Students… be more argumentative!

I currently find myself teaching not ‘Generation Snowflake’, nor ‘Generation Z’, but the cohort of children that I like to call ‘Generation Cram’.

Literally every teacher I know is against the concept of teaching to the test to fulfil the Dickensian mantra/nightmare that ‘facts alone are wanted in life’. Yet, for a combination of reasons that emerged in the last decade within education (see Gove, reforms, performance-related pay, probably Brexit, etc.), the current secondary school cohort seem to be nursing a particularly bad fact-regurgitation hangover.

I am not for one moment placing any blame upon primary schools for this. The pressure placed upon primary schools, and particularly year six teachers, to achieve ‘impressive SATs results’ notoriously created the unhealthy culture whereby crucial time that should have been dedicated towards the arts, humanities and STEM subjects was redirected to encourage optimum performance in English and Maths SATs. It seems criminal, but if my pay were linked to the performance of the 30 eleven-year-olds in my class, you can bet I’d be increasing their exposure to SATs-style tests at any given opportunity.

In any case, secondary school teachers are just as guilty of this Gradgrindesque approach. I lose count of the times that I say in a single day, “You should approach this exam-style question by…”, or similar. I am not, nor are many others, motivated to do my job solely to help students achieve excellent exam results, but it sure doesn’t hurt when they do. After all, for as long as we exist in a meritocratic society, this is the game we have to play.

Consequently, the mid- to late-teens that I deal with now are, generally, excellent at learning ‘stuff’. They are not so excellent at forming their own opinions or evaluating a range of perspectives about an issue. But this isn’t because they don’t know how to debate, and indeed they’ve often done much progressive work in English about how to construct arguments within a piece of writing. What is lacking is the ability to apply this skill across different subjects.

Therefore, I find that in my fifth year of teaching I am focusing more and more upon helping students become more confident when applying this argumentation experience in a geography-related scenario.

Below are some of the tools I’ve found have proved useful. I would love to hear your feedback about whether you have had similar (or different!) experiences and whether you find any of these ideas useful.

a) Pie chart decision maker – Thanks to @ploguey for this amazing idea. Before writing an essay, students weigh up the possible options by creating a pie chart to consider how much weighting each factor/perspective has in the context of the question. I have found this an absolutely wonderful tool to help students away from that generic conclusions and towards more meaningful assessment.

pie chart argument


b) Tug of war decision line – Students are given various pieces of information that they have to place on a ‘tug of war’ line to indicate how far that information agrees or disagrees with a key statement they have been given. This can also be done interactively across the classroom.

Tug of war decision line


c) Thermometer comparisons – Students consider the options available and judge how much they like their idea by shading in the thermometer to give it a hotter or colder temperature, based upon how suitable/preferable they think that solution is.

thermometer judgment

d) ‘How important?’ line – To help students use appropriate phrases when considering just how important a concept is to the overall phenomenon they are exploring, this scale of importance helps them to categorise and therefore clarify their ideas.



e) Tournament knock-out – This works so well when there are lots of potential solutions but a decision needs to be made about the best overall option. By narrowing down how many ideas students have to compare at once, it makes what can seem like a mammoth task far more manageable.

tournament knockout

I hope you find some of these ideas useful!

Please tweet me @EduCaiti if you have any comments, suggestions or feedback about any of the above.

The perfect essay?

With 6 months until their A-level exams, my year 13s are reaching a point where they know lots of stuff, but their main targets now revolve around really answering the question and addressing the command word.

Despite this, between them, they have the elements of a perfect essay, but they just need to structure it a bit more succinctly to really be able to access those top-band marks.

To demonstrate this to them, they wrote me an essay which I marked and then used to construct ‘the perfect essay’. I put it all together, using direct quotes from their essays throughout, without changing any of the language or phrasing they used. Except I told them I had written it. I gave them the version on the first page of this document to read, and we annotated it for the quality of ‘assessment’ (i.e. addressing the command word), use of PEECL (Point, Evidence, Explain, Counter-argument, Link) and inclusion of synoptic themes.

By the end of the discussion, they were beginning to find my arrogance (“Haven’t I used such detailed exemplification here?”) a bit irksome, and it was time for the final reveal. I showed them the highlighted copy of the essay (page 2 of the document found in the link above), as shown in this screenshot:

The perfect essay examples
Writing ‘the perfect essay’ using quotes from students’ work

The highlighted parts show the quotes from them (the colours don’t mean anything except that I wanted to demonstrate where a different student was being quoted).

They could see where their own quotes fitted in (this was a real confidence boost for some!), but also that as the essay progressed, there was less of their writing and more of mine. We agreed, as a group, that most of the work that wasn’t highlighted was where the crux of the assessment lied. This was such a visual way for them to really engage with what assessment looks like and how they can easily shift towards writing this way in their own work.

Plus, now they have a model of truly rigorous assessment to work from, without me having to give them something I had written while pleading with them to ‘write more like me’.

This took me about 25 minutes to compile on top of marking each of their essays, so clearly I wouldn’t do this every time, but I think doing this even once at this stage in the A-level is very powerful as it builds self-belief in their own writing abilities, while also modelling exact examples of how to improve.

If you give it a try, please tweet me @EduCaiti to let me know how it goes!

A new way to DIRT?

This week I tried a new way of doing DIRT.

My year 12 group did an assessment and I wanted to overcome two obstacles when giving feedback to an entire group:

a) How do you provide purposeful and individualised feedback to an entire group but in a way that is an efficient use of marking time for the teacher? This question was inspired by a recent INSET day on efficient marking where our Head of English ran a session where the emphasis was clear; marking must be manageable – so how can we do that? It was so practical and I left with renewed determination to get creative with my marking.

b) How can we foster a sense of ownership over their own improvement among our A-level students? I completed a Masters in Education that explored ways to facilitate independent learning among A-level geographers two years ago, but I’m still exploring new ways to achieve this!

I think this new method addresses both of these obstacles.

How does it work?

1. I marked their essays and they received only a mark out of 10.

2. I collated all of the opportunities for improvement on to this DIRT feedback ranking activity sheet, which looks like this:

DIRT feedback ranking activity 2

3. The concept is very similar to using marking codes, except I didn’t put any codes on to the students’ work. Instead, when they received their essay back, they also got this sheet with it. They then had to decide, by ticking or crossing, if they felt they had met each criteria within their essay.

4. Since many of them could have ticked quite a few of the boxes, they were then asked to rank which of these improvement activities they felt was the biggest priority for improving their writing.

5. They then used their DIRT time to specifically target their self-chosen biggest priorities.


Why did this work?

  1. This really encouraged students to be reflective about what had gone well and what they needed to improve, which really encouraged deeper engagement with the ways to improve, rather than simply the mark that they got.
  2. It saved me lots of time writing individualised comments, which the students were mostly able to work out for themselves!
  3. When I came back to revisit their improvements, I could see what they had ranked as ‘1’ or ‘2’ as their improvement priority, and then I could assess their writing for evidence of that skill. It meant that the renewed marking wasn’t simply marking their work again, but focused upon exactly what it was they needed to improve. If you look at this example below, the student stated that they wanted their biggest focus to be on ‘questioning the question’ and focusing on the command word ‘assess’. As you can see within their writing, not only has their assessment improved, but my marking needed only to monitor that specific element of their improvement.DIRT 2 ADIRT 2
  4. The balance between me having found specific areas for them to focus on but them having the autonomy to choose which of those most applied for them meant that students felt supported but not spoon-fed, which is, in my books, a really positive outcome for very time-efficient teacher input.

If you do try this method, I’d love to hear about it! Please tweet me @EduCaiti