Inquiry over objective and how it saved my bacon

I’m an Assistant Principal in a school in Northamptonshire. This is a short series of blogs about how I reduced my workload and improved the quality of student knowledge and application through refining what I do within the classroom.

I view workload and my wellbeing as intrinsically linked: the more focused that my time is in school on the things that contribute to teaching better, the better my teaching becomes. The better my teaching, the more fulfilled I feel within my role. The more fulfilled I am within my role, the more likely it is that I will continue to be enthused to teach. I am also of the opinion that whilst what we do in the classroom enables us to feel more aligned to why we wanted to teach in the first place, Senior Leaders have a duty to support teachers in being able to do this in the first place.

Key aspects of workload reduction within the classroom:

  1. Inquiry over objective
  2. Organisation and presentation of knowledge
  3. Knowledge through explicit instruction
  4. Questioning for challenge
  5. Effective modelling
  6. Meaningful feedback and assessment

Each blog will explore each of these key elements and shared what I have learned as part of this journey.

Big questions were something that I touched upon during my initial teacher training. I was mentored in school by a fantastic woman who would persevere with probing me on, ‘they were doing- but what were they learning?’ and I spent an age deliberating over how to incorporate that pesky triangle into my learning objectives/intentions/aims and suchlike.

Each lesson was an hour of time, in which I would need to impart a skill, show them how to do it, and then hand over to them to master, before we never mentioned it again. A unit of work would visit a number of skills in isolation, before expecting students to combine them as a finished article in a piece of work after six weeks. It didn’t work.

Of course it didn’t work, because I was working against the tide, in many, many ways- but I was telling students that I was capable of wizardry, that after sixty minutes of their time, they would be able to ‘understand/apply/create/evaluate’ (or, if I was feeling more tentative in my supernatural abilities, ‘explore/consider’) how to do, rather than what they would know.

To explore the key features of a sentence.

They felt frustrated, and so did I- because I’d taught them, well, very little, if at all. We had just bounced about for a lesson, reading to understand and perhaps learning some new words along the way, that perhaps we wouldn’t remember again, before descending into a model paragraph, labelled and highlighted within an inch of its life, until it was hard to determine what was the work of the student, and what was just me, overachieving at Key Stage 3.

I began by reshaping my objectives as questions, but this still didn’t quite fit what I set out to achieve; it was just an objective, hidden in a question’s clothing:

How do I explore the key features of a sentence?

It didn’t change anything- it was a master of deception but meant that I could encourage an answer as opposed to a muddle through- albeit, a little high reaching. Surely by asking students to tell me how they explore, I am asking them to do my job, not theirs? Or beyond this, I am asking them to self-regulate their learning before perhaps even managing to be able to do it in the first place? Either way, it jarred, as a result of its inability to do what I wanted it to do- to impart knowledge. How could I test the knowledge that the student knew? How could I tell if they had been ‘changed’ in some way? Perhaps the most important of them all: why did this what seemed to be tiny, insignificant component of my lesson seem to cause me this level of discomfort and frustration?

It was Hattie’s Visible Learning for TeachingJoe Kirby’s blog in 2015 and Doug Lemov’s work-including Teach Like a Champion– that really opened my eyes to the possibility of teaching and evidencing learning through inquiry. Hattie captured very simply, ‘teachers knowing what they want students to understand within a given time frame’ and that was exactly what I wanted to feel like I was doing: passing on knowledge for students to understand, because it was only possible for them to consider what they thought, if they understood it in the first place. They could only consider if Romeo was a victim of fate or his own foolishness-or both- if they understood who Romeo was to begin with. They could only consider to what extent they sympathised with Curley’s wife if they understood who Curley’s wife was- and who, through a lack of her own name, her own identity, who she was not. They couldn’t do that, and I couldn’t help them try, if we all keep dancing around, introducing skills before deserting them for new skills, and never really experiencing the deep, truth of what learning is- the transfer of knowledge, so that it would have a new owner to consider it for their own. That is most certainly not what my questions were doing.

And so, I mapped out learning of knowledge through knowledge organisers, and then formed questions that I wanted my students to be able to answer in reference to that topic/genre/text:

ko

This is then transferred into a series of big questions which will enable us to explore the key components of knowledge: the majority of the themes will come through recurrent teaching points, for example:

  • What is tragedy?
  • Is masculinity a positive trait?
  • To what extent is Romeo a tragic hero?

The questions carry out a multi-faceted role: they enable all students to respond to a varying degree; some will answer with a straightforward understanding of key characteristic traits, and if revisited later, will be able to demonstrate the development of the character; whilst some will take a critical, more detached analysis of the character as a mechanism to present ideas and concepts to us. The question also sets a precedent: this is what you need to know, this is what will act as a foundation for you to built your ideas from. it gives a template for those less confident that they have a starting point for their journey through the text. There’s still much work to be done here, and I still look over certain questions which then need further refinement, simplification, but they enable me to present the idea to students, that we do not experience an endpoint: just a bigger answer.

Big questions should be vast, limitless, and not manipulate or lead students’ thinking; if we state, ‘to what extent is Macbeth a victim?’ we are dictating the students to think that he is. Instead, asking ‘Who is Macbeth?’ means students can deliberate the essence of victimisation for themselves, along with other aspects of Macbeth’s character over the course of a few hours of learning.

We should not bastardise Big questions as Learning Objectives, because they’re not. The Big questions of our subject cannot be suitably answered within an hour, and we shouldn’t expect students to tackle them as such.

Big Questions should dismiss exam and skills-driven terminology for knowledge and conceptual understanding. ‘How do I analyse a text’ is not helpful, or realistic. Are we stating that within an hour, a student can analyse a text, when we have Year 11 students leaving school without the capability to successfully do so? Instead, focus on the knowledge and key concepts that stduents should ‘bump into’ over and over again.

Big questions need to find a vocabulary balance between challenge and realism. The vocabulary of the question should not be ‘brand new’ for students- this is where using knowledge organisers is key. You do not want a situation where students are unable to access a question simply down to the vocabulary. ‘To what extent is Birling a literary figure of social justice?’ is far more cumbersome than ‘What does Birling represent?’

Inquiry over objective ensures that my teaching leads with the knowledge, and the skills are the expertise in which we exert that knowledge, Greg Ashman explores E.D. Hirsch’s emphasis upon expertise over skill in his blog here, but here is an excerpt:

The verbal contrast between skill and expertise is important because the term “skill” has allowed educators to adopt the convenient but incorrect principle that the specific content of education is less critical than the development of general skills like problem-solving, and critical-thinking and finding the main idea.

By keeping the main idea in mind, understanding, capturing, making it malleable for students without dilution but instead, refinement, we are using and practising this process with knowledge, and not generic, vast skills that refuse to align with what we propose to do: teach.

For more ramblings around workload, sense of purpose and how we can keep many fantastic teachers in education, my book, #StopTalkingAboutWellbeing is out early next year. To pre-order, click the link: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Stop-Talking-About-Wellbeing-Howard/dp/1912906481

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