Recently, I wrote about the quandary of grouping. Small group instruction supports greater student engagement, higher amounts of interaction, greater opportunity for teacher observation, and more student learning. However, the benefits of small group are balanced by the relative ineffectiveness of most seatwork activities. Subtracting the downside of working on one's own away from the teacher from the clear benefits of small group teaching, one ends up with little advantage to all of the effort of orchestrating the small-group oriented classroom.
Despite this, the benefits of small group teaching is so obvious, it is not uncommon for coaches and supervisors to promote a lot of small group work in spite of its ultimate lack of benefit.
While arguing to keep the small group-teaching arrow in my quiver, I suggested that one of the best things we could do as teachers was to work on our large-group teaching skills. The focus of this has to be, not on organizing our classes in particular ways, but in ensuring that all of our students learn as much as possible.
So what kinds of things can one do to make large group or whole class teaching more effective? In other words, how can you maintain the efficiency of whole-class teaching, while grabbing the same benefits one gets from small-group work?
1. Get close to the kids
In small-group work, teachers command greater attention and involvement partly by being so close. Small groups are often arrayed around the teacher or pulled together at a single table. But with whole-class work, the teacher may as well be on the Moon. Perching yourself at the desk or whiteboard puts you in a different orbit than the kids. No eye contact with the individual students, or no chance that you’ll reach out and touch them; no wonder we lose attention. Set up your classroom so that you can move easily among the students and can reach them without a lot of rigmarole. Place students where you want them to be to support high attention (no Billy cannot sit where he wants).
2. Ask questions first and assign them to students later
One way of maximizing attention is to ask your questions first, and then call on the student who is to answer. Even put a bit of pause in between the question and the assignment. The point of the question is rarely to get one student thinking, but to get the whole class to reflect on the problem. When a teacher says, “Johnny, why was Baby Bear so upset with Goldilocks?,” Johnny will think about it, but most of the other kids will take a pass. When she says, “Why was Baby Bear so upset with Goldilocks?.... Johnny?” everybody has to think about it because they can’t be sure who'll get called.
3. Focus on teaching, not putting on a show
Many of us grew up watching Phil Donahue and Oprah. We know how to run a Q&A discussion with a studio audience because we have seen it so often. The tempo moves along, there aren’t long pauses or digressions, and at the end the pertinent info has been covered. But what’s good TV would be lousy teaching. The idea that you’re the emcee presenting information—even with some audience participation, is the wrong mindset. You may be teaching a group of 30 students in a whole class setting, but you have to think of them as 30 individuals, not one group. Your job is to maximize participation for the students while increasing your opportunity to monitor individual progress.
4 Maximize student response.
Too often in whole-class work the teacher asks a question, then calls on a child to answer. There are many better schemes for this that allow more student thinking and response, such as “think-pair-share.” Here the teacher asks a question, but has the kids talking it over with each other before answering (the smallest configuration for this can be pairs, but the pairs can then talk to other pairs, and other schemes make sense as well). This increases the degree to which everyone thinks about the question and tries to figure out an answer.
Another popular approach is the multiple-response card. With simple yes-no tasks, thumbs up-thumbs down may be sufficient. Thus, if the teacher is doing a phonological awareness activity, she may have the students respond with thumbs up if a pair of words start or end with the same sound, and a thumbs down otherwise. For more complex responses, cards may be better. For example, the students might have a card for each character in a story, and the teacher can then ask questions like, Who packed the picnic basket? Who was supposed to take the basket to grandmother? Who was lurking in the woods? And, all the students then hold up the cards that reveal the answer.
A third way, not used enough in my opinion, is the written answer. Teachers can ask any kind of question, and have everyone write an answer to the question. The oral responses that follow tend to be longer and more involved than what kids come up with orally. The written record is useful here because it allows teachers to check to see who answered the question well, the quality of the reasoning, and can take them back into the text to figure out the discrepancies.
5 Teach groups in whole class—teaching in a fishbowl
Sometimes you can increase the involvement of particular students even though you are working in whole class. Let’s say everyone has been asked to read Chapter 6 of the social studies book, and now the class is going to discuss. The teacher might select 5-8 students who she wants to be the primary discussants this time. These students may sit in a circle in the middle of the classroom and everyone else will be arrayed around them. The teacher leads the discussion with her questions and challenges, and the students in the inner circle answer and talk about the ideas. The students on the outside observe, participate in the discussion if the inner group is stuck, and perhaps write answers to the same questions. Through careful selection, the teacher is able to maximize the amount of participation of quiet students or those who usually get shut out of the discussions by being too slow.
6 Be strategic in calling on students
It can be difficult to manage the calling on students. Certain students always seem to have an answer, and are quick to respond. This shuts out others who need to explore their thinking and who would benefit from teacher follow up. Teachers can do what football coaches do, which is plan their plays ahead of time, changing up the routine only if the situation changes. Thus, a teacher might, during planning, decide not just what to ask, but who she wants to hear from. That means if certain students are struggling to give longer answers or sufficient explanation, the teacher can be ready to initiate and guide them through some scaffolded work within the context of the whole class lesson. In other cases, more randomized calling (in which everyone has an equal chance) might make sense; this is easily accomplished with the tongue-depressor routine, in which all the student names are on tongue depressors and the teacher just pulls sticks out of the can as she needs a response or explanation.
7 Whole class can be more than lecture or Q&A
Instead of using worksheets as “shut up sheets” (thanks, Vicki Gibson), use these tasks to engage everyone within the class in an interactive activity. For example, let’s say the task is finding text evidence. The worksheet includes assertions based on the text, and the students have to locate information from the text that supports the assertion. Kids could go off and do that on their own or they could do it in separate small group activities with teacher scaffolding, but that kind of task could be done most efficiently with teacher participation in the whole class. The teacher needs to observe how the students go about the task—maybe even taking notes on who just started reading and who went to particular parts of the text, who's copying, who's paraphrasing, and so on. At any point, the teacher might stop the class and ask about the strategies being used and might provide some guidance for proceeding more effectively.
Remember, even in whole class teaching, you want students to pay attention; you want to get as many students to respond and participate as possible (without losing everyone else’s attention); you want maximum possibility of identifying when problems and misunderstandings occur so that you can scaffold, explain, and guide students to solve the problem. Structure whole group lessons in those ways, and then follow up in smaller groups (and even individually) to ensure success with what is being taught.
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