I’ve been super lucky to experience a big mix of education systems in various capacities. I currently work in education research in Argentina, and I have seen effective teaching in world-class school labs, as well as in classrooms which didn’t have reliable electricity. After experiencing education systems in the UK, USA, Belgium, Italy, China, India and Tanzania, I have come to the conclusion that meaningful learning can, does and should take place regardless of what the classroom looks like. Here are the principles I hold dear.

1. Acronyms aside, great lessons matter

As much as ICT, AfL, FSM, SEN, MTG and all those other acronyms should be taken seriously, here’s what I think: good teaching and good lessons, where students learn and love learning, doesn’t need a lot.

The way I see it, a good lesson starts with three central concepts:

  • A really clear idea about what you want your students to learn, with specific thought given to the skills you want them to develop as a result of learning that content.
  • An understanding of how students learn, and how to use questioning to understand what students know now, and where they need to go next.
  • Critical selection in terms of why you have chosen a specific activity as a means to a specific learning objective.

Now, I´m not saying those three things are easy, but they are teachable and, with practice and critical reflection, totally achievable.

2. Challenge and build pupils’ knowledge

Leaving aside the what and the why for now, in my experience an understanding of how students learn is really important for effective student-centred learning. You can go into Vygotsky or read forever about Constructivism, but here´s my take: students know stuff, much of which will be useful, although some of it won´t be (and may even be incorrect) — the teacher’s job is to build upon prior knowledge to be able to construct new understanding. The way that teachers can understand what students already know, and what they don´t know yet, is through good questioning.

3. Ask good questions

Asking good questions is absolutely central to good teaching. Forget about Blooms, Martens or open / closed, what is fundamental is the practice of using questions to understand what your students know now, and how you can harness their current knowledge to move them forward. Good questioning is hard, but without it teachers are flying blind, unaware of what their students are understanding as the lesson progresses.

Here´s the best bit though: asking questions is 100% free. It doesn’t need a computer, or special equipment, or even extra lesson time. All it takes is training, practice, listening and reflection. Exercises such as asking teachers to plan the central questions that will assess, guide, probe and stretch students in advance can have huge, positive impacts in teacher practice. Simple reflection exercises, such as asking teachers to record or jot down student responses and revisit them, suggesting how their interactions with students could have been improved, are simple, effective and do not require special resources.

Pupils of Mulagi primary school during a one day training, children were learning how to plant trees and conserve the environment.

4. Make learning lifeworthy

Going back to the what am I teaching and why am I teaching it this particular way, I like the idea coined by David Perkins, who suggests making learning “lifeworthy”. This idea basically means that teachers should choose topics and learning activities based around ideas and skills that are likely to matter in the lives of the students they are teaching. It means teaching in a way that never invites the question “What do I need to know that for?” or “When am I ever going to need that in my life?”. It doesn’t have to mean entirely overhauling the national curriculum — although I wouldn’t complain — but it does mean re-contextualising concepts in interdisciplinary, complex situations that mimic real life more closely. It means actually using knowledge to solve problems, think critically and develop those soft skills we always go on about.

5. Effective teaching is about meaningful stuff

So, in conclusion, effective teaching as I see it starts by teaching meaningful content and using students´ prior knowledge as a springboard from which to build new, relevant understanding. It doesn’t need fancy equipment. In Uganda this summer I´m hoping that our LRTT Fellowship can go some way towards sharing this viewpoint.

Written by Ines Taylor

LRTT Team Leader, Uganda & Belize

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