ResearchED: session 5

Leigh Ingham on young women, school and confidence: the problems and solutions, in their words (a late addition to the program). This session is a report on the impact of programs run by a group called Fearless Futures. 

We begin with a depressing list of statistics about the gender gap, from Rachel of Fearless Futures. Fearless Futures is aimed at tackling these inequalities as well as a wide variety of others, acknowledging intersectionality. They work with schools to try to do this. Leigh, giving the presentation, came in as an external researcher to look at the quality of Fearless Futures’ work.

Leigh’s talk:

The participants all said that participating in the program helped to improve their academic self esteem. They were almost all BME; a majority went on to study STEM subjects at high performing universities. They talked through episodes of discrimination they had experienced and also how to tackle discrimination, which helped them to be confident enough to aim high. 

It also helped their personal self esteem, particularly through the ‘I am special because…’ activity. Participants said that it helped them to recognise their qualities and what they could achieve.

The importance of all-girls sessions. It provides a safe space that made it possible for them to be very open and avoid being shut down. It created trust among the members, allowing them to feel supported and solidarity. One, who didn’t speak in school before the program, went on to successfully lobby for more diversity in the A-level Music spec, speaking on Channel 4. 

It gave the girls the ability to critically analyse the world and recognise/tackle inequalities, whilst giving them the confidence and tools to change society. 

Fearless Futures are running a conference in November called the Gender Assembly. Sounds like it would be worth a look. 

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ResearchED: session 4

Dr Niki Kaiser on threshold concepts. 

Niki is a chemistry teacher and network research lead. She relates a lesson on ionic bonding where she identified a misconception she was unaware of and how happy the subsequent student lightbulb moment made her. 

Niki explains that a threshold concept is described as a portal to transformed learning. You move through it to greater understanding and this is irreversible, making accessible previously out of reach concepts and ideas. To model this, Niki breaks down the different concepts students need to understand ionic bonding. She says Meyer and Land (2003) differentiate between core and threshold concepts and explains her identified bottleneck in understanding ionic bonding. It is tricky for us as experts to put ourselves in the shoes of novices and identify the trouble spots. 

There isn’t a great deal of research on threshold concepts, but Twitter suggested looking at the misconceptions literature and extrapolating from that. Planning a unit on structure and bonding, Niki used a tracker to help her to identify student trouble spots. 

Niki then spoke about her own research, modelling that there are many different ways of going about researching. I lost the thread a bit here (sorry Niki. Sorry readers)

Having identified tricky spots in the learning, Niki revisited them, a la spaced practice, and used Google forms to gather confidence scores from her pupils, to see which ideas they were finding most difficult. She compared the confidence scores with marks from tests on different topics within the course, and this data combined to helpfully show which the most troublesome areas were. 

I like threshold concepts (you might remember) and this was a really good session about how to research among your classes to identify new ones. This is much more scientific than my method, ‘Thinking about it on public transport’. It is also interesting to think about threshold concepts, not just in general historical understanding, but in individual topics. 

Niki’s ppt –

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ResearchEd: session 3

Daisy Christodoulou on improving assessmen: the key to education reform. I’m clearly going heavy on the assessment today. Delighted to get my first seat of the conference: it’s either very busy or I’m picking the most popular sessions. There are a lot of people sitting on floors, in the gallery, on the steps…

Daisy says, it’s a big claim, but ultimately, not just in education but in a whole range of fields, better measurement leads to improvements in innovations, while bad measurement leads to distortion and unintended consequences. Here are four assessment practices that are being influenced by theory that isn’t quite right. 

One. Using prose descriptors to grade work.

These are so entrenched that people think this is assessment. It can be difficult to think outside of this structure. But it is important, because they are neither accurate nor helpful. They don’t give an accurate summative judgment. Daisy demonstrates this with a fraction problem that also appears in her book, showing that ‘can identify which fraction is larger’ is not as simple as it sounds: questions have different difficulties and even small changes have an impact on this. Prose descriptors are not precise enough. 

Are they still a useful structure, eg for formative feedback? Daisy thinks no. They are not helpful for that either. Written comments become generic. They can be accurate, but not helpful. 

Daisy talks about well-designed multiple choice questions that are designed to tease out common misconceptions. Unambiguously wrong, but plausible distractors. This is a better way of giving feedback. 

Took this picture too early: she also recommends Michael Polanyi.

Two. Marking essays using absolute judgment.

Daisy uses the same crimes activity she includes in her book, from Mozer et al: poisoning a barking dog appears on two lists, once with lesser crimes and one with greater crimes, and people asked to score them on a scale of 1-10. 

The alternative to absolute judgment is comparative judgment. This will provide a system for this using an algorithm created by teachers rating pairs of essays. Technology is used to enhance human judgment. Daisy mentions that No More Marking will do this. I missed her summary slide. 

Three. Thinking of grades as discrete categories.

Someone at the top of a grade will be closer to someone at the bottom of the next grade than they are to someone else at the bottom of their own grade, but this is not reflected in the letter on the page. Daniel Koretz has attacked this in ‘Measuring Up’. 

Four. Thinking test scores matter. 

In fact, it is the inferences we can make from then that matter. What can we say from the evidence about what the student can do in other contexts? (Wiliam). Test scores are only samples of a wider domain. When the link between the test and the domain breaks, the inferences made are no longer valid. Any exam is only as good as its link to its domain, but this has become distorted over time, in large part due to the high stakes attached to the grades. ‘When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to become a good measure’: Goodhart’s Law. 

This lecture was a good overview of Daisy’s book, ‘Making Good Progress?’ so I can recommend reading that if you liked this. 

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ResearchED: session 2 

Tricia Taylor on improving peer assessment (nice dovetailing with the previous season). 

About 80% of verbal feedback comes from peers and much of it is wrong (Hattie). Feedback is highly variable, but highly effective. Being able to take feedback is important for a growth mindset. It should be about the task, not the person (ie, not self). 

Tricia shares some of the Austin’s butterfly video, Berger’s case study of using peer feedback to improve a student’s work. She also shares his advice for students giving feedback and reminds us, hard on content but soft on the person. 

It’s important to create the right culture for this. Students need to be able to take feedback and be eager to learn from their mistakes. They need to have good formative feedback modelled and be given a chance to practise, eg with the teacher doing the task first and then asking for feedback from the students to improve it. At the end of this training they need to reflect on it: how they gave feedback and how they were able to take it. “I learnt to be patient and keep trying.”

Student feedback is improving. Students value having several chances and they can see the improvements. Feedback was appreciated and rarely personal, or taken personally. It really helped teachers to get better at success criteria: more specific language when setting them. 

Staff introduced prompt cards to help shape how students five feedback. “I like the way you….have you considered….?” This was less successful with older students (Y8) where it felt a little contrived, but when they used them to work with a reception class they understood the point and it worked really well. 

Next stage: apply to literacy. An example: an English teacher working through a piece of writing might pull out good examples from it to share with students, but students find it more difficult to recognise this. Hence: rubrics. Tricia shares a rubric for applause to help us to improve clapping her: advice on volume and tempo, for example. A rubric helps students to recognise what is good and give advice for improvement. 

Students focused on spag when they give feedback, and teachers are also guilty of this: it is easy and accessible. I often find that when I’m marking a long essay, the spag corrections come thick and fast at the end when I have lost sight of the content of the essay, so I try to mark once for spag and once for task. Anyway…they made the rubric more specific to try to tackle this problem. 

Tricia used gallery critique to give students opportunities to comment on several pieces of work. 

She summarises her learning on making peer assessment work. If kids know there’s an audience at the end, it motivates them. Improving work reinforces the idea that change for the better is possible. Students don’t have to act on all feedback but can choose what they want. 

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ResearchED: session 1

Nik Booth on formative assessment. 

What is formative assessment?

It’s using judgment about quality of student work that is used to shape student competencies: moving learning forward, but not only the teacher’s job (Sadler). Nik talks us through some other definitions, since there is no single agreed one. The key thing is that is has to be used to improve teaching/learning. It doesn’t involve giving out marks, levels or grades (though marks can be formative for the teacher, who can then plan based on who scored what). It doesn’t compare students. It just focuses on what should happen next in the learning process. It is responsive teaching, and responsive learning. 

Why hasn’t it worked in schools? Probably because people don’t completely understand what should happen. Confusion between formative and summative. 

Nik shares a 1988 study which showed that comments had an impact of 30% improvement in achievement where grades alone had none. This same study showed that comments and grades also had no impact, because students ignore the comments and instead focus on ranking themselves against other students. They are more interested in the consequences of the grade, says Kohn (1994), rather than making improvements. 

How can we make formative assessment better in our schools? 

Learning intentions are important and can be powerful, but they can be tricky to write. Shirley Clarke (2005) says it probably shouldn’t include context of task, as this makes it less transferable. So, “To write a letter” rather than “To write a letter to the local council”. But also – it should be the learning, not the activity.  The above then becomes, “To be able to write persuasively” for example. 

Success criteria. Product and process, says Clarke, but process is the more important. Students need to know how to move forward and this should be explicitly clear. 

Hinge questioning helps provide quality feedback to shape the next stage in the learning. Using multiple choice questions where the other choices tackle common misconceptions (the 3 truths and a lie quizzes I wrote for the old GCSE often did this) – just one in the middle of the lesson, with a response from every student, eg using flashcards, is enough. Nik talks us through some examples from other subjects. 

Feedback – common on task, process, self-regulation and self. Whatever feedback you give must cause thinking. Peer, self – can be powerful because students become insiders in the learning process. Problem: it is often done at the end of the lesson, making it less useful. It should happen within the lesson if we want to grow self-regulated learners. 

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The very vivid and very full back to school nightmare last night has prompted me to spend much of today working, which has been something of a guilty pleasure. My school has a slightly earlier summer finish so I have now already been off for six weeks; it’s not surprising that my brain is a little confused.

I’ve alternated school books with personal reads this summer and that, combined with an excellent Sutton Trust/Durham University conference last week on independent learning, has prompted me to make some plans. Here they are in various states of development:

Assessing Sixth Form

The lecture on transition issues at Durham, led by the enthusiastic Dr Jacquie Robson, made it clear that independent research leading to better understanding as opposed to a shorter-term high grade was something that first year undergrads struggle with. This chimed in with a conversation I had with a history lecturer back in July, who said in passing that they spend about 18 months unpicking school conditioning in their undergrads; and with a conversation I had with a social policy lecturer years ago who expressed incredulity that her students were using her past papers to inform their revision (“Why?! They can’t do those past papers because we never covered those topics, but those topics are not going to come up because I write the paper!”). It also fell neatly alongside Christodoulou’s comments in Making Good Progress? about not playing a whole baseball match to practise hitting one type of pitch (I paraphrase, in the manner of a butcher) and the session I attended at the WLFS conference about using narrative. I had a nice tumblers-falling-into-place epiphany halfway through the last Durham lecture, which was inconvenient because I really struggled to focus on it.

So, my intention with year 12 next year is to have them research two small projects alongside their studies – one on each Henry, which will work well with the Tudors course. I will attempt to run these as small-scale NEAs. I think what I’m going to do is provide a bit of scaffolding and maybe even topics/questions for H7, but less for H8. Each project will require at least five readings. Their performance will not receive an individual grade, but will go towards their end of y12/UCAS predicted grade. This hopefully will, in no particular order:

  • Make them do some wider reading, thus improving their knowledge, thus leading to a better grade at the end
  • Give them a better understanding of how to use a library
  • Prepare them for the NEA
  • Provide me with some insight into how well they understand the course
  • Provide me with significant body of work that I can include in my UCAS references
  • Remind them that they really love History (or indicate to them in a timely fashion that, well, maybe they don’t)

On top of that, I’m going to require an ongoing narrative account of the Tudors, written in the style described by Vartan Tamizian at WLFS. This is mainly to help me see that they understand the basic facts of the course.

I’m still batting this about. I am toying with the idea of also requiring the narrative from Y13 but making the projects optional, since they will be doing their real NEA. I think I might have to wind back from my rule of at least one exam question a fortnight for Y12 in order to give them the space to complete this, but I think that is OK, especially with the new linear course. I think I’m gutsy enough to be able to defend against the inevitable outcry at doing work that isn’t marked to an exam board scheme. I do need to discuss it with my A-level co-teacher, though.


I’ve got two year 10 classes next year. I’m going to teach one Medicine thematically and one chronologically, to see if it makes a difference in their understanding. I would also like to assess each one differently, to see if that helps their progress, once again inspired by Christodoulou, but it doesn’t seem wise to do both of these things at once. Maybe I will do that for the later year 10 unit.

Meanwhile year 11 will benefit from my speed-reading of Willingham’s Why don’t children like school? – I’ve planned something for them on chunking and automating processes that will hopefully be useful for their revision and may lead to an adjustment in how I teach them to remainder of the course. There wasn’t much in Willingham that was news to me but chapter 5 was a real stand-out. My notes on chapters 1-4 are 2-3 lines per chapter. Chapter 5 runs to 6 pages, including sketches of lesson slides.


I continue to plug away at thematic units for KS3. I have three that work reasonably well and I am hoping to trial two more this year.


I am aiming to attend 15 CPD things across the year. I have tickets to ResearchED in London and TLT, for term 1, and there will be pizza group again. There were also some great local insets run last year by Bristol Museums so hopefully there will be something similar I can get involved in. Also I need to update my First Aid – that counts, right?!


I’m hoping for a PGCE student after Christmas. There will be more exam board work, which only becomes more interesting. I’m working on another book, with a March deadline. A few more trips would be nice – little local ones seem so achievable.

I’m interested to hear what other people are hoping to do: please share.

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On being a long-term mainscale teacher

A couple of weeks back I came across a Twitter thread about wanting to stay mainscale and become a better teacher, and it did make me chuckle to see how the teaching landscape is morphing from one of a relentless striving for promotion that I felt I was in when I started. Ben Newmark suggested he would like to hear my life story my experience, so here it is. 

Let me preface this by saying that I have never sought promotion because I’ve needed more money. I was a homeowner when I started teaching, which took some pressure off. I think this probably marks me out as in the minority. I stayed in the same school, doing basically the same job, for 11 years before taking middle leader post, which probably also marks me as a minority. 

Though I did my PGCE just for something to do, I quickly realised that teaching was for me. I loved the job, though it was exhausting and time consuming. Around my 3rd year, I started to notice that peers of similar experience were applying for more senior roles. All the conversation was about whether you wanted to take the pastoral or academic route up. There was nobody talking about staying in the same job, because this was met with stuttering silence. I got used to saying I hoped for an AST role, even though they were like hens’ teeth, because it was closer to what everyone expected to hear. I still did not feel ready for more responsibility, but I bowed to expectation and took an AGT role in 2007. This was a real pleasure, working with the geekiest students, and involved mainly planning enrichment and focusing on T&L across the school. It allowed me to further hone and improve my own practice, but I got the distinct impression, after not too long, that everybody else considered this role to be a stepping stone: today I guess it would attract a 1 year TLR3. School did not class me as a middle leader. I didn’t even have a line manager for half the time. 
By that point, however, other things were in the works. I started writing, firstly for GCSEPod, and got promoted at the exam board, first to team leader and then to assistant principal. I picked up writing and presenting jobs as a result of my experience. Being still essentially mainscale, but now with 6+ years’ experience, I had the time on my hands to be able to complete these extra jobs without my teaching performance suffering. At one stage I had 6 additional jobs on top of teaching. In school, I was a staff governor. I ran the AGT network for the local secondary cluster. I launched and ran the ski trip. I attended every inset I could find outside of school hours, using money I set aside from my other jobs as a personal inset budget. I was in the staff T&L group. I was busy doing a dozen things I loved. “Where do you find the time?” my colleagues asked. I’ve never been able to answer this. It’s just there, right?
And I learned. When a student can be gently teased out of a strop. When to go in tough. Why it’s important to maintain a healthy distance. How to spot the difference between a toilet request due to genuine need and one due to boredom. The stages pupils go through when they’re struggling with the work, and when best to intervene. How to answer questions before they’re asked (freaks them right out). How not to take things personally. What it’s like when (very rarely) it IS personal and how to deal with it. When best to use a quiet word and a public telling off. The power of one raised eyebrow versus the powerlessness of a screaming, rowdy sanction in the corridor. The importance of pitch and tone. Patience. How to completely change a lesson halfway through, or right at the start. Which activities are worth the preparation effort, and which activities are always going to work. How to turn around a set of books between 2 5-lesson days. How to teach disaffected classes, enthusiastic classes, bottom sets, top sets, wildly mixed ability sets, double GCSE lessons, classes of 32, GCSE classes of 32, double lessons with GCSE classes of 32 during an observation by 2 members of SLT (a personal favourite), A-level, year 9 on a windy Thursday afternoon. How to make the class feel like it is me and them in our own clique that nobody else would get. How powerful this can be. Why following the rules is so important. Trips: I racked up 185 nights away on school trips in 13 years. Consistency. How to take negative feedback and act on it. When I’m beaten. Humility. Where to look for help. Where not to look. When it’s worth putting in extra time. How to apologise. How to speak to parents. That I’m never, ever, going to achieve a complete repertoire of teaching skills, or see it all. I know the Malcolm Gladwell 10,000 hours isn’t quite the whole story of the stat, but as I approached and then passed 10k lessons, I felt like I had enough experience to deal with almost everything thrown at me – or at a colleague, which meant being a supportive HoD became more doable.

I noted, however, that when I met other teachers they were a bit non-plussed by my apparent lack of ambition. The AGT role was clearly meant to upskill those looking to move up, was the feeling, and not really worth mentioning. My tenure at a single school was also a problem. “I couldn’t do longer than 3 years or I would be completely stagnant” was one of my favourite comments: I was at year 10 by then. It got to the point where I kept quiet about my length of service and my school role. My experience was not treated as something to be proud of. Sometimes I would point to the examining but the response was usually along the lines of, “Oh, yeah, I did that once, hated it” or something slightly sneery about the fact I did GCSE and not A-level. The exam board, meanwhile, were putting me forward for senior training and assessment courses, and couldn’t have been more complimentary about my service for them. My lack of responsibility at school meant that it was not difficult to get the time out. 

In my 11th year there was upheaval. A head came in like a wrecking ball, on a short term contract, and made my AGT post redundant. As the only History teacher without a TLR, I was first offered the History responsibility, included on the new structure, to make up my old protected-for-3-years TLR, but was then told that the responsibility was not going to be filled, by anyone, and I could best serve the school by being just a really good teacher. I seethed at the injustice, and the idiocy (why pay me a TLR to do nothing, except out of spite?) but that head moved on – as staff governor I was on the panel that appointed an external candidate for the permanent role – and within a year of the new head arriving, the Head of Hums, a History specialist, was promoted to AHT. The thought of someone else telling me what to do was unbearable. So, in the July of my 11th year, I finally became a HoD.

It was the right time, really. Stepping up did not feel challenging and I enjoyed having a bit more control. I was very lucky to be able to make a sideways move into a HoD job last year and I appreciate the autonomy and opportunity to immerse myself in History pedagogy. When I interviewed, the Head could not have been more complimentary about the breadth of my experience and I didn’t feel I had to justify my decision to stay at one school and in the same role for so long, although I had a carefully crafted line in my personal statement about this. 

I surveyed my peers. Around me were less experienced teachers now miserable in senior roles, teaching next to nothing and complaining about how much they missed the old days when they weren’t shoving paper around and making endless phone calls. “I just want to teach!” they wail. My turn to be non-plussed. Teaching is a bizarre profession where, the better you are at it, the less you are expected to do. Those who can make the biggest noise often leave entirely to be consultants. I don’t get it. I love the opportunity of being in the classroom and taking those students on a journey with me. And no, I don’t give two hoots about how cheesy that sounds. As the pressure now manifests, to keep moving upwards, I have to guard against losing that privilege.

This has been fun to write! 

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