Empty hands: A tale of back pocket phrases, deliberate practice and teacher improvement.

I was working with our head of RE recently. I was videoing his routine for stopping the class, which I had been told was very successful. When he wanted to stop his class discussion he would simply say “Silence in, three…two…one…now empty hands and track me.” Brilliant!

This is a back pocket phrase, a simple phrase you have deliberately crafted and practiced so you can use it effortlessly in lessons (from TLAC). We all have them and use them all the time in lessons.

I loved the efficiency of this particular phrase. ‘Empty hands’ embodies exactly what you want your students to do. It is obvious and avoids all the negative phrases that list all the things you want students to stop doing, like twiddling pens, tapping etc. 

It is one of those phrases that makes you think ‘why didn’t I think of this sooner’? It’s not like I have ineffective back pocket phrases to gain attention. I’ve used Signal, Pause, Insist since Tom Sherrington wrote about it in the Learning Rainforest. It has been very helpful and I have a routine that has become automated. However this is better than my current phrase so I will be replacing it as part of signal, pause, insist.

This reminded me of the idea Dylan Wiliam came up with: That for a teacher to improve they are probably replacing something that is good with something that is great. In this case ‘Empty hands’ is the ‘great’ I’m going to start using. Its a good reminder that when we ask a teacher to make a change we need to make sure they hear “This can really help you” not “What you are doing is rubbish”.

A quick tweet and I discovered the phrase has been around in education since 2012 when @TTCT_ceo was working at Dixons Trinity Academy. This means it took me a decade to get introduced to it. It shows how hard it is for things to spread sometimes within education, especially when they seem obvious to those that discover them. That’s why I’m writing this. It might be obvious to you, or you might already know it, but I think it’s really important that if I find something that I think is really useful I share it. If it helps one teacher have slightly more efficient transitions in their lessons then it was worth my time. Teaching is hard enough without us actively sharing the ‘best bets’. Back in 2012 the world was a much smaller place, so maybe I shouldn’t be that surprised.

Needless to say I have been sharing this within my own school. During our instructional coaching session I told my ECT about it. She had an instant enthusiasm to try it and a clear understanding of why it was so helpful. She is a strong 2nd year teacher and has a real knack for dealing with the students. We discussed how it would work and then I asked her to demonstrate what her new Signal, Pause, Insist routine would now be. It was at this time that we both received a reminder of why deliberate practice is so vital for teachers to develop new techniques. In spite of her high level of understanding and our casual recital during discussion, her first few times were fumbled and a little and awkward. This is to be expected as she is trying to cue a new habit on top of an existing habit. She had to work hard to not say her normal phrase and that distracted her from the new one. After three repeats she had it nailed and was ready to try it in class. We often feel like using deliberate practice can be patronising, but as long as we get our culture right, we should be comfortable rehearsing to build automaticity. After I left I went back to my own classroom and rehearsed it just to make sure.

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