The Six Most Common Topics in my Teacher Coaching and CPD:

I watch a lot of lessons in lots of schools and colleges and, although contexts vary and teachers vary, the issues that arise are really very common. This isn’t that surprising really – but it does mean that we ought to be able to anticipate the issues as part of a CPD process.

Over the last few years, my thinking around lesson observation has evolved considerably, moving firmly away from the language of judgement and the giver-receiver power dynamics embedded in top-down lesson feedback. Now, I believe strongly in taking a problem-solving approach, recognising teachers’ challenges and using my expertise to help them through discussion to formulate approaches that might address them more effectively. The spirit of this is very different.

So, rather than listing the common feedback I might give, I’m now only thinking of the common problems that come up in our discussions. It’s a much healthier way to frame the whole thing. Here’s the list – which somehow turned into a bit of of a teacherhead.com blog-round up.

Inclusive Questioning

The key issue is finding a good mix of techniques that help to involve all students in thinking and then give the teacher a good sample of responses, without letting just a few students dominate. It’s very common for some students to be disconnected from questioning processes and teachers often find it hard to involve the least confident students – worried about their self-esteem if they get things wrong. A common pitfall is the over-reliance on just one or two answers as if they represent the whole class. There’s so much to discuss and plenty of solutions to all this:

Modelling with Checks for Understanding

Here the challenge teachers face is balancing the time and thinking given to modelling – giving explanations, showing how things are done, laying out a set of ideas or procedures where you have to focus on what you’re doing yourself – and the process of checking whether students have understood so that they can all now do things themselves. Nearly always, the really hard part is that some students succeed whilst others still struggle. How do we know if our explanatory inputs and our modelling sequences have worked? Very often solutions lie in breaking things down into smaller steps, interspersing our inputs with some practice of the sub-steps and some checks for understanding, generally being more explicit about students succeeding with more repetition and a longer hand-over period in the I Do, We Do, You Do flow.

The Ladder of Difficulty within the material

This is really common – and is very subject specific in nature. In order to lead a mixed group through a section of curriculum so that they have the right blend of challenge and confidence-building, leading to deep understanding and excellent outcomes, it’s so important to have a sense of what the ladder of difficulty looks like in the subject, recognising that students won’t all progress at the same rate.

Difficulty is a mix of inherent conceptual complexity dictated by the tasks and questions, moving from rehearsal mode into a more fluent mode with the capacity to explain and then the capacity to undertake more synoptic tasks, applying knowledge to new situations. It can also mean the length or scale of the task or the need to work more fully independently without scaffolds. The key is first to know what an incremental ladder of difficulty looks like in the subject and then to have good resources and activities to support students to climb it step by step.

Task Completion Masking Learning

Here the issue is that it’s just so easy to assume that when students are doing things and producing work in the books, that they must be learning. If we coo about the gorgeous work that students do – the lovely table and neat-looking writing – there’s a risk that we extrapolate from that to indicate their underlying understanding only to discover later that they don’t really understand things as well as we’d like. The main solution lies in constantly questioning this – to avoid making the assumption. Tasks are needed for learning to develop – but we then need processes for checking understanding. We need students to understand this about themselves. This issue is explored in various other places:

Retrieval Routines; addressing the gaps

In this area, the challenge teachers face is ensuring that the processes for retrieval practice are actually working. You teach some material, you show students how to study – they you set a low stakes quiz and go over the answers. And still… students can have plenty of gaps. The questions that come up include the nature of the material and how students can study it; how the teacher can know how well the students did; how to organise the process of learning from the test – how much to re-teach, how much time to give it in the flow of lessons, when to accept that we might have to return to it later rather than slog away here and now. Importantly, it’s essential not to assume that simply running the routines is enough, over-emphasising correctness and high success rates such that weaker students mask the difficulties they are experiencing.

Assertive Insistence

The final common area for discussion is in the area of behaviour management. This is often related to the need to switch between modes of questioning – pair share, white boards, cold calling – and teachers’ challenges in securing full engagement at each phase. It’s quite common for teachers not to follow through on the things they ask students to do and it’s worth exploring what inhibits them from being insistent. Often I find teachers need extra encouragement to embrace a warm-strict spirit, being more consistently assertive in securing appropriate student responses to a request whilst keeping things positive. Again, there are lots of sources of guidance:

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