Marginal Gains: Achieve Olympic Success in the Classroom!
This week’s post on Marginal Gains is a short but highly practical one that you can use with your students. You could use it as a starter task in each of the first lessons with your new classes.
I take my inspiration today from Sir David Brailsford, the man behind the incredible success of the British Cycling team. When he took over Team Sky back in 2009 he set himself the goal of achieving success in the Tour de France within five years. His philosophy, achieving success through marginal gains, was to take every aspect of a cyclist’s life and make a 1% improvement in each of those aspects. This included training methods, nutrition, technology, clothing, etc as you would expect. But he took it even further, looking at things like making sure that the team members had the best possible pillow to sleep on, monitoring how much sleep they got, spending time visualising success and a whole host of other daily habits. He even had the team learn how to ‘properly’ wash their hands, cutting down risks of infection, which could have led to illness and therefore underperformance.
Each of the things that Brailsford tried to improve by 1% would have made a negligible difference on its own. However, when added up over a long period of time, these marginal gains not only led to improved levels of progress on the track but a complete dominance of the sport. Team Sky achieved their Tour de France success within three years, not five. Added to that, British Cycling has amassed a significant number of Olympic medals at London 2012 and now at Rio 2016.
A question to my students at the start of this year:
What can you improve by 1% in order to make a significant difference to your learning over the next year?
I’ll be getting my students to come up with their own suggestions first and to discuss just how much of a difference they will make to learning, over the course of a year. Then I’ll add in the suggestions below:
Go to bed earlier
Drink more water
Eat less junk food
Eat more healthy food
Turn screens off for an hour before bed
Spend 30 minutes revising each week, even if you don’t have a test coming up
Spend 5 minutes at the start of each week organising your workspace
Write a to-do list at the start of each week and complete it
Spend some time improving your physical fitness
Spend 5 minutes organising your files each week
Spend 5 minutes speaking to your teacher on how you could improve your next assessment
Spend 5 minutes speaking to your parents about what you achieved last week – positive thoughts
read a daily motivational quote to help develop resilience in tough situations
Read a book for fun to stimulate your imagination
Listen to a podcast on a topic related to your subjects
Keep a weekly or daily journal, related to your learning in school – be honest and periodically read back over previous entries
Follow some academically useful Twitter accounts
This task is a nice target setting exercise for the beginning of the year and once completed you can revisit student responses to see how far they have stuck to their plans. Keep the results, or even display them in your classroom!
What About Us Teachers?
Teachers are really busy. All of the time. That makes it difficult to justify spending extra time looking for ways to find another marginal gain. So, free up your time! Here are Seven Ways To Reduce Teacher Workload. There. Now you can spend that extra time planning, giving feedback, or better still, having a well-earned rest.
Making better decisions makes the biggest difference
There are many schools of thought on how we make decisions. Some people seem more rational, others seem more emotional. Some take a short-term view, others take a long-term view. Personally, I think we all do all of these things at different times. The problem though is when we make decisions in the wrong way in high-pressure situations with long-term consequences. There are very few decision points that change our lives. We need to equip our students with the tools to make the ‘right’ decisions under pressure. Here’s a guide on how we can teach our students to practise making better decisions.
How should we make decisions?
I recently read Winners: And How They Succeed by Alastair Campbell, a former political advisor. In Winners, he explores the different ways that people at the top of their game (sport, politics, business, etc) behave, make decisions and form a ‘winning’ mindset, in order to achieve success. His main theory throughout, is that most, if not all of the people he studied were adept at formulating and operating the following three-part system:
Set a clear objective
Students are given objectives all the time. They could be learning objectives, punctuality and attendance targets, predicted grades for assessments, obtaining entry to a good university, etc. However, many students don’t know what their targets are. At the risk of sounding like I’m preaching to the choir, sharing these objectives with students is crucial to raising achievement. Having the students write them down and reflect on them is a simple but effective way of cementing the objective in their minds.
For example, if a student wants to attend a good university then they need to write this objective down. They then need to be able to explain why this objective is important to them and what the pros and cons of setting this objective might be. Evaluating the objective helps the student to appreciate more fully why they are seeking to achieve it. Without this discussion, they risk falling into the trap of asking “why am I bothering with this?” when times get tough in pursuit of the objective.
How do we set the ‘right’ objective?
As usual, it’s a case of practise, practise, practise. Students (and the rest of us!) need reminding, each time we make a crucial decision, that we should step outside of ourselves and take a range of perspectives. That way, we avoid (or at least minimise) the risk of making poor judgements or of basing our decisions on the wrong factors. Setting the ‘right’ objective can save a lot of time and effort.
Billionaire entrepreneur Richard Branson says that if you have a good idea, then share it with as many people as possible. The upside is that by presenting your idea or decision to a range of people, you will refine it through debate. If at the end of your conversations you still want to make the same decision, then it’s probably already had the wrinkles ironed out – your decision will be the right one and will avoid many of the problems that an unexamined decision would encounter.
Define your strategy
Strategy is everything. But what is it? Isn’t it just the same as tactics? No. Strategy is a static idea which underpins your tactics so that they all pull in the same direction. An example of a strategy to achieve the objective of obtaining a good university place might be “demonstrate a high level of ability to admissions teams”. This might seem like a tactic, but it isn’t – it’s very broad and can be implemented in a number of ways. You’ll see the difference when I outline “tactics”.
Strategy should rarely, if ever, change. In Winners, the ability to stick to a strategy, nomatter what else is going on, is a key difference between those at the top and everyone else. Students need to be reminded of this. Give them examples of strategies you’ve employed in your own lives, to achieve success in your career, or how you were able to afford to buy a house, or how you completed a marathon. Alternatively take inspiration from top performers in sport, music, politics, etc. Students are much more likely to engage if they see someone relevant to themselves going through a similar struggle.
Formulate tactics that support your strategy
Tactics are the individual actions you perform in order to uphold your strategy. In the example above, the strategy is “demonstrate a high level of ability to admissions teams”. There are a number of tactics that students can implement to help this strategy. Revision, attendance, enrichment activities, independent learning, work experience, responding to feedback, teaching others, maintaining a ‘growth-mindset’, writing a strong personal statement, etc. These tactics are all employed to implement the strategy.
Tactics are much more subject to the ever-changing conditions of the world we live in. Football managers often change tactics at half-time, or when they substitute a defender for an attacker. Tactics must be relevant to the individual situation and to the individual person. Tactics must always, however, support the strategy. If they do not, then a different tactic should be used. If unsure of what tactic to use, refer back to the strategy. When the strategy is implemented well, the objective will be met. Simple! (Just stick to the strategy!)
Every year the same questions in education appear again and again. One question I’ve been wrestling with recently is about resilience. Specifically, “Are our students resilient enough?” or “How can we make our students more resilient?” I suppose the answer differs, depending on the expectations we have, the age or maturity of the students, or perhaps even our own subjective perceptions of what it means to be ‘resilient’. But however you look at it, more and more is being expected by exam boards, universities and employers. Just to keep pace with previous cohorts, students need to achieve ever-increasing exam scores. To do this, they must study in more depth and in greater breadth. But how can they manage such a monumental task? The answer: resilience.
Let’s take a look…
the ability of a substance or object to spring back into shape; elasticity.
the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties; toughness
Why do our students need to build resilience?
Students need to know why resilience is important. They need to see the relevance of it, to achieve good grades in their exams, but more importantly, that they need to leave school as resilient people. Our students will encounter challenges in their jobs, relationships, day-to-day decisions and long-term plans. They need to know that they WILL be able to find the answer if they look in the right places. They also need to know where those places are! Once you’ve given some lucid examples (from your own life if you are feeling brave!), they will see the benefit of practising resilience at school.
How can we tell if students are resilient enough?
This one is easy. Ask all students to do something challenging. Read their faces as they work through the problem. Listen to how many of them say “this is impossible”, or “there’s no way I can do this”. Watch to see how many of them put their pens down before writing anything, or start looking out of the window. These are our target students. Building resilience is important to all of our students, but some are already more resilient than others. Focus your attention on where you can make the greatest difference.
Five ways to build resilient learners
Live-model the creation of the answer
Students who appear to lack the resilience to “have a go” at a challenging task sometimes just need to know where to start. In cases like these, showing a live demonstration of how to construct a good answer is a no-brainer. I used to show model answers on my whiteboard so that students could see what a good answer looked like. However, this only served to put the less resilient students off even more. They had no clue how to go about creating such an answer. What they really needed was to see, step-by-step, how to create the answer, rather than just seeing the final product. You can read more about how and why I now use live-modelling here.
2. Give feedback using SMART targets
As a student myself, when I was stuck on a task or struggled to come up with an idea, I often heard my teachers come out with comments like “You need to try harder”, or “Just put a little bit more effort in”. This made no sense to me (and made me pretty annoyed too!) because I felt like I was putting maximum effort in, with no results to show for it. A better comment from my teachers might have included something specific that I could research. Or they could have scaffolded the steps I should follow. They didn’t have to give me the answer, but they could at least have pointed me in the right direction! This would have helped me progress further, in subjects where I essentially became disengaged.
I use the SMART method to help my students overcome their challenges. Feedback should always aim to be Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Timely. By using SMART targets, students will be much more able to find solutions for themselves and will be much less likely to just give up and become disinterested.
3. Give praise for the right things
Giving praise is one of the best ways to develop resilience in your students. After all, who doesn’t get a boost when someone notices that we’ve done a great job and makes a point of saying so? Be careful though. Sometimes we can praise the wrong things, such as high attainment, as opposed to a high level of effort. Whilst high attainment is creditworthy, students can be demotivated when they fail to achieve high marks, or can feel pressured to only try at things where they are certain they can achieve the end result. I don’t know about you, but I want my students to take risks. By focusing on praising the effort instead of the outcome, students will build their confidence and keep trying new things without as much fear of failure. You can read more on this in an article by Judy Willis, M.D. (@judywillis) here.
4. Develop independent learners
I’ve blogged in the past about the necessity of developing Independent Learning as a strategy to raise attainment. As students move up through GCSEs and A Levels it becomes crucial that they are able to direct their own learning beyond the classroom. However, if they haven’t learnt how to do it beforehand, then they may see this as yet another hurdle. Therefore, developing independent learners lower down the school is the long-term solution. Give students
Give students long-term, open-ended projects, rather than heavily prescribed and weekly homework tasks. Then make sure that you give SMART feedback at some point during the process, before they submit their final piece of work. But most crucially, make sure that students take full control of what the end-product looks like, so that when they submit it, they can feel as though they have challenged themselves and can fully appreciate that they have earned their marks by overcoming their challenges. Students seeing their hard-won success is key to building resilience.
Another thing I’ll be doing this year is to have some motivational quotes and pictures displayed around my classroom to refer to from time to time, whenever students begin to find challenges mounting up. An excellent quote I’ve used in the past, particularly in the run-up to final exams is by William G.T. Shedd: “A ship is safe in harbor, but that’s not what ships are for”. For me, this sums up what resilience is all about – moving away from what is comfortable and towards what helps us grow and show our true potential. It’s short, visual and inspirational. Students can relate to it and in my experience, it works.
6. Know your students!!!
There is one thing that has made the greatest difference in my ability to build resilient students. I get to know them. Regular conversations with the students as they go about their work in the classroom, or when I see them on the corridor at break time helps to build a trusting relationship. Not only does it help with reducing challenging behaviour in lessons, it also gives me an insight into what makes them tick. Being able to see, as a student walks through my classroom door what mood they are in, or knowing that they have exams coming up in other subjects, or that they may have challenges outside of school, enables me to tailor my delivery to their current mindset as well as to their level of knowledge. The key here is playing the long game. There is no silver bullet. But building that positive relationship over time, showing that you can be trusted, pays real dividends.
An excellent book about how to work with students lacking in resilience is Fostering Resilient Learners: Strategies for Creating a Trauma-Sensitive Classroom by Kristen Souers (Amazon affiliate link). This book explores a range of strategies that you can use to help develop your relationships with students, particularly those who have undergone ‘trauma’, leading to them lacking in resilience. Reading this book has made a huge difference to how I manage the behaviour and expectations of a number of my students and I recommend it to anyone seeking to find evidence-informed ways to engage students who struggle with resilience.
Now, over to you…
I would love to hear some ways you have built resilience into your students.
Behaviour management is a huge issue for all of us. It can seem at times to be the main focal point in some lessons and at other times it might not seem to be an issue at all. Or so we think. You might (if you are a ‘successful’ and ‘experienced’ teacher) at this point be thinking, “Behaviour in my lessons is great, I don’t need any help to manage behaviour. of my students“. Great! You need not read on. Or, you could use this post as a way to reflect on how well you are working. Either way, a win-win!
Managing behaviour isn’t just about correcting overtly disruptive behaviour. It’s about setting the tone for your lesson. It’s about demonstrating an example to your students, rather than making examples of them. Ultimately, more progress is made when students don’t have to deal with disruption. This week I’ll be reflecting on some of the behaviour management strategies I’ve found to be most useful in my personal experience.
Behaviour Management: Prevention or Cure?
There are many ways to manage behaviour. Some tactics are used as prevention, some are more of a cure. You need both. Having taught thousands of students, of various personality types, socio-economic backgrounds, levels of ability, etc, etc I can safely say I’ve used a wide range of tactics! I see managing behaviour much in the same way as a sports coach manages his or her team. There is groundwork to be laid before the game (i.e. before a behaviour ‘incident’), then there are separate tactics that you should employ at the moment an incident occurs.
It’s no good explaining the behaviour policy after the behaviour has happened. It’s too late by then and any sanction you then put in place will seem unfair to the student, which will impact upon your relationship, their engagement and ultimately their learning. Also, if you just choose an ad hoc approach to behaviour management, you will just be fighting fires every lesson. Hopefully just metaphorically, though!
So, before the game…
Make sure that your students understand your expectations of behaviour. You may have your own particular way of dealing with different types of disruption, disrespectful behaviour, etc. That’s fine – most teachers develop their own style over time.
Experience is the key factor here. Apologies to all you trainees and newly-qualified teachers – there is no ‘silver bullet’ for learning how to manage behaviour! I’ve seen teachers display behaviour ‘reminders’ on their walls, or alongside learning objectives. Some teachers even involve the class in designing their own behaviour policy! All I do is to explain my expectations of behaviour to the class, right at the beginning of the year. I rarely have to remind them. However, the students know my expectations, as they are in line with most other teachers at my school.
This takes me to my next point. Make sure that both you and your students understand your school’s behaviour policy, if it has one. Most schools do have one. Some are more rigid, some more flexible – it often depends on the context of the school. If a school is in trouble and poor behaviour is rife, then a stricter approach may be more effective. However, more flexibility might be more useful in the long-run, once a school is out of trouble and behaviour of students is generally good. This is a tricky balancing act!
It’s vital that you and your students share the same understanding of how the behaviour policy works. If you disagree on the behaviour that warrants a sanction, then that can be a source of even further conflict. Make a point of talking through the whole-school policy with your class at the beginning of the year. It will save you a lot of hassle further down the road.
Then, during the game…
Easy Behaviour Management Strategies
1. Be consistent
There is nothing worse as a student than finding that you can’t get away with chatting to your friend, whereas the student across from you seems to get away with it all of the time. Inconsistency breeds resentment. It also will create a culture in the classroom where students will lose faith in your authority over certain members of the class, whom it looks like you are unwilling to challenge. Where your treatment of different students could potentially appear inconsistent, make it clear why you are treating the two cases in different ways.
2. Fairness, or ‘perceived’ fairness at least
So long as you are seen to be fair, then the students will more likely stay within the boundaries you set for them. As I mentioned earlier, some teachers engage the class in developing their own behaviour policy, so that students can take ownership over what is decided to be ‘fair’. But, so long as you apply the rules created by the students in a consistent way, they can’t really accuse you of being unfair. Ensure that the level of sanction matches up to the behaviour you are seeking to address. Better to under-react than to over-react, as you can always escalate the sanctions you impose if behaviour deteriorates further.
3. Making an example vs setting an example
We often hear about figures of authority ‘making an example’ of somebody for breaking the rules. It rarely helps the long-term situation for the people involved. Students who are “made examples of” will be very reluctant to re-engage, as they will (rightly) feel humiliated and perhaps even unfairly treated. Regardless, the poor behaviour that started the whole spectacle is likely to re-appear.
Instead of making examples of poorly behaved students, you should react to their behaviour with impeccable maturity. It’s likely that they will not be used to this. Their surprise at your moderate response, where you engage your rational rather than emotional brain, may give them pause for thought. Remember, ‘bad’ behaviour is often exhibited by students who are just copying from their role-models elsewhere in their lives. If we really want to change the behaviour of a student who reacts loudly, violently, emotionally, etc, then we must model the exact opposite. It might be the only time they see an ‘appropriate’ reaction to a difficult situation in their life.
4. Greet students as they arrive at your door
One of the easiest behaviour management strategies you can use is a simple “hello”. We often forget that the lives of our students are a lot more chaotic than our own. In many cases, seeing a friendly face and hearing that someone is genuinely pleased to see them again (even if we aren’t!) can make all the difference to a student’s mindset for the remainder of the lesson.
5. Actively build relationships
This is ultimately the most effective behaviour management strategy. Having rules and routines nailed down can be effective, but without the goodwill of the students, you won’t really get them to fully engage with your lesson, they’ll just be “going through the motions”. I’ve found that if I choose one of the main “characters” in the room and actively cultivate a positive relationship with them, then the other students will follow their lead when they see them behave positively in the classroom. Be warned though, this can take some time. And progress, as ever, may not be linear!
6. Only one person speaks at any one time
This is not negotiable. If you are speaking, the students must be silent. Similarly, if the students are giving verbal answers, do not interrupt them, but let them finish. By modelling the behaviour you want to see, students will, over time, improve their behaviour to meet your high standards.
More Behaviour Management Tips
Here is a fantastic video by outlining some really easy to implement behaviour management strategies, that can make all the difference, whether you are a trainee, a newly qualified teacher, or you’re experienced but are looking for a refresher.
Top Behaviour Management Books
This blog post is just a little taster. If you want the full five-course dinner of behaviour management strategies then look no further than these two excellent books.
Firstly, Tom Bennett’s Behaviour Management Solutions For Teachers is and has been for some time, my go-to resource on all things behaviour-related. The book doesn’t have to be read all in one go, you can just dip in and out with ease, depending on what you want. Bennett has spent a lot of time crafting the perfect resource and just reading through the contents list will give you a flavour of the different possible behaviour-scenarios that he has catered for. His writing is clear and the tactics he promotes are explained simply and have stood the test of time. Click here to take a look.
Secondly, Sue Cowley’s Getting The Buggers To Behave is another classic. Her understanding of what makes students of different ages tick is invaluable and will save you a lot of time and reduce your levels of stress. Cowley’s accessible guides to promoting better behaviour make this a must-read, especially for trainees and NQTs. Click here to take a look.
Behaviour management is a long game, but a fairly simple one. If students believe that you treat them fairly and if they know your boundaries and understand the sanctions you dish out, then they will respect you all the more for it. And to those teachers who feel too timid or are afraid to tackle the ‘bigger personalities’ in your classroom, here is my parting advice: “fake it til you make it”. They’ll never know unless you tell them!
Asking the right questions, in the right way, at the right time, is the single most important thing you can do in a lesson.
The right questions engage your students, identify their reasoning and challenge their viewpoints. Great questions enable students to analyse and evaluate their own and other students’ positions. Perceptive questions drive self-improvement and improvement in others.
High-quality questioning significantly improves student progress over time. This week I explore how we can all use high-quality questioning to drive student progress to raise achievement and to promote a love of learning.
What questions should we ask?
There are two types of questions that we ask: closed questions and open questions. Closed questions are ones where there is a predefined response. For example, if I asked “Is London the capital city of England?” your answer would be either “yes” or “no”. My question doesn’t require you to go beyond that short response, so the information I can gather from closed questions is very limited.
Open questions allow for more extended answers. For example, if I asked, “What do you think of London?” the person answering could go in an infinite number of directions, explaining their answer at great length and in whatever way they wanted. Open questioning is very useful for finding out great breadth and depth of information, that you may not even have known to look for.
What does “open questioning” look like?
In lessons, I always begin with an open question. I teach Religious Studies and Law. Open questions are plentiful when it comes to morality, justice, and belief! Last week I asked this question to a group of 16 to17-year-old Law students: “How fair is the law on murder?” I expected some fairly short responses, as we’d only been studying the topic for a few lessons and so hadn’t delved very deeply into an evaluation of the topic. How wrong I was.
Their responses were fantastic! Students took the basic legal rules that I had taught them and began to create thought-experiments where the current laws would lead to absurd court decisions. They egged each other on, over and over, asking each other “What if…?”, “Yeah, but what if…?”, “No, but what if…?” It was magical. Once I took the students over to the Law Blog I had set up for their homework, they took the debate even further once they had left the classroom! You can read more on how to use WordPress blogs to teach in this post.
One simple question about fairness had led to twenty minutes of sophisticated thought, critical analysis, argument, counter-argument and eventually to the beginnings of an evaluative conclusion. They had explored, by questioning each other, every nook and cranny. They began with a naive and basic response to the question and by the end had arrived at complex and thought-provoking conclusions. I had given no direction and I introduced no further content to stimulate the discussion. Everything they came up with had originated in their own minds. Powerful stuff!
Here are some question styles to encourage depth in debates
Use them in starter activities, or during feedback sessions, to keep students thinking and to encourage them to go into greater depth. Design your questions so that they can’t give a superficial response!
What do you think of…?
How far would you agree that…?
To what extent is…?
How similar is…?
What do you think caused…?
Why do you think [name] is correct/incorrect?
Why are you persuaded by…?
Why are they wrong to say…?
Enhanced questioning techniques…
Don’t worry, this isn’t a CIA interrogation manual! However, the word ‘interrogation’ does make me reflect on some students who see questioning, especially in whole-class feedback sessions, as intimidating. Questioning doesn’t have to intimidate. Many students fear questions because they don’t want to give the wrong answer. You can address this in a number of ways.
Ask students who are particularly quiet open-ended questions that don’t require a ‘right’ answer. By getting them to engage just once or twice, even with a basic response, they will begin to lose the anxiety which many of our students face.
Ask a variety of questions and then allow the students to choose the one they would prefer to answer. By allowing them to take ownership over their learning, their engagement (see the common theme here?) will increase over time. They won’t be able to hide behind the myth that they are ‘forced’ to learn in a particular way. They are choosing the way themselves!
Try questions like “Why might some people agree with…?”. That way, the student doesn’t have to give their personal view, which they may be terrified to reveal! There are likely to be several different ways they can give a good answer, thus reducing their fear of failure.
Over time, keep going back to the “quiet” students, asking progressively more challenging questions. Once they begin to realise that they have nothing to fear, they will open up more and give deeper and more sophisticated responses, which is more likely to lead to a rise in attainment when it comes to exam time.
Tips on getting students to ask high-quality questions
There are a number of resources that you can use with your students to create high-quality questions. I know a lot of people use question-dice, where each side contains a question or even just the starter to a question, much like the list above. There is also the question matrix, which is excellent for demonstrating the different levels of questions that students can ask. They range from “What is..”, to “Who would…”, to “How might…?”. Students can choose a level of questioning they are comfortable with and gradually move from one side of the grid to the other as they challenge themselves over time.
In order for students to begin to create more sophisticated questions, they must have a good level of subject knowledge. A simple way to add depth to students’ knowledge of a topic, even early on in the topic, is to encourage independent learning beyond the classroom. Independent learning, as I’ve written about a number of times, is absolutely crucial for deepening the understanding of all students. Not only that, but it stretches the ‘most able’ (I have mixed feelings about this label) students to ‘go beyond the exam’ and to see the importance of the topics they study. When this becomes a regular feature of the students’ experience of a subject, they will naturally begin to ask a wider variety of questions. In turn, the whole class will be exposed to a much broader and deeper curriculum than if they had relied simply on teacher-directed learning.
From my own experience, students who ask sophisticated questions are more likely to give sophisticated answers. If you want more sophisticated answers, then you should model more sophisticated questions in your teaching. The students learn from us first!
I’d love to hear about how you use questioning techniques in your class. Please leave a reply below.
Just because we are teaching, it doesn’t mean they are learning…
How can we maximise the learning in our lessons?
I learn best when I am completely engrossed, or immersed in a subject. By ‘best’ I mean with speed, depth of understanding and creating a long-term change. This ‘change’ could be in perceptions, level of confidence, skills, or even just the ability to retain knowledge. This is what many teachers would truly define as ‘progress’. So how can we use Immersive Learning to increase engagement and deepen understanding for our students?
Remove as many external distractions as possible. Replace them with a wide variety of ways for the student to engage with the content, no matter which way they turn. This is what ‘Immersive Learning’ is and it can truly accelerate the progress of your students. Let’s see how it works!
Question: How do we implement ‘Immersive Learning’ for our students?
To really develop a student’s understanding of a topic, they need to be fully ‘immersed’. Let’s compare two French students – one who studies only in the classroom and one who goes to France for a month during the summer. Who do you think will develop a greater understanding of the nuances of language use? Who will pick up variations in language use between sub-cultures, genders, etc? Who will have a better ‘working knowledge’ of the language and be able to creatively play with words? Of course, it will be the student who has been completely immersed in the culture. Perhaps more crucially, they will realise that they must learn very quickly how the language operates. The stakes are raised if students depend on learning the language to order their food!
Ok, but what if I can’t take all my students to France?
Obviously, you can’t always take your students out of the classroom. The good news is that you can completely immerse students in any setting, providing you plan for it. Take Religious Studies, for example. If you are teaching about a religion that students are not familiar with, then there is no better way to develop a deeper understanding than to get them to celebrate a festival, simulate a place of worship or mix with people belonging to that religion.
I find that watching a film or a documentary can be a good ‘gateway’ exercise to this – but it must never be a stand-alone task. The reason? Your students might mistake the scripted and staged scenes that they see on screen with real-life! Any use of media, whether fiction or non-fiction, must be followed up with analytical and evaluative exercises. They should compare perceptions created by the media with real life in a community. Remember, the whole point of Immersive Learning is to encourage a deeper understanding, not to give a superficial understanding. But I digress. The takeaway here is that Immersive Learning is possible in ALL subjects.
Here are three Immersive Learning strategies to get you started…
1. CSI-style problem-solving activity
Set up your classroom so that when the students enter, they immediately have to make sense of a situation, they are directed to solve a problem and there are clearly defined success criteria. For example, in a Science lesson, students could enter the lab to discover that an explosion has happened. There could be a variety of materials nearby (either real or not real – just stay safe!) that may or may not have contributed to the explosion. Students must use their knowledge of those materials to decide upon the most likely cause.
You don’t have to rely on prior learning, as you could also have information about the materials ready for the students to discover. Make the materials as interesting as possible help ensure the students become as engrossed as possible. Don’t just use information sheets. Try using YouTube videos on iPads (you could even upload your own!). I’ve found that this works brilliantly for students at all ages. Personally, I favour a Flipped Learning approach in order to immerse students quickly, as they will have studied some material in preparation for the lesson, allowing more challenging concepts and skills to be taught in class.
2. Simulate a celebration event
Teaching students about the importance of the Seder meal in Judaism can be livened up by actually holding a Seder meal in the classroom. Organise for the students to each contribute something to the meal. Have them design their own special plate to use, showing relevant symbolism or aspects of the Passover story. To increase engagement further, have someone from the Jewish community, be they a Rabbi or a lay-person, to help celebrate the meal and discuss its importance to Jews. Students will certainly remember this event for far longer than if they had simply done some paper-based tasks on the topic.
3. Contribute to a real-life campaign
Last week in my blog post Homework: What’s the Point?, I mentioned that I recently challenged students to create a viral video. Many of them created such fantastic content, that when it was shared via social media they created quite a stir! They loved contributing to a campaign (in their case it was on the ethics of animal testing). However, the students also developed an incredibly deep awareness of the issues, as well as a wide variety of people’s reactions and perceptions. The students were challenged to re-evaluate their own positions on the issue, as it had become a ‘real’ part of their life, rather than simply a theoretical task. Immersive Learning had a profound impact on the students that day.
Two more tips!
This can have a massive effect on the depth of the immersion. Have parents contribute to your lessons, by engaging them to interact with your students as part of a homework task. Students could be challenged to debate with their parents on a given topic and record their conclusions. At the start of term, parents could even be given a list of activities to do or places to visit, that would complement the learning that takes place in school.
Make the common theme in a lesson sequence more obvious to students
Try to move away from stand-alone lessons and instead move towards a sequence of ‘joined-up’ lessons, so that students can better understand the links between the various topics. If the students can see the common theme running through a scheme of work, they will be more likely to feel ‘immersed’ and will be less likely to forget the reasons why they are studying a given idea.
Ok, so what now?
These tried and tested Immersive Learning methods have been proven to be extremely effective. They challenge students, encourage creativity and build cross-curricular links. Your challenge this week is to take one of these methods and try it. You’ll be surprised at how incredibly effective they are.
“Ok, time to get your homework planners out.” [Groans are heard around the classroom].
Is this a familiar scene? Was it just the same when you were at school? As a teacher, do you give the same types of homework tasks over and over? Are your students bored by this? I’ve started introducing some homework tasks that are slightly different to what they’ve been used to. Things that take the students out of their comfort zone.
It’s making a difference.
This week I’m looking at homework – what we do, why we do it and why we should view homework differently.
What exactly is the purpose of homework?
1. Link between lessons
When we plan a sequence of lessons, there should be a common thread running though them. Good sequences of lessons flow naturally from one lesson to the next. Students should be able to understand why one lesson follows from a previous one. Setting homework can ease this transition. It gives the students the opportunity to see the wider context of the topics they are studying.
For example, if planning a lesson on global warming, followed by a lesson on natural resources, you could bridge that gap, helping the students to see why they are interconnected. In this example you could set a task that encourages the students to consider how the causes and effects of global warming could be mitigated by different factors and specify the use of natural resources as one of these factors to consider. This introduction to the topic will show students how the topics are linked and will also improve the starting point for each student the following lesson, enabling progress to develop further and quicker.
2. Opportunity to go into detail without time constraints
Students are required to learn in ever increasing levels of depth and breadth, to satisfy the requirements of exam boards and government targets. However the amount of lesson time that can be devoted to this is not increasing to cope with the demand. Homework is the most obvious solution. But there are so many questions to consider here. How should we use homework? Should we just give more homework? Should we change the type of homework we give? Should we do both? When? For which student groups? When? The list goes on…
In my own experience, there are some specific areas that we could devote weeks of teaching-time to, but we only have days to work with. Effective homework tasks are far better than higher volumes of homework. Not only because they place less pressure on students and teachers (we need to leave time for quality marking too remember!), but many tasks we use are slow to achieving our learning objectives. My advice here (again from my own experience) is to select a niche in a very specific topic area and to ask an open question to the student (e.g. “analyse and evaluate the effectiveness of…”, “how does x compare to y?”, etc).
You could give further support to scaffold the students’ responses if they need it (sub-questions, particular areas to look at, sentence-starters, etc). The open question will enable higher level learning to take place, whilst the support makes the depth of learning accessible to students who otherwise might not develop further. I’ll be writing about Effective Questioning in a future blog post. Subscribe so that you don’t miss it!
3. To ensure progress across a sequence of lessons
Progress is not linear. I’ll repeat that: PROGRESS IS NOT LINEAR! I make this point regularly to colleagues who feel that lesson observations and data points throughout the academic year should be used to monitor quality of teaching. To put my point quite frankly, lesson observations as a way of measuring student progress are a blunt instrument and should be abandoned immediately. More on that in a future post I think! Progress happens at different rates, at different times in the course, for different students. In order to ensure progress over the long-term (the true purpose of education?) students must be able to go beyond what is taught in the classroom. Some topics require much greater depth of understanding, or a broader range of ideas to be considered, before progress can really be ‘achieved’. Independent learning and homework are two solutions to this.
Use project-based tasks to deepen understanding and develop skills further
I recently began setting my students longer, more project-based tasks. This meant that they could take time to develop depth and breadth in the knowledge and skills that I wanted them to focus on. One task was for students in small groups to create a “viral video” on the ethics of animal experimentation (on either side of the debate). I wanted students to develop their responses, but also to try to convince others to side with their view. The students not only improved their argument skills, but they also developed a greater awareness of how others perceive their arguments, how to use language to convey meaning and how to use technology to raise awareness and increase engagement of an issue. These skills will be invaluable to the students in their exam, but also after they’ve left school to work in a whole variety of industries.
Getting students to create or contribute to a blog is another method. In doing so, students begin to develop a long-term approach to the way they present their information, redrafting, responding to feedback, etc. You could create a blog for the class, or you could have the students (individually or in groups) create their own.
Practice independent learning
With so much pressure being put on students and teachers to raise achievement in exams, it can be very tempting to “teach to the test”. The result? Students achieve good exam results, but they have little ability to do anything else – things that would be useful in the “real world” once they leave school.
We deal with this, not by ignoring the teaching of exam technique, but by supplementing what students do in class with guided independent tasks. I’ve seen good examples of this amongst my colleagues, from wider reading lists, to homework menus, to term-long homework projects. The common theme throughout is that the student retains some autonomy over what sources of information they use. They can use as much or as little as they like and they can present their findings via a method of their choosing. The result? Higher levels of engagement, more creativity, the students retain the information for longer and they develop “real-world” skills.
Opportunity to learn outside of the limitations of the classroom
The last thing we want to do as teachers is to limit our students in any way, I’d certainly be horrified by this, as would many parents. However, we often don’t think about the ways our students can be limited. A classroom limits learning. By its size, by the resources available, by the students present and by the teacher leading the learning within it. Homework allows for students to free themselves from these limitations. They can access resources not available to schools, they can free themselves from peer-pressure when doing things their own unusual ways. The depth of student responses improves, as does the breadth of their studies.
But perhaps even more importantly, it can contribute to the teacher’s understanding of what the students are capable. This will influence how the teacher leads the learning of other students, now and in the future. Setting “the right” homework enables students AND teachers to develop in a significant way.
There are tonnes of other ways that homework can raise achievement in our schools, far too many to mention here!
I’d love to hear of any methods you use to increase engagement and deepen learning. As usual, drop me a message!
Teacher Training is one of the most rewarding things you will ever do. It is also one of the most challenging. This post is about how to handle this challenge. You’ve chosen to embark on a career that will have a profound impact on thousands of lives, so we must get it right. Our future and the future of the next generation depend on it.
Below I’ve outlined FOUR practical tips that I’ve been asked countless times by trainees during my career. Take a look and please share with fellow trainees if you think they’d be useful.
1. Before Starting Teacher Training
Firstly, decide why you want to teach. If you are “in it for the right reasons”, ie the desire to make a difference, to help shape the world, to guide young people to make good decisions, etc, then this on its own will keep you motivated. If you have decided to teach for the money (what money?), the holidays (which you will work during) or the 3pm finishes (good luck!) then perhaps now is the time to re-assess. Either way, it’s a good idea to speak to a variety of newly qualified and experienced teachers, just so that you know what you are getting into!
Some people going into teaching may need to update or refresh their subject knowledge. Particularly if they are going into teaching several years after being in full-time education themselves. My advice would be to pick a decent GCSE level textbook and swot up on some areas you wouldn’t feel confident teaching about. Don’t worry about being an expert though – that comes with practise and trust me you will get plenty of that!
2. First Few Weeks
Trainees often ask the beginning of a course, what should I focus on? Behaviour management? Time management? Making creative resources? The truth is, there isn’t just ‘one’ thing trainees should focus on, but there is one ‘main’ thing. Learning. Engaging students in learning is the single most important function of a school, a lesson, a task. Get that right and students will behave (usually). Get that right often enough and you will improve at managing time in the lesson. Get that right and homework will be completed well and on time. Teacher Training is all about Learning.
3. Developing your Skills
Once you have a few weeks ‘experience’ under your belt, you should start to focus in on some of the details. In order to become an outstanding teacher, you must be able to analyse and evaluate how your teaching impacts on specific groups of students. These groups are often compared against the performance of the class, to see whether a group is performing to a disproportionately high or low level. Your job as a teacher is to put strategies in place to raise the attainment for these groups so that they achieve their potential. Some of these groups include boys; girls; more able and talented students; students with special educational needs; students with disabilities; students from areas of socio-economic deprivation; students who speak English as an additional language; etc.
4. Passing the Teacher Training Course
To pass your Teacher Training course you will need to demonstrate that you’ve met the government standards. To do this, you will have to create a portfolio of evidence, ranging from academic essays to records of lesson observations, extra-curricular activities you’ve planned to resources you’ve produced, etc. You will probably have to keep a reflective journal as part of your portfolio. This isn’t something to be feared – nobody enjoys writing down their weak points each week! However, if you want to be taken seriously as a professional, you need to demonstrate that you can self-evaluate truthfully and in detail. This journal will become your best friend once it comes to interview time!
Gathering evidence can be an overwhelming task or just a task. You choose. Organisation and adding frequently to the portfolio are your best tools for success here. Make a point of adding and annotating a piece of evidence every single week and ideally more often if you can. That way, you won’t end up (as many trainees do) with only a couple of weeks to go until they are assessed, with almost a term’s worth of evidence to create and file away.
There are lots of other things that you’ll have to deal with during your Teacher Training (workload, homework, behaviour, jobs, etc), but I’ll dedicate specific posts to them at another time. Just remember, your job is to make your subject engaging and relevant. If you do this, your students will learn and they will make a difference to the world once they leave your classroom.
I hope you found this useful. Leave a reply if I’ve missed something out!
Question: What do the most successful performers in ANY industry have in common?
No man is an island. Not only that but in a world where teachers connect with each other 24/7 over email, social media, etc, we no longer work in isolation. This week’s blog post is something I’ve been considering for a while now. We work in teams, so how do we make the best use of our colleagues in order to raise achievement?
What does a successful team look like?
If you want to see what phenomenal teamwork looks like, just watch a pit crew in a Formula 1 race. Teams in education are no different and the most successful all have the same essential attributes:
Every member has a pre-defined job
They all do their jobs extremely well
They trust each other
They hold each other accountable
They hold themselves accountable
Now ask yourself: do the above points accurately describe the teams you belong to? If not, then what can you do to improve your team and to raise achievement?
Five simple ways to improve your team and raise achievement:
1. Know your job
It’s crucial that you know exactly what you are personally responsible for and what others are personally responsible for. Without knowing this, how could you begin to raise achievement? If you are unsure then a useful exercise is to sketch out a hierarchy (most if not all schools are hierarchical), showing the different levels of responsibility of team members from the very top to the very bottom. That way, it will be much easier to hold yourself and others accountable for the whole range of responsibilities. Once all the jobs are defined, you can begin to collaborate more effectively.
2. Actively work with each other
When designing a scheme of work, or contacting a student’s parents or planning a trip, do we actively involve others in the process? Not only is it useful to share workload when completing complex tasks, you will also benefit from colleagues’ experiences too. In their roles, they may well have encountered similar issues to the one you are busy solving. I always find it helps to see things from a different perspective – it also pays dividends to learn from other people’s mistakes!
3. When analysing your own performance, focus on the important details
It’s very easy when things don’t go to plan, that we can make excuses. Studies show that this happens even more often when others are observing – some people just don’t like to take responsibility for things that THEY could have done differently. For instance, a particular cohort of students may have a real issue with completing homework on time and to a good standard. Is this a behaviour issue? is it their organisation skills? Is there a knowledge deficit? Do they lack engagement with their subject? It’s vital to determine the correct cause of the issue, or else you will waste energy trying to solve a problem that doesn’t exist, whilst the real problem keeps rumbling on.
4. When holding others accountable, ask the right questions
The same studies that show our unwillingness to hold ourselves responsible also show that we prefer to blame others. Teachers MUST hold each other accountable. Without this, we won’t be able to maintain and drive up standards. However, this can be done in a positive, developmental way, or it can become punitive and lead to decreased motivation. When asking colleagues to evaluate their own performance, ask questions that generate practical and useful answers. Framing ‘problems’ as ‘opportunities to develop specific teaching methods’ is another proven strategy. Another popular one is the ‘feedback sandwich’ – give one piece of positive feedback, then one way to improve and then another positive. Remind colleagues that they have more good points than bad, but don’t shy away from being totally honest. Over the long term, it’s important to make sure that colleagues feel supported and encouraged. Even teachers who are completely honest in their self-evaluation won’t feel motivated to fix problems if they feel their positive attributes aren’t valued.
5. Keep in regular contact with each other
This one is my own particular failing (hence why I put it at the end!) but it makes a huge difference when I get it right. Far too easily we can become engrossed in a never-ending checklist of day-to-day tasks. It’s important, now and again, to let others know what you are up to. Also to engage them in a conversation about how they could participate, or how you could help them. In my own experience, it prevents problems down the line, where I’ve ended up duplicating the work a colleague had already done, or where I could have offered help before a problem reared its head. One very short email every week or so is all it takes and the shorter it is, the better!
Call to action!
The best teachers will always act on advice, even if they only focus on one tiny snippet at a time. Don’t get left behind! Take one small step from those outlined above and spend no more than five minutes on it TODAY. You know fine well if you leave it until tomorrow then it will never get done. Be outstanding and raise achievement NOW!
Disrupting education is essential to bring schools into the 21st Century. Why? Schools are old. Really old. The system isn’t much different now to how it was during the Industrial Revolution. The aim of schools back then was to create a population fit to work in a variety of factories. Subjects were taught in isolation from each other, with no differentiation. Today, we have differentiation, but largely the same model. Only now, we are moving people out of factories, as robots are moving into them. We aren’t needed in factories anymore! Schools need to address this urgently, or we will become irrelevant.
Why is disrupting education the solution?
Ask yourself: Do we maintain the status quo in education because we already have the best possible model? Or are we afraid (or just unwilling) to change the current model because the new one might not work?
I like the word “disruptive”. When something is disruptive it focuses our attention on it. We think about it properly and act on it. When was the last time we properly considered disrupting education, eg. how and why we plan our school buildings, timetables, technology and lessons the way we do? I think we should. I believe we should completely revolutionise what a school’s purpose is, who it is for and how it operates.
Last week when looking for something to read this summer I came across founder of Wired magazine and “Futurist” Kevin Kelly (@kevin2kelly). In his new book, The Inevitable, he discusses some of his ideas about how the future is likely to look in 10 to 30 years time.
We already know that there will be new devices that our lives will revolve around, like mobile phones today. These devices probably won’t even be invented until a few years time. We also know that Artificial Intelligence will be so sophisticated, cheap and widely accessible, that much of today’s “education” in schools will be largely redundant. The result? We won’t need to learn things that computers will do automatically and much more efficiently for us.
I always remember my Maths teacher telling me that I should put my calculator away because I’m not going to have one in my pocket at all times when I’m older. Ha! So, is new and emerging new technology already making some of our subjects obsolete? Let’s see…
How do we use technology already?
1. Google Translate: can translate languages at the click of a mouse
In Modern Foreign Languages lessons, we learn how to spell, pronounce and understand different languages. We do this primarily because if we didn’t, then it would be difficult to communicate with others around the globe. What if technology removed that barrier? Would we still teach and learn other languages? Would there be any point? My heart is saying yes, but my head is saying no (for the vast majority of students). Would it become a luxury rather than a necessity to be able to speak fluent French in future?
2. Augmented Reality: apps can project holograms of the people you are speaking to on Skype
What if we didn’t teach students from our catchment area, but from around the world instead? Imagine each student, from countries around the world, sitting in your classroom (if a physical classroom is even needed), in holographic form. It sounds far-fetched, but there are companies all over the world who are already adopting this technology for holding meetings and training events. AR is already disrupting industry. It will disrupt education. I think that AR will become a feature of top performing “global schools” at some point in our lifetime. As teachers, we need to begin thinking about how we can best utilise this technology, although perhaps on a much smaller scale at first!
3. Virtual Reality: can simulate practical learning environments in standardised and measurable ways
In many industries where the work is physically demanding, involves an element of risk, or requires a detailed and standardised analysis of techniques used, we use simulators to train workers. These simulations used to take place in huge physical machines – think of the flight simulators you see at fairgrounds. Nowadays, simulators rely less on machinery and more on software to simulate the ‘sensation’ of our physical environment. Consider this: some schools in our inner cities have little in the way of outdoor space for athletics training. What if we could train students on a physical technique in a classroom environment, where a ‘virtual’ javelin was used instead of a physical one? Data could be gathered and analysed immediately using inbuilt software and could give personal feedback, in real time, to 30 students at once. No marking required!
My question to you:
If we could implement any of these (or other) technologies now, at no cost, how would it change the way you taught your subject?