Years ago I was told that I should stop buzzing around the room so much and that I should settle down and spend more time with groups – that I should sit in a position where I could see the entire class (for behaviour management purposes), and get on with working with a small number of children (whatever that means). There is, I now believe, both wisdom and folly in this advice. The wisdom is that there are benefits to both working with groups and taking a step back. The folly is that by basing oneself only with one group, the other children are missing out on important interactions with an adult.
A later piece of workload management advice – to give feedback during lessons – freed me from the bondage of only ever working with groups and helped me to understand more of the adult’s role in the classroom. More recently, my increased understanding of early years practice (don’t get me wrong, I’m no expert), gained mainly through observation of really skilled practitioners at work, has helped me to see that there is so much to be gained from the ways that adults in classrooms interact with children. Teachers as experts This concept is one which should influence all our ideas about the adult’s role in the classroom. One of the main things that teachers do as experts is to share what they know – this isn’t the place for going into very much about how that happens, but I will say that it is essential before children get to the point when they are positioned at whichever workstations are present in the classroom doing some sort of follow-up work. In ‘What Does This Look Like In The Classroom?’ Doug Lemov writes: ‘Teacher-driven dissemination of material is critical at times. It’s one of the best ways to share knowledge, and not only is knowledge critical to learning in and of itself, but it’s the driver of rigour during more interactive applied activities.’ (p148) In the article in ‘The Case for Fully Guided Instruction’, Clark, Kirschner and Sweller argue that ‘decades of research clearly demonstrate that for novices (comprising virtually all students), direct, explicit instruction is more effective and more efficient than partial guidance. So, when teaching new content and skills to novices, teachers are more effective when they provide explicit guidance accompanied by practice and feedback, not when they require students to discover many aspects of what they must learn.’ Rosenshine, in his article ‘Principles of Instruction’, says that before children begin the aforementioned period of follow-up work there should be a period of time he terms as guided practice time. He writes: ‘The more successful teachers used this extra time to provide additional explanations, give many examples, check for student understanding, and provide sufficient instruction so that the students could learn to work independently without difficulty.’ The near-myth of independent learning Whilst most agree that independence is one of the goals of education, there are opposing views about how to go about achieving it. In their book ‘What Does This Look Like In The Classroom?’ Carl Hendrick and Robin Macpherson point out that ‘…independent learning might be a desired outcome, but paradoxically, it may not be the best way to achieve that outcome.’ (p203) There is no point in expecting a child to become independent by simply asking them to do something independently – imagine if swimming teachers did that! Within any given lesson, though, there may be periods of time which we call independent learning – we’ve already mentioned how it is the time after a teacher has done their bit up at the front when the children are at their tables (usually). But what does this period of so-called independent learning look like? In the previous quotation Lemov mentions that this time within lessons should feature ‘interactive applied activities’ and Clark, Kirschner and Sweller say it should contain ‘practice and feedback’. They also point out that a focus on explicit instruction ‘… does not mean direct, expository instruction all day every day. Small group and independent problems and projects can be effective – not as vehicles for making discoveries, but as a means of practicing recently learned content and skills.’ In ‘What Does This Look Like In The Classroom?’ Paul Kirschner also writes: ‘…they’re a student and you have to instruct them properly. And at certain points give them the leeway to make use of what you’ve taught them without you constantly standing in front of the class lecturing.’ (p216)
So, there should be a part in every teaching sequence where children are allowed to work on their own, or with a partner or a group, to tackle tasks related to the input from the teacher where they have the chance to practice, use and apply the content and skills that have been taught. At this point in the lesson or teaching sequence there should be interaction from the teacher, part of which should be the giving, receiving and acting upon of feedback. The need for adult interactions We are now assuming that the adults in the classroom are the experts, and that in each teaching sequence there will be a time when children are able to practice what they have been taught. We often call this independent learning to discern it from whole class-based activity, but if it follows teacher input of any kind, it is not truly independent. During that practice time, then, the experts should be interacting with the children in the room, making judgements about when to get involved and when to stand back. But in a class of 30 children it would be rare for there to be a prolonged period of time when no child would benefit from some interaction with an adult. Early Years staff understand this principle well. Back in the days of The National Strategies a practice guide entitled ‘Learning, Play and Interacting’ was published. It puts paid to misconceptions that some teachers of older children have about how children learn in Early Years settings – it’s not just all children playing and adults changing nappies and bringing out snacks, something much more is happening: ‘Adults have a crucial role in stimulating and supporting children to reach beyond their current limits, inspiring their learning and supporting their development. It is through the active intervention, guidance and support of a skilled adult that children make the most progress in their learning. This does not mean pushing children too far or too fast, but instead meeting children where they are, showing them the next open door, and helping them to walk through it. It means being a partner with children, enjoying with them the power of their curiosity and the thrill of finding out what they can do.’ Interaction is key, and whilst children in Key Stage 1 and above (right the way through to Further Education) are progressing on their journey to independence, if the content is new and challenging, they are still novices and will need quality interactions with experts to help them to learn. If that is the case, then what is written above about Early Years interactions should be applicable to all experts who are teaching novices. The same document breaks down something which happens in a high quality interaction. It points out that in those spur-of-the-moment, reactive, responsive interactions, the whole cycle of teaching is happening, sometimes at lightning speed: ‘…young children, however, are experiencing and learning in the here and now, not storing up their questions until tomorrow or next week. It is in that moment of curiosity, puzzlement, effort or interest – the ‘teachable moment’ – that the skilful adult makes a difference. By using this cycle (observation, assessment, planning) on a moment-by-moment basis, the adult will be always alert to individual children (observation), always thinking about what it tells us about the child’s thinking (assessment), and always ready to respond by using appropriate strategies at the right moment to support children’s well-being and learning (planning for the next moment).’ In classrooms beyond the Early Years I’d suggest that excellent teachers are also doing these things and that these are things that all adults in the classroom should be aspiring to do. Monitoring independent practice: To be able to make the most of every teachable moment, adults in the classroom need to be vigilant and aware of what is going on in the 30 minds before them. In order to do this the independent practice time should be monitored. In the same article I have already quoted from, Rosenshine writes: ‘Research has found that students were more engaged when their teacher circulated around the room, and monitored and supervised their seatwork. The optimal time for these contacts was 30 seconds or less.’ He goes on to clarify that where these interactions were above 30 seconds the teacher hadn’t spent enough time at the guided practice stage. This monitoring of practice should then lead the adult to make further decisions: is feedback necessary at this point, or do they need re-teaching, and are there other children who would benefit from that? Would some questioning or retrieval practice help at this point? Basically, once monitoring has led to understanding of how well the children are doing, there needs to be a response from the adult: what sort of interaction is appropriate at this point? Sustained Shared Thinking Again, many Early Years practitioners will be aware of Sustained Shared Thinking. ‘Sustained shared thinking involves two or more people working together to solve a problem, clarify an issue, evaluate activities, or extend a narrative. Key features include all parties contributing to the interaction—one aimed at extending and developing children’s thinking.’ (EEF Preparing For Early Literacy Guide) SST provides some good pointers for making decisions about appropriate interactions. Some of the following interactions would take above 30 seconds, but that would not necessarily be an indicator that the teacher hadn’t modelled the learning enough in the first place – some of these techniques, for example, are to extend thinking and further the learning. Techniques that adults might use include: • tuning in—listening carefully to what is being said and observing what the child is doing; • showing genuine interest—giving whole attention, eye contact, and smiling and nodding; • asking children to elaborate—‘I really want to know more about this’; • recapping—‘So you think that…’; • giving their own experience—‘I like to listen to music when cooking at home’; • clarifying ideas—‘So you think we should wear coats in case it rains?’; • using encouragement to extend thinking—‘You have thought really hard about your tower, but what can you do next?’; • suggesting—‘You might want to try doing it like this’; • reminding—‘Don’t forget that you said we should wear coats in case it rains’; and • asking open questions—‘How did you?’, ‘Why does this…?’, ‘What happens next?’ (https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/public/files/Preparing_Literacy_Guidance_2018.pdf) The above points were taken from a presentation by Professor Iram Siraj-Blatchford, where she also included the following techniques:
using encouragement to further thinking: ‘You have really thought hard about where to put this door in the palace but where on earth will you put the windows?’
offering an alternative viewpoint: ‘Maybe Goldilocks wasn’t naughty when she ate the porridge’
speculating: ‘Do you think the three bears would have liked Goldilocks to come to live with them as their friend?’
reciprocating: ‘Thank goodness that you were wearing wellington boots when you jumped in those puddles Kwame. Look at my feet they are soaking wet’
modelling thinking: ‘I have to think hard about what I do this evening. I need to take my dog to the vet’s because he has a sore foot, take my library books back to the library and buy some food for dinner tonight. But I just won’t have time to do all of these things'
On listening The first two points on the list of SST techniques are both about listening and hearing. If we do neither of these then any other interactions we have with children whilst they are working will be misguided. Mary Myatt has this to say: ‘I don’t think we spend enough time thinking about the quality of professional listening. This is important, because I cannot expand on, probe and challenge pupils’ responses unless I am paying careful attention to what is being said. And when this close attention and response to pupils is in place, then I am more likely to shift towards cognitively challenging dialogue.’ (‘The Curriculum: Gallimaufry to Coherence’ p108-9) If we want to question, check for understanding, have dialogue that moves children’s thinking on, and so on, we must begin by listening. Good Early Years practitioners know the power of standing back and listening in before they intervene in any way - teachers mustn’t be too quick to dive in and children should first be given the opportunity to grapple with what they are doing. On questioning and checking for understanding It is interesting to note that in all the techniques for interaction mentioned above, only 5 involve questioning. Questioning is a powerful tool, but is not the only one we have. Having said that, if an adult spends their time questioning whilst children are carrying out independent practice, they will be using their time pretty wisely. In her book ‘The Curriculum: Gallimaufry to Coherence’, Mary Myatt writes: ‘It is through the ‘to and fro’ of questioning conversations in the classroom that I know not only whether pupils have completed something, but whether they have understood and are able to apply it in different contexts.’ (p55) One of the principles of instruction that Rosenshine observed is that ‘effective teachers also stopped to check for student understanding. They checked for understanding by asking questions, by asking students to summarise the presentation up to that point or to repeat directions or procedures, or by asking students whether they agreed or disagreed with other students’ answers.’ Questioning is very much part of the monitoring that we have already looked at. However, Martin Robinson mentions how it does more than that: ‘You ask questions of kids who you think need to be questioned at any particular point. You’re really testing out what they know and don’t know, looking for depth of knowledge, and also it is about creating some sort of atmosphere in which kids can ask each other questions that are interesting. This is what you want, over years you want this class of novices to become a classroom full of curious, interested and interesting students.’ (‘What Does This Look Like In The Classroom?’ p153) Teachers who use questioning are modelling to children that asking questions is an important and exciting thing to do. Questions can be closed (good for assessment and clarification) or open (good for extending thinking and moving learning on). On feedback and assessment Once monitoring has taken place – often using questioning - the assessment process has begun. But there is more to it than just questioning: questioning is part of an overall conversation or dialogue between child and teacher, novice and expert. As Mary Myatt points out, ‘the most effective way to consider progress is to look at pupils’ work and have discussions with them, over time.’ (‘The Curriculum: Gallimaufry to Coherence’, p62) To get a good idea of what that dialogue might look like the aforementioned Sustained Shared Thinking techniques are very useful. Not only does this give a real purpose to the adult’s time in the classroom, it also has the potential to eliminate ineffective written feedback which is given after the lesson has ended, thus decreasing workload. On differentiation The definition of what differentiation is and what it should look like varies depending on who you speak to. Recently there has been a backlash against the three-way differentiation that was popular when I began teaching. That kind of differentiation is limiting to children and often takes a lot of preparation time. One of the ways adults can use their time in class is to support children with differing needs. Mary Myatt suggests that this ‘…support consists of live conversations and additional unpacking of the material during the lesson …the support comes through live conversations with those who haven’t grasped it or who are struggling.’ (‘The Curriculum: Gallimaufry to Coherence’, p69) Again, the Sustained Shared Thinking techniques play a part here. In order for children to be motivated at all, they need to have experienced success. Teachers should ‘…provide an environment where students can genuinely see themselves being successful…it’s about what kind of support you can give that allows both individuals to perceive themselves as being successful.’ (Nick Rose, ‘What Does This Look Like In The Classroom?’, p116) Adults in the classroom can make or break a child’s day, depending on the interactions they have – if nothing else convinces you of what you should be doing whilst children are working, hopefully this will!
Guided Interaction The EEF’s Preparing for Literacy guidance (aimed at Early Years practitioners) gives us a good piece of terminology to use to sum up everything that has been discussed: Guided Interaction. Whilst children are carrying out independent practice, the adults in the room can be judicially practicing guided interaction with particular children, or groups of children: ‘Guided interaction occurs when an adult and child collaborate on a task and the adult’s strategies are highly tuned to the child’s capabilities and motivations… Discussion is a key feature of this approach and the use of a variety of questions helps to develop and extend children’s thinking.’
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