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Teaching and learning would be more effective if—anyone? Anyone?

By February 11, 2021No Comments

Australian teacher-coach Glen Pearsall contends that teachers can make small changes in their daily practices to realize huge gains in student engagement and achievement. He calls these small changes Simple Shifts and they’re the subject of his McREL book (with Natasha Harris), Tilting Your Teaching: Seven Simple Shifts That Can Substantially Improve Student Learning.

Movies often exaggerate classroom scenes for comedic and dramatic effect. For a fun take on how to apply the Simple Shifts, think about how things go south for teachers in TV and movies—and how you, as a real-life teacher, could have done things differently!

One scene that comes to mind for me, and probably a lot of you, is the classic “Anyone? Anyone?” bit from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.

This much-quoted scene is an emblematic example of a teacher delivering a monotonous lecture to an unresponsive class. Indeed, while much of the humor of the scene comes from the economics teacher’s unusual speaking voice, flat delivery, and esoteric subject matter, partly what makes it funny is the shock of recognition: “I’ve had a teacher like that!”

To avoid this trap, let’s consider some Simple Shifts the teacher could have used, starting with wait time. Wait time is the pause you take after asking a question, before seeking an answer or re-asking the question differently. Many educators, like the economics teacher in the movie clip, wait for hardly a breath. But if you can extend your wait time you can create much more engaged classes; as little as three seconds is enough, Robert Marzano has written.

Three distinct aspects of classroom engagement can be improved by offering your students more thinking time before they are expected to answer: More students will respond; they’ll feel safer in offering speculative answers; and the detail and quality of their responses will climb. The economics teacher here, like many teachers, could benefit from all of these advantages.

If extended wait time is so beneficial, why don’t more teachers use it routinely? The average wait time of many teachers is less than a second. For a point of reference, the wait time of the economics teacher here is as little as two-hundredths of a second. “Most teachers find increasing wait time difficult,” observe Dylan Wiliam and Siobhan Leahy, “partially because changing any habitual practice is hard.”

This is a helpful insight: Extending wait time is a simple change but that doesn’t mean that it’s easy. You have to avoid defaulting into old habits, especially when things in class are hectic or your workload is overwhelming. (When I made this point in a workshop, one participant dryly added: “You mean all the time?”) However, there are a number of strategies that the teacher here could use to make it easier to extend his wait times—and the number of students who respond.

He could try giving students turn and talk time. This is where you pose a question to your students and ask them to briefly discuss potential answers with a partner. He could use this approach, for example, when he is trying to prompt a response from the class about the Tariff Act:

The Smoot Hawley Tariff Act raised or lowered . . . ?

He almost immediately answers his own question:

. . . lowered tariffs in an effort to collect more revenue for the federal government.

Instead, he might rephrase the question this way:

Did the Smoot Hawley Act raise or lower tariffs? Turn and talk with your partner about which you think it was. Make sure you explain why you think so and why the government wanted to do this.

This approach gives every student a time and opportunity to discuss potential answers without feeling put on the spot—especially as you don’t have to target individual students for an answer but, rather, inquire as to the discussion they were involved in:

What did you and you partner talk about?

Targeting individual students with questions is another way he might be able to elicit more responses by using extended wait time. We call this strategy cold calling. Ask a question to the whole class, give students at least three seconds to consider an answer, and then nominate a student to respond. The teacher might phrase the question like this:

Did the Tariff Act work? . . . Simone?

Cold calling is effective for changing class dynamics because it encourages all students to formulate an answer, because they might be called on. This is in fact relatively rare: Only a quarter of students routinely respond to questions in class, according to Paul Black and Dylan Wiliam. Moreover, it signals you aren’t questioning merely to get the correct answer—something the economics teacher is clearly guilty of—but rather to seek out what your students are thinking.

Another strategy he might try using in this lesson is quizzing his students using the inverted question form. An inverted question is where you present students with an answer and ask them to comment on it. Instead of asking,

Did the Smoot Hawley Act raise or lower tariffs?

and getting, at best, an abrupt one-word response (“Lowered?”) the economics teacher might rephrase his query this way:

The Smoot Hawley Act raised tariffs. Why did the government do this? . . . Adamson?

Note the pause here after the query—using an extended wait time means you can ask more-challenging questions and expect more-detailed responses. Inverted question are a good example of this because students find them less intimidating than other higher-order questions. (“They aren’t as scary as your other questions,” one Year 12 student told me, “because you have already given me the answer.”)

There is one other strategy the economics teacher might try here: pre-cueing his questions. His standard approach to questioning seems to be springing questions on his students in the middle of a monologue and hoping they might answer. This is highly ineffective. (His “Anyone? Anyone?” feels particularly futile.) Instead, he could pose these questions ahead of time—giving students more time to formulate an answer. He might do this for the whole class or by targeting individual students. For example, he might use a rolling cue, where he lists the sequence of students he intends to ask. This gives each student progressively more time to formulate an answer:

Why did the government respond to the economic crisis of the Depression in this way? I’m going to Carlos, then Aaron, André, and finally . . . someone from the back row.

Alternatively, he might notify specific students of what he intends well before the class discussion even begins. This is a powerful strategy for students who need extended processing time and, in my experience, often leads students who rarely offer up an answer to take an active part in class discussion.

It might be easy to see the disengaged and distracted students in this lesson and think that this is always how they will respond to this topic or this teacher. However, the Simple Shift of extending your wait time can transform your classroom. If the economics teacher embraced these strategies for offering students more time to think—and to make the most of this thinking time—then he would, in all likelihood, find himself teaching a more engaged group of students. Moreover, he would experience a powerful reminder that we don’t question merely to find out who knows the answer. We question to seek out feedback about the progress of all of our students—and to assess and refine our own teaching.

To learn how your students need never experience a lesson like this, get Tilting Your Teaching: Seven Simple Shifts That Can Substantially Improve Student Learning. It includes free downloadable micro-data tools that will help you see the small changes you can make right now for more engaging, more effective teaching and learning.

What’s your favorite Hollywood classroom scene that could use a Simple Shift makeover? Use the comments!

Glen Pearsall was a teacher leader at Eltham School and board member of the Victorian Curriculum Assessment Authority in Australia. He was also a research fellow at the Centre for Youth Research, University of Melbourne. glen is the author of the best-selling And Gladly Teach and Classroom Dynamics, and co-author of Literature for Life and Work Right. He works throughout the world as an educational consultant, specializing in instructional practice, teacher coaching, and workload reduction for teachers. He is a Cambridge Education associate and a master class presenter for the Australian professional development organization TTA, and has a long association with the Teacher Learning Network. Glen is also the founding presenter of the widely popular PD in the Pub series for graduate and pre-service teachers. His most recent projects include Toon Teach, an animated series on classroom management, and Fast and Effective Assessment: How to Reduce Your Workload and Improve Student Learning, which was published internationally by ASCD.

McREL is a non-profit, non-partisan education research and development organization that since 1966 has turned knowledge about what works in education into practical, effective guidance and training for teachers and education leaders across the U.S. and around the world.