The need for ‘Why To’ guides
I’m not a fan of telling people how to do things. OK, that may not strictly speaking be true, but I do believe that just explaining how to solve a problem is unlikely to result in much learning. The best way is to learn is to think about why a problem should be solved.
As teachers we often bemoan the fact that we’re not treated with respect as a profession. There are probably all sorts of reasons for this but one reason is the extent to which we’ve allowed ourselves to be told how we should teach.
Consider how we’re assessed as professionals. Once or twice a year someone will stroll into our classroom, write down some notes, tick off some points on their check list and give us a grading from 1 to 4. They will then tell us what we should and shouldn’t do in the future while we listen attentively and scribble down all their excellent ideas on how we can improve. Sound familiar? Hopefully this is starting to change and it would be lovely to think that their are some new members of the profession who never had to go through this sham, but let’s be realistic.
And think about the things we’re asked to do as teachers:
- Introduce lessons with learning objectives
- Comment based making which avoids grades
- Train students to use peer & self assessment
- Avoid asking for students to put their hands up to answer questions
- Plan three, four (or even five) part lessons
- Review learning every 20 minutes with mini plenaries
So, how has this come to pass? How did we arrive at this sorry state? Well, maybe it’s because few teachers know enough about pedagogy. How many read academic research about teaching? How many have read the works of Hattie or Marzano who have collated such studies? How many have even read the slim volume Inside the Black Box which is the basis for the classroom industry known as assessment for learning? This isn’t an accusation, simply an observation. A few years ago the same charges could have been levelled at me. It’s only a happy accident that I decided to invest time in exploring my profession and I know from my conversations with colleagues that I’m in a minority.
I despair at the way AfL has been abused in classrooms. This is a classic case of teachers concentrating on how to do something without considering why they’re doing it. I’ve seen all sorts of skilfully executed AfL practice which doesn’t have the slightest impact on students’ progress. I’ve seen teachers brandishing lolly sticks to ensure everyone participates in questioning; students assiduously applying mark schemes to each other’s work; all manner of fancy methods for getting students to articulate what they’ve just learned and blooms of post-it notes appearing around rooms full of all sorts of evidence which confirms that students have met the lesson’s objectives. And none of it has made the slightest bit of difference to anyone. Why? Because all too often none of this potentially wonderful stuff makes it in to next lesson’s plan. Because the teacher (and therefore the students) have only the vaguest notion of why they are doing these things. Oh, they know that they’re supposed to do them because they’re mentioned on their observers’ checklists. But beyond that?
Of course the reason why we should doing these things is so that we (and therefore our students) have a clear understanding of what was known before the lesson, what was learned during the lesson and what needs to be learned next lesson. If we are not able to turn these classroom activities into information on which students can act in order to make progress then what’s the point?
I’m not blaming teachers for this – it’s an inevitable part of education’s obsession with quick fixes. If some boffin publishes research on a strategy that can potentially raise students’ attainment it’s a lot easier for someone to tell us what we should be doing rather than worrying us with why we should be doing it. Easier, but not better. Teacher training and INSET is all too often about training teachers how rather than encouraging us to ask why. Compliance is preferred.
Dylan Wiliam talks about getting teachers to stop doing ‘good things’ and focus instead on doing better things. Professional development should, he says, be predicated on a Weight Watchers model. We all know that eating less and taking regular exercise is the way to lose weight and we also have plenty of evidence that assessment for learning is one of the most effective ways to raise students’ attainment. If you’re going to spend your time thinking about doing anything else in the classroom you owe it to your students to have considered why it’s worth doing.
I’ve had lots of folks asking me to tell them how to ‘do SOLO’ recently. My heart sinks at this. I’m very happy to explain why I think it should be used but I’m really not interested in putting together a list of SOLO strategies for people to misunderstand and misuse. It took a lot of reading, discussing and thinking to decide that it might be worth trying to incorporate SOLO into my lesson planning. But once I’d made that decision, working out how to use was (relatively) straightforward because I understood the point. I shudder at the thought of loads of well meaning teachers telling their colleagues to ‘do SOLO’ and it having little or no impact on the students on whom it will be subjected.
Likewise, a lot of the objections I’ve been confronted with on why teachers might not want to use SOLO make it painfully clear that they have very little understanding of what it is.
So, here are my top 5 reasons for using SOLO:
1. It is a helpful way for teachers to plan learning outcomes which concentrate on complexity rather than difficulty as understanding moves from the superficial to the deep
2. Progress from one SOLO level to the next is implicit
3. It provides a common language for learning which helps teachers and students understand how progress can be made
4. It can help teachers to plan lessons which take account of prior knowledge to provide effective differentiation
5. Once the language has been understood it can be integrated effortlessly into schemes of learning and used effectively alongside any pedagogical technique
If you don’t think these things are worthwhile or think that I’m mistaken, then for pity’s sake don’t waste your time: read, discuss and THINK about what is important and find something which helps your students to learn better.
If you think this looks like an attractive list of reasons then go away and work how you can implement it. By all means share your thinking with others. But please don’t just ask how to do it. The process of getting it wrong and refining your ideas will make you a better teacher.