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The Scourge Of Learning Admin – How To Trim The Fat And Make Sure You’re Focused On The Objective

Ever had what seemed like a productive exercise up until you saw what little work had been done?

  • The Scourge Of Learning Admin – How To Trim The Fat And Make Sure You’re Focused On The Objective

Learning admin has bugged me for years, mainly because it is like biting one’s nails; you are aware it may be a bad habit, but it is hard to stop unless you take direct action.

Learning admin is easily defined as an activity that looks busy or like learning, but isn’t really. This was much more eloquently described by Professor Rob Coe in his 2013 presentation ‘From Evidence to Great Teaching’, where he called such tasks poor proxies for learning. Here is his list:

Poor proxies for learning (easily observed, but not really about learning):

1.Students are busy: lots of work is done (especially written work)
2.Students are engaged, interested, motivated
3.Students are getting attention: feedback, explanations
4.Classroom is ordered, calm, under control
5.Curriculum has been ‘covered’ (eg presented to students in some form)
6.(At least some) students have supplied correct answers (whether or not they really understood them or could reproduce them independently)

We’ve all seen these, either in our classroom, or in other classrooms. Posters, dice use, word searches and, to a certain extent, group work can all come under the category of learning admin.

A dicey approach

Let’s explore an example. It’s a favourite of mine, only because it highlights clearly where the holes are.

For the past few days, your class have been learning column addition. To mix it up, you ask them to generate their own sums using dice. They love it! The classroom is lively and abuzz with noise and maths in action.

At the end of the lesson, you look at their books. Some children managed nine or 10 sums. That seems fewer than you’d hoped for. You then consider that they had a whole hour (minimal input from you at this stage in the sequence), meaning that each sum took six minutes to record. Let’s consider what actually happened in the lesson:

  • Dice were played with, argued over and swapped
  • The pencils were picked up and put down – a lot
  • Layouts were adjusted
  • Some addition happened

Despite having the appearance of being incredibly cool with a fulfilled life, I’m actually quite sad, so I once timed this activity to record what was going on. An addition sum took three minutes and seven seconds to generate and complete. Of that, 21 seconds were spent calculating the answer.

Twenty-one seconds. Or, to put it another way, 11.2 per cent of the time the task took was devoted to the actual learning objective. That isn’t due to a lack of commitment – which, to me, is learning neglect. You couldn’t justify that percentage to parents or governors, so how come it happens in class so frequently?

I think it links back to the poor proxies examples. Good learning admin looks so much like proper learning, it can hardly be recognised. That is the scary part. The not-scary news is that it’s really easy to detect if you ask the right question, which is: ‘Is what the children are doing at each stage helping them to achieve the objective?’

Let’s look at an example to work through with this in mind.

Learning objective: Learn to use a subordinate clause correctly

There are countless activities you can use to tackle this challenge. You could have some jigsaw sentences for children to match up and then stick in their books You could ask them to write some sentences containing subordinate clauses. You could get them to identify the subordinate clause in a string of sentences. All of these have value.

If we look at the objective more carefully, however, we can see that perhaps these have been taught before; the use of the word correctly implies the subordinate clause is familiar but not fully understood. We also need to focus on the verb use. Let’s examine those activities again.

Jigsaw sentences
This activity can be useful for helping children identify main and subordinate clauses, but it doesn’t help the children use them. They are merely matching up the most suitable pairs, and so the skill is identifying the clue that links them together.

Writing sentences
This is a stock activity but, again, the main focus isn’t subordinate clauses but inventing content. If you are unsure, set one child this task and time how much energy is expended on the subordinate clause work, and how much is spent on creating content. You’d be surprised. For the inventive child, this is perfect and not a problem at all, but this isn’t most children in your class.

Identify the subordinate clause

Any activity that involves highlighting or underlining is most suited as a starter or plenary activity, to be honest. A quick way to test this is imagining a child entering your lesson halfway through. If you can explain what they have to do in under 30 seconds and they can complete it without your input, is it really a valid main task activity? It also uses the verb identify rather than use.

Here is what I might do in this situation: give out a sheet with a range of sentences – some with the main clause missing, others with the subordinate clause missing – that children need to complete.

Because I know most subordinate clauses can be found in the middle or at the end of sentences, I would vary their location. I know that this would involve some creativity, but it would also require careful thought, and children would have a topic provided by the part clue in each sentence. If I was going to do 100 per cent clean learning, I’d have the children writing directly onto the sheet, since copying sentences off a sheet and into a book is – well – copying, not using.

Learning admin is easy to remove, but does provide more work for you to do if you are really strict. The benefit is that the children are far more likely to get to the learning destination accurately and quickly this way. Think of it as a leisurely drive to your holiday compared to taking the direct route – less pretty but more efficient!

Work smarter

Putting your learning admin awareness skills into practise

Carry out an audit of the work completed by your class last week. What could you have changed to make it more efficient? Was there any learning admin that you could identify?

Was the learning aim explicit in everything the children did? This last question is easy to test – get the work, cover the objective and ask a teaching colleague in another year group to guess the objective, with as much clarity as possible. If they can’t, what hope do your children have?

Some teachers might object to this, saying that the children need breathing space in activities, that this type of ‘filleting’ removes creativity and is quite robotic. I would robustly challenge this. By ensuring that the children can successfully use subordinate clauses, they are more likely to have the confidence to actually use them in creative writing. It is front-loading skills teaching. It’s rather like being taught what those mysterious icons do on Photoshop. Yes, it might take time, but the long-term benefits are enormous.

Stephen Lockyer is a primary teacher in London and author of Lesson Planning for Primary School Teachers from Bloomsbury Press. Follow him on Twitter at @mrlockyer.

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