Roger Smith considers tried and tested ways of improving teaching and learning and a few new ones

Improving teaching and making the whole of the learning process more effective is the key to raising standards. There are at least three initiatives that are keeping good teaching at the top of the school improvement agenda. Every Child Matters is at the heart of almost everything that is happening in schools and at its centre it clearly and emphatically emphasises the importance of meeting the needs of all children. Secondly, ‘personalised learning’ – which is a new-ish term for making sure that the learning needs of all children are catered for. Finally, is the importance of successful performance management which is being modified slightly during this year. When performance management is done properly it is about understanding what successful teaching is, observing it in the classroom and improving as many skills and techniques as possible.

Making sure teaching is being improved
Your school improvement partner (SIP) will be helping you to raise standards and one of their aide memoires is Strategies for Improving Schools: A Handbook for School Improvement Partners, which can be downloaded from www.standards.dfes.gov.uk/sie/documents/sips.doc. It suggests that you have to: ‘ensure there is an unvarying focus on improving teaching and learning’.
You will also be completing your self-evaluation form (SEF). To do this properly you will have to monitor classroom performance so that you know how good the teaching is and what improvements need to be made. Section 5a (Quality of Provision) asks, ‘How good is the quality of teaching and learning’ and suggests that you consider:

  • how well teaching meets the needs of the full range of learners and course requirements
  • the suitability and rigour of assessment in planning, learning and monitoring learners’ progress
  • the diagnosis of and provision for individual learning needs
  • the involvement of parents and carers in their children’s learning and development.

So, if you want to find out those areas of teaching you might need to improve you don’t have to look much further than the SEF. But this is too simple and it will not be very helpful if all you do on training days and at staff meetings is attempt to improve teaching by just repeating the questions from the SEF. We need to be much more specific.

So what needs to be improved?
Of course, for teachers to be able to personalise the learning of mixed-ability groups and provide work and activities that are challenging for every ability level is easier if they are able to:

  • use any assessments of pupils abilities and attainments as a starting point for teaching
  • provide activities of sufficient variety and depth to allow for different levels of learning to take place
  • differentiate by trying to use various starting points and tasks for different ability levels
  • anticipate and expect different outcomes
  • acknowledge that all pupils will need varying lengths of time to complete activities
  • understand that each pupil will grasp new ideas within varying timescales
  • group pupils in different ways for different tasks
  • use a manageable number of differentiated teaching groups. No more than four is a manageable number
  • carefully plan realistic deadlines so that all pupils have a sense of achievement
  • continuously assess teaching groups and give feedback about their learning and their successes
  • use assessments to set individual, group and class targets
  • use marking creatively to inform pupils about their standard of achievement.

By developing these specific suggestions it is easier to recognise those areas of teaching that need to be of the highest quality. Once this has happened it is possible to monitor their effectiveness and to begin to make improvements.

A whole-school approach
If you are going to improve teaching the changes you make have to affect what happens in the classroom. The bullet points in the last paragraph are directly related to this. But the wider ethos or culture of your school, which is usually an amalgamation of social, moral and academic values, will influence and determine how pupils and teachers work together. The right ethos will mean that what is taught, how it is taught, what needs to be taught and what needs to improve is agreed by everyone. Inversely, an inappropriate or badly thought out ethos will mean that even teaching that is well prepared and well structured will be more difficult to implement because there are no common boundaries. Because each of our schools has its own feelings and vibrations that make it unique it is important to find as many indicators of a ‘positive’ ethos as possible. These do not have to be complex educational issues. They can be short and simple ideas such as:

  • pupils are happy
  • pupils are treated fairly
  • bullying is a rare occurrence
  • there is a lively, creative atmosphere
  • teachers motivate pupils.

Many of these factors will be relatively obvious, but part of the success of your school will be built on whether such a list actually suggests areas that might need to be improved and acted on by all teachers as whole-school issues.

But what happens in the classroom?
What about the actual teaching and the repertoire of skills that you will have to focus on?  They will have to involve a range of whole class, group and individual teaching as well as involving the wide use of ICT. But your strategies will also help transmit knowledge and help key learning skills as well as accommodating children with different paces of learning. You might be saying at this stage, ‘I do that already and most good teachers have been doing it for years.’ A young teacher colleague suggested to me recently ‘My training and what I try to do in the classroom has always revolved round a mixture of teaching styles that cater for all levels of ability.’  In fact, what happens in the classroom will be the key to the discussions that will take place during performance management review meetings. Both the teacher and their reviewer should be asking themselves – What is good about my teaching and what needs improving? By recognising what needs to get better it will be possible to work out strategies to actually make the necessary improvements. In fact, if you don’t know what needs improving – how can you make any positive changes?

But, by formalising all the necessary skills, there is a need to be aware of what kind of teaching will actually work. To build a successful system every teacher has to recognise that to achieve excellence every single child, whatever their talent and background and whatever their problems, has to have the best chance possible. Some of the approaches that you might think are ready for improvement might include:

  • preventing children falling behind by providing earlier interventions and using teaching assistants or support groups to improve progress
  • using teaching assistants or classroom organisation to provide small group or individual teaching
  • creating more and better opportunities for less able children as well as those who are gifted and talented
  • providing homework clubs and other kinds of support for children who may be vulnerable.

Confronting problems
Obviously, teaching some children can be extremely difficult for all kinds of reasons, but, I can only repeat, each lesson needs to cater for the learning needs of all pupils. This means differentiating to include the gifted and talented as well as the less able. One of the main problems we will all face when we seriously commit ourselves to making improvements is how to remove the barriers that some children bring into the classroom. One of the simplest improvements is to be able to demonstrate that you actually like teaching them and then to both challenge and support them by:

  • inspiring trust and confidence
  • building learning commitment
  • engaging and motivating them with well-paced differentiation
  • thinking analytically about what they need
  • being able to take positive action to improve the quality of their learning
  • using data and the evaluation of results to plan learning.

What should children be doing?
It is important that any attempts to standardise teaching methods and to achieve a sense of a consistent approach to learning doesn’t totally inhibit the creativity of individual teachers. There needs to be room for flexibility and this is really part of that old cliché: if at first you don’t succeed try, try again. Perseverance can mean carrying on in a specific way but it can also mean trying something different to achieve the same ends. Some interesting training sessions can be built around the idea of what children should actually be doing and what is expected of them. Why not ask your teachers the question, ‘What would you do to help your children achieve the following?’

  • Acquire new knowledge and skills.
  • Meet appropriate targets.
  • Reach appropriate levels in both internal and external tests, assessments and examinations.
  • Develop ideas.

And of course – what we shouldn’t be doing
It would be ridiculous to expect perfection all the time. This is much more of a neurosis than a realistic expectation. But each child in each class should expect excellence most of the time. It is relatively easy to find out what it is that makes teaching effective and successful. By doing this we can make sure that we know what to improve and in many cases how to make all the necessary improvements. But do we know what ineffective, poor teaching is – in fact the kind of teaching that should not happen and which, by its very nature, has to be improved. Let’s end with a final list and suggest that all teachers should recognise that learning is less effective and teaching unsuccessful when children are:

  • unsure about what work they are doing
  • doing purposeless activities
  • finding work too hard or too easy
  • not knowing how to improve
  • being made to work at too fast or slow a pace
  • poorly motivated.

So, there it is – in a nutshell and perhaps it is the key to another ‘Improving Teaching and learning’ training session. Use the bullet points to ask teachers another question, ‘How can I prevent this happening in my classroom?’