Pruning your practice: seven criteria for cutting away ineffective strategies

By Andy Tharby

At this time of the school year we usually dedicate some of our time to thinking about the new approaches we aim to adopt next year. Often we concentrate on the improvements we will make: better resources, better teaching strategies, better relationships … And when we picture ourselves at the start of the next year, fresh and bushy-tailed, we imagine ourselves ready to face new challenges head-on, complete with a repertoire of exciting new tricks up our sleeves.

However, we should also pause to reflect on what we need to discard from our practice as well as the additions we will make. Removal and reduction are crucial for improvement, but they are too often forgotten. It is not possible to keep adding layer-upon-layer of new ideas without pruning down our current practice to begin with.

The ‘art of doing away with superfluous tosh’ starts with a simple question. Is this strategy/approach supporting or diminishing my capacity to fulfill my core purpose as a teacher? Almost always, this will relate to whether the strategy improves student learning or not.

When possible, we should aim to discard strategies and interventions that meet any of the following criteria:

  1. Ineffective. If it does not achieve what it sets out to achieve, then it is usually not worth pursuing further. Often we invest a lot of self-worth and energy into an idea and as a result we feel that it is working well, even when if it is not. This is why it is important to build robust and honest evaluation into our practice. From the outset, we should always remain clear about the purpose of a strategy or intervention. If it is not achieving this, then it is ripe fodder for the dustbin.
  2. Not worth the time. Some  strategies are effective, yet so time-consuming that they become unmanageable. One-to-one after-school sessions with each student in your class might boost achievement, but you will not be able to manage them over a sustained period of time. You should also be careful not to set an unhelpful precedent to others. New staff, in particular, will often feel that they are expected to do everything they see their more experienced colleagues doing.
  3. Creates opportunity cost. The gains of one approach should be balanced against the costs of not doing something else. Three hours spent marking, for instance, has some value – but probably not as much as three hours spent planning.
  4. Difficult to organise and sustain. If you have two competing strategies, always choose the simpler option. It is likely that this will be easier to implement and sustain. Group work, for example, is sometimes difficult to manage whereas direct instruction would be just as, if not more, effective.
  5. Unhelpful habits. Sometimes we do things just because we always have. These habits are often the relics of now-discarded (and discredited) policies. Up until recently, a very talented colleague of mine would spend considerable time underlining the dates and titles in her students’ books with a ruler. In her previous school, teachers were held accountable for whether work was underlined or not and she had brought this habit with her!
  6. False accountability fears. ‘I need to mark this work in case somebody from SLT sees an unmarked page.’ ‘I need to do a plenary every lesson just in case somebody walks in and sees me not doing one.’ False accountability fears are rife in schools. Often conscientious teachers are so eager to be perceived as doing a good job that they overcompensate. If you are a member of a SLT, then make it clear to staff what they should not be doing as well as what they should be doing. If you are a teacher, check the school policy carefully.
  7. Unsupported by research evidence. Becoming evidence-informed is a great way of reducing workload in the long-term. Once you understand how students learn and what types of intervention are usually effective, you are better-placed to make the right decisions about what to keep and what to drop.

Before you start next year, perform an audit of your current practice. Think about your approach to marking, report writing, planning, displays, resourcing, rewards and sanctions, meetings and emails. What should stay? And what should be chopped?


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