Busy Tricking

By Adam Boxer

At the start of her lesson, Flo has a Do Now on the board as students are coming into the room. She’s using a Carousel Whiteboard quiz with three questions on content from a few weeks ago, and three questions on the current topic. She stands carefully in the doorway, making sure that she can easily see into and out of the classroom, as well as control the number of students who are entering at any one time. She greets each student with a good morning as they come in, stops a couple of students whose uniforms need a bit of tidying and has a quiet and encouraging word with a student who has been tricky in the past. She looks back into the classroom and publicly compliments the students who have got started, saying she’s proud of them for showing how much they care about their studies.

Once all students are in the room, Flo goes to the front corner of the room and waits a minute or so before calling the register. A student puts their hand up and, seeing they have forgotten their book, she non-verbally signals to them to go get some paper from the side. Another student has a question, and she signals them to wait, and then once the register is done, quickly moves to that student and answers their question in a whisper. She quickly walks up and down the tables to check that everyone is working and so that they know she is paying attention to them. She goes back to her favourite spot in the front corner of the room, waits another minute and asks students to stop working.

Flo is very good at her job. She’s clearly got her routines down pat, and there is a lot to praise here. Her lesson start is calm and focussed, giving the students opportunity to do retrieval, giving Flo useful information about their knowledge and setting the tone for the rest of the lesson.

I’m very lucky in that I get to observe lots of lessons. Most teachers do not naturally do the things that Flo does (I certainly don’t) and it can take a lot of time, thought and practice to effectively deliver a starter like this. Some teachers have a habit of talking to the students too loudly whilst they are starting to work, some teachers are glued behind their desk and don’t get to the door. Some teachers don’t have the Do Now up on the board at the start and other teachers stand in a position which doesn’t allow them to easily scan the whole room. Flo has conquered all these steps, but there is one chink in her armour: and that relates to the way that she circulates around the room.

When I watch lessons, in most cases I either see no circulation at all, or I see teachers walking up and down the rows, taking a quick glance here and there to check that students are working. For most of my career, this is the type of circulation I used to do and it certainly has its benefits when compared to “not circulating at all.” Circulation like this reminds students that you are watching them and it helps you spot students who aren’t doing anything; the ones who have their bags on their desks and are staring off into space or the ones who haven’t brought a pen and are just sitting there waiting for one to magically appear. Being stuck behind your desk doing emails or marking doesn’t help you deal with these students, and if you don’t circulate you can almost guarantee there will be less work produced.

As I became more experienced, one of the things I noticed in my own teaching was the disconnect between “what I thought they had done” and “what they had actually done.” For example, I once asked students to write the names of five energy stores from the board, and we would use them in our check for understanding. One student kept getting the questions wrong during the check, so I let the rest of the class practice independently and went to that student. It turns out they had written the first, third and fifth energy stores from the list. “Why haven’t you written the others?” “dunno sir.”

This played itself out in many different contexts. When asking students to write a correction to their work I found that they hadn’t done it. When asking students to write the title and the date, I found that they hadn’t done it. When asking students to work in the back of their books, I found that they hadn’t done it. This wasn’t necessarily deliberate defiance or laziness, sometimes weird stuff just happens and children end up doing the unexpected. Part of our job is about preventing that from happening to start with (and this is where clarity of instruction is important), but a big part of our job is also noticing when it does happen. So I set about trying to deliberately notice, both in my own lessons and in lessons I observed. There were only two ways I could figure out how to do this; either by taking the books in or by looking at the work in class. I tried to avoid the former on account of never wanting to take books home ever, and instead opted for the latter.

On circulation, I started shifting away from “checking the students were working” and towards “actively looking at the work students were doing.” I started seeing a lot of strange stuff throughout their work, but the biggest issues were when students were doing their starter/Do Now. During this, I noticed that students looked like they were working really hard in that their pen was to paper and they were writing, but they actually weren’t doing all that much. I saw students who were:

  1. Very carefully and deliberately copying down the title and date, making extensive use of their highlighters and variously coloured gel pens and rulers;
  2. Just copying out the questions and leaving space for the answers (which they then filled in during whole class review);
  3. Writing “answer stems”, where they started writing an answer in full sentence like this: “Bacteria make you feel ill because”;
    And then leave a space. During review, they fill in the rest of the answer (“they produce toxins”) and tick it as correct.

My colleagues and I have come to call this kind of activity Busy Tricking. It’s where a student is definitely busy, but only at the surface. They are tricking you into thinking that they are engaged in the work, when all they are doing is engaged in the surface details of the work.

There is no good way to detect Busy Tricking that doesn’t involve purposeful circulation that intensely scrutinises students’ work:

  • ● Purposeful: you aren’t just walking past to check they are working
  • ● Intense scrutiny: you look carefully at what students are actually writing and correct them if they are Busy Tricking

There are three more aspects to consider:

  1. Timing: your circulation should only start once Golden Silence has descended — the point at which students are fully engrossed in their task. Any earlier and it may distract students or students may think you aren’t paying attention to them any more and may bubble up.
  2. Targeting: if you are lucky enough to get Golden Silence really quickly, then get to your strongest students first, as they will likely have written quite a bit already and you can then give them feedback. If it’s been longer than that though, get to your weakest students first, as these are the ones most likely to either need help or to need a bit of a nudge to stop Busy Tricking.
  3. Talking — short, sharp, shhh conversations: when you do find a student who is Busy Tricking, try and get your message across as quickly and as quietly as you can. If you are too noisy, you disturb other students, and if you let it drag out too long you lose the chance to see any other students and risk off-task behaviour.

It’s a difficult habit to get into at first, but once you do it you’ll start to see students doing so many weird things that you’ll never look back. So in sum, get them started, then get circulating. And make sure you do it actively, purposefully and with intense scrutiny.

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➢ Photo by Armin Rimoldi from Pexels

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Carousel is a retrieval practice and online quizzing tool that helps students to embed knowledge in their long-term memory.

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Carousel Learning

Carousel Learning

Carousel is a retrieval practice and online quizzing tool that helps students to embed knowledge in their long-term memory.

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