‘Sir, sir, what do we have to do?’ Tony was frustrated because he would put a great deal of thought into giving instructions to the class but almost as soon as he had finished talking a few hands would go up asking about the task. Even worse, half-way through the lesson he would come across children who had not started any work at all. When questioned they would say, ‘I didn’t know what to do.’ They were quite happy to sit the lesson out either through laziness or a growing reluctance to ask questions. Tony found 11-13 year olds particularly difficult and he was becoming increasingly cynical about having to deal with them.
Two incidents from my own childhood come to mind. Once in Primary School, the class had to change for Games and I had trouble with a shoelace which the teacher helped with. Having received that help, to my chagrin I found that I couldn’t open a fastening at the back of my dress. I felt embarrassed to ask for more help so continued to struggle while others got themselves ready. Finally, the whole class departed and I was left alone in the classroom, close to tears and with a great urge to run home. I stayed in the classroom, however, during the whole lesson hoping that when the class returned the teacher would think I had taken part in the game. The clock ticked away and the time seemed interminable before the class returned. I thought that I had got away with it when pupils started returning and there was a general bustle of re-dressing. Then the teacher caught my eye; my presence reminded her of my absence- she questioned me but she was very lenient really, perhaps because she should have noticed my absence before. I missed the lesson because I could not admit that there was something that I could not do. Later on at secondary school, there came a point in lessons I disliked such as Needlework or Cookery, when it was embarrassing to admit that I had not understood what I was supposed to do. Oh those painful days trying to thread the sewing machine or waiting for cakes to cook when the oven hadn’t even been switched on. As a bookish child, these experiences were important in showing me what mini-crises pupils sometimes go through.
But, back to Tony who was, outside of school, the life and soul of any party. He had fellow teachers constantly laughing at his quick wit and wicked mimicry. He was a person with a larger than life personality and an almost manic energy. It made you tired just watching him fidget in a staff meeting. He talked a great deal: he always had something to say including lots of throwaway remarks and over-complicated explanations. In life, other teachers liked him but sometimes his thoughts seemed to come quicker than his words or his words were too quick for people to catch exactly what he said. He felt frustrated by the fact that he was constantly repeating himself, ‘They don’t listen’ became his very own mantra.
Of course, there are many reasons why Tony’s students did not take in his instructions.
Tony needed to get his class to be ‘present’ when giving instructions and to be mindful of what good listening meant. One way was to discuss what good listening looks like. Tony was not the greatest listener himself. It must be admitted that generally in conversation, many people are just waiting for traffic to divide in order to dash in and have their say. Listening is a skill that learners need to understand. There is a difference between the cosmetic listening of everyday and the focused listening of engagement. Everybody knows the experience of zoning out and that horrible feeling when at a meeting your opinion is sought and you have absolutely no idea what people have been talking about. There is listening and there is listening. What Tony needed was for his class to be focused when he was giving instructions.
What was it about Tony that meant that his class were constantly asking for clarification? One factor was that he was a very excitable person who spoke very quickly and this was accentuated by the fact that he roared out his instructions over the class chattering. Not everyone was ready to listen. Clearly the learners had got into bad habits as they knew that if they did not listen, Tony was always available to obligingly repeat his instructions. Pupils know our habits and characteristics better than ourselves. Tony needed to let his class know that this would be the only time that he would give his instructions. One technique Tony tried was to whisper his instruction, pause and then say the instruction in his normal speaking voice. The result of this was to make the class strain to hear what he was saying. They came to understand that once Tony whispered they would need to stop and give him their full attention.
Another suggestion that Tony tried was standing in the same place every time he gave a class instructions of importance. With younger learners, it helps to give the spot a good name, such as the Pulpit of Instruction or as when teaching an unit on space in Year 7 we christened the spot as the Starfleet Academy. When studying Mythology, the spot became the stone of Zeus. Students can also use the spot to say something important or share work so that it becomes the cite of important messaging.
Sometimes, Tony was expecting too much of his year 7 class and was giving instructions which were too complex and were hard to keep in the head. Everyone finds it hard to keep more than three things in the head at once. Tasks are easier when broken down. Written instructions to check what needs to be done help many students. One of the most humiliating experiences of my life occurred when I worked as a student at Revlon’s factory. An old hand was given the task of teaching me how to make a perfume box. She took a flat pack and folded it in many directions at top speed. With an unimaginable sleight of hand she presented a perfectly neat perfume box. I can still come out in a cold sweat thinking of the grubby, creased, contraptions that I produced. This lesson in life has shown me that things we may find easy to do, for others are debilitating, as an inability to follow instructions frightens and undermines them.Ways in whichTony improved his practice included splitting tasks into smaller parts, writing instructions to support his speech and using a system of ‘using common sense’. He encouraged learners to ask a fellow student before asking the teacher. This helped students to become more independent learners.
We know enough about the brain to realise that if we are in a panic zone we cannot function properly. We have all been in situations when we come away unable to remember what has been said. For some children, Tony’s instructions were unsettling either because they panicked about remembering everything they needed to do, or they doubted their ability to complete the tasks. The result of fear is inaction. Once our reptilian brain kicks in then we tend to opt out.Tony needed to make sure that his students were clear about what they had to do and what the next steps were. The degree of difficulty needs to give enough challenge so as to stretch pupils but not so risky as to frighten students from attempting the task.
At first, Tony’s class were cross when he refused to repeat instructions but through negotiation he instituted a system whereby he gave the instruction, asked a learner to repeat it and after that the class were expected to ask the learner sitting next to them. He tried to stand in a similar position in order to get his class to see the importance of what he was saying. Sometimes he printed instructions, said them and got a learner to repeat them. He still found it difficult to slow down his natural rhythms of speech but thinking about the process helped Tony to become more aware of himself and the impression he was making. Unto this day, Tony probably still prefers to teach older learners but the techniques he trialled certainly helped him hone his craft further and enabled him to spend less energy on simply being heard.
|Practical ideas mentioned |
· Whispering an instruction before saying it louder
· Giving important instructions from a specific place in the room [e.g. stone of Zeus]
· Making it clear that instructions will be given once
· Backing this up with techniques such as:
– Having a learner repeat an instruction
– Allowing learners to check they have understood with another pupil
– Giving written instruction along with oral instruction
– Being aware of why individuals ignore instructions and acting on that knowledge e.g. misunderstanding, panic, embarrassment at lack of skill