Experiments with strategies from ‘What Does This Look Like In The Classroom?’

24 Nov 2017

what does this look like

“Teaching is the best profession in the world and has given us a huge amount of satisfaction. This book is, we hope, a useful contribution to the work of our fellow travellers”

Carl Hendrick and Robin Macpherson ‘What Does This Look Like In The Classroom’

There is, let’s be clear, not a huge amount of time for dipping into the murky depths of educational research as we power on through this epic term. We still, however, need motivation to fuel our tired and frazzled minds. Finding the time to think, reflect and work on our teaching helps to energise us and find the joy in our endeavours in the classroom. What we need is something concise and practical: something we can dip into and use to make some immediate and informed changes to our practice.

Here is where I formally introduce the splendid ‘What does this look like in the classroom?’ by Carl Hendrick and Robin Macpherson, the most informative and accessible education book I have read in some time. This term I have been reflecting on lots of different elements of this very useful guide to some of the pressing questions in education. The chapters each work as separate explorations themselves, with the question and answer format used to respond to the pressing questions that we all face in our daily practice in the classroom. There are a range of fascinating and informed voices that each offer genuine expertise on areas that it can be hard to find clear guidance on: assessment, marking and feedback; behaviour; reading and literacy; SEN; motivation; memory and recall; classroom talk and questioning; learning myths; technology and independent learning.  Three areas I have been particularly thinking about and experimenting with this term:

Classroom Talk and Questioning.

How about this for an inspiring opening:

“The kind of talk that happens in our classroom largely determines the kind of learning that takes place and developing an armoury of tools to facilitate that talk should be at the top of every teacher’s list whiter that be learning how to scaffold learning with effective explanations and worked examples or setting up the kinds of fruitful conversations that can lead to genuine learning.”  (pg 146)

With a gulp I was instantly reminded of my Year 8 class when I read this. Their verbal expression is something we have had many conversations about but never developed a consistent strategy to tackle: this class is full of informality and they have an obsessive desire to show off with each other. Doug Lemov’s and Martin Robinson provide some sage tips and guidance throughout this chapter on how to tackle such lackadaisical approaches to classroom talk.  I particularly liked this from Martin Robinson:

“You want them to talk in a subject-specific language, in an appropriate register, and to talk in way that can be understood. Clarity. And, so long as they’re aware of the need for good rhetoric, classroom talk can help learning, thinking, arguing and writing. So don’t let them get away with second-rate chatter.”  (pg 154)

The mission begins. The students have been studying Mark Haddon’s ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog at Night Time’  and entered to the wonderful ‘Express Yourself’ by Charles Wright. Their task was to link this song to the novel so far (though to be fair the song was a tad too funky for them to handle, and it did result in some interesting dance moves!)

This led to some interesting dialogue about communication and about Christopher’s method of understanding of the world around him. I then used it as a nifty lead into some discussion about the way in which we ‘express ourselves’ in the classroom and begin to form our new talking guidelines. Exploring this with them and thinking about the different contexts in which they will be required to speak in was useful.

Lemov (although he might not have had my interpretation  in mind!) suggests that “a useful move might be the write out and practise the prompts you would use to ask a student to upgrade their language”. Now this is very simple with this group, anything that does not conform to our classroom dialogue rules, i.e. fillers or incomplete verbal sentences, is responded to with an “express yourself.” Students now leap in to correct each other, admonishing with a quizzical eyebrow raise and an “express yourself!”. While all very light hearted and collaborative, it has seen them take more care in how they communicate in the room. Fillers are vanishing and we now speak as we would write as often as possible. They still want to show off with each other – but now in a slightly more verbose fashion!

Assessment, Marking and Feedback 

It is, of course, the aspect in which we wrestle most with as practitioners: how much, how often, how to ensure a response to our endeavours?  Everyone ‘expresses themselves’ with their 50 pence worth in this debate: from the purists who believe it is vital that we mark everything in depth and consign ourselves to an early marking grave; to the liberamarkers, who believe that nothing should be marked. We are frazzled and overwhelmed with the feedback we have been given about feedback!

I have again tried to simplify this based on reading this excellent section with Dylan William and Daisy Christodoulou. Both offer tangible and clear guidance on how to manage the marking monster. This advice from Dylan William particularly struck me in its clarity and pragmatism for teachers on a full timetable:

“I recommend what I call ‘four quarters marking’. I think that teachers should mark in detail 25% of what students do, should skim another 25%, students should then self-assess about 25% with teachers monitoring the quality of that and finally, peer assessment should be the other 25%.’  (pg 32)

It is with my Year 9 group that I have been experimenting most with this. They are currently working on a narrative writing unit. On a two week cycle I want them to complete one extended piece of narrative writing. This week, for example, they used my Catastrophe narrative example to write their own narrative called ‘The Catastrophe.’ Their extended writing is then the 25% of what I will mark in specific detail, although still employing codes and sparse guidance in order to speed up the process. Practise paragraphs that they may complete in class are either self-assessed against these generic thought prompts or peer assessed:

Am I on the right track?

What am I doing well?

What do I need to do more of?

Do I need to do something differently?

Am I following our narrative writing targets?

The peer assessment that students have completed has all been using the excellent strategies from ‘Gallery Critique’ in Ron Berger’s ‘An Ethic of Excellence’.  Students are now used to giving this kind of feedback and are becoming better at being specific the points they give each other:

  1. Something kind: I really like the way you/Excellent use of/The most successful thing about this was..
  2. Something specific: In the first/second/third paragraph you/ Your point here was difficult to understand because…/ Your sentence, paragraph, point here is…
  3. Some helpful: Think about adding/think about taking away/have you thought about/you could improve this by…

All this helps students to see their work as their responsibility, not something they immediately pass over to a teacher for the red pen frenzy to begin. It all  helps to create Williams’ vision of “students as essential partners in the learning process.” They are clear that the 25% that they do mark is something they take very seriously and I expect to see improved.

Memory and Recall 

Finally, my work this term with Year 10 on ‘A Christmas Carol’ has been very much influenced by the strategies in the book. I wrote about my action plan for teaching the novel at the start of the term.  In this section of the book, Paul Kirschner and Yana Weinstein respond to some of the points that perplex us about memory. Their focus on using regular review is something I have used regularly this term, even using mini quizzes to open lessons with Year 8 to secure their understanding of the plot of ‘The Curious Incident’. This was today’s ‘The Curious Plot Quiz’…

  • What tensions exist between Christopher and his father?
  • What was revealed last lesson about Christopher’s mother?
  • How do you think Christopher will respond to this news? How do you think he is feeling?
  • What is the mystery that is central to the novel?
  • What are some of the important themes in the novel?

As Yana Weinstein highlights in response to how to ensure students don’t forget what they have learned in previous lessons:

This one’s easy! Give them a starter quiz. Once they get used to the routine of needing to remember information from one class at the beginning of next, they will adapt by trying to keep the information fresh in between classes. In addition, the retrieval practice in and of itself will cause additional learning”.

This has certainly been the case with Year 10 this term, as they enter they know they will face ‘The Ghost of Christmas Memory’ tasks, and as a class of a large number of male students they don’t want to lose face when we go over answers quickly. I also like the idea of introducing a mini quiz in the middle of lessons, to check how much students are retaining during the lesson.

The summary that Carl Hendrick and Robin Macpherson offer at the close of the book was also something I found very interesting, very much in keeping with ethos from the contributors throughout:

One of the things we learned in writing this book is that an awful lot of what goes on in the classroom simply doesn’t matter. The signal-to-noise ratio is often less-than-optimal level for effective learning, with many extraneous activities taking up valuable learning time in the name of demonstrating progress, whether that be burdensome marking strategies or the creation of time-consuming resources to ‘engage’ students.

This would appear to be a refreshing beckoning call for the final few weeks of term: it is time to simplify and streamline. A very long winded book recommendation perhaps, but “What does this look like in the classroom?’ is an essential read for anyone interested in making informed improvements to their teaching practice. Thanks for reading.

express yourself


Jamie Thom

English teacher, host of @TES English teaching podcast. Author of 'Slow Teaching.' MEd in Practitioner Enquiry, doctorate student #StrathEdD. Runner.

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