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Developing a common language for learning to avoid Bullshit Bingo Inset.

2014-07-03 09.38.47

Some words are so prevalent in teaching that it’s easy to assume that everyone has a common understanding of them.  Try sitting down a group of teachers from within the same school, then ask them to define the following:

  • Challenge,
  • Pace
  • Learning Objectives
  • Learning

I suppose the most extreme example is what the Ofsted Chasing culture has done to the words ‘good’ and ‘outstanding.’

So what’s the problem with this?  Well, firstly, without a common understanding of key terms, it’s almost impossible to develop a way of giving meaningful feedback to teachers about their teaching.  I’m not talking about the judgemental feedback here, but the formative type that drives forward quality teaching (it’s not revolutionary in my view not to give lesson grades to do this as monitoring is an essential part of improving learning.)

For example:

  • Improve questioning.

I’ve seen this given often as a development point. Indeed, I’ve been on the receiving end in the past.  The first problem is that this could mean any aspect of questioning, it’s just not specific or plain English enough.  Is there a lack of questions that demand analysis and use of data, or is it that a few students dominate the discussion, allowing others to hide unchallenged?  If we are giving feedback to teachers without grades (which we should be doing constantly), then we need to be very specific about what we say needs to improve as well as the positive aspects of the visit.

Secondly,  It also makes it very troublesome to develop teaching and learning within a school if nobody agrees what these common terms mean.  I’ve had these thoughts before, but they started to surface again and gel as I worked recently with a group of colleagues from others schools to create a model of teaching and learning.  Our effort can be seen above (feel free to rip it apart, we certainly did). But that wasn’t the real learning point, the fact that none of us shared a common understanding of these terms was.  Of course, there were similarities, but when you got down to the specifics, there was a whole world of difference.  Additionally, I was struck by the sheer volume of terminology in play, many with overlapping meaning.  How do we cut out the noise?  How do we show a clear path through the woods and avoid the situation where colleagues play bullshit bingo during Inset – spotting how much jargon one person can spill whilst simultaneously ensuring that no body present understand what the earth they are on about.  You know the sort of thing:

‘We are going to drive up achievement by ensuring that all learners and stakeholders are engaged so that learning is better.  To do this we need to ensure they are challenged with planned questions that are differentiated and pacy. The key drivers that you will be accountable for…..’

Leaders like Shaun Allison have developed models that have cleared the path.  This cuts out the danger of teachers feeling like they have to ‘tick every box’ every lesson.  I cut my teeth in the outdoor education world where teaching was simple – you planned, did and the reviewed. Myself, after much reflection I would focus on the following:

  • Teachers’ Subject Knowledge.  Without this, learning is screwed.
  • Plan. Planning. Away from focusing on individual lessons but sequences of learning. This is massive.
  • Do. Challenge. Get this wrong and disengagement happens as work is either too easy or too hard.
  • Review. Reflection. If we aren’t changing what we do in response to what we see, then we become fossilised.

These stages would work on all levels and at many timescales.  From the micro, individual teachers and conversations; to the macro, school development plans.  This of course isn’t original, refreshing nor presented as a fancy model, but I may get there soon after some consultation with Learning Partners and others.

I plan to develop some plain English definitions around this work and the key words in use today and I hope that these will be constructed in partnership with others within the school.  A work in progress.


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