Arne Olav, The Dorse, 2013. You can see more of his animal hybrids here.
What’s the outcome of a pointless conversation? Civilising year 9 is a recurrent theme and the Novelty Double Act had another go this week. Chat to each other, we said. Talk about the weather. Practice your small talk, it’ll take you anywhere. Sitting at my computer in the gloaming there’s a sturdy rap on the door and three youths materialise politely with a whiff of conspiracy and no punctuation: ‘Sorry miss but we were going down the back stairs admittedly we shouldn’t have been there but then we heard something in the assembly hall and when we went in some big people year 11 or something yelled at us to get out they might be intruders we think’. I was able to reassure them that year 13 drama students preparing for tonight’s assessed performance probably didn’t need their critical insights so they pottered off. Time will tell if this conversation has any outcome.
Twenty-six years ago I sat in a seminar in Durham called Designing Learning Outcomes. Mike the linguist and I scratched our heads, but he’d just told me that cars moved forwards because of the exhaust coming out of the back, so I didn’t know how reliable his understanding would be. How can you design an outcome?
We’re tussling with curriculum and assessment at Tallis and trying as ever to peel the onion of learning. What are the basic building blocks of the curriculum? What should children know? How can we make them independent and able to manipulate powerful knowledge to understand the world (and change it for the better)? How do you get them from not knowing very much about anything to being able to get a useful qualification with currency for the adult world? We’re digging into our key stage three curriculum and building it up from first principles, designing proper learning outcomes from the very start, progress outcomes. Not just the nine terminal exams of GCSE triple science but the assessed practicals of the arts, with or without uninvited proto-critics. Progress in learning and effort, proved in examination and assessments. Progress from each child’s starting point.
The best teachers do this brilliantly well and we’re reviewing the usefulness of grading lesson observations so that we can recognise it better. Observations with cliff-edge gradings are not only flawed (and hugely stressful to teachers) but probably useless now that schools understand what we’re doing a bit better. Proof of the pudding et cetera: would you rather have a dull-ish teacher with a solid curriculum and good progress outcomes at all levels or an exciting teacher with equally mercurial results? Would you rather fight a horse-sized duck or ten duck-sized horses? (Forgive me – it’s a question we’ve been asking at Tallis. We have our reasons).
I’m convinced by typicality. To me, a consistently good teacher is outstanding because of the extra reliability. You can‘t judge that in one or three classroom visits a year. You can judge it by looking in regularly, examining children’s books and behaviour, assessing test results and progress outcomes. You can add really valuable understanding by asking the children: ‘Is it always like this?’ Most children like teachers they’ve got used to, especially the cheerful and effective ones. Reliable teaching with flashes of inspiration, sky-high expectations, good discipline, good humour and good progress. They’ll tell you the truth and then go back to thinking about food.
So we’re designing learning outcomes by writing curricula that build up knowledge and skills, assess effort and progress accurately and aren’t driven by cliff-edge scores. I’m full of hope in what we’re doing. It’s taking us a bit of time, but the conversations are models of professional dialogue and not in the least pointless.
Small talk is shaping up nicely not just in year 9 and, despite appearances, is far from pointless. We’ve got a community learning outcome about confident talk with adults so that the quiet ones who never have a conversation with an adult in school have more confidence to contribute in class and articulate their knowledge. The horse-duck scenario was last week’s school-wide conversation topic. For the record, I’d prefer the horse-sized duck, as I told my class. Ten duck-sized horses would be really annoying, and how dangerous is a duck likely to be? But they said: ducks are birds which are really dinosaurs so a horse-sized one could do you some damage. Had you thought of that? Let me tell you, it haunts my dreams.