5 Diamonds

There are several blog posts knocking around at the minute regarding 5 things that individuals wish they’d have known when they started teaching (here and here). I like to follow the trend, so here are the five absolute diamonds that I wish I’d have known before I started teaching:


1. If we don’t have an understanding of how information is received, processed and stored, then we don’t really understand learning.

It’s only in recent years with the ‘online cognitive science revolution’ that I’ve really acquired an understanding of how memory works and how to best support long term retention. You’d be a fool to ignore Cognitive Science. Whilst we can’t prove anything about memory, there’s a wealth of empirical research to support our understanding of it. Cognitive Load Theory is in vogue at the moment, but despite its popularity, unlike other fads, there is a compelling evidence base for its application. I actually wrote a blog post for the Society for Education and Training about CLT recently, which I shall share on here soon – stay tuned.

2. You’re not a bad teacher if you tell your learners stuff.

When I started teaching, everything had to be active. If you didn’t have active learning in your lessons, then you’d be chastised by observers and the like. Back then, being a sports lecturer, I thought active learning actually involved learners being ‘active’. For this reason, I would often get learners moving around the room doing star jumps (OK, I exaggerate, but why ruin a good story by telling the truth?). Anyway, my point here is that explicit instruction is actually really effective, particularly with novice learners. They need to know stuff and expecting them to figure it out for themselves is frankly absurd.

3. You really should assess learners at the start of every lesson

When I started teaching all the other teachers used to read objectives off before rolling into their lesson, so that’s what I did. Regardless of where learners started with prior knowledge, they were all doing this lesson at my pace. If I actually took the time to identify gaps in knowledge and diagnose misconceptions, I would have known where to focus my attention – I didn’t get this for a long time.

4. Being cool and relaxed is not a good way to manage 16 year olds.

I’ve written before about my erroneous ways with behaviour management. When learners arrive at college, they often don’t know what to expect. If we set the expectations high and be consistent with these, it will save a whole load of bother over the year. If you try to be the cool cat, there’s only one way that it’s going to end.

5. Doing group work is often more hassle than it’s worth.

I believe that working cooperatively is really important, after all, we are social creatures. The thing is, most group work is ineffective due to the fact that it doesn’t meet the fundamentals of effective cooperative learning (individual accountability and working towards a common goal), as identified by Slavin, Hurley and Chamberlain. I’ve observed so many sessions where the group work has actually been one learner’s work, with 4+ other learners piggy backing. Effective group work is something that is carefully crafted and in all honesty, I prefer paired work as it addresses the key features of cooperative learning. A previous blog on group work explains my thoughts in greater detail.


So that is my 5, what are yours?

8 thoughts on “5 Diamonds

  1. Nice list. #2 especially resonates with me. When I started out, I used to take “I barely had to say anything!” as a sign of a good lesson.

    (Practically, this usually meant that either [a] I had explained stuff in text on some guided worksheet or that [b] I had relied on some kids to directly explain stuff to other kids or that [c] I relied on setting up some empirical pattern for children to generalize from, one that didn’t necessarily get at the important mathematical content.)

    I’ve read a few of these “Five Diamonds” posts. I have a hard time thinking about this — am I truly giving advice to myself? was I prepared to take my own advice?

    (The best advice I could have given younger me, probably, would be ‘just propose to her already.’)

    Here’s my interpretation of the exercise. I’m going to try giving advice to my past self that (stubborn person I am) I might actually have listened to.

    My Five:

    1. Don’t just blog about your classroom experiences. Read stuff (research, books, articles) and blog about how your classroom experiences connect to the reading.

    I was blogging almost from the get-go, but I ended up just stewing on my problems/successes instead of learning.

    2. You think it’s good to use grades as feedback for learning. Check out the research that questions this practice.

    3. Teaching has an ‘official’ rhetoric. It’s idealistic, and most teachers don’t really think these ideals are anywhere close to fully attainable.

    (I haven’t been able to stop thinking about this after reading Dan Lortie’s sociological work on teaching.)

    4. You can prompt a lot of thinking from kids while still keeping kids in ‘whole-group’ mode.

    I had a lot of behavior management problems at my first school. I’m better now — I’m also working at a better, less chaotic school — but I still end up with tough management situations. It would have helped me a lot to explore all the ways you can try to get every kid thinking while still being in a ‘whole-group’ mode.

    5. Don’t try to focus kids’ attention on their mistakes. Instead, focus their attention on the right way to do things.

    This is something I learned while reading research about feedback.

    WOW I wrote too much. Get a blog, Michael. Anyway, thanks for the interesting post!

  2. Nice, clear and lean. Might want to generalise point 3 to throughout the lesson especially the beginning but I get where you are going with it.

    Not sure I would change much. I would mention learning to understand evidence (Prefer that word over research) which is similar to Michael Phearson above.

    One thing that always struck me when I started teaching was how strangely complicated and overwhelming it was. There seemed to be contradictory requirements (which there are) and It appeared impossible for anyone to last a career trying to do everything that was expected.

    I know realise that like everything else experienced teaching should be largely effortless. Sure focusing on improving your practice is difficult but the intensity and volume of this change is under your control (when you get used to ignoring/subverting some instructions/expectations so you can actually meet the others). This allows you the flexibility to survive the vicissitudes of life and yet still perform well. Change also needs to be focused on upgrading your habits and relfexes rather then trying the latest idea and that most general suggestions from others are unhelpful (at least at the time) compared to a few bits of wisdom from someone practiced in a technique your are wanting to learn.

    Not as clear and lean as yours.

    1. Hi Michael. Thanks for the comment. Yes, I agree, assessment more generally throughout the lesson is crucial, but one I always seemed to miss myself during the early days, and one I commonly see from teachers is that the initial assessment is missed.

      I agree that teaching should be sustainable and therefore, should require minimal effort for maximal impact. There seems to be a storm brewing within the sectors at the minute (workload, teachers allowed to talk, observation more developmental etc), which will hopefully allow this.

  3. Regarding point 2, if a student believes they have worked something out that the teacher wasn’t trying to teach them, it’s great for motivation and brilliant for learning. The Socratic method is optimised for this sort of thing. But it’s not easy to get right and is best left for philosophy and special occasions.

    A good overt-style lesson might be thought of as a pyramid, with one most important point at the top, three supporting sub-points directly underneath, and beneath that a kindling bonfire of thinking and actions that supports and re-enforces the important points.

    The bonfire doesn’t have to be remembered. It’s only there to get the top points hot enough to combust and be remembered. With some students in some circumstances, it may not even be needed.

    A huge danger is trying to teach too much, and having nothing remembered.

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