Thursday, 1 December 2016

Reading Roles: Elements Of The Content Domain Made Memorable

A few years ago there were many resources available supporting children's understanding of the Assessment Focuses. Teachers found it beneficial to help children to identify the kinds of questions they were being asked about texts. The idea behind making children aware of the question type is that they might have a better idea of what the answer should look like in order to give better verbal and written answers.

With the recent introduction of the content domain (as set out in the English Reading Test Framework) and the upset caused by the difficulty of last year's KS2 reading test I set about reviving an idea that an old colleague of mine and I had a few years ago. Back then, we joked about conceiving it and setting up as consultants, peddling it around the local area but it wasn't even worth creating the resource as there were so many out there already that did the job just fine. Others out there are devising ways to help children understand the elements of the content domain however I believe the simple resource I have devised has some merits.

The concept of 'Reading Roles' is to assign a well-known job, role or profession to each of the domains. Most children will already understand what the jobs entail in real life and therefore will fairly immediately be able to gain an understanding of each element of the content domain. We have been trialing this for a number of weeks now and the children are already able to articulate what questions in each domain require of them. There is still work to be done - confidence in identifying question types consistently, but they now have the tool to do so.

Here are the 8 elements of the content domain and their assigned 'roles' (written for KS2):

This resource can be downloaded here, along with its KS1 counterpart and posters for both KS1 and KS2 containing one domain/role on each page.

As is obvious each domain is colour-coded and is assigned a simple symbol as a memory aid. We have used the colours and symbols to identify question types in the comprehension tasks we have set - the aim of this is to familiarise the children with the question types. Eventually we will remove the colours and symbols and focus more on question type identification. See here for examples of the comprehension tasks I've set in this way.

Click here for some testimonials from people who have used Reading Roles effectively in their school.

Again, as with the Scaffolding Inference technique, I'd love to hear from anyone who begins to use this. It'd be very interesting to see how this helps other children and in what ways it can be developed and used.

With thanks to Herts for Learning for the focus of each element of the content domain.

Wednesday, 30 November 2016

TBCT Interview @

SchoolWell, a school staff wellbeing directory, asked me a few questions about wellbeing, marking, Twitter, reading and #OptimisticEd; the full interview is posted on their site at:

"I am always conscious of how hard the work can be and that part of my job is to ensure that my own colleagues’ wellbeing is prioritised"

"I’ve found it really beneficial to read before I sleep: it takes my mind off all the things I’ve been doing during the day. If I don’t read I often have vivid dreams about those things which leads to a restless night and tiredness the next day."

"What schools should focus on is their expectations of teachers: of the amount of planning, marking, preparation that is explicitly expected. Every new initiative needs to be passed through a filter to ensure that it is purposeful and efficient"

To read the full interview, click here to be taken to the SchoolWell website.

My Ambition Isn't Just About Me

Hungarian composer and pianist Franz Liszt once said “It is my fervent wish and my greatest ambition to leave a work with a few useful instructions for the pianists after me.” And that’s my ambition too. Well, apart from the pianists bit.

Leaving a few useful instructions actually sounds a little unambitious, but in essence that’s what education’s all about. If those ‘few instructions’ were how to multiply two digit numbers by four digit numbers and how to hyphenate words then, as a teacher, I’d be lacking in ambition. But if they are how to be confident in your own abilities, how to be respect others and perhaps ultimately how to be ambitious, then my ambition is great.

Click to continue reading this article on the Ambition School Leadership website.

Monday, 28 November 2016

Dogs & Sledges: Harnessing Action To Clarity Of Vision

Inferring information from a text. Vocabulary building. Mental recall strategies. Written methods for calculations. Reasoning. Test skills. Attitude to learning. Accelerated progress. Improved combined ARE scores. Mastery. Greater depth. Inclusion. Just a few of my priorities this year. All things my team and I are working full-throttle to ensure are embedded in our lessons and culture. We look for as many opportunities as possible to address these issues, always trying to safeguard the children from feeling the pressure of all this. And I work hard to shield my team from all of the pressure, too, even when I have a sleepless Sunday night because it's all turning over in my mind. 

Imagine these 'priorities' as husky dogs running amok in an Alaskan landscape, wild-eyed, full of energy but lacking in purpose. Some of them are gainfully employed, hunting, rearing their young, but others are tearing around aimlessly, chasing their own tails, never achieving much of any use.

Simon Sinek encourages us to 'start with why'. His main idea is that leaders and organisations can inspire others by being clear on their purpose; by having clarity of vision. According to his website 'Simon Sinek believes in a bright future and our ability to build it together.' But without a clear purpose and a shared vision it is very difficult for collaboration and teamwork to take place, let alone building together for a bright future. And this is particularly difficult in schools where it is often perceived that everything is a priority. In schools we can be spinning so many plates that it's hard to tell which ones are actually contributing towards the vision that the school has. Patrick Lencioni's book 'The Advantage' (click here for a summary) proposes that organisations, and that can include schools, should think through the answers to six questions. The first of these is 'Why do we exist?': start with why. 

Suppose we see 'why' as a sled. A team of husky dogs properly employed will be guided by their leader from the seat of the sled. The purpose of the dogs comes from the sled and its driver, but the dogs are the ones who do the work, pulling the sled to its destination. All our actions to improve the issues outlined earlier should be harnessed to a purpose, otherwise they are just actions; actions which may achieve something, but are never destined to definitely have specific outcomes.

Patrick Lencioni recommends that once that first question 'Why do we exist?' has been answered leaders can then go on to ask themselves 'How do we behave?', 'What do we do?', 'How will we succeed?', 'What is most important, right now?' and 'Who must do what?'. In schools, we often have deeply entrenched answers to these questions and we carry on in those ways regardless of whether we know our 'why' or not. Look at my list in the opening paragraph - we definitely know what we do! We are also fairly clear on how we behave and who must do what, but often none of this is aligned to a clear vision of what we are trying to achieve. As a result we perhaps lose sight of what is most important right now - it's hard to tell if all the things we are doing are actually useful and having an impact.

We must start with why. We must start with our sled and its driver. In schools we have to think 'What is the end of the journey?' Where does our sled need to go? Steven Covey cites the importance of planning backwards: 'Begin with the end in mind.' Without a sled a distant arctic destination would be very difficult to reach; without the 'why' an aspirational goal will similarly be a struggle to achieve. And Lencioni does recommend that when answering the first question we have to be 'completely idealistic' and that the 'why' that we arrive at should be 'grand and aspirational'. We should be setting an optimistic vision initially.

Lencioni also outlines six possible categories for the question 'Why do we exist?': customer, industry, greater cause, community, employees and wealth. There are some of these categories that we can rule out right away: we don't run schools to make money, our schools don't exist simply to give employees a job and although many consider teaching to be vocational, we don't do it because we love the industry of teaching. That leaves three categories: customer, greater cause and community. The 'why' of the community category is making 'a specific geographical place better'; I'd argue that to be an indicator of success for a school, but not it's main purpose (although for some schools, this might be their main purpose). Which means the 'why' of a school is either about our customers, the children, or a greater cause. The greater cause of education might be seen as, rather than educating for education's sake, focusing on the reasons why we educate - and those reasons are many, depending on who you are. So it is possible that a school's 'why' is probably a mix of existing for the customer and a greater cause. 

Once an optimistic vision of the future has been set, once the sled has been prepared, it is then time to begin to harness those huskies: which dogs would work best towards a common goal? Which ones would work together well? Which ones would pull off in another direction? Which ones would be too weak to provide enough pulling power? Which ones would require disproportionate amount of sustenance to their output? Our analogy points towards a reassessment of all the things that we do just because that's what we do. Schools need to work out whether the things they are madly doing actually contribute to achieving their goals. They need to decide whether the overall vision is being realised by all the actions that are taking place: the interventions, the CPD, the focus of planning and teaching, the conversations SLT are having, etcetera, etcetera. It might be that some of the dogs have to be turned loose - sadly, as arctic explorers know, there is no allowance for sentiment. There is no point in doing things in schools simply because we love doing them - everything must have a purpose greater than tradition or romance.

During the summer I attended the Teaching Leaders (now Ambition School Leadership) residential as a fellow of the programme (only having to complete the second year of the two-year programme). I was challenged by some inspirational leaders to ensure that I was clear in my vision. Steve Radcliffe, coach to powerful and influential figures the world over encouraged me first to think of the future before engaging others in that vision of the future. Andy Buck told me to focus on one thing in order to gain clarity. Baroness Sue Campbell reiterated the need to be clear on where we are going, asking me to consider if everyone gets my vision and wants to follow me. She also caused me to consider whether my targets were good enough and whether or not I knew what great looked like. James Toop discussed creating culture - my key piece of learning from that session: 'Be clear on what my vision is', I wrote in my Moleskine - I knew that without a clear vision I would struggle to create a culture within my own team. Sir David Carter issued a performance challenge, the first point of which was to 'de-clutter' - cutting loose those dogs which are not helping to pull the sled in a common direction in huge pursuit of a common destination.

Walt Disney said 'Of all the things I've done, the most vital is coordinating those who work with me and aiming their efforts at a certain goal.' And so, I have come to a place where I have an analogy to help me to begin to think through my answer to the question 'Why do we exist?' Perhaps if I were opening a new school I might find that question easier to answer but as it is I'm working in a fully-functioning school complete with it's embedded practice and so I have to begin by ignoring what all those dogs (remember the dogs are the things we are busy doing, not the people themselves!) are doing for the time being and focusing on what they could achieve if they were harnessed to just the one sled. My current thinking needs to revolve not around what we can do next, but around what we want to achieve by doing all the things we are doing. Once I have clarity it will be my job to communicate that clear vision and to begin to de-clutter and streamline, letting go those practices which don't contribute to the vision and carefully implementing new ones that truly align to the goals we set.

Wednesday, 9 November 2016

Scaffolding Inference (Quick Reference Guide)

Inference skills in the new cognitive domains are summarised as:

2d: make inferences from the text / explain and justify inferences with evidence from the text

Penny Slater's helpful article 'Reading Re-envisaged' explores the links between vocabulary knowledge and inference skills. Her conceptual model (pictured left) represents how inference skills rely on good knowledge and understanding of vocabulary. In her own words:

"...the model signifies the importance of vocabulary knowledge. If we consider each circle to be a moat which the children must cross before they are able to access the skills within the innermost circles, then we see clearly that they will not get very far if they do not understand the meanings on the words on the page. This chimes with what teachers are finding in their classrooms: lack of knowledge of vocabulary is a complete blocker. You can’t make any inroads into comprehension without addressing this issue first."

So, another cognitive domain comes into play, one which children must be confident with if they are going to be able to make inferences:

2a: give / explain the meaning of words in context

This approach also explore the possibility that development of inference skills could be supported through the use of retrieval skills.

2b: retrieve and record information / identify key details from fiction and non-fiction

The Theory

The theory that I have been trialing is that inference skills can be taught by first studying the vocabulary used and then retrieving relevant information before going on to make inferences about a text. If inference is 'a conclusion reached on the basis of evidence and reasoning' then first a reader must be able to identify where the evidence is (retrieval) and before that the reader needs to understand the words used to present the evidence. In the model I propose (see right) the understanding of vocabulary is the foundation on which information retrieval is built, which in turn provides the support for making inferences.

The Practice

1. Decide on an inference question (2d); the question stems based on the 2016 KS2 reading test made available by Herts for Learning on their blog are really useful for this.
2. Begin to work backwards - work out where in the text the children need to go to locate useful evidence and ask a suitable retrieval question (2b).
3. Continue to work backwards - which words or phrases do the children need to understand in order to be able to understand the evidence then ask a careful vocabulary question (2a).
4. Once this process is complete (it may take a while at first), check that the 2a and 2b questions will adequately lead the children into answering the 2d question. If not, go back and tweak the questions.

For a more in-depth exploration of this technique, including examples of questions:
Many of the examples from the blogpost are available for download here:

Friday, 28 October 2016

From the TES Magazine: Teachers Who Just Want To Teach

This article was published in the TES magazine on 28th October. It explores how to support teachers who have no desire to do anything but remain in the classroom and teach. I was particularly chuffed that my second outing in the magazine was accompanied by a picture of the late, great Robin Williams in his masterpiece 'Dead Poets Society'.

Many teachers choose not to climb the career ladder up into the ivory tower of senior leadership. For most, their reasons are admirable: they got into teaching to work with children and that’s the way that they want it to stay. And who can knock that as an ambition?

To continue reading, follow the link: You will need a TES subscription to read this article.

Monday, 10 October 2016

Why I Care So Much About Wellbeing

I have been known to write about, and comment upon, wellbeing (possible understatement). My interest in reducing workload - my own and that of others - is very much linked to my interest in the issue of wellbeing. In fact, so is my obsession with optimism and positivity as opposed to negativity; if you are optimistic about reducing your workload and improving your wellbeing you will look for, and indeed find, ways of doing it.

But why am I so bothered?

Two reasons:

One, it saddens me to see so many teachers struggling with what can be a really amazing job. I believe teachers can have a good work/life balance - I do - and I want to help them to have it. Why? Because if we are all well then our hard work will be more effective. And because no-one should have to work to the point where they are made ill - be that physically or mentally. Which leads me onto my second reason...

Two, as a teenager my dad took early retirement due to workplace-related stress. Diagnosed with depression, I saw him become a different person. When your big, strong, fun dad bursts into the kitchen struggling through tears to breath after battling for hours with a usually-simple task you are affected for life; that's not a point I want to get to. When the man who used to get down on the floor and build the best Lego castles with you retreats and becomes distant, you, even as a child, know that things aren't right - and you don't forget it.

I have seen first hand, and lived with the effects and consequences of, how a job can come close to killing a person. He was a successful doctor at a young age; it was a job that he once enjoyed - spending your days driving the scenic roads of the Yorkshire Dales visiting patients in a classic Daimler sounds idyllic, but this is no James Herriot story. It was a job which crept in and took control - I had an inkling at the time that his boss had rather a lot to so with his decline in health. I love and respect my dad but I know the depression and associated medication has changed him. He would not wish it on anyone - it's certainly something that, suffice to say, I'm fairly keen to avoid. If I can at all avoid it, I'd rather not be a dad who goes missing for hours at a time on a winter's evening, leaving his children at home fearing for daddy's life.

So if in future you read my blog or tweets and question why sometimes I come across as forthright and opinionated, you'll know why. It's fine for you to question my authority - who am I to make suggestions about how you live your life and approach your work? But instantly dismissing my advice, and that of others, as unworkable and unrealistic could be to your detriment. I don't claim to have all the answers but my experiences have hard-wired me to seek solutions to avoid becoming overworked, stressed and even depressed. My dad would not wish upon me that which he experienced (and still lives with today). He would not wish it upon anybody.

We teachers must speak up about these issues - not in the moany, ranty way that seems to have become commonplace, but in a way that secures support and seeks change. Friends, partners, colleagues, line managers and doctors are a good place to start - they will all be able to help you in different ways. The thought that taking such actions could actually begin to be of help is often poo-pooed; I've seen it so many times on social media when I've suggested that talking to the boss might help. The thing is, by not speaking out you are making a choice - you are choosing to subject yourself to something such as my dad experienced. You are choosing to subject your loved ones to something such as I experienced. Why is that the preferred option? I do understand the difficulties involved in talking about such delicate issues but I also understand the result of the alternative; it's really not worth it.

Please, if you are a teacher experiencing unacceptable levels of workplace-related stress, get the help you need. If you are a teacher who believes you are working more than you should have to (yes, we all do some overtime, I get that), then reassess and try to make changes in your work/life balance and if you've done all you can, then you must take it further and speak to those who have the power to make changes for you. The possible results of not doing this can be devastating, even if you're not feeling it right now, that erosion of your mental health could be on its way.

I know I am not the only one attempting to do my bit for better mental health and wellbeing in education and I'd be willing to bet that most who are have similar, or worse, stories to tell. Listen to those voices - they are not against you; they are for you. Their words are impassioned because they really do care, not because they think they've got it sussed and are better than you.

Please explore the links I've included at the beginning of this blog post as they all point to other things I've written that explore some of these themes in more detail. If you would like to chat about anything then please do get in touch.

This blog post was re-blogged on the TES blog on 11th October entitled 'If all we do is rant to each other about workload, rather than seeking help, we're choosing to subject ourselves to stress':