Teaching Nothing New

I tenuously – and hopefully – suggest that the days of measuring progress in one single lesson are gone. I remember, with pounding anxiety, observers looking for a knowledge check at the beginning – I know nothing, Miss – and then ticking that golden box at the bottom of the form when – yes! – they can all answer the same question by the end of the lesson. If you threw SOLO taxonomy into the mix, you’d have all the PGCE pupils observing you within a week.

There’s no depth to that kind of progress, though. By depth, I mean, it doesn’t stick. It’s lost, the moment they step outside your lesson. They won’t be able to answer it as fully the next day and they won’t be able to use this knowledge to contextualise the next concept or any previous learning.

It’s better to have planned-for lessons, in which we don’t actually teach them anything new.

We need to practise and hone skills in order to refine our pupils’ abilities to apply what we’re teaching them. We need to model how to do what we want them to do, and accept that it’s important that at the start of this process, they just watch. Tom Needham writes about worked examples here; all of Tom’s blogs on direct instruction are my go-to blogs for the theory and application of DI in English. I won’t duplicate what Tom has said. If you’re pushed for time and you’re an English teacher, then read the linked one above. If you’re really really pushed for time, scroll to the subheading “The Worked Example Effect.” Tom uses examples from English in this blog, but several of his other blogs consider different domains.

Read it, read it, and read again

When I read a novel, sometimes my mind wanders and I finish a paragraph, thinking, none of that went in at all. I don’t have a clue what just happened. I’m reliably informed by my friends that I’m not alone in this. Our pupils are not immune to this sort of daydreaming. Of course we have high expectations that they should keep up and focus. Cold-calling can help – read Doug Lemov’s TLAC or Reading Reconsidered for more on this – this TLAC blog post gives a neat and very real account of how it works and how it’s an inclusive strategy.

I’m interested in what we can do, though, to combat this attitude among some teachers that when we’ve read something once, we’ve covered it. I don’t believe that reading any part of a chapter once is enough to then immediately write a response to it. I just don’t buy it. We read something once, set a task, and then wonder why they just can’t write analytically or we get exasperated when they still don’t know the difference between Utterson and Enfield. They’re children. These are difficult texts. We need to build confidence through repetition. This is especially true if you teach children with challenging environments at home – children who can’t or don’t do homework need this repetition more than they need easier or ‘more exciting’ stories.

Don’t be afraid to read something more than once with your classes. Repetition is important. Immersion is important. Read extracts more than once and consider the methods you’re using. David Didau has written about how ‘reading along’ (ie. following the words on the page while the text is read out loud) is problematic. This was a startling revelation for me. ‘Far, far better to allow them to dedicate all their attention on listening so that they have greater capacity to think about meaning, draw inferences and make hypotheses’ (Didau, ref. above). Since reading this blog, my usual model is to read it aloud, with the pupils listening, and then allow them time to read the same text independently. I will often – though not always – read an extract from the text again and almost always return to the same place in the following lessons.

Teachers’ usual concerns for this approach lie along the lines of ‘we don’t have time’ – except, we do. We have time because we make room for this repetition by cutting out pointless writing before they’re ready. Here’s how:

Modelling – ‘I, we, you’

Or, ‘I – I – I – we – we – you’

When I was learning GCSE mathematics in the mid 1990s, my teacher taught us a new concept by modelling it. She’d stand at the board, talking us through what she was doing, and then we practised it over and over again. Then, she’d often show us a different approach, or reverse the formulae or show us how it might look from a different starting point. Then – the same. Practice, practice, practice. I remember doing 25, maybe 30 exercises on the same thing and then another 25 on the new approach. My chemistry teacher was the same when it came to simple calculations, such as balancing equations.

It is rare to see this happen in an English lesson.

I know that we model in English. Visualisers are – thank goodness – a common sight in many English classrooms and I’ve seen them put to excellent use*. However, I think we move too quickly. We ask pupils to write their own after being shown something just once. We make assumptions about their understanding of the process and then tear our hair out when they still can’t do it independently.

The I – we – you model is working well for me. I write it, we write it, you write it. Except, the ‘I’ dominates the process and the ‘you’ comes last. The ‘you’ doesn’t feature until we have had several, varied examples from me. I talk through the process as I write. Due to logistics, this is done on the whiteboard at the moment (not a visualiser). It works well – I can cross through mistakes and talk through why I’ve amended something. I talk through the basics too: the punctuation I’m using and how I’m remembering to spell characters’ names with capital letters. I talk through my selection of quotations which must come from memory – after all, I’m modelling responses for a closed-book examination.

After I’ve written a model paragraph, we then re-read it. I read it aloud and then they have a chance to read it independently. We then work through it again, this time with focused questions from me on why certain elements are included. Why did I choose that quotation? Which alternative did I have lined up? Why do I finish on that point and not start on it?

During this process, they don’t write anything down. Copying as they’re listening is counterproductive – they will concentrate on what they’re trying to copy, instead of what you’re working through with them. Some of my pupils want to copy down what’s on the board – and I give time for this, always with the title ‘modelled example.’ For those who struggle to copy from the board, I take a photo and print it.

Then, we do this again. Sometimes, we do it one more time.

Then, next lesson, we read on, read it again, and discuss what we’ve read, using cold call questioning and some hands-up. I model a response to an analytical question again. Still, my pupils have not written their own response.

The next stage of the process is the ‘we’ part. We work through a modelled paragraph. Some teachers do this as a one-to-one, moving around the room, working with individuals. This is unmanageable for me, with 32 in my group. We do it as a team effort. I used to allow a child to scribe it, but I don’t now. That one child is missing out on the process. I write and I question them on what should come next. Sometimes, they’re really stuck, so I’ll fill the gaps. Then they take over again and I guide them through a killer paragraph.

That’s it. Easy. The next part is the ‘you’. I hand the reins over. They know how to start. They have read the relevant extract more than once; they’re confidence is high. Their paragraphs from the first attempt are usually shaky, but they’re vastly better than when I used to set them off without this structure.

* a note on visualisers. If you display a pupil’s work and it’s wrong, it’s vital that the entire work-through of how to make it right is explicitly delivered, otherwise you’re exhibiting and modelling bad habits.

The music in the featured image is a handful of scales that I had to learn as a kid for Grade 5 piano. I can’t find any other piano books! I had to practise them hundreds of times. This epitomises repetition for long-term effective practice and fluency.