Wednesday, 19 February 2014

Outstandingly ordinary

A few days ago I had one of those spine tingling lessons that just 'worked'. This kind of thing is the life blood of teaching - it's a perk of the job you can't properly relate to non-teachers. A lesson that clicks makes all the hard work we put in worth it. Frustratingly though it's really difficult to predict when these sparkling lessons will happen. Sometimes they are the result of massive and meticulous planning, but at other times they can be a complete surprise and happen despite patchy planning. In all honesty the one last week was a complete surprise - the planning I put into it was nothing special and really did not deserve the results it delivered for me or the class, particularly given the context/timing of delivery.

"Can we have a fun lesson sir?"
Picture it for a moment... a middle ability year 9 group, in the very last lesson on the last day of half term - they're are about to have a week off and want to wind down, frankly so do I! They came in with the predictable "It's our last lesson sir, can we have a 'fun' lesson", which was met with my equally predictable response of "Of course it'll be fun, we're doing maths!" Up my sleeve I had nothing more than their first ever lesson on trigonometry...

No gimmicks*, nothing flash, no student lead discovery, no card sorts, no videos, no animations, no movement around the classroom, just a basic lesson where I tell/show them something and they then practise it. You could even describe it as a chalk and talk lesson - I explained what trig is, what it does, and showed them some worked examples, and then gave them some time to have a go at it themselves while I moved around the room offering support and checking progress. At the end we self assessed by checking answers and the students did a RAG123 rating and comment. (*Alright I did use a chalk pen to write SOHCAHTOA on all of their desks before the start, but they've seen me do similar before so I don't count it as a gimmick!)

By the end of the lesson the whole class had made massive progress; they could ALL use trigonometry to find a side length in a right angled triangle by selecting the correct trig ratio and correct calculation to do. This is something which NONE of them could do at the start (I had asked at the start - nobody had even heard of trig before other than perhaps something mentioned as 'really hard' by a parent or older sibling).

For the record I fully acknowledge this is teaching a process and not a deeper understanding of trig at this stage, however to expand on this requires a bit more discussion which would take me away from the central point of this post. I promise I'll return to that theme with a future post...

Big grins
They all left at the end with big grins having experienced success with this skill, many thanking me for the lesson, and I am optimistic that they will be able to recall and build on it after half term (though we'll have to wait and see). What's more, despite the apparently dry content I had not a single comment/complaint about not doing something 'fun' (usually student code for playing some kind of brainless game or watching a film), and they were all engaged and working hard throughout the lesson. 

Not that I'm hung up on levels but to give some perspective for those non-maths folks out there, this class have target levels in the range of high level 5 to low level 7. Trigonometry is rated as level 8, and as such this is a topic that should stretch even the best in the class. By most predictions it shouldn't have worked - surely they weren't in the mood for this at the end of a long half term? Surely they needed something more 'engaging?'

Only ordinary
I'll re-emphasise, this was their very last lesson before a week off, at the end of a 6 week half term. Frankly if a student teacher had suggested doing this lesson at that timing of the week/term I may well have questioned their judgement, but it worked! Basically against all the odds given timing in the day, week, term, and pre-conceptions about 'good' activities a completely ordinary, very traditional lesson had delivered outstanding outcomes. 

I'm not writing this to proclaim myself as some kind of super-teacher, I think I'm fairly ordinary. This lesson on paper had no right to be as successful as it was given all of the factors going against it. I certainly wouldn't suggest it could fall into a category of "outstanding" as planned, I guess it could even be viewed as "requires improvement" as planned.

What made it work?
It actually took me a while to realise the significance of this lesson in terms of my relationship with that group. When I was planning the lesson I'd not even questioned that they might not be up for it, but afterwards it struck me that it was by no means a certainty. I had to think it through a bit, and in the end I came to the conclusion that this lesson was just one in a long string of basically good lessons, which is something they are now completely used to....

All about habits
I'm suggesting that what made the real difference with this group in this lesson, and what gave me the confidence to plan it in this way given the context, is a track record of ingrained habits and expectations (both from me and the students).

I've been teaching this group since July, and they know that I have high expectations for them. Since November I have been using RAG123 marking with this class. As a result they know that I will review their work and respond to exactly what they have done in each lesson. This means their effort levels are consistently good - they don't like to get reds! I also know them very well now as a result of RAG123 dialogue, and know the kind of support each student is likely to need during a lesson like this.

I have always made it clear to them as a class that I won't let their target levels limit what I teach them, or put a cap on what they can achieve; as a set 2 they are taught the exact same content as our top sets. All of the topics we have covered this half term have been level 7 or 8, and they have experienced success with them. In our last assessment test the entire class (27 students) scored at least one sub-level ahead of their target, all of them were level 7 and above, and 6 were in level 8. The chart below shows their progress in tests since September:

Over time this class have developed a trust with me that difficult topics will be broken down, I'll review what they've done in lessons via RAG123, revisit it, re-teach it and practice it with them when needed. In a lesson the class know they need to listen during an explanation, and can ask questions when they need to. They know I will target questions during these explanations to check understanding. They also know that they will have a level of control in the difficulty of the practise I ask them to do, via star rated questions that allow them to push harder or go easier depending on their confidence.

None of this is outstanding on paper - it's just 'good' teaching, nothing fancy.

Outstandingly ordinary
I don't think I've ever once tried to plan an 'outstanding' lesson for this group, but I always aim for my practice with them to be consistently good. I think that's what they're responding to, and that's why they're making outstanding progress.

I've blogged previously on the idea of basically good teaching being a foundation for outstanding outcomes - see this post. Also see this post by David Didau (@LearningSpy) which I think explores a very similar area.

The result is that this group are basically in the habit of learning effectively, and they trust me to deliver a lesson that will help them to progress. They also know that they can get help during a lesson, from me, from their peers or from other resources in the room. They can also indicate a need for help in the next by making comments in their books that I'll respond to due to my regular RAG123 marking.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that because this group are in the habit of receiving a diet of basically good lessons, with good feedback, and good dialogue, they are in a place where even a lesson that should be really difficult to deliver can be made highly effective.

This lesson wasn't the first spine tingling occasion with this group, and I don't expect it to be the last as they are working in such a fantastic way at the moment. However I don't think the next one will come from the expense of masses of time planning, or from my delivering whizz bang performances - it will be due to continuing on the diet of basically good.

I'm more and more certain that consistently good for a long enough time is all that is needed for incredible progress.

Comments & thoughts are always welcome.

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