Aiming for – if not quite getting, 100% – what happened when I tried to get all my students doing what I wanted?

There’s one suitable percentage of students following a direction given in your classroom: 100 Percent. If you don’t achieve this, you make your authority subject to interpretation, situation, and motivation. Students have cause to ask themselves: ‘Did she mean that? For everyone? Do I feel like going along with her today?'” Doug Lemov, Teach Like a Champion

I’d had the audacity to help train teachers in using Lemov’s techniques of ‘minimally invasive discipline’ and thought I was fairly effective in deploying them myself.  As I mentioned in a post in December however, the fidelity with which I’d been putting this into practice left much to be desired.  So this has been my main focus this term.

Is it OK to expect 100% student compliance?

I’ve missed most of it, but it appears there has been a good deal of dispute recently about obedience and compliance.  This post fits within this debate (although that’s not why I’ve written it), so I’ll briefly restate the rationale – as it’s something colleagues have raised, and will continue to question. The underlying justification is paternalist.  My role is helping students do everything they can to become smarter.  I work hard to design the best possible lessons to achieve this.  The classroom is not a democracy; from my privileged position vis-a-vis my students, almost twenty extra years learning history and a good deal of time studying how to improve my teaching, I choose what they do.  There is some room for interpretation (I like mind-maps, some people hate them; I am happy for students to note in a way which works for them).  There is also scope for student suggestions and well-founded (and appropriately timed) complaints.  However, ultimately the choices as to what happens in lessons are mine; to benefit from this, students must fall in with this.

I get distracted while working, everyone does.  My students are on an island in between an over-trafficked main road and a building site; a good deal of what they do is difficult, some of it is not immediately enjoyable.  There are many reasons why students’ attention may flag therefore.  However, if I countenance or justify distraction – not learning – boundaries become unclear and there is little to stop a brief moment of lack of focus becoming a wasted few minutes.

This is, I believe, an issue of social justice too.  From what I understand of biology and psychology in particularly, students from more deprived backgrounds are more likely to arrive in school less able to sustain attention or to understand all of the lesson.  As teachers, we can come to expect and accept this, tacitly recognising that a ‘weak’ student is ‘bound’ to switch off…  and in this process allowing those who need our help most to fall behind.  In my view, social justice is best pursued by helping students understand the world they are in and articulate themselves clearly – to succeed in school – not by reimagining the school as the site of their rebellion against an unjust social structure.

I have two fifty-five minute lessons a week, for thirty-two weeks, over three years, to teach students the entirety of history.  I have written on several occasions about how hard it is to learn just the most important aspects of the discipline in that time.  No student can afford to squander a moment in those lessons; I struggle to see any good argument as to why I should allow this to happen.  So, this said, I’d like to consider how I’ve tried to get closer to achieving this.

How did I prepare to change?

My main aim was to ensure that I had 100% of students looking at me or the speaker (tracking, in Lemov’s parlance), at all times.  I prepared myself by working through the appropriate chapter of the Teach Like a Champion Field Guide. Much of what I was reading was familiar and I’d been trying to do – but there were elements I was applying poorly or not at all.  While I had reservations about doing the actual exercises, it forced me to make necessary clarifications in my own mind about some aspects of the techniques.  For example, Lemov counsels use of the ‘lightning quick public correction’ (example: “I don’t have Marissa, but I do have Jasmine!”) as a means to remind a student of the behaviour expected while ensuring the class’s focus remains on those who are doing the right thing.  Likewise, he suggests ensuring behaviour reminders are an exercise in ‘purpose, not power,’ (something like: “I need your best effort to make it to college.”)  Completing the workbook gave me a chance to express these ideas in a way which I felt sounded authentic for me to say (more British, in essence) – so something like: ‘Abbie, can you sit up straight like Jen’s doing’ for the former; ‘we’re trying to understand something complicated and fascinating, I need everyone listening perfectly to ensure you manage that,’ for the latter.  I was also driven to predict and think around some possible problems, on which I have wasted time in the past, such as students holding whiteboards at every conceivable angle as a source of delay in my reading them.

With all of this in mind, I tried to train myself into using these techniques, first falteringly, then more regularly.  I wrote at the top of my daily planner ‘100%’ and then ‘purpose not power’ for a number of days to remind myself the primacy of this aim and I carried around my notes on the chapter, often glancing at them in a spare moment in a lesson and mentally rehearsing how I would phrase my next behaviour reminder.  I also invited in a colleague to see how it was working and offer feedback in the fist couple of weeks.

What did the teaching techniques to get 100% look like?

A fair deal of what I did was a continuation of my existing practice.  For example, Lemov notes that it is helpful to make students’ compliance visible; perhaps my most frequent single request is for three visible signals of attention: ‘Could I ask you to put pens down, hands still, eyes this way…’  The tweak – and it’s an upsettingly obvious one – lay in waiting until every single student had done so, something I might otherwise have missed.  I had also been working on using ‘non-verbal reminders’ and I simply found myself doing more of this, whenever I noticed students’ looking the wrong way (or picking up pens again to fiddle or start writing).

Other statements I made simply needed a tweak.  I forced myself to remember to use reminders that provided ‘anonymous individual corrections’ or ‘positive whole group reminders:’ ‘I need everyone looking this way,’ was a fairly easy one to remember to do as a follow up to the instruction given above.

Some statements, however, were new, and I had to mentally rehearse before using them.  I found I could make a lightning quick corrections – although not as consistently as I might have liked.  Likewise, as I began experimenting with ‘purpose not power’ requests – on an occasional basis, I noted a tangible ‘straightening up’ and attentiveness on students’ parts.  The colleague who observed me suggested that both techniques were effective in gaining compliance in a positive and non-confrontational way.

There were also changes which I hadn’t anticipated.  In cueing students to turn and track the speaker, I learned to phrase my questioning slightly differently, changing from something like: ‘What do you think…  Jenny?’ to ‘What do you think… eyes on…  Jenny?’ interpolating the additional instruction/request without making it into a huge thing.  Likewise, I found myself circulating around the classroom far more – partly to observe students from different angles, partly to offer non-verbal reminders subtly (or not at all, since my proximity often acts as a reminder in itself).

Finally, I extended my expectations a step further with two classes in which I had a number of students whose behaviour was frequently distracting to them or others.  I asked them to fold their arms during discussions – as a way to make compliance that little bit more visible (and to remove further the temptation to fiddle or make hand gestures when they thought I wasn’t looking).

The one other thing I had to do was make sure that I made myself check for successful application – both by me and by students – and ensure that I clearly defined and got exactly what I wanted, rather than going on leaving any student behind.

What worked?

Firstly, students are substantially more attentive in discussions.  I have no objective way to measure this, but when I can see students’ eyes on the speaker, I can be far more confident they are listening.  Although I can’t prove that they understand better as a result, the fact that they are more consistently mindful of what is being said must help, and there have been occasional examples of uncharacteristically excellent responses and questions from students who have struggled to listen well in the past.  Conversely, I am more conscious of how quickly some students switch off.  For some individuals, after only a sentence, I notice eyes beginning to glaze over…  I am more aware of what they have been missing, and can do something to stop this.

Secondly, students are more focused when working individually.  This wasn’t the primary focus, but it appears to have been a byproduct of better listening in discussions and to explanations and instructions.  The default position in my classroom is that students are welcome to ask each other for help while learning…  a situation which is sometimes ‘misinterpreted’ and becomes a chat (in which case, we often end up working in silence).  I found that some classes descended into silent learning unbidden – which I would attribute to one of two things (or perhaps the combination of both): partly because they are clearer as to the task they have been asked to carry out (since they have been more focused in their listening); perhaps also because the atmosphere in which I expect everyone to be focused on task in discussion permeates individual work too.

I am able to intervene earlier and more positively.  In preventing students from drifting off at the earliest point, I reduce the risk they become truly distracted or miss out on learning.  In acting at this early stage, I also avoid trapping students in misbehaviour – they are reminded before they have done anything wrong.  For the two classes in which I have asked students to fold their arms, my intervention comes if they unfold their arms (harmless), rather than waiting for them to begin tapping, then dropping their pen, then diving on the floor to pick it up, or seeking to make questionable hand signals to their peers (disruptive).

Most students have internalised higher standards of focus.  Much of the time intervention becomes unnecessary.  I find that for most students, if their attention wanders, they are aware that I am conscious of it – a brief drift, a guilty look at me, and I can nod or point to return their attention to the speaker, a silent and completely unconfrontational reminder of which no one else need even be conscious.  Students have begun to internalise the requirement to track the speaker – if I forget to remind them to turn and face another student during the first discussion phase of a lesson, most do so unasked – so I can begin to reduce the number of reminders needed.

The technique takes time and effort to establish and then produces dividends.  The style of instructions takes no longer than a ‘normal request’ (compare ‘Jake look this way now,’ with ‘Jake, look this way like Abdi.’  I can cue student behaviour ‘Eyes on…  Marie,’ in as much time as it takes to say ‘What do you think…  Marie?’  It simply takes some effort to get used to using these reminders – and avoids fruitless discussions down the line about students’ transgressions or what they missed in class.

What were the limitations?

Sometimes, I flag (1). This is hard work.  Once I’ve taught five lessons in a row, the quality of attention needed to ensure I keep surveying students and reminding all of them to keep their eyes on the speaker is a struggle.  And so, occasionally, I catch myself thinking – ‘It’s ok, this discussion is almost over’, or even ‘so-and-so switches off easily.’  It need hardly be said that this is exactly the point at which my effort is most necessary!  It is also at this point that tiredness and frustration kick in, and old habits ‘I’ve told you stop writing,’ overcome ‘lightning quick corrections.’

Some students (two or three of two hundred I teach) persistently refuse to comply and appear to construe this expectation as entirely unreasonable. I find myself giving them individual reminders to them which everyone else has followed.  The interesting is that they are not students who are frequently disruptive or confrontational; rather, they are students who are disinterested (in the lesson?  in school?).  This technique makes habitual passivity and disinterest into a more active choice on students’ parts- troubling, but a helpful reminder for me – so while the technique has not yet worked fully, I am more conscious of these students emotions and disengagement.

Related, but separate, is a broader student dislike of the techniques.  There was, at least initially, a degree of unhappiness among some of the students who I asked to keep their arms folded.  To an extent, they were students who might have complained whatever they were asked to do – and almost all are now entirely reconciled to it…  nonetheless, I suspect that, depending on the expectations they are used to, there are limits on what students will willingly do, and indeed, do at all.

Should students track every point.  Is it worth asking students to turn for brief answers and questions?  (Given that I may need to issue a reminder first?)  It’s not clear to me where the norm should lie…  I’m inclined to think yes – and to remind myself that brief questions to several individuals is perhaps a warning that my questioning technique in that phase of the lesson needs review.

How long is a good discussion?  I use discussion, questioning and debate extensively and I’m generally happy about my ability to combine interesting stimuli and scaffolded/stepped approaches to extend students’ answers and ensure all benefit.  Some students thrive on this.  Most of those I’ve taught have made progress in responding well and asking interesting questions with confidence.  However, for some students, keeping up with the debate and formulating new points remains tricky.  There is a limit to how much any debate can keep students’ attention; variables like the time students went to bed and whether they had breakfast coalesce with their existing knowledge and vocabulary to create an equation I can’t yet formulate or solve as to how long a class can be expected to benefit from a discussion.

Sometimes, I flag (2).  I considered implementing another improvement in my teaching after half term and concluded that I needed to continue focusing on doing this properly.  But I’m not sure what more I achieved from then on.  While I was still using these techniques, I’m not sure I kept refining them.  As a range of other school issues distracted me, I could make a number of excuses, but I wonder whether I reached a microcosm of the ‘OK plateau’ discussion was good enough, when it could, arguably, have been better!

Conclusion

If something worthwhile is being said in the classroom, everyone should be listening.  These techniques appear to be painless, simple and effective routes to ensure this happens.   If what is being said is not worthwhile, then that is what needs change.  Accepting that a student need not listen or take part, is, to me, a way of failing them – this helps us to avoid that.

Further reading

I found the Teach Like a Champion Field Guide very helpful in planning and implementing this (and designing CPD around it).

Doug Lemov keeps a great blog of ‘Field Notes:’ examples of techniques put into practice, often with helpful video clips.

Not directly relevant to this technique, but a great blog of a teacher implementing many of these strategies and writing thoughtfully about it, is Mr Dolan’s.

Update

Cristina Milos and Mike Cameron both responded to reading this by sharing this article from The Psychologist noting that ‘gaze aversion’ (looking away) is a strategy to reduce cognitive load – essentially, a way of helping us to concentrate on the task at hand.  There is clearly a case that, for the speaker, demanding focus upon AN Other may be problematic – something which I would not request from a student.  The picture regarding listening is more complicated.  The article notes that “we found that ‘forcing’ children to look at a sender’s face while listening to descriptions of abstract shapes interfered with their abilities to understand these descriptions.”  However, the article concludes by leaving the question open regarding listening: “It may be that encouraging young children to look away from their teacher when thinking (although not listening), helps them learn more effectively.”  My feeling is that the costs (of allowing students to look where they like while listening and risking their switching off) outweigh the benefits (of allowing students to concentrate better) – since the evidence as to the merits of this primarily focus on those speaking and answering.  However, I am open to persuasion…