08 June 2017
The narrative of an outstanding lesson
One of my favourite novels is One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. It has this opening sentence:
“Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.”
For me, that first sentence arouses interest immediately: it gives information but makes the reader want to know more; it points the reader towards a distant, tantalising point in the future. As a teacher – and, more specifically, as a teacher of English Literature – it strikes me that the design and effect of a successful lesson have much in common with the design and effect of a successful novel. What does a good novel do? It engages and sustains interest from an arresting opening to a thought-provoking conclusion; it challenges the reader; it determines and structures thought-processes. So, the techniques used in lesson construction by an effective teacher are similar to those employed by a talented writer.
A good writer arouses curiosity through a precise foregrounding of information; a good writer
provides references back to prior information in order to provide context and to suggest meanings and ideas; a good writer structures information carefully because she or he has a sophisticated understanding of the needs of the reader. A good writer creates drama from details. And just as reading is a creative, interactive process so too should lesson participation be for the students. Pedagogical research emphasises consistently the importance of students’ active participation in lessons rather than them being passive recipients of information provided didactically. In the UK, the body governing inspections of schools (Ofsted), evaluated extensive records from lesson observations to determine the key features of lessons deemed to be ‘outstanding’ (the highest grade awarded). Ofsted concluded that a determining feature of outstanding learning experiences – unsurprisingly – is that students are fully immersed and curious. In addition, a key finding was that lessons judged to be ‘outstanding’ typically have a structure that enables deep learning and progress.
Over the last two weeks, I have observed Secondary colleagues teaching their lessons. In doing so, I have been very interested in the ways in which teachers design lessons that enable structured learning and expansive thinking. I have noted the ways in which engaging starter activities refresh prior learning or prepare for future learning (in the way that an absorbing opening to a novel would introduce prominent thematic elements). I have considered the techniques used by teachers to sustain the interest of learners. I have noted how transitional elements of lessons are used to link, develop and advance learning. I have evaluated the ways in which lesson endings are used to provoke curiosity and foreground new episodes in learning. It is heartening to report that I have observed some very effective features of lessons: exhilarating starter activities in PE; the use of interactive ICT to describe a process in Chemistry; the active experimentation with parts of complex sentences to develop confidence and versatility in English.
A lesson structure endorsed by Ofsted is Alastair Smith’s ‘Accelerated Learning Cycle’. When studying this lesson process, the importance of objective-led guidance of active learners is clear.
The 4-phase Accelerated Learning Cycle
Connection phase: provides context for learning; clarifies prior learning with links to the present lesson; sets objectives for the present lesson and future lessons.
Demonstration phase: enables understanding in an interactive way, through strategies such as: modelling; whole-class discussion of the skill to be explored; AfL; dialogue with students.
Activation phase: deepens the learning through strategies such as: further investigative work; application of new knowledge; directed group-work.
Consolidation stage: allows reflection, review, metacognition.
Over the remaining weeks of this school year, I will continue to encourage reflection upon the structural features and details of lessons so that as a learning community we can better understand how to create lesson narratives that spark curiosity, encourage immersion, make learning memorable.