It is always risky to discuss something as complex as teaching and learning in terms of any sort of ‘model’. It is always reductive and probably wrong. However, at the moment I am finding it useful to think of classroom teaching working like this. (Click to enlarge)
Based on well-rehearsed principles*, this schematic might be a useful analytic tool for reflecting on planning, lessons and teaching over time, and as a focus for CPD.
Who is doing what in the classroom?
At a single glance, the schematic looks complicated, but it’s really not. Essentially, it maps the different kinds of agency at work in the classroom and how these are related in practice.
Pupils learn by encountering information, by thinking and by practising. This applies whether they are storing knowledge or developing ‘skills’. Whatever the degree of explicit instruction, pupils still have to do these things. That is their agency. In English – my subject – pupils mainly read, listen, talk and write, though not exclusively.
Meanwhile, teachers teach – through explanation, modelling, questioning and feedback. I do like the way that, in the schematic, pupil activity forms a sort of busy, motor-like centre. But this is held up by and tensioned within a strong, supportive cradle of teaching. Sometimes, these teacher ‘inputs’ are accelerants, added to already powerful pupil activity; more often, however, they are alchemical – turning to gold the base metal of what pupils can do on their own. (Apologies for the increasingly-mixed metaphors here.)
A holistic view
To me, it is important that the schematic is non-linear and balanced: there is no implied sequence and no implied hierarchy. Rather, the components are represented as interdependent parts of a holistic structure or system.
All the arrows in the diagram are important: none of these elements are separate from each other and often they overlap, intersect and combine in important ways. At times, they are indistinguishable.
Not a checklist; not a formula
The schematic is not a planning formula and it is certainly not an observation checklist. A lesson might be very successful even if only one or two elements are present. (In my subject, a perennial example is when a teacher simply reads aloud to children: the pupils are encountering a challenging text; the teacher – if they do it well – is modelling high-level meaning-making, just through the way they read. This simple combination can be very powerful.)
Simply, the model suggests two key lines of planning. First: what sort of encounters, thinking or practice will there be for pupils, and how can these be made as deep as possible? Then: what sort of explanation, modelling, feedback and/or questioning does that require from the teacher?
In coaching or reflection, the questions are reversed. Was there depth or challenge in pupils’ encounters, thinking, or practice? Why, or why not? And how did explanation, modelling, feedback and/or questioning impinge on this? (This is better than trying to guess how much ‘learning’ or ‘progress’ is taking place – things which cannot be directly observed and which can really only be meaningfully measured much later.)
Testing the structural integrity of teaching
The model can be used to test the structural integrity of a lesson or teaching sequence. Where is its overall structure strong? Where is it weaker? How might an element have been better deployed, or how might elements have worked better together?
It may be clear that a lesson or sequence has been weakened (perhaps fatally) because one or more of these elements is thin or absent. Pupils might have been busy practising, but with no effective modelling or with insufficient feedback to ensure that they are doing so at a high enough level or are avoiding misconceptions. A lack of strong follow-up questioning might mean that pupils are not thinking deeply about an encounter with a text. And so on.
Or it might be that the required elements are all there but aren’t arranged optimally. The lesson described in my post on folding feedback into learning provides a clear example of this, and of how simply it might be fixed.
It is also important to reflect on the interconnections between elements. How might an explanation have been made more interactive through questioning? How might feedback have been woven together with more effective modelling? How might pupil practice have involved deeper thinking? And so on.
The character or the anatomy of each ‘element’ in the model will vary according to subject, context, lesson-purpose and so on. However, the following questions are ones that have been important in the planning, coaching and reflecting that I have done when supporting teachers in schools. This is not meant to be a definitive or authoritative list; it needs evolving and improving.
- Are pupils encountering new knowledge or new experiences? Are they taking away new words and new ideas?
- Are these encounters appropriately spaced, appropriately repeated and appropriately incremented?
- Are pupils reading, hearing and viewing texts which challenge them?
- Are pupils focused and invested during these encounters?
- Are pupils required to think deeply, by questioning, by activities and by encounters with challenging ideas?
- Is pupils’ talk structured so that they are thinking deeply?
- Is pupils’ thinking being guided in planned ways, but also allowed to develop independently and in unexpected ways?
- Do pupils have opportunities to ‘think’ in a range of ways – imaginatively, analytically and so on?
- Are pupils practising retrieving knowledge, in structured and effective ways?
- Are pupils articulating knowledge and understandings, through talk or writing?
- Are pupils rehearsing ideas and skills at a high enough level?
- Is practice appropriately spaced, appropriately repeated and appropriately incremented?
- Is the teacher an expert presence?
- Is new knowledge being provided at every opportunity?
- Are concepts, facts and instructions made clear and accessible, with appropriate amounts of repetition?
- Are explanations authoritative and enthusiastic?
- Are explanations ambitious – pitched high, but also differentiated?
- Again, is the teacher an expert presence?
- Do pupils know and understand what they are trying to achieve and the processes that will get them there?
- Are pupils taken skilfully through worked examples?
- Do exemplars and demonstrations encode high expectations and high levels of challenge, while still suggesting attainability?
- Is thinking being modelled effectively, both incidentally and through worked examples? Are mental strategies made explicit for pupils? (Is there strong metacognition?)
- Are habits, attitudes and pleasures being usefully demonstrated?
- Is there a sense of shared endeavour generated in the classroom?
- Is pupils’ learning being fed by seeing others’ successes, experimentations and mistakes?
- Is there a classroom culture of curiosity and inquiry – a thirst to understand?
- Are teacher questions being asked in a genuine way, as part of a convincing dialogue?
- Is questioning (especially ‘follow-up’ questioning) making pupils think and reflect deeply?
- Does the teacher select from a repertoire of questioning strategies and techniques?
- Where appropriate, are questions used didactically, to steer pupils effectively towards understanding?
- Is questioning a key aspect of how feedback operates in the classroom?
- Are questions being used skilfully to assess pupils’ understanding and knowledge?
- Is there a culture in the classroom of seeking continual improvement?
- Is there shared critique, with pupils learning from each other’s work-in-progress?
- Are pupils constantly challenged to go further or to deepen their thinking, including through strong follow-up questioning?
- Do pupils have chances to rework, to develop and to refine their thinking, talk and writing, either immediately or after reflection?
- Are editing and redrafting properly valued and understood?
- Are misconceptions and weak formulations challenged and corrected as a matter of course?
- Does feedback communicate high expectations at all times?
* For example, this diagram from Making Every Lesson Count: Six principles to support great teaching and learning by Andy Tharby and Shaun Allison, is very well known.