Exceeding Expectations in the Classroom

In the aftermath of my recent blog on rewards in the classroom, I stumbled across a few articles which suggested that rewarding students can actually damage student progress and expectations. It has made me begin to consider a varied way of rewarding my students.

When my current school was visited by the “Big O” three years ago, SMT presented their evidence that students were making the expected three levels of progress. This was, however, days after HMI had changed the criteria and they started asking about four levels of progress – they wanted to know how many students were exceeding expectations and how the school was promoting and managing this.

In my classroom, I regularly reward students for meeting my expectations – if they enter the room and immediately focus in on the starter activity, I give a tick (three ticks for a credit). I have always wanted students to feel that meeting my expectations is a positive thing and encourage those who are not, yet, to start meeting them.

Now I am beginning to wonder whether I am selling my students and myself short. Should I be rewarding students more for exceeding expectations both as a classroom teacher and as a tutor and would this have a more positive impact on the learning that my students make?

As an example – one of my greatest bug-bears and wastes of time is chasing missing homework. Such a simple thing can consume so much time when students don’t turn up to detentions and things go round in circles. Perhaps, instead of punishing those for not handing it in on time and rewarding those who do, I should try rewarding those who show that they have completed the homework early. By rewarding students for being organised and planning in advance, I may be encouraging them to make more positive decisions about their time management and organisation, in addition to reducing my time wasted by missing pieces of work. Of course, there will always be those who miss deadlines…

The problem with this model of expectations is that, however much we might try and sugar-coat it, there sometimes must be different expectations for different students. Not every student has the same upbringing or family support. I have always tried to be consistent and I hope that my students feel that I have been also, but when it comes to rewarding exceeding expectations, we need to address the inequality in our school. How can we possibly have the same expectations for the student who has excellent access to the internet at home over a student who may not have a regular home to go to?

It is something that I will continue to consider over the next few weeks – let me know if you have any thoughts.

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The quiet student – how we describe our students

As teachers, we encounter a wide range of personalities and behaviours on a daily basis from the outwardly boisterous to the inwardly timid and often the extremes of the range are within close proximity of each other. When it comes to writing their report, we are forced to describe their character in a limited number of words. The boisterous ones are easy – we might use energetic or enthusiastic; but when it comes to students who don’t contribute as often, we can be tempted to describe them as “quiet”.

I often used this term and thought nothing of it. I used it until my better half (also a teacher) told me that she was always described as quiet at school and hated it. Teachers decided she was quiet because her behaviour was excellent in comparison to the shenanigans going on around her. She felt that teachers used “quiet” when they did not really understand her and why she did not contribute as much as others; they did not really know her as a person.

Our school has had a big focus on the Dweck principal of a “growth mindset”, encouraging students and teachers to consider the way that we are all just in transit with our skills and encouraging everyone to endeavour to improve. Reports are, however, more challenging to apply the idea to – we like the process of saying “Bob is a <insert adjective> student” as it provides a good starting point.

The problem with labelling a student as “quiet” in their report is that it does not address the reason why they are quiet and does not necessarily help a student improve. A student might be quiet in that subject because they are not confident with the material. It could also be that they are not a confident public speaker, or perhaps that they are are seated near to students that have been causing them grief. There are so many different possibilities which may be causing the quietness which are not explained by a single label.

I feel for the student who opens their report and sees 11 reports, all describing them as quiet and I hope that they feel that their teachers know them and not that they are misunderstood.

A rewarding experience

Rewarding positive learning in my classroom is one of my core values and I hope that my students feel that their efforts are rewarded fully. I have, over my limited teaching years, developed different ways of giving out rewards.

My favourite of all the techniques is the tick system – every positive contribution is rewarded with a tick and three ticks earns some form of reward (credit/merit etc.). This system allows a student to make small contributions to earn a larger reward and it’s also a useful way for me to learn names! The challenge I have found with it is it limits my movement within the room – I need to be near to the whiteboard to write on it and it also limits the flow of my lessons if I have to keep stopping to write on the board.

I am, therefore, on the hunt for a system which enables me to quickly and efficiently reward students for their contributions in lessons. I have started considering a number of options; for example I have thought about using raffle tickets or another token-style reward which students could trade in for a reward at the end of the lesson. My concern with this method is that tokens may be lost during the lesson (there is a lot of movement in my lessons, especially between rooms) and I like rewards to be visible (I find that this encourages the attention-seeker-type to feel rewarded for positive behaviour and not being silly).

The option that I like the most at the moment is using a student to scribe the ticks for me – this option has many merits and would allow flow in my lessons without much interruption. I have not, yet, been able to test it – the white board in my class is quite high and many of my year 7s do not posses the stature to allow full use of the tick section!

How do you reward your students in lessons and do you feel as though you give out enough rewards? I would be interested to know your thoughts!

I love trips but I hate the Ebacc

I love trips.

As a teacher, I enjoy getting out of my classroom and getting the opportunity to go on new new adventures to places I would never have seen and do activities which I have not done before. They are a great opportunity for my own development as a person, providing an excellent way to engage, in different situations, with students and other staff.

Some of you might be reading this and thinking, “Fine – but surely schools trips are about the students?” and you would be right! But everything I said in the previous paragraph is also true for students who have the opportunity to venture out on a trip.

I am a passionate believer that education is not solely about classroom learning. Much of the rhetoric from government and media is about results and “academic” learning – schools are measured purely on these factors, but other factors, in addition to exam grades, are essential for the employability and development of students in their future lives.

The problem for schools and government is that these factors are very difficult to measure and if it is difficult to measure, it is challenging to prove, on paper and in a league table, that it has a measurable impact on that student. This is where I begin to get frustrated with our current system which has such a fundamental basis on league tables. Much of what many schools are doing is based on being more successful in league tables – for example, promoting EBACC subjects. As educators, we can agree that positive extra-curricular opportunities help students develop into more well-rounded individuals, so we would not even consider taking these away.

So why would we even consider reducing, or even removing or restricting the uptake of, subjects which do not come under the EBACC envelope? Why do we even have the EBACC? Why is it that schools are measured significantly on their progress in core and EBACC subjects? I understand the logic – we want our country to be literate, numerate and have an understanding of the world around them – but education is more than just words and numbers and certainly more than a grade on a piece of paper, however easy the grade is to measure.

If we want our students to develop fully, we should be considering the ways in which we can give them a well-rounded education, in addition to supporting their reading and writing. We should be giving them the opportunity to explore lots of different things and challenge them with many varied concepts and ideas across a wide and varied curriculum. I fear, however, that until someone creates a way of measuring social progress without an exam grade, we may be fighting a losing battle with a PM who is determined to focus on the core.

But a few more trips wouldn’t go amiss.