Good sense to nonsense

21st June 2013 at 01:00

What makes a good lesson for children aged 4-11? When I was training in the 1960s, a good lesson needed an interesting teacher-led introduction, a solid section of follow-up activity and written work, and then a check by the teacher on what the children had learned. It was essential to ensure that the tasks you gave Charlie and Samantha were appropriate to their abilities, because they didn't learn as quickly as the others. If you didn't get those things right, your visiting tutor would fail your teaching practice. Today, most teachers would still say that a good lesson contains these ingredients.

But is it right to prescribe how a "good" lesson should be organised? Looking back to my youth, many lessons stand out in my mind. I remember Mr Johnson, who told us how Louis Pasteur stayed up night after night struggling to develop a vaccine to cure a child who had been mauled by a rabid dog. His lesson didn't have a beginning, a development or a summary - it was just Mr Johnson talking from start to finish - but I remember everything he told us.

We didn't write anything down in Miss Davis' music lessons either, but her enthusiasm sparked my lifelong love of classical music. I've never forgotten the lesson in which she made us plug our ears tightly, told us to try composing a simple tune with our instruments - and then played what Beethoven had achieved when he was stone deaf.

As a headteacher, I gave my staff great freedom in lesson organisation. I remember some corkers: the teacher who rushed her class off to see a whale stranded in the River Thames, initiating a whole topic on nature and the environment; the lesson where children were taught to do magic tricks with dice, learning an enormous amount about numbers at the same time; the children who were blindfolded for 45 minutes for an intense experience of disability.

Sadly, few principals would dare to give their teachers that kind of freedom in our current educational climate. Politicians meddle, fashions change and principals are obliged to go with the flow. They are also required to monitor lessons closely, and if they don't conform to current specifications, the class teacher must be told in no uncertain terms. Every lesson must have pace, energy and drive and there is no opportunity for the teacher just to, well, teach. Mr Johnson, with his lesson about Pasteur, would be out on his ear.

It is hard for schools to keep up with the constant changes to what is demanded from a lesson. In my community, a school for children aged 4-11 has just been inspected and eight of its teachers given "notice to improve". Just one was told she was "good". In the previous inspection, the same eight teachers were judged "good" or "outstanding", and the "good" teacher was told that she was merely "satisfactory". Why? Because the ground rules have changed. One teacher demanded to be reassessed, and by sticking to the tick-box guidelines for a successful lesson he was suddenly "outstanding". Where is the sense in all this?

And not allowing teachers such as Mr Johnson and Miss Davis to do what they did so well leaves our children infinitely poorer.

Mike Kent is a retired headteacher of a school for children aged 4-11 in England. Email:

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