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Best laid plans for 'buzzing' sessions

Carrying out many different roles, including education consultant, researcher, author and, oh, inspector of education and training, provides me with a range of opportunities to wear different hats and see the best and sometimes the not-so-impressive examples of classroom practice.

The downside is lessons that are dull and pedantic, with little evidence that the teacher has any awareness of how to motivate and stimulate or use learning technologies. But the upside is seeing teaching that simply leaves you buzzing and is a privilege to witness - where learners are engaged, inspired and leave wanting more.

In these sessions, learners are clear about what they are going to learn, how they are going to learn it and how it is going to be assessed. When I see "the light switched on" in students' eyes, when they realise they are learning and achieving, there's no greater reward for the hard-pressed teacher.

But teachers have to appreciate that it's not the cabaret (in the formal presentations), it's the reaction of the audience (in the form of learning) that is of prime importance and that reaction has to be carefully planned for.

Scanning through recent Adult Learning Inspectorate and Ofsted inspection reports on the website, it is evident that the quality of teaching and learning varies enormously, from outstanding to extremely poor. What is particularly striking is the difficulty that some teachers have in adapting their teaching style to each individual's learning styles. Comments such as "little attention is paid to learners' individual learning needs" or "learners are expected to work at the same pace regardless of their starting point" are typical.

Recently, I was asked by the Learning and Skills Development Agency to write a practical guide for teachers, using the experience I had gleaned in more than 25 years of teaching, consultancy support, researching and inspecting. The purpose of the guide is to help teachers to improve the quality of learning, focusing on how to apply this to the teaching of A-levels in vocational subjects.

The guide includes straightforward practical solutions to address criticisms made by inspectors (including myself) about teaching that is "dull and uninspiring" and uses just one approach - usually front-of-the-class didactic lecturing.

A common theme is how to adopt a differentiated approach to teaching. If there is one overriding message that I have learned from working at the chalkface and in other roles in the training sector, it is that teachers need to understand how individuals learn in different ways and adopt their style accordingly.

Some people learn best through listening; some by looking; and some by doing. Teachers not only need to weave this into the way they teach but also make sure that the materials they use follow the same pattern.

Wouldn't it be easy, and, I suspect, boring, if all learners were at the same level and learnt at the same speed and in the same way? The challenge is to stretch the more able learner to reach their full potential while supporting the weaker learner to achieve to the best of their ability. No one said it was easy but the rewards are evident in the faces of every learner who walks out of a session thinking: "Yes, that was worth getting out of bed for. I learnt something today".

Common mistakes that teachers make include ineffective planning where learning aims and objectives are not clear, lessons that lack structure, dull teaching with a lack of variety, little or no use of information and learning technologies and methods of assessment that are not rigorous enough.

With vocational subjects it is particularly important to develop effective links with industry and vocationalise the curriculum in such a away that learners are exposed to current practices in, for example, engineering, business studies and art and design. Organise visits to industry and use guest speakers in well structured sessions but make sure they support the curriculum objectives, reinforce underpinning knowledge and provide opportunities for learners to generate evidence for portfolio units by drawing on relevant and timely work experience.

Effectively planned, well structured sessions, using audio-visual material and practical activities is the first step to revising teaching styles and ultimately creating effective learning opportunities.

Putting learning first - the effective delivery of vocational A-levels by Dr Cheryl A Jones covers the key issues that influence the quality of learning, common barriers to learning and how to overcome them, critical success factors, audit checklists and case studies. Copies are available free from: Information Services, LSDA, Regent Arcade House, 19-25 Argyll Street, London W1F 7LS. Tel: 0207 297 9123. Email: enquiries@LSDA.org.uk

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