In my work I have the privilege of being able to watch lots of teachers teach in a wide range of contexts. I see lots of superb teachers and lots of great lessons. Where I have constructive feedback to give, I find that there are a few common areas for improvement that come up time and time again. Here are the main things I find I say most often under the heading of ‘even better if’:
Behaviour: Be more assertive; establish what you want to establish
Where lessons do not have impeccable behaviour, most of the time (not all of the time) I find it is because the teacher falls short of absolutely insisting that students meet the standards they would like. They might continue to talk when there are clearly students talking in the room, they might allow off-task chatter to go un-challenged; they might let learning drift as students lose focus with a task without taking action to push them on; they might not sustain the level of reinforcement needed for their particular class.
There are lots of practical things teachers can do to address all of this, before needing to get into sanctions and wider school systems. I find this can usually be summed up by the need for more assertiveness and Bill Rogers’ idea of ‘you establish what you establish’. In detail this might require:
- taking a more prominent position in the physical space of the classroom and being more conscious about using a whole-class radar to scan what is happening all the time.
- reinforcing and rehearsing routines for entry, for questioning, for common practical tasks.
- making more eye contact, setting up spaces so students can all be seen and looked in the eye.
- using an agreed signal for attention instead of raised voices
- pausing to secure attention before speaking – from absolutely everyone, always.
- setting time cues for tasks and rehearsing good stop/start routines.
Sometimes it’s about communicating a stronger, more intense sense of commitment to the standards so a teacher’s disapproval for being late, not having equipment, calling out persistently, messing about in any way – is all that is needed to suggest ‘do not do this’. Or it can be about using the warnings or consequences system in a way that is consistent and proportionate.
Of course all teachers need the back-up of some form of system – but what I see is that there is a lot of mileage in improving behaviour through teachers’ actions setting higher expectations and then insisting on them being met. It’s not about blaming teachers for students’ behaviour; it’s about saying – you have the power to engineer significant change simply through your own actions – so use it.
Questioning: Ask more students more questions; involve everyone.
With questioning, it’s often not a black and white case of do X instead of Y – it’s about degrees of intensity. Great teachers tend to ask lots of questions in a deep, probing fashion and consciously include everyone in the class. The most common feedback I give where questioning needs to improve includes the following:
- Use cold-calling: Avoid letting a small number dominate by allowing them to call out answers or always taking hands-up.
- Consciously include the students who are quiet, under the radar, not contributing spontaneously
- Probe. For every answer, have a follow-up – or several follow-ups. Why, how did you know, is that always true, what else could you add, are you sure? (See Probing)
- Check for understanding: after any exposition or giving instructions, ask students to repeat back what they’ve understood. Can named/cold-called students explain it back?
- Avoid all these Bad Question Klaxons:
- Does anyone have any questions?
- Is everyone ok with that?
- Does everyone understand?
- Do you all know what to do?
- Give students more practice with the same question type so they can consolidate the skills; I often find there is not enough repetition and students are moved on prematurely. Drills and over-learning can be very powerful – simply practising multiple examples, especially in maths but also in other areas.
Finally, it’s often not about doing this stuff or not doing it – it’s about how intense. A teacher might think ‘I do cold calling; I do probe’ – but I’m seeing that it needs to include lots more students. You can ask the same question to lots of students to check they are following, involved, engaged in the reasoning – even if the previous student gave a good response. It pays to keep bringing students in: Do you agree, what was your answer, say it back to me, can you explain it differently.?
Importantly, teachers need to mix the behaviour management with the questioning. Where they are less confident with holding attention, the questioning slips with students dropping out of the whole-class sphere, losing focus. The skill needed is to continually scan, hold attention and bring students into the questioning process; often students answer one question and then drop back assuming their work is done.
Marking and Feedback: Make all marking an instruction for action
When I see books during any lesson observation process, I’m usually looking to see how learning is mapped out over time in terms of curriculum progression, what resources students have to support their learning and the opportunities they have to improve. The ‘even better if’ feedback I give most often is this:
Don’t mark work with comments or suggestions for improvement unless your students will be given time to act on them immediately. Try to regard all marking as an instruction for a task students will undertake as soon as they receive it. (See this on feedback as actions.)
There is still quite a lot of ‘marking to impress the scrutineer’ or ‘marking to show I read the work’ – which is all time-consuming and ultimately pointless in terms of securing improvement unless it is responded to. Another way to see it is this: Marking that is not responded to looks worse than no marking at all – because it suggests that you didn’t really mean it.
I suggest using simple systems like green pen (i.e. a commonly understood signal that work is being done in response to feedback) or simply using headings: 2nd draft; DIRT activity – or whatever. Evidence of work improving matters more than evidence of marking or the perverse idea of evidencing verbal feedback. It IS the evidence of feedback.
Knowledge and Recall: Specify what students should know; check that they do; give time for practice
In some lessons I find that the weaker learners can be unsure of what exactly they are meant to know as a result of an exposition or discussion. I often give the feedback that teachers need to be much more explicit about this. So, after reading a section of text, watching a video, hearing an extended discussion, completing a practical task or a comprehension activity – whatever it is – there is significant value in consolidating all the ideas:
- The main facts to know are A,B,C,D,E,F
- These are the key points in the argument: X,Y,Z.
- The sequence of events is always 1, 2, 3, 4, 5,
- The main advantages are A, B and C; the main disadvantage is D.
- The steps in this type of problem are always 1, 2 and then 3.
These points then needed to be recorded. This can all be supported with knowledge organisers, structured note taking or any number of resources provided that everyone, especially the least confident learners, has access. Some students need a lot more scaffolding for note taking than others.
I often need to suggest teachers avoid the trap of assuming that students know things without checking that they do. The first and most important layer of assessment is questioning: Have you understood? This then requires numerous cold call questions checking in with students to establish whether the key points have registered.
I often feel that students needed more time for rehearsal of these key points. For example, with learning new words – have they said them, used them, written them, pronounced them correctly? (See this on learning vocabulary) Can they run through the three key points with their partner to check they’ve understood?
Finally, crucially, students need to be quizzed on these bits of knowledge at a later point with prior learning reviews forming a routine part of lessons, revisiting knowledge systematically with all students involved in the recall process: What were the main points from yesterday, last week, the previous unit?
Setting the standards: Define excellence for any task.
The last area of common feedback is around the issue of standards. This can sometimes be assumed or teachers focus heavily on task completion rather than the quality of what is meant to be completed – leaving students to see ‘finishing’ as more important than doing things well.
In nearly every activity students engage in, it is possible to define what would constitute excellence. If you have done this task extremely well, what would it look like? I often suggest that teachers would secure much better outcomes if they have that discussion explicitly before letting student get on:
- What is the expected length/scale of the work?
- Which features of presentation are expected?
- How many questions should you aim to complete in the time given?
- Which language features must be included?
- Which common errors should you avoid?
If you have examples of excellence to share in advance, that helps to set the standards in a way students can relate to. Sometimes success criteria can be rather obscure until illustrated with an example.
Finally, I often suggest that standards setting begins in verbal exchanges.
That’s a good start, but now say it again better; add the correct terminology and try to link those ideas together.
If teachers go through the standard-setting process routinely, expectations rise and students get used to formulating more sophisticated responses. If you always accept one-word answers or half-formed responses, that’s what you continue to get. If students are left to guess the pace, the depth or the quality required, then you’ll get mediocrity when excellence might have been within reach.
Obviously all of this ‘even better if’ feedback goes hand in hand with the ‘what went well’ and there is always a subject specific context and a teaching group context where the feedback needs to focus particular aspects of the curriculum or the needs of learners. However, I’ve been interested to see just how common improvement issues can be across disciplines that might seem radically different – from construction, to maths, to French, to barbering to history. The nature of the teaching process is basically the same so the feedback often is too.