Things which don’t work
Here a few things which I have been told we should do but which don’t, in my experience, work…
1 Employ group work
Group work doesn’t always work for three reasons. Firstly, it assumes that children are capable of sitting in a group and seriously discussing something with limited adult supervision (if there are, say, 28 children in groups of four the teacher cannot supervise seven groups simultaneously). Boys in particular do not generally want to do school work – it is something which has to be forced upon them by the personality of the teacher or by pressure. The learning output from group work is always limited for boys.
Secondly, in any group there is quite often one person who is prepared to have a stab at doing the work. As soon as that person is identified and takes a leading role, the rest of the group just copy her. It might be claimed that the great thing about group work is that children learn from each other, but they don’t….they learn to disengage and then to cheat.
Thirdly, in a group of four sitting in a square one pupil is facing the teacher, wherever she is standing, the rest are not. One pupil always has his back to the teacher. This makes control and communication much harder.
2 Have double desks
One consequence of the need to do group work is that schools buy double desks (two children sit side by side): it is easier to organise group work if you have double desks. One double desk is also cheaper than two single desks. It takes up less space, so classrooms can be smaller. But double desks allow children to see each other’s work so they permit copying (cheating). Many less able or lazy children are able to conceal their weakness by copying.
3 Teach skills
Of course skills are very important, such as the skill of writing analytical essay answers in history, with each paragraph making one point relevant to the essay title. But skills should not be taught in isolation because you can only deploy a skill if you have knowledge about a subject. You cannot write an analytical history essay unless you know something about the period and the more you know the more successful your analysis is likely to be. You cannot use ‘thinking skills’ well unless you have some basic knowledge to think about. This is why teachers need to place a great emphasis on subject knowledge; only when the subject knowledge has been grasped can the skills which are needed to make the most of that subject be deployed.
4 Use differentiation and individualised learning
OFSTED is very keen on differentiation. Teachers are encouraged to plan different types of work and different types of question for different pupils according to their analysis of a child’s ability (defined by key stage 1 and 2 tests or GCSE results) and special educational needs (nearly a quarter of boys in school are classified as having special educational needs). In a 20 minute snapshot of a lesson the OFSTED inspector expects to see evidence of differentiation.
The first problem with this approach is that it effectively prevents whole-class teaching. It is a throwback to the mixed ability teaching of the 1980s which most people now know does not work. Individualised learning – giving each pupil in a class of 25-30 their own programme of work – is often less effective than whole-class teaching.
The second problem is that differentiation generally implies that the teacher expects less of some pupils than others. But all the research into effective schools across the world shows that the distinguishing characteristic of the most successful school systems is a believe that EVERY child can do well if they try hard enough. Individualised learning and differentiation is one reason why the bottom 20% of boys in England do so badly – less is being expected of them.
Of course it is not sensible to offer whole-class teaching to a very mixed ability group – especially in a subject like maths. This is why setting by ability is so important. But once setting has been put in place, whole-class teaching backed by rigorous testing and retesting for those fail, is the most effective system. The key to successful teaching is high expectations of ALL pupils unconstrained by target grades.
5 Worksheets and handouts
Handouts are bits of photocopied paper with useful information on them. They are a lot cheaper than textbooks and teachers spend hours making them. But there are two problems with worksheets and handouts. Firstly, children are rarely capable of hole-punching them and keeping them in good order in a file. Handouts are soon lost. Secondly, children get the impression that if they have ‘good handouts’ they will do well. Handouts prevent pupil engagement with the subject. So handouts are less effective as a long-term resource than textbooks and, whatever method is used, pupils have to be forced to memorise what they have been taught and replicate it under exam (single desk) conditions.
6 Independent learning
OFSTED discourages teachers from talking too much. They prefer them to confine their instruction to 3 minutes in every 20 (some lessons are observed for 20 minutes). Well of course a long lecture can be dull and it is hard to maintain discipline if a class is bored. But in fact some of the best teachers are more than capable of delivering high-impact, motivating chalk-and-talk and more able and motivated children LEARN FASTER this way (as they do at university). Independent learning means working on your own. That is a good idea IF you are motivated and have the knowledge-base to work with – which many children don’t. Independent learning too often means going through worksheets and not learning very much.
Powerpoint presentations have their place but they suffer from common weaknesses. If every teacher uses them (and most do) the focus is on the screen and not the teacher – and this makes powerpoint dull. If the powerpoint is merely a summary of what the teacher is saying (as is often the case) then the pupil switches off and neither the teacher’s words nor the words on the screen sink in. The old system of writing on a board is both more creative and more engaging.