Seasick and Froth: Independence and Progress

Where did we get to?

I’ve been mulling over the concept of spoon feeding within education, taking away the safety net whilst providing enough of the net for any of us to avoid feeling that swooping towards the cliff edge feeling and how we plan on going about all of that in the midst of what is stormy waters for the educational sector (all the shipwrecked metaphors. What can I say? I love a metaphor).

Previous action research included studying the process of peer and self assessment using a structured framework, guiding students towards making meaningful progress through using one another as an additional resource within the classroom; this then moved onto how to personalise learning through characteristic strengths and growth mindset. At Ashby Teachmeet recently, I spoke about the explicit link between developing the climate that makes things seem challenging and yet possible for all learners; this is only achievable, in my opinion, if we provide learners with the opportunity to reflect upon their own progress. Here is where we got to.

I have trialled the process of reflection, improvement and self-audit with my GCSE groups; one is a ‘top’ set, all working to target grades of B or above. The other, a mixed ability group with the range of target grades E-C. All students have a skills audit sheet that not only identifies the skills that they will develop over the GCSE course, but also outlines the particular assessment objective that the skill will relate to. Additionally, at the start of each unit, we have spent time selecting the skills that we will endeavour to develop during that unit. As a result of this, I am now currently working on a skills audit that will be tailored for each unit and perhaps act as an overlay to the giant skills sheet for the entire course (blue sky and all that). Both groups went through this process: visit audit sheet to identify skills before commencing a topic, using skills audit sheet to peer and self assess class work, planning and assessments and using the skills audit alongside post assessment work to celebrate successes in confidence but also identify areas that should be their key priority for the next unit or when we revisit the following year.

Successes? Both groups got it. The student feedback at a midpoint over the 3 month period and then again at the point of completion showed a clear, strong understanding their progress and the next steps required from the students’ point of view rather than the teacher; male students that always demonstrated a requirement for ‘beating targets’ found some sense of satisfaction in measuring their increasing confidence within a subject that may sometimes feel as though you are reaching a plateau- English content I find is reliant upon transferring skills in addition to developing them as such. One student noted that it ‘was more useful than comparing my work to other people as I don’t write in the same way’ which I found comforting. This was a process that was taking a rather qualitative subject and providing a linear way to demonstrate progress – nuts and bolts are hard to apply within English. The danger then becomes in who got the best and self-auditing means that students move away from test-topping which is always a good thing, surely. One student stated, ‘it helps me realise that I can now approach tasks better,’ and ‘it boosts my confidence to answer a question.’ Personally, this is the value of the progress over progress itself; if the effort is there and I have helped to strengthen that, then I believe the outcome will still ultimately be the same.

The key successes I took from this were that the skills audit acts as a triple whammy for teaching resourcing; one to one discussions post unit were far more focussed and specific to the student, the onus took a shift so that whilst I provided any material to help to make an improvement by way of intervention, the student was the one to signpost to me where they needed to make that improvement. It also made discussions at parents’ evening based entirely around progress and independent learning; conversations were centred around effort and action plans to aid this process. Intervention has been far easier to tailor as a result; students have been in a position to use assessment marking and the skills audit to know exactly what they want to develop or work on as the GCSE course has got underway.

Advice for approaching? Play the long game. This, like any practice or adaptation to teaching will take a routine and modelling to perfect. The more frequently used, the greater value the students placed upon the process of considering their work with a much more obejctive approach than they were perhaps previously used to. Provide as many examples of work using the skills audit to measure skills applied wherever possible; use the skills to drive lessons or form the lesson’s big question.

Two things stood out to me above all else: one, that it is questionable to suggest that the act of self audit has to be accurate or correct. Two, that the link between assessment criteria and the skills acquired needed to be much more clear to even the most able of students; they found it incredibly difficult to understand that they were using the same skills but just with differing content. The ideal? To create an online process for students to visit each time they worked yhrough a topic, measuring their confidence and skills developed as they progressed through the content and completed assessments to test their knowledge. Smaller, regular assessments that were clearly targeting skills outlined within the tool that students could then identify their own capabilities and perhaps even better, have a variety of links to resources that could help them to ‘close their own gap.’ Students understood the value and could identify holes in their learning, but sometimes struggled to know what to do with that information without guidance from me, although I do still need something to do with all this independent work, so I’m not complaining.

Back to the ship, big waves, etc, etc. What next? Develop a clear pathway for students to identify with not only what they excel at, but the targets for themselves as well. Essentially, a lighthouse in all this murky, gloomy weather that we are having. I just need to get around to making it…

Learning the Hard Way: Preparing to Fail

I was raised within both a home and education where right and wrong existed. There was very little room in either setting for a grey area; what was, simply was and what wasn’t- well, you follow. My secondary school was terrifying; my option choices were honestly made on the basis of avoiding certain circles (hence my complete inability to sew) and I lacked confidence to take on an additional GCSE, selecting supported studies because ‘you get a free hour for homework). The curriculum was not an invitation for exploration, but rather an A+B+C formula to the grades that were on my target report. I remember rather vividly, my English teacher correcting me on an interpretation of Browning’s Sonnet and being shot down in an instant (this is the same woman who laughed in my face at the outrageous notion that I could study Literature A level, so without digressing too much, her putdown may not be representative here).

Did I require the extra hour? To step outside my prior self for a moment and look upon 90’s kid Katherine from a teaching perspective, no. I walked out of school with an A* (English, smugly), two As, five Bs and 2 Cs (graphics- textiles would have definitely been my bag. I’ll give you a moment for that one). This was accomplished as a result of zero revision and my speedy completion of Tomb Raider – that four week break in school timetabling to sit at home really paid off. To put it in a nutshell, it could have been better.

It is only now, nearly twenty years on that I can peruse over the situation as a professional and consider the possiblities here. My academic potential? As much of a muchness to any other student at such a fine establishment. So what kept me from success? To toss aside the black/white approach, there was a lot going on outside the classroom, behaviour in the classroom of some subjects was verging on the ridiculous but above all else, I did not develop the confidence to believe that I would cope or could experience success at GCSE. Why? Because failure was not an option.

I’ve spent the last week or so mulling over the concept of failure after discovering the counterargument to Dweck’s growth mindset via Dr Tim O’Brien thanks to Paul Dix. The realisation that growth mindset was flawed shook up my thinking a little until a colleague put it rather eloquently that, ‘anything that takes an approach that is as binary as “you are or you are not” is subject to being flawed.’ I believe in the act of learning as opposed to an end point but yet this is not necessarily the train of thought here; by adopting an adherence to growth mindset within schools, are we then rejecting all those who dare to voice that there IS black and white and there IS a sense of failure as rejection and not simply put, a circumstance that requires us to dust ourselves off and ‘have a think on it’?

Flash forward to my classroom now and the jury is currently out. I very much reward effort over achievement; progress, in my opinion is a result of hard work and the ability to recover from what psychologically the individual may view as a setback. This is not only essential to an academic setting but to the world beyond the walls; coping mechanisms are built through small, repeated actions and experiences of such an emotion as failure- the small shortcomings are received in the same way as the larger and are just in valuable in developing resilience. And so with all of this in mind, how do I accommodate for students that need specific skills to pass a linear examination with a binary grading but that I would ideally like to approach the curriculum with them in a holistic way that defies all of the above? Big breath. Dr Tim O’Brien put it nicely in his article:’Yet in this new mindset environment, a teacher trying to establish which mindset learners possess will naturally place them as learners on the fixed pole or the growth pole. Instead of the teacher having multiple lenses through which to understand individuality and commonality, they now have only two.’ One size, as we all know, is not possible. Looking for the quick win is not what will save the educational format as we have or now know it and whilst my mind boggles at the thought (all multi-faceted sides of it), it is slightly refreshing to observe with children that they can possess a sense of peace by knowing that there isn’t a formula to crack. It is, as they say, all gravy.