Framing the Narrative for Teacher Professional Learning

Storytelling is a seemingly universal human activity: its use has spanned both time and culture; it is a prominent feature of our everyday lives, woven into our social and cultural practices in its varied forms.

The narrative is possibly one of the most commonly-utilised tools for communicating information and establishing social understanding. Narratives come in various forms and qualities; they may be real or imagined but are more than just a sequential recount of events: the narrative is a powerful meaning-making device – it can provide structure to our thoughts and experiences, and supports schematic organisation of memory (Bruner, 1990).  Bruner (1990:56) emphasises the power of the narrative in ‘framing’: he describes how the narrative is used to make sense of what might otherwise be a chaotic world, and suggests that using narrative to frame our experiences supports the transfer of these experiences into long term memory.

We can see then that stories, in their ability to provide a concrete basis for communicating and interpreting information, experience and ideas, can thus provide us with a powerful tool for learning. But what might the implications be for teacher professional learning? How can we utilise the narrative to develop pedagogical expertise within schools? I propose that by creating a culture of storytelling within schools, we can utilise the narrative to support teachers in making sense of, and disseminating pedagogical knowledge and expertise, and suggest that the narrative can be a powerful tool to facilitate both reflection and development of practice in self and others.

According to Sims et al (2006) ‘narrative learning’ has two components: learning as a noun and learning as a verb. Firstly, as a noun, due to the schematic support they provide, narratives frequently carry information to be learnt and remembered: many stories contain key learning points, morals or messages which will be retained, remembered and utilised in future situations. The second component of narrative learning considers learning as a verb, whereby the activity of storytelling itself provides an opportunity for learning: by narrating an experience, individuals are able to reflect upon and make sense of that experience, leading to an adjustment in their thinking, and learning in situ as a direct result of engaging in the storytelling process. This learning can also be exemplified by the extent to which individuals’ stories develop as they are narrated, often evolving during the telling, or being quickly revised and retold, perhaps as the teller experiences cognitive dissonance and readjusts their thinking.

I suggest that we can utilise this concept of ‘narrative learning’ to support teacher professional learning in schools, and that by creating a culture of trust and encouraging professional dialogue through the medium of narrative, we can establish an environment that draws upon a universally recognised communication device to help teachers to reflect upon, realise and share their professional learning experiences.

Czarniawska (1998:2) suggests that a narrative has three basic features: an original state of affairs, an action or event, and the consequent state of affairs. We might find this useful when considering the use of narrative as a tool for professional learning for teachers; encouraging teachers to talk about their teaching strategies, explaining what was happening in their classroom initially, describing the  strategy they implemented, and the change in their classroom as a result of implementing this strategy. By using narrative as a tool, we are not encouraging teachers to reflect in a formulaic or unnatural manner: instead, by embedding a culture of storytelling around classroom practice, teachers are perhaps more likely to engage in the narrative learning process without prompt, and as the opportunities arise.

It is important to consider the concept of plot – this is, what brings the three elements of narrative together: an inference that the action within the narrative led to the change. Now we know that correlation does not necessarily indicate cause,  and the use of narrative as a professional learning tool must be mindful of this, but the inferences within narrative certainly offer a starting point for teacher self-evaluation.

We must also remember that narrative does not provide a window to experience and the told narrative is unlikely to mirror the experience as it was initially experienced. Narratives are constructed, creatively authored, rhetorical, replete with assumptions and interpretive (Reissman, 1993:5). They are a construct of the situation in which they are told, and developed through the interactions (both verbal and non-verbal) of both the narrator and the listener. However, just because the narrative is a situational construct, does not mean that it can no longer be reflective and this is its value for teacher professional development.

An added bonus of teachers using narrative to support dialogue around teaching and learning, is that there is learning potential not only for the narrator, but also for those to whom the stories are told. Teachers who hear stories about other teacher’s practice are surely likely to interpret those stories in relation to their own practice, and develop their canon of pedagogical knowledge. Furthermore, the social nature of stories often leads to stories being reciprocated: when a story is told, one is often told in return. There is therefore great potential for narrative learning to ‘snowball’, becoming  self-perpetuating as a method for professional learning.

 

Harnessing the power of narrative as a basis for professional learning within schools

Denning (2001) discusses the narrative as a medium for knowledge transfer, communication and change within organisations. This applies as much to schools as it does other organisations. Stories are frequently utilised by teachers to support communication of curriculum content, but we also need to recognise the opportunities that narrative provides for communication and development of pedagogical knowledge, as considered above.

The reframing of narrative as a tool for professional learning needs to move beyond individual one-off incidents of storytelling. Instead, the use of narrative needs to be recognised as a central and valuable tool for professional learning, with teachers sharing stories as part of a Community of Practice (Lave and Wenger, 1991) whereby social interactions lead to both cognitive development, and the development of social competence within that community (Murakami et al, 2008).

Harnessing the narrative as a basis for professional learning within schools as communities of practice would require school leaders to:

  • Create a climate of trust where stories are shared and exchanged freely and without judgment, recognising the value of this for both the narrator and the listener on professional learning.
  • Acknowledge the potential for learning to take place in situ as the result of the dyadic interaction that takes place.

To further build upon the notion of narrative learning, and to emphasise its potential beyond one-off narrative occurrences, Sims et al (1996) suggest that narrative learning can take the form of stories told in counterpoint. In this they mean that the teller uses a sequence of stories to contribute to a bigger-picture narrative. A typical example of this might be individuals telling a story about something that may have gone wrong (and where they may have appeared as a novice), then quickly contrasting this with a story about a more recent time where they had showed expertise, demonstrating their professional learning and development. This too has the potential to apply to teacher professional learning. Teachers who are telling stories about their lessons (particularly with a trusted colleague) may come back to their stories over time in order to actively demonstrate their growing professional expertise. The narrative of a lesson that has gone badly wrong may well be followed up a few days later with a narrative surrounding a positive change to practice, demonstrating in the second narrative that the teacher has learned and improved from the first, and providing the opportunity for both the narrator and listener to reflect on what that catalyst for change was, and the implications for their practice.

Finally, we can consider the power of stories in establishing a shared organisational identity, and the implications this may have for collective identities and learning within a community of practice that may be established within a school. In many schools, there are stories that are told almost by tradition; these stories may be part of the school’s character, and define to those who hear them: this is what we do or don’t do here. In hearing this type of story, teachers can learn from the shared canon of knowledge about the organisation’s social, cultural, procedural and teaching practices.

If leaders can reframe the narrative, it could be invaluable in establishing a culture of excellence and expertise; it could offer teachers agency and enable them to take control of their professional learning; and ultimately could offer teachers the opportunity to thrive – both collectively, and individually.

Using narrative aligns well with the ‘Standard for Teachers’ Professional Development’ (DfE, 2016):

  • The reflective potential of narratives means they have great capacity for focusing on improving and evaluating pupil outcomes;
  • teachers can employ evidence and expertise to underpin their narratives, making sense of their experiences by relating them to their pedagogical knowledge;
  • storytelling is, in its nature collaborative and offers the opportunity for professional challenge through shared construction and dialogue;
  • narratives can develop, be retold and added to over time to contribute to a canon of stories as part of a community of practice, or for an individual’s personal canon;

And finally, narrative has the greatest potential to impact on teachers’ professional learning, only if:

  • it is prioritised by school leadership

The cost of using narrative for teacher professional learning is negligible. If used alongside evidence-informed teaching practices and integrated with more formal professional learning opportunities, narratives may offer schools the means and capacity to adapt and develop their practice at a pace which is both manageable (in terms of budget and workload) and rapid enough to make significant positive gains to pupil outcomes, and potentially teacher retention.

There clearly needs to be greater research into how this might be implemented effectively within schools. In the meantime, as the education system moves away from judgemental practices relating to teacher evaluation, I would encourage leaders to look towards more qualitative approaches, with teachers taking an active role in formative evaluation for professional development, and to consider how they might utilise narrative within this to support the development and dissemination of teacher expertise.

 

 

 

References

Bruner J., (1990) Acts of meaning, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press

Czarniawska B., (1998) A narrative approach to organization studies London, Sage

Denning (2001) The Springboard Woburn MA, Butterworth-Heinemann,

Department for Education (2016) Standard for Teachers’ Professional Development Available at: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/537030/160712_-_PD_standard.pdf

Lave J., and Wenger E., (1991) Situated learning: legitimate peripheral participation Cambridge, Cambridge University Press

Murakami K., Murray, L., Sims, D., Chedzey, K., (2008) Learning on Work Placement: The Narrative Development of Social Competence) Journal of Adult Development (2009) 16:13-24,

Reissman C.K., (1993) Narrative Analysis, London Sage

Sims D., Murray L., Murakami K., Chedzey K., (2006) Work Placements as narrative learning: Stories for learning and for counterpoint, International Journal of Innovation and Learning 3 (5):468 – 487

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The knowledge vs skills debate: implications for assessment and classroom practice

brainA year or so I wrote a blog entitled ‘The Problem of Progress’ where I considered how we might recognise the different forms that progression may take within our school curriculum, and therefore how we might assess pupils’ progress within that curriculum. In particular I pointed out the need to use a different approach when assessing knowledge, compared to when we assess skills and understanding. I knew I had some more thinking to do here, because I (like many) am not entirely clear on how we define knowledge, skills and understanding: whether they are separate entities, one single entity, or whether they form parts of a bigger whole.

Anyway, the knowledge vs skills debate has rumbled on, and I feel like I’m beginning to make some headway about what the differences are – in particular, why it’s important for teachers and leaders to consider the role of knowledge vs skills in terms of curriculum, teaching and assessment.

Skills vs. knowledge and understanding

Generally, most of us have a sense of what we mean by  skills but it can be difficult to define it as a term, or perhaps distinguish it from knowledge and understanding. We think of skills as being able to ‘do’ something: be that ride a bike, write a letter, evaluate a situation, or complete a complicated mathematical equation. From cognitive psychology, we have the notion of procedural knowledge: the knowledge of how to perform elements of a task (i.e. knowledge of how to do something). The question is, is this procedural knowledge separate from the rest of our knowledge? In actual terms I might say probably not, but for the sake of it’s implications for our classroom practice, I would say it is important to differentiate.

My current thinking (and I’m very prepared to have my mind changed on this!) is that knowledge has three elements that we need to consider as teachers:

  1. Knowledge – or rather, declarative knowledge. This is knowledge as facts and information, that can be stored in our long term memory and retrieved when needed.
  2. Understanding. I consider understanding to be the connection of this knowledge to other knowledge that we have. This allows us to interpret or view knowledge (or concepts) in a much deeper sense. The stronger and more connections there are, the more our understanding grows. This is the foundation of schema theory, and I would encourage all teachers to read more around the concept. 
  3. Skills. When referring to skills, I consider this to be how our knowledge and understanding manifests in our behaviours and actions: put simply: how we behave, what we do and how well we do it. Performing a skill often requires an accumulation of knowledge, and is developed through a cycle of practice and feedback (I’ll elaborate on this later). To clarify what we mean by skills, I would employ the concept of procedural knowledge and also the concept of expertise as I think this can be helpful when thinking about what skills look like in the classroom. 

What are the implications for teaching, learning and assessment?

Each of these three aspects of knowledge may require slightly different approaches within the classroom: Knowledge may often be imparted through instructional teaching, with opportunities for retrieval practice to ensure that the learning is sustained; understanding may be developed through questioning, variation, and the linking and development of ideas within teaching sequences and the curriculum as a whole; whilst skills (or expertise) are more likely to be developed and honed through deliberate practice.

If we think about progression in each of these aspects, we could recognise this as follows:

Skills:  progress means acquiring new skills, or the further development of existing skill or expertise. 

Understanding: progress means improving and deepening understanding, by making more links, or strengthening links within our long-term memory. 

Knowledge: progress means increasing the amount of knowledge an individual has, but may also be seen in how quickly that individual is able to retrieve this knowledge. There is a crossover here with skills, because being able to retrieve information quickly actually demonstrates advancement in retrieval skills rather than an increase in knowledge, but it is progress nonetheless.

Generally then, knowledge can be assessed through binary form: either an individual knows something or they don’t. The individual’s ability to retrieve that information when needed (or when asked to by a teacher) is a performance activity, which makes it a skill. We know this because we also know that we cannot observe learning in any pure form: all we can do is make inferences about learning based on an individual’s performance.

Understanding, however, is a continuum: we should perceive that it can always be increased. This is what makes it difficult to assess in any binary form. In the national curriculum for English, children in each year group / phase are expected to ‘understand books that they have read, or have been read to them’. Teachers can assess this in binary form: yes they do understand, or no they don’t, but this does not give any indication of the extent to which that child understands, and any teachers assessing against n/c statements would be making fairly subjective inferences. Assessing and tracking against such n/c statements (which I’m aware many teachers are required to do) is likely not to provide particularly valid summative assessments, nor would it be particularly helpful formative assessment for teachers.

When assessing skills, we also need to consider these as a continuum, but can make slightly more valid summative assessments based on performance. Again these binary assessments will allow us to assess whether a pupil can/cannot do something, but will not provide any further (and quite important in terms of progress) information regarding whether they demonstrate these skills with consistency, and the quality or expertise they demonstrate.

If we look at the statements in the 2018/2019 assessment frameworks, we can see that these statements reflect skill rather than knowledge or understanding. Below shows the Year Two standard for reading*:

year 2 assessment

*taken from KS1 Teacher Assessment Frameworks for 2018/19 – available here

Rather than asking that pupils understand the texts (which would be too subjective a judgement to make), the statements offer a binary assessment of the pupils’ skills: can they do X? Yes or no? Again, this is informative to some extent, but does not tell us how well the child is able to do these things. Then again, it is not intended to.

And do we need to be able to measure pupils’ progress in such a way? The aim of the current national curriculum is for pupils to meet an expected minimum standard by the end of each Key Stage. The standard that has been set is high, and pupils are expected to move towards mastery of that curriculum where they are able to do so.

Teachers will make inferences about where pupils are in their development of skills and pupils’ work will show improvements that have been made as the result of practice and this is what progress will look like.

An interesting point here in terms of pedagogy, is recognising the role of feedback within that process, as this feedback may take a different form depending on whether it relates to knowledge, understanding or skills:

Knowledge: feedback may simply take the form of yes/no – an answer or response being correct or incorrect.

Understanding: feedback is more likely to be in the form of responsive teaching – the teacher using questioning, direct instruction, providing explanations and adapting their content or teaching approach to facilitate improved understanding of a concept.

Skills: when developing skills, feedback may need to be more specific; feedback will need to tell the learner what it is they need to improve and also how to improve. The gradual release model exemplifies how teachers may manage the teaching of skills within the classroom:

grr-model

Image source: http://bit.ly/1mChqxX

Ultimately, the learner will then need to be given the opportunity for deliberate practice (and possibly a cycle of further feedback) in order to implement identified improvements. We should also consider here that this feedback does not need to come from a teacher, but that the feedback may come from self, from others, or from environmental feedback, and that more independent learners will be able to regulate their learning through self-feedback and self-directed action. This metacognitive approach may be more representative of the expert – who knows when and how to select and apply knowledge into behaviour/action.

So what does this mean for teachers?

Knowledge, skills and understanding may all be inherent workings of the same system, but differentiating between them when thinking about pedagogy may be helpful:

We teach knowledge by imparting key curriculum content, which needs to be clearly identified, with progression in mind. We teach knowledge typically through instruction, but also through feedback.

We teach understanding through carefully planned sequences of learning, which can draw upon a wide range of methods and should engage prior learning. Again, the opportunities for deepening learning, and making links need to be reflected in the curriculum. Responsive teaching is key.

Finally, we teach skills through building a foundation of underpinning knowledge and understanding. We then nurture the development of skills through modelling, guided practice, deliberate practice and feedback. The school curriculum must recognise the component parts of a skill and ensure that children have that underpinning knowledge.

These are our models of progression.

Summary

When we observe learning in the classroom (or in a formal testing environment) we are observing skill: a performance; an individual’s ability to do whatever it is that’s being asked of them. However when we teach, we may develop knowledge, skills and understanding in very different, yet overlapping ways.

When we are making binary assessments, they will never sufficiently quantify the progress that our pupils are making. If aspiring to measure the extent to which a pupil is developing expertise, or mastering a skill, comparative approaches may be more helpful than binary ones – this is why we have scaled scores for end of Key Stage assessments, and is also what forms the basis of comparative judgement (championed by Daisy Christodolou at No More Marking).

If we want to look for progress, we need to ensure that our curriculum is built on models of progression, and that teachers are clear about what progress looks like, in terms of knowledge, skills and understanding. If our curriculum sets our expectations, then we know pupils are progressing if they are keeping up with the curriculum.

We need to remember that we can only ever make inferences about learning based on performance, and to put it very basically, if they are progressing, their performance should generally be improving!

 

Using Reading POWERS for guided reading

Last year I posted about my ‘Reading POWERS’ approach to Whole Class Reading – you can view the original post here. I’ve also shared how I teach reading in three phases.  I’ve continued to develop my Reading POWERS approach, and will try to write a detailed update soon, but in the meantime wanted to share the templates I’m using for guided reading in case they are of any use to others.

I teach a mixed Y1/2 class so guided reading really benefits my Year Ones, and also any of my Year Twos, who at this time of year may not be reading age-related texts fluently.

I have used the Reading POWERS to help ensure I am teaching and assessing across all of the teaching objectives within Guided Reading sessions, selecting one main POWER as my focus, and planning questioning around it. I created template guided reading plans for Year 1 and Year 2 reading powers, which are available here and look a little something like this, a plan I did for ‘First Day’ by Korky Paul (Collins big cat):

First Day

I still use the three phased approach when teaching guided reading, so will share key decodable and tricky words, as well as key vocab in advance of reading, and we will often select sections of the text (or on occasion the whole text) to re-read for fluency.

I tend to teach guided reading and whole class reading simultaneously, so whilst the majority of the class are getting on with a whole class reading activity, usually in reading journals, I will have a few groups doing a guided read (or linked activity) then we swap over. This means guided reading can be taught in 2 x 1 hour slots a week, but with the rest of the class undertaking a purposeful WCR activity each time, which has eliminated some of the issues associated with ‘carousel’ style guided reading where often groups are doing ‘holding’ activities whilst the teacher reads with their group.

I’ve found this approach has allowed me to gather lots of evidence, and also (and most importantly) my class are really flying with their reading! The whole class reading really supports the depth and comprehension, whilst guided reading supports those who are still working on decoding and fluency. All round, it’s resulted in my class making great progress, and becoming enthusiastic and confident readers.

I couldn’t ask for much more than that!

How can deliberate practice reduce cognitive overload?

This week I have made my squash comeback… though as I stepped into the court, I realised it had been about 15 years since I had last played and it seemed I had forgotten quite a lot about how to actually play!

And so I had what was my most notable personal experience of cognitive overload, as I tried to remember and use the skills that I was once previously competent with.

I was struggling with serving, holding my racket and generally hitting the ball; I was thinking about how to hit the ball so much that if I did actually hit it, the relief and excitement was so much that I was then too distracted to move or run around the court in order to return it. And don’t even mention the scoring. I had no idea of the rules, somehow lost the ability to count to 9, and was clueless about which side of the court I was supposed to be serving  from when it was eventually my turn.

Then my teacher brain kicked in… I asked my partner to take care of keeping score and just telling me when it was my serve and where I should be standing. This relieved my cognitive load enough for me just to focus on the physical aspects of the game. I improved a little, but at the end of the game I still wasn’t hitting the ball or serving correctly, so we tried some deliberate practice.

Firstly, I watched my partner serve and we deconstructed the skills that were needed. He then watched me serve and helped me to identify the gaps: initially that I was swinging through with my whole arm, resulting in my racket impacting the ball, and losing all the power in the impact (and hurting my wrist). So we worked on this. Initially just moving my arm, then moving it with the racket, then finally with the racket and the ball.

Next we looked at the positioning of my feet – as my serves weren’t going where I had hoped. Once again, after a little practice, I saw improvement. Finally I worked on how I released the ball to serve. Again, a little practice and I could put these skills together for a fairly adequate service.

We finished the session there, but came back for a second game last night – I was keen to have another go before I forgot, in order to apply my skills in an actual game, and hey presto! It worked! I immediately picked up the racket and my motor memory kicked in… I was able to serve easily and it was automatic. I no longer had to think about it. This automaticity allowed me to focus on other aspects of the game, like strategy, and my placement on the court. I gradually took on board the rules, and was able to keep score – much to my partner’s relief, we actually had quite a decent match.

But this was the first time I can recall having encountered such overload that I struggled to manage it. As a teacher and reflective learner I had the metacognitive strategies to tackle the problem, by relieving cognitive load and using deliberate practice to master a core component that was holding me back. It was really quite enlightening to see the process from my own experience – I am conscious that my struggle was due to the fact that I am (after such a long break) a squash novice. But that this will be the experience of many children in my classroom.

I have written previously about using cognitive load theory in the classroom, but this has reiterated to me the importance of deliberate practice as a tool for reducing cognitive load, supporting learning, providing challenge, and facilitating mastery.

If you would like to read a bit more about cognitive load and deliberate practice in the classroom, take a look at my previous posts:

The Writing Rope: managing cognitive load, metacognition and developing effective writers

Deconstructing the teaching of Writing

How does Cognitive Load Theory Relate to the Teaching of Reading?

Deconstructing the teaching of Writing

I have been thinking this week that we may need to change our approach to the teaching of writing. In particular, considering how we can apply the principles that inform our teaching of mathematics for mastery, such as deliberate practice, variation theory, retrieval practice and interleaving. Where mathematics teaching has moved on significantly over recent years, the shift in how we teach the English curriculum has not been as noticeable. Yes, the content has become more focused on SPAG for sure, but how have we developed our teaching approaches in order for our pupils to truly master English?

When talking to colleagues about their English teaching, and their teaching of writing in particular, I find that English is being taught in discreet lessons: a grammar lesson here, a sentence-level lesson there,  a spelling lesson for 30 minutes before lunch, and a weekly extended writing session, as an example. My gut response to this is that learning intentions are not intended to be achieved, and nor should be required to be taught, in discreet 1 hour blocks (or 50 minutes, or 55 minutes or however long the school, timetable dictates)! In fact, there is much consensus that the individual lesson is not the best unit of time to be planning for. Rather, we need to plan English (and any other subject) with a much longer time frame in mind.

Planning a ‘learning journey’

I tend to plan my pupils’ learning journey by starting at the end of the journey and planning backwards from this point, carefully crafting a route from where children are currently, to the desired end-point. This may sound obvious and may be what most teachers believe they are doing. But by starting at the endpoint, I mean not only the objectives. I consider in detail what the writing outcome for this learning sequence will look like by drafting the piece of writing at the highest possible standard (most likely, this will form my model for modelled / shared writing later in the sequence anyway). I then deconstruct that piece of writing, in order to inform what I need to teach my pupils in order for them to be successful. My previous blog about The Writing Rope details the different aspects of writing that I consider:

  • Vocabulary: What vocabulary do I need to explicitly teach? What opportunities are there for chn to explore, discuss and generate vocabulary needed to enable them to make informed choices when writing? This includes considering different types of vocabulary choices (e.g. nouns, verbs, adjectives).
  • Spelling: What Common Exception or decodable words will they need to use and be able to spell? What morphological rules do they need to utilise? Are there words to explore in terms of etymology?
  • Punctuation: Are children confident in using the punctuation that will be required in this composition? Do they understand the purpose and why it is required?
  • Sentence level: What type of sentence construction is required? What grammatical structures or stylistic devices can be utilised? Are children competent in using these? Which should be a focus for teaching?
  • Grammar: Underpinning the above, which aspects of grammar do children need to be secure in to write at this standard?
  • Knowledge of text type: Do they know how to construct writing in this format? What features are required? Have they seen and deconstructed a range of examples?
  • Context: Do they know the subject they are going to write about? Wherever possible, I base writing on a rich text, rich experience or on wider curriculum topics which have been studied in depth.
  • Text structure and organisation: What is the best way for them to plan their ideas and the organisation of their writing? Does this need scaffolding? If so, how will I do this, and how will they use the scaffolding?

From this deconstruction I will develop a pathway, considering the teaching approaches that are required for each aspect. Some will require explicit teaching, others will be woven into the journey more discreetly. There will be many aspects that I will return to throughout the learning journey – drawing on the research behind retrieval practice, and these will not be revisited by chance, but planned purposefully into the sequence of lessons.

Achieving Mastery – Deliberate Practice

Similarly to mathematics, we need to plan opportunities for children to develop a deep understanding of English by taking time to explore the subject in detail; by allowing them to play with words, sentences and compositions through systematic, guided instruction or exploration, followed by opportunities to apply concepts in their writing more independently.

In her book ‘Making Good Progress’ (2016), Daisy Christodolou cites Dylan Wiliam in describing the models of progression used by sports coaches whereby rather than repeatedly rehearsing the end-performance, the coach selects particular aspects of that performance to focus upon and drill. The drill and performance are separate, but linked. The steps between them are the models of progression. This very much aligns with the concept of deconstructing the endpoint in writing, and then working backwards to practice and master the features in order to write at the highest possible standard.

The lesson is the wrong unit of time

Returning to this idea that the individual lesson is the wrong unit of time, by deconstructing the teaching of English, we can utilise lesson time much more effectively. Vocabulary work does not need to consume a whole lesson, but may form 10 minutes of a lesson prior to another task. That same lesson may involve some rich text analysis, followed by some rich sentence work. In another lesson, a teacher might do some extended writing followed by some work on spellings or vice versa. The following day vocabulary work may consume more of the lesson…

The amount of time spent on teaching an aspect of English should be decided according to the need. No longer do we need to follow a 3 part, 4 part or 5 part lesson, but instead teachers require a range of teaching strategies and approaches that they can draw upon in any sequence or order to provide the most coherent pathway through from the start to the endpoint… the craft is in the planning! A lesson therefore may have a number of learning intentions, a number of parts and may be fluid as teachers teach, assess and respond to their pupils.

The benefits of crafting the learning journey from the endpoint

Because children have the opportunity for retrieval throughout the learning journey, they are more secure on the knowledge and skills required for writing. When it comes to the point of writing, they can free up working memory to focus purely on composition, without having to spend too long ‘searching’ for the other knowledge or skills required.

Because each part of a lesson is building towards this known endpoint, learning time is more purposeful – less time is wasted. Every opportunity can be taken to reinforce learning – across lessons, subjects, and in the wider life of the classroom and school.

Because the teacher has a clear point that they need to ensure children reach, formative assessment is stronger – there are clear markers which need to be achieved, and if children are not reaching those markers, teachers know they have to respond in order for those children to achieve the end outcome.

The bigger picture

We also need to remember that a single learning sequence needs to fit into a much bigger picture. In fact, a school’s entire English (and ultimately entire) curriculum needs to be planned with as much thought and cohesion. I’ve written a little about curriculum here. In English we need to ensure children are revisiting their learning at regular intervals, applying concepts across different contexts and moving towards increasing independence.

I have a lot more to think about on this subject, and in particular, I’m thinking at the moment about what will help our pupils achieve mastery with sentence-level grammar and composition and how best to ensure a rich diet, with lots of opportunities for practice and consolidation. I will keep you posted…

blue and purple color pencils
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

How can Performance Management support teacher development effectively?

 

 

When Performance-Related Pay (PRP) was introduced in 2014, there was general consensus from unions that it wouldn’t work. Since then, there have been continued arguments that PRP has been damaging to the profession: increasing workload, and contributing to teacher retention issues. Discussions with colleagues, and twitter threads suggest that too often, teacher perception of PRP and Performance Management is highly negative: that leaders either use it to ‘manage’ teachers out of a role; or that it is a box-ticking exercise – something that is done to a teacher, and a process that is not always valued by either the teacher or leaders. Of course, this is not always the case – there will indeed be many schools where Performance Management works well… as the 31st of October deadline approaches, I’m thinking about what has worked well for me in the past and advice I would give to help make this process (that we’re stuck with) work for everyone.

So here goes…

Firstly, Performance Management (PM)  has to be interwoven with a school’s approach to developing its teachers. The PM meetings are an ongoing part of the CPD cycle –  a chance to reflect, plan and review. Nothing at any meeting should be a surprise, nor should it be necessary for the teacher to supply a portfolio of evidence (I truly hope that no school still does this, but who knows?). The evidence base for discussions should be formed from the professional dialogue that has taken place throughout the cycle: dialogue surrounding formal teaching and learning evaluations (lesson observations, book scrutinies, pupil progress) alongside the less formal dialogue (coaching, mentoring, staffroom and corridor chats). At the core of these discussions there must be a culture of professional trust, and a shared and collective respect for professional learning. These learning conversations are not about accountability, but about teacher development.

When setting objectives, we need to agree objectives that are going to work for everyone. These objectives need to enable teachers to flourish. They need to be well-informed: they should be accurately matched to the teacher’s and the school’s development needs. They should be things that were going to happen anyway – because they are the things that are being worked on presently. The implication here is, that the Performance Reviewer therefore needs to have be astutely aware of these needs, and must be equally invested in achieving the desired outcomes. Perhaps all too often, Performance Management Reviewers are allocated without considering this. Ensuring the quality of the reviewer must surely be a key factor for schools in ensuring this process works. The relationship between reviewer and reviewee should mirror that of mentor / mentee: the teacher needs ownership of their objectives, and their professional development, but with the guidance and support of an expert mentor.

How do we set effective objectives? 

The objectives themselves should naturally develop from the ongoing dialogue of professional learning that takes in the school on both a whole school and individual level. I generally tend to select three of the following to focus on when agreeing objectives with a teacher:

PM objectives

Oh… and sorry, but I just have to shout this at  the top of my voice: PLEASE DON’T SET DATA OBJECTIVES!!!!! Yes, you may want to believe that this makes the objective measurable, but there are just way too many factors that are outside of the control of individual teachers here to put that on them. Putting such high stakes accountability onto teacher assessment is only going to distort the teacher assessment and result in ‘iffy’ data that doesn’t help teachers or pupils. If you set data targets, you are going to end up with skewed data. That’s all. Just ask James Pembroke.

My final plea in making Performance Management more effective is that schools take an approach that is research-informed. Whether that be through incorporating research-informed approaches into the CPD that teachers receive, into the objectives themselves, or through an action research project. I can’t emphasise enough how much impact using action research can have on teacher development and whole school improvement. My personal anecdote here is when we asked every teacher as part of their performance management to engage in action research on inclusion. Initially, we had identified inclusion as a key area of our school improvement plan, and it frequently came up as a CPD request from teachers. The difficulty was, that teachers all had different experiences of inclusion, and their pupils all had different needs, so finding a one-size-fits-all approach to inclusion CPD was a non-starter. By facilitating action research projects, teachers were able to develop their own research questions, which we then supported through allocation of time and resources (teachers could request money for books, courses, classroom resources, or visits to other classrooms or different settings). We launched with a ‘how to’ event to guide teachers through the process of undertaking research, and culminated with a dissemination event 8 months later. The dissemination event was just wonderful – with such a high-degree of staff engagement, the sharing of expertise learnt meant that it was a great CPD opportunity for all, and the high-profiling of teachers as experts in their research area was ongoing, lasting long-beyond the 2 hour dissemination session… ideas are still discussed and used in classrooms years later. Most importantly, teachers had agency, were supported in developing their pedagogy, and it made a difference to their pupils.

And that is the essence of effective teacher development.

 

The Writing Rope: managing cognitive load, metacognition and developing effective writers

I recently wrote a blog about cognitive load and reading, utilising Scarborough’s ‘Reading Rope’ to consider how we can scaffold and teach reading skills more effectively.

Since then, I have been thinking about how those ideas could apply to writing and have a few thoughts on this to share.

When writing, just like in reading, our pupils are juggling many different skills – initially we could define these as ‘composition’ and ‘transcription’ as the national curriculum (2014) does. In reality, teachers know that these two aspects are also multi-faceted:

Writing Rope

Composition

When composing writing, children must take into account their knowledge of the form / text type; they must draw upon their vocabulary, ensuring appropriate and precise word choice; they must compose each sentence individually, considering syntax and grammar for effect and meaning; and they must be able to organise their ideas for purpose, clarity, cohesion and effect.

Transcription

In addition to this, writers must manage the secretarial aspects of writing: spelling, punctuation and handwriting, again underpinned by the common thread of grammar. As teachers we need to aim for automaticity when it comes to transcription: if children are able to manage the physical aspects of writing;  instantly recall and apply spelling patterns and phonic knowledge; and have a secure understanding of punctuation (including concept of a sentence) and the grammatical structure of language; then they will not need to actively think of these aspects, freeing  working memory to focus on composition.

Scaffolding Transcription

Just as we can for the different aspects of reading, teachers need to explicitly teach, model and provide opportunities for pupils to practise each aspect of composition and transcription independently and interdependently.

Importantly, we need to support children in managing cognitive load when writing, by providing scaffolding where appropriate, for example, with transcriptional skills:

  • using visuals or mnemonics, aswell as resources such as phonic mats, grapheme charts, spelling records or displays to support spelling.
  • oral rehearsal of sentences, ‘kung fu’ punctuation, cut up sentence strips, picture strips, repetitive sentences or writing frames to enhance children’s awareness of punctuation.

It is important that we do not misunderstand the use of visual, auditory and kinaesthetic support here – the theory of learning styles has been largely debunked however there is substantial evidence that tells us that visual, auditory and kinaesthetic cues support the encoding of information into the long term memory, and will support retrieval when that information is required in future.

In my own teaching, I have found it vital that these transcriptional skills are taught and practised both discreetly (in discreet SPAG-focussed lessons or as a discreet part of the main  English lesson) and that I also teach and model to children how to apply these transcriptional skills within the context of compositional writing. I teach and model often, with whole class, groups and individuals where feedback is required on the processes of applying transcriptional skills, gradually shifting the onus onto the children to take the greater responsibility for this aspect of their learning, supporting metacognition.

The gradual release model explains how we can gradually move towards independence – and with enough practise, automaticity:

grr-model

Image source: http://bit.ly/1mChqxX

Scaffolding Composition

In the early stages of writing, we scaffold children’s ideas so that they can focus on their transcription skills (for example, we may give them a picture to write about, or model writing as part of rich play experiences). It is likely that we will initially scaffold transcriptional skills too (as outlined above) but hope that children will require less scaffolding for transcription as they progress into KS2 (though of course some children will need support with transcription so KS2 teachers need to have the expertise to support this).

As children begin to write more cohesive pieces, we need to scaffold composition in a more focused manner. If we ‘teach to the top’ we can scaffold those who need it by teaching, modelling and scaffolding:

Knowledge of form

Ensuring children have an in-depth awareness of the form of writing – looking at real-life examples to analyse the features, sharing good examples written by others, modelling through shared writing, guiding writing for those who need it, or providing a structure which they can follow.

Word choice

My aim is always to create a classroom climate where children are curious about words, where we play with them, test them out, discuss word choice as part of shared reading and writing, magpie words for our word wall or make a note in our reading records/journals of vocabulary that we want to capture. Teaching children how to choose words for effect through analysis of texts, or specific vocabulary focused sentence-building activities prior to writing and then modelling or reminding children  to refer back to this when writing will support those who need it. Remembering as a teacher, that some will need to be shown how we select and utilise vocabulary within the process of writing, as not all will do so automatically.

Sentence structure

Sentence structure is often not taught as explicitly as other aspects of composition. All I’m going to do here is point to Alan Peat’s sentence types, Kilgallon‘s sentences, and Pie Corbett’s Jump Start Grammar  and say: explicitly teach different sentence types; then model, practise and apply these repeatedly – analyse texts for sentence types when reading, analyse one another’s writing for sentence types, and discuss the effect of different sentence structures when reading and writing. Not only do effective writers think about their choice of words, but how they structure these words into effective sentences. By encouraging them to imitate, innovate and then invent their own sentences we can scaffold and support this process. And for those who really don’t know how to begin their writing, providing one or two key sentence starters they can draw upon will give them the support they need.

Developing, organising and sequencing ideas

Before children begin writing, they need to have a strong knowledge of the subject they are going to be writing about. It is helpful then to set purposeful writing tasks linked to texts or topics children have already studied in some detail and developing their ideas and understanding before and throughout their writing journey.

Planning before writing is key, and though some may be able to do this independently, SO many children would benefit from more guidance and structure when planning. Too often teachers (myself included!) stick to comic strips or story mountains to support children in planning writing, but there are SO MANY more ways we can help children structure their work: again analysis of existing texts is a starting point. In addition to this, structure strips or picture strips are great if a child needs support on sequencing ideas. Again, a mention for Pie Corbett’s talk for writing – a whole lot more than pictorial storymapping – ‘Talk for Writing across the curriculum’ has some great ideas for scaffolding non-fiction writing too. Finally, I cannot recommend enough using mindmaps and organisers to scaffold writing – some examples in use here.

Editing, redrafting, refining

This final phase of writing can become a bit rushed for some – squeezed into a plenary session before playtime, or at the beginning of the next lesson. Alternatively, we might dedicate whole lessons to this following a mammoth marking session and pages of written feedback and notes on children’s books. It’s great to hear so many teachers using whole class feedback, which has a role here in making this final phase more manageable and effective. The key for me is to narrow the focus of editing, redrafting and refining – teaching children explicitly how to edit for spelling, vocabulary, cohesiveness or whatever it is they need to do. Again teaching, modelling and returning to these often supports metacognition and a move towards doing these things independently as reflective learners. Some fab resources: visualisers (a must in any classroom – I don’t have one for the first time this year and it’s made this much harder!); editing stations / editing dice / prompts. It’s also important to separate editing and revising (redrafting and refining). Editing typically refers to the transcriptional skills, whilst revising focuses on improving the effectiveness of the writing which will often require a greater amount of discussion and thought.

Summary 

I could write so much more on this, but I will save that for another time. For now I will finish with these final points:

There are multiple skills that we have to ‘juggle’ when writing. We therefore need to support children to manage cognitive load when writing, and we can do this in a number of ways:

  1. Specific, targeted, focused teaching; support; scaffolding; and practise of transcriptional skills so that children become fluent and develop automaticity.
  2. Scaffolding of compositional skills, taught discreetly and practised often, across different contexts.
  3. Using scaffolding to support metacognitive processes so that children know how to select, use and check how effective their own writing is.

In order for children to develop and improve their writing we need to be specific about how they go about doing that. This means teaching skills explicitly, independently and allowing them to focus on the aspects they need to improve.

Teachers need to plan carefully in order to scaffold these multiple aspects of writing throughout the whole learning journey. When planning an English unit of work, I plan through three phases which may last anything between 2-6 weeks. These phases may be distinct from one another; may be planned and taught concurrently; or I may repeat the process many times within a unit:

Three Phases of writing

 

However we go about teaching writing, we need to make sure we, as teachers, are aware of every aspect of transcription and composition and to ensure we communicate these explicitly (and repeatedly) to our pupils, so they are able to make conscious choices about how they approach their writing, in order to write effectively.

For more on self-regulation and metacognition, take a look at the EEF report here.