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Thinking Curriculum: The One Stop Shop

Thinking deeply about curriculum is new to most of us. For a long time, we’ve focussed a lot more on the how than we have on the what. Recent changes in mood have been revelatory to me and, I imagine, many others. Perhaps ironically though, most of us who are now interested in curriculum, didn’t follow a formal curriculum when learning more about curriculum. As such, and I’m happy to only speak for myself here, my knowledge came in drips and drabs, bits and pieces and stops and starts. That’s probably just the nature of the beast.

I was asked by school to deliver some training on curriculum, and argued that the thing that would be most useful would be to introduce staff to some of the key terms that are bandied around when thinking about curriculum. Familiarity with these concepts isn’t just important in and of itself, but is crucial for deepening and enriching curricular thought. Rolling these ideas around in your head forces you to contemplate your subject in a slightly different light and spurs you on to delving deeper into what it all means.

I remembered Ruth Walker’s marvelous blog from the Curriculum In Science symposium. In it, she introduced us to a number of terms and how they might find application in science. Essentially, I wanted to copy and build on her ideas based on some of the stuff I’ve been reading over the past couple of years. A document started to take shape, which I’ve called The One Stop Shop. It contains 22 curricular terms that I have personally found very useful in shaping my thinking about curriculum. Each term has a definition, a couple of examples from a range of subjects, some thoughts about how the term is useful to teachers on a day-to-day basis, and a section with further thoughts and extra reading.

I’ve also put together a short slideshow which just highlights a few of the highest leverage concepts. The slideshow is designed to be an accompaniment to the main document and used when introducing people thinking about curriculum.

At the end of the slideshow, there is a slide with some provisos for use, which I wanted to reproduce here:

  • This is not for Ofsted, this is because it is important
  • My list is my interpretation, it is not objective fact
  • “One stop shop” notwithstanding, there is much more out there!

Please do bear all that in mind, and if you have any questions or contentions do not hesitate to be in touch. As ever, enormous amounts of gratitude to the wonderful thinkers and writers (most of whom are linked in The One Stop Shop) who have been so pioneering and inspiring. Enjoy!

Thinking Curriculum – The One Stop Shop v2

Thinking Curriculum – The One Stop Shop – powerpoint

Curriculum don’ts

Everyone’s talking about curriculum these days, and this is a Good Thing. As I’ve argued before, we’ve spent too long talking about generic “teaching and learning” or “pedagogy,” without the realisation that content must precede delivery. There is no point talking about how without first establishing why.

However, there are two problems with the discourse as it is playing out: problems that are distinct, but also highly related. The first is that a lot of the change is coming from Ofsted’s new Education Inspection Framework. This isn’t a problem intrinsically, but it’s no state secret that for a long time schools and the CPD industries that spring up around them have been using fear of Ofsted to drive changes, and often bad ones. Sometimes the fear was legitimate, sometimes it wasn’t. But institutional memories live long and we are now in a situation where people are starting to think about their curriculum through that narrow lens of “what do Ofsted want?” rather than “what is the right thing for my school?”

The second problem is our lack of training and vocabulary. There is a wealth of deep curricular thinking out there and though it might have always been a minor thread in teacher education and training, it’s out there, and making a resurgence. But when it comes to implementing changes (in the aforementioned shadow of Ofsted) a lot of the time we lack the conceptual tools not only to express and communicate our ideas but to actually shape them.

Unfortunately, it already seems like people are making mistakes when it comes to curriculum and responding to Ofsted. Following Claire Stoneman’s wonderful blog on curriculum clangers here, I wanted to expand on her list based on some things I have seen, with headlines in the image and explanations below. Buckle up.

Curriculum Don’ts

1. No statements of curriculum intent

I’ve now seen a couple of dozen people online looking for help writing statements of curriculum intent. This is not the point. Michael Tidd’s excellent article argues that any such statement is likely to be vacuous and banal. This is because the intent of your curriculum resides to a much greater extent in your schemes of work than it does in any vague and platitudinous opening statement. See also comments like:

Where I think there is a bit of nuance here is thinking in directions like this:

A response to that of course is that schools that haven’t been thinking about curriculum or paying attention to the changes in the educational zeitgeist are unlikely to be able to think particularly deeply or with much sophistication about their intent. It might seem logical to think about intent before you start planning, but I think it’s more reasonable to actually go out and read stuff on curriculum first. If you think “oh ok I’ve written a statement about my curriculum intent: box ticked, job done!” you are wrong. You need to go read stuff and build the necessary conceptual frameworks to have meaningful conversations about intent. Once you’ve done that, if you really feel like a document of intent will help you then go for it. But if you’re doing it because something something Ofsted, you should stop.

Oh, and if the above wasn’t enough Ofsted don’t even count documents like “statements of curricular intent” as a source of evidence in inspections.

2. No forcing subjects to conform to whole school curricular aims like “big ideas” or soft skills

Big ideas might be incredibly useful in history, or English or psychology or whatever. I am personally not of the opinion that they are helpful in science. Some science teachers disagree, and that’s fine. But our subjects and our interpretations of them are different, fundamentally so. It doesn’t make sense to have all the different subjects in your school follow the same philosophy as their very essences differ in the way they approach truth, reality, generation of knowledge and meaningful experience.

I’ve seen some people talking about whole school curricular aims in a general sense like “creativity” or “critical thinking” or whatever. That’s great, but ultimately it isn’t going to be substantive, not because these soft skills are incredibly context dependent (which they are), but because they mean different things in different subjects. The creativity of a scientist is fundamentally different to the creativity of a writer or a geographer or an artist. Umbrella terms fail to understand this crucial distinction, and should therefore be avoided.

3. No assessing/evaluating curriculum without deep and extensive conversation with subject experts

Subject experts are kings of their curriculum. If you aren’t a subject expert, it’s going to be damn hard for you to really get to grips with what it is they are doing. If you’re a senior leader then you must make sure that you trust your people and hear them out properly. They will be the ones who can explain the reasoning behind the decisions made and without them your thoughts will be extremely superficial. Without their guidance, you’ll end up focussing on meaningless surface details like curriculum intent statements or whether it contains buzzwords like knowledge, metacognition, resilience or 21st century skills.

4. No snapshot lesson observations to assess curriculum implementation

Curriculum plays out over the long term, and you will only ever be able to see a small part of it. If in your observation cycle (if you have one) you get lots of time to see people, plus pre- and post-observation conversations so much the better. But if you don’t get that be incredibly humble about what you can see and what you can infer. One 20 minute observation a term isn’t going to cut it. You’re better off dropping in regularly and not just to one teacher. If you line manage science, get into as many science lessons with as many science teachers as possible. That’s the only way you’ll really get a feel for the quality of the curriculum a department is delivering.

5. No use of GCSE grades/sub-levels as progression models

I can’t stress enough how wrong this is. GCSE grades aren’t a progression model. Students aren’t supposed to progress from a grade 3 in year 7 to a grade 4 in year 8 and so on. The grade isn’t the progression model, the curriculum is the progression model. I’ve written before about this here, but you can also see this:

Or this, or this or this. Using GCSE grades as a progression model is not just silly (as that isn’t what they are for) but it warps your school’s practice and turns it into a factory aimed at delivering exam results, rather than delivering a beautiful curriculum.

6. No curricular omissions for different “groups” (e.g. PP, SEN, LPAs, M/F)

This has just got to die. You need to be rigorous and ambitious for all your students, and not allow the soft bigotry of low expectations to exclude students from the intellectual inheritance that is theirs no matter what their personal circumstances or key stage 2 scores. I’d recommend Ruth Walker’s now seminal E. Coli blog for more on this,

Shaun Allison and Andy Tharby also put this well in Making Every Lesson Count, in a sadly all too familiar story:

Alternatively, catch Bart Simpson’s take on this here.

To be sure, there will be some contexts where breaking this rule is justified (like special schools). But those cases will be the tiniest minority and your general rule should be a powerful and ambitious curriculum for all.

7. No using the word “knowledge” to repackage old ideas (e.g. “knowledge checks” to replace mini-plenaries)

This is one of Claire’s ones, so check out her elaboration. An extension to this of course is to be mistrustful of any CPD provider who is selling you the same product as they were selling you last year, just with a few different words. Which leads me on to…

8. No shelling out the big bucks for dubious CPD

If your inbox is anything like mine, then you’ve been inundated with emails selling CPD on curriculum. Obviously telling people to “be discerning”, isn’t particularly helpful, especially if we are dealing with something that people don’t already know a lot about. It’s hard to give any simple rules of thumb, but the below could be loose indicators:

  • If the provider are contradicting any of the don’ts on this list, then that’s a bit of a red flag
  • Mentioning Ofsted a million times is a red flag
  • People selling platforms (especially ICT ones) which are just rebranded versions of their old ones is a red flag
  • Research the presenters. If they’ve never written anything about curriculum then you don’t really have any reasonable grounds to ascertain if this CPD will be worthwhile. If they do, then you can judge whether it’s the kind of thing you are looking for.
  • See point 9…

9. No making changes until you know your stuff

Getting clued up on curriculum should be an utterly fascinating journey into the roots of the knowledge and understanding that comprise the very fabric both of your subject and the education your school provides. There are lots of incisive and thought-provoking writers out there, and as well as all the links above you can find further reading here, here and here. Go forth and work curriculum wonders!

Curriculum in Science: A Symposium

I started teaching in the Gove years; a time of enormous curriculum upheaval with all three secondary key stages seeing major changes in a bid for increased rigour, higher standards and improved performance on international assessments. In recent months, Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector Amanda Spielman has continued to increase the public awareness of curriculum matters through speeches and policy and, if the education commentariat are to be believed, “curriculum” is the buzz-word of the moment.

But curriculum is a bit of a chameleon word. To some, it means the substance of what is to be taught in a given subject or topic. To others, it represents the broad offering of content offered to students at a particular institution. Many will intertwine it with pedagogy and include discussion of teaching resources and approaches within their discussion of curriculum. Others see it through a political and sociological lens, a topic to be studied in terms of its ramifications on society and status as a support for political authority and hierarchy. Still others see it simply as the exam specification: the things my students need to know and understand to pass an exam.

To be fair, it is not a word which lends itself particularly well to a single definition. Only starting to be used extensively at the start of the last century, it is apparently descended from the Latin currere, which relates to running and dynamism; often used to describe the “careering” of a chariot.

curric graph
Graph showing the increased use of the word “curriculum” with time

This “careering” of the chariot indicates dynamism, movement and journeying. I therefore like to think of curriculum as the body through which a student moves on their journey from being a disciplinary novice to becoming a disciplinary expert. Their journey might “career;” it may stutter and start and appear disjointed and fragmented. But, from the wide angle of time, forward movement is occurring.

I think this is also what is meant by the word in its recent public appearances. What comprises the key content of a particular discipline? How are its ideas structured and related? Which concepts must be included and which can be optional? These are difficult questions, and many of us do not have the training to adequately address them. For a long time the educational focus has been not on curriculum, but on pedagogy. Curriculum was set centrally by the government, and it was teachers’ role to implement. But in recent days political freedoms and changing accountabilities have enticed schools to take a more active involvement with their curriculum, not just in terms of understanding its structure and purpose, but taking a role in its fashioning. Individual schools or multi-academy trusts will never have full control over their curriculum, but there has been an “awakening;” a movement towards teachers having a different, more dynamic, relationship with the curriculum.

I consider myself to be utterly untrained in this area. Despite having delivered close to ten different curriculums in my few years as a teacher, I still lack the technical knowledge and disciplinary jargon to discuss curriculum in a meaningful or scholarly manner. With respect to the study of curriculum, I am a novice. I also suspect I am not alone. With few exceptions, curriculum has not been a focus of initial teacher training, Masters programmes or leadership qualification courses. But with the gaze of Ofsted fixing itself on this area, schools will no doubt go into overdrive to find solutions.

With such widespread activity, the spectre of genericism looms large. No doubt, school leaders will be sent to one-day courses on the topic of “curriculum” and will become the schools’ “curriculum leads.” In a bid to apply partial knowledge and skill to a whole school in need of consistency, measures may be imposed across the board. We might see departments being told that their curriculum must be modelled against Bloom’s taxonomy, or core school values. Departments could be instructed to use their curriculum to support whole-school values and emphases like resilience or growth mind-set. The “cross-curricular” fad will rouse from hibernation and teachers will have to shoehorn geography into drama, and chemistry into art. Using catchy buzzwords, school proformas will be used to write “knowledge organisers” for each subject, with the same proformas used in science, maths, English and history. Imposition, imposition, imposition.

Such activity does violence to the very item it seeks to promote. For curriculums are unique and distinctive, based on the discipline they represent. The way that knowledge is structured, organised and sequenced in science is radically different to how it is structured, organised and sequenced in maths, English or history. And this is to say nothing of the disciplinary rules that underpin this knowledge. How is knowledge generated in science? How is it generated in maths? What epistemological rules are used to say “yes, this knowledge counts and can be admitted, but this knowledge does not, and must be dismissed”? Genericism threatens the rich disciplinary thinking that the focus on curriculum is supposed to promote.

This symposium seeks to anticipate and pre-empt such genericsm. Following our AfL in Science Symposium I am incredibly excited to be hosting a running series tackling the knottiest and thorniest of issues within UK Science education. Our contributors range from frontline teachers, through Initial Teacher Trainers and education academics. We are also delighted that Ofsted themselves will be contributing towards our discussion. Over the coming weeks, a new article will be published every few days, often trying to build and develop on the ideas introduced previously, concluding with a summary and remarks from Christine Counsell. We hope that interested teachers of all subjects (though especially science) find the articles to be meaningful and helpful, and look forward to the ensuing discussion.

Full list of contributors: Rosalind Walker, Tim Oates, Jasper Green, Pritesh Raichura, Niki Kaiser, Gethyn Jones, Matt Perks, Andrew Carroll, Alan Passingham (Ofsted), Christine Counsell 

Read Ruth’s piece here on foundational vocabulary for discussing curriculum

Read Gethyn’s piece here on how to build a curriculum with misconceptions in mind

Read Jasper’s piece here on the big ideas of science

Read Tim Oates’s piece here on the new practical endorsement and its history

Read Pritesh’s piece here on what material should go into a science curriculum and why

Read Matt Perks’ piece here on designing a subject knowledge enhancement curriculum

Read Niki Kaiser’s piece here on a memorable curriculum

Read Andrew Carroll’s piece here on constructing a PGCE science curriculum

Read my subsequent pieces on Core and Hinterland here, and sequencing a curriculum here

Read Ofsted’s short findings paper into primary science curriculum here

KS3 Science Curriculum: Some Tentative Thoughts

Last night on Twitter I reached out to hear people’s thoughts on how to go about writing a KS3 science curriculum bearing cognitive science in mind (1). I got some really interesting responses from people who are a) more knowledgeable than I am and b) more experienced than I am. I wanted to get down some tentative thoughts here, not because I think they will be exhaustive at all, but because it helps me to frame the debate. All of the things I am going to mention below could be the subjects of longer blogs (and maybe one day will be).

The Problem With KS3 Curricula

  1. Since the SATs were abolished, in many places there has been limited emphasis on KS3 science. In an era of high stakes accountability this is understandable
  2. The proliferation of KS3 bought-in schemes of work has enabled teachers to take the back seat when it comes to science curriculum planning
  3. In conjunction with 1.2 there are now thousands of different KS3 science resources floating around, all related to different schemes of work and different curricula, with different emphases. This has led to a very laissez faire approach to what is actually taught
  4. KS3 assessments tend to be very poor (in the four or so schemes of work I have used) and do not focus on the actual science that a student needs to know and focus a lot more on the scientific process. This means they are not a reliable or valid indicator of what the student actually knows. Add to this that some of the questions are just appallingly worded and based on an obsolete level-descriptor model.
  5. A lot of science teachers I speak to from across the country are struggling to deliver the new GCSE syllabus: it is more voluminous and conceptually demanding than any of the past. It is imperative that KS3 prepares students appropriately.
  6. Building on that, it is incredibly distressing to me that students appear to reach KS4 and have highly sparse background knowledge. This could be a function of both curriculum and teaching but is necessary to be addressed.

The Big Ideas of Science: What’s the Big Idea?

A number of people referenced this ASE document which details the Big Ideas of Science and says that all teaching should be in reference to them. There’s a lot of language in there that doesn’t really suit me (2) but I wanted to unpick a bit of the debate surrounding them last night (and today).

  1. What is the purpose of the Big Idea?
    1. The Big Idea could be there to kind of tie everything together so we don’t have a list of “disconnected facts”
    2. Is this a “thing in and of itself”? I.e. it should not be thought of in reference to its utility to some other goal (e.g. helping students to learn and systematise knowledge) but is important in its own right.
    3. Are these more of a planning tool than a teaching tool?
    4. It also could be there as we think this is something fundamental to understanding new science when presented to us, so we can fit it into a pre-organised and arranged system. Which leads me on to…
  2. Are these the same as “schema”?
    1. If they are, then that has implications for how we go about teaching them. As i have written before, the lack of reference to cognitive science in academic educational science writing is incredibly frustrating to me.
  3. Can you teach Big Ideas without reference to its “application”?
    1. I had a great discussion with Helen Rogerson and Helen Harden about this. Take for example statement BI “all the material in the universe is made of very small particles.” Presumably an “application” of that would be statement A “atoms are very small particles, which are, in turn, made of even smaller particles”In what order to you teach these BI and A? Do you start with BI and then give examples like A? Is it possible to understand BI without examples? But then what if you just teach A and then BI? Have you properly shown students that science is a coherent system with overarching principles?

      Would a compromise approach be to start with a lot of examples and then halfway through your course start introducing big ideas and then continually reference them?

  4. Who decides what these Big Ideas are?
    1. I haven’t read the document cover to cover but it gives a fairly extensive justification of each of the ideas
    2. Unfortunately in their panel, actual classroom teachers are massively under-represented with only a couple of the “senior” members ever having spent time in a classroom. No current teachers. This shouldn’t necessarily take away from the substance of the report but still irks me.
    3. Some of the principles seem a little, “unweighty.” Take for example “objects can affect other objects at a distance.” Yes, that’s true, but it’s hardly on par with the conservation of matter, which is not included in the list. It seems like someone took a list of topics like magnetism, gravity and radiation, figured out that they all involve objects affecting other objects at a distance, and categorised them based on that.
  5. Is there any systematic evidence to suggest that students who are taught using the big ideas are more effective scientists? If not then why should we pay them any heed?

Building a curriculum for knowledge

Something I suggested was to write a list of 600 questions that you want students to be able to answer by the end of KS3. You can then build your scheme around those questions, constantly referring to them and using knowledge organisers or some other method to engage in spaced and interleaved retrieval practice.

The obvious question is how do you decide the questions? This could be mediated by:

  1. Core knowledge that people need to access society (Hirschian approach?)
  2. Core knowledge that people need to make informed scientific decisions (e.g. vaccines, climate change etc.)
  3. Core knowledge that students need to succeed in KS4 (and make the KS4 teacher’s life easier)
  4. Things that are “awesome” and “wonderful”

There’s also the possibility of throwing the “how science works” stuff into the mix. My feelings on that are pretty strong, but will have to be a blog for another time.

Misconceptions

Common misconceptions need to be realised and thought about in planning. This is a very tricky area and I’m currently researching more about how misconceptions arise (in evolutionary psychological terms) and if they can be overwritten or if the best we can hope for is suppression.

History of science

George Pidgeon pointed out that the history of science is important too in terms of the way our ideas have developed. In my opinion this is important for a number of reasons:

  1. It gives students a coherent narrative. Perhaps could even replace the “Big Ideas”
  2. Can preempt misconceptions: for every daft idea you hear in the classroom, there will be a towering figure from the history of science who believed it was true
  3. Gives a more nuanced view of “scientific enquiry” than the usual “let’s plan a practical!” approach

Ease of delivery/preparation

There is also the rather pedestrian concern of actual delivery. Any curriculum would need to be deliverable by all teachers and properly resourced and assessed (though assessment is decidedly less pedestrian).

Compromise position

In short, there is much to think about. I don’t yet know what my dream KS3 curriculum would be, but this is a good starting point. Presumably there would have to be a compromise at some point – you can never please everyone!

 

 


(1) The background to this is that our department’s KS3 coordinator is leaving and this provides a great opportunity to go back to the drawing board. My recent thinking on this pays some debt to Michael Fordham’s piece. I am also aware that there is a gibongous amount of literature on curriculum design. I’m just a teacher though, so I have raised issues here as I see them.

(2) the Ten Principles of Science Education section is highly objectionable

The power of “by”

Quick heads-up: this blog uses a lot of technical jargon that you may be unfamiliar with. The jargon springs from the work of Doug Lemov and Paul Bambrick-Santoyo, and if you wish to know more, there is a great summary of all the terms used here.

Which action step is better?

On the surface, there isn’t much of a difference between them. Action steps are all about actions, and the actions in both are pretty much identical (if you aren’t familiar with Ratio click here, and if the various bullet points mean nothing to you click here).

Despite the similarity, the key difference is in the framing. The first action step is a list of things to do, but those things aren’t anchored in any kind of meaning or rationale. Why do we go to Pastore’s Perch? What’s the point of Being Seen Looking? For what reason is an intervention more effective if it has the least invasiveness?

Though it could be the case that the person issuing the action step discusses the purposes and rationales of the individual steps, that rationale isn’t baked in. Someone who is working on the action step will potentially forget the long conversations around how an invasive intervention affects the concentration of other students or why narration of the positive is better than normalising the negative, thereby turning the completion of the action step into something robotic. That’s not necessarily a bad thing – I would rather have a teacher who does these things without fully appreciating the reasons than one who doesn’t do them at all – but there are obvious and important upsides to giving the purpose of the action step a heavier weight:

  1. Purpose is empowering, and people who understand the why of what they are doing are more bought in: they want to carry it out because they know it will make things better for them and their students.
  2. Bleeding over: the first action step is heavily tied to the Do Now, and it would be easy to keep these actions as related to the Do Now and nothing else. The second one frames the Do Now as just another point in the lesson where you need to think about Ratio, and this is how you carry that out. There are other parts of the lesson where you need to do this too, and even though they aren’t part of this particular action step, you can start to think about how these actions will apply during independent practice or handing out mini-whiteboards or getting ready to review student work or any other part of your lesson.
  3. Critique and creativity: a teacher who understands the purpose of these actions is better able to critique them and give me push-back, leading to richer conversations and mutual improvement. They are also primed to innovate and improve on these actions, to find ways of honing and tweaking them to suit their classroom and their style. Provided the actions meet the stated purpose, innovation around them is of benefit.
  4. Even if there were no tangible difference in outcomes between the two action steps, I believe that people knowing why we do what we do is an intrinsic good – a worthy pursuit in and of itself.

Part of the journey I have been on recently has been homing in on the concrete. I am trying to work with teachers to help them get better in the classroom, but I can only do that if I am hyper specific about what I think they need to do differently. Feedback like “differentiate more” or “use more assessment for learning” or “improve the pace of your lesson” doesn’t communicate what people actually need to do – a concrete direction is needed.

Equally, I don’t want to be prescriptive or dictatorial – I’m not a power tripper -, I want people to understand why I think the things I do.

In my bid to marry concrete actions with a wider sense of purpose, I now use “the power of by.” This is where I state what the purpose is, followed by the word “by,” followed by the action(s):

Improve Participation Ratio during questioning by using Cold Call

Sometimes there will only be one action, sometimes more, but I now use “the power of by” in a range of contexts, with some examples below. Please do remember that these are the product of a long conversation, so any terms which may be unfamiliar are clearly (I hope) explained and exemplified prior to deploying them in an action step. There is often co-planning and practice as well to accompany the step. The point is they aren’t standalone, but are part of a process.

As ever, I am indebted to those who have come before me, and you can read a little bit more about how I first learnt to write action steps here.

Behaviour

E.g. 1

Improve the clarity of your instructions by

  • Front-Loading the Means of Participation
  • Numbering the steps
  • Asking students to repeat the steps

E.g. 2

Eliminate Sins of Enthusiasm by

  • Finding David, Dylan and Declan before next lesson
  • Explaining to them why SOEs are a problem
  • Emphasising how happy you are that they are engaged
  • Stating the consequences if they continue
  • Calling home to explain the situation
  • Challenging non-compliance in the lesson

Basic teaching and learning stuff

E.g. 3

Gather data about student performance in Do Now by

  • Circulating during the Do Now
  • Checking in detail at least five students’ work
  • Sampling multiple responses for more open questions
  • Asking students to raise hands if they got x question right

E.g. 4

Increase clarity when modelling equations by

  • Aligning all values
  • Using ruled lines and leaving gaps between lines
  • Using one additional colour only for the directional arrows

E.g. 5

Gauge reliability of 50:50 or multiple choice questions by

  • using Stretch-It

E.g. 6

Improve narrative flow of your explanations by

  • Always moving from familiar knowledge to unfamiliar knowledge
  • Building your graphs from scratch

E.g. 7

Increase participation ratio during questioning by

  • Stepping away from the speaker
  • Asking students to check the speaker for mistakes
  • Using Cold Call pick-ups

More advanced teaching and learning stuff

These ones are a bit more “out there,” but please note that they are always accompanied by an in-depth conversation, examples and often co-planning.

E.g. 8

Clarify the boundary conditions of categories like chemical reactions by

  • Including non-examples
  • Anchoring your examples and non-examples within one representation

E.g. 9

When making comparisons, emphasise similarities and differences by:

  • Eliminating surface differences
  • Retaining one difference only
  • Verbally noting the similarities and differences

E.g. 10

Anchor abstractions in the concrete by:

  • Adding terse written information to abstractions
  • Keeping multiple representations present on the board at the same time

Leadership

I do a bit of leadership and curriculum coaching too and I’ve found that this style works in that context as well. As with the examples above, the list of actions are not exhaustive, there are plenty of other actions that might fulfil the same purpose, but you need to start somewhere.

E.g. 11

Increase congruence of lesson activities with curriculum by

  • Specifying the Core Questions a lesson is set to address
  • Ensuring ever CQ is embedded into the explanations
  • Removing activities that do not relate to the CQs

E.g. 12

Build a culture of retrieval in the department by

  • Investigating a suitable platform for students to use for home learning
  • Dedicating department meetings to discussing and modelling the first five minutes of a lesson
  • Centrally monitoring issuing of retrieval homeworks
  • Building a referral and support mechanism for students who are struggling with the program

E.g. 13

Increase inclusivity of department meetings by

  • Removing items from the agenda if they don’t apply to >80% of the team
  • Inviting opinions through pointed questions rather than general ones (“what do you think?”)

So there we have it: the power of by. A simple way to intertwine concrete, actionable steps with a grander sense of purpose and meaning.

Your action step:

When writing action steps, marry the purpose of the step with the actions required by always employing the power of by.

Cutting workload – a couple of ideas

There isn’t a huge amount of slack in your average teacher’s day. There’s always a lot to do in a job that generally seems to be moving too fast. Teachers work long hours, and though things have improved over the last few years, at the best of times teachers are still working around 50 hours a week, with sizeable chunks done on the weekend.

People have tried all sorts of things to cut workload down, and I wanted to start with things that, in my experience, don’t help:

  1. Telling people to go home early/closing the school at 5.30pm: if people have a task that will take x hours to do, you don’t help them by limiting their ability to actually do it. This should be obvious, but the number of times I have been told “don’t stay too late!” or even, to my shame, said it myself to colleagues, should put paid to the idea of it being obvious.
  2. Banning emails on the weekend: same as above, people have a certain amount of work to do. Some will want to do it in “school hours,” some will want to do it in their own time.
  3. Window dressing: this is where you run an INSET or a CPD twilight focussed on teacher-wellbeing, including yoga or pottery making or a stand-up comedian or whatever. This doesn’t help anyone. The majority of time people don’t have poor wellbeing at work because they’re really missing a bit of yoga in their life. It’s because they have too much to do, or are doing things that they think are pointless. That isn’t to say these things aren’t valuable – my school has optional after school yoga, staff choir and the like – but they are no replacement for actually getting serious about cutting things out.

As such, the way I see it, there are two main, overarching issues to do with workload:

  1. Teachers have too much stuff to do
  2. Teachers don’t see value in the things they are doing

Most of the discourse around workload should therefore be about finding things to cut out of a teacher’s busy day, which necessitates finding the things which have the smallest impact on student outcomes and, just, well…ditching them. In parallel to that runs the ongoing conversation of “why do we do this?” If you have a good answer to that, it needs to be communicated. If you don’t, then it needs to be ditched.

Having been a head of department for a year and a half now, it’s a good time for me to pause and think about the things we have done as a department to cut workload down, what’s worked, what hasn’t worked, and whether or not I need to do more. None of the below is definitive, but it may give you a couple of ideas.

Centralised resources

I don’t want teachers to have to spend hours planning from scratch, so they are provided with high quality resources in the form of booklets for every subject they will teach. The booklets aren’t a straightjacket, and our department T&L policy says something along the lines of “you are welcome to use different resources, but they need to be at least as good as the centralised ones.”

At first I printed them for everybody too, but then a lot of them ended up not being taken and it was a waste of paper, so teachers do that themselves now. If someone asks me to print a stack for them I’ll happily do that.

Merciless folder curation

Part of the above is that teachers need to be able to readily identify the right resource. School hard drives are packed full of endless iterations of the same basic powerpoint or worksheet, each with a different initial or “V_7” at the end. This is madness and is a timekiller, as teachers have to hunt for a resource that works. It also means that teaching is being led by the question “ok, which resource do I think is good here?” as opposed to “what am I teaching today?”

As such, all main folders will have one or maybe two files (a booklet in Word and PDF or similar). There will also be a folder that says “other” or “archive” where people can dump their own stuff, but the main folders are kept clear. If I see someone has saved their own version into that folder they receive a marginally grumpy email, and a couple of days later I will delete the file if it hasn’t been moved. It’s not ok for one teacher’s workflow to increase another teacher’s workload.

Marking and data

We don’t do any comment based marking and don’t take books in (read here for more). As a school, we take data for students in Year 7-10 twice a year at their two assessment points. Year 11 is more frequent. We don’t do written reports. Nobody’s complained.

Trello + Teams

I wrote a bit about our department’s use of Trello here, but it really is a gamechanger for organisation and operational anxiety. Everything is in the same place, double entry is rare, everybody knows what is expected of them and how to execute their role etc.

Following Chris Baker’s excellent blog about instant messaging, we moved to Teams for all our departmental communications. We have channels for every year group (including all teachers of that year group), general dept stuff, curriculum/T&L and then for each shared class (which only has those teachers and me in it). It works pretty well and communication seems a lot more rapid and open this year.

Admin policy

All of the above is codified into an admin policy which sits in the drive. It was written collaboratively, and everyone had the chance to discuss and suggest amendments and the like. Everybody is expected to know and adhere to the admin policy, and it makes the culture of the department explicit. It’s especially useful for new teachers to the department and you can check it out here:

Signalling whole school markers and deadlines

Something I wasn’t good enough at this year (and I am grateful to a colleague for pointing this out to me) was signalling whole school markers like when Year 11 exams are or whatever. Signal these too long in advance and people think “ah that’s ages away”, cut it too close and people can’t prepare. So I need to get into a better habit of signalling things like this. For departmental deadlines, we use Trello so that’s pretty clear as I organise the list in date order, so everyone can see what needs to get done first etc.

Centralising behaviour issues

This is complicated because it is highly dependent on the whole school policy, but I try to take as much as I can away from staff without undermining them.

Narrate the positive

Hi all,

Just wanted to publicly thank Dave who emailed me earlier in the week to ask if anyone needed help getting all their Year 11 papers marked by the deadline. Please do remember they need to be done by XXX and I know everyone is really busy now, so if you are going to struggle to hit it please do let me know as soon as possible, it’s easier to know in advance so we can all help each other if needed!

Best,

A

Is a good email to send. By “narrating the positive” (i.e. what Dave did) you normalise a collaborative atmosphere and a positive culture. You also have to actually mean it. If someone emails back and says “yeah I’m really struggling” then you need to follow through, and either take the papers away from their pile, or find something else to cut. After that point it’s a good idea to figure out exactly what is going wrong, but the time to ask those questions is once the immediate need has been met. On a couple of occasions colleagues have told me they are struggling, and on each occasion I asked them to write down all the things that are causing them stress and then we could meet and go through the list. On both occasions we have managed to find a way for those colleagues to have a more positive experience with their work by changing some organisational practices.

Explain the purpose

This kind of ties into the above. Often, you have a particular policy that doesn’t seem to make sense, and then people resent having to do work towards it. A good example here would be assessment points: our academy chain has fixed assessment points with common exams across all the schools. Of course, in our curriculum we aren’t quite at the same point as everyone else, and it feels daft setting an exam for students which contains content that they haven’t learnt yet. However, when you look at the advantages of the system which is that you can actually make a normal distribution of results due to thousands of data points as well as feed off the whole school culture on assessments and revision pushes then it feels a bit different. Still may not be “ideal”, but nothing ever is, and it’s a lot easier to work towards something when you understand the benefits there will be to you and/or your students.

Replace “don’t stay too long” with “what have you still got to do?”

The answer to that puts you in a position to actually help. It could be something the person doesn’t need to do, or you could take away from them, or could be amalgamated into something else or whatever. Similarly before breaking up for the holidays don’t say “remember to take a break!” say “are you planning on doing any work? What work?” and then following the exact same process as above.

Emails

I got a cool idea off Stuart Lock for solving the “emails on weekend/holiday” conundrum, and added the below to the start of my emails in those periods:

The point here is to build a positive culture around emails. If you have a toxic email culture, dictating to people “no emails at time X” isn’t the way to deal with that culture. It might be a part of the way you deal with it, but the main thing would need to be asking questions like “ok, why am I sending this email at all? Is it crucial? Is it a task somebody doesn’t actually need to do? Is it going to cause the recipient anxiety? Is it going to a bunch of people who don’t need to read/action it? Could it be added to the school notices instead?” (this section generated the most talk online, I wrote a longer response here: https://twitter.com/adamboxer1/status/1343681803262046208?s=20)

At my school we work damn hard and get a lot of stuff done, but I think it’s good to note that it is now the tenth day of the holidays and I haven’t received a single work email. Not because they are banned in this period – they aren’t – but because we have built a positive culture around work and emails.


Anyway, that’s all the stuff that I do. I’m sure there are more things I could do, and please let me know if you’ve seen or heard of a great idea that you think others would find helpful. Oh, and if working in a school and a department that takes workload seriously interests you, did I mention we are hiring?

What knowledge matters? Being realistic about gaps and recovery

I delivered some CPD tonight on recovery curriculums that I thought I’d post here. I’m flat out of energy so my annotations here are limp at best. Sorry in advance. Still, might be helpful.

In advance of the session I read a lot of articles about science recovery curriculums. All of them featured magic time bending. Lots of magic time bending. Some schools are miraculously managing to fit six months of year 10 content into three weeks at the start of year 11. Either they:

  1. Are magic time benders
  2. Do a terrible job under normal circumstances and waste loads of time
  3. Are talking nonsense

It’s particularly unedifying reading all the hot takes around about how Covid proves we need to do <<insert thing I’ve been banging on about for years>>. I’m much more interested in people changing their mind because of Covid. The below definitely builds on things I have thought and believed for a while, but the practical take home is something I have never done well enough and would like to think more about. So maybe I’m pointing the finger at myself too. I can live with that.

My argument starts with the below two pieces of knowledge.

These two pieces of knowledge belong together. We need to balance equations because of the conservation of mass. The conservation of mass is expressed in a balanced equation. But, and this is the key bit, plenty of students are blissfully unaware of that connection. They can balance equations, and they can explain and apply the conservation of mass, but they don’t know that one necessitates the other.

We can add more nuggets and see how things start to build up. Each piece examines a different aspect of the content, and each one might, or might not, be connected in the mind of the student. So one student might know A, B and C but only have B and C connected, another might know A, B and D and have A and B connected and so on.

The point here is that as the number of pieces of knowledge builds up, so do the possible combinations of knowing/not knowing as well as the connections between items. And thanks to Covid, we all know how exponentials work: you can end up with zillions of different combinations for any given class.

The logical corollary of this is that second sentence. It becomes close to impossible to reliably figure out which student knows which specific thing and has which connections. It’s so impossible as to be undesirable, and it’s for this reason that summative assessments don’t actually try to do this and things like QLA are a bit daft (as I have unedifyingly banged on about before).

So that strikes out a key plank of the whole recovery thing. It’s impractical, implausible and impossible to actually work out what a student knows to any kind of granular level. Furthermore, even if you could work it out, what are you going to do? You don’t have a magic computer that can tailor instruction to individual students’ knowledge webs. So why bother with the whole “big assessment to establish gaps” thing?

The next step in recovery curriculum thinking tends to be to identify the most important or highest leverage item in the syllabus, and spend time on that. The problem is, in science at least, there probably isn’t anything like that.

Anyone remember the question below?

4% of this exam was on this guy called Chadwick who, if the twitter storm after the exam was to be believed, nobody had ever heard of. Truth is, he was on the specification all along, but nobody taught him or bothered to learn him – assuming that it was so niche it just wouldn’t come up. Even tried and tested topics get asked in subtly different ways that tease at different strands of knowledge. We pay the brainboxes who write exams for a reason and – again in science at least – you can’t outsmart them by not teaching material that you think won’t come up. You’re just potentially screwing your students out of a bunch of marks.

I think instead we need a different approach to diagnosis and prioritisation, one that emphasises the difference between prior and prerequisite knowledge.

Let’s say you’re about to start a lesson on terminal velocity and you had the list of questions below. Which ones are actually important to your lesson today?

So in my opinion, the only ones that matter right now are:

All the others are important, but you can actually understand terminal velocity without them. If you don’t understand the nature of air resistance or friction you can’t really understand terminal velocity, as you can’t understand why the sizes of those forces would change as velocity changes. And the difference between speed and velocity is also pretty fundamental here (though actually looking at it again I think it’s arguable).

My point isn’t that the others aren’t important, but they aren’t required to understand terminal velocity. This is what we call prerequisite knowledge: the stuff without which you cannot access today’s learning. This is opposed to prior knowledge: stuff which students should know because you’ve taught it to them, and might be related to the stuff you are teaching today, but not strictly necessary.

If you’re a science teacher, here’s a fun activity to try – which of the below are prior and which are prerequisite?

To be clear, I’m not saying prior knowledge isn’t important. It is important. Your students need to know it. They just may not need to know it today. I’m going to say that again before someone pitchforks me on Twitter:

And, perhaps more importantly, you need to be strategic. Let’s say you’ve planned a lesson on topic B. In your questioning you find out that students don’t know topic A, which is prior knowledge, so not prerequisite. If you decide to go back over it and cover it then you:

  1. Push off carefully laid plans, which won’t be implemented as well second time around because of the time lag from when you first planned them
  2. End up doing a worse job teaching topic A than you would if you took some time to plan it properly

Doing something ad hoc is always going to be worse. On the hoof explanations, checks for understanding and practice sets are always going to be worse than carefully planned ones. What will end up happening is you will do a five minute verbal recap of topic A then go “right does that make more sense?” see a load of nodding heads, move on to topic B and find a week later that you wasted five minutes of your students’ time because you didn’t properly explain, check for understanding and give out practice sets.

So we end up having to take very different approaches to these very different types of knowledge items:

In more depth:

Sadly, you aren’t going to have time to go over every topic. You’d better start accepting that now. Unless, of course, you have magic time. Being really charitable, we can call additional after school sessions and intervention and things as “magic,” which means that you may have time to revisit things. It’s up to you how to prioritise the time you have, but if something is prior, not prerequisite, the key is to plan it for another time, not today.

Track 2 is a lot harder. As a teacher it feels really difficult to push things off like this but, in my opinion, it’s got to get done. If you identify a gap in prior knowledge, your first thought should be “ok, I will have to do that another time”, and then you go back to track 1. But if something is prerequisite, then it’s track 2 and you need to do something about it right now. The key here is to think about that before the lesson. Sit down and really try to figure out “which questions do they need to be able to answer before they can access today’s learning?” and ask those questions. Then be ready for the eventuality that they can’t answer them. Re-model. Re-teach. Check for understanding. Give practice. So long as you’re prepared, it should work.

So that’s that. You might know all this already, you might do all this already – good for you. But it’s definitely something I need to think about more. I also realise I should have published this six weeks ago but hey, I don’t have a magic time bending machine.

My CPD videos

The last few months have been pretty diabolical for me professionally, but one of few good things to come of this whole Covid mess has been the proliferation of free online CPD. The CPD circus is a market in need of disruption, and I’m hoping that going forwards things can change for the better.

I’m lucky enough to have been able to play my part in delivering CPD, and I’ve linked to the four videos I’ve produced below. I’m not against taking requests, so if there is something that people want me to have a crack at I can try and have a go towards the end of August.

Greenshaw National INSET day: Getting better faster, how to actually improve teachers

Link here

ResearchEd Home: Dual coding for teachers who can’t draw

Link here 

United Learning: Behaviour management

Link here

ResearchEd Norwich: Ratio, The highest leverage classroom strategy you’ve probably never heard of

Link here

CogSciSci: Embedding equations into the curriculum

Link here

I want to go back to school

It’s currently eight minutes past eleven at night. I finished my day’s work about forty five minutes ago. My heavily-pregnant wife works for the NHS, so every day she goes up to our loft at 8am and works through till 4pm. Meanwhile, I look after our three year old daughter. At 4, we swap over. I start ploughing through my emails, trying to complete the myriad jobs and tasks that are the day to day bread and butter of a head of department; managing my team, supporting them to set work, setting work for my own students, tracking which students are working and which ones aren’t, preparing a budget for next year, coordinating curriculum planning for next year, working towards our sixth form which is (supposed to be) opening in September, developing resources for use now and next year, chasing up students who need support or cajoling, answering queries about students from other teachers, from heads of year, from this, from that, from the other.

In the middle of that, I stop to help with bath and bed time, do the various chores and household tasks that build up, go shopping when we need to and so on and so forth. Then I go back to work again, aiming to finish by ten, but often going much later.

I’m also a teacher for the Oak National Academy, helping to provide distance learning to millions of students across the country. Therefore during the week I need to plan my lessons and develop my resources, have my work quality assured and peer-reviewed, do the same for my colleagues’ work, read up on the training and briefings that I can’t attend live and so on and so forth.

My wife doesn’t work Fridays, so she looks after our daughter then and I try and work all day to get a bit ahead of myself. Sundays I film all my lessons for Oak, which is both time consuming and exhausting. In total, that means I’m working a six day week, with four of those days done entirely in the evening, having spent the daylight hours trying to be as good a dad as I can be to my daughter.

I say all this not because I’m looking for pity. I’m fully aware of the fact that many have it significantly worse than we do. Both myself and my wife are – thank God – healthy, and we are both still gainfully employed. Believe me when I say that I count my blessings every day. I’m saying this because I want to make one point really clear: I want to go back to school. Desperately.

I love working and I know that I signed myself up for a career that isn’t easy even in the best of times. But I’m struggling now because it’s hard, and these times fall far deeper into the “worst of times” end of the spectrum. It’s hard to balance all those different jobs, to be a teacher in two schools, a head of department in one, a father and a husband at home – all at the same time, six days and six evenings a week. When school is on I can take hats on and off with ease, and I’m not burdened by the crushing guilt each day that I’m not being a good enough dad to my daughter. There’s a reason I chose to teach in secondary, and I love her to pieces but it’s a simple fact that I can’t provide the education or social interactions that she got at her childminder. My head knows that I’m doing a good job, but my heart aches for her – for the friends she doesn’t see or no longer remembers, for her grandparents she can’t hug, for the strangers she refuses to wave to like she used to. I know she’ll be fine, but it’s hard. And in among that, competing for legroom in my emotional energy reserves, is the nagging guilt that that I’m letting my own students down. I know there isn’t much more I could be doing, but that doesn’t really help. The feeling is still there, the certainty that for my toughest students – the ones that worked so hard to catch up with their peers – for them I’m not doing enough, and the gap will widen.

So I want to go back to school. Because when school is on I know I’m really good at my job. I’m organised at work, I can get stuff done and I can do what I love doing – teach students – and I can do it well. And then I can get home and I don’t need to worry about whether my girl is getting a good deal during the day, and I can be a good dad and husband and help out doing all the things that need doing.

I hope you believe me then, that you trust me when I say I want to go back to school.

And I hope you’ll trust me – and this is the important bit – when I say that every teacher I know and have spoken to wants exactly the same thing. The emotions I feel are the same as any teacher’s. We are a madly driven profession, one wildly and chaotically in love with its work, one which feels the strongest pulls of vocation – of being called to labour. Whether things should be like that is a different question – I’m not here to discuss the teacher-as-martyr complex and how we go about building a sustainable profession. The simple fact is, we want to go back to school. I’d be surprised if you found a teacher who didn’t.

The problem is, just because I want something, doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do. We live in more complicated times than that, and however much I wish the virus was all gone and finished and cleared up and over and into the green and into Covid Alert Level 1 – it isn’t. And the question of when we go back is not answered by assessing how much I want to go back. If it were, we would have been back six weeks ago. The question of when to go back is answered by assessing whether or not it is safe. Safe for teachers, safe for non-teachers, safe for students, safe for the people the students live with and could carry a deadly virus to. Is it safe to go back? Whether or not I want to go back has nothing to do with it.

So when I see members of the chattering classes saying things like

Or articles like this

Or comments like this

Or front pages of massive national newspapers like this

mail

I get worried. I get really worried. Lord knows I’ve had my problems with the Unions and have taken many a public position against them. But isn’t it possible that the reason why unions and teachers are saying we shouldn’t go back isn’t because they don’t want to – as I’ve said, we want to go back to work – but because we don’t think it’s safe yet? You might disagree, and think it is safe, but you surely have to at least acknowledge that it’s possible someone could disagree with you, not because they are some feckless over-unionised work-shy wastrel, but because they don’t think it’s safe? I am “stepping up.” I am working hard. I don’t need “R and R.” I am quite “brave” enough, thanks. I don’t much fancy the idea of “being a hero.” And I really, really don’t like being accused of advocating “child abuse” when I’m worried about the safety of my school community. And if I’ve read the guidelines and suggestions and FAQs and policy documents and thought “oh boy they haven’t thought this through,” it’s not because I’m enjoying my lockdown sipping lychee martinis on the veranda and don’t want to go back to year 10 period 5 on a Thursday, but because I don’t think it’s safe. A friend and colleague told me that they cried after seeing one of those tweets that I quoted. That they felt they had already given so much, and then to be accused of obstructing the one thing they cared about most – their students’ welfare – it’s just too much.

So here’s the question: can you acknowledge that teachers know a little something about children and schools and might have a different opinion to you, an opinion that is not based on 1980’s union belligerence but is based on expertise and knowledge? I hope you can.

I hope you can listen to teachers. I hope you can listen to them without rejecting their voices out of hand. Because if you do reject them, if you ignore their experience and skill and fail to invite them to the table, then some very bad things could happen. And again, urging caution and hesitation rips at the very fabric of my being because, as I might have mentioned, I really, really, want to go back to school.

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