Originally posted December 2017. Updated December 2022.
The Christmas vacation is finally here. Many of us in the teaching profession can now look forward to a good couple of weeks of much-needed rest and recuperation.
Our students deserve a break too.
I agree that time spent with family and friends is an absolute essential right now, but I’m also mindful of the workload and duties that will hit me like a tornado when I return to school in January.
When it comes to school holidays, I always see them as time to ‘go at my own pace’. The way I see it, I have two choices:
Do nothing for the whole holiday and totally chill out, returning to the normal barrage of work that hits every teacher at the start of Term 2
Still have a holiday and some rest but do some little things to get a head-start on things before I return to school
I’ve always found that trying to do option 2 is the best, even if I don’t get through all of the ‘head-start’ work that I plan to do.
Is this an admission of failure before I even begin? Maybe, but here are my plans made as realistic as possible: meaning that I can have a rest and do around 50% (minimum) of these things too:
Requisitions and orders: I’m a Science Teacher, so I need to order chemicals and equipment for my lessons each week. This Christmas my first priority will be to get all of my requisitions done for each week of Term 2, ahead of time. This will save me many a long night when I get back to school, and will help me to plan ahead and reinforce my long-term curriculum mapping.
Termly review: Every Christmas I make it a priority to evaluate where I am at now, and where I want to be with my classes by the end of the term. This kind of self-analysis allows me to see where I’m behind and where I’m ahead and how to address those issues. This is really important for final-level exam classes as they must have covered the whole syllabus and have revised by the time the terminal exams come along.
Getting back to gym: I’ve been slacking off lately (I said this back in 2017 too!). No excuses this time. I’ve got every day free for a few weeks so I’ll be up early and out for a jog before hitting the weights later in the day.
Responding to student e-mails: Some students in my exam classes will be e-mailing me with questions about past-papers, coursework and subject-specific stuff. If I can help, then I will help. However, if not urgent, then I will deal with these queries when I am back at school.
Clothes: I’m running out of a few things (such as shirts that actually fit me!). Time for a wardrobe mini-makeover so that I continue to look half-decent at work.
Writing my next book: My first book was quite well-received, as was my second (The Power of Praise: Empowering Students Through Positive Feedback) so I’ve decided to have a go at writing another. Ten Techniques Every Teacher Needs to Know will explore the themes of classroom management and assessment to inform learning in even greater depth and breadth than my first book, and will build upon the fundamentals covered in one of my most popular blog posts. I see this as ‘downtime’ for me because I really love writing. Can I count this as ‘relaxation’?
Going back to karate: Another thing I’ve been putting off. Time to get a regular schedule set up.
Contacting people I should have contacted ages ago. Chasing up old leads and projects that I’ve allowed to slip.
Of course, as well as all of this I plan to enjoy my freedom in Thailand as much as possible. A trip to Pak Chong (where The Big Boss was filmed), along with my long-awaited visit to the Death Railway in Kanchanaburi (still haven’t done that yet – it needs to go on the list!).
How will you use your free-time this Christmas? Is it all one-big holiday or can you think of some small ways to make your life easier when you get back to school?
It was a mid-spring morning in 1996. I was 13 years old enjoying Science class with one of my favourite teachers up on the top-floor lab at North Wales’ prestigious St. Richard Gwyn R.C. High School.
I loved Science. The feel of the lab, decorated with preserved samples in jars and colorful posters and periodic tables and famous Scientists on the walls, along with the cool gas taps and Bunsen burners that rested on each desk. This was my favorite part of the school.
Today’s lesson was special though, and I remember it for a very unexpected reason.
We were receiving back our Forces and Motion tests today. I loved getting my tests back, not least because I always revised really hard and was used to getting at least 75% on each one.
I always used to do two things whenever I got my tests back:
Check that the teacher had added up the scores correctly
Check how to improve my answers
On this particular day I had lost marks on a question that was phrased something like this: ‘If a rocket is travelling through space, what will happen to the rocket if all of the forces on it become balanced?’
In my answer I had written: ‘The rocket will either continue travelling at a constant speed or will not move at all.’
Now, how do I remember this seemingly obscure moment in a sea of moments from high school, most of which I cannot recall? Well, that’s simple: My teacher came over and took the time and effort to verbally explain where I’d gone wrong.
I should have just written that the rocket will continue at a constant speed, not “or will not move at all”.
This moment of personal, verbal feedback from my teacher was powerful and precious. Not only did it serve to maintain my momentum in Science learning, but it left me with visual impressions of the memory itself: My friends in the Science lab, the posters on the wall and even the sunlight shining over the glistening Dee Estuary which was visible from the Science lab windows.
This little story shows us the power of verbal feedback, and therefore the caution we should place on what we say to our students. Young girls and boys grow up to become men and women, and their teachers leave a number of impressions on them, some of which are permanent.
The trick is to ensure that the permanent impressions are useful, positive and productive: As was the case with my conversation with my teacher that day.
And not all impressions need to be verbal. Written feedback can be just as memorable.
Let’s now explore the fundamentals of effective student feedback that are easy to implement, and useful.
Peer Assess Properly – The Traditional Method
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 seem to come my way on a real-time, live-stream basis, and I soon found myself inundated with 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.
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 canalso 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.
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.
Experiment with automated assessment
I wrote a blog postabout the effective use of ICT in lessons some weeks back, and I mentioned the first time I came across MyiMaths.
It was back in 2013, and it totally transformed my work life.
Why? That’s simple. Students would go into the ICT lab, or use their laptops or tablets in class, and literally be taught mathematics by the computer! The program would even assess the work immediately, and differentiation wasn’t a problem because students could work through the tasks at their own individual pace. The benefits were enormous:
All of the students were focused and engaged
All of the students were challenged
The teacher had more time to spend with individuals working on specific problems
The content was relevant and stimulating
No behavior management issues as the students were all quietly working
No time was needed by the teacher for marking and assessment. The program did all that for you. All you had to do was collate the data.
There are numerous instructional software programs on the market today that save the teacher lots of marking time, and provide the students with engaging material to learn from, Whilst I wouldn’t advocate using instructional software every lesson, it certainly can become a big and effective part of your teaching arsenal.
Give verbal feedback the right way
Verbal feedback is a great way to have a personal one-to-one conversation with a student. It can help you to address systemic, widespread issues (e.g. not writing down all of the steps in calculations) and it can be a great way to motivate each student.
However, many teachers are only going so far with verbal feedback and are not using it as the powerful tool it is.
Take this piece of KS3 Geography work for example:
I received this work from a parent at dinner, who knew I was an educational author, on 21st June 2016.
You’ll undoubtedly have noticed the dates on the work: 1st December and 8th December 2015. I’m sure you’ll have shuddered upon the realization that this work hadn’t been marked in seven months! No peer-assessment, no self-assessment and no comments from the teacher. There aren’t even any ticks! Add this to the fact that this boy’s entire notebook was completely unmarked, just like this, and you can begin to understand why I nearly had palpitations in front of several avid noodle and rice connoisseurs!
When I asked the boy about why it wasn’t marked, he said that this teacher never marked worked, he just gave the occasional verbal feedback. My next obvious question was to ask what verbal feedback he’d received about this work. He said he
With teacher workloads increasing globally, this kind of approach is, unfortunately, not uncommon, However, verbal feedback need not be time-consuming and can be executed in a much better way than is seen here in this Geography work. Here are my tips:
1. Set your students a task to do and call each student one-by-one to have a chat about their work. Be strict with your timings – if you have a 40 minute lesson and 20 students in the class then keep each conversation to two minutes.
Mention the points for improvement and use sincere praise to address the good points about the work. Ask the student to reflect on the work too.
Once the conversation is over, write ‘VF’ on the work, and ask the student to make improvements to it. Agree on a time to collect it in again so that you can glance over the improvements.
As you can see, this simple three step approach to verbal feedback generates a much more productive use of time than simply having a chat with the student. Action has to be taken after the discussion, and this places the responsibility of learning solely in the hands of the student, which is where it should be.
Be specific in your comments
Sometimes it is appropriate to collect student work and scribble your comments on it with a colored pen. When you do this, make sure your comments are specific and positive, Take a look at these examples, which all serve to empower the student:
Peer Assess Properly – The Technological Method
A growing trend that is proving popular with teachers is to use Google forms in the peer assessment process. I wrote about this in my book, and I’ve included the extracts here:
A good form for students will look something like this:
There are many alternatives to using Google forms. For example, you may wish to create a form via your school’s VLE, or even get the students to send each other their work through e-mail or a chat application (although this will remove anonymity). Either way, peer assessment with technology will save you time and provide your students with quick, detailed feedback.
Make sure students improve their work
A common theme you may have spotted in this week’s blog post is that of improvement. Students should always improve the work that’s been marked or assessed. This serves two purposes:
The student will get into the habit of giving their best effort each time. After all, a great first attempt means less effort needed in the improvement phase
The process of improving a piece of work serves to firmly cement concepts in the subconscious mind of the student, aiding memory and retention
Don’t forget to use rubrics, mark schemes and comments – students can’t possibly improve their work without these.
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Updated: October 2022 (Originally posted May 2017)
I received a message from a very stressed out Newly Qualified Teacher a few weeks ago. It pertains to a problem that many educators face: dealing with homework. When I told her that I was planning to write an article about this very issue, she agreed to share her message with all my readers:
Dear Richard. I’m about to finish my first year in teaching and I’m really ashamed to admit that I haven’t been able to mark my students’ homework on time each week. In fact, I’ve set so much homework that it has just piled up and piled up over the course of this year, to the point where I now have a literal mountain to deal with! I’m kind of hoping that most of my students will forget that I have their work, and this seems to be happening as some of it is months old. I’m so stressed out! How can I make sure that this never, ever happens again?! – G
Being overwhelmed with marking, particularly that caused by homework, is a common problem for new and experienced teachers alike. In this article, I’ll examine the best ways to design and organise homework, as well as ways to avoid being bogged down and ‘up to your eyeballs’ in paperwork. If you would like an audio version of my strategies, then please listen to this excellent UKEdChat podcast (highly recommended for anyone who wants to get better at assigning and organizing homework)here.
Consideration #1: Homework is not pointless
It’s really important to make this point from the outset. A number of articles have come out in recent years causing us to question the merits of setting homework. At one point, this mindset became so mainstream that I remember sitting-in on a departmental meeting in which a number of teachers suggested that we shouldn’t set homework at all, as it is totally pointless!
This might be a nice excuse to use to avoid some paperwork and marking, but unfortunately it’s not true at all.
In my experience, homework is only pointless if the kids never ever receive feedback, or if the homework doesn’t relate to anything on the curriculum. Then, of course, their time has been wasted.
I’ll always remember one school I worked at where all of the teachers had set summer homework for their students. Piles and piles of homework were set, including big, thick booklets full of past-papers. Guess what happened when those students returned to school the next academic year; many of the teachers had changed, and the work was piled up in an empty classroom and never marked. What a tragedy!
We’ll explore some ways in which we can give feedback in a timely manner today, as well as ways in which we can design our homework properly.
Consideration #2: Think carefully about the purpose of each piece of homework you set
This is crucial. Ideally, all homework should fall into one of four categories:
To review concepts covered in class
To prepare students for new content they will cover in class
To prepare students for examinations (e.g. with exam-style questions, revision tasks and past-papers)
A combination of two or three of the above
If the homework you are setting does not fall into these categories then you are wasting both your time and the students’ time by setting it.
Consideration #3: Think carefully about how much time the students will need to complete each piece of homework
This is an important consideration. Put yourself in the students’ shoes. Is this homework too demanding, or too easy for them? Will they actually have enough time to complete it? Is your deadline reasonable?
Consideration #4: How much self-study or research will your students have to do to complete your work? Where will they get their information from?
If the piece of work you are setting involves preparation for content or skills soon to be covered in class, then your students might have to do some research. Is the level of self-study you are asking of your students reasonable? Are they old enough, and mature enough to be able to find this information on their own? If not, then you may need to give some tips on which websites, textbooks or other material to look at.
Consideration #5: Can you mark this work?
This is such an important consideration, but can be overlooked by so many teachers who are in a rush.
Think carefully: if you’re setting a booklet of past-paper questions for ‘AS’ – Level students, then how is it going to be marked? Crucially, how will the students receive feedback on this work? And remember: homework really is pointless if students don’t get any feedback.
Be honest with yourself. If you honestly don’t have enough time to mark such large pieces of work, then it’s much better to set smaller, manageable assignments. At least that way your students will get some feedback, which will be useful to them.
Also, don’t try and do everything yourself when it comes to marking. Use peer-assessment, self-assessment and even automated assessment (such as that found on instructional software) on a regular basis. Be careful though – make sure you at least collect in your peer-assessed and self-assessed assignments afterwards just to be sure that all students have done it, and so that you can glance over for any mistakes. Students can be sneaky when they know that the teacher is trusting them with self-assessment each week by simply providing the answers to the work.
Another good tip is to spend some time on the weekend planning your homework for the week ahead. What exactly will you set, and when, to allow you enough time to mark everything? How can you set decent homework that’s not too big to mark? An hour spent planning this on a Saturday is much better than four hours cramming in a marking marathon on a Sunday because you didn’t think ahead.
Consideration #6: Are you organised enough?
Not to sound patronizing, but are you, really?
If you’re a primary school teacher then you’ll be collecting in assignments relating to different subject areas each week. If you’re working in the high school, then you’ll you’ll be collecting in work from potentially more than a hundred students on a regular basis.
You need to have some kind of filing system in place for all of this work. Maybe a set of draws? Folders? Trays? Electronic folders?
One strategy that absolutely works for me is that I get all of my students to complete their homework on loose sheets of paper, not their notebooks. Why? Because if they do it in their notebooks, and I haven’t had time to mark their work by the very next lesson, then it’s a nightmare having to give back notebooks again and collect them in continuously.
With loose paper its easy. I collect it in, and put each group’s assignments in a set of trays. I have one set of trays for work collected in, and one set for work that is marked. It stops me from losing students’ work and losing my sanity at the same time! The students then glue the work into their notebooks afterwards.
In addition to organizing my paperwork, I also organise my time. I use every Saturday morning for marking, which really saves me lots of headaches during the week. Do you set aside a fixed slot each week to do your marking?
Think carefully about the purpose of each piece of work you set
Don’t set work that will take the students too long, or too little time, to complete
Think carefully about the demands of any research that students will have to do. Maybe you need to point them in the right direction?
Use a variety of assessment strategies to mark student work. Don’t make assignments so big that you just don’t have time to make them.
Make sure you have some kind of filing system in place, so that you don’t lose work.
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This video resonated with me because of its simplicity, and my somewhat skewed opinion that it’s easier to stop myself doing destructive things than it is to implement a completely new habit. Perhaps I felt that I should stop doing destructive things first, and get used to that, before implementing some new strategies in my life.
So, let’s get right into how the past 14 days of trialing these 10 habit-stoppers went.
Habit Stopping Tip #1: Don’t hit the snooze button
This is something I’ve ashamedly preached aboutbefore, but in my daily life I’ve found it really difficult to implement. My warm bed entices me to climb back into it when my alarm goes off, and this is further compounded by an extreme feeling of tiredness for at least 10 minutes after waking (something that has gotten worse, I think, as I’ve grown older).
I managed to do this on 9 out of 14 days.
On those days that I did get right out of bed as soon as the alarmsounded, I found that I was in a much better mood during my teaching day (and in a state of better physical alertness) than on those days when I snoozed. I also found out that if I have an immediate ‘get out of bed’ ritual to follow, then I am much more likely to actually get out of bed. At the moment, that ritual involves switching off my alarm and immediately walking to the nearest 7-11 convenience store to buy coffee and breakfast – this acts as a kind of reward for not hitting snooze. If I were to snooze, then I probably wouldn’t have time for this.
As a result of not hitting the snooze button on 9 out of 14 days I was able to eat breakfast before school started, read over lesson plans and even avoid traffic because I left my home earlier, which brings me on to tip number 2…………
Habit Stopping Tip #2: Don’t get mad at traffic
Leaving home earlier (because I didn’t snooze) meant that there was less traffic to get mad at, so tip number one definitely rippled into tip number 2.
I have gotten mad at traffic many times in the past – and at my taxi driver for not driving fast enough; not turning quickly enough or even for going along a route I didn’t prefer. All of this mental complaining would put me in an angry frame of mind before my school day had even started.
I managed to not complain at traffic for 14 out of the 14 days, and I found that I was in a better mood at school because of it.
Habit Stopping Tip #3: Don’t be late
This is one I’ve always advocated, and it’s significance will surely be obvious to the readers of this blog. When we’re late, then what we are saying is that ‘Your time is not valuable enough for me to be on-time’.
A good analogy I was once told is that if you had to turn up at a designated location to receive 10 million pounds in cash at 6am tomorrow, then you would certainly be there on-time, perhaps even arriving very early for this appointment.
We turn up early and on-time to those things we consider important enough to be punctual for. We therefore need to assign a high-level of importance to meetings, duties and any other activities/events that require us to be punctual.
Once again, tip number 1 (Don’t hit the snooze button) allows us to be on-time, every time.
Habit Stopping Tip #4: Don’t tolerate gossip
This is a principle I have (thankfully) had the sense to follow since day one of my teaching career, and I wrote about the devastating effects that gossip can have for teachers in my debut book,The Quick Guide to Classroom Management.
When we gossip, we show people that we cannot be trusted. Secretly, our coworkers are thinking “I can’t trust him – what if he gossips about me one day”. Gossip also circulates quickly, and so-called friends can very often be duplicitous: acting as ‘double-agents’ who pass on information to those who have been gossiped about.
Just don’t gossip – it’s that simple.
Not tolerating gossip takes this principle to another level – the advice being that if you hear gossip, then you should shut it down with, perhaps, a statement like “I don’t think it’s appropriate for this conversation to be happening”. This advanced-level step, however, requires bravery, and its consequences will depend on your workplace ethos and culture. You may just wish to take the easy way out by simply standing up and walking out of the room, or walking away from the gossip, whenever you hear it.
Habit Stopping Tip #5: Don’t watch the news
I found this one SO DIFFICULT to implement, and this really surprised me! By consciously attempting to stop myself from reading the news, I discovered that I often scroll through news websites because I’m simply bored. I’m hooked – and it was hard to break to this habit.
The idea behind this is that news is a distraction, and is very often biased anyway. The majority of the news we read is bad news, and most of it describes events that are beyond our control. Why waste our time and energy feeling sad about things we can’t change?
On those days that I stopped myself reading the news, I found myself with little else to distract me besides work. This increased my productivity.
Habit Stopping Tip #6: Don’t pass judgement
I’ve fallen out of the sky many times in my life. I started from nothing, and I know what it feels like to have nothing. I’m not trying to paint myself as someone special here – many people can relate, I’m sure. However, I try my best not to look down on people where possible because:
I never know the full story
I’m far from perfect myself
I know what it feels like to be inadequate – both in terms of skill and finances
Passing judgement is just another one of life’s energy drainers that we could all be better without.
Habit Stopping Tip #7: Don’t eat and scroll…….
…………and don’t scroll at any social gathering, for that matter.
When I see couples or families at restaurants and coffee shops, and all they are doing is playing on devices, it makes me very sad (but also happy that I have a great relationship with someone in which this never happens). People are quickly losing the ability to interact physically, in my opinion.
The principle behind this habit-stopper is presence – we should be present in everything we do if we’re to get the most out of it. As I write this blog post, for example, I’ve mostly ‘gone dark’ – my phone is out of reach as I know that if I check it I’ll never get this blog post finished.
I’m more productive and present when I’m not on my phone, unless I’m using my phone for a specific purpose.
Habit stopping tip #8 – Don’t check e-mail before noon
Does this apply to teachers? I’m not sure.
E-mail has become an essential part of my job, but some would say it is yet another distraction. I’m still on-the-fence about this one, as important announcements often come to me by e-mail, and they often need to be acted upon quickly.Are there e-mails that I don’t need to check before noon? Probably. E-mail is evolving quickly into a messaging tool, however, and as teachers we are fast-approaching a stage where we need to be reachable at all times at work. GMail, for example, is becoming more skewed towards Google Hangouts and instant messaging. As workplace messaging technology evolves, teaching will surely evolve with it.
Habit Stopping Tip #9: Don’t leave dishes in the sink
I loved seeing how this particular habit affected my life. It was very powerful.
I am typical ‘dish-leaver’, and once I started to pro-actively wash dishes as soon as I used them I found myself also doing laundry right away; tidying up after myself right away; putting my work clothes in my wardrobe instead of over the back of a chair; putting old cosmetics’ bottles in the bin right away, and on and on it went.
My home became tidier more quickly – and less clutter at home meant an overall sense of happiness.
I highly recommend this tip.
Habit Stopping Tip #10: Don’t wait for perfect
In the video provided at the start of this blog post, Ben uses the phrase “Jump, and grow wings on the way down”. As a result of this one statement, I found myself going to the gym more often, despite being in not-so-perfect shape.
That’s got to be a good start, right?
Have you grown your wings yet, or are they still growing?
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Play is a term that is often associated with the teaching of small children, with the aim being to maximize spatial experiences so that long term memory, manual dexterity and skills are developed.
The Department of Education for the Government of Western Australia have the following to say about the importance of play:
Play is a powerful and important activity. It has a natural and positive influence on children’s social, physical, emotional and cognitive development. The best learning happens when children play. It is important to let your children play every day.
Play doesn’t have to be limited to primary school and Early Years, however: teenagers and young adults can also benefit greatly from tasks that include competition and creativity of some kind.Try these ideas:
Play learning games with your students on a regular basis. This makes learning a lot of fun and helps to cement concepts firmly in the working memory of each student. Check out thisblog poston learning games that require virtually no equipment and can be applied to any subject area.
Carry out practical activities related to your subject area (where possible). As a science teacher, this is quite standard for me as I am required to run experiments and laboratory investigations with my students on a regular basis. In other subject areas, anything that gets students moving and using their hands or technology to build, create or interact with something can be a great way to develop working memory (provided that the task being assigned is on-point and very closely related to the learning outcomes of the set curriculum (see my blog post on Cognitive Load Theoryfor more on this here).
Get your students to build things. Materials like plastic bottles, bottlecaps, cardboard, coloured paper, plasticine/modelling clay, straws, shoeboxes and old rope can all be used creatively by students to make models of the concepts they are studying. I’ve used this technique across my teaching in Science to get students to create everything from atomic models to makeshift ‘eco gardens’. Here’s a model atom that one of my IGCSE Chemistry students made out of rudimentary materials a few years ago:
Accompanying video (What is ‘Cognitive Load Theory’?):
It was a cold winter morning in Bangor, North Wales (UK). The year was 2004, and I was a second-year molecular biology bachelor’s student at Bangor University. My professor had given my group of students the task of finding a genetics-related research paper from any academic journal in the library, and then breaking it down into simple language so that we could present our findings to the rest of the class.
The task was incredibly difficult! In fact, it was so difficult, that it’s up there with one of the most cognitively demanding tasks I’ve ever completed. The paper our group selected centered-on ‘apoptosis’ (that’s when cells basically ‘commit suicide’), but the context and language of the paper was so specialized that the majority of what was written in it went right over our heads. The research had been written by PhD-level and post-doctoral experts and specialists.
Nowadays, educational experts would argue that the ‘cognitive load’ of the paper was too much for us to glean anything significant from it. We didn’t even have the language skills to understand what most of the paper was describing.
Difficulty vs. Pace
Cognitive Load Theory is a research-based tool for assessing the difficulty and pace of the tasks, assignments and instruction we deliver in-class to our students. In essence, when difficulty is high and pace is fast, then the cognitive load is high. When difficulty is low, and the pace is slow, then the cognitive load is also low.
That’s a very simplified synopsis, however. According to Mindtools.com, Cognitive Load Theory “takes a scientific approach to the design of learning materials, so that they present information at a pace and level of complexity that the learner can fully understand.”
Cognitive Load Theory (CLT) builds on earlier models of memory and knowledge retention (such as the Atkinson and Shiffrin model of human information processing) and was developed in 1998 by psychologist John Sweller. The theory is considered to be the most modern and ‘up-to-date’ explanation of how memory is developed and stored. In the past 5 or so years, the theory has gained momentum and popularity in teaching circles, thanks in some part to Dylan William’s iconic tweet of 2017:
I’ve taken the excellent image below from a 2015research paperby Edwards, Aris and Shukor, and I’ve modified it slightly to highlight what I believe to be the key takeaways:
Key points to bear in-mind about CLT:
Keep unnecessary, superfluous material to a minimum (e.g. news articles that may be topical and interesting, but link tentatively to the content that the kids actually need to learn for the final exam).
Increase exposure to actual, relevant learning material (this is called ‘intrinsic load’). This may include textbook sections, websites, learning software and summaries.
Present information through all of the senses (use movement, action, practical activities and outdoor activities where possible). See my blog postson outdoor learningandspatial learning for more tips on how to embed this.
Practice, practice and practice some more! Use past-exam paper questions, quizzes (e.g. Kahoot!, Quizlet and BBC Bitesize), textbook questions and exam-style questions to really get the students to process the information they have learned. This is called ‘Germane load’, and it must be maximized in order to create long-term memory.
Atkinson, R.C.; Shiffrin, R.M. (1968). “Chapter: Human memory: A proposed system and its control processes”. In Spence, K.W.; Spence, J.T. (eds.). The psychology of learning and motivation. 2. New York: Academic Press. pp. 89–195.
Edwards, B., Aris, B., Shukor, M. (2015). “Cognitive Load Implications of Social Media in Teaching and Learning”. Journal of Multidisciplinary Engineering Science and Technology (JMEST). Vol. 2 Issue 11, November – 2015.
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I have always loved mathematics, but I’ve not always been ‘good’ at maths. I got a grade A for GCSE Mathematics when I was 16 years old (a grade I worked really, really hard for) but I struggled with mathematics at ‘AS’ and ‘A’ – Level (the UK’s pre-university qualifications).
It just so happened that mathematics wasn’t a subject I needed as a prerequisite for my university course anyway. So, in a sense, I committed the cardinal sin of thinking that it ‘didn’t matter’. I was planning to study molecular biology at university, and my admissions tutors were mainly interested in my biology and chemistry grades.
I achieved my goal of going to uni and doing my PGCE in order to become a fully qualified Science teacher in 2006. I was happy for several years, but my failure to complete my mathematics education at school kept gnawing at me like an annoying itch. I needed to do something about it.
I decided to complete the Certificate in Mathematics course with the Open University in 2009, after three years of being a full-time science teacher. This course covered everything in my ‘A’-Level syllabus with some extra, university-level topics thrown in. It was challenging and offered me just what I needed: closure. As a distance-learning course, it also offered me the chance to study and work as a teacher at the same time.
As I started studying the course and handing in assignments (which had to be snail mailed to the UK – I was living in Thailand at the time), I began to realise how much I had become disconnected from the student experience as a teacher. It had been around three years since I had ever studied anything seriously, and this mathematics course was teaching me how difficult it was to:
Seek help when in doubt
Have the self-discipline needed to study at a regular time-slot each day
These skills were, of course, things I had to do whilst completing my degree course and schooling earlier in life, but it had been a few years since I had been immersed in serious study like this. I was slowly losing empathy for my students: that was until this course gave me a wake-up call.
Another big thing I took from this experience was just how stressful it can be to prepare for a difficult exam (and to complete it). I had to fly to the UK to take the end of course mathematics exam (a three hour beast), and along with the intense revision that came in the few days running up to the exam I had the misfortune of not sleeping so well the night before the big day. And then, once sat down and actually completing the paper, three hours felt like it went by in an instant.
I guess I’m trying to make a number of points in this trip down Memory Lane – namely that by immersing ourselves in the ‘student experience’ we can, as teachers:
Regain, or enhance, our true understanding of just how many hurdles await our students on their race to the exam finish-line.
Learn new skills and concepts that can be applied to our roles as classroom managers, leaders and ‘purveyors’ of specialist knowledge.
Build self-discipline, and pass on the lessons learned to our students in our roles as mentors, homeroom teachers, form tutors and coaches.
One final point to stress is that, whilst we can study almost any subject we want via online platforms like EdX and Coursera these days, it’s also important that we take the time to thoroughly reflect on a regular basis. Keeping a journal of things we’ve done well, and things we messed up, can be a great way to have a written record to read over when we want to celebrate successes and remind ourselves of lessons we have learned on our journeys as educators. This video I made a few years ago goes into this in more detail:
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You may be doing your TEFL course and teaching abroad as a ‘gap year’ before starting a career which you studied for at university. Many people will ask you ‘Why do you want to teach English abroad? Aside from a so-called year off, how will it benefit you?’. Today, I’ve invited Rose-Anne Turner, Admissions Director atDestination TEFL, to share her thoughts with us.
A year of teaching abroad can benefit you in number of ways:
You’ll gain confidence
So many parts of this experience will help you to gain confidence – from travelling alone abroad to a new place, to experiencing new cultures, to doing something new, to learning to speak in front of people.
Your communication skills will improve
Techniques learnt on the course and practiced in the classroom thereafter, will improve your general communication skills. You will be far more aware of whether or not you have been understood, and will adjust the way you speak and listen to people in general. You will also become more confident speaking to large groups of people, as well as on a one-to-one basis.
Your time management skills will improve
You’ll become the master of checklists! There’s nothing like leaving behind your materials and wasting all your hard work and effort to make you more organised! Carefully planning your lessons according to a time schedule will also be great practice for time management.
You’ll become more aware of other cultures
As you’ve moved to another country and are teaching students who are not from your culture, you will become acutely aware of the differences between cultures, and the pitfalls of dealing with people from other cultures. These include misunderstandings, doing things in different ways, and knowing that what is acceptable in one culture, may not be so in another culture. In the corporate workplace one day, this will be a valuable asset to have, particularly in jobs where you’ll be dealing with international clients.
You will make friends for life – after meeting people you would never have met back home. These could be your fellow classmates on the TEFL course, your fellow teachers while teaching, or neighbours and other locals, as well as your students. Having an international network of friends and past colleagues can also advance your career in ways you may never know – as you never know where the future may take you.
You’ll mature and grow as a person
All the challenges and hardships of living abroad will give you a tough skin and mature you in ways that staying at home in a familiar environment won’t do. Moving out of your parental home is testing enough for many young adults – but doing so in a different country really challenges!
Well there you have it. There are many more reasons to sail away from familiar shores, but these reasons are ones that you can proudly mention in interviews and cover letters. So what are you waiting for?
If you’re thinking of getting a TEFL qualification and teaching overseas, then Destination TEFL can help you!
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COVID-19 has clearly had a devastating effect on the aviation industry. With international travel brought to a virtual standstill, some airlines have found themselveslaying off staff, downsizingand evengoing bankrupt.
This is, of course, an unprecedented and horrific situation for the airline industry as a whole. In addition to this, restrictions on international travel have caused ripples to permeate throughout a wide variety of other industries: not least international education. Some effects that have been experienced by teachers (some of whom are my colleagues) are as follows:
Teachers who were appointed to roles overseas cannot leave their current country of residence to actually start their jobs.
Dependents, such as spouses and children, are often not able to move abroad with the appointed teacher as it’s difficult for many countries to get the necessary clearance and paperwork approved.
Teachers who were ‘on the fence’ about teaching overseas are now regretting the fact that they didn’t ‘take the plunge’ and move abroad sooner, as now their ability to travel has been restricted.
That last bullet-point is an interesting one. It’s an ‘imaginary’ scenario based only on the anecdotal evidence I could currently acquire – a number of my readers have written to me to say that they regret not having made the decision to teach overseas sooner.
Whilst I cannot be sure that this is a systemic or widespread regret that applies to the teaching profession as a whole, it is an understandable and logical emotional response to COVID-19 that we can consider. I imagine that when COVID-19 is ‘over’ (will it ever be really over?), and flight paths reopen, we will see a surge in applications for overseas teaching posts.
In anticipation of this, I’ve conducted a rather unconventional experiment this week. As a teacher with 13 years of overseas teaching experience (12 years in Thailand, 1 year in China), I decided to post my top 5 suggestions/tips for teachers who are considering moving overseas to teach. I posted these tips in the popular Teachers in Thailand Facebook group, to see what kind of responses I would get. After a bit of distillation (tallying up the responses with the most likes), I’ve come up with a fairly comprehensive and balanced list of pre-teach-abroad tips for all budding globe-trotters (I hope!):
Rule #1: Try to learn the local language – even a few words will show others that you are trying and you’ll be respected all the more for it.
In some countries, of course, this won’t be necessary. If you’re a native English speaker moving to Singapore, Australia, America or the UK (or another English speaking country), then you may only have to learn some of the local colloquialisms and get used to some unusual dialect. However, if you move to a country like China, for example, it’s a whole different story.
Sometimes, learning the local language is essential. When I worked in Chongqing, China; for example; very few people could understand English (Starbucks baristas tended to be the best speakers – so hats-off to them). I had to learn some Mandarin just to survive. Learning the local language does have other benefits, too, however:
Language and culture are often very closely intertwined. Learning the local language can help you to understand why the local people think the way they think. This can lead to better relationships, less frustration and more common-ground and mutual understanding.
When you at least try to use the local language, you are showing that you have some respect for the local people and the country in which you are a guest (more on that later). In my experience, this goes a long way to building trust with others (e.g. that hairdresser you have to see every week, or that bar tender you see on the occasional Friday night). People tend to admire you more if you show that you are willing to learn, and you don’t just expect everyone around you to speak your language and accommodate you.
Teachers in Thailand Response
This rule was generally well-received. A noteworthy response that offers some extra-insight is given below (of course, remember that this is Thai-centric, but could be applied to any native language):
“I had the advantage of a thorough pre-field language training (it leads to some interesting conversations with Thai adults — like “how can my English get as good as your Thai” — but even if you have much less Thai than that it can still be a bridge-builder that can make your life easier — and fortunately, there are now FB groups designed specifically for foreigners trying to learn Thai. Take it easy, and you will gradually get better at it.” – Edwin Zehner
Rule #2: Do not leave home because you are trying to run away from problems – finances, crime, family issues – get any of these issues resolved first before you move overseas (or your problems might travel with you).
I must admit that this was a tricky one for me to phrase correctly in one sentence, and it did receive a little bit of backlash in the Facebook group. Before I include a noteworthy response or two, I’d like to add an extract from my debut book, The Quick Guide to Classroom Management (final chapter), which goes into this a bit more:
SECRET NUMBER 46: Your Problems May Follow You When You Fly Away
If your motivation to leave your home country revolves around personal problems you have such as debt, a broken relationship or family issues, then don’t assume that all of these problems are going to vanish as soon as the landing gear hits the tarmac in your new city. Certain problems, especially those concerning money, can actually be exacerbated when you leave your home country. Here are my top tips for making sure that a problem at home doesn’t become a nightmare abroad:
Money: Think long and carefully about any debt-related or financial issues you have, and aim to resolve them before you board the plane. Many expatriates find it difficult to transfer funds back to their home country once they’re abroad, and this can have consequences in terms of meeting credit card and bill payment dates. You must ensure that you’ve inquired beforehand about the ways in which you can deal with your finances abroad, and you must remember to follow through. When one is residing in a foreign country, it can be easy to forget about the financial commitments you have in your home country. In the early stages, this can manifest as an awkward message or letter from your creditor, progressing to international criminal action if the issue is not dealt with. It might be a good idea for you to leave some savings in your native bank account which you can use to pay your bills and loans in the first few months of your new adventure. You may wish to get a trusted friend or family member back home to help you with this.
Relationships: Don’t burn any bridges before you fly away. You may be travelling to an exotic new country to start a wonderful new chapter in your life, but you never know when circumstances may force you to return home to your native country. Try not to upset people before you leave, for example, by venting your pent-up grudges that you’ve had for years. You may also want to keep in touch with people at your old school as you may need to call upon them for advice, resources and help.
Health: Try to bring all of your medical records with you when you travel, and have them deposited at the hospital you plan to use when you start at your new school. Whilst medical care provided overseas can be of an extremely high quality (especially when your school pays for private medical insurance as part of your package), it can be very difficult for doctors to suggest a suitable course of treatment if your exact medical history is unknown. If you end up spending a great deal of time teaching overseas, then you may find yourself moving from hospital to hospital, or even country to country! It is essential that you do not underestimate the importance of keeping your medical records safe, accessible and updated. Unfortunately, however, this is the one aspect of international teaching that is most overlooked by teachers.
Crime: If you’ve committed any kind of serious criminal offence in your home country, then you almost certainly will not get a job at a reputable international school overseas. Most will require you to complete a criminal records check before you leave your home country but even if your school does not require this, you must still be upfront and honest about any criminal history you have. The ramifications for you can be severe if your school finds out about it later.
Online: Clean up your online profile. Look at all of the social media channels you have, all of your blog posts, forum replies, comments and any other material you’ve submitted online. Also, remove anything that puts you in a bad light: international school managers are using ‘internet screening’ more and more often these days. Additionally, be very careful about who you connect with through social media, and never connect with current students. Whilst it’s important to keep in touch with your former students (through school-authorized alumni channels), you still have to be careful about what they can read about you, or from you, online. Your former students may be connected with your current students, and they can pass on information easily. You’ll also find that the student world of international teaching is just as small as the teacher world, and students in different international schools do communicate and connect with each other.
I received some interesting responses about this in the Teachers in Thailand Facebook group:
“I do not agree with your point 2. We left SA because of a few of your nr 2 reasons and we soooo happy in Thailand!”
“Sometimes it’s impossible to resolve problems at home. Nonetheless you can be an effective teacher.”
I guess a balanced viewpoint on the issue is needed. A fresh start in a new country can offer you the chance to leave the past behind, and build a new future. My point, however, is that you should try to solve as many personal problems as you can before you move over. Avoid ‘burning bridges’ too – you never know when you might need to cross them again.
Rule #3:Remember that you are a GUEST in a foreign country. Be respectful, and remember that for every action you undertake you will be scrutinized more excessively than the natives.
I’m not sure if being ‘scrutinized more than the natives” applies in EVERY country, but that’s certainly been my experience in Thailand and China – and that’s understandable. I am a foreigner. I have to be respectful of the local rules, culture and environment.
I think it is important to realise that the world is an incredibly varied place. If you’ve lived your whole life in one country (as I did before moving out to Thailand in 2008) you’re going to find that your new home will be different in many ways. The most profound of these differences, however, is that people probably won’t even ‘think like you think’ on many issues.
Being understanding and accepting of the host culture and environment kind of comes with the job of being an international school teacher. If it gets too much for you, you can always move back home later (or to another country).
Rule #4:Get as many qualifications as you can (and as much experience as you can) back home before moving out – it’ll all look good on your resume/CV and you’ll definitely use the skills and knowledge you’ve learnt.
International schools tend to have more difficulties recruiting specialists than, say, a domestic school in western country would. This, coupled with the fluid nature of international education (schools at different phases of development) means that you may be asked to teach subjects outside of your specialism.
Before moving out, try to get skilled-up in anything pedagogical – accelerated learning techniques, Assessment for Learning, teaching ESL students in mainstream classrooms training, etc. The skills you learn on courses like these will definitely come-in handy when you teach overseas.
Online learning is, of course, great for this. There a large number of high-quality, inexpensive courses available on places like edX, Coursera and Udemy. You can also take my Classroom Management Fundamentals certificate course with UK Ed Academy.
Some notable additions
“Make sure your social media accounts are private and that your profile pic is respectable. Recruiters often check you out on social media. Do an in-class or hybrid course. There is so much to be said for REAL PRACS with real students. Do an intro video if you can – either just introduction, or even better of you in the classroom showing your rapport with students. Be punctual for any interviews!” – Rose-Anne Turner, Founder of Destination TEFL
“Get someone to proofread your c.v and covering letter. The number of applications we get with poor punctuation and spelling mistakes…” – Kate Lloyd, Director of Studies at London School of English, Ukraine. Check out her website for teachers at What Kate and Kris Did.
“Expect things to go a bit wrong/unplanned from time to time but make sure you’re flexible and ok with that” – Stefan Hines, Secondary Science Teacher
Rule #5:Kinda linked to number 2: make sure you are going overseas for the right reasons – to inspire and help your students, to gain teaching experience and to gain a unique cultural experience. You’re not coming over to have a big, never-ending holiday, or to find a local boyfriend or girlfriend (although that last one might be a nice by-product).
This is quite an important one. If you don’t have the right mindset before you come out, then you could be in for quite a shock.
International schools (and local public schools) tend to have very high professional standards. In addition to this, there often comes the added pressure of being expected to perform well. Thing about it: your school has most likely paid for your flight, immigration visa, work permit and maybe even housing and a competitive salary. You’ll be expected to measure-up.
Have a holidays at holiday time. Experience the local culture and food all that good stuff, but remember that you must be just as professional at your job as you were back home.
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Teaching online can be a very productive and worthwhile experience for both the teachers and students involved. However, at this time of widespread school closures due to COVID19, many teachers have had to quickly adapt their skills to teaching online without full knowledge of the heightened risks involved.
This blog post aims to educate teachers everywhere about the things we can do to protect ourselves when teaching online. I believe that this list is so important that I’ve included it in my upcoming book for teachers: 100 Awesome Online Learning Apps (Release date: 8th April 2020 on Amazon globally).
‘The List’: What do we need to be aware of?
Anything we say or do online can be recorded, stored, edited and forwarded without our knowledge.Google Hangouts Meets, for example, can be set to autonomously record your meetings and auto-generate a transcript of what was spoken and by whom. We must keep every interaction with our students professional and clean. The same high standards of personal conduct that are expected of us in the classroom apply even more when we are teaching online.
Know when your camera and microphone are switched on.When you start doing video conferencing for the first time, you might inadvertently set your students on a task after a live stream video briefing and then proceed to make a coffee; yawn and stretch in front of the camera; or even chat casually about how messed-up life is with your spouse who’s also working from home. Be careful. This is a very easy trap to fall into (I’ve come close to doing this myself on several occasions!). Make sure your camera AND MICROPHONE are switched off when you no longer need to engage with your students in real-time. In addition, be equally aware of video conferencing apps that can auto-generate captions. If you switch your camera off, but fail to switch off your microphone, then that next YouTube video that contains expletives and blares out of your mobile phone will not only be audible to your students, but captions may even appear on their screens!
Parents will watch you teach, so be prepared for that.In my experience, many students like to switch off their cameras towards the beginning of a lesson and, unbeknownst to you, a parent could be watching. This places us, as teachers, under even greater pressure to deliver high-quality lessons than when we are snug and comfortable in our respective classrooms. Be professional and keep standards high. If we aim to be clear, caring and professional, then our students and their parents will respect and appreciate our efforts all the more for it.
Be aware of chat features that are built into apps.These can contain casual emojis that one can choose to use; but we must be careful not to chat casually with any student (even by adding emojis to our messages). Keep all communication conducted through integrated chat as professional as you would in the classroom. I expand on this advice in a separate blog post (How Should Teachers Behave on Social Media?). This section is well-worth a read if you want to see some real examples of teachers who lost everything because of their lack of alertness to this point!
If you are not sure about an app’s appropriateness for use, then check with your school’s Senior Leadership Team or your line manager.Some schools like to keep all their prescribed online learning apps under the control of their domain (e.g. schools that use Google Classroom and Gmail may prefer to use Google Hangouts Meets as their video conferencing system, as opposed to Zoom). A great story that illustrates this point is a slight blunder that a former colleague of mine made several years ago. Knowing that Flipgrid was a popular video-exchange system used by many American schools, she recommended it to her colleagues in an upcoming collaborative teacher-training session. However, the school’s head of ICT followed up on that training session by e-mailing all the secondary teachers to tell them not to use Flipgrid – because it wasn’t a system under direct control of the school.
Check student well-being on a regular basis.When students work from home they can feel lonely, extremely bored and anxious. At this very moment, for example, as I write this prose; the novel coronavirus pandemic has snared much of the world’s population with fear and confusion. This fear and confusion is certainly being felt to varying degrees by many of the students I currently teach. Check that your students are having regular breaks and are sticking to a routine. E-mail parents of the students you are responsible for to find out how things are going. Recommend any tips you can for working from home productively and maintaining a personal sense of happiness and wellness. Share any tips that your school counselor or Student Welfare Officer sends out. When interacting on a video-call, check how your students look and feel. Are they dressed properly? Are they tired or stressed-out? Are there any student-wellbeing issues that come to your attention? Is the technology working correctly for your students?
Effective online teaching requires effective technology.This can be a challenge when using old hardware or software (or both) and when internet connections are slow. We must adapt: no matter what it takes. Set work via e-mail if video conferencing is not an option. Experiment with using the apps listed in my book (100 Awesome Online Learning Apps) on your phone if you don’t have a tablet or notebook/laptop. Figure out how your device’s integrated microphone works if you don’t have a headset. Go through the apps in this book that seem appealing and test the efficiency of each when setting tasks through the technology that’s available to you. Check-up on your students regularly – do they have the technology required to access and complete the tasks you are setting?