Increasingly I feel that teacher development, performance review and the whole apparatus around lesson observation should place a strong, central emphasis on understanding the challenges that teachers face in securing the learning of all the students in a class. It can often be extremely difficult even for experienced expert teachers to nail every student’s learning and this needs to be recognised; management processes need to be geared towards supporting teachers to tackle the real challenges they encounter. I’ve covered these issues in a couple of recent blog posts including:
- Re-thinking Observation and Feedback: Solving the learning problems.
- Teachers can only improve themselves. But how?
In this post I want to explore seven common challenges that teachers face. They can be really hard problems to crack and it’s worth acknowledging that most of us have or have had these struggles. At the same time, they’re reasonably predictable so it probably ought form part of any teacher training programme and the collective effort in a team to find solutions to these challenges within the context of specific subjects and specific students.
Where I’m offering tentative solutions I’m doing so knowing that this will be useless unless they take form in a subject specific context.
1. They still don’t get it. Persistent learning blocks
It’s a tough situation. Despite your best efforts, students continue to struggle to understand what you’re trying to explain or can’t apply basic knowledge to more complex situations. It’s worth trying to diagnose more precisely where the problem arises and then focusing on bridging the gap – recognising the challenge where this is different for different students. It might be some of the following:
- They don’t have the prior knowledge required – so your explanation isn’t locking onto something they already understand: You need to go back a few more steps to connect to what they do know. This can be painful but it might just be necessary – they are where they are and that’s their reality.
- They don’t have the fluency in recall needed – details are vague; writing skills are weak. They might need more intense practice, over-learning the basics before they’re ready for more; practising smaller steps one by one – with more repetitions, making more elements of writing and recall automatic.
- Another explanatory approach might be needed – a different model; more worked examples; more discussion around exemplars, breaking something down into much smaller steps and stages.
2. Some get it; some don’t. Diverging attainment.
This isn’t easy – I hear this from teachers all the time. If you teach to the top, it’s hard to focus on strugglers. If you focus on strugglers, there’s a risk that higher attainers tread water, coasting without being challenged. Every class is a ‘mixed ability’ class and there will be a range of learning needs including identified SEND students and those with sky high prior attainment. We need to anticipate this in our planning with questions, tasks and problem-sets that allow different stages and levels of practice, albeit with common high expectations and long-term learning goals. Constructing good practice tasks that support this scenario is a key element of curriculum design. (Skateboarding analogy: We’re all off to the skate park to push ourselves to excel but what we all do when we get there will vary significantly depending on where we’ve reached so far.)
3. No time for practice. Engineering enough fine-grained practice before moving on.
Even if we know that practice is key – where does the time come from? I see students move from one barely grasped idea to another without having the time to practise in between. Writing tasks can feel like practising 20 things, not two or three – very often where students struggle it’s because they’re not confident or fluent with any one bit of the process. Solutions to this might be to avoid rushing to use integrated forms of practice – such as extended writing – before students have practised each part. Perhaps homework needs to be harnessed mainly as time for practice and practice tasks need to have higher levels of repetition with a lot more questions of the same type. Fundamentally, if students need more practice, then they need to be given it. You can’t rush on beyond that point if they’re not ready. But, of course, not all the practice needs to happen during lesson time. Ask a piano teacher.
4. I can’t get around to everyone. Real-time checking for gaps in understanding.
It’s so easy to sit in a lesson and see students that are masking their learning gaps where a teacher hasn’t noticed. I describe this in detail here: The #1 problem/weakness in teaching and how to address it. Amongst all the issues, I think the mindset shift is an especially important area to explore – to continually ask and explore the question: Who out there in the room still isn’t sure? Have I explained it well enough? Does any one still not know and understand the answer? It’s not about checking in with everyone individually so much as creating processes and a culture where you flush out error and uncertainty as a matter of routine. Formative assessment methods and checking for understanding techniques are vital here. Hard – but fixable.
- From “I’ve done it” to “I’ve learned it”. Terminate the tyranny of the task.
- Revisiting Dylan Wiliam’s Five Brilliant Formative Assessment Strategies.
5. If we keep going back we’ll never finish: Curriculum coverage vs securing mastery
Oh wow – If I had £1.00 for every….. I hear this A LOT. People really feel the pressure here. No easy answers. It can come down to a tactical trade-off: better to consolidate a reduced but secure version of the curriculum than go for full coverage at a more shallow, more shaky level. However, this is key element in Challenge #2 above. Most students will require you to cover all the material – but it might be that you focus on the more foundational elements for longer early on. It might be about teaching students excellent independent study skills so you can accelerate through an exam specification nearer the end. It’s constant juggle and balance.. At KS2 and KS3 – the role of spiralling is key; knowing students will mature and knowing when they will return to topics later applying new wisdom to prior learning.
6. If I let them talk, they don’t all do it properly. Managing productive talk.
I’m a firm believer in the importance of talk as part of the learning process. It’s how we rehearse our ideas, gain confidence with vocabulary and communicate in the dynamic flow of an instructional phase. It can provide a powerful source of formative checking if students learn to quiz and question each other. However, it can be off-putting to teachers to release the order and control of a teacher-led exposition and questioning phase to get students talking – because they can’t manage all the details: not everyone follows the brief; students can drift, share misconceptions, just fill the time until they’re given another task. If it’s unproductive it feels like time wasted and there’s risk of getting into a self-fulfilling cycle where students don’t do enough pair talk to learn to do it well.
The solution is to practise. I think it’s essential that every teacher works hard to establish routines that allow them to switch from teacher-control mode to pair discussion mode any time they like, as often as they like. But it takes time, patience and persistence. The pay-off is worth it. It helps if each discussion is short, time cued and given a very specific brief and that each individual has a degree of accountability in being asked to report back to the class if required.
7. They just don’t do the work. Infusing peer cultures with a work ethic.
We can take the horse to water but we can’t make it drink? I see teachers wrestle with this a lot, especially if they feel isolated in attacking this issue outside a school-wide change process. I hear this sort of thing from teachers frequently: They just don’t do the homework; they don’t revise; they just won’t get started with writing; they just want to leave school and get jobs; they don’t remember anything because they don’t every try to…
The frustrations are real enough. Taking a group of students with a shared peer culture that doesn’t include a work ethic around studying and turning them into scholars is hard. The solutions lie in making it easy from them to make learn gains and to make study form part of the group habits and norms: breaking down tasks into small steps that are achievable and where success can be experienced and celebrated – before building towards more extended or complex tasks; teaching study routines, retrieval practice strategies, giving them accessible study guides; making study time part of the school day structure. At all times, teachers need to communicate a sense of belief in each student’s capacity to achieve – however doubtful they might be in private. Easier said than done. This pair of blog posts explores these issues a bit further.
- Engineering Success. A positive alternative to generic mindset messaging
- Studying successfully: motivation + strategy + habit
My feeling is that all seven of these deadly difficulties are entirely predictable so it ought to be possible to get ahead of them, planning strategies to address them in advance rather than waiting to react. Teachers need time and the right working culture where they can openly express the difficulties they have in order to engage in finding solutions. If school cultures continue to reinforce a focus on teacher performance over student learning – top-down drop-in feedback and all that jazz – and continue to motivate teachers to talk up their practice and mask their difficulties, then we won’t be doing anyone any favours, least of all the students. Let’s solve the problems together.