Monday, 23 June 2014

#BLOGSYNC - Testing 'Something Else'

Image courtesy of Wikimedia

JUNE TOPIC: What is the best place for testing in schools?

There is much written on testing and in a general sense I would feel unqualified to add much to the debate. However as an RE teacher, I thought I would take just one aspect: the "something else" of RE.

Testing knowledge can be essentially relatively straight forward. A series of questions can quite quickly establish what a student does or doesn't know. The application of knowledge and skills associated with it can also be tested through a series of tasks, although this can be less straight forward. However here, essentially, you have two reasonably narrow bands of testing. Using these methods will demonstrate progress, keep SLT and OFSTED happy. Job done? 

Both knowledge and skills are a fundamental part of RE. However the 'knowledge versus skills' debate is potentially taken further... you have knowledge versus skills versus 'something else'. Some would say this 'something else' is the spiritual dimension, or perhaps reflection element, maybe even the morality? It can certainly be hard to define and therefore even harder to test.

The RE Review (published in October 2013 and available <here>) suggested an approach to RE that involves 3 strands that move on from the traditional: AT1: Learning about Religion and AT 2: Learning from Religion:

   A. Know about and understand a range of religions and worldviews (Know About and Understand)
   B. Express ideas and insights about the nature, significance and impact of religions and 
worldviews (Express and Communicate)
   C. Gain and deploy the skills needed to engage seriously with religions and worldviews (Gain and Deploy Skills)

The review and debate about Levels will continue and at some point a set of criteria will be used to measure students progress either on the AT1 and AT2 ladder or on the new ABC strands. I'm in a Catholic School and we are sticking with AT1 and AT2 and Levels for the time being.

However regardless of what else we are doing with assessment and testing, there is always a sense of morality and a dimension of spirituality that remains present in the RE classroom. Indeed OFSTED must ensure that SMSC (Spiritual, Moral, Social and Cultural) education is taking place throughout the school, yet often it is simply left to the RE teacher to demonstrate it. If it's not taking place in RE, then it is unlikely to be taking place elsewhere!

Good RE needs to be objective, and while working in a Catholic school, I always strive to do this. Those that claim that all faith-schools are simply confessional should perhaps visit one or two. If I simply taught the Catholic view on topics such as abortion, euthanasia and contraception and refused debate on any other view, I'd have a hard life! I also know, I'd be well and truly selling my students short.

Therefore I need to help my students develop an informed, critical sense of morality and conscience. Where is the level criteria for that? Is that Learning From (AT2) or 'Deploying Skills' (Strand C)? How will I measure it? (Against Catholic teaching? Against my own view?) Can I test it? Should I be putting their morality to the test?!? (In short, I think we'd all agree, no!)

The Religious Education Curriculum Directory (3-19) for Catholic Schools and Colleges still has a 'Reflection and Contemplation' strand (download full document <here>):

It is clearly stated here that these are not for assessment but can help students growth in reflection and contemplation. It is a contribution to the pupils ability 'to reflect spiritually and think ethically and theologically'. I do like the extract from TS Elliot poem:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploration
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

I think it can sum up the 'something else' of RE. We can increase the knowledge about religions, practices, rituals, festivals and way of life. We can develop the skills to analysis critically and evaluate both their own and others' faith positions, yet this ability to reflect and contemplate remains vital. It is far harder to establish the right answer to the big questions in life. Also the Y10 GCSE answer to whether euthanasia is right or wrong can be very different to the 40-something's answer in the face of a gravely ill parent.

I will never know the effectiveness of my ability to help my students develop 'something else'. I hope I do it well so that I have at least started them on their way to deal with some of the challenges that life will bring. Life itself has enough testing moments... if I have done something to help them make the right decisions and choices, then I guess that is my success.

Find out more about Edutronic's #BLOGSYNC <here> - Lots more posts on testing this month! WHy not make your own contribution?

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

#UKEdMag - Jobs: "The Times They Are A-Changing'"

Back in early April, I posted on my blog to help my school find a new member of staff (see <here>). I also used Twitter to help me with an internal job application (see <here>). These two experiences helped me to write my most recent contribution to the excellent UKEdMag - subscribe <here> if you haven't done so already! 

Read the full article <here>

Martin is always looking for new article writers so get in touch with him <here>

Tuesday, 17 June 2014

Presentation & Video on Blogging and Tweeting

Image courtesy of Against The Wind

I was very kindly invited by a friend from my Cambridge undergrad days to speak at a conference in Wales for RE teachers from Independent Schools. My remit was simple... blogging and social networking. Luckily this is an area where I can claim some expertise and put together a 25min presentation. 

There wasn't any questions on the day, but feel free to ask any and I will update this post.

Thanks for this opportunity Rhiannon 

Monday, 9 June 2014

Independent Learning: The Red Herring?

Image courtesy of Wikimedia

There has been off and on, an obsession with Independent Learning over the last few years. The idea is based on the fact that often we feel our students are too dependent on us, and need (for university and the world of work) to be able to work a bit better on their own. Even OFSTED got involved in this, and some suggested that if the teacher was seen to be teaching, the lesson couldn't be Outstanding (the infamous quote, "If you talk for more than 10% of the lesson, it can only be Good, at best").

Obviously, many ideas connected with this are total nonsense.

From my blog post a few weeks ago (<here>), written after a few discussions with colleagues and my head hurting somewhat, I think the focus of 'independent learning' is a bit of a red herring. That's not to say independent learners and learning are not desirable, but it is part of a more complex system of what goes on in our classrooms. To sacrifice everything to get students working free-reign is potentially damaging to their progress.

For me personally, I like the ideas of an ‘ethic of excellence’ and ‘growth mindset’. I am a massive fan of Ron Berger and have blogged about him in the past: Redrafting to Perfection and TeachTweet #6 (16/01/14): Critique and Perfection – and I saw <this> last week. Some schools are trying to embed it fully within their schools <here>. Sparky Teaching do some really nice resources, such as <this>. There are even networks of schools now committed to focusing on this, see <here>. Even Ian Gilbert's book on Independent Thinking is not really about what you think it is going to be... he certainly doesn't set out a list of ways to simply unleash your students!

However, even with this, it's important to not get caught up with simply a new 'fad' or name for what boils down to just good teaching (This blog explore it well: <here>).

I had an emailed reply to my blog which raised a few questions and thoughts for me. Here is a summary that I think is useful to share:

  • The focus shouldn't be on 'making everyone independent'. Focus on the students who need it most and consider your response and tools you provide to the student who replies with: "just tell us sir" or "do we need to know this for the exam" or "what is going to come up on the exam paper" or "do I need to know this"
  • Very few students will become lifelong independent learners; don't kid yourself! How many of your students will continue to read and research for pleasure once there is nothing financially to be gained? Those that do, make it all worthwhile, although you'll probably never know!
  • Setting an example of loving learning for its own sake is incredibly valuable. Independently minded young people love to hear about teachers with their own passions and interests. Children respond to a thirst for knowledge. 
    • The suggestions I was given included "reading a book in the playground, tell them about your skydiving hobby, or show them your train-spotting notebooks... watch QI at the end of term for the hell of it, give anybody who can give you a piece of information that nobody else in the room knew a sweet, reward initiative and lateral thinking, praise the kid who gets an interesting wrong answer." 
    • The Brilliant Club was another suggestion. We have used this for the first time at school this year and I can't recommend it more highly. A very rewarding experience for our students
  • "The truly independent child is often one reading "His Dark Materials" under the desk on the back row, or drawing amazing cartoons on his exercise book, or staring out of the window!" - I think it's true to suggest that actually what I think I was looking for was motivated, capable, self-directed learners rather than independent ones. They are easily identifiable as the A/A* students. These are naturally to be celebrated, but don't need as much help to improve.
  • If results in a comprehensive school are very high, it is likely that these are achieved by removing independence and doing much of the work for the students. The evidence of this would be: "carefully developed worksheets, well-structured lessons, lots of resources on the intranet to support homework, great wall-displays and so on." Is it more likely that you would find more independent learners in a school with "blank walls and a few moth-eared textbooks"?
  • The better focus may be on learning habits which reduces the micromanagement from the teacher. This is where you instil classroom virtues; these may include the habit of looking up unfamiliar words in the dictionary or trying to find out from a book before asking the teacher (see <here>) or more time for reflection and self-assessment. 
  • Sharing these virtues or values of learning will enable them to become embedded across the school; potentially the middle ability students can grow towards the A/A* and the lower ability may improve from D to C grades. However, "The strugglers will struggle to develop the habits and the high-fliers may well be resistant, as they have already been doing as well, they think, as they need to - so why put the effort in to develop better habits, which could be construed as making life easier for you..."
I think I'm in a better place with all of this now and hopefully I can share and communicate this with colleagues. Maybe Andrew Old will like this piece a little more... (he was right last time!)