A rusting flywheel... still improving teaching?

A rusting flywheel… still improving teaching?

If you’re any good at all, you know you can be better.”
Lindsay Buckingham

This blog articulates my professional goal: systematically refining my teaching.   To focus my efforts, I formulated a ‘hedgehog concept‘ for the year: to learn, apply and share best practice in teaching.  I promised to review my progress each term, to stimulate reflection and hold myself accountable.

I agonised over, then apologised for, the solipsism of my last review; I remain surprised by the interest and support I received.  I repeat the apology: this still seems self-indulgent and, I suspect, benefits me more than anyone else.  However, I’m slightly clearer as to my blogging ‘niche’ now: I describe what I attempt and leave it to readers to conclude whether they should use, re-interpret or ignore my strategies.  I offer this in that spirit.

One bit of context: this term has been one of the hardest of my career.  I have struggled to balance teaching, leading a department and responsibility for CPD around the pressures of a split site, a raft of duties and a plethora of Ofsted-readiness activities.  Some important things have survived these challenges; others have slipped; conversely, the experience has brought unexpected dividends, such as the chance to improve my time management – so I’ll stop complaining.

Learn

I’m a fair way towards meeting the goals I set myself to learn, by reading and visiting other schools, but not as far as I would like to be.  Preparation for leading CPD led me to revisit literature on hinge questions and feedback; I’ve also read Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People and just finished The Smartest Kids in the World.  I’ve visited one school, King Solomon Academy (thanks to Kris Boulton), a great chance to examine how it has changed over its five years.

I’ve also learned a lot from two things I didn’t think to include as targets.  The two conferences I have attended, ResearchED and TLT13, each represented a concentrated and powerful burst of learning.  Finally, perhaps most potently, I’ve met many of the bloggers who have inspired me most, which has allowed me to flesh out discussions hitherto conducted online and through twitter.

Nonetheless, I believe my ‘rate’ of learning has diminished.  I committed to read every post by half a dozen of the bloggers who have influenced my thinking most; I have probably managed about 70% of their blogs and a handful of others.  I’ve read one book on education and visited just one school.  I feel it’s ages since I learned anything new.

I will have to redouble my efforts next term.  I will line up more school visits (anyone in the London area who would welcome a visit, please let me know) and I’m looking forward to spending much of the holidays reading.

Apply

My priority in September was integrating Doug Lemov’s ‘minimally invasive discipline‘ into my teaching, having introduced others to these techniques last summer.  I think this has helped me to run a slightly better organised classroom and particularly to build good relationships my Year 7 classes.  However, preparation for a CPD session on this last week provided a salutary occasion to consider how faithful my application is: insufficiently so.  As a result, and most unusually as we approach Christmas, behaviour has been significantly better in my classes this last week than it was a fortnight ago, because I have been more disciplined about applying the techniques and ensuring I have 100% adherence.  So, my priority in January will be the same as it was in September – to apply minimally invasive discipline (and, in particular, ‘100%’)- but this time, to make sure it sticks.

By virtue of writing one of the first detailed posts about hinge questions, I have gained an ill-deserved authority on them.  In preparation for my presentation at TLT13, I reread the research, rediscovering the principles and noting the deficiencies in my practice.  Consequently, since October I have employed them more thoughtfully with my Year 7 classes.  I took the questions I uploaded summarising each time period and have refined them completely, first doing so myself and then repeating the exercise after each lesson in light of students’ responses and my growing understanding of their misconceptions.  This act of revisiting a technique I have worked on previously has helped me cleave more closely to the original intent: using them around forty minutes into the lesson to check students’ understanding before moving on to their conclusions and focusing more closely on misconceptions.  I intend to continue this new, more effective approach next term and will be sharing the resulting questions in due course.

CIMG6295

Refining hinge questions

I returned also to the process of essay-writing.  Developing my previous work and incorporating ideas from Ron Berger, I attempted to support students writing through the use of re-drafting, peer feedback and coded marking.  Reviewing students’ folders and examining the drafts, I’m increasingly convinced almost every student’s writing improved significantly as a consequence (notwithstanding the holes in the processes I described in the post).  This concluded in November, we have done no major extended writing since; but current speculation around ‘what Ofsted want’ has sent this shooting up the school’s list of priorities.  As I wrote in my post, I’m still not clear where the balance should like – I’m torn between writing more bad essays or too few better ones?  Either way, I have significant pieces of extended writing coming up with Year 7 in January and Year 8 in February – I shall keep fingers crossed that Ofsted delay until then.

My other focus has been time management, not a teaching technique, but one that enables all the others.  I summarised what I had learned earlier this term recently and I think I can be unusually confident in saying that this change has stuck.  This has been so useful I struggle to imagine how I got anything done beforehand (I’d rather not consider the likely answer).  How well I’ll respond to the surprises that unbalance systems like this remains to be seen (will I stick to the week’s plan when Ofsted call?) but I’m optimistic.

In short, I am a slightly improved teacher: I’m clearer about how to improve and what matters, but I’m still wrestling with the demon consistency.  Next term, as well as focusing on Lemov’s behaviour management, I’m going to revisit wait time: I know I can do it and that it works, but I’ve stopped.  I will also focus on modelling excellence better.  Two things in a shorter term should suffice, but I’ll also be trying a new approach to marking and tracking.

Sharing

This is the goal I feel most confident in saying I am meeting.  I have posted every week of this term, a pleasure and an education as well as a struggle on occasion.  The emails and comments this generates have been answered (I’m still slightly behind: if I owe you a reply, please feel free to say something cutting in the comments box and I’ll get back to you).  Presenting at TLT13 was a slightly scary highlight of the term and I’ve had a number of visitors into school, usually to apparent mutual benefit.

Sharing, I realise, is as much learning and application as anything else.  Some of the most thought-provoking learning this term derived from visitors (thank you particularly Michael Fordham and Laura McInerney).  Each post necessitates more learning and leads me to apply techniques better as did my presentation at TLT13.

Raising my head as someone willing to write and discuss what I’m doing has brought more requests to do the same, so this looks set to grow.  I’m working on an ebook on history teaching and some other writing, I’ll be a facilitator at Touchpaper Day (sign up while places remain!) and at Pedagoo London.  While still blogging weekly… I hope.

In conclusion…

Perhaps I am slightly better than six months ago – and perhaps that’s all I can ask for…  very gradual progress.  The time and focus upon self-improvement which I intended was heavily disrupted by the first half of this term; part of me is happy simply to have regained my focus on what matters and made time and space to pursue this.  In this light, I’m looking forward to acting on the goals I set myself next year.

I would be grateful for suggestions, particularly for learning, for next term.  What have you read recently that helped you teach better?  Where should I visit…?  What else should I do?

This is the last post for the year; thank you for reading and enjoy the Christmas break.