Creative Teacher Support

Creative, practical support and discussion for classroom teachers everywhere

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The Lunatics are Taking Over the Asylum

As exam season slowly draws towards a close and, certainly at my school, we’re starting to turn our attention to how Year 10 are prepared and, due to terminal or end of course assessment, the dreaded “mock” looms – threatening to rid us of our “gained” time with the pile of marking that ensues.

I’m not a fan of “mocks”. I think that if we have to rehearse the process of sitting in a room for the time period of an exam then we’re surely nearing the precipice anyway. Also, as one of the few English teachers who enjoys the odd spreadsheet, I can tell you I have never delivered, marked or been involved with a mock examination in which the average mark was better than a D. It’s not a reliable predictor of future performance.

However, the mocks we must have, and a Literature mock at that – tackling the two texts we have covered so far in the course: “An Inspector Calls” (sorry Mr Gove!) and “Of Mice and Men”. We have covered both texts extensively and, in the case of “Of Mice and Men” completed a Controlled Assessment on it. So I went in a slightly different direction and allowed the students to create their own tasks to “test” each others’ basic knowledge of the texts. It’s not a ground breaking strategy, I can hear you splutter as you click to something more useful – but it works and may even qualify as a “meta-cognitive” strategy.

Anyone who has heard Dylan Wiliam speak about Assessment for learning will recognise the quote below:
“There was a very interesting study done in 1994 where different groups of students were preparing for exams in different ways. Some students revised the materials they’d been studying, some students practised on “mock” tests and one group of students was asked to make up test questions (with answers!) on what they’d been learning. This last group got the highest score on the test. So if all you care about is cramming students for tests then the best way to do that is get them to create their own test questions.”

Assessment for Learning: why, what and how, Dylan Wiliam, Institute of Education, University of London

Now, rising above the sideswipe of the last sentence, this proves to be an interesting piece of learning to structure from a teacher’s perspective and a challenge to students who have to consider how different questioning techniques can elicit the information they need to know.

The task I presented my Year tens with is summarised in the slide below. The most interesting aspect of the whole process was the amount of teacher led “direct instruction” that was required before the students could “demonstrate” their learning. It was far from a simple, “here’s the activity, off you go”. It was challenging to make them create challenging tasks for each other.

Creating revision tests

We began the revision process with a simple “Go for 5” strategy where students had to identify and then negotiate the 5 aspects of each text that their study of it felt it could not be successful without. This is one of those moments where you really need to know what it is you want or need from them so that it precipitates the deeper learning of the next part of the sequence. Each of the five points for each text had to be “fleshed out” with the further five aspects of detail that they would need to “know”. It is important to recognise the focus on knowledge at this point. Without the foundation of knowing who’s who and what happens next or that Priestley was a Socialist – analysis becomes even more challenging. The way that this worked best to deliver was through good, interactive, high quality whole class teaching. (Read a nice discussion about this as a technique here as it is tackled by Daisy Christodoulou in her “taster” for her book, “Seven Myths About Education”) Interestingly, if we are to dig deep enough in the annals of the National Strategies, quality first high quality whole class teaching was considered to be the first “wave” of intervention.


Teaching the students about questioning became the next challenge. I encouraged them to use a variety of question types: closed and open; long and short answer; “hinge” questions, fill-in-the-gaps etc. We discussed the importance of knowing the answer to the questions that they asked – which challenged them in terms of constructing questions to “test” the knowledge they wanted to elicit from their peers.

Long story short, they produced some excellent “tests”, bringing a copy each and also submitting them on edmodo for me to moderate before the lesson. The “test day” was a different lesson altogether with the students taking the lead and providing each other with challenge and then feedback and encouraging each other to go away and reconsider answers they had given before returning with just more or more detail.

This worked well with a great class but wasn’t the first time I had attempted this kind of activity. The dreaded days of the Year 9 SATs did provide us with one effective resource, particularly for teaching reading. QCA published the question “stems” they used to create questions that assessed students’ grasp of the individual Assessment Focuses. (Download a copy of the slides here: KS3 Reading Assessment – Question Stems)

In my last post I wrote about the primacy or hierarchy of skills that exist certainly in English and how contingent other, more higher order skills are to the successful grasp of these concepts. With Key Stage 3 groups I have carried out a similar process but stratified or limited the kind of questions that students can ask in order to focus on a very particular skill, diagnosing where issues may arise before continuing. This was also successful and resulted in some real improvement in terms of assessed reading levels. Feedback could be more focused and learning became almost layered, building up the skills to the point where students could choose from the “toolkit” of strategies they had explored through creating “tests” for each other but, crucially, having to “know” the answer themselves.

One of the most pleasing parts of delivering this approach was in the clear meeting of two teaching techniques which popular discourse seems to portray as diametrically opposed. The process of moving between teacher led, direct instruction and more pupil led peer assessment and peer feedback was effective in eliciting the best from the students in my class and, I suspect, is the most common way that many teachers organise what they do. A blend of approaches which selects the best approach for the right kids in that particular school is the “third” way that exists between the tiresome arguments in favour of more progressive teaching methods and those that may be considered to be old fashioned.