Some thoughts on ‘pace’

File:The Tortoise and the Hare - Project Gutenberg etext 19994.jpg

A notoriously unhelpful piece of lesson observation feedback is that there was insufficient ‘pace’. Of course, in discussion this might be teased out and made sense of, but sometimes it is left unclear, or (worse) it can reflect a misunderstanding of what the teacher was doing, or of how a subject works.

The difficulty, of course, is that ‘pace’ (in any meaningful sense) is about things that are subjective.

Pace has been written about a lot, but – in case it’s of any use or interest – here is my own take on it. Nothing original – just some accumulated thoughts.

(Image from The Æsop for Children, illustrated by Milo Winter, Project Gutenburg)

What is ‘pace’?

It’s not about coverage. There is nothing intrinsically good about getting through lots of content in a lesson. Teachers know that depth, reflection, practice and over-learning are important, and that racing on to something new or packing in more detail is not necessarily helpful. If content is being held back unhelpfully, then this is really about challenge – not unconnected to ‘pace’, but its own issue.

What is termed ‘pace’ is not really speed, but learning momentum. This is the way that learners are drawn through a lesson without ‘sagging’. For example, a discussion of a detailed point might be meticulous and extended, but if it is still energetic and focused then the pace of the lesson can still be maintained.

Pace is in the way a lesson flows strongly from ‘learning moment’ to ‘learning moment’. This might be generated by having a variety of activities or clear phases throughout a lesson, but it might also be generated by the way an explanation or a discussion moves from key point to key point, and the way that these points are sign-posted or celebrated, for example by writing them on the board, or by verbal emphasis.

Pace is very closely related to ‘challenge’. If the level of content or of required skills is not challenging learners, then the pace will feel slow to them, however fast-moving the lesson.

Pace is closely linked to the mood of a lesson – to how purposeful or energised learners are feeling.

Pace can be uneven across a group. For example, involved individuals might be swept along, full of energy and focus, while others are disengaged and sagging. Good pace is therefore dependent on teaching and activities being properly pitched and inclusive, and on discussion and exploration being collective rather than the preserve of the loud, the confident or the enthusiastic.

 Good pace can depend on…

  • … the first few minutes of a lesson: what pupils are given to do, how the lesson is introduced, and the way the mood is established
  • … a sense of shared purpose, possibly through the stating of a clear agenda for the lesson
  • challenging teaching which is pitched high
  • responsive teaching, in which the teacher adapts and diverts skillfully
  • explanations which create a sense of illumination in the lesson
  • modelling which puts a strong charge on learning and activity
  • questioning which is genuine and which propels thinking
  • feedback which is formative and immediate, woven into teaching and organic to activities
  • … direct instruction which is interactive and dialogic
  • … the weaving together of whole-class, individual and pair or group work into a smooth whole
  • energetic teaching (This doesn’t necessarily mean lively and extrovert teaching: energy can be quietly focused.)
  • … activities which are inclusive, and discussions and explorations which are collective
  • … the varying of focus, and clearly marked phases in the lesson
  • modulations of mood or degrees of formality which are well-signaled and as effortless as possible
  • … clear and comprehensive instructions which anticipate pupils’ needs, to avoid false-starts to activities, or loss of focus or engagement by individuals
  • … very clear timings for any activities, reinforced with count-downs and signals
  • … repeated reminders of how learning events or points are relevant, important or helpful to longer term aims
  • … the clear signposting, celebration and noting of key learning points or achievements
  • … the maintaining of momentum at transitions between activities, which often need careful planning; for example, it is usually possible to keep talking while materials are handed out
  • … the avoidance of dead time (for register taking, or administrative tasks, for example) when students have nothing to do or learn
  • … the tactical deferral when necessary of questions and interruptions, however well-intentioned or pertinent
  • … dealing with any off-task or disruptive behaviour without ‘breaking step’, so that the flow of the lesson is maintained

See also: Making the investment

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