Stockholm

The Royal Palace, Stockholm, Sweden. (Abhijeet Vardhan)

 

Stockholm syndrome is a name given to the way that hostages end up having sympathy and empathy for their captors.  In a teeny-tiny way, I think I’m going through something like it at school.

I never really got on with the GCSE science courses as they were from 2006 onwards.  They were made of little modules that had to stand independently, so ideas never really linked up.  Each module only really had one way of sequencing the ideas that made any sense at all.  You pretty much had to teach each module on the basis of spending one lesson on each line of the specification, then moving on to the next line.  Then, every 12 lines or so, you did a module test and moved on to something different.  All the published textbooks and schemes of work did the same sort of thing.  It was a bit dull, to be honest.

Anyway, those GCSEs are on the way out; the current year 10s will be the last cohort to do them.  We don’t know quite what’s replacing them yet, because the new specifications haven’t been finally approved.  That’s a bit of a challenge if you teach a 3 year GCSE course.  Technically, we’re teaching our year 9s a course that doesn’t exist yet.  It could be taken as a huge opportunity for freedom.  We could teach anything; as long as the choices are sensible, it’s bound to come in useful.

What we’ve ended up doing is taking the first few pages of the draft specification, spending one lesson on each line of the specification, then moving on to the next line.  Then, every 12 lines or so, doing a module test and moving on to something different.

That’s not the problem. Neither is it really a problem that the sample resources I’ve seen publishers produce look like they are sticking to the same old model.

The problem is that I’m secretly quite glad about that.  Having taught in this way for so long, the idea of making a judgement about what matters, what might be worth teaching is pretty scary.  Not being able to confidently say to my class “this is the content you need to know to get this grade” leaves me feeling a bit naked, however much I used to hate saying that.

For a while now, I’ve felt my teaching trapped into doing things I didn’t like/believe in.  Now some of those things have been taken away, and I sort of want them back.

 

 

Good Intentions

Path Through The Forest

Path Through The Forest by George Hodan

If you’re a teacher, it’s definitely not cheating to know what is in the exam board’s specification for the courses you teach.  In fact, it’s pretty unprofessional not to know.  Similarly, it’s right and proper to have a working knowledge of the recent past papers, mark schemes and examiners’ reports.  Whilst this might need some processing before sharing with classes, it’s important that they have access to that information as well.

We all want pupils to do as well as they can.  If there are patterns in the exam questions and expected answers, it will help them achieve if they are aware of these.  If there are stock phrases, mnemonics or sentence starters that will help them to scaffold their thinking, those will help them not lose marks by missing out anything important.

Some pupils find the memorisation difficult.  It will help them to have a final reminder just before they go into the exam space.  That’s fine, if their teachers organise a final briefing for them at breakfast / lunch.  Besides, it gives an opportunity to make sure that they have had a healthy meal, and are in a positive frame of mind before an exam.  Like a coach with a team just before an important match.

So far, so good.

But what if it’s not a traditional exam, but a controlled assessment?  One which is spread out over several lessons, maybe several weeks of lessons?  One where the questions are often not just similar each year, but identical?

It’s right and proper to have a working knowledge of the recent assessments, mark schemes and examiners’ reports.  Whilst this might need some processing before sharing with classes, it’s important that they have access to the allowed parts of that information as well.

We all want pupils to do as well as they can.  If there are patterns in the questions and expected answers, it will help them achieve if they are aware of these.  If there are stock phrases, mnemonics or sentence starters that will help them to scaffold their thinking, those will help them not lose marks by missing out anything important.

Some pupils find the memorisation difficult.  It will help them to have a final reminder just before they go into the controlled space.  That’s fine, if their teachers organise a final briefing for them at breakfast / lunch.  Besides, it gives an opportunity to make sure that they have had a healthy meal, and are in a positive frame of mind before writing up the assessment.  Like a coach with a team just before an important match.

Some of this is OK, some of it isn’t, really

A part of what teachers and schools do is about maximising the return (in terms of exam grades) from a given amount of learning.  That’s not an impulse to be despised, especially if it opens doors for young people that would otherwise be closed.  It’s not cheating, as such- that is a different, much murkier kettle of fish.  But a lot of “good practice” that gets shared is about working out ways of completing assessed tasks that are easier for pupils to do.  Some of these probably fall within the intentions of the task designers, but some don’t.  And it’s hard to talk about the difference, because it’s all done from the very best of intentions.

Indeed the safest road to Hell is the gradual one – the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts…

C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters

Every Big Helps

Mobile phone chargers: not big amounts of energy

[https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/e/ec/Nokia_mobile_phone_charging.jpg/274px-Nokia_mobile_phone_charging.jpg]

Quick bit of Physics:

If you haven’t read David MacKay’s Sustainable Energy Without The Hot Air, go and do it now.  It’s great.  Partly because it’s about something important- keeping the lights (and everything else) on for future generations.  Also, it’s a really good example of something that physicists are trained to be good at; working out which factors actually matter when you are trying to solve a problem, and which ones you can quickly discard.

MacKay calls the concept “Every Big Helps“.  For example, think about mobile phone chargers left on standby.  Or rather, don’t.  Yes, there are lots of them, but the power wasted by each one is small.  Even if you multiply by the number of phones in the UK, it will still be a small total.  Better not to waste that energy, but it’s a tiny amount compared with (say) the energy consumed by cars.

I’ve been reminded of this by a couple of experiences at school in the last week.  One was a staff meeting about school policy changes for next year; things like marking and documenting differentiation.  I can’t say that the changes are bad- though a marking policy that is going to be applied and monitored across every subject is bound to be a bit clunky.  Where it bothers me is when I look at the end-of-year exams I have just marked.

The pattern is one that I suspect most teachers will have experienced.  A proportion of the group have clearly taken on board the ideas we have worked through together this year; I recognise the phrases and patterns; even the mistakes are from slightly mis-applying things we did in class.  Another proportion of the group haven’t, and have floundered.  Very few of the papers- even from those who have done well- show much sign of the school-wide tips for reading and answering exam questions that they are meant to have been practicing in every subject all year.

There are big things I can do that would help these pupils a lot.  Making sure that they always get the key facts and ideas right.  Ensuring that they check that what they write actually matches the question they are answering.  A goodish chunk of the challenge will be making sure that these pupils are on-task more of the time, and completing more work.  And I’ll continue to do what I can to do these.  But it’s about to get a little bit harder, because a few more little things have been put in the way of the big things.  And it’s every big that helps.

Workload- a different name for the problem?

(SCENE: Prehistoric Earth.  Ford and Arthur have been stuck for two years.)

Arthur:  Have you got an answer?

Ford: No, but I’ve got a different name for the problem!

(The Hitch-Hikers Guide to the Galaxy, Fit the Seventh)

Teacher workload has been a problem for more than two years, but discussion of it has become more intense recently.  The government has plans, the opposition has plans, and this is all fine as far as it goes.  Unfortunately, stories like the one shared by Debra Kidd aren’t that unusual.

Reducing the number of forms and spreadsheets flying around would help… a bit.  I’m not sure that it would get the job down to something that could really be done honestly.  So- for a bit of fun during the holidays- let’s give the workload problem a different name- If we assume that paying teachers a salary buys a certain amount of time, what can they get done in that time?

Some assumptions

My physics teacher nature is going to start to show here.  I’m going to make some assumptions, but I don’t think they’re crazy, and I don’t think that changing them much affects the answer much.

Assumption 1: A full time, main scale teacher teaches 21 hours of lessons per week.

Assumption 2: There aren’t any repeat lessons (same content to 2 or more equivalent classes- clearly that saves some planning time, but I don’t have that on my timetable, so there).

Assumption 3: There are lots of things that teachers do that aren’t planning, teaching or marking, and they’re important.  I’m not going to try to put numbers on the time for them, because they’re too variable.

What if a teacher has 30 minutes to plan and mark for each hour of teaching?

Time on planning, teaching and marking = 21 x 1.5 = 31.5 hours per week, so there’s definitely time for being a form tutor, duties, meetings and other things.

30 minutes for planning and marking is going to be tight.  I really like the Every Book, Every Lesson approach to marking, and it does make it possible to give meaningful feedback to a whole class with 15 minutes of marking.  That leaves 15 minutes to plan a lesson.  That doesn’t feel like enough.  I could get my head around a pre-planned lesson in that time (read it, understand it, decide if I need to tweak any of the explanations or references to make them work for my class), but that would be about it.

What if a teacher has 60 minutes to plan and mark for each hour of teaching?

Time on planning, teaching and marking = 21 x 2 = 42 hours per week, which is getting a bit high; remember that there are other core things to add.

If we stick with 15 minutes of marking, that leaves 45 minutes to plan.  That should be enough to think about the lesson objectives, select appropriate resources, and put them together in a lesson.  It probably isn’t enough time to create substantial new resources, or write a lesson plan with enough detail for someone else to follow.

Conclusions?

Firstly, the sweet spot for lesson related work looks like it is somewhere between 30 and 60 minutes per lesson.  The reality is that there are plenty of schools where the baseline expectations of teachers don’t fit into 1 hour per lesson.  The result is the scenario described by Andrew Old as The Job that Never Ends:

Of course, the (very) obvious explanation is that nobody, and I mean nobody, does the job to the letter.

Essentially, teachers do what they can off the list of essential jobs, and hope that the things left undone won’t lead to too much trouble.  That’s not fair on pupils (who can’t rely on what they will get) or conscientious teachers (who end up exhausted and guilty).

Secondly, the “30 minutes per lesson” scenario reminds me a lot of what I experienced as a pupil in the late 1980s.  Most academic subjects were taught from published resources, without much customisation.  Work was marked regularly, but written feedback was brief.

Finally, if teachers are really going to take control of their workload, the place where that has to happen has to be the way we approach planning and marking.  Streamlining the peripheral work can only achieve so much.  I don’t have an answer to the Workload Problem.  I do have a different name for it:

“If I’ve got 45 minutes per lesson to plan and mark, what can I do with that time?”

Any ideas?