The Duke of Gloucester visiting, Spit shines, and more. In this episode, Andy, Robin and Adam are joined once again by guest Jo Sawyer to discuss the ingredients to make an effective lesson. What are the core elements needed? Should teachers know the learning trajectory of their pupils? Plus, Adam speaks on the value of building trust and a strong relationship with your pupils.
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Hi, I'm Andy Psarianos.
Hi, I'm Robin Potter.
Hi, I'm Adam Gifford.
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Welcome back everyone to another episode of The School of School podcast. We've got special guest today, Jo Sawyer, who's joining us. And Joe is a very important person in mathematics education, primary mathematics education in the UK. She's worked with Maths — No Problem! for a long time. She's part of the NCTM and all around a super person. So Jo, tell us a little bit more about yourself.
Wow, thank you. I'm not quite sure I'd put myself with such a high praise, but thank you for that, Andy.
Well, we do.
Oh, okay. I'll take that. So hugely passionate about maths. At the moment I spend two days of my week teaching primary mathematics. I've got a year three class and I spend two days with them. And my other three days, I'm a primary consultant and I work with a range of practitioners. I do some ITT training with people who are looking to go into teaching. And then I work with early career teachers and teachers and leaders who have been in education for many years looking at how we can develop their mathematical systems in school and their understanding of mathematical pedagogy.
Fantastic. So today we're talking about the ingredients that combine to make an effective lesson. First of all, is there such a thing? And if there is, what do we believe they are? So go on, Jo, we will give you the first chance to tell us what you think about this.
Okay, thank you. This one came from, I'm going to put the total blame on Adam for this because I was listening to one of the other podcasts where he talked about the analogy of a queen coming to visit a school, every four years or so a queen might come to visit a school. And it was like what you'd said about should there be the right type of biscuit? You talked about the school generally, but I was kind of honing in on that from a teaching point of view. Do teachers need to have the ingredients on hand for their classes? So it was really just looking at what makes an effective lesson. And clearly that's changed over the years. Having been in teaching 20 years what was a good lesson years ago perhaps would not be so good now because we've moved on with our kind of professional understanding of how children learn. But what is it that makes it effective?
And do two separate classes in two areas of the country or two different contexts of classes have to have the same ingredients or elements for a successful lesson? And does it depend on whether the class maybe is pure age group, mixed stage, whether the children are working at attainment or below attainment? And does it depend on the experience of the teacher? Should there be allowances or should every class be able to produce a similar quality of lesson? And then who is it to say that that lesson is high quality or not? Is it an individual feel? Because if a human is observing a lesson, obviously there's going to be some individual, they're going to come at it from an angle of what their understanding is. If I was to go and observe an early years lesson, I wouldn't be as confident as going to observe a year three lesson.
And equally, I wouldn't be as able to observe a lesson in geography as I would in mathematics. So what is it that makes an effective lesson? Is it pace? Is it children's engagement? Is it learning within the lesson? Or how do we look at learning over time rather than just in one lesson? Are we expecting collaboration? Are we expecting greater depth at the end threaded through a lesson? I don't know. When you're having these discussions with teachers of what does anybody observing a lesson look for? Is there a set of ingredients that somebody can go, right, okay, this is my tick list for a lesson. Or is it just a feel for a lesson in general? Is there a palpable feel to the pace and the excitement and the learning and the buzz? So it's more of a question to throw out there really. I definitely don't have an answer to this one.
I think just to make sure that the main point for those who haven't listened to the episode or something, I think what I was saying was is that often I saw practise in schools that I didn't think was necessarily that good because people were very worried that someone... They always talked about have I got the evidence for this or have I got this? And the motivation for doing certain things, which I didn't think was good teaching practise, was for someone that may never visit and they're assuming that this person is looking for these particular things. Which I think is a really unhealthy attitude because what we should be doing on a daily basis should benefit the children full stop no matter who's visiting.
So if they've not heard, I'm assuming that was the analogy that I'd use because it used to frustrate me to bits when teachers used to say yes, but what evidence do I... Or what evidence for this or evidence for that. And it used to drive me crackers because I'm like, who are you showing the evidence to or what impact it has? So just very simply, and then, sorry to interrupt you, but just to make that very clear, that good teaching practise, it should be irrelevant who's seeing it because the only relevance and the reality is that teachers spend the vast majority of time with just them and the kids. And what's relevant is what we do with the children. So just in case.
So taking that then if you take just on an everyday lesson, if you were to be a fly on a wall in an everyday lesson, what would make it effective? How would you know there was impact?
It depends what you mean by effective. If effective means getting a good Ofsted report, that's different. An effective good Ofsted lesson, by that what I mean is that what you're worried about is what Ofsted thinks about it is very different than effective from what the children learned point of view could be entirely different.
Learning can be extremely messy and chaotic looking if you're just dropping in a parachute for an afternoon. How much could you possibly gather as to what the long term effect of what that person is doing? It's almost impossible. Learning's a really messy process. Not every lesson looks like an outstanding lesson. Most lessons probably don't look anything like what would be categorised as an outstanding lesson from an inspector body. But I think we, like what Adam says, I think we put too much weight on that sort of inspection thing.
Look at it from the military point of view, for example, this is maybe a stupid analogy, but I don't think it is. Every once in a while the military, they all spit shine their boots and make sure that the creases are perfect on their trousers and their hat's on right and whatever. They march up and down the road and they look really impressive. And that's one mode that the military operates in. But it doesn't look anything like that on a battlefield. On a battlefield, it's chaotic, it's messy. There's the fog of war. So there's these two different modes and teaching's a bit like that. So if you think of teaching children as fighting a war, the learning process is really messy. So then you have to ask, well what is does an effective lesson look like? Well, an effective lesson has to have a certain element of key components.
There has to be an element of exploration and struggle in a classroom. There has to be an element of discussion and reflection in a classroom. Oh, we did this. Why did we do it that way? Those kinds of things. There has to be an element of structure of like, okay, we did all these things. What do those things mean? What's the language that we use to structure this? There has to be an element of practising . And those are the things. Now, what order you do the men and who you do them with and how you do them and whatever, that's really circumstantial. It depends. What are you teaching? What stage are they at? If this is the first lesson they've ever done on multiplication, it's kind of really hard to have a success criteria. At the end of the day, if they've never had any exposure to multiple good of reasoning, you can guarantee that 80% of the class still will not be anywhere near where you need them to be.
As far as success, you can't define the success criteria, but you can define it maybe after eight lessons or 10 lessons. So if you drop in on the first lesson, it isn't going to look like an effective, successful lesson. So I guess that's what I mean. It's like that's where teachers' professional discretion and experience needs to come into play. As long as they understand that every day has to have an element of all those kinds of key components that should take place in a classroom. I think that's the best answer I could ever give. But what do I know?
No, I think a lot with that then is being a successful teacher or a successful lesson knowing the learning trajectory. So you're not seeing it necessarily... Does a lesson have to be a lesson or is a lesson over a series of days sometimes? I don't know, it's just a different way of thinking about it. But you need to know where the children are going.
Well, I don't know if the teacher needs to know the ins and outs of every aspect of the learning journey because I don't think that anybody other than really, really seasoned professionals who spend a lot of time thinking and working in that space will ever really know that. And even then it's always, there's a certain judgement call on that. That's a really difficult ask for a teacher. I don't expect teachers would ever know, go ask teachers. "Should you teach fractions first or decimals first?" Just ask the teacher that. How many of them will have an opinion on it? Have ever thought of that? Probably not too many. And if they have thought about it, how many of them have come to the correct conclusion?
Teachers, the answers fractions if Andy comes into your school.
No, but I'm serious. So why would you know that?
No, it's a true story.
How are you going to come to that conclusion? It takes decades of experience and research to come up to the answer to that. Teachers don't have time to think about stuff at that level? They have to manage a class and deliver the lesson of the day. So it's a joint effort. Everybody has to work together and the right experience and knowledge and stuff needs to come in at the right time and we need to make use of that. So it's a team effort I guess is my point.
We don't have enough time to teach teachers how to do that. And we certainly don't have enough time to teach teachers on how to create a perfect content for a day. They don't have time, they don't have time, they just don't have time. I don't have time. Nobody has time. That's an expert job. You know what I mean? You study your whole life to know that.
I think the other thing that we have to accept too, I think when we first came into teaching, I used to find it astounding that someone could come in and watch me for half an hour and make a judgement on me as a teacher. And not only that, make a judgement on me as a person. How can someone do that? But they did. And your success in everything, schools relied on it. And I was put in that position too, where I had to do exactly the same thing. But of course it's a nonsense because I can't do that. And not only that, I might go into a classroom now, I've been teaching for a long time, I'm a keen learner, I've worked with good people, so I should be pretty good at it. I should be. By rights I should be a pretty good teacher.
I could have a real rubbish lesson tomorrow. I could have a lesson that just doesn't go the way I want it to. And if any one of you come in and observed it, you might go, "Oh, he's not much chop as a teacher. What's he up to? Well get him out." But the following day you'd like to think that I would have more better days than I have days that I could have been better or it could have gone better.
And I think that's the thing. I think that same learning that's the most important part for me. It's not just the children learning, but the teachers learning. Because the scariest thing that I ever saw in education was where you saw the same teacher but they didn't change. They didn't change over time. They didn't feel they needed to get better or they didn't learn anymore or they didn't think about how could I help that child? And it was always the same children or the same type of children or same type of problem. And I think that's the worrying part.
So based on that is an effective lesson, is a huge part of that reflecting on how effective the lesson was and being able to move forward. So even if it's a bad lesson, kind of reflection on that to know how to move forward, make it more effective.
Oh look, you only need to look at the highest performing jurisdictions in education. Now I'm going to remove Shanghai slightly because I think there's slightly different parameters there, but they still have the same element. So they've got teachers that are given time to consider. The Japanese, lesson study. They consider. The Singaporean government, they've considered their curriculum and how they train teachers for ages. Why are all of these people doing so well in education and therefore their children doing so well in education? Because they consider how to make it better. And they don't expect that change to happen overnight. Like I said, if I can make a judgement call on one person in half an hour and then write to them say, "Right, you need to work on these things." As if I'm so good that just by writing a few bullet points and I give it to you, Jo, that tomorrow you're going to become this outstanding teacher overnight because I've observed you for half an hour and given you a couple of bullet points to take away.
What a joke. My ego, it would've had to have been so huge or I needed to be indoctrinated in the system that told me that that was the right thing to do and that was going to make you a better teacher. It's an nonsense. So in answer to your question, yes, of course. We always should be reflecting on how we can be better and then working on them in a way that we can actually embed it. So it's not token, it's not like, "Oh, well I'll put these trays in this order. Oh no, I've also got to do that thing by the window and quickly lower the lights. Oh God, where's the scented candle?" We can't do all of these things at once because we think they're going to help. But what we can do is be considered. And also I think the kind of final point of the rant is that these things take time.
So we know how long it takes for children to learn. Well, why don't we afford the same, I was about to say luxury, it's not a luxury, it's professionalism. Well, why don't we afford that professionalism to teachers as well and say that the whole process of getting better at anything takes time. And just by the way, I thought I'd drop this in as well. I've actually been part of a royal visit and they're a piece of piss. They're easy. They are so straightforward because you get given a little book and it tells you at what time you shake, in this case it was the Duke of Gloucester I believe who came to visit, you get a little book and it tells you he will shake your hand at that time. But do you know what made the biggest impact?
And I think this is also part of what makes an effective lesson, is the wee kids that come up to you go, "Mr. Gifford, who's this guy when you're talking to him?" And you know the child. So it's as simple as that. You've got to know your children and you've got to have a connection. And it's about relationships as well, right? They've got to trust you. And if they've got your trust and you are willing to learn and you're willing to learn alongside them to be better, then good things usually happen in those classrooms. And I think that that's the healthy way to go about it. It's not stick it in the microwave and all of a sudden, boom, there it goes. I'm still trying to be a better teacher and I've been trying for 20 years and I'm still going to keep trying. As simple as that.
Let's go back to the core question here to wrap it up. So the core question was, are there a set of ingredients that combine to make an effective lesson? Adam, what do you think? Yes or no?
I think there's some elements that have to be there. And I think the starting places, you've got to have a relationship with the children. You've got to know where they're at. And you've also got to accept that you are learning alongside to be better and never let that go.
What about you, Jo? Because you haven't actually said anything and this was your idea to talk about this.
Yeah, I didn't really have an answer, that's why I asked the question. I would say, yeah, I think there is. I think you have to be reflective all the time. I think you always have to seek to be better, whether that's from your own reflection or listening to the advice of others. But I do think that the children need to have certain elements within the lesson. I think they need to listen to each other. I think they need to have that kind of collaboration, to share the ideas, not just from the teacher but from within their own knowledge as well.
I was doing a lesson on pollination today, and a little boy in my class told me far more about it than I knew already, even with a bit of research. So I think you have to work as a team to move each other forward. And I do think that the children need to know that you are part of their team, being a teacher in the classroom. For me that's really important. And then the whole thing, like I suppose PACE and learning over time and all of those as well. But yeah, I think there are some ingredients that are there and there are others that you can add with sprinkles.
I'm going to cop out a little bit on this one. I'm going to say I think the most important ingredient to have a successful lesson is to have a sound understanding of what the research says about how children learn and to try to apply that in the classroom. And I think that there's a several layers of that, and I can walk through them very quickly. I think maybe one of the most important things as a teacher, if you want to have an effective lesson, is to have an idea of what it is you want the children to learn and how are you going to know whether or not they learn it? I think that that's really important. What are you going to do if they already know it? You should have a plan, because some children may already have grasped the concept to quite high level before you even start the lesson.
And what are you going to do if they can't get there? So not my idea. This is very common framework for lesson planning. I think you should have answers to that before you start. I think you should ensure that there's a level of exploration and discovery in the class, not an overwhelming amount, but just enough to kind of spark the creation of the hook. So the creation of the hook is in relation to Piaget, which basically says you have to have a certain amount of productive struggle in a classroom in order to create the hook that you got to put your coat on.
There needs to be an element of that in the classroom, but you can't just leave the coat hanging like that. You can't leave the kids hanging like that. You then need to put structure around that because ultimately there's a responsibility to structure that information in a way that, something we discussed it in another podcast, where you need to develop the mathematical language, the framework, the vocabulary, all those things.
So that structuring needs to take place in the lesson. Doesn't have to be a lot, but there needs to be enough structure in there so that you can rationalise what you did. Over and beyond that there needs to be an element of reflection. So going back because, and again, this is going to John Dewey, we don't learn from doing, we learn from reflecting. So now you've done a bunch of stuff. Now you need to reflect on what you've done. There should be an element of that in each lesson. It doesn't have to be a lot, just a little bit. Just go back and say, "We did these things. Why did we do those things? How does that fit in with the structure that we talked about?" Where do you go from that? You then need to take that and then you need to practise it.
Why? Because practise is how you remember things and how you learn to apply what you know in a larger context. So practise is about variation. It's not about drill, it's not about repetition. It's really about variation. And then you need very well varied questions to practise on, hopefully written by a professional who knows what they're doing and use those to practise what you've just learned.
I think the other element that comes to a successful lesson is humility. Teachers need to be a little bit more humble sometimes and not believe that they have the answers for everything. Spend more time being empathetic and being humble and see each lesson as an opportunity to better themselves by observing and being really kind of empathetic about what's going on in the classroom and addressing those things and developing themselves as they go along. I think those are the elements. I think if you're doing a collection of those things, your lessons will look good. That's really hard, by the way, what I just said, that's like impossible, right? But that's what the research says. So if you want to look at research, if you want to apply it on what we know about educators, tonnes of research been done, that's what it says.
Of course, you have to agree with it. And I think that what you're saying is it does provide that structure. It makes it clear, easy to understand what you need to do. And I'm glad that you put the last bit in and it takes time, but that's okay because you've got time and it'll be all right. And I think that that structure, well, it works well. And I'd say that as someone that's used it in the classroom, or no, who's tried to use it in the classroom and has continued to try to use it better. But yeah, I think that you're absolutely right, Andy. So hopefully there's lots of bits that you can take away from this and have a go. But be kind and get them just bits at a time, a little bit better every day because that's what you want to hope for.
And I think we all need to be grateful for all the teachers that are out there by the way. I think that's something that we...
It's easy to criticise teachers and we do it professionally and we do it as parents and we do it at all kinds of levels. But we need to be grateful because it is a tremendous responsibility. And it is one of the most challenging things. You really need to have great intentions to be a great teacher because you'll be knocked down all the time consistently by everyone around you. Just stay true to what you believe. And we should be thankful that we have enough people to teach our kids with all the obstacles that we put in front of them.
Thank you for joining us on The School of School podcast.