The accountable classroom

AKA: How I finally found a use for my planner

I am delighted to report that I have finally found a use for my planner. I almost didn’t get one at all last year, so fed up was I of having to lug around a sizable book that I rarely actually looked at and never planned my lessons into (but into which I felt nonetheless duty bound to carefully copy my next half term’s timetable each holiday, before putting it back into my bag again for a few months). I think (I hope) I’m not alone in that; quite a lot of teachers seem to get to that stage after their first few years.

Last year, though, I tried something new. This year, I am pleased to report, I’ve kept it going, thus meeting my rough rule for marking the successful establishment of a new habit. It’s a classroom routine around feedback and accountability that I’m sure is neither original nor particularly clever, but it’s been a real source of satisfaction for me to develop, and I think has benefitted the students as well. It also means that I FINALLY have a use for my blasted planner.

Closing the accountability loop

My problem was the following: ‘What do I do if I find that students don’t know things that I think they should know?’

I try to run a pretty retrieval heavy classroom, with students given lots of chances to retrieve core information from memory in a number of different ways across most lessons (I’ve blogged more on my ‘imperfect’ retrieval routine here). This also, of course, creates multiple chances for retrieval failure, where they find that they don’t actually know something as well as they would like to. What should I do then? Reteach it if it looks like it’s a gap shared by quite a few students? Suggest that they go away and *make sure* they know it, because *this stuff important*? Fine. But what then? What about next lesson, or in a week’s time? Will they know it then? My nagging doubt was always that, in a majority of cases, they didn’t. I had a system that was pretty good at flagging up gaps in knowledge, but less good at filling them in a meaningful, sustainable way.

How could I record what information students needed to re-learn in as quick and easy a way as possible, and then check that this actually happened? Luckily for me, the core questions that I want my A-Level Psychology students to be able to answer are all numbered, so actually I realised (with one of those slightly deflating flashes of insight where you realise that the answer is obvious and has been staring you in the face for ages) that all I needed to record (in my planner!) was a name, and a number.

How it works:

  1. I ask a question based on the core knowledge that I expect every student to know. E.g. this could be in the form of their usual starter quiz (pictured below), but it could also be verbal, or in some other form at any point in the lesson. Answers are usually cold-called following individual thinking or writing time.

2. If a student doesn’t have a correct (or high-quality enough) answer, then I note the name and question number in my planner, in the space for the NEXT lesson for that class. The question is then bounced around to a few other members of the class. If their answers are also shaky, then I write ‘All’ instead of the student’s name next to the number. The student (or class) are told that they will get that question again next lesson (all students have a copy of all the core knowledge questions and answers in advance – for example they are here on Carousel Learning for online self-quizzing – so it is easy for them to refer back to these). In my planner it looks like this:

Yes I know my writing is terrible. I’m sorry. Names and classes invented for demonstration purposes

3. Next lesson, I add any ‘repeat questions’ from the previous lesson on to the end of the starter questions, and direct the appropriate question to the individual I’ve written down. If it is an ‘All’ question, then all students are asked to discuss the answer in pairs and I then cold call students to answer in the usual manner.

4. Importantly, once we get a correct/improved answer to a question, this provides scope for celebration of new learning and the reinforcement of a ‘culture of error’, where we normalise mistakes and shift the focus on to how a student responds to finding a gap in their knowledge.

5. In addition, we now have dedicated weekly homework tasks to ‘follow-up on feedback’, where students are required to show how they have responded to any aspect of the previous week’s learning which identified a gap in their understanding. Often this might include following up on gaps identified from the starter questions (e.g. by making flashcards or looking at practice questions on that topic), regardless of whether they were cold-called for the question or not (students annotate their answers as we review them and are encouraged to follow-up on any questions that required substantial annotation). In this way we hopefully move from only targeting students who happen to be caught out by the cold-calling to a more general culture of accountability and personal responsibility.

In a year of doing this, I have only had one student unable to answer a repeat question correctly in the following lesson (actually ‘unwilling’ might be a better description of that particular incident!), and also one ‘All’ question that I decided still wasn’t being discussed well enough, so we repeated it again for a third lesson. In every other case, I’ve had an improved answer. Students also tell me that they really like it, for what it is worth (though I always take student reports with a hefty pinch of salt). Does that mean they’ll definitely still remember it in three months, or come the exam? No. Do I think it means they have more of a chance? Yes, and I certainly feel a lot more comfortable in my own skin when standing at the front, feeling that the students are less likely to be able to slip through my net.

Next steps in the accountable classroom

Spacing out the repeat questions

Regular contact with my A-Level classes means that currently I quite often see classes on consecutive days. This means that I may well be giving repeat questions the next day. However, we know that recall will tend to be stronger if retrieval events are spaced out in time. Specifically, Gareth Bates’ blogs on ‘priming’ show how at a genetic level, the expression of genes related to memory formation is strongest on being re-exposed to newly learned material within a period of 3-7 days. I think it would also be much more desirable to have a situation where students are not entirely sure when they will be getting their repeat question – as this is more likely to prompt strategies which will lead to effective longer term learning in students (rather than simply cramming the answer just before the lesson in which they know it will be required). So, after another week or so (once I am happy that the routine above is familiar and well established with all my groups), we’ll be moving to an ‘uncertainly spaced repeat question’ (as I am catchily terming it) – where I note the name and question number against a randomly chosen lesson over the next week or two.

Group accountability

If I can get uncertain spacing established, the next step might be to start introducing group, rather than just individual, accountability. I’d really recommend listening to Sammy Kempner on Ollie Lovell’s podcast for a vivid description on how group accountability can be fostered, and the positive classroom environment that it can help to create. For me, this might look like this:

  • After a period of individual retrieval/writing in response to their starter questions, students are given a minute to discuss answers in pairs. The expectation is made clear that it is a student’s responsibility to make sure their partner has no gaps.
  • If cold-calling reveals a gap for any student, then it is assumed that both members of the pair are assumed to need a repeat question, and the question could then be targeted at either of them over the next week.

I can see that this system would take some careful implementing, and I’m aware that what might be gained in collaborative responsibility might be lost in individual initiative (if I know my diligent partner will help me out in a few minutes, maybe I’ll try a bit less hard myself). We’ll see.

As with everything in teaching, it’s small steps, careful evaluation, refinement and iteration. Even if it benefits the students, the effects of this any strategy will only be tiny, in comparison to everything else. Still, based on the last year and the start of this one, I do think the positive effects are there.

And at least I’m now writing in my planner.

A caveat, and a provocation

I teach Sixth Form, where there is already an established focus on independent learning and time given over for that to happen. This clearly makes it easier for students to participate in the system, and for me to demand that they do. That said, we’re not talking about much here. A flashcard or two after a lesson at most probably. It could reasonably easily be built into homework routines much lower down the school (in fact, I wonder if ‘follow-up on feedback’ wouldn’t be a simpler and more useful homework routine than a lot of tasks that are set as homework). Feel free to tell me I’m wrong – @mikehobbiss

The accountable classroom

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