CPD: How the blended model is working for us.

by Rebekah Hawthornthwaite, Assistant Principal and Assistant Director of Manchester Communication Research School.

One of the many implications of the global pandemic has been the impact it has had on schools’ capacity to implement and facilitate high-quality professional development. Not only are we juggling staggered timetables and social distancing, but the impact of school closures and the need for quality remote learning provision has also changed the nature of what professional development might need to include.

  • What do our teachers most need to know and be able to do at this time that we haven’t done before?
  • How is this different to the knowledge and skills in previous professional development and what remains the same?
  • How can PD be effectively facilitated in the ever-changing landscape of localised and national lockdowns, and with staff sometimes needing to self-isolate at a moment’s notice?

These are just some of the many, many questions that buzzed around my head as I took my first steps into MCA this September. Newly appointed to senior leadership, in a new school, and facing the challenges we all face as teachers during this pandemic, I certainly felt that I had more questions than answers.

More importantly, with the EEF’s rapid evidence assessment into the potential impact of school closures suggesting that the disadvantaged gap would have widened by a median estimate of 36%, I knew that the stakes were high. The evidence suggests that good teaching is the most important lever schools have to improve outcomes for disadvantaged pupils. (EEF’s Pupil Premium Guide, p.5) so ensuring that PD effectively addressed elements of good teaching was crucial. Clear explanations, scaffolding, guided practice and feedback need to be secure in both classroom and remote provision. It sounds obvious, really. But with so much noise around schools re-opening, it is easy to see how school leaders have to struggle to keep teaching and learning at the forefront of the conversation.

During the first lockdown, I was aware of the many examples of excellent remote PD that had risen to the challenge. Twitter was alive with inspiring examples of everything from learning to optimise the use of new technology to developing subject-specific communities. Now that we were back in school, how could we maintain this momentum? Being back meant that people’s time was less flexible and that all of the other day-to-day priorities (not least the lingering anticipation of a positive case) would impact on our capacity to deliver. Luckily, the EEF’s rapid evidence assessment of remote professional development was hot off the press as I began my new role.

You can read the report here:https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/public/files/Publications/Remote_PD_Evidence_Assessment.pdf

Finding 1 in the report was especially reassuring. Whilst I had worried about finding a space big enough to get everyone together but socially-distanced, the report found that the evidence was mixed as to whether remotely delivered PD is more or less effective than face-to-face. Crucially, it found that other design features are likely to be more important to PD outcomes than whether the delivery is undertaken face-to-face or remotely. As a key priority, I was grateful to see that the hour-long slot on a Friday had been protected for PD, which meant that all teachers can access pre-recorded videos, virtual meetings and reading at the same time without being in the same room.

Whilst the findings indicate that synchronous and asynchronous PD can both be effective for different reasons, I have found that synchronous has generally worked for us – not because it is synchronous per ser, but because it has carved-out time within the school day to enable staff to participate whilst balancing the rest of their workload. I can certainly see the benefit of asynchronous sessions but, as Finding 6 of the report advocates, school leaders need to support staff to prioritise their PD and providing protected time for this is one of the ways they can do this effectively.

The other findings in the report have also informed the development of our PD model, as well as the training we offer as a Research School. Notably, Finding 4 of the report: providing opportunities for collaboration has been important to us. We have continued to operate learning communities that are focused on our teaching and learning priorities and these provide colleagues with rich opportunities to share good practice. Likewise, we are expanding our capacity for coaching and increasingly using IRIS as a means to collect classroom examples without breaching restrictions.

So, whilst questions still buzz around my head, I can reassure them with evidence-informed responses and the inspiring enthusiasm of a teaching community that never gives up on getting better.

Could one-to-one teaching be transformational? Not necessarily

During the Conservative Party Conference earlier in October, Boris Johnson stated that he wanted to ‘explore the value of one-to-one teaching, both for pupils who are falling behind and for those who are of exceptional abilities’. The Prime Minister’s belief that such ‘intensive teaching could be transformational and of massive reassurance to parents’ was a head-dropping and heart-sinking moment. I’m sure this was the same for many teachers and school leaders. That is not because we don’t want transformational education, but is because this isn’t the way to achieve it.

Sweeping statements like this have far-reaching implications, not least being the suggestion that teaching and learning in classrooms, with full-class sizes, in schools up and down the county, is not transformational.

That is not to say that one-to-one teaching does not have its value and its place. The National Tutoring Programme is a welcome investment. With the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) leading the delivery of part of this programme, we can be sure that the evidence of the impact of one-to-one and small-group tuition, is enough to assure us that these approaches can be beneficial. At MCA, we are under way with our plans to work with Tutor Trust. We are confident in the outcomes that can be achieved, with some careful planning and from our previous experience.

However, we also know that interventions generally, must come with a word of caution and a potential risk. As we move into the delivery of this programme we should be cautious that tuition, and other interventions, are not seen to be the answer to closing the gap or aiding recovery. This is only part of the answer.

There is a wealth of evidence, captured in a number of the EEF Guidance Reports that our priority for providing the best quality educational experience (let’s avoid the language of recovery) is to prioritise high-quality teaching and learning. In a time where the national conversation is about the impact of the pandemic on education, and the genuine fears about the attainment gap widening alongside an ever-growing concern about the particular impact on students who experience disadvantage, there is a pressure to respond. Respond we should but we have to be careful about the nature of the response and the implementation. By just simply using a one-to-one or small-group model, there is a risk of adding to the potential impact of the pandemic. It is important to note here that there is yet to be any evidence of any long-term impact but understandably and rightly, school leaders are now working on mitigation.

When considering the use of any intervention, it is worth considering the following questions:

  • Is the intervention selected a proven programme? If not, how do you know it will have the desired impact?
  • Have the right students been selected for the right intervention? What data was used and how robust and reliable is that?
  • Who will deliver the intervention? Have they received sufficient training?
  • Do the conditions for the intervention allow for fidelity to the programme? If not, could any adaptations affect the impact?

For many schools, Teaching Assistants are an incredibly valuable resource. I don’t need to say here all of the benefits that effective TAs bring to our school communities. But again, the deployment of TAs at a time when there is an increasing perception that interventions provide a solution, is also worth careful consideration. Recommendation 4 of the EEF SEN Guidance Report states:  Complement high-quality teaching with carefully selected small-group and one-to-one interventions reminding us that expert teaching from subject specialists in highly effective learning environments is our most powerful tool.  Whilst recommendation 5 states: Use TAs to deliver high quality one-to-one and small-group support using structured interventions, highlighting the importance of the questions listed above.

We all know that the logistical challenges of keeping schools open in the current climate, and the guidelines around bubbles and student movement, make the deployment even more challenging. That’s not to say that TAs cannot continue to be highly effective within classrooms. At MCA, we are using the guidelines below to support TAs in still supporting the learning of students in the classroom:

  • Be the eyes and ears – scan the room and use non-verbal gestures to ensure students are sat up straight and focused on instruction. Students can’t learn that they are not attending to what they should be learning
  • Use retrieval questions and open-ended questions (how do you know? Where else have you used that?) – take notes from the starter recall and retrieval task and revisit with targeted students. You can use post-it notes/mini whiteboards to do this
  • Also use post-it notes/mini whiteboards to provide scaffolds and prompts –  vocabulary/model sentences/success criteria
  • Use targeted positive praise

Sweeping statements and simplified soundbites might grab attention, but to be truly transformational we must keep our confidence in what we know works in the classroom.

Reading is Rebellion by Emma Stott

Emma is an English teacher and Evidence Lead in Education at Manchester Communication Research School. She is author of the book Speedy Reading: Fast Strategies for Teaching GCSE English Literature Post Lock-down

Teachers are not supposed to voice their political opinions, yet we’re constantly engaged with that most political of acts – reading. Political enfranchisement developed alongside literacy; making reading illegal has been a means of keeping subjugated groups ‘in their place.’.

So if you teach any text at all, then you are in effect teaching protest – texts explore, illumine or criticise the status quo. All text is a political statement: sometimes simply by existing; others times simply by being read, regardless of content. That cosy, quiet activity that your students often reluctantly engage in is one of the most potentially seditious acts they can (legally!) be part of. So why don’t our students know this?

At first, I was going to write this blog on the importance of reading and some cross-curricular strategies, but really, that’s not the problem. Indeed, we have robust and reliable guidance from the EEF (Improving Literacy in Secondary Schools) on this already. I don’t doubt that reading instruction is improving in schools, but I doubt if students really understand why reading is at the forefront of their education. When I ask students why we’re spending so much time on reading the answers are mostly, ‘To pass the exam’ or ‘To get a job.’ We need to look at something harder to research and rectify: the image of reading that schools have been projecting. We’ve billed reading as The Carpenters when we should have been proclaiming it as The Sex Pistols!

If your students don’t want to read, and don’t want to read well, they need to know that what they’re really saying is that they never, ever want to either test, protest, ingest or manifest any idea at all! They are slamming shut a door that successive governments have only nudged ajar for them as it is. Reading proficiency is going to boot the damn thing open!

But what to do with ‘dangerous’ text? Often, we lie it down ‘like a patient etherised upon a table’ and make it safe, controllable. Peps McCrea’s Learning: What it Is and How We Might catalyse It says students ‘attend best to what they value.’ If we only say text should be valued because we can dredge it for basic information or so that we can fillet it into adjectives and metaphors, then there’s absolutely no reason why they should care about it. Frankly, it’s hard to get teachers to promote literacy too if we think this is what makes it valuable.

If we want students to take ownership of their literacy and meaningfully apply the strategies we teach, then they need to know that text is radical. In my book Speedy Reading: Fast Strategies for Teaching GCSE English Literature Post Lock-down, I begin with a chapter entitled Reading is Rebellion. Students shouldn’t arrive at this epiphany in KS4 but should be primed all the way through school in the power of text. But how?

A very simple way of illustrating the importance of reading is to teach the history of outlawing literacy. Frederick Douglass’s autobiography worked really well with Y7 – they simply couldn’t imagine being punished for reading as many had had the opposite experience! But we can also be brave and make students aware of the Chatterley trial, the ban on Letters from Burma, the resurgent satanic panics in the US around J.K Rowling, Not Without My daughter, The God Delusion, Married Love, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, and the self-censorship of writers like Stephen King who allowed one of his own books to go out of print: King’s Rage scared and worried even its own author! Why are we putting reading into woolly socks and a knitted cardigan? Books are hard-edged inside and out. Let’s make that clear to students.

Reading is a thought process, so by increasing reading we increase thought. A student might eventually represent an idea in paint or music rather than print, but the ideas will have arrived through language. Reading is thought and thought is exciting. Therefore, I’m not keen on the idea of cosy and calming reads. There are many books that I will not read in bed because it would be like inviting a tiger to prowl around my head all night! Bedtime stories have their place, but for most students, reading at the end to ‘relax’ or at the start to ‘calm’ is, from their point of view, ‘middle aged’, and something that happens at them. How many times have students shouted out about the text whilst ‘having a quiet read’ and then been told to stay silent? We’ve just advised them to not care. No wonder some students find reading tiresome.

 I also take exception to some schools’ ethos that students should ‘love’ reading. They should love certain texts yes, and simply feel the author is a friend. But we also need authors as edgy and slightly intimidating older brothers and sisters. I love Terry Pratchett; I’d holiday on the Discworld, but I dread George Orwell; and yet both writers are my heroes. I understand the appeal of World Book Day, but it’s really making cute an act that should be acute. Isn’t it better if students value reading as a potentially transformative act, not as a hug in a dust jacket? I probably read more during lockdown than possibly any other time than being a student, and most of what I read was troubling at best, outrageous at worst. I love that I can read, I often loathe what I do read.

I’m not saying explicit readings strategies are unnecessary (indeed I spend most of the book outlining them) but they’re facile if students only apply these to ‘neutered’ texts; even worse, if they only apply them in school.  Approximately, a sixth of England’s population can’t read, yet almost two thirds voted. This tells me, we want to be politicised – our students are not naturally uninterested in ideas – but perhaps we’re often the cause of their apathy.

If we want to increase literacy, we must increase literacy’s worth. We can achieve this by:

1/ Discussing the ‘taboo’ parts of texts first. I’m not just talking English teachers diving into Macbeth’s porter scene but all subjects have their ‘no go’ areas. Go there!

2/ You can be coy; the text shouldn’t be. Say, ‘I’m not sure if you’re ready for this…’ ‘I once got complaints because of this reading…’ This builds a buzz.

3/ Make clear the text is not the author – problematic writers (or indeed any thinkers) can still articulate valuable ideas. Draw attention to these paradoxes.  Writers can be amazingly perceptive and empathetic about one topic, whilst being ignorant and short-sighted in another. After all, text and ideas remain but the author doesn’t. Again, this makes text thrilling! Essentially, centuries old messages are made present in our classrooms. Text is a time machine.

4/ Be humble – the text itself is always a greater teacher than me. The text should ‘talk’ more; I should talk less. I can orientate my students and help them navigate the piece, but the ideas are not mine. I regularly tell my students that texts are the best teachers…

5/ As much as the text is the teacher, we’re not going to venerate it. The text is a series of thoughts, a process of ideas, not a definitive, finished product. We should respect that the ideas have been expressed, but ultimately be able to reject them.

6/ At the same time, don’t make value judgements on students’ personal reading choices. I’ve seen teachers actually sneer at students reading ‘Dork’s Diary.’ Let’s be honest: many of us are probably going home and watching Love Island not La Boheme, so we have no right to make students feel guilty about reading for pleasure, and pleasure is personal. If we keep showing them the ‘dangerous’ texts, then this is no consequence.

7/ An obvious one, but appear excited. It’s great if your students walk in as you’re reading and it seems as if you don’t want to put it down. It can work really well to begin reading immediately. ‘Hi everyone, quick, sit down, I really have to share this with you.’

All teachers need students to read better; society needs students to read better, and it really begins with a new image for reading.

So I’m off now to stick safety pins through a copy of Crime and Punishment…

Motivating students to think hard and challenge themselves whilst learning away from school

‘If you believe with absolute honesty that you are doing everything you can, -do more.’ Shane Koyczan

It’s a busy and exciting week at MCA. Not only have staff and students been participating in challenges as part of National Schools Sports Week, we have also seen the launch of the Creative Arts Festival of Diversity. Throughout the festival – which is all virtual, of course – our community is challenged to engage in a number of Arts activities. These include photography projects of an arrangement of objects that reflect your identity to performing spoken word. One example of this was the poem by Shane Kyczan that was shared by our Performing Arts Department on social media this week, from which the quotation in the title of this blog was sourced.

This is an inspiring sentiment and could be highly motivational for many people – myself included. Reading this also made me think and reflect on the idea of motivation in a wider sense. As has been previously written about in our blogs, the focus of developing metacognition and the skills of self-regulation for our students is the focus of our professional development programme this year. Key characteristics of those students who are able to self-regulate and achieve more success as learners, are motivation towards a specific goal while monitoring and evaluating the progress towards this goal in a non-linear and flexible way. If we look a little closer at motivation, we can distinguish between extrinsic and intrinsic motivation. Those who are able to be influenced by intrinsic motivating factors are likely to be more autonomous and therefore potentially more successful over time.

There is no doubt that many young people rely on the influence from extrinsic motivational factors – such as rewards from teachers, peer comparisons and school-based routines and expectations. However, during a global pandemic where students are learning remotely, these extrinsic motivational factors can be much more difficult to establish.

Like many schools, MCA teachers and support colleagues have been working incredibly hard to engage students in learning.  At the start, this was our number one priority – let’s get students online or completing workbooks as much as possible. We need to engage them first and foremost.

Using the EEF guidance on remote learning, we adapted a teaching model that incorporated many of the elements that would provide high-quality learning and encourage students to engage in learning, whether that be online or with our structured subject specific workbooks. Features included facilitating peer collaboration through deconstructing model answers; using Google forms for low stakes quizzes of prior learning; supporting parents in establishing routines and maintaining our focus on reading and literacy development. This has been hugely successful and we are so proud of our students who have maintained an exceptional level of remote learning.

As time passed, it became clear that students would be learning from home for a sustained and significant time. We knew that students were engaging with learning in a number of different ways but our next challenge was to provide challenge and opportunities for deep thinking whilst still maintaining their interest. If it was too hard we could lose their engagement but if it was not challenging enough then we would effectively be wasting time and ultimately influencing their levels of motivation. We return to Bjork’s concept of desirable difficulty! We were clear that challenge is not more of the same and if this was considered, then this could have a detrimental effect on engagement and motivation.

Here are some of the ways that teachers are now providing opportunities for challenge whilst still engaging students in learning and providing some extrinsic influences of motivation:

  • Flipped learning – students arrive to the lesson with their own questions.  this provides pre-reading and then Google forms is used provide multiple choice questions for students to explore an idea independently, before arriving at the lesson. This means the online lessons can then stretch individual initial ideas and responses
  • Use Google forms to provide some options for an interpretation to a text that has not yet been addressed in lesson, to prompt individual responses ready for greater in-depth discussions
  • Use diagnostic questions in multiple choice quizzes that include ore nuanced misconceptions and using these to probe and further develop understanding
  • Use ‘Wait questions’ via the chat function on online lessons – everyone has to prepare an answer and can only post when told to do so, providing wait time and a no-opt-out structure
  • Use 1-1 or small group tutorials to provide feedback whilst the rest of the class work independently through a task
  • Use shared documents to collaborate on a response as a class to create a ‘perfect’ response with prompting and immediate feedback from the teacher

With these activities, we have endeavoured to combine the guidance on motivation and metacognition, along with our understanding of activities that promote deeper thinking. We are excited to see how we can incorporate these, perhaps using technology more as we welcome more and more students back to school.



What has the Coronavirus taught us about physical school communities?

Across the country, and indeed the world, teachers are adapting to new ways of teaching their students. Many are developing their confidence and expertise in IT as they navigate through virtual worlds of Google, Zoom, Skype and other similar platforms. At the same time, non-teaching teams are working so hard to ensure that we maintain our duty of care and our moral duty to keep children safe, to make sure they are accessing food, to continue with essential services. Also ensuring that staff, students and their families stay protected, remain healthy and follow government advice.

At MCA, we have been overwhelmed by the efforts of staff and students to adapt to these new ways of working. Google Meet is now where we see our KS4 classes in line with a learning schedule. KS3 classes are set regular assignments on Google classroom, receiving frequent feedback and support. Our SEN team have joined the classrooms of our SEND students and are making contact with them to see if they need any additional support to access the learning. Some teachers have scheduled reading time with their classes in line with our daily reading time, emphasising the shared value we have on reading together. Students are filling teacher inboxes with questions and completed assignments. Our Year 11 students, who have been left in a state of uncertainty about their future, are still logging into the Google Meets and accessing learning. Staff are volunteering to support in school where necessary, offering to help with distributing food to our most vulnerable and generally coming together in a way that only continues to make us proud of the very special school we work in.

All of this is truly fantastic. I feel confident that for as long as this situation continues, we will continue to come together as a community and make sure our students get the very best we can offer. It has, however, made me think about why this has worked so well. If online working can be successful, is this the future of education? Is there a possibility that IT could replace teachers and classrooms? Can we possibly move to a paperless education system?

Personally, I think this works only because of the foundations that have already been put in place; the leadership of these projects which has provided staff with training, communicated regularly, offered support, and the means to do the job well; the culture of a school that has been created and nurtured to ensure that everyone is genuinely committed to always improving and continually developing. Perhaps most interestingly it works because of the foundations we have built as a result of being a physical school community.

Here are the elements that I believe have been essential to the effectiveness we have seen as our school closed down last week:

1. Relationships are the bedrock to essential learning

Students are logging in to Google Meets and Classrooms because they trust that they are going to get high quality learning. They have a relationship with their teacher that means they value that contact. There has been laughter, concern, sharing worries that can only be done once a relationship has been established. These relationships can’t be replicated virtually.

2.Effective students are motivated to learn and can therefore adapt to new ways of learning.

The EEF Guidance on effective learners as outlined in the Metacognition and Self-regulated Learners guidance report is that students who are most successful are able to set goals and are motivated to achieve them. A common misconception around motivation is that it is somehow innate; you either have it or you don’t. The reality is that we can provide the conditions and opportunities to help develop motivation in our young people. Whilst I’m not saying this can’t possibly be done virtually, it is much easier and more valuable for young people-especially our most disadvantaged-to do this in person, with daily reminders and genuine praise that relies on body language and gestures.

3.Schools are about more than learning for exams

In this current climate, I know that our students are being offered quality learning experiences, in line with a timetable and with regular tracking and follow up. However, what we cannot offer online is the opportunity to develop skills of listening and responding, the hands on enrichment activities that we offer every day, the chance for students to demonstrate leadership skills, assemblies that explore values and morals but also provide a sense of community as we come together, formally. We are finding new ways to show them we care, but nothing replaces a warm, in person ‘hello’ every morning when you walk into school.

Ultimately, what has become even clearer during these times, is that human connection cannot and never will be replaced by technology. Technology has its place and thank goodness we live in a world that means we are able to continue to teach remotely. I know I’m not alone in hoping we can get back to school soon. I can’t wait to greet them on their first morning back and every day thereafter. Teachers everywhere should know that just that sense of truly belonging to a school community, in person, is one of the greatest things we can offer to our young people.

Everyone at MCA wishes you are your family well in these challenging times.

Susie Fraser

Vice Principal and Director of Manchester Communication Research School



Supporting SEN Students in the Classroom

By Stephanie McCabe, Teacher of Food and Research Facilitator at Manchester Communication Academy

Students with special educational needs bring their own unique strengths and abilities to a classroom, although they may be unable to reach their full potential if not properly supported during their time in education. It is our job as teachers to minimise the barriers that these students may face when accessing the curriculum and to support individual needs. It starts by being consistently mindful about the range of needs that may be in your class and then adopting specific strategies to help individuals. SEN needs themselves can be fluid, 44% of students currently in UK education have been “classed” as SEN at one point during their time in school but on average only 14% of students are SEN at any one particular time. This means we need to continually monitor the needs in our classes and adapt our teaching strategies to meet these needs and build on prior learning.

Planning lessons 

Whilst there is little evidence into the effectiveness of use of fonts  such as comic sans,  there are thoughts that fonts like this do improve readability. If you students like it and you like using it, there is certainly no harm in opting for these choices.

Making keywords bold and using colours such as light blue, light green and cream as backgrounds on powerpoints can also make it easier for students to read information. Incorporating a ‘strategy for time’ is important when planning in order to allow students enough thinking time as well as giving a warning for upcoming tasks for example “in a minute I am going to ask you….”

The fundamentals of Cognitive Load Theory are also worth consideration here. Minimising the extraneous load when planning for how subject material is presented. According the cognitive load theory, this increases the possiblity for students for engage with new material and support is transition into working memory.

Praise is something I have found to be incredibly important, particularly with SEN students. Often they lack confidence in their ability and don’t have high expectations of what they can achieve. Giving both private and public praise has not only improved the confidence and attitude to learning but students are very engaged in class and motivated to do well. I have given students high target grades and have consistently high expectations for the standard of their work and detail in their answers both verbally in class and written in their books.

Delivering lessons

Evidence based teaching and learning strategies ensure teaching is of a  high quality. Having previously taught mainly high prior attaining students at KS4 who usually absorb and retain information easily, this year I have a KS4 class with a range of SEN needs and it was a learning curve at first to see how some students struggled to retain information. I had to stop and think about the approaches I was using and made some big changes in the way that I delivered my lessons for this class. I have tried various approaches and have summarised the two most successful:

Scaffolding: The KS4 exam in food includes a section of long answer questions which contribute to over 50% of the mark allocation in the paper. These questions are usually 6 marks or more and these are the questions which students often leave blank as seeing a large space puts them off and is daunting to them because of the amount of writing and structure required. Scaffolding has been essential to support and show them how to successfully approach these questions. We have used the ‘fishbowl activity’ where students who are confident in how to approach an answer explain how they do it and write it down with the rest of the class around them watching being modelled to them. I have used ‘think alouds’ where I attempt an answer and model my thought processes as I go to improve critical thinking. Kagan strategies such as Think Pair Share have also been weaved into scaffolding tasks but then I have been aware of ensuring that enough is left for self scaffolding, giving students enough independence and only removing the scaffolding gradually when they are secure in their prior knowledge and confident in strategies for breaking the question up and knowing how to achieve all the marks.

Multisensory: Research has shown that a  sensory based approach is effective for students with a range of difficulties. Having an active learning environment has improved engagement with SEN students and I have found that students are retaining information well, showing that it is embedding into the long term memory. Some multisensory activities have included:

  • Role play for specific topics where willing students are given a role and stand up in front of the class to act out a scenario linked to a topic we are learning

  • Air writing and verbally saying out loud new complex vocabulary as they write it down.

  • Using ingredients in practicals such as flour and rice to write answers to the questions I ask instead of using whiteboards

  • Using glitter glue on flashcards and tracing over the words when recapping information

  • Making specific links to out of school examples which students relate to.

Teaching SEN students is complex due to the number of different specific needs that children can have in our classrooms. As well as this, two students with the same SEN need may have different barriers to learning which we need to be aware of. To further add, we know that needs of students aren’t necessarily going to be fixed and may change over time. However, while we can’t be experts in every specific special need, we can become confident in a range of strategies we know is helpful for these students and then choose the most appropriate ones when planning and delivering lessons, monitoring how well these help and then reviewing our future planning.

Building a Successful Foundation for Reintegration

Chris Cotter, English Teacher and Research Facilitator, Manchester Communication Research School

Time and time again we’re faced with students who, for one reason or another, consistently fail to reach the necessary expectations of the classroom. Often with behaviour programmes a student is subjected to a prolonged fixed term exclusion or lengthy stint at an alternative provision. Then, before we know it, they are placed back into the school system and within a relatively short space of time inevitably fail all over again.

How then can we best ensure that our behaviour interventions are both appropriately punitive but still restorative at the same time? And when we eventually decide that it is time for reintegration, how can we provide appropriate support to give a child the best opportunity for success?

Reintegrating Jane

For instance, let’s take a look at a student called Jane1: a disengaged learner who has become completely disillusioned by the negative outcomes of her education so far.

Whenever Jane is faced with a new barrier, or challenge, she stumbles and falls. But if we support Jane and provide her with a catalogue of small wins, shower her with constructive praise, and instil within her a belief in her ability to succeed, then along with some close monitoring and supportive reflection, the possibilities are endless.

Her timetable was adapted and personalised – a provision for which Jane was heavily involved, which encouraged her to be reflective on her past educational experiences and allowed for an honest discussion about what had gone wrong in the past. Restorative conversations were arranged with specific members of staff that according to Jane “just don’t like me”. It was imperative for classroom teachers to have this informal discussion with Jane outside of the classroom environment in order to empathise with her position and build on their working relationship.

Evidence suggested by the EMR model within the EEF’s ‘Improving Behaviour in Schools’ guidance report highlights how significant the impact of maintaining a positive relationship without compromising on boundaries and expectations can not only lead to improved behaviour but also improved academic outcomes.

  • EMR Behaviour GR
    From ‘Improving Behaviour in Schools’, page 10

Teenagers by their very nature throughout high school are beginning to self-conceptualise their own identities and this perception is largely formed by the everyday social interactions that we have with those around us. We internalise and react to the labels given to us by others: family, friend, teacher, etc. and it’s no surprise to realise that many of our most disengaged and troubled learners allow these negative stereotypes to influence their actions.

Put simply, negative interactions lead to negative feelings, negative feelings lead to negative thoughts and negative thoughts lead to negative behaviours. So, if we removed the negative influence at play here and replaced it with a more positive approach surely this would improve the behaviour of those we are reintroducing to mainstream learning and increase their opportunities for success.

As stated in recommendation one of the guidance report, by increasing the number of positive influences during a student’s time at school we can pro-actively mitigate the risk of negative incidents reoccurring.

The power of positive interactions

Positive social interactions are key to cognitive, social and emotional development. As educators and professional adults, it is we who should set the standard and model these desirable behaviours for those most at risk of permanent exclusion. Far too often there can be an avoidable breakdown in relationship between teacher and student, generally caused by an overzealous use of school behaviour policies or inconsistencies when managing behavioural incidents in an effective way.

The most essential step when challenging misbehaviour is the restorative conversation that takes place post incident and it’s no surprise that the quality of relationship between adult and child is an imperative component when assessing how receptive a student is to this type of regulatory discussion.

Ultimately, we’re all facilitators of learning and as such must remember to provide students with an element of independence, trust and ownership over their learning experiences. Yes, it’s important to establish a set of expectations within any learning environment, though it’s also our responsibility to make sure these behavioural expectations are personalised and attainable for all.

Changing a child’s way of thinking or revolutionising their perception of themselves is no simple task, but with ongoing collaboration, opportunities for guided reflection and segmented reintegration the potential for success stands within our grasp.


1 Jane is an anonymised student

Applying the Principles of Metacognition to Teacher Development

How well do the principles of metacognition apply to teachers as well as to learners?

At Manchester Communication Academy, our main focus for professional development this year is ‘Empowering Learners through Metacognition.’ Each half term, we look at a different strand of the EEF Metacognition and Self-regulated Learning Guidance Report.  Faculty areas have an opportunity to adapt to their subject and then, within learning communities, teachers are given time to plan and evaluate for effective implementation. This half term, we are focusing on providing opportunities for reflection so that students can monitor and evaluate their progress towards their learning destination (we’re going big on the road map analogy!)


This coincides with a leadership focus on the quality of education across the Academy and fundamentally, what needs to change or develop to ensure we continue to move forward? Alongside this, we have a number of trainee teachers, NQTs and early career teachers who are also on a journey to developing expertise. Both of these priorities require a degree of high quality and effective reflection. So do the recommendations in the guidance report, also apply to our development as teachers?

Simplistically, we understand that students who are successful at self-regulating and regularly put to use metacognitive strategies, are more likely to be successful in terms of educational outcomes, as they have a secure knowledge of themselves as learners. As teachers develop from novice to expert, they too develop a greater consciousness of themselves as teachers. In line with the three main strands of metacognition; plan, monitor and evaluate, effective and successful teachers dedicate time to all 3 strands. However, in the busy and demanding day to day schedule of a teacher, how much time is genuinely dedicated to monitoring and evaluating? For those who are not yet expert and who do not autonomously reflect during these three different stages, how do we as leaders facilitate and support this for them?

So I referred back to the main recommendations from the guidance report which can be found here: https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/tools/guidance-reports/metacognition-and-self-regulated-learning/ to see if these should and can be built into our approach to developing teachers at MCA.

Recommendation 2 refers to ‘ending in structured reflection.’ At MCA, we have a number of trained coaches who use an instructional coaching model to help facilitate this for teachers who wish to refine their expertise-development is not just for the novice! However, this is quite a small group and I would like this to be more common across the Academy. Through my recent work with our Modern Foreign Language department, we have created a structure through a series of questions, where planning partners can be ‘critical friends’ to supportively interrogate the planning process:

  1. How does this link to previous learning? How will you make this clear to the students?
  2. How do the activities support the learning intention? How will you make this clear to the students?
  3. Why are the activities sequenced in this way?
  4. How and at what point will you check learning? What will you do in response? How are you addressing previous misconceptions?
  5. What will students find most challenging? How do you know? What will you do to support?
  6. What will students know/be able to do by the end of the lesson that they couldn’t at the start? How does this link to the MCA steps/GCSE criteria?

This will be done verbally, during departmental development time to allow for structured reflection. Recommendation 3 in the guidance report suggest that ‘teachers should verbalise their metacognitive thinking’ and hopefully this structure will allow for this too.

Our aim is that, not only will this allow for structured reflection which in turn should lead to more purposeful and considerate planning, it also strengthens the structures for collaborative planning. There is a body of evidence that highlights the potential benefits to student achievement through well-structured collaborative planning and it is an approach that we embrace at MCA, however the need for structure and adaptation for different subject areas is crucial.

Recommendation 5 of the guidance report is about promoting and developing metacognitive talk. During learning community time at MCA, teachers are encouraged to share with colleagues from other subject areas, how Academy wide approaches will be implemented in their own classrooms. Again, there are opportunities here to develop metacognitive talk but this will need a clear structure and some examples that are modelled by our learning community facilitators. Done well, this will allow teachers to think purposefully about the lesson ingredients and make connections to prior training.

Finally, recommendation 6 highlights the importance of guided practice leading to independent practice. Over the past year, we have been developing our use of deliberate practice in small group teacher training. The principles of deliberate practice include modelling, agreeing success criteria, independent practice and feedback. More on this can be found here: https://deansforimpact.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/12/Practice-with-Purpose_FOR-PRINT_113016.pdf

Fundamentally, deliberate practice is a structured approach from guided practice to independent practice in classrooms and often professional development can skip this important step. This needs to be more of a focus for our training, especially for those early career teachers who will benefit from seeing the transfer from a model to their own practice. It is something that we are trialling and refining.

In summary, it seems that the guidance on metacognition and self-regulation applies to us as teachers too. Our role as leaders is to facilitate and structure these strategies in the same way we would for the students to support the shift to greater autonomy and expertise.

A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Lao Tzu

The start of a new school year is filled with emotion and activity; nostalgia for a long and hopefully restful summer but excitement for the year ahead. New diaries and planners adorn desks, wall planners are primed for being decorated with signs of organisation, classrooms are tidy and everyone is ready to make the year brilliant. After two weeks of term, does that rigour and vigour still exist and if not, how do we get it back?

Last Saturday, I went to ResearchEd. A 06.55 train from Manchester to London, a scurry through the underground and a day filled with speakers and workshops could seem like the last thing one would choose to do the weekend after the first full week back at school. Yet I was there, filled with enthusiasm and it also didn’t deter the other 1,500 teachers who also gave up a Saturday for their own professional development. That is incredible and not only a credit to the quality of the event but also a representation of the brilliant and committed teachers who work in our schools. However, it did make me wonder, if the event had been scheduled for a Saturday in mid-November, when the start of a new school year is a distant memory, would the attendance be the same and if not, what is it about the power of new term that gets us motivated?

The CPD theme at MCA for 2019/2020 is ‘Empowering student learning through metacognition and self-regulation’. Each half term we will focus on a different element of this, as shown below:

Autumn 1 Autumn 2 Spring 1 Spring 2
Empowering pupils through motivation and goal setting Empowering pupils with an understanding of cognitive and metacognitive strategies Empowering pupils through modelling of thinking Empowering pupils through their talk

In preparation for this, teachers read the EEF guidance report on metacognition over the summer and a common idea continued to emerge through reflections: Is it possible to teach motivation? Our research here has looked at the importance of building competence but like most teachers, I have noticed with my own students that they currently seem very motivated. We are all striving towards our mantra to Be Brilliant. That is great! But how do I maintain that motivation when the freshness of a new school term has worn off and what is it about these temporal landmarks that get us so motivated in the first place?

Dai, Milkman and Riss (2014) discuss the significance of these temporal landmarks in their article ‘The Fresh Start Effect’. They propose that time markers, such as birthdays, new school terms, new months and weeks, make people feel disconnected from the past-often imperfect-self and interrupt and disrupt the day-to-day minutiae, promoting a big picture view of life. It is therefore at these points that we feel greater motivation to pursue new goals. However, effects weaken as people perceive themselves to be further from a temporal landmark. What their research also explored was the importance of self-perception. They make the point that ‘If people perceive themselves as moral they are more likely to pursue moral actions’. So if this is the case, if our students perceive themselves to be brilliant young people and brilliant academics, are they more likely to pursue the actions to help them fulfil this self-perception? Taking all this into account, it seems clear here that the combination of these things could lead to success: Positively reaffirming with students that they are brilliant and they are academics, acknowledging temporal landmarks, and providing them with the skills and competence to be these things will go a long way to supporting students in maintaining their motivation and commitment to long term goals.

Part of this pursuit of brilliance for the students is the importance of working hard and of having ‘grit’. I’m about to deliver an assembly to Year 11 on some key elements of the science of learning and this concludes with a discussion of grit, linked to the idea of revisiting learning, doing something with what they have been taught. But is grit really what I mean?

The concept of grit has been widely discussed in schools since Angela Duckworth defined this as ‘the passion and perseverance of long-term goals’  and suggested that those who demonstrated grit were more likely to achieve academic success. What I found interesting from Duckworth was her recognition that at those times where we hear that self-talk of failure or weakness then this is completely normal. A metacognitive understanding of that can help us to nod to the self-talk but refocus our behaviours to move past it.

In 2016, Daniel Willingham in his article ‘Grit is trendy but can it be taught?’ posed the question does grit differ from motivation and if so how? Willingham makes the point that the characteristic of conscientiousness is similar to grit; both encompass orderly and industrious behaviours and alongside the possession of self-control it is actually this which is likely to lead to greater academic success. No teacher would argue that passion is important but is this going to get the job done? Reassuringly, whilst we can exemplify passion in our roles as teachers, it is much more difficult to teach this as it is to teach the composite elements of conscientiousness and self-control.

So as the new school year becomes less new, and the motivation of our students and our own motivation to pursue personal and professional goals begins to dwindle, let’s see every new week, or new day as a fresh start. Let’s keep our eyes on the long-term goal of achieving the best outcomes yet for the students in our care and practise the behaviours that will get us-and them-there.

As the novelist Arnold Bennett said ‘You can turn over a new leaf every hour if you choose’.




How do we know when students are really thinking hard?

In the world of education, I have always thought challenge to be a bit of an abstract concept; How can we really know if students are thinking hard? How do we know what the level of difficulty is for each individual student? As a teacher, I want to support my students so that they feel success. I didn’t like the thought of students struggling, or feeling like they couldn’t do something. My job was and is to make learning accessible for them.  Shouldn’t I remove the struggle? This has always been particularly pertinent for my work developing and improving the provision for SEN students. Is there enough scaffolding? Have they got the right sentence starters? Is the learning chunked and broken down for them?

However, over recent months I’ve been looking more closely at the research and evidence surrounding stretch and challenge, in particular the work by Robert A Bjork on ‘desirable difficulty’ and the paradox of ‘learning vs. performance’. As Bjork outlines ‘Performance is what we can observe and measure during instruction or training. Learning—that is, the more or less permanent change in knowledge or understanding that is the target of instruction—is something we must try to infer, and current performance can be a highly unreliable index of whether learning has occurred.’

This is all well and good but for a teacher, it poses the question of how do we know that students are really learning and are really challenged? Bjork puts forward a number of strategies that promote deeper processing of learning and so at MCA, we are using this research to inform the following approaches to providing appropriate challenge that increases the efficacy of learning:

  1. Through a challenging curriculum that exposes students to content that goes above and beyond the national curriculum and specifications
  2. Through carefully planned retrieval that is demanding and requires deeper thinking alongside low stakes testing
  3. Through the development of multiple paragraph extended responses, inspired and informed by Doug Lemov’s Writing Revolution


In previous blogs I have shared our approach to daily reading time and how this facilitates opportunities for students to think big about topics and ideas that are not part of a scheme of learning or exam requirement. This had led to some brilliant discussions with and amongst students, it’s wonderful to hear them asking questions and hypothesising.

Low stakes testing and retrieval practice is a common feature of all lessons. We use retrieval grids that include questions and tasks that require varying levels of thinking; there will usually be something that the students are really familiar with so that they still get that taste for success but increasingly, the students are rising to the challenges. Furthermore, as a result of a series of assembles that has explained to students some of the main principles of the science of learning, they understand the importance of thinking hard.

Finally, The Writing Revolution has recently informed our professional development workshops and consequently, students now have the opportunity to construct thesis statements and then apply their learning and thinking about a topic in a cohesive and critical way. For me, this is a way that students can really engage with knowledge, make connections, fully explore a topic in depth, but then also link that to their lives and context.

So what’s next? Our goal is to ensure that students become better at self-regulation so that they are able to seek out challenge and set their own challenges.  So we might not always know the exact extent to which students are thinking hard, but if we know that they value seek to challenge themselves, desiring the difficulty, then perhaps the potential guilt we may feel when students struggle will become the will to push them hard and see how far they can go.