Sunday, 27 March 2016

The potential pitfalls and positives of the 'walking talking' mock

Last year, in the whirl of final exam preparation, the 'walking talking' mock (WTM) first began to appear on my timeline. The sometimes cult-like prophets of PiXL extolled its virtues as a way of improving exam technique and raising student achievement. Kristian Still's 2015 blog post does a fantastic job of capturing the erstwhile hype from when this approach was first mooted.

For the uninitiated, it's a mock exam... but not as you know it. Rather than students battling their way through an entire paper in one blast, they instead engage in a somewhat stop/start process of teacher explanation followed by timed completion of each question.

Having suffered the pain of disappointing results last year my leadership mantra this year has been 'let's do things differently'. Enter the WTM stage left. We knew we had two specific issues in relation to underachievement in AQA GCSE English Language:
1) students failing to stick to the clear timings required for each question
2) students not fully understanding what was required in each question.

The WTM seemed like a good way to support students in understand the quantity they were able to write in the time allowed and to guide them through the nuances of the assessment criteria. However, concerned about the idea of holding court with 150 students for 3+ hours - and, if I'm honest, yet to be convinced it was worth the bother - I decided to trial the WTM with two target groups on days when our students otherwise would've been at home.

The trial
I thought it would be a hard sell to convince students to attend but, as they so often do, our students did me proud and I ended up with a cohort of thirtyish Higher tier students on day one, and the same for Foundation tier on day two, for a 4 hour trial WTM. 

Free bacon butties booked for the halfway point were an important aid to stamina and I'd encourage any of you undertaking a WTM to remember it's a marathon for all involved and sustenance for teachers and students alike will be well appreciated!

Judging by my wholly unscientific student voice exit evaluation, students felt more confident and informed after the trial.

After the ‘walking talking’ mock exam I felt…

…more confident.

…the same.

…less confident.

Higher tier




Foundation tier




‘I feel I have a clearer understanding of what I need to do to achieve my target grade.’


Partially/ somewhat


Higher tier




Foundation tier




I would like to repeat the ‘walking talking’ mock exam before my June exam.


Not sure


Higher tier




Foundation tier




More pleasingly, after marking their papers, it was clear that it had led to evident gains in their achievement. The combination of these two factors launched me to action, rolling the WTM out to the rest of the cohort as soon as I was physically able.

The trial turned out to be a really important process in itself in that it taught me some important lessons about how to ensure the sessions were effective. I'll attempt to distil some of these below, but I strongly urge anyone with a large cohort to try it out in this way first.
The logistics
Organising a WTM is like being a scout: you need to be prepared. You'll want to keep everything you can as similar as possible to the conditions in which students will sit the final exam. So, it's time to apologise to your Head of PE and get the Sports Hall/Gym booked.

We were also supported by our superb Exams Officer and hardworking team of invigilators whose support was invaluable in establishing the necessary entrance routines for phones, bags, coats etc. Thanks to them, exam desks were set up as they usually are with students' laminated name cards with their exam codes and a strictly regulated seating plan. Interestingly, the invigilators found it hard to adjust to the idea of us talking to students in the exam hall and it's well worth explaining what a WTM entails prior to starting so you're all comfortable with one another's role.

Additionally, tech support is invaluable. The first of the trial sessions, for Higher tier, I did without a Powerpoint or projector - the impact of which can arguably seen in the evaluation table above. Don't make my mistake: a few short bulletpoints on a slide is important visual reinforcement for students of the key messages.

After day two of the trial I'd also, unsurprisingly, lost my voice. To ensure you're still able to teach the next day, invest in a £7 wireless mic from Amazon and blag an amp from the Music department.

Also, consider filming your WTM as a revision reference for students. If you're up for this added challenge, you'll need a camcorder or your phone, tripod, and charger. I found it was easy to place this to avoid filming students, but give yourself some to set it up prior to them entering.

And, finally, to avoid shivering students, do remind the caretakers to put the heaters on(!)

The instructions
It can be harder than you think solely to comment on exam technique and not give any specific guidance about the content to be included in students' answers. I'd go so far as to advise not reading the exact exam paper students have in front of them so you're simply not able to give them advice on the content to include.

It's also really important that the guidance you are giving is already consistently embedded across the teaching in your Faculty before the WTM. We've worked hard this year to ensure that the messages we're giving our students is consistent across classes and revision sessions. I think it's really important that we all agree on what is required in the exam based on sound advice from current examiners and more experienced colleagues. To support this, I produced an A3 guide to each tier of the exam for my teachers and tiered work book for students that reinforces key messages in a similar format.

The follow-up
As with any mock exam, the marking and feedback that teachers provide to students is key ensuring its a powerful tool for improvement. Students' papers should inform lesson planning, remembering that if students can't do something under WTM conditions then, quite frankly, swift, sharp intervention is needed.

Whilst it's easy to get swept up in improved outcomes, it's clearly important not to rely on the grades generated by WTM for forecast data. They are not an accurate portrayal of students' ability to respond when left to their own devices, as they will be in final exams. It's therefore important to book in a 'proper' mock exam swiftly afterwards both to reinforce exam technique and to gauge the impact of the WTM. Ours is after Easter and I for one will be waiting with bated breath to see whether the positive impact I'm expecting has actually been achieved.


Sunday, 20 March 2016

A very special relationship: towards better cross-phase empathy and understanding

I'm going to start this post with a quick plea to secondary school teachers: please stop opining that the new end of Key Stage 2 expected standard for writing 'looks like a GCSE grade C'. Whether it does or doesn't (and, for what it's worth, I'm not convinced such mechanical tick-boxing does) this comment is leading some Primary school teachers to complain 'What on earth do students do for five years?'.

That this question is being asked by Primary colleagues at all, quite frankly, pains me. What do they do? Well, quite a lot actually. My immediate reaction is to present our Year 9 exam papers or get out the superb work of my Year 10s. But, my second reaction is one of sadness because for me that question typifies a lack of empathy and understanding that, in many cases, is found between Primary and Secondary teachers both online and in real life.

In the last year I have had to defend the size of my school from Primary teachers who've presumed that have 1700 students on roll automatically results in a faceless institution in which Year 7 students are somehow swallowed up. For the record, I can assure you that the young people you entrust us with are very much seen as individuals by their teachers, form tutors, and Heads of Year, and we delight in watching them blossom into young adults.

I've also heard numerous complaints that in Year 7 classes across the country core learning is being lost, students regress or, at best, 'tread water'. Whilst the national achievement dip in Year 7 has been well-documented, there are numerous social and educational demands on students as they begin Key Stage 3, not least the widening breadth of study, the more challenging mode of assessment and demand for independence, all against reduced or less flexible curriculum time for individual subjects. I don't think there's a secondary school in Britain that isn't striving to buck this trend and placing the blame squarely at the door of secondary school teachers doesn't do much for cross-phase relationship building.

As secondary school teachers we are painfully aware of the limits of what we can do. We want our Key Stage 3 to build on prior learning and to be a rich, exciting and challenging progression but, try as we might, we simply can't adapt our Key Stage 3 curriculum to compliment all of our fifteen feeder primaries. Conversely, I wonder, could Primary school teachers respond to the curriculum of one 'feeder' secondary school? I would argue that it doesn't take two years to prepare students for English GCSE: it takes a childhood of schooling. But it doesn't always feel there is a willingness amongst Primary colleagues to acknowledge this responsibility on top of the pressures they already have in this brave new world of testing.

It is perhaps unsurprising that relationships become frayed when there are so many external pressures at both phases. We become inward-looking in a kind of Blitz spirit as we batten down the hatches and prepare for what is on its way. With so many challenges, it's no wonder that there's so often a lack of empathy in both directions.

So, how do we go about mending this most special of relationships? Well, I for one am going to strive to keep at the forefront of my mind that whilst times are hard for us they're immensely hard for you too. At every possible juncture I'm going to express my true feelings about Primary school teachers, which is that quite simply I'm in awe of you.

You have skill sets that I simply don't. I knew on day two of my pre-PGCE Primary experience that I didn't have the patience or sensitivity needed. This was perhaps most sharply apparent the moment the boy with the snotty nose approached me and said, "Miss, I've pooed myself" and with the dawning realisation he expected me to do something about it. I'm trying to learn about phonics and strategies to improve handwriting, but I have no doubt that in these areas you are the experts. But then I would hazard there are areas for which the reverse is also true.

My commitment to you will be that I'm going to make better use of all the information you give me about the children you pass on. I'm going to skill myself - and my team - up on grammar teaching so that we can reinforce your use of terminology and language learning. I'm also going to do whatever I can to build professional networks that include Primary teachers, like the wonderful Michael Tidd and Shareen Mayers, so that our relationships grow and become even more fruitful over time.

Let's all agree to meet one another in a space that is judgement-free. Let's read one another's blogs and ask open, honest questions that challenge our presumptions. Let's recognise that we're both working towards the same end and responding to extreme pressures that one another might not fully appreciate or understand. If we can do this then it will be a very special relationship indeed.