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The Golden Ratio: getting our students cognitively active

Eva Liukineviciute provides whole class feedback to her English class

With students on mute and cameras off, we find ourselves transported from bustling classrooms to the depressing silence of Google Meets/Teams/Zoom. No longer can we use our physical presence, our eyes and our ears to ensure all of our students are actively participating in our lessons. Having taught for more than 10 years now, I am used to teaching lessons where I am constantly questioning students. In my lessons, students expect to be questioned. They know they must at the very least attempt to respond. There is no opt-out. I make sure I am able to assess every few minutes the learning taking place in the class. Years of applying strategies for participation and assessment from the likes of Lemov, Rosenshine and Wiliam and others have meant my classroom is a place where active participation is an expected norm.

Cut to a world now of muted, camera-less virtual windows of live lessons – I feel like I am back to square one – a trainee, fresh out of university, venturing for the first time into the unknown realm of teaching. Except I can’t see them and I can’t hear them.

Suddenly we are all novices – no matter our experience. The last two weeks have made me think hard about how I will continue teaching for the foreseeable with confidence that my teaching is having an impact. How do I KNOW they are actually learning behind those muted camera-less platforms?

I’ve gone back to the drawing board.

In Teach Like a Champion 2.0, Doug Lemov talks about ratio: the proportion of cognitive work the students do in the classroom. Whether face to face or remote, we need to increase the cognitive work our students are doing. Lemov breaks this ratio down into 2 components:

Participation ratio: How many of your students are participating and how often?

Thinking ratio: When they are participating, how hard are they thinking?

To achieve a successful ratio, whether in the classroom or remotely, we need to ensure more and more of the cognitive work is done by our students.

Many of the Teach Like a Champion (TLAC) strategies to enable this in the classroom still apply to the remote world. Below are 8 TLAC strategies I intend to try out. I have referenced DPR – Dynamic Progress Reporting – a few times as one of our tools to facilitate student participation. DPR is our primary platform for remote learning; our live lessons last for 20 minutes on Google Meet and we host all discussions, reporting, uploading of work, ensuring the alignment to our curriculum on DPR.

For all of the below strategies, Means of Participation (MoP) – telling them HOW you want them to take part – is absolutely essential. Check out Yamina Bibi’s excellent MoP examples for the remote world:

Examples of remote MoP by Yamina Bibi

Here are 8 TLAC strategies for you to try out:

1 No opt-out

  • Let them know you will call one of them to answer the question you are about to ask (MoP: eg. respond in the DPR class chat or verbally).

  • Say if they don’t respond, you will assume they are absent from the lesson and change the register mark to absent. Tell them they may get a call home.

  • Then ask the question. Provide a wait time (eg. 30 seconds) and then call a name. Expect a response.

  • Ask a follow-up question. Pick another name. And so on.

2 Cold call

  • If you pick a student’s name first before you ask your question, you will reduce your participation ratio.

  • Let them know you will pick one of them but give them x seconds to think and type first.

  • Ask the question first. Allow sufficient wait time. Then pick a student.

  • There are lots of free online random name generators that make this visually exciting for students. I use Wheel of Names and paste the name of students online from DPR class chat.

3 Whole class response

  • Gauge whole class understanding at once.

Marzan Ahmed checks whole class understanding using DPR’s class poll

  • In this example, Marzan is able to use responses to address misconceptions in real-time and inform future planning.

  • You can do this by enabling the DPR Class chat after a countdown.

  • Always front-load your MoP. For example: ‘In 30 seconds I will enable the chat. You should write your response then. Don’t press enter till I say. The question is: ‘blah blah blah?’ You have 30 seconds to write your answer…ready? 3, 2, 1, go!’

Yamina Bibi demonstrates MoP using DPR chat

4 Pre-call

  • Alert a student that you will call on them next.

  • You can target this to a student you suspect might not be actively engaged.

5 Unbundling

  • Breaking complex ideas into components.

Zara does this by writing easy instruction steps that students can independently follow.

6 Playing dumb

  • Intentionally make mistakes so that the students pick up on it.

Marzan Ahmed live models how to approach an exam question and ‘plays dumb’

7 Get students to agree or disagree with each other

Elaborative interrogation

  • Get students to ‘prove’ ‘justify’ or ‘defend’ their answers (Robert Marzano). Stretch-it (Doug Lemov)

  • Don’t stop at simple, correct answers. Extend knowledge with how or why questions to get them to develop their responses.

Here’s an example of ‘Stretch it’ from Sarah Key, using Google’s Jamboard

8 Independent practice

  • Sufficient time for this will allow your participation ratio to increase.

  • Display a countdown timer on the screen for students to be aware of as they work independently.

Despite the challenges of being online, I love the interaction with students. I am constantly receiving screenshots from fellow teachers of hilarious exchanges online.

We’re in this for some time now and anything we can do to make sure our students are cognitively active will mean the fruits of our efforts are being maximised in the long run.

I would love to hear which strategies you try out and what works for you. Achieving this ‘golden ratio’ will ensure learning is taking place, beyond the muted, camera-less vortex we have found ourselves in!


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