Getting the balance right

In a meeting with our teaching and learning group last year, we discussed how much time in lessons is spent actively involved in independent learning as opposed to teacher directed.

We decided that at some stages (beginnings of topics etc) and in some lessons, a strong teaching input was needed. At most other times however, it was felt students benefited from being more actively involved in their learning.

To gauge how much time in lessons was generally teacher led/student passive and how much time students were active we decided to chart a lesson. Using a simple time chart (a sheet of paper with a horizontal time line through the middle. Above the line, teacher led, below the line, student active) the children tracked the lesson with a pencil going above and below the horizontal timeline minute by minute as appropriate.

The results showed that much more time than necessary was being spent with the teacher talking, not enough time was being given over to the active learning.

What did all of this tell us? Well firstly it surprised the teacher how much they spoke. It made it clear to them that student engagement didn’t rely on them in a didactic role and that we often overestimate how much we need to say before real, authentic learning can begin.

This experiment would work equally well if a teacher were to film their own lesson and play it back in private using a similar time chart. What it does is help teachers recognise whether or not they have got the balance right between teacher led and student centered learning. It can be a very useful took in shaping classroom practice.


About smichael920

Headteacher of a large primary school in North West England. Helping me to blur the distinction between work and home, I am also father of five, covering most phases of education thus giving me the lowdown from within and without. Education is about enjoying today and preparing for tomorrow. This can't be done using the tools of the past. View all posts by smichael920

13 responses to “Getting the balance right

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  • Marisa Constantinides

    I like this post and especially your idea of involving your learners in this experiment.

    Raising teacher awareness of the need for less talk, less information from the centre is not only quite difficult, but it is often done without the students being party to such decisions.

    It looks to me like a great way even of motivating learners who might have been unwilling to engage more, to become more aware and get involved!


    • smichael920

      Hi Marisa and many thanks for your comments. We are looking to build on this approach in the new school year, as we have quite a few new staff starting. It was great discussing the findings with the students last time around and they certainly did feel fully involved. I think the more they are involved in the learning process, the more motivated they are. Staff are also surprised at how much they talk, and how little time they give students to answer questions so developing ‘think time’ is something we need to work on also.

  • jfb57

    It is a problem for all teachers I think – we don’t like slience & feel we have to fill it! Very interesting post!

  • Oliver Quinlan

    Really interesting idea. It is so tempting to try and keep the focus by talking at the whole class, really easy to fall back on but totally agree with your stance on this. I may have to try this with my class.

    At Google Teacher Academy someone spoke about how they got children in their class to actually do lesson observations and make judgements on the quality of teaching, this reminds me of that. Love that concept of getting the pupils involved in such things, as it should really get them thinking abstractly about learning.

    • smichael920

      Hi Oliver, many thanks for the comments. We’re looking to develop this further next year. Not every teacher’s cup of tea but I’m hoping all can see it’s value! I did this myself when training for Higher Ed many years ago and I’ve always felt it is a really powerful tool. I’m keen to build it into PM, I’ll let you know how we get on!

      • Lee Allan

        Hi Michael, thank you for responding to my comments. I first want to apologise for my initial comment, as I judged this post unfairly without reading into what you and your school are doing. And on reading your other posts, I saw the errors in my judgement, as I stated in my reply to Oliver’s response.

        I really think it’s inspiring to read about what you’re doing. I don’t actually come from a teaching background, but have only started to get involved with education last year (so I still have much to learn). I come from a creative background and have been doing filming myself within a primary school, interviewing teachers, other staff, children and parents. Mainly on their views on learning & teaching at the school. It’s a great school, strong on pupil voice and listening to each other.

        So after reading more of your blog and your recent reply to me I can see many similarities. And I do hope your filming for personal evaluation will be a success, I guess it shows how much trust the teachers have in you and especially the children. And that’s something to be proud of, so I really do wish you, the teachers and children the best of luck and look forward to reading about it in future posts 🙂

        Kind regards, Lee

      • smichael920

        Hi Lee, many thanks for your comments. I will certainly be posting something after we’ve got through some of the filming. I’m positive it will be beneficial to staff, I hope they find it a useful experience. Most seem to be ok about this different way of evaluating performance.

        All the best, Michael

    • Lee Allan

      Hi Oliver, I agree that it is so valuable to have as much pupil focused activity as possible. But I’m slightly concerned on the children making judgements of the quality of the teaching, it’s almost like shifting the power. When actually, it should never be about power in the first place, it’s about working together. A level of mutual respect between the teacher and students. For example, the students and teachers sit down together and discuss about their learning, how they feel it could be improved, what they would like to learn about. Rather than giving either student or teacher a sense of power over the other.

      I hope I have not misjudged your comment, but I just wanted to mention the above. I had recently been working with a great primary school earlier this year, whose main focus is on pupil voice and listening to each other. And funny enough this discussion came up and many agreed that assessing the teacher this way was not a good approach, rather assessing based more on discussions seemed to get better results, understanding and respect from both children and teachers.

      I really like the way smichael920 (sorry don’t know your name) talks about the idea of reflection, the teacher seeing themselves from the outside. For example the video approach. But I guess not every teacher maybe feel so comfortable with that. The idea of getting the children to mark how much the teacher is talking and when they are involved is good. But wouldn’t it be better to just have regular open discussions with the children to discuss how they are feeling about the teaching, and what they would like to be more involved with? I can’t see from the article how old they are, but I think it could work at least from Year3/4 upwards. Maybe in simpler terms for key stage 1!?! I would be interested in your thoughts on this.

      • Oliver Quinlan

        I think it is only about power if that is how you see it, and therefore frame the process. Children of this age will need considerable structure to do something like this, and if you imply a shift of power in the questions and structures you use then that is how it will end up. Conversely if you focus the structure of the process on learning and judging the learning that is going on in the room (which to be honest is judging the teacher really), then it could be really powerful for making children aware of the nature of that learning.

        I agree there are big challenges to such a process, and just as videoing lessons will not be fore everyone then perhaps this is not either. However, I think if staff are talking about a balance of power at all then I think that shows deeper issues as to their perception of their role and their relationships with their pupils.

        The best lesson observations I have had have been ones in which the observer took on a coaching role. They looked at what was planned for the lesson, observed how it went forward and offered advice, or even just challenging questions during the lesson to help the teacher achieve an objective that was defined before the session. Now I am not suggesting pupils could offer advice mid lesson like this, but I think that model shows a more collaborative nature of observing and judging learning. This, I think, is the kind of ethos you are talking about in your final paragraph.

        I just think that having some children step outside of participating in the lesson whilst it is going on would facilitate them to think in an analytical and reflective way about what happens in their lessons. If they are involved and asked to think about it afterwards that will be harder, because they will not be asking the bigger questions and looking out for the learning that is going on, as hopefully they will be absorbed in it.

      • Lee Allan

        Thank you Oliver for your response. I would first like to apologise for my use of the word power. A bit of a brash statement, I did not think it through properly. And I do agree with you, if you put the mindset into the children that it is about power, then you have planted the seed. It’s all about how you approach it, and again I agree, if staff are talking about the balance of power then there are deeper issues going on.

        I then must say and correct myself, the school I spent time in never once reference anything to do with power, that was a misinterpretation by myself, my own views in the previous comment. I honestly take back that statement, and thank you for making me aware of my error of judgement.

        On reading and thinking about your response. I agree, a more collaborative way of observing and judging learning would be really valuable, and could be a great advantage to both the children and teacher. Especially your ideas and experiences of learning to be reflective and analytical in the present. Though I don’t think reflecting afterwards is harder, but that they will just think about, and reflect on it in a different way. Which is also very valuable for their understanding of their own learning. Both methods potentially making learning more personal, fun, and exciting.

        But I would like to finish to again say thank you for your response, and helping me to see the error in my judgement, I am truly sorry for that. You sound like a passionate teacher, and I wish you all the best with the start of the new school year.

      • smichael920

        Hi Lee, many thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts and ideas. The filming of lessons for personal self-evaluation is something we’re trying out this year with all staff. Last year one brave teacher did this and allowed the children to do a time chart in his class. The results surprised him and also gave him a very clear remit for professional development. He is a very forward thinking and progressive teacher so I am anticipating a less enthusiastic reception from a few others!! However, we’ll persevere – I’m confident it will make a huge difference for some, if not all. All the best, Michael

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