pace is thinking

The concept of a lesson's 'pace' has endured for decades. But what is it? And as a classroom teacher or an observer, is it a useful thing to focus on?

Let's look at what pace isn't.

Pace is not speed.

This is an easy trap to fall into, asking questions such as is the lesson moving on, keeping children engaged? Are children given the opportunity to start working independently quickly enough or is there too much teacher talk? Are next steps in learning introduced as soon as children start to get things right?

These are the wrong questions to ask.

Let's take each in turn...

Engagement is the wrong unit to monitor a lesson's pace. Of course, we want children to enjoy their learning but if they don't, does that mean lesson pace was too slow or too fast? There are a plethora of reasons why children are or are not engaged within a lesson and there is no clear association between this and the quality of their learning. For example, many years ago, I remember creating a fantasy settings writing unit that used Mario Kart as a stimulus. You've never seen engagement like it but did it impact positively on learning? Not a chance.

Moving children to independent learning ASAP has long been seen by many as good practice. Get them doing right? Wrong. This approach may in theory limit the chance of overloading working memory but it is flawed. In schools where this is regular practice, it is typical for the whole class, teacher-led element to be front loaded. Meaning lots of instructions, modelling and transient information with limited opportunities for children to follow the modelled process. Ironically, with so much going on, the chances are this approach will lead to cognitive overload for many children.

'Too much teacher talk' is synonymous with poor lesson pace but it comes from the same misguided principle as getting children to an independent stage of a lesson ASAP. Advocates are tapping into elements of cognitive load but it misses the point. You're better off teaching in small steps and having a back and forth between teacher-led and child-practice elements of a lesson. In other words, an I do, we do, you do, repeat lesson format.

About a decade ago, schools (you know, because Ofsted) judged progress in a lesson based on how quickly you could churn through lesson content and steps in learning. If a child could multiply 2 by 1 digit numbers just about correctly a couple of times, quickly move them on to 3 by 1 and 3 by 2 digits. Woe betide the teacher who got their children practicing and consolidating their learning. And the idea of depth of understanding wasn't a feature of how the Primary Framework was applied. Consequently, understanding was shallow and gaps formed but pace was seen as good.

Pace in this guise is snake oil.

So how can we qualify a view of pace that is a useful proxy for good learning? Although with its own limitations, it is far more useful and effective to view:

Pace as thinking.

If what we think about we remember and what we remember helps develop our schema, then if we are thinking (about the intrinsic task) then we are beginning the process of learning.

Monitoring lesson pace therefore becomes monitoring the extent that children are thinking. This view moves away from getting through things quickly and focuses on what children are thinking about and how deeply their are doing so. Let's look at a couple of examples.

Whole Class Reading. You want the children to look at length at one particular passage, close reading with multiple layers extracted and discussed. This could traditionally seem like a slow paced lesson. But there is potentially a lot of high quality thinking here. It's anything but slow.

Mastery Approach to Maths. Whilst mastery means different things to different people, what we can all agree on is children deepening their understanding is an active ingredient. This could be by reasoning, applying their thinking to new contexts (rather than moving on to the next) and step by step having scaffolding removed until they can consistently and independently be successful as a whole class. Again, this could traditionally be seen as slow paced but the children will likely be thinking and thinking hard.

Pace as speed v Pace as thinking.

So, pace as speed is a deeply flawed concept that is a poor proxy for learning. And that whilst not perfect, whether thinking through lessons as a class teacher or observing others, it is far more beneficial to look at pace in terms of thinking.