Learning {Re}imagined: Initial Reflections

Last night my copy of ‘Learning {Re}imagined’ by Graham Brown-Martin arrived. Although I’ve only read the first few pages, I’m already excited by the content. Already, huge questions have been raised; thought provoking arguments debated; and forward thinking ideas brought to the fore.

Here are just a few:

‘Do we measure what is easy or what is important?’

This question occurs as a result of the introduction of this book as based on qualitative research. For me, it relates to many conversations I am part of at the moment with regards to new systems of targeting and assessment.

A ‘thought piece’ considering the future of education in the year 2030 leads nicely into an interview with Seth Godin, which opens with a consideration of the purpose of education and schooling. Here, the dichotomy between what children of the future need and what schools provide is reflected upon. At this point, as a teacher, I am forced to evaluate the curriculum I deliver and the opportunities for skill development I provide to the pupils in my care.

By Graham Brown-Martin:

‘You are the mentor or teacher of a five-year-old child entering full-time education today in 2014 [2015]. What are the skills that you should equip that child with to navigate [the] future.’

And Seth Godin:

‘Why aren’t we going to nine-year-olds and saying, “Here is a problem. No one knows the answer. Come up with your best approach.”?’

Who goes on to propose that:

‘School is for problem solving. School is for mentoring and coaching and teaching me where my fear is and getting me to befriend it so I can figure out how to be in the business of leading and connecting and solving interesting problems. I don’t need to know the capital of Alaska. It doesn’t matter.’

These are the types of questions, thoughts and ideas that fuel me to explore new possibilities in my teaching and learning practice. They are the issues that we must contemplate if we are to drive our education system into the future.

Pupil Voice: Life After Levels

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With the removal of levels from statutory assessment and reporting requirements, schools across the country are seeking new methods of measuring and reporting pupil progress and attainment. This ‘freedom’ opens up some exciting possibilities and there are some schools exploring new approaches to assessment.

It is worth remembering that there are schools who have been tracking the achievement of pupils without levels for years (with great success) and the ‘problem’ of levels has been discussed in these settings for a long time. There is a fascinating article here, which challenges many of the assumptions that are embedded within a system of levels and grades (definitely worth a read), which is written by Alison Peacock, the head teacher of one of these schools.

I aim to read more widely about the various examples of leading practice in this area and reflect on the outcomes of existing systems. My main concern surrounding ‘life after levels’ is that many schools will simply replace levels with some other method that quantifies learning. Certainly, I have already heard of many points systems, colour systems and ‘ladders’ that simply continue the dialogue of levels rather than redefining it. If schools are to make the most of the opportunity the removal of levels offers education in terms of reframing learning and progress, leaders must engage with the reading, research and debate surrounding the potential of assessment and monitoring. However, that is for a later post.

Currently, at my school we are considering how we can adapt and improve the way we discuss and set targets with children across KS1 and KS2. As part of this, today I met with our school council members from KS2 to hear their opinions and thoughts on the current systems we have in place for target setting and to hear their ideas for how they could be developed. I was incredibly impressed with the thought the pupils put into their responses to my questions and with the level of maturity with which they approached the subject of assessment. All were able to articulate how they learn, why they think targets are important and how they are useful to their everyday learning.

Towards the end of the discussion, I informed the pupils that the government had decided to remove levels. It was at this point that the children’s perspective of levels shone through and raised some very interesting points that will be taken forward to discuss with staff. Perhaps the most poignant comment was:

You don’t need to know your level, that’s not important, you need to know what to do to get better.

It is this that highlights to me that in any discussion of life without levels, we need to consider what is most important: the learning and progress of all pupils. Before discussions move to how we are going to compare the progress of our schools with other schools locally and nationally (which, worryingly, is where many discussions are starting), we must reflect on what is best in terms of creating stimulating and effective environments for learning where pupils understand exactly how they can take control of their own development.

Further reading:

Creating learning without limits

Learning without limits project

Freedom to lead: a study of outstanding primary school leadership

NAHT commission on assessment (report)

Photo: The sky is the limit by Ron Shoshani

Finding Success

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I recently stumbled upon this ‘Career Ladder’ banner displayed in a secondary school. It raises many questions in my mind that I think are important to pick apart. Whether you are involved in the realm of education and schools or not, the issues and messages represented in this poster are important to analyse and critique.

What is success?

Success is the accomplishment of an aim or purpose. It is completely dependent upon an individuals background, culture, beliefs and interests and most importantly comes in many different forms. Inevitably, the ideas, questions and comments made in this post are wholly dependent upon an individuals value system and therefore may well present an entirely different view to someone else. It is important to note this before beginning!

This sign presents a picture of how to achieve career success. Is this really the route to a successful career? How many successful people found their success by following this pathway? It would be interesting to dissect lists such as Time’s 100 most influential people in the world list and analyse the members of this list whom followed the linear, results driven, standardised pathway that this banner suggests leads to a successful career.

Traditional stories of entrepreneurial or business success are often characterised by individuals who left school at the age of 16, who performed poorly in terms of academia, or dropped out of university. Obviously, there are many, many successful people in these areas who did indeed follow more traditional routes. For example, the founders of Google both followed education pathways and indeed, found great success! However, while I am obviously not suggesting that schools should encourage their pupils to ‘drop out’ (and I’m not suggesting that pupils should all seek success in the business world), what is clear is that there is more than one route to success, more than one ‘type’ of success and I think young people need to be aware of the range of factors that can influence their routes to achievement.

In my opinion, compartmentalising a pathway to success may actually have the opposite effect. Rather than narrowing young people’s visions of how to become successful, we should open their eyes and minds to their possibilities and to the skills and understanding they will need beyond a Level 4 at 11 years old. Too often, schools can fail to consider the great disparity between skills needed for an innovative and progressive future workforce who can drive the solutions to global problems of the future and those that are being promoted within some current systems of education. Note: There are, I am sure, many schools truly working hard to drive the development of these skills in their pupils with great success. 

In what ways is finding ‘success’ as linear as this? Does this pathway take into account the great variation between what is needed from individuals in different types of career? What reality is there in the messages this pathway portrays? What are the messages to those who don’t or can’t achieve at each stage? How are pupils choices and individual passions represented in this process?

A quick browse of the ‘What is success’ playlist of TED talks and you discover Richard St. John who, after interviewing members of the TED community about how they found their successes, synthesises their answers into several key themes behind finding success.

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Source: http://www.ted.com/speakers/richard_st_john

It is through finding your ‘passion’ and working hard with a clear focus; persisting through criticism, rejection and pressure; holding and imagining big ideas; getting really good at something through practise; pushing yourself mentally and physically; and serving others something of value that St. John suggests individuals can find success.

He goes on to reflect on success as a continuous journey rather than a defined process with clear end.

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Source: http://www.ted.com/speakers/richard_st_john

Would this message support and develop young people into successful people with successful futures more effectively than the current message of our education system? Regardless of your thoughts and answers to that question, what is clear to me is that the one pathway for all approach suggested through this banner is not necessarily helpful in creating innovative thinkers who are going to take control of their own development, find and discover their own focus, their own ideas and truly persist through the range of barriers that they will face on their way to finding success.

Interesting current reading connected (loosely) to this:

Batala, hey!

Outside of school, I have a life (contrary to the belief of many pupils who still believe I live in the classroom). As part of this aforementioned ‘life’, every weekend I rehearse with Batala London: a samba reggae drumming group. With nearly 30 worldwide Batala bands, I’ve had some amazing experiences since joining: from drumming in la fête de la musique on the streets of Paris at 2am to parading around Wembley stadium for an England football match. I also perform with a smaller Batala band regularly at a Brazilian venue in central London.

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Before joining Batala in September 2013, I had no experience of drumming. I’ve always been a ‘tapper’ and will tap and pat along to any beat I hear (aloud or in my head!) much to the annoyance of my friends and family, but I’ve never had any ‘formal’ experience or teaching of drumming. Rehearsing almost every Saturday for the last year and a half has changed this and I’ve seen my drumming confidence rise. Today, this resulted in leading a ‘stick practise’ workshop for our ‘newbies’ who take part in beginner sessions before joining the main band.

As our ‘leader’ has headed to Salvador to play with our sister band in the carnival (something I would really love to do one day!), a few of us are stepping in and leading various parts of the rehearsal. My role today was to run through a few rhythms to get everyone warmed up and practising at sticking to tempo while playing together as a group.

As a teacher, I am used to leading groups towards a learning ‘outcome’. Changing the landscape of where this teaching takes place and the context of what is taught, I realised today, is a very healthy way of developing the skills that I use in the classroom everyday. Taking myself out of my teaching comfort zone is important in order to develop the ability to adapt the methods I use when teaching young people for different audiences.

Who knows how the future of teaching and learning will progress? In my professional future, I hope to work with a variety of people of a wide variety of ages. Experiences like this one today, I hope, will strengthen the flexibility of my teaching practice.

If you’re interested in the band, here’s a video of us from our gig at Wembley.

Observation

Since September, I’ve been in a new role as Head of Teaching and Learning and KS2 manager at my school (as well as Year 6 teacher and Computing coordinator!). As part of this role, I get the amazing opportunity to observe teachers at least once a half term and have the privilege of being part of their development as practitioners.

Observations as a monitoring ‘tool’ come loaded with certain pressures. The pressure to perform in front of others is something that can cripple even the most experienced and confident teachers. The pressure to show learning ‘progress’ in a short amount of time can cause the opposite to happen. The pressure to feel prepared can result in reams of planning so detailed that it almost becomes an environmental issue. Certainly, I have found myself in the past ‘rehearsing’ a lesson on my own in my classroom the night before an observation speaking to imaginary pupils with imagined reactions to my input. It should not be like this.

Thankfully, many schools are now going to the triangulation approach, mine included. However, there still seems to remain a huge amount of pressure attached to the observation cycle. Quite simply, it shouldn’t be this way. And conversations around the cycle of monitoring and the performance management of staff should be constantly ignited by school staff and leaders in order to create a more effective and less pressurised climate.

Thankfully, this is a discussion that has formed the focus of many management meetings since September. Recent conversations in said meetings have surrounded the argument for not grading lessons and for observing more regularly and taking the ‘learning walk’ approach. We have explored current practice in other schools like the approach taken by a London school where ‘observations’ take place for 5 minutes every week. The outcomes of these take the form of 2 stars and a wish and everyone is invited to be observers: from NQTs to TAs. Whatever the approach, I believe what we need to strive for is a monitoring cycle characterised by an open climate where developing excellence in teaching and learning is the priority.

What I’ve learnt the most since starting my new role (in fact, even before this), is that I learn more from observing others than I do from being observed myself. Staff development is more effective when good practice is shared and modelled, not constantly ‘weighed’ and measured. Staff development is more effective when it forms part of a shared, exciting, positive process of growth rather than a process of judgement and often blame.

Inevitably there are potential issues with such an open approach, particularly when some teachers require more formal support than others. But a blanket approach to monitoring may not be the most effective and such systems could benefit from being tailored.

Would a system where all teachers observe each other be more effective in terms of pedagogical development? Would a system where ‘observations week’ means that all staff are released to observe teachers across the school be more beneficial to the professional development of staff? I’m not sure. What I am sure about is these systems need innovating and testing. And what I am pleased about is that there are many people exploring such possibilities.

There is a huge range of reading in this area available on blogs and Twitter streams across the online edusphere. When I’m able to, I’ll post links to them below. However, currently I’m about a minute away from my 28 minute limit and am on my phone, which makes searching for links much more difficult!

Learning Maps

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Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tube_map

The London Underground Map is one of the most iconic transit maps in the world. Initially developed by Harry Beck in 1931, the map prioritised the topology of the railway over the geographical and physical location of stations as it was this that, he believed, was important to travellers. Since Beck, the map has been altered and adapted by a number of people, and indeed the map we have today is not exactly the version designed by Beck. However, the concept behind it remains.

I’ve been fascinated by the tube map for years and since moving to London have come to rely on it in many ways. In my first few months here, it was key to my exploration of the city. However, now that I’ve been here for a year and a half, I’ve come to almost memorise the stops and stations that I use most frequently and have almost internalised sections of the map. I can now travel without it.

In September, I introduced a ‘Learning Map’ into my classroom. Based (very loosely!) on the design of the tube map, I planned to ‘display’ the ‘journey’ of learning that my class and I went through in our first English topic: Wolf Brother. Considering their learning as a ‘journey’, I thought the tube map would be the perfect back drop to initiate a dialogue of learning. The stations were our learning objectives and at the end of the line there was a destination: an outcome of the topic. Each lesson we would review our ‘journey’ so far and discuss what we would have to do next in order to get closer to our destination.

The map became an interactive part of our lessons as work was immediately blue-tacked to the nearest station to illustrate what had been learnt and to help us visualise our ‘journey’ along the way. New lines were built if we, as a class, recognised that although what we were learning was important in enabling us to reach our current destination, it would also be important during other topics and so connections to other areas were constructed. The value of the dialogue that this ‘map’ raised, in terms of evaluating and reflecting on our learning progress, was incredibly beneficial to the development of English skills in my class. It was this dialogue that proved to me it was worth keeping.

Most fascinating was that, like I did with the tube map, the children began to internalise our journeys. Now, I no longer have to introduce the children to the stops I think they need pass through in order to reach destinations, but as we revisit areas similar to our previous topics (e.g. narrative writing), the children are able to ‘plan’ the ‘journey’ themselves. Now, my class reflect on and consider the ‘stations’ they need to pass through in order to successfully reach their destination before we begin and we plan the ‘journey’ together. More than this, they reflect together on whether stations we previously visited need to be visited again, or whether we need to visit a different station in order to develop our skills differently. There is a rich dialogue of learning.

In my teaching practice, issues surrounding displays have always bothered me. This ‘niggling’ began when studying for my Bachelor of Education degree when in the third year we were faced with an assignment on ‘The Importance of Display in the Primary Classroom’. At this point in my studies, I could think of nothing more uninspiring than researching and writing an assignment on displays. I was more interested in developing my philosophy of education, exploring the potential role of technology in the future of learning and identifying future trends in learning that could enhance and innovate my practice. However, since graduating, it is clear from my work in schools that the value and attention given to displays remains prominent. And since qualifying, I have found myself part of many conversations regarding how to create effective displays.

What this ‘display’ has taught me is that the aesthetics of the classroom environment should never be prioritised over the content; the effect on children’s learning and achievement should always be considered. Too often still the focus of displays is to make classrooms ‘look nice’ and I think it is crucial as a teacher to find a balance between what is visually pleasing and progressive for learning.

Experience Tour: Feedback

This evening I led a staff meeting on feedback and marking. The session was designed to provide staff with the opportunity to share effective examples of their practice, look through the books from across KS1 and KS2 and discuss the issues that can impact the efficacy of feedback.

I began the session by exploring some of the key findings from a range of research in order to ensure our discussions were framed around what – as has been identified – constitutes high quality, impactful feedback for learners. Synthesising the research in one post here would be time-consuming (see my SlideShare of the session below for the key points shared during the session) and exploring the research is actually more developmental for us as teaching professionals, I believe, if it is considered through discussion and dialogue with others. Certainly, I would appreciate the thoughts and comments of anyone reading this post. However, two key points to highlight here are:

  • Feedback can have a powerful impact on the progression of children’s learning (see EEF and Sutton Trust findings here), which can be positive or negative depending upon a range of influential factors (time, delivery, type of feedback).
  • Feedback should cause pupils to think, not react emotionally (see Dylan Wiliam’s video here).

Having considered the research and discussed the findings against our own experiences and with the children of our classrooms in mind, we moved on to a ‘book look’. However, in order to support discussions and the analysis of feedback throughout the ‘book look’, I reframed it as an ‘Experience Tour’.

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Experience Tour questions from the DIY Toolkit website.

An ‘Experience Tour’ is a tool from Nesta’s DIY Toolkit, which has been designed ‘for development practitioners to invent, adopt or adapt ideas that can deliver better results.’ Nesta have developed a range of tools that can be used to reflect upon an individuals practice at various stages throughout any project and are designed, primarily, for social innovation projects. I adapted the tool and altered some of the questions to ensure it suited our purpose.

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According to Nesta,

Going on an Experience Tour means immersing yourself totally in a particular environment so you can gain a first-hand perspective of the situation or context. Experience Tours can help ‘ground’ your thinking; they give you a clear perspective for developing ideas that are intimately connected with the people you’re working for.

This tool provides a structure for reflecting upon and collecting insights from your first hand experiences. There are guidelines to help you focus on the experiences of the people you are trying to understand, and to collect the type of materials you will need afterwards to start developing ideas.

I wanted staff to ‘immerse’ themselves in feedback. To gain an understanding of how feedback works across the school and to give them a tool that would enable them to develop their own perspective of feedback in their practice. This tool is designed to be used over a slightly longer period of time and having started, I would now like to provide the opportunity for staff to continue their ‘tours’, moving from reflecting on feedback in books, to experiencing feedback in each other’s classrooms.

Reflecting on the session, I hope the questions and focuses provided on the ‘tour’ helped to concentrate discussions and direct investigations to consider the ‘deeper’ layers that underpin effective feedback, including the range of strategies that can be implemented to ensure it is effective in ensuring learners can progress. Had the tour been extended to include the ‘experience’ of ‘live’ classroom practice, I would have included more of the questions from the original document. Question to self: how useful could the questions be for monitoring of teaching and learning across the school?

Exploratory Coding

[Note – this is my first #28daysofwriting post (1 day late starting!) and I only have 21 minutes left…apologies for the potential brevity and lack of focus.]

This afternoon, my Year 6 class and I explored the third session in our current Computing progression of learning. We are artists is our current unit which, adapted from the Rising Stars Computing scheme of work, involves using a range of programs to create artwork. Fusing geometry and coding is the theme flowing throughout our topic and the children are investigating the potential benefits of using digital tools to present artistic ideas.

Having already explored Inkscape to design tessellating patterns, today we moved on to designing Mayan inspired art using Scratch. As with most Computing lessons where ‘new’ pieces of software are introduced (the children have used Scratch before, but required some time to ‘get used’ to the tools available again), I began the session with a ‘five minute madness’ recap. This involved giving the children a set amount of time to explore, play and investigate the software with the freedom to create anything they liked.

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Photo: https://www.flickr.com/photos/chelotic/

Within minutes, the children had changed their sprite, edited their backgrounds and developed a range of algorithms to make their sprite achieve a range of different outcomes. This activity very naturally led to a range of discussions about how different scripts could be utilised to produce pieces of art. The pen script then spread across the class like wildfire and towards the end of the five minutes, the group had begun their own pieces of art.Screen Shot 2015-02-02 at 20.03.48

After a couple of plenaries to raise questions, provoke thinking and direct pupils attention to specific scripts that would help them achieve aesthetically pleasing art and effective (debugged) algorithms, I modelled how the ‘repeat’ control script can be used to loop the creation of shapes and achieve a pattern. Teacher modelling of skills in my classroom rarely receives applause from my class. However, after modelling an example algorithm to a group of children in order to support their developing programming skills, an applause spread around the classroom. It was fantastic.

The power of Computing to inspire young people is huge and during this session it became clear that through exploring new skills and concepts in coding, children’s imaginations can be fuelled. Certainly, my class were excited and engaged to be learning genuinely new skills and understanding (something that sadly can be lost at some points in Year 6… this could lead to an entirely different blog post later this week). My class, I hope, are coming to realise the endless potential that Computing can offer. In terms of its potential to open, rich learning opportunities, I certainly am.