Friday, 22 February 2013

Unlocking the Power of Progress

I was recently asked to run a session for an INSET day on 'Progress for Outstanding Learning'.  It got me thinking about the tricky issue of how a teacher can get students making real tangible progress and also show that progress is taking place.  I researched and mulled over the issue in great detail in the two weeks leading up to the session and gathered together far too many ideas! I have it drilled down to four key areas that help me focus on progress. I hope they help you too.

Lesson Objectives:
Lesson objectives are the foundation blocks of learning. If you get them wrong and build your lesson around a dodgy lesson objective the whole structure will collapse. The lesson will not work as it should, it needs those strong foundations to stand firm and tall.   As an NQT I remember working for hours, planing lovely activities and spend loads of time preparing resources. I would go in proud of my hard work, only to find that the students were not actually progressing. They were busy and often very happy working but ask them and they did not see the point of the task or how it linked to the bigger picture. When I asked a colleague about this they replied in horror "gosh, don't ask them! What do they know?" This just didn't sit right with me - I was not getting the results I wanted. I set about finding out what I was doing wrong and righting those wrongs. 

No purposeful progress was being made because I was not focusing the students on the right things to help them move on in their learning. Getting the objectives right is essential for the teacher and the students. I started to look at the bigger picture first then zoom in to the smaller, zoom out and zoom in. I started to have a really clear focus and understanding of the assessment criteria, end game and skills I needed them to acquire to do well in that topic. The results were immediate, their progress rocketed. Once I had this understanding, all I needed to do was to translate the skills into objectives that allow progress and form tasks around that. Clear, simple and effective.

As I have said, in the past I have been guilty of the task based lesson objective. I have seen the error of my ways. Now I always keep the objectives focused and the at the central of all the activities I set up in the lesson.  Too many times I have observed a teacher who has worked so hard on the tasks set in the lesson but none have been helping the students to progress.  I really feel for them when all that hard work has gone into the preparation. It's easy to remedy, skills focused not tasks focused objectives and form your activities around them. Build the progress step by step.  Yes you want them to complete the task but that is an expectation not an objective to help them progress.

Here are some ideas that you can dip in and out of to keep your students focused and get them to engage with the objectives you are setting out for them.

Marking Matters:
In a recent and extensive study looking at the impact of different elements on the learning and progress of students, Professor John Hattie found feedback to be one of the most important factors.  I could not agree more. Good quality feedback that students are guided to use well is immensely powerful.  I will not talk extensively here about my views on marking as I have already blogged about it here.

Judging Progress:
There are hundreds of wild and wonderful ways to check, gauge or judge progress overtly in the lesson.  I can hear a few teachers at the back muttering something about not being performing monkeys - I completely agree! There was a short time when I too felt that all that stuff was just for show. I remember thinking it was fun but not real learning. I could not have been further from the truth.  We should not be expected to put on a silly, over the top show every time an observer is in the room.  I am suggesting that we need to bring some small routines into our everyday lessons. These routines will not only help observers see the progress being made but also help you and the students see it too.  Making the learning visible is great for getting pupils to see others in the class progressing and understanding how they got there. They are modelling learning for you. In doing this they are helping one another to progress while you sit back as a proud teacher.

I simply do not believe that a teacher 'just knows' when students are progressing, we are not bloomin' psychic.  Well most of us aren't anyway!  It is essential that we actually dip in and check the learning is taking place. We also need to check where the students are within that learning so we can adapt what we are doing for all students.  For me it is not good enough to just leave it until I mark their books to see if they 'got it' - the learning time has gone then, it's too late.  Some feel that students won't know if they have progressed.  If that happens in my class I feel like I have failed.  I immediately go back and look at how I can help them see the steps for progression in this area.  Empower them, they need to take charge of their own progress and need us to show them the way. 

Below are a few ideas that help you quickly judge the progress being made  to pick up and use on Monday if you choose. They can be used as a plenary or a mini planers at any point the lesson.

Traffic Light - We have the red, amber, green cards in our students planners but if you don't a simple set of three coloured pieces of card or paper on the desk of each student will do.  Red for 'help I'm struggling'. Amber for 'I'm ok but could do with some more help'.  Green for 'I'm happy I know what I'm doing here'.
Thumbs - Similar idea to the traffic light but with thumbs up, middle and down to indicate their stage.  This one needs no preparation - bonus.
Don't Tell - Hold back the objective.  Tell them the tasks they will be doing in the lesson and get them to figure out the objective.  They can move on to deciding how they can be successful too.  Real connection with the point of the tasks they are doing.
WWW + EBI  - Get the students to assess What Went Well in the lesson for them and to decide and Even Better If.  They are showing what they know and planning for future progression.
Learning Triangle - 1 thing I already knew, 2 things I learnt today, 3 things I would like to find out next lesson.  Get them tiering up their learning, building on past learning and planning for future learning all in one little activity.
Question Box - A box in the classroom that can have questions popped in it at any point in the lesson.  e questions can be anonymous to avoid fear of asking and don't even need to be shared with the class.  The teacher can check the questions box at various points in the lesson and allow the questions and gaps in knowledge to inform the lesson as it progresses.
Mini Whiteboards - Simple as you like. Pose a question to check learning and ask them to write the answer on the mini whiteboards and hold it up to the front. A sea of answers. Immediately you can see where everyone is. Again I have seen these as part of the student planner - very handy.
Face Rate - Again this is the same principle as the traffic lights. Smiley face for confident, neutral face for unsure or ok and frown for need more help.
Good Old Fashioned Redrafting - If your marking routines are right then redrafting can be hugely powerful.  They need user friendly and clear tips for improvement and then this works a dream.

High Aspirations:
Half the battle with students making progress is their lack of self belief.  They have to believe they can achieve and trust in us that we are there to guide them.  I care a great deal about getting the very best out of all of my students.  If my students don't do well I always look to myself before pointing the finger at them or their past performance.  top set to bottom set, I ensure they all know that I believe they can achieve and will fight to get them to do the same. 

In a previous school I was given the great opportunity of work with a HMI inspector in a consultancy capacity.  Over the course of the day I realised how much I had achieved in my role at the time and learnt a great deal from him.  I was working in a very much comprehensive Inner-London school at the time. we were discussing the targets that I was working with and my plans for the team when he paused, looked me straight in the eye and asked a question that has changed the way I think about student achievement and progress.   "If the circumstances were right; teachers, timetabling, management, environment etc... what would you say you would expect a year group to achieve in terms of A*-C in your subject?" I barely had a moment to think about what I was saying before I blurted out "100%."  It was the strangest feeling, it just felt right, of course 100% of students can get a C if the provision and approach is right for them.  We have them for 5 years!  With every class I teach I will work tirelessly to ensure that they have what they need from me in order to achieve what they can.  If it is not working I change it up and take a different approach, I don't blame them. 

I am great believer in reflection, hard graft and commitment in teachers and students alike. I constantly reflect on my teaching and their learning and work hard in order to get the very best I can from them. I aim to get them to do the same during their time with me.

Raise the bar and they will strive to reach it.


  1. I agree with most of what you have written but I would like to raise some concerns about in lesson feedback to measure progress. Direct questions, mini whiteboard answers well structured group feedback such as a jigsaw activity are all great, individual discussions and verbal feedback is often the method in practical subjects with students acting on the feedback (sometimes referred to as studio teaching). I always regard the thumbs up, traffic light type voting as a very ineffectual method of student feedback on progress, a bit lazy and sloppy it takes a very brave student to thumbs down when the rest of the class are thumbs up.

  2. Fair points made Alan. I suppose I would have to say that it is all about knowing your class. Those activities should not be the only wa you check, but if you train your students well enough they should be able to judge themselves, whatever format that takes. This can empower students if used well.

    Thank you for your feedback.

  3. Love the way this post is structured and leads teachers through what they need to do (over a sustained period of time!!) to support outstanding learning (not just to tick the box of outstanding teaching because that's what SLT want.

  4. The only thing I would add is the AfL has to be more than 'traffic lighting' etc...otherwise there's too much wiggle room for less-confident students to hide