08 Feb Great Lessons 5: Journeys
This series of posts is about the habits of excellent practice; the things we do every day in the classroom; the attitudes and dispositions we need to have in order to embed excellent practice into our routines – our default mode.
This post is about journeys. In terms of learning, students are continually on the move – at least they should be. No learning episode stands alone; it is always part of bigger picture – a small step on a long journey. In Great Lessons, this is always very clear and explicit, forming an integral part of the discourse between teachers and students – automatically, without too much thought. For each individual and for the class as whole, any one particular lesson builds on what has gone before and sets up what is to follow. Where lessons are less successful, these links are less obvious; a lesson seems isolated, the learning is disjointed and students are left to wonder “what am I doing here?”
There are three aspects of the ‘journey’ that I feel are especially important:
1. The journey through stages of understanding
Understanding this is the bedrock of excellent, embedded AfL practice as described in an earlier post ‘Bringing AfL Alive in Every Classroom’ The key point is this:
The OfSTED mangle has introduced a raft of hoop-jumping jiggery-pokery around the notion of progress over time but really, it isn’t rocket science. It just needs to be embraced. To begin with, it is really important to know students’ starting points; not to assume they are secure in their knowledge and certainly not to assume that they are not. I’ve ranted about this in another earlier post about the issue of teachers underestimating what students already know.. teachers need to establish this. How? Questions, pre-testing, mind maps; mini-whiteboards, general probing, – there are lots of ways. It is important element of a ‘total philosophy of G&T’ that the ‘what do I know already’ question is answered.
Then, we need to know where we want to get to – just as we do in planning any journey. Where are we going? Again, we’ve allowed measurement processes to mash-up a fairly simple concept. There is NO point telling a student they are at C and need to reach B then A; there is no meaning in saying you are at 5a, so 6c is just within sight; we need to strip all that away and talk about the actual work.
In English, for example, the goals can be established concretely in terms of the actual quality of writing and the various components that contribute to it:
In Science, we might talk about understanding and explaining concepts and producing answers of increasing sophistication:
In Maths, we talk about the actual problems we want to solve:
With goals established, then the core of a Great Lesson is about how we travel from our starting point to where we want to get to. This requires skill in breaking things down and linking all the other ideas in this series together. The element of this that needs to be habitual is the repeated cycle of checking; taking bearings and re-setting the path. “Ok, where are we up to? How are we getting on? Who is here and who is there? Right, so.. where next?” This is an ongoing thought process and part of the everyday classroom dialogue in a Great Lesson.
2. The journey in time, from lesson to lesson and all that lies between
In an earlier post I wrote about Learning Arcs; the fact that the journey from teeing up new concepts, to processing them and, finally, landing with fully assimilated understanding takes varying lengths of time, depending on the students and the material. In a Great Lesson, it is usually very clear where the learners are along the arc, especially if it is a long one. This might be too conceptual. A more practical way to think of it is simply to consider how lessons fit into the real-life time-frame for students.
The journey through a particular learning episode normally will have started in the previous lessons and will often continue into the next ones and Great Lessons always help students to make the connections; looking back and looking forward. And here is the key point: a lot of students will do a lot of their learning in the space between lessons. It is a major error to operate on the basis that lessons themselves are the only place and time where learning is happening. In fact, teachers need to make more explicit use of the fact that lessons are really just interim landing points along the overall journey. This is more obvious with more able students and at higher levels of learning, but it starts at the beginning. Ideally, students should be bringing learning into the classroom, shaping the lesson that follows; then they should be sent away, fired up and buzzing to continue the learning process in their own time.
In Great Lessons, therefore, this process is built-in. This is where homework comes in. For me, homework is an automatic, embedded, essential element in the whole flow of learning; I set it almost every lesson with every class.. because the learning never stops. I’ve written that ‘Great Teachers set Great Homework‘ (see also here for the Hattie research, effective size etc)… I’m a big fan. The best form of homework is the kind that should really be called ‘prep’. This is the basis of ‘flipped learning’ – where students pre-learn material so that lessons are less about giving information and more about processing it and going deeper through questions. I’ve written more about that here: Flipped out by flipping? You may have missed the point.
3. The personal journey of each student
Finally, in common with another segment on the KEGS Zest for Learning Jigsaw, great lessons support the notion that each individual student is on a personal learning journey. So, all that I’ve written above should be viewed in that context. Every individual student is on their own journey. Differentiation, as featured in the last post in the series, is the means for achieving this. However, once again, it is as much a mindset as anything. You don’t assume all the students are on the same journey. How is it different?
- They’ll have different starting points – what do you do then?
- They may be aiming at different end points, according to ability or interest – can you challenge them all and set appropriate tasks to get them there?
- They will have different home-life circumstances that make homework and all the inter-lesson activity, more or less difficult – can you factor that in when setting out the plan for learning between now and next lesson? Do you discuss how individuals will go about it? What if they get stuck and no-one at home can help? These are important considerations. For some students the life-cloud that lessons fit into is chaotic and restricting; for others it is a super-charged fast-track. Still, learning between lessons can and should happen.. it is just a question of finding the best way.
- Some students (like me) will value a helicopter overview of the entire course in order to see where they are going . Below, for example, is a summary of GCSE Algebra: Providing these resources and making them available at any time is very powerful for certain students. It shows them the Big Picture so that they can take greater ownership of their own journey. This has been a strength of my co-construction explorations. The students know exactly where we are at any time.
- Finally, of course, each student has their own set of aspirations and motivations. It is a tough ask to know these in detail for every student you teach.. but it can make a big difference. Motivation is a major part of completing any journey and tapping into the real drivers for a given student can fire them up in a way that the routine drudge of ‘you need to know this for the exam’ never can.
When all of this is embedded so that it is habitual, as it is in Great Lessons, there is a sense that a teacher has a nuanced appreciation of their students’ needs, goals, difficulties, idiosyncrasies and is able to give them a sense that the learning is there for them to take which ever way suits them as long as it works: always challenging and driven; but individualised and personal to the greatest extent possible.