Opportunity Cost: Is the juice worth the squeeze?

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Given that we have a limited amount of time with our students, it’s important that we make that time worth it. Students don’t deserve to have their time wasted completing poorly planned or conceived activities which don’t actually help them learn. Sure, this doesn’t mean we can’t have fun, and there are many different things we may want our students to learn in a lesson that aren’t purely about subject content. But if we don’t stop and reflect on the purpose of what we’re doing, it’s easy to allow the form of our lessons to take priority over the learning. As teachers become more expert, they typically make a transition from thinking about what they want students to do in a lesson, to thinking about what they want students to be thinking about. This is an important shift as it means the learning is driving the lesson, not the activity. I’d like to think that this transition happens faster these days as the increasing awareness of educational research and evidence-informed approaches, the new ITT framework, and changes in the way many schools think about CPD, mean people are less focused on the ‘tips and tricks’ and more about the underlying learning processes (something Sarah Cottingham has written about expertly here). 

I observe lots of lessons in my role and always aim to give useful, formative feedback. The logistics involved mean that, currently, feedback is via email and so needs careful wording. Because we’re not having a face-to-face discussion, and because I’m often talking to more experienced teachers, I often try to pose a question about something I saw in the classroom to invite some thinking, rather than trying to give a directive. One of the common things I ask is “What was the purpose of…?” My intention here is not to criticise classroom practice, but to initiate some genuine thought about why that particular activity, strategy or technique was used at that particular moment. 

Research on habits in teaching suggests lots of us do things in an automated fashion (and for good reason, this is incredibly useful) but some of those practises have become so ingrained that people may continue to use them without necessarily reflecting on whether they are still appropriate, or if there might be something that could make it better. The unasked follow-up question that is often in my mind is “Was it worth it?” I’m trying not to make a judgement here, to answer my own question, because I don’t necessarily have the full picture of what that teacher is trying to achieve and why. I don’t know the context of the previous lesson, what happened before I walked in, or what might happen next. But I think taking a moment to think deeply about why we’re doing an activity is crucial if we are to develop as teachers.

As I’ve written here, I think many teachers may persist with doing something in a particular way just because they like it, or because they mistakenly believe it’s helping their students. However, it’s also true to say that we might sometimes be too quick to abandon something that might actually have been effective. This might be because we’ve latched onto something new and shiny, the latest trend, or it might be because we’ve convinced ourselves it’s not worth doing. Jonathan Grande’s recent post on the use of card sorts brought this back into sharp focus for me. At one time I used them all the time and believed they were one of the best strategies for developing all sorts of knowledge and skills in students. More recently they have fallen out of favour, and have become added to the list of discarded strategies that aren’t considered worth it. Jonathan argues that, used correctly and with some careful planning, they can be incredibly powerful. 

In a previous school I learned about an activity called Quiz-Quiz-Trade* (QQT). The basic premise is that you have a bunch of cards with questions and answers relating to content you’ve taught, and students move around the room with them, quizzing each other, and then trading cards so that they are exposed to lots of different questions. Taken at face value, it’s precisely the sort of thing that I, and many others, would probably scoff at a little. Why do they need to be up and out of their chairs? Isn’t it quite labour intensive making those question cards? Isn’t it all a bit gimmicky? And yes, those are legitimate questions which do need asking. But there are some powerful benefits to QQT too in terms of participation ratio, rehearsal and low-stakes retrieval practice (not to mention that students generally find it fun). 

I stopped using it for a combination of different reasons. First we went through a bit of a demographic dip meaning I ended up with a cohort of relatively smaller classes than I was used to and QQT doesn’t work so well in this context. Second, Covid-19 came along and the physical nature of QQT was simply not practical. Third, my increasing awareness of educational research, and the discourse around what works in the classroom led me to question whether or not it was really worth it. It’s this last question that still niggles at me, and I don’t know the answer yet. 

The general move away from the sort of engagement-over-learning activities that dominated teaching in recent years is something to be celebrated but we must also be careful not to swing too far in the other direction. One of the criticisms of the vogue for cognitive science is that it represents a cold and joyless approach to teaching and, although I would disagree with this, I think it’s fair to say that it can lead some to be dismissive of much that might work in the right context. As Dylan Wiliam famously said “Everything works somewhere,” and perhaps some of our anxieties are around people implementing strategies which are hard to do well (Adam Boxer has written more on this here) meaning that there is more chance that people do them badly. When we talk about ‘best bets’ in education it’s not just the sorts of things that we are confident will work, but also that we are more confident that people will do effectively. It’s become a cliche to talk about lethal mutations (see here for more on this) but it’s a legitimate concern that teachers might focus on the surface features of a strategy or approach rather than considering the underlying purpose and process. 

But we are moving towards a much greater understanding of learning, and all the many factors that can mediate this. We are continuing to improve the way we help teachers improve by focusing on developing that understanding rather than sharing quick & easy top tips. As Adam Boxer notes, with high quality CPD we increase the likelihood that people will be able to adopt a strategy and not get it wrong. I’m not saying we should all go back to card sorts or whatever with complete abandon. We should always remain critical and questioning, always asking, “what is the purpose of this?” and “is it worth it?” I think this also means acknowledging that reflective practitioners with high levels of expertise might be able to make good use of strategies that others would steer clear of. That we need to be careful in criticising the practises of those with whom we don’t necessarily find ourselves in alignment. That maybe, in some cases, the juice might be worth the squeeze.

* I learned about this in a Kagan context as my school at the time had adopted this as our T&L strategy**. I don’t know if this idea originated from Kagan but it’s where I first encountered it. I’ve since seen it described in Kate Jones’ excellent book on Retrieval Practice.

** It was awful. Just don’t.

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