There is no simple formula to teaching well – but there are lots of strong principles that underpin the decision-making processes teachers undertake in any given lesson. Responsive teaching is all about thinking on your feet, using evidence from real-time formative assessment, adjusting instructional inputs and practice activities in response to students’ levels of success and confidence. It can appear and feel very organic but if you deconstruct the range of things a teacher has to do in a successful learning sequence – it’s quite an impressive array of specific definable elements. I think it can be helpful – as many others have done – to consider this is various phases. Obviously caveats abound – it depends on what you’re teaching, the point in the overall learning journey and who the students are.
But.. for what it’s worth, here’s an idealised sequence of a what a teacher might do and the techniques they might use:
Phase 1: Clarifying Learning Intentions
Big picture orientation: Setting the scene for the learning to follow. What’s the scope of the current topic and where are we in the big schema of ideas.. ? This orientation can really help students to make sense of what follows, giving them a wider sense of purpose and helping make sense of the longer term as ideas connect.
Set learning goals: Here, today, what we are aiming to learn? That is – by the end of this lesson or lesson series, you should know about X, be able to do Y and be able to explain Z. This is different to setting task goals. The key is for students to understand the learning goals – not to write them down. This requires some discussion, some checking for understanding and consolidation.
Phase 2: Activate and consolidate prior knowledge
The core aim is to ensure all students – every single one – has had a chance to consciously explore their existing knowledge related to the learning goals, focusing their attention on key elements. This could be done as follows, using all four elements in sequence as it’s worth spending the time here:
Pair Discussion: what are the three main features of X? Or – simply – what is the answer to the question on the board? (A question entirely based on previously taught material.) Discussion helps students explore verbally in a safe pair bubble. They get warmed up.
White boards: Students share their key ideas or answers at once; teacher scans the responses addressing some key issues, giving corrective feedback
A sequence of three diagnostic MCQs on the board: Students have to answer individually, responding with whiteboards. Every student is made to think. The teacher picks up the trends and addresses key issues that arise.
A short round of cold calling to check for understanding, looking for good recap and consolidation of the material required as a starting point for today. The teacher re-teaches as needed – making a judgement to balance the need to consolidate with the need to move on.
Phase 3: Explain and Model
There’s huge variation possible here depending on the material but it might include:
Reading —> summarising: A passage from a text is read aloud. The text contains the necessary visuals with some key terms also highlighted. Students then echo-read – taking turns with their talk partner to read back alternate paragraphs to each other. It’s noisy as half the class is reading at once but there’s lots of practice reading going on. Two students are invited – after cold calling – to summarise the text and explain the diagram. The teacher compares their summaries and consolidates the key points with few bullet points.
Demonstrate and Check for Understanding: Teacher demonstrates how to answer a particular question type based on the text. They do this via a live modelling process writing by hand under the visualiser, narrating their thinking as they go. Periodically, the teacher stops to select students to explain the latest step in the modelled example, checking their understanding. (The reading plus visualiser demonstration feels like a much better intro than clicking through a powerpoint.)
Multiple examples. More than one similar example is modelled. The first two examples are compared side by side so students can see how they are different but also how they follow similar patterns. The teacher models the self-evaluation process: Is it correct? Is it good? Could I do it better? They cold call students to invite critique, identifying key features of success.
Phase 4: Gradual hand-over
After the modelling input, students are ready to start doing things themselves – the hand-over begins:
Scaffolded, guided practice: The first task is exactly like the modelled examples with a couple of partially completed examples on the screen for students to complete. The answers are checked via whiteboards – everyone showing their completed examples.
Short-feedback loops: Students now practice examples of their own, set from the screen; each example is a short-answer form. For each one, students Show Call or respond with the Show Me whiteboard routine so the teacher can check for early success. Corrective feedback is offered; difficulties are discussed.
More extended practice. Now students engage in more extended guided practice, with a task containing repeat examples with gradual variation and difficulty incline. For a writing lesson, this is a more extended written section. During this period, the teacher circulates actively, looking to see that the new learning is being applied successfully around the room.
Students also engage in some self assessment, with responses sampled by the teacher. Which ones did you get wrong? The teacher evaluates students’ responses to make the key decision: Are we ready to move to independent practice OR do I need to reteach and reconsolidate more elements of the material, with more guided practice first?
Phase 5: Independent Practice
When ready, students now apply their new learning to a phase of independent practice -working for 10 or more minutes on a series of questions or a writing task, on their own. Anticipating that students will now diverge according to their fluency and confidence, the task is designed with some key features:
- Tiered scaffolds: students can access the task with more or less support as required
- A gradient of increasing difficulty: there are opportunities to jump forward or to include more complex elements; there are additional practice questions available at various levels.
Sustained attention. The teacher is active in supervision to support students’ sustained attention without interrupting the Golden Silence of independent study – providing time cues, prompts and scaffolds in a non-intrusive way with key students that need them.
Phase 6: Review and Consolidate.
The practice phase leads into a stock-taking consolidation phase. Here the teacher selects samples of student work and seeks to establish how well the key learning goals have been met – to support planning for the next lesson.
Show call. Students are invited to share their answers or their work completed during independent practice. This could via reading aloud, showcasing under the visualiser or a gather around routine. Peer Critique helps to engage students in applying the success criteria they’re in the process of learning.
Paired Quizzing supports students with knowledge checks. One of each pair of students uses the study materials to ask interrogative questions of their partner -who has to respond unaided. They take turns, swapping roles.
Plan ahead. The teacher evaluates the review activities, revisits the Big Picture and Learning Goals to review the progress made and to set out the journey ahead. Next lesson we’ll look at….
Phew! Exhausting isn’t it! Of course there’s infinite variations to all of these elements. The point here is to get beyond the whole ‘teaching is all a bit of an art’ thing… to explore the specific components that build up to create that impression. I find that where teachers are able to isolate specific aspects of their craft to review and refine and then seek to implement them with some real intentional fidelity to what they understand as an effective form of the techniques ..it works. The teaching is better; the learning is more secure. Of course the optimal sequence and blend of techniques is subtle, complex.. fluid. But it’s not magic. A logical approach informed by an understanding of the learning model and group dynamics helps to craft lessons with a flow and responsiveness that allows schema-building to flourish.. not just for the lucky few, but for everyone.