Supporting Good Progress with the Lower End of the Ability Spectrum : Physical Education
Whether you have mixed ability PE lessons or streamed, it often seems considerably harder to make good progress with the lower end of the ability spectrum. When a student struggles to make contact with a shuttlecock there seems very little point in trying to teach the drop shot. I can remember units of badminton where low ability students worked on serving for six weeks, and were still struggling to make contact with the shuttle consistently.
Whilst assessment in PE is based on a quality model that lends itself to mixed ability teaching far more than a subject with a difficulty based assessment model, I think streamed groups make a significant difference in supporting better progress.
In this specific example, I am going to focus on football – primarily because when I teach football it always seems to be the sport where I encounter the largest ability spectrums. Teaching a low ability group a unit of football, presents a variety of planning considerations in terms of designing a lesson to best meet the needs of the group. In many schools, schemes of learning exist which will be delivered simply because that is what is expected. In schools where groups are streamed, there is a far greater need for a fluid approach with respect to schemes of learning. In one school that I taught in, the focus was skill development in Year 7, tactical understanding in Year 8 and leadership in Year 9. The reality of teaching a lower ability group is that by the end of Year 7, their skills may not be anywhere near the level of development needed to progress on to tactical awareness in Year 8.
With a lot of noise nationally in relation to threshold concepts, I have come to the conclusion that an understanding of space (spatial awareness) is undoubtedly a threshold concept for many sports taught in Physical Education lessons. Without spatial awareness, most game situations result in a ‘bees around a honey pot’ scenario, with all students competing for one or two glorious touches of an unobtainable ball. A football coach from Birmingham City FC once told me that spatial awareness couldn’t be taught beyond the age of 12; that children either develop the understanding or don’t during the pre-adolescent years of childhood (I’m yet to find any research to support this.) Regardless of the veracity of such a statement, the fact remains that teaching students to develop an understanding of space, is an exceptionally difficult and slow process with the lower end of the ability spectrum. The other consideration is whether there is any point moving onto tactical concepts until the students have a solid grasp of the basic skills.
So what is the solution?
As with all things learning and teaching, there is not necessarily a specific answer as the variables are so vast and it is what you know will have the most impact for your particular setting, and so I thought I would share the things that I have found to be successful.
Knowledge shouldn’t be neglected – “In on the micro”
The fact that a student may not have the skills to demonstrate a sophisticated or basic tactical understanding in a practice situation does not mean that learning hasn’t taken place. I have found some reassurance when teaching lower ability students by finding ways that allow students to demonstrate their understanding without having to do it in practice – and I don’t mean by a few token questions in a plenary. Another old football coach of mine always used to say, in his thick Scottish accent, “right lads, we’re in on the micro now”, and by micro he was referring to a miniature pitch made out of various coloured cones. He would then proceed to get us to move cones around to elicit our understanding of defensive positioning or recovery runs etc. This particular idea has been very useful with my low ability groups as it has given them the opportunity to demonstrate that they understand the principles of attack and defence without necessarily being able to demonstrate them in play.
Fundamental Motor Skills
Many of the problems in teaching football skills and tactics come from a root cause of weak fundamental motor skills. Just making contact with the ball can often prove problematic for the lower end of the spectrum. The inability to execute the most basic fundamental motor skills is undoubtedly a barrier to whatever unit is being taught. Sometimes I wonder if it would be better to personalise the curriculum and include some units specifically designed to strengthen the fundamental skills by explicitly focusing on them.
Focus on One Specific Teaching Point
Where the progress of a group has been slow, I have tended to focus on one specific aspect in order to measure progress. When fundamental motor skills are broadly weak, I have found it beneficial to focus on one teaching point as opposed to two or three teaching. For example, when working on controlling the ball, the sole aim of the lesson might be for students to get their body in line with the ball. If students can’t get themselves in line with the ball, there is no point in overloading them with instructions about using the side of the foot or cushioning the ball.
If you have read The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle, you will be familiar with the notion that practising a skill leads to increased myelination of the motor neurones; thus leading to better conduction of nerve impulses and ultimately, a more precise movement. With this in mind, I have found it useful to allocate more time in lessons to the repetitive practice of the basic skills. Once again, without a moderate grasp of such skills, there seems little point in moving on to even the most basic tactical practices.
Small, Realistic Individual Goals
In terms of motivation, I have found that small, achievable, personal goals can have a big impact in terms of motivation. The one student who has become a master of looking like they are playing in games without ever touching the ball, makes much better progress if their one target is to touch the ball at least 5 times in a game situation.
Last but not least is praise. Many of the students who find themselves in the lowest ability set are at great risk of reaffirming the notion of self-fulfilling prophecy. Being in ‘the bottom set’ is often demoralising and so the use of praise becomes vital. The beauty of streaming means that the students in the lower ability sets can actually participate without fear of being ridiculed by the high ability students. It enables them to experience success, and performing a nutmeg on a student in a lower ability group should be celebrated just as it would be in a higher ability set. For some students in these groups, just having the confidence to get into a position to try and control the ball, is good progress and should be praised.
As always, I am interested to hear what other people do to support good progress with low ability groups so please feel free to get in touch.
Thanks for reading,
Accelerating Progress in Physical Education – Organic, Efficient Teaching
This blog is underpinned by a commitment to making teaching as efficient as possible through effective, rapid formative assessment, that supports accelerated progress whilst maximising the impact of feedback.
As you may have read in my previous blogs, I am strong advocate for organic teaching. Schemes of work can sometimes be restrictive in the sense that time is allocated to the requirements of the scheme of work as opposed the needs of the students. Whilst I appreciate the need for schemes of work, it is essential that the first lesson of each unit is used to rapidly assess the needs of the group and I have some ideas to share that may help.
I have seen a range of schemes of work/unit plans in various PE departments. Some models have a skills focus throughout, some focus on skills in Year 7, tactics in Year 8 and Leadership in Year 9 onwards. In the worst examples, a basketball scheme of work may allocate one lesson to working on lay-ups in Year 7, another lesson in Year 8 and 9, and by Year 10 the expectation is that they have mastered the skill.
Reflection Question 1: How often is a football lesson on passing/shooting taught in year 7, where 90% of the group are already proficient at the skill?
I much prefer schemes of learning which are designed to articulate the progression from novice to expert as opposed to restricting content to discrete units. This allows teachers to differentiate starting points – particularly when dealing with large ability spectrums.
As PE Teachers we have all got to the end of a unit, set up a game situation and then stood for the majority of the lesson, looking at a complex and subjective assessment criteria, allocating grades to students. The reality is, assessment in Physical Education is inherently intuitive. If you think of a moderation day, when we observe a group of students we make a rapid assessment:
- Who is my top performer?
- Who is my weakest performer?
- Rank order the rest of the students after benchmarking the top and weakest student.
When we go through this process it is not based on every detail of the assessment criteria, instead it is an instinctive judgement made by referencing everything you see in the performance, with everything you know about the sport, then making a judgement about their efficacy. In short, we can usually identify a weak, average, good or excellent performer with very little reference to assessment criteria.
Reflection Question 2 – How much does information gained in such summative assessments, influence future teaching?
In many schools, it is probably the case that assessment also takes place at the beginning of the unit in order to compare with the terminal assessment to gauge progress. However, the key reflection point is, how much does teaching evolve as result of that initial assessment?
Formative and Feedback
Formative assessment should result in a consequence for the teacher, student or both – if it is done correctly. In order to do this quickly and effectively, the assessment criteria for individual sports is often too expansive and comprehensive, and can be too broad to identify the most pressing needs of a group. Below are two quick examples of distilling the assessment criteria into the key aspects that would limit a student’s performance – eg there is no point working on groundstrokes if a student’s footwork stops them from getting to the ball effectively. The two simple formative trackers below are designed to be hierarchical and so only one column will be ticked to keep the process quick and effective (I appreciate that this may be subjective but it is merely to illustrate a point).
Fundamental Limiting Factors
To make feedback more effective, it would make sense to identify the one fundamental area that is limiting progress for each student. Firstly, there would then be no doubt in any student’s mind about the one area that they need to improve. Secondly, it would allow you to modify your practice in the ways listed below.
Ideas for efficient teaching.
- Bespoke unit plan that accelerates progress – Lessons for the remainder of the unit will be tailored to meet the specific needs of the group.
- Closing common gaps – Where there are common limiting aspects, each lesson in a unit may include a specific drill or practice to address the weakness. For example, if the majority of a low ability group were struggling with ball control, each lesson may start with a 10 minute drill designed to address the skill deficit.
- Easier to cater for large ability spectrums – Students can be grouped by their key area for development allowing teachers to set up multiple practices that work on different elements. A series of lessons could be constructed where three groups of students all work on different skill practices – for example, one group on ball control, one group on passing and one more able group on defending in pairs.
- Conditions on competitive practices can be better differentiated – In Tennis, for example, students who have fundamental weaknesses in footwork, ground strokes or volleying, are potentially wasting their time trying to serve the ball from the baseline. Therefore those groups of students may only serve from the back of the service box to ensure that the ball goes over the net and that ultimately a rally is then taking place to allow them to improve their footwork, ground strokes or volleys.
In my experience, when I ask students what they need to do to improve in a sport, the answers often lack detail and may not necessarily be linked to their biggest areas of need. At least by focusing on the one fundamental limiting factor, students will know definitively what they are working on and why they need to improve it.
If you have any thoughts on improving the efficiency of teaching to support accelerated progress, please let me know.
Thanks for reading,
“She got really aggressive and told me to f*** off.”The teacher said to me – closely followed by , “She gets away with everything, I’m sick of it.”
“She” was that one student that I invested over a hundred hours of my time in – only for her not to make it to any of her exams. Yes, it was completely unacceptable the way she spoke to the member of staff. Yes, she often appeared to get away with poor behaviour. But, that one morning, from the teacher’s perspective, she swore at them because she was challenged over her lack of blazer. Why wouldn’t you challenge a student flouting the uniform policy?
As a newly appointed Head of Year, I sprang out of the starting blocks, keen to take on the world and prove my efficacy as a pastoral leader. As someone who is naturally competitive, of course I wanted my year group to be the best. I saw every action, good and bad, as a reflection of my leadership. The first year was fine, the second year was frustrating, and by the third year, I realised the sheer size of the daily challenge that I faced. It doesn’t matter how positive a person you are, the disproportionate amount of time spent dealing with negative incidents as opposed to positive, gradually grinds you down. Eventually you stumble upon a dark realisation that you may lose more than you win; especially as a pastoral leader in a secondary school. Pragmatists may then adopt an approach where they accept that students either accept advice or they don’t, and that there are then a set of actions that lead to one of two main outcomes. Regardless of which path a student takes, the job will take you through the mill.
But, what you gain from such a role, is an incredible insight into the context behind the students within your care. Some of the children in schools have faced more challenges, and seen more horrific situations, than any person should face in a lifetime – by the age they join school.
Going back to the girl who swore at the teacher. It turned out that on that occasion the student had made a snap judgement to leave her blazer due to a serious situation unfolding at home. When I spoke to her, her response was, “Sir, it was either get to school without my blazer, or try and get my blazer and not make it all.” The context, does not excuse the behaviour but it does explain it. Yes, there are inspirational students who have worse home lives who still behave appropriately day in day out, but every child is different and with that diversity comes different levels of resilience.
Resilience is a term bandied about by many schools. “Students need to be more resilient.” “Students need to stop moaning about tests.” “Anxiety, pfft… some of these students need to be more resillient.” The horrific reality is the insight afforded to me by the Head of Year role revealed to me that some of the resilience demonstrated by our most vulnerable students, is truly inspirational.
How infectious is your Learning and Teaching virus?
The most important thing I have learned whilst leading our learning and teaching agenda is the role of line managers. My role as lead for L&T is to be the virus that infects everyone and line managers play a crucial role in ensuring that the virus spreads. The more aggressive the virus, the more rapidly spreads. In terms of how far the virus spreads, you can think of the different faculties as different parts of the body, once a virus reaches a body part, it needs a host cell to replicate in order for it to spread further. The most effective viruses are backed up with sound pedagogy and an unquestionable notion as to ‘why’ it will enhance students’ learning.
It doesn’t matter how innovative or imaginative your virus, the general pattern seems to be the same; the proactive teachers will take an idea and run with it, the vast majority of teachers will take on board the idea and may change an element or two of their day to day practice, and then there are some teachers who will pass it off as ‘jazzy’ idea that they are far too busy to implement. For the latter, line management is critical for ensuring that the virus infects them.
It is also worth mentioning that not everyone is interested in pedagogy or the latest research and with very little expectation for teachers to engage with pedagogy after qualifying, infecting everyone within the school to the degree that they have to engage, can be somewhat problematic.
The last piece of contextualisation is in relation to experienced teachers. There are many ‘innovative’ ideas that have been recycled from years back and sharing such ideas can irritate and disengage experienced teachers.
Below are 12 solutions for ensuring that faculty line managers support the transmission of your ideas. There are then subsequent things which heads of faculty should be doing to ensure that ideas are translated into day to day teaching practice. The idea behind this is that the virus gets a boost at each tier to ensure that it continues to spread.
6 Pillars of Leadership
There are many articles, books, posts and graphics about the most important aspects of leadership. Putting all that aside, my experience in schools and on the sports field has led me to a conclusion that there are 6 key traits that a leader must posses. The absence of any 1 trait can be disastrous.
The Absence of Pillar 1 – Self Awareness
If there was a central pillar, for me it would be self-awareness. Without self-awareness leaders will never address their frailties and at worst it can lead to a toxic culture of scapegoatism. Around the leadership table, it is no use voicing an opinion to someone who thinks they are good at listening to others but instead sits their and feigns only the slightest interest at what is actually sound advice. On the football pitch, where strikers lead the line, it is no use explaining to them why their finishing lacks finesse if they believe that they are the best finisher ever to play the game. Players with this attitude will always blame someone else if they fail to score in a match.
The Absence of Pillar 2 – Broad Shoulders
Resilience is a term that is bandied about all the time in relation to schools and students but less so in relation to staff. Teaching is a profession where it is essential to have broad shoulders if you want to develop as a professional. The absence of broad shoulders can result in a leader crumbling under pressure at a crucial time. Disagreeing with accurate feedback can cause resentment, mutiny and ultimately cause division in teams.
Sitting in a freezing changing room, being dug out at half time for my performance by the gaffer has definitely left me battle hardened. The point here is that as long as the feedback is accurate and beneficial, it is ultimately to help someone develop. Sitting opposite someone, listening to them make comments about something you have put your heart and soul into for the last 18 months can be tough but it is necessary in terms of developing you as a leader. Sometimes a colleague just wants to provoke a more passionate response from you.
The absence of Pillar 3 –Selflessness
Selfishness is what comes in the absence of this pillar; an egocentric culture where leaders put their own needs above the needs of the team. Without this pillar, the needs of the team will never be considered before the needs of the individual. In schools, the higher up the ladder you climb the more important it becomes that a leader recognises that everything is their responsibility and not just the areas they line manage. It ultimately means nothing if they lead their one area well if everybody else’s areas suffer as a result. On the football field, in a high profile match, it takes a strong minded player to actually respond to the gaffer at half time and actually tell him that they are struggling. Time and time again I have watched a player who is obviously injured, carry on and ultimately cost the team the result.
The absence of Pillar 4 – Emotional Sensitivity
Where a leader lacks emotional sensitivity the results can be catastrophic. Leading/teaching in a school is turbulent at the best of times. The emotional drain on staff can be difficult to cope with. Leaders need to be able to sense when staff are becoming overwhelmed or are at risk of burn out. A strong leader becomes emotionally attuned to their team and can detect/intervene early when things are not right. A leader who doesn’t pick up on emotional cues, ultimately puts their team’s/staff’s wellbeing at risk. There are also times when a difficult message has to be delivered in a certain way to prevent undue distress. A leader lacking in emotional intelligence could appear callous if messages are not delivered with recognition of the sensitive impact on staff.
The Absence of Pillar 5 -Balance
There is a lot of noise around about which leadership style is the best. I have been through Insight’s Leadership Profiling which identifies your leadership style in relation to one of four colours. What was apparent following this session was that certain colours appeared to be seen as more desirable then others and that some colours were actually seen as a weakness. When I talk about balance, I mean the ability of a leader to be organic in responding to the needs of their team. This requires a good balance of leadership skills as different situations require very different leadership approaches. In the footballing world, a manager needs to be able to employ a range of leadership styles depending on the profile of the match or the opposition. There may be times when the team needs to be told in no uncertain terms that they need to pull their socks up but there are also times where confidence may be low and a different approach is needed. Without a good balance, leaders may be ill-equipped to deal with a certain situation.
The Absence of Pillar 6 –Trust
A lack of trust means that there can never be accountability. Without accountability there will never be a team. If a leader can’t trust a member of their team then the question must be asked if they should actually be a part of their team. Successful leaders make it clear that they trust staff/players which then allows the team to contributes to a much greater shared sense of purpose. In a cup final, a manager has to trust that the players on the pitch can fulfil their individual roles to enable the team to succeed. Once those player cross the touch line, the manager can do very little to influence the game and the trust in the players has to be absolute.
The specification is the beating heart. The schemes of learning make up the complex vascular system and blood itself represents the knowledge and skills. The cells represent the students that require a healthy blood supply. In anatomical terms, when cells require additional resources to function properly, a process called capillarisation occurs where the blood supply is increased to these cells. In my mind this is exactly what should happen when students experience difficulty with particular content or skills.
Whether a scheme of learning is brand new, or one that has been taking up storage on the shared drive for years, at best they improve consistency and provide resources to support teachers; at worst they are restrictive and can cause time to be wasted covering content that students already have a firm grasp of. The purpose of this post is simply to encourage reflection on how schemes of learning are currently used in your school.
Let’s think about current practice. If a scheme of learning has six lessons allocated to a topic, what happens if a group grasps the key information in two lessons? How many teachers would have the confidence to deviate from the scheme of learning? In many schools, schemes of learning are a vehicle for ensuring consistency and providing resources.
The problems with lifeless schemes of learning.
-Often, the amount of time apportioned to certain topics does not reflect the relative difficulty of the topic. More difficult topics should have more time allocated in order to consolidate learning. Far too often a scheme of learning is simply the specification chopped up into equal chunks to be delivered.
-Lifeless schemes of learning do not account for the fact that different groups/students absorb content at different rates. Six lessons may be delivered on a topic that could have been covered in three due to the fact that the group picked up the content very quickly.
-Often, they dictate what teachers deliver as opposed to responding directly to the needs of the group in relation to the feedback gained through assessment.
Cynical people reading this post may suggest that all I am describing is a need to differentiate the content of schemes of learning, but it goes far beyond that if we want to truly close gaps and respond to the needs of the groups we teach. Organic schemes of learning help to systematically close gaps throughout the year reducing the need for terminal intervention; I for one would welcome an end to the intervention culture.
5. Adapt teaching to respond to the strengths and needs of all pupils.
There is a reason why so many teachers would identify teacher standard 5 as an area for improvement. Organic schemes of learning could rapidly improve practice in relation to this particular teacher standard.
2 Key Considerations
-Schemes of learning need to live and respond to the feedback from the classroom.
-Schemes of learning should evolve with the needs of the group.
Living organisms are constantly receiving information from millions of receptors which in turn bring about responses from the organism. When I talk about organic schemes of learning, what I mean is that they should change in relation to all the information gained from the classroom or the wider school context. How much do schemes of learning evolve in your school?
Where students are finding topics difficult, schemes of learning should be adapted to give more time to such topics. This process should be both intentional and on-going. They need to evolve as a result of the information gained from both formative and summative assessments. Key Stage 3 schemes of learning could be enhanced in relation to information gained through the delivery of lessons at Key Stage 4. If students are struggling with content at Key Stage 4, does it not make sense to modify Key Stage 3 schemes of learning to tackle the difficult content or skills, earlier in their school life?
The two main drivers of the organic response are:
1. Pupils’ work
Pupils’ work gives teachers a wealth of feedback in relation to how they are coping with the content being delivered. Looking at books or particular projects allows us to build up a picture on where the understanding of content is secure and where there are common gaps that need addressing. Pupils’ work should influence day to day teaching which should in turn influence schemes of learning.
Frequent Formative Checks
The assessment emphasis is primarily formative. Waiting for the outcomes of summative assessments is often leaving it too late as by the time the assessment is complete, gaps could have widened significantly during a unit of work. High quality formative assessment can ensure that there are no surprises when it comes to summative assessments.
The organic responses, as a result of the information gained, can do one of two things:
After every lesson taught, there are almost always things that we would change if we were to teach the lesson again. The first organic response is to strengthen schemes of learning as a result of the experience of students. This could be for next year’s group or it could be strengthening Key Stage 3 schemes of learning to ensure that students start working on a particular skill much earlier in the curriculum. This is absolutely essential with the new, more challenging, Key Stage 4 specifications as it is the first time that the content has been delivered and there are many unknowns.
The second organic response is to adapt the future schemes of learning to ensure that teaching closes common skill/content gaps whilst teaching the students new content. Ways in which this organic response could actioned are as follows:
-Interleaving activities into a scheme of learning to address common gaps.
-Pre-planned starter activities to provide more practice on weak skills or difficult content.
-Super learning weeks in which teachers split topics up that have been causing students problems and teachers deliver topics in relation to their own areas of expertise.
-Creating closing the gap resources for particular assessment objectives or topics.
-Re-shuffling of topics to space difficult content out.
-Additional tests built into the scheme of learning to ensure that gaps are closing.
Let me know your thoughts,
Teacher Personalised Learning Charts
@beautifullyfra1 wrote here (link) about our approach to evaluating teaching and we now have a truly authentic model for evaluating teachING not teachERS which ensures that all learning and teaching actions are data informed. But, it has led to many questions about how we ensure that all of our teachers are continuously refining and developing their classroom practice. It’s taken some time, but I have finally got round to writing up part 2.
With a rapidly changing assessment landscape, significantly different accountability measures, and the most over stimulated generation of children ever, it is essential that all teachers are continuously reflecting on and refining their practices. It’s fair to say that for many teachers entering the profession, marking, planning, resourcing and other pressures can lead to a plateau in engagement with new pedagogy; pedagogy which would have been a regular part of training courses, degrees, and PGCEs. With this in mind, all schools face the challenge of finding innovative ways of ensuring that professional development, and ultimately improvements in the quality of teaching, continues. Coaching is well established in many schools, but how do we ensure that every teacher is committed to developing a specific aspect of their teaching practice?
For me (as I am sure is the case for many others), formative assessment underpins everything that I do in terms of continuously checking whether or not my pupils have understood the content that I have delivered. Student PLCs are fairly common place in schools these days whether used formatively or summatively. So if we can use them to build up a clear picture of what our students are good/not so good at, why should formative assessment not be equally as important in building up an accurate and organic picture of what teachers can do?
The best teachers spend a lot of time thinking about what they would have done differently if they were to teach a lesson again. Invariably there is always something or multiple things that we would change. The best teachers will do this anyway as they are naturally reflective practitioners, but a PLC specific to teachers could ensure that there is a more streamlined approach to being reflective. Dylan Wiliam has written much about the dangers of trying to develop more than one area of practice at the same time, but how do we identify a teacher’s specific area for development/refinement? In my mind, the teacher standards provide the best common language with respect to splitting teaching practice into fundamental elements. Every teacher should be working on developing their practice in relation to one specific element. A performance management target could then be linked explicitly to evaluating anything and everything the teacher has done during the year to improve their practice in relation to that particular standard.
So alongside our approach to evaluating teaxhing, we have created a personalised learning chart for teachers not dissimilar to the subject specific PLCs we use for students. The Teacher PLC provides a clear language for formatively assessing teaching practice in relation to the individual standards, lesson to lesson, week to week, term to term. The Teacher PLC (pictured below) consists of teacher standards 1-7 with a key description of what best practice may look like. At this point I want to make it clear that the teacher PLC is categorically not used to grade, or quantify data about the quality of teaching in terms of an overall judgement. Instead, the purpose is to encourage all members of teaching staff to reflect, in a low risk environment, on the 7 different standards, in relation to their own teaching practice. Staff then identify what they consider to be their main areas of strength as well as the areas where they would like to invest time in developing their practice. They can discuss their PLC with their Director of Learning to help them clarify their thoughts on where best to invest time.
In addition to the teacher reflection sheet, a rubric has been created to provide loose guidelines for each standard ranging from limited to extending. Before the cynical people reading this tell me this is just another way of grading teachers, the PLCs were never designed for that purpose. The rubric can be useful in identifying what might be missing with regards to classroom practice in relation to a specific teacher standard. It also ensures we have a common language and consistency across the school when we look to share best practice.
To ensure all teachers are equipped with sufficient ideas to develop their practice in relation to a particular teacher standard, or to simply encourage all our teachers to take a risk and try something new., we regularly launch teacher challenges in relation to a particular teacher standard. They usually contain 6-12 practical, easy to implement ideas which have been very well received. They are also designed so that there is something new for every teacher to try regardless of their level of experience. You can see an example of this for teacher standard 5 below.
This approach has only worked for us because we are absolutely clear that for us, it is not about grading teachers. It would be very easy to take this approach and use it as a behind closed doors attempt to quantify or attach a number or grade to a teacher. The authenticity of our evaluating teaching cycle depends on us absolutely not using it in this way.
I have recently become fascinated with the notion of flow, and after reading Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s book it has provoked a lot of thought in relation to whether we can create flow experiences for children within all lessons across the school.
For those who are unfamiliar with Csikszentmihalyi’s work, ‘The metaphor of “flow” is one that many people have used to describe the sense of effortless action they feel in moments that stand out best in their lives.’(Finding Flow: p29) In these moments ‘The sense of time is distorted: hours seem to pass by in minutes.’(Finding Flow: p31) I have experienced flow many times whilst playing sport competitively but I can’t remember experiencing a similar sensation when completing other tasks which leads me to the question:
Can a student experience flow in any lesson?
Before I tackle the practical side of creating such situations in classrooms, it is important to delve further into the notion of ‘Flow’. “Athletes refer to it is as “being in the zone”, religious mystics as being in ‘ecstasy’, artists and musicians as aesthetic rapture.” Athletes, mystics and artists do very different things but when they reach flow, but their descriptions of the experience are remarkably similar.” This quotation suggests that it is possible to experience such a sensation regardless of the activity and makes me more hopeful with respect to students experiencing such a sensation in any lesson. Don’t get me wrong, I am not expecting students to be in ecstasy when solving an algebra problem but there are ways to create tasks which will ultimately help students to achieve that magical state where they will be most effective in their learning.
So what can we do as teachers?
Csikszentmihalyi suggests that ‘Flow tends to occur when a person’s skills are fully involved in overcoming a challenge that is just about manageable.’ This is best illustrated by the following graph from Csikszentmihalyi’s book.
As teachers, the biggest consideration is whether or not tasks are perfectly matched to a student’s ability level. If a task is too hard, the student will become anxious and disengaged. If the task is too easy, the students will become bored and disengaged. This in itself is nothing revolutionary, but the key for me is to establish how a student might behave when experiencing flow. Once we establish this, it is easier to reflect on how often such behaviours are exhibited by the students within our care.
One strategy could be articulate to students what a ‘flow experience’ feels like so that they recognise it for themselves. The best example I can give is that when I am mountain biking down a steep and technical route, my skills are pushed to their limit. Perceptual narrowing is at its peak and my concentration is solely on the way my body and bike respond to the environment. For that brief moment, I can think of nothing else. In a classroom environment, I think you see glimpses of such an experience when students take an idea and become completely immersed in it. What’s happening in the room fades into the background as the student focusses solely on completing a difficult problem or constructing an emotionally charged piece of writing. I have seen Art lessons where a student using a new medium for the first time and has made it over the initial barriers and suddenly the picture begins to take shape and the student embraces the challenge further.
‘Another characteristic of flow activities is that they provide immediate feedback.’ When a student hits a ball in tennis, they receive a wealth of kinaesthetic feedback. Did the ball make good contact with racket? Was the timing right? Was the power right? Similarly, in an invasion game, when a player makes a decision to try and beat an opponent, they receive immediate feedback as they either pass the opponent or they don’t. In a maths lesson, where the answers are clearly right or wrong, the student can quickly assess their progress. This becomes more difficult in subjects where the assessment criteria are more subjective. The key point here is that once a student reaches ‘flow’ we as teachers want to keep them in that zone for as long as possible and quick feedback is essential to this. Personalised success criteria in student friendly language may help so that students can regularly check their progress against the criteria. Circulating the room as frequently as possible to provide timely feedback could also be key in preventing students from falling out of ‘flow’.
As Csikszentmihalyi states ‘A typical day is full of anxiety and boredom. Flow experiences provide the flashes of intense living against this dull background.’(Finding Flow. P31) I am really keen to hear what teachers do to encourage such experiences within their classrooms.
Finding Flow: Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi 1997 Basic Books
You have just been on the end of an absolute pummelling. Players around you are breathing hard as you sit shivering in the changing room at half time. On paper, you were always going to get beaten, everyone expected you to be behind at the half way point. So what are you going to do about it? You look around at your team mates with their heads down, looking at the floor. Where has the belief gone? Where is the hope? Whatever team you lead or are a part of in school, your role is essential in helping them to overcome any barrier. I have been in difficult situations on the football pitch but I have also been fortunate enough to play with team mates who have inspired me so that I felt ready to take on the world when I returned to the pitch after half time. And there is much, I think, that can translate from the sports world directly into school leadership.
Leading by example
I am a strong believer that the best way to get people to buy into you is to practice what you preach. This is no different whether you are on the field or in a classroom. I like to think that I lead in the same way that I play on the pitch. I see myself as equal to everyone in my team and I gain buy in from staff by demonstrating the behaviours I expect from my team. There is nothing worse than a leader who implores you to do something but does something different themselves. But what I have also learnt is that leading by example doesn’t mean expecting everyone to do things in the way you would do it. To me, leading by example is about having high expectations and expecting the same of those around you, but at the same time understanding that there are many different ways of achieving the same result. The balance is always going to be in guiding and supporting people, whilst at the same time allowing them the freedom to take risks and think for themselves about the way they want to lead.
Failure can enhance the future
In 2012, the nation watched an emotional Andy Murray finish as runner up in the Wimbledon tennis tournament. The loss clearly left him devastated but he found the strength to say that he was ‘getting closer’ to that elusive Grand Slam title. A year later, hard work, perseverance and determination paid off as Andy Murray was triumphant in winning the tournament. Failure is always difficult to deal with, but through failure, leaders learn many valuable lessons. We learn to be more self-aware, more reflective and ultimately more resilient. In education there are so many unknowns that there is always going to be some degree of failure. The introduction of the progress 8 measure, life after levels, new specifications and the simple fact that we live in the most over stimulated generation in history, all leads to a constant battle of reestablishing our ground. Resilience is mentioned regularly in schools, and one thing that I am absolutely certain of, is that sport helps people to become more resilient. It is disheartening as leaders when something we have put blood, sweat and tears into ultimately doesn’t quite work the way we want it to, but what we take away from such situations is valuable experience. In my mind, there is always room for improvement and therefore is always something to learn.
No leader who has achieved something special has done so without hard work. Cristiano Ronaldo is not one of the best footballers in the world simply because he was born with the physical attributes that gave him an edge in the footballing world. In his book, he talks about the fact that he is consistently the first person into the changing rooms before a game, and is always the last player to leave. There are many theories that suggest 10,000 hours of practice are needed to master a skill and it is no surprise therefore that people such as Cristiano, who work hard, are viewed as some of the best in their field. For leaders to be successful there is no substitute for hard work, and many of the best leaders I have met value hard work above all else. But I am also clear this doesn’t mean just the number of hours they work. Working hard has to also be about working for impact. Cristiano knows what to practice and when. A great leader isn’t one who just puts the hours in. A great leader ensures that the hours they put in translates into something meaningful for students and staff.
As a leader, there are always times when we question what we believe in; we doubt ourselves and our capacity to fulfil our role. Sometimes it is hard to stay positive when everything seems to be going wrong. It is also difficult to stay true to our beliefs in the onslaught of pressure. Every leader feels pressure and the best advice I can give for dealing with pressure (again from my experience in the sports world) is to keep your focus on the variables that you can control. If you think about any situation in leadership there are things you can control and things you can’t. For example, you can control how you prepare to deliver training, the delivery of the session and the resources that go with it. You can’t control how people will interpret the information or whether the key message will resonate with your team. Just the act of being mindful about what you can and can’t control can make a pressured situation seem manageable.
In 1978, Michael Jordan went home and cried in his room after seeing that he hadn’t made it onto the varsity roster but his close friend, Leroy Smith, had. It was extremely rare for Sophomores to make Varsity. Whilst Jordan has been prone to self-aggrandizing, the message here is clear – although his confidence took a big blow, he never lost the belief that he could go onto to be a player that dominated the sport for the next two decades. The point here is that leaders need to be clear about their core beliefs, and consistently remain true these if they wish to be viewed as an authentic leader. With so much noise about education on various social media sites, beliefs can be challenged radically. There is no doubt this challenge is beneficial, but leaders also need to filter out and use that which is applicable to their vision.
Everybody can be a leader
Never doubt the influence you can have as an individual.
In 2001, David Beckham stood over the ball in what would be the last kick of the game against Greece. At the time the free kick was awarded, England were set to be leaving the competition. He struck a curling free kick up and over the wall to the keeper’s right – and that one kick sent England through to the finals of the competition. Any one member of a team can at any time contribute to something truly special. Actions no matter how big or small can have a significant impact on bringing a vision to life. In schools, many of the unsung heroes are the classroom teachers who consistently lead the way in developing high quality teaching practice ultimately helping students to make rapid progress. Although I lead learning and teaching across my school, I am very conscious that first and foremost I am a member of the teaching staff. I welcome and encourage feedback on my teaching practice as a member of the department within which I teach because that is what I want for everyone else. In this situation, I am part of the lesson feedback cycle just as much as anyone else. I don’t promote regular feedback because it is my job to do so. I promote it because I believe in it.
Uniform and presentation
It takes just 2 hundredths of a second to form a first impression. In the changing room, just by looking at who has cleaned their boots and who hasn’t, you can tell a huge amount about how someone will perform. In the midst of a uniform drive, I have had plenty of discussions with students about the importance of uniform. In terms of leadership, someone who turns up with a dishevelled or slovenly look is never going to initially evoke trust in those they lead.
I made the point to students, that in the world of sport, they are expected to wear a specific kit. Let’s look to the All Blacks. When Ritchie McKaw, arguably the greatest rugby player ever to play the game, was first handed his all black jersey, he placed it over his head and just sat there for a period of minutes whilst he took in everything that the jersey means. Wearing a uniform with pride denotes a certain attitude and link to the desired behaviours of your team. High expectations should permeate every aspect of leadership – right down to presentation.
Vision and Expectations
Despite the pressures, fluctuations in desire and drive, highs and lows, an outstanding leader somehow manages to maintain perfect discipline. What I mean by that is absolute clarity regarding the expectations of staff. Vince Lombardi once said, “I’ve never known a man worth his salt who, in the long run, deep down in his heart, didn’t appreciate the grind, the discipline.” Discipline doesn’t have to be enforced in an authoritarian fashion when leading, but I know that to fulfil any vision, every member of the team must be absolutely clear on the non-negotiables. Deviance from expectations can cause everything that has been built to become fractured and damaged. One way in which I have approached ensuring a clarity of expectations is to ensure that the learning and teaching priorities permeate all elements of school life. All teachers have a placemat on their desk which has the non-negotiables for each priority as well as practical strategies. I also regularly send out ’12 solutions’ for implementing each of the priorities. The idea behind this is not that everyone teaches in the same way, but that everyone is aware of the non-negotiables and adapts what works for them within this.
Sometimes the bigger picture is what is important
Not necessarily a lesson in leadership but a final reminder of the power of sport. In a time where two countries and thousands of soldiers occupied trenches separated by a muddy field strewn with bodies, on the eve of Christmas 1914, something special happened. British and German soldiers climbed out their trenches, laid down their weapons and played a game of football with people who hours earlier were firing bullets at them. Anything that has the power to momentarily stop a war and cause soldiers to halt all hostilities, is something that has plenty to teach us.
Confessions of a PE Teacher: Breaking the mould
There is nothing worse than listening to ultracrepidarian comments about your subject:
“It’s alright for you PE Teachers, all you do is organise a game of football.”
“It’s not like you have to plan your lesson.”
“Those who can’t teach, teach PE.”
For the most part, the comments are said in jest, but the reality is that these comments reinforce a certain PE Teacher stereotype. On top of the onslaught of comments suggesting that PE Teachers are less worthy than other teachers, the government constantly places PE at the bottom of the priority pile which can make it very difficult to stay positive. I won’t be the only PE teacher who has sometimes questioned why I went to university for 4 years of my life to complete a degree in a subject which for some people actually has very little status in education. The stereotype that PE is somehow for a ‘lesser’ teacher because they weren’t capable of anything else saddens me, as does the low currency that some schools place on the subject and its value to students. We all know the positive impact that playing a sport can have on our students and in my experience, it is not often the case that I see successful leaders who have not at some point in their lives participate in sporting or other creative activities.
It also seems odd to me that despite all of us being aware that we are in the middle of an obesity crisis, there is little recognition of the huge part that PE as a wider subject has to play in raising students’ awareness of the importance of healthy living – particularly those students who come from more disadvantaged backgrounds. To dismiss it as something which is a luxury if the budget can afford it seems short-sighted to me.
PE is not just about kicking a ball about. It requires acute critical reflection, the tenacity to deliberately practise skills, the resilience to persevere, and the ability to think strategically and quickly under pressure. On top of this, there are huge benefits for students in terms of team work, confidence and, crucially for me, competition.
PE teachers consistently teach some of the largest ability spectrums within the school. It is common to have a group with a county footballer at one end of the spectrum, with a student who can barely make contact with a ball at the other end. Regardless, PE teachers still ensure that all students make good progress.
Being a PE teacher has taught me much and given me the skills to undertake all the leadership positions I have held. It has helped me build relationships with even the toughest students. It has allowed me to witness some truly inspirational sporting performances. But ultimately, it has allowed me to retain my passion for teaching because it is a subject that I truly believe in.