2018 has been the best year of my career by far. Not necessarily the easiest, but it’s been the year where I have learnt the most about developing my teaching practice. I feel closer than ever to achieving what I call the Pinnacle of Teaching.
The pinnacle? That’s what I call teaching where the highest possible proportion of pupils learn what is being taught on the first attempt. It’s hard, but possible, and I think I got close to it whilst working at Great Yarmouth Charter Academy (Charter).
Charter was the best school that I’ve worked at. It’s the best, I think, because staff are encouraged to work with what Ray Dalio, in his book Principles, called ‘Radical Transparency’. Dalio defines it as “a culture that is direct and honest in communication and sharing of company strategies so that all people are trusting and loyal to the continuous evolution of the organization. For leaders, radical transparency is a way to build trust with their employees.”
At Charter, if I made a mistake I felt I could report it without fear of rebuke or reprisal. A moment of magic or a mistake, the reaction from staff was always supportive, professional and converted into a learning point. Charter is a school where teachers can openly talk about a mistake they have made in a lesson, or how they could have taught that lesson better upon reflection, or how a lesson went better than expected. This is because the Headmaster, Barry Smith, is unapologetically transparent. Barry is transparent with his teachers, support staff, pupils, parents, the media, you name it. He supports his staff, nurtures them and empowers them. I’ve regularly spoken to Barry or a member of SLT about something that went wrong in a lesson, and how I learnt so much from it, and how I would do things differently. This practice was encouraged, and Barry would regularly share such anecdotes with staff during briefings. You would see the member of staff being mentioned beam with joy for being recognised for their honesty.
The transparent environment gave me the space to challenge orthodoxies and previous pedagogical insights and try other teaching strategies which could (and did) result is greater returns. The return was inching ever closer to the Pinnacle of Teaching. How did I come close to achieving this? The determining factor was pre-emptive planning.
In my planning, I would prepare worked examples, a parallel set of AfL questions and then create practice exercises for pupils to complete independently. I would try to cover all the possible problem types for a concept, so there would be a teaching sequence where all the pupils would quickly transition from the simple types to the most complex. Importantly, I would allow more time for the harder examples because all pupils need to be given the time and space to tackle a concept in its most complex form.
This pre-emptive planning saved me minutes in every lesson, which ultimately saved hours over the course of the term. I wouldn’t be re-teaching, I was happier, and the kids felt more successful.
From my resources I was able to see and explain
- What the children were doing
- why the kids were learning what they were learning;
- what the children gained from this learning experience
- how I knew the children were learning
- how the children knew they were learning
With planned resources, I could then focus on my teaching. Once pupils had learnt the material, I focused on helping them to retain what they were learning. This is so important. I tested pupils’ understanding by writing 5 – 7 recap questions on a post-it note, and kids would do these questions on their mini whiteboards at the start of the lesson. These were the hard questions that I knew pupils needed daily practice to prevent forgetting. I would then ask them to complete AfL questions on their mini whiteboards along with a fortnightly quiz to cover the full domain of what they had learnt.
The testing process was about 75% of the teaching process. This doesn’t mean the actual teacher instruction isn’t important. It just means the testing has to be more important. The testing process is the pupils chance to apply what they have understood from the teacher instruction. The learning for pupils starts once they are tested.
I think it’s commonly mistaken that pupils listening to the teacher going through worked examples is the learning process completed. Listening isn’t necessarily evidence that the kids have learnt anything, but pupils listening to the teacher gives the impression they are learning.
In March, I was feeling more successful as a teacher, and my pupils were getting accustomed to the feeling of success. They were learning content faster, and retaining it for longer.
Here are some videos of pupil work (Year 8 set 3/3):
To add a bit of context, I worked in a school that was struggling. Once Barry arrived behaviour rules were enforced consistently, which put the authority back into the hands of the teachers but the pupils that I taught had a shaky foundation of knowledge that I had to re-sequence the scheme of work to teach them the fundamentals: four operations (with Year 7 and bottom sets), negative arithmetic, number theory etc. Only after the first half term of sorting out the basics was I able to make the scheme of work accessible for them. This was a difficult call, but I could do this because I could be honest and say – “the kids haven’t really learnt much from the previous years, if they have, then don’t remember any of it.”
I got to a point where a large proportion of children in each class would complete the AfL questions correctly on the first attempt. Yes, there were some children who struggled to get questions right the first time. However, over time those pupils eventually would get the answer correct on the first question attempt, more frequently. These are the pupils that I think about the most when I am creating resources. How do I make this pupil successful when completing a sequence of questions?
The radically transparent environment enabled me to do my job to the best of my ability. Kids could learn better and were better able to retain their learning. Because this was going on in every classroom the school’s results achieving at least a 4, leapt from 30% to 58% in just one year.
It’s a magical place. Go and visit, Barry and his team would love to have you. The word on Twitter, is that he is looking to recruit Maths Teachers and a new Head of Maths. Get in touch if you are interested.
Read more about the school in these blog posts: