Recently I’ve had lots of conversations about teachers’ habits and how difficult it can be to change them. Harry Fletcher-Wood’s recent book explores this whole area in detail – it’s superb. In my work with schools and colleges, we encounter this issue all the time. Sometimes we realise that, although in CPD discussions, there’s a good understanding of a technique, the practice doesn’t quite match because habits haven’t shifted. This can be because of drifting from the core idea that a team of people has agreed to implement – but it can also because the idea has been perceived as a bit of bonus extra rather than a more solid don’t to do that but instead do this. In other words, some people need a solid Don’t! to push against rather than a less secure Do to aim for in order to break and reform their habits.
In 2016 I wrote a pair of posts 10 Teaching Essentials and 10 Teaching Pitfalls – and had some push-back on the pitfalls because some people felt it sounded negative. But actually, in the right spirit, this is often a useful direct way to express ideas. Just as with the idea of examples and counter-examples when teaching students – comparing and categorising, non-examples can provide a useful frame for thinking about teaching ideas.
|Don’t use hands up and calling out as a default|
|–> because then some students will form the habit of opting out, waiting for others to do the thinking; fewer students will be thinking and practising and you will get a skewed idea about the extent of understanding across the class. Use cold calling – it’s more inclusive. No hands up, no calling out – you select students to answer every question. |
|Don’t assume one student’s answer represents anyone else’s understanding.|
|–> because it’s a false assumption; students do not just hear other answers and absorb that knowledge. You need a wider sample of responses to establish whether students are getting the idea.. Ask more than one student to share their ideas and check for understanding with cold calling so students learn to listen closely to each other. |
|Don’t make Cold Calling feel like a gotcha;|
|–> because then students will find it stressful instead of normal; they will be inhibited and reluctant to share their uncertainties. They might develop masking habits instead of being confident to say they don’t know. This includes NOT saying things like ‘haha,. who is my next victim!’ or ‘who shall I pick on next!’ – even for fun. Because.. it does the opposite to what you want which is for students to feel safe and relaxed engaged in questioning exchanges. Make asking questions a warm invitation to engage, offering answers or ideas or honest statements of uncertainty. |
|Don’t ask Does anyone know? Who can tell me?|
|–> because, despite seeming innocuous and natural enough, this simply reinforces the previous two issues. It invites volunteers and therefore allows students to hang back, relying on others; it creates the illusion of knowledge being present – ie if somebody knows – even just one – that’s ok because then at least it must be possible. This is far away from establishing whether everybody knows – or if anyone does NOT know; a far more important test! Instead ask – let’s see if everyone can think of….. and the Cold Call to select someone to respond. |
|Don’t assume students understand or ask Is everyone ok with that?|
|–> because, simply telling people things hoping it’s sinking in is supremely over-optimistic. Because, if you ask ‘is everyone ok with that?’ usually all you will get is murmured affirmation and nodding.. because students either just want to get on with something (whether they understand or not) or, very probably won’t feel confident in saying ‘no I’m not ok, please could you explain it again’. That’s very rare. Instead ask individuals to run through key points to make sure the key messages have been received: Check for understanding. Ask students what they’ve understood, not IF they’ve understood. |
|Don’t just give one example then send them off to practise.|
|–> because in most scenarios, one example is not enough for students to develop a clear idea of the method or general approach separate to the specific case in that example. It sows confusion and insecurity; students are not sure enough about what to do and flounder. Instead show them one, show them two; work on a third example together – then see if they can do the fourth. Check and discuss.. Then, maybe they are ready to practise a few more. Use the I, We, You approach – with a good extended We phase to be sure students have the confidence they need to proceed successfully. |
|Don’t ask four people to make a group poster or mind map exercise.|
|–>because, there’s a strong likelihood that some students will learn very little. Unless you provide strong structured guidance, one or two students will dominate the task, the others will do a fraction of the thinking and, in feeding back, the same students will dominate. The least confident students rarely benefit from these tasks unless the groups are given the explicit goal to ensure that every individual member of the group is prepared to provide the report back, explaining the group’s work. This level of accountability is essential. If you’re not keen to put that level of structure in place, don’t do a group task – get them to work alone or in pairs and use cold calling to ensure everyone is thinking and practising.|
Of course there are very many more examples. These are just a selection of some common issues. If you are engaging with CPD or delivering it, it might be a useful exercise to run through the strategies you’re considering by thinking about what not to do as well as what you should do.