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

Planning Lessons – lessons I’ve learned from lessons I’ve taught

Planning: still a good thing to do first

Planning: still a good thing to do first

This is a summary and a drawing together of several earlier posts. I consider it a refinement of my thinking and something which is painstakingly (and grandiosely) groping its way towards a total philosophy of planning. It does also attempt to offer something new but is this enough to deserve a new post? You decide.

“Failing to plan is planning to fail.”

Smug teachers, everywhere

As a new teacher, lesson planning seemed to suck up almost all of my available time and energy. Looking back over those frenetic early years it’s become increasingly clear that I wasted an awful lot of effort designing activities rather than considering what my students needed to learn.  That is to say, I put most of my effort into things that had only a marginal impact on students’ learning.

The Pareto Principle, or The Law of the Valuable Few, suggests that in most fields of endeavour, people spend 80% of their time on those activities that produce 20% of the impact. Or to put it the other way, what I spend 20% of my time on will account for 80% of the impact I achieve.

What if, I started to wonder, I tried to turn those percentages around? What if I were to spend more of my time on those parts of my job that have the most impact and stop bothering with the guff? Well, in my increasingly obsessive quest for efficiency, I’ve arrived at the 5 (fairly obvious) principles below.

1. Time is precious

So, how can teachers’ time be most profitably spent? Research suggests feedback is top of the list and, for me at least, this is closely followed by absolute clarity on what, exactly, my students need to learn. Instead of planning individual lessons, I want to invest my time in medium term planning to break down the skills and knowledge they will need to learn to arrive at their destination. And as for feedback, there may all sorts of really efficient ways to give feedback during lessons, but for me nothing beats marking their books. Sitting on a pile of unmarked work for weeks is useless though – to have impact it needs turning around as quickly as possible. If I can set up lessons so that I’m marking while the students work then so much the better. But when that’s not possible I need to make sure that whatever time I have available is time spent marking.

2. Marking is planning

Which segues neatly into my second principle: every time you mark students’ work should be time spent working out whether they can do what you think they can and what they need to do next. Instead of just writing them feedback, I ask them individual questions, and set focussed tasks for them to complete in Dedicated Improvement and Reflection Time (DIRT). I’ve also argued before that marking is the purest form of differentiation.

Screen Shot 2013-06-09 at 17.03.17

3. Focus on learning not activities

I consider myself the enemy of activities! Loading lessons with things to do actively gets in the way of students learning whatever your clear, thoughtful objective was. Time spent planning card sorts, writing worksheets and lovingly crafting resources is, by and large, time wasted. Or at least, time that could have been spent doing something more profitable. If you’ve followed the first 2 principles, this one’s a no-brainer. Does the evidence in books match the expectations of your medium term plan? If not, remediate. If it does, move on but beware that what you think students have learned may well be forgotten by the time they need it, so ensure you plan to revisit this learning multiple times. Top tip: ask yoursself, what will students think about during the lesson? What they think about is what they will remember.

4. Know your students

This sounds insultingly obvious but is easily forgotten. It’s a widely accepted truism that good teaching is founded on good relationships. Good relationships are, in their turn, founded on detailed knowledge and understanding of the kids you teach. At Clevedon School we use a system called Pen Portraits. Every term we write a mini ‘portrait’ of 5 students in each class based on the data we collect and our knowledge of their personalities, backgrounds and potential. By the end of the year you will have written a portrait of every student in every class you teach. This is all fine and dandy, but what gets done with this information? I try to work out how exactly I might be able to help these particular pupils and make sure that every student I teach gets at least one (but in practice more) lesson which has been planned just for them. And I tell them. Today you are my Pen Portrait student and this lesson is yours!

Also, knowing your students makes you bullet proof! You are the indisputable expert on how these students learn in your classroom, and woe betide anyone who comes in shouting the odds about what they would do differently!

5. The ‘1 in 4’ Rule

Let’s be realistic, churning out Outstanding (TM) lessons five or six times a day, every day is probably unsustainable. Working yourself into the ground benefits no one. In any given week I’ll spend a disproportionate of my planning time on one or two lessons, but most will be put together in 5 minutes or less. My formula is that if every fourth lesson for every class is a corker, all will be well. Students are forgiving creatures. They will happily dine off a barnstorming lesson for a week. Plus, if the lesson’s worth its salt it ought to produce work that is marked and then becomes next lesson’s menu anyway.

Lesson plans

Like many teachers, I have utter contempt for planning pro formas. The often descend into a pointless round of box ticking and planning for planning’s sake. This immediately falls foul of my first planning principle. Happily though, Ofsted have stated explicitly that there is no need for written lesson plan; all they’re interested in is “evidence of planned lessons”. Therefore, my lesson planning consists of considering the following 5 questions[1]:

1. How will last lesson relate to this lesson?

All too often the skills and knowledge learned in one lesson is not revisited the next. This assumes that if students have performed they must have learned. This is not the case. (See question 5 below.)

2. Which students do I need to consider in this particular lesson?

If I know my students then this is a darned sight easier. And if you’ve written ‘pen portraits’ for the students in your class it’s a cinch! Simply decide who you’re going to focus on, what their particular needs are and let them know when they arrive that they’re the lucky beneficiary of all your expertise and wisdom for today. Unsurprisingly, this has an enormous impact on the motivation of said student; you can see ‘em start glowing. And really, is there any better evidence of differentiation or personalised learning? I think not.

3. What will students do the moment they arrive?

Lesson time is too precious to waste having students sitting around waiting for tardy classmates to arrive – give them something that they can get on with immediately. This can be as straightforward as putting a question on your board, but can be used to build anticipation for the lesson ahead by projecting pictures or playing music. Of the biggest mistakes new teachers make is spending too long on bell work. Take quick feedback from one or two students if you must, but then move on. Never lose sight of the 4th planning question.

4. What are they learning, and what activities will they undertake in order to learn it?

I don’t care whether you refer to them as objectives, outcomes or intentions, but you do need to have considered what it is the students are in your classroom to learn, and how this will help them achieve within the big picture of your medium – long term plan. Most planning time gets wasted on activities rather than learning. Think about the Pareto Principle here and spend 80% of your time planning the objective. I’ve grown to love the Learning Outcome and in particular the way Zoë Elder suggests splitting it with ‘so that’: we’re learning X so that you can do Y. This then makes Step 5 much clearer.

The activity is largely irrelevant. What’s really important is what students spend the lesson thinking about. As Daniel Willingham says, “Memory is the residue of thought”: they will remember what they think about. So if you want students to learn about, say, osmosis, it won’t help for them to be asked to write rap or perform a short play. This would distract them from the idea of osmosis and make them think about rapping or acting. These might well be fun and interesting activities  but they won’t help students learn what you want them to learn.

5. How will I (and they) know if they are making progress?

The Input/Output Myth: If only!

The Input/Output Myth: If only!

If you’ve designed your Learning Outcome well then it will be straightforward to check progress. If students have learned then they will have produced the desired outcome. Or will they? We should be wary I what I’ve termed The Input/Output Myth: what we as teachers put in, students will, de facto, learn.

Not so. Graham Nuthall talks about the belief that “engaging in learning activities…transfers the content of the activity to the mind of the student” But “as learning occurs, so does forgetting.” In fact “learning takes time and is not encapsulated in the visible here-and-now of classroom activities.”

Dylan Wiliam says, “Learning is a liminal process, at the boundary between control and chaos.”

And Robert Bjork tells us that we need to disassociate learning from ‘performance’. Just because students have been able to respond to cues that they will have retained what has been taught. Instead we should consider ways of slowing down performance so that students are more likely to retain knowledge in long-term memory and transfer it to new domains.

True progress cannot happen in a single lesson but if everyone knows the learning destination we can judge how close we are to arriving.

‘Break’ your plan

The practised you become, the quicker you’ll be able to rattle through these 5 questions. The only other advice I’d offer is to conduct a thought experiment I call breaking your plan. Knowing your students is crucial for this to be effective but all it involves is running though your lesson and testing it for weak spots. For me it becomes like a game of chess:

I’ll say X, and then she’ll do Y. OK, so I need to…

Or: when I want them to do X, he’ll need extra support so I need to make sure I’m free to support by doing Y.

If it’s a high stakes lesson I might spend a while doing this but normally a couple of minutes spent thinking in this way is all it takes to ensure that most of the kinks you can anticipate are ironed out.

So, these are the lessons I’ve learned about planning. They are, of course, just my thoughts although they are underpinned by 12 years of bitter experience. Please feel free to use, adapt or disregard as you see fit.

Related posts

The Problem with Progress part 3 – designing lessons for learning
Go with the flow – the 2 minute lesson plan
Work scrutiny – what’s the point of marking books?
Anatomy of an Outstanding Lesson

[1] Adapted from the Huntingdon School Lesson Progress Map

The problem with progress Part 1: learning vs performance

What’s more important? Learning or progress?

I was going to make that question rhetorical, but scratch that: let’s get interactive:

Take that progress! We want learning

We’ve known since the publication of Ofsted’s Moving English Forward in March last year that demonstrating progress is not the be all and end all of an inspector’s judgments, but just in case anyone was in any doubt, Kev Bartle has forensically scoured Ofsted’s Inspection Handbook and come to these damning conclusions.

He unequivocally states that,”There is no such thing as progress within lessons. There is only learning” before going on to say:

Even Ofsted (the big organisation but sadly not always the individual inspectors or inspection teams) realise that ‘progress’ is simply a numerical measurement of the distance between a start point and an end point and therefore CANNOT IN ITSELF BE OBSERVED IN LESSONS other than through assessing how much students have learned.  ‘Progress in lessons’ is the very definition of a black box into which we, as teachers and leaders, need to shine a light.

As often seems to happen, I encounter new information when I’m ready to process it and yesterday I came across this (thanks to the prodding of the hugely knowledgeable Cristina Milos) from Robert Bjork:

Bjork says that learning and performance should be seen as distinct and should be disassociated in the minds of teachers. Performance is measurable but learning must be inferred from performance: it cannot be observed directly. That is to say, performance  is easy to observe whereas learning is not. You can tick a box to show that students’ performance has moved from x to y but you can’t tell sometimes whether learning has taken place. There are many instances where learning occurs but performance in the short term doesn’t improve, and there are instances where performance improves, but little learning seems to happen in the long term.

Learning is, as Wiliam said, “a liminal process, at the boundary between control and chaos”*.  And the problem is compounded by the fact that current performance is an unreliable indicator of learning. Performance can be propped up by predictability and current cues that are present during the lesson but won’t be present when the information is needed later. This can make it seem that a student is making rapid progress but there may not actually be any learning happening.

This is the Monkey Dance, and is a fairly accurate description of what goes on in far too many observed lessons. Teachers are primed to demonstrate their students performance and their observer can nod, smile and tick away to their embittered heart’s content. But there may be little or no learning taking place.

So clearly the problem is: if we’re going to disassociate learning and performance (as we so obviously need to do) what strategies will promote learning? Well, very helpfully in the final 30 seconds, Bjork says the following:

When you introduce things like variability, spacing, reducing the feedback, interleaving things to be learned rather than blocking the things to be learned; that appears to slow down the learning process and poses challenges but enhances long term retention and transfer.

Rober Bjork

Each of these ideas deserves their own blog post and this is something that I’ll beaver away at over half term. Any suggestions on excellent ways to embed pedagogy that promotes learning rather than progress will be very gratefully received.

As ever, Darren Mead got there first and makes the same points, but more amusingly, here:

Post script: You will of course have noticed that I’m using progress and performance interchangeably; I think this is because they’re the same, but please do feel free to dissent.

*Liminality is a fascinating subject and one worth reading more about. You could do worse than start here.

Related posts

Myths: what Ofsted want

What is learning?

Is there a right way to teach?

Icebergs, taking risks & being outstanding

How do we recognise a great teacher, a great lesson or great teaching and learning? How do we know what we’re seeing is outstanding?

The sad truth is that often observers don’t (or can’t) see the wood for the trees. They see your planning, they see your interactions with a group of students and, hopefully, they see the evidence of impact in your students’ books. But most of what goes into making your lessons finely crafted things of beauty are invisible. Observers only ever get to see the tip of the iceberg.

The iceberg

If a writer of prose knows enough of what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an ice-berg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water. A writer who omits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in his writing.

Ernest Hemingway

Can Hemingway’s wise words on writing prose can be applied to teaching? Instead of flopping about trying to make students do too much in a given lesson we should have the confidence to ‘omit’ all the fantastic stuff we know we do day in day out because its presence is what what will make the edifice float with such stately elegance.

The bit beneath the surface is our knowledge of our students and the relationships we’ve lovingly established over months or years. It’s the routines we’ve set up and the massively high expectations we’ve communicated. Only we know how hard we’ve worked on these things and unless we take the time to tell our observer, how will they know? If we hope that they can extrapolate all this from the 20 minutes they spend in our lesson and intuit all the hard work from a brief conversation about targets and a flick through a few books then we could well leave ourselves open to disappointment. Instead we need to expect that an observer will know all these thing because we will take the opportunity of point them out.

So, what can we do?

This post is a distillation of all my thinking over the past six months on how we can demonstrate to an observer that we are outstanding teachers and that the lessons that are being observed showcase outstanding teaching and learning.

Often, one of the biggest tensions for teachers is the fact that what we believe is best for our students is not what Ofsted (or our SLT) want to see. Over the past few years this has lead to teachers performing the Monkey Dance in front of observers and then getting on with the day job; that of getting recalcitrant kids to learn stuff.

Now, fortunately for all of us Sir Michael Wilshaw has recently said this:

OFSTED should be wary of trying to prescribe a particular style of teaching, whether it be a three part lesson; an insistence that there should be a balance between teacher led activities and independent learning, or that the lesson should start with aims and objectives with a plenary at the end.

This is excellent news.

Here’s a list of the stuff that, according to Ofsted, represents outstanding T&L:

• Sustained & rapid progress (NB – this does not take place in individual lessons but over time)
• Consistently high expectations
• Excellent subject knowledge
• Systematic, accurate assessment
• Well judged, imaginative teaching strategies
• Sharply focused & timely support
• Enthusiasm, participation & commitment
• Resilience, confidence & independence
• Frequent & consistently high quality feedback
• Engagement, courtesy, collaboration & cooperation

Taking risks

The clear and splendid implication I take from Wilshaw’s remarks is that we shouldn’t have to worry about how we’re doing these things as long as we’re doing them. Obviously we cannot reasonably expect to do all this in 20 minutes, but maybe we can find a way to show it. This gives us more freedom to take risks, embrace failure and, of course, try hard.

Here are some handy pointers from the great and the good:

You must learn to fail intelligently. Failing is one of the greatest arts in the world. One fails forward towards success.

Thomas Edison

The idea of ‘failing intelligently’ is a fascinating one. As Zoë Elder points out here, “making mistakes may or may not be the result of risk-taking. A mistake may simply be indicative of carelessness, lack of time or stress, rather than an overt effort to take a risk”. The more effort we put into careful preparation, the more likely our mistakes are to have been worth making, and more likely we are to ‘fail forward’.

Show me a teacher who doesn’t fail every day and I’ll show you a teacher with low expectations for his or her students.

Dylan Wiliam

This is as clear an indictment of playing it safe as I’ve ever encountered. It is ridiculously to meet low expectations but there is little reward for doing so. As teachers we owe it to our students to risk failures, identify where we went astray and feed all this invaluable information into our next experiment. And if you’re still not convinced, here’s why:

A teacher’s job is not to make work easy. It is to make it difficult. If you are not challenged, you don not make mistakes. if you do not make mistakes, feedback is useless.

John Hattie

The word according to @reflectivemaths

If we don’t challenge students to meet our outrageously high expectations, they won’t make mistakes. This results in a desultory lack of progress. This is one of the biggest potential pitfalls we encounter when teaching able students: they can do a lot of what we think is hard so we end end up lavishing them with praise for their efforts without raising the bar. This is well known. Vygotsky told us that success should always be just beyond where we currently are so that we have to strive and reach for it.

This applies to teachers as much as it does to our students. The vast gap in the feedback given to teachers judged as ‘good with outstanding features’ is an appalling travesty. It is simply not acceptable to fob off these teachers with meaningless guff about gut feelings, lack of a certain je ne c’est pas, or the observation that student x was briefly off task despite producing a fantastic outcome. If, as an observer, you cannot give kind, helpful and specific feedback on how to get to outstanding you really shouldn’t be allowed to make judgments on others’ teaching!

So, once we’ve acknowledged the iceberg and committed ourselves to taking risks, what next?

Being outstanding

Outstanding has to be a way of thinking rather than a way of doing. The truth is that for most of us the idea of working harder is impossible: we’re already flat out. This is the beauty of an approach like the aggregation of marginal learning gains. Sometimes, we can make a huge difference by making relatively minor, but deliberate improvements.

I start by spending less time planning. Yes, you heard me. I’ve written before about my approach to lesson planning but I’ve recently boiled it down to the following essentials:

• Time is precious (the 2 minute lesson plan)

Marking is planning

• Lessons should focus on learning not activities

I’ve written before about my medium and long term planning model, the Learning Loop – the basic premise is that lessons should build on each other in a coherent way.

In English I’ve identified 2 distinct loops: creativity and analysis which I deliberately thread through all schemes of learning and every lesson. This is a little simplistic, but it’s a useful place to start and I would urge you to identify the main loops within the curriculum area you teach. With this in mind, it really doesn’t take much time to plan what it is that students need to learn.

During the lesson

With the planning taken care of, we need to consider what to do during a lesson to ensure it’s judged as outstanding.

1. Explain why to the observer – make sure any observer understands how well judged and imaginative you teaching strategies are. If you’re confident enough, seek them out and explain it to them. Even better, get the students to explain it. Failing that, staple the research findings for your approach to your lesson plan. If an inspector is any cop, they’ll appreciate this; if they’re not, they’ll be intimidated by your professional knowledge and leave you the hell alone. I make it absolutely clear to any observer that they are witnessing outstanding teaching and learning and make sure they see the parts of the iceberg which lie beneath the surface of the lesson. I point out why each individual is making ‘rapid and sustained progress over time’ and direct them to particular students and their books.

2. Observe the learning – it’s important to leave yourself free to observe what’s going on. I always have a block of post-its on which I scribble comments. If students are working in groups I’ll leave these on their table to discuss; if they’re working individually I’ll pop it on their work and stand back. This is a great way to show how your interventions are ‘sharply focussed and timely’ and is clear evidence of ‘frequent and high quality feedback’ to add to all the wonderful examples of ‘systematic and accurate assessment’ in their books. If a particular student doesn’t appear to be as engaged as you’d like, point them out to your observer and tell their story. Show them how much progress they’ve made over time and contextualise their particular issues. Obviously, this will depend on your students’ ‘resilience, confidence & independence’ and this too needs is worth pointing out.

3. Questioning – this is an essential part of teaching and wonderful opportunity for developing students’ oracy. I don’t care who you are or what subject you teach, you must take the opportunity to ask good questions. It can be hugely impressive to include a hinge question mid way through your lesson but you should ensure that your questioning seeks to clarify, probe or get students to recommend. Even better, you can get the students them selves to do this while you sit back and point out the ‘engagement, courtesy, collaboration & cooperation’ to your observer.

4. Take the temperature – the best lessons just seem to ‘flow’ with students experiencing an appropriate level of challenge and stress. However, this is hard to judge and we may need to ‘take the temperature’ of our lessons to ensure we’ve pitched it right. Get students to explain where they are on this chart:

You can then make micro adjustments to the levels of stress or challenge to make certain that students are displaying appropriate levels of ‘enthusiasm, participation & commitment’.

5. Take risks – through your observation of the students’ learning and your temperature taking you are in a position to take some exciting and fairly safe risks. Explain to the observer that because you’ve noticed x you’re going to do y. You might adjust time limits to increase or decrease stress or shift the emphasis of questioning to raise or lower challenge. You might move students around or throw particular students some curves. The point is that while these things might not work, the observer will be interested and engaged in your experimentation as you’ll have explored the reasoning first. 

Scott Adams – The Dilbert Principle

The purpose of all of this is to make sure you don’t leave the reading of your professional practice to chance. Don’t hope you’ll be outstanding; expect it.

How you think is as important as what you do, and if you think of your teaching as art, then you can enjoy the process of being creative and of taking risks.

Not everything you do will work, but if your thinking is outstanding and clearly articulated then it’s almost impossible for an observer to disagree with you. At any rate, the onus will be on them to explain clearly and precisely exactly why you’re not outstanding: if they fail to do this, challenge them politely but assertively by laying out the evidence that your have both understood and met the criteria.

One last piece of advice:

Be brilliant and they’ll forgive you anything.

Phil Beadle

Coda: You might argue that being judged outstanding in an observation doesn’t make you an outstanding teacher. And you’d be right. But, labels have power. Once you become known as outstanding you will start to become it.

Related posts

Anatomy of an outstanding lesson

The myth of progress in lessons by Kev Bartle


Work scrutiny – What’s the point of marking books?

Marking is an act of love

Phil Beadle

If you’ve never taken part in a whole school book scrutiny, I’d recommend it. Seeing how students treat their exercise books across different subjects is very revealing. I’ll happily agree that students’ books can’t give a complete picture of their learning and progress in particular classes but they certainly ask interesting questions about whether marking and presentation matter.

Just for a moment, let’s assume we all understand and agree that giving quality feedback to students is the most important thing teachers can do (click here for more on this.) Let’s also assume we agree that while other forms of feedback may be equally valuable, teachers marking books is one of the most important and effective ways of ensuring that students are getting clear, timely feedback on how well they are making progress. This being the case, why do we waste so much time doing other stuff?

Phil Beadle, in typically provocative style, puts it like this:

You can turn up hungover every morning, wearing the same creased pair of Farahs as last week, with hair that looks like a bird has slept in it, then spend most of the lesson talking at kids about how wonderful your are; but mark their books with dedication and rigour and your class will fly.

How To Teach

Not only does this make me feel slightly better about my weakness for Pinot Noir, it also confirms what I’ve long believed: the more often I mark their books, the more effort they will put into their work. No effort on my part = no effort on theirs. So, at least on one level, decent presentation depends on marking.

I may have entertained doubts about the importance of presentation before reading Ron Berger’s An Ethic of Excellence, but not now. In it he sets out his manifesto for supporting students to create beautiful work. My ears are still ring with the words, “If it isn’t perfect it isn’t finished.” It’s such an inspiration to know that this is not just possible but actively worth pursuing. But it’s up to us to explain why sloppy work is unacceptable. If you want titles underlined, get students to think about the reasons and explain what the point might be; don’t just insist on compliance. Students will not value their written work unless we do. I suggest regular Amnesty Lessons to ensure books are up to snuff; get students go back over their work looking for errors and correcting them and insist they take pride in what they produce. 

I have started referring to writing as ‘drafting’, as in: “I want you to draft an article on…” This then encourages re-drafting. My thinking is that if students know from the outset that this is how writing is supposed to work then maybe then they will see more point in moving towards a beautiful, finely crafted end product.  But none of this will happen unless they know, deep down in their souls, that I will be checking. 

I was criticised recently for mindlessly spouting the research finding that while 80% of feedback comes from peers, 50% of that is wrong. The point was that while this may be case in some classrooms, it doesn’t have to be in mine. Peer assessment has long been a vaunted component of AfL with the point being that students should be “activated as learning resources for one another”. I’ve been as guilty as anyone in the past for getting students to mindlessly dribble about ‘what went well’ and how work could have been ‘even better if…’ Clearly, well designed success criteria are essential for this process to be effective, but even more important is that the process is public and transparent. If students know that you and everyone else are going to be reading their scrawled “Great work LOL!!! – maybe do a bit more next time :)”, and that it will be held up as unacceptable then maybe they’ll think a little more about how their feedback can be formative.

The best strategy I’ve come across for making this happen is Public Critique, explained superbly by Tait Coles here.

To avoid this:

We have this:

The idea is that work is displayed publicly so that everyone gets to see everyone else’s work and everyone’s else’s feedback. It takes time for students to get good at this and, certainly at first, requires the teacher to do a fair bit of reframing of students’ feedback. To begin with this benefits from being a formal process but as it becomes embedded in classroom culture it can become much more on the hoof with students asking for and receiving critique as and when they need it.

This can, and does, have a staggering impact on the quality of students’ work; their pride and enthusiasm shines through and is clearly visible in their books.

My other contention is that marking students’ work is the only really effective way of differentiating lessons. In an ideal world I would mark their books after every piece of written work and give each student detailed and individual feedback for them to act on the following lesson. The fact that I regularly fail to do this is a constant source of shame: must do better. In a previous post I set out how I thought written feedback should take place:

Students do work, I mark it with feedback that requires them to do (or re-do) something, and then they do it. Based on my knowledge of each individual I will have a good idea of what they’re capable or and whether the work they’ve handed in demonstrates progress. I would aim to mark a class’s books regularly enough that at least 1 out of every 4 lessons is spent acting on feedback. Not only does this mean that every student in the class has a uniquely differentiated lesson plan, it also means that I don’t have to fritter away my time planning ‘activities’.

Here’s our Triple Impact Marking Protocol for English (other subjects adapt as appropriate)

Easy for me to say? As an English teacher I have fewer classes than, say, your average humanities teacher. How on earth are they supposed to keep up with this workload? This is not easy. If you have 15+ classes a week you’re really going to struggle to look at their books often enough to make a difference to their learning. But that’s the issue, isn’t it? Just covering content won’t cut it and, other than redesigning your curriculum to avoid this kind of logjam, the only way forward to set up a system whereby students do the majority of lesson-to-lesson monitoring and critique and you put together a timetable to mark each classes books once per term. I know this is a tough gig, but if you approach marking as planning then it might seem a little more do-able.

I glibly repeated this mantra that marking is planning in a meeting recently only to be bluntly told that this is not the case in science. Now, I’ve nothing against science teachers or science lesson, but I just don’t see this. Of course I appreciate that science teachers are under enormous pressure to cover content but surely not at the expense of making sure that they’ve learnt what has already been taught? Of course subjects are different and what works in my English lesson won’t necessarily work in the same way in science but unless you mark their mark their books how on earth will you know whether you’re teaching is having any effect? Yes, you can use traffic lights, hinge questions, exit cards and other AfL paraphernalia to get a sense of students’ understanding, but there’s nothing like trial by extended answer for separating the knows for the know-nots. Maybe this was a misunderstanding? Maybe we understood different things by ‘marking’. According to Dylan Wiliam this would hardly be surprising:

In most Anglophone countries, teachers spend the majority of their lesson preparation time in marking books, almost invariably doing so alone. In some other countries, the majority of lesson preparation time is spent planning how new topics can be introduced, which contexts and examples will be used, and so on. This is sometimes done individually or with groups of teachers working together. In Japan, however, teachers spend a substantial proportion of their lesson preparation time working together to devise questions to use in order to find out whether their teaching has been successful, in particular through the process known as ‘lesson study’ (Fernandez & Makoto, 2004).

This is fascinating and begs a couple of questions. Firstly, should we mark our books alone? And secondly, what if marking was concerned with devising questions to find out whether teaching has been successful?

On the first question, I’m all for marking collaboratively and of course moderation and standardisation are vital. Sadly, it just isn’t practical to do this all the time. Much as I love the teachers in my department, I really don’t want to spend that much time with them! But having some sort of ‘marking buddy’ with whom we regularly compare our books is probably a healthy and sensible thing to do.

The second question is, the whole point of the type of marking I’m advocating and that I’d want to see in students’ books: thoughtful dialogic questions based on the work students have done and designed to prompt them to make progress. Ensuring the progress actually happens requires some DIRT (Dedicated Improvement & Reflection Time.) This has two wonderful advantages:

1. Your next lesson is planned. Every students has an individual lesson plan based on your careful marking

2. Students get to consolidate their learning and have an opportunity to master the skills and knowledge they’ve learned.

So, all this was a very long winded way of saying, mark your books.

At my school our next INSET day will have all staff scrutinising each others’ books. This may sound heartless and unfair but surely this is a matter of professional pride? And if not, just as students need to know I’ll be looking at their work, I need to know that someone else will be looking at my marking.

I’ll end with an anecdote. In what has become folklore at my school, one teacher said to another after being given an opportunity to observe each other, “You’re the reason SLT give us a hard time!” A decent leader should have a damned good idea about whose books need monitoring and whose  can be used as exemplars. Middle leaders should be scrutinising their teams’ books regularly and sharing the findings in a non-judgmental but in way which very clear about their high expectations. This is just too important to leave to chance.

Related posts

Making feedback stick

The joy of marking

Project Based Learning: I did it my way

Effective group work

Just another example of effective groupwork

OK. I have 3 points to make:

1. Group work does not make us more creative and it does not make us work harder.
2. Learning is social and effective group work (apparently) doubles the speed of students’ learning.
3. Almost all teaching in schools depends on a teacher’s ability to create effective groups because, wait for it, classes are just large groups.

Let’s deal with each of these in a bit more detail.

Firstly, as I’ve discussed before, when we try to work together to work towards a collective goal we get, what is known as the Ringelmann Effect. This means that in a group each member believes that every other member is doing the hard work. This makes us feel that we can take it easy because our lack of effort will not be exposed. The argument here is that working in a group is ineffective because everybody slacks off. The alternative is, I suppose, that we each individually try to build our own Statue of Liberty or Great Wall of China?

There is also the argument that group brainstorming makes us less creative as it actually limits our capacity to come up with interesting ideas. There’s lots of research on this and it certainly seems compelling. But there’s a certain amount of common sense that we need to apply here. We’ve all encountered students who struggle to answer questions and come up with ideas. Left to their own devices they sit, head on desk in an expanding pool of drool. We all know, that simply getting them to discuss some possibilities with the student sitting next to them will be sufficient to jolly them along. Maybe they haven’t become more creative – maybe this just gives them less of an excuse for doing nothing? Who cares: it gets them working. I’m sure we can all cite thousands of examples from our own lives of occasions when a simple conversation with a friend or colleague opened up new possibilities or pointed us in previously unexplored directions. Conclusion: when research findings run counter to experience we need to be suspicious.

So, if we accept that while group brainstorming may not be all it’s cracked up to be but that talking to people about our ideas is hugely important then we should be well on our way to accepting that learning is essentially social. Yes, of course, we can learn by ourselves: from written texts. Which someone else has written. It’s not too great a stretch to agree that the acts of reading and writing are essentially similar to the acts of speaking and listening and that reading is another way to have a conversation. Anyway, that’s all rather beside the point.

Dylan Wiliam says that effective group work requires two ingredients: collaborative goals and individual accountability. If we have one without the other then the group work will not be effective. Teachers are generally good at creating group work where the first condition is met but less good in ensuring accountability. Wiliam points out that selecting a student to report back to the class before the work is finished is a bad error. It means that only one group member is accountable and that everyone else can muck about. If, however, you don’t say who will be reporting until after the task is completed everybody is on their toes. Here he is in his own words:

The shock horror moment for me is at the end where he concludes that jigsawing is ineffective because it doesn’t meet these two conditions. Now, I have no idea how Dylan has approached jigsawing during his 8 years of teaching but I’m guessing it was nothing like my approach. Maybe there’s a semantic issue here but what he calls jigsawing is what I call Home/Expert groups and this is, as I’ve said before, the Ultimate Teaching Technique. What makes it so effective is that it is focussed so tightly on ensuring individual accountability; if you haven’t worked as part of your expert group you will be publicly exposed as a lazy toe rag when you return to your home group. For some other techniques for creating effective group work have a look at Alex Quigley’s Top 10 Group work strategies.

Although he mentions Robert Slavin, Wiliam doesn’t clearly cite his evidence for the claim that effective group work doubles the speed of students’ learning but I’d be very interested to see the research.

My third and final point on the efficacy of group work is the rather obvious observation that all teaching is group work. Classes are groups and our goal is, surely, for these groups to work. When teachers (and students) rail against group work what they’re objecting to is small groups within the larger group working on some extended task. My point is this: your objections to group work come down solely, it would seem, to the size of the group you are working with. A class of 30 individuals working in silence on a controlled assessment is still a group and a teacher will have had to work hard to create the conditions for the individuals in that group to work effectively. The collaborative goal (that the group is functional) maybe be fairly loose, but this is still a goal which requires the collaboration of all within the group. We have all had the experience of ‘bad’ groups and dread, say, Year 9 on a Friday afternoon. This is because we are, mistakenly, prioritising individual accountability over collaborative goals. The collaboration must be adressed before any work can be done. Failure to deal with poor behaviour for learning will mean that you will preside over a horribly stressful situation for everyone involved.

Yes, of course bad group work is bad. But all sorts of wonderful things can be screwed by the incompetent or the ignorant. The point has to be that unless we try to be better at designing effective groupwork we are doing our students and society a isservice.

And to finish; watch this lovely piece of film and ask yourself what else would be impossible without group work.

Related posts

Why group work works for me

What is learning?

Teaching creatively ve teaching creativity


So, what *IS* the point of INSET days?

Always confound their expectations

Every teacher needs to improve, not because they are not good enough, but because they can be even better. Dylan Wiliam, keynote to SSAT conference, December 2012

Back in August 2011, long before I ever thought I might one day be feeling guilty about being paid for going to another school and talking about teaching, I wrote this post asking what the point of an INSET day actually was. I didn’t really answer the question.

However, I did point out this:

All too often the only requirement for staff  is that they sit and listen. Either to an expensive motivational guest speaker or to a member of the school’s own leadership team. Teachers tend to be fairly intolerant of this and have a tendency to misbehave. We know that if we took this approach in an observed lesson we’d be (rightly) lambasted so we resent having it inflicted on us. Why does it happen? Cos it’s easy. The expensive motivational guest speaker will have delivered his (it’s always a bloke!) spiel many time before and can just trot out the same old same old and pick up their pay cheque.

On Monday, I’ll be the “expensive motivational guest speaker” and I cringe. Both at my own glib sense of certainty 18 months ago but also at the truth that this observation contains. I haven’t delivered my spiel often enough for it to be stale and I can take comfort from the fact that it’s rooted in my own classroom practice but still; it is a spiel. I’ve been given a loose brief but I know practically nothing about the school, its values, the people who work there or the students. Who the hell am I to tell them how to teach?

Well, I’m the guy they’ve hired and I’ve got a moral responsibility not to be crap. I know now about the tough balancing act of giving enough value for money in terms of input but also allowing staff time to think, discuss, plan and implement ideas. I know now that INSET is not the same as a lesson and the same rules don’t apply. Giving a learning objective at the start is a bit patronising and just providing some handouts and letting folks discover it all for themselves would, I am sure, not go down at all well.

And this has got me thinking about some of the entrenched views I’ve expressed on what teaching should be like in the past. I’ve come out on a number of occasions and said that group work is the approach most likely to result in students learning, and, while I’ve since qualified this position by arguing that all teaching is in fact group work of one for another, I know full well that I am there for my ‘expertise’ (such as it is) and that I will be expected (at least in part) to provide an entertaining and interesting lecture.

That said, I’ve worked hard to make my presentation interactive, thought provoking and useful. I’m not selling any snake oil and I have no particular axe to grind. I’m not even taking any copies of the book to flog.

Well known education writer and speaker, Ian Gilbert replied to my original post, all those months ago by saying:

Many schools have wasted a lot of money on me and my colleagues not because of the ‘same old same old pick up the cheque’ routine (the money-back guarantee if we’re crap sees to that) but because we’re treated as a one-off, stand-alone thing unconnected from the overall, stated and known-by-everybody (in theory) development aims for the entire school.

Teachers turning up not knowing what the day is about means SLT is not doing its job. SLT not capitalising on the new ideas, the buzz, the questions we create, is also SLT not doing its job. One or two teachers sitting there being rude where there are obviously many teachers keen to learn is SLT not doing its job. Not asking the speaker to be better or to stop before they do to much damage if no-one is listening is SLT not doing its job. Ringing up in July asking if we have any speakers for the 1st September, doesn’t matter what they talk about, we’ve only just got round to thinking about it, is the SLT not doing their job. Not asking up front for a money-back guarantee and/or refusing to pay if feedback shows the day was awful is the SLT not doing its job. And for more horror stories on how to ruin an INSET day, check out the latest blog post here.

The best follow-up to an INSET day is for the SLT to outline their clear expectation that they will be looking for ideas from the day being employed in lessons within the next two weeks, that they will be looking for evidence of conversations about the day in faculty meetings and policy, that they will refer back to it during briefings and staff meetings (don’t throw that flipchart away, pin it up!) and that the next INSET day or twilight will be led internally by a cross-faculty collection of staff sharing their successes or otherwise based on how they have used the day to move things forward.

And that’s true, isn’t it? It’s not going to be up to me to make the training I provide worthwhile, it’s up to the school. If they want me to be be a one off, stand alone sideshow then that is, ultimately, up to them. You can, as the old adage goes, lead a horse to water, but you can’t make the bugger drink.

So, what is the point of INSET days?

Headteacher, John Tomsett says in a recent article, “I take it as a given that every single one of us wants to become a better teacher” and that “only at least good teaching is good enough for our students.” He makes the point that “all teachers slow their development, and most actually stop improving, after two or three years in the classroom.  But continuous professional development means that we have to reflect upon our practice regularly and systematically.” This then is the point of INSET: to give us an opportunity to reflect and develop.

And while I still can’t help but feel a little guilty about the fact I’d do a much better job if this was at my own school, planned in collaboration with colleagues and addressing our development priorities. But it isn’t and that’s really not my concern. What is my concern is to provide the very best value for money I’m capable of and then to let go of the results.

Bit like the day job really.


The art of failing

Why on earth would we ever want to fail? Failing’s bad, right?

Obviously getting something wrong, performing poorly and making mistakes is uncomfortable. But these things are a part of life. An important part. Apart from all the stuff about failure being character forming there’s the more important consideration that if we only ever experience success then maybe we aren’t trying very hard?

So why are we so seduced by the tawdry allure of success? TV screens are crowded by attractive idiots who are held up as contemporary models of success but really don’t seem to have tried very hard at anything to arrive at their dubious destinations. What then is success?

The dictionary defines it as “the favorable or prosperous termination of attempts or endeavours” which sounds pretty reasonable except the word termination. Overlooking all its negative connotations for a moment, let’s just consider it as a summation; an end result. When all is said and done we are left with success. Or failure. It’s a zero-sum game which some win and others lose. Our attempts and endeavours either end favourably or they don’t. And of course the obvious termination of our endeavours is death, conjuring images of St Peter interrogating us on whether our life has been successful.

I don’t know about you, but this doesn’t describe my own trajectory very accurately. For one, I did badly at school. I failed most of my GCSEs and could easily have been written off as a failure. I then continued to fail in spectacular fashion for some years before blundering into university and managing somehow to end up with a 2:1. Not exactly success, but not certainly not failure.

When I started my career as teacher I was rubbish. Really. Those early years are nought but a source of shame. I failed often and hugely. If I’d qualified today I’d probably have been drummed out of the profession in short order. But, for some strange quixotic reason I persevered and got a little less appalling. The turning point was joining a school which promptly went in to Special Measures (a coincidence I assure you.) Again, another massive and conspicuous failure. I wouldn’t advocate this as a way to develop as a teacher but my goodness I learned a huge amount and it ignited the love of teaching and learning which has since been fanned into a roaring inferno. Who says there’s no up side to failing?

Each year I’ve reflected all the stuff I’ve failed at and all the stuff I consequently learned. And every year I’ve slapped my balding bonce and said, if I’d known that last year I’d have done my students a much better service. And steadily I’ve become a fairly decent teacher. Not perfect but, certainly by some lights, a success.

So, how did that happen?

Regular readers will be well aware of my fondess for the following line from Beckett’s bizarre (and sadly neglected) prose poem Worstward Ho! – Ever tried? Ever failed? No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.

What resonates for me is the idea of small, incremental steps and of effort. The effort I’ve put into not being a crap teacher has, bit by bit, paid off. I am now proud of the job I do. I still worry about making mistakes but am content that when I make them, I’ll learn from them and use what I’ve learned to be better next time and I’m constantly getting better. I love this line from Dylan Wiliam: ask teachers if they can improve. If they say yes, work with them. If they say no, fire them.

The real failure is a failure to try. For some people it feels a lot safer to not try and fail than slog your guts out and feel that you’ve gotten nowhere. It’s much easier to do substandard work than risk the humiliation of your best not being good enough. Safe and easy are the enemy and I am making it my mission to root them out where ever they lurk and expose them to purifying light of risk and hard work.

Interestingly, there is some evidence which suggests that less confident people are more successful. The main thrust of this argument is that if you’re not over confident you’ll be more receptive to negative feedback, you’ll put more effort into preparation and you’re less likely to be deluded about your ability. This sort of approach requires, nay demands, a healthy and intimate acquaintance with failure. If you’ve experience a few horrible gaffs you’e much less likely to be a cocksure and annoying squirt.

So, can we design a curriculum that encourages students to risk failure? Can we promote a culture where working hard and creating excellent work is the norm? And can we get students to believe that they are capable of doing better than they ever believed possible?

Here are three simple (but hard) strategies I’ve been using in my classroom:

1. Give students tasks at which they cannot succeed. You could make the time limits too tight or make the success criteria so impossibly exacting that there is no way they could meet them. Maybe you won’t give them all the required resources or maybe the task is so open-ended and vague that there simply isn’t a solution. Naturally enough, students will find this frustrating. They’ll want to give up. The point is that you need to unpick with them why it’s important to fail. Some students never fail at school; they find everything effortless. Others never seem to do anything else. The point is that working hard despite the chance of failing is difficult. We tend to focus on the product rather than the process. By removing the possibility of there being a successful product we can force students to focus on the process of learning. They will start to see that understanding and valuing the process will lead to the creation of better products and they will begin to see that it doesn’t matter if at first you don’t succeed: you can always fail better in the future.
2. Don’t accept shoddy work. This is difficult at first but has dramatic results. If students hand in work which is not of the highest quality, I make them do it again. I’m particularly unyielding about proofreading. The failure to do one’s best is the only failure I balk at. They moan, complain and stamp their tiny feet but it’s vital to remain resolute in the face of their attempts to refuse to do this. Initially this will require you to give up some of your time but it will pay off. I’ve rarely had to make a student redo their work more than twice. The carrot in this equation is that they quickly start to take pride in their work. Even if it’s ‘wrong’. This is all part of valuing the process over the product.

3. Ron Berger talks in his wonderful book An Ethic of Excellence about the idea of Public Critique. One of the reasons students produce slapdash work is that no one sees it. If we create a culture where students regularly, and publicly inspect each other’s work. Find somewhere to display the work students have done; give them dedicated lesson time to assess it and then get them to suggest how it could be improved. Berger suggests that feedback should be kind, specific and helpful. If one of these components is missing then the chances of it being received and acted on are severely reduced. The key is to be soft on people but hard on content. Once feedback has been received then students need to do the work again. And again. Until it’s as good as they can possibly make it. Along the way they will have ‘failed’ and their efforts to improve will provide visible evidence of failing better. The end product will be a gift – something in which they can take pride – something they want to show off. I get my students to blog their work so that it reaches an audience beyond the school and their immediate community. This makes them more aware of their audience and results in them being less prepared to tolerate second best.

And remember, if you’re going to encourage your students to risk failure and work hard you will have to do the same. I’ve put enormous effort into some really spectacular failures. No matter: as long as I continue to strive to fail better. And some of my better failures have been beautiful.

You only really fail if you give up. Until then, it’s learning.

Related posts

Why we should strive for perfection

How to fix your attitude

Great article on ‘productive failure’ from Anne Murphy Paul, Why Floundering is Good

Continue reading

The need for ‘Why To’ guides

I’m not a fan of telling people how to do things. OK, that may not strictly speaking be true, but I do believe that just explaining how to solve a problem is unlikely to result in much learning. The best way is to learn is to think about why a problem should be solved.

As teachers we often bemoan the fact that we’re not treated with respect as a profession. There are probably all sorts of reasons for this but one reason is the extent to which we’ve allowed ourselves to be told how we should teach.

Consider how we’re assessed as professionals. Once or twice a year someone will stroll into our classroom, write down some notes, tick off some points on their check list and give us a grading from 1 to 4. They will then tell us what we should and shouldn’t do in the future while we listen attentively and scribble down all their excellent ideas on how we can improve. Sound familiar? Hopefully this is starting to change and it would be lovely to think that their are some new members of the profession who never had to go through this sham, but let’s be realistic.

And think about the things we’re asked to do as teachers:

– Introduce lessons with learning objectives
– Comment based making which avoids grades
– Train students to use peer & self assessment
– Avoid asking for students to put their hands up to answer questions
– Plan three, four (or even five) part lessons
– Review learning every 20 minutes with mini plenaries

We all learn how to do these things, but do we know why?

So, how has this come to pass? How did we arrive at this sorry state? Well, maybe it’s because few teachers know enough about pedagogy. How many read academic research about teaching? How many have read the works of Hattie or Marzano who have collated such studies? How many have even read the slim volume Inside the Black Box which is the basis for the classroom industry known as assessment for learning? This isn’t an accusation, simply an observation. A few years ago the same charges could have been levelled at me. It’s only a happy accident that I decided to invest time in exploring my profession and I know from my conversations with colleagues that I’m in a minority.

I despair at the way AfL has been abused in classrooms. This is a classic case of teachers concentrating on how to do something without considering why they’re doing it. I’ve seen all sorts of skilfully executed AfL practice which doesn’t have the slightest impact on students’ progress. I’ve seen teachers brandishing lolly sticks to ensure everyone participates in questioning; students assiduously applying mark schemes to each other’s work; all manner of fancy methods for getting students to articulate what they’ve just learned and blooms of post-it notes appearing around rooms full of all sorts of evidence which confirms that students have met the lesson’s objectives. And none of it has made the slightest bit of difference to anyone. Why? Because all too often none of this potentially wonderful stuff makes it in to next lesson’s plan. Because the teacher (and therefore the students) have only the vaguest notion of why they are doing these things. Oh, they know that they’re supposed to do them because they’re mentioned on their observers’ checklists. But beyond that?

Of course the reason why we should doing these things is so that we (and therefore our students) have a clear understanding of what was known before the lesson, what was learned during the lesson and what needs to be learned next lesson. If we are not able to turn these classroom activities into information on which students can act in order to make progress then what’s the point?

I’m not blaming teachers for this – it’s an inevitable part of education’s obsession with quick fixes. If some boffin publishes research on a strategy that can potentially raise students’ attainment it’s a lot easier for someone to tell us what we should be doing rather than worrying us with why we should be doing it. Easier, but not better. Teacher training and INSET is all too often about training teachers how rather than encouraging us to ask why. Compliance is preferred.

Dylan Wiliam talks about getting teachers to stop doing ‘good things’ and focus instead on doing better things. Professional development should, he says, be predicated on a Weight Watchers model. We all know that eating less and taking regular exercise is the way to lose weight and we also have plenty of evidence that assessment for learning is one of the most effective ways to raise students’ attainment. If you’re going to spend your time thinking about doing anything else in the classroom you owe it to your students to have considered why it’s worth doing.

I’ve had lots of folks asking me to tell them how to ‘do SOLO’ recently. My heart sinks at this. I’m very happy to explain why I think it should be used but I’m really not interested in putting together a list of SOLO strategies for people to misunderstand and misuse. It took a lot of reading, discussing and thinking to decide that it might be worth trying to incorporate SOLO into my lesson planning. But once I’d made that decision, working out how to use was (relatively) straightforward because I understood the point. I shudder at the thought of loads of well meaning teachers telling their colleagues to ‘do SOLO’ and it having little or no impact on the students on whom it will be subjected.

Likewise, a lot of the objections I’ve been confronted with on why teachers might not want to use SOLO make it painfully clear that they have very little understanding of what it is.

So, here are my top 5 reasons for using SOLO:

1. It is a helpful way for teachers to plan learning outcomes which concentrate on complexity rather than difficulty as understanding moves from the superficial to the deep
2. Progress from one SOLO level to the next is implicit
3. It provides a common language for learning which helps teachers and students understand how progress can be made
4. It can help teachers to plan lessons which take account of prior knowledge to provide effective differentiation
5. Once the language has been understood it can be integrated effortlessly into schemes of learning and used effectively alongside any pedagogical technique

If you don’t think these things are worthwhile or think that I’m mistaken, then for pity’s sake don’t waste your time: read, discuss and THINK about what is important and find something which helps your students to learn better.

If you think this looks like an attractive list of reasons then go away and work how you can implement it. By all means share your thinking with others. But please don’t just ask how to do it. The process of getting it wrong and refining your ideas will make you a better teacher.

Related posts

How not to improve a school

Everyone agrees that ‘lasting and sustaining improvement in student outcomes’ is a good thing and there’s little doubt that we should also seek to narrow the gap in achievement between different groups of students. Nuff said. But how should we go about it?

Ben Levin, writer of How To Improve 5,000 Schools is pretty clear on what we shouldn’t do. We should avoid the following assumptions:

  • a single change can lead to rapid improvement
  • strong leaders can force schools to improve
  • incentives will motivate schools to improve
  • change must driven from above through policies
  • new standards and curriculum models will lead to improved results
  • data and accountability will lead to improvement

So, what should we do?

Prof Hattie, Dylan Wiliam and The Sutton Trust all urge us that it’s ‘the quality of teaching makes all the difference’ (Visible Learning for Teachers). Obviously leafy post codes, middle class kids and supportive parents will have a huge impact on a school’s outcomes but remember the second part of what we’re all after? The bit about narrowing the gap? If we’re going to achieve that it might be better to focus on the following:

  • high expectations for all students – even those kids. Get them to enjoy doing something difficult rather than the easy win of completing word searches and other educational evils.
  • the quality of relationships between adults and students – make them believe you like them, even if you don’t. If you fake it for long enough you’ll start to believe it. Be fair, consistent and really try to avoid being a grumpy git on a Monday morning.
  • students’ intrinsic motivation to learn. That means no sweeties or merits as incentives:  the task is the reward. Reward their effort not their success
  • a rich and balanced curriculum – learning should not always be formal – there is a need to veer between the efficiency of direction instruction and the excitement of discovery learning
  • a focus on effective teaching practices in all classrooms every day. That means stopping teachers from perpetrating well-intentioned nonsense and focussing on what the research shows are the most effectives strategies. (Effective formative feedback is still top of the list.)
  • data and feedback which is used to support learning and not used as a stick to beat teachers with

Related posts

High performers

The problem with praise

Should we stop doing ‘good things’?