According to TV programmes I watched as a boy in the 1970s, we should all now be getting around in hover cars, like the ones to the left. In fact, this was due to be commonplace by the year 2000, I seem to recall. I haven’t seen that many! What we’ve done instead is quite sensible – take the basic design of a car and just tweak it, to make it better – more efficient, more comfortable, more environmentally friendly etc. There are some parallels with education here. We’ve been led to believe that all sorts of things were going to be the golden future of education e.g. brain gym, learning styles and of course google. Why would we need teachers, when students can just plug in and google what they need to know? Independent learning like this was seen as the way forward. This was progress. Like the hover cars, this doesn’t seem to have worked brilliantly. In fact the most effective teachers I know and have known, have ignored these gimmicky approaches, taken what has always worked and just developed it slightly.
I was reminded of this on Thursday of last week, when I had the pleasure of hearing Martin Robinson speak at the West Sussex Deputies Network. Martin was encouraging us to be careful of heading full speed into new innovative educational approaches, in the name of progress, whilst ignoring the wisdom and effectiveness of a more traditional approach to education. He put it far more eloquently than me:
“The continual thrust into the golden future is uncertain”
“Admire and learn from the ruins of the past, or rush into the ruins of the future?”
We should know this by now. The likes of brain gym and learning styles are now discredited (mostly, sadly they still linger in some quarters) – they are no longer the panacea that they were once thought to be. Alongside this, I strongly believe that we have much to learn, from teachers who have refined their craft over many years, and so have many years of excellent student exam results to their name. One of my most popular blogs was on Mr Clarke – my wife’s chemistry teacher, who did amazing things in his classroom in South Wales for decades. Similarly, but closer to home, I have also written about an amazing DHS science teacher, Pam McCulloch, who also achieved fantastic results. These are the people that we should be learning from – and this is what we’ve tried to do at DHS. We don’t prescribe a way of teaching, we just ask teachers to focus on developing six aspects of teaching, that these two masters of their craft did, day in and day out. They are free to implement these principles in a way that best suits them:
This is what great teaching is all about – and the really great teachers that we see, do this effortlessly. No gimmicks, no fuss, no over elaborated activities that are primarily designed to entertain – just good, solid and effective teaching. They work on the assumption that it’s worth doing something that will make a difference to student learning and can be implemented easily on a daily basis. There’s no point in doing something that can’t be sustained.
To illustrate this, this is what we see our very best teachers doing in their classrooms every day:
- They expect all of their students, irrespective of their starting points, to work hard and make progress. Slacking is not allowed.
- They will have single, challenging learning objectives and support all students to aspire to meet them. No ‘All, most, some’.
- They use and insist on students using appropriate, academic language.
- They expect students to articulate their ideas through extended writing regularly
- They expect homework to be done by the language they use ‘When you have done your homework, we will go through it’ instead of ‘If you do your homework….‘
- They understand that they need to take the time to discuss and impart new knowledge and ideas to students. ‘Finding it out for themselves’ is not an effective strategy.
- They will use visual aids to support their explanation e.g. images, objects etc.
- They will find out what students already know and then build on this to further their understanding.
- They will make their explanations memorable, in a variety of ways!
- They don’t expect students to be able to suddenly do things e.g. write an extended answer or an essay, do a practical, be great at a sporting activity, create a piece of art etc.
- They understand that students need to be shown how to do this – by breaking it down.
- They will either do this themselves, or ask other students to share with their peers how they have done it.
- Whilst showing students how to do things, they will be asking questions on the way e.g. why do we do it like that? Why did it start like that? etc
- They understand the fundamental principle of learning – that we need to repeat and recall things over and over, in order to learn it.
- So they also know that we don’t learn things in one lesson – they plan to keep coming back to things.
- This is easily done by a quick quiz at the start of a lesson about what we did last lesson, last week and last month.
- They also know that ‘Perfect Practice Makes Perfect’ – so if students are doing it wrong, they need to be told.
- They understand the importance of critiquing student work and getting them to redraft it – even if it can be boring….because often learning is hard and tedious!
- They are masters at scaffolding down a question, if a student doesn’t get the original question – they don’t just let the off the hook and pass it to someone else.
- They develop student responses – so after the initial question, the student responds, then they ask another question to the same student, to develop their thinking further.
- They keep them hanging on – so they don’t know who the question is aimed at until the last second ‘I want to know the two products of photosynthesis….(pause)…..John’
- They understand that closed questions are just as important as open questions, because they tell them if students have picked up the key ‘surface knowledge’.
- They use student responses to questions, to inform their planning – in that lesson or next lesson. So if they found some questions hard, don’t move on – go back over it.
- They realise that feedback should make students (a) think about their work (b) do something to improve it.
- They also realise that they have to be smart bout feedback i.e. make it meaningful for students, but manageable for them.
- One strategy they use a lot is live marking in the lesson – so as students are working, discuss their work and then write a question on their book, based on the work they are doing, that they have to respond to – then come back and check they have responded in a few minutes.
- They make sure that students are ‘self marking’ work as you go through it in lessons – and that they are correcting their work.
- They plan DIRT into their lessons – but make sure students have had the input from them, about how to make the improvement (if they couldn’t do a question for homework, how will they be able to do it at the start of the next lesson, if they haven’t had any other input?).
I’m not sure that there is a path to some golden, educational future. But I do think we should look to our very best teachers, past and present, and learn from what they do. Because it works. A good place to start? The ‘cynics corner’ in the staffroom – they are often (not always) cynical for a good reason i.e. they know what works in their classroom, but have been told that they should be doing it differently (madness!). At DHS Andy Tharby and I are going to scrutinise the practice of our most effective teachers – the ones that get consistently excellent outcomes from their students – and share this with our staff.
And finally, stop blaming OFSTED. They don’t prescribe a way of teaching – all too often it’s SLTs misinterpreting their framework and insisting on a ‘tick box’ approach to teaching. This is not helpful and will have crushed many a teacher over the years. If what they are doing is working, let them carrying on doing it and learn from them. At the same conference on Thursday was the excellent Vic Goddard. Vic talks a lot of sense, but these two snippets should make us all think about our practice as teachers and leaders:
“Look in the mirror first, before you look out of the window.”
“Give your school a score out of 10. That score is you.”