Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Learning without limits

Today I have been fortunate enough to attend the conference 'Assessment without Levels' led by the inspirational Alison Peacock and Mary Myatt. The opportunity to hear their messages (and network with esteemed colleagues) made it well worth being out of my classroom. I had envisaged live blogging, but quickly realised that I would not be able to do it properly, whilst listening to what was being said. It was too gripping! What follows in an overview (I have written pages of notes) and I have refrained from putting in quotes so that I don't unintentionally mis-quote, but have tried to capture the essence of what I learned. This is my interpretation of the day, so some of what I have written is not precisely what was said.

Alison kicked off the day by reminding us that we need to keep our principles intact and our children at the forefront. This sounds obvious, but maybe it isn't for those schools who have been judged as RI or inadequate. It is a message that was reiterated by Mary in the afternoon, who told us that what we do is for the children's learning and progress, not for OfSTED. 

Alison was emphatic about not labelling children, but keeping the door open - enabling learning without limits. We are sometimes in danger of limiting the children with the labels that we give them, even if our intentions are good. Giving children a level may limit, or put a ceiling on, what you expect from the child, or they expect from themselves. 

What Alison said about mastery really struck a chord and was particularly relevant in the context of my practice at the moment. I am a fairly experienced teacher, but in no way complacent about what I do in the classroom. I am always seeking ways in which to be better. I am familiar with Dweck's mindset work having read the book a few years ago and from returning to it this summer. The radio 4 programme Mind Changers (in which Alison and her school appear)was part of our inset training on our return to school, with a follow up discussion about it in our staff meeting last night. I am really trying to think about growth mindset in terms of mathematics and to be frank it is making my head hurt. I have gone from thinking that I am a 'we can do it' kinda teacher with uber high expectations, to someone who may inadvertently been capping learning. 

Alison said that real mastery is not knowing, but questioning everything. You think you know, but actually you don't. Yes! That's exactly it! My thinking is being challenged and I have become confused with my maths planning. Luckily, Alison unknowingly gave me the solution to my confusion! Although I like to think I challenge children appropriately, in maths children were often grouped by ability - at least 3 times each week. This to me was the way to manage the tasks they needed to do, pitched at the right level, to help them make progress. Yes there were many days when they chose the level of activity and I provided lots of opportunities for more open ended maths where everyone had the same starting point, but essentially children belonged to groups. I could talk about the children who developed resilience, the ones who could do but couldn't talk/share their learning and the ones who had a positive view of their maths, but were inaccurate, but that could be a whole new post. The idea that Alison shared about differentiation through having challenges that children select (challenge 1,2,3 or 4) is something I am aware of, but have not adopted as consistent approach. It makes perfect sense! I've always considered it to be successful when I've done it, but have never considered doing it every day. Simples?! It's something that I can implement immediately and observe impact. Our children already have brilliant learning behaviours, so I'm sure will learn to select the right challenge for them, and we have a culture of trust, which is another thing that Alison was very clear about. Children must feel confident enough to voice their ideas, views and opinions without fear of threat or ridicule. They need to know that it's ok whether they choose challenge 1 or 4, that there are no judgements made.

Mary reinforced this in the afternoon by saying we are responsible for creating an atmosphere of high challenge, low threat, in which it's ok to make mistakes. These mistakes are vital for learning. Mary also said that if we work on a rich curriculum, we won't always know what will happe and with uncertainty comes challenge. This is why I love the mantle of the expert approach so much - the children lead, you can't always guarantee the direction you will go and the challenge is exciting! Everything these two ladies said made me think of this approach, from student voice to building resilience and positive attitudes - and giving all children equal starting points. If you haven't tried this approach before I can tell you that you I am constantly surprised by children's responses, which are very often contrary to what you would expect from their 'labels' (e.g. NC level). It levels the playing field. What this approach also does is provide ample opportunities for children to share ideas, make decisions and have an impact - all essential in the new OfSTED inspection framework. Mary asked, what do the children have to say? Student voice is one of the powerful indicators of where you are as a school. Pause and think about this.

Indeed under the new framework OfSTED will look for

  • Children who are confident and self assured
  • Good attitudes to learning
  • Children can discuss and debate in a considered way

Children need to learn to agree to disagree and that it's ok to have a different opinion or change your mind (drama techniques like decision alley springs to mind). OfSTED will ask what children are doing and why, so time needs to be invested on the latter. We must also make sure we identify and rectify misconceptions, check systematically for understanding, build resilience, give children time to practice and, most importantly, teach fewer things in greater depth. In the Q&A session at the end, we were reminded that it was ok to take your learning objective over more than one lesson. We need to stop rushing through the curriculum. I can't be the only year 2 teacher who is aware of a child who still hasn't grasped a concept, but has no more time to spend on it. Being given permission in the new curriculum  to slow down feels wonderful.

As for assessment, Alison believes that focusing on a rich curriculum, expertly taught, with low threshold, high ceiling tasks and a culture of challenge is much more profitable than focusing on levelling children. They are rigorous about the quality of teaching, rather than the levels the children are at. Yes they have to report ks1 and ks2, but they didn't spend time worrying about sub levels. We need to ask what difference we have made, what value we have added and what it is like to be a child in our school. Formative assessment (assessment for learning) is embedded and although summative assessment can inform, it should not hamper high quality teaching (big agree here!) Like us, they now use the NAHT KPIs, but in a slightly different way. These are aggregated at the end of each year and passed on to the next teacher (how it should be!) Assessments can be triangulated with work in books and will provide a scaled score for parents. Children are at the heart of parent meetings, which makes total sense as they are the ones being discussed. They produce short films where they self assess and these are shown in their learning review conferences. I love this idea and will definitely do this with some of our children on the SEN register as I think it is a great way of adding to case studies. 

If you want to read more about the Wroxham School's assessment policy, it is set out very clearly on their website

I could write more and more about the messages from today - and lots more advice was given by Mary about the new framework - but I feel this is enough food for thought for now. You can find out lots of brilliant advice on her informative website and I would highly recommend subscribing to her updates. They save an awful lot of time trawling through educational/social networking sites and are always helpful. 

I apologise for any typos (tired eyes) and will polish this post when I turn on my PC by adding some links, bullet points, bold parts etc (ipad prevents proper posting!!) 

I hope I have done justice to Alison and Mary's key messages. This really is a nutshell and I'm sure another blog post will ensue. 

Update: Amy has blogged! A brilliant read that picks up on lots of things that I had written down - and some things that I had only half written because too many inspirational things were being said! (Amy is clearly much better at multi-tasking.)

Please comment! 

1 comment:

  1. Thank you Sheli, I have read this with interest and as a headteacher you have given me some food for thought. The change for teachers is to encourage the pupils to seek and take up challenges rather than just accepting the one given. We are also going down the Growth Mindset route and my staff have responded very well to it. I will watch you progress with interest.


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