Secret Number 7: The ‘Three As’

An article by Richard James Rogers (Author of The Quick Guide to Classroom Management).

Illustrated by Tikumporn Boonchuaylue

Related article: 7 Starter Activities for PGCE Students and Newly Qualified Teachers 

Here’s a video I made about the ‘Three As’, which should act as a nice supplement to this blog post:

Firstly, please accept my apologies for missing my scheduled blog post last Sunday. Last weekend was a little crazy, and this past week was busy as I was perfecting, editing and preparing end-of-year exam papers for my Chemistry students. I also wanted to write a genuine blog post (which requires time), rather than just copy and paste something and make do with that.

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“An AMAZING book!”

Hopefully the seven-day delay (I know, I feel bad about it too!) is compensated with a better reading experience for you.

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Enough groveling. Time for the nitty-gritty.

Objectives

That’s a word that most teachers and students have heard. The idea of making our kids aware of the ‘mission’, ‘aim’ or ‘purpose’ of the lesson, right at the start of the lesson, was drilled into me hard during my PGCE placements back in 2005 and 2006.

‘The kids must know where they are going, in order to realise how to get there’, seemed to be the central dogma of the time.

So, I followed the parade of keen twenty-somethings who were eagerly trying to inspire their new students. I wrote my objectives on the whiteboard every single lesson, or I projected them onto a screen. This ticked my appraisal boxes brilliantly, and gave my observers something positive to write about.

The strange thing was, however, that this ritual seemed to help me more than it helped the kids. It helped me to know what I must cover that lesson, but when I forgot to write those objectives I didn’t notice any detrimental effect on my pupil-enagagement. In fact, my lessons were often better when I didn’t follow the ritual of writing those objectives – I was more relaxed, and I think my kids were more relaxed too.

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I learnt later that my personality, and effort/attention during the lesson itself and in the planning process, were the key determining factors in how successful my lessons were. When I realised this, I boldly allowed myself to be more creative with my starter activities, and therefore more fun in my approach to each lesson.

The ‘Three As’

A turning point in my personal teaching philosophy came when I devised the ‘Three As’ and delineated them in my bestselling debut book: The Quick Guide to Classroom Management.

It seemed to make sense to people.

The ‘Three As’ stand for Assign, Analyse and Ask. It’s a simple three-step process for starting each lesson, and allows for the teacher to be as creative as he or she wishes when articulating lesson objectives:

  • Assign a starter activity, that links to the topic somehow. This can be as simple as a video playing on the screen as the kids walk in, a worksheet or even a learning game.
  • Analyse the starter activity: This may involve peer-assessing the task, having a class discussion, quick-fire questions or a ‘True or False’ activity
  • Ask the students: What do you think we are learning about today? This may generate some discussion, but if the ‘Assign’ and ‘Analyse’ parts have been designed properly, then it should be obvious.

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This three-step method ensures that the students discover the lesson objectives by themselves, hopefully in a fun and interesting way, which makes those objectives far more memorable than if they were simply written on the whiteboard for the kids to copy down.

Let’s look at a real example of the ‘ Three As’ in action.

Year 9 Volcanoes Lesson (Science, the Rock Cycle)

Assign: National Geographic video on volcanoes (with subtitles enabled for extra clarity) plays for five minutes as the students enter the room and settle down

Analyse: I choose one wall to be the ‘True’ wall, one wall to be the ‘False’ wall. I ask true or false questions about the video and the kids move to the corresponding wall (see the bottom half of the picture below):

Ask: “So, everybody, what do you think we’re learning about today?”

“Volacanoes” chirps one kid

“Kind of, but what comes out of volcanoes?”

“Lava” say a few kids

“Yes, and lava cools to form…?”

“Igneous rock” say another group of kids

“Yes, correct, we’re learning about igneous rocks. Give yourself a clap for figuring that out!”

[Class applauds]

Conclusion

  • Lesson objectives are more memorable when the kids have discovered them, rather than when they’ve been told them
  • Use the ‘Three As’ to make your kids aware of the lesson objectives in a fun and interesting way

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News: Warwick University Fudges Exam Timetable

An article by Richard James Rogers (Author of The Quick Guide to Classroom Management).

Illustrated by Pop Sutthiya Lertyongphati

Examinations are stressful for students at all levels of Further and Higher Education: whether it’s GCSEs, end of unit tests, IB Diploma exams, university assessments or any test that carries a significant weighting.

And that’s when the exams are scheduled properly.

Imagine how much more stressful it would be if you found out that you may have to take some of your exams six weeks earlier than you were originally told.

Surprisingly, this is exactly what has happened recently at Warwick University: one of the UK’s most prestigious institutions.

studying with com

According to the BBC report published yesterday, the university said that the provisional timetable had to be scrapped due to “significant” difficulties and students had been told to disregard it.

In some cases exams have been scheduled 42 days earlier than planned.

After scanning Warwick’s press releases page I could not find any official explanation or update from them. The new exam timetable was apparently shared on 17th April, but press releases on that day discuss regional investment and an explosion on a star.

Too much homework

Nothing about the new timetable.

I contacted Warwick for an official explanation and received this reply:

Due to significant, critical and unforeseen difficulties, the earlier provisional timetable was taken down and students informed it was inaccurate and to await updated accurate information.

The examinations team responded to feedback from academic departments and published the final timetable a week earlier than was originally planned.

Boards of Examiners and the Notification of Mitigating Circumstances process will operate as it has in previous years and the details can be found here:
https://warwick.ac.uk/services/academicoffice/examinations/students/mitigatingcircumstances

The ‘tip of the iceberg’

When delving deeper into this story I discovered that the provisional exam timetable, apparently released by Warwick almost two weeks later than expected, was also riddled with issues.

According to this article written by Steph Campbell at The Boar (Warwick University’s Student Newspaper), the provisional timetable showed some final year students’ exams being timetabled in June and early July, when the students were expected to be finished by the end of May.

A game of exam ‘ping pong’?

It seems that students were originally told that they would have exams in June and July, only to be told on April 17th that these exams were being moved to May.

Ping-ponging students like this is not a good idea, especially when so much is at stake (i.e. their entire futures).

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A MOUNTAIN OF REVISION TO DO IN SUCH LITTLE TIME: WARWICK STUDENTS TODAY?

My thoughts on this

Whilst Warwick doesn’t offer a course in Rocket Science (although their degree in Physics with Astrophysics comes close), they really didn’t need to assign this basic task to a rocket scientist.

If schools, colleges and exam boards can arrange exam timetables properly, then why not a top university?

It’s really simple:

Step 1: Find out which rooms are free and when

Step 2: Find out how many students can be comfortably accommodated into each room at once

Step 3: Find out the duration of each exam

Step 4: Match rooms and times with exams

Step 5: Tell your students

Step 6: Assign and hire invigilators

Warwick University may wish to take note of this process for future reference. It’s a tried-and-tested method that has been used successfully by schools and colleges for decades.

I contacted The Boar for an official comment but have so far not received a response.

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Secret Number 3: Praise is Power!

An article by Richard James Rogers (Author of The Quick Guide to Classroom Management).

Illustrated by Tikumporn Boonchuaylue and Sutthiya Lertyongphati

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Getting a handle on how to give sincere praise on a regular basis, and giving it regulary to the same students (i.e. all of our students), is a skill that the very best practitioners have mastered.

Praise is not the cute fluff-ball it appears to be, however. It is complex, dynamic and works effectively through a variety of methods. Let’s begin with a true story that illustrates the massive power of praise in teaching.

Joanne’s story

Joanne had recently qualified as a secondary school science teacher and had just started her new teaching post at an English comprehensive school. She was excited about the new challenges she would face. and was ready to put all of her training into action. She had been given responsibility for a Year 11 (age 15 – 16) general science class. Their previous teacher had left her some handover notes, and had specified that she must be careful when dealing with one student in particular: Damon. This young man was notorious for being argumentative, aggressive and non-cooperative. She was told that she must not con- front him under any circumstances. Naturally, Joanne was more than a little apprehensive when she met this class for the first time.

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Damon walked into the science lab slightly later than the rest of his peers, and Joanne greeted him with a friendly “Welcome in young man, please take a seat”. This caused a giggle amongst the rest of the students, who were naturally expecting the same reaction that Damon’s other teachers would have given him – a good telling off! Damon sat down as instructed, but, being a feisty young teen ready to push the boundaries and test what he could get away with, he pulled out a can of cola and started to drink it at his desk (something that is generally not allowed in a science lab). Joanne, knowing what she had been told about Damon, decided on a very positive and useful approach: she decided to ignore this misdemeanor at that moment and proceed on with the lesson.

chatting in class

As the lesson proceeded, Joanne set a group work activity and walked around the classroom to see how the students were getting on. As she passed Damon, she noticed that he had a very neat and organized set of felt-tip pens on his desk, arranged in a very nice standalone display case. Joanne praised Damon with a “You’re so organised, Damon. It’s good to see that you’re prepared for your lessons. I wish that every student was as prepared as you are.”

What do you think Damon’s reaction was? – He was absolutely stunned! This was a young kid who was accustomed to being reprimanded, put on detention and confronted on a daily basis. Here was a new teacher who could actually see his worth, and what he could contribute. He lapped up the praise, and responded with an “Umm, err thanks. I always like to be ready for my lessons. I also love art”. This led to a short conversation about Damon’s love of drawing tattoo designs. Joanne subtly drew his attention to the artistic graphics on the cola can, and reminded him he couldn’t drink it in the science lab. He smiled.

Later that lesson, Joanne assigned him the role of ‘Work Presentation Chief’ for the class. Each lesson, from then on in, Joanne made sure that she praised Damon for his work, and allowed him to go around the class and assess the presentation skills of selected students. What was the effect on Damon? – He became Joanne’s best student. He felt empowered, because, like all human beings, he craved a sense of importance and he craved appreciation. When Damon achieved his grade C in GCSE Science that year (a massive accomplishment considering his turbulent history) he said to Joanne “It was all because of you, miss”. Even at that moment, Joanne praised him by responding with “You did all the hard work, Damon”.

Block building

Any fool can criticise, condemn and complain – and most fools do

Dale Carnegie

What do most people do when they are criticized? How do most people respond when their character or judgement is scrutinized? Answer: most people try to justify themselves, and this often leads to resentment felt towards the person doing the complaining. Your students are no different in this respect than you or I. We all love to know that we’re doing a good job, and we all want to feel appreciated and important. Make your students feel appreciated by praising them often, and make sure you mean what you say!

The 4 main rules of praise

Every student we teach is different, and our styles of praise will naturally adapt to suit the personalities of each child. However, there are some fundamental rules that all forms of praise should follow (written rules follow the YouTube video):

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.

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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.

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I’ve written about the power of this technique before, 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.

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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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Secret Number 2: Use humor to enhance learning

An article by Richard James Rogers (Author of The Quick Guide to Classroom Management).

Illustrated by my new illustrator!: Tikumporn Boonchuayluea

NEW: Second Edition of The Quick Guide to Classroom Management’ available on Amazon now! Purchase the book here

John’s Year 10 English class consisted of a cooperative and friendly group of students. One problem persisted though; a problem found in scores of classrooms the world over: low-level disruption.

This class was notorious for doing as they were told but having a lack-luster approach to tasks: often chatting when more ‘work’ should have been done. John, a man from a traditional British family, saw himself as a ‘staunch disciplinarian’, and he would often respond to student chatter and distraction by shouting at the students who he thought were responsible for it. He would hand out scores of detentions, all of which ate into his lunchtimes and his free time after school.

Had this have solved things, John might have been be forgiven for feeling proud of his vigilant approach. However, the problem didn’t go away, and students started to resent going to John’s lessons and they began to dislike him personally. John had effectively created a very negative environment in the classroom and this was not conducive to effective learning or positive behaviour.

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“An AMAZING book!”

As behavior got worse and worse, and students felt that they were being treated ‘unfairly’, John realized that he needed a radically different approach to his teaching methodology. He decided to attend a professional development course in accelerated learning, and after a day of various workshops his eyes were opened dramatically.

“I had been making fatal mistakes since I started working with this class” said John.

“I hadn’t shown them my human side, and I was too quick to criticize. I didn’t use my personality to generate humor and I created an environment of negativity”.

What do you think John did the next time he heard students chatting in his class? He used humor and his personality to ‘lighten the mood’ whilst, at the same time, getting the students back ontask.

“My student, Billy, was chatting to a girl called Sarah when he should have been listening to another student read a Shakespearean sonnet to the class. Normally, I would have responded to this by reading him the Riot Act and exploding, or putting both students on detention. Knowing that this could cause a backlash, or at least create an unhelpful atmosphere in the class, I decided on a different tactic. I said ‘Billy, please stop flirting with Sarah. You can do that at break time’ and I smiled. The response I got was a giggle from the class and a bit of teenage awkwardness from Sarah as she said ‘Ugh! I don’t think so’. After this, everyone listened attentively to the sonnet, and we proceeded on to our group activity”.

John’s story demonstrates the power that humor can have in making a lesson more palatable for students, and how humor can be used to keep students on-task. Again, it makes our human nature become visible to our students and, if used tactfully, it can even make lesson content more memorable and can help with behavior management. You have to be careful though, as some forms of humor will work with some students but not others. You need to have a good knowledge of your class before you employ the tactic that Josh used in the example above.

You really need to know your students well, as not every student you have will respond in the same way to the humor that you use.

I recall teaching a Biology lesson some years back in which we were studying inherited and environmental traits. One girl in the class asked to be excused to use the facilities and upon leaving she said something to her friend and was replied to with the word “retard!”.

Now I know that some people are going to tally disagree with I did in response to his, but in this particular situation it was definitely the right thing to do. I tackled this spontaneous outburst in a non-confrontational way by jokingly asking “Is that an environmental or inherited trait” and she said “both!”.

The whole class giggled, the situation was forgotten about and the students were back on task in a matter of seconds.

Had I have responded with some form of severe sanction, for what was essentially a typical exchange between two teenagers, then that would have created confrontation and a negative atmosphere in the classroom. This wouldn’t have helped anyone.

Word games: An idea worth exploring

Turn your key vocabulary into silly (bad?) jokes when talking to your students. Here’s an example: “I was sitting the staff room yesterday and Mrs Jones said ‘I like you, Mr Rogers, you’re funny’. I replied with ‘I alkalike you, Mrs. Jones: you are funny too’. This is the life of a Chemistry teacher, hashtag chemistrylife” (For those who don’t get it, I turned the word ‘alkali’ – a chemistry key word – into ‘alkalike’).

As bad as jokes like these are, I’ve found that students really like them, and they help the students to remember the key words they need for their tests and exams.

Suggestions: Ways to use humor in lessons

  • Tackle disruption with light-hearted comments that make the students aware that they need to be on-task, without being antagonistic. Use knowledge about student interests if possible (e.g. “David, I know you must be talking about the next ramp you’re going to fly off on your skateboard, but if you could please listen to me at this moment then I would be most grateful”, or “Simone, I’m sure that Diane already knows what a great dancer you are, so if you could please focus on the task in hand, then that would be great”). Remember, students may respond to this so be ready to be light-hearted and direct the conversation back to the task in-hand.
  • During group activities or short tasks, you can play some silly music (not too loud) to lighten the mood. You can start by saying something like “I’m going to play everyone’s favourite music”, and then proceed to play something funny and upbeat.
  • You can sing to your students. That’s right, I did just say that! You can make up silly songs about whatever the lesson content is and sing or rap them to the class. You can also get the students to do this too.
  • Use your whole physiology to generate laughter. A laugh eases tension and nurtures creativity. Use changes in your voice, funny personal stories, exaggerated facial expressions, dance moves and anything you can think of to raise a smile and a giggle.
  • Use learning games to make the atmosphere more happy and relaxed. If you’re a languages teacher, you may want to make your students formulate silly phrases, or use the vocabulary games mentioned in Chapter 2.
  • Make up rhymes, acronyms and funny mnemonics. For example, MR FAB is an acronym for Mammals, Reptiles, Fish, Amphibians and Birds (vertebrate animals) and “Never Eat Shredded Wheat” is a mnemonic for “North, East, South, West”. Even better: get the kids to make up their own.

Conclusion

In summary, humour increases happiness in the classroom, removes inhibitions, makes the teacher appear more human and can even be used as a behaviour-management tool. To add to this, decades of methodical research have shown that humour can even help students remember key concepts for long periods of time, if it is used to illustrate a concept that has just been taught (Banas et al, 2011).

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Tips for Organising Homework

An article by Richard James Rogers (Author of The Quick Guide to Classroom Management)

Illustrated by Pop Sutthiya Lertyongphati 

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. 

Explaining

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.

With UKEdChat

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. 

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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!

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So what are these four strategies? Let’s explore them together now.

Strategy #1: Create and implement a homework setting, marking and returning timetable

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.

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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:

Homework setting, marking and receiving 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.

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  • 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:

learning-journal-system2

  • 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:

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  • 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.

work overload

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:

  1. Simply walk around the classroom with a colored pen in hand. Tick, flick and mark student work as you walk around. 
  2. 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). 
  3. 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 techniques hereSome general advice on giving feedback can be found here.

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.

teaching with laptop

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.

Marking work
Peer-assessment saves you time and energy, and is effective

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.

discussing-homework

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.

Self-Assessment

Not surprisingly, self-assessment has similar perks to that of peer-assessment. This great overview by 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

self-assessment

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. 

Class Q and A

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.

Intangibles include:

  • 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. 

Conclusion

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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Should Parents be Involved in Sex Education?

An article by Richard James Rogers (Author of The Quick Guide to Classroom Management)

Illustrated by Pop Sutthiya Lertyongphati 

As an 11-year-old boy I was interested in two main things: sweets and toys (especially toy soldiers, model cars and wrestler figurines).

Then the day of the ‘video’ came. A large TV was wheeled into class and the school nurse and class teacher looked on as a group of kids giggled at the animations in the ‘Growing Up’ documentary.

chatting in class

I knew it was coming, and so did my parents – they had to sign a consent form beforehand.

Did I really need to be taught that at 11-years-old? For me, personally, I don’t think so. It was little too early. 

The news

As I was scrolling through the BBC News’ Family and Education section looking for interesting articles to tweet, I came across this top story:

bbc news

You can read the full article here.

After reading the article my conclusion is this: Children in England of 15-years-old and above will be soon be allowed to opt in for sex education classes, even if their parents wish to withdraw them.

Currently, parents have the right to withdraw students from sex education classes up to the age of 18.

The article makes the legitimate point that any child who does not receive sex ed before the age of 16 will effectively have reached the age of consent without knowing what sex is, and what the consequences of sex could be. There are also concerns that modern sex education covers topics such as mental health and LGBT issues, which some lawmakers and ministers feel are such important topics that parents should have no say in whether or not their kids learn about them. 

I tend to disagree, strongly.

Culturally and religiously inappropriate

In many cultures, sex education is simply not taught to kids at the age at which we in the U.K. would deem it appropriate. Here are some facts which I’ve pulled from research done by studyinternational.com

  • Belgium: Sex education begins at the age of 7 in some schools, although the approach to sex ed is rather relaxed and no national strategy or system is really in place.
  • China: Mostly absent, although Do-It-Yourself STI testing kits are readily available. Sex education is primarily the responsibility of parents, not schools.
  • India: Sex education is not compulsory, but good programs are in place that are aimed at 12-20 year-olds
  • Indonesia: Again, sex education is not compulsory but big changes are happening across the country to modernize Indonesia’s provision. 
  • New Zealand: As a compulsory subject, sexual education is taught through a rigorous national curriculum from Year 7 to Year 13. However, concerns have been raised about New Zealand’s STI levels, and moves are being made to modernise and improve the programme. 

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As we can see for this small sample, people of differing cultures have completely different views on when and how sex ed should be taught. We also see that despite comprehensive sex ed courses being provided to schoolchildren in countries like the U.K., New Zealand and America, the effects seem to be mixed:

  • In New Zealand, teenage pregnancies and birth rates are falling (is that a good thing?), but STIs such as syphilis are on the increase
  • In the U.K., despite sex education being written into law with the The Education Act of 1996 (which states that sex education should inform pupils about STIs and HIV and encourage pupils to have due regard to moral considerations and family life”), syphilis infections are the highest they have been in 70 years. 
  • The American situation is just as dire, with the CDC reporting that in 2016 gonorrhea, syphilis and chlamydia infections were at an all-time high. Sex education has been a public health priority for American governments for four decades but methods of implementation vary by states, districts and school boards.

One could argue that sex ed in schools simply doesn’t work. In fact, that was almost the exact conclusion of a massive 2016 Cochrane Infectious Diseases Review of studies into sex ed. The review states that:

There is little evidence that educational curriculum-based programmes alone are effective in improving sexual and reproductive health outcomes for adolescents.

Removing parents from the ‘system’?

Some people would argue that a pattern seems to be emerging (albeit slowly): the systematic removal of parents from involvement in their child’s education. 

Let’s take a look at a quick summary of some developments in the U.K.:

  • Whilst homeschooling is allowed in the U.K., the headteacher of a pupil’s assigned school must be notified. A local council representative may come to inspect, and if he or she provides a negative appraisal of the situation then the pupil may be required to attend full-time school. School Attendance Orders were introduced in 1996 and basically allow for the government to fine and prosecute parents if their children do not receive a suitable full-time education from at any point between the ages of 5 and 16. 
  • Children between the ages of 13 and 16 have the same medical confidentiality rights as adults, which means that doctors and teachers are not required to inform parents in the case of an abortion or sexual activity. 
  • If parents are homeschooling their children, then they do not need to follow the curriculum. However, they must make sure their child is educated suitably for their age and ability and for any special educational needs they may have.

Conclusion

Sexual education doesn’t seem to be working effectively, as STIs continue to rise globally (even in those countries where sex ed is comprehensive and implemented through a national strategy). This concerning, and more research needs to be done to ascertain feasible solutions.

Parents should be encouraged to get more involved in the sexual education of their children. Parents should always be given the choice to consent to school-based sex education for their children. The religious and cultural beliefs of the family unit should be respected. 

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The Four Rules of Praise

An article by Richard James Rogers (Author of The Quick Guide to Classroom Management)

Illustrated by Pop Sutthiya Lertyongphati 

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.

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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.

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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.

Giving feedback

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.

woman-reading

I’ve written about the power of this technique before, 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.

poll-everywhere

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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Can Sympathy and Empathy be Taught?

An article by Richard James Rogers (Author of The Quick Guide to Classroom Management)

Illustrated by Pop Sutthiya Lertyongphati 

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.

Thai Cave Rescue
The boys and their coach inside the cave, accompanied by a Thai Navy Seal diver. Image courtesy of the Royal Thai Navy Seal Facebook page.

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.

Colorful classroom without student with board,books and globe - rendering

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.

jenga

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?

  1. 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!
  2. 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. 
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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. 
  6. 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. 

Conclusion

  • 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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Digital Disaster: Screen Time is Destroying Childrens’ Health

An article by Richard James Rogers (Author of The Quick Guide to Classroom Management)

Illustrated by Pop Sutthiya Lertyongphati 

It was 1988. I was five-years-old.

I wasn’t a particularly ‘good’ kid in early primary school. I tried to follow instructions, but things didn’t really ‘click’ for me until later in life. One day, however, I must have been a good student because my teacher rewarded me by letting me use the computer.

I was led by hand to a small room adjacent to the classroom. Nestled in the corner on a wheely truck was a BBC Micro computer. It came complete with a huge floppy disk drive and some kind of touch-pad which I didn’t understand how to use.

it integrated

It all looked very high-tech and cool to me.

For thirty minutes I was allowed to play vocabulary and maths games. The black screen whirled with green text and pong balls as I tried to solve the problems. The bleeps and 8-bit sounds were awesome.

Later that year my family would buy a far-superior computer and a legendary gaming console – the Atari 520 ST.

If I was lucky I’d get an hour to play on that computer each day. The games were aimed at kids and the themes were vivid and colourful. The Atari machine taught me hand-eye coordination and the basics of using a mouse, floppy disk drive and operating a basic computer. I think it also made me a bit of a dreamer and aided my imagination.

Double Dragon
‘Double Dragon’ – A game I used to play on the Atari 520 ST back in 1988

My life back then was very-much centred on the outdoors. The Atari was a nice addition to my life, but I still preferred running though streams and burying my toy cars in the garden.

Fast Forward to 2018

I can’t believe that thirty whole years have passed since 1988. My generation has seen so much change in such a short space of time.

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Some technological developments over the past three decades have been revolutionary and beneficial to mankind. The creation of the mainstream internet in 1993, for example, opened peoples’ homes, libraries, offices and schools to a whole new era of possibilities and opportunities in learning, business, entertainment, communication, research and e-commerce. 

Along with this sudden treasure trove have come some shocking and extreme societal changes which pose new challenges for all of us. 

sitting on the carpet

Take a report published by the Telegraph this week, for example. The 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.

But I thought that technology was good for kids!

As teachers, we’ve pinned our colours to the ‘Technology Troop’ so much that as soon as people start speaking up about the dangers of widespread and pervasive technological encroachment into peoples’ lives they are often shunned; sometimes disgraced and can be seen as ‘old-fashioned’ or not ‘with the times’.

schematic

I once remember a fashionable post and picture from a friend on LinkedIn in which he said “When faced with a steam-rolling technology you either become part of the steam-roller, or part of the road”.

I remember thinking ‘How about you just move out of the way of the steam-roller’?

It didn’t take long before the reflex-action barrage of indignation was fired my way.

But the dangers of compulsive and widespread association with our mobile devices are real – very real:

  • 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 Canada, America 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. 

PC activity with mouse pen

Conclusion

As teachers and parents we are facing a global health crisis of epic proportions.

The dangers of excessive mobile-device usage are well-researched, fully-supported and very real. Also: ‘excessive’ has become the new ‘normal’.

If we do not take action now, when this problem is in it’s relative infancy, then who’s imagination can predict the problems that are waiting to manifest?

We must no longer subscribe to the notion that technology is amazing and that anyone who criticizes or questions its value in an educational setting is to be shunned or belittled. There are legitimate reasons for being concerned about the encroachment of screen time into childrens’ lives. 

Next week, I’ll be exploring ways in which adults can reduce the screen time of their children and students. We all must help. We all must take action now. 

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Don’t Be A ‘Mediocre’ Teacher

An article by Richard James Rogers (Author of The Quick Guide to Classroom Management)

Illustrated by Pop Sutthiya Lertyongphati 

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?

studying with com

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.

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“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”

Giving feedback

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.

Explaining

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”:
BSP Vanderbilt
Behavior Specific Praise. Courtesy of Vanderbilt University, 2016. See the publication entitled ‘Behavior Specific Praise in the Classroom’. Tennessee Behavior Supports Project.

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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