Saturday, 30 June 2012

The Real Wizardry of Effective CPD

At the Cramlington Learning Festival yesterday @kbrechin put up a slide showing the cast of The Wizard of Oz not dissimilar to the one below.

When he then started off by saying that some teachers approached continuous professional development (CPD) were a bit like the Cowardly Lion, scared of change, I have to confess to feeling worried for him. My brain was screaming at me "Please don't say that some are brainless" and "Heaven help him if he says some have no heart", but thankfully Ken trod safer paths. He pointed out that the scarecrowlike teachers in our schools are the ones that have forgotten their sense of engagement in professional learning, whilst the tinmanesque teachers are those that have grown rusty and somewhat frozen in terms of their teaching skills over time. My concerned inner voice relaxed and let out an almost-audible "phew".

And then my mind suddenly made connections (relational learning for the SOLOphiles among you) to @alatalite's keynote presentation in which he showed a photo of a school that had written its School Improvement Plan as an interactive collage in which the steps to improvement were the paving slabs of the yellow brick road. In the same image Sir Michael Wilshaw was represented as the Wicked Witch of the West (well he certainly can't be accused of watering down the intensity of Ofsted, I suppose). Maybe the theme for Cramlington's 12th Festival ought to be 'Over the Rainbow' if they are going to synchronise their metaphors so carefully!! I can just imagine @mlovatt1 as Glinda the Good (maybe I shouldn't be admitting to that but at least it's Extended Abstract).

Anyway, the use of these three archetypes of CPD-resistant or CPD-phobic got me thinking about what our core purpose in staff development is. In what ways do we go beyond the pigeon-holing of teachers as scared, forgetful or rusted learners? I didn't have to wait too long to hear a familiar refrain from some members of the audience about how we need to ease out those who are not committed to the school direction of travel, by fair means (ie those that invoke national legislation) or foul (ie those that involve a kind of alienation to encourage departure). Don't get me wrong, this wasn't an evil conspiracy between rampant technocratic SMTs - Cramlington isn't really the kind of place for that sort of thing - just more a lazy, unchecked creeping managerialism that has somehow found its way into the profession and to the modern world generally.

The impulsive, reactionary part of me was internally screaming out again "Is this how we would treat the children in our schools? Is this how we think human beings should be treated? Is this how we think learning works?" but I didn't. Instead I rather more calmly-than-I-felt suggested that maybe we need to think more about how we make the fearful feel safe, how we make the forgetful feel re-inspired and how we make the rusty and frozen feel reanimated and lubricated by the CPD we offer them. This intervention went down far better than I had expected and some very nice things were said that flattered my ego and gave me that warm glow.

But now I have a niggling feeling that my intervention was too trite, too soundbitey and too fuzzy. After all we don't give out hearts, brains or courage like trinkets as the Wizard of Oz does in the film. It isn't that easy. I'm not even sure that it is desirable that it be that easy. And it assumes that CPD leaders in schools are Wizards and, as the film showed, that was all just a case of smoke and mirrors.

But, and it is a big but, what the film also showed is that the trinkets given were merely symbols of the qualities that the Lion, Scarecrow and Tinman wanted to have and that the giving of them stimulated the courage, cleverness and feelingness of the recipients THAT HAD ALWAYS BEEN THERE IN THE FIRST PLACE.

I've argued, in my very first and most personally important post on this blog, that we need to move from a deficit model of schooling to a surplus one and nowhere ought this be more relevant than in terms of staff development given the much-repeated assertion that quality of teachers and teaching are the most important prerequisites of student and school success. We can't keep looking out at the teachers who attend INSET sessions expecting them all to be Dorothies with no major shortcomings and in need simply of being pointed in the right direction home to some mythical Kansas of the perfect classroom. God help us all if we have schools full of simpering, perfection-seeking, professionals who think that tapping their heels together (in the form of adopting uncritically techniques like SOLO) three times will make everything in their classrooms perfect. I'm not even convinced that there isn't a bit of all four archetypes within us all to a greater or lesser degree, and while I might feel Dorothy-like at the moment, I can feel my Lion-ish worries lurking somewhere near to the surface.

We need the Lions on (and within) our staff to teach the Dorothies to beware of the dangers of the oversimplification of teaching techniques. We need the Scarecrows on (and within) our staff to teach the Dorothies that however cutting edge they feel today it probably won't last and that at some point in their careers they too will feel left behind. And we need the Tinmen and Tinwomen on (and within) our staff to teach the Dorothies that many times familiarity doesn't breed contempt and that good teaching can be very traditional and very effective at the same time. But all of that doesn't mean the Dorothies have nothing to teach the others. Just because they can be eager to the point of being naïve, and forward-looking to the point of being unthinking does not mean that they have nothing to add to the professional learning of others.

Instead we should accept that almost every person that enters teaching does so for the right reasons: to see children learn, understand, grow and succeed in school and beyond school. Really effective CPD in schools needs to be about blending the strengths of each person within an overarching school ethos, not pitting the strengths of some against the limitations of others. Dorothy would, after all, have never got to Oz without the Lion, Scarecrow and Tinman.

And this is the challenge for the Pedagogy Leaders at Canons High School in the coming year: How to build on your amazing INSET day (and it was clearly amazing for almost all staff) in a way that is inclusive and respectful of the talents of each of your colleagues. Cramlington has shown you one way of doing so. Learn from it but don't be a slave to it. Canons can be as good one day.


Tuesday, 26 June 2012

SOLO from the assessment cradle to the assessment grave

On Monday this week the results of my Dissertation (and therefore final Masters level) were released by Middlesex University. When I finally was able to logon to the unihub portal - the first time I had tried in my three years on the school-based programme - they only gave me my mark and didn't say what level of award it was equivalent to. I had a hazy recollection that it was in a handbook I had been given and so I looked it up and there, to my utter surprise, was SOLO taxonomy staring back at me!!!

To say I was stunned is an understatement. Although SOLO wasn't a part of my dissertation's conclusions about what good assessment should look like, I found my way to it immediately after thanks to @biomadhatter, and the way SOLO dovetailed with the conclusions of my research was serendipitous in the extreme: it was as if my findings were preparing me for the revelatory nature of SOLO in action. But what shocked me was the fact that the same levels of understanding I had been teaching Y7 English and Y12 Sociology students to apply to their work were being used at Masters level to distinguish between a distinction (extended abstract), a merit (relational) and a pass (multistructural).

Just the previous week I had launched SOLO with my Y12s in a lesson where I got them to highlight their A2 mark scheme for AQA Sociology according to SOLO taxonomy (see my post 'Keeping up with the Soloists'). The results were crystal clear; that extended abstract was the top band, relational the top half of the middle band, multistructural the bottom half of the middle band and so on. This was a powerful lever for me in getting students to appreciate the value of SOLO.

And so, being a fan of serendipity, I decided to use the Middlesex university mark scheme for Masters level dissertations to mark my AS Sociologists' essays, rather than the A-Level mark scheme to see if it would work as well. The results were amazing.

The first of the essays I marked was a real mixed bag, which using a traditional mark scheme would have been really difficult to evaluate. Because I would have been looking at a number of the different mark bands I would have had to cobble together a best fit statement that would have offered little to the student. Instead I am able to point out where she is prestructural, but also where she is multistructural and, at her best, relational. My concluding comments are therefore far more effective at giving her feedback, feed up and feed forward: a proper evaluative response for her to draw strength from and use to identify improvements.
In this second student's response there was far less variability of understanding, and so I was able to focus my feed forward on moving up from multistructural in certain places, to secure a fully relational response as a springboard to aiming at completely extended abstract thinking (I'm hopeful of her achieving an A grade next year, and so this mark scheme fits very well with her targets for the coming year).

This final example is a close-up on the feedback, feed up and feed forward I provided for a third student who has the potential to achieve a grade A or even A* next year. Although I can see things that I might do differently (it was my last lesson with them and I had to mark these essays as they worked interdependently) the thing I am most pleased about with these evaluations is that I found writing the positives and negatives equally easy. When using the A-Level mark scheme I always find that I operate on a deficit model with students, pointing out all the faults whilst finding it hard to look back and see the achievements.

The difference that I have noted from this first foray into using SOLO taxonomy for written evaluation (notice I am not using the word assessment as it seems too shallow for the feedback, feed up and feed forward I have given) is that I am able to evaluate each paragraph and even sentence independently of the whole. This precision of evaluation has allowed me to really accurately pinpoint which concepts they have not grasped, or where they have not applied theory to sociological contexts, or where they have failed to evaluate sociological theories effectively. In doing so, it has helped me to promote the importance of consistency across the essay to them and they were quick to identify sections where they needed to go away and revise concepts or rewrite essays. If I had had more time with them I would have asked them to rewrite the section they felt most able to improve, perhaps after having spent time getting ideas from their peers based upon my evaluation.

I told the students afterwards that I had marked their essays using a Masters level mark scheme. What amazed them most was that SOLO taxonomy could be used to evaluate their work as well as mine, as well as GCSE coursework and as well as KS3 portfolios. It was clear that they realised that thinking about levels of understanding (as exemplified by the SOLO concepts of Extended Abstract, Relational, etc) was something that could connect them to their studies beyond A-Levels, and the fact that they were realising this in our last lesson before their UCAS preparation week was not lost on them, or me.

And what surprised me most? The fact that not one of them asked what grade they had received. And the fact that none of them asked what grade I had received. SOLO was enough for them. And that's enough for me.


Thursday, 21 June 2012

Removing the rose-tinted educational spectacles

I have recently bought some prescription sunglasses (oh the perils of ageing) that give everything I look at a rosy hue. This is lovely and the world does look so much better filtered through a reddish lens. I've even taken to wearing them on the overcast days of the Great British Summer (TM) to help brighten up my world. But I am aware that I am succumbing to an optical illusion, a mood enhancing prism, a fanciful reimagining of what I know reality to be. After all, the Great British Summer is still somewhat grey, wet and chilly.

Speaking of ageing, next year will mark my 18th as a teacher (meaning every child I teach was born after I started teaching - oh the misery) and the 30th since I myself started secondary school in the far north of England. These are sobering facts lined up against my pretensions of youth, and may have to be mitigated by instead adopting pretensions of wisdom through experience (I suspect I'm already guilty of that through this blog).

But thinking about how the world has changed since I started secondary school and starting teaching is a powerfully positive thing. In 1983 I distinctly remembering waiting for my friend's Vic20 computer to load a simple game via the faxlike screeching of a cassette tape. More often than not, after 15 minutes of attempting this, the programme would crash and we'd be back to square one. By 1995 computers had improved massively but the school I started in had a 1:30 ration of students to computers, and these were essentially e-typewriters used principally for word processing. Now I sit at a Pret waiting for a meeting, blogging merrily away to the world. Via my mobile!!!

And the changes go beyond technology. I remember in 1983 the family chip pan, a lard receptacle through which many of our meals were delivered. By 1995 things had improved immeasurably, but there were no alternatives to full fat milk or sugar or high sodium salt. By 2012 we have seen life expectancy rise to the point that most children born today are expected to live to 100.

I could go on. Watching a Boris Bike go by I can imagine what the streets of London were like 18 and 30 years ago in terms of traffic, pollution, bike-friendliness and safety. As I watch the businesswoman in her Nikes I can only imagine how much better ergonomics within engineering have got and the impact that has on us. As I look at the ethnic mix around me I can vaguely remember the post-Brixton, post-Toxteth racism of our country and marvel at how far we have come (and how far we have still to go).

And yet when it comes to the world of education, and student performance in exams in particular, there seems to be a developing consensus that things have only got worse, that exams have only got easier, that school leavers have only got stupider. How is that? How have we come to a position where all objective measures show an improving school system and yet the common view is that we have dumbed down? I remember the education world of 1983, with teachers newly removed of the power to physically punish, but retaining the aggression and spite that accompanied it (thrown board rubbers, pulled hair at the nape of the neck, standing on toes to intimidate). I remember having to write down word-for-word what teachers wrote on the board day-in-day-out and I remember that getting more frequent at A-Level. I remember the failure rate of so many of my peers, how it messed up their lives and deadened their aspirations, and how so much of it was down to poor teaching and poor pastoral care.

And I look out now over a teaching profession that is professional, caring and outcomes-focused in a way that I could only have dreamed of in 1995, let alone 1983. It is still not perfect by any stretch of the imagination (so much done, so much to do is these days a common narrative for most teachers) but it is immeasurably better and so are the students we produce. They may be smarter in different ways to the success stories of the 1980s (less compliant, less constrained, less biddable) but they are definitely smarter.

Unfortunately the voices of doom have decided that they know best and they have donned their rose-tinted spectacles and decided to reform education in the model of the 1980s, or 1950s to some people's minds. They have pulled the wool over the eyes of the media and, through these, the country at large. As a result we are sleepwalking into a world of the haves and have nots again. We need to be confident about our successes and stop this from happening. We need to look forward to new opportunities not backwards to a golden age that only existed for the minority. And to do that we need to engage with proposed changes, challenge the thinking that underpins them and confidently assert our professional knowledge and understanding of what is right for our wonderfully smart 21st century students.

Sunday, 17 June 2012

Sullying the Sterility: Infectious Professional Learning

If you didn't like my first post because of its extended metaphor (otherwise known, probably more aptly, as a conceit) then you might be best advised to stop reading right now. Having reached and breached the limits of my knowledge and understanding of gardening I am, in this post, about to show my limited grasp of the medical profession.

I'm writing this post in response to a couple of tweets about implementation of SOLO taxonomy by @yrathro and @Classroomheaven. Both were wondering aloud whether or not it was possible to introduce SOLO as an individual teacher without the support and community of a team approach through their department colleagues. This post isn't about SOLO per se, though, but about the way in which twitter has changed how CPD functions at Canons (and many other schools it would appear from my TL) in a very short space of time.

I've been a member of two Senior Leadership Teams since 2005 and have spent most of my thinking teaching career (my first two years were spent largely reacting to the classroom situations which unfolded in front of me - the NQTs I come across today are far better) working under the National Strategies so beloved of the Blair government. As a result of the context of my career I had come to see CPD (and to a certain extent teaching) as a 'healing' process: an administering of medicine, holistic therapies and (in drastic instances) invasive surgery. The strategies themselves were seen as the 'cure' for an ailing education system that had failed to deliver the right results, however these might be quantified and qualified by different political standpoints, for too long.

And indeed the strategies, through the countless quacks who implemented them (and I'll throw myself as a representative of school leaders in with the Local Authority advisors, external consultants and course deliverers), did write out prescription after prescription of proscriptive curriculum content, lesson planning proformas and teaching techniques. The patient was treated, quite literally so in terms of the money that was lavished on the profession in the form of wonderdrugs such as 'Four-Part Lessons', 'Assessment for Learning' and it's new and improved sister drug 'Assessing Pupil Progress'. No need for and educational equivalent of NICE then; we were all to be inoculated against poor standards no matter what the cost!

But the problem with this quackery was almost exactly the same as the overuse of tranquillisers and sleeping pills by GPs: They weren't actually cures for anything by themselves; they created an addiction that could only be fed with more and more, stronger and stronger drugs; they had negative side-effects for the patient that could in some cases be worse than the affliction they were meant to be treating; and they acted as substitutes for real self-willed actions that would be more likely to lead to cure, or the realisation that there was actually little in need of curing.

And then the roof fell in for the strategies as first the financial support for them disappeared shortly before the political will to sustain them was removed. What would we do? We had patients awaiting their next fix that wasn't going to come? We had cupboards full of suddenly discredited or devalued remedies? And so many of them, partially administered in the past, often unopened and unknown to us such was the glut? And in the past 2-4 years we have been doing our best, doctors without a Health Sercice to tell us what, how or why to diagnose and prescribe, cobbling together cocktails of wonderdrugs (and how we wonder now!!). But doing our best with strategies-lite is never going to make anyone better. Let's face it, the strategies themselves, for all their funding and time expense, have not revolutionised the profession and even where they have achieved success, the inevitability of decay is inevitable.

But maybe we have been wrong all along. Maybe the problem with education hasn't been an over abundance of diseases, but a lack of them. And maybe all that the strategies did was to further disinfect teaching by eliminating alternative approaches, neutralising innovation within a conformist bacteria-free education system.

When I consider how teachers at my school have embraced SOLO the main words I can think of are all disease-referencing. They have an infectious enthusiasm. Their ideas about it are contagious. And it's spread from one individual to another, one department to another, is viral. If the physical spread of SOLO across Canons were to be mapped on the school floor plan it would look a lot like bacterial cultures on an agar plate (forgive me if my humanities-focused brain has remembered poorly).

As I struggle to keep up with the SOLOists (what would have been an extraordinary position under the strategies for a DHT with responsibility for T&L) I have traced the source of the initial infection to Twitter. Under the strategies model of CPD I should quarantine the area infected by SOLO; halt the spread of the disease whilst I, as the all-knowing expert, work out whether or not it's properties can be harnessed; devise antidotes to the disease should it prove to be harmful.

But the strategies are gone and apparently there is no Ofsted validated way of teaching. Wilshaw and Gove, regardless of what any one of us may think about them, are giving us very public permission to grow our own cultures so long as they are successful (and yes, that includes exam outcomes). We need to be bold in holding them to their word.

But more than that. We need to see learning, whether by our students or by our staff, not as a cure for some ailment that they may have. Instead we need to see learning as a process of infecting minds, of allowing cultures to form, of welcoming the positive benefits, of dealing with the negatives (unfortunately there is no safe learning - all infections can be harmful to some, but look at Jenner to see that small harms can lead to great good).

So let's get out there and do our jobs. Let's infect others. Let's sully sterility. And in doing so lets allow our staff (and by extension our students) to develop their own cultures of learning within our petri-dish schools.

Postscript: Tonight on Twitter I have witnessed an amazing example of this contagion-like spreading of enthusiasm. Again SOLO related. It began with the successful creation of a #geogsolo hashtag hour-long chat (I think I don't need to tell you the topic). And then today a plaintive voice cried out for a #scisolo hashtag. By the evening not only had this been set up but another specialist twitterteachmeet had been set up. Soon after the call went up for the setting up of a #engsolo hashtag and I have been approached by a very trusting (foolish) person to set up an #SLTsolo one. Along the way there has been talk of shared purchasing of materials across schools and of shared knowledge about archiving of tweets. CPD and system-wide support and professional learning at its very very best. Thank you for infecting me tonight twitter.

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Keeping up with the SOLOists

I have spent most of the last month watching with some awe the way in which teachers at Canons have been experimenting with their teaching through our OPP project (see previous post). In particular at how an NQT - the wonderful @biomadhatter - has been finding his way round SOLO taxonomy and been welcoming all-comers into his classroom to spread the SOLO word. The impact of this has been that the Science, Maths and English departments have all come on board to a greater or lesser extent; that the SLT of the school have caught a whiff of the sense of professional enthusiasm; and that a number of students within the school are beginning to point out each other's 'extended abstract' thinking on Blackberry Messenger (that last is a slight exaggeration, but only a slight one!!).

But as well as watching on with a sense of awe I have also been filled with an unenviable sense of jealousy and longing. The reason for this is that my Y11 and Y12 classes had started their study leave just as the Canons SOLO army had left their trenches and so I had no classes with which to join in the battle. I do appreciate that nobody will feel sorry for a Deputy Head's timetable, but this is the first time in my career that I have been playing catch up with T&L innovation. And I'm not a great watcher.

So today was a red letter day for me. My first lesson with my post-AS Y12 students and so my first full on SOLO lesson. I had three 50 minute periods with them and so decided to devote one to introducing the SOLO taxonomy with the other two to applying it to Marxist theory for A2 Sociology.

For the intro lesson I used the familiar symbols (removed from their names & descriptions) in the connection phase. Whilst I registered them they had to predict what the symbols might mean in terms of developing understanding: straight into the extended abstract thinking. The result was incredible. With a little focused questioning they used visual literacy skills to completely unpick all five levels of SOLO. I had a second slide with the names on to help move them on, but it was not needed. For the activation phase I put the words 'Stephen Lawrence' on the board and asked them to self-evaluate their SOLO understanding of the concept. Strangely for multi-ethnic London sociologists most were Unistructural or Multistructural, with one student even suggesting he might have invented SOLO (does that make her Prestructural or Extended Abstract). They followed this up by trying to find an area in which I was Prestructural (they failed with the Avengers but succeeded with the Illuminati).

Having established the notion with themof a SOLO taxonomy I asked them to work in small groups to highlight the SCLY4 mark scheme to identify elements of SOLO. Unsurprisingly they noted that the top band was Extended Abstract in nature, and powerfully they uncovered that the key to hitting this band is that their sociological theory needs to be abstracted in how effectively it is applied to the specifics of the essay question and the context of the real world. This has been a real focus for me all year but was the first time they had seen it for themselves, making my consolidation activity (to predict why I wanted them to use SOLO) a little redundant - they were a step ahead of me all the way through the lesson; surely an example of excellent progress?

I'll say less about the SOLO application lesson other than to say that I used the wonderful Describe HOT SOLO MAP from Pam Hook's book. Initially students used it to reflect what they already knew about core Marxist concepts such as 'ideology', before adding to it after a short period of focused and independent reading around the core concepts. These HOT SOLO MAPS are shown below and were used as the six groups carouseled in a 'Sociological Speed Dating' activity, the aim of which was to develop Relational thinking.

The only problem with this first SOLO lesson was that I had planned a little too much and was unable to get to the evaluation tasks in the consolidation phase of the lesson. But not to worry as that's where we are headed next week in preparation for a timed essay, the outcome of which I very much hope will be far more Extended Abstract writing, otherwise known as top band writing, otherwise known as A and A* grades. Who says SOLO is a distraction from real learning???

But most of all I'm really happy to have at last joined the ranks of the Canons SOLO army, and am very much looking forward to my next skirmish.

Friday, 1 June 2012

Abandoning the deficit model of teacher development

I'm going to have to blog. I can't avoid it anymore now that I've advocated it with iteachfreely and seen how damn good he is at it. And yet a school leadership blog doesn't feel as sumptuous as one on learning.

Nonetheless let me start. At the very least I can promise a wonderfully extended metaphor!!!

At Canons High School we created the Outstanding Pedagogy Partnership (twittername @canonsopp) nearly two years ago. It's aim was to simply allow good and outstanding teachers (in their own minds - nobody excluded) to have time and space to share ideas. The idea was organic in nature and the intention was to respond to our teachers' needs rather than to follow the National Strategies model of top-down training, audit and action-planning. We'd had enough of that 'SLT knows best' or even 'DFE knows best' attitude to pedagogic development. It hadn't worked and we felt it was posited on the notion of a deficit model of practice, when I've always rather believed that any group of teachers thinking about teaching and learning is far more likely to produce an abundance of developmental ideas.

To use a horticultural analogy (and I am no gardener, so forgive my ignorance if the analogy doesn't hold up) the National Strategies (or deficit) model of CPD encouraged schools and teachers to look around and see the gaps in the flowerbeds: the place where nothing was growing, nothing blooming. The solution was to fill the gap immediately; to go out and buy a potted plant ready-grown and off-the-shelf gapfiller pedagogic strategy; to plant it in every gap, regardless of the preparedness of the soil, regardless of the appropriateness of the location within the garden and regardless of the capacity of the gardener to continue the nurturing process.

And the net result? The gradual withering away of these plants through lack of care for them, lack of true understanding of their needs or the need to plant something new in a newly identified gap in the garden (have I stretched the metaphor far enough yet?). The sometimes excellent elements of the National Strategies never took root in many schools because they became about compliance and because those that created them believed that ex-teacher consultants would be able to 'deliver' system change if enough money were thrown at them.

Now that the money has run dry it's fairly obvious that the deliverables were delivered but many of them remained on the doormat unopened (am I safe to switch metaphors now I've started a new paragraph). APP anyone???

And so now, when money is tightening and school autonomy has become the zeitgeist, is precisely the time to abandon the deficit model of teacher and school development. Now is the time to look away from the gaps in the flowerbed and instead focus on the hardy perennials that have bloomed year on year in spite of the National Strategies, and to focus on the new shoots that have yet to flower but that the keen gardener can see are potentially strong and potentially beautiful. Now is the time to take cuttings from these hardy perennials and grow them into new plants. Now is the time to hothouse the new shoots to help them grow strong and sure. That is what Canons OPP is about.

This surplus model is a lot less instant than its deficit equivalent. It is also a lot less certain; some cuttings and shoots will take root whilst others may not. But it is sustainable and sustaining, it is built upon a positive appraisal of our schools and it is an approach that befits our expertise and professionalism as teachers and school leaders (is there any difference?) far more than the quick-fixes we have become a bit too dependent on in recent years.

So here's to the surplus of good teaching in our schools. Let's nurture it as the best way of creating the conditions whereby one day everything in our gardens will be rosy.