From my observations of lessons, when lessons appear to be less effective than they could be, there are lots of common reasons. Previously I have written about:
Here, is a quick list of 10 reasons lessons might not be effective – which in reverse might serve as a list of things to try to get right; implicitly a list of what really good teachers do well.
All of the reasons are things that can be absent or, more usually, insufficient.
- Explicit knowledge goals: What do you want students to know, exactly, by the end of the lesson. If you think about tasks or general headings, it’s much harder to secure knowledge and understanding. The more precise you are, the sharper lessons can be. Which words, facts, phrases, concepts – exactly – do you want students to learn? This doesn’t need to be the whole lesson – of course. Experiential elements don’t need this level of definition. But the knowledge element needs to be as precise as possible.
- Information for students about what they must learn: What do students have to base their learning on? Is it in their hands? Can they take it home? A word list, knowledge organiser, booklet, textbook, or notes that are checked and secure. They need something. When these things are missing, we’re cutting down students’ capacity to study.
- Explaining: Weaker lessons often have explanatory elements that are too short, too thin, too hurried leaving students uncertain. Have you explained the idea in detail, start to finish, stressing common misconceptions, linking to prior learning, emphasising the tricky part..? There’s always room for just a bit more.
- Modelling: A very common reason for weaker lessons, in my view: insufficient modelling. Explain it then show it. Or do them together. What does it look like done? Show them how you would do it and narrate the process as you go – or use students to model. Do it more; do it often.
- Worked examples: One example is often too much of a special case and is rarely enough. Go through lots of examples: maths problems of the same type, good paragraphs on the same theme, artwork, answers in science and geography: Explore what is common and what is different. It accelerates learning a lot if students can see these patterns upfront.
- Clarity around what success will look like: I don’t typically like cheesy acronyms but WAGOLLS are good! What A Good One Looks Like. Exemplification in writing and any quality model learning product is essential to get the success criteria off the page. If even applies to tasks in class: if you’ve done a superb job, this is what it will look like. Too often, there is a lack of clarity and this leads to underachievement, a lack of urgency, drift.
- Checking for understanding: I would love to see this more deeply embedded in teachers’ default-mode practice. Once you’ve explained, modelled, shown examples -have your students understood? You need to check. Not one student – but lots of them. Asking ‘any questions’ or taking one student’s response is not enough.
- Vocabulary practice: I’m afraid it is so very common for students to encounter new words and be expected to learn them without being given structured opportunities to practise using them. Read it; say it; put it in a sentence, mix it up with different contexts, do it over and over a few times. Words needs to be used, owned, practised, assimilated deliberately, not merely encountered. This needs to involve every student. It helps, therefore, if we’re clear which words we’re targeting.
- Repeated practice: Quite often the practice element in lessons is undercooked. Students need time to rehearse an idea, an argument, a concept, a procedure, a strategy. If they only do it once, the learning ebbs away. This applies to explaining things, to writing using particular structures. Premature extended writing is often practising too many things at once and each thing not enough. Giving an answer in Science isn’t enough – students need practice to rehearse and refine better answers.
- Self-checking; independent practice: The real goal of a learning sequence is to reach a point where students know what they’re meant to know and can self-check whether they’ve succeeded. This allows them to practise independently and develop their capacity for self-regulation and metacognition: Am I right.? Is my work good enough yet? These questions can only be answered if the requirements are clear and students have resources to support them: – exemplars, success criteria, answer sheets, knowledge organisers, text books. However, the process needs to be modelled and given time in lessons in order for the habits to be formed.
You’ll note the obvious overlap with Rosenshine’s principles of instruction here. I wasn’t referring to it directly in writing this but it’s no suprise that the issues are very similar.