Having recently read Glass ceilings by Iain Hall, it has felt good to see that my current classroom practice aligning with what was witnessed in the US charter schools. Although I have not had first hand experience in visiting these schools, I am confident through reading, that these schools are changing lives of students by embedding three main threads.
- Highest of expectations
- Traditional teaching style
- Excellent behaviour
It makes complete sense when you think about how these three (of many things) allow students coming from less privileged backgrounds to succeed academically. What I have been reminded of through this book is how students can rise (or fall) to the expectations we have of them. I have been guilty of letting some students ‘off’ because they have a tough home life, or they had an argument in the morning with their dad and didn’t get their homework done. Reflecting back on this, I am doing more damage to this child than good. Not having those high expectations to rise to at home and school can have a detrimental impact on this child’s life going forward so actually, the better thing to do when student X with a tough home life forgets their homework is to sanction them and show them the high expectations are still there. It is also essential to remind them that this is there so they can work harder and become the best versions of themselves. All students can rise to these high expectations. We really really have to believe.
When I started teaching, I was very much of the progressive mindset. “Get the kids working on tasks to discover the Maths” I was told. And I did. Setting students out to discover Pythagoras’ Theorem during fifth period on a Wednesday afternoon was planned. I can’t say the lesson didn’t go well. The students worked in groups (because obviously group work encourages engagement) to work out how the areas of different squares related to each other. I was told at the end of the lesson by the students that it was a “fun lesson” and was actually quite chuffed. The lesson then progressed into a series of discovery type learning episodes where the students learnt (questionable) how to work out the hypotenuse, shorter side and apply some of this knowledge into 3D problems.
A week later on the assessment, I was dumbstruck when the class didn’t do so well. They were so engaged in the learning I thought, I had done group work as my tutors (with good intentions) had said, but something had gone, oh so wrong. It wasn’t until I sat in a CPD day with Craig Barton that things finally made some sense. What I had done was allowed the students to form their own schema on what I was teaching them and given them control of where they were going with their learning. By no means is this to say that we shouldn’t give students this ownership, but as teachers we need to fuel them with the key knowledge first for them to then go off and make links. What my class had picked up from those series of lessons was far off from what I wanted them to learn because I had gone about it from a ‘why this works and where it has come from’ angle rather than shown them the how.
Since then, I have become a strong believer in telling them (in most scenarios) what to do first and then telling them, perhaps even a year later, why – the how before the why – and I can say that it has transformed the learning of the pupils in my class.
Another thing I was told during training and still hear from colleagues over and over is to reduce the ‘teacher talk’ in the classroom. Initially, I totally agreed with this. It made sense. Let students discover things, let them learn from each other, etc. But the more I have read and spent time thinking about this, I am now shifting to the other end of that spectrum. This is not to say that I believe in lecturing students for the hour, but to keep student discussion quite controlled. I want them to talk about specific things in lesson and I will guide that conversation. I do this mainly through questioning and organised discussion points. My belief is, that as experts, we should be imparting that knowledge to the students in the form of a mini-lecture with enough time to practice what has been taught. I must say that this is far easier to do in my subject and appreciate this may be trickier to do in others.
I can’t say that this has always been supported in conversations I’ve had with colleagues. I am often seen as the teacher who just wants the kids to sit down and be quiet – which to be honest, is a fair perspective – from a behaviour management point of view. What I have seen is that when students are working independently (silently) in my classroom, they are required to think about the problems presented to them. Over the past year, I have begun to embed worked examples into almost every lesson which lead to some guided, then independent practice and eventually application of the knowledge learnt. This means that around one third of the lesson, I am at the front teaching and the next two thirds are where the students are busy working away on problems with some form of assessment. Silence can truly be golden.