There’s No Secret To Great Teaching

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I’ve been on the road constantly for the past couple of weeks, so blogging has taken a back seat. But, I’ve been doing the thing I enjoy most: watching great teachers teach. When I’m king of the world, I’ll invent a machine that clones these great teachers, so all our kids can get access – until then we’ll have to make do with on-line video learning, and inadequate analyses like this one……..

It’s not often a lesson starts with “OK everybody, let’s get our mobile phones out’. Or, if it does, it’s usually an instruction to switch them off, or hand them in. But this was an immediate hook into what turned out to be a masterclass in teaching, by one of the Musical Futures Champion Teachers, Emily Segal, at Harrogate Grammar School.Emily got her students to think about how, by selectively playing their alarm sounds, they could make a really striking (and highly musical) introduction to a created song, all about time. She then proceeded to guide her students through the hardest of challenges for any music teacher: a whole class playing improvised music, keeping everyone engaged, everyone challenged.

I was visiting with a principal from an Australian primary school, who knows a thing or two about effective teaching. Later, I asked her what she made of Emily’s session. She said, ‘It was like watching a great conductor of a symphony orchestra’. Emily seemed to have eyes in the back of her head, drawing a student back in there seemed to be drifting, setting a higher challenge here for the student who was coasting, modelling everything that she wanted from them, and not being afraid to laugh at herself. It’s often what watching any great teacher looks like, but it’s thrilling to witness, every time.

I’ve also been lucky enough to have been hosting an exchange with 3 expert teachers from High Tech High Schools, in San Diego – they’ve been working in 6 of our Learning Futures schools. It’s been great to see how they have brought with them all the things critics of project-based learning isay it lacks: rigour, protocols, discipline, content and evidence of its impact on student outcomes. For some teachers in Learning Futures schools, it’s been challenging, not least because UK teachers aren’t expected to ‘teach to their passions’ (we’re more accustomed to teaching to the test), but if you want to see how great, rigorous, PBL can transform students’ attitudes to learning, just read Ron Berger’s wonderful ‘Ethic of Excellence’. This book is on High Tech High’s list of required reading, and it should be given to every trainee teacher in the country.

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I also witnessed the transformative effect it can have on teachers last week too. I met with Rob Scott, who teaches at Cramlington Learning Village – some might describe Rob as a seasoned campaigner. He was fresh from a session we’re supporting through Learning Futures – part of the enquiry-based Create curriculum. Modelling the process for students, Rob had brough in some interestingly shaped driftwood, recalling his father to the students, and showed how it could set off a whole chain of research. He’d just come from talking to a student who had brought a ten-pin into class as his significant object. Why had it mattered to the student? it transpired that his grandfather used to take him bowling, but one night was killed by a drunk driver. The student wanted to research the effects of alcohol on driving, incidence of driving while drunk, and his presentation was to be a  short documentary film. This would have been powerful enough, but the way the student was going to use the artefact was incredibly moving: a shot of the tenpin, with a body drawn on to it, would be scattered, in the same way that a struck pedestrian is when hit by a car. Such a strong, forceful image, and clean-sweep of the four P’s of engaged learning (Placed, Principled, Purposeful and Pervasive).

This is what great learning looks like, and great teaching, (like Emily’s, Rob’s and the HTH teachers), is built upon a congruence of professional and personal factors: effective methods, protocols and processes, high expectations (and high challenge), watchfulness, empathic direction, humour, and love.

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