Does the devil make work for idle hands?

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I’ve been thinking about differentiation a lot recently. Both in my own classes, and in the many lessons I observe, I’m often aware that there are times when some students aren’t doing anything meaningful. In this instance I’m not talking about those who are struggling to start, staring out of the window, poking their classmate with a pen, or something else, but those students who typically finish a task faster than everyone else.

In a previous post I discussed this issue and suggested that while we *could* come up with extension tasks to occupy those students, that isn’t always the problem that actually needs solving. My argument here was that it may be that you need to go further ‘upstream’ to figure out why everyone else is taking longer, rather than just looking to give the faster students something else to do. For example, considering the classroom culture, clarity of instructions or use of modelling to ensure that everyone is able to tackle the task successfully.

But sometimes we might feel confident that we have addressed as much of that as possible, that all the appropriate scaffolding is in place. Normal variations in levels of prior knowledge, working memory capacity, speed of thought and writing means inevitably some students will finish quicker than others. And in those cases, having something else for them to do might be helpful. The question, then, is what is the most useful thing for them to do? This is a question I grapple with quite a lot with teachers I’m working with, and while I think I have some thoughts for my own classes, I’m not always sure what the best suggestions are for teachers in other subjects with different year groups. So I turned to Twitter for some ideas:

This was one of those times when Edu-twitter did what it does best, with a great range of interesting questions, discussion points, and concrete suggestions (see for yourself here). In this post I’ve summarised some of the main themes, adding a few of my own suggestions into the mix, and some wider thoughts about the issues in general. Note: as per my tweet, the responses are primarily based around subjects with extended writing where you might typically ask them to complete a paragraph independently (after appropriate modelling etc) but I think most, if not all, of the principles outlined below should apply well in most subject areas.

Start with why

A key question to consider first is what is the purpose of such an extension task? Is this borne out of a need to genuinely help extend the students’ learning, pushing them to think harder, or rather a desire to just keep them busy? Does the devil make work for idle hands? Is there a worry that, left to their own devices, students will start to run amok? In my experience that isn’t likely, particularly as it’s typically the more diligent students who are the most common fast finishers and less likely to be disruptive. That said, even quiet chat amongst one or two students could have a negative impact on the learning of the rest of the class, and may even incentivise some students to rush to finish for some perceived reward of being able to kick back and do nothing for a few moments. A different reason for wanting to keep students busy is perhaps more linked to high-stakes observation cultures where a student sitting doing apparently nothing, even for a few moments, would no doubt be picked up on and used as a criticism. I think most schools have moved, or are moving, away from this kind of culture but that ingrained perception & belief still lingers among many. 

So having a clear sense of why you want to give them something else to do is the first step, before worrying about what that should look like. But if you’ve decided that you do want something, how to go about it?

Principles of good extension tasks

Don’t explicitly label extension as extension. In many schools the expectation was that on your resources (slides, booklets, worksheets) you would have ‘stretch & challenge’ tasks explicitly highlighted; this appeared to be entirely about satisfying an observer that you were catering for the ‘most able’ rather than genuinely supporting students. I think this is an unhelpful approach as it clearly implies that the original task is not actually challenging enough and this extra stuff is only for the privileged few.

High impact – low effort. Thankfully we’ve mostly moved away from the practice of writing myriad resources for different groups of students in the same class, essentially planning at least three different lessons in one. So ideal tasks should be ones that require minimal additional resources (ideally none) and minimal input/supervision from the teacher. This should be about making more (meaningful) work for the students, not the teacher.

Develop routines. If you have a repertoire of a few specific tasks that can be reused across topics/lessons then it’s worth training students in using them so that they just start doing them automatically.

Classroom culture. Students need to see the value of being given extra things to do, and not see this as almost ‘punishment’ for finishing quickly – they will quickly learn to slow down! Being explicit about why you want them to do something in terms of pushing their thinking or learning (rather than just keeping them busy) is key.

Cognitive load. We should always be planning our lessons with ‘what are students going to be thinking about’ in mind. Sometimes our extension tasks might lead students down a completely different path, thinking about entirely different things. This might unwittingly undermine all the hard work we and they have done in the first place, detracting from their learning of the most important ideas.

Timing. In most cases these are probably activities that we only want to last a couple of minutes or so. Longer than that suggests there are probably some more significant problems in the original task set-up (see above) because there shouldn’t be that much disparity in performance between students. Therefore we need to be mindful of how long it might take students to start a new task (will they need to locate other resources like a previous piece of work or a page in the textbook) and whether we are going to end up with the rest of the class having finished and now these students halfway through something!

Types of task

Extending the thinking. Sometimes just a good question can be enough. Asking students to spend a minute thinking about something from an alternative perspective, to make a link to a different topic, or to analyse some examples with a slightly different focus can be powerful. Used well, this might also help you set up the link to an idea that you want to share with the rest of the class.

Extending the work. Ask students to consider ‘what next?’ This might mean adding something to their paragraph (eg a counter-argument), planning out the next part of their writing (next sentence or paragraph), writing a sentence to link the one they’ve written to the next, writing a complete plan for the overall answer, or planning/writing a conclusion. If ‘aggressive monitoring’ strategies are used well, with the teacher circulating and giving appropriate and well timed live feedback, it may be possible to obviate the problem entirely by giving them the extension *before* they actually finish the task.

Metacognitive tasks. Get students to reflect on their writing in some way, ideally to help them develop it. This could include things like annotating in the margin the choices/decisions they made in each part of the paragraph eg use of particular language or a specific example or piece of evidence to support their point; this mirrors the kind of thinking out loud we might demonstrate ourselves when initially modelling how to approach the task. Students could pick one section/sentence and improve it, again perhaps with some commentary to explain why they made that change and what impact it had. They could highlight different sections of a paragraph to indicate the different elements (eg the PEEL if you use that kind of writing structure). They could self-assess their work against success criteria and, if appropriate, use a mark scheme to award it a score. These sorts of tasks could also be done collaboratively (peer-assessment) if there is more than one student finished at the same time.

Consolidation. An opportunity for extra retrieval practice is never going to be a bad thing! Students could write-up glossary key terms, test themselves on core knowledge (key terms definitions, sequences/timelines, mindmap from memory), create revision resources like flashcards, or complete additional short-answer questions. Again, some of these tasks can easily become paired tasks eg students quizzing each other.

Housekeeping. These involve tasks not necessarily related to the task at hand and might help with tying up ‘loose ends’ that we don’t always have time to address and students might forget to do independently. A minute or two sorting out a folder, for example ensuring recent pieces of work are filed correctly could be useful. Depending on time available students might have opportunity to finish off another task that wasn’t completed, or respond to some feedback on previous work.

Final thoughts 

Firstly, context is key. Knowing who the student is, their prior attainment, their strengths/weaknesses, typical classroom habits and behaviour, considering how long they might actually have and take to do the task should all be in our thinking when deciding what to give them. This might be an ‘in the moment’ decision which characterises so much of teaching and is what makes doing it well such a challenge! But, with experience and practise, this can definitely become part of our automated routines, and be done fairly seamlessly. And if anyone has any alternative suggestions for extension techniques or tasks I’ve not considered here then I’d love to hear from you.

Secondly, the discussion that prompted this post included several comments making the same point: that having students sitting doing nothing for a moment is fine. As long as this is not causing a behaviour management issue then we don’t need to beat ourselves up about having students occupied for every moment of every lesson. While I’m all for ‘effective’ teaching – we have limited time and a heavy content load to teach – we also need to recognise that an unrelenting drive to have students cognitively active all of the time, up to 5 or 6 hours a day, is neither desirable nor likely to actually result in good learning. I think, above all, this discussion has made me reflect on this point, and it’s a message we need to get out there to everyone. The devil doesn’t always make work for idle hands (or minds).

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