No Talent Required

I came across this superb quote recently, “Let’s be the best at everything that requires no talent.”  It’s by Paul O’Connell the well known, and highly talented, former Ireland rugby player.

Let’s get one thing out of the way, it’s not saying that people shouldn’t aim to be the best at what ever they are talented in (whether talent exists is another completely different debate).  Certainly, in the classroom there are many things that all learners should be expected to do not matter what their previous attainment, talent or ability.  I’m sure that you can come up with your own list of things quite easily, but it would include: being on time; having the correct equipment and uniform; getting ready to work quickly; following classroom expectations, such as putting a hand up if they need the teacher’s attention; work must be completed on time, saying nothing about its quality; etc.  It is important that there are no exceptions to this.  Certainly, if you do have any ‘talented’ learners, they should be expected to lead the way in all of this and their ‘talent’ should not be allowed to let them skimp on these basic expectations.

If teachers insist on these behaviours from their learners then they are setting the scene for all learners to maximise their progress and attainment.

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No Talent Required

Learner Independence

Earlier this year I had an accident and I was away from school for seven weeks.  My exam classes were without me for a large part of the vital Spring Term.  During this time my Year 13 learners put together their final coursework projects.  In previous years, I would be in the classroom with them during this time and I would be able to answer their queries at a moment’s notice.  This year, I was at the end of an email and I was not necessarily able to answer promptly due to hospital appointments, ongoing treatment and concentrating on my recovery.  I have now marked their projects.  The standard of them is higher than I would have ordinarily expected from these learners despite me not being available to them all the time – or was it because I wasn’t available to them all the time.

I am convinced that the learners did better than would normally have been expected because they could not take the easy way out and ask teacher every time that had a problem; they had to find the answers out for themselves.  They had to be independent learners.  Turning them into independent learners had been my aim from the start of the course.  The exam board specifies that they should run their coursework projects themselves and, for once, they had no option.  Over time I had taught them all the skills that they would need to complete their projects.  I made sure that they had a stack of back up material including exam board mark schemes, help sheets, and other support material.  They were all aware of where this material was and what material was available to them.  It appears that this time the learners really did use the resources that were available to them rather than asking teacher for help at the first sign of difficulty.

For me, this simply reinforces the idea of learners looking in books and asking a fellow learner before asking the teacher for help – book, buddy, boss, or 3B4ME.  The key to making this happen is quality first teaching and having the necessary support material clearly available, but most of all, the teacher must know when to let the learners struggle and find the solution for themselves.  Teachers must accept that learners have to take responsibility for their own learning and that over helping and over teaching can in fact hinder this.  Teachers’ natural instinct is to get involved with their learners and their learning, but this is not always the best way forward because it can take power away from the learner.  In this case, less teaching leads to more independence.

A little while ago there was a huge push in education for independent learning.  Like many fads over the years this seems to have been abandoned and replaced by someone else’s trendy idea that will equally be left in the gutter when overtaken by the next pedagogical fashion.  Perhaps it is time we revisited independent learning and really tried to make our learners independent.  This means that teachers must force the learners to do it for themselves.

Learner Independence

Keep It Simple

Once when Paul McCartney was talking about the Beatles, he said that to start with everything was really simple, but at the end it was very complicated.

I have been very lucky that I have observed many lessons delivered by many different teachers in many different subjects over the years.  I am sure that I have learnt far more about teaching by observing other teachers and reflecting on their lessons than I ever have from being observed myself.  I could not count the number of times I have seen a teacher do something that either makes the lesson smoother and saves time, or pushes the learners forward, by using an idea that I hadn’t considered.  Stealing these ideas has undoubtedly made me a better teacher.

The best lessons that I have observed have been inspiring and have certainly enabled the learners in those lessons to progress very successfully with their studies.  It is a real pleasure to observe this kind of lesson and these lessons give me an extra incentive to improve my own teaching.

Naturally, not every lesson that I have seen hits these extremely high standards and certainly I have never seen the perfect lesson where there was nothing to be discussed and nothing to improve.  I have however seen many excellent lessons.  These excellent lessons have a couple of things in common.  Firstly, the teacher is crystal clear about what they intend to achieve during the lesson – there is no fuzziness about this at all.  They know what the objective is and they can communicate this to the learners appropriately.  Secondly, the teacher has planned to provoke learning.  The teacher has thought through how the learners are going to engage with the material so that they have to think and really engage.

In a lesson that is not so good, often the teacher is either not clear about what the objective of the lesson is or the objective is too big and the teacher tries to cram too many different ideas into the lesson.  Either way, some learners will get confused or even switch off because they cannot follow the thread of the lesson because it is not clear to them.

Another source of problems is the teacher planning too much for what they are going to do, rather than planning for how the learners are going to be provoked into learning.  This of course may be an artifact of the teacher being observed and assuming that the observation is of their teaching rather than an observation of the lesson as a whole.

These two common problems could be solved if the teacher was constantly thinking about how they can make things more simple.  There is no doubt that teaching is a very complex business with many different demands being made on a teacher each day.  I have no doubt that teachers need to fight this complexity and find a way to make each lesson as simple as it needs to be, starting with the objective.  If the objective is simple and clear then everything else falls into focus more easily.  Let’s not forget that the whole purpose of the lesson is for the learners to make progress with their learning so, once the objective is in place, provoking this learning must be the basis for planning.

To start with, teaching appears to be very complicated, but the teacher must make is so much simpler.

Keep It Simple

The Principles of Teaching – Part 3

This is the third and final part in this series.  You may recall from the first post in this series that I am certain that any activity that can be undertaken by a human must fundamentally be simple, and this includes teaching.  In the second post in the series I suggested that one of the fundamental principals of teaching is maintaining effective relationships with learners.  You really will get more out of the young people that you teach if they believe that you care about them, and it is their belief that is key.

Some teachers go into their lessons and put on a show – particularly if they are being observed.  They show off their party pieces and the resources that they have taken hours to prepare.  The teacher may be very energetic and enthusiastic, a little like a young puppy.  Clearly, the teacher is working very hard.

Other teachers may give a short introduction to a task by getting the learners to draw on their existing knowledge.  They may then get the learners to complete the main task while quietly observing what the learners are doing and intervening when they see fit.

These are two contrasting styles of teaching and I am sure that most teachers could identify colleagues that fit both of these stereotypes.  Many teachers will see that, at some time or another, they themselves fit one or other of these stereotypes.

But, which of these ways of teaching is the best?  I certainly have no idea.  The problem is that I have described the what the teacher was doing but nothing about what the learner was doing and I have not touched on the learning that has taken place.  In fact, the question that I asked is fundamentally flawed.  What I should have been asking about is the learning that was taking place in the different classrooms.  The only real measure of how effective teaching is, is to measure the amount of learning taking place – which is not easy.  So going back to the question, which of these ways of teaching is the best?  It could be either, depending of on the learning in the two classrooms.

If we accept that teaching can only be as good as the learning that it promotes then we can start to look at planning from a slightly different perspective.  We should be looking at how the lesson, activity or intervention that we are planning promotes learning, and then what does the teacher need to do to enable this learning to happen.  What will the activity look like through the eyes of the learner?

My final principal of teaching is this, it really isn’t about teaching at all, it is about learning.  Rather, it is that teaching’s role is to provoke learning and that what the teacher does is far less important than the learning that the teacher’s actions promote.  Teaching and learning are intimately related but above all, teaching is the craft of enabling, encouraging and inspiring learning.  If you put your learners’ learning first then you won’t go far wrong.  Almost everything that you do as a teacher should flow from this.

The Principles of Teaching – Part 3

Will it Make Their Learning Better?

I was having lunch with a friend a few days ago and he told be about an Olympic rowing crew.  Not a crew with Sir Steve Redgrave or Sir Matthew Pinsent, but another crew that was not expected be win gold.  The crew had their difficulties and their ups and downs as any team of people will.  They were in search of a bond that would get them closer to their goal of Olympic glory.

One of them came up with the phrase, “Will it make the boat go faster?”  A very simple idea that the crew could use to tackle anything that came up.  For example, if one of them was buying a coffee and was tempted by a doughnut, he could simply ask, “Will it make the boat go faster?”  If the answer was no, then the doughnut stayed in the shop.  It was a simple question that could cut through to what was really important to the group achieving their goal.

Teachers are superb at creating a whole mass of tasks.  new initiatives are constantly being suggested by government, teachers new to the school, and many people in between.  It is impossible ever to get to the end of a teachers ‘to do’ list – the list is ever expanding.  Workload is one of the biggest bugbears of the profession and reportedly one of the reasons why so many teachers leave within the first five years.

I am certain a variation on the question above could make a significant difference to this workload and the guilt associated with not doing the best job possible on some tasks.  The question is, “Will it make their learning better?”  If the answer is yes, then whatever is being suggested deserves to be taken seriously.  On the other hand, if the answer is no, then the suggestion must be dismissed.

Equally, some evaluation should be carried out at a later date. Did it really make their learning better?  Can you be sure?  If the answer to these questions is yes, then whatever you tried needs to be broadcast far and wide.

In case you were wondering, the unfancied crew did indeed win gold!

Will it Make Their Learning Better?

Ride the Stress Curve

Recently there has been a far greater understanding and acceptance of mental health issues which is very welcome.  Certainly, in the last few years I have dealt with many students who have mental health problems and thankfully they have often had the support of appropriate professionals.  Schools are taking the problem more seriously and often employ counsellors to help young people who are experiencing problems that are less serious.

There are genuine difficulties that all our learners have to cope with.  As the learners get older, their workload increases.  Certainly, the amount of work that a Key Stage 3 child has to cope with is very different from the workload of an A Level student.  Not only that, many A Level students are juggling a busy social life and a part time job in addition to their studies.  Many learners find exams difficult to deal with, and this starts in primary school.  There is scope to help the vast majority of our learners who find these, and other aspects of school life difficult.  There is a lot of room to build resilient learners.

Our learners need to understand stress far better.  I have written about this before.  There are a few basic ideas that learners should understand.  People need a certain level of stress before they will work effectively and efficiently.  If that level of stress is not present then tasks will often be done poorly, or not at all.  Up to a certain level, increasing stress leads to increased performance and at the optimum level, people will be performing tasks effectively and will be feeling really alive.  If stress continues to increase much beyond this level then tasks will be done less effectively and people will be feeling anxious and ‘under stress’.  It is when people get into this area when problems arise.  Most teachers are good at manipulating their learners’ workloads so that they do not tip over into this over stressed mode.  However, many learners are not very adept at managing their own workloads.  Many of them leave their work to the last minute and when they have several deadlines close together for different subjects they run into problems.

Region 1:  Too little stress for efficient and effective performance.  There is little reason to perform so tasks are often put off or done half-heartedly.
Region 2: Optimum stress.  Performance is at its best.  There is reason to work and the work is manageable.
Region 3: Too much stress.  Either there is too much work to do or the work is too hard; or there may be outside factors that are interfering with work.

It is clear that most learners do not have much understanding of stress and just think of stress as bad and to be avoided.  Young people would benefit from having a higher level of stress literacy.  If they develop this literacy then they will be far more able to monitor and influence their own stress levels, aiming to keep their stress level close to the optimum level.

Many learners will only do a task when the deadline is imminent.  This is not that surprising as, to a certain extent, we all work like this.  If all tasks came one at a time with deadlines coming at evenly spaced intervals, this would not be a problem.  Unfortunately, as we all know, deadlines often come close together.  This is when students often get into difficulties and they will tell one teacher that they couldn’t do the work because they were doing another teacher’s work.  This of course is down to poor organisation.  Some students manage these situations on their own but many of our young people need explicit help with this.  They need to be shown how to look at the amount of work they need to do and to plan out when the are going to work on it in order to hit their deadlines.  The most obvious time when this happens is when learners are preparing for public exams.  When I have asked new Year 12 students to analyse their revision for their GCSEs, most of them say that their revision was last minute and disorganised, and this is from students who have succeeded and gained a good set of GCSE results.  Our learners need to be shown explicitly how to plan for workload pinch points and use their stress literacy to see how this can impact on their performance.

If learners are to plan effectively they need to know what work they have to do and when the deadlines are going to be.  Teachers have a key role here in making their expectations clear and flagging up deadlines in good time.  This planning is best done before a pinch point is imminent, in other words during a lower stress phase.  This in itself can cause problems because learners’ motivation will be lower during this lower stress phase.  However, if the learners are aware of the stress curve then they will be more likely to plan at an appropriate time.

Sometimes learners can be overwhelmed by the amount of work that needs to be done – and this will only get worse with linear A Levels when student swill have to revise two years work for at least three subjects.  When learners contemplate how much work that they have to do they can suffer from paralysis and, even though they have a great deal to do, do nothing at all.  This in turn increases their stress level and can very quickly tip them into the over-stressed state so that whatever they do is not done well.  Above all though, students need to make a start.  They need to concentrate on doing the first task in front of them and put everything else to one side.  This is what successful performers in all fields do: musicians call it being in the groove, and sportsmen call it being in the zone.  This is also the main thrust of mindfulness, which I have written about before.  Learners should give the task that they are doing their full attention so that it is achieved effectively and efficiently.  Once the first task is achieved then it will give learners the confidence that the next task can be achieved and their full attention should be transferred to that task.  This can quickly build a virtuous circle of achievement.  By concentrating only on the task in hand, students have more chance of getting their level of stress into that optimum zone of peak performance.  Obviously, this is easier to do if the learner has already produced a detailed plan.

I firmly believe that we can build more resilient learners if the link between stress level and performance is made explicit and revisited regularly to build understanding.  They need to see that there will be times when their workload will be very high and that planning their way through their various tasks will help keep their stress levels in control.  Finally, they need to learn to concentrate on the task that they are doing right now; they need to be rooted in the moment and in the task that they are doing.  These strategies should enable more students to maintain their stress levels in the optimum zone for more of the time, which should make their experience of school and exams easier to deal with.  It should lead to improved results.

If your learners can learn to manipulate their stress so that it is at the optimum level then they will perform effectively and efficiently; they will be riding the stress curve.

Ride the Stress Curve

Empty Words

We all know that the language that we use is very important.  It is important to choose the right words so that the meaning is clear and understood by the audience, whether it is one of our learners, a colleague or a parents.  I really do believe, however, that there are some commonly used words in educational circles that are used very carelessly and often in a very vague way.  Their meaning is usually unclear and they are unhelpful in clarifying things for learners, colleagues or others.

Mark Knopfler is a guitarist whose style is seemingly effortless.  He was asked during an interview if playing the guitar came naturally to him.  He said that it didn’t.  He said that in practice he was constantly trying to make his fingers go where they didn’t want to go.  Matt Dawson, the England World Cup winning scrum half, was asked if he was the most talented scrum half of his generation.  He simply laughed.  He went on to say that he was one of the scrum halves in his generation that practiced the most.  Both of these people would be described as talented by many commentators.  But was that really the case?

I had the good fortune to talk to the captain of the GB water polo team from the 2012 Olympics.  I asked him which water polo players are most likely to make it to elite level.  He said that those players that have initial success when they first take up water polo hardly ever make it.  He said that they are often overtaken by players who initially could not match their performance.  These early achievers apparently sit back and rely on what they are able to do and they hope that their early superiority will continue as their experience grows, but in the main this does not prove to be the case.  He said that the majority of future elite level of performers are those who do not initially stand out.  They are often people who suffer setbacks.  These are the people who learn that they have to work hard at their sport if they are going to succeed.  Crucially, they often have coaches who can help them to work effectively on improving their abilities so that they are not wasting their time working in ineffective ways.  He said that it was the athletes who were prepared to put in targeted hard work who were most likely to become elite level performers.

If you looked at the team of young water polo players, I am sure that many people would pick on the high performers as talented.  If you looked at the team of Olympic water polo players, I am sure that many people would pick on the high performers as talented – in other words those who lacked talent as youngsters.  There is something not quite right here.  It would appear that talent can be lost, by the high performing youngsters, and gained, by the Olympians.  If talent really can be lost and gained – and the evidence is that it can be – then it is a fairly meaningless and unhelpful concept.

When you think of an intelligent person, what do you imagine?  What are the attributes of an intelligent person?  What is intelligence?  I used to think that I could answer those questions but over time I have realised that these questions do not have one simple answer, in fact they have many complex answers that can vary depending upon whose intelligence is being discussed.  In some cases it may mean that someone has great recall of historical facts; they may be able to solve complex mathematical problems with little obvious effort; or eruditely debating esoteric philosophic ideas. All of these activities could be used as evidence of intelligence but there is no overarching theme that encompasses all of these diverse attributes.  All of these abilities make use of different skill sets and understanding of them is not helped by the concept of intelligence.  Intelligent is, at best, an unhelpful term because the concept is too imprecise and means different things to different people in different situations.

I am certain that teachers often have little idea of how much effort their learners put into their work.  Of course they will know those learners who hardly do anything and those who do far more than required but most learners lie in between these extremes and it is very hard to know what these learners put into their studies.  Some learners put in hardly any effort and their attainment is very good; others put in many hours and their attainment is poor.  Teachers usually do not see how hard learners work, especially outside of lessons.  All teachers ever see is the product of their efforts.  It is very difficult to infer effort from a product.

I recently had a colleague tell a hard working member of my tutor group that his effort was not good enough.  I am certain that this learner was putting in the hours but what he was doing with his time was ineffective.  He did not need to be told to ‘put in more effort’, he needed constructive advice on what he needed to do with his time that would improve his knowledge and understanding of the subject concerned.  He actually needed advice on how to work more effectively and efficiently.  The concept of ‘effort’ is usually unhelpful as it is too often used as a catch all term when more specific help, advice and feedback would enable a learner to make progress more readily.

I have looked at three words that really should be treated with extreme care in educational circles; three words whose meanings are so unhelpful that their use can actually obscure meaning but three words that many people think are full of meaning.  I do hope that more people challenge the use of these words whenever they hear them so that teachers and learners can clarify their own thinking and communicate this thinking clearly to others.

Empty Words