Teaching Unleashed

Previous posts HERE and HERE reflected on the culture I encountered on a recent visit to Dixons Trinity Academy in Bradford.  In the second post I mentioned how Dixons rejects the old adage that “if you get teaching right, everything else will follow” by establishing a rich motivational culture which binds students to the school’s mission: “The academy ensured that ALL students succeeded at university, thrived in a top job and had a great life.”  This helps create compliance which in turn enables teachers to teach.

There is no single preferred method of teaching on display at Dixons Trinity, but each lesson is built around 3 core features:

  1. Intelligent sequencing
  2. Highly tailored learning activities
  3. Effective formative assessment

I think that a shared understanding of common features of great teaching is an essential starting point for a whole-school teaching and learning strategy.  I love the ‘tight but loose’ framework suggested by Allison and Tharby in their wonderful ‘Making Every Lesson Count’ (summary HERE).  The 6 principles they suggest are: challenge, explanation, modelling, deliberate practice, questioning and feedback.  In ‘The Confident Teacher’ Alex Quigley suggests a similar set of principles: explanations, questioning, feedback, modelling, memory and meta-cognition.  What I love about these frameworks is that they are tight enough to promote a shared language and provide a structure on which you can hang your CPD and coaching, yet loose enough to be adapted by individual departments and teachers.

Modelling, for example, looks incredibly different in drama compared to maths, PE, DT or English, but in every subject it’s essential that students get to see what excellent work looks like.

The second point about teaching and learning that struck me at Dixons was that every member of staff (including non-teaching staff) receives 15 minutes of coaching each week from their line manager. The coaching focuses on specific elements of teaching and includes time for practice.  As Bambrick-Santoyo argues in Leverage Leadership, incremental classroom coaching can easily be overlooked by school leaders – he suggests that most principals spend half their time on admin and only 6% of their time on classroom instruction.  Ensuring that every teacher receives regular coaching and feedback strikes me as one of the most important things that a school leader can do.

Perhaps one way in which Dixons has made time for this coaching is by ensuring that no teacher teaches more than 21 lessons per week (out of 30).  The timetable includes a couple of other quirks that I think are worth exploring.  Students receive large group lessons each week in English and Maths, delivered by experienced subject specialists in the school’s lecture theatre.  We didn’t see any of this in action on our visit, but I can see the benefit of every student receiving the same high-quality instruction once a week, and then receiving more personalised support in their usual lessons.  Students in Year 10 also have timetabled ‘Prep’ lessons in which they do individual study – a halfway house between teacher-led lessons and homework, and a reflection of the growing recognition in our profession that we need to move away from spoon-fed intervention by providing students with the space and supervision to work hard on their own.

Finally, students at Dixons Trinity are issued with “100% sheets” in all of their subjects.  These sheets contain all of the essential knowledge that students are expected to memorise and retain as they progress through the curriculum.  Students self-quiz themselves on this knowledge every day.  I’m 100% sold on the power of these sheets.  It’s incredibly reassuring for students to receive all the knowledge they need to gain at the outset of their course.  It serves as a revision guide at the end of the course, but also as a reference for students to turn to from lesson to lesson.  It also ensures consistency between classes – no matter which teacher you have, you will work through the same content and have access to the same resources.

It’s worth noting that the these 100% sheets, the timetabled Prep lessons and the large group teaching all rely on high levels of motivation from students.  That’s why I agree with the Dixons team that a strong school culture can unleash great teaching and learning, not the other way round.