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…

Photo Credit: K. McMahon Flickr via Compfight cc

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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SASS Manoeuvres…

eLearning eXpress – 21/10/16

The first meeting of our eLearning eXpress was a great way to end the half-term. This optional CPD slot has the same format and general intention as the 15 Minute Forum, but with different branding… and a specific focus on harnessing the students’ iPads to enhance learning.

And so Lizi Blackburn (@learninglife89) led a session focussed on sharing some SASS Manoeuvres…

Photo Credit: SmithGreg Flickr via Compfight cc

Self-Assessment using Socrative and Showbie…

How do we place students at the heart of their own learning journey? This was the question Lizi posed, after a quick survey on socrative about our own use of self-assessment, to set the context. Over the last 18 months, Lizi has completed some action research into student perception of self-assessment and it’s value.

Lizi shared some insightful  feedback from students, including comments that indicate that students like the diagnostic nature of self-assessment where they are able to identify and focus on areas where they are less confident or capable, and then improve those specific areas. In this sense, self-assessment is not just about moving learning forwards, but also about the building of confidence and self-esteem that accompanies this.

Encouraging this sense of growth mindset and aspiration while empowering students to help themselves is a very powerful thing indeed. Indeed, it is borne out by the research, as indicated by some of the quotes Lizi shared…

Research over the last decade has overwhelmingly indicated that self-regulating learners are the most confident, persistent and resourceful.

Nicol and Macfarlane-Dick 2004, Zimmerman 2001 and Hattie 2012.


Feedback that enables the student to self-regulate has a far higher effect size than a simple measure of success or failure.

Hattie and Timperlay 2007


Self-assessment is a fundamental way to improve understanding of that assessment criteria, reinforcing the value of this practice in creating well-rounded learners

Boud, 1994


‘Feedback both regulates and is regulated by motivational beliefs.’

Dweck, 1999


And so with the case for self-assessment made, Lizi got it into the nitty gritty of how socrative and showbie can work to support and enhance self-assessment. Click on the thumbnails below to see some of Lizi’s slides with suggestions on how one might use both socrative and showbie (and, in fact, use them together) to facilitate self assessment…

For more about socrative, go here or follow @socrative. There is more great reading here and here (and plenty  more besides!)

To find out more about showbie, go here or follow @showbie. Again, there are lots of resources, videos and blogs about getting more from showbie.


What doesn’t work?

#15MinForum – 07/10/16

At this week’s 15 Minute Forum we took a look at the Sutton Trust’s report, ‘What Makes Great Teaching?‘. The report itself is a couple of years old now, but well worth a read if you missed it first time around…


The exciting work that our Learning Communities are doing revolves around developing expertise through cycles of inquiry. In doing so, our teachers are drawing on stimulus material across a range of areas to identify practices which are identified as being particularly effective, then looking at how to adapt and refine these ideas in the context of their own classrooms. Many of the ideas about what works that feature in this report are therefore ideas that are being explored across the school already.

Our message to staff this year about investing in their own professional learning is underpinned by Dylan Wiliam’s mantra, ‘sometimes we have to stop doing good things in order to do even better things’. With this in mind, we used the 15 Minute Forum to take a look at the things that are highlighted as being ineffective – strategies or approaches for which the evidence base is weak, or which are simply regarded as being less efficient or effective than other alternatives.

What are the areas identified as ‘ineffective’?

  • Using praise lavishly.
  • Allowing learners to discover key ideas for themselves.
  • Grouping learners by ability (both in terms of allocating students to different teaching groups and in terms of within-class grouping).
  • Encouraging re-reading and highlighting to memorise key ideas.
  • Trying to address issues of confidence and low aspirations before trying to teach content.
  • Presenting information to learners in their preferred learning style.
  • Ensuring learners are always active, rather than listening passively, if you want them to remember.

Read the report for more! (the ineffective practices start on p22, but the whole article is well worth 10 minutes of your time)

For more research into what works, this post from Professor Rob Coe is a great starting point…


Lesson observations – shining shoes vs buying new ones…

In a year that has seen a lot of change at Richard Challoner in terms of learning and teaching, perhaps the most significant has been in the way in which we conduct and use visits to lessons (observations and learning walks). The shift in they way staff perceive lesson observations is, I think, transformative. One of my Assistant Head colleagues who has worked with me on the implementation of our model recently summed it up nicely:

“we are seeing staff shine their shoes rather than buying new ones for a special occasion.”

The days of one-off, showpiece performances have gone for us. Instead, we are seeing a more authentic picture of classroom practice, and seeing it more frequently than just once or twice a year. Yes, we know that during the scheduled lesson visits staff are probably still adding something a little extra (like shining their shoes), but it isn’t the way it used to be where the grading of a lesson – and the pressure of the accountability measures and threat to professional pride attached to this – meant staff would do something out of the ordinary (like buying new shoes) to impress and to tick boxes.

Photo Credit: Emma Talbot Photography via Compfight cc


Lots has been written about removing grades from the point of view that we can’t rely on their accuracy or consistency (variation in assigning grades, bias of the observer etc – see this one from David Didau (LearningSpy) and this one from Professor Rob Coe). This is an important argument in scrapping the grading of observations as a mechanism for measuring performance. But removing grades should be about more than just acknowledging a lack of reliability: it presents an enormous opportunity to shift the very focus of the process towards something altogether more developmental.


What, when, how and why are observing?

Back in September, when we first announced that we were going gradeless and wanted our observation process to be about ‘improving’ rather than ‘proving’, we set about observing all staff for a full lesson observation. We (the whole of SLT were involved, in pairs) chose the lesson (based on logistics of timetables rather than anything else) and gave staff a few days notice that we would be visiting the lesson, at which point they were invited to outline how things were going with the group and whether they would like us to focus on any particular areas of practice they were working on. As much as anything else, this first round was about exposing people to a new of thinking and of doing. Ultimately, we want to be in a position where we can visit any lesson at any time and not have staff feeling uncomfortable, but that doesn’t happen overnight. What it did do was warm people up to the idea of being observed and then exploring areas for development in a way that doesn’t rely on rubrics or proformas that are underpinned by grades and Ofsted-speak. Feedback was, on the whole, very supportive: dissolving the anxiety about what number a teacher had achieved, and unshackling the discussion from tick-boxes and standards gave a new depth and richness to the conversations taking place post-observation.

At the end of the first team, we then set out about embedding a more refined model: one that was more strategic, that engaged our Subject Leaders in the process of individual and team evaluation (including triangulating what we see in classrooms with other data sources), and which continued the journey away from visiting one-off lessons and focussing instead on building an accurate picture for each member for staff, so that we might better support their individual development. This is how I shared it with staff at a twilight in January:

Twilight 19-01-16I know what you’re thinking: “that looks very time-consuming!” And it is. Very. Especially when you factor in an additional meeting (which isn’t to be rushed) between step 3 and step 4, where the observation team (myself, one of our Deputy Heads and another Assistant Head) sit and discuss what we’ve seen for each member of the department – in detail – to draw together everything we’ve each seen across the observation period (and then there is the time spent preparing for each individual review… more on that later). But it is sooooooo worth it. So very, very worth it.

We, the L&T Team (and, by extension, SLT) have a clearer picture of every teacher’s ‘default’ teaching than at any point in the past, which means we are in a great position to identify individual and collective areas of expertise to harness, and areas of development to work on. We are also switching our Subject Leaders on to the same things in their own teams, and working to support them with drawing on a range of data (from observations, from books, from data sheets etc) to evaluate their teams and plan for growth.

These benefits are borne out of the way we are using a fairly intense series of learning walks rather than single lesson observations. Across the period of a week or two, each member of staff will be seen for a scheduled 20-25 minute slot with a particular group of their choice, at a time of their choice, with a focus of their choice (arrived at in consultation with their Subject Leader, giving opportunity for SL’s to set the agenda, but for staff to retain some sense of ownership over some aspects of the process). It has been pleasing, to say the least, that staff are using this scheduled visit for genuinely development purposes rather than as an opportunity to invite us to see them reverting to showpiece teaching with their favourite group. Alongside this scheduled slot, each member of staff will expect to be seen at least another 3 times (probably more like 5-6 times) for 15-25 minutes during the week or two. When putting the timetable for this together, I endeavour to make sure we are seeing each teacher with a range of teaching groups across the key stages and at different stages of the lesson.

All staff are also engaged in going out on learning walks with a member of the L&T Team – a great opportunity for all staff to see what is happening elsewhere and to do some ‘magpieing’, and also an opportunity for us to support our middle leaders and aspiring middle leaders to develop their noticing skills and to think about the sort of reflective coaching questions that they might now follow-up with colleagues – this will be invaluable in terms of the way we hope our Learning Communities will develop an approach to coaching and peer observations over the next year.

After the L&T team have met to compare notes on what we’ve seen, each member of the subject team is then engaged in a reflective conversation, which is rooted in a more comprehensive analysis than ever before.

Don’t just focus on one pixel on the screen

via BoingBoing.net

Key to the success is the work that goes into preparing for the ‘reflective discussions’ that take place with each individual in the department. There is a whole other post that has been in draft for a while now about the ‘theory’ behind the coaching methodology we are using to drive these discussions and what it looks like in practice, but at the heart of the approach is a desire to change the relationship between observer and observed from one of ‘administrative supervision’ towards one that promotes professional self-regulation within a culture of collegiality and dialogue.

Photo Credit: chaudoueteric via Compfight cc

Visiting a teacher while working with a range of different groups, students, ages etc, allows us to build a mosaic and then focus our discussion on these key themes, rather than just talking through the snapshot of a single lesson which may not reflect the bigger picture: we aren’t just focussing on one pixel on the screen.

In this way (and perhaps counter-intuitively) conducting learning walks across a number of lessons before having a conversation with a colleague (rather than watching a single lesson and then discussing that lesson) enables us to actually be more specific in our discussions in terms of identifying important themes in a teacher’s practice.  This approach lends itself to rich opportunities for reflection that takes us away from what Stephen Covey describes as a ‘dependent’ and direct approach towards an ‘interdependent’ and collaborative reflection (except where a direct approach is necessary, either due to the career stage or level of expertise of the teacher). For example, rather than “student X gave an answer and you simply reformulated it for them – what could you have done differently?” might become, as part of a bigger picture approach that invites deeper reflection on our own assumptions, “when managing class discussion, how do you decide whether to reformulate a student’s answer or whether to put it back to them to develop?”

I can honestly say that the conversations I’ve had with a wide range of colleagues as a result of this approach constitute some of the most stimulating professional discussions I’ve ever had the privilege to be part of.

But these discussions do take careful planning. I typically formulate a few key questions based on the big picture for that teacher, and think carefully about how to sequence them, how to lead into them, how and when to invite reflection, what sort of language I want to use to reinforce the collaborative ambition of the approach. This preparation can often take as much time as the meeting itself (though it is getting quicker!), especially if you anticipate needing supplementary questions to lead the teacher to a particular end-goal rather than simply telling them what they should do to improve their practice (though this is still sometimes necessary).

The final stage, after each teacher has had an individual reflective conversation, is a final meeting between me, the Subject Leader, and their SLT Link. This is a final debrief to ensure we are all on the same page about what the subject team and the individuals in it need to consider moving forward. Progress towards these recommendations are then followed-up through our Link system, though this needs refining.

Where next?

building capacity. Inviting other colleagues to become part of the observation team will allow us to keep on top of it, and help us out with follow-up work where we need to revisit teams/ individuals to support them with specific needs. That said, we won’t rush into this and compromise quality – it takes time and practice to crack conversations in this way. Related to this, we’ll also continue to do the moderation work within the team (and expand this) by way of quality assurance. I’m thinking some video recording of the odd meeting her and there for us to unpick as a team (and to build up a bank of resources for training staff into the coaching methodology)…

Planning for growth…

Earlier this month I shared a quote with staff, hinting at the direction we are heading with our professional development and learning programme. In their excellent book, Professional Capital (2012), Andy Hargreaves (@HargreavesBC) and Michael Fullan (@MichaelFullan1) state

What is needed is a profession that constantly and collectively builds its knowledge base and corresponding expertise, where practices and their impact are transparently tested, developed circulated and adapted. There needs to be a continuous amalgamation of precision and innovation, as well as inquiry, improvisation and experimentation.


Over the last few months I’ve tried to synthesise their work and that of many others (which I’ve blogged about recently), while also reflecting on the successes and challenges we’ve faced in trying to engage staff with learning projects, which culminated in this week’s ‘Celebration of Inquiry’. Today I shared with staff the fruits of that lengthy process with the launch of the themes for next year’s Learning Communities… and I’m very excited…LC

The work of the Learning Communities will form the backbone of our professional development and learning programme next year. We’ve bought staff some time by committing to the introduction of a fixed professional learning slot where once a half-term, students will have a late start to facilitate the meeting of the Learning Communities (we toyed with making it a fixed weekly arrangement to open up a whole host of other development opportunities, but decided to take one step at a time).

Staff have now been asked to read the blurb for each of the 10 themes and identify which Learning Community they would most like to become part of for the year. Although there is some overlap between some of the themes, the overall scope is intentionally broad in order not only to cater to a wide range of personal development and learning interests, but also to ensure that the work of the Learning Communities supports a range of strategic development priorities (i.e. priorities based on what we see as trends from observations etc, as well as priorities relating to the implemention of new courses with increasing challenge and linear assessment).

Within each Learning Community, staff will be supported with identifying and articulating specific inquiry questions to explore. It is likely that a range of different inquiry questions will be explored within each community, but these questions will nest within the group’s theme, allowing for individual direction but maintaining internal alignment of the community.

The focus of each Learning Community is underpinned by a piece of ‘essential reading’. For some of the communities, this consists of carefully selected articles and online resources (blogs, videos etc), while for other groups it is a carefully selected book. Once staff have indicated which community they would like to join, we buy the books! This key reading will be a stimulus for the professional learning of the group: books (or articles and web links where this constitutes the reading material) will be distributed before the start of our nice long summer for staff to read before the first meeting mid-Septemer! Individuals and groups will then derive specific inquiry questions to develop their own practice based on the learning stimulated by their reading and the discussion that ensues.

Each meeting of the Learning Communities will provide opportunity for each member to share their progress, engage in some new learning/ reflection on the reading or other stimulus, and plan for next steps. These meetings will be supported through the use of twilight INSET opportunities to develop all staff as coaches and as observers, as well as supporting staff with the devleopment of research skills (eg framing inquiry questions and measuring impact through soft or hard data, or using peer observation (which will run to the agenda of the observed teacher) or student observation).

Over the course of the year, the intention is to draw upon the developing expertise within these communities and use it to support staff beyond those communities as well. The work will end in a ‘Celebration of Inquiry’ event – it’ll be like the one we had earlier this week, but on a larger scale… I envisage all staff will be involved in sharing their learning from across the year…

I for one can’t wait!