Pace, Progression, Checking for Understanding

I was talking to a lovely, keen, young teacher earlier this week and she said she’d been told that she needed to work on, “Pace, progression and checking for understanding.”

I hate words like that! What does any of that actually mean? It’s so “teacher speak”! It’s so, “let’s self-flagellate”, so “I’ve heard this from “expert observers” so it must be true”. That’s not to criticise the super keen teacher who said these words. It’s the dreadful nit-picking, “mean anything you want it to mean” nomenclature of observations that does my head in! Grrrrrr!

This kind of language doesn’t encourage useful self-reflection, I’d argue. I’d say this kind of easy-sound bite feedback sows the seeds of self doubt, often needlessly and even harmfully. And you reap what you sow. Throw meaningless, nebulous, ill thought out feedback at someone enough and what you get are teachers who beat themselves up instead of building themselves up.  You get teachers who, instead of looking at the reactions of the kids in front of them, focus on the reactions of the “expert observer” behind them, furiously tick-boxing their every move.

So let’s have a look at what these words might actually mean. What does “pace” mean? Well, I reckon it can mean a million and one things and it very much depends upon who is saying it. I reckon that, too often, people are told to work on their “pace” when the observer feels that the “outstanding” lesson needs to be buzzy and whizzy, with loads of activity changes, where, as I once read in an Ofsted document many moons ago, “a tangible air of enthusiasm fills the room.”

Too often observers aren’t keen on the teacher talking, on the kids listening, soaking up the wisdom of the sage on the stage. I was told, just today, by a PGCE student soon to graduate from Cambridge, that a lesson should  be 90% pupil talk and 10% teacher talk. That’s the rule apparently. Though a think the word “student” was used rather than “pupil”. Grrrrrr!

So, “You need to work on your pace.”, in too many cases, can mean, “You’re expecting the kids to listen and learn. That’s not much fun is it? You’re demanding too much of them. Make it active! Make it “engaging”!” “Engaging”, another one of those bloody awful words that are simply a euphemism for, “Dilute the learning! Give the kids something light and fluffy that’ll distract them and not demand too much of them intellectually! With any luck they won’t kick off!” Grrrrr!

I’m always going to say that, generally, kids need to listen lots. Their teachers should have lots to say. And it should be cracking stuff!  It should be delivered with aplomb, charisma, energy, passion, conviction and savoir-faire. There’s the rub! If you’re boring, if you’re delivery is flat, if you don’t love what you teach, if the intricacies of effective delivery don’t excite you, then yeah, chances are your lessons will be like watching paint dry.

I’m not advocating teacher as stand-up comic, though a bit of humour does go a long way, but I am advocating stage presence. Why stage presence? Because, a lot of the time, you need to be centre stage, teaching didactically, emphatically, explicitly and unapologetically. There is no magic ratio for teacher: pupil talk. But oh how we love a formula! Tick! An acronym! Tick! A sound bite! Tick! An exclamation mark! Tick! Oh, sorry! That’s just me!

Progession? God knows what that means! At one point it was crazy, meaningless NC levels that, in MFL certainly, straight-jacketed kids and teachers alike. Progress? You tell kids stuff, they practise stuff, they memorise stuff, they then own the stuff you’ve taught and they can draw upon it at will. The more stuff you teach, that they remember and re-use, the more “progress” they make. Is it any more complicated than that? I don’t think so.

In French nothing is “hard”. It’s just a case of remembering, practising, owning the language. That takes an eye and ear for detail, exposure, time and patience. No miracle formula I’m afraid.

Checking for understanding? Some kids are shy. You don’t get much out of them through Q&A. But you’ll look at what they’ve written down and you soon see if they’ve got it. Is it too easy to rely upon the same kids all the time when doing Q&A? Yes. Shoot me! I’m human! But forgive me if I don’t make a grab for the traffic lights.

(I’ve recently started giving a kid in each class a paper register and he takes off who has answered questions in the session. It’s an experiment. It’s interesting to see. We’ll see how it goes.)

But you know, I think we ask too many questions anyway. I think we should be telling more and asking questions less.

(Though I am loving this kind of choral to and fro that I’ve recently started with classes, whereby I say the French and they reply in unison with a word for word translation: Maintenant/Now, Si/If, vous voulez/you want, vous pouvez/you can, enlever/ lift off, vos vestes/your jackets.)

Where was I?  That’s it, I think we should all “mind our language” and think a little more carefully about the observation feedback we give.

We should avoid the all too easy throw-away jargon that doesn’t even remotely get close to the nuts and bolts of teaching.

We should be more aware of what we, personally, believe brilliant teaching to be.

We should focus much less on what we think we’re supposed to say, like and do.

We should do all we can to free teachers from their slavish desire to do things “right” and instead nurture in them a desire to do the “right” thing.

And yes! We should use fewer exclamation marks!

As ever, if you fancy working in a school where you’re paid to think, where kids do as their told and where teachers focus on what works as opposed to the vagaries of edufashion – think about Michaela for September 2016. September 2015 is all wrapped up. Thanks

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