I’ve had two interesting conversations this year with some of our weakest pupils.
Fadekah is in Year 8. For all of Year 7 we despaired if she would even be able to pick and microwave her own meals, or complete routine tasks to earn a wage. She was a seriously spaced-out kid, if very sweet. She never did her homework, and would wear a dopey expression of “I’m cute and helpless and can’t do anything” when her form tutor chastised her for this. Sometimes she giggled if she was being told off. Everything seemed to pass her by. She struggled with the simplest of abstract concepts and didn’t know any times tables. She didn’t know the number before 1000 and seemed unable to remember it no matter how many times I told her. In lessons she did little work, grinning in a far-away manner if given a consequence for not working or not listening. I didn’t see how she could get a G, let alone a C, in Y11. I didn’t see how she could have a good future.
At the start of this year, I had her class again. On the first day she was the star of the lesson. That night she did her homework. And the next night, and the next. She came after school frequently to ask questions about what was learned and took copious notes recording explanations and tips I gave in lessons. Her test results are now typical of the class, despite finding the material difficult to grasp and often feeling confused by the work (Year 8 is mostly algebra). She never needs to be corrected in lessons for not listening or not trying; she is frequently pointed out as a role model. Her questions are insightful and thoughtful. Her homework is always early, she often does extra.
I asked at the end of September what had happened; why had she changed?
“I decided I wanted to do well. So I decided I would do my homework and do work in class.”
That was it. She had nothing to add to it. She just decided, and then she did it.
A colleague had a similar conversation with a similarly transformed pupil. His answer was simple “I decided I should try working instead of daydreaming and the work seems really easy now.”
Another girl in the same class, Jana, had appalling results in maths, and every other subject. She struggled to answer the most basic questions (How do you get home? What’s 4+10?). I assumed she must have a very low processing speed and a very limited working memory. Even an instruction like “pick up your whiteboard pens” seemed to be received on delay. I decided in November that being helpful and understanding wasn’t the right approach; she was getting less than 10% in year group exams where the average always exceeded 70%. I tried being tough. In lessons, if I asked a simple question which she couldn’t answer, and then told her the answer and asked again and she still couldn’t answer (i.e. hadn’t listened), she’d get a demerit. In many lessons she would get two demerits this way, meaning a detention. I was worrying that I was punishing a child who maybe had a fundamental problem.
At the start of this half term, she was different. She was answering everything. She was slightly slow, but her working was always clear and always led to good quality solutions. Her errors made sense and were typical of a Year 8 (i.e. she was doing as well as everyone else, making mistakes that reflected thought). Her hand was always up, provided there was thinking time. She asked good questions. She got lots of merits. I asked her what had changed.
“I realised that if I listen then I get it.”
I couldn’t tell if that delighted me or made me furious. But she has maintained the change, and has stopped looking worried and lost in lessons. She seems to enjoy maths and feel proud of what she produces. I suspect she won’t turn back.
These experiences underline for me how much of pupils’ underachievement, even where they seem like cognitive or social outliers, has a simple explanation. They are not listening properly, they’re not really thinking, and they’re hoping they can fly under the radar with minimal cognitive effort. They are not disrupting, but they are not learning. Their precious time at school is being squandered.
Few normal (i.e. non ‘bright’) pupils get good results, or have good life chances, if they stay stuck in this rut. Teachers need to motivate and inspire these pupils, but we also need to keep them under constant pressure to listen carefully, think deeply and feel accountable for their work, both on the page and in their brains. These are the strategies that we have come up with in the maths department (with lots of input from Olivia Dyer, the head of science).
Strategies for pushing more accountability onto the pupils
- After an explanation or example, posing questions that put the onus on the pupils to seek more help or clarification:
- “Who needs me to explain that more?”
- “Who would like to see another example?”
- “Who needs me to say it in a different way?”
- “Who needs me to ask them a question?”
2. No Opt Out (described in Teach Like a Champion). This comes into play when a pupil doesn’t know an answer to a question. Lemov describes well the why and the how. In summary:
a. Pupil A doesn’t know the answer
b. Tell them you will come back to them (eventually this can be dropped)
c. The answer/explanation is supplied
d. Go back to them
e. If correct: well done, you went from not knowing and answer to being able to say it (I know this is a shallow description of ‘knowing!’. It is the first of many steps…). If incorrect: give consequence for not listening / opting out
Levelling up: Narrate why it is important to listen carefully and be ready for the teacher to return to them. Encourage pupils to remind you to come back to them (by putting hands up politely), thanking them for reminding you and taking responsibility for being held accountable. Praise it as behaviour that shows they really want to learn.
- If a pupil looks a little spaced out, or often is a poor listener, saying “I am about to ask three/five questions. You’ll be picked for one of them.”
- Everybody answers: before you accept answers to a question, every pupil writes their answer down. This gives more thinking time to the slower thinkers. It also holds them accountable, as it is visible if a pupil is writing or not. This is common in maths with the use of whiteboards (provided there is a good routine in place for pupils to write the work in a secretive fashion and show it simultaneously, so that pupils can’t copy each other).
- Describe – and enforce – the body language you expect to see when you ask a question. These are the ones I typically expect and insist upon:
a. Looking at the question on the board, with an expression that shows ‘thinking’ (no vacant expressions). This is usually a focused or intense face. Some pupils faces really screw up their expression when they’re thinking, some look quite calm. This depends on you knowing your pupils, but the absence of focused thought is generally quite obvious.
b. Looking at the question on the page, with a thoughtful expression (as above).
c. Doing working on the sheet / whiteboard. In maths this is typically jottings for a calculation, or other things to relieve the burden on working memory.
d. Hand up, waiting to answer.
With some classes, I’ve said “If you stare vacantly at me once I’ve asked the question, instead of looking at the diagram, I will know you are wasting thinking time. That means we’ll have to wait for you, and is stealing time from the people who started thinking straight away.” I’ve moved to giving a demerit if they persist in it after the warning. That might seem harsh, but the explanation of why I do it means the pupils seem to find it very fair (it’s always palpable when pupils think something is unjust!) and the quality and pace of responses has jumped up. I wished I’d moved to this sooner.
6. Give more thinking time for questions. We all think we do it. We all know we don’t! A colleague pointed out that, for our many EAL pupils, they must hear the question, translate to their home language, think about it, decide an answer, translate back to English and THEN put their hand up. It also puts positive pressure on both teacher and pupils:
a. If more and more hands are gradually creeping up, the coasting pupils think “Yikes! Better think of an answer” as their non-participation is becoming obvious. If you really want to keep them on their toes, you can ask the 1-2 without hands up to tell you what the question was. If they know, but can’t answer, that’s fine. If they don’t know…make clear this means they are throwing away a chance to learn and to test themselves.
b. If the number of hands going up stops, you know the problem is probably you: you need to tell them again, and make it clearer. You also might need to improve the question, so it is also clearer.
7. Pause before asking for hands up. Give the thinking time, then say ‘hands up.’ This means many more hands go up at once (giving the message “It is normal to participate in this classroom” “It is normal to be eager to answer”) and slower pupils aren’t dispirited by their neighbour who has an answer before the teacher has finished speaking.
8. Show almost all of the question, but leave out the final element. This means no one can put hands up until you are ready, but they can begin thinking. For example, you could give this simplification: 4a3 x 5b? and leave the question mark blank for 5 seconds, allowing them to plan their answer for the rest of the question. This gives the slower thinkers time to catch up, and creates a slight element of drama when the number under the question mark is revealed.
9. For recaps when pupils seem unsure, give word starts:
“What is the name for a triangle with two equal lengths and two equal angles?”[few hands]
“It begins with i…..”[many hands] [take an answer]
Ask the question again
To be clear, the strategy above isn’t helping them connect ‘isosceles triangle’ to the definition. It is probably only helping them to remember the name of a triangle that begins with i. But, it can be a good way for pupils to see they know more than they realise, and to build up their confidence. It also helps you see if the problem is remembering a word at all, or connecting it to a definition.
10. Reverse the question. If you’ve asked a question, like the isosceles one above, you can reverse it straight away: “Tell me two special features of an isosceles triangle.” Assuming you made sure that everyone listened to the first answer, it is now not acceptable to not know the answer. This makes clear to pupils that they need to really listen to your questions, not just jump to answers.
11. Interleave questions. If pupils are struggling to match together a word or procedure and its definition or process, or to explain a concept, you need to ask it several times. However, repeatedly asking the same question means pupils quickly start to parrot back sounds, rather than strengthen the connection between words and ideas. Interleaving the important question with other low-stakes facts that they know forces them to listen more carefully and to do more recall (rather than repetition). For example, if the key question is how to find the sum of angles in a polygon, you might mix it in with easier questions like “What does n stand for in the formula?” and “Which polygon has an angle sum of 180?” and “What is the formula for the area of a triangle?” This forces more thinking and practise of contrasting the new answer (the formula) with other faces that seem similar.
Make them accountable for helping you to check their understanding
The main challenge with pupils who are struggling is that they can be adept at disguising it. Many options for ‘whole-class AFL’ are technology heavy, or fiddly in one way or another. We like the following:
- Heads down, fingers up: if the groundwork is done, this can be a very quick way to check understanding. It works best for questions with two options (yes/no or true/false) but can be also for ‘answer 1, 2, 3, 4 or 5.’
a. Pose a question (typically focused on misconceptions)
b. Give time to think and decide secretly on an answer
c. “Heads down!” Pupils put their heads down in the crook of their arms (to avoid a ‘thunk’ and bruised forehead!) and one hand resting on top of their head
d. The teacher calls each of the options and pupils raise their hand up a small amount (so the movement is imperceptible to their neighbours). It is important the teacher gives the same amount of time for each possible option, so as not to give away the answer. Counting to 4 in your head can help.
e. “Heads up!” …give them a few seconds to readjust to the light… Having their heads in the crook of their arms means they don’t get as zoned out as having it straight on the desk, which is also helpful!
2. Routines for whiteboards that keep answers secret from each other (described above). You must narrate why it is not only important not to look at others’ boards, but also why keeping one’s own board secret it essential. Narrate how it might seem kind to let someone see your answer, but it is in fact unkind as it stops them from getting the help they need.
3/ When answers are given on whiteboards, praise good-quality written explanation. For example, I will pick out and praise the clearest workings, showing them to the rest of the class and praising how it let me understand what they were thinking. A colleague encourages his pupils by intoning, in a very funny way “…let me see your brains.”
Levelling up: I have recently moved to giving pupils demerits if they show me the wrong answer with no working. This has made a huge difference in two ways: it means that children who are quick thinkers are forced to slow down, so the others aren’t intimidated or disheartened when they need more time. It also means I don’t waste time trying to guess where they went wrong. Full working allows me to quickly identify the point of error and give better feedback. Because this was narrated and ‘trialled’ for a lesson, the pupils who had demerits for this weren’t upset when they got a consequence and, more importantly, have changed their ways.
4. If you are faced with the problem of a big split between how many get it and how many don’t, and you feel bad for the ones ‘waiting around’ for the rest, you can try:
a. Writing up the exercise they will do once you judge they understand it
b. Posing a question to check competency/understanding, telling them to wipe their board quickly and start the exercise if you tell them they’re correct.
c. As you see each correct answer, saying simply ‘correct/well done/correct’ and letting them get on with it.
d. Get a show of hands of who has not started the exercise, then tell those pupils they are going to see more examples and be asked more oral questions. I find that, once I start on the re-teaching, many pupils then say “Oh! I get it now” and then they join in the written exercise, quickly narrowing down how many I am trying to help.
Laying the ground for purposeful written work
Strategies that I’ve tried and seen others use to good effect are:
- For short-form questions (i.e. those requiring only 1-2 steps), go through it first as an oral drill, cold calling pupils. Then, use it as a written exercise. There are several benefits: every pupil has had a chance to ask for clarification on questions where they don’t understand why that was the answer, or to note down hints to help them start it on their own; pupils can begin work quickly and in earnest, knowing that it is something they can do with more confidence; you get twice as much ‘bang for your buck’ with an exercise. This works best for things that are highly procedural, but I think it also works well for questions where the ‘way in’ must be found. If a good chunk of the exercise has been done orally, the written attempt will still require them to recall and decide how to begin.
- Drill on step 1: If the exercise is focused on decision-making (e.g. an exercise mixing all fraction operations, where the main challenge is that pupils muddle which procedure goes with different questions), it can be done as an oral drill just for step 1. For example, “For question a, what will you need to do? Find the LCD. Question b? Find the reciprocal and multiply.” This can be a lower-stakes version of the exercise to allow you to check how ready they are before embarking on the more extended task of completing the calculations.
- Before starting exercises, particularly more extended ones, or quite visual ones (e.g. an angle chase), give the pupils 30-60 seconds to scan for any that they think they don’t know how to start. Then, give hints and tips for those (depending on the pupils, you might model a very similar one on the board for them to look at when they get to it). This prevents you from running around from pupil to pupil as they encounter the problem, and gives them confidence when they get to it…and no excuse for just sitting there waiting instead of attempting it!
- If several pupils are struggling with the same thing, or asking the same question, or making the same mistake: STOP THE WORK! Make them all listen to the additional instruction, explanation or example. This prevents you from creating lots of low-level noise as you help others, and gives help straight away to them all.
Culture of Thinking: do I understand this?
The ideal situation is that pupils themselves are thinking deeply about what is being taught. This usually can be observed when they ask question in the form:
- Did ____ happen because _____?
- Is ____ like this because _______ is like that?
- If that is the case, does that mean that ____ is the case?
- Is this similar to the way that _____?
- I thought that because _______ we couldn’t ________?
- What happens if you try it with 0 / 1 / 2 / a negative number / a non-integer / a power?
- I think there is a pattern in this. Is it __________?
- Will the answer always be positive/negative/an integer/a multiple of __?
- I have an idea to help remember it: ___________.
Praise such contributions! Narrate that this is the sort of thinking that makes someone good at your subject, and makes it stick as they are forming connections with other ideas. Their memories of the ideas will be richer and more powerful. You can also narrate how this is beneficial to the other pupils, and to you as a teacher, and express gratitude.
Culture of Thinking: What do I need if I want to succeed?
A good place to get to is if the pupils themselves identify what they need, and flag it up. This is usually seen with questions like “Could we try one first on whiteboards?” or “Could you show another example, please?” or “Could we do another question together before we begin writing?” This means they are really thinking about if they understand something (or, can complete a procedure) and aren’t relying on teacher validation. Things that can help to bring this about:
- Narrating why you show examples
- Narrating what you want them to think about when you explain things, or show examples
- Narrating what they should annotate and why
- Narrating why you are asking questions
- Narrating what should be happening in their minds when they think about something
As above, narrate how this is beneficial to the other pupils. You can even say “Who is glad that ____ asked that? Next time you can be the person who everyone else is thanking, by being alert and giving me helpful advice.”
- Choral response is nice to deploy to help practice new and difficult pronunciations (combustibility, hypotenuse, consecutive, and so on). It is utterly pointless otherwise, unless it is being used to make pupils think. Choral response is great for an oral drill for questions like,
- a1 = ?
- a0 = ?
- 1a = ?
- 0a = ?
…but is pointless if they are simply repeating sounds. It needs to help them put ideas together, or be a low-stakes way to practise recall of facts or saying tricky words.
2. Use as many memory aids and links as you can. They more ways that pupils can recall something and know that they are remembering correctly, the better. There is no use in a pupil correctly recalling the process to find the median if they doubt they have it correct. That is nearly as bad as not remembering at all, as it will feel futile to proceed. Even the weirdest memory aids can be valuable: my Y9s suggested remembering median with two prompts: (1) think of it as medIaN, because it is IN the middle, and (b) it sounds like medium, and medium is the middle size. These are not sophisticated, but it allows them two have two ways to recall the process, and two ways to feel they are on the right path.
3. Set a goal for the lesson. Our deputy head described this as being what a learning objective was meant to be (as opposed to exercise in the time-wasting that can be seen – and enforced – in many classrooms today). I sometimes start the lesson by silently modelling an example of the kind of question I hope they’ll be able to do by the end, then putting a very similar question right by it. This will be on the left of the whiteboard. Then I use the remainder of the whiteboard during the lesson. Often I can be only 15 minutes into the lesson before (some) pupils’ hands shoot up, thinking they know how to answer the ‘goal question.’ This puts positive pressure on the others, as it gives the message “We’ve been taught enough to be able to do this! You need to keep up!” and lets pupils feel smart, and feel intellectually rewarded, for paying careful attention.
4. Have a set of stock phrases to denote things that REALLY matter and make them feel motivated to push themselves mentally. Olivia, our head of science, uses phrases such as
“I’ll bet my bottom dollar this will be on your GCSEs”
“This is the sort of question that only pupils who get an A* can do”
“Pupils who master this always find A level much easier”
I hope these strategies are useful to you. We are trying everything we can to get 100% of our pupils to do well in their GCSEs (and generally, be smart and confident people), so would love to hear about other approaches. These strategies are, of course, in the context of a school culture that celebrates curiosity, a love of learning and the belief that hard work is the path to success. This post focused on some behaviourist strategies, which we believe are the most efficient and effective approach, but in the bigger picture we focus on goals for the future and the instrinsic motivation of being an educated and confident person.
If you find it exciting to think about strategies to motivate and challenge children who often fall behind, consider joining us. Our ad is on the TES, or you can visit our website. You can also email me on dquinn [at] mcsbrent.co.uk if you want to know more.