Möbius Strip

Lost in the Funhouse, John Barth’s 1968 collection of sometimes disturbing, sometimes playful, sometimes absurd short stories, begins with Frame-Tale.

The first part of this piece of micro-fiction is a set of instructions: “Cut on dotted line. Twist end once and fasten AB to ab, CD to cd.”

The second part looks like this.

The resultant narrative is perpetual and circular, forming a Möbius strip which seemingly has no real sense of beginning or ending.

The cycle of school life across an academic year and the process of school improvement can occasionally feel like a journey around a Möbius strip.

You think you’re starting in September, the beginning of an academic year, but much of the narrative has been set up well before this during the previous circuits around the twisted loop. Traditions, systems, expectations, habits, processes: many of these things are well (or poorly) established prior to the start of September.

As you go around the cycle of the year, you spot things you’ve seen previously: from school performances to sports days, from students in heightened state of focus brought on by being in the midst of the exam period to students leaping in the air as local news hacks take photos on their results day.

In less structured, less organised, worse led schools, progress around this circuit can be frenetic, stressful, as if you’re lost in the funhouse. You may know what’s coming next, but what’s coming next is frightening – there may also be the occasional nightmarish surprise which will raise your blood pressure to disastrous levels.

A far more pleasurable journey round the Möbius strip can be found where there is clarity, coherence and consistency around attendance, behaviour, curriculum, teaching, assessment, pastoral structures and extra-curricular opportunities. Where these expectations, systems, routines and habits are not established, it can feel like initiatives are being hurled at you in an attempt to knock you from the circuit of the strip. Where they are in place, there is clarity in the purpose for and the shared ways of working. This allows systems and structures to be enhanced, amended or reformed each year without causing confusion and panic. Importantly, they can then have a far more positive impact on the people making their way around the circuit.

Lessons from Secondary Curriculum and Assessment Design

Over the Easter weekend of 2018, I’ve been re-reading Summer Turner’s book on Secondary Curriculum and Assessment Design. The book is a great primer on these two weighty aspects of school development and points the reader in the direction of plenty of further reading. Turner makes her own position on curriculum and assessment design very clear whilst also providing some balance by suggesting sources of information relating to other schools of thought.

Following a self-assessment tool, which is designed to unpick what the reader knows about these two core educational concepts already, Turner begins with the premise that expertise, in terms of curriculum design in schools, has been in decline over the last three decades. She suggests this has been caused by:

  • The centralisation of curriculum design due to the introduction of the National Curriculum and the implementation of the National Strategies.
  • The centralisation of assessment and subsequent narrowing of the curriculum due to SATS, levels and APP.
  • Further narrowing of the curriculum due to accountability measures in the form of league tables, floor standards and OFSTED.

Turner highlights an opportunity, resulting from the end of national curriculum levels and academy freedoms, to redevelop the curriculum but this requires a rejuvenation in curriculum expertise at whole school and subject level.

Lesson 1: Answer these fundamental questions

Turner suggests using, as a starting point, Ralph Turner’s questions (Basic Principles of Curriculum and Instruction):

  1. What educational purposes should a school seek to attain?
  2. What learning experiences can you select to achieve these purposes?
  3. How can you effectively organise these experiences to best achieve your purposes?
  4. How can you evaluate the effectiveness of these experiences?

Much of the rest of the book explores Turner’s reading, thinking and actions in response to these questions.

Lesson 2: Read the experts’ views

Turner provides some brief summaries of the work of the following thinkers on curriculum and assessment (other schools of thought are available):

  • E.D Hirsch
  • Michael Young
  • Paulo Freire
  • Daniel Willingham
  • Dylan Wiliam
  • Daisy Christodoulou
  • Tim Oates
  • Ron Berger
  • Carol Dweck

Turner points out that there is a vast body of work by academics and education experts on both curriculum and assessment. Much of it is conflicting. The trick, whilst not closing your eyes and ears to views different to your own. is to prioritise the theory and research which ties most clearly to your purpose and values. This way, you end up with something coherent whilst also remaining open to challenges to your thinking.

Lesson 3: Carefully consider each of these factors in designing your curriculum

  • Determine the purpose of your curriculum
  • Decide your key principles and values
  • Set your expectations
  • Determine the big ideas
  • Define the content
  • Establish the sequence
  • Plan how and when you will review

Lesson 4: Carefully consider each of these factors in designing your model of assessment(s)

  • Determine the purpose of your assessment(s), ensuring it links to the purpose of your curriculum
  • Establish your assessment principles
  • Set your assessment expectations
  • Define your big assessment ideas
  • Check your assessment content covers a sample of your curriculum
  • Ensure your assessment sequence is clear across a term, a year and a Key Stage
  • Plan how you will review and refine your assessments

Lesson 5: Make it happen

Much of the above is about whole school thinking and establishing fertile soil in which faculties or departments can work to set out and deliver their own curriculum plans as well as assess their impact. Turner makes the following suggestions to make this process effective in practice:

  1. Communicate your vision, values and expectations clearly in a manner that teachers will buy into.
  2. Use examples, from within your own school where possible, which align with what you expect.
  3. Ensure curriculum areas are able to provide an outline of their curriculum. Turner believes this should include a philosophy/purpose behind the subject; definition of the big ideas; the key areas of factual or procedural knowledge which make up the subject. She argues that this should be mapped back from the next stage in the students’ education and that aspects of sequencing and interleaving should be carefully considered.
  4. Expect faculties to produce an assessment map which defines the forms of assessment to be used and how these tie to the curriculum, what can be inferred from each assessment type, when each assessment type will be used and how feedback will be provided.
  5. Build a bank, over time, of high quality models and ensure teachers have the subject expertise to model for students and select models of work during lessons.
  6. Provide training to key staff in the designing and reviewing of the curriculum and its associated assessments. Turner finishes the book off with some suggestions as to how you might go about doing this.

“I woke up and brushed my teeth.”

I’m been trying out the planning structure which I’ve written about here with some trickier tasks. A couple of months ago on Twitter, I asked for suggestions for mundane images or first sentences with which I could road test the strategy. David Williams (@davowilz) suggested “I woke up and brushed my teeth.” Below is my attempt at a story, followed by the plan. @MissAliceRQT has produced these examples too.

I woke up and brushed my teeth. Misshapen and covered in plaque and worn away, I can barely look at them without flinching. What these teeth have seen, what they have experienced, I could not bring myself to consider for long. I continue scrubbing at them to clear away the yellowing memories. Then there was that fuzzy, fluttering noise again. I splash my face in ice-water before wrapping my whole head in the warm darkness of a towel. Its fluffiness is so comforting, so safe.

For a moment, I am away from the memory of her.

She’s makes me do it. She made me do it and it’s all I have left of her. Last night was the most recent time. I hope it will be the last.

It was close to midnight and I was outside another bedroom. The lights were out and there was a light, sniffling snore lingering on the other side of the door. Why do parents insist they shut their children’s creeky doors tight with their squeaky little handles?

Still, they’re no obstacle for me.

In seconds I’m inside, creeping – I’m not even on tiptoes – taking what I’d come for. The darkness follows me inside. Light as a fairy.

She shouldn’t have made me do this. I’m sure that stupid fluttering noise will give me away one day, but not this time. I’m in and I’ve taken what I need from the slumbering infant and I’m out again. A thief.

I finish with the towel, putting it back on the radiator. It still smells of her cloudy fuzz of perfume. I can’t bring myself to wash it. We only buried her last week. There was a toothy grin on her face as she was masticated by the earth itself. It’s what she would have wanted.

I notice a speck of blood on the towel. In the mirror, I see my gum is bleeding. I cannot clean all these teeth she has made me take. Misshapen and covered in plaque and worn away – like the yellowing memories of my tooth-fairy mother.

Thoughts/Feelings/Mood + Contrasts

  • Fatigue vs Vivacity
  • Dreary vs Energised/
  • Cleanliness vs Grubbiness
  • Harsh realities vs Imagined success

Motif 

  • Towel – safety, security, warmth
  • Wings – escape, freedom

Drop

Deliberately mundane. Bathroom – Single glazed. Chill draft. Cold feet. Personify the tooth brush? scraping/rubbing… Wipe away excess paste. Wrap self up in towel – warmth, greater darkness. Repeat toothbrushing – leave hints he’s a tooth fairy.

Shift

Previous evening – make sinister, shadows, creeping into bedroom, stealing.

Return and Zoom

Zoom in on the towel. Mother gave to him. Smell of her.

Flashback to mother’s funeral. Flowers, cards, donations to…

Zoom and Leave

Gums bleeding from anxiety of being unable to clean all teeth. Reprise toothbrushing and mundane comment.


Body of Evidence

Having looked at the effective selection of evidence in a previous post, I thought it about time I wrote something about the ways we get students to make use of the quotations and other evidence they select in responding to texts.

Madona uses candlelight to locate quotations in increasingly challenging literary texts.

When students who have less control over their analytical writing attempt to use evidence, it can read a little like this:

“Mixed up together like bees in a hive” this shows priestly thinks we should work together more.

What we do about this ‘floundering in the shallow end’ approach to using evidence is so important if our students are to develop a more convincing, analytical and critical voice.

In the past, I’ve produced and seen other English teachers produce lists of phrases which students can use to introduce quotations. My hope, at the time, was that this would help them pretend to embed quotations into sentences. The intention was that this would stop them jarringly dropping quotations at the start of a clumsy, stumbling dribble like the example above. Many moons ago, I shamefully created a PEE Generator which you can see a section of here:

What I’d like to do in the rest of this post will borrow from the methodology used by Jim Carroll (@jcarrollhistory) in this blog about historical explanation writing. Carroll explores how different historians craft historical explanations. His assertion is that the way many history teachers train their students to produce this style of writing is too distant from academic discourse – the writing frames they utilise are overly generic.

In a similar way, I’d like to explore how literary essayists take control of the evidence, shaping it so that it fits neatly into the body of their writing.

To do this, I’ve focused on five extracts of essays on Hamlet, collected by Harold Bloom in his Shakespeare Through the Ages. These extracts can be found at the end of this post. I’ve labelled each one with a source number (A-E) for ease of reference in the remainder of the post. Each of them makes use of direct quotation from versions of the script.

The first thing worth noting, before we even look at these specific sources, is that, compared to a GCSE English Literature response, the essays Bloom selected contain very few direct quotations. This has made me wonder whether, as a result of our obsession with Assessment Objectives and marking rubrics and our attempt to push as many students over a specific threshold of achievement, we have come to fetishise the quotation as a form of evidence. In his 1919 piece Hamlet and His Problems, T.S Eliot includes two quotations – both used to call into question the artistic quality of Shakespeare’s writing.

It is very difficult to find an example in the collection which follows the pattern:

  1. Here’s what I think.
  2. Look at this evidence that proves what I think.
  3. Now read how/why the evidence I’ve chosen proves what I think.

This seems to echo the findings of my not so scientific experiment.

The way the essayists in Bloom’s selection manipulate evidence is mostly very different to the way we train our students to do so at secondary level. It’s certainly a country mile from the model I developed in my PEE Generator.

So, what do these essayists do?

  1. They use quotations to demonstrate their knowledge of key aspects of the play’s narrative, then question and explore what Shakespeare is highlighting in terms of a character’s motivations (Sources A and C).
  2. They thread quotations into a description of the audience’s reaction to the characters. (Source B)
  3. They use longer quotations, hanging outside the prose of the essay, as if to say “Taddaaaa! This proves what I just wrote.” (Sources C, D and E)
  4. They use a string of quotations from the same scenes or sometimes from different parts of the play to support what they’re saying about wider events which support an overarching line of argument rather than an isolated “point.” (Sources B, C and E)

The fundamental commonality between all of these examples is that the quotation falls into the overall line of argument which the writers have in mind. Though it arguably provides students, who are novices in terms of analytical writing, with a structure for an individual paragraph, a substantial concern I have with PEE or its derivatives is that it doesn’t help students to develop a thread through their literary response. Instead, they create isolated clunky chunks which form a less coherent mass.

What we should be doing is teaching students this wider range of ways to utilise evidence through exemplification and modelling, explanation and opportunities for them to practice.

Source A

In the final scene, mortally wounded and having killed Claudius, Hamlet hears the “warlike noise” (5.2.349) of Fortinbras’s approaching army and declares, ”I do prophesy th’ election lights / On Fortinbras; he has my dying voice” (5.2.35556). What could possibly justify Hamlet’s urging Fortinbras’s succession? These words are either spoken ironically or are the stoical observation of someone who knows that even Alexander the Great and Caesar return to dust.

2005—James Shapiro. From A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare, 1599

Source B

Shakespeare gives Fortinbras the last word on this, but that word is irony, since Fortinbras represents only the formula of repetition: like father, like son. “The soldier’s music and the rite of war” speak loudly for the dead father, but not for this dead son, who had watched the army of Fortinbras march past to gain its little patch of ground and had mused that: “Rightly to be great / Is not to stir without great argument.” The reader’s last word has to be Horatio’s, who more truly than Fortinbras has Hamlet’s dying voice: “and from his mouth whose voice will draw on more,” which only in a minor key means draw more supporters to the election of Fortinbras.

1986—Harold Bloom, “Introduction” from Hamlet (Bloom’s Modern Critical Interpretations)

Source C:

Hamlet himself sees from the first that the Ghost may be an instrument of darkness sent to ensnare his soul, and the doubts which appear in his first words to the Ghost are the best possible reason for not rushing, thoughtlessly, to his revenge:

“Angels and Ministers of grace defend us: Be thou a spirit of health, or goblin damn’d, Bring with thee ayres from heaven, or blasts from hell, Be thy intents wicked, or charitable, Thou com’st in such a questionable shape. . . .” (1.4.39–43)

Horatio is more certain that the apparition is infernal and may yet ‘assume some other horrable forme’ to ‘deprive your soveraigntie of reason’ and ‘draw you into madness’ (1.4.72–4).

1987—Graham Bradshaw. “Hamlet and the Art of Grafting,” from Shakespeare’s Scepticism

Source D:

If there is one quality that has characterized, and will characterize, every speech of Gertrude’s in the play, it is the ability to see reality clearly, and to express it. This talent is not lost when turned upon herself:

“O Hamlet, speak no more! Thou turn’st mine eyes into my very soul, And there I see such black and grained spots As will not leave their tinct.” (III.iv.88–91)

She knows that lust has driven her, that this is her sin, and she admits it. Not that she wishes to linger in the contemplation of her sin. No more, she cries, no more. And then the Ghost appears to Hamlet. The Queen thinks him mad again—as well she might—but she promises Hamlet that she will not betray him—and she does not.

1957—Carolyn Heilbrun . “The Character of Hamlet’s Mother,” from Shakespeare Quarterly

Source E

Finally, Hamlet’s melancholy accounts for two things which seem to be explained by nothing else. The first of these is his apathy or ‘lethargy’. We are bound to consider the evidence which the text supplies of this, though it is usual to ignore it. When Hamlet mentions, as one possible cause of his inaction, his ‘thinking too precisely on the event’, he mentions another, ‘bestial oblivion’; and the thing against which he inveighs in the greater part of that soliloquy (IV. iv.) is not the excess or the misuse of reason (which for him here and always is godlike), but this bestial oblivion or ‘dullness’, this ‘letting all sleep’, this allowing of heaven-sent reason to ‘fust unused’:

“What is a man, If his chief good and market of his time Be but to sleep and feed? a beast, no more.” 26

So, in the soliloquy in II. ii. he accuses himself of being ‘a dull and muddymettled rascal’, who ‘peaks [mopes] like John-a-dreams, unpregnant of his cause’, dully indifferent to his cause.27 So, when the Ghost appears to him the second time, he accuses himself of being tardy and lapsed in time ; and the Ghost speaks of his purpose being almost blunted, and bids him not to forget (cf. ‘oblivion’). And so, what is emphasised in those undramatic but significant speeches of the player-king and of Claudius is the mere dying away of purpose or of love. Surely what all this points to is not a condition of excessive but useless mental activity (indeed there is, in reality, curiously little about that in the text), but rather one of dull, apathetic, brooding gloom, in which Hamlet, so far from analysing his duty, is not thinking of it at all, but for the time literally forgets it.

1904—A . C . Bradley . From Shakespearean Tragedy

Litteranguage – Part 3

So far in this series I’ve explored whether the English Language GCSE provides an adequate curriculum and assessment model. In this post, we’ll explore how well it gauges the “progress” which individuals or cohorts of students have made between Key Stage 2 and Key Stage 4.

Separations

There are some studies – this one from the EEF probably being the most notable – which have explored whether KS2 data can act as a useful predictor of KS4 performance. Apparently, it was at the time the data in the report was produced if fine scores rather than levels were used. I’ve yet to come across a report which does the opposite – namely establishing whether the GCSE actually provides us with useful information on students’ progress since they took their KS2 assessments. If you know of one, please send it my way.

Despite this, there are three key areas I’d like to explore here that call into question whether GCSE results do provide us with a useful gauge of progress:

  1. How far are the assessment frameworks similar?
  2. How far are the question types similar, taking into consideration the need for heightened expectations for Key Stage 4?
  3. How far are the conditions in which the assessments take place similar?

Different Class

A couple of years ago, I wrote a post about the KS2 English tests from a secondary English teacher’s perspective.

I shared this table which is an attempt to consider how each aspect of the KS2 content domain ties in with the Assessment Objectives for GCSE English.

Producing this grid makes it clear that, although there are undoubtedly clear connections between the skills required at Key Stage 2 and Key Stage 4, there is now more clearly (and rightly so I think) a wider gap between the two levels than there was when we were all using the same Assessment Focuses during the APP days of yore.

What’s more interesting, as it has greater implications in terms of the gauging of progress is that writing is not included in this measure. At KS4, writing constitutes 50% of a student’s overall marks and therefore their grade. Writing is assessed at KS2, but this is carried out through teacher assessment. Michael Tidd (@michaelt1979) has written interestingly on this – in particular, the issues around moderation and defining levels of independence.

In addition, when you look at the reading questions at KS2, they are almost rigidly fixed to a specific area of the content domain. This is not as clearly the case with the English language GCSE (certainly that of AQA). An example of this is the evaluation question, which I’ve explored in the past here. This sometimes loose connection makes it difficult to make comparisons.

This is Hardcore

There’s little doubt that the current Key Stage 2 Assessment framework is challenging for children in Year 6. The difference though between the manner and modes of assessment at Key Stages 2 and 4 with students having to complete far longer responses to texts and two solo pieces of writing with no redrafting, make the measurement of progress between the two key stages somewhat ridiculous.

High Point, Low Point, Cardboard Box

I had a bit of a breakthrough moment with some students the other day in terms of Paper 1 Question 3 of the AQA English GCSE.

I did a dance in class. My students didn’t think it was a dance and to be fair they were (probably) right – some of them do dance BTEC and it wouldn’t even have ticked the boxes for the pass criteria. However, I think it may have helped with the question.

In many ways, considering structure in writing is like examining how a great dancer fuses flashdance with MC Hammer.

An issue a colleague of mine had unpicked was that quite a number of our students had been approaching question 3 by going through the text in a linear fashion – exploring structural features at the beginning, then in the middle, then at the end. Interestingly, this appeared to be limiting the points they were making. In their minds they were overcomplicating it or getting confused and writing too little. She’d worked out that a beginning, end, turning point approach was helping her students. I tried this and, like her students, mine began to move forwards. However, in some of the sample papers and the papers teachers have shared on Twitter, either the ending is the turning point or the turning point is so close to the ending that students find it tricky to spot the difference – sometimes there isn’t a turning point at all and sometimes the line is blurred between the ending and the turning point.

My revelatory moment came (and this is very straightforward so be prepared not to be shocked but it’s helped students so you may want to use it) when I began to use the terms high point and low point alongside turning point.

  • Where is the high point in the tension?
  • When is the low point in the protagonist’s happiness?
  • Where is the turning point in the character’s luck?

Of course, you could use climax and anti-climax as other, more literary terms are available, but having these three terms has just begun to help my students get a grip as they feel more consistent.

Plus, I get to do a bad dance.

Stand back! You’re about to be expertised.

It feels as if the last few years in teaching circles have seen a resurgence of debate about the primacy of knowledge – particularly that of the declarative kind. There has been a proliferation in the publication of books and blogs debunking the once prevalent application of Bloom’s taxonomy as a means to skim and skip past knowledge (of which, this is one of my favourites). We have ‘knowledge organisers’; knowledge based curricula and knowledge rich schools. Much of this stems from the work of E.D. Hirsch and its influence on current government policy. “Knowledge is power.”

Two possible futures are playing on my mind currently which, if we overly-fetishise declarative knowledge, we could end up making a reality.

Chunk says, “Chunk it.”

The first is that we may end up with some students who know some or even lots of pieces of knowledge without effectively developing an overall schema, making useful links between the isolated pieces of information they have learnt.

Just like many other schools, we have been producing knowledge organisers. I’ve written about this process here. We’ve been creating them for Year 7 and 8 first and have (again like many other schools) focused on using various self-quizzing strategies, including look/cover/write/check and flash cards during the first proper year of their usage. To a certain extent, I still think this sensible. Taking on too much can prevent things ever becoming embedded.

However, my current concern is that the way we’ve led students towards this still encourages them to learn particles of knowledge in isolation. I’m moving towards favouring a model of either designing or using knowledge organisers which look more like Kris Boulton’s suggestions here. This would, I suspect, trigger students to generate stronger links between the declarative knowledge on the organisers than learning the knowledge in discrete pieces. Unless schools move beyond quizzing the particles, fewer students will generate the chunks. This requires very careful consideration at curriculum level of the relationships between elements of declarative knowledge in our own school’s curriculum as well as clear thinking about how we can draw on elaborative interrogation, self-explanation and graphic organisers. It doesn’t bode well for schools who are lifting knowledge organisers from other schools and unthinkingly using them as teaching tools. The likelihood is that these schools will believe knowledge organisers don’t work in a couple of year’s time, because they didn’t consider the implementation carefully enough.

This vehicle is reversing expertise.

My second concern stems from some reading around what cognitive scientists call the expertise reversal effect. It is that, in making declarative knowledge the main thing, schools could hold some students back.

In their book, Efficiency in Learning: Evidence Based Guidelines to Manage Cognitive Load, Sweller et al maintain that “Many of the instructional methods that are effective for novices either have no effect or in some cases, depress the learning of learners with more expertise.”

They then propose these differences:

Numbers 27 and 28 are really important here as they highlight the risks faced if teachers spend too long on recall or quizzing in lessons where they are teaching students with relatively high levels of expertise in the content being covered. As students increase their expertise in a specific domain, so the level of guidance required from a teacher in that aspect of the domain needs to be reduced. This doesn’t mean open-ended, project based learning. Instead, it requires carefully designed opportunities for students to apply their declarative knowledge of the domain, developing procedural knowledge in increasingly challenging circumstances to consolidate what they know.

As David Didau points out in this post, it will take carefully designed assessments to ensure we go neither too fast nor too slow.