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Proven Teaching Techniques

By Alan Peters,

24 Jan 2020

The best classroom practitioners know what works, and what doesn’t; they are open to new ideas but have a store of proven teaching techniques that provide the bedrock of their work. These proven ways of working adapt and change over time, with new ideas (that actually succeed) replacing other methods that might be in the pedagogical relegation zone.  Nevertheless, they are the teaching techniques which make sure that outcomes for students are as good as they can be. Being a teacher means it is essential to have a tolerance for déjà vu.   Because, as sure as the bell for the end of a non-contact period comes quicker than the one for the end of a History lesson with 9 set ‘completely uninterested in the topic’, so what is all the rage one year will fall out of fashion within a couple and be back on the ‘must follow’ toolkit.

sent with trumpets and feathers from the latest incarnation of the DFE, after another ten. What are Proven Teaching Techniques? Put simply, this is something that works for that teacher.  In turn, something that works for the teacher is something that provides the strongest results for their pupils.  By definition, that means that the best teaching methods will vary from person to person, and from student age group to age group. But the suggestions below, taken from real teachers working across both primary and secondary age groups, and even middle school/prep school years, came up time and again. Start In An Organised Way The above seems too obvious to state, but which of us has not arrived late for a lesson, left vital resources in the back seat of the car or (I know it sounds impossible!) been a little less prepared for English with Year Seven than we should be?  And how many of us have allowed, now and again, for these criteria of disorganisation to become briefly the norm rather than the exception?  No need to put our hands up; we know who we are! The consensus among the teachers to whom I spoke was that it is hard to have a good lesson if it starts badly, but that making sure it starts right is much easier than the lecturers and the assessors might have us believe.
  • Know what it is you want to teach
  • Know the learners to whom the lesson is pitched
  • Already be in the classroom, ready to go, before the class arrives.
With these three in place, the chances are that the lesson will work.  Whether groups line up outside, stand behind their desks or sit down, bright and eager faces waiting to absorb the nuggets of wisdom to pass from your lips, is really down to the individual. Get Their Interest Again, it isn’t ground breakingly original, but capturing the enthusiasm of the class will help to make the lesson go well.

The most proven teaching techniques are the simplest.

However, since our piece is about proven teaching techniques, learning how to get the enthusiasm of the bundle of energy sitting in front of you is perhaps of more use than just stating the importance of the principle.  Here are some suggestions:
  • Have a subject specific challenge on the board for the class to make a start on as they come in.

    Ideally, this will be loosely connected with the topic in hand (perhaps a revision or recap exercise, or a task which will promote discussion into the lesson.)  For example, imagine a study of, say Macbeth; get the class to work in pairs to come up with the three most insignificant roles that they have come across in the play.  As they justify their selections, and hear the choices others, discussion can be directed towards the realms of the work which the teacher wishes to follow.
    • A small point – avoid competitive activities, for example, the first to come up with ten geographical words about rivers.

      Just make the task about listing the geographical terms.

      There are no winners and losers.

      Those who respond to competition will make the activity competitive anyway, and those who are turned off by this are more likely to remain engaged if they know the ultra-competitive class members are not going to be dominating the task.
  • Random words – go round the class getting the pupils to offer a one word summary of the previous lesson.

    Go around randomly, and don’t worry about getting a response from every pupil.  When a particularly relevant comment is made that fits with your teaching intention for the day, it can be time to move on.
    • Ban judgement comments; that way the expected comments of ‘boring’ etc will be avoided.
  • Cloze exercise – this is a short task which consists of a passage with words missed out, which the students complete.

    The best cloze exercises have regular omissions, such as every seventh word.
  • Chopped Up Passage – a bit of preparation needed here, but on the students’ desks are ten strips of paper which can be put together to make a passage.
  • Video Clip – a short piece of video to promote interest and use as a starting point.

    Have it ready as the class comes in.  Even, with tricky groups, have it playing.  That way, they will be engaged as they sit down.  (In theory, at least).
  • All of the above make for good starters, and teachers also develop plenty of their own over time.

    Perhaps the most important points are:
    • Use the activities often enough for pupils to know quickly how they work…
    • But vary them as well.

      That will help to sustain freshness.
Pace Probably the most effective teaching technique, an absolutely proven way of delivering a successful lesson, is to ensure pace.  That means as little teacher talk as possible, and as much pupil activity. Get their attention, explain the task and get them going…this simple maxim underpins the work of the most effective teachers. Experienced teachers know that in time, pacing a lesson becomes second nature, but writing a checklist (a flexible one) can help to make sure that we do not fall into the trap of using our own voices for too long, or get drawn into time wasting distractions or repeated explanations.  Students are masters of equivocation. Stop To Direct – But Not Too Often There should be no hard and fast rule to the amount of time given to the different elements of a lesson, everything should depend on the individual lesson and the individual class.  However, as a very rough guide, imagine the following for a one hour lesson:
  • Five Minutes – getting their attention
  • Five Minutes – explaining the task
  • Forty minutes – doing the task
  • Five minutes – plenary
  • Five minutes – entertainment (see below)
In that forty minutes of ‘work’ time, make sure that the class is stopped occasionally – even with a task such as a ‘big write’ - but no more than three or four times.  The stopping creates the opportunity for pupils to reflect on their work, ask questions and discuss with their peers, but do it to often and the flow of work is interrupted. Talking Is Better Than Writing/Discussing Is Better Than Marking Some teachers – they have often risen, like sour cream, to the top – follow the maxim that good teaching is measured by the amount of work in a book.  While there is some value in the act of writing to clarify thinking and practise new techniques, discussion is a much more effective way of learning. The little ‘workshop’ of professionals I got together for this piece included an early years teacher (newish to the profession) an experienced primary school teacher; a teacher most used to working with sixth formers, a secondary GCSE sports teacher and a general subjects teacher to 9-13 year olds.  Interestingly, to a person, they advocated the power of discussion before starting to ‘work’, during work and after it.  Here, of course, the four letter word is used advisedly; while parents, pupils, senior leaders and OFSTED inspectors frequently mistake mindless, repetitive writing for learning, we know better! Discussion based teaching techniques can take many forms:
  • Class discussion – but keep them short and operate a ‘no hands’ policy, to ensure that everybody gets a go.
  • Talk partners or, as I used to call it, working in pairs
  • Formal group discussions.

    Here, roles within the group are pre-determined.
  • Informal discussions around the table.
  • Individual talking with the teacher
  • Group talking with the teacher
Be Everybody’s Absolutely Most Favourite Teacher Not really, of course.  Students want teachers that they respect rather than those who want to impress or be their friends.  But there is absolutely nothing wrong with delivering lessons that are fun. The old adage that a successful lesson is one where the students talk about the work as they leave has a lot to be said for it.

That is more likely to happen if the students have enjoyed the last hour.  But how to ensure this?  Take advantage of the short memory span of today’s young generation and remember that everyone, from five to a hundred and five loves a game or a quiz. So end the lesson with one.

 As we said above.  It doesn’t have to be competitive.

It is a method that really helps students to anticipate their studies with enthusiasm, and if that can be ensured, half the challenge of teaching is done.  Sometimes, these games or quizzes can be based on the topic studied in class.  But don’t worry about sometimes just running something that is fun. To recap; a proven teaching technique is one that works for you and therefore your students; once you have a collection of methods that succeed, trust yourself and adhere to them.  Certainly, try out new ideas, be open to contemporary suggestions, but also don’t be afraid stick to what you know will work.

After all, dinosaurs might be extinct, but they still hold deep fascination for us and just about everybody would like to see them back! Trust yourself to follow those proven teaching techniques which delivers results.  It is your students that matter most, not the educationalists.