Simple tasks with Big Impact (Issue 7, Conference June 2010)

–  Lesson starters that make a real difference

The activities I would like to highlight here all take place within the first 10 minutes of a lesson. Two of them have long been hard-wired into my practice and I somewhat take them for granted. The one I want to highlight is something that I picked up in Geoff Petty’s inspiring Evidence- Based Teaching, Nelson Thornes, 2006. It’s not something new, in fact it is standard practice on any TEEP (Teacher Effectiveness Enhancement Programme) course I run, but it has not made it into my classroom on a regular basis until this year. The beauty of Petty’s book is that it gives activities a pedagogical purpose and backs up their effectiveness with evidence from either Hattie or Marzano.

The first strategy is very simple, the simplest of the three by some way. All that is required is a visual representation of the learning that is about to happen. My interpretation of this can be seen in the examples. Anecdotally the impact of this is profound. On a TEEP staff development course one teacher complained that (since she had been late and missed the overview of the day) she could not see the overview as it had been obscured by another display and that she felt disorientated, as she did not know what was going on.

Back in my classroom I have noticed my students increasingly asking me “are we now onto X?” I regularly see their eyes glancing up and down the visual big picture. I feel it is well used, no less by me when I use it to clarify lesson plans in the morning, so that I have a very clear purpose and direction with the chosen tasks, and in planning for managing transitions during the lesson. The effect size of this strategy is 1.27. Needless to say this is a positive result. For more information on effect sizes consult John Hattie’s “Visible learning”. In fact I would say every teacher should read these inspiring books.

The other two strategies are on the surface just as simple but in reality some of the most important tasks a teacher must do. Firstly is setting goals – learning intentions or learning objectives.

Setting challenging goals that provide feedback has a huge impact on achievement. Research shows that teachers tend to write these as tasks descriptors rather than what will be learned. When done well the effect size for this is 0.51. Again a worthwhile pursuit at the beginning of a lesson.

Finally issue a task at the start of a lesson to recall prior learning. Petty recommends using questions here but any cognitive task will help, for example rank in order the most important facts from last lesson, as opposed to a word search of keywords. It is the connection and the search for meaning that is important not the simple recall. The effect size for this is 0.91.

When I read Petty the word “Wow!” stumbled from my lips; as he points out the doing all three has a total effect size of 2.66. All in the first five minutes! Petty does note though ‘… effect sizes are not crudely additive like this, but it does show how important the first five minutes are…’ Since reading this at least 90% of my (non enquiry) lessons begin in this way.

I believe it is the combination of these techniques that help students throughout the lesson; where have they been, where are they going to and how are they going to get there. It’s the foundation of comment only marking on a whole class basis. If I now ask my students what they are learning about then most of them will look to the graphical representation of the lesson first and then look at the outcomes displayed. Their very presence is giving students a pedagogical (albeit content based) purpose to each activity. With this approach tasks are not just sprung upon them, they know from the start and in the context of their learning. It’s all there for them in Technicolor!

Darren Mead

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One thought on “Simple tasks with Big Impact (Issue 7, Conference June 2010)

  1. daibarnes says:

    Hi Darren. Thanks for sharing this. I have read Petty and Hattie and was as impressed as you are with the scrutiny they apply to evidence. However, more interesting than the books are examples of how teachers use their learning to improve their classroom practice. I have toyed with creating simple graphics to incorporate the first two elements you describe, combining an example image with learning objective text. Even if quickly laid out in a template image (aiding the balance between teacher routine and innovation), they can serve to help all attendees undertsand/embrace the need for pace in the lesson.

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