Part 3: They are constantly looking to find out where students are in their learning

LMac-011711-stay-on-track1Teaching is a seemingly simple business; maximise the learning of all of our students.

Remember those teachers at school who you felt always knew where you were ‘at’ in their subject/class?  Almost like they were teaching you, and you only, at the expense of all others in the class.  They were of course doing that with everyone in the class because they were/are a great teacher.

One of the best feelings we can foster in our students is when they know we are genuinely interested in how they’re going.

We take personal pride in their learning, just as they should.  It’s a partnership. We care.

So in order to do this we must be constantly eliciting evidence of learning along their journey.  Sounds easy in theory but more difficult in practice, right?  Especially, given the number of students we teach.

This said, have you ever gone into a new unit with a class with a plan (that you’ve spent ages on) without finding out what they already know, understand and are able to do?

I have.

You then quickly realise that you have pitched it too easy or too hard or just in the wrong direction because you have asked/ watched/ listened/ felt the students working at a different level to the one in which you had planned for.

Well the very fact that you asked/ watched/ listened/ felt and made that judgement is important.  Not only for those early stages when you are trying to establish initial gauge of knowledge or ability but continually as you move through a unit of work.  Because we often stop doing this after our initial judgements are made and we shouldn’t.

In PE we have an advantage in the area of collecting evidence of learning (yay!).  Imagine doing a Maths problem or an English writing piece. The teacher has to find a way of seeing what they are writing in order to make a call about their learning.  Do you remember lining up at the teachers’ desk with your work to get it ‘checked’?  I do!

We benefit from being able to see what the students are doing, granted not always all at one time, but we are able to make judgements about whether learning is taking place by watching what’s going on.  Learning actually can be visible for us, and doesn’t it feel great when you see it happening right in front of you?

When it comes to knowledge and understanding that may be a little different though.  Yes, a student’s court movement and skill can show us that they understand how to execute a ‘give and go’ pass but other movement related concepts often require us to extract such knowledge and gauge understanding.  But how do great teachers do this if it’s unseen?

Wait for it…

Questioning (…ok it wasn’t that big a secret).

Great teachers ask great questions.

The scenario…

I bet we have all been guilty of asking a question and doing an inward fist pump when the star student throws their hand up to answer. What do we do? We let them answer, continuing their status as ‘the star’ and then say “does every one understand that?” Cue collective nod, and then we move on, satisfied with ourselves that we have ‘taught’ that bit really well.

Problem is, it might only be you and ‘the star’ that are on the same page, or in fact reading the same book! Actually, what the scenario above probably shows is that you have just taught them something they already knew (thanks very much for wasting my time Mr Teacher!)

What the other students have got really good at, and they have learnt this from years of sitting in all kinds of classrooms, is working out how teachers conduct the teacher-led discussion.  They are very adept at ‘hiding’, some are professionals at it and are experts at nodding at the right times.  For the most part, us teachers inhibit our student’s abilities to take risks when sharing knowledge and understanding.  This is because we may have, unintentionally, created a culture of “it’s not OK to be wrong” if, in fact, there is a wrong answer to the question you have asked.

*Research suggests we basically ask three kinds of questions;

57% Managerial (who has finished observing their partner?)

35% Recall (How many seconds are you allowed in the key for?)

8% Analysis/ Synthesis/ Evaluation (explain why you were using the fast break strategy?)

*data from Brown and Wragg 1993

Questioning is a fairly recent and fashionable topic in teaching & learning and there’s bucket loads of research out there on it.  Formative assessment guru Dylan Wiliam @dylanwiliam has heaps of great insights and practical strategies on it.  He suggests that there are only two good reasons for asking a question;

  1. To cause thinking
  2. To provide information to the teacher about what to do next

What percentage of questions that you ask come under the above categories?  Clearly we need managerial and recall questions to serve an organisational purpose, but is our balance a bit off?  Should the incredibly thought provoking ‘gold dust’ questions be less than 10%?

Here are some practical strategies to try to keep everyone engaged;

Hands up only to ask a question– this means exactly is it suggests.  No more bright kids dislocating their shoulder to answer questions. I use an app (hat) which choses students at random when I shake my iPad. So ask the question, wait, allow thinking time (this is SO important), then the app randomly selects a student…

Question ping pong– when one student provides and answer, don’t always acknowledge it as correct straight away, even if it is.  Ask someone else, ”what did you think of that answer?” or,  “does anyone think differently?”  If the first student says “I don’t know”, they cannot opt out, say “ok I’ll come back to you” when you have a couple more answer go back to them and say “which answer did you like best?” no opt outs.

Statements can serve as questions– asking them to consider a statement like ”balancing does not always mean staying still” can often provoke students to think critically.  You can also ‘tease’ them (educationally) with some statements to stir a discussion

Traffic light cones– A method of gaining an all-student response. During stoppages or discussions ask the students to sit near the coloured cone which reflects their judgement of how well they are ‘getting it’ (whatever ‘it’ is you are trying to achieve).  So if we are trying to learn strategies to move our opponent around the badminton court, every break the students place themselves in a category as a self-evaluation of how well they are getting it- it’s better than just sitting anywhere, is it not?  As it provides you with valuable info.

You may not adopt all or any of these strategies, finding your own way might be the key.  But the central message is that great teachers find creative and effective ways of finding out how students are progressing, only then can we acknowledge where they are at and facilitate them getting to where they need to go next.

A student who feels like you care about them, believe in them and are sincere in your interest about their learning and where they are going, will do everything they can to reach the high expectations you have set.

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2 thoughts on “Part 3: They are constantly looking to find out where students are in their learning

  1. So fired up to have Dylan Wiliam coming to my school in Nanjing next month. I think that mixing it up in terms of striving to keep students engaged is very important. Many would think that the strategies that you mention are only for the classroom, but they can and should be applied in the single subjects. It may take a bit of thinking outside the box, but taking these ideas/strategies and figuring out how best to apply them in our own practice is excellent practice in itself.
    Let me know some additional ways you are thinking about using the red, green, yellow light strategy in PE. Love your cone idea.

  2. Hello there! I could have sworn I’ve visited this site before but
    after looking at some of the articles I realized it’s new to me.
    Anyways, I’m definitely happy I discovered it and I’ll be book-marking it and checking back regularly!

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