in the South Island of New Zealand, that the All Blacks are in fact not the most successful rugby team in history. No, I was reassured unequivocally that this honour lies with that renowned rugby-playing nation… Malta. One of our other lunch partners, another kiwi, pointed out that this obviously isn’t true, unless it is measured in some unconventional way, or excludes tier one nations, or perhaps isn’t about rugby at all.”Well then you’ve just changed the rules!” came John Hattie’s emphatic reply. “Never argue stats with a statistician!”

Since that shared lunch earlier this month, I’ve looked for the proof. I’ve thrown into google all of the search terms of which I can conceive, and I can’t find a single source to back Hattie’s claim up. With no small amount of irony, I’ve sifted through data, wilfully ignoring the overwhelming body of evidence pointing me in the other direction, trying to find just a single glimmer of quantitative data that I can distort to meet my needs. But I’ve come up empty handed. Nothing. Nada. Maybe, as some of his critics would argue, he genuinely isn’t as good at stats as his disciples would have you believe…

But it has to be said that there is something about his latest work, a model that outlines the science of how we learn and how various learning strategies fit into it, that does seem to make a great deal of sense. As mindful as I am that this sounds like straightforward confirmation bias (‘I like it because it feels right’), if it feels like it makes sense and it fits nicely with a wider body of research and literature, then that makes it worth taking a closer look at…

The start of the day.

The story I heard was that some lucky/clever individual at Waldegrave School (home of the Richmond Teaching School Alliance) had somehow ‘won’ John Hattie and his Visible Learning gang for a day. Either way, by virtue of the growing relationship between the schools in neighbouring Kingston and Richmond boroughs, I was there to enjoy John and his team taking a day out of their world tour (no, really) to do their thing in Twickenham.

Though the enjoyment wasn’t immediate.

The morning started with an introduction from Deb Masters (@DebMasters1), one of John’s collaborators in the Visible Learning team, setting the scene for the day. The first activity was designed to make us describe a learning process as we grappled with a task. The takeaway message was supposed to be that even as educational professionals we often don’t have a particularly broad vocabulary for, or understanding of, the process of learning. (I actually thought my colleague and I had a better crack at it than we were given credit for, but I don’t suppose that really changes the key suggestion that seemed to be about the importance of metacognition and developing a language for learning).

The actual activities used in this warm-up were fairly abstract (think aptitude test/ non-verbal reasoning meets back-of-a-newspaper puzzle). I guess it made a point, but as someone who is occasionally sceptical about extrapolating from really narrow, niche, decontextualised research settings to the real world of a particular classroom in a particular school with a particular group of students, it didn’t do a great deal to quell the slight unease that had been set churning during Deb’s opening comments, peppered as they were with glib references to ‘activating’ research for teachers and ‘activating’ learning in the classroom… hmmm.

And then an eye-opening look at what works and when.

What ensued, over the remainder of the day, was an unpacking, primarily by Hattie himself, of aspects of his most recent paper (coauthored with Gregory Donoghue, available here) and a comprehensive mapping of various learning strategies onto a handy model for learning. The ideas will be largely familiar to those who’ve read his previous publications, as will the methodology (meta-analyses and effect sizes), but the format certainly gave me a real moment of clarity, particularly in relation to the importance of thinking about when any particular strategy is likely to be effective… This is something that hasn’t been so explicitly addressed in previous iterations from the Visible Learning juggernaut.

The other thing that struck me was the clarity with which the work is presented. The INSET materials (at 70+ pages, it’s virtually a book on its own) felt significantly more accessible than any of the other three VL books I own (each of which is worth reading, but page-turners they ain’t). The article isn’t too shabby either (though it lacks the graphics!)

The backbone of the model goes something like this:


Those familiar with the Visible Learning work will no doubt recognise the idea of surface > deep > transfer (think SOLO Taoxonomy), and will also presumably be aware of the context in which Hattie sits this sequence:

“It is critical to note that the claim is not that surface knowledge is necessarily bad and that deep knowledge is essentially good.  Instead, the claim is that it is important to have the right balance: you need to have surface to have deep; and you need to have surface and deep knowledge and understanding in a context or set of domain knowledge. The process of learning is a journey from ideas to understanding to constructing and onwards. It is a journey of learning, unlearning and overlearning. When students can move from ideas to ideas and then relate and elaborate on them we have learning – and when they can regulate or monitor this journey then they are teachers of their own learning. Regulation, or metacognition, refers to knowledge about on’e own cognitive processes (knowledge) and the monitoring of these processes (skilfulness). It is the development of such skillfulness that is an aim of many learning tasks and developing them is a sense of self-regulation.”

(Hattie, 2009, p. 29)

However, the critical feature of this new body of work is that for each stage of learning, the VL team have identified the specific strategies likely to be most effective. It really does appear very handy. And it throws up some interesting conflict with what I perceive as being quite widely held beliefs about ‘what the research says’. The key message? When you take a body of research about a particular strategy ‘en masse’ it presents a very different picture (read ‘effect size’) to when you go through that same body of research and consider at what stage in the learning process the strategy was being used, and then judge its effectiveness at that stage.

  • Using highlighters? Actually quite effective in the acquisition stage for surface learning.
  • Spacing, interleaving, testing? Basically good just for consolidation of surface learning.
  • Elaborative interrogation? Metacognition? Wait for acquisition of deep learning before you wheel them out.
  • Problem-based learning? Inqury learning? All that group-work stuff which gets a bad rep? Actually pretty powerful stuff if you wait until the consolidation of deep learning before you use it.

And this really comes back to trying to understand effect sizes…

On effect sizes.

Hattie started the day with what sounded vaguely like a defence of his use of effect sizes (more on that later) and then made sure his audience were clear that they aren’t to be treated simply as a tick-list of strategies to do. Rather, they should provide a context for thinking about our ‘mindframes’ as educators…

And then he went on…


“All that you need in order to enhance learning is a pulse. Pretty much everything you do as a teacher, works. So don’t ask ‘what works?’, ask ‘what works best for which students and when in the learning process?'”

And, rather topically given recent headlines and the ensuing twitter storm, on the importance of interpreting (rather than just swallowing) effect sizes…

“If some studies have said that homework doesn’t work, it doesn’t mean you get rid of it! It means you improve it!”

And on the importance of continually evaluating our impact on learning…

“Build a coalition around the blue zone [the most positive effect sizes], identify the impact through evidence, then scale it up and invite those in the yellow zone to join you. You have no right to just sit in the yellow zone!

On this he was unequivocal and, say what you will about the value of effect sizes, surely nobody can disagree with the sentiment that all staff have a moral imperative to continually improve and refine what they do. ‘Say what you will’ about the value of effect sizes…


Say what you will.

I tweeted a quote back in August, whilst reading Dylan Wiliam’s ‘Leadership for Teacher Learning‘:

If you’re new to the debate around the use of effect sizes and meta-analyses of this sort, see here (for some defence) and herehere, here or here for some background to the criticism.

So, when you find yourself sitting opposite John Hattie to enjoy an INSET lunch (happy coincidence, rather than design), what is one to do?

First some small talk. As a school with 1-to-1 iPad deployment, I was keen to hear his thoughts on the role of tech in the classroom . We agreed that the focus should be on the learning methodology rather than the technology per se,  following which he offered some insight into research he is currently involved in, looking at the potential of social media in supporting learning. He seemed particularly enthusiastic about the discovery in one particular study that students are apparently asking questions via social media – while in the classroom – that they aren’t asking directly (i.e. the good old fashioned way… with their mouths). It sounds intriguing and, although I’ve not seen the research, the thing I’m most curious about is why these particular students don’t feel they can ask their questions directly… sounds like it could be more about relationships and classroom climate than about technology…

And then I asked him outright…Tactfully, but outright. “You have talked today and written a lot about effect sizes and meta-analyses. On the other hand, your detractors argue that using effect sizes in this way is misleading. What is the average teacher in the middle of it all supposed to think?”

His response, while mopping up the last of his chicken curry with some soggy naan, was delivered with a face that expressed a certain fatigue about the whole thing . “Look, I know Dylan Wiliam has said a whole load of nasty stuff about it in a book… “(I didn’t tell him I’d previously tweeted a quote from said book), “…but it’s a tool. They aren’t perfect, but they are a tool. You don’t stop using a tool just because it isn’t perfect. Dylan Wiliam uses effect sizes himself!”

So, not particularly illuminating and a little touchy perhaps… but, thankfully, it didn’t throw him off his stride for the afternoon session.


Verbal feedback… from a distance

eLearning eXpress – 18/11/16

This morning’s eLearning eXpress, led by Adam Norton (Year Leader for Yr9 and DT teacher) was a great session to end the week on…

Following on from a great 15 Minute Forum about coded marking, this was another session spent discussing a strategy for providing feedback from a distance (i.e. outside the classroom) in a way that is time-efficient…


We’ve been using Showbie since the very beginning  of our 1-to-1 iPad deployment, though it isn’t exclusively an iPad app – staff and students can (and do, for certain things) use the web platform rather than the iPad. It is absolutely something that could work for you even in the absence of tablet technology. It is one of several platforms for collecting student work and providing feedback, instigating learning dialogue, signposting students to resources and/or links, and connecting with them more generally. It is used widely across the school: students like it, staff like it and, when used in certain ways, can be a significant time-saver.

We’ve talked (and I’ve blogged) about laborious approaches to providing written feedback to students, and we’re taking strides towards striking a sensible balance. As we’ve moved along this journey, Adam said himself that he’s tried a few different approaches, all of which have left him tired, bored and looking for another way!

And so the teachers in our DT team, like some others around school, have been experimenting with recording verbal feedback rather than writing it out.

Adam talked us through the steps in how you actually do it (see the slideshow for the walk-through)…

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Amongst the hints and tips that Adam shared was the idea that after you’ve recorded your feedback, you can listen back to it before deciding whether to commit it to the students assignment. This is quite handy in itself in terms of being able to ‘moderate’ your own marking, for example in those situation where you’ve marked a few more pieces and decide you need to go back and adjust an earlier feedback comment in light of looking at other pieces.

It is also possible to record multiple notes for separate pieces of work, or if you miss something out (there is no need to re-record the whole note!) It also opens the possibility for students to record their own responses and create an actual dialogue, if that is necessary.


The benefits of being able to provide verbal feedback rather than having to write it are many. Key for me is that you are still able to provide a personal response to each individual student, but in a less laborious and time-consuming way (and, as Adam highlighted, not having a stack of books to deal with is also a psychological bonus!)

Being able to sit with the mark scheme and work in front of you and just talk through it without flitting back and forth with a pen and feedback sheet also feels less like you are flitting back and forth between things – just talk it through as you look at it. Striking a conversational approach to feeding back on the work also allows students to hear the tone, inflection, nuance etc of your voice – suddenly comments that seem stark or harsh on paper can be delivered in a more gentle manner without diluting it.

7There are some potential challenges that need to be considered, though none of them seem insurmountable. As Adam said,

“I can’t mark in front of the telly any more, but I can do it lying down on my bed!”

Let’s face it, nobody likes the sound of their own voice, and this can be an awkward part of listening back to the feedback – or, worse, having students listen back to your feedback… all of them… at the same time! That needs thinking about! But the sound of your own voice is something you’ll get over,

“I’ve come to terms with the fact that this is actually how I sound!”

You’ll need a quiet place to record your feedback (Adam has been known to hideout in the sound-proofed music practice rooms!), especially if you’re recording lengthy voice notes – you don’t want too much background noise, and nor do you want interruptions mid-flow!

At the end of the session, there was some discussion about whether voice notes are quite as helpful when it comes to identifying specific mistakes, in relation to SPaG for example. One suggestion was to separate out the identification of mistakes in the good old fashioned way, and sticking to the developmental feedback in the voice note. However, I rather think that the correction of SPaG can still be dealt with in a potentially powerful way, by simply stating in the voice note, for example, “there is a spelling error in the first paragraph – find it and fix it!”. Such an approach would fit nicely with the message we are trying to push that feedback should be more work for the student than for the teacher! Worth a try…

Once the students get past the novelty (which won’t take long), they seem to like it. Though I was reminded of the comment relayed to me by Ceris Owen, our Subject Leader for DT, made by one of her A Level students following an early foray into providing verbal feedback on Showbie: “Miss, thanks for the feedback. Can I just say though, it was a bit weird hearing your voice in my bedroom!”… LoL, as the kids might say…

A lesson from growing All Blacks…

I tend to steer clear of the hackneyed and often over-reaching use of sporting analogy in talking about leadership and the work we do in schools more generally. That’s not to say there aren’t some important parallels and some very useful lessons to draw from the world of sport, but I’m happy to let someone else do the job of writing another clichéd rehash of the importance of ‘marginal gains’ (impressive as Mr Brailsford is), or another trite treatise about the importance of the hours spent on the training field (much as I agree, generally, with the sentiment).

I felt a little weakening in my resolve during the Rugby World Cup in September of last year, when I read this BBC article on life inside the All Blacks. I even started a draft post…. but I resisted the urge (or the moment was lost… whatever). That said, it really is a worthwhile read about the importance of initiating people into a high-performing team, maintaining a culture of high expectations, striving for continual development (and if you want something more substantial but in a similar vein, look no further than the brilliant ‘Legacy’ by James Kerr).

And then, a couple of weeks ago, this video of Buck Anderson, New Zealand Rugby Union’s Youth Development Officer, appeared in my news feed…

If you enjoy it, you’ll stick at it

A colleague and good friend of mine, part of our sixth form team, takes every opportunity he can to share with staff, students and parents his mantra that if students enjoy school, they will succeed at school. If they look forward to coming in each day and throw themselves into the opportunities – and challenges – they are faced with, then they are more likely to get a return and are more likely to succeed in the long run.

Interesting then, to listen to Buck talking about the programme that provides one of the most successful sporting teams of all time with its young blood. The focus of the youth development programme seems not to be on encouraging within every young rugby player a burning aspiration to be an All Black. The focus is not even necessarily on winning. The focus, borne out of listening to what the young people themselves have said, is on engagement with the sport and enjoyment of the experience: get stuck in.

“They are not actually, when you talk to them, thinking they’re going to be All Blacks. You constantly hear this “it’s every kiwi kids dream of being an All Black”… but the dream of being an All Black is an adult’s view… The kids want to have fun.

“We try to create that environment and drill down further into what…they mean by ‘fun’, and what is ‘enjoyable’? So, meaningful competitions, really good skill development, coaches who are going to make them better. And above all not taking it all too seriously. If the kids have got that, they’re happy. If they’re happy, they’ll continue to play and enjoy it.”

Meaningful competition. Not just lots of easy victories, but meaningful challenge for all.

Really good skill development and coaches who are going to make them better. Expert input, expert modelling, expert feedback. A clear picture of what success will look like and the strategy and tools to get them there.

And don’t write off the lower attainers before they’ve had chance to bloom.

“give these kids good coaching, give them a fun environment, give them a good competition, and we’ll keep them in the game for longer”

How often do we try to get students to focus on the end goal (which may or may not even be a goal that they share with us)?

How often does “you need to work hard because you need the GCSE grade” actually work as a motivation? For some, yes. For all? No. The better starting place is surely to inspire a passion for learning and for the subject we are teaching, engaging them (not with gimmick but with our own passion) with challenging learning experiences and meaningful successes and through nurturing a love for learning. After all, the jury seems to be pretty much ‘in’ on the idea that motivation results primarily from achievement, it doesn’t precede it.

Some lessons worth bearing in mind…

Photo Credit: KiwiMunted Flickr via Compfight cc