Small change; big impact. Six suggestions.

Sometimes switching to using different teaching strategies can feel like a fairly major upheaval for some people.  That is especially true if they require new resources to be produced.  However, very often, I think that a teacher could make a big impact in their practice by making quite  small changes to the routine way they say and do everyday things in their lessons.  Here are six examples:

1. Say it again better. 

This is the routine of giving students a second attempt to frame their answers.  The first answer might be half-formed, partially correct or actually just wrong.  It makes a big difference if you accept that answer with some encouragement but then give them some supportive, corrective feedback and ask them to ‘say it again better’.  This leaves them with a feeling of having made progress, feeling more confident.  At the same time, it reinforces the expectation that short, half-formed responses are not the standard we’re aiming at.

2. Positively frame your corrective language. 

Positive framing is a feature of both the Bill Rogers and Doug Lemov approaches to behaviour management.

  • Instead of “will you stop talking” you say “I’d like everyone listening, please”.
  • Instead of “Izzy , stop turning around and distracting Mike” you say “Izzy, I’d like you facing this way and getting on with your work… thanks.”
  • Instead of “stop running”, you say “Let’s have everyone walking please”.

This switch made a big difference to me.  It keeps things positive, non-confrontational and allows you to reinforce expectations affirmatively for all to hear.

3. Check for Understanding 

This requires asking students what they have understood instead of ‘whether’ they’ve understood.  The switch involves adding the key word:

From “Have you understood?” to “What have you understood?”

This has a huge impact because it initiates a dialogue, leads to exploration of gaps and misconceptions and generally provides both teacher and student with useful information.  In contrast a ‘Yes’, ‘no’ or silent response to ‘have you understood?’ tells you almost nothing at all.

4. Group Goal: Everyone must know. 

When students work in pairs or threes or more, make it an explicit goal that any one person in the group must be able to report back in full on the task in hand, demonstrating their recall and understanding without help.  This should be regarded as a much more important goal than task completion which may be dominated by one or two students with only minor input from others.  During the group task, students should be supporting each other with recall tasks and recriprocal teaching to ensure that any one of them could represent the group effectively having gained maximum benefit from the collaborative activity.   The goal is: Everyone must know.  Which means: Anyone could be asked to explain.

5. Ask for Errors. 

When checking students’ knowledge and understanding in any form of retrieval process, switch the focus from ‘who has got it right’ to ‘has anyone got it wrong?’ The switch is from ‘what are the correct answers’ to ‘what are the problems people might be having?’ That should be the whole spirit of the process – and it involves removing the assumption that hearing the correct answers will correct the thinking of all the students who got it wrong.

For example, if we’ve tested 20 students on 10 questions, we need all 20 students to check all of their answers (simultaneously if possible) so we have maximum time to delve into the difficulties, errors and misconceptions.  Every student with 7/10 has three wrong answers to discuss that, given their positive success rate, is probably worth everyone discussing.

6. Pairs for practice.

I think students often need more practice explaining things than they are given time for.  Do we all understand the method for simultaneous equations? Do we all understand the meaning in Heaney’s “we are bombarded with the empty air”?  Can everyone outline the electromagnetic processes occurring in a transformer or loud speaker?

Teachers can initiate some checking for understanding dialogues with a sample of students but this still leaves the majority of students as listeners.  The best way to engage all students in rehearsing their understanding is to get everyone to rehearse in pairs: it can help to hear your own words as you say them to know what you actually think.  If you have a partner to act as a sounding board – especially someone holding a resource they can use to check against your answer – then you can get an idea of how well you’ve understood something.  You can also try to re-explain multiple times until you’ve managed to formulate a full, well-sequenced answer.

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This list could be longer..  but let’s stop at six for now.


  1. […] Changing mindsets is often at the core of innovation within schools as we need to take people on a journey, change their habits and provide a safety net. As Napoleon Hill said, “If you cannot do great things, do small things in a great way.” This resonates, as when we talk of the future and our vision within schools we need to convince people to come with us by explaining clearly what that future looks like, what it will be like on the journey and the challenges we may face, why we are aiming in that direction and how we will know when we’ve arrived at our destination. Similarly, in a classroom context, we can make small changes for a larger impact which too could be identified as being innovative if it is a shift in practice for an educator; Tom Sherrington wrote his suggestions on this in his blog here.  […]


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