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Monthly Archives: December 2015

A Culture of Curiosity: Dreaming out loud

Dreaming out loud

(Image from http://www.psych2go.net/category/dream-facts/)z\a

Earlier this year I spent some time refining my vision for learning and teaching. One of the phrases I included was ‘a culture of curiosity’.  Is it just a dream to hope that one day all children will have an insatiable thirst for knowledge.  I often think that I might just be a bit odd as I have always been of the opinion that if you could know something about how a process works or why something looks the way it does, why wouldn’t you want know it?  What I find hard to swallow is not everyone shares my thirst for learning. In fact, I may be in the minority probably with the people that are reading this post!


With reference to a quotation from Legacy by James Kerr ‘A vision without action is a dream. Action without vision is a nightmare.’  In order to create a genuine culture of curiosity I need to think very carefully about the actions I take to bring the vision to life.


A few years ago, I sat through a science lecture at a local school which focused on human capacity for thinking.  Research they shared suggested that as little as 1 in 5 children are born with the capacity for high order thinking.  I was, and still am, sceptical about this statement but I do think there is some truth in it, especially when I relate it to my classroom experiences.  Think about a particular group that you teach. How many students in the group accept everything you say as fact?  If your classes are anything like the majority of my classes there will be two or three students who will frequently challenge what you say as they are curious about what you have said and therefore think about the content more deeply. Whether or not this can be engendered in other student is central to the notion of creating a culture where curiosity is highly valued.

Do children become less curious with age?

Young children are keen to investigate anything and everything using multiple senses. I know from my own children that very often this is by putting everything in their mouth!  Is this simply because everything is new to them? Are some young children more curious than others even at a young age?  As children grow older, do they become less curious because less of what they encounter is new to them?  Thinking about the classroom again, students are taught new concepts and ideas on a daily basis but the level of engagement with the content varies significantly. The why can be attributed to a range of factors but how important is an interest in the subject?


Do you have to be interested in a subject to be curious?

It definitely helps.  Some students flourish in one particular subject because it is the subject that they are passionate about.  Some students are keen to ask questions regardless of the subject or topic and come across as naturally more curious.  Why?  Could it actually be that some students are born naturally inquisitive about everything?  I am keen to know how much the home environment affects the development an inquisitive mindset.  Young children ask hundreds if not thousands of questions a day.  If a child grows up in an environment in which more or less every question they ask is answered in detail, are they more likely to succeed when at school? If they grow up in an environment where the majority of questions go unanswered or the answers they receive are brief and inaccurate, does this stifle their curiosity?

To create a genuine culture of curiosity will require tenacity and a great deal of work.  The concept of curiosity needs to permeate all areas of learning and teaching, lessons could utilise teaching styles from across the discovery threshold and questioning in lessons should be led by students where possible.  This post has raised so many questions that I am keen to explore further.


Part 3 – Data – What information do schools report? What information should schools report?

Data for reports


My previous two posts have led me to this point relating to what information schools share at each data point.  Parents, teachers and students all have different priorities when it comes to the information that is shared with them.  My aim is to unpick why we communicate certain pieces of information and whether or not we communicate the most important pieces of information.


Of the data available to report home at each data point, what is each stakeholder interested in?


Parents – As a parent of two children, I can understand why parents are so keen to ascertain what specific grade or level their child is working at.  They may be keen to compare it with any targets set or they may want to know how the grade or level compares with other students and subjects.  The more competitive parents may want affirmation that their child is one of the top performing students.  The big question here is, if the grade is the main priority for parents, how much do parents value information about what their child actually can and can’t do?  I would hazard a guess that if teachers started by talking about a child’s strengths and areas for development parents would be thinking this is interesting but what grade are they working at?



Teachers – The cynical side of me would say that teachers are mindful of PM targets and so information about the performance of groups as a whole is important.  Again trying to shift the mindset, the most useful information to teachers is that which relates to the strengths and areas for development of the individuals within our groups as it is this information which will allow us to adapt our teaching.


Students – In an earlier conversation with @Concordmoose, she informed me that the results of a student voice survey revealed that students want grades they can trust as well as information that will help them improve.  The same can be said for the students in my school.


Although students want feedback on what they need to improve, the grade/level still seems to be the priority to them.  Where grades are the most important piece of information for both students and parents, we face a constant battle in articulating that the grades/level are simply a result and that what we should actually be focussing on are the individual areas for development which could relate to particular topics or specific skills that need refining.  Primary schools may well be better at this than secondary schools with regards to the specific feedback they give to parents.  Equally, many secondary schools may have refined the way they report to parents to give them more information than the predicted grades and attitude to learning.  At my school, there is still work to be done on this.


This leads me to two key questions:


  1. Is there a way in which schools can report information that is useful to all stakeholders?


  1. Should schools report information based on the needs of all stakeholders?


One solution to the first question would be to apply a PLC methodology to summative tests in order to give both a grade and forensic feedback on areas of strength and areas for development.  I have included an example of this below.

summative PLC

With regards to the second question, the honest answer is that I don’t know and I would welcome   feedback on this.  What I am absolutely sure of is that every effort should be made to shift the focus from specific grades/levels to what students can actually do and what they need to do better.

Part 2 – How do we prevent data being the catalyst for change?

Just to clarify, I am no data heathen.  I merely want to stress that we should not rely on data to set our learning and teaching priorities.  The most important data to me is the data which tells us exactly what the students within our care can and can’t do.  A school with a good grasp on this will find no surprises when it comes to analysing whole school data.

I don’t particularly like the term data as it removes the personal element from the information about the students we teach, turning individual skills and talents into numbers and graphs.

As made abundantly clear in my previous post, my biggest gripe relates to the use of summative data to inform learning and teaching actions.  That being said, how then do we ensure that there are no surprises at the data entry points throughout the year?  For me, the key is for teachers to focus on establishing a much clearer on-going picture of what exactly the students in their classes can and can’t do.

A reapportioning of time to formative assessment methods is one way to ensure that lessons are adapted regularly in order to respond to the ever-changing needs of the students.  One way of tackling this, which many schools are now utilising, is by using Personalised Learning Checklists which help to provide an overview of the strengths and weaknesses of each student.  I have included a couple of examples below, but I am keen to stress that the focus is not on what they look like or indeed how they are filled in.  The one key focus is that the information is used to inform teaching on a daily basis.

PLC example 2


PLC Example 1

PLCs in essence, are a breakdown of whole specification or individual topics into key areas or statements which are then used to assess pupil progress.  They can focus on key skills or the whole subject content but when used effectively, they give a comprehensive overview of the individual strengths and areas for development for each student.  Although the statements can be progressive and can be used to attribute a grade, the key point is to give a personalised overview of progress for each student.

So how can PLCs prevent surprises at each data point?

Using formative assessment methods to fill out the PLCs, identifies gaps at the beginning, during and towards the end of a unit allowing teachers to adapt their lessons in response to the needs of their groups.  This methodology should systematically prevent gaps from opening meaning that there should be no surprises when analysing the data at the end of a unit of learning.  Any gaps that are apparent from summative data, will already have been identified by subject teachers and work will already have begun on strategically using PLCs to modify teaching to close any such gaps.  Actions off the back of PLCs could include:

  • Interleaving weak topic as starter tasks.
  • Personalised homework tasks.
  • Lessons focused on common problem areas.
  • Communication with parents about exactly what their child can and can’t do as opposed to identifying units that they underperformed in.



PLCs can help ensure that lessons are personalised, teaching time is efficiently used and that any developing gaps are systematically closed.

Data should never be the catalyst for change…


 Too many actions in schools are driven by what the data says.  The fundamental flaw with this lies in the mindset which underpins it.  Labouring over data to pick holes in performance in order to identify actions, is completely the wrong way to go about affecting change.  A staggering amount of time is spent filtering spreadsheets and processing marksheets in order to trigger actions.  Instead, the data should merely be used to check that everything you are doing is having the desired impact.

When the data is recorded, we already know that it is likely show to gaps between disadvantaged and non-disadvantaged students.  We know that it will highlight differences in performance between gender groups or between individual classes.  This data should never be the catalyst for changing practice.  If we are relying on data to highlight these things, then we are never going to make the necessary changes to positively impact on pupil outcomes.

As teachers, we know what is effective in the classroom and there is a wealth of pedagogy to support this.  But it seems to me that there needs to be a significant shift in the way schools use data in order to bring about the necessary change in mindset which will really close the gap in terms of achievement.  What is important is that the children within our care experience high quality teaching on a daily basis.  We don’t need data to drive the development of this.  If we get our learning and teaching priorities right in the first place, then data should simply be used to check our progress towards providing high quality education for all.

Highest red PS


SSAT National Conference Reflections

SSAT National Conference 2015 Promotional Artwork

SSAT National Conference 2015 Promotional Artwork

On the back of many thought provoking and inspiring talks, I feel both excited and reassured about everything we are doing with regards to learning and teaching at The Duston School.  Highlights of the conference were the talks from Dr Russell Quaglia on the achievement gap, Tom Sherrington’s ‘Thinking BIG and small’ and Chris Waugh’s breakout session on his radical approach to teaching English.


I particularly liked Dr Russel Quaglia’s notion that the achievement gap is the symptom of pupil gaps in self worth, engagement, student voice and purpose.  He explained that the deficit in these areas is responsible for the gap in achievement.  Some stark facts drove this message home with respect to the impact of the four gaps on achievement.  Research undertaken into these areas produced a figure in terms of how much greater the achievement of students is if the four areas are addressed.  When students have a sense of self worth they are 5 times more likely to achieve; when students believe they have a voice they 7 times more likely to achieve; if lessons are engaging then students are 16 times more likely to achieve and finally, if students have a strong sense of purpose they are 18 times more likely to achieve.  Dr Quaglia analysed each of these gaps and gave practical advice with regard to closing the gaps but what struck home were his comments around purpose.  He made the point that teachers and adults often say to children ‘what do you want to be when you are older?’ but what we should actually be asking is who do you want to be when you are older? What do you want to motivate you and what do you want your values to be?  The overriding message was that these questions show the students that we care and ultimately help to build a sense of purpose.  The final point on this was that many of the students who drop out of school or achieve very little are often the students who have little or no sense of purpose.


Tom Sherrington’s talk, whilst nothing revolutionary, was an excellent opportunity to reflect on both the big and the small things when leading learning in our school.  I got a very real sense that Tom was deeply involved at all levels of leadership and it was clear that he makes it his business to learn the subject content in whatever area he is supporting to ensure that he is equipped with the knowledge to give meaningful feedback and informed suggestions for improvement.


Tom also reinforced that there is no value in attributing a percentage to the amount of good or better teaching due to the fact that there are too many variables and that learning, by its very nature, cannot be graded in such away.  He stressed that it’s enough to identify that there may be concerns about certain teachers but as to quantifying the quality of teaching on the whole, it’s a pointless and inaccurate practice.  It has given me reassurance and clarity that what we are now doing with Teacher PLCs is absolutely the right way to evaluate what teachers are good at and what they should be trying to develop.  To reference a quotation from Legacy, “the challenge is always to get better. Even when you are at your best, especially when you are at your best.”  I am now convinced that the Teacher PLC is the best way to ensure that every teacher adopts a mindset of restless excellence when reflecting on and improving individual elements of their teaching practice.


A final point on Tom, it was abundantly clear that if he wanted to implement and idea or concept in his school that it is followed wholeheartedly.  A particular anecdote related to a book which resonated with him. To ensure adequate buy in from staff they bought every member of staff the book.  Actions such as this can really help drive an initiative forward.


The most thought provoking session of the conference for me personally was led by Chris Waugh in which he shared his radical values and ethos for teaching English.  From the very start, he encouraged anyone to challenge anything he shared which immediately reinforced to me how passionate he is about his subject.


At his school, grades are irrelevant. What is important is that students understand why the different skills are important in everyday life.  His philosophy was very much that if their curriculum is delivered in accordance with their values then the grades will take care of themselves.  Without going into the nuts and bolts of their system, their curriculum was broken down into a range of tasks in which a student can earn a badge for completing each task.  Tasks could be to recite a poem by heart or perform a soliloquy but the important factor was that the students either achieve the badge or they don’t.  He made it very clear that the notion of awarding a child a level has no value as it says nothing about what the child can or can’t do.


At his school the children and parents choose which teacher they want for the duration of the year.  Each teacher gives a presentation on their vision for the year and then the children and parents make their decision.  This idea was met with a fair amount of resistance but he answered all questions in style.  His passion and dedication to his cause was infectious and I found his talk thoroughly inspiring.


Speaking for the first time at an education conference was a fantastic opportunity and the feedback received for our session on learning design was overwhelmingly positive with many teachers asking if they could visit The Duston School to see what we do.  The message delivered in regards to learning design was very clear.  Aspirations should not be limited by preconceptions of what students are capable of.  It was reassuring to see that most delegates were moving away from differentiated learning outcomes, which is something which has had a big impact on raising aspirations at The Duston School.  The importance of using quick assessment tasks to identity the correct starting points for students was well received and the practical examples shared gave an insight into what they actually look like in everyday teaching. With 50 minute lessons, it is important to establish correct starting points to ensure that no time is wasted.  My notion of efficient teaching as an alternative to pace clearly resonated with many of the delegates as for me, the idea of pace suggests that teachers need to move through content rapidly which is absolutely not the case.  Instead, teachers should ensure that no time is wasted with students doing tasks covering content that they have already mastered.  Reflecting on our session really helped me to crystallise the concept that what is most important to teachers, parents and students is knowing what students can and can’t do as opposed to the attribution of a grade which actually tells us nothing.


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