Monday, October 7, 2013

The Friday Four

I've been meaning to post this for ages. Better late than never. I've no idea how transferable the idea is to subjects other than maths, but it might be worth a bash.

I've been teaching for long enough that I can see for myself how things come back in to fashion, providing you are prepared to wait. And so I find myself writing a blog post putting forward the perhaps not so revolutionary idea that, in maths at least, it's a good idea to give your classes a short test every Friday (other days are of course also available).

Bear with me and I'll provide the back story to my deciding to try this, and I'll also do my best to show how this idea is not entirely unsupported by research either.

It started by accident. On the last lesson of a Thursday, a junior class of mine were doing a test, which meant that the room had to be set out accordingly (desks separated etc). I should explain that for some teachers in some rooms this would be a trifling matter, but space in my classroom is at a premium so this can take a wee while to do well. The test was a little on the long side so I didn't get the class to return the desks to their normal position at the end, thinking I would do this myself instead. (Yes, I"m that kind of a guy.) But then I realised that another class of mine had another test the following day, lesson two - at which point I decided that having the room set out as it was, would save me a lot of hassle. The only problem was that I had a senior class due the lesson before, with no test scheduled. Och, what the heck, I decided, they can just sit at individual desks for once and put up with it. It's hardly the end of the world.

And then I thought, what the heck, they can have.a test as well. Not a long one, mind - maybe just ten minutes - but (a) it seemed a shame to waste the chance offered by the desks being test-ready and (b) partly I just wanted to enjoy the look of sheer horror on the senior class students' faces when they realised they had a test. (It's a guilty pleasure I"m sure other teachers enjoy too, when a less-than well-organised student turns up to see desks in test position and asks worriedly, "do we have a test today?", and you wait a beat before reassuring them that no, it was the class before who had the test. How much more enjoyable then to do a double bluff?)
You're giving us a TEST????
So, now all I needed was a test, and quick. Fortunately here in Scotland, all the recent exam papers are available for free on the website of our (single) examining body, the SQA.  We'd recently been studying vectors so I hunted through recent questions and a few cuts and pastes later and hey presto, I had a double-sided sheet of A4 containing four questions, with room for workings and answers. My first Friday Four was born.

A quick trip to the photocopier later, and before you could say Evil Swine I had the test papers laid out on the desks, ready for the class to arrive. Which they duly did. Now yes, they were Not Happy to have a test sprung upon them, but they took it damn seriously. I explained that they had ten minutes to do the questions, after which I'd collect them in and we'd move on to the content of the lesson proper.

Now that could have been it - I certainly had no Grand Plan in mind - but as the wee dears worked away I began to think about the potential presented by this on the hoof idea. A number of things struck me, to wit:

- this wasn't really costing us much in time: ten minutes out of 55 or 60 doesn't have to be that big a deal. Oftentimes we'll happily spend that long on a warm-up activity. If you plan in advance then surely you can adjust lesson content over the week to ensure that Friday's lesson can accommodate a Friday Four? (In this I have to admit that this does rely on your seeing the class in question a number of times over the school week, but that is likely to be the case with a certificate subject.)

- this was giving my class a brief spell of practice for the exam room. I think we do proper "tests" with our senior kids about three times a year, and that's about the only time they really experience exam conditions, and time pressure. The rest of the time they are working in class under less pressurised conditions - maybe working on their own, or with others. Now OK, given how long exams are, it's not easy to give them the full blown experience within normal class time, but a ten minute burst has to be better than nothing. A good deal better, in fact. Put it this way: someone in training for a marathon may not run the full 26 miles until the day in question, but they sure as hell do some running every week!

- maybe I could select a different topic each week, and give the class a heads-up the day before, so that they can do a bit of revision the night before? Or the topics could be mixed up, maybe a better idea the nearer to the exam you get. Either way this seems a chance to get in some deliberate practice - spaced repetition, even. (OK, I'll fess up, that's my "backed up by research" bit. I hope you're not too disappointed.)

And so on. A scant ten minutes later and as I was collecting in the papers I was already telling the class that this was going to be a regular occurrence.  They didn't seem to mind, I have to say. (In fact, in later feedback, they complained that they should have had Friday Fours all year!)

The rest of the lesson continued as usual. As I suspected, there wasn't much of a cost in terms of getting through the work. Let's face it, if you can survive kids arriving late because of an overrunning assembly, you can survive this. All the more so if you plan for it. And if you find that students are getting too stressed out at having a weekly test, just go all American on them and call it a "quiz" instead.

Oh, and one final benefit: if you stick to multiple choice questions, you can get those suckers marked in minutes. In fact, you can even mark them, return them at the end, and go over any problems. In some ways I suppose this is similar to the idea of an "exit pass" proposed by Dylan Wiliam and others, only it's more like an entrance ticket. The kids get very useful exam practice, and I get pretty instant feedback on the areas where they need to improve. What's not to like?

Saturday, August 10, 2013

New Strings

I got a new guitar about three years ago. Quite an expensive guitar, as it happens, and one I enjoy playing. I don't make any claim to be a particularly good guitarist but I know my way round the chords well enough. Hell, on better days I can even fingerpick.

Anyway, today I changed the strings on the guitar. For the first time. The first time in over three years. Three and a half, come to think of it.

Now if you're not up to speed on guitar maintenance, I should explain that you're meant to change strings reasonably regularly, maybe every six months or so (or even more often if you're really keen). Otherwise your strings get old and tired, and sound "dead" - the sound quickly dies off, whereas with newer strings the noise resonates longer. Basically, put a new set of strings on your guitar, and it'll automatically sound a whole lot better next time you play it. Brighter, more vibrant, more resonant.

You'll see where I'm going with this, I'm sure.

So why the hell did it take me so long to change the strings? It wasn't lack of money - you can get a new set for six quid easily enough (pay more if you want, but six quid will do fine). And it wasn't really for lack of time either. It's been a while since I changed a set of strings (obviously) but even then I managed to change them, and clean the guitar up a bit too, in the space of an hour or so. (Experienced professionals will, I hasten to add, be able to do this in a quarter of the time, but that's not entirely off the point.)

I've known for ages that the strings were well past it, but that didn't stop me from playing the guitar anyway. And it's not as if it sounded that bad... until of course I put the new strings on, and bloody hell, what a difference. There are many ways in which you can improve your guitar playing, but I'm not looking for a Lemovian "Practice Perfect" rant here. All I'm saying is, I'd avoided doing the simplest, most obvious thing for a long time. It wasn't lack of money, or lack of time. It was lack of effort, or perhaps willingness to be distracted. To miss the most obvious thing.

A final observation to make is that I do enjoy playing the guitar. Changing strings is not an enjoyable task, and of course when you're doing it, you're not playing the guitar. It would have been easy this morning to just say, och, it'll wait, and play the guitar for an hour, instead of stepping back, getting all they right gear together, and changing the strings.

And so I got to thinking about my teaching. I don't think I'm stretching too far for a metaphor here if I say that there are definite parallels between my teaching and my guitar playing. I'm not bad at teaching, and I've been doing it for years. I get by more or less just fine.

But what if I got some new strings?
(Don't worry, we're really not going to go there, honest.)

At this point you might be expecting me to launch my grand new idea: the Learning Guitar, incorporating the Fretboard of Discovery, upon which sit the Six Strings of Effective Engagement (complete with vomit-inducing infographic)... but please, rest assured, that's not what this is about. I'm simply struck by this business of the new strings, and I can't help but wonder if it's a useful metaphor for teaching - in particular, for the notion of renewing oneself periodically as a teacher. There's no better time to do this than over the holidays, after all.

I'd love to be able to reveal what I think the equivalent of new stings is for a teacher, but truth be told I'm not at all sure. It could be that it's different for each of us. I do know that I am NOT talking about trying out new ideas or methods: that's not what putting on new strings is about. Most guitarists will find a set and make of strings that they are happy with, and stick pretty loyally to them. But they will buy new sets regularly.

Maybe for us teachers, we need our subject knowledge renewed or refreshed? Or maybe our room displays (though that seems a tad trite)? Hell, maybe it's our voices that need renewed? It just strikes me that there must be something which is, I dunno, the sort of engine room of a teacher (to reach for another metaphor entirely), and I wonder if we give that the care and attention it deserves. Given that no-one really enjoys fitting new strings, maybe the equivalent is taking a fresh look at our planning for lessons and/or topics weve taught over and over again? I mean, who enjoys planning lessons, for goodness sake? (Or maybe thats just me.)

I don't know, but I'm going to think about this for a bit. I'd welcome any suggestions too.

In the meantime, in this holiday season (about to end for us Scots), I hope you manage to somehow find renewal and revival. Good luck!

Sunday, June 30, 2013

The Times They Are A Changin'

One of the great joys of Twitter is being introduced to big names in education, without the social embarrassment of clearly not having a clue as to who they are (on the internet, no-one can hear you google). And so, in time, one comes to know ones Hattie from ones Lemov. Speaking of whom

Fairly early on this academic year I came across the work of Lemov yes, via Twitter and so boldly ordered a copy of Teach Like A Champion, only slightly alarmed by how appallingly bad the cover is (seriously, Doug, have a word with someone about that). For those who dont know, Doug Lemov spent quite a while observing champion teachers, trying to isolate exactly what skills or attitudes or practices they had which made them so effective. I should mention that Lemovs work was targeted particularly at schools serving poor areas in the USA. Before long, Doug had a list of 50 things champion teachers do, and so the book was born. Quite what would have happened if hed got stuck on 49 things, is anyones guess.

The book is an easy read, if a tad heavy on the Americanisms and positivity (Im Scottish, you see) and its all the better for coming with a DVD illustrating the methods etc in question. So before long, I found myself at the end of chapter one, and with all manner of ideas for trying things out in class. I was particularly taken with Method Two: Right is Right, in which Doug challenges teachers to insist on getting correct answers from pupils before moving on dont accept answers that are half-way right, or nearly right, and insist on correct usage in terms of notation, vocabulary and whatever. (I know this probably sounds pretty harsh the first time you hear it, but Lemovs worry is that by not insisting on correct usage, we are impoverishing the vocabulary of poorer students, and denying them the sort of knowledge they need for gaining entry to further/higher education the whole book is really a form of handbook for encouraging students into college entry.)

Quite why this approach struck a chord with me deserves some explanation. Ive been teaching for a good few years now (ahem) and my trajectory in terms of using correct mathematical phrases etc is probably not uncommon; that is to say, when first I started out, I was gung-ho for using high-falutin language with my classes, and overall I was quite definitely pitching things too high. In time, Ive learned to temper my language, in order to ensure that things are clearer to students so these days Im probably less likely to explain to a class that one cant be a prime number because if it is then we cant have the Fundamental Theorem of Arithmetic. Like I say, I was young. Or if Im keen to promote proper usage, Ill do so in a more throwaway manner: a favourite would be when a pupil says that an area is, say, 25 cm squared, and I say back to them, yes, thats right, its 25 square cm. You see what I did there? Johnny gets praise for the right answer (well, almost) and I dont get thrown out of the mathematically correct club. Everyones happy.

But then you catch yourself in the mirror one day and think, wait a minute, I almost never say multiply anymore. The kids say times all the time, and so do I. Likewise top and bottom rather than numerator and denominator. God help me, these days Ill even talk about happy parabolas (where a>0). I mean, who cares anyway (Just so long as none of my students ever come across a maths professor at a party and talk about happy and sad graphs. Oh, the shame Ill feel then.)

And now along comes Lemov to challenge me on exactly this very practice. Right is right, right?
Normally my response would be pretty blunt. If the kids get it, then whats the problem? Except is there a sense in which you dont really get it if you rely on incorrect terminology? And more importantly, what about this college entry stuff? The last thing Id want to do is limit the horizons or opportunities of my weans, just because I cant be bothered to make a fuss over what could just could be relatively minor matters in terms of correction.


Ah, what the heck, I though, might as well give it a go. And so off I went to teach my classes, reborn with an enthusiasm for correctness in all things mathematical.

Please believe me when I tell you that Im not making the next bit up. My first lesson was with my high-ability S2 class (thats Year 9 or thereabouts in English money), and our topic was multiplying fractions. This should be interesting.

An hour later and Id become more aware than ever before just how many times pupils will say times instead of multiply, and ditto the whole top/bottom business. It was a lot. A helluva lot. And yes. Doug, albeit light-heartedly, each time they did this, it was corrected by me though I admit sometimes I saved the corrections up, cos we wouldnt really have got through the lesson otherwise. Did the kids mind? Not really, as we did treat it as a bit of fun I might get pelters from Mr Lemov for that, but I couldnt see any way of doing this otherwise, though perhaps its easier to adopt a zero tolerance approach from day one, rather than trying to introduce this on the hoof. You should never evaluate the success (or otherwise) of a new approach based on the evidence of just one lesson, but so far, so good.

There was barely time to draw breath, however before the next class came in, this time in the form of my middle-ish ability S3 class (a year older). And today's topic: multiplication of fractions. Well, I thought, that's handy. So, off we went.

It's by no means unusual to find yourself teaching more or less the same content to classes of efferent ages; obviously you need to pitch the work at the appropriate level, so this wasn't a direct copy of the previous lesson, but by jings, it wasn't far off. The kids reacted in much the same way as the previous lot, with mild bemusement rather than annoyance being the main theme (again, I was trying to avoid being heavy handed).

But here's the thing: as time went on, and the number of transgressions increased considerably, I could feel my resolve beginning to weaken. "Och, what does it matter?" I'd think, as another times whizzed its way towards my eardrums, "I mean, I've made my point, maybe we can just leave things be for the rest of the lesson. They get the idea."

Being blunt, I was expecting less of this class than the previous one, and the temptation to make excuses and drop it was overwhelming. It's insidious, this business of lowering our expectations, and being honest it's something I pride myself on avoiding for the most part, but here I was, feeling the pull of just letting things go. I'd imagine that Lemov's would be quick to point out, that this is exactly what approaches like Right is Right are all about. You don't take the easy way out, you don't make excuses, you expect high standards from all classes at all times. Those you make excuses for, are those who need the challenge more than most.

This was a wee while ago, and Ive continued with the experiment, with (I hope) a certain degree of success. Nothing earth-shattering, and I have to emphasise again the obvious point that if youre going to try this approach, you should do it from the get-go with new classes, rather than trying to introduce it on the hoof as I did. What surprised me most about this while business, though, was how much it revealed about my own bad habits, as well as (on a deeper level) my prejudices and expectations.

If you havent read Lemov on this subject, I do recommend that you dig out his book (ignoring the cover) and see what he has to say.
Seriously, someone was paid to design this cover?

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Binary binary binary

It’s been a while since my last effort, and meanwhile all manner of debate rages across the educational landscape, or battlefield. So, for what it’s worth, here’s my far from fully thought out contribution.

What is it with all this binary business, I wonder?

According to Dweck, for example, we either have a “growth” or “fixed” mindset. (The former is the better bet, apparently, as you can then pay lots of money for training and stuff, whereas if you’re of a fixed mindset then presumably all you do is just go down the pub.)

Or, of course, we can be “traditionalist” or “progressive” in our teaching. Sorry, sorry, I mean teaching and learning. No, wait a minute, I mean learning and teaching. It changed order a while back, didn’t it? Apologies.

(True story: way back when plans for Scotland’s shiny new “Curriculum for Excellence” were first unveiled, ooh, ages ago, there was a lot of talk about “Outcomes and Experiences”, until suddenly there wasn’t. because they were retitled “Experiences and Outcomes”. Boy, am I glad we got that sorted out. And that people were, presumably, paid money so to do. But I digress.)

And now, as a sort of subplot of the whole “trad” v “prog” business, we have the BIG FIGHT that is “knowledge” versus “skills”. The Gove versus, em, NUT smackdown. And this is serious stuff, let there be no doubt.

But, does it really have to be so much of an “either/or”? Can’t we have a bit of mix and match?
Now obviously people will lean to one side of a debate rather than the other (excepting possibly Nick Clegg), so let me declare my, um, loyalties here. I’m a big fan of the knowledge brigade, to the point where I have copies of both of Daniel T Willingham’s books and have University Challenge on series link, though it’s been a while since my last pub quiz. I strongly suspect that if an employer, say, complains that a pupil can’t do shit, then it’s probably because they don’t know shit either. And if someone mentions “21st Century Skills” or “21st Century Learning” to me then I will reach for a nearby hockey stick with fully murderous intent.  I’m not out of the Govean closet yet (can I really be thinking that he of all people has a point?) but I’m in there alright, fumbling for the light switch and worrying a bit about the possibility. It seems to be quite crowded in there, I might add…

But I can see that skills have their place – proper, actual skills, that is, as opposed to vacuous guff. OK, for me, that place is as a sort of corollary to all the knowledge which (one hopes) pupils are building up in the classroom. Nowt wrong with a bit of Higher Order Thinking Skills, if that’s your bag, just so long as pupils have built up the knowledge necessary to get that far up Bloom’s colourful pyramid. (Bloom’s is a pyramid, right? I can’t be bothered checking.) It’s not as if I’m going to refuse to teach a skill, is it? And along similar lines, are NUT History teachers really going to refuse to teach facts? (“Miss, when was the Battle of Hastings?” “I’m not telling.”)

Meanwhile, some of the rhetoric in all this debate is, frankly, a real pain. I mean, honestly, do those NUT speakers really think that traditionalists want kids to learn facts and nothing else? To do nothing with that accumulated knowledge? Give me a break. And are we really, honestly, going to have a debate about whether or not it’s A Good Thing for kids to know their times tables? Again? On the other hand, Gove really should check where education lecturers send their kids to school before he accords them the label “Marxist”.

So, in summary, and to conclude: er, I dunno.  But I tell you, I can’t be bothered with this binary business. Teaching is a complex art, or science, or whatever. And when we claim to have cracked it, that it’s either THIS or THAT, and then decide this (or, let’s be fair, that) is the way things have to be done, then in come the snake-oil salesmen to do their stuff, and before you know it the Deputy Head’s gone out and spent the year’s CPD budget on learning bicycles.

We are better than this, surely.  Though I do sometimes recall my mother’s fairly regular comment to me, and fear that it could apply to many teachers:

“Ye know, tae be so clever, yer awfy stupit.”