It’s the little things that count
The first time I saw a Fitbit it was worn by a PE teacher I was coaching. We’d finished our coaching session at the junior campus of his school and, as both of us were working at the senior campus that afternoon, I offered to drive him. He said he would walk. This surprised me: It was a long walk back to the senior campus and he’d just finished telling me of a 20 km run he’d done before work.
“Didn’t you train already this morning?” I asked.
“Yes, but I want to get my steps up,” he said, pointing to his Fitbit.
“Yes, it records my steps and when I get to 10,000 there’s a reward.”
“What’s the reward?”
He looked at me, wide-eyed and earnest: “It buzzes.”
The contrast between his enthusiasm and the reward struck me—it was a small payoff for all that effort. However, instant feedback can be compelling like that. Quick feedback loops are a powerful motivator.
The more I thought about it, the more I appreciated how this loop was designed. I particularly appreciated the insight of concentrating on steps—it seemed such a clever way to get people more active. There are lots of other potential metrics you could use to encourage a less sedentary lifestyle—total times exercised in a week, average km run a day—but 10,000 steps seemed such a deft little nudge; a simple shift of everyday routine that could lead to a cascade of other little lifestyle changes and benefits. It made me wonder . . .
“As teachers, we already work hard enough. We need more than just another set of great teaching techniques to learn…we need compelling reasons to choose one skill over another, and a clear plan of how we are going to implement these skills that is simple enough to start with the very next lesson.”
What would the equivalent of focusing on steps be for teachers? What little changes of technique would lead quickly to a host of other improvements?
And what would a Fitbit for teachers look like? Are there tools for prompting these changes and measuring their impact?
The lessons of the Fitbit
In Tilting your teaching, I explore seven examples of these small but powerful changes of practice—the “Simple Shifts”—that will lead to larger change for your students and yourself. In addition to these Simple Shits, I detail the mechanics of changing practice and what the latest research can tell us about how to change our teaching practice. I introduce you to “micro-data tools”: one of the most effective ways I have found to consolidate a new skill and embed it within your routine teaching practice.
As teachers, we already work hard enough. We need more than just another set of great teaching techniques to learn—there are so many strategies you might adopt to improve your practice and often very little available time to identify which will make the biggest impact. What we need are compelling reasons to choose one skill over another, and a clear plan of how we are going to implement these skills that is simple enough to start with the very next lesson.
Introducing the Simple Steps
- Low-Key Interventions—“Nudging” students back to their work when they are exhibiting off-task behaviour
- Pivoting and Reframing—Pivoting around students’ argumentative responses, defusing conflict, and steering them back to their learning
- Instructional Clarity—Securing complete student attention before issuing instructions or making transitions
- Wait Time—Extending the amount of thinking time you give your students before expecting them to respond to questions
- Pause and Elaboration Time—Extending the length of time you pause after your students answer to encourage them to elaborate
- Snapshot Feedback—Using fast, formative feedback from your students to assess the immediate impact of your teaching
- Reflection Time—Giving students an opportunity to quickly demonstrate that they have taken on your advice
Of course, other foundational skills that have the potential to affect a similarly significant change, but these were chosen for their ease of implementation. No matter how transformative a new teaching technique might be, if it is difficult or time-consuming to implement, the chances are that you will never see its effect. Being “small and easy to do” is a crucial part of what makes Simple Shifts so effective.
Keeping track of things
In addition, the effectiveness of the Simple Shifts can be fully realised by employing micro-data tools, just like the PE teacher’s Fitbit above.
Micro-data tools allow you to record data on specific aspects of your classroom practice. These tools can take many forms—tally chart, checklist, annotated student roll, classroom map, timesheet—but essentially they focus on one or two teaching techniques or student behaviours and provide you with a way to monitor your progress as you adopt new teaching routines.
Merely tracking—with no specific intention to increase or decrease the incidence of the behaviour being tracked—has been shown to have an impact on how people act. Monitoring or measuring is a regular reminder and keeps the behaviour change in your conscious mind. But tracking also has the advantage of making the new skill compelling to do.
My colleague’s Fitbit is a perfect example of a simple mechanism that made him want to get those 10,000 steps each day. Having a daily total on his wrist is a constant reminder of his goal, and the buzzing when he achieves it is a small but attractive reward that motivates him to keep walking. A simple nudge like this one is surprisingly effective at keeping people on track.
Developed from extensive research and decades of teaching experience, the Simple Shifts meet the goals of being effective, easy to implement and impactful. They do not require you to totally change your teaching but to “tilt” it. These may be minor adjustments of your practice but they are nonetheless capable of having a major impact on your students’ learning.
Resources by Glen Pearsall
Glen Pearsall with Natasha Harris
Meet the Seven Simple Shifts – small changes you can make in the classroom to improve student learning. Each Simple Shift is grounded in research and illustrated with anecdotes from real classrooms. It only takes a few words and as little as one second (seriously!) to transform an unruly classroom into a place of confidence and productivity.
Buy now at Hawker Brownlow Education
‘The study of English introduces a student to other voices and other lives … and in doing so, helps them find their own voice.’
The literature toolbox features over fifty activities for exploring text. Easy to implement and rigorously road-tested in real classrooms, these practical strategies foster engagement, deepen inquiry, and model fluent and sophisticated essay writing.
Buy now at Hawker Brownlow Education
What if teachers could dramatically reduce the amount of time they spend reviewing and correcting student work and actually see better results in terms of student learning? That’s the goal of Glen Pearsall, who shares dozens of classroom-tested strategies that lessen teachers’ workload while increasing students’ class participation and improving their understanding.
Buy now at Hawker Brownlow Education
Glen Pearsall Glen Pearsall works throughout Australia as an educational consultant, specialising in feedback and assessment, workload reduction for teachers, and instructional practice. He has a particular interest in the work of graduate and pre-service teachers and has worked as a research fellow and tutorial leader at the Centre for Youth Research, University of Melbourne, Australia. Read more articles by Glen Pearsall