Good trainers put teachers in the mood for learning

14th January 2005 at 00:00
The music's on, the biscuits are out ... let lessons begin, writes Peter Greaves

Over the past decade, teachers have not only had to adapt the way they teach, they have also had to demonstrate extraordinary abilities as learners. That standards have risen and the quality of pupils' learning is so improved belies the way in which most new learning is passed on to staff. If we taught our pupils in the way we are often taught ourselves, the Office for Standards in Education would declare our lessons unsatisfactory.

For example, I will be listening to an in-service training (Inset) session on how children learn or how adults teach, when the speaker comes to the issue of attention spans. "Remember, a pupil's attention span is only their chronological age in minutes," they will say, before going on to lead a 90-minute "sit there and listen" session that would challenge any nonagenarian. Where are the breaks? The opportunities to question?

Inset is becoming a rarer commodity. Release time is being channelled into planning, preparation and assessment (PPA); workforce remodelling makes meeting time precious. It will become increasingly important for those delivering Inset to value the commodity at their disposal and use it wisely.

When done well, the Inset provider practises with adults what they are preaching should be done with the pupils. Effective Inset treats an exhausted staff group as you might treat a class on a wet Friday afternoon.

With Inset, you rarely have the luxury of timetabling the best slot. More likely, you have the death slot at the end of the day. The "quick notice" that someone wanted to give has made everyone cross and was anything but quick. So what would effective teachers do in these circumstances?

First, they would work hard to get the mood right. Staffrooms are often messy places. Tidy the clutter away, add a few pot plants, put on some gentle music and put out some biscuits. I will notice the difference as I walk in and you will already have the benefit of my doubt.

Second, effective teachers would make sure the learners have a clear and realistic idea of what is to happen. Distilled down into a learning intention and shared with us at the beginning, along with timings and success criteria, this will lead to gratitude for your clarity and you will finish on time. I will be less fidgety and more willing to give my attention when it is needed.

Third, good teachers would try to cater for different learning styles. Make sure you are not talking for more than five minutes at a time without giving me time to talk with my colleagues. Make whiteboards and pens available for me to draw on. Build in moving around, even if it is simply to stick a Post-it somewhere. If you want me to work in a group, let me work with my year team so that the outcome is relevant and useful. If I need to work with others, explain why.

Finally, the good teacher is realistic about learning progress. It is more likely that everyone can take a small step forward together, with a date set for reviewing progress. Orating for half an hour about some great change that is needed only leads to disappointment.

When Inset is delivered like this, it hits the mark and moves teachers on, in the same way our teaching affects pupils' learning. These principles were beautifully exemplified by the trainer at a workforce remodelling session I attended. He worked hard to make the environment comfortable. He used visualisation techniques and mood music, getting us up to dance. He got us talking but insisted on our absolute attention for short bursts when necessary. It was the most enjoyable Inset I have attended.

The staffroom is no different to the classroom. If you want us to learn as well as our classes do, just treat us like big kids.

Peter Greaves is deputy head at Dovelands primary in Leicester

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