A couple of weeks into term and, so far, I’ve had the privilege of observing 40 or more lessons. I’ve seen lots of excellent lessons – it’s such a joy to be around when a teacher is doing great things; where you think how lucky these students are to be here in this room with this teacher.
I’ve got a growing mental database of observations from the last year or so and, from that reasonably large sample, I’d suggest there are a few things that teachers could make much more use of. Actually, I’d say that there are some things that are not done nearly enough. Here’s a sample of five:
Check for Understanding
Straight out of the Rosenshine playbook, this is not nearly a default habit, in my experience. It’s still most likely that a teacher will take one student’s response to represent the group or that a teacher will assume they’ve explained everything well enough to presume that checking isn’t even needed. Check for Understanding is powerful. That pause to scan the room, zooming in on two, three or four individuals to find out what they have understood, checking for simple acknowledgement of what’s been said and then for accuracy, depth, misconceptions… and then deciding: do we move or do we go back over it?
Cutting corners here is what leads to students developing all kinds of masking strategies – pretending they know things they don’t. Ideally, Check for Understanding goes hand-in-hand with an approach of seeking wrongness and uncertainty. Way beyond ‘can anyone explain X?’ is the question ‘is anyone still unsure about X?’ That should be the dominant mindset. In my view time spent here is a sound investment.
Explain + Check instead of teasing out.
The practice of asking repeated questions, giving hints and clues, teasing out the target knowledge from a class is so common. And yet, I often feel it’s hugely inefficient as well as creating a feeling of insecurity. If you’re not getting decent answers quite quickly, it means a) they don’t know enough and/or b) they don’t feel confident enough to respond. What often happens is that this teasing out process drags on and the teacher ends up giving the answer anyway. But, because time has been used up, they then move on without checking.
Far better, in my view, is to reverse it: For sure, sample quickly to see if students have answer but, when they don’t, move swiftly to explain the answer and then spend time checking for understanding as in the section above. That way you know that students now know what they need to know. This could be the meaning of a word or anything more complex. It really is ok to ‘just tell ’em‘ – and then check.
Rehearse and Repeat: Practise explaining
You don’t get good at anything without practice. That’s obvious enough. However, when it comes to explaining things, the idea of practice often doesn’t seem to be applied. Students might be asked to explain:
- Why puddles evaporate more quickly on a sunny day
- What ‘Space is a Salvo’ means in Storm on the Island
- The process of coastal erosion.
- How the Cuban Missile Crisis started.
How well can you explain those things? The chances are that the first time you do it, you miss things out. As you attempt the explanation you become aware of your knowledge gaps – especially if someone listening is checking what you’re saying and can prompt you. But what then? To consolidate, you need to have another go. To do it better the second time. This hardly ever happens in lessons: Everyone has a go explaining something and then, after some reflection or feedback, has another attempt.
If we engage in this kind of rehearsal mode explaining practice, in pairs so everyone can be involved – then students are more likely to say all the words, gaining valuable practice, work out their knowledge gaps and deepen their understanding. The teacher just needs to circulate to monitor and then sample afterwards, checking for accuracy. It’s a useful and powerful precursor to a writing task.
Short writing practice loops.
From what I see, far too much writing practice is too long, especially for students towards the bottom end of the bell-curve. I see a lot of students being asked to produce multiple paragraphs and finding it hard because every element is difficult for them and they are continually uncertain about what to write and how to write it. The teacher then has the problem of having a class full of paragraphs that are very difficult to read and give feedback on in a timely manner. There’s just too much.
What I have seen work well – and would suggest could happen much more often – is the use of short writing practice loops. This might be simply a key sentence or sentence pair in a story or literary analysis piece. Each student is asked to write a good sentence pair of the target type; the teacher then samples responses and students critique them. They then try writing another one and another one. They practise writing good sentences and a get a feel for the possibilities:
Using quotations: The writer describes vividly how John feels a sense of remorse. This is shown clearly when John says “………….”. Discuss/Critique/Try again. And again.
Short sentences: The door opened slowly. He froze, terrified. Discuss/Critique/Try again. And again.
The benefit of this approach comes from the repetitive element of practice but also the tighter turn around of feedback. Students can get better at something than ploughing through an extended display of mediocrity. Of course extended writing is needed too – so it’s about balancing things. From my observations, the short-form practice isn’t happening enough for those students who need it.
In my view too much retrieval practice is teacher-led quizzing. There’s a lot of stuff being written into powerpoint starter activities reinforcing a very specific form of knowledge checking. This can be useful but the problem it generates is that students are not being trained in how to check their own knowledge; at worse, they can develop a kind of learned helplessness, assuming that the process it out of their control. I would like to see a lot more daily/weekly/monthly review activity that involves students checking their own knowledge and supporting each other to do it. If I have a knowledge set that’s nicely defined in a resource as a basis, I can ask my partner questions about it. In doing so I am scanning the range of things that both of us should know; I am learning what questions to ask; I am rehearsing saying key terms. This helps me to understand how I might study independently later on. If we swap and quiz each other, we can cover a wide range of ideas.
If this approach is interspersed with the teacher-led review tasks, I think we’d see students gaining a much better understanding of a) what they should know and b) what they’re still not sure of. We have to develop students’ agency in the learning process and this is a simple way of doing it. Teachers’ roles are to circulate, sample, check for errors and misconceptions – and to model the knowledge checking process.
Put together I think these five things help to get into the corners of the class, addressing some of the challenges teachers and students wrestle with day to day. Most of them boil down to one thing: more practice.
Here’s a 10-minute video I made explaining these ideas: