Friday, 24 May 2013

"Are we there yet?": Pedagogy Leaders & The Art of Backseat Driving

I have a number of words for it:  Organic is my favourite, but I also like Bottom-Up, and Classroom-Led is always a winner too.  Recently I have begin to conceptualise it in terms of Guerrilla Teachers and Trojan Mice, but for the purposes of this post I shall call it Backseat Driving.

What I am referring to with all of these terms is an approach to the development of teaching and learning at Canons High School that doesnt come top-down from one or more members of SLT with an 'AMAZING IDEA!!!' but instead emerges from the experiences and insights of those true classroom-heroes who teach around 4 out of 5 periods every day.

This backseat driving vision was spearheaded from 2010 onwards by our Outstanding Pedagogy Project (OPP), a group that identifies an area of pedagogic focus that they wish to explore in order to pave the way for an eventual whole-school approach.  OPP is a self-nominated group of teachers whose aim and membership changes annually based upon what the focus for innovation is.  So far they have looked at 'Pedagogy as an art, craft and science', the 'Accelerated Learning Cycle' and 'The use of tablet devices to improve collaborative learning'.

All was going well with this organic approach to T&L but then in April 2012, as part of an action plan about building the schools' capacity to fully engage with the Teaching School movement, we decided to light the rocket boosters under the process and created the posts of Pedagogy Leaders.  Designed to mimic the structures of Teaching School Alliances and Challenge Partnership Hubs we wanted Pedagogy Leaders to function as pivotal figures within the school leadership structure, providing expertise in teaching, to fashion a coherent whole school approach and to demonstrate skills in coaching to support colleagues in implementing this whole school approach: the Canons Pedagogy.

We advertised the five fixed-term, outcomes-oriented, project-management Pedagogy Leader posts in time to appoint and deploy them from Easter 2012, and were astonished with the level of interest that they generated.  Rewarded with a significant allowance but no weekly time (we choose to cover more utilitarian blocks of time as necessary instead), eighteen of our colleagues elected to apply for the post.  There were only two qualifying criteria: that they had been outstanding in a recent observation (or teach an outstanding lesson on demand for the post) and that they submit a letter of application explaining an area of focus for teaching and learning that they wanted to implement.  The selection process was simply an analysis and evaluation of whose personal visions for pedagogy at the school were most compelling and how these visions might be able to interlock or dovetail most effectively for the benefit of the school.  It was the hardest selection process I have been a part of, and yet the most rewarding.

And then they were in post: six of them (why stick at five when you can have six?). Comprised of two NQTs, an AST, a Key Stage leader and two Heads of Department their first term's task was to build on the work of the OPP group, bringing together a coherent and compelling pedagogical model for the school, and introduce it to the staff. After an introductory day offsite to really think through their work - a day in which they ejected SLT members from the room whilst they chose to ignore the task we had asked of them - they wove together the Accelerated Learning Cycle, their own priority themes and some specific teaching strategies to form the core of our Canons Pedagogy. Then they constructed and delivered their own INSET day to introduce staff to their pedagogical model, showing the whats, the hows and the whys in a way that was indeed compelling if the startlingly positive freeform evaluations were anything to go by. 

Their second term in role saw them outshine the irrepressible Alistair Smith whilst running a second INSET day that deepened staff understanding of the Canons Pedagogy through the use of cross-curricular planning time saw some of the Ped Leaders (by now the shortened form of their titles had stuck) robustly challenged by their peers, as school leaders should be. They rose to that challenge as they have risen to all challenges and persuaded or adapted as appropriate. Nobody bailed them out, partly because nobody needed to but mainly because distributive leadership requires the distribution of both professional autonomy and professional accountability: they needed to face the flak for any unpopular actions or ideas. 

In this second term in role the Ped Leaders also took on the responsibility of leading our Teacher Learning Communities.  These TLCs are small-scale action-research peer-to-peer groups which we aligned with the six areas of focus identified by the Ped Leaders in their application letters. Amongst these are groups looking at 'Language for Learning', 'Interdependent Learning' and 'Questioning for Learning' and it is in these groups that the Ped Leaders have been able to practice and develop (in themselves and others) the coaching skills that underpinned the third  of our pedagogy focused INSET days. 

After the Christmas break the Ped Leaders created their third INSET day, but showed great awareness of the needs of their colleagues in devising a programme (on the theme of in-class evaluation of learning) that was all about staff choosing what they wanted to do, rather than being subjected to a one-size-fits-all day. In order to make this possible they had to do what I and my Assistant Head colleague had had to do with them; LET GO. For the first time they (by now the front seat drivers) had to invite their back seat passengers to become drivers. That INSET day saw over twenty colleagues deliver sessions to their peers and the introduction of our first mini-Teachmeets. I suspect pedagogy-focused INSET days at Canons will never be the same again. 

That Spring term also saw the Peds (as they had by now become known) put together our first Student Pedagogy Day, something like an INSET day for students in years seven to ten. This involved them creating a rich and varied programme, to be taught by all of our staff, that introduced our students to the same pedagogical structures, themes and techniques as our staff had been introduced to on their INSET days. The day was a great success but not without it's challenges. It is to the credit of the Ped Leaders that they were brutally honest in their own analysis of the day and incisive in their evaluation of what will need to be retained and what will need to be changed in any future student learning days. 

All of which brings us careering to the current term and the work of the Peds that is happening now. Because we had front-loaded our INSET provision this term is about the consolidation of the work that has been done across the year. This involves our no-longer-backseat-drivers drawing together the work of their TLCs, engaging with new processes for peer-coaching and sharing of best practice, evaluating the impact of their work this year, responding to an ever-increasing amount of requests from colleagues who have seen how good they are, and beginning to show to the outside world what they have done this year through blogs on this site. 

Later this term, on June 21st, they will be presenting their journey (and our school's journey with them at the steering wheel of teaching and learning) at the prestigious Keynote Zone of the SSAT's Achievement Show at Twickenham. In the continued spirit of fully distributed responsibility they have complete autonomy over what and how they present on that day. We hope to see many of you there. 

But what does the future hold for our Pedagogy Leaders?  Their term of office is coming to an end but they have done such a fantastic job for Canons Hogh School that the role is now seen as invaluable for us. We have just advertised for a second generation of Peds with a new brief that will build upon the work of the first generation by extending it and deepening it. The current postholders will all be more than welcome to apply and I've no doubt some of them will do so. Four of the six current postholders have achieved substantive promotions in the meantime and may choose not to do so, but if that is the case it will be regarded as a success of the strategy not a failure. 

There will, however, be others that apply to become our new Pedagogy Leaders and it will be good to see who they are, what animates them and how they want to strike out in new and unexpected directions and how these are reconciled with the work that has been done so far. The one thing that will remain certain is that once the new team are formed they will continue to have significant freedom to drive teaching and learning forward from the front seat rather than be seen as passengers to be carried along. It is a model of staff development, deployment and influence that I can't recommend highly enough to any and every school leader with the will to make it happen. 

Friday, 3 May 2013

Using a 'Taxonomy of Errors' to Enhance Student Responses

I am writing this post to outline and to describe a technique I learnt some years ago from a long-forgotten colleague that has had a very positive impact on my teaching and the learning of my students:  the Taxonomy of Errors.  As well as describing the technique I want to show how I have developed it in recent weeks, how I have used it proactively with my students and what impact it has had on their written work.  Hopefully it may be useful to one or two of you.

In essence, the Taxonomy of Errors is a response to that perennial problem faced by teachers of dealing with a class that are all making the same mistakes.  It is a method for trying to ensure that students learn from each others' mistakes as well as from their own.  It is a method for trying to ensure that when they next attempt the same task, they will improve markedly rather than incrementally because they have addressed a range of foibles in their work.

In practice, the Taxonomy of Errors is little more than a summary of all the feedback that you have given to the students as individuals with a focus on the comments you have written time after time after time.  Sometimes I have even been known to rank them in order of frequency!!!

This is an example of a Taxonomy of Errors (ToE) for my top set English class.  I took them over two weeks ago and immediately got them to complete a full practice exam for me so I could see what they could do in the heat of battle.  This is the ToE for the important question on the Writing Section, which requires them to analyse language across two non-fiction texts and make comparisons.  As you can probably guess this response was not perhaps their finest hour, mainly because they had forgotten exam techniques in ensuring that they performed well in their controlled assessments.  This strategy is part of my portfolio of tools for getting them prepared for their exams later this month.  You will notice that the vocabulary is negative.  Although I sometimes write ToEs positively (there is an example later) the intention is to be bluntly honest about what went wrong, and the fact that the list is based on the whole class makes it easier to be so (although I am bluntly honest individually too!).

Here is another example of a Taxonomy of Errors, this time in response to a collection of timed essays from my AS Sociology students.  In this ToE I made an attempt to separate out the basic errors (at the top) and the more complex error (at the bottom) to ensure that they understood the things that they really ought not have done, regardless of their ability, and the genuine areas for further learning.  I always find that at this time of the academic year students facing imminent external examination make all kinds of foolish errors and they need to be scuttled in order to allow them to get at the more important stuff that will genuinely allow them to achieve higher grades (we always call them the Sheep Grades because they are B, A, A* - Geddit?). I always present this feedback at the very start of the lesson after I have marked the work and am increasingly linking the feedback directly to the activities of the next lesson so that they improve upon their work immediately.

Here's my latest feedback to my Y11 English students, and in it I have focused even more on the creation of a genuine Taxonomy of Errors (that may have been how it was intended and I have just found my way to it the long way around!!): from the basics that are genuinely beneath this groups of students, to the intermediate and advanced.  This feedback was from an essay on An Inspector Calls where the students were (to a greater or lesser extent) all guilty of simply trying to rewrite their controlled assessment work on Arthur and Sheila rather than respond about the Inspector as they had been asked.  I was therefore able to show them how the error at the intermediate level was preventing them from accessing the higher grades, and thereby making the feedback on higher level errors virtually redundant (most students achieved only between 17 and 21 marks out of 30 because of their intermediate errors).

Here is a very typical response from one of the students that led to this Taxonomy of Errors, and was even one of the better ones because he made sure to refer to the Inspector on four occasions.  In the end, though, his best observations were reserved for the character of Sheila and he would be reliant upon the leniency of the examiner at best and, at worst, reliant upon another question coming up that allowed him to crowbar in his understanding of the character of Sheila.  In response to the ToE then, I devised a sequence of activities that was focused on using 15 minutes of their 45 to plan effectively to answer the actual question, not the one that they wish had been set.  This involved brainstorming what they knew already about the Inspector, selecting apposite quotes (ensuring that at least one of these was from the stage directions to allow the response to include reference to stagecraft - from the Advanced section of the ToE), exploring the language of the quotes for dominant and subversive interpretations and then evaluating the quotes in light of the essay question.

And here is the response that the same student generated during this double lesson in response to the activities I had set; activities which had been informed by the Taxonomy of Errors (at this stage of the year my lessons are almost entirely planned in response to their emergent needs). I'm not claiming that it is a startlingly better response, but it does tackle the intermediate error of not focusing on the question to ensure he has a chance at the top marks.  Further to this it addresses the advanced error of a lack of reference to stagecraft and deepens his use of language analysis from a straightforward discussion of the word 'horrible' to a more convincing analysis of the words 'taking charge masterfully' in a better quotation that, again, had more resonance with the actual question he had been asked to answer.

So there you have it.  In my classroom the Taxonomy of Errors is used for three purposes.  In its most simple guise it tells the students what mistakes have been made, by others as well as themselves, so that they can get a sense of their achievements alongside those of their peers.  At a more sophisticated level the Taxonomy of Errors allows me to rank the impact of different errors on their marks and/or grades by showing them how basic or intermediate errors can undermine work that in other ways might have the potential to achieve highly.  But the Taxonomy of Errors is at its most effective when it informs my planning so that students are taught (or re-taught) the knowledge or skills that had been demonstrated so poorly in their submitted work.  The Taxonomy of Errors is at its most potent when it is used in this way and results in the students being asked to edit or rewrite the error-strewn original in a conscious attempt to improve it.  The Taxonomy of Errors is at its most rewarding when it helps make marking have a genuine impact on learning.