Season Review 2012-2013, part 2

In my first post I wrote about some effective and less effective teaching and learning strategies that I’ve used this year. This post will focus more on the classroom management changes that I’ve made, and the effect these have had on my lessons.

1. I set out the desks in my classroom in rows

When I got my job, I inherited a classroom that was arranged in the horseshoe formation, with three rows of two desks in the middle of the horseshoe. I had seen this set-up in many classrooms on my teacher training placements, and it seemed fairly popular across the school as a whole. The benefits were modest: tables and chairs could be easily and quickly rearranged for group tasks, and pupils could easily turn to a variety of other pupils for discussion activities. This system became redundant when I decided to deliberately avoid using group work activities (see point 2). So in September I set up my room in two halves, each half having four rows of two tables each. The most immediate (and obvious) benefit was the reduction in opportunities for off-task chatting. More practically, it is much easier for me to get around the class room to respond to pupils’ needs, and simpler to hand out and collect in books. In terms of teaching and learning, it’s pretty obvious to say but I’ll do it anyway: less time off task has meant more time on task, and more stuff learned.

2. I deliberately avoided using group work activities

First, a disclaimer: this isn’t an attack on the concept of group work as a teaching and learning tool, but rather a response to the way group tasks have worked (or rather, not worked) in my lessons. When I did my PGCE (2007-08), and on many of the external CPDs I have attended, group work was presented as a panacea: the stronger pupils wiil pull up the weaker ones; everyone can be assigned a task appropriate to their skills and ability, and so on. I haven’t found that to be the case in my lessons. These failings may well have been down to my management of the tasks, the actual tasks I had the pupils attempting, or the composition of the groups. Whatever the reason, I regularly found with group work that at least one pupil would contribute very little, if nothing, and that one pupil would dominate the work.

So this year, I have consciously planned lessons that involve solo learning (not SOLO; haven’t got there yet). Again, it may be blindingly obvious, but it’s been much easier to accurately monitor and plan appropriate interventions for pupils when they are consistently producing their own work and their own work only. There are also the class management benefits, with again fewer opportunities for pupils to be off task.

3. Spending time on the little things does pay off, eventually

By ‘the little things’ I mean orderly starts to lessons (queuing up quietly outside), applying sanctions to disorganised and ill-equipped pupils (a detention for forgetting their book twice rarely results in them forgetting a third time). I don’t wish to suggest that I hadn’t been doing these things for the four years prior to this one; rather, I have started to see the long-term benefits. For example, a year 10 pupil who I’ve taught since year 7 and who had a horrendous homework and punctuality record has finally started to turn things around. Clearly I can’t claim to be the only factor influencing this, but she did say to me recently after I’d praised her homework record “it’s because I’m starting to listen to what you’ve been saying to me”. That was nice.

I have no idea what to blog about over summer, so maybe I won’t. Next year sees me teaching only one hour of Key Stage 3 in a 21-hour week, with six of those 21 hours being an AS and A2 course I’ve never taught before. I have pencilled in my breakdown for February.

The History Teachers We Don’t Hear From

Interesting comments on History exam requirements here.

Scenes From The Battleground

During the debate over the new National Curriculum and again during the “Mr Men” controversy, those of us on Twitter were treated to a pretty continual series of assertions that history teachers are fully signed up to the “skills” agenda of the current curriculum. At times it felt as if Matthew Hunter was the only dissenting voice. However, in schools I have found it fairly easy to find history teachers who believed the curriculum lacked a solid requirement for knowledge. Two history teachers have been having a conversation in the comments on a post I reblogged recently that (if you haven’t read it already) really deserves a look.

 

From Heather F:

Some people questioning whether there is a strong emphasis on skills at the expense of knowledge in British education seem like the sort of naughty child that used to run rings around me when I was a…

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Season Review, 2012/2013

As this is my first blog post, it may as well be a summary of what went well and what didn’t this school year. I hope you enjoy reading it.

1. I haven’t shared a learning objective with a class this year. No-one has died.

Tricky one, this, and probably a sensationalist and misleading headline. Not that I mean someone has died. No-one has died. But the fact is, not once have I either said to a class, or had displayed on the board “the aim of this lesson is to…” or “by the end of this lesson you will…” or words to that effect. This means that I haven’t been able to refer back to the objectives in a mini-plenary, or measure progress in the lesson in terms of ‘objectives met’. I do make sure to tell the class, at the start of the lesson, what it is going to be about. I am fairly confident, though, in saying that at the end of all my lessons (even ‘revision’ lessons) my pupils knew something they didn’t before they came in. This may be because of some of the following things I have been doing:

2. Every lesson – or short sequence of lessons – is titled with a question

For example, ‘Did Emily Davison mean to kill herself?” (no) or “What was the Cold War?” (complicated) or “Why does Homer use repetition in The Odyssey?” (he lacked imagination). This is something I’ve tried to do since I started teaching five years ago, with varying degrees of success. I find that a mixture of the usual who, what, when, why, and how questions, combined with the appropriate resources (books and myself, mainly) foster a decent spirit of enquiry, and give the lessons a pretty simple and effective structure.

3. I have focused heavily on basic literacy, key words and extended writing

Of the things I’m writing about here, this has had the biggest fluctuation between success and failure. I got very fed up last year of constantly correcting written work for the same mistakes (‘should of’, where/were, there/their and so on) so the first strategy, suggested by my excellent Head of Department, was to make pupils write out corrections and then write a sentence or passage with the correct use of the word. This is probably where the more experienced teachers reading this start laughing and calling me an amateur, as it is no doubt a tried and trusted method used by everyone. Anyway, it has worked to a degree: some weaker (less literate?) pupils still have trouble with the processes involved, the reasons why they were wrong, and I don’t quite yet know how to combine basic language skills into my lessons yet (worryingly, this has had to be deployed from Key Stages 3 to 5). Any suggestions are welcome!

I have trialled a ‘self-correction’ (awful term, sorry) strategy with a year 8 class that has worked pretty well, in which they are conditioned to checking their books in the first few minutes as they arrive and making spelling corrections and using key words appropriately. I will try to incorporate this into more lessons with different classes next year.

As for the key words, I make sure every pupil can write a passage that incorporates the key words from a lesson (or sequence of lessons), often based on answering that lesson’s title question. Again, nothing new here for many I suspect, but it’s been good for me so far.

4. Peer-assessment is rubbish

It just is. The closest I can get to effective peer-assessment in hugely differentiated-by-ability classes is when the pupils have had a very specific-to-the-task mark scheme or sample piece of work to use as a guide. Even then, the most success has come after repeated attempts at the same thing, in a short space of time. I’ve only used this with exam classes, usually when introducing a given type of exam question for the first time. This still hasn’t been as effective as my marking a piece of work, with comments explaining why they got what they got and what they need to do to improve, attaching the mark scheme, and getting them to repeat the task. It sounds mechanistic but as I said, it has worked very well. Again, any demonstrably effective suggestions for peer-assessment are most welcome.

I’m going to leave it there for now. I was about to start writing about some behaviour management, sanctiony-type stuff that has also worked, but as I’ve focused on teaching and learning strategies in the above points I thought I’d leave it. Any feedback, positive and negative, is most welcome. I will try to respond as quickly as I can.