Education is enough of a national concern that there is no shortage of organisations arranging meetings and conferences about different aspects of the subject. Being addicted to Twitter has allowed me to keep up with much of this. Being a blogger has also meant I receive invitations to speak at events, or am placed on the guest list for ones not open to everybody. However, such events are not evenly distributed across the year, and the last 11 days have seen my diary overloaded.
Despite living in West Midlands, the Saturday before last I was in the centre of London attending the launch of a book,
Don’t Change the Light Bulbs (edited by Rachel Jones). The following Tuesday, I heard Teach Like a Champion author Doug Lemov in Walworth, giving a lecture on leadership…
I gave a talk on fluency in mathematics in March at Pedagoo London (my first public appearance) and again last weekend at the La Salle Education maths conference. This post is based on those talks and so, inevitably it is long enough to take several posts and revisits some old ground.
I started by asking the audience the following questions (yes I know, exciting start), and giving them a couple of minutes to work them out:
- Simplify 49/84
- Find √729
- Solve 3x+40=19
- Write √7/√175 as a decimal
At both talks there was somebody who took not much more than a minute and others who struggled. It is possible to answer every one of those questions in a few seconds if you have memorised the correct basic facts, such as times tables, and how negative numbers and surds work, and can recall them fluently. Both times though, I appeared to be the only person in the room to have memorised the first 27 square numbers.
As well as being useful for solving problems, fluency is now one of the major aims of the new maths National Curriculum, quoted below:
The national curriculum for mathematics aims to ensure that all pupils:
- become fluent in the fundamentals of mathematics, including through varied and frequent practice with increasingly complex problems over time, so that pupils develop conceptual understanding and the ability to recall and apply knowledge rapidly and accurately.
- reason mathematically by following a line of enquiry, conjecturing relationships and generalisations, and developing an argument, justification or proof using mathematical language
- can solve problems by applying their mathematics to a variety of routine and non routine problems with increasing sophistication, including breaking down problems into a series of simpler steps and persevering in seeking solutions.
To have fluency as the first of three aims is a big change compared with the old national curriculum, the aims of which seemed to include everything else but fluency:
Learning and undertaking activities in mathematics contribute to achievement of the curriculum aims for all young people to become:
- successful learners who enjoy learning, make progress and achieve
- confident individuals who are able to live safe, healthy and fulfilling lives
- responsible citizens who make a positive contribution to society.
The importance of mathematics
Mathematical thinking is important for all members of a modern society as a habit of mind for its use in the workplace, business and finance; and for personal decision-making. Mathematics is fundamental to national prosperity in providing tools for understanding science, engineering, technology and economics. It is essential in public decision-making and for participation in the knowledge economy. Mathematics equips pupils with uniquely powerful ways to describe, analyse and change the world. It can stimulate moments of pleasure and wonder for all pupils when they solve a problem for the first time, discover a more elegant solution, or notice hidden connections. Pupils who are functional in mathematics and financially capable are able to think independently in applied and abstract ways, and can reason, solve problems and assess risk. Mathematics is a creative discipline. The language of mathematics is international. The subject transcends cultural boundaries and its importance is universally recognised. Mathematics has developed over time as a means of solving problems and also for its own sake.
Which to me, now, really sums up an era where you could have every variation of progressive education together in one document, while missing any mention of what is worthwhile knowledge.
One of the main reasons I think this has now changed, is a change in the understanding of how we think. One of the more popular diagrams in education today is this one from Dan Willingham’s book:
It’s a very simplified, but uncontroversial, model of how we think. We have a limited working memory, where conscious thought takes place, and a potentially unlimited long-term memory. To use working memory effectively, we draw on information that is already in long-term memory. To get things into long term memory we have to overcome the limitations of working memory. Having useful information in long-term memory, and being able to recall it without difficulty, makes thinking easier. In maths it is useful to be able to fluently recall a lot of knowledge, particularly basic number facts, rather than work everything out from first principles. The question at the start about simplifying 49/84 was an example of this, as fluency with the 7 times table makes the question trivial.
In order to build fluency we need to acquire knowledge and to learn to remember it without effort (automaticity).
And if that is our aim then, in maths, the best method is to tell kids what they need to know and set them lots of questions where they practise recalling it.
Continued in Part 2
You may be aware that OFSTED recently produced a report that should actually be welcomed by teachers. “Below the Radar” raised the issue of poor behaviour in schools, and argued that schools leaders should take more responsibility for dealing with it and identified a lack of effective training as a problem. I’m happy to praise OFSTED for siding with the interests of teachers, and am even willing to believe that (finally) Sir Michael Wilshaw is succeeding in getting the organisation to respect his priorities. But I was a little surprised at the response from the unions. As ever, the unions were torn between representing the interests of classroom teachers (who suffer where discipline is weak) and simultaneously representing their bosses in school management (who are often the cause of poor discipline). The union I noticed (but this may just be a fluke) get into the biggest mess over this was the ATL.
At the start of the month, their leader Mary Bousted was on TV claiming that schools must do more about behaviour:
This followed on from what the ATL were saying at their 2013 conference (this is from a press release):
Nearly 90% of support staff, teachers, lecturers, school heads and college leaders said they have dealt with a challenging or disruptive student during this school year. The main targets of challenging behaviour were other students (cited by 72%), followed by teaching staff (46%), and then support staff (43%). Between students the most prevalent challenging behaviour was verbal aggression (cited by 77%), followed by physical aggression (57%), bullying in person (41%), and breaking or ruining other students’ belongings (23%).
Thankfully, most of the disruptive and challenging behaviour facing education staff was fairly low level with 79% of staff complaining that students talked in class, did not pay attention and mucked around. Sixty-eight per cent said students were disrespectful and ignored their instructions, 55% said they had had to deal with verbally aggressive students, and a fifth (21%) had had to deal with a physically aggressive student…
…Dr Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL), said: “Regrettably teachers and support staff are suffering the backlash from deteriorating standards of behaviour. They are frequently on the receiving end of children’s frustration and unhappiness, and have to deal with the fall-out from parents failing to set boundaries and family breakdowns. And the huge funding cuts to local services mean that schools often have to deal with children’s problems without any help.
“Schools with firm, clear and consistently enforced behaviour policies create safe learning environments for children and staff, but problems occur when schools fail to enforce good discipline policies and when children know there are weak or non-existent sanctions.
”Schools need to give their staff good and regular training so that they know how to work with students with behavioural or mental health problems and have confidence in handling pupils with challenging behaviour. Behaviour training also needs to be an integral part of teacher training.”
Now let us see what happens when OFSTED agree with the ATL about behaviour, and how graciously they accept inspectors agreeing with them about its importance, the importance of effective discipline policy, and good training. Here is the ATL’s response to the OFSTED report:
Dr Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL), said: “Once again Ofsted has revealed its deeply narrow-minded nature, attacking schools and leaders regarding pupil behaviour. Its failure to identify systemic issues weakens a system which is already creaking under huge cuts to local support services for schools, particularly for the most vulnerable and often challenging students.
“Instead, Sir Michael Wilshaw, in his Clint Eastwood mode, fires indiscriminately at teachers and leaders, wounding further the morale of staff. At a time when recruitment and retention in education are approaching crisis levels, this is a particularly short-sighted and destructive approach. Indeed, Ofsted’s report mentions that high staff turnover and insufficiencies in training have an impact on schools’ ability to consistently tackle challenging behaviour yet they have chosen to ignore the implications for Government policy around teacher training, supply and professional development.
“We know that consistency of approach and support is key to achieving high-quality pupil learning and behaviour in schools, but Ofsted’s rhetoric rings hollow based on the inconsistency of its own practices. Calling for zero tolerance and stricter approaches doesn’t reflect the evidence of what actually works in excellent classrooms.
“Yes, schools need clear behaviour policies, applied consistently by all staff. Yes, staff need to be supported by leaders when using those agreed policies. But no, Sir Michael, neither teachers or pupils do particularly well when constantly belittled nor when they have decreasing access to much-needed resources. Ofsted needs to review its behaviour policies and this needs to start from the top.”
I’m the last person to start defending OFSTED, but how can teachers ever hope to hold inspectors to account if this is how a teacher union reacts like this to OFSTED agreeing with them and arguing for something that is the interests of their members?
There’s been a bit of a lack of blogposts lately due to a mix of work and other commitments, but I thought I’d take the time to let you know what I’ve been up to, or am about to be up to.
- The ResearchED conference was earlier this month. You can now see me interviewing OFSTED supremos Sean Harford and Mike Cladingbowl here. For some reason the part where I ask for questions via Twitter was cut, so if you wonder why part-way through the video I start looking at my phone, then I can assure you I didn’t get bored and I am not playing Angry Birds.
- I wrote a few pages for a book, “Don’t Change the Lightbulbs“. Published in aid of charity, the book looks great and I’m really happy with how my section “Ten Things OFSTED Won’t Like” turned out. Please buy it.
- On Thursday I am speaking on a panel at a Battle Of Ideas satellite event in Pimlico, on the topic of “What Makes a Good School”. Details can be found here.
- On Saturday I will be doing a workshop on “Fluency in Mathematics” at the La Salle Education maths conference. There are still a handful of free tickets available here.
- On the 18th of October I should be on another panel, this time at the Battle Of Idea Festival. The topic is: “Lessons from Asia: what is a world-class education?”. Details available here.
- On the 23rd of October, I should be speaking to the Warwickshire Fabian Society, about “Obstacles to teaching”. Entrance is free and the event takes place from 7:30 pm (to 9 pm) at 28 Regent Place, Rugby, CV21 2PN
- What Makes A School Discipline System Work?
- Seven Signs of a “Good Enough” Discipline System
- The Behaviour Delusion (or “Why do Kids Kick Off?”)
I’ve put it in different ways, but most of what I’ve talked about has been the extent to which discipline systems and school culture, not teacher skill, determine behaviour. I’ve worked at a lot of different schools, and learnt that my effectiveness at behaviour management seems to vary massively between the schools. As I argued in the third post above, student expectations, usually acquired from their peers, have more impact than anything the teacher chooses to do. This is why I am outraged about many of those snake oil salesman who offer individual teachers a “magic bullet” solution to behaviour, usually built around platitudes about winning kids over. In particular, ignore anyone who claims to be able to solve behaviour problems by:
- Adopting a particular attitude;
- Using a particular style of teaching;
- Being nice to students;
- Rejecting punishment/sanctions/discipline;
- Negotiating with students;
- Staying calm (I’m not saying this is bad, but it is really unhelpful as advice);
- Avoiding confrontation;
- Solving children’s “underlying problems”.
But here I want to be sceptical even about the well-intentioned and more practical advice often given to teachers. If expectations at a school are low than behaviour will become challenging in response to any attempt to improve behaviour. That includes really well-thought out and cleverly planned methods and systems. No classroom strategy will work if kids truly don’t want it to work. Where teacher strategies work it is either because the kids wanted to behave and the teacher made it easy for them to do so, or where teachers have persisted with their strategies, even where they didn’t seem to be working, until the kids lost the will to fight. For this reason I have seen the following strategies have both positive and negative effects (in some cases I’ve seen the same approach both work brilliantly and fail utterly):
- Warning systems;
- Telling classes to stand up until they are quiet;
- Reward systems;
- Calling parents;
- Lining kids up outside the classroom door;
- Waiting until students are in the room and quiet before starting the lesson;
- Counting down to get quiet;
- Confronting behaviour publicly;
- Confronting behaviour privately;
- Dressing really smartly;
- Monitoring the amount of work closely and punishing insufficient work harshly;
- Threats (or promises) to report back to form tutors/SMT;
- Sitting down at the front of the room for the entire lesson;
- Taking marking into the classroom and marking during the lesson (I admit I have only seen this work as a behaviour management strategy for cover lessons, but in the first school I worked at taking work with you to cover lessons indicated you were not supply staff and were also confident the kids wouldn’t misbehave);
- Following the school behaviour policy;
- Asking students to work in silence.
Sometimes, the strategies succeeded because the kids wanted to behave, and they helped kids comply without losing face. Sometimes they failed because every strategy would fail and any sign that the class was behaving well and working was such a break with expectations that it would upset the kids and they’d act to stop it. In other cases, success or failure was specific to the school, year group, or even class because of what they are used to. A particular rule or sanction that seems fair to one class, because they are used to it, will seem outrageous to another. Some parents will support, some won’t. Some year heads or managers are so feared or loved (frequently both together) that mentioning their name gives a teacher power, while the names of others will result in a derisive chortle. Some classes are happy to stand in the corridor, or behind their chairs indefinitely and, when teachers wait for their compliance, they will wait for the teacher to give up waiting. The triggers for bad behaviour and the cues for good behaviour vary between schools and between classes. The strategies listed above are worth having in reserve, but until you know your school and your classes you won’t know what will work and whether it failed for a specific reason, or because they would have kicked off regardless.
Is there any universally useful behaviour advice? It is very little, but I’ll give what I can to avoid this being a counsel of despair:
- Observe other teachers with your students. It is useful to have seen them behave and for them to know you have seen them behave. Or even just for them to see you know a teacher they behave for.
- Use a seating plan and have several copies to hand. It is always best to know which student you are dealing with.
- Write down anything serious or any detention set immediately including the exact wording of any insults or swearing even if it seems unforgettable. Stress will make you forgetful and undermine your follow up.
- Be consistent. Enforce rules even when you regret instituting them, and only change them when you have an excuse to change them, not because they were disobeyed. Be prepared to stick with strategies even when they don’t work; good behaviour management strategies can still be resisted at first. Follow through on punishments.
- Don’t put up with the obviously unacceptable, no matter who tells you it is normal. It would be better to drop out of teaching completely and feel a failure for it, than become a human punching bag for a few years and then drop out of teaching because it made you ill.
And remember, particularly if you’ve just started teaching, it all becomes easier with time.
At the start of a new year teachers face at least a day of CPD. Here is my attempt to identify the worst possibilities (with thanks to all those who suggested things on Twitter or told me what hadn’t yet died out).
- Anti-education videos. In the old days it used to be “Shift Happens“. Now it is more likely to be Ken Robinson’s Animate. Both are quire explicitly arguing that kids should learn less.
- Teaching programmes. These are a mix of theories and activities that are meant to indicate a different way to teach. Some are expensive, others largely in the public domain. The ratio of bullshit to insight provided by the methods is remarkably high but they tend to have a cult following that will throw money at them and force them on other teachers. The biggest one is Building Learning Power. Others include TEEP, Kagan Structures and Mantle of the Expert. The most ridiculous programme of the lot, not even deserving the name “teaching”, was the (still not completely dead) Brain Gym.
- Taxonomies. This can be a way to subdivide learning. If so this is usually Bloom’s (in either original or revised versions) or its close relative SOLO. The idea is that there is a generic structure to learning that can be applied across disciplines to understand one’s subject better. Perhaps they fit some subjects better than others, but, inevitably, they are no substitute for actually knowing your subject and its structure properly in the first place. Far worse is where it is a way to subdivide thinking, like Thinking Hats (below) or teaching methods (like the learning pyramid/Dale’s Cone of experience). And the absolute worst of the lot is when it is a way to subdivide learners by “learning style” (again, something which is still not dead despite being utterly discredited) or “left and right brain”.
- Pre-determined discussions. Often in groups with somebody senior monitoring each table, this is a way of manufacturing “buy-in”. The idea is to have a discussion where ambitious people just repeat what those in charge wanted to hear. Flip charts and post-it notes feature heavily. The big craze a few years ago was having to write answers about what students should be like around an outline of a person. The correct answers were “independent”, “resilient”, and “motivated”. Any attempt to say “clever” or “good at maths” was considered a joke.
- OFSTED training. It doesn’t seem to matter how many times they claim that they don’t want to see a particular teaching style, or even that they won’t grade teaching, nobody believes them. So schools are still telling teachers how to game inspection.
- Sensible things made into gimmicks. I really don’t have a problem with Carol Dweck’s concept of a “Growth Mindset” if it means kids are encouraged to work hard by telling them they will get smarter. I do have a problem with the “weaponised” versions involving stickers and questionnaires. This seems like a rerun of AfL, where perfectly sensible ideas about feedback turned into compulsory mini-whiteboards and insane levels of differentiation.
- Objective Mania. I don’t have a problem with learning objectives. I really don’t. A few words clarifying what kids need to know or practice can only help with my planning, and is unlikely to hinder their learning. However, multiple objectives to be copied down are a pain. These include “WALT and WILF”, “All/Most/Some” and “Must/Should/Could”. This is not differentiation, it is obstruction. And the worst of all is having to put levels or grades on objectives.
- Behaviour Training that blames teachers. Teachers need to be taught how to use the procedures and where to get help. Also useful to tell them a few tricks appropriate to the school, and warnings about what won’t work. However, too much behaviour INSET, particularly from outsiders, is about making teachers feel they are to blame when they face bad behaviour. Planning well, being nice, making lessons fun, will not sort out behaviour problems. Being told to keep them to yourself (“swallow your own smoke”) will make them worse. And don’t get me started on anything with “restorative” in the name.
- Bad SEN. Don’t know why but nothing seems to attract nonsense like SEN. The most common types of nonsense are in the descriptions of the conditions. Claims are made about the causes and characteristics of conditions that have nothing to do with how they are diagnosed (like claiming dyslexics have better spatial awareness, or we know which part of the brain causes ADHD). Worse, is when bogus treatments are publicised, like changing the colour of paper or ink for those who can’t read.
- New marking policies. If your marking policy is so complicated people have to be trained in it, then it is too complicated. And I include in this (in fact I make a special effort to include this) those policies that are introduced that will “save everyone time”. They won’t. Set a minimum standard. Don’t expect everyone to be able to keep to it.
I realise that this is, no doubt, terribly negative. But it shouldn’t be difficult to get INSET right. Just do the following:
- Give teachers plenty of time for their own preparation during the day. Preparation is training.
- Let departments have time to help those with deficits in subject knowledge.
- Make some things optional.
- Concentrate on essential information.
- Make sure any training on how to teach is evidence-based and relevant to your school.
and most of all
- Don’t make anybody sit through something you wouldn’t sit through.
Those who work in schools seem to spend a lot of time asking themselves questions like:
- Why do Mrs Jones’s classes always behave well?
- Why are students worst behaved in the afternoon?
- Why does Ryan get into trouble in geography and not in maths?
- Why is behaviour worse on rainy days?
- Why does no child do what I ask without the threat of a detention?
- Why is Tammy-Lee so polite and pleasant one-to-one but awful in lessons?
- Why do students act as if it is a surprise that I punished their poor behaviour?
The answers a lot of the worst school managers like to give to these sorts of questions tend to involve two bad assumptions. Firstly, that students are like automata, they respond automatically to certain input (rain, being shouted at, having to work hard) and what follows is an unavoidable reaction to a specific situation not a deliberate choice influenced by the consequences of previous such choices. Secondly, that the input students get from their teachers is far more important than the input they get from their peers.
I was reminded of this by some of the discussion following my last post. Probably the most controversial part of it was my disdain for schools in which teachers have to run their own detentions. I should probably say that I don’t mind if teachers ask students to stay in for 5 minutes at lunch, break or after school to talk to them, or hear their apology, but I do have a problem with expecting teachers to set and run half hour (or more) detentions. The usual justification for what seems like an unproductive use of time is that it can (in some way) be used to discuss what happened and repair the relationship between student and teacher. Where these justifications have been made the assumptions I described above have usually come into play. Firstly, it is assumed the student behaved as they did in reaction to a particular situation, and the specific situation has to be addressed rather than the principle that the student should behave in all situations. Secondly, it is assumed that the teacher, and their relationship with the student, is the key to what happened and the student cannot have been set off by factors unrelated to which teacher was present. It is because I think these assumptions are based on an inaccurate model of how students behave that I don’t think detentions set by individual teachers can be the basis of a discipline system.
What is being missed, with regard to the level at which detentions are organised and by anyone asking the questions above, is that students rarely act independently of their peers when they misbehave. Most poor behaviour stems from interaction between students and shared expectations held by students. Students coordinate their behaviour. They behave badly when their peers behave badly. They behave badly when their peers expect them to behave badly. They behave badly when it will increase their standing with their peers. They behave badly when their peer group thinks they will get away with it, or when they think they should get away with it. Behaviour incidents do not happen uniformly across the school. They cluster. Certain lessons, certain teachers, certain times of the day, certain times of the year or certain combinations of students will prompt more bad behaviour than others. Kids work together when they misbehave. Sometimes they test the boundaries together, at other times they convince themselves that the boundaries should never have existed and that any attempt to impose discipline is unfair. One student’s behaviour or attitude will set off others. That is why seemingly insignificant things, like the weather, can result in large amounts of bad behaviour, because it only takes a small change to prompt major problems. That is why some departments have more problems than others. That is why some year groups are worse than others even when comparing their entire time at the school. That is why some teachers get targeted and others see little poor behaviour. That is why management being seen to be unsupportive over one incident can sabotage a teacher with every class they have.
If the approach to discipline is piece-meal and ad hoc then you are more likely to move poor behaviour around rather than reduce it. If you try to devolve all behaviour management to the lowest possible level, the teacher, behaviour will start breaking down in some classes. The clustering effect means that some teachers will have to deal with more poor behaviour than others, making consistency with setting detentions or calling parents impossible. Good managers ensure those teachers don’t have to manage the detentions or call parents themselves and say, “You are doing the right thing, keep following the behaviour policy and they’ll eventually get the message” while also helping to confront the students. Bad managers assume that the teacher must have done something wrong and start trying to change the teacher, often by getting them to lower expectations. They’ll even assume that getting involved directly to improve expectations will undermine the teacher.
It is true that teachers can make a difference to which teachers get the worst behaviour, but this can happen in good or bad ways. Good classroom management and following up incidents thoroughly can help deter bad behaviour, but so can appeasing ringleaders and making lessons less demanding. If teachers are working to make sure they are not the one that gets the hassle, rather than ensuring that nobody gets the hassle, the school as a whole will not have great discipline. Students will change who they target so individual teachers may feel they are making progress, but they will still act up somewhere. Perhaps for new teachers; perhaps for those that simply don’t have time to set enough detentions; perhaps for certain subjects; perhaps for those that SMT have failed to support. I have seen schools go into an academic nosedive when it becomes the teachers that make kids work hard who get the worst hassle. It’s not that teachers can make no difference to behaviour in their own classroom; it’s that the biggest factor in behaviour is student expectations and these can be set outside the classroom.
The best behaviour management is about setting universal expectations in a school. It is about creating a situation where every student sees their peers behaving. Some of the biggest mistakes in behaviour management involve digging too deeply into the reasons individual students behave or misbehave. People start imagining that if a student behaves only out of fear of sanctions then it is a bad thing, or that if they behave in lessons where they like the teacher then every teacher should try to win them over. However, in my experience, most poor behaviour has something to do with the expectations of the peer group. There’s no point asking “well why did this student misbehave today?” when the reasons are sitting all around them. Most students behave in the way they think is normal, for somebody of their status, according to the values they have arrived at in collaboration with their peers. Discipline systems that work on a whole school level have a much better chance of changing what is normal across the school than leaving every teacher to compete to be seen by kids as one of the teachers for whom behaving is normal. It also gets the best out of teachers if they know there is a standard to maintain, rather than an ordeal to be avoided. No headteacher should want teachers to be asking before a lesson, “What can I do for a quiet life?” rather than “How can I get my class to learn a lot?” but this is what happens where the workload for dealing with behaviour, and the responsibility for setting expectations, falls mainly on the classroom teacher.