Cutting Edge

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John Dabell

I trained as a primary school teacher 25 years ago, starting my career in London and then I taught in a range of schools in the Midlands. In between teaching jobs, I worked as an Ofsted inspector (no hate mail please!), national in-service provider, project...
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Do you teach on the edge?

I visited a school recently and dipped my toes into five different classrooms to ‘observe’ what was going on. I was there to learn and I learnt something new in each of them but a few common themes emerged:

  1. All the teachers spent most of their time on the edge
  2. All the teachers meant business and the children knew it – there wasn’t one wasted second
  3. All the teachers appeared to have PhDs in Psychology
  4. All the teachers gave 100%
  5. All the teachers used fictitious misconceptions as springboards to upgrade knowledge and understanding

These are just some of the many things that teachers did.

Perimeter Pedagogy

One thing that struck me about this particular ‘talking’ school was that the teachers didn’t teach from the front but they spent most of their time on the edge of learning. This school put pupil oracy first and embedded it inside group work.

Perimeter teachers are very skilful teachers because they don’t take over or interfere; they wait, supervise, pitch in when necessary, back off, dip in and out, coax, make a nuisance of themselves to provoke discussions, prod a little here and there, circumnavigate and listen, really listen.  They manage to encourage children out of the shallow end of discussions into the deep end and teach them to tread water. They are edgewise and they are mindful of falling into the loquaciousness trap.

Slim Down Your TTT

All this gentle nudging, scaffolding and cognitive apprenticeship might make some of us feel uncomfortable especially if you are used to leading from the front but it’s a way of teaching that works…for some. There are fierce critics of group work who say that the ‘group work is king’ message is just a false message. They say that children flap, fail and there is a lack of learning.

In his book ‘The Slightly Awesome Teacher‘, Dominic Salles talks about the dangers of group work and points to Professor John Hattie being particularly contemptuous about teachers working as facilitators and that this type of teaching has little value.

Edgy teaching is a formative assessment modus vivendi for some teachers and skirted around by others but where do you stand?

But group work and the teacher as facilitator can work and does work and certainly did in the lessons I observed. It’s well documented that teachers tend to talk too much and ‘unlearning’ this has proven to be difficult for many of us who feel that we should be constantly ‘teaching’. Reducing your Teacher Talk Time (TTT) is for the better and teachers who slim down surely have the edge on those that prefer to ‘lecture’…. don’t they? After all, children will never find their own voices if the main one they keep hearing is ours.

This isn’t taking a backseat though because this might imply that you are sat in the back on your iPad shouting “are we there yet?” whilst someone else does the driving. It isn’t. This is more of a ‘dual controls operation where children are doing quite a bit of the driving for themselves but you can slam the brakes on if needed.

I Can’t Get a Word In Edgeways

The ‘Sage on the Stage’ or ‘Guide on the Side’ debate isn’t new but it pushes its photonics mast up through the water every now and again to check what is happening and who is making the biggest splashes. It’s a tough one to call. The thing is, there has to be some efficient and meaningful teacher monologue at some point in a lesson but healthy learning mixes this with plenty of pupil dialogue and genuine learning conversations that have a chance to breathe. The other extreme is that children end up talking too much so a well-balanced diet is what we aim for. It’s not ‘either-or’ but a balance, isn’t it?


It has often been said, just to put us at our ease, that Ofsted does not have a preferred style of teaching but does anyone actually ask children how they prefer to learn?

Most children when asked will want to be ‘taught’ but they will also want opportunities to hear themselves think out loud too. Some will want the teacher at the front, teaching, they don’t want teachers on the edge but instead prefer their teachers being right at the centre of what they are learning. Oxygenating learning is no easy task but if schools are ‘focused on the young people that they serve’ then shouldn’t we be asking them what they need?

Ofsted’s Mike Sheridan, Regional Director for London reassuringly tells us that there is no magic wand and no one way of doing things so find what works for you and your pupils … or rather what works for (1) your pupils then (2) you … we come last.

The formula for finding the perimeter of a rectangle is P=2(l+w) but the formula for ‘amazing’ teaching doesn’t exist.

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