We like lists because we don’t want to die.
Hello all. Instead of writing a comprehensive report on the goings on at the latest #mathsconf in Peterborough this weekend, I’ve decided for reasons of efficiency, saving time and my sanity, to boil my findings down to the 10 things that had most of an impact on my thoughts. Hopefully you’ll find this just as useful, if not more so!
As Wikipedia showed, people are willing to share their knowledge and insight for the greater good, in their own time, without being paid.
I do not have any grudge against people who charge for sharing their time. Our profession has ever increasing demands on our time, and so whatever we can offer, and yet hundreds of people showed up on Saturday to learn about, share ideas on and celebrate the teaching of our subject. You cannot argue against this idea, and I want to personally thank everyone involved for all of their contributions – particularly the speakers and La Salle for putting everything together, but also people like Rob Smith (aka @rjs2122) who ran the tuck shop and the raffle without any expectation.
What can be seen as ‘traditional’ should carry no less weight for being so.
Andrew Taylor’s opening speech had much of what could be seen as ‘old school’ thought that unsurprisingly still holds consideration presently:
- The Cockcroft report stating that we should not believe that it is fair for students to be entered for an assessment where they can only attempt a third of the Mathematics covered in the paper (he was talking about the CSE then, never mind the new GCSE).
- The influence of SMP – developing and nuturing coherent approaches and pedagogy, not just resources and CPD; bringing users together; creating a curriculum model that drove assessment, not the other way round.
- The example of leadership in Mathematics as a way to create opportunities for staff, understanding that good Maths teachers are rare and valuable, and that they should exercise that potential power.
- The adage “whatever management tells you to do, don’t do it unless it helps students” – can this be argued with?
- Nobody gets clever by sitting an exam: we have to understand the purpose, timing and assessment framework when putting together tests so that they are right and proper for the stage of a student’s learning – interestingly, Taylor stated that “teaching to the test is the right thing to do if the assessment is purposeful in it’s aims”. We can argue either way if the new GCSE is purposeful or not – but that is not a troubling thought taken out of present context.
There is still a place for intellectual approaches in the leadership and management of departments.
Ben Ward (aka @MrBenWard) and I took the stage in the first group of sessions to talk about data. Whilst I looked more at the practical opportunities to record, monitor and analyse data, Ben made connections to the wider running of a department and links to school leadership. One point that was made in our talk is that data in itself is not the end – it is the means to help make decisions, and widely, part of a set of tools in the case for forming arguments, i.e. the use of ethos, pathos and logos to form a rhetorical case.
- Ethos in terms of appealing to authority – i.e. in the case of your teachers, using their professionalism to come to a conclusion of where to take a group of students forward to improve their understanding. In terms of management, demonstrating that you have a clear handle on the progress of students and what it is that needs to be focused on to make the greatest difference;
- Pathos in terms of appealing to emotion – how do you get your staff to own and care about their data? By helping them see the bigger picture and how thought and planning on their part will not just impact on the life chances of those in their care, but also for them to see the contribution their efforts make on the greater performance of the department;
- Logos in terms of appealing to the facts – gut feeling and hearsay is not enough. By providing objectivity to what are often subjective arguments, effort can be targeted more properly and in a more structure fashion.
Cynics may say that you should not have to persuade staff to take a course of action based on data – that staff should have the freedom to make their own decisions because they are professionals. I would retort with that idea that it is because they are professionals that they should use every scrap of evidence and support to help the make better judgements about their planning and interventions.
Some people think that the designing of questions and a marking policy is a complex process, but I can assure you it’s even more complex than that.
Ben Stafford gave a wonderful insight into how assessments are written and the level of detail that goes into getting a question right. I discovered some insights that I will take away when writing questions to test student understanding:
- Ask questions that are unfamiliar – are you truly testing students if it’s completely obvious what they’re being asked to do?
- Front load information, and ensure it’s laid out in a way that anything key doesn’t lack clarity.
- Do give a clue to how students should answer.
- Remember that in assessments parts of questions are independent of each other – if students can’t answer part a) of a question that should not prevent them from answering part b).
- Avoid the need for students to assume a line of thinking. Set out the parameters of the question carefully, thinking about the language you use. Use as few words as possible, but enough for a student to understand what the question is asking.
There was also the argument regards reliability and validity. If you test enough students, you’ll get a statistically reliable result. But is it valid? Where you are giving marks for partially correct questions there has to be a level of structure in the mark scheme for validation to occur.
Even in an arena without politics, some people can still pursue an agenda.
I can appreciate why someone might ask about how one caters for EAL students in assessments. But Ben’s talk was not the right time, not was it the right stage or environment. There are lots of questions to be answered in that regard, but it was unfair to put Ben on the spot.
Don’t overthink things.
Optimise the amount of questions you ask to get student to an objective, rather than bombarding them with practice.
I am a great fan of Craig Jeavons‘ work – practical, easy to follow ideas that can be implemented very quickly. As well as reiterating principles laid out by the likes of Bruno Reddy on working on the right foundations, building a culture for learning in your classroom, he also talked about how with whatever concepts you want to bring to your teaching – don’t go in all guns blazing. In relation to problem solving, ensure your students have good number sense, and an understanding of proportion. Incrementally develop problem solving as part of your day-to-day practice, and then don’t be afraid to start going ‘off piste’ or leaving things ‘open ended’.
I took one thing away from Craig’s talk that we are already looking at developing in our teaching practice in my department: the idea of “if I only had five questions to get students to the objective I want them to achieve, what would they be?”. I often worry with students that they can labour too long on the easier, rote elements of an exercise and not face challenge much earlier.
Through the use of minimally different examples, moving from one question to another with only one or two elements of procedural variation, you can actually get student from a low level of entry on an exercise to something quite complicated rather quickly. Tieing this in with proper review time that takes students through these five key questions, I do feel one can get students to be dealing with more contextual problems much quicker.
Some teachers and departmental leads are not responding to very public discussions and information sharing.
I was rubbing my hands at the thought of Eddie from OCR, Graham from Pearson and Andrew from AQA going toe-to-toe in front of a baying crowd. I’m only joking, but I was looking forward to some real insight cued up by some thoughtful questions. Unfortunately a large chunk of the talk was given up to answering the questions “what do the new grades look like” and “do you have an assessment package to support the grading of students”. I mean, COME ON. Have you been living under a rock? We’ve known the answers for a long time now. There are no, and have never been any ‘graded topics’. The grade descriptors given by the DfE are deliberately vague. As for assessment packages – the exam boards have been incredibly open around how they are as much in the dark as we are. They have sample assessment materials and supporting documentation to try and help guide us – but nobody truly has all the answers. All they can do is advise.
The decision to be made about GCSE tiers has been simplified somewhat.
I did baulk a little at the question “please can we have guidance on tiers?” – but gratefully we had something proper to take away from those who need to make such decisions. As I heard it – and I’m welcome to be corrected – the current fallout rate of students taking the higher tier, i.e. getting U – is 1% of entrants. Based on the standards of grading expected for the new GCSE, 10% of students currently getting a grade on higher spec would only get a U.
Also, bearing in mind that there will only be a sixth to a third of questions that students working at around grade 4 to 5 might confidently be able to answer, then asking these students to sit for 4 and a half hours (4 and a half hours!!!) with the confidence only to be able to accumulate at best about 25-30 marks per paper is perhaps placing undue stress on students. The system will still be gamed, don’t get me wrong, but the risks are even greater.
Even for an experienced dog like me, stay hungry.
It never fails to impress me how I can walk out of a conference absolutely buzzing with ideas. I am paying real attention to refreshing my teaching practice at present; all of the workshops that I attended helped my thinking about what I can do to get students a) retain concepts b) improve their problem solving skills and c) be prepared for exams.
I’d like to thank Ben Ward (aka @MrBenWard) for collaborating with me on our workshop on Getting The Most From Your Data – he’s a brilliant example of the modern, informed and proactive department leader, and I absolutely recommend that if you’re not already following him via Twitter then it’s about time you did.
Mark McCourt (aka @EmathsUK) has done a blinding job in launching and continuing the National Mathematics Conferences – I and a lot of people get a great deal out of each and every workshop and long may they continue. I’ll even let him off the fact that he doesn’t follow me on Twitter!
I hope the more concise approach to my notes from #mathsconf is just as enlightening and a little less demanding. Future posts will aim to be just as concise, but with more of a teaching and learning focus from now on. Watch this space!