Three easy and free ways to improve your teaching

I am pretty sure that default teaching in most secondary schools is teacher-led. I am not so certain about primary schools and early education but teachers are still likely to spend a fair amount of time standing at the front and explaining things. You might therefore wonder why I take the time to criticise inquiry learning, project based learning and other ‘student-centred’ teaching methods. How can they be doing harm if they are not prevalent forms of teaching?

They harm education by presenting a false prospectus. Teachers who want to improve are confidently told to abandon their methods for something entirely different when the reality is that you don’t need to do that. Add a few simple ideas and routines to default teacher-led instruction and you have one of the most powerful forms of teaching known. You don’t need to create or buy-in supposedly ‘rich’ tasks. You don’t need to abandon whole class talk. You certainly don’t need to spend money on iPads or gimmicky software (although there are plenty of folks who will tell you that you do). There is hardly any good evidence to support these ideas but there is plenty to support the following ones:

1. Ask a large number of questions of all of the students in your class

Students won’t learn if they are not paying attention. One way to ensure attention is for all students to believe that they could be called upon at any time to contribute to the class. This can be done by randomly selecting students, but randomisation is not essential provided that the students cannot easily predict which students will be called-upon.

There are a variety of approaches that teachers use to ensure that students can’t opt out from questioning. One of these is to refuse to accept, “I don’t know,” as an answer. The teacher may insist that a student at least suggests something or the teacher may come back to that student for comment when someone else has supplied an answer. There are also approaches that require a whole-class response such as true and false (thumbs up versus thumbs down) or the use of mini-whiteboards. With these techniques, it is important to develop routines where every student is required to show an answer at the same time in order to avoid immitation. The teacher also needs to set-up a low-threat environment where nobody will be ridiculed for a response. I often say, “We learn much more from incorrect responses than correct ones.” Sometimes, of course, questions are more open, a variety of responses are valid and students will venture responses that aid the thinking of the class.

My battered box of mini-whiteboards
My battered box of mini-whiteboards

2. Ask a large number of questions of all of the students in your class

Same strategy, different reason.

By regularly questioning your students, a teacher gains information about what they know and can adjust the teaching accordingly. This sounds obvious but it is very easy for teachers to proceed with something when students have already lost the thread. I entirely accept that, just because a student can provide an answer in class, it does not mean that they will be able to do so at a later date. Learning decays. But I do think it’s a pretty good start. If students don’t understand the initial teaching then it is hard to see where they will go from there. And, of course, we can always use these questions to check whether students have retained something previously taught and this could be useful both for spaced practice and for checking the prior knowledge required before teaching a new concept.

Experience also suggests that it’s actually quite hard to predict what students will and will not understand and so pretty constant feedback mitigates this. It is therefore particularly important that a teacher doesn’t end up in a dialogue with only a small subgroup of the class who might not be representative of what all students understand. Frequent questioning represents a low-threat, low-stakes testing strategy.

3. Spend more time in whole-class interactive instruction

Whole class, interactive instruction is effective. The evidence shows this (see below) and so we should perhaps devote more class time to this activity that we currently do. A recent study by David Reynolds and Zhenzhen Miao compared the teaching of mathematics in English classrooms and Chinese classrooms. In the Chinese classrooms, whole-class interactive teaching was used 72% of the time whereas, in English classrooms, it was 24%. I will not draw a causal link because there are other differences between the two countries and many would attribute the higher performance of Chinese students to cultural factors. However, the Chinese approach does show that it is possible to teach in this way.

What’s the evidence?

There are many sources of evidence for whole-class interactive teaching. There is the process-product research of the 1950s through to the 1970s where researchers observed lots of classrooms and looked for correlations between teacher behaviours and student learning gains. Brophy and Good wrote a comprehensive summary here. This an area discussed by Barak Rosenshine who also points out that 1980s research into teaching “ill-structured tasks” such as reading comprehension, writing and mathematical and scientific problems solving led to similar conclusions. We can also look to cognitive science for lab-based studies that seem to replicate these findings and that provide a theoretical framework as to why explicit instruction of this kind is effective. In addition, there is a large body of research into formative assessment of which Dylan Wiliam is possibly the greatest proponent. This demonstrates the values of frequent, low stakes assessment that is used to refine and guide teaching.

A final point

Occasionally Ben Riley of Deans for Impact – an organisation that I respect and that does good work – pops up on Twitter to accuse me of advocating for explicit instruction all of the time to the exclusion of everything else.

Riley - all DI all the time

I have never suggested this. In fact, from pretty much the start of my first blog I have gone out of my way to stress that this is not my position. Other methods should be used when students become more expert and other methods should be used for the sake of variety if nothing else. As teachers, maximising learning is not our sole objective, something that I wrote about most recently in this post. So Ben needs to substantiate this claim or stop making it.

4 thoughts on “Three easy and free ways to improve your teaching

  1. In your definition, does “whole-class, interactive instruction” include student practice? If I am spending 25% of my time instructing, explaining, modeling, questioning, etc and 75% of my time facilitating deliberate practice, formative assessment, students doing math etc, where would I fall?

    1. Deliberate practice could be part of the whole-class interactive instruction e.g. if you gave students questions to complete on mini-whiteboard. I think this is how the Chinese model might work.

      1. Yea that makes sense, both in terms of my understanding of the Chinese system and evidence around best practices that you are referring to.

        Something I’d love to explore in more detail is how exactly we define that practice — I’m thinking of a spectrum from “routine” (useful from a retrieval practice standpoint and for novices, but not always the best use of class time), “rigorous” (more challenging problems on the edge of students’ ZPD, more variable in terms of finding success for each student) and “transfer” (problems that require applying old concepts in new ways). I’m thinking of math instruction specifically here.

        I would advocate for all three of those types of practice, but I’m not sure about the proportion of class time that should be dedicated to each. Also, those three names are awkward, and I wonder if other folks have written about this more articulately.

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