I’ve had a couple of interesting conversations recently about the reliability of ‘old’ research and whether it has some sort of ‘use by date’.
It is of course reasonable to be wary of over-relying on research that was published decades ago, and taking note of age when reviewing evidence is important, but it shouldn’t be a case of dismissing something because it’s been around for a long time if the points are still relevant. Fads come and go but that’s perhaps even more reason to look back at older research – new ideas quite often aren’t new at all. People use examples like ‘Would you trust your doctor if they prescribed using leeches?’ – maybe not for everything, but there are quite a few situations where leeches are still used in medicine today.
Should ‘good’ research be repeated to keep it fresh? Even if nothing new is being done? When this does happen, a quick look at the references and all the previous papers by the author/s are usually still there – of course there are likely to be a few changes but the general take-away messages remain the same and then the work is criticised for re-hashing the old stuff for the sake of it. We hear arguments that research needs to be repeated and ideas challenged as we learn more about how we can improve teaching but as soon as someone writes about a ‘debunked’ idea there are criticisms in the opposite direction.
For example, I’ve seen enough evidence from people I respect to believe that there is no mileage in the concept of individual learning styles but if those same people present evidence that has changed their minds (as solid as that would have to be) I would of course have to reconsider my own position. That’s a provocative example of course but my point is there – we can’t criticise research simply because it’s testing something we think is long-disproved – we need to criticise the research itself.
As research increasingly finds its place in schools, with different staff at different levels of engagement, it’s important to stress the need to develop critical evaluation skills. The role of research lead includes helping people to come at research from all angles – treading round popular ideas of the moment, being critical but not dismissive in the face personal bias. We need to be careful with new research that simply repeats itself rather than challenging ideas and be aware that not everyone has heard all the evidence around each theory – however much we think it’s been discussed to death.
Those of us who have heard all the arguments to the point of fatigue need to make sure we use and develop our own critical eyes too and remember how easy it is to run about in the echo-chamber. As we focus on how we help our colleagues we can’t forget to challenge ourselves. As long as we are aware that the age of a piece of research may limit its value to our work then we’re a step ahead, but maybe it’s more ‘best before’ than ‘use by’. When it comes to it, we don’t have access to everything we need to make a fully informed decision and we need to trust what experts say. If I’m honest, whilst it doesn’t sound overly pleasant to be treated by leech I would have to trust that the doctor knew what they were on about, and that some older ideas have a place.
The role for technology in education, and the impact technology has on children generally, is a thoroughly embedded topic for debate. I’m sure if twitter had been around at its inception, the Casio Databank would’ve been the topic for a whole half-term’s Edutwitter ‘civilised’ discussion but there is an understandable increase in these sorts of conversations as we try to keep up.
The latest story to hit the tech-debate radar is this one in the Toronto Star reporting that grade 7 and 8 students at Earl Grey Senior Public School are to have restricted access to their mobile phones during lessons. Now, I work in a school where the pupils have always handed everything in when they get to school – even before mobile phones were commonplace – so I’ve not really noticed the rise in personal tech use in classroom in perhaps the same way as other schools, but it still seems odd that this sort of ban (and not even for all year groups) would be newsworthy.
Screen-use in the classroom is becoming increasingly ubiquitous, so what concerns should we have with this? Carl Hendrick recently blogged about why the Internet should be kept out of the classroom, citing a 2016 study (Ravizza et al) looking at how university students use laptops in class reported the relationship between classroom performance and internet usage. They found that ‘nonacademic Internet use was common among students who brought laptops to class and was inversely related to class performance’. A recently published Japanese study (Kawahara and Ito, 2017) looked at the ‘Effect of the Presence of a Mobile Phone during a Spatial Visual Search’ and found that even without using it, the mere presence of a mobile phone can adversely affect cognitive performance. This offers an opportunity for us to look at the impact of classroom technology and how schools can use classroom technology in a balanced way.
In response to an open letter published in December 2016 over concerns about children’s ‘screen-based’ lifestyles, a second letter quickly responded, calling for ‘quality research and evidence to support these claims and inform any policy discussion’. Whilst worries over increasingly sedentary lifestyles and mental health issues are understandable, the letter argues that there is little evidence to support the concerns in the initial letter and encourages the government and research bodies to invest in well-founded guidelines.
The evidence around the benefits and disadvantages of technology for children is ever-changing. In 2015 the American Academy of Paediatrics reviewed their guidelines for early childhood screen time, mostly based on old research into television time, which previously recommended that children under two should stay away from screen media. They have now provided more evidence-based guidance as to how children should use screens, including for unstructured play and the positives of video chatting with distant relatives.
At our school a decision was reached several years ago to provide each pupil with their own laptop to use in school. As we started to expand we found our ICT suite with 6 laptops wasn’t enough for 30 pupils and they were getting damaged etc so we started to roll out laptops and now we have 1:1 from KS2-4. Pupils use these within all lessons – we run KS2/3 on a mostly primary model of class teacher teaching most subjects with some specialist teachers/swapping (KS4 is more specialist). Laptops move with the pupil throughout day/years – it’s easier to track use and damage etc. Obviously (perhaps) laptops aren’t used in every lesson but they are used a lot. They are also used during some reward times and some break times (probably why online games are still accessible).
Certain websites are blocked from use like social media/YouTube/keywords and as websites appear that we want to block (YTPak as a YouTube substitute for instance) we can inform our blocking people (although I did find recently that I wasn’t able to access websites using the word ‘edge’ in the URL. This was an issue as I was trying to look at the knowledge organiser blogs and ‘knowledge’ was banned). We also use software for managing and monitoring what the pupils are using live. Teachers can view (and control) pupil laptops which is useful for both instances of inappropriate pupil activity and in-lesson sharing of work on the IWB. If pupils are using the computers inappropriately then we have reward/sanction systems that are used.
Clearly this is different to other types of screen use in the classroom but I do have concerns that we, staff and pupils, can be over-reliant on the laptops. Whether that means a reduction in the amount of handwriting pupils do, ‘lazy’ internet research (we’ve all heard amusing tales of Wikipedia regurgitation), or a slightly more concerning impact on processing information as described by Mueller and Oppenheimer (2014) looking at laptop vs written note-taking by university students. Our pupils don’t take a huge amount of notes in lessons, but if we over rely on using the laptops when they do, the chances are we’re denying them the opportunity to process the information in a meaningful way.
Even if we can’t do much about what they do at home, we have a lot of control over how much technology pupils use in the classroom. There are some great resources out there and the deeper debate over this is perhaps for another day, but how much of school-tech is driven by what staff quite fancy having a play around with over the genuine benefits in the classroom? It’s almost becoming a cliché to ask whether the 1:1 iPads are essential or could you do it another way and save thousands of pounds (seems old but I had this conversation a fortnight ago). In a desire for an easy ride, doing something different’, squeezing in some of those illusive ’21st Century Skills’, is it actually more revolutionary to go without?
More robust research will hopefully lead to better guidelines, but we need to use our professional common sense as well. We’ll never be completely on top of it but we do have some control over our classrooms and probably just as well because with last month’s speculation that Apple are set to introduce a ‘cinema mode’ for iPhones, it seems like it soon won’t be single screen-use we’ll be discussing, but perhaps multi-screen use as well.
The other day I was going through some possible reading materials for upcoming journal clubs and came across this in this (pdf):
The next day I was asked why I’d even consider looking at a paper from a computer science conference as a journal club text. I didn’t see this as a negative thing and I replied saying it was a case study of iPad use in primary (which the I assume satisfied as it was followed by the customary ‘like’), but it does throw up interesting questions about the types of reading we should be looking at in education journal clubs. My own stance is that the reading/s are used as a stimulus for conversation – this can be everything from discussing the ins and outs of current research in detail, to debating a wider topic (in this case I was thinking it might be interesting to compare how iPad technology was first introduced with how it is now), but I wonder how many people think we should only be looking at ‘perfect’, purely educational research?
The recent opening of Chartered Collage of Teaching membership, particularly with its free access to 2000+ journals has excited many on my timeline. I’ve got my own jealousy that I can’t join in with that part but it seems to have worked to change a few people’s minds and soon after the announcement I saw tweets suggesting people are wiling to join just for the access. I do have some misgivings about how useful journal access in itself will be but I think (presume) there will be different benefits of membership for those who aren’t interested in journals so I know it’s not all about that.
The way people use research in education is a recurring topic for debate and recently renewed. If teachers are thinking they’ll be able to search for papers that tell them ‘x is good, y is bad’, the chances are they won’t (and if they do then I think they should be cautious). I still believe that most people won’t have time to look for information in detail and if they do have time, wading through what’s out there can be hard and end up with cherry picking and sweeping assumptions. My choice of papers for journal clubs won’t always be a shining beacon of quality educational research or perfectly relatable to what we’re looking at in school (with or without access) but that’s an important part of the discussions we need to have.
I think the role of Research Lead now has an even greater chance to be pivotal in helping to translate research and point colleagues in the right direction. Journal club discussions can help with this of course and allow people to dip their toes in; but even for more rigorous investigation, knowledge translation is going to be important. I’ve delved into the world of Knowledge Mobilisation for various things recently and I’m convinced that there are exciting directions this can go in, whether that’s research summaries, brokering or bespoke investigations.
Increased access to research will be great for sharing original sources and following up of ideas. It will be used by some for deep academic study and inevitably by others to try and find a quick fix, tick-the-research-informed-box activity. It’s a brilliant opportunity for teachers but it’s also an opportunity to put guidance in place so that everyone can really make the most of it. I think it’s important we remember that just because something isn’t presented as ‘education research’ it doesn’t mean we can’t call it out for saying touching a screen with more than one finger is a ‘natural means of input’ and that this will motivate students, and recognising that something isn’t perfect is good for us too. In fact, I’d argue that’s exactly what we should be doing with our widening engagement with research.
For me, as I don’t suspect I’m going to have access to thousands of journals any time soon, I’ll just have to continue using the wealth of open and free access articles for starting discussions and helping focus ideas.
So one minute you’re planning which cheap package holiday to book for half term and the next you’re flippantly replying to a tweet about an educational research conference in Washington DC. ‘Do they want to know about Journal Clubs?’ you ask. ‘Keep going…’ comes the reply.
So Portugal turned into Washington DC, and a tour of a local church turned into a tour of the White House. There are a lot of people who have done a lot of unexpected things because of researchED, but walking round the White House is pretty epic even by rED standards. It came at the end of a fairly intense week as we decided we’d go to New York for a few days before DC and it essentially turned into 7 days straight of open-topped bus tours which is hard-core even for us. To be honest, one of the reasons it’s taken me so long to write about it is that I’ve not quite come down from the whirlwind. The downside of this is that now I’ve had more time to process it, I’ve got so much more to say.
Other people have written about some of the sessions I went to like Kate Walsh’s and Ben Riley’s, and they’ve covered Dylan Wiliam’s brilliant keynote in varying amounts of detail so I won’t repeat that, however I did love that some of his themes were picked up throughout the day and this made for a unifying thread among some challenging ideas.
My favourite session by far was Ruth Nield‘s session on ‘Researcher-Practitioner Partnerships’. One of the reasons it’s taken me so long to write about #rEDWash is the amount of time I’ve spent looking through and getting sucked into her links – there’s some brilliant stuff out there! I went to this session partly because of a project that I’ve been working on with the School of Education at the University of Nottingham around collaborations between schools and researchers and I’m always up for new ideas (‘What Matters‘ – I’ll probably write about another time), and also to hear more about the wider picture of research use in schools in America. The day before we had been hosted by The Center for Transformative Teaching and Learning at St Andrews Episcopal School for lunch and one of the questions they were asking us was about how to widen the scope of education research in American settings. I got the impression that there are lots of pockets of activity and it’s a question of how these can come together – perhaps easier with the smaller scale of the UK – but also the more limited use of social media with practitioners in the US.
Turns out there’s quite a bit of stuff going on with the Institute of Education Sciences (IES) (apologies if I get muddled with this, I wrote my notes furiously and interpreting my special shorthand a week later is proving awkward). Ruth set out the different strands of work they are doing and it sounds amazing – if the College of Teaching wants research to be at its core then they could do worse than looking at what’s going on here; the US may be behind in regards to practitioner involvement with research, but it’s all there for the taking. Their work is independent and covers a range of practical approaches, much more than just RCTs.
She started by discussing the value of education research, the disconnect between schools and researchers (something we’re all familiar with) and how their researcher-practitioner partnerships (RRP) are aiming to address this. Researchers and practitioners work together over time to co-construct agendas of work for mutual benefit. This allows them to work on research that is more relevant and hopefully more likely to inform practice; they are able to form long-term working relationships and both sides can develop professionally. To support these partnerships (which can be in cities, states, cross-state, cross-district) they have Regional Education Laboratories (REL) working with”Research Alliances” of education practitioners and policymakers. They identify areas of need and work together to analyse data and conduct research to develop and test strategies. The IES provides seed-grants of around $400,000 to develop projects for which they can go on to apply for further funding if required. Projects mentioned included one that created software to track progress and now has a national audience.
In addition to the RELs, the IES has the What Works Clearinghouse (how had I not seen this before?) which ‘reviews the existing research on different programs, products, practices, and policies in education’ and hosts intervention reports, reviews of individual studies and a series of practice guides that they are now seeing schools adapt and use for their setting. Tom Bennett came in to the session towards the end and drew similarities to the EEF in the UK; this is so much more than that; it’s sort of like a cross between the EEF Toolkit and the Literacy intervention review Tom Sherrington talked about at rED15, but it’s nicer to look at with simple infographics (including a lovely representation/summary of the setting for each intervention). You can see effectiveness, improvement, and my favourite bit – you can compare interventions. Something that really impressed me was that all their reports go through peer review before they are released (see picture for questions). Ruth was clear to point out that they aren’t just interested in the ‘gold standard’ of research – they publish a cross-section of work, summaries and of course RCTs.
On top of all this they have ERIC – the Education Resources Information Center. I did know about this one and they’ve recently changed the website to be a bit more easy to use. ERIC is a digital library of education research and other information – in their words ‘ERIC’s mission is to provide a comprehensive, easy-to-use, searchable Internet-based bibliographic and full-text database of education research and information for educators, researchers, and the general public.’. How can we not be excited about this? Perfect for Journal Clubs too…
One of the issues the IES, and research engagement in US schools generally, seems to have is with ‘reach’ and I asked how they get their message out to schools. They use social media, professional associations and each REL has a governing board with regional commissioning officers that work in their localities. I’m sure there could be more. I was already following one of the IES twitter accounts and have since followed more, but when I look at how many followers these accounts have or how many RTs/Likes the posts have they are no where near the amount that similar UK accounts have. This is a bigger issue than the IES of course; one of the things that stood out to me and others was the low number of classroom teachers at rEDWash in comparison to the UK events. I’m certain that if more teachers engaged with this work, the impact could be massive. I don’t know that I have any answers to the questions this throws up, but I’m sure researchED has a part to play.
There’s so much I’ve not written about yet, just with Ruth Nield’s session, and I’m at a ludicrous amount of words already. I’ve not talked about my session, the people we met, the pub, what’s next for me and research. This has been an amazing, crazy week and I’ve thought about researchED a lot – as always it’s about keeping up the momentum and sharing ideas. I’ll have a think and write about it more next.
A theory I’ve had at the back of my mind for a while now is that there’s an emerging ‘2nd Generation’ of researchED goers. I’ve increasingly found that discussing the day with people I’ve now spent time with (both during conference and in pub afterwards) at several events is quite different from some of the conversations I’ve had throughout the day with people who were just starting to engage with researchED.
When researchED began in 2013, no one knew quite what it would be like but it looked like it’d be a good day out. I’d had a year without studying and I was eager to see how I could keep my foot in with all the research stuff I’d slaved over for three years. On the day there were people you recognised, a wide variety of sessions to attend, and there was nothing to lose. It was grass-roots – but not yet a movement. I felt the same way I did after my first MEd tutorial – there were all these people interested in the same things and I wanted to do it again. I scribbled notes for my first blog post as we drove back up the M1 towards home, and so did other people. I wasn’t the only one who wanted to do it again – there was a hunger for more. We all took different things away from the day but we’d gone along to take part and be part of that day.
There was a rhetoric at the first couple of Research Leads events that centered on the need for head teachers and leaders to have a ‘vision’. The vision to drive their institution forward and properly engage with research on a whole-school level or it ‘wouldn’t work’. The message seemed to have shifted from engaging individuals, to ‘how do we familiarise people with research’, to the requirement for a ‘whole school vision’. I don’t think anything is wrong with this. I agree leadership need to be on board of course, but I think there is now a group of people who have skipped the first bit and are aiming for the last. They may have been sent to a researchED event by their Head in order to bring back the magic bullet, or be that Head looking for ideas. They want to know how it’s all supposed to work in practice; where the common ground lies between schools and what the bigger picture is; what the point is. The theory sounds great but it’s turning into a big job.
At one of the events Tom Bennett made a comment about whether researchED was the new Brain Gym yet. There does seem to be a reflexive reaction to the growing interest in research in schools, “that looks good, we’ll try that, Ofsted will love it”, throwing everything into ‘research’ without stopping to think about what it means and what will work for your individual setting – perhaps heightened by Research and Development as one of the ‘Big Six’ key areas of focus for Teaching Schools. I’m part of it myself I suppose. I asked for the Research Lead role because I didn’t want anyone else to get it. I’m still happily moving along, picking up ideas and things to try out. I’m in a different situation to a lot of people though; our school is small and think there are quite a few things that aren’t suited to us so I’m not so worried about figuring out how we’ll fit it in. I’m happy to cherry pick and try to work out what we can try whilst I continue to meet with interesting people and build connections for us.
Jude Enright used Pasteur’s Quadrant model of scientific research in her session in Cambridge. Our group discussion about where the Research Lead lies within the quadrant was interesting. We pretty much decided that we can flit from place to place depending on what we are engaging with. I like to think that even though I’ve got a responsibility as Research Lead to consider how research is relevant and used, I can also delve into research for the sake of it; it’s like the indulgent me-time of research. As Research Leads I think a lot of our work is helping others find their quadrant and supporting them. Be that individually, as a whole school or perhaps as part of a TSA. I understand that schools don’t want to be left behind, and I really understand the need to be part of this – it doesn’t mean it has to be about finding ‘the answer’ all the time though. People can be nominated to do the role but there needs to be an element of personal interest.
I know the Leads events are more focused on what we can actually bring back to do in schools, the national conference has a broader scope and I’m glad it has continued to be that way. One of the best things about researchED is that it’s a hobby; I’ve seen people at teachmeets getting a bit haughty about research – feeling like they’ve got to question things for the sake of it. It turns people off and spoils it. A speech from Tom Bennett is never complete without astonishment that so many people are giving up their Saturday to attend. We’re doing it for fun, it’s enriching but it doesn’t feel like we’re at work. At least that’s how I see it.
My advice to the 2nd Generation, for what it’s worth, is you don’t need to worry about rushing to find the answers. Take the opportunity to see what other people are achieving and think about how you can adapt it to fit. That’s part of working our what works, right?
I’m annoyed by how long it’s taken me to write about researchED 2016 this year. After a weekend spent absorbing so many ideas and then hurtling back into the working week, I think it’s taken me longer to process. I want to write about it properly but I’m still buzzing from it all and can’t quite order my thoughts so apologies if it’s all over the place.
This year looks like it’s going to be an interesting one for me researchED wise and this was a brilliant way to kick it off. The national conference is now firmly in the education calendar – with all the advantages of securing brilliant speakers and having a press presence. It’s also great to have the buzz of the run up and see so many people again (if not nearly for long enough in so many cases). The flip-side of this of course is that there is a core of familiar faces and we need to be careful not to become too cliquey; it’s easy to forget that not everyone knows what’s going on. I also had a couple of conversations where people seemed a bit disappointed with the session they went to and I think it’s really important to remember that at the heart of researchED is an ethos of everyone being able to share with each other. That means polished speakers that forgo their usual fee and it means nervous teachers quite prepared for 30 Year 9s but terrified of 15 adults. Not everyone will be polished but it’s amazing that everyone wants to share and connect.
I had no particular method of picking my sessions this year and part of me wishes I hadn’t looked through the rED16 feed afterwards because I saw tweets about sessions I hadn’t even spotted in the programme. This is what I saw this time:
- Laura McInerney – Perfectionism
- Becky Allen et al – How to win the argument against opening new grammar schools
- Stuart Kime – Assessment: the unclaimed prize of learning
- Pedro de Bruckyere – Some basic ingredients for an effective education
- Sean Harford interviewed by Andrew Old
- Tim Leunig – How ministers make decisions when evidence matters
- Paul Kirschner – Urban legends in education: What does the research say?
I’m not going to go through each of them, but it’s worth highlighting a few bits from the day.
The first session with Laura McInerney (when I found it) was probably the one that was most personal to me. Laura explored the relationship between perfectionism and performance anxiety in teachers and how that impacts on retention. Looking at the links between type of person who becomes a teacher alongside how people act when under pressure, Laura focused on seeking approval and worrying about mistakes – connecting to this idea of ‘teaching fright’. She suggested that one of the reasons other roles that require dealing with people or performing don’t have the same issues with staff retention is that they are not asked to ‘perform’ for so many people, for such a length of time and repeatedly. It certainly hit the nail on the head as to why I don’t want to teach (and probably why I like working in a small school). The important things to take from this are that we need to work out who is likely to suffer from this anxiety, when, and how we can prevent it. Whilst it’s not going to be the only reason people leave the profession, it might go some way to helping those who do.
Understandably there was a noticeable undercurrent around the topic of grammar schools throughout the day and the session led by Becky Allen was all about this. I have never seen so many of the voices in education be so united against something as they are with the grammar schools proposal. Having spent so long pushing the message of evidence based/informed/led practice in education, for something that flies in the face of available evidence it’s understandable that people are cross (particularly as part of researchED). There are a lot of differences of opinion in education – probably magnified by Twitter, but the atmosphere was infectious.
On a similar note, Tim Leunig’s session on ‘How ministers make decisions when evidence matters’ was fabulous. I could listen to him all day I think. Not saying I was agreeing with everything he said, but definitely one worth looking at the video of. All the available videos and presentations are on the researchED website.
So now I need to use all this to get some stuff done. I’ve spent the past few rEDs with getting ideas for Relay in the back of my mind and wasn’t quite so worried about that this time. However there are a few bits I’ll write about and, for me, the evidence is clear that grammar schools are not the answer to our problems with education and the best way to stop this happening is to let people know. I’ve realised that surely one of the reasons for school to have me as Research Lead is that I can collate and translate all the information on this and encourage staff to respond to the consultation. I was going to do something in the next issue of Relay but I think there might be a bit too much information so I’ll see if I need to think of something else too. I’ve never written directly about researchED in Relay. Not sure whether that’s because I want to avoid bias towards my own interests or, as I remembered this week, it’s really tricky to talk about without sounding like you’re name-dropping! Mulling the idea of a ‘Research Special’ so who knows.
Finally, Howard seemed to have a good rED16 too and entertained himself by creating all sorts of interactive statistical analyses of the #rED16 hashtag. You can find these here: http://benchheaven.co.uk/rED16/
Next stop Washington…
I’ve not seen many blog posts about rEDYork and to be honest as I’ve not got anything down for a week I did wonder if it was worth it, but I quite often use these sorts of posts for my own reference so I’ll go for it.
It’s been an unusually long time since I went to a researchED event – well, September, but that feels like a long time especially with the frequency of rED events popping up around the globe. It’s felt like a slightly slower year generally researchwise for me too I suppose, but this looks like it’s picking up with a few bits and bobs on the horizon.
This was the second researchED event at Huntington School in York, the first I’ve been to. A much nicer balance of Research Lead focus and ‘things people have tried’ I think, and it sets it out as different to the national event. I had the usual dilemma of what to see and I realise I now have the added conundrum of whether to see things that catch my eye or things I think might make for a good piece in Relay (the Learning and Development bulletin I diligently churn out every half term with no idea how many people are reading it). I pretty much went with catching my eye I reckon. Here’s the list anyway:
- Keynotes: Estelle Morris and Philippa Cordingly
- Leon Walker et al: ‘How RISE helped develop an enquiry-based approach to curriculum development’
- Gary Jones: ‘What would a curriculum to develop evidence-based practitioners look like?’
- Lisa Pettifer: ‘Teacher-led professional learning’
- Carol Davenport: ‘Unconscious bias in the classroom’
- Alex Quigley: ’10 things a busy teacher needs to know about research evidence’
It was the sort of day I’ve become familiar with and was starting to miss. It was good to see some familiar faces and meet some new ones, with interesting conversations as standard. Not going to describe each and every moment but I’ll pick out some bits that have particularly stuck with me throughout this week.
It was great to hear about how the RISE project is going down at Meols Cop Hight School. Realising that the job of leading things was too big for one person (and having responsibility for the school timetable), Leon Walker has passed on some of the responsibility to subject leaders and we heard what was being done in English, Maths and Science. The one that caught me here was Jen Filson talking about their Maths trial based on a research paper she was given. I did pinch this as an idea for Relay so if you’re interested you can read a summary here (pdf), but it was a brilliant example of taking an idea from research and using it to spark something, and having the opportunity to do so. My absolutely favourite thing from the day was slipped in at the end by Leon who revealed in the list of things they’re doing next year that in his timetabling duties has pre-set parallel groups into the structure of the school in order to make enquiry easier. Blowing my mind timetable style.
It’s worth a bit of detail on Lisa Pettifer’s session. I almost didn’t go to it because I’d forgotten what I’d circled earlier and was getting swept away with the dining room crowd – glad I did go, she’s a guddun this one. Lisa talked about her role in the school’s Professional Development Department – how this sits in the school and how the school sits within their community. I loved how professional development is very much an interwoven part of school life and not an after thought (or a tick list of certifications we all need to do). I loved that there are no senior leaders in the PD team. I loved the range of opportunities they help provide. I loved the diagram of their PD model (I got to scribble it in my notes and I took a photo with my shoddy phone camera. Bonus points if you can make it out*). I really loved that they were taking the opportunity to bring PD in-school, achieving ‘success through collaboration’, and I would like to explore how we can get some of all this going at our school.
Last one I’ll go into detail of is Carol Davenport on ‘unconscious bias’. This started with a breakdown of the reasons we have unconscious bias and how it can be useful (don’t misjudge a tiger for the wind) as well as problematic, before focussing more on the example of gender. I think working in a school where we only have boys, we are both more guilty of bias and more aware of it. I think for us, bias towards ‘boy stuff’ is often the easier option – football breaks, superhero themes etc. and there are reasons we generalise this stuff, the majority do like it. We do try though to move beyond it and consciously provide alternatives, whether that’s in exam courses like BTEC Hospitality alongside Motor Engineering or crafty options for lesson 6. Away from the ‘gender’ biases though I think we can be biased in other ways. Our boys come from very different backgrounds to most of our staff – culturally, economically, socially. We need to be careful not to pre-judge them and avoid self-fulfilling prophecies. This is something I’m particularly aware of as I baseline new pupils for next year. All our pupils have some sort of background that looks awful on paper and we can’t afford to focus on this too much.
I’ve pretty much decided that the next issue of Relay will be a sort of research focussed issue. I’ve tried to avoid it being too ‘researchy’ and give a broader selection of things so far (I don’t really want to bias it towards myself probably), but I think there’s so much going on everywhere that it would be a good opportunity to give a round-up of a bit more.
I’m proper excited for the National Conference in September now.
*Lisa Pettifer has fabulously provided the actual diagram which is very much less blurry 🙂
WE WROTE A BOOK!
Ok, so the boys at school wrote a book, and it was through a scheme for schools to publish their work, but we have BOOKS!
As mentioned previously our school has taken part Scholastic’s ‘We Are Writers’ scheme. I’d put a flyer to one side some time ago and I suggested it again when we were thinking of ideas for the reading festival. It’s open to all schools (and I think other organisations for children), for pupils up to 18 and it’s free to take part. There are various rules and conditions (all easily met) like you have to order a minimum of 50 copies and promise, hand on heart, to display posters etc – their FAQs are here if you fancy a look. Each book costs £5.99 and schools are free to charge what they like for copies so it’s a good way to raise some money, but we decided to use some of our Year 7 catch up literacy premium money to pay for one copy for each pupil and then gave parents and carers the option to purchase extra copies at cost price if they wanted them. As with all Scholastic orders, there’s the rewards scheme (so money towards more books) and free p&p to schools. Ooh, and school gets a free copy too.
When you sign up you’re given a timeline to complete all the steps – from writing chapters and editing to proof reading and front cover design. Each piece of work is a chapter (need a min. 50 chapters, max. 880 pages). You can include stories, poems, scripts, whatever you fancy. Just text though, no pictures. You set the book up on the website and pupils create a login to add their chapter. It’s all very simple and looks like a familiar word processing form – you can paste into the box if you’ve written it elsewhere and administrators can add and edit chapters anyway so don’t worry if you’ve got a sweary pupil.
You can invite other staff members to help put it all together/ proof read etc. I don’t think anyone other than the admin can edit though. Completed chapters (and whole book) can be viewed and downloaded as a pdf so you can see what it all looks like. Even once you’ve submitted it, you get a printed copy to proof read and edit before placing your final order so it’s not too late to change it.
In addition to pupil work there is a space for a forward. Our headteacher wrote ours but it can be anyone. Every year there is an additional forward from a children’s author, this year’s is Eoin Colfer (which is lovely because I heart him a bit). The only regret I have with our forward is that we didn’t include the name of the boy who designed the front cover and we should’ve done because that’s the place you can do it.
The front cover includes your school’s name, the ‘We Are Writers’ title, and a square box for your own design. This is anything you want to upload. You could just use your school logo or, like we did, have a competition to design the image. Obviously the usual copyright issues are there. The background colour of the book can be chosen from loads of options. We went with the navy blue because we liked it but there are colours to match every school headed notepaper you can think of.
Finally, you will get a stock of customised posters to put up at school with your chosen price and a few sentences to let people know what you need them to know. Plus a stack of order forms to send home. It’s all very organised.
This is our book. It’s beautiful.
We had a lot of different stories and a couple of poems. Lots of magic 50ps, zombies, and a few dreamcatchers (rather suspect these are linked with classwork). Interesting to see how different Key Stages write – KS2 particularly descriptive and a thousand alternatives to ‘said’; KS3 with lots of short, snappy sentences to build their tension. We had a special assembly to hand them out and for the most part I think they were really quite chuffed to see their work in print. Wouldn’t be surprised if we did it again.
I can’t share the whole book but here are a few of my favourites which will give you a taste of our creative genius and an idea of the book’s layout. The Key Stage 4 one is clearly based on the WW1 poetry he’d been studying in English (pleased some of that stuck in his brain so fingers crossed for results day). The Key Stage 3 one was a tricky choice – so many to choose from and I think this was one of the ones read out in assembly. The Key Stage 2 one is written collaboratively by the group that go out for extra reading. It proves that anyone can take part in this no matter how confident they are with writing, everyone can tell a story. I love it.
I mentioned in a recent post that as part of our drive to increase the boys’ reading, we were planning a few events. This turned into a (fairly loose) Book Festival which is lasting for about a month, starting with an author visit for KS2 and ending on World Book Day (which will also only be KS2). The bits I’ve organised so far have been whole-school things including a Blind Date With A Book and a ‘We Are Writers’ book. I wrote about our first Blind Date With A Book here so I thought I’d take the opportunity to briefly explain and write about how it was different this time round.
The idea behind going on a blind date with a book is that you pick a book without knowing what it is and you give it a go. Events tend to happen in schools, book shops or libraries around Valentine’s Day, for obvious reasons, but it’s also useful as the closest Friday is normally the last week of half term so it’s a nice way to finish things off before the holidays. Some people add descriptions of the books, some have a display of wrapped books to borrow, we use it as a way to give each pupil in school a book to keep.
Last time I did all this I categorised each pupil into rough reading-ages, made them fill out a fake dating profile and then the ‘results’ of that told them which colour wrapping they were best suited to. It’s been two years since I did that and the school has grown quite a bit which made grouping each pupil a tricky one. So, for 2016 I went through the whole process of buying 100s of books to suit all size of pupil and then instead of categorising them myself, I got each class teacher to pick a book for their pupils before I wrapped them and added a Valentine’s card.
I bought a lot of books from Scholastic again – free postage to schools, earning money off books and some great January sale offers meant that I could get a lot for my money. They also have a great range of books for lower level readers based on poplar tv shows and films. This meant that I could give a Year 11 a copy of ‘127 Hours’ rather than yet another Brinsford Books classic that he’s probably already read. I did use Amazon for a few extras that I thought they might not usually pick like some Tolkien and Gaiman, plus a few books that featured in the TES lists of books pupils should read before leaving Primary and Secondary school, and I threw in a few from the box of free Book Trust ones I have. I had to be fairly realistic though, it doesn’t matter how well I wrapped it or whether they got to keep it, there are a lot of books that they wouldn’t even give a chance to, so the options weren’t a million miles away from things I thought they’d normally pick (shocking number of books with farting or bums in the title).
The art room had some awful pink paper buried in a corner so I stole that (with permission), and I decided that instead of simply writing each pupil’s name on the front of the packages, I would give them all a Valentine’s card from their book. They had poems. As we’ve only got a maximum of 8 in a class, I wrote 8 poems and put them in 8 different cards using my all my best TA skillz. Wrote ’em, glued ’em, stacked ’em. I was pleased with myself.
Class teachers were given their pile of books and able to choose when they gave them out and how they followed it up in class etc. I only saw a few children throughout the day but the ones I did see seemed fairly chuffed with their books and I get the feeling it was a success! We also used that day to display the entries for our We Are Writers front cover design and have a vote, and it was the last day for pupils to submit their stories for the book too. I’ll write more about that further along in the process.
If you are interested in holding your own Blind Date With A Book and want some little cards with awesome poems in, you can find mine here:
I vaguely followed the Michaela debates on Saturday, picking out bits from the people who were there and the conversations that took place for the rest of the weekend. A topic that seems to have caught wider attention is ‘“No Excuses” discipline’, with lots of Twitter activity and a few blogs setting out thoughts. Since then I’ve had a think about where our school sits in all this and actually I’m not sure it’s quite where I would’ve said it was on first thoughts.
My initial thoughts on ‘No Excuses’ are that it sounds great for some, but what happens to the ones that have to move on? I’m not the only one to think like this and I’ve seen references to SEND, family crises etc. What happens to the pupils and families that don’t ‘fit’? Where do they go? As Rachel Humphrey asked on Saturday, can the ‘No excuses’ setting only exist because there are others that will take the fall out? Quite often in these discussions, people put special schools to one side – “of course you’ll be different, you have different/ extreme circumstances” – but actually, as an SEMH school, all our pupils have all come from mainstream where they’ve left behind just as many pupils that could be here. We can’t afford to have strict ‘No Excuses’. We’re the end of the road. If I was asked during the debates, I would have said that we operate flexibly around our pupils’ needs. Having thought and read though, I think we do have ‘No Excuses’. We don’t let our pupils make excuses, but we do understand they have reasons.
Reading Jonathan Porter’s speech in favour of ‘No excuses discipline works’ I was struck with how much I agreed with – and how much of that we do. I wouldn’t have said it was ‘No Excuses’ but it seems to fit. I suppose it’s how we sanction pupils that’s probably different. Jonathan mentions the understandable points of uniform, time keeping, equipment. We have an awesome Attendance Officer solidly enforcing the expectation pupils are in by the 9.00 bell, so we get that one. Uniform’s not quite the same as it’s not compulsory, but they do get randomly rewarded if they’re in it when the Head does a spot-check and most of the boys wear it. As far as PE kit and equipment go, we recognise that there may be issues with these and so we’ve taken the problem away by providing (and washing) it all. No arguments over forgotten kits or swanky pencil cases. No excuses.
I recognise the tale of ‘Tom’ all to well. Our pupils come with chunky files and muliple agency recommendations. Very often there’s a history of sporadic school attendance and often a request for phased introduction. I’ve baselined kids hiding under tables, brandishing weapons and screaming their hearts out – some are being properly naughty, most of them are just scared. They’ve heard all sorts of tales, they’re pretty much de-schooled and I’m sitting there asking them to reveal the how embarrassed they are about their reading levels. We don’t have them start part time. They come in full time and if they have a tantrum we sort it out and get them back in class. That’s where the vast majority stay for most of the time.
So it seems like we’re actually a lot more ‘No Excuses’ than I’d thought we were. Some of this is probably to do with how my idea of what ‘No Excuses’ means is perhaps a bit harsher than the reality, but I keep coming back to this idea of ‘Reasons’. We have our fixed heirarchy of sanctions, and obviously if there’s something violent or seriously disruptive there’ll be serious consequences, but we if we can understand the reasons for a behaviour, we can help solve the problem. For that reason I’m much more comfortable with John Tomsett’s approach.
If a pupil doesn’t take their medication in the morning, we don’t let them use it as an excuse not to behave. We deal with the behaviours as they happen, but if they reveal half way trough the day that they haven’t had their morning dose, it goes a long way to explaining why they’ve been up in the air and we know there’s nothing more serious* going on. We’d much rather they tell us first thing that they’ve not had their tablet – not as an excuse, but as a reason why they may need a few minutes out or be struggling to focus.
*I saw Sean Harford commented around safeguarding and ‘No Excuses’. This is another big niggle I’ve got going on. We know our boys. We know the patterns of behaviour they have and this is really important for spotting safeguarding issues. I worry that ‘No Excuses’ means that you can miss the reasons and miss what’s going on in a pupil’s life. They change so subtly and it’s for us to spot these things. this isn’t a special school thing, this is an every school thing.
One of the points in favour of ‘No Excuses’ that I read was how you can’t have different things for different people or it all falls apart. I agree with this for the majority of the time, but I also think there are occasions where it is acceptable, and even beneficial to other pupils, to allow for concessions. I think it can be good for them to see that other people get different things sometimes. They don’t always like it at the time, but I think it can be important for pupils to see that sometimes things get in the way and consideration is given, whether that’s not having homework because they were kicked out of their home in the middle of the night, or Year 11 allowed to go off site for lunch and the others not. The way we deal with and explain it to pupils is important.
We aren’t perfect. There are times where we need to be more consistent and I would argue there are probably times where we could’ve been more flexible. We are facing the challenges of a fairly rapid school expansion within a building that doesn’t expand at the same rate. We have staff with 20+ years service (at our school) and staff fresh from a mainstream setting. There are more voices and opinions of how things should work than ever before and we need to do the best we can for our pupils. We are good at reviewing our systems regularly and understand that what works for KS4 one year might be totally inappropriate for the next. We’re small and can afford to make changes, but as we grow it is becoming harder.
Ultimately though, pupils like boundaries, they like to know where they stand and quite often ours come from a home life where the boundaries don’t exist. We can’t offer a ‘No Excuses’ environment where if a kid, or their family, doesn’t tow the line then they can go elsewhere. We are the end. We are it. People are surprised when they see how our pupils behave and what they achieve. We don’t let them use their backgrounds as an excuse not to do well, but there are reasons why they have a place with us and we need to recognise that.