Responsive teaching

Keeping learning on track

Hey 👋

How’s it going? Welcome to autumn (or spring for you southern hemmies), and the first Snack in a new series… let’s go.

Big idea 🍉

Responsive teaching entails adjusting our approach, to meet the needs of our students, regularly throughout the learning process.

We can contrast this with rigid teaching, where we simply follow a plan or our own intuition. It's a bit like using a smartphone app vs road atlas. Google maps can identify a crash on the M25 (big motorway around London) and re-route us accordingly. An atlas would just deliver us blindly into congestion.

The more we make small course-corrections as we go, grounded in rigorous data, the more efficiently we help our students get from A to B.

Why should we care?

Responsive teaching is important because it's super hard to predict exactly what our students will know at any given point—and yet learning happens best when people build on and with what they already know.

Part of this prediction problem lies in the relationship between teaching and learning. Just because we've taught it doesn't mean they've learnt it. In fact, due to initial differences in prior knowledge, we can almost guarantee that our students will come away with a different understanding to that which we had anticipated. A few might well get it perfectly, but some will inevitably build only a partial understanding, and others may even develop a misconception.

If we assume they've learnt what we've taught—and as result, we just stick with our plan or our own intuition—it's likely we'll drift further off track, and the variation (gap) in student understanding will grow even greater.

“The most important single factor influencing learning is what the learner already knows. Ascertain this and teach them accordingly.”

— David Ausubel

How can we be more responsive?

There are 3 foundational features:

  1. Avoid assumption Adopt the mindset of assuming our students haven't learnt anything until we have evidence to suggest otherwise.

  2. Check for understanding Assess what they know (and don't), regularly throughout the lesson, in reliable and efficient ways.

  3. Pivot accordingly As part of this, we intentionally consider course-correction… this could be (A) moving on as planned (B) re-teaching a particular aspect to the whole class (C) moving on and targeting specific students for early support.

Now, we'll go into the details of how best to check for understanding in the following snacks, but to begin with, it's important just to get a clear sense of the above foundational features.

Caveat → Responsive teaching may be powerful, but it's not easy to implement. It requires substantial mental bandwidth, a high degree of skill, and a big dose of humility (because we'll often find that our teaching just didn't work). This is why strong classroom routines and fluency in the basics (such as behaviour management or explaining ideas) are critical things to crack first.


• Responsive teaching entails making small course-corrections, based on student need, to more efficiently get from A to B.

• We should care because it’s hard to predict what our students know, and yet knowing what they know is critical for effective teaching.

• This all works best when we have strong routines in place and have mastered the basics of teaching.

ChallengeHow responsive is your teaching? What might you do to further avoid assumption, check for understanding, or pivot accordingly?

Little links 🥕

It’s nice to be back.

Peps 👊

PS. For those of you who fancy sharing the love (for evidence), here’s a Snacks poster you can print out and stick up in your staffroom.