Earlier this year I catalogued the many insights gleaned from educational experts which have been most influential in my curriculum thinking, in a post entitled, This much I know about… the principles of curriculum planning in action. In a series of short essays I am exemplifying in more detail ten of those influential insights, and explaining why I think they are so important to progressing pupils’ learning. This post explores Dylan Wiliam’s insight that “Opportunity cost” is one of the most important principles for people working and learning in schools.

I am not obsessed with making every single second of a lesson count. I wouldn’t, for a moment, plan my teaching minute-by-minute. But I do think we can make better use of our time if we are all aware of “Time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near” when we are enacting our curriculum in the classroom.

We can only spend each hour once. Every decision we make when teaching has a cost. If we decide to do X, we cannot do Y. Lesson time is incredibly precious, especially when our National Curriculum and examination specifications are so jam-packed. An oft-heard cry from teachers is that there isn’t enough time to get through the prescribed curriculum. Moreover, our disadvantaged pupils’ most important learning time is when they have direct contact with their teachers.

So, are there things we do in our classrooms that have an opportunity cost so great that we should stop doing those things in the way we are currently doing them, or even stop doing them completely? Here are three provocations to get us thinking about the opportunity cost of how we teach…

Have your Do Now tasks become white noise? I wonder whether Do Now tasks have become so procedural, that neither pupils nor teachers are taking the time to think hard about them and their worth to learning. If, for instance, a Do Now task comprises three multiple choice questions (MCQs), in a class of 30 that would give 90 individual pieces of assessment data. Often, teachers choose one correct response for each question. The other 87 responses are left uninterrogated, yet might reveal useful information about who understands what, and how to shape the forthcoming lesson. Perhaps one relevant MCQ, which is pitched well in terms of challenge and the answers to it are explored thoroughly, would be much more useful. So…

  • How can you make Do Now tasks aid learning in a time efficient way?
  • Could you minimise the time spent on Do Now tasks, if they are merely a way of settling pupils down at the beginning of the lesson, ready to learn?
  • Is the time spent on Do Now tasks better spent doing something else?

Are pupils taking too much time gluing in sheets? Assume it takes 3 minutes for the whole class to glue each piece of paper into an exercise book. Pick up one of your pupil’s exercise book and count how many pieces of paper they have stuck in during lesson time. Times that number by 3 and that will give you the number of minutes they have spent in your lessons, over the lifetime of that exercise book, sticking stuff in. If pupils are gluing handouts into exercise books…

  • Do they know and understand the content of those pieces of paper?
  • Can they apply their understanding of the contents of those pieces of paper to new contexts?
  • Could they have spent that time more profitably in terms of making progress in their learning?
  • How do you make the content of what you want pupils to learn accessible to them in a time efficient way?

Who needs to be pushed to think hard? Every time you ask a pupil a question there are 29 others who aren’t asked a question. If Dan Willingham is right when he says memory is the residue of thought, and if Seneca was right when he said that there is no learning without memory, then getting pupils to think hard is key to the learning process. Dylan Wiliam talks about classes being inclusive and engaging. What he means is that all pupils (inclusive) have to pay attention (engaging) all the time. So…

  • How do you question a class of pupils in a way that helps all of them to think hard for as long as possible?
  • How do you ensure that you are maximising thinking time for those who need to think the hardest (that is, those pupils who find it hardest to pay attention and process knowledge and secure their understanding)?

REMEMBER: None of this is a blame-game, just some reflections upon how we might use lesson time more effectively to maximise pupils’ learning.

On 14 December, Mary Myatt, Tom Sherrington and I will be in London, talking about what we have learnt over the years about the curriculum. The event is called: Curriculum Masterclasses: A Christmas Celebration! It is only £30 (to cover costs) and John Catt Education have thrown in a free book of your choice from the range of books the three of us have published. You can book a ticket here. Come and join us!

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