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: https://www.nheri.org/ResearchFacts.pdf

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

Feedback, Mindset and Motivation – Linked?


In the lead up to examination season, it is interesting to see different mindsets and ‘self-perceptions’ developing amongst the pupil body. Most notably, patterns of cognitive dissonances seem to appear into our students’ narrative: fragile students perceive themselves to be worse than they are; confident underachievers assert they are ‘fine’; and confident achievers seem too modest to admit they are making adequate progress. As the only feedback they get on their academic progress is through their teachers, it is interesting to consider the ways that our feedback can alter our students’ awareness of their ability. Such thinking has led me to (quite a lengthy) exploration into this question:

To what extent does feedback affect a student’s mindset and, as a result, their motivation – or self-regulation – of knowledge?

Or in other words: How does what we tell our students impact what they believe about their own ability? What I have found is that we need to start reconsidering the ways we give feedback depending on the ability of the pupil and the time of the academic course.


Processing Negative and Positive Information

It is important firstly to note that we process negative and positive information differently. Positive information enables us to affirm our beliefs about ourselves, and it is the information we often pass on to people that we want to see us as ‘our best selves.’ More complex than this, is that – depending on our emotional state – we have moments where we would much rather receive information or compliments that are positive or self-affirming.

Moreover, avoidance tendencies towards negative information or threats are often ‘dominant’ and ‘hardwired’ as undesirable information usually coincides with undesirable emotional responses. Elfers and Hlava (2016) put this clearly in their book ‘The Spectrum of Gratitude Experience’ as they assert:

Information coming into the central switching station of the thalamus is also processed through the amygdala to scan for potential threat or danger. Any hint of threat triggers an alarm bell”.

Over time, these avoidance tendencies may lead pupils to develop a positive or negative bias about their ability.


Negativity Bias

The self-deprecating (re)action to negative information is to draw emphasis to it.   According to Elfers and Hlava (2016) this forces the individual do develop a false positive:

“There are a lot of false positives to the negativity bias, meaning that we are likely to see a lot of threats where none exist. False positives are an error that our ancient threat detection system is primed to take and so it operates on the principle that it is better to be safe than sorry. One false negative – that is, not seeing a threat when one is there – could have fatal consequences. Uncomfortable experiences have longer shelf life in memory. Learning occurs faster from painful experience, dislikes are learned faster than lines, and it the world of relationships, trust is easily lost but challenging to regain”

If a student has invested a considerable amount of time and energy into their work, it makes sense that they may focus on the negative feedback you give them. It could feel uncomfortable and, as a result, be more quickly stored into their longer-term memory than their short term. It may explain why our studious students begin to develop the fixed narrative: “I’m rubbish at English” or “I’m never good at maths.”

– and, as a result, why our students develop a negative self narrative (re: my first blog on the Importance of Understanding Self-Narrative) and why there is the need to equip our students with an awareness of their thinking and mind set.


Positivity Bias

However, why is it that students may feel over-confident or self-assured in a subject even when their grades suggest they are significantly under performing? The self-protective (re)action to feedback can cause the individual to develop (bear with me while I use the term) ‘illusory superiority’ – or, that an illusion that they are doing better than they are.

The pupils who subconsciously ‘flee’ from negative information can develop illusory superiority; they avoid targets and will not remember our ‘critiques’. For them, it appears easier to focus on the positive information.

But here’s the catch: having this positive bias may also actually be helpful in motivating some of our students to achieve as well.

A recent study on illusory superiority – or positivity bias – found that it can be internally motivating. A study by Wehrens (2008) that explored how self-perception and bias may affect an individual’s motivation suggested the following:

Screen Shot 2017-04-28 at 10.27.15

As you can see above, positivity bias may affect students two fold. Figure 1 shows Student A (with positivity bias – and having repeated an academic school year) still under performing compared to Student B who has a greater understanding of their class ability. On the other hand, Figure 2 reveals the outstanding academic improvements that can be made through illusory superiority for students at the bottom end. In Figure 2, Student A engages with the same level of positivity bias as student B, however, was significantly more motivated by their positivity bias than a pupil who already has good academic performance.


How this affects our feedback?

Given the tedious and grey line between altering, building or affecting a pupil’s self perception, it seems the most effective way to give feedback has been propelled into the ether. However, I suggest the information above contains three clear implications:

  1. For reflective thinkers at the top-end, clear instructive feedback can be enough.

Spending a long time on positive and encouraging comments may only be required in younger years, whilst more mature thinkers may ignore and/or be discouraged by vague, positive remarks. If we explore the same illusory superiority picture as earlier, it was clear that a ‘top-end,’ successful pupil was not as encouraged by positive comments and worked just as effectively with clear feedback.

In fact, with some of my A Level and HL IB Learners, there seems to be a real thirst for clear feedback; they often skip the vague: “Wow! Olivia. What a fantastic essay! You’ve really shown a strong understanding of sophisticated language and writer’s craft.”

I am not saying do not compliment them on their efforts. Of course, we have seen the detrimental effects that can occur when a student (or individual) begins to perceive that they are doing “nothing right”. However, perhaps we should reconsider how much time we are investing in these comments when all pupils want is intellectual, clear and instructive feedback; perhaps ‘2 stars and a wish’ becomes less relevant for our more academically minded pupils.


  1. For vulnerable learners, you might need to help develop some positivity bias to drive their internal motivation.

The second implication is that it might be worth being more positive to our more vulnerable pupils. It is why articles like this exist. It is also how Dijk and Kluger (2011) ended up concluding the diagram below. In their study, they found that a student’s ‘Intention to Exert Effort’ was significantly impacted by the positive comments they were receiving. Pupils seemed to generate more ideas – significantly impacted by the level of positive information given:

Screen Shot 2017-03-31 at 14.01.38

Interestingly, of course, is that a pupil’s ability to notice when they were making errors decreased. This is where clear, instructive feedback is also important.


  1. All feedback must be engaged with.

Most importantly, feedback must always be something that our students engage with. This is to stop more vulnerable pupils, and indeed, sometimes our top end pupils, from ignoring feedback and developing any bias at all.

Pupils see a target as encouragement rather than a threat when they engage with it. It changes how they think about your feedback – it becomes a goal rather than a critique.

In the paper ‘Making Sense of Assessment Feedback in Higher Education,’ Evans draws on the importance that Braksick (2000) places on ensuring that there is clear delineation between positive, negative and constructive feedback.

Braksick (2000) proposed that positive feedback is used to encourage desired behavior whereas negative feedback focuses on the “bad side” and does little to improve performance (p. 146). In this sense, negative feedback is likened to a form of criticism and is often directed at the individual rather than to the undesired behavior of the individual. As an alternative to negative feedback, Braksick (2000) suggests the use of constructive feedback. She asserts that constructive feedback is intended to, “discourage an undesired behavior and replace it with a preferred behavior”

 She continues:

“When feedback merely indicated that a response was correct or incorrect; it resulted in a lower effect than when the feedback in some way informed the learner of the correct answer” (p. 232). The basic feedback and elaborate feedback manipulation implemented in this study closely parallels Bangert-Drowns et al.’ s (1991) definitions of feedback that was corrective and explanatory, respectively. Results from the current investigation suggested positive effects in both the basic and elaborate feedback conditions for each group. That is, improvement was observed on subsequent attempts regardless of the feedback type received suggesting possible practice effects. However, significant differences were identified between the BF Group and the EF Group. Overall, there was a significant difference in performance and learning gain for individuals who received elaborate feedback relative to basic feedback.

Moreover, there are numerous more articles that confirm the claim that, unless interacted with, feedback can be forgotten. This is most likely due to a student’s reaction to negative information; their need and/or want to develop a positive bias.

It seems that feedback is not only crucial for ensuring that our students to not develop any positive or negative bias but can further assist the motivation and self-regulation of our students. Biases that occur are a natural reaction to the way we receive negative information; some people will ignore it, and others will reflect too strongly on it. As a result, it becomes increasingly clearer that the level of positivity or negativity we use in feedback may differ depending on the ability, age and emotional maturity of our class. Most vital, however, is that feedback is engaged and interacted with as may assist all students in developing a more accurate awareness of their ability.





Further reading:

Fantastic Blog by Douglas Wise: https://douglaswiseblog.wordpress.com/2017/04/29/the-dunning-kruger-effect/

Making Sense of Assessment Feedback in Higher Education Author(s): Carol Evans Source: Review of Educational Research, Vol. 83, No. 1 (March 2013), pp. 70-120 Published by: American Educational Research Association

The Role of Student Processing of Feedback in Classroom Achievement Author(s): Ellen D. Gagné, Robert J. Crutcher, Joella Anzelc, Cynthia Geisman, Vicki D. Hoffman, Paul Schutz and Lloy Lizcano Source: Cognition and Instruction, Vol. 4, No. 3 (1987), pp. 167-186 Published by: Taylor & Francis, Ltd.

The nature of feedback: how different types of peer feedback affect writing performance Author(s): Melissa M. Nelson and Christian D. Schunn Source: Instructional Science, Vol. 37, No. 4 (JULY 2009), pp. 375-401 Published by: Springer

Task type as a moderator of positive/negative feedback effects on motivation and performance: A regulatory focus perspective Author(s): DINA VAN DIJK and AVRAHAM N. KLUGER Source: Journal of Organizational Behavior, Vol. 32, No. 8 (NOVEMBER 2011), pp. 1084-1105 Published by: Wiley

Wehrens, M. J. P. W. (2008). How did YOU do? Social comparison in secondary education s.n

How to Harkness: Strategies and Advice.

How to Harkness:

Strategies and Advice for Implementing Harkness into Educational Practice.


In my last blog, Why is Classroom Dialogue so Important?, I put forward numerous articles of research that demonstrated the positive impact Harkness and other dialogical approaches can have on our pupils mastering subject knowledge. Without dialogic pedagogies, we risk that a pupils’ knowledge may become limited to knowledge regurgitation, as they have simply learned to transfer information without developing a coherent or holistic understanding of it. A teacher must deliver outstanding content but should also seek lesson time to promote conversation, questioning and discourse.  This gives them a greater opportunity to remember information and to strengthen their ability to use and adapt it successfully.

So, how do you effectively implement Harkness? When do you start it and when is the best time to trial it?  This blog simply takes you through these questions.


When can you Effectively Implement Harkness?

The following diagram is something I have touched upon in a few of my pedagogical talks.  It is a summary of our purpose in the classroom and presents a visual map of how our methodologies must change as our pupils aim to master their subject knowledge.  Harkness is a teaching strategy that can be implemented effectively into practice when you become a coacher (stage 3) and/or a refiner (stage 4) of your pupils’ understanding. It is not always effective earlier as modules and topics may require a basic understanding of core material which you might have to explicitly teach them.


I initially felt most confident implementing Harkness when pupils were consolidating their knowledge at the end of a topic or section from a literary work. However, I recently observed a Harkness between Phillips Exeter and Wellington students on Hamlet that demonstrated how Harkness can work to coach pupils into understanding the work.  For this, teacher still needs slight input.

The audio below was recorded during this and demonstrates Harkness in Stage 3 where the teacher effectively coaches the students into their knowledge development. You can hear in the following recording that pupils are working through the extracts of Hamlet.  Here, the teacher is still steering the conversation by asking questions to evoke the discussion and facilitates it towards language.  The coaching style is non-threatening and the teacher is clever in his approach: he asks pupils what they do not understand to open the table up to the idea that there might be gaps in their knowledge at this point.  What is most effective here, however, is that before answering the questions himself, he enables pupils to explore it.  Therefore, the teacher plays a minor role.


But Where to Start?

It is important to remember that scaffolding is key.  In order to make Harkness as effective as possible, you must train pupils on how to do it. It is essential to remember that they are not used to leading prolonged academic conversation and (in a surprisingly scary admittance), we usually haven’t taught them how to ask good academic questions.  As a result, you cannot expect them to understand this level of independence instantly.

When first starting, it is useful to the follow three key steps: Preparation, Practice and Praise and Direct.

  1. Preparation:  You have to guide them to the accurate material that will assist them in building a conversation around a subject.

I recently taught my Year 10s How to Harkness.  This involved 2 lessons of ‘set up’ or Preparation before we organised the official Harkness lesson.

Lesson 1 involved gathering knowledge and material for the Harkness that they would bring to the discussion.   Normally, I find this is much easier if you quantify the knowledge they need to prepare and give each pupil a role.

For this activity I asked one pupil on each table to find different knowledge of Macbeth.  Pupil #1, for example, was asked to explore what they considered the most significant 3 sections of Lady Macbeth’s character.  This encourages their own personal view – which might differ from their classmates.  It also forces them to individually reflect on and actively critique the text; it involves them personally refining their knowledge and understanding.


Preparation for this task is vital.  It is also a good homework activity to give them.  You could put a few leading questions at this stage depending on the independent ability of your group.  For example, you could further break down each section: Find 3 key images from each section and be able to explore the devices used by Shakespeare in these.  It will depend on how comfortable with the task you feel your group are at this stage.

  1. Practice: You have to allow them space to vocalise their knowledge for an extended period of time.

The second lesson for this group that I gave was a Harkness practice lesson.  It involved each pupil leading a ‘mini-Harkness’ on their tables (groups of 4) for 15 minutes.  This encouraged their tables to add any information or key vocabulary that the pupil leading may have missed but also built their confidence in vocalising their ideas to each other before the whole class.

screen-shot-2016-12-09-at-15-15-26  screen-shot-2016-12-09-at-15-15-59

  1. Praise and Direct: You must stop every now and then to praise good, intelligent ideas and direct where pupils may have a gap in their knowledge – or are applying their knowledge incorrectly.

In my 5th form, I intervened every 20 minutes just to guide pupils to really vital information that had been raised.  I would stop the discussion but still took a minor role when I drew attention back to something mentioned.  In this following audio, you can hear how a quotation was mentioned in discussion and I coerced the pupil who had made the point to highlight it again to the class.  In this sense, it was student led – I simply acknowledged that it was effective knowledge to have.


Extra Tips?

Don’t implement it too early: Ensure students have enough preparation time.

Don’t be afraid to give them a week to get their information together.  It would be a superfluous exercise to implement Harkness if students do not have the groundwork to develop their understanding.  As mentioned in my previous blog, classroom discussion is effective in heightening subject knowledge; it furthers critical thinking skills and forces students to adapt what they know into a coherent, cohesive argument.  If they do not know anything, the impact of Harkness is arguably threatened.  In such a case, the pupils may simply continually repeat their previous knowledge without deepening their understanding.


Don’t feel threatened by silences:

One of my outstanding colleagues, Tom Hicks (blog: here), said a student once told him:

“Sir, don’t worry about our silences… that’s when we are thinking.”

In the audio below a silence in the Harkness of my 5th form occurs.  I do not intervene and you can see how a more confident pupil decides to move the learning forward:

At times, as practitioners, silences are the moment we are taught to intervene as it signals alarm bells for a lack of knowledge.  If pupils fall silent throughout a Harkness, let the silence happen.  It often happens that another pupil will add onto a point, complete their point or move the conversation along.  Teach them to do this by giving them the sentence starters:

  • ‘Now we have seemed to finish that point, I’d like to draw everyone’s attention to…’
  • ‘I have a question for the group. I’d like to ask everyone what they thought…’
  • ‘Do you agree that…’
  • ‘I would like to raise a new point discussing…’
  • ‘I would like to add on from that point to mention…’


Allow Debates to Happen:

We have also unlearned the healthiness of a good debate in our classroom.  We believe it demonstrates rowdiness, or that pupils are out of our control.  In Harkness, when pupils feel more comfortable, there will be times they appear to talk over each other.  You will most likely find that this is diffused quite quickly.  It should also be a good indicator that students are clearly passionate about the subject material enough to explore it in depth.  If it does not diffuse, do not underestimate your ability to step in.  Again, praise and direct pupils to vital points and give them time to explore how or why an argument occurred – all of which can be extremely interesting!

Below is an audio clip of a Harkness debates. It is quite interesting as it shows how passionate the pupils feel about the content but the debate is also very quickly diffused as pupils begin to reason with each other:


Anything else?

Harkness is a great tool to assess a student’s understanding of content.

Some students have a good knowledge of content material but simply need work in the skills to apply this knowledge in an exam format.  Harkness is a great way to build the confidence of these pupils and also identify whether it is examination skills they’re missing or subject knowledge.

Finally, teach them that Harkness is not answering a question, it is about exploring it. Knowledge is about knowing the ‘right’ answer but also knowing why something is ‘not the right answer’ and accurate knowledge is an ability to understand in depth (and width) rather than simply on the surface.

Why is Classroom Dialogue so Important? Constructivism and Knowledge Mastery

  • Knowledge – understanding information and experience in order to act upon it.
    (know what, know who, know how)
  • Mastery – the journey from apprentice to disciplined sense-maker and knowledge catalyst.
    (masters do not need to be managed)

There is no doubt that the impact of classroom dialogue has propelled its way to the forefront of modern teaching discussions. From my recent posts, it may be evident to you that I am an advocate of the dialogic classroom and regularly apply teaching approaches such as coaching and Harkness in my practice; classroom activities that utilise exploratory and discriminatory talk for effective learning, teaching and feedback.

What is sometimes overlooked is the limitless amount of articles and research that provides evidence to support why classroom dialogue is vital in assisting pupils’ learning and how constructivist approaches to teaching can result in greater knowledge – not simply knowledge transference, but knowledge mastery.


What is knowledge?

The most philosophically accepted definition of knowledge is if a person (P) knows something (X) then:

  • P believes X to be true.
  • X is true
  • P is justified in believing X is true.

It’s a little vague but for nearly two hundred years this definition was accepted as fact. That is, of course, until it was debunked by ‘epistemology loathing’ pupil Edmund Gettier in his short two-page paper simply titled: Is Justified True Belief Knowledge? Moreover, he discredited this definition of knowledge using an example of an irrational farmer that decided to dress his dog up as a sheep… I won’t go into it, but you’re welcome to further explore here.


What came from Gettier is this: knowledge cannot be defined this way. Having knowledge cannot simply be ‘knowing something that is justified as true’ and we should understand this as educators for we are aware that our teaching goes beyond simply encouraging pupils to regurgitate information but focuses on them being able to apply and transfer it across a variety of contexts.

 If knowledge cannot be solely defined as the transference of fact from teacher to pupil then our methodologies must also reflect this.


Classroom Approaches for Knowledge Transference

 Our most common approach to classroom practice heavily favours the definition that Knowledge is simply the transference of a concept or fact from Teacher to Student. Keith S. Taber conceptualises this far more effectively than I could explain in his paper Constructivism as Educational Theory (2011): 


In this view, when knowledge is transferred from the teacher successfully then a student has knowledge. Right? Not always. Robin Alexander (2008) asserts:

 Where talk is essentially one-sided and cognitively unchallenging are threefold: firstly, children may not learn as effectively as supposed; secondly, children’s potential to engage in dialogic interactions that challenge current perspectives or demonstrate their explanatory capacities may be inhibited or less developed; and finally, teachers may be ill-informed about students’ understandings, and as a consequence “lose the diagnostic element that is essential if their teaching is to be other than hit-or-miss.”

Now, it is important to recognise that this method of ‘instructed’ teaching – Taber calls it the ‘binary view of teaching’ – is a vital step in the learning process because a student must have knowledge before they are able to manipulate it or apply it to validate their understanding. It is also vital for the reasons that:

 Human learning is contingent upon the cognitive resources that are available to any particular individual to interpret – make sense of – information (Tiber, 2011).

 Our pupils are more able to make sense of basic information when we implement binary teaching and ‘instructive’ methods. It is through these pedagogies that we enable our students to create and establish relevant synaptic pathways to store the information given. Of course, it is not always stored effectively or accurately and we may need to repeat this process numerous times for this to occur in all our classes. We may also blend this binary view of teaching – teacher led pedagogies – with numerous memory-based approaches to strengthen these pathways. This enables our pupils to have the knowledge groundwork for further application.

 In her recent book, ‘Research-Based Strategies to Ignite Student Learning,’ Judith Willis (2016) asserts that the more ways something is learned, the more memory pathways are built:

“This brain research discovery is part of the reason for the current notion that stimulating the growth of more dendrites and synaptic connections is one of the best things teachers can learn to do for the brains of their students.

When children are between the ages of 6 and 12, their neurons grow more and more synapses that serve as new pathways for nerve signals. This thickening of gray matter (the branching dendrites of the neurons and the synaptic connections they form) is accompanied by thickening in the brain’s white matter (fatty myelin sheaths that insulate the axons carrying information away from the neuron and making the nerve-signal transmissions faster and more efficient). As the brain becomes more efficient, the less-used circuits are pruned away, but the most frequently used connections become thicker, with more myelin coating making them more efficient (Guild, 2004).”

 Here, there is an overwhelming amount of evidence to claim that the brain becomes more efficient – and that knowledge becomes more easily accessible – when our pathways are used more frequently.


How do we master knowledge?

 Binary teaching and teacher-led approaches are a vital step in a pupil’s learning process but they should not be our sole focus. Sure, memory-recollection is also crucial in strengthening the information pathways in the brain but simply regurgitating groundwork knowledge by recalling is limiting in two ways: 1) knowledge does not become applicable in other contexts, and 2) higher levels of thinking are not reached. In other words, our pupils will still have not mastered knowledge because they have not shown an understanding of beyond its concrete application. It was cited by the Consolidation Guidelines FNQ Explicit Teaching Team (2014) that:

 Students demonstrate understanding by applying [knowledge] to other contexts. ‘Information learned and processed through higher-order thinking processes is remembered longer and more clearly’ (Brophy, Jere. “Probing the Subtleties of Subject-Matter Teaching.” Educational Leadership (April 1992).

 Therefore, we also have to work towards our pupils developing skills to adapt, manipulate and actively apply their information. We want to encourage higher levels of thinking and allow them to gain accessible, long-term understandings of information. Our classrooms must provide a platform for this; this is where the dialogical classroom plays a fundamental role.

 Gillies (2015) explores this view in a comprehensive study on the ways dialogue enhances a lesson. He claims:

 There is no doubt that talk, albeit by the teacher or peers, has the capacity to stimulate and extend students’ thinking and advance their learning. Teachers do this when they encourage students to engage in reciprocal dialogues where they exchange information, explore issues, interrogate ideas, and tackle problems in a cooperative environment that is supportive of these discussions. In turn, students learn to listen to what others have to say, consider alternative perspectives, and engage critically and constructively with each other’s ideas by learning how to reason and justify their assertions as they cooperate together. (Gillies, 2015)

 Question and conversation can be used not only to test a pupil’s factual knowledge but also encourages pupils to: 1) make their thoughts and judgements explicit and logical, 2) adapt their expression so it is appropriate and effective, and 3) engage in sustained interactions where knowledge is challenged, altered, shifted and confirmed – knowledge in this process is, at once, fixed and adaptable. The International Journal of Educational Research { Alexander, 2008; Mercer & Littleton, 2007; Webb, 2009) has also favoured the dialogic classroom. Gillies (2015) further confirms that a teacher’s role should be one that extends beyond transferring information as:

“fostering beneficial group dialogues is multifaceted and involves preparing students to work together, structuring the group task, and influencing student interaction through the teacher’s discourse”

Finally, this coincides with the constructivist approach to teaching. Constructivism preaches the approach that teacher practice is to effectively build knowledge and understanding in pupils. The teacher must:

  • Activate relevant ideas to encourage new knowledge in learners. Pedagogies such as Explicit Teaching, Pair Work, Memory-Based Learning, Memory Tests, High and Low Stakes Testing.
  • Enable students to build their knowledge through disagreement, questioning and guidance. Pedagogies such as Harkness, Debating, Coaching, Conversations, Independent Tasks, Controversial Tasks, Class Discussions. Group Work, Discriminating Oral Feedback.


What I like about the constructivism approach to classroom practice is the flexibility of when and how these pedagogies can be applied. As very explicitly stated by Taber (2011), successful teaching is not the approach of simply direct or minimal instruction. Rather, it is the application of optimum instruction. A good subject specialist should be able to determine when it is vital to explicitly teach and when it is essential to enable their pupils to grapple with the information and knowledge they have acquired – so they can master it.

Knowledge mastery, therefore, is dependent upon a teacher’s ability to not only deliver outstanding content but also to encourage conversation, discourse and dialogic approaches. Without doing this, the pupils’ knowledge may become limited to knowledge regurgitation, achieved through transference, and students may never achieve knowledge mastery. Dialogic pedagogies that empower pupils to debate and discuss ideas – such as Harkness – are most effective as they strengthen their ability to retain information in accessible long-term memory and ensure pupils use knowledge to the highest level.

Not sure how to get your quiet class talking? Read 5 quick strategies via @tes here: https://www.tes.com/news/school-news/breaking-views/how-help-your-shy-class-find-their-voice

Our Aims Have Changed: therefore, our Methodology and Practice Must Follow

A week ago, I found myself in a meeting discussing the best way to implement a new project at school to make it a success.  It quickly became clear that developing a successful and purposeful project required one thing: an aim.  It was vital that this project had a purpose; that the activities provided were both achievable and impactful; that the aim was being fulfilled.

Which made me think about this in relation to the classroom: What are our aims as teachers?

Is it to enable students to pass an exam? Is it to inspire them to further succeed in the subject beyond secondary education? Or, is it simply to get them to see the reasons why Shakespeare, for example, is still studied?

And, if ‘aim’ is the end product that determines the activities or methodologies you use, then the most interesting (and somewhat frightening) realisation is true: your answer to this question will drastically change the way you teach and what pedagogies are implemented in your classroom.

I want to demonstrate how our aims as teachers have changed with the introduction of the new curriculum and how this affects both our pedagogy and practice.

Our aims have changed…


GCSE Pre-2016

GCSE Pre-2016 was an interesting era.  Education felt on the breaking point for most State schools because the teacher’s aim was to simply get their pupils to pass their exam.  Teachers felt demotivated, pupils felt disengaged and the whole school structure seemed to transform into a dystopian exam factory as the year progressed. I certainly remember numerous nights where I was nearly locked in the school for working too hard.  Luckily, the grounds staff became quickly aware that they would have to check for me as I did not have a car to indicate that anyone was still in the building…

The irony is that working hard wasn’t the problem.  Of course, we can recite numerous conversations where we might have paraphrased that we ‘certainly didn’t go into education for the money’.  For me, the issue was the aim.  I had to abandon inspiration for results.  I was working hard – soullessly.

The GCSE Pre-2016 (coursework and open-book examination) thus moulded our aims to make knowledge two things: 1) Accessible, and 2) Applicable.

  1. ACCESSIBLE: Of course, this was by no means easy.  It involved the dedication to make all individuals in the classroom – despite learning difficulties or academic flair – to have access to the curriculum; that pupils had the right amount of challenge and were simultaneously understanding the content without feeling jaded by its (sometimes) restricting nature.  As we otherwise know it, accessibility is differentiation. A very difficult balancing act that often meant teachers were working overtime to ensure that all of their pupils were reaching their target grades and, controversially, that they were at times doing too much for them.
  2. APPLICABLE: The other main aim was to teach pupils how to apply content effectively.  This means we had to communicate to our students where AO1 was weighted more heavily; how ‘many points’ they should make when they are answering Question 2; what questions needed AO3; what questions were judged on AO4.  In short, teaching them the requirements (or tricks) of each question so they can effectively implement the content they have just accessed.

While these aims are still relevant to us today, it’s important to note 3 other key ‘aims’ that we should now have as practitioners, particularly with the new curriculum.


GCSE Post-2016

For GCSE Post-2016, most of us are still navigating blind.  Most of us have realised, however, that our methodologies have had to change. That is because our aims have changed.  With the introduction of closed-book examinations and removal of coursework we now must ensure knowledge is: 3) Memorable, 4) Adaptable, and 5) Transferable.

  1. MEMORABLE: A key aim to our pupils’ success now is to make content memorable.  We actually have to slow down the pace now and we must make classroom time for consolidation – effective pedagogies such as repetition, testing and interleaving.
  2. ADAPTABLE: With greater weight placed on Unseen texts, teaching pupils to adapt their skills to previously unknown content is crucial.  They must be able to see, particularly in English, how structure, language and form can genuinely alter the meaning/s and effect/s of a literary work.  They must be able to do this independently and have to truly THINK about it.  It cannot be regurgitating or superfluous.  Teaching independence and self-assurance is key to this.
  3. TRANSFERABLE: Finally, in order to entirely immerse pupils in achieving the other aims and be also able to confidently approach questions they may not expect (again, we are navigating somewhat blind presently!), we have to teach them to transfer their knowledge.  Spending class time tweaking questions and responses to fit a range of possibilities will encourage pupils to more confidently approach tasks.  Moreover, pupils must understand that their knowledge can come from other subjects (Religion, History, Philosophy) where appropriate.  Our aim here is to encourage pupils to utilise knowledge beyond the subject to be self-sustaining; it is to ensure students reflect and take creative risks.

How these new aims affect us…

It is not just in our pedagogies that this change in aim affects us.  It also changes the way we look at what it means to be an Outstanding Teacher, what makes a good lesson observation, and the ways in which Leadership approach quality teaching.

Don’t stand for ‘Outstanding’

The most obvious way this affects us is to ignore ‘Outstanding’.  We cannot worry if we are not being consistent in our approaches, or that every child at every minute is making progress, or that every child is actively engaged with their paddle-pop sticks.  The new curriculum highlights that the truth is actually this: if I want something to be memorable, my teaching methodologies will be totally different to when I want something to be accessible or transferable. 

Moreover, we must move away from trying to make every lesson ‘Outstanding’ because – let’s be honest – getting Ofsted ‘Outstanding’ is a formulaic approach to an hour’s lesson that cannot succeed in us meeting all of our aims.  If I want to make something memorable, I might have to get my pupils to repeat it over and over again.  Yes, that means they’re not visibly “making progress at everything minute” but it does mean that I’m meeting my aim; to get them to have retrievable knowledge

(This links closely with Observations being simply a ‘showcase’ and can be further evidenced by Bjork here)

Leadership Judgement

By accepting these aims there also must be a way in which Leadership approaches to lesson observations.  Lesson Observations should be judged by how well classroom pedagogy effectively matches the teacher’s aims –  rather than the knowledge that pupils will learned within that hour.

It now may not be the case that a teacher intends for the pupils to learn something new – but rather to make something memorable.  Or, that a teacher wants to spend some time challenging pupils to transfer their knowledge from another subject (for example: by having a debate about the human consciousness for half a lesson) into a new text so that pupils understand that ALL KNOWLEDGE IS USEFUL.  This makes lesson observations more exciting and free anyway.

Aim ahead…

Teaching our pupils is our aim but within that there are a plethora of smaller ‘aims’ we want to achieve.  What lies at the top of this list is that we make knowledge accessible, applicable, memorable, adaptable and transferable.  It is vital that both Pedagogies and Practice within the classroom and the school ethos reflect this.  That we now work as a school to aim ahead… and not behind.



Coaching in The Classroom: When is it Effective? When won’t it work?

Coaching methods are commonly seen in pastoral and wellbeing disciplines to encourage an individual – the coachee –  to come up with their own solution to a problem or issue they may be facing. It also enables that individual to develop resilience and grit and further push them towards becoming a self-sustaining individual who can more readily deal with adversity or challenge later in life.  But can we apply that to the classroom?

At Wellington, we are fortunate enough to have embedded coaching into the philosophy of pastoral life, however, whether this method is an effective tool within the classroom has not been entirely explored.

To test and consider how coaching can be an asset in the classroom, we implemented a lesson study.  In this, Kyle McDonald – Mathematics Teacher at Wellington College – introduced the Shakespeare side of the Literature Paper and used coaching to build the students’ confidence so that they could answer it (read Kyle’s article here)  – neither teacher nor pupil had ever seen the paper before. After the lesson, I asked my pupils to complete an anonymous survey on the lesson. Here is what I found…

Was it effective?

Usually when introducing an exam paper to pupils, their knowledge can seem to dissipate into a neediness.  This is not because they do not have the skillset to answer the question but rather that they do not think about how to apply their skills to an unseen question.  Then, seeing you as the expert in the room, their instant reaction is to ask questions; they spiral into needing support.

There have been many ways that teachers have been trained to defuse this.  My favourite is recognising this as ‘the pit of learning’ – ultimately, encouraging the student to recognise that challenge and struggle is a healthy part of the learning progress.

Here’s where coaching helped.

Stepping back from pupils so that they had a non-subject specialist meant that their mindset of ‘the teacher is the expert/has the answer’ was instantly defused.  The process of the students’ struggle continued but their complaining stopped.  Instead, they recognised that they had to use what they had been taught prior and, via a series of effective coaching questions led by their teacher, they ended up answering their own questions.  They formed a confident structure to answer to begin their approach to the paper.

Interestingly, in the survey, one student remarked that it was helpful because it “taught us exam technique.”  Strange. Especially considering there was really no teacher teaching within that lesson.  Rather, someone to just guide them – in addition to their own previous knowledge.

Overall, 89% of pupils believed it was helpful and would be happy to do a similar lesson again.

When won’t it work?

What about the 11% who did not enjoy it then? Of pupils who did not enjoy the task, the response is debatable as it can be interpreted in two ways: 1) that it was not challenging enough, or 2) that they are used to knowledge being told to them and have fallen into this routine.

Responses from pupils who would be unwilling to have a coaching class again claimed it was “basic revision” and they would “rather learn off the teacher who had exact knowledge.” Some others remarked that it was “not as difficult as other lessons.”   Finally, one remarked the lesson “could have been completed in 20 minutes.”

If 1): From the comments above, we can deduce that the level of challenge for some was not to the usual standard. Therefore, it could bring to question how coaching can be differentiated so that all pupils feel they are valuing from the task.  This is where teacher understanding (having a subject specialist in the room) and subject knowledge is key – coaching questions could move from ‘what is’ (basically retrieval questions) to ‘what could’ or ‘what if’ (evaluative and interdisciplinary questions).

If 2): We could also infer that perhaps this was simply students slipping into wanting to be told instead of wanting to think.  If this is the case, then surely implementing coaching methods on a regular cycle would be the most effective outcome.

As for the pupil who mentioned pace? I’m not convinced. Surely with the new GCSE, slowing pace down every now and then to consolidate is effective for all. At very least, it is clearly helpful for their interleaving.

Consequently, it may not work as effectively if the teacher cannot challenge the top end pupils by having strong subject knowledge.  Or if it is implemented at the wrong time and students misconstrue it as teacher laziness or that they’re ‘not being taught.’

So, to coach in the classroom?

An absolute yes provided it is implemented regularly and thoughtfully.

It is obvious that teachers are the expert throughout the course of every topic/module/scheme but if we want our students to achieve, it should make sense to see the following occur in the classroom:

Screenshot (3)

Coaching is essential as it will be a part of the classroom where student input is the greatest.

How often you apply this cycle is dependent on your subject. In our talk on the dialogic classroom at ResearchED, Carl Hendrick and I made mention that, in English, a healthy application could be every fortnight. For sciences, it could be after every module.  It will depend.  Also, coaching could occur throughout any lesson where necessary – this is just simply about implementing a coaching lesson.

Ultimately, if pupils have learned content throughout that time period then they should be able to apply it with minimal teacher input.  Coaching encourages them to solve their own concerns and provides a healthy learning conversation that does not spiral into neediness.  Spending time to coach in the classroom will also encourage all pupils to reconsolidate their knowledge as well as address any misconceptions through conversation, dialogue and debate.

Confidence as the Crux of Independence: How to facilitate the construction of an Independent Classroom

The term independent learning is currently used throughout classrooms all over the UK. In secondary education, it is associated with:

‘a philosophy of education whereby a learner acquires knowledge by his or her own efforts and develops the ability for enquiry and critical evaluation’ (Creative Education UK).’

Similarly at University level, Independent Learning is encouraged and enforced to push for a student to be:

‘Working with someone else, encouraging each other and talking through difficulties may be the most effective way of working independently. If you have a problem, explaining it to someone else can help to clarify issues for you. Explaining a concept to someone without shared background knowledge is a very good way of making sure you understand the full implications of the concept’.

All of this is certainly the Holy Grail of the classroom and, indeed, of education.  Yet it is not an easy environment to achieve. So how can we as educators further facilitate this?

It is essential that we see independence as a process – something to be obtained.  In a very succinct blog sub-heading, David Didau accurately asserts: Independence is the end, not the means.  Not only is this whole-heartedly accurate, but reveals much more about independent learning than we assume.

Firstly, we must infer that to obtain independence and effective independent learning in the classroom, a pupil requires steps. Moreover, if independent learning is defined as a ‘philosophy’ (see above), it makes sense that it is an encompassing attitude that requires a range of applications. Therefore, it must also be true that to accurately achieve it in an educational environment, students will need to be masters of a range of skillsets which have been developed, applied and improved over an extended period of time.

Alex Quigley has also alluded to this notion in his blog Independent Learners for Teachwire. He explains that the transition between dependence to independence is ‘tricky’ and that we “need to focus on the stepping-stone of interdependence – whereby the teacher helps build good learning habits that are fundamental for independent learning.”


The current problem:

As mentioned by Quigley earlier, stepping stones must be provided that encourage the philosophy of Independence is successfully embedded.  Too many schools have simply thrown the term into their ethos without an understanding of how to teach or model the plethora of behaviours it requires first. Implementing the ends before the means will stagnate the process but the immediacy of many schools to apply Independent Learning to their classroom ethos has meant exactly that. The simple ‘showcase’ of this philosophy is its downfall.

Consequently, it has already been heavily established amongst the educational world that independent learning is not:

  • Work alone tasks.
    • Why? If a student is not struggling or asking questions and can complete a task in absolute silence, this could be seen as Independence but might be purely simplicity
  • Seeking answers from Help Boards or Posters.
    • Why? Pupils do not always retain the information. It becomes a reliance for a resource in the room.

Such activities may give the façade of independence in the classroom and yet, will not encourage independence because they do not lend themselves to establishing confidence –  rather may even exacerbate a learned helplessness.


Confidence as the crux of Independence.

If we break apart the demands of Independent Learning, we can clearly see that it’s asking the following:Diagram confidence and independence

Therefore, the skill sets required are much greater than simply ‘independence’. Under each heading these are just some requirements:

  • Ability to Seek Knowledge
    • skills: confidence, research skills, work ethic, study skills
  • Ability to Enquiry
    • skills: confidence, research skills, interpersonal skills, ability to formulate an argument, technological skills, problem-solving skills, creativity, imagination.
  • Ability to be a Critical Thinker
    • skills: confidence, research skills, imagination, creativity, logic, leadership skills, problem-solving skills, empathy
  • Formulate a Personal Argument
    • skills: confidence, research skills, imagination, creativity, logic

It asks our pupils to not only be evaluative and critical individuals but to also be able to seek answers and have a thirst for knowledge. A lot of adults would still find this challenging.  With this in mind, it becomes clear that enforcing independence requires the teaching of numerous skills; not just the ability to work alone or find an answer in the classroom.

So where to start?

In my previous blog, I made mention to the fact that confidence should not be pushed to the boundaries of a school’s priorities in favour of exam refinement and routine. That is also because confidence is one of the key skills needed in order to be an Independent Learner.

Why? To put it simply: confidence is the process of being ‘self-assured’ and independence is being ‘self-sufficient’.

It seems absurd to suggest an environment of self-sufficiency if you have not taught pupils to be self-assured. Self-sufficiency implies that the pupil is working in a system that can grow, alter, change, develop and evolve. Self-assured is the skill that encourages students to question, ask, seek, implement, and transfer and effectively apply knowledge from their current world into their work – all of which are the crux of a self-sustaining, independent classroom.

Preaching independence and its importance in the classroom is good. An educational system that does not do this fails in enabling pupils to become emergent, empathetic and holistically intelligent young people is just as crucial to their success as an A* or 9 (GCSE circa 2016-2017). But you must ensure that pupils have been encouraged to be confident in their assertions first.  Confidence and knowledge is the key, and then independence will lead to further, ongoing development.