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.

“A word after a word after a word is power”  Margaret Atwood 

 

Like many other schools up and down the country, we have been focusing our efforts on developing the vocabulary of our students. Following the inspiration of Alex Quigley’s book, we are ‘Closing The Vocabulary Gap’. Alex’s theory has been fundamental in helping us to appreciate the impact of being ‘word poor’. He explains how the curse of the expert can sometimes mean that we fail to appreciate the gaps that students have in their vocabulary. As a result, we unintentionally fail to explicitly teach the meaning of some of the language that we assume is a common vernacular. So, after getting stuck in to some of the research and thinking about what’s most important for our students, we knew that this had to be a priority. As a result, it is an integral strand of one of our Academy goals to design and embed a text rich curriculum. The evidence not only highlighted the connections between word knowledge and academic achievement and the importance of vocabulary in reading comprehension but also reminded us of the moral imperative. As Geoff Barton points out, ‘words lie at the heart of our quest to narrow gaps between the advantaged and disadvantaged, to address social mobility’.  Now, 10 weeks into this academic year, here are just some of the approaches we’ve taken as a team at MCA to improve word wealth and close the vocabulary gap:

  • Daily reading time in all subject areas followed by a focused discussion and understanding of tier 2 vocabulary, providing wider and frequent exposure as well as explicit instruction
  • Explicit identification and delivery of tier 2 vocabulary in medium-term plans across all subjects
  • A thinking and oracy curriculum in Year 7 for students struggling with literacy. This includes becoming familiar with new vocabulary by saying the words using different accents and volumes before applying in context to a written task
  • Scripting teacher explanations to include appropriate tier 2 vocabulary that is then unpicked and understood
  • Retrieval practice of useful terminology across subject areas within faculty groups
  • The deconstruction of WAGOLLs (What a Good One Looks Like) with a focus on tier 2 vocabulary
  • Talk of the Town events where students present speeches to peers, teachers and parents
  • Vocabulary buster bingo cards for students to gain experience of application of common tier 2 vocabulary
  • A weekly Words and Music celebration for students to perform spoken word
  • Interactive displays and word walls to prompt and support the familiar use of new vocabulary

Experience has taught me that trying to develop a whole school approach to literacy can often be a challenge. In some schools, it can still appear to be the domain of the English department. This is not the case at MCA.

That could be down to the fact that the approach has been evidence and research informed. It could be because the majority of our CPD this year is tied together by the golden thread of a text rich curriculum. It could also be that the strategies are fairly simple to implement, and colleagues have been given time to do so. Likewise, it could have something to do with the fact that we are relentless as leaders in our quest to make this happen. However, it wouldn’t happen without a fantastic team of middle leaders who transform the evidence and vision into something that is relevant and purposeful for their department. It also wouldn’t happen without the amazing teachers who are committed to doing whatever it takes to give our students the greatest chance to be the best version of themselves. As my favourite author, Margaret Atwood, said: “A word after a word after a word is power.” We believe a team brings those words to action and makes change happen. Change is happening here.

 

‘Alone we can do so little, together we can do so much.’ (Helen Keller, Author and Activist)

Mr Daniel, Assistant Principal, proud Welshman and all round creative genius, signs off all of his emails with #togetherstronger. I’m sure we all recognise that this is Mr Daniel’s way of persuading us to do something but no one could argue that he embodies this hashtag daily; with colleagues, with governors, with parents and most importantly, with students. I don’t think there is any coincidence that the creative subjects which he leads have achieved the highest progress 8 scores across the Academy for the past 3 years. He wouldn’t claim this (of course) and quite rightly attributes it to a team effort. Our creative team are amazing and also a very strong team, no one works alone. Mr Daniel and his team have made me reflect on the importance of partnerships.

I am proud to say that at MCA we are a very outward facing school. We are part of the Manchester Collaborative where colleagues from different subject areas and with different responsibilities meet with similar colleagues from other schools to share ideas and provide support. We are also working closely with the Institute for Teaching with colleagues working through the Transforming Teaching programme and I am lucky enough to be on the Fellowship programme. We have built effective relationships with OLEVI and are now proud facilitators of the Outstanding Teacher Programme. Their recent QA visit praised our ‘open culture’ and the fact we ‘recognise the benefits of engaging with external partners.’ Our links with the Research Schools network inspired our Disciplined Inquiry approach where all colleagues conduct an action research project. We are currently signed up to two EEF trials so that we can be at the forefront of learning from large scale research projects. If we are going to be a true learning community, then we have to believe that we can learn from others and seek out opportunities for that learning as much as possible.

However, those external partnerships can only go so far if we do not have a culture of collaboration, teamwork and an openness to feedback and learning within the Academy. Our timetable is structured to allow planning teams to have protected time to meet and plan on a weekly basis. This opportunity for collaboration has definitely made me a better teacher. Not only do we share resources and ideas but it provides an opportunity to reflect and compare how well students have learnt.  This year, we have set up coaching triads as part of our learning communities to support professional development. Whilst coaching is still in its infancy here, the opportunity to discuss ideas and share the evaluation process of strategies, further supports the belief that working together in a non-threatening and non-judgemental way can be really powerful.

Of course, what we want above all else, is for our students to believe that they are not alone on this journey. We want our students to experience collaborative learning and to develop these skills that transform them into good listeners, good friends and good team players. We want them to feel proud to be part of our MCA community and proud of the community and the city in which they live. We want them to believe that as a generation they can change the world. Together, everything is possible. It is our job to model that and to demonstrate that commitment to all of the partnerships we are a part of. Through these partnerships and teams, we show them that it is ok to reach out and ask for help. This is not a sign of weakness. Because together we are stronger.

 

 

Trust the Magic of New Beginnings

‘Trust the Magic of New Beginnings’

Just like that, the summer was over. It’s now time for a confession that could possible alienate me from many teachers up and down the country; I was itching to get back. That’s not to say that my summer holidays were not wonderful. I savoured every special moment spent with friends and loved ones, to travel, to cook, to read, to eat (excessively!). Those times are so important and we are so lucky as a profession that we get that time but isn’t there something exciting about the opportunity for a new beginning?

This eagerness and urgency really hit home on GCSE results day. I don’t think it matters how many years you have been a teacher, every year there are the sleepless nights filled with anxiety, worry, overthinking and often underestimating the wonder of this day. At MCA, we couldn’t have been prouder. Our morning started over sausage butties with a genuine celebration with our middle leaders of the overwhelming hard work, effort, commitment and determination that culminated in a truly reflective set of results. The message from our principal was clear. This day was not about the numbers and the data, it was not the time to scrutinise and, as we typically do, feel disappointed if there was a result that was not what we were expecting. This day was about our young people and sharing in that moment that will last with them forever.

What a day! Happy tears (students and staff, including me) shouts and squeals, hugs and so much shared joy. And then they were gone. Off into the big, wide world with all the potential to make a difference and be the best version of themselves. Why would we not want to get back to the business of making that happen and being a part of a moment that those young people will hold in their memories for a lifetime?

So, back to business and the time for those new beginnings. New priorities, new staff and new students. There have been some exciting developments at MCA which mark the start of 2018-2019. Here are just a few of them:

Walls: When MCA was first built more than eight years ago, the building was designed with open-plan learning spaces. Over time, teachers have felt that the opportunity to have a more private classroom space, which allows for greater opportunities for discussion and group work, would be beneficial to our learning environment. We now have walls. We have still maintained the option for more open-plan learning bases but traditional classrooms are much more of a feature across the Academy. I’m excited to see how the dynamics of learning are transformed to provide even more engaging learning experiences.

A Library: Our drive for CPD, teaching and learning and curriculum is to flood the environment with as much exposure as possible to a text-rich culture. This starts with our new library. This was launched by our student leaders during our INSET day when they led book clubs with staff on Matt Haig’s book ‘Reasons to Stay Alive’, which everyone was given to read over the summer. The discussions that were led by our students on mental health and the joy of life were astounding (cue more tears) and seeing our students arrive at school on a day when they could still be enjoying their summer, clutching a book and talking about it, magically defined the start of my year.

Reading Time: Every afternoon, at the end of lunch and before the start of the final lesson of the day, students now have 15 minutes which is dedicated reading time. They arrive to their learning areas to the sound of classical music and have the option to read a book of their choice or they are provided with an article or extract that has been chosen by the teacher. This culminates in a short discussion or reflection. Not only does this facilitate more reading time for our young people, it also provides a calm moment in the middle of the day. Maybe next year we will include breathing and meditation, too. Watch this space.

Shorter Lessons: Our school day used to be structured about three x 1 hour-50-minute lessons. This year we have modified this to four x 1 hour-20-minute lessons. Why? We recognised, with the help of student voices, that many struggled to concentrate for the longer lesson period and in some cases the time meant that pace was compromised. Already, the students are reporting greater levels of engagement and pace is much more conducive to learning. We value the slightly longer than traditional lesson times as it allows for extended writing (part of our text rich curriculum) and valuable reflection to support the metacognitive processes that allow for better learning and greater development of learning behaviours.

The list could go on (jumpers, assemblies, assistant heads of year, more Mandarin). Whilst there are many new things to revel in, monitor, evaluate and hopefully enjoy, the fundamentals here at MCA still firmly remain: A commitment to the well-being of students and staff, a relentless focus on mitigating the effects of disadvantage, a world-class service to our community and many, many magic moments.

Let’s Talk CPD. How can professional development meet the needs of every member of staff?

The last two weeks have seen the culmination of an important – and slightly risky – strand to MCAs CPD programme: The Disciplined Inquiry.

Inspired by the work of Huntington Research School and through our drive and ambition to be an evidence-informed school, we set about the objective that every teacher and teaching assistant would develop and implement their own personal action research project. We wanted colleagues to have the time, opportunity and space to engage with research but also investigate what works for our students, in our academy, in north Manchester.

I’m not afraid to admit that whilst the project and its potential excited me as Research Lead, it also terrified me. What if no one took it seriously? Would it be seen as a fad? How do we successfully embed such a large project on such a big scale at the same time as promoting a healthy well-being agenda? Nine months on since the launch, and after two brilliant showcases, I am ridiculously proud of what has been achieved and very excited for our next steps. More on the logistics of the process in a future post but for now, I thought I would share some of the lessons that took place along the way.

  1. Effective CPD is personalised and if you want buy-in, make sure colleagues see the relevance and feel that they might learn something.

At the start of the year, the Teaching and Learning team leads met with every teacher and TA to discuss areas of interests, strengths and challenges they may face. From this point, we organised learning communities around similar themes. These conversations were so valuable and also a great way to start the year with a commitment to exploring pedagogical ideas. We then ensured that everyone had a performance development target focused on their disciplined inquiry.

  1. The world of education research can feel like a never-ending rabbit warren. It’s important to make research accessible and ensure that colleagues are directed towards reputable, credible material.

We designed a research bookmark with reputable websites and blogs for accessing research, analysis and thought-provoking discussion.  Learning community leads also shared key pieces of research which were relevant to their group during CPD sessions to facilitate conversations. I have also discovered the power of Google Classroom!

  1. It is important not to shy away from research methodology. Be as disciplined as possible.

Control groups raise ethical issues. Evaluation methods can be challenging to implement in a school context. Analysis can make professionals nervous. Be bold, address the issues by openly acknowledging the value of a disciplined approach, provide training and if necessary keep some projects small. It can always scale up when confidence develops.

  1. Time and support are your (and your teachers’) most precious and valuable resources

Dedicate and protect time for reading, planning, discussing, reflecting, adapting and writing. If you make it a priority it is more likely to succeed and colleagues are more likely to see the value with evaluations being more reliable.

  1. Change and disruption are inevitable if not always predictable. Plan for the what ifs…

Class groups change following mocks, students leave, teachers are given new responsibilities. This year, we were reactive to these disruptions, which meant that some projects did not have enough time or scale or discipline to truly measure possible impact. Next year, scaling up to develop faculty focused Dis and implementing a strategy for Plan B as part of the initial planning and hypothesising sessions should minimise potential problems.

  1. And finally, success doesn’t always mean projects and interventions have a positive impact on student outcomes

This year was fundamentally about engagement. By November, when conversations over lunch or in corridors were about disciplined inquiries, we knew this was progress in just a few months. Some projects have not proven the original hypothesis but we maintain that this is just as successful as those that have the potential to be transformational to our practice. Isn’t it just as great to learn about the things we can potentially stop doing as well as discover new approaches?

A summary of our findings will be available on our website from next week.

 

Curriculum Conundrums

Like the majority of other schools in the country, at MCA we have been considering what our curriculum will look like next year and have decided to make some changes to our timetable structure to best meet the needs of our students. Our current structure is slightly unusual; students have three lessons a day of 1 hour and 50 minutes. They then also attend two ESA (Extended School Activity) sessions after school for 1 hour. Not only does this broaden the scope for students to experience and engage with a wider range of activities and subject areas, it also leaves us in the lucky position to be able to shorten the school day on a Friday for students and dedicate an hour a week to staff professional development. More on ESAs in a later blog.

Alongside a slightly unusual timetable structure, we are perhaps in a slightly different position to many other schools in the light of national pressure and have stuck firm to our commitment to providing a healthy offer of the Arts and other practical subjects. Our students thrive in these areas; they are talented, creative, energetic and ultimately will benefit hugely from the other skills that are developed in these areas; communication skills, confidence, resilience, life skills. Then there has been the continued consideration of the needs of our local labour market and our commitment to digital literacy, computing and technology subjects.

So, before we started thinking about a timetable and curriculum structure we returned to our principles for what we want our curriculum to be and we agreed on these:

  • A curriculum that excites, stimulates, is relevant and meaningful
  • That serves the young people of our local area
  • That challenges ALL
  • That is literacy rich-including oracy

We are now in the midst of constructing the timetable which now consists of four lessons of 1 hour 20 minutes (still allowing for depth of learning and reflection but ensuring a pace that maximises engagement). Subject areas are designing differentiated curriculum plans so that students experience learning that is most relevant to them but also stretches and challenges as well as supports. Year 8 students have taken their options in their Pot 3 (open group) subjects and will begin to study 2 of these in Year with the aim to complete in Year 10. The debate around early entry is well known, however what we do know is that for our students, early entry in these subjects does not hinder their progress; in fact, the progress 8 score for these subjects last year was +1.0. Students will select their Pot 2 (Ebacc) subjects in Year 9 to give them more time to develop and demonstrate the skills necessary in these subjects.  We are introducing a Health curriculum, currently titled ‘My Personal Best’, which will take place every Monday morning, with the aim being to cover aspects of the PSHE and Well- Being through an engaging literature text to explore themes and ideas through moral and philosophical questioning. In terms of challenging all, we are building the curriculum so that all students can study triple science if that is appropriate for them. It’s exciting and really feels like we are doing what is best for our students in this context and also considers the strengths of our teachers.

And talking of curriculum, this week has been ‘Drop Down Week’ where we have collapsed the usual timetable and instead provided enrichment activities for all year groups. Is this still curriculum? Well, when you speak to excited Year 7s about their trip to Chester Zoo because it is the first time they have seen a giraffe ‘in real life’ or you hear Year 8’s discussing ‘Who Dunnit?’ at lunchtime part way through a Murder Mystery investigation (including fingerprinting and fibre analysis) or you see 200 Year 9 students discussing University life as part of an Enterprise Day, I think you would be hard pushed to argue that this is of any less value that the learning that they experience every other day of the year.

Managing Exam Pressure

We are in exam season. We know we are not alone in this, schools up and down the country are experiencing the same thing; the nerves, the final cramming, the speculating about possible questions, the thumbs up before they go in, the peeping through exam hall doors to check they’re ok, the nervous wait for them to come out. The tears. The fear. It doesn’t matter how many years you have been in teaching or that you know that this is not unique to your students and your school but the overwhelming sense of wanting to protect your students from the anxiety, the pressure and the worry dominates our emotions during this time. We’re so proud of them; ready to send them off into the big wide world but they are still our students, our children, and we want to protect them for anything that is going to knock their confidence or make them feel like they are failing.

Relationships and culture were the big attractions to MCA when I visited before applying for my role just over a year ago. You can feel it as soon as you walk in the door. Staff-and I don’t just mean one or two members from the pastoral team, but eight to ten members of staff including the headteacher-are in reception welcoming in the students and colleagues. This is the same every morning but during exam season, every Year 11 is spoken to individually. We check they are ok, they know where they are sat, they have everything they need, do they need any breakfast? Then they are directed to a subject area where they are met by their teachers for some last minute boosting. Not necessarily going through subject content again, but coming together as a team and being reminded about how proud we are of them and helping to put this one exam, this day, into perspective. Before the first computer science exam, the breakfast revision session was outside my office and I was talking to the students about last minute preparation. Suddenly, there was some rousing activity behind us. A group of students was stood around the table with their teacher, all holding hands and shouting ’Amen’ in response to positive statements like ‘we got this!’ from one of the boys. At the end they all clapped, gave each other hugs and were ready to go. Earlier this week I heard the vice principal say ‘in the end, you’ll still go home tonight and have your tea and you’ll come back tomorrow and we start again, but you’re not on your own.’ I needed to hear that so I can only imagine how reassuring it was for them too! Towards the end of the French exam, I saw the Head of Year 11 setting up cakes and high tea for a group of girls ready to share some lovely moments with them after an exam they were worried about.

The relationships between and amongst students and staff coupled with the belief that these exams are only a small measure of who they are as people and what they can offer to our society is fundamental to making this bearable. And let’s be honest, those are the moments and the memories that they will take from their time in school, that will shape who they are as people, not the umpteenth mock exam to reassure ourselves they are ready.