Improving schools; its all about the teaching.


Over my years as teacher and leader I have seen some formidable initiatives aimed at raising achievement, including: learning to learn lessons, motivational speakers for students, gifted and talented programs, revision sessions, elaborate marking policies, teacher tips, Mocksteds…..

I’ve realised (yes it’s taken a while), none of these will have the overall significant impact of one thing; lessons where kids learn.

Teaching and learning leads/teams around the country are focussing on all these exciting things when they only need to focus on lessons, the teaching that happens and whether that leads to learning. If behaviour is sorted,  nothing else is needed.

So why don’t they? Because it’s tough. Teachers have made classrooms their own personal work area. We are a fairly autonomous profession with many teachers having never stepped into a colleague’s room except to borrow a board pen or to give a note to another teacher. If you’ve been teaching for 25 years, the only classroom you may know is your own. If anyone comes to your class it’s probably only been to judge you or to tell off a naughty kid.

Talking about learning has almost become taboo. Instead of being the first questions asked of a teacher, the peripherals have become the focus.

It only needs two questions: ‘Did they all learn what you wanted them to learn? How do/will you know?’ Instead of ‘When were their books last marked?’ Or ‘Why didn’t you do the school’s 5 minute starter activity?’.

Learning is the hot potato.

One reason is because it requires people to go into other people’s classrooms. As said above, this is contentious. Past history of judgemental observations and union guidelines on restricting the hours have made it almost untouchable. It’s the most important thing yet has become the least well used.

Everything has also been muddied by programmes & systems that claim to be a silver bullet: TEEP, thinking hats, VAK, 3 part lessons, showing progress in 20 minutes…..the list goes on. These take the focus away from the difficult discussions about learning with teachers  and make life easier for leaders to say ‘you’ve not followed X way of teaching’ or you didn’t do ‘Y’.

Another reason why it’s easy to avoid talking about learning is that we can’t see it. In my career we’ve gone from observations which claimed to ‘see’ if children were learning ,  book scrutinies that can show this mysterious thing of progression  and using data as a proxy for learning. None of these are good enough but can we agree on what might show learning? If not, we will always fudge our way around learning.

Finally, I fear that many teachers don’t really know much about learning and what research suggests works in the classroom. I don’t remember it on my PGCE and my NQT did nothing on it last year. Leaders and teachers need to be clear from the start what may/may not help. Some of the examples above have clearly been peddled without secure research behind them yet schools and leaders have grabbed on to them as their solution to raising achievement.

So if you’re a leader think carefully about what you do and spend your efforts on:

  • How do your plans link directly to learning and what happens in the classroom?
  • How will you start the discussions with teachers on the two most important questions?
  • Is your worked linked with research? How can it support it?
  • How will you create a culture where more than one adult in a classroom isn’t seen as a negative?
  • How will you support staff to keep learning as the core focus?
  • How do you use data to unpick the state of learning instead of making sweeping statements about groups?

and if you’re part of a formal organisation that is supporting developing leaders, how will you ensure that participants keep learning as their focus?


2 thoughts on “Improving schools; its all about the teaching.

  1. I agree that the inspectorate can get bogged down in a lot of ‘smoke & mirrors’.

    Can you suggest resource/s for some evidence-based teaching methodologies?

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