Team culture: teachers and counsellors

“I am applying to Bangor” the student said. “Oh, great! I applied there too!” says I, “It is an excellent school for Biological Sciences”.

As the school’s university counsellor I probably should have had a bit more of an idea that this student had decided to apply to this particular university, particularly considering this was rather late in the year – around April or May of Y13.

Follow up conversations made me aware that this student’s homeroom teacher had initially made the suggestion that this student applied to Bangor.

Let me get out in front of this. I am not trying to suggest in this post that teachers should not speak to their students about their university applications. I am not suggesting that teachers should not even offer advice to students and help them make sense of what can be a very confusing time of life, but teachers do need to think before they speak.

I have heard of schools where the guidance counsellor takes an aggressive, defensive approach in working with teachers. If you so much as whisper the word “university” to a student without their knowledge they may have words with you.

I have heard of teachers being reprimanded by the school counsellor for sharing a book list of subject specific reading with the Y12 and 13s and writing to them in an email that reading would be an excellent way to improve their university applications.

This wasn’t covert. The teacher wasn’t trying to go behind the counsellors back. They cc’ed the counsellor in, thinking they would be pleased that the teacher was trying to engage students to do things beyond what was merely required.

In my world then this is perfectly acceptable, as reading widely is an educationally excellent thing to encourage young people to do.

The teacher was called to the counselling office and made to apologise for that action.

This same colleague still gives me a cool reception when our paths do cross.

As a teacher, before I became a counsellor I wanted to encourage interested students to read my subject at university. I think this is natural. As someone who taught DP and A level and interacted with 17-18-year-olds pastorally, I was naturally curious as to where the students I met were applying, and what for.

It is frustrating when this information is never shared. When Teachers are never told when students have applied, or have interviews or get offers of admission. “Why do they need to know?” Is usually the question posed when this is raised.

Teachers do need to get with the school’s program and get behind the counselling team. Speak to the counselling department if they have ideas about individual students or groups of students and feel that you have the expertise to share. Global university admissions is an ever-changing landscape and teachers are not always up to speed. Also, teachers may not take into account other cultural factors like international diversity, when recommending institutions, which may hugely impact a students future happiness.

I would also submit, from experience, that teachers are not natural counsellors. I have written about this tension between teaching and counselling elsewhere and won’t bring it in here again. But teachers don’t necessarily know how to pose questions to draw out students thinking on such subjective matters about a students future, and they also may not have the full picture, painted by the families worldview.

Just like the teacher that ignores a school’s behaviour policy and does their own thing in their classroom, undermining their colleague who sticks to the behaviour policy, to the detriment of the whole team and school culture, the teacher that doesn’t engage with the counseling team to communicate ideas and discussion points about students, just serves to undermine the counseling department. This can lead to damaged reputations and undermining of the school’s reputation.

But it works both ways. Counsellors need to make teachers feel included. They need to seek students consent first to share the information (internally) about where students are applying and where they have been successful. This information serves to catalyse the team on the celebration and helps to build ongoing fruitful relationships between students and the staff that work with them. Why do teachers need to know? Because teachers care, becuase teachers invest their time, more than anyone, to work on behalf of students, because teachers know just when to put in the right word of encouragement, just when a student might need it.

It allows a whole team celebration of the students achievement and contributes to building a strong team culture amongst the staff. So counsellors and teachers: work together!

Why revising for seven hours a day at Easter isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

There has been a bit of twatter on twitter recently caused by the headlines in newspapers suggesting that students should do seven hours of revision over the Easter break in preparation for their GCSE exams. Reading through some of the stuff is a good voyage through fluffy thinking.

Firstly, there is the outrage that working for seven hours a day is just the worst thing that could happen to a 16-year-old student. Stamping out childhood and all that. Surely at that age, they could just as well not be in school and working a full-time job… McDonald’s anyone? (Disclaimer: my first job at 15 was in McDonalds and I had weekend jobs throughout sixth form).

Then there is the implication that revising hard for big exams at the end of 11 years of schooling means that the students and schools have wasted the last 11 years of schooling…..

Then there is the implication that if students are revising they haven’t been taught well, as if teaching well and revising hard are mutually exclusive

Then there is the implication from this tweet that working for seven hours can’t possibly be a quality revision..

Working seven hours a day on revision for one or two Easter holidays of a young adults school career (once in the run-up to GCSE’s and once in the run-up to A Levels) isn’t that much to ask.  GCSE exams and A Levels exams are both fairly high-stakes examinations which can have impacts on a student’s future prospects. The person who should be primarily responsible for investing their time into their future is that student, and it is a teachers role to advise and instruct them how to best approach this time.

Neither does working hard and investing time in your future during your Easter holiday undo the work of the last 11 years of schooling. In fact, it is an incredible opportunity to develop personal discipline not unlike that required in training for any major event one wishes to undertake. Simply committing this quantity of time to self-regulated learning is a great opportunity for learning and practising self-regulation.

I agree that revision is about quality of activity and that it shouldn’t be a proxy for not teaching well. I also think that revision needs to be thought about carefully in terms of a teaching sequence if it is going to be used for maximum effect.

One of the things I love about the revision period as a classroom teacher is the chance to really bring the subject content together. Sure, I will have been making links with topics throughout the course, just see my IBDP biology course outline.

But structured revision is the point where students who have built up solid domain specific declarative knowledge are able to begin to develop a thorough understanding as this material can now be abstracted in the mind to allow the development of connections of understanding.

As a teacher part of my role is to help students birth this understanding, that can be the underpinning of excellent further study.

To be able to refer back to topics and help students finally begin to make connections because they have built up a solid factual base to allow them to think.

My advice to my Y13 biologists is as follows:

DP Revision Instructions

  1. Plan! Focus on planning for a normal 8 hour working day (0900-1300 & 1400-1800).
  2. Make a schedule that spaces your subjects out. Out of your six subjects focus on three a day and rotate every two days. This will give you 1-2 hours per day on each subject.
  3. Plan each hour for 50mins study and 10mins of break.
  4. Plan activities and rewards for the evenings.
  5. If you want to do something in the afternoon or morning, shift that study session to the evening.
  6. Plan sleep and proper breaks that will take your mind off of your work – give your brain recovery time.
  7. During the 50mins study time, switch off notifications (turn on do not disturb or use an app)
  8. During the 50mins of study time undertake “active strategies” you have seen throughout the course.

Essential Activities 

  1. Make a list of all of the experiments and procedures mentioned in the DP guide. –make sure you know what these are and can describe them.
  2. Make a list of all of the calculations (including statistics) included in the DP guide.- make sure you know what these are and can use them.
  3. Make a list of the drawings required in the syllabus included in the DP guide.- make sure you know what these are practice drawing them.

You can find these lists prepared on the course website.

Active Revision Strategies

  1. Connect-Extend-Challenge.
  2. Quizlet activities
  3. Memory clock – 12mins revising a topic – 30mins answering questions – 12mins reviewing your answers.
  4. Make lists of everything you don’t know when studying from a text.
  5. Peer-2-Peer teaching and feedback.
  6. Thinking/Discussion about the course material that pertains to specific functions as you carry out those functions e.g. digestive system while you are eating.
  7. Word-Phrase-Sentence to help you summarise and re-summarise.
  8. Create voice memos on your phone for each subtopic and then listen to these on the train/bus/etc.
  9. Create mind maps and concept maps, try to build links
  10. When self-correcting and reviewing your work, use a new contrasting colour to help you remember the information you were missing
  11. Complete past papers: Start with open notes
    1. Progress to closed notes
    2. Progress to timed with closed notes
    3. You can also reuse these – if you know that there is an eight mark question of the light-dependent reactions of photosynthesis you can use this question over and over each time you review this topic.

Active Revision tools

  1. Textbook
  2. Oxford IB Biology Guide (thin orange textbook)
  3. Quizlet for key vocab
  4. Syllabus (AKA confusingly as the DP Guide)
  5. Question bank on kognity.
  6. Use all the above to create shorter and shorter summary notes for each topic/sub-topic

From Knowledge to Understandings

Recently (when I first started this post at least) I blogged about the best way to begin the DP biology syllabus and I was frustrated by the limitations of the syllabus to be able to pick and choose different assessment statements.

The DP biology course has always been knowledge rich. Maybe not as full as the A Level syllabus to take account of the fact that students are taking six subjects plus a summatively assessed course in Theory of Knowledgea summatively assessed research project: The Extended Essay, and their Creativity, Activity and Service Program.

Now, the IB changed the syllabus to allow more conceptual teaching, by removing the series of statements about students should be able to:… “explain x” and “state y” and grouping knowledge into brief statements under the heading of understandings, applications and skills. However, the structure of the syllabus with the essential idea for each topic tends to hamper the ability to lift assessment statements out and add them to new areas. i.e. mutations and oncogenes in topic 1.6 could be taught with topics 3.1 after 2.6. See the biology guide for the full IB syllabus.

This year, my Diploma Programme Coordinator, asked the subject departments to focus on developing their written curriculum.

It seemed timely to be asked to do this, when over the summer I had been musing about the best place to begin the course and the best ways to break up the different topics – many of the schools I have worked in simply teach the course topic by topic and the IB is keen to point out in the biology guide:

The order in which the syllabus is arranged is not the order in which it should be taught, and it is up to individual teachers to decide on an arrangement that suits their circumstances. Sections of the option material may be taught within the core or the additional higher level (AHL) material if desired or the option material can be taught as a separate unit.”

Over the course of this academic year, I have thought a lot about how best to structure the course to allow the “best” progression of concepts. Actually, I think that this is a process that began when I first started teaching my current Y13s, and I am an exceptionally slow thinker! I do remember reflecting on how to best position evolution within the course and which topics would be best coming before or after it.

But it wasn’t until this year that I have had the time within my working week or the emotional time within my personal life to really dig down and get to grips with writing up my ideas into the formal IB course outline.

I have also been exposed to new ideas about teaching and learning over the last twelve months. Last summer I read Dan Willingham’s book “Why don’t students like school?” which I think I got put onto after reading Michela’s “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers”.

Idea’s from cognitive science have become more and more prevalent on my twitter feed as well as I have started to interact a little more with the #CogSciSci crowd.

All this to say that my thinking has evolved in the last twelve months.

I now know that, generally speaking, content knowledge, concepts and skills are domain specific and that learners have to become fluent with a subject’s facts before they are able to transfer that to abstract concepts and develop understanding let alone build connections with other subjects.

I am also beginning to understand the concepts of retrieval practice, spaced practice, dual coding and the distinctions between declarative knowledge and procedural knowledge and how all this may apply to my subject teaching or pedagogical content knowledge as Lucy Crehan puts it in “Clever Lands”.

Translating this into biology teaching is still not well understood (or so it seems from my vantage point) but conversations like the ones below (propositional knowledge = declarative knowledge) and blogs like this one, are beginning to help me unpack this.

The finished product

The below is the finished course outline that details the units and sequence of the teaching of the course. It is an official document used in the authorization and evaluation process of IB World Schools.

The below is my SOW for the course. It has six tabs. The DP overview shows the number of teaching hours recommended by the IB for each subtopic along with my grouping of them per unit. The Year overview shows the spacing of the units through time for both Y12/Y13. The next two tabs are for the week to week (mid-term planning). The Bio and TOK tabs show the TOK links that I have chosen to focus on the topic and are to support collaborative planning with the TOK team. Finally, the PSOW tab shows the practicals that can be built into the course. The IB mandates a specific number of practical hours for both SL and HL courses.

Final Word

The other effect of this learning for me is that I am now worried about the direction that the IB is taking in its philosophy.

If research from cognitive science is telling us that learners need a solid factual knowledge base before they can build conceptual understanding then what does this say for a course whose syllabus is about “understandings” as opposed to knowledge?

I have not heard anything from the IB that shows that it is reviewing research from cognitive science. Is the IB becoming an ideologically run institution that ignores research that doesn’t fit in with its own paradigm?

Swapping the Alps for the Yangtze: Prelude

In December last year, my partner and I succeeded in securing new teaching posts….in China. 

A lot of people, both in Switzerland and at home, thought we had gone a little mad. And perhaps we had.

Why leave Switzerland? Why leave the perfect country for raising young children? Why leave beautiful idyllic scenery and swap it for a throbbing smoggy Chinese metropolis that hardly anyone has heard of (Chongqing)?

Unfortunately, economic circumstances have turned against us in Switzerland.

The economic situation in Canton Vaud has been such that my partner has not been able to find her first teaching position here. When we moved to CH she gave up a career as a nature conservation ranger and land manager and, while looking for work with a variety of NGOs, has worked in several different roles in the two schools we have worked in and gained her teaching qualification.

Because CH is such an attractive teaching destination, most international schools seem to require a minimum of two years teaching experience as a way of filtering the volume of applications they get. As an NQT with limited teaching experience, it was hard for her to get a foot in the door for teaching.

We decided that to stay in Switzerland we needed to both be in full-time employment by August 2018 so we gave ourselves several “family” deadlines and options. We didn’t want to live off savings nor not be able to pay into our pensions – particularly after watching my parents survive old age without one. November 2017 came and went, and this initiated us spreading our net further afield in potential posts- India, China, Uganda to name just a few places where we looked for joint international teaching jobs.

After narrowing (and being narrowed)! China became our hottest option. Since then lots of people have asked us: Why China? This question presupposes choice as if we were simply able to throw a dart at a map and move where ever it lands. The reality in international teaching isn’t like that. You move where the job is. You don’t move and then find a job.

We didn’t set out thinking “Let’s move to China“.

We started by talking about what we needed as a family in any new context we found ourselves in.

One of the reasons we didn’t want to leave CH was the opportunity to place our two daughters in a good public school system where they would have the opportunity to become fully French/English bilingual. Hardly anyone in my family in the UK speaks a second language. For me its really important that my daughters grow up appreciating other cultures through the languages they learn. And from the little I know about language acquisition, it is best that children are immersed in a second language before the age of 7 or 8. We don’t speak anything but English at home and therefore by leaving CH, we were potentially giving up on that dream unless we could find another context where the girls would be immersed in another language.

We also needed somewhere that was going to be a springboard for my partner’s new career as a teacher. Having kids and raising a family overseas is not easy. Obviously, there is less support, as your parents and extended family can’t be called upon to help with childcare and emotional support. But, CH also has a limited support system for young families, particularly for those where both parents want to return to work. There is a limited supply of affordable nurseries and creches. The cost of one child at a private full-time creche is over 3000CHF per month. Therefore with the high cost of childcare in CH for my partner to return to work, she would need to earn more than usual for an NQT.

When our first daughter was born I desperately wanted to have the opportunity to stay at home and look after her. With a lack of paternity leave (there is no statutory right to it in CH – thankfully my employer gave me a week), and with a partner without work, and a lower earning potential, for the sake of the family liquidity, this just wasn’t an option.

We were, therefore, trapped in this unfavourable economic circumstance. My partner couldn’t find a teaching post, and even if she did, it just wouldn’t make sense as the cost of childcare. And without a partner who had a career to keep the family solvent, I was unable to stop work to be with my children.

It was time to find a way for my partner to kick-start a career.

Therefore our two criteria for our new school in order of importance were:

  1. It must be a bilingual environment so that our daughters have the opportunity to learn a second language from a young age.
  2. The school would employ my partner in her first teaching position.

The school we accepted hit these criteria and they offered me a promoted post. We think we got quite lucky!

So, either stay in CH, with all its perfect idylls and become bankrupt or go to busy China and set all the family up with the right conditions for growth. What would you do?

All we need to do now is find child care for daughter number 2…

Routines

I was planning on publishing this post in August, but term got away with me!

Next year, I want to really focus on developing solid classroom routines. I am amazed at how I have got to year 10 of my teaching career and it has only been in the last twelve months that I have begun to see the importance of these for running even older classrooms.

Perhaps it is the peculiarity of my current school, with a high turnover of students and my experiences of having dramatic changes in the makeup of each cohort year on year, alongside changes to curriculum time and with a wide range of student backgrounds, and language proficiencies.

Last year I focused on thinking routines and I think the adoption of some of these exercises has been very beneficial for my students, the trick is sticking to them! But reflecting on this process, talking to colleagues and reading Battle Hymn has really highlighted the necessity of routines for all aspects of classroom management.

My one concern is that reliance on routines will make the classroom boring but I also think that routines have the potential to create safe spaces, where all students understand easily what is required of them. Used well they can remove distractions from students and increase the efficiency of learning.

The idea is essentially utilitarian; serve the greater good. Create space for the majority to learn.

The trouble is, our school has been open for four years now and every year, management has changed how we do things, in terms of the number of lessons available per week per subject, or the length of lessons. Don’t get me wrong, change can be good and it is important to try and improve things. However, change that isn’t tested and thought through can have negative consequences, as can too much change.

Routines need to be simple and rewards and sanctions just as simple. An overcomplicated system just creates more work for everybody.

Thinking: This year I will continue to embed the visible thinking routines as defined by project zero into classroom activities. I use connect-extend-challenge all the time and may need to revisit how I implement it. In discussions with colleagues recently about best prepparing students to write personal statements, I have also been introduced to the point-evidence-explain for structuring writing. As a science teacher, who hasn’t had much training in writing, or as a science teacher who hardly ever has student’s writing essays, it is interesting observing internally how that type of routine can easily be adopted to embed thinking about an argument.

Behaviour management: This year, our school has implemented a “behaviour policy”. Although we don’t suffer from extremely poor behaviour, I have been frustrated by students regularly not turning up to class on time, not having the materials they need with them and generally not taking responsibility for their own development.

EAL: My simple model for lesson planning: 1) 10 mins of low-stakes quizzing in some form; 2) 30 mins of teaching/learning activities; 3) 10 mins of written plenary. I haven’t been brilliant at sticking to this plan throughout this half of last term but the idea of the last part was to give my EAL kids a chance to do some formal writing in English. Other rountines that I am trying to develop for my EAL kids is to write new terms on the side of the board. I collate these into quizlet and ask kids to keep their own glossary ot terms. I also am trying to narrate much more of what I do in the classroom so that my thinking is clearly visible to these students.