The three cycles of great teaching

So you want to be a great teacher? The key is to understand the learning and assessment cycle, and know the three key ways to use it.

Quick test: what’s wrong with this statement?

Teach a topic –> Assess the topic –> Feed back –> Start again.

Bog standard it may be, but it’s also poor practice. Avoid assuming every student is ready to start at the same place by actually finding out what they know first, and planning accordingly. Here’s one version of the learning cycle for a topic that we discuss when I deliver training sessions.

  1. Assess first. Assess the students’ prior understanding, prior attainment, and capacity to learn (e.g. work ethic, habits and attitude).
  2. Teach/Prompt. Provide appropriate instruction/tasks to do one or more of the following:
    1. fill gaps in ‘foundation’ knowledge,
    2. challenge misconceptions,
    3. present new knowledge,
    4. embed new knowledge and link it to other topics,
    5. give students the ability to self-assess,
    6. inspire/stretch students,
    7. improve capacity to learn.
  3. Assess again. Check the resulting level of attainment and check on misconceptions that may have arisen (or been uncovered).
  4. Provide feedback, and suggest the next appropriate task (step 2 again).

That may sounds like quite a lot, but this cycle could be summarised as:

Assess –> Teach/prompt –> Assess again –> Feedback –> Start again…

The key to make this great teaching is to consider this cycle over three separate time-scales.

  • Within the lesson. Every lesson should contain mini cycles that start with assessment, or follow from a previous one. Any good methods of questioning will help here. Cycles can occur to encompass small tasks, to break up larger ones, or in conversation with students as they work on something more extended.
  • Between lessons. Use information gathered from marking exercise books, from homeworks and from online assessments to assess learning. Plan larger tasks or series of tasks for the next one to three lessons. Check the outcomes both within the class and also between lessons.
  • Long term. Use prior attainment data to assess learning (and current capacity to learn) when students start a new topic or course. Plan appropriate tasks to address the attainment. Use formal assessments or exams to compare students’ progress to other classes and to agreed standards. Using this information you can evaluate your teaching and locate/share good practice in your department. You can also plan bigger interventions to address low attainment and poor capacity to learn, and you can create extension tasks for high attainers.

This is the key to teacher greatness:

  • constantly evaluating the level of student learning
  • self-evaluating the effectiveness of your own teaching.

Use each learning cycle to adjust and improve your practice and make these adjustments:

  1. in the short term: within each class,
  2. in the medium term: between classes in lesson planning,
  3. in the long term: between topics/courses.

Of course all of this comes alongside confident behaviour management, strong interpersonal skills, outstanding organisation, deep subject knowledge, etc., but the heart of any lesson is the learning. Crack that, and you’re on your way.

Contact Informed Education if you would like a training session run at your school on using data and assessment for better teaching.

Making sense of predictions and targets

These days, schools are awash with targets, estimates, and predicted grades. Used well, they are a way to embed a common ambitious vision for each child. Used badly, they are a demotivating, self-fulfilling prophecy of underperformance.

It’s really important to understand the difference between these:

  • Target: “I would like you to aim for…” – a reasonably ambitious goal that stretches the student.
  • Prediction: “In my judgement you’re currently heading for…” – a professional opinion, based on evidence of assessment.
  • Estimate: “Similar students to you most commonly achieved…” – a statistically-generated grade based on previous exam results and/or developed ability (aka the current IQ score or similar).

It’s really important to be clear about the difference. Start telling a student that you are predicting them a B grade, and some will hear that you don’t think they can achieve an A grade. It’s a veritable mine-field, and one where you can easily push students in to labelling themselves: i.e. “this grade tells me how clever I am”.

Here’s an example of the sort of language you might use with students (in the English education system).

Teacher: “Sarah, most students who got the same levels as you in their Key Stage 2 SATs went on to get a B in GCSE Maths. Some of them worked harder and got an A, and a few of them worked really hard and even got an A*. However, the ones who gave up easily in lessons got lower grades. You and I don’t know how hard you’ll work yet, but we should set a target to aim for.”

Some schools like to use chances graphs to help them explain this information, like the following:

This is a great way of showing students the grades that similar students achieved. It also beautifully illustrates the fact that people with similar results went on to achieve a huge variety of results. It is worth having some good discussions with students to get them to think about what factors caused someone ‘like them’ to end up with a U-grade, and what made some of the students ‘like them’ to get A-grades.

This is really empowering language. It builds on Carol Dweck‘s excellent work on fixed and growth mindsets, and ensures students stay focused on how they are learning, not just what they are learning.

All this work can very easily be destroyed by reverting to “I predict you will get a B”. It sounds like a done deal, like the teacher is saying this will happen in spite of your efforts. Of course, some students are very resilient and will carry on working regardless, but for others it can be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

There is a danger with targets, however. If you constantly use positive “you can achieve anything” language without referring to current work-rate then students develop unrealistic attitudes – there can be a disconnect between their goals and their current actions.

As with any good process-management students need to constantly check their progress with robust assessment and appraisal, and they need to both learn the tools and develop the characteristics to deal with inevitable situations where they underachieve.

Here’s an example of language that uses all three concepts: estimates, predictions, and targets.

“Sarah, we know that most similar students to you end up with B at GCSE [estimate], but some of them got an A, and we agreed earlier this year that you would aim for an A-grade [target].

My worry is that if you carry on working at your current level, based on your last pieces of work, you might currently be on course for a C-grade [prediction]. Why do you think this is, and what do you think you need to do to get yourself back on track for the A-grade you wanted?

Some people may well wish to avoid the language of grades completely and focus more on specific skills, but the general principle is that this is:

  • realistic – based on current assessments
  • empowering – focuses on the student’s ability to improve and be in control of their success
  • optimistic – reinforcing the idea that people ‘like her’ have achieved their A-grade targets.
  • specific – the discussion will then focus on specific measures to improve the situation, ideally including ways that both student and teacher can use to check improvement is happening.

The language is the easy bit, of course, and by itself will achieve nothing. However it can keep the focus on the variously challenging, frustrating, and hopefully ultimately rewarding process of helping students improve.

I should add that, of course, not all classroom teaching and learning should be based around exams and grades – doing this exclusively will inevitably reduce motivation and engagement. However given the inevitable exam focus in most schools then this is quite a good way to approach it.

I’d be really interested to hear ideas of how to improve the above examples of dialogue, and for more ways to keep students pushing themselves.

Contact Informed Education if you would like a training session run at your school on using data and assessment for better teaching.

Tests and Factories

@Thanks2Teachers: #Teachers: As long as our schools are geared to THE TEST, we’ll be factory workers turning out standardized products. RESIST!

The above tweet has been doing the rounds all day. I just don’t get it, and I don’t agree with it. Schools have always ask students to sit tests, we’ve always had standardised (yes I’m British, we spell it with an ‘s’) public exams, and yet, whaddaya know, every student who emerges from school is a unique individual.

Yes I KNOW there are problems with the way tests are administered and used, read on.

The big standardised test argument is irritating because both sides are arguing cross-purposes.

Argument 1: “We must introduce standardised tests to ruthlessly exposes our education system’s strengths and weaknesses, to discover and promote teaching talent, and remove ineffective practice/practitioners”

  • True because: without a common standard assessment you cannot possibly make comparisons between different institutions. At the very least this needs to be moderated professional judgement with sampled common assessment. Otherwise people can, and will, hide behind well-meaning ineffective practice. A good school or teacher will generally produce the better test scores (although the reverse isn’t necessarily true)
  • False because: you cannot possibly use one single tool to enforce accountability, highlight good practice, allocate funding, and judge teaching ability. This will, obviously, lead to narrow teaching, lower standards, and low morale. One data point cannot make a complete judgement, no matter how much you want to believe in it.

Argument 2: “Standardised tests don’t measure learning, they are harming out students, and they do not show good teaching”

  • True because: in order to standardise the assessment it has to be relatively shallow, it can lead to narrowing of the curriculum, good test scores don’t always indicate good teachers, and bad test scores don’t always indicate poor teachers.
  • False because: if you teach a student well (i.e. deep understanding), this will almost certainly be reflected in their test scores. Also life is full of tests and assessments, students need to know how to deal with them – this is a help, not a hinderance. If a school/district/student is repeatedly getting  poor scores it indicates that support is needed – this is also useful. Finally, good teachers do tend to get good test scores. Well-meaning but less effective teachers, however, may not.

People who are calling for standardised testing genuinely want to find out where the system is failing students so that they can be helped. People who are opposing standardised testing genuinely don’t want inappropriate and demoralizing use of narrow statistics to judge a broad education. Stop shouting at each other (and definitely don’t sling mud)

So why not have both?

  1. Use standardised tests as one diagnostic tool, backed up with randomly sampled assessments/interviews/observations. Give teacher the ability to award their students a moderated, professionally-judged grade, and give this equal weighting with the test.
  2. Look at a large number of factors, including attendance, behaviour, etc., to identify areas requiring support.
  3. Don’t judge teacher effectiveness using only this same testing system. Use peer-observation, student voice surveys, portfolio’s of evidence, and a wide array of assessment data, standardised and otherwise, current and historical.

I’m still developing these ideas in my head, and I’m open to suggestion. However, I suspect that I shall continue to be angry if I read

@joe_bower: “Tests and grades don’t wreck learning” is the equivalent of saying “Guns don’t kill people”.”,

as well as

@ShapeyFiend‎ Easy way to have best education in europe: fire the worst 10pc andteachers assistants. Class size doest matter if you’ve decent teachers.”

Both are, clearly, absolute nonsense.

Improve your tracking system with interim targets

Many schools have tracking systems set up in their Management Information Systems. These can be a real cause of stress when blunt, inaccurate information is generated leading to conflict between teachers, students, parents, and management.

In this video David explains the idea behind using interim assessments to give heads of department flexibility over the information generated by the tracking system.

This video was made with Jing and this Prezi

If you’d like more information or advice on how to apply this to your school, then please contact David at Informed Education.

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