Tuesday, 20 September 2016

Asking all the wrong questions?

I have been pondering the issue of questioning (and questions in general) in recent weeks. I have always hoped that it is a key strength of my lessons, but lately I have been thinking more about what kind of questions I am asking.

I recently completed the Tapestry Partnership training on leading TLCs (see http://www.tapestrypartnership.com for details) and a key part of this focused on questions (and especially "hinge questions") as central to AifL.  Now, I am not saying that there is no room for improvement, but I definitely ask plenty of higher order questions as well as open-ended ones.  There are hundreds of interesting articles on questioning written and available, but I like the simplicity of the layout of this one:  http://www.nsead.org/downloads/Effective_Questioning&Talk.pdf

In reading this, I was struck that the first mentioned reason for asking questions was to "maintain the flow of the learning within the lesson".  While I agree that this is a big part of asking questions, it made me think about the purpose of my own questions and the extent to which that is the biggest reason for my asking questions. I use 'Think, Pair, Share' very often in my lessons and I like this as a way of structuring paired work as well as to support learners.  However, I have noticed that I am developing a tendency to ask questions that are looking for a very closed, negative response.  For example, yesterday I asked "Did the Germans want to fight a war on two fronts?" with the clear response my brain wanted was "No".  This led me to think about the frequency of this style of question.  Am I simply wanting pupils to realise an obvious truth through this or is it just lazy questioning?  I observed this technique recently with a guide in a visitor attraction who almost entirely asked questions of this nature to engage the visitors.  Surely this is not a desirable method for this purpose.  Or am I missing something?

In answering this, I refer to the earlier article.  Which reason for asking questions does this accomplish?  Perhaps engaging students with learning or to seek the views and opinions of students.  However, I am becoming more aware that this is a very closed question and that there is definitely a right answer.  Moreover, it's worse than that; I am asking a question that is so badly considered and easily answered as to be pointless.  But then why do I not ask the positive question on the same?  It seems this 'negative' response does elicit a little more thinking than the 'positive' but the frequency should be minimised.

An alternative could be the carefully selected multiple choice in order to make pupils think more.  Multi-choice questions have a bad reputation as the easy way out, but there is no doubt that they can stimulate much deeper thinking than some realise.  This is a good place to start when thinking about these:  https://testing.byu.edu/handbooks/14%20Rules%20for%20Writing%20Multiple-Choice%20Questions.pdf

Next Steps:
I plan to be observed in the coming weeks and would like the observer to focus on my questioning.  Here's hoping for less useless questions!

Wednesday, 4 February 2015

The 'Creepy Voice Over'

In recent months, I have been trying to develop the use of on-line resources with (especially) senior pupils.  We use a department Google Drive for this, making use of their shared folders potential.  All resources are posted there for the pupils to view/print as necessary (they cannot download or copy/paste easily). Anyway, this has led me to consider further ways we can use this beyond just a handy backup for notes.  Then I rediscovered the app 'Explain Everything' for iPad...

I  had downloaded this app some time ago but not really explored the potential.  I suppose this was because it suggests it can be used to narrate presentations and this is not something I'm interested in.  However, I thought about using this app for feedback on pupil work, so I gave it a try!

The process is fairly simple, and each video took less than 10 minutes to make.

Here's how I approached it:

  1. Read a few pieces of work (in this case a Higher source question) in order to find an interesting one - it doesn't have to be the best one, but I was looking for one that made the point I wanted.
  2. Take a photo of the pupil's work before marking it.
  3. Mark the hard copy and make notes on a separate sheet about the marking (helpful for the 'script'!)
  4. Upload photo to Explain Everything app.
  5. Mark the digital copy live with a stylus showing where the marks are awarded and record thought process while marking to show why the marks are awarded.
  6. Share with the students on-line!
Now, the first time I did this it was clumsy and I felt more than a bit foolish, but you get used to that bit.  When I told the class, they were amused and keen to see it.  Some watched it at home and commented on my 'weird' accent and 'creepy voice over', but also that it was really clear as to why the marks were being awarded.  Each video is about 4 minutes long, so it's not too much of a deal for them to watch at any point.  Here is the link: http://bit.ly/1C1ykwY

Maybe only one or two watch them, but then that's better than nothing I think.  It doesn't replace any work in class but often there simply isn't time for that level of detail in a very busy Higher course.

Not sure what the next stage is, and I'd welcome any suggestions/experience of doing something similar.

Monday, 19 January 2015


Herman, Aschbacher, and Winters (A Practical Guide to Alternative Assessment, 1992) suggest the following elements of a scoring rubric: 

  • One or more traits or dimensions that serve as the basis for judging the student response
  • Definitions and examples to clarify the meaning of each trait or dimension
  • A scale of values on which to rate each dimension
  • Standards of excellence for specified performance levels accompanied by models or examples of each level

As part of a TLC group working on peer assessment, I have been trying to make pupil peer assessment more meaningful, productive and engaging.  I have often found the usual hazards of pupils assessing each other's work - being too harsh, lack of professional distance etc, and am determined to find ways to make this more successful.

As part of the TLC discussion back in late November, the use if rubrics kept percolating to the surface of our chats.  I have used rubrics before as part of my assessment of pupils' work, but have never used them as part of peer assessment.  This may seem a simple step, but I felt at this hectic time of year, it could be one key to more successful peer assessment.

So, I set aside half a lesson (less than 30 minutes) to ask the pupils to set areas of focus that they might expect the piece of work to fulfil.  In this case, the work was a story board (with captions) about a day in the life of hunter-gatherers in the prehistoric period.  We shared these categories (4 in total) and then set each group a task of coming up with 3 'level deciders' for each category.

My concern from the discussion stage was that pupils were very much concerned with the look of the piece of work - colourful, standard of drawings etc.  However, we agreed as a class that the aesthetic could not be more than 50% of the criteria, so 2 categories were about content.  This led the groups to really think about the expression of the written work, the historical content, the detail included, as well as the layout/colourfulness of the piece.

When this assessment was complete (pupils swapped with a critical friend), they were then asked to set targets based on the peer feedback.

Was it a success? I think a qualified success, yes.  There is no doubt that pupils were clearer on how they were marking the piece of work and were therefore more able to make informed and accurate decisions about the level of work.  However, there still appeared to be a preoccupation with appearance - when I looked at the work and the feedback, the ones that looked better received better feedback!  The targets set, though, appeared to be more focused than others I have attempted with other pieces of work and certainly the pupils seemed to relish the peer assessment more than at other times - perhaps this is enough of a success to try it again. Was it worth 'losing' half a lesson for? Definitely - there was enough dialogue about learning to make it worthwhile (and it reduced my marking load significantly).

I suppose what I am interested in is how we encourage pupils to focus on the (in this case historical) content when producing a more 'creative' piece of work - I could have simply asked for a piece of extended writing/diary or something of that ilk.  My next step is to try this method with a more traditional piece of extended writing to see if there is any noticeable difference in terms of success.  I suppose like all things, it is a case of trying a variety to see what works for the pupils in front of me (it never fails to amaze me how 2 lessons essentially the same can be so different with different classes [maybe a blog post for another day...]).

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Delving deeper into feedback

Dylan Wiliam (www.dylanwiliam.org) speaks of the importance of feedback being more work for the student than the teacher.  This got me thinking about the amount of time I spend writing comments on pupils' work as compared to the seconds they spend ignoring it and looking straight at the grade at the bottom.  So, today I tried a different approach.

I used the same feedback sheet for pupils' essays as always.  This is designed to allow pupils to quickly establish strengths and areas for development.  They then use this (with mixed success) to set targets for the next piece of work.

This time, however, I put pupils into random groups of four.  Each group then received four anonymous feedback sheets (which I numbered for my reference).  In their groups, they had to decide on targets based on my comments only.  They did this without seeing the piece of work.  This meant that there was no 'emotion' involved in the target-setting, as pupils had no idea whose essay this was.

Following on from this, I then gave out each group one of the essays in order to match up with one of the feedback sheets.  This meant they had to scan the essay and discuss its strengths and weaknesses in line with my comments.  I then gave out another, and finally the last two essays to each group.

What I observed was that pupils were much more engaged in the comments I made, and that there was a marked shift away from the culture of just looking for the grade.  Pupils also appeared happier and more confident when setting targets for the next time.  Pupils also needed to have a clearer idea of the criteria for marking the work in order to make the targets more meaningful and clearer for anyone to understand.

This exercise was only slightly more time-consuming for me as the marker (perhaps only a minute longer per pupil), but it did take most of a lesson for the pupils to complete.  I am confident it was worth taking this time.

As a positive side-effect, I also found this process made me really think about how I was phrasing the comments, as pupils were setting targets on an unseen piece of work.  This meant that my comments needed to be perhaps more direct, concise and 'obvious' than they might have been in the past.

All in all, a very successful exercise and one which I will repeat in the future.  Here's hoping that there is a tangible result for the next piece of work!

Friday, 27 April 2012

Is leadership an innate quality or a learnable skill?

The last workshop of PGDE Curriculum Studies this week, and it was a happy-sad occasion.  The students have progressed so much, changed greatly and (I hope) learned and enjoyed themselves lots!  The year has flown by, but I think that's the nature of getting old too.

I am immensely proud of the progress they have all made, and I'm even more impressed by the innovation, enthusiasm and talent on display.  I suggested something to my group that I really beleive: "If you stop enjoying the job, do something else."  In my opinion, there are enough teachers out there that don't seem to enjoy themselves anymore - perhaps they never did...  Our young people deserve the best education and this can only happen with dedicated, enthusiastic, skilled teachers.  As such, I really hope that some of this cohort go on to be educational leaders of the highest calibre in the future - there are certainly a few to watch!

A recent article in the Guardian alluded to the fact that there is a lack of strong applicants for the top leadership jobs in education.  This led me to thinking that maybe Leadership could be some sort of elective for PGDE students...  I'm not sure this is feasible, but who knows?  Maybe it should even be compulsory!

So, is leadership something that one can learn?  Are leaders born?  There is often comment made that people like Churchill or Martin Luther King or Martin Johnson are born leaders, but are they really?  Is there some common feature of a leader, or are leaders shaped by the experiences of their lives?  Is it a combination of both (or more)?

Thus, I conclude by considering the nature of leadership in ITE.  We are all leaders in the classroom, yet we assume that all teachers have the skills to be a leader from the outset.  Is this really the case?  Do the student teacher already have these skills in some innate way, as it's not something that they get a lecture on!  (Do we even all have the qualities to be leaders?!)  Perhaps the ITE of the future will not be about electives in EAL or Outdoor Learning, but in Leadership or something like it...

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

"One good analogy is worth three hours discussion." - Dudley Field Malone, US Poilitician

In my previous entry I mentioned the possibility of using analogies in History in order to develop attitudes, skills and knowledge.  This led me to consider the use of analogies in general in teaching, and to think about my (seemingly frequent) use in the classroom.

They are something that I've come to realise that I use all the time as  a teacher of History.  When I found the above quotation, I really started to consider whether or not analogies are a powerful learning tool, or just something I do!  Having spoken to colleagues in other disciplines, it seems I'm not alone in using them.  As a result, I've started to do some reading on analogies.

They are something that have long been a part of my teaching, but I've never really thought about them before.  I'm not even sure that I intentionally used them in the past.  I certainly never included them in a lesson plan (yes, I had one of those once...), but maybe I should.  Thus, I made a move to find out a bit more about effective use of analogies - are there specific good examples for teaching History?  Are they useful for students?  Do they confuse more than clarify?  Is there any benefit in asking students to make up their own, or do they remain the domain of the 'story teller teacher'?

One very good article I came across was in Teaching History, March 2006.  This, to some extent, raised my awareness of the importance of planning for effective use of analogies.  There was also suggestion that a poorly used analogy hindered understanding of a complex topic.  So, in my own teaching, am I actually doing more harm than good, or (purely by chance) am I aiding the learning experience without even really thinking about it?

When I was at school, one of my (superb) History teachers used 'memory pictures' to help with complex topics.  These were produced by the pupil with little/no input from the teacher.  I found them very useful, despite being appallingly bad at drawing.  Are these memory pictures analogies of a sort?  They certainly don't fit with the Oxford Dictionary definition, but they are a way of pupils interpreting complex issues in their own learning style.  Perhaps there is opportunity for this in written form as analogies?

I also had an interesting chat with an English teacher colleague who commented that analogies and allegories were often tricky for pupils to 'get'.  Thus, perhaps developing skills of making analogies in History (amongst other subjects) might help with understanding them in English.  Moreover, as we move ever-closer to a more integrated approach to delivery Social Studies, are there ways that teachers could use analogies in order to make more explicit links between the skills/content covered?  Perhaps there is more in this than I first realised.

So, I conclude by continuing to look in more detail at the use of analogies in the History classroom.  I'm currently considering some sort of small(ish) scale research on this topic, although I've no idea how!  Also, if I am to continue using analogies in my teaching, then maybe they should be more planned...  As a result, I have drafted the planning tool below... (ideas are basic, but it's a first step).

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Holding up a big mirror

So, this is my first foray into Blogging.  I've long written my thoughts about teaching, learning and life in general, but I'd never before considered sharing them with the world.  I suppose it comes from encouraging my PGDE students to do so much reflecting that I started reflecting on this 'scale'.

I have no idea where my Blog will go, but I'm planning to do something as and when I need to exorcise...

For now, I've been thinking about consequences.  We're always going on about them to children of all ages (especially in terms of positive behaviour management), but I think it's only very recently that I've truly understood the importance.  I suppose it comes with all the emotions of being a fairly new Dad, but I don't think I ever really considered how much the past impacts on my present and future.  Must be another sign of getting old.

This led me to thinking that this is a vital life skill that History (among others) helps develop.  If History can do one thing, surely it can help learners realise that the past - our past - does impact on all our futures. So, how do we make sure that the next generation - the ones who don't remember 9/11, let alone the Cold War - appreciate the need to change things for the better?  Again, perhaps this is hitting home of late due to the current ITE focus on Global Citizenship.  One of the students mentioned something that resonated with me: "Surely children need to be citizens before they can be Global Citizens...?"  I couldn't agree more, and clearly part of this is that we all need to appreciate that our actions have consequences.

Thus, I conclude this first ramble by thinking of ways of teaching consequence, mostly as a History teacher, but in general terms too.  Perhaps the emphasis should be on examining global historical issues as an analogy for personal issues too?  Could we think of ways of, say, teaching about co-operation and conflict as a tool to developing personal social relationships in classrooms?  Maybe that's all a bit too 'Modern Studies-ish' for a History teacher!