Getting back to basics

(What I've learnt so far)

I’m in my third year of teaching (getting on as a veteran now?!) and I feel like my general teaching practice is improving. During discussions with an NQT at my current school, I realised how far I’d come since day 1, September 2013. It was during this discussion that my colleague uttered the words: “Does it ever get easier?” a common question from those new into the profession.

The truth? It does get easier, of course. We become more streamlined at planning / marking / assessing / analysing / inputting / phoning / chastising / praising / teaching. However, whilst these basic elements tend to get easier, there can be a tendency to overcomplicate. I am writing this post, inspired by a recent observation in which the feedback could be summarised as:

“Nice idea, but at times you were more confused than the students.”

Put simply, I’d tried to do too much in too little time. It has taken me a while to learn, but great teaching happens over time and not in isolated, hour-long blocks. It’s about going back to basics and sorting out the little things.

This observation has prompted me to reflect on just what great teaching and learning is – I encounter it every day, but what are the common features that make it great?

This list is by no means exhaustive and I thoroughly intend to add to and republish, this blog post as I go on, but for now 4 key things to great teaching and learning:

1. Plan your instruction

Wait, hear me out here! At its most basic level, teaching is about facilitating the process of gaining and using knowledge. As teachers, we have found thousands of ways to deliver on this. However, one common feature to all those thousands of ways of delivering is instruction.

At some point, you will need to instruct your learners what to do and how this will support their learning. This sounds devilishly simple, but can be (and often is) fiendishly hard. By planning what you want to say (in as few words as possible!) your students will be crystal clear on your expectations and their outcomes. This leads onto number 2…

2. Be clear on what you want to see

I learnt this through countless conversations with a great friend and colleague of mine who I trained with and, simply, when you are planning a lesson, the first thing to think about is: What do I want my students to know/be able to do at the end of the lesson? This sounds painfully simple, but I am guilty of neglecting this too often. The rationale is simple, by planning what students should be able to do at the end of the lesson (multiple outcomes are fine, differentiation in action!) the rest of the lesson builds to fit those outcomes. For example, if I am teaching plate tectonics and I want my students to be able to:

– Identify and label layers of the Earth
– Describe how tectonic plates move
– Describe the different movements of the Earth’s plates

Everything I do must be geared towards two things:

– Firstly, delivering knowledge – I need to give my students the specific factual understanding to complete the above (the way in which this knowledge is delivered can vary, but students must get knowledge).

– Secondly, practice (or opportunities to demonstrate) – I must plan activities where my students directly apply the knowledge they have been given (e.g. an unlabeled diagram of the Earth’s structure or a series of questions to probe student understanding). A point on this, great teaching and learning ensures knowledge is applied in different contexts so students don’t learn an idea and associate it with one task – a variety of tasks ensures deep learning.

3. High expectations

Now, I’m not the biggest fan of Michael Wilshaw, but I think there’s a lot to be said for the following:

“I believe that poverty of expectations bears harder on educational achievement than material poverty.” (Oftsed, 2013, p5)
We owe every student we teach two things:

– The belief they can achieve.
– Never accepting work that is not done to the best of their ability.

If we renege on these two simple things we are, tacitly, telling our students that we don’t care about them or their outcomes and we are happy to accept a poor standard of work. This is very hard to ensure and maintain in the classroom every day, but it is essential that our students know we expect the very best of them, 100% of the time. It is only by maintaining incredibly high standards that we can deliver great outcomes for our students. This can be even more challenging in schools where the culture is not one of the high expectations, but every teacher can begin to establish a precedent for their students.

This is delivered by – being clear on expectations (what should students be doing, what shouldn’t they be doing), clear sanctions for failure to meet expectations and a culture of acknowledgement (I’m careful not to emphasise praise). Acknowledge students who are meeting expectations – show them you are aware of their efforts and relate their efforts to the quality of the work they are producing. Of course, praise is an important part of any successful teacher’s armoury, but it must be earned. Overuse of praise can be problematic and encourage students to associate praise with shallow learning requiring little effort.

4. Be a subject geek!

A week ago, at a parents evening, I was told the following by a parent when discussing the progress of her daughter in my lesson:
“Now, don’t take this the wrong way or owt (c’mon, it’s Yorkshire!) but you’re a massive geek! You love Geography! I reckon you could just talk about it all night!”

I think some teachers may perhaps have been offended by those comments, but I delighted in them. It is true – I really do love geography!

It is the love of my subject that means I am regularly seeking out new and up to date information that I can use in my lessons. By being a subject geek, I am bringing a huge backlog of knowledge into the classroom. This huge backup of (mostly useless) knowledge allows me to be a better geography teacher than if I didn’t have it. By being a geek, I can understand the wide range of questions students might ask on a particular topic, I can see their questions from a different view, it can help me correct misconceptions if/when they arise.


– Ofsted, (2013), Unseen children: access and achievement 20 years on Evidence report, [online] Available at:

This is a re-blog post originally posted by Tom Highnett and published with kind permission.

The original post can be found here.

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