Monthly Archives: September 2013

The Practice Gap: Quantity

At its core, the achievement gap is just a practice gap. Children from a more advantaged socio-economic backgrounds have a greater quantity of academic practice, and its effect is compounded by the higher quality of this practice.
We know that, on average, children from wealthier backgrounds spend longer engaged in academic pursuits than their less wealthy peers. We also know that the growth of knowledge is exponential. Once a gap has emerged it will grow, even if experiences after that point are identical. This means that even a small practice gap will grow into a big achievement gap.
The first step to closing the practice gap is to close the gap in quantity of practice. This blog is about the role of lessons in closing that gap. Its aim is to provide general principles that increase the quantity of practice time within a lesson. 
1) Every second counts
The cumulative effect of wasted minutes is tremendously destructive. Consider a student who arrives two minutes late to the start of each lesson. They take two minutes to begin working, and manage to waste another two minutes ‘packing away’ at the end. Ignoring any other down time during a lesson, this student would lose the equivalent of 19 school days each year – practically a term’s worth of learning. Every second counts.
The classroom that closes the practice gap eliminates lost minutes. It considers as late a student who is late to begin working, because being on time is about more than arriving at the classroom door. Transitions are tight, and every logistical operation is rehearsed to military efficiency. Teacher instructions are precise and concise, with non-verbal cues being used wherever possible. Accepting wasted seconds is accepting a practice gap.
2) Scarcity motivates
Give a student an hour to complete a task, and you can be damn well sure they’ll take an hour. They’ll crawl along with heroic inefficiency, working with the enthusiasm of a sloth on sedatives. Give the same student the same task with a finite, even daringly short time limit, and they’ll swing into action. A student’s mood should not determine the pace of their work. You should.
Every task given without a time limit is giving a blank cheque from the account of your most precious resource. The scarcity of limited time forces students to work efficiently and push themselves to achieve before their opportunity has passed. I like to generate scarcity by having a timer on display throughout my lessons, constantly counting down the seconds until the task must be completed. I also find that round numbers of time have far less effect than unusually specific ones. Five minutes is shorthand for “a little while”. Six minutes is a reasoned and deliberate limit. The teacher who’s calculated a specific maximum time is the teacher who won’t waste a second.
3) Speed matters
It is not good enough to just be able to perform a task. Students have to be able to perform it quickly, and without occupying too much of their working memory. Barry Smith taught me to call this “overlearning”, and it has changed the way I teach. A student has learned a skill or fact well enough when performing or recalling it exerts sufficiently small demands on their working memory that they are able to study something else at the same time. Otherwise, why bother? Students will never be able to operate in an unknown situation, or draw links across topics and subjects. They have to be able to do the thing you’ve been teaching them, and learn something new.
A great measure for this is speed. Directly measuring whether an operation has entered a student’s ‘muscle memory’, or its cognitive equivalent, is a tough problem. Monitoring their speed can be an effective proxy. Better still, speed is easily measured by students and can give them a tangible number with which to prove the progress they make. This motivating effect spurs them on to practise more and achieve even lower times.
That said, speed should be used with caution. It is not appropriate for all skills, and is a poor measure for non-routine or creative tasks. It is also risky because speed is easily ranked, and can turn practice into a competition against each other rather than against the clock. When well managed, however, speed is an excellent way of increasing the quantity of practice for routine skills that need embedding in long term memory.
4) Target mastery
It doesn’t matter what students have done, it matters what they’ll be able to do next. Students are too used to seeing a task as the end in itself. They complete 20 questions for homework because their homework is 20 questions. The practice required is limited and invariant. The job is done when the questions are done. 
Learning needs to shift from the past into the future tense. The goal of learning is to be able to face a future challenge, not to have completed a past one. By changing the objective of your class to focus on what students have to master, their quantity of practice will increase. Their motivation changes, so they are thinking about the skills they have mastered rather than whether they have hit their quota of questions. They are more likely to enter a state of flow, and to practise for the right amount of time. Tweaking your classroom to expect and reward mastery rather than task completion can revolutionize your students’ attitudes and significantly increase the quantity of their practice.
The gap in quantity of practice is a big one. It starts early – there is a 22% gap between 3 year olds who watch more than 3 hours of TV a day. It is fed into by a wide range of influences, many beyond the class teacher’s control. But by placing these philosophies at the heart of your classroom, you can make a significant impact in closing the practice gap for your students.

A Natural Theory of Group Work

Theory: group work is a natural phenomenon that comes about when motivated people independently realise that they need to share their ideas with others and open their own ideas up for scrutiny.

I’ve been teaching problem-solving this year. Every week my year 7 and 8 classes get two problems. The first is a ‘taught’ problem. They explore the problem and try to solve it, but receive extensive help along the way, such as the steps of a strategy or worked examples of a very similar problem. The second is a ‘practice’ problem. It will be similar to the taught problem, but differ in at least one respect. They receive much less help here, as it is a chance to practice what they learned from the taught problem.
The aim of this is to prepare students to solve interesting problems later on in their lives, be it in academia or the ‘real world’. And in both these cases, interesting problems are more often than not solved in groups.
Since beginning teaching I’ve tried many different ways of doing group work. I’ve allocated different roles, used word frames, scripts and strange restrictions to try and bring about the group dynamics I wanted, but it’s never quite worked.
So for problem-solving lessons I’ve done it differently. 
  1. Students get given a problem, and begin working on it – on their own and in silence. There’s a time limit on this, and a timer on the board. They will not be allowed to discuss with another person for somewhere between 6 and 10 minutes.
  2. Once the time limit has passed, students are allowed to discuss with a partner and compare strategies. Typically they’ll have to report back in some way for me to assess how they’re doing.
  3. Once pairs have converged on strategies they’re allowed to discuss with other pairs to reach consensus in a bigger group.
This has led to the most productive group work I’ve ever seen, and am convinced it’s because of the silent working at the start. 
This period of silence gets every student familiar with the problem. It’s so long that they have to start thinking about it; to sit and wait for someone else in the group to give them the answer would be too boring for even the most hardened work avoider. So after accepting that they may as well start thinking, they get interested. An intrinsic motivation to solve it kicks in, and students want to figure it out.
It’s this desire that leads to productive group work. I’ve found in these lessons that groups come together largely organically. In one lesson this week the silence went on for about ten minutes after the timer stopped – nobody was ready to discuss. Then some people got more certain of their ideas, we’re ready to compare and subject them to scrutiny, and started pairing up. Once pairs got joint strategies and started making real progress, they wanted to check with others and formed small workgroups, each pair taking on a different angle but the results being pooled.

It was how truly productive groups work. People, motivated to solve a problem, who realise that their best chance lies in subjecting their ideas to scrutiny and working together.