Know before they go.

We had some friends over a few weeks ago and the conversation ultimately drifted towards education. They have a daughter who is in Yr 8 at the highest performing school within 15 miles of my house. It’s a faith school and also runs its own teaching alliance SCITT thingy. It has been outstanding in Ofsted reports under all frameworks. It’s a great place by all accounts. There was a part of the conversation that gave me pause for thought though and touches on an area of teaching that can be paid lip service sometimes. It went like this:

“Charlie’s school is so good. The other day she came home and I asked how her day was and she burst into tears. She had been to a maths lesson and really struggled. She couldn’t do the work and didn’t understand it. The teacher was so friendly though. I phoned them up and explained she was upset and they said don’t worry I have had a few phone calls today, I will reteach it next lesson. Isn’t that great that the teacher would respond like that! Such a good school!”

At the time I politely nodded, but dear reader if you have ever read one of my blogs before you probably are already aware of the fact that at this stage I did in fact, completely disagree.

You see it is my opinion that if a parent has to contact my school to say their child has found a lesson difficult then I have probably not taught a very good lesson. Not because of the explanation but because a skilled teacher should always be choosing techniques to check the class’s understanding of components of the lesson as they progress through them.

Checking for understanding.

There are lots of different ways to check for understanding but few are as effective as using mini whiteboards (MWBs). The reason for this is to do with ratio. Ratio is a technique coined in Doug Lemov’s incredible Teach Like a Champion and has two components:

Participation ratio: The proportion of students participating in given activity 

Think ration: How hard the students participating have to think

Adam Boxer has a nice blog on how these two interact here 

Now I have had MWBs in my room off and on for 15 years. Even up to 2018 I would consider myself a teacher who eye-rolled at the use of them. This is because I hadn’t fully embraced two key ideas. Firstly I hadn’t embraced the gap that exists between the lesson I think the students experienced and the lesson they actually were in. I was ignorant to the idea that the students’ lesson is dependent on their attention and other factors. Secondly I had not fully embraced the simple fact that routines exist to help the students. I thought all the engineered efficiency and repetitive routines were for teachers who couldn’t control a class or one that liked to show off how great they were at classroom management. Now I better understand the role they play in reducing students’ cognitive load and speeding up the lesson I have managed to embrace them. IT HAS BEEN TRANSFORMATIONAL (although from my perspective it can be boring saying the same thing all the time).

Now I have a robust ‘show me’ routine, I can regularly use MWBs without the issues of students copying each other. Now I have a system that manages the logistics of the boards, I don’t have constant battles with students doodling or not having a working pen.

This means I can easily use them in every lesson. They are brilliant at increasing the participation ratio and providing the questions are well planned, the think ratio.

What to check and when to check?

Put simply, check everything and do it as often as possible. For me a simple model is to plan my explanation, consider what prerequisite knowledge students need (good blog here from Claudi), then consider what are the constituent parts of the concept that I want the students to be able to do independently. Then I want to quiz them on these things so they can show me they know all the constituent parts. This can be achieved with multiple choice questions but I prefer short answer questions as it increases the think ratio of the task. Then once I know they can do everything I can set them off to their independent work. This could happen multiple times a lesson and so I might keep coming back to key concepts again and again. I’m hoping this builds fluency over time. This obviously takes time out the lesson. However this time will be paid back by the students increased ability to complete the independent work without the need to your support. So they work faster and harder and the time evens out.

Checking for understanding is the lynchpin to my teaching. It is what allows me to gauge the performance of my students in real time and without lots of onerous marking. By embracing a rigorous culture of checking students’ understanding regularly I can ensure that in my classes there will never be a student who goes home feeling they don’t understand because I will be able to identify them during the lesson and intervene. So to me a sign of good teaching is ‘know before they go’.

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