Deliberate Practice

My son is a keen but fairly mediocre member of an U9 football team. However, he has great hand-eye co-ordination (potentially an excellent cricketer) and has posted 38s for 50m freestyle (he’s been swimming from very young, is big and strong, and seems to have a remarkable ability to listen and respond to coaching when it applies to body movement). So, generally sporty, but why not so good at football, despite wanting to be?

His problem is that his decision-making under pressure is not great on the football pitch. Now I really know diddly-squat about invasion games so this is all speculative, but here’s what I think is going on and how it relates to teaching.

I know when I play football, my problem is that I am good at thinking about my position on the pitch when I don’t have the ball. I’m often in great space and very rarely get caught out of position in defence. When I’m watching I can see the play and call the pass. My skill level is so-so but I can control and kick a ball alright. What I cannot do for the life of me is put any of those things together when I have the ball. The moment I get it I just have this sense of ‘man-on’ and I can maybe get a pass away but it tends to be pretty blind. My son’s the same, plus a little bit of fear of giving the ball away, that means he often makes a pass to nothing rather than travelling with the ball or making a better pass. But he is improving. The thing that is having an impact is a coaching session he goes to that’s completely separate from his team. A typical sequence involves having 4 groups of 3 players, all on a 20mx20m square. The drill is to form a triangle and pass in and out to the middle player, constantly moving between passes. If you picture that, there is a massive amount of movement to process with passes having to be spotted and threaded through the other 9 players on the pitch. They do this again, and again – maybe 20 minutes with breaks for feedback. Slowly, but surely, my son is becoming a better player than me (not a high bar but still…).

What has this to do with teacher training? I’m well aware the physical skill analogy has been around for a good while now. As @LornaShires pointed out, just because Deliberate Practice (DP) works for shooting basketball free throws, doesn’t mean it will work for teachers. Also, it’s pretty clear that whilst DP is important in reaching a high level in golf, music, chess, high jumping, catching and throwing or whatever, both teaching and invasion games are more dynamic than any of those things. Also, the 10,000 hours rule Malcolm Gladwell popularised isn’t supported by more recent evidence. Some people seem to reach very high levels of performance much quicker than others.

Nonetheless, my hunch is that if we could find ways for novice teachers to get more of the right sort of DP at an early stage, I think they might progress faster than is typically the case now. I know some people have been working on this – see Deans for Impact, and work by Harry Fletcher-Wood – and TLAC training is largely predicated on this. However, whilst I can see some value there’s a problem I’m not sure we’ve really got to grips with, yet.

To play football my son needed to spend a good bit of time getting good at kicking and controlling a ball. That’s quite clearly come from practice, at least some of which has been DP. However, it’s a pretty static skill if you just practise passing. I think it’s the same for teaching. Practising responses to specific disruptive behaviour, or clear explanations, or boardwork, seems to definitely be useful (one which the majority of current models of ITT don’t have enough time for). But however good my son gets at striking the ball, it isn’t going to make him a really good footballer. Same for the classroom. It’s those dynamic skills – responding to 30 children in real time – that matter.

I’ve been reading The Sports Gene, following a recommendation on Twitter – possibly from @DylanWiliam. The first chapter is about occlusion tests. The original research involved slides from volleyball matches. People were shown these for a very short time period and then asked whether or not the ball was visible in the frame. Similar research,  identifying the speed with which performers at different levels can identify salient information, has been carried out for a number of sports, for air traffic controllers, and for chess players. There has also been some work on this with teachers. Consistently, experts can extract information massively faster, in their own domain. It seems as though maybe two things are going on: experts focus on areas that provide key information – top tennis players identify the direction of a shot from the torso whilst merely good players have to wait for the arm movement; and experts have stronger schemas in LTM so can process complex situations more effectively.

This makes me wonder whether there is a stage for trainee teachers, beyond some basic DP of more static skills, where something more like my son’s football training would be useful. If you look at this framework for types of practice, it feels to me like this is sitting in a column like ‘scrimmage’ but in blue, not red. You see, the clever thing about those drills is that by having small groups all working in the same space, some of the complexity of a match is created whilst keeping the drill quite simple. I wonder about getting a trainee teacher cohort working in groups, with several ‘teachers’ having to talk to a group each, whilst scanning and spotting a primed low-level disruption in the room. However, I don’t think having multiple ‘teachers’ working in the same room is going to work for all classroom skills. I do wonder whether there is potential for classroom video and even Augmented Reality (AR) to play a role. Things like having very short video clips, where expert teachers have identified things to spot (someone turning to their neighbour, the unlikely chuckle in a pair discussion, the unopened book or pencil that’s still on the desk, or the child writing instead of listening). Or recordings of children’s oral answers that need instant feedback. I can think of quite a few possibilities like this. There are some GDPR and ethical challenges, particularly with use of video where children are identifiable but these can be overcome. It is also a lot of work to create high quality resources. I would be really interested to know if anyone’s doing, or thinking about doing, this sort of thing.

 

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Behaviour

This is Part 3 of three quick posts for trainee teachers, about keeping the main thing the main thing, in the midst of all the complexity of learning to teach.

You’re going to get masses of, occasionally conflicting, advice on each of these themes, so I’m not going to say much – just a few observations from seeing a lot of trainee teachers at work.

This one is about Behaviour (TS3).

If you’re typical of someone starting a career in teaching, behaviour is your biggest concern. I’m not sure whether it’s unnerving or reassuring to know that you may well be overestimating your subject knowledge for teaching, and underestimating the challenge of planning, in comparison to the obvious problem of children just not co-operating with you. You’re certainly right that if you don’t get on top of behaviour, teaching will eventually become an unproductive experience.

The good news is that, whilst a few people have instant presence in the classroom when they start teaching, it’s rare. These are the people that calmly but assertively complain in restaurants – who does that? Most of us find confrontation stressful, negotiate around it in normal life, and tend to default to acquiesence or anger when it’s unavoidable. You have to change a lifetime’s habits here, and that can be hard.

The solution is routines and rehearsal. If you are trying to make up responses on the spot, you’ll go into default mode. You’ll maybe give warnings… and then more warnings… when you need to follow through. You’ll escalate into (real or fake) anger. You’ll start saying the things you learned from when you were at school “It’s your time you’re wasting, not mine!”

There are some excellent little primers out there. Try top ten tips from @tombennett71, or A Bill Rogers Top 10 from @teacherhead (or a Google for Bill Rogers videos should be productive).

I think the most useful thing a trainee teacher can do is to write down all the common things that children will do that you need to address. Children are both highly inventive, and creatures of predictable routine: deal with the routine things. Write down your standard response – script it – discuss with your mentor and other colleagues: refine. Practise and learn. Flashcards are good. Do it out loud as much as you can.

You also need to be crystal clear, and very consistent, about how you cut through (hopefully purposeful) activity and establish silence so you can talk to the class. In secondary, countdowns are very common but what are the children used to? What are other teachers doing (teachers like you – no point trying to copy the one with the booming voice if you can’t boom)? Primary are often awesome at this – clapping sequences are so cool but are still very rare in secondary. Whatever you’re doing, do it right from the start, explain what you’re doing, and make lots of easy opportunities for the class to practise getting it right early on, rather than only using it when things are more marginal.

If you’re having difficulty spotting misdemeanours (trying to identify talkers whilst you’re buried in the register is a classic problem), phone a friend. Get the class teacher (if you’re supernumerary) to give you the names and then you can easily hold them back after the lesson.

Here are some other things to do straight away:

Have a routine for classroom entry. Do it the same, every time. Always have something quiet and busy for them to do immediately. Make sure this has a very low bar for entry so no-one gets stuck, and has an open-end so they don’t quickly finish before you are ready (science example here).

Have a routine for finishing the lesson. Start this early – if they are ready quickly, do some swift oral questions to plug the gap. If you have to cut an activity, so be it; they’ll cope with that. This is so much better than having to rush and then letting them escape without properly tidying up; they’ll remember that! Dismiss gradually to avoid a scrum at the door, and only when they have done exactly what you want.

Where else are the easy wins? Keeping safety glasses on for science practicals is a gift for science teachers, for example. Make the first practical simple so the children don’t need lots of help, and then be Judge Dread on the glasses thing. This works because there is no ambiguity, it’s easy to monitor, and easy to ‘win’. Can you see that this is about planning for behaviour? What else is like this for your phase or subject? Silent working, perhaps?  Trying to manage behaviour, or even just spot low-level disruption, whilst fully extended with teaching is hard; give yourself some chances .

 

So that’s some suggestions for my three big ticket items for teaching: planning, subject knowledge, and behaviour. It takes time but when you get these right then you’ll be in fine shape. The children will learn stuff; teaching will be enjoyable. Good luck!

 

Subject Knowledge

This is Part 2 in three quick posts for trainee teachers, about keeping the main thing the main thing, in the midst of all the complexity of learning to teach.

You’re going to get masses of, occasionally conflicting, advice on each of these themes, so I’m not going to say much – just a few observations from seeing a lot of trainee teachers at work.

This one is about Subject Knowledge (TS3).

If you don’t know it, you can’t teach it. Why not? Well it’s obvious init? But worth analysing a bit, I think. If you don’t know it really well then it’s very hard to break something down into the little steps you need to teach it properly. If you don’t know it really well then even a well-prepared explanation is likely to go awry. The developing understanding in your children’s heads is ever so delicate, and their working memories are stretched to the limit, bless them. Just a little muddling up on your part and they may well end up further back than when you started. What can you do? No shortcuts, I’m afraid. For Primary it’s particularly challenging with an awful lot to learn about teaching reading and, in some cases, some deep conceptual challenges in maths, but the scientists I work with normally only have one science to degree level, and often a third science specialism they never took past GCSE themselves. But although there’s no magic bullet, you will get better and you’re surrounded by subject experts in school. Make use of them! Identify what you find hard, when it’s being taught and you are free, and get into those lessons. You’ll be learning subject knowledge and ideas about how to teach it.

Do consider that anything you can prepare before your own lessons rather than making up as you go, is likely to help. Short video clips, with their carefully edited script, followed by questions, can help to underpin things. Rehearse your explanations and use crib cards – nothing wrong with that. Read short sections from a textbook, then go carefully over the key vocabulary and ideas with the class. A subject expert with great communication skills is always a pleasure to observe but, if that’s not you, remember that it’s the learning that counts so just find ways to support yourself and don’t start to think that if you can’t do without, somehow that makes you a poor teacher.

There is evidence that suggests that knowledge of misconceptions – where the children are most likely to go wrong – and knowledge of particularly good ways of getting ideas across, are also an important part of knowing how to teach your specialism. Indeed it may be that this ends up being the more important knowledge in the end. Hopefully mentors and tutors will point you at appropriate sources of information, but also keep asking the experienced teachers in your school about sticking points with the different things you are teaching. Where the things you are teaching are abstract, think about providing concrete examples – from a number line to support working with negative numbers, to blowing through straws to illustrate why adding a resistor in parallel reduces resistance.

Mark written work as soon as you get the chance. There’ll be plenty of teachers willing to have you roped in. Do (and mark) some past papers; that will help you to know what to emphasise.

That’s about it, I think. Subject knowledge really matters. Sometimes that focus gets lost in all the complexity of classroom practice.

Behaviour, coming next…

Planning

This is Part 1 in three quick posts for trainee teachers, about keeping the main thing the main thing, in the midst of all the complexity of learning to teach.

You’re going to get masses of, occasionally conflicting, advice on each of these themes, so I’m not going to say much – just a few observations from seeing a lot of trainee teachers at work.

This one is about Planning (TS4).

The two things I see all the time that lead to disaster are (a) a vague destination and (b) steps that are not small enough.

Experienced teachers know what they are aiming for without all that much thought. That’s a problem because it’s hard for them to see how much knowledge they have, and how difficult new teachers find this process. Inexperienced teachers write down something like “Be able to describe how plants get their food by photosynthesis” or “Be able to add fractions” and then proceed to carefully plan a lesson without any analysis of what that actually means. For each thing you are trying to teach, you need to know what it will look like when the children have got there, and all the little steps along the way. To start with you probably need to produce an exemplar of what you want them to do and think very carefully about what you are doing as you produce it. Now you know exactly what your destination looks like, and how to get there.

If teaching was as simple as telling, we’d all be so smart it would hurt. Your destination needs to be challenging. If novice learners can get there in one leap then it’s not challenging enough. So you can’t just tell them the whole lot in one go and expect it to work. They just don’t have the capacity for that. It doesn’t matter that it seems easy to you. You need small steps. Tiny ones! … No – even smaller than that! If you make the steps too simple you can get away with it for quite a long time whilst you adjust. Get even one step too big, and all but the highest achieving children will come unstuck within seconds. Small steps! Short and sweet. Lots of checking before you move on. And then, step by step, brick by brick, build something good. Build the children up to match that exemplar of yours. Not a pale shadow of it; work that meets your highest expectations.

Clear destination

Small steps!

 

Subject knowledge coming next…

Keeping the Main Thing, the Main Thing

As another 40,000 trainee teachers gear up to begin treading the boards at the front of classrooms around the country, probably feeling a little like actors thrust in front of a critical audience without much of a script, it seemed a good time to weigh in with some gratuitous advice, to add to the ever-increasing pile that no doubt everyone is pushing from all directions.

At times, teaching can feel impossibly complex. Perhaps you’ve already encountered the quote from Shulman (1987 and a whole load of other places)

“After some 30 years of doing such work, I have concluded that classroom teaching… is perhaps the most complex, most challenging, and most demanding, subtle, nuanced, and frightening activity that our species has ever invented.”

Well, forget that. Teaching does get complex, but it should be perfectly manageable for anyone who has made it through the selection process. It just takes a bit of time to get the hang of it.

Actually, you only really have to get three things right. Within those three things there are lots of little bits, but that means you can get plenty of the little bits wrong without too much damage. An actor has to memorise the whole of a play and get it word perfect, along with all the rehearsed arm waving. You, my friend, can ad lib when you need to. So slap on the metaphorical greasepaint. Remember that you don’t have to let on that no-one gave you a script. Children have an astonishing tendency to overlook, or at least forgive, all sorts of errors if you keep your chin up, don’t flap, speak clearly, and treat them fairly.

Just three things:

Blogs on each one, coming soon…

 

 

Planning for Effective Assessment in Science

This post is part of a series – a symposium – on AfL.

  • Part one of the series is by by Adam Boxer here. In it he sets the context of the following posts.
  • Part two is by Rosalind Walker here. She discusses the nature of school science and implications for the classroom.
  • Part three is by Niki Kaiser here. This post explores concepts, threshold concepts, misconceptions, knowledge and understanding.
  • Part four is by Deep Ghataura here. It is about the validity of formative assessment.
  • Part five is by Ben Rogers here. It is about the assessment and improvement of writing in science.
  • Finally, Dylan Wiliam has generously taken the time to respond with his thoughts.

The intention with this post is to try to think quite pratically about assessment in science and draw on some of the ideas in the previous posts. I hope my thoughts are of some use.


Plenty has been written about formative assessment and we are lucky in the STEM subjects that this has been a particular focus but I still think that Adam Boxer is right. To some extent, this work has focused on science examples of generic practice, rather than an approach that specifically takes into account the structural features of teaching and learning in science. Partly for this reason, and partly because I feel I’m offering my personal experience, this post is going to leave aside that literature and sketch out how I think maybe formative assessment in science might work.

My experience, over many years, is that it’s fairly straightforward and pretty instinctive to ask a few questions and get a vague gauge of whether your class are lost, or not. Unfortunately, whilst that does mean you can go back and have another go if you really have lost them, it frequently ends up with a set of books, a piece of work, or an end of topic test…

…that looks like thismoose

These are the sorts of answers it is almost impossible to unpick. You can’t give feedback “to make adjustments to the students’ learning”. There is no way children can do any useful self- or peer- assessment – how many marks do you think they would give? Children writing these answers probably do have some partially-correct schemas. I bet you could tease a good answer out orally. But whatever led up to this assessment hasn’t prepared them for it in a way that makes their answer useful, to you, or to them.

I think a non-specialist might not appreciate this – just as Ben Rogers found. In fact, I think plenty of science teachers might try to take these answers and “make adjustments” but I think it is a peculiarity of science that it is possible to have a bunch of appropriate key words and statements that are all true, in a grammatically correct arrangement, which sounds moderately convincing, but is totally wrong! If you want to get to a decent answer you don’t want to start from here!

Learning in science builds up from declarative knowledge, through exemplars, to inferences about unfamiliar contexts, as Rosalind Walker has set out so clearly. However, I would add that descriptions and explanations in science often have a requirement for precise structure as well as accuracy. To achieve this, both the declarative knowledge, and the exemplars, need to be totally solid. That is one driver of formative assessment in science. But then, although it makes sense to move on to inferences because there is some possibility that children will produce work that allows us to give useful feedback, considerable scaffolding is often still needed to help them get the structure right. Hence, assessment is inextricably linked to planning.

So, the drivers of formative assessment in science are (1) checking recall of declarative and procedural knowledge, and exemplars (2) identifying and addressing misconceptions or missing links within that knowledge (3) providing feedback to improve inferences.

I also think formative assessment in science mainly consists of three key elements, though they are not a direct match to the three drivers. These are whole class questions; individual oral questions; and a keen sense of “What will good look like?”

Let me see if I can put these ideas together in a way that’s helpful.

Whole class questions:

Up to you whether you use mini-whiteboards, some more sophisticated edtech like Plickers or Kahoot, or quick paper and pencil mini-tests (again possibly with an edtech element such as Quick Key, or with you or the children checking them). There are pros and cons to each. I tend to use mini-whiteboards. Mr Barton’s approach for maths is here (all three posts are well worth a read).

This sort of assessment may be retrieval practice of declarative knowledge and exemplars, with feedback for the teacher and children about what has, and has not, stuck. Traditionally the declarative knowledge and exemplars have been mainly in the teacher’s head but I think the development of more formal knowledge organisers  makes it is easier to achieve comprehensive coverage. At a pinch, an experienced teacher can extract this on the fly from a textbook, or even an exam spec, but having it set out properly is definitely better, particularly for the children to use themselves.

Whole class questions can also be used to help identify and address typical errors and misconceptions. This requires carefully written questions, sometimes about declarative or procedural knowledge, sometimes about exemplars, and sometimes about inferences. Harry Fletcher-Wood has written extensively about this. Multiple choice is the obvious format but I also think ‘spot the mistake’ works well. Here are three (quite tough – you’re science teachers!) examples:

Q2

Q1Q3We’re not there yet with a really good question bank resource in KS3/4 science. However, the Diagnostic Question web resource is a decent start (try ordering the questions by “Most Quiz Inclusions”) and there is other work to build on like the University of York Science Education Group EPSE project that Rosalind and Ben both referred to in their blogs.

Individual oral questions:

The problem here is that if you are asking questions as formative assessment, you only get one (or two) responses, and it’s easy to mistakenly generalise to the whole class. If based on the children with hands up then this is almost certain to be misleading. Tom Sherrington’s suggestion to think about a class in groups is helpful. Be subtle about it or you’ll reinforce expectations and piss the kids off, but to dip-test understanding, ask children mainly from the bottom two sections of the table.

My main use of individual questions, though, is to support children’s thinking to help with understanding exemplars, or to model and provide feedback on inferences:

Exemplars:forces

e.g. draw this on the board

 

 

and ask questions like:

    • Is this force diagram correct?
    • What would happen if the forces were like this?
    • If the forces were like this would there be a resultant force?
    • What (always) happens when there is a resultant force acting on an object?
    • What should the force diagram look like?

Inferences:

e.g. draw this on the board and ask children to “describe and explain the forces acting on this bus”.bus

“Sir, there’s a force and air resistance that keeps it moving at a constant velocity”

“That sounds like you might be thinking correctly but your answer isn’t clear. What’s the first thing you need to say?”

“About the motion?”

“Yes, describe the motion – go on then.”

“The bus has a constant velocity because there’s a force keeping it moving and air resistance.”

“Make it simpler – just describe the motion”

“The bus has a constant velocity”

“Yes, what’s next?”

“So there’s a force keeping it moving and air resistance”

“No, look at the board, what’s next?”

“Oh – I have to say if the forces are balanced?”

“Yes, do that now”

“They’re balanced, sir.”

“That’s better. Now can you do the whole answer?”

“The bus has a constant velocity, so they’re balanced.”

“What’s balanced?”

“The forces?”

“So, give me the whole answer.”

“The bus has a constant velocity, so the forces are balanced.”

“And the last bit?”

“The real forces?”

“Yes”

“The bus has a constant velocity, so the forces are balanced, so the forwards force is the same size as the air resistance.”

“That’s a perfect answer now… James (a different child – probably one more likely to need more support, or just not paying enough attention), can you also give me a perfect answer to the same question?”

Note how long this sequence is. I think we do have to operate at this level of questioning in science because this is the level of precision required. Look at Niki Kaiser’s modelling of the thinking required to determine the formula of magnesium sulphate. As @DavidDidau has put it, we have to make the implicit, explicit, because only then can we provide feedback at the level needed.

How do we actually cope with inferences, or applying procedural knowledge, in an unfamiliar context? If we are experts then we are capable of picking out the deep structure in a problem, and answering in a way that includes the declarative knowledge, even if we are making up the superficial structure of the response off the cuff. This, I think, is when we have built, crossed (and perhaps re-crossed many times) Niki Kaiser’s level of threshold concepts. Novices just can’t cope with this. They need most of the superficial structure to come from long-term memory (or initially from scaffolding), otherwise they produce answers like the one about the antlers at the start of this post. Individual questioning is one way to provide that scaffolding and help them to reach the point where at least some of that scaffolding can be withdrawn.

What will good look like?

However, to do this through individual questioning, or to scaffold in any other way, the critical question is “What will good look like?” As a teacher, if you aren’t crystal clear about this then you just end up with differentiation by outcome, with any struggling children producing mainly garbage. Almost all my work these days is with trainee teachers and this is where their planning usually goes down the tubes. Trying to teach to a learning objective such as “Be able to state Newton’s 1st Law” is obviously hopeless since that’s just a single sentence that needs committing to long-term memory. “Be able to apply Newton’s 1st Law” is what is usually meant but that’s also far too vague. What is needed is clarity about the declarative knowledge, and a really consistent superficial structure that can be translated from the exemplars to the inferences. Once that is clear, there is a much better chance of teaching coherently, and providing suitable scaffolding. Get this right and instead of impossible answers about the evolution of moose, you’ll hopefully have something you can work with.

My favoured forms of scaffolding are:

Key words

Describe how moose may have evolved to have large antlers.

Use these key words

variation              genetic differences          selection pressure            survive           reproduce           passed on           many generations

Questioning – “if they can say it they can write it”

See my example above about the bus

A writing frame – make sure they use whole sentences so they can be transferred to another inference

Explain why there is variation in antler size
What happens if there is a selection pressure?
How long does it take?

Diagrams then writing

Diagrams you provide or they create? In this case a little storyboard about evolution of large antlers.

cartoon

Jumbled sentences

Because of selection pressure Over many generations antlers get bigger
There is variation in antler size Are more likely to survive and reproduce
The genes for large antlers are passed on Moose with larger antlers
Due to genetic differences

Cloze paragraph (with or without key words)

There is _________________ in antler size due to ____________________ Because of _____________________ moose with larger antlers are more likely to _________________ and __________________. So the ______________ for large antlers are __________________. Over many _________________, antlers get bigger.

If the scaffolding is tight (like the last two examples above) then assessment is about checking for correct outcomes by asking individuals. Again, use of in-class groupings is helpful. You can scatter the checking around the class but include some of the children most likely to be wrong. And if you get anything other than confident responses I think you need to ensure they’ve got a good version in their books. With some classes/children you might need to have a clean copy to stick in. The next step is to identify the exemplar bits and the inference bits – the bits of superficial structure to keep, and those that will change as the context changes. Highlighting is good for this and you can do this as a whole class with them suggesting, which is another way to provide immediate feedback.

However, the last bit of the process is the thing I love the most in science teaching – right up there with the “Ah!” moments with crossed polaroids, and blowing through straws to model resistors in parallel. With looser scaffolding (either straight off or building new inferences on the tighter scaffolding above) you get responses that are good enough for quality feedback and now grabbing children’s work and improving it on the hoof is possible. I have a visualizer and often get students to work on mini-whiteboards, but an iPad linked to the projector is an option, or a webcam, or the old-skool solution of quickly copying out on your board works just fine. The trick is to take the answer and edit so it matches “What good will look like”. Model your thinking as you go, particularly the comparison between exemplars/inferences, the stating of declarative knowledge, and the need for short, clear sentences.

To my mind, this is what ‘sharing learning objectives’ means in science. It doesn’t mean telling them (or writing it on the board or whatever); it means showing them ‘what good will look like’ (WAGOLL if you must), and building that image up bit by bit.

Now – rinse and repeat. If you move on before exploring a range of inferences, only the highest-achieving children are likely to be able to retain much. But if they can explain how moose have evolved large antlers then they can have a sensible go at how polar bears evolved thick fur, desert foxes evolved big ears, giraffes long necks, cheetahs amazing speed, woodpeckers indestructible heads, monkeys prehensile tails, or whatever. Scaffolding now comes from their own work and, eventually, from their long-term memory.

I hope some of these thoughts are useful. To my mind, the processes of planning and assessment are really two sides of the same coin. Effective formative assessment in science is about understanding the importance of having something you can actually work with; you get that through good planning; and the good planning comes from clarity about the special way knowledge is structured in science plus, of course, the misconceptions and subtleties around each individual topic.

 

Salaries, bursaries, and fees: too few, too much, too painful?

Justine Greening’s conservative party conference speech included an announcement of a pilot student loan repayment scheme for MFL and science teachers in 25 target local authorities. Details were initially a bit sketchy but have now been clarified. How much this will be worth depends on career progression but for a teacher working FT for the full 10 years, and moving steadily up the scale and picking up a TLR at some point it could average out at getting on for £1000 per year.

This announcement follows a pledge in the Conservative election manifesto, comes along with changes to bursaries for maths teachers, and also echoes a similar but different suggestion from Rusell Hobby, new CEO of Teach First. I thought it might be time to think out loud about the issues around funding, fees and bursaries for ITT. So here is where I would start if this were my decision.

I think that the bursaries for secondary shortage subjects are too high. Paid over 10 months, with no tax or NI deductions, a fair number of my trainee teachers are taking home a fatter monthly pay packet than anyone else in the department where they are training including the HoD. Regardless of the impact of the bursaries on recruitment, that just isn’t right.

What’s worse is that we have almost no evidence on the impact. How many extra trainee teacher applications are made because of the bursaries? How many of those are of decent quality? How many more trainee teachers do we actually recruit? What is retention like for these additional teachers? How many train with only half-hearted intentions of teaching in the maintained sector (or in this country, or at all…)? How many stick out the training through concern procedures/teaching module referrals, to the detriment of children, even though they are no longer intending to teach? These questions have been asked and the DfE and NCTL have been founding wanting.

Those are the obvious questions about the impact of bursaries. The wider question is what else might make an impact on the recruitment and retention problem? There are various people and organisations chipping away at the task of bringing some decent evidence to bear on this but I think we are probably still in the realm of informed hunches. These are mine.

There has been a lot of discussion about having bursaries with strings attached as a way of increasing their impact. Singapore has this kind of system but I don’t think it is right for the UK. I think the spectre of a massive financial penalty for failing to qualify and/or take a teaching job in the maintained sector would be really off-putting to a large number of prospective applicants in shortage subjects. This is the wrong image.

I think, if we really want to improve recruitment, then ITT needs to feel equivalent to the graduate training schemes that attract large numbers of high calibre applicants to high-profile companies, and I’m sure that sort of positioning is one element of Teach First’s recruitment success. This means all teachers should just be paid a sustainable amount during their training.

Some already are paid (SD Salaried, Teach First, and tiny numbers of Troops to Teachers and Researchers in Schools) but it is difficult to just extend this because universities are not in a position to start employing their own students, and the recruitment pattern from SD clearly shows that if all ITT recruitment is done by schools, the shortage subjects will fall woefully short of national targets. However, whilst universities are probably going to have to still work with bursaries rather than salaries, there is potential for considerable re-branding.

The level of this basic salary/bursary ought to be set in relation to qualified salaries and I think the current unqualified teacher rate is probably about right (in relation to qualified salaries only – the real terms cuts to salaries since 2010 are a different issue). However, there is a clear difference in the opportunities outwith teaching for science and maths graduates compared to history, PE and primary, for example, and I think there is a place for a shortage-subject uplift, but this still ought to be in line with likely NQT salaries. These are surprisingly varied but evidence suggests the average in science is maybe £3K more than basic M1 so to me that seems like a justifiable uplift during training. Caution suggests making this change gradually and keeping a careful eye on recruitment, though.

The DfE currently spends about £170 million on bursaries. I think the additional cost of paying a basic salary to all trainee teachers with just an uplift for some would be about £200 million – wallet out! On the other hand, something over £400 million is spent on ‘wasted training’ due to failure to retain these teachers (based on IFS figures). I think the evidence from other countries suggests that the image and status of teaching as a career can have a huge impact on both the quality of the pool of recruits, and their subsequent retention. I think gimmicky bursaries are not helping this image; I think bursaries with strings attached would almost certainly damage it; I think a clear commitment to paid training might help.

Fees for ITT are the other issue. Tempted though I am by the idea of fees being paid for all trainee teachers, I don’t think we’re ready for that yet. With student loan forgiveness or repayment, I think it’s reasonable for trainee teachers on non-salaried routes to use Tuition Fee Loans to cover that cost. However, the pilot student loan repayment scheme, with its 10 year maximum extent, would probably only just about get this £9000+ debt paid off, leaving undergraduate loans untouched. That’s not very tempting compared to choosing a different career and never having the extra debt in the first place.

I assume there is a reason why the pilot is covering loan repayment costs rather than actually writing off debt – I guess it is easier to administer that way. In the long run. though, I think that writing off debt is the preferable option. Partly it just somehow feels better, and as I’ve already said, I think a lot of this is about the image. I also think covering loan repayments is regressive – it is worth £1350/year for someone on £40K, and nothing at all to someone on £23K. That could be seen as leveraging career progression and TLR payments, but it also favours those negotiating higher starting salaries (more often men), and anyone working in London or London fringe.

So I think the DfE ought to look at moving from covering loan repayment costs to writing off debt. This would allow ITT tuition fees to be written off quite quickly – perhaps over three years (although it would be worth looking more closely at the SWC data to see if there is any kink in the retention data that would suggest a particular career point that it ought to cover). Meanwhile, other student loans could be written off at the slower rate. This would maintain the attraction of undergraduate loan repayment, whilst also making the tuition fees less of a burden, provided trainee teachers go on into a teaching career.

I assume there is also a reason for targeting whole local authority areas rather than specifically schools that have particularly difficult recruitment and retention problems. Again, perhaps it is simpler, since a school is clearly either in Portsmouth, or not, whereas targeting schools above a certain FSM or other threshold might leave teachers in borderline schools dipping in and out of the scheme as random fluctuations change which side of the threshold the school sits. Perhaps more generally, a focus on FSMs might push recruitment towards large cities and leave out some coastal and rural schools with tremendous recruitment difficulties. I don’t know what’s best but it should be relatively simple to model. If the DfE haven’t already done so, that needs to happen alongside evaluation of the pilot.

My final thought relates to Teach First and a couple of tweets exchanged with @russellhobby the new CEO of Teach First. I think Teach First has brought some tremendous new ideas into ITT, has demonstrated that teaching can be an attractive career at a time when that was proving difficult, and has undoubtedly produced some very effective teachers. However, it’s important to remain aware that this route is significantly more expensive for the taxpayer than other main routes, and retention over 5 years is a fair bit lower. My concern was that any loan reduction based on FSM thresholds would immediately start benefitting all Teach First participants as soon as they started employment at the beginning of their first year, whilst university-led trainees were racking up more debt. And whilst there are obvious reasons for targeting schools on the basis of FSMs, that also neatly guarantees Teach First participants a benefit whilst leaving it only as a possibility for other routes. I may just be biased! My suggestion of accelerated write-off for PGCE loans might be unfair in the other direction. The current pilot seems equally fair to all routes and I’m cautiously hopeful that it’s a step in the right direction.