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What action do teachers actually need to take to improve the pace of their lessons?

Jim Roebuck

In my role as Initial Teacher Training and Teacher Development Coordinator (what a mouthful!) at Avanti Schools, I have to observe my trainees teach. A lot. I’ve probably observed more lessons in the last two terms than I had across my last 3 years as a primary Deputy HT.


I always observe alongside the trainee’s mentor teacher. With two pairs of eyes on the learning, there’s a lot more chance of catching something useful to feed back, and we always have a great discussion about what we’ve seen. It goes without saying that all our trainees are unique individuals and so the strengths and areas for development we pick out can be very different from lesson to lesson.


But one area for development has come up for every trainee – pace. It was definitely an issue for me as a class teacher! Lessons with a slow pace can lead to loss of focus for students, detaching their thoughts from the material you want them to be thinking about. Low-level disruption begins to creep in, never mind the problems that build up over time if you don’t get through the curriculum content you’ve carefully planned to lay the foundations for future learning.


Pace is something we have to be mindful of, and aim to get right. But there’s a problem with putting down “pace” as an area for development: just telling a teacher to improve the pace of the learning doesn’t let them know what they need to do. What action do they actually need to take to improve pace?


There are a lot of different factors we can diagnose that can impact on pace within a lesson, and the prescription for each can be quite different. If we want to improve (or help a colleague to improve) we need to be really specific about the cause of the pace issue and the action needed to address that root cause.

Let’s break down the range of factors that might have an impact, and the range of different actions we might take to address them:





The way you speak

The problem:

Some of us have a tendency to be terrible wafflers, never using 1 word when 10 would do. I am definitely in this camp. I’ll explain something once to a class, then wonder whether they’ve got it, and find a way of rephrasing it in a different way, and then maybe a third for luck.

There is always a degree of improvisation involved in teaching. None of us have the time to script every word of our lessons, after all. If your default style is chatty and long-winded you’d probably be great on Radio 4’s Just A Minute, but you will eat up a remarkable amount of time over the course of each lesson.

Conversely, some of us speak more slowly and deliberately than we need to. This is often a deliberate effort to help the least confident in our class understand, or a way to buy some thinking time about what is coming next (another great Just A Minute tactic). And then there are the motormouthed among us, who can spit out sentences at a pace too rapid for our listeners to follow.


The remedy:

This is an issue that really benefits from outside eyes (/ears). It’s really hard to spot these traits in yourself as they are often part of your “default” approach and you may not be conscious of them. A colleague that you trust and feel safe with can keep an ear out for waffle and pace of speech, and give you some useful feedback on what might help.

For those like me, with a fondness for the longwinded rephrase, scripting key parts of your lesson can be hugely helpful. Even if you don’t have time to script the whole thing, the process of focusing on a crucial explanation or piece of modelling, selecting words with care, helps prompt you to think about economy of language. What is the shortest, clearest, most plain English way that you can communicate the key idea? Write it down and stick to it. Repeating a well chosen phrase or sentence multiple times is likely to build understanding better than endless rephrasing.

Going through the process of scripting regularly helps build your skill in finding concise ways to express ideas, and helps make you more mindful of your natural tendency.

And with a script in hand, you can practice it with your trusted colleague (or a long-suffering partner at home) to check on whether your delivery is too fast, too slow, or in the Goldilocks zone (just right). In the absence of another pair of ears, recording yourself and listening back, as excruciating as it can feel, can give you a much clearer sense of how your pace of speech is coming across.


Slack routines

The problem:

But the way we speak is only one of a number of factors that can hamper pace. Strong routines (or lack thereof) is a classic issue for trainees starting out in the profession. However much we emphasise the importance of routines in training, it’s hard for someone new to teaching to grasp just how many can be needed to make sure a lesson flows from start to finish.

I’ve seen lessons where as much as 5 full minutes (and sometimes even more) has been spent with students not thinking about the learning as they transition between one section and the next. This is a catastrophically huge amount of thinking time to sacrifice.

In the primary phase, the classic is the move from carpet to tables, where lots of complicating factors can come into play. How many of the following can you tick off your bingo card?:

“I can’t find my book/pencil case/mini whiteboard!”

“My chair is missing!”

Friends taking the opportunity to have an off-task chat

“I just came over here to sharpen my pencil”

“He bumped into me on the way to the table!”

“She’s sitting in her English place, not her maths place!”

 

The remedy:

Teaching, reinforcing and maintaining effective routines is a challenging task, and a subject for a whole blog in its own right rather than a subsection of this one. The key action to address the pace issue is to take the time to examine which parts of the lesson are not operating smoothly and design and implement an effective routine that improves them.


Aim to break down what the students need to do into 3-4 simple steps. Teach these steps explicitly and make a big fuss of getting them right. Be ready to go over this again, and again, in every lesson for at least the next couple of weeks. Peps McCrea reckons that an absolute minimum of 20 repetitions is needed to establish a habit, and more likely 40-60 for more complex routines like those we often have at school.

I’ve seen really effective use of chanting during transitions from A to B as a way of reinforcing some key learning e.g. times tables, the alphabet or other key learning. This makes sure that time spent transitioning is simultaneously used productively for helping learning stick, and keeps more of our students’ thoughts on task.


Spending too long on a phase of the lesson – over delivery issue

The problem:

As an adaptive teacher, you want to make sure your learners have understood, so you go through that retrieval task thoroughly to check it’s been understood. Someone hasn’t got part of it, so you go over part of it again quickly to fill that gap. Then you look up at the clock and what was supposed to be a 5-minute recap has eaten up the first 15 minutes of your lesson.


The remedy:

In this case, there’s a need to be clear of the purpose of the retrieval task. In an ideal world it would be lovely if all the students answered all parts of it correctly, but that’s not really what you should be aiming for. For me, the key purpose of a retrieval task is to get our students making the effort to recall their prior learning. This effortful thinking is not the means to the end (of getting the answer right) but the end in itself. If a student gets something wrong, maybe make a quick note to inform your future planning, but don’t fall into the trap of heading down memory lane and reteaching last week’s lesson over again.



(Caveat: if the error shows that the student is not secure in a key concept or skill they need for today’s learning, this will need addressing. But with pace in mind, this might be best done as a 1:1 conversation when the rest of that class have moved onto an independent learning task.)


Spending too long on a phase of the lesson – planning issue

Maybe you are modelling some new content to the class. There are definitely a few blank stares there; we’d better go back through this again. And again. And once more for luck. At which point you find there’s only 10 minutes left for the independent task you had planned.

This is an indication that what you planned was not well matched to where the students were in their understanding – an assessment issue. This happens especially often for novice teachers, who haven’t yet had time to build a bank of experience of how students typically respond to content in their subject/phase. They plan lessons based on their best guess of how they think the class will respond, and students have a habit of surprising even the experienced among us by confounding our expectations.

These days increasingly we are working from a published curriculum that has been planned by experts very carefully to build concepts effectively (a good thing), but without knowledge about the unique students in our classes. For a novice, it’s great to have this clearly planned curriculum in place, and it can feel sacrilegious to depart from.

Like pace itself, this is another problem which can have many root causes:

The problem:

Lack of prior knowledge/security of prior learning – you expected the class would be confident with partitioning the digits/spotting the adverbs etc., and they were not. This is where we can find ourselves when delivering a centrally-planned curriculum.


The remedy:

It’s key here to look at the planned lesson and consider precisely what the prerequisite learning is and whether you know if the class have that secured. If you don’t know, think about what you need to do to find that out. Be prepared to be bold and depart from that lesson plan; there is no point in soldiering on trying to build on shaky foundations.


The problem:

Lack of modelling – good modelling shows students what they need to do, and provides that “think-aloud” commentary that helps them make sense of it. We know from Rosenshine’s Principles that “I do, we do, you do” is an effective sequence to support learning. However, I very often see lessons where modelling doesn’t take place, and teachers jump straight on to “we do” or “you do”. When this leaves students confused, the teacher has to go back and try again, and the pace is lost.


The remedy:

It’s very simple – don’t skip the “I do” part. Show the students from start to finish how it works, narrating your thinking. But keep it snappy or you might fall into another pace trap…


The problem:

Slow modelling – there is something to be said for modelling one example in detail, talking through the thought process thoroughly, and for some types of modelling (writing a paragraph springs to mind), it takes time to show that example. But in cases where it’s possible, it is usually desirable to show lots of examples in rapid succession, giving you a chance to reinforce the steps you take in the process multiple times before students try for themselves.


The remedy:

Know the steps you will model to the children and go through them quickly. Then go through them again, even quicker. Then again, then again. I once saw a teacher get through 6 examples in maths in less than 45 seconds, repeatedly saying aloud their “steps to success” as they rapidly worked through each one. By the end of it the children were champing at the bit for their turn, and clearly felt very clear on the steps thanks to the rapid repetition.


The problem:

Lack of clarity in communicating the key idea – this could be down to “waffling”, or it could be down to a lack of clear representations or examples to show what you are talking about.


The remedy:

Subject knowledge is key here; when you are very clear in your own mind on the key idea you need to get across, you are more aware of the different ways the idea could be shown or expressed, and more likely to share it with clarity. Pictures, diagrams and well-chosen examples are all ways we can plan to enhance the clarity of how we communicate the idea.


All of this is by no means an exhaustive list of everything that can compromise pace. The unexpected visit from a member of SLT, a child falling ill, the dreaded wasp in the classroom… the list is endless. But just by focusing on the areas we have most control over (like those I’ve listed above), we can make huge improvements to the pace of learning within our classroom, and hopefully huge improvements to the learning that takes place there.



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