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Kevin Lister

After spending the early part of his career in engineering and project management, Kevin Lister retrained as a teacher in 2009 and has never looked back – moving rapidly through various posts to his current role as senior assistant head teacher at an academy in Warwickshire. Over the last several years, Kevin has contributed to international forums, presented at and organised TeachMeets and delivered training days both for his own school and for a wider audience.

“NQT Special: How to get your work/life balance right as an NQT”

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Publications by Kevin Lister

Teach Like You Imagined It

Kevin Lister’s Teach Like You Imagined It: Finding the right…

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Data isn't always a demon

March 09 2019

I've seen and heard quite a lot recently about data being a bad thing and driving high workloads. Indeed Ofsted nod towards this in their most recent framework, emphasising that they plan to ignore internal data about current students as part of their inspections (more here).

There are also loads of blogs and other comments about data being bad, a waste of time and a massive source of workload, an example is here.

It's now my 5th year as the SLT member responsible for data at my school. As such if I believe all of the hype I could be viewed as the source of all evil in my school, but that misses the point substantially. As with most things we need to seek balance.

Misuse and mismanagement is the demon
Data as a thing is not the issue. The issue is when data is over collected, over interpreted and its importance is over inflated so that it takes a disproportionate amount of time and resources to create and monitor.

Weighing the pig more often does not make it grow more quickly. Equally never weighing the pig leaves the farmer uncertain of whether the pig is growing at the appropriate rate. The farmer needs some data about the pig to work out if it is being fed enough, if it is healthy, and when it is ready to go to market.

A world without data would be a journey without reference points
If we take the "data is bad" knee jerk reaction to its logical conclusion we would never assess anything, never measure anything, never have an opportunity to step back to see if our actions are working.

Sailing hopefully without reference to instruments or other guidance is a great way to get lost. As sailors have discovered since we first took to the seas, taking appropriate measurements is a great way to stay on course. The important bit is that the measures are appropriate, taken at suitable time intervals, and the appropriate corrective action is taken in response.

Well you would say that wouldn't you
Of course, I'm a maths teacher, with a past career in Engineering, and have responsibility for data in the school - I'm bound to say it's important as it's part of my job.

However it's not just my perspective...having the right data around you is part of managing anything effectively - that applies to all aspects of managing, every single business, in every single sector. Managers need to have data to determine if their organisation is working effectively, where there may be strengths, weaknesses, and also where there might be opportunities or risks.

We need to fight misuse of data, not just all data
By railing against data without focus we run the risk of branding it all as bad, and that's simply not true. Lots of data linked to schools is extremely useful both at a leadership/management and at a classroom teacher level, but if we continue to brand it all as bad we undermine or ignore the good uses.

Misuse or mismanagement of data occurs for various reasons:
  1. It's collected too often - Things take time to develop in schools, collection more frequently than 6 weeks is highly unlikely to result in meaningful changes, and even then 6 weeks may be too often depending on what is being measured - appropriate frequency is vital. A good manager will try to make the frequency appropriate to the measure and its intended use.
  2. It's collected but not used - absolutely no point in collecting data that is going to be ignored or if nothing happens as a result of it being collected. It's a waste of time for all involved.
  3. Its accuracy is over estimated. Any data generated internally by schools is subject to errors, particularly assessment data for students. There will be subjective elements to assessments that vary across teachers, there will be judgements applied to turn raw marks into grade boundaries that may shape grades inappropriately. Just because it's data doesn't mean it produced an accurate summary of a cohort. Just because a particular approach to data appeared accurate and appropriate when applied one year does not mean it will always be accurate for future years.
  4. Its biased, intentionally or accidentally it is very easy to bias a set of data. For example when asked to forecast a GCSE grade teachers will often bias their predictions based on the message that they want the student to hear - some will over estimate to motivate and encourage the students, some will under estimate to spur on the students to do better - both are potentially incorrect, and either one can have an impact on the student that is the exact opposite of what was intended. When rolled up at a department or school level these predictions can be wildly inaccurate.
  5. Summaries such as percentages are used inappropriately (see this post about percentages and their misuse)
There are other reasons data can be misused, but probably the biggest over and above those listed above is to use data as the end of a conversation. In a professional environment data should be part of the professional journey, used to inform alongside other sources of information and judgement. If we resort to only using a piece of data to sum up an individual's professional worth, or a student's educational achievements then we have missed the point entirely - it's an evidence base to use as part of a much wider dialogue.

With any data we need to ask 2 questions:
  1. Do we believe what it's telling us?
    1. If so, why do we believe it - what other information supports it?
    2. If not, why don't we believe it - what other information conflicts with it?
  2. What do we need to do next? - we have this data, "so what?
So what am I saying?
I suppose the bottom line here is not all data is bad, but misuse or mismanagement of it is very bad.

Effective use of assessment and the data that this generates is a central part of being an effective teacher at a class level and we mustn't try to hide away from this behind a "data is bad, just let me get on and teach" defence. Doing that would cut off a vital source of information for the class teacher. If class teachers don't understand their class's data then we need to train them in how to use it and work with it in a useful way - that's a CPD need not an issue with the data.

Similarly effective use of data is a key part of leading and managing a school at all levels, but the operative word is "effective". I'll acknowledge that too often in education data is used ineffectively and inappropriately - that is what we need to fight against. But we mustn't throw away the vital information that data can give us alongside this fight. Data isn't a stick to bash people over the head with, it's a tool to be used skilfully to help manage an organisation alongside all the other tools that we need.

We need more people using data as a force for good...

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Learning lessons from a pro cyclist

January 21 2019

A return post after ages away from blogging... In the time since I last posted I’ve been working on a book about teaching and finding a good work/life balance, it’s now finished and on the way to publication (Possible to order a copy here: bit.ly/TeachLYII). So now I’m back, one way or another and plan to do a bit more blogging again now the book is done, though perhaps not quite as prolific as I might have been - for more on that see the book....

The first thing I want to reflect on in my return to the blog is something that occurred to me recently while in Girona, Spain. I was on a cycling trip at the start of half term and happened to get the chance to chat to a professional cyclist for a while and amongst various thing I was just blown away by his focus and the attention to detail that the teams go into in chasing after victory. While chatting a fellow amateur asked Tom (the pro) what advice he could give about training to help us amateurs get the best from it and get faster. Tom’s key advice was “make sure every ride has a purpose.”

Every ride has a purpose
In cycling you can get reasonably fit and fast by just riding your bike a lot, however this will eventually reach a plateau where improvements do not come without some more specific thought. If rides are unstructured they can easily become “junk miles” they may well count as miles under the wheels and hours in the saddle but do not actually improve your fitness as they don’t challenge your limits enough. Tom’s advice is to know what each ride is for. It could be a hard workout to stress a certain type of muscle or body system, or it could be a deliberately easy ride to allow recovery from another effort, it could even be just a gentle spin with family or friends. The important thing is to know what you are aiming to do with each ride so that you get the intensity and type of exercise right and therefore get the changes you want in your body.

Every "thing" has a purpose
It occurred to me that there are some parallels to Tom's advice that could easily be applied to teaching. It is easy to plough on through a term counting down lessons to exams or ticking off weeks before a holiday, as part of that it is all too easy to lose track of what each lesson, day, week, or term is “for”. Lessons normally have objectives so it is clear what the aim is, but perhaps it is worth reflecting why that should be the aim.
  • Is it the right aim for your students or is it just the aim that happens at that point in the scheme of work?
  • How does it fit with progress to date?
  • How does that link to the bigger aims of the current unit of work or for the year?
From a whole school perspective what is week 18 “for”? What needs to be accomplished in that week to make sure things are on track? How does the activity in week 10 differ from week 20, or 30? Is that a deliberate difference that targets a particular outcome, or is it a difference that is purely accidental that depends on the energy levels and recent inspirations off the staff involved?

Beyond all of this it’s worth a thought about what a particular year in school is "for"?
some years have a clearer, more obvious purpose...
  • Reception, where the purpose is to settle the students into school. 
  • Year 6 is where SATs are completed and the transition to secondary school starts. 
  • Year 7 is about settling in to secondary school. 
  • Year 11 is about successfully completing exams and choosing the post 16 routes.
  • and so on...
However what are the other years “for”? Are Years 1-5 essentially waiting to be Year 6? Are Years 8-10 just biding time until Year 11? With reports like Ofsted's "Key Stage 3: the wasted years?" it is clear that there is the potential for this time to be the educational equivalent of Tom's junk miles.

In these intermediate years what are the consequences of having a good or bad Year at a student, teacher, department or school level? How do we measure or assess successes in these years? Should we measure purely academic progress or is it more about engagement and inspiration? With the direction that Ofsted are taking for 2019 in terms of the primacy of curriculum breadth and opportunity it is probably time for us to consider whether we are doing some of these things deliberately or not. 

Digging deeper there are the other things we do in school, sometimes just because its what we do, not necessarily to fulfil a firm purpose. Some examples:
  • What is an assembly “for”?
    • More specifically what is this assembly for?
    • How do we know it has the impact we want it to have?
    • Is there a better way to get the same or even more impact?
  • What is a particular meeting “for”?
    • Is a morning briefing "just another briefing" or does it have a purpose beyond the mundane?
  • Does the parents' evening have a purpose beyond just something we always do?
I could go on and on with this list... For each of these and all of the other things we do I think we should ask ourselves whether it is done with purpose or just done. Do we really need to do it? Is there a way to get more from the events so that the routine becomes something that delivers real added value for very little extra effort?

A reflective start
I suppose this is quite a reflective return to blogging - I'm not necessarily offering any great ideas or innovations here either. It's more about questioning what we do and why we do it. Pro cyclists advise against junk miles, we need to guard against junk days, weeks and years.

Keen to hear your thoughts - it's been a while!

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