10 Silver Arrows: Ideas to Penetrate the Armour of Ingrained Practice


Originally posted on teacherhead.com

Silver Arrows?

It’s very hard to change your practice.  We’re all so busy, very often it is difficult to create space to fully explore a set of ideas and to deliberately adapt our teaching routines to absorb something new.  At the same time, we’re often bombarded with initiatives and issues to address.  It can be overwhelming.  I’ve been thinking about the possibility of stripping down each initiative or development area to something very simple; one idea that captures the spirit of a wider set of strategies.  This would be the thing where you could say if you do just one thing, do this.  A Silver Arrow is one that you allow to penetrate your armour; it changes what you routinely do.

There isn’t a definitive research-informed list; I’m presenting a set of ideas that I think make good Silver Arrow contenders based on my own teaching.   You will have your own set of arrows that carry that message: if you do just one thing, do this.  Here is mine:

1. Behaviour Management: Signal. Pause. Insist. 

Effective classroom management is multi-faceted but if you can do this, you can do anything.   A class is full of students talking – on entry or after an activity or discussion:

  • Signal:  You give the agreed signal for attention
  • Pause: You wait, adopting an assertive stance and position in the room, scanning for eye contact;
  • Insist:  You insist on full attention.  Michael…Suki… I need you looking this way and listening. ….Thanks. 

You now give the instruction or direction you want to give.  You do not do anything until you have full attention; you expect it, you insist upon it, so it happens.  Signal. Pause. Insist.

(A Bill Rogers Top 10 Behaviour Strategies)

2. Questioning: ‘In your pairs, discuss’ + dialogue

Instead of ‘hands up’, you ask students to discuss their answers in pairs for a short period and then you call individuals to respond, reporting back on their discussion.   You then engage in a dialogue with the respondent, exchanging three or four responses to probe more deeply.

  • What were you saying in your pair? (Reporting back a rehearsed answer or state of confusion)
  • Why do you think that might be the right answer?
  • Can you link that to what James said earlier?
  • Does that happen all the time or just in this case?   And so on.

(The Washing Hands of learning: Think, Pair, Share)

3. Literacy: ‘Say it again properly’; saying it is a rehearsal for writing it. 

The whole-school literacy strategy could be reduced to this:  Every time students give a verbal answer and before they are asked to write anything,   ask them to re-form their intial responses into well-constructed sentences using the key words and phrases you’ve discussed.  Do it relentlessly, every time.

What does the graph tell us?

  • First attempt:  It goes up. 
  • Second attempt:  The speed on impact increases as the mass of the trolley increases. 

4. Marking and Feedback: Close the gap.   

Think about all marking and feedback as a short plan of action. Once you regard marking as a plan for the feedback a student will act upon and nothing more, it helps to keep it in perspective and have more impact.  Only give feedback at the level and frequency that it is practical to be acted upon.  This needs to be linked to giving time for redrafting and for acting on feedback during lessons, as well as for homework – directed improvement and reflection time or DIRT.

Three related posts: Marking in PerspectiveClose the Gap markingImproving the basics

5. Straight teaching: Objectives, explain, model, practice, check    

I find this a useful model; it helps to make sure you’ve taught something properly.

  • Objectives: You know exactly which ideas you want to explore.  The more precise the better.
  • Explain: You walk through the ideas and explain them using models, analogies and examples.
  • Model:  You show your students how to apply the learning to a question or problem, modelling the strategies.
  • Practice: Students now try a few problems themselves; they test out their understanding.
  • Check:  You use a range of feedback strategies to find out how they got on, adjusting the next cycle accordingly.  Importantly, you need to be ready to diverge; some student will get it and will want to move on; some will need more consolidation.

Objectives, Explain, Model, Practice, Check.  Each step is important.

Great Lessons 6: Explaining     Learning objectives vs Tasks

6. Assessment:  Set lots of tests – formatively. 

Repeat after me:  Tests are good.  Once you embrace this idea, your students will shoot forward.  Tests help with recall, developing long-term memory and serve a great way to tell you how well you have taught something.  Micro-tests, self-assessed tests, multiple choice tests and single question long-answer tests all help to flush out misconceptions, areas of weak understanding – and develop memory.   Take time to go over them, making sure that students learn from their mistakes.

Formative use of summative tests.

7. Gifted and Able: Teach to the top:

There are lots of strategies, but the Silver Arrow is the disposition: A total philosophy of G&T.  Use assessment data to identify your three highest performing students.  Imagine that their parents are hawkish and demanding; they (rightly) expect nothing but the best for their children.  Do everything in your power to make them love you because their children are stretched and engaged – always.  If you do that, the thing is – everyone’s a winner.  You are a winner, the top-end students are winners and – here is the clincher – everyone in the class is a winner too.  Teach to the Top and everyone benefits.

8. Homework as Guided Study: “You are not doing it for me; you are doing it for yourself”

That is one of my all-time favourite teacher-clichés. Homework is Guided Study.  You are giving students the tools to learn to study independently.  They are doing this for themselves and not for you.  That helps to put all kinds of things into perspective: the nature of the tasks; the resources you provide and expectations in relation to marking.   As well as questions for practice and consolidation, activities such as pre-learning, making notes and research are all valid, helpful homework tasks.  Activities that link into the next lesson are useful too – everyone brings in work that forms the starting point for the lesson.  The key thing is to make sure students have the tools they need once they leave your classroom.

Great teachers set great homework

9. Hard Work: 10 minutes of silence.

Learning does not flow from engagement; engagement flows from learning.  That’s a good message to hold on to.  Sometimes, after a whole series of activities and discussions, you just need students to get on with some work on their own.  10 minutes of silence is a great way to create an atmosphere of hard-working, heads-down endeavour.  It’s almost a treat after all the noise of a classroom exchange.   You are making hard work a positive experience by showing students how much progress they make in a short focused burst.  Crucially, the silence has to be a warm, peaceful silence; not the silence of discipline and dread.

Pedagogy Postcard #4: Working in Silence

10. Creative Opportunities:  for open-endedness, respond in any format

To mix things up a bit and to give students some scope for making decisions about their learning, I like the open-format response strategy.  If you have done some research, explored some ideas or finished a topic, it can generate fantastic responses if you ask students to capture their learning in any format they like:  an essay, a Powerpoint presentation, a website, a video, a booklet, a  3-D artefact – whatever they like.  This leads to a lovely range of responses that can be shared in different ways.  There’s nothing worse than a class of Powerpoint to schlep through – but the open format method usually yields enough variety to make it possible to see everything.

Students can explore a range of creative ideas to communicate their learning, learning some technical media skills in the process.   Often I find that students need reassurance – Am I allowed to make a website?  Yes, of course!  You need to make sure the content is given due weight – it needs to be a rigorous piece of work.  It helps to show them last year’s stunning exemplars.

Give them permission to do whatever they like – but ask them to dazzle you.

Please add your own Silver Arrows in the comments below….

Thanks to @EducatingMiss for creating this infographic summarising this post:

Click image to download