Teaching & Learning
With every new year at school, there always seems to be a new system or other which claims to be better at doing something that didn’t seem a problem the year before. After tinkering with OneNote in the classroom last year, I’m going all in and there seems to be a general murmuring amongst the, genuinely delightful, pupils I teach as to ‘what’s the point’. What was wrong with paper for our prep and writing stuff on a whiteboard?
At its best, it offers the flexibility to teach and support the students in a way that is just not possible with a paper and pen. Here are three examples.
As I write information on the board, I can be wherever I want in the classroom. I’m not the smallest of people so the first advantage is getting me out of the way. But if I position myself at the back of the classroom, or in amongst the students, or sitting next to the student who’s struggling, it gives me the flexibility to adapt my teaching. The latter case is particularly powerful. How often does a student want to ask that quiet question to clarify something, but would rather not ask it in front of the entire class.
The second example is on the speed of feedback. Students can complete homework on the night it’s set and I can mark it before the next lesson. I don’t have to remember to collect it in or give it back, and they don’t have to remember to bring it to the lesson or hand it in. I’m sure every teacher at some stage has tried to get a class to hand in their work the next day, even when they don’t normally have a lesson. I certainly did, and tried nobly for a few weeks before giving up and accepting that I’d have to teach the next lesson ‘blind’ as to what their homework may have shown me as to their understanding. A spin off of this electronic marking is that the students seem to respond to what I’ve written much more, correcting work spontaneously, but its early days to suggest this is sustained.
The third is on the richness of media. It’s easy to paste onto their work a worked example, or a custom made ‘This is what you could do to improve’ stamp, or an audio recording of feedback. They could also record an audio question they wanted to ask, or even record them explaining an answer orally (the prospect for languages here is obvious). From bringing in diagrams from the internet, pasting graphs from Excel – it does seem a very natural way to bring all these things together.
Does it have its faults? Of course it does. The lack of a defined time slots for them to do it and me to mark it means that I mark in dribs and drabs, or start marking before they have finished it. The flexibility of structure means that sometimes a page of work ends up with all sorts of scrawling over it, from my comments, to their corrections but it seems much more organic and more representative of a real conversation that might be taking place, but which we don’t have time do every time. The key thing though is that it allows me to do things that I couldn’t do without the technology, which I think is the acid test of whether something is worth persevering with and so I’ll keep on using it.
By Carl Hendrick.
I’ve long thought that one of the weakest proxy indicators of effective learning is engagement, and yet it’s a term persistently used by school leaders (and some researchers) as one of the most important measures of quality. In fact many of the things we’ve traditionally associated with effective teachers may not be indicative of students actually learning anything at all.
At the #ascl2015 conference last Friday, the always engaging Professor Rob Coe gave a talk entitled ‘From Evidence to Great Teaching’ and reiterated this claim. Take the following slide – How many ‘outstanding’ lessons have been awarded so based on this checklist?
Now these all seem like key elements of a successful classroom, so what’s the problem? and more specifically, why is engagement is such a poor proxy indicator – surely the busier they are, the more they are learning?
This paradox is explored by Graham Nuthall in his book ‘The Hidden Lives of Learners,’ (2007) in which he writes:
“Our research shows that students can be busiest and most involved with material they already know. In most of the classrooms we have studied, each student already knows about 40-50% of what the teacher is teaching.” p.24
Nuthall’s work shows that students are far more likely to get stuck into tasks they’re comfortable with and already know how to do as opposed to the more uncomfortable enterprise of grappling with uncertainty and indeterminate tasks. A good example of this as Alex Quigley has pointed out is that engagement in the form of the seemingly visible activity of highlighting is often “little more than colouring in.” Furthermore, teachers are more than happy to sanction that kind of stuff in the name of fulfilling that all important ‘engagement’ proxy indicator so prevalent in lesson observation forms.
The other difficulty is the now constant exhortation for students to be ‘motivated’ (often at the expense of subject knowledge and depth) but motivation in itself is not enough. Nuthall writes that:
“Learning requires motivation, but motivation does not necessarily lead to learning.”p.35
Motivation and engagement and vital elements in learning but it seems to be what they are used in conjunction with that determines impact. It is right to be motivating students but motivated to do what? If they are being motivated to do the types of tasks they already know how to do or focus on the mere performing of superficial tasks at the expense of the assimilation of complex knowledge then the whole enterprise may be a waste of time.
Learning is in many cases invisible as outlined many times by David Didau and is certainly not linear but rather more nebulous in actuality. As Prof. Coe reminds us, ‘learning happens when people have to think hard’ but unfortunately there is no easy way of measuring this, so what does he suggest is effective in terms of evidencing quality?
Ultimately he argues that it comes down to a more nuanced set of practitioner/student skills, habits and conditions that are very difficult to observe, never mind measure. Things like “selecting, integrating, orchestrating, adapting, monitoring, responding” and which are contingent on “context, history, personalities, relationships” and which all work together to create impact and initiate effective learning. So while engagement and motivation are important elements in learning they should be seen as part of a far more complex conglomerate of factors that traditional lesson observations have little hope of finding in a 20 min drive-by.
This is where a more robust climate of research and reflective practice can inform judgements. It’s true that more time for teachers to be critically reflective will improve judgements but we also need to be more explicit in precisely what it is we are looking for and accept that often the most apparent classroom element may also be the most misleading.
Slides: Prof. Rob Coe: From Evidence to Great Teaching ASCL 20 Mar 2015
Nuthall, Graham (2007). The Hidden Lives of Learners. Wellington: New Zealand Council for Educational Research Press
From September 2014 Wellington College will enter a two year partnership with Research Schools International led by Harvard Graduate School of Education Faculty to explore the broader topic of independent learning, specifically the areas of Growth Mindsets, Resilience, Grit and Active Learning. We will also be working closely alongside partner schools from our Teaching School Alliance in this process.
The initial direction of the project was decided in the Summer term 2014 through consultation with all staff at the College by a survey conducted by Harvard.
The project has three broad stages:
1. A comprehensive literature review of main areas and dissemination to staff.
This will be presented by Harvard GSE faculty to all staff and will provide the starting point for our enquiry. Strands and emerging themes from this review will be used to facilitate discussion at both a school and network level. Engaging with the wider evidence base is a vital part of this process and means examining not only what has been written in the field to date promoting independent learning but also examining its criticism, and alternative perspectives.
2. Collection of baseline data from all students, detailing exactly where students are in terms of the four areas outlined above. This will be in the form of a quantitative and qualitative survey designed by Harvard to capture students attitudes and mindsets to independent learning. The survey will be trialled with a group of student research fellows to test efficacy and appropriateness.
It is important that we have a big enough sample size so we will collect baseline data from three additional school from our Teaching School Alliance.
The findings of this research will be analysed by Harvard GSE and delivered to schools in Summer 2015 to inform choice of interventions in year 2.
3. Trial and evaluate interventions.
Based on the baseline data and what we have learned about independent learning, we will decide in consultation with Harvard GSE and our partner schools what interventions we might trial in year 2 to facilitate independent learning, to inform teaching practice and to improve student outcomes. These interventions will be then trialled and evaluated for impact and efficacy. It is planned to use multiple approaches including a randomised controlled trial.
There will be a launch event for this partnership on September 10th at Wellington College with a presentation from Harvard GSE faculty including Christina Hinton and Bruno Della Chiesa. All are welcome.
There will be a launch event for this partnership on September 10th at Wellington College with a presentation from Harvard GSE faculty including Christina Hinton and Bruno Della Chiesa.
by David Walker
This conference drew delegates from around the world, for an analysis of what is rapidly becoming a global movement. With hundreds of people in the room, John Hattie introduced his 3 themes: understanding learning, measuring learning and promoting learning.
Throughout the day the reality was that there were other pervading ideas: the SOLO taxonomy was extolled as the holy grail (as a way of moving learning from ‘surface’ to ‘deep’), Dweck’s growth mindset received its fair share of positive press, and the benefits of making students struggle (in ‘the learning pit’) was mentioned time and again. In contrast, ideas like VAK were wholeheartedly lambasted.
In his keynote speech, Hattie made it clear that the job of the teacher is to facilitate the process of developing sufficient surface knowledge to then move to conceptual understanding. And this is teachable. The structure that this hangs off is the SOLO taxonomy: one idea, many ideas, relate ideas, extend ideas (the first two are surface knowledge, the latter two are deep). Another way of looking at this is that students should be able to recall and reproduce, apply basic skills and concepts, think strategically and then extend their thinking (by hypothesizing etc.)
So that’s surface and deep. Next Hattie described knowledge in terms of the ‘Near’ and the ‘Far’, i.e. closely related contexts or further afield relations – he proposed that our classrooms are almost always focused around near transfer. Hattie finished his keynote speech by briefly outlining 6 of the most effective learning strategies:
- Backward design and success criteria. ES=0.54 (with ‘Outlining and Transforming’ the most striking at 0.85, although he didn’t really say what this actually meant). More straightforwardly, worked examples are at 0.57 – for me, as a Physics teacher, this is critical. Finally, concept mapping entered the hit parade with an ES of 0.64. Hattie then went on to discuss flipped learning, which he seemed quite positive about, perhaps because the effect size of homework in primary schools is zero – which he spun to be a positive: “What an incredible opportunity to improve it”.
- Investment and deliberate practice. ES=0.51. Top of the table here was ‘practice testing’ (even when there is limited feedback). Hattie thinks that the key to this is that students are investing in effort. “We need to get rid of the language of talent”, including setting etc. Dweck’s mindset work was repeatedly referenced during the day, including an interesting idea about the dangers of putting final work on the walls – perhaps we should decorate our rooms with works in progress? But how do we make the practice that they do ‘deliberate’. Another author repeatedly referenced was Graham Nuthall and his work on needing 3 opportunities to see a concept before we learn it. I thought that it was interesting that Nuthall was given such a glowing report when his book ‘The Hidden Lives of Learners’ includes relatively little in the way of attempting to measure and quantify his conclusions. His conclusion to this section was the catchphrase: “How do we teach kids to know what to do when they don’t know what to do?”
- Rehearsal and highlighting. ES=0.40. Some strategies here: rehearsal and memorization, summarization, underlining, re-reading, note-taking, mnemonics, matching style of learning (in order of effect size, with the latter at ES=0.17). The key here is to get kids to get sufficient surface knowledge so they can use their (limited) working memory to do the far learning. I thought it was interesting that matching learning styles gets such a bad press when it does, according to this, have at least a small positive impact.
- Teaching self-regulation. ES=0.53. Reciprocal teaching – not just knowing, but checking that they know why.
- Self-talk. ES=0.59. Self-verbalization and self-questioning.
- Social Learning. ES=0.48. The top effect is via classroom discussion (at 0.82) (Hattie stressed that this should not be a Q&A, but an actual discussion).”When you are learning something and you’re still not sure, then reinforcement from classroom discussion is the biggest effect”…but if the discussion is of something wrong, then people are more likely to remember it. The most memorable quote here was that “80% of the feedback in the classroom is from peers…and 80% is wrong”.
- What about Direct instruction? ES=0.6. The important thing is sitting down with colleagues and planning a series of lessons. And then jointly discussing how you are going to assess. “If you go out and buy the script, you’ve missed the point”. Constructivist teaching only has an effect size of 0.17. Guide on the side leaves the kids without self-regulation behind. This resonated with the work of David Didau (the learning spy). Interestingly, ‘problem solving’ has negligible effect size, but ‘problem based teaching’ has a large ES.
- And what about IT? Technology is the revolution that’s been around for 50 years and has an ES=0.3. Teachers use technology for consumption purposes, e.g. using a phone instead of a dictionary. That’s why the ES is so low. If you use technology in pairs, then the ES goes up. Why? Because they communicate and problem solve; i.e. use it for knowledge production. Three linked concepts were mentioned: the power of two. Dialogue not monologue. The power of listening. Compare this to the quip: “Kids learn very quickly that they come to school to watch you work”.
- Feedback? The question of feedback is not about how much you give, but how much you receive. Most of the feedback is given, but not received. Students want to know “Where to next?”, so we should show another way, giving direction. This is incredibly powerful. “How do teachers listen to the student feedback voice, to understand what has been received?” This is at the vanguard of Hattie’s current research.
- Error management? Typically errors are seen as maladaptive…and teachers create that climate: solving the error, redirecting to another student, returning the correction to the student who made the mistake, ignore the error (although hardly ever). Hattie sees errors as the essence of learning. He mentioned the teaching resilience as an example of best practice.
Session 1: the Visible Learner (with Deb Masters)
In her work with John they have developed a model for measuring the effect of feedback and asked the question, how do you take the research and put it into a process in the schools? She called this ‘Visible learning plus’. We were asked to come up with our ideal pupil characteristics: questioning, resilient, reflective, risk takers. And the least ideal: not proactive, defeatist. No surprises there, then.
Deb defined visible learning as “when teachers SEE learning thought he eyes of the student and when students SEE themselves as their own teachers.” So the job is to collect feedback about how the students are learning.
Deb defined visible learning as “when teachers SEE learning thought he eyes of the student and when students SEE themselves as their own teachers.” So the job is to collect feedback about how the students are learning.
We also need to develop assessment capable learners (ES=1.44). What does this mean? Students should know the answers to the questions…Where am I going? How am I doing? Where to next? Students should be able to tell you what they will get in up-coming assessments.
This workshop slightly lost its way towards the end as time ran out. We quickly looked at the use of rubrics to develop visible learners, and I was struck by the links with the MYP assessment structure.
Session 2: SOLO taxonomy (with Craig Parkinson – lead consultant for Visible Learning in the UK)
This is based on the work of Biggs and Collis (1982) and was an interesting and practical session. Much of it was based on the ‘5 minute lesson plan’ (which I remain unconvinced about, despite liking the idea of focusing on a big question). The key is to design and plan for questions that will move students from surface to deep learning (one idea, several ideas, relate, expand). SOLO was the preferred model here, over the well-established Bloom taxonomy. I was sitting next to Peter DeWitt whose blog ‘Finding Common ground‘ expands on this.
Session 3: Effective feedback (Deb Masters)
“If feedback is so important, how can we make sure that we get it right?” For feedback to be heard the contention was that you need “relational trust and clear learning intention”. I agreed with the former, but am less convinced by the latter. What do students say about effective feedback? “It tells me what to do next”. Nuthall was mentioned again – 80% is from other kids, and 80% is wrong. Why is there such a reliance on peer feedback? Students say that the best feedback is “Just in time and just for me” … and interaction with their peers is a good way of getting this.
Deb used the golf analogy to discuss the levels of feedback:
- Self … praise (“cheerleading does not close the gap in performance”).
- Task … holding the club etc. This is often where teacher talk features the most.
- Process … what do you think you could do to hit the ball straighter?
- Self-regulation … what do you need to focus on to improve your score?
The idea is to pick the right level at which to give the feedback.
Can we use the model to help the pupils to give each other and us feedback? I was particularly struck when one delegate from a large school in Bahrain suggested that they are experimenting with the use of Twitter to get instant feedback about the teaching in real time!
Keynote 2: James Nottingham: Visible Learning as a new paradigm for progress
James started with a critique of the current labelling practices that occur in schools. For example, every single member of the Swedish parliament is a first born child, and 71% of September births get in top sets compared with only 25% of August births: “Labelling has gone bananas … if you label pupils then you affect their expectation of their ability to learn”.
Eccles (2000): Application = Value x Expectation
Again, progress should be valued rather than achievement. How do we go about getting this … what is the process involved?
The ‘learning pit’ was discussed (Challenging Learning, 2010). Often teachers try to make things easier and easier…the ‘curling’ teacher (push the stone in the right direction and then desperately clean the ice to make it easier for it to go further). I liked that analogy. James (rightly in my view) said that our job is to make things difficult for pupils, after all “Eureka” means “I’ve found it”. I’m sure his book will expand on this, but his basic structure was:
- Conflict and cognitive dissonance
Some thoughts from the day
- The key message that came through from the whole conference was that everything has to hang off the learning objectives / the learning intentions. Is this just because their research requires a measurement of outcome? This is performance, but not necessarily learning. The question is whether the interventions that Hattie has found apply to effective classroom performance and learning…or just performance? I was struck by the contrast between this and what Didau talks about.
- Throughout the day there was an interesting use of instant feedback – point to one corner of the room if you know about x and the other corner if you don’t.
- Hattie recognizes that we are extremely good at the transfer of ‘near’ knowledge, but not good at the ‘far’ … and that is okay: we shouldn’t throw out the baby with the bathwater.
- “It’s a sin to go into a class and watch them teach … because all you do is end up telling them how to teach like you”. You should go into the class to watch the impact that you have.
- Should we stop the debate about privileging teaching?
- Can we plot a graph of achievement against progress for our students? This can allow you to make interventions with the drifters.
- How do we measure progress?
- Do we have enough nuancing of assessment levels?
- Hattie: “What does it mean to have a year’s growth / progress? We have to show what excellence looks like. Proficiency, sure, but the key is the link with progress.”
And one final thought: “Visible learning into action” will be out April – June next year to show how this might be put into practice in schools.
Work smarter. Be efficient with your time. Use technology wisely. Downloading Turnitin as an app for my iPad allowed to do all three in one easy hit. Existing practice would have been to download, and print out each uploaded document one at a time, to be marked by hand. Now, using this e-marking version, time taken to mark was halved, at no expense to the accuracy or detail of feedback for the student.
After downloading the app, which took a matter of minutes, my existing account was downloaded almost instantly. The front screen looks like this.
After selecting the relevant class, all students appear in a list, separated into who has and has not uploaded their assignment to Turnitin.
Marking a piece of work is simple. On selecting the pencil icon for a student, their work appears with the originality report shown; different colours corresponding to a different source. You can switch this off in a slider near the top right hand corner. Being touch screen, you can insert comments precisely where you want to. A comment box appears on touch, ready for a comment to be typed. The box collapses to a speech bubble once written. Both are shown here.
There are also a number of pre-designed errors/improvement to use if you like, such as sp. for spelling mistakes.
Student work downloads well and tables …
… and graphs …
appear as they would when scanned, ready for comments to be added anywhere as appropriate.
To complete the marking, you simply select the pencil icon, which is now in the top right hand corner of the screen, where several options appear on the ‘grade overview’ screen. I tend to write a general comment in addition to the feedback given throughout the text, and don’t take advantage of the voice comment – though that is available. A combination of always refusing to accept that my voice sounds the way it does, and my assumption that students will be too busy laughing rather than listening to the feedback, results in me ignoring this particular function.
There is, however, an excellent rubric function, so you can upload rubrics designed by you on the website – specific to any course – which will appear under the ‘open rubric’ button in the top left hand corner of the grade overview screen. Just above this is where you type in the number to grade the piece of work as appropriate. You can put more than one number if required. In the example show, I have given to marks, corresponding to two criteria from the MYP curriculum. The grade overview page as discussed looks like this.
If I did choose to print out the document once graded, all comments appear in an appendix, numbered, at the end of the originality report. This is particularly useful for moderation reports, where evidence of clear, accurate marking is obvious.
Finally, and importantly for me in a world where I can never be quite certain that wifi connection will be available, the Turnitin app offers me a solution. Once in an area of wifi, you can download all pieces of work – taking about 10 to 20 seconds per piece of work – so that I can complete the marking anytime, anywhere, without the need for wifi. The feedback will then upload once refreshed. The total time taken to mark the work was certainly reduced for me, and there was no wasted paper either – even the environment approves.
On our new “whitewalls” in English
Ironically, the most popular technological tool introduced to the English department this year is, in concept at least, as old as civilisation itself – and as tempting as an unguarded drum kit: it’s a floor to ceiling wall (aren’t all walls?) turned into a whiteboard.
Students and teachers have responded with a crypto-anarchic enthusiasm, as though graffiting were suddenly allowed. It’s led to large-scale, aggressively visible, wide-screed collaboration; blizzards of quotation exercises; lesson planning in an unthreateningly scruffy and editable way (wipe it off! use a different colour!). It’s the antithesis of a the clipped and pruned folders-within-folders, look-at-my-neat-links aesthetic of the digital age. This is mass scrawl. Kids are as happy to get out of their seats and play the teacher with a squeaky whiteboard pen as we were when we were 10 years old.
The outcomes are massive in every way: what could have been 20 mins slightly inert ‘planning’ or ‘discussing an idea’ has suddenly become a lurid, vibrant, kinetic, Pollock-esque snapshot of thought / debate / evidence. It’s process-as-product in the most liberating of ways. You step back and then rush forward again to sort, swipe, select and signpost. At the end, someone takes photos, loads them onto a Shared Google Drive before the tabula is rasa-ed leaving not a rack behind and the next lot come in. Even more excitingly, however, is walking into the room when it’s still there : it’s like stepping into a genius’s head.
The students are as proud as punch with what they have achieved and the teacher has usually managed to simply sit there and watch the kids slide down the long inky slide to happiness (and a spot of learning).
One thesis & five mini case studies
Last year, a team of us went on a learning tour across the Eastern Seaboard of the United States. We visited schools across different sectors, contexts and age-ranges.
Amongst our many discoveries was this: that often the most interesting schools are those with the clearest mission. From the best-funded, most rarefied private schools, to very small state primaries, to charter schools working in challenging areas of great cities, there are easily recognizable common strands to schools’ DNA. We all talk about “mission statements”; some schools live them.
In many cases, these very interesting – and often equally high achieving – schools are driven by a great single organizing principle.
Here are 5 very brief case studies of schools we visited which are clearly on a mission:
1. At Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology just outside Washington DC, it’s all about science.
This school is remarkable. It is state funded (although it does a lot of development work and many of its projects and its equipment are sponsored) but it has a unique specialism and an impressively unified mission.
It is a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) school and its focus is unwaveringly on project-based scientific research work. It transcends the idea of co-construction: students are the architects and authors of their own research, often conducted using cutting-edge technologies, sometimes embedded within industry and professional laboratories.
The students who showed us around exuded pride in their remarkable school (as indeed did students at all the most interesting schools we visited). TJHSST is a unique and quite extraordinary place. You can read more about it here.
TJHSST’s core skills and values are: critical inquiry and research, problem solving, intellectual curiosity, social responsibility. Expectation and common purpose are everything. For TJ, that unified mission is excellence in scientific research.
2. At Phillips Exeter Academy, one hour north of Boston, it’s all about Harkness.
Phillips Exeter has astonishing facilities. But its greatness lies not in its privilege but in its principle. And that centres on one, simple philosophy: Harkness.
All classes are taught around “Harkness” tables. Pupils and teachers learn and teach together; classes are characterized by debate and collaboration unconstrained by traditional boundaries. The quality of discussion and the responsibility the students demonstrate for their own learning are very impressive.
Students at Phillips Exeter, working together around the Harkness table, exhibit extraordinary manners and support for each other. This must also have a transformative effect on the pastoral life of the school: these students are genuinely kind to each other, they accept each other’s mistakes in lessons.
This amazing Harkness philosophy really does infuse everything that the school does and, as a result, gives Exeter students quite exceptional experiences. The Principal spoke to us about reading about “flipped classrooms”. “That’s exactly what we’ve been doing for almost 100 years,” he observed, wryly.
3. At Glasgow Middle School in Fairfax County, Virginia it’s all about MYP.
MYP (the IB’s Middle Years Programme) is the agent of chain, the engine for Glasgow’s reform and improvement. It starts with the key purpose – the everyday business of teaching, learning and assessment – and ratchets up expectations from the curriculum upwards. It’s also about service learning – a key component of the MYP.
The Principal of GHS talked to us with enormous integrity about the process of introducing the MYP, of getting the parents on board, of changing the whole culture. She’s taken a school which was struggling and made it into a centre of learning. And she’s done this with a rigorous, unflinching focus on an academic curriculum driven by formative assessment, planning with the end in mind, service learning and learning in context. MYP provides Glasgow with the focus to achieve their mission.
For them, it’s all about the MYP.
4. At KIPP in New York City it’s all about getting students to College.
KIPP stands for the Knowledge is Power Program. “Work hard, be nice.” The message couldn’t be clearer; it’s emblazed around the school. And KIPP charter schools have one simple mission: their students go to college. In the lower Bronx where, on average, 7% of students go on to further education, KIPP sends 85%.
The students all have “college” sewn into their uniform. The philosophy is just as permanently woven into the DNA of the school. You can read more about this transformative approach here. A simple idea, simply and brilliant integrated. That’s KIPP’s mission. It’s a progamme that’s not without its problems, as those of you who have seen the documentary Waiting for Superman will attest. But, it’s a mission and it’s all about getting to College.
And it’s a mission many have benefited from.
5. At Conservatory Lab Charter School in Boston, it’s all about music.
The final case-study is perhaps the most interesting of them all. CLCS is a tiny charter primary school in the Boston suburb of Brighton. Entry is blind and by lottery. The school could be filled many times over. Its mission is simple: everything is infused with music. Every child plays an instrument, they sing, listen to music, practise throughout the day.
When students first join the school, they make papier-mâché instruments with their families. The care that is put into this is quite extraordinary. They then form a paper orchestra – learning respect for instruments, posture, control and team-work whilst singing the notes and holding the instruments. When they graduate to the real thing they are already in control of their bodies musically.
The student ambassadors talk with such pride (it’s there again) about their instruments, their music-making and how lucky they are to be at this school.
Conservatory Lab is inspired by the incredible work in Venezuela of El Sistema. It is remarkable. But don’t take my word for it; have a look at some of the work they do with expeditionary learning: music-infuses a 3rd Grade project on snakes; listen to their orchestra (remembering that this is a small, state primary school).
In many ways these are great schools all. But isn’t it interesting that there’s that clear organizing principle behind everything they do?
Last term, being out of school at a conference, I had to set cover.
Feeling guilty about missing my A2 English lesson (especially as this was early in the term), I made sure that they would be occupied and challenged in my absence. I asked them to come along to the classroom (in my absence) and to bring their computers (we run a BYOD programme and have school-wide Wifi) and a copy of the text we were currently studying: Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.
I set up a Google document that the whole class could edit, sent the link and these simple instructions: read one paragraph at a time, after reading each write two or three questions that you want answering then have a go at answering (as best you can) some of the questions that other members of the group have asked. All questions and answers were to be typed into the same shared document.
Sitting in one of the sessions at the conference, I opened the Google document on my iPad and started watching. An amazing thing happened: an extraordinarily rigorous conversation and debate started unfolding on the page in front of me. And I was able to take part: to answer questions, to challenge ideas, to affirm great readings (I know – I should have been concentrating on the conference presentation).
When I got back to school in the afternoon I caught up with some of the students who were positive and hugely enthusiastic about their ‘virtual’ lesson. The levels of engagement had been extraordinary. I was interested to see if there were further applications of this method (beyond providing virtual cover!)
The next day, Tuesday, I was being observed teaching an AS set by a New Zealand teacher looking at the use of technology in various British schools. I felt duty bound to ‘do something with tech’, and decided to repeat yesterday’s experiment.
The class were studying Robert Frost and we spent about 30 minutes reading and discussing the wonderful “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”. No technology in play except paper and pens. We then ran a 20 minute “virtual conversation” along exactly the same lines as the day before: one Google doc, all students editing, questions and answers.
But why do this with all students and the teacher present in the class rather than just have a discussion? Well, here was some of the feedback from the students at the end of the lesson:
- They really liked the relative anonymity;
- They felt they could work at their own pace;
- Several commented that they could ‘go back’ to a discussion and add comments and noted that in ‘real time discussion’ the class would often already have moved on;
- They enjoyed adding to and qualifying each other’s ideas in a way they felt they wouldn’t necessarily always be able to do in conversation;
- They loved the fact that they ended the lesson with a full transcript of the questions and answers (which they reviewed for homework, before writing up a reflection on their blogs).
My New Zealand observer (another English teacher) also started taking part in the online discussion. It was almost infectious. There was a buzz of engagement in the room.
I’m not without reservations: I certainly wouldn’t do this all the time and classroom discussion will remain a key element of virtually all of my lessons. I also worry slightly about the lack of moderation (how do I help the students to understand why some responses might be more successful than others?)
Nevertheless, I will definitely be using this relatively simple tool again. A class collaborating on one document is powerful. It’s a good example of technology letting me do something I couldn’t do a few years ago with, hopefully, tangible benefits for students’ understanding and engagement.
Last summer I spent seven weeks at Phillips Exeter Academy, New Hampshire. I was there to learn about their unique classroom experiment: Harkness.
Harkness means beautiful tables. But it’s not just about the tables; there’s an amazing philosophy too.
I worked with Harvard Varsity Knowles, a 35-years’ veteran of teaching around these tables. He recounts with authority the early days of Harkness development. On 9th April 1930 the philanthropist Edward Harkness wrote to Exeter’s Principal Lewis Perry. He had given a substantial donation to the Academy and was thinking about how it might be used:
“What I have in mind is a classroom where students could sit around a table with a teacher who would talk with them and instruct them by a sort of tutorial or conference method, where each student would feel encouraged to speak up. This would be a real revolution in methods.”
The result was the Harkness table: oval or round in shape to ensure all could look one another in the eye, its great smooth plane connecting students and teacher in mutual investigation. The principles underpinning the pedagogy are simple: teacher as facilitator; students as collaborative learners. Students work best when they forget the teacher is there; they own the issues being discussed and the learning that follows.
This is still true today. Every Exeter classroom is a Harkness classroom; every lesson is taught according to the original specifications of its benefactor. Students arrive at the lesson having laid the groundwork for their explorations through independent reading and research. Journal keeping is commonplace. At Wellington we call homework “Prep”. Here I saw prep as genuine preparation for the lessons.
In a Harkness lesson the teacher often rarely comments. And many struggle. As one teacher told me: “My own enthusiasms are sometimes hard to contain. Put another way: my ego is always ready to get between the students and their explorations.” Teacher contributions are carefully tailored. At Exeter they call this “listening pedagogy”. Teachers challenge; then they listen as open-minded witnesses to the students’ conversations.
The teacher makes observations and asks questions. But they do not tell the students what to think. They focus on how the student is learning rather than obsessing over what they are learning. The students sense the growing respect the teacher has for their ideas and over time the students feel safe and nurtured. An ‘answer’ becomes merely one solution to a problem, one result of a thoughtful process.
The first time I saw Harv Knowles teach, he used this analogy: exploring a text in English is like walking into a darkened room. At first it might seem like all is obscured from sight, but after a while shapes and textures begin to appear. The students have to let their eyes grow accustomed to their new environment and work together to make sense of the fabric of their surroundings. The teacher has to resist the temptation to turn on the light.
I now use Harkness in all my classes. Not every lesson is a Harkness lesson (yet) but I aim to create a cultural shift over time. Word on Harkness is spreading within our community: our eyes will soon grow accustomed to the possibilities that lie ahead.
You might find these links interesting: