A Pivotal Moment

This is a genuine post, for which I’m receiving no payment.

One of the most productive few hours of my career was attending a course on behaviour management delivered by Pivotal Education.

The course was no more than a lecture delivered to the entire teaching staff of the college I was employed by at the time. The trainer was Darrell Williams and I have to say that on the day, I was incredibly sceptical. I’d undertaken CPD on behaviour management before, but it had always been very woolly and hadn’t really provided any concrete actions or tangible changes in approach that I could take back to the classroom.

Also, there was a rather arrogant assumption that I was managing behaviour effectively. I wasn’t.

Throughout the day, Darrell’s enthusiasm, backed up by thought-provoking examples, started to help me believe that the changes he was recommending – changes in my behaviour – would be effective. They were, and I’ve adopted them in my teaching practice with great results.

Pivotal espouse Five Pillars of good practice.

The Five Pillars are:

  • Consistent, calm adult behaviour
  • First attention to best conduct
  • Relentless routines
  • Scripted interventions
  • Restorative follow up

It all makes sense and has transformed my ability to manage behaviour in my classroom. It’s provided an effective framework to work within.

Pivotal offer excellent tips regularly via their mailing list. Their website is also worth checking out. Pay a visit at http://pivotaleducation.com

That age-old question.

I was having a conversation with colleagues last week about whether we preferred teaching older or younger learners. What was remarkable was that there was clear demarcation between those who chose ‘young people’ and those who chose ‘adults’. Few were sitting on the fence.

A few years ago, as a teacher of apprentices, I much preferred teaching older learners, simply for one reason; behaviour. I didn’t really have a clue how to deal with some young people who – as I saw it at the time – didn’t want to learn. I saw it as a nonsense, as an annoyance and often got hooked into emotional responses out of frustration that some learners just wanted to disrupt!

I look back now and see that I was having exactly the same problems with older learners – but it was because of my different response (kinder, more understanding, more patient) that I was able to deal with it better and so enjoy the relationships with my learners more.

Why was my response different? Possibly because the adults who were exhibiting difficult behaviour were more self-aware of their behaviour and the reasons for it. An adult learner who has no self-confidence with maths will often readily blame things such as bad experiences at school for refusing to attempt a task, and be quite apologetic about it. A young person without that awareness might also refuse a task, but feel angry and confused because they haven’t made the link with previous experience. That anger then gets directed at the teacher and results in unwanted behaviour – unwanted by the teacher, the other students and the learners themselves.

Understanding some young people is hard. When someone doesn’t have the emotional maturity or experience to understand why they are feeling scared or frustrated or angry, they are in no position to help you, as a teacher, find a route through it. That makes it even more important to be willing to show unconditional acceptance of the person, and to separate them from their behaviour.

That can be a massive challenge. Showing relentless positivity and energy in the face of a room full of sceptical, negative, maths-hating teens is tiring. But it’s definitely worth it.

Most of the time, there are no quick wins. But there are those moments – those watershed moments – when that confidence you’ve been trying to instil starts to show – when a frowning face starts to crack more smiles, perhaps, or when an entire lesson’s work is no longer just the date at the top of the page, but some nicely laid-out answers too.

I’m not saying that teaching older students is easier. One of the reasons some colleagues felt they preferred teaching younger people is that they ‘don’t come with as much baggage’ or ‘they’re not so set in their ways’. My own opinion is that the baggage is just different baggage and the ways are just different ways. The strategies are essentially the same – it’s just that with young people it’s more coded; you just need to break through. With adults, it might be more obvious what’s needed, but then the break-throughs are harder to win because of years of negative reinforcement.

Whichever we prefer, it’s good that we’re allowed to specialise and build the types of relationships with our learners that we enjoy. It allows us to become more skilled in helping learners and to help in ways that suit our personality and our strengths.

What we must do, in surely one of the most difficult jobs around, is look after ourselves. Our well-being allows us to be strong enough to help those learners who struggle with a subject they’ve come to see as a monster. It’s our responsibility to help them slay that monster without getting bloodied ourselves.

So, whether you’re teaching teens or educating elders, look after yourself. Your students – whatever age they’re at – depend on it.

For more information on ‘unconditional acceptance’ – see https://www.smartclassroommanagement.com/2013/05/18/why-difficult-students-need-your-unconditional-acceptance/

For more information on ‘behaviour management’ for young people, see https://bethebestteacher.com/managing-discipline-problems/behavior-modification-for-individual-students

For more information on teaching older learners, see https://busyteacher.org/10791-how-to-teach-older-learners.html

Cold-Calling: An Inclusive Way to Make You – and Your Students – Work Harder!

I haven’t always been a fan of students being cold-called for answers in-class. I used to hate being called on as a school-boy to give answers when I wasn’t ready or confident. The introverted student that I was would often rather sit there, listening carefully, taking things in and asking questions when I needed to rather than when the teacher decided. It wasn’t exactly like ‘Tom Brown’s Schooldays’ – “You boy! What’s 8×7?”, but it sometimes felt like it.

For a long time during my career, I was guilty of using this reasoning for not cold-calling students. They would, I imagined, engage with the learning if they wanted to, and if they didn’t there was little I could do about it short of ensuring my lessons were energetic and varied.

I also saw cold-calling as unfair on those students who, like me, wanted to engage with the lesson in a quiet, reflective way rather than being put under the spotlight with an unwanted question in front of their peers. I assumed that calling on a student for an answer would cause anxiety and serve no real purpose if the only answer was a shrug of the shoulders or a ‘dunno’.

I now see that I was wrong. Cold-calling is an essential part of checking for understanding and an effective tool for increasing engagement and accountability in the lesson. It also takes a great deal of effort and energy to do well, which is perhaps why some teachers shy away from it; it’s easier to ask the general ‘Is everyone OK with that?’ question rather than spend the time checking individually whether the understanding really is there. You could almost say it’s a dereliction of duty not to cold-call, because those students who don’t understand are unlikely to speak up – if they even realise they haven’t fully understood in the first place.

Cold-calling doesn’t have to feel humiliating for the student, or even induce anxiety. If it’s made a standard part of the lesson in a supportive environment where making mistakes are treated as an opportunity to learn rather than a failure, it can be an incredibly powerful tool. But that environment has to be fostered early on, through the teacher’s actions.

5 Tips for Effective Cold-Calling

  1. Ensure it’s fair. Cold-call all students equally, perhaps using a device like a selector wheel or lolly sticks with names on.
  2. Ask the question before naming the student you’re calling on. This gives everyone a chance to think of an answer and doesn’t put undue pressure on the person being asked to come up with an answer on the spot.
  3. Differentiate your questioning. You can boost learners’ confidence if they are working at a low level by asking an easier question and challenge confident students with more challenging questions.
  4. Follow-up on a question with further questions to draw out deeper understanding. ‘Why’ questions are often useful here.
  5. Open-ended questions give students an opportunity to shine and they don’t feel like being put ‘on the spot’ as a closed question with a single correct answer. “How would you go about multiplying 7 by 8?” is much nicer than just “What’s 7×8?”

Persevere with it if you do try such a transformation. It may feel laboured at first, but with time the students should come to expect such interactions and will increase their own participation subconsciously – especially if your cold-calling is boosting their confidence.

For a more detailed insight into cold-calling, have a read of Doug Lemov’s blog post, detailing how it’s an inclusive technique.

Whatever Happened to Times Tables?

It’s 1979. I’m 6. I’m a pupil at Bluecoat County Primary School and I’m in class K3, taught by Mrs Woodcock.

We’re reciting times tables. And it’s boring.

My fellow pupils and I recite the tables together in that bored monotone that can only be generated in a primary school classroom – a sort of maudlin chant that has only ever been captured effectively on tape by Pink Floyd.

“One two is two. Two twos are four. Three twos are six. Four twos are eight.”

The pattern is established.

“Five twos are ten. Six twos are twelve.”

It continues in its stilted way, and then, all of a sudden, it gains momentum:

“Seven twos are fourteen, eight twos are sixteen, nine twos are eighteen, ten twos are twenty!”

Phew! Then a final flourish – the more difficult bit. The icing on the cake:

“Eleven twos are twenty-two, twelve twos are twenty-four.”

It ends on a downbeat note, but it’s reassured. Twelve twos are definitely twenty-four: the end.

This is how we rolled in the seventies – learning by rote while our flares flapped around our ankles and our free milk sat in the corner getting warm and gross.

But, milk traumas aside, it worked. I know my times tables. I know them as well as I know that I’m allergic to nuts, am colour-blind and need to put on glasses in the morning before I can locate the switch on the coffee machine. They’re ingrained. No calculation is required to know that 8×9 equals 72. It’s just a fact that I know – that I’ve always known.

So why don’t my students know?

I think there’s a clue in something I mentioned above: it was boring.

In this era of short attention-spans and fast online access to information, the opportunities to become bored have shrunk by a significant degree. Classrooms are now dynamic places, housing teachers taught to engage students through a variety of innovative, fun, technological methods that vary by pace and form delivered in such a way that, we hope, will distract students from viewing the next text message they receive.

But boredom works.

We need to learn to be bored. Coping with boredom and accepting that repetitive learning sometimes requires us to be able to be bored is, in my opinion, a skill worth learning. Ask anyone who’s learning a musical instrument. Or who’s a model. Or a factory worker. Or is an extra in a film. All of these jobs involve either doing very little for long periods of time or doing the same thing again and again and again.

Could it be true that in a desperate attempt to engage learners, we have overlooked one of the most important skills of all? I’m not sure that the 1970s offered this skill by design. I’m sure it was just the way things were done. But it’s strange to think that while we think we’ve advanced a great deal in the ways in which we teach our children, we may have overlooked one of the most important learning experiences of all.

But who dares to suggest that as the way forward in securing such vital knowledge in long-term memory when the world of iPads and quizzes and apps beckons?

Go on. I dare you. In the comments. 😉

GCSE Countdown

A quick post today – but a useful one for both teachers and students!

The ever-useful mathsbot has dedicated a page to counting down to all 3 GCSE Maths exam dates, giving the time left in days, hours, minutes and seconds. See it here.

As well as the obvious benefits of reinforcing the (lack of) time left, you could also use the timings for a little revision on converting units.

H5P content

I’ve become interested in creating interactive learning resources using H5P, which is an open-source framework based on Javascript.

It offers a powerful selection of tools that make it easy to create all kinds of learning content – including interactive quizzes, presentations and games.

No programming knowledge is needed – just creative thought and a willingness to spend time putting together content.

Below is my first attempt at using it. I’ve created a short lesson on ‘circle elements’, using public domain images and my own simple circle graphics. Have a go at it below and give me your thoughts in the comments – either as a student or a teacher.

You can find out more at h5p.org