Nothing works everywhere (Wiliam)

There’s been some interesting discussions on Twitter this week. After a thread I tweeted on starting lessons blew up a bit Adam Boxer raised a concern about pupils copying Do Now questions if they don’t know the answer.

His issue was some pupils might not try to answer because it is easier to mindlessly copy than think hard.

Around the same time Tabitha McIntosh began a revealing and thought provoking discussion around cold calling with this tweet.

Both contributions were important and helpful.

Adam and Tabitha have good grounds for anxiety – I can very well visualise both my suggested strategy and cold calling going very wrong.

Imagine a hypothetical lesson which begins with pupils completing a Do Now. The teacher tells children if they don’t know they are to copy the question. Imagine the class is a top set with a large proportion of highly motivated perfectionists who know the teacher will go through the answers. Almost all copy without thinking for themselves. They want to be right and they want their books to look perfect. To them putting down anything they are uncertain about just doesn’t seem worth the risk – especially if it means crossing out. Plenty of children in this class know the right answer but don’t try to remember, which means they don’t get the benefit of retrieval or the testing effect.

It’s even easier to envisage a scenario in which cold calling could go really wrong. I’m picturing a class in which there are complex and troubling relationships between children and there have been many historic instances of cruelty and even bullying. I’m imagining a poor child being called upon for an answer and their horrified crawling hot blush as they go blank at badly suppressed sniggers behind them.

In this instance the teacher certainly should not have cold called.

Any strategy can be the wrong strategy.

When the wrong strategy is deployed issues often emanate from a lack of thought – sometimes the lack of capacity to think – about why it has been selected in the first place and what conditions need to be in place for it to be effective.  

In both strategies I’ve described the purpose is to raise ratio and maximise the chances all children doing the thinking rather than just a handful.

If this is not achieved by copying the question or cold-calling then the strategy has failed regardless of how successful this strategy might have been in other places and at other times.

Aping practices without fully understanding the purpose of them is at best risky – it’s like an untrained cook throwing disparate and uncomplimentary ingredients into a stew because they know that these are tasty things in themselves. It might not be noticeable (bay leaves), might result in an accidental culinary miracle (peanut butter and chocolate), or it might produce something inedible (chopped apple in school dinner curry).

It’s why a skilled teacher, like an experienced chef, is able to switch ingredients when the first choice isn’t available and still produce something good to eat – as Mark Enser points out in this post, reasons and thought structures behind strategy matter more than the specific strategy itself. If a chef knows they are looking for something sour they know they can replace tamarind with vinegar, just as teacher could replace cold calling with mini whiteboards if the class have a poor culture for error.

There are further complexities too.

Nobody likes to accept a compromise – I even wrote a blog post about them which appropriately nobody read. But as much as we may hate to do it, a middle ground has to be found. Both the imaginary scenarios I described earlier in this post were extremes and rare in real life. A combination of both classes is more realistic and this makes things even more difficult – the teacher cannot make decisions with any one pupil in mind – they must choose a best bet compromise that might not actually be the best thing for lots and lots of children in the class and they must often make decisions in the absence of important information.

Such is the life of a teacher.

If this is challenging for experienced teachers it can seem ridiculously so for trainees and teachers in the early years of their career. Every seemingly simple magic bullet ‘top tip’ comes in an invisible cloud of ‘buts,’ ‘make sures’ and ‘only ifs’. The end result of such an approach would be saying that because not everything works everywhere we shouldn’t advocate for anything – we’d condemn our least experienced teaches to invent effective teaching all on their own – a journey which takes decades and has an appalling attrition rate.

The answer must be to share ideas and strategies that do work and then find ways to unpick and understand the structures beneath them so when they are effective we know why, and when they are not effective we know why too, or at the least know the questions to ask.

To do this we need to be Adam and Tabitha.

We need to be open about our concerns even (especially) when it feels as if they’ve become uncontested pedagogical canon. Whether it’s copying questions in a do now, cold calling, retrieval practise, dual coding or anything else we have to stop to think about what we hope to achieve, what context we need for this strategy to be successful and whether something else might do the job better.

And we have to start somewhere even when our starting point might actually be the wrong one.


2 thoughts on “Nothing works everywhere (Wiliam)

  1. Ceri George says:

    I really loved your initial thread and plan on using it with my team soon so we can all reflect on our start of lesson practices.
    The ideas raised by Tabitha (which you’ve discussed in this post) reminded me of an experience early in my teaching career.
    “No hands up” questioning was the norm in my classroom….or so I thought!
    So, when an Ofsted inspector rocked up to my Y11 lesson, I was keen to show off this strategy.
    It worked well, until I decided to show off a bit too much. I had a quiet, diligent, fantastic, A* student. This was the days of modular exams, and she’d already aced every exam she’d sat, her classwork and homework were always perfect. So, I asked her a question, knowing that she’d know the answer and therefore the Ofsted inspector would surely think I was an amazing teacher.
    The problem was that I’d never asked this student a question in front of the rest of the (pretty rowdy) class before – why would I bother? I knew she’d know the answer. I never needed to check she was engaged.
    What happened next was essentially a train wreck.
    Her response to my question: “I don’t know”. My response: “Yes you do”. Her response: “No I don’t”. She refused to answer, no matter what I tried.
    Inevitably, the Ofsted inspector referred to this in her feedback and my otherwise “outstanding” lesson became a “good”. And perhaps more importantly, I probably traumatised the student in question in the process.
    Moving forward, I realised that in order to establish “no hands up” or “cold calling” with ALL students, there needed to be a period of building confidence, asking students to answer questions I knew they’d know the answer to or that I’d already told them was correct – “warm calling” if you like.
    “Cold calling” is unquestionably a great strategy but I get Tabitha’s reservations. However. with a little bit of student training and confidence-building, I’ve found that it is possible to make “cold calling” comfortable (or as comfortable as you want it to be!) for all.


  2. Pingback: Year 11 Leaving, Rekenreks, and How Consistent Is YOUR Behaviour Management?! - Teacher Tapp

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