Dull lesson? Send her down!

4th February 2011 at 00:00
RateMyTeachers has incurred much wrath, but a school-designed marking system is showing that pupil assessment of lessons can be a force for good. Gerald Haigh reports

Rating teachers has had a bad press recently - and for good reason. RateMyTeachers, the most high-profile of the online sites where pupils award marks for their lessons, has attracted vociferous critics. At best, they say, it provides an outlet for students to give free rein - anonymously - to their likes and dislikes. At worst, they say, it provides a forum in which teachers can be bullied.

Yet developing a credible system of assessing teaching quality remains one of the holy grails of education. Towards the end of last term, Ofsted declared that nearly half of all lessons were no better than satisfactory and too much teaching was "dull and uninspiring", a judgement that infuriated teaching unions.

While the inspectors' view grabs the headlines, it is the opinion of those on the receiving end that really matters. The development of student voice means many teachers are already accustomed to getting feedback from their pupils, whether through verbal or written comments, but now one school has taken it a step further.

At Newcastle's 1,350-pupil Sacred Heart Catholic High for girls, students are using software to score their lessons and to feed their conclusions back to the teachers.

The idea of getting a mark for each lesson may fill some teachers with horror, but assistant head Michael Cousins, who devised the system, believes that, in the right hands, it can make a huge difference. He says that even the best teachers aren't always good at evaluating their own work. "You think you know when something went really well," Mr Cousins says. "Then you find that just three of four of the students were really taking part, and the rest weren't very engaged at all."

His colleague, director of sixth form Andrew Barron, agrees. "Sometimes the learner's perception is completely different from yours," Mr Barron says.

Mr Cousins's Score My Learning Experience, or SMyLE, is designed for ease of use, and logging a comment should take a few seconds.

A pupil who wants to score a lesson can call up SMyLE on any web-enabled computer or device, including a smartphone, in school or at home. From a displayed timetable, the student selects a lesson to comment on - usually one from earlier that day - and rates it out of five in each of two categories: enjoyment ("How much did I enjoy this lesson?") and achievement ("How well did I learn during this lesson?").

There are just two extra options on this screen. A comment box can be used either by the pupils to give personal feedback or by the teacher to pose a specific question, such as: "Was my diagram of the heart easy to understand?" The other option is to use a dropdown menu to indicate the level at which the child believes they are working. So an excellent Year 11 student might choose "GCSE Grade A".

The real value of the software lies in the aggregated data that is presented to the teacher - detailed information on children's perceptions of their lessons in terms of enjoyment and achievement.

Teachers have their own SMyLE pages where they can view graphs and tables on a range of topics, including the department as a whole, the school's leadership team, and what sort of work and teaching approaches bring out the best responses in children.

It might sound like a sanitised version of RateMyTeachers, but Mr Cousins believes it is far removed from judging teachers as good or bad. "It's certainly not that," he says. "It's a student telling a teacher, in an objective way, that this lesson does or doesn't work for me."

Another major difference is that SMyLE is not anonymous. Pupils who are consistently unhappy with their work, or who have a grudge against a particular teacher, will be highlighted. Also, no one is compelled to take part: teachers must opt in before their lessons can be rated.

"Helping a teacher to improve is a long, hard path," Mr Cousins says, "but I think if you have this system of regular feedback, you can see incremental progress and help the coaching process."

Far from making ill-considered judgements and marking teachers on the basis of who is their favourite, Mr Barron believes most pupils relish being involved and take their role in assessing teaching quality seriously.

"They are pleased to be seen as part of the process," he says. After all, he adds, student voice has to be about more than litter bins and toilet paper.

SMyLE was introduced for sixth formers in September and has been phased in down the year groups. Now students are used to the system, they are strongly supportive. "Being able to tell teachers what works for you makes you more part of the lesson," says Charlotte, in Year 11.

Jessica, in Year 10, adds: "I don't use it every lesson but I like knowing that it's there if I have a problem."

Sixth formers have been fans. "SMyLE is highly relevant because, in sixth form, there is greater scope for personalisation of learning," says Anna.

Her friend Catherine agrees. "My teachers have already started adapting the lessons as a result of knowing what my strengths and weaknesses are."

Headteachers in other schools across the country are also taking a keen interest in the potential of SMyLE and the system has been taken up and developed further by established educational software supplier TASC Software.

Mr Cousins, though, emphasises that SMyLE does not solve problems overnight. It needs to be introduced gradually against a background of trust and good relationships among staff and between staff and students. To impose it as a top-down measuring tool in a school where there is mistrust could be disastrous.

"We said to staff that we understood if some didn't want to do it, but that we think it's a good tool for professional development," Mr Cousins explains. "As it is, they can opt into it and they control who sees the results."

Sacred Heart headteacher Pat Wager believes SMyLE represents a major step forward in finding out when teaching is working - and how it can be improved.

"One of the secrets of our success is that we use SMyLE to take us beyond simply listening to students and valuing them," she says.

"SMyLE enables teachers to analyse what actually works best for each student and then modify their teaching to bring out the best in each and every one."

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