A teacher nearing the end of their career at Birkdale will have taught around forty thousand 40 minute periods (many as double lessons), and taught perhaps four thousand different students.
A typical student joining Birkdale at age 11 and leaving at the end of the U6 will have attended around nine thousand periods and been taught by perhaps forty different teachers.
It occurred to me that it must be possible to mine this huge collective experience for nuggets of good practice; insights that could be shared between teachers to the benefit of all. Extrapolating this idea further, what studies had been done nationally or even internationally on the success of different approaches to teaching and learning?
In time-honoured fashion a working party composed of mostly enthusiastic teachers was formed and set to consider the question. After lengthy discussion, much reading, exhaustive surveying and some good–natured dispute the following pointers emerged, couched in the form of questions and now used in every reflection or discussion following the observation of any lesson at Birkdale. They are designed to stimulate further improvement of the learning experience for the students and presuppose that many of the obvious, successful features of a lesson are already very much in place. Here they are, sprinkled gently with my own observations.
Has the students’ prior knowledge and understanding of a subject been utilised? (It seems reasonable that students learn best by building on the foundation of earlier skills and knowledge which must be recalled and harnessed.)
Are students given time to work things out or find things out for themselves? Has there been an adequate level of challenge? (This allows students to be active in their learning, establishing new neural pathways, and promotes independence in learning, crucial for success in higher level study. Teaching approaches that focus on lectures or students passively watching a video or a demonstration are likely to be unsuccessful.)
Do students have time to express ideas in draft? (This promotes the idea that students can always improve their work and focuses students on the process of learning.)
Are emotionally strong experiences used to generate curiosity or accelerate learning? (The aim here is to engage students with a new topic through a memorable experience and to raise their motivation for future study. A striking demonstration in science, images or statistics with a high emotional content can all be used successfully for this purpose.)
Is there enough variety both in the presentation of material and in the tasks set? (Most students learn best from varied activities which approach and apply new ideas in different ways and the success of ‘fun’ activities in developing learning cannot be underestimated.)
Could there have been more opportunities for collaboration between students? (Aside from teaching students cooperative skills which are important for life, students are quite capable of teaching and helping each other to the benefit of both parties.)
Has adequate time and enough repetition been used to generate understanding? (Some degree of repetition and regular review is essential for the assimilation of new ideas. Gauging the pace of introducing new material is an important part of the art of teaching; going too slowly risks boredom whilst too fast a pace results in poor understanding and frustration.)
Have students been given a level of control over their learning? (This can be achieved quite simply in most subjects through the teacher sharing the learning objectives and ensuring that the students have opportunity to reflect on what they have learned. In some subjects students can be given genuine choice over what they are learning through more individualised tasks or projects; this is extremely motivating for most students.)
Could there have been opportunities for students to respond more imaginatively or creatively? (Students are more likely to retain new ideas and information if they have been able to use it in some way and to develop their own response; subjects such as Mathematics require students to use new techniques to solve problems whilst humanities students can see how ideas can be compared or used in novel contexts.)
How immediate and how specific is the feedback given? (Regular written feedback through marking is essential but an enormous amount of feedback can be given orally; successful teachers are adept at using the right language and tone of voice to give feedback and encouragement quickly to individual students.)
Could the learning experience benefit from the use of ‘down-time’? (Lots of studies show that the brain needs regular breaks from input in order to make sense of new information or ideas; including lower demand activities lasting 2-5 minutes every 15 minutes or so if challenging material is being covered is entirely appropriate.)
Are students given an overview of the meaning of new information before they are presented with details? (Clearly an overview allows students to see the purpose of mastering the more detailed information and makes it easier to remember.)
Has there been an opportunity for review or structured revision? (Regular review and repetition strengthens neural pathways; revision should not be left to the end of a course but properly planned throughout.)
Do pupils seem to value what they are learning? (The students’ motivation will be much higher if they can understand the value of the topic, whether in terms of examination results or in terms of enabling them to understand further ideas and information.)
Do students feel they can achieve? (The students must expect at least some level of success in order to be properly motivated; if they feel that they are sure to fail then they are unlikely to apply much effort. Students must trust their teachers to provide activities, support and explanation that will enable them to learn successfully.)
Is there adequate emotional security in the classroom? How are rewards, praise and humour used? (Skilled teachers will generate a learning environment in which students enjoy what they are doing and feel able to take risks through trying out new skills and checking their understanding. Positive emotions also release the chemical dopamine which must be present in the brain for new neural pathways to be developed and learning to occur. In a student survey on motivation, Birkdale students felt that their relationship with the teacher setting the work was the single most important factor in motivating them.)
Teaching is a fascinating human activity; no two groups of students or lessons are ever identical and I have never failed to learn from observing another member of staff teach.