Mark Enser is a Geography teacher, author, D&D enthusiast and a prolific tweeter. He has also written the book Teach Like Nobody’s Watching (TLNW) which I have recently read. I really enjoyed reading this and I felt that there’s so much good stuff in there I had to take notes. Given that I then had a pile of notes, I felt that the best way to process them is for me to share them with all of you. This blog is by no means exhaustive and it’s a long way from a review. Instead, I want to lay before you my response and how I think it’s going to change the way I teach.
TLNW is billed as ‘The Essential Guide to effective and efficient teaching’. It slowly zooms out from features of individual lessons into curriculum and then a wider school approach. Being a classroom teacher with some middle leadership duties that focus on learning and teaching. For this blog I’ve largely focused on the ‘lesson’ portion of the book, which Enser breaks down into Recap, Input, Application and Feedback.
Firstly recap. Enser encourages us to ‘recapitulate’ and tap into the human desire for narrative. How does what we learned before link to what we are learning today? Where is today’s learning taking us tomorrow? More importantly, he stresses the importance of retrieval for learning information. By taking advantage of the spacing effect we can encourage our students to bring information from their long term memory into their working memory. When we retrieve information in this fashion we strengthen the ability to recall and so the likelihood of our students being able to recall that knowledge in future is increased – they are learning. If we are clever about it, we can increase the amount of time between recall opportunities, further building on the recall of information – they learn it ‘better’. Enser offers a range of techniques for encouraging retrieval, and for me the most useful idea is that of making sure that all homework is not simply a repeat of the work covered that day, where the information will be fresh in mind and their notes to hand, but rather making all homework retrieval. From my own experience in science, seneca and other online learning platforms make this very easy from the teacher’s perspective. Once you’ve selected appropriate activities these platforms mark and analyse the results for you. As a teacher it’s then very easy to present whole class feedback – more on that later.
The second phase is input. This section is full of what I like to hope is now fairly standard stuff: Consideration of the limitations of working memory, direct instruction and the exploitation of dual coding theory, before moving on to the use of strong narrative structure, cold call questioning and suggesting a range of high quality non-teacher input. I had already begun to incorporate a lot of this material into my teaching, but for a new teacher, or someone just exploring how to incorporate Cog Sci into their teaching this is an excellent starting point. My main takeaway is the idea that the most effective teaching has clear, concise and unambiguous explanations. We, as teachers, are the experts in the room and so our role is to present the information to the students. Leaving them to figure it out for themselves, or ‘discover’ the knowledge is a really good way of embedding misconceptions or giving the pupils gaps in their understanding, not a very efficient way to teach. A thing that I would add is that we as teachers are not doing dual coding with our lesson, but are aiming to create resources that facilitate the students dual coding. That is to say if our resources are good they have a simple, strong visual element around which we can talk or present written notes. By activating these two different input streams students are able to dual code information.
This brings us to application. This is where the dread word ‘differentiation’ comes in. Tasks should be aimed at the most able students in the group and then ALL of the students offered tailored support to get there. This doesn’t mean different students working on different tasks with different end points. It’s not precisely in the book, but my personal mission is to end the practice of ‘levelled learning objectives’ once and for all. Bronze, silver and gold objectives have had their time, and now they can go. By telling students this information is for some of you and that information is for the brightest of you, it automatically caps your expectations. In my lessons I expect all children to learn all of the information. If they don’t, I need to help them get there. If I can’t, I need to find a way to do it. That’s the heart of teaching. All students, all the information, all of the time.
Returning to TLNW, a second aspect of good application is that the students are thinking hard and concentrating on their work. This seems obvious, but at this point in the lesson they need to be practising new techniques by getting the answers to tasks perfectly correct. If not, you run the risk of them embedding misconceptions. To help with this, pupils ought to be focussed. Behaviour here is key. Conversation and discussion can be useful some of the time, but most of the time you want silent or near silent focus for this part. Now whether that looks like silence or not is debatable, but ultimately Enser recommends ‘Studious Calm’. A great comment for me was the idea that when students ask a question in this phase, it’s important to first ask them to think about it, use their own notes and resources etc., but then answer the question! I was trained with the maxim ‘every time you tell a student something, you deprive them of the opportunity to learn it on their own’ with the implication being that self learning was more effective. Enser refutes this. If they need you to clarify and they have genuinely thought about it, help them. There is also a great section that discusses VAK learning styles. I’ll leave that up to you to read yourselves, but suffice it to say it is not a recommended technique.
Finally, feedback. From my own experience, individual book marking is so often a performative thing – the antithesis of the message in TLNW. The very notion of a ‘verbal feedback given’ mark or stamp makes me want to vomit. It’s a waste of time, and only there to fulfil a box ticking exercise. It adds cognitive load to teachers who are doing an already cognitively demanding task as they interact with students. Enser too, states that ‘The problem with marking is that we do it because we are worried about who might be watching. . .This outlook isn’t leading to effective or efficient practice’. In this part of the book Enser offers a variety of strategies for delivering effective feedback in a way that is efficient for the teacher and based on sound principles. Again the key theme here is to get the kids working harder than the teacher. Marking and feedback are incredibly important, and also very powerful for improving student outcomes, but there are easier ways to do it than multicoloured dialogic evidence in exercise books.
The rest of the book is full of great stuff. As I mentioned before, I wanted to focus on the stuff we do in lessons as class teachers, but I did take some stuff from the other sections that I want to incorporate into my practice.
Enser looks at curriculum on two levels. He considers curriculum in terms of programme of study – the order of topics and lessons including how they are interleaved and interwoven. Having just written a KS4 programme of study for chemistry, I’ve used this concept extensively to ensure that explicit links are drawn between concepts and that key ideas are revisited at various points throughout our 3 year course. Enser also writes about super-curriculum. Super-curriculum is a term that I have usually heard about in terms of cultural capital or hinterland. This goes beyond what is used in the classroom and is about a whole school approach to enrichment and serving wider curriculum experiences to kids at school than the classroom can necessarily provide.
This section led to my biggest take away. I have always been aware that giving grades to tests is flawed due to the impossibility of trying to make a topic test or similar of equal range, scope and difficulty as a full GCSE paper. Enser instead suggests the use of ranking and comparative judgement. While there is some debate around sharing whole class rankings with students, for teachers, this intuitively seems a more reasonable way of understanding the performance of pupils. Sadly, due to COVID, I haven’t been able to try this in the classroom.
Overall, this book is a fantastic resource for any teacher who has been trained to a ‘performative practice’. For me it has given me the absolute confidence to teach in a way that research says will work. It has inspired me to rethink the way that I teach and to strip away anything that doesn’t actually support the children that I teach. My absolute favourite message is that on the whole teachers, as with the rest of humanity, intuitively know what they are doing and that the only reason they deviate from what works is to provide evidence for outside observers. I can only add that if that’s not enough reason to change, you probably never will.