All entries for May 2016

May 31, 2016

Trainee teacher 4: I'd be lying if I told you that it came naturally

In the beginning:

I’d be lying if I told you that the thought of reading around teaching pedagogy heightened my excitement to a state of euphoria. I’d also be lying if I told you that it came naturally, was easy and was something I looked forward to whilst also trying to balance writing assignments, lesson plans, reflections and oh yes, actually teaching in the classroom.

Initially this reading felt unfocused, for without much teaching experience my reading was undirected and without context. It felt like starting on journey with no end or meaning; nothing made any sense nor did it have any relation to my practice, for I did not yet have a practice. Bombarded with reading lists, and suggested reading I was overwhelmed not only by the work but also by the enormity of such a mind field of knowledge.

Little by little:

Like most things in life, it became apparent to me that in order to embark on what seemed like an impossible task, it would be easier to start at the beginning… with my subject’s pedagogy. Rather than looking at specific areas of teaching like behaviour, I started to read into the pedagogy of my subject. This was far more accessible for me, for whilst I could not yet connect to teaching pedagogy as a whole, I could connect to my subject thus a door into the pedagogy behind it.

Towards the end:

I am now over half way through my PGCE year and my reading has become a lot more natural. I am now able to seek advice from pedagogy, and I am able to understand the theory behind it. As my teaching practice has evolved, my passion has been drawn towards behaviour management. With the experience I have gained from both the classroom and my PG assignments, I am able to read more efficiently and focused. Not only has the reading become easier, but guess what… I actually enjoy it!

My advice to you:

  1. Don’t be put off by the recommended reading lists: these are there to guide you through not only the entirety of your PGCE year but also your entire career as a teacher.

  2. Start with your subject: by reading about your subject pedagogy you can ease your way into the minefield of teaching theory, using your existing subject knowledge as a foundation.

  3. Don’t just read books: Look at blogs, articles and other media sources. The Guardian education section has some great reads which aren’t too lengthy and are very accessible.  

  4. Check out the references: When you get more confident, check out the references in existing reports, journals and books. These will guide you to the next level of reading.

  5. Keep going: Teaching isn’t easy, and the hoops you have to jump through don’t make it any easier. However there is a wealth of support and knowledge out there. Even when you are struggling, google it! You will realise you’re not alone, and that this will get easier.

  6. Talk: Ask your colleagues, chances are they may have read something which has helped them and could also help you.

May 30, 2016

Trainee teacher blog 3: Reading books on behaviour management

One of the biggest fears for someone just entering the teaching profession is often around behaviour management in the classroom. Some of the thoughts that may enter your mind are ‘Will the students listen to me? ‘How will I deal with bad behaviour?’ and ‘What should I do if I can’t control the class?’. As a trainee, it can be quite overwhelming when you realise that the profession you are about to enter requires you to stand in front of 25 young people for 6 hours a day and help them to learn. There are many horror stories floating around the internet and also through word of mouth which can very easily discourage even the strongest willed people from this career.

I was one of the people who thought I would struggle with behaviour management but by the time I started teaching, I had covered a wide range of topics related to classroom management at university and through independent learning. My first lesson was totally different to how I had envisaged it. Although students were participating in the activities there was a lot of low level disruption throughout the lesson, such as talking amongst friends and tapping the desk continuously. A lot of planning had gone into that lesson, ensuring that the work during the 1 hour period was accessible to all students and low level disruption can be very distracting, especially for a trainee teacher. It can also be very difficult to manage without the right knowledge. It can be frustrating when you have spent 3+ hours to plan a lesson and the students find more amusement in discussing what happened during the lunch break than what you have to teach them. In this instance, reading definitely helped with my classroom management.

One of the first books I read when I entered the profession was ‘Getting the buggers to behave’ by Sue Cowley. This is a simple and easy-to-read book that breaks down some of the most common behavioural issues that a classroom teacher may face. These issues range from students shouting out answers when not being questioned to students getting out of their seats and walking around the classroom. Sue Cowley outlines some effective techniques that can be used to create a positive learning environment within the classroom such as use of body language, tone of voice and language. After reading the book I began putting what I had read into my practice and I saw noticeable differences quite quickly. I started by using assertive body languagewhich involved standing up with my shoulders pulled back and my hands open and visible, as well as utilising the classroom space to exercise my control of the lesson. Simple techniques such as greeting every child at the door upon entering and leaving worked a treat and are now part of my daily routines.

There is a countless amount of literature on behaviour management available to read for new teachers. My advice to new teachers would be to start with simple techniques that you can repeat and embed into a routine. When trying out a new technique it is important that time is allowed for the technique to settle in with the students before trying something else. Adults do not warm to change and students even less so. Be patient with students and get to know your class before trying to fix what may not be broken to begin with.

May 29, 2016

Trainee teacher 2: How has reading around pedagogy affected my teaching practice?

How has reading around pedagogy affected my teaching practice?

After being set our initial university assignment exploring the ‘implications of current theories of Cognitive Development in teaching and learning’, I was dubious about what effect theorists who died decades ago could have on my day to day practice in the classroom.

The importance of research-led practice had been drummed into us, but even after writing my initial assignment on the work of Piaget and Vygotsky, I was unsure where they fitted into my educational experience, or how I was supposed to use their theories. Part of the issue was, it seemed to me, that they were summarising the obvious. Piaget’s description of the development of children (Muijs 2012) and Vygotsky’s points on supporting or ‘scaffolding’ students to get to the next level of understanding (Gray and Macblain 2012) all seemed to be common sense, except coined in elaborate terminology.

I couldn’t be sure whether my perception of these theorists was because their points seemed obvious, or whether because, and I think more likely, they were so fundamental in shaping modern education, theory and research that their ideas have become ingrained in the education system and those of us immersed in it.

Despite my initial, somewhat uninspiring, encounter with pedagogy my engagement with pedagogy and research was far from complete. I was concerned by what I initially deemed to be the restrictive nature of the theories. Piaget suggested specific ages at which children develop, but was that still the case almost four decades after his death? Was behaviourism (Skinner, 1974) the only way to develop effective behaviour for learning in the classroom? Did I need to include all of Gardner’s multiple intelligences (Gardner, 2004) in every lesson?

Then, however, the light bulb moment occurred, in which I connected with a piece of pedagogy. I realised my misconception was that pedagogy was a script, an idea that one subscribed to unconditionally and acted upon unquestioningly. In fact pedagogical theories could be used as a device, developing my understanding of the way students learn. Once understood they act as an informed base from which to experiment and explore different ways of teaching and learning, not a straightjacket dictating the direction of my practice and my development as an educator.

The first piece of pedagogy which inspired me to recognise the versatility and power of research-based practice was Bloom’s Taxonomy (Bloom, 1956). Initially created by Benjamin Bloom and a cohort of educationalists, its intention was to categorise different levels of thought, enabling them to be quantified and therefore compared and tracked. I originally used Bloom’s Taxonomy to structure my lessons, demonstrating to students how we were going to make progress and ensuring I had progressive levels of challenge throughout. Moreover, I soon realised the flexibility of the taxonomy as a tool to develop students’ critical thinking skills and encourage their own independent learning skills. I have since experimented with a variety of ways to do this, including creating Bloom’s question cards, which can be used by students to challenge themselves or each other to develop higher levels of thinking.

The realisation that pedagogy wasn’t restricted to its original form and purpose, that instead it could be used as a platform to explore different teaching techniques and ideas and that a variety of ideas can be synthesised to create new and exciting investigative techniques in the classroom, was a turning point in my cynicism against pedagogy. I am currently exploring a variety of cooperative learning techniques, creating a pick and mix of ideas and theories that I think will work for my students, in my classrooms, for my style of teaching. This is not to say that I’m ‘improving’ pedagogical theories, but rather exploring how they can work for me, as a way of ironing out some of the difficulties I face with some of my classes.

And in my opinion, this is the most effective way to use pedagogy. Initially it should be used as a base to develop understanding, but after that you have to make it work for you; test it out, create resources, synthesize ideas until you find the best fit for you. Pedagogy is not effective until it is understood and treated as a vehicle for exploration, not a rulebook.

C.L Davison

May 28, 2016

Trainee teacher blog: What the books don’t tell you…

What the books don’t tell you…

My life has always been happily entangled with books. As a bookseller I charmed my customers into buying stacks of glossy new novels, biographies and special editions. As a Librarian I suspiciously eyed up students daring to annotate upon their precious pages. In September, as a trainee teacher on the School Direct Salaried route, I clung to them in the desperate hope of deliverance.

This first year in teaching has been a learning curve of steep proportions. I don’t doubt that many a secondary trainee never fully realises the pitiful state of their own resilience and stamina until thrust into the bustling circus of energy, hormones and defiance that is the average British secondary school. To navigate the shiny new ideas of differentiation, challenging behaviour and positive management, I eagerly devoured “how to” teaching guides, googled behaviour gurus and sought out pedagogical theory with the firm belief that if I learnt enough, I would be a good teacher. In short, I attempted to give my brain a sponge-like absorbency that is, simply, unrealistic.

The immediate result of this self-education was a bombardment of my poor KS3 classes with new behaviour management techniques run a-mock. Lollipop stick questioning collided with raffle ticket incentives and over-resourcing bull-dozed through the lesson plan to successfully baffle my students: and all this when I still struggled to wait for silence. It was a mess. In my feedback session for the lesson in question I was praised for my enthusiasm and engagement with the pedagogy but the implementation of this learning was definitely categorised “even better if”!

Upon reflection (there’s that word again!), and a much embittered struggle (“but it said it in the book?!”), it began to dawn on me that, (shocker), books can’t teach you everything. This was unusual to an academic minded, book-loving historian like me, and something I am still grappling with. Just because Vygotsky theorised that peer discussion is the way forward does not equate to a successful class debate with my, shall we say, “spirited” Year 8 class. They may easily allow debate to slide into argument, into squabble, into a brawl. In the same manner, my enthusiasm for “how to” guides by the likes of Phil Beadle and Sue Cowley is not a negative feature of my learning but, rather, a lesson in pertinence.

I have learnt so much already these past few months of teaching and one of the more important aspects of this has been learning about my own learning as well as that of my students. I am beginning to involve the theories I have engaged with, steadily, and only as appropriate depending on the class, the subject matter and also taking into account my own developing teaching style. This focused and individual approach is gradually allowing me, through trial and error, to discover which techniques work, which don’t and how they can evolve and be developed to suit me and my students. Some teachers have their desks in rows, some in groups. Some teachers focus on written work while others spend more time on active learning tasks. Through observation and my own sweat and tears I am learning that the books, enlightening as they can be, can only take you so far. Much like in History, a piece of evidence is only as good as the analysis and argument to which it is put. So far, from what I am gleaning from both my maniacal and miraculous days in school, pedagogical theory should always be subject to individual criticality and individual teaching style; and that is something the books don’t tell you.

Libby Gill

May 27, 2016

Ralph Tabberer – Without research its a career not worth having

I completed my initial teacher training in the 1970s and had no idea how important research was going to be in my career. Most of my early teaching experience was a battle to get organised and to stay ahead, with material and ideas that would work day to day, and week to week.

I fell into classroom research after two years’ teaching, entirely out of my interest in understanding more of what was happening from the students’ viewpoint.

I worked with colleagues in designing simple exercises to track how students approached learning challenges. First, we paired up students so that one was the observer while another took on a task requiring them to use the library. The written reports of how students struggled to find the resources they needed were unintentionally hilarious until, that is, we realised that our 13-year-olds had no idea how to conduct a proper search. We had never shown them; it wasn’t in our curriculum.

Our work progressed. We asked students to collect the comments and marks they received in each lesson they attended, for one week, and when they played back their written and spoken results, we were ashamed. I still recall one child who spent almost every lesson being told exactly how poor they were. There was no system to our feedback and marking; we were unaware of the accumulated effect.

After a series of these exercises – looking at reading, writing, searching, feedback, problem-solving and more – I deepened my interest in research into the classroom, and into the cognitive sciences, and this has sustained me all my career. In teaching, fashions change – just look at the current debate about ‘mastery learning’ – and it is incredibly valuable to have a grasp of some of the underpinning ‘laws’ of teaching and learning.

I strongly recommend this report in 2000 from US authors who distilled what has been discovered about teaching and learning into five key lessons:

Just read the first section, up to page 31. It is brilliant and there is nothing in neuroscience so far to beat it. It argues that learning is best when (a) teachers start from what students know and feel, (b) there is opportunity for plenty of practice of interesting content, (c) teachers point to the concepts that allow learners to stick the content and learning together, (d) teachers introduce learners to ‘organisers’ that aid retention and transfer, and (e) students are equipped and encouraged to become the regulators of their own learning. I wil come back to this work in later blogs.

I was fortunate in my school career. I worked for ten years in research after those early exercises in our classrooms. I joined a local authority and made my way in advising schools on their improvement strategies. I had the great honour of being appointed to run a government agency – funding teacher education – and from there I moved to take charge of school policy and operations at the Department for Education. That was during the Blair years when his celebrated top 3 priorities were: “education, education, education”. Heady days.

At every step, I was able to approach our work with that foundation in teaching and learning. We did not get everything right – by any means – but I have no doubt that our strengths and successes came in those areas where we knew and applied the lessons of research.

I didn’t know how important research was going to be when I started my career. I now realise there would have been no career worth having without it.

Ralph Tabberer

Professor Ralph Tabberer CB is the former Director General of Schools for England and the former Chief Executive of the Teacher Training Agency. He was Deputy Director of the National Foundation for Educational Research in the 1990s. He now concentrates on international education and is an adviser to Warwick University’s Centre for Professional Education.

May 2016

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