Working Hard

The lesson finishes, the observer waves and I give a knowing nod, there’s no time to catch up now, they have a lesson to get ready for. As do I. Like mythical punctual buses, there is always another lesson just a few minutes behind this one.

We do catch up though, at lunchtime, for a friendly chat about the lesson. A friendly chat, because it’s a peer-observation as part of our Teaching & Learning Group that I’ve started this year. No grades, just useful feedback on a lesson with a particular focus each term.  The observer has some good feedback for me; a few boys on the back row who I hadn’t spotted were filling in the answers as we went through their homework, rather than marking it. There’s also the point that I really tried to cram too much into this lesson which is a fair comment, and something I need to work on. Then came the comment I’ve received in almost every lesson observation I’ve had since I first walked into a classroom five years ago…

“You’re working very hard up there.”

It’s not meant as an insult, it’s a back-handed compliment, I think.

I hope.

But the insinuation is always the same; I shouldn’t be working hard.

“You’re working harder than the kids.”

 

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When I trained to be a teacher, I was constantly told I was working too hard in the classroom. That I was talking too much, explaining too much, that I should do less work and make the kids work harder. In my first placement I planned lessons where students taught each other; a highlight being a Year 7 lesson where students were transformed from novices with no knowledge of energy production to being Chief Scientific Officers of renewable companies within the space of twenty minutes with a single worksheet. They then answered the very perceptive questions of their sales rep peers with a mixture of misconceptions, guesswork, and good old-fashioned blaggery; a useful life skill perhaps, but the follow-up homework task suggested few had learned the desired knowledge of renewable energy resources.

I was recommended to read Jim Smith’s The Lazy Teacher’s Handbook, and I dutifully did over the Christmas between my placements. It was full of techniques for getting students to do more in class, discover more for themselves, teach each other while the teacher “did less work”… in the classroom, perhaps. But importantly, more work outside the classroom. That book, like my PGCE mentor, said my efforts should be directed towards planning and making resources. Make resources at home, on my own, since these resources weren’t available at school. If my mentor had a bank of these magical resources, she certainly wasn’t going to share them with me. I did what I could, often forking out money I could ill afford, on cobbled together lazy-teacher-style lesson resources on TES for £1.99 or more.

On my second placement, again I was told to work less hard in the classroom and to work harder outside the classroom. To plan more activities that would allow students to discover things for themselves rather than me telling them.  I was told I wasn’t working hard enough outside the classroom. That I needed to dedicate my weekends (which had been then, and remain now, sacrosanct family time) to planning elaborate lessons where students could discover things for themselves, and then also spend time at home correcting  the multitude of student misconceptions by marking their books and writing written feedback in every book.

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On that second placement I was told that students’ behaviour was poor because it was five minutes in to the lesson and I was still talking. That students couldn’t be expected to listen carefully and interact with a teacher instructing and questioning them for more than five minutes and that they needed to start “working independently”. I eventually realised that students “working independently” simply meant that their private conversations and moving around the room were tolerated.

I finally extracted begrudging praise from my second placement mentor when my PGCE culminated in planning a “dance your chemical reaction” lesson with Year 7 (one for the kinaesthetic learners), and a series of lessons for year 8, in which I said absolutely nothing to the class at all. For seven lessons. Seven whole fifty-minute lessons where I taught them… nothing; instead students worked independently using their tablet devices to read a series of blog posts on Rocks, which caused me to start this blog, and which remain on this site as memorial to mistakes of the past.  I spent these lessons walking around the room telling students to read the posts, telling them where they could find the tasks they needed to complete in chronological order, and that the answers they needed were there in the blog or on linked sites, if only they would care to read. But they didn’t read, they just chatted and then if I circulated past them and asked why they weren’t working they would say they were stuck and waiting for me.  Waiting for me to give them verbal direct instruction on a one-to-one basis.

 

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Information can only enter a someone’s head through their eyes or their ears. You cannot eat knowledge and you cannot smell knowledge. Given that information students learn through discovery is no more likely to be remembered than information given to them isn’t it more efficient to just tell them?  Isn’t it quicker for the teacher to stand at the front and explain it clearly, to every student rather than slave away outside of classroom hours designing activities? Activities that in even a best-case scenario are only equally as effective as the best teacher explanations, but in most scenarios are less effective?  Aren’t students more likely to understand the desired concept if you remove as many cognitive barriers as possible? The more and more I learn about the various cognitive difficulties in learning new things the more convinced I am that I should make it as easy as possible to access new information.

 

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Then there’s the workload issue. Let’s face it, even the best designed discovery learning activities, which require less than five minutes of teacher speak, still require the teacher to work hard. It’s just less visible to the casual observer. Did Jim Smith spend his lessons sat with his feet up smoking a pipe? Of course not. The “lazy teacher” still has to circulate, manage behaviour and motivate students.  If the lesson has any kind of challenging material or if the resources are anything other than spectacular then the teacher will also be circulating correcting mistakes and catching misconceptions. But you’ll never catch them all, so you’ll end up marking, or at the very least reading every book and feeding back to correct those mistakes with some direct instruction through written or verbal feedback later.  More marking, to go with more planning, all done outside of the lesson time; but at least the teacher wasn’t working hard in the lesson, eh!

 

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The book that as had the most profound and instant impact on my teaching has been David Didau and Nick Rose’s What Every Teacher Needs to Know About Psychology; In particular, the chapter on learning and long-term memory. I don’t recall a great deal of information on this area of psychological research being presented to me in my PGCE (or if it was, I wasn’t made to recall it at any time). But the ideas surrounding forgetting and retrieval practice were a revelation to me, and I stopped being frustrated at my student’s inability to remember stuff we did last lesson.  As a student teacher, NQT and RQT I would be hugely frustrated at the inability of my students to recall even the basic facets of the previous lesson without looking it up in their books.

“But last week, Freddie you were the CSO of a biomass burning power station, how can you not remember what Biomass means?”

Why should Freddie remember? He wasn’t actually the CSO of a biomass power station. He was pretending to be based on the single side of A4 information I gave to him which he dutifully read once before being distracted by wasp flying around the classroom. He knew and understood in that lesson. He knew when Charlotte asked him what type of materials he burned.  But he’s forgotten now. So we’ll need to recap that. In fact they’ve all forgotten…

I found the teaching experience to be a much happier and relaxed experience once I had accepted that students will forget stuff, even if I have checked they know stuff at the end of the lesson. For forgetting is natural, and memory (as Dan Willingham is oft quoted) is the residue of thought. Teachers should use their position as experts to teach kids stuff in a way that is interesting, engaging and explained as clearly as possible. That does not mean that kids will be passive, or lectured to. Good teaching follows explanation and instruction with questions. Questions that make students think about that stuff. Thinking and practicing that will help students create strong long-term memories. Finally, good teachers check students answers to questions to check their understanding, and plan subsequent teaching accordingly.

Students will still forget stuff, but if we teach efficiently, we’ll have time to go back through things, time to inter-leave topics and information, and show students how concepts are connected. That ideas do not sit in one-hour silos called “lessons”.  And with any luck, teachers wont have to work so hard outside of the classroom. For sure, this way is hard work in the classroom, but I don’t mind working hard in the classroom; it’s my job. I’m a teacher.

6 thoughts on “Working Hard

  1. Julian Selman

    This article exemplifies the need for change in the way that we teach and promote learning. The time for teachers to work hard is in the lessons – yes.

    Reply
  2. Dave (@IamMrDaveMiller)

    I can’t agree more with your comments. I too have been told that I work too hard in the classroom. I think the culture needs to change to the students working harder outside of the classroom than we do. Discovery based learning I can imagine in some instances works but is very inefficient in teaching year 9s about atoms 🙂

    Reply
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