Systemic and Systematic

‘Someone’s sitting in the shade today because someone planted a tree a long time ago’

Warren Buffet


Last week I shared some of my teaching strategies at our English faculty meeting.  I found it challenging – it wasn’t a delivery of ‘this is what I do’ but a case of shedding light on the stages that have supported students to work independently, whilst also demonstrating a breadth of knowledge and strengthening skills in self-regulation through their written work.  Teaching strategies to achieve the desired outcomes takes time to embed, till they become a ‘thinking and self-regulating’ strategy for students to use as learning signposts.  It can be quite testing to unpick the processes that have taken place, so in this blog I’m going to have another go.

If something is to be successful, it has to be part of a bigger process.  In a recent conversation with our Deputy Head of Teaching and Learning at the academy, we ruminated and reflected on how the teaching process was systemic.  It was part of a bigger system – a system that drives teaching and learning whilst embracing a shared vision and clear goals.  It made me think of other examples where this systemic approach was taken.  Take Lord Sugar and his personal portfolio of £770 million.  It didn’t happen overnight and it didn’t happen by chance.  From humble beginnings in East London, he followed good and effective business methods.  Part of his strategy was looking out for opportunities for growth – turntable covers was one of them.  He undercut the opposition and there was no looking back.  His catalogue of products grew until Amstrad was born.  In short, Lord Sugar had found opportunities to exploit in order for his business to grow.

Stick with me – it’s far removed from the classroom situation – or is it?  All the strategies I use are part of a bigger process and I try and exploit every learning opportunity to strengthen student learning.  Of course not in monitory terms, but imagine if every classroom in every school was as rich in teaching and learning to the equivalent of £770 million.  Like the seemingly never ending interest on Sugar’s millions, the breadth of the classroom riches in teaching and learning would grow and the ‘interest’ would take the form of student independence and a decreased workload for teachers.  It sounds idyllic, a classroom utopia of teaching, learning, cognition and metacognition.  Is it achievable?  Absolutely.

A bird’s eye view of the systemic

Systemic definition: Relating to a system, especially opposed to a particular part.

My journey begins with schemes of work and how our faculties are driving change as part of the shared experience of being research informed.  The bigger picture posed many questions for me with my English Literature schemes of work.  If the starting point was Autumn 1 and the finish Summer 2, then maybe (excluding the set text/topic content) they should look different.  Should earlier schemes look more supportive of building self-regulation?  Should later schemes reflect the expectation that self-regulation is now a part of the student toolkit and independence is secured?  Take the training regime of a new runner, a novice schedule looks very different to the expert, and ultimately, we want students to be the experts too.  My thinking led me to question that if this was the case, how would I embed the learning strategies so they became routine, a part of a student toolkit to help them make connections and self-regulate their learning?  I kept coming back to this same thought; everything needed to relate to that bigger picture.  Knowledge and skills, strategies encompassing cognition, metacognition and student self-regulation; this is the stuff to push learning forward like a tidal bore. Lord Sugar didn’t take a loan out to buy Amstrad and then begin to start selling record sleeves.  His goal was to build a successful company.  What would happen if classroom teaching considerations took the form of ‘today, I’m going to use dual coding as it looks interesting’?  You’d get students drawing a picture that fits a quotation, but to really understand its purpose is so much more.  The picture and the stimulus word(s) really is the tip of the iceberg.  There’s a lot of other connecting processes that go before to make dual coding a powerful recall weapon.  Would a builder consider building a house and buy the front door before the plans are drawn?  Having a bird’s eye view of the overall picture will help in drilling down to the methodical part that classroom teaching plays.

Focus in on the systematic

Systematic definition:  done or acting according to a fixed plan or system; methodical.

The word methodical sounds clinical and robotic.  It sounds like it would squash creativity and leave no room for an unsuspected learning turn.  I really don’t think it does any of the latter.  What I think it does is ensure that the stages of my lesson are progressive and continually build on what has gone before, and where we need to go.  I’m working hard to further increase student self-regulation; I need them to spot their own mistakes if they are to progress to demonstrating stronger knowledge and skills.  I say need as it is essential and not just desirable.  I have to think methodically and again, I keep the bigger picture in sight.  I begin with knowledge – the start of my mnemonic of what students need to KNOW and how I approach this.


Whether it is a picture stimulus on which to build knowledge, or using content connected tier two vocabulary as starting blocks, this is where I begin – but I am always thinking ahead.  The knowledge I build is always linked to my end goal – and sometimes beyond, where stretch and challenge has smashed the 10k and has produced a marathon.  I don’t teach to a ceiling.  As the scheme progresses, my strategies change.  The more student knowledge increases, the more variety of tools I use to support the student linking of concepts and recall.  I have put them in the progressive order I see as I grow this knowledge.  I consider these strategies each lesson – with the bigger picture and end goal still in mind.

  • Picture stimulus/short video clip stimulus
  • Content connected tier two vocabulary
  • Key quotation competition – which team can attach the most knowledge to it (and justify it!)
  • Mini whiteboard knowledge checks – is knowledge sticking?
  • 200 word challenges
  • Student written responses under the visualizer
  • Dual coding – methodical. Each image is intrinsically linked to the content taught

mr-birling.png Lightbulb exploding Dual coding comparative poetry

Now for modelling

I am now thinking carefully what I need my modelling to achieve. What is it that I want my students to see?  What has gone before?  What am I building on?  How am I going to guide them through my thinking, so that I can dismantle in order to continue to build? The modelling potential is endless.  Here are some modelling starting points I consider, all dependent on what the goal needs to be.

  • A question linked to an event in the set text/examination vocabulary for example to visually build a response through my thinking.
  • Exploding quotations and connecting knowledge to demonstrate deep understanding
  • A poor example of a response to model the up-levelling of language and connecting more depth of knowledge
  • A good example to deconstruct in order to identify successful strategies
  • Two models to compare
  • Live and collaborative modelling: teacher time out

My Y9 class are studying ‘An Inspector Calls’.  Once they were at the stage where they had the knowledge to begin to craft a response around a ‘big idea’ from the play, I presented them with a model response which captured that knowledge.  Together, we highlighted key components of its structure, successful sentences and language analysis, and questioned deeply how the knowledge that was presented in the response answered the question.  I need my students to be able to self-regulate at this level, therefore I need to model and deconstruct at that level in order for this to happen.  It is a process mapped out in my schemes, so it has to be methodically approached in my classroom teaching.

 Organised Tasks

Whether individual, pair or strategically organised group tasks, I need my students to demonstrate their understanding of how to think around a task. My organised tasks are therefore reflective of whatever I have modelled:

  • Crafting a paragraph demonstrating understanding of answering a specific question
  • Exploding quotations demonstrating understanding of a text and its context
  • Improve a response
  • Deconstruct a good student response, highlighting the successes
  • Compare your response to the teacher response – what to keep and what to change
  • Teacher time out: Students verbalise and visually construct the process live and collaboratively.

Of course it is not only crafting responses that are modelled, there is so much more that can be presented as stepping stones to keep connecting knowledge and growing a deeper understanding.  Keep in mind the goal and the bigger picture and the strategies and tasks begin to present themselves.

What went well and even better if

I think student reflection can  often be squeezed into the end of lessons and the scope of what can be achieved by this powerful aspect of self-regulation, is often not realised or fully utilised.  Student reflection should be an on-going process, which they can make a note of independently at any point in a lesson – or indeed outside of one!  Student reflective comments such as ‘I finished my work’ and ‘I worked well’ are not what I need my students to write.  If I have been clear in my delivery of what I need my students to know, their reflections should mirror this.  It goes back to modelling again to ensure this happens – what makes a good student reflection and one which could be improved?  They need to see and hear it.   I need my students to be able to articulate that that they ‘understand how to connect knowledge to a big idea’ and ‘understand how to spot a quotation that hasn’t been fully exploded’, with clear links as to why they think this.

Just as Lord Sugar found opportunities to exploit in order for his business to grow, classroom teaching has to exploit the strategies that enable teaching and learning to grow.  I always look at the bigger picture and drill down to the strategies that I know will maximise the progress I need to see.  If student learning is to be cognitive, then the instructional strategies applied have to reflect this.  It’s all about making connections to emphasise the development of thinking skills and processes – being systematic and methodical builds teaching and learning connections.  Keeping sight of the bigger picture and being mindful of the end goals is always a smart thing to do – and that’s no secret.

Image: thepowerofyourdreams