Simplicity Rules, okay?

During my NQT year, my mentor liked to have lots of conversations about how to improve my workload, so that I never felt overwhelmed. He knew that I was someone who would take on a lot of jobs, and along side being an NQT, I was also starting out as my school’s More Able Coordinator (and if anyone has had this role before, then you know how admin orientated it can be!).

Finding what works for me

Earlier on in our discussions, we came up with a simple and easy lesson structure that I could utilise if I there were issues with lessons being created on time. Now, this will different from subject to subject, but what we came up with that worked for both my subject and my teaching style (+ the Teaching & Learning requirements of the school) was:

  1. Retrieval Do Now Activity.
  2. Linking to Bigger Picture/Enquiry Question/Topic.
  3. Knowledge Acquisition.
  4. Checking for Understanding of Knowledge.
  5. Application of Knowledge – typically in an essay format.
  6. Plenary (if Step 5 wasn’t extended writing).

This structure worked for me. And it still does to this day. It has allowed me to be more focused in my lesson planning and not get bogged down in different activities and not have a coherency to my lessons.

Disclaimer: Whilst there will be times I divert from this structure and sometimes it won’t work for a certain type of lesson or topic, what this has done is give me that simple bedrock foundation to ensure that if I am up against it, I have a system I can rely upon that is tried and tested and ultimately, works.

Developing simplicity further

As we neared the end of my NQT year, and we were in a lockdown, my mentor and I decided to get more collaborative with our NQT sessions. We shifted away from my mentor just giving me advice, but to me giving him advice or signposting me to some research or pedagogical thinking to then report back on.

We again returned back to simplicity in our conversations – it’s a real big part of my former mentor’s ethos (and mine too, I guess). We considered how my lesson structure was coping in lockdown, and how I found it was a simple format that was repetitive and therefore, accessible to students who were now working more independently. Routine was going to help massively for them there.

My mentor then suggested that I have a listen to Jamie Thom’s TES Podcast with Jo Facer about her new book “Simplicity Rules: How simplifying what we do in the classroom can benefit children”. You can see the book here.

It was a really fascinating listen, it made me think about how I am doing things now (I loved it when she mentioned about simple lesson structure – it validated what I was already doing myself) and what I need to be doing to make my life that little bit simpler.

Knowledge and memory as a driver to simplicity

What really struck me was the drive to focus on knowledge and memory to help transform what happens in the classroom.

Knowledge and memory are not new concepts in teaching pedagogy, and are all the rage at the moment, but by driving these ideas with the idea of simplicity really struck me as a win-win situation.

It all stems from the idea that as teachers we need to know what the students need to know for the LONG TERM.

With this idea in our minds, we need to then include some practical strategies to help facilitate long term memory retention, including:

  • Revisiting prior knowledge to make it stick.
  • Start lessons with five question recap of one word answers.
  • In those starters, keep going back to the same questions.
  • Have an 80% success rate to achieve those high expectations.

Some of these I agreed with, but some I didn’t. Having one-word answers in writing heavy subjects wouldn’t float with me, especially when in History when I want students to be using as many pieces of knowledge to bring together a short, sharp analysis. However, from a synthesising point of view, it made sense. If a student could recall or boil an answer down to one word then it makes the retrieval even more powerful.

The one that I have implemented in my teaching practice this academic year has been coming back to the same questions. In all three of the subjects I am teaching this year (yes, three – History, English, Religious Studies) I have come back to key questions, words or concepts to really improve the retrieval that the students are building and it has gained some success! I’ve now begun to see students are more confident in writing down some of the Big Ideas we are using in our lessons and also in History, I’ve found my Year 8 students are becoming more adept at applying cause and consequence to various different historical topics I give them.

Think about flow of lesson, not activities

Another takeaway from Facer’s interview was to not re-plan a lesson that had already been planned for you, not even tweak it slightly.

This felt like I was being read to – this was me. I did that. I’d always thought, but I had to make it my own, I had to make it work for my classes. Facer’s counter-arguments tore my arguments up into little pieces and threw them over the fire.

Facer made a very good point that if we are delegating planning to experts within our departments then we should be respecting them enough to plan lessons that work for all students. There is no need for us to tweak the lessons or to play around with the formatting (especially as that has little, to no, impact on a child’s learning).

What Facer said was more important was that the teacher receiving a lesson should focus on the core learning, how they explain that core learning to the students and how they question effectively to check that core learning has been acquired. Not rely upon the presentation to do the work for us, where we spend hours tweaking a slide here and a slide there, but have that confidence in ourselves as the expert in the classroom.

This revolutionised my teaching practice this academic year, especially in subjects I am more familiar with (English not so much at the moment). Where I have glanced through a lesson, checked what the learning is for that lesson and had the process in my head of how I would get from A to B and use the lessons to build from, not to rely upon heavily. For me, I think that comes from a place of confidence in my experience and expertise, which may be I would not have had in my training year (Oh, who am I kidding, of course I wouldn’t have).

Keeping everything simple has helped at the beginning of this academic year. One that is not like any other before, or will be like any other to come, I imagine and kind of hope. Whilst everything else around me has been chaotic as we grapple with the “new normal” of COVID-secure teaching, I’ve been confident that my teaching has been solid and not out of control in terms of workload because I’ve kept things simple. Simplicity really does rule!

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