In this add-on to ‘What is teaching?’ Mark K Smith outlines nine key activities that teachers engage in. Teaching, he argues, is the process of attending to people’s needs, experiences and feelings, and making specific interventions to help them learn particular things.
Contents: being present • setting challenging tasks • talking • explaining • showing • listening • questioning • giving and receiving feedback • using activities • references • acknowledgements • how to cite this piece
Based on the research drawn upon in the infed piece ‘What is teaching?‘, we highlight nine key activities that teachers engage in. We have defined teaching as ‘the process of attending to people’s needs, experiences and feelings, and making specific interventions to help them learn particular things’.
We need to be present in the classroom or setting. By this I mean that we need both to bring ourselves – to be authentic – and to be a presence. In other words, we should aim to start by clearly being a teacher so that people can accept us in that role – whether it is for just a few minutes or for a lesson or session – and understand that teaching involves them working.
To this end, writers like Jackie Beere (2012) have suggested that one the most important things to do when setting up a learning environment is to be present and in control right from the start. In sessions this means greeting people as they come in, starting work promptly, moving around the room where appropriate, and encouraging people to participate and support each other. It is also helpful to use starters that get people ready for learning. In teaching moments, it is important to get straight to the point.
Rather than focusing on the sorts of tasks and activities that we know that people can do, we need to think about how people can be motivated and stretched. We know that people ‘are motivated by teachers who know, support, challenge and encourage them to act independently from each other and from the teacher’ (Gervis and Capel 2013: 152).
One of the key elements here is encouraging people to reflect and engage in ‘deep’ or ‘critical’ thinking – analysing things, coming to new understandings, making judgements. Those with a growth mindset – because they are concerned with improving their ability to do or ‘master’ tasks – are more likely to engage in ‘deep’ thinking; those with a fixed mindset – focusing on outcome – are more likely to engage in surface (superficial or rote) learning (Covington 2000).
Rather than trying to deposit knowledge into people’s brains (what Paulo Freire called ‘banking’) we need to be ‘problem posing’ (Freire 1972). This entails helping people to think about experiences, connect with ideas that can make sense of them, and build their learning.
In schools, teacher talk generally involves standing in front of the class (with some moving around) and giving a verbal input. It is the most commonly used teaching method – with taking up around 60 per cent of most lessons (Petty 2011: 162). It is good for giving explanations but as most of us can verify from direct experience it can quickly get boring and quickly lose people. Without questioning, conversation, and activity points quickly get forgotten.
The concentration span of people listening to someone talking can be quite short. Five minutes can be a long time for many children and younger people. For university students 15 to 20 minutes is often plenty. It is, thus, important to keep things brief, relevant and to the point.
The way we say things is obviously a major factor in whether people listen and are interested. As Sue Cowley (2009: 46) in the context of school teaching:
If you pitch the tone, volume, pace and emotional quality of your voice exactly right, you will find your students suddenly become much more positive and responsive to you.
Sue Cowley’s advice (with additions from us) is to:
Be clear. Use as few words as possible and avoid ambiguity.
Sound and be interesting. Try to be yourself, and bring out your enthusiasm for the subject. Look people in the eye – engage them.
Sound relaxed. Work at keeping tension out of your voice.
Sound and look confident and in control. Work at being comfortable, look at people, and move around if you are in a classroom.
Play with pace. Vary the speed at which you speak – going faster gives a sense of energy and moving forward; slowing down can calm things.
Keep a lid on excessive emotion. In particular try to avoid negative emotions coming to the surface when you speak.
Last, it is vital to remember that we are talking to encourage learning. We need to make subjects interesting and to use questions and puzzles to encourage curiosity.
A key aspect of teacher talk is explaining – trying to help people to understand an experience, idea or situation by providing new details and facts or by opening up new ways of seeing them. Geoff Petty outlines some key things here to make things understandable and easier to remember:
Start where people are. As we saw earlier, attending to people’s needs, knowledge and experience lies at the heart of teaching – and this is certainly the case when we think about explaining. We have to start from their situation and understanding. In practical terms this can mean using an activity or asking questions that help people to recall or reveal their knowledge, feelings or skills. This can both ready them for learning and gives us a clue about where to pitch things.
Keep things simple and build from there. We need to think about what information is vital and avoid complexity:
Don’t be afraid to simplify to the point where you are distorting the truth somewhat. You can always mention the exceptions and oddities later, once the basic idea is understood. (Petty 2009: 172)
Question. Invite people to ask questions – and ask questions of others. It is best to check people’s understanding of ideas and to check how they use skills.
Use pictures and diagrams. Often it is good to use diagrams or pictures that represent what you are trying to teach. We are much more likely to remember things that have a visual link than simple bullet points.
Focus on key points. Often there is a need to come up with a simple sentence or diagram that describes the central point you want to make. When you do this it is important to give people time to get to grips with it. Another way of focusing attention is the use of short lists that summarize key points. A third is to create ‘chains of reasoning’. These are statements that build on one another to create an explanation.;
Try to hear what you are saying through other’s ears. Use simple language; explain jargon; watch for body language that gives clues as to how people are doing; try to create opportunities for people to use the ideas and skills you are trying to explain. Do not go on for too long.
Resource: Department for Education and Skills. (2004c). Pedagogy and Practice: Teaching and Learning in the Secondary School, Unit 8 Explaining. London: Department for Education and Skills. Click to download
A key part of our teaching involves modelling and demonstrating things. This might involve taking people through some activity such as using spellcheck in Word, demonstrating what happens when you add one chemical to another, or focusing on a particular skill in rock climbing or kayaking.
In general demonstration is generally seen as showing people a particular action. Modelling is ‘an extension of demonstration by not only showing how to do something but also thinking through the process aloud and making this thinking explicit’ (DfES 2004a: 16)
Showing or modelling is seen as a helpful strategy when people are attempting new or challenging tasks.
Modelling is an active process, not merely the provision of an example. It involves the teacher as the ‘expert’, demonstrating how to do something and making explicit the thinking involved.
Through modelling, the teacher can:
‘think aloud’, making apparent and explicit those skills, decisions, processes and procedures that would otherwise be hidden or unclear;
expose pupils to the possible pitfalls of the task in hand, showing how to avoid them;
demonstrate to pupils that they can make alterations and corrections as part of the process;
warn pupils about possible hazards involved in practical activities, how to avoid them or minimise the effects if they occur. (DfES, 2004a: 3)
(This is taken from a study booklet published by the Department for Education and Skills. Click to download the whole booklet.)
Modelling can be used to demonstrate particular things about reading, writing and completing mathematical calculations. However, for many of us it is used in the teaching of ‘practical tasks and subjects’.
With all this focus on talking, explaining, modelling and organizing it is easy to overlook that listening is one of the central elements of teaching. Often in teaching textbooks listening appears as an issue for students – they don’t listen to the teacher or need to learn to listen to each other. However, as Paula Zwozdiak-Myers and Susan Capel (2013: 141) argue:
For effective communication, being able to actively listen and take account of the response, e.g. what pupils are communicating to you, is as important as being able to send the message effectively. Learn to recognise and be sensitive to whether or not a message has been received correctly by a pupil, e.g. you get a bewildered look or an inappropriate answer to a question. Be able to react appropriately, e.g. repeat the same question or rephrase it.
Without listening we will know little about people’s experiences, feelings, questions and wishes at that moment. One of the classic things that happens in classrooms and sessions is that we ask questions – and then filter out any answers that do not fit into what we are seeking to communicate. In the process we lose the ability to respond to the teachable moment.
Four types of listening
Skim listening – little more than awareness that a pupil is talking (often when the answer seems irrelevant);
Survey listening – trying to build a wider mental map of what the pupil is talking about;
Search listening – actively searching for specific information in an answer;
Study listening – a blend of survey and search listening to identify the underlying meaning and uncertainties of the words the pupil is using. (Wragg and Brown 2001: 34)
It is not surprising that questioning is central to teaching and to education. After all their task is to educe (related to the Greek notion of educere), to bring out or develop potential (see Smith 2015). Questioning is classically used to:
Engage and challenge people.
Draw upon people’s knowledge, experiences and feelings in order to build new understandings.
Focus thinking around key issues and concepts.
Promote reasoning, problem solving, evaluation and the formulation of hypotheses.
Encourage reflection on the processes they have been through.
Test understanding and knowledge. (DfES 2004b: 2-3)
It can basically encourage participants to think for themselves and use what they already know and feel to build new understanding. This can be seen if we compare it to sessions that are built around teacher talk.
The emphasis in the questioning-style lesson tends to be on understanding rather than simply knowing. In the teacher-talk lesson, the students [are] simply told what they [need] to know; they are not encouraged to understand it, and are less likely to remember it. (Petty 2009: 191).
Open or closed? One of the main considerations is whether the questions are open or closed. The latter only really have one answer; the former demand a fuller and more detailed answer – and there is usually a range of responses that can be made. Open questions tend to stimulate thinking, closed can usually be answered yes/no or by remembering a ‘fact’.
Higher order? Another concern is to move beyond the simple regurgitation of ‘facts and figures’ into higher order questions that encourage people to speculate about what might happen if circumstances change or to think about the reasons why something might be happening or to evaluate evidence.
Directed or open to all? Some of our worst memories of schooling are likely to be around being out on the spot by a question directed at us. There is a place for questions being aimed at individuals as it allows us to differentiate – asking questions appropriate to the person and their experiences. However, there are also various strategies that invites responses from the whole group or class (see below).
Resource: Classroom tactics for effective questioning
Creating a climate where pupils feel safe to make mistakes: This is very important if pupils are going to build the confidence to speculate and take risks. Some teachers use small whiteboards for pupils’ answers to simple questions. All pupils write the answer at the same time and hold it up so that the teacher can see. This avoids making pupils feel vulnerable. It is important that pupils’ contributions are listened to and taken seriously by both the teacher and the class. You should model this by ensuring that you make appropriate responses to contributions and are not critical. It is also important that you do not allow the class to ridicule wrong answers… You could also model making mistakes yourself to show that being wrong is acceptable.
Using a ‘no-hands’ rule: This tactic can contribute to creating a supportive classroom climate. It ensures that all pupils are likely to be asked for a response and makes the questioning process more inclusive. If you only ever ask people with their hands up, it limits who is included and can leave some pupils disengaged from the process. The ‘no-hands’ tactic also lets you direct questions where you want and to pitch a question at the appropriate level to extend the pupil you are asking. If you are asking conscripts rather than volunteers, you need to have a range of back-up strategies if the pupil is unable to answer. Such strategies could include allowing them to say ‘pass’ or to seek help from a friend.
Probing: When pupils respond to a question, probes are useful follow-ups and can be used to seek more information, to clarify responses or to get pupils to extend their answers. Questions such as ‘Can you tell me more about that?’ or ‘What do you think the next step would be?’ are probes that can move pupils’ thinking on.
Telling pupils the big question in advance: This helps to reinforce the main ideas and concepts and gives pupils time to prepare for the question as they work through the lesson. You could also provide signals to help pupils recognise the range of possible responses to the question being asked and to help them to select the most appropriate one.
Building in wait time: Research suggests that if the teacher waits about 3 seconds, both before a pupil answers a question and also before speaking after the answer, there are substantial benefits in the classroom. It is likely to:
- encourage longer answers;
- encourage a greater number and variety of responses;
- encourage more confidence and ‘risk taking’;
- encourage pupils to ask questions in return.
Allowing time for collaboration before answering: Asking pairs of pupils to consider the question for a set period of time before seeking answers leads to more thoughtful and considered answers. It can also promote engagement by giving pupils a very immediate context for their work.
Placing a minimum requirement on the answer: Saying something like ‘Do not answer this in less than 15 words’ will begin to produce longer responses.
Taken from Department for Education and Skills. (2004b). Pedagogy and Practice: Teaching and Learning in the Secondary School, Unit 7 Questioning. London: Department for Education and Skills. Click to download the whole booklet. Reproduced under an Open Government Licence (2015).
It is easy to fall into the trap of thinking about feedback simply as making comments on students’ or learners’ work, or talking about what they have said or done. Feedback is a two-way process. One of the things that the research shows is that ‘it is feedback to the teacher about what the student can and cannot do that is more powerful than feedback to the student’ (Hattie 2009: location 243).
Further, a lot of the feedback that students receive in schools and in the sorts of environments that a lot of us work in, is not from the teacher or educator. In elementary or primary schooling, for example, 80 percent of the feedback is from other students Nuthall 2007). Unfortunately, as John Hattie points out 80 percent of this feedback is wrong. That said, this is not necessarily a bad thing if the learning environment is one that welcomes mistakes as they can then help to trigger learning (see adopting a growth mindset above)
Last there is a wide range of activities that been introduced. Some are what Petty (2009) describes as student-centred – they entail students working on their own – for example, reading, completing a written assignment, or undertaking a small internet-based research activity. Others can be described as active methods – and have been a familiar part of informal education, community learning and development, work with children and young people and social pedagogy – discussion, group work, games, simulations, role play and supervised practice.
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Porte ouverte sur la classe by Alain Bachellier. Sourced from Flickr and reproduced under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) licence. https://www.flickr.com/photos/alainbachellier/537295901/.
How to cite this piece: Smith, M. K. (2016). ‘Key teaching activities’ in the encyclopaedia of informal education. [http://infed.org/mobi/key-teaching-activities/. Retrieved: insert date].
© Mark K Smith 2016
Mark K Smith is based at Developing Learning, London and can be contacted there.
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