In the last five years I've observed and given feedback to over 200 trainee maths teachers. My job is to help them make rapid progress during their limited time in school. Every time I observe I ask myself the same question:
What single thing could this teacher do differently to have the greatest positive impact on their practice?
Every teacher is unique, but at least 80% of the time I find myself coming to the same conclusion. I've phrased it differently over the years, but essentially it comes down to something like this:
Target: to develop strategies to check pupil understanding at key points during the lesson.
Now experienced teachers won't be surprised to hear this. In fact, it's an area of practice that's received a fair bit of attention recently, under the banner of diagnostic or 'hinge' questions. However, for trainee teachers, it's not so obvious. It's hard to understand just how significant checking understanding is until you've tried it (particularly if you're still focussing on teaching rather than learning). And it's equally difficult to imagine how you might achieve this if you haven't seen it in action.
And so recently, I've started to offer my trainee teachers a strategy to try out. A friendly place to start. Something that doesn't depend on other established practices (eg. effective use of mini whiteboards), and something they can quickly build a routine around. In the hope that they might begin to see just how significant checking understanding really is.
Because once that happens, there's no going back.
And so I talk to them about handy hinge questions. Here's an example:
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One answer is correct. The other two are common errors or misconceptions. Pupils indicate their response by holding up a scissors-paper-stone hand-signal. As with any technique like this, it's essential that pupils are given sufficient wait-time, and that everyone reveals their hand at the same time.
In less than a minute, with limited resources, you've got a snapshot of the terrain of understanding across your class. And crucially, you can now make an informed decision to either 'move on' or spend time developing greater security in understanding.
Health Warning Hinge questions take time to craft. And deliberate practice to embed. However, there are a growing number of resources to help. For maths teachers, the Diagnostic Questions website comes highly recommended. However, they have four answers to each question and so you will need an extra hand gesture. The DQs team suggest Spock or Lizard ;)
And for a more indepth exploration of how to plan for effective formative assessment, check out the Lean Lesson Planning book.
This story is dedicated to all those trainee teachers who have endured my feedback with a smile over the years!