CPD for Knowledge Fans

CPD has the potential to be the stuff of nightmares. At the end of a long day, the last thing I would choose to do is spend an hour sitting around discussing questioning strategies for closing the pupil premium gap, or messing about with Bloom’s Taxonomy card sorts, or worse– trawling through reams of data. Utterly soul-destroying stuff.

 

Since joining Michaela, I have not had to sit through anything close to this. In the English department, our CPD is focused around improving our subject knowledge. Under the guidance of our exceptional Head of English, Jo Facer, I have learned lots about the texts we teach, which has dramatically improved my teaching. Here are three things we do as a department to improve our subject knowledge.

 

  1. Annotation

 

We meet each week for an hour to discuss our upcoming lessons (which have been planned and resourced in advance). We all arrive to the meeting with the lesson content (poems/ book chapters/ grammar exercises, etc.) pre-annotated so that we have lots to discuss. Jo leads the meeting, and she goes through a few key points that need to be drawn out, focused on or developed in the lesson. We then branch out into a discussion about some of the texts, sometimes driven by our particular specialisms or interests. The aim is to deepen our understanding of the content. We all add to our annotations as the discussion progresses, building on each other’s points. Another aim is to consider possible misconceptions and alert our attention to things that pupils may struggle with. For example, Jo might point out some ambiguous vocabulary, or clarify, ‘make sure they don’t get x confused with y here’. It’s really, really useful, and it means that every teacher in the department spends a lot of time thinking deeply about the content.

 

 

  1. Memorisation

 

At Michaela, pupils carry out memorisation for homework every night. The aim of this is for every child to learn the most crucial knowledge to automaticity. Teachers at Michaela also work hard to memorise the same knowledge by heart. I’ve found this tremendously useful. If I find my class packed up, standing behind their chairs a few minutes before the bell, I can quickly quiz them on a few things without having to scramble around and look for a sheet of paper. It also means that I know what they know, down to the precise definition they have been taught for each concept. I have found that having a shared language for such things to be invaluable.

 

We also learn quotations and poetry off by heart. Again, it’s lovely to be able to refer to this shared language regularly with kids. For example, I often say things like ‘Come on, team, we need to fill the unforgiving minute with 60 seconds worth of distance run!’ or ‘You are the master of your fate and the captain of your soul! Don’t let yourself down!’

 

We sometimes have knowledge tests in our weekly English meetings, which is good because it holds me to account! When there are a million things to do, learning Macbeth quotes might slip down the priority list; knowing you’ll be tested on it in a week’s time is a good motivator!

 

  1. Reading

 

Of course, relying on the above is not enough. Teachers should always be a long way ahead of their pupils in terms of subject knowledge. As a non-English graduate, I feel particularly paranoid about this from time to time. This is another area in which Jo Facer and Joe Kirby have been brilliantly supportive and helpful: they have recommended various books and articles for each unit we teach, and in some cases, have furnished us with helpful abridgements! All of this has really helped to enrich my understanding of the curriculum.

 

 

 

If you want teachers to teach knowledge, then shaping CPD around the content they will be teaching is a good place to start. Of course, this isn’t going to help teachers get better at managing behaviour, nor will it directly improve their pedagogy, but it does help to focus their minds on their subjects. Sadly, subject knowledge gets pushed to the sidelines in many schools, often because of pressures surrounding data or exams or moderation, etc., and whilst those things are important, they shouldn’t eclipse our subjects, because our subjects, after all, are what we are here to teach.

 

How to Overcome The Curse of Knowledge

On a recent trip to my Nan’s, I was asked once again to fix her iPad. She was unable to watch something on “that BBC button” and was quite distressed about it. In exchange for several cups of milky tea and a Tunnock’s Teacake, I did my best to solve the problem.

“Well what’s wrong wit’ bloody thing then?”

“Right. Looks like your wifi’s stopped working and the app hasn’t downloaded properly.”

Befuddlement ensued. I did my best to explain what ‘wifi’, ‘app’ and ‘downloaded’ meant before trying to explain what had gone wrong without using those terms. My Nan was still confused, so she just left me to it in a sort of “I don’t care as long as it’s fixed” way.

It struck me that I possess a lot of knowledge about the internet, apps, etc. that my Nan does not. It was very difficult for her to understand exactly what I meant, never mind attempt to resolve the issue herself, because she lacks the basic knowledge that I have.

This often happens in classrooms and is a phenomenon Steven Pinker terms ‘The Curse of Knowledge’. It means that experts often underestimate the amount of knowledge required to access new information. As has oft been said before, teachers can underestimate their own knowledge, and overestimate their pupils’ knowledge.

For example, when teaching something as seemingly straightforward as the humble apostrophe, we can underestimate the amount of knowledge required to really understand it. In order to use an apostrophe correctly, pupils need to understand five complex, overlapping rules:

  1. Singular and plural nouns not ending in ‘s’: show possession by adding apostrophe s.

E.g. Tom’s book, Ali’s table, the children’s room.

  1. Singular and plural nouns ending in ‘s’: show possession by adding an apostrophe (and sometimes an extra ‘s’ at the end).

E.g. Ross’s house, The foxes’ den, Elephants’ tusks. In order to understand this, pupils need to know the difference between singular and plural, and how to form plurals from singular nouns.

  1. Plural nouns that don’t possess anything do not require an apostrophe.

Sometimes pupils write things like this: ‘I have two apple’s’ because they have misunderstood the relationship between subjects, verbs and objects, and have formed a misconception about how possession works. This is something that needs to be addressed when teaching the apostrophe, either through teaching it correctly in the first place, or confronting embedded misconceptions.

  1. Pronouns of possession do not require an apostrophe.

Common mistakes with this one include: Our’s is really nice, I want her’s, the pencil is your’s. This happens because, again, pupils have formed a misconception about possession. This usually also indicates that they don’t really understand that pronouns replace nouns, but not always.

  1. Contracted verbs/nouns: show omission by adding an apostrophe in place of the missing letters.

E.g. I don’t know, we won’t go, they’re out ‘n’ about.

 

And don’t even get me started on the difference between ‘its’ and ‘it’s’….!

 

The knowledge required to understand these rules is vast, and because experts are susceptible to the curse of their own knowledge, underestimating what they know and overestimating what pupils know, they sometimes fail to recognise just how hard it is to learn new, complex things. As a result, pupils end up confused and unable to understand and apply the thing you want them to learn.

Possible ways to overcome The Curse of Knowledge

At Michaela, we are working hard to overcome this. Here are some strategies for getting past the curse of our knowledge.

  1. Curriculum Sequencing

Joe Kirby’s post on curriculum design is well worth revisiting. A good curriculum takes knowledge into account, and prioritises teaching the concepts that pupils need to know in order to access new information. For example, it is far easier to learn how to subtract if you can count, so you wouldn’t teach subtraction before counting. The same applies for complex processes such as literary analysis. You can’t analyse a text unless you know things about it. You can’t write an essay until you know how to write a sentence, and so on.

  1. Knowledge Organisers

Looking at a unit as a whole, identify the 20% of content that will have 80% impact on pupils’ understanding. In an English literature unit on Shakespeare, for example, that might be key quotations, poetic and rhetorical techniques, plot, themes and a list of characters. If pupils learn this knowledge to automaticity, it will help them with more complex tasks later. Prioritise this knowledge at the start of the unit and refer back to it again and again until they have mastered it and are able to apply it flexibly.

 

  1. Drilling

Drilling the basics helps to free up space in working memory for more complex processes. For example, when writing an essay, pupils have got a lot to hold in their minds at once: grammar, spelling, punctuation, plot, themes, characters, quotations, links, paragraph structure, vocabulary, and so on. It’s overwhelming at the best of times, but helping pupils to automate many of the underpinning basics frees up thinking space. Experts can write grammatically accurate sentences without even thinking, weaving in interesting ideas and vocabulary with little thought. This is incredibly hard work for someone who has not automated the underpinning basics. At Michaela, we support pupils to automate the fundamentals by drilling them daily in quotations, grammar and knowledge. When it comes to essay writing time, they stand a much better chance of being able to get to grips with the complex ideas they want to express.

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If Michaela sounds like somewhere you’d like to work, get in touch! We are currently looking for teachers of History and Science. More information here: http://mcsbrent.co.uk/teacher-vacancies/

 

How can we help the weakest catch up?

“So let me get this straight: we’re behind the rest of our class and we’re going to catch up to them by going slower than they are?”- Bart Simpson

 

Our instinct is often to assume that a kid with a reading age of 7 couldn’t possibly be asked to sit and read a Dickens chapter in class for an hour.  So rather than cruelly forcing them to do so, we might perhaps choose to watch a film clip and draw a storyboard instead. On the surface, this seems entirely legitimate and reasonable. After all, pupils cannot be expected to run before they can walk. But this is where I think we have been going wrong with the weakest pupils for a long time. Our good and caring intentions have unwittingly lowered the bar for the pupils who struggle the most. By reducing the expectations we have of their behaviour and output in lessons, we limit them from ever being able to achieve the best possible outcomes. Weak pupils will simply never catch up if they are rarely exposed to truly challenging tasks and aren’t pushed to meet the demands of an academically rigorous curriculum.

 

The weakest pupils need more focus, more rigour and more practice if they are to stand any chance of catching up with their peers.

 

  1. More Focus

 

For some reason, we don’t expect weak kids to behave as well as we expect top set kids to behave. 7.1 may be a dream to teach, but why, in the same school with the same teacher, are 10.8 a complete nightmare? Bottom set kids are doubly disadvantaged: not only do they come in knowing the least; their lessons are often the most disrupted. They need to spend the maximum amount of time in lessons listening to the teacher, following rules and working hard, yet often they are surrounded by chaos.

 

Think about the precious minutes that are melting away whilst the weakest pupils sit in a chaotic classroom. Think of all the things they could learn during that time if they were actually listening. School leaders must do everything in their power to ensure that every child has the opportunity to learn from their teacher every single lesson.

 

 

  1. More Rigour

 

When pupils find extended reading and writing difficult, there is a temptation to reduce the rigour in the content and tasks they are asked to do. It’s tough to give a kid with a reading age of 7 a full page of text to wade through, but surely it is better for them to struggle and come out the other side than to never even attempt such tasks. Again, we feel like it might be cruel to expect a bottom set pupil to sit and read a challenging text for an hour, but isn’t it crueller never to give them the chance? Reading texts in lessons with weak pupils is tough, but it isn’t impossible. If they get into the habit of doing it every lesson- perhaps, even across subjects- they will get better at it and will feel successful.

 

  1. More Practice

 

If a child has a reading age of 7 and cannot spell, they need to spend the bulk of their time in lessons reading and writing. They are literally years behind where they should be, and we simply do not have a moment to spare. Every planning decision we make gives us a choice: spend time doing things they can already do (drawing a story board), or spend time developing skills they desperately need to master if they are going to stand a chance of being successful in the future.

 

We must also remember that pupils only spend around 25 hours per week in lessons. This time is so precious. With such limited exposure to teachers and their expertise, we should strive to make the most of every second they have. They can watch films, make posters, do a bit of drawing and chat to their mates at home. They can’t work out how to solve quadratic equations or read and understand a Dickens novel without the support of a subject expert.

 

 

 

The weakest kids have the biggest mountain to climb. With the support of their teachers, a rigorous curriculum, meaningful lesson activities and focused behaviour in lessons, they stand the best possible chance of reaching their potential.

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If you found yourself nodding along in agreement with this post, why not apply to work with us at Michaela? We’re hiring English, Humanities and Science teachers. More information here: http://mcsbrent.co.uk/teacher-vacancies/

The ‘Show Sentence’

The Michaela approach to writing about literature involves building up sentences by combining pupils’ knowledge of poetic, theatrical and rhetorical techniques with memorised quotations, memorised facts and academic vocabulary. Through lots of guidance, we are able to elicit some pretty good sentences from the class, before letting them loose to write their own. I call this a ‘Show Sentence’. I do these pretty much every lesson so they get plenty of writing practice.

 

Below is a demonstration of this approach in action in a lesson. To provide a context, this would take place after they have read, discussed and annotated the text, and have memorised key quotations. I would most likely be scribbling this on the whiteboard as they go.

 

Year 8 (lowest set) Lesson: Shakespeare’s Macbeth

 

Teacher: “Fair is…?”

 

Pupils [chanting in unison]: “…foul and foul is fair: hover through fog and filthy air.”

 

Teacher: Super! Which techniques does Shakespeare combine in this quotation about supernatural sorcery? [Wait for hands up] Charlie?

 

Charlie: Shakespeare combines alliteration, rhyme and chiasmus, Miss.

 

Teacher: Excellent response. Who can spell chiasmus? … Rachel?

 

Rachel: C H I A S M U S

 

Teacher: Nod if you think Rachel is right. [Pupils nod] Well done, Rachel!  Okay, so Charlie said ‘Shakespeare combines alliteration, rhyme and chiasmus’. That was a great start. I’d like us to use a synonym for combines to improve this sentence. Anyone have any ideas? Ushra?

 

Ushra: Shakespeare fuses alliteration, rhyme and chiasmus, Miss.

 

Teacher: Excellent. I really like the use of the word ‘fuses’ there. But now I want us to turn this into a Show Sentence. So what does Shakespeare fuse these three techniques to show? Turn to your partner for 30 seconds.

 

[30 seconds pass- teacher gets class’ attention again] Okay hands up- what does Shakespeare fuse these techniques to show? Ray?

 

Ray: Shakespeare fuses alliteration, rhyme and chiasmus to show the witches’ sorcery.

 

Teacher: Love it! Can we use a synonym for ‘to show’ though, Ray?

 

Ray: Shakespeare fuses alliteration, rhyme and chiasmus to emphasise the witches’ sorcery.

 

Teacher: Superb! Okay, this is looking good, but I think we can do more to it. I’d like to add an adjective in here before the word ‘sorcery’. I’m thinking of a word beginning with ‘s’ that means something that’s unnatural, or to do with magic. [Lots of hands go up]… Karl?

 

Karl: Supernatural sorcery!

 

Teacher: Brill. Next, then, I’d like us to add another adjective, perhaps before the word ‘witches’. Who can think of an adjective to describe the witches? Sarah?

 

Sarah: evil, miss?

 

Teacher: you’re right. They are evil, but can we think of a synonym for ‘evil’, maybe? Jon?

 

Jon: Malevolent!

 

Teacher: Good! Carrie?

 

Carrie: Satanic?

 

Teacher: Fabulous! Okay, I think I’m going to choose malevolent this time, but you could choose any of those synonyms. So let’s have a look at the sentence now: Shakespeare fuses alliteration, rhyme and chiasmus to emphasise the malevolent witches’ supernatural sorcery. This is looking so excellent, but I think we can do even better. I reckon we could add something about the audience or the context, maybe? Hmmm… can anyone think of the word beginning with a J that describes people living during the time that Macbeth was first performed? Jake?

 

Jake: Jacobean, Miss!

 

Teacher: superb! Who was the monarch during Jacobean times? And when did their reign begin? Farsha?

 

Farsha: It was James I and he was the monarch in 1603 after Elizabeth died.

 

Teacher: goodness me! What a cracking answer! We need to get that into our show sentence somehow. Let’s have a think. Perhaps I could add a relative clause at the end of my sentence. I could finish the previous clause with a comma, and open the next clause with ‘which’. When I write a relative clause, I’m adding information. I want to add some extra information about the noun I’ve just talked about. So I want to say something about the witches, and I want to try and link them to Farsha’s excellent point about James I. What link could I make? Tasha?

 

Tasha: Miss, you could say that the Jacobean audience would have been scared by witches, Miss.

 

Teacher: You’re right! That’s a really good link! What did James I think of witches? Was he a fan? Lee?

 

Lee: No, Miss! He wrote a book called Demonology and said witches were illegal.

 

Teacher: Superb knowledge! He did indeed write Demonology and outlawed witchcraft. Okay, so we could say something like this: “which would have scared the Jacobean audience.” But you know what… I think we can do better than that! Who can make some suggestions? Prem?

 

Prem: Change it to ‘which petrified the Jacobean audience’, Miss.

 

Teacher: Excellent. Now we are really getting somewhere with our show sentence today! I think we could add one more thing. We know that the audience were petrified by the idea of witchcraft, but we also know that they found it quite entertaining to watch. So I could say, ‘who petrified, yet entertained the Jacobean audience’. Anyone want to suggest how I could improve that? Kaynath?

 

Kaynath: Instead of ‘entertained’ could you say ‘enthralled’?

 

Teacher: Yep! ‘which would have petrified, yet enthralled the Jacobean audience’. Superb! But we know lots of words for petrified, such as ‘terrified’, ‘disturb’, ‘frighten’, and we know lots of synonyms for enthralled, such as ‘engaged’, ‘enraptured’, ‘captivated’. So when you write your own show sentence, you’ll be able to choose some of your own synonyms to put in there. Right, so let’s have a look at the whole show sentence together now:

 

Shakespeare fuses alliteration with rhyme and chiasmus to emphasise the malevolent witches’ supernatural sorcery, which would have petrified, yet enthralled, the Jacobean audience.

 

I think that’s pretty good work, team! Now you’ve got ten minutes to have a go at writing your own show sentence about the quotation ‘fair is foul and foul is fair: hover through fog and filthy air’. Ready? GO.

 

Below is an example of one Michaela pupil’s Show Sentence.

 

Show Sentence

Where can teachers have most impact?

Lots of teachers go in to the profession because they want to make a difference. A noble aim, of course, even if it is a consequence of a slightly inflated view of ones ability to do so.  Government campaigns peppered with inspiring rhetoric aim to seduce the quixotic, convincing us that teaching will turn us into classroom heroes who will land in a school and change lives left, right and centre.

 

Teaching is a constant roller coaster, and to help us cope with the extreme highs and lows, from: ‘YES- Jimmy can finally use quotation marks!” to “Please don’t make me enter any more data- I want to kill myself”, we convince ourselves that we are having enormous impact on the kids who need us most. We elect to work at the most ‘challenging’ schools, living under the romantic illusion that we can parachute into them and save the world. We love the feeling of being in a battleground, of transforming their lives one controlled assessment at a time. We feed off the possibility of being that one teacher who finally helps a troublesome teen to knuckle down, or being that one teacher who can get that class to behave, or being that one teacher who inspires a bottom set kid to love reading. It’s all a bit Dead Poet’s Society, and we berate ourselves for occasional bouts of ‘average’, or for delivering a run of the mill lesson on a Thursday morning because you made the call to go to bed before 2am the night before.

 

We want to be inspirational teachers because we love the kids and we know that’s what might make the difference for them. And in a school with a challenging intake, Ofsted-driven practices and a behaviour policy that doesn’t support staff, we roll up our sleeves and continue the fight. We keep fighting because we feel that we are having a huge impact.

 

But is such transformation possible in a battleground school where good behaviour is rare and underachievement is rife? Is it really likely that we will change a kid’s life because we work relentlessly against the tide of low expectation and poverty that drives mediocrity?

 

It feels like it might be, but I don’t think it is as possible as we think.

 

Yes, we may help them to get their C- hopefully we’ll help them to do even better than that. And yes, we probably make their lives nicer for a short time, and we may spark something in them that may have lain dormant without our intervention. We tacitly accept that poverty, Ofsted and rubbish SLT exist and cause most of the problems, but we set these things aside and focus on the impact that we- individual warriors against the orthodoxy of the system-can have. We practise ‘Zen and the Art of Teaching with the Door Closed’, and carry on under the misbelief that there is no other way. Whether or not we manage to do this for more than a few years remains to be seen. Do many battle-ground addicts stick it out for fifteen or twenty years? Or do they perhaps realise somewhere along the way that they aren’t having as much impact as they think they are? Maybe they come to see that they aren’t all that indispensable after all, or maybe they realise the arrogance of thinking they can singlehandedly transform a child’s life in the midst of chaos.

 

I would argue that there are two fundamental problems with the hero teacher mindset. Firstly, it sets many of us up to fail. The level of transformation we think we can have is fairly rare: nearly half of children in the UK leave school without 5 GCSEs, and most of those are the ones we never quite managed to crack. Whilst we remember the success stories of our careers- the occasional pupil whose destiny we helped to change- we conveniently forget the ones the system has failed.

 

Secondly, it is never a guarantee that you will have this much impact on a child. It’s not systematic enough. It depends on personality, on circumstances, on luck. You may end up being the next Rafe Esquith, but in a profession absorbed in pointless bureaucracy and oppressive accountability, it is less likely than you might think.

 

But there is hope. I maintain my optimism about the power of education – I wouldn’t still be here if I didn’t. I do think it’s possible to change the course of a child’s future through schooling. I think it’s one of the biggest leavers we have for improving social mobility and life chances. However, in order for us to have as much impact as possible, we must get over the hubris of “I’m a hero teacher” because the hero teacher is a myth. We must have the humility to realise that we cannot change the world when we are alone in our classrooms, and that in fact, we will have a far greater impact if we work somewhere where every single teacher and member of SLT is committed to getting pupils out of bad habits and into good ones, and will not rest until they have achieved excellence.

 

When teachers are working seamlessly together and are all singing off the same song sheet, something magical happens. When everyone is working towards the same objectives and believes that education means more than C grades and compliance, it is truly amazing and has genuine transformative power. Every single moment in a school like that feels purposeful. Rather than the occasional stumble over moments of joy and hope amid a sea of indifference, you can’t help but feel that every single small thing you do is contributing enormously to something far bigger than you would be able to achieve alone.

 

My message to you is simple: when choosing your next post, think carefully about where you will truly have the greatest impact. Going to work in a challenging school for the kicks you get from it will not be completely futile, but you will feel as if you are having more impact than you actually are in reality. Working somewhere where you are just one member of a group of people who all share your desire to change kids’ lives will enable you to have a far greater impact than you could ever have as a lone ranger in a challenging, chaotic school. The steps you take with a great team of colleagues will take you- and more importantly, your pupils- further than you could ever have imagined.