Leaders – what does your mental model of great teaching look like?

Quality first teaching is a strange phrase. I may be wrong but I think its origin can be traced back to the SEND code of practice. It’s most recent iteration is ‘high quality teaching’ as a catch all for all the great things that should be under universal provision.

Regardless of origin, it is certainly something that leaders need to have great knowledge of if they are to make it happen at scale across their school.

To start with, the relationship between curriculum and teaching cannot be ignored. Leaders need to have a good knowledge of curriculum matters and make sure that there are good systems in place for curriculum leadership. Necessary, but not sufficient though, as Dylan Wiliam describes when he said that pedagogy trumps curriculum:

Leaders need a well connected mental model of great teaching in order to make the most of even well designed curricula. Any good leaders should be able to articulate a coherent response to the question: what makes great teaching? A good starting point is to take in the many great sources of information on this, including, but not limited to:

But there is more to it for leaders.

Strategic direction

Knowing what makes great teaching is a starting point but it is the strategic direction of the school, the vision for great teaching, that must set the tone for influencing teachers’ behaviours. This need not, in fact probably should not, be prescriptive, rather pointing the team in the right direction to focus their efforts and attention. Here’s our example of a vision for what every child will experience every day to help them to learn:

What is learning?

Leaders cannot make great decisions about improving teaching without understanding how children (and of course adults) learn. It is great to see modules on how learning happens front and centre in the recently revised NPQs. Leaders definitely need to differentiate between learning and performance:

And they need to understand the memory model.

As well as how easily working memory can be overloaded:

Leaders whose mental models include these ideas about learning, performance, memory and cognitive load are far better placed to make decisions about supporting teachers so that children learn what’s intended.

A mental model for great teaching

There are elements of great teaching that are relevant to the teaching of all age groups and all subjects and it is useful for leaders to know about and be able to articulate what these are. These practices are what keeps teams united in common purpose – those teaching different key stages or those teaching different subjects. it provides the shared language that enable an entire staff team to talk meaningfully about teaching. Here’s ours, structured in the same way as the Sutton Trust’s report:

The importance of motivation

One of the surest ways to start an edu-fight is to drop the question: Do you teach the subject or do you teach children? While the subject knowledge and exposition aspects of teaching are clearly key, relationships matter and leaders must have mental models of teaching that include the influence on classroom culture and climate. Motivation is one such concept:

Subject specific pedagogy

It is useful to for leaders to have a good understanding of generic pedagogy that enables cross phase and subject conversation but it is also the case that each subject will have it’s own nuances that leaders need to know well. One way of leaders thinking about this is to consider the active ingredients of core subject strategies – and leaders do need well defined core subjects strategies to support teachers to develop their expertise. Active ingredients are the key concepts and behaviours necessary for a strategy to be successful. Here are ours for reading, writing and maths:

Meeting the needs of all

Generic pedagogical ideas are important and are supplemented by subjects specific practices but leaders must be prepared for the inevitability of some children grasping concepts with varying degrees of success and some needing additional support. A significant branch of leaders’ mental models of great teaching should include ideas about what teaching is for and why we’re here. It’s all very well knowing and talking about what great teaching is but mobilising action around a shared purpose is what sets some schools apart from others.

The true measure of school effectiveness is how well the least advantaged children achieve.

In order for leaders to realise big ideas such as this, they need to have a clear idea of what it is that they want teachers to do when children struggle. Differentiation is one such concept:

Of course, scaffolds are not meant to be permanent and leaders need to have thought of this, providing guidance and direction on what this looks like in sequences of learning.

We’d be naive to think that this is it. There will always be children that need additional support for various reasons and an important part of leaders’ mental models of great teaching is what they think teachers should do when children still struggle. Here are our rules of thumb for common individual needs in reading, writing and maths:

A leader’s mental model of great teaching is the knowledge that they have about the various concepts involved and how those concepts are organised to drive action. Teaching is what schools are for and so leaders need to make it their business to keep developing their expertise so that their mental model becomes more sophisticated. It is only through doing this that leaders can continue to strive for clarity of direction for staff and ultimately support children to learn what’s intended.

Leaders – what does your mental model of great teaching look like?