Are you really teaching? Or are you just asking endless frustrating questions?

I’ve been meaning to write this post for a while, partly because Ben Newmark has penned some excellent thoughts on didactic teaching which has got me thinking about what concise-explanation-is-king teaching looks like in the primary classroom and partly because it was mentioned on twitter that most instruction in the primary classroom is, apparently, didactic.

I disagree.

I think that many teachers might be confusing all teacher talk with didactic teaching, instead inadvertently deploying a version of discovery learning that requires pupils to construct their own knowledge/understanding/skills inside their heads and then share it with (and ‘teach’) the rest of the class. Just because they’re not at their tables working in groups, or using lots of manipulatives, sugar paper, drama or iPads doesn’t mean that discovery learning is not taking place. Conversely, just because the children are sat on the carpet in front of you, doesn’t mean that explicit teaching is happening. What I have seen and still see a lot of is various permutations of this:

I’m thinking of the thing, can you think of what it is yet?

q

I sometimes slip into this habit and it’s as if worries about engagement can so easily warp the words and phrases that we use, ultimately allowing the pupil’s voice to receive preferential treatment. This manifests in endless questions prompting the pupils to make the next connection themselves and then offer up these connections to the rest of the class. Underlying all this questioning is the prioritisation of engagement and interest which can mask the real fears of the teacher:

  • The knowledge I have to impart is not important
  • If I simply tell them, then it’ll be boring and they will rightly mess about 
  • I must DO AfL 

How does this pan out? In order to really understand this, we also need to put ourselves in the shoes of the various different pupils in our class. Using a simple example from an early phase, this is what tends to happen when, instead of just giving pupils some interesting information about the key concepts of Islam (for example), the teacher asks, ‘Muslims read a special book; does anyone know what this book is called and what language it is written in?’

  1. There will, probably, be an advantaged pupil called Derek who already knows this information and he immediately throws a hand in the air. A few other gung-ho pupils with the wrong information throw their hands in the air too because they want to be like Derek.
  2. The teacher may a) pick Derek who then ‘teaches’ the rest of the class, but is a bit woolly with his explanation, saying the words a bit wrong, or, b) picks a gung-ho pupil who ‘teaches’ the rest of the class something that is completely wrong and they all have a good laugh together, maybe going off on a tangent into another topic like Judaism.
  3. Jerry, who has SEN and struggles to understand what is going on, immediately feels inadequate when the teacher asks the class if anyone already knows what they are intending to teach them or whether they have worked out, by themselves, the next step. He can’t put his hand up. Then he might thinks a) Derek is so lucky that he is naturally clever and knows everything or b) That Judaism and Islam are pretty much the same thing.

Despite everyone in the class looking engaged, this might well be a waste of time. The pupils who struggle to concentrate might have switched off, all the pupils with SEN would’ve either learned nothing or, even worse, a misconception and all the advantaged pupils would’ve been given a leg-up to the next step and made to feel like they’re better than all the other pupils.

Don’t get me wrong, questioning is good, particularly if you ensure pupils fully explain their reasoning. However, there’s a difference between using questions to check whether pupils understand and to reinforce/rehearse what has already been taught versus questions that are intended to prompt pupils to make connections and construct their own knowledge in their heads. The latter can be inefficient, risky and leaves disadvantaged children behind. Here’s an example of an alternative approach:

  1. Show pupils a picture of a Q’uran, tell them using clear and concise language that this is a special book that Muslims read and that it is written in a language called Arabic. Maybe a pupil who is Muslim could be the ‘teaching assistant’, but be mindful of overburdening said pupil because they really might prefer to be with their peers.
  2. They would show children the key words on the board and then ask the class to repeat the words and then use the words in a sentence 3 times. ‘While we’re at it, let’s write this down in our best handwriting.’
  3. They would then ask the whole class if anyone can say, in their own words, what has just been taught.
  4. Both Derek and Jerry can put their hands up with confidence.

Bit too straightforward an example? OK. Let’s look at column subtraction. The didactic route would be to get the pupils silent, ‘Star sitting’ and 100% of eyeballs looking at the teacher. The teacher would show pupils a ‘problem’ that needs solving, state why column subtraction needs to be used, then clearly explain without deviation or distraction exactly why and how to lay out column subtraction. They would then go through each step modelling their thinking and number bond knowledge along the way. When arriving at the answer, stating (using the correct mathematical language and including the units of measurement) how the original problem has been solved, showing pupils the newly balanced equation.

How many primary teachers would have the confidence to go through this process, which should only take 5 minutes, without resorting to stopping every few seconds to ask the following sorts of questions:

  • Who thinks they know why I have laid it out this way?
  • Who can tell me what they think the next step might be?
  • Who can think of a quick way of subtracting 9 if a number bond doesn’t immediately flash up in my head?
  • Who thinks they already know what the answer is?

When teachers resort to discovery-through-questioning, I find that it causes some groups of pupils to develop a habit of guessing, calling out, putting hands up at inappropriate times (to answer an assumed question before it’s even been asked) and randomly interjecting to finish the teacher’s sentences. I think boys who struggle and yet still want to impress their peers are most at risk and they can end up going down the amateur comedian route. All it takes is a year with a teacher who does this all day, every day and you can end up with a cohort that becomes virtually impossible to teach. Secondary teachers might not know this because their year 7 classes are inevitably randomised.

There are a couple of other reasons why a teacher, particularly a young and new teacher, might resort to this kind of ‘teaching’. It could be that the SCITT course is promoting the ideal of hands-on, exciting activities in order to let pupils enjoy, discover and improve their self-esteem. The other reason could be lack of confidence among new teachers themselves which would lead them to inadvertently defer the ‘teaching’ as it were to the more confident and extroverted pupils in their class. The risk is that a pupil says the wrong answer, and then the teacher will quite often say, ‘Well, you’re nearly there and almost correct! Well done for having a go!’ instead of ‘This is the wrong answer.’

Now you might still be thinking that there clearly isn’t enough questioning if we’re simply giving pupils information and then providing opportunities for practice via writing, chanting, drawing or calculating. However, after the teacher has explained what is going on, including actually ‘answering’ those questions listed above then the questions can be allowed, but with the teacher leading the way, not the pupils.

  • Who would like me to go through this again?
  • If there was a bit of this that you found confusing, please put up your hand and tell me exactly which part didn’t make sense.
  • Now we are going to do one of these together, but bit-by-bit. If you are feeling confident, please don’t call out; instead, you can play a little game inside your head where you guess what I am going to say and do next.
  • [Checks Jerry is smiling] Jerry, I am going to read this problem for us both. Can you tell me what the calculation is and why you know this?

Of course, you might be thinking that a teacher just teaching is all rather boring and old-fashioned. I disagree. What I find is that when pupils are settled, in ‘receive’ mode and I give myself permission to just teach, taking care with the explanations, modelling of thinking and doing, using the new phrases and vocabulary, maybe even converting the instruction into a nice story, then I am more likely to hear the muffled ‘Ah! I get it now!’ Far from boring, this is incredibly liberating because when the teacher teaches in this way, then all pupils can learn. When all the pupils have learned, then the questions change to:

  • Who knows what the answer is?

So, let’s try to avoid the whole ‘I’m thinking of a thing, can you think of what it is yet?’ teaching style.

Who’s with me?

 

 

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