You won’t often hear me say this but, but Sir Michael Wishaw (SMW), Her Majesty’s Inspector was right when he stated that there is no preferred teaching style. Yes, there is no silver bullet to achieving success in the classroom.
I’ve worked in schools where staff have raved on and even preached about the eight-,yes, eight - stages of the accelerated learning cycle, active learning, building learning power and how can one forget the thinking hats? I must admit, I don’t do fads. In fact, it may be a sign of my age, but I can’t even stand the word ‘flipped learning’; I knew this as good old-fashioned prep.
Having been out on Ofsted inspection teams, I felt a sigh of relief amongst staff when the announcement was made by SMW about the grade descriptor for the quality of teaching and then the subsequent removal of graded lesson observations.
Like many staff, I am passionate about teaching and learning and despite having taught for over 17 years, I will still attend TeachMeet type events to learn something to improve my practice, but I must admit I do tend to bite my lip when I still hear about ‘fads’.
Like many staff up and down the country, I’m preparing my GCSE and A Level classes for the lead-up to their final exams: exams which will be pivotal to their success at the next stage, exams, which will make or break their choices. However, I’ll ensure that I’ve done just about everything in my power to ensure that from the moment they open their exam paper to the point of being told to stop writing, they know I’ve taught them well.
I once heard a member of staff talking about how he didn’t like non-specialist staff who visited his lesson, grading him. I thought at the time that this was egotistic; however, I think I’ve come to the same point, myself. Can a non-specialist unpick or address the subject-specific language or concepts to really challenge and move staff forward? Can a history teacher offer specialist advice to move a Teacher of PE forward?
Learning doesn’t take place in a lesson. In fact, you can walk through my lessons at times and witness me talking at length about key concepts with limited pupil talk. There will be times when pupils are head down, writing lengthy extended pieces of writing, and there will be times when pupils are bombarding me with questions, unsure of concepts or definitions. What you won’t see are poor proxies for learning, as Professor Coe pointed out. By that, I mean pupils who appear to be busy in-group tasks, when in fact they are loafing. When pupil are arranged in-groups to discover the facts for themselves and waste time having learnt facts incorrectly or due to the group size being too large, the Ringlemann effect kicks in, and I then need to rescue the lesson or spend another lesson re-teaching the concept.
I know that I teach my pupils well because of my exam results: surely that is what matters. I remember from my early teaching career, hearing pupils who were disappointed that they were not taught Physics by Mr Saha. He was nearing the end of his career, and I would describe him as old school - the type of teacher who rebelled against one new change after another. He commanded respect in the class. He was an expert in his field and from my perspective, he taught dull lessons. They weren’t fun: in fact you, could see pupils squirming with discomfort when challenged with difficult concepts, and then he’d spend an age lecturing and labouring the point until pupils understood. Pupils didn’t enjoy the frequent testing, but when they opened their results envelopes, their smiles would beam across the hall and Mr Saha was a legend. In fact, I wanted to be like him.
My frustration with the profession is the constant political interference. We are experts in having to manage change and cope with the stress of having to implement the constantly re-visited policies, yet in fact I knew what a good lesson looked like 17 years ago, for that then to be rubbished, and almost 16 years later, I’m relieved to know that I’m still a good teacher.
Here’s my key to success:
You must know your syllabus inside out. I sit down every summer to review the updates from the examination board and then pore over the changes that I need to make to my resources and most importantly to my subject knowledge
Ever since my first year as a head of department, I’ve sat the examination paper that I’m teaching to ensure that I attain an A* - in fact, I made my staff teaching the various courses do the same. Whilst I didn’t name and shame staff, I made the point that as practitioners, we must have up-to-date knowledge of what we are teaching. How else can we ensure that our students will attain the highest grades?
Be it at the end of a lesson, start of a lesson, end of a module, I’ll look for opportunities to test students’ understanding. By the time Year 13 finish for study leave, they’ll have sat four full mock examinations. If they are going to be successful, we need to prepare them for test conditions. Each test and question is perfected and timed.
Homework and marking
I’m not a fan of the phrase ‘independent learning’ it implies that a pupil is asked to do something at home. Maybe an alternative is ‘structured learning’? The expectations of what needs to be learnt are made clear, as are the marking criteria. If work is sub-standard, I return it and ask for it to be re-done - yes, re-done - even for Year 13.
Marking is feedback – something that I firmly believe in. Marking needs to be managed. Done right, it becomes a dialogue rather than a chore and allows you to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of your own teaching, as I learn every Monday from marking my students' A level work.
Spacing and making links
By the time pupils start the summer term, we will have covered the syllabus twice, by interleaving and spacing the syllabus, drawing upon links between different aspects and then identifying areas of strength and areas for further development.. We will have sat numerous exam questions to look at what may appear in the exam, but I won’t leave anything to chance.
I’ve now taught this aspect of the course for the third year, but my preparation is still meticulous. The night before teaching the class, I’ll re-read chapters from the book and then search the Internet for further reading. I couldn’t stand it when I was at school when a teacher would deflect a question by saying ‘that’s a good question: look it up yourself’. I’ll be damned if I get caught out.
There’s no silver bullet to succeeding in the classroom; however, you can do the basics well, and year-by-year you’ll see the small steps that you take gather pace. Ensure your students understand the 'how?' and 'why?' behind concepts and don't be limited by the glass ceiling of the syllabus. Stretch and challenge your students, above and beyond. With so little educational research being repeated it's not easy to distinguish between what works and what doesn't. Over time, you'll discover what works for your students and improve your practice. I’m sure that I can still be a little better.