Teachers must make many vexing judgments: one of the most difficult is deciding when students are ready to begin working independently. Too early, and we risk students getting lost in the task or frustrating them unnecessarily; too late, and we can leave our students bored and unchallenged.
As the picture shows, Dani Quinn (2010 Ambassador and Head of Maths at Dixon’s Trinity Academy, Bradford) splits the class to help those students who need it most. But the picture raises more questions than it answers:
- How does Dani know who needs additional explanation?
- How does she know when the students she’s helping are ready to get started?
- How does she ensure the rest of the class remain focused while she’s explaining?
Dani has developed a simple approach which helps her identify the perfect moment to ask students to work independently.
- Dani first gives a thorough explanation of the method she is teaching – in this case, reversing percentages – carefully working through model answers.
- Her students then ‘self-check:’ they try two questions independently; when she reveals the answer students tell her how many they got right.
- Those who finished both problems correctly begin answering a series of questions independently. Those who need more help gather at the back.
While the rest of the class are solving percentage problems independently, at the back of the room, Dani identifies the aspect of the technique students are struggling with and helps them overcome this – continuing to the point at which they are able to work independently.
As the video shows, Dani picks out a couple of misconceptions students hold, and explains them in detail. Using mini-whiteboards, she can immediately tell exactly how much students have understood at every stage – and what they need help with. She sends students away when they’re ready, but not before she has checked that they are confident, and given some of them the choice to stay a little longer. Meanwhile, she hasn’t lost track of what the rest of the class are doing – issuing a gentle focusing reminder to one student.
Dani explains that she uses this system almost every lesson – as she and the school try to tailor their teaching to students’ needs. The self-check is a way to see if any student is “totally ready to go – I don’t want to hold them back with further examples and explanation,” while ensuring that anyone who is muddled or struggling with particular steps gets help. She splits the class so that those in the former group can start, while those in the latter, who need help, don’t feel “guilty” or “worried,” or that they’re not getting the support they need. All in all, this helps Dani ensure that all her students “are doing very challenging stuff, but it’s scaffolded in an appropriate way.”
- Clearly introducing the concept and explaining examples of the method in use
- Checking what students have understood with a couple of independent questions to identify who needs extra support
- Helping those students who have not yet fully understood the method
- Continuing to assess each individual until she knows they are ready to begin work independently