It was about this time last year, still buzzing after the first ever Teaching and Learning Takeover (#TLT13) that we found ourselves asking whether Jen and David would really be prepared to go through it all again. It is a massive undertaking to organise an event of this scale and was so well organised, we were absolutely stoked to have the opportunity to present and really hoped that TLT would happen again in 2014.
When David got in contact and asked us to present again, we jumped at the chance and decided to go for ‘Differentiation/Challenge’ as it was an area we were considering in our own practice. The months passed; we wrote a very sketchy outline for the TLT14 website and then put it out of our minds. Suddenly we found ourselves getting ready for a new school year and closer to the big day. We looked at what the other presenters had put in their blurb and realised we needed to get thinking! This is an audience of motivated professional people who were willing to give up a Saturday in October after all!
We’ve considered stretch and challenge before – as a result of seeing other presentations, reading blogs and reviewing our lesson planning strategies, so what were we doing that was different from a year ago? How had we moved on? Fortunately, Debbie had a light bulb moment (not a reference to her surname or to the brilliant book curated by the delightful Rachel Jones @rlj1981) when she realised that the big difference for us both is the reading we’ve done in the last year.
The research-based books are a big step forward for two teachers who had read little more than the odd DfE(S) update since finishing our PGCEs.
Four books that changed the way we teach
If you don’t have time to read lots of books, we hope our summary of the key findings from this selection will give you something to think about and discuss with colleagues. You may be inspired to go out and read them all, (especially when you see that the longest by far is less than 350 pages) in which case we hope you find them as thought-provoking and interesting as we did. We’ve spent a lot of time both consciously and unconsciously digesting and reflecting on the findings of these books. In some cases we’ve completely changed how we think/plan/teach/explain but in many cases it’s just a tweak to how we go about our teaching and conversations with learners.
Book 1: Mindset by Carol Dweck
The key point from this book are as follows:
- Ability is not fixed and students will achieve more if they have a growth mindset, making the connection between effort and outcome.
- If you believe you can improve through sustained effort, you will be more open to engaging in deliberate practice and will place great value on feedback.
- Students should be taught to embrace challenging work and persist when they find it tough because only doing work that they find easy means they will not become better learners.
Mindset has become a hot topic in education, so predictably it has also gained critics. It is always a danger that this sort of concept becomes a gimmick whereby people decide to ‘do a bit of Mindset’ but as John Tomsett (see his blog here: http://johntomsett.com/2013/10/20/this-much-i-know-about-developing-a-dweck-inspired-growth-mindset-culture/) rightly said in his TLT presentation this year ‘You can’t just do Mindset, it’s a culture.’ The big changes we’ve made based on this book are in the way we speak to and about students. We share the importance of always trying to be better and respond to a student saying ‘I can’t do this’ with ‘YET!’, to a learner saying ‘I’m no good at….’ with ‘You’re finding this a challenge at the moment, but this is an opportunity to work hard and get better’ and to change our language from praising an outcome to praising effort. As well as trying to tweak the mindset in our students, we have found ourselves applying this to teachers as learners. Indeed, when I shared the mindset-inspired image below on Twitter as ‘Something for my classroom’ the overwhelming response seemed to be ‘I’m putting this up in the staffroom!’
Book Two: An Ethic of Excellence by Ron Berger
Key messages from Berger:
- Producing a piece of excellent work changes the way students feel about what they can do.
- Having a detailed understanding of what constitutes an excellent piece of work helps students to do it themselves.
- Creating a culture of critique where students actively seek out kind, specific and helpful feedback from their peers increases students’ chances of producing excellent work.
- Raising expectations of what students are able to achieve enables students to develop an internal model of quality that they carry around with them around school.
Another very inspirational read that has inspired whole schools to change their culture (for some examples, see http://belmontteach.wordpress.com/2014/06/01/an-ethic-of-excellence/ and http://deeplearning.edublogs.org/). Another culture shift, not just in raising expectations but also very importantly to develop a desire in learners to seek out feedback (one that I still struggle with myself as a learner).
So in the classroom, we apply this by showing our students examples of excellent work and annotating what makes them excellent (Debbie uses ‘Air drop’ on the iPad to ‘ping’ a student’s work onto the interactive whiteboard screen, I’m a bit behind the curve and still just use a webcam). These exemplar pieces of work can be looked at against the success criteria, another factor that it is important in developing a culture of excellence based on critique – students need to really understand what they key features are that they are striving to achieve. We have also been developing our use of teacher modelling and find that students respond well to seeing us working through an example and sharing our thought processes (and particularly our errors!)
In order to help students along the way to producing an excellent piece of work, we may make use of different types of scaffolding resources. These may depend on the stage you are at in a learning cycle (see David Didau’s post on this here: http://www.learningspy.co.uk/featured/great-teaching-happens-in-cycles/), the level of challenge that you want your students to work at and the focus for this particular piece of work. You can find some examples of scaffold that we have used in our TLT14 presentation here: http://slidesha.re/1E0Yil6.
I’d also recommend watching ‘Austin’s butterfly’ once you have an outline of the ideas in the book. It seemed I was the only person at John Tomsett’s TLT presentation this year who hadn’t seen it and I was so glad I remembered to look it up when I got home:
Book Three: The Hidden lives of Learners by Graham Nuthall
- The underlying process of learning is essentially the same for all students, meaning low ability students can learn in the same way as high ability students; the differences creep in because of students’ prior knowledge, motivation and individual experiences.
- Learning is multilayered; a student experiences new learning through the public world where tasks are managed by the teacher, the semi-private interactions between peers and the private world of the individual student. How they make sense of these three worlds impacts on how much they learn. Low ability students are just as capable of learning new ideas/concepts.
- Students need to experience at least three different sets of complete information about a new idea/concept before it becomes embedded in their memory so we need to give them opportunities to revisit these ideas/concepts.
- Students remember how they learnt something just as much as the content of what they learnt so task design is crucial and should encourage students to think about what helps them learn.
This, just like the other three books is by no means a weighty tome but some of the findings of Nuthall’s research are so mind-blowing that they make well need a second read. Perhaps the most interesting point for us is the idea that lower and higher ability students don’t learn in a different way; it is just the fact that lower attaining students have less prior knowledge to form connections with their new learning and this limits how much they can make sense of the new things they are learning. We have used SOLO taxonomy to help students of all levels to make connections between new and previous learning (for more on this, see http://slidesha.re/1E0Yil6).
Other key finding from Nuthall’s research are that a learner needs to experience a new concept at least three times in order to remember it and also that students’ learning is influenced much more significantly by their interactions with peers than with the teacher. This means that we think even more deeply about learning sequences to revisit new concepts multiple times and about seating plans to ensure the maximise the effectiveness of learning interactions between peers.
Book Four: Make it Stick by Peter Brown, Henry Roediger and Mark McDaniel
- Learning that is difficult and requires more effort will last longer than learning that is easy and quick to grasp because our memories are having to work harder in the former.
- Repeated retrieval practice (through quizzes and testing) is a better strategy than rereading or cramming because it strengthens students’ ability to retrieve what is in our stored memory.
- Trying to solve a problem before being taught properly how to do it leads to better learning, even when mistakes are made in the attempt (as long as they are corrected).
- The more a student can explain in detail what they have learnt and how this connects to what they already know, the better chance they have of remembering it much later on.
As the authors note ‘You learn better when you wrestle with new problems before being shown the solution, rather than the other way around.’ This means we often provide a problem to attempt or consider before teaching the necessary information or techniques that a student needs to be able to reach the solution. This means a student is more receptive to learn what is required to complete the problem but also can show us when students already have the knowledge to be able to tackle the task that we thought was new learning.
The book stresses the importance of repeated retrieval practice: the process of trying to recall information strengthens the learning of that information. It is not important for a student to get the answer correct, rather to put in the effort to retrieve it and subsequently for the teacher to identify any incorrect or missing answers and correct them. We are trying to achieve this in the classroom through regular testing that assesses new learning as well as regularly revisiting previous concepts. Progress and misconceptions are picked up through marking or checking these short tests but we intend to try out a spreadsheet tracking system that helps the teacher to track the learning of a range of concepts for a particular class. We then use written feedback for individuals or adaptation of our planning to ensure that incorrect information or misconceptions are revisited.
The other key finding in ‘Make it stick’ that we have applied to our teaching is that of ‘generation’. This relates very well to Nuthall’s findings and is what a plenary should be about: engaging the mind in trying to make sense of new learning by making the effort to explain in your own words and relating it to what you already know. Our plenary or reflection activities didn’t always achieve this, so now tasks such as ‘Summary tweets’ and ‘reflection pyramids’ are designed with this in mind.
This year’s TLT was even better than last year.The day started with an inspiring start from Tom Sherrington @headguruteacher reminding us of THAT tweet of his and being frank about some of his recent challenges with a lively Year 9 class.
He then set us up for the day perfectly to break down barriers to potential with a ‘fleas in a jar video’ (worth a look if you’ve never seen it but the geeky scientist in me unfortunately has to question its authenticity). After our presentation we split up as always to cover more ground (but still didn’t get to see everyone we wanted to) and the presentations were interesting and gave us ideas to share and discuss in our school.
Last year we left with the inspirational message from @dockers_hoops to go forth and ‘Make the Sea Roar’; this year the fabulous @kevbartle reminded us that teaching was a superpower with an audience participation dance to 80’s classic ‘Superman’. This brought a beautiful symmetry to the day, to end as it started with another super headteacher who is so honest and personable whilst also being insightful, reflective and inspirational. These guys epitomise what TLT is all about for us: Regardless of your role in school, everyone there believes they can be better and make a difference.
Thanks to Jen Ludgate, David Fawcett and Southampton University for another fantastic day.