La rentrée

The French have a term for it: la rentrée.

If you ever visit France in August you’ll probably find it closed. Schools and clubs are what they call en congé; the government is in recess; and many businesses will have shut down for the summer too.

As colleagues, family members and friends go their separate ways for the holidays, they depart uttering the special valediction “à la rentrée”, which can be loosely translated as “see you in September”.

So far so familiar, you might argue. After all, we too wind down for the six weeks of summer.

But, for the French, ‘the return’ in September – la rentrée – is much more than a ‘back to work’ ritual: it marks an entire country’s return to normality after a long summer break. It’s not only a time for children and teachers to go back to school as it is in the UK, but also for most adults to return to work, and for people to see their family and friends again, and begin attending clubs and teams once more.

La rentrée, therefore, refers to returning home and getting back to reality, to a normal way of life. It means abandoning the carefree attitude and easy way of life that became a signature mark of the summer months and, instead, stitching yourself back into a starched shirt and tie, shackling yourself to a nine-to-five existence again.

I’m lucky enough to deliver training at lots of schools and colleges during the first week back and, wherever I go, that term – la rentrée – springs readily to mind.

We don’t have a word in the English language that succinctly sums up the feeling teachers get when they return to school following the six week holidays. Instead, we have to resort to metaphor. We might, for example, say we’re feeling “shellshocked”.

But la rentrée is about right.

If you’re also feeling a little la rentrée upon your return to school, you might find the following useful…

Returning to school can be daunting – and starting teaching for the very first time even more so. Teaching is a complex task and there’s a lot to remember. It helps if you can distil some of the key points down to a mnemonic. So here’s my attempt at summarising some key pedagogical concepts into an ABC whereby:

A is for Assessment for Learning;
B is for Behaviour for Learning; and
C is for Curriculum for Learning.

You can also download free posters which summarise each of these three areas visually. You’ll find a link at the end.

A is for Assessment for learning

There is no silver bullet, no secret formula to teaching great lessons. What works is what’s best and the best thing to do, therefore, is to get to know your students – including by regularly assessing them – and to plan for progress by providing opportunities for all your students to fill gaps in their knowledge and skills.

A lesson does not exist in isolation, it is all about context. It is better to think of a lesson as one learning episode in a long series. As such, it does not necessarily need a neat beginning and end, nor does it need to be in four parts and prescribe to a particular style of delivery.

The best teachers are sensitive to the needs of their students and adjust their lessons to the here and now. Students work best for the teachers who respect them, know their subjects, and are approachable and enthusiastic. The most effective teachers are relentless in their pursuit of excellence and are able to explain complex concepts in a way that makes sense.

If the work you set is too easy, students will switch off; if the work is too hard, students will switch off. The work you set must, therefore, be pitched in the “zone of proximal development” – hard but achievable with time, effort and support.

Classroom discussion makes students smarter because it makes them think. Discussion usually takes the form of teacher-led question and answer sessions and the most common model is IRE – initiation, response, evaluation. But a more effective model is ABC – agree/disagree with, build upon, and challenge.

With ABC, students pass questions around the classroom – the Japanese call this “neriage” which means “to polish” because students polish each other’s answers, refining them, making them better by challenging each other’s thinking.

Increasing the amount of time you wait for an answer to a question before either answering it yourself or asking someone else, also makes students’ answers longer, more confident, and increases students’ ability to respond.

Feedback should redirect the student’s and the teacher’s actions to help the student achieve their target. Effective feedback: addresses faulty interpretations; comments on rather than grades work; provides cues or prompts for further work; is timely, specific and clear; and is focused on task and process rather than on praise.

Feedback works best when it is explicit about the marking criteria, offers suggestions for improvement, and is focused on how students can close the gap between their current and their desired performance. It does not focus on presentation or quantity of work.

Feedback needs to cause a cognitive rather than emotional reaction, i.e. it needs to cause thinking. Feedback can promote a growth mindset if it is specific, focuses on factors within students’ control and which are dependent on effort not ability. The only useful feedback is that which is acted upon and it is crucial that the teacher plans time for students to act on feedback.

Students are more likely to get better at something if they believe intelligence can be changed through hard work. The word “yet” can be a powerful instrument: “I can’t do this… yet.” The best classrooms are those in which students feel welcomed, valued, enthusiastic, engaged, eager to experiment and rewarded for hard work. One way to achieve this is to prize effort over attainment and to focus on progress (learning) rather than outcomes (grades).

Set assignments which inspire and challenge students, are predicated on the idea of every student succeeding, involve genuine research, have in-built flexibility to allow for a range of abilities, are broken into clear components, make clear what is expected of each student at each stage of their development, and spell out the qualities and dimensions on which the work will eventually be judged.

Students need to be taught that producing high-quality work means rethinking, reworking, and polishing. This will ensure that students feel celebrated, not ridiculed, for going back to the drawing board.

B is for Behaviour for learning

Even in the best learning environments some students will misbehave and that’s not your fault – they will do so for a variety of reasons, some complex, some simple, but never because you make them misbehave. There are things you can do to prevent students from misbehaving or at least curtail and correct their misbehaviour once it has arisen but, nevertheless, their misbehaviour is never your fault.

Behaviour is only effectively managed when the whole school works together. There must be clear policies and procedures in place which are understood by everyone and these must be followed consistently. It’s an open secret that students like teachers who follow the rules. They like boundaries. They like to feel safe. They like to learn. So you should always follow the school’s policies.

When a student misbehaves, it is human nature to become defensive and to want to get tough, but getting angry and taking it personally is counterproductive. Defiant young people don’t often succumb to coercion, rather they can be incited by it. You need to show students what it means to be an adult, to be mature, to be calm and collected.

Demonstrate your authority by the position you take in the room; keep on your feet as much as possible and be where you can watch everything that is going on.

Reward the right behaviours more than you sanction the wrong ones. Give students rewards for displaying desirable behaviours. The goal is to establish the habit of co-operation. Standards can be subtly raised once the habit has been established. By rewarding good behaviour you are giving attention to the students who deserve it most and are providing naughty students with a role-model to follow.

Get a student’s full attention before giving instructions. Make sure everyone is looking at you and not playing with a pen, turning around, chatting. Be very clear in all your instructions and expectations. Have a student repeat them back to you. Tactical ignorance is sometimes good but be aware that low-level misbehaviours can escalate if they are not dealt with quickly and consistently. Find a calm and quiet way to let the student know that you see exactly what s/he is doing and that there is a consequence, without making a fuss, getting upset or sounding annoyed. Use eye contact or a question.

Avoid confrontational situations where you or the student has to publicly back down. Talk to the student in terms of her/his choices and their consequences. Use positive language (“I’d like everyone listening”, “I’d like everyone facing this way please”) and say please and thank you as often as possible. Make a deliberate pause to gain students’ attentions and a direction to ensure they have sufficient time to act: “John … could you face this way … and listen, thank you.”

Use positive body language. Gain their attention with eye contact before you say what you want to say. Again, allow “take-up time” – ask someone to come to you then turn away, talk to someone else, the student will come to you in their own time. In a corridor, ask someone to come over to you for a second then walk to somewhere more private away from the audience.

C is for Curriculum for learning

“Desirable difficulties” make information harder to encode (learn initially) but easier to retrieve later. This leads to deeper learning. We achieve desirable difficulties by: spacing learning apart with increasingly long gaps; interleaving topics rather than finishing one topic then moving onto another; using low-stakes quizzes at the start of topics/lessons to identify prior learning as well as knowledge gaps (and to interrupt forgetting); and making learning materials less clearly organised so that students have to think hard about the materials.

We can improve the speed and ease with which we retrieve information from our long-term memory and transfer it into our working memory by making connections between new and existing information – applying prior knowledge to new knowledge.

Tests interrupt forgetting and reveal what has been learnt as well as what gaps exist. Accordingly, we should run pre-tests at the start of every unit – perhaps as a multiple-choice quiz – which will provide cues and improve subsequent learning. Retrieval activities like this also help students prepare for exams.

We need to repeat learning several times if it is to penetrate students’ long-term memories. Information “sticks” best when: each lesson clearly articulates and is built around a simple idea (i.e. a clear take-away message from each lesson); we use metaphor to relate new ideas to prior knowledge; we pique students’ curiosity before we fill gaps in knowledge. This can be done by asking students to make predictions or by setting a hypothesis to be proven or disproven. The richer – sensorially and emotionally – new information is, the more strongly it is encoded in memory.

Curriculum instruction is most effective when it enables students to see various examples of how experts organise and solve problems, whereas curricula that focus on breadth of knowledge can prevent the effective organisation of knowledge because there is not enough time to learn in depth.

The ability to monitor one’s approach to problem-solving – to be meta-cognitive – is an important skill to teach. One way to do this is via “constructive alignment” – when we devise teaching and learning activities by starting with the outcomes we want students to learn.

Also, the SOLO taxonomy helps to map levels of understanding that can be built into intended learning outcomes and create assessment criteria.

Teaching students how to convey their learning from one context to another is the difference between educating someone and simply training them to perform a task. This ability to extend what has been learned to new contexts is called transfer. Attempts to cover too many topics too quickly may hinder learning and subsequent transfer.

Students learn at least as much – and retain what they have learned for much longer – when they distribute or space their study time rather than when they concentrate (cram) it. This spacing effect is especially useful for learning new material; studying a new concept immediately after you have learned it does not deepen the memory very much. Studying it an hour later, or a day later, does.

Students need to learn new information, not in isolation, but in a range of different contexts. Once something has been learned for the first time in one context, it is important to teach it again in a different context. Knowledge that is taught in only a single context is not as likely to support flexible transfer at a later stage as knowledge that is taught in multiple contexts.


Follow me on Twitter: @mj_bromley

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