Learning a subject is not exactly the same as building a car – my issue with Assessment for Learning

As a not particularly sporty individual, it took me longer to learn how to play tennis than it did some of the others on the course I attended back in the early 1990s. Time and again, I couldn’t get the serve right. I knew the techniques and was trying to follow them. I asked the coach for guidance and he smiled. “You’ll get there, Fish, you just need more practice”

“But everyone else seems to be getting it” was my response.

“Probably because they’ve done racquet sports before and you haven’t. Just keep at it.”

He was right. I’ll never be a tennis star, but after practising evening after evening, I did eventually “get it”

The reason I am sharing this anecdote is because we are now encouraged to think that improvements in learning can always be thought of in terms of “what they are currently doing wrong” and “next steps.”  At a recent parents evening, I was asked the depressingly common question “So what does she need to do to improve?” In this case it was the student’s translation skills which were letting her down.

The honest answer was “She simply needs more practice and she will be getting that over the next few months” and it was the answer I initially gave. Yet I could see that this did not satisfy the parent. “But where exactly is she falling down – what extra things does she need to do?” was the slightly puzzled response to my first answer. I then mumbled something about identifying different tenses, which was noted down with satisfaction. I had identified something concrete. “More practice” wasn’t really seen as OK.

Yet the student concerned could identify tenses when doing specific grammar exercises on tenses. What she and indeed all the other students needed was practice at identifying tenses in the middle of a prose passage which contained numerous other grammar points. Nor was it just the tenses which needed to be identified, but relative clauses, passives, conditionals, adjective endings, the lot. Nearly all my students could  identify and use these grammar points in specific grammar exercises.  We were now beginning to look at putting all that knowledge together. This does not come immediately. It takes time, which is why I have always done translation with my classes, even when it was completely unfashionable. I have never bought the argument which says if a language teacher practises translation with students, then they are addicted to the “grammar- translation method” and obviously never use the target language or engage in communicative tasks. I have always done both.

I gather Dylan Wiliam’s idea of “Assessment for Learning” took the analogy of Japanese car makers and noted how “quality assurance” took place at all stages and not simply at the end. This was then applied in education. I do not dismiss the importance of students knowing what they need to do to improve, but it does not take into account the need for practice. A carmaker who has inserted a widget the wrong way simply needs their error pointing out. In education, I have no problem with students having their mistakes pointed out – indeed, it is necessary for improvement. Nevertheless, education is not really the same as building a car. Sometimes the answer to the question “What do they need to do to improve?” is simply “More practice, which they will get throughout the course, so they don’t really need to do anything extra”. Yet a whole generation of parents, teachers and pupils are now so conditioned by the idea of trying to analyse exactly what a student is doing wrong, that the idea of simply needing practice has become anathema. Moreover the practice needed will come over a series of lessons – a lot of the time a student does not need to do anything “extra” other than attend lessons regularly, where they will get all the practice they need.

Practice makes perfect. A hackneyed phrase, but it can be forgotten in an education climate of targets, WWW and EBI….




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Scholarship – the appeal of grammar schools

Two definitions of scholarship:

“Profound knowledge of a specific subject gained by extensive reading or study”

“Knowledge and learning – the qualities of a scholar”

While watching the BBC’s The Big Questions #bbctbq on the grammar school debate, I started to reflect on the word “scholarship”, as Sian Griffiths explained her daughter’s delight in being able to be in a group of academically minded people – the fact that she could be proud of her serious-mindedness and not have to try to conceal her interest in academic study. My first thought was that you don’t need grammar schools for that. Up and down the country, schools of all shapes and sizes, grammar, comprehensive, independent are celebrating academic success in assemblies with presentations and awards.

Having been in my current school for some period of time, I occasionally ponder taking up one more post before retiring or leaving teaching. Recently, I have gone on to a number of school websites and looked at the school’s “vision and ethos.” There is often great similarity. Comprehensive, grammar or independent, most schools talk about developing independence, creativity, love of learning, preparing students for a future with jobs that don’t exist, education being more than academic study. Only rarely have I seen the word “knowledge” mentioned. And the word I have yet to come across is “scholarship” (other than in the context of an independent school offering bursaries). Schools may talk about “lifelong learning“, “potential“, “success“, “progress” or proclaim their Ofsted “Good” or “Outstanding” rating. They may also talk about “academic outcomes” or “excellent examination results“. I have yet to come across a school which talks about valuing and developing scholarship.

I myself attended a grammar school and sat through countless assemblies where a prefect would read something supposedly profound while most of us thought about something else. Shakespeare’s sonnets, the Gettysburg address, numerous poems and tales of heroic feats passed me by. On doing my teacher training, I was keen to see that school assemblies didn’t have to be like this. Yet I felt uneasy about the assemblies that I witnessed in the various comprehensive schools I visited. The topics seemed very banal and often the speaker’s main aim seemed just to be entertaining. As a serious child, I would have found it patronizing and more suitable for an infants’ school. “Hands up who pulled a Christmas cracker at Christmas! You did? Well done! Now – what was in it?” “Milky Way for the person who can answer the next question!”  I confess even I succumbed to this style of assembly once when I did an assembly, though I altered it on other occasions. As a serious child, I would have found it patronizing – yes – but did all the children there? I don’t think so. And there’s the rub.

Of course, whatever the format of the assembly, most children are thinking about lots of other things, like whether they’ll get into trouble in maths period 1, the fact that Josh sent a rude text, that they must have a go at the new game etc. Ask any child what the assembly that morning was about and you will usually get a puzzled frown. Yet I now realise that the prefects reading profound texts was actually creating an atmosphere of scholarship. The hall was entered in silence, the readings were heard in silence, notices were given and the hall was exited in silence. The subtle message was that scholarship matters and you are all scholars.

I guess that for a parent with a serious, academic child, who is worried about teachers adopting a perceived matey, patronizing approach and worried that their child might be among children who appreciate that style, a grammar school is very appealing. The comprehensive school may achieve excellent results, but they are worried that their academic son/daughter might not fit in. That the child will feel they have to disguise their interest in scholarship. But yes, this is just a hunch, my guess. Maybe someone will do some serious research among parents as to why they chose to put their children through the 11+.

Ironically, I have yet to find a grammar school website that mentions “scholarship” as something worth valuing…..!!!


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A thank you to Y6 primary teachers

“I learnt all my English grammar from studying foreign languages”

This is a statement I have heard on numerous occasions from adults of all ages and it was brought home to me at a recent event for MFL teachers. A Spanish lady said with a sigh, “I would get through so much more Spanish if I wasn’t having to teach them so much English grammar.” I think most of us there understood. Every year I spend two hour long lessons on English tenses with my year 10 class. First we play tennis, then we eat chips, then we go to London. Pupils quick to get the pattern can swim. What? I hear you ask. Well, I use to play, to eat, to go and to swim as my examples and my classes categorize these verbs in different English tenses. The difference between past participles and simple past tenses always generates discussion. Ate or eaten? Swam or swum? And how are they used? All this needs to be done before we look at the equivalent tenses in French or German.

The other day I was introducing my year 7 class to the present tense of regular verbs and thought I’d test them out.” I play and I am playing – anyone tell me how you would classify them? Who remembers from primary school?” The first response I received was “I think the second one’s a present perfect.”

Yes, I know, it was the wrong answer, but I was secretly delighted. In over 20 years I had never come across a pupil who had heard of the term. But I was even more pleased at what followed. There was a murmur among the class (“No that’s wrong!”) and 10 more hands came up. The correct answer was given immediately. “Sir, the first one’s a present simple and the second one is a present progressive.” There were glimmers of recognition among the class. “Well done – all that grammar you learnt in primary will be very useful to you in languages” was my response.

Early days , you might be thinking. But I would say that this year my year 7s have cottoned on very quickly. In translation tasks, if they are tempted to write “ich bin spielen” I tell them “remember -no progressive tenses in German” and immediately they can correct themselves. Previously I had to spend a lot of time explaining the fact that the present simple and the present progressive are two different forms of the same tense and often encountered puzzled frowns.

Actually, it is not always easy for us, as MFL teachers, to use the terms our year 7 pupils will have come across in Year 6. For example, I had to stop myself saying “present continuous” and use the term they were taught at primary (which I always thought was more American!) “present progressive”. And yes, I had never heard of the term “fronted adverbial” before – I used to talk about adverbs or adverbial phrases. But I have long been convinced that one of the main reasons a lot of people say they find MFL difficult is because their knowledge of English grammar is insufficient to get them beyond the transactional language. At this point someone occasionally says, “Well I learnt to speak fluent X without knowing the grammar”. Possibly – but can they read and write and understand that language so fluently? And adapt the language to formal and informal situations? (very important in many languages).I wonder….

Last year, the new grammar test for 11 year olds was repeatedly criticised in social media. I found myself arguing with various teachers and even Michael Rosen, the children’s laureate, at one point. I don’t know whether it will help their English. Maybe not. However, I’m convinced it’s a step in the right direction for MFL. So please, year 6 teachers, don’t feel that what you are teaching is irrelevant and useless. I, for one, am grateful and I believe that if we MFL teachers ensure we are using the same terminology that the children learnt in primary, over time we will begin to reap the benefits in faster MFL acquisition.

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‘Brainstorm your thoughts on this sugar paper, and then I’ll tell you what I’ve already decided we’re going to do.’

To be honest, this wasn’t originally going to be the title of my next post, but I couldn’t resist it after seeing on Twitter @MrHistoire in reply to a humorous cartoon posted by @DavidDidau.It explains why I’ve come round to a particular view of how to chair working parties and meetings.

I remember the first school working party I ever joined. The idea was to come up with a new homework policy. The chairman, a man of strong views and convictions, had obviously read the relevant section in the good management guide and asked us one by one to contribute our ideas. As we went round the table, I could see that the chairman was becoming increasingly dissatisfied. The first comment elicited a slight tightening of the lips, followed by a “Hmm.” By the time the third person gave their views, the tightening of the lips was becoming a frown. I made my modest contribution, noticing that as I spoke, the frown was becoming deeper. By now, everyone had realised that no one had said what he wanted to hear. It was becoming a guessing game to say what he wanted. As the last person on the table spoke, (let’s call him Tom), it became clear that he, too, wasn’t saying the right thing. A slight flush was appearing on the chairman’s cheeks. Yet, in the middle of Tom’s spiel, he hit on a certain phrase (the exact wording isn’t really relevant to the point of the story). The chairman’s features relaxed immediately, he tapped the table with his hand and made an expansive gesture. “Now, what Tom just said is key to the whole thing – can we build on this? Let’s go round again!” So off we went on the next round. The problem was, none of us were saying what we really thought. We were simply trying to guess the views of our esteemed chairman.

Now, I am aware that at this point anyone reading this might be thinking “Well, a good chairman should be more poker faced and wait until the end before summarising everyone’s views. Only at that point should he or she give an indication of his/her own views.” This may be true, but it doesn’t alter the fact that this method of chairing a meeting doesn’t often lead to a frank discussion. Everyone is simply trying to guess the right thing to say.

In Kenneth Clarke’s autobiography, “Kind of Blue” he describes  the difference between how Margaret Thatcher and John Major chaired cabinet meetings. John Major’s was the more conventional method I have already described. On the other hand, Margaret Thatcher would state her view on an issue at the outset and wait for others to challenge her.  According to Kenneth Clarke, this approach led to more open and honest debate, contrary to what one might have expected. Moreover, he confirms that Margaret Thatcher could be and indeed was persuaded out of her initial views on several occasions.

Margaret Thatcher (and indeed Tony Blair) are controversial figures and it leads to some people dismissing everything they said or did simply because of who they are. Some people think that you must be an out and out supporter if you think any of their ideas were good. Actually, I think both personalities did some things I agree with and some things I disagree with. Since I became a head of department(some years ago now), I admit I have adopted the Thatcher style of debate. If there is an issue about which a collective decision has to be made, I tend to say what my views are early on, but I invite and (crucially) encourage others to challenge me. They often do and a lively discussion ensues. Sometimes I am talked out of my initial view. Sometimes I persuade others of my view. If necessary we have a vote on it and dissenting voices are noted in the minutes, so they can always say “I told you so” if it turns out the wrong decision was made.

Now, I acknowledge for this approach to work, the members of the team need to be confident that the chairperson is willing to be challenged. Otherwise it could mean that everyone acquiesces in something they don’t agree with. However, on balance, I prefer the Margaret Thatcher approach to chairing meetings to the more conventional one. I want debate in my meetings, not people simply trying to guess what I think all the time.

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Getting rid of descriptors won’t be easy

Some years back, I found myself on a working party looking at literacy across the curriculum. Having taught for nearly 30 years, which I know makes me ultra cynical, I can confidently say that literacy initiatives seem to come around every 7 years or so and then fade away when the initiator moves on or gets promoted. In MFL, we were fortunate in always having the excuse that the rules on punctuation and spelling in other languages were different and therefore the whole school initiative didn’t really apply.

However, I digress. That particular working party had decided that each department had to give each pupil a literacy grade for each piece of work. My suggestion that the grade should be a simple Yes/No to the statement “Standard of literacy sufficient for subject content” was instantly dismissed with “But Fish, what does that mean?” Instead, it was decided to give literacy grades at A, B, C. Elaborate prose descriptors on the lines of “uses a range of linguistic devices”, “writes coherently”, “sound use of paragraphing” were devised for each grade. The idea was that each subject would find something in the descriptor which applied to them. I gather in maths and science the overriding concern was that pupils should be able to spell the subject terminology used, but, in the descriptor, spelling was only mentioned in the context of writing paragraphs. In the event, it didn’t really matter as the whole idea was eventually left behind as new initiatives came in.

Therefore it will hardly surprise you if I say that, on reading Daisy Christodoulou’s “Making Good Progress”, the chapter I found most enjoyable was Chapter 4 on Descriptor-based assessment. We all like to find people who agree with us and even more importantly, have researched the issue in a way that ordinary full time classroom teachers, such as myself, do not have the time to do. Daisy mentions inconsistent conditions, making reliable and consistent judgements hard, as well as the fact that judgements against descriptors are subject to bias. However the problem of inconsistent interpretations i.e. the same descriptor can be interpreted in many ways, clinches it for me. When levels were abolished, I rejoiced at the chance to get away from inaccurate prose descriptors and managed to devise a scheme of work and associated assessments for my department which did not use them, while still supplying the necessary summative data as and when required for the school’s data management system. As I see it, there are two main stumbling blocks in abolishing descriptor based assessment.

Firstly, a whole generation of teachers and school leaders know nothing different. At a recent conference to discuss assessment, held by a well known schools organisation, I was not surprised to find that a sizeable number of people at the event never saw anything wrong with the “descriptor” side of levels, even if they acknowledged that putting a level on every piece of work might have been inappropriate. These people were busy devising APP style grids for use in their schools. It was therefore inevitable that PiXL and others would get in on the act and offer their own grids. I guess for senior leaders dismayed at the removal of levels, this was a godsend for solving the problem of demonstrating pupil progress once the levels had gone.

The second problem is the examination boards’ addiction to rubrics. These are basically descriptors and as I know from my own experience marking for an examination board, the rubrics can be interpreted very differently, despite all the efforts at standardisation. Pearson has even come up with their own lists of descriptors for teachers preparing students for Pearson qualifications.

What would really be a game changer would be for all examination boards to commit to using comparative judgements when marking essay type questions. This would put an end to the horrors of “I like it, because it’s good” (descriptor calls for justifying opinions – tick!) in MFL writing pieces. I would love to see it, but based on my observations on Twitter, where some teachers and SLT are currently in a flap because we do not have grade boundaries for the new GCSEs, I fear the outcry would be enormous. Nevertheless, I live in hope!

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Why I’m leaning towards NASUWT

When I started teaching I never thought I would have need of unions. In my head, I associated the unions with British Leyland, Arthur Scargill and a 1970s world of wildcat strikes. So when it came to signing up to a union, I rejected the militant NUT with horror. I believed then and still do believe that a strike should be the very last resort. Moreover, the NUT tended to reflect the views of primary teachers and while there were obvious common interests, I found it irritating to listen to primary teachers complaining about the newly introduced SATs – why should my primary colleagues escape accountability measures which secondary teachers had had for years in the form of public examinations? I therefore joined AMMA, as ATL was known then, as I felt it was moderate, sensible and less primary biased. I found union support invaluable after enduring excessive and unnecessary unannounced observations in my first teaching job.

To me, a prime function of a classroom teachers’ union is to protect its members against unjustified treatment at the hands of managers, whether that be bullying or excessive workload caused by an initiative. Being broadly traditional in outlook, I tended to disagree with statements from my union about the curriculum, particularly the once fashionable idea that knowledge didn’t matter now that everyone had Google. Yet, on workforce issues and teacher terms and conditions, I was fired up by the horror stories I heard about the workload inducing activities that some heads in some schools were asking their staff to engage in. Hearing about a teacher obliged to submit written reports to her manager on how she spent her PPA time came close to releasing my inner “Arthur Scargill” – what utter nonsense!

Yet I came to recognise a narrative which went something like this: “Address your anger to the government. Be sympathetic to the poor head teacher – they are simply responding to government pressure”. This led to a bizarre situation where, year after year, union motions would accuse the government or Ofsted of wanting something, which would then be flatly denied by those organisations. In the meantime, the workload continued to pile up.

A friendly NASUWT rep pointed me in the direction of the “Action short of strike action” document which his union had just produced. Brilliant, I thought – this is just what is needed – a list of tasks and activities which NASUWT members have stated they will not do, given that these activities were essentially about creating unnecessary workload. Yet I was surprised to find it seemed to have little support among members of my own union. Time and again, I heard comments on the lines of “But Fish, this just upsets the head teachers. It’s the government we should be attacking.”

To my mind, this involves the union going too far from its remit, namely to protect and enhance the working conditions of its members. Far better, in my opinion, would have been for unions to agree a list of unnecessary tasks and state that from now on no member would carry them out. Head teachers might then have said that the tasks were simply what the government required. In that case, the head teacher unions, NAHT and ASCL should be the ones putting the pressure on the government. The ordinary teacher unions should concentrate solely on the workload issues faced by their members and leave the head teachers and government ministers to argue who bears responsibility.

I very much fear that a merged NUT/ATL union will simply become more and more remote from the workload issues which are the main concern of teachers on the ground. Instead, there will be attacks on government policy which will simply  be ignored by the government of the day. In the meantime, the ordinary teacher asked by their manager to attend yet another unnecessary meeting or waste time on even more “quality assurance” activities will be forgotten.

NASUWT’s action short of strike action seems to have gone very quiet. Perhaps a new updated version is needed. Perhaps it will happen if they receive an influx of ex ATL members who are unhappy about being swallowed up by the NUT. The next few months will prove very interesting.


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“Teachers in England don’t value CPD”

I have a confession to make, namely to a guilty feeling of relief when I realised that a clash of engagements would result in my missing the next staff training event. Not surprising, I hear you say. After all, who wants to listen to someone droning on about some fad, with no real evidence backing it up, which staff will be expected to introduce into their lessons forthwith? Who wants to hear a load of “Ofsted wants this” and “Ofsted wants that”? Who wants to watch yet another video clip on the lines of Shift Happens? Yet CPD where I currently work is not like that. The organisers work hard to make it meaningful. No one is forced to implement fads. No one lectures us constantly about what Ofsted are suppose to want. We are encouraged to look at research based evidence and develop ideas which we could adapt to our classroom practice. We discuss what we have read and share thoughts with others. All well and good. Yet I still felt a twinge of relief to get out of it. Why?

I recently came across this video clip from Andreas Schleicher.

There are lots of points made which go beyond the scope of this blog post, but I was struck by his comments about CPD. He mentions that teachers in England are some of the least likely in the world to say that they want to improve through CPD (26.00) After the fads of the last decade this is hardly surprising. My guess is that schools in other countries did not start mandating ideas such as “learning styles” on the basis of a theory which had no real evidence. Yet, as I say, although I remember once hearing a talk from a consultant at a staff INSET who boasted that he sat his pupils with cards saying what their preferred learning style was, it was not mandatory for me in the way I gather it was in some schools. Nevertheless, I remain sceptical of much CPD and some of the practices advocated by Schleicher, if (and this is the big if) he believes that these practices are suitable for everyone, which he may not.

Firstly, I have nothing against lesson study – I first experienced it in Japan as a new teacher assisting the classroom teacher in her English lesson. There was no bureaucracy involved. As a new teacher it can be very valuable. Yet I would suggest that for experienced teachers, it is irritating to be told that we could/should/might consider doing X or Y instead of what we did. This is because we are only too well aware that our lessons could/should/might have been better. But we were whacked out as we had a full teaching day and therefore we probably did not teach the best lesson we could have done. The trouble is that there is no such thing as a perfect lesson. Because of this, it means that every single lesson can always be improved. Whatever you do, it will never be good enough. It highlights how depressing it must be for our pupils to have constant “Even Better If” comments on their work.

Secondly, Schleicher also mentions that the challenge for England is the variation within schools, rather than between schools. This has led to some school SLTs adopting very top down approaches to teaching and learning. Yet I would say this is not always effective in a secondary school setting, despite my being impressed by what I hear about Michaela. What works for one subject does not necessarily work for another. I have watched countless lessons in subjects other than my own. I can see this is probably effective CPD for new teachers, as they could gain behaviour management strategies, strategies for appropriate timing of tasks and activities. Again, I would suggest that for experienced secondary teachers, we gain little from watching lessons in other subjects, or attending staff CPD forums where teachers talk about how they have improved their questioning technique (usually because our experience means we have been using that technique for years without even thinking about it). I am also sceptical of the value of coaching for most staff and have blogged about this here.

So my suggestion for CPD in English schools would be that there needs to be variation in what is offered, depending on a teacher’s experience.For experienced secondary teachers like myself, our problem is that we can get stuck in a rut, particularly if we have been teaching at the same institution for a long time. Joining our subject associations and attending their conferences is vital and many of us do this. Yet how often do we have CPD time to visit other schools to talk specifically to our fellow subject practitioners about how they organise their teaching, their curriculum? The times I feel most revitalised are after attending the annual conference of my subject association, or on the rare occasions when I have had the chance to visit a school, preferably one with better outcomes in my subject than I currently get, to talk with my counterparts about how they go about it. I get really irritated when I am asked to consider adopting a teaching strategy from a school which is consistently achieving less well in my subject area than my current department. Yet I am fascinated by schools which seem to be doing better in my subject area. What are they doing? What can I learn from them? As I see it, this is the most valuable CPD you can offer experienced teachers. This does not mean that experienced teachers will never need in house CPD, as there will be whole school developments and curriculum changes which need to be discussed. A once a year visit to another school could be just the job if SLTs are seeking to rejuvenate long serving staff. What do others think?


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