What happens in our best lessons, and how do we know?

Open Classroom - come on in!

Open Classroom – come on in!

At Wellacre, we call them Focus Weeks; other schools refer to them as Open Classroom weeks, Golden Lessons, Bright Spots and probably others I’ve never heard of, but whatever the name, the purpose is to seek out and share existing good practice across the whole Academy, and to evaluate the impact of our current teaching and learning priorities. We offer all teaching staff the opportunity to take part in this at least once a term, and colleagues who have been part of previous focus week teams have found it to be a really valuable development opportunity and a source of inspiration for their own teaching.

Focus week at the start of the summer term took ‘resilience’ as its theme – a timely opportunity to revisit some of our growth mindset strategies from the beginning of the year. We visited almost every subject and classroom across the Academy at some point or other and as a result, can be confident in identifying the common threads that run through the most effective lessons at Wellacre Academy. So here goes:

In our BEST lessons…go sign

Students are pushed to justify their contributions through higher-order questioning
I saw particularly good examples of this in Katie McDonough’s drama classroom, where students’ opinions are routinely challenged and conflicting viewpoints are explored. Julia Brunning is also a ninja at never answering a student question without asking a deeper one instead. To do this: see the questioning grid, top right on your T&L placemat.

A ‘drafting culture’ is reinforced by effective use of formative feedback and MAD time
Formative feedback is a real strength of both our Humanities and English faculties, in terms of both the ‘mark less, mark better’ approach to marking and the time that students are routinely given to act on it, aka MAD time. I also saw a strong variant of this in Claire Niebel‘s art studio, in which no piece of work is ever ‘finished’ but just another draft, building on the last. To do this: make sure your feedback is actionable by students.

Students want to contribute because of the enthusiasm and sense of pride and purpose communicated by the teacher
When you walk in to some classrooms, there is a real sense that students have a pride in what they’re doing, and in most cases this pride is driven by the teacher’s own enthusiasm – whether for their subject, for their students or for learning in general. Alison Barnes in English and Heather Morgan in RE exemplified this superbly well, where even a discussion about a potentially misplaced comma in the Shahadah was brought to life through the teacher’s evident passion for her subject. To do this: remember why you became a teacher, and give your students a reason to care about their work as much as you do!

Resources and planning are simple but strikingly effective – no ‘bells and whistles’, just a relentless focus on the outcome
I saw this to best effect in Joanne Lindsay’s maths lesson. One PowerPoint slide, rulers and squared paper plus some great questioning (“Are you sure?” “How would you test that?”) and growth mindset language (“Keep looking… keep going…it’s difficult but that’s ok”) were all that was needed for her Y9s to independently (re)discover Pythagoras’ theorem – a challenging task for these students. Instructions were clear where necessary, but there was plenty of room for students to make their own decisions. Nice to see that precision and presentation are clearly important in this classroom too. To do this: Use the 5-minute lesson plan to focus your planning on what students need to learn instead of what tasks they’ll be doing.

High expectations of student engagement are evident through robust routines and strong relationships
It says a lot about a classroom that students will arrive spontaneously to revise at breaks and lunchtimes. Sinéad Hosty‘s RE students regularly do this as a result of the positive, warm, calm, encouragement and respect they know will experience. To do this: Remember that every interaction with a child is an opportunity for them to learn from you. If they experience negativity, they are likely to respond in the same way.

Thinking time is used to support students in taking risks with their ideas
Rob Linton is one of our PE teachers, and until last week I’d never seen him teach his Y7 geography class, but I’m glad I did. Rob makes a big deal about thinking time, posing a question then narrating the wait “Think… think a bit harder… what does it remind you of…what do you know that it’s similar to…” before choosing a student to answer – this makes all students feel accountable because it might be them! Another technique I observed in Rob’s teaching is that before any writing takes place, students verbally ‘rehearse’ their responses with a partner so that by the time pen is put to paper, they are more confident and willing to step out of their comfort zones. To do this: After you’ve asked a question, but before you choose who answers it, count slowly to 5 in your head (when you’ve nailed that, increase to 10) Then ignore any hands and choose someone to answer.

Classrooms are dyslexia friendly
We’ve done a lot of work on this recently, and now have an agreed list of strategies and plenty of examples of good practice elsewhere on the blog. Leor Holtzman in our English faculty has led the way on this, and will be presenting some of her strategies at #TMWellacre! To do this: follow the strategies here.

Time is devoted to ensuring pupils act on feedback; this is an integral part of the learning
Gill Perry‘s geography lesson was a case in point for this, and I know that many of Gill’s humanities colleagues are following suit – using most or even all of a lesson for pupils to improve their work based on written feedback in order to allow them to demonstrate progress towards the next level of understanding. There was a lot of language of the humanities taxonomy used here as well. To do this: start small and manageable – perhaps focus on a few key spellings first of all, to get students used to the idea of going back and redrafting. Once this routine is embedded you can build up gradually.

WAGOLLs show students how to be successful without trivialising the challenge or ‘dumbing down’ tasks
Head of Humanities Michelle O’Neill‘s WAGOLLs are neither works of art to look at, nor time-consuming to produce, but they work because students know exactly what they are aiming for in a piece of work, without becoming merely a ‘fill-in-the-gaps’ activity. Michelle’s usual technique is devastatingly simple – she has her own exercise book in which she roughs out – in note form – a plan of the piece of work she wants her students to produce. Putting this on the visualiser and annotating it in real time then brings it to life and allows her to incorporate and re-shape the best student contributions while modelling the planning process. To do this: write a WAGOLL that addresses a slightly different question or essay, so it’s a model rather than a writing frame. There are some great ideas on the subject here.

The big picture, and the gaps that need to be closed to get there, are made obvious to students
Jo Hall has only recently returned from maternity leave, but already her GCSE Engineering students could quite confidently tell me about the whole learning journey of their coursework project, and how the lesson we saw fitted into that picture. Jo’s precise feedback had made them very aware of what they done and what they needed to do next, while her regular ‘stop, contextualise, move on’ approach made sure they understood why they needed to do it. Elsewhere, in a history lesson, students were using a 3-way colour code to make visible to themselves 1) what they had decided on their own, 2)what they had found out from their partner, and 3) how they had linked the different information together. This was really effective in making the learning gaps visible to students so that they knew when they were closing them. To do this: regularly expose students to what excellence looks like in your subject, this topic or this particular piece of work. Help them analyse what makes it so great, use it to critique their current work and decide what they need to do next!

Teachers systematically check whether something has been understood by effective questioning techniques
What I noticed in some of our most effective lessons is that teachers rarely ask students directly if they understand something, but instead are adept at checking for understanding by asking other types of questions – like Heather Morgan in RE, who has a real strength in encouraging students to use their own analogies (“What can you compare that to?” “How is … similar to …?”) in order to demonstrate the depth of their understanding. To do this: Instead of asking students “Is that clear?” or “Do you understand?” (the answers to which aren’t useful), think of questions which will allow students to prove what they’ve learnt – doing this at key points in the lesson is referred to as hinge point questioning.

Detailed knowledge of students is used to personalise learning
The difference between teachers who know their students – and know their work – and those who don’t really stood out in the lessons that were visited. One of the best examples was a DEC lesson where students were all completing different aspects of their coursework portfolio by acting on detailed personalised feedback they had received, the ultimate differentiation! The skill of this lesson was entirely in the planning and preparation, and as a result learning was happening without the teacher looking like they were doing very much at all. A student in the lesson told me, unbidden “I’m not at an A* yet, but I can be if I do this and this” (referring to his feedback sheet). To do this: Make sure you have an annotated seating plan to hand for every class you teach. Use it to direct key questions, give specific feedback and differentiate on the fly. We’re looking into investing in a tool like MINTClass to facilitate this.

Teachers have the confidence to empower their students to learn independently
This is something I’ve regularly seen great examples of in lessons taught by our PE faculty, where student-designed and student-led tasks are an embedded routine in practical lessons. Although it wasn’t during focus week, I recently observed our PE NQT Mike Thomson bring this same approach into the classroom in a Y10 theory lesson where each group researched, planned and delivered a different area of the curriculum to their peers, going as far as finding a suitable exam question to assess understanding and writing their own peer-friendly mark schemes. To do this: A great start is to ensure learning materials (dictionaries, word banks, post-it notes, highlighters) are readily available so that students can manage their own learning. Give clear success criteria and time limits for a task, then let them go!

Learning focuses on skills as well as knowledge
In English NQT Sam Parnaby’s lesson, it was great to see that skill with dictionary and thesaurus is built in as a regular feature to lessons – so much so that students are choosing to use these tools to improve their own work without prompting or direction. Sam built this into the lesson I saw in quite a subtle and entertaining way by asking students to ‘improve’ on insults that might apply to Steinbeck’s Lenny – synonyms for ‘stupid’, anyone? Gill Perry in Geography also builds this into her lessons on a regular basis, with dictionaries and SPaG mats always available. To do this: Consider the skills gaps that you might encounter in Y11 students, then make sure your planning from Y7 regularly includes work on these same skills so that the gaps aren’t there 5 years later!

Teachers model and insist on correct, subject-specific language by not accepting sub-standard responses
On my visits to lessons I’ve begun to notice a lot of “In this room, we talk like mathematicians” (or ‘scientists’ or ‘artists’, you get the idea…) and been hearing a lot of variations on the ‘Say it again properly‘ idea. Doug Lemov calls this ‘Format Matters’. In science, Sarah Kilroy and Richard Asha demonstrated this particularly well by not accepting ‘it’ but pushing students to use correct terminology – a close variant of Lemov’s ‘Right is Right’. To do this: Next to a key words list on the classroom wall, how about a ‘banned words’ list: (it, they, nice, thing, stuff, whatever…)

Naturally, at the same time as seeing lots of examples of highly effective practice, it’s difficult to avoid drawing conclusions about what simply isn’t working for our students. I struggled with whether or not to include the ‘other’ list in this blog as the original purpose of the post was to share our best practice, but I strongly believe that not to challenge ineffective practice is to condone it. For our wider readership, let me make it clear that this is Wellacre’s list; these things don’t work at our school. They may well do at yours (although I doubt it).

To improve student progress, the following practice must change:stop_sign_sheet

  • Students are able to choose not to fully engage because the teacher relies on hands-up strategies.
    Instead: Use ‘Cold-Call’, ‘Pose, Pause, Pounce, Bounce’ or a random generator.
  • All are forced to do the same tasks at the same pace because planning and/or delivery is not differentiated.
    Instead: Assess prior knowledge and give each student an appropriate starting point.
  • Students are not given a chance to make progress because the teacher does not follow the Feedback for Learning policy.
    Instead: Mark less, but mark better. Give actionable feedback and use MAD time.
  • Incorrect spoken and written English are not challenged, reinforcing poor literacy among our students.
    Instead: Use our agreed literacy marking codes. Insist students “Talk like a… scientist / mathematician / engineer / poet” etc…
  • Students are often passive because the teacher is doing all of the work.
    Instead: Use simple strategies like ‘Think-Pair-Share’ or Show-me to make tasks active. Make the most of collaborative learning opportunities.
  • Low-level disruption goes unchallenged, reinforcing low expectations of our students
    Instead: Own your students’ behaviour; have high expectations and reinforce them.
  • Students are given answers before they have been challenged to use other means (e.g. asking a partner, using a dictionary etc).
    Instead: Reshape the question, ‘Brain, Book, Buddy, Boss’, C3B4Me, ask a partner, use a dictionary.
  • Progress is capped because tasks do not offer enough challenge.
    Instead: Provide extension work that is genuinely more challenging, not just more of the same.
  • The minimum operating standards, behaviour policy and QFT strategies are not consistently followed.
    Instead: Remember – if not you, then who?

About Stacey Partridge

Assistant Principal responsible for Teaching & Learning and CPD Wellacre Academy Flixton, Greater Manchester
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