Teaching and learning based around quality talk and taking the whole class forward together is a practical and effective approach. Headteacher Andy Buck explains

Some people question whether it is desirable to have a shared whole-school approach to pedagogy. They tend to argue that teachers should be free to develop their own approaches to teaching. But at Jo Richardson Community School in the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham, we feel it makes sense to frame planning around a shared approach that can meet the needs of all our students.

Principles

The principles behind our framework are that:

  • learning should be as active as possible, with students being required to think throughout lessons
  • lesson organisation and structure should mean there is little opportunity for students to disengage from the learning
  • a large proportion of lesson time should be devoted to oral work, whether through paired, group or whole-class dialogue
  • over-learning should be built into lessons so that students have the opportunity to revisit and rehearse key learning outcomes
  • opportunities should be created for formative assessment both within and outside the lesson
  • teachers should challenge the more able while supporting those who move at a slower pace
  • students should play a key role in ‘taking the lesson forward’
  • the pedagogy should help students to understand their role within a collaborative learning environment.

Structure

Lessons are usually divided into three stages: 1. The starter The aim of the starter is to get the group settled, focused and mentally warmed up. To achieve this, teachers need to create activities that require each and every child to engage. This means setting individual, pair or group tasks, where everyone is given a set time to carry out the activity.

The most common starters will either review the learning objectives of the previous lesson or set the agenda for what is to come. Occasionally starters may bear no relation to lesson content at all. In English and maths, for example, they can be used to reinforce key skills on a cyclical basis.

The best starters are those that promote lots of thinking in a short space of time. Sorting cards into an order of events or into pros and cons, for example, requires students to process information and reflect on prior learning while leaving them keen to find out if they are ‘right’ or wanting to see what others thought.

2. Main teaching phase The main teaching phase aims to deliver the key learning objectives for the lesson. In our school, there are five possible episodes to the main phase: a. Teacher exposition/demonstration

Exposition or demonstration is often a good way to start off the main teaching phase. It should employ a wide range of high-quality resources and make the best use of interactive technologies available.

Research has shown that students rate their best teachers as being those ‘who explain things properly’. When new vocabulary is encountered it should be clearly ‘flagged up’ as important, and emphasis placed on correct meaning and spelling.

Our assumption is that this phase of teaching does not have to be punctuated by questioning the class. Students should concentrate on understanding what is happening, and on trying to remember as much as they can of what they have learned. Asking students questions throughout the explanation can often confuse them. It is important to make it clear to students that there will be an opportunity to ask questions or make comments at the end. There will also be an important opportunity to allow for challenging dialogue with students later in the framework.

b. Pair/group discussion work
Pair and group activities will often provide the natural bridge between the teacher’s exposition and whole-class questioning or demonstration. They gives students the opportunity to:

  • extend their thinking in a low-risk environment
  • rehearse arguments
  • build up their confidence before presenting to a wider audience.

This has a direct benefit on the behaviour and attitude of the students during later whole-class discussion. The students feel they have something worthwhile to say, because they have practised and refined it while working with others. They do not then need to hide behind poor behaviour to mask an inability to access the work being demanded of them.

Teachers should make sure that:

  • the activity has a clearly defined time allocated to it
  • it is active, requires thinking, and will generate talk focused on the learning objectives
  • students are grouped in the most effective way
  • students are clear about what they need to do in their group
  • they know what will be required of them at a later part of the lesson
  • they are put into pairs, rather than groups, wherever possible.

c. Structured questioning/whole-class discussion
Whole-class discussion and questioning is an opportunity for students and the teacher to work together to take the learning forward.

A good discussion will probably start with some recapitulation of the key learning points. The aim should generally be to move the discussion from the concrete to the more abstract, from a more descriptive approach to one which is increasingly analytical and evaluative. The challenge for the teacher is to try to move from the traditional rote or question-answer approach to a more fluid way of managing and promoting talk, one that allows for a more genuine discussion and dialogue with students.

At its most basic level, whole-class talk is no more than rote learning, where simple repetition leads to the drilling of facts and ideas. Taken a step further, questioning can be used to test understanding of facts already taught – effectively requiring no more than the recall. This basic question and answer technique forms a large part of the questioning that traditionally happens in classrooms. Moving to a more genuine dialogue requires the teacher to listen carefully to student answers and respond in a way that will elucidate further thinking on the part of the student. This then takes the learning forward, provides extra cognitive challenge and gives the teacher the chance to gain a better understanding of the students’ learning.

At its best the teacher becomes the spectator as students engage in unmediated talk, taking their own learning forward, consciously evaluating each other’s and their own work.

There are a number of key strategies that support the development of quality classroom dialogue, and these are outlined below:

Build the prompts Teachers should try to provide a range of questions or prompts that move from a low to a high order of complexity. Towards the end of a questioning phase teachers may want to make use of mediational phrases and questions that are more about ‘wondering’ than asking. Examples include: ‘I wonder how you knew that’ or ‘Let me tell you something you may not have thought of yet… what do you think of that?’

No hands up Hands up can place the teacher in the middle of a potentially complicated situation. It tends to be the same few students who put their hands up. What about involving the rest of the class? What does the teacher do? Usually questions start being directed at students who haven’t put their hands up. Students chosen think they are being ‘picked on’ because they didn’t put their hands up. They are often feeling unprepared to answer the question (they hadn’t expected to be asked so hadn’t really been listening). But they can’t be seen to lose face in front of the rest of the class. The chances of an inappropriate or poorly considered response are greatly increased. Meanwhile, the ‘hands up’ faithfuls start to lose interest. What’s the point in putting your hand up if the teacher only chooses those who don’t? Much better, therefore, if the students don’t put their hands up and the teacher simply selects students to answer.

Vote now One really useful role for ‘hands up’ is to seek whole-class opinion on any issue or question. Often this will take the form of ‘Who agrees…? Who disagrees…? Who’s not sure…?’ Everyone is expected to vote. If there appear to be some students who have not put their hands up at all, then the teacher should ask the student to repeat their original response and then carry out the vote again.

Go into the woods When carrying out questioning, teachers should not be afraid to ask the same student a series of progressively more challenging questions or prompts. Many assume that the rest of the class will stop concentrating if you continue a dialogue with just one student. The reality is that the class is often fascinated to listen to the exchange, both to see if they can keep up with the thinking and to see how far the student chosen is able to go.

Don’t say it again There are lots of reasons why teachers repeat what students say: to make sure everyone in the class heard the reply; to validate the child’s response; to keep control; and to reinforce the point. But, if teachers always repeat what students say, then they stop listening to each other and just wait for the teacher. It is much better for the teacher to respond with ‘Good answer. Now, can you improve it by…’ Suggestions could include: the use of key vocabulary introduced in the main teaching phase; more clarity around a particular point of explanation; greater volume; or simply asking for the response to be in a full sentence, as if being written as a formal answer.

Give time and save face When asking a question or prompting a response, the first thing a teacher should do is build in some thinking time. Students are much more likely to listen to what another student says in response to a question if it is one they have been thinking about themselves.

Praise wisely Praise is an essential part of creating a positive climate for learning. It is tempting to over-praise students’ responses during questioning by using words such as ‘fantastic’ or ‘excellent’ to describe work that is barely adequate. The teacher’s use of such a vocabulary becomes almost second nature. Over time these words lose their meaning.

Teachers should also remember that very often students are quite aware of the quality of an answer that they or one of their peers may have given. They will generally know whether the answer they just heard was outstanding, and if the response from the teacher is overly positive then what tends to happen is that the level of expectation about what the class is striving to achieve will inevitably fall.

Student demonstration If secondary schools are to respond to changes in primary pedagogy that have developed in recent years, then we need to remember that the notion of students coming to the front of the classroom and taking the lesson forward is a common part of their approach. Creating the ethos in the classroom to make this happen is very dependent upon mutual respect and the confidence the class has in the teacher to ‘protect’ them from potentially upsetting feedback from other students.

One way to create the right ethos is to start off classes with the task of watching something. The class are then instructed that they will only be able to make a positive comment when it is finished. The teacher is immediately creating a reason for students to concentrate, particularly if the class don’t know who the teacher will choose to comment at the end. By limiting the feedback to just positives, the students getting feedback will feel far more confident about entering into the process next time.

Independent practice This phase provides an important opportunity for students to reflect and develop what they have leaned in the active parts of lessons. Independent practice will usually involve students working as individuals. In some practical subjects, it may be more appropriate to work in groups.

The independent phase affords the teacher the opportunity to ‘tour’ the class to support and monitor students’ work, providing tailor-made feedback and help. In terms of making sure the learning activities are matched to individual student needs, this phase of the lesson gives teachers the usual range of options for differentiating what students may do. Learning outcomes can be determined by the task itself, particularly through the use of differentiated materials and activities. Alternatively, the tasks themselves can be sufficiently open-ended that differentiation is achieved through the outcomes students produce.

3. Conclusion
Teachers need to make sure they leave enough time in the lesson to properly reflect on what has been learned.

The conclusion provides an opportunity for students to express what they’ve learned, for the teacher to check on how much they have understood. How well have the students grasped the key learning objectives?

The approach can be varied according to the nature of the group, the learning task and the time available. In simple terms, the conclusion will take its cue from those used earlier in the lesson. For example: a short individual or paired quiz; whole-class questioning with no hands up; or even student demonstration.
However it is organised, the conclusion should:

  • summarise key learning points
  • provide an opportunity for homework to be explained and demonstrated where necessary
  • signpost where the learning will be headed in the future
  • provide opportunities for the teacher to praise the group on the way they worked in the lesson to support each other, not just on the quality of what they have produced
  • be organised around a set of standard routines to create the most effective use of time and an orderly dismissal from lessons.

The school’s ICT strategy

Recent developments in ICT have enabled the school to extend the effectiveness of this interactive pedagogy. There are three elements in this:

The data projector The ability to project images that are large enough for the whole class to see means that ICT can support a number of key phases in teaching and learning, such as:

  • as part of a starter, teacher exposition or conclusion
  • interactively as part of whole-class discussion or student demonstration
  • assisting in self-assessment through digital recorders.

The visualiser Visualisers are cameras that are mounted on a device that resembles an overhead projector. The image from the camera can be projected on to the teaching wall. In its most simple form it is an overhead projector that works using paper rather than transparencies. Teachers can demonstrate something for themselves or share examples of work previously produced by students. This helps to raise expectations.

Achieving interactivity Our approach to allowing students and teachers to interact with ICT has been based around the ‘remote graphics tablet’ – a plastic device a little larger than a clipboard that is able to wirelessly communicate with the computer. To use it, students use a plastic scribe as if they were moving a mouse on the screen. The net benefits are the same as using an interactive whiteboard but with a number of key advantages:

  • the image on the main teaching wall is a lot larger and can also be higher
  • students do need to leave their seats in order to participate. The slate can be passed around the class very quickly, especially when the seating is in a horseshoe shape.

There if you need it One of the other benefits of using ICT is the capacity to ‘store’ sequences from lessons, so that students can take a second look. This is especially useful during coursework or the lead up to exams.

Teaching in a horseshoe

The teaching approach described here is best achieved when students can see and hear each other, the teacher and any central resources such as the whiteboard or ICT projector screen.

The architects of Jo Richardson Community School were briefed on the pedagogy described, and suggested that the best layout for teaching spaces was based around a horseshoe arrangement. This led to a decision to ensure that no class was smaller than 75 square metres.

While there has been variation across the curriculum as to how the horseshoe principle has been realised in practice, it has remained a key feature of the building design across the school, and has made a real difference to the teaching.

This is an edited excerpt from Making School Work: A Practical Approach to Secondary School Leadership by Andy Buck, with John Bradshaw, Janet Heywood, Lisa Keane, Val Simpson and Ges Smith is published by Greenwich Exchange Publishing. (www.greenex.co.uk) at £11.99