Normalise hard work

At the end of term, especially before the Christmas break or the summer holidays, schools can experience a terrible plague. If not prevented, it spreads throughout lessons like a roaring forest fire, destroying all learning. As one classroom burns, a single ember jumps to the next room, igniting the destructive flame: the ruiner of rigour, the negater of knowledge. I’m talking about “the fun lesson.”

“Are we having a fun lesson today?”

This question is a test. The student is really asking, “have you given up yet?” They want to know if they can start the holidays now. The students will sense their chance to normalise DVDs, word searches, games of hangman and end of term treats. They will try to play teachers off against one another… “We watched Home Alone in English, are we watching a DVD in your lesson?” I hope that your school takes a firm line on this: proper lessons until the end of term. It is the best way. If all of the teachers normalise proper lessons until the end of term, then the culture of ‘fun lessons’ cannot become entrenched.

The notion of students slacking off at the end of term raises a related question: what is the culture of effort like in your school throughout the year? How about in your classroom?

I love the story of Milo of Croton. As part of his strength training regimen, it is said that Milo lifted and carried a full grown bull on his shoulders – a feat akin to those of the legendary Heracles. Milo achieved this degree of strength, we are told, by carrying a new born calf on his shoulders and then carrying the same animal every day as it grew to maturity. Therefore, as the calf grew, the task became incrementally more taxing every day and Milo’s muscles grew accordingly. With his lifting regime that is guaranteed to get harder every day, the legendary Milo ensured continuous improvement. His successful feat of strength, lifting the full grown bull, was guaranteed by this approach.

“I want my students to learn like Milo of Croton lifted. I want them to be in the zone of proximal development, where the calf is not so light that it is easy to carry, but it is also not so heavy that it cannot be lifted.”

I want my students to learn like Milo of Croton lifted. I want them to be in the zone of proximal development, where the calf is not so light that it is easy to carry, but it is also not so heavy that it cannot be lifted. This means that I have to monitor the ability of the class as accurately as is feasible. I definitely do not mean that I need to mark every piece of student work and differentiate every lesson for every student. That’s absurd, and the fact that it was ever expected of teachers is as idiotic as it immoral. The combination of traditional marking (especially triple marking!) and the expectation of differentiated worksheets pushed diligent teachers to exhaustion, though there were certainly a few masochists who revelled in the endless creation of different coloured worksheets for students of different abilities, to the delight and adulation of misguided senior leaders. I have been taught by some of my newest colleagues to adopt sensible and sustainable approaches to assessment, in order to make sure I know what my students can do and what they need to work on. I need to know how far they are on their journey of mastery of any given skill, so I know what level of scaffolded support is required across the class. My aim is for everyone to be able to experience success, but for everyone to experience difficulty as they do so. They aren’t homogenous in their ability to complete the tasks, but there are ways to adapt in the lesson to account for this. As the work gets harder every day, the students get more competent every day. By the time they lift the fully grown bull that is the exam paper, they are certain to succeed.

Normalising hard work is not just about carefully setting the difficulty level of the tasks. It is also about classroom climate. This starts at the beginning of every lesson, so the way students begin is perhaps the most important part of the lesson. If a student starts to behave in the wrong way at the start of the lesson, they start talking or they don’t take off their outside coat for example, this apathetic approach will spread by osmosis through the class. It has to be challenged and addressed immediately. An excellent way to start the lesson with purpose is to use a Do Now Activity at the start of every lesson. Again, I am grateful to the colleagues in my current school who introduced this routine, which is now the way we start our lessons across the school. The Do Now Activity is a 5 minute task that is waiting for the students when they arrive. They complete this in silence and no teacher support is needed (the task must be carefully set.) When this routine is set and enforced, teachers send a loud and clear message that every moment counts in this lesson – we will be working hard and no time will be wasted. Furthermore, it ensures lessons get off to a prompt and purposeful start and it is usually used as an opportunity for valuable recall practice.

“And because there is a necessary pause, every transition between tasks is just as prone to student disruption and avoidance tactics as the pause at the start of the lesson.”

Another way of normalising hard work in lessons is ensuring that transitions between learning activities are completed as efficiently as possible, with minimal fuss and distraction. Each transition consists of an end and then a new start. In that sense, it’s like the beginning of the lesson over again. And because there is a necessary pause, every transition between tasks is just as prone to student disruption and avoidance tactics as the pause at the start of the lesson. If the opportunity presents itself, students will seize upon even a moment of undirected time during any transition. They may take the opportunity for off task discussion and this can quickly spread. If students cannot begin their new task for a practical reason, such as waiting for a worksheet to be handed out, there is an even greater opportunity and temptation to go off task. In the best classrooms, this opportunity to disrupt is removed by the drilling of clear and efficient transition routines. Exercise books can be handed out to a class of 30 in well under a minute, accompanied by silence. Taking out new equipment should not lead to any discussion. The teacher should not have to wait for the class before they are able to begin delivering the next set of instructions or explanation. Achieving silent and efficient transitions requires that teachers hold the line during every transition. To normalise hard work throughout the lesson, teachers need to minimise the unfocused, unstructured talk that can happen whenever students have not received clear and explicit expectations about how to conduct themselves in the classroom. I feel that academic hard work creates a productive pressure, and students will naturally look for an opportunity to relieve this mental exertion whenever there is a transition in the lesson. I’m not suggesting that periods of mental rest in lessons are inappropriate, but these should be instigated by the teacher, not the students. They must not be allowed to delay work for themselves or other students; nor must low level disruption during transitions dictate the pace of the lesson.

“Sitting at the desk while students work is lazy. Worse than that, it models laziness for the class and it implies a lack of interest in the students’ work and the students themselves.”

For students to work hard, they must perceive that their hard work is recognised and valued. Conversely, they must know that apathy, disengagement and poor effort will not be tolerated. This means we need to be an active presence in the classroom, even when we are not delivering instructions or explanations. Teachers who sit at the front of the room at their desk, while students are expected to get on with the task, are not going to get the best effort from their students. Over time, this means students are not pushed to reach their potential. Sitting at the desk while students work is lazy. Worse than that, it models laziness for the class and it implies a lack of interest in the students’ work and the students themselves. Nobody wants to work if the person in charge is lazy and disinterested. I certainly wouldn’t. To normalise hard work in the lesson, teachers need to be up and out of their seats, circulating around the classroom, looking over the shoulder of every student at their academic work in progress. Quiet, personal and specific praise will help to normalise hard work. “Great work today, George.” “Fantastic details, Amelia.” “Well done for finishing that task – it was tricky” “Impressive vocabulary, Cedric.” “Wow! That was quick work, Anne. Now try this…” You can’t foster this positive atmosphere from your desk. You need to be amongst the students, on their team, rooting for them to be successful. You need to be on the ground, catching them doing great things and giving instant positive reinforcement. And while you are moving between desks, walking behind the back row, peering at every exercise book you pass, you can identify and address any symptoms of disruption, distraction or apathy. Your proximity alone will be enough to discourage a lot of low level disruption that would go unchecked if you remained at your desk. When you catch the start of an off-topic conversation, or a whisper during a silent activity, you are close enough to tap the desk and give a meaningful look to restore student focus and cut off the disruption before it takes hold in the class. When a student puts his pen down, or puts his head on the desk, you can intervene swiftly. My favourite way to challenge students to persevere in writing tasks is to use the following script: “I know you can do this! Can you just write down to this line I’m drawing in the margin for me? I’ll check back in five minutes.” Finally, circulating the classroom is your best opportunity for spotting misconceptions, errors and poor presentation. When you give instant feedback during the working process, students benefit the most. Your corrective coaching redirects the student, so their errors are not compounded or repeated as the lesson progresses. Traditional marking, after the lesson, cannot achieve this. It happens far too late. Should you spot a common error or misconception, you can call the class to silence and disabuse them all of their errors or mistaken notions. Circulating the class is so powerful because it delivers one simple and clear message: I am watching you, and I want to see you succeed, so I won’t settle for less than your best. Ultimately, perhaps that mantra is the most important message for teachers to adopt in order to normalise hard work.

If you want students to put their best effort into your lessons, remember to consider the lesson from their perspective. Make sure it’s the kind of lesson that makes them want to do their best. Make sure your subject knowledge is excellent so you inspire your students. Work with your departmental colleagues to make your curriculum the best it can be. Ensure that your delivery is engaging and take the time to watch your own teaching. Don’t allow disruptive talk or behaviour to ruin the learning experience for your students. Be on your students’ team. They are far more likely to their best effort when they work with you, rather than for you.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: