Our department motto is “Expect Excellence” and we have put it at the heart of everything we do. One thing we have really insisted on this year is that pupils make sure that their work is excellent before they declare it “finished”.
Quite early on though we realised that pupils were not always sure of the expectations for excellence. We also discovered that we as teachers didn’t always agree on what excellence should look like.
We spent some time as a department looking at this idea of “excellence” and we came up with statements on 9 areas of Geography where we could clearly explain what we expected an excellent Geographer to be able to do. For example we have the following for cartographic skills;
We expect an excellent Geographer to be able to use maps to locate places and describe their location. We expect that they will be able to use evidence on a map to make judgements about a place and as part of decision making exercises.
Once we had agreed between ourselves what excellence was we started to look for ways we could model it to our students. A lot of these ideas came from two books. Make Every Lesson Count by Shaun Allison and Andy Tharby and The Ethics of Excellence by Ron Berger.
The approach of these books is different in many ways but at their core is a belief that pupils can produce excellent work as long as they are taken through a process to help them get there. They are both also very clear on the need for pupils to see examples of excellence if they are to generate their own. An idea you also come across in the research of Hattie and Yates.
We felt that is was very important for our Year 7 students to have a very clear idea of what they were trying to achieve. Their first piece of extended writing asks them to compare the UK to Uganda and to make a conclusion about the significant differences. We produced a model answer comparing the UK to India (to avoid too much mimicry) and asked them to critique it to see why we were suggesting this as a good piece of writing. They then went on to produce their own report.
We also use models of work that is less successful and ask them to tell us why. Sometimes it will be due to glaring errors in knowledge and at other times we will focus on the style of writing.
We also look for opportunities to share excellent work publicly with annotation to explain why we feel this work is excellent. We try to make sure the displaying of excellent work creates a sense of pride in the student and that standards remain high. Sometimes when students are unsure on how to improve their work I send them out to the displays to look for inspiration from their peers.
I love this quote from Kelly Gallagher
“…no strategy improves my students’ writing more than having my students watch and listen to me as I write and think aloud. None.”
(Kelly Gallagher – Write like this)
I spend far more time now modelling how to answer questions with my students. Sometimes I will go through the process for a whole question myself and sometimes we will build it up together. I have found it is useful for them to see how an answer is put together, how sections are redrafted and how to evaluate your work as you go.
This is all just a starting point but it is paying dividends. The work that pupils produce is of a higher quality and there are far fewer careless mistakes. I am spending much less time marking books because students are checking their work before they submit it – and they can do this because they know what their work should look like.