School starts again on Monday for me and so it is an appropriate time to procrastinate…sorry, I mean plan for the year ahead. Now, I know that the best laid plans of mice and men are quickly waylaid when September gets into full swing, but I want to commit to making some changes to my practice in the coming year regardless.
You don’t need to look at the steepling decline in gym attendance in the month of February to know that sticking to habits and resolutions is hard. I’ve half-finshed enough book about habit building, GRIT and the rest to know that, but still, if we cannot harness the nervous energy of a new school to make some positive changes then when can we?
So I hereby declare my 10 New School Year Resolutions:
1.Teach vocabulary…no, really teach vocabulary. Students learn thousands of new words each year. On a daily basis they face a bewildering array of academic vocabulary. For too many, it proves an endless obstacle course that saps their pleasure from learning. For the ‘word rich’, they pile new words upon their existing hoard. This year I am resolved to teach vocabulary explicitly. From deploying academic word lists to enrich their essay writing, to explicitly pre-teaching the vocabulary of literary texts. I want to foster “word consciousness” so that new, difficult words are a challenge and a pleasure to learn (my blog on ‘Teaching A Christmas Carol‘ gives a flavour of my approach to teaching vocabulary).
2. Find the baseline. David Ausubel famously said, “The most important single factor influencing learning is what the learner already knows. Ascertain this and teach him accordingly”. I agree with him. For me, that will mean quick baseline tests to find out the ability of my students more accurately than I have done before, from quick spelling, vocabulary and punctuation tests, to having a pre-test before each unit they are about to study (the research shows that a pre-test aids learning even if they crash on the test – see HERE).
3. Use lots of big fat quizzes. I am a big fan of quizzes. From a quiz before a unit or text, to ascertain what they already know, to ongoing cumulative quizzes. With the memory demand so high on the new English specifications, I need to consciously revisit texts so that they consolidate what they remember and quizzes are a quick and easy way of students practising their recall. I want to use big fat quizzes that recall lots of things that we have studied. I want to more cleverly space out such quizzes to maximize their memory retention (the spacing effect is brilliantly explained on this Learning Scientists PowerPoint).
4. Teach my students about their lazy brain. In the last few years I have learnt a great deal more about the working of human memory to help guide the learning of my students. I’ve shared stories with them to, but this year I am resolved to hammer home the message. I want my GCSE students in year 10 understanding how their memory works now so that when they are making decisions about their homework next week they understand what that might mean when they in the examination room twenty months from now. The aforementioned Learning Scientists have very helpfully saved me a job and I am looking forward to using their resources with my students.
5. Use the ‘ABC Feedback’ model. Back in 2013 I worked really hard at working at enhancing the quality of talk in my classroom – with what I called ‘disciplined discussion‘. My method rested primarily upon getting all of my students to use my ‘ABC feedback‘ model – ‘A‘ for when you ‘agree with‘ a response, ‘B‘ for when a student wants to ‘build upon‘ a previous response and finally, ‘C‘ for ‘challenge‘, so that students can constructively disagree. In the years since, I’ve not used this strategy so frequently, but I am determined to reestablish the habit as I know it makes for much better, more thorough debate.
6. Get students asking better questions. It takes six to seven hours for a typical student to ask a single question in class (Graesser and Person, 1994). Not only that, their questions are usually limited to close, basic questions. One of my favourite strategies is ‘Twenty Questions‘ – simply getting students to generate as many questions as they can about a topic or text. It gives me great feedback and primes them to seek out the answers and think hard. I am resolved to getting them asking better questions once more.
7. Test my students’ confidence. One strategy I trialled last year was deploying ‘confidence tests‘ to ascertain whether my students knew the most crucial concepts or knowledge I had taught them. One simple confidence test, prior to a quiz, or a test or a piece of work is to add an explicit confidence test e.g.
I am… – very confident – semi-confident – guessing / not confident at all
You can implicitly add in a confidence test by creating a multiple choice answer with a few additions, alongside the usual A. B, C or D optional answers e.g. E) A or B F) C or D G) No idea/ I am guessing.
It proved a simple, but powerful little addition to my questioning repertoire, teasing out more accurate and useful feedback.
8. Use ‘Exam Wrappers’ consistently. My favourite teaching innovation over the last year or so was using ‘exam wrappers’ with students – that is to say, a short questionnaire that unpicks their learning habits and gives you feedback on how well they are preparing for tests and how hard they are working. I want to use these more regularly to find our the patterns in their habits and to see if they are developing how they learn independently.
You can search the Carnegie Mellon website HERE for some useful templates.
9. Revive my ban on highlighters! I abhor highlighters. I have taught too many lessons when students descend into colouring in with the blighters. I find banning highlighters from my classroom (in a fit of histrionic pique for dramatic effect) actually helps communicate the more effective learning habits that I want students to undertake in my classroom and independently. I have written about ‘Why I Hate Highlighters‘ HERE. This brilliant article from John Dunlosky is required reading in my view: ‘Strengthening The Student Toolbox‘.
10. Model Excellence. It is the bread and butter of effective teaching, so I want to focus as acutely as ever on modelling writing and reading with my students, making the choices an ‘expert’ makes visible and audible to them. Ron Berger put it better than I ever could in ‘An Ethic of Excellence’:
“Most discussions of assessment start in the wrong place. The most important assessment that goes on in a school isn’t done to students but goes on inside students. Every student walks around with a picture of what is acceptable, what is good enough. Each time he works on something he looks at it and assesses it. Is this good enough? Do I feel comfortable handing this in? Does it meet my standards?” (P103)
I am not going to spend half the school year obsessing what a 5 or a 7 or a 9 is on the new national grading system. I know what excellence looks like in my subject – it hasn’t changed for centuries, no matter what examination regime comes along. I am going to model that, relentlessly.
Right, time to get back to work…