So, the results are in and the number crunching begins. As I said in my last blog, whatever the results some action will take place. But, what action should take place? There are so many actions that could be done in reaction to a set of results. That’s it, we are never being examined with that board again. That’s it, we are never doing that again. That’s it, we will definitely do that thing again. Inaction is bad. Action is good. Everything is about the action-plan. Do you have an action-plan? What is you action-plan? What are you doing about such and such?
I am in the process of developing an action-plan for improving results. I was happy with them, but there are still things to improve. My brain is formulating ideas and thoughts to improve things. I am scrutinising the exam paper and looking at things question by question. But, here’s the rub (as in me rubbing my head): the peaks and troughs of the exam marks reflects only one cohort. The analysis of results would help the current year group immensely if they knew the issues on the paper. Yet, in a form of alchemy we apply the issues and problems with the next year group to go through the exam system. It is as if they are and exact match. Supposedly Timmy in Year 11 is like Johnny in Year 10. It is as if we are dealing with the same student, but we have changed the name.
We are also trying to infer the teaching quality from an exam paper. We know Ofsted do it. Bad results (not accurately) reflect ineffective teaching. We look at what teaching worked and what didn’t. To be honest, that can be like me deciding the colour of the paintbrush a painter used in a masterpiece. We can guess. We can interpret. But, can we really know the truth?
Of course, a lot of this is looking at patterns. We are looking for ‘trends’ or ‘patterns of behaviour’ like someone looks at tea leaves. I see that you are going to marry a man with a beard who looks after ducks – no, I mean, your results will improve if you read more newspaper articles. However, isn’t the problem endemic in English. The problem-fix issue. We look at the problems and then we look for solutions.
If I am honest, a lot of my teaching revolves around this. I take work in and look for patterns in the mistakes. I then teach the students how to avoid those mistakes. I build the problem-fixing into every part of my teaching. Hell, I even name the blog after it. But, doesn’t this ‘mind set’ actually hinder progress. If our focus is always on the problems, then aren’t we likely to neglect the bigger things. If I obsess over the use of apostrophes for a whole lesson, I could be missing out on developing the students’ use of cohesion in a text. One thing gets selected over another. Its priority changes. It moves to the top of the peaking order. You might think: the problems are very important or students will not know how to improve. However, isn’t our teaching primarily concentrated on this aspect?
This week, I was reminded of a conversation with Jill Berry at the fantastic Pedagoo event organised this year in London. Our discussion led to, strangely, problem solving. I assure you I wasn’t using Jill as an agony aunt – which I think she would be good at, if the need arose. For the life of me, I cannot remember the book cited by Jill, but she discussed this idea of how we deal with problems. It was simply: start with the successes and look at those first and identify what worked well there and then apply that to the issues.
For me, it is a great way to look. It avoids that pessimism that often occurs when looking at work. These students can’t possible do blah and blah. How do they expect us to get them to do X when they can’t event do Y? But it also prevents that rose-eyed optimism that follows some work. These students are just so naturally gifted. Instead, it gives you a wider picture of what could be done.
One of our successes has been our Literature results. So, instead of looking at the issues I am analysing what made the Literature results so successful. What worked so well for the students? Was it the texts we used? Was it the approaches in teaching we used? Was it how we taught Literature over time? Was it the teacher’s enjoyment of the topics? Was it the students’ understanding or enjoyment of the topics?
Once identified, I can then explore the use of this in relation to the issues or weaknesses on other parts of the exams. Rather than say, a lot of students did not do so well on Question 8, so we need lots of practice and more focus on Question 8, I am saying: The way students explore poetry in lessons reflects well in the exams, so let’s get us exploring non-fiction texts in the same way. Ultimately, this could avoid the infamous ‘whack-a-mole’ that happens in education. Here’s problem. Here’s a strategy. It is fixed. Here’s another problem….
Results time can be a bit like the dodgy wine stain on the carpet you can’t wash out. You might put a lovely rug over it or move the coffee table to disguise it. Nonetheless, it is still there. We might phrase things like: ‘I know that this happened, but look at X – isn’t it brilliant?’ We become our very own spin doctors. What if the lovely rug could teach us something about the dodgy wine stain? Ok, you have to admit some analogies don’t work. No matter how much you try.
Thanks for reading,
Learning from my mistakes: an English teacher’s blog