Better teachers of our subjects

What makes a good teacher?

Teachers should have good subject knowledge, but anyone who saw David Starkey on Jamie’s Dream School knows that it isn’t enough. Teachers should have good knowledge of pedagogy, but you wouldn’t want me teaching German. Is good teaching just a sum of these two things? Subject knowledge + pedagogy? Not quite. Effective teaching is an understanding of the way that these two combine very specifically in our subject areas.

What makes your subject unique?

In the Venn diagram of subjects, the areas of crossover are quite small. Yet we spend much of our time in school CPD sessions designed to fit around all subjects when this may have little impact. That’s why we have to focus on pedagogical content knowledge– how to teach our subjects well.

Let’s start with behaviour management as an example (This is obviously not about teaching subject content but good behaviour is crucial for good teaching). There are certainly a number of useful strategies that can be shared with everyone. We know that there are ways of using language, certain routines and habits which tend to work in all subjects. However, there are very subject specific issues which can only be addressed by those subject areas. Students in music practice booths. The Wild West of P.E. changing rooms. The moment a student in Science discovers that pulling on goggles makes them hit the face with a satisfying ‘whack’. These are highly specific to each subject area so time should be spent with those departments working on those areas.

Another example. For many years, a typical training session in schools might be designed around ways to identify misconceptions. I’ve delivered them myself. Ways to check on whole class understanding such as using mini whiteboards and hinge questions. But it isn’t just about the methods we use to check for understanding but the depth of knowledge about the types of misconceptions students might have and how best to identify them. The Sutton Trust report into good teaching stated the following on this topic:

As well as a strong understanding of the material being taught, teachers must also understand the ways students think about the content, be able to evaluate the thinking behind students’ own methods, and identify students’ common misconceptions.

Spending time on these aspects will be where the greatest gains are, rather than looking at a hundred ways to identify them. For a great example of a subject teacher doing just this, have a look at Harry Fletcher-Wood’s extensive work on hinge questions in History.

And the list goes on. Feedback. Explanations. Modelling. All unique. Literacy is especially problematic and can lend itself to whole school initiatives that never really have a chance of working because of the different ways that subjects work. Of course there are some things which can be communicated as good practice and getting the whole staff body together can be the most effective way to do it, but time for staff to explore subject implications should always be built in.

Department meetings are a place where this can happen too. The best subject areas are the ones who remove as much admin as possible from their meetings and concentrate on teaching. But subject teams do not always have control of how often they meet and there can often be competing focuses.

Leaders need to know subjects

To support teachers in developing their ability to teach their subjects well, leaders need to develop a clearer understanding of what effective teaching is in every subject. I am seeing a greater number of lessons at the moment in a number of subjects and I find it fairly straightforward to give feedback on general pedagogy but there are some aspects where I am simply not an expert. For example, I have observed a number of science lessons this year. I have tried to familiarise myself with what makes good practice in Science, but I would be unlikely to notice if a basic error in terms of subject knowledge was made. While I feel that I know a little about Mathematics, I would struggle to tell you if a concept had been explained properly and understood. Whereas in an English lesson, I’d be very confident in providing highly developmental feedback because I know the subject very well.

How can leaders develop at least a working knowledge of subjects? I’d recommend reading Ofsted’s subsidiary guidance for each subject as a useful starting point. Not to use as a ticklist, but to get a sense of the kinds of things that might make the subject unique. There are often more detailed subject reports like ‘Moving English Forward’ and ‘Music in schools: wider still, and wider’, where the following is found:

Promote teachers’ use of musical sound as the dominant language of musical teaching and learning by:

–       ensuring that lesson planning includes a strong focus on the teacher’s musical preparation as well as defining lesson structures and procedures

–       establishing musical sound as the ‘target language’ of teaching and learning, with talking and writing about music supporting, rather than driving, the development of pupils’ musical understanding

–       developing and refining teachers’ listening and musical modelling skills, so that they can more accurately interpret and respond to pupils’ music-making and show more effectively how to improve the musical quality of their work.

This won’t make up for my lack of musical knowledge but it will give me a start in understanding a key part of excellent music lessons. The next stage is to listen to the experts- the music teachers. When Ofsted say, ‘establish.. musical sound as the target language of teaching’, we need to work with music teachers in our schools to understand what that means in the classroom. If we don’t know then we can give feedback which is inaccurate and unhelpful- and potentially harmful.

Paired observations with subject experts and meetings with relevant teachers before seeing them teach will help to make the process easier and help us with what we need to know. We need to know that students in P.E. might do well in the half term on badminton but regress when they are assessed in gymnastics (I did!). We need to be aware that ‘target language’ is crucial in MFL. We need to consider that an R.E. teacher may see 20 different classes in a week. We need to know that progress in one subject is different from another nationally. And so on.

I’m not dismissing the need to look at general pedagogy but I feel that I have become a better teacher in recent years by trying to become a better English teacher and the greater focus we place on subject expertise, the better.

Ofsted outstanding lesson examples

In the Ofsted Annual Report, several examples were given of ‘outstanding lessons’:

In 2012/13, inspectors saw many different kinds of outstanding teaching, although nearly all shared the common characteristics of high expectations, detailed subject knowledge, good and attentive behaviour and an unremitting focus on what children were expected to learn.

Now, just because Ofsted say something, it doesn’t mean that we should suddenly see that as the right way to teach (but I would hope nobody would disagree with the points above). Nor should we assume that all inspectors will be singing from the same hymnsheet. After all, judging lessons is still a subjective business. However, as teachers we cannot ignore that Ofsted’s agenda does have an impact on schools.

I was particularly interested in the two English lessons described. These lessons have been chosen specifically to indicate best practice, so we can learn much about Ofsted’s vision of outstanding teaching from them. There are some interesting points addressed which contradict received wisdom about Ofsted. Here are the lessons, with the phrases I wish to concentrate on in blue:

Lesson 1: Year 11 English students were studying J.B. Priestley’s ‘An Inspector Calls’. Students listened attentively and quietly as the teacher opened the lesson by explaining key features of evaluative writing. Her talk included an excellent example of an evaluative sentence, and students were challenged to come up with examples of their own. Following this, students were set to work on exploring the text, and during their evaluative writing the teacher cross-examined individuals, using searching questions to provoke a deeper level of knowledge and understanding. The work set had been meticulously planned and each student was mindful of their target grades and knew what was expected of them. Although this was a tightly planned lesson, the teacher responded flexibly to students’ questions, allowing the lesson’s ‘direction of travel’ to shift so that she could fill gaps in the students’ knowledge and understanding.

Lesson 2: In a Year 10 English lesson on Steinbeck’s ‘Of Mice and Men’, the teacher kept the lesson format simple and allowed students, through high quality debate and note-taking, to develop considerable proficiency in annotating text with detailed and insightful textual analysis. The students worked doggedly, and committedly, to improve their knowledge and understanding. As a result, they were informed and knowledgeable about the different dimensions of the character of Curley’s wife, and at all times they closely referenced the text when making their observations. At the heart of this successful learning was an experienced and expert teacher, who motivated the students well and ensured that they were fully prepared for a subsequent writing task.

My thoughts:

The teacher opened the lesson by explaining key features of evaluative writing.

From this, we can be clear that teacher explanations are not frowned upon. Ofsted pointedly use the phrase ‘Her talk’ and I feel this is indicating that teachers can begin lessons with explanations without fear of a negative judgement. Pupils ‘listened attentively’ and ‘students were challenged to come up with examples of their own’ so this is not described as passive learning. There are many examples in Ofsted reports where ‘teacher talk’ is criticised but I feel that the report is at pains to clarify that ‘inspectors will not look for a preferred methodology’.

In the Science lesson described in the report, I also think the phrase ‘The teacher led the pupils…’ (my emphasis) is included in the report deliberately. The phrase ‘Teacher led’ is often used as a criticism but in this case the teacher is leading students towards deep learning. The lesson is punctuated by ‘short, sharp direct inputs and a series of challenges set for pupils,’ so once again this is not talking at the students. In an example Year 3 lesson, ‘the pupils listened intently as the teacher recapped previous learning, using a story to prompt the class to identify examples and justify them.’ There is a real sense – to me at least- that these examples exist to reinforce the point that we can and should teach how we want. We need not be scared of explaining, discussing, modelling and asking ‘searching questions’.

Allowing the lesson’s ‘direction of travel’ to shift…

In the first English example, the teacher is praised for a ‘meticulously planned’ lesson. However, when the lesson needs to be adapted, that is also praised. There were ‘several…mistakes’ made by students in a Maths lesson but the teacher had anticipated and addressed them. When you understand that there were many, many outstanding Maths lessons observed, for them to single out one where many mistakes were made is significant.

It is important to acknowledge that a lesson where every single student ‘gets it’ straight away is a) not typical and b) probably not challenging enough. The teacher’s job is to address misconceptions and it is their skill to identify and intervene appropriately. The more Ofsted repeat this, the fewer teachers we will see wanting the ground to swallow them up when things don’t go to plan.

Knowledge and Understanding

In both English lesson examples, they use the above phrase and ‘key scientific knowledge’, ‘thorough knowledge’ and ‘knowledge’ itself appear throughout the lesson examples. It seems that ‘knowledge’ is (quite rightly) valued by Ofsted and this reflects the changed wording of the September 2013 Inspection handbook which introduced the phrase ‘growth in students’ knowledge’. (See Heather Leatt’s handy guide to changes for September 2013 here)

The teacher kept the lesson format simple

I think this point is very, very important, especially when placed against the checklist of ideas Ofsted provide earlier in the report. The report mentions the ‘Moving English Forward’ report from March 2012 and I was struck by just how much the annual report echoed findings presented in that earlier document.

Both reports refer to myths which Ofsted wish to point out:

The quality of pupils’ learning was hampered in weaker lessons by a number of ‘myths’ about what makes a good lesson. The factors that most commonly limited learning included: an excessive pace; an overloading of activities; inflexible planning; and limited time for pupils to work independently.

These points can be cross-referenced with a bad practice example from the ‘Moving English Forward’ report:

The lesson involved a Year 9 class working on techniques of persuasive writing. The lesson was planned in detail. The first phase involved an explanation of the learning objectives and a starter activity where students worked in groups to complete a card-sort activity. In the next phase of the lesson, students used a grid to identify persuasive devices on mini whiteboards. The teacher then took them quickly through the criteria for assessment at Levels 5–7 and gave students examples of extracts from two essays on capital punishment. Students were asked to choose the more effective piece, linking it to the assessment criteria. They were then asked to produce at least one paragraph of writing on the topic of capital punishment. In the final part of the lesson, students were asked to peer-mark two other students‟ work, then to look at and review their own work and check the comments. One further activity was introduced before students were asked to say what they had learnt in the lesson. The lesson closed with a final activity where students revised persuasive techniques on the board.

This final example contrasts with the two earlier lessons. Whoever we blame for the encouragement of the type of lesson described above, it is positive that Ofsted are addressing the problems.

How will this affect classroom practice? Well, in truth it shouldn’t. We should go on teaching in the way we feel is right regardless of Ofsted. However, it is my own experience that the lesson described above is commonplace in observations and I say that because it is a typical lesson from my classroom as recently as a year or two ago. I have advocated this kind of lesson because I firmly believed that it would be praised by Ofsted. I still find observations to be a bit of a mind reading game which depend on who is observing you. I admit too that I have encouraged the flurry of progress checking activities which Ofsted say they would never advocate.

What is pleasing is that the examples of outstanding practice given above are typical lessons in my classroom and in the classrooms of my colleagues. The Ofsted report is a reassuring reminder that we need not abandon what we know is right and do day-in-day-out when Ofsted come calling.



Mind Reading

I have had a few conversations with colleagues this week about doing well in lesson observations. We have had a two day mock inspection and as can happen in these kinds of situations, excellent teachers begin to second-guess their practice. The advice I usually give is ‘just do what you normally do’ but this advice is difficult when observers tend to have their own criteria for what makes a great lesson. I’m not really talking about the basics here. It’s more about those nuances which can take a formally observed lesson from ‘good’ to ‘outstanding’. This is when a lesson observation, especially by someone unknown to the observee, can often become an exercise in mind reading.

I have heard many sweeping statements from different people of what would need to be observed in a lesson for it to be awarded ‘outstanding’. Some expect to see individual, paired and group work, others will mark the lesson as less than good if the teacher talks for a certain amount of time etc. I saw a comment on Twitter about someone who would expect to hear each child speak at least once. The fact is that people have their own criteria in their head. I welcome the idea of ‘what’s good is what works’ but this is still widely open to interpretation as ‘what works’ can be taken in so many ways.

This isn’t just about other people. My own ‘checklist’ of what quality teaching looks like has changed dramatically over the last few years.  I remember how incredulous I used to be if I didn’t see an objective written on the board. Up until very recently I have promoted the idea that teachers need to do a mini plenary as soon as the inspectors come through the door. Today, if I were to be asked on my own criteria for excellent lessons, I would say that exercise books are the key and they will tell me most of what I need to know. I like to think that I am sophisticated and know what great teaching is like but it still comes down to my own ideas about what an outstanding lesson looks like.

I’m not sure that we can ever eliminate subjectivity from the process, but I do think we can take steps to avoid the scenario where teachers end up fretting over lesson observations, overthinking what they are doing and trying to satisfy an observer’s very personal criteria. To do this, there needs to be a dialogue between the observer and observee before, during and after the lesson observation. The onus is on the observer to do everything they can to make the process transparent and supportive.

As someone who has to formally observe teachers as part of the performance management process, I have no interest in ‘judging’ teachers when I observe them. I also don’t want to put them in the position of having to second guess my ideas. Any lesson observation needs to be developmental, otherwise it is an empty process. For the staff that I observe in the next half term, I will meet with them beforehand and discuss the lesson.  We’ll discuss the context and any concerns.  I will be clear about the things I am looking for. While there may be disagreement that these are always the right things, at least there is clarity and no one is trying to second guess my motives or my expectations. It could be argued that this will just mean that they perform to my set of criteria. However, I will encourage them to teach in the way that they normally do as that is what I want to see. I will offer developmental feedback where I think I can and follow this up by supporting them with whatever they need.

When I am observed, I try to stick to my guns. As an experienced teacher, I know that one lesson observation doesn’t define me. I am always realistic that if I am observed by person x then I might draw attention to certain aspects of my practice but gone are the days when I would plan a showy lesson just to be graded good or outstanding. The whole idea of putting a number to a lesson observation is pretty ridiculous to be honest but it assumes so much importance for teachers, particularly those in their formative years. We can’t underestimate the deeply personal effect that the grading of a lesson can have on an individual. We will struggle to be exactly clear about what Ofsted inspectors have on their personal checklists  but we can definitely remove the mind reading element in our school systems.








Developing teachers in the age of ‘no prescribed methodology’

I love the idea of ‘no prescribed methodology’ when it comes to teaching.  What’s good is what works.  However, this does pose some interesting questions for those tasked with training staff, particularly new teachers. With this in mind, I want to consider how we train teachers to be brilliant while still saying that there is no right way to teach.

Start with Why

I have delivered two training sessions this week- one on written feedback and one on displays.  In each of them, I did my best to give compelling reasons why these were important and how they help the students.  Often, I have heard sessions begin with ‘this is important because there will be a learning walk’ or  ‘Ofsted want to see this’ and it makes my blood boil.  If it works then let’s do it.  It’s quite lazy to blame Ofsted.  Teachers have to understand why there are certain aspects of lesson design which work.

For example, many people see a plenary as the bit on the end that you have to do and see it as a box-ticking exercise.  A good plenary is a chance for students to reflect, to consolidate understanding and to give the teacher food for thought.  If we develop staff to understand the reasons underpinning aspects of pedagogy then they build lessons where these elements are essential and used where appropriate.

Observe others

The best writers are usually those who have read a lot of books.  I think some of the best teachers are those who see colleagues teaching regularly.  Even as a teacher with 10 years experience, I find that I still learn so much when I visit other teachers’ classrooms.  I much prefer observing in a coaching capacity or in a very informal nature because teachers don’t feel the need to revert to a traditional prescribed method of teaching when that happens. As an English teacher, I like seeing other subjects.  In the last 3 weeks, I watched a science teacher to get help with my tricky class, I saw a humanities teacher use some ICT I haven’t used yet and I stole a bunch of display ideas from a colleague in technology.  *update- This blog on Canons Broadside sums this up even better!*  Equally, I like to invite teachers into my room when I’m doing something unusual or trying something for the first time.  The more you see different ways of approaching lessons, the more you will be able to attempt in your own lesson.  This should be routinely built into training for new teachers.

Even better if they can move from passive observation and…


Plan lessons with someone else.  Teach them together so they can have that dialogue about what they are doing and why.  Experiment with ways of working that suit the individual.  We build into our NQT training a cross-curricular project which encourages collaboration.  It may be idealistic when budgets and timetables are stretched to the limit but wouldn’t it be great to timetable NQTs to team teach at least one lesson on their timetable?

Be reflective

As part of their training, trainees are asked to reflect on lessons.  Sometimes I get the impression that this is just seen as another evidence building task for a portfolio.  In my experience, if teachers reflect routinely, then they get better.  Reflection can be a couple of bullet points, a blog, a coaching conversation or even just a quick think.  To help develop staff, we all need to be modelling this process and allow time to do this.

Learn models

Much as I love breaking the rules, the largest percentage of my lessons are 3/ 4 part lessons.  It is a good model and one which has been the skeleton for a large number of brilliant lessons. And because I know the rules, I know that I have solid reasons for not following them.  I can reveal the learning objective at the end if I want.  I can skip a starter. I can do jigsaw group work.  I can spend a whole double lesson getting students to redraft work.  Teachers should continue to build a repertoire of lesson models and seek these out in books, blogs etc.  For example, early in my career, I found The Teacher’s Toolkit by Paul Ginnis helpful in exploring different approaches.  When we think about what we want students to learn, we can then choose a model that might work or create our own.

Looking back at my list, perhaps this isn’t just for new teachers.  I think this is pretty good advice for us all really!



Ofsted lesson observations

Today we had a training session delivered from a former HMI on the new inspection framework.  It was actually quite interesting.  She delivered the key messages in a clear (and perhaps a little eccentric!) manner.  We were looking at lesson observations in particular, although the session covered other things.  I went into the training a bit apprehensive and with this question in mind: If Ofsted are focussing on progress over time, then what is the point of a lesson observation?

Now, I am not driven by Ofsted.  They play such a small part in my day to day life that I am clear that I will focus on what is best for students and the idea is that Ofsted come in and see that and say well done.  However, I am not naive.  I know that the judgement Ofsted place on my school will have a profound impact and I want to make sure that I am up to date on their thinking. We have outstanding teachers and great students- I don’t want that to get ignored because we miss out something straightforward that Ofsted want to see.

I have to say that I find very little that I strongly disagree with in their inspection standards.  I do have an issue with the idea that one lesson observation can define my teaching.  What is pleasing to know is that Ofsted seem to agree.  While I acknowledge that individual inspectors may have their own subjective idea on what is an outstanding lesson, here are my conclusions based on today’s session:

It’s all about progress over time

I have a problem with teachers who phone it in for the year and then pull out the same outstanding lesson they’ve taught time and time again.  Inspectors, quite rightly, should dig deeper and find evidence of that sustained progress over time. In addition to the data and markbooks, they find the evidence in the following places:

Pupils’ books: These will show that students work hard and are given feedback that makes a difference.  They won’t be dog-eared, empty and unmarked.

The classroom environment: While she was clear to state that this wouldn’t be a limiting factor, our HMI did say that it made it a heck of a lot easier for her if the classroom environment screamed learning.

The students: “I get what I need from students when I visit a school.”  Maybe this does lend itself to students being pre-programmed with what to say but I don’t think this needs to be the case.  My pupils can say what they need to do to improve- usually in unelegant language but they know it because we work hard on it for the right reasons.

How as well as what

Ofsted are looking for progress in that short space of time but they also like to see the process.  How do students learn it then and over time?  This is where routines and classroom systems come into play.  She mentioned ‘talk partners’ and ‘next steps books’ in a year 2 lesson she had seen.  When it is evident that students are used to working in a certain way then they not only demonstrate learning there and then but it is clear that this goes on over time.  Once again, it is going against the idea of blagging a lesson.

No ‘prescribed methodology’

The HMI described an observation which had no learning objective written on the board.  It was outstanding.  (Here is a great presentation on different approaches to learning objectives.)  There was not a tick box process.  I think schools need to have a shared language of how we construct lessons and I feel that the 3/ 4+ part lesson is a not unhelpful method but I like flexibility and it is good to know that a lesson is judged on its own merits.  I think there are a range of strategies that work and there are a number of ways of putting these strategies together.

Ofsted are keen to stress that Grade descriptors for the Quality of teaching are ‘not designed to be used to judge individual lessons.’  They acknowledge too that ‘not all aspects of learning, for example pupils’ engagement, interest, concentration, determination, resilience and independence, will be seen in a single observation.’

I don’t know if it was just limited to our HMI, but I got a real sense that outstanding lessons have a feel to them that is not always easily explained.  It’s quite hard to put that in an action plan mind you!


I am actually quite positive that the work that we do over a long period of time will be acknowledged by inspectors.  We work hard and do a good job but I certainly have some bad lessons that don’t go as planned- this is just as likely to happen during Ofsted.  What makes me look upon Ofsted with less apprehension is if they talk to the kids, look at the grades and look at my books they will see the truth.*


*Except my year 9 books.  Please don’t look at my year 9 books.