On hinge questions

As part of my professional development cycle for this year, I opted to explore the use of hinge questions in English lessons. My initial interest in the technique arose from reading Dylan Wiliam’s Embedded Formative Assessment. On page 100 of his book, he explains how:

‘The hinge is a point at which the teacher checks whether the class is ready to move on through the use of a diagnostic question. How the lesson proceeds depends on the level of understanding shown by the students, so the direction of the lesson hinges at this point.’

For Wiliam, these questions take the form of a multiple choice question, with very carefully worded distractors among the different response choices. An excellent discussion of how hinge questions can be used to correct misconceptions is available on Joey Bagstock’s blog. He makes a sound argument for the utility of multiple choice questions in improving comprehension and understanding.

One of my queries with this, however, was over how effective hinge questions could be in guiding students from sound knowledge of a text to a considered personal appreciation of it. More specifically, I was interested in exploring how an extended response to a hinge question might form a precursor to analytical writing. Certainly, the idea of a ‘hinge’ point in a lesson dependent upon sequential knowledge mastery is a sound one; if you want students to correct a misconception, then a hinge question is an effective way to address this. Multiple-choice questions become useful, therefore, in ironing out comprehension errors, or in identifying when students limit their interpretations of quotes to surface details. But how useful would they be if the aim was not to clarify a misconception, but to force students to defend and justify a position?

This is where my interpretation of a hinge question widens slightly from that put forward by Wiliam and others. For me, hinge questions can serve a dual function: to address potential misconceptions (via a multiple choice question) and to steer a lesson into extended personal interpretations of texts.

An example of how I have used this comes from my current Year 10 English class. At present, we are studying comparative analysis – Montana 1948 and the documentary The Tall Man. In The Tall Man, at the point where the defendant in a trial (a police officer who has been accused of the manslaughter of an aboriginal man held in police custody) is found not guilty, the film overlays the sound of a pedestrian crossing ticking. It is an interesting stylistic choice which hints at the endemic corruption within the Queensland justice system and the inevitability that it will close ranks and protect their own. The hinge question I set was quite simply:

What might the significance be of the pedestrian crossing sound?

I ran a standard think-pair-share-square routine and asked students to flesh out their response notes at each step of the discussion. Below is an example of the notes made by one of my students, Maddie (who has given me permission to publish her work):

Maddie Qu notes

The challenge then became one of how this discussion (and these exploratory notes) would transfer into her writing. Maddie is ranked near the middle of our Year 10 cohort and in previous years has scored close to the national average for NAPLAN reading and writing. During the next lesson, my class had to write an analytical paragraph under timed conditions, which was to be formatively assessed. They were given fifteen minutes to draw up a brief plan (with paired discussion allowed) and then thirty minutes to write their paragraph. Here is her work:

Maddie V1

Given that this was an initial draft, the quality of this was rather promising. Near the end of the paragraph you can see the emergence of the hinge question notes, with a good attempt at close technical analysis. Not perfect, but for an ‘average’ student this is encouraging. The following lesson, I ran a whole-class feedback session with integrated DIRT time. Here is her improved version, written in 20 minutes:

Maddie rewrite pg1

Maddie rewrite pg2

Now she is approaching the depth I am looking for. While there are mechanical accuracy and expression issues (which she is working hard to overcome), the quality of insight is sharper and, crucially, offers a measure of independent thinking. This alternative use of a hinge question in conjunction with scaffolded discussion has begun to pay dividends for her. It is an approach that I will continue to refine over the remainder of this year.

On meeting your heroes

‘The youngest, aged twelve, could not conceal her disappointment, and turned away, feeling as so many of us have felt when we discover that our idols are very ordinary men and women.’        – Louisa May Alcott

I have never really placed much stock in the idea that you should never meet your heroes. To my mind, it is a sentiment predicated on an unfounded fear of seeing our idols as fully rounded people – human, with very human qualities – and instead holding them up as unrealistic objects of adulation. I have always found it rather thrilling to consider that people who have accomplished outstanding, authentic works of creativity and innovation were simply people like you and I. It helps, of course, to admire people who are just as well-known for the integrity of their character as for the calibre of their achievements. Think David Bowie, Nick Cave, Christopher Hitchens, Kate Bush, etc.

The closest I had ever come to meeting a hero of mine, prior to last week, was when I met Luke Haines in 2002. At the time, I was living in France and working as a volunteer translator for a local radio station, Jet FM in Nantes. Luke Haines, whose songwriting I greatly admired, was the founder of cult indie group The Auteurs and was touring with his new band Black Box Recorder. I was asked to be his interpreter during a live interview on the radio. I found him to be, let’s just say, somewhat aloof. Since then, my life has drifted along in a steady stream of normality, as I settled down with my family and tried to forge a career as a teacher.

Part of my new role at my current school is that of whole school literacy co-ordinator. To that end, I have spent much of this last year researching the work of Steve Graham, Judith Hochman, Debra Myhill, Doug Lemov and others in a bid to ascertain patterns in how other schools and districts have successfully implemented literacy across the curriculum. As part of my research I had the opportunity to spend a wonderful couple of hours with Phil Beadle, picking his brains about how best to begin the process of reinvigorating literacy instruction at my school.

At this point, I should point out that I have long been a fan of Phil Beadle. Indeed, I believe that his achievements should be treated with respect approaching awe. If you are British and teach English, you cannot fail to have come across his work. Australian teachers are likely to be unfamiliar with Phil’s career; check out some of his masterclasses on the old Teachers TV channel to find out how English should really be taught. Not via relentless drills or excessive use of lectures (although there is certainly a place for this), but through a skilful balance of explicit instruction and emotional engagement with texts. There is an art to the craft of teaching, and Phil Beadle is the acknowledged Picasso of the profession. And he has the results to prove it, too.

So to say that I was daunted by the prospect of a private meeting with him is quite an understatement. I was terrified.

Phil was a true gentleman in person: generous with his time and expertise, warm-natured and refreshingly honest. His advice on literacy instruction was precise, realistic and grounded in experience. A summary of his recommendations follows below (please note: I have fleshed out Phil’s ideas with some of my own beliefs and interpretations).

The main barriers to overcoming poor literacy instruction (both in English and school-wide) are as follows:

  1. Poor teacher knowledge of literacy
    • Teachers of English prefer the semantic aspects of the subject more often than not: discussing texts, inferring meaning, etc. They tend to have literature backgrounds, or wider arts degrees, and are less confident in grammar and linguistics
    • Syntactic aspects of English are often neglected as a result – teachers were often not taught these when they were at school and feel unequipped to properly deal with them. This is an example of the ‘Peter Effect’ – you cannot give what you do not have. At a minimum, all teachers should teach the following:
      1. Punctuation must be explicitly taught – especially in terms of how it promotes rhythm in writing
      2. Parts of speech, and essential sentence construction (subject + verb + complement) must be explicitly taught and practised as the bedrock of good writing

 

  1. Oracy is vital – and must be systematised
    • Oracy feeds into writing – if you can say it you can write it – so must be the natural starting point for establishing and perfecting writing tasks
    • It is a fallacy to believe that reading = better writing; it can, but mainly through oral rehearsal of the language acquired via reading
    • Students must be trained to speak in standard academic English, using the target vocabulary and grammar that will underpin the writing
    • Teacher-led, whole-class discussion must be reframed: use a variety of ways to place the onus on students to speak and articulate their thoughts, via think-pair-share-square, etc. Thinking routines such as the work of Project Zero can be useful for this.

 

  1. Extended writing needs greater routine
    • How often do we require students to write for an extended length of time in lessons, or each week? How many subjects require this?
    • Aim to ask students to write in as wide a range of forms as possible. This is especially important at Years 7-9, but also in later years, too. Junior Schools need to think carefully about this, also, since each day should involve extended writing as an extension of meaningful oracy

 

  1. Marking is often ineffective
    • Does marking actually value literacy? Does it demand that students learn from their mistakes, or act upon repeated targets?
    • Beware absolute reliance upon AFL, which is suitable for Maths / Sciences (where sequential knowledge mastery can be measured) but is not as effective in other subjects where multiple skills are often assessed as part of a wider rubric, e.g. English essays.
    • Mark rigorously, writing absolutely specific targets which must be acted upon. In a student’s exercise book, these can become running targets, e.g. Target 1 written on the first piece of work is always that same target number in any future writing for that pupil. Progression can then be seen in the book – if you stop writing Target 1, they must have mastered it.
    • A whole-school approach to marking must encompass literacy, and must be firm on this. Set out a standard annotation key which all teachers use and make sure that it becomes standard practice.

 

As I sat on the train typing up my notes from the meeting, it occurred to me that what we talk about when we talk about literacy instruction is not a set of techniques, but an attitude. Effective literacy instruction is a prevailing culture which values language – both in terms of accuracy and aesthetics – and this is why it is so difficult to enact change on a school-wide level. My future posts on literacy instruction will detail the beginnings of a pilot project I have set up with the Humanities department at my school.

My sincere thanks go to Phil for his time, generosity and patience.

If you are reading this and are considering booking Phil for school professional development, just do it.

I can also recommend a copy of his book How to Teach Literacy, too.