My teenage years were brilliant, and one of the reasons for this is that I was involved in so many active clubs and hobbies. I was an army cadet, I did karate and I even tried hockey and acting for a short while.
The Extra-Curricular Activities I did as a kid shaped my character more than my lessons in school. I can say that with conviction.
In my ECAs I made new and lasting friendships and learnt cool skills (such as how to start a fire with potassium permanganate, and how to disarm an attacker with a pistol).
I still do karate to this day – it gave me self-discipline and the understanding that life can be painful; but instead of crying in a corner like a little wimp I need to man-up and fight back, and persevere through every storm that comes my way.
Yes: karate, and the Army Cadets, really taught me that.
Now, as a teacher, I warmly reflect on my childhood experiences and the enrichment that was brought to me through these extra dimensions in my life. I try, as best as I can, to offer modern and meaningful ECAs to my students in my current practice.
Why offer an ECA?
There are numerous benefits which compensate for the extra time it takes to run an ECA:
You get to build closer and more meaningful professional relationships with your students, and other students you might not teach
You become ‘that cool teacher‘ who goes the extra mile to run good clubs with the kids
You learn a few surprising things about the kids in your club – such as skills and abilities they have which you didn’t know about before
You will develop new skills along the way (e.g. I currently teach FinTech in one of my ECAs, which is a new area of knowledge that I’m learning about too)
You may change lives, literally. One of my former students 10 years ago attended a German language ECA that I ran. She’d never learnt German before, and absolutely loved the club. I later found out that she did a degree in German at university and now works as a translator here in Thailand.
What kind of ECAs can we offer?
Good ECA types include:
Anything involving a sport (e.g. football, hockey, tennis, etc.)
Languages that aren’t offered in the normal curriculum
Anything practical and hands-on (e.g. robotics, cookery, Science experiments, etc.)
Exam and study support
I tend to go with things I’m interested in that will also be fun and useful for my students.
How can we offer ECAs if our skills are limited?
We don’t have to be experts in the things we want to offer as ECAs. In fact, some of the best clubs I’ve run have been dynamic classes in which I learnt new things with the kids.
Running an ECA can even be a good way for us to skill-up as teachers.
Take a club I’m running at the moment, for example: Platform Building and Money Management. Now, I don’t know an awful lot about these subjects, but I’m learning FinTech with the University of Hong Kong and I’m reading books to learn about digital marketing and personal finance. The good news is this – each week, when I learn something new in my studies, I can then pass this on to my students in the ECA.
It’s a great way to help me with my self-discipline in my learning, and it keeps my ECA modern and relevant. The kids love it!
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I was very excited when I handed my homework to her. I was 16-years-old and a very keen GCSE Science student.
That piece of Chemistry homework took me ages to complete – a good few hours if I remember correctly. I really tried hard to write the displacement reactions neatly and clearly, and in a different colour to the explanations.
I knew my Chemistry teacher would be impressed, and I really wanted to impress her. I think that as a teacher almost two-decades later, I am mindful of the fact that my students look-up to me, and they want to impress me.
That gives me a huge task (I won’t say ‘burden’, because it’s not a burden): the task of being responsible and caring enough to give my students the feedback they deserve, in a timely manner.
I waited weeks and weeks for that Chemistry homework to get back to me. Finally I summoned up enough courage to ask her where it was.
“Oh, I am sorry, Richard. I completely forgot about it. I’ll get it back to you pronto.”
She was honest, and I respected her for that. When it did finally get back to me, she added to the written feedback (which I can’t fully remember, if I’m honest) with “Richard, I could tell that you put a lot of time and effort into that work.”
That felt good.
Juggling many things at once
Looking back on those bright and happy days as a teenager I can now see what my Chemistry teacher was suffering with – she was clearly very busy with a number of different things and my homework was low on her list of priorities at that time.
I don’t blame her or condemn her for that at all.
I’ve found myself in the same situation many times in the past, and it was all because I wasn’t organised. Here are the key mistakes I would make in my first ten years (yes, ten – it was slow learning curve!) of teaching:
I would give homework to different classes on random days each week. So, for example, Year 8 Science would get homework on a Monday one week, then on a Tuesday the week after, then maybe on a Thursday the week after that.
Since I was setting homework on random days each week, I would receive it back randomly too. This would mean that I would have ‘cluster’ days when I would get back, say, four classes of homework in a single day.
The net effect was that I couldn’t mark it as quickly or as effectively as I really wanted to, and on some days I would stay at school very late to mark it all
So, what’s the solution to all of this chaos? Well, today, I can very happily say to you that I no longer have problems with marking and returning homework. In fact, I’m almost astonished to say that it has even become an enjoyable process!
So what are these four strategies? Let’s explore them together now.
Strategy #1: Create and implement a homework setting, marking and returningtimetable
Sounds obvious doesn’t it? It wasn’t obvious to me for a very long time (granted: I am slow at learning certain things!).
Many schools will have a homework ‘timetable’ in place, but this normally only extends to the setting of homework. Even if you follow that timetable, you still need a schedule in place for the marking and returning of that homework.
And that’s another point I must make: if your school has a homework timetable in place, then please follow it! I know I’ve been very relaxed about this at certain points in my career, but I now realize that that strategy didn’t help me or my students: they would find themselves overwhelmed with homework on certain days because their teachers didn’t follow the timetable.
Here is my current setting, marking, receiving and returning timetable:
Feel free to download and enlarge the above picture and share it with colleagues if you wish.
Strategy #2: Use Learning Journals
Learning Journals are a form of ‘recurring’ homework and are very powerful because:
They quickly build routines into your students’ lives
They reinforce the importance of constant revision, reflection and reviewing of work done in class
The are cumulative, and provide a record of the work done by the student to-date
They provide an excellent revision resource prior to exams
Students receive quick, effective feedback
Students can customize the work using their own styles, colours and sequence of revision. They even get to purchase their own ‘special’ notebook for this, making the experience uniquely personal.
So, how do we implement a ‘Learning Journals system’? Here are the steps I suggest:
Students purchase their own ‘special’ notebook. A school notebook can be given to students who can’t afford this/don’t want to buy their own.
Students fill their learning journals with revision notes, past-paper questions, Mind-Maps®, summaries and exam-preparation work. Students do this every week. A page from Pop’s Learning Journal (one of the first students I piloted this technique with about 9 years ago) is given below.
Students bring their Learning Journals to class on an assigned day each week. For this academic year, my IGCSE students bring their Learning Journals to me on a Thursday, and my IBDP kids bring them on a Friday (this spreads-out my marking a bit and matches the kids’ timetables)
Students sign on a big sheet on the wall when they hand-in their Learning Journals (please see below). Please note that the following image is one year old (sorry). I now collect in my journals on a Thursday and Friday, not a Monday like it says in the photo:
I put one and only one post-it note of feedback into each learning journal each week. This keeps my feedback focused on what’s most relevant to the student, and it ensures that I don’t spend too much of my free-time marking piles of work. Please see the example below:
The process repeats itself every week, providing a clear and productive routine for myself and my students
In addition to this, I’ve turned my Learning Journals into a ‘live-marking’ recurring feedback system: I mark them in class, with the students. It means that I lose no free time, and I am able to give one-to-one feedback to each student that is meaningful and specific.
Strategy #3: Live marking
‘Live’ marking is an incredibly powerful feedback technique, but it is rarely used effectively in the teaching profession. However, with just a few tweaks our daily routines, that can change.
I’ve made a quick video that outlines the technique of ‘Live-marking’ below:
I have personally wasted so much of my free time both at school and at home marking student work. Many late nights; many lost weekends. All for nothing.
Well, not completely for nothing – at least now I’ve seen sense and can pass on my experiences to you so that you don’t go through the same pain.
You see, I now know that feedback only works if it is relevant, specific and somewhat emotional. How do we achieve this? – we must mark student work with the students. They have to be involved too.
As soon as I started doing these things, my impact skyrocketed:
Simply walk around the classroom with a colored pen in hand. Tick, flick and mark student work as you walk around.
For larger pieces of work, set the kids on a task and call the students to your desk one at a time. Sit with the student and discuss the work, adding written comments in front of the student along the way. Use praise effectively and remember – praise only works if it is sincere, specific and collective (tell your colleagues and get them to praise the student too).
Use peer-assessment and self-assessment, but don’t do this for everything. Students still need to receive acknowledgement from their teacher.
I’ve written a useful article about peer and self-assessment techniqueshere. Some general advice on giving feedback can be foundhere.
Here’s a video I made about the Four Rules of Praise:
Strategy #4: Self and peer assessment
I first learnt the power of peer assessment back in 2008, when I had just moved to Thailand.
As a keen young teacher with two years of UK teaching experience, I found myself teaching students who were all very keen to do their best. Homework assignments and classwork seemed to come my way on a real-time, live-stream basis, and I soon found myself inundated with lots of work to mark.
At first I tried the traditional methods of using a green or red pen to write lengthy comments on each piece of work. I had learned from my training in Assessment for Learning in the UK that written comments that help the student to improve were much better than a letter grade or a score followed by a ‘Well Done’. I’d learnt about the ‘two stars and wish rule’ where I’d write two positive things about the work and then one item or target for improvement.
These ideas were great in theory, but I found that my weekends became shorter and shorter as I tried to write effective comments on every piece of work that came in. I was spending less and less time doing the hobbies I enjoyed, and I became quite the old grouch.
I finally expressed my concerns in the staff room one day and a colleague of mine said “You should do more peer assessment”. She was right.
I instantly started getting my students to mark their own work, and reflect upon it, and the results were astounding: My weekends became ‘me time’ again, and students seemed to learn better than they would from receiving my comments teh traditional way.
As I continued to develop my skills in assigning proper peer-assessment, I discovered that I was sometimes making some catastrophic errors. I refined my strategy over the years, and came up with this six-step system:
Step 1: Make sure that the work you set has an official mark scheme or set of model answers associated with it. There’s nothing worse than trying to ‘guess’ the best answers along the way as you’re trying to get the kids to assess the work. Make your own mark scheme if necessary, but make sure the answers are clear.
Step 2: When it comes time for the kids to assess the work, ask them to swap their work with someone else in the class. Alternatively, if this doesn’t work for your particular class, then collect the work in and redistribute it.
Step 3: Ask each student to get a colored pen ready to mark with. Red and green are good. You may wish to have a set of special ‘marking pens’ somewhere in class that the kids can use whenever they mark each others’ work.
Step 4: Print the official mark scheme and give a copy to each student. This has the advantage of providing a permanent copy for each student to keep, and allows you time to help students as they mark. Projecting the answers onto a screen can also work, but you may find that students cannot see and that you may have to scroll through at a pace that’s not suitable for every student. Printing a copy, or sharing it on the schools VLE so that students can access it via a tablet or laptop, is best.
Step 5: Make it very clear that students should tick the answer if it’s correct, and make full corrections if it is wrong. The mere act of writing out the model answer onto the work being marked will reinforce the concepts into the subconscious mind of the student doing the marking.
Step 6: Let the students give the work back. Collect it in at the end of the lesson so that you can glance through and check that everyone has peer-assessed properly. If anyone hasn’t, then make them do it again.
Once work has been peer-assessed, you can sit down with individual students and have ‘progress conversations’ designed to pin point areas of weakness and highlight areas of strength
You have to be quite organised with this method (e.g. making sure you print the mark schemes on time). However, this will save you loads of time and will definitely help the kids to learn properly.
Not surprisingly, self-assessment has similar perks to that of peer-assessment. This great overviewby the University of Sydney advocates for the wide-use of self-assessment with students for the following key reasons:
It encourages student involvement and participation, so it’s great for students who normally find group activities or active class-tasks a little uncomfortable
When used in conjunction with group work it can be a great way to assess one’s personal role and contribution in the group experience and learning process
Academic appraisals aside, I’ve found from my own personal experience that both self and peer-assessment are absolutely invaluable to the modern practitioner. They save you oodles of time as a teacher and students learn so much from each process.
There are a number of different ways that self and peer-assessment can be used in the classroom. My experience has taught me (the hard way!) that the following tasks work really well:
Making corrections to tests and assessments: When any important test or assessment comes up, I don’t think it is appropriate to have students marking these themselves. They’ll get it wrong, even with a mark scheme to use, and will be overly generous on themselves and their peers (unless they’ve been trained for a period of time). However, a great activity is to mark the tests yourself, then give the tests back to the students along with a printed or online mark scheme. The students could then use a coloured pen to make full and detailed corrections to their test papers. You could turn this into an AfL exercise, with students writing down the question numbers they got wrong on the whiteboard, or on an anonymous piece of paper. You could then go through these questions afterwards to clear up common misconceptions. If you run a regular Learning Journals system (as I currently do), then students could write down the questions and the model answers in their Learning Journals. This causes very deep-learning to take place and is great for building long-term memory!
Assessing homework, classwork and regular assignments: A great time-saver for teachers. Just make sure the kids have access to the model answers. Don’t forget to collect the work in too – you need to know that the kids actually did the work you asked them to do.
Past-papers: Exam-level students really need to become familiar with the official mark schemes provided by exam boards. They need to become comfortable with key vocabulary, language and command terms. Provide exam-level students with regular past-papers to do as homework. Provide mark schemes too, so that they can self and peer-assess their work in class later. For older students (e.g. ‘AS’ – Level, SAT and IBDP learners) I’ll sometimes give them past papers and mark schemes to take home. Their task is to complete the past-papers under timed conditions and mark them using the mark schemes. The student then hands me the papers completed and marked (this is essential – I need to know that they have completed the assignment). I then check the papers for common misconceptions and target those in class.
Technological means: There a number of ways in which technology can assist in the peer and self-assessment process. Google forms are great; as are online quizzes provided by trusted third parties (e.g. BBC Bitesize and MyiMaths) and online quizzes that teachers can build by themselves (e.g. Quizlets). Make use of these and others (e.g. Kahoot– great for getting kids to use their mobile devices), as they are really interactive and can offer a nice break from traditional methods.
Stategy #5: Make use of ‘Intangibles’
Intangibles are those pieces of work which aren’t really marked, but are still really important. They count as homework, but they save you time because no feedback (or only limited feedback) is needed.
Revising for tests and quizzes
‘Reading ahead’ prior to starting a new topic
Completing a group presentation using software like Google® Slides (presumably, the kids would stand-up and present the presentation in class, allowing you to give real-time feedback verbally to them, in the moment)
Automated systems, such as Educake, MyMaths and Lexia. Computer programmes like these assess the work for the students, saving you time. You may, however, wish to follow-up by keeping records and sharing some verbal feedback with your students.
Make homework a powerful and enjoyable process of providing high-quality feedback and learning opportunities for your students. Implement the following strategies today!:
Create a homework marking, setting, receiving and returning timetable for yourself, and stick to it!
Create a Learning Journals system – this will build routines and get your students into the habit of reviewing, customizing and summarizing their work on a regular basis
Try ‘Live-marking’: it’s such a powerful technique and it saves you so much time!
Use peer-assessment and self-assessment – why mark things yourself if the students can do it (and they’ll learn more from the process)?
Make use of intangibles, but don’t overuse them
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It’s a warm mid-summer day in muddy Swynnerton, England. I’m at an army base for Summer Camp. I’m a 15-year-old army cadet.
The Territorial Army had some of their boys in to inspire and help us. They needed a cadet to help with the radio and signals work during night exercises. I can’t remember if I volunteered or if I was chosen, but I very quickly found myself listening in on the radio transmissions, recording the call signs and messages in the log book and taking action where needed to pass on vital information about group movements and conditions, along with any emergencies.
I loved it. It was ace!
I just immersed myself in the process and did the best job I could. I was told what to do by the T.A. lads and I just got on with it.
Later that night, they all shook my hand and told me I had done a good job.
The next day came and I was approached by my home platoon sergeant. I can still remember her words, two decades later: “Corporal Rogers I’m hearing brilliant things about you from the T.A. Keep it up! You’re doing Flint Platoon proud”.
That felt amazing, and it spurred me on to work harder.
Praise only works when it is used properly
The Army Cadets were an excellent model of good teaching. To be honest, I really think they turned my life around. I went from a shy, weak and rather timid boy to a confident and rather ambitious young man in the space of about three years, thanks to their help.
I’m going to summarise what I’ve found to be the very best ways to use praise to empower and push our students forward. They worked for me when I was being taught as a kid, and they’ve worked for thousands of students that I’ve helped in my twelve years as a high school teacher.
Rule #1: Praise must be sincere
If you don’t mean it, then don’t say it. Kids are not easily tricked. Praise is only ever effective when the teacher saying the nice words of encouragement truly means it.
Rule #2: Praise must be specific
Does the student know exactly why they’ve done a great job? Does the student know what they did well?
Be specific. Here are some examples:
“Well done, John, for drawing your diagrams with a ruler. They look really neat and tidy, and I can tell that you’ve put time and effort into this work. I am very pleased. Keep it up”
“I’m so pleased with the excellent progress you have made this term, Rosie! Just look at these results: You’ve gone from a level 5 in test 1, then to a level 6 and now you’re working at a level 7. That’s very impressive, Thank you for your hard work and commitment”
Rule #3: Praise must be recorded and remembered by the teacher
Try keeping a professional intelligence journal.
I’ve written about the power of this techniquebefore, but I’ll go through the process again for clarity.
Basically, at the start of every academic year you should purchase a new notebook. Make sure there are enough pages in it for every student. Every student gets a page.
On each page write down and record any significant interactions with the student. Record their birthdays, hobbies they have, times when they were praised, significant achievements in extra-curricular activities, etc.
Once this information has been recorded, it can be effectively reinforced (please see my post on ‘subtle reinforcement‘ for more info about this powerful technique).
Rule #4: Reinforce the praise at significant points in the future
Did you notice that my platoon sergeant praised me the next day? That was powerful, because she wasn’t actually there when I did the signals work, but someone had spoken with her.
Praise must be collective if it is to be truly effective. When a student does a great piece of work, tell your colleagues and your line manager. Ask them to reinforce your praise by giving their own praise to the student.
Reinforcement should also be self-driven – remind your students of previous achievements in order to empower their momentum.
“I remember the excellent Chemistry student who built the atomic structure model in Term 1. She said ‘I’ll find a way to suspend the protons in the middle’. Jessica, you’ve already shown me what a hard-working, committed student you are. This is your moment to shine once again. Put your best effort into this, I believe in you. I know you can do this!”
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Today is a remarkable and unique day. The suspense and the emotion fills the air. It surrounds us. We can even taste it.
A daring and incredibly dangerous rescue mission has been given the green light to go ahead. Today is the day that Royal Thai Navy Seal divers will begin the attempt to rescue the 12 schoolboys and their 25-year-old coach who’ve been trapped in the Tham Luang cave complex, Chiang Rai, for two weeks.
Being based in Bangkok, Thailand, I have a close association with Thai people from all walks of life. This event has truly gripped the nation, and the world.
Before I talk about today’s subject matter, I’d like to ask all of my readers to please join me and all Thai people by praying for the safe rescue of all 12 boys and their coach (and the safe return of the rescuers).
Humans are natural carers
This cave rescue in Thailand has given me a fresh perspective on the topic of empathy. It’s made me ask the question: do children really need to be taught how to care for one another?
The outpouring of help for these trapped boys and their coach has been truly inspirational. I won’t even begin to attempt to write a list of all of those who have helped because that list would be so huge it would take months, maybe years, to research and collate. But it has been remarkable. People from all over the world have literally sacrificed their time, money, health and energy to do everything possible to help these boys.
One man even sacrificed his life: Petty Officer Saman Gunan, who fell unconscious and died shortly after delivering oxygen tanks in the cave complex.
When times are at their worst, humans will do everything they can to help. Mr Saman Gunan is a true hero who selflessly did the best he could to help people who were in desperate need.
Surely this is our highest and most prized quality as humans – selflessness. Few people, however, are both incredibly brave and selfless, as Mr Gunan was.
He will forever be remembered, and missed.
Teaching kids to care
I personally believe that the vast majority of people are natural carers. We empathise naturally – it’s part of who we are.
According to Samantha Rodman (Clinical Psychologist and Author), however, there are six keys ways in which we can teach kids empathy. This would seem important in a world where youngsters are being increasingly detached from physical interactions with one another by the barriers of mobile technology.
Materialism also doesn’t escape the jury’s verdict.
According to research conducted by psychologists at Northwestern University, materialism is socially destructive. It is associated with depression, anxiety and broken relationships.
To further compound this issue a more startling picture of human empathy is portrayed by the research conducted by Sara H. Konrath and colleagues of the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor and published in Personality and Social Psychology Review. Her team conducted a 30-year study between 1979 and 2009 and discovered that Emphatic Concern and Perspective Talking is declining rapidly in college students.
Maybe we do need to teach kids how to care, after all.
So what are the six ways to teach empathy?
Teach kids about emotions: Children need to know what emotions are, and how to identify them. Once kids have identified those emotions, they can then learn how to manage them. Progress in this area has been heavily fueled by the Mindfulness in Schools strategy, which teaches the importance of observing one’s thoughts and emotions, rather than reacting by reflex-action. Check out their website – it’s well worth a look!
Read and watch TV with your children: I guess this could work in a parent-student, teacher-student and student-student dynamic. The key is to get the kids thinking about and discussing how the characters feel in different parts of the story. It still amazes me when I watch a movie in the cinema and people laugh when some character gets killed or something bad happens. Movies are strange entities because in some cases they play on human emotion positively by creating more empathy, but in some genres repeated watching can lead to desensitization.
After conflicts, have a reflection: This is a classic tried-and-tested technique, and it works well. “How do you think Sarah felt about what you said? How would you feel if someone said that about you?”. Getting young people to reflect on the emotional consequences of their actions can have profound, long-term effects on their character and personality.
Set an example by resolving conflicts in your own life: Probably more applicable to parents than teachers, or teacher-parents, but well-worth mentioning. If you have an argument with your wife in front of your kids, for example, you must also make-up in front of them too. With your students in school, you could get them to shake hands after an argument and get them to say sorry to one another.
Express feelings on behalf of those who cannot speak: Babies, pets and, in some cases, disabled people, cannot express their emotions verbally or through other means. Discuss with your students or children what the feelings of these individuals might be when the opportunity arises.
Be a good role-model of respect and decency: Show courtesy. Be respectful of people who have different opinions or beliefs than you do (unless those beliefs threaten life, health or safety – then you’ll have to take action in a sensible, emotionally-detached way). Let your students see you showing respect for those around you who may have a different religious belief system, or political opinion, than you do. It’s very sad to see politicians arguing on TV, for example, when they should show greater respect for one another.
Research has shown that empathy is decreasing in young people
Materialism is associated with anxiety, depression and the breakdown of relationships
There is a case to be made for the rigorous and broad teaching of empathy to kids in schools
There are ways to deliberately teach empathy to children, and six have been identified here
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They stood at the front of the audience: seemingly ready to dazzle us all. They were all 18 years old and in the final term of high school. I was much younger then too – 26 years old and in my third year of teaching.
It was a Biology revision presentation. I’d invited my colleague to come along to watch (also a Biology teacher).
The presenters began their talk.
When it was over, I needed to take a paracetamol tablet. I was rather perplexed.
I let my colleague chirp in with some feedback first, thinking she would cover most of the points I wanted to raise.
“A great presentation. I loved the level of detail and research. Well done”
That was it?
Now I found myself clenching my fist. I thought back to the late 90s when my dad received a ‘stress reliever’ doll one Christmas. It was basically a squishy, red, head-shaped rubbery thing in a pot that you could squeeze when you got a bit mad. It was joke gift of course: designed to cause a giggle or two; but I wished I had one right now.
“Mr. Rogers. What are your thoughts?” Asks my colleague.
After a barrage of questions which the students responded to with nervous looks and blank stares, I decided to give my merciless, but honest, feedback:
“Whilst I agree with my colleague that your research skills were good, there are still a few issues I’d like to address.
I’ll start with the negatives, then share my thoughts on what, if anything, was positive. All of you were reading directly off the slides and not making eye-contact with the audience. We can all read, so your method of presentation was not only boring but it was also patronizing. There was too much text on each slide. The material had not been properly referenced and the images you did use, though few, were of very low quality. You also superficially skimmed the surface of the topic, and didn’t even touch on issues such as splicing, introns and transposable elements.
On the positive side, you showed us all that you are very good at copying and pasting. You were also able to describe some of the concepts in some detail.
Please speak with me tomorrow morning during registration so that we can arrange a time to do this again”
The ‘respect’ factor
Unfortunately, many of us in the teaching profession have been conditioned to dish out praise all day long for the most minuscule of things. A kid hands in a complete dog’s dinner of a homework and it’s “Well done for handing this in on time. Meeting deadlines is important”.
I could go on with the spectrum of ‘non-confrontational’, politically correct garbage that I was conditioned to spew for another 1000 words, but I think that would be tedious.
I used to be one of those ‘praise everything’ teachers. Guess what I found out:
Praise only works when it is sincere
Praise only works when it recognises significant, meaningful achievements that have taken some work to accomplish
Praise is extra effective when preceded (NOT followed by) points for improvement
And guess what else I’ve found out – students respect us more when we are honest. They respect us when we tell them that they need to improve. They respect us when we are vigilant.
Lots of research supports these findings. Here are two good examples:
A 2016 summary by Vanderbilt University found that praise works well when it is behavior-specific, and that a ratio of 4 praise statements to one reprimand works well for improving performance (if 4 praise statements are available for the work being assessed). Here are some examples of language changes we can make to turn praise into a kind of ‘disguised reprimand’ or ‘behavior enforcer”:
Whilst this table is useful, I think it’s important to remember that reprimands must be specific and direct. “We don’t take other people’s property, because that causes suffering to another person. When you’re older, you can also get into big trouble with the police for that. You’ll need to write a letter of apology to Simon for what you did.”
A 2015 blog post by Brian Gatens at the University of Portland made the point that when teachers show honesty and compassion, they build trust with their students. Compassion doesn’t mean making kids feel good all the time – it means letting them know when they’ve under-performed, and caring enough to do something about it! It also involves celebrating and recognising significant progress, performance and attainment.
‘Mediocre’ Versus ‘Vigilant’
Here are some statements I’ve come up with which sum up the ‘Mediocre’ teacher, versus the ‘Vigilant’ teacher. I don’t mean to offend anyone here – I was once the Mediocre Teacher. I share my findings as a means of self-reflection for all of us. I still get a bit ‘mediocre’ at times, but at least I’m aware of how to spot that now:
Mediocre teachers record attainment and progress. Vigilant teachers record attainment and progress, quickly identify under-performance and then intervene to improve that.
Mediocre teachers praise the smallest of things. Vigilant teachers reserve their praise for significant, meaningful displays of effort, attainment and progress.
Mediocre teachers sometimes bring up points for improvement with their students. Vigilant teachers leave ‘no stone unturned’, and relentlessly monitor their students’ weaknesses and do the best they can to improve those.
Mediocre teachers don’t feel the need to be a ‘role-model’ for their students. Vigilant teachers understand that their words, actions and subliminal cues will act as points of reference for their students for many years to come.
Mediocre teachers mark their students work. Vigilant teachers provide feedback that’s meaningful and specific.
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He pulled me aside at the end of class as we were getting ready to go home. I had tremendous respect for my sensei and his words, though few, always hit-home hard.
“You a look a mess, Richard. Why isn’t your gi ironed”
“My mum didn’t have time to iron it today”
“Your mum shouldn’t have to iron it for you. What are you: a man or a weasel? Take responsibility for your own life. Iron your own flippin’ gi and make sure you look tidy next lesson!”
A ‘gi’ is a karate suit, just in case you didn’t know. It’s made typically of heavy cotton drill and it’s plain white. Easy to get dirty and hard to clean. Even harder to iron.
However, I wanted to win my sensei’s approval. I wanted to ‘be a man’ and take responsibility for my own karate, my own personal dress and personal presentation.
It’s funny when I think about it now, but that short conversation with my sensei totally changed my life. It felt like I’d gone down a peg or two in his sight and opinion.
I worked harder than ever before to train and to be the ‘perfect’ student: My gi was freshly washed and ironed every time (I asked my mum not to help – I was 11 years old and my sensei wanted me to ‘man up’).
Years later, when I went to a local karate shop to buy a new karate suit, I happened to bump into my old sensei there that same day.
“Richard, it’s flippin’ great to see you!”
“Me too, how you doing”
“I’m good. You still training?”
“Yeah I joined a Shotokan Club at uni”
“That’s flippin’ great. You know, I remember the kid who didn’t iron his gi and was very clumsy. Remember that conversation we had in the changing rooms that day?”
“Wow! Yes, sure. I remember you telling me off”
“Haha, yes. Well, I noticed a massive difference in you after that day. I was sorry to lose you when you left for uni – you were the best brown belt in the dojo”
That felt good. The fact that my old sensei remembered me, and remembered our conversation. That he genuinely took an interest in me – that was inspirational.
It reminded me of who I was, which brings me to my first tip of Subtle Reinforcement.
Subtle reinforcement tip 1: Remind your students of who they are
This is different to reminding students of their achievements – it involves reminding students of their character.
As an NQT I was full of enthusiasm, as we all are. I wanted to change the world ‘one student at a time’.
Suddenly, my chance came like a clap of thunder.
Walking down the corridor one day I passed one of my Science students. He was looking very depressed, and divulged to me that his girlfriend had just dumped him.
“John, I know how you’re feeling right now. Trust me, I’ve been there. But see this as your baptism by fire. This is the moment where you realise how strong you are. This is the moment where you gain back control and focus on what you’ve been letting slide in your life. It’s her loss and your gain – now you have more time to perfect your BMX biking and become the best geographer in the whole school.”
We part as men – his fist punches mine in a sign of solidarity. The lightning begins to fork in his soul. Already his mind is tuned-in to my words. Already he starts to fight back.
He comes to class extra early, and gives 110% to each lesson. There’s a renewed respect for me as his teacher – he knows that I actually care.
Five months later his final exams are approaching and he’s getting stressed out. I ask him how his revision is going.
“To be honest, sir, it’s going badly. I’m just so stressed with it all”
To which I reciprocate: “I remember the man who who didn’t let life beat him down when his girlfriend decided to walk away. I remember the man who achieved grade As and Bs across the board and impressed everyone in school with his complete turnaround.”
Then I lower my voice.
“I remember the man who came second place in the BMX showdown at Westminster Park”
“You know about that?”
“Your mum told me”
He walks away trying his best to hide a grin that cannot be hidden. He remembers who he is. He remembers how all it took was a change of focus to create vastly different results in his life.
He went on to get 96% in his End of Year Science exam: the highest in his year group.
Reminding our students of who they are renews their faith in themselves. This can have a dramatic impact on their lives.
Subtle Reinforcement tip 2: Remind your students of their skills and achievements
We sometimes fall into the trap of thinking that the skills and achievements that students display outside of our subject areas are not relevant to us.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
Benjamin was struggling in Science class. He found experimental work difficult because his fine-motor skills were limited. His Special Educational Needs also affected his retention of written information in class.
I started an ECA at school one year – website design. It was a very simple and easy ECA – the kids picked topics they loved and basically made websites about them. Each week they would update their content and share what they had done with the group.
Benjamin signed up for that ECA and absolutely took to it like a duck to water. I was actually quite surprised – his website was by far the best in the class. He just happened to have a ‘knack’ for it.
After the Christmas break I gave Benjamin a unique task:
“Benjamin – you are now my class Online Learning Chief. This is an important responsibility which I have not handed out lightly”
“Wow. Me? Why?”
“Because you are brilliant at web design. I’ve seen your great images on your site. I remember your portfolio of Minecraft tactics that you wrote in such a comprehensive way. From now on, I want you to do all of your homework online. When you’ve built up your website to a sufficient quantity, we’ll share it with the rest of the class as a revision resource. Deal?”
I follow through. For once in his school life, Benjamin actually gets recognized for something valuable. This wasn’t a participation medal for turning up on Sports Day. This was recognition of something significant that Benjamin actually possesses.
He goes on to raise his achievement by two grades that year – from an E to a C. This amounts to his biggest step-up in progress he has made in school, ever.
By reminding our students of their skills and achievements, we offer them solutions to daily problems. In a similar mission to that of differentiation, we aim to inspire the inner genius through methods that appeal to each student’s learning style.
Subtle Reinforcement Tip 3: Take the time to discuss progress
A quick two-minute chat is all it takes. Bring the student to your computer and show him his grades for the year thus far.
Use this to congratulate or to offer advice for improvement.
This shows each student that you are ‘on the ball’: that you are alert to their progress and that you care about their grades.
This approach is guaranteed to have positive outcomes, if dealt with in the mood of ‘passing on information’ rather than dishing-out criticism.
Subtle Reinforcement Tip 4: Be the person you want your students to be
This is the part of the article where I must try my best not to sound like a patronizing ignoramus. I’ll have a go.
Kids notice things about us.
They notice the things we do, the way we look and the things we say, even when not spoken directly to the students who are listening.
Drawing upon our own life experiences can be a great way to get our students focussed on the right path.
The Science teacher who pulls out his vitamin box to show the students his daily supplementation for good health – this teacher is ‘living’ the subject.
The maths teacher who takes part in World Maths Day along with the students shows that maths is fun – not just something for kids to do.
The P.E. teacher who genuinely stays in shape by hitting the gym a few times per week sets an excellent example for her students to follow, and respect.
I want the very best for my students, but if my mouth is saying one thing whilst I do the exact opposite then I’ll end up becoming a laughing-stock.
That’s not a good place to be.
Student Reinforcement Tip 5: Be there when they need you to be there
My IB Chemistry students were an amazing cohort of hard-working individuals.
They needed my help a lot though.
It was not uncommon for random students to turn up at my room at lunch times and after school to seek help with questions, homework and coursework.
I could have chosen the easy option and made myself unavailable – I would certainly have gained more time and less work that way. But what’s the point in living like that?
I wanted my students to do well. I was happy to help when I could.
There was a limit, of course, and they knew that. I wasn’t prepared to stay all night and help them – I had a life of my own too. But I was prepared to stay for a significant and suitable amount of time to help them out when needed.
The results were profound – they worked harder, enjoyed the subject more and made better progress.
To be honest, I also felt a sense of satisfaction too. To me that’s the best reward of teaching – the knowledge that you’ve touched someone else’s heart. The knowledge that you’ve really made a difference.
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The events in this article are based on actual occurrences. The names and, in some instances, the genders of individuals have been changed to protect the individuals’ privacy.
He opened his laptop and started playing around, again. I hadn’t quite noticed until I’d gotten the rest of this Year 7 class to get their books open and start completing the questions that were on the whiteboard.
It took a good five minutes for them all to settle down.
They’d just been learning about the human body in the best way I could think of: They took apart a life-sized model of a human female (filled with plastic, life-sized organs) and completely rebuilt it.
It had gotten them quite excited; especially the boys, who thought that the mammary glands inside a female breast were completely hilarious!
The class then had to cut and stick a paper human body together – organs included. But he was taking too long.
Christopher was a happy and talkative kid, but his work-rate was slow. On two occasions that lesson I walked over to his desk to help out and remind him to speed up, as everyone else was ahead of where he was. He should have been able to get that work done quickly. He had no Special Educational Needs and his English proficiency had increased so much in three months that he had graduated from the E.L.D. programme.
The only thing slowing him down was his chattiness.
I should have moved him sooner in the lesson – my mistake. 15 minutes before the end of the class I moved him to the front to sit next to me, where he couldn’t chat with friends and be distracted.
It wasn’t enough time.
I pondered the idea of giving him a detention. Break-time was straight after this lesson, so it would be easy for me to keep him behind for ten minutes to get that work done.
The concept and purpose of detentions
Before we can fully understand how to use detentions effectively, we must first remind ourselves of what detentions are and, therefore, what their purpose should be.
A detention is a period of time that is purposefully taken away from a student’s extra-curricular or non-curricular time. It may involve a teacher-supervised activity during a morning break, lunch or after school.
Detentions are given to students for a wide-variety of reasons; some of which are more logical than others. Reasons for detentions (starting with the most logical and useful) can include:
Failure to complete homework or classwork
Persistent lateness/lack of punctuality
Disruption to class activities through poor behaviour
Receiving a certain, set number of ‘warnings’ or ‘demerits’
Christopher’s case as an example to follow
The most logical and useful way to use detentions is time-for-time: time not spent completing homework or classwork should be compensated by time spent on detention.
In Christopher’s case I decided to give the break-time detention. Here are the reasons for my choice:
The Science lesson ended at break-time, so it was convenient for me to keep him behind in my class (I didn’t have the problem of, say, giving him a lunchtime detention for the next day and then having to remember that he is coming and maybe chase him up if he doesn’t come along).
Christopher would be exchanging his breaktime for time spent completing his classwork. He must do this, as he will fall behind if he doesn’t.
The detention serves as a reinforcement of the teacher’s authority, and a stern reminder that a poor work-ethic just won’t be tolerated. It turns out that after only two such break-time detentions, Christopher pulled up his socks and began working at a reasonable pace during lessons.
General tips for detentions that will save you many problems
Every detention must attempt to address or solve the problem that it was given for.
Consider the following:
Detentions eat up the teacher’s time as well as the students, so we really should only be giving out detentions when it is absolutely necessary (as in Christopher’s case above)
For homework that’s not done on time: call the perpetrating student or students to your desk for a quick one-to-one discussion at the end of class, or during a class activity. Express your disappointment, and why meeting deadlines is important. Relate it to the world of work, for example “If I didn’t write your reports on time, what would happen to me? That’s right, I’d be in big trouble”. Allow the students an extra day or so to get the work done. No need for conflict, no need to spend your precious lunch time giving a detention.
If students still don’t hand in the homework even after extending a deadline, then it is necessary to give a detention. CRUCIALLY, however, the purpose of the detention MUST be to complete that homework. Print the sheet again if necessary, provide the necessary resources and get the student to complete the work. This makes the detention less confrontational and reinforces the reason why it was given in the first place.
The same goes for classwork: give students the chance to take their books home and complete classwork if it isn’t done on-time in class. Persistent slow work-rates in class, if not caused by reasonable circumstances (such as Special Educational Needs), should be met with detentions that allow the student to catch up. In almost every case you’ll find that the students will cotton-on to the fact that they can’t get away with distraction and laziness in class, and they’ll soon improve. For those that don’t improve even after focused detentions, further action will be needed and may involve parents and senior/middle management.
For poor behaviour, detentions need to be planned and crafted really well. Remember: the detention should attempt to address or solve the problem that it was given for. I remember a couple of years back when two boys got involved in a bit of a scuffle in the science lab. It wasn’t anything major, but one kid said a nasty word to the other and that kid decided to punch his mate in the arm quite hard. As a Science Teacher, this is something I must absolutely nip-in-the-bud because safety in the lab is paramount, and kids just can’t scuffle or fight in there: period. I gave them both a detention for the next day at 1pm. They came, and I spent the time explaining to them why their behavior was unacceptable. They wrote letters of apology to me and each other, and left the detention understanding exactly why I had taken their time away from them. I didn’t have a problem with them again.
Lessons that end at break times work well for giving detentions if necessary, as you can easily retain the students when the bell rings. If you do assign detentions for the next day or at a later time, then pencil those into your diary – this will serve both as a useful reminder and as a record of who’ve you’ve given detentions to and how often.
I’m a massive believer in the power of recurring work and journaling, and have written about it in detail here and here.
Learning journals are just great for giving regular recurring feedback and for consolidating and reviewing cumulative knowledge gained throughout an academic year. But did you know that Learning Journals save you many a supervised detention too?
Many schools provide homework timetables for students and teachers to follow. With the very best of intentions, these timetables aim to distribute student and teacher workload evenly and fairly. However, they can prove difficult to follow when units include different intensities of work, and when school events get in the way.
That’s where Learning Journals come in!
Set Learning Journals as homework each week. The basic idea is that students buy their own notebook and fill it with colorful revision notes on a weekly basis (although they can be done online too: through Google Sites, for example). Perhaps your Year 10 class could hand-in their learning journals in every Wednesday, and collect them from you (with feedback written inside, see the articles cited above) every Friday. By setting up a register of collection that the students sign, you can easily see who hasn’t handed in their journal that week.
Then……follow the guidelines given above for dealing with late or un-submitted homework. You’ll find that after a few weeks of initiating Learning Journals you’ll get a near 100% hand-in rate, because the students are really clear about what is expected each week, because it is a recurring homework.
Whole school considerations
Many schools adopt a popular (but massively problematic) ‘mass-detention’ system of some sort, which works something like this:
The student receives the requisite number of ‘warnings’ in a particular lesson which lead to a break or lunch time detention being given
The student is sent to a room with other students from the school who’ve also received detentions
Teachers supervise the ‘detention room’ on a rotating basis, thereby (in theory), sharing the workload across the staff body
The students are given generic tasks to do during the detention time, which may include filling in a form, completing homework or in the very worst cases just sitting still and being quiet for twenty minutes or so.
The problem with systems like this is that they are not personal to the students receiving the detentions. They do not follow the ‘golden rule’: that detentions should address or solve the problem that they were given for.
What’s much more effective in the long-term is to trust individual teachers to administer their own detentions. Perhaps provide a quick training session based on good practice (feel free to use this article if you wish), and allow the teachers to then use their judgement to decide when and how detentions should be given.
Student detentions are only effective when they have the ‘personal touch’. When detentions address the original issue by allowing more time to complete homework or classwork, or allow for a one-on-one discussion about behaviour, the following magical things happen:
The detention is given from a standpoint of care and concern, not confrontation and aggression
Students realise the reason why the detention was given as this reason is reinforced by the activities given during the time of the detention
Students improve. It’s that simple. Mass detention systems rarely work because they don’t pinpoint the personal reasons behind why the student is under-performing. Detentions with the ‘personal touch’ cause students to realise their errors and most, if not all, will improve in a short space of time.
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He waddled his way through the corridor like a happy duckling. Amid the giggles and cries of small children he looked liked a giant orange with tentacles as he waded through the masses on his way to the library. Mr Jones was dressed as ‘Mr Tickle’ from the ‘Mr Men’ series of books.
The outfit must have taken an astronomical amount of time to create. With orange fur and controllable arms it was clear who was going to win the ‘Best Dressed Teacher’ competition.
I, on the other hand, tend to be a little too lazy with my outfit on World Book Day. This year was no exception. Can you guess who I am?:
If you said ‘James Bond’ then well done: you’re right! It’s a quick (and a little too lazy) conversion for me: change my tie to a bow, add a dinner shirt and a white pocket square and I’m ready to serve on Her Majesty’s Secret Service!
“Who have you come as?” one of my friends says to me as I walk into the staff room on Friday (we had our World Book Day a day later as Thursday is a religious holiday here in Thailand). “I’m James Bond” I say (rather upset that I wasn’t instantly recognizable). “Is that even a book” he says. “It’s a whole series of books, written by Ian Fleming”
“Wow. I had no idea”
World Book Day is great for getting people to ask good questions. Often, the characters we dress up as are in fact movie stars which we never knew existed in books. This can really get kids inspired to read more as they gradually realize that good books are often the basis for their favorite movies or TV shows. Good examples include:
Harry Potter– The all-time legendary series of fantasy books written by J.K. Rowling. These books have formed the basis for a whopping 8 different movies!
The Hunger Games– These action packed dystopian novels featuring stoic and passionate heroin: Katniss Everdeen, have been transformed into five excellent films.
Twilight– Popular with teenagers and young adults: these fantasy/romance novels were brilliantly conceived and written by legendary author Stephenie Meyer
What message does all of this send to kids when they are fully aware of the facts? That’s simple:Books are cool! Books are inspirational. Books change lives. Read books!
It’s a shame that World Book Day is only once per year. In reality, every day should be a World Book Day as we should encourage our kids to read books and enjoy learning English on a daily basis.
As a teacher at an International School in Bangkok, I have the unique privilege and pleasure of working with classes where, in many cases, more than 90% of the students are working with English as an additional/second language. One of my unique missions every day is to help my students to see why English is a beautiful language. To help them notice patterns and sounds. To ensure that they use the correct language in their answers to exam-style questions.
Try putting up a ‘command-terms’ display in your classroom (like the one below):
I use this display on a daily basis to teach my students how to phrase their answers. I like to turn the command terms into kid-friendly language when going through exam-style and past-paper questions. For instance:
Describe: Tell me ‘what’
Explain: Tell me ‘why and how’
Deduce: Work out the answer and show every step in your work
Eventually, the students can build up a long list of command terms in their Learning Journals or notebooks, coupled with their ‘kid-friendly’ descriptions. The display also follows Bloom’s Taxonomy, with command terms demanding more sophistication in written responses as you go up the pyramid.
The result: Students learn good English vocabulary and score better on exams. What could be better than that!
Command terms are so important, in fact, that many textbooks are now emphasizing them as students work through the chapters. Take this extract from a book my students were using in one of our Science tutoring sessions this week:
As I was helping these students, I found that explaining the command term first, before tackling the question, really helped in getting a suitable answer. The two girls who I was tutoring would say “Ah, I get it now” when the command term was made clear.
Do you think that students will use these command terms in their daily and future lives? Absolutely! Command terms come up in a range of contexts when operating through the medium of English. For example: “How can we justify this business decision?”, “On the basis of the previous two-years sales, can you predict likely sales for the first quarter of this year?”, “How can we determine who is the best candidate for this role?”, and on we could go ad infinitum.
Isn’t this what language-learning is all about? Getting students to learn key words, then to enjoy using those words and then to apply them to a range of contexts?
In my honest opinion, command terms offer the ultimate key in cross-curricular learning and should be explored by curriculum leaders as a way to really ‘gel’ their subjects together. The result of this: deep learning and an added sense of importance attached to each subject as students see how they link together.
I have a system set up where students in Year 11, 12 and 13 (approx. ages 15 – 18) bring me a journal filled with revision notes, key words, past-paper questions and answers every Monday. It’s such an effective way to boost confidence and performance, but it does require a bit of organisation and leadership from the teacher.
If you have identified students who could use such a journal to focus specifically on learning key words and command terms, then here are the steps to take:
Step 1: Tell the students to get a special notebook. It doesn’t need to be fancy. Just a cheap spiral bound one will do just fine.
Step 2:The students should divide the first page into three columns:
For example: Moment, The force applied to a lever multiplied by the distance from the pivot, mo-men-t
For an EAL student you can include a fourth column:
In this column, the student can write the word in his/her native language.
Step 3: The students should write down the key words they learn every week into this journal, along with all of the other information.
Step 4:CRUCIAL! The key words and information must be CHECKED every week. Check the words, the meaning and the pronunciation (you can even get the students to say the words to you – this reinforces their memory of the terminology).
Don’t forget to reward students for good work too: use your school’s points/merits system, write nice comments on their work and even think of special rewards: a ‘star of the week’ for example, where you display the student’s work on the class noticeboard.
Use voice inflections
Science is great for teaching kids new words. When we, as teachers, genuinely love to pronounce and say key words then our kids will love doing that too.
I have quite a funny little system I use in class. When a key word comes up, I’ll give it a rank:
“Precipitate. Precipitate. Such a beau-ti-ful word. Say “Pre-ci-pi-tate”
“Excellent! Precipitate is number 3 on my ‘Favorite Words in Science’ list”
Student:“What’s number one”
“That’s a secret! One day you’ll find out! A prize to first person to e-mail me my number one Science word when they hear it!”
Of course, my number one word will come at the end of the academic year when the suspense and excitement has been building up for two terms.
Use vocabulary jokes
I’ve recently started experimenting with this and it’s working like a treat! It does take some planning and skill though, and is best described through some examples:
Vocabulary Joke 1: ‘Formal Charge’
I recently used this joke with my Year 13 students to reinforce the term ‘Formal Charge’ – a concept in Organic Chemistry.
“I was walking to the coffee shop yesterday and Mr Davies asked me “Mr Rogers, what is your favorite F.C.? Is it Liverpool F.C.?’ And guess what?”
“I said ‘No. My favorite F.C. is ‘Formal Charge'”
I then laugh and say “This is the life of a Chemistry Teacher. Hashtag #chemistrylife”
Class: (giggles and laughter)
This has long-term effects outside of the classroom too. Effects which fully embed the phrases. For example: when I was actually walking to the coffee shop one of my Year 13 students passed me and I said “What is your favorite F.C.?” and she said “Formal Charge”.
Vocabulary Joke 2: ‘Alkali’
An alkali is the opposite of an acid, having a pH higher than 7 (think of soap, for example). I used this joke recently with my Year 10 students:
“A student of mine in Year 9 asked me: ‘Mr Rogers, do you like my homework?’, and guess what happened!'”
Class:“What?!!” (they know that a joke is coming!)
“I said I more than like your work, I ‘alkalike‘ your homework”
I then laugh and say “This is the life of a Chemistry Teacher. Hashtag #chemistrylife”
Class:(giggles and laughter)
Clean and fun jokes can like this can be very powerful. The kids will say them to their parents and friends, and if you refer to them outside of the classroom (e.g. John, do you like my new notebook? John: I ‘alkalike’ it), then you can really embed these key terms. The result:Kids will love English, will repeat the words you say and will eventually use these key terms frequently in their written responses.
There are many more strategies you can use to get your learners to enjoy learning the English language. Check out my blog posts on Learning Journals and Vocabulary Values for more tips.
Our aim must be to get our students to LOVE English – speaking it, reading it, listening to it and writing it. Encourage good language learning by:
Taking part fully in English-themed events such as World Book Day
Using and embedding command terms
Creating a Learning Journals system
Pronouncing key words in a funny way and getting students to repeat them out loud (elocution)
Making full use of powerful ‘Vocabulary Jokes’
Using other strategies, such as vocabulary games, which you can find on my blog posts here and here.
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The ability to learn independently is a key aspirational skill of all of our students; or at least it should be.
Not only do our top students need to learn how to study independantly when they get to university, but all of our students need to be prepared for careers that may not yet exist.
Empower students through marking
When you first meet your advanced learners, or when they are starting out on their ‘independent learning training’, empower them with encouraging comments on their work.
Take this recent example of mine for instance:
This work is from a final year IBDP student. She’s done a good job of finding and filtering relevant information by herself. I’ve praised the things she’s done well, and offered tips on how to extend her research.
Over time, the amount of written comments I give on this kind of project work/research will definitely decrease. This is only needed in the initial stages.
For her next piece of work, peer assessment and some verbal feedback from me may be all that she needs to be encouraged to keep on track and continue to improve.
Design project work with a creative outcome in mind
Here are some ideas for group and individual projects:
Create an infographic about a particular topic, to be displayed on the classroom wall
Create a class presentation, perhaps on Google slides, to be presented to the class at some future date
Create a website summary of a topic
Build a model or a demo to show the class
Create a dramatized play/news report about a topic
Create a song/rap
Create a stop-motion animation of a process
Create a spatial Learning activity (kids might need some training for this one: see my blog post here for help)
Create a leaflet or brochure, to be distributed to another class or Year group (cooperate with other teachers on this one – perhaps a leaflet exchange is a good idea)
Can you think of more to add to the list?
Use Imaginative Evaluation
When people think of an ‘evaluation’ they’re often drawn to their early memories of their Science lessons at school.
In those kinds of evaluations students have to decide what worked well, what didn’t work well and what changes could be made to methods and equipment to make the experiment better next time.
With Imaginative Evaluation, students use their ingenuity to think of what they could do better if there were no limitations in terms of equipment, time, resources and technology.
In an attempt to create the innovators of tomorrow, Imaginative Evaluation aims to get kids thinking about what technology, currently not available, that they would invent to solve the problem they’re facing.
This excerpt from my book shows a planning and evaluation form that can be used with any assignment, in any subject, to encourage Imaginative Evaluation:
Get your students to build what they are learning in some way. You don’t need fancy equipment: straws, bottle caps, crumpled paper, cardboard, paints and even plastic bottles can all be mashed and mangled together by students to create amazing models.
I’ve used this technique across my teaching in Science to get students to create everything from atomic models (a recent example is given below) to makeshift ‘eco gardens’.
Can you think of times where you could use this technique in your curriculum area?
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It was a cold October morning in North Wales. I was a fresh, Newly Qualified Teacher at Denbigh High School.
Young and inexperienced with rose-tinted goggles: I was mindful of my responsibilities as a new Science teacher. Expectations were high.
When the Deputy Head of the school suddenly asked to observe one of my Year 9 Physics lessons I knew I had to perform well. As a thriving school with a great reputation, Denbigh definitely set the bar high.
My Year 9 kids were typical 13 and 14-year-olds. Some days they were great and some days they’d just had enough. Keeping them on-task was a challenge for an unskilled teacher like me.
Frantically thinking of ideas for this major lesson observation that was coming up, I thought about how to keep the kids interested whilst maintaining challenge at the same time. I was going to be teaching a lesson about series and parallel circuits, but I’d made the mistake of not ordering circuitry and equipment from my Science technician. A class practical was simply out of the question at such short notice, and the circuitry was booked by a number of other teachers that day anyway. I could only order enough equipment for a class demo.
What on Earth was I going to do?
Simulations and online learning was out of the question – this was 2006 and kids didn’t have the right mobile devices and they didn’t carry laptops. Online resources were also limited.
I felt uneasy about taking the kids to the computer lab, even though it was available. My Deputy Head wanted to see me teach, not watch the kids work on computers for 40 minutes (or so I assumed).
In a moment of despair and perplexity I was suddenly given a flash of inspiration: what if I could turn the lab into a giant circuit? The kids could become ‘model electrons’ and could walk around the classroom holding up little signs, pretending to be flowing around a circuit. I could even hold up a sign saying ‘cell’, and a few kids could be model ‘switches’ and ‘bulbs’. Hell, it might just work!
The day comes
I frantically printed a class set of A4 signs – just simple sheets which said ‘electron’, ‘switch’ and ‘bulb’ in big letters.
‘This crazy idea might save my day after all’, I thought!
The kids came in and sat down. Back then I hadn’t mastered the art of giving students something quick to do as soon as they enter the door (see my three A’s in my book). I got right into this activity as a starter (which turned into a semi-main body of the lesson).
I lined all the kids up and gave them each a sign. Most of them would pretend to be electrons and a few would be switches and bulbs (‘switch on’, ‘switch off’, ‘bulb on’ and ‘bulb off’ signs were given to these pupils).
The desks were arranged in rows, so I started with a series circuit. I explained the route the kids had to take and they started walking, holding up their signs. They smiled and giggled along the way. When the ‘electrons’ passed the ‘bulb’ it ‘lit up’, and when the ‘switch off’ student held up his sign, the ‘electrons’ stopped moving and the ‘bulb off’ sign was held up, proudly.
To my astonishment, the kids absolutely loved it. More importantly: they understood the concepts of the lesson brilliantly. They completed a short worksheet after the ‘circuit walk’ (which they all could answer with ease) and then I gave my short circuit demo with actual wires and bulbs and switches.
My deputy head was very impressed. She praised my creativity and said that the ‘circuit walk’ was very effective.
Not bad for a freshy who prepared in rush!
That day I became a hardcore Spatial Learning fan. Fast forward to today and all of my students will tell you that I use spatial learning in almost every lesson I teach. It’s effectiveness speaks for itself.
But what is Spatial Learning?
There are many definitions and interpretations of spatial learning on the web and in various books. Some of this pedagogical mumbo-jumbo can be really confusing, but I believe I’ve nailed it down to one sentence:
Spatial Learning is when students use bodily movements to express themselves, solve problems and model situations.
Spatial Learning has both general and specific applications. I’ll now go through some great examples that illustrate the power of this excellent teaching tool.
Here’s a quick video I made about Spatial Learning:
A human graph and true or false?
Do you want to know the opinions of your students on a subject matter? Maybe you’re taking a survey (e.g. which day is the best for canteen food). Maybe you have a list of multiple choice questions and you want a fun way to get the kids through them.
A human graph might be the right tool for you!
What if you just want to quickly check your students’ conceptual understandings (e.g. as a plenary)? You could ask some true/false questions and get the kids to raise their hands, or you could use a way cooler (and more fun) method!
Choose one wall to be the ‘True’ wall and one to be the ‘False’ wall. Once you’ve asked the question, get the kids to walk to the correct wall. It’s that simple! Just make sure that the kids walk back to the middle of the classroom before each question.
This great illustration from Pop shows you the steps to take for each of these activities:
Do your kids need to express numerical answers sometimes? Maybe they need to work out a percentage or a fraction, or translate numbers from one language into another. Maybe they need to express something in Binary Code. Well it’s time to put pen and paper down and get your kids moving!
Turn your students into ‘human numbers’ by following Pop’s beautifully illustrated instructions:
For double and triple-digit numbers you can put students into groups for added fun!
The vast majority of the Spatial Learning I do involves modelling a situation, concept or solution. Like the example I gave earlier about the electrons travelling around the circuit, the students actually become the things that you’re teaching about.
Ifind that almost everything I teach can be modelled spatially in one form or another.
I’ll provide some examples to show just how easy it is, with just a little creativity, to turn any monotonous textbook paragraph into a living, breathing, exciting and stimulating task.
Modelling example one: Diffusion
Textbook definition:Diffusion is the passive movement of liquid or gas particles from a region of high particle concentration to a region of low particle concentration. The speed of diffusion of any given particle is dependent on its molecular mass. This means that a particle of ammonia, for example, will diffuse faster than a particle of hydrogen chloride as ammonia is the lighter of the two particles.
Modelling activity:As you can see, the textbook definition is rather hard to swallow.So, to jazz things up a little, you can turn the students into ammonia and hydrogen chloride particles and tell them to diffuse! In this activity, the students simply walk across the classroom at different speeds, depending on which molecule they are. Quick, easy to do and a nice break from writing, reading and listening to a lecture. More importantly: it’s really useful as a tool to help kids understand this concept.
See this illustration I drew below (my art work is dire compared to Pop’s, so I hope it’s understandable!):
Modelling example two: A Typical Home Network
In an attempt to show you just how pliable spatial learning is, I’ve designed a task for a subject area I don’t specialise in: ICT
Concept:A typical home network may be wired, wireless or a combination of both. Hardware components process and convey the data message from from part of the network to another.
Spatial learning task:For this task you need moving and stationary students. The stationary students stand at predetermined positions in the classroom (you can put signs on desks or on walls to help). These students represent the hardware. The rest of the students are the ‘data message’, and they move from one component to another. I hope the illustration below helps you to see just how easy this is to implement and how much fun it can be. Students should shout out the name of the hardware component they reach at each stage as they walk around the room.
Can you think think of ways to use modelling in your subject area?
Mydebut bookis filled with great spatial learning and active engagement tips. After the enormous success of that book I’ve decided to work on a new book that will be released mid-2018 which goes into even greater depth and breadth about the range of classroom management tactics available to teachers. Also, if you’re looking for a great book to build up spatial learning skills in small children, then I strongly recommend Julie Dillemuth’sLucy in the City: