Saturday, 28 January 2012

Three interesting reports

https://www.education.gov.uk/publications/eOrderingDownload/DFE-RB184a.pdf

https://www.education.gov.uk/publications/eOrderingDownload/DFE-RB184b.pdf

https://www.education.gov.uk/publications/eOrderingDownload/DFE-RB184c.pdf

Dylan Wiliam tweeted these three studies about performance at KS3. I only have time to note a few points from the abstracts. You might find them interesting, particularly the reference to modern languages.

One finding:

Students were generally confident about their overall ability in Year 9 although there was some variation between subjects, with students being more confident of their ability in maths, science, sports and the arts than other subjects. They were least confident about their ability in modern languages. Boredom in lessons was reported by a substantial minority.

This does not surprise me and may simply reflect that language learning is inherently difficult given the demands it places on memory, attention to detail, mastery of grammatical patterns and oral/aural skills, not to mention the psychological challenges of speaking another tongue. It is a useful reminder to MFL teachers how difficult our subject area is and how sensitive we have to be to the fears of students. I genuinely believe that our job is one of the hardest in secondary schools. If you do not pitch lessons just right, handle students sensitively, reduce tension, create a positive and enjoyable environment, then you risk generating a negative attitude to the subject.

Here is another quotation:

Older students (autumn-born compared with summer-born) in a year group showed higher attainment and appeared to increase their advantage by making more progress over KS3.

I confess that I rarely take this into account when assessing a student's progress. It's a point worth remembering.

Time spent on homework, as reported by students, was a relatively strong predictor of better attainment and progress in all three core areas. Spending any amount of time was beneficial, but the strongest effects were for spending 2-3 hours per day after school.

This would, at first view, support the view that homework is useful. This is my view, despite the somewhat unconvincing evidence from some research, but one wonders about the causality involved here. A student who spends more time on homework may also benefit from other home advantages, greater general motivation and higher expectations. Is the greater time spent on homework a cause of higher achievement or a by-product of it? I still strongly support homework for modern languages because it gives the opportunity for greater practice and we know how inmportant practice is in the acquisition of a second language.

On pupils' "dispositions" in Y9:

- Attendance at pre-school (compared to none) had no influence on later dispositions in KS3.
- After background factors were taken into account there were few significant effects for the quality and effectiveness of pre-school on students’ dispositions in Year 9.


The key findings of these three reports are worth a look and highlight, not surprisingly, the importance of early years support and home background. They also indicate that the school environment is a key factor in pupil attainment including leadership from the headteacher, physical environment, support from teachers who care and resources.

Dylan Wiliam argues, of course, that teacher quality is the prime factor in student achievement and he could cite plenty of research to support that view. These three studies show, howver, that the school environment is not without importance.

Friday, 27 January 2012

Back to the A* issue

http://www.thisislondon.co.uk/standard/article-24031437-pupils-say-non-to-languages-because-its-too-hard-to-get-an-a.do

Clare Seccombe kindly tweeted a link to the above article in the Evening Standard. It's the severe grading issue raising its head again, but especially the question of A* grades. We have known for a long time that at GCSE modern languages are the hardest subjects to achieve high grades in. At A-level the picture is similar, but with a particular issue with regard to A* grades. I won't go over old ground here, as I have blogged about this before, but I was browsing an old Ofsted report from our school the other day. It dated from 2000 and referred to GCSE results from the year before. French results were particularly good, with a third of our cohort of about 120 students getting A* grades (about 40 A* grades). Last year the equivalent figure was 12.

I find it surprising that the claim is made that standards have remained the same. It is not true. Because the number of pupils entering for MFL has fallen hugely over the last few years, following the decision to make MFL optional at key Stage 4, it has been hard for the exam boards and the monitoring body (now Ofqual) to maintain the same standard for each grade. There are relatively more able students taking languages and far fewer less able candidates. This trend has not been accounted for to a great enough extent.  Essentially, it has got harder to achieve A* grades at GCSE. Alongside this, it is apparent that A* grades at A-Level in MFL are also too rare.

There is a light at the end of the tunnel for students and teachers of MFL at GCSE level. As the number of entries rises again with the advent of the Ebacc, then maybe we shall see a gradual return to the patterns of the late nineties.

It is so disappointing that we cannot trust the Ofqual and exam board statisticians to get things right.

Fischer's Ghost in Saltaire

A picture from our last gig at the Countess of Rosse in Saltaire, near Bradford. Strat on bass, me on drums, Dot on vocals, Ged on vocals and rhythm guitar, Mick on lead guitar.



Rehearsal at Follifoot Towers:


http://www.myspace.com/fischersghost

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Pourquoi les Anglais ont gardé le triple A

Je reproduis un article d'Eric le Boucher paru sur slate.fr. Il s'intitule Leçons Anglaises et il explique très clairement les avantages et les bémols de la politique d'austérité (relative) menée par la coalition de David Cameron.


"Du Royaume-Uni, il est possible de répondre à deux questions posées dans le contexte de l'élection présidentielle en France.
1. Est-il intéressant de quitter l'euro et de dévaluer de 25% sa monnaie, comme l'a été la livre sterling? La réponse est non.
2. Concernant l'austérité, faut-il agir très vite et très fort ou mieux vaut-il attendre, comme le suggèrent les keynésiens, que la conjoncture soit meilleure? La réponse, dans le contexte européen, est que l'austérité immédiate est meilleure.
David Cameron fait mieux que Nicolas Sarkozy. Accessoirement, cela explique pourquoi la Grande-Bretagne a conservé son triple A, contrairement à la France, malgré des résultats aussi mauvais dans les deux pays.

Lors des élections législatives en Grande-Bretagne, il y a deux ans, le déficit budgétaire (11% du PIB) est au centre des débats. Tout tourne autour des nécessaires coups de hache dans les dépenses. Les conservateurs de David Cameron proposent de frapper très fort. Effectifs et salaires de la fonction publique, budgets des ministères... tout y passe sauf la santé. La stratégie politique était claire: faire le ménage rapidement pour que les bénéfices commencent à se voir la quatrième année, celle de l'échéance électorale suivante.

D'un point de vue économique, les choses sont également claires. Annoncer l'austérité avant que les marchés ne vous y conduisent les mains dans le dos est une politique préventive qui paie. Autre avantage, la rigueur fiscale permet à la banque centrale d'être plus accommodante dans sa politique monétaire.

Enfin, les conservateurs veulent engager un changement complet de la croissance britannique, trop tournée vers l'endettement, et donc abaisser la demande (notamment par une hausse de la TVA). Cette chute sera compensée, espèrent-ils, par le regain des exportations, la livre ayant perdu 25 % de la valeur depuis 2007.

David Cameron a été élu. Sa politique est-elle un succès? Non. La croissance est stagnante (0,7% ou 0,9% attendu cette année après une récession au creux de l'hiver), le chômage est en hausse dangereuse, à 8,4%, le déficit est encore de 8% en 2011.

Le premier ministre a été pris, comme tout le monde, dans la rechute mondiale sensible depuis le printemps dernier et dans la crise de la zone euro. Conséquence: la demande interne a effectivement baissé. La hausse de la TVA (de 17,5% à 20% au 1er janvier 2011) a ajouté ses effets à celle du prix de l'essence pour donner une inflation de plus de 5%. Comme les salaires étaient contenus, la consommation a reculé.
La déception vient des exportations: rien n'a bougé. La dévaluation n'a pas eu d'effet. Pourquoi? Le gouvernement accuse le plongeon de la zone euro, qui reste le principal client (40% des ventes). Sans doute, mais on ne vend que ce qu'on fabrique: la Grande-Bretagne exporte des services (dont la finance, mais son activité est en fort recul), mais elle dispose d'une base industrielle trop réduite et pas assez musclée pour l'export.

Et les investissements restent décevants: pourquoi bâtir des capacités quand il y en a déjà trop en Europe? Pour la France, qui rêve de réindustrialisation, la leçon anglaise s'appelle prudence. Cela prend du temps. Optimistes à leur habitude, les Britanniques disent encore au moins deux ou trois ans.
Entre-temps, l'économie souffre et les effets de la crise ne s'effacent pas...

Mais l'austérité a convaincu les marchés. «Le gouvernement a réussi à crédibiliser sa politique budgétaire», assure Nick Bate, de Bank of America Merrill Lynch. Sa Majesté a conservé son triple A et le Trésor britannique paie des taux d'intérêt aussi bas que les Allemands. Et ce malgré le déficit persistant. La politique de la Banque d'Angleterre d'achat des titres d'Etat l'explique en grande partie. Mais cette prouesse en dit long sur les énormes avantages d'être préventif... comme, aussi, sur la cote d'amour des investisseurs de la City pour le pays qui les accueille.

En vérité, si la conjoncture mondiale ne s'était pas rétablie (à la suite des Etats-Unis) depuis deux mois, David Cameron, dans la récession, aurait eu bien du mal. Heureusement, tout s'améliore un peu à l'extérieur comme à l'intérieur avec une inflation qui reculera à 2 % fin 2012. Les ménages soulagés, la consommation restera le moins poussif moteur de l'économie britannique.

Saturday, 21 January 2012

The simplest no-preparation lesson in the world

Tell the class you are going to do a huge vocab quiz with 100 questions. You then, at some speed, read to them items of vocabulary they have covered in the last, say, four weeks. You pitch the vocab so that some is very easy, some is harder and a few are more obscure. Say each word twice and tell the class that if they cannot get any, not to worry, just wait for the next word. They write down the meanings in English. Top three scores get merits.

The task takes about 30 minutes with corrections.

Part of me feels guilty at even suggesting that this might be a good lesson. All I can say is that pupils concentrate very hard, are listening to French non-stop for nearly half an hour and are made to recall a wide range of vocab which you can adjust to their level. They say they like it too. It's interesting how results correlate well with general ability at MFL, showing how important memory is in second language learning.

I welcome comments. Tell me why this is not a good, very occasional lesson.

Friday, 20 January 2012

Jeu de mots

Philippe Watrelot, dans son excellent blog sur l'éducation, raconte les progrès d'un projet de loi sur l'enseignement de l'abstinence dans les écoles anglaises. Il faut son post lire jusqu'au dernier mot.....

"Tintin en Angleterre
Le Parlement britannique examine vendredi un projet de loi visant à imposer des cours sur l'abstinence aux jeunes filles de 13 à 16 ans nous apprend la rubrique Big Browser du site Le Monde.fr La députée conservatrice qui mène cette proposition, Nadine Dorries, une élue conservatrice du Mid Bedfordshire, a expliqué en mai vouloir lutter contre les dérives d'une société "saturée de sexe", et aider les jeunes filles à considérer que l'abstinence peut être "cool".
Pour Mme Dorries, citée par le Guardian, il s'agit de gagner un "combat permanent" contre "le taux incroyablement élevé d'activité sexuelle et de natalité chez les adolescents." Sa solution, "c'est d'apprendre l'option de l'abstinence à nos filles et à nos garçons, la possibilité de simplement dire 'non', ceci dans le cadre des cours d'éducation sexuelle obligatoires". Les positions vigoureusement défendues par Mme Dorries ont provoqué un débat houleux en Grande-Bretagne mais le projet de loi a peu de chances d'être adopté sans le soutien des principaux partis, et il devrait capoter…"

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

A case for some grammar-translation

It's a curiosity that translation from English into French remains part of the GCE A2 level examination, but has not ever featured at GCSE. I am one of those teachers, like most I imagine, who practises the translation of sentences or passages in class. I have plenty of examples of such sentences on the frenchteacher.net site and I believe they are used a good deal. How useful is prose translation and what do students think of it?

I asked my AS group of 17 students what they thought of some work we did today, translating sentences into French to practise reflexive verbs in various tenses. Almost to a person, they were enthusiastic about it and told me why. They said:
  • It helps you perfect your grammar
  • It makes you think about the details of the written language
  • It builds up your vocabulary
  • It makes you analyse the language
I agree with them and would add, on reflection, that it also appeals to the puzzle-solving side of our brains. We had a discussion about the pros and cons of translating into the foreign language and they, like me, thought that it was a good idea in moderation. Too much of it, and you would get less experience of listening, conversation and general comprehension. I still am happy to accept that the real key to competence and fluency in the long run is masses of "comprehensible input", as Stephen Krashen called it.

Grammar-translation is, of course, that practice we inherited from the teaching of Latin and which dominated classrooms for decades up to the 1960s. It led to lazy, uncreative, often dull teaching. It had no basis in language learning theory, yet many teachers continue to practise it in moderation for the reasons listed above. It maintains its place in A-Level exams, largely out of tradition, no doubt, but also, I suspect, because exam boards and teachers feel it makes us give sufficient attention to the detailed practice of grammatical structures. A well-designed sentence can test a wide range of grammatical knowledge very reliably and efficiently. It may be argued, of course, that by translating in a word-for-word fashion we are encouraging a false view of language structure, but this is where balance comes into play. It has to be used judiciously when a structure needs particular practice, when the structure differs significantly from English (e.g. vouloir que + subjunctive; depuis + present tense) or in the lead up to exams when you know certain structures will be tested. Repeated, rigorous practice of common problems leads to competence and the ability to spot structural traps.

Would one do less prose translation if it were not in the exam? Possibly, but I would still make a case for it for the reasons already given. As a language teacher you need to balance theory with pragmatism, and practice seems to show that translation into the foreign language is useful, provides transferable knowledge and is enjoyed by students.

Saturday, 14 January 2012

Formative assessment and language teaching

Our department has been buzzing a bit more than usual following our training with Dylan Wiliam last week. Most of us have been trying out a few techniques or tweaking our practice a little to make sure all students are positively engaged. I'd like to make one or two observations about AfL (otherwise known as formative assessment), however.

The "no hands up" approach poses problems for us. True, if you impose no hands-up, you are likely to engage a wider range of pupils, but this comes at the cost of pace and at the cost of stretching the most able in the class, who enjoy putting themselves forward and who benefit from doing so. I would argue for compromise in this area, by judiciously allowing hands up, but having sections of lessons with no hands up. Interestingly, Professor Wiliam pointed out to us that the act of raising your hand to answer makes you smarter. Interesting.

Another approach which was recommended to us, and which makes some sense, is allowing students longer to answer questions. We have consciously worked on this. It is so easy, isn't it, to maintain pace by sacrificing the opportunity for the less able to think through an answer. I have been guilty of this in the past, but will allow weaker pupils more time in the future.

However, I do not support the use of equally hard questions for all students, as recommended by Professor Wiliam. So no lolly sticks or random name generators for me, I'm afraid. My instincts tell me to differentiate questions to some extent. As language teachers we depend on careful selection and grading of questions and I shall continue to aim the toughest questions at the most able.

As regards pair and group talk I have always set plenty of pair work - notably using guessing games, information gap tasks, battleships etc, but I am now inclined to get pairs to discuss conceptual issues like tenses and endings. Simply asking pairs to spend a minute working out a definition of the infinitive, or asking them to figure out how regular -er verbs work in the present tense, involves more students in their learning. On a few occasions this week I found myself saying "You've got two minutes - go!" Not rocket science, I know, but you get stuck in your ways after a while!

We have also been doing a bit more checking of progress within the lesson. We have noted, however, that getting kids to put their thumbs up has its limitations, as children will naturally tend to want to please you, even when they do not fully understand. I have to remind myself how often out classes do not understand what we say in the target language. It really is worth checking with students quite regularly whether they understood what you were saying. They appreciate it and you get a better relationship as a result. Not sure whether I shall go down the coloured cups or traffic lights route, but there is a very important principle involved. (If you haven't heard of the cups, you give each student a green, red and yellow plastic cup. If they are following the work they show the green cup on top, if they are lost they show the red cup, if they are a bit uncertain, they show the amber cup.)

Student involvement is very important in lessons, but for effective language learning to take place, lots of listening is needed, so the teacher will have to take a prominent role and talk quite a lot. If we do not supply plenty of TL from our own voices, the computer or the CD, we are letting our students down.

Dylan Wiliam talked a good deal about effective questioning too. This is a tricky one for us, since our questioning is of a very particular type. We ask questions to practise structures and vocabulary as much as to elicit meaning. We should not worry about repetitive drilling and repetition; these are important for the embedding of linguistic competence. In language teaching we exploit the behaviourist dimension more than in other subjects. This is especially true of the early stages. It requires a brisk pace and instant responses, not necessarily a reflective, slow answer.

So, in sum, there are some really good lessons to be learned about formative assessment techniques, but I would suggest that we adapt them to our own personalities and instincts, and that, even more important, we bear in mind what we already know about how language learning takes place.

Thursday, 12 January 2012

Frenchteacher updates

The main additions to the site are to be found on the A-Level page. I have made a few minor changes to the AS oral booklet to take account of recent technological changes. I have posted a few more gap fill and matching tasks to existing resources, using Taskmagic 3, which I continue to find extremely useful. There is a brand new text and activities on computer games, plus some grammar sheets on the subjunctive.

I have also posted a simple information gap task focusing on the perfect tense and aimed primarily at Y9 pupils (though it could be used with Y8 or Y10 too).

I endeavour to keep the links pages up to date, but welcome any additions which I may have missed.

I have an A-Level student redesigning the frenchteacher.net site at the moment and I intend for parts of it to be accessible by subscription in May. My aim will be to charge a relatively small amount for an annual subscription with a commitment on my part to regularly add new resources whilst updating existing ones. I hope users will consider these resources very good value when compared with other published materials.

http://www.frenchteacher.net

Saturday, 7 January 2012

Dernières nouvelles de l'Hermione

Le chantier de l'Hermione à l'arsenal de Rochefort - image: Sud Ouest
 Depuis plusieurs années nous suivons la construction de l'Hermione à Rochefort avec intérêt. Voici les toutes dernières nouvelles selon Sud Ouest:

"À Rochefort, l'immense chantier de « L'Hermione » va bon train. Ici, chacun attend d'apercevoir le grand navire en bois qui, en 1780, permit à La Fayette de traverser l'Atlantique pour rejoindre l'Amérique. Cette reconstruction à l'identique était jusqu'alors dissimulée sous un chapiteau immense, recouvrant la forme de radoub - pour l'heure asséchée - où se trouve le bateau. Le 3 janvier, l'effeuillage a donc commencé. Il s'achèvera le 11 février, date à laquelle le chapiteau aura entièrement disparu au profit d'un chantier à ciel ouvert. Cela fait, les visites pourront reprendre.
Après avoir posé et peint la figure de proue en décembre, les artisans poursuivent leur œuvre. Ils tâcheront de la rendre élégante pour la grande fête des 6, 7 et 8 juillet, qui correspondra à la mise à l'eau de la frégate. En attendant, il s'agira de sortir le bateau de la forme de radoub Louis XV à l'occasion des festivités. Des bateaux-portes serviront à cela avant la pose des gréements. Une baignade pourra donc avoir lieu dans la Charente le 6 juillet. Elle sera de courte durée, puisque « L'Hermione » rejoindra la forme Napoléon III dès le lendemain.
Cet été, la frégate sera encore loin de sa première sortie, jusqu'à l'île d'Aix (été 2013), et des premiers essais véritables en mer (automne 2014). Enfin, mai 2015 sonnera l'heure du départ vers le grand large… Direction les côtes américaines, sur les traces de La Fayette.
Ce chantier a déjà attiré 3,4 millions de visiteurs en quinze ans. Pour la population, ainsi que pour l'équipe du chantier et les 6 000 adhérents de l'association - financeurs de ce projet -, la mise à l'eau sera un événement unique et historique, qui devrait réunir près de 60 000 visiteurs."

Dylan Wiliam

I enjoyed one of the best training days in my career yesterday. Dylan Wiliam, Emeritus Professor of Education at the Institute of Education, did a lengthy presentation which had the following structure: firstly, he laid out a wide range of research evidence which leads to the firm conclusion that to raise standards you should focus on improving individual teachers, rather than schools. Secondly, he arued that teachers get better by using assessment for learning more effectively. He prefers the term formative assessment. Thirdly, he went on to present a range of ideas or tricks which can improve formative assessment and therefore pupil achievement.

Much of this will be familiar to those who have read any of Dylan Wiliams' articles or books. It was nonetheless a convincing argument which chimes with a gut feeling I have held for years, namely that it is not systems, organisation, academies, selection and the like which hold the key to improvement; it is getting teachers to be more effective.

A couple of observations, however: the current emphasis on assessment for learning is very useful, but it is not the only way of looking at teacher effectiveness. In the past there have other attempts to pin down what makes a good teacher. You can analyse, for example, the intervention types of teachers as well as the role of teacher personality. Ultimately, as Wiliam acknowledged, you cannot distill what makes a good teacher.

Another observation I would make is this: Wiliam relies on his vast knowledge of research and data to make his arguments. He compares education researchers to climate scientists and argues that our knowledge on pupil achievement is as settled as climate change science. I am not so sure about this. Is social science research as reliable as hard science? No. In twenty years from now we shall be saying more or less the same about climate change; I bet the same will not be true of education.

I recommend Dylan Wiliam's site:

http://www.dylanwiliam.net

Thursday, 5 January 2012

Paris

We just got back from our short trip to Paris. We stayed in a pretty little apartment in Montmartre just off the Rue Abbesses. We seemed to get through a lot in two and a half days: the Musée de l'Orangerie with Monet's water lilies was the highlight, but we also took in the Père Lachaise cemetery, the Quartier Latin, the Eiffel Tower and two lovely movies about movies which I thoroughly recommend: The Artist and Hugo (called Hugo Cabret in French). If you are at all a film buff see these films! Okay, if you are a film buff you've probably seen them already. The first picture is from the top of the Eiffel Tower. It looks like the Earth is being phasered from space, but it's just the projector from the top of the tower pointing towards the Sacré Coeur. the second shows yours truly with wife and son.


 
Now, here's an odd one. The film Hugo Cabret is really all about Georges Méliès, the pioneer of French
cinema (think of that image of a rocket stuck in the moon) . We subsequently came across his tomb in Père Lachaise and couldn't resist the photo. Is that weird? We resisted smiling.


And finally, here is Oscar Wilde's unusual tomb:












The longest day?

 http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/educationnews/8993039/Labour-call-for-a-longer-school-day-in-education-overhaul.html

Labour's shadow education minister Stephen Twigg is reported to be in favour of lengthening the school day. Some Free Schools and academies are said to be doing the same, or experimenting with the school week in other ways. Michael Gove would seem to be in favour, or at least in favour of experimentation.

http://www.inca.org.uk/documents/Table15Organisationofschoolyearandschoolday.pdf

When you look at international comparisons, England and Wales are not out of the mainstream. We do a higher than average number of days and a school day of probably about average length. (We are talking averages here: in my area schools finish as early as about 2.30 and as late as nearly 4.00.) The Germans are unusual in that they start very early at 7.30 and finish very early at 1.30. The French and Spanish finish quite late, which may be explained in part by their latitude and climatic factors.

One can see certain advantages to a longer day: the chance to include more in the curriculum, a greater range of activities (including more "extra-curricular"), the opportunity for more independent learning, including homework, which many children do not do even when they finish at 3.00 or earlier; finishing later may reduce anti-social behaviour after school and may suit parents as far as child care is concerned with younger children. Stephen Twigg argues that a longer day prepares children better for the 9-5 world of work.

On the other hand, the school day is demanding already, both on children and teachers. Do we wish to take away even more time from family life? If you add homework to a longer day, do we want to make school days a drudge? If the longer day is crammed with "academic" work, do we risk limiting a child's other social and extra-curricular activities?

I have observed the long French day for many years and have not been persuaded that you need to work beyond 4.00 at the very latest. I do see a case for limiting the amount of homework we sometimes impose on dedicated children. A slightly longer day would be a social leveller and allow the less dedicated to get things done at school. It may allow a little time for supervised private study too and a little less of the "factory approach" to education, as it is sometimes labelled.

And what about the teachers in all of this? Here is an international comparison of teaching hours from 2008.

http://www.teacherly.com/bruno/posts/6-Teaching-Hours-International-Comparison

Unfortunately there is no data for England and Wales, but you will note that the Scots feature very near the top. If you do your own calculation you will probably find we are not far from the top of that league. My French colleagues do significantly less than us.

I reckon we work too many hours already, so any length of school day would have to be accompanied by more teachers or supervisors. Is that going to happen in the current climate?