Tuesday, 9 August 2016

Help - A teacher (and author) in need!

Earlier this year I was asked to write a book about teaching and learning titled 'Relearning to teach'.  Based around my 'Can I be better?' posts, the book talks about how we can make small changes to fundamental areas such as planning, questioning, feedback, differentiation, use of data and so on.  It is a book that aims to help teachers see that they can make small changes to their practice and has a wealth of information, sources, evidence and stories.

There is a problem though.  Over the past 10 years I used the extremely good staff library at my last school.  The library was built up over time and had numerous T&L books in it.  I was awash with a wealth of books, literature, guides and research.  I was lucky in the fact that I rarely had to buy a book because they were on my door stop every day.

I have now moved to a new school and have hit a sticking point.  I need to track down a number of teaching and learning books that I have used over the last few years.  I clearly can't purchase them all in one go so am looking at calling in a few favours.  I am in need of the following books.  Using the powerful network of teachers on social media, I actually need to borrow these books for a few months.  I know this is a big ask and a cheeky one at that, but, I need to go back and revisit some of the things that shaped my thinking and made the chunk of my blog posts over the years.

If you can help, here is the list of books that I am trying to borrow from kind individuals.  If it helps, I am in London on the 15th August and am willing to travel around to collect these.  I can't offer money but I might be able to squeeze a slab of chocolate upon the books return (which I promise I will do!!).  So, if you have the following, and are local to Southampton, in London on the 15th or are just kind enough to post a book to me, I would really appreciate your help.

'Practice Perfect' by Doug Lemov, Erica Woolway and Katie Yezzi
INSIDE THE BLACK BOX: Raising Standards Through Classroom (Dylan WIliam)
Made to Stick: Why some ideas take hold and others come unstuck (Chip and Dan Heath)
'Teach like a Champion' by Doug Lemov (any edition)
What If Everything You Knew About Education Was Wrong? (by David Didau)
'Mindset: How You Can Fulfill Your Potential':  Carol S. Dweck
'Bounce' by Matthew Syed
Lean Lesson Planning: A practical approach to doing less and achieving more in the classroom (High Impact Teaching) (Peps Mcrea)
'An ethic of excellence' by Ron Berger
Visible Learning and the Science of How We Learn (Hattie and Yates)
'Full On Learning: Involve Me and I'll Understand'.  Zoe Elder
'Visible Learning for Teachers' - John Hattie
'Understanding by Design' -  Mctighe and Wiggins
'Embedded Formative Assessment' - Dylan Wiliam
'Why students don't like school' by Daniel Willingham
'Hidden Lives of Learners' by Graham Nuthall
'How to Teach' by Phil Beadle

Believe it or not, I do have a shelf full of books!  If you have any of these though and can help in anyway, please get in contact via Twitter.  I can be found at @davidfawcett27

Here's hoping!


Friday, 19 February 2016

Can I be that little bit better at......using simple strategies to make content stick?

Courtesy of Coffeeforcollege

I've been quiet on Twitter and my personal blog for a few months.  This has mainly come down to taking on a new job mid way through an academic year.  With all of the new systems, syllabus, schemes of work, policies and specifications to get your head round, picking up new classes (who have already had a previous teacher a few weeks earlier) has to be the most difficult bit.

One of these classes is a Year 11 GCSE PE theory class who will be sitting their final exam in a few months time.  Take out mocks, the Easter holidays, INSET days and study leave, there isn't as much time as I would like to implement strategies to move students grades an enormous amount.  With sections of coursework to finish up before moving onto revision, I needed to develop a programme that could pool together strategies that make that time as effective as possible when it begins.

With the group already studying the course since Year 9, and available data not shedding much light on students gaps in knowledge, it becomes difficult to plan interventions until another test, assessment or mock exam takes place.  Only at that stage can I begin to gauge in a more detailed way what my students do or do not know.

Making every second count

If you're not careful, in this situation you can lose (or even waste) time.  You can become so hooked up on trying to ascertain what students have done, what they have learnt, what areas of technique need work, what their use of language is like, that you actually let time slip away.  Ideally you would have taught the group for longer, had all assessments available, had a chance to chat to every student, see their books and scrutinise them all in an effort to help build up a bigger picture.  Unfortunately, mid term with a few months to go, you might need to build this into the process.

Lessons therefore need to maximise all available time.  They need to help me check understanding, identify weakness and allow them to close the gaps in knowledge.  They need to allow me an opportunity to work on technique and develop language use and structure.  They need to provide opportunities to hammer home the key messages about effective revision and the various methods.  In this short time I therefore need to get that little bit better at using simple strategies to make what I cover in the next few months actually stick.

Retrieval practice and 'Do now' tasks

Cumulative bell work and 'Do now tasks'

With time so precious, every lesson immediately begins with a cumulative task in the format of 'Bell work' or if you've read TLaC a 'Do now' task.  Students are expected to silently and individually undertake a low stakes retrieval activity which last a maximum of five minutes.  The answers are then reviewed in two minutes with answers displayed on the board for all to check.  The process may look time heavy, but there is an urgent need to identify misconceptions and weaknesses in students' knowledge.  There is also the importance of using retrieval practice to improve memory and learning.  The task itself becomes both diagnostic and a revision process in itself.

Retrieval practice

Every lesson builds in a form of retrieval practice.  The importance of the testing effect and the subsequent improvement of retrieval and storage strength is without question.  The retrieval practice allows students to forcibly retrieve knowledge and promote thinking.  I've written about the benefits of it here.  Now the key here is to use low stakes tests.  With many schools having numerous mocks, exams, end of unit assessments, it's important to demonstrate that testing can actually be beneficial to the students and extremely effective.  With the pressures of these high stakes tests, there is the worry that more of the same only adds to the stress levels of students.  One of the most effective ways that I have implemented low stakes tests is through the use of multiple choice questions.

Well designed multiple choice questions

Every other lesson, students complete a 10 question cumulative multiple choice paper.  They do this individually so that I can use the results to identify areas of weakness.  There has been a change of opinion recently over the effectiveness of multiple choice questions.  The work of Robert Bjork and colleagues has highlighted that well designed multiple choice questions not only provides a good diagnostic tool, but actually helps improve memory and retrieval.  The key though is to ensure that the potential options for the answers are rigorous, plausible and in close proximity to the correct one.  Making them to easy has low cognitive effect and loses any benefit of the method.  Having too few potential answers can make it a 50/50 guessing game rather than an exploration of what the correct answer might be through the process of elimination (and using what you know to do that).  To take this a step further, including an 'I don't know' option at the end of each one can eliminate those that hazard a guess and get it correct which can lead to misconceptions being un-diagnosed.

Designing high quality multiple choice questions can be extremely difficult but resources such as AQA's Exampro, Pearson's Exam Wizard or other diagnostic questioning tools can help achieve rigor whilst saving teachers time.

Elaboration in multiple choice questions

Elaborative interrogation

Prompting students to ask 'why' questions is beneficial to memory retention.  As this guide from Dunlosky et al (2013) points out, the process of getting students to explain (or ask) why can actually help facilitate learning.  Combined with multiple choice quizzes, in the time allocated, students not only have to select the correct answers, but they are also expected to provide a supporting statement explaining why it is the right answer (or maybe why the others are incorrect).  This subtle change to how students answer these types of quizzes helps students retrieve the correct answer, strengthen its storage in memory, make it more accessible in future and help demonstrate whether they know the topic or not.  It's such a simple tweak that has really benefited the individuals in the class.

Criteria for note taking from J. Fenlon

Closing the gaps through effective notes

Lessons are not just about testing, quizzing or retrieving.  It's important that once a misconception or area of weakness has been identified, we collaboratively work on closing that gap in knowledge.  In lessons we have rolled out a gateway method of how to take notes when making revision resources.  As teachers we demonstrate this to students in the hope that they mirror some of these actions and form them into habits.

In the past I have been very skeptical about how students make notes.  Many simply copy out of books.  Many write texts word for word.  Some bullet point, highlight, short hand, annotate.....the list goes on.  My worry though is that students therefore re-read these notes and mistake this for effective revision.  As we know, whilst re-reading provides familiarity and a false sense that they remember information, it's ability to be retained over time is low and forgetting quickly occurs.  Cramming notes the night before is therefore unhelpful.

We now need to take the view that if students are making notes, they need to be able to do something with them.  Preferably, this something involves using the notes to test or quiz themselves.  We now use the above criteria from John Fenlon to ensure that notes incorporate chunking, thinking and allow them to be easily used for retrieval practice.  Simple ideas such as splitting topics into chunks and then numbering them allows the working memory to not be overloaded.  It also helps us say "What were the 6 points about somatotypes and physique that I need to know".  Numbering allows us to check off points and work out what were, for instance, the three things I didn't remember (before testing myself on them again).  The messages that we try to instill through this method can then be transferred into other revision resources and become effective habits.

Will it work?

The theory behind the execution draws upon sound research.  The signs should be there that this will (in the short term) help until a better grip on what students do or do not know becomes apparent.  As always, the delivery and implementation in lessons can be the stumbling block.  Am I transferring these principles into practice correctly?  Am I using them as intended?  Only a final mock, unit test and final exam can actually say if it did or not.

Wednesday, 22 April 2015

Can I be that little bit better at.....understanding that how they say it, is as important as what they say?

c/o Wonderlane
Over the years I have been in many colleagues classrooms.  As is part of the observation process, you focus on a number of things, ponder on what you see and generate discussion afterwards.  Everything you do is focused on moving the teacher forward in order to have better outcomes for the students they teach.  Most of the time I am asked in to focus on specific elements of teaching which colleagues wish to improve.  Feedback, planning, ways to differentiate and developing student writing are just a few.  One area in particular, questioning, has made me rethink what I thought I knew.

I wrote a couple of posts last year about the complexities of good questioning and what might actually make this fundamental component of a teachers repertoire effective.  Although I'd never say I am anywhere near an expert of good questioning, I would say I have a pretty good grasp of it in my lessons.  However, a curious thought popped into my head whilst chatting to a member of our focus group a few terms back about what we observe when watching teachers pose questions.  I had been wooed under the illusion that a teacher who can skillfully pose questions that unpick, dissect, delve or expand on an element of knowledge must be a master craftsman.  The well worded question that simultaneously causes a student's head to hurt whilst still providing scope for an answer to be found is a thing to behold.  All hail thee, who when being observed, both stretch and challenge students through well designed questions.  And that there maybe the problem.

A lot of the time, the skill of questioning focuses on developing what or how the teacher poses the question.  We work with teachers to craft better questions.  We look at how we word a well designed question.  We use a variety of techniques to increase student response or even deploy techniques like 'wait time' to ensure an answer can be provided.  But what about the quality of the answer?

Having done a lot of work on our school's feedback policy, we focus a lot on the quality of written work that students produced.  And why wouldn't we?  It's easy to look through a book, read an answer and be able to analyse the quality of it and even suggest improvements.  Here's a question though.  When looking through an exercise book, what would you think if a student provided this written answer to the following question?:

Instantly many of you might be focusing on the overuse of the word 'like', the vagueness of the content, or even the weak example.  When written down it is easy to analyse, correct or challenge.  As a teacher I can mark their books and provide feedback to improve the depth of their answer.  As an observer I can check books and question students to see if this happens over the year.  We spend a lot of our time and focus on what students write that maybe we've forgotten about what they say?  For instance, if the same answer was given verbally, would we scrutinise it so intently and in as much depth?  Or, might it go something like this?

Teacher: So, we've been looking at the various aspects and methods of training, can anyone explain, using an example, what altitude training is?

Teacher: [Deploys wait time and uses a no hands up technique for selecting]

Teacher: Josh, what do you think?

Josh: Well, it's sort of like, when a runner like goes running up high, you know, like a mountain, to get their body systems and their blood cells better.

Teacher: Nearly Josh. You've got the basic idea.  What Josh is saying is an athlete might train.....

Or how about this?:

Teacher: So, we've been looking at the various aspects and methods of training, can anyone explain, using an example, what altitude training is?  Emma, what do you think?

Emma: Umm, I'm not sure?

Teacher: Ok, anyone else? Josh?

Josh: Well, it's sort of like, when a runner like goes running up high, you know, like a mountain, to get their body systems and their blood cells better.

Teacher: Sort of.  Can you add to it?

Josh: Umm, well, don't they have to train at altitude for a few weeks or months and then come back to their normal home and compete?

Teacher: Yes Josh. It's to do with the fact they go away at altitude for training and then.....

Both versions might seem either very common or a million miles away from what you do in your classrooms.  The problem with these is that it's the kind of avenue I would take after an answer was given.  I know it's not technically correct, but I focus on the content technicalities rather than the quality of the language used.  The first example results in me producing the better answer for the student myself.  I've ultimately done the improvement for them.  The second results in me trying to develop it but instead I take an answer which is a new question.  Have I therefore tackled the inaccuracies of language use?  Have I made the answer more academic?  No.

So, back to my earlier ramblings, here is that curious thought that popped into my head when chatting to a colleague in a focus group and it all stemmed from him saying:

"If students can't give high quality verbal answers, will they be able to give high quality written ones?"

I'm not sure.  When observing others I know I focus on teacher questions but I'm not sure I've specifically focused on the quality of student answers and that direct link.  Have I missed an important component?  I do know that in my own teaching I don't tackle low quality verbal answers anywhere as near as I do with  low quality written ones.  And that's what needed to change.  In the frantic hustle and bustle of a lesson, do we have the time, the confidence and the environment to challenge answers like this?  Or do we do what I highlighted before and do this for them and correct it ourselves?

So what could we do?

Be aware of it

There can be no simpler piece of advice than simply be aware of it.  Be reflective as you teach and identify times when you pose questions.  What was the quality of the answer?  What exactly did the student say?  What was the language use like?  How was the strength of their communication skills?  Where they able to eloquently explain their thoughts?  Did they use high vocabulary or specific terminology?  These are just some things to be reflective of and clearly not exhaustive.  Once you know when these moments happen and you pay more attention to the response, then you can begin to change the habits of both yourself and your students.

Identify a link?

Are those students who provide poorly constructed verbal answers the same ones who produce poorly worded written ones?  It's something of interest that I'll be looking at.

Create that culture that we will improve it

Changing students written work can be a very private and safe process.  A student makes an error or misconception and you can provide feedback in their books.  If a student doesn't use language of a high standard as you might want, you can make a note of it or write down some suggestions.  In a book these are read by the student without the focus of peers and other observers.

Apply the same process in an open class discussion and all of a sudden pressure, unease and anxiety may overcome a student.  The fear of being openly critiqued on the quality of their spoken answer can be a daunting one for many.  It's therefore important that you build the culture of your group that highlights that this public dissection is not an attack on them but is instead a process to help improve the quality of their communication.  Highlight why you're doing it and the benefits of doing it.  Choose confident individuals to begin using the process.  Build it up using a random selection process for getting answers.  Model the improvement.  Explain why suggested changes will create a better and more academic answer.  Involve the class and make it as supportive, and challenging, as possible.  Ensure that the class realise that with support, the intial answer has been developed into something much better.  Culture takes time to build but once it is there, challenge the quality of answers continuously.

Have the confidence to actually improve it

From a teachers perspective, it can be a daunting task actually developing students answers.  There is the worry that suggestions you pose may be taken as a blow to their self-esteem.  The challenge of trying to improve an answer from a student who displays little interest or effort.  The worry of how peers may react.  The confidence to actually challenge and set high expectations.  It can be daunting but we need to remember that we don't do it to display our power or ridicule.  Instead we do it to help students develop their ability to communicate in a high quality way.

Focus on how they say it, not just what they say

Being subject specialists it is easy to be drawn to the content element of an answer.  Are they talking about the correct definition when we ask them?  Is that a strong enough example to support their thinking?  Have they pulled out a relevant quotation or piece of evidence?  As well as doing that, focus on how they say it, exactly as we would in a written version.  Have they got a powerful opening to their argument?  Have they used quality connectives that pull together parts of a statement?  Do they use an unnecessary amount of redundant words that we can ask them to remove?  Highlight what they have said.  Point out areas of improvement.  Get peer support of alternative words.  Question them about how they should make improvements.

Use questioning techniques

If a student is unaware of how to construct a good verbal answer then they aren't going to produce one repeatedly.  Speaking at a high level requires time, practice, guidance and thought,  Techniques as simple as wait time allow individuals to construct better answers before they share them.  Using ABC questioning allows you to build an answer as a class.  Modelling what a good answer looks like provides examples of excellence.  Snowballing allows students to build up the quality of their answer with a group of peers.  If high quality verbal answers are going to be the norm, then scaffolding the process is going to be required.

Now this post may be making a bigger deal out of student answers than needs to be?  It may actually resonate with a lot of people and be something more common that first thought.  The idea though that settling for poorly constructed answers does bother me in my own practice.  If I want individuals to communicate in an academic way, whether in written or verbal format, I need to ensure that I help them achieve that.

Further reading:
Questioning my questioning
Asking better questions

Tuesday, 3 March 2015

Can I be that little bit better at......wrestling with the intervention lesson monster?

As the nights drew in over the winter term, a number of lights came on in classrooms after the school day had finished.  Across the country in numerous secondary schools, teachers began to run Year 11 'intervention' sessions in the build up to final exams.  Many of these included revision lessons, coursework catch up sessions, additional reteach sessions or specific intervention groups.  The vast majority of them are invaluable additions to the schools curriculum and offer opportunities for various students who need that extra support.  In fact some of these are vital in helping a specific few leave school with an education that will set them up for life.  Teachers work tirelessly with individuals and some may say that massive gains are made.  There are however some worries that have begun to crop up.

I'm in a very fortunate position to be able to network and even work with numerous teachers and departments across the country.  One thing that has come up quite often of late is the following scenario.

A teacher plans a very well designed lesson which asks students to learn new content and then add this new knowledge to a piece of coursework/extended writing.  The task is set and students begin to get down to work.  As the teacher moves around the class, she notices that a few of the individuals have completed very little work.  As is expected, the teacher challenges this position and is met by the answer:

"It's OK Miss, I'll do it in catch up class after school on Thursday"

On the face of this there are two main problems.  The first is obvious in the fact that a student is producing minimal work within a lesson.  That can be common within the classroom and can be easily responded to.  The second is the fact that a student is choosing to do minimal work in timetabled lessons, simply to do this work in additional support sessions.  Is this right?  Has the balance of what timetabled lessons are for suddenly shifted?

The point I am therefore pondering (and am yet undecided upon) is whether intervention and catch up sessions have become a problem?  Are the provisions, all with the right intentions, actually causing some students to do less work in class and rely more heavily on time outside the lesson?  Is a culture cropping up that were not aware of?

Are we replacing what helps with other stuff?

Revision sessions and support groups for specific students are an extremely helpful option.  But have other 'catch up' sessions crept into this category?  Are sessions now being put on and teachers time being used to help those who have chosen not to do the work previously in lessons?  And if so, is this rewarding them?

The safety net

Does the fact that schools run sessions after school give students that additional safety net?  Does the presence of them give the message to students that even if you produce minimal work in lessons then there is still time for you to catch up later on?  My biggest worry is that it might.  If students believe that there is an additional opportunity that they can take, then will they choose at times to take their foot off of the gas?

The decision maker

I chatted to a well grounded student today and posed this exact question about additional catch up sessions.  They came up with a number of reasons in a balanced way justifying their place, and even their removal, from school.  One of the biggest things he said was that the presence of them might be giving students who"can't be bothered" a reason to choose not to do any work.  The knowledge that they could catch up at a later date might allow them to pick and choose when they wanted to do anything in actual lesson time.  

The school within a school

With the creation of additional sessions after school, are we inadvertently creating two schools.  With the school day ending does another one begin?

Are the pressures of teaching being passed onto students?

With the increased levels of accountability and pressure for results, do teachers feel that they are required to run these sessions to fulfill target grades?  Is this additional pressure being passed onto students and in turn increasing their stress levels?

The enjoyment of learning

With this in mind, is the expectation and requirement of students to attend these sessions actually removing the love of learning?  Is the memory of staying most nights after school for most of Year 11 a memory that we want students to leave with?

A change in balance

Are additional sessions shifting the responsibility for students grades from the student and onto the teacher?  Does it feel like we have to work harder to get students through their GCSE's?

Teachers workload and stress levels

The additional laying out of these types of sessions will ultimately lead to an increased workload.  With workload itself being a national talking point, are we laying more pressure on teachers to not only teach their timetabled lessons, but to also teach additional lessons outside of curriculum time?

Is it actually counterproductive?

And this is my final thought I'm wrestling with.  Because we want the best for our students, and we want to ensure we have the best results possible for our own professional progress, do we feel that we should be doing these sessions?  Is that part of the problem though?  If they weren't rolled out in schools would students work harder?  And that was a point made by a student.  If they weren't there they'd have to work more in class.  They knew that they would have to knuckle down, learn what was there to be learnt, complete work to the best of their ability and shift the responsibility back to themselves.  Because they weren't on offer, they would have to ensure they used curriculum time really well.  Without the safety net they felt it would push them to work more in class.  So can we be that little bit better at using catch up classes?  Maybe so, and here's a few ideas how.

1. Ensuring catch up sessions aren't just an opportunity to recover what was taught in lessons

Because this may convey the message that if they don't listen first time in class, they can listen to it again in our time after school.

2. Stretch, challenge and enrichment

Instead of catch up classes, can sessions after school actually go beyond the syllabus?  Can we network with local Universities to run master classes to inspire the next graduates?  Can we link with specialist providers in our field to show how our subjects are used in industry?  Can we bring in experts to share their knowledge and push learning beyond its existing level?

3. Setting a criteria for these sessions

There are students who genuinely need this additional support and I don't know any teachers who would want to not provide this.  But do we ensure that those who need it get it rather than those who can't be bothered getting a second chance?  Could an effort grade or indicator be one option.  Students who we know have tried hard, even if they have picked up misconceptions, could be allowed to attend, with those who simply chose to do nothing being asked not to?

4. Removing the need for them?

Could the way we design lessons, curriculum's and schemes be reviewed?  Could we analyse our teaching and learning?  Asking the question why additional sessions are actually needed could lead to some real improvements to the department.  Why do we not have the time to deliver the course in lessons?  Why isn't the content sticking?  Is the delivery of content and the quality of teaching an area best focused on?  What tweaks could we implement now so that we manage workload and expectations?

And so.....

The truth of the matter is I am still undecided.  I probably will be for a very long time.  It feels as though they have become a part of a schools culture and removing them may be too much of a shock to the system.  And why would you remove them if hardworking students are seeking to improve their grades further?  But then again, would removing them and addressing why we might need them solve the problem itself?  Might that be the change in culture that our teachers and students actually need?

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.