Wednesday, 5 October 2011

The Ingredients of a Great Lesson?

What are the necessary ingredients of a great lesson?

This morning, a Twitter post from @tesconnect, asked "Taught a great lesson lately? Upload it to TES resources..."
The inference being that a "great" lesson is something that can be committed to paper in some way.
I think that this is not true. And furthermore, I think that the notion that it is true is contributing to a de-professionalisation of the teaching profession as well as giving a false sense of security to bad teachers.
In 2008, I inspected a lesson in Manchester. The lesson was delivered to Year 10. And it was dire. Truly dire. At one point, sat beside a boy at the back of the room, I wrote down "uncritical use of resources".
The resources that the teacher was using for the maths lesson were lifted from the National Centre of Excellence in the Teaching of Mathematics (@NCETM) website. The teacher dryly waded through the tasks as though delivering the lines in a bad TV soap opera.
At the end of the lesson, I sat with the teacher and discussed my judgment ("inadequate" in Ofsted terms). She was most perturbed by this and told me sternly that the lesson was good or even outstanding. I asked her to justify this and she told me that she had taught an NCETM lesson and therefore the lesson must have been good.

What is a lesson?

I guess if you think back to school, or watch TV, or think about stereotypes, a lesson is when 30 children sit in a room, at desks, on chairs, in a school. A teacher imparts some information, which the children take notes of, then the children undertake some task from a book, writing their responses in another book, which they carry to and from school.
But that is not a lesson.
Reducing a lesson to its most basic form, we can do away with the books and the classroom and the resources, and the pens, and the paper, the desks and the chairs. At its most basic, a lesson is when one person learns something from another person. (Of course, learning can be reduced further to remove the teacher too).
A great lesson is when a heck of a lot of learning occurs. All that this requires is the teacher to be able to impart the knowledge or skill in such a way that the student is able to systhensise, understand, interpret and embed the knowledge or skill in their own reality.
To achieve this, the teacher must have the skill (the art) to understand both the student and the knowledge or skill. They must be able to empathise with the student's point of view. The teacher then uses this knowledge to select a method of communicating the new knowledge or skill. This could be through story-telling, or modeling, through discussion and debate, through exploration of examples. It is the teacher's art to critically select the method or methods most likely to achieve learning.
The trouble with the resources debate is that, and not enough people say this, there is no such thing as a great resource. There may be resources more likely to achieve the desired effect. But in the hands of a bad teacher, a so-called great resource isn't worth the paper (or interactive whiteboard!) its written on. Conversely, with a so-called terrible resource or indeed no resource at all, the great teacher can conjure up an amazing learning experience.
Sure, having bright airy rooms, modern equipment, numerous resources and the like can all help. But only in the hands of those that know what to do with them.
When the situation exists that some teachers believe that using a resource that has worked well for someone else, without having to think about how that resource relates to their students, then there is something terribly wrong.
Would it not be more helpful then, instead of a focus on resources, for the discussion to be around how to critically review and select appropriate tools from the arsenal of resources at hand? How to develop your own personal pedagogy? How to continue to learn as a professional? How to adapt and reflect?
The TES is a fantastic website and its resource bank, grown by teachers for teachers, is a fantastic tool. But if the TES wants to take a further step in truly improving the lessons that children experience in our schools, it could, without great difficulty, add to the resources section encouragement for professional learning by asking teachers to pause for a moment and think critically about the resources that they find and debate the pedagogy around embedding them in lessons.
Oh, and the answer to the question: The necessary ingredients of a great lesson? A great teacher.

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