Thursday, 14 February 2013

I don't understand sir! How it feels to be a student

Today I experienced what it was like to be a student in a maths lesson who didn’t know anything about a topic.  As a math teacher is admittedly was an unusual situation for me to be in but was very powerful.


Today was my colleague, CM’s  turn to chair our morning maths meeting and he had set us the homework of watching a clip prior to the meeting, much like we have been trialling with many of our KS4 and KS5 students in a bid to make them more independent (it’s also known as flipped learning).


As an interesting twist, the clip was related to an area of maths that I am not very familiar with, called decision maths. In fact it is a new module that I have introduced in A- level and is new to most of the maths department.


Just like a true student, I clicked on the homework last night before I went home. Saw that the clip was 20mins  and decided that it was too long so I’d do it the following morning just before the meeting. Fast forward to today and I’m sitting in my office at 7.45am  trying to understand what a bubble algorithm is, having never heard of it in my life.


Then I went it to the meeting, which my colleague had set up as a lesson, complete with mini whiteboards, pens and starter activity.  This is where he separated the sheep from the goats.  The first question was one that only made sense if we had done the h/w.


At this point 9 maths teachers were transformed into a class of students. Some of us had no idea what it was having not done the h/w, others had watched the clip but had not really understood it, some thought they’d done it at some vague point in the past,  some had watched and tried but weren’t confident about their answers.


At this point CM used the answers from the whiteboard to arrange us into groups so that those who understood could explain to those who didn’t by giving us alternative example to take them through.  It’s quite an interesting experience explaining a mathematical concept to a colleague that you are not even sure that you have grasped yourself.  It’s how students must feel all the time.


Soon our 10 min meeting was up and CM had raised some interesting points.

If we set flipped h/w

·         How do  account for the fact that not all students will do it (partially addressed by his demonstration)

·         What do we do in class for those that have to move on their learning?  More questions of the same is not really moving them on.

·         What is the hook to make them want to look at this h/w before hand. Why should they do it?


So as a subject specialist, maybe it’s worth spending  some time in a meeting learning something new from your own subject together.  Experience how students feel and what helps you to learn, it could help you to become a better teacher.
Comments re this post are welcome below as CM is a bit shy re posting himself but would like to see what others think re what he tried.

Monday, 11 February 2013

Canons High Student Pedagogy Day: Impressions from the Outside

Last Wednesday was out first-ever Student Pedagogy Day at Canons.  I don't want to say too much about it in this post as there will be other posts in the next week, but suffice it to say that the day was in essence an INSET for students.  During it we introduced them to much of the same professional learning undertaken by adults in our staff INSET days since June 2012. 

Whilst all this was going on I welcomed some visitors to the school to share with them our work over the past three or so years in developing a bottom-up pedagogy of which the Student Pedagogy Day is the latest achievement.  As well as hearing from me and others about the nature of our work these visitors also took part in the day, visiting classrooms to observe and participate.

The purpose of this post is to share with you the feedback we received from some of these visitors.

Thank you for your invitation to attend the Student Pedagogy Day at Canons High School. The concept of such a day as "INSET for Students" is innovative and one where the students can engage with the concept of Accelerated Learning and be able to understand this method of pedagogy within their education.

I was very impressed with the detailed background that you provided on the Canons Outstanding Pedagogy Project and the impact that this has had to date at Canons High School. It certainly has inspired me to think about introducing some of these ideas into my own school.

The work that the Pedagogy Leaders have out towards creating the day from its planning to creating its resources and implementation is fantastic. 

I would also like to extend my thanks to the teachers and students who welcomed me as a visitor to see the work that they were doing in their workshops.

I was lucky enough to be able to attend the student Inset Pedagogy day at Canons High School.  I have to admit to attending out of curiosity - but also out of a longstanding interest in what a school that puts pedagogy first might look like. Coming from a different age cohort setting, I going to say from the off that I found such young learners engaging in teaching and learning discussions pretty amazing.

I was lucky to sit in on a class where the learners were thinking/discussing questioning. They looked at several way to find out the answers to their questions without asking the teacher. This involved not only individual input but also peer assessment which at one stage involved a young man saying in response to why he shouldn't ask direct questions:

"Because then I won't know how to work it out for myself.
I won't understand how to do it again."

I was pretty amazed at children being able to appreciate the value of learning as a journey, rather than a destination, and his mature reflections will stay with me as I go on to teach and answer, or not, questions from much older learners. He was not afraid to take risks, which I think is fair to generalise to the whole class. They were resilient learners, and we're not afraid to offer wrong answers under the skilled supervision of their teacher.

In the second session I saw group evaluations of how to ask effective questions - again employing techniques I had never seen outside PGCE training. All in, I skipped out of the class amazed at the high level of professional language being used and the extent to which the learners not only understood this language but also took it on board. Ladies and Gentleman, this is what we call buy-in.

I understand there were some issues with this being a new programme. However, the planning of the day was impressive and quite an undertaking. How amazing is it to be in a place of learning as the learners take the teachers along with them rather thn the other way round? I left feeling very inspired. Yes- the staff are amazing. Yes- SLT have had to TRUST that these changes would happen. But do you know what? From an outsiders perspective I saw innovation and resilience at its best, and I feel a better teacher for it. 
Thank you for the invitation to the Canons Student Pedagogy Day.  The day was a fascinating insight into the innovative and original work you are doing at Canons to develop a school-wide outstanding curriculum.
The highlight of the day for me was seeing the engagement, confidence and knowledge of the students with the Accelerated Learning Cycle, which they had clearly consolidated from their morning session. Their enthusiasm for the ‘desert island’ activity was also infectious, their creative solutions to the problems facing them while stranded on a desert island without a teacher were both impressive and entertaining.
It was lovely as well to see the passion from the teachers delivering the sessions who were knowledgeable and equally enthusiastic with their presentation of the student-led lessons. The day has left me with many ideas and much inspiration for how the pedagogy of a school can be improved and adopted from a truly bottom-up approach.
Firstly, thank you so much for being so generous with your time, it was wonderful to listen to you tell the story of how you have 'organically' developed teaching and learning at Canons as so often people want to take the sparkly things from outstanding schools without understanding the hard work and strategy behind it.
Several things have resonated strongly with me about your approach: one is the amount of investment there has been in growing not just outstanding practitioners but the leadership of teaching and learning in the school; from the sub group of SLT, to the Outstanding Pedagogy Project group, the Teacher Learning Community groups and the Pedagogy leaders. Though you describe your approach as growing from the bottom up rather than being all mapped out, the structures of leadership which support it seem very coherent.  I am very keen to develop an OPP group and perhaps Ped leaders at my school.
I also really like the way that you have broken down the outstanding criteria and then analysed phrases in your lesson observation feedback, as a way of feeding back both to teachers, but also on the observers. I'm definitely going to do this with our most recent set of feedback forms as I think sometimes teachers see 'outstanding' as unobtainable and the marginal gains approach seems like a brilliant way to support teachers to develop their own practice.
Finally, inviting us in to see the first go at a student Pedagogy INSET day was great, it shows great confidence to share 'a work in progress' and I enjoyed it very much.   We continue to try to find ways to involve student voice in teaching and learning, but I had not considered this approach myself.  It was great to see the word 'pedagogy' on the student timetables for the day (something which I perhaps shy away from using, even with staff) and there were high expectations of the level of language about learning which the students  were expected to access.  The students and staff were all welcoming, please thank the Ped Leaders who shared their experiences and the teachers whose sessions I sat in on.
It is always lovely to get warm feedback from visitors, but I'm sure that you will agree that this is glowing praise in a number of places:  "innovative", "inspired", "fantastic", "amazing", "will stay with me", "impressive", "resonated", "coherent", "brilliant", "high expectations", "welcoming", "infectious".
If you are reading this and wanting to know more about the work we have done in developing a Canons Pedagogy then have a trawl through the posts on this blogsite.  If you like what you read there then give us a call or send an email to We are always happy to share expertise and these contacts give Canons an opportunity to learn from your work too, making the sharing mutually beneficial, which can't be a bad thing.

Saturday, 9 February 2013

The importance of making mistakes

I am a proud advocate of making mistakes. As a languages teacher (and life-long language learner) I am proud to say that making mistakes has helped me to learn and teach three modern foreign languages, and I hope that I never stop making mistakes! Why am I so keen to keep getting things wrong? Well, as I tell the children that I teach, I’d rather you give it a go, get it wrong and learn from the experience, than never try at all. Where would be the fun in that?!

Let me share an embarrassing (and, with hindsight, rather funny) example of when I made a mistake on my own language learning journey. During my time in Italy as part of my overseas placement for my undergraduate degree, I was working as an English Language Assistant at a high school in Milan. Although most of the time I was speaking in English with the students with whom I was working, there was the occasional moment when I needed to communicate with them in Italian if something was not understood, or a translation was required. When I thought I’d said something along the lines of “I would discourage the use of an online translator” to the class (using the Italian verb ‘scoraggiare’), my utterance was immediately followed by a roar of laughter from the 30 fifteen-year-olds and the 60-something year old teacher that seemed to rattle windows and reverberate through me. Huh?! What had I said that was so funny? Well, as the teacher tried to explain to me, struggling to succumb to a schoolgirl-like giggling fit, I had mistakenly used a very similar verb that carried an altogether different meaning – ‘scoreggiare’ – meaning ‘to fart’. You can imagine my dismay. Enough said on that matter!

Needless to say, I learnt from this mistake, and it is a mistake that I will never make again, I doubt! And although it may have been embarrassing at the time, I can look back now and smile J.

As human beings, many of us seem to fear/dislike/avoid failure. We don’t want to appear as weak, defunct, not good enough, or dare I say – stupid. We have reputations to uphold, goals to reach; this must suggest that making mistakes will only slow us down, get in the way of our trajectory, or make other people think less of us. There is a name for this – atychiphobia. From the Greek phóbos, meaning "fear" or "morbid fear" and atyches meaning "unfortunate", it is the abnormal, unwarranted, and persistent fear of failure. As with many phobias, atychiphobia often leads to a constricted lifestyle, and is particularly devastating for its effects on a person’s willingness to attempt certain activities (thanks Wikipedia for that explanation!).

Granted, I don’t believe that the vast majority of the students we teach suffer from such an intense phobia in this way, or at least I hope they don’t! However, if too much pressure were to be placed on us to get something right all the time, whether it be by our families, friends, teachers, then the very idea of getting something wrong along the way would probably be perceived negatively by the student. Attributing a negative connotation to the act of making a mistake is something that probably all of us do, not just the children we teach. This can’t be good for what we’re trying to achieve in our classrooms and beyond.

What I’m hoping to do is to break down this misconception that making mistakes is a bad thing. This is certainly what I’m trying to impart on the students that I see each day. This is a challenge, though. It is almost instinctual to think that mistakes are bad. If presented with the choice of saying something that contained a mistake or something that didn’t, I don’t think anyone would opt for the former.

However, making mistakes is an important part of the learning process, not just in language learning, but in any area. Niels Bohr (1885-1962), a Danish physicist who received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1922 for making foundational contributions to understanding atomic structure and quantum mechanics, once said that, “An expert is a man who has made all the mistakes which can be made, in a narrow field”. Wise words from a very wise man.

We need to question things, not understand something straight away, get something wrong, ask yourself what and why something is wrong, figure out what something would look like if it were correct. If we did everything correctly the first time around, I wonder whether we would retain the information as easily. Is it a linear process of accepting something as a given, regurgitating it for a test and moving on to the next thing, or is the learning process a bit more jagged, a bit messier, a bit rough around the edges? Do we learn by not getting it right the first time, maybe not even the second, third or fourth time? Do the mistakes we make along the way actually help us to understand why something is the way it is? It raises the question of how we learn, and it is a question that has an infinite number of theories and approaches and opinions attached to it. It is very much open to interpretation, so I will leave that interpretation open for you to ponder as you do the ironing or walk the dog.

Something that my MFL colleagues and I have been trying with our Year 8 students is presenting them with common mistakes made by learners of Spanish, and asking them to identify where the mistake is in a sentence, explain why it is a mistake, and demonstrate what it should look like, explaining why it is now correct.

What I found to be particularly interesting with this activity was that these students were easily able to identify what was wrong with the sentence and re-draft a correct version, yet they struggled to articulate exactly why it was wrong, even when they were given the opportunity to discuss their thoughts with other students. I was impressed with their instinct for spotting the error and amending it, but what they appeared to lack was the ability to verbalise the nitty-gritty.

I think that the first time I tried this activity I was a bit disheartened by the fact that they weren’t able to explain why they knew the right answer. Somehow, just knowing what the right answer was, wasn’t enough! What I really wanted was for them to learn from the mistake. But then I thought to myself, this is the first time I’ve asked them to do an evaluation activity of this sort (aside from simply peer- and self-assessment activities that simply check whether answers are right or wrong). Like everything in learning, it is a skill that needs to be practised and developed. I hope that, with perseverance, these activities will help learners to see the usefulness of making mistakes, but more importantly, truly learning from them. In this way, hopefully they will avoid making the same mistake in the future, freeing them up to make new mistakes and restart the learning cycle.