Outstanding teaching & learning: missed opportunities and marginal gains
I work at an ‘outstanding’ school where the teaching and learning is ‘good’. As such we are squarely in Wilshaw’s sights and almost certainly due an inspection at some point this year. We were last inspected in November 2011 but a lot of goal post moving has gone on in the intervening months. The new inspection framework is widely seen as a ravening beast out to devour schools that are not delivering to the lofty standards of our hero, the saviour of Mossbourne Academy.
In essence, what this means is that if we want to retain the right to put ‘outstanding’ on our headed paper we’d better be able to demonstrate that our T&L has improved since last year. Has it? Well, there’s plenty of wonderful teachers who preside over fantastic lessons every day but, like most schools there’s also several other groups. Most significantly there are those teachers who are currently ‘good’ but aren’t sure how to further improve and those who ‘require improvement’ but not for want of trying. The gulf between good and outstanding appears daunting and insurmountable; small wonder then that many teachers are happy to settle for ‘good’ as being good enough.
Clearly this needs to be challenged but not by wielding a stick or telling teachers to try harder. In some of the lessons I’ve recently observed teachers are busting a gut – more effort is not the solution. What’s characterised most of these lessons are missed opportunities: learning that could so easily have happened if the teacher had been in a position to notice what their students were doing and able to intervene.
In an outstanding lesson a lot of this ‘noticing’ happens at the point of planning. I encourage teachers to try to ‘break’ their lessons = to look for the weak spots where students won’t get a tricky concept, or where they won’t do what we expect because of something which could have been anticipated. These potential stumbling blocks are often the difference between good and understanding and sometimes all that’s required is to have considered is ‘what will I do when…?’
How do you go about broaching this with staff? There’s absolutely no point telling teachers to change everything they do: even if they could do it, it wouldn’t work. But what about making one small change? Or two? Or a whole list of tiny tweaks?
Having read Zoë Elder‘s recent output on the aggregation of marginal gains for learning based on the winning strategy of Team GB Cycling Performance Director, Dave Brailsford, it seems clear that there is huge potential in the idea of making lots of tiny tweaks in our teaching can result in massive improvements in students’ learning. Alex Quigley has even designed a bicycle wheel to help students select and monitor the marginal gains they will make in their work. This is great and a useful addition in our panoply of tools to further refine students’ ability to assess and improve their work. However, it also seems a ready made opportunity to help teachers reflect on the micro improvements they could make to their teaching.
Here are some suggested micro improvements which would certainly have made a difference to some of the lessons I’ve recently observed:
- Design learning objectives so that they have a tighter focus on why students are learning. Zoë has already written a terrifically useful post on this here
- And then ask yourself whether assessment tasks, however small, align with planned outcomes? (via @damianainscough)
- Meet and greet students at the door (@OldAndrew recommends wedging it open to get them in faster) and have clear routines for distributing books resources
- Learn students’ names and use them
- Bell work: learning should begin as soon as students enter the room – make sure you have something for them to do that doesn’t require them to wait until their tardier classmates have arrived
- Read their books at least once per fortnight – you don’t have to mark everything but they do need to know that you look in their books regularly
- Build in time for students to act on feedback. Most of the feedback we give students is never acted on – if we give students directed improvement and reflection time they’ll be forced to act on feedback
- Consider ways to reduce teacher talk – ask how else could I give instructions so that more students will receive the information rather than just the keeners at the front
- Plan 3 questions to stretch the most able student in the room and 3 questions to support the least able student in the room (if that doesn’t sound marginal enough then just one of each might do)
- Use language which reflects your amazingly high expectations for all students – I hate the ‘all must, most will, some could’ differentiated outcome which gives ‘some’ students permission not to try as hard as others. If I expect students to achieve A*s they may well surprise themselves.
- Give students time to answer questions. Get them to discuss first or write down 5 possible answers or whatever. Never allow them to get away with ‘I don’t know’. I always respond with, ‘I know you don’t, but what do you think?‘ and give them time and space to answer. This works especially well if you’re not just asking students to guess the answer you have in your head.
- Get way from IRE (Initiation, response, evaluation) type questioning. Have a look at Pose Pause Pounce Bounce or Basketball not table tennis for some suggestion on how to manage questioning well.
- Give very clear time limits and stick to them – buy an egg timer! Also, be aware that group work expands to fill the time you give it – allow students 5 mins less than you think they need.
- After students have completed an activity, ask them what it assessed and how it might have met the learning objective
- Ask students what they have learned during the lesson – maybe they could suggest 2 or 3 things they now know and 1 or 2 things they still have questions about.
- A lot of classroom activities involve reading and writing. Make sure you are taking opportunities to explicitly teach literacy skills – see my post on The Matthew Effect for details.
This list is by no means exhaustive and none of these strategies are ‘right’. In fact you may strongly disagree with some of them. As long as you’re clear about why I have no problem with that: Ofsted make the point in the School Inspection Handbook (Sept 2012) that “The key objective of lesson observations is to evaluate the quality of teaching and its contribution to learning, particularly in the core subjects. Inspectors will not look for a preferred methodology but must identify ways in which teaching and learning can be improved.” In addition, Sir Mike’s gone out his way to assure us that there is no single model for outstanding teaching. (What Ofsted say they want). Which is nice.
No, this list is just a sample of some of the micro improvements we could make to ensure that lessons are less likely to miss opportunities for learning. No single item will shift good teaching to outstanding but if we focus on enough of them we might just do enough to tip the balance. As teachers we will improve our practice by overturning the ill-considered stones in our teaching and having a good look at what crawls out. David Weston (@informed_edu) suggests videoing yourself and watching it back with a trusted colleague. This could be an excellent way to make a start on compiling your own list of marginal gains.
Find your own lights
An actor friend of mine once told me a lovely story about meeting Sir John Gielgud. The ageing thespian took my friend on to the stage of whatever theatre they were performing in and gestured up at the lights. “Do you see those lights?” he rasped. “And those lights?” My friend nodded and waited expectantly for the pearl of wisdom about to fall from his ancient mentor’s lips. “Those are my lights. You must find your own lights.”
Many thanks to all the lovely people on Twitter who suggested their own marginal gains. I’m sorry that I’ve not included everything but that’s the point: this is my list. You must find your own list.