There are lots of situations in teaching where teachers enjoy extending and enriching their repertoire and succeed in engaging a proportion of a class quite successfully. However, all too often these teaching modes can feel rewarding to do but still allow some students to fall behind, not to participate, to disengage or to rely very heavily on the work of others. Some of the methods teachers are using in these situations are not in themselves inherently poor strategies – it’s just that insufficient attention is given to the possibility that some students will not be learning whilst the others are and the necessary safety nets are not in place. The buzz and dazzle created from the responses of a few students – or even most students – can mask the slow drifting and falling back of the students with the least confidence and knowledge.
As a general rule, strategies firmly geared towards teaching to the top or focused on high challenge open-endedness, are most prone to running this risk. Teachers very often enjoy and celebrate these strategies – they certainly benefit the most successful students, helping them to extend and deepen their knowledge – but they risk leaving the least confident students behind, opted out and/or confused. Unless we do something about it! Rather than getting into a debate about whether these things are ‘good or bad’ ideas – what I’m saying is this: Don’t do them unless you do them incredibly well and do all you can, intentionally, to make sure you are enriching the learning for everyone, not the few.
Here are five scenarios: (chosen from those I see frequently on school and college visits).
Organic, tutorial-style discussions
I see this a lot – I’ve done it myself: The teacher, proudly armed only with a pen and their whiteboard (the modern day chalk and talk), regales the class with their wisdom and engages in a conversational exchange with the class, making some spontaneous notes as they go .. perhaps pausing to sit on a desk, getting into some deep exchanges of ideas; students chipping in freely. It’s all very Dead Poets Society; the messy board of ‘fabulous insights’ testament to the depth of thinking.
Reality Check: Some students aren’t contributing; they don’t get it; the board is confusing, a mess of ideas and words they only half grasp and couldn’t produce themselves; they’re feeling a bit stupid because ‘everyone else’ seems to get it and they don’t when actually it’s only half the class who were really involved and could follow the line of reasoning.
Solution: The main thing is to be supremely conscious that the dynamic exchange is largely only really great for the people actively involved. Nearly everyone else will need extensive recapping, summarising at key points, checking for understanding, a chance to frame a response without needing to compete for air time, some order brought to the messy board. The tutorial style might be a great way to flush out ideas – but then you have to run through it all with the least confident students in mind: simplify, summarise, generally spell things out, consolidate and practise.
There’s something wonderfully human about people enjoying working together and it’s natural for teachers to value collaborative structures in the classroom. Whenever I do teacher CPD I’m struck by the strong tendency people have towards wanting to share and talk things through with their neighbours. However, whether we are talking about the benefits of Think Pair Share or larger and more sophisticated groups and group tasks, we need to be very clear about the pitfalls. Mainly it’s that, without proper attention to roles, structures and group dynamics, some students can be in a group and learn almost nothing – because other people dominate the talk and the tasks and do all the thinking.
Before you cry ‘but of course’, all I can say is that I regularly witness group tasks without the safeguards in place, where students don’t learn much despite seeming to participate. The simplest ways to engineer and maintain group dynamics that ensure maximum learning for each individual are:
- to state in advance that you will select a person to represent the group at the end of the task; they will not know in advance. This means that the group has to make sure everyone in it is prepared to represent them – stimulating lots of sharing and practising
- to ensure that the team only succeeds when each individual has completed a task – not when the first person finished, but the last person. This again motivates students to support each other in making sure everyone is learning.
- to ensure that the task has sub-tasks that are allocated to specific individuals so the group cannot succeed unless each person completes their part of the task.
- keep the group size as small as possible. Even pairs need structure but threes or more need much more careful planning.
If you’re not prepared to put one or more of these elements in place, stick to students working individually.
High Challenge Problem-solving
I’ve met many teachers who wrestle with this. Their class contains high performing students ready for challenging problems where they need to spot patterns, link ideas and suggest conclusions unprompted. However they also have students in the same class who still need practice with basic ideas, who flounder with difficult problems, typically giving up or just waiting for the answers to be given – as they invariably are in the end. The teacher’s dilemma is that you can’t simultaneously tell students the answers and not tell them the answers. If you’re committed to teaching to the top, you don’t want to soften the difficulty for everyone because of a few students who’ll struggle; at the same time you know it’s no good for less confident students to struggle for any length of time- they need to build confidence, not have it knocked further back.
One solution is to create tiered sets of problems and tasks that have in-built incremental levels of challenge. This means that all students can find a level to work at that is challenging for them – within a task that feels shared by all. This isn’t about different learning intentions – it’s about structuring levels of challenge and scaffolding within one set of learning intentions.
Another way to think of it is captured in our walkthru Thresholds and Pathways. The idea is that everyone needs to aim to reach a threshold level of competence before being set off on a more independent, more challenging path. Some students’ focus in on reaching that threshold; for others, that might be more readily achievable so they’re off exploring different pathways. If you stop to regroup and share experiences, that can keep people together, more or less – but nobody is held back and nobody is being rushed on, within the same task flow .
I’m a major fan of getting students to lead parts of lessons – I’ve written extensively about this in the past: Pedagogy Postcard #15: Co-construction teams: Sidekicks. However, even though the idea of students teaching concepts to others is well-evidenced within the framework generative learning, it needs to be managed so that everyone benefits. If the benefits are all to the person giving the presentation or instructional input, then it’s no good for the others – the majority – who are on the receiving end. How do we make these things work for everyone?
- Build in checking for understanding as part of the process: the teacher and the presenting students should ask the other students questions about what they’ve understood.
- Build in tasks for all students to complete as part of the student-led input – this ensures they have to think and engage with material whether presented by a peer or their teacher, showing their understanding. It’s not just a case of taking turns to present at each other – each presentation should be interactive and focused on the audience’s understanding as much as the presenters’ experience of presenting.
- Make sure everyone has a turn presenting something over time – but not all in one lesson. It’s better to have a few students leading some learning in any one lesson sequence – so that the quality can be managed and maintained at a high level. (Few lessons are worse than those that involve sitting through 7,8,9,10 presentations one after the other. )
There are lots of benefits to setting occasional open-response tasks. It’s one of the six things I include in this post: Six Things That Made My Teaching Better – for me and my students and feature in this post: Pedagogy Postcard #10: Personal Projects and here: Signposting the hinterland: practical ways to enrich your core curriculum. The main value is that it creates an opportunity for students to bring a range of responses into the classroom – spanning multiple perspectives on the curriculum content and choices of media for sharing them, supplementing the mainstay of instructional teaching and teacher-set homework. Many of the best bits of work I’ve ever seen students produce arrived through this mechanism. But…. done poorly, you can end up with a few nuggets of gold and a large wash of mediocrity and some utter dross. Not everyone benefits automatically. How do we make sure everyone is learning and benefitting from this approach?
- Make it occasional enough so that you give time to preparing the ground and making a big deal of it – but not so occasional that you can’t pass the learning from one experience onto the next -eg once a term, not once a year.
- Show examples – creating them if needed, in advance. Discuss the features of what an excellent outcome might include and what a mediocre, disappointing outcome might look like, using real examples. Set some specific criteria, particularly for students who might find it more difficult.
- Provide scaffolds for those who need it. This might include helping them choose a topic or product-type; it might include something similar to the guidance I produced in this generic universal project guide.
- Provide all the resources students need and/or explore ideas for responses that are low-tech, free and can be produced with standard school materials and IT facilities.
For sure, you don’t ensure all students learn from an open-ended response task by deeming them too deprived to be given the opportunity to try doing one! That’s just way too patronising in my book.