David asks a multiple choice question to Nate, who answers quite quietly. David takes a step towards him and asks him to speak up. Nate repeats his answer at a similar volume and gets it right. David asks Nate a couple of follow up questions in a similar vein.

When you look at a scenario like this, your lens is important. A lens is like a tool which you use to view a lesson – it’s a certain perspective on teaching and learning. There are many such lenses, and some people are really interested in some lenses and less interested in others. For example, some teachers watch lessons with a lens of “oracy” – they want to develop students’ ability to express themselves through speaking. In this lesson, part of their feedback might be:

When you let Nate speak quietly, you aren’t encouraging him to express himself confidently.

Others might use a lens where they are particularly interested in a kind of “dialogic questioning:” the way that teachers talk to individual students and help them develop their thinking by intensive and probing questioning. They might be quite happy with what David has done, as he has pushed Nate further in his thinking. Another teacher might use a lens that focuses more on “checking for understanding” or “assessment”, and they also might be quite happy: David’s use of follow up questions allows him to get a better read on whether David really understands it or if he is just guessing. Other observers might use a “behaviour” lens, and therefore might focus less on this particular segment, and more on other sections of the lesson.

It’s of course reasonable to assume that observers might use multiple lenses in one session, and all of these lenses are valid and have their place. Personally, I prefer a lens that focuses on Ratio, or what I have before called the class eye view. In this case, my feedback might be more like:

When Nate speaks quietly, nobody else can hear. If they can’t hear, they start to lose focus and think that this part of the lesson is not for them. When you take a step towards Nate, you are reaffirming this message. Subconsciously, you are saying “don’t worry guys, this bit of the lesson is for me and Nate only – you don’t need to listen.” All of this lowers your Participation Ratio: the number of students participating in your lesson is reduced. Instead, step away from Nate and ask him to speak up so that everyone can hear him, and insist on this. Alternatively, if you don’t want to stress a student out or pressure them to speak in a way that they don’t enjoy or makes them feel uncomfortable, make sure to loudly repeat what they said, potentially adding phrases like “I am about to say Nate’s answer more loudly and I need everyone to listen because I may ask you to build on his answer” or similar.

I like this lens for three reasons:

  1. Frequency: issues around Ratio are extremely common, and I observe them in pretty much every lesson I see (which is a lot).
  2. Impact: if one student doesn’t listen for 1 minute, that’s 60 seconds of lost time. If 29 students don’t listen for one minute, that’s 1740 seconds of lost time. Fixing Ratio therefore massively increases the amount of time in your lesson that is useful, probably more than any other intervention.
  3. Ease of fixing: Ratio is a constant battle, and our default assumption has to be if I am not actively stopping it from doing so, Ratio will fall. There are, however, tied and tested strategies like Cold Call and Wait Time that allow you to drive Ratio up.

I’ve written a lot about Ratio now, and I think I’ve covered the most common examples that I see. These examples are all about a teacher doing something which on the face of it seems normal and natural, but when you scratch under the surface you see its deleterious effects. In Nate’s example, we expose those effects by simply going to the back of the room and quietly asking a different student what Nate just said. Nine times out of ten they can’t give a good answer. Ratio has fallen, and always will.

I think that’s the right way round to think about it, to acknowledge that Ratio’s default is to fall – it’s natural for it to fall, and we have to make a conscious effort to do things which are “unnatural” to combat it. Using Cold Call isn’t a natural way to question or talk to people, and we need to make a conscious effort to get into deliberate habits of using it and minimise the occasions by which we slip up.

I’ve knocked up a table to try and synthesise the various strategies, and have linked them to blogs where I’ve described scenarios containing them in more detail:

Instead of…Try…Scenario examples
Saying a student’s name and then asking a questionAsking the question and then saying their nameRatio blog here
Lemov Cold Call archive here
Asking a question, then saying a student’s name and then waiting for them to answerAsking a question, then waiting for everyone to think and then saying a student’s nameRatio blog here
Lemov Wait Time archive here
Having a long interrogative conversation with one studentSpringboarding the questions around the roomKeeping the one, losing the many
Having a long interrogative conversation with one studentSaying things like “I want everyone to make sure they are listening, as I will ask you what this student has just said…”
“I want everyone to make sure they are listening, as this student may make a mistake and we need to notice…”
Keeping the one, losing the many
Repeating questions for studentsTelling them it is not acceptable to not be listening, and you will come back to them laterMaintaining high expectations
Allowing students to call out and accepting their answersChallenging every instance and explaining to students why it is unacceptableMaintaining high expectations
Sins of enthusiasm
Doing lots of verbal questioningUsing mini-whiteboardsTips for teachers: mini-whiteboards
Stepping towards speakersStep away from the speakerThis blog
Letting students speak quietlyAsk them to speak up, or repeat their answers loudlyThis blog
Letting students “not know” an answerGently challenge them and tell them you will come back to them later after somebody else has explained itMaintaining high expectations
Lemov No Opt Out archive here
Acknowledging and responding to unexpected answersPulling the whole class back and returning to your original questionUnexpected Answers
Projecting instructions or clarifications out whilst students are workingPulling the whole class back and getting full attention before giving your instructions or clarificationsThey aren’t listening
Giving lots of instructions at onceOnly giving one instruction at a time and waiting for students to complete it, visibly checking that they have done it and then moving onBrighten Lines (Lee Donaghy)
Not giving your Means of Participation clearly and at the start of your instructionsFront Loading your Means of InstructionFront Loading
Not circulating during independent practiceCirculate intensively, looking carefully at what students are writingBusy Tricking
You’ll notice how much of this is based on Doug Lemov, whose work very much set me off on the path that led to the Ratio Lens

I imagine many teachers will look at the above and think that it is obvious, or “just good teaching.” Often, people read my posts and say things like “helpful for ECTs!” or the like. All of the above may be true: it may be obvious, it may be just good teaching, it may be helpful for ECTs. But then why do I notice its lack all the time? Why is it that in all the lessons I see across the country Ratio errors like this are happening? New teachers, experienced teachers, novice teachers, expert teachers – why do I always see it? Why is it that when I video myself – as I do regularly – I see yet more examples and slips?

To return to where we were a bit earlier, I think it’s for two reasons:

  1. The natural tendency for Ratio is to fall: the struggle against it is constant, and even if you have great routines for your class and habits for yourself, you will inevitably slip up.
  2. It isn’t natural: Ratio strategies require conscious effort. They have to be worked on and refined, nobody speaks or uses them as part of their natural mannerisms before they’ve a) stepped into a classroom and b) become aware of the Ratio Lens. Saying things like “ok pens down please…[wait]…[crane neck and check]…great, now please get your purple pens….[wait]…[crane neck and check]…I can see two students without their purple pens yet…” and the like isn’t natural. You need to script, practise and reflect.

I imagine this is the last blog about Ratio I will write in a while. I’ve found using the Ratio Lens to be spectacularly powerful in my own teaching and in the feedback I give to others. But I’ve got to a point where I’ve now written about the most common scenarios I see, and there are diminishing returns from focusing on edge cases. For me, I know that the scenarios and strategies here are the Big Ones that I’m still working on and – in my experience – pretty much all other teachers could be too. These blogs weren’t written to be “nice ideas” or philosophical, big picture stuff. They were written to be concrete, specific and applicable. But they were also written to be challenging: to help you and me examine our practice and figure out if it’s possible, through a small number of strategies, to drive Ratio through the roof. I think it is possible, and though it may not be easy, it’s definitely worth it.