Monthly Archives: October 2013

When Ofsted are on the way

When Ofsted are on the way


Not long ago, and I’m sure it is a regular occurrence, there was a twitter post along the lines of ‘Ofsted in the morning – what can I do?!’.  My reply was quite simple – it’s far too late to be worrying about that – inspectors need only speak to the learners to find out what normally happens, regardless of what you are doing on the day.


I have some simple criteria for the classroom – nothing to taxing and easy to measure:

Are the learners enjoying themselves?

Do they appear to be confident?


And that’s probably about it – all the rest is the fine detail.

Get these two sorted and the quality of the lesson will shine upon the faces of the learners.


Enjoyment is apparent to any visitor, and the elements are part of any lesson plan. Are there a variety of activities, is there hands-on, colourful and active things to do, are the learners engaged and challenged, are they co-operating with one another, and are the tasks designed to encourage co-operation?  Do they take the initiative, or wait for guidance and direction at every move?  Are they confident to make mistakes and be corrected by each other, rather than by the teacher?  Do they encourage and reward each other, or is that the prerogative of the teacher? (In one never to be forgotten lesson in which I was being observed, one learner did something most noteworthy, and someone else shouted with obvious enthusiasm ‘She should get the prize!’ – I’m afraid I don’t run to prizes anymore, but I do keep a box full of stars.)


Confidence is built upon each lesson. Do the learners know how each lesson fits into the scheme of things, and do they have access to the scheme. Do you share the objectives, either in the lesson or in a plan that embraces the whole year?  And is that pinned up or distributed at the start of the year?  Do they have benchmarks to measure achievement, and are they clear and understandable? (My benchmarks are what would have been needed to get a desired grade on that particular past paper.) Is there a ‘virtual learning environment’, and do you remind the learners each lesson where they can find what we are doing, what we have done, and what we will be doing next? And do you post regular photographs so they can see themselves doing it?  An alternative is to put the resources on a public site – I take great pleasure in showing them how to find my stuff, by putting my name and the topic into a Google search and seeing it as the top hit. Are the learners encouraged to seek other sources of learning outside of the classroom?  Khan Academy has greatly improved, as has BBC Bitesize and a number of other free resources.


Confidence in the learning process is built by the learners, not the teacher. Can they check their own understanding of learning, or is it done when the teacher marks the stuff and provides feedback. Do you give out answers and solutions or get learners to come to the board and share their methods and solutions? (This year I have been providing exam-board mark schemes with all class exercises and written tasks so that the learners can see if they are achieving the marks allocated.) And why wait until an inspector asks them if they know how they are getting on, or if they understand?  Survey Monkey and Socrative are ideal tools for getting instant and regular feedback.  I’ve posted feedback on the wall outside my classroom, which happens to be the corridor to the management suite, and done it in Wordle to make it even more satisfying!


When my boss asks if I have tracking sheets and records I’m often at a loss as to what to say.  Is it about recording completion of homework, success on homework or class tests, or about learner satisfaction?  I provide a handbook with the details and the criteria for the award, and a column for the learners to tick, date or whatever, but that is their responsibility.  I keep records of past exam paper attempts, including modular ones with can be brief and easy to do in a short session, but are these really significant?  More important is if I am genuinely interested in each and every one of them.  Have I spoken to each person each lesson, either by asking a mathematical question or any other device?


Speaking to everyone is what I do, and over recent years I’ve found ways of engaging them that never occurred before.  For example, when we need numbers at random for prime factor decomposition, I once thought it clever to use Excel to generate these. Then I bought a Bingo machine – turn the handle and out pops a ball, which a learner can do.  Now I go round the room and collect house numbers which we duly factorise.  For scale drawings I use local maps – learners stick a label on their home and measure the distance to college.  For any statistical data we get it from them, including distance to college.  (With this last we were able to utilise converting metric to imperial, all kinds of average, and calculating average speed.)  Compare learner data to national statistics, and remember Census at School as a wonderful resource. I try to do something along these lines every lesson.  This week we did ratio and proportion, and most classes came up with baking/cooking as something which uses proportion, and it just so happened that my son had sent by Snapchat a picture of his dumplings, which I kept for display, and which led to a discussion on taste, mixture, and what a dumpling equivalent would be in both India and Bangladesh – it all depends on who is in the room. Image

So the question was ‘who makes the dumplings in your house?’ The trick is simple – put the learner at the centre of the experience, not the teacher.  The learner appreciates this, and Ofsted can see it a mile off.  But do it from the start, not the night before they are due to arrive!


Learning from the learners

Getting help from the learners


Too often we teachers think we know what is best, and if not, we know where to go to find out.  We get professional development, observations and mentoring; we read books, blogs and tweets, and of course, we are the teachers, so we must know.  But this week I had an opportunity to talk though an exam with a learner, after she had passed it, over a long cup of coffee far away from any learning environment, and she was able to give me a personal insight into how a different type of mind works, one that is not ‘naturally’ mathematical, which I guess mine is.


We’ve been working together to achieve the mathematical qualifications needed to become a teacher – first GCSE then the QTS test. The former was easy enough – there’s a wide enough spread on the curriculum for her visual and artistic talents to make up for some of her difficulty with number work. But the QTS test is mostly number, with a bit of statistics, and has constraints that a long GCSE paper doesn’t have. These are the mental test, with a few seconds to answer each question, and the second section which varies between the deceptively simple (‘can it really be that easy?’) type to the longer, wordy ones that may suggest a very clever question but can give any of us a feeling of ‘What!’  My approach was problem oriented, using the sample tests and similar questions I created, and we’d go through each type with regularity and diligence. Any real issues I’d return to with alternative approaches.  For example, for averages I printed items of data on single cards – ‘Show me five cards with a mean of six; show me five cards with a medium of six and a range of eight’.  (Averages) All ideas cheerfully copied from ideas in John Holt’s book ‘How Children Fail’, which should still be required reading for all teachers.  When we struggled with fractional equivalents, including decimals and percentages, I produced visual images that included diagrams and numbers, which my learner stuck around her bedroom walls.  PostersVisual Displays And I bought a set of Cuisenaire rods, which were well worth the small investment.  But for things like currency conversion, and using speed/distance/time ratios, how does one do that practically in a classroom?


My normal approach with complex arithmetic problems is to work with simple cases. For average speed problems for example I encourage the learner to consider simple cases – if I drive at 40 miles per hour, how far will I go in three hours, or cycling at 8 mph, how long will it take me to travel 20 miles?  For currency conversion, how many euros will I get for two pounds, three pounds, two hundred and fifty pounds?  All slow and I assumed effective.  But when the learner is faced with such problems in a test, does she have the time or skills to think ‘What did Colin do for that?’ or ‘Can I make it simpler?’.  Certainly not in the QTS tests, when time is a premium, and I’m beginning to doubt if learners do in any exam.  They have been encouraged to get down an answer, and too often this can be any answer.  This week I have encountered a learner entirely happy with his own wrong methods, and almost every week I meet one who says, erroneously,  ‘That’s what I’ve been taught!’  Not the mind-set that encourages thoughtful reflection in an exam, and there again, exams aren’t designed for reflection.  So I keep making up questions, and saving them for future use. Conversions


And now my aspiring teacher has given me some great tips, and ones well worth remembering.  In all of the things for which instant recall of knowledge is required, the learner needs to have the ability to bring it straight to mind.  Flash cards worked for us, providing drill and repetition.  It hurts me to say it, but for some, if not most, learners it seems drill has an important role to play.  It especially applies to number bonds.  I really didn’t know my times-tables thoroughly until I became a teacher – I could go through the pattern of any table quickly enough, and correctly, to satisfy my needs.  But I’m a mathematical person; is that any help to one who isn’t?  Not just multiplication – learners need addition bonds, and secure ones on which they can build more complex additions, along with strategies to do that, and subtraction methods such as ‘shopkeeper’s addition’. 


Finally, there is the issue of getting the brain stimulated and using as much of it as we can.  Recent evidence shows the usefulness of playing a musical instrument to get those connections going.  Another learner of mine is about to receive intensive help for dyslexia that includes playing with soft balls and using modelling clay.  This learner practised tracing with her left hand what her right hand was doing.  Don’t neglect the physical side of the brain; it all helps to get it going in top form.  Perhaps a little session juggling three balls – an easy enough skill if taught properly.  Use what the learner has, and encourage other things too.  Often my individuals are artists, so encourage creativity and imagination. Don’t provide all the methods and solutions, let the learner come up with examples and ideas.


So I’ll be making some more flash cards, for use with individuals and whole groups.  With a big group, they can play in pairs and groups – learners don’t need a teacher to direct every activity.  But get things moving, and keep a kinaesthetic element in every lesson, if possible related to the topic in hand, but if not, remember that distributed practice is a hot topic of the moment, so use a topic from a different part of the syllabus if necessary.  And keep testing the questions that are likely to come up, because that is the other method receiving current attention ‘Improving Students’ Learning.’