Strategies to Increase Pace

In the early stages of my teaching career I was sometimes told by observers that I should work on my pace. The feedback was almost always about increasing the pace of my lesson but this was rarely explained any further. I knew that being ‘pacey’ was good; I had little idea as to how this translated into good practice.

I’ve come to realise that a ‘pacey’ lesson is an efficient lesson: the time spent in class will be maximally productive with little to no time wasted at all.

What follows is a list of advice and approaches that I’ve picked up over the years:

  1. Plan your lessons by focusing on what students will be thinking hard about at all times

If we accept that ‘learning happens when people have to think hard and that memory is the residue of thought‘, then it is worthwhile trying to ensure that students think deeply for as much of the lesson as possible. Equally, there should be no unnecessary gaps, waiting or general faffing about. Cutting things out and sticking them to other things is often a good example of faffing about. Time is a precious, finite resource and we need to maximise every minute.

2. Have an open ended task on the board as students enter.

Whole class instruction in my lessons usually begins in one of three ways:

a) Some form of retrieval practice

b) Deliberate practice of sentences or vocabulary

c) Whole Class Feedback

Typically, some students arrive at class a bit earlier than others and the time gap between the first and last student to arrive can sometimes be a few minutes. Because of this, I start most lessons with an open-ended task up on the board so that students can begin working as soon as they enter. The tasks are deliberately open ended-I often give them a 5 minute limit- so that low and high attainers can attempt them successfully, the differentiation here being by the depth and complexity of the outcome.

Here’s a few examples:

a) How is Romeo presented in Act 1?

b) How do you know that Jonas lives in a dystopian society?

c) What kind of man is Utterson?

3. Know where the lesson fits into a sequence of learning

A lesson is almost always part of a longer instructional sequence. Sometimes a lesson will focus on building knowledge as you explain, discuss and question new concepts or ideas; sometimes it will involve modelling and practising a specific type of writing, sentence construction or analytical component. Effective instructional sequences often span multiple lessons and the tasks and approaches within them should undergo a number of changes as student competence develops. One way of describing this transformation is the I-We-You continuum as the responsibility for learning gradually shifts from teacher to student. So what does all this have to do with pace? If you know where a lesson fits within a wider sequence, it is often easier to judge exactly what needs to be achieved within the lesson in question. This then allows you to make better informed decisions as to the variety of examples that you need to present, how much practice may be necessary at a particular stage of a sequence and when it may be appropriate to move from guided to freer practice.

4. Equipment and Resources

Ensure that students have everything that they need for the lesson. Well-planned booklets can be really helpful here as they should contain everything that a student will need for the entire unit. Printing off a booklet at the start of a unit for each student means that I rarely have to rush around and print additional resources. If you do need to hand out resources during a lesson, do this when students are working individually in silence, not when they have finished a task. This means there is no wait time and you can check what they are working on as you move around the class.

At my school, the expectation is that all students are responsible for bringing the equipment they need for class and if they don’t, they receive a consequence. Having also worked in schools where teachers hand out pens freely with no consequence for ill-prepared students, my current situation is a thousand times better-less time is wasted and students rarely appear in class without a pen anymore.

5.Content takes priority

Students should be able to instantly grasp what they have to do in a learning activity, allowing them to focus all of their concentration on the content that is being learned. If we are to teach challenging and unashamedly academic content, then we should not be adding to the cognitive load by creating complicated methods of delivering that content: tasks should be procedurally simple; if they are not, then students will need to simultaneously work out how to approach the task as well as getting their heads around the content within it. Time spent working out the rules of a convoluted activity is time not spent thinking about what they are meant to be learning

6. Repetition isn’t boring

If you want to master anything-including all aspects of teaching-you will probably need to engage in repetitive, deliberate practice. The more familiar you are with a specific routine or approach, the faster and more fluently you can implement it. Pacey lessons often involve procedures and tasks that have been done many times by the teacher and the students, both being so familiar with the instructions that the teacher is able to devote maximal concentration to behaviour management, misconceptions and questioning, while the student can devote maximal attention to what it is they are learning.

Here are just some of the things that can be approached in the same way almost all of the time, instead varying the content, level of support or extent and scope of the practice:

  1. Using a booklet and annotating.
  2. Vocabulary Practice
  3. Sentence Practice
  4. Retrieval Practice
  5. Modelling extended writing.

Once you have worked out the most efficient and procedurally simple way of teaching a specific piece of content, then repeat this method over and over again until it becomes honed, speedy and automatic. Not only will this make lessons pacier, but it will allow you to concentrate on dealing with misconceptions and behaviour so you can focus on the content and students, not whether you have explained the task properly

7. Set precise expectations for everything.

Set precise time limits for tasks-some teachers use timers for this but I usually make it up, telling them ‘you’ve got three minutes left’. The advantage of making it up is that you can speed up or slow down the time they have left based upon what you see the students are doing: if they are struggling, you can stretch the minutes; if they are whipping through it, you can speed up the time.

It is also worth ensuring students know exactly what you expect in terms of output: One page? A paragraph? Six lines? The inclusion of authorial intent?

With regards to behaviour, having relentlessly high expectations of all kids at all times will ensure that distractions are kept to the minimum. Explain what you expect, why you expect it and then give consequences to those who deliberately choose to ignore your requests. Assuming what you have asked is reasonable and following your behaviour policy and it is clear that the student has still chosen to misbehave, you shouldn’t need to engage in any argument, debate or negotiation.  

8. Scripting explanations and preplanning questions

Writing out exactly what you will say when explaining something (particularly when you are new to teaching it) is a really good way of ensuring you are precise and concise; it will also help to prevent the inclusion of unnecessary synonyms and hopefully stop you going off on an unnecessary tangent, both of which could confuse students.

If you teach from booklets, a good way to plan your lesson is by completing the tasks yourself so you know exactly what the students need to understand from the booklet. This will then help direct your annotations and questions. Here’s a step by step approach:

  1. Complete the task yourself so you understand what is required.
  2. Go through your own copy of the booklet, annotating the parts that you will elaborate on and ask students about: these will be focussed on what is needed to complete the questions. Doing this in advance gives you time to think of the most apt, succinct and useful annotation to add: this can be hard if you try to do it live in class for the first time. Also add in questions that you want to ask.
  3. When you teach the lesson, have your annotated booklet next to the blank one you will be using live under the visualiser in class. The prepared one can then act as an aide memoire for the lesson.

The key thing here is knowing your stuff in as greater depth as possible-the better you know the content and what you will focus on, the less likely you will be thrown off track by the myriad unexpected events that may happen during class

9. Don’t play ‘Guess what’s in my head’.

Asking questions is an important part of teaching but if questions are to be useful, we need to think about why we are asking them. Questions can be asked to check understanding, to push students to develop their answer, to consider alternative viewpoints or to help them make links between ideas. Kris Boulton argues that we should never ask a question to which they have not already been told the answer and I broadly agree: most of the time it is far more efficient to teach stuff, then ask them questions about it. Beginning with eliciting questions like ‘Who knows what The Great Chain of Being is?’  or ‘What do you think ‘hubris’ means?’  before teaching them anything is probably not that useful.

The worst example of this is ‘guess what’s in my head’ where a teacher asks a question with a specific answer in mind, hoping to elicit that specific answer from the class. This guessing game can go on for ages and is almost certainly a waste of time. Reeves and Mortimer used to play this game in the final round of Shooting Stars:

Q: Name a hairy dog.

A: St Bernard?’

Q: Nope it was a Golden Retriever.

This list is certainly not exhaustive and I would be interested in any other tips that people have!

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