No more teaching tips and tricks

What tip/trick are you going to learn from this post that you can use on Monday morning?

Absolutely nothing.

And, guess what? You’re going to be happy you didn’t.

When I started teaching, I thought professional development meant picking up the next shiny thing to do in my classroom. Only once I’d gathered a critical mass of shiny things, would I be an effective teacher. Let’s call these shiny things ‘tips and tricks’. They are quick pieces of advice about how to teach.

Here’s a concrete example:

Once, I participated in a teacher training event. It was a carousel of 10 teachers presenting 10 different tips/tricks.

They all looked useful and I left buzzing.

One particularly interesting tip was around marking: circulate and highlight the error on the pupil’s work; the pupil then knows where the issue is and have to make the correction themselves.

So…

On Monday morning, I tell my year 8s this is what I’ll be doing. I highlight the errors as I circulate (mainly punctuation/spelling but a few poor vocabulary choices too). Some pupils find it useful and make the corrections. Some get bogged down. They can’t figure out what the error is and spend ages trying to work it out. They write almost nothing as a result.

I chalk it up as somewhat successful. But after a couple of lessons, I stop doing it.

Highlighting errors became a ghost of lessons passed. It entered the pit of tried, tested and abandoned ideas.

Why didn’t I stick with it?

Was it a bad idea in the first place? Or was I just a bit fickle?

I’ve realised that it was neither of these things. I now know the reasons tips/tricks were pretty useless at creating a lasting change in my practice to benefit pupil learning:

  • I had no idea why tips/tricks were supposed to work.
  • The tips/tricks weren’t solutions to problems in my teaching practice.
  • I wasn’t motivated or supported to embed them in my teaching.

We end up treating teaching tips/tricks like disposable fashion: we don’t put a lot of thought into picking them up, we try them on for a bit, then we ditch them when something newer comes along.

What’s the remedy?

We need to stop thinking in terms of tips and tricks and start thinking in terms of techniques.

But what’s the difference?

A tip/trick implies a quick piece of advice about how to teach.

On the other hand, a technique is a skilful or efficient way of achieving something. For something to be a technique, you have to understand what your end goal is and how it will help you achieve that goal.

Therefore, the first step is to ensure teachers understand the end goal better.

The end goal is learning.

Step 1: Teachers need to know what learning is

The end goal for all teachers is that pupils learn. Tips and tricks are well meaning. But, without a good understanding of what learning is and how it happens, teachers don’t know whether or why they should invest time and thought in implementing them as techniques.

Cognitive science provides us with a really useful explanation for how people learn. Willingham’s simple model of memory (Willingham, 2009) gives us brilliant ways to think about it: attention, managing cognitive load and building prior knowledge in long-term memory.* We can read more on these areas and come up with some really helpful principles about learning.

Look at how a better understanding of learning totally changes my thought process about whether/why to adopt a tip/trick as a technique.

Example:

Tip/trick: highlight errors as you circulate the class.

Teacher who doesn’t know about learning: “This looks good. It means pupils need to do more. I’ll try it.”

Teacher who knows about learning: “This might work for careless errors my pupils make (like a missing bracket or comma). It may make some of them think harder too which is good for memory. But for bigger errors, or ones my pupils don’t understand, this might cognitively overload them and stop them producing good work. I may be better to circulate, write down a list of common errors and do whole-class feedback instead. This will better manage my pupils’ cognitive loads.”

Understanding how we learn means teachers can make better decisions about whether to adopt a tip/trick as a technique to potentially improve learning for their pupils.**

Step 2: Teachers need to understand the problems they are trying to solve

To grow their expertise, experts work on important problems in their domain (Bereiter & Scardamalia, 1993). So should teachers. The reason this isn’t step 1 is that these problems relate to learning. A teacher with a good understanding of how we learn can better understand the problems they are trying to solve and choose better solutions that are more likely to lead to learning.

Example:

Teacher who understands their problem: “My pupils did not grasp my explanation of ‘the establishment’ this lesson. It’s an abstract idea and I know learners struggle with abstract ideas. I need to look into how to teach abstract ideas.”

Because this teacher has a good understanding of what learning is, they can better understand their problem. This means they can seek out a solution and technique likely to solve it. (This teacher finds the technique “help pupils understand abstract concepts using concrete examples” and they can go from there. Here’s some nice stuff from the Deans for Impact on examples/non-examples/concrete examples).

Teacher who does not understand their problem: “My pupils did not grasp my explanation of ‘the establishment’ this lesson. I’ll repeat the explanation I used today in our next lesson so they can have another go.”

In summary, the teacher who understands their problem better, can find a better solution.

Effective professional development will do these things and more

Effective professional development helps teachers understand what learning is (step 1) and what problems they should be trying to solve in their practice (step 2). It also helps them learn and embed techniques, e.g. by modelling techniques to teachers and having them rehearse them with feedback (Sims et al., 2021). One form of professional development that is promising for helping teachers do all of this, if done well, is instructional coaching. I’ve found Josh Goodrich’s blogs on this really useful.

To be clear then, effective professional development must teach teachers how to do things, but it should avoid tips and tricks. We avoid tips and tricks by ensuring teachers understand –

  1. How we learn. This means they understand the end goal better and can evaluate if a tip/trick is worth using as a technique to better achieve learning for their pupils.
  2. The problems they are trying to solve. We help teachers see the learning problems in their classroom and find apt solutions. These solutions can form techniques that we help them understand and embed.

*This isn’t everything a teacher needs to know about learning – there’s loads more but it’s a really helpful place to start.

**Note, there’s nothing inherently wrong with this tip/trick. The teacher is just able to use their knowledge of learning (and their pupils) to decide that it’s not likely to lead to better learning for their class.

References

Bereiter, C., & Scardamalia, M. (1993). Surpassing ourselves. An inquiry into the nature and implications of expertise. Chicago: Open Court.

Sims, S., Fletcher-Wood, H., O’Mara-Eves, A., Cottingham, S., Stansfield, C., Van Herwegen, J., & Anders, J. (2021). What Are the Characteristics of Effective Teacher Professional Development? A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Education Endowment Foundation.

Willingham, D. T. (2009). Why don’t students like school? A cognitive scientist answers questions about how the mind works and what it means for the classroom. Jossey-Bass.

5 responses to “No more teaching tips and tricks”

  1. […] 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).  […]

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