It’s been a busy week this week. What with starting at a new school, getting up before 5 to drive two hours on Monday morning, living an Alan Partridge-esque existence in a particularly horrific Travelodge, and risking whatever credibility I might have by teaching a ‘model’ lesson in front of colleagues I’d barely met to kids I’d never met.
That this was in any way successful is largely down to the efforts of co-conspirator, Fiona Aris: due to a series of unlikely but banal events, we were unable to meet up (or even meet) beforehand and she (Kindly? Foolishly?) agreed to plan said model lesson.
The school I’m now working at has had its share of problems over recent years. It’s found itself in the local papers for all the wrong reasons but, hopefully, a new dawn has been heralded and the good times will start, finally, to roll. But there’s a lot to do. Teachers have been left to sink or swim and the fact that this year begins with record exam results (most spectacularly, English results which have risen from 43% to 83% in a single year!) is a much-needed tonic. I’m told that staff are ‘excited’ about me starting. We’ll see. Obviously, they’d be a lot less excited if this high stakes gambit failed to pay off and I were to fall on my kisser.
So, I have to admit that when my new Head told that this was how I would be spending my first day on the job I was horrified. Teaching a live lesson in front of the whole staff would be a tough enough prospect even in a school where I knew the kids, but this? To say I was sceptical about its chances of success is putting it very mildly. this is, in part, informed by my view that there is no such thing as ‘outstanding’ individual lessons. The chimera that is ‘outstanding’ is the result of hard work, great relationships, embedded routines and turning up day in day out with a cheery smile and a steely glare. A one-off performance, even if it’s crackerjack, doesn’t really benefit anyone. So, what could I hope to achieve?
With this maelstrom of self-doubt swirling breathlessly, the stage was set. Our ‘classroom’ was a square set out in the middle of the school hall with staff seated on three sides. The tables were miked up so that everyone could hear the students’ interactions and guess what? Kids don’t tend to mess about when surrounded by the entire staff body.
The lesson itself was bread and butter stuff; a generic ‘communication’ lesson which asked pupils to think about the effects of verbal and nonverbal forms of communication. But, of course, the content wasn’t really the point; it was there merely for us to model how structure can be imposed on whatever it is you might be teaching. We explained to staff that we’d pause at various points to explain what we were doing and why we were doing it and that they should feel free to ask questions at these points. Solemn nods all round
Introductions over, we began by welcoming the ‘class’ using the school routine of lining up, taking planners out and standing behind seats before being invited to sit by the teacher. It really doesn’t matter what routines are in place in a school as long as teachers follow them zealously. I’d much rather set the bar at doing up top buttons than throwing chairs around. So as far as my pupils are concerned I am a martinet about the little things. One of my bugbears is teachers who ‘can’t be bothered’ to enforce uniform rules because they don’t really see how a pair of trainers can affect learning. And, up to a point, they’re right. But these rules are there for everyone’s protection. Pupils need to know that they will be upheld consistently. Teachers who are too cool for these rules actively undermine all their colleagues and have a special corner of hell reserved just for them.
Once seated, students cracked on with bell work, or the ‘Do Now’ as we call it at Greenwood. This is a vital routine. The expectation that there is no slack time and that lessons begin the moment students arrive is a hugely important message. Waiting for stragglers just signals that turning up on time isn’t important. At this time of year I’m obsessive about tightening up entry routines. If we can shave a minute or two off the time it takes to sit in our assigned seats and have our books open and pens poised, I’m a happy man. In this particular case, we gave students a question and told them to think of five possible answers. I’ve being using ‘Go for 5’ since first training to teach and it’s a great way to ensure that everyone has something to contribute; sluggards might only come up with 1 or 2 suggestions and keeners have the opportunity to empty the contents of their bulging brains, as long as everyone attempts to come up with at least 5 suggestions. This ensure that everyone is primed for every teacher’s favourite: the whole class discussion.
The key to avoiding flabby, bloated discussion is asking the right questions. We wanted to demonstrate the toxicity of recitation or Initiation Response, Evaluation exchanges; only the teacher and one individual is involved and everyone else has tacit permission to drift or. or punch each other. Instead we modelled what Dylan Wiliam calls ‘basketball’ questioning in which the whole class is involved. For anyone who’s not come across it before, it goes a little like this:
- Pose a question you have planned in advance in advance. It’s worth taking some time to consider what your question is designed to achieve. Kris Boulton’s question planning table is very useful here:
- The received wisdom is that open questions are good and closed questions are bad. Not so. It all depends on what you’re up to. For instance, in order to be effective, a hinge question has to be closed. And sometimes we’re asking questions to assess what and whether pupils have learned; sometime we’re using questions to provoke thought in the hope that pupils will begin to understand a new concept.
- Pause. Once you’ve asked the question, give pupils time to respond. Building in strategies like Go for Five and Think, Pair, Share are useful to ensure that everyone has had opportunity to ponder.
- Pounce. The longer you’ve paused (and the better you know your pupils) the better placed you are to carefully select someone to answer your lovingly crafted question. I’m not a fan of randomisers; the power to select who answers our questions should be treasured. I can certainly see a role for something which keeps a track on who’s been asked a question to make sure everyone gets a fair crack but this should be at my instigation.
- Bounce. The trick here is to avoid evaluating your own questions. The temptation to say well done is almost overwhelming but if we can get pupils to ask questions which clarify, probe & recommend (CPR) then we’ll have created the conditions for whole class discussions which don’t require our constant chairing in order to continue. Like anything this needs modelling. We have to telegraph these evaluative questions so that pupils know we’re clarifying, probing and getting them to make recommendations.
Luckily, one of the poor unsuspecting pupils said, ‘I don’t know’ in answer to a question and this gave me an opportunity to model Doug Lemov’s trick shot for getting out of this snooker (see Teach Like A Champion). Step 1 is say, that’s OK – I want to know what you think, not what you know. This is often enough. If however, ‘I don’t know’ is actually code for ‘leave me alone’ then you may have a problem. In this case it’s important to signal your expectation that everyone will answer questions. There should be no opt out. But forcing a confrontation is unlikely to work well either. The trick is remove the prop that ‘I don’t know’ provides. This is easy enough to do: just ask another pupil to supply an answer, then return to your refuser and ask them to repeat the answer. They’ll no longer have the excuse that they don’t know because they’ll have just heard it. If your class is testing you out and the second student ‘doesn’t know’ either then sometimes you’ll be forced to give an answer yourself before getting all the students that didn’t know to repeat it.
Anyway, this is some of what I explained in one of our pauses. The discussion with staff about how all this worked (while the kids got on with some reading) was tremendously useful. At least, I thought so. That point I was at pains to make was that although teaching gimmicks and neat strategies have their place, there is no substitute for establishing clear, understanding routines and then sticking to them. Even on Friday afternoons.
In the second part of what would otherwise be a hideously over long post I’ll report on the rest of the lesson and the opportunities for scaffolding planning and teaching with colleagues that it’s provided.