Category Archives: English

Dear Miss Truss – There Is A Problem With ‘Traditional Text Books’

As the end of the exam season arrives, unsurprisingly, government ministers are pushing forward to comment on the state of education and teaching. It is a pattern that, in the UK at least, seems to be repeated year on year.

In today’s Telegraph, Liz Truss announced that:

Teachers must stop “reinventing the wheel” by drawing up special lesson plans for children and revert to traditional teaching from text books – The Telegraph 26/6/14

Fair enough, so it seems based on the article – teachers spending too much time planning lessons and printing worksheets rather than teaching – it would be difficult to disagree…that is, if this was indeed the case.

However, Miss Truss goes on to refer to “strong core material” and that is at the heart of the problem – it doesn’t always exist. In my main teaching subject, English, the quality of text books for GCSE is rather poor. Lots of bright colours, text boxes, pictures, but very little decent content. These books are fine for a lesson or two, but any child whose entire English course was taught from the current crop of text books (or for that matter, some of those from the ‘halcyon days’ of O Level) would be short-changed indeed.

Many English text books follow a very similar format – a short text extract, several mundane questions based on the text and then an imaginative writing task – over and over again, without any real development in knowledge or challenge. As text books aim to cover all possibilities, and knowing that schools have increasingly limited budgets, they often cover most of the literature set texts in a page or two of surface level information.

The attitude Miss Truss reveals is one that suggests that if only teachers stopped faffing around and taught from ‘the text book’, all would be right with the world – it also suggests that this is all there is to teaching. This certainly seems to be the party line, that anyone, qualified or not, can roll up and teach a class. A job made laughingly easy when all you have to do is tell the class to ‘open your text book at page 23 and answer questions 1 to infinity’ while settling down with a coffee for a little gentle marking. Sadly, teaching is not that easy and the miracle ‘core’ text book is currently a fantasy.

In reality, things are not so straightforward. Good teaching means using the available resources and adapting them for the pupils in a particular class, which can take time. Yes, spending hours creating clip-art laden worksheets which achieve little is pointless, but so is getting pupils to work mindlessly from a text book without considering whether it actually meets their educational needs. I suspect that much of the time spent on ‘lesson planning’ is actually for the benefit of OFSTED or, more likely, OFSTED-obsessed SMT. The focus on differentiation and individually tailored lessons, criticised by Miss Truss, is a direct result of Government pressure for all schools to be ‘good’ or better. This in itself is based on Michael Gove’s flawed logic:

Q98 Chair: One is: if “good” requires pupil performance to exceed the national average, and if all schools must be good, how is this mathematically possible?

Michael Gove: By getting better all the time.

Q99 Chair: So it is possible, is it?

Michael Gove: It is possible to get better all the time.

Q100 Chair: Were you better at literacy than numeracy, Secretary of State?

There is another problem, for decent text books to exist there needs to be several years of stability within the examination system. A text book is likely to take a year or so to create and publish – difficult to do well when as soon as it is published it is obsolete (remember all those text book chapters on controlled assessments?). In addition, there are currently multiple exam boards in England and therefore, unless there was a single board and a single syllabus, there would never be a single, definitive text book. Currently, the major publishers each tend to focus on a single exam board, knowing that schools teaching that board would be likely to buy their book. If we had a single board for each subject then some healthy competition might develop between publishers to produce the best text book – at the moment this is simply not the case.

A similar problem exists for English departments (and every other school department, I’m sure) – every time the syllabus changes or the set texts change, hundreds and thousands of pounds have to be spent on buying new stock, money which is increasingly hard to find. If I wished to teach, for example, Jane Austen’s ‘Emma’ (assuming it was on the syllabus) I would need copies of the text to use in class (for those who can’t or won’t buy their own copy) and perhaps additional clean copies for the final exam. This all costs money. There is no text book for ‘Emma’, so it would be necessary to create suitable tasks (something that I would do anyway, even if there was a text book as it is unlikely that one book could cover everything my class would need). Or should I be limited to teach only those texts with an existing text book? Hardly the challenge and rigour so favoured by the Government.

Now, I try not to be too cynical about education and politics, but is there, perhaps, a darker reason for this panegyric on text books? It may be interesting to note that the education secretary, Michael Gove who advocates a return to ‘traditional’ teaching, used to write a column for The Times (a NewsCorp company) and received an advance from Harper-Collins (a NewsCorp company) for a book which he has not yet written (listed on the Register of Member’s Interests)…and that Harper-Collins is a major publisher of educational text books. But, surely that is all just coincidental?

 

What did my first job teach me?

As any teacher will tell you, your PGCE (or other training route) is only the start of you learning to be a teacher. Most trainee teachers heave a huge sigh of relief at finishing their course and securing their first job – and rightly so, but the way ahead is steep and difficult. I would be lying if I didn’t say that your first teaching job makes your PGCE seem, relatively, easy.

I attended three interviews before I secured my first job. It was in an 11-16 school in my home county of Somerset, a rural school, totally different from the inner city I trained in. I was so pleased to be offered the job I almost cried – most unlike me. Then it was back to finish the course and graduate.

September 2001 arrived and I started my first term as an English teacher and form tutor. Luckily, I had a Year 7 tutor group who were as nervous and wide eyed as I was, which meant that, for the first day I didn’t really have time to worry. My timetable was a mixture of groups including Year 10 and Year 11 GCSE groups, some ‘nice’ and some ‘challenging’. Having this mix is important. Sometimes, new teachers are kept away from exam groups and difficult classes – this isn’t helpful as they have to learn to teach these groups at some point. All it does is put more pressure on those who end up with large numbers of exam/difficult groups and creates a situation where these groups are taught by a select few due to the fear of a dip in results.

The department was small, a head of department who started at the same time as me, three part timers and two NQTs. There were filing cabinets full of ‘resources’, many of them printed on Banda machines (one to Google if you have never heard of it) and newspaper articles from the early 80s. Schemes of work were almost non-existent. This was a blessing and a curse as it forced me to produce my own resources and schemes – tough work but I believe it set me up for my teaching career. My planning and lesson delivery improved (to see the gaping chasm between these two read @tstarkey1212‘s blog post on planning).

Being part of a small department, and a small school meant that I got the opportunity to take on extra responsibility. This included being the first in the department to get an interactive whiteboard in my second year. A classroom was built from a section of corridor and part of a toilet block (I kid you not) and the board was installed. As is often the case, it didn’t occur to anyone that I might actually need a traditional board as well – especially with a relatively new, untried piece of equipment (this was eventually sorted out). I had to teach myself how to use the board and its software, as well as having back up lessons for when it broke down. I learnt to wing it, when necessary, and rely on my subject knowledge and my teaching ability.

I eventually moved to another school, for promotion, after three years and was genuinely sad to leave.

So, what did my first job teach me?

  • There is no substitute for doing it yourself. Although there was support and guidance, most of the schemes I taught were created by me. This made me a much better teacher and improved my subject knowledge. I am all for sharing resources, but I think there is a danger of going too far, with whole schemes produced on powerpoint, lesson by lesson. Teachers need to make the lesson their own and the danger with this is that they don’t. I have observed a lesson power point, which I had produced and shared, being taught by someone who thought all they had to do was show the slides to their class – they hadn’t even read the text fully – needless to say, the lesson was a disaster. Yes it takes longer to create new resources or tweak existing ones, but that is what a good teacher does.
  • ‘Bad’ groups have sometimes been short changed. My first GCSE group was one which was a terrifying prospect. Year 11, lots of SEN, challenging behaviour – you know the type. I was given them, I suspect, because if I didn’t manage to get results out of them it wasn’t the end of the world. The class had had three teachers in Year 10, one of whom had walked out mid-lesson never to return. When I looked at their ‘coursework’ I was horrified – none of it was acceptable and mostly there were just a series of posters made after watching films. The group had been failed – by their teachers and by the previous head of department. Over the course of a year we worked hard to complete the missing work and prepare for the exam. It was not plain sailing. I had to convince the group that I was going to stay and that they were capable of GCSE work. There were tantrums and upturned tables (a pupil, not me), but eventually it was done – all but one achieved a pass, and two got a C grade. Those C grades mean the world to me as I know just how hard the pupils worked for them. From that point on, I was careful not to judge a class by their data and reputation and knew the importance of high expectations.
  • Sometimes you have to go with your instincts. The more observant of you will have noticed that my first teaching position coincided with a tragic time in world history, 9/11. My new Year 8 class were doing a scheme of work on the media. We had covered the difference between a tabloid and a broadsheet, looked at the layout of a front page and the questions an article aims to answer. Homework was to bring in a tabloid or a broadsheet newspaper for analysis in the next lesson. I went home that night to see the news full of the horrible events in New York. The next day, I met my Year 8 class again – almost every child had brought in a newspaper, some had brought in two. At the start of the lesson I had had a vague plan of getting the group to write a newspaper article on a completely unrelated topic, or to pull out the textbooks. However, the group wanted to explore the front pages, naturally they were shocked and frightened by what had happened but also curious. Nervously, I decided to go ahead with the planned lesson. We looked at the front pages and the way the headlines were written, the choice of images and the difference between the tabloid and broadsheet coverage. The class were brilliant – fantastic, probing questions; thoughtful comments and a solid understanding of how newspapers cover a major international event. When I spoke to other members of the department about the lesson some were shocked and suggested that parents would complain – not a single one did. It was a tough lesson emotionally for all of us, but I’m glad I went with my instinct.
  • Life sometimes gets in the way. The danger with teaching is that it can be all encompassing. However, sometimes you need to prioritise ‘real’ life: your family and friends. During my first teaching position, this was reinforced by three events – my father having a (thankfully non-fatal) heart attack, my grandmother dying while I was on an overnight school trip and a friend being shot and killed in the local pub. What I learnt from these three incidents was that you need to let someone in school know (however private a person you are), and that ‘good enough’ teaching, whether it be use of worksheets, textbooks or whatever, is good enough until you are in a position to get back to your normal standard of teaching. No one, will criticise or blame you (and if they do then, frankly it is not a school you want to work in) if your lessons are less than brilliant and the books not marked for a while. Concentrate on what is important and let HoDs and SLT deal with the rest, after all, that is what they are paid extra for.
  • School politics can be bizarre. Schools can be a hotbed for all sorts of odd behaviour – you probably have all kinds of stories (real and exaggerated) from your own school days. My first job reinforced that: the ‘reserved’ seats in the staffroom, mugs and the all too common rivalry between the Maths, Science and English departments. However, I also experienced the minefield that can be departmental politics. My new HoD was in the unenviable position of having to work with his predecessor, a lady nearing retirement who had given up the head of department job to teach part time (not entirely voluntarily, I suspect). They did not see eye to eye. She wanted to hoard the old resources (Banda sheets and all, many of which hadn’t been touched for years) and was reluctant to make any changes to ‘the way things have always been done’, even when a change was desperately needed. Pupils had been set in Year 7 and then remained in the same class throughout their school career, she never saw the problems this caused in the lower groups as she only taught the top ones. In departmental meetings, she was vocally against any suggestions that were not her own – it was clear that she had become totally disillusioned with teaching and did not enjoy what she did. Eventually she made the decision to resign (to the relief of the rest of the department, who were sick of the tension) and left after giving a speech to the whole staff about the awful state of education and that children should not have to attend school after 14 years of age. My advice, if you find yourself caught in a similarly bizarre situation, observe, listen but keep your own counsel (in public at least).

Your first teaching job, good or bad, is something that helps shape you as a teacher. It will be hard (realistically it should be) and it may convince some that teaching is not for them, but for those who stay in the job it is unforgettable.

Summary of SOLO Posts

As one of the searches that seems to bring people to my site is for SOLO taxonomy, here is a post which provides links to each of the posts I have written about SOLO. I am not saying that SOLO is a magic bullet or universal panacea, however, my research suggests that it may have a positive impact.

My advice, for what it’s worth, is: read about it, try it for yourself if you want to and make up your own mind whether it is useful for you and your students.

MA Research Project

All of these posts are based on my final MA dissertation, as a result they tend to be more theoretical.

Teaching with SOLO

These posts are about my own experiences using SOLO in lessons.

If you have any questions, feel free to comment and I’ll do my best to answer.

SOLO Research: Conclusions

What have I learnt from my research into the SOLO taxonomy?

Researching and Note Taking

At a personal level, this research has been very useful. I have found out that I really enjoy research and reading academic articles and texts. In particular, writing the literature review was an interesting, challenging and enjoyable part – far more than I had expected it to be. It was like a giant jigsaw which needed to be put together before it would make sense.

notesI tried out a variety of note taking methods for the review, the most effective one turned out to be writing key quotations onto post its which I then sorted into linked areas on large pieces of paper with lines and comments added to show the relationship. This helped organise each part of the review into paragraphs and made the links clearer to see. It was while I was doing this that I realised that this was also a SOLO task – I was moving my knowledge of the literature from the multistructural to the relational level and beyond. Thinking about the process in this way was quite useful as it mitigated some of the frustration I felt at having to go off on tangents in order to understand the bigger picture – it was simply that I didn’t have the knowledge at the multistructural level.

Twitter, the Internet and The Khan Academy

As someone who completed their undergraduate degree in the early 1990s, studying at Masters level was a very different beast. Beyond the level of complexity that obviously exists in the step up, the key difference I noticed was the availability of resources. Now, don’t get me wrong, I love an academic library – the smell of the books, the chance finds in the stacks, the quiet you only get in the obscure corner of the Old English section on floor 10 – but, as a distance learner, the internet has been invaluable to me.

Twitter has been a fantastic source of ideas, suggestions for academic reports and texts as well as a source of data. Without this community of educators, I think my study would have been a sad shadow, and I would have been a very lonely researcher.

One of the challenges I faced was gaining an understanding of descriptive and comparative statistics. As far as I can remember (and it was a very long time ago, so I may be wrong), this was not covered in much detail in my GCSE Maths course. Although I have used maths on a day to day basis in work and as a teacher, this was something I needed to brush up on – that is where The Khan Academy came in. One weekend watching their statistics videos and trying out a few problems, and I had a good understanding of what I needed.

Is the SOLO Taxonomy Effective?

Based on my limited research, it does appear that the SOLO taxonomy can be a useful tool in a teacher’s arsenal. The use of rubrics to identify the knowledge (both declarative and functioning) and stages of learning were particularly useful for making this explicit both for me and the students. The emphasis on looping back through the multistructural-relational-extended abstract levels in order to develop a more detailed and sophisticated understanding helped scaffold the most able and encouraged them to view learning as open-ended.

Knowledge is vital – without relevant knowledge, students cannot progress through the SOLO levels. Direct instruction, whether it is through teacher talk, rubrics or any other direct method, help to provide the  knowledge needed by the student. The rubric can keep this instruction at the forefront while students complete independent tasks – the two do not have to be mutually exclusive.

A key benefit of the SOLO taxonomy is creating a common language for discussion of knowledge and feedback – used by the teacher and in self and peer assessment it can help to ensure the quality and focus of feedback.

Of the SOLO techniques I trialled with my classes, I felt that the use of rubrics, hexagons and SOLO stations were the most useful. The weaker students found the hexagons helpful to pull together their knowledge of a text and bridge the gap between knowing the text and being able to write a clear paragraph about it. SOLO Stations allowed for differentiation, student choice and teacher guidance while giving me the time to work individually with students. The HOT maps were rather hit or miss depending on which type was used – the Part/Whole Analysis was a useful structure for discussing and revising a text in detail.

Given the recent reports from Sir Michael Wilshaw, regarding the brightest students in schools failing to achieve the highest grades, it is certainly interesting that in this small scale study Level 5 students and males taught using SOLO methods did considerably better than their non-SOLO counterparts. Ev ex 2Although it is impossible to know whether SOLO was the key factor in this difference, it suggests that this may be a possibility and would warrant further investigation.Ev ex 4

 

Taken as a whole, based on my personal observations, surveys of teachers and students, a lesson observation and exam data analysis, it appears that the SOLO taxonomy may be effective. As with any teaching technique, it is not a panacea – however, it is certainly worth trying.

SOLO Research Project – Findings Part 2

Exam Data

In addition to the other data collection methods, I chose to analyse the modular examination results for a group of Year 10 students, one group (n=29) taught using SOLO methods, and a larger group (n=82) who were not.

To try to ensure that, as much as possible, the groups were comparable, I chose students who had started school with either a level 4 or 5 from their Key Stage 2 English tests. The students were all from one of the two parallel top sets. Students who did not have a Key Stage 2 level were excluded from the analysis.

All students in the groups selected took GCSE English Literature exam module A663 (Prose from Different Cultures) in the summer of Year 10 and studied the same text – Of Mice and Men. The results were analysed using descriptive statistics to gain an overview and identify areas where the data warranted a closer look. In areas which appeared to show a difference, a chi-square test was applied to test significance; a significance threshold level of p<0.5 was set to ensure that any significance was meaningful.

Although every attempt was made to make the analysis as unbiased as possible, for example choosing to focus on a module which was externally marked, it is important to remember that looking:

At results before and after a new intervention is rolled out…can be very misleading, as other factors may have changed at the same time. (Goldacre, 2013:9)

 

In addition, as the group selection was not randomized, or carried out over a longer period of time, the results may not be replicable, although I feel that they may provide some indications for areas which would be worth investigating further.

Analysis

The non-SOLO group shows normal distribution with a modal grade of a B. The SOLO group also shows a relatively normal distribution, which is less steep than the non-SOLO group. Ev ex 1 The tail at the higher end of the SOLO group does not drop off to the extreme of the non-SOLO group. The modal grade for the SOLO group is one grade higher, an A grade.

Comparing the results of the combined level 4 and 5 students between the SOLO and Non-SOLO groups, using a chi-square test, suggests that the probability of this distribution happening by chance is 4%; a significant result. These results suggest that, based on this limited study, SOLO may have a positive impact on exam achievement.

To identify whether this impact can be pinpointed, the data was explored in subsets according to level and gender.

Exploring the subset data, it is apparent that, in this sample, the SOLO group females did not achieve significantly different grades to the non-SOLO group. 

When comparing the difference between the level 4 students, the difference is significant. Ev ex 3

However, it is when comparing the achievement of students starting school on a level 5  and male groups that a very highly significant difference is evident.

Ev ex 2

Comparing the results of the students entering school with a level 5, using a chi-square test, suggests that the probability of this distribution happening by chance is 0%; a very highly significant result.Ev ex 4

As suggested by the graph there is a significant difference between the achievements of the two male groups. Looking at this distribution, using a chi-square test suggests that this distribution (p=0.0000) is very highly significant.

Although there are limitations to this particular aspect of the study, the results suggest that SOLO techniques may have a measurable impact on student exam results. Therefore, it would certainly be worth further, structured research.

Why Research SOLO Taxonomy?

This is the first in a series of blog posts based on my MA research into the use of the SOLO (Structure of Observed Learning Outcomes) taxonomy in English. I hope that  what I write proves useful and not just for English teachers.

A reasonably obvious starting point is: why did I choose to research the SOLO taxonomy?

A quick glance at the TES or Twitter will reveal that teachers are under pressure. The need to achieve year on year improvements in results, as well as a dearth of time available, means that it is not surprising that many teachers are looking for a ‘magic bullet’– something that is effective and involves little additional work. The danger is that schools and teachers are not appropriately critical when selecting and promoting techniques in the rush to achieve the desired results.

Over the past few years a range of different ideas (e.g. Brain Gym, VAK, de Bono’s Thinking Hats) have been promoted in schools, often supported by ‘a thriving commercial industry’ (Coffield et al., 2004:118). While some of these offer useful techniques which can easily be incorporated into the teachers’ everyday lesson, others can become overly burdensome without empirical evidence that the technique actually works (Harrison et al., 2003; Krätzig & Arbuthnott, 2006). Key here is the fact that, while scientific research may indicate a result as suggestive, all too often the results are distorted or overstated (Swaffield, 2009).

How many of us have sat through a CPD session run by an expensive expert, or an enthusiastic member of SLT, and questioned whether it is actually worthwhile? How many have spoken up to challenge ideas that we know are not proven, or (often more likely) sat squirming and wishing that we had the nerve to speak up? In budget conscious and results-driven schools, staff buying into ineffective techniques and strategies (physically and metaphorically) can drain money from where it is most needed.

It is, however, important that teachers are proactive in trialling and using techniques which they believe may be of benefit. Levin (2010:90) explains:

If data from students could be linked to changes known to be effective – for example, improved assessment practices or greater student choice in assignments – we might start to see some lasting and worthwhile changes in the way students experience our high schools.

It was with this in mind that I became cautiously interested when discussions  on Twitter mentioned something called the SOLO (Structure of Observed Learning Outcomes) Taxonomy. Initially, it was mentioned by a small number of UK based teachers who provided more detailed examples on their blogs (Tait Coles, David Didau, Lisa Ashes).

While willing to try new teaching ideas, the key question for me is: what evidence is there that this works? A brief search of academic journals (via the wonderful Google Scholar) identified a number of articles, mostly focusing on the use of the SOLO taxonomy in geography, science or at university level (Munowenyu, 2007; Biggs & Tang, 2009; Brabrand & Dahl, 2009; Prakash et al., 2010).

I was also aware that the use of the SOLO taxonomy was widespread in New Zealand (Hattie & Brown, 2004), being linked to assessment and curriculum models, and through a number of New Zealand Tweachers’ contributions to Twitter discussions. However, it became clear that there was very little research on its use in the UK education system, and little available on its use in teaching English literature beyond blog posts and anecdotes. I therefore decided to try a relatively simple technique – the use of hexagons to link ideas. The results from this initial foray were genuinely surprising, however, could easily have been a fortuitous coincidence. Therefore, I decided to base my study on the effectiveness of the SOLO taxonomy in GCSE English Literature. I hoped to be able to demonstrate whether or not the SOLO taxonomy was effective in improving student results and clarify whether this technique was worth adopting at departmental level and beyond.

References:

Biggs, J. & Tang, C. (2009) ‘Applying constructive alignment to outcomes-based teaching and learning.’ Training Material. “Quality Teaching for Learning in Higher Education” Workshop for Master Trainers.  Ministry of Higher Education. Kuala Lumpur. 2010. http://drjj.uitm.edu.my/DRJJ/MQAGGPAS-Apr2011/What-is-CA-biggs-tang.pdf [accessed 19 August 2012]

Brabrand, C. & Dahl, B., (2009) ‘Using the SOLO taxonomy to analyze competence progression of university science curricula.’ Higher Education, 58 (4) pp. 531–549.

Coffield, F., Moseley, D., Hall, E., & Ecclestone, K. (2004) ‘Learning  styles and pedagogy in post-16 learning: A systematic and critical review.’ Learning and Skills Research Centre. Report No. 041543.

Harrison, G., Andrews, J., & Saklofske, D. (2003) ‘Current perspectives on cognitive learning styles.’ Education Canada. 43 (2) pp. 44-47

Hattie, J. & Brown, G. (2004) ‘Cognitive processes in asTTle: The SOLO taxonomy.’ University of Auckland/Ministry of Education. asTTle Technical Report 43. http://e-asttle.tki.org.nz/content/download/1499/6030/version/1/file/43.+The+SOLO+taxonomy+2004.pdf [accessed 6 March 2013]

Krätzig, G. & Arbuthnott, K. (2006) ‘Perceptual learning style and learning proficiency: a test of the hypothesis.’  Journal of Educational Psychology. 98 (1) pp. 238-246.

Levin, B. (2010) ‘What did you do at school today?’ Kappan. 91 (5) pp. 89-90. http://www.education.auckland.ac.nz/webdav/site/education/shared/about/centres/uacel/docs/InCanadaWDYDIST1002lev.pdf [accessed 8 April 2012]

Munowenyu, E. (2007) ‘Assessing the Quality of Essays Using the SOLO Taxonomy: Effects of Field and Classroom-based Experiences by “A” Level Geography Students.’ International Research in Geographical and Environmental Education. 16 (1) pp. 21–43.

Prakash, E. S., Narayan, K. A., & Sethuraman, K. R. (2010) ‘Student perceptions regarding the usefulness of explicit discussion of “Structure of the Observed Learning Outcome” taxonomy.’ Advances in physiology education. 34 (3) pp.145–9. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20826769 [accessed 6 March 2013]

Swaffield, S. (2009) ‘The misrepresentation of Assessment for Learning – and the woeful waste of a wonderful opportunity.’ Work in progress paper. AAIA National Conference. Bournemouth. 16-18 September. http://www.educ.cam.ac.uk/centres/lfl/current/papers/swaffield_aaia09.pdf [accessed 30 March 2013]

Knowledge vs Skills

Something strange seems to be happening in the world of education. Over the past few months, it seems that, for many commentators, issues in education have become either black or white. You are either for Gove’s ideas or against; for PBL or against; want more challenging exams or feel accusations of dumbing down are completely wrong.

To be honest, this does not make sense – when dealing with the complexities of education surely there are more shades of grey?

One of the more recent arguments on Twitter is between proponents of teaching ‘knowledge’ or teaching ‘skills’, which has led to some rather heated debates. This got me thinking…why are knowledge and skills being presented as a dichotomy? Is there a ‘right’ answer?

When I was at school and university, I studied a number of essay based subjects; as a result, I am pretty good at writing essays. As seemed to be the style of  teaching in the 1980s, we were not specifically ‘taught’ how to write an essay. There were no essay plans or scaffolding provided, no PEE paragraph structures and no exemplars of high-grade essays. Generally, we studied a text, were given a topic and a title and off we went. This doesn’t seem to have damaged my ability to write an essay, although a little guidance here and there may have helped and avoided me relying entirely on trial and error.

I specifically remember two essays I wrote: the ‘best essay ever’ and the ‘most disastrous essay’. They were written in the same year, my first year at university and,  I am still somewhat scarred by the latter.

The ‘most disastrous essay’ was written during an exam, the topic was the Fenian Cycle of Irish prose and poetry. My essay had paragraphs, it was structured in a logical manner but (and this is a big but) I had only given the material a cursory glance. In reality, I had no idea what I was writing about and resorted to hashing together half remembered bits and pieces and making up the rest. Not surprisingly, I got a, totally deserved, rubbish mark. (As an aside, that also seems to be a change in education – it never seems to be the student’s fault if they fail).

The ‘best essay ever’ did not have a particularly auspicious start. It was a module assignment on Old English poetry, due the next day at 10am. The English department had a policy of reducing your grade by a percentage if it was late, increasing the later the essay was handed in. Typically for me, I had left it to the last minute – I ended up writing it between midnight and 5am. However, I had read and annotated the texts involved, I had detailed lecture notes and I had read widely about the topic and had a good range of relevant quotations. The essay took time to write, but it was handed in on time and I got the best mark of my university career.

So, what was the difference? Clearly, I had the skills of essay writing – I knew how to use quotations and expand upon them, I could structure an essay, spell, use punctuation correctly. The difference was in my knowledge. The key was having both the skills to write an essay (the functional knowledge, if you will) and the detailed knowledge and understanding of the topic (the declarative knowledge).

As a teacher, I have seen this tension over and over again.  Several examples spring to mind: the top set Y11 student who ‘suddenly’ realized (after only a year of me telling him) that it was easier to write an essay if he had actually read the book. The A-level student who attempted to write an essay on ‘The Glass Menagerie‘ without reading the final act (in her version they all lived happily ever after!). The bottom set students who know the text in detail but struggle with the literacy skills needed to express those ideas in writing.

I feel that the constant focus on improving exam results does not help. The fear of any student failing (even though some thoroughly deserve to, due to their total lack of work or effort) can lead to over scaffolding. If every essay written in Year 10 and 11 is supported by too much guidance, we create students who have learned to be helpless – how can they then complete an exam essay when the guidance is gone? Students need to learn the topic, but they also need to learn how to use and present the information effectively.

This is why I am confused by the vitriol the knowledge v. skills debate seems to engender, because surely you need both types of knowledge to demonstrate your learning?

Further Experiments With HOT Maps

This year, I have decided to make it my mission to try to embed SOLO into my day-to-day lessons. I have written several times about using hexagons, and to be honest, they are an easy way into SOLO – if rather a pain to cut out! However, my intention this term is to use a wider range of strategies in a more coherent way.

Wilfred Owen

The unit I have chosen is (OCR A661) Wilfred Owen’s poetry. I have taught the unit twice before, so feel I have a good grip on the requirements of the specification as well as the areas the students tend to struggle with.

Starting point

I started by looking at the skills needed to complete the comparative essay, as well as the top end of the mark scheme (obviously where I would like all my students to be). This resulted in a grid of 6 key elements:

  • Poetry terminology
  • Use of quotation
  • Explaining language
  • Writing PEE paragraphs
  • Comparing poems
  • Planning and writing an essay

which were then mapped against the SOLO levels as a rubric grid.

I planned to focus on these elements, in turn, over the course of several lessons to build up the skill level and confidence of the students – the idea being that each marginal gain would build up to a bigger overall impact. Each pupil had a copy of the grid in their book. As the lessons progressed, we focused on different sections of the grid – and the students marked their progress on a simple chart.

Student Self-assessment

For example, explaining that before they could write an effective PEE paragraph they needed to know some terminology, use quotations and explain the effect of the language.

HOT Maps

I have used two HOT maps as part of the lesson series:

The Compare Contrast HOT Map – I have used this twice, firstly to gather some of the more straightforward links between the poems and then later to pull together the more detailed comparative points in preparation for making their notes.

Compare Contrast HOT Map

I like the fact that using this type of HOT map, rather than a  Venn diagram, encourages the students to think carefully about why things are similar or different, prompted by the ‘Because…’

The Part-Whole Analysis HOT Map – I trialled this one last year and was very impressed with the results, so I thought it would fit in very well here, especially when trying to move student explanation from relational to extended abstract.

As this map can be a little tricky to get to grips with at first, we used Harry Potter as an example:

Whole – Harry Potter is a series of books which focuses on good versus evil and the growth of its main character.

The Parts – Themes, Characters, Key Events, Setting etc. I then focused in on the character of Hermione.

What would be the impact if the part were missing? – This is the bit that the students find tricky at first. I asked the group what the books would be like without Hermione, their answers ranged from not appealing to girls, to not having the ‘brains’ to solve the problems.

Therefore what is the purpose of this element? – By this point, the purpose of the element is generally clear. For our example: to appeal to a wide audience, to provide a range of skills needed within the quest part of each novel, and to provide scope for further character development as the novels progressed.

Part Whole Analysis HOT Map

With this map it is not really the written work, although it does provide a useful format for note taking, it is the quality of the discussions it prompts. I love the look of concentration on the students’ faces when they are trying to consider the impact if the part was missing. We stretched the final question by repeatedly asking ‘So what…?’ or So why…?’ I hope that in future lessons we will be able to phase out the paper copy of the map and to use it as a speaking framework.

These activities really helped develop the students’ understanding of the poems and hopefully made them more confident in analysing the texts. My next step is for them to evaluate their progress against the whole rubric – and to identify areas for final development. Then they will be ready for the final stage, where they need to make notes and write the assessment – I’m looking forward to seeing the results.

Fishy Revision

Revision. Argh! Love it or hate it this seems to be mostly what we end up doing at this time of year (in between filling in reams of exam paperwork). The challenge is to try to make it effective and interesting – a challenge if ever there was one. The internet has been invaluable for trawling for great ideas, but I have also been digging through my old resources to see if there are any gems.

Today was revision for Of Mice and Men for OCR A663 next week. The group know the text well but planning is a bit of an issue, especially in the tight time frame (45 minutes). The exam requires the students to analyse language and techniques as well as making links to context. I wanted to create a task that developed planning but also encouraged the group to hit the assessment objectives in the exam.

I started off by borrowing the excellent Nominative Determination task from Miss Ryan’s GCSE English Blog . This was a really effective opening task as it got the group thinking the characters and analysing the language, and they really enjoyed it. As they thought through the significance of the names and their connotations I could hear mental lightbulbs going on around the room – love it!

In our mock exam, quite a few students failed to write about the context of the text or link it to the question. To combat this I came up with the mnemonic CRAFTI (using the helpful anagram solver on the Internet Anagram Server).

A Crafti Mnemonic

I tried to make this something memorable but that also covered each key point.

The next step was to think about planning, how could I make sure that the planning was quick and easy, but also encouraged relational thinking?

My collection of random USB pens came to the rescue. Every so often, since I started teaching, I have saved all the useful resources on my school user space onto a USB. Some of them stay there forever, but I have a peek every now and then to see if there is something worthwhile. Last night I found it.

As I have been experimenting with SOLO HOT maps, I wanted something visual and simple that could encourage deeper thinking. My solution was a fish-bone analysis, or at least my variation on one. I decided that the horizontal line should contain the Idea – i.e. the key point in the passage and key words from the question. This would encourage the group to focus on the question throughout their planning. Each pair of ‘bones’ would include brief points on Context, References, Audience, Feelings and Techniques. I used a series of powerpoint slides to show the process, using the example from the mock (Lennie and the ketchup in chapter 1).

Fish-Bone Planning

The final task, and one I have advised them to do for revision, was to choose a section of the text at randon, or to invent a non-extract based question, and to produce their own Fish-bone plan:

Fish-Bone Planning Task

The class really seemed to get to grips with this as a planning method, and I liked the fact that it could be loosely linked back to the text (‘flopping like a fish’). Overall, I was really pleased with this, having tried it with my Y10s during their lesson. It was also used by another teacher in an afterschool revision session, and it reportedly worked well. So the next step is to try it with one of my more challenging groups.

HOT Maps – A Real Eureka Moment

Having had several successful lessons using the SOLO structure and hexagons, I decided that it was time to branch out a bit and to try a wider range of SOLO techniques. Again, I decided to try these with a range of classes.

Compare/Contrast Map

The first HOT map I looked at was the Compare /Contrast  map. I used this initially with my Y12 Film Studies class to explore the similarities and differences between their comparative study films. They had been, generally, fairly good at identifying key features about the films separately, however, were struggling to make direct links between the films. I used Word It Out to create a word cloud based on a synopsis of each film from IMDB, I then showed the group some examples and got them to work in pairs. I linked this to group planning of an essay where I used Triptico to sort the class into groups – they produced bullet points for each paragraph. I sorted them again and they had to add or delete bullet points. I sorted them one last time to write the paragraph. This worked well for those students who had studied the films carefully, less well for those who had not revised carefully (this was perhaps a bit of a warning for them). It did help to highlight the links between the films but at a fairly simple level – the next step will be a part whole analysis to extend their understanding of the roles and development of the points they identified.

I used the same HOT map with my Y13 Film students to develop their ability to make and analyse specific textual references (AO2) to back up the more generalised comments made in their essays (AO1). For the students to achieve the highest grades both areas must be covered in detail.

This time, I adapted the Compare /Contrast map by including a series of screen shots for one of their films; we also focused on a specific exam question to fully explore the level of detail needed in each paragraph within their essay.

Compare Contrast Map

The focal point was Mise-en-scene and I had chosen four screen shots from ‘The Story of the Apartment’ in ‘City of God’. We discussed the significance of the shots and the students annotated the images. I then asked them which specific shots we could use to compare from ‘La Haine’ – the class identified the scene in Hubert’s boxing gym, the housing in the banlieue, the apartment or the art gallery in Paris and the view of the Eiffel Tower from the top of the tower block. I then asked the group to explore the similarities and the differences in the mise-en-scene and to start making links to why this was the case. This worked well, and as it was focused on developing a very specific skill, I felt it was successful in making the group fully aware of the interaction between the two assessment objectives as well as the two films.

Whole/Part Analysis Map

My next experiment was to try the whole/part analysis HOT map. I decided that I would do this with two very different classes to assess the impact – a top set Year 10 and a bottom set Year 11. Both groups are in the process of final revision for English Literature GCSE exams.

The Year 11 group were working on ‘An Inspector Calls’ for OCR A662 and the focus was to develop their understanding of the text so they could answer in more detail and move towards the C grade. I used a whole/part analysis map with 3 parts.

Whole/Part Analysis

They filled in the ‘whole’ segment with their overview of the play with little prompting and often suggested relevant bits of detail to each other. As a class we explored the role that Setting/Context played and then the group used the second box to explore character – and used copies of the text to look up relevant details and quotations. This brought us to the end of the first lesson. I was pleased with the progress made by the group and the fact that they had recalled some very useful points, however, I was not quite sure about how ‘considering the impact of a part being missing’ would work, nor of its impact.

The Year 10 first lesson was similar to the Y11, this time the focus was ‘Of Mice and Men‘ for  A663 and, as they are a top set I extended the parts to 5 which we discussed and labeled as a group. They then completed the key elements for each part.

Multistructural Stage

The second lesson provided the ‘Eureka’ moment. I introduced the question – ‘What would be the impact if this part were missing?. We went through an example as a group, using the character of Slim as an example. They came up with lots of ideas about what would happen if Slim were not in the novel, from fairly straightforward points about there being no one to stop Lennie and George being fired in section 3, to more complex ones about George having no one to confide in or to present the arguments for killing Lennie.

Relational and Extended Abstract

They were already starting to  move onto the next question – ‘Therefore, can you evaluate the role of this part?’ – and continued to do so when they were working in pairs. This will be something that I will scaffold a little more with the lower group. The level of discussion amongst the group was amazing, they moved from these points onto detailed consideration of why Steinbeck had used the character or the setting and linking to his purpose. There were some real cognitive leaps, like the group who discussed the theme of religion saying that: the natural setting at the beginning and end could represent God in nature; that Slim’s empathy and understanding, combined with the religious connotations of his description, made him almost like a religious leader and that the men are not presented as religious as church goers are part of a community and the men are outsiders. Totally A* personal analysis and interpretation. I was blown away. This is when I ‘got’ the missing part question. Try it!