Cancelling the noise

Picture this scenario.

It is Thursday afternoon. The year 10 class in front of the teacher has just had their lunch.

The door and windows are open for ventilation.

We can hear the sounds of instruction and discussion from other classes through the open door, and the shouts from Year 11s on their lunch blasting in through the windows.

This year 10 class, who are already tired and desperate for the weekend, are struggling to focus on what the teacher is saying to them.

I am sure this scenario (perhaps with slight alterations) is not alien to many teachers at the moment.

In the past, we could simply shut the door and refocus the class’ attention. However, currently, how do I get my Year 10 class to listen to me and focus on the lesson?

Here are three actions I have taken to help my students focus better:

Fine-tuning student focus

Most of the time, students are already in the classroom by the time I reach them. As I walk in, students know to open their Science books and booklets.

If we are at the start of a new learning sequence, I ask students to turn to a particular page of their booklets and work on the review questions from memory, independently, and in silence. If they struggle, they are allowed to read through their notes/the relevant page of the booklet and then answer the questions. The only rule is they are not allowed to blindly copy the answer.

If we are in the middle of a learning sequence, I ask students to read through their notes silently. They know this means I will be quizzing them using mini-whiteboards as soon as I have completed taking the register.

While these strategies may be employed regardless of classroom restrictions or changes (such as open windows and doors), I have found it is vital that my instructions are simple, to the point, and absolutely clear in order to fine-tune student focus. Each instruction should have the clear aim of getting students to do one important thing, and nothing else, at a time. If they are reading their notes, that is all I expect them to do at that time. If they are answering review questions, once again, that is all that is expected of them.

Working independently has a few benefits. Students are tapping into their own memories. They are solely focused on the act of recall and not on discussing before they’ve had a chance to think. They are not tempted to discuss a different matter (‘what have we got next? Did you do your English homework?!’).

In fact, the purpose of silent, independent work on a simple list of questions is to remove any extraneous cognitive load that can distract student attention. As Peps Mccrea writes in his brilliant book Motivated Teaching, motivation is a system of allocating attention. We want students to allocate their attention to their learning and nothing else.

Standardising the format of questions and resources can also be a powerful way of fine-tuning student focus on what is most needed for a particular task. If students know exactly where to look if they are stuck on a question, then this saves a lot of time and effort, and encourages attention on learning.

In addition, if a couple of the questions on the review list or those asked during a mini-whiteboard quiz, are ones that have a high success rate, then students are more likely to focus their attention on their learning.

Conducting consistent routines

I have previously written about routines in the classroom here and here.

The more a routine is run consistently, the more students are likely to follow a set of instructions and complete a task. Once again, this has the impact of reducing extraneous load as students focus on the task and not on how or why it needs to be completed.

Importantly, if planning to implement a new routine, ensure the cues and steps involved are simple and easy to follow.

Although I was using a few routines regularly in my classroom before lockdown, I have had to reteach these since our return to the classroom.

Sometimes I test my classes to check they know exactly when to do a particular action. For instance, when using mini-whiteboards, students are expected only to show me their boards when I say the word ‘Show’. To check everyone is paying full attention, I will pause after my short countdown and before I utter the magic word. This is a simple and relatively quick way of checking if I have the attention of all students in that moment.

Making ALL students active participants

Students don’t need to be moving around or continually writing to be active participants. If every student is actively thinking about a lesson, they are actively participating as well. Adam Boxer has written this brilliant blog on the concept of Ratio.

The best way to get all students thinking hard in a lesson is to make it the norm that any student could be called upon to answer a question or to share their work at any point in the lesson.

In a typical lesson, I use a combination of different questioning techniques:

Verbal questioning

  • Hands-up when I want to probe individual thinking
  • Cold call when students should know an answer (ask the question first, pause to provide thinking time and then choose a student)
  • No opt-out for when a student doesn’t know an answer. They listen to the correct answer given by a different student and is then called upon to repeat the correct answer

Mini-whiteboard quizzing

  • If students don’t know an answer they must draw a question mark on their board so that all students are displaying their boards at the same time
  • A question that some students may have got wrong is repeated towards the end of the quiz or later in the lesson to give those students a chance to succeed (if many students got a question wrong, then it is a signal to reteach that idea/fact)
  • Read more about how I use mini-whiteboards in my lessons here

Written questioning

  • Cold call to review short-answer questions as students self-assess
  • Show call for longer-answer questions so correctly used terminology and sentence structures can be praised and any improvements suggested

For some students, being called on with no prior warning can result in a lot of anxiety. For these students, I walk around the room as they answer written questions or have discussions during a Think-Pair-Share task. I let these students know in advance if I will be asking them to share their answers.

For those students who are slow to begin, this technique can help refocus their attention on their work as they know they will be asked to share.

Teaching in a Covid-restricted classroom has its challenges but with persistence and consistency, it is possible to cancel all the extra noise and get the most out of our students as they physically sit in front of us again.

A lot of the techniques mentioned here are from Doug Lemov’s Teach Like A Champion 2.0. A must-read.

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