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|Are there words to describe the best teaching?
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Think back for a moment. Bring into your mind the very best teacher you know, have ever known or ever been taught by. Now think of a few words that sum up why you chose them. If you use words such as 'inspiring', 'enthusiastic', 'caring', 'made it come alive', or 'passionate about the subject' you will not be alone. Having asked many teachers this same question the answers are spookily consistent. Perhaps unsurprisingly, phrases like 'well planned lessons', 'ran a good plenary' or 'set interesting homework' are thinner on the ground.
When we think of the teachers that have an impact on us as learners - the ones we remember as being motivating or even inspiring - more often than not we refer to personal qualities and the way they communicated the subject more than the subject itself. Even the Prime Minister agrees: "At school we all knew that the one thing that made a difference was if the teacher felt personal enthusiasm for their subject" (Tony Blair, March 2006). Correspondents to the TES 'My Best Teacher' usually write about the personality much more than the lessons.
So what, exactly, do 'inspiring' teachers look like when they teach? If we knew whether we are even close to 'enthusiastic' in the eyes of the pupils it would help.
Describing what makes great teaching is not easy. Prof. David Hopkins from London's Institute of Education reportedly referred to it as a 'mystical, medieval craft' and that we lack the terminology to describe best practice ('Those who can teach - but how?' TES 10 June 2005). The current OfSTED guidance, no less, doesn't define it either - but instead it focuses on the outcomes of the teaching (i.e. the learning). This may be right for inspection but doesn't give us words to discuss the exact behaviour of teachers in 'outstanding' lessons.
Despite these difficulties, there is the often quoted and simple fact that many of us seem to 'know a good teacher when we see one'. Pupils and teachers are expert in rapidly 'thin-slicing' the hundreds of verbal and non-verbal messages they receive, and then judging accordingly. As first impressions are more often upheld than overturned, these judgements allow us to recognise good teaching quickly, even when we can't put it into words. This may be why it appears 'mystical' or why OfSTED don't define it - it all seems to happen too fast to analyse. Instead, discussions about teaching quality revolve around lesson plans, learning resources, subject knowledge, learning objectives and so on. We have the words to describe these, and sure enough, they do make for good lessons. They just don't make for inspiring ones - not without something else.
Teaching involves performance, and performance requires showmanship - how we convey the subject and ourselves in the best way; and how we move and talk to influence others. Other professional communicators and those who rely on good relationships (for example, those in business management, acting, sales, counselling, politics and so on) may specifically work on these skills as part of professional development. For teaching, themes like in-class communication (verbal and non-verbal) usually get a mention under behaviour management, or in some academic studies, but it is not given anything like the priority it deserves.
Perhaps the problem is that precisely because the way we communicate is personal and difficult to explain, we don't find it easy to bring it up with colleagues for fear of being misunderstood. In my case, a courageous colleague happened to mention how I could smile more; that I could bring the learners physically nearer in lessons; how I might vary the emphasis as well as the words; that I should consider sitting or squatting at the learner's level when speaking with individuals (no matter what age) etc. These examples may seem simplistic - almost trivial - but they can make all the difference. By chance, I was being helped to take the first steps in conveying interest and enthusiasm more effectively. It shouldn't be left to chance. The profession needs to talk more - and in more specific terms - about teachers' communication; self-awareness and methods to raise it; how we manage our behaviour as much as that of the pupils; and how best we adapt our personalities for the purposes of the job.
So when you want to discuss how a colleague carries off a particular activity - make sure you are personal and specific. It'll be awkward at first because we're human - and it could be as much about relationships or how much they smile, as about which worksheet they use. When the profession does this systematically, we may start to find the words we really need.
David Shakespeare is a consultant working with teachers, schools and other learning and education organisations.
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