Think about the last lesson you taught. Was it a successful lesson? Why do think that?
Ask a random room of teachers if these are important questions to think about – most will say ‘yes’. Ask the same room of teachers what their answer to the second question is and you are unlikely to get the same consensus. Some will say, ‘Because I got through everything that I’d planned to get through’, others that, ‘All of the students seemed to enjoy the lesson,’ and some that, ‘All of the students were well behaved and did what I asked them to do.’ Such things being the case, do they equate to a successful lesson?
Your answer will depend on what your criteria for success is. For me, the key measure of success for any lesson is the extent to which all students are learning. In a perfect lesson, all students would learn everything that was planned. However, I am yet to teach that lesson. And I am yet to watch any other teacher teach it either. It is the ‘perfect lesson rainbow’ that we are all chasing. While we are unlikely to ever reach it, it is the pursuit which is important.
If you accept that ‘all students learning everything that was planned’ is the key measure of success for a lesson, does the teacher ‘getting through everything’ mean that the lesson was successful? What about if all the students enjoyed the lesson, or if all the students were well behaved and did what they were asked? The answer to all of these is: ‘not necessarily’.
Teaching is full of harsh realities which get in the way of our rainbow chasing. These include that:
- ‘Being busy’ and ‘learning’ are not the same thing – just because students are paying attention or doing what you have asked them to do doesn’t mean that they are learning
- A ‘teaching-learning gap’ is inevitable – just because content has been ‘covered’ doesn’t mean that it has been learned, regardless of how good the explanations, presentations or demonstrations were
- The learning of one or two students tells us nothing about the learning of everyone else – just because one or two students have given correct answers to questions we directed at them doesn’t mean that others in the class could do this too
However, while it is true that such realities make the pursuit of the ‘perfect lesson rainbow’ challenging, they can all be overcome. To help do so, keep three principles at the forefront of your mind whilst planning and teaching lessons:
1. Engage students in activities which get them to think hard*, rather than activities which keep them busy. Answering questions, discussing, critiquing and evaluating are examples of activities which can get students to think hard. Copying notes and listening to extended exposition (in the absence of teacher-student interaction) are examples of activities which keep students busy.
2. Infuse explanations, presentations and demonstrates with questions. As well as getting students to think hard, asking questions helps to (1) check for understanding, (2) check students are paying attention, (3) break-up teacher talk time, (4) get students to learn from each other, (5) drill-down into deeper student thinking.
3. At every opportunity, use strategies to make all students’ learning visible. Asking a question to one student will make the learning of one student visible; asking a question to a whole class and then choosing one student to answer will make the learning of one student visible; asking a question to the whole class, choosing one student to answer and then asking other students what they think about that answer, if they agree or disagree with it and why, will make the learning of a few students visible; asking a question to the whole class and asking everyone to write an answer on their Show-me board will make the learning of all students’ learning visible.
The more your teaching is informed by these principles, the closer to the ‘perfect lesson rainbow’ it will get.
*Robert Coe has suggested that students ‘thinking hard’ is useful proxy for learning: https://www.ibo.org/globalassets/events/aem/conferences/2015/robert-coe.pdf