Know the signs of an outstanding lesson
Like every teacher, you dream of lessons which lead to pupils who are engrossed with what they are learning and work independently, manage their resources, use the vocabulary of the subject, and groan when the lesson ends. But would you know how to recognise a successful lesson?
An outstanding lesson starts with you planning and matching the work to each pupil’s ability. It often ends with assessing their learning. Between those two end points, poor teaching can often cause poor behaviour. For example, teachers who are always giving out worksheets or using only commercial schemes and ruling the class with iron discipline.
As you teach check how your pupils are working.
Is the work too hard or too easy for certain groups? Has anything gone better than expected. Can you follow this up, now? Most importantly, check the achievement; that is, what did the pupils actually gain in the lesson?
It is surprising how many lessons look good with pupils working quietly, on task, or the teacher providing superb visual aids, witty repartee, or a warm caring environment only to find at the end of the session that there is very little progress in learning.
Make it a routine of your teaching to assess what it is that pupils thought they had learned. It is surprising how often your intentions and their understanding are poles apart. Set time aside to talk to pupils and simply ask them what they have learned: you may get a shock!
Remember that all teachers are different.
It is easy to look at other experienced teachers and think that is the way to teach. Other teachers you observe may present you with different models of teaching. Keep observing for a purpose, discussing and reflecting.
Be careful not to confuse teacher performance with good teaching. One of the simplest and best checks for some areas of the curriculum is to look at the work in your pupils’ books over a half term and talk to the pupils. If the books are lively, varied and tidy, and pupils enjoy their work, you are probably doing well.
Teaching tip # 2
Communication and power relationships
Have you ever taken part in a conversation when someone interrupted while you were talking, or a phone chat when the other person hung up? In both cases the other person exerted some power over you: power arising from their use of language. They set the agenda, whether you agreed it or not.
As a teacher you have immense power over your pupils, and rightly so. You have the knowledge, understanding, status and language skills which give you authority over your pupils and, for most of the time, with most children in most lessons, you set the minute-by-minute agenda and you control the nature and direction (and volume!) of communication.
The person with the power has the responsibility to communicate effectively: and I will revisit this idea once we get to powerful children. All this is obvious.
Consider how your pupils, regardless of their ages, might be taught how to use their communication skills to manage power responsibly.
Across many parts of the curriculum, from working with test tubes to using geographical terminology, there is a consensus that children learn by doing interesting and enjoyable things. However, only occasionally is this principle applied to language and power issues. Rarely are children given power so that they can become proficient in its use.
Fluency, spoken or written, automatically gives power to the speaker. Think about how powerless you (might) feel when (if) you travel around a country where few can speak your own language, and you can’t speak theirs. Sometimes it is embarrassing! Even learning a few key words gives you far more power over the situation than before. Similarly, effective use of language is empowering for children in the classroom, in relation to the use of both English and their mother tongue.
Power brings with it responsibilities, one of which is to decide on the communication modes and direction at any given time. Children need to learn that. As the teacher you need to decide whether, when and how to relinquish power over classroom communication; who speaks, writes, presents, listens and so forth. Relinquishing power can be highly effective.
Teaching tip # 3
Lesson planning: it's a four-step process
A lesson plan is often referred to as a short-term plan – it is the scaffold for prior thinking about teaching and learning in your lesson. The act of writing the plan forces you to address the key issues in children’s learning, and when you evaluate a lesson the plan provides a window into your own professional growth for both yourself and your tutor/mentor.
A plan is not a script, but should clearly state:
- what the pupils are going to learn (objectives)
- how they are going to learn it (learning activities)
- how you will know that they have learned it (assessment).
Notice that the focus is on pupils’ learning, not on your teaching! This is because the plan should be a structure to support the process of children learning in your classroom, not a set of mechanistic directions for you to follow.
Planning is more than one logical step after another: in reality there is much to-ing and fro-ing in your thinking.
Your starting point is deciding what the pupils are going to learn. Remember, your lesson does not exist in isolation, so you need to know what they have already done, what they are going to do next and how your lesson fits into the overall unit of work.
It is important to know the pupils' prior attainment so that you can judge the level at which to pitch the activities. The syllabus or scheme of work should specify the general content area, which may be expressed as an enquiry question such as 'Why did the Romans invade Britain?' or a topic title such as 'Surrealism' or 'Electricity'. From this general starting point you will need to decide what specific things you want your pupils to learn in this lesson – the learning objectives.
These may be grouped under the headings of: