Have I already taught the best lesson of my life?

By Alex More

Teaching is an art form, one never perfected, but sometimes we come close, don’t we? As teachers, we are idealists and every once in a while we actually touch what it is we are reaching for … the best lesson ever!

As the long summer term comes to an end it seems fitting to be reflexive, to take a little time to focus on what went well. The good news is teaching allows for this. With a six week summer break upon us it’s time to relax, recharge and refocus.

So, how about that question … Have I already taught the best lesson of my life? 

This will be a personal thing, or perhaps dependent on how many years you have been teaching for. To give some perspective, the average classroom teacher delivers 40 x 1 hour lessons per cycle (2 weeks) and attends school for 39 weeks per year. This equates to 780 teacher led hours per year, not including any extra-curricular sessions you might run. That’s a massive amount of time to get things right, or wrong.

This got me thinking of the potential for a meta-analysis study, asking 1000’s of teachers to describe their best ever lesson then mapping the common themes, trends and similarities to see what defines the ultimate lesson. This would be a cool although labor intensive project, but for the purpose of this blog as it’s intended, perhaps focusing on our own best ever lessons might help us reconnect to the very things that made it so awesome!

It makes sense then to focus on the elements that make for that special lesson.  Hopefully, you have that lesson in mind. What did it look and feel like to you? What was so special about what you created that day, hour, lesson, part of the lesson? I have heard colleagues refer to this as ‘ness’, ‘buzz’, ‘the zone’, ‘magic’ and my personal favorite ‘mojo’. 

As educators we are led to believe that five core strands or elements exist by which to judge a successful lesson. They are;

  • Challenge
  • Engagement
  • Progress Over Time
  • Feedback
  • Questioning

This works as a model to view learning and make judgement’s on effectiveness, but does it describe that ‘ness’ that was going on in your special lesson. Let’s park the 5 strands above for a while and work on some other ideas and possibilities. To achieve this, I have done some soul searching to identify ‘the lesson’ that I am asking you to think of which I hope will give a little context for the ideas that follow.

The best lesson I ever taught

Firstly, this lesson happened by accident. To give a little context, it was end of term and I had two teachers absent in my team. I was due to teach my normal GCSE PE group and had a fitness lesson in mind. At the last minute, I was asked if I could take a few GCSE students from the year below to help spread the cover load. Impulsively, I offered to take all of them. Fast forward, 50 GCSE students, one teacher and no firm lesson plan or objective. To make matters worse, the younger students had not covered the content I was wanting the older students to work on. In the 3.5 minutes it took them to get changed I created a lesson objective; What does 60% look like? What followed cemented my belief that as teachers, we often underestimate what our students are capable of.

As a starter I paired up the older GCSE students with the younger ones and explained they would be learning through teaching today. Resting pulses were located, explained, questioned and challenged as progress flourished in abundance. Once a warm up was completed (student lead) I simply tasked the older GCSE students to calculate 50%, 60%, 70%, 80% of their partners maximum heart rate. To achieve this they applied the simple equation 200-your age, then did the appropriate arithmetic to find the % rates. The best part was that the older students had to explain the process, cementing their knowledge and presenting new learning for the younger GCSE students. At this point we revisited the objective and I asked the older students to get their partner exercising at 60% of their maximum heart rate. At random times we took pulse rates and students adjusted the exercise intensity whilst coaching, advising and engaging in deep, meaningful learning. The lesson ticked all the boxes for the core strands; engagement, questioning, progress over time, feedback and challenge but something else, something much more powerful was happening … mojo. 

So, how do we measure mojo? 

Simply speaking we don’t. It’s a feeling we get when we walk into a classroom and we just know, good things are happening. During the lesson described above, I couldn’t work out why it was all going so well. On reflection now, I can see that the student’s responded to the free and risky nature of the learning. Below I have identified the good things that were happening and plan to store these as a blueprint to recreate this mojo again in the future.

Risk taking and willingness to FAIL

Interestingly, 48 students failed to meet the objective. What does 60% look like? Only 2 students managed to work at 60% of the whole lesson. This didn’t matter as each time they failed, they adjusted, tweaked and learned in the process. I blogged a while back on the power of FAIL Why it’s ok to FAIL sometimes

Students experienced failure during the questioning and the main part of the lesson. Failure fueled new learning as students searched continuously for new directions and new solutions to the problem set.

Working collaboratively

The wisdom of the crowd prevailed here and students relished the opportunity of imparting knowledge to others. During the lesson, I was able to stand back and watch students 100% engaged in challenging their partner to reach 60%, but not exceed it. Most students did exceed the 60% target, some as high as 85% but with the help of maths and conversion adjustments were made as they honed in on that 60% target. I plan to blog on the power of collaborative learning soon and will revisit this idea in lessons as it works. Empowering the students to teach other not only consolidates their learning, it shows you trust them.

Get up, get active

Getting students moving, interacting and engaging with the learning is so powerful. PE is a practical subject by nature but research suggests getting students out of their seats and moving around improves retention. Activities like speed dating and market place learning can help facilitate movement whilst learning and should be included in every teacher tool kit.

Comfort Zone – Stretch Zone – Panic Zone

I am confident to say all 50 students worked within their comfort, stretch and panic zones. This OLEVI (think tank) model is a great way to facilitate challenge in the classroom.

Comfort Zone – students feel at ease, challenge is relative to their ability.

Stretch Zone – students begin to feel challenged, they might not understand the whole                                  concept but will have some ideas. FAIL should be applied here

Panic Zone –  students are out of their comfort zones, accessing new learning. FAIL will                              occur here and should be embraced and celebrated by the teacher

To conclude, I feel this lesson discussed above was one of the best I have taught. For a moment I felt I got the heart of what it was I set out to do, teach amazing lessons. Excuse the metaphor but in this case student’s were literally putting their hearts into it!

Hopefully, by focusing on what our best teaching lessons looked and felt like we can work on blueprints for the future. It would be great to hear your experiences of the best and perhaps even worse ever lessons taught. Perhaps there is scope for a ‘worse ever lesson blog too’, I have experienced plenty of the those … Enjoy your well-earned summer break!

Peace out!


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