As is often the case on the eve of a new term, I’ve been planning to write a blog post – but I’ve been struggling to think of a subject. I was then inspired by this great post from Katie Ashford – How can we help the weakest catch up?
It’s a very important question. I don’t like the label ‘low ability’, as it suggests to me some kind of pre-determined intellectual capacity for students. Now whilst I fully subscribe to the idea of a growth mindset and so believe strongly that intelligence can be improved through focused effort, I also understand (as a biologist) that genes probably have something to do with intelligence. However, as educators, we can’t do anything about genes, but we can work to develop the mindset and aspirations of these students. For a variety of reasons, they have a lower starting point than others, so we need to be thinking about what we can be doing to help them catch up. Not at after school sessions, or other similar interventions, but in our day to day teaching.
If we are in the business of improving life chances, we owe it to them.
In our book ‘Making every lesson count’ Andy Tharby and I explore six pedagogical principles that we believe are key to great teaching. As a new term starts, what can we be doing to make sure that every lesson counts for our weakest students? Here are six ideas to consider.
Don’t dumb down your expectations of them and shy away from teaching them the hard stuff. Have high expectations of what they can achieve, but remember they are coming at it from a lower starting point – so will need more support. Tell them that it’s going to be tricky, but that’s OK – and that together, you will work it through. They are used to linking ‘not getting it’ with ‘being dumb’, so we need to reassure them that failure and struggle is a perfectly normal part of learning.
You help to shape their expectations of themselves – so make them believe that with the right effort, they will be able to ‘get the hard stuff’.
We know from cognitive science, that we learn new things by linking it to what we already know. With our weakest students, we need to work a bit harder on this, as they probably have less knowledge to start with. So, dig deep and find out what they do know about the subject, no matter how small, and then build from this. If they can’t recall anything about the topic at all, then get them to think about something that links to it e.g. weaker students probably won’t have much prior knowledge about the particle theory of matter, but they will know that ice melts out of the freezer – so build on this and move their understanding towards particle theory.
If you want weaker students to complete a piece of extended writing, don’t just show them a paragraph on a powerpoint and expect them to be able to emulate it – they won’t. Model the writing together, on the board with a pen. Start with an opening sentence; discuss how to construct that sentence; discuss what might come next; write the next sentence etc. Build it up and model the thinking and writing process together.
When moving them on to their own written work, provide them with some scaffolds for support – but don’t over-support. Sentence starters might help, or a word bank that includes the key words they should use in their paragraph, that they can tick off as they go.
Plan opportunities for practice – and lots of it. Yes it might be boring, but the only way they will get good at doing things, is by doing the important things over and over. Avoid the temptation to shy away from this, in favour of other more ‘fun’ activities, simply to please them – they need to understand the importance of practice. Not only should you provide time in lessons for practising key processes repetitively e.g. calculating acceleration using the correct formula, but also between lessons – so start every lesson by getting them to recall/practice something that they did last lesson.
These students need to be encouraged to think deeply – in a secure and supportive environment. So:
- Ask them questions (don’t avoid them) – if they say they don’t know, don’t just move on to somebody else (that’s probably what they want), scaffold the question down so they can answer it, and then build it up by further questioning.
- When they answer a question, develop their thinking by asking ‘why?’ e.g. ‘Why do you think that?’
Again, we should give feedback to students in order to make them think more deeply, and not just settle for superficial work. In order to do this effectively, we need to know our students well – what they can and can’t do and how far we can push them. ‘Live marking’ is a great way to do this and of course, ensure they respond to your feedback in the lesson, when you are there to support them – they will struggle to respond to your feedback when they are at home, without your help.
So, during the lesson while they are working, look at their work – discuss what’s good about the work, but also how they could improve it. Write this as an improvement question on their work and then ask them to respond to it. Come back in a few minutes, to check their response. Example below:
If you would like to hear more stories from teachers who have used the 6 principles to develop their teaching, come along to the ‘Making every lesson count conference’ in July 2016. Details here.