Tuesday, 30 December 2014

Can I be that little bit better at.....changing the game?

Change is difficult.  It's been a running theme throughout this blog that there was a stage in my career back in 2009 where I begun to realise that what I was doing in the classroom probably wasn't as effective as it could have been.  Activities were designed before the learning or outcomes were planned.  Questions were machine gunned around the room without any care or consideration.  Feedback did little to benefit anyone but looked good on book trawls.  Differentiation became a logistical observer tick box nightmare and dented our photocopying budget.  The problem is though, as a teacher, it is very easy to fall into a routine without realising you've got there.  I had all the best intentions in the world to become the best I could be, but after a few years habits take shape.  At the 2012 SSAT conference Dylan Wiliam highlighted this issue by saying:

"Currently all teachers slow, and most actually stop, improving after two or three years in the classroom"

His point was that the environment is so challenging when we start teaching that we are forced to improve.  After we sort classroom routines and management strategies our progression begins to plateau and we can sometimes simply coast.  He stresses that it takes ten years of deliberate practice to develop expertise in our job.  This may be the case but ten years of constant refinement and improvement can be a difficult thing to keep on top of with all of the other tasks that make up the complex job of a teacher.

Naturally then we begin to develop habits.  Many of them are effective in the classroom and define who we are a teachers.  Unfortunately, there are habits that could do with refining or tweaking if we are to stay at the top of our game.  The thing is though, habits are tough to break.  To the annoyance of my wife I bite my nails.  It isn't the worst habit in the world but after a bit of reflection (or nagging) I consciously make an effort to reduce it.  In fact when I catch myself doing it I make the decision to stop.  However, after the two years that Wiliam talks about, do we realise the bad habits that we fall into and can we change them?  In his 2014 white paper 'Optimizing Talent: Closing Educational and Social Mobility Gaps Worldwide', Wiliam goes on to talk about the difficulty in changing habits:

What isn't required is an overhaul of our teaching.  We don't need to scrap everything we do and reinvent the way we approach lessons.  Not only is that unrealistic, but it is time consuming, incredibly difficult and hard.  Instead we need to be more pragmatic and identify key areas and work on them.  On the back of a number of low medal returns in track cycling, Team GB/British Cycling didn't throw the programme out of the window and start from scratch.  Instead they decided to focus on a few key principles.  One of these being that they needed to know more about their opponents than their opponents knew about themselves.  After the Athens games they went to every World Cup and World Championships and videoed the opposition and built a massive database which they used to their advantage.  It's so simple when you think about it.  So how can this apply to us in teaching?

"Great teaching cannot be achieved by following a recipe, but there are some clear pointers in the research to approaches that are most likely to be effective, and to others, sometimes quite popular, that are not.  Teachers need to understand why, when and how a particular approach is likely to enhance students' learning and be given time and support to embed it in their practice."
Professor Robert Coe from Durham University.

If we are going to change the game maybe we need to focus on core components of teaching and understand not just the what of them, but really get to grips with the why and the how.  Why is feedback effective?  How can we improve the way we approach planning?  Why is one particular questioning strategy better than another?  Asking questions like this, reflecting on what we do, and then refining our practice is a lot easier than starting from scratch.  So what have been the game changers in my own practice over the last few years?


Planning lessons is an area that has been widely talked about in education.  In fact I talked about it here.  How much is too much?  How much is too little?  Taxonomies or no taxonomies?  What makes up an outstanding lesson?  If there's one thing that has been highlighted over the years it is that planning is very personal to individual teachers.  One persons approach can be completely different to another and we shouldn't be trying too look for the 'magic formula' of what makes a perfect lesson.  In fact the varying contexts, school settings and students we work with means that a fantastically planned out lesson for one teacher may not work for another.  However, there are some key things that can make planning more effective and more efficient:
  • Plan collaboratively - As Hattie states in Visible Learning, planning is at its most powerful when teachers work together.  Collaborating with others allows ideas to be bounced around, lessons to be critiqued, subject knowledge to be extended and strategies to be shared.  Although finding time may prove an issue, it is definitely worth the effort to do so.
  • Keep it simple - Are we spending our time trying to teach too much and actually over-complicating things in lessons.  Trying to cram in every detail, every fact, followed by a starter, plenary and a wide range of activities can make a 60 minute lesson look very messy.  Try and refine what you teach by identifying the core principles and spend time developing students understanding of them.  What are the two or three things that must be learnt so that students can then access subsequent information.  How can we share that in a way that is accessible for our students?  Focus on this, slow down the time spent on them and remove the messiness.  
  • Learning first, then activities - It can be very easy to think of a new activity to hook students in or grab their attention.  Sometimes in this instance though we focus too much on the activity and not on the learning.  What do you want students to learn?  Will doing this activity help do this or just distract them?  Will it clearly help them acquire the knowledge or skills they need?  Does it take you longer to resource the activity than students spend using it?  If so, maybe rethink what you're doing.  Keep it simple instead.
  • Make them think - Daniel T. Willingham's states that memory is the residue of thought.  When designing lessons check how much real thinking is taking place.  Will students spend time really unpicking information, questioning its value and discussing their opinions.  Will they be spending time thinking about applying knowledge to real contexts or challenging problems?  
  • Backward design - What is the end point or goal and plan backwards until you get there.  Such a simple yet powerful approach which ensures you identify the various stages and routes to an outcome.
Biggest impact:
  • SOLO taxonomy - Love it or hate it, SOLO has really allowed me to unpick a topic and its various components before teaching it.  By doing so it has allowed me the ability to identify core knowledge that I need to spend time covering.  Used purely during the planning phase, it helps me pull apart a topic and refine what I will teach.  It helps ensure that I find larger context to fit the new knowledge in so students see where it fits into the bigger picture.  Mapping it out also lets me create a journey or story, which I don't have to stick to, but helps me explain what it is that I am teaching.


Feedback is incredibly complex and the focus of two of my blog posts here and here.  In fact we know that if done well it can have a very high effect on students learning in the classroom.  Unfortunately we also know that if it is done badly it can have detrimental effects.  Feedback has also begun to be applied unreasonably in some schools with increasingly high expectations in marking policies.  It can make an enormous contribution to teacher workload and see little results on what really matters; student learning.  Instead of adding to the complicated world, here are my three game changers for feedback.
  • Feedback should cause thinking - Taken from Dylan Wiliam, if I am going to provide feedback, it had better make students think hard about it.  Throw away comments and the token 'Really good work' are now replaced with a number of strategies such as feedback questions and critique.  Students need to have a change in thought about misconceptions and actively try to correct them if things are going to move forward.  Feedback also needs to help students identify what has gone wrong and what needs to be done to get better.  Making them think is proving to be a great way to make them do that.
  • Feedback should be more work for the recipient than the donor - If you find yourself spending more time writing feedback than students do acting upon it, I'd rethink what you are doing.  Marking keys, burning questions, proof reading work before submission, critique and DIRT time are all ways in which students work harder than you and actually act upon the feedback you are giving.
  • Feedback should close the gap from where students are and where they should be - Do our comments (or even peer comments) actually move the learning forward?  Do they help get students up to the level that they should be?  Would you understand your comments if you read them?  If there are no real misconceptions can we extend a student?
Biggest impact:
  • Feedback questions - Such a simple strategy but ensures students engage with feedback.  When spotting misconceptions, put a number in the margin where the error took place.  At the end of the work, place a question which links to that number.  The question is a reworded variant of the original question, or simply a prompt question that forces the student to realise what mistake was made, and make them think about what the correct answer is.


Leven and Long (1981) found that we ask around 300-400 questions a day whilst teaching.  That is a lot of opportunities to fully engage with students and assess their understanding (or effect their thinking).  It is therefore wise to reflect on how we approach questioning (as I did here and here).
  • Provide thinking time - With the average gap between asking a question and asking for an answer being less than one second (Walsh and Sattes 2005), is it no surprise that sometimes the depth/quality of students answers isn't as good as it could be.  Providing wait time, or even using a strategy like snowball questions, jigsaw groups or think, pair, share can be very helpful in giving students the time to formulate a high quality answer.
  • Inclusive questioning systems - Using strategies like Doug Lemov's 'Cold call' or the simple 'No Hands up (with hands up)' method ensures that every student in the class is included in the questioning that goes on.  Check whether you keep asking the same people for answers.  If you do, maybe try one of these methods (here).  Once the culture is formed and the environment is safe for students to contribute, the confidence in sharing answers increases (as does the learning).  Hinge questions are also a great way to get a whole class providing an answer.
  • Modelling & constructing exceptional answers - Stepping away from 'I don't know' or poorly constructed answers is very important.  If this happens try modelling answers with students.  Scaffold their responses so they learn how to provide a well constructed answer.  Highlight exceptional answers and explain why.  Write key points from students answers on the board.  Use ABC questioning.  All of these methods help ensure students know what a good answer is and begin to share them themselves.
Biggest impact:
  • 'No hands up (but with hands up) - Using a simple system where students initially refrain from putting their hands up to answer a question.  It has allowed me to create an environment where all students know a question could be posed to them at any point.  More students stay focused and answers have developed in quality over time.  I also allow hands up after a few answers are taken to allow those students who wish to add to the discussion the opportunity to do so.  From experience I would recommend staying away from random name generators or whizzy name selectors.  Although they allow questioning to be truly random, they slow down the lesson and become tiresome after a while.


The various abilities and needs of students in your lessons mean that we need to tailor how we teach each one.  It doesn't mean that differentiation needs to add to workload or contribute to an over-complicated lesson.  Differentiation should also be for the students we are providing it for, not observers or tick box scrutiny.  I spoke a lot about a sensible approach to differentiation here.
  • Differentiation doesn't need to be visible or just for observers - Differentiation is for your students.  It shouldn't be about ticking off a component of a lesson and definitely shouldn't be pointed out purely for the benefit of an observer.  Differentiation is subtle, personal and ingrained in what we do.  It isn't a short term fix but a longer process of planning.
  • Differentiation is teaching (and very responsive) - It's the conversations we have, the bespoke feedback we give, the way we differ questions between groups of students.  Differentiation is very responsive and happens regularly within the classroom without us even noticing.
  • Aim high and support up - Scrap must/should/could outcomes and set high expectations for all.  Use models, examples of excellence and worked examples where possible.  Show students what they should be aiming for (and even surpassing) and help scaffold students up towards that outcome. Using graphic organisers to help map out ideas, or even dropping in a few A-level questions.  As Daniel T. Willingham said, we shouldn't make the tasks easier, instead we should make the thinking easier.
Biggest impact:
  • Modelling and examples of excellence - Simply demonstrating exceptional work either through modelling or using examples (professional work, my own work or student work).  By doing so, students can see the high expectations that we are aiming for.  By modelling the process, individuals can also see the steps/thought process that was taken so that they can develop similar approaches (or not) themselves.  Modelling and using high quality examples has definitely become a prominent feature in my classroom.


Literacy has such an importance in learning.  Establishing how to write effectively and communicate in a coherent manner is something we should all be teaching our students.  With the push for improved literacy in schools, there has become a view that 'literacy' in teaching has become a bolt on.  At it's worst it's become a tick box rather than a core component of our teaching.  I've talked extensively here about how we are all teachers of English and identified a few ways that we can help improve verbal or written communication in our lessons.  As a non-subject specialist, here are a few things that have worked well in my classroom:

  • Demonstrate great writing - Showing students what great writing is has been an important element of my teaching.  Using articles or examples of excellence, students can see first hand what we are aiming for.  As a class we can deconstruct it, analyse it, critique it and discuss what has made that piece of writing great.  We can then begin to model and scaffold how the writer has created their work.  Spending time in lessons to talk through detail and process has allowed students the opportunity to learn from others and endeavor to implement similar ideas themselves.
  • Build up vocabulary - Of the many ways I have found effective in improving students vocabulary it has been encouraging reading around my subject.  Many of my lessons include articles where students naturally pick up subject specific words which are used within context.  We read, we discuss and we take.  We can keep glossaries of new words and even use techniques like @TeacherTweaks vocabulary upgrade to get students to review their writing and improve its academic quality.  Spend time on words as they will benefit students writing in the long run.
  • Build up confidence in structure - Showing students the fundamentals of sentence and paragraph structure is worth focusing on.  I am no English teacher so don't feel confident looking at the technicalities of writing.  What I can do though is use simple scaffolds and strategies to build a foundation with students before allowing them to be creative.  The use of Doug Lemov's 'At first glance' sentence starters helps students include a better quality of academic writing.  Using Helen Handford's 'Four Part Process' for writing excellent sentence that include definition and meaning have shown my students the fundamentals.  Even initially using an essay structure like I.D.E.A (Identify, Describe, Explain and Apply) helps get the basics right before removing the shackles and encouraging freedom.
Biggest impact:

  • The four part process - A process borrowed from Lee Donaghy (who borrowed it from Helen Handford), it is a fantastic way to structure sentences with students.  It asks individuals to identify the thing being written about, add a verb, define it and then add meaning.  Like any other framework, the end result is a sentence that can be read as a complete entity.  The process isn't finished there but requires students to then go away and refine/redraft it further until as a class we have created an amazing sentence.  Co-planning, modelling and high expectations is key.

Making it stick

Remembering information so that students can use it over the long run is an important factor.  Helping students store information so that they can use it in future learning, discussions, debates, answers and exams has become increasingly more important.  The work of cognitive scientists and psychologist is extremely complex but fascinating.  Although we are still learning more about how the brain works every day, there have been some interesting strategies that could be extremely helpful within education (even if just as a starting point):

  • Using desirable difficulties - Robert Bjork's term 'Desirable Difficulties' refers to a number of strategies including frequent low stakes/high impact testing, spacing out the retrieval of old information over time, and interleaving topics together.   The combination of these ensures that information is retrieved at numerous points throughout the learning process, and more importantly, over time.  Small mini tests that focus on old topics during starter activities, identifying where two topics link and spacing out when we revisit old parts of the curriculum are just some of the simple things we can embed into our curriculum, schemes or lessons.
  • Helping working memory - There is still so much to learn about the brain, its functioning and capacity.  However, the discussions around working memory is one area that even though I am a complete novice in, is still an area I find is helpful to know when designing lessons.  With its limited capacity, do we make lessons to fussy or distract students from what we really want them to understand?  Does making them design a powerpoint about the 'principles of training' make them think more about what clip art/animation/font to use rather than really learning the content?  Do our explanations confuse students or overload their working memory?  Keep things clear, simple and focused has been my biggest lesson learnt.
  • Make them think - Daniel T. Willingham talks about memory being the residue of thought.  So how much of my old approach to lessons really got students thinking, and thinking hard?  Check back through your planning.  Instead of copying a definition from a book, could they not answer an exam question which forces them to use the definition in context?
  • Three is the magic number - Although in lower school settings, Nuthal's research of student learning in the classroom brought out a point that really stuck out for me.  In it he found that for a student to really learn, understand and remember a concept, they would need to encounter it on at least three different occasions when being taught it.  I now ensure that I check through my plans and groups of lessons to see if I am asking students to use this information in a variety of ways numerous times.
Biggest impact:
  • Cumulative tests - We use cumulative tests in a variety of ways now.  All of our unit exams and assessments used to be block tests which just focused on what was just taught.  We now include questions from every topic so that students retrieve information from units that were taught 2 months, 6 months or even a year prior.  Although we have yet to see the full impact of this, students are more able to recall topics that would previously have been forgotten.


Data can become one of those time consuming tasks that adds to our ever increasing workload if we are not careful.  For a long time a created spreadsheets and did very little with them.  Data can have great impact on teaching and learning if we use it correctly.  So what have I learnt about data?
  • Are we collecting data just to say we have collected data? - If it's not going to change teaching and learning or help move your students learning forward then don't waste your time.  To often we keep records for 'others' to check.  Follow school guidelines, refine what you do and create a system that helps you make a real impact.
  • Does data improve T&L? - Compare data with your colleagues and department.  Talk about what others are doing in certain topics to get great results.  Borrow ideas from them or co-plan.  Look at what areas your classes have struggled in and evaluate whether the way you taught it was the problem.  Make data be a part of your professional improvement.
Biggest impact:
  • Data to make a difference - Still very much in its early days, we have begun to share data across the department.  Now at meetings we fully scrutinise key areas and talk about what we did, how we taught it, what exactly students got confused with (with exams and tests on the table in front of us to do so) and how we can teach it better next time.  It's about using data to make teaching and learning better, and to help improving us collaboratively.

And so?

I started the 'Can I be that little bit better...?' series as a way to talk openly about my professional development.  Cultures are changing, errors have been made, practice has improved and a lot of thinking has happened on my part.  There is still a long way to go and improvement can always be made.  What I have done though is decided that good teaching is more than just adding strategies to your game.  It's a lot more than that.  It's an understanding of our craft.  Part of this is knowing the fundamentals that underpin effective learning and consciously trying to refine them.  It's then about trying to be a little bit better at using them in the classroom.

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