Refocusing lessons: if we take out the ‘jazz’ does this make them ‘boring?’

I love being a teacher. I also love that I’ve discovered a renewed passion for it, after twenty-two years, since I stumbled upon the evidence-informed movement a couple of years ago. And I love the simplicity and logicality it has brought to my teaching. However, there’s one paper in particular that really sparked mine and the attention of so many within the teaching community: Rosenshine’s Principles of Instruction. First published in 1968, it sought to observe identify what it is that the most effective teachers do. 

When I first came across this paper two years ago, it did not make me completely change how I taught. Yet reading it has been one of the single biggest influences on my career. I recognised that to a greater or lesser extent, I already did what it said was necessary to gain excellent results from students. However, what it DID do was to remind me that teaching, including my own, seemed to have lost its way somewhat. In recent years, I will freely admit to planning lessons based on fancy resources, getting students up and out of seats (despite the fact that they often told me they didn’t want to) and even the odd game. This approach was time consuming at the planning stage for me, and, as I have recently become all too aware, fairly ineffective for the students’ learning. 

Rosenshine’s strips effective teaching back down to basics. Largely, back to how I was trained to teach in the late 90s. However, what I love about these principles are that they dig much deeper than my training did. And they link in beautifully with Cognitive Load Theory, which examines how our working memory is limited and how we can reduce the load placed on it whilst we teach our students. I genuinely don’t remember being told during my training about how it is crucial to consider what our students are THINKING about at any given point in the lesson. This has now become my primary focus. 

For example, are we overloading their memory with too much new information in one go? Rosenshine suggests chunking it down. Are we sure our students are understanding this new information? Rosenshine found that effective questioning can help with this, along with ensuring that our students are thinking hard so that new content is more likely to stick. Are we making sure our students get ample time to practice and apply new material to gain mastery? Rosenshine states that plenty of time should be given over to engage in deliberate practice. Prior to this, I was far too focused on what myself and the students were DOING at any given point in the lesson. And in ‘getting through the content’. Were they cutting and sticking? Great! That ensured they were kept busy! Were they given the chance to ‘hunt’ for information around the room (effectively copying whilst having a chat)? Even better! This was fun and would definitely lead to increased engagement and therefore learning!

So when I made a promise to myself two years ago after beginning to engage with educational research, that I would never, ever give my students a cut and stick activity again or make them do a scavenger hunt, or any other task that meant they were doing something other than thinking hard about my lesson content, I had a few teachers ask me or indeed tell me that my lessons surely must be quite boring now. Starting every lesson with retrieval rather than an envelope on desks, or music, or even better, information stuck under chairs to allow the students to guess what the lesson was going to be about! Standing at the front of the room and bit by bit, explaining a new concept rather than giving new content to students in printed form and asking them to work it out for themselves. Students largely working individually on applying new knowledge rather than in groups where at least one student sits out and the chatter moves off topic, meaning that no one is thinking hard about anything vaguely geographical. Surely my students are switched off by these simpler methods and can’t possibly be engaged or learning? 

I would argue to the contrary. Now, I am able to engage my students through subject matter, through thinking about my explanation, the use of my tone of voice and anecdotes. I am able to better keep track of their understanding and to make them think hard through effective, targeted questioning. Modelling allows me to demonstrate how their answer should be structured so that they can attempt theirs with a better understanding of how to succeed. Each of these elements, which the Rosenshine Principles have caused me to divert my focus to, have meant that student engagement now comes from the pleasure that comes from succeeding and a genuine love of the subject because its content has been allowed to shine through, not because they are kept entertained by games and gimmicks. 

So all in all, the guidance and renewed focus Rosenshine’s Principles have given me have increased and redirected my students’ engagement back where I want it to be – thinking about the subject matter and not the jazzy task, enhanced by the sensation of success that this simplicity brings. And of course, the fact that this has also cut my planning time is a wellbeing win, too! Happy, well-slept teachers also teach better lessons, after all! 

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