Room to improve: addressing common challenges in classroom practice is the key to narrowing gaps

I observe a lot of teachers teaching in a lot of different contexts and it’s interesting to me to see how common the challenges are from one context to another. Teaching multiple people all at once is inherently challenging and it’s no surprise that some children seem to struggle more than others or they fall through the net of the teacher’s focus and awareness. At the same time as empathising with the challenge, I also see a wide variation in how successful teachers can be in addressing the common issues. In fact, I would say that, in general across the system, there is huge capacity to improve routine classroom practice in ways that would narrow gaps and start to shift the curve. My sense is that if more teachers routinely used the most effective practices, we’d see a significant impact – far greater than we might achieve through other areas such as tutoring, interventions and various generic whole-school initiatives.

From what I see, children with the weakest knowledge and lowest confidence can fall further and further behind day by day simply because they are not engaged intensively enough in the core thrust of the learning processes that they’d need in order to make good progress in the long run. They might be present, completing tasks, trying to participate but, for various reasons, they are not building secure schema for the material. Investing time and effort in CPD structures that develop and embed more effective, more inclusive routine practices is the obvious conclusion.

If I were to select the areas where I see the widest differences between and within schools, in high impact areas, it would be these six – in no particular order:

  • The extent of accountable reading embedded in the curriculum.
  • Routines that involve all students in thinking and responding to classroom discourse
  • Procedures for checking knowledge retrieval, addressing gaps that are revealed.
  • The reliance on bookwork/ task completion as a proxy for learning
  • Emphasis on fluency-building, consolidation and practice.
  • The presence of small-step feedback and improvement loops

Importantly, all of these areas are interwoven with the specifics of the curriculum material being taught/learned and the general planning of topic units. In many ways, the issues can and should be owned by a whole team of teachers in a subject or phase team because the solutions lie in both the planning and the execution. The way I see it, more often than not, the issues are about whole approaches that permeate a team, rather than what might be regarded as weaknesses of individual teachers.

Accountable reading:

This is about basing engagement with ideas and concepts around reading texts – both exploring the ideas themselves, often with high quality images and diagrams, and practising reading, including the vocabulary needed for the unit. It’s just amazing really how little reading students are asked to do in some contexts – especially at KS3 and even at KS4 in many subjects. The demise of textbooks and an over-reliance on powerpoint is part of it… but it’s also about the simple shared expectation that reading is at the heart of a learning process rather than an extra.

The ‘accountable’ part is about techniques that require students to actually read themselves – all of them – not just be present while others are reading or simply give the impression of reading. They must read in order to answer questions and engage in the discourse. Very many teachers have had next to no training in how to run a room for effective reading.

Routines that involve ALL students in thinking and responding

I could go on about this all day – but I see it as a huge gap. There is a stark contrast between these lessons:

  • A: where the teacher does nearly all the work, all the talking, asks occasional ‘who can tell me?’ questions, with responses from a few volunteers or those who just call out, such that many students are silent, not expecting to answer or to be called to answer – they are just waiting it out until told to write something down. The teacher progresses through the material more or less independently of whether their students are following, perhaps taking the few answers they do hear as indicative of the level of understanding in the room.
  • B: where at many points in a lesson, students generate and give responses – through well-understood routines involving mini-whiteboards, think-pair-share and cold calling; where every single student talks, thinks and responds and the teacher adapts their next steps according to the students’ responses. Significantly this includes the option of re-explaining or providing further examples, or going even further back to revisit more foundational knowledge.

Procedures for checking knowledge retrieval, addressing gaps that are revealed.

This is about the challenge of balancing the various elements needed over time to ensure all students are building secure schema, engaging in explicit rehearsal at an early stage, building on what they know – the concepts, experiences, vocabulary- and then to deepen their breadth and depth of understanding, and confidence with recall including the facility to apply their knowledge to new situations. Some teams seem to have this sorted with good routines that support all students to revisit knowledge in a systematic manner, checking for prior knowledge, building their confidence through confidence-boosting low-stakes testing mixed in with more open, extended activities where retrieval is embedded in something more complex – like a writing task, a set of questions or an extended dialogue.

The key to this, to my mind, is to provide students with the foundational experiential knowledge they need and resources that outline the core knowledge they should have in a way that allows them to study independently. This gives them agency over the whole process at the same time as allowing higher expectations to be set about what students should have learned. In the worst case scenario, students only have their notes to revise from and no real sense of what will be tested when – and it can be massive waste of time. In particular, teachers should have a plan for what to do if they discover that students don’t know things -what then? In some situations, the routines don’t even allow teachers to find out who knows what and there’s not enough time to cover the various permutations of gaps and errors that emerge because the tests span too wide a range of material. It’s just not enough to assume that students are learning because you gave out the correct answers.

The reliance on bookwork/ task completion as a proxy for learning

Task design is patchy. Some tasks that students are set can only be done if they have to think, organise, make decisions, use knowledge from memory – such that the task supports learning and, in being completed, indicates that learning has taken place. However, it’s painfully common to see tasks that are actually little more than copying – either literally copying out definitions, worked examples, sample paragraphs, notes from the board, labels, phrases, tables of information – or so trivially easy that anyone could do them without any knowledge of the material.

A common example is a labelled diagram – eg of parts of a cell. If a student has a cell diagram neatly labelled in their book – it doesn’t mean they now know and understand the name and function of each part. In some situations this is explicit – students know that the task is to learn the material with the diagram as a prompt; a scaffold. In other situations, the task-completion dialogue is utterly dominant: get it down, stick it in, make sure its finished… and ‘getting it done’ becomes the substitute for ‘making sure you know it’.

Emphasis on fluency-building, consolidation and practice.

Something you want to see on a learning walk from time to time is a classroom of students engaged in practice tasks with the teacher guiding the practice in a judicious manner, in amongst students offering prompts and support where needed but not where students are happily engaged in independent practice. And yet, it’s common for teachers to apologise when you visit and this is what is happening. There’s something about our system culture that requires teachers to be in performance mode the whole time – when actually students need a good dose of heads-down practice. Importantly, this should ensure they are each practising in a way that allows them to benefit individually – not just sitting next to someone who can do all the thinking for them or being part of a group where the others do all the heavy lifting.

Another element here is the nature of the practice. Good learning processes include a high level of consolidation, over-learning and fluency-building with known material. The common complaint is that teachers recognise the need for this but feel under undue pressure to teach more new material to cover the curriculum, at the expense of practice and consolidation. So, there’s a compromise perhaps – but if we’re serious about closing gaps, our weakest, least confident students can’t afford for us to rush on leaving them behind when they’re still grappling with some key ideas. Daily review shouldn’t feel like a daily gotcha – it should feel like a nice familiar work-out where students get a boost from feeling they know things. It helps if this is transparent to them so they can prepare – to have the tools at their disposal – supported by a culture of expectations – to support further practice between lessons. If nobody expects you to go home and do some work, you’re a lot less likely to. Expectations around students’ independent study time vary enormously.

The presence of small-step feedback and improvement loops

Where I see lessons that are supporting even the least confident students to make strides in their learning, there’s a sense of precision and focus about the ideas being explored even if it’s all located in a wider, richer frame. The learning is broken down into small steps so that students can engage with the details, bit by bit, with time for them to rehearse and time for the teacher to get feedback about how well they’re doing in real time. This then fuels a cycle of feedback and improvement for the students. The more material being explored at once, the harder it is to check how well students are doing and the harder it is to give feedback to students about improvement.

Of course, as students become more sophisticated, the length and complexity of tasks becomes longer – but an essay starts off as a set of ideas, words, phrases, sentences – then paragraphs. The weakest students find all these details more difficult. Where students are building confidence they are given the opportunity to practise and improve the smaller elements – before they are left to flounder with much more demanding pieces. In writing – short-loop writing tasks are prominent amongst the more occasional extended writing tasks.

More generally, where students are all succeeding they are regularly given time to improve. This can be:

  • during class dialogue – inviting students to reframe answers in a more sophisticated manner
  • explaining ideas – inviting students to rehearse an explanation, check for accuracy and then try again to give an improve explanation
  • self-checking protocols – where students systematically check their answers or evaluate against a criteria list and then correct or improve their work in response.
  • redrafting – having the opportunity to do the same thing again but better, embedding key elements of feedback.

Addressing each of these issues is complex and needs discussion. You can’t just demand it from people – there needs to be time given to explore the issues alongside the curriculum content, agreeing a plan of action and then embedding those actions in a sustained way over time. However, I firmly believe that this is the very core of improving learning outcomes. In that context, I often find I use this as a benchmark for evaluating various aspects of education policy and discourse. Sure, someone might want to quibble over the cogsci fundamentals underpinning the simplified learning model I’m so fond of, but I’m only interested if they’re offering better solutions to these problems. Similarly when people once to switch from ‘knowledge, memory.. blah blah’ to the much more soulful-sounding debates about character, dispositions, teamwork and creativity – again I think – sure, go ahead but what are you suggesting in terms of classroom routines that might support students to learn more in the situations I’ve described. You can’t just side-step these issues; they’ll still be there when you come back.

As far as government and opposition policy goes, the truth is that these are specialist areas that we wouldn’t expect policy makers to understand or meddle with. However, what they can do is support schools to provide the embedded time and structures needed for sustained high quality professional development so that teachers and leaders have the opportunity to address the issues that make the most difference. They can also refrain from introducing distracting policy ideas that add to the pile without addressing the fundamentals. As with teachers, you don’t get far trying to drive these things with an accountability stick.. you need to create the culture and opportunity that supports and rewards schools for building excellent PD programmes from the ground up, providing whatever time and resources are needed.

One comment

  1. This is an engaging and thought-provoking read. Though no longer practising in the classroom – sadly – I am still fascinated by these discussions about how learning can be improved. And still plan to apply where I can when supporting my grandchildren, in particular, 13 year old, year 9 Harry, who faces specific challenges with his learning.. thank you!

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