Thursday, 14 February 2019

Top 5 Tips for Exam Success

Ever since reading High Fidelity, I've found Top 5s to be a useful way of navigating life. 

I recently held some tutorials with some groups of 6th form students and thought I would share my Top 5 tips for A Level success. I constructed it around a Top 5 Problems and then a Top 5 Solutions:

Top 5 Problems:
1) Procrastination & Distraction
2) Forgetting Stuff
3) Time Management
4) Insufficient Notes & Resources
5) Cognitive Overload

Rob, Dick and Barry would definitely argue over this list - is it a true list of 5?

Top 5 Solutions
1) Pomodoro Technique
2) Cornell Note Taking
3) Keep a Record
4) Knowledge Organisers
5) Practice in Part

So, let's go through the tutorial and explain my rationale. I'm not going to link to everything but I will try give a summary of what I shared with the Year 13 students:

1) Pomodoro Technique
Inspired by hearing Barb Oakley recently, I started the session with my real life tomato timer on the desk. I set it 25 minutes and said that was all we had. I then spoke about how this was devised in the world of work when days run from 9am to 5pm with little structure unlike the school day. I pointed out their weekends, evenings and holidays could be like this. I shared this PDF. After 25 minutes work, you have a 5 minute break. After a few sessions, have a 10 minute break. Obviously phones go in the other room. Always. 20 mins to get back to full focus after a distraction?!

2) Cornell Note Taking
I explained about Ebbinghaus's Forgetting Curve (see PDF). I said that forgetting stuff is good - because we then remember it quicker when we review... but we need to be systematic and regular in that process. They know my advocacy of the CNT method, and how I urge student do have a weekly summary session, and a separate weekly cue column session (and then putting paper over their main notes and testing from summaries and cues). I gave them a reasonably detailed PDF on CNT. I then explained my greatest revision tool... a blank sheet of paper! I asked what they would do when they had written down everything they knew for a particular topic - and every time the answer was look it up! We talked about struggling and practising retrieval. Eventually they would need to add to it (when our 25 minutes was up?) - in a different colour - and then repeat the same task the following week.

3) Keep a Record
I gave them a revision timetable (PDF) but then asked why it has never worked for them. Universally it was because it had gone adrift and then they gave up quickly. I emphasised the need to put to fun stuff on first - Saturday evening Nandos - but also that every day is a new day and if it doesn't work on Tuesday, don't wait until Monday to restart. Yet I offered an alternative - a "work diary" when they needed to record every thing they actually did in a day - like a food diary - and how eye opening it would be. One student came back to me later in the week and said it had been a revelation and upped her productivity overnight. This is also useful so revision can be systematic and all topics covered.

4) Knowledge Organisers
Some teachers make them, and provide them at the start of a unit. At A Level, I use as summaries and students produce themselves. It is always a useful took to work out what is missing - "Why do I have no scholars to put in this box?" "What are the weaknesses of this theory?". I then explained the idea of "Unknown Unknowns":

I encouraged them to get a copy of the exam spec and then highlight only when they had actually found notes in their exercise book on the topic - and do it word by word, not by big statement / topic. I also suggested dating it every time they revised a topic.

5) Cognitive Overload
Are you trying to practice retrieval or are you trying to write a great essay? For students that are struggling, doing both can be tough. Obviously they need to do this in the exam, but we used a 'big game' analogy and discussed David Beckham practising his free kicks for hours the day before the Greece game. Practice the skills separately and build up to the final 'big game' exam.

I added two further documents to their pack:
The last thing I did was urge them to change the narrative. I'm as guilty as most in saying, "It's only 4 months until the exams!". However, the other way is "We have 4 months, that's lots of time to do lots of learning!" - Get that Pomodoro timer set back ready for another 25...

Image courtesy of BBC

Wednesday, 16 January 2019

Books Not Blogs [Edexcel RS Update]

There has been very few blogs from me this academic year. I have been busy at work covering a second role within our Teaching School Alliance, our family grew to four last April, we've had building work going on, plus I have been busy writing books. 2019 is looking like an exciting year... please find a brief update to the OUP Edexcel GCSE series for Catholic Christianity papers on Spec A.

UPDATE: Download OUP's Updated Revision Guide pages here - focused on Part D/12 marker questions - we are now confident they are all Level 4 responses in accordance with last summers marking.
UPDATE 2: Download a DRAFT / INSPECTION copy of Workbook 1 (Catholic Christianity) - Get your orders in now for delivery very soon!
Work Books

One of the main concerns that many teachers have had about the new GCSEs is that they are not accessible for all students. Alongside the revision guide, which many teachers and students have found helpful, we wanted to work on something more.

As such, I have been working with the brilliant Ann Clucas (author of How To Teach Everybody: Strategies for Effective Differentiation) to find ways to break down and build up the content so that all students will be able to access and succeed with the new GCSE. We are hoping to publish ASAP, with Book 1 hopefully coming in March / April - just before the 2019 exams!

To reserve a copy, email your local OUP education consultant. Find yours  <here> 


From the January 2019 OUP update flyer

Revision Guide

When students required just 67% to get a Grade 9 on last summers paper, it was clear teachers hadn't been fully prepared for how the exam board were going to mark the RS exam. Many of the (d) evaluation questions got 25-40% nationally. Teachers were advised by the exam board that strengths/weaknesses/conclusion approach "should be sufficient." - yet this was sufficient for just L2 and 6/12 marks.

The OUP team looked carefully at our books, and while confident that our guidance was helpful to students, we felt a few tweaks would be beneficial to help further emphasise the need for careful analysis and evaluation and reflect the latest exam board guidance.

The updated pages of sample responses for the (d) question will also be available for free on the OUP website from 6th February - so if you have already purchased this book, or purchase before February you can still access the most up-to-date advice.

This new updated book will be available from 6th February 2019 and can be ordered here:

Huge thanks to all that helped with this, including various examiners from the 2018 summer series.

More Books

There are few more exciting projects in the pipeline which may mean the blog remains quiet... watch this space!

Thursday, 13 September 2018

WWJD - Rewards & Sanctions (inc. Exclusion)

7 years ago, I submitted my MA dissertation. 

I completed a Masters in Catholic School Leadership at St Mary's early in my career, in part due to my school offering to pay in full. However, despite being relatively inexperienced, and before I had even secured a middle management leadership position, I learnt a lot, and I still refer to my findings years later. 

After tweeting a 'memory' of handing it in, I had a number of requests to read it. Somewhat hesitantly, I also went back to reread my conclusions to see how they had held up - I don't like reading my early blogs for a couple of years back, let alone seven! It also seemed topical, with exclusions one of the 'hot debates' with education at the moment. 

The challenge for Catholic school leaders in developing and implementing a system of rewards and sanctions is that of promoting Gospel-driven and Christ-led values. Thus, there is a need to balance the need for reconciliation alongside the need for sanctioning students while, at the same time, finding enough time and space to fully reward those students making a wide range of achievements.

Cole’s suggestion of creating an environment based on reward and praise was echoed by the responses of all students (Section 2.3; Daniels et al; 1998; 83 in Cole; 2005: 162). The creation of such an environment is a challenge to school leaders particularly in a school which has traditionally had a large number of rules and a far greater number of sanctions than it has rewards.

Catholic distinctiveness needs to pervade all areas of school community life from the School Discipline and Pupil Behaviour policy down to the individual interactions which take place in every classroom, corridor and playground. It needs to be led from the top, and be explicit in words, actions and spirit. Ensuring that this takes place creates varying difficulties, but if it is missing, the school can lose its distinguishing features as a Catholic community. There is a shared ownership and commitment to the common beliefs and goals of a community, and these should be made clear in policy and lived out by the stakeholders as they will hopefully reap the benefits. The students are the most important stakeholders in such policy decision making as they are the ones that need to feel comfortable and safe every day in school. As a Catholic community, this gains even greater importance over and above our legal obligations as set out in documents such as Every Child Matters (2003) and its successor Help Children Achieve More (2011).

Disengaged students must be a priority, as the outcasts were for Jesus. Those who are already disillusioned with the system currently in place whereby they feel they miss out on all rewards and receive disproportionate sanctions, or feel they work hard with little recognition. Additionally due to the way in which they often receive both the rewards and sanctions, they feel detached from their actual work and behaviour. A student may be pleased with a certificate received at the end of term, but maybe unaware exactly what they are being rewarded for. In a similar fashion, to receive a detention a week after an event has taken place, or due to a number of smaller indiscretions that build up, unbeknownst over the week.

Teachers need to be empowered as leaders, recognising their individual responsibility within the classroom. If this is not taking place, senior leaders need to offer support, but also challenge so that this does take place. If rewards are happening regularly in written, visual and aural forms, an environment of praise can be created engaging students and enabling them to work to their best of their ability and fulfilling their potential as individuals and images of God. Likewise if lower-level sanctioning takes place in this often intimate and more immediate environment, students can be offered greater guidance as to how to seek reconciliation and improve their behaviour in future.

The question of exclusion is a recurring problem for school leaders. Sometimes it can be essential for the greater good of the school community. The open and welcoming gestures modelled by Jesus need to be evident in the Catholic school. There must be a demonstration of forgiveness and reconciliation evident; no student must leave feeling excluded as a member of the Kingdom of God. Even if excluded, the student should have felt the love of the community and be given opportunities to repent. However, if
these are rejected by the student, then the school is given little opportunity, like the Rich Young Man who walked away from Jesus and the opportunity offered to him.

The number of rewards and sanctions on offer within a school community are vital, as are the numbers of each awarded. Leaders should be suggesting targets to staff if there is to be a culture of reward rather than sanction. It can be easier to focus on punishing students in order to create academic excellence and high standards of behaviour, yet as seen in this study students can end up feeling excluded and disengaged. They want rewards, and even those students regularly in detention appreciated and felt guided by rewards offered to them for their good behaviour. Additionally recognising that students are not ‘all bad’ and that even students who are often poorly behaved do do
praiseworthy work and actions on occasion.

Do I agree with all of this now?

I don't think behaviour targets are a great idea as such. I do think it is important to encourage staff to think carefully about how they can try to send positive emails and make positive calls, as well as the negative ones. However I freely admit, with limited time, this just doesn't often happen.

At this point, I was a little naive to some of the worst behaviour and disruption which happens in some schools. I was a little too kind in places, and for serious issues exclusion should not even be up for debate. I think Jesus would agree though; punishment (eternal) was a reality for those who wilfully and deliberately turned their back on God.

Rereading the whole dissertation, I still agree that often detentions can be ineffective. I do also agree the an 'internal exclusion' or isolation can be very effective. Some of the students with poor behaviour needed this deterrent and claimed it was the only thing that stopped them misbehaving at times. However I do now see how problematic it can become with reintegration, and how students end up in cycles due to getting behind in work. This can be overcome with good management. 

I still don't know how to do rewards well (without a huge budget!). The reward of the Gospel is in the next life... and I wonder if our students don't truly get the reward of good, disciplined schooling until the leave?  

Sunday, 9 September 2018

Core Knowledge: The Catholic 100

Until I sit down with a few of my fellow Catholic educators and write the Canon of Catholic RE (or even a whole school curriculum), we are working hard in my school to right wrongs about what our students do and don’t know. 

For a year, with a lot of debate and discussion, I have worked on a list of 100 words that I wanted all of Year 7 to know. There are 75 essentials, and 25 advanced words. 

With a little hesitation about how people would perceive the task (“How does this get them excited about RE in secondary school?”), I included my task in the transition booklet alongside English, Maths and Science. Actually most people seemed to think it was a great idea!

For each word, students had to self evaluate:
  • I recognise this word
  • I understand this word
  • I can accurately use this word in a sentence
They then had to write, 'My own definition'. This was just one sentence, of original material, that needed to fit in a concise box. 

The expectation was that each student would have at least 75 definitions at the start of Year 7 that they could refer to, learn and be tested on. They would feel more confident about RE, and we'd be able to move faster in lessons.

However, the main aim was to close the gap that exists in Year 7 in a Catholic school. We have some devout families who would be fluent in this vocabulary (and therefore knowledge), while others will join from non-Catholic schools, and be from non-Catholic, perhaps non-Christian families. It is important to recognise the bewilderment a young Hindu, Muslim or Skih has when the teacher starts talking about the Creed, praying the Rosary, attending Mass and celebrating the Sacraments.

Additionally, the religious vocabulary (religious literacy some would suggest) does not link to other data. Scaled scores and SATS results mean little; a student in our higher sets could be struggling in RE, while one in a set with less able students may excel in RE. It’s why our department data sometimes looks odd. 

We then decided that actually, we have put a lot of work into this, and we do need to ensure all students in Key Stage 3 have this vocabulary. As such, all students in Key Stage 3 now have their booklet and Year 8 and 9 will be completing over the next few weeks.

The students seem to really like it. We’ve had a lot of positive comments, and they really see the value of it. Many are excited about it - especially about mastering the advanced words! 

We will be testing these words at least weekly. 5 a week... and I’ve agreed 4/5 as the pass mark for Year 9. This can't just be a task, it has to end up as a long term learning exercise. 

Students really do enjoy knowing things and learning things, and improving their vocabulary, regardless of their  own faith position or background, is vital. It may be we look at having different lists / booklets for them to work on in different year groups. GCSE already have their own... 

The list is always up for review, even after a year of reviewing, so keep suggestions for improvements and modifications coming in... 

Image courtesy of Spokane Favs

Saturday, 8 September 2018

My First Lesson for Y9+ - Teaching Note Taking

An outline of my first lesson:
  1. A brief welcome and hello. 
  2. Seating plan, alphabetically by first name to start with so I get to know names ASAP. Books given out, 10 short rules copied down on the back page. 
  3. Students to use a ruler and create a box at the bottom of each page in their exercise books, 4 lines in size. They do this for 25 pages. 
  4. On the first five pages, they write CUE COLUMN at the top of the margin, and SUMMARY in the bottom box. 
  5. I briefly explain Ebbinghaus’ Forgetting Curve. I then tell them we will be using the Cornell Note Taking system and detail why I think it is the best way to organise their exercise books. 
  6. They are then told the CUE COLUMN is for any key words, names, dates, places - or questions that come to mind. This is be completed at least 24 hours after the lesson - except questions, they can be written in the lesson. 
  7. Next, I inform them that weekly, they will complete the summary boxes and that each page will be summarised with 2 or 3 bullet points. 
  8. We then look at the testing effect - and how that will help them actually securely learn the information. 
  9. I then show them how to use their new note setup to do that - covering main notes, just leaving cues etc. We practice using cues to write short questions. 
  10. I ensure they know to date and title each piece of work. Date so they add further dates for cue, summary, test and review. Title so information is easy to find. 

We then get started learning things...

And the next lesson we begin with a brief test.

(I used to only do this with 6th form, and blogged about that <here> - includes Cornell Slides)

Images courtesy of UMFK and Wikipedia

Monday, 3 September 2018

Life With A Toddler: Elaborative Interrogation

My son is 2 and a half. He asks a LOT of questions. Most of them begin "How..." or "Why..."

I have frequently mentioned him to my students. He would be an excellent asset to anyone attempting revision. He always wants to know why. These are answers he will no longer accept:

  • "It just is."
  • "Why not?"
  • "Just because."
  • "I don't know."
  • "Does it really matter?"

These are greeted with, "Daddy - don't say that, answer my question please."

Going to Mass is always a great source of questioning. Probably as there is lots of strange things going on, plus the irresistible temptation of me telling him, "You need to be really quiet for this bit. Actually, be silent." 

A few from the last few months include:

  • "Why is Jesus in the round things?"
  • "What actually is the round thing?"
  • "How does the priest say Mass?"
  • "Why is the little circle Jesus?"
  • "Why is Fr Joseph in St Joseph's? And isn't that Joseph?" [Points to statue of St Joseph]
  • "Why do people need the circles to be taken to them when they are sick?"
  • "How does the priest get the circles?"

Even as an RE teacher in a Catholic school, and cradle Catholic, I sometimes struggle. You must also understand that any answer I provide, is then responded to with a further "Why?". Here is one example, to the best of my memory...

  • T: "Why can't I have a round thing?"
  • Me: "You need to be a little older."
  • T: "Why?"
  • Me: "You need to understand what it really is."
  • T: "Why?"
  • Me: "Because it is Jesus, and that's quite complicated."
  • T: "Why is it Jesus?"
  • Me: "Remember the story the priest always tells us, about Jesus and the meal he had with his friends?"
  • T: "Yes... How does the priest make it Jesus?"
  • Me: "That's quite complicated too."
  • T: "Why?"
  • Me: "I'll explain later."
  • T: "No daddy now."
  • Me: "He says a special prayer."
  • T: "Why?"
  • Me: "Because God needs to hear the special prayer."
  • T: "Why does he?"
  • Me: "That's what the Mass is, that's why we come to church."
    • [A few mins quiet]
  • T: "Why do we come to Church?"
  • Me: "To meet Jesus, and meet our friends."
  • T: "Then why can't I have a round thing?"

The good news is, he does remember lots of the information from week to week (spaced and retrieval practice). He does get things confused from time to time - "Look daddy - it's the sick people!" was said far too loudly when the Eucharistic ministers went to collect the Eucharist to take the congregation who were unable to attend Mass.

It's good to ask questions, and I am pleased to have a toddler who wants to know as much as he can. I am also pleased when I see students at lunchtime revising who tell me they are going "Toddler Mode" and irritating each other with "Why?" questions. As I have found out, answering and explaining such questions can be a challenge - even for someone who things they know their stuff!!

Read more on elaboration from the brilliant Learning Scientists here:

Anyway, Mass is sometimes a bit chaotic for me these days. However I took some comfort in this recent article, which I felt compelled to share: A letter to the parents who keep bringing their disruptive kids to Mass, week after week (T is nowhere near this bad, but has been known to repeat the Gospel after the priest if he pauses, and laugh - or shout out "ding ding" after the bell is rung - or go for a wonder...)

Sunday, 19 August 2018

Being Catholic

Back in July, I had two articles published:
These were in part, a response to the Clarke/Woodhead pamphlet entitled A New Settlement Revised, but also in preparation for the final report of the Comission on RE report due later in the year. They also reflected thinking about the direction of some voices in RE, and organisations involved in the campaign for change in RE.

It is always hard to share ideas within a short word limit, and I was grateful last year to get the chance to write more extensively on this topic in a collection of essays, entitled We Need To Talk About RE where I discussed the future of Catholic RE. At this stage, I think it is useful to copy an extract, from the middle of the chapter:
If the Commission [- or anyone!] were to recommend a common baseline entitlement for all schools, including schools with a religious character, then it is very likely that the RE curricula of Catholic schools would already be in compliance with it. But since one of the conditions of the partnership between Church and state is the right of the Bishops to set the curriculum in Catholic schools, then any statutory imposition of just such a common baseline is potentially highly problematic. Of course, given what has already be said, this will only be a problem in principle, not in practice. Nonetheless the principle is a fundamental and non-negotiable one for the Catholic Church in England. It is hoped that a way forward can be found that ensures outstanding Religious Education for all without backing the Bishops into a corner where they have no other option but to oppose something that, in every detail but one, they would otherwise welcome and support.
When I wrote the two articles, I knew that I would receive criticism - and personal attack. I did have some hesitation as some of my good friends within the wider RE world, who I have tremendous respect for, have been involved in the Clarke/Woodhead project, and the Comission on RE. However, I felt an important comment needed to be made about keeping Catholic RE, and Catholic schools distinct. Despite some of the comments I received, it is not because I want Bishop Alan of Brentwood to dictate every detail that I teach! 

I did find it frustrating when people were tweeting about my articles, accusing me of all kinds of things (creating "fake news" was my favourite) and knowingly not including my Twitter handle, so I couldn't respond. Also the use of subtweeting, so discussions could not be followed, stopped some of the genuine debate about this. It was also odd how some people said I was speaking on behalf of the Bishops of England and Wales - I am just an RE teacher, but committed Catholic, speaking on these matters. The CES had already made their statement via Bishop Stock. However, perhaps the thing that made me most upset was how some claimed that the Catholic Church was trying to derail the whole process of RE reform for all. I admit my articles were made quickly after the publication of the Clarke/Woodhead pamphlet was published, but that is how the press and news works. Personal blogs, can obviously benefit from longer periods of reflection. However, the only thing I'd perhaps change is headlines, which I didn't write... (despite them being quoted back at me!)

I do think that RE needs reform. I have passionately argued this for many years. As much as I work in a Catholic school, I have worked in many non-Catholic schools helping to improve RE. I have also written not only textbooks for Catholic schools, but also as part of the Knowing Religion team. As someone who engages in social media, I am also fully aware of the issues in RE. I also think it needs a collective strength, but with solutions that work for all. 

We currently have a dual system of schools in the country, whereby schools can have a religious character. As long as this remains, there needs to be a solution to RE that is not a "one size fits all". As I mentioned in my Herald article, I have seen the proposals put forward by the CES to the Comission on RE that suggests what I personally feel to be a workable and sensible solution to this 'problem'. I do believe that if we (society) want to abolish the right of the Bishops to determine RE in Catholic schools, one of the few legal things that makes the schools distinctive, then we need to end faith schools. This is exactly what some people want, and being clear in this argument would be more helpful, rather than dress it up as an RE debate. 

I'd suggest you read my chapter in We Need To Talk About RE to get a full understanding of the current and future position of Catholic RE. Let's make it clear, the Catholic community have widely engaged over the last few years, providing solutions and suggestions of ways to make legal reform work. They are absolutely not trying to stop the process. They are just trying to keep Catholic schools distinct, reflecting their long protected legal position, history and contribution to education in this country. Conflict within the RE world, which is small, is not helpful. Let's focus on the common ground, accept what is workable, and what is not, and work together for better RE for all - one of the few aims (I think) we can all agree on.

I look forward to further discussion of these articles, with friends, colleagues and Twitter critics over the next few months. We may have to agree to disagree, mind!


If you want to find out more about me as a passionate supporter of Catholic education, you can listen to an interview that I did with the brilliant Jonathan Doyle below: 

0:00 Intro

6:32 Why did you study theology at University?
10:27 How were you drawn towards Catholic Ministry?
17:08 What makes a good Catholic Teacher?
25:41 Why catechesis and curriculum matter
30:57 How should Catholic Teachers deal with difficult questions?
33:14 Why do you care so much about what you do?
36:46 What works for young people in moving from academics to the experiential
41:46 How do you sustain what you do?
45:17 What is Andy’s Vocation?
48:12 What is the essence of Catholic Education?