I see a lot of lessons – hundreds of them in multiple contexts – and I’m going to suggest that there is one very common challenge that teachers face that is often not addressed well enough, even by experienced teachers. In my view, it’s the single biggest reason for lessons being ineffective or certainly less effective than they could be; it’s the main reason for learning not happening, for weaker students to fall behind and, over time, for gaps to widen. The prevalence of this issue is the main reason I feel we do more to address the needs of disadvantaged students and under-achieving subgroups by trying to teach everyone better instead of chasing interventions (To address underachieving groups, teach everyone better.). There’s just so much mileage in this; so much slack to take up.
The problem is this: In a class of multiple individuals, it is not straight-forward to find out how successfully each individual person is learning, identifying what their difficulties or gaps are and then to use that information to close their learning gaps with appropriate responses. Compared to a 1:1 tutoring situation, the level of responsiveness to each individual student’s varying success rate is very low.
All too often, faced with this ever-present difficulty, teachers cut corners and do not structure lessons so that they focus on flushing out difficulties, errors and gaps in recall and understanding. They rely too heavily on collective responses and a generalised sense of student success rate without consciously and deliberately attending to each and every individual. As a result, the least confident students can pass from lesson to lesson, going through the motions of lesson activities, being present, caught up in the general flow, without having their individual learning issues addressed; their learning gaps go undetected at the point of instruction and often remain.
Let me illustrate with six examples alongside some possible solutions:
- Teacher mindset.
- Ineffective testing or checking protocols.
- Exposition without checking for understanding.
- Weak questioning or response techniques
- Excessive scaffolding
- Poor Vocabulary Development
Sometimes I use the simplified idea that the ideal goal of a learning sequence is for ALL the students to learn ALL the material; for them ALL to achieve the learning goals. It’s not enough to be happy that SOME students learned SOME of the material. Sometimes the difference between these two positions is extreme – unnecessarily so. It’s very very common for a teacher to be satisfied (even relieved and delighted) that at least one student knows an answer. (I’m using “answer” as code for “success” in any subject area). This is a world away from them focusing on whether anyone at all still does not know the answer.
For, me the biggest shift we need to make is to switch into the right mindset:
- From “Does anyone know”? to “Does everyone know?”
- From “Can anyone do it?” to “Can everyone do it?”
- From “Well done to those getting it right” to “Let’s find out who still can’t get this right and help them out”.
- From a dominant emphasis on seeking affirmation in correctness to familiar routines around seeking out residual errors and difficulties.
Ineffective testing or checking protocols.
A teacher sets out the knowledge students should have and, later, sets a recall test. They go through answers one by one, asking ‘who knows the answer?’ and taking the one volunteered answer, praising and affirming the correctness. This tells them nothing about who didn’t get it right. Sometimes they don’t even ask.
- A teacher asked the class to name five types of structure. Instead of asking them all to list all five, checking all know all five, he asked if anyone knew each one. Five different people named one structure each! Most students didn’t even attempt an answer because they weren’t asked to.
- A class of 25 is set 10 questions. That’s 250 possible right/wrong responses. The teacher hears a correct response for each question (from student putting their hand up) purring with joy, affirming the correctness, oblivious to the other 240 responses (many of which were totally wrong).
This is way too common. Teachers assume that students will hear the correct answers and self-edit accordingly. But that doesn’t necessarily happen – especially for the weakest students. Recently I’ve been in at least three of these situations where the student next to me got less than 50% on a recall test and, not only did the teacher not pick it up, their wrong answers were not sought out, discussed and explained and the students left none the wiser – beyond knowing that they had more stuff they did not understand!
- Make ‘all knowing all’ the explicit goal. Set this expectation with students.
- Use a good repertoire of retrieval practice techniques that involve all students: 10 Techniques for Retrieval Practice
- Structure checking processes such that all students can check all the knowledge in hand, answering all the questions. (eg if asked to name Henry VIIIs wives, check each person knows all six, not ask six people to name one each).
- In discussion, focus on error at least as much as correctness.
In the examples above, ask all students all the questions and give answers all at once for students to self-assess and, for sure, discuss them. But then, take as much time as you can to find out where the errors lie. You could ask who got 3/5 or 8/10 on the quiz and then ask which answers they got wrong. They’ll be reasonably confident and happy enough to say. This gives you the opportunity to talk about errors and problems that many others are likely to have and it opens the door to other similar questions. A post-test process should be about finding out where the errors lie – that should feel like the whole point. I am testing you to find out what you still need help with.
Exposition without stopping to check for understanding.
Sometimes teachers make a big assumption that learning will be happening just because they are speaking. I’ve explained it; I’ve said it out loud; I’ve told my engaging story; I’ve given my expert exposition; I’ve regaled the class with my witty engaging anecdote in my normal charismatic style that they love and that makes me so popular.…. so they must have understood and learned what I was talking about.
It’s just so common for students to be left with all manner of confusion despite a teacher’s expert, engaging exposition – and the teacher does not stop to check if this has happened. Even very experienced, very charismatic teachers can fall into this trap – the delusion that they inspired everyone into deep understanding through sheer charisma.
- Making checking for understanding a solid, integrated part of any learning sequence. Doubt yourself. Am I getting this across to everyone? Give explanations in short enough chunks that allow you to stop to see if people are with you. This isn’t a case of looking into your students’ eyes for warm approval… you don’t ask ‘is everyone with me?’ You check: Let’s check you’ve understood so far: Simone, could you summarise the story so far; Michael, could you explain the process for us..
Of course you don’t have time to check that every student has understood every word at every point but if you routinely stop to check, sampling the class, you get some idea and this makes you think about whether to re-explain, re-teach, re-focus. The sampling concept is key.
Weak questioning or response techniques
Echoing the issues with testing procedures, weak questioning allows lessons to be driven exclusively by the students who know, rather than the students who don’t. I’ve seen many many lessons where 2 or 3 students answer all the questions and the teacher has used their responses as the gauge for the level of understanding in the room. ‘Hands up’ or ‘call out’ questioning is widespread as the default mode of questioning. It is possible to sit in far too many lessons as a low-confidence or shy learner and never be asked to contribute, never be asked to explore your ideas or understanding – because other, more confident students chip in and dominate and this is just how things are all the time. I feel quite strongly that this kind of practice really has to change.
- View the purpose of questioning as providing feedback to you: have I explained this well? Do we have enough understanding across the class to justify moving on? Sample enough students to get a reasonable picture.
- Use a good repertoire of questioning! Great Teaching: The Power of Questioning
- Cold Call and Pair-Share should be absolutely routine. I really feel that if more pair discussion, tightly focused and time managed, was built into lessons, involving all students, a lot more practice would be happening and more misconceptions and difficulties would emerge. If you listen in discreetly as all students air their ideas – it gives a powerful insight. There is great power in giving students space to rehearse their thinking; to hear their own thoughts.
As I’ve explored in this post From “I’ve done it” to “I’ve learned it”. Terminate the tyranny of the task. lessons can be excessively task-focused with all manner of supports and scaffolds giving students a feeling of doing things without identifying whether they are learning things. As ever, it is the weakest students that suffer the most here. They might have a neat book, a completed table and a paragraph of some kind, but, take the supports away – do they understand the ideas? Often they don’t, despite having completed a task, because they could do it without thinking very hard or needing to explore their own schema.
- Switch the emphasis from task completion to learning. Instead of ‘have you done it, are you ready, have you finished?’, make the dominant query “now, have you learned and understood it?” and check.
- Use guided individual practice extensively and intensively. Circulate looking for success with specific details in the tasks and be ready to re-teach key points. (Some teachers rescue weak questioning with much more effective supervision of guided practice sometimes neither of these is effective enough).
- Introduce the routine use of ‘books closed and check’ as independent practice so that students learn to process their knowledge at a deeper generative level. If it is an anticipated routine that, when doing a task, they will have to do it unsupported in the end, it builds confidence in the long run. If the only time students are truly made to work independently and unsupported is in an exam room, it is a disaster.
Poor Vocabulary Development
The final example is also extremely common. New words are introduced by the teacher in their explanations, board-work, texts, powerpoint slides – often repeated and used by the teacher multiple times – on the assumption that this is sufficient for the students to absorb them into their vocabulary. It is just so incredibly common for key terms not be given explicit rehearsal time during lessons so that the weakest students do not even get to say them once. Recently I saw a lesson where the term ‘erosion’ was introduced to explain a process in geography. The boy next to me could not say it and even struggled to read it from the text, despite the teacher having said ‘erosion’ himself, many times. The boy resorted to ‘the water destroys the rocks’ because ‘erosion’ had eluded him and the grammar of erosion/erodes hadn’t been explored at all. I’d suggest that the cumulative effect of poor vocabulary development strategies is significant.
- Design curriculum deliberately with vocabulary and reading embedded in the planning so that target words are known by all students and teachers.
- Ensure that all new words that are introduced are included in routine the process of deliberate vocabulary development: Engineer activities that ensure ALL students say the words, practise using the words, put the words into sentences, read the words in context and, later recall the words. Do this, systematically, deliberately and routinely.
- See Building Word Confidence: Everyone read, say, understand, use, practise.
If you read this and think ‘well of course – any good teacher does this already’ and take umbrage, let me suggest that in at least 50% of lessons I observe, one or more of these issues arises; sometimes it is marginal, sometimes it’s a chronic situation. All too often the culture in the classroom motivates students to hide their errors and mask their lack of understanding instead of making it feel safe and normal to volunteer it. All too often the teacher is oblivious to the extent of understanding or lack of it and presses on with a trail of misunderstandings and half-learned knowledge bits in their wake. Our learning safety-nets are full of holes and children are falling through them every day. Sometimes every lesson. And that’s where gaps widen. Turning it around, if we address these issues, it is also how the gaps can be closed.
Here’s an infographic by Oliver Caviglioli summarising the key ideas in the post.