Great teaching in 3 words?

P1070658Great teaching summarised in 3 words? Arguably a ludicrous aim, especially as you can’t talk about great teaching without thinking about all the complexities of the learning it must enable. Yet sometimes constraints inspire fresh thinking. This blog is my response to the challenge.


Who would want to cook a meal for people who have no appetite?

I am not sure whether to be unnerved or gratified to find myself celebrating the opening words of Ofsted’s latest descriptor of outstanding teaching and learning: “Learners are curious, interested and keen to learn”. It is a natural response as a teacher to think, ‘if only my learners were like that, my job would become so much easier, so much more enjoyable”. But that is part of why ‘inspire’ is my first word. Great teaching begins with inspiring students’ wish to learn what you have to offer and their belief that, with your guidance, they can. And that is true whether it is how to lay a course of bricks, to answer an intriguing question or solve an abstract problem.

Curiosity is the root of all learning and all human culture. Not only is this evident in young children who endlessly ask ‘why?’, ‘why is..?’, ‘why does..?’, ‘how..?’ but it is evident that without the deeply rooted impulse to ask such questions we would still be alongside the great apes grubbing for bugs in the earth. That native curiosity doesn’t die, though it might wither under the steady glare of teaching for graded outcomes.

Watch any great teaching and ask yourself ‘how is this teacher inspiring the students wish to learn?’. You will always find an answer, though that will differ depending on the teacher, the topic and where the students are starting from. Harriet Harper’s book ‘Outstanding teaching in lifelong learning’ has some great examples.


One of the great mistakes of teaching is to try to make learning easy. Game and puzzle designers know this. If Rubik’s Cube hadn’t been so hard, sales would never have reached 350 million. Challenges stimulate interest, and can inspire much greater engagement than easy work.

One of the great skills of teaching is judging the degree of challenge that stimulate learners’ interest and extend their reach without sending them into despair. This requires what Coe et al call ‘pedagogical content knowledge’: a deep knowledge of your subject and what learners find difficult within it. Andy Tharby writes about walking the fine line between comfort and panic. And, since working in this zone carries the real possibility of failure, you need to have established a culture that respects and values real effort and readiness to take the risk of being wrong.


Just as too little challenge dulls interest and denies learning, so does too much help. John Holt alerted us to this 50 years ago in ‘How children fail’. This is where the skill of differentiation lies: in judging just how much, and what kind of help individual learners need to succeed, without depriving them of the learning that they will only achieve if they do it themselves. Vygotsky called it ‘scaffolding learning’. It requires a deep knowledge of your learners or a close attention to how they respond to the challenge at hand, but there is no better way to build the confidence of learners who have low expectations of themselves. A culture of high expectations for all (not just those already labelled as high achievers) works because teachers have developed this skill.

None of this is easy but it is deeply worthwhile. And incidentally, it strikes me that these three words describe skills that great leaders need too.


Coe, R. et al, (2014) What makes great teaching? Review of the underpinning research, available here

Harper, H. (2013) Outstanding Teaching and Learning. Maidenhead: Open University Press

Holt, J. (1964) How children fail, available here

Tharby, A. (2015) Achievable challenge: Walking the fine line between comfort and panic, available here



2 thoughts on “Great teaching in 3 words?

  1. scarus1964

    I agree! If I were allowed a fourth word, I’d have “believe”. I’d say belief in the amazingness of learners is probably what’s behind most of those challenging-supportive-motivating teacher-student relationships.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s