A few years ago, while I was a head teacher rather than a retired head teacher, I visited New York with a number of colleague, London heads. We were interested in how some New York schools were managing to do so well with some disadvantaged students. One of the schools we visited was a KIPP, Knowledge is Power Programme, school. I can’t do the school justice by trying to describe it in a few words but suffice it to say that I was the most sceptical at the start of the visit and at the end of the week I was planning to take some of my own school leadership team back to New York to see what we could learn. After that SLT revisit we built our own, English version of the induction programme we had observed. One of the most impressive elements of what we had seen was the way students were asked to pay attention to not only the teacher but also the other student in the class.
I will describe part of what we did.
In the KIPP school the teacher used a trigger phrase, “Watch Me” and pointed to his eyes and all students had to stop what they were doing and focus on the teacher. They did truly focus on what he did and what he said. The difference between the New York Version and the sometimes shabby version that I seen in many, including my own, English schools was the degree of engagement that the New York students showed compared to the English students. I am sure you will have experienced the difficulty of getting all students to put their pens down, focus on me scenario that makes this attention getting process a little fraught and one that sometimes needs a disciplinary response.
What was even more impactful was that the teacher could say, “Watch Joanne” and students would give Joanne their full and focused attention. Joanne would be explaining something or answering in a tentative, exploring way that learners need to do to further their understanding. What was super was the respect in which all learners were held, evidenced by the attention given.
Clearly one can’t just walk into a classroom in any school and utter the magic “Watch Me” words and expect the degree of compliance needed. Students have to be trained to know what to do, and critically why they are doing this. Students must understand why this is for them and for their learning. Teachers also need to be consistent in their delivery of “Watch Me” and use this technique for learning and never for (mis)behaviour management.
It works as a whole school system and this degree of agreement between teachers will be difficult to achieve. Some will object, for a whole variety of reasons, and these objections may be silenced by the learning impact of the technique. Or the objectors will win the day and “Watch Me” will not be part of your school. Shame but democracy is more important than learning, is it not?