Outstanding teaching: What I really think

I was recently invited to speak at the joint annual conference of the Association of PRUs and Alternative Provision (PRUsAP) and the National Association of Home and Hospital Teaching (NAHHT).

It was early July and the hottest day of the year so far. The venue was idyllic: a large country house set in sixty acres of rolling fields in Hertfordshire. It was a Friday, the weekend but hours away, and I started my day watching butterflies flutter by, dancing in yellow sunlight.

But, in spite of my surroundings, I sensed a little foreboding as I stood up to speak…

The problem was the subject of my speech: ‘Outstanding Teaching and Learning’.

I always feel somewhat fraudulent when asked to talk about outstanding teaching. There are several reasons for this:

1. I’ve no idea what ‘outstanding’ teaching might look like in a PRU or hospital setting because I’ve no experience of teaching in these contexts. Who am I to tell these hard-working, expert practitioners how to do their jobs? I was once booked to talk to school leaders about lesson observation. The company who’d organised the event neglected to tell me that it was specifically aimed at leaders of special schools so I spent the day apologising for the fact I’d never worked in a special school.

2. I’ve no idea what the word ‘outstanding’ actually means these days – that is to say, by definition I think outstanding should mean ‘to stand out from’ or ‘to be an exception to’ but instead it has become a simple superlative synonymous with ‘excellent’ and I don’t believe there is one inarguable definition of ‘excellent’ teaching. As I’ve often said – quoting Sir Michael Wilshaw who was in turn quoting Tony Blair (but don’t let that put you off) – ‘what works is what’s best’. Every teacher, every class, and every day is different; so do what you think works for your students no matter whether or not that ticks someone’s box.

3. The word ‘outstanding’ has, I believe, become degraded by its association with Ofsted and by its appearance in the titles of numerous books and training courses (yes, I know I’m smashing my glasshouse from within but I have little say in the title of my books and am told that tagging the word ‘outstanding’ on to something sells… I might feel a little sullied at first but at least I can feed my kids).

4. I don’t believe there is such a thing as an ‘outstanding’ lesson. There is certainly no well-kept secret to share or formula to hand out which guarantees outstanding lessons every time.

So – ignoring the adage ‘never apologise, never explain’ – I began by apologising for the fact my speech might fall short of my audience’s expectations. I didn’t have to apologise, of course; I could quite easily have pretended to know the secret of outstanding teaching.  I could have assured my audience that if they did x, y and z they’d be judged ‘outstanding’.  But, although I’m many things, I’m no snake oil salesman.

Instead, I told my audience that all I wanted to achieve with my speech was to ignite some sparks, to start some conversations, and to challenge some preconceptions.  I did not intend to provide a blueprint on which to base every lesson.

I said that some of what I was about to say would be common sense and already embedded in everyone’s daily teaching practice (if nothing else, discussing it would give them confidence they were doing the right things); some of it would not translate to everyone’s settings or teaching styles and could be filed in a dusty drawer marked ‘it’ll never work’; but some of it, I hoped, would help my colleagues to reconsider how they taught and might just lead to a positive change.

And then I started. Roughly, this is what I said:

What is outstanding teaching and learning?

There is no silver bullet, no secret formula to teaching outstanding lessons – what works is what’s best. The best thing to do, therefore, is to get to know your students by regularly assessing them and then to plan for progress by providing opportunities for all your students to fill gaps in their knowledge.

Learning is invisible and cannot be observed in a single lesson. A lesson does not exist in isolation; it is all about context, so it is better to think of a lesson as one learning episode in a long series. It does not necessarily need a neat beginning and end or to be in four parts and it does not need to prescribe to a particular style of teaching. For example, every lesson does not need to include opportunities for group work or independent study. A lesson can be meaningfully spent with students reading or writing in silence so long as, in the wider context of the series, there is a variety of learning activities.

The best teachers are sensitive to the needs of their students and adjust their lessons to the here and now. Students work best for the teachers who respect them, know their subjects, and are approachable, and enthusiastic. The most effective teachers are relentless in their pursuit of excellence and are able to explain complex concepts in a way which makes sense.

Outstanding teaching takes place when all students make progress over time. Students make progress over time when they are engaged and challenged. This is why my Big 3 strategies for improving the quality of teaching are: feedback (leading to progress); questioning (encouraging engagement); and pitch (providing challenge).

Learning takes place when certain cognitive principles are observed, including: factual knowledge must precede skill; memory is the residue of thought; we understand new concepts in the context of things we already know; it is impossible to be good at something without deliberate practice; and intelligence can be changed through hard work.


The Big 3

1. Pitch:

Students are more likely to get better at something if they believe intelligence can be changed through hard work. The word ‘yet’ can be a powerful tool in the teacher’s box: “I can’t do this…yet.” The best classrooms are those in which students feel welcomed, valued, enthusiastic, engaged, eager to experiment and rewarded for hard work. The way to achieve this is to prize effort over attainment and focus on progress (learning) not outcomes.

If the work is too easy, students will switch off; if the work is too hard, students will switch off. Work must be pitched in the ‘zone of proximal development’ – hard but achievable with support. If something’s too easy, we rely on our memory instead of thinking (e.g. 1 + 1 =); if it’s too hard, we run out of processing power (e.g. 46 x 237 =) and stop thinking; if it’s challenging but achievable and we are successful, our brains reward us with a dose of dopamine which is pleasurable and binds neurones together creating memories. This is learning.

Desirable difficulties make information harder to encode (learn initially) but easier to retrieve later. This leads to deeper learning. We achieve desirable difficulties by: spacing learning apart with increasingly long gaps; interleaving topics rather than finishing one topic then moving onto another; testing frequently – using low stakes quizzes at the start of topics/lessons to identify prior learning as well as knowledge gaps, and to interrupt forgetting; and making learning materials less clearly organised so that students have to think hard about the materials (e.g. using a difficult-to-read font).

At its simplest, learning is concerned with the interaction between our environment, our working memory and our long-term memory. Our working memory is about awareness and thinking; our long-term memory is about factual knowledge and procedural knowledge. We can improve the speed and ease with which we retrieve information from our long-term memory and transfer it into our working memory (where we can use it) by making connections between new and existing information – applying prior knowledge to new knowledge. Prior knowledge helps us to ‘chunk’ information together, saving precious space in our limited working memory, allowing us to process more information. For example, the acronym ‘BBC’ takes one space in our working memory whereas, without the prior knowledge that the BBC is a TV company, the letters B, B and C would take three spaces. Prior knowledge is domain-specific. We know BBC whereas people in Japan would know WMBC. They’d take one space to remember WMBC whereas we would take four spaces to remember W, M, B and C.

When planning lessons, we should focus on what students will be made to think about rather than on what they will do. We might, for example, organise a lesson around a big question.

We need to repeat learning several times – at least three times according to Nuthall – if it is to penetrate students’ long-term memories.

Tests interrupt forgetting and reveal what has actually been learnt as well as what gaps exist. Accordingly, we should run pre-tests at the start of every unit – perhaps as a multiple choice quiz – which will provide cues and improve subsequent learning. Retrieval activities like this also help students prepare for exams.

Information ‘sticks’ when each lesson clearly articulates and is built around a simple idea – i.e. when the teacher is clear about the key take-away message from each lesson, which could be a question or hypothesis.

Information ‘sticks’ when we use metaphor to relate new ideas to prior knowledge and to create images in students’ minds.

Information ‘sticks’ when we pique students’ curiosity before we fill gaps in students’ knowledge (thus convincing students they need the information). This can be done by asking students to make predictions or by setting a hypothesis to be proven or disproven.

Information ‘sticks’ when we make abstract ideas concrete by grounding them in sensory reality (i.e. you make students feel something). The richer – sensorily and emotionally – new information is, the more strongly it is encoded in memory.

Information ‘sticks’ when ideas are made credible by showing rather than telling students something (e.g. experiments, field studies, etc. beat textbooks for ‘stickability’).

2. Questioning:

Classroom discussion – best achieved through artful questioning – makes students smarter because they make students think. Questions should only be used if they cause thinking and/or provide information for the teacher about what to do next (AKA avoid ‘guess what’s in my head’ charades).  The most common model of teacher talk is IRE: initiation, response, evaluation. But it doesn’t work very well. A better model is ABC: agree/disagree with, build upon, and challenge whereby students pass questions around the classroom. The Japanese call this neriage which means ‘to polish’ – students polish each other’s answers, refining them, challenging each other’s thinking.

Increasing wait time – the amount of time the teacher waits for an answer to their question before either answering it themselves or asking someone else – makes students’ answers longer, more confident, and increases students’ ability to respond.

Good questions are an expressive demonstration of genuine curiosity, have an inner logic, are ordered so that thinking is clarified and are a part of an ongoing dialogue. In open questions, the rubric defines the rigour. In multiple choice questions – which, as above, are effective ways of interrupting forgetting – the options define the rigour. Effective assessment combines open and multiple-choice questions.


3. Feedback:

Feedback is information given to students about their performance relative to their targets. Feedback should redirect the student’s and the teacher’s actions to help the student achieve their target. Effective feedback: addresses faulty interpretations; comments on rather than grades work; provides cues or prompts for further work; is timely, specific and clear; and focused on task and process rather than on praising.

Feedback works best when it is explicit about the marking criteria, offers suggestions for improvement, and is focused on how students can close the gap between their current and their desired performance; it does not focus on presentation or quantity of work.  Feedback can backfire – it needs to cause a cognitive rather than emotional reaction – i.e. it should cause thinking.

Feedback can promote the growth mindset if it: is as specific as possible; focuses on factors within students’ control; focuses on factors which are dependent on effort not ability; and motivates rather than frustrates students.

Self- and peer-assessment can be effective strategies because they: give students greater responsibility for their learning; allow students to help and be helped by each other; encourage collaboration and reflection (useful skills for life); enable students to see their progress; and help students to see for themselves how to improve. Helping students to improve their self-assessment skills increases achievement. But self- and peer-assessment needs to be used wisely and students need to be helped to develop the necessary skills and knowledge because research suggests 80% of the feedback students give is wrong.

The only useful feedback is that which is acted upon – it is crucial that the teacher knows the student and knows when and what kind of feedback to give, then plans time for students to act on feedback (e.g. DIRT).


Developing a culture of excellence:

The best way to develop a learning culture in which students produce high quality work is to:

  • Set assignments which inspire and challenge students, and which are predicated on the idea of every student succeeding
  • Set assignments which involve genuine research
  • Set assignments which have in-built flexibility to allow for a range of abilities, and are broken into clear components
  • Set assignments which make clear what is expected of each student at each stage of their development and which spells out the qualities and dimensions on which the work will eventually be judged
  • Develop a sense of whole-class pride in the quality of learning and a sense of peer pressure for students to keep up with the expected standard
  • Ensure that, once finished, assignments are made public – providing the work with a genuine audience
  • Ensure that assessments – such as gallery critique – are used as a primary context for sharing knowledge and skills
  • Teach students to give constructive feedback that is kind, helpful and specific, and that avoids general comments like “It’s good” or “It’s bad”
  • Provide students with exemplars that show them what a great essay or experiment looks like, and which they can analyse in order to decide what makes them strong
  • Instil the belief that quality means rethinking, reworking, and polishing so that students feel celebrated, not ridiculed, for going back to the drawing board.


Follow me on Twitter: @mj_bromley


12 responses to “Outstanding teaching: What I really think

  1. An interesting and insightful read, this reinforces my own beliefs and mantra at the moment and it is always reassuring to read other people’s similar views. I will share this with colleagues whom I am working with to try and develop much more of a growth mindset in both staff and students.

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