Why? How? What? The drivers of excellent teaching

This is an unabridged version of an article written for SecEd Magazine and is the second instalment in a 9-part series,

When we first become teachers, we must not forget the lessons learnt during our training. In this series, Matt Bromley reminds us of key practical lessons from the ITT programme he delivers. This time he urges us to consider the why, how and what of our teaching…

As I explained in the first part of this series, I am lead lecturer on an initial teacher training (ITT) programme and every Tuesday evening I teach a course that leads my students towards qualified teacher status (QTS).

As I was planning this year’s programme, it occurred to me that much of what I intended to cover was useful not just for those training, but for all early career teachers and indeed many seasoned professionals in search of a refresher.

And so I will share my ITT journey with you in the hope that I can provide opportunities for you to reflect on your own professional practice and encourage you to try out some new strategies in your classroom.

My first article explored 10 characteristics that I believe all expert teachers exhibit:

  • Lessons are clearly planned and sequenced.
  • Curriculum content is ambitious, broad and balanced.
  • All students are taught the same curriculum, thus ensuring equality, but those with additional needs are supported through adaptive teaching techniques, thus ensuring equity.a
  • Students know the big picture of learning (why learning what they’re being taught matters), and how, when, and why they will be assessed.
  • There are opportunities for retrieval practice and thus the building of schema in every lesson.
  • Teachers enthuse students with clear and insightful explanations, during which they pre-empt misconceptions and questions.
  • Teachers then model excellence and, while doing so, think aloud to make visible their invisible expertise.
  • Teachers engage the class in co-construction, producing a model together, and also use questioning effectively to engage students and to provide on-going formative feedback.
  • Lesson activities are varied, and, during these activities, all students are stretched and challenged and helped to become increasingly independent.
  • Teachers show warmth towards students and clearly care about their success – but it’s a strict warmth because expectations are high.

In my second ITT session, I focus on the application of theories, principles, and models of learning…

It starts with ‘why’

I begin by asking my trainees why they wanted to teach. What, I enquire, is their purpose and why is this important to them?

This is something I would encourage you to do, too. Why? Because the answer to this question is your vision and it can act as a guiding star throughout your career –especially at times of difficulty. I share my own purpose with trainees…

I started my working life as a journalist then moved into middle management mediocrity in the telecoms industry before one day having an epiphany – clichéd, but true.

I awoke one morning intent on doing something worthwhile and giving something back. I wanted to do what my teachers had done for me: I wanted to change lives.

My primary school – in the days before “special measures” – was what we used to call “shit”. When I wasn’t pretending to paint while surreptitiously sneaking a peak at a page 3 model on the newsprint laid out to protect the tables, I sat cross-legged on a threadbare carpet while my teacher strummed his guitar and sang hippy songs. And yes, dear reader, he closed his eyes when he hit the chorus.

As a result, when I transferred schools aged 9, I was unable to construct a grammatically correct sentence. It was only thanks to a determined and dedicated year 5 teacher who inspired my love of books, that I caught up.

This story – like all good stories, I suppose – was repeated some years later when my year 9 teacher – an inspirational writer and poet who’d lived in Peru – recognised and nurtured my talent for writing.

The tale was told once more when my A level English literature teacher – a fierce and frightening man but one of extraordinary talent who ignited my love of Shakespeare – set me on a path to university, the first in my family.

So, this is why I went in to teaching: to make a positive difference to young people’s lives, especially the most disadvantaged in society, and to ensure a child’s birth did not become their destiny. What’s yours? And how does it drive you, day-to-day? Back to my ITT session…

Then comes the ‘how’

Next, I ask my trainees how they intend to achieve their purpose on a day-to-day basis. What values and behaviours do they hope to embody in every interaction they have in school in order to make their vision a reality?

Again, it is a thought experiment I would encourage you to partake in too, because the answer to this question provides your mission or strategy – your “how”.

I provided some thoughts on the “how” in my last article, but to add to that let’s consider what values and behaviours the students themselves say they look for in their teachers. Regular surveys of students’ views on the values and behaviours embodied by the most effective teachers invariably proffer the following characteristics…

First, students want teachers who show them respect – in other words, they want to be treated like individuals and afforded dignity. Expert teachers therefore know and care about each of their students – and this is our first “how”.

Second, students want teachers who are knowledgeable. This is, I think, two-fold: it means that teachers know their subject but also how to teach that subject in a way that makes sense to students. In other words, they can see their expertise through the eyes of a novice learner, and thus pre-empt and resolve students’ misconceptions and questions, foreseeing potential pitfalls and planning how best to overcome them. The second “how”, therefore, is a thirst for knowledge and an intellectual curiosity – trying new things in the classroom and evaluating their impact.

Third, students want teachers who are approachable and who give them quality time. Good listening skills, then, is our third “how” – modelling the sort of openness we want students themselves to foster.

Fourth, students want teachers who are positive and enthusiastic about the subject disciplines they teach and about the students they teach; and they want teachers who don’t take themselves too seriously, who are willing to admit their mistakes then visibly learn from them. Risk-taking and resilience, therefore, come next.

Finally, students want teachers who encourage their learners to succeed and who set work that is both interesting and challenging, engaging and difficult. They want teachers who set high expectations, build relationships upon foundations made of trust, and who deal with disruptions quickly and unobtrusively to ensure learning is not stymied. Determination and drive, high expectations and trust, complete our list of values and behaviours.

And, finally, the ‘what’

Next, I ask my trainees what they would do every day in order to make the above – their “how” – happen. In other words, what actions would they commit to taking on a daily basis?

By way of help, I suggest my trainees work to become informed consumers of research evidence: to be influenced by what academic research tells us about effective teaching, but to be informed by their own context and by what they know – through trial and error – works for their students.

One way to look at this is as follows: research evidence might provide us with the strategy but not the technique. For example, Professor John Hattie’s meta-analyses – as articulated in his book Visible Learning for Teachers (Routledge, 2011) – tell us that “feedback” can lead to significant academic gains. The Educational Endowment Foundation’s famous Teaching and Learning Toolkit similarly suggests that feedback can add an extra eight months of progress every year.

But what neither analysis really tells us is how that feedback should be carried out. So, evidence tells us we should give students frequent, formative feedback, but our experience and our knowledge of our context can tell us how and how often this feedback should be given, and in what form it should be given in each instance.

But, put simply, research suggests that, as well as feedback, the “what” should involve providing appropriate challenge through the pace and pitch of our teaching, and engagement through dialogic teaching and by developing students’ metacognitive knowledge and self-regulation skills.

Making learning happen

Returning to my ITT session, once we discuss the “why-how-what” of being an expert teacher, we broaden our discussion and agree that “learning” is our core purpose and that, as such, it is important to understand what learning is and how it happens.

After all, when we talk about classroom practice, we often refer to it as “teaching and learning”. Teaching and learning; cause and effect. We teach therefore our students learn.

Of course, pedagogy is more complex than this. There are myriad factors that determine a student’s academic success, not least their own hard work, diligence and, yes, innate intelligence. Environmental factors play their part, too, as does the amount of support and influence that a student receives from their community of friends and family. But if students do not learn, surely we have failed them?

Earlier this term, during this very discussion, my class agreed on the following definition: “Learning is the acquisition of knowledge and skills, and their application at a later time and in a range of contexts.”

My class and I then explored some models of learning which are heavily influenced by Cognitive Load Theory and the Memory Model of Teaching.

According to most interpretations of these models, the act of acquiring new knowledge and skills is the start of the learning process, it is what happens (or begins to happen) in the classroom when a teacher – the expert – imparts their knowledge or demonstrates their skills (perhaps through the artful use of explanations and modelling) to their students – the novices.

Next, students store this new information in their long-term memories (via their working memories) where it can be recalled and used later.

The process of storing information in the long-term memory is called “encoding”. The process of getting it back again is called “retrieval”.

A student could demonstrate their immediate understanding of what they have been taught by repeating what the teacher has said or by demonstrating the skill they have just seen applied. But this immediate display is not “learning”, rather it is “performance”.

Learning, therefore, is being able to apply knowledge and/or skills long after we have first taught them and in several different situations, perhaps in an assessment as well as repeatedly over a period or even a lifetime.

The process of learning, then, is the interaction between one’s sensory memory (sometimes referred to as our “environment”) and one’s long-term memory.

Our sensory memory is made up of: what we see (iconic memory), what we hear (echoic memory), and what we touch (haptic memory). Our long-term memory is where new information is stored and from which it can be recalled when needed, but we cannot directly access the information stored in our long-term memory.

As such, the interaction that takes place between our sensory memory and our long-term memory occurs in our working memory, or short-term memory, which is the only place where we can think and do.

I explain to my class that it might be helpful for them to think of the sensory memory as a haulage truck, the long-term memory as a warehouse, and the working memory as the holding bay where new deliveries are received, processed, and labelled ready for stowing. The payload cannot be passed directly into the warehouse, it must first pass through the holding bay.

To my mind, there are three steps teachers can take to improve their students’ learning:

  • Create a positive learning environment to stimulate sensory memory in order to gain the active attention of working memory.
  • Make students think hard but efficiently in working memory in order to encode information in long-term memory.
  • Plan for frequent retrieval practice to activate prior learning in order to improve storage in, and retrieval from, long-term memory.

During the course of this series, we’ll explore the learning process in more depth and look at the “I do, we do, you do” approach and the part it can play in supporting cognition and helping students to become increasingly independent. We will start, though, with planning for long-term learning – including by engaging in initial and diagnostic assessments.

See you next time.

Follow me on Twitter @mj_bromley for more teaching tips like these.

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