Asking Better Questions in RE

Asking Better Questions In RE

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:

  1. What do I want this assessment to tell me?
  2. 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
  • Enquiry Questions
  • Ultimate Questions
  • Open and Closed Questions (BOTH are extremely useful)
  • Moral dilemma questions
  • Interpretation questions
  • Comparison 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.

You can find me on Twitter @guruteaching. Say hi!

Remote Teaching and Learning: Dos and Don’ts

remote teaching and learning

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.

We must relax our expectations a little and plan to fill in the gaps later on. One union’s advice has been to aim for two to three hours of work each day and then to encourage time for family activities, signpost educational resources, and so on.

Don’t: Respond to emails straight away

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.

Settling Your Rowdy Class: A Practical Guide

settling rowdy class

Settling Your Rowdy Class: A Practical Guide

This article was written for HWRK Magazine and published in the Spring 2020 edition, which you can read here.

Everyone knows that one teacher who everyone behaves for. They seem to do it all so effortlessly. Their presence is calming and with only the briefest of “looks” they can silence a roomful of hormonal teenagers. Students seem to be in total awe of them and it’s hard to see whether that awe stems from fear, respect, love, or a combination of all three. But however they achieved it, you can be absolutely certain that it didn’t happen overnight.

This is good news, especially if you are currently struggling to manage the behaviour of your students. Nothing worth having comes easily. And when it comes to behaviour, those battles are hard-won. For this reason, nobody with any sense will expect you to tame your little lions by 9:30 tomorrow morning. It comes with practice and by using a few simple tactics, some of which I’ll outline here.

But before I take you through the strategies which have helped me to settle even the rowdiest of classes, you firstly need to think hard about the people in your classroom. We can forget this, but they are all different and, mostly, they want to learn (even that boy you found last Tuesday, hiding under a desk, his fingers scooping chocolate spread from a jar smuggled from Food Tech).

There are the quiet, compliant ones, the hard-workers, the easily distracted, the shouters, the interrupters, the fidgeters and those who can’t help but stare out of windows when left to their own devices (this was me). You also teach some natural high-fliers, alongside students with significant learning difficulties. Some have stable, middle-of-the-road lives, whereas others’ are more chaotic. Health plays a part too, as does the level of parental support. Attendance is another huge factor and often linked to all of the above. But over the long term, we usually have little control over any of these, no matter how we try to intervene.

You can only control what happens in your classroom. Remember that and you will sleep a little easier. (Only a little easier though!) Fortunately, there ARE things you can do to tip the scales in your favour, when it comes to settling your rowdiest students.

So, to begin with, we must take care of the bigger picture: the “climate”. No, not those windy days that send half of Year 7 round the bend and the other half up the wall, but the climate within your classroom walls: the routines, expectations and processes that make for a calm and orderly environment.

Rule number 1: Make your expectations EXPLICIT

This has two distinct advantages. Firstly, students will actually have to think about their own behaviour. For some of them, this may be the first time they’ve done this in their lives, so be patient. Secondly, no student can ever again claim that they “didn’t realise they weren’t allowed to do that” (a favourite excuse used by many of my previous students).

Your explicit instructions should be brief and clear. Complexity is the enemy here. You should also remind your class of your expectations for them at regular intervals throughout the year (or half term, depending on your class), to “refresh” their memories. With any luck, you’ll be supported by a well-oiled whole-school behaviour policy, with specialist staff on-hand for those who persist in their challenging behaviour and a functioning national policy for providing support in specialist centres for “exceptional” students. Stop laughing. I can hear you, you know.

Rule number 2: Begin the lesson with naturally calm tasks

For some classes I’ve taught, this is the make-or-break moment. I know that if I can make it through the first five minutes, then the rest of the lesson will be a piece of cake. But there are different ways to achieve this, depending on who you teach, your objective for that lesson and what your long-term goals are for the class.

If you want the class to begin quietly, then don’t surprise them. If they’re agitated, or overstimulated, then they’ll naturally make noise. Anyone who has tried to teach straight after a playground fight or even just a cake-sale at breaktime knows this. Keep it simple. A straightforward task on the board, or on a worksheet works well. Retrieval practice of a recent topic is often better for settling students than a topic learnt a long time ago, as they’ll probably perform better, so won’t give up quickly and look for a distraction. Over time, you can ramp up the challenge.

Begin with the students working independently. If the instructions are clear, there should be no reason to disrupt. Once they’ve worked well for a set period of time, you can allow your students to work in pairs or groups, if appropriate. Use this sparingly and as an incentive for maximum effect. You don’t have to be a Victorian schoolmaster or schoolmistress when going about it though. So long as you are firm and consistent in your rewards and sanctions, your students will eventually trust you and do as you ask. Once you embed this as a daily or weekly routine, your students will start to settle into it without thinking.

Rule number 3: Build relationships

This is a long-term strategy. Some students have relatively few positive relationships in their lives. This means that they aren’t used to having positive conversations. They aren’t used to people offering advice without it seeming like a personal attack. They don’t know how to respond positively to others doing well, when they are struggling themselves. Taking your time to find out a little about your students makes a huge difference to them.Slowly, they come to appreciate it and they will even take an interest in having a positive relationship with you too. This is especially so, if they can see that you are giving them chance after chance, when their perception (rightly or wrongly) is that others have given up on them too easily.

In the long-run, students who have built up positive relationships with their teachers are more resilient in those lessons, compared to others. They try that little bit harder and don’t want to let people down who they particularly trust and respect. Not only that, but investing time in your students is infinitely worthwhile for its own sake. When we learn about their lives and build those relationships with them, we enrich our own lives too. On your toughest days, this can be the thing that gets you through. Some of the most challenging students earlier in my career are now some of my fondest memories and this is all down to those times I spent really listening to them and learning from them. The funny thing about teaching is that it’s a two-way street.

Tactics you can try right now

Sometimes, you need to pay a little more attention to some of your students at the beginning of the lesson, to settle them. Zero-tolerance and outright appeasement strategies both have their place in certain contexts, but are often too extreme for most students to respond well to and they can backfire spectacularly. Just imagine the reaction of your most volatile students if you resorted to barking commands at them every lesson. I bet they wouldn’t put in their maximum effort when it came to completing that homework. Instead, here are some tried and tested methods to help guide your most spirited students towards positive behaviour.

Tactic 1: Keep them busy / grease the wheels

In the past, I’ve taught students who would go straight into “look at me” mode upon entering the classroom, unless I greeted them, asked them to sit down and take out their planner and pen. I’d then remind them of a recent achievement and how I’d like them to keep at it today to maintain that momentum. I’d then give them the instructions for the first task one-to-one, but loud enough for the rest of the class to hear, so I didn’t have to repeat it. Sometimes, I’d even help them with the first part of the answer, just to make sure they could make a start, whether they needed help or not. Remember: give, give, give. For some students, all you need to do is to grease the wheels a little, as it allows them no opt-out and therefore fewer opportunities to disrupt others. The added bonus is that the rest of the class see this “lively” student working and this can have a calming and positive effect across the rest of the class.

Tactic 2: Physical activity

Some students haven’t experienced much success during their week at school. So when you give them a challenge, it can lead to exasperation and fear on their part. At this point, some of them turn to disruptive behaviour. You can avoid this, however, by giving them a quick physical task. This could be giving out equipment, collecting homework, checking on something in the classroom, writing the date on the board, etc. It could even be unrelated to the lesson, but a favour to you, e.g. “would you mind moving those books over there for me?” Whilst I’d love to challenge my students constantly, it can have a negative impact at times. Give little Charlie that endorphin-boosting quick win to build his self-esteem and resilience, so that when the real challenge comes, he can tackle it without throwing his arms up in the air before writing a single word.

Tactic 3: Problem-solving

Some students love to tell you what you should be doing. After all, only they know what it’s like to be in their shoes, innit? Well here’s your chance to turn that challenge back to them. Give them a problem to solve, with all the materials they will need and place your most animated students together in one group. The effect this has on the other groups is that it gives them the time and space to do things their own way. The effect it has on that energetic group is that Paige will eventually be forced to listen to Millie, without shouting across the room. You can increase the level of challenge by removing some of the materials that they need to complete the task easily. Or you could only offer them partial instructions so they have to work things out using inference and creativity. Be warned though: this might undo all the hard work in getting them to focus on the work, so remove those scaffolds carefully, or Paige and Millie might kick off again!

Tactic 4: Make it all about them

We’ve all taught a student who made it all about them at every possible opportunity. Why not harness that? Some students respond particularly well to being given the opportunity to “rant on a page” about their views on a topic, or their response to an assessment score. The trick here is to get them to keep writing. Students should be given free rein to explore their thoughts in whatever direction they feel is most honest. But make sure they can support all of their arguments with reasons!

Some of them just want to get something simple off their chest, like how unfair question 8 was, or why they should be studying chemistry at all. But the more they write, the more that they and you will uncover the underlying reasons for their attitudes. It might be that question 8 was perfectly fair, but Kenzie didn’t have time to revise that topic because of a lethal combination of ballet rehearsals, Geography coursework and her newborn twin sisters keeping everyone in the house on their toes (not ballet-related).

One way to make this task particularly effective is to tell students from the outset that their responses won’t ever be read out to the class. This not only avoids the potential for libellous anonymous disclosures being made, but it also gives your students the freedom to express their views without fear of what others will think. Most importantly though, it builds their trust in you, which you’ll need if you want to deepen those ever-important relationships.

I won’t lie to you. Settling a rowdy class isn’t easy, just watch me try to teach Year 9 during period 5 on a Friday. But if you play the long game, you’ll get there. It’s classroom experience that wins in the end and you’ll be there longer than they will. Maintain your high standards, be patient and pay attention to your students. Everything else will take care of itself.

Recommended Reading

The one thing that all trainee teachers need to get to grips with early is effective behaviour management. Without this, learning suffers and so does the overall classroom experience of everyone involved. Mastering behaviour management strategies, therefore, no matter what school they teach in, is vital. Tom Bennett’s book, Running the Room, is THE perfect resource for solving behavioural issues as they arise and gives excellent advice on how to create a classroom culture where behaviour incidents are prevented before they happen.

Why “Teaching” Should Only Be Priority Number 2 When Schools Return

wellbeing

Our students are as worried as we are that they are falling behind in their studies, especially those who have public examinations to take next year. Those who aren’t worried soon will be, as the clock runs down and the pressure builds. You would think that this means we need to prioritise interventions, extra classes and a raft of homework tasks to mitigate the time spent away from the classroom.

But the lack of subject knowledge isn’t the issue we need to address first. What matters is that our students’ wellbeing is taken seriously. Not in an “Are you all ok? Right, let’s crack on then!” kind of way, but with a much greater emphasis put on deep and meaningful pastoral care.

The children, whether in Reception or Sixth Form will have a lot of questions. Some of those questions will appear fairly straightforward, but they could be masking much deeper fears. Students who ask you “When will we be going over (topic X)?” Might not really care about what time or date you give them. What they might really be concerned about is “Will we finish the course in time, as I’m trying to get into a top university to study Medicine and my grades matter a heck of a lot”. Others might smirk and brag that they just played X-Box all day long (students, not staff, contrary to what some in the press might want the public to believe). But deep down, it’s just a show of bravado and they really don’t want the embarrassment of falling behind their peers, who managed to complete their remote-learning tasks during lockdown.

Again though, this is only a snapshot of the fears playing on students’ minds. Some will need far more support. Ann Longfield, the Children’s Commissioner is extremely concerned that the early warning system that schools provide has removed a safety net for the vulnerable. In her recent report, We’re all in this together? (April 2020) she details just how students are at risk and how the usual and extensive support offered by schools is severely lacking in the current climate.

They are most likely at home, often exposed to a cocktail of secondary risks – a lack of food in the house, sofa-surfing or cramped living conditions, neglect, or experiencing acute difficulties due to parental domestic violence, substance abuse and mental health problems. Many will be caring for parents or siblings themselves in these incredibly difficult circumstances.

Ann Longfield (Children’s Commissioner), We’re all in this together? [April 2020]

Students also have fears about returning to school before it is actually safe to do so. As much as they want to catch up with their friends, they also don’t want to catch the coronavirusor pass it onto their loved ones at home, many of whom are extremely vulnerable. To expect students under this amount of worry to complete academic tasks to a high level of quality is misguided. Over time, students won’t deal well with this pressure and many will be at genuine risk of serious mental health issues, which would have a much more devastating effect on their future than if they had just gone a bit easier when returning to school.

We need to be careful.

Of course, I’m probably preaching to the choir on this one. Most teachers I encounter, both in real life and online have the students’ best interests at heart – it’s why we took the job. But let’s also not pretend that pressure won’t creep in to boost assessment scores, or to plug knowledge gaps with a barrage of extra tasks, making it impossible for students to breathe and process what is going on.

This is one of those times where we need to slow down, discuss, plan and then watch and respond. It might seem like a good idea to get out of the blocks quickly, but there will be a lot of students who simply want us to be there. Not to do anything. Just to be there.

Let’s prioritise talking to our students about how they are. Let’s check on their families. Let’s focus on alleviating their paralysing fears before we start trying to embed new subject content.

We’re teachers though. We have superpowers. We’ve got this.

How to Teach and Encourage Independent Study Skills

Independent Study

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.

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