A Better Plan for Feedback


In one of my most recent MSc lectures, teachers and educators were asked to reflect on the most important part of their planning: task design. We were given a variety of models to assess, discuss, and apply to our own teaching to ensure that students would end up with the most effective final result.

However, what I felt was missing was a coherent design for feedback within a task model. Task design always seemed to end with a ‘final product’ but with little guidance on where or when feedback would be best given.

So, what if we planned our feedback the same way that we planned our tasks?

At the moment, the common school of thought regarding the training of new teachers or curriculum design is heavily weighted on lesson or Task Design (including scaffolding, small burst writing, knowledge tests) rather than Feedback.  Moreover, feedback is often misconstrued as ‘marking.’  The extent of marking can also sometimes be forced to coincide with a school data capture, meaning that the information that is being registered is not always accurately or effectively positioned within process of the task.

(Before I move on, I want to clarify that I am talking specifically about feedback activities and not marking. Marking is usually an approach to ‘showcase that feedback is given,’ however, often does very little for the student. I am not encouraging hours of marking, but rather, planning to ensure that classroom feedback is timely and effectual.)

A usual plan may look something like this:

Screen Shot 2019-02-25 at 19.31.40

Feedback is often represented as such a small part of the lesson planning, and is commonly at the end of a cycle: ‘Finally, give students feedback’. However, this could be toxic in two ways: 1) it reduces the students’ perspective that feedback is a vital part of their learning, and 2) it does not allow students time to effectively evaluate the mistakes they may have made.


The Value of a Feedback Design

Imagine you are climbing a mountain. At every gradient along the way, the weather may change, the strength of the rocks may be different, and you may require a slightly different range of equipment or knowledge. In a similar way, our students may require different advice or steers when they are completing a task; different moments of feedback. If we only plan this in at the end of our tasks only, or ‘tack it on’ to a task design, it is like sending them up a mountain expecting it to stay as sunny as it was in the morning.

That is why feedback should be just as important in the task design. The two should run cohesively and coherently together. Very simply, something like this:

Screen Shot 2019-02-25 at 19.31.58

Our own educational bias towards task design over feedback has actually come from the history of our educational theorists. The following graph table shows exactly what areas of the classroom that particular education theorists believed were the most important for a teacher to know; there is no column for feedback and very few even consider assessment knowledge an important part of a teacher’s role.


Screen Shot 2019-02-28 at 21.03.32


So, how does feedback fit in with a task design model? Let’s look at one task design model (Anne Edwards, 2014) as an example:

Screen Shot 2019-02-25 at 19.42.24


Like so many theorists, on the surface this looks like an excellent model. But where does feedback fit in? There is no mention to where or how feedback would best fit the student in this. Imagine we added onto the model a similar process for feedback:

8. Strengthened and consolidated demonstration of grasp of key concepts and ways of enquiring. 5. Introduce key about the learning positives and mistakes through exemplars and initial work.
7. More open tasks that encourage students to evaluate their work against the entirety of the key concepts addressed. 6. Tightly structured tasks where students write/re-write introductions or conclusions – or include key concepts that have been missed.

By changing the way we look at feedback in our planning, hopefully we can change the way the students see it. As has been quoted and re-quoted, the famous Dylan Wiliam assertion:

Feedback should be more work for the students.


If we continue to design our schemes of work with feedback as the final ‘thing.’ it undervalues the time that students could be truly grappling with, expanding on, and improving their work.

Does this mean another ‘triple marking’?

No. If the feedback design is properly implemented into the task design, teachers may not need to give written feedback at all. Indeed, many schools are moving to the approach of this, however, it is important (as I have discussed at ResearchED National Conference, Scotland and Durham) that whole-class feedback approaches are carefully considered and planned. Stuart Kime (Evidence in Education) has also conclusively echoed these thoughts in recent research on no-marking policies.

Let’s compare and contrast a (very brief English) plan. The aim of the following task is to get students to sit a mock poetry essay after learning the material required.

Example 1: Task Design

Stage Task Objective

(quadrant 1)

Planning Essays Give a range of questions and get students to choose the two poems they might approach the essay with.

(quadrant 1)

Topic Sentences Group or peer planning of Topic Sentences so that students can map out their comparative argument points.

(quadrant 2)

Evidence/Devices To pick apart/dissect/mock good body paragraphs from Stage 1 knowledge.

(quadrant 2)

Paragraph Writing To ensure knowledge of sustained coherence between stages 1- 3. This might be done in the process of teacher led, peer developed and then independent paragraph construction.

(quadrant 3)

Draft Essay To be marked and show understanding in timed conditions of sustained coherence between stages 1 – 4.

(quadrant 4)

Mock Exam — Formal Feedback given.

**teachers may choose to use formal written feedback.

Example 2: Task Design including Feedback Design

Stage Task Objective

(quadrants 1 and 5)

Exemplar Study For students to see the ‘end goal’ or the ‘goal post’ of what a good example looks like.   This also used to encourage motivation.

(quadrants 2 and 6)

Introductions To pick apart/dissect/mock good introductions.

(quadrants 2 and 6)

Body Paragraphs To pick apart/dissect/mock good body paragraphs. Compare to Stage 1.

(quadrants 3 and 7)

Draft Essay To ensure knowledge of sustained coherence between stages 1- 4.

(quadrants 4 and 8)

Mock Exam To test understanding in timed conditions of sustained coherence between stages 1 – 4.

 *ongoing oral feedback

**teachers may choose to use formal written feedback.


In both cases, a teacher may choose to give written feedback, however, by compartmentalising the task design and embedding a design for the feedback in Example 2, the final written marking (if needed) would require fewer comments; the earlier verbal feedback should assist to foil any basic mistakes. This approach also places far more emphasis on feedback as a vital part of learning and the student as the true master of their own success.

Our own forgetfulness to incorporate effective feedback into our task planning has come from two things 1) the overuse of a school data capture to judge progress, and 2) previous educational theory.   However, as we move more into a world that values students with high meta-cognitive awareness, genuine reflective skills, and a more ‘independent approach,’ we must be having conversations not only about the tasks we are designing but how this task incorporates an effective feedback design as well.


5 Key Takeaway Questions for CPD and discussion:

  1. Do you include feedback in the learning cycle, or is it for a data capture?
  2. Does your department consider feedback in their task planning?
  3. Is feedback given the time it requires to be effective?
  4. Does your school interchange ‘marking’ with ‘feedback’? How can this be clarified?
  5. What feedback methods would honestly be best for your students at that point in time?

We Still Need Slightly More than a Good Curriculum

498bac35839b56da07cbd07aa530f9eeFirstly, Happy 2019.

I have not posted for a while for a few reasons: I am currently delving down into both writing a book and my Masters which is exciting. But also because I have truly been trying to think about why it is I have been both successful and unsuccessful in the classroom over the years?   What is it that has really assisted me to build relationships with my most difficult classes?

An answer contacted me out of the blue last week: an ex-pupil of 6 years ago (from my more challenging state school) who wanted help transferring from Law into English. In her request she kindly said:

You were the best teacher I’ve ever had and made me believe in myself and so that’s why I’ve messaged you.

I thought about this in contrast with the stark and sometimes bleak educational debates about curriculum design and thought: hang on, maybe we are still missing something here.


The Power of the Curriculum

I have no doubt that curriculum design is a vital method in developing a student’s knowledge. Good curriculum designs (as showcased by Claire Hill and Rebecca Foster) may be best visually represented in the shape of a spiral: the curriculum’s difficulty moves upwards throughout the year yet key concepts and skills are continually visited so that they are more easily remembered and strengthened.

Not only this, but good curriculum design should also encourage lessons that are ‘off the exam’ and purely used to spark, test, challenge, or stretch our students. In my view, we can never challenge our students beyond the exam if we have not designed our curriculum with space to do this.

Then, the micro detail: ensuring that schemes of work effectively interleave knowledge, the use of daily (and weekly) memory testing, ensuring the new knowledge taught in lessons does not overuse a student’s cognitive load, and – amongst this – finding ways to further encourage success by integrating essential vocabularies (see: Alex Quigley’s book – Closing the Gap).

If departments can get this right, then they will undoubtedly set the students up for the best success.


The Power of Delivery

However, no matter how brilliantly the curriculum is designed, teachers are not there to simply communicate a planned lesson to the student or to be a curriculum correspondent. They need to love it, they need to believe that this curriculum is (to quote my colleague Carl) ‘the best that has been thought and said,’ that it is worth teaching to the students, and that the students are capable of learning to love it too.

It often comes up that the most uninspiring teachers are those that students say are “just doing their job.” Yet, success in education appears to be about giving the impression you are doing ‘much more’ than that. And whether that ‘much more’ embodies itself in humour, personality, sarcasm or sternness, it is about 2 things: authenticity (the real belief in your subject and the pupils), and delivery (the way ‘you are you’ teaching it).

If the factors above are absent, then no matter how many hours are invested into designing the curriculum, no matter how ‘knowledge-rich’ or exciting it seems, it becomes a chore and students become disinterested.


The fact is, we still need slightly more than a good curriculum to be teachers.

So, when planning your curriculum in accordance with the new Ofsted changes, don’t forget to give space for teachers to ‘do their thing’ with it. Many teachers truly are inspired by their subjects and we need to remind ourselves of this continually. More importantly, we have to not forget that students can (and do) always surprise us.

A good curriculum must:

  • Be knowledge-rich
  • Build from the best foundational knowledge
  • Challenge pupils beyond the exam
  • Give space to revisit key terms/topics
  • Interleave topics
  • Be considerate of cognitive load
  • Provide regular low-stakes memory tests


But it’s not enough unless:

  • Teachers love it
  • Teachers believe the students will love it
  • Teachers have space to deliver with their own authenticity

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.