Feedback and assessment…it’s about impact.

I’m fortunate to work in a school where there is no centralised marking policy. Departments have been given the freedom to determine what feedback and assessment will look like and there is a clear understanding that this could look very different in different subject areas.

Feedback should be high impact for students and low impact for teachers. I don’t want my team spending excessive amounts of time writing comments in books. So, we just don’t do it. We do check books for presentation and to ensure the standard of work is as it should be. We use red, amber and green stickers to indicate the quality of work up to that point and it is the student’s responsibility to improve their work going forward. There is no set number of times that books need to be checked.

In terms of moving students forward in their learning, we use a system of feedback codes. The idea behind feedback codes is to generate a list of comments that apply to the piece of work completed by the class. Each comment is given a code/number and two or three of these codes are then applied to each piece of work. Ideally, these comments are in the form of a question or task that the student must complete. It is the student’s responsibility to record the feedback and complete the task during a dedicated portion of lesson time. Day to day, the team decides when it is appropriate to give feedback on a piece of work.

Another strand of our feedback and assessment strategy is in how we approach exam marking. First and foremost, no grades are given on any exams. Generating grades is a complex process that takes exam boards many weeks to accomplish. There is no way that we could accurately mirror this and therefore any grades given to students could be misleading. We also do not provide percentages (although many students could work this out for themselves, we do not encourage it). The focus of our exam marking is on what students know and what they do not know. From there we can provide whole class feedback about strengths and areas for improvement. We can use our visualisers/cameras to show excellent answers and model approaches to specific types of questions. This applies to all year groups. I am aware that some schools expect GCSE grades to be applied to Year 7 work etc. We do not do this.

As Subject Leader, it is my role to ensure that feedback and assessment is happening in the way we have agreed. One of the best ways I have found to check this is to ask the team to bring a selection of their choosing and lay it out in one classroom for everyone to look at. Some of our most fruitful conversations have come from this collaborative approach. It’s supportive, everyone gets to see examples of feedback in practice and to see slightly different interpretations of the “policy” (I don’t really like that word!).

It has taken time to embed this way of working and students do find it odd when they are not given grades but this is a change for the better, with the focus being on the students and their improvement.

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Where should we teach Science?

Do all Science lessons need to be taught in Science labs?

I’m sure many science teachers would say yes. My own team certainly felt this way when they were initially presented with the plans for our department refurbishment. It was seen as an asset for us to each have our own lab and would ensure that we could all do practical work whenever we wanted.

However, the refurbishment needed to take us from nine labs to eleven teaching spaces to accommodate an expansion in pupil numbers over the coming years. With no capacity to build new labs, we had to go for a reconfiguration of the current rooms and the proposal was to have four fully equipped labs, three standard classrooms and four demonstration labs. To clarify, a demonstration lab has practical facilities for the teacher and students sit at standard classroom desks.

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The refurbishment was completed in three phases. I won’t go into the trials and tribulations of this process but it was a testing time for the team who were expected to “keep calm and carry on” despite the noise and disruption going on around them.

The work was finally completed in February 2019. Our four labs retained the large dimensions of the old labs but were vastly improved with fresh paint, new furniture and fittings.

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The classrooms were an interesting addition to our suite of resources. We had to think carefully about how to maximise their use. Clearly most practical work can not be carried out in a classroom but we established that the reaction time investigation (ruler drop) would be fine along with any others that only required standard classroom equipment.

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Having only four labs meant that the team had to think carefully about what practical work they wanted to complete with their classes and why. Was it purposeful? Or practical work for the sake of practical work? Labs would need to be booked via weekly prep sheets and coordinated by the technician team. We established an order of priority for lab bookings as follows:

  • Year 11 Triple Chemists
  • Year 10 Triple Chemists
  • Any other Year 11 class
  • Any other Year 10 class
  • Year 7/8/9 equal weighting

To aid with this, the staff teaching Triple Chemistry are roomed in labs permanently but they do move out as needed for other groups.

The demo labs have been the most sought after room amongst the team! One of my team has commented that the setup allows him to teach exactly as he would like with a good mix of practical demonstration and optimum environment for theory work and as a result he feels his teaching is the best it’s ever been. He noticed an immediate shift in the students attitude and engagement. They were enthralled in watching demonstrations being carried out most lessons and were very positive about the fact that they could engage with the theory distraction free, in other words, they didn’t have to worry about the procedures at this stage.

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Now of course, there are instances where students must complete practical work but this doesn’t require a department full of labs. I’m not sure we’ve ever had a situation where every member of the team was completing practical work at the same time.

One point I would make is that this system relies on the fact that teachers will move to different rooms if needed. Thankfully, I lead a very collegiate team who support each other completely and will happily move around to ensure students get the practical experiences they need and deserve. I know some would find this nomadic approach unsettling but it works for us and in reality it hasn’t been too difficult this year as we have been able to keep one lab empty. Next year all four labs will be occupied which may result in more movement than we’ve seen so far. We also have identical “teaching walls” in every room to make moving easy and consistent for staff.

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Having classrooms also means we are able to accommodate other subject teachers in need of a room to teach in. The addition of a Science Office means that my team will always have somewhere to work should they need to move out of their classroom for a particular lesson.

A final bonus of our refurbishment was the creation of a large atrium at the heart of the department. This area is used as a teaching space, a social area for Year 11, a venue for CPD sessions and was the main space used for our Teachmeet in January. It definitely adds a wow factor to our department area.

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So, returning to my original question, do all Science lessons need to be taught in Science labs? I don’t think they do. Science labs will always have a purpose but the Science curriculum is more than just practical work and our teaching spaces should reflect this.

Review of our first Teachmeet

In November 2017, I attended and presented at the ASE South West Regional Conference. My session on the challenges of the 9-1 Science GCSE was well received and started the conversation about what could be done to support teachers and Science departments in my local area. My first thoughts were to host a Teachmeet.

However, as I was due to go on maternity leave in January 2018, I knew this idea would have to wait.

Returning to work in September 2018, I was determined that this was the year for our first Science Teachmeet. My team was in a really strong position following a turbulent year of staffing issues and we were all feeling extremely positive having received our best results in the summer. The timing just felt right.

I started to do some research around how to organise a Teachmeet. What did I need to consider? Who did I need to contact? What would make this event a success? I found this blog post by @TeacherToolkit https://www.teachertoolkit.co.uk/2016/04/09/organising-teachmeets/ and the following posts by @ICTEvangelist https://ictevangelist.com/my-top-5-tips-for-teachmeet/ https://ictevangelist.com/what-is-a-teachmeet-any-more/ This gave me the push I needed to get started.

I decided on the date, set up the Eventbrite page and started trying to get sponsors on board. As it happened, this was the easy bit! The support I was offered blew me away. Very quickly I had sponsorship from Educake, Quizlet, The Royal Society of Chemistry and Crown House Publishing. They agreed to send raffle prizes, items for goodie bags, cake and, in Educake’s case, present on the night.

The thing I struggled with most of all was getting people to attend as an audience. I quickly had to reassess my expectations in terms of numbers. However, with a lot of support from my department and a lot of perseverance we ended up with 30 people on the guest list and expected to attend on the night.

I chose to split the evening into a mix of 5 minute presentations and market stalls for the attendees to visit. Educake chose to take a market stall and others were taken by Cheltenham Festivals, DataHarvest, Stem Ambassadors and the local Science Learning Partnership. Again, I was so grateful for the support of these organisations. Most of my department decided to present and another local school took a further three presentation spots.

On the night, feedback from all guests was very positive and there was a wonderful buzz. One thing that did come up just ahead of the evening, was a realisation that perhaps the start time was too early. I’d chosen a 4pm start time but feedback suggested that this didn’t leave enough time for local teachers to battle with rush hour traffic. Next time I intend to start at 4.30pm.

Overall, I loved every minute of the actual evening. The run up was a little stressful when I thought I may have to cancel due to lack of numbers but feedback on the night showed me that going with it was the right thing to do and showed that at least amongst some local teachers there is an appetite for further collaboration, this is something that fills me with hope and excitement.

If you have any advice regarding organising Teachmeets, I’d love to hear it!20190119_215552-collage

2018…a year like no other.

This time last year, I was about to start my maternity leave with my first baby being due on 12th January 2018. I remember feeling a little bit lost when my colleagues returned to work on the 3rd January and I was at home taking it easy and banking as much sleep as possible. Thankfully, baby didn’t keep me waiting too long and on the 15th January I became a mother.

From that point on, my time was filled with the all-consuming task of “being mum” and caring for this little person who honestly and truly needed me and, sometimes, only me. Work became a distant thought and my days were filled with baby classes and catching up with my new “mummy friends” over cups of tea and cake.

My mindset about maternity leave was to make the most of it. I did not want to get back to work in September thinking “I wish I had done X, Y or Z” and so I squeezed everything I could into the time I had. Looking back I think there were days and weeks where I did too much. I didn’t do the nap-when-baby-naps thing or the lazy mornings snuggled up in bed with my little one. I always felt the need to get up, get ready and get going because that’s what I do.

As September became ever closer, I didn’t find myself dreading it or wishing for more time. I was ready to go back. Being blessed with a baby who slept, I was able to start using my evenings to prepare for going back to work full time. On that note, going back part time was never a consideration for me. I needed to know whether I could do my job full time alongside being a mother.

Now, I can’t lie, actually getting back to work was a massive shock to the system. I spent the first four weeks of term in a complete daze. I struggled with being late most mornings (8.30am compared to my pre-baby arrival time 8.00am) due to nursery drop off and horrendous traffic, being exhausted on a completely different level and trying to be the Head of Department I had been before baby arrived. Thankfully, I have a superb team, an excellent line manager and hugely supportive colleagues who I also count as friends. They gave me space when I asked, hugs when needed and reality checks as appropriate – because there were some days when I needed just that!

Then week 5 arrived and things seemed to settle into a place a little. I felt that maybe it was possible to be a full time working mother and to enjoy both. I threw myself into work during the week and my little girl got my full focus in the evenings and weekends. Before I knew it, we had made it to the Christmas holidays.

So, here I am now, gearing myself up to go back to work on Monday after two weeks of amazing family time. I’m excited to get back at it. My department is in a really good place, we are hosting our first teachmeet in January and making great strides to ensure we improve on our 2018 results – which were pretty darn good in themselves! My daughter has her first birthday coming up and I can’t quite believe that a whole year has gone by. I’ve learnt a lot about myself in the past year and feel more ambitious and driven than ever before.

I’m excited to see what 2019 brings.

Happy New Year!

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The reformed Science GCSEs have presented many challenges. In my presentation, I shared just nine of them and looked at how my team and I have addressed these issues over the last three years.

1.       Increased focus on Maths in Science – we found that students struggled to make the link between what they learnt in Maths and the skills we were asking them to use in Science. With 20% of marks being allocated to assessing Maths skills we needed to overcome this issue. We developed an Introduction to Science unit and taught this at the beginning of Year 9 from September until October half term. This unit is made up of two strands, one being the Maths in Science aspect and the other being Practical Skills. In the Maths in Science strand, we build maths skills into Science contexts with as much practical work as possible so that students can see how maths is used in these situations. We also have a closer working relationship with the Maths department. They have been given a copy of our equations which they can use in lessons and we have also discussed when skills are taught in Maths versus when we will reach them in Science. Another beneficial activity has been to look at the language used by the Maths department so that we can mirror this. For example, we used to talk about rearranging equations but the Maths department teaching students to “solve equations” or “make x the subject” which is a subtle but powerful difference and has broken down some of the barriers we were facing when rearranging equations.

2.       Equations not provided in the exam –  students are now expected to recall 21 equations and may then have to rearrange these equations and complete multi-step calculations. We have been completing weekly equation tests, checking whether students can recall them in either symbol or word form. We also teach students how to rearrange equations during our Maths in Science work.

3.       Terminal exams – students and teachers must get used to having a huge body of knowledge that will be assessed at the end of the course and this has a significant bearing on the messages we give to students about revision. As a school, there has been a drive towards distributed and interleaved revision. Based on the theory of Ebbinghaus and his Forgetting Curve, we need our students to continually review the work from previous units, terms and years so that they don’t forget and don’t have to cram at the last minute. We have produced and provided knowledge organisers for every unit and we have given students access to unit checklists which they can refer to regularly to check their learning. We complete knowledge tests frequently which included interleaved content. Tests may be a simple 10 questions each lesson or may be a full one-hour test. Questions may range from multiple choice to short or long answers. I am also trialling interleaved homework for Year 11 with 10 questions taken from across the whole range of the course.

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4.       Tiers of entry – the boundary between higher and foundation has shifted from the old C/D border and now lies closer to the B/C border with Foundation papers covering grades 1-5 and Higher covering 4-9. With a 5 being the highest possible grade on the Foundation paper, we have to ask ourselves whether students will have a better chance of getting a 5 on the Higher or Foundation paper. Given the fact that the Higher paper will begin with standard demand questions (approximately 40% of the paper) and will then ramp up to higher demand questions (the remaining 60% of the paper, many students may find this challenging. On the Foundation paper, students will be faced with around 60% of questions at low demand and 40% at standard demand. We have decided that if students are not a confident grade 6 then they will sit the Foundation tier as we believe this gives the student the best chance of achieving a grade 5 which may be the best outcome for them. Between now and the exam entry deadline we will be analysing the common questions on the Higher and Foundation mocks very closely to help inform these decisions.

5.       Uncertainty about grade boundaries – with the removal of UMS and the introduction of 9-1 grades, nobody can categorically say what is required to achieve a specific grade. We know the exam boards will use a method called “comparable outcomes” but they can’t begin this process until the exams are completed and marked. We also know that grade 9s will be awarded through a statistical calculation which we cannot replicate. Therefore, we have decided not to apply any grades to work or exam papers at all. Percentages are given so that we can make comparisons and students are encouraged to work towards as high a percentage as possible. This also applies to KS3, so students are moving through the school they are not expecting to receive grades, so the focus can be on improvement of their knowledge and understanding.

6.       Increased amount of content – with a reduction in teaching time at KS4 and a Year 9 programme which lacked purpose, the decision was made to start teaching GCSE in Year 9. We mapped out the curriculum from October Half Term of Year 9 and aimed to finish by Christmas of Year 11. We are approaching this finishing point now, so this will allow us to have a significant period of revision between January and May.

7.       Required practicals assessed through exams – 15% of the marks on the final exams will assess student’s practical skills so it is vital that students realise the importance of the required practicals. However, it is not just the required practicals in isolation that students need to be confident with. They also need to be able to apply knowledge of the apparatus and techniques to different contexts. We have issued all students with a separate lab book for work on the required practicals to ensure students recognise the importance of this work and this makes the work easy to find for revision. Relevant exam questions are used alongside the practical work so there is exposure to plenty of examples, some with slightly varying contexts. As a team, we have departmental sessions where we trial run every practical and work together to identify issues or pitfalls and to try to identify the types of questions that may be asked in each scenario.

8.       Application of knowledge in different contexts – there is an increase in the weighting of AO2 (Application of knowledge) and there are fewer examples stated in the specification. This means there are potentially many more wider contexts that exam questions could focus on and students must show that they can apply their knowledge to these unfamiliar situations. We try to ensure that students are exposed to lots of examples and a wide range of exam questions. This also gives us greater freedom to explore lots of different contexts as part of “normal teaching”.

9.       No single science option – with a huge amount of challenging content and the removal of the “core only” route, low ability students have limited options. We have found it beneficial to deliver the Foundation content via the Entry Level Certificate scheme of learning.

In summing up these challenges, I do feel that they present us with a great opportunity to reflect on what we have always done and improve our daily practice.

Keeping HODs and parents in the know.

As Subject Leader for a core subject (Science) and a relatively big department (10 members of teaching staff) it often seems an impossible task to know what is going on in every corner of my department.

Following the exam results analysis in September, I also realised that as a department we needed to communicate with parents more, and earlier when students were not meeting our expectations.

So, it seemed clear to me that we needed a clear strategy for dealing with concerns and when to contact parents and I needed a simple way of keeping a handle on what was happening across the department. I introduced the following steps to give a structure to our approach when addressing concerns with behaviour, attitude to learning and progress:

  1. Teacher conversation with student
  2. Teacher conversation with parent
  3. Subject leader conversation with student
  4. Subject leader conversation with parent
  5. Subject leader passes concern to Year Team Leader

Ok, so it’s not rocket science! It’s a very simple set of steps but the impact of having this structure in place has been very interesting. Far more emails and phone calls have taken place and issues are dealt with quickly.

We also have a fortnightly information request under the heading “Students Causing Concern” whereby I ask for a simple summary of any students (not just Year 11) causing concern and staff are asked to indicate the steps (from the list) that they have completed so far. This means I get a regular overview of the students who are not performing/behaving/learning as expected and I can identify when an issue needs to be picked up by me as indicated by step 3.

What has also been interesting is that I have not been required to speak to a student because of step 3 being reached. We also have not seen more than 2-3 students appearing on more than one “Students Causing Concern” request.

Feedback from my department has been valuable. They say that this makes them think carefully about what THEY have done before passing something on to me and it helps them to sift out those issues that are a real concern versus those that are just an annoyance.

Having shared our approach with my middle leader colleagues and seeing how positively it was received I thought it was worth sharing here as it may provide some simple ideas for you and your department. For me, it is a definitive thing that we are doing differently, with every hope that it could help improve student outcomes for many years to come.

Why I love…Walking Talking Mocks

I first became aware of Walking Talking Mocks (WTM) through a colleague but my understanding of them developed further when I started attending the PiXL Science Conferences as a newly appointed subject leader.

The idea is to walk students through a mock exam paper whilst explaining the thinking that is going on in your head as you approach each question.

To start with I tried this on a relatively small scale looking at individual questions during revision sessions and showing students how to annotate their papers. The students loved it! They seemed to have more confidence in their own ability to answer the question in front of them.

I introduced this way of approaching exam papers with classes during “normal” lesson time. Again, the students were very positive and they started to use the techniques (annotating the questions before answering them) whenever they were given a mock paper to complete.

The only difficulty I found with the WTM idea at that point was the fact that I was having to read out exactly what I was annotating as I did not have access to a visualiser in my classroom. The students didn’t mind this but from the examples I had seen at the PiXL Conferences I knew that students really needed to see what I was writing and how the paper should look in order to get the most out of it.

My line manager and I also felt that we needed to maximise the impact of this activity by involving bigger groups of students. We had identified two classes who really could go one way or the other in terms of their results and decided they would be ideal candidates for a large scale WTM.

With over 45 students involved in one go we needed a bigger venue so I organised to have the Main Hall set up with exam desks and asked the English Department if I could use one of their visualisers so I could project the exam paper onto the screen in the Main Hall. Every student was given a copy of the exam paper I would be going through, a red pen (to help their annotations stand out) and any other equipment they might need (rulers, data sheets etc). The idea behind using the exam set up in the Main Hall was that it would help students visualise themselves in the actual exam.

I knew that I’d need “on the ground” support with this activity since it would be difficult to manage behaviour issues or queries whilst also going through the paper so another Science teacher (who also taught the classes) and a member of SLT provided this support.

And off we went…over a period of 3-4 weeks we conducted 5 lessons in this way and were able to complete 2 and a half exam papers, one for each Science specialism.

Feedback from the majority of students was very positive. They reported feeling more confident, believing they could answer the papers and could see how straightforward it would be. They were also keen to tell other students and as a result I was asked to run an afterschool session by a group of students whose timetable made it difficult to run a WTM in the Main Hall during lesson time. We had 3o triple chemistry students attend a voluntary afterschool WTM!!

To try and gauge the impact the WTMs were having, I gave the groups “proper” mock exams in exam conditions and it was really interesting to see the improvement for some students. Class level analysis showed that the average grade increased on the Chemistry unit from an E to a D with some astounding individual successes – students who had been just short of C or D grades in previous exams were now hitting those grades confidently. I hope to see a similar picture on results day!

Next year we will be planning in more WTM for larger groups (I’m thinking half a year group at a time!) and having shared my experiences with other Subject Leaders I can see students getting this very valuable experience across many different subject areas.

Have you used Walking Talking Mocks? What has been your experience of them?