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It Isn’t What You Teach

When some of the best practice you've seen come from some of the poorest communities you work with. Insights and wisdom from Associate Will Ryan.

I have had the privilege of spending all my life working in and working with all sorts of schools, observing some of the most wonderful practice.

And often, the best practice I have seen was in the classrooms of some of our poorest communities.

Asked to sum up what makes for effective teaching and learning, I suggest the following eight factors as, at least, a great starting point:

        1. Childhood is celebrated and learning is planned in a child friendly way.
        2. Teachers use a ‘ripple’ model of focused, rich and vivid learning experiences.
        3. Learning often takes place outdoors and especially within the locality.
        4. There are opportunities to learn both practically and through the senses.
        5. Children communicate and express their learning in a variety of forms.
        6. A curriculum for the twenty first century exists.
        7. A love of books and stories is promoted.
        8. Positivity abounds within a culture of high expectations.

With Ofsted finally catching up (perhaps) with what good schools have been doing all along — having their own rationale for their curriculum based around what it is intended to do, how it will be implemented and what the impact will be — now’s a good time to let me take you through these eight attributes of great teaching and learning in a little more detail.

1. Childhood is celebrated and learning is planned in a child friendly way.

Question: Are the teachers in your school prepared to take an unusual idea and run with it believing it might stimulate the imagination and lead to deeper learning?

Childhood should be a safe and magical time where children soak up learning on a daily basis. If this involves them using imagination and curiosity it will be even better.

However, for some youngsters the opportunities for a fulfilling childhood are limited. I have visited schools in some of our poorest postcodes. I have encountered children who lived in crowded terraced houses where sleeping rotas exist to ensure that everybody had an appropriate share of the available beds. There were families where the parents held down multiple jobs in order to make ends meet, sometimes leaving the oldest child as the carer for the younger siblings.

In one school, the children from families who had been victims of child sexual exploitation sat side by side with children from families of the perpetrators.

It is the duty of all schools to provide exciting learning opportunities even though the challenges for the teachers in many communities are intense. However, if schools and teachers don’t make the hairs tingle for our five, seven or nine years old, then who will?

2. Teachers use a ‘ripple’ model of focused, rich and vivid learning experiences.

Question: How often do teachers create evocative learning opportunities that immediately create a desire to learn and excel?

Imagine a dropping a stone into a pond. There is a high impact sudden splash and then a series of ripples, spreading outwards. This is precisely the technique a skilled teacher uses in the classroom.

The practitioner creates high impact at the outset through developing a rich and focused learning opportunity that immediately engages the hearts and minds of pupils.

This is the splash.

The teacher then skilfully builds on its impact and plans activities that will lead to deep learning.

This is the first ripple.

The children then move on to complete real, interesting, and challenging studies.

This is the third ripple.

The teacher then moves on to evaluate and celebrate the children’s considerable achievements during the fourth ripple.

You get the idea.

And then the teacher moves on to the next new high impact teaching strategy — the next splash — thus creating a new set of ripples.

3. Learning often takes place outdoors and especially within the locality.

Question: Is it concerning that a survey for the TV channel Eden looking at how much time children spent outdoors found that between a quarter and half of all children believed that cows hibernate in winter, and conkers came from, oak or maybe beech or possibly fir trees?

I am passionate about outdoor learning.

During training sessions, I often ask delegates to consider the one thing they remember most about their childhood and then describe it in detail to a colleague. Routinely, 80% of the experiences described took place outdoors. Which, of course, leads to the question, ‘So why do we spend so much time teaching children indoors?’.

In reality, memorable experiences lead to memorable learning and the place where the learning occurs adds to the value.

In his 2010 book entitled Last Child in the Woods, Dr Richard Louv is concerned that children are growing up with what he calls ‘nature-deficit disorder’.

He could be right.

It seems that many primary pupils know what a fronted adverbial clause is, but according to the Canals and Rivers Trust in 2016, 25% of them 'don’t recognise the sound of a duck'.

A school’s locality is a wonderful resource and if used well it can be greatest textbook of all.

4. There are opportunities to learn both practically and through the senses.

Question: Was Maria Montessori correct when she said, ‘First, the education of the senses, then the education of intellect’?

‘It was market-morning. The ground was covered, nearly ankle-deep, with filth and mire; a thick steam, perpetually rising from the reeking bodies of the cattle, and mingling with the fog, which seemed to rest upon the chimney-tops, hung heavily above’.

Charles Dickens wrote this, along with so many other evocative descriptions of Victorian London, by walking up to ten miles a day and drinking in the environment around him through his senses.

Great writers don’t start behind desks, they start in locations.

Some of the best writing by children that I have witnessed comes from learners being outdoors, using their senses and exploring the richness of language to describe their environment.

The location could be of natural or man-made beauty but, equally, it could be an environmental eyesore. The writing could reflect the depths of winter when a child puts a hand into the frost and feels a tingling sensation or a summer’s day when they sun scorches the earth.

5. Children communicate and express their learning in a variety of forms.

Question: Is sufficient time given to the arts and spoken language as a form of communication and expression?

The incessant drive to accelerate progress in literacy has resulted in a disproportionate focus on teaching writing as the dominant form of communication and expression.

However, in the better schools I have visited, the expressive arts such as art, music, drama, the spoken word and dance are used to develop both pupil confidence and strengthen communication skills.

When a child is sitting outdoors working on a detailed observational sketch of a wild flower or a discarded Cola can, words and phrases will be forming in the child’s mind about both the object and the surrounding environment.

In this way the skilful teacher can teach art and literacy together.

In the same vein, music can stimulate poetry and dance can be used to tell the story of a journey of a river.

We all recognise the need for high standards in the core subjects, but we also live in a world enriched by music, art, poetry and dance. It is a key element of being human and we separate those core subjects our wider humanity at our peril.

The Arts can offer a way of succeeding for children struggling elsewhere in the curriculum, building self-confidence and esteem as well as helping them enjoy school and providing an alternative route into literacy.

6. A curriculum for the twenty first century exists. 

Question: Does your curriculum allow the children to consider what a better world might be like?

Our world is in great danger, and children increasingly recognise the threats that exist all around them.

Recently young people have walked out of their classrooms to express their dismay because our alleged leaders are failing to address climate change.

Whilst adults watch on and do little, it could be that the young people you teach today could help us slow down global warming? Perhaps they can help diverse groups to live harmoniously in rapidly changing communities? Maybe they could challenge the use of child labour in the developing world?

All we educationalists need to do is ensure we develop a curriculum that allows youngsters to think deeply about the world around them.

Recent years has seen a focus on the objectives-led curriculum, in which teachers declare what new learning the children will gain in a lesson. So, what about a different approach?

Why not plan how you want the children to feel by the end of some lessons?

There is nothing wrong with the children feeling angry about sweat shop labour in the Far East, or feeling like they need to make a difference when considering recycling.

7. A love of books and stories is promoted.

Question: What can your school learn from Waterstones about the ways in which they present books?

A headteacher told me that she was struggling to promote a love of reading. I said, well, let’s take a stroll around and look what’s happening.

The reading stock in the library and book areas looked old and tired and those environments were, quite frankly, scruffy. In a key stage one classroom, the teacher was with her class of children reading from a big book. She paused, and asked the children if anybody could spot an example of direct speech in Cinderella, whereupon one child said, ‘Can’t you just read the story, its really good?’

In reality this six-year-old was asking a question which goes beyond a traditional fairy tale.

Everybody loves stories and the power of a good book in the hands of a great teacher is phenomenal…but perhaps we should spend more time enjoying the story rather than looking at the technical features of language.

8. Positivity abounds within a culture of high expectations.

Question: How do schools create a positive learning community where everybody thinks they can achieve, they have a duty to achieve and a duty to help others achieve?

A recent edition of the satirical magazine Private Eye described (exposed?!) a school where collaborative learning was banned and teachers were encouraged to make mountains out of molehills if a child forgot their pencil. [The shoots of the system we have now coming though back then - Ed.]

Fortunately, many schools recognise the importance of developing independence, self-esteem and wellbeing so that children will feel confident, secure and able to trust their relationship with adults.

This in turn allows young people to trust their own decisions.

They also recognise the significance of the ‘hidden curriculum’.

This is made up of the values and perspectives children learn in schools through the spoken — and unspoken — messages they receive.

Such a curriculum can be negative, if they happen to forget their pencil in the aforementioned school (that’s if they had one in the first place) or positive and affirming if a pencil is offered because, after all, that immediately removes a barrier to the learning process.

Whilst teachers should ensure positive exchanges abound, punishments should be handled with care and praise should not be given too easily.

Teachers must find appropriate ways to demonstrate their high expectations by seeking child-friendly ways to remedy under achievement.

In the primary years especially, it is important that children learn the craftsmanship of being a scholar (without us forgetting they're still children) and learn to present their learning in a high-quality way.

There is one other thing the skilled practitioner does and that is to systematically check that each child feels included in classroom life.

Each of the above sections begins with a question, so now let’s finish with a question.

Does the word curriculum equate to the identified programmes of study that a teacher will systematically deliver to the pupils or is it about both the full range of planned and unplanned learning experiences that a child encounters in school.

This article believes it is the latter, and, in a nutshell, it isn’t what you teach it’s the way that you teach it. [ITL]

To find out more about booking Will Ryan for your school, college or organisation call us on 01267 211432 or drop us an email on

About the author

Will Ryan

Will is a highly experienced school leader and advisor with many years service working in some of our most challenging communities. He is the author of several education books including Leadership with a Moral Purpose and Inspirational Teachers, Inspirational Learners.

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