“The Next Big Thing”: What Might Improve Teaching & Learning in 2013?

31st December 2012


Idea #1: Instructional Rounds

Helps with: Making ‘learning walks’ productive

Who should pay attention: Everyone .If you are SLT, try it. If you’re not SLT try to convince them to use it.

Where can I learn more? Instructional Rounds in Action by John E. Roberts

Having senior leaders regularly walk around school and look in classrooms is not new. What has been trendy of late is to call this a ‘learning walk’ and have it involve a multitude of things, sometimes including complex questioning, Ofsted grading, and the threat of sanctions. In some schools learning walks are used to improve learning, but in others they are opportunities for punitive snooping. Often I hear people say the difference is a matter of ‘culture’, but at the root of learning works is an imbalance of power. Usually the judging observers don’t deal with 9C at the end of a 6-period day. They don’t teach 26 lessons a week. They usually have a computer and printer at their exclusive beck and call. And when they write down a grade that judges a teacher who is working as best they can, and who might know their lesson sucks, but it was so because of time constraints, or practicalities (or simply because it was a bum day). Then simply ‘observing’ that the person isn’t doing a great job and telling them this can feel fundamentally demoralising. Rightly, I’ve heard teachers say: Do they honestly think they could do better in my situation?

Instructional rounds attempt to be different. Someone cannot just come in and stick a label on the lesson and walk away. In IR, observers meet afterwards and – using the format of instructional rounds in medicine – they must: describe what they saw, analyse patterns, predict the impact on learning, and recommend what should happen next. Two things are useful here. First, the prediction element. Observers can’t just vent against pet hates, they need to explain why they hate, say, the use of role play in terms of its impact on learning. Secondly, observers must make recommendations, putting the onus on them to come up with a solution that is realistic and communicable. Furthermore, if the person who receives the feedback feels they cannot do it -or whatever reason, time, confidence, resources – then the observer needs to take responsibility for helping the person overcome this barrier.

As with medicine, rounds won’t be straightforward. Anyone au fait with Chicago Hope or ER will know that rounds notoriously involve much questioning. Why is that your prediction? What might go wrong with your recommendation? But it is also a way of getting people to start taking responsibility for action, and if it is used consistently in a school over time, if people are trained to think like this from the outset, I genuinely think instructional rounds could become a great tool – not only for observers but also teachers who wish to defend their teaching practices in the face of criticism. After all, if the criticised teachers is given the opportunity to provide their own description, analysis, prediction and recommendation then everyone is better off then than in a situation where one person hands down judgement that falls on deaf ears because the seething receiver of the feedback has already stopped listening.


Idea #2: Response-to-Intervention

Helps with: Planning and monitoring interventions with struggling students

Who should be interested: Assistant Heads or Heads of Department with responsibility for ‘interventions’; those responsible for monitoring Pupil Premium interventions; anyone who likes systematic monitoring processes.

Where can I find out more? The RTI Network

Possibly because American educators have always been slightly obsessed with psychological testing, the US is more advanced in terms of ‘diagnostic’ testing and ‘intervention’. This isn’t to say all US schools (or even most of them) get it right but the increasing use of Response-to-Intervention (RTI) in the US is telling and could become an important idea here in the UK now that schools are being required to publish the impact of pupil premium spending. RTI is a systematic way of sifting out struggling students, selecting the best intervention for them and then monitoring whether or not it is working. You might think schools already do this; certainly when I became a teacher I assumed all schools quickly scooped up lagging students and delivered personalised help. The best schools do; many more don’t – at least not effectively. The reasons why they don’t often come down to practical difficulties about having accurate data to identify struggling students and a lack of awareness of what to do with them once found. The increasing number of high quality RTI resources, however, can take some of the difficulty out of the diagnostic and intervention decision process. Several RTI books now have pre-written tracking forms, parental letters, teacher records to help with monitoring and this means anyone responsible for running interventions can hit the ground running.

One good example of an RTI book is Volume 1 of RTI Applications by Matthew Burn provides diagnostics and interventions for a variety of issues including whole-school behaviour and individual academic/behavioural issues (the google preview shows the contents page here). RTI works on three structured tiers, with interventions becoming more intensive over time. Burns’ book gives information about all three tiers. The RTI Network website also has free materials, with some great case studies of specific schools’ usage of RTI. Finally, I can heartily recommend the Jossey-Bass RTI book “Solution-focused RTI”. I gifted a copy of this to the SEBD Co-Ordinator at my last school and it includes exemplar forms for different types of behaviour-related interventions. On the downside the book is American so the paper size is a bit off and I had to re-type forms where spellings and terminology was different. That said, I found it much quicker to plan interventions for the students I was working with by using this guide than coming up with an intervention process myself. .


Idea #3: Non-fiction reading across the curriculum

Helps with:Improving student literacy. Better preparation for Higher Education

Who should be interested: All non-English & Maths teachers, but particularly Humanities

Where can I find out more? Writing Across the Curriculum at Writing Fix * Common Core Knowledge Sequence

The US are slowly introducing ‘Common Core Standards’, akin to a National Curriculum. Though it has caused many controversies one of the biggest is the standard for English Language Arts requiring that by 12th grade (i.e. Year 13) student in-class reading should be 70% ‘non-fiction’, gradually stepping up from a 50% ‘informational’ reading texts in elementary school. Though the move has caused some consternation – with literature lovers fearful for what it means for the classics – there is something to learn here about our own students reading more non-fiction, not necessarily in English, but all across the curriculum. After all, how often do we see students reading a book about science, or history, or PE? And not a textbook – with activity boxes and lightbulbed ‘exam tips’ – I mean actual books? The usual answer is: never. But non-fiction books help build students’ subject content, cultural literacy and reading comprehension. In fact, they’re so important for this ED Hirsch’s ‘Common Knowledge’ lists – used by many in the US, and much loved by Gove – includes year-by-year lists of non-fiction books that all young Americans should be required to read.

Inspired myself last year by the work of Jeff Zweirs and Corbett Harrison in improving student literacy in subjects other than English, I spent the last two years in teaching using non-fiction books relevant to my subjects whenever I could. Year 13 Psychologists read parts of “Quirkology”, Year 11 Citizenship read chapters from “Immigrants: Your country needs them”, and Year 9 read “A Long Way Gone: Stories of a Child Soldier”. Having a solid text, rather than nebulous textbooks was far more challenging but also more interesting for students and led to them remembering much more. Frankly, I wish I had gone even further and given Year 9 “Animal Farm” which is the non-fiction text suggested for this age group by ED Hirsch. Even though I think students would have found the text challenging being able to overcome their fear of complicated language is crucial skill. Most first year university students only seem to understand about 50% of what they read; but being able to get through that – being able to battle on regardless and pick out the important stuff – is what improves their reading skill and by only looking at easy worksheets or ‘bitesize’ type textbooks we can end up doing a disservice to students. Reading comprehension cannot be left just to English teachers, it is a matter for every teacher whose subject involves writing.

Sadly, there’s one big problem with the non-fiction approach in the UK. Non-fiction books for young people are often terrible. First off, there aren’t many of them on useful topics for the National Curriculum, and the ones that do exist are usually the equivalent of a low-budget children’s TV show from the late 80s. To circumvent this I ended up using more ‘general audience’ books, but I would have liked a wider range to choose from (and some pictures might be nice!) For US teachers there is a useful guide to non-fiction texts indexed by teaching topic (e.g. history, social studies, etc.) If we want our students to get better at reading non-fiction, we really need to do something similar in the UK too.

Happy New Year all! Good luck for 2013.