Aim: The purpose of this study was to gain a deeper understanding of student learning and the relationship between peer teaching, group work and the role of the teacher.

Background: The project was born out of an emerging government agenda promoting subject knowledge. From observation of customer behaviour in a city centre Apple Store, the learning process seemed to occur through enticement and personal contact led by problem solving. The project explored whether schools could re-create and harness this process.

On an international benchmarking trip to Hong Kong and Shenzhen province in 2012, the headteacher visited ten diverse secondary schools from this high OECD PISA ranked area. There was an impression that the despite the high PISA rankings, the schools had a strong interest in developing curriculums that better supported creativity.

Method: 21 School Direct graduates training in four partner schools in the area conducted the research during their school-based study week; the theme was ‘Finding and distilling great learning’. They had all completed three weeks of formal observations before the study, making notes on features such as pace, content and relationships. The aim was to use this to find special lessons and then capture them through photographs and informal notes for analysis and discussion.

Evidence: Lesson observations and photographs, Ofsted comments, student questionnaires, teacher self/peer analysis

Impact: Moderated observations across the sample indicated the biggest single barrier to further improvement was teachers’ inability or unwillingness to relinquish control and respond to student feedback. Students often learned best from each other when fear of failure was lower and they could express their personal needs more clearly.

Structure, planning and sequence were important to enable deeper learning. Subject expertise was important to separate fun activity from deep and purposeful learning. Didactic teaching could stifle creativity. The teacher’s role was to create the right conditions: a good ‘penny dropping’ moment required challenge, context, prior learning and high expectation. The learners whose ‘penny had dropped’ seemed to enjoy shared success and learning fulfilment. It was also agreed that students needed to own the discovery but in an ‘I got there with your help’ context. The teacher’s role was described as that of a catalyst.

Reflections: The greatest personal learning I’ve received from the project was in returning to focused study with metrics, outcomes and a more scholarly approach to understanding and designing improvement. The significant challenges included finding quantitative rather than qualitative research data in education and reassuring colleagues about monitoring.

Within my own school, following the grading of teaching and learning as ‘Outstanding’ in every lesson observed, I believe it is appropriate to re-direct the observation techniques to the next area of focus, which is ICT.

Contact: Tony Lamberton,; Jane Brannigan,