I hate teaching and learning information. I don’t like tests, word lists or “boring” factual learning. I like a creative classroom where students think, discuss, argue and research, to reach their own ideas and conclusions. To me a successful lesson is one where they think differently about something at the end, much more so than when they know something specific and new. I have always been greatly drawn to Bloom’s hierarchy of thinking skills, not least because it matches my own prejudices. Perhaps there is a secret post-modernist in me and I don’t really trust in the immutable value of ‘knowledge’. Or perhaps I just find learning information boring. Perhaps it is because I am an historian … or perhaps it is why.
However, I recently reread Brown and McIntyre’s Making Sense of Teaching for the first time in many years. In Chapter 4 they argued that most teachers have a strong sense of what they want pupils to be doing in lessons, which they termed a ‘Normal Desirable State of Pupils’ Activity’ or NDS. Teachers’ individual NDSs could vary greatly and might well involve different states of activity in different lessons, but for most teachers it forms quite a clear vision. It may be that pupils working quietly and independently within a structured lesson framework is one teacher’s NDS, whilst another’s is a noisy, chatty, creative classroom.
I’m not sure that I fully accept the idea of a single, dominant NDS in my practice; there are some topics, times of year, classes and key stages that may lead me to vary my NDS for a particular lesson. Perhaps I have two or three versions of an NDS. But other than that, the idea certainly resonated with me.
And reading Brown and MacIntyre drew my attention to how little I have reflected on, much less grown or developed by NDS recently. But what a useful reflective tool it has been since my attention was drawn to it. It has helped me with planning, to step back from the immediate objectives of the lesson and reflect on my NDS. Sometimes this has given me a new insight into how to tackle a difficult lesson or unit, at other times I have recognised that it has been a barrier and that I need to step outside of my comfort zone to make the best job of teaching a particular topic. At times it has helped me with classes that I have been struggling with. Thinking about the lesson in terms of the skills they lack that have prevented them from attaining my NDS and how I can help them to get there or to rethink my approach to meet their needs; both valid responses in different circumstances. It has also helped me start to tackle that tricky area of sound mastery of factual information, so heavily emphasised in the new GCSE and A-level courses. Daisy Christodoulou amongst others has made a powerful case for the importance of factual learning and my growing clarity about my own NDS has helped me to identify where I need to fight my prejudices and ensure that factual learning is thoroughly and effectively integrated into my teaching. In so doing, I have been experimenting with ways to make such learning ‘fun’ and have a lot of gratitude to Richard Marshall who introduced me to www.quizlet.com which made a great starting point.
This reflection has also related to my work with other teachers as it has made me think carefully about my feedback to them; how much am I helping them to achieve their NDS and how much am I too fixed on my own. Recently an increasingly clear message is emerging from research, HMI and other sources that there are many different ways to teach well and that the best way to support teachers can be to help them achieve and build from their NDS, rather than to try and change this. Do I even understand what their vision of a desirable state of pupil activity is, and can I really offer meaningful support or input if not?
Of course, the starting point here has to be a reflective dialogue; with myself and my colleagues. What are the key assumptions I carry about desirable states of working for pupils? When should I seek to achieve this and when should I adapt my vision and how can colleagues with a different NDS help me to achieve this? And when working with colleagues, what can they tell me about their NDS and how can I help them to realise this? This reflection does not demand radical change but for me it certainly supported the development of my teaching, encouraging some experimentation and new ways of thinking about the learning I planning.
Questions that helped me to reflect on NDSs:
- What is my “Normal Desirable State of Pupils’ Activity” and how do I set up my classroom culture and plan lessons to facilitate this?
- What skills do pupils need to successfully achieve my NDS and how do I enable them to acquire these? How successful am I at overtly teaching these skills (for this I asked my students; always a source of interesting feedback)?
- Where pupils are not achieving my NDS what are the barriers to this and how can I overcome them?
- For which lessons and activities is my NDS not the best way to achieve learning? Where can I find colleagues approaching a similar challenge in a different way from whom I can learn?