Dream teaching in Woodhead's Utopia
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At a supermarket checkout, a small boy was repeatedly ramming a trolley into the legs of an old lady queuing in front of him. She tried to move out of the way, but was too slow. Every time she tried to move out of his reach, the boy pursued her. "Excuse me madam," said an exasperated man in the queue to the boy's mother, "don't you think that you should tell your son to stop doing that?"
"I don't believe in telling him what to do," was the testy response.
The man reached into his trolley, grabbed a pot of yoghurt and deliberately emptied the contents over the boy's head. "I was brought up like that, too," he said with a grin, "Great, isn't it?"
Be comforted. This won't happen in the classroom of the future, because telling children what to do is back in fashion. In the interests of raising the standards of teaching (and consequently of pupil attainment), teachers and student teachers are now to be told, among other things, how to teach reading and numeracy. "I do, I understand"is out; "I tell, you learn" is in.
These two videos produced by Ofsted, the schools inspection service, are going to play a small part in this. The accompanying material says they are intended to disseminate good practice and stimulate discussion among teachers about effective teaching. The first is about literacy - largely about teaching reading to infants - and the second concentrates on numeracy.
Using a number of brave, mostly female, volunteer teachers, each video shows work in three different schools. This is how it can be done, how it might be done, how it is done, but never - in the words of Chris Woodhead, the chief inspector, at their launch - "how it must be done".
The videos, like the teachers performing on them, are not shy or lacking in confidence. It is made quite clear from the start that this is good teaching; no time is wasted arguing about underlying assumptions. Teachers Count (in my view, by far the better of the two offerings) is quite unequivocal. "Teaching maths" is better than children "doing maths". By and large, that is what we are shown.
A model "good lesson" is promoted. This consists (at this point, I must give away the secret) of having a beginning, a middle and an end. Good maths lessons, therefore, not only have clear objectives, but they are divided into these three constituent parts.
First, the introduction. We are shown lots of examples of children being asked questions mainly in whole class groups. Then follows the central activity: here, children practise the lesson's central theme, for example, doubling as a quick method of adding. Finally, there is the plenary session in which there is a reprise of what has been learnt and more mental arithmetic.
Some fine little tricks of the trade are on display (I especially liked the mental arithmetic game that made sure that the whole class was involved) and all the activities are splendidly organised and filmed in the context of interesting classrooms beautifully arranged. (That percentage chart must have taken hours to make!) Literacy Matters is no less forthright in its approach. Reading must be taught in a systematic way, it avers. We are shown one teacher (plus language assistant) teaching alphabet knowledge to a group of 12 children. This scene is repeated for 15 minutes every day. "I will talk like a robot," says teacher,"C - A - T."
Mostly, they do not talk like robots but in very clear and precise tones. Another teacher demonstrates shared reading where a small group works together on the same text. Guided teaching is also shown and a troupe of children sometimes reads silently, with the teacher occasionally interrupting to make a teaching point. Text is used mainly as teachingapparatus.
Literacy hours are promoted as a good thing and the pattern put forward is the same as for the "good" maths lesson. First an introduction (class activity); then central child activity (work in groups); and finally a plenary session where lessons learned are consolidated.
Short videos (actually, Literacy Matters is too long) can only tell part of the teaching story and here we have the mechanistic part. There is little room for the drama that sometimes accompanies inspired teaching or, apparently, the imperative to spend time motivating a class. That is not to say that the work shown is not praiseworthy; it most certainly is, but it is all work of a certain type and there is no sense that learning is not always, nor only, a logical step-by- step process.
My first viewing of these videos was with a group of teachers who inevitably noticed how attentive the pupils were and that there was usually a favourable adult-pupil ratio. "Where are all the Daryls?" a colleague remarked. "When is she going to ask the girl with the blue slide?" said another. Mischievously, someone queried why no child had asked to go to the toilet.
But poking fun is not quite the same as being critical, and the most critical comments were made about the literacy video. "Reading is not just about decoding skills," said one experienced hand. "This is my idea of hell."
On the whole, the videos show intelligent children getting things right. What would have happened if the teacher who asked a child to double 15, had been given the answer 20 instead of 30? We could have done with a little more of that. But lessons can be learnt by listening to these teachers, for the quality of their teaching stems, not from their model lesson plans but from their choice of language and their interactions with children. Asking clear and appropriate questions and having the patience to wait while children talk through their answers must surely be one of the secrets of good teaching.
My main problem with these offerings is that they only show teachers focused on one part of one subject, often with only one part of a class focused attentively on them. This is fair enough given their purpose, but the key issue is nevertheless avoided: how do you cope with the rest of the national curriculum as well and all those social and practical classroom management problems that sometimes threaten to overwhelm?
I look forward to the forthcoming attraction from Ofsted that will show a teacher successfully doing everything at once: Jesus Christ, Superstar.
* The writer is head of St Andrew's Primary School, Blunsdon, Wiltshire