Can I be that little bit better at…..changing the game? Part 2


January 20, 2015 by dragonflytraining

Education Chat

Author, David Fawcett. @davidfawcett27. My Learning Jounrey

To view courses delivered by Dragonfly Training please click the following link…after you’ve enjoyed the read of course…

This blog is a continuing piece from part one which can be found here:

…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?

Leven and Long (1981) found that we ask around 300-400 questions a day whilst teaching.  That is a lot of opportunities to fully engage with students and assess their understanding (or effect their thinking).  It is therefore wise to reflect on how we approach questioning (as I did here and here).
  • Provide thinking time – With the average gap between asking a question and asking for an answer being less than one second (Walsh and Sattes 2005), is it no surprise that sometimes the depth/quality of students answers isn’t as good as it could be.  Providing wait time, or even using a strategy like snowball questions, jigsaw groups or think, pair, share can be very helpful in giving students the time to formulate a high quality answer.
  • Inclusive questioning systems – Using strategies like Doug Lemov’s ‘Cold call’ or the simple ‘No Hands up (with hands up)‘ method ensures that every student in the class is included in the questioning that goes on.  Check whether you keep asking the same people for answers.  If you do, maybe try one of these methods (here).  Once the culture is formed and the environment is safe for students to contribute, the confidence in sharing answers increases (as does the learning).  Hinge questions are also a great way to get a whole class providing an answer.
  • Modelling & constructing exceptional answers – Stepping away from ‘I don’t know’ or poorly constructed answers is very important.  If this happens try modelling answers with students.  Scaffold their responses so they learn how to provide a well constructed answer.  Highlight exceptional answers and explain why.  Write key points from students answers on the board.  Use ABC questioning.  All of these methods help ensure students know what a good answer is and begin to share them themselves.
Biggest impact:
  • ‘No hands up (but with hands up) – Using a simple system where students initially refrain from putting their hands up to answer a question.  It has allowed me to create an environment where all students know a question could be posed to them at any point.  More students stay focused and answers have developed in quality over time.  I also allow hands up after a few answers are taken to allow those students who wish to add to the discussion the opportunity to do so.  From experience I would recommend staying away from random name generators or whizzy name selectors.  Although they allow questioning to be truly random, they slow down the lesson and become tiresome after a while.

Education Talk


The various abilities and needs of students in your lessons mean that we need to tailor how we teach each one.  It doesn’t mean that differentiation needs to add to workload or contribute to an over-complicated lesson.  Differentiation should also be for the students we are providing it for, not observers or tick box scrutiny.  I spoke a lot about a sensible approach to differentiation here.
  • Differentiation doesn’t need to be visible or just for observers – Differentiation is for your students.  It shouldn’t be about ticking off a component of a lesson and definitely shouldn’t be pointed out purely for the benefit of an observer.  Differentiation is subtle, personal and ingrained in what we do.  It isn’t a short term fix but a longer process of planning.
  • Differentiation is teaching (and very responsive) – It’s the conversations we have, the bespoke feedback we give, the way we differ questions between groups of students.  Differentiation is very responsive and happens regularly within the classroom without us even noticing.
  • Aim high and support up – Scrap must/should/could outcomes and set high expectations for all.  Use models, examples of excellence and worked examples where possible.  Show students what they should be aiming for (and even surpassing) and help scaffold students up towards that outcome. Usinggraphic organisers to help map out ideas, or even dropping in a few A-level questions.  As Daniel T. Willingham said, we shouldn’t make the tasks easier, instead we should make the thinking easier.
Biggest impact:
  • Modelling and examples of excellence – Simply demonstrating exceptional work either through modelling or using examples (professional work, my own work or student work).  By doing so, students can see the high expectations that we are aiming for.  By modelling the process, individuals can also see the steps/thought process that was taken so that they can develop similar approaches (or not) themselves.  Modelling and using high quality examples has definitely become a prominent feature in my classroom.


Literacy has such an importance in learning.  Establishing how to write effectively and communicate in a coherent manner is something we should all be teaching our students.  With the push for improved literacy in schools, there has become a view that ‘literacy’ in teaching has become a bolt on.  At it’s worst it’s become a tick box rather than a core component of our teaching.  I’ve talked extensively here about how we are all teachers of English and identified a few ways that we can help improve verbal or written communication in our lessons.  As a non-subject specialist, here are a few things that have worked well in my classroom:

  • Demonstrate great writing – Showing students what great writing is has been an important element of my teaching.  Using articles or examples of excellence, students can see first hand what we are aiming for.  As a class we can deconstruct it, analyse it, critique it and discuss what has made that piece of writing great.  We can then begin to model and scaffold how the writer has created their work.  Spending time in lessons to talk through detail and process has allowed students the opportunity to learn from others and endeavor to implement similar ideas themselves.
  • Build up vocabulary – Of the many ways I have found effective in improving students vocabulary it has been encouraging reading around my subject.  Many of my lessons include articles where students naturally pick up subject specific words which are used within context.  We read, we discuss and we take.  We can keep glossaries of new words and even use techniques like @TeacherTweaks vocabulary upgrade to get students to review their writing and improve its academic quality.  Spend time on words as they will benefit students writing in the long run.
  • Build up confidence in structure – Showing students the fundamentals of sentence and paragraph structure is worth focusing on.  I am no English teacher so don’t feel confident looking at the technicalities of writing.  What I can do though is use simple scaffolds and strategies to build a foundation with students before allowing them to be creative.  The use of Doug Lemov’s ‘At first glance’ sentence starters helps students include a better quality of academic writing.  Using Helen Handford’s ‘Four Part Process‘ for writing excellent sentence that include definition and meaning have shown my students the fundamentals.  Even initially using an essay structure like I.D.E.A(Identify, Describe, Explain and Apply) helps get the basics right before removing the shackles and encouraging freedom.
Biggest impact:

  • The four part process – A process borrowed from Lee Donaghy (who borrowed it from Helen Handford), it is a fantastic way to structure sentences with students.  It asks individuals to identify the thing being written about, add a verb, define it and then add meaning.  Like any other framework, the end result is a sentence that can be read as a complete entity.  The process isn’t finished there but requires students to then go away and refine/redraft it further until as a class we have created an amazing sentence.  Co-planning, modelling and high expectations is key.


Making it stick

Remembering information so that students can use it over the long run is an important factor.  Helping students store information so that they can use it in future learning, discussions, debates, answers and exams has become increasingly more important.  The work of cognitive scientists and psychologist is extremely complex but fascinating.  Although we are still learning more about how the brain works every day, there have been some interesting strategies that could be extremely helpful within education (even if just as a starting point):
  • Using desirable difficulties – Robert Bjork’s term ‘Desirable Difficulties’ refers to a number of strategies including frequent low stakes/high impact testing, spacing out the retrieval of old information over time, and interleaving topics together.   The combination of these ensures that information is retrieved at numerous points throughout the learning process, and more importantly, over time.  Small mini tests that focus on old topics during starter activities, identifying where two topics link and spacing out when we revisit old parts of the curriculum are just some of the simple things we can embed into ourcurriculum, schemes or lessons.
  • Helping working memory – There is still so much to learn about the brain, its functioning and capacity.  However, the discussions around working memory is one area that even though I am a complete novice in, is still an area I find is helpful to know when designing lessons.  With its limited capacity, do we make lessons to fussy or distract students from what we really want them to understand?  Does making them design a powerpoint about the ‘principles of training’ make them think more about what clip art/animation/font to use rather than really learning the content?  Do our explanations confuse students or overload their working memory?  Keep things clear, simple and focused has been my biggest lesson learnt.
  • Make them think – Daniel T. Willingham talks about memory being the residue of thought.  So how much of my old approach to lessons really got students thinking, and thinking hard?  Check back through your planning.  Instead of copying a definition from a book, could they not answer an exam question which forces them to use the definition in context?
  • Three is the magic number – Although in lower school settings, Nuthal’s research of student learning in the classroom brought out a point that really stuck out for me.  In it he found that for a student to really learn, understand and remember a concept, they would need to encounter it on at least three different occasions when being taught it.  I now ensure that I check through my plans and groups of lessons to see if I am asking students to use this information in a variety of ways numerous times.

Biggest impact:

  • Cumulative tests – We use cumulative tests in a variety of ways now.  All of our unit exams and assessments used to be block tests which just focused on what was just taught.  We now include questions from every topic so that students retrieve information from units that were taught 2 months, 6 months or even a year prior.  Although we have yet to see the full impact of this, students are more able to recall topics that would previously have been forgotten.

Teacher Training


Data can become one of those time consuming tasks that adds to our ever increasing workload if we are not careful.  For a long time a created spreadsheets and did very little with them.  Data can have great impact on teaching and learning if we use it correctly.  So what have I learnt about data?
  • Are we collecting data just to say we have collected data? – If it’s not going to change teaching and learning or help move your students learning forward then don’t waste your time.  To often we keep records for ‘others’ to check.  Follow school guidelines, refine what you do and create a system that helps you make a real impact.
  • Does data improve T&L? – Compare data with your colleagues and department.  Talk about what others are doing in certain topics to get great results.  Borrow ideas from them or co-plan.  Look at what areas your classes have struggled in and evaluate whether the way you taught it was the problem.  Make data be a part of your professional improvement.
Biggest impact:
  • Data to make a difference – Still very much in its early days, we have begun to share data across the department.  Now at meetings we fully scrutinise key areas and talk about what we did, how we taught it, what exactly students got confused with (with exams and tests on the table in front of us to do so) and how we can teach it better next time.  It’s about using data to make teaching and learning better, and to help improving us collaboratively.
And so?
I started the ‘Can I be that little bit better…?’ series as a way to talk openly about my professional development.  Cultures are changing, errors have been made, practice has improved and a lot of thinking has happened on my part.  There is still a long way to go and improvement can always be made.  What I have done though is decided that good teaching is more than just adding strategies to your game.  It’s a lot more than that.  It’s an understanding of our craft.  Part of this is knowing the fundamentals that underpin effective learning and consciously trying to refine them.  It’s then about trying to be a little bit better at using them in the classroom.





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