It’s a well-established idea that, to develop expertise in a particular skill or technique, you need to practise. The more you practise, the better you get. As outlined by the excellent people at Deans for Impact in their Practice with Purpose document, it helps to identify a specific element of your teaching to practise on and then focus very deliberately on improving in that area.
Instead of flitting from one thing to another, dipping in and out, the suggestion is that teachers would do better to select one thing from all the options and try hard to keep at it until the practice feels more like a habit. This approach absolutely applies to numerous elements of behaviour management and most of the Silver Arrows I highlighted in this popular post. However, for this post I wanted to focus on pedagogical elements of teaching.
Here are ten things you might want to try to practice – deliberately:
1. Developing routine knowledge recall procedures.
It takes practice to establish this as a snappy, low-stakes routine, conducted in a disciplined fashion, at a frequency that really helps your students to retain the knowledge you’ve taught them. You need to establish a pattern that you can stick to:
- identify the specific knowledge elements that lend themselves to snappy tests – a knowledge organiser broken into sections that students can focus on.
- a quizzing method that students are familiar with and can organise readily – are you going to read out the questions, prepare each test or use ppt slide?
- a quick method for self or peer checking of the answer – eg with answers on a visualiser or ppt slide.
- a routine that returns to the same knowledge elements repeatedly so that the recall is strengthened; it needs not to take up too much time in any given lesson and happen often enough to become low stakes and habitual.
Develop the technique with multiple choice questions, sequencing of concepts/events and more sophisticated ‘which is a better answer’ style questions.
2. All-student response: using mini-whiteboards really well.
As I outline in this post – the No1 bit of classroom kit is a set of mini-whiteboards. The trick is to use them really well. You need to drill the class to use them seriously, to do the ‘show me’ action simultaneously in a crisp, prompt manner and, crucially, you need to get students to hold up the boards long enough for you to engage with their responses. Who is stuck? Who has got it right? Are there any interesting variations/ideas? Use the opportunity to ask ‘why did you say that? how did you know that?’ – and so on. It takes practice to make this technique work but it’s so good when done well.
3. Questioning techniques:
Each questioning technique takes practice, especially if you are in the default-mode habit of asking the whole class every question and taking answers from those with their hands up. Make a deliberate effort to try out and practise these methods:
- Random selection: use an online name generator or lollisticks or some other means of selecting students at random. It’a powerful effect. (Lollisticks need to be a no-nonsense practical tool, not a fussy gimmick – I’ve seen this done superbly well.)
- Cold Calling: just check out technique 33 in Doug Lemov’s Teach Like a Champion 2.0. I prefer this when combined with wait time and the name selected after the question. eg “What is 7 cubed?…..pause….. John?” With “John, what is 7 cubed?”, only John has to think about it.
- Probing: routinely ask follow-up questions for every question you ask, two or three times. Go deeper. I’ve explored this in Great Lessons 1: Probing.
- Going Dialogic. An extension of probing – you set up the expectation that one student might engage in an extended dialogue to probe ever more deeply into their understanding with the rest of the class as an audience. It takes practice but works incredibly well. See Pedagogy Postcard 1.
4. Think Pair Share
A strategy I firmly believe is underused relative to its power. It takes practice to make it a routine with the necessary behaviour management strategies. It is fully explained in this post: The Washing Hands of Learning
5. Metacognition and modelling
Metacognition scored very highly in several ranked lists of effective teaching and learning strategies – eg Hattie’s visible learning effects or the EEF toolkit. In a nutshell, it is the process of teaching students how to solve problems and complete complex tasks by making the strategies and thought processes explicit by modelling them. For example, in these non-verbal reasoning questions, you can show students how you go about solving them, narrating the process explicitly including double-checking all the wrong answers. This is something they can then practice. It works for modelling writing too – you need to walk through the full details of how you construct sentences and paragraphs to convey what you want to say in the way you want it said. Doing this well takes practice – try it.
6. Whole-class feedback instead of marking
Instead of slaving away late into the night with your red pen poised to ink up a massive set of exercise books, just read this brilliant post by Jo Facer: Giving feedback the ‘Michaela’ way. Read through the books, make some notes and give whole-class feedback instead. Do it over and over again and get good at doing it – practise. It’s a game changer.
7. Critique-method feedback
Instead of merely nodding in jaded recognition at the Austin’s Butterfly video, why not actually use the critique method it describes and develop real expertise with it. There are lots of ideas and resources to support you – nicely compiled in this excellent post by Dave Fawcett Creating a culture of critique . Let’s see your students developing the expectation that their work will be critiqued in a specific, support manner allowing them to reach higher standards than they thought possible.
8. Deliberate vocab development
This links to the recall method above but here I’m thinking about a technique to cement vocabulary development specifically. Very often new words are encountered in lessons and teachers might explain them at the time – only for them to be completely forgotten about and, consequently, not learned. I suggest adopting a routine:
- a region of a board is dedicated to new vocab;
- new words are listed during the lesson with awkward spellings explored explicitly
- new words are sounded out through choral repetition so that students all experience saying the words
- students are asked to put the words in a sentence orally or in a place in their books for new words
- the lesson list forms the basis of a systematic recall test the following day/week/month – something students learn to expect thus supporting their engagement with the words in the first place.
9. Embedded tiering: Mild, Spicy, Hot or Challenge, Turbo-challenge
Instead of differentiation meaning providing different work, develop a collaborative planning approach where question relating to any given topic are constructed with in-built tiering. I’ve seen this used superbly well at primary and secondary with labels such as bronze, silver, gold; mild, spicy and hot or, Core, Challenge, Turbo-Challenge.
This is not the same as setting artificially differentiated learning objectives – but it supports the organisation of a class where students progress at different rates, allowing everyone to find a suitable challenge level (seeking an optimal 80% success rate). Practice is needed not only to devise really good tiered sets of questions that still offer enough repetition at each level – but also to manage the learning in the classroom when everyone has diverged from the initial instruction phase.
10. Third time for excellence: Draft, re-draft, publish.
Again, taking something from Austin’s Butterfly, try to create space in your curriculum planning to go the whole hog on redrafting so that students get to the third version: the third draft of a poem, story, essay or piece of writing in French; the third attempt at a painting; the third run-through of the performance, recitation or speech. The first one might be ‘a great start’. After feedback, the second version is a big step forward, taking the feedback onboard. But you will find that Version 3 is where you see Excellence emerging. This is where it gets exciting. You can’t do it for every piece of work – so pick your moment – but when you can, go for the power of three. You can get better at this – more streamlined; less bogged down in the individual feedback; less fussy about every detail of the first draft, focusing on specific elements over others. Try it.
Let me know how you get on.
Having trained as a physics teacher, Tom Sherrington has been a teacher and school leader for over 30 years working in a wide range of school contexts around the UK and in Jakarta, Indonesia. He spent 11 years as a Headteacher and is now an education consultant supporting schools and colleges with teacher development, school improvement, assessment and curriculum design. He is a prolific blogger sharing ideas via his popular website teacherhead.com with a strong twitter following at @teacherhead. He is a regular speaker at education conferences for teachers and school leaders. Tom is also a trustee of the National Baccalaureate Trust. Tom is married to Deb and has two children, Daisy and Sam.