Rules of Engagement

Do we need gimmicks, new-fangled techniques to keep kids engaged in lessons? I’ve been watching a TV programme called The Classroom Experiment, in which Dylan Wiliam coaches staff and students in some of his assessment for learning techniques. I have to say I am deeply cynical. There is no doubt that these techniques appear to work, but the question is: do they? And even if they do, are they necessary?

The two main techniques shown in the programme I watched were as follows:

  • Don’t allow the students to put their hand up to answer a question. Instead, select a student at random by picking out a lolly stick with their name on it.
  • Don’t allow the students to put their hand up to ask a question. Instead, ask them to display one of three plastic coloured cups on their desk: green for “I’m fine”, orange for “I’m not 100% sure”, and red for “Help!”.

oh, puh-lease!Having been on one or two assessment for learning (AfL) training days recently, I’m not unfamiliar with these approaches. They’re the kind of thing that, in the rarefied atmosphere of a conference, or even in a school when the kids are nowhere to be seen, sound interesting, sensible and even exciting. I think we can learn much from them, though perhaps not necessarily what Professor Wiliam and the BBC intended.

Let’s take the use of lolly sticks. There are a number of objections to this. Firstly, on a very pragmatic level, who is going to write the kids’ names on them? Teachers don’t have the time, and that’s not their job anyway. If you have a classroom assistant or a support technician, do you really want them spending hours doing that? The last time I was teaching full-time, I think I had around 10 classes with about 30 students in each. That’s a lot of lolly sticks and a lot of writing.

Secondly, in the kind of schools I’ve taught in, the lolly sticks would have either become lethal weapons, and/or some bright spark would have mixed them up, removed some of them, duplicated some of them so that some students would be “picked on” more than others and so on. In fact, towards the end of one of the two TV programmes available at the moment, something did indeed happen to a set of lolly sticks. (I haven’t watched the next instalment to find out what.)

A fun way of selecting a studentBut surely the biggest objection is that the whole process is completely unnecessary? What’s the problem with picking a name at random from your mark book or class list?

If you really want to inject a bit of pizzazz into the proceedings, then use a random name selector like the one I constructed in Excel – just import or copy/paste the students’ names into it – or an online random selector like this one, in which you can also copy/paste your class list from the data help in the school’s computer system. This is free, although you’ll have to rename each list you save with a more meaningful name than the default one (“fruit_machine”).

Whichever method of random selection you decide to use, it’s a good approach, as I can vouch from personal experience from having done it when I was teaching: it keeps everyone on their toes because nobody knows if they’re going to “picked on”, and it avoids the situation in which only two or three students ever answer questions. So, nothing wrong with the principle per se, just the way Professor Wiliam dresses it up.

So the first of my “rules of engagement” is:

Rule #1: Don’t create more work for yourself unnecessarily

The issue is not so much the extra work, but the fact that it’s unnecessary. You don’t need lolly sticks in order to select people at random.

Let’s consider those cups now. Again, thinking about the sort of schools I taught in for much of my teaching career, the cups would have become guided missiles in 3 seconds flat. Not because my discipline was poor: it wasn’t. But having worked hard at establishing good discipline and a good working atmosphere, I wouldn’t have wished to jeopardise it all by introducing irrelevant distractions. You don’t need plastic cups to see who needs help, as I’ll discuss in a moment. But for now, it brings us to my second rule of engagement:

Rule #2: Don’t introduce irrelevant distractions

Now, you may think I’m guilty of tautology: how can a distraction not be irrelevant? Well, there are times when, as a deliberate part of the lesson plan, you will want to introduce a distraction, such as in the case of a newsroom simulation, when suddenly some extra information comes in just as you were finalising the editorial.

Part of the lesson involved the youngsters holding up mini-whiteboards which were, to all intents and purposes, like the old slates but with marker pens rather than chalk. The teacher asks a question, and the students write their answers down on their whiteboards and then hold them up for the teacher to see.

OK, it makes for a quieter and more orderly lesson – no shouting out – but the trouble with this sort of approach is that there’s no record of who said what. I’d like to see the students using a programme like a discussion forum (Fronter, for example, has several types of discussion forum, including a “brainstorming” one in which contributions appear as post-it notes), or Wallwisher. If the teacher intended to ask a closed question, she could set it up in advance on a student response system.

In each of these cases, both teacher and students would have a record of responses, which can be discussed at a later date. I suppose the mini-whiteboard is cheaper and easier in many respects, and would work well in some classroom environments, but I don’t think we should adopt a one-size-fits-all approach to the use of technology. Which leaves us with:

Rule #3: Use the most appropriate technology for the circumstances

And, it should go without saying, use it well.

So let’s get back to those plastic cups. The most significant improvement to one teacher’s lessons occurred when a couple of students were selected to observe her lesson and then give useful feedback and suggestions, which the teacher acted upon. In particular, they said that when several students had a red cup showing, rather than race around the room trying to deal with each of them in turn, why not get them together as a group and deal with them all at once? I derive the following rules from this:

Rule #4: Give students responsibilities…

I think most people would agree that if you give kids responsibilities such as, in this instance, observing a lesson, they will usually rise to the level of your expectations. In short, give them responsibility and they will probably act responsibly. This was apparent from something one of the observers commented. “I hadn’t realised”, she said (I’m paraphrasing), “how much work goes into preparing a lesson. I’ll think twice before messing about from no now on.”

However, it’s no good leaving such processes to chance, and the school quite rightly trained the students in how to observe lessons objectively and give feedback sensitively. Had that not happened, we may have heard the sort of ridiculous comments found on the Rate My Teacher website, like “My teacher is useless cos he’s always giving me dirty looks”. So the next rule is, of course:

Rule #5: … And teach them how to execute them responsibly

As Peter Parker’s (aka Spider-Man) uncle said: “With great power comes great responsibility”.

But I’d also like to know what what exactly was being measured when students’ learning improved after a period of using the plastic cups in class. Was it an example of the Hawthorne Effect, in which the mere fact of being observed leads to positive changes in behaviour? Or was it perhaps yet further evidence of the incontrovertible fact that if you give a good teacher a box of paperclips and a piece of string she will somehow create a fantastic lesson from it? The answer will be important in determining how the school spends its budget, if nothing else: continuing professional development courses or plastic cups? So it seems to me that a crucial rule is:

Rule #6: Know what you’re measuring

As I said in Go on, bore ‘em: how to make ICT lessons excruciatingly dull, I had a daft conversation with a teacher when I was inspecting the ICT department. Having been shown a set of “before" and after” graphs based on students’ test results, I asked the teacher what the graphs actually showed. “Who cares?”, he said. “The line’s gone up, hasn’t it?”

Sorry: it may not always be possible to be absolutely certain what is going on or why, but should we not at least make an attempt to find out?

OK, I can tell that you’re not convinced, so let’s consider the financial side of things. I don’t know how much plastic cups’ total costs of ownership (storage space, for example) are, but providing one class with under 100 plastic cups as part of an experiment lasting a term seems to me to be a different order of magnitude than providing a whole school with plastic cups for the foreseeable future. This gives us our next rule:

Rule #7: Ask if it’s scaleable, and feasible

Let’s explore the cost side of things for  moment. I just looked up plastic cup suppliers, and came across this one, which sells red plastic cups in boxes of 50 for £5.49 including VAT. Most schools don’t pay that tax, and they’d probably obtain a bulk purchase discount as well, so let’s assume they can get the box of cups for £4.

That means a school with a population of 2,000 students will need 40 boxes of red cups, at a cost of £160. Assuming the cost of green and amber cups is the same, that’s a total of £480, and that’s not even taking into account wastage. If the school Principal told you that you couldn’t have a new laptop because they’d spent the money on plastic cups instead, what would you think? What would parents think?

That bit about being feasible has another dimension, which I can best illustrate with an example. Picture the scene: you have received, and accepted, an invitation to speak at a prestigious conference, and the Conference Organiser has called you up:

Conference Organiser: We’re delighted that you have accepted the invitation to be our opening keynote speaker. The audience will comprise 300 Headteachers from around the country, and some government employees. You’ll be given a laptop, a presenter (a remote control for the laptop) and an internet connection. Is there anything else you need?

You: Yes. Nine hundred different coloured plastic cups, and some people to help distribute them at the start and collect them in at the end.

If it won’t work for adults, don’t foist it upon students:

Rule #8: Treat kids like adults

If that’s not really possible, because of their age, say, at least don’t treat them as gibbering idiots.

But what was really going on in the classroom? Things improved when the teacher grouped the students who were finding the work hard, and went through it with them separately from the main group of kids. You don’t need different coloured plastic cups to see which students need assistance. A competent teacher will ask questions the answers to which reveal any misconceptions the students have, and will help her ascertain who gets it and who doesn’t. She will be constantly scanning the faces of her students to check if they look puzzled or blank, or whether the proverbial penny has dropped, resulting in shining eyes.

In other words, what worked in the end in the classroom being filmed was not plastic cups, but good teaching.

I cannot help but be reminded of the story of what is reported to have happened on the set of the film Marathon Man. Dustin Hoffman, in the Method Acting tradition, sought to bring some realism into his performance by staying up for three nights because the character he was playing had been awake for three nights. Upon hearing this, Sir Laurence Olivier said, “Try acting, dear boy; it’s much easier.”

So I say: “Try teaching, dear boy”, which leads to my penultimate rule of engagement:

Rule #9: Focus on the teacher

Good initial training, an expectation of, and provision of, continuing professional development, time built in to the school day in which teachers can reflect and discuss. That’s what is needed, not plastic cups.

So where does this leave us? Is AfL a load of rubbish? On the contrary: the techniques recommended under the banner of AfL (giving comments rather than grades, not answering your own question after three nanoseconds, self-assessment etc) are absolutely spot on. Have a look at Inside the Black Box, by Paul Black and Dylan Wiliam for a summary of the techniques without all the persiflage. To find out how to apply the techniques specifically in the context of ICT/educational technology, consider buying Information & Communication Technology: Inside the Black Box, by Mary Webb and Margaret Cox. Thus:

Rule #10: Use Assessment for Learning, but without all the gimmickry

To sum up, I think a competent teacher can achieve the kind of transformation seen in the TV programmes by applying some useful strategies combined with appropriate use of educational technology. In my opinion, devices like cups and lolly sticks serve only to get in the way, and are a potential source of distraction and disruption. Whether I am correct, or have simply turned into the cynical old bloke that I always swore, hoped and prayed I would never become, sitting mumbling in a corner of the staffroom, I leave for you to decide.