Like many others, there are things I have learned in recent years that it would have been really helpful to have been told about earlier on in my career. Knowing about the relative ineffectiveness of marking stacks of books, the power of retrieval practice and the importance of background knowledge, for instance, would have all helped me be a much better teacher.
But whilst insights like these are crucial to improving learning and managing workload, they are not my focus here. Implementing the principles of retrieval practice, for instance, requires a great deal of strategic thought and collaboration. Instead, I wanted to share a few simple things before the start of the new term that I wish someone had taken me to one side and explained – things I think teachers can take on board relatively easily to improve their teaching.
1. Don’t talk over students whilst they work
Others have written eloquently and in detail about the theoretical reasoning why this is such a bad idea, but in essence it should be pretty obvious to all of us anyway. We can all think of situations where we are trying to concentrate on something and somebody is talking in the background. I hate, for example, the incessant messages given out on trains when you are trying to read. You either ignore the message (and maybe your station) or you get distracted from your book to listen to some tedious automated announcement.
Unless it is critical to the task, once your students are working, just leave them too it. However helpful you might think you are being – clarifying your instructions, giving time warnings, providing further examples, etc. – you are not. You are getting in the way of their learning and being annoying!
2. The whiteboard is your friend: use it!
My handwriting is dreadful. Think a doctor’s scrawl after a twelve-hour shift. Writing on the board was one of the main anxieties I had coming into the profession; Powerpoint seemed ready made for me. And yet, I have come to realise that the whiteboard is in fact the most underused, underrated and most utterly brilliant tool at our disposal. If it were up to me, I would rip out all the ‘interactive’ boards in my school and replace them with good old-fashioned whiteboards. Relying too heavily on prepared slides restricts our ability to respond to learners’ need and runs the risk of turning us into presenters.
Whiteboards allow you to do all of the following and more:
- record your instructions
- model and exemplify work
- track the lesson
- write down key vocabulary
- provide prompts for writing
- provide cues for oral contributions
- break down tricky concepts in stages
- sketch little diagrams to explain abstract concepts
- mock up how you want students to present their work
3. Resist the urge to constantly help
It is soooooo tempting when you set your class off on a task, to dash from desk to desk to attend to the poor souls who have put their hands up to signal their confusion. I see it all the time: almost immediately a class has been told what to do the teacher scours the room, looking for students to ‘help’. It’s almost as if we need to justify ourselves by crouching down next to a desk with a pen in our hand and a battery of examples at the ready.
And yet most of the time, we are probably not really helping at all. At least not in the long term, where we are inadvertently creating a culture of dependency. If students really do need our help immediately after we have set them a task, then either our instructions were unclear or the task we set was too hard. Both are ultimately undesirable, and both warrant something other than manic fire fighting, such as repeating instructions to the class or modelling examples for all.
4. Don’t try and squeeze things in to the end of a lesson
I really loved Columbo – the scruffy, laconic detective with the dirty mac and the habit of using an apparent aside to check mate the criminal. The ‘just one more thing’ strategy worked for Colombo but it has never worked for me, and I doubt it works for you either. You know the situation: there are still a couple of minutes left in the lesson, and you really want to finish your point, or share one more quick example. You think it will help, but it never really does. No one is listening; minds are elsewhere. Less is always more, and the surest way to create a chaotic ending to your lesson is to try and shoehorn in one final task.
5. Try to avoid saying daft things to motivate
Whilst you may be sceptical of some of the more extravagant claims made about Growth Mindset – I know I am – you’d have to be pretty cynical to entirely dismiss the idea that what we say to students and how we say it can have a significant impact on their self-conception. Praising left, right and centre for even the most modest of responses – or even for just responding – cannot help anyone. Lavish praise sets such a low bar for achievement, and from my experience students know they are being patronised. In a similar vein, spur-of-the moment comments designed to motivate, such as ‘top set students don’t behave like way or ‘A grade students really should know this’ are unhelpful and damaging. Be alert to any coded messages in your motivational aside and reprimands.
I did have a much longer list of titbits to share, but I figured I would heed my own advice and stop here.
Thanks for reading.