Scene: it is 3.02pm and 8Sc2 have been working well throughout the double lesson. The bell goes at 3.05pm
Teacher: ok year 8, well done today. In a minute we are going to pack up and stand behind our chairs, but I want you to make sure you have written down the homework from the board. Dave and Charlie please stay at the end and can you all remember to put all papers in the bin.
As a set of instructions, this looks pretty clean. The teacher praises the class, uses economy of language (as few words as possible), doesn’t get bogged down in details and gives directives that are clear and easy to follow. And yet, as any teacher will know, it doesn’t work. As soon as the teacher is a few words in noise starts to build as students pack away their books and pencil cases, start putting on coats, pushing their stools back and talking to each other about how quickly the lesson went (or Fortnite). Why? It’s not a difficult class, they haven’t been troublesome today, the teacher has good command of the group…so why does this always seem to happen?
I’m genuinely honoured and humbled that people have found some of the things I’ve written and said about behaviour helpful. I find behaviour management really hard. I don’t have that thing where students just behave, I can’t silence a room with a stare, I hate confrontation and I’m always worried that I’ll use the wrong words and make things worse. For me it’s easily the worst part of the job, and I really really don’t enjoy having to deal with it.
I suppose it’s because of all this that I’ve put a lot of effort into finding ways to stop poor behaviour happening: to get into habits of speech and action that allow me to create the conditions for good behaviour to flourish. In this I’ve found the Teach Like a Champion approach of finding set, high leverage actions and practising them deliberately to be extremely useful.
One of the most powerful techniques I use is Means of Participation (MOP), which I first read about in Lee Donaghy’s blog (you should definitely read it). MOP is about how you communicate to students how they are supposed to participate in your lesson. Phrases like:
“…by putting your hand up…”
“…just think about the answer for me please”
“…without calling out…”
“in a minute, you are going to turn to your partner and tell them…”
“without talking to your neighbour…”
“Answer the question in your book in silence…” (note there are two MOPs here, in silence and in the book)
all establish the means by which your students will participate. It’s a very powerful technique and has made a big difference to my practice. But the above alone isn’t enough. Let’s look at the instruction below:
“what is the word equation for photosynthesis? Please write your answer on your mini-whiteboard and hold it face down until I ask you to show me”
On the face of it, this is a good instruction. The question is clean and clear and the MOP is established in terms of how the students will write and present their answer. But – and this is my experience, both first-hand and observed – it doesn’t work, and you still end up with students raising their boards before you have asked them. I think the reason for this is pretty simple: the second you ask them the question, they start writing down their answer (or at least thinking about it) and they are no longer listening to you. It’s not that they are being defiant or messing around, they just didn’t take in the instruction. And again, it’s not because the instruction isn’t clear, it’s not a property of the instruction itself – it’s a property of its placement; where it sits in the sentence. Try this:
“Ok in a second I’m going to ask a question, please write your answer on your mini-whiteboard and hold it face down until I ask you to show me. What is the word equation for photosynthesis?”
I’d wager ten quid that works better every time. It’s not perfect, but it will almost definitely work better than the previous instruction set. It’s even better paired with other techniques (see here if you haven’t already) into a script more like:
“Ok, I’m going to ask a question and you are going to one [hold up a finger] write your answer on a mini whiteboard [hold up two fingers] two keep it face down and [hold up three fingers] three show me only when I say. Write down [one finger], face down [two fingers], show me [three fingers.] Ok who can say the instruction back to me….David?…Excellent. Write down, face down, show me [use the fingers again.] What is the word equation for photosynthesis?“
It’s a bit longer and you only need to do it like this until your class is in a good routine, but moving the instruction to the front makes a big difference. Try these for size:
“Without talking, I’d like you to write down three things…”
“By putting your hand up in the air, I’d like you to tell me…”
“Without calling out, can anyone tell me…”
“In silence, you are going to…”
“Without turning to your neighbour, get your purple pen out…”
“I don’t want to hear anyone calling out their answer as we start marking…”
Again, not revolutionary, not going to solve all your problems overnight, but it will make a difference. And, like I said, when combined with other techniques you’ll find things go a lot more smoothly.
I call this front-loading instructions: where you put your Means of Participation or whatever at the front of your instruction, where you anticipate the point at which a student might stop listening to you and thinking about something else (like the answer to the question) and get all the important information in before that point.
Going back to our poor beleaguered teacher of 8Sc2 at 3.02pm, let’s review the script with fresh eyes:
Teacher: ok year 8, well done today. In a minute we are going to pack up and stand behind our chairs, but I want you to make sure you havewritten down the homework from the board. Dave and Charlie please stay at the end and can you all remember to put all papers in the bin.
We now know why this doesn’t work. Even at the best of times it wouldn’t work, but the end of the school day how much more so. Every fibre in every student’s being is itching to leave – the cue “pack up!” is primed and ready to go. The second you mention packing up BOOM they’re gone, and you’ll end up with most students not writing down the homework and Dave and Charlie halfway home on the 204 bus before you even realise they’ve gone.
In such situations you have to take your front-loading to the max – dial it up to 11:
Teacher: ok nobody at all is going to pack away, pens down and eyes on me in 3, 2, – thank you for having eyes on me, David – and 2, – nobody is packing away – and 1 [pause and Be Seen Looking]. Excellent thank you. I remind you that nobody is packing up until I am done, and I will stop talking every time I see somebody packing up [pause and Be Seen Looking]. In silence, open your planners and write down the homework. [wait] In silence eyes up here please. Again, no packing up until I am finished. Dave and Charlie, don’t ask me about it now, I remind you to stay at the end. None of us are leaving until all paper is in the bin and we are standing in silence behind our chairs. GO!
Try that one on for size. You might like it.