As teachers in the Western world begin to head back to school, I remember the words of my last post: things will be better this year.

Upon finishing my first year as a confirmed bachelor (and NQT) in Yorkshire, I spent several days enjoying films, games, books and meat in my seaside apartment. After an emotionally-charged year of teaching hand-to-mouth, I appreciated some time spent traversing more imaginative realms of experience.

That year just gone had seen me initially turning up to school before 7:00am each day (after a blissfully short 5-8 minute commute. On my bike, that is the same time today). I did this for a few reasons:

1) I wanted to be able to have a shower at a distinctly separate time to my housemate who taught down the road at the alternative school.

2) If I did not have the photocopying for the lesson prepared at least 24 hours ahead, then I needed to have it in before the office staff arrived in the morning.

3) It nice to own my classroom before the business of the day.

My previous years teaching in other schools meant that I have accumulated a generous amount of resources: more than I could possibly hope to use. That meant I was able to scour these resources in the morning for pre-prepared PowerPoints and worksheets that would have taken a few years of practice (and many more late nights) to prepare. My first cohort, as all my cohorts, achieved positive value-added (which is to somewhat say that my students achieve better with me than they would do with other teachers), but my teaching still felt rudimentary. My observations were graciously (o)utstanding, and I do believe that individual lessons mostly excellent. However, the connections between what I was doing, from the students’ point of view, were not as strong as I sensed they should be. We were often just doing stuff.

At the point I should like to say that ‘just doing stuff’ is the perception of much of education. Read the CPD descriptions from any company, or the resource banks of the TES: doing stuff (and often excellent stuff!) with students is the order of the day. By my second year I had enough ‘stuff’ to do. However, I still found myself trying to ‘fill time’: that is, I found myself trying making judgements on what ‘stuff’ my students could ‘do’ next. And this decision often seemed to be made in a vacuum. While I made my judgement as best I could based on my students, I still found myself plucking an resource (and often excellent!) from my bank for my students to do.

Marking under this regime of doing ‘stuff’ was arduous. Without planning what I marking (and how could I?), I marked everything for everything. Except, of course I didn’t. Instead my marking would fall somewhat behind, and then I would have to embark upon marathon catch-up sessions that would see comments that might be read or receive a response.

I could not continue like this, legitimately. It felt inefficient, and exhausting.

I was conscious that all the content I had put into place did not seem to make my teaching especially more efficient.

Needless to say, I was receiving (O)utstanding observation ratings from all quarters; I wasn’t complaining! Each individual lesson had purpose and coherence, and my students bought into my energy and vision for what they needed to do. However, the rhythm of learning did not seem to change with them. It is is that rhythm that is the heart of what I am writing about, and what you are still choosing to read about, now.

Firstly, about three to four years ago, I embarked upon a new trail: to teach via the criteria of the assessments that judged my students. The notion that ‘teaching to the test’ is tantamount to treachery against the hearts and souls of our students is well-known and widely-spoken. To that I say this – how many teachers, on the day before results day, wish that they had done anything else other than teach to the test? Indeed, it is possible to coach students to pass an English exam without them actually possessing refined skills of communication? I think not. Well, perhaps so. But teaching to the skills of the exam is not a terrible way of going about English teaching, as long – and this is a notably caveat – as the students do not perceive their personal study of English as one only embarked upon to pass an exam.

The exam, like with all aspects of learning and competition, exists solely to raise the bar of expected performance for a student. The only person in an exam competing is you. Yes, you need to use the result to prosper and compete in the workplace. But that will require more than an exam result.

And so with this mission in mind, I must tell you of one more reason as to why I sought criteria-based teaching. The amount of times my students completed a variety of activities that gained them no discernible skill that could be measured in the upcoming assessment was too many. Of course, each activity they did benefited them in some way. But what was the point in an assessment if it did not allow the student and myself to see the extent to which they were able to retain and apply the knowledge and skills they had gained.

The first person I met on this path was the irrepressible ‘RoamingTeacher’. With her guidance to the use of rubrics, I began to make simple 4-boxed rubrics for lessons.

The difference was palatable.

As I have written about elsewhere, marking was easier. Planning became coherent as it was continually connected to the criteria. And I was continually looking forward to predicting the outcome as to what my teaching might have on my students (phew! as a British teacher, it seems I can barely say such daring lesson-study-based notions easily).

The success of this method was to be found in my results that year: 25% A*, and massive value-added in a talented cohort.

Such success came with a price; I was somewhat fatigued from writing new rubrics each lesson/week. If some life happened (as it gratefully did), then my rubrics would still somewhat succumb to the issue of content-based teaching – they perhaps lacked some coherence. Even so, that lack of coherence meant that were personalised to the class at that time, and allowed me to plan for what they needed.

It took some time until, waiting in a Singaporean airport for six hours, I transferred all my rubrics to the explicit AF criteria, and personalised the levels to the class. This allowed me to link my lessons via the very criteria that I used to assess without having to create (and print) new ones each week (as a minimum). This was a great step forward. But still not enough.

This year, thanks to a stable holiday at the same school, I managed to return to content-based teaching. By that I meant that I am at last able to concentrate on enhancing the content of my courses. This is because I feel my criteria-based teaching has developed to the point where I have the kind of coherence that I once sought back in those frosty mornings in an unheated classroom next to the rolling hills of Yorkshire.

Our coherence comes from the tangible techniques that I teach for:

Creating texts (11 rubrics)
Analysing non-fiction texts (11 rubrics)
Analysing fiction texts (10 rubrics)

These 31 rubrics may seem excessive (which each holding four categories). However, my visual representation, continual reinforcement, and scaffolding hopes to enhance my students’ frameworks for understanding language. I will speak more of this at another point: I will likely package what I do with this, as I am finding it is an almost fully-realised approach for teaching secondary English.

An essential concept of content vs criteria based teaching is that planning does not always take place by looking at a SoW. Although I might have written lesson plans and written content into 4-part lessons, the actual moment of teaching did not always see me look (i.e. remember!) the processes of the lesson. There is always (I think) the need to refresh what you are doing by seeing your planning within 24 hours/the morning of the lesson. Even with all work planned as it is, to do so otherwise is no good. So how should a Scheme of Work be? I will write about this next.

Another aspect of content-based teaching is that is does not flinch from the rigour of multiple-choice comprehension. For too long I subscribed the implicit notion that ‘deeper learning’ and ‘higher thinking’ could be attained ‘rapidly’ (thanks, Ofsted) by students ‘evaluating’ sooner. For this, I would expect my students to understand the content of a story a little too easily, and would instead encourage evaluative skills sooner in the course.

Now, I have planned a specific lesson each week for my KS4 classes where we create and answer multiple choice questions based upon our key texts. I want to make explicit that we can do the opinion stuff once they entirely understand the text (although in reality, such skills happen alongside the knowledge).

This desire occurs in direct response to Andrew Old’s increasingly influential and balanced writing on education. He is a force of nature.

Finally, and without much coherence as this is written still mostly for just me and you, content-based teaching is enhanced by the cultural/literary heritage view of English teaching: students are encouraged to feel connected with the thinking world – as richly disparate as it is. Like the Houston space rocket cleaner (that state are putting a man on the moon, not just cleaning a floor in a ground station), students can see themselves as engaging with these cultural giants, not just ‘doing stuff’ for an exam.

And so what is my plan? To stick to my guns with this balanced approach: to give my students a diet of Full English. As we speak I am garnering texts from every author I can. I am going to set my students a task this week to find texts that interest them. And when my students can edit and work with the content, then something matters; something happens.

I feel better having created a library of content that students can use. I intend to create the largest private collection of such DARTs (Direct Activities Relating to Texts) there can be (for me).