The Power of Model Lessons | Conor Heaven | Blog | TT Education

Conor Heaven

School Improvement Partner

  • Experienced Middle Leader and Teacher
  • Specialises in Primary Curriculum and Middle Leadership training

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Marginal Gains: The power of lesson observation

“Peer observation is a powerful tool for disseminating good practice throughout an experienced staff. It is also an important way of helping less experienced teachers both to improve their teaching skills and to absorb the shared values of the institution.[1]

Within many schools, there will be a variation in how staff are teaching. Often it can come down to experience, confidence, strategies and understanding. The best tool for closing this gap? Observing excellent practice. At any level of experience, you need to see it, understand why and how it works, observe a range of excellent strategies and play with and develop them in your own classroom. This is why model lessons are one of TT Education’s key school improvement strategies.

Mr Brown was the first teacher I ever observed; yet he was not my colleague. At seven years old, I distinctly remember feeling inspired by his manner, expectations, kindness and knowledge; being a child in his class still impacts on my practice today. I can vividly recall my feeling of embarrassment when this inspirational figure told my mother that “if he really concentrated, he could do so much better”. Perhaps I should have focused more on my work and less on his teaching style!

Fast-forward to when I entered the world of teacher training: I thought being like Roald Dahl’s lovely, gentle Miss Honey would be enough to ignite a passion for learning. Yet I vividly remember being incredibly impressed (and suitably concerned about my own aptitude) during my first teaching practice. As an NQT, I watched a teacher deliver the most incredible lesson in which pupils were investigating the need to measure in millimetres. Towards the end, the class co-created success criteria based on their findings and took equipment with them at playtime; the discussions around the suitability of different unit measurements were incredible.

I remember feeling suitably inspired to try some of these techniques, but my recreation of the above lesson could be called nothing but frustratingly chaotic. Following this, it became increasingly clear to me that I needed to understand the rationale behind the success of the techniques I had observed. Why did they work for that teacher and not for me? From NQT, to middle leader, to being observed teaching maths for a group of subject leaders, I would actively engage in observing others. I would watch, I would feel inspired, I would ask questions to find out why they used certain techniques and what impact those techniques had and then I would use this information to experiment with these strategies in my own classroom. I became the ultimate magpie, seeking for the marginal gains (think British Cycling) that would lead to long-term improvement.

Where has this left me now? Well, I am extremely privileged to be able to provide model lessons in classrooms all around the country. I always ensure that I have some focused discussion time with teachers before and after the model lessons. First, we will discuss the subject objectives the pupils are aiming towards. More importantly, we also discuss the focused teaching skills teachers themselves wish to develop, for example, high challenge and expectations for all groups of pupils. We’ll consider different ways of achieving these and why and how the techniques we discuss will work.

At TT Education, many of our Consultancy Packages include model lessons tohatdemonstrate a range of effective strategies currently being used in outstanding practice [3]. However, the discussion afterwards is crucial to ensure staff feel confident in how and why it works with their pupils and how it would fit with their own practice. The best success is when staff begin to play and experiment with new techniques. I absolutely love revisiting schools and participating in discussions driven by the teachers, telling me about how they have refined and improved strategies for themselves!

Top tips for teachers:

  • Go and observe. The more lessons you watch, the more skills, styles and practice you will get to experience. Reflect on what you see – why did they do that? Could I do that? What would I need to try it?
  • Talk to those you observe. By asking questions, you can find out the rationale behind the skills and actions you see. Ask why, delve deeper and develop your understanding behind the actions.
  • Experiment in your own environment. Try things out, adapting strategies to your own pupils and your own practice. Remember: it is only through trying them out, discussing, refining and improving new skills that we can find those marginal gains.

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