It can be easy to be negative about education. Just this week, I felt the need to respond to some poor ideas that had been publicised in The Age newspaper, provoking one of the journalists to exclaim, “I’m glad I’m not one of your students.” That’s the sort of thing people feel free to say to teachers. It’s because we’ve all been in the classroom and so we all imagine ourselves sitting in the back row when a teacher is pontificating.
So what would that look like in my classroom? As an advocate of explicit teaching, I thought it might be worth sharing three ideas, based upon a mixture of research evidence and craft knowledge, that I use in my own teaching. I teach maths and science but some of my suggestions have broader applications.
Have a robust lesson framework
When students enter my classroom, there is a box on the whiteboard into which they may write the numbers of any homework questions that they found difficult. They then take their seats and begin a starter activity that’s on the screen. After this, we discuss the starter activity. It is usually related to the previous lesson and similar to the homework so, at this point, some of the homework questions get rubbed-off the board as the students’ problems are resolved. I then set the new homework and go over any remaining questions from the previous one. Sometimes, if I sense that only a few students had problems, I will leave this to the end of the lesson when other students are working independently.
I then introduce the new material, making use of worked examples when I can (see below). The final phase of the lesson involves students working independently on questions.
I use a set of PowerPoint slides to frame all of this. They are not just there to display notes – although I do use slides for this purpose and I usually print out these notes for the students. In addition, I have a slide that reminds me to take the register; we have an electronic registration system and I easily forget about it when in full flow. Also, the fact that there is a slide near the start of the PowerPoint template that I use labelled, “Homework,” means that I rarely forget about it and am actually forced to think about this prior to developing the rest of the lesson. This gives focus.
The PowerPoint then becomes an object that can be reviewed and changed. It is particularly powerful if the construction of resources like this can be shared across a teaching team. If curriculum authorities can avoid the temptation to fiddle with the syllabus every five minutes then having a framework like this acts as a ratchet rather than a wheel; when teaching the unit for the second time, you can start where you left-off the first time. It doesn’t have to be a PowerPoint, of course; it’s the mechanism that counts.
Optimise use of worked examples
Worked examples are powerful learning tools. They reduce the cognitive load involved in solving problems and so they allow attention to focus on the salient features of a process. However, I doubt whether many of us use them optimally. In fact, probably the worst way to use worked examples is to present a whole series of different ones before giving students an exercise to complete. Yet, this is something that I have often done.
As teachers, we suffer from the curse of knowledge. We can make relatively large conceptual leaps between different examples and we assume that our students can do the same. However, our students are novices and they generally need to proceed in smaller steps, particularly those students who are struggling.
With this in mind, I have started to structure things differently. I will give a worked example and then ask the students to complete a question, straight away, that is very similar to this example. In maths, you can often achieve this by asking pretty much the same question with different numbers in it.
In classic worked-example experiments, students are simply presented with the example. As teachers, it is instinctive to want to work the example in front of the students, explaining our thinking as we go. However, we need to be careful not to provide too much for our students to attend to and thus increase cognitive load. Communication needs to be focused on the features of the example.
Interestingly, although much of the early research on worked examples was completed in the area of maths, similar effects have now been found across a range of subjects. A ‘worked example’ effect has been found for an annotated section of a Shakespeare play, for instance. Similarly, it is quite reasonable to assume that the construction of a paragraph would act as a worked example.
Another possibility is to ask students to complete some of the steps in a worked example. This makes use of the completion effect – it lowers the cognitive load compared to solving the entire problem independently but can aid retention of the example.
We should also be mindful of the expertise reversal effect – studying worked examples is not effective when we already have a lot of expertise in the area. I have some highly talented maths students who are better served by solving problems themselves than following through my worked examples. And so this is what they do.
I rarely mark homework. Students have the numerical answers – these are in the back of the textbook and I provide them for any other questions that I set. I then focus on ensuring the homework is completed, that solutions are worked in full (otherwise they could just be copied from the answers) and that they have been checked against the answers. I am therefore able to perform such a check every lesson in about five minutes while my students are completing a starter activity.
The problem with homework is that you can never be sure of the conditions in which it was completed. Students might have had help. They will put-in differential amounts of effort.
However, barely a week will pass without me setting some sort of test or quiz in class. I take this up and mark it. I try to set quizzes a couple of weeks after I have taught the concepts in order to disrupt the process of forgetting. I am able to control the conditions and gain more realistic feedback on the progress of my students.
Of course, waiting two weeks to discover anything about what my students know would be far too long and this is why I ask a lot of questions in class and why I am quite a fan of mini-whiteboards.
Marking can quickly grow out-of-control when you couple unrealistic expectations and policies with teachers’ own sense of guilt. Complex pieces such as essays can be particularly time-consuming. I would recommend a reductionist approach – you don’t check whether a student has read a book by asking them to write an essay where you then correct all of the grammar. That’s too circuitous. You check whether a student has read a book by setting a quick multiple-choice quiz. Focus on the thing you want to assess.