10 Teaching Pitfalls

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Originally posted on teacherhead.com

This is a companion to 10 Teaching Essentials.  

In addition to trying to deliver on the 10 Essentials, I’m suggesting that teachers should seek to avoid these pitfalls.  To some extent, the two lists mirror each other – positive and negative ways of expressing the same ideas – but, not entirely.   Most feedback I give teachers about how to improve their practice includes something from this list:

1. Questioning ineffectively:
Weak questioning might include some or all of the following:

  • Only asking one student a question: ‘John, what’s the answer’ – as opposed to asking everyone and then, after some thinking time, ‘Ok, John, what do you think?’
  • Asking the whole class a question but extrapolating from this one answer a sense that everyone else also understands and then moving on.
  • Taking ‘hands up’ responses from the same few students and never asking the ‘hands down’ majority to contribute.
  • Creating ‘blood out of stone’ silences with whole class questions instead of using strategies like think-pair-share to overcome inhibitions and involve everyone.
  • Receiving an incorrect answer from a student, moving onto someone else but not returning to that first student to check that they’ve now understood.

2. Accepting  mediocrity

This includes accepting low level verbal answers or half-hearted pieces of writing without challenge. It also means routinely accepting work from students that, whilst arguably ‘complete’, is far below the standard they are personally capable of.   With verbal answers, a quick win is to say something like ‘that’s nearly right but now say it better, in full sentences, linking the ideas together‘.   Sometimes accepting mediocrity is the product of not challenging a weak response; sometimes it’s a product of celebrating completion at the expense of quality.  Routine re-drafting is a good way to set the bar higher for everyone; first efforts can always be improved, Austin style.

3. Rushing practice

This is a common issue in my experience.  It applies to adult training too: you get told all about the fab things the new IT system can do; you are shown but because you don’t go and practise, you quickly forget. It’s true in lessons. Students need lots of practice with feedback alongside; doing the same things over and over again, getting slightly harder. It’s a common error to focus too much on the telling and but not giving enough time for practising the doing.  It’s not enough to rely on homework – although this helps. You need to see your students doing the practice in front of you.

4. Presuming learning

Another common issue is to toss out a plethora of ideas into the room without checking that students have a) understood or b) processed the information such that they have a chance to remember it later.  Checking for understanding and retention systematically is essential.  If you highlight some new or technical words that students should know, they need to say them, use them, and, at a later time, be asked to recall them.  I’ve seen the ‘in one ear, out the other’ phenomenon too often.  Recognising words isn’t the same as knowing them.  Lots of micro-testing is essential and mini whiteboards (or other all-student response systems) are great for checking in on lots of students at once.

5. Lacking assertiveness

With classroom management, an important pitfall to avoid is not being assertive enough; not owning the space or not addressing low level behaviour issues.  Facing a room full of cocky-seeming teenagers, you need to be sure you are the one that owns the space. It’s your room; there are no no-go areas. Standing still and straight, making eye contact, you need to reach everyone with your voice and your gaze, picking up the small stuff.  If you want pens down, you want everyone’s pen down; if you want eyes front, that includes everyone.  Be patient but firm and insistent.

6. Allowing drift

Sometimes in a lesson, even with strong attention-gaining action at the start, things can drift.  This can because the task is too long for the initial instructions,  or it could be that students have diverged with some way ahead of the others; it can be because you talk too long without engaging all the students in thinking and questioning; it can be because you allow low level chat to escalate so pockets of students are way off task. All of these things need to be addressed. At any time, you can re-set, re-explain or re-establish the level of focus and attention you require.

7. Pitching low

This can be difficult to address because teachers rarely deliberately set the level of challenge too low.  This emerges either because of not knowing the curriculum well enough or not knowing the students well enough.  Moderation activities in CPD time are vital for setting standards; you should know what excellence might look like in any setting and be pitching for it, teaching to the top.  Most often, where this pitfall arises, it relates to a sub-group of students in a class.  It should be in everyone’s mind: is there anyone in this room who might need even more stretch? You only find out by pushing them to see what they can do.

8. Mis-matching assessment.

It’s horrible to take a test you’re not prepared for.  ‘Teaching to the test’ has a bad name because it suggests that teachers only teach what will be assessed.  However, it’s a major pitfall if you teach a set of content that does not include what students will be assessed on. This can happen if common assessments are used but teachers don’t study them prior to teaching a unit.  It might also be a question of the difficulty of the assessment: you need to balance challenge with building confidence.  Again, a big feature of CPD should be around designing effective assessments that achieve a good balance.

9. Misjudging tasks.

A relatively common pitfall is confusing learning objectives and tasks. It’s possible to plan a lesson where students will do activities A, B and C and think you’ve got the learning covered.  However, if you are not explicit about the learning objective for each task, it can go wrong: the students are busy, maybe engaged enthusiastically, but they might not be learning what you want them to learn.  Or, it could be that an activity is far too convoluted and time-consuming relative to a bit of simple direct teaching.  You need to think about learning objectives first, tasks second.See Principles of Effective Teaching and Pedagogy Post Card #2 Learning Objectives vs Tasks

10. Overlooking  individuals

Differentiation is difficult and often problematic.  Here’s a post that puts it in perspective. It is worth remembering that students’ learning needs are usually more similar than they are different.  However, over time, as with tending to the individual specimens in a garden, there’s a risk of neglecting students at the extremes or in the middle with a one-size-fits-all approach. Do the parents of your highest attainers and your EHCP students love you because of the attention their children get? It’s a good place to start.  Have you checked in on your PP students to see if they’re making the same progress? Are you just as likely to call their parents?  These are good prompts and challenges for us all.  The pitfall is to ignore the issue.