Each year I make New Year’s Resolutions with varying degrees of success and failure. But what I’ve learnt is that the plans I make only work when I’ve made a conscious effort to keep them. Last year I decided to start blogging and it’s been one of the most valuable and rewarding experiences of my professional and personal life. I had never blogged before and the idea of it filled me with fear and excitement in equal measure. Each week I wondered whether people would understand what I’d written, whether they would agree with me, or whether they even cared at all. It’s easy to lose motivation if you dwell on the negative “what ifs’ for too long.
This week I want to share with you some of the problems and solutions I’ve discovered over the past year. Not because I think you should copy what I’ve done, but because we all fail at times when making grand plans. Hopefully, after reading this, you can at the very least be reassured that your New Year’s Resolutions are achievable if you approach them in the right way.
Make a resolution you will be proud of
Last year I wanted a new challenge. It’s not that I was bored, or had too much time on my hands, I just wanted to squeeze a little more out of my experiences. I’d been reading a number of blogs, some on teaching, others completely unrelated. The best ones all had something in common: they shared ways to add value to the world. This, for me, was something that drew me to teaching in the first place. It’s also something I try to promote with my students when they have to choose career paths, apply for Higher Education courses, or just to find meaning in what they are doing right now. If we all tried our best to add value to the world, in whatever way we can, then we can honestly say that we are successful.
Adding value to the world isn’t always easy. That’s why we sometimes need special times like New Year in order to motivate us. But what exactly does “adding value to the world” mean? It sounds like a throwaway phrase that a politician or a celebrity might use. But it’s far from superficial. Adding value means taking what skills, knowledge and opportunities you have and putting them to use for the benefit of others. We all do this as teachers, but often we limit ourselves when faced with more challenging ways to add value. New Year is a great time to make plans to add value to what we do. Below I’ve included a brief list New Year’s resolutions you can make, to improve your students’ experience in education.
Some resolutions for you to try:
Personalise learning for your students in a more sophisticated way. Look at what or how individual students need to be taught, rather than what or how groups need to be taught.
Give your students specific opportunities to demonstrate independent learning and reward them for going above and beyond.
Encourage more collaboration between your students so they benefit from gaining interpersonal skills.
Encourage more collaboration between yourself and colleagues to improve teaching and reduce workload
Build stronger relationships with parents and families of your students to help support them better when they’ve left your classroom
Write your own education blog or contribute a post to someone else’s blog
Mentor a colleague on something they find challenging but you find less challenging
Spend a little extra time creating a ‘perfect’ resource rather than a resource that ‘will do for now’
Give more instant verbal feedback and less delayed written feedback to help students progress over time
Learn and use a teaching method you’ve never tried before, to boost engagement by varying your approach to lessons
Follow some education bloggers on Twitter (I’m @guruteaching) and contribute to debates
How can I keep my New Year’s Resolutions?
Often the only way I’m able to stick to my plans is by using a support network around me to keep me on the straight and narrow. When I started blogging, for example, I made sure that my posts went straight into my social networks. That way, I knew that my friends and colleagues would ask me about how my blog was going, as they would see updated posts each week. If I missed a post, I knew that certain people would ask me why, which just made me feel guilty. It’s December now and I’ve posted several posts each month, every month since beginning.
Your New Year’s Resolutions don’t have to be posted on social media though. Find yourself an accountability partner. This is someone who will ask you the questions you don’t want to answer, so that you force yourself to keep going when you don’t feel like it. That way, when the end of the year arrives, you will be able to stand tall and say that you’ve achieved what you set out to do. Be honest here, how often can you say you were able to do that? How great will you feel?
My New Year’s Resolution this year
I’m now going to put my money where my mouth is. This year I want to create a set of infographics to put around my classroom, as cheat-sheets or how-to guides for my students. They have to be colourful, interesting to look at and above all, they must be easy to use. I have absolutely no background in design, so this will be a real challenge for me, but one that I will be proud of by the end of the year. I’m a fan of online tools and the most promising one I’ve found so far for creating infographics is Canva. I’d love to hear about any other you’ve used too. Please leave a reply below if you know of any others.
YOU are my accountability partner here and I really do want you to ask me how I’m getting on with designing my infographics during the year. Feel free to make me feel guilty on Twitter if you think I’m not sticking with it. Hopefully though, I will add value to my students’ world.
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!