Ping Pong or Basketball? Effective use of questioning

One of the key areas of AfL development in school is questioning.   We have been looking at effective use of questioning for some time and staff have embraced the work of Dylan William, Shirley Clarke and, more recently Bill Thompson, who has been in school working with our AfL group.   The introduction of Lesson Study this term has enabled us to really progress this work.

We made questioning the overarching area of Lesson Study.   In addition to the focus on three pupils representative of different learner groups we decided to look closely at questioning.   This enabled us to observe Bill’s recent input at close quarters and also gave us an area that would allow for repeated research regardless of subject or theme.  With each Lesson Study we have been able to learn from the questioning observed in the previous one.   We began by looking carefully at wait time.  Many teachers were surprised by how little time they left after asking a question.  Following Lesson Study, staff are consciously making an effort to pause for longer, to give children more time to consider their response rather than rushing for an answer.   We have also looked carefully at the ping pong v basketball argument, questions and answers that bounce back and forth between pupil and teacher as opposed to being passed around the room by the children to their peers for a range of responses.   As with the ‘no hands up’ sessions this approach ensures all learners are alert and ready to respond rather than only the confident few.  Through Lesson Study we have been able to observe learner response and have noticed that in some cases, if children put their hand up and are not chosen, they become more passive in their learning.   We have also observed that many will not put their hand up and simply ‘opt out’ seeing this selective process as optional participation.   Where ‘no hands up’ has worked best staff have been explicit about the session, explaining to the children that for this particular session they will be using lolly sticks or a name generator.   Where this has not been clearly stated some children will continue to put their hand up as a kind of default for each question asked, regardless of whether they will be asked or not.

A recent research lesson gave us the opportunity to look at pre questioning.   The teacher told certain children that after a film clip he would be asking them specific things about what they had seen.   The questions were targeted to key children and differentiated accordingly.   This gave the children a focus and time to consider their responses.   The class were also told that those answering would be able to chose peers to help them, using the basketball technique thus engaging the rest of the class.    Asking a question and giving the children time to discuss responses with talk partners before answering has also enabled pupils to give more thoughtful and considered responses and again, the opportunity to observe this process through Lesson Study has furthered our understanding of how such an approach to questioning can have a positive impact on learning.  As with all aspects of Lesson Study, the conversation and professional dialogue generated around the use of open and closed questions, wait time, learner response, talk partners and more has been powerful and positive, leading to changes in approach that we hope with have a lasting impact.   None of the techniques and approaches are new, some have been used to good effect in school already, but Lesson Study has enabled us to really get beneath the surface of questioning and support each other in developing and furthering classroom practice in a way that no other form of professional development has been able to.


Pre Lesson Learning

One of the early successes of our Lesson Study has been the use of ‘pre learning’ sessions with key pupils. This simple idea came from one of our vice principals @glynnlee who suggested rather than supporting key pupils to catch up with learning after the lesson, they are given a pre lesson session that introduces them to the key concept about to be taught. This short session enables staff to look at resources and strategies that will help them access the learning in class and ultimately give them a greater chance to succeed with their peers.

These sessions have been delivered by teaching assistants who work closely with the class teacher and go through their planning to ensure a common approach is adopted that benefits  key individuals who might normally struggle in the lesson. Interviews with pupils post research lesson have revealed just how powerful this technique can be. One Y4 pupil commented that he had just had his best lesson in school ever! He was able to access the learning and contribute more fully to the lesson due to a sharp, focussed pre lesson session that prepared him for the learning ahead.


Cameras in the Classroom

Cameras in the Classroom.


Cameras in the Classroom

The recent introduction of lesson study at school was greeted with enthusiasm by staff.   They quickly saw the benefits of such an enquiry based, collaborative approach to professional development.  The only problem some had with the form it would be taking was that we intended to film the lessons.   We have used cameras in the classroom before with varying degrees of success.   Staff would come back into school after taking the video home recognising certain idiosyncrises about themselves and reflecting on what they observed in their classrooms, “don’t I sound broad!”, “have you heard me? I can’t shut up”, “I can’t believe how many of my own questions I answered”.  I’d question to what extend such an approach changed practice but we all recognised it was a powerful vehicle if used in the right way.  Enter Lesson Study.   We firstly reassured staff that the filming would only be used to support this process and not broadcast across the school for end of term amusement.   In fact, the footage would only be seen in its entirety by the staff who were being filmed – if they chose to sit through it.  For the purpose of LS it would simply be a reference point, a chance to discuss some small detail, a momentary response from a pupil or an unexpected reaction to a teaching point raised by a member of the group during the post lesson discussion.   All those involved so far have watched the recorded footage and gained something from it. As part of the Lesson Study, staff are asked how they think the case study pupils will respond.   The observers then record how those pupils did respond and this then leads to discussions about what we think is happening as opposed to what is actually happening.   The filming helps with this as it gives staff the opportunity to observe the things they can miss during the cut and thrust of classroom delivery, it enables them to reflect on, replay and pause their teaching at key points to move learning forward in the future.  Amongst other things we have been able to discuss key areas of AfL that we are developing; response and wait time, approaches to questioning and peer to peer work all with the assistance of recorded evidence.   Staff have taken to this aspect of the Lesson Study process probably because the filming doesn’t really feature them! It focusses on the learner response and gives teachers the chance to view something they rarely get to see, their own classroom practice.  It enables them to hold up a mirror to their teaching.  They can also check how broad their accents are!


Lesson Study

It’s early days but already LS has gripped the school!   Staff who are involved in our initial work are finding it to be the most rewarding professional learning they have been involved in at school. Before Christmas I began looking at Lesson Study as a new way of supporting staff in the classroom.   We have used coaching models previously, we have used peer observations, staff have filmed their lessons and reflected back on the findings (usually watching the video with a glass of wine, late at night, well away from their colleagues!) and we have used the traditional model of classroom observation that serves little purpose beyond monitoring and supporting self evaluation.   What we were looking for was an approach that changed our approach to collaborative working, that enabled staff to take risks, to experiment and to ‘unpick’ their practice before reshaping it and putting it back together in a more effective, supportive and sustainable way.

Our approach in school owes a great deal to the detailed and hugely informative research undertaken by Pete Dudley (@DrDudley13).   Pete’s work and his recent book ‘Lesson Study – Professional learning for our time’ give a really clear account not only of the benefits of LS but also how to get started in school.  Earlier this month we devoted a staff meeting to introducing LS to the school.   Some had heard a little about it but the majority were unaware of such an approach.   For many, lesson observations, however you dressed them up were something that was done to them rather than with them.   The biggest selling point for LS is that it really is, as Hargreaves refers to it, ‘joint professional development’.   There is no hierarchical structure, it is an approach that encourages and promotes a shared working arrangement where all contributions are equally valued and positively received.  This is easier said than done so to help encourage such an approach we agreed a protocol based on that found in Pete’s Lesson Study handbook (www.lessonstudy.co.uk) which helped build the right climate from the outset.

As we have an AfL working party in school we were not short of volunteers to get up and running with LS.   Indeed, all staff saw it as much more appealing than the usual observations so we could have realistically started it with any class.  Cover for staff is something that we had to build into the budget for this term so we had to be clear about costs and committed to making it happen.  We began with four members of staff working with two Y3 classes.   The AfL working party had already begun looking at questioning and pupil response so we took this as our lead.  We spent our first LS session agreeing a lesson plan (importantly this became a shared plan with equal contribution) we spent a good couple of hours really picking the lesson apart, questioning why certain things were being done, why this or that approach was being taken, the purpose of activities etc.   When we were all happy we moved onto discuss the three case pupils and what the class teacher would expect each of them to be doing at each stage of the lesson – this would be a key part of the case study lesson.   We finally looked at the questioning and response time and discussed the different approaches we have been developing and how they could best support and stretch the learning.

The next day the case study lesson was taught by the class teacher with three colleagues watching carefully to see how the case study pupils responded to the learning.   Did they respond as the teacher thought they would? What did we learn from their responses?   Did anything unexpected/unplanned for happen?   The lesson was filmed for us to use in our reflection and post lesson discussion and despite the class teacher’s mild concern(!) she ultimately saw great benefit in using this to support group and self reflection.  After the lesson we interviewed the three case study pupils. Their responses were enlightening and not always what we (or the class teacher) anticipated.   We then met to unpick the lesson, share the pupil responses and our observations of them as recorded on an agreed pro forma.   We also shared our annotated (joint) lesson plan and discussed the use of questioning and how we could improve on things for the next lesson the following day.

By this time we were all getting quite excited about Lesson Study and any of us could have delivered the revised lesson the following day so great was our enthusiasm and desire to move learning on.   Our reflections and discussion after the first case study lesson could have gone on for hours beyond our agreed time and we were oblivious to the passing of the school.  It is amazing how much professional dialogue was generated by the experience – so much more than would normally take place after traditional lesson observations.  The revised lesson gave us all a chance to see our input, changes and improvements move the learning forward.   Again we observed three case study pupils representing different learner groups, again we interviewed them after the revised lesson for their contributions to the research.  Our animated post lesson discussions made it clear that Lesson Study has a clear place in  our school practice and is key in our approach to joint professional development.   As we prepare for this week’s round, word has spread and we can’t wait to get started!


Make Learning Irresistible

Today was the fifth Blackpool Education Conference. This annual event held at the town’s famous Winter Gardens brings together staff from all schools across the region. For many, this first Monday of the second half of the autumn term is the first confirmed inset on the school calendar. It is an opportunity for teachers, support staff, governors and other interested parties to network, share ideas and hear inspirational, relevant and respected speakers. Today’s conference was opened by Gervase Phinn, former teacher and inspector, author, poet, radio and TV celebrity, and all round educational raconteur. Gervase remains passionate about the importance of teaching and the need to let children flourish and succeed. He warned of the dangers of rusty cynicism stating children are too precious to be tarnished by such an approach. Gervase delivers his message with humour but hidden beneath an apparently light exterior there are solid, age old beliefs about the difference a good teacher can make. Gervase and Mick Waters both champion teachers and it is refreshing to hear them both thank the profession, as Mick says, something politicians and society find much harder to do. Mick Waters followed Gervase as the second key note of the day. His central tenet is that learning should be irresistible, the curriculum broad and education an engaging and exciting experience that enables us to develop soft skills such as confidence, sensitivity and responsibility alongside core reading, writing and maths skills. Mick’s work with the QCA as Director of Curriculum left him in no doubt that learning should be treasured and valued and a school’s curriculum shaped to fit children’s lives. Both Mick and Gervase see learning through the eyes of children. They both encourage us to do the same rather than allowing politicians and Ofsted to dictate a narrow educational diet, driven by crude data and exam results.


Kaizen Inset 2014

On Monday 24th February, we have another joint training day with partner schools in the Kaizen network.   This is an informal partnership of primary schools who believe in the Kaizen philosophy of small steps to continuous improvement.   We have worked together for a number of years now and when planning our five Inset days, we always keep one free for a joint event.   In previous years we have worked with the likes of @TimRylands, @ZoeRoss19 and Damien Hughes to name but a few of the inspirational contributors, but this year the day is being run in its entirety by practitioners from our schools.

The morning will begin with Gina  (@mrsdonaldson) and staff from St Silas sharing their work on cooperative learning, the next two sessions will focus on iPads in the classroom and proven strategies one school has adopted to improve writing.   The afternoon is running as a speed learning event with staff choosing five 15 minute presentations to attend.   The range of subjects covered has been planned to ensure there is something for everyone.   It also gives those staff presenting, an opportunity to share their learning with supportive peers in an encouraging environment.   Ideal for any first time speakers.

The Kaizen Inset days are an important professional development event in all our schools’ diaries.   They give us the chance to work together, to share ideas and learn from each other.   This form of school to school support enables us to respond to each others’ needs in an immediate and bespoke way.   Staff form supportive relationships and school visits around specific areas of mutual interest are encouraged by Headteachers keen to develop the network for the common good.   This year’s event yet again, promises to be a great day for all involved.


Using technology to support basic skills

Technology continues to change many aspects of our lives and in school it is no different   Each new cohort of four year olds enters Foundation Stage more familiar with technology than their slightly older peers.   Picking up a tablet, a handheld device or sitting at a computer holds no fear for them.   They don’t look for the instructions before testing its capabilities, their approach to learning with technology is not a linear model more of an exploration fired by an inquisitive mind.   Using technology with young children presents educators with a great opportunity to develop basic skills.   A natural curiosity for learning can be further enhanced with an iPad or similar device.   Our reception children tend to use iPads as a social tool – they huddle in small groups to share, discuss and debate whichever app they might be using.   Such dialogue would seldom develop unassisted without technology to provide the stimulus.

@glynnlee and I have often discussed the power of blogging with primary children and, as Lee stated, if you replace the word ‘blogging’ with the word ‘writing’ it can give you some indication of the difference the use of technology can have on learning.  In the early years class blogs are mainly used to provide a window on the children’s learning for parents and families, but the junior classes tend to give more ownership to the children who use it as a vehicle for their writing.   Children enjoy blogging, it looks good, its appearance can be changed, it can be shared, has a potentially wide readership and is easily edited.   Regular contributions to a class blog also gives children their own digital portfolio.  Using technology to support writing in such a way is a positive application of the tools many children are increasingly familiar with out of school from an early age.

Making use of green screen technology is also a great way to develop basic skills.   Children respond readily to scripting, filming and re drafting and are often blissfully unaware that these steps are supporting them in their writing, speaking and listening.   The chance to write auto cues for their friends to speak often raises the  bar in terms of their expectations and listening carefully before re drafting is also a key skill that needs to be successfully employed to improve results.  Using the green screen gives children a strong stimulus for a whole range of basic skills.   If you suddenly have the chance to film your historical report about the beheading of Anne Boleyn from in front of the tower, it might just inspire you to greater achievements, to think more carefully about what you are writing.   If you are creating a micro tutorial on how to convert fractions into percentages, you will need to ensure you fully understand the process before sharing your learning with others.   You could argue that such approaches would work without technology but the opportunity for children to watch themselves, to share their learning, to get feedback from beyond the class makes the use of technology an attractive way of developing and enhancing their learning.   Embracing technology in the primary classroom  can provide practitioners with exciting ways of developing basic skills, many children already enter school familiar with a range of devices, we need to ensure we build on their early interest and curiosity to the benefit of their future learning.


Class to class, school to school – developing professional partnerships

It is a sad fact that for many primary teachers their educational world seldom extends beyond the four walls of their classroom.   It is easy to become overwhelmed by the day to day pressures in the high stakes arena and the opportunity to get out, to observe, to share, to collaborate and to reflect is often sacrificed for the potential short term gains of being permanently in the class.   The problem with this is that long term development is hindered.   One of the simplest, most effective ways to improve practice is to enable staff to get out of their own classroom and into those of their peers.   This is  easily managed in one school and only slightly more difficult to organise amongst several.   We often overlook this most valuable resource in favour of more expensive professional development in the form of courses, conferences and training but class to class and school to school links can be hugely beneficial.

While visiting one of our partner schools in Beijing I witnessed such a refreshing approach.   I asked our colleagues what the additional teachers in the lesson were doing – Were they trainee teachers?   Was a peer observation in progress?  Apparently it is routine in the school for a teacher to ask in the staffroom if a colleague wouldn’t mind watching them teach – perhaps they are trying something new and want feedback, it may be that they have concerns overs something else in the lesson and they want a second opinion.   The process was one of complete openness and support and something I was keen to emulate on my return to school.

Staff meeting are often run from classrooms now as this is another opportunity to staff to get into their peers’ learning environment, to ask them questions, offer ideas and advice, compare and contrast.   Our next round of peer observations has been an opportunity to match up the strengths of one member of staff with areas of development for another.   This isn’t a perfect match as you can imagine but gives peer observations a stronger focus and a strategic edge.   This pattern of getting staff into the classrooms of their peers with complimentary strengths is being extended to our partner schools after half term giving teachers the opportunity to see others wrestle with similar issues in their own school and beyond.   It also provides staff with the chance to see someone who has strengths in an area they might be developing.   Seeing someone ‘walk the talk’ is so much more powerful than hearing someone talk about what they do on a course, it has credibility with staff and enables them to build a strong professional partnership with fellow practitioners.   Allowing staff to get out of the classroom to build such partnerships can only help what goes on in the classroom


iPads in the classroom

Tonight was our staff surgery meeting for this half term. At these meetings we share technology and how it is working in class. This evenings session focused on iPads in the classroom, we re located to 6S where Mr Smith took us through how he is using the iPad to support and enhance learning. We have iPads and apple TV in every class so staff are always keen to look at which apps their peers are getting the most out of. The iPads are used to ever increasing effect and the apps Barry shared with us tonight are the ones he and the children in his class are currently getting a lot from. The list of favourites changes regularly but below are the ones he shared tonight:

Socrative.com- Barry challenged us all with a quick quiz, he then showed us how easy it is to create quizzes which can be used to support learning and assessment across the curriculum. Results are then saved in google drive. Socrative can be used to creat polls, quick quizzes, to monitor progress, assess learning and much more.

Google drive- all pupils in Y6 have google accounts so google drive is well used across the year group. In the words of Mr Smith, google drive acts like a giant pen drive in hyperspace! Children access their work via google drive both in class and at home, on any device. As children bring their smart phones, iPods and other mobile devices into school they can immediately get to their online work and save it back to google drive where Barry can then open it, mark it and share it as needed.

Explain Everything – this app is well used to share the children’s learning, it is a great tool to address misconceptions, create mini tutorials for key concepts and to present ideas and information. This screen casting app acts as a mini whiteboard. Pupils regularly use it to make tutorials to support learning, they then play these back to class and these screen casts then build up a bank of short videos to support in key areas for use in class. Show Me is another great app for this, once created the Show Me can then be added to class blogs for further sharing.

Book creator is another popular app used by children to make interactive books to support learning. The children have used this app to create their autobiographies adding images and film to the text they have written. The results look professional and inspire the children to achieve some great work. That fact the you can then save to iBooks is great for children as they can then see their own books alongside famous authors on the iBooks shelf!

Other tools worth a quick mention are listed below (we ran out of time as always!)
Puffin – this is popular with the apple users as it enables flash content to be played.
Wordpress – all make good use of this to enable quick posts to be added to class blogs.
Simple mind- pupils like using this as it enables them to create mind maps which can then be projected onto the class whiteboard via Apple TV
Kahn Academy- this is being used to support children who are having difficulties with key concepts. They can simply search and watch the short tutorials available through the Kahn Academy.
Google translate – used a lot in some classes where children have joined school from other countries with no English language skills. Google translate has been used to great effect recently with a little girl who arrived in school from Hungary with no English. She and her classmates have been able to communicate easily and the need for a mobile device to go everywhere around school with them is becoming less and less necessary as her English increases.

Within regular phase meetings staff share their app of the week and these are then shared across the school. If you have any that are proving popular with your staff and pupils at the moment, it would be great to hear from you.


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