It is a question of time

Before staring this post it would be worth explaining the absence of any post last week.

I was with some of our sixth form students at the astonishing Malvern College, taking part in an OCR revision day for PE. My ex-teacher, John Honeybourne (when I was at Stoke Sixth Form College) has been Chief Examiner for A Level PE for some years now. It is always nice to see him at this annual event. He still teaches the kids like he taught us. Funny, dynamic, animated. He knows his stuff for sure and puts it across well.


Just like our classroom block

3 things struck me during the day:

1. It’s quite straightforward when you know your stuff and are well rehearsed to deliver a plausible and effective revision session or lesson. Ascertaining long term memory retention and learning is harder. No doubt that somebody as effusive as ‘The Chief’ will impact on attention and focus during the one hour, quick fire overview of the course. In fact the biggest benefit to the students is the ‘confirmation’ of the knowledge needed by the chap who writes the questions. It builds confidence knowing that they are on the right lines already.

2. The need for proper planning time where teachers can sit, talk and act to make their job easier and at the same time more effective. I sat with an ex trainee at Droitwich who is now Head of PE in Evesham. Even though he only lives half a mile from me I usually see him in a Tesco aisle, usually in a rush and usually with kids in tow after a busy day at work. But today we could sit, compare resources, plan together and bounce ideas off each other. In the morning session we swapped some useful thoughts and in the afternoon we created a whole section of the course in ‘flash card’ format on Brainscape, the big daddy of the online flash card world.


3. The idea that Mr Gove would like state schools to be indistinguishable from private schools. Now of course our aspirations should be as high, all teachers should want the best for every kid they teach. The students I took have big plans and dreams and are working hard to achieve them. Indeed they are fully capable of going toe to toe with their polished counterparts from the wealthy families who can invest so heavily in their children. As our lot entered the beautiful grounds of Malvern College the slight unfairness of opportunity and provision became apparent to all of them, and to me again. One said when walking through the grounds past other children “I feel like I’m being judged by a 12 year old”. To be fair, apart from the the multi million pound sports centre complete with Conference Centre, Indoor Pool, 8 court sports hall, Fitness Suite and a Starbucks (the real thing too and coffee was free for staff – I was a bit jumpy by the time we tucked into a sumptuous Coq au Vin) there wasn’t much difference to the average state comp! It is not the spaces, we have some of those, it is the fixtures and fittings and polish and shine of the place. It all says “my daddy could own your daddy if he so wished”. And apart from the history, the alumni, the lawns manicured to perfection and the first team cricket pitch complete with electronic scoreboard and grand pavilion, it is the sheer grandiose and opulence that must count for something in the minds of its people. Creating awe and inspiration might be a little easier when the trappings of ‘old wealth’ are all around.

We have cricket too I hear you say. Indeed we do. I remember coming for a tour of our school in May 1995 and saw the brand new (budget level) cricket nets. By the time I started in September they had been burned to the ground. We couldn’t afford the insurance excess to replace them.

If Mr Gove wants equality of opportunity for all children it is a noble thought but in reality it is a bit of a nonsense that we all deal with. 10% of fees going to state schools in the town would be a good start towards equality. But then, when you think about it money doesn’t make good teaching, or good students, it just makes them a bit ‘posher.’ Good teaching is about good teachers and motivated kids and to be really effective at what we do as teachers we need TIME.

And it is on this issue of TIME that our discussion culminated on Friday but it was not where we started. We started by looking at feedback and what makes effective feedback. We glanced through a thoughtful series of blog posts by the excellent @LearningSpy where he identified the 3 main reasons that we would ever wish to give feedback. Here is part 1 which will link to the other posts. The words in italics below are taken from part 1 of the series:

To provide clarity – most mistakes are made because pupils are unclear on precisely what they should be doing. Providing feedback that points out misconceptions and provides clarification is an essential first step. If we don’t get this right all else is for naught.
To get pupils to increase effort – this is the hoary old chestnut at the heart of every success. Try harder is usually of huge benefit. Getting pupils understand what they should be doing is hard enough, but motivating them to actually do it is the master skill.
To get pupils to increase aspiration – There’s certainly some merit in overlearning concepts and practising to the point that errors are eliminated, but feedback may not be necessary to achieve this. But once a goal has been met or exceeded, pupils need to aim for something more challenging. No challenge means no mistakes and no mistakes means that feedback is unlikely to be useful.

@LearningSpy followed this up in part 2 (Clarity) and 3 (Motivation) and is yet to write part 4 (Aspiration) with a couple of flowcharts identifying the type of process we could go through with students to really get the best out of feedback when providing feedback to improve clarity:


and how we might go about improving motivation:


You would have to read the blogs to see where these flow charts have evolved from. They owe much to the work of Dylan Wiliam (Assessment for Learning ‘guru’) and Carol Dweck (Author of ‘Mindset: How you can fulfil your potential)

After reading these posts it was yet again confirmed what is so obvious to us all. High quality assessment and feedback make an enormous difference. Karen noted that the sixth form feedback suggested that what they find most powerful in their learning is some ‘1to1’ time with their teacher discussing their learning. We know this, we would love to do it but our TIME is limited and we have to get through the courses. On top of feedback we have to engage students (which takes TIME to plan well), mark books, set homework and more importantly teach the kids the basics, usually more than once because they blo**dy forget it.

Now, it is clear that no one is going to give us TIME. There are not more than 24 hours in the day, and we only have the children for an hour or two at most (unless you are a Maths or English teacher in the current climate). We only have 4 years and don’t have boarders, saturday school or any of the other slots of time that could be used well. The TIME is finite and what seems appallingly obvious to me is that we have to use it better.

Consider this scenario. It may never have happened to you, it certainly has to me:

– You plan a wicked lesson. Wicked as in ‘cool’ and not ‘cruel’ although I have sometimes wanted to plan a few of those too. You have explained the theory content as well as you can, the resources have been decent, the behaviour calm and considered. All in all you have thought it has gone well. In addition you have built in some time (not enough as there was so much to do) to explain a high quality homework that gets students to explore their understanding and to practise some extended writing, maybe a 20 mark question, maybe an essay, maybe a summary of what they consider poignant literature on the subject. Due to squeezing the explanation of HW in, when the students leave you are not sure that they know exactly what you want and need them to do away from your supervision and guidance.

– The following week a few kids arrive who haven’t done the work. Those who have either misunderstood what was required and did something else that they thought maybe of use or got the context so completely and utterly wrong that both your time and their’s was wasted. Not just wasted but actually made your job even harder in the next lesson as there were so many misconceptions flying about, not to mention frustrations, tangents and roads so wrong that they ended up in a different country. You feel like you are back to square one. The biggest problem was that you only found this out after you sat for painful hour upon hour marking the darned work, getting more and more despondent each time you read what they had written. You felt you had to mark in detail so as to show ‘outstanding’ feedback even though you know it a mathematical impossibility to do this all the time. As you whiled away the hours in pain you could have been planning a better lesson ready for the next time you had a precious hour to spend with the students.

– The next lesson, when the students got their marks and your frustrations were set upon them their motivation took a hit. They had tried hard, just at the wrong thing. You had been too vague, they had received the wrong end of the stick, You were only too happy to set a high level challenge (just not the right level of challenge). Because you were cross with the students (or maybe yourself) they might not even like you anymore – teenagers are fickle.

– What certainly did not happen was that the students had not learned what you had wanted them to. Your master plan had fallen apart and you weren’t exactly sure where. In the longer term the mock results showed that not a great deal had been committed to memory – the only true measure of learning. Yes they had worked hard, yes they had been engaged and challenged, yes you felt that you were teaching well because they got stuck at home (where they need to learn to be independent) and above all their parents would see that you can set homework fit for a University student which is, of course, where they want their kids to be. You therefore must be a good teacher. But, but, but….. after a couple of weeks, they hadn’t learned anything of any substance that would get them any marks. Oops.

I think this type of scenario, which is always born out of wanting to do the best for students was what made me think about TIME and how I could create more of it where it really mattered. To be able to give the time in the lessons to feedback, to dedicated improvement time, to recapping, revisiting, testing, talking about meaning, researching, looking at example and exemplar, having a one to one discussion with every student, to setting appropriate challenge etc etc etc something has to give. To create time in the lessons is the only way as it is not going to happen otherwise. So how do we create time?

Well, personally, I worked out that a good proportion of time was spent explaining fairly straightforward concepts that were essential to understanding and progress in the lesson. When I measured with a stopwatch I found it was 20 minutes plus in every lesson. This was a THIRD of my teaching time. The thing is these definitions of key words, brief explanations and such like were straightforward enough in the first instance to be learned away from the classroom – without me piping away at the front trusting that people would take it all in like great big learning sponges. However, because most classes contain boys and girls, some of whom quite like each other, or genuinely really don’t, I found that my explanations often fell on deaf ears anyway. Some kids were clearly pretending to listen whilst eyeballing, flirting or just becoming distracted and if they had missed the first bit they were lost already and couldn’t catch up so they would then distract others…… know how it goes. At least I knew, I had been 17 once and believe me, the teacher was not the first thing on my mind unless of course…you know. Teaching to lots of teenagers is hard because of this……they don’t really care what you are saying unless it is about them or too them. I was wasting time, every lesson, every day. Hours and hours and hours.

So I spent hours and hours (but not hours and hours and hours) building up resources that could be used time and time again. Each time I build my own resource it is there forever, well maybe not forever but at least until I think about how I can improve them. Resources such as Brainscape or GCSEpod or My-GCSE-Science or MyMaths are obvious short cuts and to not use them is bonkers to me. They create TIME. More TIME for discussion, debate. More TIME for brief tests to ascertain how much key information could be recalled and more TIME for feedback because it is feedback that counts and feedback that works. The students really don’t care how much I know unless it helps them with what they know. Most teachers like the sound of their own voice and they like to show off, its a human instinct and it protects us from what we find much harder to do. It makes us feel good, especially when we can hold court at the front of the room, displaying our knowledge to a group of lesser beings, mere fledglings in the knowledge gathering world. We know best, we are teachers.

There are times when direct instruction from the teacher is absolutely critical especially when progress in the level of understanding requires our specialist input. Just not all the time. Because if you do it all the time, something is inevitably missing.

So is this the method of TIME creation?

1. Plan ahead – what are you doing next week? Use the last 10 minutes (not 5) to make sure every student know what you want them to KNOW BEFORE they enter the room next week. Keep it simple so as to ensure ALL students can access it. There could be more ‘available’ for those who want to extend themselves but the bare minimum MUST be accessible to all. Make sure that everyone knows exactly what they need to do before they leave the room. Let them know that you will be happy when they return having done it and be really disappointed if they haven’t.

2. Give the students the resources they need to be able to know and understand the basics (such as definitions of the key terms) that you will look at next time. These could be electronic but could also be fact sheets, lists, key words, glossaries.

3. Test them (its quicker than marking) via Q and A, mini tests, mini whiteboard scribbling, multi-choice etc. The students can play a huge and important role in this testing and ascertaining understanding role. If they haven’t done the work, punish them, give negative points, be angry, be upset (don’t actually cry), explain that you are now wasting time which is their time. Praise ALL those who have shown good effort in your ‘away from the class’ task.

4. Spend the rest of the time teaching the more tricky concepts, applying the basics, providing feedback, encouraging debate and discussion, posing arguments etc etc. You can use this time for marking too, especially if it focussed, looking at books, discussing particular pieces of work with students. See the earlier flowcharts from @LearningSpy if you want to make sure students take ownership of their learning.

In the melting pot we wondered how new some of the information that we throw at kids is. Picture a lesson and it is a new topic. Have the kids EVER even heard the terms that you explain to them? How often have they heard it. To what extent do they understand? How are you going to teach based on this information? If they haven’t seen it or heard it before it will be almost impossible for them to learn it first time.

As Dan Willingham states ‘We learn things in the context of things we already know’. If students ARRIVED at your lesson already knowing a few basics, whatever you ask them to learn will be more acceptable to their brains. Otherwise it just might be rejected as too challenging even though you, the teacher, think it should be easy to remember.

Worth thinking about?