The Number 1 Problem with Teaching…and How to Solve it (in English!)

About a year ago, Tom Sherrington (@teacherhead) wrote a blog that succinctly summarised the foremost problem when teaching lots of learners in a classroom environment:

In a class of multiple individuals, it is not straight-forward to find out how successfully each individual person is learning, identifying what their difficulties or gaps are and then to use that information to close their learning gaps with appropriate responses.  

https://teacherhead.com/2019/10/04/the-1-problem-weakness-in-teaching-and-how-to-address-it/

Tom delivered some training at Huntington School this week focused on the six solutions that we, as teachers, must reflect and evaluate on to curate the optimal conditions for learners to truly thrive in the classroom.

This first blog in the series specifically focuses on Solution 1: teacher mindset, and how this can be implemented in English.

Creating a ‘culture of error’

As practitioners, we are so often concerned with students actively avoiding errors/mistakes/misunderstandings, but this solution is actually focused on created a ‘culture of error’, that enables a teacher to efficiently ensure that every learner in the classroom is truly understanding the lesson content.

A significant way to do this, is to shift the mindset of the teacher – even breaking ingrained habits where necessary – to ensure the right culture and learning environment permeates the room and focused on checking understanding for everyone.

Tom suggests these useful examples of such a shift in mindset:

  • From “Does anyone know”? to “Does everyone know?”
  • From “Can anyone do it?” to “Can everyone do it?”
  • From “Well done to those getting it right” to “Let’s find out who still can’t get this right and help them out”.

This shift in teachers’ communication with learners is incredibly powerful, but needs to be embedded deeply within the pedagogy of a teacher and become habitual. This does not work if applied on a superficial level, or if only deployed infrequently.

This must be the mindset every single time.

So, what does this look like in an English classroom?

My lessons often begin (but not always) with some form of retrieval practice, with the intent to check prior learning, respond to any misconceptions embedded from previous lessons and, where necessary, re-teach content where required. Where I needed to shift my mindset, however (and I am still working on this!), is with how I actually check my students’ understanding when offering feedback.

Consider the following activity, based on the study of A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens:

How do I, as a teacher, ensure that every student in my class knows the answer to these questions? How do I avoid an illusory notion of assessing all students’ understanding?

With tasks such as these, the instinct may be to pose questions in the vein of “Does anyone know the answer for question 1?” or perhaps cold-call and select a student e.g. ‘Jake, what did you get for question 1?’ followed by congratulations to Jake for a correct answer and a cursory acknowledgement to the other learners of ‘did you all get that?’ followed by a few nods. The problem is, I may feel that because I have heard a correct answer that my students understand – but this is so often not the case. Even those students who fill in blank pages after Jake’s offering retrospectively have not actually learnt much, except how to avoid my attention as their teacher.

Furthermore, after working your way through the questions, we might ask the students to tell us their score. ‘Ok Year 10, hands up if you got 5/5… 4/5… 3/5’ etc. However, this is such a poor proxy of gauging the understanding of learners, but it happens all the time! (If it has not happened to you – I do not believe you!)

Finding the errors, the gaps, the mistakes first

This is how I changed my mindset when giving feedback on this task to instil a culture of error and ensure that everyone in the classroom knew the answers to these questions by the end of the feedback session.

After students’ allotted time elapsed, I asked them to put their pens down, close their books, face the board and framed the feedback session with:

Thank you, Year 10. Now, I am not interested in those of you who got the right answers, I am far more interested in those who perhaps have a gap in their responses today. I would imagine that perhaps question 1 and 4 might have been struggle for you. Hands up those of you who did not get an answer for those…

Notice how I make it OK, almost expected for some students, not to have a correct answer in their books. This works well and six hands are raised aloft. I praise this with a simple ‘good’. It is vital to see gaps in learning as part of the experience, with positivity, as students know they will be addressed soon. I then continue with:

Of course, there may be other gaps too. So, let’s find out who has not got the correct the answers and help them out. Fraser, let’s see if you can help everyone understand the answer to question 1. Please open your book and tell us your answer. Everyone else, open your books too as Fraser is going to help us all. Pop your hand up if you had a gap for Q1…Fraser is going to help the six of you with gaps to make sure everyone understands this answer. The rest of you should be ready to do the same with next questions too, where you can.

Of course, Fraser was a deliberate choice in cold-call – I knew he had the answer, but I want the atmosphere to be a supportive one, where students help everyone know something. I had already made it clear that I wanted to seek out gaps in their learning, and the lesson’s focus shifted to helping everyone out.

A similar process followed for the feedback of questions 2-5, and we all had the goal of making sure everyone understood.

The process ended with me posing this question to a series of students: “Does everyone now know the answers to the questions? Jack? Abbie? Becky?” Perhaps due to the culture in the classroom, Becky actually responded by suggesting (unprompted by me), and addressed to the class: ‘Can you confirm that you have all the answers now? I don’t think Mr Hale will move on until everyone does’.

This is not a perfect example of a lesson. This is not the finished article. But, this shift in teacher mindset towards the deliberate intent to “Can everyone do it?” is essential if we are going to begin to address this problem in teaching.

The next blog in this series will examine: ‘Ineffective testing and checking protocols’…

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