Oracy, Agency and Urgency: my 3-point improvement plan for 2015

Marching purposefully into 2015
Marching purposefully into 2015

Sometimes, when you read multiple books simultaneously, all sorts of connections and juxtapositions jump out that otherwise might not when reading in a more traditional, linear way.

The three books I am currently reading are:

(The above links go to Amazon. I do not have any affiliate agreement with Amazon, so please regard my judgement of these books as dispassionate and unbiased.)

Before I go any further, I should add that this blog is not a review of the above books. Indeed, I haven’t finished reading them. I’m two thirds through both ‘Understanding by Design’ (UbD) and ‘Teach Like a Champion’ (TLaC), and about 10% into ‘The Secret of Literacy’ (SoL).

I’m writing this blog because these books have already inspired me to categorise my professional development in simple, overarching terms that I think will enable me to prioritise and plan for next year. The three categories that I’ve identified are Oracy, Agency and Urgency. I make no apology for the fact that they rhyme, have three syllables and begin with vowels. As a teacher of persuasive writing, I am all too familiar with the tricks of the trade!

However, I have found them to be a useful way to plan for better teaching and learning. So let me explain each in turn.

Oracy

In the early chapters of SoL, David Didau contends that to improve quality of writing, you need to improve quality of speech. Essentially, you need to allow students to verbalise before writing, and you need to intervene at the oral stage in order to create quality utterances that lead to more formal writing.

Talk is precious, since it mirrors thought (indeed precedes it for young people). The more I can hear of my students’ writing, before it is written, the better my interventions. Precisely what those interventions might be? Well, I’ll have to read the rest of SoL to find out!

Agency

In UbD, McTighe and Wiggins split teacher preparation for learning cycles into three distinct phases, which must be addressed sequentially and in depth. Stage 1 is Big Ideas and Essential Questions; Stage 2 is Assessment; and Stage 3 is Planning and Teaching. The process is sometimes referred to as ‘Backward Planning’ because the more traditional approach for teachers is to plan units, plan lessons, then plan assessments. By focusing on the Big Ideas (objectives), then devising assessments that generate evidence of understanding, the teacher is in a far better position to ensure that the lesson sequence aims from the objective towards understanding.

Such an approach gives the teacher and the learner a greater sense of purpose (agency). Both parties are much clearer about why they are doing what they are doing, and how it feeds into an assessment of understanding.

Urgency

I was initially sceptical of TLaC. The cover reminds me of the worst of self-help publishing; books with bizarre titles like ‘Who Moved My Cheese?’ and ‘The 10-minute Tyrant’ don’t really do much for me.

Early on in the book, Lemov describes a technique whereby the teacher times students handing out worksheets with a stopwatch. This had me thinking of Adidas tracksuited teachers (a la ‘The Royal Tennenbaums’) tracking every student movement and timing every act for maximum precision. I even drew an aloof disdain from Lemov on Twitter, when I blithely stated that I wouldn’t be using such a ‘time-and-motion’ technique in my classroom!

The timing of handing out books and worksheets isn’t even one of the main techniques in TLaC. It is mentioned in the introduction to exemplify a focus on best practice and rigorous use of resources. My distaste for it was based on a feeling that to micro-manage time to such a degree was a step too far.

To cut a long story short, I did trial the technique. For a couple of weeks, across three separate classes, I timed the handing out and collecting in of copybooks, and created a little league table of personal bests (for each class). To my surprise, the kids loved it and I had much more time to teach them. The fastest we got was 12 seconds for handing out, and 22 seconds for collecting in. Later on, I upped the ante by timing from the start (book monitors being seated ready), to books being on tables, open and title/date written correctly.

Essentially, by placing a focus on time in a fun way, I clawed back about 5 minutes of learning time in one lesson. Stretch that over a year and that is a LOT of learning time! So, it’s fruitful and needn’t be stressful to have a sense of urgency in the technical administration of teaching and learning.

My conclusion, from my reading so far, is that next year I need to focus on the following:

  • Improving the quality of my students’ ‘speaking into writing’ – planning opportunities for them to speak before writing in a planned, fruitful way, and reflecting after writing.
  • Giving my students opportunities to engage in purposeful acts: eg, flipped learning, Mantle of the Expert and community service.
  • Having a greater sense of urgency in my use of time and communication with my students (not in an overly bureaucratic way, but with warmth and fun): eg, being warm/strict, drilling expectations and being economical with time.

These three categories give me a modus operandi to improve my practice in a systematic, general way. I’ll let you know how I get on. What unites them is not simply their rhyme and rhythm; it is that they enable me to troubleshoot my planning and teaching.

  • Am I giving my students a chance to say what they mean to write, and am I actively intervening to improve the quality of speech, before they write?
  • Do my students know why they are doing what they are doing? Do they want to do it? Can they independently transfer skills and knowledge to purposeful tasks?
  • Am I making the best use of resources? Are my expectations as high (and as reasonable) as they can be? Am I being both strict and warm?

The answers may not all be ‘yes’ by the end of 2015, but it is a joy to go into the New Year with the right questions.

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