Last week, I was fortunate enough to listen to the fabulous Lucy Crehan talk about her book ‘Cleverlands‘ at the Wellington Festival of Education.

As a teacher in an inner-city school, Lucy was exasperated with ever-changing government policy claiming to be based on lessons from ‘top-performing’ education systems. She became curious about what was really going on in classrooms of the countries whose teenagers ranked top in the world in reading, maths and science.

Determined to dig deeper, Lucy set off on a personal educational odyssey through Finland, Japan, Singapore, Shanghai and Canada, teaching in schools, immersing herself in their very different cultures and discovering the surprising truths about school life that don’t appear in the charts and graphs.

Cleverlands documents her journey, weaving together her experiences with research on policy, history, psychology and culture to offer extensive new insights and provide answers to three fundamental questions:

How do these countries achieve their high scores? What can others learn from them? And what is the price of this success?

During her talk, rather than focus on the central educational policies that these countries have, Lucy focused on six things that most of these countries do, that could be implemented in British schools, irrespective of government policy.

1. Timetables that allow for specialisation and therefore a reduced workload

Rather than teach a variety of topics to all year groups, and therefore have to plan lots of different lessons each week, most teachers in these countries specialised in teaching a few year groups, the same topics.  This allows them to specialise in what they teach, as well as dramatically reducing their planning time (as they plan to teach classes in the same year group, the same topic).

I’m not sure how feasible this is from a timetabling point of view, or from a professional satisfaction point of view (are there many teachers who would only want to teach Y8 and 9?), however, there are things we can learn from this I think.

  • If a teacher is teaching, say two Y10 groups, schedule their teaching so that they teach both classes the same topic.
  • Have a clear and comprehensive scheme of work in plan, to support teacher planning.
  • Centralise resources so teachers don’t have to spend ages preparing/printing resources e.g. in each subject, at the start of the term, print all the worksheets, booklets, homeworks that will be require in class sets, for teachers to simply pick up.

2. Regular planning and learning with colleagues

The countries all put things in place to support collaborative planning and support:

  • Weekly timetabled co-planning time.  At Durrington, we do this by having fortnightly ‘Subject Planning & Development Sessions’.  Subject teams meet to discuss ‘what are we teaching over the next fortnight and how can we teach it really well?‘  More on this here.
  • Lesson Study – teachers planning together, observing each other and then feeding back to each other in a group.  This post talks about how we have done this at Durrington.
  • Effective professional learning communities – teachers identifying an issue they want to develop, discussing it, looking at the research and then planning changes they will make to their practice.  More on this from Dylan Wiliam here.

3. Mastery Curriculum & Approach

These successful countries apply a mastery approach to their teaching.  They study fewer topics in greater depth, with students progressing through the curriculum at the same pace with the subject matter broken down into units.  The teacher doesn’t move on, until all students in the class are proficient with these key ideas.  This results in equity as the teacher waits for all students to ‘get it’ – there is never the assumption that some won’t.  Put simply, this is done by giving the weaker students greater levels of support whilst the stronger students are made to explore the topic in more depth.

Here’s a 15 minute forum by  Durrington maths teacher Kate Blight on mastery.

This approach of genuinely high expectations for all is further supported by:

  • No grammar school type selection (this doesn’t happen until age 15/16)
  • No setting by ability – how do we expect students to catch up by giving them easier work?  See Bart Simpson video below!
  • No differentiation by activity – it is seen as the job of the teacher to allow all students to access the challenging work.

4. Peer Tutoring

This is a standard part of mixed ability lessons.  Students apply to become an accredited peer tutor and are then rigorously trained in the process.  They are then expected to support their peers, with their learning, both in and out of lessons.

Here is the EEF meta-analysis on peer tutoring.

5. Introduce 10-15 minute breaks between lessons.

This is seen to:

  • aid concentration.
  • allow students to run off steam.
  • give teachers time to catch up with students at the end of the lesson.

6. Have independent study periods

Time is scheduled into the school day for students to work independently on their studies.  This encourages students to get used to sustained periods of independent concentration in a quiet environment – developing their self-discipline.  It also gives teachers time to catch up with their work.

Thanks to Lucy for a great book and a fascinating talk – much for school leaders to reflect on.

The equally fabulous Oliver Caviglioli has produced an excellent poster on Lucy’s work.  Available here.


This entry was posted in CPD Events, General Teaching and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Cleverlands

  1. Ally S. says:

    I don’t disagree with any of these points, but I think more than a few of them could also apply to lower performing nations too. For example, 1/2/5/6 are all found in the US school system. Do you think it is 3 and 4 that make the difference between US and Canada?

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