Adopting an appropriate pace has always been an important component of a successful lesson, particularly with groups of high-achieving pupils who are more than able to cope with at least an hour of rigorous challenge. These pupils thrive on the demands of a lesson that asks them to move quickly through exposition and review to get to new learning points and to spend time developing and extending new ideas and concepts.
However, it is extremely tempting to think of a lesson with ‘unrelenting pace’, where pupils are constantly engaged and productive all the time, as being a successful learning experience.
I have observed numerous ‘all singing, all dancing’ lessons where pupils have barely had time to breathe before the next activity was presented to them. In the post-observation feedback I usually commend the teacher for their efforts and for the quality of the activities given to the pupils but then go on to ask the question: What opportunities did you provide for your pupils to evaluate and reflect upon the new material presented to them? Unfortunately, many teachers, even the more experienced among us, are loathe to incorporate ‘thinking time’ into their lessons for fear of pupils perceiving this as being ‘dead time’ and exploiting the situation accordingly.
They work on the notion that if pupils are simply too busy to misbehave then the lesson is likely to go more smoothly. While it is true that a lively learning pace is a critical feature of a well disciplined classroom it is equally true that pupils do need reflection time.
To my mind, the most successful teachers are those who are able to engender a real sense of pace and purpose into proceedings, but who also provide pupils with thinking and reflection time. With this in mind I have provided a range of guidance that will help you to inject appropriate pace and reflection time into lessons.
The planning stage
Ask yourself who is it that you want to work harder – the pupils or you?
While obviously not ignoring your own contribution to the lesson, make pupil learning the main focus for all your lesson planning. Keep your pupils busy but provide opportunities for ‘focused’ thinking time. To make your thinking time focused, provide them with questions, conundrums, viewpoints, etc to think about. Make it clear from the outset that you will be seeking a response from them.
Have an ‘entry task’ ready for the pupils to do as and when they come into the classroom
Examples of these are anagrams, word searches, crosswords, interpreting optical illusions, working out the answers to riddles, responding to pictures, etc. If you can create entry tasks that encourage pupils to get their books and writing equipment out then so much the better. This will help you to make a crisp start to the lesson and introduce a sense of pace to the proceedings.
Plan a starter activity that doesn’t need a lengthy introduction but is a quick, focused activity
Again, ensure that you make it clear that this is a task for all pupils to do. Introduce a degree of healthy pressure on pupils to carry out your instructions.
Write the learning objectives on the board for pupils to copy down
If you want to make an even brisker start to the lesson then word-process your learning objectives and simply ask pupils to stick these at the top of the page. By doing this you will not have to wait for the slower writers to finish.
Write any homework tasks on the board for pupils to record
Inform pupils that you will be checking that they have written down these instructions by the end of the lesson. Have a sanction ready for those who have failed to do this. This sanction could take the form of an extra task or a short detention. Doing this will induce a sense of urgency into proceedings.
The initial phases of the lessons
• Make sure that you move to the door to usher pupils into your classroom, welcome them into your room and remind them to pick up the resources.
• Scan the classroom to check that pupils are on task and not behaving inappropriately.
• Make sure that you are completely ready for the lesson to start and that all appropriate lesson documentation is laid out on the desk in front of you.
• Check that your IT equipment is working and ready to use. Scrabbling through papers on your desk suggests you are not ready to start.
• Make it your policy not to deal with individual queries until the class is settled and on task. Don’t get side-tracked by pupils’ requests, off-task enquiries, or administration tasks. Many pupils are extremely skilled at asking those interesting but deliberately delaying questions.
• Although it is important to deal with latecomers, you don’t have to do so immediately. Becoming embroiled in discussions and/or arguments about lateness only results in valuable learning time being eroded and will inevitably result in your having to rush the remainder of the lesson. Briefly tell latecomers that you will listen to their reasons/excuses later, rather than letting their explanations delay your start.
• In an ideal world I would always advise that you lay out your resources on desks ready for the pupils to collect when they arrive. However, I am realistic enough to know that in the ‘hurly-burly’ of school life this is not always possible. Whenever possible lay out the resources in order of their chronological use on the desks near to the classroom door and ‘socialize’ your pupils into picking these up as they enter the room as a matter of routine. Doing this can save so many ‘break in flow’ points in your lesson.
• If you haven’t already done so, while pupils are working on the starter activity prepare for the next activity (by writing on the board, checking that homework has been written down, etc).
The core phase of the lesson
Give your instructions for the main activity or key learning points both verbally and visually. It is important to remember that many pupils need to hear and see instructions before they really take these on board.
Where you have a class of low-ability or challenging pupils, and where you are teaching a multi-task lesson, I would strongly advise you to produce a task checklist. Using this for even the most basic of instructions, and asking pupils to physically indicate that they have completed each task, will dramatically reduce the number of times these pupils shout out: ‘What do we have to do now sir/miss?’
The benefits of adopting this strategy are fourfold: first, the pupils will start to take responsibility for their own learning; second, there are far fewer interruptions to the lessons; third, the pace of the lesson increases dramatically; fourth, your stress levels will be reduced!
Exemplar Task Checklist Completed
Write the title of the work into your book and copy down the learning objective.
Using the space provided for you on your ‘word search’ sheet, write down as many words you can find that are to do with the topic of ‘Rainfall’.
When you have found as many words as you can, stick the sheet into the margin of your book.
Using the ‘Glossary of Terms’ found on page 12 of your textbook, find out the meanings of these words. Discuss these with your partner and be ready to share your answers with the rest of the class at 9.50.
When informing pupils of the time they have to complete an allocated task or activity, do so using ‘real’ time. Having a visible clock in your room is an absolute must! In my experience of observing lessons, teachers are often too relaxed about the times they allocate to activities. Five minutes can often become 10 or even longer. I have observed lessons where the teacher has allocated the pupils 10 minutes to complete an activity and, after four minutes have elapsed, they have called the class together to ‘review learning’. If pupils feel that you don’t mean what you say when allocating a time limit to their tasks, they will not work at pace, or worse still will not do the work at all.
To give pupils an indication of how much time they have already used on their task, you could provide them with a verbal countdown: ‘You’ve got four minutes, three minutes, two minutes …’. Alternatively there are numerous ICT-based timers you can use to display the time on the board.
Some timers will, for example, allow you to use music to increase the sense of urgency. I have known trainee teachers to use TV’s ‘Countdown’ music to signify the final 30 seconds allocated to a task. If this is not possible in the classroom you are teaching in, simply ask a pupil to act as a timekeeper and to keep the class appraised as to how much time they have left to complete their tasks. Whatever you do, you need to be consistent in setting tasks in the context of ‘real’ time.
Make your expectations and the circumstances of learning absolutely transparent to the pupils from the very start, and be consistent in enforcing these: eg, working in silence. If you have allocated pupils two minutes to discuss an issue with their partner, then two minutes it should be. If you have asked the class to work in silence on a task, then have a sanction ready in the event of this not happening.
Introducing a competitive element to your lesson can often create a sense of pace to proceedings. Having said this, you need to be very careful that the results of the ‘competition’ itself do not override the learning that is taking place, and that you provide sufficient scaffolding to the less able and/or less competitive element in the class.
Using fast-paced classical and/or contemporary pop music can often introduce a sense of pace to lessons. Alternatively, if you want to slow down the pace of a lesson, perhaps in situations where you want pupils to reflect and evaluate, you might consider using slower-paced music.
Set tasks that rely on pupils having to share their contributions with their peers, either on a partner/group basis or with the rest of the class. If pupils think that someone else in the group is going to take responsibility for making the contribution, they will be more likely to opt out of the activity. However, if they know they have to share their personal contributions with a partner/group, or that they will have to demonstrate their newly gained knowledge to the rest of the class, they will perhaps feel a greater pressure to complete the activity.
A really good way to ensure that pupils work at pace and to the best of their ability, is to circulate the classroom, and where you find a pupil not doing this, do not say anything but simply put the current time in the margin of their page. Doing this is often enough to convey to the pupil that you will be coming back to check how much work they have done since your last visit.
If you are teaching an able group, regularly ascribe the roles of chairperson or lead-learner to pupils who will then take on the mantle of responsibility and help maintain momentum and focus during tasks.
The end phase of the lesson
Make sure that you always run a plenary session. Keep the end-of-lesson plenary short, focused and pithy. Examples are:
‘You have two minutes to write down two facts you have learnt this lesson.’
‘Turn to your neighbour and tell them two reasons for ….’
‘What has the poem taught you about yourself?’
‘How can you use the learning from this lesson to inform other subjects?’
‘Draw a quick sketch that represents the learning you have done today.’
Get individuals or groups of pupils to use their findings to provide the questions for the plenary and/or to prepare a related starter for the next lesson.
If you are receiving pupil feedback during the lesson, enlist a pupil to record ideas on the board while you lead the discussion. This will allow you to scan the class to make sure that every pupil is listening and engaged with the learning.
Have pupils clear away in plenty of time and ask them to stand quietly behind their chairs before the bell goes. You need to end the lesson promptly so that you can begin your next ‘pace-driven’ lesson on time!
This excerpt is taken from Gererd Dixie's new book The Ultimate Teaching Manual (£19.99, published by Continuum).
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