New College, Oxford

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New College Oxford’s 1993 intake. Can you find the 19-year-old me?

I will never forget the day I got the letter telling me that I’d got an offer from Oxford University. It was the last day of the Christmas term in 1992, when I was in Year 13. I remember because it was also the last night of our senior school play that year, a production of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night – so I celebrated the last night of the show and the offer of a place to study English Language and Literature at New College, Oxford, on the same night.

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New College Old Quad (source)

New College was new when it was founded, in 1379. The name has stuck, even though it is now one of the oldest colleges in Oxford! I was struck by the beauty of the place when I went to look round with my Mum in the summer of 1992. It remains one of my favourite places to visit – a little oasis of tranquility in the midst of the hustle and bustle of the city.

I studied at Oxford between 1993 and 1996. They were three wonderful years spent studying the subject that I loved – and still love! The system at Oxford suited me down to the ground. The University itself is divided up into 35 different colleges. The colleges provide students’ accommodation, food, teaching and pastoral care. This enables the tutors to know the students really well. New College is one of the biggest colleges – when I went, there were twelve students taking English in my year – but there were three English tutors, so we were very well looked after!

We were taught mainly in tutorials, where two students would sit with a tutor for an hour each week. One of us would read our essay out loud, and the tutor and the other student would then pick it apart, looking for the strengths and weaknesses in what we had written and asking us to defend our arguments. This taught me to prepare well, think on my feet, and know when to admit when I have got something wrong! Doing this three times a week, every week, also taught me a huge amount about organising myself to make sure that everything got done. When there’s only two of you in the tutorial, with a world-leading expert in your subject, there’s nowhere to hide!

Going back to New College

This week, I took twenty three Year 11 students back to New College for a visit. They spent the day learning about university in general and Oxford in particular. They spent time with second-year undergraduates, asking lots of questions to try and find out what studying at Oxford is really like. They also had a tour of nearby St Catherine’s College, which has a much more modern feel than the ancient buildings of New College. Finally, they got to grips with ideas for A-level choices which would inform future university plans, and took on board just how stiff the competition is for places at the UK’s top universities. For example, only 9% of applicants for Medicine at Oxford are successful in gaining one of the 151 places. But, as the tutor at New College said, why shouldn’t you be one of the 9%? You can only get in if you apply in the first place!

I have been really encouraged by the work Oxford and Cambridge are doing to ensure that students from state schools are properly represented in their universities. Part of the battle is making sure that students from schools like Churchill Academy & Sixth Form see top universities as viable, realistic options for their further study. I will certainly do all I can to encourage our students to aim high, believe in themselves, and to have the confidence to put themselves forward – whatever they are aiming for.

Memory Hooks

…or “how to spell millennium.”

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Last week we had the first round of our annual staff spelling bee. This is a hotly contested competition, and the final takes place immediately before the students’ spelling bee competition in February. I have made it to the final for the past three years, so I have a reputation to uphold!

Round one consisted of six words:

  1. Definitely
  2. Indefatigable
  3. Melancholy
  4. Millennium
  5. Acquiesce
  6. Tracheotomy

I was delighted to get them all right! So at least I’m through to round two…

However, the presence of the word “millennium” was a bit of a gift for me, because I definitely know how to spell it. At least, I do now…and I have for the past nineteen years.

Back in the year 1999, I was in my first teaching job at a school in Nottinghamshire. My tutor group and I did an activity thinking about our hopes and wishes for the year 2000 – we called them our “millennium pledges” and we were going to use them for the display board in our tutor room. I duly stayed after school one day, backed and edged the board in new display paper, got my tutor group’s pledges arranged artistically on the backing paper, and cut out and stuck every letter of the display title using letter stencils, in silver and then in black. I stuck the black behind the silver to create a neat shadow effect. I then covered the display in clear sticky-backed plastic covering film to protect the children’s work. Two hours after school, I was standing back to admire my handiwork, when my Head of Department came in to have a look.

“There are two “n”s in ‘millennium,'” she said.

Yes, you’ve guessed it, my display said “our millenium pledges” – with one “n.”

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It turns out, once you’ve covered a display board in clear sticky-backed plastic covering film, you can’t peel it off again without ripping the paper. And ruining the students’ work. And the backing paper. And the edging paper. And, really, the whole display, which had to be completely re-done from scratch, including the children’s millennium pledges. I did make a teaching point out of it, and I hope that those children (who will now be about 33 years old!) can still spell ‘millennium’ correctly too…

Memory hooks

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Whenever I see the word ‘millennium’ now, I am reminded of those hours of time cutting stencil letters out. Twice. The memory is painful, and very funny – in hindsight. But it is strong and powerful. It is a memory I can return to when I am thinking about how to spell that tricky word, and it provides a “way in” for me to the knowledge that I need to ensure I never spell it incorrectly again. Although this memory hook was created by accident, it is also possible to use this technique to enable you to remember key information, for example when revising for tests, by deliberately creating a memory hook to link you to the information you want.

The memory hooks can be anything – an emotion, an image, a place, a person, a piece of music…I have a strong emotional hook to the spelling of the word ‘millennium’! Find something that you can use to trigger your memory, and you will find it easier to remember the things you are trying to learn.

One way to do this might be by putting revision reminders in different rooms of your home. Let’s say you were revising for a History test: you could put facts about people around the bathroom mirror, facts about places on your bedroom door, and information about causes and consequences on the refrigerator in your kitchen. Then, if you’re trying to recall the name of a key person, you can visualise your bathroom mirror and the post-it note you’d stuck just to the left of it…and hopefully, that will give you the memory hook to bring the name to mind.

Memory hooks really work…and that’s why my Joint First Place trophy from the 2018 Staff Spelling Bee has pride of place on the bookshelf in my office, just next to my Lego Millennium Falcon.

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Assembly: marginal gains and resolutions

CRH Marginal Gains Assembly

In this week’s assembly, I’ve been talking about marginal gains and resolutions. I started with the picture above: many students had a go at guessing what these objects were! The answer is that these are ‘bum warmers’, used to warm the muscles of Olympic cyclists before a race. The extra warmth means the cyclists can start one hundredth of a second faster than their opponents.

These curious devices are one example of the British cycling team’s approach to the “aggregation of marginal gains.” This approach means making tiny improvements in lots of different areas, adding up to a big overall effect. Other examples include the the cyclists always taking their own pillows and bedding with them when they travel, to reduce the chance of picking up an infection which might interfere with their training. The team tweak every aspect of the bikes, the cyclists’ equipment and clothing, their diet, sleep, schedule and training regime to try and eke out an extra 1% of performance.

CRH Marginal Gains Assembly

It’s an approach which seems to have worked. In the four Olympic Games between 1992 and 2004, the cycling team managed to win eight medals; following the adoption of the marginal gains approach, the team won 41 medals across Beijing 2008, London 2012 and Rio 2016.

Marginal gains in school

I want us all to think about what marginal gains we could make in school. What small changes could we make to our approach which, sustained and added up over time, could result in a big improvement?

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One change could be in making the most of the time we have. Spending five minutes of a lesson off task – daydreaming, chatting to a friend, looking out of the window – doesn’t seem like too much of a problem. But adding it up over a year can result in a lot of lost time…

  • We have five lessons every day for 190 school days in a year
  • That’s 5 x 190 = 950 lessons per year
  • Five minutes wasted in every lesson is 5 x 950 = 4,750 minutes
  • 4,750 minutes is just over 79 hours
  • That’s over THREE WHOLE DAYS of learning lost per year, just from five minutes in each lesson (three days, seven hours and ten minutes, for precision fans).

Ensuring we attend every lesson punctually, and staying focused when we are there, is a marginal gain we can all make that could add up to a big overall effect over time.

Making a resolution

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New Year’s resolutions are notoriously hard to keep. This can be because they are too ambitious. But the advantage of resolving to make a marginal gain is that it involves a small change – or perhaps a number of them! Making resolutions to stay focused, to ensure that all equipment for school is prepared the night before, to avoid distractions, or to be more punctual to every lesson…these are not impossible goals to set ourselves, but added up they could make a significant difference.

What will your New Year’s resolution be?

CRH Marginal Gains Assembly

 

Thanks to Keith Neville for the inspiration for this assembly.

Making a good start

I am writing this blog post on Wednesday 19th September, exactly two weeks (or one complete timetable cycle) since the start of the school year. I can confidently say: “we’ve made a good start.”

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Since the start of term teachers have awarded 8530 reward points, set against 482 points for concerns. This ratio of nearly 18 to 1 rewards over concerns shows that our students have begun the year in the right frame of mind, with the right attitude, and they are setting themselves up on the path to success.

That’s not to say that everything is perfect! As ever with the start of term, there have been some issues to resolve and some teething troubles. Some students have had to adjust their behaviour or their uniform, and we as staff have had to make some adjustments to put a few things right. This is a really important process: nobody can get everything right all of the time, but when things aren’t right we are committed to sorting them out. This is what we ask of our students, and it is only right that we lead by example.

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A good start is just that: a beginning. Now that we are through the first two weeks, students have been to every class and lesson, and met all their teachers. The novelty of a new school year has worn away. What matters now is settling into the routine and rhythm of the Academy, maintaining the high standards set at at the start. That means continuing to show those learning behaviours which we know give students the best chance of success in their studies:

  • Determined and consistent effort
  • A hunger to learn new things
  • Challenging ourselves to go beyond what is comfortable
  • Viewing setbacks and mistakes as opportunities to learn and grow
  • Seeking and responding to feedback
  • Encouraging others to succeed

And, even if you haven’t made a good start, it’s important to never give up. The video below shows the 1972 Olympic 800m final, featuring American athlete Dave Wottle (in the white hat). He made a slow start, falling way behind the field made up of the finest runners in the world. But he kept trying, and he never gave up. What happened next went down in Olympic history. We could all do with a bit of Dave Wottle’s determination:

Process over product

 

African Masks

Last week I saw a post on the Art Department Instagram which has inspired this week’s blog.

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Process over product. You art students work mighty hard towards your final pieces, and let me tell you… it doesn't go unnoticed. We call that the process, the hard work (and sometimes downright frustrating part) before we start the final piece. You do most of your learning during the first stages of a project. I sometimes love the development shown in a sketchbook more than the final piece! Shhhh. Amazing pieces of art don't just happen folks. It takes planning, research, and hard work to create a final piece to be proud of. Keep trying, keep working hard. 🤗 . . . Here, yr 7 start making their masks, whilst referring to their sketchbooks. #churchillacademy #Processoverproduct #hardworkpays #masks #ks3art #kidart #creativekids #churchillartacademy #africanart #yr7art

A post shared by churchillARTacademy (@churchillartacademy) on

You art students work mighty hard towards your final pieces, and let me tell you…it doesn’t go unnoticed. We call that the process, the hard work (and sometimes downright frustrating part) before we start the final piece. You do most of your learning during the first stages of a project. I sometimes love the development shown in a sketchbook more than the final piece! Shhhh. Amazing pieces of art don’t just happen folks. It takes planning, research, and hard work to create a final piece to be proud of. Keep trying, keep working hard.

This post captures a key element of our approach to learning at Churchill. At school, every experience is an opportunity to learn. We encourage our students to approach every task with the attitude: “how can I learn from this?” or “how can this task help me to get better?”

With this approach in mind, teachers emphasise what each task is designed to teach, develop or provide the opportunity to practise, whilst students will focus on what the key learning points in each task are. Although students should rightly feel proud of the finished product – whether it be a project, a homework, a performance, an essay, a test, an experiment or a piece of art or design – the learning happens during the process of making it. It is only through rehearsal that a performance can be polished.

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Even when a piece of work is finished, the learning isn’t. There will always be feedback on how to improve, reflection on what we have done well and what we can do better next time. This feedback is the essential ingredient which helps all learners move forward.

Receiving feedback can be hard. If the work has been the result of substantial effort, receiving critique on its flaws can be difficult. “I tried really hard, and it’s still not right,” our inner voice might say.

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The key to overcoming this is to remember that every experience in school is a learning experience. When you approach every task with the attitude: “how can I learn from this?” or “how can this help me to improve?” it means that you are expecting feedback – you need it. The task is not over when you have completed the work; it is only over when you have received the feedback and acted on it in order to improve, and taken the next step forward in your learning. Then you are ready for the next task, to build on the progress you have made.

If we are going to make the progress we are capable of, we all need to shift our mindset away from “it’s finished when I put my pen down.” The final product is important, but the learning happens during the process. That’s why, at Churchill, we always emphasise the importance of the process over the product.

 

How believing in others helps them to believe in themselves

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“Whether you think you can, or whether you think you can’t…you’re right.”

Those words, spoken by Henry Ford, the American business magnate and founder of the Ford motor company, perfectly capture the importance of self-belief in achieving success. His statement underpins a lot of what I know to be true from my long experience in education. What interests me, as a teacher, a leader and also as a parent, is how to help children and young people who think that they can’t, believe that they can.

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One really interesting study into this area was carried out in 2014 by David Yeager, Geoffrey Cohen and colleagues. They studied a group of high school students in America, who all completed the same essay task. Teachers provided written feedback on the essays in the margins and at the end, with suggestions for improvement. The researchers intercepted the essays and added a post-it note to each one. Half of the essays had a post-it note which read: “I’m giving you these comments because I have very high expectations and I know that you can reach them.” The other half had identical post-it notes with the message: “I’m giving you these comments so that you’ll have feedback on your work.” Neither the students nor their teachers knew that there were different messages on the post-it notes, as the essays were handed back in wallet folders.

The first post-it contains an important message about high expectations, positive regard, and the belief in improvement. The second is a carefully-worded neutral message designed to act as a “placebo” or “control” in the experiment – in other words, it should have no impact on the motivation of the students.

All students in this study were given the opportunity to revise their essays and hand in an improved version the following week. About 40% of students who had received the “placebo” feedback did so, but double that number – 80% – of the students who had received the positive regard feedback chose to revise their work.

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What this study – and others like it – demonstrate, is that showing others that we believe in them makes them more likely to believe in themselves. Twice as many students took time to improve their work and make more progress when they were told that someone believed in their potential. I believe in the potential of every single student at Churchill Academy & Sixth Form to achieve great things. Telling the students that, and showing them that belief in our actions, is the most powerful thing that we grown-ups can do.

Progress

Last week I had the privilege of attending the Academy’s first Exhibition of Progress. This event, organised by Director of English Mr Grimmett, was designed to celebrate students who had made exceptional progress in their learning this year. This doesn’t necessarily mean the students who were getting the highest marks, but rather those that had made a huge leap forward in their learning over the course of this year.

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Learning Ambassadors 2018

Students were nominated by their teachers, and Mr Grimmett took them off timetable for a morning to work with them. His aim, with the students, was to reflect on the progress made and to try and work out what it was that had made the difference. Why had these students made exceptional progress in these lessons?

The question seems simple, but the answers are quite complex. The students themselves weren’t clear to start with – for many of them it had “just happened.” To help them to reflect, students put work from the start of the year side-by-side next to a more recent piece, looking at the improvements they had made. They then followed the leads they found – how had that improvement been achieved?

From the group of students, the following were rated as having the most impact on the progress they had made:

  1. Effort in classwork
  2. Personal determination to get better
  3. Positive relationship with teacher
  4. Effort in homework
  5. Personal understanding of the work and how to improve
  6. Enjoying the subject

Many students said that enjoying the subject led to them making more progress, but of course making progress makes the subject more enjoyable and leads to greater levels of satisfaction – like the chicken and the egg, it’s hard to know which comes first! What is certain is that progress builds confidence which leads to enjoyment which helps progress…it’s a virtuous cycle.

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Students created display posters to compare the “before” and “after” pieces of work, and explain the reasons for that progress. These posters formed the exhibition itself, and it was great to walk round and talk to the students stationed by their posters as they explained how they had done it.

Mr Grimmett pulled three key findings from his work with these students:

  1. Break out of your comfort zone: pushing yourself to do something difficult, or different, is the best way of making progress. Often this was prompted by something – feedback from a teacher, a good or bad result in an assessment, or a personal realisation and decision to change.
  2. Be self-disciplined: avoiding distractions, staying focused, concentrating so that the job gets done well – these are keys that unlock progress. It’s hard – but it’s worth it.
  3. Reflect and think about learning: the power of metacognition, or “thinking about thinking,” was a common thread with many students. Knowing how to improve, responding positively to feedback, and developing a bank of strategies and approaches which work, allowed these students to apply themselves more purposefully to their learning.

What’s great about this is that these findings provide a road map and a template for any student who wants to thrive and make exceptional progress. If these students did it – you can too.

Thanks so much to Mr Grimmett and all the students involved for such fantastic work and for putting on a truly inspiring exhibition.

What’s your goal?

What are our motivations when we take on tasks in school? As part of the research I did when writing my book, I found some really interesting discussions about this issue. When we approach a task, the end goal we have in mind can have a big impact on how useful or effective that task is, both in terms of learning and also in terms of our well being.

There are two types of goals when taking on a task in school:

  1. Performance goal: if a student is motivated by a performance goal, then their primary concern is how well they do in the task – how successful they are, where they placed in relation to other students, what their score or grade was. They take on tasks to do well. If they are worried they might not do well, then students motivated by a performance goal might seek a way to avoid the task, fearing that it might expose them as “a failure.”
  2. Learning goal: if a student is motivated by a learning goal, then their primary concern is how the task helps to improve or develop them, through gains in knowledge or skills. They take on tasks to improve themselves, to learn something new, and to develop. If you are motivated by a learning goal, then failure to fully complete a challenging task is an opportunity to learn from mistakes, not a judgment on you as a person.

Students motivated by performance goals focus on avoiding failure. This can result in using tactics to get out of doing tasks that might be difficult, or even engaging in what the researchers call “self-handicapping” so that they can blame someone or something else for why they didn’t do well:  

For example, a student might postpone completing a [piece of homework] until the last minute or stay up late partying the night before an important test. Although the student can now blame failure on a factor unrelated to her intelligence, she has sacrificed the chance to learn and excel.

from Academic Tenacity: Mindsets and Skills that Promote Long-Term Learning 

The research shows that students motivated by learning goals make better progress, are more resilient, are more likely to persist with difficult tasks, and seek out challenges – all features we want to encourage in our young people at Churchill.

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Learning goals at Churchill

At Churchill Academy & Sixth Form, the only time when students have a performance goal is in their final GCSE, A-level, BTEC or other public exams or assessments.

At every other time, tasks are designed and set up with a learning goal in mind.

School tests and internal exams

End of unit or end of year exams and tests are designed to help students in their learning. Revising for and completing the tests themselves are opportunities for retrieval practice, a learning strategy that has been shown to improve memory and long term learning. After students have completed their tests or exams, teachers will spend time with their classes going through their answers and their scripts, helping students learn from where they got things right, mistakes they made, and gaps in their learning revealed by the test. Of course, we want students to do well, and it is important that they try hard to do the best that they possibly can – but that is not the goal. The goal is to learn.

Performances and matches

Performances in drama, dance, music and sports matches are also learning experiences. Of course they are rehearsed or practised carefully, so that the performance is the best it can possibly be, but each performance is a learning experience. Each time a dancer steps onto a stage in front of an audience, it makes them a better dancer. Each football match played against “real” opposition builds the team’s and individuals’ skills and experience, making them better. Winning the match, or putting on a great show, is fantastic – but our aim is to learn.

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Challenges in school

Taking on a challenging or difficult task in school – in a lesson, as part of our extra-curricular activities, personally, or even socially – is an opportunity to learn and grow. It doesn’t matter if we don’t get it all right, or even if we get it wrong – because that’s not the point of taking it on. If we learn from the experience, it’s worth it.

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Transforming the learning environment

Over the past fortnight students have been getting used to a new and improved learning environment in the English department. Over the past year our site team have been working tirelessly, room-by-room, to renovate and refurbish all the classrooms in Hanover, where English is based. Over the Easter break, new carpet was laid in all classrooms and the upstairs corridor. It’s made an amazing difference!

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Before…

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…during…

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…and after

What was once an echoing tiled space is now a quiet, padded corridor. Whereas once the slightest shift of a chair was accompanied by an ear-splitting shriek of metal on tile, now students can focus on their learning without distraction. The clutter of old resources has been removed in favour of neat storage, and classroom displays are now focused on key learning points for English classes.

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The classroom design uses the same template as the Alan Turing Building, based on the Smarter Spaces research and work conducted by our students last year. The “teaching wall” is painted in a bright accent colour, to draw attention to the front of the room. The other walls are in a neutral colour, free from distractions, so that focus remains where it should be – on the learning.

Corridors are now clean and uncluttered. Hard-to-maintain displays have been removed in favour of large, robust photography. The time teachers would have spent on preparing, putting up and maintaining displays can now be spent more effectively on lessons and working with students.

We now have two buildings – the Alan Turing Building and Hanover – in this new internal design. The Athene Donald Building will make a third, and over the coming years we will also roll out the design to Windsor, Stuart and beyond. The future is bright!

We have only been able to achieve these great results thanks to the amazing efforts of our site team, who have completed this work with minimal disruption and a great end result. I’d like to thank them personally for all the work they have done – and continue to do – to transform the environment for learning for our students.

Laying the foundations

On Tuesday of this week I was invited down to the construction site where work is progressing on our new Science and Technology building. It was an important day as the contractors were using a 39 metre boom to lay down 243 cubic metres of concrete in a single slab to form the base of the building. It was quite an operation: the concrete arrived in a series of mixer wagons (30 in all during the day); it was transferred into an on-site hopper, which pumped the concrete along the boom and out into the site. One operator used a remote control to move the boom around whilst his team directed the flow of concrete into the steel mesh framework. A second pump made sure no air bubbles were trapped, whilst behind them a final contractor used a beam screeder to ensure a completely flat surface. It was amazing to watch! Over the course of twelve hours, the complete base of the building was laid out in one piece. Pipework is left to connect up the plumbing, and there are bolts sticking up from the foundation piles where the steel frame for the walls will be anchored.

As I watched this work taking place, it occurred to me that, eventually, none of this will be visible. The building will rise up, completely covering it; the ground floor materials will be mounted on top of this concrete. And yet, although none of it will be visible, it is this solid foundation which will hold the whole thing together.

As a school, we aim to provide the solid foundations and the framework upon which young people can build their futures. It’s vital to get this right. Gaps or errors in the process would be like air bubbles left in the concrete: they could weaken the whole structure. That’s why we work so hard to ensure that all our students make the most of every day, every lesson that they can.

Eventually, all the work done in school will become invisible, covered by the progress and achievements of the young people themselves as they build their own futures. But it will always be there: a firm, smooth, solid base anchoring them securely and allowing them to rise up. What a privilege it is to be a part of that process.