Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Creating a climate for risk taking in the classroom

Imagine a world where all SLTs taught consistentlyoutstanding lessons and staff saw them doing that and that alone. What would itprove? It would be great for our egos but how would it actually develop any ofour staff?

 Make no mistake, I know what good and outstandinglearning looks like,  I can and doachieve it on a regular basis but actually a major (arguably more important)part of my job is to create conditions for others to achieve this and create aculture where it's ok to take risks. It is these risks that eventually lead tosustained and continual improvement across departments and organisations.

 I'm currently part of a small group looking atdeveloping classroom practice around pupil interdependence, led by an excellentteacher in her 2nd year of teaching. I was quite excited about something she'ddone with us a few weeks ago and emailed her to say I was going to try it outwith a class for the first time, later that day. She replied that she happenedto be free that pm so could she pop in? My response? "Of course.”

I don't believe that the lesson would have beenrated outstanding but that wasn't the point. I was trying something new withpossibly my most challenging class. I'm not even sure how much it was actuallyrelated to maths- it was the process that I was interested in and wanted toexplore for future lessons. If I were a slave to the "SLT must beoutstanding at all times" mantra I would have turned my colleague down andlet her come in a week or two after I'd drilled the kids and played with it alittle more to iron out any rough edges.

 I choose not to do that. Why? Because that is notthe culture I want to be a part of leading. We tell pupils that it’s ok to failbut rarely show that to staff. As a school leader, I want staff to know thatit's ok to experiment, that we can be part of each other’s mutual development-that is what develops a truly excellent organisation - not a need to show howperfect we all are.

 After the lesson, I asked Athena to give me somefeedback- here it is (unedited)...


This is what I noted downafter the lesson:

· Engaging task with clear instructions and time allowance.

· Allowed pupils to choose their own groups and resources which gives themownership over their work.

· Very little involvement, instead you just ‘hinted’ and asked questions tocertain pupils about how they might want to go about directing the activity.

· I think that for a clear leader to emerge there needed to be a wholeclass ‘buy in’ and a sense that everyone was contributing to one final product– the smaller groups only cared about what they were doing really and didn’tseem to understand the importance of each other.

· Great consolidation in terms of what they would do differently next timeand how they would improve– I thought the end of the lesson was the most richin terms of learning, they came up with things like organisation,communication, team work.

· My main question would be what did you want them to learn from thelesson? Was it how to work together or was it to better understand the exampaper? I think if they had a clear understanding of your objectives for themand could see a more tangible outcome they would have worked more efficientlyhowever the fact that they didn’t was what made the discussion so good! "


I took Athena's feedback on board and have sincemodified and improved the activity with another class. Subsequently Athena andI have been involved in a mutually beneficial dialogue about our adventures in interdependence.*

*More of that to follow shortly.


Wednesday, 12 December 2012

What has football got to do with geography? Low teacher - high learner impact

As part of my professional development this year, I am focussing on the  'Interdependent Learning' key theme of the Canons Pedagogy in my Teaching and Learning Community. Under the supportive eye of @apitsillis (Pedagogy Leader and co constructor of the Canons Pedagogy) my primary aim is to improve the group learning I teach to ensure they result in better learning outcomes for students.  Interdependent learning is  a part of my classroom practice that I enjoy most, but if I am honest not an area of my practice where I can evidence that the students were getting as much out of it in terms of  their learning, as I was putting into lesson with regards to planning.

If I am brutally honest with myself the norm for these lessons were that I would arrive to the class exhausted, having created a vast array of resources, laminated everything in sight and still of course forgotten the glue sticks or scissors. The students would complete the tasks, some might appear to enjoy the experience however, as I observed each group I had spent two hours carefully constructing I would still witness one or two students sitting back whilst others did most or all of the work.  I was never totally convinced that these lessons achieved what I beleive should be the long term aims of group learning; encouraging students to learn how to learn from each other and gain increasing independence from me as their teacher.  As I am reminded from time to time by @7tbj aka John Connolly (Pedagogy Leader),  are we  the 'sage on the stage or the guide on the side?' If I am honest until very recently I have been the sage in these lessons.

So having posed the question 'what has football got to do with geography?'  my year 8 class began to  map the orign countries of foreign football players in the English Premiership with a view to then discussing why these players choose to come to the UK. I asked for experts and six hands went up. Five boys and a girl. I then stood at the front of the class handing out blank maps and watched as students collected these and then gravitated towards one of the self nominated experts forming groups which varied in gender, ability and size.

It was a pleasure to wander around the class and hear the following comments and questions. 'Do rich countries have worse players than poor countries?'  'He's African so why does he speak French?'  'Why do so many good players come from South America?' and 'Why has John Terry never played abroad?'  As the groups progressed through the exercise a more competetive element began to emerge as students tried to name more payers than their peers, exchange answers for information they didn't have and negotiate 'loaning' experts that were more knowledgeable about players from a particular continent. As they mapped I was able to voice their discussion questions and invite those who could provide answers to do so. As with religion and politics football creates heated debate and I listened to students argue about the rights and wrongs of some parents viewing football as a way out of poverty for their children in some parts of the world. As the groups celebrated and congratulated their 'experts' they moved onto a discussion around the reasons foreign players were attracted to the English premiership. By that stage they had already built up a wealth of knowledge from their questions, conversations and debate and could rapidly begin to form reasons for player migration.
Keeping planning focussed and simple resulted in four recognisable improvemenst to my practice.
1.  Self selecting groups proved to be effective in this instance.  Variation in group size, gender and ability made no apparent difference to student acheivment and certainly didn't affect the lesson in an adverse way.  There are times when groups need to be carefully constructed but why do I get so hung up about working like this all the time?
2.  Students who  had never  volunteered to lead learning were keen to do so.  Of the six experts four of those were students who often find it difficult to focus, concentrate and stay on task. Five of the experts were boys.  In the past from this class the norm was for  the girls to emerge as natural leaders. Their leadership of their own learning and that of their peers was 'real'.  They directed the conversations, posed and answered questions and kept their groups focussed 
3. Because the groups were so engaged I didn't feel urgent intervention by myself was necessary.  I was able to sit back, observe and 'dip' into each group at just the right point.  Facilitating rather than directing learning
4.  Independence and interdependency was evident. Students learnt from each other and not a single question was targetted at me.  Okay I'm not an expert in football but that had never stopped them in the past!
I believe that children learn more effectively in group learning situations.  Group learning enables students to become more effective learners; learning from each other and understanding what to do when they don't know what to do.  In this example I can argue that because many of the students had more football knowledge than I did, it made perfect sense.  There is a place for lessons where resources are expertly prepared, groups are carefully constructed and each student has a 'role' however I have found when I become a 'slave' to always planning in that way group learning  quickly becomes unsustainable, and I  plan fewer lessons because time becomes the 'killer'.  Keeping it simple has meant that I have had to relinquish a lot of control, remember the start of the lesson  may be chaotic and accept that students may take the learning in another direction.  The benefits are that I am able to teach more group learning and students are starting to emerge as 'real' leaders of their learning fuly engaged in every step of the lesson.  Well done and thank you to 8G at Canons High School.


Tuesday, 4 December 2012

Cultivating a Climate for Contagious Pedagogy

I'm writing this post as Renata (@renniesherrie) an I are on our way up to the SSAT National Conference in Liverpool on this wonderful Pendolino train - not feeling at all seasick until I started typing this post. Tomorrow we are presenting our work during the rondeval sessions that start at 11.30 and I wanted to go through the process of designing our presentation, partly to help me work throught the ideas in preparation, but also partly for the sake of posterity (maybe even to an audience that includes some of the people who will be coming to our session: wouldn't that be nice and circular.

The first thing we had to do was to come up with a snappy and intriguing title and, being the people we are at Canons, we elected to go with a metaphor and actually to return to the metaphor that kick-started this blogsite off: the metaphor of cultivation and growth. Having been thoroughly chastised in the past for my use of the well-worn and perhaps patronising verb 'facilitate' this seemed far more fluid a term, far more natural a term and far more potent a term for the work we do. Very quickly we realised that we were conceptualising a noun of culture as well as a verb of cultivating. We had our hook, but we had no idea how rich our metaphor would be.

The next step in our planning for this mini-presentation (we have five minutes to share our work then ten minutes to discuss it with three repetitions of the rondeval rotation) was to make more sense of our metaphor and to make it live and breathe and resonate with the work we have done. With this in mind, and given my penchant for a phenomenological approach to things, we used a dictionary to explore the meanings behind the verb 'cultivate' and noun 'culture'. In doing so we identified seven interpretations of the word that we felt chimed perfectly with what our Outstanding Pedagogy Project has been all about an what it has to recommend its to others.

We were struck in particular by the natural imagery that is brought forth by the word 'cultivate' and its definitions. Since the very start of the project I have been beyond keen to use the term 'organic' to describe how it should progress and how it should be measured. To some this may be seen as a rather blind leap into the unknown, but all of those that have worked on the project have come to understand that it is not about route maps or plans or success criteria (except for the big one of making pedagogy at Canons beyond outstanding) but about the journey itself, something very much demonstrated in a number of the posts on this blogsite.

The next part of planning for our presentation was in selecting images that reflected the metaphoric nature of our thinking about the CanonsOPP project. We spent a great deal of time finding rich, dense images that best reflected the significance of the dictionary definitions we had identified because we want our audience to be able to see the depth of thinking underpinning our actions in the past three years; to see how well we are living the metaphor, not just talking it. Without that sense of genuine cultivation, CanonsOPP would not have engaged a fraction of the people it has. We are creating a genuinely bottom-up pedagogy, rooted in class practice.

But as Renata and I explored the metaphororic significance of 'cultivation' and 'culture' further we began to see that as well as horticultural imagery, there was a scientific imagery running through the notions of 'culture'. We began to see that as well as playing the role of gardener (primarily Renata's domain) there was also the element of mad scientist to our work (primarily my domain) and that the two were wonderfully complimentary in nature. The 'contagious' of our presentation's title reflects this, and reflects the freedom that many of our staff, and particularly our Ped Leaders, feel in trying out new ideas and learning from each other informally.

This sense of the scientific - of disciplined innovation and experimental curiosity - is a new strand to our thinking about the Canons Pedagogy that we are developing, but it is a powerful one. We are not seeking to impose a new style of teaching on any of our teachers but are instead looking to tap into the Canons DNA and to understand it better. No school culture can be brought in through the books and writings of others outside of that institution. Each school is a unique place with its own chromosomal combinations, and that should be the starting point for all pedagogic development activities.

But as we considered our journey in the structuring of our presentation we felt the need to return to the natural and horticultural imagery with which we started our presentation. Our cultivation is all for nought if it doesn't actually lead to anything beautiful and if its product is something that is unsustainable. The contagiousness of our pedagogy (by no means a given at this point in time) is about pollen-spreading as much as it is about viral infectiousness. It is about successful flowering of one teacher leading consecutively to the successful flowering of others as much as it is about joint planning and development leading to simultaneous improvement.

And of course, we wanted to convey in our presentation the sense of development beyond Canons both across time and across space. The sense that we contribute through our OPP project to the work of teachers in other schools via our networks on twitter, via this blog and in person through face to face contact is of huge importance to us as we plan for a potential future as a Teaching School. But there is also the sense that we are investing in the future staff and children of Canons by investing in the present staff and children of Canons: that the establishment of a coherent pedagogic approach today will ensure a better chance of a coherent pedagogic approach tomorrow.

As always with this kind of presentation we wanted to finish with a bang and not a whimper: with a meaningful statement that would stay with our audience members. To do this we looked to famous quotations about the word 'culture' in order to top and tail our presentation. The first of these, from Matthew Arnold, demonstrates how seeking to embed a culture (pedagogic or otherwise) is about striving for a perfection that helps us to become something special, not have something special. The second, concluding the presentation, reinforces the interdependent nature of any culture, with each component reliant upon all other components in turn.

And it is these two features of the Canons Pedagogy that we want to communicate most emphatically to whoever comes to see us tomorrow. We want to show that CanonsOPP is all about striving for perfection, even when that perfection may seem to be unattainable at times. We also want to show that fundamentally CanonsOPP is about creating an ecosystem not unlike a coral reef: a system where teachers, students, school leaders, parents and the wider community are enmeshed in mutually supporting and reinforcing networks. And that by strengthening the quality of teaching, we are strengthening the whole ecosystem for the benefit of all who are part of its culture.


Monday, 3 December 2012

"Miss, how do you do this every day?" - Making Students Teachers

Prior to half term I was asked to be observed with my year 11 class for Challenge Partners. As a pedagogy leader focusing on interdependent learning I wanted to make sure that the lesson reflected my interest in developing interdependence.

We were moving on to conflict poetry and I wanted the students to get to grips with the poems without having lots of input from myself. I have found in the past that teaching poetry can become very teacher led with little time left for exploration or deeper analysis. Considering that marks are given for sophisticated language analysis and alternative viewpoints, I felt that relinquishing control was the best way to go.

I was being observed at the beginning of a double period but I decided to set up the learning activity the lesson before. The connection activity in this initial lesson involved a race: students were in two teams (one pen in each) and had to race to finish brainstorms responding to the questions: 'what makes a good lesson?' and 'how do you learn best?' In a matter of minutes, students had filled their sheets and were confident in explaining the reasons behind their ideas.

I then used these brainstorms as a springboard for their main task. I put them into groups of 3 & 4 and explained that they would be teaching the class a particular poem from the anthology; that they would have to create a 'lesson'. First, I asked them to allocate roles which included, but were not limited to, chairperson, scribe and researcher. Once these were decided on I gave the groups their poems (which they had not come across before) and asked them to start annotating. With no input from myself the groups started reading their poems and began to highlight key words and language techniques. As I worked the room I was able to question groups and discuss themes and feelings. At this point some groups were clearly confused - they hadn't expected the lack of input and knew that they needed to work hard if they wanted to understand the poems fully, let alone teach them to the rest of the class!

Then came the observation lesson. I started off reminding the class about their brainstorms from the previous lesson. They were now stuck to the board as I wanted them to keep these ideas at the forefront of their planning. Next, I asked the the groups to set their own objectives for the double, which included tasks such as finishing annotating the poem, creating presentations and producing role-plays with some as simple as ensuring the message of the poem was understood. These objectives were not directed in any way by myself. I wanted the groups to self-regulate their own work and progress (Boekearts, 1999) as opposed to receiving the external regulation (teacher direction) which can become so common in GCSE English. I believe this is a learning process in itself, encouraging pupil to pupil dialogue where they have to listen to each others' ideas, discuss priorities and come together to agree on appropriate objectives as opposed to me simply telling them what to do!

During this objective setting time, it soon became clear that some groups had researched more than others and some still needed support. My only input was to give each group a basic annotated version of the poem taken from the AQA support guide and allow them to use it as a support mechanism for their own ideas. Once they had access to this I gave them 10minutes to add to their own annotations before I asked them to re-evaluate their objectives and set more to replace those they had met. This took us to about 25mins into the lesson. I then gave the class another hour to plan their 'lessons.' The room was soon buzzing with discussion, role-play practice, YouTube clips, dramatic readings and PPT creations. The groups were focused and were working collaboratively. I stopped them a few times to re-assess objectives but actually, it wasn't necessary - the groups were working towards a common goal and knew exactly what they needed to do to get there. The pace of activities may have been slow but the pace of learning was the focus and the learning was clearly evident. Poaching a term from @kevbartle learning that was 'SID' was the key with challenge and progress over time being more valuable than instant knowledge. Only through activities such as this could the poems be explored fully, investigating interesting alternative views and questioning the meanings and intents of the poets themselves.

At the end of the double the students filled out reflections sheets independently. They commented on the process of working in groups, on what had gone well and what they'd do differently/better next time. The time given to this writing allowed the students thinking time, there was no discussion, no talk, just pure reflection. But how is this collaborative learning? I think that the process of reflecting on what they had done allowed them to realise what was still to come and allowed them, not only to acknowledge their successes but also plan for the future. After all, the planning was done, but what about the delivery?

So, how did their lessons turn out? Fast forward one week and they began. The first group started well but struggled to maintain focus and attention, needing my input on occasion to keep the momentum going. Through their hard work and determination (and bribing their peers with sweets) they even had me getting involved; teaming up with an ST to compete in a quiz on the poem!

The quote of that day was 'miss, how do you do this everyday?' Not only had a group of 15 year olds just taught a complex poem but they had also realised the difficulties and challenges of teaching a class who needed constant motivation, support and guidance. The second lesson went better; a group with only 2 members (their 3rd member off sick) had the whole class annotating and discussing the poem 'At the border, 1979' for 40minutes! Not only had I not had to utter a word but neither had they. They had managed to become 'lazy' teachers themselves and told me the point of their lesson was to get everyone else to do the hard work - exactly what I'd had in mind when I planned mine.

5 more groups have delivered so far with 2 more to go. Not only are the lessons themselves going well but the skills that the students are developing are crucial to their success in their exams. Having sent them away on Monday to annotate 'Come on, come back' they arrived on Thursday with lots of notes and even more ideas, exploring deeper layers of meaning and discussing the themes of the poem from both a contemporary and current point of view.

Interdependence has been the key for this class. Through truly collaborative work they have been able to produce and deliver lessons which are exceptional in content and outcomes, proving that 'group work' really can produce the goods.