Homework: What’s the point?

Homework Project

Does Homework Matter?

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.

Blogging Homework

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!

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Raising Achievement Using Teamwork

Raising Achievement

Question: What do the most successful performers in ANY industry have in common?

Answer: Teamwork.

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?

Teamwork

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!

Success

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!

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Goodbye to Grades?

 Grades

Do grades matter?

Does having grades written on assessed pieces of work help or hinder the progress of students? Many schools in the UK and across the world are beginning to adopt “comment only” marking policies, claiming greater success than with traditional “grading” methods. This week I want to consider the pros and cons of each.

Why we use grades

  • Students like to know how well they have done so that they can compare themselves to their targets and to their peers. It gives them a clear idea of how hard they need to work in the future to maintain or improve upon their current performance.
  • Schools like to know where to place students against their targets, so that they can assess the quality of the education they provide, in order to maintain and drive up standards over time.
  • Parents like to know what grades their children have achieved as it helps them to assess the quality of their school provision and enables them to plan for additional support at home if needed.

Conclusion: Grades work! So why would anyone decide to change?

Celebration

Pitfalls of grades

Increasingly, evidence from studies around the world has demonstrated that a “comment only” marking policy is more likely to influence a student’s future study habits than a “grade only” or “comment and grade” system. This seems counter-intuitive. Surely, if a student is given more information about their performance then they will perform better in the future? Unfortunately not – they tend to forget about the comments made by the teacher and focus solely on their grade. This takes their focus away from the clear guidance on how to improve and replaces the guidance with a label.

Labelling is often very useful, as it helps us quickly identify and categorise things. However, when we give grades, we hang it around students’ necks like a name badge for the lesson, week, term or even year. This can have hugely demotivating consequences for them. If students have done well, they won’t feel as though they need to try harder. If they haven’t done well then grades won’t tell them how to improve (remember – seeing the grade will cause them to ignore most of the written feedback).

Grades are also not always helpful when assessments are largely formative. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, the feedback process is eternal. In contrast, grades are so “final”. They don’t necessarily tell us what grade a student is currently working at, as progression is not linear – it goes up and down over time (but hopefully more up than down).

So, what is better about “comment only” marking?

“Comment only” marking requires students to evaluate the standard of their work, using the guidance you’ve given, helping them to plan for their own progress. For many students, when they see a “B” grade, they think that that will do (and they may even be right!) However, they might not understand how they achieved that grade, particularly in subjects where assessment is done via extended writing tasks. If they don’t know how they achieved the “B” grade, then they are not in a good position to repeat or improve upon that success later on. “Comment only” marking offers a solution to this, by showing students specific things they can do, to achieve marks in specific areas.

“Comment only” marking: Four Handy Tips

Top Tips

  1. Give feedback quickly – the longer you leave it, the less impact it will have on the student.
  2. Be focused. You don’t need to comment on everything – choose the points that will make the most significant difference to the student’s work (probably not spelling in the majority of subjects)
  3. Be specific – don’t write “add more detail here”, do write “explain why Henry VIII broke away from the Catholic Church”
  4. Make positive comments as well as negative ones – e.g. “thorough explanation of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave”
  5. Use the language of the exam board (if appropriate), to help students understand how to show greater quality next time – e.g. “compare this theory to the theories you studied earlier in the course – which is more persuasive and why?”

I’d like to challenge you to have a go at “comment only” marking (where previously you would have included a grade) over the next few weeks. See what difference it makes to students in one class and let me know what you’ve found. 

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Student Feedback – A Useful Guide

Feedback

I’m not the perfect teacher.

I get at least one thing wrong every day, often at least once a lesson and frequently more often than that. Having said that, I think I still do a decent job of teaching my students. They make the progress expected of them, behave well towards each other, develop their skills and confidence and by the end of the year they are a lot better than they were at the beginning of the year. But that’s just a snapshot, one that is easy to take in the summer term. It doesn’t reflect the hard work that has gone into ensuring that the students are staying on track and making the most of their opportunities. In this week’s post, I want to talk about how I’ve approached student feedback, to refine my teaching little by little over time: student feedback.

What my friend was getting wrong

I have a friend who teaches at another school (it’s honestly not me, although if it was then it would explain a lot!). He was asked at the end of his Induction year, to create a student evaluation questionnaire, in order that he could develop his teaching methods for the following September. He was doing well and was not under any significant pressure to change anything, so was free to design questions in any way he felt appropriate. However, he made a crucial mistake – he thought he was a great teacher and he thought the students shared his view of himself – so his questionnaire became more about confirming his own biases than about gathering new data.

Questions included:

  • Why do I enjoy Mr. X’s lessons?
  • What should other teachers do that Mr. X does?
  • Does Mr. X always want me to try my best?

The results, predictably, were not very useful for two major reasons. Firstly, several of the questions did not allow students to say in detail what they really wanted to say. Secondly, several of the questions put words in the students’ mouths that they would not have used, had the question been asked in a more objective way. This did not create honest feedback, which was the entire point of the exercise.

Full of pride, my friend handed the results to his Mentor, who in a matter of moments dismissed the results. She told him to go back and do it again properly, but this time, he should create a set of questions that were less about confirming pre-conceived notions about himself and were more about looking for ways to improve his teaching.

Thoughts

Round 2

Mr. X still figured he had nothing to lose, being the fantastic teacher that he believed he was, so he created a much more objective set of questions. They included fewer yes/no answers, giving more multiple choice ones instead. He also threw in some very open-ended questions, allowing the students to give whatever feedback they wanted. After all, he had nothing to fear!

The results were much more useful this time, but not for the reasons Mr. X expected. He thought that the students would again confirm his biases, but this time in their own words. They didn’t. Instead, they showered him with abuse! At least that’s how he felt. They used phrases like:

  • He just stands at the front and tells us what to do then just expects us to know how to do it when we don’t get it.
  • He does the same activities all the time.
  • He tells us things that aren’t relevant for the exam.
  • He only talks to the smart students or the naughty ones. I just get left out.
  • We never do group work.
  • He only does interesting lessons when other teachers are watching.

Ouch.

The Comeback King

To his credit, Mr. X didn’t dwell too long on the feedback, although he did allow it to ruin a perfectly good weekend. He showed his Mentor the results on Monday and this time she laughed. “Well, what were you expecting them to say? Did you think they were your friends? That they wouldn’t dare hurt your feelings? Or did you think that nobody else in the school was as good a teacher as you?”

What would you do in his position? Here’s some advice I gave him (admittedly I heard or read it somewhere – I can’t take full credit for it) and that I keep reminding myself of, whenever I receive feedback from students, whether I’ve asked for it or not!

Checklist

1. Step back

It’s very easy to believe your own hype or to take criticism personally. When you are given feedback, imagine that it is not about you, but that it is about someone else and you are tasked with giving them advice on how to respond to the feedback. This is tough and in some cases it might even help to wait a day or two after receiving the feedback so that you can regain a good sense of perspective.

2. Choose your battles

Often its the little victories that help make the biggest difference. Chose two or three points to work on and set yourself a date in the near future to achieve them by. Short term is crucial – you need a quick victory at the start, or you could begin to start believing you “aren’t worthy” or that you can’t fix the problems that were so helpfully pointed out by your students. Once you’ve won some quick and easy battles, begin to choose some more challenging ones – but give yourself the right amount of time to address them. Again though, always give yourself as short a timescale as you can afford – do not dwell on the problem!

3. Check your solutions

Don’t we always tell our students to do this? We might be tempted not to here because it’s scary. But how will we know if we’ve addressed the problem correctly unless we test ourselves again? You can use the same questions again, or us a slightly modified set if that would encourage better quality or more useful answers. Just don’t fall into the trap of confirming biases again. Just because you addressed the problem, it doesn’t mean that it is fixed – you might have just highlighted a different problem!

4. Repeat stages 1-3

Feedback is an eternal process, not a conclusion. We should embrace that idea and keep looking for small, winnable battles so that over time we can refine our teaching. If we want our students to love learning and to not fear failure then we must walk that journey with them.

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Engaging Boys – A Practical Guide

Engaging Boys

[Updated 27 October 2020]

Why is it so difficult to engage boys in the classroom?

Boys are treated like defective girls”, so says psychologist and author Michael Thompson. I think he’s right. Have you noticed that boys are frequently compared to girls with regards to exam scores, classroom behaviour, the standard of work produced and neatness of presentation? Many boys fail to perform as well in these areas,  leading to ‘poor’ performance in formal examinations where it counts the most. Engaging boys to raise their attainment is clearly a huge challenge.

So, are boys just not as good as girls when it comes to formal assessment? Or is the system unfairly rigged to favour girls over boys? Let’s see.

Myth: “All boys are the same”

This is simply not true. Just look at the last group of boys you taught and their wide spectrum of attributes. Boys are often excitable, creative, loud and headstrong. However, there are quiet boys too, who lack confidence, struggle creatively and who seem distant when you try to engage them. There are even quiet boys who are incredibly confident and loud boys who are overcompensating due to their own perceived weaknesses. The difficulty in deciding which “category” they fit into creates a real challenge for educators. Moving away from “categorising” boys at all and instead, understanding how and why we treat them differently, is the beginning of the solution.

Should we just train the boys to be like the girls?

This is more complex than it might seem, but the short answer is no.

Many of the boys I teach read less often and consequently fewer books than the girls, particularly fiction books. Why is this? Is it because boys don’t enjoy reading? No. Is it a lack of quality authors writing for young male audiences? No. Engaging boys differently to girls is crucial and here’s why.

Girls are typically brought up in a different way to boys. Their toys and games are different. The heavily gendered characters and storylines in the cartoons they watch are very different. The societal roles they are expected to play, due to gender, differs significantly.

This causes a knock-on effect. At school, when boys and girls are given the same task to do, they will naturally approach it in different ways, due to the way they have been conditioned by their environment. 

Girls are often more collaborative in their approach to tasks, seeking guidance and support, constantly engaging in a feedback loop with their peers and teachers. Girls are encouraged to do this through the type of play where conversations are a key element. Discussion is seen as a positive activity, where active listening and reflecting is considered as important as speaking.

Conversely, boys are often more solitary, waiting until they have completed a task (to whatever standard) to then present their finished product to others for feedback. Once given feedback, boys then get on with solitary work again. Boys are not usually encouraged by fellow boys, nor do they typically seek encouragement. Asking for support is often perceived by boys as a weakness. Consequently, there is very little social incentive to truly discuss, listen and reflect. Egos are fragile and it’s just not worth the risk to their reputation Their style of work and play is therefore heavily dominated by competition and shows of individual strength, be it physically, or through verbal argument.

In general, at least in Western societies, girls are also better prepared for tasks involving empathy, evaluation of evidence and being diplomatic, as those skills are built into the types of “play” activities they participated in when they were younger. Have you ever witnessed the complex social skills demonstrated during a dolls tea party?

Now, compare that scene to a boy smashing a Lego house with a dinosaur. Which skills do you think will benefit those children in a formal examination? Boys are expected to grow up to be brave, resilient, confident leaders who take no prisoners. These are useful traits in many areas but less so in formal examinations.

Five strategies to engage boys in the classroom 

1. Stop valuing “girly” attributes over “laddish” attributes

Let’s face it, in most cases neither of those terms is used in a positive way. However, we teachers often forget that stories about aliens destroying a football stadium can have as much literary value as a love poem. We arbitrarily celebrate the types of media that girls tend to gravitate towards and we negatively stereotype the media that boys gravitate towards. The result is that boys become used to hearing that certain things they value are worthless. They might love pirate stories, but after being told that they shouldn’t read them all the time, they eventually stop reading, because they aren’t interested in reading anything else. Boys then lose interest in their favourite things and many lose interest in general.

There is nuance to this view though. By playing to what boys enjoy reading about, we can actually do harm. As teachers, we should be broadening their “cultural capital” and expanding their knowledge of subjects beyond their own experience. If we don’t do this, then we limit the range of examples and consequently the network of ideas, or schema, that boys need, in order to learn new knowledge with ease. The more we teach them new things, the easier it becomes to teach them even more new things. So hold your boys to a high standard and make sure they use academic vocabulary, explain their examples clearly and show detailed reasoning behind their decisions.

2. Be careful how you use competition to engage boys

Boys often love competition. However, this is also a lazy stereotype. Some boys hate it and would rather work collaboratively, rather than in an adversarial way. Not only that but as I wrote earlier, boys need to learn the skills of collaboration in our classrooms, as they often won’t be taught this explicitly in their “home” environment.

Be patient with boys here, it often won’t come as naturally as it does with girls – the boys haven’t had anywhere near as much practice! Competition is great for engaging some boys but you must include opportunities for collaboration within the competitive environment too.

3. Frequently encourage and consistently use feedback

Feedback is crucial for engaging boys. The earlier in their lives that boys learn to give and accept feedback, without any fear of perceived weakness, the better they will perform and the faster they will progress. The feedback must be a continual process, like a conversation – not just an event at the end of a piece of work. As by then, the feedback is too late in many respects.

Once boys are able to use the feedback process more naturally, they will begin to be able to develop deeper self-evaluation skills and may even engage more often in independent learning too. This helps to narrow the gap between boys and girls, as well as between the weaker and stronger boys.

Praise frequently, but based on student effort, rather than on attainment. This way, your boys will feel as though they can take risks and attempt challenging work without worrying about your reaction to a wrong answer. Boys are very good at detecting insincere praise though, so only give it when it is due, or it loses its impact.

4. Ask better questions and more of them

Improving your questioning in the classroom is one of the best ways to raise attainment. The teachers who make a more positive impact on attainment than their colleagues ask more questions and they plan their questions carefully. This drives higher attainment for boys and girls alike. However, boys often shy away from explaining the rationale behind some of their answers. For this reason, it is crucial for teachers to ask boys in particular how they arrived at their answers.

By getting boys to demonstrate the process behind their decision-making, they will clarify their knowledge in their own minds and develop their confidence and resilience. This makes it much more likely that they will buy into the next challenging task, especially if it relies on having strong prior knowledge.

Ask questions such as “why is that the answer?”. Alternatively, show wrong answers and ask boys to comment on “why is this the wrong answer?” By introducing a range of examples and, crucially, non-examples to their schema, you will play to boys’ eagerness to show you up as an authority, while actually building their own reputations as a successful academic student.

5. The Teacher-Student Relationship

In my experience, having a positive relationship with the boys you teach makes the biggest difference. This isn’t rocket science, we should be aiming for this in all of our students. However, when boys are often boisterous, the positive teacher-student relationship we need and they often crave can be difficult to maintain. Keeping this at the forefront of your mind, though, can be the one thing that makes the difference in the long-run.

Don’t expect the boys you teach to be as naturally compliant as the girls. Work hard at engaging the boys, through challenging work and even just by having a conversation with them as they work. Find out what makes them tick and show your interest in their lives. The boys I teach respond particularly well to this and it has made a huge difference to the attitude they show in my lessons and towards their work in general.

Ultimately though, set high expectations and support them in living up to them. If they go off-task after a few minutes, then chunk the learning into short tasks to help them. If they struggle with tasks involving extended reading, then practice and model extended reading frequently, so that they can improve over the long term. Live-model what answers should look like and show how to construct those answers, so that boys know how to start. Visibly investing in these areas will show to the students that you are in it for the long-haul, that you have their interests at heart and in response, they will readily buy into what you are trying to do.

Recommended Reading

The best book to read on the subject of teaching boys has to be Boys Don’t Try: Rethinking Masculinity in Schools, by Matt Pinket and Mark Roberts. They take the reader through the research basis for their understanding of why boys often underachieve in education and how we can overcome that problem. Their strategies are very easy to implement and frequent anecdotes help you to see how to apply those strategies in your own classroom. It changed my own classroom teaching and the impact has been significant. 

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Any thoughts…?

Do you have any tips on how you engage boys in your lessons? Leave a comment!

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

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