Workload and Effective Learning and Teaching

Unions and Academies/Schools can work together to provide high quality education within working conditions that are acceptable to all parties

The current crisis at John Cabot Academy in Bristol is the extreme end of what is a common issue in schools – teachers spending too much time on things that will not have a direct impact on the improvement of standards in schools or pupils’ life chances.

Assessment is probably the most crucial skill that any teacher can possess.  Without good assessment taking place informally and formally within and around every lesson or series of lessons how can teachers plan effectively and personalise the curriculum to meet the needs of the pupils?

At Incyte we have always believed that the best assessment takes place with a face to face approach with the pupils themselves.  In-class discussions between the teacher and the pupil/s and good quality peer and self-assessment have always been the best approach.  No matter what the teacher believes, the owner of the learning decisions is the pupil – they can either opt in or opt out, it is their decision.

The best teachers respect the pupil as a learner, they treat them as a major contributor of the learning that takes place, they believe that shared ownership of learning is a vital ingredient of effective learning.

So how can this be achieved within an acceptable workload for teachers?

There are two crucial elements to being a modern and effective teacher:

  1. Ensure you have a deep understanding of the expectations of what the pupils need to know as part of their learning journey so that you are able to make accurate assessments of what they know, what they half-know and what they really don’t understand. (gap analysis)
  2. Know your class data from the accurate assessments made so that you can see clearly who is making the best progress and who needs greater attention and support.

1. Accurate Assessment  
For the teacher to know where every pupil is in their learning at any one time is impossible without the help of the pupils themselves.  As a result, organising lessons that focus on learning rather than teaching is a must.  Too many teachers decide what they are going to teach and when and plough on relentlessly to ensure they cover the curriculum they have been told they need to deliver over a specific period of time.  They define the rate of progress as how quickly they get through the curriculum.

Pupils see progress as knowledge and skills that they themselves acquire within a lesson or over time.  If they do not feel they are making progress they switch off – it all becomes too much and they become bored because they are unable to set their own pace of acquisition within the lesson or series of lessons.  Once they are turned off they become disengaged and either resort to passivity or disruption because of genuine frustration.

Learning is an emotional process – it isn’t something we can be forced to do.  Lessons therefore have to be planned and structured in a way that ensures there is time built in for on-going assessment – ‘how well am I learning?’ sessions within the lesson itself.  The best teachers are able to be flexible in how they approach this – sometimes they give time in all lessons for pupils to self-assess, have meaningful discussions with their peers and, perhaps most importantly, to have meaningful discussions with the teacher.  However, for this to work well the pupils need to know their learning journey – where they have come from, what they are expected to learn now and what they are expected to learn next.  In fact, what the reasonable end point of learning is.  If they have this information, it is always surprising how much they improve in their ability to self-learn either in school or out of school.  It helps to motivate them and to manage their learning and the pace of their learning.  They can begin to talk knowledgeably about their learning journey and can have meaningful discussions about their learning.  If involved, pupils, from pre-school upwards,  become much more actively engaged with their learning and make high quality learning decisions about what they should try to learn next or what they need to consolidate. 

In reality, the progress made is all about how well pupils know their own learning and where they are on their learning journey.
The big bug bear for teachers and the workload is marking.  If a good learning environment is created, as described above, and in-class assessment time is created then a high proportion of marking can take place in the lesson whether through the teacher or through self and peer assessment.  It is much better that the student can self-mark against marking criteria and it reduces the workload of marking after school.  It actually enables the teacher to create space to design the next lesson based on the last lesson assessments and to match the tasks much more accurately to the individual or groups of pupils within the class.  A much more worthwhile use of time that will speed up the rate of progress of the pupils.

2. Accurate Data Analysis
Even if accurate assessment is achieved the data behind that is crucially important because ‘the big picture’ of variations in current progress, long-term progress and attainment usually identifies things that are not so obvious within the everyday lesson approach to assessment.  Even in the best schools there are variations in the pupils’ progress and attainment rates. It is just that the variations are less negative.  There is sometimes a fine line to be drawn between the different grades that schools achieve in an Ofsted inspection.

It is therefore important that all teachers take ownership of the analysis of their own class data.  They need to be clear about which pupils were underachieving when they arrive in to their classes or at a new school – for example, it is very rare that secondary schools know how well each of their Year 7 pupils achieved in Key Stage 2 and which bits of their learning they understand well and which they don’t.  Even if the pupils themselves do they are not given the credit for knowing this.

Teachers should be able to see who learns best in their lessons from their data they have on their classes. They should be able to re-organise their classes, for example, to ensure pupils who are underachieving are not sitting next to other pupils who are underachieving or to change the grouping arrangements.  They should have action plans in place for all pupils who are underachieving.  They should be able to attend progress meetings with better knowledge of how well their class/es are performing than their senior leaders.
With the right tracking systems in place this is not a difficult or time-consuming task but the impact it has on the pace of learning that takes place can be enormous.

The issues at schools similar to that of John Cabot are not really about workload they are about smart use of the time that is available. It is about enjoying the job that you are doing and most importantly, it is about pupils enjoying and having a love of learning. And all of this is best achieved by respecting pupils as learners and involving them fully in the process of knowing how well they are learning.  It is rare that we see outstanding learning delivered by teachers who do not get a buzz out of their teaching and sharing in the delight of seeing pupils achieve well.

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