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The secret of outstanding teaching

I’ve worked with – and had the pleasure of observing – some great teachers throughout my career and I’m beginning to understand what makes them stand out as outstanding – better than good. These are the teachers that make a difference and who have long-term impact on student learning and achievement. All headteachers with whom I work want to know how to ensure that teaching leads to secure learning outcomes so that their schools add value. Well here’s how.

Whereas a lot of teachers believe that their job is to teach students, these outstanding teachers know that their purpose is to build understanding. Too many teachers are in the habit of saying – Well I’ve taught it to them – it’s over to them now. That simply isn’t what the job of the teacher is all about. Hard working teachers may think they have covered the curriculum from all angles but how can they be sure that students have internalised and understood what they have been taught?

A few years ago, when running a staff development day in a Birmingham school, I was asked if I would teach a class in front of the staff. Always up for a challenge, I agreed and – after I had done an initial hour and a half with the full staff – a group of year 10 students arrived ready to be taught by a complete stranger on their day off. We laid out a classroom at the front of the school hall and I set about teaching a lesson while a hundred or so teachers watched. I had decided that I needed to teach something that was content neutral since I didn’t know what they didn’t know. So, I chose to teach a poem in ways that would stretch their learning capacities and make use of those learning habits that, I hoped, would ensure understanding. This I did in a variety of ways* for about half an hour. It seemed to go OK and while teachers discussed what they had seen before asking questions of the students and me, I asked the students how it had been from their point of view. They were politely complimentary so I probed them a little bit: But isn’t this the kind of way you’re taught poetry in year 10? One girl replied straightaway: Not at all, usually you get taught the poem, make notes around the text and then learn it for the exam. I am quoting what she said exactly. I began to think this was an odd way of responding to any poet’s initial intentions and, moreover, why on earth – I thought – would you require the students to defer the learning until later. Before I could speak, the girl continued: The way you’ve taught it, I wouldn’t have to revise it. I said: That’s a bit dangerous isn’t it? To which she replied: The way you’ve taught it means I’ve learnt it now and so I’ll remember it.

Whether she has or not, I’ll never know, but this experience did confirm an important point for me. Classroom experiences need to be memorable and engaging. Lessons need to be orchestrated by teachers in ways that are challenging, enable students to make progress and – above all – assure understanding.

As I said when running a full staff development day in south London on Monday this week: If we resolve to do one thing differently this year, let’s ensure that we build understanding and not just cover the content.


* See these links for how I taught the lesson in question:
Mushrooms lesson plan presentation
Notes to Accompany Mushrooms Slides

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