Tangerines, Toast and Teaching to the Test

OK – I’ve realised that it’s all in the title; I reckon that if my title includes foodstuffs (the more alliterative, the better), my blog stands a better chance of being read. I asked my five year old (who is, as I’m writing this, drawing the world’s flags and labelling each one – paper and pencils all over the place), whether he could think of a food beginning with ‘t’. He answered, ‘Tangerine.’ Then I thought of ‘toast’ – et voila, I had my blog title – quite like the rhythm of it, too – alright, it’s a daft title but I hope to make a vague point, linked to it, a bit later on.

Tangerines and toast aside, ‘teaching to the test’ is one of those things that we’ve all probably done at one point or another. There will always be a temptation to drill what we know will be in the test, because the results may be indicative of whether or not we’re doing a good job (of drilling, not necessarily of the teaching of learning). I’ve known teachers who actively track exam questions year on year – they predict which ones will ‘come up’, and then teach, mainly to those questions. And our pupils too, are learning to ask, ‘Will this be in the test?’ – if it’s likely, well, then they’ll make sure they learn it. If it isn’t, they won’t worry so much.

What we are learning to do here, is to play the game – teaching (and learning) to the test – it’s not right and it’s nothing new, but it is understandable – if that’s the hoop, then I need to learn how to jump through it, right? Really?

But there’s also more to it than this. I have a problem with how we test; if our pupils have been learning through conversation, through discussion, through bouncing ideas around and exploring, it seems unfair that we would then test them in a way which is completely alien to this process. Why do we value data that is generated through silent testing, in the abstract, and in the absence of voice? I don’t want to change the way my pupils learn just because of the way they’ll be tested – but occasionally,  I have done because if that’s the test, then I want them to pass it – of course I do.

I’ve had some great conversations with a colleague about this – data from traditional testing pales into insignificance against learning that is evidenced and demonstrated in a variety of more creative ways, doesn’t it? Whilst there may be a (small) role for traditional test data, we all know how easy it is to pick holes in it (unless the data is really impressive – in which case, we won’t pick at it too much). Potentially, it just seems such a fickle process; if it’s good data, we’ll go along with it – if it’s not, we won’t. I have a feeling we can do better than that.

So…what to do? I guess we officially change the test.

If learning is dynamic, exploratory, vibrant, meaningful – embedded in conversation – in other words, a very human experience, then we need the way we test, to reflect this (assuming this is the way we feel pupils learn best…). The idea of teaching to the test then, suddenly becomes a good thing because we’re not haphazardly changing the way we want to teach to support the way we test, but rather, changing the way we test, to complement the way we believe our pupils learn best.  

Innovate testing – innovate teaching – innovate learning. Think it works if you say it backwards, too.

Anyway, I’m aware that I’m getting close to that looming final paragraph. Still trying to think of a way of bringing all this together in a way that links back to my title. Thought about saying something like ‘food for thought’, but that sounds cheesy.

I guess my point is, that whilst I may have learned how to come up with a vaguely interesting title (a hoop that I’ve learned to consider jumping through in order to pass the test), it isn’t necessarily reflective of the content, or quality(!) of the blog itself. It took me a few minutes to come up with the title. It took me ages to write the blog – and regardless of what judgements you make about what I’ve written (you may have been either pleased or disappointed that toast didn’t get much of a mention), at least you did take a moment to look beyond the title.

Incidentally, my five year old is still drawing his flags and labelling his countries. His learning is everywhere – literally – in the papers strewn around, the maps he’s drawn, the lists of countries he’s written and re-written – it’s in the conversations we have, in the facts he tells me and in the questions he asks (the ones he knows the answers to already – to see if I know – and the ones he doesn’t).

Whilst I may want to teach him explicitly what the capital of Venezuela is, in order to be able to answer that question when I ask it, there is absolutely no doubt that he is learning – and demonstrating it. And yet, he has no concept of what a test is or that at some point, he’ll have to take one in order for somebody else to determine his learning. The learning is his motivation, not the thought of a test.

Change the test. We’re here to grow learners.


Oh – Just Blog On!

I’m writing this in response to Chris Leoffler’s blog ‘The Sophomore Slump’. I nodded along, thinking…’yep – exactly!’

I began blogging a couple of months ago, as a result of the #IMMOOC and a persuasive nudge from a colleague. Initially, it was enough that a couple of people read my blogs and added the odd comment – great. And then I blogged about something that was, for me, a little surprising – perhaps controversial, even, given that I’d just begun the ‘Innovative Teaching Academy’ course… I tweeted it…and it got retweeted and like Chris, I had many more visitors to my blog – over 200 – literally overnight.

And then, I wrote another one. It was balanced I thought, as was the first – and I spent ages on it – 4 hours, I think – wording it right…you know – I loved the writing side, but it was a complete brain-ache. I even considered when best to Tweet it (!) given time differences (I’m in Brunei and it was a UK ‘audience’ I was aiming at). I went to bed in the early hours, content that I’d got it absolutely right, feeling a little like a kid on Christmas Eve – hoping (maybe even ‘knowing’) that there’d be something in my ‘Twitter Stocking’ when I woke up. Worrying.


Surprisingly, I didn’t burst into tears and wonder why I’d been forgotten – or overlooked. I did feel confused though – being new to this ‘game’, I thought that because I’d had a good round, last time, it would simply get better – an increase in ‘likes’, in retweets and yep…in dopamine – people would suddenly ‘know me’ and therefore read what I had to say. And then, thinking some more, I realised that I was already asking the question… ‘right, what can I blog about now to get my ‘audience’ back’? Really, though, it wasn’t my audience – I simply got one ‘on loan’, briefly, via a retweet. But I found this question just a little soul-searching, and began feeling uncomfortable that I’d even asked it. There was also the undeniable, growing ‘habit’ of checking my phone…

So – where does that leave the newbie blogger with slightly dented pride? I think it leaves you with what you’ve always known deep down – that to write, or to do anything meaningful – to you – must be done primarily because you are intrinsically motivated to do so, regardless of ‘likes’, retweets or levels of dopamine. It leaves you with the self-assurance that if you’re blogging about something you care about, you aren’t making yourself vulnerable by doing it for the wrong reasons; your reasons will be good and you won’t find yourself trying to desperately defend it – because you were compromised along the way (even just a little) by the thought of those ‘likes’ and the approval of that unseen audience.

I guess my point is, if you are blogging because you want your opinions and ideas to be noticed, you need to take a moment to realise, that your opinions and ideas might get noticed. Play the game fairly and with passion but without cheating yourself, or breaking your own rules in order to win.

And finally, I considered whether we have the balance right (there’s that word again…balance) between writing for the thrill of an ‘audience’ – and writing for the simple release of self-expression – for the enjoyment of it. Perhaps a blog on the subject of intrinsic motivation in the classroom, has just joined the queue.

As I’m writing this, I hope somebody will read it, perhaps they’ll nod along. Perhaps they won’t. Perhaps it will prompt them to respond. But I know that it doesn’t really matter…not really – just gotta blog on anyway.

And Chris – thanks for the blog (which I definitely didn’t think was mediocre).

Empowered or Patronised? Why it all Hangs in the Balance.

If you read my last blog, you’ll know that I’ve been thinking – a lot – about balance – and whether the balance between teaching knowledge and learning through curiosity and discovery (in my classroom), is optimum. I’ve also learned this week, that there is a debate in education between ‘traditionalists’ and ‘progressives’… I learned this, I think, through a combined process of discovery (I was curious), being taught (reading blogs and articles written by people who know more about it than me) and then thinking about what I’d learned.

I talked to a Year 6 pupil yesterday about a project she had designed as part of Global Day of Design. She had re-designed the layout of our school’s cafe. She spoke about her ideas and the reasons behind them; she talked about the cramped lay-out and how she wanted to reduce the amount of packaging which came with the sandwiches and drinks. I asked her whether she’d considered encouraging people to bring their own reusable packaging. We discussed how this might work. I knew (in my head) that there might be a possibility to incentivise customers by offering a discount if they brought their own packaging; a sandwich would cost less if they did. But this idea wasn’t in her head…yet. Could I have simply told her this? Could I have taught her that this is a practice adopted by some coffee-shops? It would certainly have saved some time.

But I didn’t. And, we had one of those cliched but precious light-bulb moments where her face lit up as she realised what the solution might be. Her realisation. Was this process patronising or empowering? I like to think it was empowering.

A couple of weeks previously, I had presented my pupils with a visual stimulus designed to generate questions about volcanoes, of which there were many. The intention was to ‘find out’ answers to their questions – we were going to ‘log-on’ and visit the library. But one pupil asked me – specifically. I don’t remember my answer exactly but it didn’t answer her question. I think I said something along the lines of, ‘Well, let’s go and find out – where’s the fun in me telling you?’ Upon reflection, I realise she was asking me – the teacher – because she considered me as being just as reliable and efficient (if not more so), than ‘researching’ her question elsewhere. But I didn’t tell her and she had to wait. Was this empowering? I don’t think so. I think it was patronising. It was certainly frustrating for her. This was an opportunity where adopting a more traditional approach of ‘just telling her’, in that moment, would have been wise.

Can I expect to get the balance right all the time? Unfortunately, absolutely not. Would it feel safer to consistently adopt one approach or the other? Maybe – but I’m not sure ‘safe’ is a reason to do so. I want to believe that there can be a balance between the two. How you arrive at that balance and what it looks like, will depend upon what you’re aiming for and will evolve as the needs of your pupils evolve.

There is a fine line, perhaps, between pupils feeling patronised and feeling empowered – a fine line that doesn’t necessarily become easier to see, just because the needle on the scale hovers more towards ‘Traditionalist’, or more towards ‘Progressive’. Teaching knowledge empowers. Learning through discovery is empowering. Remembering – in order to demonstrate an understanding of what has been taught and discovered, is powerful. There is a balance to be had – and that’s the trick.

At the end of the day, maybe we should, with respect, put the labels aside (I’m not really keen on being given one) and just get on with respectfully empowering our pupils with knowledge, the skills to discover more of it and the confidence to explore and demonstrate it – how ever that might look and in what ever ‘measures’ suit them, the ones in your classroom at this moment.

Marmite, Michaela and Making a Difference

Over the weekend, perusing somewhat aimlessly on Twitter, I stumbled across ‘Michaela’. Apparently, it’s a school which can be compared to Marmite; you either love it or hate it – a free school situated in Wembley Park (I grew up down the road), established with an intake of 120 Year 7 pupils in 2014, and founded by Katharine Birbalsingh. Places at Michaela are awarded by lottery.  They believe in a knowledge-based curriculum, where the teacher is proudly and passionately, the fountain of all knowledge. Pupils sit in rows, facing the teacher. They invest in books instead of Smart-Boards. Behaviour, from all accounts, supports this type of curriculum delivery – silent classrooms, silent corridors, children who are taught to open doors for others, shake hands and make and maintain eye-contact – children who are making excellent progress academically – teachers who are all on the same page with regards to what they believe is best for their pupils and who do not feel over-worked.

I haven’t visited the school (yet – and they are very used to visitors, too) so can only go on what I’ve seen on YouTube but I’d recommend having a listen if you’re curious. They talk about a range of issues from the ‘nonsense’ in the teaching profession, to ‘Dead White Men’ and cultural literacy, family lunches and Boot Camp. I was, and am, absolutely intrigued. If you flick back through my last couple of blogs, you’ll see why I find myself surprised that I’m now wanting to know more about a school with a ‘knowledge-based’ curriculum, where ‘learning by child-led discovery’ doesn’t happen. Pupils learn habits which are conducive to being taught; they are taught explicitly not to slouch, to actively listen, to raise their hands before speaking – habits which enable the teachers to teach. All teachers are consistent in enforcing the rules. All pupils understand the reasons for the rules. They ‘sweat the small stuff’ and the ‘big stuff’ is rare.

So – what are the implications? I haven’t processed it all yet and I expect that I’ll continue to think hard – but it does occur to me that in my own practice, I may not be dedicating enough time to the learning and recall of ‘hard-facts’. Are some of my pupils ‘floundering’ in confusion or grappling with distraction during learning through discovery? Have I got the balance right between teaching knowledge, curiosity-led learning and encouraging diverse application of it? I want my pupils to be able to demonstrate their learning in flexible and creative ways but have I taught them enough to be able to make adequate (or even powerful) links between ‘knowledge’ in order to do this?

For example, do I want my pupils to clearly define, when asked, what a quarter is? Yes. Might I have to ‘teach’ them to articulate that a ‘quarter is 2 eighths’? Yes. Might I have to reinforce the memorisation of this fact through regular repetition? Probably. Do I want them to remember what a quarter is, next year? In 2 years? Yes. Do I want them to be able to demonstrate this factual learning with cubes, drawings, explanations? Absolutely. And of course I want them to explore (and explain) further relationships between quarters and eighths which may not be explicitly taught but instead, learned through curiosity, discovery and through exploration. Is the latter ‘learning’ likely to happen without the former ‘teaching’? Possibly. Is it likely that pupils will feel more confident exploring having been taught facts (and to regularly articulate them) first? I don’t know for sure.

Maybe I’m over-thinking (I’ve been known to), and perhaps it doesn’t matter which comes first – as long one complements the other. At the end of the day, I do want my pupils to ‘know stuff’, to remember it, and to be able to articulate what they know with confidence and clarity. But I also want them to be able to demonstrate this knowledge in a variety of meaningful ways and have opportunities to explore beyond taught knowledge, to be challenged with making connections, to struggle through problems where the depth of mental processing goes beyond recall of learned facts. It’s interesting stuff!

So, all that Michaela seems to be, is challenging my thinking – massively – it is exciting to be presented with different ideas – in Michaela’s case, a ‘different’ way of doing things seems to be making a big difference to children who very much need to feel that they too, can make a difference.  The thing is, though, if it wasn’t for my sense of ‘finding out more’, my sense of curiosity, and my desire to discover – because I wanted to – I wouldn’t have delved deeper. I wouldn’t have watched over 3 hours of Michaela’s staff explaining their thinking on Saturday morning. I wouldn’t have asked questions and I wouldn’t have written this (and potentially reached all 3 of my reader-base!). Equally, though, if I had been taught during my training, that a ‘teacher-led, knowledge-based’ curriculum was an ‘actual thing’, and a potential alternative to being ‘progressive’, (didn’t know I had this label, either), I would already know about it…assuming the teaching had been memorable (and I had been listening).

Ms Birbalsingh – I’d like to visit!

Are we Spoiling the Snow?

OK – bear with me. Science – this morning. Trudged along to a Science lab in the Senior School – my children didn’t know what to expect. I had purposely not mentioned that we were going into a room full of bones. A colleague, who was leading the session, had set out a huge variety of skulls and skeletons and I had hoped that we would be able to explore. Wonder. Puzzle. Make observations. Ask questions…and we did get to do that, but only a little bit; he told them what that bone was, and ‘that there are three bones in the ear’… ‘and that’s an orangutan’s skeleton’. His intentions were good – of course they were – and he knows his stuff – but I thought, ‘Ow…give curiosity a chance…there could be some great questions here…’

As I’m writing this, a memory comes to mind; I’m standing in the lounge with my sister (I’m probably about 8, she’s about 6). It’s first thing in the morning – slippers and pyjamas. Through the glass of the patio doors, we’re watching our much older brother, hands shoved in pockets, smug and purposeful, walk a big circle around the garden – smirking at us. The thing is, that night, there’d been snow and the garden was untouched and perfect. We were desperate to get dressed and go out. We were excited. Remember that feeling? We wanted to be the ones to play in the snow – to explore it – it really wasn’t his thing anymore. We didn’t want to have to watch somebody else muck it up for us – and deny us the delight of doing that ourselves. I have no memory of actually going out and playing in the snow after that. I’m not sure I wanted to. I do remember the feelings of outrage and disappointment though. He had spoiled the magic – intentionally.

It’s maybe a tenuous link (!), but back in the Science lab – I wondered whether each child’s opportunity to explore had been optimum. The lesson wasn’t quite what I’d had in mind, but did that mean learning hadn’t happened?

Does it matter?

I mentioned it to another colleague later on, reflecting on whether it was significant or whether I was over-thinking it. She answered… ‘Yes, it’s massive.’ And I think, that potentially, it could be.

The role of a teacher, my role, has to change. I really don’t want to be at the front – ‘the expert’, the ‘if Mrs Young says it, it must be true’…(I’ve heard some of my children say that). I want to learn with them…the more I do this job, the more I realise how much I don’t know… Sure – I know it’s a balance and sometimes, you have to literally ‘teach’ to fill in the odd, inevitable gap – and I love being part of that learning. But have I ever spoiled the snow?  Yep – probably.

So I’m thinking that my role is now more about supplying the hats and gloves before I send them out, roughly in the right direction; perhaps I just need to keep an eye on them and be there afterwards with the hot-chocolate, when they’re ready to defrost and reflect on the experience.

A room full of skeletons is a fantastic resource and we’re so fortunate to have it at our finger-tips – but does it become a little less fantastic when it’s accessed in the absence of curiosity?

Saying curiosity is ‘a bottomless pit’ doesn’t sound quite right, but it is, potentially, bottomless. It doesn’t take up any space in the cupboard and it’s completely free – but it’s also vulnerable – like snow – it can be trampled on and melt away in a second. If curiosity was seen more as an official resource to learning, rather than an occasional ‘luxury’, would we take better care of it? Is it, in actual fact, our most valuable resource?

Have our cats learned not to be curious?

I’m guessing that at its origin, the proverb ‘curiosity killed the cat’ was meant to warn against ‘unnecessary investigation or exploration’ which could possibly result in, well…death. But what meaning does it have today? Do we ever say it to our children? Do we imply it, and what message does it send? Do we, as teachers, get to encourage our ‘curious cats’ or do we feel that, because of curriculum design or time restraints we can’t let them out – well, not until we’ve taught them what they need to learn..?

Curiosity has got to be pretty high up on the list of reasons why we learn anything, hasn’t it? At least initially. How does meaningful, memorable or profound learning take place without those sparks of curiosity? But we know all this. The trick is how we encourage that terrified and seriously-reprimanded cat back into our classrooms in order to drive the learning. It’s on its last legs, that cat. It’s not used to being let out.

Just did a quick Google search – ‘apathy’, ‘disinterest’ and ‘indifference’ are all possible antonyms of curiosity. If we took a moment to ask the cat how it felt about all this, I’m guessing it wouldn’t yawn and say ‘…I think curiosity is over-rated, actually.’ I’d hope that, given half a chance, it would be off, through the cat-flap, and into a blur of adventure.

Curiosity may have killed the proverbial cat occasionally – but how does that compare to killing curiosity?

If people don’t like you sharing, it’s everyone’s problem

Have had a few great conversations recently about ‘sharing’. Sharing is crucial. How do we ‘grow’ good practice, develop innovative ideas and make us all better learners and practitioners if we’re not sharing it? It’s a big problem.

This is a complex issue – and not one that will necessarily be solved with the well-intentioned ‘If people don’t like you sharing, it’s their problem’ advice. I have a sneaky feeling that the roots of the problem go deep.  I can still hear a few of my teachers’ instructions (from way back…), ‘Cover your work…don’t copy…keep your ideas to yourself…you can’t use somebody else’s idea…be original.’ We were discouraged to share colouring pencils, let alone ideas. And have I said similar things over the years? …Yep.

So, I’m thinking that this is a learned culture. It’s not that we don’t want to ‘stand out’ and share occasionally (in fact, we were told to stand out, too, weren’t we? All these mixed messages…), I think it’s more about not knowing how to.

How do you share without being seen to be blowing your own trumpet?  How do you share an idea when you think the ‘popular kids’ in the corner will have something to say about it on the playground at break-time? How do you get those kids to be receptive to new ideas when they think they know it all, already? How do we, as teachers, walk into a colleague’s classroom, with the intention of ‘learning’, without them feeling like they’re being judged? It’s often just easier not to share – you make yourself vulnerable if you do.

The thing is, though, we have to share – and be receptive to it – the good stuff and the not so go stuff. This is what we’re encouraging our children to do more and more…share ideas, grow ideas, disagree with ideas, innovate ideas… It’s a tricky balance. In the classroom, it might be tempting to link sharing with an external reward – ‘Well done for sharing…have a house-point.’ You can see what’s coming… ‘When shared, she didn’t give me a house-point… and… ‘That was my idea…’ and the problem persists. So, the culture of sharing just has to…well…be. We have to just get on with it – in the classroom as well as in the staffroom. Maybe the problem also comes from thinking ‘ideas belong to someone’ – the sense of ownership. Maybe ideas should not be ‘owned’…dunno.

But I do know, that if, at the end of the day, people don’t like you sharing, it isn’t just their problem – it’s everyone’s. And we need to sort it.

Definitely blown my 200 word limit…

We’re in this ‘Learning thing’ together.

This is my second attempt at cracking the ‘under 200-words’ #IMMOOC , 3-blog challenge. Not easy for me but I reckon I’m in with a chance this time!

Had a go at introducing ‘Genius Hour’ last term to my Year 3 children. Keeping it simple to start with, I told them at one point, ‘You can learn about anything you want to.’ They responded with an enthusiastic chorus of, ‘Anything? We can learn about anything? Really?’

They suggested a few things: The Solar System, tornadoes, flint… Then one of my pupils said, ‘Hey, Mrs Young – you could learn how to be a good teacher!’


Actually, I did laugh, (somewhat nervously) and after a few moments of self-doubt and a quick ruffling of feathers, I realised that maybe, she just thought I’d want to learn something, too. Just because I had already learned how to be ‘a teacher’, she hadn’t assumed that I’d want to stop learning ‘how to be a good one’. If that was the case, why wouldn’t I want to ‘do Genius Hour’, too?

Good point.

180 words! Did it!

Space Out or Be Square

First day of school…new exercise books – reverently handed-out, carefully named. Each teacher makes their expectations very clear regarding the ‘presentation of learning’ (or of their ‘teaching’).

Thirty years later, things have changed, haven’t they? But as I’m writing this, a shifty-looking pile of Maths books sits on the shelf in my classroom and I wonder how much change there’s been, really. There are 2700 squares on each double page of those Maths books. My pupils are seven.

So…the expectation that pupils present their learning ‘in the abstract’, starts the year off; ‘One digit in one square’. All those squares to fill, too. A whole book of ‘em. It’s literally an eye-blurring mass of rigidness.

Fortunately, that pile of books has accepted its recent demotion to the more permanent position of ‘on the shelf’. We now, far more regularly, explore our learning on the floor tiles with whiteboard pens. Pupils are ‘on the move’ – we ‘walk and talk’. We draw the problem, build it, explain it, change it and reflect. We can all now, for the first time, see each other’s thinking clearly. We have the space to explore and present learning in a far more brain-friendly way. We capture it when appropriate. And nobody ever asks, ‘Can we write in our books, today?’ Seems silly to expect pupils to constantly structure the presentation of their learning within squares, and in books that aren’t generally shared.

It doesn’t add up – does it?

We know our kids, don’t we?

I’ve been reflecting on yesterday’s MOOC with George Couros, Katie Martin and Sarah Thomas. I found myself nodding along to much of what was said but in particular, there was a moment when George questioned the idea of measuring the impact of an innovative approach to learning. Agreed. We don’t need to, do we?

To ‘measure formally’ seems to be etched deeply into our thinking; it’s what we’ve always done – and I get it – sort of. As teachers, we have a responsibility, at the very least, to consider whether what we’re doing is making a difference and formal measuring seems to be the only completely acceptable method. Accountability. ‘Proof’.

The concept of measuring however, is a bit like the rather noisy and out-spoken Party-Pooper of Good Ideas, Creativity and Innovation – it’ll stick its oar in and spoil everything.

‘How will we know this approach is having an impact on learning if we don’t somehow measure it?’

Unfortunately, even if this question doesn’t get asked, the very thought that it might be, is often enough to prevent teachers from trying something new. It’s the spanner in the works before the ‘works’ have even got going. But – if the ‘measure’ is kept at bay, at least for a while, teachers just might feel inclined to give something new, a go. 

There is perhaps, another side to this, too. Yes – we know our kids – but does knowing that there will be data generated and recorded from current methods of measuring / summative testing, somehow prevent us from getting to know them better? If we remove the measure, would we have to become more accountable? Would they? If we couldn’t rely on the formal measure, would we naturally find ourselves talking to our kids more? Would we think more carefully about the questions we ask? Would they learn to think more carefully about their responses? Would learning-conversations deepen? Would we create new and innovative opportunities to better demonstrate learning?

I do realise that removing the formal measure, to some, might represent an ‘Andy Dufresne’ moment (the bit in Shawshank Redemption when he’s dug himself out – finally – arms stretched up in rainy liberation) – a little bit risky. But perhaps it could also represent an opportunity to really get to know our kids and realign what goes on in classrooms – away from measuring – towards learning.