In a world of Ofsted, Learning Walks, Observations, drop-ins (formal or informal), judgement, accountability and everything else teachers have to contend with it is easy to lose what great teaching is. We can fall into the trap of jumping through the hoops and working to what we think people expect to see of great teaching, rather than actually stopping to consider that works best and when.
Perhaps the best way to start talking about what great teaching is, is to talk about what it’s not. Above all else, it is not formulaic. It can’t be. There are far too many variables in part of lesson, let alone a whole hour for you to be able to stick to the same formula all day every day. Starters, teaching, activity and plenary is a fairly standard way of working through a lesson, but if you did this all day every day it would be to the detriment of some lessons. Some lessons, learning and activities just can’t work this way by their nature. You can’t provide great teaching to the children in your class by jumping through hoops either. If you’re doing something because you’ve been told to, and it has no impact on the children then you won’t do it as effectively. We work our best when we work in ways that suit our strengths, that we are passionate about and when we are confident in it. Blindly following what someone else is telling you do will not make great teaching. This again comes back to variables. Any scheme or plan written by someone else can only ever be a starting point. It was written with another class in mind, with another ability, with another school or is just aimed at the widest group possible. That means the chance of it being right for your class is extremely small. Every plan you download and borrow has to be a starting point, and nothing more. Great teaching isn’t just about great delivery of information, it’s about it being right for your class.
So, what is great teaching then?
It Moves Learning Forward
For me, when I’m visiting classrooms, this is what I want to see above all else. Are the children finding out new things? Are they getting the opportunity to build on what they already know? This is key. This is progress. Of course, it doesn’t always have to be new information. It might be children been given the opportunity to apply what they know, to use the skills and knowledge they have learned in a new way. This is just as valuable as the acquiring of new facts. Underpinning moving the learning forward has to be a good system of feedback to the children and assessment of their learning. Does the teacher know why they are doing this next lesson? What was it about the previous lesson that means they have structured this one in the way they have? Learning can’t move forward without using the information from the previous lesson. If I’m in a lesson and the children have moved forward in their learning, then I find it hard to argue that it wasn’t an effective lesson. Surely, the basic requirement of teaching is to help children learn? If you’re lesson does that then it is hard to argue with.
Brings Out the Best and Engages
As well as that, children have to be interested in what is going on. Now let me be very clear – I do not mean it has to be all singing and all dancing. I have had children just as engaged in my class by me standing up and talking at them, giving them direct information as they have been by practical, pupil led sessions as well. Talking to children to deliver information is not the enemy. Nor is doing it for more than ten minutes, or the age of the child plus 2 or whatever formula is the fashion at the moment. It’s about what is appropriate what is relevant and knowing when to stop. A great teacher will judge that moment. They will know when they have absorbed all they can and have reached that point when they are ready to work independently.
It also lets children achieve. It has to be accessible but challenging. They child should expect to have to work hard in order to be able to complete the work in the lesson. This is what brings out the best in the children. That area where they are challenged enough to have to think, but not challenged so much they can’t get near the task. There are many ways to do this, peer-to-peer support, adult to pupil support, differentiated tasks. Again, context is key – knowing your class, what you want to get out of the activity and how the children in your class can best achieve that. By building on their previous knowledge and drawing them on in their thinking they can start to make those jumps themselves which in turn brings out the best in them. Of course, they can’t always do this independently, they will need support. This brings us onto…
It is Well Organised and Resourced
We’ve all been there when you couldn’t get things photocopied, or there was a problem in getting everything ready for the lesson. We all know, that it can leave you feeling on the back foot. If you are flapped about a lesson and underprepared, then the children can sense that. I’ve seen it in lessons, and I’ve had it happen to me. It’s not about having a beautifully presented worksheet, or work that is split 5 ways. It is about the thought process and making sure that what you are providing is what the children need. Does it help then get to where they need to get to. Is the support they need available to them? Are there practical resources available? Is the classroom organised as such so they can get up and get resources they feel they might need? If you choose to use slides to help organise the thinking – great. If you don’t, that’s OK, as long as you have given it some thought. Poor outcomes in a session can be because they task hasn’t been thought through in enough detail by the teacher. Again, I’ll hold my hands up, I’ve done it plenty of times. It happens and it doesn’t make you a bad teacher. However, the more confident you are in where you are going with a session and the resources the children are going to use – the more the children will be confident in them as well.
Is Built on Excellent Teacher Knowledge
You don’t need to know everything about a topic. No one expects you to. There is no shame in googling a question in front of the children and finding out the answer together. In fact, I applaud it. It models to the children that no-one is expected to know everything and also models how you, as an adult, go about finding out something you don’t know. However, you do need to know the content of your session and beyond it as well. This affects Primary more so than secondary in my view, where we are teaching multiple subjects, multiple topics and not spending a huge amount of time on any of them. Children know if you’re padding and making stuff up, so you don’t need to pretend to them that you know it all. However, they also know if you’re just reading it off the PowerPoint and don’t have much else to add. You are going to need do to your homework on it, and have enough information to fill in some of the gaps for the children.
Utilises Children’s Knowledge
There are some areas where the children will know more than you. I’m OK with that. But why not use it? If there is a child in your class with clear knowledge they can share – let them. It no reflection on you, it’s a celebration of them. Be clear about your whole class knowledge too. If they all know something, don’t bat on for a whole lesson working through it again. I read something over the summer that resonated (I’m afraid I can’t remember where). It was about seeing lessons as chucks of knowledge rather than chunks of time. If you get through the knowledge and the children are secure within 30 minutes, why not move onto the next lesson, instead of feeling you have to stretch it out for an hour because that is what your timetable says. This becomes possible when you know exactly where your class are at and what their previous knowledge is. What you thought was a lesson may just need to be a refresher, and likewise the complete opposite may be true. Get your understanding of their knowledge right and everything can flow from there.
Enables Children to Articulate and Discuss Their Learning
If I speak with some pupils and they can tell me what they’ve learned, and how it fits in with what they’ve done before then I can see they’ve made progress. I’m not talking about parroting back information, in fact I’m more worried if they do parrot it back. I’m talking about having a chat. What did you learn? Why do you think it was important? Did you know anything about this before? Does it fit in with other things you know. If they can’t do it off the top of their head, we’ll have a look in their book to jog their memory. It’s not a test on you with how well they can talk about it, of course they might need some reminders. However, if they can talk about it confidently it means they’ve engaged with it, they’ve remembered it and they are happy to share it. They won’t be walking textbooks, but if they’ve had good teaching, they’ll be able to fill me in about it.
Has a Purpose and Relevance
This is at the centre of our Project Based Learning. If they’ve got a reason for it, they’ll take pride in it. Being able to make it relevant to them and giving it a purpose is going to increase their engagement and help bring out their best. I’m not talking about tenuous and forced links or gimmicks – the kids see through that. If they can see the point of doing it then it’ll help them. We’ve seen kids focus on spelling because an audience will be seeing their work, they neatened their presentation, they been striving to edit it to make it better. It won’t always be possible, and sometimes it is detrimental to make it seen relevant for the sake of it, but when its right to do, it helps enormously.
Will you manage all of these all of the time? No. We all know the time pressures of the job and sometimes, you just can’t fit everything in. This isn’t about being perfect all of the time. Great teaching is about giving a consistent level. I purposefully haven’t said a lesson has to have this or has to have that. Tricks, bells, whistles and everything else doesn’t constitute good teaching for me. Giving the children what they need when they need it does. Sometimes this will be getting up and talking to them. Sometimes they’ll have to do a straight exercise and yes, sometimes you will need to sing and dance and show your faux outrage at the local factory being closed down. It’s about what works, it’s about the context of your class, it’s about knowing them and it’s about giving them that consistently. That’s great teaching – giving them what they need, when they need it and knowing when they’re ready to fly. That teacher down the hall might be giving them all the excitement and ‘look at me’ lessons under the sun – but they might not be giving them what they need – a reliable, honest, consistent role model who knows how to get the best out of them.