The E factor, dynamic pitching and instant feedback

Engagement of students in their learning. The E factor. You know it when you see it; you know it when you hear it. Sustained cognitive effort by students who are working at the edge of their abilities. The engagement we want to see as teachers isn’t about keeping students amused, it’s about keeping them thinking for extended periods of time. By thinking, I mean questioning, reasoning, justifying, testing, experimenting etc. Quality engagement isn’t about students dutifully and passively copying a procedure you’ve taught them; it’s them asking the “what if…?” and the “why…?” questions.

Student engagement in learning is the ongoing focus of my CPD efforts this year. I have been constantly reflecting and intellectually wrestling with the topic, have read a variety of literature and also have experimented with ideas and resources. Student engagement, as a subject is a lot deeper than the use of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, Bingo and lollipops. Real success in this area comes from addressing students’ intrinsic motivation to learn rather than cheap exterior easy-fix ‘solutions’. The issue is clearly difficult, by implication, or it would not be an issue we all joust with daily. If a one-size-fits-all solution existed we’d all be using it. That’s not to say Tarsia puzzles don’t have their place in the maths classroom, but students quickly see through 20 questions dressed in camouflage and if used as an ends rather than a means, becomes stale in no time. We should focus our efforts on changing students’s intrinsic motivation. Extrinsic motivation techniques are tools to use on the journey, but they wear out quickly. Meaningful student engagement is an enigma; the prize lies through choosing the difficult, uncertain quest to change hearts and minds, rather than the convenient, safe, bland, idiot-proof treadmill of packaging 20 questions in a different format.

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Three books are certainly worth a read in this area: Essential Motivation in the Classroom by Ian Gilbert, Teach Like a Champion by Doug Lemov and Engaging Learners by Andy Griffith and Mark Burns . I will spare you a detailed synthesis of these books, and instead reflect on the overall message I have taken from them and how it reinforces what I have learned through my own trial and improvement experiences since entering teaching.

My thesis is that we make issues like student engagement far too complex. In my reflections, reading and observations of teachers whose students show high levels of engagement, I realised that three themes keep emerging. They are the roots of high levels of student engagement, the foundations, the principles. All the extrinsic motivation techniques, fads and fashions are nourished, supported and a consequence from these deeper ideas. Just as a good teacher shows students what the end-goal is, what success looks like, I think we need to keep these ideas as the focus of our efforts to raise student engagement. If individual classroom strategies for increasing engagement are the Lego blocks, these three ideas are the structures we a trying to build.

They are: be nice, be proficient and make students see themselves as successful learners. Whenever I reflect on why students show poor levels of engagement, including in my own lessons, I can always see at least one of these areas in deficit. Conversely, in classrooms that have the E factor buzz, the je nais se quoi, dare I say it, the outstanding learning on an energetic rolling boil, time and time again all three of these factors are singing harmoniously. 

Be nice

In the late Rita Pierson’s heart-warming TED talk, she tells the story of a cold-blooded colleague that saw her role in the classroom as solely the imparter of information and didn’t invest time or energy in building positive relationships. Rita told her that her kids don’t learn from people they don’t like and that her year would be long and hard. It was. An ice-queen personality and “no smiles before Christmas” doesn’t work.

Doug Lemov talks in his book of student voice research about what students think makes a good teacher. Be nice and be proficient is the universal message. Looking back honestly on my own education, I’d agree. As an impressionable teenager, my love of maths and science was, on reflection, more to do with my admiration for my warm, funny, passionate and competent teachers than the subject content itself. My appreciation for the beauty of maths and my intrinsic motivation came later; at school I liked the subjects in which I liked the teachers. Shallow? Extremely. Are teenagers today any different? I think not. I have forgiven myself, and them too.

By nice, I don’t mean soft. All of us have heard students talking about teachers they like, but didn’t learn a lot from. Within this context, nice means: fair, respectful, patient, integrity, genuine, firm boundaries, a good sense of humour, approachable and passionate. In short, someone who is in the classroom for the right reasons and has the kids’ best interests at heart. Students see through fake sincerity.

Be proficient

This needs little elaboration except to stress the importance of perceived, rather than actual proficiency. In John Hattie’s all-encompassing summary of education meta-syntheses, Visible Learning, he highlights the importance of whether students think their teacher is competent. In short, reputation is as important as competency itself. Regardless of whether you can teach, it is important that students see you as a good teacher if they are to learn. We need systems that protect and build teachers’ reputations as much as ones that build their skills. Do the kids know what CPD you do, what hard work it took for you to become a teacher and how much sweat and tears you put into their education? They should do. An incompetent teacher can’t hide behind an inaccurate reputation, but a competent teacher needs a good reputation too.

Show students they are successful learners

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In Why Don’t Students Like School, Daniel Willingham explains how humans are naturally curious, but inherently poor at thinking. The natural wonder of conscious thought, the quality that puts us at the top of the food chain, is not easy for us. Our brain is designed to reduce the amount of thinking it needs to do. Everything that is repeated regularly gets put into our subconscious memory so that we can do it with automaticity, bypassing the need for thought. However, the conscious thinking brain is the gatekeeper through which most learning has to pass. To learn something you have to think about it. Cognitive effort is just that, effort, and there are many reasons why students will choose not to engage in it.

Most people are more willing to put cognitive effort into thinking about things they perceive they are good at rather than areas where they see themselves as failures. Students need to see themselves as good at maths, regardless of their ‘ability’ if they are going to be open-minded enough to engage in some cognitive wrestling with new learning. We need to take every opportunity possible to show students they are good at learning maths. This is incredibly difficult given the constraints in which we work, but there are areas in which we can control and make a difference.

Dan Pink talks about the three pillars of motivation being autonomy, purpose and mastery. It is difficult for us as teachers to influence the first two. We cannot afford pupils much autonomy to influence the pace and direction of their learning because of the accountability balance of the system in which we work. Accountability for student progress is weighted much more on teacher, rather than student actions. We could argue about whether this should be the case, but I’ve never used this blog as a political soapbox and don’t intend to now. The reality is, it is difficult to give students autonomy over their learning when the prescribed curriculum is so large, the required pace of learning is so high and the methods for assessing student learning so rigid. All pupils have to jump through the narrow hole of regurgitating knowledge on a GCSE maths exam and the tail wags the dog from year 11 back to year 7. We cannot influence ‘purpose’ as teachers much either. Students have little life experience and the investment of trying to relate everything to real life has often yielded limited returns when I have tried it. Compound interest is just not that relevant to the life of an average teenager and the promise of future relevance often fails to inspire engagement. Ultimately, the main purpose motive is exam-based; the students know it and we need to embrace it rather than pretend we are always striving for a higher purpose. Balance. Schools should be preparing pupils for life, I couldn’t agree more, but we also need to ensure the doors to their future remain open; they need their qualifications. The extent of autonomy and purpose that we can control as teachers is small, it is prescribed by the system in which we work, but the mastery motivation factor is different. There are so many things we can do as teachers to make students feel like they are learners, to make them see themselves as a successful mathematician. Our focus should be in this area and taking every opportunity possible to show students the progress they have made. “What can you do now that you couldn’t do a lesson, a week, a month, a year ago?” If they’ve met the learning objective, tell them! If they did better on the recent assessment than the last one, even if by just one mark, tell them!

We need to celebrate progress and in particular, effort, not attainment. That is a cultural shift that rocks the whole boat. I don’t have all the answers, but I know from all I have read and learned from my own experience and that of my longer-serving colleagues that a transition to this would bear fruit. Measuring attainment is easy through assessment percentages, RAG ratings and grades; our whole system is set up to do so. Measuring cognitive effort is difficult, perhaps impossible. If a student hands in a blank page and we put our attainment hat on we worry. Perhaps we even perceive it as a lack of cognitive effort. What if they did wrestle with that homework for a couple of hours and still failed to grasp it? That effort goes unrewarded, perhaps even punished and therefore we see less of this desirable quality from them in the future. Learned helplessness ensues as students believe that their actions are unrelated to the consequences they receive. When praise and reprimand are related to getting things right, rather than cognitive effort, passivity and the desire for spoon-feeding of information is a logical student response. We should not be critical of ourselves. The system has been structured with conventions that focus on measuring what is easy to measure, attainment, for longer than any of us have been on either the receiving or giving end of it. However, that’s not an excuse to avoid questioning and consider breaking the status quo if we know there is a better way.

Measuring cognitive effort is hard. Maybe it can’t be done? Einstein allegedly kept a sign in his office that said, “Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.” We need a proxy, if not a quantitive measure. I open it up to the readership of this blog to share suggestions, ideas and experiences of how we could measure cognitive effort. I have dabbled in one technique with homeworks this year.

After students have completed a homework I’ve asked them to fill in a form that asks, “If there was a part that you didn’t understand, explain exactly which part and why” and “If you could ask me one question that would improve your understanding of this topic, what would it be?” The responses have of course been varied, but on numerous occasions I have found them to give me a whole new perspective when marking students’ work. It is quite often a fuzzy snapshot that explains what thought processes were going on in the students’ mind when they were wrestling with the homework. Rather than playing the “I’m guessing what was going on in your mind when you were doing this homework”, which is what we normally do when marking a book by looking for patterns in errors and common misconceptions, sometimes the students’ responses to these questions add clarity or even a whole new perspective. What can look like a relatively sparse piece of work can appear differently if they have articulated the thought processes and actions they went through to try to understand it. This idea needs more work, and I intend to keep on experimenting with it. For it to be successful the students need to know what would be valued and rewarded in this new world. I don’t know how to articulate that yet. It is hard because my natural instinct is to quantify it!

Finally, on the topic of showing students they are successful learners I think we need more of an emphasis on making the feedback students receive instant. Many pupils that teachers say can’t concentrate and give up easily in class, go home and play for hours on computer games where they repeatedly fail then have another go. One of reasons Professor James Paul Gee cites for this is instant feedback. If the student dies in the video game, they instantly get feedback as to why. If they do something wrong on a homework they quite often won’t find out for a few days, by which time in class they will be learning something else. The moment has passed. Computer games wouldn’t be addictive and we wouldn’t get any better at them if we didn’t find out why we failed on a level immediately.

Some truly brilliant teaching colleagues of mine have a good suggestion for minimising action-feedback time in the maths classroom. Give the pupils the answers along with the questions. Train them to complete a question, then mark it, then complete a question, then mark it. Do this repeatedly, all the time until they do it by habit. That way, they only get one question wrong before they find out and something is done about it. Can there be anything more depressing than students doing 30 questions, getting them all wrong and finding out only 2 mins before the end of the lesson when there is no time to do anything about it? Yes, you will get some students who can’t bear the temptation to cheat using this approach, but don’t accept just correct answers, require the workings too and you can manage it.

How much time do you spend looking for or creating resources of questions because you “just can’t find what you need?” You look through textbooks, TenTicks, MEP and on the TES and there just doesn’t seem to be questions that match what your class requires. They either progress too fast, too slow or contain difficult exceptions (such an negative coefficients) when you just want the basic idea for now etc. You end up creating it yourself and the next time you teach this topic even this resource doesn’t seem to suit the class you have in front of you. Differentiation is a wonderful thing, but it relies on the teacher to travel forward through time, predict how rapidly individual students will learn a topic and then anticipate questions that will be pitched correctly based on this prediction. With 200+ students to teach each week this is quite some challenge and no wonder we feel like we’re never doing it that well. An inspector said to me recently that when they’re in a classroom they ask themselves “what proportion of the lesson did the students spend at the edge of their understanding?” No matter how good you are at differentiation it is difficult to keep 30 different youngsters all progressing at the edge of their understanding. If you are tutoring a student one-to-one you vary the pitch based on their success on the previous question. This dynamic pitching means that the difficulty of the question changes depending on their speed and accuracy in answering the last one. They get instant feedback from you and the next question is pitched such that they stay on the edge of their understanding; not in their safe zone or outside their current capability. I don’t have an answer to how we can make this dynamic pitching work in class yet, but there must be one. Perhaps ICT rather than textbooks and worksheets is the solution. I leave it to you, but the day students in every classroom are working on questions that dynamically change their pitch based on their previous success, along with providing instant feedback will be a paradigm shift for student motivation in their learning. They’ll feel successful as learners too. Surely we have the technology these days to make this possible?

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