Friday, 7 February 2020

The power of telling stories for teaching and learning - Ian Stonnell

There is nothing quite like getting wrapped up in a story. The comfort of being pulled along on a narrative journey, freed from the shackles of our current reality and allowing ourselves to imagine and to think. Experiencing a story, by either reading or listening, is a powerful experience. It is also a teaching and learning gold mine. 

As an RE teacher I have used stories on many occasions and have recognised their impact. There are two examples that come to mind that I have used in recent times. One is the telling of the Christian story - from the creation, the fall of man and original sin, to the redemptive story of Jesus; incarnation, death and ressurrection. I tell this story at the start of a unit on Christian beliefs. I go for the whole story with subject specific vocabulary, and invariably I have a class in silence listening to the tale - all I have to support me are a selection of renaissaince art images for a bit of dual coding. There is nothing in their exercise books as evidence for this experience. Yet I have found that this experience has been invaluable for their memory and recall. As I move through the unit going into detail on specific Christian beliefs a large proportion of students can place them in the context of the wider narrative and as such they remeber more. Telling the whole story at the start of the unit provided a basis for students to collect the details at a later stage.

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As a way to support memory and recall images of the story were used to accompany the story. As the unit continued the images were re used as a way of supporting recall.
The other example I come to think of is a short moral tale I invented that was designed to get students to evaluate the concepts of forgiveness, judgement and life after death - have a read and see what you think:

Once upon a time there were two good friends. One of them was a pious believer in God. He followed all the rules of his religion and lived with good intentions and great faith. His friend however, was not religious and had no belief in deities. Nevertheless, both were equals in good intentions and good deeds. In fact the two contributed to charitable events, together they helped the poor and needy. That is how they became friends. For years they both prospered. 
As time past and age took over, they began to think of the inevitable fate of death. One day near the end they had a discussion.
The non-believer began with the age old question “what will happen when we die?” 

His pious friend replied “Well, dear friend, I hope that when I die I will be judged kindly by God and, If God wills it, I will pass through the gates of heaven and reach paradise. Here I will be in eternal bliss with God.” 

At this response the non-believer felt nervous. He replied: “I am sure you will enter paradise my worthy friend.” However, as he spoke these words he thought to himself:  “I cannot believe in such things – If what my friend speaks of is the truth surely my judgement will be to burn in the fires of hell – yet I still do not believe! Oh now I come so close to death I fear for my soul!”  

The religious believer, sensing his friends anguish, felt compassion: “My friend, do not suffer, you still have time to declare your faith in God – he will forgive you.”  

“No, I cannot do it. It is just not possible for me to believe that a God can send good people to such suffering. What about my family, my loved ones who have passed away and did not believe… what of them? Oh, my friend! I can only see one hope for me…” 

“What is that hope?” his pious friend asked quietly, listening with regret and intrigue.

“Dear friend, if it turns out that what you say is the truth and you reach paradise. As you stand in the presence of God and I am sent to my doom, remember our friendship and please do one favour for me.”  

“Surely I will my worthy friend. What do you ask of me?”  

“Pass on this message…?” He paused. 

“What message my dear friend?" 

“Tell God… tell God that I forgive him.”

Take a moment to think about the story.

Did you get lost in the narrative? What thoughts were provoked in your mind?

Well I suppose to a degree it depends on the quality of my writing! I am no James Joyce! Nevertheless, I hope you can see how this story could open up numerous lines of discussion and debate - it is a story of controvesy after all. However, I hope that the residue of the thought this story creates will be an empathy of the human condition - that was the authors intention!

An important thing to note - this story provided me with no concrete value when it came to answering an RE GCSE exam question on life after death.

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Why are stories so effective?
Dan Willingham the lauded cognitive psychologist, coined a famous phrase - "Memory is the residue of thought". It is what we think about in our working memory that we are most likely to transfer into our long term memory. Getting wrapped up in a story supercharges our working memory with thoughts that we can link to our own experiences or wonders. As such a story is a memorable experience.

Further to this, stories are challenging and as such can raise students overall achievement. When students are exposed to a story that is just above their reading age evidence shows that students can still comprehend it. There will be parts of such a story that students will not understand, vocabulary that will be new. However, within the context of a story a student can infer meaning. Furthermore, if a story is being read collectively students can infer meaning through disucssion about what they understand and what they do not.

Reading out loud
How we get students to engage in stories is also important. There is now a body of evidence that suggests reading out loud to students has a positive impact on progress. A recent study investigated the impact of reading aloud two novels over a period of 12 weeks to 368 year 8 students. On average all students made 8.5 months of progress in their reading age. A group of 'poorer' readers made 16 months progress - reference. That is an astonishing finding. Such an improvement in reading age will undoubtedly have knock on positive effects including improved outcomes in summative tests.
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Reading aloud to students is an effective strategy. Students can just listen or follow along with their own copy of a text - both have strenghts.

Implications for teaching
  1. Think about stories/novels that may be relevant to tell in your curriculum. Obviously some subjects will find this easier than others. English and most of the humanities have story telling at their heart. However, even in technical subjects there are stories to be told. In art, their is the story of the inspiration of an artist. Geography the human tales of a natural disasters. In science there are stories of discovery and the motivations behind them. Relevant stories are everywhere. We must not be afraid to use them - even if they do not meet a requirement of an exam specification! It is also worth noting that students can comprehend stories aurally that are up to three years above their current reading age - so be challenging. Books for Topics is a great website devoted to primary, but may be useful for groups in KS3. 
  2. Consider how you can retell parts of your curriculum as a story. This is where we need to think about creating a narrative about a unit of learing. It could that a unit of work is framed as a line of enquiry (that could sound like a book title). "Why did they build Aswan dam? A tale of controversy in Egypt", "What made Picasso go so square? the rise of cubism in art", "I need to eat! The adventures of a hungry Englishman in Spain". Apologies for these silly ideas, but I hope you get my point! 
  3. Drawing out the personal narrative (a pastoral spin). How often do we reflect on our own 'story' - Where we have come from, where we are, and where we are going to? As adults perhaps quite a lot. However, do we encourage our students to do this in our pastoral roles? I could argue that a schools purpose is to influence the narrative of a students life. We should direct them and help them reflect and frame their own personal stories. Every student has a story to tell, can we help them tell it? 
This blog was inspired by a talk by @MaryMyatt delivered to Chiltern Learning Trust leaders. Please follow this link to resources shared by Mary - many of themes were addressed. Please also find below further links that may support your teaching and learning in reading.

Further Reading:

Wednesday, 29 January 2020

Engaging Passive Learners in RE through adaptive learning - Masuma Tafadar

Research and development focus
A passive learner is one that engages in learning at a superficial level; rather than be interested in thoughtful enquiry a passive learner will process information, such as copying or reading, without actually thinking about its meaning and therefore fail to encode any of the information into their long term memory and make any meaningful progress. 

The key question for teachers is to understand where this passivity comes from. In some cases it can be to do with a student's home life; through an upbringing of low expectations and a lack of parental engagement in the child's learning, a habit of passivity towards education can be developed. This and the wider problem of low cultural capital can cause passivity in the classroom - a problem that is difficult for an individual teacher to address. 

Another possibility is that students may not be receiving enough or the correct differentiated or scaffolded learning. This may mean that students are not able to access the information they are being taught in a meaningful way. This can lead to disengagement and student acceptance that they cannot exert control over their learning process. This inhibits the progress and growth of the individual and as a result de-motivates the student - this can lead to behavioural challenges including passivity. In this case an individual teacher can make a difference and this will be the focus of my research.

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A poverty in cultural capital can mean a student lacks the habits of engaging in learning discussions making it difficult for them to access education, a subsequent failure in education can then lead to demotivation and passivity.
The aim of my research is to engage year 11 low-middle ability students who are extremely passive and disengaged learners. Many of these students lack focus and find it difficult to concentrate and stay on task. They lack motivation to do their work and often copy from the board, text-book or partner without engaging in the knowledge content and attempting to understand or process the information. They also struggle answering exam questions and do not use the differentiated worksheets/task-sheets effectively to help them answer the questions. Some of the students have very little confidence in themselves and have a negative outlook towards the work and the exam results; often saying they thought they would fail their GCSE exams.

In preparation for the GCSE exams, students needed to gain curriculum knowledge as well as practice exam skills. The 12 mark question was particularly challenging for them as they were required to evaluate a statement and formulate a thoughtful response with evidence to support their opinions. Although students had a planning sheet they rarely achieve more than 3 marks despite giving a lengthy answer. This only demotivated them and resulted in low self confidence.

Literature Review
A change in how information is received, interpreted and used can have a profound impact on student outcomes. In Principles of Instruction, Rosenshine presents 10 research-based principles of instruction. These principles come from three sources: (1) research in cognitive science, which focuses on how our brains acquire and use information; (2) research on master teachers, and (3) research on cognitive supports to help students learn complex tasks. This is effective instructional procedures, such as thinking aloud, providing students with scaffolds, and providing students with models. The focus of this research would be to explore point 3 - research on cognitive supports to help students learn complex tasks.

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One principle is to present new material in small steps with student practice after each step. Small amounts of new material is presented at any time, and then students are assisted as they practice this material. This is because our working memory is small. It can only handle a few bits of information at once and too much information swamps our working memory. Presenting too much material at once may confuse students because their working memory will be unable to process it.

Providing students with models and worked examples can help them learn to solve problems faster. Rosenshine mentions that students need cognitive support to help them learn to solve problems. Teacher modelling and thinking aloud while demonstrating how to solve a problem are examples of effective cognitive support. Worked examples are another form of modelling that has been developed by researchers. Worked examples allow students to focus on the specific steps to solve problems and thus reduce the cognitive load on their working memory.

Providing students with scaffolds for difficult tasks: The teacher provides students with temporary supports and scaffolds to assist them when they learn difficult tasks. Scaffolds or instructional supports help students learn difficult tasks. These temporary supports are gradually withdrawn as learners become more competent, although students may continue to rely on scaffolds when they encounter particularly difficult problems. Providing scaffolds is a form of guided practice. Scaffolds include modelling the steps by the teacher, or thinking aloud by the teacher as he/she solves the problem.

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Providing scaffolded tasks for learners can make daunting tasks achievable and increase motivation.
Additionally, it has also been found that scaffolding helps students learn more by working with a teacher to achieve their learning goals. Through research, Vygotsky found that children needed to interact with others who are more intelligent than they currently are in order to learn. These instructors or peers are the “scaffolding” who help the student expand their learning boundaries and learn more than they would be able to on their own.

Furthermore, Nicolas Pino-James mentions in the 'Golden Rules for Engaging Students in Learning Activities' that it is important to foster a sense of competence. The notion of competence may be understood as a student's ongoing personal evaluation of whether he or she can succeed in a learning activity or challenge. Schunk and Mullen (2012) have found that effectively performing an activity can positively impact subsequent engagement. To strengthen students' sense of competence in learning activities, the assigned activities could include feedback that helps students to make progress.

The sample group used were 6 passive students from my year 11 GCSE class. The students were between 15-16 years old and a mixture of male and female students. The intention was to help improve their answers to 12 mark exam questions and also to help students evaluate their knowledge and to change their mindset to a positive attitude and reduce passivity.

I created and designed a template which students can use to plan and write an answer to a 12 mark exam question. Prior to this, students were using a template to plan an answer, however, they were unable to process the information or evaluate in a meaningful way.

To help scaffold the learning and in addition to the template, I created a colour coded template on a display board. Whilst they were using the template to plan their answer, I used the display to give direct instruction. I instructed them on what sections I wanted them to work on. This meant that they were not overwhelmed with the task and that it was manageable. I also provided examples so students understood what they had to do in each section. I looked through answers as students were working and gave feedback.

Display board showing the strategy
Example of a template used in the intervention

The evidence I collected are the answers they have written for 12 mark questions before using the template and then the answers given after using the templates. This helped to understand whether, this template and the method of breaking it up into manageable tasks, coupled with instruction improved their answers. I also interviewed students to gain an insight on there mindset and the effectiveness of the support as well as made casual observations.

The intervention was successful for 1 student out of the 6. The student was able to identify what was required of him and how to structure the answer. He was able to follow instruction well and went from a negative mindset and feeling like he would fail to becoming much more positive about his efforts and his outlook on the exam. Furthermore, giving feedback motivated him to work hard and learn. He felt much more confident in attempting to answer a 12 mark question and about his exam in general. He spoke about how hard he was revising for RE; this change in attitude was a great improvement in comparison to his attitude before.

1 out of 6 kids in Montana will experience hunger during their childhood
5 out of 6 students did not show a significant change in attitude or improvement in their answers. Some mentioned they found the simplified template still too complicated to use and were used to the previous template. However, on further questioning the students revealed that, due to gaps in their knowledge due to previous passivity, they lacked the desire to make improvements in this late stage of their education. Nevertheless, I found that the structure helped other students (those not part of this focus group) who struggled with answering questions and did not know how to put their thoughts into words effectively.

Further research
For further research, I would like to work with a larger focus group of passive students and low achieving students in year 7 and collate the evidence up until their GCSE exams. I believe this would result in more reliable data and also have a bigger impact on their engagement as a problem like passivity needs to be pre-empted in earlier year groups. I would also interview students at the beginning and end of the process to get a better idea of their mindset and how they found the template I created. This would give a good idea of whether students were passive due to disinterest or because they genuinely struggled.

  • Scaffold learning by breaking down new or complex skills or knowledge into smaller parts. After introducing each new part, practice it first before moving on to the next task.
  • Be aware of the reasons behind a students passive nature. In my focus group, some students did not believe they could achieve their target grade and did not believe in themselves, in which case they can be helped through my intervention. However, some lacked motivation to learn or work at all, simply because they lacked motivation in a subject due to historic passivity and other issues beyond the classroom. This is not something that can be helped by my intervention alone. If students are passive for this reason then other measures and motivational techniques need to be devised.

Monday, 27 January 2020

How to engage with the education debate - Ian Stonnell

The world of online education research and debate is a daunting one to any teacher looking to start getting involved. There are thousands of tweeters, hundreds of education blogs and numerous education sites all of which can enlighten but also confuse. It is hard to know where to begin and where to find the quality. So, as a teacher looking to get involved and learn something new what do you do? Here is a short guide to get started.

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Get on Twitter
Get on Twitter and start to follow some of the main teaching blogs and education thinkers. You can start by following @DenbighCPD and have a look at who I am following. I would highly recommend Tom Sherrington and David Didau as people to follow. However it is probably best to start your own search. There is a great list of leading tweeters here that you can begin following today.

Clcik on the picture to see a larger version of this list.

Hashtags are also a powertful twitter tool. By searching a hashtag you can access lots of educational content without having to follow anyone. You can also ask questions through tweets and add a hashtag which will give it a good chance of getting a response. Click here for a list of the most popular education hashtags (including subject specific ones).

(NB: If you want to see some of this is practice come to the additional CPD in the conference room on Wednesday 12th February).

Online teaching blogs
Start looking at some of the best teaching and learning blogs. I have provided a list of links to many of these blogs on this site (look to the right if you are on the desktop site). These blogs routinely use academic evidence to support their strategies and can also be followed on twitter. Bear in mind that there are many subject specific blogs and sites that I have not included in this list. You can follow most of these blogs on twitter too.

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Teaching asociations
Consider joining or following on twitter some of the larger organisations that provide general research informed strategies such as the Chartered College of Teaching and ResearchED. These organisations are leading the way in evidence informed practice. ResearchED also host several events across the country through the year that are well worth a visit. Denbigh will be running another trip for teachers this year. There are also a host of subject associations that are worth following.
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Fancy a listen rather than a read? There are several podcasts that can replace bedtime reading, or listening to the news on the way to work. The learning Scientist podcast is a great start and here you can find a good list of some other education podcasts that may tickle your fancy. 

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Give new things a go
Experiment with what you learn. Perhaps pick up one strategy and idea and give it a go - see if it works and if it does keep on using it and why not share!?

I am sure that once you start getting involved you will find lots of things that will inspire you - I haven't met many teachers who haven't found it beneficial - perhaps just avoid getting into any protracted and unnecessary twitter debates unless you like that kind of thing!

Good Luck!

Further Reading and instructional videos

Wednesday, 11 December 2019

Getting involved in evidence informed practice: Research and Development at Denbigh - Ian Stonnell

The trend in education over the past few years has been towards an 'evidence informed' approach to teaching and learning. This, in short, is the idea that strategies that we employ in the classroom should be empirically tested in some way so to be given a rubber stamp that says "this works - look! there is evidence to prove it! We should all do it!" - This sounds like a perfectly reasonable idea, especially compared to the past where many strategies appeared to be based on the latest educationalist trend rather than any solid evidence base.

An evidence informed practice (EIP) model.
At Denbigh we have tried to encourage a more evidence informed approach by trying to support staff in an outward focus toward the research evidence. However, there have been problems in doing this. Firstly, trying to filter through all of the burgeoning research is not an easy task. Finding credible research is often a confusing and time consuming job that teachers struggle to make the time for. Thankfully, there are some great filters out there; from the large organisations like the Chartered College of Teaching or ResearchED to the growing numbers of bloggers who are engaging with the research and trying to make it meaningful to the classroom teacher. Twitter probably remains the easiest way for individual teachers to engage in discussions on the the latest research evidence. Also, in many schools like Denbigh, leaders are trying to act as filters themselves by presenting some the best evidence informed practice to teachers directly.

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Organisations like ResearchED are useful to teachers as they to a lot of the filter a lot of the best research.
Nevertheless there is still a problem. Unfortunately education is not an empirical science - it is a social one. We are dealing with human beings (both students and teachers) who are complex, subjective and individual. Any given evidence informed strategy, by itself, could be affected by so many other variables that knowing for sure it is the strategy that is making the difference is difficult. The reasons why a strategy may work or fail could just be down to doing something different (a kind of placebo affect) or maybe it works or fails because of the way it is implemented. Replicating a successful strategy from one school to another is also not a simple copy and paste job as school contexts are vastly different. Therefore relying on research based strategies from beyond our school is not going to be enough.

This is the reason why that, just because a strategy may have evidence to support its efficacy in another school or in academia, it doesn't mean it is going to work for us straight away, if at all, in our context. That is why we need to employ our own professional expertise and judgement and our understanding of our own unique contexts to any new strategy. We need to see what works for ourselves by engaging in our own research.

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Studying human behaviour including learning is a difficult task - we are very complicated animals.
The Denbigh Model of Research and Development.
So at Denbigh this is what we are trying to do. Firstly we have introduced all staff to one area of research focus (we have done some filtering). Secondly, we have tried to give some time for all staff to understand, discuss and reflect upon that research and the potential strategies that they imply in teaching and learning. Now, as we go into the spring term, if we have not already begun to do so, we intend to implement these new strategies in our teaching to test whether they make an impact. Now how do we do this research? 

Firstly lets remember we are not engaging in academic research, we are engaging in small-scale action research. It's not meant to be that complicated. Below is a simple step by step guide on how to do it.
  1. Intent - Define the aim - What are you trying to achieve?
    • In our research groups we may have discussed our ideas and aims. An example: "I am aiming to improve the long term memory retention of year 10 GCSE RE students knowledge of Christian beliefs with a particular focus on middle ability year 10 boys who have last year underachieved in comparison to other gorps." Notice it is clear and measurable and links to a specific set of knowledge. 
  2. Implementation - The strategy - How are you going to do it?  
    • This is where we think about how we can bring about the aim. This should relate to the research and related strategies we have discussed in our research groups. My example: "I plan to achieve my aim by implementing a method of dual coding in my Google slide presentations and exercise books based upon the principles of cognitive load theory as well as plan regular low stakes retrieval practice tasks in lessons." Notice that this is not overly complex - when I come to write it up/present it I will elaborate and give more detail.
  3. Impact - The evidence - How will you know it is successful?
    • Firstly you will take a sample of a group you are looking to assess the impact in. I could look at the entirety of year 10, a class or a small sub group within a class... it depends what our aim is. You will also need to collect some evidence to show an impact. Much of this evidence will occur naturally, such as assessment data, exercise books/steps to success data etc. Some data you may actively collect such as a student questionnaire or simple student interview which could take place informally during a lesson. Whatever you decide to collect it shoud not be a laborious process, the simpler the better. Take the following example: "I will be implementing the strategy with all my year 10 classes however I will focus on my middle ability boys who in RE have been underachieving at GCSE in comparison to other groups. I will interview a small sample before the strategy is implemented and then at the end - asking them questions of their long term memory and their perceptions of the strategy. I will also look at their performance in retrieval practice tests and the end of unit assessments over the spring term and compare them to previous test scores." From this data I should be able to determine whether the strategy has had a positive impact or not and make some conclusions.
During the spring term most of us, if we have not already started, will be implementing new strategies and begin collecting some data. By Easter and the early part of the summer term we certainly should be able to notice whether these strategies have made an impact and hopefully share some of the best ideas with all of us at our summer professional development day and through the Denbigh teaching and learning journal and blog.

The Adam Boxer session and the importance of the knowledge rich curriculum has inspired many new strategies in my own teaching this year - hopefully they have inspired some new ideas for you too.
What are the benefits of this process?

It is important to remember is in itself based on evidence as a way to improve teaching and learning and outcomes. In short here are three benefits:
  1. We will become better teachers. By taking part in reflective practice such as this we will become a staff body that is constantly looking for ways to improve and get better. Engaging in research will help us become more informed of the best teaching and learning strategies and by conducting research we will be able to select the best ideas that work for us and implement them into our routine practice.
  2. We will create better learners. Many of the new strategies we implement will make a demonstrable positive difference to student outcomes. Whether they make huge differences or marginal gains it will be worth it.
  3. We become better leaders. By sharing our practice we will all become better leaders. Whether you are an NQT or a member of the senior leadership team, by engaging in research and sharing the outcomes we will begin to influence and lead other members of staff across the school and beyond. This generates a culture of leadership that everyone can be a part of.
Good luck engaging in your research in 2020. We as a senior leadership team are looking forward to hearing all the great new innovations that we will be happening soon.

Ian Stonnell

Wednesday, 20 November 2019

Engaging Passive Learners in Mathematics - Muhammad Haroon

Research and development focus
Every teacher, regardless of experience, has come across a passive learner during their teaching career. The issue with passive learners is that they are rarely disruptive. This means they often go unnoticed and unchallenged. This lack of challenge results in poor progress and ultimately a child who is let down. Therefore, my main focus is to research different techniques which can be used to encourage passive learners to be more involved during lesson time, this in turn can increase student achievement. Research shows (and common sense implies) that there is a clear positive correlation between these two variables.
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Passive learners often go unnoticed and unchallenged.
Literature Review
Engaging students is the clear antidote to passivity. According to Meier (2008), one way of engaging students is by making learning relevant to them by connecting it to a student's life experience. Getting students to solve authentic real life problems based upon experience, such as working out phone bills, can support them beyond the four walls of a classroom and give a subject value, thus engaging them. It was also discovered that students found it easier to solve problems and remember the techniques used when they were connected to life experiences thanks to links to prior knowledge the students already possess.

Another way to increase engagement is by getting students to collaborate with each other, either in pairs or in small groups as this also allows students to share and build their ideas and make themselves feel included and responsible for their own learning. Lastly, getting students to develop and use their higher order thinking skills such as analyzing, interpreting, and/or manipulating information has shown to improve engagement as a form of challenge. The key issue however, is how we can implement these strategies effectively.

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The Realistic Maths Education (RME) project is a resource which has taken over 14 years to research and design by academics at Manchester Metropolitan University. I have been given several resources over a span of two years to help improve the teaching of mathematics from this project. Each module is designed to be completed over two weeks.

I will be using RME strategies with my two year 7 classes and monitor two passive learners from both of them. These students tend to lose focus or interest very quickly and I have to continuously remind them to either focus on what I am teaching or on completing their work.

Having attended the training days, I learnt different strategies for engaging students. I intend to use these techniques such as getting students to draw their solutions to problems onto the class whiteboard and hand over a degree of ownership of the work as well as setting problems that relate to their prior knowledge. The resources used in the lessons have been shown in other contexts to engage and therefore reduce passive learners and so improve the students results as well as their problem solving mathematical skills.

I intend to keep track of the passive students and take note of any passive or engaged behaviours shown during the lessons in which I use the RME strategies as well as ask their perceptions of the strategies.

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Encouraging students to own sections of learning by writing answers on a class whiteboard can engage learners.
Implementation and Impact
After planning and delivering the first session of the RME project, there was some improvements as the students were more engaged when I gave them a responsibility during a group discussion or when I gave them ownership of their work when presenting to the class. However, unless it was one of those two scenarios, the students were still passive during the lessons. When I asked the students how they were finding the strategies their responses were unresponsive and they claimed that they would rather do book-work. This was expected as we were told this was a common initial reaction from the students as it is a big change on how the style of teaching and learning.

When I taught the second module, one of the students was given a red, amber and green card. They were asked to show me one of the cards depending on how engaged they felt during the lesson. During my two period 5 lessons (end of the day), the student always showed an orange or red card which indicated that he was going to do some work or very little work. For this reason I was unable to see any impact of the RME strategies during these lessons. However, during the other two lessons, the student was very engaged and preferred taking part in the RME strategies instead of doing a standard book-work lesson. I did a short interview with the student in which they stated that they enjoyed the lessons more as they saw the relevance of the topics covered during these lessons. However, it is a concern that the uncontrollable variable of the time of the lesson counteracted the positive effects of the RME strategies.

Other students also showed some limited improvement. They were more interested and focused during certain activities however for much of the lesson the student still demonstrated passive behaviour and regular prompts had to be used during the lesson to keep them focused. I have completed several modules with this student but I am still going to continue to use the RME modules with other techniques to see if the student can become further engaged.

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The holy grail of a fully engaged classroom can be achieved!
In conclusion, so far the students have made some progress but there is still a lot of room for further sustained development to be made. The problem is that there are many reasons as to why a student might be passive. Some students have fixed mindsets of their ability in maths, others are yet to see value in the subject, whilst other students may have other unknown reasons that extend beyond the classroom affecting their ability to become engaged. Nevertheless, the RME project has had an initial impact on the students and as such I will continue to use this resource to create a sustained culture change in teaching and learning. However other whole school strategies such as linking maths to career pathways and future aspirations could be applied to motivate and combat passivity as a separate approach to this complex issue.

Further research
I intend to continue using this resource with the students in year 8 and continue monitoring how the modules can help engage and reduce passive learners in the classroom over a longer period of time. My research will go on to support a wider project led by academics at Manchester Metropolitan University.

  • Be persistent when implementing new strategies, at first they may not work but over time they can lead to a change in culture and help achieve marginal gains.
  • Link learning and problem solving to other areas were students may have prior knowledge - this can be from previous learning or from their life experiences. 
  • Present students with an opportunity to own sections of their learning.
References and further reading
Muhammad Haroon - Teacher of Maths

You can follow Muhammad on twitter:


Wednesday, 13 November 2019

Creating a reading culture to develop curiosity and independent thinkers - Erin Corder

How can we enthuse our learners? Well of course, we plan and deliver exciting and engaging lessons, we vary the activities and our own pedagogy to meet the needs of our pupils, and finally we take our time to ensure that we cover the curriculum content/subject specification in depth, so that our pupils really ‘know’ the subject. That's enough right? Or is there more to do?

Do we consider where there is an opportunity for pupils to explore and study exciting topics that perhaps our specifications do not cover; or maybe explore how our subject relates to current affairs?

Pupils will explore your subject further if you provide opportunities for them to do so. This is not just about putting on extra curricular clubs or trips and visits (which both have immense value), but a chance to explore for themselves through wider reading.

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In the past it may have been difficult to promote wider reading; demanding an extensive library and support from home. However, now we can see how the reading culture at Denbigh has progressed with the development of technology. It would not be unusual to find our students on an iPad in the library (or using their own Chromebook) that can give them access to knowledge that we could only have dreamt of when we were at the same age.

In short, exposing students to reading is not difficult. We just have to find structured and engaging ways to do it.
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Chromebooks and apps such as google classroom can provide a gateway to wider reading that was not possible just a few years ago.
Practical strategies
In my own classes, and across the arts based subjects, we are transforming the way in which our pupils are exposed to our subjects through wider reading. Each week, we as subject leaders (and experts) are finding articles of interest that feature our subjects. Students are required to read the article or articles before responding with their own thoughts and ideas on a classroom blog, to an open ended question set by the teacher.

The importance here is in the selection of the article, which relies on the teacher's own expertise, understanding and curiosity about their subject. There are exciting opportunities to expand beyond the parameters of what your own programmes of study offer students.  
Selecting the right article is key. Is it accessible? Is it engaging? Does it link enough to prior learning to make it meaningful?
A good example of this would be an article that was provided to a year 11 PE class on the IAAF’s treatment of female athlete Caster Semenya. Although the class were learning about the importance of ‘balanced competition’, the posed question encouraged deeper critical thinking.  Pupils had to challenge their own understanding of gender (and stereotypes) to explore whether or not they felt Semenya was ‘woman enough’ to compete, and whether  the IAAF had treated her in a humane way or not? When we returned to discuss the article in our next lesson, the conversation progressed from social justice to the use of performance enhancing drugs to gain an advantage. The beauty of this discussion was that pupils were drawing on their own knowledge and understanding to give valid and well informed opinions. What followed next was a  golden moment… ‘this is not the first time that the IAAF have been too harsh' spoke a student... 'I felt that the way they treated Dwain Chambers when he used drugs was far too excessive’.  I asked my student how she knew about this and she replied that she had read one of the linked articles at the bottom of the one I had provided.  This is a perfect example of a pupil being both curious and independent. This is what we want.

A possible challenge now is for the students to find their own relevant articles of interest to share with the class (although of course this will require moderation from the subject leader), and pose the open ended questions themselves to their peers. 

I hope that the google classroom will be an effective way of evidencing the students reading, their thought processes, and their curiosity. By setting reading tasks regularly, a culture of reading around a subject can be embedded. Furthermore, by selecting articles that are appropriate for stretch and challenge we can build a deep rooted knowledge structure that can help develop higher order thinking skills (especially with the more and most able cohort). Positive outcomes for everyone!

Thursday, 7 November 2019

The Assessment Revolution - Ian Stonnell

Assessment is one of the most complex activities a teacher can get involved in. What seems a simple enough task of checking how well a student is doing can quickly become a minefield. Take for example the old model of assessment. Once we had levels and flight paths - students who came to us in year 7 were expected to make three levels of progress by year 9 (I think that's how I remember it). Seems simple enough until we actually began to sit down and work out what any of these levels meant; 'Is this work a level 4....? Maybe, but if it is a level 4, is it a level 4a, 4b or 4c?' 'Hang on a minute does this fit in with what a level 4b is nationally?' 'What's the criteria again...?' (I remember this being rather woolly and subjective in RE).

I am sure many of us remember having these entirely heartfelt, but basically empty conversations about placing students into these abstract levels - it felt more like a charade to please an accountability machine, which in essence it was.
An old school flight path that looks pretty but may not be that useful in supporting progress.
Back then, were we as teachers really thinking about the important things such as what the students actually knew and what they could do? Maybe not as much as we should have.

Ultimately, should we as teachers really care what abstract level or grade a student is? Shouldn't a teacher's main concern be about what students know and can do? Surely, if we worry about that, any level or grade that needs to be assigned by the accountability machine (exam boards et. al) will look after themselves.

The assessment revolution
In 2015 there was a big rethink in assessment:

“In the context of curriculum freedoms and increasing autonomy for schools, it would make no sense to prescribe any one model for assessment. Curriculum and assessment are inextricably linked. Schools should be free to develop an approach to assessment which aligns with their curriculum and works for their pupils and staff” - Commission on Assessment Without Levels, 2015.

The old KS3 levels were abolished and responsibility for developing assessment policies were handed over to schools. This posed an opportunity and challenge to make new assessment systems that are more meaningful to teachers and students and remove some of the failings of the past.

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Life after Levels
At Denbigh subject leaders developed KPIs (key progress indicators) to identify specific pieces of knowledge and skill that can pin-point student progress. The logic being that these KPIs should link directly to the curriculum that subjects are teaching. In the light of the knowledge rich curriculum an emphasis upon knowledge could also be placed and in any assessment, summative or formative, a teacher can gather evidence for the relevant KPIs they are testing for.

In this context subjects have been liberated and assessment conversations can become more meaningful, devoid of an abstract level.

However the implementation of such systems is key. Are the KPIs relevant to the curriculum? Are they accessible to students? Can they be easily assessed or are they themselves too abstract? And do they actually support pupil progress? - They can't just be a new summative system that tells a student what they don't know or can't do and leave it at that - they have to help make them better.

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Teachers and Formative Assessment
Teachers must understand that assessment is continuous and fluid. Assessment should form a dialogue between teacher and pupil with the aim to improve pupils’ understanding, learning and raise achievement. Utilising well thought out KPIs, assessment should be motivating and meaningful for both teacher and learner - teachers will glean information about pupil performance and use this to inform planning and progression for individuals and groups, whilst pupils will have an acute awareness of what they need to do improve but more importantly, how to improve and understand the importance of that progression.

Aims of the R&D group - Jess Pather and Samantha Lewis
In this research and development group we are looking at ways we can make the new assessment policy work at Denbigh. We also aim to discover and share the best innovative practice that is currently happening in formative assessment and find out if it works in developing student motivation and the development of their longer term memory and recall.

Below are some useful links to some further reading on assessment as well as some general evidence based formative assessment strategies you can try.

You can follow Jess Pather and Samantha Lewis on Twitter:


Useful links:

Monday, 14 October 2019

How do we make homework meaningful? - Ian Stonnell

Homework... long has it been the bane of many a teacher's working life - that annoying extra little bit of workload that so often feels like an add-on; something to do because we feel we should be doing it but perhaps not 100% sure why. And then when we set it... oh the battles it can create with those students who just don't get it done! It's understandable when some of us in the profession question the point of setting it at all!

However, this is probably going a bit too far. Instinctively we know there is a benefit to homework (there is), maybe what we need is just some convincing of what the benefit is, as well getting a better idea of what makes homework meaningful. Let's see what the research tells us.

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At it's worse homework can be a barrier to learning.
Homework can make a significant difference to student outcomes
In 2015 research was conducted into the effectiveness of homework as a strategy to to improve performance in maths and science [Fernandez-Alonso et al. 2015]. In short it found homework made a positive difference to outcomes. Below are some further thought provoking findings:
  1. Students who were set regular homework performed better compared to those who only received it occasionally.
  2. Frequency of homework was more important than the amount of time spent on an individual piece of homework.
  3. Students who completed there homework by themselves achieved on average 10% better than those who got help from their parents.
  4. More time spent on homework did not necessarily mean better outcomes.

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If students can't do the homework by themselves progress won't happen.

What makes homework effective?
Dylan William famously stated that 'most homework set is crap'. In Fernandez-Alonso' et al's, study they also acknowledge that a lot of homework set was inefficient and lacking in impact (i.e. overblown and too time consuming). Therefore, if we want the best outcomes from homework we need to consider what makes homework effective and efficient. Based upon Fernadez-Alonso's findings and other research by Vatterott we should think about the following questions when we plan and set homework:
  1. What is the purpose? If it has none, don't set it.
  2. Is it a good use of the time it requires to complete? If it's not, re-think it.
  3. Is it something that students perceive as meaningful? If they don't know its meaning, have we told them?
  4. Is it achievable - can students complete the homework without adult support? If they can't how can we blame them when they don't do it?
If the homework you plan has a positive answer to these questions then most likely it will be a motivational task that will have an impact and completion rates will increase.
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Carefully considering why we set homework is the clear solution to making it meaningful.
The R&D group - A word from Ash Choudhury and Anna Walczynska 
In our first meeting we discussed the current state of homework practice across the school and acknowledged that whilst there were lots of great strategies taking place there were plenty of areas where things were not ideal. One of the main discussion points was what the main purpose of homework is - Is it about supporting memory and recall, rehearsing skills learnt in lesson, or a means to encouraging independent learning or research?

As a group we considered memory and recall to be the primary purpose, after all, knowledge should be at the core, although independent learning would be a positive side effect of the implementation of any homework strategy. Following our sharing of a range of memory recall strategies practitioners decided to draw on five that they felt could be useful models to base a sequence of homework tasks upon:
  • Over-learning
  • Spaced Repetition
  • Retrieval practice
  • Acquisition before application
  • Interleaving
  • Graphic/knowledge organizers
We will soon be planning and implementing some new homework strategies with these discussions in mind and look forward to letting you know what we find out.

If Denbigh staff have any questions feel free to speak to any member of the R&D group.

Ash and Anna


Useful links:

Monday, 7 October 2019

Cognitive Load Theory and its implications on teaching and learning - Ian Stonnell & Ian Hayden

What is cognitive load theory? It sounds complicated. Well it is and it isn't.

Put in its most simple terms cognitive load theory states that our brains have a limited working memory that can only process small amounts of new information from our environment. If we overload this working memory we are not going to be able to process it and therefore the new information will be forgotten.

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A simple model of memory. The working memory is the part that we don't want to overload!

That's a problem for teachers. Today with the expectations of the new curriculum too often we teach at pace, overloading our students, and then wonder why they have forgotten everything we tried to teach them. We've all been there during exam revision when a class genuinely looks back at you with sincere eyes and say, "Sir, we can't ever remember you teaching us that topic". They probably aren't lying to you.

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If we have overloaded our students working memory chances are nothing was ever learnt in the first place.
However, the implications of cognitive load theory can give teachers a wide variety of strategies to help improve teaching and learning and support long term memory. We discussed two avenues of inquiry - (1) How can we alter the way we present information to minimise cognitive load? (2) How can we aid the retrieval of prior knowledge to aid transferring knowledge into the long term memory?

Willingham's simple model of the mind.

General strategies could be:
  1. When starting new concepts teach slow, accelerate later. 
  2. Consider the knowledge you want students to remember in each learning episode.
  3. Use explanation strategies that avoid overloading working memory and encourage connections with prior knowledge.
  4. Tie any new learning to knowledge already in the long term memory.
  5. Integrate retrieval practice strategies routinely into lessons to enhance student access to knowledge stored in the long term memory.
In our research group we discussed several specific strategies underpinned by cognitive load theory including:
  1. The take home strategy (as demonstrated by Adam Boxer).
  2. Knowledge organisers
  3. Interleaving and spacing
  4. Routine low stakes retrieval practice (including homework)
  5. Explanation strategies e.g. dual coding/direct instruction/worked examples.
Off course cognitive load theory is a lot more complex than how I have presented it here, however, I don't want to overload you with too much unnecessary information! If you want to know more about cognitive load theory and any of the other strategies feel free to peruse some of the links below or search for yourself!

Cognitive load theory and applications:
Knowledge organisers:
Dual Coding:
Retrieval practice:
Explanation techniques (based on understanding of CLT):
Interleaving and spacing:

Hope you find this helpful!

Ian Stonnell @DenbighCPD
Ian Hayden @IanHayden8