Teacher helping students with schoolwork in school classroom. Horizontally framed shot.
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My last two articles introduced ideas to help schools consider how well they prepare students for rapidly changing and unpredictable futures. I explored the need to shift the pedagogical status quo by thinking about how we teach students in light of what their futures might hold. By way of example, I questioned the wisdom of spending so many hours perfecting children’s handwriting now that it bears so little relevance to lifestyles in many parts of the world. And I suggested that great schools have done their futures planning and are now making the shift from ‘learning about’ to ‘learning how and to’, and I asserted that ‘skill-free lessons are not lessons for the future at all’.

I’m often asked what an inspector looks for when visiting a lesson. Of course, regarding students’ skills, this should be similar to when school leaders evaluate lessons. We remember visiting lessons which ‘wowed’ us with the vibrancy, apparent spontaneity and total absorption of students in their learning. I can still picture such lessons going back over decades and they all had one thing in common – ‘the learning space’. This isn’t a physical space, but rather the cognitive space a lesson opens up so that students can develop skills themselves. This is when they develop, apply and consolidate the wide range of core, learning and thinking skills, are creative and innovative, and learn by trial and error. Some teachers feel that they lose control when making this space for students. Indeed, it does mean losing lock-step, textbook-driven control because the teacher takes full responsibility of planning for much more than knowledge transfer. It’s about planning flexible lessons that give students the space to learn at their own pace through individual ownership and responsibility for their own learning, and the scope to learn collaboratively. These approaches celebrate ‘getting things wrong’, knowing that this leads to truly effective learning. So, how do we recognise when the ‘learning space’ is live? Let’s start by reflecting on a few questions.

  1. Mastery of core skills, thinking and learning skills including communication, creativity, ICT, change adeptness and self-drive, stems from regular practice across the curriculum. How effectively have we mapped these skills across the curriculum, and how well do our self-evaluation approaches, particularly lesson observations, evaluate these skills?
  2. Many core, learning and thinking skills, capabilities and dispositions are naturally visible. Can we see from a teacher’s planning and assessment which ones are being promoted in the lesson and are they visible in students’ learning?
  3. Effective teaching requires teachers’ own mastery of these skills, including the use of effective questioning which makes students think and hypothesise, and gives them the scope to discuss with peers before responding. Can we see this effective questioning in action?
  4. Less effective teaching crowds the learning space and gives students little room to think and develop skills. For example, a teacher might ask students to colour-in half a pizza to show they understand fractions. In this case, the teacher has used thinking skills to devise the solution. With a subtle but significant change in mindset, the same task could require students to devise the solution for themselves, simply by inviting them to create an original way of showing they understand the concept of fractions. Students would then have to use thinking skills themselves, rather than relying on the teacher having done the thinking for them.
  5. All too often our assessment systems measure the things that are easily measurable rather than the things that really matter. If skills really matter, how confident are we that our assessment approaches measure students’ progress and mastery of them? But growth in skills takes time. Do our assessment approaches recognise that, or do we still expect, unnecessarily, to measure micro steps in every lesson?

By: Graham Norris