Bright Spots – What can we learn from practical subjects?

gdl-spotlight1Chris Runeckles and I wanted to examine how practical subjects address the teaching principles of modelling, explanation and practice. We chose to focus on practical subjects, as both of us teach Humanities subjects, and we wanted to consider how written based subjects could use practical based subjects to enhance their teaching. In particular, we chose to focus on modelling, explanation and practice as these are three key elements of teaching within practical based subjects. However, these three pedagogical principles cannot be seen in isolation, as they are often aided by the other principles outlined below.


Art and Design and Technology

In Art and Design and Technology there were very clear examples of how modelling can be effective in developing the independent practice of students. Emma Wade (Subject Leader Product Design and Food Technology) was explaining to her Year 8 students the next stage in producing their photo frames. She had gathered the class around one table and was modelling how to ensure that the front and back parts of the frame were aligned. What was clear from Emma’s explanation was that she had broken down her modelling into small, manageable chunks. After a review of the previous lessons’ instructions, Emma demonstrated each stage of the model in front of the class. She gave clear and explicit instructions as she modelled such as “Make sure that the edges line-up exactly”. At the same time, she was showing the students what she meant by her instructions on her own product. This enabled the students to physically see what they were producing and what the instructions looked like in ‘real life’. Emma finished her explanation by showing the class what a finished product looked like. This not only made her instructions concrete, in the eyes of the students, but it also allowed the students to see ‘excellence’ and therefore aspire to achieve the same standard.


Across the corridor in Graphics, Ray Burns was teaching his Year 8 group. Ray was using the same technique as Emma, of grouping the class around one desk but this time the students were completing tasks as Ray modelled the ‘best practice’. Again, Ray had broken down the explanation into manageable ‘bite-size’ chunks for the students to follow. Clear, explicit instructions followed such as “Draw a horizontal line all the way across the middle of your page”, “Write ‘pencil’ in the top box” and “Write ‘pen’ in the bottom box”. The students were easily able to follow these instructions and therefore had created an accurate template. The students then moved outside into the corridor, where Ray continued to model the task using A3 paper. However, this time he involved the class in a much more direct fashion. Throughout the next phase of his model explanation, Ray questioned the class. He used a combination of descriptive questions – what am I doing? – and explanatory questions – why am I doing this? – to enable the students to construct the explanation with him. This enabled Ray to physically construct the model example in front of the class, but to also assess the students’ understanding of how and why they were going to complete the task. It also allowed Ray to address any misconceptions that students may have had in relation to their drawing technique, such as ‘Why shouldn’t I draw the foreground first?’.

In both cases, students were allowed to practice the techniques following the modelling of the task. What struck me about both lessons, was how quickly and effectively students were able to begin the task following the explanation. There were very few students who needed to question what to do or how to do it, with the vast majority of students content to begin their practice. This allowed the two teachers to move around the class and provide feedback to the students as they were practising. The amount of verbal feedback that students are provided with was very noticeable in Gail Christies’ (Director of Art and Design and Technology) Year 10 lesson. Her students were fully engaged in deliberate practice, constructing a self-portrait from black and white photographs. When speaking to the students, it was evident that Gail had clearly modelled the task in previous lessons, but was now able to engage in a constant dialogue with the class and individual students. Gail’s feedback was focussed on improving the students’ technique such as, “Use small brushes for under the eyes” or “You need to show more contrast in your colours by using more white”,  and involved reviewing the modelling that had previously taken place. These constant tweaks to the students’ practice ensured that the outcome was of the highest possible quality.


Often the last subject on the bright spots walk due to the cold and muddy conditions it involves, PE teachers can teach us a lot about modelling, practice and explanation.  Chris Moyse has previous produced an excellent post about what we can learn from PE staff.

Head of PE, Tom Pickford, was teaching his Year 10 students about antagonistic muscles. Whilst this was a theory lesson, the students were still involved in a practical element. Tom had asked his students to complete some press-ups on the floor and when they returned to their seats he questioned them on what they had learnt. Tom used a clear, systematic questioning technique by asking probing questions such as ‘When were your muscles working? or ‘When were your muscles contracting?’. These questions were related to what the students had just done (the model) and encouraged the students to verbally demonstrate what they had learnt. He then proceeded to model different ways in which muscles are working or not working using a range of contexts, such as lifting a dumbbell or performing a crucifix manoeuvre on the rings as a gymnast. This was a clear way of modelling one piece of information, but in a variety of contexts, using concrete examples. As a result, his students would be more confident when applying this knowledge in an exam situation.


Ryan de Gruchy (NQT) was teaching a Year 11 basketball lesson. The students were engaged in deliberate practice (a match situation) which allowed them to practice their new skills and understanding. What is important about a match situation is that the context is ever-changing and as such the students need to be able to constantly adapt their understanding and apply it in different ways. Ryan further enhanced this aspect of the lesson, by increasing the challenge level, through changing the game scenario to incorporate 1v1 marking. In addition, he was providing constant feedback to the students which led to subtle, but important improvements in their shooting or passing techniques.

RQT Nathan Poole demonstrated how modelling is second nature for PE teachers and is a vital part of their teaching toolkit.  Nathan was teaching a gymnastic lesson, focusing on vaulting.  Nathan (while admitting gymnastics was not his strongest suit) modelled three different vaulting techniques while the students watched.  What was clear was that the students watched carefully.  The students expect to physically see what they are about to perform in PE lessons and therefore pay full attention to it while it happens.  Once Nathan had demonstrated what he wanted to the students immediately started practicing themselves.  All students engaged and all students produced something approaching the model.  Something written subjects I’m sure would like to replicate!  During the practice Nathan noticed that some students were using the wrong technique and re-modelled what he wanted the vault to look like.  Again the results were clear with immediate revisions and improvements made by the students. The visual nature of the modelling and the practice clearly play a large part in the success of this, but this idea of checking and remodelling is one that has implications for many subjects.

Performing Arts


Watching Beth Maughan teach music was a great example of how students expect to practice until they get it right in practical subjects.  Students were working on a blues composition for an assessment.  I was watching two boys practice their piece.  What the keyboard gives better than any teacher is immediate feedback when you make a mistake.  Playing a wrong note is hard to miss and students will continually practice a sequence until they complete it mistake free.  Therefore the boys were happy to keep doing it, keep getting it wrong and repeat until it got better.  The process was painstaking but I asked them whether either of them played keyboard out of school and neither did.  Here were two students prepared to do something they were unfamiliar with, fail at it, but not be put off trying it again.  Thinking how we can find the metaphorical “wrong note” to flag up to students where they are making mistakes is important if we are to see students not only practice but practice perfect, using the process to improve rather than embed mistakes.  Model answers are key here for many subjects so students can see the “wrong notes” when writing an answer or completing an equation.

Drama teacher Dave Hall demonstrated the subtlety of getting explanation right.  A trait of drama teachers is their skill of using their voices and bodies to tap into what will best help students understand them.  Dave played the role of the director stopping the students mid-performance to help them understand how to improve.  Here the tone of his voice was key.  It is not always what you say but how you say it.  The students needed calming from the performance in order to take on instruction.  Dave’s voice started so softly the silence was essential in order to hear his words.  The students reflected this calm and listened.  As his instruction continued he became more animated and forceful with what he said and drawing his students into the discussion.  This is a real takeaway for teachers, we are all ultimately performers at the front of our classrooms and seeing someone who really knows what that means doing it is a great bit of CPD for us all.  He also explained what he wanted at a forensic level of detail, giving extremely specific instructions that left nothing to chance in terms of what the expectation of the students was.

Also teaching drama was head of performing arts Emily Isham.  Emily was teaching students about how to convey different attitudes and emotions within the same basic action, a handshake.  Emily felt the students weren’t quite getting it during the practice so stopped and modelled what she wanted.  She used a student to help her do so, modelling the two different styles she wanted.  Having done this she then continued to explain the what they were required to do, interspersing explanation and modelling.  This again showed what we can learn when observing drama teachers.  They use non-verbal and verbal cues extremely well and use the skill of performance to demonstrate what they are looking for.  Here then is another adaptation for written subjects.  When we model, always include the students directly in what we are doing, we know where we are going but allowing the students to help lead us there will increase their buy-in to the finished product.  Also be very explicit when explaining to students to different stages we are going through and the value that they give to the finished product.

What our observations have shown is that modelling is very much a key aspect of teaching within a practical based subject. However, this should also apply to those subjects which are written based. The importance of modelling allows students to see and understand what their work should look like. As teachers, modelling allows us to demonstrate the ‘best’ technique of producing a benchmark of excellence. Nevertheless, it is important not to presume that students know how to do something they have never been taught before. Through a combination of explicit modelling and directed questioning, teachers can set the bar high and students will be able to reach that level.

Overall, it is easy to highlight the differences between our subjects and emphasise the problems in taking ideas from one and using them in others.  This is often for good reason and the principles of teaching must be applied in a way that works for that subject.  However, teachers of certain subjects have certain characteristics and often develop mastery of a particular skill because it is essential to their discipline.  By observing these skills and taking those common characteristics that work we can find the ways to adapt our own practice.  This is particularly true when it comes to observing teachers of practical subjects demonstrate modelling, explanation and practice.

Posted by Martyn Simmonds and Chris Runeckles

This entry was posted in Bright Spots, General Teaching. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Bright Spots – What can we learn from practical subjects?

  1. Pingback: 2016 – a Review | Class Teaching

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