Inspired by this blog by @teacherhead to reflect on my own feedback following observed lessons, I’ve been analysing past observation reports to identify the top 5 strengths identified, plus top 5 development points. I also have the privilege of observing teachers right across the FE curriculum from Entry level to level 7, including adult recreational classes, 14-16 provision and everything in between.
Areas of strength tend to comprise the following essential elements: teacher subject knowledge; warm relationships with learners; effective planning; support for individuals and preparing learners for the world of work.
With a little more detail included, here is a “top 5” of the action points I find myself giving most often to those I observe.
1. The learning environment
Seating plans are a relatively new concept in FE, no doubt driven by the expectations of Ofsted inspectors, who may have a background in school inspections. Learner groupings and pairings aside, it’s often easy to overlook the impact of room layout on the success of a lesson, particularly when sessions are timetabled back to back, rooms are shared and lessons are short. The key word here is inclusion. Can all your learners see/hear each other? Are they seated alone or do you need to move them closer to their peers to make pair and small group work easy to manage? Would it benefit them to move out of their “comfort zone” and work with someone different? Can you move around easily to support learners and check work? Working with tables in rows may remind learners of negative experiences at school. A more inclusive layout with tables in pods or a horseshoe will immediately communicate to the learners the levels of participation expected. Five minutes faff at the start of the lesson, whilst you arrange the furniture to suit the lesson planned, will pay huge dividends in terms of ensuring a productive learning environment.
2. Beginnings and Endings
A starter activity is essential in preparing learners for learning, creating an opportunity to review prior knowledge and/or skills and rewarding learners for punctuality whilst acting as a deterrent for lateness. Having an activity prepared for learners to complete on arrival also provides time for you as the teacher to orientate yourself, particularly if rushing straight from another lesson, as well as enabling you to challenge latecomers without disturbing the other learners. Vocabulary box activities require minimal preparation and provide learners with a valuable recap, incorporating the development of academic language whilst building positive group dynamics. Having 5 key questions ready on the whiteboard can also cement learning and are most effective if they include e.g. 3 from the previous lesson, 1 from the previous week and 1 from longer ago. A stimulating starter can also help to motivate learners, helping them to “buy in” to the learning objectives if these are shared afterwards.
Likewise a solid plenary will provide time to reflect on and consolidate learning at the end of a lesson, allowing you and your learners to gauge how much progress has been made. This saves everyone from the sometimes painful “revisiting of learning objectives” stage, with the teacher, in effect, telling the learners what they should have learned. This seems to be a feature of many an observed lesson, but can be happily omitted with the onus put on the learners to actively review and reflect.
Even more experienced teachers can fall into patterns of unproductive questioning. Again, the key word here is inclusion. Most questioning falls into one of two camps: The teacher asks the question and volunteers answer or the teacher asks the question and nominates one learner to answer. Both have huge drawbacks, with learners being given the option as to whether they participate at one end of the scale and learners being put on the spot at the other. The biggest problem here is that these approaches severely limit the amount of information gathered by the teacher as well as minimising opportunities for peer learning.
An blend of the well-known “Agree, Build, Challenge” and Geoff Petty’s pose, pause, pounce, bounce models, is Paul Moss’s AWCE routine, with multiple learners nominated to respond before the correct answer is validated. This is a highly effective assessment method and has the added benefit of developing academic language, as learners really have to listen and respond to each other’s answers carefully.
4. Behaviour management
Non-confrontational behaviour management techniques have boosted my own confidence in challenging learners enormously. “BODOR” is an approach which I learnt as a teacher educator from three trainee teachers, working in Outdoor Education. The approach runs as follows:
5. Note taking
Most learners are poor note-takers. They have often never been taught how to take notes, so end up writing everything down, writing nothing down, or taking a photo of the board, which they will probably never look at again.
The Cornell Method is summarised perfectly here and provides learners with a simple framework which they can use across their study programme. The magic happens where they have to summarise their notes in their own words, thus deepening their learning there and then, thus increasing the likelihood of recall later on. This summary task also provides teachers with an instant plenary task (see 1 above), as well as developing writing skills, particularly if these are then read (and corrected) by peers.