Monthly Archives: December 2019

Rudyard Kipling and pupil progress meetings

Rudyard Kipling’s poem If is written from the perspective of a father who is giving his son advice on how to live up to the ideals of manhood. It’s full of wisdom about how one can live with integrity and aims to help the son to understand the world in which he is growing up.

There is one part of the poem that comes to mind when thinking about pupil progress meetings:

If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster

And treat those two imposters just the same;

Completing these conditional clauses is the ending of the poem:

Yours is the earth and everything in it,

And – which is more – you’ll be a Man, my son!

A caricature of the most heinous pupil progress meeting is a teacher getting a child by child grilling on why they haven’t done as well as they should according to an assessment a few years ago. There may even be some appraisal and pay progression linked to how well children do which can skew the reliability and validity of any judgements.  The result is poor information and any decisions based on poor information cannot work.

Kipling’s Triumph is the list of children in the upper right sections of a progress matrix – compared to the previous key stage, they’re doing well. Disaster, on the other hand, is the list of children in the lower left sections of the same matrix.  Most pupil progress meetings draw attention to these imposters and it’s how we treat the pair that determines whether the earth and everything in it is ours. It’s human nature to claim causation in Triumph and wash our hands of Disaster but as Kipling advises, we should treat these two the same and the reason for this is that they can’t be reliable – they’re only indicators of how much children have learned.

If we’re happy to take credit for Triumphs then we must equally assume the same for Disasters. Similarly, if Disasters are out of our control then so are Triumphs.  The reality is that there are so many influences on how well children do on tests or the judgements that teachers make on children’s attainment that we probably do not have as much influence as we’d like to think.

So where does this leave us with making pupil progress meetings work? Put simply, they need to be solution focused, aiming to tackle systemic reasons for underachievement.

Taking the information that we have (test scores and teacher assessments compared to a previous key stage) as only indicators, leaders can run discussions on what it is that these children need that they’re not currently getting. Broadly, these needs can be categorised into changes or refinement. Sometimes, change is needed in order to get the best out of children but change isn’t necessary. Often, we would do better looking at how well we’re doing at the strategies that we’ve chosen and try to do them better.  Changes or refinement can be applied to 4 domains within our control.

Curriculum

Does the information that we have tell us that curriculum changes or improvements are needed? Is the sequencing right? Are there chunks of prior knowledge plainly missing from our curriculum and causing poor subsequent conceptual development? Are we giving children enough opportunities to revisit concepts to embed them in long term memory?  Are the books in our reading curriculum challenging enough?  Are our model texts for writing fit for purpose?

Pedagogy

Do we need to do something different with how we’re teaching or refine existing practices? Are we modelling enough? Are our explanations rooted in great subject knowledge and clear as a result?  Does our questioning extend thinking and help to check for understanding?

Intervention

Have existing interventions made any difference? Do the people running them have the right expertise? Is the content pitched correctly with the right scaffolds? Might pre-teaching be more effective than reactive intervention?

Operations

Would adapting the timetable, the school day or how adults are deployed make a difference?

A good pupil progress meeting should result in a clear idea of what leaders and teachers might do in order to get the best out of children. There’s another possible avenue to pursue here though. Might some children be underachieving because the effort that they’re putting in is insufficient?  If we have trust in the strategies that we’ve developed, and they’re working for many children, doing something new is unnecessary.  Perhaps we need to get better at encouraging improved effort from certain children in order for them to achieve better.

Kipling promises the earth and everything in it if, amongst other things, we can treat the imposters of Triumph and Disaster equally.  Accetpting that Triumph and Disaster are fleeting, focusing solely on what adults can do differently to promote better outcomes is probably our best bet at using pupil progress meetings to enable every child to flourish.

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Strategic curriculum leadership phase 3: what’s been learned?

This post, the third of three, details the process carried out to reform the curriculum upon taking up my Headship back in July 2018.  Every school’s needs are different so it is important to set the process I carried out into context.  The school I took over was judged as requires improvement in March 2017.  Between then and my appointment, there was a time of leadership instability.  Initial visits to the school revealed that there was a lack of any curriculum leadership – no subject overviews, no progression across the key stage and no shared understanding of how any subject should be taught.

In the first part of this series, I set out the thinking about the big picture of curriculum design and this can be summarised with three key insights:

  1. Subject leaders need to do the thinking themselves.  The value is in leaders enacting the process and learning along the way, not in buying in a commercial curriculum that is not tailored the school’s needs.
  2. The curriculum is the progress model.  If children are keeping pace with a curriculum that increases in complexity, then they are making progress.
  3. Clarify the desired outcome for each unit of work.  With periodic outcomes in mind for each unit of work, it is far easier to set children up for success in producing purposeful high quality work.

In the second  part of this series, I detailed the components of medium plans and explained the decision to write these for teachers to ease workload and to ensure that curriculum intent is enacted.


Strategic curriculum leadership 

Phase 3: What has been learned?


Senior leaders and teachers need to know what children have learned because this is the only true measure of how effective a curriculum is.  Some subjects are assessed more than others so for the purposes of this process, I’m referring to non core subjects that are not assessed in the same way as English and maths.

I’d go one step further in defining the success of a curriculum.  We must focus on the children that are most disadvantaged in any cohort.  If they are are not learning what we intend, then we’re not succeeding.  The learning of these children is the real measure of how successful a school is.

I’m proposing a set of indicators that can be used to judge the effectiveness of a curriculum.  These are not formal assessments but when looked at in conjunction with one another can give us an idea of the extent to which the curriculum has been learned.

Low stakes testing 

Regular opportunities for children to recall what they have learned serves the purpose of signposting what they do and do not understand as well as reinforcing memories making use of the testing effect.  These can take the form of a review of previous learning in each lesson, a multiple choice quiz dropped in at any point in the sequence of learning or a short answer quiz used in the same way.  Cursory glances over children’s responses, particularly those of the most disadvantaged, will reveal what has been understood and what has been misunderstood.

Vocabulary check

If medium plans stipulate the key vocabulary that children are to learn in a unit of work, then checking children’s understanding of those words are asking children to use them in context is useful.  A great way to do this can be in conversation with a sample of children, perhaps with their books in front of them, perhaps not.

Composite end task

The high quality piece of work that children produce as a result of the work done in that unit, although not independent, can nonetheless add to the bigger picture of what children do and do not understand.  After all, if, despite the scaffolding and support, children still misrepresent key ideas, we know that they have not fully understood them.

Reading comprehension

If children have developed a good schema over a unit of work, then their general knowledge will have been broadened.  Considering that most reading comprehension can arguable be a measure of knowledge of a subject, one option to judge how much children have understood is to provide some reading material around the topic that has been learned to see if they can answer a range of comprehension questions.

When?

Some of these indicators can be monitored during or at the end of a unit of work but if learning can be defined in a change in long term memory, perhaps we need to look at the indicators away from the point of teaching, for example in the weeks after a unit of work has been completed.


So what?

These possibilities can give leaders and teachers a good idea of what has been learned and what has not.  The important part of this process though is what we then do with that information. If we do not act on the information gathered, there is no point gathering it in the first place.  Plainly, if we have spent a chunk of curriculum time on teaching a particular unit of work and children have not understood it all, the rest of the carefully sequenced curriculum can fall down.  Concepts that have not been remembered well can be interleaved into the reviews of previous learning during lessons in the next unit of work.  However, if it is an understanding issue, a couple of lessons might need editing and reteaching, perhaps at the beginning of the next unit of work.

The other equally important action from judging the effectiveness of the curriculum is to adapt to make it more effective for the next cohort.  If there is a pattern of children misunderstanding a particular component of a unit of work, then perhaps the way that component has been taught needs to be adapted.  Leaders may even need to cut some of the content because too much had been planned, or add to the content if it came up short.  The sequence may need to be altered after teachers find that a different way made more sense.  Through the course of teaching the unit, teachers may have found better tasks, photos, sources, video clips than were originally included in the plans and so adapting the plan upon reviewing the extent to which children have learned the intent is crucial to give the next cohort an even better chance of learning and retaining what has been set out.

In summary, monitoring these indicators should result in the edition of future plans for that particular class as well as the plans to be used for children in the future.

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Strategic curriculum leadership phase 2: the detail

This post, the second of three, details the process carried out to reform the curriculum upon taking up my Headship back in July 2018.  Every school’s needs are different so it is important to set the process I carried out into context.  The school I took over was judged as requires improvement in March 2017.  Between then and my appointment, there was a time of leadership instability.  Initial visits to the school revealed that there was a lack of any curriculum leadership – no subject overviews, no progression across the key stage and no shared understanding of how any subject should be taught.

In the first part of this series, I set out the thinking about the big picture of curriculum design and this can be summarised with three key insights:

  1. Subject leaders need to do the thinking themselves.  The value is in leaders enacting the process and learning along the way, not in buying in a commercial curriculum that is not tailored the school’s needs.
  2. The curriculum is the progress model.  If children are keeping pace with a curriculum that increases in complexity, then they are making progress.
  3. Clarify the desired outcome for each unit of work.  With periodic outcomes in mind for each unit of work, it is far easier to set children up for success in producing purposeful high quality work.

Once the big picture had been set out, it was time to focus on the details.


Strategic curriculum leadership 

Phase 2: The details


In researching other schools’ curricula, it seemed that many stopped at the big picture and handed over responsibility to teachers to create medium term plans.  This bothered me for two reasons.  The first is the workload associated with writing medium term plans because doing this well requires significant expertise and plenty of time.  If neither are afforded, then we are left with teachers trawling search engines for tasks to do which are then thrown together.  Doing the work to a high enough standard to enact the intended curriculum is not something that a typical primary subject leader, not remunerated specifically for the responsibility nor usually with the knowledge and experience necessary, can be morally expected to do.  The second reason that handing over subject overviews for subject leaders to write medium term plans from bothered me was because of the inevitable breakdown in cohesion.  All the care invested in the content and sequencing choices for each subject could easily be lost.

The resultant decision was to provide detailed medium term plans for teachers for every unit of work in order to increase the likelihood that the intended curriculum became the enacted curriculum as well as to eliminate unnecessary workload.  With so many plans to write and now beginning to train others with the right expertise, a number of criteria were needed to ensure that there was sufficient detail for teachers.

Components that build to the composite end piece of work

Medium term plans are not divided into lessons, they are divided in to components – chunks of understanding that accumulate to enable children to produce that high quality end piece.  Some components may take a couple of lessons for children to master, while some lessons could provide children with the chance to develop more than one component.  The important idea here is that lessons are the wrong unit of measurement.  Teachers need to exercise autonomy in how much time they spend developing each component because splitting the sequence up into lessons can encourage coverage rather than learning.

Each unit of work has a sequence of learning that builds towards a high quality end result.  We frame these as questions that children should be able to answer once the work has been completed.  By setting out what exactly children need to be able to articulate, it allows those writing the plans to consider different ways in which that can be achieved.

Deliberate vocabulary development

With a good overview of the content of a unit of work and where it fits in to the overall curriculum, choosing target vocabulary that children simply must understand serves two purposes.  The first is to ensure that teachers focus vocabulary instruction on that which will contribute most to understanding the key concepts of that unit.  Those with well developed subject knowledge are far better placed to make those decisions than if teachers needed to get to grips with the content and do this themselves.  The second purpose is to give leaders a simple way of monitoring the extent to which the curriculum has been learned and understood.  Sampling children’s understanding of the identified key vocabulary is a great starting point for assessment.  This can be picked up from looking at the quality of articulation of vocabulary in children’s work as well as some good old fashioned questioning.  More on this in part 3.

Identification of necessary prior knowledge

Ideally, each unit of work builds on what children have been taught at some point in the past but it is inevitable that children will forget some of what is necessary to understand the more complex ideas that come later on.  Time at the beginning of a unit of work needs to be set aside to assess and reteach what children should have remembered from those previous units.  Many schools will experience children joining school at different times of the year and at different points in the key stage and so deliberately checking and reteaching required prior knowledge helps those children to succeed too.

A thread of key concepts

Early on in the first phase of strategic curriculum leadership, I used the national curriculum and the work of the subject associations to clarify the key concepts for each subject – the big ideas that often recur at increasing levels of complexity in most year groups.  Examples of key concepts are:

  • position on a number line in maths
  • the effect of writing on a reader in English
  • the idea that a force is required to change an object’s movement in science
  • cause, effect and legacy in history
  • scale in geography
  • worship in RE
  • identity in PSHE
  • performance in music
  • invasion strategy in PE
  • depth in art
  • accent and pronunciation in French
  • debugging in computing

These concepts should be regularly revisited and developed iteratively over the span of a curriculum and drawing explicit attention to them in medium term plans helped to focus the plans on addressing them as well as drawing attention to high level curriculum thinking for teachers reading and using them.

What teachers need to know

Teachers’ subject knowledge is vital to them explaining clearly and enthusing children in each subject.  Proper research into the topics being taught takes time but this burden can be eased by the inclusion of key subject knowledge for teachers on each medium term plan.  Experts compiled extracts, links and videos for teachers to access as a bare minimum to teach the unit well.  This has now become a significant strand of our CPD offer.  The experts writing the medium term plans will occasionally come across some content that clearly requires some high quality face to face training too.  When developing our art plans and talking to the teachers that would be teaching each topic, it became clear that a unit on perspective drawing and a unit on op art would never be successful without structured training because the teachers had no experience at all of them.  Working with a local artist, they showed our teachers how execute certain artistic techniques and as a result, we had far more confident teachers and excellent pieces of art.

Skeleton presentations for teachers

Teachers would need to take the medium term plans that have been written and turn them into what children will see in each lesson.  However this is another example of a key moment when all the careful thinking about curriculum design can go wrong.  It is very easy now to find published presentations, some free and some needing subscription, with a quick online search.  The quality is variable and so is the relevance.  Choosing the right models, images pictures and video clips to show children can be time consuming when done properly.  For this reason, the plan is for those with the time and expertise to source these visuals and compile them for teachers into presentations.  Teachers will be free to use these if they wish and welcome to add to or improve them.

A key consideration throughout all this work is striking the right balance between prescription and autonomy.  Leaning too far towards prescription may ease workload but remove a lot of teacher choice about what is covered and when.  Leaning too far towards autonomy may give teachers more choice but increase their workload and result in a loss of cohesion.  For this reason, the medium term plans that we wrote detail what children need to know, understand and remember.  Ideas are provided for how teachers might achieve that but it is here that teachers have autonomy to do different things.  These decisions are guided by our teaching and learning guidance about what makes great teaching.

In the third part of this series, I describe the information that we gather that informs us of how well the curriculum is being learned and then what we do with that information.

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Strategic curriculum leadership phase 1: the big picture

Context

This post, the first of three, details the process carried out to reform the curriculum upon taking up my Headship back in July 2018.  Every school’s needs are different so it is important to set the process I carried out into context.  The school I took over was judged as requires improvement in March 2017.  Between then and my appointment, there was a time of leadership instability.  Initial visits to the school revealed that there was a lack of any curriculum leadership – no subject overviews, no progression across the key stage and no shared understanding of how any subject should be taught.


Strategic curriculum leadership 

Phase 1: The big picture


Curriculum design principles

The first task was to settle upon a set of principles to guide any decision making on curriculum choices.  Dylan Wiliam’s Principled Curriculum Design was incredibly useful here and I settled on the following:

If the circumstances were different, for example inheriting an established senior leadership team, then this would have ideally been done in collaboration with other leaders.  In this case, working with colleagues external to the school to challenge my thinking was the only option to address the urgency of change due to having a very small and new to post senior leadership team.

Subject overviews

The national curriculum was the necessary first port of call for subject specifics.  This served two purposes.  The first was to sequence the content across KS2 (we’re a junior school).  Some subjects were more straightforward to sequence, for example history is broadly chronological from year 3 to year 6.  The second purpose was to determine the key concepts that threaded through the key stage – the big ideas that children ought to leave in Y6 with a thorough knowledge of.  I checked in against the curriculum design principles at this point to ensure that what had been arranged met the conditions for a great curriculum.  Carrying out this work and discussing progress with others in different schools led to the first key insight about curriculum development:

School leaders need to do the thinking themselves.

There are many off the peg curricula for schools to buy.  Doing this is a mistake.  Although there will be many common features, a relevant curriculum looks different for a school in Cornwall than it does for a school in Birmingham city centre because alongside meeting statutory requirements, it must meet the needs of the children in the school and the communities that they live in.

The end result of this phase of strategic curriculum leadership is to have curriculum overviews for each subject where each unit of work’s existence can be justified by answering two simple questions:

  1. Why this?
  2. Why now?

The first question relates to the content choice.  Much of this is driven by the national curriculum but there will be some that is not.  Consideration also needs to be given to the type of content and the role it play in the bigger picture of what it means to have a deep understanding of each subject.  If the content is hierarchical, then the acquisition of knowledge further down the line will be dependent upon it.  For example, children need to know how to multiply and divide by powers of 10 before they can convert between different units of measurement.  The choice of content can be made for a few main reasons:

  • it is in the national curriculum,
  • it is not in the national curriculum but nonetheless interesting and therefore worth teaching and
  • it is a necessary component to develop a larger composite schema at some point in the future.

Alternatively, if the content is cumulative, it serves a purpose to build a broader understanding of the subject as a whole but other units may be dependent upon it.  For example, the KS2 history national curriculum stipulates the study of an aspect or theme in British history that extends pupils’ chronological knowledge beyond 1066, but the decision on which aspect or theme could stand independent of the rest of the history content.  Swapping it out with another aspect or theme may not affect the curriculum as a whole.  Leaders’ choice of content should be driven by the school’s local context.  For example, an estate near my school has roads named after aircraft and is called the Bomber Estate, hence our choice to include a unit on the role that that the Battle of Britain played in WWII.

The second question (Why now?) relates to the order in which the subject content is arranged.  With the national curriculum stipulating that the subject content needs to be learned by the end of the key stage (despite for some subjects being organised by year group), mapping out the order of units of work across the key stage by terms or half terms needs deliberate thought.  Some concepts may suit a particular phase but each decision about where in the key stage a unit of work fits should include how it builds on what children already know and how this unit contributes to a more sophisticated understanding further down the line.  This exemplifies the second key insight about curriculum development:

The curriculum is the progress model.

If the curriculum has been designed well enough, with good content choices arranged in a logical order, then its gets progressively harder year on year.  Therefore, just by keeping up with the expectations of the curriculum, children will be making progress.

There are some decisions to be made about links across subjects at this stage of curriculum planning.  Christine Counsell words this memorably as crazy cross curricularity vs intelligent interdisciplinarity.  An example of crazy cross curricularity would be forcing links between subjects to adhere to a topic theme.  I chose to implement subjects as individual disciplines, making links where they naturally arise.  I also took it a step further in an attempt to give children multiple opportunities to interact with subject content across the key stage.  It was originally rather tempting to  to fit those natural links together in the same term, for example doing some Egyptian themed art work in the same term and year group as the Egyptian history unit.  Instead, these links are spaced out so that after children have learned about Ancient Egyptian history in the summer of year 3, they learn about ancient Egyptian art in the Autumn of year 4.  Teachers can use this opportunity to encourage children to recall what they learned about Ancient Egypt as well as adding a layer of understanding to their general knowledge with the art unit.  Trips were planned in the same way.  By moving them out of the term or half term where the unit of work was being taught, we increased the frequency of interaction with the content with the goal of making it more memorable over time.

Composite tasks for each unit of work

The ‘Why this?  Why now?’ consideration was also applied to the sequence of learning in each unit of work.  In researching different schools’ curricula before embarking on this work, I was surprised to see how common it was for leaders to provide teachers with titles for units of work followed by little more than statements copied and pasted from the national curriculum.  If teachers are expected to write medium term plans from subject overviews, how can the curriculum be deliberately built over key stages?  It is because of this that our subject overviews include a sequence of learning for that half term – key components that children need to learn about in order to learn what is required in the national curriculum.  After writing a few of these in conjunction with colleagues from other schools, it led to the third key insight about curriculum development:

Clarify the desired outcome for each unit of work first.

Sequences of learning can then be sketched out to build towards these end points.  Each component in the sequence of learning contributes to children being able to produce a high quality piece of work at the end of each unit.

This part of the process was particularly interesting and the outcome was a good idea of the end product for each unit of work in every subject.  They take two forms.  The first is an authentic cross curricular piece of writing.  We stipulated the purpose based on the English curriculum, for example at the end of a Y3 science unit of work on rocks and soils, children would write to inform about the different rocks and soils with illustrated examples.  The second form of end product is subject specific, for example a scientific enquiry into electrical circuits or a two point perspective drawing.  For some units of work, we looked for a combination, such as a watercolour painting of Japanese cherry blossom with an accompanying written piece explaining the artistic decision making.

These pieces of work are not intended to be independent  and as such they are not there for assessment.   They are there for two reasons.  The first is that producing work of high quality as a result of the build up of learning over a period of time is a great experience for children.  They can see that what they do lesson by lesson is going somewhere.  Success breeds motivation too.  The second reason is that the quality of this work, particularly from our most vulnerable children, provides us with feedback about how well the curriculum has been implemented.  We take a good look at the pieces of work that have been produced alongside professional conversations and as a result, make adjustments to the sequences of learning in order to increase the likelihood that the next cohort produce work that is even better.  Pieces of work become models of excellence for future cohorts.

With a clear idea of what the end goal is, leaders can make far better decisions about content choices and how they are sequenced over a unit of work to best enable all children to be able to produce high quality work.  These sequences form the basis of medium term plans which are written for teachers.  The rationale behind providing detailed medium term plans for teachers is described in the next post.

 

 

 

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