Perhaps I can start by mentioning two teachers to you that I remember from Mossbourne, my previous school. There are many good teachers there. I just want to mention two of them as a way of leading into this debate. One is an English teacher. She’s still teaching there. She’s in her late twenties. She’s an absolutely outstanding Advanced Skills Teacher and I remember observing lots of her lessons but I’ll mention just one of them. One of them was a lesson on the Merchant of Venice and she was teaching incredibly well. She had part of the class reciting Portia’s speech; you know the quality of mercy. They were all doing that; this is a middle ability class. She had the Al Pacino film on the touchscreen behind her. She had a couple of youngsters dressed in Tudor garb and it was just one of those brilliant lessons that you see and it was full of energy; it was full of pace and she was moving around between the different groups doing different things.
That was one teacher; one lesson. The second lesson, or the second teacher I remember, was somebody in his late fifties. He was the head of maths. He was a very traditional teacher. He taught in a pretty didactic way, but the kids loved him across the ability range. He knew how to teach maths. You know what a great maths teacher does? Builds block by block to ensure that youngsters don’t move on until they understand the ground rules. He would spend many, many hours in the evening every night preparing powerpoints for himself and for the staff in his department and he would disseminate good practice, in terms of how to use powerpoints, to other people in his department and beyond his department to other schools in Hackney and beyond. And he produced absolutely fantastic results although some people would say he was a very didactic teacher. So these two people were very different teachers but incredibly successful and the reason why they were successful was because they developed a style of teaching with which they were comfortable, not complacent, but with which they were comfortable and which they knew worked. It worked because children enjoyed their lessons; were engaged; were focused; learnt a great deal and made real progress.
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For me a good lesson is about what works. A good lesson is about what works. So this is a plea, this evening, for pragmatism not ideology in the way we judge the quality of teaching. I am reminded about Blair’s words in relation to that sterile debate on the academy programme and structural reform. He said: “what works is what’s good”. What works is what’s good and I have the same view in terms of teaching. We, and in that word “we” I include OFSTED, should be wary of trying to prescribe a particular style of teaching, whether it be a three part lesson; an insistence that there should be a balance between teacher led activities and independent learning, or that the lesson should start with aims and objectives with a plenary at the end and so on and so forth. We should be wary of too much prescription. In my experience a formulaic approach pushed out by a school or rigidly prescribed in an inspection evaluation schedule traps too many teachers into a stultifying and stifling mould which doesn’t demand that they use their imagination, initiative and common sense. Too much direction is as bad as too little. Both teachers I’ve mentioned to you understood this but also understood that there were other things they had to do.