Motivating our students in a Covid world

There is a lot of talk about Motivation amongst students and the level of motivation our students have post isolation. Peps McCrea’s new book also covers it and quite frankly it couldn’t have come at a better time!

Motivation is something our Trust and thus our schools looked at as part of of Inset Days this year. We were aware that students would likely return with mixed levels of motivation, some would no doubt return with a new found enthusiasm for school having been at home for so long but it was likely many would be nervous and all would be out of a routine. Luckily our journey of looking at Motivation was kicked off by Caroline Spalding last year who presented at our INSET, and was magnificent.

Below are some of the decisions we debated with, and made, in order to work on building our students’ motivation. Much of these are based on the 5 levers Peps McCrea and Caroline Spalding discuss in their talk with the AMbition Institute here when talking about ‘levers’:

Routine is everythingSam Strickland talks about routine a lot and I agree with him. This is all I looked for in the first 4 weeks both for student safety and mental health, were teachers establishing routines and expecting them from our students? Were staff and students building rapport with one another again? How could we facilitate this? Were our kids and teacher happy and safe? As suggested by Maslows hierarchy of needs safety forms the foundation of motivation.

Happy students are inspired and motivated by happy teachers – Sometimes we forget happy motivated students are inspired by happy motivated teachers. I am in awe of our staff, who have managed to keep upbeat even though they are running between lessons and acclimatising to a new way of work. It is every senior leaders job to get anything that stops this from happening out of their way. Whilst you’re at it tell them how much you are inspired by them regularly too!

No immediate testing upon return – I understand it is tempting to try and find out as soon as possible what our students picked up and didn’t through their online learning or home learning packs over lockdown/isolation but lots of tough testing is no way to welcome the students back and settle them into school life. Also what’s the point of the testing? Is it just to find out what they know in which case there are plenty of alternatives and some are listed below. If it’s to see how they write what they know, well the chances are if your students are isolating they haven’t seen as much modelling as we would like or been in routines, so you are better off waiting a little while before that happens.

Retrieval – every single lesson. This doesn’t have to be a test it can be a simple ‘Gimme 5’ or ‘When I say X what comes to mind’ kind of activity. Reward students for what they know and remember. Make them feel empowered. Then get challenging them.

Balanced reassurance – Some of our students may come back to school after isolation with an ‘it’s all gone down the drain’ mindset, feeling things are out of their control and they’ll never get to where they need to be. We have made a conscious effort of telling our students that as long as they take care of the effort teaching staff will take care of the content and exam practice. It’s a deal we have made with them. And we keep reminding them of it.

Praise success and effort – Whether it’s with achievement points, stars, emails home we’ve made an added effort to praise effort as part of our deal with students (see above). The old saying, ‘catch em doing good’ isn’t a throwaway comment.

The rhythm of the curriculum and particularly assessment – We’ve ensured our assessment includes lots of light touch/low stakes testing as well as more rigorous assessment, alternating students between things they can be successful at easily and then struggle. If you want to know more about this David Didau explores this in his book ‘Making Kids Celeverer’ and here in his blog

Classroom modelling – this has taken centre this year. Essentially we follow the ‘I do, We do, You do’ method. The teacher models first, then a class attempt or group attempt is put together and showcased before students are asked to complete any assessment questions themselves. Another reason why we shouldn’t be rushing to complete assessments post isolation so that this method can be embedded.

Think about those who have a history of underperforming – how are you going to make any quiz/assessment accessible to them to get them to taste success. Can you link it to an action or an effort they have made to motivate them to make more.

Have we absolutely nailed it? Of course not and I would say we are embedding many of these practices with a backdrop of COVID uncertainty and groups going home to isolate. But our students have proved to be resilient and appreciative of the efforts that are being made day in day out by our staff. There is a heap of things that we are trying to wrestle with, such as hybrid learning but at the centre of all of this is the question ‘Can we take our students on this journey with us’ and the ways to do that has to be at the centre of all of our minds.

Assessment Models – Knowledge, Practice and Perfection – a fine balance

Assessment, formative and summative is a critical part of every teachers practice. However, in order to be effective, the balance between knowledge recall, practice and perfection is imperative.

I’ve been in schools where practice has been weighted so heavily that students complete mock exam after mock exam without a breather for reflection and establishing where they are and thus have the sinking feeling of getting nowhere.

I’ve been in schools where the pursuit of perfection has meant the stakes are so high that some students feel paralysed.  

As for Kknowledge organisers, I’ve seen them used poorly and well, used for recall of critical information and robotic memorisation. Recently I saw a post from @MathsMrH questioning their validity altogether and he has a point, depending on what you were expecting out of them in the first place.

None of these practices in themselves are good or bad, but the sweet spot is the balance between them, ensuring all involved are clear of their purpose and building in time for reflection.  I don’t for a moment believe that teaching practitioners throw assessments at students without purpose. I can confess however, that after a while assessment models with tests at certain times of the year, with certain questions, being done because they’ve always been done, can lose their purpose. We do them because we do them, the discussion around why and what we do with them disappears or at least becomes less prominent.

So, it is with this in mind that I’ll be looking again at our assessment structure with the middle leaders in the forthcoming year.

Reading Making Kids Cleverer by David Didau has provided the narrative with which I hope to enter the discussions about assessment. In the book he emphasises the importance of how we practice being more important than an abstract number of hours we dedicate to the practice. He even questions deliberate practice (I know I found this a bitter pill to swallow too) but its less of a criticism of the technique more the conditions it needs. He also stresses the two hallmarks of expertise (a) automacity and (b) and the ability to see the deep structure of problems.

This year our middle leaders have spent a lot of time working to develop their curriculum, getting clear about the themes in their curriculum and the student journey. It is time to give the same attention to the assessment model. Of course, this was discussed during the curriculum design but we haven’t got it nailed. Much of what we will be discussing will be around:

Purpose of each assessment

Automacity – Knowledge recall

How have we provided the knowledge (we have knowledge organisers, but how have we explicitly told the students to use them and are they the best they can be?)

How often are we doing low stakes testing?

How are we picking/prioritisng the knowledge being testing

How are we correcting misconceptions in knowledge?

Are students aware of what powerful knowledge in their subject is?

Deep learning of the structure of problems – Problem solving using the knowledge and forming opinions

  • How have we modelled this for the students?
  • When did we model it?
  • How often?
  • Have they experienced success?

Timing

How are we timetabling for spaced practice?

Reflection

Where have we built in time for reflection? Is there enough?

Hinge concepts

How often are we explicitly talking to students about hinge concepts and checking their understanding?

Procedural Knowledge

The above really focuses on Subject specific knowledge. Procedural knowledge, which focuses on how we use the subject specific knowledge is another area we are looking at, in particular modelling. I had the privilege of seeing a ResearchED Northants session with the wonderful @SaysMiss and this sparked my obsession with this area.

Across which subjects can we adopt a similar approach to modelling?

Many of our students use 4 or 5 acronyms in a day to use as a template for writing essays. Where can these be minimized or duplicated?

It’s important that both subject specific and procedural knowledge get time, but as highlighted by Didau, we must recognize that the latter can’t happen without the former in place. Therefore, when looking at our assessment model the weighting of the type of assessment during the year should change.

Essentially, I want the assessment structure to support students to answer the ‘Big questions’ in their subject. Not exam questions. But the big philosophical questions and fall in love with their subjects. For history in the Cold War unit that may mean thinking about whether it is inevitable that Russia and America will be at odds with each other due to their ideologies, for Geography it may mean considering whether Population patterns will always be cyclical. The aim of assessment is to support this development as much as possible through knowledge recall and then procedural knowledge. I’ve included a diagram below to demonstrate this.

There really is heaps I could talk about from the book, at one point I had to stop myself from quoting huge chunks. So you should really go ahead and just read it.

I hope the above sparks some discussions in your own schools about the assessment models being used. I’d love to hear about your own models and how you came about them.

Teaching and Learning in schools when lockdown is over

As someone who oversees Teaching and Learning at work, I have been thinking a lot about what to do once kids return back to school. I can’t wait to have them back and miss my pupils dearly, but also know that school closure during this time of year will pose a series of challenges. I know it’s difficult to predict when the lockdown will end but rumours of schools opening up again are popping up in the media and it’s something that requires thought.

Next week I will be holding a Microsoft Teams meeting with my wonderful Middle Leaders (again, who I miss very much!) about how we get ready for those challenges.

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what I may suggest, I’ve read blogs, asked the wonderful folks on twitter and looked for inspiration. The realisation I have come to is although the situation is unique we don’t actually need to do anything new. I’m a big advocate for embedding things well rather than jumping from one strategy to the other so here’s the advice I’ll be providing my Middle Leaders next week

Challenges per year groups:

We need to accept to that the challenges per year group will vary. For example, depending on when we reopen, Year 6s orthe new Year 7s for Secondary schools will not have been prepped for their SATs. This final push often makes students more confident with reading comprehension and Maths. As a secondary Vice Principal I will be reaching out to the Primary schools in our area to see what we can do to make this transition smoother as it will impact subjects such as Maths and English but also History where we ask students to make inferences and arguments.

For year 10 the challenge will be covering the content in time for the GCSE. The kindest thing the exam boards could do is allow students to pick option questions in the final exam paper, so if they have not covered a topic at the end of year 10 because of the closure they can focus on the others, but I’ve not heard any whispers of this happening therefore we may just need to plough through the content as quick as possible.

Teachers need to ensure they are familiar with these nuances and the challenges to each year group so that where possible they can address these issues. On that note, we need to recognise that all students will be out of school routines, so this will be a big push for us when we get back.

Its’ not all bad

I’m also not a big one for doom and gloom. Yes we will face challenges and yes the chances are that those from the most deprived homes will have a very different experience from others. However, we have to recognise that it will be a mixed picture. Yes kids will have been out of a routine and engaged to different levels with home learning materials but they are also likely to be rested, have possibly watched a documentary on TV that can be explored, read beyond the syllabus, gone for walks and we have to make the most of that and explore it. Many of our children will be excited about learning with staff again and crave routine and structure (even if they don’t admit it) so a return to school will be exciting for them. Again we have to make the most of that.

Lots of low stakes testing

Kids will be nervous, we know they have an acute understanding of how they are performing compared to their peers and what I don’t want is for the kids to come back to a barrage of tests. We know a child who has had limited access to home learning will be nervous returning to the classroom. I have asked my teachers to be mindful of language when completing low stakes testing. For example, rather than saying ‘let’s see what you’ve learnt’, saying ‘seeing as we haven’t done as much online learning before let’s see what the resources taught you and then we can fill in the gaps’ or ‘lets see what you thought of the resources and what I need to add to them to make things stick by doing a quick question round.’ This takes the pressure off and opens the classroom up for exploring where the gaps in knowledge have occurred.

If you’re anything like me I can get into a rut where I like certain activities and do them repeatedly. In the Middle Leaders session next week me and the HODs will be exploring different ways of completing low stakes testing such as Do it now tasks, Connect 3 (where students have to get across a noughts and crosses style grid by answering three Qs with varying levels of difficulty), Quizzes and others to ensure students don’t come back to a diet of 10 Multiple Choice tests every lesson.

Keep using the tech

I’m not sure about you but we have not used the technology we are currently using during lock down so rigorously. I will be urging staff to continue doing so in order to fill gaps in knowledge. This may be by uploading materials to enhance knowledge based on needs identified in class or by setting the quizzes online as homework to then pitch lessons appropriately. On the plus side even the most tech nervous of my teachers are now embracing the systems we have set up so students can expect consistency in approach (like I said silver lining and all that!)

Teach to the top

We must continue to be aspirational for our young people. I really believe this. I honestly believe our children are resilient and will thrive at the other end of this with the right attitude and support. In this paper Hattie argues that school closures will have a relatively minimal impact, but the real impact will come from home resources.  As teachers we know this.

To me this requires teaching to the top and ensuring we have careful scaffolding for our children. What do I mean by teaching to the top? Ensuring students have the same stimulus but adapting the way they may approach it. Some of the strategies we already use in school but will become ever more important are:

Posing a big question at the start of the lesson that helps tie some disparate parts of the content together. A challenging question that you keep coming back to and which students feel they have chipped away at together throughout it.

Best of three (particularly for year 10 if we need to get through content swiftly but want to develop deep understanding). This is where three sample answers to a big question are given to students (grade 9/5/3 for example) and depending on their confidence with the topic they are asked to discuss the pros and cons of one of them and then as a group compare the answers.

Role reversal asking students to explain elements of the content being covered to quickly understand their level of comprehension through a series of follow up questions.

The two things that tie all of these strategies are cold calling and strong knowledge organisers. These help us gauge where students are at in their learning. I think these will be incredibly powerful tools when we return.

You will notice none of these techniques are new or revolutionary, none of them require me to retrain staff, but I think they need to be done incredibly well and need focus when our students return. I believe that the work teachers do day in day out with students is incredible and that we must continue to do these well rather than adopt a range of new strategies out of fear.

Curriculum Design 2 (Mary Myatt)

When I say Mary Myatts book ‘The Curriculum: Gallimaufry to coherence’ made me fall in love with curriculum design, I am making an understatement. As Tom Sherrington says in the forward ‘Mary Myatt knows how to hook you in and get you thinking.’ The chapters are concise and straight to the point and it’s probably the only book in which I have paid as much attention to the footnotes (in which she provides a wealth of resources) as I did to the main words in the chapters of the book.

Areas of the book that particularly stood out for me and influenced the way we shape our curriculum at the Secondary school I am currently at are:

Curriculum coherence – which along with Summer Turners book ‘Secondary Curriculum and Assessment Design’ (mentioned in the previous blog) sparked interesting Leadership conversations about the curriculum model we were offering as a whole school. In this chapter, Mary stresses how we are ‘pattern seeking individuals’ and therefore the curriculum needs to tell a story. Each one of our middle leaders has spent a considerable amount of time identifying this story, its key themes and threads that run throughout it and are trying to communicate it to the students. What has surprised me, certainly in history which I teach, is how quickly students from year 7 – 11 have caught onto this, understanding what they need to learn now and how it will connect to what they learn in the future.

Cognitive science – Linked to the above Mary highlights ‘curriculum is content structured as narrative over time.’ This had a huge impact on myself and the middle leaders I have worked with. How do we communicate this narrative to students? It has been interesting to see what teachers are doing. Some have it on their first slide. Others have a big sign on their board saying ‘Why are we learning this?’ which reminds them to start each lesson with a conversation about how the lesson fits into the whole to help chunk information. With it, has come the realisation that this is not something you ‘do’ but something we ‘we will do always.’

Chapters on Curriculum products and Beautiful Work place the emphasis firmly on what the student is doing which is often surprisingly forgotten when middle leaders have their heads down in planning. This shaped our observation forms in which we write not only to look at what the teacher does but what students do. Interestingly, this was particularly helpful when working with teachers who give their all in the lesson but often end up ‘carrying’ it, to help these staff shift some of that responsibility onto the students.

As a Vice principal the section on Leadership has provided with me no end of food for thought about how I structure CPD and give all staff time to understand the finer nuances of their curriculum, as well as how we go about communicating this curriculum journey to department members and students. You are a leader if you find yourself in the front of the classroom so I suggest everyone read this.

Sections on Etymology, Speaking and Writing – have influenced our Knowledge Organisers which we are using this time in lock down to redesign with curriculum journeys in mind. This has also influenced out Literacy programme and our quick low stakes tests which emphasise language.

I could go on forever, this book has nuggets of cold scattered throughout it which are communicated simply but beautifully. Some of the above may seem obvious now as we are bombarded with information about curriculum design but two years ago when I was stepping into a new role it was the simplicity with which curriculum design was explained and how it linked to every aspect to the school, which attracted me to this book. I would thoroughly urge everyone in education to read it so they can see the curriculum for the critical, wonderful, backbone it provides to schools.

Curriculum Design 1 (Summer Turner)

At the start of this year I took on the role of Vice Principal for a large secondary school. A key priority for the school, which had had several changes in middle leadership, was to help middle leaders develop their curriculum plans, understand them and be able to communicate them with others and their own staff as well as communicating the student journey to students.

Two key books played a phenomenal role in this. Mary Myatt’s (@MaryMyatt) book ‘The Curriculum: Gallimaufry to Coherence’ which made me fall in love with curriculum design by carefully explaining its merits and the thought process that needed to go behind each element of planning. Summer Turner’s (@ragazza_inglese) ‘Secondary Curriculum and Assessment Design’ really highlighted the challenging questions I and the leadership team I was joining needed to tackle in order to ensure that curriculum design was being conducted in a coherent way. I will focus on the latter book in this post.

Here is how I used some of their Summer’s within the school this year:

Summer Turner’s Secondary Curriculum and Assessment Design:

If you’re new to curriculum design (and even if you’re not) Summer breaks down everything! Lots of definitions, explanations and lots of clarity of terms we may confuse.

Getting clear about whole school Curriculum Intent

The Self – Assessment in Chapter 2 was brilliant to use with the Leadership team. Not only did it give us some crucial questions to discuss but was a quick way of me learning about the new school I had just joined and also the thinking of the leadership team around curriculum. We had some brilliant, open and honest discussions about the purpose of our curriculum and our ambitions for our students. I honestly believe if this hadn’t happened we would not be singing off the same hymn sheet as we do now when line managing middle leaders.

Some of the questions were really challenging for example:

Should you teach to the test if it means pupils will perform well in exams?

These questions made us question our moral purpose and what we were in education for.

The self-assessment also asks you to assess yourself and your confidence in areas. Which meant we could help each other in area where we felt less confident. Not confident with how assessment data is used? Let another member of the leadership team explain it to you.

Learning from others

The book also introduced me to some great twitter handles to follow and brilliant tweeters!

As well as social media, Summer also makes numerous book recommendations which I will get through one day! Combined these ideas from other thinkers and institutions allowed me to challenge our own ideas in school to have deeper discussions around curriculum.

Sequencing

Summer’s questions around sequencing led to some hot debates. Questions such as:

  • Whether we sequence year by year and if not how do we accommodate students who join us at different times.
  • How much we want to invest in making connections across subjects, how we do this and whether this is a longer term plan.
  • How we would communicate cognitive science and knowledge acquisition and memory to all staff so it would influence their teaching practice and when we would do this.

All of the above were considered but not necessarily given equal weight in the first year. I had to remember that a few well executed changes and initiatives are better that a heap of poorly communicated ones.

Taking this approach with middle leaders

Once leadership was clear about the above questions we started to discuss these questions with middle leaders. Explaining how we had agreed on our whole school curriculum intent and ensuring that we were open to middle leaders opinions and ready to adapt where necessary.

In my next post I will post about what we shared in middle leaders meetings and he discussions we had as well as our curriculum template.

It would be great to hear how other curriculum leaders have led curriculum design in there schools. Curriculum design is an ever changing beast. It is something that we must and should, adapt, tweak and amend year after year to meet the needs of our students so I think the more ideas the better!

Thank you to Summer Turner for the support she has provided our school in doing this.