April 2015

The know zone

  • A question of sport
    After being quizzed about excellence by a student teacher, Gareth Burton cast his mind back to his own PE lessons at school to find parallels between the pitch and the classroom. More
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  • A world-class education system
    At the heart of ASCL’s blueprint is a need for a self-improving education system in order to truly make it world-class. What do you think is required to achieve this? Here ASCL members share their views. More
  • Quickstart Computing
    QuickStart Computing is a comprehensive, national programme to help teachers to plan, teach and assess the new national curriculum for computing. It is available free of charge to all secondary teachers and there is a dedicated version for secondary schools. More
  • Adding value
    Top tips for converting to a multi-academy trust (MAT) More
  • Be a super model...
    Sue Bull looks at ways to support your staff in making the leap to leadership. More
  • Fair shares
    ASCL has drawn up new guidance encouraging schools and local authorities (LAs) to pay school business leaders and school business managers at a rate that reflects their role in school leadership, as Val Andrew explains. More
  • A lighter touch
    Schools rated ‘good’ are the focus of the most important change to the Ofsted framework this year with more emphasis on professional dialogue, as Suzanne O’Farrell explains. More
  • Retiring thoughts
    Stephen Casey and David Binnie highlight the changes in the pipeline for teacher pensions. More
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After being quizzed about excellence by a student teacher, Gareth Burton cast his mind back to his own PE lessons at school to find parallels between the pitch and the classroom.

A question of sport

One of the termly tasks I look forward to is an informal meet-and-greet with the school’s new PGCE student-teachers.

Fresh-faced, keen and eager to impress, I always make time to welcome the profession’s newest recruits to the school and spend some time with them at the beginning of their first, second or third placement, getting to know their strengths, ambitions, gaps in knowledge and anxieties.

However, my most recent meeting at the beginning of January left me feeling under the spotlight in a way that is usually reserved for interviews. Rather than being asked, “How big is the school?” or “Do you set students or teach mixed-ability?” a very insightful and promising student-teacher politely stated: “I would like to know what you think makes a brilliant lesson.”

My response was: “My goodness, there’s a question.” 

I recalled my first few lessons as a student in the sixth form studying A level PE. One of the first topics we covered was the categorisation of sport. It was preceded by an intense debate about which activities could be categorised as sports. 

This question has occupied the minds of many sporting analysts over the years and each response appears to offer a slightly different perspective. The one that works for me is ‘an activity that is competitive and demands some degree of physical exertion’. 

Now I expect that upon reading my words, some will immediately attempt to find a counter-example – this, of course, is the natural competitive instinct of most humans. 

However, let me save you the trouble. There are counter-examples, but there are also counter-examples to every other definition of sport that I have ever heard. 

My point is that defining such activity is open to debate, has a large number of qualifying activities and, critically, is still evolving as every new activity emerges. 

There are many parallels between the above debate and the answer to the question on the mind of the inquisitive student-teacher: what really does make a brilliant lesson? 

Ofsted claims to know the answer but is no longer willing (for individual lessons) to be drawn on just how brilliant (or not) a lesson is. 

There is, of course, a tacit link between student achievement and the quality of teaching over time, so it is easy to make the assumption that brilliant student performance in examinations equates to brilliant lessons, whatever goes on inside the classroom. 

Churning out results?

But is it really as simple as that? Is high-quality learning really all about churning out results without any regard whatsoever for how the learning takes place? I, for one, am prepared to show my hand, as indeed I did in response to the two student-teachers.

People can generally keep three things in their mind at any one time and, for me, a brilliant lesson is about three things: typicality, relationships and feedback. 

First, typicality: a brilliant lesson cannot be a one-off. Clearly we all have experience of teaching lessons where everything just clicks and the learning experience for all concerned is close to perfect. However, brilliant lessons aren’t just brilliant once or twice; students arrive at the lesson knowing that they are about to have their minds challenged and that they will learn or have reinforced something very special. 

Second, relationships: learning involves trust, mutual respect from both sides and awareness that learning is a human exchange, reliant on contributions, mistakes, frustrations and, above all, resilience. However, these things take time to cultivate.

Lastly, feedback: there is a plethora of research in and around the notion of effective feedback. What is certain is that, without it, sustained improvements in learning are unlikely.

After sharing the above with the two budding future teachers, I was also clear that I had developed my thoughts on the basis of 12 years of teaching. With this in mind, my challenge to them was to use the year ahead to observe, listen, question and reflect on everything they engage in on their placements to form their own view of what makes a brilliant lesson.

I then congratulated them on their decision to join a truly rewarding profession, full of highly skilled, committed staff, who care about supporting and challenging young people to be the people they want to be for the rest of their lives. 

Gareth Burton is Associate Headteacher at Cheltenham Bournside School and Sixth Form Centre

Want the last word?

Last Word always welcomes contributions from members. If you’d like to share your humorous observations of school life, email Permjit Mann at leader@ascl.org.uk ASCL offers a modest honorarium.