On the eve of St David’s Day, some 350 teachers from schools across Wales and beyond ventured through the severe weather to Cardiff High to spend their Saturday at the first #rEDCymru conference. These conferences have existed since 2013 in England, so it was high time for teachers in Wales to be involved with the forefront of educational research. It was a very timely day, with Welsh schools facing so many important decisions about their curriculum, following the official publication of the final version of the Curriculum for Wales on 28 January this year. Fair play to Cardiff High, they put a real Welsh stamp on the whole proceedings – a host of golden daffodils that would have kept both ID Hooson and Wordsworth happy, staff and pupils in bright red tops and plenty of Welsh cakes (including vegan ones), to keep everyone happy. And on a day of weather warnings across Wales, and with the nearby Roath Park Lake precariously high, what better song than the Gorkys’ Patio Song to welcome everyone to the hall. Yes, the last strains we heard before the guest speakers started in the hall were “dal fy llaw, mae’n bwrw glaw” (hold my hand, it’s raining). Apt choice.
Several Bro Edern Cluster teachers, both primary and secondary, attended the conference, and we all went in our different directions during the day. This blog contains my impressions only. For the first session, the majority stayed to hear the excellent Tom Sherrington @teacherhead talk about Rosenshine and Curriculum: What’s the connection? I didn’t stay, because I had heard Tom Sherrington talk about Rosenshine at #rEDSurrey in October, and Rosenshine principles are one of Bro Edern’s learning and teaching priorities this year. At Bro Edern, we have focused specifically this year on checking understanding and retrieving information, and departments have been working on applying these principles to their lessons throughout the year. You could argue that many of Barak Rosenshine’s principles are just common sense, but it’s common sense that is ignored in too many quarters! In case you are not too familiar with the original principles, or Tom Sherrington’s approach to them, here are some links shared with Bro Edern staff that you may find useful:
- The original document: https://www.aft.org/sites/default/files/periodicals/Rosenshine.pdf
- Rosenshine article by Tom Sherrington: https://teacherhead.com/2018/06/10/exploring-barak-rosenshines-seminal-principles-of-instruction-why-it-is-the-must-read-for-all-teachers/
- Article on Teacher Toolkit website: https://www.teachertoolkit.co.uk/2018/10/21/barack-rosenshine/
- Mr Barton Maths’s podcast, where he interviews Tom Sherrington about Rosenshine: http://www.mrbartonmaths.com/blog/tom-sherrington-rosenshines-principles-in-action/
Therefore, for my first session I went to see Robert Massey @DoctorMassey and his session Ditch “Gifted and Talented” – Help make all your students Expert Learners. This was an informative session with a number of practical considerations for secondary teachers. His main messages included: labelling pupils is simply not helpful, and that schools can make pupils of all abilities more capable by giving them the strategies to be active, purposeful learners, with a range of skills to help them with their studies, and later in life. The only place this can happen is with us, their teachers, at school, in lessons. This is especially true for our weaker pupils, so the issue needs to be addressed while the pupils are with us. An interesting question came as part of the session, when everyone was asked what their ideal lesson would look like, a question that is almost as open-ended as planning our new curriculum. Something to consider!
While discussing modelling, he drew our attention to the following pattern:
Adults lead – Students learn – Students lead
and that this leads to pupils beginning to master their work. Robert Massey also mentioned the need to practise the difficult parts of any piece of work, or any task, in a purposeful way. His wise but obvious words were:
Practice needs to be learnt
but practice is such an effort for so many pupils, meaning that many do not bother practising. When talking about revising for exams, he mentioned the important role of strategies such as retrieval and spacing, and that this is an important consideration for pupils’ health and wellbeing – all the research shows that this is the best way to revise, so it should help with stress and pressure, and therefore help pupils’ general wellbeing.
The next session I attended was with Chris Moyse @ChrisMoyse entitled Growing Great Teachers #ImproveNotProve. He talked in detail about his work at the Bridgwater and Taunton College Trust and how they have turned all their Performance Management arrangements on their head. His first question was:
What is the purpose of Performance Management?
Like devolution, it’s a process, not an event. His main points included: there is no point looking back, just looking ahead, and the idea that Performance Management can be “one size fits all” is utter nonsense. Instead schools should adopt a “one size fits one” model to ensure that everyone’s professional development needs are met in a purposeful way. He mentioned the Performance Management practices of many large companies, and the recent tendency of adopting a process of ongoing coaching and mentoring rather than the artificial “Performance Management” event that is so common in so many schools. Chris Moyse said that if teachers simply changed one thing in their daily learning and teaching, this could be much more purposeful, more autonomous and ultimately have a much greater impact than any Performance Management system. The teachers under Chris Moyse have a Professional Growth Plan, rather than a Performance Management process. The whole thing sounded constructive and valuable and something that Welsh schools should seriously consider.
While I was at Chris Moyse’s session, Mary Myatt @MaryMyatt was in the hall talking about curriculum building. I, and several other attendees, heard this great talk at the curriculum day at Willows in October. She had so many sensible and comprehensive considerations as part of her talk and I know that her audience today enjoyed and valued her talk as much as we did at Willows.
Before lunch, I went to see the two Davids, David Didau @DavidDidau and David Williams @davowillz talk about How to make the Curriculum for Wales work. Many people wanted to see this session for a number of reasons, which was reflected in the number of people in the hall. I had seen David Didau’s negative tweets about the Curriculum for Wales and was therefore curious to see what he would say to a live audience in Wales. I thought that matching the two Davids was a good idea, with David Williams, a secondary English teacher at Dyffryn Aman, who is therefore implementing the curriculum at his school, hopefully curbing David Didau’s negativity.
The session started promisingly, with David Didau talking about the importance of knowledge:
All thought depends on knowledge. You can’t think about something you don’t know …
Commenting on the 4 purposes, he noted that none of this was possible without basic background knowledge, and when talking about a broad and deep curriculum, with definite progress, he again added that without knowledge it was simply not possible. When discussing skills, he offered a very useful equation for teachers in Wales, as we begin to consider our plans for curriculum content. This is something that every school should consider, before placing skills in a vacuum, as if they were supposed to happen by magic:
Skill = Knowledge + Practice
Sense at last, says everyone who is worried with those people who still think that the Curriculum for Wales is a skills’ curriculum. David Didau said he had looked closely at aspects of the Curriculum for Wales, including the Progression Steps for Languages, Literacy and Communication. He decided to pull apart one of the Progression Steps for reading, complaining about how vague and inconclusive it was. He put a picture of the allegedly vague Progression Steps on the screen.
David Didau complained about several things relating to the above Progression Steps, namely what exactly is “inference” and how can it be taught, let alone how can we show progression? He also asked what a complex text might be. I don’t know where the Progression Steps on his screen came from, because they certainly don’t match the wording in the Curriculum for Wales at all. Compare the version below with the version on David Didau’s screen:
The real Progression Steps in the actual curriculum are much clearer with regards to what needs to be mastered and what progression might look like between approximately 9 and 16 years old. Teachers across Wales are successfully teaching the reliability of sources as part of the Welsh Bac, not to mention the skill of reading between the lines in Welsh and English lessons. Yes, it is a difficult skill, but an essential one in this day and age, so it more than deserves its place in our new curriculum.
On to his question about complex texts. I understand his point: what is complex? My complex may not be your complex, but teachers are familiar with working these things out, just as I did in the year when the new GCSE spec told me that I needed to teach a “range of adventurous vocabulary”. Adventurous?! What on earth was that supposed to mean? We all survived, we all made progress.
David Didau chose to show an excerpt from James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake on screen to highlight the difficulty with learning “inference” in the classroom. Showing this excerpt by James Joyce, from what is claimed to be one of the most difficult works of fiction in the English language, contributed nothing to the discussion. How on earth could this be a valid example for school pupils in an English lesson on “inference”?
The Davids’ session was well attended, as it had an attractive title: How to make the Curriculum for Wales work, but this was a lost opportunity. David Williams, who co-presented with David Didau, had half an opportunity to talk about his departmental work on Myths and Legends, and the audience would certainly have liked to hear more about this. We would also have liked to hear how the work of his English Department links with Welsh and International Languages under the umbrella of the Languages, Literacy and Communication AoLE in Dyffryn Aman.
After lunch, there was a good turnout to see Damian Benney’s wonderful session: Using desirable difficulties to make learning easier. I had already seen this and was totally inspired by it at #rEDSurrey. Retrieval practice is a key focus at Bro Edern this year, therefore we invited Damian to present to the Bro Edern Cluster last Monday. Staff had a great time studying the graph, and have already mapped their retrieval practice tasks against the graphs in order to plan ahead for summer exams.
Because I had already heard Damian (twice!) at our Inset Day last week, I went to see John Tomsett @johntomsett talking about the work of his research school, Huntingdon School in York. I had already heard him at the curriculum day in Willows in October and was looking forward to hearing him once again talking with such enthusiasm about his school. The presentation was very inspiring, talking about the research culture that pervades his school, with one single aim: improving learning and teaching, in order to give pupils better opportunities to succeed.
He mentioned the various stages during the year, the evidence required and the need for a narrow focused research question. This question needs to focus directly on the pupils’ needs and he skilfully illustrated this. He was honest in admitting that not all research-based interventions were successful, but it was clear that the climate of research and high expectations were raising standards at his school. The first things I wondered about during the talk were time and money – two massive factors at any school. I received all the relevant answers as part of the presentation:
At the end of any given year, staff at his school have had a significantly generous amount of research time, which is totally necessary if you plan to base part of your school life around research:
This would be a challenge for any school in Wales, given the current economic climate. Despite being overwhelmed, on the one hand, by the time requirements to do something similar to John Tomsett’s school, it was a real privilege to be there listening to him, considering what might be possible if something similar were introduced in Wales.
For me, the last session of the day was Jon Hutchinson @jon_hutchinson_ talking about Five Best Bets to improve teaching and learning. Speaking of quizzes, he echoed everything that Damian Benney had told the cluster on Monday, including the importance of spacing and he talked about different ways of retrieving information in the primary sector. It was interesting to hear that his primary pupils receive 2 summative quizzes during the year, which enables them to build on previous knowledge. This is certainly something we need to consider as the Bro Edern Cluster. The curriculum at Jon Hutchinson’s school is built step by step on previous knowledge and unfortunately time did not allow us to hear more about how they organise knowledge and ensure year-on-year curriculum progression. His school has identified the need for clear continuity to avoid a situation where pupils study the Vikings three times, in different year groups. This was similar to the discussions we have had in the Bro Edern Cluster (about the pupils studying Tudors three times!) and it was nice to hear the same messages from a different direction.
At the end of the day we returned to the hall where Damian Benney talked of the huge success of the day. He expressed what was on everyone’s minds after a fascinating and enlightening day – namely that #rEDCymru has been very timely as schools across Wales are beginning to consider shaping their curriculum. It is vital that schools base their decisions on evidence and research, rather than arbitrary decisions based on what they have always done previously.
Some things to consider going forward: with so many Welsh speakers around the place, I’m sure a few sessions through the medium of Welsh would have been welcome. And because this was #rEDCymru, it would have been better not to have to listen to talk about grades 9-1 and Ofsted as if they were relevant to us.
But the fact remains that the first #rEDCymru was a huge success, and although it was held on leap day, I really hope we do not need to wait four years for the next one. This type of discussion is needed constantly in Wales over the next few years, to ensure that our Curriculum for Wales raises standards and inspires pupils in all schools across the country.
Thanks to all involved.
Looking forward to the next one already!