Tag Archives: GCSE 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.

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?

SOLO Stations Task Details

Since I posted about my experiments with SOLO Stations, I have had several requests about the activities I used for each level. These are my take on SOLO type activities, based on my understanding of the taxonomy, enjoy!

My starting point for these lessons was to consider what knowledge and expertise the students needed to move towards demonstrating mastery of the topic and text – i.e. what they needed to do to hit the A*/A grade or beyond. As I mentioned in my earlier posts, here, here and here, I used the SOLO levels, the mark scheme and my own experience of what mastery of the subject area would look like at GCSE level. I also had a look at the type of activities teachers had used in other subjects, in science and PE.

As we had spent several lessons exploring the text, we were focusing on demonstrating the top 3 levels – Multistructural, Relational and Extended Abstract. I tried to come up with a range of activities across the abilities as well as to encourage more independence and effort on their part to understand the text and to create a personal interpetation.

So, here are some of the activities I used:

Multistructrual

  1. Thought Stems – taken from @LearningSpy’s (David Didau) really useful book ‘The Perfect Ofsted English Lesson’. This was good for helping those who needed more support when structuring their paragraphs.
  2. Improving Your Knowledge – focusing on language and analysis, I provided a list of websites for the students to revise and make notes on areas they felt they needed to develop.
  3. Depending on the text, I used some of the more guided activities from textbooks or, carefully selected, from Teachit for a third activity. I don’t believe in unnecessarily reinventing the wheel.

Relational

  1. Hexagonal Learning – using leftover hexagons from previous lessons (including some that had been written on) to focus on linking ideas and quotations. They needed to use these to write a PEE paragraph.
  2. Colourful Expressions – using colour to annotate a section of the text, identifying links between the characters and throughout the text.
  3. Iceberg Analysis – using a pyramid to analyse a key word or phrase, from the word to its literal meaning then its connotations/deeper meaning. The aim being to encourage detailed analysis of the text, rather than more general comments.
  4. Unpicking an Essay – the students are given a high grade exemplar essay and have to create a plan from the essay, to see how a strong essay is structured and the ideas linked.

Extended Abstract

  1.  Extended Abstract Hexagons – similar to the relational hexagon task,  however, where the relational task focused on the straight links between the hexgons, this task looks at the meeting point of 3 hexagons.
  2. Adding to Multistructural Knowledge – I included (and the next task) this to emphasise that, at the higher levels, you are constantly adding to your knowledge and re-evaluating your understanding as a result. I included a range of more complex websites, some of them geared towards A-Level and University level students.
  3. Wider Reading – a range of relevant books, from the library and my own collection, again including more complex analysis and commentary.

I hope this post is helpful, especially for those of you wanting to try SOLO Stations for yourself.

More SOLO Stations

I haven’t blogged for a while as I have been working on the reading for my final MA module on the use of SOLO in English, which I will write a post about soon. However, the use of SOLO in lessons has continued.

We have now moved on from Wilfred Owen’s poetry to Shakespeare, Macbeth to be specific. I really want to build more independence and self-motivation in my students and wanted to see whether the impact of the SOLO stations lesson (see posts here and here), last half term, in encouraging this was just a fluke.

Planning

This time, as I already had a bank of tasks that I had used with the Owen lesson, it was much easier, and quicker to plan. I came up with two more tasks, one of which I had originally planned to use with the whole class, the others I tweaked from the Owen tasks. I allowed 3 tasks per level (Multistructural through to Extended Abstract) and had 10 copies of each task (printed onto A4, 2 tasks to a page). I think I will get these tasks copied onto coloured card and then laminated so they can easily be reused – possibly taking out specific text references on some so they can be used across the subject.

Although the lesson had worked very well last time, I wasn’t happy with the visual impact of the stations. So, this time, I covered the display board with plain (red) backing paper and pinned the tasks onto that in three vertical columns. This made it much more visually appealing and far easier for the students to see.

This time, I planned to use the lesson twice, lesson 1 for my PM observation and again, with a different group, for lesson 3. The observed group had done SOLO Stations before but it would be new to the second group.

The Lesson

I decided to have two questions on the board for the start as our key focus, for bell work. This meant the group had something to read and think about as they came in and settled. My questions were: ‘In a play about killing a king, why is the character of Banquo so important?’ and ‘What message do you think Shakespeare is trying to present to the audience?’

First, the groups evaluated their starting point for two areas  – being able to comment on character and explaining Shakespeare’s use of language – using a rubric. As we have already spent a few lessons studying the play, these focused on the Multistructural, Relational and Extended Abstract levels. There are  3 coloured pages in the student planners – red, yellow and green, so I decided to colour code the levels and ask the students to open their planner at the page or pages that indicated their starting level. This allowed me to glance around the room to see where students had placed themselves.

I recapped/introduced the protocol for SOLO Stations and asked that, as they went through the tasks, they updated their coloured planner page to indicate their progress.

The groups selected their tasks and got down to work. In both classes, students chose a variety of tasks at a variety of levels. Again, I noticed that despite having some computer based tasks, only a few students chose to use the laptops.

The lessons went well with students working alone or in small groups, as they chose, working at their own pace and moving onto new tasks as they felt ready. I was able to circulate, give 1-2-1 support and question the G&T students to draw out higher responses. It felt calm and purposeful, which I had not been entirely sure about as it was Children in Need day.

At the end of the lesson I allowed 10 minutes for the plenary. Firstly, I asked them to use the rubric to re-evaluate their SOLO level. Then, to write their level and why they thought they had achieved it onto a post-it, which was stuck onto the SOLO display. Finally, we had a brief discussion based on the two initial questions. Both groups commented on Banquo as Macbeth’s friend and that his killing was a bigger personal betrayal – I had expected this. However, they also mentioned that Banquo acted as a balance for Macbeth, a man who had been given a similar prophesy but had taken a different moral route. They linked this to religious beliefs about free-will. This discussion was very useful, but I suspect we needed to allow a little more time for it.

Student Comments

I reviewed the comments the students made about their learning on the post-its after the lesson. These are some of them:

  • I have reached Relational because I can now explain a deeper meaning to the language and the relationship between the characters
  • I think I am Multistructural because I can explain the meaning of sections of the play, but I am also Relational because I can also explain the relationship between the characters
  • After this lesson I am fully confident in completing Relational because I can easily explain why language is used and the relations bewteen characters
  • Helped me understand the language that Shakespeare uses.

The students’ comments showed that they were able to confidently reflect on and articulate their level of learning. This was a very useful task as it demonstrated the students’ confidence in using SOLO terminology to duscuss and evaluate their own learning.

The Observation

I was given a 1 (outstanding) for the lesson, which, obviously, I am really pleased with. Some of the key points from the feedback were:

“Learning is differentiated and students learning is independent. Progress is measured during the lesson…Questioning on 1-1 level is deep and provides opportunities for high level learning. Well behaved and keen. Generally self-motivated. Productive atmosphere / purposeful learning environment.”

The thing I liked the most about the lesson was that it didn’t feel rushed or like hard work. I had time to talk to students at much greater length than during a traditional lesson. It was also nice to see how quickly the group, who had not done this style of lesson before, got to grips with it. I will definitely be using SOLO Stations again.

Nothing Ventured…

Today was my long awaited SOLO Stations lesson, although, unfortunately, the planned observation had to be cancelled. The group have completed 2 sessions on their controlled assessment; I have not looked at the work. The lesson was designed to encourage the students to reflect on the work completed so far and to know what they could do in the remaining sessions to  amend and redraft. However, in compliance with the controlled assessment guidelines, they were not offered any feedback on their work, or any indications of what needed to be included.

We focused, instead, on the skills needed to achieve the higher grades:

Lesson Objectives

Although there were 9 mini tasks, they did not take long to come up with (especially after looking through some teaching books and blogs for inspiration). I set up the back of the room with a sign for each of the 3 SOLO levels we were working through, and the tasks and resources were pinned underneath.

SOLO Stations Resources

I had a selection of relevant books at the front of the room and 5 laptops at the back of the room.

Starting Point

The starter was to review their checklist, write their name on a pink post-it and stick it to the display. Most of the group placed themselves between Multistructural and Relational, although one or two felt they were closer to Extended Abstract. It was somewhat chaotic due to the position of the board.

Our starting position

I explained the SOLO protocol, the lesson ‘mission’ and briefly went through the  resources.

Chaos

Total chaos ensued for a few minutes as they rushed to get their first activity – I felt a little panicked that this was all going to go horribly wrong.

Calm

As I moved round the class, it was clear that the students had chosen a range of starting points and a variety of tasks. The cynic in me had expected the computer tasks to be the most popular, but in reality only two students chose this option, with 2-3 others moving onto these later in the lesson. Some chose to work in pairs, while others worked independently, but all worked at their own pace and chose when they felt it was appropriate to move on. I could speak to individuals about their work, and provide help as needed, but actually I was barely needed!

The end of the lesson came very quickly, and I suspect that if we had had a two hour lesson they would have continued working like this, as several seemed surprised that the hour had gone.

There was a real buzz in the lesson and the conversations the students were having showed their grasp of SOLO: “It’s all about making links.” I was really surprised at how self motivated and focused the group was, despite the opportunity for wandering around the room.

Progress

The final task was to put their name on the display again, this time on a yellow post-it, and to identify 3 things they could do to improve their assessment. Most of the group felt they had moved closer to the Extended Abstract level.

Class progress

Overall, this was a real eye-opener – multiple tasks, flexible working groups, ICT and differentiation (by task selection, support and time allowed) – and yet the lesson felt calm and purposeful, and I didn’t feel I was juggling chainsaws. This was a risk well worth taking, and I will try it again with our next unit and with a wider range of groups.

Risking SOLO Stations

Taking risks and trying new teaching methods is an integral part of my teaching practice. It isn’t easy, it means that I read lots of books and blog posts and tweak and change what I do each time I teach a unit. It also means that I have to be prepared for things to go spectacularly wrong – and sometimes they do – but, when a risk pays off, there is no feeling like it.

OFSTED

Ofsted’s Michael Wilshaw said “For me a good lesson is about what works … OFSTED will judge the quality of teaching in relation to the quality of learning and whether children and young people across the age and ability range are making the progress they should be from the starting points” (from @oldandrewuk’s What OFSTED Say They Want) . Unfortunately, the impact of OFSTED on schools and teachers often has the opposite effect, the desire to play it safe, to stick to what we know, to hide behind tried and trusted lessons. As the pressure increases, so we become more risk adverse; but that is not what good teaching is about … to teach well we need to be brave, to take risks and to adapt to the many changes that face us each day. And, most importantly, we need to ask ourselves ‘will it help our students make progress?’, ‘will it allow all students to achieve their best?’.

SOLO

For me, the catalyst to experiment, recently at least, has been SOLO taxonomy. (For those of you who are new to SOLO, please see my previous posts on the topic. It is also worth exploring the blogs of the fantastic @learningspy, @dockers_hoops, @Totallywired77 and @lisajaneashes.). SOLO has encouraged me to be more reflective of my teaching and to consider different ways of explaining and developing tasks. In my experiments last year, students made good progress, understood complex concepts and did well in their final exams. Perhaps it is a flavour of the moment, perhaps it is hard to separate the effect of good teaching and good teachers from the specific effect of SOLO, but anything that makes it easier to engage in a learning conversation with a group of students is, surely, worth a try.

Where next?

So far this year, I have been trying to embed the use of SOLO taxonomy in my teaching. I have used hexagons and HOT maps, which I trialled last year,  to good effect. I have also started to tweak my learning objectives using the ‘learning continuum’ idea from @learningspy’s fantastic book ‘The Perfect OFSTED English Lesson’ (a must for all English teachers as it is bursting with good ideas) and @fullonlearning’s ‘So that…’ (blog). These tweaks have made my objective setting more focused. But I feel that the time has come for a bigger challenge.

SOLO Stations

During the course of my reading over the past year, I have investigated lots of aspects of SOLO taxonomy, and teaching in general. I feel that I now have a good understanding of the levels and the types of tasks that can be used to help students move between them. SOLO Stations have been mentioned several times in blog posts, but up to now, I haven’t felt confident enough to give it a go. However, I have an observation coming up for appraisal and I want to showcase what I can do – so (bolstered by @Learningspy‘s success) this seems the perfect opportunity to try it out.

Lesson Design and Structure

Using the SOLO assessment rubric I mentioned in my previous post, I asked the students to carry out a self evaluation of the skills they need to use in their controlled assessment. I then used the feedback from this to identify areas to cover – the three areas the group felt least confident in were PEE paragraphs, comparing poems and exploring language.

As most of the group felt they had reached, at least, the Multistructural level, I have decided to focus only on the top three levels for the lesson. At the start of the lesson I will ask the group to put a post-it onto the SOLO display at the level they feel they are and at the end of the lesson they will be given a second coloured post-it to show how far they feel they have progressed.

The students will be able to choose whether to start at Multistructural, Relational or Extended Abstract. For each level, I have created a variety of tasks which, I hope, will help the students consolidate their understanding and grasp of the skills they need to achieve a solid mark for their first controlled assessment. The tasks will be pinned to the display board, to avoid having to spend part of the lesson rearranging the tables, so students can pick a task and work at their own pace.

I’ll post how the lesson went at the weekend, along with the tasks that worked well (hopefully).

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.

New School Year – More SOLO

Over the summer, I decided that one of my new school year resolutions was to embed SOLO into my teaching across all three key stages. I dabbled last year (see my previous posts here) and was very pleasantly surprised with how effective it appeared to be. However, being a sceptic at the best of times, I decided that a more detailed and consistent trial was needed.

Starting Points

With each of my classes I have introduced the concept of SOLO taxonomy using the excellent Youtube Lego video. I also stuck a simple SOLO level explanation sheet in the back of their English books. This is reinforced by a display I created:

Aim High SOLO Display

We are now three weeks into the new term and I have used SOLO the most with Year 10, although I have tried to embed it into the majority of lessons.

Youtube

My two Year 10 classes are roughly parallel in ability and are studying Wilfred Owen for their first controlled assessment. In my lesson planning I have been trying to be as specific as possible in identifying the skills the class will be working on and have tried to use SOLO to highlight the progression within the lesson – marking the SOLO level next to the objectives. I also created a Youtube video analysing a poem and including SOLO levels, using Video Scribe.

Marginal Gains

Watching the ‘Road To Glory’ programme on about the fantastically successful Sky cycling team, and seeing part of a Twitter conversation between @HuntingEnglish, @fullonlearning and @Pekabelo, made me start thinking about how marginal gains could be applied to English. I decided to start by breaking down the skills needed for the unit using SOLO, to try to make each element as clear as possible to the students:

SOLO Skills Poetry

Each student has a copy of the sheet in their book and we have been using it in lessons to identify their current position and track their improvement over the course of several lessons. We started off focusing on the use of poetry terminology, use of quotations and explaining language and I set a group task using hexgons to reinforce the skills needed to create effective PEE paragraphs.

Feedback

In a change from my previous trials, I decided to ask the groups explicitly for feedback on the lessons. Having outlined that I was looking for honest feedback, and that I would not mind if they didn’t respond positively, I asked 4 questions:

  1. Did you enjoy the lessons?
  2. Do you think your confidence with poetry has increased?
  3. Do you think your skills of identifying techniques, selecting quotations and explaining the language used have improved?
  4. Even better if?
Yes OK / A bit No
1 73% 23% 4%
2 86% 9% 4%
3 82% 9% 9%

“I felt the hexagon lessons were very constructive and good for collaborating with other people in the class. The hexagons made us move from multistructural to relational ideas in Wilfred Owen’s poem.”

“I enjoyed the lessons even though I’m not very strong with poems or PEE.”

“I did enjoy the lessons. Yes, I feel a lot more confident about poems now. Yes, I feel I have improved a lot.”

“I know the poem a lot more now and have gained knowledge about what techniques are used in poetry and why they are used.”

Some of the suggestions for improvements were:

  • More time
  • Make instructions more detailed
  • Allow us to choose our groups

So far, I have only asked one of the two groups, but their responses are certainly interesting.