7 Variables Between/Within Schools: Where are you on each scale?

I wrote a short thread on twitter this week outlining five key variables that I detect when I visit schools.  These are things that I’m struck by; things that I notice because the range is so wide.   It gained some interest and a request to write it up – so here it is.  I’ve extended it to seven things – with some bonus extras at the bottom.  Some of these things are variables between schools, some are evident within schools.  It’s not an objective analysis, it’s my perception based on visiting a lot of schools and a lot of classrooms  – so take it for what it is.   It might help to reflect on where things stand in your school and in your classroom.

1. Reading 

  • From extensive reading across subjects, quality texts, established reading routines/norms; high daily volume
  • To:  Reading volume thin, class reading rare outside English except question papers and worksheets. Textbooks rare .

This deserves proper analysis but from what I see, the range in students’ experience of reading is huge.  In some schools, ideas are introduced across the curriculum by reading about them, you find students reading everywhere you go; teachers are trained to run whole-class reading and students’ daily word count would be high.  In other schools, it’s the total opposite.  Teachers outside English don’t even think about providing materials to read; they fixate on their powerpoints and work sheet questions, not text to be read by the students.  In fact, there can be an almighty fuss when a textbook comes out and even the teacher is apologetic about it.  This is bizarre.

Schools like this need a whole culture shift around reading to exploit the numerous opportunities there are to learn through reading.  Teachers themselves need more CPD about how to run a room whilst reading – ie taking turns, teacher-reading, balancing following with listening and so on.

2. Speaking

  • From: Routine paired discussion/talk partners, inclusive questioning, cold call, structured opportunities for asking questions, sharing ideas
  • To: Hands up /calling out dominate; possible to be left out/silent all lesson/day. Opportunities for individual/choral oral rehearsal are rare.

Here I’d say there is as much in-school variation between classrooms as between schools. In some lessons, if a child does exactly what the teachers asks, they can be silent all lesson: never put a hand up, never call out an answer, never talk to a partner (because they’re not asked to) and not respond to a question (because they’re not selected).  Some kids – you can spot them – are ‘kids that don’t answer’. Teachers even avoid them.  They go from lesson to lesson without speaking about their learning at all; they’re not practising, rehearsing their ideas, having their understanding checked, developing their vocabulary etc.

In other lessons, it’s an inclusive world of purposeful structured talk with students actively engaged in sharing, practising, airing thoughts, checking each other’s knowledge, getting ideas organised… and then being involved in questioning because the teacher has everyone ready to respond if called; they’ve nailed their inclusive questioning techniques.   How do you know what you think if you don’t get a chance to hear yourself speak?  How you embed vocabulary you never get a chance to use? Speaking should be an embedded element in learning and yet the variation in students’ experience is significant.

3. Expectations

  • From:  insistence on high expectations for writing/presentation, extended verbal answers using formal terminology; rigour/quality in all tasks; depth and fluency of recall
  • To: Tolerance of mediocrity, monosyllabic responses, shabby books, letting details go.

Again the variation is both in-school that inter-school. It fascinates me exploring exactly how expectations are communicated and just how variable teachers can be in their tolerance or acceptance of lower expectations, from noisy arrivals, air-pods in, sloppy writing, one-word answers, calling out, a general hubbub of low-level off-task talk. This can be absolutely the norm in lessons and nobody is challenged; nobody is being disobedient, it’s just how things are.  It’s also brilliant to see just how well teachers can balance warm friendly engaging love-ins with their classes at the same time as being absolutely insistent on high expectations for everything.   What occurs to me is that some teachers don’t really know just how low their expectations are because they don’t see enough good practice elsewhere to compare themselves with. Of course that’s a tough but important leadership challenge to crack.  Needs to be done though!

4. Homework

  • From: high volume/status; integrated in flow of learning; varied diet of routine practice tasks and some set-piece challenging open-ended tasks; opportunities for choice and extension
  • To: Patchy, low trust, books kept at school, mostly online, low status, dull, disjointed.

In some schools homework has become a dead weight; a problem. Students have a thin gruel of dull tasks that very many don’t complete; it’s little more than lip service and nobody really monitors the online maths platform; it’s just there, ticking a box.  There’s a feeling that, basically, homework is a waste of time.  Until revision season when all hell breaks loose in the programme of  intervention sessions.

Meanwhile, in plenty of schools, homework (or prep or home-learning or study) is absolutely embedded in near-identical contexts.  Students get several hours of challenging and interesting homework every week and complete it because they’re expected to.   The key to success is to have a diet of sensible tasks (see Mode A: Mode B applied to homework here) , a first-line celebratory approach to it with teacher expectations as the main driver; disciplinary back-up is there for persistent non-engagement.  If homework is routinely fed back into the flow of lessons it has a purpose; it doesn’t sit outside as a bit of thorn in everyone’s side.  Most of the best work I’ve ever seen has been done for homework – when the students had time to do it (and I don’t buy the cynicism about parental involvement. God knows, we could do with more of it not less.)

The saddest thing I hear is:  we don’t let them take their books home because they’ll lose them.  That to me is LOW EXPECTATIONs writ large.  It’s just wrong. And unnecessary.

5. Independent learning:

  • From: students have own textbooks/quality workbooks, monitored online tools; revision/practice/research methods taught explicitly; opportunities for choices
  • To: no take-home resources; online tools ‘available’ but unchecked, no choices, revision methods not modelled

In some schools or lessons it’s clear that the teachers are consciously, deliberately building students’ capacity for independent learning. They learn how to check answers, how to self-quiz, how to use past papers, mark schemes and success criteria; how to conduct research; how to read for meaning from a range of texts; how to plan and organise more extended work through structured assignments.  Students have excellent study resources provided for them and are expected to use them.   It might be expected that students will read something in advance of a lesson – perhaps with the added demand that they give a short explanation of what they’ve read.   Elsewhere, none of this happens.  It’s all totally teacher-led and students associate knowledge checking with a teacher-led quiz; it’s not something they do themselves for themselves.

In some schools or subjects, students are encouraged to make choices; there’s a degree of open-endedness in some tasks that allows students scope for making good decisions about areas of focus and interest.  How do you learn to make good choices if you’re never asked to make any? How do you learn to sustain an enquiry in depth if you’re not given an opportunity and the guidance needed to make that a success?  Some schools, some teachers offer this in the diet of curriculum experiences . Yet, elsewhere, a rather depressing ultra-standpoint has been adopted that more-or-less says ‘Poor Kids Can’t Do Projects’  and, guess what, they’re never given the chance.

Meanwhile down the road… they are; the hurdles are overcome and lots of beautiful and surprising pieces of work are produced by children across the full spectrum.  The opportunity is given and they take it.

6. Modelling

  • From: routine modelling part of instructional input; multiple examples; standards are made clear; teacher demonstration, live modelling are common; visualisers standard kit. 
  • To: modelling is low frequency; usually one example and then ‘off you go’; little live writing just pre-prepared slides of writing, no visualisers. 

At a basic instructional level, some teachers are much more confident and fluent with modelling the work that students have to do and modelling plays a key role in lessons.  It helps to have a visualiser; in some schools these are standard in every room.  Elsewhere, modelling can be quite rare.  I rarely see a geography or science teacher writing a six mark answer, showing how it’s done, start to finish.  Normally they just list bullet points or produce one they prepared earlier.  Live modelling isn’t nearly as common as it could be given its  power, with all the metacognitive narration that goes with it.

I’ve learned that some teachers are actually quite anxious about getting things wrong in front of their classes and there’s a self-fulfilling cycle in action where, because they don’t engage in much modelling of full responses, they don’t get better at doing them and don’t gain confidence.  That cycle needs to be broken.  There’s also a weird hang-up about ‘spoon feeding’ that I encounter.  Modelling isn’t spoon feeding; it’s teaching.  People just need to get over that and show students what to do.

7. Curriculum confidence

  • From:  confident knowledgable subject leads; curriculum designed and sequenced with real purpose blending beliefs and logical thinking; on the front-foot, ready to show anyone.  
  • To: subject leads seem out of their depth with the responsibility; unsure what should go when and whether their model is any good; defensive and/or anxious. 

Across the system, children are engaging with a subject curriculum designed by someone who is a genuine expert; someone who could talk it through inside-out, with a clear rationale for all the decisions, with passion and confidence.  There are so many fabulous examples of deep, rich, inspiring curriculum thinking out there.

Conversely, there are children following a curriculum put in place by someone who has borrowed nearly all the resources and ideas, who is working in their third or fourth subject, with limited experience across the range of the content and whose knowledge of the rationale is tenuous.  They’re as worried about this as anyone -but they’re doing their best.

You can imagine the impact that variation has.  It’s great that we’re seeing a revival in interest in deep grass-roots curriculum thinking – but it would be great to see this backed up with an honest and sincere acknowledgement of the time and resources needed to up-skill everyone to the level needed to get it right.   Some schools are superb in their approach: slow, steady curriculum development, drawing on external expertise to build capacity where its lacking and involving everyone.  Elsewhere it’s still all about three Is for possible a two-day visit from Powerful Strangers at some point in the future and a quick fix to get something smart-looking on the website. You could weep.


Non-classroom variables: 

These things are important in different ways to different levels of seriousness:

Research-engagement:  When I do training, introducing ideas to people, I often ask who has read various articles or books or heard of some people. In some schools, there’s a healthy smattering of people who’ve been to a conference, read the books and are generally engaged.  In other schools it’s tumbleweed – nobody has read anything at all. They haven’t even heard of Dylan Wiliam or watched Austin’s Butterfly (which is near universal!!).   Of course they might not directly link to the quality of what they do – but it does show how isolated some communities of teachers can be from the general flow of dissemination of ideas.

Buildings:  This is major haves and have-nots territory.  Some school buildings are palaces; beautiful rooms, lush furnishings, wide corridors and open communal areas, playing fields, theatres,  lecture halls, jaw-drop sports facilities..  a fabulous staff room.  Elsewhere, none of this applies.  It’s old, dark, falling apart, cramped and the staff room feels sad.   Although I visit lots of magnificent school buildings, there are too many jewels in the crown masking the state of things elsewhere.  How did this un-evenness happen?  Of course some of the free schools in office buildings show what can be done in spaces there were not purpose-built, but still in plenty of places you do also feel sorry for some kids and teachers for the conditions they’re working in every day.

Toilets:  More modern schools seem to have this sorted-  things have improved a lot; the loos can even be quite posh.  Elsewhere staff facilities are horribly antiquated, not providing adequate privacy or comfort.. the sort of place that nobody in a commercial organisation would tolerate for a second.   Terrible.  Depressing.

Coffee:  Not too serious but it does make me wonder.  Is this a luxury item in this day and age?  In some schools there is fresh brewed coffee made available to staff all day long, for free.  It’s regarded as part of the standards for running a professional organisation with adults.   It could be coffee-makers in all the offices or a member of the catering team keeping the staffroom supplied all day, with extra supplies at break.  (Independent schools take this to ridiculously lavish heights with their overall catering package for staff – but that’s another story.). Meanwhile, in many schools it’s cheapo bulk tins of instant coffee and a sad old urn… The bowl of brown granules and a plastic spoon, no match for the gorgeous barista brew up the road.



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