This article was written for the Education Blog at the Copyright Licensing Agency and published in September 2020, which you can read here.
Designing your A Level or GCSE curriculum is easy, if you are only concerned with teaching what is on the exam specification. But despite each board’s efforts, you might still end up with a relatively impoverished curriculum for your students. Obviously, exam boards can’t include everything on a given topic, covering it from all angles. But when we omit those different avenues of thought, we limit students’ understanding of the topic. Wider reading is therefore essential if we want our students to receive the best quality curriculum that we can offer.
In so many subjects, it is the default setting that subjects are studied from a Western European point of view. This is fine, to a degree. A lot of excellent scholarly work has been conducted by philosophers, historians, scientists and artists over the centuries. They have helped to form the culture(s) of the European continent and are therefore an excellent way to begin our study, or teaching of our subjects.
But theirs isn’t the only point of view. There is a much broader context and when we ignore this, we remove opportunities to understand both ourselves and other people. The lack of diversity in our curricula, over centuries, has led to misunderstanding and even intolerance of “minority” views. We have a duty to current and future generations to build upon the work that has been done in this area, so that our students can avoid narrow-minded views of the world and can see the world through the lenses of people beyond themselves.
This is the beauty of reading fiction, after all. We can lose ourselves in the worlds inhabited by the characters in our favourite novels. We do this by seeing through their eyes and by contemplating their experiences, values and motivations. In non-fiction, i.e. in our teaching of academic subjects, we can emulate this, by including a broader diversity of scholars than the ones we are typically presented with by exam boards.
A cursive glance over the scholars presented by most exam boards would indicate that the majority of scholars worth listening to or reading about are white European men. Is their experience more valid than the experiences of everyone else? What other unconscious messages does this send to our students? Are those messages even more damaging for our students who don’t fit into this narrow cultural bracket? Who are they supposed to relate to? Who should they take as their academic role models? This is difficult, but we should not shy away from dealing with it.
I propose a solution. It isn’t something that everybody will immediately accept, for a myriad of reasons. But it is a solution nevertheless: We should explicitly teach the work of a more diverse range of scholars, beyond those names in the exam specifications. To clarify, I mean teaching extra scholars, in addition to those named on the exam specifications, rather than instead of them. We cannot wait for specifications to be revised, to reflect greater diversity, as this happens too infrequently for our purposes here.
Sceptics will rightly point out, though, that adding a wider range of scholars requires more work to be completed by the teacher and the students and under the pressure of time. Sceptics will also rightly point out that you can get 100% in the exam, simply by mastering the named content and scholars on the specification, rendering this extra study unnecessary. Again, I completely understand, both as a classroom teacher and as an experienced examiner for both GCSE and A Level. I would add that there is also the vital issue of access to relevant and suitable materials, not to mention the gaps in our own subject knowledge as teachers.
But despite these issues, if we just pander to the “minimal effective dose” method of only teaching the specification, we do our students a disservice. They come to our schools and colleges for a deep, broad and rich education. Exam results are one important aspect of this, but they aren’t the entire thing. Sometimes we need to remind ourselves of that and think deeply about it, even if we already know it on a superficial level.
As far as our own subject knowledge goes, this could be the most significant barrier. Teachers (myself included) can get too used to being the “expert”. It’s a great feeling to know that you’ve mastered the teaching of the topics demanded by the exam board. After years of teaching the same specification over and over, you can become very comfortable (and justifiably so). However, we promote lifelong learning in our students. We teach students the value of education, both for practical reasons and for its own sake. It would be hypocritical if we didn’t also apply those principles to our own teaching. It might be time for us teachers to read more widely about our subjects.
After all, we are the champions of our subjects. We are the gate-keepers to the knowledge that our students can access. We shouldn’t limit their access to this knowledge by presenting only one section of it as the entire thing. It’s dishonest. We can do better.
This post is based on the talk I gave on 7 July 2020 at The Big Think teach meet, organised by Jo McShane, Senior Lecturer in Education and RE PGCE Lead at Sunderland University.
Teaching RE is and always has been a tricky business. Unlike most other subjects, where the topics are purely academic, RE brings with it a lot of very important baggage. I don’t mean baggage in the negative sense, although it can sometimes feel that way when things go wrong in the classroom. Instead, I mean that alongside the academic aspect of RE, there is also an intensely ‘personal’ aspect too.
RE has always been, for better or worse, THE subject that stirs up controversy. For one thing, it’s a statutory requirement to teach it in England. This sets some people’s teeth on edge (and not just atheists), as they often think that the time spent studying RE should be spent on other subjects that are “more worthwhile”, whatever that means to them (practical? career-related?).
Secondly, some people argue that RE shouldn’t be taught at all, as it involves the promotion, or at least the consideration, of beliefs that not everyone holds. Faith schools suffer this criticism the hardest of course, as they seek not only to inform, but also, to varying degrees, to evangelise and promote their own beliefs and practices.
Thirdly though, RE is often delivered by schools as an afterthought and not given the attention it deserves, regarding timetabled hours, specialist teachers, or is combined with other subjects like PSHE and Citizenship, removing RE’s distinctive nature and effectively diluting it and removing what makes it fascinating.
It is in reply to these issues that I write this post. RE is an incredible subject, worthy of study in its own right and is equal to, if not more important than other core subjects like English and Maths. This is a bold claim, but hear me out, I’ve spent my whole teaching career so far (since 2006) contemplating this idea. And we all know how much RE teachers love to contemplate. Anyway, I’ll get to that bit later on.
Right now, I want you to think about questioning. What questions do we ask in RE? Do we ask the right questions? Do we ask our questions in the right way? Why are we asking questions at all? These questions themselves are incredibly important, because in general, if you want to get better answers from your students, you really should ask better questions. But what does that look like?
What questions do we ask in RE?
In RE, we ask a lot of different types of questions. Some are purely academic, some much more vocational, often they are practical and more often than not they are philosophical, at least on some level. Understanding this whole range of question types and knowing when and how to ask better questions makes your day as an RE teacher fly by. By asking the right questions, in the right way, to the right students, at the right time, you create vibrant discussions and delve deeper and deeper into the lives and beliefs of people all over the world, but also and crucially, in your own classroom.
On the other hand, asking the wrong questions, at the wrong time, or to the wrong person and in the wrong way, can have devastating effects. The consequence of getting this wrong in RE is so much worse than if a teacher of Physics got it wrong. Not because Physics matters less, it’s clearly vital to have at least an appreciation of light, motion, forces, etc. It isn’t something someone is likely to be bullied for though. Unlike Physics, which is purely “physical” (the clue is in the name), RE explores the lives, beliefs, practices and motivations of people. It is spiritual, psychological, emotional. Students often cover up these hidden aspects of their lives between 9am and 3pm, for fear that they will be outed as different in some way. In RE you must ask your questions with extra care.
The types of questions, whether in examination papers, or in the classroom, vary tremendously, from straightforward definitions and descriptions of festivals, to explanations of beliefs and practices, to moral dilemmas and the value of religion in the 21st century.
But does it matter which of these we ask? It’s not as straightforward as yes or no. Clearly there are some topics which seem more central than others, so questions should be asked about those. But no matter what you decide to put in your curriculum, there will always be gaps. We just can’t teach all the intricacies of all the major world religions in a way that does them justice. Something has to give. But with carefully chosen questions, we can at least give students an excellent working knowledge of RE, that will help them navigate the subject, and their lives, with greater ease, satisfaction and joy.
It’s important to understand the different question-types that we use in RE, to ensure that we can deepen our students knowledge whilst helping them to understand the personal implications, socially, psychologically and spiritually, of the topics we teach. Using a broad range of question-types also helps us to identify gaps, not only in attainment, but also in our own curriculum, as we often realise that we’ve assumed prior learning has happened, when in fact it may not have done (even when we’ve taught it).
Why do we ask questions?
There are two main reasons why we ask questions.
Firstly, to get our students to think. If we want our students to build up both a good working and long-term memory of interconnected ideas, then we need them to think. Memory is the residue of thought, after all. I call these “thinking” questions.
Secondly, we ask questions to check understanding. This is an important distinction to make. These two reasons for asking questions are the ones that matter the most, when it comes to teaching. I call these “assessment” questions.
But, when it comes to asking these types of questions in class, we must be mindful of our reasons. It’s very easy to slip into a questioning style that looks like we are checking understanding, when actually we aren’t. Take for example, a typical lesson, where students have completed a task. You then ask a verbal question to the class, supposedly to check understanding. One student raises their hand politely and gives the correct answer. You ask the rest of the class, “does that make sense?”, to which they all reply “Yes”. In your head, as a teacher, you feel like you’ve completed that section of the lesson and can move on to the next one, confident that your job is done.
Except it isn’t. You can’t know that your job is done, because you only really know that one student out of thirty knows the answer. You might have caused the rest of the class to think, rather than assess them. You don’t have that information though from the questioning method you used.
Deep Singh Ghataura (@DSGhataura), someone who you really should follow on Twitter, if you’re interested in assessment says this: When you’re assessing students, you really must ask yourself two questions:
What do I want this assessment to tell me?
Given everything I know about learning, performance, memory and bias, how likely is it that this assessment satisfies Q1?
You absolutely must, therefore ensure that you do not make inferences that aren’t supported by the assessment data, e.g. that ALL students know “x”, just because one student showed they knew it.
This is why Professor Dylan Wiliam (@dylanwiliam) advocates the use of hinge questions in your lesson, to check whether or not the class is ready to move on to the next thing. A hinge is a point in a lesson when a teacher needs to check whether or not students have grasped a key concept and are ready to move on to study another.
There are different ways you can use hinge questions in your lessons, some involving tech platforms like Plickers (show example on slide) and some simply using good old fashioned pen and paper/post-its.
A quick way to check understanding is by using a short multiple-choice question, or set of questions. Every student has to answer them independently and present their answers to the teacher, who can then see, at a glance, who has fully understood. The key to this is to ensure that students do not just copy their friends’ answers, as this invalidates the data you get.
You don’t need a 100% “pass rate” in order to move on, but you need it to be high enough that you are able to spend time with those who didn’t fully understood, whilst the rest of the class moves on. I’d recommend 90% or higher in most cases, given a class of thirty, as you may not have enough time to re-teach more than a small number of students the information, whilst making sure the new task is supported for the rest of the class.
For advanced questioners, I would recommend adding to at least one of your multiple-choice answers, a red-herring or a common misconception, as well as a slightly more obviously (to you) wrong answer. This does two things. It helps to show not only who got the right answer, but also, who nearly got it right and finally who just didn’t have a clue. Of course, some students may just guess correctly, but they won’t get away with it that easily, as this won’t be the only time you ask this multiple choice question, or variation of it. Remember: the most questions you ask, the more likely and more often the “correct-guessers” will be revealed, distinguishing them from the truly knowledgable.
Dylan Wiliam goes further and says that the crucial thing about creating useful hinge questions is that “kids cannot get it right for the wrong reason.” If they can, then you need to ask a better question, one that distinguishes between students who understand and students who don’t.
The key to this is designing your questions, carefully, in advance of the lesson. You don’t have the time to examine every students’ reasoning for each question you ask. The question should do it for you. Plan your questions in advance and remember, are you trying to assess your students’ knowledge or are you trying to get them to think? This might determine which questions you should ask them.
Useful question types to use in RE
Rank the order questions
Open and Closed Questions (BOTH are extremely useful)
Moral dilemma questions
A question you should ask (and also have a good answer to)
Why should we study RE?
For me, RE is the one subject which speaks not only to what is out there in the world and beyond (or not out there at all, depending on your faith-position), but it speaks to the nature of your own existence and purpose in the world. This can be attempted in a biological sense in Science lessons, but Science can only explain the “how” and not the “why” of existence.
Asking “How did we get here?” is not the same as asking “Why are we here?” The first question is scientific, or even historical. The second question requires us to think about our purpose, our motivations, what we ought to be doing, rather than simply what we are doing. It invites us to examine our lives as persons, not just as a species or category of life-forms.
The study of RE encourages us to pursue what distinguishes us from the animal kingdom (so far as we know) and to explore what Aristotle described as the “intellectual virtues” and to be self-reflective, treading the virtuous middle path between the vices of excess and deficiency. This is what it means to be human beings, in the fullest sense, as persons, not just mammals with a particular genetic code. We are emotional, critical and social. But we are also story-tellers and empathisers. We judge ourselves and others on factors not linked to the basics of survival, sex and food. We plan for the long-term (not just within one lifetime either) and not just for immediate gain. We search for meaning, beyond the empirical and the immediately obvious.
We can, of course, find isolated examples of this sort of behaviour in the natural world, but nowhere near the same scale and with the same regularity that humans do it. We’re more than just biological creatures. Comparing humans and animals is like comparing a 10-second doodle on a napkin to Michelangelo’s frescos on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Sure, the doodle might have some interesting or redeeming feature, but really, there’s no contest.
If you would like a copy of my presentation on Asking Better Questions in RE (to accompany this blogpost), then just contact me on Twitter and I’ll get back to you.
This article was written for SecEd magazine and first published in April 2020. You can read the original version on the SecEd website here.
Teachers are getting used to remote working – supporting pupils and families with education during the coronavirus lockdown. Andy McHugh offers some dos and don’ts for teaching staff
Everything has changed. Only last month, we were going about our normal business, walking down jam-packed corridors, peering over students’ exercise books and sitting in close proximity to our colleagues over a cuppa during breaktime.
Most of us had no idea that the world of education would be turned on its head. We moved from having little personal space for several hours a day, to being in isolation (no mention of booths please) during a national coronavirus lockdown.
Yet the world still turns and we are still teaching. Well, sort of. Perhaps not everything has changed, at least not yet.
Without notice, teachers have had to move online. For some, the move has been fairly straightforward. Depending on the school you work in, or your own proficiency in IT, you might already be used to Google Classroom, Class Charts, Education City, Mathletics and the like.
But not all of us are. Not only that, we all use these tools in different ways. This is not necessarily a problem, variety is the spice of life after all. But with a varied education delivery system you will also have variance in the quality of what is provided.
There will inevitably be some ways that tend to work better than others, in most contexts. But at the same time, we need to understand that there are methods of delivery that might be, in most cases, more effective for the students in terms of what they learn.
There are also ways to deliver effective teaching in an efficient way, removing needless workload from teachers, who in many cases are simultaneously looking after their own children.
With this juggling act in mind, I propose a few dos and don’ts regarding working remotely. They are to be adhered to strictly or taken with a pinch of salt – it is completely up to you. Your own context is central here.
Do: Plan the tech as well as the subject content
If you are going to commit to teaching remotely, then you need to have a plan. It is no different to planning a traditional scheme of work, with subject content to cover, regular low-stakes quizzes and summative assessment at the end.
Not only that, you might have to also teach your students how to use the various apps and online platforms where the work will be accessed and submitted. It is all well and good telling students that the work is on Google Classroom, but if they do not know how to submit an assignment, or answer a quiz on a Google Form, then you are wasting your time.
Plan some basic how-to tutorials, or use one of the many walk-throughs that are available online. That way, the new content delivery system will not become a barrier to learning.
Do: Keep it simple
Using technology to teach can be very distracting. Education apps gain extra functionality with each week that ticks by and there are more online platforms than you can shake your mouse at.
It is easy to succumb to “shiny object syndrome” and try to sample them all in your teaching. But this adds unnecessary complexity. Try to stick to one “ecosystem”, be it Google, Microsoft, or whatever. If you must use something subject-specific, such as Mathletics, or Times Tables Rock Stars, then stick to it for a sustained period before you switch to another platform.
One of the major issues faced by parents who want to support their child’s learning is that they tire very quickly of having to remember a dozen log-in details and another dozen ways to navigate the software set by the class teacher.
If you can, try to collaborate across different subjects, so that as many subjects can use the platform. Education City and SAM Learning are popular choices for this very reason, as they house multiple subjects within one system. One log-in to rule them all.
Do: Create or curate an independent learning resource bank
Students who take to remote learning like a duck to water will run out of tasks quicker than you can upload them. They need stretching. With that in mind, create a bank of online (or even offline) resources that will push them beyond the standard tasks you set, encouraging them to broaden and deepen their knowledge.
These resources could be links to specific articles, YouTube videos, banks of exam practice questions, quizzes, or even open-ended tasks that ask students to write in greater detail, but giving them full creative control.
By doing this, you allow students to take greater ownership of their learning and you can push them to take on greater levels of challenge. These tasks must be meaningful though. They should inspire students further, not just take up their free time. Think killer, not filler.
Do: Contact your students
Teaching is a social activity. So to teach remotely can be a little daunting – and not only for the teachers. Students need contact, via whole-class feedback and also on a one-to-one level. Many students need that interaction, not only to guide them, but also to give them the confidence to keep going when they are unsure of the path they have taken.
For many students, the fact that an adult has taken the time to think about their work and given them useful feedback is invaluable. For some students, this might be one of the few positive interactions they have with an adult in their life. Whether teaching online or offline, nothing has changed in that regard.
Don’t: Expect your students to complete five to six hours of work each day
The rigour of the school timetable makes it easier for students to work for five to six hours each day on a range of tasks. After all, they are supervised and have relatively few distractions. Not only that, but their timetable sets out what they should be focusing on during each hour of the day.
Remote learning does not quite work that way. Students can come and go as they please. Not only that, but many students, at this time in particular, are taking on domestic duties while their parents work. Family time is also vital during this worrying period and must be encouraged.
This makes it totally impractical for us to expect the same sort of working patterns that we experience in school.
And while we cannot and should not expect students to work a full “school” day, neither can we expect them to complete a normal school day’s work in one or two hours.
This is an uncomfortable truth for so many of us who have sought to promote “high expectations” as a tried and tested route to success. Right now, we must remember that this is an emergency and we are all doing our best. So accept that delivering the full school curriculum for six hours a day via remote learning is not our goal and is not even feasible.
Email was never designed to be an instant messenger service. If you treat it like one, then it can become unmanageable. By all means, encourage your students to email you questions. However, it is sometimes useful to set parameters regarding when you will respond to emails.
For example, you might set out to answer all questions within 24 hours, but only between 8am and 6pm on weekdays. Sharing this protocol with students helps them to understand why their query sent on Friday night at 8pm did not get answered until Monday morning at 10am.
You, the teacher, will not feel guilty about not answering and the student will not have watched their inbox for 72 hours straight.
If you do want to operate an instant response type of service – perhaps a trouble-shooting or FAQs session – then schedule a time with students when they know you will be available on your school email or via the school learning platform to answer queries. That way, you and your inbox will not be overburdened.
Remember, union advice is to never use your personal email, social media or instant messaging services with students – stick to school email or other school communication systems so that all is recorded and safeguarding requirements satisfied.
Don’t: Put off learning new ways of working
There is something terrifying and exciting about having to work in a completely new way. As teachers, we get used to our favourite ways of doing things. But sometimes we work harder than we should. By using technological tools, we can reduce planning through collaborating, live on a single document, with colleagues. We can generate and duplicate materials with very little effort. We can create self-marking quizzes that even give specific feedback. But most of us have not done it before. At least not yet. So, here is your chance. Do what your own teachers told you to do. Keep pushing yourself – in that sense, nothing has changed.
How to Teach and Encourage Independent Study Skills
This article was written for SecEd magazine and first published in September 2019. You can read the original version on the SecEd website here.
There are some students who have such a broad and deep knowledge of some topics that it is difficult to teach them. This “nice problem” stems from the fact that those students study in their own time, independently of the work we give them as teachers.
It adds up. Students who routinely learn outside of the classroom build up a body of knowledge and make connections between these pieces of knowledge. The effect is that they are better equipped to solve problems and to analyse or evaluate with accuracy and fluency. In studying independently, students effectively multiply the amount of time they spend learning, compared with those who rely solely on classroom teaching.
According to multiple studies (which you can find in Meyer’s 2010 paper) independent learning benefits students in their acquisition of knowledge, the ability to judge accurately their own competency, it builds confidence and it increases engagement. As Meyer suggests, though, these effects are experienced differently by different groups of students, depending upon their individual contexts.
So, the question is, how should we teach independent learning skills so that all students achieve the maximum benefit? Below are some strategies worth considering.
Create the right conditions
Creating the conditions for developing independent learners is vital. Without particular attention being paid to this, you leave it to chance as to whether students will acquire the skills they need. To do this, you need to understand the barriers that well-meaning students have to overcome, in order to be truly independent.
First, there needs to be an environment where independent learning can actually take place. This means that there should be (a) access to information, (b) a lack of distractions and (c) space to make sense of the information in order to learn it.
For many students, this simply means (a) internet access, (b) leave your mobile phone in a different room and (c) have a desk to sit at to write down what you have learnt.
However, there is more to it than that. Access to information is only possible if students know how to search for it. Lack of distractions is not only from electronic devices, it can be social distractions in their lives. And many students do not even have a desk at home.
We might want students to be truly independent, but some will automatically find it easier, due to social factors beyond both their and our control. This is where building a home-school relationship is important. Parents might not always appreciate the impact that the home has on their child’s education, or might not know what to prioritise in order to help their child.
It is not a teacher’s job to tell a parent how to bring up their children, but it can sometimes be helpful to suggest things “that have worked for students in the past” in order to nudge parents towards positive changes they could make.
This is controversial, but my experience has been that parents are grateful to receive such guidance (when it is phrased carefully). Having a good, pre-existing relationship with those parents pays off, as they will more likely trust your advice, rather than see it as an attack on their parenting.
Provide sufficient motivation
Students who are motivated enough to complete independent study do so because they see value in it. This can come down to a number of factors. Perhaps the teacher has explained well how the students stand to benefit from it. Maybe the students themselves have seen first-hand the benefits of doing it. Or there may be other factors such as parenting that could be nudging the students in the right direction. More often than not though, it is a combination.
Ultimately, students need to see that independent study is an essential part of their education, not just an “optional” addition to it.
Unfortunately, many students from disadvantaged backgrounds do not experience these positive influences as often as some of their peers. The disadvantage is then compounded further, as the gap widens between the haves and the have-nots.
Motivating the least advantaged students should, therefore, be where the focus lies for us as teachers. Just as we would scaffold responses to challenging in-class tasks, we should also scaffold our guidance on independent study.
Step 1: Break down what it means, what it looks like when done properly and then demonstrate visibly a successful outcome. Getting students to buy into the value of independent learning is crucial, as they will be more likely to pay attention to the next step.
Step 2: Give students a brief taste of independent study, followed by positive but meaningful feedback on their efforts. Remember, students will be more motivated to study independently if they have already experienced success with it in the past, no matter how small the success was. Building small-scale independence into your weekly routine with the students will give them a huge edge by the time the stakes are raised, further on in their school careers. At this point, what is being done is less important than the fact that something is being done at all. Building good routines is essential. Increase students’ attention span
A major reason why students are sometimes poor at independent study is the lack of time-parameters. How long should independent study take? How long should study sessions last? One way to mitigate this is to teach students to work for short intervals, followed by a short break.
The Pomodoro Technique, created by Francesco Cirillo in the 1980s, is a good method to use for this. Students will not be as likely to plough on for too long. Conversely, they will not be put off by the prospect of long and arduous study sessions.
Independent study techniques
Promoting some effective independent study techniques with your students should also help.
Low-stakes quizzes: Low-stakes quizzes are one of the most effective study methods you could use. Simply reading your revision notes will not have anywhere near the same impact on learning as students can fool themselves into thinking they have understood and memorised content when they have not. Students can design quizzes on their own, can pair up with each other, or can access paid or even free quizzes online.
Flash cards: Flash cards are one adaptation of these low-stakes quizzes, with many students turning to online platforms such as Quizlet to create or download topic or even course-specific sets. The best thing about using these low-stakes quizzes is that you can accurately track your progress. You can read more on the research evidence for this method via the Chartered College of Teaching (2019).
Flipped learning: Another independent learning technique students should experience is flipped learning. You can implement this in a simple way. Over the course of a scheme of work, tell students what they will be learning about in the following lesson. Then ask them if they can find out one piece of information about the topic, to bring to the next lesson. Invariably, some will find things out and some will not. Reward those who do and have a conversation with those who did not about why they struggled.
Sometimes these students just need a little guidance on where to look, or what type of thing they should do. Others might just be a little lazy and need to see that there really is value in doing it. One way to get students to see the value of doing it is to get them to highlight the information they gained by independent study in the work they later produce.
This is also a good way for you to see at-a-glance who is and who is not doing it. But whatever happens, each lesson, ask everyone to find out something else for the next topic. It gives them all a chance to start over and either begin doing it, or improve how they do it.
Practice exam papers: Practice papers are vital when preparing for exams such as GCSEs and A levels, where vast amounts of knowledge are tested. Part of the reason why some students underperform in exams is that they are not familiar enough with the exam conditions.
Getting students to attempt whole papers, or even individual sections of papers can be invaluable. It highlights gaps in knowledge (almost immediately) and helps students to understand how much time they should spend on different types of question. Exam boards all have specimen and past paper exams available on their websites.
The cost of independent study
Independent study requires students to spend time that they could otherwise be spending doing directed homework tasks. Or going to the park. Or sleeping. Sometimes, therefore, we should bear in mind that if we focus too much on promoting independent learning, it might end up being to the detriment of other things. For some students, it might be one burden too many. About this, we should be mindful.
That being said, I am yet to find students who have suffered from too much independent study. So, with perhaps the odd exception, we should keep promoting it.
This article was written for SecEd magazine and first published in September 2019. You can read the original version on the SecEd website here.
In recent months, Rosenshine’s Principles of Instruction have caused an uproar, it seems. Research-interested teachers have brought Rosenshine into the vernacular and sparked a fierce debate.
Many in the staffroom will look at these 10 principles and will tell you, “but, we have always done it that way”. But the truth is, we have not. This lack of self-reflection is a problem and a major one at that. For many teachers, the principles laid out by Rosenshine (2012) are a departure from what, in some quarters, is labelled as “progressive” – rather than “traditional” – teaching.
Progressive teaching methods have sought to minimise teacher-talk and allow students to discover knowledge, as opposed to the knowledge being “taught” to the students more directly. The progressive methodology has its place, of course, but when adopted as the main pedagogical approach of choice it is hugely flawed, as Rosenshine’s evidence suggests.
While some students flourish in the freedom granted by this discovery learning, many flounder, unable to direct themselves to the required end. The gap between them widens each lesson and they get left behind.
Rosenshine’s Principles of Instruction (first published in American Educator in 2012 and available as a free pdf download – see further information) set out 10 key findings, which, if incorporated into our practice, would substantially increase the quality of teaching and learning, improving outcomes for all students, rather than focusing solely on specific groups to the potential detriment of others.
The principles can be viewed as more traditional than progressive in nature. However, more importantly, they are crucial elements of excellent teaching – no matter what style you prefer.
Below, I have laid out some practical suggestions to accompany Rosenshine’s Principles. But first, let us look at these 10 principles:
Begin the lesson with a review of previous learning.
Present new material in small steps.
Ask a large number of questions (and to all students).
Provide models and worked examples.
Practise using the new material.
Check for understanding frequently and correct errors.
Obtain a high success rate.
Provide scaffolds for difficult tasks.
Monthly and weekly reviews.
Of course, many of these principles, on first glance, appear obvious. After all, you would be hard pushed to find many teachers who did not use examples or questioning in their daily practice (principle 3).
Some are less obvious though (or at least are less frequently used), such as the students obtaining a high success rate to balance the building of confidence with setting meaningful challenge. According to Rosenshine, this success rate should be at around 80 per cent (principle 7).
But despite the research seeming so blindingly obvious, it is largely ignored, forgotten, or replaced by something more “artificial” when it comes to the planning of lessons, appraisal systems and teacher training programmes.
If, as a profession, we are to take ourselves seriously as “research-informed”, then we really should reflect upon how we can incorporate principles such as Rosenshine’s into our education system as a whole, not just ad hoc in individual classrooms.
So, how can this be done? Here are four suggestions – we should use Rosenshine’s Principles:
In the planning of lessons across the curriculum.
As the criteria for (most) lesson observations.
To address (most) whole-school priorities.
To set meaningful targets for CPD and appraisal.
1. In the planning of lessons
There is no “best” way to deliver a lesson, so I am very wary of anyone who claims to have the one true formula for success. That being said, there are some things which have been proven time and again to be of benefit for students. Rosenshine’s evidence shows that lessons should begin with the recall of previous learning – not just of recently learned information, but also of information that was learned much earlier.
This helps to build and strengthen the schema of knowledge in the student’s mind, enabling new information to be understood, stick more easily and for longer.
New information should also be given in small doses, ideally with time given to practise recalling and using that information, under the guidance of the teacher. This helps the students to take in the new knowledge and synthesise it with their prior knowledge.
Live, worked examples (not pre-prepared model-answers) should be demonstrated by the teacher, who models how the information should be presented, applied, analysed, evaluated, etc.
This has the benefit of giving the students a visible idea of what knowledge and skills they should be able to replicate or create on their own.
It also shows to the students what the “journey” to the answer looks like, helping them to tackle challenges one step at a time, building resilience.
Questions should be asked frequently and to all students throughout the lesson. This can be a huge challenge, so do not feel guilty if you do not get around all 30 of your students in one lesson. However, aiming to get around your class on a regular basis will achieve two things. First, it provides opportunities to assess and give feedback to each student. Second, it instils in the students the idea that there is no opt-out; students cannot just refuse to pay attention, because everyone will be expected to answer at some point in the lesson.
Finally, give students the opportunity to practise on their own – a challenge that determines whether the knowledge has been learned or not.
Where the challenge appears too great, students could still be given scaffolds to help guide their responses or to help them recall information. This could be in the form of a help-sheet, sentence starters, or perhaps even an “in-between task” which helps to further strengthen their knowledge before they then attempt the independent task. But expectations must remain high – students cannot opt-out of a challenge.
2. Lesson observations
In lesson observations where the focus is on pedagogy (rather than, say, behaviour management), the observer and the observed should begin by considering whether adopting Rosenshine’s Principles into the lesson might have improved it.
This will not always be the case, of course. But by using what research tells us about what works well, we can begin lesson observation feedback from a more objective standpoint, rather than relying on the observer’s subjective preferred style of teaching as “the answer”.
A follow-up observation could then focus on one of Rosenshine’s Principles that had been agreed as a point for future development. The use of Rosenshine’s Principles to develop rather than to assess teaching would be of particular benefit to trainee teachers and NQTs, although even seasoned veterans would find it useful too.
I should note that some leaders might at this point be tempted to take each of the 10 principles and create a tick-box observation sheet, with which they could “judge” lessons. This should be avoided. Rosenshine himself even phrased his findings to avoid categorising teaching as “good” or “bad”. Plus, by creating a blunt instrument in the form of tick-box criteria, teachers, being human, invariably (through a sense of self-defence) find ways to tick the boxes, to the detriment of the lesson that they might otherwise have taught. The principles are a means to an end, not the end in themselves.
3. Whole-school priorities
Whole-school priorities often focus on specific groups, such as underperforming boys or Pupil Premium students. However, while advantageous to the groups identified, the remaining students can be (unintentionally) ignored as a consequence. By concentrating whole-school priorities on Rosenshine’s Principles – for example, the widespread adoption of quizzes at the beginning of the lesson or on teacher-guided practice tasks – all students stand to benefit.
4. CPD and Appraisal
Appraisal, performance management and CPD get a pretty bad reputation (and often deservedly). This does not have to be the case. In the all-too-frequent stories where meaningless or unattainable targets are set, the result is predictable: teaching does not improve and students lose out.
Why not, then, base your CPD, appraisal and performance management targets on developing better practice according to Rosenshine’s Principles? Teaching will improve and students will learn more. What else should we focus on but that?
A useful way to implement this might be for small groups of teachers to focus on a particular principle and to feedback to their group once they have trialled their ideas. The best practice can then be collated and shared across the whole staff, so that this professional development benefits all teaching staff and not just a few individuals.
The research is clear and shows us what works. School leaders at all levels now need to weave these findings into their own operating systems. It might involve reflecting upon some of the more “progressive” approaches that those same leaders have sold to their staff (often having been sold themselves). It might even be a little embarrassing and a tad uncomfortable for some. But, it is vital if we are to make the most difference to our students. And, when we do this, no-one will be left behind.
Why are so many teachers anxious about teaching A Level?
It’s well-known that many teachers are frightened of teaching A Level students. Well, not the students themselves, but the subject. It’s true that A Level requires a much greater depth of understanding on the part of the teacher, but most of us have a degree in our subject, or could (to a large extent) teach ourselves the information we’re missing. So what is it about teaching A Level that causes so much anxiety?
In the conversations I’ve had, both online and in-person, it seems like a combination of the amount of effort required to plan lessons and an increasing depth of subject knowledge that is the major barrier for most. After all, which do you think is easier: teaching Y7 about the key features of a synagogue, or teaching Y12 about the cosmological arguments for God’s existence? For most people, the Y7 lesson would take significantly less time and use less cognitive power to plan, resource, teach and assess. Now multiply this additional effort by the number of A Level lessons you would teach in a year and you have a very powerful reason why someone would choose to teach only up to KS4.
I want to explore a potential solution to this problem here. It isn’t “easy”, but it is simple.
What should we prioritise to improve A Level teaching?
One of the major issues facing teachers is a lack of the deep subject-knowledge required to teach at A Level (and to some degree at GCSE too). Most teachers aren’t fresh out of university and therefore haven’t recently studied the subject formally. Add into that the fact that recruitment and retention issues have led to non-specialists replacing subject-specialists and you have a perfect storm. These same teachers, however, are highly effective at teaching KS3 and KS4 classes. They have spent a lot of CPD time on generic pedagogy (metacognition, questioning, behaviour management, etc) and apply it in their practice. What they really need now is subject-specific CPD.
Subject-specific CPD is vital but has been sidelined for a number of years, partly due to the levels of funding schools have been able to spend on it. Individual teachers across the UK find it difficult to make the case that they should be allowed to go on subject-specific CPD courses, when the school could just stick everyone together in the main hall for a fraction of the cost. Headteachers have not chosen this situation, it’s the grim financial reality they’re faced with. But the impact of this, year after year, is now being felt more than ever. Teachers who, before the GCSE and A Level reforms, felt their subject knowledge was strong, now doubt that they can teach students to attain the top grades. It’s all well and good being a master of retrieval strategies, but if you just don’t know the course content, it won’t make a difference. The curriculum has to be prioritised.
“But I don’t have time to study A Level topics on top of all my other teaching commitments!” I hear you cry.
I understand the sentiment here, but I think that this is the wrong way to look at it.
Studying A Level topics, or any topic you have to teach, but are unfamiliar with, should be the first thing you do, not the last. If you “know your onions”, everything else becomes easier. This is the lead-domino. The flywheel. The one thing that, if you nail it, renders everything else easy or obsolete. Struggling to create a scheme of work? Finding it difficult to design or mark an assessment? Racking your brain over what kind of activity to use in your classroom? Trying to advise students on wider reading? These can all be made significantly easier if your subject-knowledge is stronger. Investing your time in gaining knowledge will save you so much more time in the long term.
What can schools do to support subject-knowledge development?
So, CPD in schools should (at times) prioritise subject knowledge development over pedagogy. Obviously, some Senior Leaders might need to be persuaded of this view. But it shouldn’t take long. Just look at how hard it is for most schools to recruit new teachers who are capable of and prepared to teach Key Stage 5. As curriculum plans become ever more central in Ofsted-land, schools with a workforce who can be flexible about Key Stages they teach will be at a natural advantage. Again, this might take time to sink in for some. For others, they already understand and are adapting their CPD offering to staff accordingly.
Another point though, that Mary Myatt makes in her book, The Curriculum: Gallimaufry to Coherence (with more eloquence than I do) is that for many teachers, there seems to be an over-reliance on completion of tasks, rather than on the understanding of the subject content. Over-reliance on book-looks, work scrutinies, or whatever your school might call them, has created the unfortunate situation where completed tasks are taken as a proxy for an understanding of knowledge. Time-fillers are used, rather than mind-fillers, with predictable results.
“Are they creating something with what they have been taught or are they consumers of worksheets?“
A half-completed task, alongside a deep verbal questioning session, is far more valuable than a comprehension task that, as we all know, can be ‘gamed’ or even just plagiarised by the student. At A Level, this can have devastating consequences. Students might not truly understand how superficial their understanding of a topic is until they’re faced with a challenging question in an exam. But by then, the ship has sailed.
Deeper analysis within lessons could prevent this issue from occurring, but only if subject-knowledge development is prioritised. Schools should be standing behind teachers with encouragement and meaningful support and this could come in a number of ways. Schools could invite experts in to offer subject-specific masterclasses to staff. They could provide protected time for staff to read around their subject, or even give them the opportunity to complete a qualification, if appropriate. All of these approaches would make teaching A Level easier and they are all easy to implement. Schools just need to prioritise funding accordingly (which is another issue!).
With regards to Appraisal systems, targets could be based on staff developing their subject-knowledge, rather than basing them on more immediate attainment figures. This is difficult to “measure”, of course, at least in the short-term. But sometimes we need to stop measuring things so much and instead do what we know will make a difference when it matters most.
Teaching A Level can be a complex business, but we can simplify it. We only have a finite amount of time though. Let’s use it wisely.
If you have any top tips for teaching A Level then please leave a comment.
This article was written for SecEd magazine and first published in June 2019. You can read the original version on the SecEd website here.
Sometimes it does not matter what you have planned, you just know it is going to go badly because of the actions of a noisy minority in the room. Every teacher faces – or has faced this – in their time, but some with more success than others. And it is particularly daunting for those new to the profession.
So what is the secret? How do some teachers manage the behaviour of challenging students with an effortless air, while others flounder just getting them to pick up a pen? In this article, I propose that it is all about creating the right climate for learning.
The right climate for learning means having a culture within the classroom, where the students are less tempted to behave badly and where they value positive behaviour. This can be done via carrot, or stick.
I prefer using a balance of both, but with one simple addition: responsibility.
Students with a sense of responsibility for their actions do not need carrots or sticks. They see the value in behaving well for the long-term. They see the positive influence they can exert on others and they value it for its own sake, not just for a reward, or out of fear of punishment.
This all sounds perfect, right? But how do we get there? Well, the answer is not always straightforward.
It is vital to put the work into establishing a positive environment, or ‘climate for learning’. Setting out high expectations, with the reasons behind those expectations being properly explained pays dividends. If the students know, from the off, that good behaviour benefits them personally, they are much less likely to deviate from it.
Play the long game
Remember: Rome was not built in a day. Students often think short-term. They look for quick wins. Teachers should not. They are in it for the long-haul and should be looking to develop positive relationships over time. You cannot expect to be able to fix all behavioural issues on the spot.
Apart from anything else, students often do not want to engage in-the-moment and so any attempt to fix the problem there and then is futile.
The cost in time of this approach for teachers can be expensive in the short-term. However, it usually pays off handsomely, especially when the students begin to see that you are not willing to give up on developing positive relationships. After all, some of them are disruptive because of this lack of positive relationships outside of school in their home lives.
Routines, routines, routines
One of the most important things you can control (and remember, you cannot control everything) is classroom routines. I find that it is really useful to structure lessons in this order, every lesson:
Question the students.
Students create something in response to demonstrate understanding.
Check students’ understanding.
Students respond to feedback,
Check responses to feedback.
This structure can be adapted to suit the needs of the class or the nature of the topic, but frequently using such a structure, where students know, each lesson, what is coming next, can help them. Many students crave structure in their daily lives or find it hard to operate outside of one. Nobody loses out with this strategy.
Clarity and consistency and fairness
When implementing your behaviour policy, be it whole school, departmental or your personal code of conduct, be consistent. If students know that when they do A, then B will certainly follow, they will often pause for thought. This can be enough to deter most disruption in most classrooms and maintains a positive climate for learning.
The key, though, is ensuring that the steps used to resolve disruption are seen as fair. This may require an explanation from you when you first begin to teach the group, followed by regular referrals back to these steps.
But, it will keep the students on “your side” if you have to address one of them calling you out as “unfair” when all you have done is maintain the rules that you promised to maintain in everyone’s best interests.
‘Don’t smile until Christmas’
I remember someone telling me this when I first trained back in 2005. I am sure they meant well and it might even work for some teachers, but it was not for me. I still hear it from some teachers today, but I think (hopefully) it is said with a little more nuance.
The point, I think, is to maintain a “professional” exterior. This might involve keeping a straight face more often than you normally would, hence the imperative “don’t smile”.
But this is no mean feat. After all, did we not get into teaching, partly because of the unpredictable nature of the children themselves? It is worth asking more experienced staff for their funniest anecdotes, where they somehow kept a straight face despite the hilarious situation they found themselves in (or even the times when they did not manage it).
Sometimes, no matter what conditions you lay down in your classroom, students will break rules, have a bad day, or succumb to the stresses of life. At this point, there are timeless and practical tactics you can employ. Use them repeatedly for maximum impact.
Take the heat out of the situation
Disruptive behaviour has a myriad of origins. Sometimes students come in with an axe to grind and are looking for a confrontation. At other times, they might feel unfairly treated and are not particularly resilient because of other influences beyond their control.
Or, they may want to chat at the back and do not care if it annoys the teacher, as in reality, they are just showing off to their peers.
Any attempt to “confront” these students could end up in a stand-off, that you as a teacher might lose. We all know of teachers who have lost such a stand-off. It can do terrible harm to reputations, destroy the climate for learning and it makes future behaviour issues even more difficult to address, as the authority is lost.
One method to get around the stand-off is to politely and with a smile, invite them for a quick chat in the corridor. This takes them away from the gallery they are playing to. Once you have their full attention you can spend time getting to the root of the issue without them losing face. Be patient and seek to understand them – they will appreciate you for it (eventually).
Contact parents (do it before you think you need to)
Parents do not want to receive a surprise call about their son or daughter’s behaviour. Not only does it give them little chance to respond to the issue thoughtfully, but they will often go on the defensive. This is not useful for the parent, the teacher, or the child, as it just kicks the problem further down the lane, to be dealt with later on (possibly too late). If you see that a particular student might be prone to disruptive behaviour, then a quick five-minute telephone call to a parent/carer might be enough to put the brakes on.
Students invariably behave better when they know parents and teachers are working in tandem and are in frequent contact with each other. “Praise calls” to parents can also be an excellent way to develop that rapport that you may need to call upon later on, when the telephone call might not be so positive.
Identify the key players
In any classroom, there are some individual students who can change the general atmosphere. Identify them and pay particular attention to the way they enter the room at the beginning of the lesson.
This might seem as though I am advocating pandering to certain students, but I am not. Sometimes, it is easier to deal with whole-class behaviour when one or two influential peers are already playing by your rules.
As they enter, quietly ask them about their day, or give them a simple physical task that they cannot help but succeed in, e.g. giving out the books.
If they know you care, they might not see you as part of their “problem” that day. Sometimes, giving them a quick psychological win can act as a catalyst for further positive behaviour, which in turn influences others too.
Over time, this simple act can build positive relationships, that require less and less effort on your part to maintain.
Observe other teachers
It seems obvious when looking for good behaviour managers that you would seek out experienced teachers first. This is indeed useful, as it can give you a glimpse of your future self. However, part of the reason why students can misbehave for NQTs is precisely because you are an NQT. Teachers new to the school do not have that reputation, those relationships, or (sometimes) that sense of gravitas, that years in the classroom brings. As such, you would be much better off watching a fellow NQT manage disruption. After all, they are truly in your shoes. If they can do it, then so can you! And if they struggle, can you work together to develop strategies and support one another?
You should view behaviour management as a career-long professional skill that you will continue to develop as you gain experience. Be fair, consistent and maintain high standards. Over time, this builds positive reputations and ultimately relationships, creating the right climate for learning. It is hard-won, but well worth the battle.
This article was written for SecEd magazine and first published in May 2019. You can read the original version on the SecEd website here.
In my best lessons, all of my students are pushed to their limits. This can be academically, socially or even physically. To aim for anything else is to entirely miss the point of education.
The trouble is though, “teaching to the top” can be difficult to do, both from a planning viewpoint – how can I really challenge my most able students? – and from a workload viewpoint – how can I find the time to consistently plan a range of activities for all abilities, let alone teach them and then give meaningful feedback?
Add into the mix that at key stage 3 particularly, students are more often taught in mixed attainment classes; this alone can make differentiation seem like an impossible task. Even more so if you were to succumb to the all-too-common pressure that teachers place on themselves to do their absolute best for every child, regardless of the cost to their own wellbeing.
Then there is the total lack of imagination shown by many resource-creators in the education sector, who have tied their activities purely to exam board criteria. This is pointless. I do not just want my students to be good at exams. It leaves them with an impoverished curriculum and often just an arbitrary set of facts. Instead, I want them to flourish in my subject and become experts who answer with deep knowledge, flair and creativity, irrespective of which exam they eventually sit.
However, because there are hundreds of fantastic ways to differentiate, simply figuring out what is “best” can leave me with analysis-paralysis for hours, days or even weeks!
Well, no more. Having tried and tested many techniques myself, I have (for now) settled on a few that strike the balance between pushing students to their limits as well as being sustainable in the sense of the workload they create. They combine rigour, depth and that controversial and emotionally loaded word “engagement”, allowing students to push boundaries in a positive way.
There is no “best” way overall, but there are ways that consistently work well. So, below is my curated list of excellent ways to stretch and challenge at key stage 3.
Activity 1: Scenario questions
Everyone loves a story. So when your task involves the students as decision-makers in a scenario, they immerse themselves in much more creative answers than they might otherwise come up with.
They are able to see alternative points of view a little more clearly and this helps them to add weight to analysis and evaluation in their arguments. More importantly than that, the students begin to see the world from beyond their own perspective, something that we as adults forget to do now and again.
Scenario tasks work best when students have already learnt something about the topic. In religious studies, this could be an ethical theory on how to behave. In Geography, it could be the effects of movement in tectonic plates. In Physics it could be how different forces act on a given object. In Art, it could be the rules of a given style, such as Cubism. In Maths, it could be diameter, area and volume.
Once students have learnt the basics, they are then given a scenario which requires them to make decisions – where not only do they apply their knowledge, but they also have to justify why they chose a certain option over a different one.
Combining this application with evaluation can really test the abilities of students. They need to not only show their understanding, but to become more confident decision-makers and advocates for a certain argument or approach in the process.
Possible scenarios might include:
Create a bird’s-eye-view layout of a theme park, using pre-selected 2D shapes of a given size, placed inside a strict perimeter.
Design and build a bridge out of straws strong enough to carry the weight of an egg.
After reading profiles of 10 characters, each with positive and negative attributes, decide who to throw out of the lifeboat to prevent it sinking!
Write a one-minute piece of music to inspire a seven-year-old child to dance.
Write an emergency news bulletin in response to a natural disaster, giving important practical advice on what local people should do.
Students then have to present their designs and decisions, justifying not only why they chose them, but also why they did not choose the alternatives. They should then be encouraged to critique their own and each other’s decisions, which will add further depth to their understanding of the judgements made.
Activity 2: The ultimate question – what difference does it make?
When I am coming towards the end of a topic, I usually pose the following question to my students: “What difference does it make?”
An alternative version is “why should you care?” (although this can come across a little sarcastic!). I ask this question to give students the opportunity to see where this topic sits in the broader context.
For example, in Religious Studies, you might be teaching the topic of “pilgrimage”. Students would learn how people of different faiths go on pilgrimage and what the similarities and differences are between their experiences. The question “what difference does it make?” prompts the students to go beyond describing and explaining pilgrimages, to evaluating their purpose.
The question gets them to explore not why people go on pilgrimage, but how it can change them. It can also provoke other questions like “Why might pilgrimages be seen as pointless in the 21st century?” or “Can you be a proper Christian/Jew/Muslim if you have never been on a pilgrimage?”
All in all, this one question can be an excellent way to get your students to evaluate the topic and to go beyond what they have studied so far.
Activity 3: Essay rebuilding
Many of my higher attaining students find writing essays no trouble at all, once they have been given the information they need.
However, they often create formulaic answers, which do not really show the depth of their knowledge or show the versatility of their arguing skills that are often evident in verbal questioning during the lesson.
I have a solution to this. It demonstrates on paper just how nimble students’ arguments are and how well they really know their stuff.
Take a pre-written, non-perfect answer (pinch one from last year’s students or write one yourself if you must).
Cut it into strips. The more strips there are, the greater the challenge.
Hand over the randomly sorted strips to a team of students, who then have to re-assemble the essay in the correct order.
Students stick the essay pieces in order, onto a larger sheet of paper (A3 is good, but the bigger, the better).
Finally, they annotate around the edges of the essay, evaluating and judging the quality of the individual pieces (e.g. “strong argument because…”, or “this needs evidence to prove xxx here”, etc).
Once they have finished, invite another student or a team of students to critique the newly rebuilt essay. They can then add their own evaluative judgements on the order of the pieces and on any feedback that the first team missed.
To add further challenge, teams of students can be pitted against each other to re-assemble the same essay. The quality of debate held by the students – who do not want to lose the race or get it wrong – is phenomenal.
Finally, students present their decisions to the class, explaining their rationales and suggesting how the essay should really have been written.
Now over to you…
In the end, stretch and challenge is about showing students that there is more that they can do. Even the simple act of showing them that more is possible is often enough for students to permit themselves to try and go that little bit further.
So why not try one of these simple strategies today? Go on, stretch and challenge yourself. You know you can.
This article was written for SecEd magazine and first published in January 2019. You can read the original version on the SecEd website here.
Earlier in my career, I used to ask all of the wrong questions and when I asked the right ones, I asked them in the wrong order. The result was predictably bleak. My students still learned, but at times it took far longer than it should have done and in some cases, very little learning happened at all. This was down to me (most of the time).
I’m sure that most of us have felt guilty for letting our students down when we’ve taught a lesson that just didn’t do what we wanted it to do. But rather than spend time navel-gazing, it’s important that we instead address one of the most fundamental parts of our teaching. No, not the worksheets, or the PowerPoints, or even the homework. It’s our questioning. It’s easy to think that we’ve got our craft down to an art. But is questioning more of a science?
In my own experience, asking the right questions at the right time, to the right people, in the right way, is often what transforms a lesson from mediocre to truly excellent. Not only that, but there’s a way to do it well and with consistency, without your students tiring of formulaic lessons.
What’s the purpose of asking questions?
There are many reasons why we ask questions in class, whether it’s to check the level of understanding, stretch answers further, or to help develop confidence in our quieter students. A key component to effective questioning, though, is identifying why you are asking the question in the first place.
This is where “planning for questions” comes in. When I plan a topic, I always begin by deciding what my students need to know by the end and what skills I want them to be able to demonstrate. Only then can I decide which questions are more important than others. For example, in Religious Studies, I teach the nature of religious experience and how far it proves the existence of an afterlife. In order to teach this, I need students to be able to answer questions such as:
What defines a religious experience?
What are the different types of religious experience?
What common features do different types of religious experiences have?
How do religious experiences manifest themselves in different religions and cultures?
Why do people believe that religious experiences are convincing as evidence for an afterlife?
Why do people believe that religious experiences are not convincing as evidence for an afterlife?
How convincing is religious experience as an explanation for an afterlife?
How far does a belief in religious experiences impact the lives of believers?
Each question is designed to build upon the knowledge and skills that were learnt and developed in response to the previous question. By the end, I can be much more certain that students have an excellent understanding of the topic. Moreover, if a student was unable to answer a specific question, I’d easily be able to identify the reason for it, just by working through the previous questions, to see where they began to struggle.
What About Higher-Order vs Lower-Order Questions?
In the past, it was argued by some that higher-order questions, which require students to analyse and evaluate, were more important than lower-order questions, which simply sought to develop a basic understanding.
This is wrong.
Without first establishing a basic level of understanding of the main points, it’s pointless to ask the higher-order questions. After all, you can’t evaluate the persuasiveness of religious experience, without first knowing the key features, which you then need to critically analyse. All students need to master those basics, regardless of their prior attainment or levels of ability, before they move on to more complex analysis and evaluation. Knowledge comes first: you can’t apply skills in a vacuum.
That being said, higher-order questions can make a huge difference to students who would otherwise give simplistic and short answers. The question “Was the Treaty of Versailles significant in causing the Second World War?” elicits a much simpler response than “How significant was the Treaty of Versailles in causing the Second World War?” Students who would give a brief yes/no response to the first question would have to justify and evaluate their reasoning in answer to the second question.
What difference does effective questioning make?
Effective questioning, if viewed as part of a feedback dialogue between the teacher and the students, adds as much as the equivalent of eight months worth of teaching to students receiving it. This is according to the Education Endowment Foundation’s Toolkit and you can read more on it here. In my own experience as a classroom teacher, effective questioning makes a huge difference. Not only to the quality of teaching and learning, but it also cuts out activities that don’t contribute to the true purpose of the lesson or topic being learnt. Consequently, effective questioning reduces unnecessary workload – the Holy Grail in teaching today!
How should the questions be asked?
When asking questions, it’s important that you give your students time to think before answering. One way to do this is to give them some key questions in advance, either on the board or on a worksheet. Whether you do this or not, you should always wait for an answer, even if it means creating an uncomfortable silence for a few extra seconds. We can often be guilty of jumping in too soon if a student doesn’t answer. But this can be detrimental as it allows students to effectively opt-out of answering if they know you’ll do it for them. Instead, if you really have to, try rephrasing the question and ask something specific about part of the answer you want them to give. By narrowing your question in this way, a confused student might be able to give a more confident answer. From there, you can then ask a follow-up question which builds on what they have already said.
The follow-up question could also be asked to a different student, to keep the rest of the class on their toes. The popular strategy of “pose, pause, pounce, bounce” is a really simple and powerful questioning tool, which you and your students will find increasingly effective the more often you use it. First, pose the question to the class, then pause, allowing the class to think of their response. After this you “pounce” and ask a specific student for their answer. You can then “bounce” to another student to answer a follow-up question.
What about those students who still don’t answer?
Some students just don’t want to answer questions in front of their peers. More often than not it’s a confidence issue. It’s easy to just let these students live an easy life. However, for these students to thrive over the long-term, it’s vital that you keep asking them questions, rather than leaving them out. Ask them simple questions to get them used to speaking in front of others. The lower the stakes, the more they will feel they can answer without the crippling fear of getting it wrong in front of others. Over time (this could be weeks or even months), gradually ask them more challenging questions as their confidence grows.
How much time should you spend on questioning in your lessons?
As much time as possible!
I’ve found over the years, that students perform much better when they’ve spent a significant amount of time answering and debating the answers to questions during the lesson. Having a range of different answers helps them to develop their own understanding, particularly of complex topics and gives them models to base their own answers on. It’s also an incredible way to build engagement in the lesson, as students feel as though they have some ownership over the direction of the lesson and are able to “try out” their answers before committing them to paper in high-stakes assessments, where it really counts.
Effective classroom questioning strategies are the lifeblood of many of the most engaging and thought-provoking lessons I’ve taught and observed. If I focus on nothing else but this, my students will receive an enriching curriculum that stimulates and challenges them. Oh, and they’ll also be well-prepared for the rigour of their exams (after all, that’s quite important too).
I’m writing this after returning from the hugely inspiring ResearchED Durham 2019. Brimming with ideas about how I can be more research-informed and improve my teaching, I’m dying to see what quick wins I can implement and what cultural changes I can affect, at least in my own classroom. But the trouble is, my enthusiasm isn’t enough. Nor is the random assortment of notes that I took while listening to the speakers. I know fine well that by Monday, some of that enthusiasm will have waned and that I’ll have forgotten the context of those pithy quotes I wrote down, in the hope that they would make me look and sound clever.
Come to think of it, I probably haven’t improved that much at all.
So, what was the point in attending?
For me, it’s about developing good habits. In this case, I mean that I’m trying to develop the habit of using research-informed strategies to influence my teaching. Attending a ResearchED event has been on my to-do list for a long time now. But as a one-off instance of CPD it isn’t enough. To really make the difference to my practice, I’ve started to read more academically about what works and to apply some of that research in my daily teaching activities. Attending ResearchED is only one piece of the puzzle (albeit an invaluable one).
“Teachers’ reflections/development over time is a crucial element of our overall professional development process, & plays a central role in the school’s drive to improve the quality of teaching.” @johntomsett#rEDDurham
It’s easy to see why many of us teachers feel overwhelmed at the number of edu-books currently out there as “must-reads” and I’ll even be recommending a couple in a moment, so brace yourself. (Also, you can read a few of them on Kindle Unlimited for 30 days for free!) With all those titles telling us that our go-to strategies are either a waste of time or even counter-productive, you could be forgiven for putting off that “change” that might just be needed. After all, it’s comforting to think that after a few years of hard slog in the classroom, that you’ve managed to “nail it”.
But that’s not how we grow.
Sometimes we need to think back to why we wanted to go into teaching in the first place. We wanted to make a difference. We loved our subject and wanted to share our knowledge of it. We wanted to guide the next generation to success. And we still do!
So, with that in mind, I want to offer you a tiny little challenge. It only takes a couple of minutes.
How to begin…
Here’s something I do, once a week, to add something to my arsenal of effective teaching strategies and to remove strategies that have now been proven to be less effective.
I want you to read something. It could be a blogpost, a few pages of a book (here’s a few you can try), or an article from a magazine. Take one thing from whatever you read and implement it during your first lesson on Monday morning (or as close to that as you can).
If we want to become the research-informed and the most effective teachers that we can be, while maintaining our sanity and work-life balance, then small steps are needed. Just implement one thing. Otherwise, the hurdle will seem too high. The trouble with educational research, as @EmmaAlderson pointed out at ResearchED Durham, is that so few teachers engage with it. Many even see it as a threat, or worse, just a fad.
It’s something I’ve been doing for the past few months and over time it hasn’t only improved my teaching (verified by my students’ attainment data). I’ve also become more engaged and reflective about my teaching. It’s given me a much-needed boost in job satisfaction and has allowed me to ride this year’s teaching rollercoaster with a sense of joy, rather than fear.
Give it a go. Choose joy.
Here’s a couple of really accessible ones you can dip into to get started:
Tom Sherrington’s practical guide to using Rosenshine’s Principles is probably the easiest book to read, to improve your teaching. In the book, he gives simple advice on what works well, according to Rosenshine’s research and how we can implement it.
Peps Mccrea’s book is short and sweet, but packs a punch. You could easily devour this in one sitting and come away with a sack full of ideas to help your students learn more effectively.
Your journey to becoming research-informed begins here. Let me know how you get on.