The joys of transition

Apologies to anyone expecting something profound on the apparent drop in attainment at KS3. This is a light hearted take on teaching year 7 from a secondary perspective
You know when you are teaching year 7 when…
1. If you have planned a starter activity, it will be severely curtailed as it takes them five minutes to unpack their bags
2. They look at you with astonishment when you tell them to put their drinks back in their bags
3. A forest of hands greets you the moment they have sat down as they aim to be the first to ask if they can remove their blazer/jumper
3. Another forest of hands and panic stricken faces greets you when you are barely one sentence into your explanation of the task or activity
4. A challenging question to the class is met by deafening silence, followed by a lone pupil at the back raising their hand. In answer to your carefully thought out question comes the statement “I need to go for my music lesson”
5. The pupil who left the class for a music lesson returns after three minutes, having got the time wrong…
6. You are asked if you mind them using both sides of the paper in a test.
7. Copying from the board is carried out at an average speed of two words a minute, assuming they have found their pen first.
8. The child holding a pen like a pole is surprised when you point out that their handwriting speed is slow as a result.
9. The child who writes at right angles is surprised when you tell him/her that this will not be allowed in tests and they should try to write without resting their head on the desk
10. You need to allow 5 minutes for them to write the homework in their diaries
11. A voice shouts out “When do we hand it in?” after you have told them that their homework is to revise for a test.
12. A child stays behind at the end to inform you solemnly that their hamster has died….
Anyone like to add to this list?!
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So how far can you study the culture without studying the language?

Anecdote 1

“So, what did you think of England?” I asked my Japanese student who had just visited England for the first time, staying with a family to practise English.

“It’s a bit like Japan”, came the unexpected answer.

I nearly fell off my chair. Part of Japanese “culture”, as I understood it, was a belief that Japan is rather unique. Yet here was a Japanese person drawing a direct parallel between her country and England. (I say England, rather than the UK as I have to point out to the Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish that many foreigners use the word England to refer to the whole lot). I pressed her for more details.

“Well, they don’t always say exactly what they mean……..”

Anecdote 2

Class of adults of mixed nationalities (10 students). Good level of English, now in the UK on a study course.

Teacher (British national) “I’d like it if you could finish the poem by next lesson.”

Out of the class of 10 motivated students, only 2 people finished the poem. The British national teacher couldn’t understand why.

As a friend of mine who was a member of the class reported to me later, “Well, why didn’t he tell us we had to finish it, instead of just saying he would like it?”

The Guardian article  by Simon Jenkins makes the erroneous claim that you can teach culture without language. Only up to a point, I would say. He then comes out with the tired old assumption the computers make translation redundant as a skill. Any MFL teacher will tell you about the horrors of Google Translate, but I think my historian friends will confirm that Bismarck’s skilful editing of the Bad Ems telegram, missing out essential courtesies, caused the Franco Prussian war, even though his editing did not alter the basic facts of the message. In the 20th century it took a while before anyone realised that there were different words for “apologize” in Japanese and started wondering whether the Japanese had used the correct one when apologizing for their role in WW2. And does the English word “cosiness” really convey the meaning of the German “Gemuetlichkeit” or the Danish “hygge”? Not really.

The way some languages go into far more detail than English does, when classifying family relations for example, tells us a lot about the attitude to family in the cultures that speak those languages. Equally important is the way many foreigners, who use different pronouns for “you” depending on whether it is a formal situation or not, do not always appreciate the Anglo American “first name terms immediately” approach. Or the interesting situation which I have witnessed, where a German (speaking in English) tells his new English acquaintance that his name is Thomas, but then is addressed as “Herr Zimmermann” by a junior in the organisation (speaking in German), whom he has known for much longer.

In my conversations with foreigners who have learnt English and now speak it fluently, I have heard that they often find it strange that so many English people assume that that being foreign meant that they had a natural gift for English and just picked it up, or that they must have learnt from native speakers, or spent time in the UK. In the vast majority of cases this is not the case. They spent ages learning English grammar at school (such as the difference between simple and progressive tenses, which some anti SATs campaigners believe is too demanding for English 11 year olds….). They learnt English strong verbs by heart and were tested on them. In many cases it was not that their teaching was “communicative” or even that they started at a very young age. However, when they did start learning English, they certainly had more than the one or two hours a week which curriculum planners in the UK think is adequate for MFL.

I have blogged previously here about the need to raise expectations in MFL. Unless we persuade the government to recommend/incentivise more curriculum time for MFL within an academic year, rather than spreading into primary with just one lesson a week, articles such as those by Jenkins will become more frequent. But those with influence in MFL need to stress the standards that could be achieved, rather than enthusing about mediocrity. I have yet to find one of these foreigners (who now speak such good English) tell me that what incentivised them at school was receiving a reward every time they asked to remove their jacket in the target language……


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Metacognition and eduspeak – a distraction

The following post by the Quirky Teacher got me thinking.

It seems to me that there are ideas in education which are “simply assumed to be effective by circular argument”, to quote Kevin Stannard. Learning styles was one such idea until it was debunked. However, other ideas are still doing the rounds. The belief that it is vital for our pupils to be familiar with terms such as formative assessment, summative assessment, peer assessment, self assessment, growth mindset, Blooms taxonomy etc – all in the name of Assessment for Learning – is leading me to the conclusion that AfL is ripe for the chop.

I have blogged previously here about the supposed sine qua non of sharing success criteria at the beginning of lessons. Dylan Wiliam’s book “Embedded Formative Assessment” is almost taken as gospel on this point. It has even found its way into adult training courses, as I discovered on a first aid course recently, although at least we didn’t have to copy the objective for each unit. Obviously all my teachers at school were totally ineffective as they did not share the success criteria with me every lesson.

I was sad to read that the sharing of success criteria is now a “non negotiable” at a school I once taught at. In the course of my teaching career I have observed great lessons where no success criteria were shared with the learners. Equally, I have observed mediocre lessons where they were. Moreover, as David Didau points out in “What if everything you knew about education was wrong”, it is often the case that that we do not expect our pupils to have grasped something after just one lesson.

Reading Dylan Wiliam’s “Embedded Formative assessment” I came across this line on P.152. “There is no doubt that activating students as owners of their own learning produces substantial increases in learning”. I guess we all accept this, as we ordinary classroom teachers do not have time to do the research and we trust that people who write books on education will have done so. Yet if it were so effective, one would expect it to be “embedded” in the education systems of high performing countries.

Later than everyone else it seems, I am reading Lucy Crehan’s “Cleverlands”, which looks at the education systems of the world’s top performing education systems. I have yet to finish the book and if I have missed something in what I have read thus far, I am ready to stand corrected. That being said, I would have thought that if the sharing of success criteria, the language of metacognition, mini whiteboards and traffic lights really did result in substantial increases in learning, I would expect to see frequent reference to these techniques being used in the top performing countries. I would also expect that these techniques would be mentioned in Crehan’s Chapter 17 “Five Principles for High-Performing, Equitable Education Systems”. I jumped ahead in the book to look, but I couldn’t see them. This should surely make us pause for thought before we set out certain “non negotiables” in teaching and learning policies.

To me, it seems that the more students are worrying about the process of learning, rather than the content, the more likely it is they will be thinking about the wrong things. Rather than worrying about whether a particular task is a “formative” or “summative” assessment, I would rather my pupils concentrate on the subject matter and leave me as the teacher to decide what kind of assessment a task might have. Rather than holding up a red traffic light the moment they don’t understand something, I would rather they continued to concentrate as it might well make sense to them later on. If they are really stuck they can always see me at the end of the lesson.

My first year in teaching was spent in a school in eastern Europe. At the end of the year, one of the high achieving pupils said to me that she hadn’t really understood much in my first lesson with the class.

“Oh”, I said, “you should have stopped me!”

“Oh no, I realised that it was good for me to hear so much English and that I needed to concentrate” was her reply.

Now that’s what I call growth mindset!



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Data and exam technique – the wrong reasons to be in a flap about the new GCSEs

Having taught for a long time, I have seen many changes to the format of GCSEs. Every time a new syllabus is introduced, we all moan because we only have one set of specimen papers and we don’t know what the grade boundaries will really look like. Happens every time. But today’s climate of managers obsessing about progress and predicted grades is the reason that the flap seems greater this time round.

I get rather uneasy when I hear people talking more about grade boundaries than about the subject content. Those of us long in the tooth can remember getting pupils through GCSE without having to predict any grades or set any targets until the mocks in January (or later) of year 11.  But yes, like all of us, I have to fill in frequent data for my classes and predict grades to keep SLT happy. But I accept that it’s not really valid data. So I tell my classes not to take much notice of it. When it comes to targets, I prefer to tell the students what they need to do in the context of the work itself – rather than “do X and that will move you from grade 3 to grade 4”. My “interventions” (I admit it), are more focussed on the pupils I feel at risk of getting less than a grade 4 rather than those that the data say are below “their target grade.” I know – naughty, naughty, I should look at the progress of all pupils. Well, you have to focus somewhere. And given that the grade boundaries are unclear, in my view it’s better to focus interventions on the pass/fail boundary. For despite all the talk of “progress” rather than “attainment”, the fact is that society will still see some grades as a pass and some as a fail. So why not accept it?

Yet in all this obsession with grade boundaries and target setting, I am not hearing the things which concern me. My issues are a) lack of curriculum time and b) ensuring that the students have enough knowledge in their long term memories.

I like the new MFL GCSEs. They are much more rigorous and would seem to be less susceptible to the cheating and gaming which went on under the controlled assessment regime. But yes, I do worry about ensuring the pupils will be able to remember enough grammar and vocabulary to access the top grades. And I do worry that they won’t have had time to practise the language sufficiently for this knowledge to go in their long term memories.

This brings me on to the next point. The new GCSEs require a lot of teaching time. Yet a survey I did on Twitter revealed that over two thirds of schools carry out mock examinations before Christmas in year 11. More alarmingly, some schools are taking pupils off timetable to put pupils through repeated mock GCSE exams, which start in year 10. I am not talking about end of year exams. I mean full GCSEs.

I have a hunch that this approach, while suited to the old style exams, will prove sadly inadequate for the new ones. In fact, I hope it does. Anything that makes school leaders realise that content knowledge is the main thing is to be welcomed. Only when children have accumulated sufficient knowledge should we look at exam technique.

I welcome @amandaspielman’s comments about her dismay at watching a class being drilled in examination technique well before the exam is due. We do need to focus on the curriculum. However, I fear there will be a large number of voices trying to persuade her that the choice is either repeated examination practice, or a content light  curriculum of discovery learning, projects and learning how to learn – what I have called in the past a “Claxtonite” curriculum, since it seems to be the sort of thing advocated by Claxton in his book “Educating Ruby.”

@brianlightman wrote a letter to the chief inspector welcoming her focus on the curriculum. Yet I disagree with his premise that all school leaders and educationalists accept the importance of knowledge in the curriculum. Too many would have you believe that teaching to the test and repeated exam practice is the inevitable consequence of a knowledge based curriculum, conveniently forgetting that repeated drilling in exam technique and repeated analysis of mark schemes is, in my experience anyway, a relatively recent phenomenon. I am not talking about the sensible practice of having end of year examinations covering the work done in that year. I am talking about the use of GCSE papers well before pupils have covered the content or developed sufficient analytical skills.

These school leaders and educationalists also choose to ignore the fact that pupils in South Korea sat a Welsh GCSE maths paper and completed the paper with ease, despite the fact that they had not been subjected to walking talking mocks, repeated practice in GCSE exam technique or analysis of mark schemes. What would @pixlclub make of that?




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Interviews – why do we make them so complicated?

Many moons ago, as an NQT, I remember that attending an interview was a relatively straightforward process. I was rarely asked to teach a lesson, for example. Much of the interviewing was in the style of a friendly chat. Yet I was aware that behind the seemingly innocuous questions, some razor sharp minds were evaluating my responses.

“So Mr Fish, I see you’re a Man of Kent. Or is it a Kentish Man? What is the difference by the way?” The head teacher looked up from poring over my CV.

My actual thought was, “I bet you know the difference full well!” But when you think about it, my ability to answer or not answer this seemingly unimportant question would have told the head teacher a lot. An inability to answer it would suggest that either I was dishonest on my CV and hadn’t actually grown up in Kent, or that I lacked a piece of general knowledge about my home county, which might be an indication of a lack of interest or commitment to the community where I lived. For those not from Kent wondering what I am on about, the deciding factor (though sometimes disputed) is that it depends on which side of the river Medway you were born.

I was born in Dover and attribute my interest in foreign languages and other countries from walks by the sea with my parents. They would point across the channel saying, “You can see France today!”. The distant grey line of cliffs was fascinating for me. France. What was it like? I wondered. This line of reasoning would doubtless be dismissed by modern day interviewers, who would expect me to spout some stuff about having been inspired by a passionate MFL teacher at my school. Not that my teachers weren’t passionate subject specialists, but my interest went back before I ever started learning languages at school.

I remember once taking a prospective teacher round my current school. This candidate had impressive credentials and had apparently taught a wonderful lesson earlier that morning. But the lack of interest in the school, the department, education or life in general told me all I needed to know. I am often told that watching a candidate teach is a good thing because you can see how they react with the children. I disagree – a show lesson is a totally artificial environment. How they react with children taking them round the school is more revealing.

Children interviewing prospective candidates has understandably had a bad press and I suppose I am lucky in that, when I have experienced it, I did not have a problem. I remember inwardly smiling when it was obvious that the interviewer (the head boy) had been on Rate My Teachers to look me up before the interview. If there are to be student panels (I have reservations), I think it should be older pupils who have some position of responsibility. But actually, for secondary schools. I would say an interview with the head teacher, the deputy and another with the head of department (not at the same time on a panel, but separate) is enough.

I’m afraid I don’t do the usual stuff when I interview. I don’t ask about a lesson they thought really went well. Nor do I ask them questions about pedagogy. This is because I believe that if I do, I will get people trying to guess what I want them to say, So I tell them about the school and the department and look and listen carefully at how they react to what I am saying. This doesn’t mean I want someone who just nods and smiles at what I say – I am looking for sparks of interest or a willingness to ask me challenging questions. Simple but effective in my opinion.

Perhaps the only good thing about the current recruitment crisis is that the long, over complicated interviews, scrutiny of lesson plans and expectations of an all singing and dancing show lesson are on the wane. While I would say that more than one person needs to be involved in the interview process, a chat and a tour of the school will usually tell you all you need to know.

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Progress or attainment? The real question

As an MFL teacher, I am used to the fact that many pupils often find my subject extremely difficult and much harder than their other subjects. Actually, I do not believe that UK pupils are intrinsically less able in MFL than pupils in other countries. However schools in other countries seem to recognise that “little and often” is essential in MFL if material is not to get forgotten. I recall my time spent teaching in a selective school in eastern Europe where pupils did not start learning a foreign language until their equivalent of our “Year 9”. However, once started, they had nine 45 minute lessons a week in the first year. They were taught very traditionally with a lot of drilling and grammar practice. As the native speaker, I had to do the “conversation lessons” which were based on the particular grammar points covered. Surprisingly, you might think, other subjects including maths, science and the native language were relegated to just one or two periods a week in that crucial first year of pupils learning a foreign language. The time for foreign languages was accordingly reduced in the second and third year of learning them. But the pupils’ level of English after 3 years was far in advance of the standard needed to gain an A grade in MFL in the UK.

However, I digress. I accept I have to deal with the curriculum time I am given and try and make it work the best I can.  Before “Progress 8” this was much easier. Basically, my task was to ensure my pupils passed, ie. got a grade C or above. As they were academically able pupils, they were usually doing so in their other subjects and if there was a subject where they weren’t quite making the grade, it was often (but not always!) MFL. In response to this, my department began to organise appropriate “intervention.” Pupils would turn up (however reluctantly in some cases!) and we began to succeed in our underachievers getting the vital C grade which they knew was considered to be the key “pass grade” and could therefore be put on their UCAS forms. I lost count of the number of times year 11 pupils rushed up to me on results day delighted at having attained that C grade, even when they had a string of As and Bs in everything else.

Since Progress 8, the situation is rather different. Instead of just having intervention in their “worst” subject, pupils are now pulled all over the place. They are told they need to attend intervention in every subject where their current attainment is below their target grade. The “Moving the A to an A* intervention group” (soon to be moving the 8 to a 9!) is of equal importance to the ” Moving the D to a C”  group.

One unintended consequence of this is that pupils attend the intervention sessions in their best subjects, rather than their worst. After all, a pupil working at a grade A standard in a subject might well be considering taking it for A level. But what if their target grade is an A*?  Right then, intervention is required! But what about the subjects where the pupil isn’t quite making the C grade? Oh, no need to bother with those – it’s too much effort to get them up to a “pass grade.”

Another consequence is that if a pupil is below target in English and Maths, the school is likely to encourage the pupil to attend intervention in those subjects at the expense of others, even if they are already achieving top grades in those subjects. English and Maths count for double points remember! So off they go to unnecessary intervention in those subjects and then are too exhausted or have no time to attend intervention in subjects where they are not quite a pass grade standard

The Progress 8 cheerleaders might be happy with this situation. I am not. As I have stated before, I see nothing wrong in having a pass/fail benchmark. In the world outside education, no one seems to have a problem with this. Speaking personally, I would find it far more satisfying to say ” I passed the test” rather than “I achieved my target grade.” I also feel it is more beneficial for a pupil to have achieved pass grades in a range of subjects, rather than superb grades in Maths and English (double points in Progress 8!) and mediocre “fail” grades in subjects which do not count for so much under the Progress 8 system. I may be a lone voice at the moment, but I look forward to the abolition of Progress 8 in a few years time…


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The sheer pointlessness of “fine grading” with the new GCSEs

From what I can make out, fine grading was essentially doing to GCSE grades the same as “sublevels” did to levels. Instead of inputting a grade, you inputted a grade and a number. Eg. A1 would imply that the pupil was at the top of the A grade range and borderline A*. A2 meant the pupil was in the middle of the A grade range and A3 meant the pupil was at the bottom of the A grade range.

Let’s face it,  the controlled assessment regime leant it self to “fine grading/laser grading” and I could see its value under that system in my subject, where 60% of the GCSE was down to controlled assessments. Basically, you could add up the UMS marks in controlled assessments and work out precisely how many UMS marks a pupil would need to gain in the “final examination” to get a certain grade, thanks to the converter tables published by the examination boards. While the final examination was an unknown, the controlled assessments were under the control of the teacher. Pupils were therefore encouraged to do repeated controlled assessments in order to improve  and “bank” even more UMS points. As a consequence, GCSE predictions could be made with some degree of certainty.

As has been said many times on Twitter, blogs and by the examination boards, the new system does not lend itself to this. To my mind, therefore, a new system is required. In my view, no predictions at all should be made until the spring term of year 11.

“But how do you decide whether a pupil is making sufficient progress?” is the next question. And this is where I become controversial.  For I actually believe that there should be a threshold grade in GCSEs which denotes a “pass”. Grades below that should be a fail. All we can do, until the end of year 11, is look at a piece of work and say “Based on that particular unit of work, has the student demonstrated a sufficient understanding of the knowledge and skills involved in that particular unit?” It is then up to individuals and departments to judge whether they have or have not. A simple yes/no system could be created for tracking purposes.

And here I come to what has always been my issue with Progress 8. I did not see anything wrong with schools focussing intervention on the old “C/D borderline”. Yes,  there were probably others who with intervention could have moved their As to A*s. At the other end, there were others who could have moved their Gs to Es. Schools are now trying to focus intervention all over the place and it does not work. At the end of the day, in the world outside education, attainment rather than progress is what matters. Progress is simply a means to an end. Of course we should praise pupils who strive towards a goal. But progress should not be an end in itself. The world will not stop asking for pass/fail exams however much some in education would like them to.

Imagine sports day. You won the race? You expect a cup? Oh no! After all, you were 2nd last year, so you’ve made less progress than the child who came 2nd this year, but was 4th last year, so they should get the cup! As for you, the fact that you won the race is irrelevant. You need to go away and have some intervention to boost your progress!

Sounds daft, but that is the logic behind the denigration of “attainment” and the celebration of “progress”. At this point someone often says, “Yes, but we shouldn’t set up a school system which creates “losers.” But would it? If I fail my driving test, I can try again next year. This is the rationale behind the idea of “repeating a year” which is used in many European countries.

To summarise, I realise that a lot of people will disagree, but I think we should shift our focus back to “attainment.” The whole nonsense about predictions is the result of a system which has become obsessed with trying to work out forensically a system of measuring progress.

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