Knowledge and Skill Audits: know your team

Getting started in September with Y11 is always a challenge, even if they have been your class in Y10 and they’ve had a really consistent diet. Throw in a global pandemic, months of home learning (or not-learning), uncertainty and possible trauma for some, and things become very complicated indeed.

Forgive me for using an obscure (in the UK) sports analogy, but I love American football. It is a sport which takes strategy and detail to the NEXT LEVEL. Every play is a meticulously planned attack or defence, making the most of high level analysis of player data. They plan everything to make the most of every single play. In the immortal words of Al Pacino in ‘Any Given Sunday’, the team moves forward “inch by inch, play by play.” I often play this speech to my Y11 classes at Christmas – it’s excellent (but check it first because it’s a teeny bit explicit…). I believe very strongly that we could learn a lot from a sport which analyses player strengths and weaknesses and uses that information to create the highest performing team possible. If you KNOW your ‘team’ (or Y11 class), you can make the most of every lesson…

I conduct regular student knowledge and skill audits. These can:

  • Identify what content students do or do not remember
  • Identify what level of skill they possess and what specific areas they need to improve
  • Provide a vehicle for students to reflect on their own feelings and competencies
  • Provide an opportunity for students to communicate with me about their needs in a specific and focused way
  • All of these features combined mean that I can plan far more effective sequences of learning, quizzing and homework tasks. It also gives me the chance to meet the needs of those students who are doing fine, but don’t feel like they are. Sometimes those pick-up chats don’t happen unless you ask directly how students are feeling about things.

How does this work in practice?

  1. Give students an audit to complete. Explain that this is something which is private between you and them. Also explain WHY you are doing it – it’s so that YOU can be a more effective teacher.
  2. The audit can have practically ANY design you like. It just needs to have very specific questions. e.g. don’t ask: How confident do you feel about your Literature exams? Instead, ask something more specific, e.g. On a scale of 1-10, how confident do you feel about writing about context in A Christmas Carol? (there are some examples below of what audits might look like)
  3. Once students have completed their audit, collate the information (e.g. what are the patterns? What are the things which the WHOLE class could do with work on? What are the things which just a few students need?) and use that information to adapt your long term planning. For example, if it becomes clear from the audit that nobody really remembers Ozymandias, you should probably plan half a lesson at some point to recap and then follow it up with some recall tasks in subsequent lessons.
  4. Communicate that plan with your students. This is important – telling them: “You did the audit, and I learned X, so I decided that we will do Y…” shows the students that you are listening to them AND that there is a purpose to what they are doing. Share your longer term planning with them. Pace is important in Y11, so I always share my plan with them for the rest of the half term, and show them how it is linked to what came out of the audit. This means that if students are lacking motivation at any point, we can return to that plan and remind ourselves of what we are doing and why.

How to write an audit

An audit can just be a series of questions, but I find that students complete them more accurately if the layout is organised as a grid or something. Here are some examples of audits I’ve used in the past, with an explanation of how they work…

Marginal Gains Wheels

The wheel has a different piece of knowledge or skill in each sector, and students shade in how confident they feel in each area, then annotate around the outside to explain in more detail. You can return to this later in the term and get them to repeat the activity to see if anything has changed. The first example uses the poems from the Edexcel anthology, and the second uses language paper skills…

Block Grids

Students are given a list of questions, statements or areas, and they shade in from 1-10 how confident they feel in each area. They then also comment at the end, where appropriate, to identify reasons and next steps.

This is an example for essay writing skills in A Christmas Carol – note how narrow and specific each skill point is – it breaks down lots of the elements of a successful piece of writing.

Self-Comparison Models

This is slightly more complicated. I give students a PERFECT model essay. They read it. It has questions around the outside such as: Could you select a quotation as appropriate as this from memory? or: Would you be able to write a conclusion which answers the question as well as this? or: Would you be able to develop your analysis to make three points about this image?

Students answer the questions and thus reflect in real detail on how they compare with the top grade model answer. I then get them to write a little reflective summary, along the lines of: What are your THREE key areas to work on so that you can write more like the model?

In the end

Audits work really well as a tool for supporting your planning. They shouldn’t take very long, and don’t have to be complicated, but can give you critical information which will make you more incisive and focused in the classroom. What they CAN NOT do, however, is fix everything for you. They are the first step in a pretty hard slog but, if used well, they can dictate a plan which you can return to again and again to maintain your energy: know what you’re doing, and why you’re doing it.

‘Hollow’ by Vanessa Kisuule

This astonishing poem was written by Vanessa Kisuule, the Bristol City Poet, in June 2020 in response to the destruction of the statue of Edward Colston, a slaver. His entire fortune was built on the systematic enslavement, murder and rape of enslaved Africans.

Kisuule has generously given her permission for anyone to use the poem in the classroom, so I’ve transcribed it to make that easier for busy teachers. I’ve taken a few liberties with formatting and punctuation, but have tried as far as possible to stick to the poet’s underscoring from the original video.

You can see the video here.

Download the transcribed poem here:

Write like a… short story writer

This is a short extract from my new book, Teach Like A Writer. Here, Jacob Ross talks us through his classification system for types of short story. I’ve turned this system into a simple visual which I’ve used with my classes to help them to identify story features – you can download this at the bottom of this post.

The short story 

The short story is one of the oldest forms of literature (written and oral) and is common to all civilisations and cultures. It includes fairy tales and fables as well as religious texts and stories of origin. 

In recent years, I have become better known as a novelist but I’ve cut my teeth on the writing and crafting of short stories. It is still my preferred mode of writing. If we see the novel as a cocktail of themes, multiple characters and story lines, then the short story can be likened to a shot of vodka – with all the potency of one. 

It is a highly economical, single-minded little beast where every word counts. It can be cantankerous and fussy. Sometimes it is downright rebellious and will often refuse to go in the direction the writer wants to take it. It does not always end as tidily as the writer intended and can take anything between an hour and a year to complete. 

Zero Written Feedback: a trial

FACT: Many schools still have blanket marking and feedback policies which dictate frequency and form of marking, e.g. one mark every four lessons, with a comment on progress and two DIRT tasks (just an example)

OPINION: One-size-fits-all policies prevent us from doing what matters most for students in each subject. Academic subjects are distinct disciplines which need different treatment; excellent feedback in music is very different to great feedback in maths.

FACT: It can take anything from 2-4 hours to mark a full set of exercise books in English, depending on class size, level and marking policy requirements. If we take an average of 3 hours per set (6 minutes per book in a set of 30), and six classes for a full time main-scale English teacher, that’s 18 hours of marking per week. That’s before we even begin to complete data, pastoral and admin tasks, planning or subject knowledge development.

OPINION: Most written feedback has impact, but that impact is NOT commensurate with the sheer amount of time teachers invest in the act of marking. Students can make the same or better progress if teachers STOP giving written feedback and, instead, invest their time in better planning and subject knowledge development.

Continue reading “Zero Written Feedback: a trial”

Poetry Writing 1 – Symbolism

Getting kids to write poetry is often difficult. Some teachers, me included, think of that oasis of poetry writing as one of the only times when we can let students be totally free and expressive. However, the key to creating the best lessons on poetry is structure – if students get activities broken into bite sized chunks then they will be much more open and willing to put pen to paper. I am trying hard to avoid the ‘staring at blank page’ horror we all know, by doing just that; breaking things down. This lesson, or series of mini activities, is the first of many I hope to post over the next few months. They are all tried and tested with my own guinea pigs and mostly stolen from talented writers’ workshops… Continue reading “Poetry Writing 1 – Symbolism”

The Beginning

I am completely new to this. As a young teacher who has quickly become involved in managing specifications, syllabuses, projects, staff training and anything else they will let me, I feel the need to splurge a little. Teaching is an incredibly creative activity, and I want to share the things which inspire me and create a platform from which to start discussions. I want to learn all I can, and having been engrossed in the blogs of other educators in recent weeks, I want to contribute to this incredible, but terrifying web of information, advice and debate which is blossoming online.