Research Ed. A reflection on #rEDlang

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I was driving to Oxford for Research Ed: Language brochure on Saturday and was trying to recall when and why I joined Twitter.
I failed.
But at some point in around 2010 I joined Twitter as  teacher – @mrpeel – and a new world opened. At that time, there was a relatively small group of paedagogues online. I read @David Didau (in his @learningspy incarnation) and watched as someone called @oldandrew seemed to disagree with everyone else. I discovered that I could not only follow Geoff Barton, but could occasionally interact with him. Authors such as Patrick Ness and Catherine Johnson welcomed my posts of work completed by my classes – and responded by liking and re-tweeting examples of children’s work, much to the pride of the creators.
Not only that, but I became aware of the growing trend of teachmeets and T&L conferences which were initially publicised through the Twitter forum. And thus begins the journey of last Saturday.  In previous years I had attended Nick Dennis’ wonderful and ground breaking #TLAB conferences in Berkhamsted and realised that we could all take part in discussion and debate around teaching – at this stage I came across Daisy Christodoulou, before Seven Myths was a ‘thing’- and I was stimulated by all I heard – my teaching developed as did my cynicism as a well-intentioned member of SLT led a session on Brain Gym or VAK learning at an interminable September INSET.
Tom Bennett’s brainchild: researchEd seems to me to be a natural progression for my development. I ma quite an old dog and need to view new tricks with care, but this conference and its cousins across the world, offer a chance to engage in thought and exploration of my classroom practice. Often an area in which teachers are happy to use intuition and ‘good ideas’ rather than to engage in study of research, this conference has grown from a recognition that what Bennett called ‘folk teaching’ is not enough. In the last years there have been a raft of outstanding Education books which have made such research easily available for all teachers. The conference is a chance ot bring ideas together and , while networking happily, discuss and develop our teaching practice.
I have heard it said that TeachMeets are like car-boot sales. If this analogy holds, then #rEDlang was like sitting in Christie’s auction rooms with a few thousand quid to spend – not enough to buy everything on offer, but enough to make sensible decisions about the high quality material before taking the plunge and buying.
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The menu for the day was huge and my choices seemed ot create a day which created great links and an opportunity ot reflect on ideas highly relevant to my former life before teaching.
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So, Session 1:
 The relevance of Latin in teaching English.
Arlene Holmes-Henderson.
Arlene focused on the impact on cognitive development of engaging with the study of Latin at KS2. She offered a broad histoy of latin as key to university  entrance and subesquent reduction in curriculum place until rebirth in recent times 2010. I was hooked, not just be a wonderful energy in her presentatiojn but because my first degree is a Classics Degree (KCL, class of ’81). I need no convincing of the importance of Latin in schools and was pleased top see my ‘eccentric’ habit of referring to the subject through Latin references (‘It’s an imperative… Latin… Impero, imperare, imperatus sum, from which we get words like?’ ’emperor’. ‘Yes! and emperors give orders…’)  is something which was used in the presentation.  More importantly my twitter feed was full of tweets saying how much colleagues missed their Latin and so on.  A group of 40 or so teachers, on a Saturday morning, early, were enthused by games involving seeking Latin derivations of well known words, such as rubefaciant.
Arlene’s research project to find out about impact of Latin and work out if it can be a viable subject at KS2,is ongoing research indicates huge impact in literacy levels when schools take latin in kS2. Current data mainly from London and Solihull, and the absence of control groups seems a little disconcerting if we are to accept the improvements found as solely being due to Latin teaching, yet there seems to be a significant improvement in literacy levels in the schools in which she is working. One reason, she suggests, is the lack of settled pronunciation which makes it easier to engage with at basic level. Links across the curriculum are huge and it is clear that Latin should not be the province solely of G&T. Indeed, the literacy improvements seem to be mainly at lower ends of the ability spectrum.
We were off. I had relived my student days and begun to consider how I might be able to use this in my classrooms… ‘Salve Pueri, sedete, hodie Medicus Jekyll studiamus’.
Next was one of two sessions subtitled ‘the Micaela Way’. Little has polarised twitter debate in recent years than the establishment of the Micaela Community College in Wembley. Unashamedly confrontational to many, unashamedly individual and proud of its success ot others, I visited the school last week and wanted to see more of the thought behind the practice I had witnessed and read about in their ‘Tiger Teacher’ book. I don’t want to write at length about my visit and the school here. I had left the school both enthused and troubled and spent much of the next few days considering what I had seen – essence I was hugely impressed but concerned that many of the structures of the school could only be successful in the context of a school such as this, founded with only a Year 7 cohort in which to establish the regime and from which to develop it.  The staff are highly motivated  and whilst their book offended many by its ‘no compromise’ tone, the fact that a staff body have collaborated to write an influential work of paedagogy is remarkable and they should be congratulated for this sense of collegiality and common purpose. My concern is that SLT elsewhere, in search of a quick fix, will try to cherry pick ideas and impose them unwisely into a totally different environment. Micaela works because it is Micaela.  Micaela-lite would be a disaster.
So, Show sentences, the Micaela Way.
Katie Ashford
This focused on the need to actively plan for strategies to improve writing in student essays and longer work.
Katie cited capitals, spellings, syntax, agreements, conjugations, and use of fullstops as hindrances to showing content knowledge.
She  demonstrated the typical errors: if dictating (often a Micaela lesson content) errors abound, often due to low working memory and panic which derives from being left behind. She also commented that bottom sets show a huge range of ability and writing issues.
This, she suggests, the need to plan actively for range of common errors is clear.  We should not allow these errors to become embedded
we can give a tighter structure to the task of writing.
Grammar, she says, needs to be taught and not guessed, but activities cannot be pointless so that grammar can be fun. At Micaela, all English teachers
teach syntactical rules, part of speech and grammatical rules.  Micaela gives 20% of  time in y7&8  to grammar. Without grammar, students will find analytical writing too hard.
All at Micaela use the show sentence, rather than PEE. Ashford was scathing of PEE and therefore presumably of PQE, PEARL and all the other derivations. For her a good paragrpah moves from: X combines (or another useful verb) technical descriptors….embed a quotation… which shows…  Also, students are using a range of synonyms for technical lexis. This can be drilled each day, something which I saw in my visit when students were warming up by finding for a range of subject specific lexis to use in essays.  This sounds simple and clear and the examples given from student work (low sets) were almost all excellently crafted mini paragraphs. However, I did not feel that they were analysis – it seemed to me that these were assertions, written with skill and presented in such a way that they were convincing and suggested good subject knowledge, but with no indication that the students really understood how the effect was generated. There was no engagement in detail with the text and no attempt to develop the thesis by engaging in close analysis. Currently Micaela works with students up to Year 9. With GCSE looming I expect this will be tweaked further in order to engage with the detailed subject understanding required for top grades. Micaela is a thinking school and re-assesses its policies regularly. I feel this one is work-in-progress. What is clear is that the confidence of the students in writing well-crafted and mature paragraphs will make the development of closer critical responses eminently possible. I will watch this space with interest.
I moved then to Session 3: The classroom as rehearsal room. Jacquie O’Hanlon from the RSC.
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For most in the room, first encounters with Shakespeare are usually at school. A feeling of engagement or disengagement starts from this point.
O’Hanlon asked us to consider what happens when rehearsal room paedagogy becomes classromm practice.  Shakespeare is seen as daunting for students and teachers alike. For this she shared aspects of RSC education department paedagogy.
Since actors on day 1 have the same fears as students on day 1, maybe a key is the rehearsal room environment which creates the right environment for study.  Language must be engaged with and spoken aloud, movement is to be encouraged. Try: whispers, movement types all of which develop a shared purpose in the classroom/rehearsal room. She also explored the idea of restraints as a means to deepening understanding of a scene -refusing actors in certain roles movement is a means to exploring strength of character or power shifts. Now all this was familiar territory for me – as  a professional opera singer for many years, I am used to using these techniques in the rehearsal room when exploring character. I, like many, am wary of bringing them into the classroom, partly because of the time taken to working this way, and also because of the sense that we are not necessarily confident in our own ability to lead such activities. I also recall the numerous little techniques I might use at times to subvert such activities… what might year 10 come up with?
She is clear that learning through collaboration leads to deeper engagement.  She offered evidence that Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development requires students to be on the edge of their capabilities and supported by the teacher. Thus, she says, if stretched in this way, group and teacher can develop the ideas through discussion and further work.
I enjoyed the session and will look into making more use of this, possibly in revision, once the text is well-known.  I am not sure that i want to dive into such overt group work or drama lesson paedagogy with a group of students who are not yet familiar with the text and who stumble on each and every polysyllabic word.
It was a useful juxtaposition to follow this session with Jo Facer on what to do less of in the classroom.
 
Jo Facer is Head of English at Micaela. Her session got to the heart of a school in which teachers do not mark books and in which paired work, group work are anathema and there are no carousels,  no work sheets, no video clips… no powerpoints… (the last a reference to a blog post of hers in which she outlined her dislike of the medium to outrage in the Twittersphere). In Q&A she was clear – no group work means no standing around chatting – the group is the classroom as a whole and discussion between teacher and class is what she sees as acceptable group work. I tend to agree.
Where she and O’Hanlon would diverge is that for Facer, lessons are sedentary and based on close study of the text with annotation (often modelled on the visualiser -woop!) the focus of reading Shakespeare in class. She advocates a reduction in activities and a rem,oval of activities designed for ‘fun’. I agree and this sense of the potentially condescending approach of many activities in the classroom would emerge again later in the day. What I am not sure about is whether removing movement and speaking of Shakespeare is not reducing the engagement with what is a play, not a passage of writing to be viewed in isolation.
She gave an entertaining story of the over marking inherent in most school marking policies before suggesting that we try whole-class feedback in class as opposed to individual marking. She makes quick notes re common errors and merit/demerit notes and then prepares to reteach the common errors to ensure all is understood and re-embedded. Micaela makes use of Knowledge Organisers to reduce homework and prepare for weekly tests.
Behaviour is at the heart of the school. She says all is futile unless behaviour is good –  I agree. This needs clear sorting out – low level disruption issues.  What I would say is this was presented as very ‘at Micaela’ whereas this seems to me to be something which should be part of education in any environment and is extremely well handled in many schools of which I know, with a possibly lighter touch than Micaela currently presents. What is true is that Micaela children are impeccable – silent in class unless addressed and moving round the school in a silent human train as they move briskly between lessons – no time is wasted and all time is used for education.
Q&A raised  issues of differentiation. She advocated consistent deployment of strong teaching for weakest children. Lower ability sets are given extra time – 1 hour a week so that all students complete the same tasks, but some can take longer.
Jo Facer is a great communicator and would be a wonderful teacher in any environment at all.  It is a pleasure to listen to her. The fact that i have areas of disagreement is stimulating for me – I would hate it if I were not challenged to consider my best approach. Like many teachers, I am a magpie and I have much food for thought here. Micaela has challenged much that we take for granted and I will not write it off because it is not convenient to be made to challenge our preconceptions.  It is, therefore, research in practice – in two years they will have their first results form a GCSE cohort which will give many a chance to rate them alongside other schools. I wish them luck. There are as many ways to teahc as there are teachers.  There is no single path which all must follow.
In session 5 –proper acting for proper teachers, Martin Robinson led a highly engaging and storng review of some of the issues around Drama and English teachning of Drama in schools. For him the is no need for classroom gimmicks… it’s about acting.  Again we heard that ‘constraints are the root of creativity’. He presented evidence in the form of  Rules for constraints from repertory theatre and stressed that we need to know the rules before we can break them…  (how true of poetry writing as well).
  1. establishing gestures- such as the Olivier Richard III allowed for a brilliant pastiche of Olivier’s hunchback, and made the point that without even uttering a word, a character had been presented.  He linked this to Anthony Sher’s depiction of the same character. The interactive session included a wish that all directors in schools would  stop ‘top of the head’ acting. Audience need to see faces – angst is not best shown when the best seats in the house wouod need ot be in the actor’s shoes!
  2. significant gestures – Using Dad’s Army as a medium for teaching this, he gave links links to Walker, Fraser, Mainwairing et al, and established their roots beyond rep and into Commedia Del Arte.
  3. use the one to nine – as demonstrated in the table below.
  4. think frying pan heads. As seen from above, imagining a round head with big nose- up-powering can be attained by following numbers on stage and frying pan heads… 9,7,2,1, is a clear path to power.
  5. where you come from and where you go to… Here was another chance for some Richard III as Robinson demonstrated the entrance from  a large ot a small space and so on.
8 usr the good character entrance
7 usc
9 usl the devil’s side….
5 sr
2 main area sc
6 sl
3 dsr
1 king dies: avoid dsc
4 dsl
R hero entrance
L devil’s entrance
row of power
weak
death of Kings
weak
  1. Effective entrance effect: window or door?  surprise or expectation? Robinson demonstrated that all entrances must change the atmosphere in a room – there will be a reaction of some sort from all whether of higher or lower status.
  2. Beat: the moment of pause which alters something in the room/scene.  This brief slot has inspired me to plan specifically for Jerusalem (Butterworth) in which the playwrite regularly uses the idea of a ‘beat’ as a punctuation or gear-shift in a scene.
  3. physical endowment tricks: clumsy? imagine fingers made of bananas. Shy? imagine a miners’ lamp on the head opposite. Again, what fun we could have with Lear 1.1 using this idea.
  4. Character development by choices. How many choices? – more choices, more depth… and which do the character actually reject and why. It is important to show the choice in the acting. Again, I see links to my teaching of Shakespeare and the study of ‘ideas’ in a soliloquy is an indicator of the relative stability of a character.  Plenty to work on.
  5. Inter personal, intra personal, extra personal plotting and the use of actioning: explaining what the character wants to do with the person they are acting with.Verbs of action such as ‘mocks, cajoles, taunts’ can hugley increase awareness of character development.

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This was a great session in which Robinson – author of Trivium21C, one of the most influential books on teaching I have ever read – exuded passion and enjoyment for his subject.  For me it was also a reminder of the singing days – no sugar paper, but ‘proper acting’. I recall a one hour session on how to use a walking stick to establish character on stage. I was so happy to be translated back 20 years and also to be gaining so much material to store up an use in my current role.
Session 6: David Didau: importance of reading fluency.
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 One statement caught me at once: reading is taught in primary schools – secondary teachers not necessarily fluent in teaching the ‘how to’ element in reading. David stressed the lack of common agreement about where education research is actually heading before. stressing a key rule:
poor reading skills are not an indicator of poor intelligence. Reading difficulty is an inability to fluently decode. There are a number a number of potential reasons according to  learning and research:
  • glue ear – medical and often undiagnosed. Students can hear but might not easily differentiate the nuances of language. The NHS estimates that 8/10 children may have suffered with this at some point between the ages of 4-10
  • Visual problems – undiagnosed problems in sight are numerous in primary schools as children grow up.
  • English Orthography  – much better recognition and accuracy of word reading in y1 in early years. Research suggests that at 9 years’ old, French children  are worse than Spanish at accurate recognition of the orthography of their language and English children trail far behind – English does not sound as read and spelling is hugely inconsistent… it’s difficult.
  • Memory: Didau used Willingham and others to establish the, hopefully, widely understood concepts of the working ad the sort term memory. Since fluency relies on automatisation of knowledge of English Orthography- no longer conscious of knowledge. Skilled readers store a range of concepts such as inferences and clarification in their long term memory – if the process is very slow and not then fully discussed , ideas may be retained only in short term memory. Then comprehension is much harder to achieve. His powerppoint featured an amusing and worrying demonstration of the issues around slow decoding using a passage from Pride and Prejudice and some very simple and almost unanswerable comprehension questions.  I teach in a school in which slow decoding seems to be an issue. This is one to pick up for department research.  David will be publishing his presentation on his blog – I will be re-reading ASAP.
Session 7 considered the Research Informed Teacher: Carl Hendrick…
Head of learning and research at Wellington College.
This was the graveyard shift and it brought much together from the whole day. He raised issues around research : teachers are too often researched rather than researchers. often we are given reponses to unasked questions and these answers are then imposed as policy – learning styles or triple marking were both cited in this area.
There is, he suggests, too big a gap between research and practice. Often research is watered down by the time it gets to schools. Dweck’s growth mindset and Dylan William’s  Assessment for Learning are obvious examples of this. Daisy Christodoulou has recently engaged with A4L in her book  ‘Making Good Progress’. I will not sully her work with paraphrase.
Much research is prey to McNamara fallacy which measures what is easy to measure and ignores all else. This tends to highlight the lack of collective agreement about the direction of education research.
He gave some personal examples of research which has impacted his recent work:
  • The working memory is not large: it holds around 6 pieces of information and is easily overloaded.
  • Dylan William suggests that cognitive load theory (Swelling) is the most important feature of teaching in last few years. This refers to the effort needed to complete a task. Too much or too little renders the task too difficult. An awareness of short term memory and use of chunking is required in the classroom. He stressed an idea: ‘understanding is remembering something in disguise’ (Willingham).
  •  He used a poem, Nettles by Vernon Scannell as example here and I will be stealing it for use elsewhere in my IGCSE teaching – little gems cropped up everywhere during the day.
  • Cognitive load can be reduced by increasing knowledge and awareness and also by scaffolding material such as exemplar essays which are then fully discussed – a great example by @heymrshallahan appeared. She was in the room. Woop!

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  • Students remember what they think about. We need to engage thought processes
  • Get back to teaching: challenge and take students to a new world rather than playing to your perception of their current interests. This was a cry against spurious ‘relevance’ and patronising of students. Put away the sugar paper, drop the ‘what would Romeo’s tweets look like?’ and do not be afraid to teach!
  • Stop privileging the extrovert. This rang a bell – too often the introvert can go missing.  We value the outspoken and reward overt participation It’s time to be more aware of the silent and the thinkers – the ones who might loathe the idea of shared actiivites and be happy when reading quietly.
  • Students need metacognitive awareness of how to study.He presented the highlighting and re-reading myth as debunked by Alex Quigley and others.
  • And finally: Direct instruction should not be shunned – relevant contextual knowledge must be in place for any sensible learning to follow. 2 students asked to discuss a concept of which they have no prior understanding or points of reference are doomed to fail to develop anything other than by guesswork. How true.
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Then it was all over, apart from refreshment and a chance to meet many twitter colleagues in the flesh. I was able to meet several of the @team_english group and what wonderful company they are. This is the latest twitter group of which I am a member – it is invaluable support and a place to share ideas. Not only them, but several people came up to comment about this blog – thank you.  It started as a hobby and has grown. The fact that people find it useful is heartwarming.  We all do the same job, just in different locations and different contexts.
As a result of Saturday 1st April 2017, my friends are not tweachers, they are real people.
LINKS to posts discussed in this article:
My top books: current thoughts – these I return to on a regular basis.
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