Doug Lemov's field notes

Reflections on teaching, literacy, coaching, and practice.

05.01.24My England Travelogue Part 3: A Really Wonderful CFU Workshop in London

Participants discussing a video at our London workshop…What an amazing group!!


Last week I shared two blog posts here and here about my week-long trip to England the week prior, in which I visited two really fascinating schools.

The week ended with a two-day workshop in London on the topic of Checking for Understanding, co-sponsored by Ark Schools (thank you Victor Voutov, the king of workshop logistics!). My co-facilitator was the outstanding Jen Rugani, on whose behalf I can confidently say: We loved leading this workshop!

Participants’ level of insight, knowledge and commitment to student outcomes was equaled only by their willingness to enthusiastically engage in practice and learning.

A couple of my own personal takeaways from the workshop

The Power of Double Practice for Reflection

Jen and I tested out a new model of practice that we call ‘double practice.’  We used it when practicing the skill of cueing our Means of Participation… that is, reliably signaling to students how we wanted them to answer a given question. The “double” part refers to the idea that we each went twice with a bit of reflection in between.

So, when we modeled the practice Jen started, practicing cueing students to an Everybody Writes prompt, for example, after which I did the same. But then before we went on to practicing cueing a new MOP, we added another round where we practiced again and before hand would each reflect on 1) how we were going to try to practice differently the second time around (“this time I want to try adapting it for a little more of a challenging prompt so I’m going to be attentive to my tone of voice and try to make it sound interested and curious”) or 2) what we wanted to take or steal from the other person’s practice (“I really liked the way you said we’d hear from a variety of voices” afterwards which let me know you might be cold calling. I’m going to try to steal that.”) Then we’d practice again.

It took a bit longer—both in our model of the activity and in the time we had to allocate to it in the workshop–but we felt really strongly that it was worth it because it socialized participants to be attentive to adaptation: what and why and how am I changing or adapting what I am doing to the context or the question. It caused people to practice decision-making and meta-cognition and reduced the risk of more mechanical practice.

It’s worth noting that we were able to do this because the group was advanced and skilled at the basics already. With a group of NQTs we might have done something more straightforward, at least at first.

One participant offered this reflection, which helped us to see additional benefits:

“REALLY loved the double deliberate practice. I think it lowers the stakes because you know if your first one is weird or rubbish, you can immediately try and do better. It’s just better for your learning too, to have more opportunities to try it. Also love the flex that more expert teachers could try things multiple ways/try their usual way v a new way etc. – will help to maintain buy in from our TLAC old-timers!”

So we’re sold on this slightly deeper dive into practice with each participant practicing, reflecting on adaptation and then practicing again.

The ‘Benefits and Limitations’ Reflection

Another activity that we used in a new way was something we call “benefits and limitations.” This is an activity in which, after discussing one or more techniques, we ask participants to reflect on what value they add and how they are limited. It’s designed again to cause maximum reflection on what technique why and when. I think this applies to almost any technique. The risk of having a hammer is that you suddenly think everything is a nail. And so it’s a really useful exercise.

We applied it to mini whiteboards specifically.

To be clear, I really like mini-whiteboards and think they can be an excellent tool. So when we discussed their benefits, we talked about how easy they made it to check for understanding with a large group, how they could allow you to do so while maintaining the pace of instruction, how something about their use felt formative and low stakes in nature. Hooray for all that.

But a beneficial tool overused can be a liability and I must honestly say that I have seen mini-whiteboards occasionally overused.

For example, because they are so easy to use and they involve all students (or can!) they are often the easiest way for a hesitant teacher to cause a plausible level of interaction. And so, arguably, they can become a little bit of a crutch. Because they are easy and achieve a basic level of engagement, they can allow you not to use the higher risk moves of Turn and Talk or hand raising or Cold Call that a teacher would ideally also use.

Or consider that the writing on MWBs is disposable. It is erased as soon as it is done, and that’s fine sometimes but for something important (a key definition; a summary of a discussion) I might want students to be able to refer back to it or even re-write it. So the disposability also has downsides.

So too does the fact that it often socializes scrawling… fast slightly less attentive writing as compared to slower deliberate more memory building writing. Even the boards themselves, which are sometimes so well-used that they are more mini gray boards than mini white boards, as in the picture below, can make them feel hasty and the writing less than fully important.

Again this is the flip side of the formative low-stakes benefits.

The idea is not that MWBs are inherently good or bad but that they have benefits and limitations and I want to be aware of them so I can match them to the context. 

The benefits and limitations activity does that and our group in London was brilliant in their insights.

Other Moments of Insight from the Workshop.

A teacher at the workshop had a really interesting observation about Do Nows… he noted that what starts out as a short intro to the lesson often becomes the lesson–that is it lasts 20 minutes–when it reveals misunderstandings. He observed that this was less likely to happen when the Do Now was 1) on a topic separate from the main lesson and 2) a review of previous errors (as you are describing here).


By choosing and planning for the error you’re less likely to be caught off guard for it and try to think up a solution in the moment. You can keep your do now to 5-7 minutes because you’ve planned the error and your re-teach already. And you know it’s coming.


Anyway I thought that was a great observation.


Another participant was reflecting on disincentives to Check for Understanding. If you asked really substantive questions she noted, you were likely to uncover big misconceptions or gaps in understanding. This would require a large fix and perhaps some psychological distress. The incentives for many teachers then were to ask simpler smaller CFU questions along the theme of be careful of asking questions you’re not prepared to deal with the answers of.


And I’m not sure I know the solution—other than consciousness of the issue itself possibly being mildly curative—but I thought it, like so much of what we talked about with our lovely colleagues, was deeply insightful.


Next Up: Bristol


Anyway our next England-based workshop will be in June, in Bristol and we hope you can join us.

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