Author Archives: Darren Leslie

Teachers Need Deep Subject Knowledge⤴

from @ Becoming Educated

A teachers subject knowledge has strong evidence of impact on student outcomes. So how do we get deep and fluent subject knowledge?

Why do we need deep subject knowledge?

Professor Rob Coe and colleagues wrote in their 2014 What Makes Great Teaching? report that “the most effective teachers have deep knowledge of the subjects they teach, and when teachers’ knowledge falls below a certain level it is a significant impediment to students learning”. What is significant about this is that of all the factors they analysed, only effective instruction was found to be as important.

Prof. Coe also highlights the need for deep subject knowledge in the Great Teaching Toolkit Evidence Review. In the review the authors place subject knowledge in Dimension 1 and Element 1.1. The write:

The first element of Dimension 1 is essentially content knowledge, of a deep and connected kind. Teachers need to know how different ideas in the subject or domain are related, similar, sequential, analogous or distinct. They need
to have thought about, and have good answers to, the kinds of ‘Why?’ and ‘What would happen if…?’ questions that students may ask and that teachers themselves should ask to promote connected and higher-order thinking.

Great Teaching Toolkit, Evidence Based Education

Rosenshine also documents the need for deep subject knowledge in Principles of Instruction. Rosenshine looked at the defining characteristics of effective teaching, with regards to subject knowledge he found that effective teachers were able to provide detailed explanations of the material they teach. To exemplify this he writes that:

‘In a study of mathematics instruction, for instance, the most effective mathematics teachers spent about 23 minutes of a 40-minute period in lecture, demonstration, questioning and working examples. In contrast the least effective teachers spent only 11 minutes presenting new material.’ (p. 14)

Principles of Instruction, 2012

In the paper Rosenshine also notes that effective teachers don’t overwhelm students by presenting too much information at once. Instead we can give short presentations, check for understanding and provide many examples. I’d go as far to say that we can’t provide quality lectures, demonstrations and worked examples unless our subject knowledge is deep enough to allow us to do it well. Furthermore, we wont be able to ask a lot of questions without knowing what we want the students to think about.

Going Off Piste is one of my favourite teaching strategies outlined in Making Every Geography Lesson Count by Mark Enser. I also spoke about this being a great strategy from The Learning Rainforest by Tom Sherrington. Both are great books. In MEGLC, Mark Enser writes about shifting away from a lesson plan to tackle student misconceptions. Enser writes:

Without this underlying knowledge in place, it would be negligent to just continue with the planned lesson. Instead we need to stop to address the area of confusion with a clear, albeit ad hoc, explanation and then provide the opportunity for students to practice using this new knowledge.

Making Every Geography Lesson Count

Mark then goes further by outlining that this approach would not work unless the teacher has a ‘deep well of knowledge to draw on’.

So i’m sure by now we all agree that having a deep subject knowledge is essential for effective teaching, the question we now need to consider is how do we develop a deep and fluent knowledge of our subject and how do we maintain this knowledge throughout our time in the classroom.

Developing and maintaining deep subject knowledge?

Despite the success of the What Makes Great Teaching? report many initial teacher training courses and in-school CPD focus on what the authors call ‘less significant elements’. Because of this many teachers take matters into their own hands when develop their subject knowledge through reading books, joining associations and discussing their practice during breaks and lunches.

If we accept that a teachers subject knowledge is incredibly important then we need to build in time for it during the working week. A great example of this for school leaders to consider is Subject Planning and Development Sessions (SPDS) used at Durrington High School. Shaun Allison describes the approach by saying:

These sessions have been calendared once a fortnight, in subject teams.  They will provide the opportunity for subject teams to meet and work together to plan high quality teaching, through regular, subject specific collaborative planning & CPD – placing the focus very much on our core purpose….great subject teaching.

Shaun Allison in Class Teaching Blog

If this isn’t possible in your school for whatever reason as an individual teacher you can take control of your subject specific development, as Kate Jones writes in Love to Teach you should ‘own your CPD’. Teachers can develop their subject knowledge by doing a number of things:

Read around your subject – I have written previously about why you should develop a reading habit. I would recommend that you read subject specific books to deepen your knowledge on the topics that you will be teaching. This deep knowledge will allow you to provide clear ad-hoc explanations and go off piste.

Plan lessons with colleagues – each member of your department will have expert knowledge in a different area of the course. Just like how Shaun Allison tasks his teams during SPDS why don’t you get together with a colleague and plan explanations, identify potential misconceptions and co-create lessons to teach and discuss afterwards. There is something to learn from everyone and it is my opinion that teaching is most certainly a team sport.

Join your subject association – each subject has an association that is often brimming with resources and like minded colleagues to bounce ideas off of. Many associations also offer department memberships which is often underused.

Find a wider community – social media is a great place to chat with teachers and about teaching. Many subjects have their own hashtag (#teamenglish for example) and thousands of teachers sharing resources, ideas and challenging one another. If used well it really is a great community. There are also loads of conferences, TeachMeets and BrewEds that you can get along to. They are often organised by teachers that just love collaborating with other teachers.

What next?

Developing your subject knowledge is incredibly important so I encourage you to prioritise it. I’ve offered a few suggestions to develop and maintain your own knowledge but there are many other options. If you are a school leader I implore you to prioritise time for teachers to develop their subject knowledge. After all, the evidence suggests that it has a ‘significant impact on student outcomes’.

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Into a New Dimension for Great Teaching⤴

from @ Becoming Educated

Teaching is incredibly complex and nuanced but are there ‘best bets’ for us to work to improve teaching in our classrooms so that our students learn more?

Great Teaching Toolkit

Prof. Robert Coe and colleagues from Evidence Based Education (EBE) reviewed existing research studies and frameworks and synthesised them into their brilliant evidence review. Their aim is to help teachers ‘make better decisions about what they can best do to improve their effectiveness’ and in doing so have identified four overarching dimensions with a total of 17 elements within them from their evidence review of existing research. What is even better news is that this is just the start for them as they want to build a community of practitioners to share examples of the elements of Great Teaching and to tell EBE what they look like in your phase or subject. Get involved here and help shape the next steps of the Great Teaching Toolkit.

Four Dimensions to Great Teaching

The Great Teaching Toolkit is unbelievably rich in wisdom. Therefore, it offers so much food for thought and it is difficult to know where to start but its aim sits right at the heart of what i’d like more of in teaching; helping us identify areas to improve that will have a direct impact on our students. The four overarching dimensions in the toolkit are:

  1. Understand the content that they are teaching and how it is learnt
  2. Create a supportive environment for learning
  3. Manage the classroom to maximise the opportunity to learn
  4. Present content, activities and interactions that activate their students’ thinking

These are all areas worth pursuing for improvement and as a teacher I feel I do well in them but I could do even better and this toolkit helps me unpack the elements and prioritise my learning as a teacher. As the authors note ‘Great teaching must be defined by its impact: a great teacher is one whose students learn more’. They also discuss that a great teacher cannot be pared down to a particular set of practices as teaching is complex.

The toolkit helps break through this complexity and does well to unpack each of these four overarching dimensions into what they call the 17 elements. These are the ‘best bets’ to focus teacher professional learning on in the future. The toolkit, they say, is the first step of a long term project which you can be a part of.

The 17 Elements

  1. Have a deep and fluent knowledge
  2. Knowledge of curriculum sequencing
  3. Knowledge of curriculum and assessment tasks
  4. Knowledge of student strategies, misconceptions and sticking points
  5. Promote relationships that are based on mutual respect
  6. Promote a positive climate
  7. Promote learner motivation competence, autonomy and relatedness
  8. Create a climate of high expectation
  9. Manage time and resources efficiently
  10. Ensure that expectations for behaviour are explicit
  11. Prevent, anticipate and respond to potential incidents
  12. Give students an appropriate sequence of learning tasks
  13. Present and communicate new ideas clearly
  14. Use questions to elicit student thinking
  15. Respond appropriately to feedback from students
  16. Give students tasks that embed and reinforce learning
  17. Help students to plan, regulate and monitor their own learning

You may notice that some of these elements overlap but they follow a consistent pattern to becoming an expert teacher. For instance, It fits in nicely with my belief that we must develop deep subject knowledge as well as pedagogical content knowledge. Furthermore, we must create a classroom culture that is conducive to learning and once these two nuanced and complex areas are set we can then push our students to think hard and learn more. This is what makes the Great Teaching Toolkit so exciting for me. It offers a clear path and vision for teacher learning.

So what next?

Read the Evidence Review and get involved in the Great Teaching Community and help shape the toolkit moving forward. I will blog further on each of the dimensions and the elements within them. Sharing success and identifying areas for improvement. As I type I am excited for what this could mean for teaching in my lifetime. I’ve craved a research informed and research engaged profession and this toolkit goes some way to getting it. The main issue will be ensuring everyone in our profession reads it and then engages with it.

This is important reading for anyone who is leading in teacher professional learning so make sure they get their hands on it. Above all, make sure that your future professional learning is informed by research and is guided by ‘best bets’. After all, we want great teachers who help students learn more in every single classroom.

The future is full of bright spots in every classroom for us to celebrate and share.

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What every teacher should do: ask a lot of questions⤴

from @ Becoming Educated

Asking questions is one of the most important things a teacher does on a daily basis. Teachers ask thousands of questions per week in their classroom and are fully aware that not all questions are equal. It requires great skill and precision for a teacher to ask the right question at the right time. Getting to this stage of asking the right question at the right times takes practice, purposeful practice because not all practice is equal either.

Why do we use questions?

Teachers use questions for a number of reasons but good questions get pupils to think and think hard. Checking for understanding is a key skill to also develop and the best way to do this is to use questions which move from closed to open questions. Beginning with knowledge recall questions a teacher can skilfully move to more open questions and really get the students to think hard.

Similarly, questioning allows you to deepen and develop your students understanding by using strategies such as probing (I particularly like ‘Probe Them Like Socrates’ from Making Every Lesson Count). This provokes our students to think hard and thinking is one of the true essences of learning, especially given that ‘memory is the residue of thought’.

Questioning also ensure that students undertake most of the cognitive work in the classroom and Doug Lemov beautifully writes about ‘ratio’ defining it as the balance of cognitive work shared by students and the teacher. This idea brings to light Lemov’s techniques of ‘no opt out’, ‘100%’ and ‘no hands up’ all of which will contribute towards developing a business like and productive classroom culture.

Finally, questioning does a lot to help build the classroom culture that is conducive to a positive learning experience. By incorporating and insisting on some of the techniques put forward by Lemov a teacher can really build an inclusive culture where it is ok to get it wrong. Getting it wrong is a cornerstone of questioning which allows the teacher to identify misconceptions and misunderstanding which could prompt them to reteach material.

The discussion of classroom culture through the use of questioning brings me onto my last point. Shaun Allison and Andy Tharby write in Making Every Lesson Count:

Questioning and class discussion help you form and maintain your classroom culture. Do you expect students to answer in subject-specific language? Do you accept incorrect or incomplete answers, or do you expect a high level of correctness? Do you expect them to listen respectfully to each other and to respond sensitively?

Allison & Tharby, Making Every Lesson Count

What does Rosenshine say?

Barak Rosenshine says in his 2012 paper that ‘less successful teachers ask fewer questions’ and that ‘most effective teachers also ask students to explain the process they used to answer the question’ showing that skilful teachers probe and dig deeper. This is vital if we want to make the invisible visible and get to grips with what our students actually know and can confidently tell us. I like to cite Rosenshine because of the language he uses, i mean who doesnt want to be one of his ‘most effective’ teachers? with this in mind then, you must ask a lot of questions.

Asking the right questions

In The Teaching Delusion Bruce Robertson writes ‘the questions you ask should be ones which students have a reasonable chance of answering’. So before asking questions make sure that you have taught the students something which they might have access to from their long term memory. Bruce also discusses the concept of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ questions and instead tries to focus his readers on thinking about ‘what makes a good question?’. Bruce suggests that we keep in mind the Goldilocks principle which is to ‘ask questions which are appropriately challenging – not too easy and not too difficult’.

As alluded to earlier we must carefully consider our questions based on what we have taught. We cannot think about something we do not know anything about so asking a student a question hoping that they know will be like trying to find a need in a haystack in the dark!

Questioning ideas

Now that we are in full agreement that asking a lot of questions is good for the soul how do we go about asking the right questions in the right way. A few ideas that I like are ‘ Wait Time’, ‘Probe Them Like Socrates’, ‘No Opt Out’, ‘No Hands Up’ and ‘Pose, Pause, Pounce, Bounce’. All of them contribute to an inclusive classroom culture whose foundations are built on the ratio of students thinking a lot harder than the teacher. Why? because the teacher will have planned their questions before hand, of course.

No Opt Out – This is one of my favourite Lemov Techniques from Teach Like a Champion. This is where you don’t allow students to say “i don’t know”. You either probe or rephrase your question or revisit them before your period of questioning is done. The simple act of returning to them after their peers have given an answer ensures a culture of high achievement and that they verbalise what has been said, given them a better understanding of what is being discussed.

Wait Time – In 1972 Mary Budd Rowe investigated the amount of time teachers left between asking a question and requesting an answer. She found that most teachers leave just 1 second, even today teachers wait for too short a time. I am guilty of this. Mary Budd Rowe found that if a teacher waited for just 3 seconds there were a number of positive changes in the classroom including better responses from the students. This technique is the easiest to implement, all you need to do is count in your head 3-5 seconds after asking a question. You’ll be amazed at how much better the responses are from the students after some thinking time.

Probe Them Like Socrates – In Making Every Lesson Count Shaun Allison & Andy Tharby propose this method of questioning and I love it. Socrates used this dialectic method of questioning when teaching the young men of Athens over 2000 years ago. Socratic questioning is still used today to challenge the accuracy and completeness of a students thinking. These six levels of questioning are considered important:

  1. Getting students to clarify their thinking: Why do you say that? what do you already know about that? could you explain further?
  2. Challenging and probing students about assumptions: is this always the case? do you agree or disagree with this?
  3. Demanding evidence: why do you say that? can you give me an example of that?how do you know this?
  4. Looking at alternative viewpoints and perspectives: what is the counterargument for…? what are the advantages/disadvantages of this?
  5. Exploring implications and consequences: but if.. happened, what else would result? how does X affect Y?
  6. Questioning the question: why do you think i asked that question?why was that question important?

Pose, Pause, Pounce Bounce – I first came across with in Ross McGill’s 100 Ideas for Secondary teachers: Outstanding Lessons. This technique is when you pose a question, pause for 3-5 seconds (or even longer if you deem it appropriate), pounce on a student to answer (Cold Call) and then bounce their response to another student (can you go further? do you agree/disagree?). You can keep this going and have a number of students respond to each others answers. Ross writes more about it here on his Teacher Toolkit blog.

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Teaching: Like Driving Instruction? by Russell Pearson, @DynamicDeps⤴

from @ Becoming Educated

“Seems quite traditional and outdated thinking?”

This was the challenge posed to us recently by a teacher who was commenting on a resource we shared online. I call it a resource, but it’s more a summary of some general advice about what perhaps we should or shouldn’t do in the classroom. It explores some of the things we would or wouldn’t do if we were teaching somebody to drive and calls the reader to consider the relevance of these points to the classroom environment.

It probably doesn’t take a genius to notice that we’re strong supporters of direct instruction and not huge advocates of discovery approaches to learning. I should point out from the offset that this line of thinking is as the result of our own professional learning, and not our default ‘modes’ or ‘tastes’. We’re both teachers who, during our training, were taught that the teacher is a facilitator of learning; a kind of guide who sits at the edges of the learning experience, gently guiding and questioning on occasions. As ‘constructivists’, we believed that children constructed meaning most effectively by discovering new information for themselves. We were actively discouraged from doing too much “teacher talk” in our early years of teaching – children wouldn’t learn this way. We both had a fairly dismissive attitude towards knowledge and curriculum content – we believed that our primary goal as teachers was to develop the 21st century skills the children would need in order to thrive in an ever-changing world. This perspective was felt strongly by another teacher who commented on the same thread:

“Education is all about developing the passion to learn and to discover things for themselves… otherwise we’ll never have lifelong learners.”

So what is it that has transformed us from two ‘progressive’ teachers into advocates of this “outdated” approach? There are three reasons I wanted to share

1. We’ve come to realise that you can’t think about what you don’t know

It has only been in the past two years of my teaching career that I’ve heard voices strongly and passionately talking about the value of knowledge. This was very challenging for me. I liked the idea that knowledge was unimportant. Having been educated in a system that seemingly also felt this way, my own knowledge of the world was sort of limited and it was hard to accept that perhaps I might be lacking something of use!

But here’s the thing: you can’t think about what you don’t know. A while ago I decided to be a bit of a geek and downloaded a flag-quiz app; purely because I was so useless at recognising any. Each day I’d go on to the app for a couple of minutes and learn a few more flags. As I moved through the levels, I’d enjoy the ease at which I could remember the flags in the earlier levels and liked the challenge of learning the new, harder flags. So was this just isolated, rote-learning? No. The real beauty of this simple activity was it began to change what I could see, the connections I could make, and what I noticed in the world around me. I liked learning about the meaning behind some of the symbols on flags. For example, the bird (crane) on the Ugandan flag is standing with one foot in the air. I learnt that this represents the idea of the country always moving forward and progressing. I began to spot how Islamic symbolism was prevalent on many flags of the world, which in turn developed my understanding about the countries in which Islam was the predominant faith. I noticed on the news one day that there was a march happening in Venezuela and found that I actually listened because I was so excited by the fact that I recognised the flags being waved! New knowledge had literally transformed what I could, or indeed wanted to see.

Wait a minute… wasn’t this an example of discovery learning?

First of all: I’m an adult with enough prerequisite knowledge to choose a reliable-looking app. Secondly, I wasn’t randomly discovering complex content via Google or chatting about it with novices. I was using technology to develop, rather than to outsource my memory (I’ll say more about this in a minute).

So how does this focus on the importance of knowledge apply to the driving-instruction analogy? Well, knowledge is vital in order to drive. I couldn’t just say to a learner-driver: “knowledge isn’t important, it’s the skill that matters – off you go.” The poor soul wouldn’t know where to start. They would need to know what the main parts of the car are. They’d need to know the Highway Code. They’d need to develop an understanding of every individual process over time, such as using the pedals, the gearstick, the steering wheel and so on. If I used a discovery approach for even a small portion of this content, I’d hit all sorts of barriers. Even if you ignored the clear danger of death (not so relevant to the classroom!) I would risk all sorts of misconceptions and bad habits forming if I left them to it. Instead, we advocate in the resource that we don’t start letting go as a strategy for developing the student’s independence. I learnt to drive successfully because I was heavily supported through each step and given opportunities to practise each skill along the way.

2. We’ve come to understand how memory works

In Daisy Christodoulou’s latest book ‘Teachers vs Tech’ she proposes that the reason technology has failed to have any significant outcomes on pupil attainment is because we have used tech to outsource memory, rather than to strengthen it. In the book, Christodoulou explains some key points that we have learned from cognitive science – here are some significant ones:

  • Our working memory (which we use all the time) is extremely limited and easily overwhelmed.
  • Our long-term memory is an incredibly powerful storehouse of seemingly infinite capacity.
  • When we solve problems or do any form of ‘skill’, we’re constantly drawing upon information in our long-term memory to make the task easier. Driving is a great example of this. You do not have many demands on your short-term memory once you’re an experienced driver. Your long-term memory is doing its thing without you thinking about it: this is why you can get all the way home without remembering much from the journey!
  • When we outsource knowledge to the internet, we force the working memory to be overwhelmed. I loved this hilarious tweet I saw recently which illustrates the point beautifully:

In this example, the tweeter spent so much time ‘googling’ the meaning of words in the recipe, the cooking experience was not one to be enjoyed. If she had more knowledge of American foods in her long-term memory, she’d be able to do the skill of cooking with much more ease! When it comes to the classroom, the more that children just ‘know’, the more that their working memories can be freed up to enjoy the actual experience. Daisy talks about the example of reading in a recent podcast she did with us, which you can listen to here: link.chtbl.com/KnowledgeIsPower. Daisy explains how reading should be a pleasurable experience, but for many children this is disrupted by the fact that they can’t make sense of so much of the vocabulary or the content itself.

3. A lot of our teaching methods that look ‘constructivist’ really aren’t

Most educators would agree that children construct meaning, and that this is essential. Clare Sealy recently explored the importance of ‘meaning-making’ in a wonderful blog: https://primarytimery.com/2020/06/09/how-to-speak-truthfully-about-what-it-means-to-be-human-a-users-handbook/

Constructivist theories are the basis of so much teacher-training material. But at the heart of the issue is this: which teaching methods are most effective in helping children to construct meaning? Richard Mayer talks about this in his article, “Should There Be a Three-Strikes Rule Against Pure Discovery Learning?”:

“The constructivist teaching fallacy is that the only way to achieve constructivist learning is through active methods of teaching … In contrast, my hypothesis in this article is that a variety of instructional methods can lead to constructivist learning …  a challenge facing educational researchers is to discover instructional methods that promote appropriate processing in learners rather than methods that promote hands-on activity or group discussion as ends in themselves.”

In the article Mayer draws upon research which solidly indicates that children do not construct meaning more effectively by discovering it for themselves. This is a big challenge to what has become quite a conventional view in education. Many of us were taught to the contrary, and I think this is why our resource was called “outdated”.

Conclusion

I think we need to stop leaping at the idea that teaching methods involving the teacher talking or explaining something are in some way old-fashioned or obsolete. I have observed many lessons where teachers seem scared to just tell the children something because they have had it drilled into them that children don’t learn that way. The truth is that the teacher is the qualified person in the room and unashamedly, the expert. They shouldn’t be scared to explain – that is their job! I know that the driving analogy isn’t perfect (is any analogy?) but we stand by the resource as a useful think-piece – if nothing else – about how we best take our students on a journey of learning towards a complex outcome. The end goal for me is the same as my critics: I want life-long learners. We might just disagree on what the journey should look like.

The post Teaching: Like Driving Instruction? by Russell Pearson, @DynamicDeps appeared first on Becoming Educated.

What every teacher should do: direct-interactive instruction⤴

from @ Becoming Educated

My schooling was during a time when the idea of being a ‘guide on the side’ was quite fashionable. When I think back to some of my lessons I can remember doing an awful lot of stuff and I struggle to recall listening to my teacher talk. However, two teachers stand out for me in my schooling and both of them epitomise what I mean when I talk about direct instruction. They both were great explainers, and storytellers, who demanded excellence from us. They both questioned students deeply and I remember one lesson when my chemistry teacher spent what felt like ten minutes probing my thinking, believing I could go deeper. It certainly worked as I started my university life studying for a degree in chemistry. A lot has changed since then I can assure you.

This brings me to discuss the need for all teachers to pursue ‘direct instruction’ or a better way to think about it is ‘direct-interactive instruction’ as put forward by Bruce Robertson in The Teaching Delusion.

Before we dive into exploring ‘direct-interactive instruction’. I feel that it is important to discuss the difference between a novice and an expert, how they learn, think and how the use knowledge. It is clear (at least I hope so) that a novice has significantly less prior knowledge, or background knowledge of a particular topic, than that of the prior knowledge of an expert. This plays a key role in how they tackle problem, think about solutions and carry out tasks.

A novice will approach a task from the start and tackle each area of a problem individually, they will require a lot of scaffolding, support and feedback to overcome each step until they get to a solution. An expert on the other hand uses all of their prior knowledge to tackle the solution easily, coming to a conclusion with minimal effort. As John Sweller neatly sums up in a 1988 paper on Cognitive Load During Problem Solving:

Novices, not possessing appropriate schemas, are not able to recognise and memorize problem configurations and are forced to use general problem-solving strategies such as means-end analysis when faced with a problem

John Sweller, Cognitive Load During Problem Solving: Effects on Learning (1988)

If you consider it from a football perspective, a novice has to learn which part of the foot to dribble the ball with, how hard to hit the ball and will often lose track of where they are because they are continually looking down. An expert has the tacit knowledge to know where the ball is without looking at it and can instead focus on bigger concepts such as ‘game strategy’.

To put it simply, a novice needs to build their ‘schema’ and an expert already has a deep ‘schema’ to access. So, a novice then needs to be given facts and other relevant knowledge in order to build their schema, and the best way to do this is to explicitly teach them the facts of our subject matter slowly and steadily until it has moved to their long term memory. Which allows us to define learning as ‘a change in long term memory’ as outlined by Kirschner, Sweller & Clark.

What is direct-interactive instruction?

In What Makes Great Teaching (Coe et al., 2014) the authors summarised robust research evidence that would best support teacher quality. In the report they discuss ‘ineffective practices’ such as discovery learning, teaching to learning styles, use of lavish praise and grouping students by ability but one quote sticks out for me:

Enthusiasm for ‘discovery learning’ is not supported by research evidence, which broadly favours direct instruction (Kirschner et al., 2006). Although learners do need to build new understanding on what they already know, if teachers want them to learn new ideas, knowledge or methods they need to teach them directly.

What Makes Great Teaching, Sutton Trust Report.

Greg Ashman has been a prolific blogger on this area and has shown through robust use of evidence that the teacher should ‘ be in complete control of the learning process’. Ashman references Siegfried Engelmann’s Project Follow Through (which is one of the largest educational experiment ever conducted) and this study recognised that Direct Instruction ‘ was not only more effective at at developing students basic skills than alternative models, it was also more successful at developing the ability to comprehend written passages or solve mathematical problems’. (I would recommend looking up Project Follow Through for a more detailed account of explicit instruction).

Direct Instruction is often refereed to as ‘old fashioned’ but the evidence is clear that it is the best approach to take when teaching novices, they need the necessary background knowledge, which is moved to long term memory, in order to make future learning easier to undertake. In The Teaching Delusion Bruce Robertson adds that the instruction should be on the basis of ‘ clear teacher explanations and demonstration which hold students attention’ and should also include checking for understanding’. For teachers to hold a students attention they will be required to involve them in the discussion by asking questions and getting contributions ‘from the floor’. Bruce is clear that ‘great teaching needs to include presenting content directly and interactively to students and checking for understanding’. Teaching in this way will ensure that the students get the relevant knowledge from the expert in the room, the teacher, and by involving them in the process by asking questions and checking for understanding it will allow the teacher to hold their attention on the learning.

Suffice to say a poorly presented lesson which fails to hold a students attention will result in them ‘switching off’ and no learning entering their working memory, on the basis of the idea that ‘we learn what we attend to’. Making it crucial that teachers consider what pupils will be thinking about in each phase of their lesson (Willingham, 2009) through direct-interactive instruction and checking for understanding.

I would recommend reading Andy Tharby’s How to Explain Absolutely Anything to Absolutely Anyone if you want to develop your explanations and get getter at direct-interactive instruction.

What about the ‘interactive’ part?

During a great teacher explanation it is vital that a teacher knows what the students are taking in (even though we know this is them ‘performing’ in our lesson). A teacher can do this in a number of ways and I will write about providing worked examples, questioning and practice in future posts. For now, when you are designing your explanations of key content make sure that you are clear and explicit on what you want the students to learn and think about during the lesson, this will help you shape the questions that you ask as a good question ‘makes the students think hard’.

During this stage in the lesson your aim is to make thinking visible and there is no better way than getting the pupils to write down what they are thinking through your use of questioning. Whether it is in a jotter or on a show me board a great teacher will take responses from a number of students so that they are confident that what they are explicitly teaching is being held in their students working memory. The use of examples, retrieval practice and purposeful practice will help in getting the information to the long term memory. As we said earlier, the more knowledge a pupils has the easier future learning will be and the further they will move along the novice-expert continuum.

Clear explanations are king

Your explanations are king in the classroom and it is so important that we get this aspect of teacher talk right, it is key to effective direct-interactive instruction’. What you directly teach the students is inevitably what they will learn in your classroom so it is important to make sure they are of high quality. So before you start a new topic be sure to consider the following:

  • be clear on what you are going to say, clarity is so important
  • Script what you are going to say, especially in your early years of teaching
  • observe other teachers explaining new content, you can pinpoint what the great teachers do and add it to your armoury
  • make eye contact with every student and make sure the students eyes are on you. You are the focal point.
  • Stand still, the teacher moving too often is distracting for the students and requires extra attention which is unnecessary
  • Repeat your key ideas and include them in your questions when you are making thinking visible.

What every teacher should do: understand how memory works⤴

from @ Becoming Educated


I was never explicitly taught about memory in my eight years of teaching. This is no one’s fault as we are all doing the best we can. However, having starting reading books and blogs there is a whole world of education research still untouched by many. One important area that I feel all teachers should know about is that of memory and how memory works.

We all want our students to remember stuff and I am sure we can all empathise with each others frustration at the students knowing stuff during lessons but completely forgetting it when it matters, during tests. Understanding how our memory works is key to tackling this all too common classroom occurrence.

In my last post we briefly explored Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve and we discussed our ability to retain information through spaced retrieval. To understand this in greater depth we must explore our working memory and long term memory.

Working Memory

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is Willingham-memory-model-diagram.png
Credit – Oliver Caviglioli

The first area to consider is that of our Working Memory (WM). Research into our WM has shown that it is a finite resource, with some researchers claiming we can only hold up to 7 (plus 2) ‘chunk’ of information at any one time, some recent research has suggested that the number could be as low as 4 ‘chunks’. Our WM is where we process information from our current environment and also draw upon knowledge from our long-term memory. As mentioned our WM is a finite resource but it is always active and processing information. To reiterate, our working memory is always full, it is taking in everything in our surrounding. As David Didau writes:

Working memory is synonymous with awareness. It is the sit of conscious thought. The act of paying attention, of reading these words, of listening to your children complain about how much homework they’ve got to finish for Monday morning, fill sup our working memory. In practical terms our, our working memories are always active, even when we are focussing on something in particular. We’re constantly absorbing and processing sensory data from the world around us.David Didau, Making Kids Cleverer.

This is where Sweller’s ‘Cognitive Load Theory’ comes into play for us teachers. Often we ‘overload’ our students with too much information which produces too much cognitive load. To lighten this cognitive load our students have to have acquired knowledge in the long-term memory, referred to in literature as schemas (schemas are basically folders of knowledge on one topic, the more the folder is filled with knowledge the lighter the load on working memory for that particular area of knowledge).

As you can see in the graphic our working memory fills up and we can either learn the material by storing it in our long-term memory or forget it. If our WM is filled with too much cognitive load then whatever else is added will most certainly be forgotten so it is worth learning more on Cognitive Load Theory.

Despite the apparent bottleneck of our working memory there are strategies that we can use to overcome cognitive load. Firstly, having a vast store of knowledge in our long-term memory in the form of schemas will certainly help, in simple terms – the stronger the schema the lighter the load on our working memory (this is basically why experts make some things look so effortless and novices struggle so much).

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Baddeley and Hitch’s Working Memory Model

Baddeley and Hitch’s Working Memory Model (WMM) is one of the most robust theories in cognitive science and gives us further insight into working memory. The Central Executive (CE) acts a bit like a supervisor or night club bouncer. As information tries to enter the ‘club’ the CE focuses attention on the information and decides which one to attend to, or to continue the analogy which one gets into the club and which information gets the good old ‘not tonight pal!’. It’s important to note that the CE is entirely under our control and is more of a subconscious function. Every teacher can speak to losing a classes focus when a wasp enters the room!

The Phonological Loop (PL) deals mainly with speech and other types of audio. This is where we store verbal information, up to about 2 seconds before it is overwritten and new information comes in. We either move it to our long-term memory or forget it.

The Visuo-Spatial Sketchpad (VSS) briefly holds visual information and the spatial relationship between things. Imagine the light goes out in your room, this is where you store the memory of where all of your clutter is so that you don’t trip up.

The Episodic Buffer (EB) was added to the WMM in 2000. It was added because there was evidence to suggest we needed a component to combine the information in the WMM stores to what we already know – our prior knowledge stored in our long-term memory. This shows the importance of a vast array of knowledge in our long-term memory. The more you know and the larger your schema is for a topic, the lighter the load on your working memory.

The role of LTM in helping working memory is well established and very easy to demonstrate (e.g. – compare the retention of a random sequence of letters – DPL OAM IGGB – to a sequence containing meaningful ‘chunks’: DOG PIG LAMB)Taken from ‘What every teacher needs to know about psychology’, Didau & Rose

One of the key things to note about working memory is just how limited it is.If you are distracted while trying to process something you will lose the information you are trying to process (think about what this means when the damn wasp flies in.) We also can only deal with a small amount of information at any one time as suggested by Miller’s ‘7 plus 2’ chunks from his research in 1950.

This is why it is so important that teachers know about Cognitive Load Theory and Dual Coding Theory to help them combat the limited working memory of their students. Dylan Wiliam said that cognitive load theory is the “single most important thing for teachers to know” However, to really help our students we should be working hard to get the information we teach into their long-term memory.

Long-Term Memory

First, we must note that our memories are invisible to us and there isn’t any consensus as to where exactly our memories are stored but we know enough that our long-term memory is vast and perhaps even limitless and the more stuff we have in there the easier it is to learn as the working memory load will be reduced. Learning has been defined as “a change in long term memory” by Kirschner, Sweller & Clark. If we run with this then, it is our acquisition of schema that fills our long term memory.

Storing memories is about making links and connections between our experiences in a vast network of related concepts and contexts. These links and connections are referred to as ‘schema’. As mentioned earlier a schema can be though of like a folder in your laptop that gets filled with the relevant knowledge in one given topic. An example of a schema in action is as follows:

A frequently used example is going to a restaurant. The schema for getting a table, ordering food and drink, and paying for the meal makes visiting a new restaurant for the first time, even in another country, a pretty straightforwards process, as we deal with new situations by linking them to things we’ve encountered in the past.David Didau, Making Kids Cleverer

Our long-term memory isn’t a single storage unit and psychologists tend to divide it into to separate but interlinked systems: declarative memory and non-declarative memory.

Non- declarative memory is a catch-all term for everything that may exist in our long-term memory that we are unable to put into words. An example of this is your ability to read this sentence and understand the phoneme-grapheme correspondences required to read this, you just know how to do it (even though it was once a challenging and hard learning experience). Other procedural skills like tying your shoelaces, walking, swimming or cycling are features of non-declarative memory.

Declarative memories are the memories we can declare: “Cristiano Ronaldo plays for Real Madrid”, “they are 30 years old”, “pythagoras theorem is a2 + b2 = c2” and so on. Declarative memory can be either episodic or semantic.

Episodic memories are those of experiences and specific events, how you felt at during those events. We can often replay events in great detail using our episodic memories. Whereas, Semantic memories are a more structured record of facts, concepts and meanings. Episodic memories are mainly context dependant but semantic memories are more flexible and can be applied across a range of contexts.

The two systems, episodic and semantic are linked in several ways. Semantic memories can become ‘stand alone’ memories but they are often derived from a specific episodic memory. In terms of teaching an episodic memory could be that of a particular lesson and the semantic memories are the facts, key terms and concepts of that lesson. Quite often our students can recall episodic information from a lesson but struggle with recalling the semantic information.

Understanding episodic and semantic memory can help us, as teachers, understand why our children oftentimes can’t recall what we teach them. They remember the episodic memories of lessons – messing about with friends, Mr Murphy’s horrible breath and being given detention for incomplete homework. In order to make our semantic memories stronger we must retrieve factual information often which will allow us to retain our learning over the long term. Which is why retrieval practice really is an important pedagogy to undertake.

If we don’t retrieve the semantic memories, when asked “do you remember when we learned about plate tectonics?”. The students might reply with “oh yes i do remember” but they may be recalling the episodic memory and not the semantic memory and unless the teacher digs deeper with further probing questions the student will have the illusion of knowledge and perhaps be relying on the familiarity effect, with no change in their long term memory.

There have been great studies that have revealed the links between semantic and episodic memories. The most famous of these is by Elizabeth Loftus and John Palmer. They showed participants of their study a series of films involving car collisions and found that estimations of the speed the car was travelling could be manipulated by changing the verb used in their question. Where participants were asked “about how fast were the cars going when they hit each other?” they gave lower speed estimates when compared to participants who were asked “about how fast were the cars going when they smashed each other?”. The change in language appeared to create a ‘fact’ about the collision which influenced the memory of the collisions they witnessed.

As mentioned earlier a ‘schema’ is like a big folder with interrelated concepts and contexts and is assembled of non-declarative and declarative memories. Some of what we remember is semantic, some is episodic, but they are all stored somewhere within our brain.

Notes

Didau, David and Nick Rose (2016) What every teacher need to know about psychology

Didau, David (2015) What is everything you knew about education was wrong?

Didau, David (2019) Making Kids Cleverer

What every teacher should do: check for understanding⤴

from @ Becoming Educated

If we first consider the notion that there is a distinct difference between learning and performance, that is when your students are providing great answers to questions in class they may simply be performing in the moment, later during a test, for example, you may find that they haven’t actually learned anything. This idea is much better articulated in this paper by Soderstrom & Bjork (2015).

So if there is a distinction between performing and learning, how do we know if our students are learning? First we must consider what learning is and there are a number of ideas on this theme.

Kirschner, Sweller & Clark (2006) suggest that “If nothing has changed in long-term memory, nothing has been learned.” Suggesting that if nothing has been retained in your long term memory then we can’t consider it to be learned.

Now edu-famous is the oft wheeled out quote from Daniel Willingham’s excellent Why Don’t Student Like School?. WIllingham says that “memory is the residue of thought”, meaning that what we think about what we inevitably remember.

On this note David Didau writes the following in this post from his brilliant Learning Spy blog:

“Students often remember the context of a lesson whilst forgetting the content. This can lead to the illusion of learning: we remember the memory of having known a thing.”

To dig a little deeper on this notion we can discuss a relevant example from maths which I have taken from Boys Don’t Try by Matt Pinkett & Matt Roberts.

“I once observed a maths interview lesson where the teacher hooked the pupils in by appealing to their stomach. Pupils had to work out the area of a circle, whether it was more economical to buy one 16″ or two 10″ pizzas. This candidate certainly stimulated the senses, producing an elaborate takeaway menu resource. The boys solved the problems, the bell went and they trooped out for lunch, salivating. I asked them the following morning if they enjoyed the lesson. Absolutely, they told me. Could they explain how to solve the problem? Only one of them could. What they’d remembered were the toppings.”

I reckon that we have all delivered lessons like this and when it came to the crunch, the students could put none of their learning onto the lined paper. So what has this got to do with checking for understanding? A lot I think. Learning is invisible (it really is!) so how do we get to know what pupils have actually learned.

First a consideration of memory and how we remember (more on this next week!) We know from Ebbinghaus’ forgetting curve (1885) that our memory quickly diminishes almost a nights sleep after learning something.

So perhaps during that one lesson a student is simply performing as they will have yet to shift the learning to their long term memory. Which makes checking for understanding a vital skill of a great teacher.

What we now know that through repetition of the same topic, we must then repeat the learning, we can improve retention of the learning so that after a few weeks the students are no longer performing they are demonstrating what they have learned. Suggesting that their long term memory has been changed, as suggested by Kirschner, Sweller & Clark (2006).

So for me checking for understanding becomes not just a tool for checking that a pupil has understood an instruction, asking ‘have you understood?’ or ‘do you have any questions?’ serves no purpose whatsoever, it becomes a key tool in a teachers arsenal. We must check that pupils understand and not simply remember what we teach them, this requires repetition and a demand for excellence (which I wrote about here).

Rosenshine suggests that great teachers ask a lot of questions. Who doesn’t want to be a great teacher. However, what we must take from this is that we ask a lot of the right questions. Questions that dig deeper, probe if you like, and really help us make learning visible and check that students understand what we are teaching.

To build this culture of checking for understanding there are a few strategies that a teacher can employ. Firstly they can Reject Self Report then they can get into deeper strategies such as probing, say it again, say it better and use show me a boards regularly. Show me boards are an excellent way to make learning really visible to us, this forces students to commit to an answer and will allow a skilled practitioner to really dig deep and check for understanding. Let’s take each of them in turn and explore a little more.

  1. Reject Self Report

Teachnique #1 in Doug Lemov’s outstanding Teach Like a Champion is where we replace ‘functionally rhetorical questions with more objective forms of impromptu assessment’. This is where we ask ‘Everybody got it?’ type questions and as Lemov writes we are often greeted with silent assent. We must ask more questions that are direct, targetted and chosen to meaningfully demonstrate student understanding. These questions are usually done in a minute or less and can really tell us if a student has understood the material at hand.

2. Probing

probing is a skill of really great teachers and it really helps them go deeper. Tom Sherrington wrote a great blog post on Probing here. Examples of probing questions are when teachers ask ‘thats interesting, what makes you say that?’ or ‘is there a different way to say the same thing?’ or ‘what is the evidence that supports your suggestion?’ or finally ‘can you explain how you worked that out?’. As Tom says ‘to be able hold exchanges like this with individuals or a whole class is a key feature of excellent teaching.’

3. Say it again, say it better

In The Learning Rainforest refers to this technique as a silver arrow or better said a ‘quick win’. This is a startegy that teachers should use relentlessly. If you simply ask a student to repeat what they said but better they are able then to re-form their intital response into well structured and impactful sentences. This period of reconsideration will really help them to build their schema and develop their understanding of the learning.

4. Show me boards/mini whiteboards

Bruce Robertson, author of The Teaching Delusion advocates that show me boards should be as integral to a lesson as the humble jotter. Show me boards are great for a number of reasons, they make every student commit to an answer, they make every students thinking visible and allows the teacher to see clearly and quickly if there are any gaps and misconceptions. Bruce gives a few more important reasons as to why you should start using them in every lesson in this blog post.

Checking for understanding, for me, is one of the most important practices in teaching. Once a clear explanation, modelling and direct-interactive instruction period has taken place and the students are busy practicing it would be remiss of us to not check for understanding and dig deep, in every lesson, to monitor the progress of our students learning. I have, perhaps, ventured into other more nuanced areas of teaching but i place checking for understanding as something we could, well certainly me, be better at so that our students really learn the material and undergo a ‘change in their long term memory’.

The resurgence of class forums⤴

from @ Becoming Educated

I’ve been giving a lot of thought to how I will continue the use of EdTech when I return to my classroom. Many are advocating for us to completely change the way we think and do our jobs. However, I am not so keen and will want to go back to how I was teaching before this pandemic.

A few years ago in a previous post I advocated the use of online class forums first with Edmodo and latterly with Google Classroom. Since moving school I haven’t used it at all, for no reason whatsoever.If I had to choose I would say that Classroom is by far the superior option. It is slick, easy to use and has everything you need to continue your lesson long after the bell. I will get it set up again as it really is a wonderful tool to complement your classroom teaching.

I had success with Classroom on a number of occasions with a large variety of classes from senior and junior students. The ease of use made it accessible for everyone and for those that were confused it didn’t take long to show them around the desktop and phone app.

I used classroom as my online class forum. I started by making sure everyone was able to access it, i even hosted a lunchtime and after school session for those that couldn’t access it at home. I started by simply posted a youtube video or a short document for pupils to watch or read prior to the next lesson. The engagement here was great with many pupils commenting on the forum, more of that later.

Once everyone was set up I started to post lesson resources that we had used that day. There is a section where you can post resources which you can use as a one stop shop for everything a student needs to know, think knowledge organisers and booklets they are using in class in case they lose theirs.

After our confidence grew I tasked some pupils with responsibility in the forum. I wanted them to lead their own learning and take control. With this in mind i tasked pupils to do a number of things. First I videoed them conducting tests and explaining how their process and thinking. This was uploaded to the forum for everyone to use for their own learning. Secondly, we began to use Classroom for homework and i tasked the pupils with reminding each other on the stream. As I had encouraged the pupils to set up notifications they would be able to see them pop up so that they didn’t forget to complete their homework. The students enjoyed reminding each other, especially the ones who were prone to making excuses.

Finally, we started to share interesting articles and videos we found online which often started some great discussions on why Usain Bolt could run so fast and what factors contributed to his successes, for example. This allowed us to communicate between lessons and continue the learning. Which contributed to the relationships in the class and kept our focus on learning at all times. This had a powerful effect on how we spoke about learning in the classroom. Perhaps I was modelling safe and effective use of social media.

This model of online learning will be one that I intend to return to, made easier by the fact all of our students are now already on Google Classroom.

For me this isn’t a replacement for face to face teaching, it works alongside highly effective teaching. There are a number of benefits for using a class forum like this.

  • It allows you to share resources, perhaps saving time in lessons
  • It shows the students that learning is something you can do all of the time and it isn’t confined to the 50-60 you spend in the classroom
  • By encouraging students to contribute (homework, for example) it helps them take control of their own learning. Some of the articles and videos they shared really made a difference
  • It allowed me to share my love for my subject with them even more
  • It models appropriate use of social media for learning

You could also use this class forum if you are an advocate of flipped learning. This could certainly buy you time in an often overcrowded curriculum. Students can read things in advance so that as soon as they enter the classroom the next day they can get to work. You could video demonstration in science, explanations of complex problems in maths, how to play a guitar riff in music, how to use 3D modelling in graphics and how to perform a fosbury flop in PE. All of which can be accessed any time by the students making learning a 24/7 event.

Once this notion was embedded with the students there were some remarkable occurrences. During one lunchtime while I was on duty a group of my students approached me displaying their phones, “Were doing the homework sir and was wondering if you could check to see we are on the right lines”. What I loved about this was that the students were discussing learning during their lunchtime and used seeing me as an opportunity to check they had it right, taking our learning outside of our classroom. This may happen a lot in other schools but it was a shift in culture where I was working. On another occasion while a student was injured and couldn’t take part in the physical aspect of the lesson they used their phone to video conversations he was having with his peers, he took it upon himself to question them on their learning and by posting it on our class forum he allowed the others to share in their learning. I was immensely proud as I didn’t task him with this, he led his own learning.

I will work hard to build this upon my return to school and feel this is the best way to incorporate EdTech into my teaching. Teachers will never be replaced by technology but through establishing the right conditions and modelling safe use of the platform we can certainly extend our reach beyond the confines of our classrooms.

Build the bridges and the ships⤴

from @ Becoming Educated

Whatever side of the education debate you land on its important for us to find our common ground, because after all aren’t we after the very same things?

I’ve been full of joy and wonder since listening to Emma Turner and Tom Sherrington on todays #BrewEdIsolation. They spoke about their upcoming show ‘Mind the Gap’ and i just can’t wait. What a double act. Both have become #edulegends for me in recent weeks and months.

In their talk Emma used the analogy of us all being on a side of a river. We first, must take into account that no one ever wants the river to flow backwards. We all want the river to flow downstream. Ive never experienced any teacher outline their desire for children to fail or to not succeed. The exact opposite is the only discourse that prevails.

What Tom summed up was that they both come from completely opposite backgrounds. Tom spent his career as a classroom physics teacher and formerly a high school headteacher. Emma on the other hand spent her career in primary going on to form one of the UK’s first ever co-headships. Now aren’t they a wealth of completely different experience.

What makes me completely excited is their promise to provide debate and insights from each bank of the river without the often polarising nature of twitter debates. Regardless of which riverbank you place you flag, I believe that we can find middle ground.

Whether you advocate for a progressive education or a more traditional education it is important to note that there are common grounds and for me, you can’t teach using solely one. You need to board a boat or build a bridge between them. Tom Sherrington uses the terms Mode A and Mode B. With Mode A being more of your traditional teacher centred approaches and Mode B incorporating more of the progressive student-centred approaches.

If you’re new to this debate (like I was only a few months ago) they can be summarised as follows:

Progressive: Student Centred: experiential learning, group work, the guide on the side, discovery/enquiry, 21st-Century skills.

Traditional: Teacher-Centred: expert knowledge delivered by the teacher, direct instruction, the sage on the stage, rigour and challenge, probing questions.

In The Teaching Delusion Bruce Robertson advocates for an 80/20 split for Mode A/Mode B teaching. Agreeing with what Tom Sherrington outlines in The Learning Rainforest. Both of these books should go straight to the top of your wish list. Given this, I would agree with the split and feel that the more we know about cognitive science and how the brain works the more a traditional approach comes to the fore.

A good education, however, must include Mode B pedagogy. This is where i build my bridges and hop on my boat. I often employ flipped learning strategies, encourage debate and I am (far too) often found to be going off piste with the enacted curriculum.

The progressive-traditional debate is just one area of the minefield that is education. The curriculum is a debate that could rage for hours but with everything it is important that we give an appreciative nod to those on the opposite side of the river and built our bridges and boats to get downstream ever quicker to the hinterland of a truly word class education system. We can get there.

Why demanding excellence is the change we need in our lessons⤴

from @ Becoming Educated

I’m beginning to be heavily influenced by the writings of both Ron Berger and more prominently Tom Sherrington. To say i’ve spent a few hours trawling through Toms blog is a bit of an understatement. After reading The Learning Rainforest I have immersed myself in blogs, books and articles to help me better understand great teaching, curriculum and assessment. I want to be an expert teacher with a thorough knowledge of education and I believe all teachers should be chasing this idea of excellence. As Dylan Wiliam says:

“Every teacher needs to improve not because they are not good enough, but because they can be even better”

However, this shouldn’t only apply for the teachers. Teachers should be demanding excellence for all of the young people in their care. This shouldn’t be something some teachers do, all children are entitled to the very best education and as Mark McCourt says in his talks which I also believe is that “all children can learn well”.

So what makes the difference and really moves the needle for young people. For this I have discovered Ron Berger, through my trawling of teacherhead.com I came across a wonderful post about a video where Ron Berger is speaking with fourth graders and kindergarteners about one of his first grade pupils, Austin. Austin wanted to draw a butterfly. His initial butterfly represented clearly a butterfly but it was not great and far from excellent. Most of us would be happy with this because he is only in first grade. However, Ron Berger demanded excellence. Through careful critique and the mantra of ‘think like a scientist’, Austin went off again to redraft his butterfly with a more scientific approach to drawing a butterfly. Then again after more critique and feedback Austin would go back and redraft a further 4 times until he arrived at his final excellent interpretation of a Tiger Swallow Tail Butterfly (Austin would only be 6 or 7). It’s worth watching the video to get a flavour of the kind and specific critique being aimed at younger learners.

Austin’s Butterfly Critique

To me this is a wonderful example of peer critique and verbal feedback. It also shows exactly what young people are capable of if given the right conditions to excel in.

For me as a physical education teacher I rely heavily on what we call model performers. In sport it is often easy to simply watch a golf swing and then go and replicate it, but what makes it a true learning process is the feedback that we get from ourselves but more importantly from a parent, teacher, coach or peer. This is prominent in a PE department as teachers are skilled at knowing what a model performance looks like, sharing this verbally and physically and then critiquing young people attempts at the selected skill. The beauty of this is that it is a never ending process, for example you can always learn something new and there is often mantra’s ‘basketball never stops’.

In the classroom however we are often guilty of accepting substandard work. We present a task, offer up some success criteria and then mark the work produced by the students. Some would say that the first attempt at a task is what they can already do, what they can do after feedback is them improving on what they can do. Consider these questions. How often do you accept the work, offer up verbal feedback and then send them off to redraft? How often do you continue this process until the student has produced a third or fourth draft that is much much better than their initial effort? I bet you might think that there is no time available in an overcrowded curriculum and on a busy 5 period day to focus this much on an individual students work. We should be providing this level of focus and demanding this level of excellence though.

Ron Berger believes that every child should experience excellence in their schooling:

“After students have had a taste of excellence, they’re never quite satisfied with less; they’re always hungry”

I wonder what happened to Austin’s experience of school if this was his experience of learning in the first grade! Did he continue to be held to such high expectations, did he continue to be critiqued so well and did his teachers in high school afford him so much time to improve his work through several drafts. It is our job to challenge and extend the most able and in Austin’s case to not accept what they can already do.

What I would like to explore is that instead of highlighting the success criteria of what a successful piece of work should entail it may be better if I outline exactly what excellence looks like. Tom Sherrington in The Learning Rainforest articulates this idea beautifully:

“For any piece of work we should be setting out the most challenging success criteria we can conceive of for the task by referencing specific examples: in Year 8, an exceptional student should be able to produce work like THIS: (produce an actual example). It has the following features: (define the features).”

By composing our expectations like this it spells out to the students and exemplifies what we expect of them. By showing them excellence and outlining the key features of it they then have a reference point for their work and you as the teacher have a roadmap for clear, coherent feedback which will move the learning forward.

To help you identify what excellence looks like in your subject you only need to look at the work produced by previous students. As i mentioned in a previous post you should become a ‘historian of excellence’. By keeping the best work from past students you can inform future students. It should be a key component of departmental and inter-classroom discussions on what excellence looks like so that all teacher are clear on the depth and rigour expected in the written answers of students. It should also be common practice to highlight best practice, the ‘bright spots’ so that there is clarity of the standards expected.

We should be demanding excellence from our young people in every lesson. If Austin, in first grade, can be encouraged, through careful critique and verbal feedback, to produce work that may be considered beyond his capability. The so can each of the students you currently teach. As Tom Sherrington writes:

“Its should be a matter of basic credibility for any teacher that they stretch the most able in their lessons – there is no excuse not to”