Fireworks teaching: why less might well be more

Why should I let the toad work
Squat on my life?
Can’t I use my wit as a pitchfork
And drive the brute off?

Philip Larkin – Toads

Many people (and many students) seem to expend considerable energy in attempting to use their wits to drive off the need to work. This provokes the ire of others (often teachers) who consider it character forming and good for them and I-had-to-do-it so-why-shouldn’t-you?

The ability to work hard and get on with difficult and onerous tasks is a terribly important life skill and I expend a fair bit of my energy in convincing children to pull their fingers out, wind their necks in and get on with it. But having said that, I am against working harder than I need or want to.

Recently I retweeted this by @TessaLMatthews:

Screen Shot 2013-07-15 at 10.34.31

A typical lesson?

A typical lesson?

Various people were annoyed while others seemed pleased. Clearly this was insufficient explanation of the point I wanted to make.  Jim Smith refers to ‘fireworks teaching’; activities which may look spectacular but take far longer for the teacher to create than they do for students to complete. He uses the example of the card sort as a particular waste of time. Now, you may be a proponent of card sorts and they may produce excellent thinking with your students: that is fine. I certainly wouldn’t want anyone to feel as if they shouldn’t spend their time however they want. But for many it might comes a relief to consider that if the time spent creating a resource outweighs the time students spend using it then there is probably a more efficient way of working.

Then I read this excellent blog post on the danger of packing lessons full of activities from Thomas Starkey. He says of his activity packed lessons, “it was just stuff. You can’t pack a suitcase that tight and it all be quality content. It was filler there to do one thing and one thing only: keep them occupied.” Instead, quality content is “too precious to be blown out there like a shotgun blast. It should be wielded like a scalpel.” It seems eminently sensible that we should pick and choose so that our students focus on what’s most important at the time. Clearly, teaching like a surgeon rather than an angry farmer takes considerably more skill but Starkey argue that this is effort worth investing because packing your lesson full of activities is “absolutely knackering. Fatigue soon sets in for both you and the poor shell-shocked kids. If you’re knackered you neither teach or learn well. And eventually you’ll be back to square one (but with the extra problem of zero energy to fight the good fight).”

Too many of us seem to work so much harder than the feckless kids we teach in order to drag them over those all-important grade boundaries.

But where does this need to work ourselves into an early grave come from?

Harry Webb writes about The Effort Hypothesis which basically states,

Teachers are lazy; just look at all the holidays that they have. Surely, we need to get them working. That would sort things out. Let’s get them working harder and we will see improvements in the quality of the education our children receive.

This is an obvious caricature. But the narrative in operation in many schools is underpinned by this idea that working harder will solve whatever problem it is we face:

We don’t really know what the solution is but it must require an increased effort on the part of the teachers. Therefore, strategies that require increased teacher effort must be good and strategies that do not require increased teacher effort must be bad.

This principle is also one which many of us apply to ourselves. A strong protestant work ethic must be a good thing, mustn’t it?

Well, this is tricky. On the one hand I do find myself nodding along to the proposition that effort is the new talent, and that if only everyone put in grittier, more deliberate practice than maybe everything would be OK. But is this just a horsehair shirt? Are we flagellating ourselves out of guilt at not getting round to marking those books, or writing that scheme of work? This is exactly what so many people found either shocking or refreshing about Jim’s concept of ‘lazy teaching’.

The answer is, I think, the difference between working hard for a clear and reasonable purpose, and being busy. For me a certain type of classroom resource typifies this ‘busy’ approach to teaching: if only our students have enough to do then they must be learning something. While many teachers take real joy in crafting resources designed to convey their content in interesting and meaningful ways, far too much time is wasted in preparing witless activities with the purpose of keeping kids busy.

And this is the point of Fireworks Teaching: it might look great, but what are students thinking about? If Dan Willingham is right when he says “memory is the residue of thought” students will remember that they thought about. Too often the fireworks distract students from thinking about the content.

So, if you want to spend hours producing beautifully crafted resources that’s fine; your personal life is your own. But before you do consider these points:

1. Is it going to encourage students to think about the content of lesson, or will it be a distraction?

2. Is there an easier way to get them to think about what’s important?

If you’re happy with the answers to these questions, go right ahead.

But for everyone else, less may well be more, so don’t waste time feeling guilty about it.

Related posts

Planning lesson: lessons I’ve learned from lessons I’ve taught

Are worksheets a waste of time?

Where lesson observations go wrong

Requires improvement!

Requires improvement!

Can we define an outstanding lesson?


I get asked this regularly, and I’ve really tried. But I don’t think it’s possible. I can describe a specific example of a lesson which was judged as outstanding, but that really isn’t helpful for two reasons.

1) Stand alone lessons don’t provide evidence of much except the performance of the teacher and the students at that particular moment. This is something I went into a great deal of detail about here. Briefly, learning can only be inferred from performance. Sometimes students perform really well but have forgotten everything by the next lesson. Sometimes they perform really badly but actually seem to remember what they learned. Learning is messy and takes time. Lessons are a snap shot. As such they can be useful in helping to triangulate a judgment on teaching and learning across a whole school, but they tell us little in and of themselves.

2) ‘Outstanding’ is a chimera. You can’t bottle lightning and you can’t show someone how to be outstanding. The only thing, in my experience, which offers any kind of cast iron guarantee, is a thorough knowledge of, and an excellent relationship with, your class. If you know what they know you almost can’t help but help them make progress. And this is the point: we are the experts. No one else knows our students in our classrooms as well as we do.

Anyone guilty of offering post lesson feedback which goes along the lines of, “I wouldn’t have done that, I’d have [insert latest faddish nonsense]” needs stringing up by their thumbs. I really don’t care what someone who is less expert than me might have done. Regardless of how vaunted their pedagogical content knowledge might be no one knows my kids in my classroom like I do. I’m happy to discuss they choice I made but please don’t tell me what you might hypothetically have done! Worse still is the observer who says, “It was great but I can’t give you a 1 because [insert stupid reason here.]”

Lesson observation, if it is to be productive and actually help teachers improve, needs to focus less on making judgements and more on teasing out teachers’ expertise. To that end the observer needs to adjust their stance and assume that the teacher knows far more about their class than they are likely to pick up in the 20 minutes or so that they hang around. Instead of making silly comments like, “That boy made no progress.” They need to ask, “Has that boy made any progress?”

Now, if as a teacher, we answer, “I don’t know.” Then we’re asking for it. We’re giving up all right to being treated like an expert. But if we can say demonstrate our knowledge of said student and point (in his book) to the progress he has made over time, what rational human being could argue with this?

Observation feedback should be a series of questions with the observer genuinely trying to find out what was going on in the snapshot they were privileged to have seen. Some questions worth asking include:

– Where does this lesson fit into your sequence of teaching?
– What have students had to learn in order to get to this point?
– What did they already know?
– How will you develop what students have done so far?
– How might the next lesson be adapted in light of what happened this lesson?
– How do you know if students are making progress?
– Why did you make the decision you made today?
– Is there anything you might do differently?

Also, here are some jolly useful questions from Tom Sherington’s post on observing a sequence of lessons:

– Is this learning activity compatible with an overall process that could lead to strong outcomes?
– Is it reasonable for progress to be evident within this lesson or might I need to see what happens over the next week or so?
– What general attitudes and dispositions are being modeled by teacher and students? Do they indicate positive learning-focused relationships compatible with an overall process that leads to strong outcomes?
– Does the record of work in books and folders, with the feedback dialogue alongside the work itself, tell a better story than the content of the one-off performance in front of you?

These sorts of questions assume that teachers are professionals and make informed judgments about how and what they teach. If answers to these questions reveal confusion or uncertainty then that is where we can help. If however the answer show that the teacher has thought about their teaching and knows their students really well then that is an opportunity for us to learn.

And if you get observed by someone who is clearly an idiot? My top tip is staple a transcript of this speech from Sir Michael Wilshaw to your lesson plan, and politely enquire how and why their views differ from the CHMI.

Reclaim your expertise, and refuse to accept shoddy observation feedback!


I’d be grateful if you would add examples of some of the awful (or indeed useful) lesson observation feedback you’ve received below. Thanks.

Related posts

What’s the point of lesson observations?

Are teacher observations a waste of time?

Live Lesson Obs: Making lesson observations formative


Another year in the life of an English teacher

2008-07-24-2nd birthday partySo, another year is done. The Learning Spy has officially entered into its third year of existence. And, after 173 posts I’m not only older but, just possibly, a tiny bit wiser.

This time last year I reported that the blog had had almost 50,000 hits. It has now had over 230,000 and is, apparently,  the 18th most influential educational blog in the world! I’m still not at all sure about the accuracy of this measure but it’s evidence of something. In other news the Teach 100 rank me at 123, so it all balances out.

I love blogging. It’s a continued revelation how much I enjoy pontificating on the ebb and flow of education.  And that the gap between thought and publication is so immediate. It’s quite a thrill to know that there are people out there who are interested in what I think and do. And what people! I still feel a bit giddy about the fact that Dylan Wiliam has left two (2!) comments on the blog. But despite the sense of audience, there’s still a space to think, to explore, to synthesise ideas and to simply. A blog is organic in a way no other medium is; it grows with its writer and, although I share the space with others, it’s intensely personal and uniquely mine.

Ahem. Well after all that self-indulgence, what about some prosaic statistics? Just in case anyone’s interested, the most popular posts I’ve written this year are:

1. Anatomy of an outstanding lesson – 22nd January 2013 – 8,624 views

2. Work scrutiny – what’s the point of marking books? 26th January 2013 – 7,941 views

3. Go with the flow – the 2 minute lesson plan  – 17th November 2012 – 7,518 views

4. Outstanding teaching & learning: missed opportunities and marginal gains – 14th October 2012 – 6,404 views

5. Why do so many teachers leave teaching? – 27th February 2013 – 6,293 views

6. Building challenge: differentiation that’s quick and works – 19th January 2013 – 6,287

7. Icebergs, taking risks and being outstanding  – 11th February 2013 – 4,679 views

8. The Matthew Effect – why literacy is so important – 30th September 2012 – 3,881 views

9. Teacher talk: the missing link – 18th May 2013 – 3,694 views

10. Developing oracy: it’s talking time! – 29th December 2012 – 3,174 views

What does all that tell us? Mainly that putting the word ‘outstanding’ in a blog post title seems a good strategy for getting hits, and that maybe lots of people read blogs in January.

The posts I feel most proud of are the Teaching Sequence for Developing Independence series. But despite pouring my heart into them they just haven’t proved particularly popular. Go figure.

So much for the blog. As for me, I’m struggling to write that difficult second book, and have another big year of change ahead. After a great year at the wonderful Clevedon School, I’m on the move again; this time to Greenwood Academy in Birmingham. It was a difficult decision to leave after only a year, but Greenwood offered me what can only be described as my dream job as a teaching & learning coach. Not only that, but I’m going to be working for myself 1 day a week next year. If you’re tempted to inflict me your staff, click here.

Thanks for reading. I hope we’re all still here this time next year.

Related posts

A year in the life of an English teacher
A review of 2012
A universal panacea? My homage to Twitter

Why the knowledge/skills debate is worth having


‘I note the obvious differences between each sort & type, but we are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike’.

Maya Angelou

I’ve come an awful long way since September 2011 when Cristina Milos took the time to point out that my view on the teaching of knowledge and skills were seriously skewed. I’m flabbergasted that, as an experienced teacher, I could have been so ignorant. I said at the end of that post that “I guess my conclusion isn’t that skills are more important than knowledge: rather that both are required for mastery of a subject.” But I didn’t really believe it. If you scroll down the comments of the that post you can see how politely and tolerantly Old Andrew points out that maybe I had it wrong.

Two months later I posted this, in which I advocated SOLO taxonomy as a means of squaring the knowledge/skills circle. The sad fact was that I really had very little idea about teaching beyond the experience of my own classroom. I’m a reasonably intelligent and articulate individual and it seemed reasonable to believe that what I knew was some way representative of what was true. And indeed it seemed so: most of the teachers who responded to my blogs were positive and sympathetic. but it shocked me to come across people who dismissed what I held dear as pap.

I carried on with the SOLO taxonomy line for a while despite one or two concerns at how it was misappropriated until considering this question: What happens when a student “establishes a relational construct which is wrong”? The answer, of course, is to go back to their store of knowledge and correct the misapprehension. This led, inexorably, to the realisation that the usefulness of SOLO was entirely dependent on the quality of knowledge students possessed. Students are asked to make relational connections and abstract constructions at every Key Stage and beyond. The only difference is the quality of what they know. Finally, the penny dropped; teaching students how to analyse in isolation is pretty pointless. They need to have some thing to analyse. And if this sounds blindingly obvious to you, consider the fact that I had been teaching for over a decade and was a head of department.

The point I’m clumsily and longwindedly trying to make is that anyone out there who feels it’s unimportant to discuss the importance of knowledge in teaching (especially in teaching English) is probably unaware that for the vast majority of teachers all this is going to comes as rather a shock. By and large, we who tweet and blog are at the cutting edge of thought and discussion in education, comparatively speaking. We have our fingers resting lightly on the pulse of cognitive science and we know whereof we speak. [style note: flowery prose indicates irony] If after consideration of all this you arrive at a position where you can align yourself with a constructivist  approach to teaching, then I applaud you; you have obviously considered the pros and cons and have arrived at a more or less informed decision. The right and wrong of it doesn’t matter nearly so much as having had the discussion.

But whenever you’re feeling judgemental about this essential debate cropping up on Twitter yet again, remember this: you are not typical. Most teachers have never, through little fault of their own, considered that some of the fundamental premises of how they teach are in doubt. Without access to the collective wisdom of Twitter it’s actually quite hard to find stuff out. Most CPD is still about how to talk less and show progress in 20 minutes. How do I know? Last week I attended three training events and told teachers about the Teaching Sequence for Developing Independence I’ve been writing about and they were stunned. Not because this stuff is revolutionary or groundbreaking in anyway, but because it’s commonsense. We have all suspected that a lot of what we’re told by SLT about what they think Ofsted might want is obviously bonkers, but we sigh, and shrug and admit that well, hey, what do we know? These guys are the experts and clearly they must know what they’re on about.

Mustn’t they?

It’s now clear to me that if we want to stop the predations of snake oil salesmen and Ofsted whisperers we must reclaim our expertise. We must boldly and confidently state that no one knows our students in our classrooms better than we do. We need to be able to counter any accusations that we talked too much or that our students were insufficiently independent by explaining that here is where they will be independent and in order for that to happen I need to actually teach them here. And if anyone ever feedbacks back on a lesson observation by saying “I wouldn’t have done it like that. I’d have done ….” we need to find a polite but assertive way to ask them to explain precisely how and why their views differ from Ofsted’s supremo, Sir Michael Wilshaw’s.

As many have observed, the debate is circular: of course procedural knowledge is equally important as propositional knowledge. My point is that this truth is not the point. We all need to find our own way to it and make our own peace with it. The fac that the destination is already known to some, doesn’t mean others should not embark on the journey. The aim is to think.

So, if we want to be taken seriously we need to know what we’re talking about. Sapere aude – dare to know!

Related posts

Independence vs independent learning
Teacher Talk: the missing link
The teaching sequence for developing independence

Teaching sequence for developing independence Stage 4: Practise

quote-practice-does-not-make-perfect-only-perfect-practice-makes-perfect-vince-lombardi-114103What does practice make? Well, it turns out that my mum was wrong. Doug Lemov points out in Practice Perfect that practice doesn’t make perfect, practice makes permanent. What we practise we get good at. And sometimes we get very good at doing things badly.

Take writing for instance. When I scribble notes I always use capital letters correctly. This isn’t a boast: I just do. It would never occur to me not to, I don’t even think about it. When I read students’ work they invariably omit capital letters for proper nouns. Now, I rarely meet a secondary student who is unaware of where capital letters should be used and if you point out that they missed some then they generally know exactly where to put them. I used to think this was laziness, but I realise now it’s not; they’re doing exactly what I do: unthinkingly repeating what they’ve practised. After years of practising not using capital letters, they are really good at it. And it takes a real effort of will to remember to do something we do unthinkingly. This is what Lemov calls ‘encoding failure’, and it is best avoided if we’re serious about students mastering the skills and knowledge we’re teaching them.Screen Shot 2013-07-03 at 23.20.13

The independent construction stage of the sequence is another one of those hidden areas of teaching. I’ve often had teachers say something along the lines of, “Oh, don’t come and watch that lesson – they’ll just be getting on with it.” Or, if pushed, abandoning what they need to do in order to lay on the kind of joint construction lesson that observers like. I think this is a little odd. Surely, if what we’re supposed to be doing is minimising teacher talk and having kids doing independent learning this kind of lesson ought to be ideal? Can there be a better way of demonstrating progress and independence than by seeing a class of kids working in silence?

Part of the reluctance behind want to be seen presiding over this kind of lesson is that some teachers aren’t sure what to do with themselves: obviously, drinking coffee and surfing the net don’t look particularly constructive. And I understand that. I’m pretty sure that I’d baulk at taking this approach even though I think it could be perfectly justifiable. But often the demands of covering content and lack of curriculum time mean we don’t give students nearly enough opportunities to practise. We tell ourselves (and them) that it’s all about ‘skills’ which student should be able to transfer from one subject to another, but if they don’t get the chance to master these skills in one area before being asked to jump though new, slightly differently shaped hoops then they are never going to transfer them.

For those who might be feeling that ‘mastery’ is an unattainably giddy height to which mere mortals cannot aspire, let’s quantify and distil the term to something on which we can agree. Gladwell’s bastardisation of Erikson’s work into the neat figure of 10,000 hours may not be in any substantive way true, but it is a useful way of looking at mastery.There isn’t a short cut. Mastery, however we define it, takes time. But, and this is the good news, if we want it enough, if we’re prepared to put in the effort, mastery is achievable. Mastery is not perfection; it’s just being really good at something.

Grit & growth mindset

So, the Grit/Flow cycle begins with the determination to work towards mastery and the belief that, with hard work, mastery is possible. The process of explaining, modelling and then scaffolding out to have prepared students for this. If it hasn’t you may need to revisit some of the steps. As teachers our job is to convince any particularly truculent or apathetic students that a) they can and that b) they should work towards a goal. ‘Mastery’ may seem like like too glossy a coat to wear, but for the sake of convincing students to work, we can just call it ‘getting better’. The better you get, the closer you are to mastery.

I’m often suspicious of lesson time spent on meta-cognition: I’d rather they expanded their cultural capital instead. But it may be profitable to teach students about the process of learning to enable them to monitor, control and regulate their own practice. We should definitely encourage them to see that hard work is its own reward and that anything worth learning will be challenging. At the Explaining stage of the sequence I often begin a new topic by telling students that it’s really hard, that they’ll struggle but that this is normal: if it wasn’t difficult what would be the point in doing it? I tell them that they will make mistakes and that this is not only OK, it’s essential. I tell them that they can achieve more than they believe possible if they’re prepared to put the effort in, and that whatever they do achieve will be exactly proportionate to that effort. If, for any reason, you’ve managed to avoid hearing about Dr Carol Dweck’s Mindset theory, you can read about it here.

Deliberate Practice

Part of the path to mastery is understanding the value of deliberate practice. Boring? Well, maybe not. Many students commit many hours to playing computer games where the goal is to master the game and reach the end.  They get constant and instant feedback about what works and what doesn’t and then they get the opportunity to try out this feedback again and again until they get it right. Kids that quickly throw in the towel at school are willing to persevere at Call of Duty until they overcome their limitations. Why do they do it? Because they want to win. Being killed endlessly is all kinds of frustrating; the pleasure comes from mastery.

But why is it that these same kids moan at doing something hard in class? What is it that ‘engages’ them with computer games but turns them off with, say, grammar? Well, mainly it’s because choosing to squish things in your own time is fun and writing stuff in books because you’re told to isn’t. But fun be damned. Hattie says in Visible Learning for Teachers, “Sometimes learning is not fun. Instead, it is just hard work; it is deliberate practice; it is simply doing some things many times over.” If our students always expect ‘fun’ lessons they will never get good at what we’re trying to teach them. But be warned: without corrective feedback students’ practice may just be  encoding failure. Most errors should have been picked up in the scaffolding phase, but we must make sure that we have sky high expectations and clear models to refer back to.

‘Talent’ Developed

When you start getting good at something, you start to see the point. If we accept that talent is the product of deliberate practice an individual has put into mastering a skill then we can help to explode some of the short cut culture which society seems to value so highly. We’re much too inclined to just see the performance of a professional athlete, musician or, dare I say it, teacher and conclude that, well, it’s alright for them. They have talent. And we don’t. So why bother trying? What we don’t see are the hours and hours and deliberate practice that has gone in to to producing the performance. We don’t see the failures, the sweat or the frustration so we decide it mustn’t be there. There is not a musician or sports person alive who will not readily admit to the fact that natural ‘talent’ is almost irrelevant. You only get to the top of your game through determination and hard work. But when talent is developed, all the hard work seems to suddenly pay off and we’re granted magical moments when everything just ‘flows’.

I was recently observed by some NQTs seeking to develop their questioning. They watched a lesson where students carried out a very sophisticated, high level discussion with very little input from me. The kids took turns at evaluating each others’ responses and everyone in the class took part: it looked great. Unfortunately, the NQTs learned very little. They went away having just seen the independent construction phase of my teaching sequence and believed (wrongly) that I’m somehow a more talented teacher they they are. They hadn’t seen any of the struggle or frustration that the class and I had gone through to get to this. They hadn’t seen me explain, model and scaffold what I wanted; just seeing the tip of the iceberg is not very useful for helping us understand what icebergs look like.

Flow experiences

I’ve been fascinated by the idea of ‘flow’ since reading Mihály Csíkszentmihályi‘s book some years ago. The idea is that if you’re totally immersed in the experience of performing a task you will perform it to a higher standard. It’s has been billed as “the ultimate experience in harnessing the emotions in the service of performing and learning.” Who wouldn’t want to feel “a feeling of spontaneous joy, even rapture, while performing a task”? Sounds good, right? Maybe too good.In a quick-fix culture the belief that we’re somehow entitled to experience flow without effort is pernicious. And  something that the slavish demands to demonstrate  ‘progress-every-20-minutes’ only encourage. The mystical, effortless beauty of the flow state can seem to be the antithesis of grit. Grit is carrying on despite the pain. Grit is being able to practise until your fingers bleed. Grit is not fun. Grit is doing it even when it’s boring! This is the master skill and we should encourage students to delay the tempting gratification of flow.

I worry about those lessons that just seem to flow: are students learning or just performing really well? We’re conditioned to look at the tip of the iceberg and the graceful swan above the surface. We often say that learning is messy, but do we believe it? Bjork tells us that when learning is really happening, short term performance is reduced: it feels like we’re getting worse. That is why we shy away from gritty lessons; especially when being observed. But if the journey is always hard we may not have the motivation to carry on. We need to glimpse the magic of flow in order to trudge on and experience it again. If life was just rehearsal, if sport was just training, what would be the point? We train because we want to perform at our peak when it really matters. For our students this may well be in their examinations, for us it may well be in that high stakes observation when the inspector comes to call. What ever the reason, we want to be able to experience flow when it really matters.

The role of feedback

We all know that giving feedback improves performance. And if it was as easy as the sentence makes it sound all would be well. As teachers we need to know what kinds of feedback to offer in a given situation. Sometimes a simple ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ might be enough, at other times it needs to be much more complex. For feedback to be effective it needs to meet a whole host of conditions:

– Specific – as Ron Berger says, feedback should be as specific as ‘put more stripes on the legs’ or ‘make the tail black’. It’s no good telling students to ‘use more expression in your writing’. If they knew how to do that they’d probably already have done it.

– Clear – sometimes even specific feedback isn’t clear. Make sure you are able to describe exactly what you want and use questioning to make sure that students understand.

– Limited – too many instructions are overwhelming. It’s much more likely that students will improve when offered one piece of advice at a time. Consider which piece of feedback is most likely to have an impact first

– Kind – it’s all very well being kind, but this also requires honesty. Berger talks about feedback needing to be “hard on content, soft on people’. If our feedback makes people feel bad they’re not going to listen. One of the simplest ways to offer feedback that is palatable enough to listen is to phrase it in the form of a question. Have you thought about adding more adjectives to that second sentence?

– Balanced – this is a tough one to get right. If we only focus on correcting negatives we can easily miss the opportunity to give feedback on what students are already good at. But, it turns out that positive feedback can be counter productive. Saying ‘well done’ might feel good but it won’t help anyone improve. Hattie says, “if you are not challenged you do not make mistakes. If you do not make mistakes, feedback is useless.” We must ensure that the work students are doing is hard enough that they will make mistakes if we’re going to help them improve. But we can still focus on the positive: Your sentence structure is really improving – now see if you can embed some subordinate clauses.

– Timely – if our feedback is going to going to have impact it has to come at the right time. And the right time is usually immediately. Hard to do in a classroom situation. Waiting a week to mark books probably won’t be useful but we also need to have a life. The most useful feedback is therefore often verbal. But what isn’t written down is easily lost and forgotten. I hate the idea of verbal feedback stamps in students’ books – who are we doing this for? Instead, have students repeat the feedback and articulate precisely what they are going to do differently. In this way we can ‘lock it in’. (Lemov p136)

– Helpful – if students don’t understand how the feedback will help them improve then it’s hard to commit to acting on it. If we take the time to describe a solution which focuses on the ‘so that’ students are more likely to see the point. You should use discourse markers to connect your paragraphs together so that your writing is more coherent.


Independence isn’t possible without a period of dependence. When universities complain that students can’t work independently they assume that the reason must be too much spoon-feeding in schools. Actually the opposite is true; students aren’t good at being independent because they been made to work with too little direction and don’t know how to work independently. To be independent we need to know what to do and how to do it. And if we we don’t teach students what they need to know we run the risk of them never discovering it.

The four stages of the teaching sequence are all essential components of independence. Explain and modelling require teachers to be experts and to teach. Scaffolding allows us to start to let go. As long as students are sufficiently clear about what they meant to be doing then collaborative and reciprocal teaching can be highly effective. And then we need to let them practise. Practise will make permanent. If we are there to offer feedback to prevent them encoding failure they can and will become truly independent. We need to be able to explain what we’re doing and why we’re doing it. Teaching should never be judged as outstanding if teachers are unclear about how their lessons fit into a sequence. If we can rid ourselves of the myth that performance is evidence of learning and to be able to say, here is where they will be independent and this is how I know.  As teachers it’s about knowing when to apply the different skills of the teaching sequence. It’s about knowing that if we ask students to run before they can walk we’re going to have a lot of grazed knees. And it’s about having the confidence to reclaim our professional expertise. We are the experts. No one else knows our students in our classrooms they way we do.

Related posts

Great teaching happens in cycles – the teaching sequence for developing independence

Stage 1: Explain, Stage 2: Model, Stage 3: Scaffold

Teaching sequence for developing independence Stage 3: Scaffold

Screen Shot 2013-07-03 at 23.20.03So, you’ve explained the new concepts and ideas students will need to know, deconstructed examples so that they know how to use these concepts in practice and you’ve modelled the process of how an expert would go about creating an effective example of whatever product students need to create. Surely they’re now ready to be released, joyfully, on to the foothills of independent learning?

No, not quite yet they’re not. Everyone benefits from scaffolding to help move them from kind of knowing vaguely what to do to being confident. Confidence is key; if students lack it then they’re really going to struggle to be independent. This is the stage of the teaching cycle that maybe most closely resembles the type of lesson that Ofsted may or may not prefer: it will probably include students working collaboratively and independently of their teacher. As such, this is perhaps familiar territory and possibly unnecessary to revisit. That said, I reckon that  many joint construction lessons go wrong because of misunderstandings about why, and how, to scaffold tasks appropriately.

Before examining some practical examples of how to do this, it’s worth having a bit of a look at the underlying theory. And for that we need a nodding acquaintance with Lev Vygotsky’s ideas of cognitive development. Amongst other things, Vygotsky argued that learning is social and happens by interacting with our environment. He also thought that we need a ‘more knowledgeable other’ to help guide us through the complexities of this learning. This suggests that both peer interaction and direction instruction are important components of learning. The concept of the more knowledgeable other is closely related to the most well-known principle of Vygotsky’s work, the Zone of Proximal Development, or “the distance between the actual developmental level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance”. Obviously, a student will achieve much more with with guidance and encouragement than they might independently. Vygotsky saw the Zone of Proximal Development as the area where the most sensitive instruction or guidance should be given to allow students to develop skills they can then use on their own. This has become synonymous with the concept of scaffolding, although apparently Vygotsky never used the term himself.

Unfortunately, scaffolding has become conflated with writing frames (and other tools of low expectation) and is consequently tarred with the same brush. It may be useful to use PEE (or one of its many variants) to get students to structure their writing, but these can often result in writing which slavishly follows a structure with little understanding of the processes and thinking involved. All too often they privilege procedural knowledge over propositional knowledge and produce work which only covers what students already know. The best scaffolding will support students’ thinking and their ability to integrate new concepts as well as just providing a structure. If we pitch our expectations at the very top and then scaffold upwards we will not go too far wrong.

Scaffolding can be defined as, “Those elements of the task that are initially beyond the learner’s capacity, thus permitting him to concentrate upon and complete only those elements that are within his range of competence” (Wood, 1976). Or to put it another way, if we do the bits that students can’t, they will be able to tackle the bits they’re ready to attempt successfully with getting distracted and frustrated. Ideally, scaffolding should include a mix of techniques:

– Offer general encouragement e.g. ‘Now you have a go.’
– Give specific instructions e.g. ‘Do this first, then try that…’
– Directly demonstrate e.g. showing students what to do.

Our job in the process of joint construction is to select which approach is most useful with particular students and any given time. This is a delicate balancing act made more complicated by the fact that whole class instruction is almost impossible in those lessons where students are ‘having a go’.

The process of scaffolding needs to:

– get students interested in the task.
– simply the task sufficiently to allow students to attempt it
– give specific suggestions on how to approach the task
– deal with the frustration of ‘not getting it’

Sounds exhausting, doesn’t it?

Clearly, there’s a lot more than just making students use PEE at work here. For scaffolding to be successful teachers need to know their students really well. There is no substitute for having a clear picture of students’ prior attainment. This knowledge enables us to differentiate effectively and to ensure that scaffolding is effectively targeted at the area that will make the most impact on students’ ability to be able to do something that is currently just out of their reach. The great thing about this is that it can look like students are making marvelous progress as they demonstrate an ability to do what previously they couldn’t. If an observer comes in to see a successful lesson in the joint construction stage of the teaching cycle in can appear almost magical. The teacher doesn’t appear to have to talk much and students seem to know enough to be able to get on with it. But this is a conjuring trick. As teachers we are often at pains to showcase this kind of lesson to impress observers but students cannot learn by joint construction alone. It must be understood and accepted that this kind of lesson will only be successful at this stage in the cycle.

Arguably, a contemporary application of Vygotsky’s theories is reciprocal teaching, used to improve students’ ability to learn from text. In this method, teacher and students collaborate in learning and practicing four key skills: summarising  questioning, clarifying, and predicting.  The teacher’s role in the process is reduced over time. Alex Quigley recently wrote about the role of reciprocal teaching in scaffolding metacognition. He offers a bank of thought stems designed to guide peer questioning:

What is a new example of…?
How would you use…to…?
What would happen if…?
What are the strengths and weaknesses of…? How does…tie in with what we learned before?
Explain why… Explain how…
How does… What is the… Why is… How are…different?
Compare…and…with regard to…
What do you think causes…?
What conclusions can you draw about…?
Do you agree or disagree with this statement:…? Support your answer.
How are…and…similar?
How are… and…best…and why?

And says,

By scaffolding these questions you can better structure the quality of group discussion whilst also honing their metacognitive understanding, allowing them to actively make their next step in their learning. If we can calibrate students to ask better questions we will make them better learners.

And we all want that, right?

We can also see how Vygotsky’s theories feed into theories of collaborative learning, suggesting that group members should have different levels of ability so more advanced peers can help less advanced members operate within their zone of proximal development. Some might call this effective differentiation. Others might call it a waste of ‘more able’ students’ time. I couldn’t possibly comment.

For me, one of the most effective ways of scaffolding students’ ability to think, is to prompt them to shift their speech from everyday to academic register. We’ve all experienced those ‘verbally able’ students who seem incapable of putting anything down on paper. In the past I might have believed this to be laziness but in reality they just don’t have the words. For experts, shifting from everyday to academic language is seamless. As soon as I think a thing I am able to ‘translate’ it the formal code required in writing. I don’t even notice I’m doing it. For some of our students, this transition is seemingly impossible. But prompting them to use thought stems to scaffold this transition from thought to speech to writing is almost magical. As soon as you’ve said it, you can write it. If we want students to be able to work independently this is a crucial and neglected area.

I love the following examples of ‘speaking like a scientist’ from Lee Donaghy’s school:

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The idea here was to scaffold students’ ability to be able to talk about this chemical equation using scientific language. Students naturally said things like “The amount of reactants is the same as the amount of products.”

This is scaffolded to “The mass of the reactants equals the mass of the products.”

They said,  “The mass has stayed the same.”

They were prompted to say, “The mass has been conserved.”

And finally, “This chemical equation demonstrates the conservation of mass.”

And because their ability to speak about the conservation of mass has shifted, so has their ability to think:

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I use thought stems to prompt students to reword their answers in the kind of language they need to use in writing.

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Who would have believed that something so simple was so effective? Surely it should be more complicated than this?

Here’s Lee again describing the process of joint construction in a history lesson using a whole-text schematic


Through questioning we were able to establish why we had ordered the factors as we had – we had arranged them in chronological order, in that the desire to expand had been there since the end of the First World War, the economic problems had come about after 1929 and the Mukden Incident happened immediately before the invasion. As we had ordered them in this way in the introduction, we then had to order them the same way in subsequent paragraphs in order to maintain whole-text coherence.

The next step was to write each paragraph and having jumped around the teaching and learning cycle so far, here was the point at which I would now stick to it closely. I decided I wanted to nail down the topic sentence for each paragraph first, before completing the rest of each paragraph in turn. The first step, then, was to model and then deconstruct the first paragraph’s topic sentence. Here’s how I did it:


I went back to the statement ‘Japan invaded Manchuria because the army wanted to make Japan’s empire bigger’, which a pupil had come up with from the YouTube clip. At this point the fact that the question was about the reasons for the invasion became important. The statement above has Japan as its theme (ie at the start of the clause), but the question doesn’t, it has why (or the reasons why) as its theme. Thus our answer needs to thematise the reasons, not Japan. If we look back at the introductory paragraph we find our first nominalised reason for the invasion was ‘the army’s desire’, and so I explained that my topic sentence would have this nominalistion in theme position – hence it started ‘The desire of the Kwantung army to expand Japan’s Pacific empire…’.

I then explained that I wanted our topic sentences to do two more things: firstly to give the factors that led to this reason (in this case the desire); secondly to then link back to the question. I reminded the class, drawing on our knowledge from the clip, that the desire was a result of the army’s nationalist ideology and the weakness of the Chinese government. These two things made up the second clause of our topic sentence, which would also be a dependent clause thus making the sentence a complex one (teaching grammar in context!) and therefore necessitating bookending with a pair of commas. The final phase of the sentence (after the embedded, dependent clause) would directly reference the invasion and would also locate this reason chronologically as ‘the long term cause’. We therefore ended with a topic sentence of: ‘The desire of the radical Kwantung army to expand Japan’s empire in Asia, fuelled by its Nationalist ideology and the weakness of the Chinese government, was the long term reason for the Japanese invasion of Manchuria.’

Having modelled the first topic sentence I then moved on to jointly constructing the second with the class, which produced the following:


We followed the previous pattern of: nominalised factor as theme – embedded, dependent clause giving reasons for the factor – link back to question, and came up with: ‘The need to find a solution to Japan’s economic problems, sparked by population growth during the 1920s and deepened by the effects of the Depression, was the short term cause of the takeover of Japan’.

Pretty slick, eh? If this kind of detailed scaffolding doesn’t result in students being able to work independently, nothing will. With enough of this kind of guided discovery, students will be ready for independent construction stage and to embark on the path to mastery. To achieve mastery we need to practise, and we all know what practice makes, don’t we?

Maybe not; in my next post I’ll attempt to unpick some myths that surround the cult of practice.

Coming next: Stage 4: Practise

Related posts

Great teaching happens in cycles
The teaching cycle stage 1: Explain
The teaching cycle stage 2: Model

Teaching sequence for developing independence Stage 2: Model

Screen Shot 2013-07-03 at 23.19.53Over the past few years I’ve thought a lot about how and what we should teach. My journey has been long and painful. I used to evangelically promote the teaching of transferable ’21st century skills’ like creativity and problem solving. Now I reckon that actually these skills might be subject specific, and that solving a maths problem might be very different to solving a problem in English. And perhaps being creative in science may possibly be fundamentally different to creativity in history. I used to be firmly convinced that everything students needed to know could be outsourced to Google. Why bother learning facts that we could instead ‘just look up’? I’ve since read some cognitive science and understand a little bit about the fragility of our working memory and the need to transfer information to long-term memory if we want space to be creative and solve problems. And I’ve also come to realise that our thinking is qualitatively improved by knowing things: we can’t think about what we don’t know.

Having said all that, it’s important to acknowledge that just explaining the ‘grammar’ of our subjects is inadequate. Just because I no longer think it’s possible to teach transferable skills instead of knowledge doesn’t mean I don’t want students to be creative and solve problems. So, once we’ve explained the information, they need to know what to do with it. And the best way to see what students need to do is find out what experts do. If stage 1 of the cycle has been mainly concerned with transmitting propositional knowledge, the emphasis of stage 2 is on building procedural knowledge. Whatever our subject, there will be giants on whose shoulders our students can stand. The first step of the modelling process is to have a bloody good look at what these experts have done.


‘Having a bloody good look’, or deconstruction as it’s more affectionately known, involves seeing how things work. Everyone remembers the science lesson in which they dissected a frog, or a bull’s eye or whatever it was; the purpose was to see how the ultimate ‘expert’ had put living organisms together. Sadly, most of the lesson I remember was spent fainting, or giggling maniacally whilst waving mangled corpses in faces of anyone who hadn’t fainted yet.

But, if better managed, this process of induction will help students understand the principles of a device, object, or system through analysis of its structure, function and operation. Sound frighteningly technical? Fortunately, it’s actually very simple.

Inductive learning—that is, learning a new concept or category by observing exemplars—happens constantly, for example, when a baby learns a new word or a doctor classifies x-rays.

Nate Kornell and Robert A. Bjork (2008)

In English, an essential part of the teaching sequence for writing has always been to deconstruct texts to work out how they were constructed. It ought to go without saying that students will be better writers if they’ve had the opportunity of seeing what good looks like.

Here are some examples I’ve used in the past:

Extract from My Swordhand is Singing by Marcus Sedgwick

Extract from My Swordhand is Singing by Marcus Sedgwick

This was used to show students the techniques a writer might used to build a sense of menace or tension.

Here’s an extract from Centurion by Simon Scarrow I  deconstructed to examine the techniques we could use to create action in a piece of writing:

The mercenaries began to back away from the rebels, stabbing their spears frantically to try to create a gap between them and their enemies. As soon as some were clear they turned and ran towards Cato’s men, immediately endangering their slower comrades as the rebels swarmed into the gaps in the rapidly fragmenting line. A handful were cut off and overwhelmed, attacked from all sides as they desperately swirled around, trying to block the rebels’ blows. Inevitably, a blade darted in, and as a man staggered back from the wound he was hacked to the ground in a flurry of sword blows and spear thrusts.

From this, students worked out (with help) the following success criteria for writing effective action sequences:

–Use longer & varied, complex sentences to help speed the reader up

–Use powerful, exciting verbs

–Use adverbs to describe action

–Avoid using adjectives: they slow the reader down

And one of my favourite pieces of bad-tempered polemic from Bryan Reade on dog insurance:

Mis-targeted dog insurance law is another insult to the law-abidersThe first person I thought of when I heard dog-owners were going to be forced to take out insurance was Peter Andre. What a tragedy it would be if this extra burden meant he couldn’t afford to take Jordan back.

Then I thought of my father-in-law, who I drove to A&E a fortnight ago after a cross-bred snarler bit so deep into his hand he could see the bone. If only this insurance law had been in place then, I thought. How easy it would have been for the shaken 72-year-old to stagger around the streets, blood gushing from an open wound, trying to locate the owner, who was probably sitting in his 4×4 smoking weed while Tyson was given his daily unleashing. And if he had found him and asked for his insurance details, how lucky would he have been to escape without an even deeper wound to his skull?

Like most knee-jerk attempts at appearing tough on crime, this Tyson Tax is simply another insult to the law-abiders. The Government knows the people who would take out insurance are the owners who see their dogs as pets. Whereas the ones who see them as weapons are more likely to take out tattoo protection than insurance to benefit an injured party. At roughly £25 a month, once again, this law would impact most on the law-abiding poor, especially pensioners.

It’s the kind of deliberate mis-targeting we see all the time when hard questions are asked about the cliche that is Broken Britain. Take teenage binge-drinking. Instead of getting to the bottom of why so many 16-year-old girls want to spend Saturday night paralytic on a pavement, we were given a Know Your Limits campaign which merely frightened middle-aged couples into thinking that two glasses of Piat D’Or a night will pickle them into an early grave.

Imagine trying to enforce this Tyson Tax with no national register of our 10.5 million dog owners? It’s like trying to catch an uninsured driver on a speed camera. Would dogs be forced to wear number plates, like REX 1, so victims can jot down the details if they’ve got a hand left? Even if they did have insurance, knowing the type of ball-scratching, knuckle-scraping meatheads who own these weapon dogs, are they likely to admit to a crime, and lose their No-Maim Bonus, when they can run away from a bleeding, shaking wreck in fits of laughter?

How would this law have benefited my father-in-law? How would it benefit the baby who’s had her face taken off by the family rotty? How would it benefit anyone apart from the two biggest sets of legalised crooks outside of investment bankers: insurance firms and lawyers? Churchill must be salivating at the prospect of its friendly nodding dog becoming the reassuring pooch who rakes in millions.  And I’ll bet somewhere in Canary Wharf, London, a pair of wide boys have already formed a company called with the slogan “Where there’s a Hound, there’s a Pound.”

They say every dog has his day. With this Tyson Tax the only dogs whose day it will make will be tattooed knuckle-scrapers and besuited ambulance-chasers.

11th March 2010 Daily Mirror

But while this may be perfect for seeing how a writer uses language to argue, persuade and take the mick, it doesn’t demand much in the way of content knowledge. I was, I now see, so concerned with teaching procedural knowledge (skills) that I ‘forgot’ to teach new propositional knowledge (facts), relying instead on what students already knew about the world. Well, maybe I’m exaggerating slightly here, but it’s all too easy to do this when insufficient time has been spent laying the ground work and building the field that students will need to study. How much more effort would it have taken to give students examples from Dickens or Hardy? How much more benefit might have been accrued if I’d used an article from the Times or the Guardian instead of the Mail? The reason for not doing this in the past was that I believed it was sufficient to focus on the skill of writing and neglected many opportunities for enriching my students with some of the more challenging texts out there. As Matthew Arnold said, teaching should be about sharing the best of what has been thought and said over our rich history. Not just what the entertaining Mr Reade came up with last night.

But we don’t just want to deconstruct written texts. In other subjects there will be other products you will want to deconstruct and, while may of them will be written, many won’t. The trick is to be clear about what it is you want your students to produce, find good quality real-world examples and reverse engineer them.


And then, once we’ve seen how a product works, we should guide students through the process of making models. Science and mathematics have long traditions of making models. Such modelling involves abstraction and simplification, in order to better understand a particular feature of the world. In practical subjects the model, be it a pencil case, drawing, cup cake, dance will be created Blue Peter style by the teacher as an example of what success looks like. This is of course very useful. But of much more use is allowing students to observe the process of creation.

For years now I’ve made it a maxim that whenever I set students a task I complete it too. Of the many benefits this has, one of the best is hat I’ve built up a huge store of exemplar writing. Sadly, much of it was scribbled on paper and has been consigned to the great recycling centre in the sky, but much of it lives on in digital form. Not only is this useful to deconstruct, it has also provided lots of options for discussing my choices and reasoning. Sometimes it’s enough for students just to see a model but an essential part of the teaching sequence for writing is the process of modelling: talking through the decisions a writer makes at the point of writing. And the only way I know to do this effectively is to talk. I’ve written before about thinking like a writer, and the techniques of Slow Writing lend themselves very well to effective modelling.

Lee Donaghy’s account of improving a pre-prepared model is particularly instructive:

Next I showed the class an introduction I had written:

“After the First World War Japan was a very important, powerful country in Asia.  It already had control of lots of other parts of the Pacific.  But the army wanted to make Japan even bigger no matter what.  Japan also needed to do something about the economic problems of the 1920s, which were made worse by the depression.  So, the army made it look like China had blown up one of their railway lines at Mukden, so that it would have an excuse to invade Manchuria.  Japan invaded Manchuria in 1932.”

I explained that this was written in very ‘everyday’ language and we needed to improve it by making it sound more like what a historian would write. Pupils discussed how they would do this in small groups and we then jointly re-drafted the paragraph, with me prompting, probing and clarifying the pupils’ suggestions until we came up with this:


The main shift here, as I’m sure you can see, was that we nominalised the factors that led to the invasion: ‘…the army wanted to make Japan bigger no matter what’ became ‘the army’s overwhelming desire to expand further’; ‘Japan also needed to do something about the economic problems of the 1920s, which were made worse by the depression’ became ‘the need to find a solution to its economic problems’ and ‘the army made it look like China had blown up one of their railway lines at Mukden, so that it would have an excuse to invade Manchuria’ became ‘the pretext provided by the Mukden Incident…’. The class are quite well versed in nominalisation (turning verbs or adjectives into nouns or ‘things’) as I bang on and on about it being a key feature of abstract historical writing. Also, you will notice that the nominalised paragraph is shorter; this is because nominalisations pack a lot of meaning into one word, which is why they’re features of abstract, technical writing.

This focus on shifting student’s ‘everyday’ to academic language is particularly useful. Nominalisation (turning a verb (actions or events) to a concept) is great way to demonstrate confidence and authority in writing. Explicitly teaching my Year 13 English Literature students to do this improved their essay writing ability overnight; they could so clearly see and hear the difference. If you’re interested in introducing nominalisation to your students (and you should be) Kerry Pulleyn has written a jolly useful lesson plan.

And for those ‘verbally able’ students who never seem able to capture on paper their beautiful fleeting thoughts, this insistence on ‘speaking like an essay’ can create a little bit of magic. I used to get so frustrated when a student capable of uttering profound thoughts seemed unable to commit them to paper. I know now that it’s not that they can’t be bothered, it’s that, literally, they don’t have the words. I am able to switch seamlessly between everyday and academic register with nary a pause, but not so these kids. But modelling the process, and making them reframe their ideas using academic language, gives them the words. And, just like that, they can write it. I kid you not.

Deconstruction helps us to glimpse how success works, but modelling allows students access to the thoughts of an expert. These processes are absolutely vital if we want to promote students’ independence. Without expert, explicit modelling students have to rely on their innate ability. The ‘able’ will pick it up without ever being properly able to articulate how or why, and the ‘less able’ will be buggered. And in order for this to work, I’m afraid everyone just has to shut up and listen to sir.

Coming next: Stage 3: Scaffold

Related posts

Teaching Cycle stage 1: Explain
Great teaching happens in cycles
Independence vs independent learning

Teaching sequence for developing independence Stage 1: Explain

summer-solstice-long-day-seasonal-ecards-someecards“Explaining a joke is like dissecting a frog. You understand it better but the frog dies in the process.”

EB White

There are some definite pit falls to avoid in explaining things to kids. The biggest criticism of teachers talking is that it’s boring. And, generally speaking, boring kids is not a good way to get them to learn stuff.

But to suggest that teachers should therefore avoid explaining their subjects to students is a bizarre leap. Surely it would be vastly more sensible to expend our efforts in improving teachers’ ability to explain?

This then is the aim of this post: How can we make our explanations better?

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The starting point in teaching any new concept or idea is lay the groundwork of propositional knowledge required. This type of transmission lesson is deeply unfashionable and is something that many teachers are at pains to conceal. We all know that sometimes the most effective way to teach children is to talk to them, although we must always be wary that if they’re not learning, we are just talking.

To determine whether learning has taken place we can either check whether the can remember what we’ve taught or whether they understand it. And obviously we’d prefer that they understood, right? Well maybe remembering and understanding are not as far apart as we might think. Maths teacher Kris Boulton recently wrote a fascinating post asking why it is that students often seem to understand a thing and then forget it. In it he suggests that “if we put all our thought and effort into building understanding, we do so at the expense of memory, and will nurture students who understood everything, once, rather than understand it, still.” And it’s the ‘still’ that makes the difference.

So then, what makes a great explanation? I’m going to argue for for an explanation to work it has to be clear, memorable and relevant. And, ideally, it should also try to avoid killing the frog.


If an explanation is precise enough it is a lever capable of moving the world. But to be able to clearly explain a complex concept takes thought and planning. It’s useful to remember that what’s clear to me may not be so obvious to another. Wittgenstein’s duck/rabbit puzzle is a useful way to visualise this:



There have been plenty of occasions when I’ve tried to show my students a duck, for them only to be able to see a rabbit. Often the cause is that my own understanding is a little shaky. If I, as the teacher, am unclear, it’s unlikely my students will follow my explanation. This is a clear illustration of the need for excellent subject knowledge. I have definitely struggled at times this year to teach A level English Language; it’s full of new concepts and terminology and I’ve had to learn a lot of it on the fly. This has resulted in some rather poor explanations. As Einstein may or may not have said, “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”

One way I rely on to ensure my explanations are clearer is to break down the components of what I want  to teach and give students the language they need to explain it. It might seem easier to describe the circulatory system as ‘very fine tubes’ but it’s far more useful to call them capillaries. My best advice here is to make sure you use the specialist academic language used by experts as often and as clearly as you can. And insist that students use it too. What we practise we get good at so if we allow them to practise using sloppy, imprecise language, that’s what they’ll get good at.

Of course, there’s a fine line between talking over students’ heads and baffling them with irrelevant jargon and talking down to them. Of the two I’d rather err on the side of too complex rather than too simple; I’d rather they were forced to changed their thinking by incorporating new terms into the schema they are developing then leave them with something so slimmed down it’s almost stripped of meaning.

So, you’ve tried to be as clear as possible, but has it been clear enough? An essential component of being clear is checking that students have followed your explanation. This simplest way to do this is by asking questions. Personally, I’m too lazy and too easily confused to use something as complicated as Bloom’s Taxonomy to think about the questions I want to ask (that and I think it’s a bit rubbish.) Instead I rely on asking questions that clarify, probe or recommend:

Be mindful though about why you’re asking questions. If they don’t make your explanation clearer, maybe this is not the right time. Obviously if I’m asking questions to clarify then it ought to follow that this should result in students being able to articulate their understanding.

This fantastically useful question spectrum designed by @redorgreenpen will help interrogate the purpose behind your questioning:

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Whether you want to explain the effects of varied paragraphing, Pythagoras’s theorem, osmosis or the Treaty of Versailles, it’s vital to compare the new concept you’re teaching to familiar ones that students will already be familiar with. This means we should avoid using The Simpsons to teach Macbeth, or the Mr Men to teach the rise of the Nazi party.  This isn’t just about dumbing down (although you may have a view on that) it’s more that if Willingham is right that “memory is the residue of thought” we must ensure our comparisons make students think about the ideas we’re trying to teach. If they don’t think about it, they won’t remember it. So, if I want students to understand the plot of Macbeth, it won’t help them to be thinking about Marge and Homer instead. If I want students to understand how the leaders of the Nazi party came to power, making them think about Mr Silly and Mr Grumpy will only be a distraction. These activities may or may not be ‘fun’ or ‘active’, but they’re not a useful way to explain what you actually want students to know because they won’t remember what you want them to remember. In one of my most memorable biology lessons, my teacher knocked over the model skeleton (it’s the law that there must be at least one lab per school to contain a full size model skeleton) and told us that we’d remember the lesson for the rest of our lives. I have. But I cannot for the life of me recall what the lesson was about.

Our analogies should help students construct a schema into which they can fit new ideas. So, if I was an IT teacher trying to explain the concept of a firewall I might use the analogy of a bank clerk. In this analogy a website is a bank; if I want to get my money out of the bank they’re not usually keen me me to rummage around in the vaults and help myself. Instead I have to ask the clerk. The firewall does a similar job; if I want to access a secure site on internet, I have to go through the firewall first. This analogy is helpful because it relates a new concept to an existing one without me wasting a lot of time think about banks and money; it helps me think about websites and firewalls better. In a wonderful blog post on Lightbulb moments, another maths teacher, David Thomas, bridges the gap between direct instruction and discovery learning to show how he teaches sequencing and scatter graphs.

Screen Shot 2013-06-26 at 22.15.20One of the most useful and memorable analogies I’ve used is to explain the skills of analysing and evaluation using camera shots. I called the technique “Zooming in and out“, and it made something that many students previously found incomprehensible into something that they ‘got’. In brief, the skill of analysing is compared to a close up shot where you are able to see details which you might otherwise miss and evaluating is compared to a wide angle shot where you can see how the details fit into the big picture.



This isn’t an argument for being down with the kids. What I mean by relevance is that what we explain to students should be necessary for them to know; it should lead logically from what they have already understood.

Even if an explanation is clear and memorable sometimes it won’t take root simply because it’s not relevant. This is all about sequencing ideas and building up a knowledge base (or schema) one step at a time. There’s little chance that even the best explanation of sentence structure is going to make sense if students aren’t clear on what a verb is, and it’s unlikely that they’ll understand why Brutus decides to kill Caesar if they have no idea about the formation of the Roman Republic.

So our explanations need to be carefully sequenced. Generally, spending time time on explaining the context of an idea is time well spent. I guess it’s possible to fall down a rabbit hole here and going to far back, and possibly it might seem depressingly utilitarian to limit our explanation to what we think students ‘need to know’. But at some point this is precisely what we must do. It seems self-evident to suggest that explanations should ‘start at the beginning’, but often this isn’t possible. As experts, we are required to determine where our explanation should begin and the vital steps from there on.

The Kevin Bacon game, or 6 degrees of separation is useful way to get students to reflect on the explanations we’ve offered. The ideas is that they need to logically sequence their understanding from one concept to another. So we might ask them to suggest the 6 degrees of separation between the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand and the outbreak of the Great War, or between Pip’s first meeting with Magwitch and his discovery that he has ‘great expectations’. To keep them on track we might specify that step 4 must be the introduction of Mr Jaggers, or the Ottoman-German Alliance or whatever. And if 6 degrees is too few or too many then feel free to extend the chain as far as you think it should stretch.

One further point: sometimes the best way to explain may not involve talking. Laura McInerney has this wonderful example of students ‘discovering’ the truth of a concept through experience:

On my fourth day with a brand new Year 13 BTEC Health & Social Care group, we had a conversation that went like this:

 Me: “Who are the people most likely to suffer obesity in England today?”

Student: “Rich people”

Me: “Why rich people?”

Student: “Because they can afford the most food, so they eat the most, so they get fat. Poor people can’t afford food, so they starve, so they are thin.”

No matter how I tried to question, reason, explain that people with lower incomes  are the group with the highest risk of obesity, the students simply would not have it. In their  heads, the more money you had, the more food you had, the  fatter you would get.

Unsure what to do next I made an unusual move:

Me: “Right, get your coats…..”

Ten minutes later (with appropriate permissions having been sought from school & supermarket) we were stood at the tills in our local Tesco. Each student had a basket.

Me: “Okay, let’s imagine you’ve just got home from work and you’re a single parent, you’ve got two children, they’re hungry because they haven’t eaten since midday and you’re tired. You can spend £5 on tonight’s dinner but you need enough food for all three of you and you have to be able to make all of the meal in fifteen minutes or less. Off you go….”

Twenty minutes later when the students stood in front of me with a sorry mess of frozen pizzas, angel delight, and tesco value meals the problem began to dawn. We then went and stood in the freezer section comparing the nutritional values of cheaper and more expensive goods.  Slowly, clicked some more. Finally we thought about who has the time to buy and cook fresh food, or who has the money/education/space to buy or grow (and store) fresh herbs. After trogging back to our classroom we then got back to looking at the data and writing out analyses (and yes, it’s not quite as straight forward as poor = fat, or cheap=frozen food, but we could only get to that once they understood the risks).

I hope some of that has been useful. Or, more to the point, I hope it’s clear, memorable and relevant. If it’s not, do please point out where I might improve my thinking.

Coming next: modelling

Related posts

Great teaching happens in cycles
Alex Quigley’s Top 10 tips for explaining
Tom Sherrington’s Great Lesson on explaining

Great teaching happens in cycles – the teaching sequence for developing independence

NOT THIS: probably the worst model of teaching and learning in the world

NOT THIS: probably the worst model of teaching and learning in the world

Last year I wrote a post called The Anatomy of an Outstanding Lesson, which has become by far my most viewed post with almost 10,000 page views. Clearly teachers are hungry for this kind of thing. But it’s become increasingly obvious to me over the past few months that many of my notions about what might constitute an outstanding lesson have been turned on their head. It’s not so much that I was wrong, more that my understanding was incomplete.

If we accept, as I’m sure we do, that as teachers we want to accomplish different things at different points in our schemes of learning then it can’t possibly be right that there is just one acceptable template for great lessons.

I’ve always believed that great teaching and learning depends on cycles or loops, and I’ve been furiously honing my ideas on what I think might be the ideal teaching cycle. I think it looks something like this:

Screen Shot 2013-07-03 at 23.20.24

We start by explaining a new concept, its subject specific vocabulary and how it connects to those things students have already learned. When this exposition is complete and students’ basic understanding is secure, we then move to demonstrating, Blue Peter style, a model of how this concept might be applied and deconstructing how it was put together. Once the processes are clear we can then move to providing a scaffold to enable students to apply the knowledge they have learned. Then, when students have met a minimum standard of control over these processes when will allow them, with clear guidance and feedback to practise all they have learned independently. And finally, when they have mastered the skill they have practised it is time to connect new concepts and increased complexity; the cycle begins again.

It should be clear that no part of this cycle is really possible without any part. If you have failed to explain the concept you hope students to learn they will become confused and quickly become lost. If you don’t explicitly model how to apply this new knowledge then the process will remain mysterious; some will pick it up but many won’t. Neglecting to scaffold throws students in at the deep end before they are ready to swim. The arm bands offered by a competent teacher provide a much needed feeling of safety and equip students with the ability to take risks within a safe environment. And not allowing students to practise means that they would never really encode the knowledge they’ve learned and will miss the opportunity to transfer concepts from working to long-term memory.

This may seem obvious, but it does not reflect the way many teachers feel they are expected to teach. Or perhaps it does; increasingly, it has become an expectation that each part of this cycle should be, briefly, included in one 50-60 minute lesson. The madness inherent in believing that learning takes places in neat, lesson-shaped chunks has resulted in the Four Part Lesson, the Ofsted lesson and the reluctant acceptance that if we want to please observers we must perform a Monkey Dance and conceal the (essential) parts of our teaching that certain people seem not to approve of. Skipping over the fundamental need to explain, model and scaffold in order to demonstrate the ‘preferred’ Ofsted method of minimal teacher-talk and independent learning for its own sake may have done more to damage children’s education than any other single dictat.

It is my contention that while you may not want or need to cover just one of these elements over the course of single lesson, they may equally be times when it is necessary. As Nuthall tells us, “learning takes time and is not encapsulated in the visible here-and-now of classroom activities.” That being the case we need to allow students the time they need by providing them with the rich, fertile soil of excellently crafted lessons devoted to each part of the cycle. There must be an acceptance that any and all of these four types of teaching can be considered outstanding when done well. Currently, teachers fear to teach lessons described variously as didactic, teacher-lead or ‘from the front’. This must change. We need to allow teachers to teach and, by extension, children to learn.

My intention therefore, is to outline, over a series of posts, what I think make be a template for great teaching in each of the four essential parts of the teaching cycle. Hopefully we might all benefit from seeing that it’s not only desirable but also possible to teach outstanding lessons that explain, model, scaffold and those in which students practise what they’ve learned.

I will post on Stage 1: Explaining later in the week.

Related posts

Icebergs, taking risks and being outstanding
Independence versus independent learning
Teacher talk: the missing link