What makes an outstanding lesson?

Any opportunity to critically reflect on my practice as a teacher is always welcome, and today I was fortunate enough to attend a seminar reflecting on what outstanding teaching looks like, led by the music teacher who taught me as a teenager. My own music teachers were pivotal in shaping my career choice and fostering my own love of music. Now I’m a teacher I feel that I too must ensure my teaching inspires all to engage with music making.

How do we know we’ve been effective as a teacher? Our aims have been achieved? Simple, right? Ensuring all pupils succeed is the challenge, and they all need not be striving for the same goal so this success might not look the same for everyone. Success need not be about striving to grasp something difficult, as difficult is not the same for everyone.  As teachers we need to be wary of making decisions about what difficult is. An interesting nugget that struck me as essential for music teachers was avoiding setting goals that place too much of a ceiling on learning. As musicians we often comment on the difficulty of certain things (irregular metres, complex rhythms) and introducing new material with the prefix “this is difficult” or “you’ll struggle with this” ends up being a self-fulfilling prophecy. We need to be brave as music teachers to take risks, and not limit the potential learning of our pupils by making assumptions about what they can and can’t do. I’m certainly going to try more Ligeti…

Another nugget that closed the morning was reflecting on the pressures we feel as teachers to ensure pupils succeed. We are held accountable for the exam performance of our pupils: to an extent of course we are. Ensuring even the brightest of pupils are challenged and stretched is our role. If we are asked “What are you going to do, to ensure that this pupil gets the top grade?” we can rightfully answer “what is the pupil going to do to ensure they achieve the top grade?”. We have a great deal of influence as a teacher but pupils/parents need to recognise that their role is pivotal and not one that can be absconded entirely. Conversely I am passionate that outstanding teaching leads to outstanding learning. We might feel that the very bright pupils will succeed with even the mediocre of teaching, yet think way these bright pupils could achieve if they received teaching that challenged, inspired and stretched them to go beyond their abilities, regardless of how well their current abilities lead to the highest grades in public examinations.

Outstanding teaching goes hand in hand with outstanding learning. In fact the latter is the result of the former. What outstanding teaching looks like will perhaps vary from teacher to teacher, but I think it will see the pupil treated with respect, their success enabled through careful feedback and praise and a teacher that communicates an authority and love for their subject that even the least willing of pupil cannot ignore. Music needs teaching of outstanding quality if we are to continue to justify its essential role in the national curriculum. Poor teaching does nothing to stabilise its position but draws it in to question further. Outstanding teaching is not about being an outstanding musician (whatever that might look like!), though strong musicianship (which is not to be confused with musical training) are essential to develop such skills in others. The best teachers always have the bigger picture in mind, can see where the pupils have come from and can see where they are going and where they could go next. They command their subject yet know what they don’t know, and where to find the answers. Strong teachers keep the pace of learning high throughout, engaging pupils actively in the learning process so the pupils feel a sense of ownership in what they are doing. Most importantly the best teachers can say why they are teaching something and communicate this with such ease to their class that every pupil in the room can tell you why they are doing a particularly activity.

There can never be a formula for an outstanding lesson. Being brave enough to deviate from a plan when pupils dictate a new and interesting path requires experience, but it soon makes one realise that learning can be that more powerful when pupils are engaged enough to take charge. The best learning comes from when pupils can explain things to each other; literally teach each other. If we can arm our pupils so they become their own best teachers, we have done an outstanding job.

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