Thursday Briefings – Spring Term 2016

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Our Thursday briefings this term work to continue our enquiry into how best to ensure our learners are active, engaged and reflective while also visibly revising what exactly it is that makes for excellent teaching and learning.

Teacher student relationships have a significant impact on student progress and are key when considering how to engage and motivate.  Creating an atmosphere in the classroom which encourages respect, rapport and a culture of learning is one of our lines of enquiry. Presentations this spring include those that focus on: how we can provide students with choice; how we can provide opportunities for experimentation in the classroom; understanding the power of  congruence and empathy; how to use praise usefully and to how avoid controlling language in the classroom.  We once again find ourselves reflecting on the power of strong relationships built on trust.

Ensuring that both teachers and students receive quality feedback in the classroom to aid progress is the second line of enquiry.  A second strand of presentations this spring remind us just how important are learning objectives, success criteria, questioning and formative feedback.  These fundamentals support not only students in making progress but teachers in making informed decisions about learning prior to, during and between lessons.

Our third strand looks at how students can self-direct their learning and the link this has to both motivation and progress.  Innovative practice in Science and Drama will form the focus of this element.

The presenters come from across the school community as we look to draw on the experience and expertise we have in our counsellor, our students and our staff.

Asking more Questions

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question mark with speech bubles, vector on the abstract background

The T&L CPD for our first day back in January this year was focused on encouraging students to ask more questions.  This builds on our whole school, year long focus of:  ‘Active, engaged, reflective learners’.  If students are generating questions then they are actively engaged and reflecting.  The act of creating a question also ensures that students are directing their own learning and working to make meaning for themselves.

We began by asking ourselves how our classroom environments would need to change if we wanted to swing away from the norm of the teacher asking the majority of the questions – reputedly some 200-300 a day.  Would we have to alter the power balance in the classroom if we wanted more students to ask more questions?  Would we also have to prove to students that we valued their questions as much as their answers?  Did our classrooms have environments in which many questions of many types could be freely asked?

The first activity in the session was based on an image which can be found in ‘The Guardian’ column – ‘That’s me in the picture’.  The photograph is of Ros Sare passing by the poll tax protest in London.  The activity was simply that staff working in groups should write down all the questions that came into their minds while looking at the picture.  The rules were simple:  Write the questions down exactly as they were stated and in the order in which they were stated;  there should be no discussion and any statements made should be transformed into questons.  The activity provided a concrete strategy which staff could use.  Its usefulness?  It might help to create a safe question asking space.   It might help to introduce students to the idea of them asking more questions.

The activity is actually the first part of the ‘Question Formulation Technique’ as written about by Dan Rothstein and Luz Santana in their book ‘Make Just One Change’.  Staff were introduced to the next stages of this technique to see if they would think of using it in their own classrooms.  The second stage – working with open and closed questions – was highlighted as an opportunity to encourage students to understand that questions come in different forms and are of different types.

Having worked through the idea that students would need a certain environment in which to ask questions, we looked at the need to provide students with support to frame questions of different types and levels.  The question matrix work done by  @JohnSayers  and  @Mr_Haines, as promoted on Teachertoolkit, was provided as a possible strategy.  Staff worked first with examples and then worked together to see if the question matrix could work for them in their specialisms using the resources they brought with them – some images, some texts.

The Technology Department were already redesigning the grid to suit their particular situation as the session ended.

Campus Crawls

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As we work to continue to make our private teaching practice more public, a new initiative has begun: Campus Crawls. The term is borrowed from Terry Bramschreiber although we have tweaked the approach to suit our situation and circumstances. Similar to Learning Walks – but very definitely not part of the accountability cycle – these crawls provide more staff with the opportunity to see inside the classrooms of other teachers. The process aims to help continue to build trust and respect amongst colleagues. It is about continuing to open our doors and our minds. It is not about judgement.

The first Campus Crawl took place in October with our new NQTs taking a look in classrooms. It provided the perfect opportunity for our NQTS to be able to pick up the tone and atmosphere of the school. It also highlighted the learning opportunity provided by the Campus Crawls.

The first Crawls allowed 5 small groups, led by two of the T&L team, to visit 3 classrooms per group. Each classroom was visited for 10 minutes. The whole crawl took one hour. This allowed for time at the beginning of the slot to outline the protocol for the crawls (confidentiality within the team, non-judgemental approach) and time at the end to discuss what had been noticed.

The focus of the crawl was motivation and engagement – the whole school T&L focus for the year. The Crawls therefore looked at: the quality of relationships between staff and students; how curiosity was stimulated; how challenge was created; how choice was offered; how learning related to the students; what helped students feel competent; what role questioning played. This is a fairly standard list relating to student motivation and engagement but is also focused on our particular emphasis of emotional and agentic engagement sub-types.

To continue to advance our professional knowledge and to encourage further collaboration and enquiry, an enquiry point was created in light of the positive elements that were seen during the crawl and these were shared with staff:

  1. With such strong relationships, what disciplined risks could we take in class?
  2. Could our skill in using techniques to stimulate curiosity be the tool we use to encourage students to ask more questions?
  3. There is much evidence of skilful questioning from staff. How can we encourage students to move beyond asking for help and clarification, and towards asking more questions of higher order types?
  4. Staff work hard to make lessons relevant to the lives of students. Do we need to also create a convincing rationale for learning as one of our motivational strategies?
  5. Do clear mastery based learning objectives/intentions help make learning meaningful?

The next round of Campus Crawls is planned for November. This time we have a Crawl for All week during which all staff have the opportunity to arrange to see a 20 minute slot of colleague’s lesson.


Bramschreiber, T. (2012). ‘Taking Peer Feedback to Heart’, Educational Leadership, 70(3) cited by Robert Coe, Cesare Aloisi, Steve Higgins and Lee Elliot Major, in ‘What makes great teaching? Review of the underpinning research’, October 2014, The Sutton Trust

Literacy Improvement Team, Department of Education and Early Childhood Development, ‘Loddon Mallee Region Learning Walks: A Professional Learning Tool’, State Government Victoria

Using Film to Teach the Structural Features of Narrative Writing

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This term I have been working to understand what AQA mean by ‘structural features’ in the writing mark scheme of their new GCSE.   Since paragraphing, discourse markers and even sentence structure are mentioned elsewhere in the descriptors then I have fallen back on narrative structure as the place to begin my teaching.

With a unit designed around ‘Other Worlds’ we began under the sea. The first lesson started with a curious picture of the earth taken from space with the Great Barrier Reef visible. The image is unrecognisable enough to be able to ask the students: ‘What can you see?’ My favourite answer was: ‘A marble, Miss.’ The twisting coral amid the sea of blue does indeed look like the eye of a marble. With curiosity stimulated, a clip from a David Attenborough documentary began our work into narrative structure. The images collected by a drone, which zoomed in from long shot to extreme close-up of the reef, provided the way in to looking at the zoom-in structure which narrative so often adopts in descriptive pieces.

We stayed under the sea as we worked with a clip from Jaws coupled with an extract from the text itself. We used the clip where Chrissy is attacked by the shark. Both the film’s narrative structure and the text’s support the teaching of the third person shifting narrative structure. In order to provide an opportunity for students to write in this narrative form themselves, I needed a further stimulus. Breaking away from the underwater theme, ‘The Big Bang Theory’ came to my aid. Using the clip where Sheldon has broken into a ball pit to make use of the play balls to create large scale models of atomic structure, students worked together to create a narrative that takes the point of view of three people: Sheldon, Leonard and the security guard. The high, and differing, emotions of this clip made the shifting point of view easier to achieve.

Our journey into ‘Other Worlds’ continued but this time in space. ‘War of the Worlds’ provided a place to look at rising tension. As we moved towards a further piece of narrative writing, stimuli for content was needed.  A non-fiction extract plus clips from Mars Attacks provided content ideas for a piece of narrative on alien abduction. Using a clip from ‘Batman’ to focus on flashback and a clip from ‘The Princess Bride’ to focus on framing narrative mean that my Year 9 students are beginning to have a range of narrative structures from which to choose deliberately as they plan to write this narrative piece. We have begun our journey in becoming skilled writers.

Narrative structure taught through film has worked to engage and motivate. It has worked as a differentiating tool. It has made learning memorable. All I need to do now is to collect film clips that are more up-to-date – my references belong to time long passed. Fortunately all the clips I have used – other than ‘War of the Worlds’ – seem to have become classics that my current Yr9 already know. ‘Ahh…it’s …’ breathed as the clip begins to roll does have a palpable change on the atmosphere in the classroom so I know that my pursuit of film clips must continue. I might just be visiting the cinema one of these Wednesday nights.


Collaborative Enquiry – Action Research

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Our CPD Tuesday afternoons are now into their second year.  Our cross-curricular enquiry groups have settled well.  Professional dialogue has increased and the atmosphere in the school altered.  A climate of sharing, reflecting and experimenting has evolved.

Our Collaborative Enquiry Groups keep their name because the focus of their work has not shifted.  Looking at issues from multiple perspectives and enquiring into these issues is still our aim.  However the process has become more formalised this year in that our groups are working to complete Action Research projects.

Action Research suits us because it is practice based and demands reflection.  It also allows for colleagues to choose their own focus of research which is rooted in their own classroom based practice.  Action Research as a methodology also appeals in that there is no searching for truths or replicable solutions to problems.  The focus on challenging our beliefs and the benefit of improving our practice are the draws.

The challenge we have is in asking groups to create the project and report together so that the process remains as collaborative as possible.

Publications which have influenced our approach:

‘Action Research for Teachers’, McNiff and Whitehead, David Fulton 2005

‘Action Research in Education’, McAteer, Sage 2013

Making the Ordinary Extraordinary – Thursday Briefings – A New Year

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Our whole school Teaching and Learning focus this year is based around engagement and motivation.  How do we encourage our learners to be as active, engaged and reflective as possible?

The sub-types of emotional engagement and agentic engagement suit our context and our students best if we want our work to lead to a change of teaching practice and a change in student learning behaviour.  Johnmarshall Reeve’s article, ‘A Self-determination Theory Perspective on Student Engagement’, made for interesting reading.(1)

Thursday briefings need to support this work.  With the slogan ‘Making the Ordinary Extraordinary’, a box full of ordinary everyday objects and a pedestal with a glitter covered lid (allowing for the big reveal) this term’s T&L briefings have their format.WIN_20150910_075551

Each week an ordinary object is hidden on top of a pedestal beneath the glitter covered lid and is won by a department.  The department must work during the week to make the best use of the resource in the classroom.  The resources have been chosen in order to provide an opportunity to increase emotional engagement through creating an element of curiosity.  Several of the motivational triggers – suggested by Andy Griffiths and Mark Burns in ‘Engaging Learners’ – imagination, challenge, choice and fun also come into play. Agentic engagement can also be encouraged as students offer suggestions as to how the resources might be best used in the lesson.

The first week saw 750 flexible drinking straws revealed.  Our Comms department made good use of these to: groups students, create food webs, develop roleplays dealing with the subject of bullying and for creating models in a sex-ed lesson.

This week the PE department have won 200 foam dice.  And the ordinary objects will keep coming.  Some of them you will have already used this morning even before coming to work.

1.  Reeves in ‘Handbook of Research on Student Engagement’, ed. Christenson, Reschly and Wylie,  Springer 2013

Direct Instruction Is On My Mind

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How much do you think Jordan has spent trying to look like Kim Kardashian?

This was the starter for a lesson which needed to practise the skills of analysis and comparison.  It was: the hook, the anticipatory set.  It was planning for behaviour management, planning for engagement and motivation.

Reading ‘Direct Instruction Revisited:  A Key Model for Instructional Technology’  by Magliaro, Lockee and Burton placed the notion of the ‘hook’ in context for me.  It comes from Madeline Hunter’s remodeling of the 1966 Direct Instruction model to include the ‘anticipatory set’.

As an English teacher, discovering topics which enliven endless skills practice is my constant quest.  The objectives and purpose of a lesson are so often similar, that the topic becomes vital.  It was an article in ‘Closer’ which captured my attention this time:  A young girl who had already spent £47,000 on surgery.  It offered both a meaty topic and some in-your-face presentational features for analysis.

Once I had found the first article, the next question in my planning was:  What to compare it to in order to provide practice in comparative skills?  A complete contrast of presentation and purpose seemed sensible;  a leaflet from a hospital, offering information to patients who were about to undergo surgery, was chosen.  Which type of surgery?  How close to the line could I push it?  I bottled it and chose ear-pinning.  

The lesson began with fact but quickly moved to include evaluative comments and a more personal slant:  Would you have surgery?  Enough interest had been awoken that the ‘Closer’ text was well received.  Introducing the less dramatic hospital information leaflet came last when more detailed technical information was accepted by students who had questions in their minds from the previous more emotive sources.  The ‘hook’ had served its purpose.

Co-Planning as CPD

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Our CPD Tuesday afternoons continue.  Lessons end at 2.10 and CPD begins 5 minutes later.  Having worked in cross department groups (Collaborative Enquiry Groups) to enquire into marking and feedback in the autumn term and forming discussions based on video evidence in the spring term, this summer term sees a change of focus:  Co-planning.  We continue to provide designated time for teachers to talk about teaching.  Recognising that the average couple of minutes per month is not enough.

Five sessions across the term allow groups of 2 or 3 teaching staff to work together to co-plan a lesson which is then taught, viewed and both the outcome and the process evaluated.  The process is repeated to ensure each member of staff takes the role of teacher for whom the lesson is planned.

The focus of the co-planning has been broadly drawn.  The choices include planning with one big idea in mind (e.g. raising engagement, building student confidence, challenge); utilising the 5 minute lesson plan from TeacherToolkit; working to plan using the Direct Instruction model as a stimulus and using  J. S. Bruner’s later publication, ‘The Relevance of Education’ (1971) to embrace a model built on his work in discovery learning.

Planning a lesson out of your comfort zone is exhilarating as you work hard and fast to meet the expectations of your colleague while also struggling to assimilate the content of the lesson.  It is also a creative process which allows everyday practice to become more visible and allows a trusting environment to continue to grow.


Collecting Feedback For Ourselves

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The third and final strand to our whole school focus on feedback this school year is:  Collecting feedback for ourselves in the classroom.  Departments will be working to trial techniques which allow them to understand more about the learning that has been taking place in their classrooms.

This essentially forms part of AFL but our drive is to ensure that AFL becomes formative assessment which reveals that the trialing of different techniques is only part of our work.  The techniques themselves have little impact on student progress if the information made visible by them is not acted upon.  In the words of Dylan Wiliam,  we must adapt our teaching in light of information collected in order to ‘meet student learning needs’.

As we trial techniques, our focus must therefore also be on how we can interpret this information as quickly and as usefully as possible to ensure it has an impact in the self same lesson or at least the subsequent lesson.  Most of the techniques fall into six broad categories: questioning, all student response systems, creating a suitable classroom environment, tasks which ask for application of skills/knowledge, communication, observation.

Whatever technique is employed it all comes back to working the classroom and interpreting what you see and hear.  This is perhaps why this quotation sits permanently in my head as I go about my teaching business:   ‘How teachers think.  How they make daily decisions and judgements.  It is not necessarily who they are or what they do.  It is how they think and that is the biggest difference.’  John Hattie on Radio 4s ‘The Educators’.

Techniques for collecting feedback for yourself in a lesson

Techniques for Collecting Information for Ourselves



Through the Viewing Panel

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dart board

The summer term is here and a new focus for Teaching and Learning briefings has begun.  This term focuses on the work of departments and the aim is to catch a glimpse of the work in subject areas that you don’t normally see.  Hence the title:  Through the Viewing Panel.

viewing panel big

From the title you can perhaps tell that a low brow TV show has had an impact on the format of these briefings.  What you can’t tell from the title is just how many other low brow TV shows have had an impact on the format.

If I mention ‘Saturday Kitchen’ you might have an inkling of how departments might choose the focus of their presentation.  If I mention darts  you might get even closer to the format or you might have given up guessing.

Here is how it goes…

A spinner is spun and a department chosen at random.  A slide is displayed giving a wide range of topics that we would like to hear about.  The chosen department must identify one topic they are confident in presenting on and another which they’d really rather not talk about.  Cue the walk-on music (And the Heat is On) as they make their way to the front to throw a dart.  Even numbers and they can talk about their favourite topic.  Odd numbers and they get their unpalatable topic.

As we work to make more practice visible there is a need to not only discuss what we feel most confident about in our teaching, but also that which constantly gives us trouble and causes us problems.  Personally, it is the problematic parts of teaching which keep me engaged.  Which professional pianist was it who gave up an established career because he was no longer frightened when about to perform…

Art – Thurs Briefing – Success Criteria 2

Geography – Problem solving presentation

History – Peer Teaching