It is probably the same in any field of endeavour. A piece of research points something out that we probably knew in a way that makes it impossible to ignore. Quite often this piece of research becomes an orthodoxy, it becomes so well used that it becomes the pillar of a subject or an approach. Education is no different. There are thousands of erudite papers about education published each year; some sink into obscurity, others become critical to the way that we think about what we are doing in school each day as teachers.
A few years ago John Hattie, an Australian academic started to publish material evaluating the effectiveness of a variety of strategies being used in classrooms around the world. He asked the simple but essential questions that needed to be asked about what are the most effective approaches to education. What things that are done in lessons lead to the most progress being made by students? Hattie stated that one year in the classroom should result in at least one year’s worth of progress. A reasonable starting point. His evaluation has been taken on by other academics who have looked at what methods have resulted in the most demonstrable progress notably the CEM department at Durham University which has looked at interventions on a value for money basis. The results are interesting. Feedback, meta-cognition, peer tutoring and homework (in a secondary context) have a very high return for little investment. Take away the economic element and they still remain highly effective strategies to ensure that progress is made.
We have spent a good deal of time looking at Hattie’s research and we have implemented many of the suggestions that he makes into our academic year and our daily approach. We believe that effective feedback is essential to good learning and as a consequence we have regular assessment reports in the Senior School and Parents’ Evenings have just started in the Junior School. These moments are vital if progress is to be made. Meta cognition or learning how we learn is also significant. This week I was delighted to see a variety of peer teaching techniques being used as well as some excellent presentations about how to learn with our older students sharing their wisdom with others. As we start to consider all that has been achieved in this half term it is good to know that much of the academic achievement has been done with the support of both teachers and pupils.
Of course one of the most effective ways of learning is by doing. Our older pupils have been in the UK doing geography fieldwork (in the rain) and others will be taking flight to spend two weeks with our partner schools in Cambodia. We wish them well as they go on to learn through doing.
“And now I might As happy be as earth is beautiful…”
Edward Thomas, October
Schools tend to be a little different when it rains. There are the obvious differences such as the distinctive smell of damp pupils after a lunchtime football session who start to dry out in a warm classroom, but many differences are more subtle. The October rain is the first real sign that autumn has begun and that our late summer has ended. Mornings are a little gloomier. A chill is felt in the air before morning break – it takes a little time for the day to warm up. The PE staff suddenly find their track suit trousers and our younger pupils prepare to move from summer dresses to winter uniform.
We have definitely come to the end of the beginning. It is difficult for me to tell those students who joined this term from those who are old hands, confidence has grown, habits are forming. The week has found a rhythm, understanding is developing and norms are established. Teams have travelled and fixtures played, service activities have begun and rehearsals are under way. For the senior pupils we are approaching the first assessment point of the year. A time of reckoning which will, hopefully, result in new resolution and renewed endeavour (if required). October is the moment when we have a chance to review, to reflect and to pull ourselves up if that is necessary. I hope that by now those who were once “new” definitely feel that they are comfortably part of their school. For our oldest pupils this is time of university applications, reference writing and predicted grades – for them it is the start of the end of their school career. October it seems is a time for looking ahead and perhaps for a little reflection, not a time for melancholy but for excitement and anticipation at what is to happen next. As AA Milne once said, “The end of the summer is not the end of the world. Here’s to October…”
One bright element of this October is that, despite the rain we have yet to see a fall off in the number of pupils who are cycling to school. This is fantastic but I would ask, perhaps more importantly than ever that helmets are worn, brakes are checked and lights are charged. So popular is cycling that we have had to extend our cycle stands on the senior campus. As mentioned in a recent newsletter our local police will be checking cycles in the coming weeks to ensure that they are correctly equipped. As both evenings and mornings are a little less bright more than ever care is required. A note for drivers too, be aware that journey times will be a little longer in the coming days as construction work is carried out on the hospital site in Le Vésinet. Please be aware that more time will be necessary for a prompt arrival.
From what I have seen, our young people are working well and engaging in all the school has to offer. As the days draw in I look forward to pupils maintaining their energy levels and brightening the ever shortening days.
“No great deed is done by falterers who ask for certainty.”
Certainty is a most reassuring feeling. It may also be one of the most significant obstacles to learning. Whilst it may not always seem to be the case, little that we learn is ever really cast in stone, whatever an exam board may say. This term my Year 9 History class have been seeking to understand the origins of World War One. They have had to weigh evidence, consider opinions and analyse events. We know the war started in 1914 but that is about all that is certain. Perhaps the absence of certainty is what makes sport so exciting. Whilst it looked likely that Dina Asher-Smith would walk away with the gold medal, her victory was not certain until she crossed the finish line.
As an historian I’m sure she will have considered all of the variables, questioned her preparation and will enjoy what has been achieved. She will also know that in the next race nothing is certain and she will have to do it all again.
One feature of British style education is the blending of a base of knowledge with a portfolio of skills. If we are to view this year as being a success we may be wise to ask how well we have developed critical thinkers who are able to make sense of this complicated and sometimes contradictory world. The first step is to move away from believing that we are always right in what we think; if this is achieved then we are going to enjoy a vibrant year of learning.
Pupils often make decisions about what they do and don’t like about school early on in the educational journey. All too often the enthusiasm of our youngest learners is stifled by the feeling that a particular subject or activity “is not for them”. Misperception turns into certainty and it is never questioned again. This is a shame. The BSP is not a large school and as a consequence our young people have the opportunity to be involved in a wide variety of activities and our class sizes mean that all have a chance to be involved in lessons. We can question the “not for me” misperception. Term is well under way and it is a good time to remind ourselves that learning is best when we all engage fully. I hope that our young people remain confident in being able to ask the question “why do we think that?” when considering the answers that they are given. Without this degree of critical thought our understanding of the world will not move on.
This week the UK enjoyed National Poetry Day. Simon Armitage the Poet Laureate spoke thoughtfully on the use of language in politics describing it as “threadbare”, a language of certainties that does not address real issues but perhaps the most telling statement came from poet Anthony Anaxagorou who suggested that poetry offers a route beyond the media soundbites. “A poem is happy not knowing anything for certain, whereas news needs to be premised on ‘truth’,” Anaxagorou said. “Poems argue their own logic, they call on their own truth, which needn’t be an empirical one, so in this respect their reach is far more universal.” I’m certain I couldn’t have said it better.