ResearchED Slides – Say it or Sign it?

Screen Shot 2018-09-23 at 12.32.51ResearchED National Conference (2018) and Scotland (2018) have been the best yet.  Both events contained some of the most stimulating discussions in Education.  It was a triumph to see teachers of all experiences debating and challenging the ways we can better our practice – that these events occur on a Saturday and are attended by teachers across the country is a testament to our dedication to get this right.

I was fortunate enough to speak at both on methods of Feedback under the title: Say it or Sign it? Is Verbal Feedback really better than Marking.  Attached below are the slides.

I am also excited to announce that I am currently in the process of writing a book for Routledge.  As a result, I will be blogging about this information minimally after my final talk on it at ResearchED Durham; it will be officially published in detail later next year.

Many thanks in advanced for the outstanding support from my favourite people in education (too many to list but you know who you are).  And a huge thanks to the educators and colleagues who supported this talk.  I hope the slides are useful.

Exciting times ahead.


Slides can be downloaded in pdf form by clicking the link below:

ResearchEd – Say it or Sign it pdf


Can We Teach Curiosity?

After reading Ian Leslie’s Curious (kindly recommended to me by @drdavidajames), I had a burning question:

Can we teach our students to be more curious?

It seems baffling to me that our current pupils have the widest access to knowledge that has ever existed at their fingertips – quite literally! – and yet some of my pupils still do not have the desire to extend their knowledge beyond what they conceived as ‘the minimum requirement for the course’.  At my most recent parent/teacher conference with my U6th (Year 13s), I even raised this with parents who agreed. So why do our students not desire to know more?

Curiosity is broadly defined as a strong desire to further knowledge about something. Interestingly, and as we have seen in classic pieces of literature such as Shelley’s Frankenstein, it is inherently part of our human behaviour. Leslie also alludes to this in his book by looking at aspects child psychology, whereby he comments that:

 ‘children ask a total of 40,000 ‘explanatory’ questions… ‘It shows that questioning is an incredibly important engine for cognitive development.’

However, it does seem that somewhere along the way our curiosity plateaus. According to google, this is a fact of the modern world. The current statistics for the use of the word has plummeted since the mid 19th century –

Screen Shot 2018-02-14 at 20.00.25

…the correlation of this with the ‘great progress of 19th century science’ is also something that Leslie and others have delved into further. I will not be exploring curiosity’s correlation with technology in this blog but if you desire to know more you can further read here, here and here. I simply want to explore if there is anything we can do about it as educators. To which I think: yes. Or, at very least, we can assist in steering our students closer to it.

The Value of Our Knowledge:

Embedding curiosity as professionals is not necessarily about being simply ‘inspiring.’ It is about developing an intellectual eagerness within our pupils. Therefore, our own desire to know all and more about our subjects is the first vital step for us.   It has been explored on numerous occasions that knowledge gives our students access to more complex levels of thinking. In this way, providing them with this enables them to be curious; it opens a door to curious thinking. As Chrisman, in his article Arousing Curiosity, so eloquently puts: knowledge is like a snowball.

It is this alongside another vital condition which we must pass on: the importance of knowing (Dillon).   However, this importance must be instilled as ‘internal’ and ‘intellectual’ not simply of ‘examination importance.’ The truth is, as educators, we understand the inherent value of ‘knowing’ and the intellectual fulfilment that one can gain by having knowledge – and having the desire to acquire it. This is an intrinsically motivated trait that we have somehow obtained, but it is one our students need to learn.

If we consistently teach ‘the importance of knowing for examination purposes,’ we may only ever drive extrinsically valued curiosity; it will not link or train our students in its intrinsic worth.

Therefore, teachers should:

  1. Know, and desire to know more.
  2. Assist our students in seeing the value of (1) beyond the exam.

But, of course, that (2) is not simple. And for those of us working in more challenging sectors of education with high-pressured results goals, (2) becomes laughably utopian.

So what can we do?

  1. Ask Good Questions

question 1

I actually find the wording of the A-Level and GCSE questions can limit curiosity. Despite being marked on an evaluative answer, the questions do not lend themselves to encouraging this approach – at least in English. For example, the A Level question is something like:

 Explore the presentation of power in Hamlet.

 Whilst this question is adequate enough for me, it certainly does not evoke curiosity, nor does it promote any evaluation. Before giving this curriculum question to my students, I have decided to ask good questions that will still guide them to answer this. I will reword it to the following:

 Who is the most powerful character in Hamlet and why?

What is the most powerful scene in the play and why?

What is the most powerful line in the play?

What theme is most powerful in driving the revenge tragedy?

What power does Religion have over Hamlet?

 These questions help make our students more active in their intellectual approach, whereas the initial question can encourage a passive exploration. Even still, I might pick a quotation about a character and force students to discuss it; again, promoting their ability to provide a discerning argument.

 ‘Claudius is the most powerful character in Hamlet. Even his eventual death is by choice’. Discuss.

 Or simply (as an amazing colleague of mine gave her class).

 What the hell is Hamlet’s problem?


2. Teach our Students the Value of Asking Good Questions

Leslie almost makes a key point about curiosity. He asserts:

‘According to Loewenstein, curiosity is a response to an information gap. We feel curious when there is a gap between what we know and what we want to know. … Information gaps come in the form of questions: What’s in the box? Why is that man crying?’

Or in the context of our classroom, having our students want to know: Why does Shakespeare choose to ‘Enter Gertrude’ here? Why do we still study this? What makes it timeless? A genuine (and frustrated) desire to discover more.


Moreover, Leslie also brings up a good point: there is social value in asking a good question. We can be at lectures or talks and observe another person asking an incredible question at the end. We actually become jealous or envious that they were able to ask that question as it provides us with the information from a gap we desired to be filled.

Therefore, it makes sense to get our students asking questions that they can immediately explore. Some strategies could include:

  1. Having students write down a question after a lesson and rank them on their intellectual/controversial quality. Choose the best one.  It could become a homework or a revision task for the next lesson. It is important that this question focuses on the information and knowledge learned rather than discovery learning. It should be a task to deepen knowledge.
    1. For example: 1) What was the best line in this act and why? 2) The stage directions add no value to this scene. Discuss
  2. Getting students to write quizzes. ‘Catching students out’ is something that other students like to do when it comes to quizzes. This also adds the social desire to know. If a student gets a question wrong, they are aware there is information that their peers know. It assists in closing the information gaps in your classroom.
  3. Having students consistently ask: Why would someone disagree with me on this? To me, this latter question is the one sometimes lacking in our students. They are so fixated on finding ‘the right answer,’ they forget that there is always a debate that can be accessed. Have them explore the breadth of arguments available.  This is valuable in building their ability to actively and consistently evaluate.


  1. Let Them Play (ask even Better Questions)

In early childhood psychology, there is always a direct correlation between ‘playing’ and ‘being curious.’ At the earliest stages, this manifests itself in seeing unknown item or object and attempting to discover its purpose or use.

Educators did pick up on this a while ago, but transferred it into secondary education as: using play dough to make characters, or creating facebook profiles for literary characters. This was certainly a way to engage students and demonstrate that they had (some) knowledge, but it certainly would not spark curiosity for there is nothing they can actively seek or gain by completing this task. Moreover, it is a perfect example of when curiosity is not sparked because ‘inspiring’ is not coupled with ‘intellectual eagerness.’

So when I say Let Them Play, it is with knowledge. It means: ask more abstract, contemporary, and provocative questions that propel the student entirely out of the classroom context – yet require knowledge from the classroom to achieve. As we know, ‘goal setting’ develops intrinsic motivation so perhaps it is important that we move our students’ goal posts slightly away from the curriculum every now and then.

Such questions might include:

  1. Using your understanding of astrophysics, what are the inaccuracies of this Star Trek scene?
  2. In what ways could one argue that Wham’s Last Christmas is written about Hamlet?
  3. Was Huxley weird? (Use your understanding of Brave New World, and Huxley’s essays).
  4. Do Eddie Vedder’s lyrics on his soundtrack to Into the Wild effectively highlight passages of Krakauer’s text?
  5. Which Shakespearean character is closest to Donald Trump? (An ice-breaker used for Oxbridge interviews)
  6. Of all the texts we have studied, what is the most overrated and why?
  7. What is the most underrated myth?
  8. Does power corrupt?
  9. What role did chemists play in the war? Are they heroes or villains?
  10. Where is the line between illegal and legal drugs?

I decided to also start a document where teachers can compile their favourite tasks in this area. These tasks may also work well as homework and/or to stretch and challenge. Please add any to the document below:

Screen Shot 2018-02-16 at 11.11.22

Link: here

In summary, it does seem entirely possible that we can, at least, strengthen our pupils’ access to being curious. Teachers require two main attributes: 1) to have knowledge, and want to know more, and 2) to instil the importance of knowledge into pupils. But there are also things that we can be doing in the classroom.  We need to consistently ensure that we are altering or changing the way we ask questions so that we can promote an intrinsic desire for knowledge, and encourage pupils to develop a discerning voice.

The Value of Spontaneous Testing




In a recorded lecture by Aldous Huxley on ‘Knowledge and Understanding,’ he makes a clear distinction between the two words.  He asserts:

Knowledge is when we explain the ‘unknown’ in terms of the known. When we succeed in fitting a new experience into our system of concepts and ideas


 ‘Understanding is the direct and unmediated contact with reality as it experienced moment by moment.’

He continues that Knowledge is an awareness of the ‘old’ and it can almost always be communicated.  It is a set of notions and ideas which we have been fabricated to believe or conditioned to believe, as well as facts that have been previously confirmed to contain an agreed ‘truth.’  Therefore, knowledge also becomes something we can pass on when we use the correct words or symbols.  He furthers to assert that one can never interact with knowledge in the present. For example, even if I believe ‘right now I feel tired’ it is an assertion made through a retrospective and reflective awareness.

However, according to Huxley, Understanding is vastly different.  It relies largely on immediate and direct experience.  As a result, Huxley asserts that we ‘cannot pass on understanding.’  This is because understanding requires a certain level of improvisation; a moment to manipulate information and knowledge in a new, appropriate context.

Let’s give a simple example (one used about behaviour at last year’s Edfest).  When teaching a small child the word ‘thank you,’ you may expect them to use it every time you pass an item to them.  At this level, a small child may recognise that using the words ‘thank you’ will achieve their aim: to get an item from you.  However, the perplexity, generosity and meaning behind the word may not yet be communicated.  In a different context, they may be hesitant to repeat the word ‘thank you’ or understand why it is used – such as if a stranger was to hold the door open for them – or if used sarcastically when someone fails to do something.

Unfortunately, Knowledge and Understanding can sometimes be used synonymously. Indeed, Huxley recognises this and alerts us to the fact that:

The mistake of imagining that knowledge is understanding is terribly common.

Testing Knowledge then Understanding

To recognise Knowledge and Understanding as divergent (yet related) concepts is something I had admittedly never considered.   I am an unashamed advocate for teaching students knowledge, and the importance of the ‘knowledge pre-requisite’ (as Lemov labels it).  The knowledge required for me to teach is usually split into 3 forms: textual-knowledge, research-knowledge and curriculum-knowledge.

More than ever, there are articles about the importance of testing knowledge for retainment, and many teachers have been outstanding in their selfless distribution of resources that assist with this.   Some of these include the bank of Knowledge Organisers published here (with link to Theobold’s (@JamesTheo) outstanding original document), and numerous multiple choice quizzes circulating on the twittersphere.

Unfortunately, however, testing or ‘checking’ for Understanding seems to have been hijacked by the pedagogy tick-box committee some time ago and saw its way into education in the following ways:

53 ways understanding


In fact, when I searched for ways to ‘check for understanding,’ I realised that most – if not all – of the approaches given to achieve this purpose were actually methods of checking for knowledge – or, worst still, that it solely required a subjective assertion that the student ‘understood’ by a ‘thumbs up’


(Side note: “I still have a lot of questions” with a ‘thumbs down’ does not seem to be the right message when we are encouraging our students to be inquisitive thinkers…)

So how do you test Understanding?  If we take Huxley’s argument that understanding is something that requires a sense of immediacy and improvisation, the only way to ensure that students can transfer or appropriate their knowledge is through an unseen examination with developed questions.  The ability to recognise what information (and knowledge) is required to most effectively react to the new situation will signpost whether students have a tangible grasp of the concepts taught.

This idea was explored by Jensen et al. in their academic paper: Teaching to the Test… or Testing to Teach: Exams Requiring Higher Order Thinking Skills Encourage Greater Conceptual Understanding (2014), where they found that:

 Higher-order assessments may be a key factor in stimulating students to effectively acquire a deep understanding of the material, an understanding that supports, not only application, analysis and evaluation, but also better retention of the core facts.

 (Side Note 2: Whilst I am aware this article still considers the impact of Bloom’s, the reason that Bloom’s has been critiqued is due to its inability to stress knowledge.  Similar to this argument, I am putting forward that Understanding can only occur once a solid grasp and testing of knowledge has taken place)

However, most importantly, as put forward by Jensen et al., there seemed to be a direct correlation between a student’s ability to evaluate and manipulate information when students were (randomly) tested with higher-order questions.

This idea is similarly explored in the article ‘Testing Enhances the Transfer of Learning’ where the aim of the article is to explore testing beyond knowledge recollection; that is to say, testing on Understanding rather than simply Knowledge.  Carpe (2013) addresses that most research on the testing effect has been limited to, and measured by, information retention – this drives her aim to explore its impact further.

What she found was that a growing number of studies identified that robust testing assists with knowledge transfer (or, Understanding), and gives a brilliant example by Butler where the testing question was:

 There are about 5,500 species of mammals in the world. Approximately what percentage of all mammal species are species of bat?

 Now, the knowledge that students were taught was simply: there are 1000 species of bat.  As you can see, to adequately answer the question above, they would need to not only recall their knowledge of the fact, but transfer it into the unseen question, thus showing Understanding and assisting the process of knowledge transference.

More Testing, More Marking?

 It is vital to note that this does not have to generate more work for you.  I need only cite the information on tips and tricks in Carl Hendrick’s and Robin Macpherson’s outstanding publication: What Does it Look Like in the Classroom? to identify the importance of feedback over marking.  But you can also read from Carl’s Guardian publication Teachers: Your Guide to Strategies that Really Work.

So… What does This Look Like in the Classroom?

I have been exploring this over the past couple of months and using it, when effective, to inform my teaching.  I have made a few key changes to my classroom when I feel it is vital to evaluate my students’ Understanding (aka test their knowledge in an improvised and immediate environment).  Here are 3 quick strategies that might be useful:

·      1-2-1 Discussions about Texts

In an immediate conversation, students cannot hide behind stating knowledge that entices me into believing that they have understood. Asking immediate questions about a text challenges their recall and also forces them to apply information to different contexts.  I have even asked them in a festival jest: ‘How does Hamlet relate to Wham’s Last Christmas?’ Hint:

§   ‘I gave you my heart / you gave it away’

§  ‘A man undercover’

§  ‘Tell me baby, do you recognise me?’

·      ‘Sticks’ Essay Approach

Remember the game sticks? You would have to take away a piece every time it was your turn? Imagine that in essay form.  I have been asking students to use information from one essay (let’s say ‘Conflict’ in Hamlet) and try to manipulate it into another theme (such as ‘Power in Hamlet’) mostly using the information from their first essay.

·      Trick Theme Essay

Finally, the most cruel.  Telling students that their essay on Friday will be 1 of 5 themes, and giving them an entirely unseen question.  Forcing them to make most of the knowledge they have planned in an unexpected situation.

x = 2

I will end this blog on what Huxley calls the ‘paradox of our existence.’  He claims:

 We need ‘experience’ (knowledge) in order to do the practical affairs of life but in regard to what may be called ‘understanding’  – the immediate contact with reality – ‘experience’ is very often a handicap. We have to circumvent it.

In the same way that perpetually signposting to my students ‘what themes might come up’ in their practice papers might give me – and them – a false idea of their Understanding.


Questioning for Confirmation… and then Challenge



We often associate the practice of questioning as a tool to evoke higher-order thinking; it challenges our students to think in an evaluative and speculatively manner. However, the way we implement questioning should perhaps be considered more thoughtfully in our planning whereby we confirm our students’ knowledge before challenging.

Doug Lemov is notable in his remark that “simply asking higher cognitive questions does not necessarily lead students to produce higher cognitive responses” (2005). This presents us with a complex dilemma as we are aware that pushing our students to think more critically is the requirement for their future academic exam, and indeed their later work and academic successes.   We are good at building the scaffolds to ensure a greater success in complex questions – but do we do this enough? And do we approach this in the right way?

It was in a recent CPD event in London run by Lemov that clarified this. He gave a similar example to the one below:

  1. Write down 10 questions you would ask students about the following painting:

(Assuming at this point that you have limited or no knowledge on the painting itself).


Some of your questions might have contained the following: What is the significance of colour? Why is the hand positioned this way? How does this differ from the painter’s original style? What is the significance of the painting? Etc etc…

Now, if you add the following knowledge about the painting Tu m’ – Duchamp:

Artist: Marcel Duchamp, American, born France, 1887–1968

Title: Tu m’

Year: 1918

Medium: Oil on canvas, with bottlebrush, safety pins, and bolt

69.8 x 303 cm (27 1/2 x 119 5/16 in.)

Gift of the Estate of Katherine S. Dreier


Details: Tu m’ was commissioned by artist, collector, and educator Katherine Dreier to be hung over a bookcase in her library, hence the unusual length and frieze-like shape of the work. Executed in 1918, it is Marcel Duchamp’s last painting on canvas and sums up his previous artistic concerns. Ranging across the canvas from left to right are cast shadows that refer to three “ready-mades”: a bicycle wheel, a corkscrew, and a hat rack. Several objects are rendered illusionistically, such as a painted hand with a pointed finger in the lower center. Providing counterpoints to these trompe l’oeil elements are real objects: a bottle brush, a bolt, and safety pins. Duchamp summarises different ways in which a work of art can suggest reality: as shadow, imitation, or actual object. The title lends a sarcastic tone to the work, for the words, perhaps short for the French “tu m’emmerdes” (you annoy me) or “tu m’ennuies” (you bore me), seem to express his attitude toward painting as he was casting it aside.

 Culture: French, American

Period: 20th century

This, alongside the knowledge that the omitting on the verb in the title was also said to translate to ‘you [blank] me’ highlighting Duchamp’s apathy towards traditional art and a final farewell to painting. Coincidentally, this painting was also commissioned a year after Duchamp’s (R. Mutt’s) The Fountain – arguably the first piece of conceptual art.

Now. Go back to the task.

Write down 10 questions you would ask students about the following painting.

With the knowledge above, not only do my answers to the original questions (What is the significance of colour? Why is the hand positioned this way? How does this differ from the painter’s original style? What is the significance of the painting? Etc etc…) become more insightful, but I can now access more complex and challenging questions such as:

  • To what extent does this painting differ from Duchamp’s original style?
  • In what ways does this painting critique classical art?
  • Art is “not what you see, but what you make others see.” Discuss this in relation to Tu m’ by Duchamp

Therefore, it seems pointless to ask complex questions if we have not yet tested our students’ understanding in the first place… and, quite frighteningly, it seems we can actually lock some students out of learning if we do not test their understanding first. It is knowledge that makes this challenge accessible.

And Motivation?

Answering the complex questions above actually feel far more exciting with the information that is now given about Duchamp’s final painting. This idea that knowledge motivates us is something that has been explored quite frequently. Burke (1995) asserts in his paper ‘Connecting Content and Motivation’ claims that

“Content when it is applied, or has meaning assigned to it, is important, and we also know that motivation facilitates content assimilation”

and further continues to assert:

There is little debate, however, that learner motivation, the incentive applied to activate or engage student learning, enhances achievement levels, promotes higher order thinking, stimulates reflective analysis, and induces improved student performance in routine content assimilation. Thus, when motivation coalesces with curricular components, learning is considerably more residual and consequential.”

It would also explain why the following conclusions have been made over again in studies that show the importance and impact of direct instruction.  Hancock’s  Influencing Postsecondary Students’ Motivation to Learn in the Classroom (2002) believed to find a direct correlation between motivation in Low Conceptual Learners and ‘Direct Instruction’ teaching.
And, of course, why Willingham, Lemov, Hendrick & Macpherson, Christodoulou (vid below) and others come back to the importance of testing knowledge – and smaller skills – before moving onto more challenging or conceptual ideas.

The value of this in the learning process has also been implemented nicely in Fletcher-Wood’s new blog about The Evidence on Feedback: A Decision Tree whereby there is an active step to ‘reteach’ material where it seems students have missed key information.

Screen Shot 2017-10-27 at 17.34.27

As mentioned earlier, if you do not have the foundational knowledge to answer a question then you can become locked out of the learning – in the same way that my responses will be only so limited on Duchamp’s Tu m’ unless I can easily access the factual knowledge about the painter and the painting itself. Following that, the feedback tree seems an important message in addressing misconceptions and testing core knowledge before redrafting work

A Solution? Question to confirm… and then to challenge.

If I wanted to explore the significance of how Lady Macbeth in portrayed in the following extract, I would expect students to use their understanding of devices to see how Shakespeare has positioned Lady Macbeth to us here.

Come, you spirits

That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,

And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full

Of direst cruelty. Make thick my blood.

Even though I may have taught this section of the play last lesson, explored the extended metaphor and considered the use of imperatives, as Dylan Wiliam has said: ‘learning requires forgetting.’   90% of my students may remember all of this knowledge but the value of questioning all of them on their basic knowledge means that all students can access the higher order question that I want them to answer (‘Explore the significance of how Lady Macbeth in portrayed in the following extract’).  Which, to some students, might  look just as chaotic as Duchamp’s painting unless reminded of the core facts.

Thus the questioning process could funnel (funnel to refine!) similar to the following:


Initial questions may focus on knowledge retrieval, and then move to closed questions to prompt all students to develop an argument (keeping the learning accessible despite a more subjective response), and then finally to more challenging questions.   In the Macbeth example given above, it would look like:

  1. What is a metaphor?
  2. What does ‘unsex me here’ metaphorically mean?
  3. What is an imperative verb?
  4. List the imperative verbs above.
  5. In your opinion, do the imperative verbs and metaphor show Lady Macbeth to be a confident or controlling?
  6. Does Shakespeare present Lady Macbeth confident or controlling here? Give evidence.
  7. Explore the significance of Lady Macbeth in the following extract.

Note that Question 5 is where subjective opinion is required, however, I have also used key vocabulary to guide the students’ response. This is a good way to ensure unconfident students have the tools and vocabulary to access the more challenging question you want them to answer.

For Questions 6-7, it is important that if you were going to discuss or write this, that you give students Wait Time. They are not knowledge retrieval questions and Lemov is very assertive about giving space for students to formulate their best response rather than simply taking the first response. Again, alluded to by Wiliam because ‘the answers of the confident students are a bad guide to what the rest of the class is thinking.’

Whilst I have used 7 questions above, you could undoubtedly use 10-20 questions depending on the material being studied in that lesson.  This is, of course, just a example to demonstrate how knowledge retrieval can assist in enabling all our class to effectively access the material that they are required to know, understand and manipulate.  However, I think what is important here is ensuring that the material is accessible through simple knowledge retrieval questions that will further consolidate the memory pathways used by our students when presented (and re-presented) with the curriculum.





ResearchED2017 Slides: What You Do Not Know About Feedback and Motivation

What an event!

Huge congratulations to all the wonderful speakers for this year’s National ResearchED Conference.  Such an event truly sparks the most insightful conversations about how we can further move education forward so that staff, students and systems work effectively.  Many thanks as well (of course) to Tom Bennett and Helene Galdin-O’Shea for organising.

  • The slides for my talk can be found here: Feedback ResearchEd
  • Further reading available from my blog: Feedback, Mindset and Motivation – Linked?
  • Link to download Harry Fletcher-Wood’s new book chapter in Feedback (as mentioned in my talk) can also be found here.
  • Link to purchase Carl Hendrick’s and Robin Macphearson’s new book ‘Bridging the Gap between Research and Practice’ here.
  • Information on future ResearchED events are on their website.


5 Important Things Educational Research has Taught Me


In his famous commencement speech ‘This is Water’, David Foster Wallace begins with the following didactic tale:

 There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys, how’s the water?”

And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?”

And continues to assert:

The immediate point of the fish story is that the most obvious, ubiquitous, important realities are often the ones that are the hardest to see and talk about.

It is a statement that encourages us to consider the aspects of our immediate world that we may have become ignorant of, or oblivious to. It is easy for us to slip into habits, or belief systems, without considering other options.

Yet the most significant and valuable asset to understanding ourselves, and the world around us, is being able to consider opinions and perspectives that are beyond our immediate experience. Being able to, as Wallace so eloquently puts it, ‘see the water’ as an objective and thoughtful onlooker.

As an Australian, I grew up in an entirely different Education system. The perspective of another ‘way to do things’ has simultaneously become the best and worst thing about my teaching. On one hand, I appreciate the academic rigour and standard of the UK System, on the other, there are many things I find frustrating as I have experienced a successful system that ‘does it differently.’ The Australian system, for example, does not give pupils their Target Grades (… just one example). Imagine that?

With this in mind, it was incredibly unfortunate and disheartening to see that conferences such as ResearchED – which are dedicated to presenting a variety of opinions and perspectives on Education – were being scrutinised. It is exactly these events that continually reignite my passion for the profession; I am selfishly confirmed that there are parts of the system that are broken, whilst also challenged in my own thoughts about the learning and progress of my classes. A truly invigorating experience.

So, I wanted to put forward the top 5 things that I have learned from attending such conferences and reading current educational research. All of the following have significantly impacted my outlook on the profession since I began teaching 5 years ago. It is safe to say I would have ‘coasted’ or ‘plateaued’ in the profession had I not been continually challenged by this material.


Lesson 1: A Greater Insight into How Students Retain Knowledge

When I was doing my teacher training, I never considered to investigate the ways the human mind retains knowledge, or how one’s memory pathways are strengthened.   I don’t need to cite the recent changes to the GCSE that make this information so vital, as most teachers are aware that students must be able to ‘know stuff’ to pass their exams.

Our students’ knowledge of the content and the paper must be concrete. It is not enough anymore to get by with superfluous responses or underdeveloped responses – nor can they rely on Coursework. Across all disciplines, accurate and accessible knowledge of key terminologies is vital to one’s success.


Daniel T. Willingham’s book, Why Students Don’t Like School, gives some insight into the working memory, assisting to establish the ways we might transfer information to our students. The book suggests that:

‘thinking occurs when you combine information from your environment and long-term memory in new ways’

and that this process is often

‘effortful, challenging or difficult’.

Having an awareness of how the brain processes information, and the time it takes for this to be solidified into the long-term working memory, has the following classroom impacts:

  • Establishes further respect for a pupil’s cognitive limits
  • Forces us to reconsider when to puzzle students – or bring in new information
  • Encourages us to attempt to attach new information to previous memory pathways
  • Encourages a regular or more considerate approach to classroom pace and information delivery

This is not the only example. David Didau’s book, What if Everything you Knew About Education is Wrong, explores the research of Hermann Ebbinghaus’ Forgetting Curve to make us consider the expectation of classroom knowledge and how frequently we revisit knowledge previously learned.


In order to effectively learn stuff, we need to revise it regularly – so perhaps there are ways to embed this into our classroom plans, such as the following:

  • Regular low stakes testing to revisit content learned
  • Interleaving subjects
  • Regular homework or prep on previous content


Lesson 2: Individuals May React to the Same Feedback Differently

Questioning feedback has been an interesting topic this last year and, without doing so, I am the first to admit that I would most likely be sitting here wondering why my ‘two stars and a wish’ did not develop the academic drive I sought in all my students.

As I have mentioned in my own previous blog, and presented at Telegraph Festival of Education, there is strong suggestion that our internal bias may affect how we perceive, or react to, feedback.

Whilst you can read my thoughts here, it is important to note that this has also been explored by Didau who claims that students tend to attribute their performance to the following:

  1. Their ability
  2. The performance of others
  3. Their intrinsic interest in the task
  4. How hard they tried
  5. Their experience from previous learning

Now, if a pupil attributes a failed result to 1, they may take emotional offence to my feedback if they have not yet developed a high level of resilience (usually seen in younger learners), however, if they attribute it to 2 their reaction to my feedback might be one of indifference or ignorance.

As a result, they will remember their ability and/or outcome very differently. This is why so many articles (Harry Fletcher-Wood’s new book, preview of chapter here, also contains further detailed information on this) have cited the importance of responding to clear, targeted feedback: it removes personal attachment to (perceived) negative comments.

Therefore, the classroom implications become the following.  We:

  • Consider how we deliver feedback to different pupils
  • Establish more effective ways to remove emotional attachment to feedback
  • Ensure that feedback is revisited and acknowledged in an effective way
  • Attribute feedback to skills that can be developed so that effective academic conversations can take place in the classroom.
  • Consider how clear our targets are and whether they are understood by those in our class.


Lesson 3: ‘Making Progress’ can be an Arbitrary Measure

One thing I have noticed since living in England is that the word ‘progress’ is particularly favoured in Education. We love the word and it seems to justify a lot of actions – whether right or wrong.


Daisy Christodoulou’s read Making Good Progress explores this further. She writes:

When we assess summatively, we ‘judge the extent of students’ learning of the material in a course, for the purpose of grading, certification, evaluation of progress or even for researching the effectiveness of the curriculum.’ When making these summative judgments, it is vitally important that they have some kind of shared meaning that goes beyond the curriculum.

Indeed, it is often our perspectives of a mark that provides us with a subjective judgment on progress. Consider, for example, the pupil in your class who does extremely well on (let’s do an English example) a Macbeth paper one week, but poorly the next. The judgments we could make here are three-fold: they are making ‘insufficient progress,’ ‘their knowledge on the paper in Week 2 was insufficient,’ or ‘they underperformed that day’. All of which are subjective judgments that question the validity of the result.

Christodoulou suggests that making good progress is about reliability, forcing us to consider how we implement and use assessment to truly capture the accuracy of the results.  As a result, the book:

  • Forces us to consider more reliable systems to assess students’ learning.
  • Encourages us to consider whether we are provided with a valuable measurement of progress.


Lesson 4: Results do not have to be limited to Data

As adults, we all know that there are skills that we have developed over time; particular those we may have never thought we would. I remember being in the bottom-set English class at the beginning Year 10, and graduating 1.5 years later 1st place in Extension English at a Grammar School. If you would have asked my teachers in Year 10 to give me a target grade, I guarantee that 1st would not have been their response.

So when we have had these experiences, why do we label pupils with their grades? Lord Bew noted in his 2011 report:

The level thresholds in KS2 tests mean that one mark can make the difference between one level and the next

And, of course

These differences will be highly significant for the individual pupil.

As was mentioned by Dylan Wiliam: 32% of pupils could be given the wrong national curriculum level. While it is important to keep in mind what a student has achieved in their earlier years, it is also important to recognise that “dubious data across wide age ranges, across different schools, and across quite different cohorts means that it is almost impossible to use this data to decide whether a school [or pupil for that matter!] is any good or not. (Didau, 2015)”

Unfortunately the only absolute truth of most school data is that it places an “intolerable burden on teachers, schools and – most importantly – children.”  All of this must encourage us to:

  • Consider how data is used in schools
  • Consider whether league tables are accurate representations
  • Ensure the wellbeing of staff is not impacted/affected by data drives
  • Consider how to ensure that encouragement and success of our students is not limited by data.


Lesson 5: The Educator – not just the teacher – is valuable.


Finally, and most importantly, research in Education has encouraged me to take risks in my teaching. I do not feel stifled or limited by one approach, and certainly just consider what the most effective approach would be.

The debate about progressive and traditional teaching will continue, yet there are many academic resources that place value on a variety of methods. Alex Quigley notes this in his book, The Confident Teacher, where he places an importance on developing a confident (and competent) learner.


Similarly, Andy Tharby’s model (pictured above and taken from his book: Making Every English Lesson Count) on expert teaching demonstrates that educating requires explanation and modelling from a teacher (perhaps interchangeable with ‘teacher led practices’), as well as deliberate practice from pupils – a classroom method that may require teachers to step back to promote the confidence of his or her pupils.   The book continues to provide a range of strategies on both spectrums of teaching to encourage and promote classroom success.

I have also written about this further as well with my interest in Harkness and Coaching methods, which can be found here, and here. However, the important implications that have come through in my readings about being the most successful practitioner are the following:

  • There may be no ‘right way’ of delivering a lesson.
  • Correct methods of teaching can be defined and/or limited by classroom context in that,
    • Explicit teaching is effective.
    • Allowing pupils space to practice may also be effective
  • Encourages us to question: How can classroom planning utilise these strategies effectively?
  • Forces us to consider whether we are applying appropriate methods in our own context.  If not, how can we do things differently to maximise results?


In short:

We clearly have a lot to think about in this incredibly complex profession. However, I am truly grateful for all the Conferences, TeachMeets, Festivals, and individuals who (no matter what race/ethnicity/gender) enable me to see that there can be other (and better) ways to approach teaching as I begin my next academic year.

What Is Not Working in Education (and What We Can Do About It)

The search for the ‘Holy Grail’ of Teaching is not working…

python grail

Bridgekeeper: What… is your name?
Sir Lancelot: My name is Sir Lancelot of Camelot.
Bridgekeeper: What… is your quest?
Sir Lancelot: To seek the Holy Grail.
Bridgekeeper: What… is your favourite colour?
Sir Lancelot: Blue.
Bridgekeeper: Go on. Off you go.
Sir Lancelot: Oh, thank you. Thank you very much.
Sir Robin: That’s easy.

The education system has undergone many pedagogical shifts in search for the ‘ultimate lesson structure’.  We have now reached an interesting point as we become evermore aware that misinformed or poorly implemented educational research can disastrously impact in our classroom and affect students’ and teachers’ morale.  As a result, our trust for ‘new school learning strategies’ has been damaged.

And it is confusing: we have been inundated with educational research suggesting that student-led learning leads to best results but also that teacher-led learning leads to the best results.  We have seen posts that ‘prove’ our students engage more with “fun” learning and yet it has also been confirmed that “fun” does not link to progress or achievement.  Certainly debates on the most effective way to implement classroom practice are evident across the profession – but what has clearly surfaced is that our search for the one strategy solution has failed.  The search for the ‘holy grail’ of teaching is not working. 


Where did it go wrong?

Most practitioners are familiar with the sudden requirement of a new school teaching policy based on “latest research.” It is now not uncommon to see the phrase “and recent research shows” in CPD sessions in order to justify this new whole-school practice, often without the need for any confirmation as to what research came to this conclusion.  It was even on my cereal box the other day: ‘research suggests that people who eat cereal are healthier!’ – of course, with no reference to who they studied, where or over what amount of time.

We have become a society that needs pseudo-scientific confirmation often without discerning facts. This has leaked into our attitudes and behaviours about education as we continue to clarify, justify or explore what ‘the best way to teach is’.

Quite interestingly, unless we are critical of research and the search for the teaching ‘holy grail’ is challenged, one could even argue that it is the case that students do not even need school and are best educated at home. Ray (2015) demonstrated that academic performance was greater achieved by students who were not in mainstream schooling:

The home-educated typically score 15 to 30 percentile points above public-school students on standardised academic achievement tests. (The public school average is the 50th percentile; scores range from 1 to 99).

Taken from:

With such convincing facts (I particularly enjoy the URL of ‘ResearchFacts.pdf’), how could we not move to a system whereby all students were home-schooled? Surely this is the way to move the younger generation to have the most academic success? Of course my logical process to this conclusion seems absurd and yet this is what has seemed to happen with some of our teaching practice.


…and thus came academic fads and the search for the ‘Holy Grail’

It is from this unawareness and ill-informed understanding of academic research that classroom fads were born.  It had been suggested that post-its and mini whiteboards have transformed the classroom and suddenly they became the answer to all our teaching woes (and another thing to tick on the Outstanding Lesson Observation form).  What we stopped thinking about, however, was how effective the use of these whiteboards were – and at what time?

We stopped asking vital questions about the impact of this new tool: was it useful that I asked all students to write their favourite song and hold it up on the mini-whiteboard to show they were engaged? In what ways did this enhance their learning or progress? Such questions link nicely with Carl Hendrick’s blog and similar ideas mentioned by Hannah Townsend (@HanTgeography) in her blog: Why Playdough is Not The Way Forward when Teaching Geography. 

So What Can We Do?

It is vital that we start considering how the variety of teaching methods given in our profession can be best implemented into our classroom.  Below is a list of 5 things that we can do if there is no such thing as the teaching ‘Holy Grail.’

  1. Be critical of research

In a recent CPD with David Weston (@informed_edu) and Alex Quigley (@HuntingEnglish) for the Teacher Development Trust, I was introduced to quite a startling fact. In a 2007 ScienceDaily article, the Colorado State University found that “pictures of the brain made research more believable.” Alex Quigley addressed this as it highlights the comical – but yet frightening – realisation that our opinions might be easily influenced by pseudoscience.


Moreover, Dylan Wiliam also points this out numerous times. He rightly asserts that educational research can only tell us what has worked, but not what will work. More interestingly, of course, is what will work with our classes at a particular time on a particular day at a particular point in a scheme of work. We cannot simply look to evidence to inform all our teaching approaches so hastily; such an approach will be ineffective.

David Didau also makes a similar claim in his book ‘What If Everything You Knew About About Teaching was Wrong?’ He gives the example:

Researchers compared the impact of varying degrees of support from TAs on pupils’ progress … [and] the study found that pupils who received help from TAs made less progress than classmates… On this evidence, we should immediately fire teaching assistants. (p.108)

But he carries on to the most impactful phrase:

Before we make any rash decisions it’s worth remember that research only shows that was has been, not what will be. (p.108)

2. Consider how it best applies to our context.

It is also the case that not all educational contexts are the same. Being informed about a study completed in American Education to Primary students may be interesting, but not always directly applicable to a GCSE class in England…

Indeed, I found this very case when I was initially experimenting with Harkness in the classroom. I was fortunate enough to see the teaching methods implemented by Philips Exeter School who are an entirely ‘Harkness’ focussed college. However, it was brought to my attention that that their final examination required no written timed essays. Suddenly, learning entirely through oral discussion became instantly more permissible but was clearly not something that would fit with the skills I needed to ensure my students could master in their A Level or GCSE Exams.

It was also interesting to note that the students from Wellington College had a greater understanding of Hamlet’s context due to its weight in their examinations whereas Philips Exeter’s pupils’ understanding was limited to knowledge of the text alone. It became clear here that we are sometimes required to teach our pupils different skills within our context – both within school and classroom context. As a result, our pedagogies should align with this.

3. Draw from a range of ideas.

But that is not to say that our pedagogies are limited to this… we just must adapt them to be the most effective for what we want to achieve.

It is the case that I regularly implement Harkness into my lesson plans but I am limited to do so unless I feel that students have the groundwork of knowledge required to have a critical conversations about the text. I encourage classroom discussion and see its importance in the classroom just as much as I encourage ‘chalk and talk’ as a vital teaching tool.  Moreover, there are many cases I do not feel that using Harkness as a method of delivering information is entirely appropriate.  Having an understanding of a range of methods enables me to consider what could be useful for my class.  I am not out to find ‘the answer‘ but rather what I consider to be ‘the best answer for this particular class at this particular time.’

4. Know how students learn

Teaching approaches such as debates can be easily dismissed as they are observed to be chaotic or ‘disruptive’. It is important to note that good learning does not always happen with stability or control. A classroom that appears calm and quietly controlled, where students “look busy” is not always a classroom where students are learning, or thinking hard.  In the very same way, however, direct instruction is vital for completing knowledge gaps in our students.  It may not be “engaging” and seem too “teacher-led” but may also be the most impactful teaching style at that particular moment.

I have also noted in my other blog that it is important to recognise that thinking hard is not easy – this is why we avoid it. When trialling new approaches that appear to be challenging or difficult for our pupils – whether due to intense debate or intense concentration –  it is important to keep this in mind. Thinking should be uncomfortable, spark discussions, shift thought processes, and (at times) can remain unresolved.  Perhaps we do not have to always finalise or ‘close’ our lessons with swan-like precision?  This is not something always easy for us as we are obsessed with finding ultimate and cohesive answers. It is, to some extent, why such videos on YouTube are labelled to be frustrating:

  1. Try new – and old – approaches

However, that does not mean you should be limited to ‘what you think will work because it did last time.’ Taking risks and exploring a range of pedagogies should be part of our practice. We talk about teachers being an expert profession, yet we do not often act as though we are that.

Experts, in their fields, achieve this status by not simply applying or becoming accustomed to ‘a way of practicing.’ Rather, they use a range of skills to apply to complex and challenging situations; they also ensure their skill-set is continually updated.

By trying new things, we broaden our skill domain.

Daniel T. Willingham addresses this in his book ‘Why Students Don’t Like School’ whereby he makes a strong case for continual teacher development – no matter what age or experience in the profession. He asserts:

If you want to be a better teacher, you cannot be simply satisfied to gain experience as time passes. You must also practice, and practice means 1) consciously trying to improve, 2) asking feedback and 3) undertaking activities for the sake of improvement, even if they don’t directly contribute to your job.

We can, by proxy, limit our ability to do these things in the attempt to implement a ‘holy grail’ teaching style. It is thus important to consider that implementing one style could make us worse practitioners despite “all the evidence” and “all the successes” that were previously perceived.


To sum up, it is important we stop searching for ‘the holy grail answer to teaching’ and start looking at research critically and objectively. We must ask ourselves what we can take from the approaches that claim to “have worked” in their own contexts and thoughtfully consider how (and to whom) they would best apply to in our academic environment.  In order to be the best practitioners, we should be continually evaluating, and re-evaluating our approaches whilst also seeking effective teaching strategies that are effective for learning and not simply engagement. Finally, when we feel as though we have found ‘the holy grail,’ (Sir Robin: That’s easy.) it is vital we remember that education research provides us with a series of best bets for this, but not tablets cast in stone of what will work.


More on this can also be found by Blake Harvard here and Alex Quigley here