Long-Term Solutions (Or: Why Make a Textbook)

This is my sixth year of teaching and I think it’s the first time I have taught equations properly to a KS3 class. I was almost there last year, and thought I was doing it well, but I now know there are several topics where I completely let the pupils down. This post is about how I could have been better-prepared earlier in my career, and avoided leaving later teachers with a mess to clean up.

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Naveen Rizvi’s piece yesterday in the TES caused a stir that surprised me. Many people had a negative reaction beyond what I would have expected (I won’t link to them) and was followed by some negativity – or at least concern and alarmed questions – when Bodil subsequently shared an example of two pages from the booklets we give to pupils.

As I see it, these are some of the main barriers preventing pupils from achieving their potential in maths that CAN’T be dealt with by better resourcing:

  1. Limited working memory (i.e. there is a limit to how many new concepts the pupil can form and connect in a single lesson
  2. Fear of maths; strong and paralysing anxiety around maths
  1. Poor mathematical foundations from primary age
  2. Poor literacy (insofar as it limits their access to everything in education, and their ability to practise independently)
  1. Unsupportive home environment that leaves the pupil unprepared for school in a practical or emotional sense
  2. Low attendance
  3. Fixed mindset around maths, often meeting its first major challenge at secondary
  4. Passive behaviour. This could charitably be called low motivation, or disengagement. It could less charitably be called laziness.
  5. Disruptive behaviour and avoidance techniques
  6. Their peers’ disruptive behaviour
  7. A class culture that doesn’t value effort and hard work
  8. A class culture that penalises mistakes and revealing or discussing errors
  9. A class culture that makes it uncool to want to see the links between ideas in maths
  1. A weak teacher who isn’t trying to improve (either wilfully, or due to disenchantment borne of circumstances)
  2. A weak teacher who is trying to improve but isn’t there fast enough (typically an NQT, a teacher transferred from another dept (usually PE or geography), or a teacher who has been neglected in terms of development)
Possible solutions:

Improved teacher pedagogy and understanding of how memories and connections are formed.

Improved teacher understanding of what fixed and growth mind-set actually is (not just a gimmick to console pupils when they underperform… my heart bleeds for Dweck).

Possible solutions:

Effective intervention and catch-up programmes in school (ideally supported at home).

Possible solutions:

School leadership foments a culture that challenges this (supported by classroom culture created by individual teachers), either through super-high expectations/tough love or alternative approach that challenges and changes issues that hold pupils back in school.

Possible solutions:

Head of Department leads maths-focused CPD

Caveats:

This is not easy. ITT doesn’t seem to cover this adequately, and it appears to be a relatively new part of most teachers’ pedagogy*, relatively complex to understand and highly complex to begin to incorporate into practice (particularly for the weakest pupils).

* This is, of course, excluding some very experienced and successful practitioners. In their case, it appears to be something they’ve come to understand intuitively and isn’t easily shared as it isn’t codified.

Caveats:

There are many programmes that appear to have high impact in closing the gap between pupils’ reading and chronological ages, or the gaps in their mathematical foundations. In particular, direct instruction programmes such as Connecting Maths Concepts (McGraw-Hill scripted direct instruction programme) and Lexia appear to be effective ‘off-the-shelf’ interventions (based on my own experience!).

Caveats:

Really brave leadership on school culture, especially in challenging circumstances, is too rare (in my limited experience). Many bloggers have written about the gap between their school’s behaviour policy and the ‘real behaviour policy’ (teachers are left to defend their own classrooms, with little or no back up). In the best cases I’ve seen, there is total clarity about the positive, learning-focused culture the headmaster/mistress seeks to embed, and the behaviour policy serves this and is always upheld.

Caveats:

This is incredibly time-consuming. Most HoDs simply don’t have the capacity to do this well. The number of conflicting interests they have makes this difficult: teaching as many of the critical/tricky classes as possible (as they are, hopefully, one of the strongest teachers), writing SOWs, managing staff shortage (it is maths, after all), retaining staff and keeping them happy, improving teaching quality. And, ideally, reading widely to prepare for new exam specs and maths education research…!

However, there are more issues than this that are – I think – relatively neglected outside of the rarefied atmosphere of online edu-chat and conferences.

Barriers created in lessons:

  1. A capable but exhausted teacher who can’t prepare adequately for lessons (their department is under-resourced and teach a full and varied timetable)
  2. Confusion about what they should be covering to prepare for the end of Y11 (it is unclear what the pupils covered in Y7-9, or in how much detail; there is uncertainty about what should *actually* be taught when they see ‘averages, 1 week’ on the SOW… Does it mean calculating the mean, median, mode and range only, or complex questions where some values are missing and then one value is changed?).
  3. Painfully optimistic allocations of timing to teach topics (expressions – 1 week; fractions – 2 weeks), due to insufficient clarity about what should actually be taught.
  4. A gap between what they cover in lessons (superficial) and the rigour of the exam (increasingly higher, hopefully). A recent example of this was the GCSE question: Solve for a: 2a + a + a = 18. This question is beyond trivial, but many teachers had not prepared their class for the possibility that simplifying and solving could be used in the same problem.
  5. Unclear explanations, or rule-based explanations, that makes it difficult for pupils to use their knowledge flexibly or to ask useful questions (e.g. “change side, change sign” to solve linear equations because it seems quicker and easier, or convoluted steps to solve simultaneous equations).
  6. Inadequately scaffolded and varied practice in lessons that doesn’t prepare them for the variety of forms maths can take in the real world (or in exams…) (We all suffer from textbooks that escalate the difficulty of questions too quickly, so that your weakest pupils get only 2-3 questions practising questions in the form a+3=10 before they’re moved onto the other three operations).
  7. The practice gap (i.e. getting much less practice than pupils in other schools). Most textbooks DON’T HAVE ENOUGH QUESTIONS. At all. Most of the newest books boast how many more questions they have. It is not enough. If a pupil has only just begun to grasp a procedure, they need to do it many times to build their confidence and then begin very careful and gradual variations.
  8. Pupils forgetting that they have learned something (“I swear down they never taught us that”). This comes from haphazard, or no, continuous revision or interleaving (weaving old topics into current topics).
  9. Pupils doing what seems obvious to solve a problem, rather than what is mathematically correct (e.g. writing that 3/4 + 1/2 = 4/6). As above, an absence of revision and interleaving.
  10. Pupils knowing they’ve learned something, but muddle it (e.g. calculating the mean when asked to comment on the median). Also as above…

I am increasingly convinced that a good textbook would begin to address these ten problems. A good textbook:

  1. Offers interesting talks and prompts for pupils to have high-quality discussions in pairs and with the class. These can range from puzzles to problems that provoke cognitive dissonance (e.g. which is closer to 1/2, 1/3 or 1?)
  2. Offers worthwhile questions that allow pupils to use multiple strategies to solve a problem or to calculate (e.g. 4.5 x 24)
  3. Plans for revisiting old topics, particularly those that are high impact (directed numbers, fractions, equations, manipulation, mental maths, calculation) or easily confused (e.g. minimally different topics such as perimeter and area)
  4. Has carefully and thoughtfully sequenced content in the big picture (e.g. equations preceding graphs) and in the fine detail (e.g. breaking down directed numbers into the many strands of understanding and procedure that pupils need to grasp).
  5. Has identified key examples that a teacher might want to use with a class, covering the most important problem-types for a concept or procedure.
  6. Offers clear and highly accurate explanations of WHY something works.
  7. Has distilled clear steps to scaffold pupils’ work as they begin to tackle a new procedure.
  8. Offers memory devices to help pupils retain and recall concepts or steps (Chants for the 7 times tables, or mnemonics such a KFC for dividing fractions (Keep the first, Flip the other, Change to times, it’s no bother).
  9. Offers LOTS of practise at each level of difficulty in a procedure.
  10. Has lots of interleaving available, but sectioned off, so that the teacher can judge the level of complexity students should experience.

None of this replaces planning lessons. You still want to share enthusiasm, build excitement, anticipate common errors and misconceptions, explain clearly, model explicitly and unambiguously, check for understanding, grow their confidence in the face of setbacks, celebrate success, maintain pace and focus in a safe and happy environment and – of course – go back and refine the plan and resource after you’ve taught it. This all takes planning, deep thought about your classes and huge love of maths. I don’t understand how the existence of such a resource would compromise the idea that teachers tailor their teaching to their classes.

Sadly, such a resource doesn’t appear to exist. That’s why we’re making a textbook. Please get in touch, have a look, and help up improve it!

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Generating Examples for Generalised Rules: #collabomaths

I was at the National Maths Conference on Friday in Sheffield and could easily spend a blogpost on summarising the many things I learned. Happily, many people have already done so (and took more photos). Instead, I’d like to focus on something I’m going to try doing differently as a result of the conference and invite you to join a very small, very geeky, Twitter party.

geek party 2

I was struck by what was shared in the Shanghai session, when those who visited showed examples of how teachers create progression in their examples for procedures. In particular, the design they employ appears to really build up concepts of underlying structures, by showing how varied they are. James Pearce gives an excellent summary here.

Specifically, Shanghai teachers seem to prepare their examples and explanations to help students see a broader range of applications for a rule. Here is an example for multiplying indices, in terms of the examples we might show to our students in the UK:

indices UK

The focus in Shanghai is on a broader range of applications, in order to make it easier for students to generalise the rule. Here is a rough example:

indices Shanghai

This would not have been instinctive to me, thinking about the cognitive load on my students and the risk that struggles with directed numbers or non-integers would cloud what was happening. However, few of the examples are inherently harder and it creates more opportunities for interleaving (in addition to illuminating the broader rule).

Here is another example, for difference of two squares:

difference of two squares

I particularly liked the final one, and how that would be so much better a preparation for the new GCSE spec! I’m wondering if, in my efforts to make sure that work is scaffolded and students’ working memories aren’t overwhelmed, I’ve presented too narrow a range of applications at the outset and thus made it harder for them to see how to apply it outside of that narrow structure.

With this in mind, Richard White and I thought we would use the approach we learned in Luke’s session to generate ideas, whereby there is a ‘splurge’ of initial ideas and we later sort them to decide the best range of examples to show to students.

Admittedly it was an odd way to spend the later part of a Saturday night, but we found it wonderfully, geekily enjoyable to focus on a narrow piece of the curriculum and think about how we could create more demanding examples that better exemplify a rule. Here is what we created in about half an hour:

surds 1surds 2surds 3surds 4surds 5surds 6surds triangle

It’s far from exhaustive, but is a much better basis for planning work on (simple cases of) multiplying surds and bringing rigour to a SOW (and supporting new or struggling teachers, as well as non-specialists). It gives a clearer goal in terms of “What should they be capable of by the end?” and “What examples will I share to get these ideas across?” Richard has since used the approach in NQT mentor meetings to help those teachers to think about planning in a more focused way (i.e. to move away from resources towards exposition). As a professional exercise, it was really enjoyable as it made for a happy marriage of focus and creativity.

We are planning our next topic and, due to living in different cities, are going to see if it’s possible to try generating examples via Twitter. We’re going to have our first attempt this Wednesday (30th September) from 4.30-5.30 using #collabomaths as the hashtag (better suggested will be accepted!). I am also trying to corral my maths teaching hero (the man who taught me almost all I know, in my first school, but who thinks using MS Word is the height of tech sophistication). We will probably go with expanding single brackets, but it’s TBC. If you would like to join the teeny party, you would be very welcome 🙂

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In Praise of Being Boring

“Which would you hate more: to overhear someone say you were stupid or say you were boring?”

“Oh definitely boring! That’s got to be the worst thing to hear.”

“You don’t mind someone thinking you’re stupid?”

“If someone thought I was stupid I’d assume they lack the intelligence to realise how clever I am.”

I won’t embarrass the speaker by naming them, but suffice to say that everyone present agreed that being called boring is the most crushing of criticisms.

Our most recent maths survey (we do one each term) yielded mostly positive results: over 90% saying they’d take maths if it were optional; the modal response to ‘Do you like maths as a subject?’ was ‘I love it’; only 1 of 259 respondents disagreed that ‘there is usually a positive atmosphere in lessons’; only 1 disagreed with the statement ‘my teacher tries her best to be fair’; the modal description of work in lessons was ‘challenging, but I can do it.’

The results don’t vary with significance when filtering for different teachers or sets, which reflects the hard work of my colleagues in the department as we try to offer the students a consistent experience of maths (we all believe in allowing group 4 to access the same curriculum and expectations as group 1, even if it can feel like a profound challenge at times).

Obviously, I should be delighted with this. I am. I feel so blessed to have colleagues that let their students feel so positive about maths.

But…

In the free-text section for ‘What 3 words do you associate with maths and maths lessons?’, 12 students said ‘boring’. My immediate reaction was to feel wracked with guilt and feel we’d let them down. Maths is amazing and beautiful, we work hard to convey our enthusiasm for it and help all students access it. We must have failed these 12 students! Even though I know it’s a huge overreaction, it niggles at part of my brain.

In a recent review of the school (as part of the Bradford Partnership), the observers commented that students were very serious-minded in maths lessons and expressed some dismay that we never rarely have occasion for the students to work in groups. Retorts spring to mind: “Of course they were serious when there was a stranger in the room!” “You only saw 10 minutes!” “There’s a lot of evidence in favour of a serious atmosphere in maths learning!” and so on, ad infinitum. I’m trying very hard not to reject this feedback just because it doesn’t fit with my current conclusions about how best to teach maths.

Are we missing an obvious solution?

I was intrigued to read a blogpost by Matthew Smith, arguing – amongst broader points – against what he perceives to be needlessly boring lessons:

“When planning a lesson on adding fractions, a bland, one dimensional lesson might involve a few examples by the teacher and a worksheet with a range of questions. A highly effective lesson that encourages all learners to make progress and see the beauty of maths might start with the following question; “Can all unit fractions be expressed as the sum of two other unit fractions?” This leads to an investigative lesson, no one knows the answer straight away and it is accessible to all students. In short, mixed ability teaching can and does work.” [his emphases]

I have selected Matthew’s post not because of anything specific about him or his school – I haven’t neither met him nor spoken with him; his posts suggest he is a committed teacher who works hard for his students – but because I think that the passage is very representative of a dominant school of thought around maths teaching.

I think it’s completely incorrect. The question – can all unit fractions be expressed as the sum of other unit fractions? – is definitely very interesting and even as I type I feel a little bubble of excitement thinking about working on it later. It’s easy to convey that excitement to students and to work together to answer that question. There is definitely a place for these questions in maths lessons – and not just for higher groups or the keenest students – for all students’ lessons.

But…

How on earth can a student ‘investigate’ that question without knowing how to add and subtract fractions? It is not an easily-learned process. It’s fiddly to actually do – selecting an appropriate denominator, forming equivalent fractions, resisting an understandable instinct to add the denominators together – and it takes a significant understanding of proportion to make the leap from grasping the initial ‘why’ (e.g. when exploring diagrams) to seeing its link to the how (having a common denominator). Even a student who can confidently explain why we need common denominators to add will occasionally relapse into ‘add everything.’ It’s not that they don’t get it, it’s that they don’t remember it at all times. It’s not obvious. It takes a huge chunk of working memory, even for A level students. Insofar as I can claim to understand psychology, it strikes me as exemplary of how System 1 can trump System 2 unless we are in a state of serious-minded vigilance as we work.

All my experience so far suggests that, particularly for students lacking mathematical confidence or mathematical knowledge (the latter label encompasses almost all students), it is profoundly unhelpful to offer too rich a context as a vehicle for learning, especially for elements of maths that require consistent, fluent and (necessarily) fiddly processes. This doesn’t mean you don’t share the opportunities to then use and enjoy that knowledge, it just means that they don’t have to happen in tandem.

My (limited) experience so far suggests this:

  • Convey that the topic or skill is interesting (not necessarily useful. It usually isn’t and I’m cool with that). If it can be introduced with a ‘huh???’ moment, then that is great. It’s not always possible and it’s better to just dive in than to create a pseudo-hook.
  • Show them how to do it. Scaffold it carefully, being sensitive to your group. For the love of God please don’t ask them to discover it. It’s great to ask them to notice and think about patterns, and to explain what is happening, but it is a terrible disservice not to also explain it very clearly and very carefully. And to check that they can also explain it very clearly and very carefully.
  • Never stop telling them about how awesome you think this bit of maths is, how proud they’ll feel when they can do it fluently and connect it with other things.
  • Let them practice. LOTS.
  • Use formative assessment throughout to unpick and discuss misconceptions.
  • Let them keep practising. LOTS. On their own. In purposeful silence in a supportive, happy atmosphere.
  • Keep using real-time assessment to match the pitch and pace of the work to avoid students being stranded or coasting (constrained by what is possible without being torn in 30 directions).
  • As more of the process is chunked into long-term memory, and confidence in the idea ‘I can actually do this’ grows, build the links between the how and the why. For example, if learning to divide by a decimal, this is the time to cement the link between the idea of ‘3÷0.5 is 6 because I am seeing how many half-cakes are in 3 cakes’ and what is happening when 3.4÷0.2 is rewritten as a fraction, multiplied by 10/10, and simplified.
  • Keep returning to it throughout the year – and their time in school – so that they don’t lose what they learned. Interleave it with increasingly complex and rich contexts (not necessarily ‘real-life’. Learning to appreciate the beauty of the abstract is a great gift to see them through the tedium of adult life). Let them experience the delight that their hard work in learning how to divide by a decimal, or add a fraction, or form and solve an equation, is allowing them to work on an intriguing puzzle or fascinating context.

Maybe it’s fine that it’s boring sometimes.

When I practise A-Level topics, or practise French, I do sometimes find it boring. Not dislikeable, just sometimes tedious. But it’s an acceptable – even welcome – boredom; it’s like the way that exercise is sometimes boring. There are more fun forms of exercise, and there are more fun forms of maths, but I can’t really do either without making sure the basics are solid, and examined in isolation without the trappings and context of more exciting or intriguing problems. It’s a satisfying boredom that is part of the journey to a worthwhile goal.

In the same free-text question over half of students described maths as ‘fun’, and 49% made ‘interesting’ their word of choice. Their later comments suggested that the teachers and the atmosphere are the drivers behind this, as few made any mention of the activities in lessons. These are reasonably representative comments, to give an idea (currently all the teachers are female – hence the default to ‘she’) –

“she brings a huge buzz to the class and tries to make it as enjoyable as possible” (a Y9 who is pretty clear that he doesn’t actually like maths itself)

“They all talk about how much they like maths and when they explain something to you, you understand perfectly” (I should employ this kid to write my blogs, as he’s clearly able to say the same thing but in fewer words).

“My teacher(s) do like maths because they have a such pleasure and passion in teaching it and also they go over something more than once for those who do not understand which proves FAIRNESS.”

“they all are very passionate about it, for example refer it as cool constantly”

“For me maths is difficult however on the other hand I feel happier every time I do it because I then learn and understand something new which is very important to me.”

 “I love maths because I know that DTA does it for our benefits and the teachers make us feel comfortable with maths.”

In summary:

  1. Love maths. Show it.
  2. Teach the processes explicitly.
  3. Let them practise it lots, and in a context- and confusion- free way.
  4. Interleave and revisit. Build up the confusion and context. NOW is the time to decide if there is time and merit in more ambitious activities (I am partial to a Barbie bungee, but not as a vehicle for teaching).

If you think this sounds awful, I am interested to hear from you. If you think this sounds awesome, please apply to work at our school. Bradford is great and so is working at our school.

tt rockstars

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Headaches Across the Curriculum: what’s the point in whole-school numeracy?

In September I saw this photo and hurried to send it to another teacher in our department so that I wouldn’t be alone in my wailing and gnashing of teeth.

 numeracy argh

Bless the teacher who made it; she is clearly working hard to accord with (what seems to be) a misguided whole-school policy on literacy and numeracy. Even a cursory search on Twitter/edu-blogs throws up a host of similar policies and initiatives, all of which have two shared features:

  • They do a lot to raise the visibility of literacy and numeracy as ‘a thing we do in our school’
  • They seem very unlikely to raise students’ standards of literacy or numeracy, but do seem to be eating into subject time (i.e. they may be actively harmful)

I find this baffling and assume that it is driven by the twin desires to conform to the Ofsted framework and to ensure that the maximum possible number of students reach benchmarks in English and Maths. Although I can’t claim to have any expertise in ‘what Ofsted wants’ (having experienced three inspections in four years, I don’t think Ofsted know either), the September 2014 framework seems to mostly be focused on outcomes rather than on processes. The parts that could be construed as referring to ‘whole-school literacy and numeracy’ are these:

  • “Literacy includes the key skills of reading, writing and oral communication that enable pupils to access different areas of the curriculum. Inspectors will consider the impact of the teaching of literacy and the outcomes across the range of the school’s provision… Inspectors will consider the extent to which the school intervenes to provide support for improving pupils’ literacy, especially those pupils at risk of underachieving.”
  • “Inspectors will consider…how well pupils apply their mathematical knowledge and skills in other subjects in the curriculum, where appropriate.” (emphasis my own)
  • “In arriving at judgments about progress, inspectors will usually consider how well: … progress in literacy and mathematics are assessed by drawing on evidence from other subjects in the curriculum, where this is sensible.” (emphasis my own)

If I could have three wishes for secondary schools, with regards to whole-school literacy/ numeracy, they would be these:

  • Schools should relentlessly focus on improving students’ literacy (in the generalised sense of literacy), but only focus on activities that will actually make students more likely to be literate.
  • Teachers should not wedge numeracy or literacy into lessons. If anyone is doing so out of good intentions (e.g. hangovers from a previous school or policy), it should be discouraged.
  • Every subject should be taking responsibility for giving their students access to the vocabulary and syntax specific to that academic domain.

I won’t explain these in turn, as they are syntheses of several different thoughts. However, I hope that clarifying those thoughts will make the above seem sensible (heady optimism).

Does literacy matter?

It gets a yes from Britney

Yes. Emphatically yes. Low literacy is linked to reduced life chances, in terms of social and economic (*shiver*) participation. High literacy lets you put more in your head and share what’s already in there. More grandly, it’s been described as being a right that allows people to realise their other rights (Amartya Sen: the gift that never stops giving) and more starkly, consistently strong correlation is found between low literacy and the experience of poverty (Clarke and Dugdale, 2008). Ensuring all students reach a minimum standard in literacy seems a fantastically worthy goal.

My working definition of literacy (i.e. I have made it up) is:

  • Being able to read at the level expected of a ‘normal’ adult
  • Having an adequate general knowledge that you can read non-specialist text and take meaning from it
  • Being able to communicate clearly in an appropriate register (both in writing and in speech)
  • Being able to take intended meaning from non-specialist speech (and reflect the register, if needed)
  • Being able to learn new, non-technical words without needing expert instruction (e.g. a dictionary and a context should be enough)

Does numeracy matter?

I do believe so

Yes, and moreso than would be expected. Low numeracy is linked to narrowed life chances, but mostly in terms of outcomes relating to physical and financial health (Rowlands, 2009). Innumeracy increases vulnerability, from everyday things like pay, taxes, utilities, etc, to accessing the job market (about 26% of skills shortage vacancies result from a lack of numeracy skills, according to UKCES in 2014) to the ease with which you can be exploited or manipulated. For example, someone with low numeracy might not appreciate how significant an APR of 5.8%….or 5853%…actually is, or might find it hard to contextualise the annual spend on unemployment benefit (£4.91bn in 2011-12) in terms of overall welfare spending (£159bn in 2011-12). More positively, high numeracy facilitates access to mathematical fluency (which opens up a host of opportunities in terms of social and economic participation and general utility*).

My own definition of numeracy is different to what tends to be used, and is the minimum that I think an adult needs:

  • Proportional reasoning (simplistic example: having a recipe for 4 people, needing to feed 10 people, and being able to decide what to buy more of if you already have some of the ingredients).
  • Adequate mental and written calculation at the level expected of a ‘normal’ adult (e.g. knowing there must be a mistake if 6 people had a main at £12.50 and the bill comes to £50).
  • Statistical literacy: being able to ask meaningful questions when presented with a statistic. For example, MigrationWatch report that “94% of Britons think that Britain is ‘full up’.” Questions that immediately spring to mind are: Who did you ask? How many people did you ask? What was the actual question? What was the context when you asked them? Similarly, being able to consider a statistic in its own right without immediately rushing to confirm existing biases. A grim example of the latter would be the Pope’s estimate that 2% of clergy are paedophiles; it would lead most of us to quickly conclude there is a horrifying and exceptional problem in the Church…unless we ask about the larger picture).

 

Are they equally important? Are they whole-school responsibilities, transcending all subjects?

They are both very important as outcomes. Literacy has value as a means and as an end (i.e. it is inherently valuable). Numeracy has value as a means – it facilitates access to things that are valuable. They don’t need equal distribution of input.

Should they be responsibilities/priorities for all adults in education?

Yes, but the extent of the responsibility differs depending on role and subject. Some are more responsible for attainment in literacy and numeracy than others. For example, it seems sensible to have a literacy coordinator who oversees intervention programmes for children who are reading at a level below their chronological age, trains staff, etc. That person has a lot of responsibility and accountability. It doesn’t make sense for an MFL teacher to be accountable for students’ grasp of when to use the median as a measure of averages.

Tentatively, I think these are the responsibilities for all adults in education (those with a ◊ may even be applicable to those who aren’t in a teaching role) as they all feed towards an ethos of prizing the status of being ‘a literate and numerate person’ without leading to a change in day-to-day workload:

  1. Be literate and numerate (!!!) and take positive steps to become so if you’re not◊
  2. Whilst not discouraging/demotivating students, be diligent and relentless in correcting errors in numeracy/literacy, including when outside of a classroom setting◊
  3. Be able to give a technically sound explanation/correction when a student makes an error. Schools should, possibly, consider having a consistent approach in these explanations/corrections.(◊?)
  4. Make conscious decisions about choosing an appropriate register when speaking to students (e.g. a whole-school decision to use Standard English**, which is rationalised to students) ◊
  5. Show enthusiasm for, and pride in, being literate and numerate. Never boast of your incompetence when it comes to any aspect of literacy/numeracy. ◊
  6. Be a vocal role model for aspects of numeracy and literacy where you plan to improve your own knowledge. This is a valuable opportunity to meaningfully model what a growth mindset is; wanting to improve at something and allowing yourself to be seen to strive, even if success isn’t certain. ◊
  7. Within reason, and where possible, ensure any text or speech used in lessons is mindful of the students’ reading ages whilst being aspirational (i.e. expose students to speech and writing which is just out of reach without alienating them).

Some of these are very challenging and, I suspect, intimidating for some adults involved in education. I’m not always confident explaining to students why a phrase is incorrect (e.g. there’s a subtlety in explaining ‘I ran fastly’ is incorrect but ‘I ran quickly’ is not). Most people don’t speak Standard English as a matter of course – I had to learn to speak it as an adult since my Dublin dialect can alienate English people – and would need a lot of feedback to notice their deviations. This is not to say that there is anything wrong with other dialects – I love the special syntax and vocabulary of Barnsley and the surrounding villages (where else would someone exclaim “Go f___ thee self” to a police officer?) – or to deny that many forms of non-Standard English have their own grammar (“We was walking…” is a consistently conjugation in West Yorkshire and there are strict rules governing use of the copula  in AAVE (‘Black English’), such as “She been studying…”).

This list does suggest a different role for those who are championing literacy and numeracy in the school, and one that is more sensitive. Helping adults to feel confident with literacy and numeracy can be a more daunting task than for children as the stakes can feel higher and there is more risk of people being made to feel inadequate of unprofessional.

What should they look like in different subjects?

Every subject, every day:

  • Teachers speak and write English with high levels of technical accuracy.
  • Aspirational language is used in writing and in speech.
  • Students are expected to write and speak with high levels of technical accuracy. All teachers correct all errors, and insist on mistakes being immediately followed by the correct use (e.g. if a student says “The digits is…” they are expected to repeat the sentence using “The digits are…”
  • Teachers give access to – and insist upon the use of – their subjects’ specialist vocabulary. Such vocabulary has many roles: it aids concise and accurate communication; it allows us to compact complex ideas into manageable and mutually understood words and phrases; it acts as a shibboleth to feel (and show) that you are part of an academic community; it is interesting and beautiful. Many of the hallmarks of an elite education are, oddly, small things: knowing that the plural of maximum is maxima, or using the phrase bildungsroman in a sentence with the same ease as ‘coming-of-age-novel’. I can only dream of offering an elite education to my students, but I can at least try to shield them from feeling that they are academically inadequate because I haven’t given them access to the specialist language of my subject.
  • Teachers use numerical notation with high levels of technical accuracy. This is rarely relevant, but highly important when it does come up. A typical example would be to use the equals sign correctly, avoiding such clangers as 4×3=12+10=22 (because 4×3 doesn’t equal 22, so the equals sign can’t be used across one line).

countdown equals sign argh

Intelligent communication across departments

Consistency in explanations of literacy and numeracy basics is important. This can be led by the English and Maths departments, but doesn’t have to be. Examples would include ensuring that when Maths and Science teachers look at scatter diagrams, they are modelling the same steps for undertaking the process and have agreed on the core features that they expect students to use. Beyond that, I don’t see much need for collaboration; the reasons for drawing a scatter graph are quite different in those subjects (in science, it’s a means to an end – to analyse some intrinsically interesting data; in maths, it is the end – to analyse how the graph reveals underlying patterns in a jumble of data pairings).

What should it definitely NOT look like in different subjects?

  • Activities that you wouldn’t have done if there weren’t whole-school policies on literacy and numeracy. I’ve seen such horrors as English teachers asking students to multiply the numbers in that day’s date as a way of showing they have incorporated numeracy into the lesson.
  • Allocating time to something that is ‘literacy’ or ‘numeracy’ if you would have better used that time to further the aims of your subject. For example, asking students to make a pie chart of the distribution of rock-types in an environment when – in reality – no geographer would draw a pie chart by hand and the activity (which will take 10-20 minutes) side-lines what would have otherwise been a very swift examination of those facts.
  • The justification of literacy or numeracy in terms of specific career paths. This is a wholly extrinsic motivator (i.e. a de-motivator in the long run), fails to account for the myopic nature of children/humans (they find it hard to stay motivated by end-of-term exams, as even those feel too far away), can backfire if a child is certain that it isn’t a career path that interests them, and perpetuates an ethos that education is only valuable insofar as it makes you economically valuable (boo hiss!). Just tell them that being literate and numerate is the minimum we expect of all adults. Tell them that being literate and numerate supports them to be successful in the world and to pursue their aims once they are more certain about what they want to do.
  • Pretending that things that are really maths or English are literacy or numeracy (and thus taking time from other subjects without acknowledging that this is happening). For example, our students enjoy Times Tables Rock Stars and rolling numbers; it amazes me that Ofsted thought this counted as ‘numeracy across the school.’ Other than the positivity of adults who aren’t maths teachers, it wasn’t ‘across the school’ in any sense other than that it was happening in the hall instead of in classrooms. Conversely, there are lots of sensible whole-school literacy activities, such as weekly spellings on which all students are tested (having had a few days to learn them).
  • Doing tokenistic activities in form time. If you want the students to do maths or English in form time, you should just make form shorter and give more time to maths or English. Those lessons are taught by subject specialists and – generally – to more coherent groupings of students. I have rarely seen a form-time literacy/numeracy activity that would actually make students more literate/numerate – it is usually too hard for some, too easy for others, and just right for a small number but inaccessible because the form tutor lacks the knowledge or confidence to deliver it. I would make an exception for the following:
    • Well-run DEAR sessions (Drop Everything And Read). These are automatically differentiated and appropriate if (and only if) the students are reading books suitable to their reading age and that challenge their reading horizons. DEAR can be very effective if the supervising teachers are trained in running it well (e.g. reading with students, listening to students reading to them and giving feedback, challenging students to select more aspirational books).
    • Interventions that have strong evidence bases (e.g. Lexia, corrective reading programmes, inference training, etc) where there are consistently high expectations around behaviour and effort.

DEAR time - peanuts

Writing across the curriculum: scrap acronyms?

This is an area where I am quite a bit out of my depth as my expertise ends at having done an essay-based subject for my degree. I am more than happy to be corrected on this assertion:

Stop using acronyms to structure writing.

I get that ‘learning to write an essay’ or ‘learning to write a report’ are important skills to develop across a range of subjects. I’m less convinced that many of the literacy acronyms are actually working towards this aim. For example, a good history essay will be driven primarily by strong command of the events in question, subtle analysis of arguments and causes, a thoughtful choice of specific facts to illustrate and develop different points, and a coherent flow of those points. Such an essay can be thrilling and informative whilst being written in a dry or terse style; I don’t think VCOP would have a useful role to play. Conversely, if I lacked a sound recall of those elements, I don’t think that PEE would get me much closer to writing something worthy. It would be the same confused ideas, but in a more predictable format. Acronyms to help students recall the critical facts and arguments seem sensible, as do – possibly – a checklist along the lines of ‘As I move to a new point, is it clear what the point actually is? Have I substantiated each point? When I distil each paragraph to a single sentence, does the order of ideas make sense? Have I checked for any unintended repetition of vocabulary?’ I expect that many humanities and English teachers are snorting with derision as they read these; I am very much an observer on the side when it comes to teaching extended writing. I’d love to hear alternative viewpoints on this.

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* For me, the main utility measure from being mathematically educated is the pleasure of knowing more maths. This morning I finally – TEN YEARS LATER ARGH – was able to make my own proof for ‘disappearing’ the constant when differentiating. I still feel a little giddy from the sheer joy of it and expect it will carry me through to 2015.

** David Foster Wallace – my go-to guy for saying things in ways I can only dream of – wrote on the importance of being able to speak and write in Standard English. I recommend it heartily.

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Dumb is in the Past: Times Tables Coaches

This is a post for anyone who is running Times Tables Rock Stars in their school and is thinking about ways to support the students to achieve the target of being able to recall any times tables fact in under 3 seconds.

To support the main body of students (i.e. those where the initial baseline showed that they know their tables in – on average – under 6 seconds a question), we use a subscription to www.ttrockstars.com, TTRS itself (the paper-based version, with all the attendant hype), rolling numbers (videos to follow of our own students – we practise as a whole-year group three times a week), a support booklet to offer advice to parents who wanted to help at home, practice for homework on Sumdog and a calculation-focused SOW for the first third of Year 7.

However, a problem we had with last year’s first attempt at TTRS was that the very weakest students didn’t improve enough to allow them to access maths lessons with the speed and accuracy that they need. Our main strategy to support them – that is, the 20 students who showed up on the baseline as having the slowest times – is TTRS coaches.

TTRS coaches are Y8 and Y9 students who are assigned to 1-3 Y7 students and meet with them once a week to teach/encourage/lead games/praise/set targets and generally act as a positive role model. Pleasingly, there is a good range in the coaches’ mathematical backgrounds – many are students who started Y7 with very low confidence or who were very weak at their tables a year ago. In their applications, a commonly cited reason for applying was either to help other students see that they, too, could improve or to help themselves to maintain the gains they’d made last year. The only frustration is that the coaches are mostly girls, despite being a school that has a high proportion of boys, so we will have to think about how we market it next year.

The coaches had training for 3 weeks after school, where we looked at questions and scenarios such as:

– What does it mean to be ‘bad’ or ‘good’ at your tables?

– Why is it important to be fast and accurate with times (and division) tables?

– Why might a student arrive in Y7 and be very slow or inaccurate with their tables?

– How might students feel when they often make mistakes?

– What sort of praise is helpful (effort-focused) or unhelpful (praising intelligence)?

– What are realistic targets?

– How do you respond if they tell you they think they are stupid or are ‘no good’ at a table?

– Why might a student be very shy, or very unfocused?

– How do you respond if they are very shy, or very unfocused?

We also planned things such as programmes for different tables and checking progress, appropriate celebrations and rewards (e.g. a certificate for reaching a milestone, or having special stickers for students’ planners) and exciting games and activities. Importantly, we also picked colours for their TTRS Coach badges.

electric guitar pin - black electric guitar pin - red electric guitar pin

It has now been running for a week, and it has been one of the most delightful and painfully cute things I have ever seen.

1. A Y7 told his coach that he is ‘really dumb’ at the 9x tables.

Response from coach: *places his hand on the student’s shoulder* “Dumb is in the past. You can make yourself clever in the future.”

2. “It’s really stressful being a coach. You explain, they don’t get it, and then you don’t know what to do.” (bahahahahahahaha) (obviously we did then discuss strategies to support his student)

3. (weakest* student in Y7, who works one-to-one with his coach) “I love it. It’s so much fun. [Coach] and I are going to change it to an hour now because I’m learning so much.”

4. “I’ve designed a game. We roll a dice for a times table. If they don’t get it right in 4 seconds, you have to roll the Dice of Doom. These are the forfeits: 1-say the 3xtables and do a chicken dance; 2-say the 11xtables in a funny voice; 3-say the 10xtables whilst doing a disco dance; 4-say the 9xtables in under 10 seconds; 5-say the 5xtables backwards; 6-your partner chooses.”

5. “It’s so much fun being a coach. I can already see [student] is improving.”

6. “Miss, I’ve made a lesson plan for coaching with [student]. Does it look ok?” (It looked amazing – an A4 page of ideas and rationale. And highlighter. So much highlighter).

A few coaches have now had two sessions and are already very autonomous and confident in what they’re doing (with lots of them doing quite different things depending on their students’ needs).

Of course, this post couldn’t be complete without gratuitous photos:

TTRS coaches 1 - halima TTRS coaches 2 - kaye TTRS coaches 3 - sara TTRS coaches 4 - forfeits TTRS coaches 5 - vienna TTRS coaches 6 - isha TTRS coaches 7 - kamile

I don’t know yet what difference it will make to the progress those Y7s make in their tables this year, but it’s wonderful to see how enthusiastically the Y8/9 students have been throwing themselves into it and how seriously they’ve taken the ‘role model’ aspect of it. If you have tried any strategies of your own to support the weakest students with their mental maths, I would love to hear about it.

Thanks for reading!

*In terms of his individual needs and KS2 levels, and general maturity.

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Messages in a basket: relevance and rigour in the curriculum

Two musings (incomplete ideas) to share…

Real World Maths

Many maths teachers and commentators are convinced that linking the learning to the real world will make maths more interesting and relevant and, in turn, increase students’ motivation and engagement (too many to link to – I will add links once I’ve sifted through the gazillions saved from Twitter). Intriguingly, it’s a claim more commonly made in schools where there are problems with engagement or with results, and is seen as a possible solution. I haven’t heard it mentioned much by teachers in schools where maths results are very high, or from maths graduates (although I am now truly into the realm of anecdata).

I wonder what they would make of these Glorious Extracts from North Korean textbooks? (source: Nothing to Envy – Barbara Demick)

1. 8 boys and 9 girls are singing anthems in praise of Kim-il-Sung. How many are singing in total?

2. 3 soldiers from the Korean People’s Army killed 30 American soldiers. How many American soldiers were killed by each of them if they all killed an equal number of enemy soldiers?

3. A girl is acting as a messenger to our patriotic troops during the war against Japanese occupation. She carries messages in a basket containing 5 apples, but is stopped by a Japanese solider at a checkpoint. He steals two of her apples [obviously]. How many are left?

Kim-il-Jong room in Chongjin Kindergarten; every school must have a dedicated room to learn about the Dear Leader, the Great Leader and the Supreme Leader

Kim-il-Jong room in Chongjin Kindergarten; every school must have a dedicated room to learn about the Dear Leader, the Great Leader and the Supreme Leader

By the above logic, N Korean students would be amongst the most enthused and engaged in the world… (For the avoidance of doubt: I am being facetious).

Dan Meyer made a helpful diagram to think about how context and style of question can affect how intriguing or challenging a question is for students:

real world v real work

I think that Dan has honed in on something critical, although it’s hard to ignore some of my own biases. My students are most engaged and excited, and ready to grapple with cognitively challenging content, when it’s more towards the top-left quadrant (think UKMT-style questions, or cool patterns, or counter-intuitive results, or a sudden spark that reveals the underlying structure of a problem). However, that is the type of maths that excites me the most, so they could simply be responding to my moods and enthusiasm. I am one of those happy weirdos who does abstract problems to relax (KS4 algebra is a good route to soothe a headache), so I am perhaps not a good barometer of what students will find interesting or exciting.

Bloomin’ Fabulous*

I had the good fortune of finding out on Saturday that, despite an A level in English, I didn’t actually know what a fable was. More humbling, I thought I knew but turned out to be just making inferences from the contexts when I tended to hear or read the word and had no formal definition beyond ‘it involves animals and morals’ (oof).

If my memory serves me correctly, what makes fables distinctive as a structure is that they are a vehicle to examine an idea and the characters maintain constant traits in order to underline the key aspects of the idea(s). It’s for this reason that animals are often used (Aesop’s Fables, Animal Farm) as attaching a single idea to a character is a bit more difficult with humans. By contrast, a classic novel (i.e. a romain) tends to have characters undergo change in response to the world.

In terms of Bloom’s taxonomy, this is a piece of knowledge that allows me to evaluate/synthesise/self-congratulate because it is more abstract and higher up the triangle of goodness. I had a sudden realisation of the blindingly obvious: I was only enjoying this knowledge, able to check that I really understood it, and finding it useful and interesting, because I had lots of plots, characters, stories and themes already in my memory.

This suggests an argument in favour of Bloom’s as a tool for thinking about learning; the more abstract knowledge was enabling me to synthesise/re-examine books and poems I had read in the past  and see them in a new and (even more) interesting light. Bloom’s correctly identifies that facts and memory have to come first, as the analysis relies on having a good store of literary knowledge in your long-term memory.

However, it confirms for me that it is misguided to think that ‘skills of analysis’ or ‘skills of evaluation’ can exist in a vacuum, or that they are more important than a store of knowledge in long-term memory. If I couldn’t remember substantive points about any fiction/poetry I’d read, I doubt I’d even remember what I was told about fables on Saturday – there would be nothing to connect it to, and it would have seemed like a factoid rather than a revelation.

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There is nothing ‘relevant’ about fables, or about abstract number problems. I suspect that the motivation to learn more is largely the motivation to connect more of what’s outside of your head with what’s already in there. The more that’s in there, the more there is to connect to, and the more enjoyable learning becomes*. If making one’s mind a more interesting place to inhabit is something we can offer to students, then that seems like a pretty worthy goal.

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* The word ‘fabulous’ has the same root as ‘fable.’ How great is that?

** Incidentally, the easier remembering things becomes also – the more there is for a new idea to connect to, the more embedded it will be. It is odd when people say ‘Why memorise that [random thing] when you could learn [other thing]?’, as though there is finite space in our brains. If anything, it’s a Mary Poppins bag – the more that goes in, the more you can fit.

Willingham claims to have drawn 'just about the simplest model of the mind possible.' I'll wager that this one is simpler.

Willingham claims to have drawn ‘just about the simplest model of the mind possible.’ I’ll wager that this one is simpler.

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The Secret of Happiness and Virtue: behaviour and sanctions

” ‘And that’, put in the Director sententiously, ‘that is the secret of happiness and virtue – liking what you’ve got to do. All conditioning aims at that: making people like their unescapable [sic] social destiny.’ “ – Aldous Huxley, Brave New World

” The Party denied the free will of the individual – and at the same time it exacted his willing self-sacrifice. It denied his capacity to choose between two alternatives – and at the same time it demanded that he should constantly choose the right one…

…’There are only two conceptions of human ethics, and they are at opposite poles. One of them is Christian and humane, declares the individual to be sacrosanct, and asserts that the rules of arithmetic are not to be applied to human units. The other starts from the basic principle that a collective aim justifies all means, and not only allows, but demands, that the individual should in every way be subordinated and sacrificed to the community…’ “ – Arthur Koestler, Darkness at Noon

“We believe in mutual respect but students are aware that at times this is not always equal respect. Adults and professionals have to make decisions which benefit the whole school community. This approach reflects what happens in the world of work and society more generally. We do, however, respect students as learners at all times.” – Wesley Davies, Principal at Dixons McMillan, formerly Deputy headteacher at Dixons Trinity [A version of this quotation is a common utterance to the students, both as a year group and in individual conversations.]

“We don’t do anything revolutionary. We just do what we say we will do.” – Luke Sparkes, Principal at Dixons Trinity [A version of this quotation is a common utterance to staff and adults.]

“I am an expert in teaching maths and in knowing what will help you learn. If I say you need to put your pen down and listen to me, you need to do that immediately.” – Teacher speaking to a student on Friday, as part of a longer conversation about why she had a correction (30-minute same-day detention). [I concede that ‘I am an expert in teaching maths’ is a bold statement; I am confident that everyone in our department is more expert than a 12-year-old.]

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This is another post where I try to describe, and explain the reasoning behind, some of the practices in my school. As with others like it, I’m mostly recording and sharing others’ ideas and work. I buy in to our systems/culture about as completely as is possible (so am happy to discuss it if you disagree with aspects) but deserve no credit if you think it is correct.

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This post is prompted by four things:

– This post by Mary Meredith on restorative justice and why she believes that it can be inappropriate to sanction some unacceptable behaviours. I don’t know about when she does think sanctions are appropriate, but I hope she’ll write about this  in the future. I think she is completely misguided and that all parties’ long-term interests are being harmed by the approach she is proposing. I don’t doubt the purity of her intentions and do appreciate that she is sharing these stories.

– This post by Jonny Walker about how teachers get little or no training in what constitutes an effective telling off, despite reprimands and ‘corrective conversations’ being a normal part of adult-student relationships. I now feel this is the missing chapter in Teach Like a Champion. We benefit from getting to hear a lot of public reprimands, which allows us to mimic the tone and register until we (newer staff) develop our own ‘style’ that is consistent with the school culture. This is partially because it is modelled by senior and middle leaders (i.e. they try to pick up on everything and regularly address the whole body of students), and because there is an expectation of being sat in the back of others’ lessons as much as is practical.

– This post by Martin Robinson about his belief that extrinsic rewards have no place in a school. I agree with him wholeheartedly.

– A concern I sometimes hear, typically from less experienced teachers or visitors from very different school contexts (read: ones with behaviour that is not conducive to learning), that our school is producing automatons who don’t truly buy in to what they are doing. I don’t mention the lack of experience to erode the validity of their concerns; I’m trying to be faithful to the patterns of people’s reactions. I don’t agree with them; I don’t think our students are perfect – they are children, and have all the attendant foibles – but I think they have the peculiar confidence that comes with being in a safe, secure and academic environment. There are some drawbacks that we experience – such as more taddling than in other schools, and some overreacting to joshing and minor accidents (e.g. disproportionate responses to inane comments or accidental scrapes) – but it’s not impossible to address these within the systems that we have.

As I see it, our behaviour system is based on four strands.

1. Behaviour systems and ideals should be built around the most vulnerable children – these who will need it the most. It should protect students from harm (social, emotional, physical) and it should be designed so that it is possible for everyone to meet the expectations (some might need support to do this). In my view, a truly inclusive school doesn’t have different norms for students with individual needs, it has systems in place for everyone that already accommodate and facilitate diverse needs.

2. For routine behaviours, you should have routine rewards and sanctions. The bar should be very high.

3. For behaviours that require a student to really believe in what they’re doing, you need to tap into a deeper motivation.

4. Education is its own reward; increased knowledge and intelligence is inherently valuable.

1. Systems should be built around the most vulnerable

A lot of the rules and routines we have in place are not necessarily what students would choose if they designed the school themselves. For example, all students eat with their advisory (form group) in a prescribed seating plan, with a set menu (veggie or non-veggie is the extent of the choice they have) and are expected to engage in inclusive conversation. This routine – called Family Dining – exists in part because lunchtime is when many students can be especially vulnerable. This can range from cliques trying to exercise power by controlling who can sit with them and where:

you can't sit with us

to students not eating appropriate food for an afternoon of focus and effort, to students not eating at all, to the problem of younger students getting pushed to the back and missing most of lunch when lunch operates on a ‘queues and individual service’ system, to issues of schools not having incentives to insist on high quality of food if only the FSM pupils eat it, to FSM pupils having to declare themselves as such if they are the only ones who ever eat the school-provided food. It also prepares them for life beyond the academy when they (hopefully) will be eating in professional or academic settings, such as in halls or business meetings (perhaps due to the diversity of ethnic backgrounds, many aren’t comfortable using a knife and fork at the start of Y7 – this strikes me as an important thing to learn before they enter the world as adults). I could go on.

Another rule that can seem very restrictive to the outside observer (and some of the students) is the enforcement of silent corridors. Again, part of the rationale is those who might be more vulnerable. Our corridors are narrow; if two students are walking abreast and engaged in conversation, no one will be able to pass them; it is unreasonable to expect a small, young or shy child to assert themselves in that situation. Similarly, taller or larger students can unintentionally knock another student if they are distracted by conversation when walking in a narrow corridor. What can be a buzzing, energetic, lively shared space to one person – usually someone who is socially confident – can be a claustrophobic and intimidating space to someone else who is obliged to pass through it but would rather avoid it. On a practical note, it also wastes learning time and blurs the start of lessons if students are ‘dripping in’ due to having 5-minute chats between lessons.

2. Routine behaviours, routine sanctions

Dan Pink makes a strong case that there are two aspects to human motivation: for some desired behaviours, rewards increase compliance or productivity; for other desired behaviours, it depresses performance. This is an unexpected result, especially for students of economics. His work is summarised in this RSA animation:

He elaborates on this further in his book Drive, but I think the clip summarises the key ideas sufficiently that I wouldn’t recommend you prioritise it over other edu-ish-publications.

Some of the behaviour we expect in school is routine: be on time to school and lessons, bring the necessary equipment for lessons, follow instructions (e.g. to look at the speaker, open your book, sit where instructed, start on tasks promptly), abide by the uniform code, meet deadlines (e.g. homework), don’t answer back (e.g. if you think an adult has made a mistake, wait until an appropriate time to speak to them). For a routine behaviour that is not cognitively challenging, the evidence suggests that routine sanctions and rewards are effective. We have a system of same-day 30-minute detentions (called corrections, as they are intended to correct students’ behaviour) which are recorded centrally and staff have a rota for supervising. Students write out the learning habits and then write out how they will make changes in future. It is not perfect, of course: it does not eliminate every transgression, as a staff body we will always have to work to be more consistent in our applications of sanctions, and a very small number of students receive a disproportionate number of corrections. I don’t think this indicates system failure; it suggests that we need to work hard to ensure it brings the benefits we intend. Efforts with practice in CPD (see this post), and leadership from Heads of Year and senior leaders, work to reduce inconsistency. Intervention, monitoring and escalation are used to address the risk of some students becoming ‘immune’ to corrections.

There are rewards for students who consistently meet expectations, but it is very hard to get these. There are 3 ‘reward events’ per year; these are educational and enriching (e.g making a film in the Bradford Media Museum, or a day of painting and biology in The Deep in Hull) and students must have 100% attendance and 0 corrections in the preceding 3 months to be eligible. Amazingly, almost half of students qualify each time (I say amazingly as it is a high standard to meet).

Our catchment is very normal. We have (slightly) above average SEN on entry, (slightly) below average attainment on entry and the majority of students are from the five poorest wards in Bradford (one of the poorest cities in Britain). This good behaviour is not because we have ‘better’ students. Ours are wonderfully normal, funny, earnest, silly, cynical – everything you expect in a city centre school.

3. Tapping into deeper motivation

There are many ways that we work to help students to be intrinsically motivated to be courteous, hard-working and driven by a desire to serve a purpose greater than themselves. Whenever possible, corrections are always accompanied by a rationalising conversation that links back to our school’s values (these are referred to incessantly) and how it relates to the student’s sentence (see this post here by Joe Kirby). The ninja-level teachers often have students thanking them (!) for giving them a correction as it sets them on the straight and narrow. At first an external viewer might have a creeping sense of NewSpeak (hence my references to Huxley and Koestler above), but I am not aware of a student complaining that they felt they weren’t allowed to disagree, or that an apology or concession was extracted from them just to ‘get it over with.’

This links back to working around the most vulnerable students. For a student with ASD or RAD (reactive attachment disorder), they need an explicit conversation about why they have done something wrong and how they can improve. Rather than be ‘inclusive’ by accommodating that need separately, we strive to be truly inclusive by doing it for all students as a matter of course (see this post by our INCO for an amusing and thought-provoking treatise on this). Of course we’re not perfect at it; staff can be busy or stressed, as all teachers are, but we’re working towards consistency in the frequency and content of reprimands and explanations.

At least once a day, staff speak to the student body about how behaviours, norms, routines or expectations link to our values (hard work, trust and fairness) and drivers (mastery, autonomy and purpose). This is reinforced every time we praise or reprimand students, so it is a consistent thread through their day. The staff are willing to be earnest and open-hearted in their belief in the values – no mean feat! – and we work hard to help the students believe in them and live by them to guide their choices. Of course some students might work hard because they don’t want a sanction, particularly younger ones, but we’re getting closer to the main motivation for hard work being a desire for mastery and to be fair to their peers.

4. Education is its own reward

Finally, I suspect the behaviour system also relies on the staff really loving their subjects and conveying that enthusiasm to the students. Staff can convey this however they like, and pretty much teach as they please (lessons should be tailored to the class being taught, have explicit progress – this does not mean new material every lesson or racing through content – and effective formative assessment that allows the teacher to be adaptive).

If students are working hard in lessons, teachers are teaching well and learning is constantly celebrated as inherently wonderful and valuable then the intrinsic pleasure, and increased self-esteem, that accompanies tough learning should be rewarding in its own right. A desire to be a part of that should, hopefully, be the main thing that motivates students to work hard, be nice and become autonomous.

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Some people might never be able to get on board with this. Our school might not be for everyone, although I have never been fully satisfied by arguments for less clear boundaries or lower expectations. The school would be my first choice if I had children and I would give anything to be able to offer this environment to the staff and students of any school.

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