To start my new school I have read a dozen books on pedagogy. Here are some thoughts on the first.

Deans for Impact attempts to use evidenced-based teaching into the classroom for pragmatic and profound impact. Evidenced-based teaching seems to be a no-brainer – do what works best according to data. Some caveats are needed to for accurate application though:

  1. Especially in the humanities, data and impact are not quantifiable. Discerning different types of literary analysis (contextual, connotational, cataphoric etc) is useful at the level of text production. However, understanding a literary response is a holistic experience. Appreciating how context frames particular interpretations almost always requires some form of genre-based analysis. For example, to analyse the context of a sonnet requires an awareness of prosody and whether those genre-expectations of prosody are subverted or supported. Categorising such qualitative judgements is physically possible, but such quantifications lose the situated reality of such analysis. For example, considering the inclusion of Latin in Wyatt’s ‘Who So’ requires different analysis than commenting on the fragmenting caesura in Shakespeare’s ‘Sonnet 32’. In both cases, the intersection of context and prosody is qualitatively different.

2. Impact can itself be a weasel word. It does not commit itself to ’cause’ yets hints instead at a correlation. It suggests undue rigour and purpose. I recently read some action research (funded at about 2,500 pounds!) that concluded Knowledge Organisers ‘have an impact’ on achievement. Action research originally aimed for social change, a valid justification for its interpretivist approach. It is therefore deeply problematic to conduct quasi-experiments under the banner of action research with broad claims of causal impact on achievement.

3. Pedagogy can be employed on the basis that students and teachers feel happy and inspired. Pupils and parents can rate charismatic teachers highly. Courses on Modernism rate more highly than courses on Elizabethan literature at university. Yet if we take learning to involve memory, forgetting and retrieval then learning should at times be difficult, arduous and overwhelming.

4. Therefore, despite some of the issues of cognitive science, our profession cannot just teach on the basis of what ‘feels’ right to the practitioner. The rhythm of the classroom is a craft to be learned, and some pedagogy is pragmatic for well-being (such as some DIRT and silent reading time). But an awareness of cognitive models of learning is a professional duty. I see this as matching the recent reprioritising of the complexity of reader response over the banality of close analysis.

So what principles do I emphasise in my classroom?

A massed-practice curriculum is the English classroom norm. Put simply, students rarely return to work they have completed in many classrooms I have observed. In Beijing, my students received a huge amount of extracts, something like 30+ over the year. When we learned a new concept (usually language-based), students would return to a number of texts of their choice. In Dubai, I rarely saw classrooms where students would return to previous work for redrafting or reconsideration.

An interleaved curriculum involves alternating different content. This requires a nuanced application. At its worst it can simply be Monday = poetry, Tuesday = prose text, Wednesday = play text, Thursday = free choice. This makes logistical sense from a top-down perspective because a generic approach makes accountability across different classrooms easy to track. However, it misses the point of an interleaved curriculum. Far better instead is to focus on one key text at a time with interspersed interleaving. For example, one week on the play text (Romeo and Juliet) can judiciously interleave with other texts on a conceptual basis for 5 minutes at a time. This interleaving can be organic or planned. Ideas about family are inevitable when comparing Romeo and Juliet and An Inspector Calls for example.

An interleaved curriculum also involves different types of practice. Quick and easy low-stakes quizzes are currently missing from my curriculum. I use 100% participation techniques to engage students in the discourse of the classroom. Engaging students in public quizzing is, I think, something I have deprioritised. I think the cataphoric/anaphoric quizzing of plot and story will be a potentially fruitful path for next year.

Marking ideals for students

Feedback is essential for teachers yet contentiously applied. When focused on students it is empowering. Situated feedback, timely and precise, requires an experienced and expert teacher. Such feedback should be directly acted on by the students.

When focused on teachers it is damaging. Top-down measurements of feedback become proof of management. Comments can be counted and marks can be quantified. Some departments even mandate coloured stickers on books; twelve hours of stickering a year. Marking for 170 students can take 10-12 hours in a week (see the post on marking times). Such marking becomes generically useless and unduly frequent, precluding precise responses from students. In better words, students are unlikely to remember generic comments even a week later when producing new work. Such marking is disheartening for all.

Finally, marking should focus on improvement rather than achievement. A craftsman mentality must be encouraged with students gaining greater awareness of what can be improved. Praise should be given for scholarship and effort rather than for perceived achievement. To do this, the full range of marking techniques must be employed. Rubrics, whole-class marking, gallery marking, audio-recorded feedback should be essentials in the 2019 classroom.

A range of metaphors should be used in explains for essential understanding and concept transfer

One of the most damagingly naive diktats from OFSTED in the 2000s was seeing ‘rapid progress’ in a single lesson (or even 20 minutes) as the height of learning. Contriving ‘rapid progress’ for observations became a professional choice. In truth, ‘rapid progress’ of learning in a single lesson is not indicative of excellent explanations or extraordinary work, the implied expertise such an idea suggests. Instead ‘progress’ more ‘rapid’ than expected in a single lesson more likely reveals students suffering from profound issues with materials they should have learned previously. Or (more likely from the proportion of privileged demographics scoring ‘Outstanding’) that the students are more academically able.

Far more effective is to prioritise is the conceptual quality of explanations.

Andy Tharby has written on this well. Essentially, planning a range of concrete metaphors in lessons is conceptually powerful. Take for example the need in literature analysis to support a major quote in a single paragraph with minor quotations.

  1. One concrete metaphor is to consider how the major quote ‘resonates’ with the minor ones like two tuning forks interacting: the meaning of each adjusts in relation to the other.
  2. Another concrete metaphor is to picture a monstrous octopus as the major quote (its torso) with its tentacles (the minor quotes) spreading across the text.
  3. A third metaphor is to see the major quote as the foundations of a house with the minor quotes as the walls or even furnishings.
  4. A colleague considered another metaphor as seeing the major quote as a mother elephant guiding its offspring (representing the minor quotes) via its tail.
  5. As a Wolves FC fan, the major quote can be seen as Ruben Neves controlling the pace of the game (the major quote) whilst the wider players Otto and Doherty (the minor quotes) support the vision of the playmaker.

Each of these metaphors has necessary limitations. These limitations are better framed as a further metaphor of a weighing scale. When one side is prioritised (weighed down), the other side is deprioritised (lifted up). Through this metaphor of weighing scales we can appreciate how no one metaphor can in itself cover all interpretations (of using major and minor quotes). Instead, students and teachers should collaborate in a joint venture to construct meaning from multiple points of view. This is very much what happens in academia and politics although people ascribe themselves to competing points of view.

Such a constructivist venture with the above example could be as follows:

  1. The metaphor of resonation suggests different sound waves can combine to create a new note. Similarly, multiple quotes might dialectically produce a synthetical idea that is distinct in itself. However, resonation does not really tackle the major/minor aspect of the quotes or even the temporal aspect of a text.
  2. The metaphor of an octopus better indicates how a central point of a text (its torso) might link to other points (its tentacles). However, it deprioritises the type of interaction between minor and major quotes.
  3. The metaphor of a house frames better how minor quotes (the walls and furnishings) play a more aesthetic and genre-creating aspect than a major quote. However, a house is a fairly concrete construction that seems less malleable than interpretations actually are.
  4. The metaphor of the elephant-train frames better how interpretations are led by the major idea of a paragraph, its topic sentence and major quote. However, it fails to present the minor quotes as impacting the major quote.
  5. The metaphor of the mighty Wolves FC presents a better interaction of the major and minor quotes (that the major quote requires the temporal difference of the minor quotes for greater meaning). However, it fails to reflect that different quotes can be major or minor depending on given purpose.

Teachers and students and parents need to be involved in developing academic self-confidence

Students should develop growth mindset. I have written about this elsewhere in terms of the need for two streams in non-selective schools: the inclusive stream, and the top stream. Aiming to teach the richest and highest content is essential for students. Presenting the content of the classroom as difficult but doable is the aim of the expert teacher.

Dweck’s growth mindset is more nuanced than just telling students they can do anything they want. For example, innate skill and strength are physically apparent on the rugby field. In the academic classroom, however, the inner-life of thinking is less apparent. Any physical measurement of an inner-life – through writing and speaking – is judged more on cogency and clarity than conceptual sophistication.

The height of teaching is to present expert ideas that students cannot realistically understand entirely. Using methods like those presented above, students are encouraged to engage with those ideas. Where those mountainous ideas are climbed partially, the levels of misunderstanding still provide ledges of conceptual achievement. Continuing our example, a student might just use multiple quotes in a paragraph without effectively prioritising a single one. It is legitimate for them to consider that the first quote employed is the de facto major one – that is a sound understanding for an apprentice. It is not to undermine those students for them to appreciate that more expert examples employ major quotes for an analytical purpose.

An expert literature teacher needs to model a scholarly attitude as one of confident humility. In practice, the world of academia is gladiatorial and political. Public discourse in 2019 is combative and often divergent. Our (older?) students are done a disservice if this human reality is not present in some form in the classroom. Teachers need to present themselves as academically fallible and variable, subject to changing opinions and intellectually liberalism. Vulnerable students should be protected but encouraged through pre-reading and gallery critiques to become craftsmen of their own work, to experience public performance.

Consider some of the myths of the classroom

Books that seek to debunk educational myths are very useful. Didau, Bennett, Christodoulou all raise and challenge pervasive myths of the classroom. The Deans of Impact do the same.

Some prime cognitive myths are:

  1. We only use 10% of our brains.
  2. We have learning styles, and these relate to visual/ auditory/ kinaesthetic stimuli.
  3. We have preferences for left-brain or right-brain thinking.

These myths have some germ of truth. Each of these has some presence in accepted models of the brain. The existence of consciousness (or as the Ancients believed ‘Gods pushing me around a giant chessboard!’) is a pervasive belief. People do not seem to learn in the same way, and so perhaps have different learning ‘personalities’ or ‘preferences’. And left or right-sided brain patterns can be detected as more dominant for all people.

These myths have led to some unhelpful things in the classroom. It was the rage in the 2000s to plan different tasks for perceived different types of learning style, largely pictures, discussion or flashcards. Far better is to cover all bases and present material both visually and auditorily where possible. Interpretive dance is not an option, but instead do spacial or temporal manipulation of ideas (think moving post-it notes on a desk).

A more useful consideration of ‘learning styles’ is whether the learners enjoy jumping into a task and figuring things out as they go along, or whether they desire to understand something entirely before beginning. This kind of awareness can explain different approaches to work, and offer precise feedback on how to attain both. I am obviously almost entirely the second btw.

Deans for impact is useful not because it dictates pedagogy without specificity. It is useful because it proritises cognitivism over behaviourism and legitimises the learning of ambitious and difficult material.