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5 Highly Effective Teaching Practices

21 Mar

Earlier this year, a piece from the Edutopia website was doing the rounds under the title “5 highly effective teaching practices”.  I automatically question pieces like this as I doubt somewhat whether the purpose of the piece is actually to raise standards in the profession and develop teachers – or whether it is simply to get a bit more traffic to the website.  But perhaps I am being unnecessarily cynical?

To be fair, the practices the article suggests are generally quite effective:

  1. State the goals of the lesson and model tasks, so that students know what they are going to do and how to do it.
  2. Allow classroom discussion to encourage peer teaching
  3. Provide a variety of feedback, both on an individual and a group basis.  Allow students to feedback to the teacher.
  4. Use formative assessments (tests the students can learn from) as well as summative assessments (tests that evaluate student ability, mostly for reporting purposes)
  5. Develop student metacognitive strategies so that students can become more aware of their own learning and how to make it more effective.  (Learner Training)

What surprises me though is that these practices are considered novel enough that they need to be put into a blog post?  CELTA tutors may correct me (please do!) but aren’t these things considered essential on a CELTA?  Aren’t we meant to be doing all these things anyway?  I suppose it speaks to the audience of the Edutopia website, which is not primarily language teaching.  Maybe language teachers are just more responsive and methodologically up-to-date than mainstream education…..


Image Credit: Pixabay

The piece is based on a book by John Hattie, who is the director of the Educational Research Institute at the University of Melbourne.  He has made his name in the field of meta-analysis, effectively taking in all the data from studies that have looked at educational attainment and looking at it to see what patterns emerge.  In 2008 he published “Visible Learning”, which was based on 800 meta-studies from around the world and which identified positive and negative processes in classroom learning, such as the long summer break that has now led some schools to adjust their school calendars to teach over the summer and provide more shorter terms punctuated by more, shorter holidays.  In 2011 he published a follow up book “Visible Learning for teachers” that looks at the practical implications for teachers and suggests strategies they can employ to maximise the learning that takes place.  The article is based on this latter book.

I don’t disagree with the suggestions made in the article – but it made me wonder what my five “effective teaching practices” would be.  This is what I came up with.  I can’t claim that I do all these things all the time, but I generally try to do them most of the time!

(1)  Have fun.  Obviously, it doesn’t necessarily follow that if the teacher is having fun the students are too (“Dance, my minions!  Dance!”), but if you’re bored and pissed off then the students probably will be too.  You can’t be happy all the time, and some activities and goals are more serious than others, but fun should always be there, like a background harmonic.

(2) Make it valuable.  Time is precious to everybody, young and old, and we’ve all sat through too many meetings where at the end of it we walk out thinking “That was three hours of my life I won’t see again” that we should probably make sure our students don’t feel the same way about us!  Again, difficult to achieve with ALL the students ALL the time, but possible to do with MOST of the students MOST of the time.  And if you have a student who is getting nothing out of it at all, then they’re in the wrong class.  I had a 15 year old CPE student whose main school teacher used to send him to the library to look up words in the dictionary because she felt it was a better use of his time than being in her class….

(3) Make them DO stuff.  We’ve been having this discussion in the forums on another post, and again, it isn’t something that you can do for every language point or for every skills focus, but my everlasting bugbear with the majority of materials is that the students aren’t required to be active producers of language, but that they are mostly seen as passive receptacles.  There is room for both aspects and indeed, both are needed to give the students time for input to become intake – but I don’t believe that is where it should stop.  Involve tasks and activities that ask the learners to USE whatever language they have.

(4) Know your students.  This ties in a bit to the first two because if you don’t know your students well, then you probably won’t have as much fun or make it as valuable as they need.  But essentially as a teacher, your job is to help the students get from where they are, to where they want to go.  If you don’t know them, you won’t know either of these things and won’t be able to help as effectively.  I am a big fan of needs analysis, in particular using google forms for this process, and I do this with all my adult and exam classes.  I haven’t yet come up with a decent needs analysis form for young learners, so if you have – please share!

(5) Teaching not testing.  The majority of summative testing or formal assessment is completely pointless.  The majority of tests don’t do what they are actually meant to do, which is measure what the students can do with the language.  Very often in a language learning context what they measure is the learners ability to manipulate a grammatical structure under controlled and guided conditions, so I do wonder what getting seven out of ten in an exercise where the student has to put the verb into the past continuous tells us?  Given the choice I wouldn’t bother with it.  Including a test in a course makes a mockery of the idea of needs analysis and student centered learning, because as soon as you put a test in the course, it becomes about test centered learning.  Alas I am not in a position to follow through on this idea completely, mostly because other stakeholders in the process want to be able to reduce an abstract concept like “language ability” to an easy to read number on a report card.  But there we go.

So – these are my five!  I’d be interested to know what other people think.  It is a largely subjective process (despite all the research that John Hattie put into his ideas), so do feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Image credit: Pixabay

Image credit: Pixabay


An Overview of Learning Theories

14 Mar

This is possibly the most complete online resource I have ever come across on learning theories:

Learning Theory

I had to reduce the browser to 50% just to get the screenshot, but if you click the picture or the link below you should be taken to the original.

It’s a concept map that links thinkers and theorists with their concepts and theories and shows where they are situated in the wider academic context.  It also contains web links to further reading on both the thinkers and the thoughts.

A little light break time reading for you…

Thanks to Anthony Ash for sharing this on facebook.

Brainstorming – Book Review

8 Feb

The process of brainstorming in the classroom is often a rather haphazard and stilted affair.  Learners are coming into a topic area they know little about and feel uncomfortable in, they might feel that they don’t have the language to express their ideas as fluently as they would like, and when ideas do get produced – they immediately get shot down as impractical or unrealistic.  The confident and extrovert students dominate and the weaker or more introvert students sit there quietly not really saying much, so that the teacher ends up getting feedback from only a couple of the members of the group.  Fortunately, however, there is another way….

In their new mini ebook, “Brainstorming”, from The Round, Gerhard Erasmus and Hall Houston take us back to basic principles and the origins of brainstorming in the world of 1950’s advertising.  The focus here is non-judgmental idea generation – it’s not about quality, but about quantity and where all ideas have equal value and where one idea from one person sparks a thought elsewhere in the group and where participants feed off each other’s energy and creativity to generate the largest possible set of ideas in the time given.

Which you can totally see working at half past four on a Friday afternoon with a group of tired teenagers, right?

This is where the book comes into it’s own.  Erasmus and Houston run through a series of clear procedures for working with idea generation that attempt to mitigate some of the issues that might arise:  setting the stage, focusing the activity, avoiding negative feedback, guiding the discussion and remembering the objective.  It occurs to me that there are some groups where this might take some initial learner training, possibly particularly with teenagers, before they understand how the ground rules work here and what the constraints are, but where perseverance would yield huge benefits in terms of the directed creativity that the learners could then bring to the class.

I found the section on “problem statements” to be a useful way of looking at generating ideas for specific issues and the re-formulation of the “problem” into a “how can I…” question seems like it would be a great way of looking at things for students in an EAP context as well as students preparing for writing tasks in ELT exams.  Re-focusing the problem statement is essentially the same thing as refining your research question into something that you can actually answer, or it represents a useful “way in” to some of the exam writing tasks – getting students to move away from simply producing writing for you the teacher and into thinking about the purpose of their exam writing by asking questions like “How can I get the editor to publish my review?” or “How can I get the principal of the college to upgrade the sports facilities?”.  This would almost certainly lead to an improvement in their written work!

brainstorming cover

Three other activities that I particularly liked in the book – and I’m limiting myself here because otherwise I would basically be copying out the whole thing – are:

The problem skeleton:  I think this would be another one that is great for writing tasks and analysing questions, especailly in the way that it breaks larger tasks down into smaller more manageable chunks.  Writing an essay on “the environment” is quite a daunting task, but using the problem skeleton to identify sub-topics and then sub-sub-topics would be a great way of making the tasks more accessible.

Rolestorming:  a brilliant way of extending out of the typical role play scenario.  Even in the most engaging of role plays or mingle activities, there is always an element of the learners essentially reading the information off the little piece of paper in front of them and basically comparing notes as opposed to taking on the role of the person they are meant to play.  Rolestorming is a great way of getting the students to think about the background, motivations and emotions of their characters and to really give them the chance to step outside of themselves for the task.

PMI:  A great follow-up activity for working with the ideas that you have generated in an initial brainstorming task, the PMI process lets you grade and select the ideas that you want to take forwards.  In essence it is a format for critical reflection and evaluation.  Again, I can see this being excellent for writing tasks where the learners need to decide what is relevant to the question and what ideas slot together most effectively.



Who should buy this book?  I don’t see this book as having a limited audience in that way.  I think there as much in there for teachers who have been teaching longer than they care to remember as there is for teachers who are just starting out.  It is descriptive, rather than prescriptive, it gives you the tools you need to achieve a goal and in its own way, it is the spark that will lead you to you own lesson-based light bulb moment.

Brainstorming” by Gerhard Erasmus and Hall Houston is available for £0.79 / €0.99 / $1.00 via The Round.

Free Online #BESIG Workshop – Personalised Learning Programmes

1 Jun

It’s my very great privilege to be running a free online workshop for the IATEFL BESIG next Sunday – 7th June.

BESIG is the Business English Special Interest Group and they have been running their weekend workshop series since February 2011, when Pete Sharma gave the first one on what I think was Networking in English.  Since then 48 other fantastic speakers have also given workshops!

The workshop is running at 2pm GMT on Sunday 7th June (2015) – to find out when that is where you are just click on the world clock converter.  It is free to attend and anyone and everyone is welcome, though if you miss it, the recording is only available to BESIG members.

I’m going to be talking about the importance of personalising the learning process.  There’s been some really interesting research that has come out of North America in recent years that has looked at improving effectiveness in education and which I think has clear lessons for all of us in ELT.  I’m also going to review ideas in needs analysis and course design and to see if we can’t tweak some of these ideas with technology to make it a more streamlined, less labour intensive and more effective process, as well as looking at ways to work with the student as resource in the business English arena.

It is aimed primarily at the BE sector, which isn’t to say that non-BE teachers won’t find something to takeaway also!

To find out more – visit the BESIG website.

It has the full abstract, together with the when and where and details of how to attend.

Hope to see you there!



20 Apr

It is easy enough to get stuck in your classroom, and stuck in particular ways of thinking about your teaching and your learners and even of course – yourself!  Cambridge English have just launched what look like an interesting professional development programme – the #5teachingchallenges campaign.

In essence, you sign up, choose one of the options and then you get emailed short tasks to help you think about the area you chose.  Each challenge takes about five weeks and at the end of it you get a Record of Achievement for each challenge.  If you then want to do another challenge, you can.

I like that there’s a degree of personalisation in this and that you get to focus on the area that’s most important to you, as it makes a difference from imposed or pre-determined input and this can be quite liberating.

The five challenge areas are:

  1. Create a professional development plan that works for you
  2. Find new ways to motivate your learners
  3. Find new ways to identify, analyse and correct your learners’ mistakes
  4. Be more confident using digital resources
  5. Be more confident using English in class

So there should be something for everyone there!  There are additional extension tasks for more experienced teachers and each task is meant to take about one or two hours a week.



Good luck!

Left Brain – Right Brain: This idea must die

23 Mar

The ever excellent Freakonomics podcast recently put out a podcast called “This Idea Must Die” in which they borrowed a concept from  every year asks a question and asks its contributors (high level thinkers, scientists, academics and nobel laureates) to write an essay in answer.  This year the question was “What scientific idea is ready for retirement?”

One of the contributors is Sarah Jayne Blakemore, Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience at University College London, and the idea that she suggested should die is that of the Left Brain / Right Brain divide.

divided brain


In simple terms, the divide does not exist.  In the podcast Blakemore states that the idea of left and right brain separation arose out of studies done in the sixties and seventies on people who had had surgery to divide their brains.  Snip.  In that scenario, the left and right hemispheres can no longer physically communicate with each other and some brain functions are inevitably degraded as a result.

For everybody else though?  No matter how analytical or creative we are being – we use both sides of our brains.  All the time.

My completely unscientific thought is that it’s probably a bit like arm-wrestling.  If you use you right hand to arm wrestle all the time then the muscles in your right arm develop more.  But this doesn’t mean you never use your left arm at all.  You use it all the time, you just don’t use it as much.  I doubt very much whether there’s much cold logical analysis that doesn’t take place without a little bit of creativity, just as pure creativity without some analysis going on in the background (even if it’s just a case of what looks better in an image – a splash of red here or there?) is unlikely.  If you do more analytical work, you probably get better at doing analytical work – if you spend all your time writing stories or painting pictures, you’ll probably get better at those too.

We shouldn’t however, be labeling people as left brain or right brain and we certainly shouldn’t be targeting our lessons at certain bits of brain.



I thoroughly recommend the Freakonomics podcast to absolutely everybody – brilliant ideas, entertainingly presented and just long enough for a commute into work.

Sarah Jayne Blakemore has also done a brilliant TED Talk on the teenage brain and all its mysteries – if you teach teenagers it helps to explain a lot!!!

There’s a reprint of a New Scientist article ‘Right Brain’ or ‘Left Brain’ – Myth or Reality? which looks at research that in 1996 strongly suggested a left brain / right brain divide based on the idea of either a local focus (detail) or a global focus.  And how further work they did and an attempt to reproduce the original results found completely the opposite effect.

And it’s worth pointing out that if the idea of brain separation is a physiological impossibility and a neurological doubt, then brain gym is still a load of rubbish.


More Educational Mythbusting

11 Feb

“We have had all kinds of rubbish thrown at us over the last 10 to 20 years,” he says. “We’ve been told that kids only learn properly in groups. We’ve had people claiming that children learn using brain gym, people saying that kids only learn if you appeal to their learning style. There’s not a scrap of research that substantiates this, and, unfortunately, it is indicative of the really, really dysfunctional state of social science research that exists today.”

This quote from a recent Telegraph article is from Tom Bennett and is thankfully yet another voice calling for a more rigorous critical evaluation of educational trends and theories.  In this case, Tom Bennett is unfortunately mostly being a bit self-promotional, but his central argument  – that teachers need to question the research behind the “theories” that they are being asked to engage with and that teachers need to be ready to actually drive the research and help build the evidence one way or the other – is a good one.  A better read is his denunciation of educational neuroscience for the New Scientist.

It is not to say that these theories are completely wrong, just that the claims that are made for them are unproven.  I have said elsewhere that I find learning styles unconvincing and that most of what I have read suggests teaching to a particular learning style makes no difference.  I doubt very much whether categorizing learners as kinaesthetic or logical-mathematical helps them learn vocabulary much faster.  The only contribution that I think the concept of learning styles has made to education is that it has forced teachers to consider delivering their lessons in modes and with activities that they otherwise might not have considered.  My traditional view of language education (mostly recalled from my GCSE french lessons) is that of rote repetition and grammar based activities in the book.  Moving around the classroom, encouraging the association of visual to linguistic, communication between classroom partners – these were all absent.  I believe including them makes my classroom a more interesting place to be and gives the learners a change of pace from the mundane.  But that is principled selection of a activity for other reasons – not because one of my students might be a “visual learner”.



Mentor Me! (or can I just get on with it?)

2 Dec

What do you want from a mentor?  As a mentor, what do you want from your mentees?  These two expectations don’t always meet in the middle and it can be a cause of professional friction when that happens.

I recently wrote a post that tried to look at the relationship from both sides:  From Mentee to Mentor and back again – a teacher’s tale.  Thinking on this further, it’s quite difficult to pinpoint what I want out of this arrangement.  I think it is important that every teacher have the opportunity to voice concerns to their DoS or manager,  but equally, they shouldn’t be forced to…  I suspect that what most teachers really want is to be left alone to get on with it as they think best.

From the DoS’s point of view though, it’s better to have the information before it becomes a problem, not afterwards.  And leaving teachers to just get on with it can have mixed results…

Hence the existing system of mentor meetings, which I describe in detail in the earlier post.

When I was on the mentoring side, what I really wanted to know was (a) are you happy?  (b) are your students happy? (c) what can we help with?.  What I asked was more often bureaucratic in nature and dealt with the details, rather than the broader picture.  Getting teachers to talk through each and every class is quite useful as it does bring to mind students and issues that might not otherwise get mentioned, but it somehow seems a more administrative function and not quite what the word mentoring implies.

Now that I’m a mentee again, I think what I’d like to be asked most is “Fancy a beer?”  But in all seriousness, I think those three questions probably cover it!

So – a poll!  I’ve put my suggestions in – feel free to vote for them or to add your own suggestions:



Shoot me now… #ObservationCalamities

16 Jul

It was just one of those lessons.  Sometimes you can judge within about three minutes how an observed lesson is going to go – it’s about how present the teacher is, how at home they are with the class, the material and the plan.  And you can tell when something is about to go wrong…

In this case, the following went wrong:

(a)    The technology screwed up:  In attempting to import powerpoint slides into IWB notebook files, all of the nice fonts and formatting were lost, as well as some of the text from the text boxes.  Which went un-noticed for five minutes or so until the teacher asked the students to answer a question that hadn’t been displayed.

(b)   A lack of language confidence:  the language focus of the lesson was noun phrases, in particular that type of complex noun phrase that is a feature of more formal academic discursive prose.  The aim of the material was mostly to see how familiar the students were with the concept, to expose them to the idea of noun phrases being embedded within each other as part of more complex phrases; and to try and help them access noun phrases from the outside – to help the learners identify the focus of a noun phrase and thereby build some of the their text access skills.  In other words it was a mostly structural look at the constituent parts of complex noun phrases and some practice in sequencing those constituents correctly.  Not that you would have known any of that from watching the first half an hour of the lesson…

(c)    General discombobulation.  This was, in part I think due to the fact that the tech went south early on and as a consequence, so did the lesson plan.  Stages got randomly dropped, other bits of the material that had previously been dropped made a comeback; and for the first 20 minutes or so, none of the interaction patterns described on the plan got followed, which meant that all the lovely student interaction and peer teaching got replaced by some slightly confused teacher fronted presentation instead.

(d)   Not being completely prepared.  When the teacher is still cutting up bits of paper with a pair of scissors a third of the way into the class?  Not good.

In other words, it was probably slightly messy before anyone walked into the classroom, but once they had, it got messier fast.  Now I’ve observed quite a lot of classes over the years and while it’s not like I rank them in order of brilliance, but this one was probably down there at the bottom of the pile.

It’s a bit of a shame that I was the one teaching it then.


There is an automatic tendency for any teacher, in any observation situation, to walk out of the lesson thinking “Well that was a bit shit then.”  We are our own harshest critics and I think it is that tendency which makes good teachers good.  After all, if you think you have nothing left to learn?  That is a sure sign of arrogance and imminent stagnation and decay.  Which is partly my way of cheering myself up and partly an acknowledgement that it wasn’t all bad.

About halfway through the lesson we got to what was the big input stage: I had all the learners on the floor in groups of three with red bits of card labelled with the parts of speech you can find in noun phrases and yellow bits of card with the words from an extended noun phrase on them.  Together we built up the extended noun phrase from its smaller constituent noun phrases and looked at how they shifted position and took on different grammatical functions as they moved.  Some of the learners got it quite quickly, some of them needed a bit more help.  But we then moved onto a sequencing task where they did the practice activities on the whiteboard in teams.

Were my aims achieved?  Well the aims of the material were explicitly stated as:

  • To introduce students to the concepts of “noun phrase” and “head noun”
  • To introduce students to the basic grammatical structure of noun phrases
  • To have the students practice structuring and creating some noun phrases

Did we do all this?  Yes.  Did the students learn anything?  Maybe.  They were certainly doing quite well with the practice activity at the end, but this may have been because one of the students had worked out where the material had come from and was referencing the original article the practice tasks had been taken from….  On balance though I think most of the students now have a better idea of noun phrases than they did before.  I know I do.

My aims were slightly different.  Bearing in mind that these are teaching aims rather than learning aims, my aims were to present the material in an engaging and interactive fashion –taking what are really quite dry teacher led materials off the page and to try and bring them into the classroom in a way that the students can access, interrogate and interact with.  I felt it was quite important for the learners to be able to physically manipulate the language, though I couldn’t tell you why that is.  Instinct I suppose.  Did I achieve these aims?  Sort of.  I think I felt on slightly safer ground once we were sat there on the floor playing with pieces of paper….

What would I do differently?  Good question.  I think next time round I would drop all the fancy bits with the technology at the beginning of the lesson, not because of the technology per se, but because in hindsight they weren’t very necessary to the lesson.  Instead of that I would do a bit more work on the different parts of speech – eliciting examples of quantifiers, determiners, adverbs, prepositional phrases etc – onto the whiteboard so that the students knew more about what these things were before they encountered the categorisation task.

Then I would have done pretty much the rest of it as I did – but maybe getting them to come up with their own noun phrases, weird and wacky perhaps, from the parts of speech we elicited at the start; which would be a nice way to link back to the beginning again.

Right.  Enough self-recrimination and introspection for one day!  Feedback with the observer tomorrow!  Watch this space!

Six themes from #IATEFL 2014

13 May

Last week I did a ten minute spot at the 6th International House Teachers’ Online Conference  (#IHTOC6) on themes I’d picked up on from the IATEFL conference.

My talk, which predictably over-ran and was therefore a bit rushed towards the end as I tried to cram far too much into far too little time, looked at six main themes that I took away from the conference, but which I think are also prevalent in ELT at the moment:

  • Technology is terrific
  • Technology is terrifying
  • Evidence is essential
  • Experience is evidence?
  • Stereotypical Schoolrooms
  • Desirable development

The slides from the talk are below – most of the images are hyperlinked, so to find out more about the relevant issues or background, just click and they should take you straight through.

Here, however is the You Tube video for your entertainment and enjoyment:



All the talks and all of the slides have been uploaded to the conference blog, which you can find here: