Doug Lemov calls the different ways pupils join in with a lesson The Means of Participation.
Effective management of Means of Participation means being specific and explicit about how pupils are supposed to contribute to lessons, and then being consistent in maintaining these rules.
Examples include waiting to be Cold Called, writing – and perhaps most importantly of all – properly listening.
Clarity and predictability around Means of Participation results in better lessons; better behaviour, clearer teaching and children who learn more. It results in pupils who accept the rules around lesson contributions as non-personal organisational routines that create a fair and purposeful environment in which the opinions and views of everyone in the room are equally valued.
In the abstract there is little controversial about this – but as much in life is easier to believe in than do every day.
The purpose of this – hopefully practical – blog post is to explore reasons it is often hard to manage Means of Participation well, and how these obstacles might be overcome.
- Low expectations
Low expectations has become something of an umbrella term now so truthy it’s pretty meaningless without context and examples.
Low expecations around Means of Participation can begin when teachers believe pupils are not capable of regulating themselves to an extent that allows them to abide by common rules set for joining in.
For teachers who hold such beliefs it is very hard to manage Means of Participation – trying to force children to do what they are not capable of doing seems pointless and even cruel.
Such assumptions lead logically to the notion it is better to allow children to decide on their own means of participation, based on their own circumstances and context.
As well-meaning as such beliefs might be they are a recipe for chaos in classrooms.
Any space in which large groups of people all decide as individuals how to contribute towards what should be a shared goal are loud, unfocused and inefficient. In classrooms competition between children in the room for attention, and lack of clarity over how the teacher decides on who gets it incubates resentment and ,makes the environment really stressful for the most vulnerable.
The longer such cacophony and disorder goes on the harder it is for teachers to believe children in the room are capable of better, or indeed for children themselves to believe it. This makes low expectations around Means of Participation self-fulfilling and can cause teachers to despair.
I know this because I’ve been there, and it is a miserable place to be in.
As pervasive and sometimes understandable as such low expectations can be they are usually wrong – children are almost always capable of understanding and abiding by explicit Means of Participation.
This can be seen in pedagogically variable schools where children behave very differently in the rooms of teachers regarded as ‘strict’ to how they behave in rooms of teachers they perceive to be soft or even weak. The same is true about most children summoned to the Headteacher’s Office, or given a formal award at a ceremony – in these contexts few shout, interrupt or behave erratically.
These examples suggest the idea large numbers of children are simply incapable of regulating their responses regardless of where they find themselves is wrong.
Believing otherwise would be an existential challenge to the way almost every school in the world operates.
If rules and routines are clear and have purpose almost all children will understand and respect them
But often they are not
2. The Means of Participation are not made clear.
It can be sobering to appreciate just how much we assume pupils can infer from actually quite vague instructions about how to join in lessons.
For example, saying to pupils ‘write this down’ does not make it explicit when, where, how or whether they are allowed to talk or not while doing it. Saying to pupils, ‘put your hand up if you know the answer’ doesn’t make it clear whether pupils can also shout out the correct answer without putting their hands up. Saying to a noisy class ‘be quiet while I am talking’ does not make it obvious whether this means to stop talking altogether or just to lower voices.
Of course some ‘misunderstandings’ pupils make can be disingenuous but whether they are real or not, the way to tackle them is the same; be very, very clear and explicit about what the expectations are, anticipate areas of ambiguity and pre-empt them. Scripting can be really helpful – for example “when I am explaining I want you to stop talking, look at me and put anything in your hands down. Do not put your hands up while I am talking, because I want you completely focused on what I’m saying.”
Awareness of Means of Participation should also be brought to planning – having considered in advance exactly what pupils need to do to join in and then scripting the explanation of this so there is no room for either wilful or genuine confusion makes lesson flow much smoother.
3. Pupils are not used to having their means of participation managed.
Even when they are sensible new rules are very frequently controversial especially when they mean changing embedded behavioural habits.
Individuals in a class who have become accustomed to shouting out or not listening when a teacher is talking often feel that – as implicit judgements on their prior behaviour – the imposition of new rules is punitive. This can cause significant kickback in the early stages of managing Means of Participation with some pupils failing to honour new rules because they genuinely keep forgetting, and some deliberately refusing to comply because they don’t like being made to feel how they behaved before was wrong.
To get over this obstacle it is important teachers and leaders in schools focus on more transparency, explaining Means of Participation clearly in ways that make the purpose very clear. This shouldn’t be done confrontationally and unless there are compelling reasons not to, it’s usually best avoid dredging up past examples of bad behaviour to justify the shift. Such an approach very frequently ends up in mutual recrimination and accusation. It is usually better to be clear about the benefits orderly, predictable and clear rules have for everyone, explain the consequences of not sticking to these and then being resolute and consistent about their application.
4. Means of Participation are not consistently managed across a school.
While I am an advocate for subject specificity and autonomy wherever appropriate I feel a consistent approach to managing Means of Participation across a school is a real advantage for most teachers in most subjects.
When there isn’t consistency – for example some teachers taking shouted out answers but others not – then it is very easy for children to feel rules around Means of Participation are personal and arbitrary rather than just the way things are done. Teachers who do try to organise their classrooms in ways in which joining in is regulated can find themselves cast as school villains, which is unfair.
Of course very charismatic teachers can get away with having fewer explicit rules. Children will not notice or overlook a lack of consistency if they are swept away by inspiring teaching. But being charismatic is too high a bar to set if we want to be reasonable, and by allowing mavericks to play fast and loose with what should be consistent across a school the system is undermined for all, which is ultimately to everyone’s detriment.
It is hard to manage this because challenging ourselves or our peers on not following school rules and routines consistently is awkward, especially if they sit above us in the hierarchy.
As awkward as it is, it is also essential.
If agreed rules and routines aren’t applied in the same way by everyone in a school then they lose their power, influence and purpose. If we do not abide what we profess to hold in common then there really is no point having agreed ways of doing things at all.
We should all of us – regardless of our role or status – accept our human fallibility and avoid defensiveness when an oversight, such as ignoring a pupil who isn’t writing down what the rest of the class is, is brought to our attention. Consistency needs to be cultural and for this we must be able to discuss it collegiately and pleasantly.
And the longer we avoid doing this the harder it becomes to start doing so.
5. Teachers flex rules for particular pupils.
One of the things that makes pupils who receive many sanctions in school most angry is how many of the infringements of those who receive fewer sanctions are overlooked.
Very often they have a point.
Often the flex teachers put into consistency around Means of Participation is not evenly applied and is subject to our human internal biases and prejuidices; for example, a usually delightfully behaved girl gets a raised eyebrow rather than her name on the board when caught whispering during an explanation, whereas a boy known for being rude gets a sanction for the same infringement twenty minutes later.
While the reasons for these adaptations may be really clear to the teacher they are often opaque to pupils, and this creates the perception that Means of Participation are different for different children, with the reasons for these differences mysterious.
At best this is highly confusing while at worst it can make it seem as if the teacher is picking and choosing how each child should join in on based on how much they like them.
School routines, including those for managing Means of Participation, are based on consent built upon the shared belief that while aspects of a way of doing things may be individually inconvenient at times, ultimately they are what is best for the community as a whole.
It needs to be clear what is said by the school applies to everyone does actually apply to everyone, especially around something as fundamental as how to join in.