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
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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…

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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!