A teaching revolution that ‘makes the classes come alive’

Donegal school has become one of the top-ranking in Ireland after ditching focus on ‘chalk and talk’, moving to Canadian student-led model


The first thing that strikes you is the classroom. There are no symmetrical lines of desks facing a whiteboard. Instead, there are small pods of four tables grouped together.

In another classroom, chairs are arranged in a big U to facilitate discussion. Then you notice coloured pages open on students’ desk during class. The so-called traffic-light system – with red, amber and green pages – allows pupils to give unobtrusive feedback to the teacher on whether they are following what is going on.

“We don’t focus on ‘chalk and talk’ any more,’ says Pat Tighe, acting principal of Magh Éne College, a secondary school in Bundoran, Co Donegal. “The old approach was teacher-led. Students weren’t active participants They were told what to do, and they did it . . . Now, there’s a big focus on partnership.”

This takes the form of group work and creating an active learning environment where everyone feels involved. “It makes the classroom come alive,” he says.

It is yielding impressive results.

Feeder-school lists, which rank secondary schools based on the proportion of students that progress to third level, are typically dominated by fee-paying or high-achieving schools in affluent areas.

Yet, Magh Éne College, a school under the patronage of the Education and Training Board (formerly the Vocational Education Committee) has vaulted towards the summit of this year’s list.

It ranked third nationally out of the State’s 700-plus secondary schools, ahead of long-established bastions of privilege and high achievement.

It was followed in fourth place by another ETB-run school, Coláiste Gleann Lí in Tralee (formerly Tralee Community College), which is using the same learning techniques.

Both schools put much of their high performance down to a quiet revolution in teaching and learning prompted by a Canadian professor, Barrie Bennett.

Roots in 1980s Canada

The roots of his “instructional leadership” go back to the 1980s in Canada. A ministry of education report at the time found that Durham school district, east of Toronto, was one of the worst in the province of Ontario. Bennett was part of a team that fundamentally changed the way teaching and learning took place in the classroom.

A decade later, Durham was recognised as one of the most innovative school districts in the world, when it was awarded a major international prize by the Bertelsmann Foundation.

At the heart of the approach is research that indicates that a teacher’s “instructional repertoire” is one of the single biggest predictors of a student’s performance.

“I’ve found the vast majority of teachers really do want to make a difference in the classroom,” says Bennett. However, he points out that most training programmes only get teachers out of the starting blocks. They do not place enough emphasis on the repertoire of instruction approaches that can fully engage students.

To do it well, Bennett says, requires time and patience. Research indicates that it takes about 10 years for anyone to become an expert in a field that is reasonably complex.

“Slower is faster, and less is more,” he says. “Most school districts work on the idea of ‘let’s have a good year’. The key is to stay with it long enough to build the internal capacity to have your own teachers doing the workshops for other teachers.”

Bennett first came to Ireland almost a decade ago following an invitation from a Department of Education official, Dr Finn Ó Murchú, who was impressed by his research findings.

Tighe recalls going to Bennett’s first workshop for teachers in Ireland, at the Mount Wolseley Hotel in Co Carlow in 2008. Most training days tend to involve changes to subject material or the curriculum. But this was different: the focus was on the very building blocks of teaching and learning.

“It was unlike anything I had come across in my day,” Tighe says. “It was based on students seeking information themselves, sharing it and problem- solving, all under the gentle guidance of a teacher.”

Pilot scheme

At Magh Éne College, teachers gradually piloted the new methods with first-year classes. Outside school hours, teachers shared their experiences of what worked and what did not.

“We didn’t have to sell it,” says Tighe. “Teachers found classes were easier and outcomes were better. There were far fewer discipline issues.”

Now, all 28 teachers at the school are trained in new methods of teaching and learning.

Students are enthusiastic about the new approach and say it makes classes more engaging. “We learn from each other,” says Eimear Colreavy (15), a transition year student. “No student can be the best at everything, so we share what we know when it comes to group work, under the guidance of the teacher.”

Teachers, too, are rediscovering a professional pride in their roles and say classes are filled with energy, experimentation and enthusiasm.

“It’s magical,” says Joan Russell, project officer for instructional practices with the ETBI. “The days of teachers closing the door behind them are going. They are sharing their practice and their experience. They have the skill and the courage to try new methods.”

There has been no formal evaluation of the impact of training so far. Anecdotally, however, many teachers say it is transforming the classroom and maximising the potential of students of all abilities.

Nationally, more than 900 teachers in about 220 schools have been trained in instructional leadership. There is a waiting list of schools seeking to take part in instructional leadership training, with a series of new sessions due to begin in March.

Bennett says plans to roll out the approach nationally in Ireland are by far the most ambitious of any of the projects he has been involved in. “They are doing an excellent job of attending to the research related to what works; they are also researching and assessing themselves as they move along,” he says.

The involvement of boards of management and education leaders at universities, he says, will be vital to sustaining its success in the longer term.

“What happens at the top is always what makes the project survive or die,” he says. “Staying connected to key players and stakeholders is essential. So, getting unions involved in finding ways they can support teachers to make their work more effective is key.”


Here are some of the techniques that successful schools such as Magh Éne – a secondary school in Bundoran, Co Donegal – are using to change the way learning takes place in the classroom.

  • Traffic-light system Students’ journals are open on their desks with pages coloured in green, amber and red. They use them to give teachers real-time feedback on whether they understand what is being taught. “If a teacher sees a sea of red, then they know there’s a problem,” says Pat Tighe, principal of Magh Éne College. If an individual student displays a red page, the teacher can provide one-on-one support.
  • Mini whiteboards In a typical class an individual student is selected to give an answer to a question. As part of this new approach, all students are required to answer a question by writing it down on a mini whiteboard, which they display simultaneously to the teacher. “In the old classes, students sat in line hoping they might not get picked out to answer a question they didn’t know,” says Tighe. In this [new] way, everyone’s involved and everyone feels safe instead of being put on the spot.”
  • Fishbone diagrams Instead of transcribing reams of notes, students are encouraged to use “mind-mapping” techniques for brainstorming. Fishbone diagrams help students to consider all possible causes of a problem, rather than the most obvious.
  • No percentages Instead of a test at the end of school term, which shows how much a student knows or doesn’t know, many are opting for formative assessments. These involve giving regular feedback to students in the form of constructive comments rather than percentage scores. 


Joan Russell is project officer for instructional practices at the Education and Training Board Ireland

There has been much talk of storms in Ireland over the past few weeks, each of which have left their mark on our towns and villages .

However, one storm that has been hitting the country for the past eight years, relatively silently, yet making a positive impact on our postprimary schools and colleges, is a major change in the way teaching and learning is taking place in the classroom.

The Instructional Leadership Programme is unique to the field of education in a number of ways. It is entirely voluntary. No school is compelled to undergo training. Instead, schools and colleges are invited to participate. In recent months, enrolment has been based on waiting lists rather than advertising. Schools and colleges are signing up and waiting their turn to participate.

It is not focused on any particular subject. Rather, it is based on ensuring we have active classrooms with high- quality teaching and learning.

In the process, the programme is giving teachers an opportunity to develop a new language around their classroom practice, enabling them to share practice, resources and ideas, regardless of their subject.

The Education and Training Board Ireland has engaged with Canadian professor Barrie Bennett to develop a programme of professional development for school and college management and teachers that focuses on developing these skills. This programme is in its eighth year and has facilitated the training and upskilling of almost 1,000 postprimary teachers, principals and deputy principals.

Annually, a cohort of about 120 participants – including three representatives from each school – attend four workshops, over a two-year period.

Generally two groups are facilitated consecutively. Due to demand, three will be facilitated consecutively from 2016 onwards.

So, why are schools signing up in their droves for the programme?

We’ve found that students love how the teachers have embraced the methods used to make classrooms active-learning environments.

One teacher tells the story of how her students left her classroom and asked another teacher would she “do the stuff that the other teachers does with us?”

This is opening up an opportunity for professional collaboration within the school.

It is also encouraging teachers to consciously adapt their classroom practice to maximise student learning and to make classrooms a safe and accountable learning environment.

The science behind the learning is a central part of the programme. Teachers learn not just new skills and how to implement them but also the science and reasoning behind them.

The programme promotes and supports the building of internal capacity in schools, where teachers become critical friends and teachers of each other. Schools are developing the capacity to provide their own professional development, to meet their own unique needs.

It is much more than another form of learning. There are a number of crucial ingredients required to help ensure it works effectively.

For example, it is compulsory for the principal or deputy principal to participate in the programme.

This is not only to support them in executing their roles in leading teaching and learning, but also to ensure that effective change takes place right across the school or college.

This includes changing how teachers teach and how students learn across the postprimary and further-education sector.

An exciting aspect of the programme is that those who have completed it are facilitating the delivery of the programme in their own schools and colleges, with fellow schools and with groups of teachers at national and regional level.

In fact, graduates will facilitate with Prof Bennett at the workshops for the groups due to commence the programme in March.

Many have established support networks. These allow teachers in various schools and colleges across the sectors to meet on a regular basis, outside of school time, to share their experience and learning.

Nothing stands still, however. That is why a national conference is held annually to support and further promote the skills necessary to meet Ireland’s’ changing classrooms.

We have found that the instructional leadership programme has motivated many participants to continue their study of this area at postgraduate level. Their insights continue to be shared as valued feedback within the programme.

The programme is working and making an impact. It can be demanding and challenging, but it is of high quality and focused on the core business of any school: teaching and learning, at all levels. Joan Russell

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