Timeless tactics: Teaching through the changes

Drew Thomson

Drew is an enthusiastic teacher of Physics who won a Silver Award for Science Teacher of the Year at the 2015 Pearson Teaching Awards. Drew works at Rickmansworth School and has led on Astronomy, Physics, and E-Learning before settling down as head of Science for the last two to three years.

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Teaching is a joy. Being in the classroom and teaching students really is the best part of my day. There is such a wonderful feeling when making those breakthroughs with students, understanding what makes them tick and pushing them, challenging them to stretch themselves to the highest level.

Throughout our teaching careers we are gifted many opportunities to watch excellent teachers in action. Our schools are wonderfully dynamic places and with so many changes in recent years, goalposts are regularly being moved. Frustratingly, the consequence is that many schools look to change the way they expect their teachers to teach. Some schools want you to mark in a certain colour, to limit teacher talk to X number of minutes, to ensure you include a certain amount of group work, or to state learning outcomes in a specific format.

As a subject leader in a department of fifteen teachers, and in a school that has changed considerably in recent years, I feel in the rather privileged position of having observed numerous teachers of different style amidst changing times. We must always remember that these aforementioned expectations and changes are not what leads to success for our students. Writing this post has allowed me to reflect on some aspects I see in other teachers that are real indicators of the best teaching.

1. Awareness of student needs

Watching a colleague in November, I was blown away by the way in which the students were catered for and spellbound. It was like watching five lessons in one.

The teacher would have one group working through some peer-assessment of a homework task, while others who had completed it were being challenged with a set of questions that took their understanding to the next level. A student who had missed the previous lesson was producing a diagram on the class whiteboard with two of his peers giving feedback, as they had been at the lesson. Three girls still struggled with the steps in how our body deals with pathogens, and the teacher was supporting their explanations with a multitude of stimuli, using mini whiteboards and glossaries to help them build an understanding and breakdown complex terminology.

The teacher’s choice of language throughout was magnificent, and changed depending on whom she was addressing and how they were responding.

There is a great deal that one can put into preparation of a lesson in order to meet these needs, but it is important to recognise what value can be added through your interactions with the students; choosing the most appropriate tools to help them learn, and using the type of language that works for your students. In this respect, the lesson I had observed was unplanned. These are qualities that are often developed with experience, and importantly are not those that add to your workload through increased planning time.

The lesson I described does sound rather perfect, and often can rely on certain dynamics coming together, but every teacher should strive to open every door for every student. Teachers must make an effort to spend time getting to know their students and find out their interests, and what can engage them. In differentiating language, tasks, and resources you can do wonders in helping your students make great progress.

2. Subject knowledge

I find myself regularly engaged in discussions with my Physics-teaching colleagues about our subject, while Twitter and mailing-lists-a-plenty also keep me engaged in the latest developments with subject content and teaching ideas for the sciences. Staying at the forefront of Physics has a significant, positive impact on my subject knowledge and, most importantly, the quality of my lessons and how well my students do. We must be careful not to get dragged too deeply into professional development that only caters for our pedagogical craft, instead renewing some focus on subject-specific training.

This type of subject knowledge provides you with the opportunity to challenge students, and it often gives them a confidence in you as their teacher. Exam-specific knowledge can be seen in a number of lessons that I watch, with teachers throwing in phrases like “In the exam”, “Examiners often look for” or “Careful of phrasing it this way”. While solely teaching to the exam is horrific, students having confidence that their teachers know the exam and can identify key aspects of the examinable knowledge can be invaluable. Naturally, giving students this guidance at appropriate times can improve exam results as students know when to refine their choice of language in answering questions. Subject knowledge in this guise can be developed through experience of teaching the same content to different groups, through subject-specific training and through awareness of exam question content and expectations when looking through past exam papers.

It is our job to stay at the forefront of subject developments, not only to bolster our own knowledge and understanding, but to improve our teaching and to improve outcomes for our students. When you next observe a colleague, or when reflecting on your own lessons, consider how often subject knowledge is used to boost student confidence and outcomes.

3. Challenge

There is nothing more mesmerising than to walk into a lesson and watch a sparring match between a teacher and the students:

Teacher: “Why was I able to crush that Coke can?”
Response: “Because you are stronger than the can.”
Teacher: “What do you mean?”
Response: “The metal on the can is not strong enough to hold back the force from your hand.”
Teacher: “What is it about the metal that means it isn’t strong enough?”
Response: “The force caused by the structure of the can is not as big as the force from your hand.”
Teacher: “What about the stuff inside the can?”
Response: “That’s pushing back too.”
Teacher: “What do you mean it’s pushing back?”
Response: “The particles inside the can are colliding with the container and…”

And so on. You get the picture. Challenging students through the way you interact with and question them has an incredible effect. A classroom where you can continuously question, and students will keep responding, is one in which students are demonstrating their willingness to learn and to challenge themselves; they are showing resilience. To me, this is a key to deepening student understanding.

In observing others, I am always conscious of the way in which questions are initially posed and how they are allowed to grow and evolve. There is no better tool – certainly, no better tool that requires zero planning – that has such a positive impact on student understanding, and in the long term student resilience and a love of learning.

As teachers, we should be challenging our students of all ages and all abilities. This can come in many forms; whether through the use of Bloom’s to take an activity to the next level or through skill development by adding another layer of complexity. For example, a student may have been asked to answer some fairly simple state-or-describe-style questions about Of Mice and Men, and you could easily stretch students’ understanding of those concepts by asking them to explain an idea further or order characteristics from most important to least important and provide a justification. In PE, you could get students to pass a rugby ball on their weak side, or use their weaker foot for passing a football. There are a number of tools that can be utilised that are reasonably generic and reusable, reducing planning time whilst maximising impact. Teachers ought to have some of these ready to go in every lesson.

4. The rest…

These three areas are obviously not exhaustive, but are an insight into what I have seen from the very best teachers irrespective of the educational shifts. It is always refreshing to contemplate what is happening in the education world, and to take stock of what really is important to your teaching and to student outcomes. We must look critically upon new initiatives and ideas such that we can sift out those that lack effectiveness and utilise those that have impact. Perhaps you should now reflect on your teaching practice, your school and the Government’s expectations, and which areas are having the biggest positive input to your students.

Do you have anything you’d add? Let us know below.

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