SCIENTIFICALLY PROVEN

PIMSLEUR’S EXPERIENCE BREEDS SUCCESS

Dr. Pimsleur’s Method® has been trusted for 50 Years by U.S. government agencies, diplomats, corporations, and anyone who wants or needs to learn to speak a language quickly and effectively.

It sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it.  If I hadn’t been introduced to Pimsleur language courses by a friend, I would have viewed promotional puff like this with far too much suspicion to actually try it.  Instead, whenever I’m in a new place, I try to use a Pimsleur course.  The method: the repetition of words and phrases in response to prompts, builds up conversational ability far more quickly than one might reasonably expect.

Spending three weeks this summer as a tutor at Teach For Sweden’s inaugural Summer Institute, I made time to study Swedish.  This time, however, my approach to the course was very different: in the past, I had tried to complete the course as fast as possible, sometimes without fully taking in a lesson before moving on.  This time, I happily repeated lessons if I felt I hadn’t achieved mastery of the content.  The reason for my more measured, thorough approach, was that in June, I read Practice Perfect by Doug Lemov, Erica Woolway and Katie Yezzi.  The book changed the way that I thought about language learning – the need to gain fluency in each lesson before progressing, rather than being in a hurry to learn new things, was impressed upon me by Lemov’s promotion of practice as the key to success.  The book also changed the way I thought about teacher training.

In urban schools in the USA, Teach Like a Champion appears to be a canonical text in the skills of a teacher; Practice Perfect could play a similar role in promoting teacher improvement. The book’s key point is that we improve through deliberate, structured, intentional practice. Practice makes a skill permanent, not perfect, so to improve we must identify the keys to success and practise them in ways which are distorted from reality: isolating skills, mastering them and then re-integrating them in our work.  The book explores how modelling, feedback and developing a ‘culture of practice’ can help us to normalise these improvements.

The book came at just the right time for me to put it to use.  Teach for Sweden began this year as the twenty-eighth ‘Teach For’ national organisation and I had the chance, together with an Estonian counterpart, to attend the Summer Institute – basic teacher training – to act as a ‘real-life’ example of these programmes, and to train teachers in a range of skills. Tasked to teach aspects of teaching such as classroom management and motivating students, and with only three weeks* (and a limited number of sessions within that), I needed to make the sessions as effective as possible. [I hope to write about the genesis of TFS in future].

A few months ago, I’m sure I’d have been satisfied with the stimulating discussions of which the group were easily capable and would have believed I had seeded enough ideas to prepare teachers for the classrooms.  I was compelled to do something by some of my recent reading, for example, the Teacher Development Trust’s oft-cited condemnation that barely 1% of CPD actually transforms classroom practice.  Equally persuasive was Doug Lemov’s introductory discussion of the “get it/do it” gap: teachers would understand a technique discussed in training, but trying to implement it in the middle of a lesson was disastrous – too much else was going on and they struggled to do this well. “A single workshop, we realized, wouldn’t make people better unless it caused them to practice key skills multiple times.”  This linked with themes I had picked up from listening to Dylan Wiliam on the difficulty of getting teachers to change and the ways that one could succeed in doing so – ideas which were reinforced by reading Switch – on how teachers do change.

I was persuaded that I needed to use these techniques to ensure what I did was actually useful.  Nonetheless, this was a leap of faith for me: I was teaching things I’d never taught before, like classroom management, using a method which was entirely unfamiliar to me.

How I used the ideas of the book

For each session, I identified the skills I wished teachers to master.  Having introduced the need for the skill (by, for example, examining research into what Swedish classrooms were actually like), explored possible techniques and shown a model of the skill in action (using videos) the centrepiece of each session was a drill in which teachers put all of this into action.  Here are three examples:

Classroom management

I wanted teachers to practise giving instructions, starting students off on tasks, scanning the room and dealing with off-task behaviour while still scanning.  We examined a video of good classroom management from teaching as leadership, then I asked the teacher to issue instructions and get the class to write out the ten times table, practising giving instructions, and answering individual questions while scanning the room.  I gave feedback and asked each teacher to repeat the actions once or twice.  The session was slowed down by answering a number of questions – but this was our first work on classroom management, and they were valid questions raised by the practice we were doing.

Practising classroom management
Practising classroom management

Classroom conflict

In order to introduce what Lemov calls ‘minimally invasive discipline’ I introduced the principles, demonstrated them and offered teachers time to ‘script’ their responses. I then chose two disruptors, who rolled the dice to choose how many interventions would be needed to get them back on track. In response to feedback from the previous session, I invited the others to work on their lesson planning as a more useful activity than the ten times table!  This exercise was pretty successful – particularly in highlighting that principles need to be practised (having agreed that minimally invasive discipline was a good idea, teachers’ application of its precepts often fell apart immediately as they tried to do too many things at once and swiftly reverted to frustrated reprimands.  Near the end of the session, the teachers asked for greater challenge, but it didn’t work – over-complicating the drill made it impossible to master.

Motivating students

We talked through issues of motivation and I shared a collection of Swedish students’ responses to questions about the purpose of school which highlighted the disaffection of some of them.  The teachers identified a range of reasons why their subject/school mattered. I then paired them up into teacher and students, giving each student a different reason why they didn’t care, such as: “This is irrelevant: I want to be a footballer/actress,” “I hate school,” and so on.  Teachers then sought to persuade students of the importance of the subject and school in one-to-one conversations.

Results

In each activity, there was dramatic progress, or rather, the points we had discussed and agreed put into action.  I saw teachers improve, as they took simple techniques like scanning the room while talking to an individual student.  More complicated ideas like minimally invasive discipline were made to work in the same way.  This way of teaching also brought up many questions about how techniques and principles can be applied in lessons which would not, I suspect, have come to light had we not been practising ‘real teaching.’   This meant that my explanations and ideas could be broken up and applied immediately, rather than all delivered in one, forgettable, lecture earlier on in the session.  Understanding how a technique actually works and where the problems lie is made far easier by actually implementing it; for example, in our drill on motivating students, we had talked about numerous different strategies – in practice, teachers very quickly resorted to examples from their own lives which demonstrated the principles they were seeking to prove, something we had only mentioned in passing.

The teachers saw this progress too – one referred to having been given a ‘tool kit’ with which to work.  Feedback from each session was broadly positive – a majority, each time, finding the work useful and effective.  “I think it was good and I learned good stuff, however, I want to learn much more,” one teacher wrote on the first session.  Another responded to the second session by stating that: “It feels like really important stuff, to automate these responses.”  In a review session at the end of one week, three teachers (of eight) said that this had been the highlight of their week.  Equally, the teachers raised many problems with the approach – partly derived from their realistic appraisal of how much they had learned: “What if it’s a noisier class with more disturbing behaviour?” one asked.  Another worried that they risked being a product “like a robot” in the classroom.  Perhaps most telling, however, was how frequently a request for more time to practise was included in the feedback.

Limitations

The time available was just about sufficient for the teachers to successfully employ the techniques they were learning during the day.  Were they sufficient to master them?  To be able to employ them under stress, on a Friday afternoon in December?  I noticed that later that week, delivering practice lessons for one of the other tutors and focusing upon their subject pedagogy, very few teachers actually employed the techniques they had learned.  More practice was needed than we had time for.  This would also have provided the time to increase the complexity of the practice to make it more realistic.

I was unable to reconcile entirely the balance between the amount of practice and the quality of feedback.  If I got teachers to practise one at a time, there was often a long wait and insufficient time to practise – which rapidly became boring for those playing the role of students.  If, on the other hand, I split them into smaller groups, I couldn’t guarantee the quality of feedback – ‘practice makes permanent,’ after all – not perfect – and I wanted to avoid ‘bad’ habits drifting in straight away.

Conclusions

Practising is, in one sense – a tough sell. The gap between practice and reality sometimes seemed a little wide (more so to the teachers than to me).  So I also spent time advocating the idea that practice works: I showed a video of Barcelona practising the ‘rondo’ drill before games and this showing New Orleans teachers practising their teaching skills.  I don’t begrudge this time – it’s just worth noting that, as with introducing an unfamiliar way of working to students, time needs to be set aside to explain the rationale for it and deal with objections.

I was privileged to be working with a small, brilliant, willing group.  And I had the time to evaluate each session and replan the next.  I picture this in a British environment and am almost overwhelmed by the depth of cynicism one would risk.  Is this something we will really see become common in our schools?

On the other hand, one axiom I work with is that teachers will steal ideas when they see that they work [this derived from something Laura McInerney said a long time ago].  This, I believe, is how we can get better as teachers – by training ourselves to improve our responses and actions – so that what we do in the classroom is more intentional and effective.  It doesn’t train robots – it provides us with a range of skills, a toolkit, on which to base our work and which we can then adapt to suit our own styles as teachers.  Practising to improve: coming to a school near you soon…?

Further reading

The book itself, obviously.

Joe Kirby has reviewed Doug Lemov’s collected works.

Alex Quigley has written persuasively on the power of deliberate practice.

Laura McInerney has thoughtfully considered what about Lemov’s methods British teachers may find discomforting and whether or not this resistance is justified.

Thanks to…

Kerry Pulleyn – once again, I read the book as part of EdbookchatUK, and this book led to a particularly stimulating discussion…

Joe Kirby – for a thought-provoking discussion about the Teach First Summer Institute and how it can be improved, which influenced my thinking a lot while I was in Sweden.

* For those who worry about this, it’s worth noting that somehow, Teach For Sweden have managed to negotiate a model which sees their teachers on a four-day week with the fifth day for professional learning.