A summer of reading and implications for school leadership.

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Soon I start at Patcham High School and I was asked to glance over some books in preparation.  A couple of these have been around for a while, but it’s always good to refresh the memory.  My overall impression is that there’s no real ‘the way’ to teach or treat young people.  Much of the research falls within psychology and other realms, research in its nature is reductionist and is prone to generalisation, but many of the stories presented link to some of my experience in the classroom and leadership.  These books tend to cite similar sources of information and even each other. For example, all of these books focus on the fact that measures of intelligence were designed so that interventions could be put into place to get children back on track.  All four also focus on the role of teacher feedback.  They are also written in a populist way, something that works better for the journalists rather than the researchers.  I’m not considering the validity and reliability of the messages or research as I’d rather assume teachers are able to make up their own mind.

This post serves as a summary of the work, with some possible implications for practice and leadership. I’ve tried to highlight the key message (as interpreted by me, for me) of each book as I find that the main thrust is often covered within the first few pages, and then repeated throughout like a Channel 4 ‘documentary’’ allowing skim reading.  What follows are reflections for me to return to, and the ‘thinking out lous’ that follows may be useful to others.

A slight caveat is that I often find myself nodding along to these books, finding that the approach already forms part of my toolkit.  In that way, these publications are preaching to the converted.  I consider them to be thought shrapnel though and reading about and discussing teaching and learning can not be a bad thing.  As a leader, I would expect all teachers to be familiar with  what is written.

The Elephant in the Classroom is a great read.  This was unexpected if I’m honest.  The first message is that this book isn’t just for maths teachers and school leaders as it contains some powerful messages for all leaders.  Through my role in supporting NQTs, I’ve seen quiet a few maths lessons over the past twelve months and many of the messages rung true. Essentially, Jo Boaler provides a counterpoint to the approach that most schools take of killing maths, such as turning the subject into an exams factory that has squashed the enjoyment and love out of the subject.  Personally, I welcome any move toward not allowing resist of examinations, especially for the benefit of league tables.  In addition, anecdotes, articles and books continue to shout the message that exam results will rise anyway as better approaches are adopted.  Elephant isn’t and exception to this and it’s a welcome message.  Boaler’s main message is that school maths isn’t real maths as it has little in common with either the real world or what maths can be.

Secondly, Boaler argues against the early setting of children by ability and presents both argument and research findings to support mixed ability teaching.  As a geographer who has always taught in mixed ability classes, I’ve never understood streaming students as I’ve found that by explaining to others, higher ability students do better and less able and disaffected students tend to do better as they are exposed to model answers as well as behaviour. I’ve never been comfortable with labelling students early on, and I’ve often had to tackle students who have a low opinion of their ability because they are in lower sets in other core subjects.

The Elephant in the Classroom contains a wealth of teaching tips that can be easily adapted to any classroom, as well as specific maths problems.  There are also problems to solve, with the workings out in the back.  I loved this, as a geographer my undergraduate degrees were full of maths, stats and physics, so I get the importance of maths.  Maths should be a creative subject focused on problem solving. As a parent, I certainly have much ammunition and ideas to support Henry through school maths.

How Children Succeed also focuses on the dangers of labelling young people too early and explores the relationship between character development and attainment.  There is a very interesting comparison between inner city schools and affluent, fee-paying schools in New York.  Central to the book, is whether teachers should be teaching and reporting upon character skills, such as self-control and willpower, as well as knowledge and understanding.  I’m reminded of Personal Learning and Thinking Skills and Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning here.  From my experience of working in school serving deprived wards in the UK, I can confirm that young people do achieve better results if they are mentored through ‘study’ skills.  I enjoyed reading Paul Tough’s book.

Finally, Mindset’s central premise is that your basic qualities can change through effort.  This is something that I don’t disagree with, but then I’ve always been an individual who believes that you can do anything .  The most useful aspects of the book for me were the sections on feedback.  Dweck highlights the importance of honest and constructive feedback to children in order for them to improve.  In other words, there’s no point in trying to make young people feel better.  There are links here with comment only marking techniques and their well established linked to higher achievement.  A very good point is that praise for effort and constructive critic aimed at improvement is far better than praising intelligence.  I’m reminded of behaviour techniques here when you point out the problem behaviour and not a problem with the child: ‘I like you, but your habit of punching other people is getting in the way of your learning.’  A habit can be broken.

Differentiation is another common theme through these books.  Chiefly that neither the ‘lower’ or ‘higher’ ability students are challenged enough. Indeed, labelling a child as low ability is a self-fulfilling prophecy where a lack of challenge from teachers coupled with the inability to acknowledge  that young people learn at different rates means that these students often.  One of my favourite quotes is ‘there’s a lot of intelligence out there being waster by underestimating students’ potential to develop’ (p64).

Mindset also challenges teachers to be learners also and to take risk.  This is trick unless there is a supportive atmosphere to work within where risk taking is encouraged when it leads to doing things better (in this case, teaching and learning). Dweck believe that great teachers (or parents) are fascinated with the process of learning; believe that young people’s intellect and talent can be developed and have high standards and expectations within a nurturing atmosphere.  What is there to disagree with?

So, implications for leadership?

  • It’s important that teachers at all levels engage with and understand research and books such as these.  It’s not good enough to be told about them if sustainable systems are to be developed.
  • Trail changes.
  • Keep high expectations of success of every single child.
  • Examine how some of the key messages can be incorporated into feedback and assessment policies and CPD.
  • Allow staff to take risks, make mistakes and learn from them in order to promote better outcomes and learning.

What do you  think?

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