Deputy head Betty Port discusses how she looked at restructuring lessons to transform and advance learning across her school

At All Saints, teaching and learning had always been a priority in the school development plan (SDP), but when, in September 2005, it was made my responsibility as part of my deputy head role, we introduced more formal methods of identifying areas for improvement. This led us to develop a concentrated focus on what makes for a good lesson as the launchpad for introducing more effective teaching strategies to transform learning across the whole school.

School context All Saints Church of England School is an 11–16 mixed comprehensive of 920 pupils in Wyke Regis, Weymouth, Dorset. We became a specialist science school in September 2004. Our intake is comprehensive with no academic selection procedures. A total of 37 pupils have a statement for special educational needs (SEN). The school has a specialist dyslexia base with a capacity of 10 students — pupils are placed in the base by the local education authority (LEA) and so become members of All Saints. The base is funded by the LEA and managed, with the learning support department, by one special educational needs coordinator (SENCO) and 24 teaching assistants.

The school is predominantly white and there is an unauthorised absence rate of 0.3%. The economy of Weymouth and Portland depends on tourism and some small businesses. The school is on the coast within sight of Portland and the sailing venue for the 2012 Olympics. Most of our students live in Weymouth and its outskirts but approximately 10% are bussed in from outlying villages. All Saints is an active member of the Chesil Educational Partnership, a collection of 28 schools — four secondary, 12 primary, four junior, five infant, two special and one further education college — in the Weymouth and Portland area of Dorset LEA. The partnership was launched in early 2004 with a vision to create a positive culture of cooperation among the schools, and to establish innovative and cost-effective ways to enhance achievement and provide the best provision for all learners in the area. KS3 performance is significantly above the national average and in 2007, 72.5% of pupils achieved five or more A*–C GCSEs.

Starting with a survey We began with a survey of all staff — teachers and teaching assistants — looking at what made a good lesson.

We then used the results of this to create a whole-school pupil survey. Factors identified as characteristics of good lessons include those set out below, as are the key findings of the surveys. For more details of how these surveys were used, and for all results, see Curriculum Briefing: Partners in learning — engaging students, vol 4, no 3, pp48–51.

Traits of good lessons

  • Good teacher preparation
  • Objectives-led teaching
  • Motivated classes
  • Variety of activities
  • Good questioning
  • Good pace
  • A sense of humour
Key findings of survey

Reasons for subject preference

  • Like the subject matter
  • Like the teacher
  • Like the things they do in the lessons
  • Like the people they work with

Factors spoiling lessons Pupils who:

  • did not want to learn
  • were noisy and shouted out
  • made fun of their peers
  • made the teacher angry
  • made teacher lose concentration
  • tried to be funny
  • did not listen
  • copied others people’s work
  • did not come to lessons prepared to work or with the right equipment.

Teachers who:

  • were late
  • were angry and who shouted
  • did not allow enough time for completing activities
  • were absent, as this was unsettling.

I then observed all teachers teaching, and from this identified the key factors that made a successful lesson. Then the teachers I had observed presented some of these factors to the whole staff in a staff meeting. These included use of plenaries and starters, imaginative use of interactive whiteboards (IWBs) and managing different learning styles in the classroom. This whole approach brought many benefits to whole-school teaching and learning (T&L), including those set out below.

Impact on whole-school teaching and learning

  • Staff — teachers and teaching assistants — tried out the new ideas in their lessons.
  • Heads of departments were encouraged to observe more classes.
  • Some teachers began to go into each other’s lessons to observe different strategies at work. They acted as assistants and talked with the pupils about their learning. They could report later to the teacher and engage in professional discussion.
  • Department minutes reflected more talk about teaching and learning.
  • Sharper teaching and learning targets were created in the SDP — examples of these include to:

–    have dedicated time in meetings to discuss successful — or not-so-successful — teaching strategies –    trial a method of recording oral and written feedback in planners

–    put picture starters on a common subject area on the school intranet.

Moving T&L to next level The challenge then was to use this information in a way that would move teaching and learning on to the next stage. The whole process had highlighted two key areas for development: the need for greater pace in a lesson and use of various questioning techniques.

In June 2006, the school applied to the county school strategy team for consultant assistance in what was to be called the generic teaching and learning (GTL) project.

Generic teaching and learning project

What was it ?

The aim of the GTL project was to develop generic teaching skills in a target group of pupils with a small number of key teachers. For our school, we agreed to focus on developing independent learning in the Year 8 classes taught by nine staff (the GTL9) — comprising three teachers from each of the core subjects, English, maths and science, with different strengths between them. There would be three trios, with one member of each department in each trio, looked after by a skilled KS3 consultant. The consultants would observe the staff in their trios, looking for the key areas of development. They would deliver Inset to the staff on effective teaching, then initially jointly plan, team-teach and give feedback to the teachers. As a next step, they would plan, observe and feedback on two lessons.

How would we gauge success?
A selection of pupils from all years, many of whom were taught by the GTL9, were interviewed at the beginning of the project and at the end to see how far the project had made an impact. We hoped that the strategies would spread throughout the years. These were the least successful indicators because the GTL strategies had not percolated through the year groups. However, the results for Year 8 were very useful and showed the students as becoming more confident in their answers. Even more useful were the comments by the pupils in key groups when they were engaged in discussion with myself, their teacher or the consultants. Teacher interviews were conducted at the beginning and end of the project. Lesson observations by the consultants and the project coordinator would prove to be a valuable indicator.

What help was there to manage the project?
LEA devolved funding for taking part in the project paid for consultant time, release for the teachers involved in the project and for my time to manage it. Two of the three consultants guiding us, from science, English, and the foundation subjects, had worked with the school before on individual consultancies and they were well respected by us.

The project work would take place through three visits of two days each throughout the year. The box below outlines what each visit involved.

Visit 1: Christmas term
The consultants, in pairs, had already observed each of the nine teachers to gain a flavour of their teaching styles. The whole team, teachers, consultants, myself and my deputy met to discuss the project, what the stages would be and what criteria we would use to judge its success. We decided to provide a training session for the nine teachers led by the consultants on current techniques to encourage independent learning. This would focus on different methods of questioning, and planning the focus of the lesson as a Big Question. The consultants and the teachers then shared lesson preparation, and team-taught one lesson. They then had a full discussion of that lesson. Action plans were set for the next visit. For example, these might concentrate staff attention on picture starters to encourage discussion, on plenaries drawn from the pupils, which would be used to plan the following lesson, on ways of building on discussion contributions to generate the next stage of the pupils’ learning.

In between the first and second visits, I observed and assisted in the lessons of the nine teachers, giving feedback and sharing the ideas I had seen in the other lessons. I also arranged cross-observation across the trios for relevant parts of the lessons. I talked to pupils in the lesson to gather further feedback for the teachers. A series of newsletters for the GTL teachers, heads of English, maths and science departments, the consultants and senior management team (SMT) kept everyone in touch with each other and with the excellent ideas and developments that were being made, and the reaction of the pupils. It was the positive reactions of the pupils to the Big Question and the practice of Think Pair Share that had the greatest impact, with comments from students such as:

  • ‘I wouldn’t speak in class if we didn’t do TPS’
  • ‘I can think clearly now’
  • ‘It gives me time to wonder’
  • ‘It is cool when we can plan what we do next lesson’.

The subject teachers met together at least once between the visits and fed back what was happening in the project to their departments. I also used full staff meetings and meetings of the curriculum board to keep the whole staff in the picture.

Visit 2: Easter term 
This second visit involved joint lesson preparation for two lessons. This time, the consultants observed the teachers’ solo teaching and then fed back. Action plans were set for the next visit. These included trialling variations of the techniques, such as using physical movements to indicate think (fingers to head), pair (hands swept to sides), share (hands making broad sweep), and picture starters using a slideshow on a timer so that attention had to be sharper. Members of the project also asked for a timetable of organised observations with feedback sessions — we were on our way to our professional partnership programme ! At a working lunch, the teachers were invited to say what had been achieved for them so far and any problems that had arisen. During this term, at a CPD day on teaching and learning, the consultants were able to spread the ideas to another eight staff. Again, between the second and third visit, I observed and assisted in lessons, asking questions of the pupils and feeding back to the teachers both what had gone on in their lessons and sharing practice seen in others. Cross-observation between trios continued. Members of the trios shared their practice in department meetings. This was apparent in the minutes of the departments of the core subjects.

Visit 3: Summer term

This third two-day visit involved one lesson observation with two consultants, feedback to the teacher and a teacher interview discussing what had been the benefits of the project, what had been the key factors in its success and what they saw would be the best way forward. I then organised paired observations with myself being the constant observer. There was a full discussion between the two observers but it was myself alone who fed back on the lesson to the teacher concerned. The purpose was to assess the skills of the teacher in observing another’s practice and the feedback that they might give to the teacher. The next step would be how to spread this good practice and use the skills of the GTL team to improve teaching and learning across the whole school.

Strategies developed
The two key strategies that we concentrated on were the use of Think Pair Share (TPS) and use of the Big Question.

Think Pair Share is used when a discussion was to start the lesson, where the teacher might pose an open question. The class is asked to think in silence for two minutes — and silence means silence. They are then asked to share their answer with the pair person(s) next to them for three minutes — lots of chat. They are then asked to stop and the teacher selects members of the class to share with the rest of the class what has been said. Comments from the pupils indicate some of the benefits — ‘I did not speak in a lesson before Think Pair Share’; ‘I can talk in my words‘; ’ I have time to put my ideas together’; ‘I understand more’. Teachers talk of more sophisticated answers and more specific vocabulary, less ‘like’, ‘you know’, ’whatever’. As an observer, I saw a strengthening of pace and focus in the lesson and better behaviour as a result of using this strategy — the discussion had better focus and was more productive. The students learned to be silent when needed and to talk when needed — and could see the reasons for doing both.

The second strategy was the use of the Big Question as a lesson aim rather than the usual, ‘The aim of the lesson is to …’. So a Big Question might be ‘Could Harold have won the Battle of Hastings?’ rather than ‘the aim of the lesson is find out the reasons why Harold lost the Battle of Hastings.’ This simple change brought a little more excitement into the lesson. It also made the teacher think more carefully about the lesson itself and to structure it so that there were stages in discovery. Pupils were more animated in such lessons.

Many other strategies were developed over the three visits, including those set out below.

Other teaching and learning strategies developed

Use of picture starters
For example, use of picture starters could involve a problem posed by one picture. What would be the next step? What is the problem here? What does this picture tell us about …? What would you add to this picture to show that …? Or it could involve ‘the odd-one out and why’ pictures, or the blank square and three pictures, with students having to think about what could be in the blank square.

Pupil-led plenaries
Pupil-led plenaries often led on from the Big Question lesson aim, ‘so what was the answer’, with the teacher acting as the one gathering the information. The teacher could then ask the pupils in pairs to compose their next Big Question and take those questions to plan the next lesson.

‘Thinking walk’

Thinking walks involve posing a moral dilemma for the class, for example a headteacher deciding whether a student should be suspended from school. A pupil volunteers to be a key figure in solving the dilemma. The rest of the class call out the thoughts that they should have in order to solve this dilemma. The walk stops. The teacher adds another element to the dilemma — and the walk continues. I observed normally very reticent students adding to the spoken thoughts when this strategy was in use. Talking to them later, they said that articulating their thoughts was vital in thinking through their decisions and they found the thinking walk very useful in helping them ‘argue with themselves’.

Use of thought/speech bubbles

The teacher would write their comment on a pupil’s work in a thought bubble. This bubble then encouraged the pupil to write a reply bubble with a return comment or another problem that they had found that they felt they could not always say in class. This enabled a silent conversation to go on with the teacher written in bubbles in the exercise book.

All of these strategies where shared within the GTL team and they will be shared with staff in a continuing professional development (CPD) day 2007–08.

Cascading innovation

At the end of the three visits, we discussed with all eight teachers (one had left to go abroad at Easter) how they wanted to be involved from then on. Five wanted to work with teachers in their departments, with two of these choosing to work together with three newly qualified teachers (NQTs) from their two departments. Three were willing to be the core of a team of professional partners — the title ‘mentor’ or ‘coach’ was avoided. I saw myself as the coach in situations where teachers find themselves in particular difficulties (the head of department may also have such a role), and I may then link that teacher with another on the staff if it is going to be useful in solving a particular problem. The three new trio leaders will work with the three consultants as a mentors and each will lead their own trios of teachers drawn from all the departments in the school who want very much to be part of GTL+1. All eight members of the GTL will work in pairs and lead a CPD day in 2007–08. They will showcase their particular skills developed through the project, such as the use of the Big Question, TPS, bubbles as assessment, pupil-led plenaries, picture starters, and using discussion to build pace and learning. Time will be dedicated for them to plan their 20-minute contributions to the day with the consultants. The afternoon session of the day will enable departments to discuss the ideas and plan how they can be used or adapted in their subjects or whether they have their own methods of developing independent learning that they would like to share. The results of the afternoon sessions will be published for the whole staff.

Taking stock
There have been difficulties to overcome, including two long-term absences through illness and the inevitable ‘sick February’ when cover was at its height. At times, there have been the inevitable ‘this is too much to manage’ for certain members of the team so there have been compromises in terms of setting times for meetings.

But the response of both teachers and students has been so enthusiastic and positive, and the impact on the pupils’ learning has made it all worthwhile. Factors for our success are listed below.

Factors for success

  • Openness of the teachers and their willingness to be a part of the project
  • Communication — everyone knew what was going on in the project and the encouraging progress that was being made
  • The quality of the consultants and their teamwork
  • The recognition of the skills of the teachers by themselves and by each other
  • Building on skills the teachers already had and sharing good practice
  • Concentrating on a small number of teaching strategies across a number of subjects — to begin with these were the core subjects, but as staff became more aware of the Think Pair Share and Big Question strategy through staff and department meetings, the practice spread, which was noted by Ofsted
  • I worked as a facilitator in terms of organising observation and keeping the whole team together through personal intervention and through newsletters, as a link person and provider of positive energy to ensure that the project maintained momentum
  • The students themselves made obvious progress — lessons, teaching and learning became more exciting; the Ofsted inspection report, from objective observers, added to our sense of progress and desire to move on to the next step

In May 2007, the school was inspected by Ofsted and the GTL project was a focus for inspection. The inspection team reported favourably on the organisation and effectiveness of the project. Its success was mentioned in the pupil letter in that the students were able to articulate the development of their skills in learning in an independent way as a result of the project. Other schools may not have the advantage of consultancy help or funding for the necessary cover that enabled planning and feedback time, but all you really need to implement such a project in your own school is two or so interested and enthusiastic members of staff to get it going.

What next?
We will have to see what aspects of this year’s work in 2007–08 — affectionately called ‘Child of GTL’ — are successful. I see ‘Grandchild of GTL’ developing the skills of professional partnerships (the school’s version of coaching and mentoring) in more staff. The way in which we will do this is going to be the results of the combined thoughts of those involved in the GTL and Child of GTL projects, guided and focused by myself. This is a wonderful staff development opportunity for aspiring middle and senior managers in terms of people skills, time management, school logistics (cover, finance, timetabling), communication, organising and planning and raising pupil achievement. The final word comes from one of the teachers in the original GTL team: ‘This has to be the best staff development I have ever been involved with.’

Betty Port, Deputy Head, All Saints CoE School, Wyke Regis, Dorset

For more details of the school’s work, visit the school website