In which I reflect on day one of the Improving Teacher Programme

The way that this course was sold to me was that it is designed for teachers who are consistently graded as ‘Good’, with the aim of introducing some ‘Outstanding’ elements into their practice. Of course, given the offer of a full day and four half-days off timetable over the next eight weeks, with a mixed cohort of primary and secondary teachers from across the TVTSA partnership schools, to focus exclusively on teaching and learning, I had no hesitation in signing up.

The theme of day one was ‘engagement’. After introductions and a series of initial group tasks around what makes effective teaching, we set off on a ‘ward round’. This involved visiting a number of different classrooms (four in total – in my group’s case, at least), staying in the room for no more than 5 minutes each, with a specific brief to seek out examples of best practice regarding student engagement. On returning to the Training Room, we then shared our observations with each other, the three groups in the cohort having been taken to different faculties to observe teaching and learning.

During the day, as part of the debrief from the ward round and also as part of the group tasks that both preceded and followed it, we were encouraged to identify ‘golden nuggets’ – that is, particular teaching and learning strategies that we intend to incorporate into our own practice. I have two aims in writing this post: the first is to consolidate these ideas that I picked up over the course of the day; the second is to share them with a wider audience.

First and foremost (for me, at least) amongst these ideas was that of ‘spy time’. This simply involves, at opportune moments during a lesson, giving students a few minutes to walk around the room and look at each other’s work, leaving written feedback (in the form of targets for improvement) or even, where appropriate, actually adding to and improving the work itself. The term ‘spy time’ reminded me of David Didau’s use of designated ‘learning spies’ to observe group work before feeding their findings back to their groups in plenary sessions during the lesson [1], while the actual structure of ‘spy time’ is, in essence, the kind of gallery critique that is advocated by Ron Berger [2]. In terms of the balance between preparation (zero!) and impact (potentially very high), this is definitely one that I’ll be trying out with my classes before day two of the course.

This kind of activity relies quite strongly on the use of exemplars and success criteria, so that students can specifically identify targets for improvement. In one classroom that we visited, students had ‘bookmarks’ that were divided into two sections, headed ‘What makes a successful (i.e. C+) piece of work?’ and ‘What makes an A* piece of work?’. Under these two headings, students had written the project’s success criteria so that, as the project progressed, they could refer back to the criteria without the teacher needing to go through them again at the start of every lesson. In another classroom, we walked into the room while the teacher was in the middle of a conversation with a student over how the student could improve their work. Instead of giving the student a target for improvement, though, the teacher instead directed the student’s attention to exemplar work that is kept on permanent display on the classroom walls and asked the student to use these exemplars to set their own targets. This latter strategy, of having a ready supply of generic exemplar material, is one that I’ve been working towards for a while now (as mentioned in a previous post [3]); although it’s been on the back-burner for a couple of months, today might be just the impetus that I needed to really get to grips with creating a ‘toolkit’ for Geography students.

‘Spy time’ will also rely on students having the confidence to present their work to their peers. This kind of confidence can only be developed by making it a regular feature of my lessons, which was evident from what I saw in the classrooms that I visited today. It will also depend on making sure that students follow Berger’s maxim that feedback should be kind, specific and helpful [4] – like the work itself, I will need to think about how to model this type of feedback in order to make ‘spy time’ as effective as possible.

The final set of strategies that I took away from today relate to developing and extending card sort activities (although they can just as easily be applied to ‘Taboo’-type activities or, indeed, anything that uses cards as the central resource). Once the main activity (normally involving sorting the cards into categories) has been completed, the question is how to deepen the learning that has just taken place. This can be achieved by:

  • Arrows – give each group a second set of cards, on which are a series of arrows, and ask students to use these to show how all of the cards connect, both within and between categories
  • Random Pairs – turn all of the cards over, then the students in the group take it in turns to pick a pair of cards at random; they then have to explain the connection between these two cards to the rest of their group
  • Reduce / Eliminate – each student has to remove what they consider to be the least important card from the set, and explain to the rest of the group why they have removed it. This can lead into, or follow on from…
  • Rank Order / Diamond 9 – having categorised the information, students then have to place the information in order of importance or significance within the categories
  • Roles – give students specific roles within the group, e.g. one student is ‘Devil’s Advocate’ and has to disagree with everything that the rest of the group suggests, while another student is the ‘Peace-Maker’ and has to try and find common ground between different ideas; or one student is the ‘Motivator’ who has to make sure that everyone gets involved, while another is the ‘Recluse’ and will only participate if another member of the group directly asks them for their input
  • Wild Cards – in amongst the key words and pieces of information, include some cards that are blank, or that are blank but in a different colour, or have only a random number or symbol on them, just to see how students connect them to the rest of their classification

Before the end of the day, we had to identify one of these ideas that we would try out with at least one of our classes; day two will begin with us reporting back to the rest of the group about how our went. I’ve actually been experimenting with a version of learning spies with a couple of my year 7 classes, which I’ll make the subject of a future post, although I will definitely be trying out ‘spy time’ with them as well. Meanwhile, knowing that a year 9 class will have to categorise the effects of desertification before the week is out, I intend to try out one of the list of ways to extend card sorts – probably random pairs. Feedback on these will be part of my reflection on day two of the ITP course, which is on 4th June… Watch this space!


[1] D. Didau (2011) ‘So, what are learning spies?’, (post dated 11 July 2011; site accessed 20 May 2013)

[2] R. Berger (2003) An Ethic of Excellence: Building a Culture of Craftsmanship with Students (Heinemann, Portsmouth NH)

[3] C. Phillips (2013) ‘In which I start to develop a Geographical Writing Toolkit’, (post dated 9 February 2013; site accessed 20 May 2013)

[4] Berger, op. cit.


About carljphillips

Geography teacher. PhD in cultural/historical geography (Nott'm., 2006). SF/F genre fiction fan. Liverpool FC supporter. Libertarian. Humanist. Etc. I blog about the theory and practice of Geography teaching, and teaching in general.
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