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:

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.


Where does Teacher Self-Worth remain in ‘Educational Excellence Everywhere’?

The new EEE document released by the Government (March, 2016) is interestingly titled.  It claims to assert the promotion of “educational excellence everywhere” and aims to provide “world class education” to all pupils in the country.

If you haven’t yet read the document put forward, you can do so here. However, the key objectives I want to focus on are its aims to do the following:

  • Where great schools, great leaders and great teachers exist – we will let them do what they do best – help every child achieve their full potential
  • Where they do not, step in to build capacity, raise standards and provide confidence for parents and children.
  • Set high expectations for every child, ensuring that there are no forgotten groups or areas.
  • Ensure the system can recruit, train, develop, and retain the best possible teachers.

The focus the document has in Chapter 2 on teacher retention is overwhelming. Again, the necessity to keep professionals in the career is one consistently discussed, argued and questioned. So, the question that clearly remains is whether or not this new Educational Excellence Everywhere will actually promote or encourage “teacher retention” and “put the power back into its schools.”

When completing my PGCE equivalent in Australia (Graduate Diploma, 2012), I clearly remember knowing that securing myself a position in the career would be difficult. Teachers tended to stay in their jobs almost indefinitely. They were comfortable; the students actually welcomed ‘newcomers’ due to the rarity of it. Naïve me at this time would sit looking at TES wondering how it was possible that so many positions were available across the UK. Until I moved here, of course.

Unfortunately, as the Australian education system moves ever closer to the British system, teacher retention is now becoming a pressing issue. Australia is starting to see the beginning of a ‘trend’ to move out of teaching after studying.  Consequently, research is being poured into assessing the gap between University Teacher Training and the School Teaching Profession.  This makes sense as prior to teaching full-time in Australia, I had spent a maximum 11 weeks in schools on a minimal timetable and it’s obvious to see why the transition would be hard for most.  Interestingly, however, Buchanan et al. writing for the Australian Journal of Education claimed that teacher retention was less about the disparity between research and practice, and more about self-worth:

“Perceptions of success and sense of worth are consistently noted in the literature as being associated with the retention of beginning teachers.” p.114.

That is, if teachers felt they were to remain in the profession they must feel they have sustained value within that system.

If this is the case, it makes sense as to why so many of this country’s best teachers are opting out of the career. It is no secret that British teachers are not in control of their self-worth and have been made to judge their self-worth off 3 things: 1) their ability to conform to teaching methods the school implements to perform ‘outstanding’ teaching, 2) the amount of hours they will write (or rewrite) coursework to minimise academic regression, and 3) their ability to exhibit the ‘quantifiable’ progress their pupils make. The new EEE proposal does not seem to amend this.

Unfortunately, self-worth is not one of the priorities in Chapter 2: Great Teachers, everywhere they’re needed! Unsurprisingly, it is about embracing evidence-based practice, strengthening training to a more rigorous and challenging system, and encouraging good teachers to work ‘where they are needed’ (perhaps in areas or environments where they may no longer thrive).

Screen Shot 2016-04-16 at 10.11.37

In point (h), EEE also claims it wants to establish a “world-leading teaching profession” yet there is no mention of teacher self-worth. Self-worth and world leading education are inextricably linked. To know this, one simply has to look at the world-leading education system: Finland.

In an article by Webb et al. (2004) on the comparative analysis of teacher professionalism in England and Finland, they claim:

“In England they are shaped by agendas associated with the drive to raise standards and ‘commercialized professionalism‘ whilst in Finland they are influenced by notions of ‘teacher empowerment’” (p.83).

The article goes on to assert that the professionalisation of teachers – their self-worth, prestige and respect – is derived from their responsibility to control and develop their own knowledge and actions for the benefit of their client. Furthermore, building the alliances between teachers, pupils and parents promotes the highest levels of success for the child and the system. It argues that the under-representation of teachers and their ‘voice’ in the British education debate has led to the “deprofessionalisation” or “technicisation” of a teacher’s work, moving the British system perpetually away from being ‘world-leading’.

Again, the EEE document looks to make the same mistake by claiming that it will put “Children and Parents first” – further enhancing the dichotomy between teachers, parents and pupils while simultaneously minimising teacher self-worth.

Screen Shot 2016-04-16 at 10.21.41

It also identifies to set up a portal that provides a complaint platform against teachers and schools across the country.

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It seems that such objectives and protocols will be at the expense of the teacher’s empowerment, confidence and independence.

It is clear that teacher self-worth has been missed in the Educational Excellence Everywhere document. The EEEs consolidation of quantifiable, progress-based teacher assessment, ‘safe’ teacher methods (to minimise school/staff complaints) and teacher-parent opposition will not encourage a world-leading education system. Furthermore, its inability to address teacher self-worth, empower teacher voice or encourage individuals to take control of their professionalism – creatively and inspirationally – will only result in further intelligent and talented individuals leaving the career for more sustainable paths. In my 3 years here, I have already seen the loss and disheartenment of many brilliant teachers because their self-worth was perpetually carved away by a bureaucratic checklist that cared more about exhibiting its success on paper… and forgot about developing a young individual who was convinced about the power and importance of education.

Of course, as these changes are taking place, only time will tell. I will not be surprised if the EEE is not the answer.


A New Classroom Era: Encouraging Confidence and Intellectualism

There is no doubt that the teaching profession in the UK needs a new classroom era. When I first moved from Australia to begin teaching in England, I was astounded by the formulaic ‘exam-led teaching’ within the classroom. As a consequence of this, I was also astounded by the lack of confidence that pupils had – it was clear that most of them had been given knowledge rather than given the tools to form knowledge. An easy mistake, with significant consequences.

Not only does this style of teaching disempower a student’s ability to develop personal, intellectual and critical thinking skills, it means teachers are stressed; working overtime to ensure they have given everything – thus becoming disempowered and disengaged themselves (articles: here, here, here, here and here).

In fact, a brilliant article by David Western ‘How Do We release Greatness in Teachers’ reminds us that “working with students is a joy” but is unsustainable as “schools often compound the stress and exhaustion” onto their staff. And further to this, Carl Hendrick’s recent post ‘The Role of a Teacher Should be privileged over any Leadership Role,’ Hendrick puts forward the argument that “teachers are leaders” but “even the kids are leaders” because a great school system should work to impart the “wonder of knowledge” to their students. So, while we are leaders for encouraging our students to achieve their ‘target grade’ or ‘whatever-letter-they-want’, we should be leading them to the importance of being a seeker of knowledge; a lover of reading; an enthusiast for intellectualism; a confident and critical thinker. We should not be teaching to the exam but beyond it.

The usual system crop

Pictured above is a diagrammatical representation of the system we have been used to. It is one whereby confidence (both from students and staff) is pushed aside in favour of refining exam skills; ensuring that students can accurately get the details and knowledge they need for the exam. In this system, key quotes are handed to students, essays have a template, topic sentences are written and students fill in the blanks. It’s no wonder that when these safety nets are taken away, students fall apart.


The New Classroom Era:

What I would like to see, is something closer to this:

the new classroom era crop

In this system, learning is facilitated by the teacher in a way that students develop their confidence to make more assertions about the content they are learning. Most of the learning in the classroom is focused around embedding and developing the knowledge; encouraging students to debate; to put forward different critical perspectives; to consider different cultural perspectives; to read beyond the text; to apply it to real-world situations; to consider the social importance of content; to consider the political messages; to consider the philosophical or ethical challenges; to just immerse themselves in learning. Then, only then, should a small part be towards refining to the exam (which will come far more easily if you get number 2 right).

So, How?

From here, I’m going to talk through a range of strategies that have worked for me in both the state, academy and independent sectors of education that will hopefully give suggestions that can move your classroom into the second model of teaching. I have taught in a mostly EAL school, the state system (UK and Australia) and I have used these on a range of students. Almost without failure, they have successfully encouraged them to become critical thinkers who are not afraid to put forward their ideas, opinions or thoughts – doing so in a confident and intellectual way.

The New Classroom Era: 1. Confidence

As a teacher passionate about education, I strongly believe it is my job to build the confidence of my students. When I say confidence, however, I do not mean arrogance (one cannot be both intelligent and arrogant), it is rather about ensuring that my classroom environment is one that enables intellectualism to flourish and students do not fear ‘getting it wrong’ or ‘taking an educated risk’. Ultimately, my classroom is my space; each space is a microcosm; your classroom does not have to have the same belief systems as the corridor if you do not want it to. You can achieve this by:

  • Asserting that your classroom space is ‘basically your room’ – You spent just as much time (if not more) there than your bedroom so you have a good foundation to have it the way you like. Therefore, I like it to be nerdy, thank you.
  • Praising personalised responses – A* is personal. Give verbal praise for behaviours that you want to encourage. “Wow, a very thoughtful and unique perspective, thank you” or “Yes, I like that you thought differently about that but put it forward in an objective and intelligent way”. Even the students labelled to be ‘of lower ability’ will step up to this. They’re clever too.
  • Give tasks that encourage personal responses – I always give students time to write an answer in their books before sharing it on my board. A start could be “What do you think ‘To Autumn’ is about?” Help them with a stem that is “To Autumn is about…” and then let them write their personal opinion. From there, you can discuss the strongest ideas (get them to evaluate and circle the ‘better ones’) but it means you’re not just always listening to the student who is willing to blurt out the answer and you’re empowering them all to realise that their ideas are valid and presentable.

to autumn

The New Classroom Era: 2. Knowledge and Development

This is the fun bit – the reason we all went into education. Once you have built the strategies that encourage all students to understand their value in the classroom, lead them. You have to lead them 1) to knowledge, and then 2) to good, disputational and critical thinking. In my talk with Carl Hendrick at Swindon ResearchED, we emphasise that this ‘stage’ can only occur once students have a solid knowledge of information. Do not skip that step, it is key. Once you have that, spend most of your class time further empowering your students to love learning and think critically:

  • Literary Fireworks – To get students thinking evaluative and personally about the controversial characters and topics in their exams, get them to debate them. You only need to give 2 adjectives to ‘fire’ at students. For example: Raleigh: Romantic or Repressed? Stanhope: Demanding or Depressed? This is enough to get them to consider different themes, plot and context while evaluating character effectively.
  • Questions to Statements – Another way to do this effectively is to turn your questions into statements. Change the question ‘How is guilt shown in Claudius here?’ to ‘Claudius does not show guilt. Discuss’. Or, better still, have a statement from a literary critic that you could put up and get them to agree or disagree. Again, students will need to draw from a solid understanding of the text as well as the nuances of language to effectively debate this. Even your supposed ‘weaker’ students will get involved because they like challenges.
  • Harkness – Harkness is a fantastic student-led method that moves this learning into an evolving discussion. Again, we all know the importance of setting up an environment to promote learning and with Harkness, it truly encourages discussion, debate and evaluation as it physically provides a platform to do this. Teacher input should be minimal; student output should be maximum. Also, it an effective way to evaluate whether students haven’t studied or do not know content – you cannot have a conversation without knowledge.

harkness crop

The New Classroom Era: 3. Refinement

So obviously we cannot steer away from the fact that students will have to refine their knowledge to ‘fit’ the exam but the teaching of this should be minimal because simply fitting a text into an exam box will not ignite a student’s love for learning. A few strategies I have implemented to ensure I teach to the exam without limiting pupils are the following:

  • Use multiple choice as debate ‘refinement’ tools – Most of you by now are probably working to implement regular multiple choice exams into your lessons. Use these as tools to teach students that there is not only a right answer, but there is a ‘more right’ answer. This will encourage good debate but will steer students away from their bad habits as well. (The student below now knows I never want to see the word ‘creepy’ in his essays – ever).

mc crop

  • Avoid PEE – Seriously. Leave it at the door. Teach them content, not structure. We all know the best paragraphs are not simply PEE but PEEXEEEXXEXEXEEXEEEXP (X – unknown) so by teaching them PEE you are limiting them from ‘delving into’ the text to the level they might want. So just ensure them they have to 1) embed quotes, 2) developed and evaluative analysis, 3) sophisticated language and phrasing 4) effect etc – but these things are often best implemented when the pupil has creative control of structure.

We must not give up on having a new classroom era. It is possible to achieve an environment where students love learning – I am sure you have, or do see, this occur throughout your school at particular times. As educators, we must inspire and facilitate the learning of our students so that they are sent into the world as young people who are able to make change and take creative risks, not just as adolescent adults who are incompetent without ‘a structure,’ ‘a help sheet’ or a ‘prewritten topic sentence’. Wouldn’t that be nice?