Becoming a responsive teacher: three key lessons from Fletcher-Wood’s ‘Responsive Teaching’

I have written in the past about how I have tried to change my habits as a teacher. I am keen to set out some time to reflect on Harry Fletcher-Wood’s excellent Responsive Teaching, and select some priorities on how I will improve my practice as a teacher and head of department. One of the real strengths of Harry’s book is the clear focus on how teachers can go about implementing the principles he advocates. This is done through a chapter by chapter checklist and more structured guidance on how teachers and leaders at different stages of their career might embark on the process of developing responsive teaching.

I would consider myself a reasonably effective practitioner, but good quality formative assessment sits at the heart of good teaching, and is something I still need to work on. I believe I can teach good quality lessons, and I’ve made some dramatic changes to my formative and summative assessment practices. I could still be much sharper in ensuring that my lessons hang together effectively and that my curriculum as a whole works for every student. It is with this in mind that I have selected three key lessons from Harry’s book, to focus on, for the winter term at least. I will follow each up with a more detailed blogpost, explaining how I have got on and providing some additional tips for other teachers looking to become (more) responsive teachers!

Lesson One: Planning Threshold Concepts

Harry defines threshold concepts as:

  • “Troublesome: difficult to understand
  • Transformative: of a student’s perspective.
  • Irreversible: once learned, they are hard to unlearn
  • Integrative: they show how different ideas are related.
  • Bounded: there are limits to the insight they offer”

I believe that I have improved in specifying what historical knowledge I would like my students to learn. I then assess this, within lessons, in a rather vague and varied fashion. Whilst generating knowledge organisers and the content I’d like to include within my historical enquiries, I still differentiate by outcome, perhaps too much. I will cast feelers out for what students have learned, and I have an intuitive sense of whether I’m happy or not. I think this is too vague. I’d like to be a bit more precise about what I would like to see all students master before I progress the learning on. In this way, I can ensure that my sequences of lessons build upon each other effectively. My current practice lends itself to this well. But I’m worried that my focus is skewed towards more simplistic definitions of knowledge. I need to drill down and identify the threshold concepts in my teaching, and assess these in lessons. I’ll use Harry’s guidance on exit tickets and multiple-choice questions to help me here.

Lesson Two: Rather than planning knowledge, we also need to plan pedagogical content knowledge

I am satisfied that my students are presented with a lot of history, in all three key stages. I have never been concerned that my lessons do not look particularly “fun.” Indeed a collection of senior leaders, head teachers and executive head teachers who observed one of my lessons suggested that the brilliance of my lesson was its very ordinariness. The typical structure of a Valentine lesson involves:

  1. The presentation of some text, including the key knowledge and events I would like students to know.
  2. Some activity involving the processing of this text, by transforming it into a different format.
  3. Some stretching and searching questions based upon the text to probe for understanding.
  4. Applying the knowledge to answer a historical question.

 

I’d welcome feedback on this approach, but I’m quite confident that the principles of an individual lesson are there. However, Harry has made me think that I rely too much on the text to do the heavy-lifting and the instruction. I also rely on questioning and tasks to demonstrate students’ understanding, but I can’t check knowledge for every student. In conjunction with refining my formative processes and the hinge-concepts, I’d like to plan in advance to check every student gets the concept I want, and to better consider:

 

“which images, examples, diagrams, graphs, stories, experiments, analogies are necessary to communicate a concept? In which form is the idea best represented? The best responsive teachers have a number of options planned in advance, to select the best to use ‘in the field’ or to switch to an alternative should one not work effectively in practise.”

Lesson Three: “Plan for horizon knowledge”

I remain realistic that students will not remember all of the precise knowledge that we grant them. I was gripped by Counsell’s differentiation between “fingertip knowledge” and the “residual knowledge” that students are left with over time. I want to drill down and learn a little bit more about what residual knowledge my students are left with, long after their lessons, and be a little bit more precise about what knowledge I want students to retain in the long-run. With this in mind, I can be far more precise in reviewing and recalling the knowledge from previous units of learning and structuring the assembly of a big picture overview of the past. This might also involve thinking a bit more about “foreshadowing”, and being more precise in arranging the connections between the lessons I am teaching this week and those I wish to teach in the future. Again, any reflections on how this process can best be facilitated are most welcome!

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