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
|Key findings of survey
Reasons for subject preference
Factors spoiling lessons Pupils who:
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
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?
What help was there to manage the project?
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:
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 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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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