March 21, 2019, by Rupert Knight
When Less is More: Learning from professional development opportunities
Past posts in this series have discussed ‘Teaching for Mastery’ and the Shanghai-England primary exchange. In this new post Catherine Gripton reflects upon what she learned from observing a Chinese teacher’s lesson and considers these in the light of teacher professional development.
Learning from lessons
The Mathematics Teacher Exchange, involving teachers from England and Shanghai, has previously been the focus of the primary blog. For a review of lesson taught by a Chinese teacher as part of this exchange see this post from January, 2018.
The aim of the exchange is for ‘English schools to learn from Shanghai whole-class interactive teaching methods’. The Mathematics Teacher Exchange is now in its third year and the government has recently published the findings of a review of the initiative. The review’s findings are inconclusive which is unsurprising given the narrow focus on the exchange and breadth of the ‘teaching for mastery’ (TfM) approach which is it seeks to have an impact within. The response from teachers has been mixed with the TfM sceptics focussing upon the inconclusive impact upon Key Stage 2 attainment and the TfM converts emphasising the reach and impact upon practice in schools adopting this approach. Whatever your position on the exchange or TfM as an approach to teaching maths in primary, observing another teacher’s practice is always an opportunity to reflect. It helps us to think critically and revisit the assumptions – the unquestioned aspects – which underpin accepted ‘good’ practice in our thinking. Whilst approaches cannot simply be imported across culturally different contexts, there is an opportunity in observing teaching from elsewhere in order to help us reflect more fundamentally, to step right back and to challenge our own thinking about what we know about learning and teaching.
Reflecting upon questioning
Sitting in a year 2 showcase lesson, taught by one of the brave Chinese teachers, it occurred to me that there were two key aspects where Western practice is typically different which I had not previously associated with East Asian maths pedagogies. Whilst these might be specific to this lesson or teacher in particular, they still afforded me the opportunity to reflect upon what constitutes effective teaching. Two aspects of practice stood out for me in particular. These related to questioning in general rather than maths teaching or TfM specifically:
Verbal questioning was used to scaffold thinking not check understanding.
Questions were asked against a quiet backdrop.
Questioning to scaffold thinking
The purpose of the questions in the year 2 lesson that I observed were to scaffold thinking not check understanding. Questions to individuals were used, almost exclusively, to scaffold the thinking of the whole class at particular stages of the lesson. The teacher only asked more than one child if the first response didn’t quite scaffold the thinking clearly enough for everyone. The responses were sought in whole sentences because the teacher wanted the responses to model thinking. The teacher also did not repeat or re-word the child’s answer. There was an expectation that the child’s explanation was sufficient for the other children and therefore was not interpreted by the teacher for the others. In addition, the teacher did not give feedback to the child on their answer. There was a quick “good job” and the lesson moved on. Feedback would have potentially changed the answer from a scaffold for everyone’s thinking to the quality of the thinking of that one child answering the questions. Clearly, we need to check for understanding, the benefits of assessment for learning are well known, but carefully designed activities can do this checking (assessment) for us.
A quiet back drop for questions
There were very few questions in the lesson that I observed and minimal ‘noise’ (question repeating or re-phrasing) around each question so that when a question was posed it really stood out. There are clear benefits to a ‘less is more’ approach to language around key questions. Where children are processing huge amounts of language, some children may not get to formulate a response to the question. By the time they have understood the question, another child has answered it and the lesson is moving on. Not only do they miss the opportunity to ponder the question but they also miss the opportunity to make sense of the response (learn from the other child’s thinking articulated).
Reducing the ‘noise’ around a question is not only a matter of reducing language but also multiple things to attend to at once, for example spoken language, written language, images and resources. In addition, reducing the non-essential questions (those that are not essential for learning) provides a quieter backdrop for the learning-crucial, scaffolding questions to take prominence. This requires a real reduction in administrative, behavioural, managerial, reminder and quick-fire warm-up questions. These might be replaced with simpler activities and tasks, requiring minimal explanation or management, alongside non-verbal strategies such as tactical pausing. In this way, key questions are emphasised as being ‘key’ by ensuring that they are not buried within a huge volume of other questions.
Lessons for professional development?
When seeking to innovate our practice or learn from others, there is a tendency to add more into already busy lessons. Over time, many teachers have added new marking practices, question response strategies, sharing objectives or criteria, new lesson sections, self/peer assessment strategies, etc. These practices can all be highly effective but take time and can therefore reduce time for children and teachers to explore ideas in depth, use practical or group approaches and ensure curriculum breadth and balance. More generally, lesson coherence (coincidentally a feature of NCTEM’s model for TfM) can suffer where lessons have many short sections and children can feel overwhelmed by the number of jobs they need to do and things they should be attending to.
When learning from the practice of others, it is possible that we add more into our already complex practice where we should be taking away? How often do we deliberately remove something from our practice or does it tend to ‘fall out’? When returning from a CPD event, do we ever hear teachers come rushing into school declaring: “I got five ideas for things to remove!” Perhaps there are opportunities to reduce the number of questions in classrooms by removing the behavioural, administrative, managerial and checking (assessment) questions to allow the questions that are key to learning to shine brighter.
What do you think?