I’m miles from home, cycling up and down steep hills on badly-designed roads, with a particularly poor map: its print quality and detail are unsatisfactory, as are the cycle routes it shows, the majority of which are ‘proposed,’ the kind which don’t make a dual carriageway any safer. What am I doing in Southampton? What are teachers from Durham, Sunderland and the Isle of Man doing here? Did I mention that it’s Saturday, and the end of week seven of an eight-week half term?
The answer to the first two questions: we were there for Teaching and Learning Takeover, a conference organised at the University of Southampton, on teaching, run by teachers, for teachers. To the third question: it was worth it. Here’s why:
Jamie Portman opened the day, sharing an optimistic, explicitly political message, lauding those who graft away or have the courage to lead schools. He called on us to take what had brought us to TLT, a desire to improve our own teaching and the lives of our students, back to our schools, to “Broadcast the message that there is hope, because the climate out there is horrible… rewrite the headlines for teachers in our school.” He shared the story of the complete immolation of his school (smouldering, twisted girders, the voiceover reporting: “Parents have been told to keep their children at home,”) and the subsequent resilience of the teachers and students, continuing in youth centres and closed schools, with nothing. His talk not only left me ready for the day, it put the inconvenience of teaching in three different temporary buildings, each idiosyncratically dysfunctional, in perspective.
My subsequent workshop choices were guided by a wish to hear from teachers whose blogs I particularly enjoy and who I had not seen previously. Since workshop leaders didn’t have to choose their sessions in advance, I had barely skimmed the session summaries and went on reputation alone. I wasn’t disappointed.
Kev Bartle began by expounding his Trojan Mouse allegory of teaching and segued seamlessly into the role of ‘Pedagogy Leaders’ in improving teaching at his school. Appointed based on their vision for teaching and learning at the school, they are tasked with running teacher learning communities and creating an environment of ‘contagious’ pedagogical improvement. The school had made a range of apparently wise decisions, such as adopting a ‘surplus’ model which builds on teachers’ existing strengths and avoiding a managerial approach to teacher development by holding just one formal observation a year and offering coaching, not just to those whose observed lesson is weak, but also to those who are graded good and wish to gain an outstanding. Pedagogy leaders are encouraged to pursue their own interests, conducting research and running workshops to share good practice; in turn they are seeking to involve as many staff members as possible in sharing their achievements and development. As the teacher responsible for CPD, the approach demonstrated a range of merits, a fact reinforced by its adoption by several other schools. Kev exemplified the ability of schools to establish productive systems to manage their own improvement, driven by teachers’ desire to do their job better, not outside influences.
Andy Day was characteristically and deceptively modest when he claimed I was unlikely to learn much new from his presentation on SOLO taxonomy. I’m sure he finished on time, but I have at least an hour and a half’s thoughts, ideas and questions based on his presentation. Andy began by introducing SOLO, outlined several ways in which he has used it in teaching and ended by exploring modifications and extensions he has adopted. He shared several ways in which he used it in planning and assessment and how this can make progress and next steps clear to students. Although my school has its own assessment system (indeed, two now), I realised how useful his modifications of SOLO are. For example, there are many levels of attainment within any level of the taxonomy; a ‘unistructural’ point may be a simple fact or a contextualised, validated, well-chosen piece of evidence. He therefore uses a second ‘dimension’ of assessment – how obvious the point is, ranging from something everyone thinks of and uses to an idea which is highly unusual or original. Then he highlighted a third dimension: the degree of independence with which students have made their point. Having attended out of interest, I found myself with a series of notes which altered the way I marked and planned on Monday morning. Andy’s workshop was a wonderful example of the effectiveness of a teaching tool lying in how skilled teachers adapt it to their own needs – not the tool itself.
Chris Curtis’ workshop combined an enjoyable range of his activities with thoughtful ideas about how teachers can use questions. As with Andy’s session, his ingenuity was clear from the subtle tweaks he made to familiar formats, for example, students placing their questions into Poundland plastic eggs, exchanging them and then thinking about others’ questions. Similarly, his presentation of a series of detectives representing different styles of questioning, brought the varied styles to life; Sherlock Holmes representing inferences, Poirot looking for inconsistencies, and so on. This helped to convey his underlying message: questions need not wait until the end of teaching a unit or lesson – they can be used throughout teaching sequences to promote understanding, engagement and deeper thought. Having just led my own workshop on questioning, Chris immediately forced me to rethink the balance between different kinds of questions in my classroom.
David Doherty closed with an uplifting exhortation as his conclusion: “Brain gym won’t fix your school, you will,” and a line which resonated with many at the conference: “Make the sea roar when you walk into the classroom on Monday.”
After a visit to a couple of pubs and the privilege of conversation with some wise and inspirational teachers, I took an unintentionally circuitous route home; as I rode, I felt grateful that the promised rain had held off, more importantly, I felt completely revived. Attending the conference reminded me of something I hadn’t felt in weeks: the privilege of teaching and the excitement and potential of the innumerable ways to improve. Not once had a strategy been suggested to please Ofsted or look good; teachers shared their genius and hard work because they were excited by their potential to improve their practice and the lives of others, for their own sake. This refreshes my faith in the movement to professionalise teaching: events like this demonstrate that, as teachers, we are willing and able to establish our own standards of excellence, to identify the best ways to pursue these aims and to assess our success in doing so.
Thanks to all those who shared their time and their thoughts and especially to those who made the day possibly, most notably Dave and Jen.
(all highly recommended)
Jamie Portman, blog, Ode to the grafters
Kev Bartle, blog, Trojan Mouse allegory
Andy Day, blog, key post on SOLO
Chris Curtis, blog, TLT talk on questioning
David Doherty, blog, TLT talk: Make the sea roar
Dave Fawcett, Jen Ludgate and Edsessential
And if you think they write well, you have to see them talk.