First Impressions

OK, so this one’s a list rather than a diagram, but it’s day four and I’m flagging a bit.

EffectivenessIt derives from some Harvard University research into whether the first impressions we make as teachers are predictive of how good we are at our jobs.  Somewhat disconcertingly, the clear answer is yes.  Within two seconds – two seconds – students can form an impression of us that will correlate remarkably closely with how we are rated by our superiors. And those impressions will be based not on what we say, but on what we do: our non-verbal behaviour.

That raises all sorts of questions, some of which I addressed in this article. But for the purposes of this short blog, just know this: the traits you display in class may well predict how are good you are at your job.

The lists above are the traits on which the Harvard professors asked pupils to score their teachers.  The higher people scored in the list on the right, the better teachers they were.  (In the list on the left, Anxious was negatively scored – so the lower the rating, the better as it meant they were Not Anxious.)

So how do you come across as Enthusiastic, Confident, Dominant etc?  The research suggests this:

Body language

So there you go.  Walk around confidently; smile enthusiastically; touch your upper torso dominantly; be a better teacher.

Good Question Questions

“Good Question” Questions

Mainly, questions in lessons are good.  They suggest interest, curiosity, a willingness to try something out or to ask for help.

However, not all questions are equal.  After observing several lessons and noting down the pupils’ questions, I think they can be grouped like this:

QuestionsCapture

“How to do it” questions

These were the most common.  Pupils ask them to make sure they understand what they are being asked to do.  Here are some examples:

  • Can we take notes on this?
  • Should we put a cross or a tick?
  • How should we structure this essay?
  • Do we only add three things?

These aren’t bad questions but they are a bit annoying: they take up time which could be used on other things and they reflect the fact that either you haven’t explained properly or they haven’t been listening, or both.  They don’t add much to your lesson, and can be avoided.

“Clarificatory” questions

I like these questions better.  They are ones through which students try to clarify their understanding of a particular issue.  They may not drive the lesson forward, but they will probably help ensure that the foundations are secure.  For example:

  • Do you have to re-sign Executive Orders every 90 days? (Bit niche but fellow teachers of US Politics will back me on this one.)
  • Does sea or land heat quicker?
  • Is judicial activism something which overturns a ruling?
  • What was that thing you said about Labour’s rise in the 1970s?

Nothing wrong with these at all, but they probably aren’t the ones that make you say, “Good question!”

“Thanks but” questions

These are the ones which represent the opening of the rabbit hole.  Perhaps something more tempting than a rabbit hole, actually; sometimes they offer the possiblity of an interesting tangent, a beautifully freeform, off the cuff discussion.  Such questions may well reflect an inquiring mind and some genuine interest, but they threaten to derail your lesson.  Hence the “Thanks, but…”  Some examples:

  • [In a lesson about the UK constitution:] Does the constitution really exist?
  • [In a lesson about the transmission of disease:] AIDS, is that what Freddy Mercury died of?
  • [In a lesson about the 2017 election:] Why does the left wing see the media as so biased against them when there is so much media attention on minor gaffes like fields of wheat, rather than on big issues like Corbyn being friends with Hamas?

“Good question” questions (GQQs)

These are the ones you really want.  They take whatever it is you are discussing and move it on a level.  Unlike “Thanks buts”, these ones do make you say, “Good question.”  They show interest, understanding and curiosity and they are relevant.  For example:

  • [In a lesson about the formation of tropical storms:] Why are tropical storms not found on the equator since it’s an area of low pressure?
  • [In a lesson about the transmission of disease:] So, a doctor could be infected?
  • I know second term US presidents are supposed to have less power of persuasion, but haven’t they built up good relations with Congress by then, which should help?

For more on all this, including how to get more of the right sort of questions, click here.

Ratio

Totally ripped off from Adam Boxer, this one.  I claim no credit whatsoever.  Here’s the diagram: 

Ratio

So clear, so simple, so effective.  Your lessons need to be in the top right hand quadrant for as much of the time as possible. 

The only thing I’d add, which probably goes without saying which is probably why Adam doesn’t say it, is that your students need to be thinking hard about the right stuff.  I know lots of my students will be thinking hard if I walk into the room with my flies undone, but it probably won’t help their understanding of the Treaty of Versailles. 

There are implications for your teaching practice, though.  Here are ten things that sometimes happen in class.  It’s worth considering where they fit on the graph and whether, therefore, they offer good teaching value. 

  1. Group discussion in which you take only those hands that go up. 
  2. Group discussion when you ask people rather than using hands up, but in which your main aim is to get everyone to speak. 
  3. Inviting one person to write their ideas on the board. 
  4. Individual work. 
  5. Group work. 
  6. A whole class debate, properly set up with speakers proposing and opposing the motion. 
  7. Resources with lots of clip-art style pictures to make them fun. 
  8. Making a poster to display information they’ve found out. 
  9. Writing a newspaper front page to describe a pivotal moment, complete with adverts for the grrrrreat competition on page four. 
  10. Making a model of a First World War trench/a cell/the solar system/an oxbow lake. 

And if you’re observing a lesson, the diagram is a good framework to discuss what you saw. 

For more on this, including from the Boxer’s mouth, try this presentationthis blog and this one. 

Progress

Progress.

It’s what we all want to see.  People progressing in our subject.  Brilliant.

Now, “progress” is a contentious and complex term.  But for the purposes of this blog I’m going to cut the crap.  Today, it means “getting better at your subject.”  You can define “better” however you like – that’s one for your department meetings.  Here, it just means “better.”

Everyone knows one thing about progress, however defined: it’s got to be inexorable.  No backsliding or false starts or dips.  Only endless, upwards, momentum.  Everything must always be getting better.

Unfortunately, progress in your subject won’t look like that (and if it does, you’re not looking hard enough).  Instead, it will look like the graph below.

Progress

  1. Start of year. Let’s assume they arrive somewhere above the bottom of the Y axis.
  2. Steady progress. They’re enthused, you’re refreshed and well prepared.
  3. Fire practice. Not much done today, and it meant they missed homework.
  4. A difficult concept. Needs quite a lot of explaining and will need going over again.
  5. But, they got it!
  6. Unexpectedly busy few days with your sick child/mother/cat/car. Not much time for planning.  Lessons feel adequate at best.
  7. Everyone got their parents to do that homework.
  8. You’re poorly. You’re trying, but you know you’re not on top of your game.
  9. A good few steady weeks. They’re interested and it’s one of your favourite topics.
  10. Lesson badly derailed by vaccinations/MidYis assessment/careers interviews.
  11. Data provided for OFSTED.
  12. End of year exams. I mean, what do they show, exactly?
  13. Summer holidays. Everyone forgets everything.

So next time someone asks you why Child X or Class Y are not “progressing”, first explain that it depends what you mean by progress, and second deploy any or all of the factors above.  Sorted, and repeat to retirement.

My worst ever lesson

 

Background

I’m early in my teaching career.  I am teaching History to the bottom Y9 set.  The class of about 18 pupils had been together ever since Y7: always the bottom set, in everything. I don’t know them well yet, but we have already developed a slightly up and down relationship.

We are about to start a new topic.  It’s a subject I know nothing about.  I have had a look at the existing worksheet and it’s poor: complicated, uninteresting, bad questions.  I haven’t had time to improve it, nor to think properly about the answers I want them to give.  I place my trust in the fact that, as the sheet is in the filing cabinet, it must have worked before.

What happened

Things go badly more or less from the outset.  The class arrive in slightly ragged fashion, as per.  They take their usual seats, arranged in groups of four or five. I don’t insist on complete silence and attention while I’m explaining what to do.  Nevertheless, I set them off on the worksheet.

The text is difficult and immediately I am met with a chorus of “I don’t get it.”  There is little work and lots of irrelevant chat.  I know I am losing them, and we’re only a few minutes in.  I decide to rearrange the seating, then and there.

We put the desks into rows, each a distance apart from the others.  I re-seat them so the most difficult ones are apart from each other.   I say that there must be ABSOLUTELY NO TALKNG AT ALL or there will be SERIOUS CONSEQUENCES.

I notice one girl chatting chat with a neighbour.  I bawl her out: “LAUREN! WHY ARE YOU TALKING WHEN I HAVE SPECIFICALLY TOLD YOU NOT TO?  LAUREN?  LAUREN!”

Oh crap.  She’s not Lauren.  Lauren is sitting quietly across the room, wondering why I am yelling at her a) for no reason and b) while looking at someone else.  Julia, the actual culprit, is enjoying it hugely.   Everyone else is sniggering.

Deep breath.  Apologise to Lauren and Juliet – “But of course that doesn’t mean, Juliet, that you didn’t break the rules.  You’re in detention.”

Still no work done.  I want to enthuse them with some fascinating facts about the subject but I can’t because I have none.  So we plough on, with the pupils not really trying to do the work that neither they nor I properly understand.

I’ve pretty much lost all interest in the content by now; I just want them to BLOODY WELL DO AS I TELL THEM. They don’t, so I resort to accepting a level of conversation and getting round the class to help as much as I can (and if anyone will listen).  We limp on until the bell rings.

What I learned

OK, no-one swore at me, punched anyone, or stormed out.  But it was absolutely horrible because so many things went wrong and I could have prevented pretty much all of them:

  • I hadn’t set proper behavioural expectations. Neither the students nor I really knew exactly what was acceptable and what wasn’t, or what would happen if my standards, whatever they were, were not met.
  • I rearranged the room mid-lesson. What a kerfuffle.
  • I lost my cool and shouted, using the wrong names.
  • I used terrible resources, with which I had not properly engaged.
  • No-one learned any history.

Worst of all, I knew this was going to happen.  I didn’t have the right relationship with the class to be able to get away with anything being sub-par, and I was finding it hard to control them at the best of times.  As such, I was tense from the off.  It wasn’t going to take a lot to tip me over the edge.

Back in the staff room, I have the thousand yard stare.  My HoD notices.  We talk.  She advises.

Next lesson, the class and I have a review.  We agree better rules of engagement.  We gradually start to improve.  By the end of the year we have a mutual appreciation society.  Several of them take History GCSE.  With exquisite irony, I end up with quite a lot of them in my set.

My worst ever resources 

Background

GCSE History.  I’m teaching the end of apartheid in South Africa to a very mixed ability class.  We have got as far as the introduction of sanctions.  I have decided that this is a very difficult concept that some in my class will struggle to understand.  In my view, the best way to help them is to let them experience what trading under sanctions might be like.

So, I create The Sanctions Game.  I choose a dozen countries from around the world.  I allocate each a natural resource, or some expertise – something they can trade.  The amount of resource they have depends on its value.  For example:

  • Saudi Arabia: 5 x oil
  • Ecuador: 30 x bananas
  • South Africa: 10 x diamonds
  • UK: 15 x banking expertise
  • Belgium: 20 x chocolate

And so on.  (I know the valuations are all out of kilter but bear with me, they were only illustrative.)

The class will be put into groups of 2-3 and each given a country.  Each country will start with the goods or expertise it produces, plus a list of all the goods and expertise it needs.  So the UK might need to acquire an oil, five bananas and two diamonds, while Ecuador needs an oil, a diamond and ten chocolates.

The groups will then try to trade what they have for what they want.  I hope that the differing values will encourage the development of various exchange rates: surely South Africa won’t swap a diamond for only one chocolate?  There’s also another layer of trickiness: Ecuador, for example, needs nothing the UK has, but the UK needs bananas from Ecuador?  So the UK needs to find out what Ecuador wants and trading banking expertise for some of that, before returning to Ecuador to make the deal.  Brilliant.  The winning country will be the first to acquire all the items on its shopping list.

After one round to get the hang of it, we will start round two.  This time, every country will get a secret instruction.  For all bar South Africa, it will say, “DO NOT trade with South Africa.”  South Africa’s will say, “If anyone won’t trade with you, try to do it in secret.”  Then the game will begin again.  And lo and behold, everyone will realise that sanctions make life very hard for the country on the end of them, but also impacts the countries imposing them.

What happened

I spend hours creating the game.  I find pictures of every commodity, copy and paste them so I have the right number, cut them all out and put them in envelopes.  This means 30 pictures of bananas, each individually snipped; 20 chocolates; five oils, and so on.  I write out the rules and the secret instructions.

Once in class, I explain the game.  Several times.  The first round finishes in about five minutes as no-one bothers with exchange rates – they just get what they want without worrying about how much things are really worth.  It takes ages to return all the goods to their original homes for round two.  When that starts, it turns out that everyone is perfectly willing to deal openly with South Africa, despite their instructions.

I end up explaining sanctions to them myself.  They have no problem with it.  It wasn’t even that big a part of the course.

I had enjoyed thinking up and making the game, and in some ways I’m still quite proud of it; it sounds fun, doesn’t it?  But I spent far, far too much preparation time on it.  Card sorts are bad enough, though I do quite like them sometimes.  This, though, was a card sort on steroids.  Think of the other things I could have been doing instead.

I had massively overestimated the complexity of the concept at hand, and equally underestimated the ability of my students to get to grips with it.  Yes, sanctions are a bit tricky to get hold of.  But I think I must have realised that at about the same time as having a brilliant idea for a game, and married the two.  As a result, the pupils picked up very little about sanctions, had the topic built up in their minds as Something Very Hard, and wasted valuable lesson time.

What I learned

  • To focus first on what I am going to teach, not how I am going to teach it.  These days I only think about the latter when I am secure in the former.  In this instance, even if the game had worked, the students would have gained only a superficial understanding of the pros and cons of sanctions.  Nothing about why they were introduced, when, who by, on what goods and with what results.
  • To remember that good teaching doesn’t require massive creativity.  It does require clear thought, good explanations and appropriate tasks.
  • That fun comes in many guises.  It’s perfectly possible to have enjoyable lessons without games. In this case, for example, through an informed debate about the effectiveness, fairness and morality of sanctions.  Less immediately grabbing than a game, but ultimately far more satisfying.
  • That pupils are more likely to remember what they think about.  As a result of the Sanctions Game they would have remembered that they had lots of little tokens and had to buy stuff.  The sanctions element – the whole point of the exercise – was too much of an afterthought.

You can read my other Worst Evers here:

My worst ever disciplinary decision 

My worst ever assembly announcement

My worst ever form time

My worst ever disciplinary decision 

Background 

I’m doing my PGCE. I’m covering someone else’s lesson.  There’s quite a tricky character in the class; I can still remember his name, 25 years later.  The class isn’t doing much, to be honest, but I’m quite pleased that I’m keeping a lid on things. 

What happened 

For reasons that I can’t recall, we are listing nationalities and races.  The tricky character says something under his breath.  I don’t catch it but others laugh, nervously. 

I ask the boy what he said.  He doesn’t want to tell me.  I insist.  Rather sheepishly, he repeats the words.  They were derogatory about another race.  Not massively, but derogatory nevertheless. He’s clearly expecting to be told off. 

Not wanting to pick a quarrel, and feeling the need to get quickly onto safer ground, I say, “Yes, well, I’ll think we’ll move on.” 

I end up teaching the boy quite often.  His behaviour gets worse and I find it very hard to control him, and indeed many of my other classes.  This is partly responsible for my decision not to continue with teaching after my PGCE. 

As I analyse it further, I am disappointed to realise that would probably have acted differently had the perpetrator been someone less, well, intimidating.  

What I learned 

1.To be braver and have the courage of my convictions. 

To put it bluntly, I was afraid of inflaming a situation involving someone I would rather have had with me than against me.  I was yet to appreciate that allowing people to get away with poor behaviour doesn’t make them like you or your lessons, respect you, or want to work hard for you.  It just makes you seem weak, and that reputation spreads very quickly.   

2. If someone says something clearly unacceptable, call it out.  As I’ve read elsewhere – Tom Bennett? – what you accept, you encourage. 

If you want more…

You can can read about my worst ever form time here (quite short and utterly excruciating) and my worst ever assembly announcement here (very short, hideously embarrasing, but quite funny).

My worst ever assembly announcement

Background 

Every year we took the whole of Y9 to the WW1 battlefields.  I’d organised that year’s trip.  A couple of days before we were due to leave I went into Y9 assembly to give some last minute reminders.  It was an all girls school; I was in my late 20s. 

What happened 

“So, everyone, as you know we’re all off the battlefields on Thursday.  I just wanted to remind you of a few things.  Don’t forget your passport and EHIC; you won’t be able to come without them.  The same goes for epipens and any other medication you might need.  Don’t be late: we are on a tight schedule and we will leave without you.  And please, girls, dress sensibly.  We’ve studied the trenches and you know how muddy it can be, so please wear appropriate footwear.  Boots or wellies are good, or even some old shoes that don’t mind getting a bit filthy.  Whatever you do, don’t wear your breast trainers.” 

Pause. Close eyes. Wait approximately 0.5 seconds for wave upon wave of hysterical laughter.  Leave the school, and in fact teaching altogether, about eight weeks later. 

What I learned 

Sometimes you’ve just got to laugh at yourself.  Slips of the tongue happen: you will say a lot of words and inevitably you will get some of them wrong.  And I was already leaving teaching anyway. 

My worst ever form time

Background 

It’s form time. Like every day I’m with 9P: my group of 30-odd 13-14 year olds. I was their tutor in Y8 too, so we know each other pretty well. Today we are having to choose our team for the much unloved interform swimming competition.   

What happened 

To my surprise and delight we have competitors for all but one event, the girls’ breast stroke.  I spot a glaring omission from the list: Louise [not her real name] who I know competes for the local swimming club.  The conversation, to which the whole form listens (I’m doing it from the front), goes like this. 

“Louise! You’re not on the list!” 

No, Mr Pullan. 

“But you’re a great swimmer!” 

Silence. 

“So why aren’t you on the list?” 

“I just don’t want to do it.”  She looks hard at her desk and blushes. 

“Come on, Louise. Stephanie doesn’t want to either and she’s even agreed to do the butterfly.” 

Silence. The desk is truly fascinating now and her face beetroot. 

“Seriously, Louise. [Cue change of tone, from enthusiastic cajoling to disappointed guilttripping.] No-one wants to swim but we have to put out a team. Otherswho can’t swim nearly as well as you, have volunteered. Don’t you think you should too?” 

More silence. 

“Right, that’s it. Louise, you’re doing the breast stroke. I’ll just write your na...” 

Cue a loud and slightly desperate intervention from the back of the class. 

“Mr PULLAN! She’s got her period!” 

Huge embarrassment and profuse apologies all round. I hope she got over itbut as this has stuck in my mind for well over 20 years you can see that I haven’t. It haunts me. Often. 

What I learned 

  • If your tutee, or pupil, doesn’t want to do something they normally would, there’s probably a good reason. But they may not want to divulge it in front of others, if at all.  So don’t press the point unless the circumstances allow you to do so discreetly. 
  • Assuming it’s not something totally trivial, you should probably follow up such uncharacteristic behaviour. It may be masking something bigger. 
  • Even if it is trivial, it’s worth recording in case a pattern emerges. 
  • If you feel uncomfortable following up, or aren’t sure how to, enlist the help of a more experienced colleague. 
  • If you do get yourself into a situation like the one above, don’t beat yourself up.  Accept that you got it wrong, apologise, learn and move on. 

The Seduction of Quick Clarity

“Beware the seduction of quick clarity.” What a phrase. I wish it were mine but in fact I first heard it from my Head who got it, I believe, from a sermon. It may even originate from Dilly Baker’s A place at the table, or so Google suggests. But whatever its genesis, it’s brilliant. It’s also, I think, particularly applicable to teachers at the moment. I’ll explain.

In some corners of edutwitter, and elsewhere I’m sure, there’s strong support for what might be called “no frills” teaching.

I’d characterise no frills teaching, at its best, as a welcome and rigorous focus on getting the basics right. For example, in this recent blog Ruth Walker (at least I think it’s Ruth, though she tweets as @rosalindphys) exhorts us to concentrate on making lessons better for all before worrying about underachievement among certain groups. (She noted with approval a comment which described such groups as “canaries in the mine”.)

Similarly, some teachers rail against displays, seeing them as a perfect example of a labour intensive task of questionable value – surely the very definition of an educational frill. And in fact I think a lot of this movement stems from, or at least has the added benefit of, reducing the hours spent on activities which are time thieves.

No-one would argue against an approach which produces better, or even the same, results for less time and effort. I have myself recently tweeted my opposition to an NQT tip advocating double mounting of display work. Yes it looks great but that’s a frill if ever there was one, and the NQT year should definitely be frill-free.

However, I fear that sometimes we feel so pressed that we alight on almost anything that looks like a simple, workable solution that will save us time – no frills – when in reality some of those frills were far more than dandyish decoration. I have two examples.

First, the “canaries in the mine”. Of course it’s likely that if you teach better lessons, all your students will benefit. Ruth’s blog makes that clear. However, to judge by their responses, some readers have imbued Ruth’s words with a significance that I’m not sure even she meant them to have – at least if one of her responses to a question (OK, mine) is anything to go by: “…the key thing is first to get the teaching right…”

I think that first is crucial. I agree with what Ruth writes as far as it goes, but fear that by not focusing specifically on that underperforming group you may not know what it is about your teaching that could helpfully be different. I could aim for a 10% improvement in everything I do, but what if that group actually needs something I don’t currently do, but the absence of which may not be disadvantageous to all? Dual coding, for example. It may well be a good idea but I don’t think anyone would criticise a lesson for not including it, nor necessarily suggest it. Yet maybe that would be the key. Or if not dual coding, maybe more peer marking. Or less. It’s hard to know. The idea of teaching better across the board is admirable, unfrilly and clear. But it might not be enough.

Second, marking. We all know the arguments so I won’t rehearse them here, save to say that it does take up lots of time and it’s not always obvious that it’s worth it. So it’s not surprising that much excellent work is happening to try to find ways to reduce the burden while maintaining, even increasing, the quality. Whole class feedback is a good example. There does appear to be some promise around the idea and I have had several goes myself. But I worry about the “miracle cure” status claimed by some proponents: “I do a whole class set in 30 minutes and they’re all improving brilliantly!” In my experience there are downsides. It’s much harder to keep a record of how individuals have done on specific pieces of work, unless you record that separately, which immediately adds to the time. It also means you have to check that the feedback has been properly acted on: good practice of course but still, time that isn’t always apparent from the packaging. Writing reports is also much harder without individual comments to fall back on, unless you take in and flick through their books. I’m not saying whole class feedback doesn’t work or isn’t a time saver, and perhaps I haven’t got it right yet. But it just might not be the silver bullet it’s sometimes held up to be.

Teaching is complicated and difficult. We all know that. As a consequence, working out what to do for the best is also complicated and difficult. We all know that too. So in the rush to adopt new and promising ideas, remember we work in an almost infinitely nuanced field. Beware the seduction of quick clarity.