I was 16 years old and had just gotten my GCSE results. The admissions tutor at Deeside College (now Coleg Cambria) was impressed with my grades and readily led me through the registration process. I had chosen to study ‘A’ – Levels (The British equivalent of the American SATs) in Biology, Chemistry and Mathematics.
Studying at an F.E. college had an extra advantage over studying at school: I could enrol in night classes in the early evening after regular classes had finished. I decided to take the Open College Network class ‘Introduction to Basic Counseling Skills’, as I knew even back then that I wanted to be a teacher and I knew that this class would give me valuable tools that I could use with my future students.
The counselling skills I learnt on the course were amazing. I still make use of the ‘detached objectivity’, ‘active listening’ and ’empowerment’ tools from that night class in my daily practice as a teacher. However, something even more powerful and useful than I could possibly imagine, like a diamond of knowledge, was passed on to me in the most unpredictable of ways.
Out of all of the classes I did at Deeside College, this was the only course in which I had to fill out a ‘Reflection Journal’ every two weeks. My teacher would ask me to write down all of my thoughts and reflections on what was learnt in class into this big book that she gave me, and every two weeks she would write comments in there to inspire and encourage me. It really was very effective, and made the learning process exciting and productive.
Memory is the residue of thought
Daniel Willingham wrote those iconic words in his famous book: ‘Why Don’t Students Like School?’. I am utterly convinced that the Reflection Journal I had to fill out for the night class caused me to think deeply about my learning, which left it’s residue in my mind in the form of memory: memory of skills and knowledge which I still use to this day!
That’s powerful. That’s life-changing.
The Thailand Experiment
Shortly after getting my PGCE and completing my NQT year in the U.K., I came to Thailand to work as a Chemistry Teacher at an international school in Bangkok. I was lucky enough to have been given a very able and hard-working class of Year 10 students to teach. In fact, the illustrator of this blog and my books: Pop Sutthiya Lertyongphati, was in that class.
I decided to try learning journals with these IGCSE Chemistry students. The idea was that they were to buy a special notebook (not their normal class book) and fill it with revision summaries, mind-maps, key words and anything learnt in class each week. I wanted it to be a ‘living journal’, and not just simply a replica of the students’ class notes.
The students mainly took to it very well. Extracts from Pop’s beautiful learning journal are shown below:
Highly-motivated students like Pop would always hand in beautiful notes, every single week. In fact, CfBT inspectors came to that school that year and they said that Pop’s notes were the best they had ever seen!
Wow! That’s quite a statement.
However, some students didn’t take to it that well and I found out why: I wasn’t giving feedback regularly enough. Some weeks I would be too busy with other school things, so I would sometimes (to my shame) collect in the journals and simply give them back the next day with some simple verbal feedback only.
I discovered that when students were given some written feedback on a weekly basis, however small, they was a marked improvement in the quality of the journals I received each week.
Back then, when I realised this at 26 years of age, I would write multiple comments on every page in a student’s journal. This almost killed me when I had 20 journals to mark. I soon gave that up and came up with a better way.
Oh, but did the journals work? Well…that class went on to get 100% A*-C in their Chemistry IGCSEs.
Did the journals help them achieve this? I believe so.
My updated (better) journaling system
I’ve set up a Learning Journal system with my Year 11 IGCSE and Year 12 and 13 IBDP classes. Every Monday they must bring their journals to my room and place them in the right place, as shown below:
Then, after school every Monday I write one and only one post-it note of feedback for each student; which I stick in their journals. This keeps my feedback focused on the essentials and increases my productivity.
An example of what this feedback might look like is given in this reconstruction below:
Students pick up their journals (with post-it note feedback inside) every Tuesday, meaning that they are getting recurring, weekly feedback as well as regular, meaningful homework.
So far the system is working really well. The student-sign register system allows me to quickly see who hasn’t completed a journal and the fact that I force myself to get all of the post-it-notes filled in on Monday evening means that I can chase up late journals very quickly.
The system allows me to give regular feedback to my students, and it seems to be showing in the progress they are making in tests and assessments.
- Journaling is a powerful tool when used correctly
- It can be applied to any subject area
- It’s great for exam-level classes doing revision
- Recurring feedback and meaningful homework come as part of the package
- The students can be creative and present their journals in any way they choose (online is an option too)
- The feedback process allows the teacher to get to know their students’ strengths and weaknesses very quickly
- The Learning Journal is a permanent record that the students can treasure and be proud of
- Journaling is not used enough in the teaching profession. I aim to change this.
Teachers can have journals too!
In this short video I explain how deciding to keep a professional journal was a life-changing moment for me. I show you how to keep a simple daily journal that will immediately transform your teaching and effectiveness at school.
Illustrated by Pop Sutthiya Lertyongphati