The Mini-Plenary – Friend or Foe?

It wasn’t until a couple of years into my teaching career that I’d heard of a ‘mini-plenary.’ According to the local authority my lessons should have one. When I asked what that might ‘look like’ in the classroom I was given a garbled response about checking progress half way through the lesson.

“But what if I know that the children are doing just fine – why would I want to stop them?” I asked. The reply was short and sweet and straight to the point; “Because Ofsted want them!”

The ‘mini-plenary’ is very en-vogue at the moment, it’s a bit of an educational buzz-word (phrase) and I can’t remember the last time I made a lesson observation and didn’t see one (Or at least an attempt at one)

The problem with ‘Buzz-words’ in education is that they become so familiar to practitioners that they lose their meaning. They become the Boweneque “super, smashing, great,” feature of the educational world; said so many times the meaning is lost.

Getting back to ‘Mini-Plenaries’ then; they can be very useful. It is however, important to remember the purpose of a ‘Mini-Plenary’ is to:

 

  1.   Enhance the assessment of the teacher; ensuring the learning is meeting the needs of the learners
  2. Give the learners the opportunity to ask “How am I getting on?”
  3. Challenge the thinking of the learners.
  4.  Assist learners in target setting.
  5. Address whole class patterns of misunderstanding 

 

Too often Mini-Plenaries are for show; little thought is given to their timings, they become a show and tell session with little evaluative significance and are not intellectually demanding. Even worse, they become a trick to ‘show progress’ to an inspector every ten minutes; if we believe that pupils make progress this often and at this rate then we’re either exceptionally gifted educators or deluded.

Assessment for learning during the lesson should be ongoing; it doesn’t necessarily need a whole ‘slot’ with a ‘wizzy’ name to be useful. Assessment takes place at every stage in the lesson, whether it is with one pupil, a group or the whole class.

 

Effective Mini-Plenaries

The best Mini-Plenaries (for want of a better phrase) are intellectually demanding;  ask challenging questions of the pupils and ensure that when the learners get back to their task, they apply their new skills and understanding with greater authority and confidence.

 

 Ideas for the classroom:

  1. ‘Plenary’ questions display – great prompts for the teacher. The students will know they will be expected to respond to them as some point in the lesson – raising expectations.
  2.  Pupil led Mini-plenary – put the ‘Plenary’ questions on to key rings/cards with a ‘group’ leader who will then guide the discussion on each table.
  3. Review the success criteria – Are the prompts effective? How could we make them better?
  4. Peer assessment – students to pick one aspect of the success criteria for their partners/peers to work on.
  5. True or false statements related to the learning. Ask the pupils to move to a specified area of the classroom based on their response. Demand reasoning here!!

Mini-Plenaries are not a foe; the phrase is just over used (We suspect due to Ofsted ‘game’ playing) All of the above ideas should be part of learners’ experience in class, they don’t need a label; reflection is part of the learning process. Ultimately ‘Mini-Plenaries’ are for the benefit of the pupils, not just another box to tick on an observation form.

 

The Thought-Weavers

The Ofsted Effect

I visit many schools and talk to hundreds of professionals all of the time. Never far from the conversation is Ofsted. Ofsted worry schools to the point that the whole ethos is to please Ofsted. This is wrong because a school’s ethos should be built around its pupils.

I was listening to Mick Waters just the other week and he talked about ‘Game Theory;’ the idea that organisations adjust their practices because of the coercion of others. He gave the example of the railways. Since privatisation, the government has set train operating companies punctuality targets, in response to this the timetables have been adjusted to allow for more ‘slippage;’ the outcome is simple, journey times are longer but targets are met. A classic case of:

“Hitting the target but missing the point”

Schools are in danger of doing precisely this! The Ofsted game has led to some dubious practices; below are just a few that come to mind:

The learning objective must be shared.

We’re not saying it should never be shared, but for every lesson? Surely great learning is great learning and pupils will know this! We shouldn’t forget that learning is never ‘objective!’ It’s a personal process, it belongs to individuals and groups; it is therefore subjective!

The mini-plenary.

Of course great learners need time to reflect, to think about how it might be used; a chance to ponder. However, I heard a story the other day of a class given just 1m 40s before the first mini-plenary was delivered. Pupils need time to question, discuss and just to get on with learning; they don’t need the teacher stopping them every five minutes to check progress.

The end of curiosity.

I’ve seen too many lessons in the past 5 years where the learning outcome is measured in levels. The message is clear; “no need to be curious or inquisitive, I’ve given you the outcome using an arbitrary numerical level and that’s where we’re all heading.” What happened to wonder? Wondering what the outcome might be, the chance to play, to experiment and take risks. I asked a learner in July what he needed to do to get better at maths and he replied “Get a level 5.” Earlier this year I asked a girl what she was learning in English and she replied “AF5” – she could tell I was bemused. I then asked her why and she replied “to get a level 4.” Needless to say writing for pleasure is not one of her pastimes!

Tick Box Teaching

The arrival of the ‘lesson observation grids’ has done great damage to teaching. Instead of teachers, the danger is we become technicians; just ticking the boxes as we go along and ticking as many boxes as possible when an observer is in. Of course there should be guidance, hints and tips, strategies shared and practice observed but when you’ve seen practitioners shower praise like confetti, include a dozen mini plenaries and share enough differentiated learning outcomes for the entire population you know it’s ‘Tick box Teaching.’

Teaching to the tests.

Ofsted predominantly measure a school by their ‘standards.’ Some argue this is not the case, but I’ve yet to come across a school with 100% level 4s at KS2 who’ve been put into special measures. So along comes the ‘SPaG’ test and hey presto, grammar lessons are back on the menu, the ‘how many pieces of punctuation can you fit in a sentence’ game is played and spelling tests, lots of spelling tests! Some argue that children should have this type of experience, but if they felt so strongly why weren’t they doing it last year?

If we continue down this ‘Game,’ education will lose its heart, writing will be a technical experience marked with levels, learning will become boxes to tick and teachers will become robots who simply deliver the packages of contents…And pupils…I fear for them…

So please, follow your philosophy, don’t be compliant and ensure the children in your class/school enjoy an education fit for their futures.

The Thought Weavers

Preparing for Ofsted!

Last year I gave a presentation at the education show entitled ‘Preparing for Ofsted.’ I sifted through lots of Ofsted reports, founds patterns of ‘behaviours’ and looked for things inspectors seemed to be consistently asking for and produced a slide show based on my findings.

In February 2013, Ofsted paid my school a visit. As a result I’ve recently updated the slide show and below is the new updated version. I hope it will help you when your visit is due!

Preparing for Ofsted! 2013

<div style=”width:425px” id=”__ss_12069324″> <strong style=”display:block;margin:12px 0 4px”><a href=”http://www.slideshare.net/paceanderson/preparing-for-ofsted-nec-2012&#8243; title=”Preparing for ofsted! nec 2012″ target=”_blank”>Preparing for ofsted! nec 2012</a></strong>

<div style=”padding:5px 0 12px”> View more <a href=”http://www.slideshare.net/thecroaker/death-by-powerpoint&#8221; target=”_blank”>PowerPoint</a> from <a href=”http://www.slideshare.net/paceanderson&#8221; target=”_blank”>paceanderson</a> </div> </div>

Lee of the ‘Thought Weavers.’

How does the Government support education? mmmmm…

Michael Gove often talks about leaving the running of schools to the professionals. We agree!

Below are headlines from the BBC website over the last few months. We suggest what Gove actually says and what he actually does are two different things!

‘Schools minister cracks down on league table incentives’

‘Ofsted plans to scrap ‘satisfactory’ label for schools’

‘Poor teachers face tougher system under shake-up’

‘New Ofsted chief takes aim at incapable teachers’

‘Third of schools in Wales not good enough, says Estyn’

‘Labour ‘would have cut school building scheme’

‘Ofsted head to tackle coasting and incompetent teachers’

‘Schools in England will face no-notice inspections’

‘Ofsted inspections to scrutinise teaching quality’

‘Michael Gove queries schools’ Ofsted ratings’

‘Education Bill outlines shake-up for England’s schools’

 

The great thing is that teachers are breathtakingly resilient! We are the eternal optimists! We get on with our jobs despite the headlines above! This is what makes teachers great!

The Thought Weavers

Curriculum change!

The Thought Weavers at the BETT show.

Curriculum change is a hot topic in education at the moment and we had the privilege of taking part in a panel discussion at the ‘Educational Leaders’ conference as part of the BETT show. The topic for discussion was curriculum change. Prior to the discussion we were also lucky enough to hear the views of Tim Oates, the chair of the expert panel on curriculum review. This post represents our reflection on the curriculum review based on our prior understanding and our thoughts following the BETT show.

Before we offer our thoughts we have tried to make the following assumptions in an attempt to make our views as sensible and ‘objective’ as possible.

  • The review panel have the best interests of children when considering the new curriculum.
  • The new curriculum will be an attempt to give more freedom to schools (This is stated in the DfE website and in the interim report)

Prior to the show we both read the expert panel review report. We were heartened that it does mention extra freedom, learning to learn approaches and having a ‘school curriculum’ that is not prescribed by the new curriculum.

However, when we got into the ‘nitty gritty’ of the report, such as curriculum design, subjects and the organisation of key stages it soon became clear that this curriculum would have much more prescription than the current document. The irony of a 70 page report to inform us that we will have extra freedom was also not lost on us.

When we heard Tim Oates speak, this reaffirmed our worries. He quite openly told us the new curriculum will be thicker with more detailed learning outcomes. He also reaffirmed that assessment would be tightly linked to the curriculum to assessment, whilst this seems to make common sense, we think it reinforces the ‘teaching to the test approache’. He also mentioned that pupils should not be able to move on until one ‘block of content’ was secure; does this mean children will be held back as in the USA?

From the report and hearing Tim Oates speak we came to the following conclusions:

  • There is an assumption that pupils learn in a linear way, with one block of content being learned so that they can move onto the next block of content. Just how does that really work? For some pupils fractions are much easier than timetables, for other it’s the opposite, for some children using commas is much more developed than using full stops. How will they decide the order for these ‘blocks of content?’ Wouldn’t it be wonderful if children learned in systematic way? – But they don’t!
  • Another assumption is that other countries systems of curriculum design are better than ours. To begin with this assumption is based on narrow tests (e.g PISA) to evaluate maths, literacy and science; so where the does the ‘broad and balanced’ argument fit in? We feel they are just ‘cherry picking’ parts of other countries curriculum to support their own arguments. Tim Oates also stated that whilst we should look at other countries curriculum design we should not try to copy them. This is confusing.
  • Our other concern is the manner in which Tim Oates delivered his speech. In education, when children have one chance, passion is vital. We didn’t get a sense of passion from him, most questions were answered using reference to academic research. We have the feeling that the expert review panel are themselves frustrated under the intense pressure from government to produce a curriculum based on the ideals of Michael Gove.

When we took to the stage to sit with our panel, Tim Oates took his place in the audience. We discussed curriculum change and took questions from the floor. With regret Tim Oates was not able to stay for the whole panel discussion.

The key points raised by ourselves and the panel were:

  • With a narrow assessment system, no matter how schools are encouraged to have more freedom over the curriculum, children’s learning will always be channelled to towards getting the grades.
  • Ofsted’s remit is too wide. They seem to have the power to do what they like. Most of the panel agreed that it is Ofsted that set school policy, not the government.
  • Children’s learning should not be standardised
  • The curriculum review seems to have little direction.
  • The new curriculum will be more prescriptive than the current one.
  • A perhaps cynical point of view was that the curriculum review was an attempt to push schools into academy status.

The expert panel into curriculum change have been given a very difficult job. There remit is to design a core and foundation curriculum that will suit every student in England. The very idea of this, in our view is impossible.

Final thoughts…

With around 20,000 schools in England and many wonderful, creative and focussed professions, the following questions popped into our heads…

Why do we need a curriculum written for us?

Can’t we be tasked with creating our own curriculum, our own success criteria, our own pedagogical approach based on the needs of children we know very well within a community of which we are part?

Does the head of science need to be told what essential knowledge should be taught?

Would a new curriculum create a whole new wave of commercial products to support it?

Who really are the experts in education?

Can we really have personalised learning with a standardised curriculum?

To finish on a positive – no matter what the outcome of the curriculum review, nothing is more powerful that teachers doing what they do best; helping children to learn. The online collaboration through twitter and facebook etc will always be a more powerful force than any formal written document. When teachers collaborate and debate, children will always benefit.

Lee and David.

Knowing me, knowing you! Building Positive Learning Relationships with Children

Knowing me, knowing you!
Building Learning Relationships with Children
Is there one child in your class who gets to you for all the wrong reasons? That one child who pushes all the wrong buttons. The one that makes all your behaviour modification strategies look futile. My friend Katy once described such a child.
She said “He just takes me to a place where I don’t want to go!”
We’ve all met the little terrors! They come in all shapes and sizes from 7 to 17. However, despite their differences many of them share very similar features.
The similar features/traits means they are:
Usually boys
Usually bored
Usually on the SEN register
Usually come from the same area/estate /neighbourhood
Usually have siblings with similar traits
Usually from dysfunctional families.
Right! We all know the sort of child we are talking about by now – don’t we?
Think about their behaviour in your lessons. How do they make you feel? What is it that they do that makes you feel so hostile toward them? Usually if you could have one wish it would be for them to move far, far away (this is totally natural as we have felt this way many, many times ourselves) However, the Likelihood of them moving away is about as likely you winning the national Lottery three weeks in a row. So what is the answer? Picture this little angel in your head and ask yourself some of the following questions:

What makes them happy? Scared?
Where do they go on holiday?
Who is their hero?
Who do they look up to?
What do they want to be when they are older?
What’s their favourite colour?
What’s their favourite drink? Food?
Do they have any pets?
If they had a super power what would it be?
If they ruled the world what would they change?
What do they think of your lessons?
What do they think if you?

If you can answer ‘I don’t know!’ to more than three of the questions above, then you are doing that child a disservice! You’ve almost written them off before you have even got to know them. We know that it’s very difficult, at times, to find something endearing about the disruptive little whirlwinds, who attempt to sabotage your entire lesson every week. But if we give up on them – who will believe in them?

The key to getting them on your side is building positive, appropriate relationships. It’s truly amazing what you find out about them once you start asking. The trump card you have up your sleeve is yourself and your life outside of the classroom! They love to know all about you! It’s a brave thing to do but done correctly it can move mountains.

You don’t have to share you home address, credit card details or the names of your first ever boy/girl friends. But let them know the name of your dog, your favourite food, football team, where you like to go on holiday, what you wanted to be when you were their age.

For the bravest amongst you; you could (God forbid) tell them your first name; the names of you family members; where you went to school. It goes without saying if the information you share is going to compromise yourself or close friends then keep it to yourself.

Once they know you a little better you become more three dimensional. You become a real person not just a 2D image of a name on an exercise book or on their timetable.

When they enter your classroom next time hit them with:

“How did your game go this weekend Jake?” or “Sarah did you go your aunties’s party last night?”
It’s way better than “Jake stop that and sit down!” or “Sarah did you write up that experiment like I asked you to?”

Don’t get me wrong they still have to be accountable and ‘write up the things like you asked them to…’ but the odd friendly ‘humanistic’ comment does break the ice.

“Where do I get the time to ask all these questions?” We hear you cry: the answer is direct and simple ‘make time’ think about the wasted minutes some of us use trying to redirect negative behaviour. You can create chances walking along the corridor, whist on playground duty, on the bus during school trips, diary entries, play scripts in literacy, planning and budgeting a day out (Maths), circle time or the 3 minutes packing up time at the end of the day. Say to yourself I’m going to find out one thing new about ‘x’ today and I will impart one piece of information about me. Try it the results are astounding!

Lee and David (The Thought Weavers)

“Education is the most powerful weapon you can use to change the world.” Nelson Mandela

The dancer in the classroom!

Sir Ken Robinson tells a great story about girl whose parents were terribly worried about her lack of concentration in class;

I also have a very similar story. (I have kindly been given permission by Lucy’s mom to use her real name and share this story)

Two years ago Lucy came into my class as an enthusiastic Y5 girl. However, there was a problem, or to put it more precisely, a reputation that came with her. Lucy couldn’t concentrate in class.

Lucy couldn’t ‘sit still’, she was ‘noisy’ and her energy levels never seemed to wane. I thought carefully about this, as her teacher I became concerned. I wrote to her parents to request a meeting. At the meeting her mom informed me that this was ‘Just Lucy’. At the time I felt a little unsupported, however, I look back now and realise her mom was spot on. Lucy was just Lucy. She can’t sit still, she likes being vocal and she loves moving around the classroom; it was my duty to adjust to Lucy, not Lucy’s job to adjust to school! I therefore went about thinking of strategies to help Lucy and her learning.

I first ensured there was plenty of movement. I facilitated lots of talk (P4C was wonderful for Lucy) and sitting at a table became a choice not an order. At home Lucy’s mom decided to see if Lucy would enjoy ice-dancing…She loved it! In fact two weeks ago she won her first competition!

In the words of Sir Ken Robinson, Lucy didn’t have a problem; she wasn’t ‘naughty’ – she was in fact ‘a dancer’, someone who loved moving! Even more importantly Lucy can still be ‘just Lucy’

Last week I took two classes, Lucy included, on a residential trip. It was a tiring but wonderful week, the children gained invaluable and immeasurable experiences and collaborated on a range of tasks. It quickly dawned on me that all of the tasks had something very much in common:

  • No activities were preceded with a learning objective.
  • Differentiation was decided by the youngsters themselves
  • No-one got things wrong and everyone made mistakes
  • Every pupil was challenged but not compared with each other
  • Adults allowed children to explore possible solutions
  • Nothing was neatly recorded in  books
  • Children were encouraged to set their own targets
  • There were no walls (Except for bed time!)
  • Children were smiling – lots!

Taking ideas from outdoor education centres is not just about asking children to identify trees in the wooded areas and having a camp fire. It’s also about using ideas like those above; where children were challenged but had choice, where they built their self esteem by making mistakes. When youngsters didn’t always have to sit still and be quiet.

Talk to any teacher and they’ll tell you the value of an outdoor educational experience. So what bigger hint do we need that classrooms (In their traditional sense) are not always the best places to learn, they’re just a small part of the wider picture.
On Monday morning the children walked into my classroom. It felt different though. Unnatural. Odd that these young people were forced to congregate in a room within a building called a school after hugely successful week in an environment very different from a school.

For the past five years I’ve researched, experimented and applied many theories to my pedagogical approach, taking every opportunity to tap into children’s natural way of thinking and learning. It follows that perhaps over the next five years my emphasis should be on the physical learning environment and how it can be used to help all children succeed.

I will make lots of mistakes, but after last week I feel confident that it’ll work out for the best!

Remember when children are ‘fidgety’ it’s because they don’t want to be still, when they’re not concentrating it’s because they’re bored and when they’re noisy perhaps they want to perform! Whatever the reason, it is our jobs to adjust to the needs of the children, not the other way round. I no longer worry about Lucy, she’s just fine!

The Thought Weavers