This week I was honoured to contribute to Craig Barton’s education podcast. If you haven’t subscribed to yet, I couldn’t recommend it more. Fun, positive and full of incredibly insights from a range of guests from across education.
Craig asked me to record a message outlining what I’d learnt this year, to feature alongside other teachers answering the same question. It was really hard, as I feel that with every year that passes, I know less and less about education and am more and more confused. I decided to focus on Ratio, which I’ve been lucky enough to receive some training on at my school – Reach Academy Feltham – this year. I’ve found Ratio really difficult to get right and am only on the start of my journey to harness it to make my lessons more effective, but I’ve (I think) had at least one or two successes this year. It might be useful to blog about some of the disasters as well so I’ll try and find time to do that. You can listen to the podcast here, or read a (slightly longer) transcript below.
Hello my name’s Jon Brunskill and I’m a primary teacher. I teach year four at Reach Academy Feltham and I also lead on the foundation curriculum there.
What I’ve learnt this year is that getting ‘thinking ratio’ and ‘participation ratio’ right is extremely difficult, but it’s probably the most important thing that you can focus on as a teacher.
First what do I mean by each of these. They’re taken from Doug Lemov’s Teach Like a Champion, which is an endlessly fruitful source of teaching wisdom, and they tap in to a cognitive principle laid out by Daniel Willingham in his book why don’t students like school: that memory is the residue of thought.
In this chapter Willingham talks about how a teacher told him about a lesson she gave about the underground railroad in nineteenth century America. The teacher had all children bake a rustic sort of biscuit that the slaves escaping the southern states took with them on their journey. She asked Willingham to evaluate how effective the lesson had been, to which he replied that if she wanted her students to learn about making biscuits, weighing out flour, preheating the oven, then it was probably very successful. This is what they were mostly thinking about. But of course making biscuits isn’t what she wanted the students to be learning about, she wanted them to learn about the underground railroad. And they’d spent an hour learning how to make a biscuit.
So, I’ve been thinking really hard this year about planning not what students will be doing, but what they will be thinking about. I want my students to be thinking much harder than me during lessons, and thinking about what I want them to remember about the unit in the long term. This is thinking ratio.
Alongside that, I also want as many as my students as possible thinking about whatever it is that I want them to be thinking about. This is participation ratio and it’s easier said than done, and lots of our pedagogical techniques seem to me to promote a drop in participation ratio. For example, asking a question to the class and then selecting a child who puts their hand up gives you a participation ratio of one.
It gets even more difficult because it’s seemed to me that as you increase the participation ratio it’s very likely you decrease the thinking ratio, and vice versa. For example it’s easy to get all the children writing an answer to something that they are already really familiar with, but this lowers the thinking ratio. And the more you ask children to think hard about something new, the fewer are likely to participate because thinking is really hard and people don’t like doing it if they can help it.
Let me give you an example of how I’ve tried to apply this in a lesson. Recently we’ve been studying Ernest Shackleton in our history lessons in year four and in one of the lessons I decided that I wanted my pupils to think about what a good leader Shackleton was. This was because they were going to go on and write a biography of Shackleton, but also because I wanted the unit to have an underlying theme about leadership: decisiveness, positivity, fostering teamwork, selflessness – all the attributes that make a worthy leader.
Previously I would have approached this by thinking about a cool activity that the children could do. I would have started by thinking, Shackleton was a great leader, maybe the children could write down what they think makes a great leader. The could write their own Shackleton speeches and perform them and we’ll record them for YouTube. I call these whizz-bangy lessons and you often see them on the internet. Lots of outlandish and super creative activities that the children love completing but in which they don’t really learn anything that they didn’t already know.
I think these sorts of lessons actually widen the attainment gap because if you focus on fun activities instead of key knowledge, then you are relying on them learning that knowledge somewhere else, which at primary level is likely to be at home from their parents. So parents who are lucky enough to have the time and/or the education or other resources to teach children about Shackleton would pull further away from those children who aren’t as lucky. I want to level the playing field by giving equal access to the powerful knowledge that makes you an accomplished student of whatever it is you’re learning. Assume that the children in front of you are getting no additional help at home, because for some children that will be true and that is who you should be spending most of your time thinking about.
A few years ago I would have gone for the whizz-bangy lesson (I still feel guilty when I don’t do these lessons). I would have probably got the children to write their own inspirational leadership speeches or ‘hot-seat’ (another common primary technique) Shackleton.
But this wouldn’t give them the crucial knowledge of why he actually was considered a great leader. To do that I needed to consult some primary sources, and so I found some letters and diary entries from the men that were on the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition. These quotes were full of specific praise for Shackleton. They tell of when he dived into the freezing Southern Ocean to rescue one of his men in the dark of the night, of how he gave his last biscuit to another of his men for breakfast. All sorts of gems that help you build a picture of Shackleton and his leadership qualities
Now I could just tell them all about that, but then I’d be doing most of the hard thinking. They’d be doing a lot of listening and some of them would have been listening hard but some of them may well have checked out.
So instead I gave all of the children the quotes, printed out, and asked them in pairs to select what was in their opinion the greatest act of leadership Shackleton undertook and why. They spent a few minutes reading together and discussing and debating in their pairs. I can now ask anyone in the class their thoughts, 100% participation, because everyone has had the time to think and discuss the key information that I want them thinking about. Also, after I’ve asked the first child, another is almost certainly going to disagree, so I can let them make a rebuttal.
Finally every child had to write down what made Shackleton a great leader, focussing in on the number one thing that I wanted children to think about, and all were ready to do so.
This is an example where I think I got it right, but I get this wrong ALL THE TIME. I think it’s going to take years to properly master this skill but I’m going to look forward to trying to improve even more next year.