Using props in the ESL classroom to keep your students engaged

Illustrated by Pop Sutthiya Lertyongphati.

Sometimes, the simplest of materials can offer the greatest opportunities for creative exploration. This week, I’ve invited Rose-Anne Turner of Destination TEFL to share her expert tips on how to use everyday items as stimulating props within your lessons.

In our last blog post, we discussed using technology in the classroom to engage your students. Oftentimes, this just isn’t possible, and we need to look at other low cost and easy to source props for the classroom that not only get the students involved, but create a fun learning environment for the teacher and students.

Here we have a few suggestions that you can easily pick up in a $1 store (20 baht shop for those of you in Thailand!) and how to use them successfully in the classroom.

Balls: The options are endless here! Those cheap plastic ball-pit balls can be used for so many different games. They can also be used as a way to pair or group students for groupwork (put the coloured balls in a black plastic bag, the students pull out a ball and join the group with the same colour balls). You can also use a ball to throw at a ‘dart board’ drawn on the whiteboard to allocate points to questions answered correctly. The games for using balls in the classroom are endless! Just make to use lightweight ones so you don’t end up with broken windows…

Plastic fly swotters: This is one of our all-time favourite props at Destination TEFL. A great go-to game for a consolidation activity is ‘slam’. The teacher spits the class into two teams and calls up two students at a time to the board, one from each team. Flashcards with images from the words learnt in the lesson are stuck to the board (lower level students, just 2 words to choose from, higher level, you can put up more options) When the teacher calls out the word, the two students have to ‘slam’ the correct flashcard. The one who slams the correct card first is the winner and gets a point for their team. For more advanced students, this could be changed into a grammar exercise: put parts of speech words to the board such as noun, proposition etc. Call out a word and the student who slams the correct part of speech is the winner. We have had equal success with slam across all age levels, from kindergarten to adult lessons. Warning: you’ll need a pacemaker activity to calm down the class afterwards as the noise and excitement level can become quite high!

Funny hats and glasses or puppets: Sometimes students are shy to speak. If they take on another ‘persona’ in the form of a puppet or dress up, then it can encourage them to participate in a fun way with a speaking activity, as they are not being themselves but the character of the puppet or prop.

Stickers or ink stamps: children respond well to the positive reinforcement of receiving a ‘reward’ for correct work or even just participation. They love being able to show their parents a sticker of praise in their workbook or even on their hand. TIP: stickers can get expensive for a teacher, but a rubber stamp with an inkpad is a cheap way of rewarding students.

“An AWESOME book!”

Dice: These can be used in so many ways. Here are a few examples: Use it for dividing students into groups – you land on a 4 and you divide the class into groups of 4. Or students roll the dice and line up in order of the number they rolled. When answering questions, students roll the dice to determine which question to answer. Think of 6 topics, students roll the dice to determine which topic they will speak on for quick oral practice.

Scrabble tiles: Again, the opportunities to use this simple prop are endless. Use them to line up students (in alphabetical or reverse alphabetical order) after the students pick a tile from a bag. Use them to group students according to letters selected, or in groups according to vowel and consonant. Select a category (perhaps topics you have recently covered in class) and students take turn to draw letters and name a word from the category which starts with that letter (you can remove any letters that won’t work for a topic). Let teams draw 10 letters each, and they should come up with as many English words with those letters in a specific time.

Beanbag or soft toy: Use this to throw to the students to determine who will be next in answering a question or participating in the task. Rather than the teacher always being the one to throw the toy, give them a chance to throw it to the next student after answering the question or drilling the word. This keeps them on their toes as they don’t know who will be called on next, as you are not going by order of seating.

Ball of string: a length of string or rope can be used in so many ways. Use it to line up students as a timeline to teach tenses (they can peg words to the string in order of tense). Use it as a ‘washing line’ activity. Students pick the words of a sentence out of a bag and need to peg it to the line in the correct word order. Have two washing lines and two teams so that there’s a winning team based on time and accuracy. 

Remember that for all games, there MUST be a purpose. The purpose for the teacher is for the students to learn and practice the language by playing the consolidation activity or production game. The purpose for the student is to complete the task or win the game. A game or activity that has no outcome or result (usually in the form of a winner) will not be as engaging for your students. Do keep games and outcomes age appropriate. For example, at kindergarten level, we don’t want to focus on winning quite as much, with participation being the main goal at that level.

What props do you use in your ESL classroom?

Guest blog written for Richard James Rogers by Rose-Anne Turner – Destination TEFL

We welcome you to join the Richard James Rogers online community! Join us on Facebook and Twitter for regular updates, giveaways of Richard’s books, special offers, upcoming events and news. 

Using Technology in Your ESL Classroom

It’s a common known fact that the youth of today are naturally drawn to technology and we are far more likely to hold their attention by using it, rather than just traditional teaching methods. We can argue the point about the ill effects of too much ‘screen time’ until the cows come home – but perhaps a better saying would be ‘if you can’t beat them, join them!. This week, I’ve invited Rose-Anne Turner at Destination TEFL to share her tips for using technology in the ESL classroom.

Not all teachers will be lucky enough to teach in schools that have access to technology, but if you do, use it! Perhaps only the teacher has access (TV, projector, interactive whiteboard) or perhaps the entire class has access (tablets, computers, phones). Either way, if you can, do try to incorporate technology into your lessons, as you will be connecting with your students on their level – and perhaps learn a thing or two yourself. Another good reason to add tech to your teaching skills is because at any moment, classes may need to go virtual due to the pandemic, and you’ll then be best prepared to present interactive and engaging lessons to your tech savvy students.

Here are some ideas on how to use technology in the ESL classroom:

  • If all your students have access to a device, we highly recommend using Google Classroom as a great way to hand information and assignments to your students and for them to hand back completed tasks. This is a FREE resource.
  • AnswerGarden is a new minimalistic feedback tool. Use it for real time audience participation, online brainstorming and classroom feedback. This free resource has several different users, including classroom, conference and corporate audiences, creative teams, online crowds, and mind-mappers.
  • Scribbl is an online version of Pictionary, which is a great way to get your students speaking as they guess what is being drawn online by a classmate.
  • Educaplay is a great free online platform for teachers to make quizzes, word searches, matching columns, crossword puzzles and more.
  • If only the teacher has access to a TV or projector, then using short and simple films, YouTube videos, etc. will engage your students and you could use this as listening and comprehension exercise. If you don’t have access to a TV, then an audio played from your phone with a blue tooth speaker would be a good compromise. Podcasts can work for this too. It’s good for students to hear other voices and accents, and not just that of their teacher.
  • Most students have access to a phone, and can download the free Memrise app. It offers several languages including of course, English, and students can go up in levels as they progress with their language skills, challenge each other and hear the language spoken by native speakers with different accents. There is a paid version, but the free version offers more than enough to get them going.
  • ePals is an online version of the old-school pen pals we had as kids. This is a great way for students to practice their English with another ESL student somewhere else in the world. Students can select an ePal of a similar age and level.
  • Use free blogging sites for your higher level students to practice their writing skills. Blog settings can be set to private where only those with a password can access it, for instance the teacher and their classmates. Classmates can utilise the comments section of the blog.
  • In the same way, the teacher could connect with another ESL class, perhaps in another country and have the students chat to other students over Skype, Zoom or other video chat platforms to practice their speaking skills.
  • Khan Academy is a fantastic free learning platform (financed by donations) with login options at both student and teacher level. Students can learn and progress and teachers can monitor their progress. If you are teaching more than just English, Khan Academy also covers many other subjects including mathematics, science, humanities, coding, SAT and other test preparation, and more. It’s very interactive, and has video tutorials, exercises and more.
  • Try using interactive games like Kahoot, where students use their phones to log in and answer questions under timed conditions. Questions appear on the classroom TV, or whiteboard and scores are then displayed on a screen. You’ll find hundreds of quizzes on the site, many aimed at ESL learners or you can even create your own.

The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated why online and virtual education should be an essential part of teaching and learning. By integrating technology into existing curricula, as opposed to using it solely as a crisis-management tool, teachers can embrace online learning as a powerful educational tool. Using technology and online learning platforms in the classroom can not only increase student engagement, but also help teachers improve their lesson plans, and facilitate personalised learning. At the same time, you are preparing your students for 21st-century skills in the workplace. If you are not actively using technology in your classroom, you are going to be left behind.

Do you have any classroom technology tips to share?

Guest blog written for Richard Rogers by Rose-Anne Turner – Destination TEFL

We welcome you to join the Richard James Rogers online community! Join us on Facebook and Twitter for regular updates, giveaways of Richard’s books, special offers, upcoming events and news. 

Using Group Work in Your ESL Classroom

Group work may take a little more planning as a teacher, but the benefits are clearly visible, if utilised correctly. The purpose of doing group work is to build confidence, give learners a less threatening environment to express themselves in, learn from peers, and build community.

Often the dilemma facing a teacher who would like to try group work is how best to group their students. Here are some tips from the academic director and trainers at Destination TEFL:

A mixed level class could be put into groups of the same ability, and the same task gets adapted to suit the different group levels – in other words the activity is scaled up or down according to ability. The class feels that they are all doing the same task, however those students who are more advanced are challenged with an activity that is upscaled to their level, and those of a lower level can still participate and improve their skills. Alternatively, the teacher could purposely put mixed levels together, so that stronger students can help more challenged students as we learn well from peers, and peer teaching helps to reinforce a concept for the student teaching it to their peers.

For group work, good classroom management skills do come into play. The teacher needs to ensure that everyone is participating. In the classroom, it’s good to mix up activities with a combination of group work, pair work and individual tasks, as it reflects real life and prepares the students for a work environment where they will sometimes have to work individually as well as in teams.

For group work a pyramid activity can work well, where students do the task individually and then pair up and reach a consensus, and then the teacher puts pairs together into groups. Each time the task is repeated until it is the whole class. This allows students to recycle and reuse the taught language over and over, building their confidence.

In our culture lesson, we set up stations around the classroom with mini articles on aspects of Asian culture. Trainees spend 30 seconds at each station to match a title to an article. There is then another round where they spend 3 minutes at each station to answer more specific questions about the article and the aspect of culture it refers to. Then in groups they create their own presentation on a culture topic and the task sheet as a group.  Then they do it as a listening skills lesson where the group reads their summary, presenting it to the class and the rest of the class answers questions.

Here are some suggestions on how to repair and regroup students in order to mix them up:

‘Mingle-mingle’ gets students out of their seats and interacting using one of the following ideas below. During this time, encourage them to use English, rather than their home language. Choose an idea based on your class’s age and language level.

  • Uno cards – each student gets a card, and they look for the person with the card that added to theirs equals 10.
  • Puzzle pieces – they look for the person/people whose pieces complete their puzzle
  • Collocations – each person has half a collocation daily/newspaper, sports/arena, etc.
  • Verbs – each person has either the V1, V2 or V3 of the same base verb and they have to find the other people who complete the set.
  • Chocolates – each person gets a chocolate and they find others with the same chocolate. Stickers or ink stamps work well too.
  • Colours/Shapes/Animals/Emotions – each student is given a coloured square and they need to find the other people with the same colour, shape, animal, etc.
  • Parts of Speech – each person is given either the name of a part of speech or the part of speech and they have to find their match.
  • Tenses – same as with parts of speech but with the tense name and an example sentence.

Some fun ideas to get students lining up for an activity – line up based on:

  • Mobile phone battery percentage
  • Birthday
  • How far they live from school
  • How many of something they have, or have done that day (steps walked today, coins in your pocket, cups of coffee had today, etc)

We do hope that you will try to incorporate more group and pair work into your lessons. A little more effort on your part will reap rewards both on a learning and fun level.

Guest post written by Rose-Anne Turner, admissions director, Destination TEFL – with input from Kathryn Webb, Academic Director and the trainers at Destination TEFL.

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10 Groupwork Activities That Can Be Applied to Any Subject Area

An article by Richard James Rogers (Award-Winning Author of The Quick Guide to Classroom Management and The Power of Praise: Empowering Students Through Positive Feedback).

Illustrated by Pop Sutthiya Lertyongphati.

When students work together on a task/project that is well-planned and carefully executed, a number of incredible things happen:

It is very important to stress again, however, that group tasks must be very well-planned, otherwise they can “frustrate students and instructors and feel like a waste of time” [University of Waterloo].

So, the next question has to be ‘What types of group activities are most effective, and, ideally, won’t cost me too much planning time as a teacher?’. Well, I’ve got some good news for you – I’m going to pretty much answer that question in today’s blog post. As a high school Chemistry teacher, I’ve had the opportunity to try and test a large number of group-based activities over the past 16 years. What I present here will be my distillation of the top ten that work the best.

#1: Podcasting

Podcasts are all the rage at the moment, and have been for some time. In addition, forecasts by eMarketer, Grand View Research, and many others predict huge growth in this sphere for at least the next several years, and probably much longer.

In other words, the industry is literally booming, and getting our students involved in podcasting provides not only a creative output for their research projects, but also equips them with valuable key skills.

As a podcaster myself, I’m delighted to bring some excellent news to teachers and schools everywhere (garnered from lots of personal experience): podcasting is very easy, and virtually free to do.

Here are the steps that I personally suggest students should follow:

Step 1: Record the audio on any device available – a mobile phone, laptop computer, tablet, etc.

Step 2: Save the file somewhere. A .wav or .mp3 is perfect

Step 3: Download Audacity – it’s free sound engineering software that is just literally awesome (I use it myself for my podcast).

Step 4: Import and manipulate the sound file in Audacity (Hint: For podcasts, set Loudness Normalization to -18.0 LUFS, as this will make the voices of the students nice and clear – to do that, just select the audio, then go to Effect > Loudness Normalization, and keep the check mark the box that says ‘Treat mono as dual mono’).

Step 5: Export and save the file. I suggest exporting as an mp3, rather than a .wav, in order to compress the size of the file dramatically. Sound quality is not affected by this.

Once the sound file has been exported and saved locally, the students can then send that to the teacher in any way that seems appropriate – via e-mail, Google Classroom, uploading to YouTube (which requires another process that the students will have to learn), etc.

#2: Create a short lesson that contains some kind of practical element

Ironically, research shows that one of the best ways to learn something is to teach the topic that you have to learn. So, quite simply, ask your groups of students to prepare a lesson which they must teach to the whole class. To spice things up, the students could build a model, demonstrate an experiment, pass objects around the class or do anything that stimulates touch, smell, and, maybe, taste.

Allowing students to have some creative freedom over how they deliver the lesson should lead to some very interesting and entertaining moments.

#3: Cloud Computing

This is one area of education where Google really has the monopoly – and understandably so in my opinion. Their tools for students are second-to-none. Book the schools ICT lab, iPads/laptops or allow students to use their own devices in the following ways:

  • Google SlidesImagine you’re in a group of 5 people, each working on the same slide presentation simultaneously on 5 different computers. You’re all editing the presentation in real time – that’s what Google Slides is, basically. It’s really powerful, and I’ve found that students never grow tired of working in groups to create beautiful presentations. Get your students to present the slides to the class when the project is done and you’ve ticked so many boxes – collaboration, using ICT to enhance learning, leadership skills, courage, and on and on we could go. Just make sure you’re walking around the classroom to check on the students as they are doing the work, and ask the group leader to ‘share’ the work with you (this involves clicking a button, and selecting the teacher’s school Gmail address to share it to).
  • Google Docs: This is similar to Google Slides, albeit with a slight difference: the students collaborate on a word-processed document in real time, rather than a slides presentation. It’s great for producing leaflets, infographics, reports, booklets, summaries and traditional ‘assignments’.
  • Google Sheets: As the name suggests, this is a spreadsheet application that the students can collaborate on in real-time, in groups. As a science teacher I find that this is perfect for data collection and processing as it can be used to generate graphs and charts. It’s also good for keeping lists (e.g. lists of revision websites).
  • Google Forms: Great for surveys and peer-assessment tasks. Students can create forms for other students to fill in, share these forms with their peers, receive responses and the software will even generate pie charts of the responses for quick analysis. It’s a fun way to use ICT to enhance learning, and a quick way to gather interesting data.
  • New Google Sites: This is Google’s amazing website creation software. In a matter of a few clicks, students can create their own websites that are securely linked to the school’s G Suite server. I’ve just recently used Google Sites with my Year 7 students to create ePortfolios. These ePortfolios act as online records/journals where the students can record their reflections on their work, school achievements, extra-curricular activities and photographs of schoolwork they are really proud of. At many schools, these ePortfolios act as an ‘entire’ record, with students adding work to them throughout their time at school. It’s something meaningful that the students can take pride in, and spend significant time developing.

I’ve written a separate blog post about using Google Apps in teaching which you can find here.

#4: Create a Quiz

Quizzes can be a really fun way to test student knowledge, and when done via a group-creation project they can be much less stressful for students than traditional testing. Furthermore, there are a number of great, free multiple choice and graphic quiz creation tools available on the web:

  • Kahoot!: Students can create an account (Attention: Make sure the students use their school e-mail address for safety) and then create a great multiple choice quiz. Always specify the number of questions you’d like the students to create. When ready, the group can present the Kahoot! to the class, and the students watching/playing will use their mobile devices as multiple choice ‘clickers’. The software comes with music (so use your classroom sound system, if you have one) and shows a running student ranking after each question. It’s great fun, and I’ve never known a student to dislike using Kahoot!.
  • Quizlet: This comes in the form of virtual flashcards that the students create (e.g. key word on one side, definition on the other), but the fun starts with Quizlet Live. Basically, when the group has finished making their Quizlet, they activate Quizlet Live which automatically puts all the students into new groups to compete with each other. Again, music and a main screen showing the real-time progress of each team make for a very lively, active classroom experience.
Quizlet Live teacher screen (showing real-time group progress) and student screens [Courtesy of teachwithtech.com]
  • Wordwall: This app allows students to be more spatial in their quiz creations – offering word-matching, category brainstorms, rank orders and many more activities. You can read more about the wide-range of tasks that students can create with Wordwall here.

Can you think of any others? Please do feel free to comment in the comment box below this blog post.

#5: Marketplace activity

In a marketplace activity, the following steps are followed:

  • Step 1: Students are placed into small groups and given material to learn. They could spend perhaps ten minutes learning about one aspect of the topic you’re teaching (each group can learn a different aspect/sub-topic, or each group can learn the same sub-topic).
  • Step 2: One person from each group goes to another group to teach them what they have learned.
  • Step 3: This ‘designated teacher’ also gets taught by the group.
  • Step 4: The assigned person goes back to their original group and teaches them what they have learned

I have drawn a diagram of the process below (if my handwriting is too small to see on your screen, then please feel free to download the image and zoom in):

You can read more about marketplace activities here.

#6: Model building

Get your students to build things. Materials like plastic bottles, bottlecaps, cardboard, coloured paper, plasticine/modelling clay, straws, shoeboxes and old rope can all be used creatively by students to make models of the concepts they are studying. I’ve used this technique across my teaching in Science to get students to create everything from atomic models to makeshift ‘eco gardens’. Here’s a model atom that one of my IGCSE Chemistry students made out of rudimentary materials a few years ago:

#7: Making videos and stop motion animations

Movies and stop-motion animations are fun projects which can really encourage students to approach a problem from creative perspective. The result? – Memory of the concept is greatly enhanced when compared with traditional teaching methods.

Stop-motion animations do take a long time, and are more suited to processes and systems (e.g. DNA replication, corrie formation, steps in differential calculus, etc.), whereas movies have a wider-range of applications.

You can find out more about how to make a stop-motion animation at this great ACMI webpage here. The students will need everyday objects and inexpensive materials (e.g. modeling clay, coloured paper, straws, etc.) and someone in the group will need to ‘film’ the project. Due to the high-amount of thought and planning involved, stop-motion animations are best suited to complex topics, as the level of thought and immersion needed by the group will lead to useful long-term memory of the concepts.

#8: Create a news report

A suitable example might be a group of three students being assigned the task of creating a news report about a chemical explosion. One student might be the best at art, and could be assigned to produce the graphics. One student might be great at verbal communication in front of an audience, and could be the ‘news anchor’. One student might understand chemical calculations really well, and could provide the script for the news anchor for that particular part of the task.

Students can get really creative with news reports, as nowadays there are so many ways in which they are done:

  • Webpages (e.g. created using New Google Sites)
  • Audio reports (e.g. for podcasting or internet radio)
  • Video reports (e.g. for standard terrestrial TV, internet TV or a Vlog)
  • Social media posts (If you go for this, then ask the students to compile an array of posts – one for IG, one for Facebook, one for Twitter, etc. – and make sure they link to a webpage the students have created)
  • Print media (e.g. a newspaper, magazine article, newsletter, etc.)

This works great when you can provide the groups with a menu, like the one above, from which they can choose what to create.

#9: Create a puzzle booklet

The beauty of this task is that it is both fun and lends itself really well to delegation – one person can create a crossword, one person a word search, one person a fill-in-the-blanks, etc.

Another great thing about puzzle-building is that there are literally tons of free, puzzle building websites out there. Check these out:

#10: Create a classroom display

A warm, inviting classroom that’s colorful, fresh and light can really benefit your students. In fact, expansive research published by the University of Salford shown that well-designed classrooms can improve learning progress in primary school pupils by up to 16%.

This was the first time that clear evidence of the effect of the physical classroom environment on learning was established.

Oftentimes, teachers are stuck with the classrooms they are given. If your furniture is old, natural light is bad or the air-conditioning isn’t perfect, then it’s tough luck. One thing we can change, however, is the quality of our displays. Other aspects of the classroom environment can also be adjusted alongside this (See my article about this here: The Starbucks Protocol), so don’t neglect that side of the equation either.

So what are the best ways that we can create beautiful classroom displays? Good news – I’ve written a whole, separate blog post this very topic (with examples and instructions) here.

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Teaching About Gender: Some Information to Consider

An article by Richard James Rogers (Award-Winning Author of The Quick Guide to Classroom Management and The Power of Praise: Empowering Students Through Positive Feedback).

Illustrated by Pop Sutthiya Lertyongphati.

The topic of gender, and how children should be taught about it (and if they should be taught about it at all), has become a delicate, controversial and highly-provocative topic. Any writer who dares to even touch on this topic today is doomed to receive a barrage of hatred from people who come from a wide range of diverse backgrounds.

I know this, because I myself have been on the receiving end of that hatred on more than a couple of occasions in the past.

After writing and publishing a blog post entitled Gender-Neutral Toilets in Schools: Some Research and Conclusions (which I thought was a pretty balanced and fair synopsis of some of the most pertinent research and history on this issue) I received nasty messages on social media, hateful reviews of my books on Goodreads and Amazon (by people who hadn’t even read the books) and even messages to family members and friends who had shown the audacity to like, or comment, on one or more of my photos or posts. This was my virtual ‘second-wave’ of acrimony: I had received my first after publishing On Gender Neutral Toilets in Schools.

For a community that claims to celebrate diversity, a small (but significant) minority of 2SLGBTQIA+ individuals do themselves and their cause no favors by showing complete intolerance to diversity of opinion.

This leads me to today’s gargantuan mission: to describe what the published evidence states about what should actually be taught about gender in schools, and then (in the coming weeks and onwards) when and how it should be taught. I know that the hate will come to me by reflex-action by some individuals who won’t even read this far. All I can say is bring it on: we all show our true, ‘rainbow’ colours through our actions.

With that out of the way, let’s begin.

What should we be teaching children about gender?

Before we can even begin to answer that question, we need to answer a question that is much more fundamental: What is gender?

Growing up as a primary school kid in the 80s was a fairly simple experience with regards to this issue, and the question of what gender was didn’t need to be asked (or so it seemed). My school friends were boys and girls, and nothing else. Boys looked and acted differently to girls. My parents and the adults I encountered in society were men and women – and they were all very easy to distinguish as such.

I guess what I’m saying is that the data from my life experience provided everything I needed to know about gender: There were boys, girls, men and women. Nothing else (or so it appeared).

Today, however, that assumption – that gender is binary, is thought by many to be inaccurate. Former elementary school principal Anthony Ciuffo sums up his awakening to this knowledge eloquently: in a recent ASCD report:

Perhaps the most important lesson we gleaned from our immersion in the literature was the idea that gender is not the binary concept (where someone is either a girl or a boy) that most of us have grown up believing it to be.

Anthony Ciuffo, 2019. Rethinking Conventions: Keeping Gender-Diverse Students Safe. ASCD.

This central, bold premise is rather a big one. I wanted to find out where Ciuffo was getting his information from. As a molecular biology graduate this statement made some sense to me initially: Humans have 23 pairs of chromosomes, with the only distinguishing feature between most males and females at the chromosomal level being that one of those pairs consists of an X and Y chromosome for males, whereas a woman has an X and X chromosome in that position within the karyotype (a karyotype is essentially a list of all of the chromosome pairs). Some rare exceptions to this rule do happen, however (some of which I was surprised to learn about during the course of my research for this blog post):

  • Klinefelter syndrome (XXY biological males)
  • Chapelle syndrome (XX biological males – described as an ‘intersex’ condition)
  • XYY males
  • Turner syndrome (biological females who have one X chromosome missing, or partially missing)
  • Triple X syndrome (biological females who have three X chromosomes)
  • Swyer syndrome (biological females who have the XY chromosome pair, normally present in biological males)

The fact that these ‘syndromes’/conditions/possibilities exist in the first place should surprise most people who assume that gender is binary – even the biological evidence suggests that numerous exceptions to that premise exist. This raises more questions:

  1. How many gender-affecting situations at the genetic-molecular level are we not aware of?
  2. To what extent do chromosomal arrangements actually affect gender?

That last question is a pertinent one that humanity will soon have to really get to grips with, as both anecdotal and empirical evidence suggests that that the ‘full story’ of gender is by no means determined by genetics alone. Take Sasha Komarova (a Russian model) for example: she has Swyer syndrome (XY), yet she would most certainly identify as a female (and many would argue a very attractive one, at that). At the chromosomal level she ‘should’ be a male, but the physical reality that has manifested is a female body.

Research-based evidence that supports the notion that genetics have a role to play in a wide-range of gender expressions is mounting by the year:

  • In September of 2019, the largest-ever genome-wide-association study of same-gender sexuality was published in the very well-respected journal, Science. The primary finding was that multiple genes are significantly associated with engaging in same-gender sexual behavior (Diamond, Lisa. 2021)
  • A large literature review by Polderman et al, 2018, came to this significant conclusion: “Based on the data reviewed, we hypothesize that gender identity is a multifactorial complex trait with a heritable polygenic component. We argue that increasing the awareness of the biological diversity underlying gender identity development is relevant to all domains of social, medical, and neuroscience research and foundational for reducing health disparities and promoting human-rights protections for gender minorities“.

Conclusion

One can only conclude from the karyotypic and genetic evidence that gender may not be binary after all, and that other chromosomal/gene-loci/genetic-molecular arrangements may exist that lead to a gender expression that does not match the binary that we’ve mostly grown up to believe is true. In fact, to hold steadfast the central dogma that gender is exclusively a binary phenomenon is not only old-fashioned, but it’s plain wrong according to the scientific evidence we have at present.

Next week

Next week I will explore gender from a brain chemistry and hormonal profile perspective. Following that, I will explore what should be taught to children, and at what stages in their development it should be taught.

Bibliography and references

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How to Develop a Passion for Reading in our Students

Written by Richard James Rogers (Award-winning author of The Quick Guide to Classroom Management)Illustrated by Pop Sutthiya Lertyongphati.

Accompanying video/podcast:

The ability to read is possibly the most important skill that students should master whilst at school. It is so important, in fact, that a simple Google search of the phrase “The importance of reading for students” brings up hundreds of millions of hits (around 717 million at the time of writing this article, to be exact).

Do your students love to read?

There are numerous benefits of reading: for adults and children alike. I could choose to spend the rest of this article describing those benefits, but I fear that I would be preaching to the converted. As teachers, we already know that reading is important. I hope you will permit me, however, to at least include my favourite quote about reading from one of my favourite actors:

For reading: there have been gazillions of people that have lived before all of us. There’s no new problem you could have–with your parents, with school, with a bully. There’s no new problem that someone hasn’t already had and written about it in a book.

Will Smith

So, we know that our students must learn to read. However, what’s equally important is that our students learn to love reading. And this is what I want to explore with you today: How do we get our students, or our children, to enjoy reading? How do we prevent reading from becoming a laborious, dull part of their schooling and instead turn it into to a relaxing and, dare I say it, exciting past-time?

Tip #1: Turn reading into a collaborative task (with a creative output)

Reading is all-to-often seen as a solitary activity, which is most unfortunate. Set up times, or clubs, where students can read to each other and perhaps generate some kind of creative output – perhaps building a model of what they’ve read (Design Technology), calculating and mapping the frequency of different words (Mathematics) or even creating the costumes the characters might be wearing (Textiles). When reading becomes an active process, students realize that there’s actually a lot of ‘juice’ one can squeeze from a book, or even a short segment of text.

Perhaps you could couple collaborative reading with a technological task too – such as creating a Minecraft landscape of the setting for the story, or even setting up a Google Site online journal of learning.

My award-winning book for teachers is a popular choice for teacher book clubs.

The possibilities for collaboration in reading, coupled with creative outputs, really are limited only by one’s imagination. In fact, you may wish to ‘crowdsource’ ideas from the children themselves, perhaps by using a worksheet/prompt like the one below:

Could this be a tool to help your students read collaboratively?

If you like the above tool, then you can download it as a pdf here.

#2: Host reading and reading-related competitions and events

Some ideas to consider are:

  • Celebrate World Book Day by allowing students to come into school dressed as their favourite book characters. Perhaps offer special prizes for the best costumes, or even run a fashion show on the day. Award plus points/merits/whatever your school’s ‘reward tokens’ are for students who bring in their favourite books on the day.
  • Invite a local author to come into school to talk about their work. As an author myself, I know for a fact that the author will love the opportunity to gain some exposure, and if you ask politely you may even get some free, signed books for school out of it.
  • Run book clubs or events by genre – specialization can generate more interest in reading. Have a day for self-help books, one for non-fiction, one for animals – anything that the students are interested in.
  • Take the students to a reading-related place, such as a local library or actual location from a book. Students will often be unaware that these places exist in the first place, and their discovery may set in-motion some profound changes that result in a love of reading. My primary school took me to my local library as child, for example, and that place became my study-hangout in my teens. I just loved being surrounded by all of those books. It’s a feeling that’s very unique.

#3: Read with your students, and to your students, with passion

Get involved in all of the activities listed above. Join the collaboration groups, for example, even if only for 10 minutes at a time. Read topical news articles, extracts from books, quotes of the day or any materials that provide positive messages for students. Have a sign outside your door that tells students what you are reading at that time.

Bottom line – get stuck in yourself! Never underestimate the subliminal messages that students pick up on when they see us model positive behaviors.

Further reading (no pun intended):

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4 Important Tips for Using Videos in Lessons

Written by Richard James Rogers (Award-winning author of The Quick Guide to Classroom Management)Illustrated by Pop Sutthiya Lertyongphati.

This blog post comes with an accompanying podcast episode. Listen here:

Videos are a staple of the modern practitioner’s arsenal. They’re often easy to source, well-made and free.

Video hosting platforms like YouTube and Vimeo have allowed us, as teachers, to turn our classrooms into makeshift cinemas (and our virtual classrooms into large resource banks). This is a revolution of sorts – one that has been spurred on by many factors, not least the declining cost of smart boards, sound systems and data projectors as the years have gone by.

As a teacher myself I have made use of videos in my practice extensively over the past sixteen years: even earning the invisible badge of honour that comes with wheeling in a TV on a trolley with accompanying DVD player back in 2008.

Videos can offer great instructional material for students – but only when they are sourced and executed carefully by the teacher. Whilst this may seem like a simple and straightforward process, further analysis reveals that there is much to consider.

In today’s blog post I will draw upon my experience of using videos extensively over my entire career. My aim is to provide you with strategies and points to consider, so that you don’t make some big mistakes along the way (like I have!).

So, without further ado, let’s hit the ‘Play’ button and get right into these top tips for using videos as teacher.

Tip #1: ALWAYS watch the video yourself before you show it to your students

This can be a challenge when time is limited, but it is a crucial first step that we should always take. Watching the video beforehand allows us to check the following:

  • Is the content at the right level?
  • Is it age-appropriate? Are there scenarios within the video that could be culturally insensitive?
  • Does the video contain any swearing?
  • Is the volume of the video loud-enough?
  • Will I show the auto-generated captions/subtitles within the video? Are these subtitles an accurate reflection of the spoken words within the video? Do the captions contain any swear words by mistake (or on-purpose)?
  • Are there any points-of-interest that I can capitalise on? Are there any real-life examples or applications that I can think of that link directly to the video’s content?

One key mistake I’ve made a number of times as a teacher is sourcing a video quickly, only to find that much of the material was either too advanced or too basic for my students. Be particularly careful with captions/subtitles – a old colleague of mine got into some hot water for showing a video to students that contained clean spoken language, but subtitles containing swear words.

Surely it must be every teacher’s worst nightmare to show a video to students that wasn’t checked beforehand, only to hear or see crassness, immorality or inappropriate scenarios on the video when played in on a big screen in front of the students. The fear of embarrassment alone should be enough for us to remember the cardinal rule of using videos in teaching: ALWAYS watch the videos before we share them with our students.

Tip #2: Keep Videos Between 5 and 15 minutes long (as a general Rule of Thumb)

I’ve made the mistake on a number of occasions of finding a reputable, clean, amazing video, only to then play it to the class for 40 minutes or longer (e.g. in the case of lengthy documentaries). When the videos we choose are too long (or the segments we choose to play are too long) then many students will become disengaged and irritable. This is understandable – in today’s digitized social landscape students are more distracted than ever before in human history.

For me personally, I attempt to keep my videos to 15 minutes maximum. For this to happen, I have to choose videos (or video segments) very carefully. Sometimes I’ll source videos that get straight to the point (e.g. a laboratory demonstration of an experiment) and that take less than 5 minutes to play through.

In short – be aware of how much time the students spend watching the video. Is that time being efficiently used, or does the video explore topics that the students don’t need to know?

Tip #3: Watch the students as you’re watching the video

I once was blasted by my mentor during my teacher-training year. Why? – I had committed the atrocious crime of showing a video to my students, and then casually sitting down to watch the video with them.

Of course, any experienced teacher will immediately be able to identify the inadequacies of this strategy – when you don’t watch the students as the video is playing, then small pockets of chatter, disruptiveness and distraction can manifest.

My mentor put it bluntly: “When you show a video to your students you must watch the students. Don’t watch the video!”. I had been reprimanded (well, probably just advised, but it felt like a reprimand).

That was sixteen years ago. Today, I would have to say that I disagree with my old mentor, at least to some degree.

Check out my award-winning book on Amazon, Barnes &Noble and at all good retailers.

I believe that as a video is playing it is most effective for a teacher to watch the students AND watch the video. Consider the following:

  • Walk over to students who are chatting during a video, or who are being disruptive, and stand next to them. Normally this will bring them back on-task, but if it doesn’t, then a quiet one-to-one word should do the trick. “I really need you to focus on this video, Lucy”, for example.
  • Stand to the side or behind the class so that every student is within your field of vision.
  • If disruption becomes too pervasive, then don’t be afraid to stop the video and talk to the class. For example: “I’m so sorry to those students who were listening quietly to the video. It is unfortunate that some students are not paying attention”. Then play the video again ONLY when every student is focused.

However, why should we watch the video as we are watching the students? Well, there are many answers to that question, but the core principle is that you may wish to use key material within the video for discussion or tasks later. You may even want to pause the video at key points to discuss a real-life example or application, or even to re-phrase something the video has just described. Don’t be afraid of pausing videos at key moments like this, by the way – students learn a lot when prior concepts are linked to content that has been very recently covered.

Tip #4: Make sure the video has a purpose, and is utilized afterwards

We must not get into the habit of showing videos to students for the sole purpose of filling time, however. We must attempt to extract all of the juice that we can out of a video. Consider asking your students to do the following:

  • Make a list of key bullet points as the video is playing (which could be used as source material later in a group activity for example).
  • Complete a worksheet based on the video.
  • Use information from the video to complete exam-style questions or past-paper questions.
  • Follow the instructions within the video, step-by-step (e.g. if it’s a ‘How to’ video’). This could apply to tasks as diverse as coding, model-making, conducting scientific experiments, cooking, etc.
  • Collaborate with others to create a presentation, infographic, mind-map, news report or debating panel based on the concepts and information covered.

There are exceptions to this rule, of course. Sometimes we might want to show students videos as stimuli material, or to build passion for and interest in a subject. Recently, for example, I was teaching a physics lesson about forces and motion. The lesson covered pretty rudimentary calculations involving speed, distance, time and acceleration. However, I was presented with a most unusual gift – NASA had just landed a new rover on Mars. This was a golden opportunity to excite my students – so I played some footage from the Mars landing and initiated a short discussion about the physics involved.

Conclusion

I feel that we’ve become so used to the accessibility of high-quality videos that we’ve become somewhat complacent. We must always ensure that video content is sourced, planned and executed well. We do this by:

  • Watching the videos before we show them to our students
  • Being mindful of video duration
  • Keeping our eyes on our students, as we’re watching the video with them
  • Making sure that there’s some kind of activity or task included in the lesson that links to the video in some way (where possible)

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Excessive Screen Time is Harming Children’s Mental Health

An article by Richard James Rogers (Award-winning author of The Quick Guide to Classroom Management)Illustrated by Pop Sutthiya Lertyongphati.

Parents and teachers have long been concerned about the mental health effects of excessive screen time on the children we care for, and teach. Oftentimes, we compare the lived experiences of modern day teens and young adults with what we went through at that age. Legitimate worries are attributed to questions surrounding disproportionate tech use – questions such as:

  • Are students today less fit and healthy than they were before the World Wide Web became mainstream?
  • What are the negative mental health effects of social media on adolescents?
  • Is there a causal link between tech use and mental health issues in teens?
  • Has technology usage increased the prevalence of mental health issues in teens?

The short answer to the last question is that there’s not enough evidence to suggest that tech use has increased mental health issues in teens – that, at least, is the conclusion of a recent Oxford University study. Unfortunately, however, the directness of this conclusion was lost on the BBC who made the unforgivable blunder of misrepresenting the study completely. Their headline shockingly reads ‘Teens, tech and mental health: Oxford study finds no link’

To most professionals in education this BBC headline, and indeed the conclusions of the actual study itself, seem premature, inaccurate and potentially misleading given evidence that has arisen from other studies that aimed to investigate causal links between screen time and mental health issues in children, teens and young adults.

So, what was special about the Oxford study? Were the researchers even able to come to such a broad, valid conclusion in the first place? I will answer these questions via a series of bullet-points:

  • The sample size was large, with 430,561 teenagers and high school children being involved in the study
  • Only UK and US students were studied
  • Participants were aged 10 – 15 years old
  • The data was collected by MTF (since 1991), UndSoc (since 2009) and YRBS (since 1991). Only 40,000 out of the 430,561 students were from the UK.
  • Only 139,264 of of the participants were asked about their social media usage (because, of course, much of the data was collected before 2009, which is when social media became accessible via mobile devices).

So, basically, what have the Oxford team done? That’s right – they’ve taken legacy data, overwhelmingly biased towards the American demographic, and analyzed the results using some statistical tests. Apparently, this is enough for the esteemed academics at Oxford to come to the conclusion that “There Is No Evidence That Associations Between Adolescents’ Digital Technology Engagement and Mental Health Problems Have Increased”. The BBC takes this adulteration further by boldly stating that “There remains ‘little association’ between technology use and mental-health problems, a study of more than 430,000 10 to 15-year-olds suggests.

A teacher’s perspective

I’m personally quite angry by the misleading messages that these inaccurate conclusions have transmitted to the masses. Anyone reading the BBC article, in particular, would think that there’s no need to be concerned about excessive screen time and social media usage in teens. The real story, however, is quite different:

  • A Dutch study involving 10,000 participants in Rotterdam concluded that smartphones are causing nearsightedness in children. This has also been backed up by studies and observations in CanadaAmerica and Ireland.
  • The Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health caused shockwaves in 2016 with the conclusion of its study: that smartphone and tablet use correlates strongly with obesity in teens. Similar findings have come from a number of respectable sources, including a massive, global joint study between Stanford University and the American National Institutes of Health which was concluded in 2015.
  • Sleep-deprivation is a common side-effect of smartphone and tablet addiction. Research from the Division of Cardiology at the University of California (San Francisco), for example, has found that the use of mobile devices near bedtime is connected with low-quality sleep. 

However, these aforementioned studies focus on the physical effects of screen time on children: nearsightedness, obesity and sleep-deprivation. The Oxford ‘study’ focused on mental health issues, so what point am I am trying to make?

Do causal links exist between nearsightedness, obesity, sleep-deprivation and mental health in children and teens?

  • A number of studies have reported significant associations between obesity and poor psychological wellbeing in children but findings have been inconsistent. A 2007 study of 3,898 children from England concluded that “being overweight, rather than obese, had no impact on overall reported mental health.” However,17% of children with obesity were above the suggested screening threshold for emotional problems.
  • Perhaps the most obvious link occurs between sleep-deprivation and mental health, and numerous studies conclude that a causal relationship does exist. A 2013 study concluded, for example, that “early sleep deprivation in childhood may result in long-term behaviour issues” and even that “sleep problems impact core symptoms of common neurodevelopmental disorders”.

Studies such as these seem to have been ignored by the Oxford team. Maybe, however, I’m making tentative links between mental health and physical problems, and then linking those tentatively to screen-time and social media usage?

Hold your horses, because there’s more.

A report published by the Telegraph includes a headline is enough to stun any parent or teacher: 

Children spend up to 10 hours a day ‘mindlessly swiping’ their mobiles, study finds

The article summarizes the findings of technological research into what young people actually do online. It’s thought to be the first time that technology has been used to analyse the mobile-device usage habits of children.

The findings are alarming:

  • Behavior is compulsive, with young people typically spending no longer than one-minute looking at any particular page of content before swiping to something else
  • Social media takes up hours and hours of teenagers’ free time
  • Children from ‘low-income’ households seem more prone to compulsive use of social media than others
  • Many children in the study admitted to falling asleep at night whilst on their phones
  • Many children admitted that they felt that their compulsions were “mindless” and “pointless”, but felt compelled to use their smartphones on a near-constant basis anyway because there’s a feeling of incompleteness or ‘losing out’ when the phone is not being checked.
  • Some children in the study felt the need to check their phones whilst actually being interviewed by the research panel

In many cases, children are spending up to 12 hours on their phones per day! Take this shocking example for instance (quoted from the Telegraph article):

Typical was Olympia, aged 17, who in one 24-hour period spent 3.3 hours on Snapchat, 2.5 hours on Instagram, 2 hours on Face Time, 2.4 hours on What’s App and 1.8 hours on Safari – a total of 12 hours.

I could go on to explore more sources to support the argument that social media usage, and screen-time, negatively affect the mental health of teens and children. I fear that this blog post would become a behemoth of statistics if I were to do that, however, so I’ll leave you with a few links to peruse yourself:

  • Ofcom 2017 ‘Children and Parents: Media Use and Attitudes Report‘. Amongst the key findings were the shocking revelation that 77% of 12-15 year olds play computer games for around 12 hours per week, and 99% go online for around 21 hours per week. The 2020 report suggests that screen-time has increased, with children using devices for a much wider-variety of purposes than in 2017.
  • A November 2020 study by the University of British Columbia found that “Longer screen time (more than two hours a day) was associated with lower levels of life satisfaction and optimism, and higher levels of anxiety and depressive symptoms.”

Overall conclusions

I think it was highly negligent of the University of Oxford to ignore the links that clearly exist between screen time and….

  • Nearsightedness
  • Obesity
  • Sleep-deprivation
  • Lower levels of life satisfaction and optimism [UBC]
  • Higher levels of anxiety and depressive symptoms [UBC]

As an influential university, Oxford should really have done it’s due diligence before releasing the paper. The message that has been interpreted: that no causal link exists between tech use and poor mental health, is just plain wrong. The BBC, also, should be held to account for their blatant dilution of the study’s findings: from “There’s not enough evidence to suggest that mental health issues have increased as a result of tech” (the Oxford conclusion) to “No link exists between teens, tech and mental health”.

If anything, today’s blog post has been an interesting expose’ of big institutions, and their overwhelming negligence despite their good public standing.

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3 Things That Make a School Outstanding

An article by Richard James Rogers (Award-winning author of The Quick Guide to Classroom Management)Illustrated by Pop Sutthiya Lertyongphati.

The bell rang at 12.30pm to the typical sigh of relief from students who’d been sat in lessons all morning. Bustling through the corridors towards the school canteen, library, school field or some other designated ‘turf’ were the majority of my classmates at St. Richard Gwyn R.C. High School. I, on the other hand, had an appointment with my favorite teacher.

It felt like an easy journey to the German classroom. I was excited because I would be practicing my German oral phrases and responses with my teacher, who had been giving up a good portion of her lunchtimes for the past few weeks to help me become more confident and competent. She was always patient, and always willing to help.

Then, there was that time when my Biology teacher talked me through an end-of-unit test I had completed, so that I could know exactly where I had lost marks. I still remember the conversation word-for-word, almost thirty years later. I finally grasped some important concepts that day.

At the core of my good fortune to attend an outstanding school as a teenager was one most important thing: outstanding teachers. All of my teachers really cared for my wellbeing, and they often went above-and-beyond to provide me with extra tuition, or even to have one-on-one conversations with me to put me on-track, or to reprimand me when I had slipped up. Great teachers, I found, were more important than great facilities.

There are other factors that make a school outstanding, however. Even the best efforts of a team of outstanding teachers can be thwarted by the subterfuge of negligence, bad policies or even school culture. In this blog post, I will explore all of the key factors that work together to make a school outstanding.

#1: The school’s vision and mission are the starting points

A well-crafted mission statement that infuses everything the school does as a community can have a massive and profound impact on students’ lives.

At Saint Richard Gwyn, for example, our slogan was “Learning Together Through Christ”. This phrase was spoken at every assembly, written in many school publications (such as the school’s weekly newsletter) and was reinforced by teachers during some of our lessons. I don’t think I and my peers fully realized the power of this collective action by the school back then, but that statement was actually having a dramatic effect on the way we saw the world, and ourselves. Whether you are religious or not, you can appreciate that this statement sent home a bigger message than just those four words:

  • At our school we learn together. Our focus is serious, and we help each other.
  • We have faith in Christ at out school. We are expected to follow the moral principles outlined in the gospels.

America’s Center for School Change has the following to say about a school’s Vision and Mission:

Developing the school’s vision and mission are two of the most important steps toward creating a successful program. Done well, they give clarity and direction for a school. A muddy vision or mission can help lead to continuing conflicts, and a school that has difficulty identifying priorities.

Center for School Change

I like that last part about “identifying priorities”. What does your school’s vision and mission and say about your institution’s priorities, and how well-embedded are those priorities?

Over the years, many educational scholars have stressed the importance of the school’s vision and mission, and how well those ideas are communicated and transformed into expectations. A classic amongst these scholars is William Rutherford of the University of Texas who, as far back as 1985, stated that effective school leaders need to:

  • have clear, informed visions of what they want their schools to become; visions that focus on students and their needs
  • translate these visions into goals for their schools and expectations for their teachers, students and administrators

So it would seem that simply having a vision and mission for a school is not enough to make a school truly outstanding. That vision and mission must focus on students and their needs, be translated into workable goals and be formulated as expectations for teachers, students and all staff members.

#2: Outstanding teachers make an outstanding school

A school’s best resource, by far, is the body of staff that comprise that school. Get that right and a school will usually be able to cope with the ebb and flow of daily circumstance in an effective manner. However, still to this day, schools are focusing far too much on teachers’ qualifications rather than experience, references and reputations, in my opinion.

This is the point where I’m going to have to speak bluntly and directly: an advanced degree does not make someone an amazing teacher; nor does a degree or qualification from a top university. Those credentials, actually, are meaningless in the context of determining one’s ability to manage behaviour, plan lessons thoroughly, teach with clarity and teach at an appropriate pace. Those qualifications may, however, allow a school to better market itself to parents and potential clients/customers (particularly in the private sector), but those qualifications never, in my honest opinion, determine a person’s ability to teach properly.

Teaching is a vocation: plain and simple. It’s a profession that one has to be built for, and one has to be passionate about in order to succeed. Experience has taught me that qualifications alone are not enough to determine a teacher’s suitability to teach. I, for example, have worked with a number of Oxford, Cambridge and PhD graduates over the years who were awful teachers who couldn’t communicate effectively with students and, in a significant number of cases, couldn’t teach at an acceptable pace or keep students engaged for long periods of time. On the other hand, I’ve also worked many such high-level graduates who were excellent teachers and helpful team-players.

Have you experienced the same in your time as a teacher?

My message for schools is simple: Focus on what the students and colleagues think of the teacher you’re hiring. Place more emphasis on teacher-portfolios and references – evidence of actual teaching ability – rather than the quality of a candidate’s qualifications.

#3: Effective systems make a school outstanding

Systems are like the glue that holds everything together. When a school has a clear vision and mission that’s backed-up by outstanding teachers and effective systems, everything then falls into place and runs smoothly (most of the time).

The most essential systems that schools need to have in-place can be remembered by what I hope is a useful acronym: C.A.R.S.Communication, Action, Rewards and Sanctions.

  • Communication systems need to be easy to use, and suitable for purpose. Schools that use the same system to communicate with parents, students, teachers and other stakeholders tend to experience better overall harmony than those that do not. Many schools, for example, choose to use e-mail for these purposes as it is a professional system that everyone can access. However, some schools (e.g. those in China) prefer to use a more real-time system for staff (e.g. chat apps like QQ and WeChat) and more traditional systems, like e-mail, for communicating with parents. Systems like this can cause undue stress to teachers, however, as it can be easy to miss messages posted within a chat stream. Teachers can also feel under constant pressure to respond, even outside of official working hours.
  • Action systems need to be workable. Teachers need to do things every day in a timely manner. Printing and photocopying, for example, should never be problematic (massive headaches are caused when printers don’t work, or when teachers are restricted to quotas, for example). Reports need to written via systems that are shared, and easy to navigate and access. Mock exams and internal exams need to be delivered via systems that make it easy for everyone to get their papers printed and organized in a timely manner. Timetabling needs to be seamless. Student locker systems need to be accessible and workable. The role of the form tutor/homeroom teacher within the school, and the systems needed to fulfill that role, need to be easy-to-use (a house system can often help with this). Registration systems need to be workable. Assessment systems and instructional software need to be carefully chosen and subscriptions need to be renewed on-time. File-sharing systems need to be in-place so that teachers can share useful resources with one-another.

Which action systems do you use in your school, and how could they be made to be more workable and accessible?

  • Rewards and sanctions systems – with emphasis placed more on rewards than sanctions. The consensus on the approach that should be taken is pretty clear in educational circles, and has been for some time. The UK’s Department for Education and Skills summarizes the key components of such systems best in my opinion:

Rewards, or positive consequences, are likely to encourage pupils to repeat the associated behaviour. Systems that emphasise praise for positive behaviour or regular attendance are more effective in motivating pupils to make appropriate choices. These appropriate choices contribute to a positive ethos in the school, thereby creating an environment for effective teaching and learning. . . . [S]anctions might be used only as a last resort, because using every opportunity to reinforce positive behaviour will have a greater and longer lasting effect than the constant use of sanctions for negative behaviour.

UK Department for Education and Skills, “Behaviour and Attendance Strand. Toolkit Unit 2. Key Stage 3 National Strategy. Everyday Policies: Rewards, Sanctions and Promotion of Positive Behaviour.” pp. 21. [Online] Available at: https://dera.ioe.ac.uk/5708/1/6c37a9499c7e75eaa76fd736c63ca731.pdf

In fact, it’s been known for some time that rewards work better than sanctions for promoting positive behaviour. The most notable foundational statement on this matter, for example, was made in the concluding text of The Elton Report (1989):

Schools which put too much faith in punishments to deter bad behaviour are likely to be disappointed

GREAT BRITAIN, & ELTON, R. (1989). Discipline in schools: report of the Committee of Enquiry chaired by Lord Elton. London, H.M.S.O. Available at http://www.educationengland.org.uk/documents/elton/elton1989.html

Conclusion

Outstanding schools always have the following elements in place:

  • A clear vision and mission that’s student-centered and easily translates into goals and expectations for students, teachers and all stakeholders
  • Outstanding teachers, with a proven track record of excellence in teaching (not necessarily academic excellence)
  • Effective communication, action, rewards and sanctions systems

Bibliography and references (in order of appearance)

W.L. Rutherford. School principals as effective leaders. Phi Delta Kappan, Vol. 67 number1, 1985, pp. 31-34

UK Department for Education and Skills. Behaviour and Attendance Strand. Toolkit Unit 2. Key Stage 3 National Strategy. Everyday Policies: Rewards, Sanctions and Promotion of Positive Behaviour. pp. 21. [Online] Available at: https://dera.ioe.ac.uk/5708/1/6c37a9499c7e75eaa76fd736c63ca731.pdf

GREAT BRITAIN, & ELTON, R. (1989). Discipline in schools: report of the Committee of Enquiry chaired by Lord Elton. London, H.M.S.O. Available at http://www.educationengland.org.uk/documents/elton/elton1989.html

10 Ways in Which The Pandemic is Modernising Education

An article by Richard James Rogers (Award-winning author of The Quick Guide to Classroom Management)Illustrated by Pop Sutthiya Lertyongphati.

Students and teachers the world over faced unprecedented challenges as the pandemic raged through its first and second waves. Staff and children were sent home (and back to school) on multiple occasions in many cases, and teaching methodologies had to undergo a massive revamp out of the sheer necessity to adapt to the immediate situation schools were (and, in some cases, still are) faced with. This ‘jolt’ of circumstance has changed education forever.

In today’s blog post I will explore the main ways in which I believe teaching and learning have changed, and what the implications are for students and teachers today. Readers should bear in-mind that this is an opinion piece, albeit based on my experience in the field as a high-school science teacher (at an international school) and my own research.

#1: Students have realized that traditional university education offers little return-on-investment

Coronavirus had a double-whammy effect on universities and colleges:

  • Students were sent home and had to learn online, raising questions about the effectiveness of instruction delivered at traditional lecture halls crammed with hundreds of students.
  • Overseas students stopped applying for courses in the UK and the United States in large numbers, and sought local alternatives.

These issues have been further compounded by the fact that a university degree no longer prepares a person for a lifelong career.

The Association of American Colleges and Universities (AACU), for example, surveyed about 400 employers and 613 college students about how prepared those students were to enter the professional world in 2015. Some key findings were:

  • 65 percent of the students surveyed felt their writing skills were strong enough for the professional world, but only 27 percent of employers felt the same way.
  • 55 percent of students felt they were well prepared to work with people in which they had little in-common, but only 18 percent of employers agreed.

You can download the AACU’s research paper as a pdf for free here.

The merits of a university-level education have been questioned for decades, and now that the pandemic has forced so-many to ‘learn from home’ we are experiencing a new realization that education needs to be modern and delivered in real-time. As a result, online courses are booming, and students are now quickly realizing that there are affordable, higher-quality alternatives to a traditional university degree.

#2: Practical skills training has gained in popularity

There are many skills that students can’t fully acquire via remote-learning:

  • Dangerous/specialized science experiments (e.g. dissections and chemical reactions)
  • Woodwork, metalwork, carpentry, plumbing and other vocational skills
  • Mechanical and electronic engineering and robotics
  • Specialized cookery

As a result, many schools focused heavily on practical-skills training when students returned to school after the first-wave subsided (in large part due to fear of losing this opportunity in the event of a second-wave, which many schools did actually experience later on). In my opinion, this has caused a renewed interest in the practical skills enrichment activities that are often non-compulsory, yet very useful, components of school courses. I believe that we will see schools incorporating more hands-on tasks and activities in the years to come as a product of this realization.

#3: High-quality online courses are booming

Remote-learning is all-the-rage right now, and the numbers are staggering:

  • According to a recent survey by China Youth Daily, more than 87 percent of Chinese parents have signed their children up for online tutoring sessions to enrich their education
  • Financing for education technology start-ups has more than doubled, rising to $12.58 billion worldwide in 2020 – up from $4.81 billion in 2019, according to a report from CB Insights

Students are becoming increasingly aware that short-certificate courses from high-quality providers like EdX and Udemy are not-only affordable, but will provide the very latest industry-leading, accredited information. This poses a big challenge for traditional schools that are somewhat stuck-in-the-past following syllabuses and curricula that are at least several years old. In my opinion, schools will need to adopt fluid schemes of work and modernize fast, so that students can learn relevant, current, topical information in a traditional classroom setting.

#4: EdTech used for remote-teaching is now being used in traditional classrooms

Video-conferencing skyrocketed during the pandemic:

  • Zoom’s sales in the last three months of 2020 were up 370% compared to the same period in 2019, hitting $882.5 million.
  • During the peak of the first wave of the pandemic, Google Meets was adding around 3 million users per day.

Schools are now using video-conferencing within the school buildings themselves for assemblies, staff-meetings, whole-school quizzes and even screen-share tasks (a newly realized application for many teachers).

Video-conferencing’s adoption will make teachers more accountable, in my opinion, as illness may not be accepted as a reason to miss meetings which can be accessed remotely from home (even if only audio is activated). Schools will also adopt new ways to allow students to showcase work in real-time, as the screen-share features offered by video-conferencing systems facilitate this process quickly and easily (especially as student-work becomes more and more digitized).

#5: Schools are appreciating the need for kids to catch-up

Gaps in knowledge and misconceptions acquired during the remote-learning phase are surfacing quickly as students return to classrooms. This is generating a renewed interest in traditional pedagogical techniques such as accelerated learning and differentiation. Another positive is that many teachers are realizing further the importance of pace, and how students often have to have information presented in a number of ways, multiple times, before it is truly embedded. These discoveries will challenge schools to adopt the very-best instructional techniques and offer catch-up camps and classes for students who fall behind, long after the pandemic is over. This may provide school teachers with extra sources of income, as well as offering students the enrichment they need to succeed.

The problems presented by students needing to catch-up are not easy to solve, however. The British government’s recent programme to help pupils who missed school to catch up may not be reaching the most disadvantaged children, according to a recent report by the National Audit Office. The issues here seem to relate to tutoring not being provided in the first place to disadvantaged children, as opposed to any flaws in the methodologies being used [BBC News]. Schools will therefore need to ensure that attendance for catch-up courses is being monitored, along with the methodologies being executed.

#6: Terminal examinations have lost some of their credibility

Many exam-boards have cancelled examinations for the 2020/2021 academic year, as was the case last year. Grades have been assigned on the basis of teacher-predictions and coursework, and I believe that this has caused many students to question the validity of terminal examinations as an effective assessment tool. This shift in thought has also rippled into the online-learning market, which is gaining in popularity due to the very fact that terminal examinations are often absent from key course assessment components. Qualifications and certificates that are awarded on the basis of a student’s portfolio of achievements (such as course assignments) are gaining respect and kudos, and I foresee this trend continuing well-into the future.

#7: Students and teachers have become more tech-savvy

Classwork, homework, coursework and exams are being assigned, completed and assessed by evermore creative means. Students have had to learn to how to use specific learning apps out of necessity, and teachers have benefitted from automated assessment systems such as Google Forms, Educake, MyMaths, Lexia Learning and others. If the pandemic has had only one positive effect on education, then it is this: computer literacy has improved across the board.

This emergence of teaching and learning software and disruptive EdTech systems is not all sunshine and rainbows, however. It threatens to destroy the very fabric of conventional teaching. It is not inconceivable, for example, to foresee human teachers being fully replaced with software, droids and surveillance systems within a decade from now (easily). The main takeaway for teachers, in my opinion, is this: skill-up in EdTech, coding and computer science fast – we may be out of a job if we don’t.

This gradual erosion of a teacher’s role from ‘sage on a stage’ to ‘guide on the side’, and perhaps even one day to ‘chieftaincy to see with infrequency’, is something I’ve written about before. I’ve also made a video about this very subject matter which I’ve embedded below.

#8: More support is being made available for staff and student mental-health and wellbeing

The pandemic has had a devastating effect on staff and student mental health. Reuters, for example, surveyed school districts across America in February 2021 to assess the mental health impacts of school shutdowns. These districts serve more than 2.2 million students. Of the 74 districts that responded, 74% reported multiple indicators of increased mental health stresses among students. More than 50% reported rises in mental health referrals and counseling. [Yahoo News].

One positive of this is that school leaders are recognizing that staff and student well-being matters, and that can only be a good thing. Schools would do well to recruit counselors to assist with student referrals. and staff workload should be monitored closely. Happy teachers make happy students, and downtime gives teachers time to plan better lessons.

#9: The dangers of excessive screen-time and gaming addiction have been highlighted

I’ve written about the dangers of screen-time before, and we must not forget that an EdTech revolution brings with it some nasty realities, highlighted by one expansive report:

  • On-screen behavior is often compulsive, with young people typically spending no longer than one-minute looking at any particular page of content before swiping to something else
  • Social media takes up hours and hours of teenagers’ free time
  • Children from ‘low-income’ households seem more prone to compulsive use of social media than others
  • Many children in the study admitted to falling asleep at night whilst on their phones
  • Many children admitted that they felt that their compulsions were “mindless” and “pointless”, but felt compelled to use their smartphones on a near-constant basis anyway because there’s a feeling of incompleteness or ‘losing out’ when the phone is not being checked.
  • Some children in the study felt the need to check their phones whilst actually being interviewed by the research panel

The supervision of students whilst using EdTech is going to become a bigger and bigger issue as we move forward as educators. How many times, for example, have you walked around the classroom during some student-centered online activity to find students abruptly switching/closing some gaming/chat screens? I know I have, on much more than one occasion.

The solution may be a technological one – allow students to connect only through LAN or school WIFI and filter/monitor usage. Another solution may be surveillance systems inside classrooms, or perhaps even mandating that screens be always visible to the teacher (e.g. by having students sit in rows with their screens facing the teacher’s desk). There are obvious pros and cons to each of these proposals, and the decisions made will depend strongly on school culture and individual course/student aims.

#10: The pandemic pointed anew to blatant inequalities of income

Students in low-income areas have had to contend with less access to school counselors, technology and the training needed to access said technology. Some school districts in various countries around the world have responded by shipping laptops to schools and individual students.

As teaching continues to digitize, the needs of low-income students will continue to grow. Schools will need to address these issues, and that may put financial strain on districts and education authorities. Eventually, we may even see technology investment being pitted against the salaries of human teachers, and this will make our need to compete more immediate. As teachers, we are no longer fighting for jobs with each other – we’re contending with educational technology that threatens to completely replace us.

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