Evidence-based ideas for the classroom

Following on from last week’s blog where I wrote about making use of evidence-based practices in the classroom …

Good examples of evidence-based strategies include the sharing of learning intentions with students, providing effective feedback and making use of cooperative strategies.

Learning Intentions can become boring and routine and students easily turn off.  But if you vary the way you present them …

1. Scramble the words in the learning intention and ask students to re-arrange so that they make sense.  This helps them to focus on the key words and encourages the use of contextual grammatical clues.  (You could even turn that aspect into a ‘teaching moment’.)

For example, a literacy learning intention for primary students might look like this:

ways  we  our  to  different  the  begin understand which  narratives  in  can

Unscrambled, it would read: to understand the different ways in which we can begin our narratives

(Thanks to David Didau for this idea.)

2. Alternatively, provide students with a list of key words or ideas relevant to the learning intention and ask them to work in groups to decide what the learning intention might be.  For example, the words associated with the above learning intention might be:

narrative,  beginnings,  question,  statement,  direct speech,  introducing a character,  creating a setting

The discussion that follows will take you straight into the lesson.

Feedback can be enhanced by using a variety of techniques, rather than the same one all the time.

1. If students have presented work electronically, use a screen capture tool (Camtasia is one, but there are many others) and provide the student with oral feedback that they can read and respond to later.

2. We all understand students’ need to be motivated. This video describes a way of making feedback more positive.

3.  And this video reminds us that feedback can be made even more effective if we start by looking for strengths rather than mistakes.

Do you sometimes need to convince your students that cooperative learning can be much more effective than individual learning?  Try this activity:

Provide students with a detailed photograph or image such as an infographic, and give them a limited amount of time to remember as much of it as they can.  Ask them to write down what they remember.  Then ask them to work in pairs, within a time limit, to combine their lists and to note how many more details their combined memory is able to come up with.  If you want to take this further, each pair could share their list with another pair, and so on.  A whole-class discussion should reveal the effectiveness of cooperation.

This activity could be used as a lead-in to a group task.


What’s the evidence?

The following quote is attributed to Peter F. Drucker, a well-known management expert. I’m unsure of the context so maybe I’m mis-using it, but if we take the quote at its face value then it’s easy to say that – fortunately – he couldn’t be more wrong.

Teaching is the only major occupation of man for which we have not yet developed tools that make an average person capable of competence and performance. In teaching we rely on the ‘naturals,’ the ones who somehow know how to teach. “

The myth of the ‘natural-born’ teacher dies hard, but dead it certainly is.

Education is now awash with evidence about what works in the classroom and what does not.  There is no room for the belief that teacher performance is a ‘gift’, and plenty of reason to believe that teaching and learning improves with evidence-based practice.

Robert Marzano and John Hattie are just two education experts who have spent considerable time sifting through the research into educational practice to identify the school structures and teaching pedagogies – practices, strategies, techniques and approaches – that best assist learning.

It makes sense, doesn’t it, to take advantage of all of this research?

Teachers often use pedagogies either because they are familiar and therefore comfortable or, in some cases, because they are new and therefore exciting.  Professional discussions about the value of particular pedagogies or approaches are rare.  (Yes, I acknowledge the time pressures: teacher meetings do have crowded agendas, but arguably the ‘core business’ is a focus on improving student achievement. Often agendas are crowded with non-educational items that can be dealt with in other ways made possible by technology, for instance.)

What happens in your classroom?  Which of these approaches or pedagogies do you use? (Add to the list ….)

 whole class instruction*group instruction*peer teaching*spelling lists*scheduled time for student reflection on their own progress and learning*other self-assessment strategies*worksheets*ability grouping*interest grouping*learning intentions and success criteria*oral feedback*written feedback*peer feedback* flipped classroom instruction* inquiry learning*problem-based learning*collaborative learning with or without the aid of technology*technology to enhance feedback*technology to enhance presentation skills* homework*gamification*play-based learning*negotiated curriculum*teaching grammar in the context of student reading and writing*modelling* graphic organisers*learning styles*use of portfolios, digital or otherwise*simulation*role-play*immersion* …

  • Which of these approaches or pedagogies do you know for certain are evidence-based?
  • Do you know for certain which approaches you use are more effective or influential than others? (Hattie argues that while most things that teachers do are effective to some degree, some things certainly work better than others. )

The conscious use of evidence-based practices in the classroom leads to improved student achievement.  Perhaps, when articulated and shared with parents, the fact of evidence-based practice, with its emphasis on the professional skill of teaching, will also lead to an enhanced public perception of the teacher’s role. Perhaps we’ll even get rid of the notion held by non-teachers such as politicians  that they ‘know’ how teachers should be teaching…

The power of words

Student attitudes to learning are shaped by the language we – and they – use in the classroom.

For instance, if we talk about the ‘work’ that they have to do, then that’s exactly how they’ll view the activities we ask them to undertake as part of their learning.  Abolish ‘work’ and replace it with ‘learning’.

When we say things like “If you’re good, I’ll let you …. (eg have some free time)”,  we’re using language that focuses on the fact that students need our permission and approval – that they are reliant on us.  We can encourage student ownership and responsibility by changing the language to something like this: “Would you like to have some free time? Well, what if you … (eg, finish off that activity)?”  This puts the onus back onto the student and gives him or her the ‘power’ to choose.

We also move responsibility to the students if we stop saying ‘should’, ‘must’ and ‘ought’.  Instead of “I think you should ….” we can say Have you thought about …..?  And instead of  “You really ought to ….”  we can say  “My advice is to …..”

Avoiding the use of ‘but’ when we’re giving feedback – and encouraging students to avoid its use when they’re giving peer feedback – is a way of emphasising the next step without taking away from what has already been achieved.  So, instead of saying

“Well done!  You’ve written a long and detailed answer … but it’s not very neat.”

perhaps we could say

“Well done!  You’ve written a long and detailed answer, and now what can you do to make it neater?”

Encouraging students to use language that acknowledges their own responsibility for learning – and their behaviour – is a key way to promote learning.

  • Don’t let students get away with saying  “I’ll try …..”  This really amounts to providing an excuse in advance.  Follow up such comments by asking them, for example, what strategies they might use to help them be successful.
  • Ask students to use ‘won’t’ instead of ‘can’t’.  For example, “I can’t do this” becomes “I won’t do this” .  If students are encouraged to say ‘won’t’, they are being asked to acknowledge that they’re making a choice, and that success is likely to be the result of trying harder and perhaps asking for assistance from their teacher or peers.
  • Ask students to start sentences with ‘I’.  Instead of saying “This is boring”, ask them to say “I am bored with this”.  Or instead of  “This is a waste of time”, they might say “I don’t think this is worthwhile”.  When they make the ‘I’ statement they can be asked to explain their reasons, and learning can occur in the dialogue that results.

If you’re interested in the power of language in your classroom you might like to read Choice WordsHow our language affects children’s learning by Peter H. Johnston.  Thomson explores how the language we use in the classroom helps shape students as literacy learners, in particular. His other book, also highly recommended, is Opening Minds – Using language to change lives.

“Introducing a spelling test to a student by saying, ‘Let’s see how many words you know,’ is different from saying, ‘Let’s see how many words you know already.’ It is only one word, but the already suggests that any words the child knows are ahead of expectation and, most important, that there is nothing permanent about what is known and not known.”
— Peter Johnston


What’s the question, who’s asking and why?

Questioning is such a powerful tool, particularly as a formative assessment strategy, that it’s a pity to to overlook its role in the classroom.

Research in this area highlights the value of questioning not just to evaluate, but to interpret. This means not just listening to see if the student has the ‘correct’ answer, but instead  listening in order to identify the level of understanding and the nature of any misconceptions.

Apparently the average teacher asks around 43 questions during each teaching hour.  But how many of these questions are concerned with class management or fail to graduate beyond the level of simple recall questions? Most teachers, when asked, are fairly certain that their questioning is better than satisfactory.  One way to confirm this is by having a trusted colleague observe your lesson or lessons specifically to take note of the way in which you question – the kinds of questions you ask and the purpose of those questions.

Planning the kind of questions that will be asked of students during a lesson (mainly open questions rather than closed) and designing questions that make higher cognitive demands of students (analysis, synthesis and evaluation rather than simple recall) both need careful consideration if questions are going to yield the kinds of student responses that are in fact open to interpretation. (Making note of the kinds of questions you might ask on a given topic can be part of your lesson planning.)

Questioning is also enhanced by the use of Wait Time (sometimes called Thinking Time) and Hands Down.  Both of these techniques allow students time to process their answers.  ‘Think. Pair. Share.’ serves the same purpose and additionally involves peer interaction.  The Hands Down technique, combined with the deliberate distribution of questions around the class, is designed to encourage participation by all students – any of whom might be called on to provide an answer, rather than just those with their hands up – and frees shy or slower students from the discouragement that can stem from the dominance of more confident and extroverted students.

If students provide limited responses to your original question, further prompting questions can provide insights into what they actually know and understand.  Indeed, further prompting questions can be useful even if the answer appears to be correct.  ‘Why do you think that?’ or ‘How did you get that answer?’ are both examples of prompting questions that elicit further information that can be used in a formative way.

Sometimes as teachers we have a tendency during a class to be too aware of time, and therefore fail to engage in this prompting, or to build on inadequate or incomplete answers. We choose instead to pass on to another student who is perhaps more likely to provide the level of response we’re seeking. The resulting missed opportunities to gain information about individual students can also mean that others in the class who share the misunderstanding remain unenlightened.

Finally, who asks most of the questions in your classroom?  You or the students?  Statistics – and experience – tell us that most questions related to learning are asked by teachers and that, in fact, specific time for students to ask questions is not always a scheduled part of the lesson.  And yet the questions asked by students can tell us a great deal about their level of understanding and provide further opportunities to address gaps in their knowledge.

For questioning to be effective, the classroom culture needs to be supportive, to encourage risk-taking and to promote the understanding that learning comes from making mistakes.  Teachers model for the students how to frame worthwhile questions, how to listen attentively to answers and how to respond positively.

If you would like to explore this topic in more detail, you might like to read the relevant chapter in my book: Improving Student Achievement, A Practical Guide to Assessment for Learning by Toni Glasson. Curriculum Corporation, 2009.

Parents and NAPLAN: how concerned should you be?

NAPLAN tests in literacy and numeracy will take place on May 14, 15 and 16 for all students in Years 3, 5, 7 and 9.
Both before and after those dates the media will probably feature a fair few negative articles about the test, and you might even wonder whether you should withdraw your child from the testing process.
But how much should you worry?
Firstly, it’s important to understand the purpose of the NAPLAN tests.  They’re designed
• to measure whether Australian students are meeting the outcomes outlined in the Australian Curriculum,
• to provide information about the achievements of individual students so that schools can be specific about meeting their needs, and
• to provide schools and education departments with information about the effectiveness of their educational programs.

Of course you are most interested in the impact on your child, so what’s the deal with NAPLAN?

The important thing to recognise is that NAPLAN assessment is just one part of a school’s assessment program. In no way does it provide a comprehensive picture of your child’s achievement and progress, and nor does it try to. It can, however, provide useful information about aspects of your child’s literacy and numeracy progress which might need further support. Importantly, in analysing the data provided by the NAPLAN results, schools draw on their own more extensive knowledge of individual students as part of their evaluation.
You can be reassured about this because there are various reasons why a child might not ‘perform’ on the day. Perhaps he or she is overly anxious or not feeling well, for instance. For this reason, attaching too much significance to the results can be misleading.
Having said that, I would reiterate that the information derived from NAPLAN can be extremely useful, so how can you help your child to prepare?
• Reassure children, but only if they seem to need that reassurance. If you link NAPLAN with stress, then maybe this will actually create anxiety. You know your child best, and you will know whether or not they need reassurance.
• Play down the significance of the tests, emphasising that they are just one part of the school’s assessment program and explain why they are held.
• Remind children that the focus is on effort, on doing their best, rather than on worrying about results.
• On a practical note, make sure they get a good night’s sleep before the test and a good breakfast in the morning.
Teachers will have shared examples of NAPLAN tests so that children are familiar with them. They will probably have practised answering questions.
There are four individual tests. The first one tests children’s knowledge of language conventions (spelling, grammar and punctuation); the second one asks children to complete a piece of persuasive writing on a particular topic; the third one tests reading skills, and the final one tests numeracy. The specific skills that are being tested reflect the Australian Curriculum.
Otisa offers children the opportunity to practise the skills described in the Australian Curriculum.