In my previous post, I summarised John Mason’s book The Discipline of Noticing and explained how it had influenced my practice. In this post, I describe how it is influencing the way we are developing teaching in our department.
This year, we will observe and give feedback to each other every two weeks. Initially I am doing the observations in order to model the process, but the plan is that members of the department will watch each other teach and give each other feedback using the model. Alongside this, we hold weekly sessions in which we come together to share and validate our approaches .
The Discipline of Noticing underpins this approach. We watch each other teach to help each other notice what is happening in our classrooms. The observer should not evaluate, explain or make judgments about teaching; their role is to notice and give accounts-of significant events, with the focus provided by the teacher. The observer acts as an impartial data collector, with the teacher as researcher.
Following the observation, the teacher and observer meet to discuss what was noticed. The teacher guides the discussion; the observer aims to provide further information to help the teacher reflect on events.
Then, in weekly department meetings, we come together to validate what we have noticed (Mason, p. 93):
Collective validation means interweaving strands if your own experience with those of others, constantly seeking resonance, negotiating similarities and differences, locating issues, understandings and possible behaviour to employ in the future... If the community constantly and continually brings accounts of what is noticed to the surface, and keeps sensitivities to notice in question, then there is some hope that prejudice and desire might not dominate.
This post gives an account of the first observations/meetings, and subsequent departmental meeting, of the year.
Case 1: Wali
Wali has been teaching for nearly a year. I watched him teach around 20 minutes towards the end of an A2 lesson. He was explaining solutions to some questions that students had been working on. He had adopted a reasonably fast-paced IRE approach.
I was particularly interested in one student called Adam who was not particularly engaged with the lesson. He was working on his own while Wali was talking. At one point, Wali noticed this and said to him: “Adam, you have to pay attention.”
Following Wali’s explanation, I went over to Adam to see what he was doing, and recorded a conversation with him. He was solving the problems at his own pace, using a slightly different method to that being described by Wali.
In our meeting following the lesson, I explained to Wali that I wanted him to describe what he noticed from the lesson. I would be taking notes and would also be describing what I had noticed. This is a very brief account of our discussion, which lasted around 30 minutes.
Wali started by describing his frustration that students did not have the pre-requisite knowledge required, and that he had to spend too much time revisiting pre-requisite knowledge. He had spent some time in a previous lesson going over some of the pre-requisties, and further time at the start of this lesson. When I entered the classroom, he was still going over content that he felt they should have already grasped or remembered. In our discussion he asked the question, “How come they are forgetting so quickly?”
At this point, we reflected on the possibility that they might not be forgetting, but perhaps that they had never understood the concepts in the first place, even though they may have studied this topic in year 11 and in year 12.
Either way, the students had not progressed as he had wished. Wali noted that this was a common feature of many of his lessons; he said, “I never finish what I have planned.”
I then played Wali a recording of the conversation with Adam. We discussed how Adam was working using a different method, and that perhaps he could have asked Adam to share his method with the class.
Over the next two weeks, and our next observation, we agreed that Wali should notice and mark when he felt like this again. I asked him to also reflect on what he might do to address his problem.
Case 2: Mehdi
Mehdi is an NQT who started in September. I watched him teach part of a AS lesson. He has not taught the AS curriculum before.
During the lesson, Mehdi has asked students to complete 5 questions on evaluating fractional and negative indices.
On circulating around the room, my attention was attracted by a couple of students (Adil and Ahmed) at the back of the class who were working quite a bit slower than some other members of the group.
As Mehdi went through the solutions to the 5 questions on the board, I saw Adil mark the second question wrong and write the correction next to it:
Ahmed wrote a correct solution in the blank space where he hadn’t attempted the fourth question:
I asked Ahmed to explain the solution he had written, but he (eventually) admitted that he didn’t really understand it.
I then recorded a part of the lesson, where Mehdi was asking/explaining to students how to solve a related problem.
In our discussion following the lesson, Mehdi started by describing how hard he was finding it to pitch the work at the right level for his students. He explained how he is finding it difficult to teach A-level as each topic is not associated with a grade (as in GCSE), and so it is harder to know what to expect students to achieve.
He concluded that his, “Aims for the lesson were not practical,” and that he needed to differentiate more effectively - he was aware that some students worked more slowly and needed more support than others. He described how he found himself needing to, “Break everything down, but it was still not enough,” and that this, “Takes too much time,” in the context of covering the curriculum, and in the knowledge that some students do not require lengthy explanations.
I then showed him the two photographs, and described my conversation with Ahmed, at which point he put his head in his hands. He described how he had explained this last lesson, and covered it again at the start of the lesson. He said, “I know it didn’t go through to them,” by which he meant the whole class, not just these two students.
At this point he reflected that he was interested in assessment for learning techniques, and that he would aim to incorporate these into his teaching. He then also commented on the quietness of the students; I agreed that I had noticed this too. He explained how he wanted to, “Change these students from being passive to being active,” and how he wanted to ensure some students didn’t, “Slip through the year”.
I then played the recording to Mehdi where he was talking to the class. It was very difficult for him to hear; he described it as, “Talking to myself,” with just a handful of students talking whom, “Already knew the answers.”
Mehdi then related this back to needing to get to know the content and students better, and plan accordingly. I agreed, and suggested that many of his issues might be connected: the quietness and passivity of students, the desire to not let some of them ‘slip through the year’, the need to assess their understanding and differentiate according to their needs, coupled with the feeling of talking to himself, or to a small group of students who already know the answers.
As I had with Wali, I asked him to notice and mark when he felt this way, and consider how he might want to address these issues.
Case 3: Rich
Rich has been teaching for around 3 years. In the AS lesson I watched, he was demonstrating how to simplify surds; during the demonstration I watched one student, Sinem, not paying much attention.
Following the demonstration, Rich set some questions for the students to work on. The majority of the class worked on these questions individually in (non-imposed) silence, apart from two pairs.
Sinem did not know how to start the questions, and turned to the student next to her, Shamar, for help. Shamar was re-sitting AS Maths and was confident on these problems.
The other pair of students that were working together, Nyima and Vabna, were using an interesting method that was not the same as Rich had just demonstrated. I asked them where they had learned this method; they were also repeating AS Maths and had developed this method last year. I took a photo of their method to show to Rich after the lesson, thinking it be of interest:
I have not had a chance to meet with Rich about his lesson yet, but we did get a chance to talk about in the weekly department meeting.
Weekly meeting: Validation
Our weekly department meeting is devoted to discussing Maths pedagogy. The agenda for each meeting depends entirely on our needs as they arise; this week, we decided to talk about what we had discussed in the observation/meeting cycle.
Wali and Mehdi talked about their lessons and meetings, and then I talked a bit about Rich’s lesson. Here are some of the common themes that arose; some of them may resonate with your experience:
- How can we use our students as a resource more effectively?
- How can we get to know our students better?
- How can we encourage students to participate in sharing their thinking?
- How can we use ensure/check/equip students with the necessary pre-requisites?
- How can we plan/teach so that we cover the curriculum whilst taking the time to ensure all students understand what is being taught?
- What are the implications for teaching and learning if we have to address gaps in prior knowledge whilst teaching new knowledge?
These are difficult dilemmas to address; many of them get to the heart of the decisions we make about teaching. We then shared strategies that might be useful, such as setting pre-teaching problems.
I purposely took a back seat at this point. Although I may have some other ideas around how we might address these issues, this process is about the department developing and validating a shared approach.
What is important is that we have made the first step together. We have noticed that we share common dilemmas, and we will spend the year working together building a repertoire of shared approaches for addressing these and other dilemmas.