Friday, 12 April 2013

Never Work Harder Than Your Students?

Never Work Harder Than Your Students by Robyn R Jackson: who could resist such a  title? And despite the seemingly impossible name, the advice this book contains is actually a common sense approach to ensuring that ownership of learning resides with those it should: the learners. It is not an encouragement to shirk or shortcut, but rather a tool to use time more efficiently and effectively. While much of the advice is not new, there are important reminders about the consistency of implementing strategies and a recognition of the practical difficulties that can distract us from what we know are effective methods. 
Being able to facilitate learning among all learners all the time is undoubtedly a holy grail of teaching, and this read offered me a way to systematically work toward this and still have something of a life. Being able to get the balance between time spent in lessons and time spent planning lessons has been a massive challenge for me, and there are various techniques that I have developed over the years to try and address this. Some of these techniques are a direct effort to get the work-life balance that we all seek, but many of them came naturally from the adoption of an enquiry-based approach where the emphasis is where it should be: on learning rather than teaching.
This reading coupled with departmental reflections have given me ideas about how I can move my practice forward to really achieve the goal of 'no child left behind.'

Tracking Progress
It was reassuring to read from Jackson that approaches I have adopted are not short-changing my learners, but I can also see that I can do a lot better in the area of tracking progress for each and every individual. Our department already uses AfL strategies centred on the Assessment Focus grids from the UK National Curriculum for English. Although they are useful and I agree with the philosophy behind them, I have found using them onerous and time-consuming in a classroom of such diverse levels and where time is precious. 

Occasionally, I also see that learners don't really understand how to use the rubrics to pinpoint where they are or what they are moving toward, so I revert to more traditional assessment methods (such as longer written pieces) which I then spend hours of 'home' time marking and commenting on. This takes the emphasis off my learners and onto my feedback: I've definitely been working harder than my students in this respect, so it's time for a change.

Allocating sufficient time at the start of the year to introducing the tracking system to learners is key; this isn't a new idea or practice but perhaps I have rushed through this in a bid to 'get on with' the curriculum. Furthermore, and essentially, I now recognise the need to have much more regular and instructional discussions around formative assessment to ensure that learners are competent in handling the feedback they receive. Concrete steps to take with my learners:

  • Allow for 2 weeks at the start of the year to setting up and understanding e-portfolios. Explore methods of identifying levels and learning goals in a very clear and concrete way, looking ahead to self- and peer-assessment.
  • Document how to use feedback received from any source to track and set learning goals so there is always help when learners need it.
  • Ensure AFs are never far from our focus, even on more creative or abstract projects.
  • In long-term planning, have a clear idea of when there are learning opportunities for particular AFs  and - importantly - when they will be revisited for development and progress tracking.
With each group, we have a classroom of up to 24 learners spread across 5 National Curriculum levels, including learners with specific and non-specific learning needs and EAL. Designing lesson time that not only meets the needs of every learner but actually moves them forward has been mind-bogglingly difficult and incredibly time-consuming. Sure, English lends itself to plenty of open-ended tasks, but what about when we just need to get down the nitty-gritty of mastering particular skills rather than demonstrating them? I admit to having days where I feel some learners are not being challenged; they engage with the activities and perhaps feel they are 'practising' skills but I want more than that - I want them to walk out of the room at the end of the week and assuredly identify what they couldn't do last week that they now can; what they didn't know or understand last week but now have discovered or internalised. It's not enough that they had fun and 'practised [our] team-working skills again' - not because such skills aren't essential (they are!), but because we can achieve more. It's an ambitious goal, but if learner reflections tell me we've got there, I can be sure that we have a rigorous learning environment indeed. To do this, Jackson suggests something very scary: I have to sacrifice at least some of those great activities that have learners sighing to see the lesson end and replace them with very learning-focused activities. At first, I felt trepidation going back to look at previous units of work, but after a review, I realised it's not such a big task. I already have very concrete learning outcomes for each lesson, so it's more a matter of refinement than complete revision - relief! So, the steps:
  • Ensure each learner has the opportunity to work on personalised learning goals every lesson (as far as possible). There will be a general focus area based on an AF for reading, writing or speaking and from our Key Competencies, but through rubrics and learning conversations, learners will be clear about how they will move forward in any given lesson.
  • As we embark upon activities, be more consistent and specific in identifying the expected learning and subsequently take time to reflect on (non/) achievement

So this is enough in terms of my own learning goals for now and I'm excited to see if these steps will lead to meaningful change. Wish me luck!