If not later, when?
Teaching is tightly timed.
Given the number of children taught in schools, the number of lessons going on simultaneously and the need for children to access a certain breadth of curriculum, things are tightly sequenced and scheduled so every child has a body in the room telling them stuff.
A typical week in a primary school might require the cramming in of 5 English lessons, 5 maths lessons, a history/geography, a science, two PEs, RE, Computing, Art and Design, some assemblies, some reading time, some PSHCE and a smattering of collective worship. This could not happen without organising time quite carefully.
When we break it down into the individual subjects, we have sub-sections which also require the slicing up of time. In those 5 English lessons, there might need to be – for example – explicit teaching of spelling rules and a spelling test, explicit teaching of grammar and some time to put it into practice, reading time, comprehension tasks, writing focused at the level of sentences as well as writing longer pieces, as well as time for editing, refining and sharing.
At risk of alienating you, dear reader, we could even dig further into one element of this. Reading for example. Are we reading as a reader, appreciating the images and turns of phrase for the impact they have on our imagining, as well as reading as a writer, unpicking the craft of the sentences and the art of grammar? Are children reading independently as well as with the whole class? Are they getting the time for book-blethering?
We pack so much expectation into our working week, into our curriculum and into our timetable, that we end up very limited in terms of time itself.
Time is ubiquitous though. We reward them with time to do certain things, and we punish them by giving them time-out. We have play times and golden times, time to think about our actions and time to settle down. We time their times tables and they complete the tests in the time allowed them. The organisational structure of the school and the classroom positions the school leaders as the engineers of time, and the teachers serve as their pupils’ time lords, without a sonic screwdriver in sight.
Why didn’t you go to the toilet earlier? You can share your project later. Ask me that during break time. We haven’t got the time.
The day of a teacher can be characterised by the interplay between breathlessness and the ticking of the clock. We know that a certain amount of things need to be done, and because of the way we organise our time, we are acutely aware of the ever-spinning hand on the wall.
In my initial training and in my first few years, the expectations of the ‘flow’ of a ‘good lesson’ were more tightly proscribed than they are now, generally. This reflects general trends in teaching and pedagogy. The need for a starter, main task and plenary determined the ultimate structure of the lesson. A 50 minute lesson, then, might have a 5 minute starter task planned, a 40 minute ‘bulk’ and a 5 minute ending.
So often I would find myself hitting a stumbling block – perhaps in the starter activity the children had confused the definitions of factors and multiples – and I would automatically feel my eyes creeping up the wall like anxious wisteria. I spy the clock and evaluate.
“We will come back to that tomorrow.”
“Don’t worry, we will cover this.”
“I think we need more practice on this don’t we?”
But we wouldn’t go back to it tomorrow, we probably wouldn’t cover it, and we wouldn’t have more practice, if it was something that ‘had been covered’. We didn’t have time.
I mean… we did have time, but in practical terms we didn’t. Tomorrow would be just as jam-packed as today.
Pace was the word of the day, but it wasn’t so much about an appropriate pace as about ‘is this fast enough’. Have the kids been left on one task for too long? Have I spoken to them enough in the last three minutes? Are they getting restless?
It was as if the right way to do things was to make the children feel as short of breath and anxious as I did. This isn’t a criticism of the school that I was in, or the mentors I had. It was standard practice.
Things have changed a bit, I think. One consequence of the omnipresence of mastery, in its various forms, is a better appreciation of the importance of depth. Depth is not attained from glossing over a topic at rocket speed, in order to move onto more topics, which will also be glanced at. The focus on pupils’ reasoning – primarily in maths, but I would say across all subjects – has also eased in a slightly slower pace in the learning, which is beneficial. In my first few classes, any child could divide any three-digit number by any two-digit number, but if I was to ask them to articulate the steps, they could not do so, outside of repeating the algorithmic process of short division. They couldn’t explain why the ‘remainder’ would be carried over. They couldn’t visualise this, or use Dienes to demonstrate. They ‘knew’ the answer, but they didn’t understand it.
Real learning doesn’t happen in neatly compartmentalised episodes of equal length. Children bring different prior knowledge and understanding to a given lesson and some things we teach might sink in quickly, whilst others will require regular reminding and practice.
The pressure to ‘move on’ is understandable when we want no time to be wasted, but it is often a lot easier to move on and pretend that the children have understood more than they have. We should resist the pressure to move on too quickly, and SLT need to be vocal about this with the teachers they work with, if they actually want the pupils to have long-term, well-retained and useable knowledge.
I have seen the same lesson being taught by two teachers to two different classes. A key teaching point, about word classification, was understood and this understanding was demonstrated by one class very quickly. Perhaps their teacher in the previous year had really made a point of drilling it, I don’t know? The other teacher was having a bit of an ordeal with it – their class had jumbled all the definitions up and couldn’t understand the difference between an adverb and an adjective.
This teaching point was meant to be a short part of the lesson as planned. For the teacher whose class didn’t get it, they had to choose between sacking off the rest of the things they had planned – which were a crucial part of a longer teaching sequence – or ignoring the class’s difficulty with the word classification.
The teacher focused the rest of the lesson on exploring language and word types, to the point where the children’s understanding was much clearer. Not to say they had learned it – how could that be proved in the space of a lesson? – but the time was used valuably.
A key idea I need to constantly remind myself of, when I am planning my own lessons or working with teachers to plan their own is this: if it is important enough for us to teach at all, it is important enough that they must understand. So if the children have not remembered the chronology of the Tudor monarchs, and we are content to move on anyway, we need to ask whether or not it was worth doing it in the first place. If it is worth doing, then it needs to be revisited, and if it isn’t, then let’s sack it off and focus on the things that we do deem to be important.
For what it’s worth, I would love a much more relaxed set of curriculum expectations, which would allow for much more depth and less breadth. Sometimes I would happily spend a whole day reading and exploring a brilliant story. Sometimes I would happily spend the whole day exploring a challenging question like ‘What is the point of religion?’, giving us the chance to actually dig deep. I would like the flexibility to take things where I, as a teacher, think they ought to go. That could be based on my knowledge of the abilities, aptitudes and interests of the kids I teach, as well as my own professional knowledge of different fields.
Teaching clocklessly (as a philosophy rather than a reality, cos we all need our toilet breaks) would have many benefits, not least in allowing us to focus on what needs to be taught rather than what can be taught in the often way-too-short time allotted.
It also allows for greater flexibility, spontaneity and seizing the moment, and for many subjects – and some more than others – this can be hugely beneficial. I’ll come to this in a different post.
‘If not later, when?’
This line is a really significant one in the book ‘Call Me By Your Name’ by Andre Aciman, that I am reading at the moment and which is also an apparently very beautiful film.