This post is based on a document I produced and circulated to the staff at Highbury Grove called 90 Lessons: A review of teaching and learning. It is an account of my observations of 90 teachers at my school between October 2014 and March 2015. Each observation was one full 50-minute lesson, followed soon after by an informal feedback discussion, working through the staff department by department.
At our best, these are the features of excellent lessons at Highbury Grove. (Comments on areas for improvement are in italics)
Behaviour and Relationships.
Over and above the BfL system, there is a strongly positive rapport between teacher and students; teachers model kindness, conspicuous warmth and promote a sense of being ‘in it together’. Teachers give lots of encouragement alongside the discipline and justice is seen to be done.
Within a culture of positive regard for students, teachers use the Behaviour for Learning system effectively to secure excellent behaviour, often pre-empting issues and preventing escalation to higher level sanctions by assertive, firm early intervention; C1s are given for low level issues; the signal for attention is used decisively with impact.
Crucially, in the best lessons, standards are very high: off-task talk is always challenged in any listening phase and work phase; silence means silence; automatic C3s (eg for being late) are given without fuss. Teachers model a mature response to secondary behaviours and focus on the learning or the required behaviours.
Where behaviour is problematic, often it’s because too many low level issues are tolerated before the system kicks in: tolerance of being late, missing equipment, calling out, undercurrent of chat etc
In the best lessons, teachers’ expert subject knowledge is used as a key resource. Students’ confidence in their teacher is evident. Effective teachers give clear explanations, going beyond the basics as needed, re-explaining in different ways to secure better understanding, adjusting the questions in response to students’ level of accuracy and confidence. Teachers engage in effective modelling: of writing, problem solving and practical tasks, showing how it is done for students to emulate and practise.
I saw good examples of whole-class writing with teachers walking through the process, using writing frames to enable students to get over the initial hurdles before letting them go on their own. In the best lessons, the supported practice stage moves into a phase where scaffolding and crib sheets have been removed, making the degree of actual learning more evident.
In a few lessons, insecure subject knowledge led to unchallenged misconceptions or difficulty answering students’ questions. Secure subject knowledge needs to be a dominant priority for CPD and discussion within departments. Let’s keep studying and talk about the content of our subjects more and not assume everyone already knows everything!
In general, I think too much work is orientated to performance in an assessment process. Whilst ostensibly a sensible strategy (they are often really good questions and there are mark schemes available), exam-question orientation can stifle the ‘love of learning’ element that is so important. More pragmatically, a focus on, say, the structure of writing can over-shadow the underlying understanding of the material or the inherent value of studying and appreciating the subject. PEE/PEAK/PEEL writing strategies are a means to an end, not an end in themselves; shouldn’t we allow time and space for more organic responses to questions which can be shaped into effective structures subsequently.
Top End Challenge.
In the best lessons, high level challenge is beyond doubt: teachers use probing questioning techniques, base lessons on rigorous material and maintain high expectations of extended verbal answers exploring the depth of understanding or process questions – eg ‘How did you work it out?’ Students are given opportunities to organise information in original ways – not always following prescribed structures; they have opportunities to design experiments or to explain concepts in creative ways. There are high expectations of outcomes eg an emphasis on ‘going for A*s’ or using GCSE questions at KS3. There is a sense that, for even the highest attainers, the work is challenging, sophisticated, not dumbed down or patronising.
Top end challenge means students are never left waiting, killing time or forced to grind through questions they can do easily; they have options. Set-piece opportunities for student input/ co-teaching/ coaching/ peer support are part of the mix of a lesson sequence – students are trusted to deliver inputs with expectations set high and planning time given. I saw some very high level student-led expositions of key concepts and excellent examples of students given coaching roles based on activities they had co-constructed with the teacher.
Creating an environment where hard work is normal.
This is done effectively in many areas with teachers using time cues for tasks – (count-down clocks on the IWB are commonly used) and the expectations for the work completion rate are made clear. The selective use of silence (real silence) and individual working are part of the mix.
Very selective use of group work.
Effective group activity is structured so that there are group goals and individual responsibilities within the groups. There is a reason for students to be working together – sharing ideas, creating products or presentations, sharing equipment. Presentations are structured so that the audience has a role – eg the need to generate questions, give structured feedback or check for errors.
Where group work is ineffective, often the task could be completed equally well by one person within a group or could be done better by each person individually. (ie the group itself adds nothing to the learning.) Invariably, in weak group work, one person does most of the thinking; the others do little – eg colour in the heading, copy data into a table or simply watch. Group work isn’t inherently ‘a good thing’ unless it takes learning further than other strategies would.
Clear Learning Objectives:
The most effective lessons have a clear learning purpose; ie they are not merely a series of tasks – it is clear what concepts and ideas the tasks are designed to explore. Importantly, Learning Objectives are articulated and explored not merely presented via PowerPoint or copied down. Beyond the immediate lesson in hand, the overall long-term plan is clear and regularly referred to. Students know where the lesson sits in a larger scheme of learning.
Some residual Must- Could-Should learning objectives are used, locked into old PowerPoint presentations. I see these as self-limiting and I’d suggest we shouldn’t ever use this structure. All students should be aiming for the top even if the steps are set out clearly. Copying down LOs is a bit of an unnecessary security blanket; a process that is unlikely to contribute to learning in itself. ‘Settler’ tasks could be more challenging – asking questions and so on, from with the LOs arise in discussion. LOs need to be understood and writing them down doesn’t equate to students actually understanding them.
Learning for memory as well as for understanding
The process of learning for long-term memory is explored explicitly; it matters that students will know things tomorrow and next week, not just today. Very simply, this is made explicit; simple techniques requiring students to recall facts and explanations from memory are routine. Synoptic and interleaved elements are woven into lessons eg as starters or in tests. Presentations are given from memory using only images or simple cue cards as prompts.
Where activities do not support memory and recall, often these tasks are based around information processing with no element of unsupported recall. For example, students select key bits of information from various sources to re-assemble it in a grid – but can’t remember what they’ve done or why afterwards. The processing isn’t enough to secure learning.
Similarly, the illusion of learning can be created where students reproduce content, bits of knowledge or sentence structures in the moment, using scaffolded prompts. However, without sufficient unsupported practice, real learning doesn’t happen. This needs to be considered very seriously – giving students ample opportunity to struggle, to fail, to try again – unsupported. This is where the learning happens.
Testing appears to me to be rather too linear and too summative; too orientated towards data collection rather than learning. We need to use tests more formatively, informing students and ourselves of where we can improve. We also need to consider deliberate planning for interleaving to secure higher levels of recall over time. This will require an overhaul of our testing regimes in some areas – the age-old ‘end of topic test’ isn’t sufficient to build up learning and recall of a whole curriculum over time.
It is clear from discourse in the lesson that the teacher is routinely setting homework; homework is a planned part of the flow of lessons, not tacked on and the arrangements and expectations for homework are given due weight and time. Students have the resources for independent study; they could go home and continue their learning.
Marking and feedback
The best practice includes sensible sustainable routines with a clear focus on actionable improvements. The Red Pen strategy is widely used to good effect. ‘Red Pen’ equates to ‘acting on feedback’ in several areas which reinforces students’ understanding of the process. Marking frequency is not the key factor; it is selective marking that generates a response that has the greatest impact.
Peer and self-assessment opportunities are part of the routine – eg with marking in class, use of video in PE or group critique sessions in Art; application of mark schemes to essays or samples of writing. In all of these cases – a focus on wrong answers and improvements generates effective learning and progress.
In general there is too much marking that students don’t respond to – lots of questions, instructions and corrections that appear to be ignored. Directed Improvement and Reflection Time (DIRT) is not a luxury; without it some students will never ever respond to marking – and therefore it is pointless unless time is given in class or explicitly for homework. Given the workload issues at play here, let’s make sure we make it count when we take the books in.
Well-presented books and efficient workflow.
There is a range of practice between and within departments but where the practice appears most effective, books indicate clear systems that teachers enforce: presentation is excellent, corrections are made, worksheets are stuck in, redrafting is evident and teachers use the assessment records to follow up on missed or sub-standard work.
Some students’ learning is hampered by excessive use of worksheets and/or poor workflow routines. Often books are impossible to use as a record of learning – there’s too much unfolding or too many scattered sheets. Similarly, standards of presentation are highly variable. Middle-set Y10s might have far worse presentation than Y7 Nurture students – simply because the expectations of them are lower.
Reading is given high status. Material presented in the lesson is read aloud and explored for meaning as part of the learning of the subject content. Talk at whole class level or in pairs is used as a precursor for writing with answers rehearsed and extended verbally. Expectations of the quality of verbal responses are high; low level answers are challenged, speech errors are corrected and mediocrity is not accepted. Various structures to ensure full participation are deployed including the use of randomisation methods so that all students prepare to share contributions – even if not everyone can answer each question.
There is still a lot more we could do. Simple routines such as “Say it again but say it better” could be far more deeply embedded, correcting errors in language, asking for more sophistication. Giving weaker students more structure with options (eg alternative connotations in English) rather than open-ended questions (‘what does X connote?’) might help students to develop the vocabulary they actually use. Giving words and phrases to use as options – eg options for openers and linking phrases – need to be consolidated to the point that students are comfortable to use them – not merely to understand them when they arise in a text.
At a basic level, we don’t use enough simple ‘think-pair-share.’ Students can be mute for successive lessons. ‘In your pairs discuss’ – it solves lots of issues and gives every student an opportunity to engage.
Teaching small groups can be flat and rather awkward. However, effective tutorial style methods seem to work really well with students gathered around a central table with the teacher.
LSAs with clear roles and briefs to support individuals support learning effectively – rather than simply being present, scanning and supporting in an ad hoc manner. It is good to see some LSAs given opportunities to teach small groups or the whole class at certain points.
Expectations of SEN/Nurture students can be higher in their specialised environment than can be the case in mainstream. Eg – the amount of writing, the opportunity to give extended presentations, to take responsibility, to present work at a high level in books.
Contenders for Whole-School approaches:
A lot of these ideas relate to some subjects more than others. However, it might be powerful for us to agree some whole-school approaches so that we have a common language and students experience improvements in specific areas across the school. Here are some suggestions, structured using the Three Arts of the Trivium:
- ‘Close the gap’ marking: systematic student responses to all marking and feedback with DIRT and redrafting. A feedback and marking policy based on quality, not quantity.
- Learning by heart; learning for recall – a school-wide focus with micro-tests and the expectation that material that is ‘covered’ is learned and memorised.
- Subject Knowledge: mapping the knowledge required for both students and teachers at KS3, KS4 and KS5, using CPD time to deepen, extend and build confidence.
- Talk for writing – the practice of rehearsing writing through dialogue.
- Celebrating authentic learning within disciplines –beyond the confines of our assessment regime. the emotions evoked by a poem, painting or play; the awe and wonder of the thermit reaction or the simplicity of some code; the inherent reward of exploring history or of ‘thinking like a sociologist’.
- The art of rhetoric: every student expected to give extended verbal expositions of ideas to demonstrate their learning, without notes; a protocol for giving presentations.
- Reading aloud: Every text is read aloud; student work is read aloud. Reading is a shared experience.
Every department should also have an agreed set of routines for workflow and the presentation of work.