Targets or Strategies?

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For a long time i simply added targets to my students’ books, and imprecise targets at that. An example target could be ‘To improve spelling’. Well if i am a 15 year old student, this statement effectively means nothing, and thus is a waste of both our time. A more precise target is needed, which could be ‘To improve spelling of words with common prefixes’. But even now with a clearer target, the student is still at a loss as to know how to get there. What s/he needs is a STRATEGY to achieve the target. In the above example, the strategy would be to complete 3 prescribed activities on prefixes.

No matter what your subject, provide students with tangible strategies, so students have a clear idea of how to achieve the targets they have been set. Otherwise, you are wasting your own time, time you can’t afford to lose.

Pragmatic Marking

workload_4Here are some thoughts on marking, an incredibly time consuming business. The strategy developed is in response to a very time starved teacher: myself. I call it Pragmatic Marking.

Marking has one purpose and one purpose only: to assess progress on a task that requires independent thinking. Marking work where students could potentially simply be mimicking content I’ve taught is pointless, and very time consuming. This includes any scaffolded tasks. Don’t get me wrong; these modelling tasks are essential to learning, as students begin to shape their skill in responding to specific tasks and requirements from syllabi, but marking them in a book won’t really tell me too much. This is important for your students to know also, so as not to expect any unnecessary and unproductive comments or praise for the sake of it.

Talk about a slow learner, but whilst marking my 7000th book I had an epiphany: I should be marking backwards.

Here’s how it works:

I won’t mark everything students do, but a piece of work that is the culmination of a series of lessons that tests independent thinking: an opportunity for me to see whether students have ‘really’ got a particular course objective.

From this, 2 paths are possible:

  1. The student is on track – There are several possibilities here. I could do nothing, as the student has successfully managed the work, or I could apply positive feedback, where I could either tick aspects of the work that are well done, or establish a key with symbols and annotate the work when aspects of the marking criteria are met (my preference).

Do I need to add EBI? The common trend is to do so, but I am beginning to think that this may not be necessary, because if you think about it why would I expect such extension when I am not testing for it; the EBI’s will surely shape the next series of lessons. Also, maybe it is more powerful for the students’ motivation to know that they have (plain and simple) just succeeded in the task, without the constant weight of knowing there ‘could and should’ be more?

    2. Students haven’t made progress – this may be evident at various levels:

  • If a student hasn’t understood the main objective of the task, this will probably be evident fairly quickly. E.g. – analysis technique is not explaining the effect of a word, or is not concise enough. As soon as you see a pattern or consistent error related to the main objective, stop marking. Developmental Feedback is added stating that the objective hasn’t been achieved, yet, and a target is set after I diagnose where the issue lies (see next bullet). There may be secondary errors prevalent, e.g. many SPaG errors in first paragraph, but it is usually not worth identifying them if the first error is significant – better to focus on one thing at a time.
  • Now you need to backtrack, and work out where the issue began to emerge. Is it organisational, or skill?
    • Organisational – Missing work, incomplete tasks, poor organisation – All of these lead to gaps in knowledge, and feedback then would set a target of getting all of these up to date; this would become a valid homework activity. There is little point in doing anything else at this stage, as diagnosing a skill issue would be invalid. If the student couldn’t complete the activities because they didn’t understand how to, then this is skill based – see next bullet.
    • Skill – As you go backwards from the main task through each activity, if well designed, you are likely to see the precise point where misunderstanding occurred. This is where you will add some feedback. If it is not evident, then you will know that some differentiation or bridging task needs to happen between the last activity and the main task, and this then becomes the only feedback written in the book in the form of a target. NB: it is important to consider that skill could be hindered by knowledge, as explained well by Doug Lemov and in another light by Andy Tharby, and AFL should have this in mind before evaluations are made of progress.

An example: Below,  the main task (1) is a piece of work in which students responded to an extract from the novel War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells. The learning objective was to explain how language techniques are used to create an effect on the reader. In the first lesson in the sequence, students were  introduced to a template for how to respond to such a question with an example modelled on the board, and asked to analyse more examples explicitly using the template. They were then given opportunities to briefly practise independently over the next two lessons after a variety of language techniques were introduced, before finally producing the main task.

1. Main task. Some obvious issues – minor (quote is too long; incorrect technique identified – adverbs;  possible conflation of techniques) and one major issue – no explanation given as to how the language techniques are used to create effect. I would annotate this on the page and stop once I see a pattern occurring.

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2. Going backwards in the student’s book, this is the task just before the main. The connection between the language technique and the effect is not secure enough, so I need to go back further. I note the conflation of techniques doesn’t happen here and the student is focusing on a single technique. I may not need to mark this task.

1st-back

3. Point made but quote and technique not connected to the effect on the reader. Need to go back further.

2nd-back

4. Scaffolded task – student has applied the template successfully and can explain the effect of word choice.

scaffolded

Conclusion: The issue must be that linking the explanation to the point is not secure. The template/scaffold has not been applied in each activity after this first modelled task. I now go back to 3, and add some feedback regarding the need to connect effect of language to the point made. Task 2 doesn’t need to be marked and neither does the scaffolded task (4). The strategy indicated to reach the target added after the main task would include the need to practise several examples that use the template. Sub targets, (which may or may not be added so as not to overload the student), would include being more precise with what words need to be focused on in the quote, sticking to one technique at a time, as well as some work on understanding adjectives and adverbs. The student would be taught how to react to the feedback: going back through his or her book to find the point of issue. The response to the feedback would also become a valid homework exercise.  Note: If this student was not in the minority, then this feedback exercise would be the subject of the next lesson.

The Benefits – Let’s break down some numbers now.

  • using a key to apply positive feedback and not adding EBI saves huge amounts of writing on students’ work, which saves huge amounts of time.
  • usually, the number of students who you will actually need to provide developmental feedback to will be less than a 1/3rd. As I traverse backwards through theses students’ books there will be variation in how much actual traversing I have to do, as some students will have more gaps than others. In the end I may only end up having to apply substantial written feedback to 3 or 4 students out of a class of 30. Now that’s a massive amount of time saving, time that can now be spent on designing tasks to fill the gaps and following up on them.

Another advantage of this technique is that it is fine tuning my diagnosis skills in finding where an issue arises. I can also see if the expected skill jump between tasks is too great.  This then helps me to plan future lessons better as I am more in touch with the strengths and weaknesses of my students’ skill base.

Expected critique – How could a student get to this point before intervention? Shouldn’t I be able to see issues during the lesson, and address them there and then? Yes, I feel guilty when I go through a student’s work and see 2 or even 3 tasks in a row where the objective hasn’t been met. In fact I shudder. But we all know that in large classes it just isn’t possible to get to every student. Of course it is my intention, but sometimes helping 3 or 4 students can take up all of the time allotted to practise an objective. As such, some students will often complete several practice tasks before I can assess for learning. When that happens, I have to become pragmatic in how I go about marking work.

 

FINAL THOUGHTS – We all know that student progress is imperative, and we all strive to maximise it. We also all know that feedback is imperative to ensure progress, but how often we need to provide it is most definitely not definite. With time being the enemy of a teacher, we need to find ways that eliminate unnecessary marking, marking that actually doesn’t do anything for the student. Pragmatic Marking may just be such a choice.

Turn Observation On Its Head

Turning observation on its head

I bet when you saw the image above it shocked you in some way. If you’re a teacher, I bet you instantly wondered if you w/sh/could do it, and I bet if you were SLT you wished your staff already did. Reactions I’ve had from it so far include ‘how brave’ to ‘how crazy’ to ‘that’s inspired’ to ‘what a brown nose’. But the hyperbolic reactions don’t surprise me, because being observed, no matter what anyone says or desires to be true, still remains a teacher’s most hated part of teaching, and having someone actively seek it out is …..well, just hyperbolically irregular.

For a long time I preferred to be left alone in my classroom. Here’s why:

  • I was confident I was doing a good job.
  • I was confident that I could self-identify issues if or when they arose.
  • Having someone in the room made me a little nervous, and I felt slightly unnatural as I went about my craft.
  • I thought what I was doing in the room could be judged out of context.

But in reality, I was depriving myself of an enormous opportunity to become a better teacher, because having others observe my teaching is now giving me a springboard from which to grow very quickly. As you can see in the poster I stick up on my classroom door (but not for every lesson by the way), I am asking for feedback on areas that I believe are key to an effective lesson. Having more frequent insights into that process acts like formative assessment for me. I am forever banging on about the importance of formative assessment for my students, and its ability to provide better snapshots of skills acquired, so subjecting myself to the same process only seems logical. In fact, it would not only be ironic to my students to observe me shying away from such a process, but hypocritical.

I realise now that I actually have nothing to lose in the process of observation. If I am doing a good job, then the feedback will indicate so. If I am not doing a good job, the feedback means I can adjust accordingly, and do it quickly and NOW, rather than being told in a major observation. Yes it’s painful to hear criticism of your own teaching, but I’ll take that pain over the pain of being told in a formal observation any day. In terms of the last two bullets above, my nerves of having someone else in the room are disappearing, as I’m not only getting used to the fact, but more significantly I’m also getting better at the skills I am focussing on, MY TARGETS, which results in better lessons. In fact, I am really proud when someone comes in now and the class is moving forward really nicely, and I have little fear that someone will take anything out of context – learning is happening, and it is undeniable.

Interestingly, asking someone to come into your room also creates a really different dynamic in the observer. You have asked for feedback on specific areas, and that is what will be focused on, and if your observer is from SLT, the joy they will have in your initiative and the wisdom they will impart is well worth the bother. After all, there is nothing better for SLT than to see their teachers wanting to improve. If they see need for development, they will help you get it.

So while working in isolation certainly may seem like an easier option compared to being observed, it is not an effective way to get better. I’ve learnt that the key to embracing observations is all in the approach. Seeing observations as allies rather than enemies is the first step in such a process. Be brave, or crazy, or inspired, or whatever anyone wants to label it, but turn observations on their head, and know that by doing so it will make you a much much better teacher.

Follow me on Twitter @edmerger. There’s more to come!

Edtech companies, leave the pedagogy to us.

Imagine how frightening the world would be if politics was behest to companies and their whims. Policies would be dictated by profits rather than the needs of a society. Oh sorry, that time has already arrived. Imagine a world then where medicine, a central tenet of a successful society, is driven not by doctors but by pharmaceutical and insurance companies, where patients are given unnecessary drugs or worse, not given treatment because they can’t afford it. Oh sorry, that time has already arrived too. Well imagine then how frightening the world would be if education was dictated to by edtech companies. Where pedagogy and educational policies and thus the futures of millions of students became shaped by and subservient to the interests of companies out to make money first. Oh, sorry that world is also very much here too, or is it?

Content marketing has taken over our online learning spaces, a deceitful scheme where edtech companies ostensibly care about the progression of education by posting advice, but in reality are simply racking up leads for sales.

The scariest part though is that the deception is not even the worst issue: it’s the risk of the companies leading in educational discussions, and taking up valuable time and space of those whose desire to see education improve is genuine. Luckily at present most posts are tootlhless, vacuous politically correct generalities careful not to get on the wrong side of a potential customer. Of course some companies successfully further the debate on certain topics, as they are indeed expert in that section of education. But what concerns me is the significant increase in topics straying from the core solution of a platform. The other day I saw lesson plans available from a homework platform, as well as advice on how teachers can effectively save time (the irony of being taken to a page that didn’t have the advice, but only an ‘add details to get the advice’ section totally lost on the company). Or take a cooperative learning platform offering blogs about emotions in the classroom, or if you can believe, inquiry into metacognition. This type of thing is now ubiquitous, and getting worse.

Why does it exist? Consult any marketing company and they will tell you that content marketing is the way to go. Get customers connected to your site, get them engaged in conversations about anything, just as long as your brand is on their mind. This rationale has now bled over from articles and blogs into everyday conversations on social media, especially Twitter. The most obvious conflict of interest is getting involved in ed chats, targeting specific chats where your market resides, blatantly flaunting the company logo as though a participant and thus ignoring requests for no advertising, and responding to as many contributors as possible, not in the interest of furthering learning, but simply to keep the brand on the player’s mind.

To me it smacks of arrogance that an edtech company would desire that trained experienced teachers could only further their professional development by engaging with them. Unfortunately though, through the inexorable determination of companies and the shear quantity of posts, these messages are getting taken on and interacted with, perhaps by inexperienced teachers mostly looking for quick solutions, but nonetheless, teachers with students in their charge. The real concern is that eventually it won’t just be the inexperienced teachers who have to go through these channels. Like any business, monopoly is the ultimate goal, and maybe soon we will all be faced with the situation where the amount of discourse is reduced to those with the ability to pay for the airtime. This is how it begins. We’ve seen how it ends with politics and medicine (and climate). Are we going to get to the point when these companies become so powerful they dominate discussions about policy, and influence it to satisfy their business models?

All over the learning space I see posts about high expectations in students. Well let’s apply that to our own professional development, and leave it to people with relevant pedagogical knowledge, and perhaps more importantly genuine interest in the development of students and learning in general, and not profit. Of course the fashionable catch phrase of edtech companies is that they are created by teachers for teachers, but let’s face it, these companies are created by teachers turned businessmen, for profit – because without profit they can’t exist. I’m not against that, but let’s stop pretending that it’s anything different. Edtech companies, we need you, but please stick to what you know, and leave the pedagogy to us.

REDUCE MARKING WITH VERBAL FEEDBACK

GET SOME OF YOUR LIFE BACK: use VERBAL FEEDBACK 

feedback-cliff

There is some very useful discussion presently about minimising written feedback to save teachers time, with excellent strategies to achieve it promoted by Enser, and McGill. We all know that time demands on teachers seems to be ever growing. Sometimes I feel I must be working in dog years, so any way to reduce the burden is worth exploring. One approach is the use of verbal feedback.

Verbal feedback is quick, and it is effective, but, and it is a big but (and I cannot lie), only if given correctly.

Like all feedback, comments must be directed towards developing and acknowledging skill: giving students tangible understandings of how to progress, or specific comments identifying what was good about the work they produced. Let’s look at these 2 aspects in detail:

  1. Developing skills – feedback (and it must be timely) is only useful if it informs the student what areas need to be worked on. When marking in books, there is no point in giving a grade to anything unless you explain how to progress from that point. The same is true when answering questions in class. There is no point in just saying no to an answer. The student is left without knowing how to adjust their thinking. A good teacher will reframe the question, or prompt perspectives and engage others in the discussion so the student can progress from their first thought. The same applies when wandering the room looking at performance in tasks. Questions about the work students have produced result in the teacher being able to check for understanding, and ascertain whether students have grasped the concept or are just parroting information. Questions that encourage deeper and more expansive thinking are as effective as any written information.
  1. Acknowledging skills – simply praising students’ work has little value, as the intended motivational gains are wiped away by the establishment of a culture of reliance, a culture that diminishes independent thinking. There are other excellent discussions about this phenomenon by David Didau, but perhaps none more succinct than Kohn. But whether you agree or disagree with this notion, only using praise to respond to a student’s work misses a really valuable opportunity to let the student know why her or his work meets the required criteria, and thus a lost opportunity to drive their next learning experience. If you take the judgement out of your feedback, the student can internalise the process in a deeper way. There is a big difference in saying to a student ‘I really like that story’ compared to ‘the way the sentences have been structured creates an anxious mood’. This type of feedback not only engages students to reflect on the key aspects of what made the work successful, which reinforces those skills for the next time, but it also creates a culture of focusing always on the criteria.

Many teachers are wary of replacing written feedback with verbal feedback, and understandably so as it is much less quantifiable, and thus OFSTED repellent (insert any gate keeper here). But if you have ever been in a classroom where a teacher is delivering verbal feedback with skill, you will be convinced that learning doesn’t always have to be so quantifiable, as you can see it is happening right before your eyes.

Obviously written feedback most certainly has its place, but good quality verbal feedback most certainly does also. The art of course is in working out the balance between the two.

It’s time to treat homework like any other lesson

It’s time to treat homework like a lesson

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Imagine observing a lesson in which you see a teacher give the students 2 or 3 or 4 times more work than they can handle in the lesson time. You’d be scratching your head. You would walk out of the lesson disappointed, perplexed at the lack of quality teaching happening. But worse, as you wander the school you observe the same thing happening in every classroom you enter, even in the rooms of your best and most experienced teachers. Alarm bells would hardly be the appropriate metaphor. A grand inquiry would follow, and understandably so.

The number of areas for concern would be many, but needn’t move past these two: how can students progress in the tasks if they can’t dedicate suitable time to complete them; and how can students maintain motivation in such a context.

Well this is what potentially happens every time teachers set homework for your students. The amount of time a student can dedicate to homework is not infinite. It is limited. So assigning too much on a night is like giving too much work in a lesson. It’s unproductive, and just flat out poor teaching.

 

So why does it happen? No teacher in his/her right mind would allow such a scenario to exist surely? Of course not, but it does because your teachers don’t have the information to prevent it from happening. They don’t know how much work their students have already been given as they enter the classroom. For example, a Maths teacher thinking of setting a homework task has no idea what work her class have already accumulated in their previous classes. She may turn to the centralised calendar for hope, but alas, it becomes a pointless exercise, as she realises the fact that many of her students have come from different English and Science classes, as well as various electives. So her only option is to set the task blindly, randomly if you will. She won’t be able to take the grumbling from the students that they have too much work on already as evidence, as she may not believe their motivations for their protests. The very same situation occurs when the students leave the Maths class, separate, and venture to their next subject. The inefficiency of the situation is startling, and it’s incredible that it has persisted for so long in schools all over the world.

 

As a teacher and parent of 3 schooling daughters I decided to do something about this ubiquitous schooling issue. I invented a tool that solves the problem. The tool is called www.degrumbler.com and it lets a teacher see what work her or his class already has been given before s/he sets more, thus preventing overloading students, and getting more productivity out of tasks assigned.

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Teacher sees her own tasks….then those set by other teachers.

The tool also greatly reduces stress on students, an often-overlooked aspect of homework assignment. Of course it has all the notification qualities you’d expect to keep parents and students always in the loop, but because it forces teachers to consider the amount of time students have spare to complete tasks, it reimagines the whole notion of homework, and how teachers should begin to see it in a similar fashion as to any normal lesson, a lesson in which overloading has no pedagogical place.

 

Disclaimer: Whilst I am really proud of designing the tool, I know that talking about it could be construed as simply a means to market the company. However, the tool is free for teachers, and I know the motivation behind building the tool was purely to better the education of students, and am at peace with the potential conflict of interest, as I can’t really see another way to spread the word about fixing the issue.