A slight departure from the journey up the ALPS this week as it would be foolish not to write about the highly valuable Research Ed event at Durrington High this weekend. I’ve already tweeted that I rarely give up my Saturdays, but the hours spent at DHS were so valuable, I’m glad I did.

Minutes before the event started, I was still trying to select my sessions; an almost impossible task given the quality of the speakers and the range of expert information that would be on offer. I decided to narrow it down to the areas I most wanted to be informed about and then made my selections focused on Feedback; Memory; Making use of research and questioning, all of these are pertinent to my practice across both GCSE re-sit and English Language A Level and I’ll discuss the key points I’ve taken from three of these sessions.

Tom Sherrington – No Can Do? Making Assessment Actions Count

So much of this talk rang true, although I suspect my colleagues in the 11-16/18 sector fall more foul of data drops than we do; ours are always focused on key assessments, so it does make this exercise more valuable. What is true however is that we sometimes lose sight of what we are finding out from those assessments and, more importantly, what are the students taking away from them? Tom’s metaphor of the tree’s roots being to establish the right conditions, the trunk building knowledge and the branches exploring possibilities was a valuable thinking point for me. How much of our time to we spend whizzing up the trunk and expecting the students to be able to explore possibilities? Are we missing the point about establishing the right conditions for these to take place effectively? Make no mistake, we have done a lot of work in working towards these goals, but I think we still have so much room for improvement.

The other key thinking point for me was the value of our feedback sheets that we provide both GCSE and A Level Students. These have been through a series of incarnations over the last few years and we have done a lot to reduce teacher workload by pre-populating the sheets with the skills students should be using. We dutifully highlight the ‘can-dos’ and then indicate which they still need to work on. But these are skills-based, not action-based. Obviously we are marking the work as well and giving summative comments, but how valuable are these neatly highlighted skills that require improvement? I came to the conclusion during the talk that they hold little to no value whatsoever. What students need are actions they can undertake that will help them to practise and perfect those skills. This stems directly from Tom’s Redraft and Re-do; Re-learn and Re-test and Resesarch and Record strategies for improving feedback and I could see how this could make a huge impact to what happens after feedback is given.

The best CPD results in giving you the energy and enthusiasm to go away and make changes. So not only do I have pages of notes from this talk, but also a to-do list and this was initiated on Sunday. I’ve taken one example of a feedback sheet and have set a series of actions that could lead to improvement – it still minimises the teacher workload, but maximises (in my opinion) the impact of the feedback itself. I will share this with my department tomorrow and also discuss with my year 12s. Being open to discussion and capable of honest and constructive feedback themselves, I know I’ll get a helpful response from them. And if it prompts me to produce another draft, then that means the impact will be even greater.

Dr Caroline Creaby – The Memory Clock: a tool to maximise the impact of student revision

This was on my list from the moment the schedule was released if I’m completely honest. I hold my hands up, as Caroline said, to not always having given the best advice for revision, largely because I know I wasn’t always that good at it. The one thing that really worked for me with maths (and this was me taking GCSE at the age of 27 so I could go into teaching) was having cards dotted around everywhere with formulae, rules and key vocabulary. It was a drip-feed of revision and self-testing and it did work, but beyond that, especially in sixth-form, I have worked on the assumption that if students are joining my course with at least a B grade (or 6 this year) in my subject, then they haven’t done a bad job of revising to date. Before you start judging me, that’s not to say I haven’t tried new things and produced resources to support them, any of my students will testify that’s not the case, but I did find myself running out of ideas. (When Caroline mentioned creating a rap or poem, I did cringe at the memory of suggesting track lists to remind them of key ideas in To Kill a Mockingbird for GCSE  English Literature, more years ago than I care to remember!)

Caroline’s session chimed with me because we had recently had some CPD which revolved around revision and the research of Dunlosky, so I was interested to hear how this could be taken further. The helpful discussion of how the memory clock worked, how it had been developed and used and also where it could be improved made complete sense to me and built neatly onto the Pomodoro Technique I had been discussing with my students. It was so helpful to have the models shown for different subjects and, quality of photo permitting, I’ll be using these to put together my own model for A Level Language this week.

Moreover, the time to discuss ideas and opinions with colleagues confirmed that we should be tackling revision methods at the beginning of the course so that they are ongoing, not rushed at the end, especially in linear land. Again, it was valuable to have some ideas affirmed, but something to challenge the way I have been operating and make me want to make changes.

The model is on my to-do list this afternoon.

Sarah Donarski – Questioning how you question

Since I started my current role, we have done a lot of work on the effectiveness of questioning, and I’ve led sessions on this for other members of staff, but I’m no expert and I know that not everything I do is right.

It would be impossible to cover everything Sarah covered in her session, but these are the most important aspects I took away.

It is not hard to grasp the fact that the way we question can ‘lock out’ some students, but what jolted me slightly was the use of targeted and differentiated questions. This has been put forward as an effective model for differentiation and it does help to make us look good in an observed lesson, doesn’t it? But we are really doing our students a disservice by adopting this model. By discussing students schemas of knowledge and exploring how these can be worked with in our questioning really gave me something to think about. You can ask more complex questions to students with different schemas without excluding them. And Sarah provided some really practical methods to put this into practice by adding the following phrase to questions:

Why do you think…? Who do you think…? and What do you think…? This is so simple, yet so effective and I can instantly add this to my questioning repertoire without having to change too much.

Sarah also focused on the need for slowing things down; as proposed in Jamie Thom’s ‘Slow Teaching’. We are all so driven by the curriculum, exam dates and covering all the objectives, that sometimes we move at such a pace we leave the students behind. There is a clear need for slowing down the steps to building knowledge, and without some slowing down we will really lose some of our students. There was a lot of talk about structuring questions to provide more support; support that can be reduced over time until students are ready to take on some more complex and challenging question types.

As I’ve already said, there was so much packed into this section that I can’t do it justice, but the point towards the end about offering up a question and then selecting a student to respond chimed with an observation where this method was queried. My argument was that I was opening up the question to the class so that they all needed to think, and then selecting the response from a targeted student. I disagreed with the query, but Sarah’s point about this being a more positive approach gave me reassurance that I was on the right track.

What next?

  • Improved feedback sheets;
  • Memory Clock models;
  • Questioning my own questioning

If there is one thing I would change about this day, it would be that I wish it had happened earlier, thereby giving me the opportunity to make things better for more students before they sit their summer exams. Having said that, much of what I do, I can change instantly and that will have an impact in the remaining weeks.

So, all that remains is to say a huge thank you to the organisers of Durrington’s Research Ed conference, you made my Saturday thought-provoking and productive in many ways, and for a moo-free cow such as I am, the non-dairy lasagne was amazing.