‘Impact’ is a word which has become increasingly popular in pedagogy. Teachers and leaders in education – increasingly skeptical of an implied focus on school data which comes with the word ‘progress’ – have seized on ‘impact’ as a term which more directly encompasses the concept of practice informed by and for pupils. Reflecting on this, I’ve started to look at what makes the most impact within my classroom. In this reflection I found myself constantly returning to the now almost cliched phrase: high expectations. The increasing use of these words in school promotional material and on blogs – my own included – makes it easy to consider this as pure rhetoric or as something which should simply be part of any classroom. Yet, I think it means more than this and requires deliberate development and focus, both on how you teach and what you are teaching.
My observations both highlighted to me techniques that I had worked on over time, which had begun to create a culture of high expectations within the classroom. Two fairly simple techniques which centre around a key aspect of teaching: questioning. A number of bloggers have posted on the important impact of questioning within the classroom. I believe it is central to the practice of teaching and has made the most impact on my pupils. In my early years of teaching, I therefore made it my personal aim to get it right – I thought about questioning all the time whether observing others teach, reading educational material or perusing blogs. As I developed as a teacher, I drew a more narrow focus on the types of questions which forced pupils to really think; to move beyond expected or simplified responses. Over time I had built up the teacher instinct which allowed me to actually recognise when the cogs were turning in my pupils’ minds – an instinct, which is actually only instinctive after several months of close observation and thought about those you teach. This is key and allows you to identify the all important difference between the “I don’t know” which signals disaffection and that which highlights panic; when a pupil is not trying and when they are genuinely struggling. It was this deliberate development of this area of my teaching that made a huge impact on the level of discussion and thought within my classroom; the fact that this was verified by an observer was reassuring. The class was a wonderful bunch of Year 11s who I had built a good relationship with and who were mostly willing to engage with the work but for both the observer and myself, the questioning/interrogation was the time I saw them pushing themselves to really think. In a time where it is all too easy to panic spoon feed them (I think I was probably guilty of that when it came to the English Language exam nightmare) this has an impact including but also beyond the realms of the examination hall.
This observation made me realise that in fact much of the impact lies in the space between the first answer and the second/third/fourth. An oral version of Austin’s butterfly, if you will. This was made even clearer to me in the second observation, a few months down the line in a different school, this time with a Year 7 group. In this case I had asked a pupil a question to which he didn’t know the answer (this was during the first activity, which was a consolidation of the previous lesson). I could see both that he clearly wasn’t sure of the answer and that he should have known the answer; he hadn’t learnt it in the last lesson, which meant that there was a failing somewhere along the line, which could have been me/him/a combination of both. I needed him to know that answer, I also needed him to know that it wasn’t ok that he didn’t know that answer – not in a cruel or negative way but in a way that said come on you, this is important, you’ve got to show a little more faith in yourself by making sure you remember it. I asked someone else in the class to answer, then I went back to the first pupil and asked him to repeat the answer. “Uh, I don’t know”. Ok so this time I knew that focus was evidently a problem, he also still hadn’t grasped that he couldn’t just be let off knowing this once he wasn’t in the spotlight. NB: At this point I was starting to feel a bit nervous – here I was in an observed lesson and my pupil was clearly not getting it. I considered leaving it and moving swiftly on to a pupil who I could be relied upon to get it right, but I decided instead to pursue it, to make sure this time he got the answer.
“Alright” I said to him “Well this is important and you need to know it. So, I’m going to get the answer to this again and I’m coming back to you. Ok?” I had to spell this one out. Process repeated. This time he got it. I asked him to repeat it. Then again. Then again. It sounds potentially evil but I promise it was done with gentleness, encouragement and a warm smile (from both me and the pupil ‘in question’). Throughout the lesson I came back to him with the question – a reminder that this wasn’t an ‘in the moment’ piece of information, this had to be stored. I went from nervousness to pride as I saw him become more confident each time he answered. He knew that answer. He hadn’t known it at the beginning. I could have hid this or let it slide so it wasn’t obvious to the observer that my last lesson hadn’t hit the mark with every pupil. But by not doing that, by putting it out there in the open space of the classroom I felt more confident than ever before that I was not only showing the observer a decent stab at progress but more importantly I was actually making some.
As an observer in a few schools recently it is these type of moments that I have seen in other teachers’ classrooms where I too feel the impact. On reading Doug Lemov’s book Teach Like A Champion earlier this year, it was with excitement that I discovered this technique formed part of his chapter on creating high expectations, it was called ‘No Opt Out’. More than that, he provided more detailed and developed ways this could be used, with real concrete examples. I was transfixed by Lemov’s recommendation to focus on your teaching strengths and develop that. It made so much sense to me and it also gave me something real to hang my ethos of high expectations on. Reading Dweck’s Mindset. How You Can Fulfil Your Potential has similarly given me a narrative which shapes my thinking about what I am expecting from my pupils. Whilst having an impact in your classroom can come from the ‘tacit knowledge’ of being a teacher, I appreciate the value of academic literature to help teachers consolidate and put into action their instinctive teaching strengths.
On the subject of literature; it has also become clear to me (particularly in the last year where I have been directly responsible for curriculum design) that the content of teaching is as important, if not more than the way you teach it, on creating an impact on your pupils. I have been in debate – both internal and external – about the content which should be taught as part of an English curriculum. In particular this has come back to the types of texts we should be teaching our pupils. When I first started teaching, I was concerned about picking easy to access, relevant texts; the schools I worked at generally taught the likes of Skellig and Holes to KS3 and KS4 was a mad rush to ‘fit in’ literature around the English Language paper; thus teaching Of Mice and Men to most was often justified because it was short, whereas To Kill a Mockingbird could be delivered to those elite, higher sets who would ‘cope’ with it. At KS3 some of this came from time pressures and bad teaching, most of it came from a genuine desire to try to engage pupils in the love of reading, and what I now see as a misguided idea about how this worked. I find the argument around text choice fairly complex – I’m a huge fan of contemporary fiction; my study of it at university made me alive with passion for studying literature, both contemporary and classical. I also struggle with the ‘pale, male and stale’ aspects of the canon, but want my students to have the opportunity to know these works so they have the chance to be critical of them. I also think that the studying of contemporary fiction is enriched by a knowledge of the literary heritage that has influenced it. Equally, as pointed out here by Chris Curtis, contemporary children’s texts often lack complexity and challenge. I now lean towards a curriculum with a range of canonical texts studied as part of a chronology of literature, with additional units of work/comparative studies of challenging adult contemporary fiction. After all don’t great teachers have the ability and responsibility to bring all texts to life; to allow our pupils to see the beauty of texts beyond those they would find for themselves? In this debate I also found myself coming back to the idea that if I think my pupils can only enjoy and appreciate texts which are about their own experiences or written for them in their own time, am I lowering my expectations of them and what therefore is the impact on their learning?
This question was answered recently when I taught a unit studying the play Macbeth. Lessons were pretty much get on your feet, let’s act this out and get to grips with the play and Shakespeare’s language. As part of their end of term test, I decided that this acting approach needed to be represented – they were also writing an essay – but I wanted to give room for the acting out of the play to be as important. So I set them the task of learning and acting out a scene/soliloquy. They had a number of prep sessions (our in-school homework time) to work on this and could come to me for guidance but were largely left to tackle the task independently. The first moment I had a vision of the impact this was having was when one of my pupils who is a struggling reader turned up after school to spend an hour of his time getting help learning his speech. The next day another pupil turned up to do the same. At lunchtime I walked down the stairs ready to confront the noisy crowd of pupils evidently up to no good only to find full rehearsals ago with pupils acting to each other and asking for feedback, or using their tablet computers to record and analyse their performances. For over a week, every corridor, stairway and empty classroom rang with the sound of Shakespeare; so much so that the other day a quotation from Macbeth came to mind and I heard it in the voice of one of my pupils. Many of the performances themselves were spectacular – with pupils learning whole scenes and speeches and performing them so expertly that I felt like I was in an audience at a real theatre. Of course the outcomes varied amongst pupils; there were certain pupils who had worked really hard on the scenes and set themselves high standards, whereas others had attempted some learn lining or some acting but not quite pieced this together. In this was a lesson for me – the task had set the challenge but imagine the impact if I hadn’t been blindsided by the fact they were only Year 7. If I had set that expectation higher for all my pupils then they could all have made it there. Now I have exemplars to show and have tried this out, I won’t make the same mistake again.
So in answer to my earlier question – I do think the impact is lessened when you don’t push yourself to expect more, when you allow yourself to narrow your thinking about what they can or will engage with. Impact for me comes when I expect more, both of my pupils and of myself.