Alex is a Subject Leader of English in a large 11-18 comprehensive school in York. He is interested in innovative teaching and learning strategies, such as the application of new technologies (his faculty are undertaking an iPad project), alongside the very best of traditional teaching pedagogy. He teaches English Language, English Literature, Media Studies and the International Baccalaureate.
People who have read my #marginalgains blog posts will know I am going over old ground here – intentionally so – as I am looking to dig deeper towards the key marginal gains that have the biggest impact on learning. For me, formative oral feedback and questioning are the two key ‘hinge point marginal gains’ that make for great teaching and learning. My previous #marginalgains blog identified new teaching strategies for these two key area of pedagogy, but here I wanted to use this blog to reflect on what I view as the most high impact formative oral feedback strategies that I have been using in my everyday practice. I want to use my list as a reminder, each time I plan lessons, of the key strategies to use – as it is too easy to forget and slip into autopilot planning, forgetting even our most effective of strategies.
In the latest OFSTED guidance, they have clearly stated that lesson planning should not be inflexible, that teachers should react to the progress, or the lack thereof, of their students. This is heartening recognition of what we have known all along – and that is that teaching and learning are contingent activities. Learning is often problematic, changeable, non-linear, beset by a host of unique factors that cannot be exactly replicated (but with experience we can determine common patterns). We must therefore be constantly tracking the evidence of learning with as much precision and skill as we can. That is why effective teaching hinges absolutely on oral formative feedback and questioning on a lesson by lesson basis. It appears to me that the greatest benefit of experience that I observe in excellent teachers is the recognition of how and when to elicit feedback, with the nuanced understanding of what questions to ask, how and when. I have drawn upon this wealth of experience for my top ten – indeed it is my inept stumbling near the shoulders of giants that is responsible for the whole lot!
After watching ‘Road to Glory’, about the inexorable progress of the Sky Pro Cycling team, it foregrounded the mantra of “The Aggregation of Marginal Gains” that is at the core of David Brailsford’s philosophy. In essence, it is the drive to perfect every controllable detail in the process of performance – the ‘marginal gains’ – with the result being a cumulative significant gain. Watching Bradley Wiggins in the Tour de France, as well as the Great Britain cycling team in the 2012 Olympics was nothing short of inspirational – like most teachers it was considering how to harness the idea to make it useful in my teaching.
The other evening, after – ‘Road To Glory’ – I had a fruitful Twitter conversation with @fullonlearning and a fellow teacher @macn_1. We discussed ideas related to the ‘marginal gains’ concept; how it related to learning and how it may be useful for grouping students etc. One idea I was struck by was how it could be used to promote “learner effectiveness”. Throughout the summer I have been thinking about how ‘learning’ should actually be given as much focus, if not more, than ‘teaching’ – a subtle semantic shift. The ‘marginal gains’ model therefore becomes not simply another teacher motivational mantra (which, sadly, too often becomes verbal wallpaper for students), but how it could become a model for nuanced and revealing self-assessment and potent reflective learning.
I wanted to create a simple list of what I view in my humble opinion as the best books for teachers out there in the market. I thought of two key factors: ‘philosophy’ and ‘practicality’. By ‘philosophy’ I mean those books that get us thinking deeply about our role and our pedagogy – books that reinvigorate our passions and spark new thinking. ‘Practicality’ is self-explanatory but essential for the best educational books for teachers. If a book gets you scribbling notes furiously or splashing each page with post-it notes then its usefulness is clear. The selection is in order numerically, but that doesn’t indicate any order of priority of quality:
1. Visible Learning for Teachers: John Hattie
Perhaps the biggest challenge for myself as an English and Media Studies teacher, and educators more broadly, is the constant fight against the steady decline of reading ability, and the capacity for reading for pleasure, that we find each year in our schools. Without wishing to sound like a jack-booted CBI spokesperson (who seem to exist only to reduce corporate taxes and demonise the state education system), there is undoubtedly a decline in reading that has a pervasive effect on our students and their life chances; affecting their capacity to read both functionally, and as equally importantly, to experience the imaginative delights that reading literature has to offer. I am sure many teachers could provide lots of anecdotal evidence of a decline in reading habits (by this, I must stress ‘traditional’ reading – web reading is in rude health in many aspects), alongside some hard statistical evidence.