On being predictable. 8 things you’re likely to see in my lessons and the 4 principles which underpin them. (part 3/4)

This post is part 3 in a series of four.

Part one can be found here: https://benjamindwhite.wordpress.com/2018/06/15/on-being-predictable-8-things-youre-likely-to-see-in-my-lessons-and-the-4-principles-which-underpin-them-part-1-6/

Part two can be found here:  https://benjamindwhite.wordpress.com/2018/06/21/on-being-predictable-8-things-youre-likely-to-see-in-my-lessons-and-the-4-principles-which-underpin-them-part-2-4/


5. Building more processing time into lessons:

I now tend to include a significant proportion of silent (or quiet) working in lessons. The thinking being that this is where individual thinking and processing is most likely to happen. I can’t prove yet that this is better for learning – but have a good proxy for measuring how commonly it occurs…

My register completion rate is much higher than ever! For years I was one of the worst in the school. Students weren’t running riot, they probably looked quite ‘engaged’ but I was too busy to stop and complete it. I actually occasionally found myself wondering how teachers could stop for this admin task in the midst of an engaging lesson.

Why? Students are more likely to remember what they think about. Engaging individually with useful tasks – and writing out their own responses – probably helps in this regard. Also, unless they actually knuckle down then students in my lessons might never leave the realm of ‘meta-work’ i.e. introducing and talking about the work which they will eventually have to do. On reflection this seems silly and likely to reinforce disadvantage as some students are less likely to do this actual work successfully away from the classroom environment. 

What next?

I initially tended to constantly circulate the class asking individual questions,  providing clarifications, picking up on questions/suggestions I noted when marking etc.

However whilst I still do this sometimes, it is entirely possible that the net effect of wittering my way around the class could have been to distract a large proportion of the class. It’s proving tough to stick to but I’m trying to do this less – answering queries when raised but otherwise staying out of it.

This goes against some of my earlier training (and my aforementioned character flaws!) but I’m trying to go with it for a while.  It’s a topic that occasionally pops up on edu-twitter – I found this article interesting LSE Silence in the Classroom is No Problem

6. Model effective study practices:

I am now more likely to provide critical but constructive feedback on pupil study techniques. Earlier in my career I would have been reluctant to pass judgment. I now feel I can draw on key principles to inform feedback.

For example time spent making notes look perfect is probably not as useful as time spent quickly reviewing and correcting responses to questions about the topic. I’m trying to encourage students to feel more comfortable with committing answers to paper which may not be 100% accurate – the act of writing may help with their thinking and as long as they immediately pick up on and correct errors this seems more helpful than simply transcribing the correct answer once from one place to another.

We have also been exploring how best to support successful revision – in Sociology I’ve attempted to make the process as systematic as possible. In the example below these are the core categories which students will need to be able to recall in order to access the different questions in a Crime and Deviance paper. We’ve been using some of these in class – completed initially from memory and then supplemented using notes or my own explanation. A number are now using these in their own revision slots.

Example (A-level Sociology AQA – Crime Topic)

Why this? Thinking hard is hard. Effective revision is hard and without prompting I find that students drift back to reviewing material primarily by re-reading. They are reluctant to spend long trying to recall key information. These grids encourage more effective strategies – and make them as accessible as possible for my students. The same goes for the quiz questions and answers in their notes packs. 

What next – I would like to work with my year 13 students to help them coach year 12s into effective study strategies. Potentially using this resource as a starting point: Carl Hendrick and Olivier Cavigioli How Should Students Revise

7. Using No More Marking comparative judgement engine with classes to review answers, check understanding, and share excellent responses.

This is the one bit of tech (bar my data projector) which I would say has made a big impact on what I do with my classes. At A-level I’ve been using the comparative marking tool to peer-review and improve timed essays.

I find it a great way to help students reflect directly on how to explain key course content, and to do so within the time and space limitations of exam style questions. Students seem to value the process – but find it challenging. I’ve carried out informal reviews with one or two small groups of pupils which suggest that it’s helping. However I’ll need to review this more systematically when I’ve been using it for a year.

Example: Using No More Marking to Comparatively Mark A Level Essays

Why this? For many of my assessments – it’s better and quicker than marking them by hand (and deep into the night). It’s proven invaluable towards end of this term – yr 13 classes have now written, reviewed, and improved answers to 3 different essays. In a way which I think adds value compared me marking them alone at home – and which takes a fraction of the time. I could probably have managed one of these three if tackling in traditional way. 

What next? I’ve been liaising with @ollie_lovell on exploring this further. As part of that process I made this video tutorial guideHe has raised some excellent questions about the process. I hope to return to these – and to explore the comment feature for essay judges later this year. 

 8. Reflection and rehearsal of my explanation.

As a result of the changes above I spend less time in lessons ‘delivering’ new information. Much of each lesson is reviewing and clarifying. However when I do explain new ideas I’m more aware of a need to carefully consider the media I use, the words, the number of witty asides etc.

I also now aim to explain everything at least three times. Generally this includes a quick intro towards the end of one lesson. Then in the next lesson the ‘main’ explanation itself. And thirdly a review in response to student answers to questions on in a third lesson(as outlined in practice 1 ).

Example – Over three iterations of the same lesson with each of my yr 12 classes I tried refine my explanation of Moscovici’s research process and findings. I’ve now shifted from reading the text and projecting a bullet-point summary of key points, to explaining it whilst revealing the relevant sections of this diagram. The latter method seemed to lead to better recall from students one week later.


Why this: Given that my job, is essentially about explaining things, it’s embarrassing how little I know about research relating to effective explanation! Somehow for a good proportion of my ten years I didn’t think about this – at least not systematically. This is probably partly to do with my own weaknesses and biases. It’s also likely a product of the things I focussed on when planning and talking about lessons. Activities and structure quickly came to the fore once I had a loose grasp of key ideas or content. I’m not sure that this was helpful. 

What next? Even dipping my toe into the world of dual-coding has highlighted the likely inadequacies of my text heavy  topic summaries. However as I now have the overviews loosely in place I’m hoping to refine and improve them using diagrams, images, and appappropriately placed labels over the next year or so.  A conversation with Nick Rose prompted this thinking. His blog post here. And book with David Didau seem like a useful starting point for my improvement process.  

Overall, I’m happy with the turn my teaching has taken in the last year or two. However, I am becoming aware that over-reliance on one stripped down pedagogical model might become unhelpfully narrow in the long run. 

I’m not closed to the idea that some approaches might simply be ‘better’ than others.

However I am also cautious about concluding that any particular approach can have ‘cracked it’.

No doubt twenty years ago there were some thoughtful and dedicated (and somewhat geeky) teachers who thought that the approaches I’ve moved away from were the best way to teach.

I can’t help but think that in twenty years time people will be ‘discovering’ the limitations of the practice thare quickly becoming my established teaching habits.

I’m fascinated by Robert Kegan’s model for human development and his suggestion that

Only a proportion of adults reach a stage whereby take ownership of authoring their own beliefs and values – critically analysing those beliefs  and practices which they may have inherited. 

And that an even smaller proportion of adults are able to maintain enough separation from this framework to avoid becoming fixed within it.

In part four I’ll be exploring the above in a little more depth.



Do you grade individual essay questions? Do you teach some students up to a grade other than A*? Here’s why you might want to think about stopping….

Spoiler: It probably doesn’t work in terms of  our marking accuracy; our ability to pick the ‘right’ students to teach to each grade;  and the various routes students take across individual questions on each paper to reach their overall grade.

I’ll be arguing that

  1. This level of precision is misleading – we can’t mark to that level of accuracy.
  2. It reinforces the idea of there being A grade, B grade and C grade kids.
  3. Most students get to the higher grades by being consistently solid rather than having a special kind of A* (A or B grade) magic or star dust.
  4. It is appealing to think that we can bottle up the A* skill (or any grade) and teach it quickly to students – however at least in my two subjects, beyond some fairly basic issues of essay structure the key to gaining an A* is knowing most of the course really quite well. This is not instantly deliverable via an intervention or revision session but needs to be chipped away at over the length of the course – in lessons, and (crucially) by regular review on the part of the students.

But before we get to that there are two background issues to highlight:

Firstly, it’s worth pointing out that our marking is not likely to be all that reliable. What I think is a ‘B grade’ may well prove not to be what another trained marker thinks constitutes a ‘B grade’. This research for example shows remarkable variation between trained examiners – on the same exam paper – we would expect it to be greater with untrained (at least for that question) examiner marking a range of different essay questions. If trained examiners often don’t agree (almost 1/3 didn’t for Sociology below) on the whole grade then it’s fairly safe to assume that individual essay questions will be similarly problematic. This is before getting into the variability of grade boundaries between papers and year on year. For more info on reliability issues and marking using descriptors this piece from Daisy Christodoulou might be a useful starting pointSlide29

Secondly, the idea that we as teachers actually know who the A, B and C grade students are is not particularly reliable. Even grade predictions made at the last minute (just prior to an exam being sat) may only be correct for 2/3 of pupils – at best. Therefore the idea that we can identify who to teach up to an A,B or C two years or so out from the exam would also have to be questioned.  For a few months I’ve been running a grade predictions challenge with @danboorman – based on real results and assessment data from last year. After 1000 entries I can reveal that the average success rate is 4/14. Feel free to have a go using this link. Slide2


However – the above factors are not actually my main issue here. What concerns me is the meme that we can take a topic and teach kids up to a ‘B grade’ say. Or any grade really by ensuring that on individual practice questions they hit the required overall paper percentage for the grade in question. In Psychology (and Sociology) at least, this is simply not true.

In fact if we could teach up to what we consider an A/B or C grade it’s likely that out students will gain lower final grades on the grounds that they won’t remember 100% of what we’ve taught them.

I.e. If it was possible to teach someone up to 70% on a topic then actually we’d be capping them at an A rather than teaching to an A. Most likely they would not manage this on everything and so are likely to drop a grade or two.

I’ve pasted below two sets of results – one comes from a ‘bumper year’ where grades were higher than I had hoped for. The other came from whatever the opposite to a bumper year. In both examples the same point seems to hold. Students generally reach their overall grades by gaining a range of different ‘grades’ for individual questions. The greater the variation the lower the grade.

Example one:  Psychology paper. 

The ‘essay’ questions are the columns highlighted in yellow. I’ve converted the raw marks to percentages so you can compare each more easily.  Red questions are relatively low marks, green are relatively high.

They are sorted from low to high grade for that paper.

The number heading each column are the total marks available for each question.

You’ll see that even the students who gained A* grades ‘bombed’ out on an essay (or two). Equally those gaining A*-B tend to be consistent across most questions . Scoring highly in particular on the short questions which tend to focus more directly on specific aspects of subject knowledge.

pscyhology data.jpg

Example two Sociology (SCLY4) paper

The same rules are applied to the Sociology marks below.

The students who gained a C grade in SCLY4 in 2016 all wrote at least one answer of ‘B grade’ or higher. None of those who peaked at a C grade answer actually gained a C grade overall.

Most the students who gained an A* in both papers wrote one or two answers which scored relatively lowly – however they tended to be more consistent than their peers who may have matched them on some individual questions.

Sociology data


How do you ‘teach to an A*’? Primarily it seems to be a case of making sure that students know most of the course really quite well. No magic to it really. This sort of challenge is one which needs breaking down over a long time – two years say?

As a result of this sort of analysis I’m shifting emphasis to include more time on key knowledge drills and subject knowledge checks and less time in finessing the finer points of essay writing.

Clearly I’m trying to generalise from my own experience and teaching habit.  Historically this has involved focussing too much on essay technique and exam skills where, on reflection I could have helped students more by focussing first on teaching them well and checking that they knew the ideas which my essay structures/acronyms and tips only alluded to.

There is of course still a place for helping students structure and apply their understanding to exam style questions. It’s just (in my view) a smaller space than I would once have thought.

Would be interested to hear your thoughts.

On being predictable. 8 things you’re likely to see in my lessons and the 4 principles which underpin them. (Part 2/4)

This post is the second of a 4 part piece. Part 1 can be found here.

On being predictable. 8 things you’ll see in most of my lessons and the 4 principles which underpin them. (Part 1/4)

It sets out my starting point as a teacher, the 4 principles which have filtered through into my pedagogy and unpacks a range of ways in which I now use testing at the start of most of my lessons.

On to thing number 2 then…..

2. I’ve largely abandoned homework but expect students to study usefully between lessons 

no more homework

It has been replaced with study tasks linked to specific questions. Students often complete notes/summaries/revision cards for homework but in the main the thing I check is whether they’ve learnt anything by doing it – through tests at the start of lessons (see above). I do check the process fairly regularly (more so early in the course) but generally assume that if questions are answered well then students are doing useful things. If they’re not then I will have a conversation about why this might be.

There are often one or two pupils who have not prepared and therefore can’t answer any (or many) of the opening questions. I tend to speak with them individually during the test itself if possible – sometimes they need challenging, sometimes there’s a plausible reason. Either way they are expected to prepare more fully for the next lesson. I try to remember to check in with them during the next test – though often find they call my attention to how well they are doing (compared to last time!)

Why? I think that homework which requires new learning could reinforce gaps as some students, with limited vocabularies and life experience, will struggle to access it.  Also I have a number of students at my place who complete all homework tasks, beautifully, diligently but unsuccessfully . They work incredibly hard but not all that successfully – I want to identify and help these students from the off. Ben Newmark’s blog on abandoning starters also helped me along this course. 

What next? I’m still working on ways of doing the following with this lesson slot:

  1. Acknowledging hard work – Praising those who make steady improvements in test scores in particular – asking them what they did to learn the info so well.
  2. Ranking tasks for tracking – Nothing onerous but sometimes I’ll collect in the test answers and very quickly rank them (sort them in order of quality). I don’t tell the students their place but over time these relative positions give a good picture of how they’re doing. My mark book colour codes their rank – lots of ‘green’ boxes suggests they’re doing really well. Lots of red/amber boxes suggests something is up. The second student below for example appears to be struggling – either with the content or with completing the tasks which help him/her to learn it. Follow up is clearly needed!  markbook example
  3. Using individual conversations to praise and/or call out behaviours. I think this helps encourage good practice – a number of students who had a red or two now ask me to check they’re test answers i.e. notice that they’re doing well. I am aiming to normalise the idea that success is linked to the long term effect of carrying out useful actions between lessons. 

3. Reading together

I rarely read aloud to pupils for the first few years of my teaching. I was vaguely uneasy with using texts (and textbooks) within lessons. I frowned upon it as dull, passive and uncreative. More recently I’ve become convinced of a need to include reading of core course material in lessons. The alternative – asking students to read alone, at home – now seems to me to be a sure-fire way of compounding disadvantage.

These texts (notes I’ve prepared myself or textbooks etc) probably do a better job of explaining key ideas than my off-the-cuff explanations and answers. When we read together I can sometimes pick up on words or phrases which students don’t understand. Also students have a concrete place to check key information – rather than relying on memory or their own notes.

Whilst reading is now a key element of my lessons – I’m still flitting between reading aloud myself, and asking pupils to do so.

Our school pupil focus group suggested it’s better to ask pupils to read – as it encourages engagement.  They compiled the following advice  They mentioned that they had a lot of textbook lessons and that some were more helpful than others. I set them the task of compiling a list of ‘what makes a good textbook lesson’ and they came up with the following:good textbook lessonHowever the pupils who wrote this advice are fairly literate and reasonably confident in their own reading. I’m not sure if this view would be echoed by their peers – or, more importantly, whether fear of being asked to read could actually distract from following along for some pupils.

Furthermore when I read I (generally!) understand what I’m reading and can pause to define words, check if it’s being followed with questions etc.

Why? There seems to be a link between reading aloud and long term learning. Leaving students to read alone is risky. It seems that if they understand less than 95% of the words in a text, for example, they are unlikely to be able to access it

What next? I don’t know nearly enough about this aspect of teaching and learning at present. Have started on Dan Willingham’s The Reading Mindhave ordered Alex Quigley’s Closing the Vocabulary Gap and have just come across this piece by Tom Sherrington Building Word Confidence

4. Overhaul of notes provided to pupils.

Currently I’m working on having four layers of material readily available for each unit of work. It’s early days but have included a rough first version below.

A. Clearly formatted notes which explain the course. Ideally they should include the ideas and content required to succeed in my subject (Psychology). In reality they can get close to this (for most pupils) however…

  • There will always be additional ideas/answers/facts which could help improve pupil understanding. These need not be seen as a threat to my notes ‘canon’ if they prove particularly useful they can be incorporated into them. If interesting but not necessary then when mentioned I try to clearly flag them as such.
  • The notes assume a certain level of literacy and understanding which not all pupils always have. This is where reading/reviewing in class can throw up surprising barriers to understanding – i.e the ‘level two’ type language which is the norm in some households but absent in others

B. Knowledge organisers. I’ve been working on visual representations of topics to help students see how ideas link together (and relate to other aspects of the course). Currently I’m thinking about whether to pare down as they’re quite wordy, or to combine them with the short factual questions tier.

C. Short factual questions relating to the above. With answer page. This is the content which students first need to focus on learning – before attempting the more elaborate/broader exam style questions. These are the same questions which I use to start my lessons. core content questions for Approaches

We use Approaches roulette to start each of our lessons. We’ll start in September with a longer test/quiz which picks out thirty of them at random. I’m hoping this will encourage them to put useful groundwork in learning the key ideas during the Summer.

D.Exam questions – with answers/mark schemes relating to the topic. These are useful lesson and revision resources. Though often pupils benefit first from the narrower focus on learning key ideas which they can use tier two questions to complete.

Why? I used to leave a lot of note-taking to students. Whilst I still set writing tasks I don’t reply on them to produce revision worthy topic summaries. I find it hard enough and have been teaching these ideas for years. Asking students to revising using their own notes either requires me to dictate the notes to them (to avoid weaker students missing out) or will end up with the least capable and knowledgeable students working with the least adequate material. 

I see confusion produced due to badly organised or incomplete course materials as an ‘undesirable difficulty.’  It will need thought and effort on the part of students to resolve but will add little to their learning or understanding of the course. I would rather they invested their will-power and mental efforts on tasks with a high level of desirable difficulty – challenges which if completed will lead to greater learning. 

I’ve included a greater emphasis on drills because I largely agree with Daisy Christodlolou’s piece here – arguing that carefully designed tests on core content can help students to greater success with broader problems/questions later in a course (or beyond). For the audio-visual learners out there 🙂  the same point struck home throgh the medium video when Martin Griffin showed this video in training session I attended recently. In it Ben Larcombe learns to play table tennis to a high level in just an hour a day for a year. However he doesn’t play a full competitive game until very late on in his journey. Before this he works on a range of narrower drills. 

What next? I need to streamline and develop my notes to match this model – and ensure that I am explicit about how to access and use them throughout my lessons. Here is an Example of B,C and D (I don’t yet have permission to share the topic notes themselves – hopefully can add later). It needs paring down further but am hoping there’s enough there to work with and refine on the go. 

I’ve also become aware that identifying key questions and the answers to those questions is necessary but not always sufficient in relation to designing useful drills for students to work on. Without specific strategies/tasks to try out there’s a risk that ‘revision’ just becomes re-reading notes. I’m playing around with giving students drill sheets to try a few times between lessons (see example below). 


Thanks to those who’ve responded to part 1 – some really helpful suggestions and one or two other example resources (when I’ve got permission will share these too!)




On being predictable. 8 things you’ll see in most of my lessons and the 4 principles which underpin them. (Part 1/6)

I know what to expect in your lessons sir. They’re quite predictable’ Yr 12 Student. March 2018.

After ten years of teaching I’ve reached a point where a student can say this about my lessons AND I could construe it as a compliment!

In an earlier post I outlined a small-scale experiment with my own classes – and how it sparked changes to my teaching. I’m now going to describe those changes. I will identify four principles which underpin my teaching and 8 practices which are informed by them.

In the last couple of years in particular my teaching has changed quite significantly. I also enjoy it now more than I have for a long time, I feel like I’ve got a lot of improving to do – but that  at least now I’m more directly focussed on making useful changes to my  practice. I also think that teaching in this way is sustainable – as @MarkEsner argues in this piece

What was I told?

When I trained I was taught about the importance of snappy starters. They needed to be engaging and fun – and didn’t necessarily need to be anything to do with the subject. Thunks for example, warmed up pupils’ brains. This was bad advice. Especially for me being something of an idea gannet.  I love unusual notions, interesting asides and anecdotes.

I’d like to think that I did make improvements early on as I learned more about my subject, about students, and about the day-to-day practicalities of teaching. However I also developed habits which seemed sensible to me – but which were never really tested or critiqued. Some are probably ok. Some are probably not.

More importantly – I was taught to be critical and to reflect on my own practice . On reflection this was probably the most useful ‘take-away’ from the course. I was (partly) able to both think about my next lesson and try and make it as good as I could whilst accepting that most likely, in a few years time I would look back on my early efforts as blunt and (relatively) ineffective.

What went without saying?

I knew that learning needed to be engaging. I knew that verbal, whole class questioning was a great route to deep thinking.  I also knew that thinking skills could be taught – so time puzzling over tricky questions would help student get better at similar-shaped questions in other parts of the course. I accepted that learning really needed to be active and that outstanding lessons had a palpable buzz.

Furthermore,  I am a little vain and enjoy making people laugh. Deep down I aspire to be seen as a sagacious comic.  Not all bad perhaps. But also not entirely good – laughter and bewilderment in spades confirm (to me at least) my status as an erudite stand-up -but might not be quite what my novice students most need.

The above (truisms and character) probably influenced my teaching more than any four part lesson plan. Furthermore they very much went with the prevailing winds at the time – my observed lessons were generally graded outstanding. There was a palpable buzz in the room. However, these ‘outstanding’ lessons were draining and impossible to repeat daily let alone 4 or 5 times a day.

I’ve been interested in evidence-based practice for the past four or five years. However, would have to say that only recently has this led to changes to my established habits.

I recently listened to Dan Willingham’s excellent talk at ResearchED Ontario . One idea which struck me is the need for teachers to have a broad understanding of current broadly supported evidence regarding learning process.

The principles which previously informed my teaching were not explicit; they were skewed by speculation about what outsiders would like to see; and to be brutally honest, were based on an assumption that I needed to come up with creative ways of tricking students into learning the stuff.

Four Principles which inform my teaching

Four ideas have slowly filtered through to change the way I teach. Apologies for how obvious they may seem.

I am aware of the contingent nature of these principles – no doubt over time they will evolve as the research base continues to develop. As far as I understand it Willingham argues that, as a teacher, I don’t really need to know about the contested edges of cognitive science – in fact this aspect of research is probably best left to the researchers. However I can draw on the following three broad principles which are pretty well established in cognitive psychology.

  1. Learning is about knowing specific things. Unless a student knows these things then they will be unable to do the ‘fancy’ stuff – evaluate/analyse/contrast etc.
  2. Testing –and regularly recalling or thinking about ideas which I once knew or understood – can improve learning. Not thinking about ideas which we have heard or even used just once is a sure fire way of forgetting them.
  3. Thinking hard is hard. Where possible we try to avoid it.
  4. The gap between what the teacher thinks they are doing and how pupils interpret and experience the same thing is often larger than expected.

The first three ideas are informed by my reading of research and research summaries. The fourth is not really a ‘principle’ but it is  something I’ve found fairly consistently with my own teaching – and I want to keep reminding myself to be open to refining and changing my practice more frequently.

Deliberately making principled changes to my practice feels more professional than following ‘what Ofsted want’; my own assumptions about good teaching; or my own tendency to seek validation of my sagacity!

8 Strategies I regularly use in lessons

The following were not a common feature of my lessons for 10 years. They are now. I think they make me a better teacher – but am also aware I’ll need to refine them further over time. I’ll  outline each – with an example where possible – and will then flag up why I’ve started using it and what I want to improve on or develop. I’m going to unpack them over a series of 6 posts. Partly because three people have suggested that I do it – so it may prove helpful to others. Mainly because writing, helps me to clarify what I think – and refine what I actually do.


1.‘Testing’ in every lesson.

(Almost) every lesson starts with a review of information from the previous lesson. This at first was always the ‘purple pen challenge’ or variants of it – however over time I’ve started to include other variations. It took a while to get students on board. However I’m delighted to say that my most reluctant pupil now refers to them, albeit slightly tongue in cheek, no longer as ‘tests’ but as ‘low stakes quizzes’. Which is what they are. Also if, students are every early (or heaven forbid – me a little late) they’ll sit down and get straight down to reviewing the previous lesson’s work in prep for said questions.

Purple pen challenge: Five minutes or so recalling key themes/messages/facts from memory (using a purple pen). Five minutes adding missing content from original notes/summary (using a different coloured pen). Sometimes this is prompted with questions/boxes. Sometimes this is entirely from memory with just the topic as a prompt.

Short questions: Sometimes I’ll finish a lesson pointing out the specific short questions which we’ll start the next lesson answering. I currently oscillate between setting all these questions in the next lesson and giving students a longer list from which I will then select a handful.

Google forms (in quiz mode):  Multiple choice and short answer questions can be set-up to self-mark. Open text answers also work really well because whilst you can view answers from each student the default setting shows all answers WITHOUT names so great for quick feedback and critical discussions without naming and shaming the author.

Example: Multiple choice and short answer quiz  Google’s guide to writing a quiz: video tutorial


Knowledge organisers: I’ve tried to reduce topics to single page summaries – we review/learn the content in one lesson and students attempt to fill them in from memory in the next.

This is an A-level  unit (1 of 8). Each section also has its own single page overview which goes into a little more detail.


Envelope challenge: For much of the year we’ve had an envelope challenge lesson once a fortnight with my year 13 Psychology classes. We take time out of learning new ‘year 13’ material to review topics first studied in year 12. There are two A3 envelopes linked to each topic in a large box. Once a fortnight, a student gets to pick an envelope at random. It includes short questions/exam questions or a blank knowledge organiser etc from said topic. Students spend twenty minutes working on it from memory then twenty minutes updating/marking (mark schemes or relevant notes are also included in the envelope. The last thing we do is decide on a useful further revision task

  1. Reviewing and/or repeating process if it was pretty weak.
  2. Taking content and applying to an exam question if they feel ready.
  3. Moving on to another topic if this one has gone really well.

The benefit here is all students had actually reviewed most of the year 12 course at least once by February. Most had then carried out follow up work relating to the envelope challenge after the lesson.

Why?  I think that consistently starting with a check of previous learning will help reinforce (testing effect); will encourage useful study habits; and keeps me honest – we can’t rush on if students can’t get these questions right.

What next? I also want to be more systematic in including some questions from previous lesson and a handful from anywhere in the course so far. I hope to develop a Psychology version of @adamboxer1’s spreadsheet to make this more systematic next year…. https://achemicalorthodoxy.wordpress.com/2017/05/04/the-retrieval-roulette/  Since writing this post I’ve set up a trial of this for a module I’m teaching year 12 this term. Will be interesting to see how it pans out .I am also considering being more radical and shifting lessons around to harness the same effect using @danboorman’s spreasheet lesson plan generator. 





On Assemblies, Losing My Religion, CPD, Crowd Psychology, the Importance of Biscuits and the Latent Benefits of @ResearchEd Attendance.

By Yosarian – Own work, CC BY 3.0

What if attempts to change behaviour based on pushing out rational and well-evidenced ideas were likely to fail precisely because they overlook the awkward fact that people’s behaviour, in the main, is neither highly rational nor evidence-based?

I sat down to think more about this, was distracted by a ‘Life Scientific’ on crowd psychology, and wrote something far more personal and philosophical than I had planned. Would be interested to hear what you think about it.

Today I have been listening to an interview with Stephen Reicher on BBC’s ‘The Life Scientific’. He acknowledged the well documented negative aspects of group psychology – mob mentality, riots, racism etc. However he also pointed out that crowds can produce positive and uplifting experiences.

For example, at the Magh Mela in northern India, where up to 100 million people gather for a whole month in living conditions which leave a lot to be desired as regards sanitation and extreme over-crowding. Such conditions normally have negative implications for mental and physical health. However, in this instance, Rechier’s research suggests a positive effect. It seems that over the month, participants’ mental well-being increases and (according to self-reports) even physical health improves.

The mechanism driving this, he argues, is a shared and positive sense of group identity. It leads participants to see others as those who will help and support them. What’s more this group effect appears to endure into every-day life, leading to an increased sense of mastery, decreases in stress and improvements to well-being.

It seems that there can be health benefits to attending large social gatherings.

I think I sort of knew this already. Until I was 24, I regularly attended church where I  often experienced this positive aspect of group psychology. Group singing; sharing stories; re-considering my values and purpose and behaviours in relation to these – all quite positive things to do in themselves – and I would say they were enhanced by occurring within a supportive group of like-minded people.

However, I bid my last goodbyes to the idea of God and the clarity of purpose, community and direction which he had brought me in 2006. Dramatically. In an actual monologue. In a dimly lit chapel. At night. Alone. Just before I was due to graduate with my degree in Theology (and diploma in Christian ministry) from London Bible College. Channelling a level of melodrama normally well beyond me I distinctly remember finishing my speech whilst facing the dimly lit cross at the front of the church. I then turned away and walked out– pausing to turn off the lights as I left.

This was an awkward development. It put paid to my plans to teach in a seminary and become an inspirational spiritual writer (!)  I became an RE teacher instead. To personalise the old adage – ‘Those theology graduates who can believe do become ministers, those who can’t…..

A couple of years ago I attended an evening church service in an evangelical church run by a family member in Toronto. The congregation were singing a song which included the refrain ‘there must me more than this…’

Once, I would have been likely to dismiss such shared expression as misguided and irrelevant – based upon beliefs which I no longer held. However, this time I felt nostalgic, possibly even jealous. These people were able to take time out of their lives once a week to share their stories in relation to an overarching and positive narrative. They were able to affirm to each other that however things are now, they can and will be better in the end. This process, at its best, probably affected their own sense of identity – they could find individual value and worth in their place in this grand story. Potentially (if Reicher is onto something) it also affected their attitudes and behaviour towards each other.

These days, I feel fairly removed from the grief I experienced when I  I ‘lost my faith.’ I’m  trying to look back at my Christian experiences more objectively. Whilst the crux (!) of it has gone, there are plenty of lessons and wisdom which have stuck with me.  For example I think that I took on board some of the core principles of successful gatherings designed to impact upon people’s behaviours. To this day, I’m particularly sensitive to a lack of biscuits and meaning in school meetings!

It’s important to me that, in the main, people leave a ‘session’ feeling better than they did when they came in. Music, humour and refreshments can all help with this. However, I think that the crucial ingredient is a clear and hopeful iteration of a meaningful shared goal or belief.

I suspect that there are too many meetings, assemblies and interventions in which the opposite is the case.

Clearly there’s a fine line between authenticity and manipulation. However I would argue that encouraging people to collectively aspire to something valuable but just out of reach can be motivating and encouraging. When it comes to group gatherings I would suggest that we, in schools, might have something to learn from the Christian tradition.

I understand that perhaps education, in the main, is about instructing people in specific stuff. It’s probably not primarily about how we make people feel. But that is not to say that how we make people feel is not important – or that it can be overlooked once we find the evidence-based shortcut to successful learning.

Particularly in relation to the more formal meetings we have with staff, and with pupils that are ostensibly there to actually change/improve their behaviours – how we make people feel is surely worth thinking about.


What stories, experiences, and language questions can we share that provoke positive collective responses? How can we encourage a positive and aspirational  group identity?

I think these two recent examples illustrate why this issue…

  1. I’ve just heard from a colleague who was subjected to an in school CPD day recently. In it teachers were warned of the dangers of giving negative feedback about the school to Ofsted (it ruins careers apparently). They were given a list of things which must be done in order to be fully prepared for an impending inspection. This did not engender a meaningful sense of group identity in which educational professionals united to tackle the significant disadvantage which many of their pupils face. Instead it pissed her and her colleagues off. It reinforced and us (teachers) and them (SLT) mentality. As such it is unlikely to have a positive impact upon the long term well-being of the staff. Also there were no biscuits. Or tea. Nothing by way of refreshment you might say – physically or existentially.
  1. I’ve been lucky enough to participate in a few ResearchED events over the past couple of years. I’ve always enjoyed the collegiate atmosphere and the ease with which teachers from around the country slip into friendly and often earnestly pedagogical discussion. Voluntarily. On a Saturday. They also generally have a good selection of biscuits. It was only in listening to Stephen Reicher on crowd psychology that I made the link between these events, the church services of my youth, and the health benefits of the Magh Mela.

In The Moral Limits of Markets, Michael Sandel makes a  case for caution when it comes to allowing public life to be marketised (and rationalised and quantified). I think he has a point. I’m largely on board with the idea that education can be improved by rationally applying the implications of educational research, that a more analytical approach to our practice can generally be a good thing. However, from time to time it’s worth taking a more holistic look at things. People’s emotional/existential/spiritual/non-rational sides are important and I’m not sure we always think deeply enough about how they relate to the highly rationalised solutions, messages, and advice which many earnest (and often well-meaning) experts and leaders are so keen to share.

What if attempts to change behaviour based on pushing out rational and well-evidenced ideas were likely to fail precisely because they overlook the awkward fact that people’s behaviour, in the main, is neither highly rational nor evidence-based?

In Switch, Chip and Dan Heath argue that behavioural change is not often a case of ANALYSE-THINK-CHANGE but SEE-FEEL-CHANGE. Change is likely to occur when…

‘You’re presented with evidence that makes you feel something. It might be a disturbing look at the problem, or a hopeful glimpse of the solution, or a sobering reflection of your current habits, it’s something that hits you at the emotional level.’ (Switch, by Chip & Dan Heath)

I wonder whether it is in collaboration with others that this process is more likely to kick in.  Perhaps it is in supportive groups of like-minded people that ‘hopeful glimpses’ or ‘sobering reflections’ or even being ‘hit at an emotional level’ are all more likely to happen.

Whether it’s the vestiges of my Christianity, a valid insight, a combination of both, or neither, I’m not sure. However, I have a vague sense of unease with structured encounters with staff (and students) which ignore this aspect of our humanity in their zeal for encouraging efficiency and rationalised improvement.

Teaching social psychology this year, I have come across a large body of research showing the range of non-rational factors which appear to affect human behaviour. Social factors are well-established as having a significant effect – however it also seems that people are unlikely to see this when explaining their own actions.

For example Nolan (2008) found that the best predictor for energy conserving behaviour were people’s beliefs about the conservation behaviour of others.   Generally speaking participants did not acknowledge this when explaining why they behaved as they did. This blind spot could explain the limited impact of our attempts to share ‘evidence-based-practice’. I might think that I’m simply following the evidence when I try to implement it in my classroom practice. However, I’m probably more heavily influenced than I realise by my experiences (and the ‘social norms’) of the communities which I regularly spend time in – this would include physical events, close working relationships but also my own little social media edu-bubble. Over time I’ve developed a network of friends and fellow research enthusiasts for whom evidence-informed teaching (or attempts at realising it) are normal.

Take my involvement in CEBE for example. As it happens, the real reasons I’m voluntarily collaborating with others in the field of evidence-based school improvement probably include the way that such engagement provides a vision of education which is more meaningful and significant than that which I encounter elsewhere. I like being part of this group, the positive impact it has on my self-identity and the sense of collegiality and aspiration for authentic improvement which it brings.

Ironically then, if I want to bring others in too – then rational arguments alone probably won’t cut it!

Biscuit anyone?


What makes a good textbook lesson?

good textbook lesson
Advice from a year ten pupil in our student research group

In a recent student focus group session it emerged that our year nine and ten pupils felt that they are experiencing more ‘text-book’ lessons than they used to.


This is neither surprising nor inherently worrying. New GCSE courses include a greater focus on specific content and textbooks can provide a clear and carefully produced explanation of the course.

Also, as the alternatives are essentially…

  • Having teachers essentially write their own – workload and quality implications obviously apply.
  • Expecting students to do it themselves – if trained subject specialists struggle why on earth should we expect novices to do so?

Textbooks can be great.

However, it was also not surprising to hear that they thought textbook lessons could be done well or badly. Teachers in our school are using them in a wide variety of ways. Some – according to our voices on the ground – worked much better than others.

Our focus group were on board with the idea that texbooks can be useful, but also mentioned ways/occasions in which they were not used well in lessons.

Currently I’m enjoying reading ‘The Reading Mind’ and @HuntingEnglish writing in this broad area. However I have to admit that despite picking up a few useful principles I’m not quite yet in a place where I have a clearly honed textbook use checklist or set-piece. I’m also not sure that this is something that we have looked at systematically as teachers in my school as yet.

So I asked three student members of our research group to spend a couple of weeks thinking about ‘What makes a good textbook lesson.’

This is their advice. I’m not saying that it’s something for blanket implementation. However, in their considered (and locally experienced) view. These steps are invaluable in making the most of a textbook.

At the very least it would be a good place to start discussion in departments which use them.

What interests me most is that

  • None of this is ‘rocket science’ – it broadly reflects solid advice about textbooks which one might find in edu-twitter or if you applied principles in some of Willingham’s work.
  • It is coming from pupils in my classroom. They do have a type of expertise from direct experience which we teachers and external experts never will.

Clearly there is not always alignment between what students like/approve of and what is good for them – what with learning being ‘thinking hard’ and all that.  However, I do think that we should explore ways of gathering this sort of info more systematically. Alongside the external evidence base, and our own expertise, surely it makes sense to include carefully framed input from students themselves?

The author (happy for this to be share but did ask to remain anonymous) is able to justify each step in relation to how it helps her learning. I think it’s very sophisticated and logical advice – a useful checklist perhaps against which to compare my own current practice.

A Good textbook lesson:

  • Teacher outlines the topic we’ll be looking at in the lesson and briefly references other topics it links to or important things we need to understand to give us some background and a focus point to begin with

  • Class take it in turns to read the textbook out loud

  • Teacher may add on to information as we are reading or describe specific examples

  • Teacher puts up questions relevant to the information but NOT the same as the textbook headings to actually make you look for and filter through information

  • Go through the answers as a class to allow you to add anything you missed

  • Teacher will elaborate on any concepts the class is struggling with or the textbook skims over in their own words to allow you to add to your notes and will reiterate the important aspects of what we just learnt and what we should get from the lesson

Evidence-based practice vs teacher professionalism? In theory they’re not mutually exclusive. In practice they often are.

TES story

EEF response….


I agree that the was issue unfairly polarised in the original TES article. Perhaps subtlety was sacrificed for a more dramatic headline.  However I do think there is something in the idea that evidence-based strategies can create the impression that teachers deliver material in a manner which overlooks some of the complexities of the role. This can, in turn, have negative implications for teacher professionalism and autonomy.

Mel Ainscow stated that ‘“It’s leading, I’m afraid, to a situation where teachers are increasingly seen as people who deliver something,

Implementing a programme or approach which was successful elsewhere doesn’t, necessarily, have to involve this problem. However, on reflection it’s easy to see how it easily can.

I think that this is because

  1. Successful teaching strategies/intervention probably ‘work’ because they are pulling a particular lever which encourages learning. There will be some underlying principle or cognitive rule which lies behind their success.
  2. We may not actually know, precisely, what this is.
  3. We tend to focus on proxies of successful delivery – i.e. is this teacher using the worksheet/structure/language/strategy which was shown to be successful in large-scale research.
  4. The presence of this proxy does not necessarily indicate that the original cognitive lever is being pulled.
  5. If we are not careful, when trying to implement at scale an emphasis on showing the proxy can discourage teachers from reflective/critical engagement with the act of teaching. It’s easy to see how Ainscow has reached his conclusion.

There are multiple examples of this unsuccessful attempts to replicate research success. AfL is a much stated example. Where it was reduced to observable proxies – lolly-pop sticks, no-hands up etc it was quite possible for teachers to ‘deliver’ these strategies unthinkingly and probably ineffectively. Meanwhile in a neighbouring classroom a teacher could be using a more idiosyncratic approach to teaching which did pull the cognitive lever which led to the success of these orginal strategies – presumably this includes creating a dynamic where all students think about and prepare answers to questions rather than merely those who are directly asked.

Another example comes from EEF themselves,  EEF Anglican Schools Partnership. 

Here staff were provided with information about effective feedback however implementation had no measurable impact. In some instances it seemed to be because teachers were not secure in their understanding of the principles underpinning effective feedback thus limiting their capacity to successfully use them,

I agree that evidence-based doesn’t have to reduce autonomy – the challenge is developing large scale evidence-based approaches which both ensure adherence to core principles without falling into the trap of focussing on compliance with easily measurable proxies – i.e. has a worksheet been used.

Done badly this can (and has) unhelpfully direct teachers towards unthinking delivery (e.g. the adverse findings in the EEF Anglican Schools Study). Done well it should encourage teachers to critically thinking about adapting core principles from research to improve their delivery. However, as yet this seems to me to be a rarer outcome than we would wish it to be.

However whilst clearly EEF have a large challenge to face in this area, a polemical presentation of their place in the debate is not all that helpful. As it happens the challenges around successful implementation are the focus of their recently published support for successful implementation…..


I don’t think that large-scale research evidence and teacher autonomy are mutually exclusive.

However, it’s easy to do ‘evidence-based’ by over-emphasising compliance to a particular activity/resource/strategy. I think this is what Mel Ainscow is particularly (and rightly) troubled by.  Such an approach does shut down thinking engagement on the part of teachers. This is a real problem – I’m sure we all can think of examples of seeing, or being subjected to such an approach.

It seems to me that lot’s of people are aware of the potential of evidence-based practice, and the pitfall outlined above. As yet, we haven’t quite consitently cracked how to avoid the pitfall whilst retaining the utility of evidence about what works.  Learning how to implement useful evidence is a far tougher challenge than it first appeared – but one well-worth working on.

After all, as Kevan often says – if we’re not basing what we do on the best available evidence. What are we using?