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:

Screen Shot 2013-07-02 at 21.55.02


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:

Screen Shot 2013-07-02 at 22.01.11


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

Screen Shot 2013-07-02 at 22.03.18


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 WeSueAnyMutt.com 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?

Screen Shot 2013-07-03 at 23.19.39

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:

Screen Shot 2013-06-26 at 22.35.57



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

Testing & assessment – have we been doing the right things for the wrong reasons?

A curious peculiarity of our memory is that things are impressed better by active than by passive repetition. I mean that in learning (by heart, for example), when we almost know the piece, it pays better to wait and recollect by an effort from within, than to look at the book again. If we recover the words in the former way, we shall probably know them the next time; if in the latter way, we shall very likely need the book once more.

William James, The principles of psychology (1890)

Never stop testing, and your advertising will never stop improving.

David Ogilvy


Instead, study less, test more

Tests are rubbish, right? Like me, you may find yourself baring your teeth at the thought of being drilled to death, or inflicting endless rounds of mind-numbing tests on your students. That’s no way to learn, is it? All that’s going to do is produce ‘inert knowledge’ that will just sit there and be of no use whatsoever, right? Wrong. Apparently, the ‘retrieval practice’ of testing actually helps us induce “readily accessible information that can be flexibly used to solve new problems.”[1]

Most tests are conducted in order to produced summative information on how much students have learned and as such have (possibly rightly) attracted lots of ire. But maybe this is a very narrow way to view the humble test.

In my post on desirable difficulties I reported the following nugget:

We think we know more than in fact we do. For instance you may well have some pretty fixed ideas about testing. Which of these study patterns is more likely to result in long term learning?

1. study study study study – test

2. study study study test – test

3. study study test test – test

4. study test test test – test

Most of us will pick 1. It just feels right, doesn’t it? Spaced repetitions of study are bound to result in better results, right? Wrong. The most successful pattern is in fact No. 4. Having just one study session, followed by three short testing sessions – and then a final assessment – will out perform any other pattern.

This is something I’ve only just begun to research and experiment with, but the implications are fascinating. One of the first things I needed to reconsider was what might constitute at test. That is to say, I had to move away from the limited definition of testing being merely a pen and paper based exercise conducted under exam conditions. Testing can (and should) include some of the tricks and techniques we’ve been misusing and misunderstanding as AfL for the past 10 years or so. In fact, it doesn’t really matter how you test students as long as your emphasis changes; testing should not be primarily used to assess the efficacy of your teaching and students’ learning, it should be used as a powerful tool in your pedagogical armoury to help them learn.

Maybe this is really obvious and everyone else has always understood the fundamental point of classroom assessment, but I don’t think so. Everything I’ve read (and I’ve read a fair bit) indicates that the point of AfL is find out what students have learned and to adjust your teaching to fill in any gaps. This deficit model means that teachers (and students) might be labouring under some quite fundamental misunderstandings.

They are:

1) The Input/Output Myth – what teachers teach, students learn. Learning appears to be waaaay more complicated than this myth suggests.

2) Classroom performance equates with student learning. It doesn’t. Learning takes place over time and can only be inferred from performance

3) Students will retain what they’ve learned. They won’t. Students will forget the vast majority of what you teach and what they do remember will be largely unique to individuals.

If we just carry on waving our lolly sticks about, festooning students with Post-it notes and smugly getting them to fill in exit passes, what will we accomplish? Well, if cognitive science is correct about the human mind and how it learns, the answer might be: precious little.

So, should we chuck out the baby with this particularly gritty bathwater? How about if instead we rethought the purpose of assessment and considered how our AfL toolkits might actually benefit learning instead of just monitoring performance.

This paper on Ten Benefits of Testing and Their Applications to Educational Practice is a good starting point. The benefits are organised into direct effects on retention and indirect benefits on meta-cognition, teaching and learning. Whilst all are interesting and worth perusing, the purposes of this post I’m just going to discuss how I’ve been trying to use the direct benefits of testing.

Mean number of idea units recalled on the final test taken 5 min or 1 week after the initial learning session

Mean number of idea units recalled on the final test taken 5 min or 1 week
after the initial learning session

The Testing Effect: retrieval aids later retention – the is the claim  made above that studying material once and testing three times leads to about 80% improved retention than studying three times and testing once. The research evidence suggests that it doesn’t matter whether people are asked to recall individual items or passages of text, testing beats restudying every time. Now, we all know that cramming for a test works, hut what theses studies show is that testing leads to a much increased likelihood that information being retained over the long term. The implication is that if we want our students to learn whatever it is we’re trying to teach them we should test them on it regularly. And by regularly I mean every lesson. What if every lesson began with a test of what students had studied the previous lesson? Far from finding it dull, most students actually seem to enjoy this kind of exercise. And if you explain to them what you’re up to and why, they get pretty excited at seeing whether the theory holds water. And what of accusations that this might lead to instances of The Hawthorn Effect? Frankly my dear, I couldn’t give a damn! I’m not a researcher and I’m not trying to prove anything; I just want to take advantage of something that’s already been proven.

Testing causes students to learn more from the next study episode – this is also pleasingly referred to as ‘test-potentiated learning’. Basically it means that having followed a Study Test Test Test (STTT) pattern of lessons, the next STTT pattern will result in even better retention: the more test you do, the better you are at learning!

This particular field of study belongs to Hideki Izawa who began by investigating whether learning was actually taking place during testing.  She examined three hypotheses:

1) During a test students will neither learn nor forget

2) Learning and forgetting could occur during a test

3) Taking a test might influence the amount of learning during a future study session.

Guess what? Propositions 1 and 3 turn out to be correct. But doesn’t this contradict The Testing Effect? Well, apparently not; the testing effect can be interpreted as a slowing of forgetting after the test. And the real kicker is that this potential improvement occurs whether or not students get any feedback on their tests!

Testing improves transfer of knowledge to new contexts – this one is the Grail! One of the myths Daisy Chrisodoulou’s new book Seven Myths About Education is that we should teach transferable skills. She argues the following:

Skills are tied to domain knowledge. If you can analyse a poem, it doesn’t mean you can analyse a quadratic equation, even though we apply the word ‘analysis’ to each activity. Likewise with evaluation, synthesis, explanation and all the other words to be found at the top of Bloom’s Taxonomy. When we see people employing what we think of as transferable skills, what we’re probably seeing is someone with a wide-ranging body of knowledge in a number of different domains.

But what if testing could improve the transferability of skills and knowledge? What then? Can retrieval really help the transferability of knowledge?

Let’s start by defining ‘transfer’. How about, “applying knowledge learned in one situation to a new situation”? And let’s be a little more cautious than the example of ‘far transfer’ given by Daisy above. Can we teach students how to analyse non-fiction texts and then expect them to be able to analyse poetry? This is a real bugbear of mine because, frustratingly, it’s hard. Within a ‘skills-based’ subject like English we ought to be able to do this. But, year after year, I’ve found myself stymied by students’ damnable inability to see that analysing in one context is exactly the same as analysing in another. Rebranding the skill as ‘zooming in’ has helped but it’s still an uphill struggle; they need constant prodding and reminding.

Ebbinghaus was experimenting the transferability of skills way back in 1885, and more recently Barnett and Ceci (2002)went as far as proposing a taxonomy for transfer studies which attempt to describe the dimensions against which transfer of a learned skill might be assessed.

So could testing make the difference? There’s been a number of different studies on the effects of testing on the ability to transfer skills and there’s lots of evidence for ‘near transfer’ and Butler (2010) has shown that ‘far transfer’ (transfer to new questions in different knowledge domains) may be possible:

In this experiment, subjects studied prose passages on various topics (e.g., bats; the respiratory system). Subjects then restudied some of the passages three times and took three tests on other passages. After each question during the repeated tests, subjects were presented with the question and the correct answer for feedback. One week later subjects completed the final transfer test. On the final test, subjects were required to transfer what they learned during the initial learning session to new inferential questions in different knowledge domains (e.g., from echolocation in bats to similar processes used in sonar on submarines).

The results showed that subjects were more likely to correctly answer a transfer question when they had answered the corresponding question during initial testing. Is this conclusive? Maybe not, but it’s compelling. I don’t think my teaching of analysis in English is going to result in my students being better able to analyse quadratic equations, but if it helps them transfer between non-fiction and poetry I’ll be chuffed.

Testing can facilitate retrieval of material that was not tested – yes, you heard it: taking a test will help you remember even the stuff that wasn’t actually tested. This concept of ‘retrieval-induced facilitation’ sounds almost magical and seems at odds with Bjork’s theory of ‘retrieval-induced forgetting. But the contradiction only exists in the short term; the more incidences of re-testing and the longer you leave the final test (at least 24 hours) results in clear improvements of material that has not been tested in the STTT pattern of learning.

I’m right at the beginning of all this, but it looks like testing is the way forward if I want to make sure my students remember (that is to say, learn) the stuff I’m teaching them. I’ve already started get students to summarise what they’ve learned in a paragraph at the end of each lesson and setting homework designed to test students’ recall of lesson content. Also I’ve begun tinkering around with concept maps to see how they can be used as testing tools.

At the beginning of the year I was preparing to junk a lot of what I’d come to believe was best practice. Turns out, all I need to get rid of are my misconceptions about what assessment for learning might actually be for. Maybe it really could be for learning and not just performance!


Deliberately difficult – why it’s better to make learning harder

The most fundamental goals of education are long-term goals. As teachers and educators, we want targeted knowledge and skills to be acquired in a way that makes them durable and flexible. More specifically, we want a student’s educational experience to produce a mental representation of the knowledge or skill in question that fosters long-term access to that knowledge and the ability to generalize—that is, to draw on that knowledge in situations that may differ on some dimensions from the exact educational context in which that knowledge was acquired.

Robert A Bjork, 2002

Who could argue with this? Certainly not Ofsted who happily claim in their most recent Inspection Handbook,”The most important role of teaching is to promote learning and to raise pupils’ achievement.” Quite right.

This is, after all, what teaching is fundamentally about. Maybe you have other aims, maybe you consider education to have different purposes, but if we’re not promoting learning and raising achievement what on earth are we doing?

But then they go and spoil it all by boldly stating that outstanding teaching and learning will result in “almost all pupils … making rapid and sustained progress.”

This statement inevitably begs two questions:

1) If Ofsted judge T&L by observing  lessons, what does progress in lessons look like?

2) Can progress be both rapid and sustained?

The one word answers to these questions are:

1) Performance

2) No

The reason for the confusion is what I’ve termed The Input/Output Myth. We labour under the misapprehension that what we teach, students will learn. Regrettably, the truth is a whole lot more complicated than that.

The Input/Output Myth: If only!

The Input/Output Myth: If only!

Graham Nuthall in his marvellously erudite tome, The Hidden Lives of Learners observes that “as learning occurs so does forgetting”. This is bad enough, but on top of that is the bewildering discovery that most student learning is unique. In the highly structured word of the classroom the ‘items’ learned by no more that 1 other student range from 44.1% to 88.9%. That is to say that on most occasions, well over half of what we teach is not learned by the vast majority of our students. Terrifying! How can we possibly keep track of their progress?

Progress: the tip of the iceberg!

Progress: the tip of the iceberg!

Nuthall suggests that there are 3 different ‘worlds’ at operation in a classroom. There is the visible world of the teacher, the murky, mysterious world of students’ peers, and there’s the rarely glimpsed, private word of the individual student. We get to see our teacher, we get to see the students answering questions and performing task designed to demonstrate their progress but we seldom, if ever, get see inside students’ heads. We literally have NO IDEA what’s going on in there. And any attempt to claim otherwise is foolishness.

So what do we do? We fall back on the comforting sureties on the Input/Output Myth and convince ourselves that students’ performance correlates with their learning. It doesn’t. As Robert Bjork says, “Performance is measurable but learning must be inferred from performance: it cannot be observed directly.”

What can be done?

If we really want to get a true measure of our students’ progress, promote learning and raise students’ achievement (and we do, don’t we?) than we must do two things:

1) Separate performance from learning

2) Introduce ‘desirable difficulties’

The first is simple. But hard. We need to be weaned from the belief that we can observe progress in 20 minutes, or even a lesson.

There is no such thing as progress within lessons. There is only learning.

Kev Bartle


Learning is a liminal process, at the boundary between control and chaos.

Dylan Wiliam

Basically, we must accept that sometimes learning occurs but performance in the short term doesn’t improve, and that at other times, performance may improve, but little learning seems to happen in the long term.

The second is difficult, but desirably so. I love Bjork’s coining, ‘desirable difficulties’ because it gets to the very heart of the counter intuitive nature of learning. It turns out that making it more difficult for students to learn means that they actually learn more!

If you’re after rapid improvement (performance) then you make your teaching predictable, give students clear cues about the answers you’re looking for, and do a whole load of massed practice. If you watch that lesson it looks great! The teacher is happy, the students are happy and the observer can tick delightedly away at their clipboard. Come back and text them next week, next month, next year and the situation is a little more bleak.

On the other hand, if you after sustained improvement (learning): then you want to introduce as much variability into your teaching as possible; change rooms, change seating, change displays: remove the comforting and familiar background to lessons, and introduce spacing and interleaving to redesign your curriculum.  These ‘desirable difficulties’ will slow down performance but lead to long term retention and (Daniel Willingham’s Holy Grail) transfer of knowledge between domains.

But therein lies the problem: everyone prefers the feeling of ‘rapid progress’. The route to sustained progress feels uncomfortable. We have to delay gratification. We have to take the risk that an observer won’t tick the ‘progress’ box on their observation pro forma. We might look bad. So we don’t do it.

But let’s assume that you’re willing to take the risk. What would it look like?

Here’s a list of suggestions:

– Spacing learning sessions apart rather than massing them together

– Interleaving topics so that they’ve studied together rather than discretely

– Testing students on material rather than having them simply restudy it

– Having learners generate target material through a puzzle or other kind of active process, rather than simply reading it passively

– Varying the settings in which learning takes place

– Reducing feedback (sometimes!)

– Making learning material less clearly organised

Making texts more challenging to read

What all these difficulties have in common is that they encourage a deeper, more complex processing of material than people would normally engage in which makes information more likely to transfer from working to long term memory.

Bjork’s come up with what he rather unimaginatively calls the New Theory of Disuse. This suggests that memory doesn’t decay, instead we become less able to retrieve the information we’ve stored. The difference might sound pedantic, but actually it’s quite exciting. It means that the storage capacity of human memory is, for all practical purposes, limitless.

Bjork argues that each item we commit to memory has a ‘storage strength’ and a ‘retrieval Screen Shot 2013-06-10 at 18.12.50strength’. Some things, like the address of a friend you’ve been visiting for years as both high storage and retrieval strengths as we’re continually using the information. But if they suddenly move house their new address will have low storage strength because we haven’t known it long but its retrieval strength will be quite high as we continually review the address so as not to forget it. Other information like the address we lived at as a child has high storage strength as we’ve known it forever, but low retrieval strength because we don’t think about it very often. This accounts for our frustrating inability to suddenly be unable to recall stuff we know we know. And then there’s the stuff you’ve just taught your Year 9s. That has low storage because they’ve only just learned it and low retrieval strength because they’ve never tried to recall it.; the lower the storage strength, the more quickly retrieval strength fades. No wonder they forget it so quickly!

Making learning easier causes boosts retrieval strength in the short term leading to better performance. But because the deeper processing that encourages the long-term retention is missing, that retrieval strength quickly evaporates. The very weird fact of the matter is that forgetting creates the capacity for learning. If we don’t forget we limit our ability to learn. So we actually want students to forget some stuff! When learning is difficult, people make more mistakes, and, naturally, they infer that what they’re doing must be wrong. In the short term, difficulties inhibit performance, causing more more mistakes to be made and more apparent forgetting. But it is this forgetting that actually benefits students in the long term; relearning forgotten material takes demonstrably less time with each iteration. All of the difficulties outlined below are predicated on this simple but counter intuitive premise.


Some of these difficulties don’t seem so bad. Ebbinghaus was banging on about his ‘forgetting curve’ over a century ago and spacing is one of the most widely accepted facts in cognitive science about how the human brain learns.

The forgetting curve

The first graph shows the unsurprising fact that after we learn a piece of information we start to forget it. The longer we leave it, the more likely it is that  the memory ‘decays’ and we forget. This is the Theory of Disuse.

The effects of 'spacing' learning

The effects of ‘spacing’ learning

It seems to make complete sense that if we revisit this information at regular intervals we are much more likely to remember it, but the real reason this is so effective is the fact that as students forget, they are more receptive to learning new information.

The only problem with this as teachers is the kids perpetual moan that they’ve “done this before”. As with all things pedagogical  if you explain why you’re doing what you’re doing, all should be well.

Of all the difficulties Bjork suggests, this is the only one analysed by Hattie in Visible Learning. He gives spaced versus massed learned an effect size of d = 0.71, which is high. Of more interest perhaps is the finding that spacing increases the students’ rate of acquisition by d = 0.45 and retention by d = 0.51. This is on top of any other effects for strategies like feedback and direct instruction. Pretty cool, eh?


The new curriculum for Fruit Studies

The new curriculum for Fruit Studies

Another desirable difficulty we can introduce is to get students to ‘generate’ information instead of just reading it. If I wanted you to learn the names of a load of fruit, I could ask you to simply read and recall their names, or I could give you a prompt such as ‘or____’ and ‘orange’ would immediately come to mind. This results in ‘retrieval induced forgetting’; when retrieving information from memory the retrieved memory will be strengthened. However, competing memories will be less accessible afterwards. This implies that remembering doesn’t only produce positive effects for the remembered facts or events, but it might also lead to forgetting of other, related things in memory. Unsurprisingly, over the short term you would remember those items you had generated much better than those you hadn’t.


Another difficulty we might want to introduce is interleaving our curricula. This means that instead of delivering topics in the traditional termly blocks, we instead work out in advance the information we need students to learn over the duration of a course and mix it up so that in any given term they might study 6 or 7 different topics.

This is maybe more straightforward in a ‘skills based’ subject like English but may look very daunting for teachers of maths or science. If you deliver your course in blocks students’ performance will be much higher at the end of a term. But if you interleave your curriculum their learning will be much deeper at the and of the course. Blocking leads to short term gains but they’re deceptively compelling; it feels right to do teach this way.

But why is this?  What happens in our brains when we “mass” versus “interleaf” our learning?  Bjork speculates that blocking gives us a false sense of security;  we think we’re getting better.  In contrast, interleaving creates anxiety; the feeling things are unpredictable, and that therefore we need to take more care.


Possibly the most surprising difficulty is that of testing. Bjork refers to ‘the illusion of knowing’ (which is really just a more poetic way of describing counter-intuition.) We think we know more than in fact we do. For instance you may well have some pretty fixed ideas about testing. Which of these study patterns is more likely to result in long term learning?

1. study study study study – test

2. study study study test – test

3. study study test test – test

4. study test test test – test

Most of us will pick 1. It just feels right, doesn’t it? Spaced repetitions of study are bound to result in better results, right? Wrong. The most successful pattern is in fact No. 4. Having just one study session, followed by three short testing sessions – and then a final assessment –  will out perform any other pattern. Who knew?

But this doesn’t mean we need more summative assessment. What it suggests is that we should use testing as part of our teaching and learning repertoire. Until very recently, this was something that, quite literally, never occurred to me. Bjork’s advice is to make testing experiences low risk, frequent, and designed to include variation and distracting difficulties. such as  providing competing alternative answers to trigger retrieval of information that might be tested at another opportunity.

Reducing feedback

Eh? What’s that? Isn’t feedback the king of all teacher interventions? Isn’t it the rocky foundation upon which Dylan Wiliam’s AfL mansion is built? Well, it turns out that in some cases feedback can be counter productive. Here are a few:

– Providing feedback of success is counter productive
– Students become dependent on receiving feedback
– Waiting for feedback can slow down pace of learning
– The desire for positive feedback can prevent risk taking & attempting more challenging tasks.

I don’t know about you, but this stuff makes my head reel.

The message is don’t trust your gut. If feels right, it’s probably wrong. Easy isn’t actually easier. Deliberately choose the harder, more difficult option. Learning isn’t easy. But as Hattie reminds us, “A teacher’s job is not to make work easy. It is to make it difficult.”

And here are my slides from the Wellington College Festival of Education where I presented these ideas:


Related posts

The problem with progress Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3

Easy vs Hard

And, if you’re into a spot of research, try this: Introducing Desirable Difficulties for Educational Applications in Science

What is meta-cognition and can we teach it?


Meta-cognition is one of those terms that gets bandied about in educational circles as if we all know exactly what it is. And we do: it’s…er…thinking about thinking, isn’t it?

Ever since the Education Endowment Foundation cited meta-cognition and self regulation as the second highest impact strategy teachers can use in the class room I’ve felt I should be a bit clearer about what it actually is.

Screen Shot 2013-06-01 at 14.49.07

They describe it as follows:

Meta-cognitive and self-regulation strategies (sometimes known as ‘learning to learn’ strategies) are teaching approaches which make learners think about learning more explicitly. This is usually by teaching pupils specific strategies to set goals, monitor and evaluate their own learning. Self-regulation refers to managing one’s own motivation towards learning as well as the more cognitive aspects of thinking and reasoning. Overall these strategies involve being aware of one’s strengths and weaknesses as a learner, such as by developing self-assessment skills, and being able to set and monitor goals. They also include having a repertoire of strategies to choose from or switch to during learning activities.

Then they go on to say that “the potential impact of approaches which encourage learners to plan, monitor and evaluate their learning is very high.” Great!


…it can be difficult to achieve these gains as this involves pupils in taking greater responsibility for their learning and in developing their understanding of what is involved in being successful. There is no simple strategy or trick for this. It is possible to support pupils’ work too much, so that they do not learn to monitor and manage their own learning but come to rely on the prompts and support from the teacher. A useful metaphor is scaffolding in terms of removing the support and dismantling the scaffolding to check that learners are taking responsibility to manage their own learning.

Fair enough. They then suggest the following advice:

– Teaching approaches which encourage learners to plan, monitor and evaluate their learning have very high potential, but require careful implementation.
– Teach pupils explicit strategies to plan, to monitor and to evaluate their learning, and give them opportunities to use them with support and then independently.
– When using approaches for planning, ask pupils to identify the different ways that they could plan (general strategies) and about best approach for a particular task (specific technique).
– Monitoring involves identifying the key steps they need to be aware of as they go through a task to keep it on track. (Where might this go wrong? What will be the difficult parts?)
– Evaluating can be part of the process of checking so that it feeds into the current task as it nears completion (Can you make it better? Are you sure this is right?). It can also feed forward into future tasks (What have you learned that will change what you do next time?)

Now, learning to learn has had a bit of bad press recently, and is tarred by the SEAL and PLTS brush. My initial response to the above was to snort dismissively. As with most of us, I suffer with confirmation bias: what doesn’t fit my views is conveniently ignored. Even when there seems to be loads of evidence to the contrary.

But the problem, as identified by cognitive psychologists like Daniel Willingham,  is that we’re shockingly bad at transferring knowledge learned in one context to another, without explicit instruction and advice. In Critical Thinking: why is it so hard to teach? he explains this is because, “thought processes are intertwined with what is being thought about.” In other words, we are predisposed to examined the ‘surface structure’ of a problem rather than recognising that its underlying ‘deep structure’ is the same as something we already know.

I’ve often lamented the fact that for a ‘skills based’ subject like English, students are appalling at transferring the skills learned, say, when analysing poetry to those needed when analysing non-fiction texts. It’s straightforward in the mind of their teachers but for some reason they don’t seem to intuit this. One answer, as we all know is to remind them. Again. And again. But, we won’t always be there to remind them so where does this leave us?

Well, we can usefully think in terms of novices and experts. Whilst novices and experts will obviously have different amounts of subject knowledge, they also approach problems completely differently. A novice will set about solving a particular problem as soon as it is set. This, inevitably, means concentrating on detail, which means ignoring structure. The novice immediately plunges into the wood and begins looking carefully and intently at and among trees. Not many trees can be seen at any one time and it is difficult to see any distance. There is a bewildering amount of detail, but few clues as to the relevance of any of it. The light is poor in there, and no path seems any more hopeful than any other. Some turn out not even to be real paths. The sense of direction is soon lost. Under such circumstances, the novice can only plan small stratagems, which will take him a short way, and hope for the best. It is seldom absolutely clear whether any path is really relevant to the ultimate goal. It is often necessary to retrace steps and abandon particular paths. Sometimes it is difficult to tell whether a path has been tried before or not. It is inevitably largely a trial and error approach. Novices quickly forget most relevant details of the problem and lose the sense of the route taken to reach a solution.

While the novice is blundering speculatively back and to in the dark wood the expert has remained outside, thinking about problem structure, perhaps even walking away from the wood to some higher ground for a better overview. He will deliberately consider other woods he has been in, and the general and specific structures of problems they have posed. He will review his knowledge of woods in general and specifically. He will think about structure, but also about solution – what does he really want from addressing this particular wood and is it worth addressing? He may take time for a cup of tea and some peace of mind. He may look up information on his laptop which he foresees he will need. He will, in fact, deliberately employ meta-cognition. The expert may enter the wood in a while, but will then be concerned only with particularly meaningful trees, or patterns of trees, or topographical features, or alignment to the sun, or wind direction, or the tracks of particular animals … The expert will have seen whether it is worth working in this wood at all and, if so, what to look for, why and where. He will only be looking for, and at, particular features and he will know what they all mean for him. There will be few surprises in there.

An expert, however, understands the particular problem, but also the generalities of this kind of problem. An expert will recognise the probability that this wood is similar to other woods in important respects and the need to consider this deliberately before proceed swiftly, and directly, to their goal. Experts are much more likely to learn something that will be of value for next time a similar problem is encountered, particularly if any part of it has been tricky.

Working in that wood as a novice can be oppressive and a little frightening. Novices will have only have rather general impressions, and will notice and recall very few important details. Worse, little of what he recalls will make much sense and almost none of it will be memorable, or remembered. One major difference, therefore, between the novice and the expert, is that the one will soon run out of steam and become frustrated and even perhaps actually averse; the other will remain interested, especially if he feels he has been challenged. Novices risk demotivation the more difficulty they encounter, experts become ever more motivated by it.

Explicitly teaching students how to become overtly and consciously familiar with the methods they use to learn why they use them, how they work, why they work, when to apply them and how to apply them can help them think more like experts.

Understanding meta-cognition and the need for meta-cognition, might be a major step towards what remains the goal of autonomous and confident competence (rather the nebulous guff which masquerades under the term ‘independent learning’.) We not only need meta-cognition as such, we also need to know that we need it – and we need to be to be told this. Again and again. We need to be told that there are broad principles and general approaches that structure and colour detail, and we need to be told that we must deliberately seek and consider these before we get bogged down in this detail. Experts do this. They may have expensive specialist knowledge but, every bit as importantly, they have also been trained to step back and meta-think rather than plunge straight in. As teachers, we become accomplished at finding the structures of our subjects and isolating the relevant; we learn to tell the difference between general understanding and the deliberate application of general understanding. But we’ve had to be trained to do this; it is no more ‘natural’, no more an innate skill, for us than it is our students. It doesn’t seem so very long ago that I was flailing in the classroom clueless about what I was supposed to be doing. All is, in other words, not lost.

Teaching meta-cognition, or any other meta-skill, demands the deliberate deployment of two venerable and unfashionable teaching methods; scaffolding and modelling.

Scaffolding requires that we make explicit, and go on making explicit, the frameworks of meta-cognition and the need deliberately to build and then invoke them – the need to step backwards; to reach peace of mind; to engender confidence in one’s own abilities, experience and common sense and to deploy these; to take a deliberately wide, overall view; to invoke general theory; to consider related issues; to recall similar instances and compare them with present issues; to think generally about situational structure; to critique the present and particular presentation of issues; to consider an author’s putative purpose and read in the light of it and so on and so on. As these are not innate mental habits and do not transfer well into new situations, the need deliberately to engage in such general, proactive, critical and enquiring thinking about thinking must be made explicit repeatedly .

To model critical awareness when reading students need to see it in action. It must be made obvious that the teacher actually uses such meta-cognition in real life, that it is a genuinely useful, and used, set of techniques. Where a problem or issue is addressed the teacher must demonstrate her thinking aloud, must show how she uses meta-techniques herself when addressing issues or solving problems. Critical reading would be a perfect opportunity for such modelling. As a reading is approached and carried out we can actively model the meta-linguistic questions and ideas we keep actively running in our minds before and while reading. We can provide a commentary of our thinking. We can overtly show that we routinely interrogate text at the meta-linguistic level and are alert to agenda, immediate purpose and wider ambition.

It’s a truism that the only person who makes no errors is the person who does nothing. It’s equally true that nothing can be achieved without action. To act is to risk, and, inevitably, fail. Error, though, is where learning begins. Failure ought to be precious to us as a result.

Meta-knowledge is not innate, it must be taught. At the risk of falling down a rabbit hole, the key to meta-knowledge is the knowledge that we should seek and use this meta-knowledge. And this meta-awareness is not natural; it has to be taught. A large part of being meta-aware is the awareness of the value of meta-awareness itself and that its techniques should be deliberately recalled and applied. Has that helped?

Let me put it another way: we seek to produce students who choose appropriately among a selection of learning, self-correcting and self-management methods and the student who can take a strategic overview of their performance and attitudes towards their performance. The path to mastery isn’t smooth, but it becomes a lot easier when we accept that it’s hard and that we’re supposed to struggle.

Here are some examples of the students I teach using meta-cognitive techniques they’ve learned:

– The student who taught me how to spell rhythm (Rhythm Helps Your Two Hips Move)
– Or the student who you find has looked up ‘revolution’ and found, to his interest, ‘revolve’ and ‘revolutionary’.
– Or the student who turns up with three drafts of a piece of writing which get more focused and better written as they go. There are words written several different ways on the drafts, with the wrong spellings scored out. He has also retained the drafts without embarrassment.
– Or the student who muses, “What we really need to think about is what the guy who wrote this article is up to; where’s he coming from?”
– Or the student who says “I wrote it this way because …”
– Or the student who, until recently always crouched protectively over his work, now pushes his writing over and asks, “Is that how you spell it?‟
– Or the student who says, “Slow down sir! I can’t take it all in. Can you tell me bit by bit?”

These students are engaged in their own learning. They see it from outside as well as inside. They have the tools for tackling new situations and they have the understanding to look into their toolbox appropriately. They are drivers rather than passengers.

So can we teach meta-cognition? Yes, but it’s not a subject! We need to find effective ways of scaffolding what we want students to learn and modelling the way we want them to apply this learning. If we get that right students’ inability to transfer knowledge between domains might be minimised. Arguably, this what expert teachers do anyway. We just need to be more explicit about what we’re doing and why we’re doing it.

Related posts

What’s deep learning and how do you do it?
The problem with progress part 1: learning vs performance
What is learning?

Does dyslexia exist?

Dyslexic-Homeless-Man-39042-1x3qp1hSchools are packed to the gunnels (whatever they are) with students diagnosed with dyslexia. And, of the hundreds of dyslexic students I’ve taught, many have languished helplessly in the doldrums of illiteracy while some seem suddenly to make rapid and remarkable progress. This year, two students who were presented to me as dyslexic have experienced very different trajectories.

One, let’s call him Ben, had spent Years 7 and 8 being taught English in very small groups of students identified as having ‘specific learning difficulties’. In Year 9 such students are put back into mainstream classes with the expectation that the work they’ve done in the previous 2 years will have equipped them to cope. Ben arrived in my class very worried about whether he was going to ‘look thick’ and with a very low estimation of his ability. He’s a quiet, hard-working chap, however, and wants to do well. I spent a fair bit of time working with Ben at the beginning of the year and, frankly, failed to see what the problem was: his reading was a little hesitant and his writing was inaccurate but full of good ideas and definitely showed signs of conscious crafting. One lesson, I was talking to him about his work and suggested some ways he could improve his spelling. The despondency of his response was heartbreaking; “I can’t spell, sir. I’m dyslexic.”

Ben, I told him. That’s nonsense! Of course you can. We spent some time going over doubling consonants, ‘i before e’ and a few other easy to implement gems and before we knew it, his spelling had improved! We also did some work on various reading strategies like skimming and scanning and, guess what? His reading comprehension showed similar improvements. His confidence has grown massively and he’s now consistently producing C grade work. We’re now talking about what he needs to do to get an A in Year 11. If he carries on the way he has this year, he’s a shoe in.

Then there’s Carrie. She has terrible attendance, her behaviour is awful and she produces little or no work. When I met her parents at parents’ evening, they told me that none of this was Carrie’s fault; she was dyslexic you see. I didn’t see. I pointed out that even though she might find English difficult that was no excuse for not trying. At that point we reached a bit of an impasse.

Things have got a little better because, frankly, I’m not prepared to accept the bare minimum of work that Carrie feels it’s acceptable to produce. Critique protocols have made quite an impact on her and when she knows her work will be displayed publicly and will receive feedback she shows just what she’s capable of. And it’s not bad. Although doesn’t work anyway near as hard as Ben, her reading and writing have improved and she’s making what we might describe as ‘steady’ progress. But her attendance is slipping, she’s regularly excluded and there’s been talk of her having a ‘fresh start’. Through it all, her parents maintain that her dyslexia isn’t being catered for. I worry that she may not make it.

Professor Joe Elliott, at Durham University, struggles to find a  difference between a child labelled ‘dyslexic’ and a child labelled ‘a poor reader’. In other words, there isn’t a special group of kids with a different intelligence who need special intervention to help them overcome their reading problem. There are simply too many ‘dyslexic ‘children to make the term meaningful: once you get such a high number of kids labelled with a condition such as dyslexia (that’s around 375,000 in the UK), you’ve simply got to question whether there’s any real basis to the label.

But in a world where there seems to be an unquestioning acceptance of dyslexia’s existence this is not a popular view. The problem is caused, in part, by the casual, unthinking way in which we use the term. More often than not it’s used to describe any inexplicable deficit with reading/writing/spelling in an otherwise able student. We pass off the cause as something unknowable and neurological. As such, it’s no one’s fault, and teachers, and students, can shrug and pass the buck.So do dyslexics have problems not suffered by other poor readers? All sorts of symptoms have been put forward to justify the hypothesis but it has never been proven. So, there is no scientific evidence that the syndrome exists. And if “dyslexia” doesn’t refer to reading problems, either – as the dyslexia establishment maintains – then it doesn’t refer to anything which has been scientifically established. So do dyslexics have problems not suffered by other poor readers? All sorts of symptoms have been put forward to justify the hypothesis but it has never been proven. So, there is no scientific evidence that the syndrome exists.

And if “dyslexia” doesn’t refer to reading problems, either – as the dyslexia establishment maintains – then it doesn’t refer to anything which has been scientifically established. Dyslexia is an emotionally loaded term; life tends to be worse for children who find reading difficult: compared with normal readers, they are more likely to have other problems. Clumsiness, hyperactivity and poor short-term memory, for example – and having one such problem makes it more likely you’ll have another. Yet, there is no evidence that these problems cause reading difficulties.

Poor short-term memory is a case in point. It’s the symptom most often quoted as distinguishing dyslexics from other poor readers, and those who have difficulty reading are more likely to suffer from it. Yet, however disabling poor short-term memory may be, evidence suggests it neither causes reading difficulties nor predicts the outcome of intervention. A study conducted by Torgesen in 2006, showed that out of 60 children with severe reading difficulties, only eight had poor short-term memories, while almost as many – seven – had very good short-term memories. And, crucially, the children with poor short-term memories benefited from help with their reading as much as the others.

But is there any compelling evidence for it’s existence? And do dyslexics have problems not suffered by other poor readers?  Well, it’s worth noting that diagnosing and treating dyslexia is big business, and where this kind of commercial vested interest exists it’s always worth having a careful look at who’s saying what, and why. Perhaps surprisingly there’s almost as many theories on the causes and treatment of dyslexia as there are researchers, and the only constant appears to be the sometimes staggering inconsistencies which abound.

A quick dip into the literature on dyslexia illustrates the muddle:

The construct of learning disabilities has historically been difficult to define. (Fletcher 2003)

… the history of dyslexia is littered with theories that were once widely supported but now lie abandoned on the scrap heap … it is vital that we should continue to treat everything as questionable and to regard nothing as beyond dispute. Certainty is for tele-evangelists, not scientific researchers or teachers. (Ellis et al 1997 pp. 13-14) (their emphasis)

Definitions of dyslexia are notoriously varied and no single definition of dyslexia has succeeded in gaining a scientific acceptance which even approaches unanimity… Each researcher or clinician becomes attached to his or her own definition in a manner which is reminiscent of Humpty Dumpty in Lewis Carroll’s Through The Looking Glass – ‘When I use a word … it means just what I choose it to mean.’ Definitions … soon become muddied when the researcher or clinician is confronted with a variety of adult cases exhibiting highly heterogenous profiles. (Beaton et al 1997 p.2)


The diversity of theories concerning the biological underpinnings of dyslexia is impressive… It is clear there is some way to go before any consensus is reached regarding the biological basis of dyslexia … (ibid. pp. 4 – 5)

Students had individual clusters of the cognitive weaknesses usually associated with dyslexia, alongside clear strengths in some cases…They were also accompanied by widely varying individual configurations of literacy and other difficulties, so much so that the students themselves wondered if they were experiencing the same syndrome. The identification of dyslexia could not by itself predict the individual configurations, and the question of whether or not there was one distinctive syndrome became less important than the issue of learning to describe one’s particular situation to a world largely ignorant of these matters, eg “I am dyslexic and for me this means that I literally cannot write my own name, but I can read quite well and I am now using a word processor.” (Herrington 1995 pp. 6 – 7)

…the research literature provides no support for the notion that we need a scientific concept of dyslexia separate from other, more neutral, theoretical terms such as reading disabled, poor reader, less-skilled, etc. Yes, there is such a thing as dyslexia if by dyslexia we mean poor reading. But if this is what we mean, it appears that the term dyslexia no longer does the conceptual work that we thought it did. Indeed, whatever conceptual work the term is doing appears to be misleading. (Stanovich 1994 p. 588)

Over a decade ago … there was little evidence that poor readers of high and low IQ differed importantly in the primary processing mechanisms that were the cause of their reading failure. A further decade’s worth of empirical work on this issue has still failed to produce such evidence. (Stanovich & Stanovich 1997 p.3)

One of the fascinations of dyslexia for researchers is that, whatever one’s interest in human behaviour and performance, children with dyslexia will obligingly show interesting abnormalities in precisely that behaviour. (Nicolson & Fawcett 1999 p. 156)

This collection of syndromes masquerading under the umbrella of dyslexia has something of an unscientific scope; whatever symptoms or deficits researchers find are claimed as evidence of dyslexia. Everything is subsumed. The quote from Nicolson & Fawcett above says it call. Try substituting ‘dyslexia’ with ‘spina bifida’, or any other recognisable medical condition. If it were possible to say such a thing about spina bifida it would be clear that it was either a collection of syndromes  which we we were unable to distinguish from each other, or not a syndrome at all. No syndrome, however obliging, is going to show every symptom we look. for.  Although I’m no scientist, I think you’ll agree that this kind of thinking is very far from scientific. And if “dyslexia” doesn’t refer to reading problems, either – as the dyslexia establishment maintains – then it doesn’t refer to anything which has been scientifically established.

So what is it?

Dys [Greek] means difficult, abnormal, impaired, and lexikos [also Greek] means pertaining to words.  So quite literally, dyslexia means difficulty with words (Catts & Kamhi, 2005). But despite this, definitions are many and various; some are so broad as to be almost meaningless, some are confused and imprecise, and some say next to nothing. There is little consensus.

One of the most widely accepted definitions, and the one used by the World Health Organisation is this:

Dyslexia is a disorder manifested by difficulty in learning to read despite conventional instruction, adequate intelligence and sociocultural opportunity. It is dependent upon fundamental cognitive disabilities which are frequently of constitutional origin.

But a little bit of unpicking reveals how little this actually says:

Dyslexia is a difficulty with reading which may only be diagnosed if there are no other obvious causes to hand (such as poor schooling, poor parenting, low IQ or social disadvantage). It might sometimes be caused by there being something wrong with the brain.

You see? This uncertainty simply defines dyslexia as an odd difficulty with reading, given an otherwise apparently normal educational and social history. This would make it impossible for a child from a socially deprived background to be ‘dyslexic’ at all.

The Dyslexia Institute (2013) defines dyslexia as:

…a specific type of learning difficulty that primarily affects the skills involved in accurate and fluent word reading and spelling. Characteristics of dyslexia include difficulties in areas such as phonological awareness, verbal memory and verbal processing speed.

They also say that that dyslexia is “biological in origin” which runs counter to most of the research which admits that only “a very small percentage of impaired readers may well be afflicted by basic cognitive deficits of biological origin” (Valentino 2004).

The British Dyslexia Association (BDA Management Board 2007) says:

Dyslexia is a specific learning difficulty that mainly affects the development of literacy and language related skills. It is likely to be present at birth and to be life-long in its effects. It is characterised by difficulties with phonological processing, rapid naming, working memory, processing speed, and the automatic development of skills that may not match up to an individual’s other cognitive abilities.
It tends to be resistant to conventional teaching methods, but its effect can be mitigated by appropriately specific intervention, including the application of information technology and supportive counseling.

While this definition restricts itself to “literacy and language related skills”, it relates the difficulties to satisfyingly scientific sounding ‘processing’ problems. But what, exactly is being processed? What do our brains use as ‘information’, and just exactly what they are doing when they ‘process’ it? ‘Processing’ is too vague a concept to be of much use, and, as far as I can work out, cognitive science is in no position to assess it in a neurologically meaningful way. Basically, all this actually says is that the condition is potentially made up of a hodge-podge of characteristics, some, or all of which may, or may not, be present and repeats the comforting thought that the difficulties with literacy do not align with a sufferer’s intelligence. Which is fair enough: we’re all better than our limitations.

Elliott says the problem is that there is no uniform test for dyslexia:

Some tests look at memory, some at sounds and words, some at visual processing. The traditional route was to identify a child whose IQ was high, but whose reading level was low: that test is still being used in some places, although you could ask why look at a child’s IQ when deciding if they need special reading help? But the bottom line is that experts can’t agree precisely what set of problems make up the condition they call dyslexia: and if you can’t agree on what a condition is, how on earth can you test for it?

Maybe the problem is that diagnosis is really about trying to make students with poor literacy (an their parents) feel better about it. It’s much more convenient and comforting to blame the victim’s central nervous system. Occasionally even the internationally recognised expert lets this one out of the bag:

…the term dyslexia assists parents and the child to make sense of occurrences they know to exist. They know the child has difficulty with reading and spelling; they need explanations which remove the sense of self-blame. (Pumfrey & Reason 1991 p. 69)

This is remarkably similar to the ‘it’s my hormones’ explanation of obesity. It may absolves us from responsibility, but this explanation entirely fails to understand, or make any attempt to solve, the real problem which, as we all strongly suspect, has nothing to do with hormones.

And then sometimes researchers let another out of the bag as when Cooke says (2001 p. 49):

Miles (1995) has questioned whether there can be a single definition of dyslexia; she suggests instead that different people, and different groups, will want a definition to suit their own requirements. This is clearly correct …

This is shameless! If it’s OK to just pick our own, personal, definition to suit our own particular agenda, then we may as well give up. The  condition we call ‘dyslexia’ has been researched for over a century, and it’s astonishing that such confusion still exists and such woolly remarks are accepted in apparently serious, peer-reviewed, scientific journals.

The fact is that no one seems to have a satisfying, meaningful definition of dyslexia that everyone else accepts. But the  label continues to be slapped on to anyone with any kind of literacy problem. I’d argue that this is unhelpful, and, ultimately, fraudulent.

But really, why all the fuss? As long as students get help for their unspecified ‘specific learning difficulty’ who cares what we call it?

Well, the dyslexia diagnosis industry has its casualties. For some students, being labelled as dyslexic does them more harm than good. Often, in my experience, it can be an excuse for not trying. Teachers may start to have lower expectations. We concentrate on the mechanics of reading and writing rather than purpose and flair, rules rather than writing. This is inevitable once we’ve attributed a student’s problems to a single, conceptually simple, innate and unalterable cause; classic soil in which to grow learned helplessness – and  not just in students. Once a diagnosis is made, other, simpler (but less lucrative) potential causes for poor performance are ignored. And what about those who don’t get diagnosed? Does that mean they’re simply stupid?

There are, I contend, two types of dyslexia, acquired and developmental.

Acquired dyslexia is the result of trauma to the brain occurring after literacy has been acquired. Some accident results in damage to the part of the brain which had learned literacy skills. Depending on the degree of damage, the skills will be correspondingly lost. The same applies to speech, of course. Many stroke victims have their speech centres damaged and show varying degrees of loss of the power of speech. This is horrible but makes perfect cognitive sense – if you damage the part of the brain which has learned to be responsible for a  particular skill then that skill will be correspondingly damaged. How could it be otherwise?

Developmental dyslexia is, in contrast, an utterly different animal. Here, there is assumed to be a congenital neurological deficit of some kind. This may be genetic but may also be the result of damage to the foetus during gestation. At any rate, developmental dyslexia is presumed to be an affliction of those parts of the brain which will one day be expected to learn the skills of literacy. It’s an innate defect which is innately pre-wired to learn literacy only in a particular location or locations. Valentino acknowledges that “a very small percentage of impaired readers may well be afflicted by basic cognitive deficits of biological origin, especially phonological deficits that lie at the root of their difficulties in learning to read.” (2004 p30) But that’s it: a very small number. The rest are victims of, by and large, inadequate instruction.

Just cos I’m not happy with this idea of developmental dyslexia doesn’t mean that I fail to recognise that lots of people have literacy difficulties and that these difficulties can be ‘cured’. But diagnosing dyslexia disempowers and both students and teachers alike. To accept otherwise is to descend into the damp and foetid cellars of educational pessimism where learned helplessness grows like a fungus.

Right, I hear you cry, if it’s not dyslexia, what the hell is it? Well, there are so many other, more likely explanations for peculiar difficulty with literacy, each more likely than a highly selective mis-wiring of the brain. Basically though, I think most difficulties with language come down to the fact that “Reading and writing are not just cognitive activities – feelings run through them.” (Barton 1994 p. 48) and Valentino reports the following:

Results from recent intervention studies suggest that explanations of reading difficulties in most children must incorporate experiential and instructional deficits as possible causes of such difficulties, rather than focus exclusively on the types of cognitive and biological deficits that have predominated theory and research in this area of inquiry throughout the previous century. (2004 p3)

These points lead us, inexorably, to the Matthew effect.

The Matthew effect

For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance; but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath.

As I’ve written before, the Matthew effect is a huge factor in students’ literacy difficulties. Stanovich says that “… a strong bootstrapping mechanism that causes major individual differences in the development of reading skill is the volume of reading experience”. Daniel Rigney tells us that, “While good readers gain new skills very rapidly, and quickly move from learning to read to reading to learn, poor readers become increasingly frustrated with the act of reading, and try to avoid reading where possible.” The good reader may read several millions of words a year, whereas the poor reader reads only a few thousand (and probably hates every one) – as Robert MacFarlane says, “Every hour spent reading is an hour spent learning to write”, and we all know what practise makes! This is the Matthew effect; the rich get richer while the poor get poorer. The simple fact that less literate people read a great deal less than more literate people makes it more difficult for them to progress. Hirsch tells us that those “who possess intellectual capital when they first arrive at school have the mental scaffolding and Velcro to catch hold of what is going on, and they can turn the new knowledge into still more Velcro to gain still more knowledge”. It’s small wonder that this early advantage can never be overtaken.

Many of the symptoms that are said to identify dyslexics are now believed to be the consequence of reading difficulties, not their cause. Compared with children who read a lot, those who read little suffer educational and intellectual damage: their writing and spelling are poorer and they have less ability to organise themselves. And all poor readers are likely to suffer such problems whether they have been diagnosed as dyslexic or not. For instance, most poor readers suffer with sound awareness problems but beyond this, their conditions are so wide-ranging that it is impossible to identify any sub-group who, on the basis of their literacy difficulties, could usefully be called ‘dyslexic’.

Sadly, though, the more problems a students suffers, the more difficult it may be for them to resolve their literacy problems. Worse, the longer these problems remain unresolved, the further they will fall behind and the worse their plight becomes. For many, even if their reading improves, it can be next to impossible for them to catch up. Despite this there are cases of apparently odd difficulty in acquiring and using literacy but they almost always include some or all of the following steps:

– Relatively little (sometimes no) literacy activity in the home

– Very early failure in school, leading to general anxiety

– Literacy is experienced as impossibly difficult and humiliating.

– Students become highly risk-averse, further draining motivation and the ability to learn or perform.

– Students are diagnosed as ‘special needs’ and decide they are ‘thick’

What should we do?

Elliott says, “I can understand parents wanting to get this label, because there’s a human need for labels. But what parents believe is that the label will lead to an intervention, in much the same way that a diagnosis of a broken arm leads to effective treatment. And what I’d argue is that the intervention they receive when their child is labelled dyslexic isn’t effective – and furthermore, it’s very expensive and time-consuming, and it diverts resources away from what could be being done better to help all children with reading problems. “In fact, reading isn’t something that requires a high level of intelligence. Amongst children who struggle to read, you find some with a high IQ, some in the middle and some with a low IQ.” And interestingly, researchers at York University have found that low ability students can be helped just as much with reading problems as able students, providing the right reading programme is implemented in the right way. If resources are thrown at a particular group of students suffering from a particular syndrome, what happens to students who haven’t paid the £300 quid or so needed to receive this label?

Maybe we should agree that either every child with poor reading ability is dyslexic, or none of them is.

Teachers are routinely faced with students with officially sanctioned diagnoses of dyslexia. What do you do, if you think, as I do, that’s it’s a load of old pony? You have three choices: you can challenge the diagnosis, reinforce it or ignore it. Even though I’m unconvinced, I can’t say with absolute certainty that dyslexia doesn’t exist. We all remain too ignorant as yet for dogmatism. For this reason, and also because the diagnosis may be helpful to the student (it’s certainly better than being regarded as unintelligent), I wouldn’t recommend a direct challenge to the diagnosis. Neither, though, do I recommend it be accepted – this will reinforce the disability fantasy and will lead to learned helplessness. So then, the third way; the ‘Mmmm…’ approach. When told a student is ‘dyslexic’ I say “Mmmm…” and then teach as if the diagnosis had never been made; I treat the student as completely ‘normal’. I dismiss dyslexia from my own mind and, hopefully, the student will feel it fade from theirs too. It is at this point that progress can be made.

I could be very wrong about this. Certainly lots of well-intentioned, knowledgeable people think so. But wrong or not, the best approached to dyslexia that I’ve come up with is not indulge sufferers in the belief that they are doomed, cursed or otherwise blighted by a condition over which they have no control. We all have ‘specific learning difficulties’ of one form or another and they’re never an excuse for not trying. We should always encourage students to overcome their difficulties and provide them with the tools to cope the curve balls their brains throw at them. For some having a label may be helpful, for others it’s most definitely not. My own experience suggests that patience, compassion and high expectations are the very best that a teacher can offer any student. And this seems to work, more often than not.

If you’re interested, there’s a fascinating Channel 4 documentary called The Dyslexia Myth to watch as well.

And here is a fascinating unpicking of some recent research from Yale on the likelihood of children having a genetic form of dyslexia.

Related posts

Magic glasses and the Meares-Irlen Syndrome

The effect of ‘affect’on learning and performance

The Matthew Effect – why literacy is so important

Specific reading disability (dyslexia): what have we learned in the past four decades? by Vellutino, Fletcher, Snowling and Scanlon

Julian Elliott also has a very good chapter on dyslexia in Bad Education: Debunking Myths in Education

Teacher talk: the missing link

Back in 2008 I was told by an Ofsted inspector that I talked too much. I had always prided myself on being considered an outstanding teacher, and was devastated to be told my lesson was “satisfactory to good”. My attempts to probe this judgement got little further; he offered no criticism of what I’d said or how I’d said it, just that I’d spoken for too long.

This came as huge blow to my self-confidence and I spent the next few years reinventing myself as a trendy, progressive teacher. Out with modelling and whole class instruction; in with group work, problem solving and PLTS. It worked. Lesson observations were given the thumbs up, the kids were having a great time and results were going up. Smiles all round.

When I started writing this blog back in July 2011 I was very much into experimenting with saying less and less, and making the kids discover more and more for themselves. In fact, in one of my earliest posts, I explained how the very title of the blog came from a technique of getting students to act as teachers in order to leave me free to ‘observe’ learning. Occasionally, some of the more academic students complained that they wanted me to ‘just tell them stuff’ but I dismissed that as the product of too much spoon-feeding from other, less exciting teachers.

Signing up to Twitter gradually made a difference. The process of engaging in debate with other teachers who had actually bothered to learn about education came as a real eye opener. I was confounded the first time I ran up against Andrew Old embarking on one of his trade mark Direction Instruction diatribes. Could thinking, rational teachers still actually believe this? Clearly they could, and I wanted to know why. I started to read. First Hattie’s Visible Learning, and then others, including Willingham, Hirsch and Engelmann. OK, I conceded: there is a place for this kind of teaching. What’s needed is balance.

I started writing about integrating right and left wing teaching in such posts as What’s deep learning and How do you do it? and Why aren’t we supposed to teach anymore? I stated to wonder whether my love affair with teaching skills was all It was cracked up to be and started asking Should we be teaching knowledge or skills? and Is it better to be told, or to discover a fact? On the way I encountered problems such as The Learning Pyramid but still felt the need to justify Why group work works for me.

Now, I’m not completely recanting – I still believe students need to be given opportunities to work collaboratively – but I’m definitely a lot clearer on why I might want them to do it. My beliefs have shifted quite a lot. I am now firmly convinced of the need to teach students a curriculum which is predicated on expanding their horizons and giving them knowledge of the world beyond the sometimes narrow confines of their lives and have become increasingly passionate about grammar. I’m even beginning to doubt the primacy of AfL!

But perhaps the biggest shift in my thinking is on the troublesome topic of teacher talk. You see, when that inspector told me I talked too much he was basing that judgement on a body of thinking which had identified that much of what teachers were saying was guff. Teachers had had carte blanche to bang on in whatever tedious manner they decided was appropriate for far too long. It was right and proper that this view should be challenged. But, predictably, as soon as it became acceptable to critique teachers’ talk, ill-informed idiots began to interpret this as a preference for teachers not talking at all. Sort of reminds my about all the wrong-headed nonsense that’s been spouted in the name of progress

This is something that had become increasing apparent to me over the past year or so, but it wasn’t until hearing about the fabulous work Lee Donaghy is engaged in at Park View School in Birmingham that it all clicked into place. Teachers absolutely must talk if students are actually going to learn anything worthwhile; the trick is to make that talk as efficient and instructive as possible. I’ve spent the past few months experimenting with the teaching & learning cycle Lee describes and have come to the (possibly unoriginal) conclusion that its success is dependent on the quality of teacher talk. You see students’ ability to write well depends on their ability to speak well. As teacher we are modelling speech all the time. We don’t really get a choice about this – we’re either doing it badly or well. This cycle provides a model for ensuring that our talk makes the strongest possible impact on students’ ability to write, speak and think in academic register.

Genre pedagogy – T&L cycle

Stage 1 is dependent on the teacher being able to explain clearly and coherently. Alex Quigley has suggested some top tips for doing this effectively, and every teacher should give time to telling compelling stories, making analogies which shed new light on a topic and introducing academic language into their explanations. This type of teacher talk is essential if we value students being able to express abstract and unfamiliar concepts in anything other than broken, inarticulate approximations. Understanding requires knowledge of language: if you don’t have the words for a thing then you can’t think about it usefully.

Stage 2 requires teachers to model their thinking. We need to be able to show how our thoughts become writing. When students speak they rarely consider the structure of what they’re saying. Often it isn’t in sentences, and they are, quite literally, unable to organise it into anything coherent enough to remember, let alone write down. I use what I call Thought Stems to force students to focus on how not just what they’re saying.

So instead of the insipid, unfocussed open questions, and pointlessly meandering, conversational verbiage into which teacher lead discussion often descends, students are required to express their thoughts using academic language. They are forced to turn the unformed maelstrom of ideas into something that has structure and, crucially, which they can remember well enough to write down. This stage also depends on discussion.

While not all discussion has to be teacher lead, student lead discussions are only successful when teachers have modelled what a good discussion looks like. Classroom discussions need to involve every students and the outworn dialogic structure of Initiation – Response – Evaluation will not achieve this.

IRE goes a little like this:

Teacher: What is the chemical symbol for Oxygen?

Student: O

Teacher: Well done.

While this kind of ‘guess what’s in the teacher’s head’ questioning has its place in assessing what a student has memorised, it’s not at all useful for getting them to think. Instead, we need questioning that ‘requires students to think, not just to report someone else’s thinking.’ (Martin Nystrand) To that end, questions should have clear and specific purposes such as to clarify (what did you mean by that?), probe (can you tell me more about that?) and recommend (which answer do you think is best?).

Another problem with IRE is that once the teacher has selected a victim, everyone else in the room can relax: they’re safe from further interrogation until the teacher has evaluated (well done) their stooge’s response. If instead students are expected to evaluate their classmate’s responses by bouncing questions around the class expectations for participation are that much higher. Rather than wasting time with the confusion that is Bloom’s Taxonomy, I recommend 3 question stems to encourage students to evaluate each other’s responses:

So questioning couldlook like this:

Teacher: With your partner, discuss what you know about Oxygen. (suitable pause) Dan, what do you know about Oxygen?

Dan: O is the chemical symbol for Oxygen.

Teacher: Emma, is he right?

Emma: Er… yes?

Teacher: What else do you know about Oxygen?

Emma: You breathe it.

Teacher: Sam, which of those answers do you think is the most interesting?

Now, at this point students are often very good at snookering us with the classic, ‘I don’t know’ gambit. The appropriate riposte to this is to say something along the lines of, “I know you don’t know – I’m asking what you think.” We need to stand firm and make sure that they do think. You could hover over them and stress them out, or you could give them some discussion time. Either way,  as long as you’re clear why you’re asking the questions and let go of the need for ‘right’ answers, all will be well.

Stage 3 is where group work comes in. In order to avoid cognitive overload, students need to transfer what they’ve learned from working to long term memory. As any fool knows, the best way to do this is use what you’ve learned. Ideally, students will be forced to recall this learning multiple times until it’s second nature. This is particularly important when we’re encouraging students to shift ideas from thought, to speech, to writing. They will revert very quickly to using everyday language and we need to be on hand to gently coax them back to the unfamiliar academic register required to master the subject you are responsible for teaching.

Some ideas for organising joint construction include:

– Getting students to work together to design their own thought stems using mark schemes to find key command words

– Student lead feedback – make students lead feedback and discussions. Some students are naturally very good at this but the less confident could lead sessions in pairs or use prompt sheets

– Paired writing – encourage students to discuss language and sentence choices at the point of writing

– Listening triads – to help students focus on how they speak not just what they say, get 2 students to discuss a question and the third to record their conversation – this can result in some surprising revelations

– Value listening by asking students to feedback what they’ve heard rather than what they’ve said in a discussion.

But the teacher is still required to talk, if not to engage in whole class instruction. Our job is to help students organise ideas so that they can be used independently. One of my favourite methods for doing this is to use Question Formulation TechniqueJohn Sayer’s Deeper Questioning Grid is a useful tool to help students refine their questions:

Stage 4 is where they are able to work independently and at this point you should, if you’ve talked effectively, be able to finally zip it. This is true independent work, where students are confidently able to transcribe their thoughts without having to speak because of all the high quality talk to which they’ve been exposed. This is in sharp contrast to the chaotic shambles, which often gets passed off for the kind of ‘independent learning’ which many of us have been guilty of perpetrating on our undeserving charges in the name of witlessly reducing teacher talk.

The pogrom against teacher talk conducted by Ofsted and SLTs up and down the land has had almost as toxic an effect on teaching as the insanity that was ‘showing progress every 20 minutes’. Students’ ability to use academic language articulately and well requires effective modelling, and this is impossible if teachers are afraid to say anything. So, in the name of all that is holy please, please, stop telling teachers not to talk. Instead train them in how to improve the quality of their talk.

It was refreshing to hear Michael Wilshaw’s assertion that Ofsted had no preferred methodology and that didactic lessons could be outstanding, but Old Andrew’s research into the sad reality of Ofsted inspectionsmeans that being allowed to talk in lessons is the new ideological battleground between ordinary working teachers and the feckless bampots who hold us to account.

And on that note, I’ll shut up.

Further reading

Learning to Write, Reading to Learn – genre, knowledge and pedagogy in the Sydney School Scaffolding Language, Scaffolding Learning: Teaching Second Language Learners in the Mainstream Classroom