The principal and proper work of history is to instruct and enable men by the knowledge of actions past to bear themselves prudently in the present and providently in the future.”
Whether this is truly history can be questioned; this quotation merely introduces a review of the year which may help me understand actions past and bear myself more prudently in future.
I toyed with a variety of structures, settling on an approach which proved popular a year and a half ago, examining four improvements I’ve sustained and three things I have dropped this year.
A good year for…
Redrafting and dot marking
Beginning the year inspired by Ron Berger’s Ethic of Excellence, I was soon redrafting essays and then marking every book, every lesson. I have become increasingly addicted to redrafting, using the same approach with every essay since. Extending dot-marking to Year 7 work means I am now marking constantly, while students are incessantly improving their writing. I need to do more to ensure every student understands their improvement task quickly, but I have seen students adopt a culture of improvement and, hand on heart, no classes of mine have ever written so well.
Guided by Willingham, Bjork and a shower curtain, I spent Autumn exploring ways to ensure students remember lessons. My experimental Year 8 unit will be redesigned into a more meaningful exploration of British social history. Regular low-stakes testing fell by the wayside; I intend to revive it properly next year. I barely mentioned mnemonics at the time, on the other hand: they have proved powerful with Year 7 and I will extend their use. Although the techniques I employed had mixed success, focusing on memory has stuck with me and I’ll be refining my approach next year.
I began working to ensure 100% of students were focused in the Autumn. I concluded I’d failed and redoubled my efforts in January; this led to my attending Uncommon Schools training in May. This last term, I’ve been implementing what I learned there, particularly asking students to ‘do it again’ if their actions are sloppy and acknowledging their improvements with a ‘bright face.’ I’m nearer 100% than ever before, students are learning more – but this is not something about which one can ever afford to be complacent.
Efficiency: time management, organisation and checklists
I suspect that this change will outlast everything I’ve learned this year. Improved personal organisation has offered the silver lining to a massive workload split between three buildings. Conscientious, ruthless time management and checklists have helped me get everything crucial done and avoid surprises and unimportant tasks. When I mislaid something a while ago and a student said to me “But you’re normally very organised sir:” I realised I had faked it until I made it.
A bad year for…
Last year’s greatest hits
I spent a good deal of time on hinge questions, wait time and learning intentions last year; some I’ve replaced, others neglected. I returned to hinge questions, but concluded subsequently that dot-marking is more powerful, allowing me to check every student’s progress and offer an individual next step. With every student writing every lesson, the learning intentions sheet I painstakingly devised and tested is redundant; consequently my practice in sharing objectives has slipped – although students still guess missing words and I now include a ‘so that’ to share each lesson’s underlying purpose. I occasionally extend the pause after student responses, but occasionally and inconsistently. Maybe last year’s changes are lost and I’ve fallen prey to the attraction of the shiny and new I’ve questioned. Perhaps the insights of previous experiments have stayed with me while I’ve refined other aspects of teaching. I believe I have normalised the improvements, using all three selectively, in preference to the monomania of their introduction. But I would say that, wouldn’t I?
The creative and the cross-curricular
A tiny, dedicated team and the freedom of last year have been replaced by the business-as-usual of schooling. Teaching lessons, as I did last year, considering ‘What was life like without electricity?’ on mornings without power has, thankfully, proved unnecessary. Attempting to repeat an amazing unit from last year on the greatest mathematicians of all time, I found the maths department were less committed to it in practice than they claimed (I’m broadening the unit to examine great figures from a range of subjects next year). Such excitements were unsustainable, some weren’t even desirable, but they have made some of my teaching less fun this year than it was last year.
It would be dishonest to review the year without referring to our Ofsted inspection. I don’t have the hindsight or experience to understand exactly where right and wrong lie on this (and Kahneman suggests that if I ever do, I’ll delude myself about what I thought at the time anyway). I’ve certainly seen the school move through all the phases, from ‘we’ll do the right thing, produce quality and Ofsted will recognise it,’ via ‘Ofsted will want to see…’ to ‘it’s action on this now or closure.’ But I was struck by a prescient passage I read today in Nick Cowen’s 2008 pamphlet, Swedish Lessons: How schools with more freedom can deliver better education. To quote Anastasia de Waal’s foreword: “School choice allows a plurality of pedagogies to enter into the system as well as a comparative plurality of definitions as to what constitutes a ‘good’ school. Were a system of inspection, such as the current Ofsted regime, to continue within a system of school choice, this plurality would be seriously constrained.” I’m not sure whether a plurality of definitions of ‘good’ is desirable; I’m pretty certain it’s not possible under the current system.
- My students remember more and write better than ever before. They appear to ‘get’ history better than ever too (I’ll be writing about this in the Autumn).
- I greet new techniques with excitement, followed by something between normalisation and neglect.
- Some things should or can be jettisoned when better ones come along.
Next year looks interesting and uncertain; I’ll keep readers posted.