Mr D was going over a Do Now quiz. One of the questions related to an advantage of wind turbines. After reviewing a couple of correct answers a student, Jimmy, asked Mr D about his own answer: “they don’t pollute the environment.”
Mr D addressed Jimmy’s answer head on, and explained with perfect clarity that an answer like this isn’t specific enough, we need to say what pollution is avoided. He gave a number of examples, and explained all the key terms.
Ms Y was reviewing some work students had done on energy stores. The students were just starting to understand and apply the language of energy stores, and Ms Y had asked them to identify which energy stores are linked to a car driving down the road. Ms Y asked a student for their answer, and they said “kinetic store.” Ms Y then asked if there were any other answers, and one student said “chemical,” and then explained further “because it has a fuel.” Another student then volunteered “thermal, because the engine is hot.” Ms Y confirmed both answers, gave a short expansion to the students’ explanations, and then asked the rest of the class to add “chemical” and “thermal” to their answers.
There’s lots of good practice in these lessons, which were ones I observed this week. There are things we shouldn’t take for granted, and wouldn’t necessarily see in every classroom. In the first lesson for example, Jimmy felt safe to volunteer their answer even when Mr D had already given the “correct” answer, and Mr D ensured that the student knew it was wrong – none of this “not quite” nonsense – then gave a very strong explanation as to why it was incorrect. In the second lesson, Ms Y was prepared for alternative answers, encouraged them, and then ensured that the students’ responses were backed up with her further elucidation, and their work was amended accordingly. As I sat and observed, the lessons flowed nicely and there were no obvious missteps.
If you had have asked me a few years ago, I might not have had any useful feedback to give these teachers, who are both real, and who are both excellent. Fortunately, in the last few years I’ve been trained to dig deeper and to actively interrogate common classroom scenarios. The simplest way is to just ask students follow-up questions. In the first lesson, I waited a minute or two for an appropriate moment, then asked a few students:
“If you asked me for an advantage of wind power, and I said it doesn’t pollute the environment, would that be a good answer?”
It’s a bit of a clunky question, so for one student I made sure they understood it before letting them answer it, and wrote it down like this:
“Give an advantage of wind power
It doesn’t pollute the environment”
And then asked is that a good answer.
All the students except said “yeah, that would be fine.” But how? How could they get it so wrong? Mr D’s explanation was good, it was clear and thorough. The behaviour in the room was perfect. So why did they all get the simple follow-up wrong?
In the energy stores lesson, following the car example I quickly blitzed round the tables and saw that all students had added “thermal store” and “kinetic store” to their answers. So I asked them:
“Why did you write that a car has a chemical energy store too?”
One student said “because it has a fuel in it that helps it move” but the others had no idea. Again, the teaching was clear, the explanations were given twice, the behaviour in the room was perfect…so why did they get it wrong?
Before we move on to the answer, it’s worth noting that most people do not observe like this. In my personal teaching experience, until I joined my current school, observers used to observe the teachers, go have a look at the marking, and occasionally ask students about what they were learning. We have regular visitors at school, and without fail they all sit at the back of the room, look at some of our booklets, leaf through some exercise books and ask students about what they are learning. It’s extremely rare that an observer checks for or properly probes student understanding. As I said earlier, I’m lucky to have been trained to do this, not just because it enables me to give good feedback to teachers about what students did and didn’t understand, not just because as a habit it bleeds over to my own classroom where I have to constantly remind myself to check absolutely everything for understanding, but because it’s forced me to look for root causes – why didn’t they understand this?
The truth is, I didn’t pick these particular questions to ask at random. I had a strong suspicion that the answers to the questions would turn out the way I did. To justify my suspicion, I’ll use another lesson I observed this week – in this case a video lesson of a trainee:
Mr F was doing some mini-whiteboard revision with his students. He asked them to separate their MWBs into quadrants, and wrote the name of each of the four historical models of the atom in each quadrant. He modelled it with his own MWB, and built his instructions such that students didn’t start until he had finished his instructions. Once they had drawn their quadrants, Mr F issued some further instructions about drawing unlabelled diagrams of the four atoms in each quadrant, hovering their boards when done and holding up when asked later on to show. He finished his instructions, and the students got to work. A student at the edge of the class put their hand up for a question, and Mr F walked over to help.
I paused the video there. First, there is a lot to be celebrated here in a teacher who has only been in the classroom a matter of months, and it’s important to recognise the strong practice at play:
- The use of MWBs generally: many teachers do not use MWBs, but there is nothing better for this kind of activity
- Mr F used a Lemov technique called Standardise the Format: by ensuring that students broke their boards into specific quadrants Mr F would find it a lot easier to quickly scan all the responses. If he had have said “draw unlabelled diagrams of the four models of the atom,” by dint of the infinite variations on layout Mr F would have struggled to register all the responses
- Instructions were perfectly layered (first quadrants, then wait for completion, then the task). Giving them all at once would have resulted in poor response as students can’t retain all that information in one go
- Instructions were Front Loaded, again driving up the chances of getting what you want to see
- A different teacher might have answered the student’s question from the front of the room, disturbing all the other students
All that aside, I paused the video for a reason:
Me: you’ve made a mistake
Mr F: yup
Me: what was the mistake
Mr F: I took the question too early, I should have stayed at the front of the room. I should have signalled to the student to wait, then waited a bit and then gone over.
Me: why are those important?
Mr F: they reduce the chance of other students going off task
Me: ok, but did that happen? Did the other students go off task?
Mr F: I don’t know
We replayed the last few seconds of the video, and true enough, as soon as Mr F headed off to the side of the room, the student who had been under his nose turned around and started talking to the student behind him. After we watched this, Mr F was like “yup well there we go.” My feedback could have been
“cool, make sure that you non-verbally signal to the question student to just wait a sec, then you wait a little bit longer and when you are sure everyone is engrossed in the task head over to take the question.”
But it wasn’t. My feedback was a question:
“when we watched the video the first time, why didn’t you spot the student who turned around to talk?”
After all, I did. The second Mr F started heading off I immediately looked at the rest of the room. I suspected that Mr F’s journey would result in a student going off task, so that’s what I looked for. Mr F and I continued to discuss it, and I tried to explain that all of these actions that we are learning – layering instructions, Front Loading, using your Means of Participation, Being Seen Looking, 3:30:30, Golden Silence – those actions aren’t really the goal in and of themselves. They are an expression of something greater, a wider philosophy on classroom craft. That wider philosophy is about shifting your focus away from individual students, and thinking about the whole class. Moving to the one student to ask a question is the wrong call not because that student doesn’t deserve an answer – they do – it’s the wrong call because you’ve stopped thinking about the whole class. When Mr F watched the video the first time, he was watching Mr F – what am I doing? – when I watched it I was looking at the students.
I want to make the point clearer, but it’s hard to communicate. Let’s go back to our previous examples:
Remind ourselves that most students wrote kinetic and were told it was right. A few students had added chemical and thermal to that. When Ms Y was then talking about the chemical and thermal stores, what was going in in every other student’s head? If a student writes an answer – in this case kinetic – and the teacher says “that’s right, now can anyone add to it?” the first student stops listening. Why would they? They got it right! They have been signalled to stop listening. Ms Y’s conversation about why chemical or thermal is correct then becomes a dialogue between her and those individual students who had written it down, but nobody else in the class is listening. Sure, Ms Y then told the whole class to add “chemical and thermal” to their answers, which they did, but the proof was in the pudding – they had no idea why they were adding these words because they hadn’t been listening.
The same was true with Mr D. When Jimmy asked a question about their work…he was asking a question about his work. Why should anybody else listen or care? Lo and behold, the proof once again was in the pudding. If they had have been listening, I’m pretty sure they would have got it, but they weren’t listening.
The trick here is to constantly think about what is going on in the majority of student’s heads right now? How have I signalled to everyone else that they need to be listening to this?
This is what I mean by a “class-eye view.” It’s about constantly thinking how to make sure everyone in your class is involved, everyone is listening, everyone is engaged in what you are saying and doing. You aren’t sending subconscious signals at any point that say “you don’t need to listen to this bit.”
Let’s go back then, and amend our two lessons:
Mr D was going over a Do Now quiz. One of the questions related to an advantage of wind turbines. After reviewing a couple of correct answers a student, Jimmy, asked Mr D about his answer: “is ‘they don’t pollute the environment’ correct?”
Mr D said “that’s a brilliant question. I want all eyes up here please…[waits and checks]…thanks guys. Ok, I need everyone to listen to Jimmy’s answer, because it is a very common answer, but it isn’t right and we are going to fix it. Make sure you’re listening because I may ask you why it isn’t right…”
Mr D then asks a student to explain the issue with Jimmy’s answer, then adds to the explanation with perfect clarity that an answer like this isn’t specific enough, we need to say what pollution is avoided. He gave a number of examples, and explained all the key terms. He then asked a number of follow-ups to test understanding like “if I said that fossil fuels are bad because they pollute the environment, would that be good enough?”
Ms Y was reviewing some work students had done on energy stores. The students were just starting to understand and apply the language of energy stores, and Ms Y had asked them to identify which energy stores are linked to a car driving down the road. Ms Y asked a student who gave the answer “kinetic store.” Ms Y then said “good. Please put your hand up if you wrote kinetic store…great. Keep your hand up if that’s the only thing you wrote…ah interesting. You see, kinetic store is only part of the answer. So I now need everybody to be listening…what’s the other part of the answer….”
On questioning, one student said “chemical.” Ms Y paused them there and said “ok, so we think it’s chemical as well. That’s right, but why…[bounces the question to a student who had only written kinetic]…excellent, because there is a fuel involved. What is a fuel…good. Now who can tell me what the third store is here…”
If I had have seen Mr D and Ms Y following these scripts, I wouldn’t have asked my questions to those students. I wouldn’t have got suspicious that other students in the room weren’t listening. In these examples, the teachers are clearly bringing the whole class in, clearly signalling that everyone needs to listen, and though I can’t be sure, I’m fairly confident they would have got better learning. So if you’re struggling with scenarios like this, and you’re trying to figure out why students aren’t understanding you, it could be because they aren’t listening. And it could be that a class-eye view will help.
(Regular readers will of course note the similarity between what I am talking about here and Lemov’s concept of Ratio. As ever, I am massively indebted to both Doug Lemov and my mentors at school for helping me take a class-eye view of lessons)