I have been working on my explanations. The biggest decision I have made in terms of this is to ensure that every time I speak to a class, students have nothing in their hands and are paying attention to me. This can be almost instantaneous and can also take up to about 60 seconds to achieve, I have to silently remind some students to put their pencil down and wait for 100% of faces to be looking in my direction. Since I started doing this towards the end of last year, most students have taken to it quickly and a few are still demonstrating surprise that I insist on it every time.
My desire is for the students to have absolute clarity about what they are meant to be doing. In the past I have noticed myself talking to students when they are still writing things down, or I have been explaining something whilst writing and students will be focused on copying down what I am writing on the board instead of considering what I am saying. I think that there has been confusion from the students point of view as to what their task is, is it making notes in their books for them to revise from later, or listening to my explanation and trying to make sense of it?
My intention is that students are listening with as much attention as possible to my explanation. I have decided that having things on the board is also a distraction. Are the students reading what’s on the board or listening to me? Explicitly, I tell students what they are required to do: listen to me and if they have a question about what I am saying then put their hand up. I think turning the interactive whiteboard off and making sure the whiteboard is completely clear is important in this intention.
Sometimes I need students to look instead of listen: a worked example, a diagram, or a demonstration of an aspect of maths using a computer program. During these practices I have decided I will not say anything. I tell the students that they will be required to look and think about what I am doing, and then they can ask questions afterwards. My intention is for students to be attending completely to what I am doing, and for them not to have any confusion about where their attention should be. After the visual explanations are finished, I try to ensure that students have had enough time to take it in, and then I ask for any questions. Sometimes, I need to talk through an example or a computer demonstration, and in these instances I interweave visual and verbal explanations. I am explicit about where students attention should be during this interweaving, and this requires precision.
As I was doing this today, a phrase popped into my head, “Rufus, teaching needs the precision of a surgeon”. Nine years after my PGCE tutor said this, I have finally experienced what he meant. It has taken me time, and I think it points to the fact that the profession of teaching does require a lot of time and deliberate practice to gain expertise in. There are a number of classroom situations that need this type of precision, here are a few that I think are the most important: transitions between instructions, explanations and discussions; routines such as students entering and leaving the classroom; feedback to the students on their work; and whole class questioning.
I like to be very still when teaching, much in the way a calm temperament is essential for a surgeon.