I never thought I would transform my teaching in my 50s.
After 31 years of being in the classroom, I have never enjoyed my teaching more. For the last term I have been teaching Business Studies, a new subject for me. We had a challenging, 22 student, all-male Year 10 class. Relationships in the class were broken. I agreed with the teacher that I would remove the ten most disruptive students and teach them myself. When I told those students to stand up, pick up their bags and follow me at the beginning of their first lesson after Easter, they had no idea what was going on. I took them to my office, cramped them round my meeting table and explained, in forceful terms, that I would be teaching them right through to their GCSEs next summer.
Looking back now, after 28 lessons, it strikes me how I have adopted many aspects of my teaching only in the last five years. And these aspects of my teaching are close to being second nature to me having been engaged in the development of the Research School network since 2014 and adopted a more evidence-informed approach to my practice.
Text books & pre-lesson (Cornell) note-taking homeworks
There is an AQA-endorsed Business Studies GCSE text book. Each student has a copy. I gave the students two A4 notebooks, one for work in class and one for taking notes from the text book. At least once a week I set a note-taking homework in preparation for the next lesson. I inspect the notebooks weekly to check the notes have been done properly – I taught the boys, in our very first lesson, how to use the Cornell note-taking technique and that is the only style of notes I accept. These lesson preparation homeworks ensures that the students have at least covered every single page of the subject knowledge detailed in the text book. I give time in the lessons for the students to ask me questions about anything they found confusing about the text book content.
Low-stakes, frequent testing
One of the students commented recently on how much I focus on checking they have learnt what I think I have taught them. His comment chimed with what Mark McCourt says in his Teaching for Mastery book: “I do not consider something to have been taught unless the desired learning has taken place.” I assume nothing. Progress is slow. I check and double check, questioning relentlessly. And we use MCQs liberally – no publicising how many each student gets right, but just enough for me to know who has learnt what so that I can amend how I teach what to whom.
There can be no learning without memory. The boys can forget something just minutes after I have, supposedly, taught them something. They have untrained memories. According to the text book there are three advantages and three drawbacks for businesses to globalisation. So, how do we remember those? Well the advantages thus: Rapid Growth (Usain Bolt was the most rapid runner they could think of); Inward Investment (one of their mate’s surnames is Inward); cheaper resources (the meal deal at Tesco’s is cheap). And the drawbacks as follows: a tiger (fierce competition) over-taking (take-overs) all the cars in New Earswick (new competition). It works remarkably well; they themselves are often surprised at their own feats of memory.
Metacognitive skills: Knowledge, Understanding and Application
For the first time ever I have explained the relationship between Knowledge, Understanding and Application. It is possible to know something but not understand it. The example I give is differentiation in mathematics. I know that 21x2 differentiated is 42x, but I have no understanding of why that is the case. So, they read the text book and make notes, their first encounter with the subject knowledge. They then ask me questions about the content of their note-taking. Subsequently, I explain that it is my role to spend the lesson helping them understand the knowledge, using the text book, any other materials I find useful, a whiteboard and a marker pen. I have never before used so much direct instruction. Once I feel they have understood the knowledge, I find real world business examples for them to which they can apply their understood knowledge, most of which come from the excellent text book. The students now clearly understand this process. It has improved their metacognitive skills; they are able to stand back and manage their own learning and thinking. And the whole learning cycle ensures that the students encounter what they have to learn three times, crucial to them internalising that learning, according to the research of Graham Nuthall.
I use my visualiser to model my thinking as I write 12 marker answers and the students copy my extended writing verbatim from the board. It helps emphasise the application element of the Knowledge-Understanding-Application process. I would claim that my visualiser is by far the most important piece of kit as a teacher.
Emphasising the absolute basics
In Business Studies, the fundamental basics that all students need to understand are few and simple:
- The overwhelming majority of businesses aim to maximise profits.
- Revenue minus costs equals profit.
- In most cases, the higher the price of a product the less demand for that product.
I have drilled these basics endlessly and 28 lessons on, I reckon they are embedded in the students’ brains. And the reason this is important, is that I am finding that we can move on a bit quicker now and make up in specification coverage terms for the slow, hard graft pace of the opening lessons.
We have spent a long time at Huntington working on improving our students’ vocabulary skills. I teach prefixes and suffixes, just simple stuff, like how to remember the difference between ex(exit)ports and im(in)ports. Easy stuff, but easy stuff that gives these boys another academic tool to enable their learning.
The advantage of teaching in my office is that it is cramped. There is no chance of the boys working in groups. I critiqued how they behave when they do group work – they sit back whilst someone else does all the work – and they all concurred that I was spot on. That is not to damn group work, but group work for these boys does not work, or, rather, these boys do not work when put into groups to work. The seminar-style means I am right on top of the students all the time. They have no chance to lose concentration. I never ask for hands up so they all have to be listening all the time. And I have had the odd big shout when they have drifted off, and that works too.
So, my teaching is now riven through with evidence-informed practice, something that it wasn’t for the first 26 years of my career. It feels potentially dull, but it is highly effective. All my summative assessments show that my students’ progress is increasing rapidly. And the win-win of me taking these boys on is that the remaining 12 students in the group are getting on famously with my colleague. All 22 of the students are now learning.
Of course, all this is underpinned by relationships, and I know my designation as head teacher gives me a myriad of advantages . That said, we have the occasional chat about fishing and football. I big them up. I tell them they are all going to be captains of industry; one of them will rule the world! We have the odd laugh. And our last lesson was dubbed Fat Rascal Thursday. A few weeks back we were discussing a bakery business and somehow I discovered that none of them had ever eaten a famous Betty’s Fat Rascal cake. I took out a small mortgage and we all had an end of term celebratory face-fill. It was a blast!
And my boys are enjoying it a great deal. How do I know? Well, there is another group, parallel to the original group of 22 boys, and there is now a waiting list to join my class.