21 October 2014

Lessons from Training

I'm a little embarrassed to admit this... Yesterday I went on a Speed Awareness Course. Teachers are meant to be good role models and upstanding citizens. But I encourage my students to admit when they make mistakes and learn from those mistakes, so I'm leading by example. I was caught (marginally) exceeding the speed limit. Still, all is not lost. By doing the course, I not only have a clean driving licence, I'm also a far better driver. Fifteen years after I passed my driving test, four hours of driver education was well worth it.

It's been a long time since my last training course. Since qualifying as a teacher I've only been on two external courses - one was about teaching Additional Mathematics and the other was about improving results at Key Stage 5. That's a big contrast to my previous career when I went on training courses every couple of months. I never paid much attention to the format and delivery of the courses I went on. But this time I did.

In this post I want to discuss some of my observations about how this training course was run and whether the ideas transfer to educating children.

Observation 1: Voting
My eyes lit up when I saw interactive voting devices on the tables yesterday. In my last Gems post I said that I'd never had the opportunity to use these so couldn't comment on their effectiveness. But yesterday I got the chance to experience them as a learner.

I loved them! Throughout the four hour session we used them on five occasions - they were used for knowledge checks eg 'what is the national speed limit on a dual carriageway?' (I got that wrong), to gather information eg 'where are you least likely to speed?' ('outside schools' was the most popular answer) and to collect feedback eg 'was this course effective?'. As a learner, I found them utterly engaging. I paid attention to the course content because I knew I'd have to vote. I particularly liked it that I could answer anonymously when I wasn't confident of my answers.

Lesson learnt: Interactive voting is so engaging! And, if used well, it can be a valuable part of the learning process. These devices are expensive but the free app Plickers should be just as effective.

Observation 2: Variation
The course was well structured, starting with a painless ice-breaker followed by a talk about expectations, aims and outline, followed by the delivery of the course content. In a four hour course it was important to deliver the content in a variety of ways. We did a bit of everything: listened to the trainers, contributed ideas, watched videos, answered questions, had small group discussions and filled in worksheets. In a mixed group of 24 delegates, a handful of middle-aged men answered most of the questions. I listened with interest. I got a lot out the small group discussions. When I looked around the room, everyone seemed to be engaged for the majority of the course. This may have been because we were told we'd be tested on the Highway Code at the end (we weren't).

Lesson learnt: Don't force everyone to participate in every part of the lesson - just because they're not vocal, it doesn't mean they're not learning. Ensure activities are varied - some teaching, some discussion, some independent practice etc. Your lessons don't need to be all singing all dancing to engage students, but variation helps. Also, don't underestimate the value of regular low-stakes tests (read @Kris_Boulton's post 'How tests teach and motivate').

Observation 3: Resources
There was only one worksheet on this course and it was simple and well-designed. It was a neat size (two sides of A5), colourful and easy to complete. In one section I had to enter numerical answers. There were two columns - one for my answers and one for the correct answers. I actually showed my husband my completed worksheet when I got home (poor guy!).

Lesson learnt: Make worksheets short, sweet and easy to complete. That's not to say the questions have to be easy - but think about the format they are presented in (read @solvemymaths' post 'Make Better Resources (Part 2: Appearance and Challenge')

Observation 4: Comfort
This training course was 12.30pm to 4.30pm with one short break. I left my house at 11.15am so had no lunch. At the break there weren't even any biscuits! Absolutely nothing to eat. I was starving! My hunger caused my concentration to lapse in the second half of the course. I had no energy to sit and listen. I watched the clock, my stomach rumbling. All I could think about was biscuits.

Lesson learnt: Don't try to teach hungry or uncomfortable children. If they've worked or played sport throughout lunch and are looking weak, let them have a snack (have a bunch of bananas on your desk?). If they look pale, ask them what's wrong! Allow toilet breaks in lessons. It's impossible to concentrate if you need to go to the toilet! If a student looks sleepy or fidgety, get them to come up to the board and answer a question. We're not there to mother these children but it helps if they're in the right physical condition to learn. Oh - and if you're a Head of Department - cake in a department meeting is pretty much essential.

Observation 5: Attitude
I was reluctant to attend the course but I enjoyed it in the end. I learnt absolutely loads of new stuff and I came home with a list of things that I will genuinely do differently. At the break I overheard a delegate ask, 'Anyone else bored witless yet?'. I was quite disappointed to hear that. The trainers were doing a really good job of making a potentially dull subject very interesting.

Lesson learnt: No matter how good your content and delivery, some learners are simply resistant to learning. Those attitudes can be changed, but it will take time and effort.

Valuable lessons?
I was pleased to see there was some expectation of mathematical understanding on this course. We were shown percentages, graphs and probabilities and we calculated stopping distances. This was encouraging but, alas, there was a point at which the trainer was asked to work something out and she said, quite unashamedly, 'my maths is a bit rubbish at the moment'. A few people chuckled. These bad 'mathitudes' drive me crazy.

Overall, the course was very well run. Trainers are just like teachers. We all have to engage learners in order to impart our knowledge.

Next time you go on a training course, think about what works well and whether you can take any teaching ideas from the trainers. Being a learner for an afternoon was very helpful - a shift in perspective is a useful development tool.


  1. I confess I have also done a speed awareness course ;-)

    1. Oh good, I knew I wouldn't be the only one! Phew.