Don't knock's at the heart of good teaching

13th January 2006 at 00:00
Gerald Haigh points out that it's in games that the mysteries of teaching are laid bare

There's something really satisfying about a good PE lesson - this, I have to say, from a non-specialist who's more "non" than most. As a primary teacher, I had to teach my share of PE, and later, as a head, I tried not to shirk the lesson if it was on the timetable for a class I was covering.

(The children tend to make sure you live up to your responsibilities.) So often, at the end, you walked back to class with a good feeling, children chattering around you, vying for your attention and replaying some of the good moments. Why was I able to do it? Because I did my teacher training in an age when all would-be primary staff had at least an hour a week of basic PE (and music, and drama) .

Then later, when I became an external examiner, observing students on their school experience, I often noticed the same thing: that there were times when, even for a relatively dodgy student, a PE lesson really seemed to click, and we all - pupils, student teacher and examiner - came away smiling.

"Now, think about it," I'd say to the student. "Don't just congratulate yourself on having taught a good lesson. Ask yourself exactly what it was that made it go well, and then see if there are things you can learn and apply to other areas of your teaching."

So what was it that made the difference? Much of it has to do with clarity.

PE lessons will only work if the children are pretty sure what they have to do, and how they're going to do it. That's true in other lessons, of course, but in PE not only is it visibly necessary to set out clear instructions, because the children are bouncing up and down in front of you waiting for them, but, as Clive Taylor, a former primary head who was a PE specialist, points out: "If you ask them to do something beyond their capabilities, it's obvious fairly quickly, and you do the adjustment - whereas in maths, or English, we're continually asking children to do things they're not ready for, but an inexperienced teacher may well let them struggle on too long."

It's that visibility - the real-time feedback on who's succeeding, who's trying, who's having problems - which means that you can dodge about continually giving praise, encouragement, or correction.

"Well done, Jack."

"Good body position, Chris."

"OK, Fiona. Leave that and try the other activities."

It all gives a good PE lesson real rhythmic life, moving purposefully along, with a beginning, a middle and a warm down at the end. That, too, isn't as easy to achieve in the classroom. Because it works so well in PE, it ought to be a signal that it's well worth studying.

Through all of this, though, it's important to remember - and Clive Taylor reminds me very forcefully of this - that any of it only works when the PE lesson is a good one.

"If it's a bad lesson - if the teacher's just regarding it as a break in the day - then the same clarity means that all the mistakes are there for anyone passing to see. I've never understood why anyone would lay themselves open to that."

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