This weekend saw the publication of a series of documents aimed at reducing unnecessary workload for teachers. As the introduction to these reports states: “all parts of the education system have a role to play in reducing the unnecessary tasks that take teachers and school leaders away from their core task: improving outcomes for children.” This must be right.
The reports offer some worthy and some less worthy recommendations. I am however more interested in the way that the teachers and leaders are dealing with the intractable issues of workload in schools, now. So here are my top ten blogs – the voices of real teachers and leaders (and in two cases, respected researchers) who have something important to say on the subject.
Marking versus feedback
We know from John Hattie’s work that feedback is one of the most powerful influences on learning and achievement. But research has also shown that this impact can be either positive or negative. The type of feedback and the way it is given can be differentially effective. In this short blog, John Hattie and Helen Timperley provide a conceptual model for effective feedback. This is useful stuff – evidence-informed ideas that we can use here and now.
In a fascinating blog called When Feedback met Bloom, Stephen Tierney cites Hattie’s three effective feedback questions:
Feed Up – Where am I going? (the goals)
Feedback – How am I going?
Feed Forward – Where to next?
He suggests that each of these questions can be asked at a task, process and self-regulation level. He says: “These levels have much in common with Bloom’s Taxonomy which I still have a certain affinity with since being introduced to it as a young teacher.” The blog gives some really useful examples of effective feedback mapped to Bloom’s knowledge dimensions.
Then there is Jo Facer, an English Teacher from Michaela Community School. Her blog on Reading all the Books is fascinating. She charts her own journey from “remaining steadfastly concerned that marking worked” to an emerging realisation that she could read her pupils’ books once or twice a week: “I teach four classes, each with between 28 and 32 pupils, so it is about 120 books in all. I read 60 books in 30 minutes. As I read, I make notes: spellings lots are getting wrong, things they’re all doing well at, and the main issues they need to improve.”
In a self-improving system, we need to seek constantly the most effective practice – the practice that moves us forward. Tom Sherrington’s blog describes a visit to Saffron Walden County High School. He’d heard they had an excellent whole school approach to assessment and marking. Tom quotes the Head of Saffron Walden, John Hartley, who described the whole school approach to marking and feedback very simply: It is called ‘closing the gap’. Tom concludes: “All that is common is the concept; the theme; the mantra – that students need to close the gap between the work they have done originally and a higher level of work suggested by the feedback they receive. In other words, ‘closing the gap’ means ‘acting on feedback’.”
Planning, teaching resources, text books and high performing jurisdictions
In his excellent blog, Lesson Planning CPD, Ross Morrison McGill asks how we can enable curriculum plans to feed into day-to-day lesson planning, without it becoming a burden on the teacher. He argues that there are three ‘classic traps’ of lesson planning:
Activity focused planning.
Coverage focused planning.
Ross cites Lean Lesson Planning by Peps Mccrea - he calls it a ‘lean mindset’ – lesson planning is all about quality and not about quantity. It seems to me that lean lesson planning is a workable and potentially very valuable concept. Ross concludes with a helpful one-page summary of his school’ evolving Learning Policy. He asks us to note that the details are not yet finalised, but that this approach is starting to shape pedagogy and reduce workload.
Then of course, there’s the inimitable 5 minute lesson plan – a hugely influential blog that needs no explanation here.
This blog would not be complete without referencing the thorny issue of textbooks. In a blog called Teaching to the text: England and Singapore, Robin Alexander gives a thoughtful synopsis of the issue. He unpacks the assumption that among the East Asian top performers in PISA, its textbooks that make the difference – “the familiar confusion of association with causality.” The most interesting part of this blog for me is the citation of David Hogan:
“The essential challenge facing Western jurisdictions is not so much to mimic East Asian instructional regimes, but to develop a more balanced pedagogy that focuses not just on knowledge transmission and exam performance, but on teaching that requires students to engage in subject-specific knowledge building. Knowledge building pedagogies recognise the value of established knowledge, but also insist that students need to be able to do knowledge work as well as learn about established knowledge. Above all, this means students should acquire the ability to recognise, generate, represent, communicate, deliberate, interrogate, validate and apply knowledge claims in light of established norms in key subject domains.”
Data, data everywhere…
And finally, there is the question of how we eliminate unnecessary workload associated with data management. Andy Hargreaves and Henry Braun writing in the Washington Post outline six principles for using data to hold people accountable:
Measure what is valued instead of valuing only what can easily be measured, so that the purpose of schooling is not distorted.
Create a balanced scorecard of metrics and indicators that captures the full range of what the school system values.
Insist on credible, high quality data that are stable and accurate.
Design and select data that are usable in real time.
Develop shared decision-making and responsibility for data analysis and improvement.
Be the drivers, not the driven.
While Hargreaves and Braun do not address workload reduction per se, they provide a powerful set of principles that would strengthen our approach to data. Perhaps the last point – be the drivers, not the driven – speaks most powerfully on the subject of workload.
Back to Ross Morrison McGill who asks the powerful question in his blog called War Boards: “Is student data useful if you can’t see it and take action?” While this blog promotes a commercial product about which I have no view, I think the principle of data that is visible and upon which teachers can take action is a fundamentally important point.
Finally, in Proof of Progress, David Didau outlines the comparative judgement trial that his school, Swindon Academy, is undertaking in collaboration with Chris Wheadon. This blog brings us full circle – back to marking versus feedback, the contested issue of assessment and how to collect useful data to demonstrate pupil progress.
I am ending with this blog for one reason: it demonstrates how in a self-improving system it is incumbent on us, as a profession, to find our own evidence-based solutions. ASCL’s Blueprint for a Self-Improving System argues that teachers and leaders must both use and create evidence.
If we are to unleash greatness, the profession must lead the way.
ASCL summary of the Workload Reports
You may also be interested in attending ASCL Professional Development's course Smart steps to reduce teacher workload and prioritise impact on outcomes on 5 October (London) and 7 October (Manchester). These courses will be led by Ross Morrison McGill, ASCL's Deputy Director of Policy Duncan Baldwin and ASCL's Curriculum and Assessment Specialist Suzanne O' Farrell.