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High-leverage teaching for all

Published on 24/06/19

I reckon I have the best office in my school. Don’t get me wrong, it’s got old furniture, a cupboard full of drama props and old musical instruments, nothing on the walls, and a window that won’t open. It is, however, next to the music practice rooms and all day I can hear young musicians practise with expert tuition from their dedicated music teachers. If I ever feel at a loss in terms of educational direction, all I need to do is close my eyes and listen to a refined educational process that has always been strong and improving over many centuries.

Who are these supremely gifted and talented people who have these skills that many of us mere mortals are not blessed with? I was once in Norwich with a friend from another school. At the time there were various pubs and bars with pianos. My friend would sit at one of these, ask for the name of a song, and straight away hammer out a melody and chords as if he’d been playing it all his life. One day I said to my friend how envious I was of his musicianship; you may be able to predict his answer. He said: "Don’t envy me, through my childhood my parents insisted I practised the piano for two hours a day and arranged for me to have as many piano lessons as they could afford. It was seriously hard work and I missed out on some of the other things that children normally have. This isn’t talent; it’s the result of many hours of focused practice."

The practice routine that musicians go through is a pretty well-established set of exercises of slowly increasing demand that start with the fundamentals of hand position on the keyboard, understanding of musical notation, scales, chord sequences etc. Even well-accomplished musicians will frequently practise fundamental techniques such as scales, chords, and arpeggios. You can’t practise too much, knowing the notes in a scale is not enough, you need to be fluent, able to play the correct notes quickly and in a way that takes up the minimum of space in our limited working memory. This leaves as much cognitive brain capacity as possible to cope with other demands such as reading the music and keeping the pulse. Furthermore, as a musician pushes themselves to play more demanding pieces they may uncover small errors in fundamental techniques that are holding them back. The extra practice of the fundamentals not only does no harm, but it is also an essential part of learning as it improves fluency.

Music teachers don’t set limiting expectations on pupils. They don’t prejudge pupils at the start of their lessons and limit their expectation of what they may be able to achieve. They know that with enough practice any pupil will succeed, as long as it is the right practice guided by expert tuition.

The principles of music teaching can usefully be applied to learning other subjects. Let’s consider the use of high-leverage strategies to teach vocabulary; this might be made up of a sequence of strategies purposely designed to chunk learning of the vocabulary starting with oral work and building to the application of vocabulary in writing. The teacher might start with whole class ‘call and response’ of the word itself, for instance ‘community’. In saying the word aloud and asking for a choral response of the words, the teacher knows that each and every child has both heard and sounded out the word themselves which is the first step in grasping this vocabulary. Following this a crisp definition can be chanted by the pupils, followed by cold calling to ensure that all pupils can pronounce and define the word. This is similar to the way that a music teacher may play a particular phrase and then listen carefully as their pupil repeats it. Re-modelling and plenty of practice may be required before the phrase is mastered.

The word ‘community’ may then be encountered in reading and used in a written piece. This would resonate with the music teacher helping their pupil to build a series of phrases into a particular piece of music.

What of the pupils who came to class already knowing or having a fair idea of what the word ‘community’ means? This process does not take long and the extra practice (or ‘over learning’ as we call it) will improve fluency in exactly the same way as a concert pianist will know that practising scales they have played ten thousand times before will assist in keeping their fluency high. It is rare that a pupil wouldn’t find something that needs improvement.

There will be some pupils who need extra input. After each concept is learnt the pupils engage in ‘shed loads of practice’ – a stack of questions on the knowledge being mastered. Thorough and secure teaching means that the vast majority of pupils are ready to undertake this in silence and with little assistance. This frees the teacher to work with the pupils who still need guidance. When a class is approaching mastery there is a snowball effect by which pupils who come to the class with a weaker knowledge base are hearing so many correct answers that this exposure supports their journey to mastery.

Playing with an orchestra that is guided by an expert conductor has an uplifting effect. The melody around you is clear, there are lots of good examples to follow, when you need extra support the conductor will turn to you and offer guidance.

I have the pleasure of teaching computing to mixed ability Year 7 classes. The pupils come to me on rotation and I see each class for around six weeks, teaching two different classes for two lessons each per week. Amongst other things the pupils need to know the names of the parts of a computer, discern inputs from outputs, learn the difference between volatile and non-volatile memory, be able to count in binary, be able to convert binary to denary and denary to binary, recognise flowchart symbols, and be able to draw and interpret flowcharts. Of the last class of 23 pupils, the average test result was 88% with five pupils scoring below 80% (my personal threshold for ‘mastery’); only one was below 70% at 65%.

The reason for this is that the teaching is designed to be high-leverage, using a combination of direct instruction and deliberate practice to ensure security of knowledge for all. There are no limits on expectation, quite the opposite; as individual pupils and as a whole class we will practise until the topic is mastered. Hard work at times, but very satisfying for the pupils. The buy-in doesn’t come from glossing the knowledge with ‘engaging activities’, but from the deep sense of satisfaction of mastery. That sense of deep satisfaction when you can answer almost every question the teacher asks. That sense of oneness when you know that you share the knowledge of the teacher and other pupils. I imagine this type of reward is not dissimilar to that gained by groups of musicians playing together.

  • Tim Mullis is subject specialist leader for physics at the Inspiration Trust