Challenge and reward + making homework work #pedagooreview

The words challenge and reward are oft applied and sometimes over used in the attempt to sum up the experience of us teachers.  Despite them being well worn, they’re two words that continue to mean a lot to me and they sum up a lot of what I have to say in reviewing my teaching year.

It has been a year of immense challenge, not least in striving to meet the high expectation of delivering consistently engaging, relevant and meaningful learning experiences that I, my school and the Scottish curriculum sets for teachers.  There have been many moments of reward too – encouraging observations from students on their own learning or on their experience in my classroom, enthusiasm from other colleagues for the work we’re doing to develop our practice, seeing progress being made and knowing that my teaching has played some part in this being achieved.  This year I’ve had the particular privilege of witnessing a couple of students reach a turning point in their own self-perception – realising that they are people of real skill, with the ability to work on and apply these skills and the power to make themselves successful if they so choose.   These moments have confirmed for me that teaching is worthwhile.

There have been may strands to my teaching year: pushing to really embed co-operative learning in my classroom; connecting with more teachers in my own school and beyond to share and build on practice; not just believing in the growth mindset but teaching it to my kids; deepening my understanding of what assessment that really progresses learning looks like; learning John Hattie’s mantra of ‘know thy impact’ and continually trying to keep at the front of my teaching mind.  The question of ‘is what I’m doing progressing my students’ learning?’ is now ever present, as is questioning what to do differently when it’s not.   All these things have added challenge to my year but are things I’d recommend any teacher to try – with each there have been tangible rewards.

All of these strands have woven themselves together in a change I’m making to how I use homework with my classes.  The change was inspired by Neil Winton’s (@nwinton) session at the Pedagoo Teachmeet in Glasgow (to go for an overview) .  He shared with us the work he was doing to free up how students can show their learning.  It was pushed further by reading about Tait Coles’ work to develop Punk Learning (see  or follow @totallywired77 for more).  This was something I found out about thanks to the world of teachers on Twitter and was serendipitously picked up on at a similar time by a colleague of mine in science: a fact that we realized not by speaking to each other in school but again through the platform of Twitter.

All of this in itself sums up the way that my own professional development has changed (I hope irrevocably) this year thanks to Pedagoo and the general enthusiasm of teachers who love to teach.  The momentum created by these folks setting up their own structures through which to share pedagogical ideas and approaches (teachmeets, #pedagoofriday, blogging…), circumventing more traditional models of how to share teaching knowledge and expertise, has given me so many new perspectives to use in my own teaching and delivered them in such a way that I have the energy and brain space to put them into practice.

And what is my new bit of practice?  I’ve experimented with setting open questions or tasks for homework, linked to the key idea of recent learning and challenging students to respond to these in anyway they so choose.  So, after my S1 class had been developing their research skills, while learning about the growth mindset, they were set the task of creating a resource that would help other 12 year olds to learn about their learning (bearing in mind that a lot of the sources we’d been using in our own research were geared more towards adults).  My S3 class finished reading Frankenstein and then had two weeks to create a response to the question ‘what makes us human?’

From both classes they were responses worth waiting for.  Students came back with videos they’d made, going out and sharing their learning with other friends and family, with animations created on websites I’d never heard of, with pieces of creative and non-fiction writing that spoke with their own voice and with models and posters.  The minute the homework responses arrived I realised that first time round I hadn’t planned properly how to give the work the audience that it deserved.  It needed to be seen by more folk than just me.  It was also homework that I was genuinely excited to mark, not least because my students where sharing with me what they really thought and felt about what were learning, rather than simply parroting back set, pre-planned responses.  It was also homework which let my learners show how they liked to learn and show me where the limits of their learning were – taking ideas as far as they could in the medium that they felt most comfortable in rather than producing a limited response to an overly structured task.  It was fascinating.

This is not to say that it was all reward and no challenge.  As already mentioned, I realised instantly that I needed to do more to integrate homework like this into the wider class experience.  This is needed to recognise, celebrate and hopefully deepen the effort and learning that goes into students’ responses.  Also, although many students really engaged with their task and produced something that was authentic and interesting, I felt a few used the open structure to do the least they could rather than show the most that they could and some continued to find it hard to hand in anything at all.  So, I’m continuing to think about how do to things differently to broaden out the enthusiasm, care and deep learning that a lot of my students have already shown as I move forward with this. Having launched two individual approaches in English and science, in the new year I’ll be embarking on a more collaborative approach with my colleague.

I know that I’m not there yet with getting the best learning that I can from this approach but I’m excited to be part of it.  Also, through deciding to give this new idea, picked up in a 30min session, a bash I feel that I’ve inadvertently set myself off on a new path, exploring what my learners are learning and how my learners are learning.  Further, it’s challenging me to think carefully about how I lead their learning to make sure that they’re learning for themselves and have the enthusiasm, energy and opportunities to push themselves to their very limits, maybe even beyond (to use some more well worn words).

I have found the challenges of this year hard.  Pausing to think through my experiences though, has made clear to me that as challenge is what I want for my learners it’s what I need to embrace for myself too.  Further, I teach in the hope that the progress that comes from embracing perpetual challenge is reward enough.


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