Talking positive

As we at Durrington have become more evidence informed, so, naturally, have the posts on this blog.  However, when we choose the subjects for our weekly teaching forums we look not just for the pockets of practice where research is being brought to life, but also where a teacher is doing something brilliantly either through their own experience or intuition.  Happily there is often a cross-over between what the evidence points to and what we as teachers intuitively believe is right, and so the two marry.  Sometimes the link is less clear, but that should not discourage us from drawing from the expertise around us.  As John Tomsett so eloquently put it: “Engaging with evidence in education supplements expertise and decision making; it does not supplant it“.

MELCcarryThis week’s teaching forum is one such example where the primary focus is on the practice, not the evidence.  The inspiration for it was an observation I did of history teacher George Eastment.  George (she won’t thank me for describing her like this) is an experienced teacher, with 13 years in the classroom behind her.  She still teaches a full timetable and is a master of many things (including spreadsheets), but in particular building strong relationships with young people.

During the observation I was mesmerised by how skilfully she used positive language to bring the students in her class into a discussion and create an atmosphere of exemplary behaviour.  Within this atmosphere was a micro-climate where all (and I mean all) students in this mixed ability year 9 group felt happy to contribute ideas unburdened by worries of credibility or failure.  It was a real treat to be in the room while she wove her magic, and reminded me that so much of great teaching is rooted in what we say and how we say it.

What was most impressive was the way she dealt with behaviour with non-confrontational language.  She neatly avoided falling into the classic trap of raising the stakes unnecessarily, which can so easily be done with questions and statements such as “why are you talking?” or “I’m really losing my patience with you.”  Instead she would use language that would identify the unwanted behaviour, while convincing the student she was on their side and wanted above all to avoid them getting into trouble.  An example would be “Emma, I don’t want to stop for you, but you’re chatting and you’re forcing me to.”  There were a multitude of these through the lesson, filled with subtlety and nuance, and fundamentally built on deep knowledge of the students.  George places huge value on getting to know her students thoroughly, and aims to know the name of every student she teaches by the end of her first lesson with them.  She also uses a number of non-verbal cues with them, such as tapping the desk to get someone writing again or walking behind a student who has lost focus.

One extra layer that George has added this year is to develop students’ metacognitive abilities.  She attended our journal club on metacognition last term, which Andy Tharby wrote a blog about here.  The element she has pursued is self-reflection, and has started to use it as part of her homework routines.  Couched within her positive questioning, she started the lesson by asking the students about the elements of the homework they had found difficult and the elements they had found useful.  The responses she elicited were thoughtful and helped the students to question the purpose of the homework and how approaching it in different ways could either improve or diminish the usefulness to what they were learning in class.  By doing so she gave the homework greater value and helped the students understand that it was part of an overall process that helped them build knowledge and understanding.  Again, the success of this task was ultimately down to the knowledge of the students and the positive culture in which students felt safe to honestly air their reflections.

When teacher-student relationships are strong, student confidence and outcomes are positively affected.  This is supported by the evidence, and was the focus for some twilight training that we ran through the Research School, led by colleagues from Angmering School and St Paul’s Catholic College.  During the training delegates discussed this paper on how relationships can be cultivated and improved.  Here then is where the practice and the evidence happily marry.  The intuitive approach of an experienced teacher that building the confidence of her students is key to their development, finds basis within the work done by those looking to uncover what is most likely to work.  The message for me is clear, read the evidence of course, but don’t forget to watch and talk to teachers to find the answers.

Posted by Chris Runeckles

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