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'Outstanding teaching has variety in its DNA'

Lesson-plan pro formas fundamentally undermine the best teaching – teachers should be free to set their own pace and structure, writes one FE teacher

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Lesson-plan pro formas fundamentally undermine the best teaching – teachers should be free to set their own pace and structure, writes one FE teacher

Starter. Main. Development. Plenary. That rhythm is as familiar as the verb conjugations that my classmates and I had to chant in our French lessons at school, and those who trained my generation of educators were just as persistent in their inculcations as Madame Durade ever was. However, I worry when something that might act as a useful guide becomes a dogma, reinforced uncritically through simplistic application in internal observation so that teachers fear to trust their own instinct and experience.

During a development session at a conference last year, my table had to do a card-sort activity, sifting from many elements that might make up good teaching to choose what we would always expect to see in an outstanding lesson. Someone had put “range of activities” in our small selection of outstanding criteria, so I moved it back out.

“Ofsted have been really clear on this,” I argued. “They even gave an example that if a whole lesson reading silently is what your class needs, and they are making progress doing so, then that’s fine.”

'Over time': the key in teaching

The culprit revealed himself, pushing the card back into the "outstanding" group and keeping his fingers firmly pressed on it, challenging me. “You have to have a range of activities in an outstanding lesson,” he said, firmly.

 “I’ve literally got the PowerPoint slide our regional director...” I began, and then stopped myself. I could see him mentally telling me “no”, and I’ve learned over time that some people will never change their minds. So I sat back down and swigged my coffee, waiting for the presenter to move on.

Over time... That’s the key in teaching. So yes, of course, I think students should be exposed to a wide range of activities... over time. However, not everything we have to do in life can be completed, or even meaningfully engaged with, in whatever slice of minutes our curriculum time would allow a "main" activity to extend to. Sometimes a practical, or an extended written response, or a discussion, or a goddamn video needs every minute of a lesson and more. We all know that, so why do we pretend otherwise when it comes to observation?

Starter… main… development… plenary. We march to the drill we’ve been taught.

I’ve even seen one training organisation relabel those four elements and then sell its multi-part lesson, with its different terminology, as a model of enhanced teaching that is supposed to be new and innovative and worth whatever huge price tag it packages it with. That can only be a successful business model because there really is something genuinely effective about that structure of using a short, engaging hook to introduce something new, before presenting the skill or knowledge you plan to teach, giving students a chance to apply it, and then stretching them with its further development, before reviewing what they’ve done. But that doesn’t have to be one lesson; it can be a pattern that emerges over time, or indeed that repeats itself several times within one session.

Everyone loves variety

That’s why lesson-plan pro formas fundamentally undermine the best teaching, no matter how they try to disguise their rigid, linear nature by snaking all over a page and surrounding themselves with a diarrhoea splatter of friendly, vapid clipart. If we could teach to such a replicable formula then those schools and colleges that rely on handing their students an iPad and access to a VLE would have put the rest of us out of business by now. Instead, we are paid a professional wage so that we can respond to the students in the classroom with us and adapt what we do according to their needs.

I once saw a presentation slide that looked like a series of strips of DNA. It was an analysis of the structure of a number of outstanding lessons that had been observed. Each one was dramatically different from the others. I instantly spotted a familiar pattern in the slim red, fat green, thick blue and modest yellow bars of one: starter, main, development, plenary. But another looked like my favourite tie; a score of mad slivers of colour. Another was solid red and I chuckled to myself, recognising a common occurrence in my own lessons when we never get past the starter.

Like everyone, our learners love variety. No matter how all-singing and all-dancing your lesson model is, it will grow tired when it’s delivered 20-odd times a week. Give teachers the freedom to be the virtuoso conductors they are and set their own pace and structure. Judge the progress, not the pro forma.

Andrew Otty leads 16-19 English in an FE college. He is an ambassador for education charity Shine, which can be found on Twitter at @shinetrustuk

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