Part 3: They are constantly looking to find out where students are in their learning

LMac-011711-stay-on-track1Teaching is a seemingly simple business; maximise the learning of all of our students.

Remember those teachers at school who you felt always knew where you were ‘at’ in their subject/class?  Almost like they were teaching you, and you only, at the expense of all others in the class.  They were of course doing that with everyone in the class because they were/are a great teacher.

One of the best feelings we can foster in our students is when they know we are genuinely interested in how they’re going.

We take personal pride in their learning, just as they should.  It’s a partnership. We care.

So in order to do this we must be constantly eliciting evidence of learning along their journey.  Sounds easy in theory but more difficult in practice, right?  Especially, given the number of students we teach.

This said, have you ever gone into a new unit with a class with a plan (that you’ve spent ages on) without finding out what they already know, understand and are able to do?

I have.

You then quickly realise that you have pitched it too easy or too hard or just in the wrong direction because you have asked/ watched/ listened/ felt the students working at a different level to the one in which you had planned for.

Well the very fact that you asked/ watched/ listened/ felt and made that judgement is important.  Not only for those early stages when you are trying to establish initial gauge of knowledge or ability but continually as you move through a unit of work.  Because we often stop doing this after our initial judgements are made and we shouldn’t.

In PE we have an advantage in the area of collecting evidence of learning (yay!).  Imagine doing a Maths problem or an English writing piece. The teacher has to find a way of seeing what they are writing in order to make a call about their learning.  Do you remember lining up at the teachers’ desk with your work to get it ‘checked’?  I do!

We benefit from being able to see what the students are doing, granted not always all at one time, but we are able to make judgements about whether learning is taking place by watching what’s going on.  Learning actually can be visible for us, and doesn’t it feel great when you see it happening right in front of you?

When it comes to knowledge and understanding that may be a little different though.  Yes, a student’s court movement and skill can show us that they understand how to execute a ‘give and go’ pass but other movement related concepts often require us to extract such knowledge and gauge understanding.  But how do great teachers do this if it’s unseen?

Wait for it…

Questioning (…ok it wasn’t that big a secret).

Great teachers ask great questions.

The scenario…

I bet we have all been guilty of asking a question and doing an inward fist pump when the star student throws their hand up to answer. What do we do? We let them answer, continuing their status as ‘the star’ and then say “does every one understand that?” Cue collective nod, and then we move on, satisfied with ourselves that we have ‘taught’ that bit really well.

Problem is, it might only be you and ‘the star’ that are on the same page, or in fact reading the same book! Actually, what the scenario above probably shows is that you have just taught them something they already knew (thanks very much for wasting my time Mr Teacher!)

What the other students have got really good at, and they have learnt this from years of sitting in all kinds of classrooms, is working out how teachers conduct the teacher-led discussion.  They are very adept at ‘hiding’, some are professionals at it and are experts at nodding at the right times.  For the most part, us teachers inhibit our student’s abilities to take risks when sharing knowledge and understanding.  This is because we may have, unintentionally, created a culture of “it’s not OK to be wrong” if, in fact, there is a wrong answer to the question you have asked.

*Research suggests we basically ask three kinds of questions;

57% Managerial (who has finished observing their partner?)

35% Recall (How many seconds are you allowed in the key for?)

8% Analysis/ Synthesis/ Evaluation (explain why you were using the fast break strategy?)

*data from Brown and Wragg 1993

Questioning is a fairly recent and fashionable topic in teaching & learning and there’s bucket loads of research out there on it.  Formative assessment guru Dylan Wiliam @dylanwiliam has heaps of great insights and practical strategies on it.  He suggests that there are only two good reasons for asking a question;

  1. To cause thinking
  2. To provide information to the teacher about what to do next

What percentage of questions that you ask come under the above categories?  Clearly we need managerial and recall questions to serve an organisational purpose, but is our balance a bit off?  Should the incredibly thought provoking ‘gold dust’ questions be less than 10%?

Here are some practical strategies to try to keep everyone engaged;

Hands up only to ask a question– this means exactly is it suggests.  No more bright kids dislocating their shoulder to answer questions. I use an app (hat) which choses students at random when I shake my iPad. So ask the question, wait, allow thinking time (this is SO important), then the app randomly selects a student…

Question ping pong– when one student provides and answer, don’t always acknowledge it as correct straight away, even if it is.  Ask someone else, ”what did you think of that answer?” or,  “does anyone think differently?”  If the first student says “I don’t know”, they cannot opt out, say “ok I’ll come back to you” when you have a couple more answer go back to them and say “which answer did you like best?” no opt outs.

Statements can serve as questions– asking them to consider a statement like ”balancing does not always mean staying still” can often provoke students to think critically.  You can also ‘tease’ them (educationally) with some statements to stir a discussion

Traffic light cones– A method of gaining an all-student response. During stoppages or discussions ask the students to sit near the coloured cone which reflects their judgement of how well they are ‘getting it’ (whatever ‘it’ is you are trying to achieve).  So if we are trying to learn strategies to move our opponent around the badminton court, every break the students place themselves in a category as a self-evaluation of how well they are getting it- it’s better than just sitting anywhere, is it not?  As it provides you with valuable info.

You may not adopt all or any of these strategies, finding your own way might be the key.  But the central message is that great teachers find creative and effective ways of finding out how students are progressing, only then can we acknowledge where they are at and facilitate them getting to where they need to go next.

A student who feels like you care about them, believe in them and are sincere in your interest about their learning and where they are going, will do everything they can to reach the high expectations you have set.


Part 2: They clarify, share and ensure students understand learning intentions and success criteria

where r we goingWe all think that the students in our class know and understand what they are meant to be doing.  The fact is that they don’t always.  Far less, why they are doing something.   In PE we are very good at telling the kids the activity we are doing , but possibly not as often do we share what we are supposed to be learning.

For example, if I walked into a gym and asked a student what they are learning today, they might say “Basketball!”  I then ask the teacher and they say “we are learning how to create space to receive a pass.”  Therein lies the problem.  We don’t always make the learning intentions stand out from the context.  Or perhaps more accurately, we know where the learning is going, we just don’t take the time to tell them!

We must share this with them so, 1. They clearly know what they are doing and 2. They know how they are going at it. They have to understand what success looks like, where they are now, where they need to go and how they are going to get there.

Judging how successful you are in a basketball game is much different (and more complex) than analysing how effective you are at creating space, basketball just happens to be the current context.

Look at it this way-

“Imagine yourself on a ship sailing the open sea, to an unknown destination, you would be desperate to know one thing…where are we going?  That’s like our students coming to school each day.  Often the destination is unknown to them.  Very quickly, the daily life on board the ship becomes all important, the chores, the demands, the inspections become the reality, not the voyage nor the destination.”  White 1971

So not all students have the same idea as the teacher about what they are doing.

So are learning intentions just the new version of lesson objectives?

Kind of, but not really.  Learning intentions suppose two things that objectives don’t;

  1. They have to be inextricably linked to the success criteria of the lesson (i.e. how do I know if I’m ‘getting it’?)
  2. They are intentions not objectives.  Meaning you can’t decide or dictate what the kids will learn in your class.

So it’s suggested in most teacher training programs that learning intentions are stated at the start of the lesson.   Sounds sensible given that it establishes from the outset what’s going on.  I’m not so sure this is set in stone though and here’s why.

Lesson routine and rhythm while important can often become boring.  A smart principal once said to me “stability is over rated” and it made total sense to me.  If kids know what to expect and you are predictable, boredom can creep in.  So I try to mix up when the intentions are shared with the class and also how they are shared.

e.g. if your intention is to have the students understand peripheral vision and how it relates to success in games you may want to draw the understanding out of them by playing a few smaller games that are related and get them to give you the answers, e.g. how did you see that pass? How were you aware of that tagger coming? Hitting on the learning intentions later.  Why spoil the surprise of giving them the answer (intentions) first?

Additionally, if they know the first thing you always do is sit them down to talk about “what we are doing today” then they will slowly learn to tune out of this, and will happily provide you with their “yes, I am listening” face!

There are number of visual ways to present learning intentions, but try to avoid making them ‘wallpaper objectives’ that go on the board, get read out at the start, and then ignored for the rest of the lesson.  They have to flow through and of course be revisited.

TIP: Ensure they are in positive language and from the students perspective e.g. (volleyball) I understand and am able to show how to transition the ball from the back of the court to the front of the court.

Note that this one has two parts, the understanding and the showing .  The students who show this with on court play should not be the only ones getting the credit.  Students with a poorer skill level or less experience playing may actually understand how to do it and they should also get credit.  We need to find ways to allow them to show their understanding by discussing, analysing court side, drawing it etc.

The sharing of these intentions can be done through watching an expert performance and (the students) picking out what’s effective, that then forms the basis for our success criteria to judge ourselves against when we go off to play. So all along the kids are armed with the info “what do I need to do to be successful?” and also “why is it important that we learn this?” i.e through discussion and showing you can make the contextual link > teams who transfer the ball forward > able to play an attacking shot > more difficult for opponent to return = winning more points.

It seems obvious that to get anywhere, it helps to be clear about where you are going.  And yet, I would guess in a lot of PE lessons the learning intentions and success criteria are touched on at best and not shared at all at worst.

One thing I know is that the great teachers are sharing them in creative and interesting ways and using them as the fabric to weave in the learning they have deliberately planned.

I know the students in their classes cannot wait to see and hear what they will be learning today and not just simply what they will be doing

Try it in your classes, when the kids know where they’re meant to be going, it may just surprise you how many of them make it there.

Part 1: The Myth of the “Great Teacher”


First of all, I feel I have to clarify the title of this latest blog post.  I am not suggesting for a moment that great teachers are a myth.  Indeed, I have been fortunate enough to see a number of them in action with my own eyes.  What I am referring to is the myth that surrounds them, like they were “born to teach”, like they have a secret x-factor, and like ‘how’ they do what they do is somewhat submersed in mystery.

We all know of the ‘great teacher’ or (hopefully) ‘teachers’ in our schools, and if you don’t, you just have to ask the kids and they will tell you (small side note, being popular and being great can be very different!) Remember being at school? You knew them then as well.  In fact, I bet you can also re-count the bad ones.

But what is this ‘great’ tag we appoint to them?  What actually is it they are doing that makes them great? What is good and bad after all when it comes to teaching? And who defines it? and If we can define it, can we learn how to do it?

I think so.

The trouble is that teaching is an isolating profession, for some more than others.

As an example, at our school, our leadership team has put in place teacher learning triads.  We are expected to observe one another’s lessons periodically throughout the term.  It is clear that we are not necessarily watching the teaching as such, but more the learning that is taking place.  We provide feedback based on what elements the teacher has requested us to observe and not on random beliefs that we hold or incidental factors that arise in the lesson (as is the way with some teacher training placement ‘crits’).  It is done professionally and is very much non-threatening and non-judgemental.  Really it is.

These experiences both as teacher and observer have been inspiring, fun, eye-opening (in a good way) and educational and have definitely added an element of collegiality to our staff room.  We actually are all in it together.  And by that I mean we use our pedagogy framework as a teaching strategy.  Just like all successful teams we know our role, we know how to execute it, and we are all on the same page.  We know what ‘works’.    Students find the same types of approaches to teaching and learning in all areas of the school.  It also has to be said that even with a whole staff teaching strategy, creativity, individuality and innovation is encouraged and should never be compromised.  We are not trying to create teacher robots.

U.S. studies into teacher retention have shown that “a lack of professional support” is the single biggest factor in new teachers leaving the profession.  In other words, the feel like they are on their own.

This attrition could be explored further, but my intention for this post is to look at the star performers, the teachers who do for learning, what Michael Jordan did for the slam dunk.

“Students who are taught by the most effective teachers will learn in six months what those taught by an average teacher will take a year to learn.” Wiliam 2011.

This, by educational research guru Dylan Wiliam (@dylanwiliam) is derived from evidence based research and is both interesting and alarming in equal measure.  Especially given that most teachers would probably fall into the ‘average’ category, wouldn’t they?

Picture the scene, “Ah Mary, it appears you have been assigned to Mr Jones’ class this year, feel free to leave at lunchtime each day as Mr Jones is our best teacher”.  “Hmm…Sally, Unfortunately you are with Mr Smith, he is average so you must stay for the whole day!”

Which class do you want to be in?

For the purposes of concentrating on teaching and learning I am purposely bypassing all of the personal qualities we would expect in a great teacher e.g. caring, passionate, knowledgeable, flexible etc. These are no less important but in fact provide the ingredients for success when you first walk in to the school rather than the recipe for it.

So what is it the “most effective” teachers are doing day in and day out?

Well the first bit of good news is; it’s no secret. The second is we can all do it.  What I am interested in is how can we take all of the educational research that is largely based on stereotypical classroom-type scenarios and modify it to have the most impact in PE in our gyms and playing fields

In order to blog somewhat succinctly, I will use this as the beginning of a series of posts to reveal my thoughts on what these ‘things’ are.  These will be largely based on the formative assessment research of Wiliam that we use as our core teaching strategy in our school, but modified for PE.  My approach to PhysEdagogy, if you like.

I have to credit Adam Howell (@thedumbjockmyth) for the deft phrase.  If you have not seen Adam’s “PhysEdagogy” series of interviews with great Physed-ers then you should check them out, they are wonderful.

I hope you can stay for the journey over the next few posts and share your thoughts with me.