Yesterday saw me go back to school.

I had preconceived ideas about how it would feel to be back in school but none of this played out as I thought. The most overt sign that I was in a different education environment was the bell. I was not accustomed to a bell. A bell that was soon followed by a rush of sound and people. A rush that was then to be proceeded by a second bell signalling the descent of quiet as formal learning commenced proper. It certainly lent some purpose and energy to proceedings.

The second bell of the day began my first lesson of the day. The lesson entitled,

What rigour and high expectations can do for a group of A Level students.

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John Keats

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High challenge
A range of high challenge activities were present in this revision class –

  • A Venn diagram designed to throw students in at the deep end of evaluation.
  • A selection of out of class reading designed to connect students with theorists and context at a deeper level.
  • A paired activity designed to connect the students with language and structure.

Language
A couple of the phrases I heard this teacher use on multiple occasions to guide the learning taking place were:

‘Shoulder partner’– for the person sat next to them.

Share your ‘rich ideas’ – sharing their mere thoughts wasn’t good enough- this demanded an exchange of the ‘rich’ variety.

Elaboration
There was zero hesitation for these students to share their reasoning behind their thinking when I asked them to. They were more than used to elaborating on their responses and expanding their answers to incorporate all that might be expected from a detailed response.
As these students’ learning progressed, mine was about to enter the long since forgotten land of A Level Lang and Lit but with a new lesson-

What a collegiate environment and ownership of learning can do for a different group of A Level students.

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As I entered, students had just been given some feedback from the latest ‘trial’ exam (a subtle difference to ‘mock’ but one that feels far less threatening somehow. They were each setting out what would be useful in the weeks after Easter:

  • 1 urgent priority on their red card
  • 1 semi-urgent priority on their yellow card
  • 1 ‘if we get to it’ priority on their green card

It soon became obvious that these priorities wouldn’t just be for the teacher to integrate into his lesson. It would also be a responsibility for the students to incorporate these aspects into their own revision.

Students had taken responsibility for their learning outside of class.

  • The students had been sharing photos and having discussions via a Facebook group they managed between them.
  • They had been working independently and in pairs on work that would help them to pass their exams; willing to share this with their peers so that everyone could benefit from learning together.
  • They were happy to share how other teachers had approached tasks so that they could make the most of their learning in this class.

As another bell signalled yet another whizz through the bustling corridors and past the visiting Lady Mayoress, it occurred to me that both teachers so far had been referencing some of the following attributes:

  • Resilience
  • Resourcefulness
  • Reflectiveness
  • Reciprocity
  • Respect, Values and Attitudes

They were providing praise to students based on demonstrating these attributes in meaningful ways. The teacher I had just seen had been able to share what one student had achieved as part of their rewrite. The teacher revealed that this act had shown resilience on the part of this particular student and a conversation was had about how other students could achieve the same. I felt impressed by a school-wide explicit dialogue about what qualities and attributes students were developing that would surely lead to their future success. Good practice was not just being praised and modelled in terms of students’ subject knowledge and understanding but beyond this too; a more holistic view of ‘success’.

View more about their learner attributes here

And so I was to land on my third lesson of the day-

What routine and yet more high expectations can do for a group of year 8 students.

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Julius Caesar

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I was back with the same teacher who had taught me my first lesson of the day but this was sure to be an entirely different lesson altogether. She shared what her class were due to be exploring and said they were much more lively than some of her groups. From my perspective as a post-16 teacher, I wondered what year 8 group might not be lively.

I’ve always felt that routines for learning are so vital for instilling positive learning behaviours. In this lesson, their benefits could not have been plainer.

  • They all knew to start the lesson by completing their spellings for the day (first lesson of the week, they copied the words out. Second lesson of the week, they covered these and had a go, third lesson of the week would be a spelling test).
  • They all knew that on the first lesson of the week, they would read some of their book and have their planners checked (40 pages a week and merits given for more).
  • Students were given responsibility- distributing whiteboards to each student.
  • There was a routine in place for getting the students attention after a discussion or an activity- a clap from the teacher that would be copied by the students. Sometimes a clap that would be started by a student she selected and then copied by everyone. Sometimes the clap would not be returned loudly enough by the students and the teacher would say, ‘where’s my class?’ They would all return the clap louder than before to demonstrate they were ready for the next piece of learning/instruction/explanation/modelling.
  • Shoulder partners‘ emerged again as students were asked to work with their partner or shared ideas. They knew the routine.

I was bowled over by the focus of this close to 30 strong group of students. I was even more in awe of the carefully honed techniques of this teacher holding them all in the palm of her hand- even whilst they analysed the challenging language of Shakespeare using ethos, pathos, and logos.

With much to think about, it was lunchtime and down to maths where my fourth and final lesson of my day was awaiting me.

What energy and freedom can do for a top set group of year 10 students.

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Quadratic equations

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As the bell signalled the commencement of the first lesson after lunch, in walked this group of more than 30 year 10 students. The teacher signalled for them to look to the right for their starter activity as they walked in and yet again more routine was present as they all collected their whiteboard, textbook from the back of the room and headed for their currently allocated seat (a seat that had changed as the year progressed).

Before long, there was furious problem solving taking place as the students grappled with quadratic equations and negative co-efficients. Having studied intermediate GCSE when it existed, I hadn’t the foggiest what these students were up to so I asked. Before long, I reached the conclusion that these students must just be practising some kind of magic…

As part of the lesson, the teacher divided a group of the students off for some extra teaching whilst the others continued their learning on the topic. This group were to be taught by their peers and to begin with, this was to appear out of control and lead to some confused faces. After a little input from the teacher and some time for the initial fear and excitement to dissipate, I could hear one student say to the other, ‘come on, let’s go check on our class’ and when I looked over next, these two student teachers were checking solutions and offering advice; working around their allocated group to check that learning was secure. Meanwhile, all other students progressed with purpose and worked collaboratively with one another- moving around the room as required to seek the advice and support they needed from one another. The teacher circulated too- contributing to their learning experience however it was required.

As I moved towards another pair of students working to solve a problem I could see a frustrated student grappling with something. I knew I wouldn’t be able to help but I asked her what she was working on anyway. She explained that she was working on a problem but that whatever way she tried it, she couldn’t get it to work. I asked her how she knew none of them were right and she said, well the answers are on the board… But she said she couldn’t move on until she knew how to get to the answer.

In these students, I saw none of the defeat and lack of confidence I can so often see in so many of the students who arrive at college. All I could see was a genuine thirst for learning and a determination to succeed. This is not inherent in all students and so had clearly been cultivated by their teacher; a man who believed in his students and was joyous to see them arrive- ‘Hello sunshines’. He praised them for their resilience and marvelled at the resourcefulness and reciprocity. But this praise was not empty and fleeting, it was continual, heartfelt and most importantly, supported by high challenge. As he encouraged their work, he simultaneously challenged them with – ‘What if I said/did this…’ ‘What if I removed this part…’ ‘How about if you were given this instead, what then?’ As they came up with questions to match answers he had given, he enthusiastically shared the ones he felt would challenge the class the most. He asked students up to the board to demonstrate how they had solved a problem and getting something ‘wrong’ was not a bad thing, in fact it was frequently used as a learning opportunity for the rest of the class who may have made a similar error.

So where were my GCSE resit students?

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As I sat in the year 8 English lesson, I wondered where they might be hiding. Was he in the student who didn’t have his reading planner with him? Was he in the student who moved across the room because the radiator was annoying him? Was she in the student who was asked to leave the lesson by a senior member of staff?

Was it just too early to tell? Probably. But what was it about the students I saw who were resilient; who were determined to succeed? What set them apart from so many of the students who arrive at college with their confidence at rock bottom; lacking purpose, direction and determination? If some of my current resit students had been in these teachers’ classes, how would their learning have fared? Or are there so many other factors at play in their lives that a resit class was inevitable? I have more questions than answers about how some students accelerate ahead of others but it’s a question I’ll continue to ponder.

So what future lessons await?

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I plan on arranging a visit to a primary school to see what lessons might lie in that sector for me.

The day has caused me to consider how we might get some of our staff to learn from the practice in other sectors. How we might make use of development days to visit others and reflect as a group on what we have seen?

There’s a bigger learning journey ahead in terms of effectively transitioning our students from school to college. The students I saw were well used to routine, clear sanctions and rewards and whilst many were developing the attitudes required to learn independently and enter the workplace, they have not got there yet. When they enter the college environment, they are just expected to adjust to the lack of a bell, the many spaces on their timetable and ‘study days’, the more flexible learning environments and learning online. These are big things for students to become accustomed to. I’m considering the whole college approaches that might have to be taken to scaffold this transition process as much as we might scaffold the rest of their learning.

Yesterday saw some of the best learning I have seen in a long time. Classrooms filled with joy and purpose. Lessons that have left me with the following messages:

  1. Never underestimate the power of routine, however small and seemingly insignificant.
  2. Never underestimate the power of freedom; allowing students the freedom to make their own learning decisions.
  3. Never underestimate the power of carefully chosen phrases and carefully crafted questions. Language is king.

 

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