Why demanding excellence is the change we need in our lessons

Why demanding excellence is the change we need in our lessons

I’m beginning to be heavily influenced by the writings of both Ron Berger and more prominently Tom Sherrington. To say i’ve spent a few hours trawling through Toms blog is a bit of an understatement. After reading The Learning Rainforest I have immersed myself in blogs, books and articles to help me better understand great teaching, curriculum and assessment. I want to be an expert teacher with a thorough knowledge of education and I believe all teachers should be chasing this idea of excellence. As Dylan Wiliam says:

“Every teacher needs to improve not because they are not good enough, but because they can be even better”

However, this shouldn’t only apply for the teachers. Teachers should be demanding excellence for all of the young people in their care. This shouldn’t be something some teachers do, all children are entitled to the very best education and as Mark McCourt says in his talks which I also believe is that “all children can learn well”.

So what makes the difference and really moves the needle for young people. For this I have discovered Ron Berger, through my trawling of teacherhead.com I came across a wonderful post about a video where Ron Berger is speaking with fourth graders and kindergarteners about one of his first grade pupils, Austin. Austin wanted to draw a butterfly. His initial butterfly represented clearly a butterfly but it was not great and far from excellent. Most of us would be happy with this because he is only in first grade. However, Ron Berger demanded excellence. Through careful critique and the mantra of ‘think like a scientist’, Austin went off again to redraft his butterfly with a more scientific approach to drawing a butterfly. Then again after more critique and feedback Austin would go back and redraft a further 4 times until he arrived at his final excellent interpretation of a Tiger Swallow Tail Butterfly (Austin would only be 6 or 7). It’s worth watching the video to get a flavour of the kind and specific critique being aimed at younger learners.

Austin’s Butterfly Critique

To me this is a wonderful example of peer critique and verbal feedback. It also shows exactly what young people are capable of if given the right conditions to excel in.

For me as a physical education teacher I rely heavily on what we call model performers. In sport it is often easy to simply watch a golf swing and then go and replicate it, but what makes it a true learning process is the feedback that we get from ourselves but more importantly from a parent, teacher, coach or peer. This is prominent in a PE department as teachers are skilled at knowing what a model performance looks like, sharing this verbally and physically and then critiquing young people attempts at the selected skill. The beauty of this is that it is a never ending process, for example you can always learn something new and there is often mantra’s ‘basketball never stops’.

In the classroom however we are often guilty of accepting substandard work. We present a task, offer up some success criteria and then mark the work produced by the students. Some would say that the first attempt at a task is what they can already do, what they can do after feedback is them improving on what they can do. Consider these questions. How often do you accept the work, offer up verbal feedback and then send them off to redraft? How often do you continue this process until the student has produced a third or fourth draft that is much much better than their initial effort? I bet you might think that there is no time available in an overcrowded curriculum and on a busy 5 period day to focus this much on an individual students work. We should be providing this level of focus and demanding this level of excellence though.

Ron Berger believes that every child should experience excellence in their schooling:

“After students have had a taste of excellence, they’re never quite satisfied with less; they’re always hungry”

I wonder what happened to Austin’s experience of school if this was his experience of learning in the first grade! Did he continue to be held to such high expectations, did he continue to be critiqued so well and did his teachers in high school afford him so much time to improve his work through several drafts. It is our job to challenge and extend the most able and in Austin’s case to not accept what they can already do.

What I would like to explore is that instead of highlighting the success criteria of what a successful piece of work should entail it may be better if I outline exactly what excellence looks like. Tom Sherrington in The Learning Rainforest articulates this idea beautifully:

“For any piece of work we should be setting out the most challenging success criteria we can conceive of for the task by referencing specific examples: in Year 8, an exceptional student should be able to produce work like THIS: (produce an actual example). It has the following features: (define the features).”

By composing our expectations like this it spells out to the students and exemplifies what we expect of them. By showing them excellence and outlining the key features of it they then have a reference point for their work and you as the teacher have a roadmap for clear, coherent feedback which will move the learning forward.

To help you identify what excellence looks like in your subject you only need to look at the work produced by previous students. As i mentioned in a previous post you should become a ‘historian of excellence’. By keeping the best work from past students you can inform future students. It should be a key component of departmental and inter-classroom discussions on what excellence looks like so that all teacher are clear on the depth and rigour expected in the written answers of students. It should also be common practice to highlight best practice, the ‘bright spots’ so that there is clarity of the standards expected.

We should be demanding excellence from our young people in every lesson. If Austin, in first grade, can be encouraged, through careful critique and verbal feedback, to produce work that may be considered beyond his capability. The so can each of the students you currently teach. As Tom Sherrington writes:

“Its should be a matter of basic credibility for any teacher that they stretch the most able in their lessons – there is no excuse not to”

About the Author
Teaching for 8 years. Blogger, Podcaster and Educator.

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