Is commenting on ‘pace’ useful observation feedback?

‘You need to improve upon the pace of your lessons.’

Feedback many of us will have received or delivered throughout our career. I heard it just today, in fact – in feedback to a trainee. Maybe, we notice it as observers because it is more readily apparent from the outside looking in?

Such feedback is perhaps less prevalent now than it once was, yet it pervades, nonetheless. Don’t get me wrong. Pacing is important – it can reduce misbehaviour, for example.

We can view pace as two sides of the same coin:

  • The speed at which students can travel through a sequence of activities
  • The speed at which a teacher takes students through that sequence

In observation feedback, it is almost exclusively referring to the latter.

Why is this an issue?

Well, some lessons require a slower pace, while others can be shorter. Reading a challenging text will require time to read it and soak it in, whereas explaining the difference between radius and diameter, perhaps not so much.

A pace too slow or too fast could have an adverse effect on the learner. Instead, then, we should think of ‘pace’ as knowing when to speed up and when to slow down. A small, but necessary distinction here, as using the word ‘pacing’ may be more beneficial than the word ‘pace’. The latter tends to imply going quicker, whereas the former refers to slowing down and speeding up.

Generally, giving the impression of good pace is useful. We want learners to remain engaged and moving through content at an appropriately quick speed can foster such engagement. From this perspective though, pacing should be about appearing to be quick, but ultimately moving at just the right pace for the students, rather than moving quickly for the sake of their attention.

At times, this will require us to abandon our independent task and to elaborate further on the input, because it was too challenging. Alternatively, it may require us to cut the input short and start the independent task early, because students have grasped the content quicker than we anticipated.

In pursuing greater pace, we often pick the same students to answer our questions – at the expense of those who are less likely to put their hand up. This may help the lesson move on, but it doesn’t allow us to check for the understanding of all (this was the subject of my recent blogs here and here).

What are we actually thinking about when we tell teachers to improve their pace?

Among many other things, I believe the principal thoughts are these:

  • that teachers should not focus on an individual area for any longer than is needed
  • that teachers are losing the attention of their students
  • that teachers are unnecessarily elaborating on content that is already well understood
  • that the speed at which the teacher transitions between different elements of the lesson may be too slow (e.g. between modelling and independent task)
  • that teachers do not have their resources or thinking prepared in a carefully sequenced manner

So, what should we say instead of, ‘You need to improve the pace of the lesson’?

  • Break content down into smaller, more manageable chunks
  • Maintain the attention of students by making them think they are moving at speed by using shorter activities
  • Check for understanding more regularly, so that you know when can and can’t move on
  • Make transitions explicit for students, so they know when they are moving on
  • Have all resources prepared ahead of the lesson and sequence them, so that each small chunk follows or builds on the previous chunk


How do we achieve instant feedback for all?

After writing my previous blog on the best method for checking understanding, I carried on thinking about how we can check for understanding effectively. We know we want to check all pupils during a lesson, but we realise that this can be a rather challenging task. At best, we get a cursory glance of everyone’s work, as we frantically scuttle around the room.

The solution? Enable pupils to check their own understanding through instant feedback. As a profession, we regularly commend ‘instant feedback’, because it can provide immediacy in correcting misunderstanding. So, how can we deliver instant feedback to all, if we can’t get round to every pupil during the lesson?

This blog was inspired in part by Peps McCrea’s researchED national talk on ‘Developing Expert Teaching’. Peps spoke of how playing darts provides you with instant feedback. He said, and I am paraphrasing loosely here, “If you aim for a bullseye and you miss, you know straight away that you have not hit the bullseye. You have instant feedback”. Know what failure looks like.

So, if we provide pupils with the general idea of what failure looks like, they can tell if they have gone wrong and therefore actively seek out teacher help sooner. Seems a far more economic and efficient way of getting to the children that need help, doesn’t it? Now, I admit this may not be possible in every lesson in every subject, but it can travel some distance in helping us occasionally.

What does this actually look like in the classroom?

Here is an example I have used in maths recently, while teaching long multiplication to a group of struggling year 6 children. In particular, they struggled with remembering to put a placeholder in the second row of multiplication. I would give them a question like 64 x 23 and I would say to them, “Your answer must end in a 2”. I wouldn’t tell them how I knew this, because I wanted them to think for themselves how I knew this to be the case without solving the question. Yet, with me telling them the parameters their answer must fall within, they had instant feedback when they got an answer wrong.

This was providing them with an idea of what failure looks like. If they don’t get an answer ending in 2, then they must have made a mistake. They could then put their hand up and seek out my help more quickly. You’ll notice that I was giving them just enough information to focus on what it was I was trying to teach them about: the placeholder. The learners were provided with something to check their understanding against – “I didn’t get an answer ending in 2. Why not? What have I missed? And why must it end in 2?”

Through telling students what failure looked like, it enabled them to focus more readily on how to avoid it.

Above: the answer to the question with the placeholder explicitly shown, so that students understand why the answer had to end with a 2. As the placeholder is 0, the answer will always end in the same amount of ones as the product of the two ones digits in the question multiplied together. In this case, 3 x 4 made 12, so the final answer must end in 2.

The #1 method for checking understanding

We know checking for understanding is an essential part of instruction and effective practice. Without it, we cannot accurately assess where pupils are now and where to go next. Understanding can falter easily when pupils have a lack of prior knowledge or fail to attend to the necessary information. While factors like these can be outside of our control, we can control when and how we check for understanding. We know the best teachers spend more time questioning and that they use a variety of methods for doing so: cold calling, probing deeper, getting pupils to emulate what has been shown and so on, but what is the best method for doing so?

I believe the best method for checking understanding is ‘getting it wrong’. What I mean by this is the teacher getting it intentionally wrong, presenting a contrasting example with what has just been taught. In maths, this is often referred to as a ‘non-example’.

Put simply, a non-example is something that is not an example of what has been taught, and therefore seeks to secure understanding through direct contrast. It is proof by contradiction. By saying what isn’t, we can say what is. Aristotle once intimated that, “A real definition will give you the necessary and sufficient conditions for an object to be an instance of the concept”. Without those conditions, we have a non-example.

Imagine children have just been taught what a square is. The teacher then presents the children with a picture of a triangle. “So, is this a square?” the teacher asks. The same could be done with democracy, photosynthesis, singing in harmony – as long as something has a definition or necessary conditions, this method can be used.

Presenting something that contrasts provokes the learner into thought: ‘Is this the same as what I have just been taught? Yes or no? If not, what makes it different?’

This cognitive conflict is something we should seek to embed within our instruction. It helps the learner to clarify their understanding and present it in a coherent manner – “This isn’t….. because……”. Pupils sometimes find it easier to define what something isn’t, rather than what something is.

Non-examples intentionally lack certain characteristics and this is what helps to clarify the boundaries for the learner.

So, ‘getting it wrong’ helps the learner to secure their understanding and it helps the teacher to ascertain what, and if, the learner has understood.

Why ‘Early Reading’ is problematic

The phrase ‘early reading’ encompasses an awful lot. We perhaps think of the phrase as strictly referring to children in either reception, year one or year two. However, in my experience, this is where the problem lies. ‘Early reading’ does not refer solely to those who are the youngest; it refers to anyone who is in the formative stages of their reading development, regardless of age.

Why is this problematic, you ask?

Well, without considering who is in the early stages of their reading journey, we end up with children in year 5 or 6 doing independent, silent reading with the rest of the class, when they cannot decode efficiently. This occurs simply because these children are deemed to be beyond the stage of ‘early reading’, because they are older than the age we normally attribute to early reading.

Some children need extra help from the start. Sufficient time must be given to ensuring these children undertake the school’s phonics programme. They will need extra practice. Without this necessary support, these children will go in to key stage two without being able to read in line with their peers. They fall by the wayside and the gap between them and their peers widens.

Consequently, these pupils travel through the key stage two curriculum being unable to read and therefore unable to access the curriculum (at least in part). They begin to dislike reading and see it as a chore, because they are being forced to look at something everyday that is unknown and insurmountable. They read less as a result and the gap continues to grow. I saw this countless times as a year 6 teacher. As I told my school leadership at the time, we had failed these children.

So, what is the solution?

These pupils need intensive 1:1 or small group interventions throughout EYFS, KS1 and throughout KS2, until they are confident enough to read alone. They absolutely must not be left to read independently with the rest of the class when they cannot access it. Treat these children as if they are in the stages of ‘early reading’. Give them the support they need and deserve. The same principle applies for those in KS3 or KS4 who struggle to read (e.g. a new pupil who has joined from another country).

For greater insight into how to achieve this, I highly recommend you buy ‘The Art and Science of Teaching Primary Reading’ by Christopher Such – be you a primary or secondary teacher.