Part 2: The Number 1 Problem with Teaching…and How to Solve it (in English!)

This second blog in the series specifically focuses on Solution 2: ineffective testing or checking protocols, and how this can be implemented in English, as referenced in the first blog in the series here:

Similar to solution 1: teacher mindset, this solution has a clear focus on the ideal form of checking students’ understanding:

Make ‘all knowing all’ the explicit goal. Set this expectation with students.

Tom Sherrington (@teacherhead)

What I suggest below are some examples of what we can do in English (and things to avoid) in order to do this within lessons.

All knowing all

Imagine the scenario. You have read Act 1, Scene 2 of Macbeth and you want to check students’ understanding in terms of key knowledge from this section of the play. You perhaps pose a series of questions:

  1. Who brings news of the battle to King Duncan?
  2. Who is Macdonwald? What happened to him?
  3. What other captain is fighting alongside Macbeth?
  4. Who’s the thane of Cawdor? What does the king say about him? How is the king going to reward Macbeth?

Arguably, this is pre-requisite knowledge students need to have before they consider more exploratory questions about the text, such as: Why might it be significant we hear about Macbeth before we see him? How does the fate of the Thane of Cawdor mirror future events in the play? Without all students knowing the previous answers, it already creates a huge stumbling block in their understanding of the play in these early stages.

So, how we do ensure this happens in the classroom with 25 or 30 students? Let’s begin with what not to do in this scenario:

  • Do not merely ask four students the answer to the four questions (do check all students know the answers to the four questions – see below)
  • Do not rely on just merely asking students whether they got 4/4, with hands up, for example, as students often lie to save their blushes
  • Do not emphasis a culture of correctness

This creates an illusion of students’ understanding, which I discuss in more detail in the previous blog. There are a number of ways in which you can combat this, of course, e.g. mini-whiteboards, circulating the room (in pre-Covid world), or take in students’ books at the end of the lesson. All of these, however, pose problems and do nothing to encourage a culture in the classroom where students are not afraid to make mistakes, and more importantly…actually learn from them.

Keep it simple: ask all students all the questions and give answers all at once for students to self-assess and, if you like, ask them to discuss them.  But the most important part of this process is to take as much time as you can to find out where the errors lie. Instead of asking whether students got 4/4, 3/4 etc., I tend to frame my feedback sessions with:

Hands up if you got one or more incorrect, and those who were correct will work hard to help us all understand all the answers together.

This gives you the opportunity to talk about errors and problems that many others are likely to have and it opens the door to other students self-regulating in a culture of error, and using error, ultimately, as a springboard for their learning.  As Tom Sherrington states in his original blog:

“A post-test process should be about finding out where the errors lie – that should feel like the whole point.  I am testing you to find out what you still need help with.

The role of retrieval practice

One of the most popular resources I have shared on Twitter was an adaptation of Kate Jones’ ‘Retrieval Practice Pyramids’. Retrieval Practice is fundamental in this solution, as it facilitates the opportunities to check students’ understanding in a highly effective manner. I will not examine RP in more detail here, but highly recommend you read Jones’ work on this, which you can buy here:

I want to finish by sharing how my resource could be used in the manner above, so here it is:

This technique works very well in the culture of ‘all knowing all’ and a ‘culture of error’ that we want to create within the English classroom. The idea here is that students work their way up to the top of the pyramid ,with increasingly more cognitively demanding tasks, but I have started to use this in a slightly different way.

I set all students the ‘1 point’ layer first and ask them to stop and this is fed back much like the Macbeth example above, as these questions focus more on factual recall, but the other layers work differently. After I have fed back on this layer, I state to the class: By the end of the lesson all of us will be at the top of the pyramid, but to get there, we need to all know the next two layers, so let’s work together to check we all understand.

Once again, I focus the mindset on error, or in this case, lacking in knowledge or skill, with a very simple request: Which questions are stopping us getting to the top? I pose this in terms of things they are unsure of, rather than affirmation of what they know, initially. With the right classroom culture, you will probably find at least one student is struggling with at least one (but probably more) of the ‘2 points’ and ‘3 points’ questions, so when this is identified, the teacher can re-teach and response to students’ needs, always led by the ethos of ‘we will work hard to help us all understand all the answers together.

Only then will I ask students to consider consider ‘4 points’, which I ask them to do independently, and then the whole feedback cycle begins once more!

Of course, this is only one possible adaptation of this resource, but I feel it works well as an effective testing and checking protocol, always with ‘all knowing all’ as the culture in the classroom I want to teach in and where error is a milestone on the journey of learning.

The third blog in this series will focus on: Exposition without checking for understanding.

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