January 15, 2015 by dragonflytraining
Author, David Fawcett. @davidfawcett27. My Learning Jounrey
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Change is difficult. It’s been a running theme throughout this blog that there was a stage in my career back in 2009 where I begun to realise that what I was doing in the classroom probably wasn’t as effective as it could have been. Activities were designed before the learning or outcomes were planned. Questions were machine gunned around the room without any care or consideration. Feedback did little to benefit anyone but looked good on book trawls. Differentiation became a logistical observer tick box nightmare and dented our photocopying budget. The problem is though, as a teacher, it is very easy to fall into a routine without realising you’ve got there. I had all the best intentions in the world to become the best I could be, but after a few years habits take shape. At the 2012 SSAT conference Dylan Wiliam highlighted this issue by saying:
As a teacher, it is very easy to fall into a routine without realising you’ve got there. I had all the best intentions in the world to become the best I could be, but after a few years habits take shape. At the 2012 SSAT conference Dylan Wiliam highlighted this issue by saying:
“Currently all teachers slow, and most actually stop, improving after two or three years in the classroom”
His point was that the environment is so challenging when we start teaching that we are forced to improve. After we sort classroom routines and management strategies our progression begins to plateau and we can sometimes simply coast. He stresses that it takes ten years of deliberate practice to develop expertise in our job. This may be the case but ten years of constant refinement and improvement can be a difficult thing to keep on top of with all of the other tasks that make up the complex job of a teacher.
Naturally then we begin to develop habits. Many of them are effective in the classroom and define who we are a teachers. Unfortunately, there are habits that could do with refining or tweaking if we are to stay at the top of our game. The thing is though, habits are tough to break. To the annoyance of my wife I bite my nails. It isn’t the worst habit in the world but after a bit of reflection (or nagging) I consciously make an effort to reduce it. In fact when I catch myself doing it I make the decision to stop. However, after the two years that Wiliam talks about, do we realise the bad habits that we fall into and can we change them? In his 2014 white paper ‘Optimizing Talent: Closing Educational and Social Mobility Gaps Worldwide’, Wiliam goes on to talk about the difficulty in changing habits:
What isn’t required is an overhaul of our teaching. We don’t need to scrap everything we do and reinvent the way we approach lessons. Not only is that unrealistic, but it is time consuming, incredibly difficult and hard. Instead we need to be more pragmatic and identify key areas and work on them. On the back of a number of low medal returns in track cycling, Team GB/British Cycling didn’t throw the programme out of the window and start from scratch. Instead they decided to focus on a few key principles. One of these being that they needed to know more about their opponents than their opponents knew about themselves. After the Athens games they went to every World Cup and World Championships and videoed the opposition and built a massive database which they used to their advantage. It’s so simple when you think about it. So how can this apply to us in teaching?
“Great teaching cannot be achieved by following a recipe, but there are some clear pointers in the research to approaches that are most likely to be effective, and to others, sometimes quite popular, that are not. Teachers need to understand why, when and how a particular approach is likely to enhance students’ learning and be given time and support to embed it in their practice.”
If we are going to change the game maybe we need to focus on core components of teaching and understand not just the what of them, but really get to grips with the why and the how. Why is feedback effective? How can we improve the way we approach planning? Why is one particular questioning strategy better than another? Asking questions like this, reflecting on what we do, and then refining our practice is a lot easier than starting from scratch. So what have been the game changers in my own practice over the last few years?
Planning lessons is an area that has been widely talked about in education. In fact I talked about it here. How much is too much? How much is too little? Taxonomies or no taxonomies? What makes up an outstanding lesson? If there’s one thing that has been highlighted over the years it is that planning is very personal to individual teachers. One persons approach can be completely different to another and we shouldn’t be trying too look for the ‘magic formula’ of what makes a perfect lesson. In fact the varying contexts, school settings and students we work with means that a fantastically planned out lesson for one teacher may not work for another. However, there are some key things that can make planning more effective and more efficient:
- Plan collaboratively – As Hattie states in Visible Learning, planning is at its most powerful when teachers work together. Collaborating with others allows ideas to be bounced around, lessons to be critiqued, subject knowledge to be extended and strategies to be shared. Although finding time may prove an issue, it is definitely worth the effort to do so.
- Keep it simple – Are we spending our time trying to teach too much and actually over-complicating things in lessons. Trying to cram in every detail, every fact, followed by a starter, plenary and a wide range of activities can make a 60 minute lesson look very messy. Try and refine what you teach by identifying the core principles and spend time developing students understanding of them. What are the two or three things that must be learnt so that students can then access subsequent information. How can we share that in a way that is accessible for our students? Focus on this, slow down the time spent on them and remove the messiness.
- Learning first, then activities – It can be very easy to think of a new activity to hook students in or grab their attention. Sometimes in this instance though we focus too much on the activity and not on the learning. What do you want students to learn? Will doing this activity help do this or just distract them? Will it clearly help them acquire the knowledge or skills they need? Does it take you longer to resource the activity than students spend using it? If so, maybe rethink what you’re doing. Keep it simple instead.
- Make them think – Daniel T. Willingham’s states that memory is the residue of thought. When designing lessons check how much real thinking is taking place. Will students spend time really unpicking information, questioning its value and discussing their opinions. Will they be spending time thinking about applying knowledge to real contexts or challenging problems?
- Backward design – What is the end point or goal and plan backwards until you get there. Such a simple yet powerful approach which ensures you identify the various stages and routes to an outcome.
- SOLO taxonomy – Love it or hate it, SOLO has really allowed me to unpick a topic and its various components before teaching it. By doing so it has allowed me the ability to identify core knowledge that I need to spend time covering. Used purely during the planning phase, it helps me pull apart a topic and refine what I will teach. It helps ensure that I find larger context to fit the new knowledge in so students see where it fits into the bigger picture. Mapping it out also lets me create a journey or story, which I don’t have to stick to, but helps me explain what it is that I am teaching.
Feedback is incredibly complex and the focus of two of my blog posts here and here. In fact we know that if done well it can have a very high effect on students learning in the classroom. Unfortunately we also know that if it is done badly it can have detrimental effects. Feedback has also begun to be applied unreasonably in some schools with increasingly high expectations in marking policies. It can make an enormous contribution to teacher workload and see little results on what really matters; student learning. Instead of adding to the complicated world, here are my three game changers for feedback.
- Feedback should cause thinking – Taken from Dylan Wiliam, if I am going to provide feedback, it had better make students think hard about it. Throw away comments and the token ‘Really good work’ are now replaced with a number of strategies such as feedback questions and critique. Students need to have a change in thought about misconceptions and actively try to correct them if things are going to move forward. Feedback also needs to help students identify what has gone wrong and what needs to be done to get better. Making them think is proving to be a great way to make them do that.
- Feedback should be more work for the recipient than the donor – If you find yourself spending more time writing feedback than students do acting upon it, I’d rethink what you are doing. Marking keys, burning questions, proof reading work before submission, critique and DIRT time are all ways in which students work harder than you and actually act upon the feedback you are giving.
- Feedback should close the gap from where students are and where they should be – Do our comments (or even peer comments) actually move the learning forward? Do they help get students up to the level that they should be? Would you understand your comments if you read them? If there are no real misconceptions can we extend a student?
- Feedback questions – Such a simple strategy but ensures students engage with feedback. When spotting misconceptions, put a number in the margin where the error took place. At the end of the work, place a question which links to that number. The question is a reworded variant of the original question, or simply a prompt question that forces the student to realise what mistake was made, and make them think about what the correct answer is.
….tomorrow we will continue with more of David’s game changers that have helped him develop his own teaching style. Keep an eye on our Twitter page for more…
Please feel free to leave your comments, share this blog or get in touch with the author via his website, http://reflectionsofmyteaching.blogspot.co.uk/. For more information on CPD or teacher training courses please visit our website via http://www.dragonfly-training.co.uk.