Archive | July, 2013

Getting better at planning: confessions of an experienced teacher who should know better…

26 Jul

Learning Styles


So here goes: I’m the annoying teacher at your school whose eyes light up at the mention of a brand new idea. Yes, I’ve tried everything. Brain gym? Tick. Learning Styles? Tick. SEAL? Tick. Philosophy for Children? Tick. Thinking hats? Tick. Project-based learning? Tick. Talk for Writing? Tick. APP? Tick. And when I say ‘tried everything’, I mean going in all guns blazing without stopping to think about whether any of these things are actually having impact on my students’ learning. Now some of the things listed above aren’t even bad ideas. For example, I think Pie Corbett’s Talk For Writing is a genuinely interesting method of teaching writing. Likewise, I still enjoy project-based learning now and again but I don’t think it’s the answer to all of my educational prayers.

This year, however, I’ve been trying hard to refine my practice and have taken a long, hard and sometimes uncomfortable look at what kind of learning goes on in my classroom. The problem I have is that I don’t give myself time to embed pedagogical ideas into my everyday practice. I’m like a magpie attracted to shiny things: ooh what’s that over there? A new initiative? Why not! So this year, to coincide with me moving to a new school, I thought it about time to decide what actually works for me and to focus on getting better at doing these things rather than introduce anything new into my practice. Since becoming an assistant head, I just didn’t have the luxury of time to plan what I call ‘jazz hands’ lessons every day. I needed to start planning lessons much more efficiently.

This is the first in a series of posts which will explore how I have attempted to overcome some of the planning issues I’ve encountered over many years of teaching!

First up…

Problem number 1: The start of my lessons are often chaotic.

I’ve never been one for routines. I don’t take a register (until admin remind me that I’ve forgotten); I don’t do silent reading; I don’t check students’ homework as they come into class; I don’t make them line up before entering. I wish I had got into the habit of doing these things above; some of the best colleagues I’ve worked with do these things regularly and it works for them. The slightly embarrassing truth of my classroom routine is that students come in and I talk to them as they get themselves ready to write down the learning objective. If there’s one thing that I’ve been working hard on this year it’s getting into good routines which are based on quick, engaging starters. I have a range that I use in a cycle so students get used to the kind of activities we are doing. This has led to an increase in the quality of their thinking and responses at the beginning of the lesson. Now it doesn’t take them 15 minutes before they’re really ready for some good learning.

Here are the six starters that I have been using this year.

Would you rather…?

Would you rather


This is linked to the topic we are studying and both options have pros and cons to them. Students have five minutes to discuss both options before we have a class vote. I then ask a couple of students who have picked opposing options to explore their reasoning. After, we then take another vote to see if any students have changed their mind.

Key Word Scrabble 



I saw this idea from @tombrush1982 and immediately, a few of us on Twitter were desperately trying to get the highest-scoring word based on the theme of PE. This is such a good way of introducing key words for a lesson because it adds an element of competition. Rather than listing words they think are relevant, students have to think more carefully about their choices to see if their word carries a high enough score.

Odd One Out 


Students are given four objects, places, people or words and, in groups, they have to decide what they think is the odd one out. I’ve found this to be a great starter because it is easy to make this more challenging by choosing things which can link in different ways. Students often will argue that their odd one out is much better than their peers’ choices!

What’s the question? 


This generation of students do not have the pleasure of watching the classic American quiz show ‘Jeopardy’. It is my absolute duty to let them into the wonders of this show! Plus, it’s a good way to get students to think about a range of questions. I try and choose an answer that would have at least three different questions related to our topic so students understand that exploratory questions are more challenging than closed questions.

Photo stimulus 

Photo Stimulus

Students look at a photograph for two minutes and take notes on what they think might be important. They cannot speak to anyone else during these two minutes. After, students exchange ideas and add to their notes. There are two ways I use the photo; either students have to write a caption for the photograph or they have to create an exploratory question to ask another student based on an idea in the photograph.

Thinking in role 

What would they say

The beginning of a sentence is displayed on the board. In pairs, students have to complete the sentence thinking carefully about what a specific character or famous person might think. This is a good activity to get them to understand different perspectives and to get a sense of different people’s/characters’ voices.

The school that I work in has a two week timetable so each of these starters is used, on average, three or four times during a topic. The feedback from my new students this year has been positive; many have said they like the variety of activities and that they feel they’re getting better with their responses because they’ve had several opportunities to develop their skills around a particular activity.

Time now for some wise words from Mel the Scientist…

Oh dear Debbie, Brain Gym?!! You need to have your ‘brain buttons’ reprogrammed; thank goodness one of us is a scientist.

A few years back I had a similar thought about the starts of my lessons – primarily to keep them busy while I sorted things out, but I’ll officially say I had an epiphany that students needed to be thinking from the second they stepped into my classroom.  I’ve always referred to them as ‘snappy starts’ and have tried out a few of those above so will give some quick science examples of these to show the contrast as well as introducing a few others I enjoy using with classes.

Would you rather? 


This works well in a situation where students have to apply something they have learnt previously to a new situation or to obtain information on prior knowledge of the class. I’ve used for both of these, for example ‘Would you rather be stepped on by an elephant or me wearing stiletto heels?’ This could precede or follow a lesson on the pressure part of a forces topic. Another example is ‘Would you rather drink a glass of dihydrogen monoxide or a glass of water?’ This is a trick question, maybe you can work out why yourselves!

Photo stimulus


Such a great one in the world of science, with photographs of ‘medical wonders’ and amazing electron microscope images there is much fun to be had. I take every opportunity to make this topical by taking images from BBC science news, but my latest discovery is the wonderful @IFLScience who provides an endless stream of amazing images as well as a summary of ‘This week in Science’ discoveries. There is an opportunity for audience participation here, as we’d love to hear ideas for how you use images but my current back catalogue includes ‘What question would you ask the scientist who took this picture?’ ‘What is wrong with or missing from this picture?’ and ‘What would you do next if you saw this?’

So, a few other examples of ‘snappy starts’ I have used:



One of the all-time favourites of students and staff (I often use it in training sessions too!) It is also a particular favourite of some of the more tricky students. Students like making these up themselves, but may need a little help to begin with as it’s trickier than it looks!

List as many…

Making lists

This is a variation on the party game my mum always called ‘Town, tree and country’ but it is now generally known as ‘Scattergories’ after the board game. Students try to name as many examples of something (for example, chemical elements with a single letter symbol) and are awarded one point for each one but a bonus two points for any that nobody else comes up with.

Draw a picture to explain/show

Draw a picture

I am terrible at drawing and my students particularly enjoy pointing this out to me on a regular basis. I do, however have wonderful pictures in my head of how I would explain a concept or summarise a process. So when I ask students to ‘Draw a picture to explain how…..’ I am mesmerised by both the way they think about things and their ability to transfer that onto a mini white board. It can range from ‘how pollutants form in engines’ to ‘why Christmas tree bulbs shouldn’t be wired in series’ to ‘how proteins leave a cell’. They may be allowed to use five words, three words or no words depending on how much I want to challenge them that day!

What’s your conclusion?

What's your conclusion

A science specific one, but given a bit of thought it could be adapted for Maths, Geography or DT. I show some information – perhaps a table of results, some observations or a graph and ask students to come up with a conclusion.  This can be taken further if students are asked to provide suggestions of what to do next, either more experiments to do or recommendations for particular people to follow.

Write instructions for…


So many possibilities for this one to use different styles or audiences. Examples I’ve used include write instructions for plotting a line graph, for balancing chemical equations or for separating two liquids but it is so much more fun if they do this in a particular way. For example ‘Using only pictures…’ or ‘Write instructions for Jay Z/my gran/Joey from TOWIE.’

Students’ thesaurus


You can do this with words you have already used but introduce a couple you have not yet introduced for students to predict their meanings. They come up with another word/few words that mean the same as…..

Three in a row

Three In A Row

Students are given three key words and have to write a sentence using the three words in that order. If a student arrives late, you can choose one of the sentences and ask a student to read it out without the key words and the latecomer decides what they think the missing words are (and will probably not be late next time!)

In our next post, we’ll be looking at how we’ve tried to overcome our second planning problem: designing over-complicated, time-consuming, superficial but fun activities that do not put challenging learning first!




Part Five: How do you develop a strong learning culture amongst staff?

1 Jul

So the results are in: the teachers have spoken! In the last post, I was eagerly awaiting teachers’ votes for the different options to develop our learning culture. We have 68 teachers at my school and 52 of them voted. For me, that is an achievement in itself – even though teachers are super busy, they still managed to find the time to make their voice heard. This gives me confidence that the new ideas that we implement next year will make a difference because teachers have decided what they think will help them to develop their practice.

Terrence Deal and Kent Peterson, in Shaping School Culture: the heart of leadership state:

Every organisation has a culture, that history and underlying set of unwritten expectations that shape everything about the school. A school culture influences the way people think, feel and act. Being able to understand and shape the culture is key to a school’s success in promoting staff and student learning.

Presently, it is difficult for me to define our school culture. We have never been graded as anything other than a ‘good’ school. Our school has a reputation as being  friendly and community-focused. We are proud of our Inclusion Quality Mark. However, there has not been a clear and consistent vision for what we are trying to achieve in terms of teaching and learning. If you asked a teacher to describe our teaching and learning vision, they would most probably respond with ‘To get another good or maybe an outstanding grade from Ofsted’. And this, in a nutshell, is our problem. All past  conversations about teaching and learning have been centred around doing well when we’re Ofsteded. That is not a vision: it’s an outcome.

So what kind of teachers do we want to be? The thing is, we’re all different; we’ve got different experiences, subject expertise, philosophies, personality traits – the list goes on. Nonetheless, if we really want to improve our teaching and learning, we can only do this if there is a range of opportunities for professional development and there is enough time for staff to engage with these opportunities.

Making a change: listening to teachers’ concerns


The most common feedback I received from staff when they were viewing the taster videos was: ‘I think that’s a great idea but I don’t know where I’m going to get the time to get involved.’ When you’ve heard a version of that statement from at least twelve teachers of different levels of experience and responsibility, you know something has to change. Our most urgent priority, in my opinion, is that we need to move away from a top-down SLT approach and replace this with a bottom-up approach. Our starting point for this change is the meeting cycle. On average, there are 10 meetings per half term – 10 meetings!!! Now I do think there’s a place for meetings but we must stop holding meetings just because ‘we’ve always had these meetings’. Are they making us better teachers? Are they improving student outcomes? The answer to both questions is a resounding NO. The majority of these meetings are giving vast amounts of information to staff – information that could often be given via email.

Time for an anecdote. One of the keynote speeches from the SSAT Achievement Show this year was Kev Bartle and the Pedagogy Leaders at Canons High School. For more information about this fantastic CPD initiative, read about it on the Canons Broadside blog.

One of the Pedagogy Leaders was questioned about the amount of time they were given to carry out their role. The reply was that they were not given a reduction in timetable but they could block off time when it was needed. She also said that ‘SLT are good at not giving lots of busy work to teachers’. This struck a chord with me. How many emails do SLT send which ask teachers to do something which we know is going to have zero impact of improving teaching and learning? When teachers are having to complete lots of ‘busy work’ which often involves paper trails and ticking boxes, it’s easy to see how teachers can be loathe to commit to voluntary CPD which requires time and commitment.

After informing SLT about the feedback I’d got from staff, we made the decision to rethink the meeting cycle. From September, we are going to reduce the number of meetings by about half and, equally important: we are changing the format of these meetings. The agenda will be set based on teachers’ needs and concerns; there will be working parties trying to come up with solutions to school issues; and there will be a greater emphasis on training rather than information giving. It is hoped that reducing the amount of time spent in meetings will free up staff to get involved in the new professional development opportunities.

Thomas Guskey, in Professional development in education, identified different factors to consider when planning professional development opportunities.

–          CPD must focus on classroom practice but will only make a lasting impact if the culture of the school recognises teachers’ efforts in engaging with CPD

–          Plan large-scale change but don’t change everything at once

–          Work in teams to create a supportive environment

–          Build in opportunities for staff to give feedback

–          Provide continuing support and challenge for staff

Keeping these factors in mind, I now have to respond to teachers’ wishes and devise a plan of action for next year.

Creating a staff learning culture: the results

Below are the results of the staff learning culture vote.




Action   Research CPD

Each teacher to pick a key theme for   the whole year and be led in a small group by a pair of Lead Learners to   carry out a small action research project with a class.

General feedback has been that going   to a twilight model has been positive but there needs to be enough time to   try new things and evaluate their impact.
Staff   Book Club

A group of teachers to meet once a   half term to discuss how their classroom practice might be influenced by the   key ideas from the selected teaching and learning book.

Yes 50%


No 50%

Staffroom   Teaching and Learning Board

The board will have a key classroom   theme each half term and staff will add their ideas to it to support each   other in developing this area of practice.

Yes 71%


No 29%

Internal   blog

A teacher will write a guest post once   a month sharing the highs and lows of their experiments with a new classroom   strategy.

Yes 54%


No 46%

M.O.T.   (More of this) Learning Walks

Teachers decide on their own focus for   the observer to concentrate on during the lesson. The follow-up conversation   focuses on identifying examples of the selected area of classroom practice   and highlights any further opportunities for development.

Yes 56%


No 44%

Elthorne   #pedagoofriday Celebration

Every Friday will share their best   teaching moment of the week with the rest of the staff via TodaysMeet   (internal Twitter-like news feed)

Yes 29%


No 71%

Pocketbook   Showcase

There will be an annual pocketbook   highlighting the areas of expertise across departments and have case studies   of best practice.

Yes 52%


No 48%

Borough   Hook-ups

Departments will have the opportunity   to share, collaborate and visit departments from a school in the borough to   develop practice.

Yes 77%


No 23%

Open   Classroom Week

Teachers will open up their classrooms   with particular classes once a week every term to allow other teachers to   come and visit them. A timetable will be published in advance.

Yes 63%


No 37%

Hosting   Teach Meet Ealing

Elthorne Park will host the next Teach   Meet Ealing in order to share best practice across the borough and network   with colleagues from different schools.

Yes 81%


No 19%

Next steps: implementing the change

Next steps

The new action research model during twilight sessions will make a significant difference to how teachers view CPD. The onus is now on teachers to take responsibility for improving their own practice by carrying out action research. Feedback from this year is that they enjoy twilight sessions but there is not enough time to try out new ideas: it’s a constant carousel of activities with no time to reflect! Consequently, moving to a marginal learning gains approach, each teacher will choose one aspect of their practice to focus on and be part of a small learning group led by a pair of Lead Learners whose job is to encourage, question and challenge their group of teachers.

I’m delighted that hosting Teach Meet Ealing received such a positive response; undoubtedly this is down to the success of our internal teach meet earlier this month. There was a different atmosphere at the teach meet, with staff actively taking part and feeling they were part of something rather than having something done to them. Teach Meets embody a bottom-up approach which is at the heart of all of these new additions. Moreover, the popularity of the borough hook-ups indicates that staff want more opportunities to share and collaborate with other colleagues in the borough. This can only be a good thing.

I was also pleasantly surprised at how many teachers were willing to support Open Classroom Week. As I’ve mentioned previously, the Ofsted cloud hangs over our school and observations tend to feel judgemental rather than developmental. Opening up our classrooms will be a great way of changing the culture of observations. Coupled with this, the showcase pocketbook of best practice garnered some support. Rather than having departmental case studies, we will have individuals volunteer to share best practice and this will be linked to the new teaching and learning blog. I think the idea of a blog scared some members of staff but we could start off small and ask the Lead Learners to write the first posts to show other teachers how invaluable blogging can be in helping us become more reflective.

There are some quick wins here with the staff teaching and learning board. All teachers can get involved with this idea without a huge investment of time. I’m hoping having this in the staffroom will allow teachers to speak more openly about what they do in their classrooms. This point leads me on to the lack of interest for having our own #pedagoofriday. Being completely honest, there are very few teachers who would go into the staffroom and talk about the brilliant lesson they’d just had. Teachers are still fairly secretive about their lesson observations and it’s quite common for teachers in the same department to have no idea about the lesson observations judgements of their colleagues. Perhaps this time next year, when it has become the norm to talk openly about successful teaching and learning, there may be more of an appetite for sharing success stories.

Moving onto the Book Club. Although only half of teachers were interested in having one, that’s still a lot of teachers who are happy to commit to reading five challenging texts over the year. This particular opportunity is for those who are happy to invest extra time in developing their practice. Who knows how many of these Book Club members will end up leading on teaching and learning in the future? It’s all about building capacity.

Sustaining change

John Harland and Kay Kinder explore different CPD outcomes in Teachers’ continuing professional development: framing a model of outcomes. They argue that if there is to be a concrete impact on teaching practice, teachers must learn new skills and knowledge and attach value to them. Without the outcome of value congruence, there is no shift in pedagogical belief.  A teacher may learn more about group work, for example, but unless they believe that it will bring about a positive change in their classroom, the use of it will be short-lived. This message applies to the teaching and learning opportunities above. Teachers need to believe that participating in these new ideas will have a positive impact on their teaching practice. We want to improve our teaching not for any external factors but because we want the best for our students.

During #sltchat tonight, the topic was about what’s the difference between good and outstanding. My response was the following:

This time next year, I hope that my school will be full of outstanding teachers using the definition above: always striving to be better, always keen to learn more. Let’s hope these new opportunities steer us in the right direction.

the dignity of the thing

Christine Counsell's blog

Stack of Marking

Where the world comes to learn about me and my fabulous teaching.


things I notice in schools

Learning Geek Journey

Joining the quest for finding, sharing and leading learning ideas!

Leading Learner

Headteacher at St. Mary's Catholic College, Blackpool. Fascinated by learning & leading. Love collaborating and seeing new practice. Involved in SSAT Redesigning Schools & Vision 2040 Group.


What inspires - and exasperates - me about education


Most Influential Blog on Education in the UK

Monkey Learns...

Small changes can make a big difference!

tait coles @Totallywired77 - PuNk Learning

“Authority is supposedly grounded in wisdom, but I could see from a very early age that authority was only a system of control and it didn't have any inherent wisdom. I quickly realised that you either became a power or you were crushed” Joe Strummer

Thinking on Learning

Small changes can make a big difference!

Class Teaching

Finding & sharing teaching 'bright spots'

Full On Learning

Because learning is too important to be left to chance

The Confident Teacher

Developing successful habits of mind, body and pedagogy.

The Blog

Small changes can make a big difference!