First day, first class lessons: What makes them exceptional?

There are any number of ways to kick the year off with a new class. Through our recent research we have observed enough of what highly effective teachers do and say in their earliest interactions with students to realise that there is no universal formula for success, no set of pedagogical moves guaranteed to introduce every student to the pleasure of the rigour of high challenge learning. Yet we were also able to identify a small number of teachers – a subset of the many capable teachers videoed in our study – who stand out from their peers. We want, by means of this brief paper, to elaborate how the pedagogical work of these exceptional teachers differs from that of their peers at the start of the school year.

Observation of classroom practice never occurs in a conceptual vacuum. Put another way, all researchers come to the task of analysing pedagogical practice with pre-judgments about the nature of effective teaching and learning, just as all teachers come to classrooms with purposes and practices forged by their own subjective experience and disciplinary background. With nearly a century of working as educational practitioners, researchers and mentors, we authors of this paper have been informed by waves of educational theory that have shaped what we now ‘see’ as the characteristics of exceptional classroom teaching in our time and place. (It is because classroom pedagogy is such a shifting landscape of technologies and preferences, we refuse the term ‘best practice’ when characterising exceptional lessons.)

We have drawn on our shared understandings of the nature and purpose of pedagogical practice presented in three published papers to date. We want here to address the central challenge of the ‘first day, first class’ project, namely the identification of what marks particular teacher practices as ‘exceptional’. We drafted an initial ‘coding scheme’ of factors we anticipated as characterising exceptionality, then redrafted the scheme in an iterative process on multiple occasions as we sought to specify the fundamental nature of this emergent ‘exceptionality’. The redrafting was stimulated by reflections on the expanding corpus of reviewed video footage. Given that each teacher’s context is unique, we struggled to name what we observed, and whether there might be some essence – some bedrock, some perennial – which was observable regardless of different year levels, disciplines, ecologies and genders. What, for example, might a really inspiring lesson in a Year 2 all girl’s classroom environment have in common with that of a teacher of Year 10’s in a co-ed discipline-specific subject? Could we do better than simply ‘we’ll know it if and when we see it’?

It took months of trialling to arrive at a coding scheme that would work as a lens for ‘reading’ the more than one hundred ‘first, day, first class’ lessons we reviewed in this study. While the coding scheme remains ‘unfinished business’ – there are changes we would now want to make to it – It has nevertheless allowed us to tease out ‘exceptionality’ as a set of observable, yet nuanced pedagogical components. Simply put, the current version of our coding scheme worked for us as a lens for seeing what is more or less likely to happen in an exceptional ‘first day, first class’ lesson.

One vital element of the coding scheme introduced late in the process was a global assessment of the ‘overall quality of the lesson’. This allowed us to re-integrate into our subsequent analysis a set of the ‘rich’ characteristics of highly effective learning environments that we had developed more than a decade ago. In the current iteration these characteristics are: structure rich; challenge rich; information rich; respect rich; collaboration rich; and, co-ownership rich. Our fundamental position is that exceptionality is marked by the depth, authenticity and synergy of a teacher’s deliberate orchestration of these six components within the initial lessons.

Below we enunciate how each component provides us with part of the lens for ‘seeing’ exceptional classroom practice.

Respect. Exceptional lessons are inevitably based on respectful relationships given and received. These are relationship where participants listen deeply, where contributions engage with the thinking of others, where feedback is constructive – and where praise is differentiated so that it is meaningful and related to the level of challenge involved. In other words, teachers refrain from over-praising or giving praise for trivial or mundane responses. Respect is demonstrated by teachers who set high challenge tasks rather than simply keeping students in their comfort zones. Importantly, however, such teachers ensure that students have access to the relevant tools to engage with the complexities of learning in a particular disciplinary field.

Structure. Exceptional lessons have a meaningful configuration – planned as a beginning, a middle, and an end. And that deliberate/planned structure is focused intentionally on learning, on what the students are to be thinking about as they engage in set tasks. The structure usually involves a variety of activities, with crisp transitions between those activities to minimise ‘learning lite’ time. The activities involve different types of engagement, including engagement that requires student to physically move to achieve successful completion of the task. The activities are conducted in ways that anticipate, build and sustain routines for successful engagement in the learning space.

Challenge. Exceptional lessons involve an element of intellectual demand – even discomfort – as they seek to have students engage closely with the rigorous disciplinarity of thinking and of learning. The antithesis of these are lessons where teacher talk about the subject is the modus operandi. Importantly, challenge-rich lessons have their own built-in rewards as students come to experience the pleasure of the rigour of outcomes that were surprising because they surpassed their expectations of their own capabilities. It follows that the teacher is more likely to put ‘useful ignorance’ to work than sure knowing, and anticipates learning from the experience, capability and wisdom of her students.

Collaboration. While some high challenge tasks are best done in isolation, many more are more likely to benefit from collaborative effort. Put another way, because none of us is as smart as all of us can be, the high challenge classroom lesson is more than likely to involve peer-with-peer engagement. Exceptional lessons are highly likely to involve student-with-student collaboration in problem-posing and problem-solving tasks. Students engage in such tasks when a teacher designs activities that require students to listen to each other, and to build on the thinking/reasoning they hear in order to reach some point of consensus or disagreement for which they will be accountable.

Information. Exceptional lessons involve an engagement with information. They involve a focus on the information that the students bring to the new subject – not just the information that the teacher brings. The activities of exceptional lessons draw on and make visible subject material as an essential starting point for learning. The subject outline, related online resources, and assessment activities can be introduced at a later time, once the students have some sense of what learning in this subject involves. Information-rich lessons treat facts and figures as ‘for instances’ of a larger and more complex field of ideas, processes and explanatory categories.

Co-ownership. Exceptional lessons build a sense that in this classroom our culture of learning is something we need to build as a team. The teacher (or teaching team) works as the leader of the learning, and chief architect of the learning culture. Agreements are reached about the nature of commitments to each other as co-learners rather than imposing their preferences. This is fundamental if students are to be challenged to take responsibility for their learning. Co-ownership opens up the necessity for an ongoing whole-of-class conversation about the value of the culture of learning that is in-play, and how that culture might be sustained and improved.

One conclusion we came to in our study was that the above combination of ‘riches’, while relatively rare, could be found at all levels and in all disciplines within the participating schools. Wherever curiosity thrives and is nurtured, there will be found exceptional practices designed to invite pleasurable and rigorous learning. This is so despite the intrusion of high stakes testing as a learning focus. Once the imperative to ‘cover’ examinable content predominates, it can quickly serve to flatten curiosity at the same time as it builds performance anxiety and encourages teacher ‘take-over’ of the what and how of information to be ‘covered’. We note, however, that a small proportion of upper school teachers can and do resist the ‘coverage’ imperative, even in the face of high stakes external assessment. They insist right from the start that “You will be learning … but not because I will be telling and not because it will be ‘on the test’”.

It does not follow, of course, that such a declared intention will automatically optimise student learning. The teachers who make self-managed learning an explicit intention of their pedagogical work may well anticipate pushback from students, particularly in the upper school if and when students have come to see good teaching as synonymous with the efficiency, clarity and timeliness of a teacher’s notes and explanations and their capacity to predict what might be ‘on the high stakes paper’. Exceptional teachers resist by signalling early their plan for building a learning culture in their classrooms. They indicate the how and why of the routines, processes and practices that will be the normal modes of learner engagement in the weeks and months ahead. To do so, they are likely to begin a conversation about learning, finding ways to elicit authentic responses from their students about the nature and purposes of authentic learning itself. Their students become practised in designing ‘high challenge’ tasks, and so become more capable, and less anxious, when completing them.

Our students are not well versed in talking about their learning. While there is no doubting that many are able to talk at length about performance – what they are ‘good at’ or what they don’t like/can’t do – they struggle to articulate what it means to learn. Early moves to open up a conversation about learning, then, can benefit from explicit early engagement with the idea that learning is fundamentally social. One teacher we observed, for example, began by writing the code ‘C3B4ME’ in large letters, then unpacking it with her students – indicating why ‘see three other students before you ask me for help’ would serve them well as senior school foreign language learners. Her students soon learned the value of this strategy by doing it. In other words, it became normal in her classroom, not just an ideal that flagged when the teacher ‘forgot’ and slipped into answering the one hand up. Exceptional teachers are unwavering in their insistence on such learning routines – they don’t undermine their classroom routines!

We have found that genuine teacher-student dialogue is rarely a feature of the first lesson, or even the first few lessons. Many experienced and well-intentioned [but not well-prepared] teachers who start with open-ended questions – “I am interested in what you think about… know about … feel about…” can find themselves answering their own questions after a brief period of deafening silence. Student reluctance to fill the void is palpable, despite well-meaning efforts on the part of a teacher to inveigle an answer – “Someone? Anyone? Surely you must have some thoughts? No?”. Most secondary students know that if they wait long enough, the teacher will answer her on question. So why would they risk looking either sycophantic or stupid in the first few moments of the school year? Well-intentioned pedagogy of this sort – “I was hoping to start from their own thinking” – begins to resemble the slow extraction of painful teeth. In many cases, it also marks the moment at which many teachers begin their take-over, directing the pedagogical traffic, answering their own questions, filling gaps, distributing handouts, and organising the next activity. The end result is a classroom culture that is both busy and learning lite.

The exceptional teachers we have observed, on the other hand, are very unlikely to start with an open-ended question thrown out to the assembled class in the hope of stimulating student talk. Rather, they have planned for their students to be doing something. And that something is calculated to enrol them in some problem-posing or problem-solving, in collaboration with peers. For example, a teacher of Year 9 Science might have asked her students “What do you think of when I say ‘eco-system?” Instead, within a few minutes an exceptional teacher had the students working in collaborative groups to write down all the words they associated with the term on pieces of butcher’s paper, then moving around the room to see what others had written and amending/adding to their lists as needed, then drawing links between words on their paper to show relationships, then checking again what others had done, then debating within their group which of the relationships was the most important, and then making their case to the class. Within 50 minutes, this exceptional teacher had enacted a non-punitive, no-opt out process through which her students tapped into, and built on, their collective knowledge base. It was the classroom brain at work from day one, lesson one.

It is also worth noting that this teacher did not rush from one group to another giving private tutorials to all and sundry. She stood back, scanning to get an overview of the proceedings, then used the time available to her to mark the roll, moving from group to group quietly to do so, and checking the pronunciation of names. So the custodial function that is required of all teachers was enacted without it being the clunky front-end of the pedagogical process.

In similar vein, teacher of a Year 2 class used a large beach ball with pasted on questions (the where, when how, who, why of their holidays) to stimulate and focus student responses at the same time that she quietly insisted on the routines that would be part of this activity and subsequent activities. Rather than ‘hands up to tell me what you did on the holidays’, the students stood in a circle, listening to each other as each child practised reading a question when it came to their turn, had a role in catching the ball, speaking to the group and then deciding who would be next to contribute and throwing it accordingly. They needed to remember which questions had been answered, and were also prompted to locate places they mentioned as holiday destinations on maps provided on the classroom walls. Together they then negotiated the rules of engagement that they thought would work best for a respectful collaborative classroom and began to put these together, first in small groups and then in a plenary session, with the teacher seeking clarification and checking for understanding throughout.

Unfortunately, for every lesson of this type there were many more lessons where well-meaning teachers ‘introduced’ the subject, or more generally the ‘content’, but where students really had no role beyond passive listening. In such lessons, invitations to the students to provide information, ie, answer the teacher’s questions, were open to be read by students as invitations to guess what the teacher was thinking. What was most striking about such exchanges was how rarely teachers threw a question sideways or even checked whether others had heard the contribution of an individual student. So the conversational model was little more than a ‘wagon-wheel’ with the teacher inevitably and unremittingly at the centre.

After close scrutiny of so many lessons, we have been able to see how exceptional lessons differ in the first few days of the school year. They are characterised in the main by students moving both physically and cognitively, with each dimension working in support of the other. They are also distinguished by early moves on the part of teachers to establish routines that enhance opportunities for learning. So teacher talk is kept at a minimum and transitions between activities are quick and seamless. Technology, when it is used, has a clear purpose beyond coverage, entertainment or distraction. And ideally, it works right from the start! Exceptional lessons require students to listen to each other and to evaluate the quality and credibility of information they obtain from a wide range of sources, so exceptional teachers know the value of inscrutability – students simply can’t guess the worth of a response from the teacher’s body language. Praise is valued so it is not given out in large and meaningless dollops. Respect is given and received, with parity of esteem underpinning all social interactions.

We continue to do more forensic analysis, using our coding scheme to move closer to the precise pedagogical moves that mark the start and end of lessons as well as the transitions (eg, from paper to on-line, sitting to moving, speaking to listening) that mark shifts in the pedagogical process. But meanwhile, we do want to take this opportunity to acknowledge and congratulate in advance those teachers who will begin 2019 with another exceptional first lesson. We hope you know the true value of what you do, and how you do it.
A belated happy 2019 to all terrific teachers!
It has taken quite some time to view and analyse the many lessons that were provided to us by the teachers who were prepared to share their first day first class lessons with Peter and me. The analysis continues as we move to close to doing some quantitative measurement to augment our qualitative research. Below is our fourth paper elaborating our qualitative findings to date.

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