The power of live teaching for professional learning

Written by Sarah Seleznyov

One of the things that makes Let’s Think special is that all tutors on the programme teach: unlike many professional development programmes where the facilitator provides an input and supports teachers to consider how they can implement this into their own practice, the Let’s Think Tutor will ask for a class to teach and show teachers what the lessons look like in practice, when taught by an experienced teacher.  

Why is this so important?  We recognise that Let’s Think is a tricky approach to take on board.  There is a lot going on: the schema you are teaching, the exemplar lesson and its carefully structured flow, the pedagogies of concrete preparation, cognitive conflict, social construction and metacognition.  It’s much easier to see, hear and feel what Let’s Think looks like, than to hear someone explain it.  And I always ask teachers watching a Let’s Think lesson for the first time to critique what they saw: challenge me on what I did and ask me why I did it.  Sometimes, I will acknowledge that a decision I took may have been the wrong one – this is part and parcel of the messy business of classroom teaching and it’s important to be honest about our mistakes.

Doing this is also modelling the behaviours we will need from teachers as they join the professional development programme – we need them to be willing to take a risk, have a go, make a mistake and learn from it.  All Let’s Think Tutors agree that all teachers start as novices, acknowledging that we were also in this position when we first started on our own Let’s Think learning journeys. It’s really hard to relearn teaching, it’s a bit like going on a diet – habits are hard to change!  That’s why the live teaching we ask teachers to engage in is so crucial to their learning.  

On every Let’s Think Maths professional development day, we introduce some lessons to the teachers in the morning and they then work in collaborative groups to plan to teach these lessons, spending time thinking carefully about the language they will use for key questions and instructions, what they will record on the board, and trying to anticipate pupil responses.  In the afternoon, they then team teach these lessons to classes they don’t know, some of them teaching and some observing pupil learning.  They then meet to reflect on the extent to which their planning was lived out in the live lesson.

This is scary!  We have spent decades using lesson observation as a tool to judge and punish teachers in the UK, meaning teachers usually frame lesson observation as a means of performance and judgement, instead of learning and improving, as this diagram from Chris Watkins so neatly captures:

But if we want teachers to make radical changes to their practice, we need them to overcome this anxiety, to recognise:

  1. That live teaching practice gives you the opportunity to get to know the lesson and how pupils respond, meaning that when you go back to your own class, you will teach the lesson with much greater confidence;
  2. That the live teaching is a learning experience and not a judgement of their teaching expertise;
  3. That when we change our practice, things will go wrong before they go right;
  4. That this is a collaborative lesson and not one they have personally designed – if anything goes wrong, all are accountable;
  5. That mistakes are the best way to learn (for pupils and for teachers) and that taking a risk is therefore vital to practise development.

So, in this process, the Let’s Think Tutors take a risk, as do the teachers – and when we take Let’s Think into the classroom, we are asking pupils to do the same.  This replication of process acknowledges the importance of risk taking for learning: staying safe isn’t an option unless we want our learning to stagnate.