Exams, what are they good for?
For our most recent Teach Meet, we discussed ‘exams, what are they good for?’. This was inspired by a debate I listened to from UCL on ‘What if… we got rid of GCSEs?’: It’s for this reason that the discussion focused more on GCSE’s as these are exams that all students will take, whereas 11+ and A Levels are not required for all. This also felt like an important topic as over the past two exams seasons we have seen CAGs and TAGs, and all with their complexities. However, I think it’s fair to say that a lot of us in the teaching profession have recognised that the process of TAGs in some ways seemed more fair and has only further highlighted the pitfalls of end of year terminal, high stakes exams. Yet, in schools there isn’t much call for getting rid of terminal exams, due to concerns around accessibility, equity and well-being. How could we ensure that TAGs are fair, schools are not pressured by parents or league tables and how can we prevent unconscious bias when marking? But once again we have experienced a year of educational disruption due to COVID, and can we hand on heart say that the quality of online learning has been equal across the country? Will a student who has had to isolate multiple times over the past two years have the same educational experience as someone who has not? All of this is why we need to really consider, what are exams actually good for? Do they have a place in the future?
Once again, we discussed three provocations; what is the purpose of exams (GCSEs), can we trust GCSE grades and what could be the alternative?
What is the purpose of exams/GCSEs?
In the UCL debate, Tim Oates (Group Director of Assessment Research and Development, Cambridge Assessment), looked at highest performing ‘systems’, not just those who have exams, and of the top five performing systems, all of them had high stakes assessments at 16. Of the 19 countries looked at (with high performing systems), two thirds had external high stakes assessments at 16. Although, not necessarily in as many subjects as we currently have here in the UK. But it can be said that exams at this age seem ‘the norm’.
So then, what is their purpose? We use GCSE specifications to structure schemes of learning, provide resources, provide curriculum coherence, staff development, independent assessment and accountability for schools. Unfortunately, the accountability element has overshadowed other more important purposes, especially as everything said before doesn’t really have anything to do with the students’ needs.
For students, we could argue that exams or GCSEs provide motivation for students and, of course, data on performance. They let us know about a child’s achievement in subjects and allow students to progress (further education). But do GCSEs really do this? When it comes to achievement, does the terminal exam really show what they have a deep understanding of? Significantly, exams are never a test of everything they have studied. And, if their aim is progression, then do the current exams really build the skills that they need to get on in the future?
One point that came from this was that although they don’t feel fully fit for purpose, they do serve one important purpose which is ensuring that students have some record and acknowledgement of their achievements. This is also something that Gill Wyness (Deputy Director, The Centre for Education Policy and Equalising Opportunities, IOE) explained in the debate. Evidence shows that the lowest attainers often don’t go on to complete anything above the GCSE, therefore if we abolish them, these students will have no marker of their attainment. Therefore it does serve as an important standardised benchmark.
Can we trust GCSE grades?
Next we looked at ‘trust’ and whether we can actually trust the grades that students are given. David Sherwood (Managing Director of Silver Bullet) looked into the way that grades are awarded. For example, a young person gets a grade 5 in History – is that trustworthy? Well, it’s overseen and regulated. Why wouldn’t it be? If we are not sure, we can have a second opinion just like in fields such as medicine and the law. We know examiners can get it wrong, and we were able to get scripts easily re-marked. However, since 2016, such an appeal has been disallowed. You can appeal, but the grounds are very narrow. Therefore, for years, people have been denied a second opinion. Now this seems odd as in 2010, Ofqual had 14 subjects double marked. Once by a ‘regular examiner’ and then again by a ‘senior examiner’. Surely only a few discrepancies? And that these discrepancies would be random. However, this gave two key results: 1. The discrepancies varied significantly by subject; 2. The discrepancies are bigger than you might have thought, e.g. 4 in 100 scripts in Maths had discrepancies, around 25 in 100 in Geography and around 45 in 100 in History. Therefore 1 in 4 grades are wrong, so how can we trust them? This is further skewed by the fact that the new numerical grading system, where the percentage that achieves a grade 9 changes each year, has meant that in one year 50% could get you a grade 4, and in another year this can get you a grade 7.
Gill Wyness looked at whether the fairest form of alternative assessment is teacher assessment and looks specifically at issues around bias. In her research she looked at how students taking the 11+ are assessed internally and externally, and the data that this provided. They found significant differences in their attainment from these two assessments. Black Caribbean children were likely to receive a grade lower from their teacher than from their final external test score, than white pupils. The same was true of students from poorer backgrounds. This research was also carried out on predictive grades and their accuracy, this shows that teacher predictions are often overinflated for certain groups.
We discussed the fact that in many industries, grades are very rarely looked at. They may look at the school or University that you come from but past a certain point, GCSE grades lose meaning when compared to genuine work experience and work based skills. Building on this line of thought, Christopher Napleton (Teacher of English with RSP at Sir John Lyons) introduced some interesting pedagogies from ‘democratic schools’, such as Sudbury Valley in Massachusetts and Summerhill School in Suffolk. A democratic school is one where students are trusted to take responsibility for their own lives and self-directed learning, and for the school community. Students can choose their own activities, they are free to engage (or not) with any course that is offered. These schools will accept students across a wide range of ages (commonly age four through the late teens) and do not segregate students by age, so that students can learn from interacting with other age groups. Most interestingly to our conversations, democratic schools don’t test students, because they hold that each person’s education is unique and personal, and that the very act of testing interferes with self-motivation and self-direction. That being said, when you look more closely at these schools there is still either some form of qualification or an option to sit exams. Once again, there is still evidence that for students to reach the next stage in their career or education, they need something to show where they are. For Sudbury in America, they offer a graduation procedure to students who seek a high school diploma and have been enrolled for at least three years. At Summerhill in the UK, they do still have the ‘option’ to sit exams. They can prepare for and sit GCSEs (the UK national examinations) or concentrate on other passions such as art, woodwork, science, music or just play outside in the rain.The removal of exams all together seems far from likely without a complete overhaul of all educational institutions, and there appears to be very little appetite for that.
What could be the alternative?
Having looked at ‘Democratic Schools’ as one view, we then discussed what other alternatives there could be for the exam system that we currently have. A system that still allows for ‘testing’ but not as we have seen it before. I used the suggestions from Tina Isaaxs (Honorary Associate Professor of Educational Assessment, IOE) in the debate as some alternatives and to see what else we could come up with. Tina Isaaxs had the following suggestions:
- Introducing GCSE ‘Light’ which is a set of tests, not exams, and these can be developed by independent agencies, free from Government interference.
- English, Maths and Science should be tests that are completed by 18 years of age, not by 16, and that these are the only exams to be assessed externally.
- Make EBACC subjects compulsory for all, but these subjects are only internally assessed. Outcome is assessed on 60% examination, 25% coursework and 15% teacher judgement.
Adam Giblin (Head of RPE at Northwood College for Girls) suggested looking at a mixture of shorter, more frequent examinations which are taken unit by unit or periodically over a period of time, perhaps up to the Spring term of Y11, followed by a final summative project-based assessment; similar to a mini-EPQ. How this would work might differ depending on subject but the basic principle of students using the knowledge they gain in Y10 to produce a more independent product/final project would be there. Students could make use of the smaller tests to see which area of each subject they might be best at developing a project in, playing to their strengths and giving them the best chance of achieving a good grade. Asking students to take time and sustained effort to produce something and develop an expert knowledge of a subject area will give them a better preparation for life at work. The short testing would also mimic work where we have to regularly take compliance tests and CPD, which is usual in most careers now.
To think even more radically, he suggested that we could have the short, unit based testing completed in Year 10/start of Year 11. Then in Year 11/12 develop into more “subject specific testing” in Year 11/Year 12, for example, English essay testing, Science experiment testing, History evidence analysis testing, which is still shorter, and then a Year 13 consisting of a project, volunteering (which is credited), higher-courses or extra-credit courses, First-Aid, work experience, etc. This model is more similar to those found in the USA, but would allow for students who are applying to universities to show their quality beyond exams and prepare those going into training or work with skills for their chosen careers. Of all the iterations of this idea, this is particularly interesting.
It is clear that not every student is ready to take exams at 16, so could we not consider the flexibility of allowing students to take qualifications when they are seen as ready? This might be sooner for some, and later for others. Models that look at democratic schools also have their merit, especially when considering future proofing students. But here there could always be a hierarchical issue of schools which take this approach being seen as less academic and then students who go to these schools and do seek out Higher Education could be disadvantaged. Finally, a move to a more modular and project based approach could be exciting, but requires a potential rethink of whether students are able to leave education at 16 if we were to follow a model similar to the USA. This approach requires much more thought: how would this be marked, how would it be supervised, what scaffolding would be required or allowed for students? From our discussions, it is clear we do not feel that the system we currently have in place is completely fair, nor does it actually provide our students with the skills that they will need beyond the classroom. However, it is also clear that alternatives are not particularly fair either, nor do we have the educational gravitas to bring at this present time. Interestingly, when listening to the debate, they did mention that when students were asked if they would rather have teacher assessments or sit the exam, the majority said that they would rather sit the exam. The debate itself ultimately concluded that externally marked exams at 16 is the best option we have. However, this feels like a shame, given the past two years of exam disruption, now feels like the time to push for change.
A.S.Neill’s Summerhill School. (n.d.). A.S. Neill Summerhill School. AS Neill Summerhill School. Retrieved April 12, 2022, from https://www.summerhillschool.co.uk/
Chapman, H. (2022, February 7). GCSEs and A levels 2022: ‘Grave’ fears over exam help ‘fairness’. Tes. Retrieved April 12, 2022, from https://www.tes.com/magazine/news/secondary/gcses-a-levels-2022-grave-fears-over-exam-aid-fairness
Sudbury Valley School. (2020). Sudbury Valley School. Sudbury Valley School: Home. Retrieved April 12, 2022, from https://sudburyvalley.org/
What if… we got rid of GCSEs? | IOE – Faculty of Education and Society – UCL – University College London. (2021, April 29). University College London. Retrieved April 12, 2022, from https://www.ucl.ac.uk/ioe/events/2021/apr/what-if-we-got-rid-gcses
This year we have kicked off our Teach Meets with readings from Barak Rosenshine, Michael Linsin and Robert A. Bjork and Elizabeth L. Bjork. These articles looked at ‘the principles of instruction’, ‘silent modelling’ and ‘forgetting’. So why the title ‘forgetting’ when it was only the theme of one paper? Well, although the article on instruction by Rosenshine might read as though it is the bread and butter of teaching, there are some concepts that as we get to this point in the term, it can be important to remind ourselves of and Linsin’s practical example for instruction is one that we may want to try, and some may want to forget. As the autumn term draws to a close, it’s always refreshing to hear the opinions of our experts here at Northwood and also provided a nice opportunity to take a break from the ‘nitty-gritty’ of report writing and marking, to just remind ourselves of why we love our jobs. And this passion certainly came across in our discussions.
The Principles of Instruction, Rosenshine (2012)
This article presents 10 researched-based principles of instruction, along with some practical suggestions for the classroom. Here Rosenshine presents the following principles:
- Begin a lesson with a short review of previous learning.
- Present new material in small steps with student practice after each step.
- Ask a large number of questions and check the responses of all students.
- Provide models.
- Guide student practice.
- Check for student understanding.
- Obtain a high success rate.
- Provide scaffolds for difficult tasks.
- Require and monitor independent practice.
- Engage students in weekly and monthly review.
Although we did not dissect every point of Rosenshine’s ‘principles of instruction’, we all agreed that it was nice to refresh ourselves of these basic principles, especially when it is nearly the end of term and we can all feel ‘bogged-down’ with the administrative part of the job as oppose to the teaching and learning, which is the real reason we all became teachers in the first place. Our discussions did focus on some of the following areas:
We all agreed that Rosenshine’s ‘principles of instruction’ are fundamental for successful delivery of new skills and content. However, whether these principles were adequate for every lesson was certainly up for debate. Stages 1-8 are good reminders, especially for the initial teaching of new skills and content, but as we at Northwood value ‘soft skills’ such as resilience and independence, we were cautious that following this rigidly in every lesson could promote an ethos of ‘spoon feeding’ which will not translate to University or Careers.
That being said, some of what Rosenshine wrote, back in 2012 is certainly re-appearing under the term ‘meta-cognition’. For example, the emphasis on reviewing prior learning at the beginning of each lesson. Something which most teachers do instinctively, but the research around why this is so effective has gathered momentum over the last few years.
Some staff felt that Rosenshine’s article was too ‘instructional’ and prescriptive, but if we ensure that the ‘instructional’ side of teaching specific skills and fundamental facts that are required for later application is done successfully, we are able to allow more time for independent activities later on. This view and the principle that underlines step 7 does resonate with the skills progression at NWC… this means that steps 9 and 10 can be the most successful, and these were viewed as the most practical.
Research from Dragonfly Training explained the following statistics around ‘How much does the average student remember tomorrow’ if they use the following process.
- Read it: 4%
- Teacher explains it: 9%
- Teacher explains it with questions: 19%
- Teacher Demo: 32%
- Teacher Demo with questions: 49%
- Student demonstration: 89%
This supports not only Rosenshines principle of instruction but also the ‘generation effect’, which states that information is better remembered if it is generated from one’s own mind rather than simply read. Thus, it’s not surprising that staff believe that the most important ‘take away’ from the article is that a blend of all the steps is required.
Why silent modelling is a powerful strategy, Michael Linsin (2014)
This article looked at one practical strategy which cropped up within Rosenshine’s ‘Principles of Instruction’, modelling. The premise being that modelling is a key part of instruction, however often done poorly, e.g. rushed, points missed or too much teacher talk that distracts students from learning.
According to the article, modelling in silence can enhance learning outcomes for the following reasons:
- It makes you more interesting.
- It purifies your instruction (don’t need to worry about confusing or choosing the wrong words).
- It makes paying attention easier – by narrowing the senses needed to just one, sight, following becomes easier.
- It triggers an unforgettable movie in their mind, they will see themselves in their minds eye successfully doing the same.
- It allows direct access, all students, including second language learners, have direct access to you at your best.
- It improves performance.
From this a few staff members said they had tried this, one even gave an example from a previous school where there was a whole week every year, where students were not allowed to ask questions and therefore all tasks were modelled silently. They said that by the end of this week, students had a new appreciation for staff input, but also felt more independent in their ability to problem solve for themselves. With our focus this year on being ‘10% braver’, wouldn’t it be nice to have a week where students are not allowed to ask questions or all lessons are in silence? Or even just a day?
One observation we did all agree on is that you would need very good classroom management to maintain/ have success, but equally, a good ‘blend’ of this with other strategies is key. That being said, the article does state that it is not a strategy to rely on every time you model, as ‘carefully’ chosen words and explanations can be additionally effective. But, silent modelling will make you better at choosing these words.
Forgetting as the friend of learning: Implications for teaching and self-regulated learning, Robert A. Bjork and Elizabeth L. Bjork (2019)
This article was chosen as one of our Northwood Pillars is ‘meta-cognition’. This explores certain conditions that produce forgetting also enhance the learning of that information when re-studied. These are: change of environment, increasing the delay from when something is studied to when it is tested or restudied and interleaving.
Varying environmental contexts:
Restudying material in a different location, where there isn’t the ‘context effect’, means that more of it will have been forgotten, but this will actually enhance later recall, especially if students are re-tested in a different environment. This is particularly interesting, as we often carry out end of unit tests in the classroom, but their summer exams are always in the sports hall. Practically then, we should encourage the students to study in multiple locations will enhance the latter recall of that material. This is because context change induces encoding variability, essentially, a change of scene when restudying means we associate the information with a greater range of contextual cues.
Increasing the interval between study opportunities:
This is known as the ‘spacing’ effect: If material is restudied after a delay, rather than tested, increasing the delay between such study episodes has benefits, not costs in terms of the ability to recall the material later. Recent research has found that the use of spacing resulted in a 10% to 30% difference in final test results. However, students often don’t realise the benefit of this as ‘cramming’ gives results when tested the next day, which is why students who are pre-warned or anticipate an end of unit test, appear to do well, however the material is not committed to their long-term memory. This misunderstanding around the meaning and role of errors, aka assuming that errors are bad, can lead students to avoid effective learning procedures such as practice quizzes and asking questions. Whereas, responding to difficulties successfully, encourages processes that support learning, comprehension and remembering.
Interleaving vs blocking:
Blocking is the practicing of one topic or skill over and over, which produces ‘good’ results when tested instantly. Interleaving is the mixing up of the practice of different subjects and skills which leads to better results when tested later. Teachers are susceptible to thinking that ‘blocking’ instruction by problem or skill helps students and that interleaving can cause confusions. However, blocking can actually create an unreliable sense of understanding or comprehension and then a disappointing performance on a later test. In fact, a critical component of doing well on important tests, is deciding what procedure is required to solve a given problem. For example, in the RPE A Level, they are only examined on 4 of 9 possible units, and it’s not always clear which topic or synoptic element they will need in order to develop a greater level of analysis and application. Therefore, it is key that we encourage solving a problem rather than remembering the solution. Learners need to find operations and activities that will make the ‘to-be-learned’ material recallable after a delay. This is interesting as clearly modelling and instruction has a place, but this must be significantly varied so that the ‘model’ isn’t just learnt and so students learn to problem solve.
We must remember that at NWC, our girls are so lucky to have a day packed full of different subjects, different teachers and different teaching styles. This is what makes their learning experience and what makes it ‘un-forgettable’, therefore one of my main ‘take-aways’ from this teach meet is that ‘variety is the spice of life’, ensuring that teaching and learning is soundly based in research is step one, how we then use our professional judgement to achieve skills and knowledge development should come from this, and this may look different depending on a variety of contexts. If we didn’t have this wonderful variety, every girl would be sat in 5 lessons where X amount of minutes are spent instructing, X amount of minutes are spent being modelled, and so on. In fact, I’m now tempted to start changing venues and locations to make lessons even less forgettable, except for when forgetting enhances the learning process.
Is this type of instruction the only effective method? What about investigation and self-learning?
The Principles of Instruction, Rosenshine (2012)
Why silent modelling is a powerful strategy, Michael Linsin (2014)
Forgetting as the friend of learning: Implications for teaching and self-regulated learning, Robert A. Bjork and Elizabeth L. Bjork (2019)
A BRAVE, BOLD NEW WORLD…
At Northwood College for Girls we held our first ‘teach meet’, where a group of teachers and experts in their fields came together to discuss our thoughts on current research. I cannot thank them enough for their contributions as they have all directly inspired this blog.
For our first meeting we examined Lucy Crehan’s ‘Cleverlands’. The book documents the author’s journey around the world, examining the education system in some of the countries that score the highest PISA test results; something that the UK is renowned for underperforming in. I stumbled on this book by accident and what a pleasant accident it has been. I signed up to a teaching and learning CPD where Lucy is the keynote speaker, so thought, ‘better read the book!’ Well, just a couple of chapters in and I was relaying my excitement at the interesting research based ideas that I was discovering; and as an all through school, the exciting prospect that we could embrace some of these ideas. From this a ‘Teach Meet’ was born, to give us the chance to really unpick the information and discuss new possibilities.
To facilitate the ‘teach meet’ I selected a few chapters from the book, which provide a range of ideas and also a range of cultures. We began in Finland. Finland is unique in many ways, but as an all through school, their approach to when they start school and setting/streaming are of particular interest. In Finland, students do not begin formal education until they are between 6.5 – 7.5 years. However, this is not to say they are left in the wilderness until then – although their curriculum of learning through play means that sometime they are. This generated lots of rich discussion as some of our girls start school at the age of three, and Finland’s apparent ‘late start’ produce some pretty impressive results.
According to the book, the late start reduces inattention and hyperactivity, boys who started later had better mental health at 18 and girls were less likely to become pregnant in their teenage years! Furthermore, the Finnish attitude to reading is impressive, with annual library borrowing figures of an average of 18 books per person – more than any other country in the world. However, it is clear that their success is very much linked to a high quality pre-school programme, as evidence suggests that an early start (2-3) can lead to better intellectual and social development and preschool is particularly beneficial for disadvantaged children.
Finland’s second chapter – selection and setting – generated further discussion. In 1963, Finland moved away from a two tiered system that divided students from 10 years old. These were seen as ‘better’ schools or vocational school. Instead, students choose an academic or vocational route at 15-16 years, meaning that all students have the same education for nine years rather than four. This is supported through evidence that suggests that countries who select later reduce inequality in secondary school, and those from disadvantaged backgrounds do better. In fact, the evidence from Hanushek and Woessmann shows that there was no negative effect of late selection on any group, even the brightest 5%. Now this nugget of information dominated discussion, as one of our GDST schools has decided to follow a similar path by removing streaming. Could this be a move for Northwood too? Well, as one teacher explained, ‘if you are trying to teach someone tennis, you don’t put them with a group of people equally bad at tennis and expect them to improve’. Which again resonated.
There is much evidence to suggest that in mixed ability groups, those who are ‘weaker’ are pulled up by those who are ‘brighter’ and those who are ‘brighter’ deepen their understanding by supporting the ‘weaker’ student – there was some discussion over whether this really stretches our brightest or disadvantages or even bores them. But this made me think, as we are moving to a ‘Mastery’ curriculum in the UK where deep knowledge of one topic is valued over a length of shallow knowledge, and Primary schools are being told they are not allowed to cover anything from Key Stage 3, even if it is an attempt to ‘stretch’ the brightest; then wouldn’t this approach also support our changing perception of education in the UK?
This in turn, led to discussions on differentiation, which transported us to China. In China they have very much adopted a Growth Mindset and the Confucian way of thinking: “Learning does not privilege anyone, and neither does it discriminate against anyone. Everyone is capable of seeking and achieving knowledge, regardless of one’s inborn capability and social circumstances.” What made me connect Finland and China is the fact that the book charts Lucy talking to a Chinese teacher who had visited the UK and thought it odd how students are given different levels of maths, explaining that those with ‘easy’ maths will never keep up. Again, this made us question, does differentiation by task (as well as setting) disadvantage and cap our students learning, rather than support them? If we want the girls to believe that everyone can achieve mastery knowledge, shouldn’t we start from the top and support all in getting there? My teacher training was very much about differentiation by task, and the thought of even calling differentiation by outcome differentiation would be an insult to your training – this really caused pause for thought.
Furthermore, China’s focus on praise and effort was very humbling. As a school, we have girls who are so driven by success and focussed on academic achievement, that if they don’t do as well as they want, it will knock them for six. Yet in China, failure is not an issue, what matters is that you tried and that you learnt from it. Lucy draws upon some excellent research; Stevenson and Stigler conducted an experiment on persistence comparing East Asians and European Americans. Both groups were presented with an impossible Maths question to see how long it would take for them to give up, however, the experiment had to be cancelled as the Japanese students would not give up, which caused some distress to the teachers. This proves that East Asians not only persist longer, but are also more likely to seek challenge, and are even spurred on to work harder in the face of failure – the opposite to European American students.
This got us talking about motivational differences (as well as cultural ones). It is very much the view that ‘effort’ is not something to be celebrated, in fact, in my days at school it was very much the running joke that those who got the ‘effort’ prize had the pity prize for quite simply not being clever enough. But how do we change this mindset? If we adopt the Confucian way, we know that effort and persistent effort will lead to success. However, in the UK there is still a huge belief that academic success is key, and therefore failure is not an option. Again, if we are going to use this book to inspire how we move forward as a school, changing our girls’ perceptions on failure and effort will be key.
Perhaps we need to adopt China’s graduation encouragement cards which read ‘congratulations on your hard work’ and focus on self-improvement, rather than selecting students who simply ‘excel’ at a subject? Part of me even wonders if we can create safe environments for failure, but then questions is, how do we manage that if this has the potential to disengage them rather than motivate them. As one of the teachers pointed out, what we must remember is that none of these educational reforms happened overnight, it took Finland ten years just to get the reform approved, and there are still reports of schools who ‘speak’ of education in the ‘old’ way. China’s growth mindset derives from a long historical and political
context too; for us, as an independent school we need to acknowledge our context; there is a certain ‘status-quo’ that we must stick to. But what I was most struck by is the clear consensus that each one of us wants what is best for our girls and perhaps we do need to be brave and be bold in what next steps we take in order to do them justice. So let the ‘drip-feeding’ of new, research based ideas begin!
Mrs J Hughes,
Head of Cognitive Learning
The Leap of Faith
March marked our second Teach Meet at NWC, where I was once again blown away by my colleagues’ passion for Teaching and Learning, as well as their thoughtful reflections on the material we were discussing. Again, I cannot thank them enough for their contributions as they have all directly inspired this blog. For tonight’s meeting we looked at a couple of areas that are very topical in the educational world, as well as being at the forefront of research and pedagogy: Cognitive Load and Digital approaches. All very exciting (and research based), so then why the title ‘The Leap of Faith’? What became clear from the articles and our discussions, was that often our teaching is ‘what we know’ and we employ strategies that keep us comfortable. But ‘comfort’ doesn’t always result in progress, or high attainment. It’s for this reason that as teachers, we perhaps need to take some ‘leaps of faith’ in our teaching strategies that will make us uncomfortable in the short term, but will also bring results.
The first article that we explored was ‘Using Cognitive Load Theory to improve slideshow presentations’ by Andy Tharby. I decided to open the discussion by being brutally honest, I have committed many of the ‘Teaching Sins’ that are referred to in this article, the main one being ‘death by PowerPoint’ and PowerPoints filled with too much information. Since subjects in KS4 and 5, have been going through educational reforms and an increase in subject content, the default for many teachers has been ‘let’s cram everything our students need to know onto the PPTs slides’, but learning is not simply acquired through reading from a PowerPoint. So why do we do it? For most, it is the ‘comfort blanket’ of knowing that all the information is there, and therefore at ours and the students’ disposal. Yet, research tells us that this isn’t the most effective way to teach. Cognitive Load Theory, developed from psychologist John Sweller, refers to the types of information held in our working memory at one time (1994) and tells us that over populated, busy, clunky or animated presentations have a detrimental impact on students learning. If our working memory is overloaded; it becomes difficult to transfer information into our working memory. Imagine pouring a whole packet of skittles into a milk bottle at the same time, only so many skittles are going to go in, the rest will simple fall to the floor. This is the same as our overloaded PowerPoints, only so much of the information is going to end up stored in the memory of our students.
Our working memory is merely the capacity of ‘intrinsic, extraneous and germane load’ and the one we have the most control over as teachers, is ‘extraneous’. Extraneous load refers to how material is presented, as we can only hold a limited number of items at once – between 3 and 5 for young adults (Cowan, 2010) – therefore we should be really thinking about how much we pack onto a PowerPoint presentation. What is really important is how we teach, not what we teach. This led us onto a discussion about the impact that ‘flipped learning’ could have; we could reduce ‘extraneous load’ as this meant that rather than spending valuable classroom time simply ‘giving’ information, and could maximise ‘germane load’, the productive thinking that causes our students to form and consolidate long term memories (this is real ‘learning’, the goal of teaching). If we give the information, then from this there is more room to build in learning experiences which allow for creativity, discussion, enquiry, debate and then application. This research was also supported by the second article we looked at, ‘How multimedia can improve learning and instruction’ by Richard E Mayer, which is based on an extract from Dunlosky J and Rawson K, The Cambridge Handbook on Cognition and Education. Here, the evidence suggest that people learn better from ‘narration and graphics simultaneously’, and has the biggest impact on learning. This also got us onto a discussion about the presentation of our lessons and how we could strip back our worksheets. Here came the next ‘leap of faith’. We know our girls also like the comfort blanket of having a printed copy, electronic copy, textbook and anything else that contains course materials to be handed over to them, so that they can read and highlight. In fact, girls have grumbled when this isn’t the case, and so our desire to please them means that we just hand it over willingly. But, we need to take that ‘leap’ and trust that we know what real learning looks like, and that this is not simply re-reading or highlighting, a strategy that we all know doesn’t have a significant impact on their learning.
Here our discussion took another route, note taking. If we are going to reduce the materials we give the girls, we need to trust that they have the ability to make effective notes. So what should these notes look like, and how can we ensure students have all the information? This was a particularly interesting avenue as two of the members of staff present were American (not Canadian) and so had note taking taught as part of their education. In Year 12 our girls have an EPQ session on ‘The Cornell Method’, but in reality, this is too late in their academic path to be teaching this. Most of them have already established learning habits, and although they might not be the most effective, they are just as reluctant to change as we teachers are. Here, our members from Junior School mentioned how they do teach a couple of session on note taking in Years 4 and 5, but equally acknowledged that they didn’t think it was revisited enough. So for this ‘leap’ we need to consider embedding a ‘how to take notes’ element into the Senior School from Year 7 to ensure that our girls are confident in taking their own notes in an effective and efficient format.
Our final route, and perhaps the ‘biggest’ potential ‘leap’, was looking at Blended Learning. The article ‘Interweaving traditional and digital approaches: The development of blended learning at Sandringham School’ happened to be written by an old colleague of mine, Fergal Moane, who I worked with on the Blended Learning programme and staff CPD at that school, Blended Learning is the ‘thoughtful integration of classroom face-to-face learning experiences with online learning experiences’ (Garrison and Kanuka, 2004, pp.96-7). It is called ‘blended’ to emphasis the fact that technology can be a tool to enhance learning, it has a time and a place (much like a calculator) and is certainly not a substitute for real teaching. Sandringham introduced a Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) model, and provided funding for families that needed financial support, thus all parents agreed to provide their children with devices.
A question asked about how we at Sandringham selected the specific applications for our digital toolkit. We identified which tools were ‘essential’ and so these applications were expected to be on every students’ device. Furthermore, we decided on applications which were essential for Teaching and Learning, such as Padlet, then at a whole staff inset, we asked departments to identify which applications were most useful for them. Giving staff ownership over what apps they wanted to use really supported engagement with digital usage in the classroom. Furthermore, for this ‘leap of faith’ to be as successful as the one taken by Indiana Jones in the Last Crusade, we must ensure that there is quality CPD and time to allow staff to explore the applications that can enhance our students learning potential. So, at NWC we are seeking to provide CPD in a sample of key digital tools that will really be able to enhance the learning experience of our girls, whilst still maintaining that this is simply complimentary to the fantastic teaching strategies that are already in place.
The article referenced a student survey of the first year group who had been part of the Blended Learning pedagogy from its conception to GCSE. In this survey, 80% reported that they thought having devices at school had enhanced their learning, and implies that devices can support student engagement in the classroom. In fact, this is something that I have noticed, when I tell the girls to go get the iPads there is a sense of excitement. However, I was asked, why did 20% not think it had helped? Well, as I left Sandringham with this cohort, I can’t say I saw the result analysis, but based on my experience, I can speculate that the 20% could be due to the inevitable distraction that technology (well, social media) brings. At this point, another colleague queried whether this pedagogy contradicts what we are telling the girls about limiting their screen time, which is a valid point as we are trying to encourage good study habits, such as taking a break from social media. But in reality, we cannot ignore the growing exposure that our girls and future generations will have to the digital world. But equally, this exposure won’t all be bad either. The jobs of the future will require our girls to be digitally literate and resilient. Furthermore, as educators, isn’t it our responsibility to ensure that they know not only the positives of the digital world, but also the dangers and the responsibilities that come with having technology at their fingertips? If we ignore the digital era, we are short-changing our girls. Not one of us want to walk into a classroom where our girls are hunched over looking into the screen of a device. We want to see real engagement with their learning, independence and enquiry. That’s why, Northwood College’s plans for a digital strategy as an organic one, fills me with real excitement. This ‘leap of faith’ is a leap into the future and one which open up so much potential for our girls.
As our Teach Meet drew to a close, one thing was clear, we all really want what is best for our girls. We know that there are many challenges that face them such as huge specifications, perfectionist tendencies (which are often counter intuitive to learning) and the unknown of the digital world. Yet we as their teachers, who are constantly reflecting on practice and research, are in a position where we can take a ‘leap of faith’ and adapt our practice to support their learning. Change can often be synonymous with fear, especially when we have been doing something a certain way for so long. However, once that fear is overcome, the character, independence and intellect that our girls will develop, will set them up as those who will take ‘the leap of faith’ in the future.
Mrs Hughes, Head of Cognitive Learning
Are we setting ourselves up to fail?
Failure is a word synonymous with negativity (like the infamous red pen…) but is failure really all that bad? This blog comes to you thanks to another wonderful colleague who introduced me to the book ‘Black Box Thinking’ by Mathew Syed. This book looks at why mindset is so important for success, and why failure is not something we should fear, but rather something we should embrace. As Eleanor Roosevelt said, “learn from the mistakes of others. You can’t live long enough to make them all yourself”. Although this book is not specific to education, there was so much here that resonated, as our girls are very much motivated by success, however, failure is seen as something to fear and often a barrier to learning. So to make this blog meaningful, I hope to pull out some practical strategies that we could use which have been inspired by this book.
“The history of science, like the history of all human ideas, is a history of error…. But science is one of the very few human activities- perhaps the only one- in which errors are systematically criticised and fairly often, in time, corrected. This is why we can say that, in science, we learn from our mistakes and why we can speak clearly and sensibly about making progress” (Karl Popper, 1965)
Failure vs Feedback
As teachers we know the significance of feedback, but what is the difference between failure and feedback? If a student submits a work that is 40/40 then is there any feedback to improve their work? Technically no…. Here is when we would challenge them further. But when they achieve 35/40, they certainly haven’t failed, but they will need feedback in order to improve, this is why it is important that all students ‘get it wrong’ at some point. This is also why so many teachers are now moving away from simply ‘grading’ work or grading it at all. What is meaningful is the feedback you give, highlighting errors, misconceptions and then giving the scaffolding that will allow our students to move forward. This has manifested in many ways (and acronyms) such as DIRT, ReAct, Next Steps etc. But what is important is that you challenge students to act on their error. Therefore, meaningful feedback must move beyond ‘What Went Well’ and ‘Even Better If’ to include a task which gets them to engage with their EBI. The impact of this is so important that it is effective to set time aside in a lesson for students to complete these tasks.
Take for example, the car company Toyota, a highly successful business that uses instant feedback (and failure) to constantly ensure standards of their product and to avoid producing products that aren’t up to standard. If anyone on the production line is having a problem, or observes an error, they pull a cord which halts production across the plant. Senior executives then rush over to see what has gone wrong and help. Well this got me thinking, sometimes it’s not until an end of unit exam or assessment that you notice that a student (or sometimes multiple students) have misunderstood a key concept. By this point they have in their mind made a ‘high stakes’ error whereas if we had this Toyota pull cord, the error could be addressed whilst still at a ‘low stakes’ level in the class. (Matthew Syed, pg 53). To embrace this idea, I have started using a similar concept with my exam classes. When introducing a new concept or text, I issue them ‘bells’. This way, when there is something they are unsure of or need clarifying again, the simply ring the bell. However, before simply giving them the answer, it is effective to ask them questions which will tease the answer out (often to their annoyance) and try to get the other students to suggest a solution.
Marginal gains and creative leaps
Throughout Black Box Thinking, there are lots of examples of businesses which have a successful mindset, therefore, there is a lot that we as educators can learn from their successes and in some cases their failures. The book talks about marginal gains and how businesses will roll out prototypes as early as possible to get market research (and essentially, instant feedback), from this they will change and adapt. Even businesses that are considered successful still carry out market research to ensure they are meeting the growing needs of their customers and then adapt from the feedback. These are marginal gains and these bring about progress. But only some progress.
However, they also need to take a ‘creative leap’ in order to be truly successful. This could just be an entrepreneur taking the leap to invest all their savings into a new idea. It needs to be based on research but there still needs to be that leap of faith. For example, Blockbuster was using the concept of marginal gains to grow the company, they tweaked their design, changed the lay out, introduced Blu-ray and so on. However, in 2000 they had the opportunity to buy Netflix but they didn’t, and as we all now know, in 2013 they went into liquidation as the business platform was obsolete. This is the exciting (and scary) part of innovation, we don’t know what way new technologies are going to take us. But we certainly need to take that creative leap if we want to stay ahead.
So how can we implement this in schools, well in terms of whole school, there is the creative leap around digital technology. The research out there to say it supports learning, although present, is limited. On a classroom level, we could pose our students ‘the impossible exam question’, this will put them out of their comfort zone and be far from what they were expecting. Again we must remember that it is OK for things to be hard and even uncomfortable, but this will bring progress.
Failure can also spark more creativity, for example, in a case study on ‘brainstorming’; there were three groups asked to come up with ideas. One was told to write anything down and no one was allowed to criticise their ideas, the second group was given no rules at all and the third was told to actively point out the flaws in each other’s work. The results showed that the third group not only came up with the most ideas but also came up with the most creative. (Jonah Lehrer, 2012). So now, when setting a ‘brainstorming’ or as I like to call it ‘mind dump’ task, ask the students to make sure they point out any flaws in each other’s thinking/ideas.
Another interesting study was one that looked at word association. Typical word association is not very creative, I say blue, you say sky… and so on. However, when participants were shown ‘blue’ and the word ‘green’ was said much more creative associations were made. (Jonah Lehrer, 2012) Now, word association doesn’t have much use in academics, but as a P4C starter or even just a ‘brain gym’ starter to any lesson, this could unlock much more creative ideas in the classroom.
Creating Mindset ‘Growth’
It is true that some brighter students often ‘shy’ away from challenging tasks, the fear of getting it wrong and not being seen as intelligent is too greater risk. This concept has been supported by the research of Carol Dweck (1975) who carried out research on 11/12 year olds. In an experiment, students were given eight simple tasks and four easy tasks. Those with a ‘Fixed Mindset’ blamed their intelligence or other factors they believed were beyond their control, whereas those with a ‘Growth Mindset’ saw the difficult tasks as a challenge and something to grow from. From this task, those with a ‘Fixed Mindset’ could be seen to adopt negative learning habits, whereas those who had a ‘Growth Mindset’ developed better habits and even improved their learning.
However, Angela Lee Duckworth (2007) who wanted to research into whether we can measure ‘grit’, carried out a questionnaire on Spelling Bee students. She found that those who scored highly, did so because rather than focus on what they do know, they focus on what they don’t know (they asked, what words can’t I spell?). This is the ‘mindset’ that we as teachers want to encourage, how we do this though, is a bit more difficult.
One suggestion is that in lessons we could remove the option of ‘challenge’ tasks and just have it as a task. If we want to provide all students the opportunity to succeed, then they all need the opportunities in front of them. This is also why differentiation has become something that I feel is rather unproductive, and encourages the wrong sort of mindset. If we start pigeonholing our students into just grades and levels, then how can they develop the mindset that they can achieve beyond this? Rather than differentiation, we should simply have ‘high expectations’, this doesn’t mean an authoritarian teaching approach, but rather the belief that all students can achieve, it just may take some longer than others.
Education should allow students to experiment and experience, to fail and to flourish. I know its cheesy, but James Dyson quite famously acknowledges that he made 5,127 prototypes before his final design, and he hasn’t stopped there…. Success takes long term application and no one is instantly ‘talented’. Education needs to embrace the importance of failure, we must try new things and take risks. Heather Hanbury, former Head of Wimbledon High School said: “If we wish to fulfil our potential as individuals and organisations, we must redefine failure.” (BBC News, 2012). Which is why Wimbledon High School held a day of ‘failure workshops’, perhaps Northwood could have a ‘failure week’ where we expect our girl to challenge themselves in a safe, low steaks environment so that the fear of failure becomes less. At Northwood we are lucky to be an all through school which means we can work to build an ethos of acceptance when we make mistakes. We cannot change the system of exams (yet) where failure is punished and success is rewarded. But we can reward effort and processes as we prepare our students for their exams.
Miss Hughes, Head of Cognitive Learning
Differentiation and Outstanding Learning: Is there a difference?
The inspiration for this half term’s Teach Meet came from reading Tom Sherrington’s Blog ‘To address underachieving groups, teach everyone better.’ In this, Tom is referring more to interventions aimed at sub-groups such as Pupil Premium, but this got me thinking about how we support our SEND students in particular. Tom says that “at some point ‘intervention’ really has to be simply ‘teaching’. Given all the variables, uncertainties and unknowns, rather than chasing interventions, it is a far far better bet to focus on teaching everyone better.”
Essentially, Sherrington is saying that the reason why some students underachieve is likely to be a product of some insufficiency with the core teaching and learning process, and after looking into the EEF Blog: Five evidence-based strategies to support high-quality teaching for pupils with SEND, I couldn’t help but think that these five strategies are just strategies that I would expect to see in outstanding teaching. That is why this blog will examine how we teach those with SEND, and if this is in fact ‘differentiation’, or just inclusive and outstanding teaching.
One of the first areas of discussion was around the article: What do teachers think differentiation is? In this David Didau states “Of all the impossible tasks expected of poor, overworked teachers, differentiation is one of the most troublesome.” And I must confess, I am from a generation of teachers who were taught to believe that differentiation is different worksheets and differentiated Learning Objectives. In fact, during my teacher training, you would not be able to refer to differentiation by outcome as differentiation at all. This was something that all of us remember being told. We went on to discuss ‘Setting vs Mixed Ability’, as evidence suggests that countries who select later reduce inequality in secondary school, and those from disadvantaged backgrounds do better.
In reality, the evidence from Hanushek and Woessmann shows that there was no negative effect of late selection on any group, even the brightest 5%. This reminded me of our first ever Teach Meet at NWC, where we discussed Cleverlands by Lucy Crehan, in the book Lucy was talking to a Chinese teacher who had visited the UK and thought it odd how students are given different levels of maths, explaining that those with ‘easy’ maths will never keep up. Again, this made us question, does differentiation by task (as well as setting) disadvantage and cap our students learning rather than support them? If we want to demonstrate outstanding learning, shouldn’t we start from the top and support all in getting there?
In his blog, What do teachers think differentiation is? David Didau explains how according to PISA 2015, “Adaptive instruction” is the most positively correlated factor with achievement (other than socio-economic profile). This is:
- The teacher adapts the lesson to the class’s needs and knowledge.
- The teacher provides individual help when a student has difficulties understanding a topic or task.
- The teacher changes the structure of a lesson on a topic most students find difficult to understand.
However, the UK only places 15th for this. We discussed why this might be, and one excellent point was that in reality, ‘adaptive instruction’ is something that an outstanding teacher does so ‘seamlessly’ that perhaps it’s not that obvious. This not only highlights how important it is to know our students, something that we pride ourselves on at Northwood College for Girls, but also, that differentiation shouldn’t be obvious. We shouldn’t be telling a student that this work or worksheet is for your ability as this in itself is loading with fallacies. Firstly, that ability is set and secondly, that differentiation is explicitly telling students what their ‘abilities’ are.
Next we looked at SecEd’s article Differentiation in the classroom by Matt Bromley. One interesting idea we discussed from this was curriculum design. Bromley talks about the importance of teacher autonomy, but not individualism, meaning that schools should agree on a pedagogical approach or framework for all lessons. Now this seems restrictive, but the metacognitive reasoning is one that I found particularly interesting, plus, anyone who knows me, knows how much I like structure and routine.
This states that if we teach all lessons in a similar structure, students working memory has more room to absorb content. I do often wonder if we were to follow in a student’s footsteps for a day, how we would cope with spending just one hour on one concept/topic and then moving to another completely different one. I can find it difficult enough just going from a Key Stage 3 lesson to a Key Stage 5 lesson. This must be even more challenging for those with SEND.
Matt Bromley’s ‘4 Step Teaching Sequence’:
We discussed Bromley’s proposed structure, however, we were dubious about how you would realistically be able to do this over one lesson? And if you couldn’t, is it a consistent approach across classes? That being said, we discussed some interesting versions that are out there e.g. activate, explain, practice, reflect, review. As a lover of routine and structure myself, this idea really appeal to me, we all agreed that consistency is important in lessons and lesson structure. Nevertheless, our Deputy Head of Academic did make an important point, by putting in these structures we can dampen teachers’ autonomy and also what makes their lessons so special to students. If we start dictating a one size fits all approach to lesson structures, then we could run the risk of removing the vibrant experience that our students get from the school, the routine and security should be set by the teacher.
Bromley moves on to discuss one of the ‘dons’ of differentiation, Blooms Taxonomy, and another favourite from many of us during our teacher training. Thankfully, what he says about this thoroughbred of teaching does support our views. This is a useful tool for questioning, but dangerous for differentiation, as it implies that knowledge based questions are not as valuable, however, we know that you cannot analyse something that you do not know.
This is why we now implement lots of key vocab quizzing. This also links in really well to Mr Merk’s ‘Rainbow Road’ which is an excellent resource that sets out a series of questions using Blooms, but the expectation is that all will get to the top, this just builds their knowledge and confidence. Much better than differentiated learning objectives. Rather than expecting different outcomes of different pupils, we should have high expectations that all our pupils will reach the same destination.
Finally, we discussed the EEF Blog: Five evidence-based strategies to support high-quality teaching for pupils with SEND. This is a useful and succinct tool kit; the five key strategies are: 1. Scaffolding, 2. Explicit instruction, 3. Cognitive and metacognitive strategies, 4. Flexible grouping and 5. Use Technology. But once again, we did ponder whether there is anything that we would do differently when teaching to the top? We specifically discussed ‘Cognitive and metacognitive strategies’, as our last Teach Meet looked at this, and our unanimous conclusions were that teaching metacognitive strategies is crucial in successful and outstanding teaching. This is because the research we looked at last time showed a small, but increased, impact that teaching these skills to an intervention group had over ‘re-teaching’ content.
We also discussed the fifth strategy, ‘Use technology’, which given the Post-COVID world we are currently educating in, it seemed only natural that we would. Again, what is interesting is that the suggestions of a visualizer to model worked examples and quizzing applications, are simply online versions of the metacognitive strategies that we already know work for all students. We were also united in our appreciation of how digital has been able to enhance our teaching and ability to support all students (even through lockdown).
After another uplifting and inspiring session, not only was I reminded of just how incredible our staff are, but also how passionate the teaching community is. We all agreed that what is important is ensuring that we have an inclusive classroom. This is synonymous with differentiation, but it is also synonymous with high standards and expectations, as well as the belief that all of our students can excel. So much of the research we discussed around supporting those with SEND, to us was outstanding teaching and learning. So, if we use these tools, we will ‘catch’ and support all of our students. As Viviane Robinson argues in Student-Centred Leadership (2011) that although “feet of varying shapes should not be shoved into the same ill-fitting shoe”, in teaching one size can fit all, but it has got to be the most impressive (and inclusive) shoe you ever did see.
With special thanks to Clare Alexander, our new SENDCO who help select this Teach Meets reading and Gareth Elliot who has worked hard to create partnerships with local schools in our community.
Matt Bromley, Differentiation in the classroom. Available at: https://assets.markallengroup.com//article-images/213881/April2019-Differentiation.pdf [Accessed: 21.10.20]
Lucy Crehan, Cleverlands: The Secrets Behind the Success of the World’s Education Superpowers, 2016
David Didau, What do teachers think differentiation is? Available at: https://learningspy.co.uk/research/teachers-think-differentiation/ [Accessed: 20.10.20]
Kirsten Mould, EEF Blog: Five evidence-based strategies to support high-quality teaching for pupils with SEND. Available at: https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/news/five-evidence-based-strategies-pupils-with-special-educational-needs-send/ [Accessed: 21.10.20]
Viviane Robinson, Student-Centred Leadership, (2011) Jossey-Bass Leadership Library in Education
Tom Sherrington, To address underachieving groups, teach everyone better. Available at: https://teacherhead.com/2018/09/17/to-address-underachieving-groups-teach-everyone-better/ [Accessed: 21.10.20]