What do we really mean by ‘quality first teaching’?

We investigate definitions of quality first teaching and in particular consider how it applies when teaching gifted and talented pupils

The National Strategies suggest that the key to success with all learners is quality first teaching (QFT). This has been used as a mantra across the strategy in guidance, tools, resources and the numerous events the Strategies run across the country. It is surprisingly hard, given their raft of publications, to find positive and useful illustrations of what this universal truth is actually supposed to look like.

QFT originates in the then DCSF’s guide to personalised learning published in 2008 which summarises its key characteristics as:

  • highly focused lesson design with sharp objectives
  • high demands of pupil involvement and engagement with their learning
  • high levels of interaction for all pupils
  • appropriate use of teacher questioning, modelling and explaining
  • an emphasis on learning through dialogue, with regular opportunities for pupils to talk both individually and in groups
  • an expectation that pupils will accept responsibility for their own learning and work independently
  • regular use of encouragement and authentic praise to engage and motivate pupils.

(DCSF, 2008) Personalised learning – a practical guide 00844-2008DOM-EN

Quality first teaching is also described as the Wave 1 of the National Strategies’ three Waves of Intervention.

Wave 1 – inclusive quality first teaching

Wave 1 is about what should be on offer for all children: the effective inclusion of all pupils in high-quality everyday personalised teaching. Such teaching will, for example, be based on clear objectives that are shared with the children and returned to at the end of the lesson; carefully explain new vocabulary; use lively, interactive teaching styles and make maximum use of visual and kinaesthetic as well as auditory/verbal learning. Approaches like these are the best way to reduce, from the start, the number of children who need extra help with their learning or behaviour.

Wave 2 is targeted catch up provision for groups to ‘put children back on course’ and Wave 3 a deeper intervention offering more personalised solution to be used if Wave 2 hasn’t worked.

Aside from an only partly ironic observation that very few us teach in waves, this is very much stating the obvious. All teachers are expected to set targets for all pupils that help them progress as far as possible. We also know that progress can be achieved in all sorts of unimaginative ways and the three waves model doesn’t do a lot to address this deficit view. And unfortunate to see our old friends V, A and K singled out yet again as something for everyone. Tired ideas.

The National Strategies publication, Excellence for All, which supports the National Challenge G&T Programme states that ‘Quality first teaching (QFT) means different things to different people’ and that ‘a good starting point for all schools is to reach a shared understanding and definition of QFT’. But it doesn’t presume to tell us what this might mean.

Three subject publications shed some light on what QFT looks like from a subject perspective. Learning and teaching in science highlights the need to balance different approaches:

  • directing and telling
  • demonstrating
  • explaining and illustrating
  • questioning and discussing
  • exploring and investigating
  • consolidating and embedding
  • reflecting on and talking through a process
  • reflecting and evaluating
  • summarising and reminding
  • guided learning

The Strategies’ Leading improvement using the Primary Framework: Quality first teaching is part of a CPD module for headteachers, providing guidance on how teachers can direct learning and challenge pupils to think. An outline of what good learning looks like is provided for both mathematics and literacy.

So what should be distinctive about it for gifted and talented learners? And how is this different, if at all, from what we would expect to describe as just good teaching and learning? It certainly isn’t what the Strategies refer to for learners as ‘the quality of their wave 1 experience’. The waves model is a management tool, but children don’t come to school to be implemented. So what should we be encouraging our colleagues to do?

G&T training programmes contain ‘evidence’ from research that tells us that able pupils like learning that includes the following:

  • variety
  • real discussion
  • time-limited tasks
  • to be treated as intellectual equals
  • chance to have fun
  • teachers who get the whole class involved
  • working with different people
  • clear targets and how to get there
  • practical work
  • thinking activities
  • investigations, problem solving
  • group work
  • drama and role play in ordinary lessons
  • teachers who break up activities
  • consistent teachers
  • freedom and flexibility
  • alternative forms of recording
  • working beyond the syllabus
  • study skills taught through the subjects
  • teachers who enjoy learning themselves
  • teachers who have sense of humour
  • choosing tasks
  • quizzes
  • competitions
  • opportunities to work at their own pace
  • being allowed to have an off day
  • learning from mistakes in a supportive environment
  • being given something interesting to do if they finish early

The usual response to this list is ‘yes, but so do all pupils’. Of course, there is no one-sized solution which will apply to all learners all the time. And it’s no great leap beyond this to suggest that QFT for G&T should be student-centred.

When we talk to teachers about what they believe is really distinctive about good teaching and learning for G&T, the conversations tend to be remarkably similar. They emphasise:

  • flexibility to make choices
  • the opportunity to take risks
  • the chance to make useful mistakes
  • questioning and curiosity
  • extended opportunities for interaction and dialogue
  • learners becoming less dependent (not just independent)
  • time to explore
  • a focus on big ideas
  • making connections with the real world
  • challenging beliefs and perceptions
  • having fun.
Last Updated: 
11 Mar 2015