There are so many good ideas in education at the moment – knowledge organisers, whole class feedback, multiple-choice questions, low stakes quizzing, dual coding, etc. – it is hard to keep up. I’m on board with almost all of these ideas approaches, and in this enlightened evidence-based age in which we live, it feels good to be finally doing the right thing!
And yet, I wonder that we may be in danger of repeating some of the mistakes from the past. I don’t mean we risk returning to the dark days of learning styles, multiple intelligences unfounded taxonomies and pyramids of this and that. Thankfully, I think those days are long gone. I’m more thinking that as profession we still tend to rush towards implementing each and every new idea that comes along without engaging in any real process of critical evaluation. We’ve eschewed some of the guff from the past, but I am not sure we have learnt how to handle research evidence in a disciplined way, and as a consequence we risk creating future brain gyms.
It seems to me that we are still of the mindset that when we see something new, particularly something that conforms to our biases, our eyes light up and we want to get it up and running in our classrooms as quickly as possible. This is probably why so a lot of good ideas get implemented so badly, because we don’t allow ourselves the time and space to think about how they are going to work, if at all, in our contexts. As Mark Enser points out in this excellent post, what start off as promising interventions or sensible ways of managing workloads, run the risk of getting bastardised into something less effective and even more time-consuming.
Dylan Wiliam and Graham Nuthall understand the two main threats to effective implementation: lack of practical guidance and/or lack of theoretical understanding. For Wiliam, ‘Teachers will not take up attractive sounding ideas, albeit based on extensive research, if these are presented as general principles which leave entirely to them the task of translating them into everyday practice.’ Indeed. And for Nuthall, ‘in most cases, there is a description of what to do and how to do it, but no description of why it might work. There is no explanation of the underlying learning principles.’ Again, this strikes a chord.
I would add to this a third threat: time. In my last post, I provided some advice on how to use mini whiteboards more effectively in classrooms. The post was not well read (to be fair, they never are!) which was not really a surprise. It’s not a sexy topic and most people already know how to use whiteboards well, don’t they? Maybe; maybe not. The reason I wrote the blog was because what I see time and time again is ineffective use of mini whiteboards in lessons. Too often, there appears to be a conceptual misunderstanding of their purpose, or a lack of expertise and confidence in their practical application. More time working on this simple strategy would probably make for its better use as a teaching tool. But we are always searching for something new.
Knowledge organisers are anther case in point. You only need to type the phrase into Google to see a huge disparity in what people think they are for and how they are using them with their students. I may be wrong, but I would imagine that up and down the country a lot of time and effort has gone into generating knowledge organisers, but not so much care and attention into working out exactly how they should be used with the students. Do they even work? I think they are excellent, but do we actually know if they make a difference to outcomes. Alex Quigley poses similarly troubling questions for a range of other current ideas in this thought-provoking piece.
I should stress here that I don’t see myself sitting atop any of this. I’m not scoffing at others putting into practice things they read about on Twitter or learn about at conferences. Most of it is excellent and seems eminently sensible. I am just the same as everyone else. If I see someone share something that I think sounds good, and if that thing is grounded in some kind evidence, then I am inclined to agree with it and want to bring it into my classroom and across my school. The risk of not doing something that sounds so right is often enough of an impetus to make me want to act.
It is only in the last couple of years, that I have not only learnt the value of stepping back and thinking things through, but also, importantly, developed the discipline to resist acting immediately. Often the pressures of getting results and wanting to do well by your students – whether as a class teacher or a school leader – can make it very difficult to not try new ideas and approaches. But resist we must. If we don’t allow ourselves the time to properly understand the theory and practice of a new idea, and the time to turn that theory into practice, then even the best ideas will likely fail.
Which leads me to evaluation – quite possibly the biggest thing missing from most school improvement activity, whether at the classroom or school level. I’m a huge advocate of helping to turn research evidence into practical action, but I am increasingly mindful of the need to try and evaluate the impact of any changes we make to our practice, however hard or imperfect that might be. If we don’t properly consider the impact of the changes that we introduce in our classrooms and our schools, we will never know what is worth doing what is best left alone.
Whereas earlier in my career, we tended to implement an idea from the DFE or the senior management team without any real kind of evaluation of its impact, we now tend to implement an idea from research or cognitive science without any real kind of evaluation. I’m inclined to think that these ideas, often helpfully distilled by popular educationists or other bloggers, are far superior to the days of yore, but I still think we need to hold them up to the light through the process of evaluation. Findings from fields such as cognitive science are really only the first stage of the evidence process – the bit that often takes place in the lab, or uses undergraduates and inauthentic learning materials. Whilst this is hugely important and valuable, there is another important stage, and that is the evaluations we set up in our own contexts using some variation of this simple formula: does intervention X work in context Y under Z conditions?
If we cannot answer a question like this, should we really be implementing something into our classroom or our school?
Thanks for reading.
Black, P. J. & Wiliam, D. (1998) Inside the black box: raising standards through classroom assessment
Mini whiteboards can be an excellent way to gather information about class ‘understanding’ quickly and efficiently. When used badly, however, they cease to be an effective responsive teaching tool, and they can get in the way of learning and become a distraction. This post draws upon some of Doug Lemov’s ideas in Teach Like a Champion 2.0 (Show Me – technique no. 5), along with my own experiences, to offer some tips on on how to maximise your use of mini whiteboards.
Before the Lesson:
Plan questions in advance
As with most things in life, the better something is planned in advance the more likely it is of being executed successfully later on. In this case, the chances are you will have more success if you map out the questions you are going to ask your students to check understanding in advance. Too often we make the mistake of trying to come up with good questions whilst we teach. Often they are not precise enough to capture the data we need to guide our next steps, or we ask for lengthy responses we cannot possibly see from the front of the class. Well-considered questions avoid this problem and increase our chances of getting the valuable information we need in the moment.
Standardise response format
Format matters. Of all the ideas in Teach Like a Champion, I would say Standardise the Format is one of the most powerful and easiest to implement. I insist that all my students ‘Fill the board’ with their answers so that I can see them clearly when I am scanning the room. It also makes a difference what colour students write in. Blue or black pens have the most chance of being seen and not getting distorted by the play of light from the windows or from the flickering overhead artificial strips.
Standardise show me format
It is not just responses that benefit from being standardised; the format of the reveal does too. I use a simple 3-2-1 ‘show me’, but other instructions can work just as well, as long as they are understood by all and insisted upon in practice. All students should cover their answers once they have written them and raise their boards on the agreed command simultaneously. This approach reduces the likelihood of students being influenced by other people’s responses, which undermines the validity of the check. Wobbling boards the in the air is also unhelpful. And very annoying.
During the Lesson:
Insist on agreed formats
There is no point spending time establishing protocols for recording responses and showing them at the same time, if you don’t enforce them in practice. It is far better to sacrifice a bit of time in the short term getting these basics right, so that in the long term the process becomes so slick you can effortlessly question the whole class and gain immediate feedback on their current understanding.
Scan boards from front of the class
This probably seems so trivial and self-evident it is not even worth mentioning, but you would be surprised how many times I have seen teachers standing to the side or positioned in front of the first row of desks, where they cannot possibly see all the answers. The whole point is that you scan all the boards as quickly as you can and make a decision about whether to move on or to respond.
Approximate class understanding
As far as I’m aware, there is no hard and fast rule as to what percentage of students need to get the right answer for you to feel secure enough to move on. The obvious answer is 100%, but in reality it doesn’t always work out like that. Depending on the teaching point, you can sometimes correct one or two students’ understanding quickly there and then, but at other times you can spend several minutes trying to clarify something only for one individual to still miss the point. I aim for between 80-90%, and then make a beeline for students who got the wrong answer later on in the lesson.
Mini whiteboards are just one of many tools that can help us respond better to students’ need, but they are largely useless if you don’ think through how to use them and plan accordingly.
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.
Next week my year 13 class sit their first literature exam – two short analytical essays on Hamlet, and a comparison of A Doll’s House and Christina Rossetti poetry. For the first time in long while – perhaps ever – I have not run any one to one sessions or taught any additional after school revision classes. My students have not written hundreds of essays, or emailed me constantly in my holidays with questions or additional work to mark.
And yet, by Jove, I think they are ready.
Obviously, time will tell, and I am aware of the hubris I am inviting by publicly asserting my confidence in their readiness. It may well be that Kris will underperform, or that Rose will not fulfil her potential. In either eventuality, however, I don’t think I will feel any regret about my teaching or the approach that I have taken. They are all ready; I don’t think there is anything more I could have done!
Things have not always been this way, though, and I have not always felt quite so calm at this time of year. There are probably two reasons why I am feeling sanguine. The first is experience. This is my 13th A2 class and with each passing year, I become a little less caught up in exam season frenzy. I care a great deal about my students, but I care much more about my own children. I do what I can with the time I have available, which has decreased since I have become a dad and get more tired.
The second, arguably more significant reason for my relative confidence is, believe it or not, down to the linear nature of the new examinations, and, in particular, our school’s decision not to bother with any interim AS exams. For maybe the first time in my career – I had two year 11 classes, a year 12 class and a year 13 group in my NQT year! – I have been able to teach the curriculum properly and with fidelity to the principles of how students learn best.
Most years I pick up exam classes and have the (dubious) pleasure of preparing students for exams in only a few months’ time. There are usually stacks of poems to learn and lots of coursework to get through. What I believe about student learning goes out the window, in favour of short-term performance wins. Even with year 12, I am often unable to teach like a research champion because of the reductive nature of unit assessment.
Last year, I wrote of the joy I was experiencing with the greater freedoms afforded by linearity, and this has only continued since. I have been able to properly embed a range of strategies and for once feel like, along with the reduction in the number of texts on the syllabus, there is enough time to properly explore texts, as well as get meaningfully into contextual factors, different theatrical interpretations and theoretical approaches.
Take Hamlet. Under the previous modular system, in one term there would only be enough time to read the text together once as a class, simultaneously trying to get to grips with characters, events and emerging themes, whilst also analysing key passages and relating ideas to contextual details. Talk about cognitive overload.
This time, and with my present year 12 class too, I have been able to read the play multiple times and got to watch several different interpretations. On each sweep, I have been able to focus on particular things: character, plot and basic ideas first time round; close analysis of key scenes the next; wider interpretations and theoretical readings in later readings. We finished the course at Easter, and have been revisiting ever since.
Spacing and Interleaving
As well as being able to return to the texts multiple times, the new linear A level has provided opportunities to space out readings and interleave them with other content. So, for example, after reading Hamlet for plot and character, we were able to study some Rossetti poems and make a start on the coursework. Returning to each set text – with frequent quizzing in between – seems to have strengthened student understanding.
Without the pressure of rushing through lots of content – or worse, missing out swathes – there has been time to build in systematic quizzing. At the start of every lesson I am able to test students on their knowledge and understanding, creating regular retrieval practice as well as opportunities for valuable formative assessment. Crucially, I have had the time to address any misconceptions and explain things again if necessary.
By far the biggest impact the new two-year A Level has had on my teaching is the time it has provided for developing the quality of students’ writing. For quite a while now, I have been delaying getting students to write. Long gone are the days of reading a couple of scenes or a few chapters and then manufacturing an exam-style exam just so students get to do an essay. It’s a written subject, so there must be lots of extended writing, right?
Actually, no. As the experience of the last few years has shown me – particularly with my current cohort – endless essay writing does not maketh the literature student. What it does maketh is a mountain of substandard work for the downtrodden teacher who has to then dutifully mark it, often to little or no avail. Whilst there were in year 12, I hardly set my students any essays, focusing instead on developing their knowledge base and engaging in deliberate practice of specific sentence types, such as thesis statements.
Only in the last few months have my class been writing whole essays. What has struck me is how quickly their essays have developed. Usually, it would be quite a while before I would see an uplift in style, argument and depth of analysis, but this year, my students have made much more progress much more quickly. I genuinely think that knowing more about the texts has increased their confidence and allowed them to articulate themselves more coherently. The depth of their arguments is noticeable.
I don’t want to overplay things. I am certainly not suggesting my students will get extraordinary results because of anything extraordinary that I have done. Some will do very well; some will do as expected; others may end up disappointed. ‘Twas ever thus.
What I think, and hope, is different this time, is that my students will have got their results without having to complete endless mock examinations, come back every week after school for weeks on end, or knock out an unrealistic amount of essays. I also think that a lot more of what they have learnt will last beyond the exam, which I am not sure I can say, hand on heart, has always been the case.
More than anything, though, the changes to specification and linearity have meant that I have been able to teach in such a way that is efficient and sustainable, for my students and for me. Much of their success will come down to how well they have applied themselves and, of course, to how well things go on the day itself. This things are largely beyond my control, and whilst I will naturally be disappointed for any that underachieve, I will not have any regrets about how well I have prepared them.
I have done my best for other people’s children, without having had to sacrifice valuable time with my own.
This is what teaching should be like for all teachers, whether parents or not.