Last year I had to go up to the loft. It had to be cleared out to make way for insulation. As is so often the case when we are burdened with such tasks, procrastination took hold. I found a box of my wife’s old school exercise books. I pulled one out – ‘Chemistry, 4th Year, Mr Clarke’ – and started reading. An hour later, after looking through her entire back catalogue of Mr Clarke exercise books (circa 1985), a realisation hit me. Over the last decade, we’ve been getting it very wrong.
Lianne, my wife, went to Porthcawl Comprehensive School in Wales and was taught chemistry by Mr Clarke. After looking through her books, I asked her about him. I was intrigued. He would never lower the incredibly high expectations of all of his students. At the start of the 4th Year (Year 10) he would tell you that you would be learning at A-level standard. By working hard and taking pride in your work, you had to meet his standards. Work had to be presented perfectly and if you got something wrong, you would do it again. You didn’t just glance over work, you spent time practising and refining your knowledge – Lianne’s book was full of practice exam questions. He wrote a comment in your book after every lesson – and expected you to respond (DIRT is not new!)
He spoke to every student, every lesson, about how they were doing and about what they had to do to get better. Every lesson had either a practical or demonstration element to aid the explanation of really difficult ideas. Effort was everything – if you didn’t put the effort in, your name would be on the ‘dirty dozen’ list and you would come back after school to make up for it. Most of all, though, he made you believe that you could achieve beyond what you thought was possible. And his students did. Year in, year out, all achieved nothing less than a grade C.
Fast forward a decade or two ... and things seem to have gone wrong. We lower expectations and compound underachievement by telling students things like ‘All of you need to be able to do this, but only some of you will be able to.’ We’ve focused on ‘pace-packed lessons’, in which we skip from one activity to another, never really giving students the opportunity to consolidate and extend their learning. Our planning priority often appears to be ‘how can I make it fun?’ instead of ‘what will they need to know and do to help them learn well?’ This sends a dreadful message to students and does nothing to build grit and resilience – if it’s not fun, don’t stick with it and just give up.
We’ve been brainwashed into thinking that ‘learning styles’ exist, that some students can learn the countries on a world map by running around in circles and that students always learn brilliantly from each other or independently. We have been force-fed the idea that the teacher and their years of knowledge are unimportant and that ‘teacher talk’ should be limited. And of course, the biggest myth of all, that learning can happen in one lesson ... or even 20 minutes.
This is a worry. There is very little to no evidence to suggest that any of this works and, for many teachers, much of it is counterintuitive. So why has it happened? I think there are two important reasons. First, if you go to a conference, or meet with a consultant, and are told by an ‘expert’ that these things work, you might believe it. Why? Because as a profession, we haven’t established a strong ‘research informed’ approach to our practice. Thankfully, this is changing and this change has accelerated significantly over the last couple of years. Second, Ofsted. Now, to be clear, the fault doesn’t lay just with Ofsted. Although the criteria used to judge teaching have been questionable, the damaging effect of this has been amplified by poor interpretation of these criteria by school leadership teams up and down the country. Tick lists have been produced, lessons observed and if a clipboard-wielding observer has not seen X, Y and Z, you must be inadequate. As a result, we have fallen into the trap of a formulaic approach to teaching that ticks boxes but has no real evidence base
The big six
Fortunately the tide is turning. Platforms such as Twitter and blogging have encouraged teachers to talk openly about their practice with each other and to engage with academic researchers from a diverse range of fields. At Durrington High School, this has helped us to re-think our approach; we have moved away from tick-boxes and embraced a Led Zeppelin inspired ‘tight but loose’ approach. We want teachers to be tight, in terms of focusing on sound pedagogical principles, but loose in terms of how they interpret this in their classrooms. We don’t talk about outstanding teaching – we talk about great teaching – and we don’t grade lessons. Outstanding teaching is formulaic; great teaching accepts that successful teaching looks different in different contexts. We’re working on becoming a research-informed school and like a growing number of schools, have appointed a Research Development Leader – in our case, Andy Tharby – to support our work in this field.
Andy and I have distilled our view of great teaching down to six pedagogical principles. The first principle, challenge, is the driving force of teaching. Only by giving our students work that makes them struggle, and having the highest possible expectations of them, will we be able to move them beyond what they know and can do now. Challenge informs teacher explanation, which is the skill of conveying new concepts and ideas. The trick is to make abstract, complex ideas clear and concrete in students’ minds. It is deceptively hard to do well.
Next is modelling. This involves ‘walking’ students through problems and procedures so that we can demonstrate the procedures and thought processes they will soon apply themselves. Without practice student learning will be patchy and insecure. They need to do it, and they need to do it many times as they move towards independence. It goes without saying that practice is the fulcrum around which the other five strategies turn. This is because it develops something that is fundamental to learning – memory.
Students need to know where they are going and how they are going to get there. Without feedback, our fifth principle, practice becomes little more than ‘task completion’. We give students feedback to guide them on the right path, and we receive feedback from students to modify our future practice. And so the cycle continues.
Our last principle is questioning. Like explanation, questioning is a master art. It has a range of purposes: it allows us to keep students on track by testing for misconceptions and it promotes deeper thought about subject content.
In our new book Making Every Lesson Count, Andy and I explore these six principles in detail. We look at why they are important and at strategies that teachers can put into practice in their own classrooms. Most importantly, we want to help teachers to claim back our profession; to do what works by combining the practical wisdom of experienced teachers with the evidence available to us. We hope you enjoy it.
About the author
Shaun Allison started teaching science in West Sussex, before becoming a Head of Science. He is currently Deputy Head Teacher at Durrington High School, leading on CPD. With Andy Tharby, a practising English teacher and research lead, he is the author of Making Every Lesson Count: six principles to support great teaching and learning (Crown House)