Since my first year as a teacher, I’ve been working primarily with small target groups of low ability students, many of whom have special educational needs. I’d had training in special education in university, but as is so often the case in teaching, most of what I know now, I learned on the job. One of the challenges I face with these target groups is low confidence. I often work with students who never really “got” Maths, never really liked it or aren’t accustomed to putting much effort into their work in general.
During lessons in that first year, starters, examples, plenaries and tasks were regularly met with comments about how easy they were. The most vocal students took their time starting tasks, casually glancing around at their peers, smirking. The more quiet students would keep their heads down and start the task hesitantly. Despite the bravado, those students who decried the task’s level of challenge often struggled considerably with the work, often rushing through it, leaving behind a trail of misunderstanding and lack of effort. The negative atmosphere in the classroom was palpable.
RUle #1: we don’t say the word “easy” in our lessons
While I’ve learned a lot from INSET sessions and colleagues, a lot of the strategies that I now employ have been developed in response to pet peeves in the classroom and the “easy” façade was one of them. At the start of every academic year, one of my very few major rules is that we don’t say the word ‘easy’ in our lessons. This always goes along with a class discussion. I ask the class why they think I have this rule. We go through how what some students find easy, others may not and visa versa. We imagine how people might feel if they find a topic quite challenging and one of their peers comments out loud how easy it is. So far, all of my students have been very understanding of this. They sometimes forget over the first few weeks, but they adjust. You’ll be surprised how adopting this simple strategy can strengthen the confidence of students in themselves and in their work.
Omitting the word easy from one’s vocabulary encourages creativity and thoughtfulness. If anyone absolutely insists on expressing their views on the work, they pause and think before saying, “This isn’t too challenging” or “I find this OK”. Lest students are saying it just for show, I always retort: “Prove it”. Contrary to my students in that first year, more often than not, they do prove it. One might argue that the aforementioned comments are a mere substitution for the omitted word and will ultimately have the same impact, but I have not found this to be the case.
Another result of this rule is that students are more comfortable making mistakes. They have all acknowledged and accepted that they are at different points in their learning and that they all have different strengths and weaknesses. It has really improved student self esteem. Quieter, more nervous students put their hands up to answer a question or explain a solution. While others might be waving their hands about with the answer on the tips of their tongues, they don’t laugh and they don’t criticise. It helps create a more comfortable, safer learning environment. Another great classroom addition that I have found can encourage and motivate students is a points and rewards table.
Sometimes I find myself wanting to use the word in lessons; it’s been an adjustment for me too. It feels natural to say to a child, “See? Wasn’t that easy?” But maybe it wasn’t, especially for students with more barriers to learning than their peers. The fact is: it doesn’t matter if it was easy or challenging – they did it!