Exclusions… is this the real issue?

Earlier this year I saw a plea on twitter where someone asked “Does anyone teach statistics?”

My first thought was “don’t we all?” Initially, I had a wry smile and congratulated myself on my wittiness, but then it felt more profound. As individuals, of course, we teach the faces in front of us, but, the bigger picture, the system, it just boils down to stats, how sad is that?

I recently had an unrelated argument where I said “I don’t want to think about the statistics, they’re irrelevant to me” for which I was criticised and reminded of my trade. But, fundamentally, it’s true. We look at cohorts, patterns, national averages, benchmarks and grades and they are beheld as the beacon of reason. But they are not what really matters, we are in this trade to serve our students, not the numbers, not the powers that be, not OFSTED.

I’m not devaluing statistics, of course not, they serve a huge purpose and provide some perspective on the hugely complex world of education. But we’re more than that.

So I come to my point on exclusions:

exclusions

A quick google search for synonyms is entirely negative, of course it is, exclusion, by its very nature, is a negative word. Certainly, to be excluded from a school has a huge stigma, both for the student and the school, and stigma are universally damaging. Here lies my argument. Do exclusions have to be negative? Or, could we view it through an alternative lens? Maybe, if we changed our narrative, we could change the outcomes for some of our most vulnerable students.

Let’s compare the education system with another huge system: Healthcare. Now I know that comparisons between education and medicine have been heavily criticised, but this analogy stands strong for me.

Generally speaking, most of us find ourselves attending our GP or A&E as our first point of contact. For the most part, our needs are served well by these highly skilled, educated professionals, who have the huge task of treating a myriad of conditions, and they do a brilliant job: we invest a lot on our health system, and as such we are rewarded with longevity of life.

Out healthcare system is internationally renowned, lauded as best practice, and is effective. We have a first point of contact, our GP or A&E doctor, who work within their remit and when needs are greater than their expertise, they refer to a specialist. By and large, this works brilliantly.

Now I think we can all agree that being under the care of a specialist is common sense. Your needs are complex, let the person who knows the most about those set of needs take care of them, as the likelihood is, your care will be fit for purpose, more effective and more efficient.

Further still, do we view our lovely 11 year olds as being excluded from primary school when they transition to secondary school? Of course not! We accept that primary schools have done a fantastic job with them up to that point, but secondary schools, are best equipped to deal with the needs of an adolescent. They have their subject specialists and slightly different systems to cope with their need. On the whole this works, and no one is in uproar about children leaving primary school to start their new journey at secondary school.

I appreciate this analogy might not be perfect, but I think if we change our perspective, instead of being outraged by exclusion rates, seeing it as a school “giving up” on that student and look at it as a stage in a process to give that student access to the highest quality care, from those who are truly experts: The best places to give them the best possible chance at a successful future. It’s not alternative provision but appropriate provision.

Change the histrionics of impersonal statistics on exclusion rates, that provide click bait, to focus on the individual and their support post exclusion (or referral?). Perhaps if we focus on developing a world renowned appropriate provision system, with the right funding, support and less stigma, we might stand a chance of changing the life chances of these young people.

So, instead of berating schools for excluding, scolding head teachers and principals for making one of the toughest decisions of their careers or shaming academy chains, why not use this energy to bring about change in the provision for our most vulnerable children, in the setting most specialised for them. Better funding, better training, and more provision in each area.

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Research Leads… what is all the fuss about?

I love research! I love seeing how, why and when things work and for whom. It’s quite simply, amazing!

Prior to my career in education I worked in biological research, examining the biochemical pathways involved in immune suppression during chemotherapy. It was great. You ask a question, you lay out your experiment, control your variables and hey presto, you have a definitive answer: This causes this to happen and then this is the consequence. Clear cut. It’s pretty satisfying.

But education is not quite the same. People, schools, communities, we’re all different. You are rarely controlling your variables, certainly not all of them.

Which has raised a lot of questions and (rightly so) caused a lot cynicism about the whole field of educational research. I have endless discussions with non-teacher friends “What is a Research Lead?” they just don’t get the point of it: Everyone is different so why bother using research when you can’t get an answer that is ubiquitous?

Well, I come back to something I heard Steve Higgins say:

“It gives us our best bets.”

Poor CPD Provision

Over the years I have endured some numbing CPD. I especially remember one inset day, the school had paid for an expensive outside provider to deliver on tackling underachievement in pupil premium boys. Looking back, a better question was probably needed, but it was the opening gambit that really epitomised the “training day”. 

“I’ve been asked to come here to talk to you about raising achievement in pupil premium boys. But, if I could do that I would be a very rich man, so that’s not going to happen.” 

The day was a disaster, he was clearly ill-prepared, lacked knowledge, both of educational strategy and of the school’s context and was not fit for the job. But he was allowed to ‘train’ staff, collect a day’s fee and go on his merry way, leaving, at best, a group of staff none the wiser on how to tackle our school’s priorities or, at worst, people practising what he preached.

I’m still appalled that this was allowed to happen. Education and staff training is too precious to get wrong. Money, time and resources are all wasted to no avail. So, there must be a better way. Of course there is, that’s the Research Lead.

Ideology

I recently saw this on a post from Russel Brand, now I am sure it was meant as some sort of inspirational quote, but, as consumers of evidence,we should all take this on board:

russ

Because, what if you’re wrong? The stakes are too high.

I think it is fair to say that people enter into the education because they want to help young people. The trouble is, because of our background, family, education or even subjects studied, our views on how to best help our students are wide and varied. So, it is our job to look at the best available evidence to decide upon what is best for those that we serve in our context.

What worries me are a body of professionals who ‘believe’ what they are doing is right, just because. Give me the evidence you are right. How is what you are doing serving your students to have better outcomes? In our profession, we should not be self-serving, self-indulgent or self-righteous. We should serve our students to the best of our abilities, give them the best bet of success, and that means reviewing all the available research, not listening to one side of the story and being open minded to a range of views.

It is wiser to utilise time on something that has a body of evidence behind it, potentially decades of evidence, meta-analysis, robust challenge and peer review, than the thing the school up the road are doing and it probably looks good.

Now, there is a caveat to this, I would identify as a traditionalist. But, I am also open minded. I am open to discussion, I am open to being wrong. I am open to critically evaluating evidence that does not suit my line of thinking.

Critical consumer of evidence

Using research alone is not a silver bullet. We have to be a critical consumers of evidence, be cynical, be dubious, question everything! There is literally tonnes of research evidence out there, some of which may not be as reliable as others. Always look behind claims, check the reliability of studies, for example ask yourself:

  • What is the cohort size?
  • Are there any sponsors for the study? Who are they? Are they invested in the outcome?
  • Does this study fit your context?
  • How was the data collected?

Essentially you are sorting the metaphorical wheat from the chaff. Giving your school initiatives the best chance of success.

I firmly believe, whatever your stand point, whether you are a ‘trad’ or a ‘prog’, you should be investing your time in evidence. Not because you have a bias towards a certain school of thought, but our young people deserve to be given the best chance.

As educators we have a massive responsibility to the students in our care, and that can (and arguably should) involve questioning the educational status quo. Whether that be in your own classroom or on a whole school level. We should question all that we do, just because you’ve always done group work, for example, does that mean it is the right thing for your students? What is the evidence for and against usual practices, and most importantly, is there something more effective you could using your precious learning time for?

Improving CPD Provision

This is where being evidence informed and utilising Research Leads really does come into its own. We are really fortunate in our school; I am part of a Research Lead Team of 3: @MissJoT , @MissRegardless and I have taken an evidence based approach to our whole school CPD offering. Both in terms of its structure and its content. We have dedicated CPD to empowering staff in areas such as direct instruction, modelling, metacognition, memory and retrieval.

During this time we have seen a year on year upward trend in our outcomes. Of course, correlation and causation are not the same thing, however, it certainly does give us a platform to further evaluate what we are doing and build up further evidence of our approach.

Throughout this journey we have spent time looking at our school context and really working out what is appropriate for us here. We are really clear that we do not want to do things because they are fashionable. We do things because they are needed and there is strong evidence to support their efficacy.

Impact

We spend a significant proportion of time evaluating what we do and we are constantly refining our approach. This includes getting as much feedback from staff and students as possible.

It is fantastic to hear students talking about how much they enjoy their lessons, how they feel in control of their revision and impact this has their confidence.

I am not that teacher who posts on social media the “Look at what the kids got me” followed by preposterous amounts of cards, presents and “World’s Best Teacher” mugs (is that because I don’t get them…? I’ll leave you guessing on that one!) But, following a recent lesson on antibiotics and microbial growth a student said me:

“Miss, I love our lessons, this one was so interesting, you really know what you’re talking about, I’ve learnt loads.”

This was my lesson:

 

 

agar plate

 

Nothing whizz or bang, just me, the visualiser, a picture and lots and lots of Q&A. And this a story replicated across departments and classrooms across the school. We are free to teach, to do our jobs and students can learn without interference from time wasting activities that look good for show.

Staff morale has also been impacted. We are regularly updated by their positives in lessons, meetings and interactions across the school. Staff report that they feel empowered to do their job and not constrained by ideology that is not fit for learning.

So, I come back to my initial statement: “I love research! I love seeing how, why and when things work and for whom. It’s quite simply, amazing!” And this is a standpoint I stick by.

Whether you are a Research Lead, have Research Leads in your school or not, we can all be research informed and use that to influence our own practice, influence those around us and help guide change.

We are in a fortunate position in shaping the future of our students, and it is imperative that we effectively utilise the how, why, when and for whom in our schools. Giving them the best bet of success. For all of us, it boils down to this

Is there anything more important than being informed?

 

 

 

 

 

Explicit teaching of metacognition… are we doing it justice?

Metacognition is a huge buzz word in the world of education currently, but it’s hardly news. Research on it has been published for decades; but, early on in my career I mostly remember it being a fancy word that meant nothing to me but looked great on a job application. I’m not afraid to admit that I spent a considerable amount of time trying to decipher some level of understanding of it as an educational concept. Almost everything I found encompassed the immortal phrase: ‘thinking about thinking’; but what does that even mean? I had to dig deeper and eventually found “An awareness and understanding of one’s own thought processes.” This was slightly more useful, but hardly made me a better practitioner. Quite the enigma.

In 2018 I was fortunate to attend a series of Research Schools Network training days, run by Huntington Research School on “Metacognition and Self-Regulated Learning” and I finally developed a real insight into this mystical concept that had eluded me for years. It boils down to this:

“I am engaging in metacognition if I notice that I am having more trouble learning A than B; if it strikes me that I should double check C before accepting it as a fact.” (Flavell, 1976).

Developing metacognition has long since ranked highly on the EEF’s teaching and learning toolkit and time and time again meta-analysis after meta-analysis shows that metacognition can improve a student’s outcome (currently at +7 months). Therefore, after significant analysis of our own school’s situation, further developing our students’ metacognitive abilities is the journey we set out on.

As a consequence, I have spent a long time reflecting on myself as a student, and think it’s fair to say that I am a far better learner now that I am a teacher than I ever was at school, college or university. Not because I didn’t want to learn, I was a massive geek, but I just lacked the skills to be truly effective and to make the most of my time. I would spend hours endlessly reading, re-reading and highlighting textbooks. The copious amount of notes I made, I am convinced, single-handedly, contributed to the deforestation crisis. But why didn’t I know better? Well, no one ever taught me to be a good student, it really was left to chance, which is a disservice I believe we should avoid at all costs for our students today.

As part of our school CPD model this year we have invested a significant amount of time to train staff in what metacognition is; why it’s important; what some of the research says; how the EEF guidance report is relevant to them; and what it looks like in their subject area.

Ensuring staff are up-skilled in their own comprehension of this was first priority, explicitly showing them the ‘what’ of cognition, metacognition and how both of these are intrinsically linked to motivation. We then set about the ‘what does this look like’ in terms of students planning, monitoring and evaluating their own work.

 

PME explanationTaken from EEF ‘Metagnition & self-regulated learning guidance report).

It was important that subjects took ownership of this; what it looks like in maths is very different to what it looks like in history, RE or DT.  This involved them spending time observing students in their own or colleagues’ lessons, reviewing their curriculum and having departmental discussions to identify what the process of planning, monitoring and evaluating looks like for their subject area.

It is fair to say lots of staff struggled with this and lots of follow up sessions were needed to fully clarify what was meant by “planning, monitoring, and evaluating” until each subject area had a clear vision of ‘what this looks like for us?’ and more importantly, how could they ensure this was incorporated in what they do with students.

During this process we wanted to be very explicit that this shouldn’t be an arduous, add-on task, but something that is embedded into their day to day teaching (lots of which already was) and to be mindful of how to scaffold for those students where this process did not come as easily. Remember, metacognitive ability is not the reserve of older students or those who are “higher-ability” (shudder).

Our focus is to get all students ‘over the bar’ in every aspect of their education, their academic rigour and ability to learn: “Self-regulated learners are aware of their strengths and weaknesses, and can motivate themselves to engage in, and improve, their learning.” (EEF “Metacognition & Self-regulated Learning Guidance Report”, 2018)

In an expert learner, these processes are unconscious and automatic. ‘These learners are proactive in their efforts to learn because they are aware of their strengths and limitations and because they are guided by personally set goals and task-related strategies, such as using an arithmetic addition strategy to check the accuracy of solutions to subtraction problems. These learners monitor their behaviour in terms of their goals and self-reflect on their increasing effectiveness. This enhances their self-satisfaction and motivation to continue to improve their methods of learning.’ (Zimmerman, 2010).

In novice learners, however, it can be valuable to make them explicit, so we have introduced the following concepts (using Tom Sherrington’s “The Learning Rainforest” & Tom Sherrington and Sara Stafford, CTC, Aug 01, 2018)

Explicit Teaching of Metacognitive Strategies

Before I go any further, this is your friend, use it wisely, use it widely.

vis

 

  • Make your thought processes explicit to students, verbalise your thinking, show them how the expert tackles a problem
  • Produce real-time examples
  • Model, model, model! Use the visualiser, show them how to do it in the format they have, reduce their cognitive load!
  • Explaining, questioning and giving feedback – make this a highly interactive process
  • Check for understanding before moving to a guided practice phase; scaffold the support, guided by students’ needs.

Throughout this process explaining your decision making is key:

  • Why you chose that strategy
  • Why that is a good paragraph opener
  • Why you chose that piece of equipment
  • Why did you sequence your thoughts that way

By doing so you are truly articulating what it’s like to think like an expert, and they can replicate that process.

I vividly remember being an undergraduate, sitting in a cell biology lecture desperately trying to learn  the functionality of Okazaki fragments (involved in DNA replication). It was a complex theory and one which I really struggled to comprehend (I still do now in all truthfulness), but, on reflection, there was no ‘strategy’ taught, no modelling of it as a concept, merely words that could have come straight from a textbook. No wonder it was difficult for me to understand. I had some metacognitive strategies, but they weren’t well developed, nor were they suited to the cognition that was supposed to be taking place in the room. For me, the cycle was broken.

This example, adapted from EEF guidance report, demonstrates how questioning could be structured to support a student in planning, monitoring and evaluating their work:

metacog slide

As the report highlights: “These prompts must accompany instruction in the relevant specific cognitive strategies […] In this example, pupils will only be able to consider these questions and approaches if they understand the importance of perspective and the different techniques”, ie the cognition (knowledge) is the overriding factor in the metacognition of the student.

These essential steps in explicit teaching of metacognition are the bedrock to this process; but my question remains: “Are we doing it justice?”

I still have students making endless notes for their revision, because they wanted to work hard and ‘look like they’re doing something”.  They are not planning effective strategies, monitoring how they are progressing towards deep understanding or evaluating their effectiveness. Why?

I believe this lies in the societal expectations of effective study, instant gratification and how parents reflect on their own education. In order to crack this, it is imperative to encourage parental engagement in the process, but more importantly, parental faith in your expertise: Give parents the knowledge of how to do it effectively, the tools to support their child, and the why of its benefit and the perfect trinity is in place: teacher, student & parent. Thus making it a habitual process through all aspects of their life; it’s not just the classroom where this takes place. It’s entrenched throughout their everyday.

This is particularly true for those students who are our most vulnerable, who may not come to our lessons with this prerequisite. Let’s teach them to be students, good ones, all of them.

Developing the attributes of a successful learner is so important, we must do it justice and not allow this to boil down to some beautifully laminated posters that half hang off a classroom wall, or are stuck in teacher’s planner, never to be considered whilst actually planning. It should be entrenched in all that we do for our students.

Academically, I have been successful, I’ve worked hard but I’ve not worked smart. I look back on hours spent in the library, notes after notes after notes, and I shudder to think of how I could have been so much more efficient. It’s our responsibility to ensure our students do not have this same experience and have the cognitive and metacognitive ability to regulate their learning, make the right decisions for their method of working and have the best chance of success in this ever competitive world.

lets keep going

Impostor syndrome… is it so bad?

 

fake-nose-and-glasses

 

Noun: impostor: a person who pretends to be someone else in order to deceive others, especially for fraudulent gain.

I’ve recently read the big hit by Adam Kay “This is going to hurt” which outlines his life as a junior doctor. One the biggest themes running throughout* is his feelings of being less than adequate to do his job. One that he trained for 5 years to do! He was routinely in situations diagnosing and treating patients where Google felt like his only ally. He well and truly had imposter syndrome. It occurred to me, if a doctor (well he’s no longer on the GMC, so he could afford to be more honest!) could own up to these feelings, when his action or inaction could literally mean life or death, I think owning up to and owning imposter syndrome as a teacher is doable. (*the other major theme is the absolute annihilation of the NHS by an inadequate Health Secretary, but this blog is not the place for that!)

I had always accepted impostor syndrome as part of the job, especially as an early career teacher, but, I assumed that this would soon fade with time, and I would soon be part of the omniscient elite of ‘experienced teachers’.

So, you try to become that: The experienced teacher.

And now I’m a Research Lead, and apparently part of this crew! A big part of this remit is to plan and deliver whole school CPD around the school’s development plan. So here I find myself standing in front of peers, delivering sessions. Eyes staring hoping for a glimpse of something new, exciting, useful even. We’ve all been there, dry mouthed, with an empty head and long silence where your words should be. Who am I to stand in front of these people, what did I know that could offer any value to their practice?

Having received training and CPD by people whose unwavering confidence could outrank the likes of Donald Trump, what am I doing trying to fill those shoes?

I vividly remember delivering my first ever whole school CPD session (at my first school), the focus was AfL. I’d been teaching little more than 18 months, but I was keen and eager and a good puppet for someone’s agenda. Standing there shaking, geed on by an enthusiastic Head “Go on Louise, you can do this”, so I ploughed on, robotic voice and beads of sweat adding to the effect. I was a real impostor. I had no real understanding of AfL, I just knew what I’d been told to say. It was their agenda, not mine, but I wanted to impress. I had no place there, I spouted out something around exit tickets, thought triangles and brain dumps, but was it of any use? I highly doubt it. I was unconvincing because I was unconvinced.

During ResearchEd national conference, 2018, I witnessed a debate between some of education’s elite, Mark Enser, Clare Sealy, and Sri Pavar (to name a few), examining “What should a 21st century curriculum look like?”  chaired by Christine Counsell, and I couldn’t help but feel awe struck at the knowledge oozing from every pore. Not only knowledge, but passion and the ability to retort on a pin head. The impostor syndrome strikes again. To the outside world, we were the same species, but so different in this habitat.

It really struck a chord when Sri Pavar discerned that a student’s ability to join in on the “conversation” of science is a rite of passage, as opposed to merely accepting facts laid out before them. So when is a teacher’s rite of passage? Upon completing ITT, submitting a Master’s thesis, time served? Or ever? Will I/we always feel like impostors? Even the most confident of colleagues experience it. But why and to what purpose?

As a biologist, I teach a whole host of biological concepts, all of which confer some kind of advantage to survival to the organism. So that got me thinking, what is the advantage of impostor syndrome? There must be one.

After much soul searching, I believe I have found the advantage to me:

My doubts have made me:

  • Read more, thus develop my knowledge and understanding of the learning processes
  • Communicate with colleagues on the best strategies for learning, both subject-specifically and purely pedagogical.
  • Question everything! *

I see so many posts from teachers talking about the dreaded imposter syndrome and I am almost certain they have no reason to feel that way. But in the climate of performance related pay, high stakes observations, media scrutiny and a general political trend of teacher bashing, is it any wonder so many of us feel this way? The feeling of inadequacy is a powerful weapon for those who do not want teachers to be empowered. Whether it be to use specific instructional strategies, behaviour management techniques, lead a school to success or to simply do our jobs! But, in the immortal words of Sir Francis Bacon “Knowledge is power” and knowing the effect imposter syndrome can have, and, more importantly, how it can be an advantage, is key.

Reflecting on my doubts, they have been far from crushing, but eye-opening to a whole world of professional development, I once didn’t even know existed. The process of teaching is a complex spider’s web of variables and nuance, making it an unsolvable Rubix Cube. But isn’t it great to have such a wealth of knowledge at our fingertips and the confidence in our misunderstandings to embrace it?

So, are we all always impostors? Or, would a more accurate description be an eternal work in progress?

* Especially this blog post! It’s been in my drafts since October, 2018!