Learning to reflect

I trained in 2012/3 by completing a PGCE. I genuinely enjoyed the course and at the time I felt that I was getting a good introduction to the world of teaching and being shown the best way to teach. The work load was challenging of course but, more difficult, was the fact that for me the majority of what I was being taught made no sense.

Long ago as a teenager went to a very traditional school. It was a very high achieving state school, and so the teachers were set in their ways. Chalk and talk ruled the day, with regular testing and assessment. One teacher even published the results of tests by displaying them in the classroom window in rank order!

Because I grew up thinking that was how teaching worked it came as quite a surprise when, during my PGCE course at university, I was told not to be the ‘sage on the stage’ but a ‘guide on the side’. A whole world of progressive education was opened up to me and I spent the first year of my career heeding such advice as ‘differentiation isn’t making 30 worksheets for a class – no more than 3 to 5 is sufficient’ and that ‘if the teacher is talking the students aren’t learning’. All the way through my PGCE year I suppressed my instincts, spent hours developing card sorts and group activities, tore my hair as the kids failed to find the bit of information carefully hidden on a sheet taped to the wall and agonised over the ‘correct’ colour to mark student books in. The result was that learning was short term and slow, behaviour was difficult to control as their attention was encouraged to wander and I lost a lot of free time to generating a rainforest worth or paper to hand out.

Interestingly my feedback was almost always about strong relationships with students, good subject knowledge and clear instructions. Somehow I managed to demonstrate enough skill at explaining for the kids I was working with to learn something, and so I passed the course and gained my QTS. To this day, given the PGCE course, I can only thank my in school mentors for giving me the confidence to disregard most of what I was being told to do, and just do what worked for me.

In my first job I was absolutely annihilated for a year. I was terrible. I had no idea how to get the key information across to the students. I couldn’t help them learn and I think the main reason for this is that I hadn’t been shown how to teach. Rather, I had been shown when I was a child, but in the interval of university, a year of work and then training as a teacher, I had forgotten. The kids had no interest in the type of group work and discussion based, discovery teaching I was delivering and even when they did try, they hadn’t a hope of actually learning anything in the long term. The drive to ‘show progress’ every few minutes basically meant they had forgotten everything by the next lesson. Worse, I wasn’t changing fast enough. I was doing more of the same over planning lessons and bombarding them with resources in the hope that something would stick. If I’d taken the time to stop and to properly reflect on my practice I’d have been able to take more control. I’m embarassed to admit that I spent the whole year expecting things to change through some providence or miracle, without properly examining the cause of the issues I was having. Part of the problem was that I didn’t have enough access to mentoring or coaching, even as an NQT due to staffing issues in the school however, the main problem was my own lack of reflection.

I got out of that school and ended up in a very different school. I spent 5 years teaching there and absolutely loved it. I was able to forget all of the nonsense and focus on clear explanations, lots of practise questions and drill. I could encourage the students to pay full attention because I was working in my subject area, doing what I loved and was well supported by senior staff with behaviour and my own professional development.

Annoyingly this is where I made the same huge mistake. I didn’t push myself to examine why things were suddenly working. I assumed that I was teaching in a way that suited me and was suited to that context. I had decided that it was a unique blend of my temperament, the school culture and the setting of the students. I figured that i’d got lucky.

I didn’t know that I was doing ‘direct instruction‘. This involves clear and unambiguous explanations. I was intuitively starting to construct narratives that led students from the simple concrete ideas to the complex and abstract. Eventually I realised that my teaching had stalled. Things were good, but if I wanted to get better at my job I was going to have to think differently. Fortunately there are some education heroes who have written extensively on all of the research that is out there, distilled the vast sea of information and refined out the nuggets of gold. Direct instruction is one of the more powerful teaching techniques and it works for the vast majority of pupils the vast majority of the time. Its one of the ‘best bets’ in the classroom and is absolutely how I want to grow and develop the way that I teach from now on. The best book I’ve read on this is the researchED ‘Explicit and Direct Instruction’. What I love about this book is that it has a range of different education voices and it is fully backed up and evidenced with research. As I’ve posted in an earlier blog, I want to write a full review even though it’s been out for a while and well read by many people.

By reading into teaching and education rather than my subject area and reflecting critically on how I do things in the classroom I have seen my teaching grow in so many ways. I know it seems obvious, but I have no better advice to new or early career teachers than to maintain the habit of reflecting on lessons. Even better, if you’ve been teaching for ages and doing everything the same way for many years, it’s not too late! There’s so much out there!

Essentially, my confession is that even though I absolutely love it when my students get better at chemistry and they show progression in their understanding and they grow into young adults through their time at school, selfishly, I like getting better for me. Every time I refine an explanation, make a new resource or nail a new technique I get a real kick. When you’re reflecting on your lessons and developing your practice and implementing changes and seeing yourself grow it’s like any other skill development. You get that good feeling inside. I believe that if we encourage early career teachers to keep reflecting, and support them and coach them as they do, we may make some progress on improving retention in teaching.

Since I started on this path I’m becoming more and more passionate about effective, useful CPD for teachers and am enjoying sharing what I learn as I go through. This blog is all about me trying to reach a few more people and to provide a platform for sharing some resources too.

Published by mrgreenw00d

Lead Practitioner in Science, chemistry specialist and Metacognition/Cog Sci nerd.

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