Now I’m a Revision Genius.

However much I might love them, I have to admit that, by this stage in the year, I cannot wait to be rid of my exam classes. The whiff of desperation off them, the finger-pointing (e.g. ‘Sir, you didn’t teach us that part!’), the endless question-spotting: all conspire to assault the soul. And I haven’t even mentioned revision yet.

‘Revision.’ Was there ever a word coined to gladden the heart less? As a student I was good at it (I made a plan and I stuck to it); as a teacher I am not. That is, not until this week. Now I’m a revision genius.

What I realised is that students underperform in exams not because they didn’t know stuff, but because they didn’t make best use of the stuff they did know. I teach Government and Politics at A Level. Within the global politics unit there is a question about the challenges to US hegemony in the world. All of my students would tackle this question if it came up, familiar as they are with concepts such as multipolarity and the rise of China. This is not especially difficult stuff and there are plenty of recent incidents they can draw upon to exemplify their points: the ineffectual response to Russia in Ukraine, the emergence of ISIS out of the ashes of the Iraq War, the relative decline in US economic performance. Students lap this lot up: they can hardly fail to do well. But then they do. The reason is that they launch into their answer with the merest hint of a plan, go on for a bit, meandering where their notions take them, then stop when the time runs out.

So this week I gave my class exactly this question. But, instead of rehearsing all the material that they were already comfortable with, we quickly agreed to assemble the response around 4 governing ideas: economy, diplomacy, security, culture. Choosing one each, I got them to write a topic sentence for these ideas. Some remembered a few tricks I have taught them along the way: nominalise the topic into a grand abstract noun; foreground this so that the examiner finds it near the start of the sentence; re-use the words of the question (‘challenge’, ‘hegemony’) rather than synonyms (‘compromise’, ‘undermine’, ‘superiority’.) We collected these topic sentences on the board and started to examine their effectiveness. We noticed that some were simple (‘Diplomacy is one way in which US hegemony has been challenged.’) while others were more complex (‘The cultural hegemony of the US has been challenged due to globalisation and advances in technology.’) We agreed that both were fine, but that a simple topic sentence was perhaps best where the rest of the paragraph was likely to be long and involved, and where a paragraph did not need to be so developed a more complex topic sentence could work well.

So far so good. There was nothing else written in my teacher planner for the class to do, and I don’t like letting a class go early. Then one of them blurted out, “So all I have to do to revise a question is to write out and learn the topic sentences!” There was unanimity on this, a conviction that they had stumbled upon a revision method they actually believed in. They know they know stuff. Now they know how to make the stuff they know work for them in the exam. Genius!

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Peer Assessment for Grown-Ups

I could pretend that I have been troubled for some time about the value of peer-assessment. I could lead you to believe that I have arrived at this new knowledge after weeks of planning and experimentation. In truth, I did what I did by accident. I invented ‘peer review’ for school.

Apologies to those who may feel they got there before me. I am not an expert, in the sense that I have not read every pamphlet, blog and counter-argument on AfL. I just do a lot of marking, and occasionally I remember that some peer assessment would not go amiss. I have been a non-expert for a long time.

I came to peer review by accident, because I happened to write those 2 (TWO) words in my planner for this afternoon’s A2 Politics lesson, when I had probably intended ‘peer assessment’. I knew I wanted my 6 students to read each other’s homework essays, and I knew I would get them to set each other short improvement tasks to complete in the lesson. I know my nuts; I can do stuff like this. But I wrote ‘peer review’ in my planner. When I opened it at the start of lesson 5 this afternoon… what had I meant? I decided to go with it.

In the previous lesson, the group had done some research and some planning for the essay: How effective is the international community at upholding international law? Answer with reference to the ICJ, ICC and international criminal tribunals. (This is the esoteric stuff we do in the Global Politics unit, but I don’t suppose the question matters much here.) That was Tuesday. They agreed to write the essay for today. I arrive, open my planner and ask, Does everyone know what is meant by ‘peer review’? They all thought they did. (They had all made the same mistake as I had.) So I clarified, with reference to peer review science journals. I have a couple of Philosophy and Ethics students, and they seemed to catch on the quickest. I threw this up on the screen, courtesy of Wikipedia:

Peer review is the evaluation of work by one or more people of similar competence to the producers of the work (peers). It constitutes a form of self-regulation by qualified members of a profession within the relevant field. Peer review methods are employed to maintain standards of quality, improve performance, and provide credibility. In academia peer review is often used to determine an academic paper‘s suitability for publication.

They saw immediately the relevance to them. Our next step was to agree what we called ‘areas for validation’. In truth, these were close to the original success criteria, but they included balance, appropriate referencing, factual accuracy, inclusion of political theory. They agreed it would not include an evaluation of the author’s argument, except to insist that there be one, and that it be valid. They then paired up to peer review each other’s work, knowing also that they had to set a task at the end, which would improve the essay’s ‘suitability for publication’. This took 15 minutes. They then agreed that it would be better still if there were a second reviewer, to endorse or amend the comments of the first. This still left 15 minutes at the end of the lesson for them all to complete the improvement task and hand their essays in. I have not marked them yet (as I said, I’m not that good), but a quick glance reveals these examples of improvement tasks: Rewrite your conclusion. Be more explicit on the views of political theorists. Introduce your arguments in the introduction: this will enable a brief description of the ICJ and ICC. I think their peer comments were deeper, and I think this was because they felt they were doing something more meaningful than merely assessing each other.

So now that I have invented peer review for school, I expect inclusion in many a peer reviewed paper from now on.

On not being an expert A level teacher

“Apparently you are the expert at teaching A level,” said a colleague, by way of an Hello. “I’ve been told I’ve got to observe you.” As auspicious starts of the day go, I’ve had better. Even so, I am the assistant head for staff development, and I do teach a lot of A level at the moment, so I’m not in a position to say No. Quick as a flash, I get all developmental and say, “Sure, any time. What will your particular focus be?” Relieved as I am that she does not have one (I don’t fancy laying on a demonstration), the very fact is an indicator that this is a teacher who does not really know how to improve.

I am not the expert at teaching A level. My subject knowledge is often insecure (I teach History, where my grasp of late tsarism is tenuous; and Politics, where every year I have to remind myself of the functioning of the Single Transferable Vote.) I differentiate far too haphazardly. I do foolish things like demand essays from three groups all for the same week. I do do some things well. I can make the learning seem interesting, I can build students’ confidence so they work independently, and – somehow – my students often achieve good grades and go on to further study. If my colleague had picked up on my reputation, it will probably have been for those things.

But, latterly, I have actually been getting better. Two examples from the past week will serve here.

A2 Politics – Study on Global Politics. The textbook has some undergrad level material on the nature of power: hard, soft, relational, structural, smart. This is demanding at a conceptual level, and the students need also to refer to theoretical schools and draw in real-world examples. I set them some pre-reading tasks, which they are good at complying with. I felt I needed a memorable starter for their first lesson on the topic. Well, it was obvious: a wrestling competition. The 4 girls and 2 boys fought a knockout (my ‘risk assessment’ did not allow for the fact that two of them had broken their wrists in the previous year), leaving two finalists. At each round, I asked them to consider their relative power. The finalists decided they needn’t wrestle for a winner, as they were content to reside in a bi-polar world, where they were the hegemons. Clever!  Niall said, ‘I can’t believe we are doing this.’ But they did, and during the following lesson they demonstrated how well they had learned. I wanted them to co-create an essay on Has the US attained smart power? I created 24 cards with keywords, people and exemplar events on them, and reminders like ‘Using proper Topic Sentences’ and ‘Reaching a reasoned conclusion’; the students then negotiated a lay-out which would reflect their essay plan, mindful also of the need for clearly signposted paragraphing. The debated different classic approaches, such as the some arguments for / some arguments against balance, but settled on a more sophisticated division of the case. Without any prompting, they made sure each was happy with the decision and secure in their understanding of it. They proffered and sifted through events which could illustrate their points, and demanded extra blank cards from me so they could record these. As they are a small group, my preparation was just one set of cards; for all but 15 minutes of the lesson, they did all of the talking, all of the work. I just sat back and thought What an ‘expert’ A level teacher am I?

AS History – essay feedback. We had been studying Alexander III as a ‘repressive autocrat’, focusing on his use of the Okhrana, suppresion of political rivals and the role of his ministers. We had earlier been working on how to communicate in writing to maximum effect, and I had set this is a priority success criteria, deliberately limiting the number of separate points I wanted them to make. My theory is: if I want them to improve their literacy, it’s best to make the content easy. The results were disappointing, and I found myself taking hours over marking and setting targets. Whereas in the past (and, in teaching, I have a long past) I would have simply handed these back, barked a little, and hoped for better next time, now I realise there needs to be a closer correlation between the time taken to mark and the time given to students in class to actually act on feedback. To my shame, this practice is an innovation to me. The large majority of my comments featured introductions, conclusions, topic sentences and a highlighting technique we call foregrounding. So, for 5 minutes at the top of the next lesson I demonstrated how they could improve these features by sharing some success criteria for each. After that the lesson was largely taken up with them re-writing individual sentences, selecting more appropriate words and placing them to greater effect, and re-configuring their introductions. My role was limited to circulating to respond to their new efforts.

This was the lesson my colleague chose to watch. There was certainly nothing showy about it, but I have learned that students readily engage when given a chance to redraft, so long as they can see how and aren’t made to feel daft. My colleague doesn’t seem to have learned this yet, and she left soon after the students started on their reworking. She stayed for the wrong bit: she thought she was there to watch me, because I am ‘an expert’. She should have stayed to watch the students – the true experts.