Thursday, December 31, 2009

From Good to Outstanding

A few years ago I was invited to attend an INSET being ran at a nearby School. It's title "From Good to Outstanding!" Whilst many of us routinely teach good lessons (and the occasional outstanding one) there are remarkably few teachers who can consistently deliver lessons of outstanding quality. I am always on the lookout for ways to improve my teaching and so I gladly accepted the invitation to go along.

In the event, the INSET was extremely disappointing to say the least. Before I explain why, I should point out that this was not the fault of the School, or the other teachers who attended, from which and whom I learned a great deal, but rather a consequence of the way in which Schools Inspectors assess whether or not a lesson is outstanding. In short and outstanding lesson is one that achieves appropriate and significant objectives. The problem here is that it's often rather difficult to define what an appropriate or a significant objective is. As a consequence the default that is often used are the criteria laid out in the National Curriculum or in the relevant Examination Board Specification, and as a consequence the emphasis of the whole INSET dwelt upon helping pupils to understand their levels of achievement at various Key Stages. Of course achieving such objectives are essential during the course of a pupil's educations and, on the whole, the majority of the objectives laid out in the aforementioned documents are worthy. But, as any accomplished teacher knows, these objectives are, by their very nature, narrow and fail to cover many skills that we would regard as essential components of a pupil's education.

So what, in my opinion, makes a lesson Outstanding? Over the years I have observed many lessons, the best of which have shared something which I can summarize in a single word: "Interaction".

Too many lessons, including many otherwise good ones, are essentially passive in nature: Pupils listen, take notes, but fail to engage their brains. In order to learn effectively pupils have to think, and the best way of getting them to do so is to make them interact: with the teacher; with pre-prepared materials; with each other.

Science has a huge advantage in this respect because its very nature, as a practical subject, makes it highly interactive. The sign of an Outstanding teacher is that they create frequent opportunities for pupils to interact and monitor their class carefully to make sure all members of it interact - opting out is not an option.

Unfortunately many pupils in modern schools seldom have opportunities to carry out practicals, perhaps because a school does not possess the apparatus or technical support required to facilitate such activities. Health and Safety issues often mean that classic experiments are no longer performed in the classroom, including many demonstrations.

Over the past few months I have started to upload a series of short videos online, the aim of which is to allow  pupils to see (or even take measurements) from a series of experiments. The videos allow the demonstration of experiments in situations where they cannot be demonstrated directly, or to recap (and pause) a demonstration that has been performed in the classroom. Surprisingly pupils tend to be more alert when watching a video of an experiment than watching the same demonstration performed "live" - a consequence, perhaps, or our media orientated society. The videos can be found either by going to YouTube and searching for Quantum Boffin or by visiting my website at The Site is still in development, so please don't expect too much, but will be added to over the coming months.