My copy of Making Every Lesson Count (2015) had arrived and I’d picked it up from home whilst on the chippy run before our Year 6 Open Evening. I mentioned it to a colleague and she, also a reader of education books, asked whether I’d actually used something from my reading in my practice. That really made me stop and think. It is an often-made point that attending training courses is often ineffective because it never becomes embedded in our practice; I would imagine the same point can be made about reading books on teaching and learning. Anyway, I had a ponder and this blog is something of a smorgasbord of ideas which had made it into my teaching and some ideas which I am still trying to embed…

Layers of meaning

I think I first came across this in Liz Taylor’s quite wonderful book Re-Presenting Geography (2004), which was full of fantastic ideas to improve geographical thinking. The method – or tool – is called different things, but I think is most commonly referred to as ‘layers of inference’, which I have tweaked slightly in my own head to layers of meaning. As you can see from the image below, it scaffolds thinking about an object which could be text, an image or anything really.

I try to use lots of pictures in my teaching to try and stimulate thinking and to get children generating their own questions. The technique is very adaptable to and is not limited to the same questions, or indeed to a certain number of questions.

The teaching sequence

It may seem odd to get so excited about something which a) seems so fundamental and b) which I should really know about before reading this book in my fourth year of teaching, but I can honestly say that this is the best single chapter of any teaching book I have read – the second chapter in David Didau’s excellent book The Secret of Literacy (2014). Whilst Didau’s ideas on literacy throughout the book are superb, the quality of the second chapter transcends the issue of literacy. Didau boils the teaching sequence down to:

  1. Explain
  2. Model
  3. Scaffold
  4. Practice

I can genuinely say that I have never had teaching and learning explained so effectively, concisely and powerfully. I really like the thinking around modelling and I have to say it has indirectly influenced a lot of my thought and actions when planning and teaching. I am now much more conscious about demonstrating and working with pupils to construct model answers, or even when I am using questioning and prompting to encourage pupils to develop their thinking and their answers. This is still a work in progress and I think a big challenge, which I am aware of and which I have discussed with colleagues in my department, is the pressure of covering subject content. Allison and Tharby – authors of Making Every Lesson Count – highlight this very pressure, but point out, quite rightly, that covering subject content does not necessarily mean that every pupil has mastered the content. This is certainly easier to tackle at Key Stage 3, but the pressure of content at GCSE and A-Level appears that it it will only get worse under new specifications.

Another interesting point on Didau’s teaching sequence, which is also echoed by Allison and Tharby, is that the end point is independence. This is not the same as independent learning, as Allison and Tharby say:

‘The idea of ‘independent learning’ is often misunderstood. Independence is a desirable outcome of teaching, not a teaching strategy in its own right. Our job is to teach children, rather than to cross our fingers in the hope that they will learn on their own’ (p9)

I think this is an important point and one which vindicates a little bit more standing at the front and leading a lesson activity or two, rather than hoping the kids can just pick things up for themselves. Linked to this, is the importance of practice but also making sure that the practice is not simply embedding mistakes and misconceptions. You can only iron out those problems if you explain, model and scaffold properly.

Feedback

Again from the Didau book, I have picked up some nice ideas on marking and feedback. I still hate marking, but feel that I am at least doing some worthwhile when I stop weeping and get on with it. One technique I am still pushing on with is the use of questions in feedback, rather than comments – this encourages the students to think and respond. I am trying to use this in two ways: first as a prompt for them to redraft and improve and second, for them to directly answer the question. It is still early days but I do consider it worthwhile to pursue. 

Connected to the use of feedback questions is the idea of DIRT marking – directed improvement and reflection time. This is also at an early stage, but the idea of a more structured period of time for students to respond to marking does make the marking seem more worthwhile and effective. It is not quite the same as a subject such as English, where redrafting seems a natural part of the learning, whilst in geography that aforementioned content pressure means that you sometimes are developing the same skills but with different content.

I am pretty sure there are other ideas I use which I originally picked up when reading and I am currently at a phase in the job where I am more consciously trying to do things differently and become more effective, so I am definitely working my way through a reading list on teaching. I will keep the reviews coming.

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