10 Quick Vocabulary Activities

Just a quick blog that could have been a thread, but then I thought I would need to upload the resource anyway… so… here we go…

I posted the tweet above and got some amazing suggestions of activities and links to research – bless the world of Twitter. So in the spirit of that sharing here are the final ten activities I’ve created resources for. I should probably load this preamble with the fact that we have selected the words that link to our curriculum concepts. For the examples I’ve given, it’s a Y9 unit which explores ‘Prejudice in Literature’ and the ten concept nouns are prejudice, tolerance, compassion, autonomy, segregation, marginalisation, radicalisation, equity, objectivity, and subjectivity.

Last bit of preamble – this isn’t about learning lots and lots of fancy words. This is about strengthening their vocabulary to enable them to discuss the bigger concepts within the curriculum, and to be precise in their word choices when discussing texts (these ten words are the focus for a full term). The idea with these activities is repeated exposure to the words and playing with them, their nuances, and using the words in discussion/written work as much as possible. I’ve tried to address common issues I’ve found when students are learning how to use words, so that as a teacher I can target my own class with the right activity.

The first five tasks are essentially worksheets requiring written engagement, the second five are PPT slides requiring discussion.

[DISCLAIMER] – I haven’t used any of this with kids yet, although I’ve done some form of each of them before. Don’t heckle me with mistakes/issues/ why they won’t work (although I do welcome feedback). Genuinely.

1. Which image and why?

I suppose this one is about students playing with the boundaries of the word, and to an extent creating their own version of the word. I’ve seen suggestions where people get students to draw a version of the word, which is obviously easier, but if I hear 3 people saying “I can’t draw” my stress levels hit the roof. So this is a happy medium for me.

I’m actually asking them to rank the images so I want some kind of reasoning here as to why one image doesn’t quite fit the word for them. Of course, the reality is that all three can work, and there is no right picture. More examples below. I used a mixture of flaticon and thenounproject to find the images.

2. Which form of the word?

This one comes from when students use the incorrect form of the word for a sentence, even if they clearly understand the semantics. I originally had just the words that needed to go in the box but then I threw some more in (my Y9 class are already quite familiar with the words) but this could be changed to just have the correct words in the box.

3. Which sentence and why?

Here what I’m really looking for is understanding the nuance of the word. This is for when students can use it technically correctly but make statements that just don’t feel right – you know? I have no idea what I mean by this but I suppose this can allow discussion over why the one sentence doesn’t quite fit the definition of the word. This is all about building that full mental model of the word for them so they can use it confidently.

4. Which subject fits?

For this one it’s about adapting the word beyond the English classroom so we’re actually building fluency and articulacy rather than compartmentalising in the one classroom. So I’ve just come up with ways to relate the words to other subjects and they just have to answer the question using the word. A bit more open and opinion based this one, and just another way to use the words.

5. Can you finish the sentence?

For a long time I’ve been asking students to write a sentence with a new word and just hoping that they will know how to do that. I’ve pretty much completely moved away from this as a task now, in the hope that if I embed the vocabulary enough, they will do this without being forced. For me it’s about showing them how to include the word and them giving the justification for that word, so I’ve moved more towards this sort of thing now. I’ve stuck with the varied word forms too so that they are again, playing with the word as much as possible.

6. Positive or negative?

For this one I just want to build their understanding of how to use the word and then develop the understanding of the right prefix attached to that word (often students pick these up, but sometimes they will guess… why not just tell them?). This one is a quick 3 minute thing – discuss, hands up, give correct one. Super speedy.

7. What’s the news?

This goes back to the subject one – I want students to see the words in lots of contexts. I also think that I get in a bit of a “definition rut” where I keep giving the same examples. Looking these headlines up has given me some new ways in to the words. Another speedy discussion – feedback style activity. As I’m writing this I’m thinking another version of this might be to blank out the word from the headline so they have to guess which word fits, but I suppose that’s a task for a slightly different aim.

8. How does this link?

Making this slide did make me panic that I had gone back ten years and was creating one of my early career ENGAGING opening starters (if Mr Birling was one of these biscuits, which would he be and why?) … but then I gave myself a shake and decided that there could be some real quality discussion over this. Lots of variations obviously: give them one word and they can rank the images, give them no words and they have to explain the images using the vocabulary list, give them fewer images …. the world (Google image) is your oyster.

9. How many words?

This is just your age-old morphology lesson disguised as students coming up with words. But then obviously you just give them the words and discuss them (second slide), because that’s the quicker way to arrive at learning.

10. Can you sort the word?

Lastly this is essentially an examples/non-examples models style task. Students sort the examples into whether they fit the word or don’t fit the word (bit of pair work, classic) and then we go through each one with a quick show of hands and then get people to justify one way or the other. Then, if needed, I can explain why it is/ isn’t an example.

Hopefully something there is useful. Now what you’re really here for – a free resource. (Disclaimer again – I use the fonts anitypewriter and KGlegohouse and to be frank since this “quick thread” has turned into a “quick blog” and then a long post I have not made them format friendly – it’s probably quicker to just download the fonts to be fair.

@TMEnglishIcons Presentation

I had a great time in Manchester over the weekend with @beckyteachopia for the TMIcons English event. It was an absolute privilege to speak (perhaps not so much to have to follow so many other incredible speakers!) and share some thoughts on modelling planning.

In our talk we shared the purpose behind lots of teaching and modelling around planning essays, the key ingredients of a plan, and strategies for embedding planning. You can watch us in the final 10 minutes here, although we would recommend watching all of the amazing sessions!

I haven’t posted much on here about our new book, Essays for Excellence – but want to share a little more information. Inside the book are 40 essays for each of the most popular texts – Macbeth, A Christmas Carol, An Inspector Calls, and the Power and Conflict poetry cluster. Each text has 6 questions given. 2 of the questions have three essay responses – clear, thoughtful and critical. These all stem from the same plan and the same ideas/evidence, showing how ideas can be developed/refined/explored in more detail in order to move up the mark scheme. The final four essays are all at the critical level, in other words, the top of the mark scheme.

The book has been designed by teachers for teachers. We feel strongly that it’s the book we wish we had ten years ago, but also the book we need as subject leaders who want to discuss and dissect what makes a good essay with our teams. For this reason we decided to include essay annotations and prompt questions to explore, as teachers or students, alongside each essay. Below, before our PPT presentation from this weekend’s event, I have shared an example essay at the clear level for An Inspector Calls. Many people have been asking what the format is, so we thought it best to share an example essay. If you want to take a look at the book, it’s available here from John Catt, or here from Amazon.

Note – opening this image in a new tab will make it full size.

Ten Takeaways from ‘The Complete Guide to Pastoral Leadership’ by Amy-May Forrester

Ostensibly, this is a book written by a pastoral leader, about pastoral leadership, for prospective or current pastoral leaders. But, I have a secret: it’s not. It’s a book written for everyone. It’s now top of my list to buy for members of my team. I hope this blog will explain why.

I don’t think it’s as simple as “we are all pastoral leaders”. I guess we are, in one way or another, whether leading a tutor group or just students – but that’s not why I think this book is so useful. It’s essentially a book about how to build relationships (with parents and students) through incredibly high expectations and standards. Amy clearly understands that to improve a child’s life we can’t make excuses for them (my absolute mantra) and every suggestion in the book focuses on this.

There are lots of practical suggestions for pastoral leaders, but as an experienced teacher and curriculum leader, I took so much from it, from tips on parent contact, difficult conversations with staff, dealing with common pastoral issues (which anyone can be faced with) and embedding a culture of high expectations. If it’s not obvious by this point, I would definitely recommend the book, currently a bargain at £11.99 on Amazon Here – and if you’re not convinced yet, here are the ten main takeaways from the book: strategies, musings, processes (a bit of everything essentially).

1. The role of a pastoral leader

I don’t think at any point when I trained, or indeed in the early years of my career, anyone really explained the difference to me between pastoral leaders and curriculum leaders. I guess it’s something you just end up choosing between, for whatever reason (passion, right place right time, availability). So in the book’s first chapter, Amy wrote something which I have highlighted and returned to since:

“Learning really does have the power to change lives for the better – the role of a pastoral leader/head of year is to clear the path for this to happen, to operate in the background, keeping the wheels turning as the driving force of changing lives”

Amy-May Forrester The Complete Guide to Pastoral Leadership

I can’t agree more. But also this draws a clearer distinction between a pastoral role and a more academic role in a school. As a Head of Department myself, and especially in the days when I didn’t have any responsibility, when to go to a pastoral leader was never made clear. And I think what can happen is people will go to them for issues which in reality can be dealt with independently, through the tutor, or through the parent. And this time takes them away from the issue at hand, as Amy says, which is clearing a path for them to succeed.

2. The disastrous pastoral practices

When Amy explained the disastrous practices of a pastoral leader, I felt strongly that these are not exclusive to pastoral leadership. Anyone in a school an fall into the trap of trying to “win a child over” by making allowances – I think it’s common, and if I’m honest, at times, it can work. But – and this is the important thing that Amy explains – these practices can end up spiralling, until students are “leaving lessons” in order to “have a chat” with that teacher that lowered the boundaries at one point or another. It’s truly dangerous.

As Amy explained, and something I feel to my core, if we do this, we only take away the child’s chance to succeed – because ultimately students need to be in lessons. This is a message that runs through all of the book, everything comes back to making it possible for students to be learning in lessons. I think at times this is where a pastoral role can go wrong. It’s in forgetting that this is the core purpose of school and education, and once this is lost, this no longer becomes the priority for the child either.

3. Middle leadership is middle leadership

I said this book was for everyone, and I felt a lot of the messages to heads of year are similar messages needed by heads of department. There is an explanation at one point of what happens when pastoral leaders undermine teachers, and the knock on effect of this. I think this goes for heads of department too. As Amy explains:

“If students perceive you as someone that will overrule their teachers, or who will backtrack on a sanction if they’re difficult enough about it, you aren’t doing anyone any favours”

Amy-May Forrester The Complete Guide to Pastoral Leadership

There’s a lot of truth in this, for people at all levels of a school – from senior leadership through to tutor. When children try to push to get out of a sanction, it’s because this has happened before – a lot of children don’t bother. Some have learnt this behaviour from home, where parents have put a sanction in place, and then taken it away to avoid any form of conflict. If we start to do this in schools, we are sending the same message, that students can get out of something if they push hard enough. But where does that stop?

Ultimately, at a school, we are one big team. Pastoral, academic, learning support – wherever we work, we have to never undermine each other. The minute we do this we give students a way in. Amy’s emphasis on this for pastoral leaders in particular is well rationalised and incredibly important.

4. Why sanctions work

I think as someone who has always thought strong behaviour systems are central to what I do – in my classroom, department, whatever it is – it’s easy to get a reputation as someone who is harsh, unfair, or worse – some evil tyrant who wants kids to suffer. We’ve all seen the polarised views on behaviour on Twitter. Either you’re soft and want them to get away with everything or you’re evil and enjoy punishing children.

However, as Amy notes: “it is the certainty of a sanction, when a rule is broken, that matters”. The truth is that the severity of the sanction doesn’t necessarily deter. Why might students hand in homework in one classroom and not another? Because they know where they will be sanctioned, and where they won’t. It’s hardly rocket science. Adults do it too – if we find a loophole and know we won’t get caught it, most people will exploit it. Students do the same. The expectation of the sanction has to be consistent in order to prevent the poor behaviour choices, as Amy explains.

5. Authority and boundaries as a positive

I return again to some comments on behaviour. There are also some great case studies throughout the book with examples of what a HOY could do in certain situations, and, whilst enlightening and useful for me to read, these were not as applicable to my daily teaching practice.

The aforementioned polarisation of attitudes to behaviour comes up again when Amy discusses the importance of boundaries and authority. This was a particularly affirming section for me, again where Amy concisely and succinctly explains why students need structure and rules in a school: “it creates environments where the children know the adults are in control”. She goes on to explain that this creates a safe environment, which is ultimately what students (and I would argue, parents and teachers too) actually want. They want to come to school and feel safe to learn. I wholeheartedly agree.

6. What ‘No Excuses’ really means

I thank the Gods at John Catt for letting Amy write this book (hyperbole? You decide) because her explanation of what a ‘No Excuses’ or ‘Zero Tolerance’ actually means goes down in history as one of my favourite sections of an Edubook.

People will bemoan schools (or teachers) who work within a ‘No Excuses’ parameter for students, without really realising that how they deal with things doesn’t necessarily mean that every student who steps out of line is ejected from the school and asked to find somewhere else to go. That never has been what it has meant. Often, to argue this approach, people will give examples of students with difficult backgrounds, or financial difficulties – e.g “if child x arrived at school without a tie, a zero tolerance school would send them home and take their right to learn away”. This is rarely the case. It’s about having mechanisms in place so that if child x does arrive in school without a tie, it is by choice, and a sanction might be necessary.

As Amy says “crucially, though, this cannot become an excuse”. Too often, anyone – not just those in a pastoral role – can make excuses for students. It’s a slippery slope that often leads to the student expecting excuses to made for them. Given an inch, they will take a mile… as all humans will. The truth is that once we give an inch the boundary shifts, and that’s what No Excuses means to me. It’s superbly explained by Amy.

7. Working with parents

Once I became a middle leader, my contact with parents increased. I think this is something that is often forgotten in books focused on becoming a curriculum lead – they focus on curriculum, pedagogy, leadership of people, but never how to deal with your changing role in the relationship with parents. I wish I had read this book 3 years ago because there are some great tips for HODs even though it is aimed at pastoral leaders.

In the past 3 years there have been circumstances where I have had to intervene in situations with parents where things have already got quite tricky. I could have used some of Amy’s tips in these situations! A great one is about building relationships before things become tricky, which is a good one with hindsight, and a great tip for a new pastoral leader. Another valid point is about arriving to a meeting and just listening to the parent, properly listening, and make sure they feel you are actually hearing their concerns, and want to move things forward.

There is a whole chapter on working with parents, and a range of strategies, ideas, processes – it’s a good chapter for any new teacher, let alone a pastoral leader. It’s worth it because working with parents is an integral part of teaching, at any level.

8. Considering and improving attendance

This book has changed my attitude to attendance. I feel it’s important to explain what I mean by that so I don’t sound like a terrible teacher/leader …! I suppose I get frustrated with low attendance, and I definitely recognise that everyone in the school plays a role in improving student attendance. However, what this chapter did, was show me the amount of work, investigation, considerations a pastoral leader has to do to try to improve attendance. And the difficult thing is that something all that work can do in, the attendance won’t improve, and teachers just think you’re not going anything about it.

There were some great practical strategies offered in the book (mainly appropriate for pastoral leaders) but a personal favourite was one that can work for any teacher, which was essentially noticing student once they were back in, and comment on them being back. I do this in lesson without thinking, but not consistently enough. As Amy explains “It shows the student that someone cares about them at a time when they could easily create a narrative that no one does.”

9. Handling difficult conversations with staff

This is something I have written about in great detail, including a ten takeaways from ‘Successful difficult conversations in schools’ blog available here. Amy gives a quick overview of some key thoughts around how to hold these conversations, and I enjoyed what was a practical and clear overview of what to do. As Amy says:

The purpose of any conversation such as this comes from finding out what the problem is and what the barriers are preventing staff from doing what you need, and from working together to prevent it happening again.

Amy-May Forrester The Complete Guide to Pastoral Leadership

I like this sentence as a good summary of why these conversations are important. I think often this is something we assume leaders know how to do. I’ve been a Head of English for 3 years now and it’s only recently I have grown comfortable having these conversations. Amy’s tips around this would be extremely helpful for pastoral leaders whose difficult conversations with parents are obviously more common.

As Amy mentions a lot of times, a pastoral leader’s team is their year group – whilst a HOD might manage anything between 1 and 15 teachers directly, a HOY might lead 100-250 students. But in many ways, pastoral leaders also have to remain in contact with all of the teachers of their year group, along with a tutor team, whose priority may not be organising their tutor period. This will obviously call for difficult conversations, and there is some good guidance for pastoral leaders regarding this in chapter 7.

10. The permanent exclusions debate

I don’t want to go into this in too much detail, mainly because I feel like there is an excellent explanation from Amy in the book and I can’t share the whole thing! All I can say is that I agree on this one, entirely and totally and absolutely, with everything Amy says. It’s worth a read.

Thanks for reading! @lauralolder

Ten things I gained from my swim in the Ofsted waters

Back in November 2021 my school faced an Ofsted visit. Considering Ofsted had called to visit in the days pre-lockdown1, and been told that we were extremely low in numbers due to Covid-19, we knew it was coming.

I had experienced Ofsted twice before this visit. The first one was a early years inspection in between my University years at my mum’s business, a children’s nursery. It was the worse of the three, mainly because they arrive in the morning (no pre-warning!) and then literally sit in the room with you for a long period of time whilst you go about your business playing with the babies, feeding them, getting them down for naps – whilst a continuous stream of questions rained on you. It was a high level of scrutiny. It was a successful inspection, but as an introduction to Ofsted for a wannabe teacher, it was probably not ideal.

My second experience was at my last school. There was, as per the old framework, a feeling of intense stress with the impending arrival. Lots of well-intentioned changes taking place, their arrival met with a late night of marking books and creating lesson plans, followed by a sense of crushing disappointment where I didn’t even see an inspector for the whole day, let alone have any part of my lesson watched (and those lesson plans which took hours remained in carefully colour-coded plastic wallets).

Roll on 2021, with a new framework, a focus on curriculum (the reason I became a HoD) and the choices leaders make. Based on in school department deep dives (a really useful process which helped to prepare me for the real thing and reflect on how we needed to improve – not the same as Mocksted!) I felt that middle leaders, and particularly department leads, were the focus of this new framework. And as a Head of English, I knew they were coming for me. BUT I did no extra preparation for their impending visit. No changes, no data analysis, no lesson plans. Just carrying on with considering how we could be better day-in-day-out, for the sake of no-one from Ofsted, and just for the kids.

They came, they saw, we … did well, I suppose. If you want to know what was said about the department in the report, I’ve put a snippet at the bottom of the blog. Overall it was a healthy process, one that sought to check that all the dots were joined up. This is the best analogy I can use and have used since when I’ve spoken to other schools and their leaders about the process. They were checking that everything joined up – was what the head said true at a whole school level, was what I said true at a department level? Do the classrooms, students, teachers, speak of the same things that I said at the start of the day? Or was I just lying and talking nonsense? I think that’s a fair process. I talked about the journey we had been on in the department and where we were on that journey (obviously not at the end, whoever thinks the curriculum is finished doesn’t understand it) and he just checked that this was all in order.

Below are 10 things I took from the process which might be useful, and, hopefully, reassuring, to those who know it is coming!

1. No need to drown in paperwork

So this one does come with a slight caveat, but I would definitely say that there was no expectation to arrive with folders of paperwork. In fact, I wasn’t asked for a single thing to look at. There is literally no need to have paperwork ready, and if someone tells you you need to have lots to show them … they’re lying.

However, a caveat to all of this: I did arrive with some paperwork, but it was entirely my own choice. I took my curriculum maps, which are in the resource folder I give to all the members of my team at the start of the year (see contents in image below). This was just as a point of reference so I could talk through sequencing, and I found it a useful prop to have on hand. I did not use a single other document though.

2. They aren’t looking for buzz words (or are they?)

Another point which comes with a caveat, but, essentially, they aren’t working through a series of educational buzzwords, and expecting for you to parrot them back. The only word that I was expecting to be said and was indeed said was intent. The rest were formed as questions which sparked an interesting discussion; but on reflection, they could have just said “talk to me about [insert jargon here]” … because that was the intention. I don’t think this is to intentionally trick people – it’s because these things are important, and do form the foundations of a strong department, but it’s about the conversation around curriculum rather than whether you know what the words mean.

Some examples? I wasn’t told to “talk about sequencing” but instead I was told to “Pick a unit in your curriculum and talk about why you have included it and why it’s at that point, how it builds on previous units and leads on to the next ones” – or words to that effect. In other words, justify how you have sequenced your units of work. It’s a better way to be asked it, and I thought it was a great question – but it does take a really strong knowledge of what you’re setting out to do, and why everything is included, to answer it competently. For example “we teach that there because we always have” is not the answer they’re looking for. Another example of lack of buzz words was “How do you know your students are making progress throughout this curriculum” which is really asking about assessment and progress, without the word being used.

3. They want to know everyone is getting a good deal

And I mean the students, not the teachers (although there were some questions around staff wellbeing, so I suppose that might be a focus too!). There was a definite line of enquiry into how we set students, and then whether our curriculum is aimed at all students, and made accessible to all students. For example, the HMI I spoke to was a previous Head of English, so was familiar with the majority of texts we taught. We teach Animal Farm in the run up to Christmas in Y7 and whilst this may create some debate/criticism, I firmly believe it is the right decision for our students and context. And I was able to explain why the choice was made, and he was happy with my response.

This then created a discussion as to whether we teach the text to all of our students. I had to be honest (because he might speak to our older students and some didn’t study it historically) and explain that the text was phased in, initially taught to the higher sets, but for the past three years has been a text everyone has studied. He asked why that decision was made. I explained the reasons why (some were to do with having enough texts for the whole year group, etc), and how we want everyone to access the same literature, the same cultural capital, the same knowledge – but that the path of getting there might be different for some. The conversation then moved on. I’m not sure it would have done so if I had said that we keep the ‘high level literature’ for the top sets.

4. Your intent is really the decisions you make

I think it’s pretty easy to spout out an intent that everyone has learnt verbatim to keep an inspector happy. But the reality is that with curriculum, your intent should be evident in all of the decisions you have made and the journey you have been on. There was a phase of the conversation where he was getting to grips with the intent (not just happy with hearing me spout it out, obviously, which is good, because I obviously added a little *spice* to the phrasing on our documents) and just asking follow up questions to what I had said. How might your curriculum be considered broad? How does it help students to navigate the world? Sort of thing – these aren’t exact questions because to be frank, I can’t remember the exact follow up ones – but this is the vibe – your intent essentially isn’t all they’re interested in.

It’s about the actual decisions made in ensuring the intent gets implemented, and also how far you are along in that journey of implementing that intent. Nothing is as simple as How do you implement that intent? But instead they pick up on specific elements of what you’ve said and want concrete examples within the curriculum. Yet again, knowing what is being taught and when, and why, allows you to fully handle this conversation.

5. Understanding your curriculum sequence is key

This is a bit like the structure question for AQA English language – what happens when and why – is really what they want to know. There were questions over sequencing both in terms of knowledge and actual texts/units – how does one thing lead to another? Why is that placed there? How does the knowledge in Y9 build on the knowledge gained in Y8 … and how does it prepare them for Y10? Again, these aren’t the exact wording of the questions but these are the things I explained based on the open questions asked. There were questions asked across the school about how knowledge had been sequenced, and so a lack of knowledge within a curriculum would limit the ability to respond to this question.

If something in your curriculum isn’t designed to build on something that has already happened, or if the start of your curriculum doesn’t allow a foundation for what is to come, this is something to think about. Because, the way things held together as a narrative was definitely something we returned to a few times when considering different things (like knowledge, assessment, progress or whatever).

6. No need to discuss data (or impact?)

I know for certain that there was not a single specific data outcome mentioned in the entire conversation. The only number he asked for was our A Level uptake (and that’s probably because I had said it was something I wanted to improve, rather than it being a pre-decided agenda). I didn’t need any historical A Level or GCSE data. Since the inspection, people have suggested that might be because of CAGs. But I’m not so sure. At the end of the day, they know the data and it’s not really a test of whether you know the data. The impact of the curriculum decisions was not hugely discussed either. I briefly commented on the impact of knowledge being a focus over the past 4 years, and how we now have students at GCSE who don’t ask us what a simile/metaphor/enjambment/verb is… at an anecdotal level, that’s evidence of impact, I suppose.

In reality he was looking for impact when he went to the department to speak to students, and when he later spoke to the English teachers he had watched. This was where he gauged if my comments on limited marking/assessment points were having the desired impact; this is where he checked if students really were retaining knowledge; this is where he saw if the level of consistency I claimed we were at was actually happening. (Note – thankfully he did, but, if I had bent the truth slightly in my conversation, I have zero doubt he would have caught me out.)

7. Know your department well at any given moment

What I mean by this is, expect them to ask you what is being taught that day, and for you to know the answer to that. Obviously, everyone gets the “call” and can to some extent fake this. “Tomorrow, when Ofsted come, I want everyone to be teaching Macbeth 2.2” – I can’t bear any of this. If the consistency is already in place, none of this needs to happen. The reality is, also, that I think they can see through this facade. Imagine walking into a classroom, looking at a book where students have notes up to 4.3 but suddenly today they’re back on the murder scene. Then another classroom all of the notes being on language paper 1 and suddenly you’re watching some analysis of Macbeth. Your knowledge of what’s going on in each classroom on any average lesson will make this part of the Ofsted day much easier.

As we walked over to the classroom, he asked what I expected to see. I explained that half of Y10 were being taught, along with half of Y9. He asked what Y10 were doing. I explained that they were studying A Christmas Carol, and from my recent learning walks and corridor chats everyone was reading stave 2, moving through Scrooge’s memories. This is what he saw. I explained the pedagogical principles we have within our department (nothing too revolutionary) – drill questions start every lesson, some form of modelling (even if annotating texts), and students completing some form of either deliberate or independent practice. This is what he saw. These conversations meant he knew what he was looking for, and what I believed was happening. Luckily, it was!

8. Students never lie

That’s it for my next point. They can’t be prepped (they’re chosen at random) and they will tell the truth when asked (mainly because they’re so nervous being the *chosen one* but also because kids are naive to the whole process and its intentions.)

An expample of this is one conversation I stayed in with a group of Y10 students. Students were asked about the questions at the start of the lesson – what were they made up of? Students explained it was a mixture of things – what they had done recently, over the term, sometimes things as far back as Y7. He then asked how long students had been doing these questions for, was it today, in Y10…? Students said that they had started lessons this way since Y7 (which is correct, for English, but it has not been a whole school approach necessarily). They were then asked if they were helpful – one student explained that it helps them to remember key things, like quotations, events, terminology. The student was asked to give an example of this from the first term, and the student gave a quotation from ‘Bayonet Charge’, studied in September (we were inspected in November). None of this could have been staged. More crucially, none of it contradicted what I had told him that morning.

9. Flexibility is key

Whether they are testing the school’s ability to crisis manage, or whether they really don’t care what they disrupt, there is not doubt about one thing: Ofsted wait for no-one. Essentially, although we were meant to meet at certain times, this was often thrown off. Although they were only meant to observe English in P2, he changed his mind and wanted to return to discuss more after break (when I was teaching, which was fine, apparently, he could then come into my lesson and see if I was teaching stave 2, too. I was). Even though he had at one point suggested doing some sort of book look with me later in the afternoon, that got changed/cancelled/was never going to actually happen.

This is what created the exhaustion when it was all over. It wasn’t really the nuts and bolts of what was happening, but the feeling that everything was constantly changing. I like my routines, timetables, to know what needs to happen and when. I’m not privy to whether this was happening at a larger scale, but at a deep dive level, what I thought the plan had been quickly got left and things got changed. It’s spontaneous and immediate and certainly will ensure that no stone is left unturned. But obviously it can also be stressful!

10. It wasn’t actually that bad.

Seriously. I actually enjoyed the process itself. I thought it was thorough, meticulous, collaborative, in the best possible way. I want to know how to improve my department, but I also wanted to know that we were on the right track. I ended the first day feeling like we had done a good job of showing what we were doing and how we were doing it. I felt like we had done a lot of hard work from a lot of people considerable justice.

However, I am aware that experiences of course change based on who you get more than anything else. I felt the inspector I spent time with was fair, knowledgable, and wanted to ensure I was telling the truth. That’s okay, surely? I’m not (and I have never been) anti-Ofsted. There needs to be something in place to hold schools accountable, to be sure that kids are being treated and taught in the right way. But, like anyone else in teaching, the thought of them coming created waves of panic, nausea, and excitement in equal measure. Either way, I ended the process relatively unscathed, and we got a good result as a department. I’m happy with what was mentioned in the report and it wasn’t all that bad really.

Thanks for reading 🙂

Ten ideas for improving subject knowledge in an English department

With the exception of a reading list before starting my PGCE, there was little (to no) focus on subject knowledge when I trained to be an English teacher. I’m not sure that it’s indicative of the course I studied, but rather the focus on certain types of pedagogy when I trained. I was taught how to engage students, with a focus on activities rather than learning. A lot of what I have learned about texts has been self-taught, or picked up along the way, and now, as a Head of Department, I’m not happy to leave this to chance.

Last year I was on a bit of a mission to improve the subject knowledge of my team. My first year as HoD was ruined by Covid, so I wanted to make it a real focus for all of us in 2020-2021. This was rarely using official meeting time, so if you’re a Head of Department thinking “I don’t have time to focus on this”, I just think it’s one of those things you have to make the time for. The reality is that no-one wants to be bad at their job, and it’s clear that subject knowledge makes us better English teachers. After a couple of questions about department CPD, I thought it might be useful to put together 10 practical choices/strategies I have used. I’ve tweeted about a lot of these along the way, so have included some tweets – click on them to see the discussions created.

1. Start with a subject audit

When I became Head of English back in September of 2019, I started the year with a subject knowledge audit. This created a lot of useful information in about 10 minutes. The tweet below has an example of the audit I used, which is available to download on LitDrive here. This one has a focus on GCSE content.

I started by looking at the units that were coming up first, and any trends across the department. This enabled me to decide the best way to target subject knowledge at both department level and on an individual basis. It also helped me to see which areas teachers felt confident with – this would later be useful when I moved on to subject knowledge masterclass sessions. If you are not a HoD, you can still audit your own knowledge – this will help you to prioritise where you need to improve and what you might feel you can share with others.

2. Begin with easily accessible CPD

Some of the first sessions I held were just lunch time sessions where we would discuss and annotate a poem together. Often these were particularly useful for the trainees we had with us at the time, and the newly qualified teachers, but I gained a lot from listening to people talk through how they analysed ‘The Prelude’ – even though this was a poem I rated highly in my own subject knowledge audit. I originally picked things that were low across the department scores, and then just got revision guides and blank copies of the poems, and we discussed them over lunch. It was pretty casual and was not compulsory – but all of the staff who were able to would attend.

3. Giving the time and resources

Post the first lockdown, I made the decision to start an English teacher CPD library. I put a lot of my own teaching and learning books in there, but then bought what I would consider to be English subject knowledge books (thanks to anyone on Twitter who offered recommendations!) – these covered books which would support subject knowledge from KS3 through to 5. Examples of books were Norton critical editions of A Level texts, through to the Connell Guide series for things we teach at KS3 like Gothic literature. The Amazon wish list I sent to finance is still available to view here, if you’re wondering the type of things purchased.

As you can see from the tweet above, these were prepared with a note and handed out before Summer. The note explained to staff that the book was selected based on what they were teaching next year (although I looked at the subject knowledge audits for the GCSE texts) and that we would share our findings from the book on the first summer back. The expectation was that all staff read the book – this was quite different to the optional “drop-in” style used in the lunch time sessions previously.

4. Focus on knowledge nuggets

The summer passed and I read the Connell guide to Atonement which I gained a lot from. On our return, I started the first session of INSET with asking teachers to fill in the sheet given to them. The idea was that they gave a short overall review of the book – who it might be useful for, what the focus of the book is etc, and then explained three knowledge nuggets they took from the book.

We then went around everyone and just shared the new knowledge. This took a lot of INSET time, but it was incredibly valuable, and so interesting. I wanted one person’s gain in knowledge to kind of snowball around the whole department, and then grow, as another person shared some ideas. The second purpose was that people would get interested in each other’s books – in particular the Arden Shakespeare Macbeth was very popular after the nuggets shared were particularly interesting. See below some examples of the sheets.

5. Utilise internal and external expertise

I’ve mentioned on Twitter before that we’ve had lecturers from our local university and our history department carry out high level lectures for our students. These have always gone down well and been an extra-curricular activity with a tangible impact on student progress. However, I think what gets forgotten about these sessions, is that teachers gain a lot from them too. I gained so much from the history teacher lecture about poverty in Victorian England that I now use every time I teach A Christmas Carol, and I know others did too.

6. Watch videos individually/ collectively

We have watched a LitDrive video over lunch and discussed our thoughts – these are great to use as they are only 25 minutes, but still feel like you gain a lot from them. We also subscribe to Massolit for students as well as staff. Before a department meeting, I asked staff to watch a video of their choice, and then, much like with the books, I asked them to record what they took from the video. This again was designed to have the impact of encouraging others to watch the videos mentioned to them, but again generated some interesting discussions around texts. The form I used to record their thoughts is below

7. As confidence grows, begin masterclasses

My next aim was to use the subject knowledge audits combined with improved subject knowledge to get staff to lead subject knowledge sessions. Unfortunately, the 2021 lockdown and then CAGs put this on hold – although our NQT decided to run a subject knowledge session as part of a task that was given to her by the NQT lead. She talked about act 4, scene 3 of Macbeth, having watched a LitDrive CPD session. She used about 10 minutes before we started an intense standardisation session to talk through some high level ideas about the scene. It’s definitely something I want to continue doing, with the time to do so, and the confidence from individuals to share!

8. Encourage chunked reading

We have access to JStor, and I did share some journals prior to some of the poetry sessions we did. However, there are so many great subject knowledge blogs available, often written by teachers for teachers, and so these are great to share with staff, along with British Library articles and any other chunked reading. I share a fortnightly newsletter, and on this I include a suggested read that ties in to what we are doing. Sometimes they are focused on pedagogy or curriculum, but often they are subject knowledge articles tied into what is currently or about to be taught. Timing is everything here – if reading something might have an impact on a lesson within the week, it seems like a good use of time. A couple of examples from previous newsletters are shown below.

9. Even a little time is enough

It’s easy to think that there’s not enough time for subject knowledge development, but the reality i, it’s a lot quicker and easier to prepare than the implementation of a new pedagogical approach. Sometimes in fact it can take no planning at all – just printing an extract, and everyone sharing what they would cover with the class, and each person annotating it, can be a useful exercise. Little and often is better than never, and sometimes it’s just about making the time for everyone, and using the wisdom of the whole team, in order to constantly develop subject knowledge.

10. Keep the cycle going

Finally, I think it’s important to keep things accessible and maintain momentum. I’ll be honest that the whole CAG/TAG process killed the focus for me, and whilst staff said it would be great to read books over summer again and share ideas, I felt strongly that I didn’t want that to be an expectation again following the term from actual hell! However, the books remain available, I’ve kept up with the Massolit subscription for the whole school, and I continue to share articles on the department newsletter. And I have a few ideas about how to renew the focus this year, once we are fully back into the swing of things!

Ten takeaways from ‘Middle Leadership Mastery’

Middle leadership is both a blessing and a curse. I’ve been a Head of Department for two years now, and those years have been dominated by Covid, CAGs/TAGs, and lockdowns. But, despite all that, it is an incredible job and I genuinely love going to work every day. I spend summer missing school – missing my department, missing the kids, and missing being in my classroom. But at the same time, some days, it can be hell.

It comes from that very term: middle. Having people above and below, and being that funnel between them, is really tough. Even when you have a great LT, and an amazing line manager (which I do) it is still difficult. It’s also a job that can consume you, completely and utterly. When I first got the job, I was incredibly excited, but also surprised that there aren’t really many middle leadership books on the market! So I was super excited when I heard about this one!

I really enjoyed ‘Middle Leadership Mastery’. I particularly think that people new to the role would really benefit from it (I wish I had it two years ago!) as the earlier chapters, which focus on curriculum design, are ones which are often needed when you first take on a department. What I found particularly useful were the chapters on pastoral issues, leading teachers, and wellbeing. I love books which I then need to think about – I finished the book some time ago now, and I think I’m ready to share some thoughts. The book is currently (at the time of writing!) £15.98 on Amazon, and I would recommend it to aspiring/new/current middle leaders.

My ten key thoughts after reading are below, and will give you a good flavour of the book. Follow the writer, Adam Robbins, on Twitter here.

1. The knowledge and skills debate

I lead a department with a knowledge-rich curriculum. I’m not a fan of polarising education; I think education is far more complex than that. However, I always seek good explanations of the knowledge vs skills debate, one which weighs up each side and explains it clearly. The opening of Robbins’ book does this particularly well – it’s an excerpt I plan to use with my department. The anecdote regarding his own education bring back memories of the classes I taught earlier in my career… “Time to revise Of Mice and Men” I would begin, a year after studying it… and the kids wouldn’t remember anything. My days. What a chore it was re-teaching everything. This is one of my favourite parts of being a middle leader, curating a curriculum that you are proud of, one which serves your students properly. It’s something which, if you’re a lucky middle leader, you and your team have complete autonomy over.

2. Balancing autonomy and direction

I think possibly one of the hardest parts of middle leadership is the spectrum from absolute teacher autonomy and then absolute dictatorship in the department. I think it’s a really fine balance, one which is dangerous if you sway too far one way or the other. Robbins explains this dichotomy particularly well. He makes the point that all members of the department need knowledge of “effective strategies that embody the principles that we are looking for, but we do not want to insist that they follow a specific practice” – it almost seems contradictory, but it is not. There has, at times, been negativity around the idea of department intents – claims they are no more than meaningless slogans – but the reality is that a clear one, created together as a team, can be really powerful in giving a direction for the department and the ethos it holds. This seeps into everything, in particular pedagogical choices, and I have seen the impact this can have. At the same time, I’m still not sure I’ve got the balance right, so it’s something to think more about…

3. Panic time

The chapter on assessment actually scared me. Hyperbole? Perhaps. I’m not sure. It clearly explains how assessment is a problematic concept, taking the reader through assessment theory, reliability, validity etc. I think for those new to a department and with total control over their assessment system it makes a good starting point for throwing out a lot of the current choices around assessment which are based on what’s come before, rather than what’s best. I think it’s hard to cover how to lead assessment in one chapter, and I definitely think there’s room for a longer book on this! There is a final grid of different methods of assessment with pros and cons, which is interesting to look through.

4. The limits of quality assurance

What I found throughout this book is that Robbins’ approach to teaching and learning, and the monitoring of it, is methodical but also considered. I found the section on leading quality assurance particularly interesting, because Robbins sets out all of the limits of attempting to quality assure something, for example, a book scrutiny. These limits, and considering each one, is exactly the king of thinking I go through. I often struggle with it though- it’s easy to list the things that could go wrong and then think “well, maybe I won’t do that then!” But instead, Robbins does a lot of exploring all the limits, then offering a solution which recognises the limits but still aims for the end goal (e.g measuring quality of teaching by book looks). I found this useful, as I have an actual fear of carrying out book looks. I’m not afraid of what I will find, I trust my team, but I’m so new to leadership that I still remember the anxiety that surrounds scrutiny as a teacher, and I hate the idea of placing that on my teachers. It’s something I know I need to work on! The suggestions made in this chapter helped.

5. Considering Lesson Visits

The book discusses the best way to carry out lesson visits, which was useful, and I liked Robbins’ idea of using a simple checklist. What I also found useful was the discussion around how you can utilise your link manager in supporting lesson visits. I think as a new HoD you wait to be prompted on these things, and I am lucky to have a great line manager who has guided me in this – he will ask what to look for, or, if something doesn’t seem right, he will ask me about the context of it. The book explains the problem here, that often line managers are not within subject, and offers suggestions of how to make all lesson visits more productive. There were lots of practical tips here which I took away.

6. How do middle leaders develop teachers?

The chapter on leading teacher development was great, and reminded me of a lot of what I have read recently from Jennifer Webb, Kat Howard, and Claire Hill. The more I think about CPD, the more I consider how it’s so easy to get it wrong. Robbins explains this well, and I think this chapter would be useful for many members of LT running CPD. It goes beyond what middle leaders can do. However, if offers some great suggestions for how we can develop teachers at a department level. I have been on a subject knowledge crusade for some time now, and Robbins explains how his school protects fortnightly meetings for departments to discuss upcoming topics. I am lucky enough this year to have time on my department timetable where all Year 11 teachers are free, and plan to use this for Y11, beginning with subject knowledge each time. I feel that this is, as middle leaders, the most important way we can develop teachers.

7. Fear of delegation

In the chapter on decision making there was a useful section on delegation which I definitely wish I had read two years ago. I struggle with delegation in everything, not just teaching, and I think it got worse when I became a Head of Department. I have a more than competent second in department who is more than willing to work, but that doesn’t stop me from doing it all myself (this is not me being a martyr – I know it’s stupid, and I now know the damage it can do!). Robbins’ explanation of this as a scale helped me to recognise I have definitely moved down the scale since becoming HoD, but I’m still not at total balance yet. I do think this takes time. It’s not just about trusting others, it’s also about trusting your own leadership of others, knowing that you have done enough to make sure they are ready to take on certain tasks or responsibilities. It’s hard. There was some useful discussion on it, and maybe some day I’ll be at the right balance point for delegation. Maybe.

8. How do I speak to people?

Despite being a Head of Department, I found the pastoral section in the book one of the most useful. I have a concern that sometimes we try and separate achievement and pastoral too much in schools. The two are inextricably bound together, and attempts to try and see them as distinctly separate entities can often be damaging. I’d love to be a Head of Year, maybe just for a year, because I really think I could learn so much, and become a better Head of Department, by taking on that role. In the book there is a really useful explanation of transactional analysis, with a focus on how we communicate with students. The chapter then deals with parental engagement, which I think is something that is often missed and forgotten for those new to middle leadership. It’s assumed that because all teachers have to speak to parents, a new HoD will know what to do. But because you’re the person things can get escalated to, the conversations are not the same. This is where I think HoDs can learn a lot from HoYs who spend a lot more time engaging parents. I also thought that some of the transactional analysis stuff is useful for speaking to staff both within and outside the department. I’ve since recommended the book to people in pastoral roles in my school, on this chapter alone.

9. The elephant, the rider and the path

I don’t think I fully understood the idea of managing change until I moved school and became part of a big change within my department. Managing change is more complex than leading people, because it includes people, who don’t like change, as well as actual actions that need to happen, and some sort of impact that can be measured. It’s quite obvious when change hasn’t happened. Robbins uses the analogy from the psychologist Jonathan Haidt, then adapted by Chip and Dan Heath, of the elephant, the rider and the path. Looking back, I can use this analogy to consider where things have gone wrong for me when initiating change. Robbins explains the power of the first follower, which is something I have been advised to do before, but never really realised why. The idea is that you get some feedback first from some individuals, or explain the plan to them to see what they think, before it is shared on a larger scale. This person will be supportive (hopefully) and start to lead the riders on the elephant and down the path. In theory!

10. What about wellbeing?

The final chapter, on wellbeing, considers not only how to support the members of your team with their wellbeing, but also how to ensure positive personal wellbeing. I found it useful, and the section on managing staff in crisis was particularly good – something else I wish I had read 2 years ago. Robbins acknowledges that as middle leaders we are not solely responsible for wellbeing, and that “as a middle leader you can’t change your school, but you can change your area of responsibility”. He explains that some of the decisions we make will inevitably have an impact on staff wellbeing – one example is the assessment/marking policy the department uses.

I think so much of ensuring high morale in middle leadership is being a person people think they can go to, and talk to, when they need to. A lot of it is being personable and ready to listen to staff – of course, the problem with this, is that it’s hard to do this when you’re the person who has to sometimes have difficult conversations, or change things, or discuss accountability. So much of being a good head of department is building a team around you who trust you enough to be transparent with you, but also to listen to feedback that they may not want, but need, to hear. I think ensuring staff wellbeing within a team is so important in achieving this trust. There are some really good ideas of what middle leaders can do within this chapter, and again, this was one of my favourite chapters for where I am on my middle leader journey. Still so much to learn – but this book really helped.

Thanks for reading! I’ve written ten takeaways for lots of education books – find them all here.

Ten Takeaways from ‘The Metacognition Handbook’ by Jennifer Webb

Okay, we need to talk about metacognition.

I think I need to be honest. I’ve been teaching 8 years and I have been through a significant shift within teaching and learning, and reaped the rewards of the changes I’ve made – and I think I’m done with new fads and overcomplicated teaching. I think we do a lot of that – overcomplicating teaching. Simplicity is key. So when people talked about metacognition, I was probably a bit offhand and dismissive, like, “yeah, sure, I do that, kids know how they learn” but I clearly shouldn’t have been. This book has transformed my attitude. Perhaps, yes, I have employed things within my own teaching and learning that encourage some metacognitive habits, but I am clearly not doing it well enough, or indeed consistently enough.

I think the problem with delivering or encouraging metacognition – in a school, department, classroom, or in the micro aspect of with an individual student – is that it is a concept which is incredibly intangible. It’s about thought processes, really, the mechanisms and habits we employ as we learn, and these are so hard to simply “do” as a teacher – because in reality they are things that we want students to just “do”. The reality is they won’t – we need to teach these habits, encourage students to use them, and model how and when to employ these habits. I think I get it now- mainly thanks to this book – so here are my ten key things I have taken away. But this is just a summary. Seriously, get the book, it’s £11.15 (at the time of writing) on Amazon, which I would pay over again to be honest.

1. Baby bird vs Amina

Webb begins with a classic example of students beginning an independent assessment – and the constant simple questions they ask (“Do I write in paragraphs?”). She calls this ‘baby bird syndrome’ which she then compares to a student, Amina, who is independent, “self-motivated and actively aware of herself as a learner”. I have taught a lot of Aminas over the years, and they often get grades which surprise you – I do wonder how they acquire their habits. I think too often we put it down to “hard work” – but it is far more complex than this. As Webb explains, we need all of our students to be more like Amina, more self-aware and reflective. It’s a powerful way to start!

2. The areas of metacognition

Webb then splits up metacognition into three distinct areas: knowledge, regulation, and motivation. For me, the areas of metacognition that I have read about often focuses on the idea of regulation – the plan, monitor, evaluate cycle suggested by the EEF – and has therefore missed out the key elements of knowledge (knowledge of self, strategies, the task) and motivation (self-belief, wanting to achieve etc). By including these two elements, and then giving practical examples of how to cover all three, metacognition started to get a little clearer for me!

3. Internalised questions

There’s an excellent diagram with an example of a student asking internal questions before they begin an essay. I’ve always thought that I’ve modelled metacognitive questions when I’ve been modelling a response before, but this series of questions, and example answers, has made me realise that I’m not doing it well enough… and although I am going through a lot of these questions when I write an essay, I’m not modelling them explicitly. It strikes me now, as I write this, how difficult it is to model metacognitive habits successfully as a teacher – how many things are going through our minds as we teach? How can we balance that with the modelling of the learning process alongside actually modelling? How can I concentrate on that kid at the back, the lawn mower outside, a random noise in the corridor and try and explain what happens in my mind as I tackle a task as an expert to people who are novices? Maybe there’s a great argument for pre-recorded modelling here…!

4. Treat it as a framework

I think when people say they “already do metacognition” my toes curl, because no element of teaching can just be something we do… I do a lot of modelling, but that doesn’t necessarily mean I’m doing it well. Webb raises this, and tells us that metacognition isn’t something we do, but more, ‘we must see metacognition as a framework around everything else we do’ – this was my threshold concept moment (!) for understanding metacognition… because really this is the problem – it’s a teaching tool but it isn’t, because it needs to frame everything we do. Treating it as a bolt on, or a new pedagogical thing kind of misses the point. It has to become part of everything that we do. And that’s tough.

5. A process for metacognition

Webb explains her reasons for preferring Michalsky’s approach (comprehension, connection, strategy, reflection) over the generally employed EEF process (plan, monitor, evaluate). The example provided for her preferred approach made much more sense to me as a process students can use in order to actually improve how they tackle a task, rather than an add on thing they do (or often claim they already do). I would like to think, when writing an exam response, a lot of my students already plan (it’s easy to see evidence of this), monitor (I see this when they write, they tick off their plan as they work, return and re-read and edit as they write) and evaluate at the end of the task. Comprehension and connection give students a process which makes them think in a metacognitive way, rather than just planning their response. It makes them strategise, consider prior learning and approaches, and prepare properly for the task. It’s something I plan to research more.

6. Exam feedback examples

We do exam wrappers at my school. There we go again, “we do that already” – tick! I’m just not entirely convinced they are done properly, or students really get enough out of them, in my classroom. I think it’s – like a lot of things can become – a bolt on, only done in big assessments, rather than a way of getting students to think differently about how they execute independent tasks. Using the Michalsky approach to structure the way students think about a response works well for me, and the example responses given helped to offer clarity for me of what I should be expecting from students. I have never clearly modelled what I want an exam wrapper to look like, the level of detail I expect, the types of questions students should be asking themselves. It’s time I do.

7. Modelling – a work review

So I think, think (!) that I’m alright at modelling. And I always felt (before reading this book) that this was my area of strength in terms of metacognition. I model the approach to exams by breaking down each step – “what do we read first?” “What are we planning on highlighting?” But Webb offers some suggestions for the final stage of reflection which I think are both practical and ideal for developing students’ metacognitive habits. The suggestion of getting them to explicitly list the changes they have made makes perfect sense, as well as getting them to annotate with any further queries and things they still aren’t sure of, enabling the teacher to address these issues rather than allow these concerns to continue on to the next assessment.

8. Making metacognitive talk internal

I mentioned in idea 3 about internalised questions, but Webb later elaborates on the process of getting students prepared enough to go through these questions without support. There are a range of suggestions of how to make students go from external (out loud, shared, perhaps prompted) to private (out loud, prompted, but to themselves) to internal (metacognitive questions become natural part of the learning process) talk. These are the processes Amina, mentioned in idea 1, completes habitually, and something that we can think is innate, or natural, to certain students. Perhaps for some, it is easier than others, but I think there are ways to guide students towards this type of thinking – lots of suggestions are made in the book, and I plan to give them a go!

9. Case studies: weaving strategies

In idea 4 I explained Webb’s suggestion of treating metacognition as a framework, rather than an add on, and the best way to understand this later on in the book, was reading the various case studies from current teachers. They explain how they have employed metacognitive strategies in class, but these various things relate to all the basics of good teaching: retrieval practice, modelling, questioning. The metacognitive approaches weave together all of the elements of teaching, but the best kind of teaching here ensures metacognition is a part of everything we already do. It’s a big deal. I can see it being difficult. But I think I get it now – why the EEF see metacognition as so important – but also, why it will not be something that transforms the teaching and learning of our schools. Because it’s going to be hard, because it needs to be long term, and a lot of teachers – including experienced ones – need to reconsider the way they frame everything they do. I know I need to do that. I’m excited for September so I can take up the challenge!

10. A CPD programme for the long haul

I’ve been thinking a lot about the role of teaching and learning in a school, how it can be delivered, how it can be improved. It’s not my role, and I’m not sure it’s the job I want, but I have thought a lot about who delivers CPD (my tweets from a few months ago discussed why often T+L leads seem to be on the leadership team, and why this might not be the best approach – thanks to those who engaged in this discussion!). Webb, in an entire chapter devoted to CPD, presents an incredible case for the pitfalls and mistakes made by many CPD programmes – and how, even as teachers, those who love learning, we do not utilise our understanding of learning when developing our own profession. Maybe I need a CPD session with some retrieval, or modelling. I probably do… Her thoughts here just made me stop reading and think “oh, dear” about current CPD programmes in schools, and I can’t help but hope that her next book will be about this in more detail. If you are in charge of teaching and learning, read this chapter.

Thanks for reading! Let me know your thoughts on the book either on here or over on Twitter, – Lauralolder

Ten takeaways from ‘Symbiosis’ by Kat Howard and Claire Hill

On my original blog, my focus was 10 teaching strategies around certain topics. What I then started doing was sharing ten things I had gained from Edubooks I’ve read. I found these a useful way to record my thoughts from the books I read, and initiate discussions with others who had read the books. Pre-CAG/TAG madness, in Easter, I read this excellent book – more, devoured this excellent book – over a couple of days. I took a lot from it – new thoughts, developed thinking, and, thankfully, some affirmation of some of the decisions I have made around the curriculum we deliver. Here are some of my main takeaways

1: Connecting the curriculum with the classroom

I think the main overarching message of the book, despite all its practical and strategic suggestions, is a campaign for curriculum to be ‘inextricably linked’ to the teachers who deliver it. Howard and Hill argue a pretty strong case for ensuring that teachers can take ownership over their curriculum, for their continuing professional development, as well as to ensure they have a thorough understanding of not only what they deliver, but how and why they deliver it. It’s got me asking some seriously long-term questions of myself. I’m not sure there is a silver bullet with this – we need to re-frame how we think about the curriculum.

2: Whole school leadership

I am not a senior leader, but I read the section on whole school development of curriculum. There is one fundamental idea that I cannot argue with, and that is that senior leaders should focus on development of teacher knowledge. I cannot stress enough how much this has been at the centre of my thoughts over the past year or so, beginning with me buying an English CPD library last year and giving books for teachers to read then share, subscribing to Massolit for the department and then asking teachers to watch videos before meetings, and being seriously aware of my own subject knowledge gaps. I worry that in an effort to improve curriculum, we spend more time on mapping and sequencing and justifying and reviewing (all important, no doubt) – but a curriculum is only as good as the knowledge of the teachers who deliver it.

3: Skills and Knowledge

Nothing frustrates me more than English being defined as a predominantly skills-based subject, or, despite the fact I don’t teach it, other subjects like science being defined as knowledge-based subjects. What’s knowledge without the skills to apply it? But what are skills without the knowledge needed to be a master of those skills? Symbiosis makes this same argument, with the heading ‘There is no dichotomy’ used to explain this. I think it’s a worthwhile excerpt for many teachers to consider: ‘Our curriculum therefore needs to acknowledge the relationship between skills and knowledge’. I also feel we need to deeply consider how we sequence both knowledge and skills – Ofsted’s focus, I have read recently on Twitter, is in knowledge sequencing – but my thoughts now move to skills sequencing, and how this can be done carefully in an English curriculum. It is something I am looking at to begin next year.

4: Types of knowledge

I read a lot of edubooks, but I am yet to see as concise and clear description of all the key types of knowledge as is written in Symbiosis. In 13 pages the following types of knowledge are explained, with examples across a range of subjects. I found this a useful summary, and if you are interested in how different types of knowledge can be planned for in a curriculum, look to this book! Types of knowledge discussed:

  • Core knowledge
  • Hinterland knowledge
  • Substantive knowledge
  • Disciplinary knowledge (including sequencing and recontextualisation)
  • Declarative knowledge
  • Procedural knowledge

5: Knowledge structures

I really enjoyed the discussion of knowledge structures being fundamental to how a curriculum is sequenced. In particular, the discussion over hierarchical structures. When originally sequencing my KS3 curriculum 4 years ago now, and adding in core knowledge, I attempted to sequence the knowledge in the most logical way that made sense for me. This section of the book offered me clarity and enabled me to look back at those decisions, and consider if anything needs re-arranging. It discusses how understanding of prior knowledge is necessary for later learning in certain subjects, and that raises the question, why move on if the knowledge is not learnt? What do we do when students haven’t gained the core knowledge?

6: Threshold concepts

I had heard the term threshold concepts thrown around and discussed, but I’m not sure I ever truly understood them until I read this book. The explanation of threshold concepts, as ‘a gateway to more knowledge and understanding’ and the concrete examples offered has really helped. The explanation of threshold concepts as transformative, irreversible, integrative and bounded further solidified my grasp. I feel like I’ve had a threshold concept moment about threshold concepts. Curriculum inception?

7: Granular Assessments

Over the past two years, with KS4 students, I have started doing ‘Specific Skills Assessments’ – I’ll add some on the resources pages, to explain what I mean. Essentially here my thinking goes back to Daisy Christoloudou’s assertion that learning is like a marathon. I want to assess skills like planning, or just writing a point, and assess all the nuances of those stages of essays, rather than doing the essay and hoping the end product will allow me to know that students can do a range of complex skills. Howard and Hill explain this as granular assessments, as when we assess everything, it is ‘more difficult to home in on the precise areas that need to be reviewed, retaught, and deliberately practised’. When a student misses the point in even a small formative assessment of one paragraph, how can we figure out where they went wrong? If we just assessed evidence selection, we might find out that they still misunderstand how to best select flexible quotations from a text. Head to the resources page to see an example.

8: An argument for workbooks

I introduced workbooks in KS3 4 years ago following an excellent talk from Jo Facer at a ResearchEd in Swindon maybe 5/6 years ago. These have been adapted every year, and have become almost like a text book for each term of work. We currently do not have these in place at KS4, but, the more I consider it, the more I feel it would be ideal. As I read through the benefits of a workbook in Symbiosis, I kept considering this decision. Howard and Hill devote a whole chapter to the power of workbooks, and despite being a massive fan for their use at KS3, we haven’t yet made the plunge for KS4/5. I edge closer now as I re-read my notes from this chapter!

9: Discussions over modelling

A key part of my department’s delivery is modelling. It is something we have worked on for some time, and we have paid careful attention in particular to the processes of live modelling, and how students engage in live modelling. The discussions in this book regarding live modelling, prepared modelling and faded modelling and each of their benefits and constraints, is extremely useful. I think modelling of any kind is far more nuanced and tricky than people realise. I remember as a trainee teacher being petrified when the class teacher suggested I should live model. I am relatively new to faded modelling, but I particularly enjoyed the discussion over this type of modelling and various ways to apply it, and it is something I plan to use more in the future.

10: No endpoint

Finally, the point made that curriculum is never finished is crucial. For a good year or so, minus a few tweaks to resources, I felt my KS3 curriculum was finished – how wrong I was. I have now ensured that I regularly consider the changes needed to curriculum mapping, resourcing, and delivery – sometimes mid-year – as much as possible. What’s more, is that I ensure that the platform is provided for others to offer their recommendations and suggestions, and know that they are ‘custodians of the curriculum’, as is suggested by Howard and Hill.

A reason I loved this book is that I felt that it was far more than just a discussion of curriculum, because, in reality, curriculum cannot see as a separate entity from pedagogy, or leadership, or behaviour. I think it covers so much in such a concise manner that it is a fab book that I would recommend to anyone. Follow Kat Howard and Claire Hill on Twitter, or buy your copy of Symbiosis here.

Ten Takeaways from ‘Successful Difficult Conversations’ by Sonia Gill

Teaching Top Tens

I posted on Twitter a rather honest assessment of myself. I fear difficult conversations, to the point that I actively avoid them. Or maybe I even try to fix the problem myself – inevitably increasing my workload. Or maybe what I do is try and sort the problem in a sly way, but now I realise this was a terrible thing to do. Not just as a leader but as a colleague. How are people meant to improve if we don’t make our feedback clear? It’s safe to say I’ve had a bit of an epiphany moment in the past week.

It started with an NPQML module about ‘Support and Challenge – Holding Yourself and Others to Account’. The previous module was about creating a high performing team, and the importance of trust. The module mentioned how not holding members of the team accountable can make others apathetic, and this…

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Ten Takeaways from ‘Retrieval Practice’ by Kate Jones

Teaching Top Tens

I really enjoy writing these posts and being able to summarise and synthesise everything I’ve taken form an edu book. I find it often takes me longer to read a book on teaching and learning than it does to read fiction as I’m doing a lot more mentally when I read it. It helps me to take notes and these always turn into one of these posts, where I have to give my thinking some order.

I love retrieval practice in an unhealthy teacher way. I know what impact it can have, how useful it can be, and some of the research behind it, but I know deep down that I’ve probably got into a bit of a rut with it. I do the 5-a-day drill questions, as do the whole department and whole school, still do the odd brain dump, sometimes do quizzes, do lots of verbal retrieval practice…

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