The current OFSTED-driven conversation around curriculum rationale offers a timely platform for me to launch my manifesto for 2020! Step aside literacy and reading for pleasure* because here are two central foundations of our subject to take into the new year: English grows empathy and the magical power of seeing text as a construct.
The truth is, 2020 Britain is confusing place to be entering. As we catapult through yet another election, the rhetoric from each angle of the discourse is increasingly combative and the state of society in the UK is on the forefront of conversations across the country. What a time to empower young people to be engaged and informed about society and able to reach their own opinions. To achieve this, let’s grow empathy and lift the lid on seeing text as a construct.
*disclaimer: I write this very glibly, knowing full well that these words would trigger my own inner English-teacher-anger…
English grows empathy:
Often in texts, we see ourselves, or at least elements of ourselves, mirrored at a safe distance. Through the buffering security of characterisation, we can observe, criticise, comment, cheerlead, question… But literature also brings previously unimagined experiences closer to us. Through texts, we can live the experiences of others. We can try out a whole new character in an imagined space, and be in their world long enough to see how it feels. Literature changes us – we steal from the ways of our literary heroes, suffer alongside their sadness, revel in their victories, endure their unravellings and defeats. We experience things beyond our experiences and this provides a powerful practice ground for empathy.
In fact, I’d suggest that we actively develop empathy through the worlds of the texts we experience and the complex and humanly-fragile characters and situations that writers pose to us. Most English teachers in the country will at some point have taught Of Mice and Men; how often does a class’s journey with Curley’s Wife shift from ridicule through hatred to some form of nuanced pity as they move through the text? Or Lady Macbeth? Even the consideration of what may have generated such pantomime cruelty can uncover the possibility of deep-seated vulnerability, fragility and lost maternal desires. But the reader’s outcome, or even judgement, of these characters is not the point; it’s the process we go through to get there that I find invaluable to personal growth. The study of English offers a place for such developmental explorations and allows us to radically challenge our own perceptions, biases, blindspots and realities. It is a wonderfully subjective space, a ring-fenced grey area for exploration and shifting perception, where emotive response is not judged as right or wrong. To me, this only further foregrounds the importance of text choice for a rich English curriculum. Whose experience are we exposing students across their 4-18 journey in an English classroom?
I for one want 2020 to be an infinitely more empathetic place than 2019: let’s walk away from combative debate and enter into dialogic discussion; let’s drop non-negotiable absolutes and welcome critical change through listening. This requires greater empathy.
The magical power of seeing text as a construct:
You know that big reveal in The Wizard of Oz, right? When Dorothy and co notice that behind the green curtain, the ‘great and powerful Oz’ is just a little old man in a suit. ‘Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain’, he shouts, desperate to keep his pretence alive…but to no avail. They’ve seen the truth. And as a result, they can never accept the old lie again. This reveal, the pulling back of the curtain, is the turning point that sets in motion the eventual victory of our hero and her friends in their perilous world. It throws a new light on their reality, not just for that moment and the falsehood of the wizard himself, but on every ‘truth’ they see about their worlds and themselves.
So what if, in the study of English, this big reveal is the simple concept of ‘text as a construct’. Once you see behind the ‘green curtain’ of writing, once you have that startling realisation that the writer is crafting, controlling, distorting your experience, you won’t settle for mere acceptance of text as reality again. All English teachers know very well that moment of teaching a text with an unreliable narrator, only for the class to call out every narrator for the next 9 months as unreliable. Aside: I’ve rediscovered this feeling for myself having spent 2019 binging a load of Agatha Christie novels and having the exact same response, fearing Christie’s deceptions, false clues and leads in every turn of the page: I trust NO-ONE.
It’s the same from the early reading experience of realising a character isn’t ‘real’ to the nuanced considerations of a writer’s word choice or narrative tells. When that green curtain is truly pulled back, our experience of literature becomes richer, more intense, more laden with meaning.
And on the cusp of our 2020 world, this goes beyond exploration of fiction. As English teachers, we have an opportunity (even a responsibility?), to see the pulling back of this curtain for any text as a central rationale for our trade. Remember, it throws a new light on their reality, not just for that moment and the falsehood of the wizard himself, but on every ‘truth’ they see about their worlds and themselves. So what if we can offer this to students? As the written and spoken word of the media shouts ‘pay no attention to that man behind the curtain’, continuing to craft, control and distort our acceptance of what is, we have a chance to skill up our students to see exactly that; to be aware of the constructed nature of all ‘text’ and give them a chance to question the very reality they are being sold.
We’re sitting in the afternoon sun in a corner classroom of our small East London secondary school, shading in segments of a giant colouring mat. S., a year 8 student in my coaching group, is matter-of-fact, but certain, her colouring pencil angrily working away at the smiling satsuma on the mat in front of us. I nod, but don’t speak. I’ve been working on my 1-1 coaching tirelessly for the past 4 months, trying to hone my listening, my questioning, my solution, opinion and agenda-free role. It’s pretty hard. We’ve had a year of relatively dead-end conversations already, me blurred with opinions, full of well-intentioned beliefs about what she needs, wants, should be or do, her happy to talk, but never really being heard. She continues.
He’s always picking on me and I don’t really know the reason why. I asked him why and he said something about how he always picks on everyone. This one day my whole group got a group star. He didn’t put my name on even though I am the group leader. It was one lesson when I put my hand up to ask a question and Mr B______ ignored me. Five seconds later, J______ put his hands up and Mr B_____ said something like ‘How could I forget you?’ and J_______ asked his question and Mr B______ answered it. I said ‘How comes you didn’t answer my question’. And afterwards he put my name on the bad side with no crosses and he was all like ‘Why are you shouting out’. It was ‘When was the best time to be a child’ project and we were asking questions on different children around the country and their toys and that. I was thinking he’s rude. Everytime I ask a question he says put my hand down but if it’s other people he will answer their questions.
I read back to her the verbatim narrative that I have just typed as she spoke, checking she is happy that I haven’t missed anything, or added anything she didn’t say. We stare at it together. We know what we are looking for, as we’ve practiced this now several times. In our coaching group, we’ve been looking at the defining narratives our opinions give us, how these imprints of the past can control our present, and how, by removing the opinion to leave only the facts of a situation, we can throw a new light on a context and see it differently. She takes the lead, talking through and crossing out all opinions and feelings.
Mr B_______ hates me. He’s always picking on me and I don’t really know the reason why. I asked him why and he said something about how he always picks on everyone. This one day my whole group got a group star. He didn’t put my name on even though I am the group leader. It was one lesson when I put my hand up to ask a question and Mr B_______ ignored me. Five seconds later, J______ put his hands up and Mr B______ said something like ‘How could I forget you?’and J______ asked his question and Mr B______ answered it. I said ‘How comes you didn’t answer my question’. And afterwards he put my name on the bad side with no crosses and he was all like ‘Why are you shouting out’. It was ‘When was the best time to be a child’ project and we were asking questions on different children around the country and their toys and that. I was thinking he’s rude. Everytime I ask a question he says put my hand down but if it’s other people he will answer their questions.
From this we talk about the shifted context, and change in meanings she attaches to this incident and therefore their relationship. I manage, for the short 20 minutes of our conversation, to ask, not tell, and call myself out internally when I catch myself listening to my own thoughts and opinions rather than her words.
She sighs. He doesn’t hate me, does he?, she mutters, more to herself than me. I need to tell him how I feel about this.
In that moment, it was a small breakthrough for S.; a dissipation of pent up anger, and a way forward. But for our coaching relationship, now almost 3 years on from this, and for my listening skills, it was huge. And the learning? The power of no agenda.
Many of the UK’s schools, and it seems inner city ones in particular, appear to agree that behaviour holds the key to successful teaching and transformational outcomes. Repeatedly, we hear teachers and politicians speak on the need for more stringent behaviour systems. The extreme end of this spectrum sees arguments for schools where behaviour is micromanaged to the action and even calls for beginner teachers to use scripted lessons so they can focus on behaviour management until they have that ‘toolkit’ as an automatic set of skills. The issue this raises for me is that a developmental, learning culture and ‘behaviour’ often work in direct contradiction with each other; a school which says it wants to develop inquisitive, independent thinkers, yet develops teachers who control behaviour tightly, is screaming a ‘silent’ undermining counter-argument to their own cultural goals. With their words, their attributes and mottos they say ‘we want young people to think and act for themselves’ but with their actions, they say ‘we want young people to follow the establishment, not question it’. And in a world where the establishment is becoming increasingly terrifying, we need to be extremely wary of this ‘silent’ argument that we make to young people. Of course, as teachers, we have an important responsibility to develop young people’s social skills, thoughtfulness and consideration of others. But instead of ruling by control, micromanagement and restriction, shouldn’t we be developing young people who can think, question and challenge for themselves within a realm of humanity and integrity?
In fact, when we focus on developing culture rather than controlling behaviour, we do far more for personal growth and development. As I’ve deepened my thinking on this, I’ve moved away from classroom rules and behaviour contracts and towards thinking about how everything I do makes an argument for cultural growth. What does the way I set up a task say about the wider culture of my classroom? How do I interact with students and challenge actions that contravene wider cultural goals (both mine and theirs)?
The difference for me, I believe, has come in the lens I view my classroom through when I think in terms of culture rather than behaviour. Behaviour is inward looking, shutting down and curtailing; culture is outward looking, focusing on what can, not what can’t. Behaviour is about control; culture is about community, crew, togetherness. Behaviour is about imposed beliefs; culture is about shared beliefs. Behaviour is about me and them; culture is about us. Behaviour is about stopping; culture is about doing.
Vitally, considering culture over behaviour is a shift in thinking more than a shift in actions. It doesn’t mean a classroom becoming a wild, unsafe space. On the contrary, it means a classroom being a place where cultural norms are cultivated and fiercely, consistently protected. So yes, that ‘toolkit’ mentioned above is of course a key element of pedagogy – I challenge, hold to account, restore and resolve as much as I always did, if not more – but what I protect, cultivate and underline are much more purposeful and positive.
Fighting the silent arguments
On a practical level, the question I would pose to teachers over behaviour management and expectations in their classroom is simply, ‘why?’ What is the purpose behind the rules you impose and what ‘silent’ counter-arguments is imposing those rules making?
Cultural development comes through everything: curriculum design, interactions with students and teachers, group norms and expectations, lesson and activity design, experiences, assessment…the list goes on. For example, with my current year 11 class, who this week sit their final GCSE English exams, I have spent 2 years crafting a culture where risk taking and independence of thought are central to everything we do, and interpretation is king.
I had taught the group in year 8 and then not in year 9, picking them up again at the start of year 10. My cultural vision (a culture where risk taking and independence of thought are central to everything we do, and interpretation is king) was built out of where I wanted them to be as students of English by now (June 2018), as I leave them for their next steps. My starting point as I planned for their year 10 was to ‘break’ my own norms of the classroom, questioning everything and making practical decisions against my cultural vision, stripping my thinking back to the class and an empty room. This meant reconsidering everything: the room set up, the use of a board, the ‘front’ of the classroom, the use of seating plans, how I mark and give feedback, my role within lessons, the structure of our terms/our year, what we spend our time doing. From this, I then set myself a short list of strict ‘freeing limitations’ to disrupt my own ways of working and my own contradictory silent counter-arguments. They were:
There is no front to the learning space. Lessons take place in the round.
In lessons, I am part of the group; I do everything they do.
We won’t use the projector.
We will study a text together, that none of us have prior knowledge or experience of.
I strictly worked to these limitations for 2 full terms. It was fascinating. The limitations themselves forced me into fresh thinking and constant questioning. Of course, being in a circle and having no projector is not always the best way to teach, and neither is selecting a text I don’t have any prior knowledge of and intentionally avoiding learning about it in advance, but it made me rethink so many of the things that I had just done without thinking previously: the ‘silent arguments’ I was making by setting up my classroom in a certain way, and the pre-confirmed ideas about education that I was reconfirming in doing so.
Regarding that class, the ‘freeing limitations’ led to a place where we spent (for the whole 2 year course) much of our week sat in a circle, or in self-selected chosen analysis groups; where I regularly paired or group-wrote or discussed with students; where I wrote essays and exams with them, and we had brilliantly challenging debates over each other’s interpretations and ideas; where we comparatively assessed all our analysis, including mine; where we invested (really invested) in reflecting on how as much as what.
It was a flat classroom, with no hierarchy of ideas. When anyone threatened the development of risk taking or independence, they apologised to the circle, not to me. And I was a guardian of this culture, not a controller of behaviour.
For my teaching more broadly, the impact has also been significant (and ever evolving). I currently plan around notes, not slides. In lessons, I only project something if there is something we all really need to see – I ‘teach’ from a clipboard, not a board. Most of my lessons use the circle as the norm, and as a habit now I do tasks that students do, including often (though not always) homework. And more than anything, I currently design a classroom around what I want us to be; behaviour is about stopping; culture is about doing.
I’ve just spent 3 days at Next Jump, a tech company based in London, NYC and Boston, on their intense, immersive and infinitely fascinating Leadership Academy. There are 2 things you should know about Next Jump before reading this blog:
they love tech
they want to change the world by transforming workplace culture
There is so much that I have taken away from this incredible experience, and so many approaches, tools and rituals that were striking. But for me what was really fascinating is the ‘riverbed’ of the culture; the slow-moving, ingrained cultural values beneath everything that is done that are constantly reinforced, deliberately practiced and habitualised by the aforementioned approaches, tools, rituals. And I think that to really learn from this experience and work out what to apply to our own organisational culture, it is these underlying cultural design principles that we need to interrogate.
Here are four of these underlying beliefs that really resonated with me:
1. We are what we practice: I had heard a fair bit about Next Jump before attending the Academy, but what I hadn’t appreciated, and what really struck me from very start of the first day, was the absolute belief in the power of practice.
The organisation builds constant opportunities for staff to practice everything, from technical skills, through organisational and leadership experiences to giving/receiving feedback and being more empathic/less arrogant/more confident/less loud/less quiet (delete as appropriate!). In fact, almost everything they do is designed as an opportunity to practice. This training ground mentality means staff are constantly exercising reflection and development. They are, as we say at school21, ‘comfortable in the uncomfortable’, always working in their ZPD and therefore always learning. In line with this, Next Jump’s hiring approach sees them recruit for coachability, hiring for learner mindset, rather than expert mindset.
One of the tools which is a very noticeable face of their feedback culture is the app that Next Jumpers use to give instant anonymous feedback on meetings, presentations and other working interactions. This was something I had been a little sceptical of before seeing it in action, as I worried that it was a bit of a blunt instrument for critique and ran the risk of reducing face-to-face feedback and talk around development. Again though, the main purpose of this tool is practice; it is of course a means of giving and receiving feedback, but it is also, and more importantly, a tool of deliberately practicing both of these things. We saw this particularly in action in 10x (presentations of personal growth) and Throwdowns (presentations on current projects), where all Next Jumpers give their feedback on the app following the presentation, but then experienced feedbackers (in role as judges) give their critique publicly, modelling best practice and allowing other staff to compare their comments to that of experts in giving feedback; it’s another mode of practice.
2. The best companies have the best coaches: I am a massive fan of coaching, and my personal learnings as both a coach and a coachee whilst at school21 in the last 3 years have been genuinely transformational, so I was really interested in how central to their culture Next Jump hold coaching. On the first day of our visit, it became clear that company success is down to coaching; the best companies have the best coaches. And so, unlike many organisations who use coaching just for their senior leadership, Next Jump practice ‘coaching at scale‘. This model means that every member of the company from most junior employee to CEO is built into a coaching network, with a talking partner (TP) on the same level and coaching pair of talking partners above them who lead them though ‘situational workshops’ – effectively protocolled problem solving sessions that coaches TP pairs through concerns and blocks. There is also a wider network of additional coaching on top of this.
And why? Because Next Jump view coaching as recovery, the vital link between the ‘practice round’ and ‘feedback loop’ mentioned above. This is really interesting – as teachers we spend so much time moving between practice and feedback, but often don’t build in that ritualised ‘recovery’ element, which is vital for contextualising and evaluating/prioritising feedback and raising focus and accountability around growth.
3. Make hiding uncomfortable: There is feedback and feedback right? It’s something that (rightly) gets loads of air-time in education chat and it seems to have got some serious air-time in Next Jump too, where the conversation circles around what ‘bad’ actually is. We are societally conditioned to believe that negative feedback is ‘bad’, but Next Jump want to redefine what ‘bad’ is; bad to them is hiding, not seeking out feedback and not engaging with it. In practical terms, their feedback app (mentioned above) is one of the places where this design principle is actualised. On it, feedback is given via comments and a rating from 1, or ‘below expectations‘, to 4, or ‘far exceeds expectations‘ (see below for example and below for more thoughts on this). Firstly, they normalise to a 2 (meaning the majority of ratings will fall round here – this is when something meets the standards you would expect from them). Secondly, they don’t view getting 1s as bad; they view it as developmental. It feels aligned with Eduardo Briceño’s thinking on categorising mistakes in that it values ‘stretch’ errors and ‘ah-ha moments’ – Next Jump consider this ‘investment in loss’.
Thirdly, they view the directional movement in feedback over time as how ‘bad’ in assessed, rather than the individual feedback itself. This for me is the most interesting bit. One of the functions of the app allows them to map the these shifts in feedback received over time and they group staff into 4 ‘buckets’ based on this. Those trending up and those trending down (investment in loss) are viewed as learning. Those ‘flat’ (sitting on the same feedback ratings over time) and those ‘hiding’ are viewed as not learning. These stats are published; they want to make hiding uncomfortable. One new-ish Next Jumper we spoke to pointed to his name on the ‘hiding’ list saying “Basically I wasn’t putting myself into growth situations” before listing the opportunities he had since put himself into to ensure both risk and feedback.
4. Give away what you are good at: Just yes.
Next Jump’s next jump?
This experience really got me thinking deeply again about both coaching and feedback. Two particular thought/challenges/questions I’d pose to Next Jump on this are:
Do you have the right coaching model/underlying coaching beliefs to really push coachees to transformation? There are a couple of half-formed thoughts I have on this. Firstly, is the ‘backhand’ model the right view for transformational coaching? It feels like a deficit model believing that we are broken and need fixing. Our ‘backhand’ is an opinion. It is based in the past, in experiences, feelings, memories; opinions. The more we state it as fact, the more it becomes written into our narrative, defining our present (and future), and possibly then holding us in a cycle defined by what has gone before. What if you flipped this, and instead of stating your backhand (“I lack empathy.”) you explored something like your ‘winning strategy’: how you act in the present as a result of your opinions, preconceptions, experiences, the past. To me the other threats of the backhand are it becoming a way of ‘armouring up’/defending ourselves (“well, you know that’s my backhand”), an excuse (“I acted like that because I lack empathy”), or even a catch all cover for problems, which may have more nuanced root causes. I found over my 3 days it almost becomes something to lean in to – I felt more able to play up traits identified as a backhand as they were identified and openly spoken about. Is this ok? Then, I guess at it’s most extreme end, I’d worry about the backhand becoming what my coaching group recently defined during our explorations around masculinity as ‘Hollywood Vulnerability’; that single tear rolling down the cheek of the action hero as they ‘open up’. All very controlled, very staged; just enough ‘vulnerability’ to show willing, give the people their ’emotion’, but not really going to those most vulnerable places, the place we don’t want to see them and they don’t want to be. And for me, over the week, it was not the backhand, but the Talking Partners (TP) that were often the exposure of true vulnerability. One of the most powerful observations for me was they way every single Next Jumper lit up (literally became animated, gave a cute smile or laughed nervously) when talking about their TP. This is powerful; this is genuine vulnerability via investment in a relationship and so leaning in to risk. We are hard-wired to be able to self-abuse emotionally, but not to open ourselves to authentic, genuine recognition and gratitude. It takes a real growth mindset to authentically celebrate the success of another who is in a position of competition or comparison with us. And yet this is exactly what we saw in TP relationships at all levels in the company. Maybe explore the vulnerability that lies in this?
Is the sharing of ratings (the 1-4 mentioned above) restrictive to growth? Loads of interesting research has been done in teaching into the impact of formative and summative assessment in giving developmental feedback. Arguably most prominent is the work of Dylan William (It might be in William and Black’s Inside the Black Box, but I can’t find it…!) which found that students only made progress when given formative feedback alone; however developmental the comments, as soon as numbers, ratings, grades etc were introduced, improvement stopped. As I wrote a few months back in a blog around lesson feedback for teachers, we are fixated by data. I wonder if removing the numbers from the feedback app would increase response to feedback from it. Many Next Jumpers mentioned gravitating to the 1s in their feedback (as I did!) – would removing the numbers increase the takeaways and deepen engagement with what is actually being said?
Thanks so much to all the team at Next Jump: it has been a brilliantly provocative and inspirational experience. The rigourous talk felt wonderfully home-from-home from school21, but being immersed in the powerful culture was energising and challenging in a refreshing way and helped me see what we have from a new perspective.
Most KS3 English curriculums in the UK (world?) ask students to produce masses of pieces of writing that are essentially, pointless. Write a letter to your headteacher persuading her to remove the school uniform code. Why? Write an article arguing that the voting age should be reduced to 16. Why? Even (especially!) the new GCSE encourages this false world: ‘Write a story to be entered into a creative writing competition.’ Oh great, will it? No? Oh. Right.
The entire premise of writing (other than a personal diary, reflection or some creative doodlings) is that it has an audience other than the self. It is a means of communication, of sharing, it is a conversation, and to remove its audience is in effect to remove its entire purpose. And yet in schools we seem to ignore this central provider of purpose: audience.
This is particularly pertinent in the teaching of non-fiction writing. If you’re going to ask them to write a letter to the local council persuading them to improve road safety in the area, then actually write a letter to the local council. And post it. If you’re going to ask them to write an article for a teen magazine giving their opinion on exam stress, then actually write an article for a teen magazine. And submit it for publication. If you’re going to ask them to write a press release for the BBC reporting on a campaign to reduce air pollution in your local area, then actually write a press release to the BBC. And make sure it’s damned good, since it’s going to the actual BBC, to actually persuade them to cover the story, and inform the wider world of the air pollution threat in your area.
This genuine engagement doesn’t only obviously provide purpose and motivation to hone technical skills through vital repetition and mastery, but it also requires honing of authentic voice, that somewhat elusive element that tends to separate good non-fiction writing from really great non-fiction writing. To ask students to ‘sound more authentic’, as I find myself saying to my current year 11s in their English language exams, is amusingly ironic, and something we can develop much more effectively with actual authentic exposure to written purpose.
So how does this actually change day-to-day practice? Interestingly, the day when I began teaching non-fiction writing via authentic projects was the same day I stopped needing to teach the features and conventions of non-fiction writing styles. Instead of being pre-instructed in type, audience and purpose, through redrafting, critique and reflection, students began naturally questioning the phrasing and purpose of elements of writing and having coherent conversations about why a particular tone of features felt out of place or didn’t do the intended. I still remember the first time this happened, with a low literacy year 7 group writing some instructions for building a hedgehog habitat in local garden. I was initially taken aback by the natural drafting of clear ordered instructions using imperatives and time connectives. When one student suggested using modal verbs to offer options to the readers (OK, so he didn’t use the word ‘modal verbs’ – he didn’t know it – but he authentically worked out their purpose and value live whilst drafting) I was stunned; I haven’t taught a lesson on ‘how to write to instruct/advise/inform/explain/persuade (delete as appropriate) since.
And the only difference in set up? They had an audience; the ‘conversation’ of writing became 2 sided.
We’ve all been there. You’ve just finished your formal observation with the head teacher and your head of department. You’re sweaty, pretty hungry (you probably skipped lunch to print that resource out) and a bit drained. You feel a mixture of relief and worry over whether you moved that final section of the lesson on too late. Did you support Raheem enough? Was Leon’s thinking challenged in the right way? Could you have probed Ahmed more? You’re also pretty happy; it went well enough, and anyway, it’s over. You sweep the left over papers off the tables and put that dictionary back on the shelf. You open the window to let the heavy smell of collective 15-year-olds’ BO and knock-off Linx out into the afternoon air. Job done.
You head into the feedback session thinking through the WWWs and EBIs from your perspective. The doubts are now more pronounced and are worrying you. You didn’t support Raheem enough; you should have done more. How else could you have supported him? You should have paired Leon with someone else – this would have given him a different influx of ideas for his writing. The checklist could have had a more stretching challenge for Ahmed. You sit down, ready for the obligatory “how do you feel the lesson went”.
Instead, you get, “What would have happened if you had not done any of that? What if you’d just asked them to write, seen what happened, and built the lesson from there?” Well, this is a curveball…
This was the first formal observation feedback I received at School21, my small secondary school in East London.
Following that, it took me another two years more to completely let go of my previous mindset towards observations, born of 3 years of grading, OFSTED criteria and box ticking. Up to then, the most I’d stretched my thinking as a result of an observation was contemplating how to adapt my approach to suit who was observing me (literally ridiculous – I feel a bit sick writing this, but it’s the truth). Observations used to be about self-preservation, safety and striving to ‘succeed’. They were about me.
Fast forward 3 years and my annual formal ‘impact’ observation here at School21 last year came round as my year 9s were in the middle of typing up some story drafts for a collection of Dystopian short stories we were to be publishing in a week’s time. After a brief project meeting with the class, I would be working 1-1 with a couple of students on some punctuation rules whilst others would be getting their drafts typed up. I knew there would not be ‘rapid’ (or even any) progress for many students in that 50 minutes. I didn’t change a thing. I needed feedback on the thing that was worrying me the most about where I was at with PBL – that time spent thinking about something other than the learning (check out Daniel Willingham for some interesting and very relevant reasoning behind these worries). This wasn’t about me, this was about teaching.
That question posed to me in the first observation feedback at School 21 of course challenged how I taught writing, but more importantly it transformed the way I thought about feedback on my classroom practice; it questioned beyond the lesson and deep into my craft and it unlocked an openness around my classroom that I hadn’t felt before. It encouraged me to share my most vulnerable moments, my most uncertain experiments, the parts of my practice that need the most scrutiny and the thinking that I need to really be held to account for.
Good feedback is about flipping expectations, throwing a new context onto a current situation. It’s about probing to transformation, not making small changes. Sure, it’s incredibly useful to get the small stuff, those ‘marginal gains’ that often do make a significant difference day-to-day and to hear practical ideas. But it also needs to open the door to what we don’t know we don’t know. Good feedback should be planned and thought about; in that way it’s basically the same as teaching: designing questions that will drive deep and transformational thinking, facilitating ‘difficult’ conversation and challenging thesis with antithesis to provoke synthesis.
But good feedback goes beyond what is actually said; for significant impact and a truly deliberately developmental culture, it’s the wider school ethos around observation and feedback that needs crafting. We need to undo the oppressive grading culture of the wider teaching world and open up honest and challenging conversation around classroom practice. This means not grading (and not ‘grading-behind-closed-doors-but-pretending-not-to-grade’….actually not grading), designing a culture of near constant feedback that goes in all directions on all things (why not feed back on my assembly, my phone call to a parent, my chairing of a meeting, my restorative conversation with a student?) and building an organisation on kindness. Genuine, deep rooted kindness means we can be challenging.
Of course we need to differentiate feedback and personalise it to the stage and needs of the individual, but we need to open a true dialogue in feedback, and that doesn’t stop with “how do you feel the lesson went”.
“Look spaghetti arms. This is my dance space. This is your dance space. I don’t go into yours, you don’t go into mine. You gotta hold the frame.” As we embark on our new Maths/English project (to design a gate for Newham council to transform a currently neglected alleyway), collaboration with new partners and redefining project roles has forced me to think again about the reasons why roles are so important in taking on real world, authentic project and what makes a good role for students within a project. This got me thinking about Dirty Dancing‘s Johnny’s wise words to Baby as he taught her to dance; clarity of and respect for ‘dance space’ are vital for successful partnership. “You gotta hold the frame!”
I touched on this briefly in the concrete project, but don’t think I really deeply considered why clearly defined roles are so important within such projects. I think there are 3 main reasons:
1. Roles empower – Probably the most important for driving purpose, having a defined role, which no-one else will be doing, is hugely empowering. This empowerment seems to stem from trust and belief in your competence to carry out the role. In turn, this empowerment leads to self efficacy and increased creativity; with most roles, you will make of it much more than its basic ‘job description’. In this current project for example, if the site hasn’t been accurately measured by students, and their scaled designs aren’t accurate, the built gate will literally not fit the site and it be a huge waste of money and time. This trust is giving students huge empowerment; they’re now talking really creatively about how their gate can lead to regeneration of the wider space for residents.
2. Roles define, and definition leads to rigour – Having a role set out provides a really clear outcome or success criteria. Within a learning experience, this means we can control the ‘minimum’ or ‘central’ learning, or include some more defined content through definition of role. At a recent conference, the question posed at me by several people was ‘in an open ended, previously-unsolved-problem based project, how can you ensure that students learn what is intended- how do you maintain some curriculum content?’ And the answer to this I think lies with role. In our concrete project for example, our role as report writers meant we could stick to our learning of formal, informative non-fiction writing. For anything outside of our role (filming, online campaigns, designing an algebraic model etc) we used other people with their own clearly define roles. We stuck to our ‘dance spaces’ gaining the time and space for deep, rigorous learning.
3. Roles increase accountability – This is linked closely to the first of the reasons and probably best described annecdotally…returning to the example from above, in this current project, if the site hasn’t been accurately measured by students, and their scaled designs aren’t accurate, the built gate will literally not fit the site. But importantly, no-one else is going to be doing this job for them. If it’s wrong, it is quite simply wrong. There is no buffer, no backstop, no safety net. We won’t just hide this work if it doesn’t work out, and the teacher won’t complete it for them if it’s unfinished. It only takes one high stakes failure for students who don’t see it to realise the genuine accountability of learning in this way. We set our school up to offer these opportunities, with good after-care, through many different elements of school life; exhibition nights where student work is displayed, student led parent-teacher conferences instead of parents evenings led by a teacher and public speaking events for every student every year.
So in designing a project for students, I think it’s relevant to work backwards from these three things and ask ‘does this role empower, define and increase accountability? It’s only in getting this slightly wrong on this current project, that I’ve realised how accidentally effective our role was on the previous one! We’ve been a bit ‘spaghetti arms’ in the design of this project role and therefore are now trying to backwards define our exact position within the wider gate making team.
Going forward, the difficulty once this is achieved, lies in sticking to role and ensuring others you are working with have the same high expectations of students to carry out their role to a high quality. This is something that potentially stems out of reputation and relationships and many will be built over time between a group or school and partners/the wider community.
Jeremy Judge and I have just reached the end of our project exploring the inquiry question ‘can our maths help Stratford decide if 3 new concrete factories are too dirty?’ The answer, it transpires is yes, yes it can! 14 weeks of risky, challenging and exciting exploration later, with multiple dead-ends, some serious writing graft and one powerful algebraic model, and the big news is that the LLDC have asked the concrete company to withdraw their application!
This project was, as written about in my first blog, in part, an experiment in truly authentic learning. We took a real world problem that was yet to be solved (hitting the top of our self-styled authenticity hierarchy) and set about solving it live, in real time with our students, together as one 16-strong team.
As I reflect on this project and its successes and limitations, I’m thinking about the lessons we have learnt from it that should inform our future practice. They seem to fall under 5 key learnings:
that planning = patience;
that we should embrace uncertainty but control the controllables;
that we must get comfortable in the uncomfortable (and why we should all teach maths…!);
that meaningful assessment is about the future not the past;
and that true purpose can kill a checklist of project ingredients.
If you want to see our full project reflection, feel free to have a read here.
1. Planning = patience
The whole process, start to finish went through what School21 colleague Mark Blundell calls the ‘double diamond’, a 4 stage of process that goes through two rounds of divergent and convergent thinking as it moves from initial ideas to delivery.
The equal weighting of these sections on this diagram is somewhat misleading; they are certainly not equally chunked sections of the planning process, or indeed necessarily linear. For me, the ‘discover’ and ‘define’ elements are a constant ongoing exploration (I literally bank ideas, products, opportunities etc and then wait for the perfect storm of learning, authenticity and purpose) and for Jeremy and I with this project, this was around 3 months of patient waiting and spirited arguing.
Once we defined our idea, the sudden flurry of action kicked off with the ‘develop’ phase in the half term leading up to the project launch. It was here that we focused around the project design and put in the serious planning. Here you can see the outcome of this stage, the planning overview behind our project – this original plan was tuned by a group of school staff initially and then by the class themselves before the project began. To get to this though, it was certainly worth the slow, lengthy ‘fishing’ process of the first 2 sections – the sort of ‘waiting by the pond’ for the perfect bite.
2. Embrace uncertainty but control the controllables
Our timeline document gives the very false impression that this project was clearly structured from the off. It was in truth a constantly changing beast with shifting goalposts beyond our control, constant dead-ends and false starts, and the document as it stands was created very much by the day.
In fact, this project’s authenticity meant a required flexibility of timeline and direction of learning that I haven’t dealt with before (as I blogged about in December). Despite the unknowns, Jeremy and I wanted real rigour of significant content and assessment, and had to very much hold each other to account throughout for our subject ‘non-negotiables’ that we had pre-identified. The changing nature of the planning process, client vs teacher rub and open problem threw numerous challenges against this and at times we were pulled or tempted away from our desired line of learning. However, we assessed each challenge under our clear design principle of being true to our subject content; if it didn’t develop non-fiction writing, algebraic skills or graph interpretation, we (mostly) didn’t do it.
So for all the things out of our control, we had to focus on what we could control: to control the controllables. For us, the controllables were mainly defined by a narrow, clear product and project brief; we were working to create a mathematical report into the impact of the proposed factories on air pollution in Newham. This product wouldn’t display all the learning that had taken place, but all the learning would be designed to create and improve the product. This I believe is a key design principle of good PBL. For me as the English teacher in real terms this meant:
Rigorous development of voice and purpose in non-fiction writing and sentence control through mastery exercises (as written about in my most recent blog) and the use of shared writing as a norm.
Constant building of the skills required to comprehend challenging non-fiction. For this we used a range of newspaper articles on the project and the project’s grounding text, picked for it for its value as a model and for significant content and as a style/tone guide.
The other thing that helped with our control amidst the uncertainty was ensuring absolute clarity of role; we were purely the report generators, exploring the facts, analysing the data and interpreting and explaining it clearly. It also helped that we were working as a parts of a much wider edifice of people, each with a specific and genuine role in the project. For example, James Durrant of the OPCRD was our client spokesperson, Terry Paul our voice in the local council, Elsa Aristodemou our mathematician providing advanced models, Emilia Papadopoulos the BBC presenter reporting on our work; all of these people were not brought in inauthentically to help out, but were carrying out their actual jobs and roles around us, meaning we could be entirely, authentically, air pollution impact report writers. This importance of clarity of role is something that I think we must take forward into future projects.
3. Get comfortable in the uncomfortable: we should all teach maths
One of the things Jeremy and I have done throughout this project to ensure support, accountability and growth is to team teach/observe and feedback on one lesson a week each – so every other Wednesday Jeremy joined an English session and each other Thursday I joined his maths class. This began as observations, with feedback on our chosen students or craft area given in our weekly meeting, but over time morphed into team teaching, which brilliantly blurred the lines between our content.
We reflected the other week on how we had maintained this routine throughout the project with (genuinely!) no sense of loss of time or feeling we had other things to do – in reality it means the removal of between 2 and 3 free periods a week each. I think this is due to our genuine investment in each other’s practice and growth. It really matters to Jeremy that my practice around robust vocabulary teaching for example is improving as we need students to thoroughly understand mathematical words like ‘assume’ or ‘vary’, and it seriously matters to me that Jeremy is thinking about the most effective ways to use talk in his lessons to ensure students are adept at verbalising what their graphs show.
Interestingly, aside of the obvious advantages of team teaching, with feedback and learning through osmosis, there are also a powerful side benefit in being forced into the discomfort of teaching another subject. It was in attempting to teach maths that I suddenly found myself completely out of my comfort zone with my pedagogy. I think (though I am as yet unable to clearly articulate the what and why of this thought…) that there is something in this for our teaching. I suddenly couldn’t rely on my subject knowledge to be able to teach something and instead had to wrestle more deeply with the why behind students’ misunderstandings or confusion. I started noticing links between missing skills or misunderstandings in student’s conceptual understanding and really thinking about the barriers and blocks that stood in the way of progress.
We drafted the findings section of the report many times, using paired talk and writing to support the process.
Students found describing their graphs in simple, clear and formal terms a challenge – this became the focus of much of our English work.
Some of the maths we did stemmed from challenges students made of the LLDC’s original air pollution report, our grounding text.
4. Assess for the future, not the past
Of course, it is not the final product in a project that provides any form of useful assessment; in this case, it’s a group created outcome, which has gone through 5 drafts and is not (and should not be) reflective of all the learning or all the assessable skills/content. I see it instead as a narrow slice of the learning, useful to the world as it’s genuine purpose intended, but useful to us purely as a teaching tool (much of the writing learning for example, came through critique and redraft of this document).
Instead, we assessed with a triangulated combination of ongoing class assessment, cold assessment of reading and writing at the end of the term and verbal viva style ‘story of learning’ assessments. This leaves us with a combination of narrative assessment comments and hard data, and a forensic understanding of their learning. These verbal assessments are my favourite part of each project – a 10 minute one-on-one conversation which reveals so much truth behind each student’s feeling and progress, which data alone cannot reveal. In the past these have uncovered shaky understanding where the data implied solid growth, unexpected misconceptions, and sometimes progress that has gone unnoticed elsewhere. As we hone this practice, I think we now need to decide a) when is the ideal time to have these assessments so that we can identify and respond to gaps early b) what are the right questions to ask in this viva assessments to inform future practice and c) how do we ensure this knowledge is fully used for future planning/future teachers of the group.
5. True purpose can kill
Fascinatingly, the huge real world success of our project also led to the death of certain elements of ‘gold standard’ PBL, most notably exhibition. I haven’t yet decided if this matters or not. Our intended ‘exhibition’ was the presentation of the report at the LLDC’s planning committee meeting, however, this was swiftly cancelled when the students’ TV appearance and power of the public campaign led the LLDC to withdraw the plans before the meeting.
The abrupt end of the project left us with an interesting uncertainty; do we plough on and provide some form of exhibition for the students or end it there? We sort of chose both and neither, leaving an odd sense of loss for all involved! But its interesting to step back and notice the complete loss of purpose for both staff and students once the true purpose had been achieved – perhaps we didn’t need the exhibition because we didn’t need the motivation. The question that I feel remains is without public exhibition, how do we achieve the student accountability and testimony that this provides, and does this matter? Certainly something to consider.
Overall, the resonating impact for me (other than that on their writing) was on our students’ sense of self-efficacy and pride, and this is what the authentic purpose of this project brought about. This was put most succinctly by one student who is her story of learning assessment said: ‘I am proud of the fact that we are not having the concrete factories in Stratford. That makes me feel like I have had a good impact on the area I am living in.’
In my previous blog post I referenced the weekly ‘grammar gym’ mastery sessions that I have been doing with my concrete project group in year 9. This developed out of watching primary teachers in my old school teaching sentence forms and then practicing them repeatedly. It was something I stole at the time and used with a year 11 group as practice, and have been playing with strategies of grammar mastery since then.
When I first taught the concrete project group in year 7, I began to use this strategy to teach the group some of the sentence structures and connectives that were missing from their toolkit of language at that time. It’s not something I’ve needed to do so explicitly before as a secondary teacher. Yes, I’ve reviewed grammar rules, and taught the use of more complex sentence structures, but I’d never previously had to explicitly teach students to use more than simple unconnected sentences, and the very basics of connectives/constructing a sentence. As time has gone on with this group, the skills we learn and repeat in the grammar gym (always within context of the project we are working on) have become increasingly sophisticated.
It’s been really interesting watching the impact of this weekly practice and instant feedback/instruction on students individual writing and shared writing. See for example a selection of one student’s grammar gym work from across year 9 so far as he has got to grips with using who or which to add more information into a sentence.
His competence using complete sentences, commas to control subordinate clauses and his understanding of the function of such sentence structures have grown significantly from initial heavily supported attempts to completely independent craft. And this competence is vital to the progress of these students; I’m actually not necessarily a huge fan of repeated grammar practice and drill but for these students, all of whom arrived at School 21 lacking some key skills for accurate and flexible communication and with gaps in language development, this internalising of language forms and structures is incredibly liberating and vital.
However, I’d argue that the increasing levels of competence of these students relate to the wantand needthey have for these skills: the purpose that the authentic project has provided. They needto be able to describe their maths accurately and fluently (an early foray out into Stratford to speak to the public about the factory proposal brought the group to the realisation that “we need to be really clear about what we mean – people don’t all understand maths…”). They wantthe LLDC to take them seriously and understand the findings their report has exposed. They needwritten fluency, eloquence and control. This brings me back to the interlinked need for competence, autonomy and relatedness in the project. You can of course teach English from a competence alone stance, but when taking the importance of relatedness into account, there is suddenly a real purpose for these skills, a need for the competence to increase and a desire to graft away in order to do so.
I’ve just watched our year 9s on BBC London’s evening news talking about their project to create a report modelling the potential impact of three proposed new concrete factories on air pollution in our local area. It was brilliant to see them speaking eloquently, enthusiastically and earnestly about the project and the very real threat to our community that the plans pose. Excitingly, this amazing opportunity stemmed from the very scary uncontrollable authenticity I wrote about in my previous blog; it arose from an unexpected curve ball thrown at us in the client meeting with OPCRD member James Durrant at the start of this project. He asked, ‘how can you use the power of your youth voice to spread the word about these concrete factories?’ This was not part of our project plan. We were writing a mathematical report. We sat on his question for some time, and it wasn’t until a sticking point in the maths that we returned to act on it.
A not so dead end
Three weeks before the Christmas holiday, we realised we had spent several weeks exploring an avenue for data collection that slowly revealed itself to be unhelpful. The obvious frustration of this for both us and the students also led to an issue in English; with no data coming through, we ran out of things to write up. I felt really strongly that we should not engineer purposeless, inauthentic writing, and so in the 3 week gap that presented itself we turned out attention back to our parked thoughts on James’s challenge; how could we, 14 students and 2 teachers, spread the word to the thousands of people across London needed to meet the petition requirements?
Start spreading the news
One of the group’s initial ideas involved harnessing the power of national media to share our message. And, inspired by some of the article we had been reading in our reciprocal teaching sessions to learn about the project, they named the Guardian, BBC, Evening Standard and Newham Recorder as their targets. Achieving this however would require something outside of all our experience; what do you actually need to do to get serious press to cover your work?!
Some light googling revealed we needed to write a killer press release, so we set our sites on the start of the new year and began a 3 week process achieve this goal. This consisted of:
– A series of structured debates around what our news actually was and what we needed to get across.
– 4 drafts of a press release created through shared writing sessions with the whole group and mini teams within the group. The focus shifted on each critique and redraft from mimicking a newspaper tone (and writing in the 3rd person) through improving vocabulary with high level connectives to a formalising session. Students were editors, nit picking for commas around subordinate clauses or the correct usage of a semi-colon, and creators, arguing over the merits of one word over another for reader interest.
– Throughout, a continuation of our weekly contextualised ‘mastery’ sessions – from our ‘grammar gym’, practicing challenging new sentence forms to our ‘word of the week’, where new tier 2 vocabulary is learnt robustly.
Loosening the reins
The final press release was typed up and sent to the news agencies identified earlier in the term this Monday (we decided to wait for the January return to work so as to not get caught in a Christmas lull). In 24 hours we had a call from the BBC, and then another 24 hours on they were in filming the students. But the real success here for me is the rigourous teaching of authentic non-fiction writing that led up to this. It may have been an unplanned extra outcome, but the learning and mastery behind this product was what we have been working for and building to all term.
As I write this, the over-planned, control-hungry side of me still feels a niggling discomfort with the lack of pre-planning that this exposes. I still ask myself if this swerve is allowing anything to slip through the gaps or if this unplanned change of direction mid project damages continuity of learning. But I feel fairly confident that this is not the case. In fact, in the final outcome and the future writing of these students, I feel we will see significant benefits for this.
The tip of the iceberg?
It’s interesting though as when looking at a project, and particularly the moments of outcome, that much criticism is levelled at the learning that has taken place. Where is the rigour, people ask? What significant content have they actually explored? How much did students actually do? And actually I think often this ‘product’ or outcome hides the wealth of work and craft that led up to this moment – it is the tip of the iceberg of the stuff we’re really grappling with; and the stuff we’re really proud of.