I bought ‘The Shallows’ by Nicholas Carr because I wanted to get a flavour of how growing up in the age of the internet might affect how my students learn. I’d recommend this book to anyone with a similar interest, or alternatively you could have a look at Carr’s blog. This post is my summary of the just the key ideas in the book and how I think they relate to education.

The book itself combines history, psychology, and neuroscience to map the multitude of changes in information technology since the earliest evidence of reading and writing (8000BC), and the associated changes in the way humans think and remember. In the first chapter, Carr mentions that recently he has been aware that his brain has been changing significantly, and he is “not thinking the way [he] used to think”. My concern is that any influence that the internet has over our brains could be even more significant in young people today, who have been exposed to it almost as soon as they started to think.

The main idea behind this book is that using the internet in the way most people do these days has negative impacts on the way we read, think and remember. Carr devotes several chapters to each one of these areas, each containing both psychological and neurological research to support his claims. I’ll summarise one of his arguments below and two others in a future post. (If the justification for some of his ideas seem a bit ropey here, do read the book because he explains it a lot better than I can!)

The net reduces our attention spans, says Carr. We get used to instant gratification and become adept at analysing large numbers of visual and auditory cues in a short space of time. However, research suggests this is detrimental, and that ability to retain information is reduced when there are hyperlinks and easy access to other interesting content, like email and Facebook. The internet is increasing our ability to multitask but at the expense of our creativity, productivity, and inventiveness.

In his book, Carr gives lots of examples of studies that support this idea, and it’s one that seems very plausible to me. In the past, young people would have had more opportunities to focus their attention on one thing, which would allow for deeper thinking than when attention is constantly shifting from one thing to another.

The implication for education today is that living in an internet age allows young people fewer opportunities than ever to think deeply. Therefore, it’s more important than ever that teachers provide their students with support and encouragement to use higher-order thinking skills. With modern mobile technologies the ability to recall information is becoming less and less important (Wikipedia-on-the-go is something I now take for granted). The thinking skills that are more valuable as a result are those found nearer the top of Bloom’s taxonomy.

What are your thoughts on all of this? Is anyone aware of a change in the way think as a result of internet use?

Teaching, I’m told, is a craft. There’s always more to learn, always ideas you haven’t yet tried, and usually a development or two from educational research suggesting how to adapt our practice for the better.

This being the start of my second year of teaching (I prefer ‘my QT year’), I’m on a steeper learning curve than most. I made a lot of mistakes last year that I’ll be doing my best to avoid, but even many of the ideas that went really well will be a target for further improvement. For me, it’s one of the great attractions of a career in education that the challenge of self-improvement never disappears. Every student deserves a teacher who is willing to learn.

I want to share a short summary of what I want to do differently this year. I’d welcome any comments and suggestions!

  • Explicitly teach good behaviour: For younger (KS3) students, I intend to teach what good behaviour actually looks like in a range of contexts (e.g. class discussion, individual work, group work). During the summer I read a book called ‘Assertive Discipline’ by Lee Canter, and one of the main messages I took from it was that ‘responsible behaviour’ cannot be assumed to be understood by students and must be taught. I’ll do this by modelling it, then having students practice it and eventually master it.
  • Insist on a calm start to every lesson: Last year my tolerance of disorderly starts to many lessons had a remarkable impact on those lessons, so this year I intend to be relentless until the routines are established.
  • More phone calls home: I called students’ parents fairly frequently last year to give both positive and negative feedback, but as far as I can tell the more it’s done the more beneficial the effect on students’ learning. One of the features of KIPP schools in the US that seems to make them so successful (based on another book I read this summer!) is the insistence on a close and positive relationship between teachers and parents, facilitated by frequent phone calls and home visits. I won’t go as far as visiting students’ homes(!) but the benefits of the close relationship seem obvious.
  • Make written feedback relate directly to the student’s next task: This is a way for me to try increasing the effectiveness of the very time-intensive process of comment-only marking. Miserably, I often found that the detailed feedback I was giving last year was going unread! Wherever I can this year I’ll try to plan activities that follow on from the last set of written feedback, thus making it more relevant and likely to be used.
  • Do more demos, do fewer practicals: This idea is specific to Science teaching, and I intend to dedicate a whole post to it in the future because I know it’ll be controversial. In short, I feel that when the primary aim of a practical is ‘discovery’, the best opportunity for learning is through a demo with carefully mediated discussion, to elicit and challenge misconceptions. I’ll use practicals, but mostly when I want to explicitly teach a particular HSW skill like ‘choosing appropriate variables’.

I’m really interested in what other teachers will be doing differently this year than last year. In other words, what are your #newtermresolution s? Please leave a comment below, or better yet tweet me @teachgr or with the #newtermresolution hashtag.

I’d like to share an idea I’ve been using in lessons called the ‘Brilliant Question Awards’. This, like all of my best ideas, was adapted (stolen) from a more experienced teacher. The idea is to encourage deep thinking and independent enquiry, which of course is vital in science but useful in just about any subject.

It’s simple: whenever a student asks a question that a) relates to the learning objectives, and b) extends the learning beyond the original content of the lesson, they get a ‘Brilliant Question Award’ card and they write their question on a space on the whiteboard. When a student has collected five cards over the course of a school year, they can trade them in for a prize (science-related of course). Prizes have included stationery from the Science Museum, cheap books about the periodic table, self-heating hand-warmers, and sachets of hydrophobic sand (also from the Science Museum).

When students ask a Brilliant Question during a lesson they receive this card.

I’ve been using this reward system for a couple of terms and I’ve been really pleased with the results. I’ve noticed a change in the atmosphere in lessons: students are less afraid of asking ‘stupid’ questions. This has been particularly helpful for my lower-set classes, where even the least confident of students are rewarded for taking part in class discussions. For my higher-set classes these cards become the focus for competition: some students use almost every class discussion as an opportunity to ask a Brilliant Question in order to win more cards than their peers.

I think these cards are effective because formulating a question requires a lot of higher-order thinking skills, especially with the requirements that the ‘Brilliant Question Award’ imposes. Students have to consider what they already know and what they don’t know, and often how to relate this to everyday or novel situations.

It also means that over the course of a week or two, the whiteboard gets filled with deep questions relating to the topics we’re covering in lessons.

Brilliant Questions get recorded on the whiteboard by the student that asked them.

Some of my favourites of the ones you can see above are ‘Why can’t our bodies fight against cancer?’ (in a topic about microbes and disease), ‘Why does fire stay up when you put it upside-down?’ (in a topic about heat transfer), and ‘When you freeze a liquid it turns solid but when you heat pancake mixture which is liquid, why does it turn solid?’.

What I haven’t discussed is how I respond to the questions. I’m still working on this aspect of the Brilliant Question Awards. Originally I decided I wouldn’t answer the questions myself, but allow other students to try to answer them. This had some good results that encouraged lots of students to get involved with trying to explain answers, but it also left many questions unanswered. I’ve moved on to saying ‘I want YOU to give me the answer when we’ve covered a little bit more of this topic, the idea being that students will look out for information that helps them to answer their own question. This hasn’t worked as well as I’d hoped because, again, so few of the questions end up with an answer.

I’ve really enjoyed using the Brilliant Question Awards and I’m happy to share the idea. I’m still tweaking the system and I’d be glad for any advice and feedback!

If you want to try it yourself, you can make decent looking personalised cards at Vistaprint.com, which I used because their business card templates worked nicely and the first order you make is free except for postage. There are tons of places to find prizes too, but keeping it cheap is a challenge – any suggestions would be welcome.

I officially completed my NQT year last Friday 22nd July. It was an incredible feeling. A lot of people have asked how my first year went, which is a question I’ve found very difficult to answer. I settled on the response ‘it was one the most significant years of my life.’ It was extremely challenging in many different ways, but equally rewarding too.

I’m proud of everything I did and accomplished this year, but that’s not to say I wouldn’t do some things differently if I could do it all again! This post is for all secondary-school NQTs – I’d like to give you the bits of advice I wish I’d had (or acted upon) at the start of my first year of teaching.

1. Design a Behaviour Plan

One of the bits of advice I heard most often prior to starting teaching was to be ‘firm but fair’, and actually it was perhaps the least helpful. It made me focus on being fair, which for me translated into being lenient – being reasonable, giving second chances, listening to excuses. Of course consistency is vital (students respond less to the severity of sanctions and more to the consistency with which they are applied) but I personally would have benefited more from designing my own clear behaviour plan and enforcing it religiously. Your school will have its own policy but there will always be parts that are open to interpretation, and it will tend to be fairly general (if my school was anything to go by).

I designed my own behaviour plan after the first term, and wished I had done so sooner. I sat down with a fellow NQT and we each suggested as many ‘behaviour scenarios’ as we could, and in each scenario we decided what we would do about it. We soon covered the scenarios we had already had to deal with and moved on to those we imagined might happen at some point.

My advice then: before you start, design a behaviour plan, so as to be completely clear with yourself and with the students about what your expectations are, and what will happen if they are not met. Then be absolutely relentless about following this through (even when it could appear unreasonable). Don’t let anything go!

2. Gather Evidence Often

As teacher that is ‘newly qualified’ you inevitably have the additional challenge of collecting evidence for the ‘Core Standards’. Find out early on from whoever will be assessing you just what kind of evidence they are looking for. Once you know this you can be on the look out for opportunities to gather it – whether it’s photocopying examples of written feedback, printing out email correspondence with parents/TAs/teachers, etc. It may seem obvious, but ‘little and often’ is by far the best approach here. Spending a whole day of my half-term holidays catching up on evidence, when I could have been preparing lessons (or not) was miserable.

3. Prioritise

Improving my time-management was a massive hurdle for me this year. As an NQT you have so many more responsibilities and admin work than during a PGCE, and there are times when you need to cut corners or completely scrap some tasks. People deal with this in different ways and prioritise differently, but here is my advice in handy sentence-long chunks:

  1. Get organised (sorry to sound patronising) – make your resources easy to find, record your plans for later, etc.
  2. If a task doesn’t directly help students, and you won’t get in trouble for not doing it, don’t do it.
  3. Make sure the quality of your lessons remains a high priority, mainly because the more often they go badly the more miserable you’ll feel and the harder your job will be.
  4. Try not to take work home – this can be tough but makes a big difference to work/life balance.

4. Plan Less

One of the biggest changes in the way I taught over the course of the year was that I ended up planning less – both in terms of detail of my lesson plans and the amount of work I expected students to do in one lesson. Before each lesson, you really only need to plan one or two main activities that the students can be getting on with. Then during the lesson you need to be able to adapt. Learn a small repertoire of plenaries that you can use week-in week-out. Set lots of extension tasks for when students finish early, preferably tasks that don’t require planning like: getting students to design a plenary quiz; assigning them as ‘learning monitors’ to give feedback about who is making the most progress; or redesigning a lesson activity to make it harder/easier.

This advice is based partly on my experience of planning beautifully detailed lessons that were ruined through student apathy/poor behaviour, and partly because including student-led activities is simply good teaching.

I hope you found this advice useful. There’s a lot more out there – see the NQT Survival Guide which will be published later this year, having been written by lots of teachers collaborating via Twitter and Google Docs. Twitter itself is a massively useful source of advice (especially the #ukedchat hashtag), as are the forums on TES New Teachers.