Quick heads-up: this blog uses a lot of technical jargon that you may be unfamiliar with. The jargon springs from the work of Doug Lemov and Paul Bambrick-Santoyo, and if you wish to know more, there is a great summary of all the terms used here.

Which action step is better?

On the surface, there isn’t much of a difference between them. Action steps are all about actions, and the actions in both are pretty much identical (if you aren’t familiar with Ratio click here, and if the various bullet points mean nothing to you click here).

Despite the similarity, the key difference is in the framing. The first action step is a list of things to do, but those things aren’t anchored in any kind of meaning or rationale. Why do we go to Pastore’s Perch? What’s the point of Being Seen Looking? For what reason is an intervention more effective if it has the least invasiveness?

Though it could be the case that the person issuing the action step discusses the purposes and rationales of the individual steps, that rationale isn’t baked in. Someone who is working on the action step will potentially forget the long conversations around how an invasive intervention affects the concentration of other students or why narration of the positive is better than normalising the negative, thereby turning the completion of the action step into something robotic. That’s not necessarily a bad thing – I would rather have a teacher who does these things without fully appreciating the reasons than one who doesn’t do them at all – but there are obvious and important upsides to giving the purpose of the action step a heavier weight:

  1. Purpose is empowering, and people who understand the why of what they are doing are more bought in: they want to carry it out because they know it will make things better for them and their students.
  2. Bleeding over: the first action step is heavily tied to the Do Now, and it would be easy to keep these actions as related to the Do Now and nothing else. The second one frames the Do Now as just another point in the lesson where you need to think about Ratio, and this is how you carry that out. There are other parts of the lesson where you need to do this too, and even though they aren’t part of this particular action step, you can start to think about how these actions will apply during independent practice or handing out mini-whiteboards or getting ready to review student work or any other part of your lesson.
  3. Critique and creativity: a teacher who understands the purpose of these actions is better able to critique them and give me push-back, leading to richer conversations and mutual improvement. They are also primed to innovate and improve on these actions, to find ways of honing and tweaking them to suit their classroom and their style. Provided the actions meet the stated purpose, innovation around them is of benefit.
  4. Even if there were no tangible difference in outcomes between the two action steps, I believe that people knowing why we do what we do is an intrinsic good – a worthy pursuit in and of itself.

Part of the journey I have been on recently has been homing in on the concrete. I am trying to work with teachers to help them get better in the classroom, but I can only do that if I am hyper specific about what I think they need to do differently. Feedback like “differentiate more” or “use more assessment for learning” or “improve the pace of your lesson” doesn’t communicate what people actually need to do – a concrete direction is needed.

Equally, I don’t want to be prescriptive or dictatorial – I’m not a power tripper -, I want people to understand why I think the things I do.

In my bid to marry concrete actions with a wider sense of purpose, I now use “the power of by.” This is where I state what the purpose is, followed by the word “by,” followed by the action(s):

Improve Participation Ratio during questioning by using Cold Call

Sometimes there will only be one action, sometimes more, but I now use “the power of by” in a range of contexts, with some examples below. Please do remember that these are the product of a long conversation, so any terms which may be unfamiliar are clearly (I hope) explained and exemplified prior to deploying them in an action step. There is often co-planning and practice as well to accompany the step. The point is they aren’t standalone, but are part of a process.

As ever, I am indebted to those who have come before me, and you can read a little bit more about how I first learnt to write action steps here.

Behaviour

E.g. 1

Improve the clarity of your instructions by

  • Front-Loading the Means of Participation
  • Numbering the steps
  • Asking students to repeat the steps

E.g. 2

Eliminate Sins of Enthusiasm by

  • Finding David, Dylan and Declan before next lesson
  • Explaining to them why SOEs are a problem
  • Emphasising how happy you are that they are engaged
  • Stating the consequences if they continue
  • Calling home to explain the situation
  • Challenging non-compliance in the lesson

Basic teaching and learning stuff

E.g. 3

Gather data about student performance in Do Now by

  • Circulating during the Do Now
  • Checking in detail at least five students’ work
  • Sampling multiple responses for more open questions
  • Asking students to raise hands if they got x question right

E.g. 4

Increase clarity when modelling equations by

  • Aligning all values
  • Using ruled lines and leaving gaps between lines
  • Using one additional colour only for the directional arrows

E.g. 5

Gauge reliability of 50:50 or multiple choice questions by

  • using Stretch-It

E.g. 6

Improve narrative flow of your explanations by

  • Always moving from familiar knowledge to unfamiliar knowledge
  • Building your graphs from scratch

E.g. 7

Increase participation ratio during questioning by

  • Stepping away from the speaker
  • Asking students to check the speaker for mistakes
  • Using Cold Call pick-ups

More advanced teaching and learning stuff

These ones are a bit more “out there,” but please note that they are always accompanied by an in-depth conversation, examples and often co-planning.

E.g. 8

Clarify the boundary conditions of categories like chemical reactions by

  • Including non-examples
  • Anchoring your examples and non-examples within one representation

E.g. 9

When making comparisons, emphasise similarities and differences by:

  • Eliminating surface differences
  • Retaining one difference only
  • Verbally noting the similarities and differences

E.g. 10

Anchor abstractions in the concrete by:

  • Adding terse written information to abstractions
  • Keeping multiple representations present on the board at the same time

Leadership

I do a bit of leadership and curriculum coaching too and I’ve found that this style works in that context as well. As with the examples above, the list of actions are not exhaustive, there are plenty of other actions that might fulfil the same purpose, but you need to start somewhere.

E.g. 11

Increase congruence of lesson activities with curriculum by

  • Specifying the Core Questions a lesson is set to address
  • Ensuring ever CQ is embedded into the explanations
  • Removing activities that do not relate to the CQs

E.g. 12

Build a culture of retrieval in the department by

  • Investigating a suitable platform for students to use for home learning
  • Dedicating department meetings to discussing and modelling the first five minutes of a lesson
  • Centrally monitoring issuing of retrieval homeworks
  • Building a referral and support mechanism for students who are struggling with the program

E.g. 13

Increase inclusivity of department meetings by

  • Removing items from the agenda if they don’t apply to >80% of the team
  • Inviting opinions through pointed questions rather than general ones (“what do you think?”)

So there we have it: the power of by. A simple way to intertwine concrete, actionable steps with a grander sense of purpose and meaning.

Your action step:

When writing action steps, marry the purpose of the step with the actions required by always employing the power of by.