I started running about 6 years ago. At the time I was well over 19 stone and running was hard. But, I persevered and over time the weight came off as I shifted 6 stone, my fitness improved and running got easier. And then… last summer I got ill and I hadn’t been able to run regularly until the last few weeks. Several months of sitting in a chair and eating cake took its toll and the weight piled back on. Over the past couple of weeks, as I have headed out running again, I have really noticed the effect of that extra weight. Running is essentially a series of small jumps from foot to foot, and to run efficiently you want to be carrying as little weight as possible with each jump.
As I was out running today, carrying my bulk up another hill, I got to thinking about teaching and learning. What “fat” are we carrying in our classrooms that just make teaching harder? What can we shift to make learning easier and more efficient? How can we cut the fat? Here are a few initial thoughts.
- Productive noise – When I am driving in a new town, and trying to follow directions or road signs, I have to concentrate hard. In this case, the first thing I do is reach to turn off the radio. I can’t concentrate fully when it is noisy. And yet… how often do teachers insist on silence when children are working? I know that when I was training to teach, and first starting out, it was actively discouraged. There was a belief that there needed to be “productive” noise of children discussing their work. Which is fine – until they need to stop discussing the work and start doing the work.
- Planning three part lessons – There was also a time when the need for a three part lesson was an article of faith. Each hour of learning needed a starter, then pupils set a number of tasks, and then a plenary. Regardless of the objective, each lesson needed to take exactly one hour and be either squeezed into this time (to show that learning had taken place in the hour) or even more often, bloated out to fill the hour. If the objective is met, that bit of lesson is done and it is time to move on; if it isn’t met at the end of the hour the lesson continues when you see them next. Anything else creates an inefficient use of our time.
- No child left outside – The biggest “fat” making learning less effective and efficient can be a disruptive child. I know many teachers who will desperately cling on to this child, and bend over backwards to keep them in their class, no matter what. I can see how this is well intentioned but keeping little Timmy in the class to protect his ‘right to learn’ means nothing if he is determined not to do so and is even more determined to prevent others from doing so. At that moment they need to go – as cruel as it sounds, we can’t carry dead weight. Something outside the classroom needs to happen to get them re-engaged in their learning.
- Marking policies – Over the years I have seen countless marking policies worded the same way. “Books will be marks every two weeks” – no mention of the purpose of the marking or of what should be marked – just that it will take place every two weeks, regardless. This leads to a lot of ineffective practice with teachers marking work that doesn’t need marking in order to fulfill the needs of a policy, not doing the work that is needed to fulfill the needs of their learners. Marking policies like these are the fat that makes running a classroom harder.
- The fun trap – I know of teachers who spend hours agonising over their lessons, desperately trying to find ways of making their lessons exciting and engaging (it’s their own fault for becoming history teachers) rather than thinking about the best way to help students learn what they need to learn. Making learning “fun” often leads to learning being “fat” – it bloats the process, adds to workload and holds everyone back. Put learning first and let your love of your subject shine.
I think the biggest culprit in making our lessons flabby is “the audience”. If we teach like nobody’s watching we naturally plan effective and efficient lessons that put learning first. I’m determined to cut the fat from my lessons and make the learning as easy as possible. Then I’ll do the same for my running.