I object to learning objectives

@TeacherToolkit has today published part of this blog post on his site – to view, click here.

When I started as an NQT, I was looking for something to research for the final year of my MA. It needed to be something I felt strongly about and that could I “contribute to new thinking” on. Within a week of starting at my NQT school, it was handed to me on a plate. In one of my very first lessons, I asked a pupil at the end of the lesson if he could explain what he had learned. He said, “L dot O dot…” and then told me what he thought he’d learned. I asked him what ‘L dot O dot’ meant and he said he didn’t know but that, “That’s what the teacher always says.”

One of the ‘non-negotiables’ at the school was that three, differentiated learning objectives were shared with children at the very beginning of every lesson and that they copied them down into their books, whatever the lesson. The children were ability grouped at the beginning of the year and labelled ‘red’, ‘orange’ or ‘green’, and that was the L.O. they copied out. At the end of each lesson, the teacher ticked or ‘dotted’ the L.O. to say whether or not the child had met the objective. When books were scrutinised (and wow, were they scrutinised!) if too many L.O.s had been ticked, work was not challenging enough. If not enough L.O.s were ticked, support and differentiation were not good enough.

I wondered what impact the non-negotiables had on children’s attitudes to their learning and decided to explore this further, from the perspective of the pupils. This formed the basis of my MA action research and subsequent thesis.

I held focus groups of children in my Y4/5/6 class; kept a teaching and learning journal; interviewed headteachers from a range of primary schools; sent questionnaires to all primary headteachers within the county and had a long conversation with Shirley Clarke (she of the WALT and WILF acronyms). I examined the literature with a fine-tooth comb; spoke to a representative from OfSTED and observed the attitudes to learning of the children in my class, especially when I broke the rules and did things a little differently from what they were used to.

At the time, I summarised the findings of my action research as follows:

The overwhelming message from both findings and literature seems to be that pupils and headteachers have very different perceptions of L.O.s and very different understanding of their function. What seems to be of importance to the setting is of little relevance according to the pupils. Further, the headteachers within the LA perceive L.O.s as beneficial in focusing pupils, whilst pupils comment that L.O.s can actually put them off learning and make them “switch off” from lessons.

The findings and the literature both show that there is a general notion that schools perceive external accountability to be a driving factor in shaping practice, and yet the frameworks which oversee school inspections are ambiguous in describing expectations. It is interesting, therefore, that the least amount of prescription within the LA is seen in those schools deemed ‘outstanding’ in Ofsted terms.

It is also of significance that the literature paints a picture of many schools engaging in “surface level” formative assessment: the findings also suggest that there is a lack of deeper understanding of the principles and what is needed to embed formative assessment effectively. Indeed, the findings show that when children engage with the strategies on a deeper level, they are able to reflect more accurately, and with more ownership and engagement, on their own learning.

Further, although pupil perception of differentiation was not a focus of the research, the findings show that pupils have very strong feelings about explicit differentiation: possibly providing a focus for future research.

The recent Twitter thread, and its overspill into a Facebook conversation, showed that there continues to be prescription within schools about how and when L.O.s should be shared with children, and whether or not they need to be copied into books. I decided to tweet a quick straw poll to find out the current situation:

At the time of writing, I’ve had 127 responses via tweets and DMs. Of those, 122 respondents replied ‘Yes’ and 5, ‘no’.

DMs on twitter referred to teachers “cheating” by typing out L.O.s for children and about how teachers were marked down during lesson observations for not getting children to copy out L.O.s into books.

There were 86 mentions of this being done to provide evidence of learning (yes, I did question how writing out, ‘L.O I can…’ provides evidence of learning), and 38 mentions of it being so that children know what they are learning. Again, I questioned whether copying out, “L.O. I can…’ is the only means of sharing with children what they are learning.

@ICT-MrP copied the tweet to his Facebook page, where there were 53 responses: 45 ‘yes’ and 8 ‘no’. Again, there were comments about this being a waste of time, about how much time it does take, and about it mainly being for evidence of learning.

If you would like to read the full thesis, Learning Objectives: Evaluating the role of WALT and WILF in the primary classroom, please email me or DM me your email address via twitter @rpd1972.

Here are just a few of the tweets seen recently about L.O.s:

blog 1 Blog 2 Blog 3 Blog 4 Blog 5

#Nurture1415

I’ve read quite a few #nurture1415 posts over the last couple of days: thoughtful, life-affirming, reflective pieces by people who have important things to say and interesting events to reflect on. They are a hard act to follow but I thought I’d have a go. Nurture-lite, if you will.

On exactly the same date last year, my #nurture1314 post was my first post on my shiny new blog. I haven’t revisited it since, so this provides me with a good opportunity to reflect on what I wanted to achieve at this point last year.

I wanted to spend more time with my son, and I did. He learned to drive and, less than four months after his 17th birthday in the summer, is now driving independently and keeping me awake at night. I wonder if that worry ever goes away?

I wanted to gain the trust of my rescue dog. It took a long time, but we are there now. She’s happy, silly and still very exuberant, but she’s most definitely part of my family now.

I said I wanted to make a positive impact at school, especially with the implementation of the new curriculum. I’ve been given responsibility for learning and teaching, which is an exciting role I now want to take even further.

iPads! We went from the promise of two to the purchase of eighteen within the blink of an eye. I’m still enjoying finding ways to use them to enhance learning.

I wanted to attend a TeachMeet. They seem to be a bit thin on the ground in Shropshire, unfortunately. I was asked to present at one, but it was cancelled.

I said I wanted to go out more. I can still count the number of times I went out this year on my fingers, but I think I need fingers from more than one hand, which is a small step forward.

Running. Running has sort of been superseded by bootcamp, which I now attend 3 times each week, but I’m still plodding away. And I’m pleased to report than I am getting (a little bit) faster and (a little bit) further.

Weightloss is linked to running and bootcamp and again, I’m making steps forward.

I said I wanted to go on holiday and see my sister more. I think a week in Tenerife with my sister ticked both boxes!

I wanted to investigate becoming published. I wonder if articles in ukedchat magazine count?

I said I wanted to take on an ITT student. I did. Next time, I’ll hope the student doesn’t withdraw from placement after two weeks!

I still want to be the best teacher I can be, for every child in my class.

My wishes for 2015:

  • I mentioned last year about making some changes. I am still trying to locate my “bravery” gene, which I think I may temporarily have mislaid. This year’s mission is to find it and use it.
  • I am now fitter than I ever remember being before, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to rest on my laurels. I am going to enter some local mud runs with fellow bootcampers and push myself even further this year.
  • I want to support my son as he develops his independence and moves into the grown up world of work. I will not nag him about changing his mind about going to university this year, and I will try very hard not to insist on a text every time he leaves the house in his car. I’m not making promises on that one, though.
  • I still want to be the best teacher I can be, for every child in my class. My practice is developing all the time, and taking on learning and teaching responsibility in school gives me greater chance to work with others and continue to grow as a teacher.

So, not much change from this time last year. Maybe my end of year report should say, “Must try harder?”

Feeling guilty

I haven’t written a blog post in a very long time. It’s ironic that I am able to find the time to post because I am off work, ill.

Most teachers don’t take sick days. Last week I was sick early on Friday morning morning but still went in to school, where I found out that the headteacher had also been sick that morning. We both dragged ourselves through the day, hanging on to the thought that the next day was Saturday and we could have a rest. One of my colleagues then pointed out on Monday that emailing about planning at 10.30 on the Saturday night did not constitute “a rest”.

I think I’ve got flu – it’s certainly more than a cold – and I spent the day in my classroom yesterday shivering, coughing and finding it increasingly difficult to even walk. I went to bed early, after adjusting my planning for today and emailing it to my TAs, hoping that a night’s sleep would miraculously make me feel better. I woke many times during the night feeling poorly, and realised as my alarm went off at 5.50am that, actually, I could hardly move. I discovered a few minutes later that I have no voice at all.

Reluctantly, I sent a text to my headteacher, apologising and explaining in great detail what the children were supposed to be doing today, where resources could be found, and how to find things on my computer in the classroom. With typical good humour she sent me a text back essentially telling me to shut up and go back to sleep.

I did manage to go back to sleep, but I have woken up over and over, worrying about whether or not all the children’s permission slips have been brought back; whether the Christmas maths activity should have been differentiated more for the less able in the class and extended more for the more able; whether the behaviour of a select few went out the window today in light of the unexpected change to routine…

Now I’m worrying about tomorrow. Will I be well enough to go to school? Should I make a decision tonight and not have to worry about the alarm in the morning or should I decide in the morning and run the risk of leaving cover to the last minute again? I wonder how many other professions feel such guilt at taking one or two days off work, ill?

High expectations for all?

This week I’ve worked with a very experienced senior teacher to jointly plan and deliver a maths lesson as part of our school’s peer to peer lesson monitoring. I have also just read a blog post by @nancygedge about differentiation and inclusion (here). The two are linked by the notion of pigeon holing children in the classroom.

When I completed my MA a few years ago, I chose to research and write about children’s perceptions of formative assessment, and ended up getting a little bit sidetracked by learning objectives and sorting children into ability groups. the two ideas have stayed with me as bugbears ever since. At the time, I worked in a school which had very prescriptive “non-negotiables” for every lesson which included children copying out differentiated learning objectives into their books at the very beginning of the lesson, a 3-way differentiated learning objective being practically the first words the teacher spoke in every lesson, and children being grouped into colour-coded ability groups. Their books even had to be stickered with coloured stickers to show which group they were in.

I am now in a school where teachers are trusted to teach and use their professional judgement about how to best do that. One of the first things I did when I left my previous school was to scrap the idea of ability groups and give children some ownership of their learning by allowing them choice. I still sometimes pull together a little focus group who all have similar next steps or who share a misconception, but for the most part, children in my class are taught together and then presented with a series of challenges from which they can choose.

I teach in a mixed year group class, years 4, 5 and 6 all together. This has its drawbacks, but one of the great things about it is that “stage not age” teaching is more easily achieved. However, that’s not without it’s difficulties, too. One very sensitive but self-motivated year 4 pupil in my class loves to push themselves and always wants to achieve the very best. This means that they can sometimes choose work aimed at level 5 or 6, rather than the high level 3 that they are. Sometimes that means that they need a little extra support to succeed, but succeed they usually do. However, the ethos in my classroom also means that sometimes, they decide that the most challenging of the choices is a little tricky for them and they lower their sights a little. But they have ownership. They have choice. They are not pigeon-holed.

It doesn’t take a child long to work out that if they are in the “circles” maths group then their teacher has lower expectations of their potential than if they were in the “octagons” group. It doesn’t take a “full stop” long to work out that they don’t need to work as hard as an “inverted comma”.

Glass ceiling, anyone?

Learning through playing the game

A couple of weeks ago, I attended a PE course delivered by an England hockey coach. One thing he made very clear was that children should be taught hockey skills through playing the game. He talked about the relevance of learning new skills (see my earlier blogpost here) and explained how children learn these new skills best in the context of a real game. Yes, they will make mistakes (many of which he advised should not be picked up on immediately), but they will also learn through the game itself. Many skills will materialise naturally, and then can be used as teaching points for the rest of the class.

I was reminded of this “learn through playing the game” maxim during a twitter conversation the same week about teaching grammar.

@kvnmcl asked: “Have any other primary schools brought in grammar, punctuation and spelling as distinct timetabled lessons?”

I responded: “Lunacy. It needs to be taught in context!” Ok, I concede that ‘lunacy’ may have been a misjudged choice of word, but I firmly stand by my belief that good teaching and learning of spelling, grammar and punctuation should be in context rather than in isolated lessons.

Over the course of the day, the conversation and its number of participants grew. Words were twisted out of context and my original meaning was picked apart. I felt that I was being backed into a corner, and I received 11 DMs asking me if I was ok or advising me to ignore some of the comments. I chose to bow out of the conversation, but I have been mulling the subject over ever since.

I strongly believe that the most effective way of teaching grammar and punctuation is in context: linked to engaging texts and taught through an approach to English as a whole subject rather than through a series of disjointed elements.

I’ve seen lessons where children are shown a new sentence type, and are then asked to write out numerous examples of that sentence type with no context. I’ve seen lessons where children are told what an adverb is and then spend the rest of the lesson underlining adverbs in given sentences. I’m not suggesting that this is widespread, but it happens. One of the points made on twitter was that we wouldn’t teach young children a sound in isolation, without putting it into the context of words. That’s how I feel about the teaching of grammar in isolation.

Yes, sometimes skills need to be explicitly taught and then practised by the children. But that doesn’t mean that those skills and the practising need to be in isolation from the rest of the teaching of English. And yes, that does happen.

I try and teach through texts as often as I can in English (see my blog post here). At the moment, my Y4/5/6 children are reading ‘There’s a boy in the girls’ bathroom’ by Louis Sachar. Through the text, they have learned 3 new Alan Peat sentence types, which have given me plenty of scope for using the metalanguage of grammar they will need for their Y6 SPaG tests. We have looked at apostrophes for possession and omission; we have looked at antonyms and synonyms; we have explored modal verbs and we have looked at the punctuation of direct speech. And those are only the planned bits! There have been so many asides and so much incidental learning brought about by discussion of a rich text and children immersing themselves in writing in different genres in response.

And, not a single “grammar” lesson in sight.

New beginnings

New shoes. New school bag. New classroom. New pupils (well, some new pupils). New responsibilities.

Today is the last day of the holidays. It’s a lovely warm, sunny day and I’ve spent most of it doing diversionary activities so that I don’t actually have to organise myself for the morning. I’ve also remembered all those things I was going to do in the summer holidays but didn’t get round to. Maybe I’ll get them done in October half term instead. Or maybe not.

I’m usually quite excited at this point in the year, looking forward to the year ahead and getting back into a routine. I’m not so excited this year, but I can’t quite put my finger on why.

I’m moving into a new class this September, from Y2/3 back up to Y4/5/6, although last time I taught upper KS2 was in a different school. I’ll have taught this year’s Y4s and Y5s before and know that there are some quite challenging issues to cope with. My new room is the oldest room in school – a real Victorian classroom with windows too high to see out of. It’s also a corridor from the old part of the school to the new, so has a constant stream of children and adults walking through. It’s also been attacked by builders in the holidays, who have undone all my hard work setting up the room in the first weeks of the break. I have no idea what I will find in the morning, but my Headteacher forbade me from going in to school today to check, warning me it would just make me cry.

I will have a high proportion of statements and SEN children this year, necessitating four extra adults in the classroom with me. I’m also hosing my first ITT student this term. So, lots of new experiences coming up.

One thing I am really looking forward to is taking on some responsibility for teaching and learning in school, in addition to my English and ICT co-ordinator roles. I’m not sure quite what that’s going to entail yet in a 3 class school, but it’s exciting nonetheless.

Little boxes

It’s that time again to fill in end-of-year data sheets and calculate the progress of various groups, vulnerable or otherwise, of children in my Y2/3 class.

Although I don’t actually enjoy filling in little colour-coded boxes and reducing children to numbers and value added scores, there is a certain serenity about the numbers that I like.

The numbers don’t tell the story of the teaching and learning in my classroom over the year; they don’t show the laughter and smiles; the “in” jokes that we build together throughout the year or the personalities of each individual child. But what they do show is that, despite my many moments of panic and self-doubt, despite the afternoons where I have looked around a glitter and tissue-paper filled classroom and wondered how on earth I could get so and so to understand fractions or such and such to actually remember all his number bonds of 10, the children in my class have made progress. Despite me or because of me, they have still made progress.

I’d much rather look through their books and compare pieces of writing from September and now. I’d much rather work with a child or a group doing some maths problem solving and see how their mathematical thinking and reasoning has moved on in the last 10 months. I’d much rather listen to a child read and see the joy on their face as they enjoy reading rather than struggling to decode every word.

But, there is something very satisfying about those small boxes of numbers and the hard work they represent.

Imitate, innovate, independent application…

I love teaching writing. Helping children shape sentences; hunting for the perfect word; working in role; exploring possibilities and alternatives: it doesn’t get much better than that.
I teach all of my English lessons through a text. At the moment, to link in with our overall “Rainforests” theme, we are using ‘The Great Kapok Tree’ for the whole half term (all four weeks of it!) In the past I have used instructions, poems, play scripts, traditional tales, picture books, film extracts… the list is endless.
Teaching in this way provides children with writing structures to hang their own writing on. It engages them. It gives them the freedom to be creative and imaginative within the safe framework of a familiar piece of writing.
At lunchtime today, my Headteacher brought a piece of Year 1 writing to show me. It was a variation of ‘Jasper’s Beanstalk’, written with good structure, ambitious language and creativity. The pupil had taken the story she knew so well through creative teaching of it over a period of time, and used it as the backbone for her own story. Her writing was hugely successful and her teacher was justifiably proud.
In a science lesson on Monday, I asked my Year 2/3s to write a set of instructions to enable someone else to carry out a plant investigation we had just started. Last term, we spent over a month working with an example text, ‘How to catch a slimy stone dragon’ (adapted from Pie Corbett’s ‘Talk for writing across the curriculum’). On Monday, I heard children reciting huge swathes of the slimy stone dragon text to themselves and each other as they wrote their new set of instructions. Again, the children have produced some fantastic writing, using a familiar structure and text-specific features.
I wouldn’t want to teach writing any other way.

A new term begins

Today was one of those days that remind me how much I love my job. I wasn’t looking forward to an early start after two weeks of Easter holidays, but the smiles and laughter as the children piled into my classroom this morning more than made up for it.

I was greeted with hugs and cries of “I missed you”, and the children’s excitement at seeing the new layout of our classroom and finding where they were to sit was infectious.

We started the morning with a whole class guided reading session and, because the IWB was moved during the holiday, all the children could see the electronic version of ‘The Iron Man’ on the screen. It’s the small things like that that make all the difference!

We then had a morning of English. We are going to write adventure stories this half term and, to help me plan next steps for each child, I thought I’d throw them in at the deep-end and ask them to write a story at the beginning of the unit. The children watched the introduction to ‘Jamie and the magic torch’; drew pictures of the imaginary land they thought Jamie might visit; used a planning frame and then launched themselves into their stories. I may have a huge pile of marking to plough through tonight as a result, but the fact that every child has made such evident progress in their writing makes the task worth it.

After lunch we examined plants using magnifying glasses; looked at roots; ate carrots and radishes; re-potted pot-bound plants and “planted” carrot tops in saucers of water to watch over the coming weeks. Huge progress in learning behaviours was evident: my class have become responsible, willing, engaged and conscientious pupils who are a pleasure to teach.

We had a few minutes of outside golden time to reward the fantastic learning behaviours shown all day before I showed the children their first ever blogging challenge. I’m not sure who was more excited: them or me!

We finished off the day by starting our new whole-class story, ‘The Jungle Book’. The children sat enraptured as the story transported them to a world of man-cubs and fearsome tigers and there were many cries of, “Awwww” when it was time to get ready for home.

Finally, happy parents greeted me and the smiling children at the door. I had several positive comments and a group of children who ran back to give me a goodbye hug before leaving the playground.

What a lovely start to a new term! And, even better, I get to do it all again tomorrow.

2B or not 2B?

I’ve spent a lot of time over the last couple of days thinking about a very timely and, as usual, beautifully written blog post by @nancygedge: “Testing Times“. From the perspective of a parent, I completely agree with the sentiments behind this. When my child was at primary, I wanted him to have good friends; be happy; enjoy going to school and behave well. I wanted that more than I wanted him to leave as a Level 5 in reading, writing and maths. Now he’s in sixth form, I still want the same (although I’d rather he got A*s than Level 5s). Of course I want him to achieve and work hard, but first and foremost I want him to be happy.

From a teacher’s perspective, though, things are a little different. I teach Y2/3, so end of Y2 levels are looming. I have very challenging targets to meet for my PM, including 100% of children making at least “good” progress. Of course I want all the children in my class to make good progress, but what I do not want to do is set them up to fail later on.

Last year, my first time in Y2, I had a small group of very able pupils who comfortably achieved 3Bs. I had some that were not so comfortably at that level but who, with lots of hard work and a following wind (and tracking grids ever present), achieved Level 3. With the system as it is, that means they were recorded as working at 3B.

Those Y2s are now my Y3s, and in order for them to have made the required amount of progress, they now need to be working at level 4C, and by the end of Y6, if they have continued making the same good to outstanding levels of progress they should be working at L6.

Some of them will, but I know that there are some who won’t. The ones who scraped a level 3 in Y2 by the skin of their teeth: the ones who now, at the end of Y3, are working as hard as they can but are struggling to tip into level 4. Level 4, at the end of Y3.

And now, it’s that time of year again when I’m looking to end of Key Stage assessment: when my pupils are working as hard as they can and when I simply can’t work any harder to help them achieve the levels they deserve. Again, I have a couple of able Y2s looking at 3Bs, but again, I have those less comfortable few who I am pushing hard. Am I setting them up to fail later? Am I doing my colleagues a disservice by setting these children on an achievement trajectory that is so steep it can’t be maintained?

Yes, I want all the pupils in my class to achieve their very best. But, ultimately, I want them to be happy children, not numbers.